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Chuck Berry

Rock & Roll Will Never Die but Maybe It Should

November 12th, 2014

Every since Haley's Comet's shuck the earth in 1953, the King of the Blues learned to jump, the Wolf began to Howl, Johnny blended his sound to B Good and Little Richard discovered that "Devil Music", Rock and Roll Will Never Die has become the rallying cry for each generation of unnaturally lengthen adolescents we call teenage. Rock and Roll for the next six decades dominated youth culture and the mainstream. Mutating and evolving into an endless voices, styles, marketing terms and subspecies. However, it seems in the last 35 years or so very little evolution has happened. As Rock and Roll got long in the tooth, it seems that the old boy got few and few new ideas but was it really his fault or the kids?


What got me thinking about this was a statement by Kiss' Gene Simmons, "Rock is finally dead. The death of rock was not a natural death. Rock did not die of old age. It was murdered," Now, I'm not a Kiss fan or really have much respect for Gene but I found myself asking just what he stating? Was it that the heart and soul of Rock was gone or was it the business of Rock that was gone? Was it really the career definition of Rock Star that was dead?  Was what he talking about really the massive gold mining of "artists" and youth movements over? Was the days of overpaid moderately talented puppets sold to the general public as idols over? Had technology finally accomplished what Punk never seemed to be able to do, killing off the record industry? Does he feel sorry for young new bands because they won't have private planes, massive piles of money to spend on pointless excessively self indulgent lifestyle and completely god like status? Mr. Simmons blames peer to peer sharing and streaming music which has effected music sales but I think he is fearful to bite the hand that feeds him and has made him a very rich man, the music industry.


Maybe he has forgotten the history of Rock and Roll, maybe he doesn't grasp just how much money and the power of money has stymied the development of Rock and Roll and popular music. In the beginning of the creation of what would become one of the most profitable entertainment industries on the planet, there were no big labels ran by accountants or investors from Wall Street to answer to. Even the largest labels at the time were small companies usually ran by music fans that saw part of their goal as preserving and supporting the music they loved. Now, don't get me wrong they were often shady people that took advantage of less than well educated people. Back then and even now the real money has never been record sales or concert tickets but publishing and merchandise.  It is a case of short money virus long money. Short money is record sales and live shows but owning the publishing and merchandise gives you both short money and a cash cow that can keep paying for 90 years.


Publishing companies exploiting musicians dates back the first period of popular music when the main source of profits for original music was sheet music. The music write would sell the publishing rights to a publishing company for pennies on the dollar and then the publishing company would print sheet music. As the music recording industry evolved, this would move on to collecting fees from artists for recorded and public performances of the material. As demand for recorded material increased with the exposure of music on nation wide radio, the publishing companies moved into the recording industry. Often they would sign artists and then require them to record songs that they already owned the publishing to. It is one of the reasons that often you have songs that were recorded over and over by different artists. This is especially true of songs that were already popular.


Like most of first half of 20th Century America, the record and entertainment industry was divided by race lines. Though a number of musicians through Jazz did cross over to the mainstream, there were very defined lines on what was considered white and black music. This created a number of small specialty labels that released only Rhythm and Blues or "Black Music". Most of the American public would be exposed to small amounts of this music through either covers by white performers or the few black musicians that broke through into the mainstream. Sun Records and Chest Records were two such labels that would put out not only some of the greatest R&B of the period but would release some of the first Rock and Roll records. Though there was a great deal of great music coming from these labels, most Americans would not be exposed to this music because Radio Programmers and DJs believed that they would alienate their core audience of whites. 


Now it would be a lie and a misrepresentation of Rock and Roll to be cynical enough to say that Rock and Roll was born only to market black music to the mainstream. The reality is that Rock and Roll has many parents and not all of them were black. Like most of the great things this country produced it was a product of a mixture of a number of cultures that spawned it. Country and more importantly the Jazz and Country offspring Country Swing that would make mainstream America first aware of this new music. Rockabilly is often the term used for it but if anything it was Rock and Roll in it's purest form. Though many point to Evils as the first, they don't take into account Billy Haley and the Commits mixture of R&B and Country Swing with Rock Around the Clock as the start. Also at the same time Chuck Berry was inventing Rock and Roll guitar by mixing his country set that he played to white audiences with the R&B he played to black audiences together at his integrated late night shows. Oh and let's not forget about Jump bands that had combined their Jazz base with Blues and decidedly started putting out Rock and Roll records before the name had even been connected to it. 


