My life has revolved around music for as long as I can remember. I came from a large extended family, and my mom was a college professor. So I was constantly exposed to a lot of music my older cousins and college students were listening to; in my younger years skewed heavily towards rock, pop, progressive rock and classic rock. It became so much a part of me, deeply infused in my DNA, that I knew I’d wind up in music, and ultimately the music business became my chosen profession — and then music/tech and digital music more specifically as my career progressed.
Pop, Progressive Rock, Classic Rock, Heavy Metal, and ultimately Grunge/Alternative were genres that ruled the airwaves from the ’70s through at least the ’90s — and then everything changed in the aughts. The economics of the record industry got turned upside down with Napster, and streaming has been largely responsible for reversing the fate of the major labels — however the fat profits that came with CD sales turned into a river of pennies with streaming. Rap & Hip Hop rose to the forefront, and solo pop artists became the new trend more so than bands.
I was a part of driving this trend from my days at Apple in the early days of music where we enabled musicians who had a computer and ProTools to create and distribute music from their homes. And later, leading the charge with Todd Rundgren with PatroNet in the mid-90s (effectively a precursor to Patreon), to encourage artists to go direct to their fans when distribution became possible once the Internet was mainstream.
But back to the changing economics. In the aughts (and to this day), touring became the lifeblood of rock acts more so than CD sales — that’s how they made the bulk of their revenue — and given what was happening with the record labels losing so much of THEIR revenues to piracy and then early days of streaming, money was at more of a premium to underwrite bands — and the expenses of multiple band members. Hence the trend to solo artists which became (somewhat) easier to manage. As a solo artist, if you’re big enough, you can make a living on payments from streaming, and you keep more of the proceeds when you tour. And if you write your own songs, you don’t have split the proceeds from publishing with anyone. Same goes for brand extensions.
The reality of this gap with rock music really hit me like a ton of bricks recently as it came home to roost in several directions. One was that arguably the only act performing in this year’s Grammys that had any semblance of rock was H.E.R. performing with Lenny Kravitz. They played his hit song together, “Are You Gonna Go My Way”, which came out nearly 30 years ago!
I looked at a list of the Top Hard Rock/Metal Artists by Total Songs Streamed in January 2021, and none of the artists in the Top 10 had released new music in years (Queen was at the top of the list); several of those bands aren’t even active anymore.
Then there was the fact that there wasn’t one new rock/metal album on Billboard’s Top 200 Selling Albums in America for 2021; that’s astounding! The top portion of the list is fully dominated by solo artists; there aren’t any bands at all in the top 20. Within the top 100 we find a smattering of rock artists — but the albums are all from the late 70s to the late 90s (to my earlier point), including those from Queen, Fleetwood Mac, Journey, AC/DC, Nirvana and Metallica.
For younger fans, we’re grateful to have Foo Fighters (notwithstanding the tragic recent death of drummer Taylor Hawkins), Greta Van Vleet and a fabulous band from Italy rising up the ranks called Maneskin, all showing up among the top 10 on the year-end Mainstream Rock Artists chart.
Obviously most rock and metal bands still make most of their revenues by touring and performing live, all of which came to a grinding halt during the past couple of years with the pandemic. The decline of radio over the years hasn’t helped either.
On an optimistic note, beyond the return of touring, there are plenty of examples of rock songs being used in commercials, in films and in TV shows to keep the genre alive — in that context alone. And we have some welcome sprouts that are breaking through like cracks in a sidewalk on a spring day.
For example, I was watching a recent episode of the Bridgerton series on Netflix, and I heard a fabulous instrumental version of Alanis Morissette’s “You Oughta Know” beautifully performed by a classical ensemble with violins. It blended seamlessly into the scene; so well that it took me a moment to figure out why that song sounded so familiar, but there it was.
And then just today, my friend Julian Lennon released his latest single and video entitled “Every Little Moment” which leans Rock. Hope springs eternal!