Gene Simmons says, “Rock is finally dead,” and claims that music piracy murdered it (fulfilling the prophecy of Metallica’s Lars Ulrich back during the Napster controversy of 2000). Even Metallica’s co-manager, Peter Mensch, claims that there is a lack of good hard rock bands out there. As a Hard Rock musician myself who buys hundreds of great, new Rock albums annually, I will tell you that these guys are behind the times, and they’re part of the problem. HEY, MUSIC BUSINESS EXECUTIVES: look beyond your outdated concept of what the music business is and START LOOKING UNDERGROUND. Music piracy didn’t kill Rock; the music business’s chickensh*t reaction to illegal downloading killed Rock’s presence in the mainstream.
NOT Your Father’s Rock ‘n’ Roll
At its very soul, Rock isn’t about pleasing the masses or doing what the corporate fat cat wants: Rock is meant to be rebellious, gritty, risky. With record labels stuck in a downward spiral of risk-aversion due to their all-too-slow reaction to the onset of digital music use, of COURSE they are not taking the necessary risks to get “the next Beatles,” or “the next Nirvana.” Besides, record execs can’t find the new, cutting-edge, iconoclastic band by looking for a “new” version of something that already exists; they have to look tirelessly for something out of their narrow comfort zones that doesn’t fit “the formula” and is new and strange, but that is somehow working. Because these new artists with new sounds may or may not be accepted by the mainstream, developing any of them is taking a chance, and with the pot of money from music sales shrinking, record labels are reticent to take that chance — their profit margins can’t take a bad bet in stride like they used to.
The Great Betrayal – A Never-Ending $15 Gamble
Speaking of record label profit margins and the way they used to be, let me zero in on the Great Betrayal that I believe drove us Millenials and Gen-Xers to embrace music piracy so openly. Growing up in the ’90s, I remember watching a video on MTV, falling in love with a band’s song or two, and buying, without having heard any of the other tracks, those bands’ full-length CDs at $10 – $15 each with my treasured birthday money. I found little more disheartening in my young, teenage-angst-driven life than buying an album with one song I fell in love with, only to discover that the other 10-12 songs on the album were pure, un-listenable crap!
Ah, Poetic Justice!
I remember how revolutionary it was to me when some record stores had album players set up with headphones so we could preview the albums before we bought them! LISTEN to the album before you drop 1/3 of your birthday money on it? What a concept! Once Napster came along, and I could preview limitless songs for free and only keep the ones I wanted, I started to feel betrayed by the music business and felt even a bit entitled to enjoy that free (albeit illegal) access to music. Ever since their inception, the record labels had a stranglehold on access to that music, and they exploited that exclusivity until 1999, making the free-love concept of Napster feel like poetic justice to us broke young adults.
The Pendulum Swings Too Freely
The problem now is that the pendulum of exclusivity/free-flow of music is at its apex in the free-flow direction such that music is not a monetarily self-sustaining as an industry. Too many people believe that music should be free, and only tried-and-true artists like Taylor Swift have any clout when it comes to fighting Spotify or Apple Music, even if many critics will paint her as a greedy, rich artist for doing so. Recorded music is not free to produce, and quality recordings are very expensive, so it’s a slap in the face to music artists when fans expect them to give away something that cost them so much to make — not to mention the years of lessons, practice, and trial-and-error that enabled the artist to write those great songs in the first place. Like every other hard-working person in the world, we artists, too, deserve fair compensation for our life’s work, but record labels are now taking their cut out of artists’ pockets in the form of signing over free-streaming rights instead of fans’ pockets in the form of bogus, one-hit-wonder album sales.
The money has to come from somewhere, right? Record labels should have changed their business model with technology instead of sweeping the signs of a major shift in the landscape under the rug (floor or hairpiece version) until they were forced to scramble to keep up. Instead of being innovative and taking the Internet bull by the horns, they just ignored it and hoped it would go away while their revenue streams dried up. Replenishing those lost revenue streams by taking them from the very artists that enable record companies to exist is a huge, self-damning mistake.
The flaw in the record labels’ logic is this: if being a full-time musician isn’t a financially sustainable career anymore, only true dreamers and pure idiots will reach for that career. Who wants to manage idiots? Only a few of the truly talented will rise even close to the top, and the voices of the rest of the musical geniuses and would-be hitmakers will be drowned out by the multitudinous voices of mediocre musicians with more money than they have sense. Any musician these days that doesn’t want to be homeless and constantly broke either works multiple music jobs or relegates music to hobby status and does something else that more efficiently pays the bills.
THAT, Peter Mensch, is why your backward-minded talent agency can’t find good Hard Rock bands; most of the truly good ones are pushing 30 and playing music occasionally on the side, letting their artistic souls rot in some corporate or retail job by day, while your agency is too risk-averse to spend some money finding and developing true, genre-redefining talent. THAT, Gene Simmons, is why the radio stations are sticking to the record labels’ formulaic, hit-machine, Mom-rock and aren’t playing real, risky, rebellious Rock, making it look dead to you in your archaic vision of what the music business is supposed to be.
Once the record executives stop scouting only headstrong kids under 25 who are out there, starving halfway to death, touring and pushing their mediocre record that their mommies and daddies funded on Kickstarter, and actually take a chance on somebody who might have way more musical prowess than business acumen, then, and only then, may we see the truly talented, revolutionary “cream of the crop” in Rock rise to the top of the music business once again.