What Is Wrong With Music Today?
I asked myself this question when, due to circumstances beyond my control, I was forced to spend several hours watching morning network television. This is something I actively avoid, and I had no idea what I was in for.
Apparently, many of these shows have musical guests, or they did that day anyway, and each performer was worse than the one before. Trendy. Sterile. Packaged. Processed. Talentless.
What has changed in the past few decades? Where have all the rock stars gone? Whatever happened to the days when to be successful in music you had to be, you know, a musician?
With each passing year, the music world seems more and more removed from what I fell in love with as a teenager when any kid willing to put in the effort and believe in themselves could practice hard, form a band, get a record deal and share their music with the world.
There has always been pop music. That’s nothing new, and certainly nothing bad. There is a place in the world for all kinds of music, and all kinds of music lovers. But never before has society embraced pop music to the extent that real rock music is so blatantly disregarded.
These are dark days for rock, and there seems to be no end in sight. This post will explain what I think is wrong along with some theories about how we got here.
The Golden Era of Rock
The evening after my enlightening experience watching morning talk shows I got to pondering some things. To assist in the pondering I decided to have a few cold ones and listen to some music. I chose the album The Grand Illusion by Styx. It is the epic record that brought the band to national prominence, and, while released when I was only a kid, today I fully appreciate its impact on the music world.
Whenever I listen to albums like this I put myself in the shoes of people who owned the original vinyl when it first came out. This record no doubt spoke to countless teens and young adults. For them, it wasn’t just music. It was part of life.
Music was very different in the ‘70s, and even though disco was making everyone stupid there was still a lot of appreciation for rock music. Bands like Styx sold tons of albums and reached out to people across the globe. Today, many of those people think back to the time in their life when a certain album came out and remember the good times, or even how it got them through some hard times.
Styx were incredible musicians and innovative songwriters. They did their thing, and people responded. They are only an example of the great bands that existed in the '60s, '70s, and '80s. There were lots of real bands and actual musicians back then, doing amazing things and getting a positive response from a general public that appreciated their music.
So, which rock bands can we say that about today?
The Decline of Rock Music
When you have a minute, take a look at the Billboard Hot 100 Songs of 1978, the year after the Grand Illusion was released. You’ll see Styx on there for Come Sail Away. You’ll also see the Rolling Stones, Wings, Queen, Foreigner, Kansas, Steely Dan, Jefferson Starship, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Boston.
There are also some solo performers who are amazing musicians and songwriters such as Eric Clapton, Billy Joel, Joe Walsh, Paul Simon, Bob Segar, and Jackson Browne.
You’ll see some weird stuff on there too, but this was the disco era after all. The point is that, even during the heyday of disco, rock musicians were well appreciated. Remember, these are the most popular singles of 1978 overall, from all genres.
Now check out the Hot 100 from 2019 and see if you can spot the rock bands. It will take some doing, but you may notice a handful of bands like Maroon 5 and Panic at the Disco. I'm not sure I would call them "rock bands", but at least they are bands, sort of.
Going back a few years, I see eight rock bands represented in the 2005 Hot 100. In 1995, there are eleven. In 1985, during the decade when I started playing guitar, I count a whopping nineteen different bands with singles in the Hot 100, and that doesn’t include solo musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Brian Adams, Phil Collins, and David Lee Roth.
So what happened, and why have things gone so badly off the rails?
Why Rock Bands Struggle Today
So why aren't mainstream entertainment sources finding good bands and shoving them in our faces like they do with pop performers? Why is there such a push toward hip-hop and modern pop music, while rock music is put on the back burner—even though there are obviously so many fans of old-school rock out there?
This is only speculation, but I submit that one issue may be how the music industry works today.
Music producers are in the business of making money, as well they should be. They are going to put their time and cash behind artists who bring them the fastest, most reliable return on their investment. You can’t blame them. This is a business.
Compared to rock bands, solo pop singers are way easier to manage, support, and grow. You’re talking about one performer whom you can throw a real band behind, lock in the studio with some real songwriters for a month, bang out a record and hopefully make some money. If it goes wrong, if the pop star gets into trouble or somehow ceases to be productive, you cut your losses and move on to the next pop star and try again. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Compare that to working with a band. Can you imagine trying to manage the personalities and behaviors of the Rolling Stones in the ‘60s, Led Zeppelin in the ‘70s, Motley Crue in the ‘80s, or Guns N’ Roses in the early ‘90s?
To me, they are some of the most talented rock bands in history, all excellent musicians and songwriters, and everything that is right in the world of music. But I’d guess that countless producers, managers, and executives lost a whole lot of sleep worrying about which band member was going to get arrested, freak out and quit, go on a binge, get in a fight, crash a car, or worse.
If just one of the five guys in your band goes bonkers for a little while the whole project comes to a screeching halt. For all the bad press Justin Bieber gets for misbehaving, he is a choir boy compared to Motley Crue back in the day.
