May 20, 2009

Is Rock and Roll Dying?

An article on CNN's website caught my eye, "What will save rock and roll?". Within the article is a speech given by the very articulate and knowledgeable, Steve Van Zandt. I read the whole thing, its looooong, but good. Below I pasted some of his key points. He calls his speech "A Crisis of Craft".

To summarize what SVZ said: Today's "musicians" have lost the art of the craft and bascially most of them suck. He explains his reasoning behind this and shares kind of a mini-history of rock and roll in the process. I enjoyed it.

Any thoughts on this?

... I want to spend just a minute on a topic that never ever gets discussed in the music business – the music.

The reason nobody wants to talk about it is because it mostly sucks! It blows! It is sucking major moose cock! Who are we kidding here? Nobody's buying records? Because they suck!

And I know why.

Nobody wants to deal with this but we have to.

Yes we are experiencing big changes in the business but much more importantly over these last thirty years or so we have been witness to a crisis of craft.

Rock and Roll is the working class art form.

So let's go back to basics.

What is our craft?

So as to our craft – performance, record making, songwriting-what happened exactly?

The crisis in performance is I believe based on one simple fact. When it started, Rock and Roll was dance music. One day we stopped dancing to it and started listening to it and it's been downhill ever since.

We had a purpose. We had a specific goal, an intention, a mandate. We made you dance or we did not work – we did not get paid – we were fired – we were homeless. That requires a different energy. It is a working class energy. Not an artistic intellectual waiting around for inspiration energy. It's a get up, go to work, and kill-energy. Rip it up or die trying.

The advent of the video was just the final nail in the performance coffin, a coffin that had already been constructed by years of excessive immersion in ganja, hashish, and all forms of water cooled bong therapy. You didn't have to make people dance anymore. They were too stoned to dance! You didn't even have to play your instrument anymore – all you had to do was act!

Act like a Rock Star and bada bing you were a Rock Star.

And now there's a new trend that's even more dangerous. And this affects songwriting as well as performance. Bands are starting to skip the bar band stage of their development. The club stage. Where, ideally you're still a dance band, but equally important, you get the opportunity to play other people's songs. Your favorite songs. All of a sudden I'm hearing it's not cool to play other people's songs. That's for the less gifted. The losers. The way we thought of the top 40 bar bands growing up has been extended to include any songs that didn’t come from your own personal genius.

This is a major problem.

Performance-wise the energy you discover, manufacture, and harness as a dance band stays with you for the rest of your life. You never lose it.

You learn greatness from greatness.

Nobody is born a great performer. Nobody is born a great songwriter.

The Beatles were a club and bar band for five years. And then continued playing covers for five albums. Let me say that again. The Beatles were a club and bar band for five years. And then continued playing covers for five albums! Then the Rolling Stones were a bar band for three years and played covers for their first five albums. Do you think you're better than them?

If you want to write then you’ve got to learn how to do it. This is why the great song publishers like Lance Freed are always encouraging the young writers to co-write with the older ones.

Just as it’s important to perform with a purpose, it is equally important to write with a purpose. Whether that purpose is to express your most personal anguish or to simply have a hit record. If you’re going to do it, do it right.

The third part of our craft is record making and that discipline has been almost completely abandoned.

A record is four things – Composition, Arrangement, Performance, and Sound. Four different crafts overseen by a Producer that understands, to some extent all four elements plus the Big Picture of the Industry, plus the psychological stuff of being the artist’s psychiatrist, plus the liaison with the business people, etc. etc.

Where are the Producers? Where are the Arrangers? The point being once upon a time it took an army of very talented people to make great records. Writers, singers, musicians, producers, arrangers, engineers and now you have to do it yourself? No wonder everything sucks!

We must reintroduce a new dedication to the Craft.

And worry about the new technology, and the Art, later.


Sean Coleman said...

Beautiful! I stood up and applauded after reading this.

Well, in a Walter Mitty moment, I might have.

Steve Earle gave a talk at a music conference that i attended in Toronto a few years back. He hit on a similar theme. He said that he had caught his son downloading music and lectured him on how he was inadvertently taking bread off of someone's table (namely his own, because "this is how Dad makes his living"). His son basically said that most CDs had one or two worthwhile tracks and the rest was disposable. Why waste 10 to 15 bucks on a drink coaster? Earle went on to say that the music business was flopping because the artists were not investing time in their craft. Once the artist cares enough to put their best into the work, people will respond in kind and buy it.

