Dad Rock: Not Fade Away
“Better to burn out, than to fade away… my, my… hey, hey.” -Neil Young
“People try to put us d-down (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Just because we g-g-get around (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin' 'bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin' 'bout my generation…)"
-Sung by Roger Daltry, written by Pete Townsend
No doubt that Roger and Pete still feel that way when they’re booking their colonoscopy appointments, or quietly refilling that Cialis prescription. But “My Generation” is having not so much as a resurgence, (they never went away,) or a “moment,” (because their recorded music and concert tickets have never stopped selling well)… but they are being vindicated. They’re still g-g-getting around.
It’s dad music for the win. With Roger and Pete and Mick and Keith and Elton and Dylan all pushing 80, maybe it’s grandad music for the win. Did you see the Superbowl Halftime Show? Hell, the rap and hip-hop artists were doing twenty-year-old songs. Dad rap and grandad rock.
And now the numbers tell the story. According to a recent piece in The Atlantic, “old songs” now represent 70% of the US music market (their source - MRC Data, a music-analytics firm.) Worse yet, they claim, the only growth in the music market, is coming from old-timey rock'n'roll.
“The 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams. That rate was twice as high just three years ago. The mix of songs actually purchased by consumers is even more tilted toward older music. The current list of most-downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the previous century, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Police.”
And those legacy groups? They’re cashing in. From the estate of the late David Bowie to the likes of Dylan, Paul Simon, and Bruce Springsteen, artists’ music catalogs are selling for millions. Hundreds of millions in many cases. Why risk finding and promoting the new Mick Jagger when the old Mick Jagger still Gets No Satisfaction – in front of stadium-sized crowds? To be clear, (and all Keith-Richards-is-immortal jokes aside,) they can’t go on forever. (The loss of Charlie Watts is a gentle reminder.) But no problem, the music is in the vault, ready to be resold, repackaged, and repurposed. Maybe for a movie score, a streaming service, or a new Sherwin Williams commercial (“Paint It Black,”) or a testosterone supplement ad (“Start Me Up.”)
If a new artist does somehow get some recognition, then find some more just like it. Have you HEARD country music lately? It's as homogenous as the crowd at Applebee's happy hour.
You want to hear something hilarious that proves my point? Check out this YouTube video comparing modern country songs. Yes, cranky listener, they really DO all sound the same.
And it’s just not country. Here’s the same comparison with some recent pop hits. Do you hear the problem?
Spotify and the other streaming services are making things all the worse. The AI algorithms dictate what you hear on the stream. And that's based on your "likes" or just what it is that you're listening to. Here's the thing: they're inherently reductive. You're only going to hear what you already like. It's all going to sound the same in terms of beat, melodic structure, instrumentation, etc etc. If Spotify or Pandora throw you something new, it's going to sound a whole lot like the other tunes you've just heard. And artists know this, or the producers do. So they create and encourage work based on that familiar formula. A Big Mac ain’t all that good, but it has the elements of a hamburger, which you like. So McDonald's can formulate something akin to a hamburger and sell ‘em by the mini-van load. With Spotify, you’re not gonna get a mesquite-grilled Wagyu burger topped with fresh, locally sourced vegetables… but they can serve you up Quarter Pounders all day long.
The gatekeepers are long gone. There’s no A&R (artists and repertoire) rep from the big record company searching for new talent to develop. The money is being spent on geezer rock catalogs. For the next generation, it’s every guitar player for him or herself. But that was part of the promise, right? No longer is a single record executive the sole referee of talent. And why book studio time for hundreds of dollars per hour to try and record a demo, when all you need is a quiet bedroom, a MacBook Pro, a microphone or two and a copy of ProTools recording software… You too can end up on the cover of the Rolling Stone!
But here’s the HolyShit reality: 60,000 cuts are being uploaded to Spotify. Per day. That’s almost one cut per second. How many of those have you heard? As a famous philosopher once said, “Aint’ nobody got time for that!” Indeed.
With 60K music cuts a day to choose from, even a low percentage of diamonds makes for a treasure trove of goodies, right? I think the theory continues to be, "the cream will always rise." But it seems to me that that can only happen up to a certain population size. It's awfully hard to sample a couple hundred artists a day to find a winner. Still, some of these YouTube and TikTok sensations demonstrate that it can be done. (Though rarely.)
It’s the economy, stupid
Self-described music publicist and manager Rachel Hurly wrote a great piece on her Facebook page and put a fine point on the problem.
“Streaming has been around for over a decade, plenty of time for musicians to unite and form a union or an advocacy group that could study Spotify’s extremely transparent numbers and come up with a more fair payment plan. But no one has and that’s because the math doesn’t work… The real issue is that music is an over saturated market. There are too many musicians and too much music… You know the whole economic theory about the more there is of something, the less it's worth?