Good rock bands are so amazing because they walk that dangerous edge, but this tendency for disaster also makes them tough investments. From this perspective, if you are a music producer wouldn’t you rather deal with a replaceable pop princess instead of a raging, barely controllable rock band?
Consumer Culture and Music
All this would be a moot point if people were more demanding when it comes to music. And that brings me to my second theory.
If you are reading this, music by real musicians is probably very important to you. It’s important to me too, but, sadly, most people don’t feel the way we do. They like music well enough, but it is pretty much background noise in their life. They may gravitate to a popular artist or trendy song for a while, but soon enough they move on to something else.
In a fast-moving world dominated by social media, there is more pop in pop music than ever before. If it is trending, shared or liked (or appearing on morning network TV) it will get attention. It may be fleeting attention, but that's okay.
As long as people will accept sub-par music created by sub-par performers, that’s what the record labels will keep pushing. Again, can you blame them?
The same thing happens in other aspects of society. Why would the major television networks bother producing anything of substance when people will readily lap up reality shows and talent contests? Why would a major entertainment company bother producing new, innovative movies when they could do just as well by buying and exploiting other franchises, or reworking hits of the past?
This, more than anything else, I think is the driving force behind the demise of rock. In a throwaway, consumer culture people simply have a different mindset than they did in the past. It is the reason the compact disc is declining, and this gives the record companies even more power to shape what consumers will spend their money on.
Again, don't blame the record labels. They are giving people what they seem to want. It will only change when people recognize and care about the difference between quality music created by real musicians and real songwriters, and music created simply for consumption.
Rock Music Isn’t Dead Yet
Here’s the thing: Rock music is still around, and there are tons of people who still love it. Not just us old, grizzled fans who survived the '80s, but also younger people. But many people seem to love only in a historical context. People love AC/DC, Van Halen, and Led Zeppelin. When that Motley Crue documentary hit Netflix, everyone went crazy for it.
But where is the 2019 version of AC/DC? Where is the 2019 version of Led Zeppelin? That band is out there somewhere and the world needs them. They’re rehearsing for hours every week in some garage or dank cellar, writing their own music, playing whatever gigs they can get, and their guitar player is busting his hump to get better at his instrument.
If you want to do some digging you will find them. I’ve always been a big believer in hunting down good underground music, and you certainly don't need to rely on the mainstream media to tell you what to listen to. That was true in every decade, as it is today.
It may seem like I’m saying anything that isn’t rock music with flaming guitars has no value. That’s not true. I’d be thrilled if jazz, blues, bluegrass, or classical suddenly took off and became the most popular form of music out there. Maybe we’d see shows like America’s Got Bach or Chicken Pickin’ with the Stars. How awesome would that be?
All I’m saying is it’s a crying shame that musicians who work so hard to excel at their instruments have to work part-time jobs to get by while dime-a-dozen pop performers become millionaires.
The Rock World Needs a Guitar Hero
They say things go in cycles, so maybe it is just a matter of time until that one guitarist in that one band starts a revolution that will change everything. Until then, we can keep on seeking out underground rock music and supporting those musicians who are fighting the good fight.
People might call me a dinosaur because of my views on music. I am okay with that because what I see today in the music world simply doesn’t compare to decades past. I can’t pretend it is okay for the sake of fitting in. I love music and guitar way too much.
Besides, dinosaurs did change. Many researchers believe some of them evolved into birds. So, you tell me which is more awesome: a dinosaur or a bird? Tyrannosaurus Rex or a sparrow?
You know which one you'd pick. That's why you are a guitar player.
Is Rock Music Dead?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2015 Michael James
Michael James (author) on November 08, 2016:
@woke: I don't know what you mean by "urban" music. If you mean some of the hip hop and pop junk I hear every day, I will take those folks seriously when they start acting like real musicians. Sampling other people's songs and programming a drum machine is not the same as spending thousands of hours learning to play an instrument, and it doesn't make you an artist.
woke on November 07, 2016:
This view is where it goes wrong.
Rock doesnt need a guitar hero but a need sound and less snobbistic people who call it "real music" the urban music you hear is rhytmic way further than rock ever was and the real artist are there but because you dont want to look further than names or there singles you dont see them.
rockandroll4life on August 11, 2015:
im trying to get my friends to listen to rock
Michael James (author) on July 25, 2015:
I am doing my best to be hopeful as well, catfish. It isn't easy sometimes! The good thing is all that great music from decades past will never go away. It's ours forever.
Jeffrey Yelton from Maryland on July 24, 2015:
I echo the sentiments, but the music industry hates old farts like us. However, I am hopeful. Acts like the Pretty Reckless, Halestorm, the Black Keys, Muse, and of course, Nickelback, keep the fires burning.
Rock isn't dead yet, but it is on life-support.