Steve Van Zandt's point is well made. I have told countless people over the years that I could name the exact point went music really started its swirl down the toilet bowl: the first MTV broadcast in 1981. Posing, explosions, poodles perched on the heads of grinning idiots and zero soul.

Sorry for the length of my rant, but I have watched this happen over the years in disgust and I love it when a high profile musician goes on record and calls it for what it is.

Barbara(aka Layla) said...

Sean, no apology necessary! I loved every word of it. Thanks for sharing this it adds a lot to what Steve said.

paul said...

i'm not sure about all this, I read a book called 'Is Rock Dead' a few years ago, the basic idea was that when we say rock is dead we are saying that we are dead to new developments in rock, that we've stopped being open and curious, abit harsh maybe but i see the point.

I agree you have to lok harder now maybe because there's more dross to get thru but there's some amazing talent; think about Mars Volta, POrcupine Tree artists following on from prog rock of the 70's, remaking it, or great guitar driven indie bands like The Kooks, Bloc Party, there as good as anything we listened to, maybe less adolescent even.

As far as live gigs go that a total other issue; Sydney is pretty dead, it used to be the pub-rock centre of the world back in the 70's, ACDC were born from this; this is a real problem down here.


Betty C. said...

I agree that there is certainly a log of worthy new talent out there. But maybe people (even young people) don't seek it out enough because there is so much great old stuff to listen to.

My daughters listen to The Pretenders, Blondie, REM, Bob Dylan, the Beatles...well I could go on and on; you get the picture. They don't seem to feel any need to "discover" anything new, they just dive into my music. I'm also consistently amazed by how much my (college-age) students listen to music that is decades old. It's a tribute to "our"music, but also perhaps a sign that the edge is coming off.

musicobsessive said...

This is a difficult one. Music, like any craft, needs to be learned. In the old days, as has been said, bands learned their craft by playing the circuits - or they employed specialists, like song-writers, producers etc. Once upon a time, no-one wrote their own songs, they employed a writer.

Today everyone wants to be a millionaire NOW! There is no time for learning your craft, it is too boring/time consuming/difficult. Also, there is too much competition from inside and outside the industry. Waste time 'learning' and someone else grabs your moment of glory.

It's difficult to remember but there was far less competition in the 1950s-1960s and the buying public were in a position of almost perfect knowledge of the market - compare that with today where you haven't a snowball's.

Having said all this I'm not sure what the answer is, but I do know that there are a minority of true artists out there, it's just more difficult to find them. But well worth it if you do.

Guitarman5150 said...

OK I'm gonna chime in here. I understand his point here but I also have to disagree in some respects.

1. Back when The Beatles and The Stones and all of those groups were doing there cover songs that was something they HAD to do in order to get a record deal it was WHAT YOU DID PERIOD. You had no choice.

Now if you have talent you can show that. They are great bands of the last 40 years have proven that have have become millionares Van Halen, Kiss and others...... I don't think Kiss even played a cover until they had been famous for years..... I could be wrong.

2. Talking about song writers. They used to bring in songwriters to use with artists to help them write songs. That was the standard way back when as well.

Buddy Holly broke that cycle. He was writing songs like That'll Be The Day, Peggy Sue and others. If you go back and listen to those songs even today you will see that man needed no help and he fought those people tooth and nail to write his own stuff and he was right to do so. Believe me he needed no help.

Thanks to him Lennon/McCartney got on their own and those two needed no help either!

I could keep going on but I think I'm gonna stop now cause I could fill up the whole page here and I'm not trying to hate on the man because he's got lots of good points. I think LOTS of the music SUCKS today and SOMETHING needs to be done about it!!

Also Sean hgas a beautiful point about downloading music off the net, yes I have itunes but I'm downloading whole albums. I also think when you have artists putting these songs up on their own sites to me that's an endorsement from them and I don't see a point on not downloading it. It's on their own site for god sake they put it up there so why not if you like the song download it. I also though understand being a songwriter myself understand the point. I have my songs on my bands myspace page and I have it set up so you can't download any of it even though the songs have copywrites on them.