The thing that would make Rock and Roll the standard of teenage would be finding that attractive, slightly threatening white man that was rebellious enough to alienate the parents but still white enough to be accepted. In walks Evils into Sun Studio to make a record for his momma. The Sun Brothers found the Rosetta stone of Rock and Roll.  A white and easily to control that could swing his hips like a black man but not enough to really threaten anyone. The original project created teen idol. Many would claim that Elvis was an innovator, however most of his biggest hits were written by others. He was fully a product of the publishing based ideal, recording cover after cover or reworking the songs pens by others. He was however the prototype for the rock star and for me has always represented everything that is wrong with rock stars and how destructive fame can be. Sun would also produce and record other artist with much more influence over the music that came after like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, Conway Twitty, Howlin' Wolf, and countless others but with Elvis they struck gold.


Like Sutter's Mill, they call went out that there was gold in them hills and the larger labels came running. In much the same way that the California Gold Rush went from independent miners to major mining operations, Rock and Roll went from small ma and pop DIY labels selling their wares out of the trunk of their car to the major labels of their time. Smaller labels had just like the independent labels only scratched the surface of the wealth that was to be stripped out of it. Just like the major mining operations they had the man power, origination and expertise to dig deep and tap the real wealth. The smaller labels could have never marketed Rock and Roll to the mainstream. They lacked the resources and the will or interest is creating the mild consumer friendly version that the public would eat up like milk and cookies.


Rock and Roll would evolve not only to appeal to middle America but to express the changes in culture. From the mid fifties until the late eighties, Western Culture would go through a giant culture change. Each time the music industry would take the artistic reaction to what they were marketing to the mainstream, dummy it down, re-brand it and sell watered down version to the general public. Many of rock and rolls subspecies would come about as a reaction to the mainstream and thus create not only a newer and different version of rock and roll but a counter culture that would consider the music it's voice. Often these new subspecies were created as reaction to a lack of representation of what was considered a "golden time" in American music not being represented in the mainstream. For example, the British Invasion looked back on the golden days of early rock and roll, R&B and blues and gave it a more modern approach and a return to Rock and Roll. Many Americans had no idea that what they were being sold as new music was in fact a rehashing of music from less than a decade before that they either too young to remember or had never been exposed to.


Each of these movements would create a new subspecies of marketing terms or styles. These first mutations in the evolution of R&R would set the major sections of pop music. Folk Rock would be first, then garage rock, then soul, then psychedelic rock, then metal, then funk, then punk and lastly Hip Hop. Often these were created as a reaction to over marketed watered down versions of the last. A desire to have music that represented their identity whether it be class, race or lifestyle. Each time the major players would come calling and seek out the artists that represented the softest and easiest to control artists in the group. Then put their marketing team to work cleaning them up for boarder consumption. 


Still even as late as the mid-70s there even in the largest monsters of the record industry there were still music fans in places of power. They would often release bands and artists that had little or no mainstream appeal. Though like any business profit has to be a motivating fact because without profit your has a hobby and not a business, there was still records being put out on major labels that had little or no mainstream appeal. It's hard to know if this was a case of just throwing anything at the wall and seeing if something will stick or if it was motivated by belief in the music. Either way, the industry had grown massively during the 60s and 70s. As venues climbed from small vaudeville built theaters and ballrooms to large stadiums. Rock stars now traveled in private jets and large bus. Recording budgets and advances on records swelled into the millions and the profits just kept increasing.


The profits created a machine designed to push artists on a nation wide level, while insuring that small artists and labels were blocked out of the mainstream. The myth of rock star was developed that one night the band would be playing a small bar to ten people and the next night they would be on a tour bus to play to ten thousand. All it would take is the right gig and the right A&R rep in attendance. Yes, it did happen and it continued to happen well into the 90s but there was always the gate keepers. The backroom guy with the contracts and the complete control. Talent or originality mattered little that was the job of the producer, it was all who was pulling the strings and how well your were marketed. 


One of the most important events in Rock and Roll history was the release and sells of Frampton Comes Alive! The record would sell 6 million copies in the US and draw the attention of Wall Street investors. It made the record industry big business and changed the manor in which the industry operated. The focus once and for all changed from music to profit. Less and less music fans releasing records by bands they believed in and more and more releasing records that they knew would appeal to much larger audiences when marketed correctly. Bands were now sold like tooth past  and the market was closed on anything that may disrupt the production of cash cows. That included anything new or dangerous unless it could be marketed as a toothless form of rebellion.