The barrier to becoming a musician has been lowered to the ground. And that's great in terms of giving everyone equal access, but due to the influx of people participating, well, that's what has devalued the product… The simple truth is that the market cannot supply every good musician with a full time living making music. If NO ONE created another song from this moment on, you would still never get through all of the music that has already been made…
I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would argue that this low bar of entry has been detrimental to the evolution of music. But what it HAS been detrimental too is the selling of music.”
My son is in his mid-twenties. He’s our music kid. Learned to play piano, and then guitar. No deep theory or classical training, just a solid rock-n-roll player. To appease his parents, he got a college degree in economics, but for himself, he got a degree in Art and Music Technology or something, and then high-tailed it off to L.A. a few days after graduation. A bright kid, he fairly quickly landed a job at one of LA’s famous recording studios. Like any struggling artist, the hours were ridiculous, the pay absurdly low, and the job description was, well, it revealed itself over time. Sort of a client concierge. Maybe a valet if artists needed their Lambos parked across the street. Sometimes a food runner. A go-fer, a waiter, a bartender, and oh, once in a while, the guy that needs to clean up a little vomit over in Studio 3. (“It appears that the bass player has become unwell.”)
I asked him to give me an idea what his work-day was like. He looked at me and said, “You wanna know what I really do, dad?” Well, sure. “I buy weed and chicken for rap stars. They throw me a Benjamin or an ATM card and want me to go get them some weed and some chicken.” It seemed like a lot of tuition to have shelled out at UT, but darn well worth it to see my son on the road to success. ("Another wing, sir? May I roll you another fat one?”) He persevered, and now helps engineer recording sessions and even takes advantage of down-time and unbooked studio time to work on his own projects.
The control rooms are old, and most have massive “boards” or audio mixers spanning the entire width of the room. Speakers are mounted on the ceiling and walls. In the middle of the old board is usually a large computer monitor and a computer keyboard. The Boy confessed to me that the old boards are mainly for show. Almost all of the work is done straight to computer. Dozens of mics can be run directly into digital recorders. They can record, mix, and master the artist’s tracks on one computer (although these are usually separate processes.)
You would envision a band and vocalists all coming in, collaborating, and blending their instruments and harmonies in these classic studios. And that does still happen. We are all still abuzz about the recently released Beatles documentary, “Let It Be.” We got to see Paul McCartney giving birth to classic songs that have been part of our lives for over fifty years. In many of the scenes, Paul appears to generate the core of several of the cuts. But there is the impulsive John Lennon throwing in a silly idea or a twist on a lyric. George is quick to find a guitar chord or a variation on a melody, and Ringo keeps on keeping the beat. Watching and hearing these songs come to life is profound, as is watching the process. Paul leads, to be sure, but it’s a collaboration of incredible talent.
Over the holidays, we got to watch “Let It Be” with The Boy, who was as fascinated with it as we were. It’s his chosen vocation, and he absolutely recognized the level of genius that was in front of us. It also prompted several discussions about how infrequent such collaboration is between modern band members or multiple musicians in the studio where he works. A lot of what he sees (and is often a part of) are producer/writer driven sessions. A known talent will work with a specific writing team to develop songs that they’re comfortable with, that fit their “mold.” Some artists will solicit submissions from different teams, even holding writing camps or workshops. More often, the artist acts as an auteur and just begins to layer a track at a time. A piano melody, a vocal, some rhythm, some more vocals, often playing all the instruments themselves. And here’s where it gets really strange. A good quantity of music is piecemealed together from recorded/digitized music bits (or bytes.) Producers collect digital folders of beats – drum rhythms, cymbal crashes, woodblock hits, bass thumps, etc. There will be guitar riffs. A collection of short lines of melody played on a piano. Some vocal exclamations. A bass line. And the artist and the production team will start layering this little riff with that line of rhythm. Someone in the studio might pick up an instrument and fill in a gap. A lyric might be sounded out, or even a verse. Often, the artist will insert some nonsense words as placeholders. (More often than not, those nonsense words actually become the lyrics…’yeah yeah yeah…Ob-lah-dee…’ The producer will begin compositing these tracks in ProTools, creating a salad of digital sounds. That's not to say that this isn’t a creative process requiring serious talent, but it's certainly a different way to work and doesn't seem (to me) to be as innovative as having a half dozen band members wailing away. The Boy is quick to point out that there are some amazing and creative people that come in and write from scratch and work with talented collaborators on actual musical instruments in traditional ways, but it's rare.
I heard an interesting comment this morning on a podcast where Chris Rock was a guest. Rock and his hosts got into the "art" of standup comedy, and of course, he was a bit self-aggrandizing when he claimed that standups were the only authentic, original thought/speech artists left. (I don't remember how he defined this..) but he noted that the original great speakers were philosophers. And then came the priests and preachers. He then said something which seems hard to deny - that songwriters came next and filled that role for years, but now music has simply become a "producer's medium." His (rather boastful) conclusion was that standups were the last speechmakers who were totally original - writing their material, making social observations, performing that material before an audience, etc.
