Rock and roll embodied more than a genre or a lifestyle. It was a religion. One fervently practiced by those involved in the spectacle. Worshippers sought salvation from their ordinary lives and wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves – a musical nirvana. Throughout the twentieth century, rock and roll evolved into a social movement; it broke down economic, racial, sexual, and social barriers. The raw immediacy of the music struck a chord with the dissonance sweeping the country. Rock and roll embraced new and different musicians who were unwilling to conform to prior musical standards.
The sixties and seventies ushered in the golden years of rock and roll. A time when The Beatles and The Rolling Stones set the groundwork for what defined rock and roll as not only a genre but also a lifestyle. The bigger than life reputations and music spawned an entire new class of musicians. Record companies were quick to capitalize on the new phenomenon. They spent lots of money to perpetuate the myth of rock and roll to the collective masses.
Ultimately, though, the lauded genre would meet its downfall. The incompetents who profited the most from its growth would cause this defeat: the analog executives. These people built their careers on the massive airplay groups of the seventies and eighties. They spent millions to make millions. They were the gatekeepers of rock success and decadence, brilliantly packaging and selling the genre as a lifestyle – without regard for the music. Subsequently, these executives killed the notion of rock and roll without ever knowing the implications their actions had on generations to come.
The mid to late seventies saw the rise of punk music. The beginning of punk music was much like that of rock and roll. DIY and underground, punk rock was the antithesis of the excessive mainstream rock of the seventies. Piercing and unreformed, punk rock embraced the DIY attitude oftentimes distributing and recording their music themselves. Fans quickly formed around some of the most popular bands of the movement such as The Clash and The Ramones, starting the new independent rock movement.
The rise of the punk subculture quickly gave way to the New Wave movement with bands like The Cure and Siouxsee and The Banshees embracing the independent rock paradigm. These bands embraced fans whose niche-oriented communities viewed rock and roll as independence.
Towards the end of the seventies, rock and roll became a distant memory. But some artists refused to let the myth die. They took matters and their careers into their own hands. Independent rock was a direct result of their abandonment of the status quo.
Joan Jett first burst on to the scene as a teenager in the female rock band, The Runaways. After the dismantling of the group, Jett embarked on a solo recording career. With the finished album in hand, Jett and producer, Kenny Laguna, shopped the finished product to multiple labels – all of which refused to distribute the album. The two funded the album, Joan Jett, and eventually they distributed it by themselves without the help of a label through grassroots methods, such as selling it at Jett’s shows.
Despite the success of independent rockers, commercial rock had a massive resurgence in the mid eighties. Juggernauts like Motley Crue, Van Halen, Billy Idol, and Bon Jovi with millions of dollars at their disposal rocked stadiums. Their single and album sales were built by massive national stadium rock tours and incessant airplay on commercial mainstream radio stations straddling the line between rock and roll and mainstream pop.
No longer subject to the confines of a tour bus and redundant touring, hoping for radio success, these bands traveled the country in massive caravans for their debut ventures. This ensured the survival of a genre by pushing the music from every conceivable angle into the mass-consumer’s mind and setting massive records, which would last for years to come.
Home Taping Is Killing Music
In the eighties, cassette tapes brought forth a huge shift in music; they offered fans their first chance to pirate music. Blank cassettes offered fans the opportunity to make custom playlists, relinquishing them from the confines of the traditional album format. Whether dubbing them from the radio or from other cassettes, this new form of piracy offered people to share their music tastes with their friends. This freedom allowed fans their own way to create a music ecosystem, one furthered by the sovereignty that cassette tapes provided.
Soon thereafter, Home Taping Is Killing Music became a slogan of the anti-piracy campaign in the United Kingdom. Similar to the current iteration of p2p file sharing, industry groups saw home taping as a major problem in the eighties. The music industry feared the taping of music from the radio would cause a decline in the sales of recorded music. Seeking to squash it before it became a problem, the industry on both sides of the Atlantic spent millions of dollars lobbying government.