Yes, teenage rebellion would be part of the uniform but not a natural rebellion. "This maybe only a Buick but it's not your father's Buick."  The dumbing down of the music created an alienation for many that felt that their voice was represented in the music. The result was Punk and Hip Hop. Punk would be completely blocked from the mainstream for 15 years as the establishment continued to milk their established artists. Punk would mutate and thrive in the darkness as one of the few underground movements of the 1980s. Hip Hop however would take a completely different route. First it would be sold to the mainstream as the new "Dance Music" replacing disco as the new safe bootie shaker. Then the urban street gang lifestyle would be marketed in much the same way bootleggers, western outlaws and thugs have been since the 1920s. Taking a honest representation of the realities of urban life and turning it into a water down misogynistic soundtrack to every trip to the suburban mall. 


The most effect tool that the record industry has had in the past was control over access to the media industry. From the Payola of the 1950s to "ad" buying in the 1990s, the record industry has controlled and manipulated what artists were given exposure on mainstream TV and Radio. Since a large majority of the American public used radio and TV as their only source for new music they could present only those artist they wish to promote to the public.  Only bands with the backing of a major level were given a nation wide or world wide voice. Thus completely blocking any new music or noncommercial successful alternatives from the market. If an artist was on a major label they could almost guarantee radio play and TV exposure. When MTV first aired many of the major labels didn't see the potential and refused to supply content to MTV. It created a small gap for artists from small labels to get exposure but as soon as the major labels woke up to the marketing potential of MTV, they flooded the network with mainstream and established artist to insure control of the market. For the next 15 years until the network realized that reality TV gained larger audiences and high profit, MTV was the national and often international trend setter for music. No artist could really gain the needed exposure to make the jump to a national or international level without play on MTV. 


Another way that the record industry has controlled the market was by buying up other labels until only three major labels by the end of the 1990s made up the industry. Releasing bands on specially branded labels, it gave the illusion often that even though it was a major label project band, that it was a release on a small indy label. The deregulation of media companies allowed a small groups of companies to control radio stations and TV on a nation wide level. Even the last hold out independent radio DJ found themselves either out of a job or forced to play music programmed elsewhere. Thus even the DJ had no choice what was going to be played. As a way to get around Payola laws, radio stations sold "Ads" to record companies. Guaranteeing that an artist's song would be played more for a price. Calling the song an "Ad" allowed a loophole. It didn't matter if the public was informed that it was an ad or not. This would allow bands like Limp Bizkit to gain national exposure based off of plays on the radio paid for by their label Interscope. 


Not all the fault of the slow death of Rock and Roll can be blamed on the record industry, the public has to claim some credit. They are the ones that have been gorging themselves on their product for 60 years and accepting the sugar coated excrement marketed as art all this time. It would be easy to say that motivation has been the issue but if the revolution of internet has proven anything, it's that they had a desire for other music but just didn't have access. However, we all know what floats to the top of the bowl no matter the size or shape of it. Human's are tribal animals and well often follow the biggest member of the pack regardless of the taste. Still the record industry control over access has been greatly reduced with the development of the internet and how music is available. The result is that music sales and profits has greatly reduce. So maybe restricting creativity and controlling exposure is at the root of the problem? Their business plan involved reducing freedom of choice and now that they can no longer control that,  their profits are plummeting. 


Gene Simmons isn't really saying that Rock is dead, he's saying that the record industry is dead and with it their struggle hold on popular music. He blames it on peer to peer sharing but the reality is that since the beginning of recorded music, people have been sharing their music. With the wide spread use of cassette tapes in the 1980s that only increased while the record industry saw even bigger profits. In fact, peer to peer sharing tends to expose people to music they normally would have and in the heyday of Napster, most of those downloading MP3s were shown to be the biggest buyers of music. You know music fans. So, it isn't peer to peer that killed it.


He also said streaming. Yes, stream is greatly reducing the profit on music sales. I'll admit it, since I first subscribed to Spotify, I went from buying 5 albums a month to buying 2 to 3 albums a year. Now part of the reason is that most of the albums I was buying were album I either already owned on LP but hadn't digitally recorded or albums that were limitedly released. So, it's not that I didn't support the artist with my purchases in the past. I would also like to point out that since joining Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus, I also buy a great deal less DVDs. The reality is that digital content and streaming services have completely changed how we get our entertainment. The reality is that if the music that was being played on the radio over the last 30 years would have appealed to me, I wouldn't have been buying records in the first place. The main motivation for buying records was access to the content when and where I wanted it. The fact that the record industry machine flooded radio with crap that I didn't want to hear, only fueled that desire. Now that the Pandora's box of the freedom of choice that streaming allows, you are not going to be able to put that gene back in the bottle. 