Now, IGNORING his overarching conclusion, he hit the nail on the head. There are fewer singer/songwriters, musical poets, and singing activists that are truly organic and original. So much now is simply layers of composited sound and jingoistic verse.
Break on through to the other side…
How does any artist break out anymore? Can a drop of cream rise through 60,000 uploads a day? Check out the artists that appear on Saturday Night Live, or any one of the late-night talk shows. Rarely will you see a music act without a "look," and usually a shocking or provocative one. Coupled with the idea that you have triple the chance of getting noticed if you have a performance act with you, even if it's mostly multi-media FX or some hot background dancers. To some extent, this has always been the case. David Bowie, Elton John and Madonna weren’t exactly mild-mannered folkies. But when was the last time you saw a band come on stage, plant their feet, and knock you over with a song? A song you could remember? When was the last time you saw a Fleetwood Mac? A CSN&Y? A Billy Joel? A Bruce Springsteen in torn jeans just putting it out to the last row in the stadium?
Go watch The Summer of Soul, the documentary about ‘The Black Woodstock.’ Hell, go watch Woodstock. No light shows or pyrotechnics, just music to last generations.
Elton John and Madonna may have been flashy and provocative (for their day,) but you went home with a tune in your head and a lyric on your tongue… and then you raced out to buy the album the next day. And when that same album came out on cassette, you’d buy that. And when CD’s eliminated all that snap, crackle and pop, you rushed to replace your old LPs and cassettes… with the same old “Piano Man.”
The Boy is also quick to acknowledge that getting something played on maybe an indie movie soundtrack is the grail, since it's so hard to "break out" and rise above the millions of streams. But then I note that most of the soundtracks contain a lot of "classic" rock or reworked oldies or covers. So even that is a limited path.
The Numbers Don’t Lie…
Here’s the kicker. The “kids today” know it too. They’re listening to the old music. Of people our age, (we’ll just put this at anyone over 40. OK, WAY over,) less than 10% stream music every day. Over 50% of young people stream music every day. And yet 95% of streamed music is old music ??? New songs account for ONLY 5% of streams . . ? This has to reflect the taste of younger people who are most likely to listen to the radio, watch award shows, etc., and be exposed to new music. But it appears they are as unimpressed with most new music as we are.
The result? Back to the proven hits. The Doors, Queen, and The Beatles get “rediscovered” every generation.
When I was a newlywed, I tried so hard relate to my middle-school-aged stepsons. (I was trying so hard not to be the evil step-dad. I would get over that.) On road trips, I would let the boys play their tunes, and then I'd switch off to mine. They had some heavy metal thing going on, and I was rolling my eyes, so they tossed me another cassette and assured me that I would definitely like this one. (They were trying so hard not to be the evil stepsons. They would get over that, too.) I put in the cassette, and heard the harmonizing vocals that began "Bohemian Rhapsody." I grinned as they proudly told me that the tune was "by that new group, Queen." At that point in time, Freddy Mercury had already been dead for several years.
And this: "...The Grammy audience declined from 40 million to 8 million over just the past ten years? No wonder record labels are competing to buy up old catalogs rather than develop new artists. Old music is where the action (and money) is! The writer of the Atlantic article insists that good new music is out there, but the music industry won't promote it . . . but. . . isn't that what the Internet and TikTok were supposed to be for? So that talent could break out on its own?"
The commercials during the Superbowl tell the same story. Almost all featured classic rock or oldies music beds. (The referenced article may be incomplete, it lists commercials that had been submitted before the Superbowl aired.) There were a couple of real oldies and several 80's hits. There was ELO, Rick James, LIonel Richie and more. Of the two songs from 2022, "Celebrity Skin" by Doja Cat (Taco Bell) was a cover from 1998. “Flamin’ Hottie” by Megan Thee Stallion was commissioned by Frito Lay (ewwwwwwww!) It wasn't quite "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing," but....
And that "wildly contemporary" halftime show I mentioned earlier? Almost every cut was 20 years old+. (Kendrick Lamar's "Alright" was released 2015.) The rest were released around 2000, give or take. This ain't your father's Oldsmobile, but it sure sounds like the CD wallet that he kept on the visor.
I suppose you could make the argument that the NFL struggles to make their show as mainstream or at least as broadly popular as possible. And until recently, bland. (The "Up with People" franchise played halftime in '76, '80, 82, and '86.) But with NFL money, they could easily afford any act that was a breakout or contemporary stars, (think: Michael Jackson, 1993, Beyoncé 2013, Katy Perry 2015.) But can they find that act anymore? Are there any universal big stars now?