Further perpetrating the myth of music piracy en masse, was the practice of tape trading. More common among heavy rock fans, this system of taping even had an honor system. Those who just took and did not reciprocate with a tape of their own were shunned from the collective traders. Tapes were recorded and sent to another trader via the mail or even in person at shows of bands.
The riot grrrl movement of the Pacific Northwest swept the country purely by a viral word of mouth, pushed forward in part by pen pal writers and home taping. Among bands like Sleater Kinney and Excuse 17, Bikini Kill was arguably one of the better-known bands. Unlike most bands of the era, Bikini Kill was known for their anti-establishment lyrics and adamant refusal to sign with a major record label.
More than just a movement, the riot grrrl lifestyle was something untouched by the marketing tactics of the major labels. Perpetuated by the music itself, the movement brought to the surface a new way of doing things for independent bands. They embraced the new taping technologies and the ideas of grassroots marketing. This new form of technology, when embraced, helped independent rock bands build their followings and spread word of their music organically.
Grassroots marketing efforts enormously helped rock bands in the eighties form niche oriented followings around their own sub-genre. This further fragmented the landscape of rock and roll. Yet in spite of technology fostering a supportive environment for the genre, the shift of rock and roll as a music form to an idea had begun all at the hands of something that could have saved it.
Alternative Takes Hold
The nineties were the most disastrous for rock and roll. At the end of the hair metal eighties era, the early nineties saw a rise in a new form of rock and roll: alternative. Alternative to every other type of music on the radio, this new genre offered fans a chance to listen to something other than pop music.
Arguably, the most influential band of the nineties was Nirvana. Their single, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, spoke to a generation of fans who wanted something fresh and irreverent. This new music genre had rapid evolution. Played massively on MTV and the radio, analog executives were quick to cash in on the sound of Seattle. Bands like Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, were marketed largely by record labels and were quick to become the reincarnation of the rock juggernaut.
These bands played everywhere and immediately toured the US after being signed. The analog executives used old school tactics to market to a new consumer and, for the most part, it worked. Today these bands are icons, not measured by the quality of their music but by their exuberantly high record sales.
In the nineties, a majority of acts were manufactured products of the analog executives. Most of these executives were now in a position of power at the major record labels with millions of dollars at their disposal. With the freedom and budget behind them, these people built multiple mainstream acts up with the old school tactics.
The rock and roll that the analog executives spent their entire careers re-packaging and selling was obliterated with the rise of social media; it created an opportunity for artists to have a say in how they had a relationship with their fans. These executives would try everything in their power to extinguish this new idea, because they felt it would tarnish the old way of doing things.
Larger Than Life
Instead of a larger generalized audience, the demographic broke down even more, splintering into sub genres with niche-oriented communities.
Rock and roll was once larger than life. As it was dismantled, sold, and packaged to millions of people, the movement and genre lost its original outsider appeal. The term rock and roll no longer applied to the entire genre. It now subsists on niche markets fueling awareness of various rock bands and musicians.
With the shift of music from the underground to the mainstream, the analog executives helped the genre meet its downfall. The blanketed term no longer applied to its various sub genres. When contemporary stalwarts like Rolling Stone underwent editorial makeovers, the exposure of the genre to a new generation of fans dwindled and they began to look for new areas for music discovery. The beginning of social media and the era of the pirate music consumer ushered in a new era of music. Older terms consumers used to classify their music tastes under were no longer relevant.
In the new music consumer’s mind, rock and roll is an idea of the past. With the rise in numbers of those using social media and technology for music discovery the old way of marketing is no longer relevant. As these tactics become antiquated, so do the terms and movements that were once built up by them. The monetization of the genres and social movements still happens today but not to the effect it did forty years ago at the height of the rock and roll movement.
Rock and roll was once urgent, immediate, a call to arms, and powerful because it was ugly and different. It encouraged outsiders to embrace their differences and live outside of both musical and societal norms. Now due to the rise of technology, the musician’s middle class, and the destruction of the myth of rock and roll, the genre has died.
Corey Crossfield is an intern at Hypebot.