The record industry like any other industry sells a commodity. Streaming and digital files has put the value of that commodity's value in question. For years the industry has over inflated the value of their products. Selling physical and digital media for 10 to 20 times what it cost to produce. While the whole time paying their artist pennies on the dollar. In many cases, in the agreement to front the money for recording and marketing, they have asked artists to sign away their publishing rights to their work and even a percentage of their merchandising rights.  I don't think that most of the public understands the indentured servant nature of the relationship between the artist and the label. Though the industry has moved on to more project based contracts the old standard was the seven record deal. In this contract the label loans money to the artists to record and sometimes tour. The label then manufactures and distributes the product. Before the artists see any profit from their work, they must sell enough records to pay back the advance with the small percentage they are paid. The artist is contractually obligated to stay with that label and release at least seven records before they can release material on any other label. The artist is at the mercy of the label to market the record and insure sales and if the label wishes to pull marketing or drop the artist they can at anytime. Also the label can refuse to release material they feel isn't up to standards or will not sale and has complete control over the material's release. For example if your an artist and you record a song that you feel is the best you've ever produced and the label doesn't like it, they won't release it and since they own the recording and sometimes the publishing, you will not be allowed to release it yourself or on another label without their permission. 


So sorry record industry but that rock and roll gold that you have been mining for 60 years has dropped in value. Mainly because for the first time you didn't develop the media that delivers the product. Thus you can't over inflate the cost and since you no longer control access and marketing, you have no real say in what the next big thing is. Slowly through technology you are being squeezed out of business and your services are no longer needed. Sure you have deep pockets and the marketing connections but the internet at least for now is a great leveler. Anyone can market on the internet and release digital files of their music. For under a hundred dollars they can release their music on CD Baby and have distribution through iTunes, Amazon, Google Music and countless streaming services. 


What does this mean for the artists? It means that there is no longer the support network that can drive you to national attention. The fact is that that international sounding board has been gone for sometime. Yes, you can put your video on Youtube but there is no guarantee that anyone will see it. Without the right connection you are not going to get that slot on the tour opening for the big ass band that will expose you to thousands of people throughout the world. There will not be tour support to allow you to quit your day job and party like it's a full time job. Though with a computer and some additional equipment you can record on your own, there will not be any Daddy Morebucks footing the bill. Also there will not be that one producer that has the vision to push your art to the next level. 


There won't be that huge marketing team pushing your music down the throat of every radio programmer in the country. So, even if anyone is still listening to radio, chases are you are not going to get airplay. Marketing will be up to you. Which means getting a website, working social media and plugging your music yourself. The thing is with social media and the internet is that often it is thousands screaming in a room trying to get the attention of a few. So, the chances are you are not going to end up with the over priced super car, the private plane and porno star. You won't play to thousands of screaming fans and be showed with underwear. No you won't end up being a household name or marrying a model but the reality is that the chances were pretty slim even during the golden years of the record industry. The reality is even those signed to major labels with all the company's power behind them didn't make. Most of them ended up putting out a one or two records getting dropped and falling off into obscurity. 


Yes rock is dead and with it hopefully less manufacture crap, drug overdoses, train wrecks posing demigods, middle agers dressed like teenage sexpot, and rock star causes. I've always thought it was pointed that the music industry in the 1950s started gauging an artist's success by metal type because it has always seemed that they were strip mining culture for their own profits. Well, the gold mine has ran out and you all are going to have to get day jobs.


So, what about all those struggling artists with their bandcamp, facebook and myspace pages? I have to stress that music as a commodity is a 20th century invention. Before that the best an artist could hope for was a comfortable living. I've known hundreds of bands over the years that have  made a comfortable living and found happiness touring and self releasing their records. Many with larger following then those that had even the largest labels behind them. Invent in your local scene. Support other local bands, network but more importantly be a music fan. The truth is that the bond and loyalty between bands and fans is built through intimacy that you can not get playing huge shows with a 5 foot tall barrier. Be accessible to your fans and build relationships and understand a conversation and a few minutes is more effective then even the best PR person in the business. Play music for the pleasure of playing music and know this truth, like fungi, art and expression thrive in the darkness.

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