The Superbowl commercials are produced by advertisers. They don't have to toe the NFL line, whatever that is this week. (Let’s give the NFL credit, they put some of the world’s most popular -and blackest – hip hop artists on their 50-yard line a scant 6 [!] years after their Colin Kaepernick pseudo scandal. It didn’t take ten minutes on Twitter to see how well that played in flyover country.)
Ad agencies that produce those commercials can micro-target, and they have the research to show exactly what appeals to which demographic. For example, I'm sure Michelob Ultra doesn't mind retirees buying their beer, but their pitch was aimed at a younger crowd... with "Showdown,” a 1973 ELO hit. (It WAS a cute spot that featured Peyton Manning and Serena Williams with a Big Lebowski setup.)
Dad-Hip-Hop (and Grand-dad classic rock.) It's what sells.
“Better to burn out, than to fade away… my, my… hey, hey.” -Neil Young
Neil, maybe through the rise of dad-rock, seems to keep burning brightly, Spotify or not. My, my. Hey, hey. My main focus today is not on the Neil Young/Spotify-Joe-Rogan dustup. (Quick aside: did you know that Neil Young is a Polio survivor? Certainly gives his protest a bit more weight than the usual progressive virtue signal.) But if you want to, run the Spotify numbers. If Rogan quit and gave up HIS two hundred million (over four years,) just how far would that go divided among the estimated one billion song streams per day? I was told there would be no math, so you figure that one out. How many shares would it take to purchase a cup of coffee at Starbucks?
Like Neil, I don’t want to fade away either. I’d like to remain somewhat in the game. And let’s face it, we all want to stay relevant on some level. Music has always been a part of my life. Sometime’s it’s in the background, but many times it’s center stage. Who can forget the first time they heard a love song that shattered their heart? How many times have you told the story about attending your first concert, how you could barely contain yourself as you jumped up and down to the music with tens of thousands of other delirious fans? How long did it take you to “curate” a mixtape to send to your first love? How much care did you give in choosing the music for your wedding and the dance at your reception?
I’ve always worked in video and multi-media production. I know the incredible power that the perfect cut of music adds to words and pictures. It can alter the meaning of those pictures - how your brain registers visual images. It can turn a comical piece of film into a poignant experience. So I keep my ears out, listening for the next big thing. The next tune that has the power to elevate your life to a different plane or to simply break you in two with a rhymed verse and a plaintive melody. Maybe it can never hit us as hard as it did in our youth. Gimme something other than a mashed up synth of digital beats and fist raising concert callouts. “Are you ready to party, Texas???”
Maybe Warren Zevon was right, “I appreciate the best, but I’m settling for less. I’m looking for the next best thing.”
Before The Boy packed up his bag and moved to Bev-er-leee, we were talking in the car as a tune played. Probably something he was listening to. “So do you like that?” “Of course, he said, it’s BumZee and the Hepcats and their new release.” “Well, back in my day, we had the Beatles and Pink Floyd, and the Rolling Stones and James Brown and Neil Young and Tina Turner and Jerry Jeff Walker and Townes Van Zandt and Prince and the Allmans, and, and, and… genres… All KINDS of genres, and, and….” I heard a loud sigh. “I know, dad. And they’re all good.” (I give him a lot of credit. He listened and absorbed all those groups and a million more. When asked by one of the producers at his recording studio, he cautiously admitted that his first-ever concert was Bruce Springsteen. He told me that his mentors nodded approvingly.) “But I like hip hop, and techno-pop, and…” “But what about a good hook, son, a really solid melody line to…” “DAD! Don’t you think every father and son, from every generation, has had this exact same conversation?”
Yes, they have. He was absolutely right, as far as that goes. But I know his secret. I know that in the dark of night, or at the beach with his surfboard and Bluetooth speaker, or when he’s out with his girl, they’re playing “Jumping Jack Flash” from a playlist he built from my ancient old LP collection.
So you’ll excuse me. I need to change into my tighty whiteys and a pair of tube socks and polish the wood floor. That kid better not have made off with my Bob Seger’s Greatest Hits album.
** A quick postscript. As I was finishing this up, Jimmy Kimmel featured a 17-year-old kid who had racked up a few hundred thousand Tik-Tok views after he discovered a cut of music that his dad had recorded in his younger days. The kid gleefully plays the cut for his social media audience, just wildly enthusiastic about hearing it. Kimmel decides to interview the father/son and then closes his show with a full-blown, 70's style production of the two playing the cut... complete with band, disco-ball, and a live audience.
You know, The Kids are Alright.
One more postscript. Ms. Hurley (author of the article quoted and linked regarding the economics of Spotify) was swamped with comments and criticisms about her piece. She answered some of the concerns here.