Sorry so long Barbra.

Jeff said...

I should probably think before I write this, but for some reason his speech really bothered me. I often fall victim to the idea that classic rock should be put on a pedestal and that nothing can top it, but the fact of the matter is, there is a TON of great music out there, and if you're not able to find it you're living under a rock or you're just stuck in your old ways to appreciate it. Brandon Flowers of The Killers made a fantastic point recently about how people worship Led Zeppelin and even though there is music released today which is just as good, people refuse to actually say it. We've all but diefied all these artists from the 60s and 70s and automatically place them at the very top. We refuse to allow ourselves to think that anything released today is as good. Lets take The Rolling Stones for instance. They're recognized as one of the all time greats in rock history, and yet I can name a handful of bands in the past ten years who have released better material than them. My message to Van Zandt would be to get off your high horse and quit thinking that your era of music is the be all and end all of rock. The times are changing and Van Zandt is stuck in the past. The 60s and 70s had plenty of terrible music, but as time has passed we've picked and choosed which ones we remember...

Guitarman5150 said...

Something else, I cut my teeth on bands like The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Van Halen, Kiss and all the hair metal of the 80's for years and when I became in my early 20's I had enough and said, "Enough, I'm forming my owm band of like minded indivudals and we are doing all original songs. NO COVERS!" And That's what we did. Now I don't do covers anymore.

Now maybe when I reform this band again, because there had been rumbleings of it this past year or so, I might decide to stick a few covers in here or there just because all these years later I think it might just be a fun idea to do, but I'm not gonna have some schmuck record dude telling me what I have to do with my own band. I'm in my late 30's I don't care if I become famous or not. It's not about that to me It's about the music. DON'T THESE PEOPLE GET THAT?? It's all about the music. Eddie Van Halen said that once. That stuck with me. I firmly believe that. If you take nothing away from what I say remember, "It's all about the music." - Eddie Van Halen

Bond said...

Most excellent article.

And even better comments here. I agree that the classic rock of the 60's-70's should not be the only artform for rock and roll. As has been said, any art form needs to grow and morph.

BUT...the points about musicians today not learning their craft is so true. Letting digital software make your music is not music.

I understand Stevie's comment about covers - and I do not think he means you should only play covers - what he means is, to play covers helps you to learn your craft...something to achieve.

The music business is in the toilet because no one cares about ALBUMS anymore. today it is just a bunch of songs thrown together on the disc.

No rhyme or reason for the care that three of the songs are not worthy, because we only have the studio for another day and the record company wants the masters the day after - or even worse IMHO...

Put out a CD with 20 songs on it because you can...More is not better.

Every Monday, I feature a new, unsigned artist on THE COUCH and I am finding more and more of these people following up on my emails requesting their CD. Looking for more opportunities to be featured or to appear on BlogTalk with us...

Stevie makes some valid points in the artical...but the business needs more help in staying alive.

LazyKing said...

I don't think anything is dying.
They just want to sell books and have page views. Few years ago, everyone was telling us Hip Hop is dead but Eminem will likely sell more than 600 000 albums the first week only!!
About rock dying?? Impossible!

Russ/rfduck said...

Sometimes I think people repeat information until they start to believe it, even if it isn't true. I think there is still good music out there, even some that's mainstream. I never bought into the "there's only one or two good songs on an album" thing. How much time are people even giving these songs when they listen to them? Some songs you learn to love.

Even though it's not my thing, I'm very inspired by the Indie Rock movement. When I read music blogs and such, I see such passion about up and coming bands. If a popular indie band releases an album, people anticipate it. Most of these bands see little play on radio or on TV. The internet has become THE place to hear music, especially new music.

So, is rock dead? No. Rock is changing. And even if rock dies, it's not the end of the world. The death of MUSIC is what we should really fear.

That said, I do think actual rock music has lost something over the years. In the classic era of rock, bands tried to outdo each other and be bigger and better with each new album. That simply doesn't happen anymore, at least not with most mainstream groups. Back in the 70s, mainstream rock bands like The Who tried to be louder, more daring and more innovative. They took chances.

I also think some creativity has been lost. You can't tell one guitar player from the next anymore. Solos have gone out of fashion. I think some bands need to put more emphasis on showing us who THEY are and what THEY bring to the table that's different from the other guys.

A few years ago, Pearl Jam released their self-titled album. While I didn't enjoy every song on it, I did buy it because of songs like "Life Wasted." That is what rock should sound like! It has energy, passion, and just simply rocks. It makes you want to jump around and slam into things. If more bands could create songs like that, rock can survive.

Charlie said...

All I can add is WOW! Miami Steve is right on the money!

Dan said...

I agree with Jeff. I think we as Boomers can kind of get stuck in the past. I can remember back when, I used to hesitate buying a particular album because it wasnt what I was used to. I would have to learn new music again. But I did it and I was generally rewarded for the effort. I'll never forget my first time thru Led Zepplein III. What a treat!

I also agree with Bond about the music not being about the album anymore. It was a ritual when you bought a new album back when to listen to both sides in one sitting. Albums were put together IMHO as a concept. I dont see that as much anymore, but to be honest with you I still shy away from new music because I hesitate to start something new. Although I just purchased Neko Case's new album and I really love it!

drewzepmeister said...

Great topic Barbara!

I agree and disagree with SVZ. Yeah, I agree that much of today's music stink. Prepackaced and slapped with an imagine. Take a look at Britiany (rolls my eyes), she's a prime example.

If you look under the surface of all that garbage that is out there, you'll still find a lot of good music out there.

kris said...

I don't believe the "rock artists" of today, most of them, make their music their lives the way the true "Classic Rock" artists did from the middle 60's into the very early 80's. There are very few artists recording today which can be compared to the huge amount of talent which I was lucky to grow up with, follow and watch. Many young people are listening to and actually enjoying "rap" and "hip-hop". Of cours this is part of their culture. How much talent does it take to do rap and hip-hop? But, many teens are listening to classic rock and some are sorry that they missed the classic rock era.

A side note...the junk code which you see on your post of May 20 can be caused by writing your post in MS Word and than dumping it into an HTML page. I copied some of your post and removed the [ ] brackets and this removed the junk code. It was an easy fix. You might try it on one line of code and see if the junk code is gone. No criticism, you have very good blogs. I know you are tired of me pointing out problems on your blogs. I will go away.

The Mad Hatter said...

Oh, great topic. I'm with Bond. I really miss "albums." It's a priviledge to listen to, let's say, Floyd's "Wish You Were Here" but to hear it in the context of that entire album is more amazing. Van Zandt might be a bit childish in his coomplaints (or his reasons), but I think I understand where he's coming from.

That said, Jeff, I almost completely agree with you. Yes, the 60s and 70s are deified, but to me it is almost accurate. Why? Because like you, I wasn't born anywhere near in time to that era, but yet, I prefer it to all music since. Is this to say no great music has emerged since? Absolutely not. I personally think Radiohead can be said in the same sentence as Zeppelin, for example. While it's silly to pine in the past, it's important to remember where things came from. The 60 and 70s were a bedspread for the origination of alot of different ideas, particularly in rock. Just like in jazz years earlier, or blues, rock blew up like an atom bomb and seemingly has been dying. I say it like that because I don't think rock is dying; I just think it's hard to follow an atom bomb. We've had some very good rock bands since the 70s, but the difference is that instead of 200 OMG in-your-face balls-to-the-wall groups, we have 20.

And finally, as an afterthought, what I am most disappointed in, which is what differentiates 70s rock from 00s rock, let's say, is soul. Jeff, (sorry for singling you out) you love Mars Volta; I love Mars Volta. But the Mars Volta doesn't have an iota of soul to them; they rely on technical mastery and creativity. Meanwhile, QOTSA write about sex and have insanely awesome riffs every time out. A weird kind of soul, but at least they're more earnest. Peace.

Mad Hatter out.

Anonymous said...

In the words of indie rocker, Rick Sims of the Didjits, who summed this whole idea up best when he said: "Rock n' roll isn't dead... it's just passed out in the corner."

Anonymous said...

I'd like to reiterate the words of indie rocker Rick Sims of the Didjits, who summed this whole argument up best:

"Rock n' roll isn't dead... it's just passed out in the corner."

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