Rock of Ages
Vir Sanghvi
Friday, August 31, 2012

Rock’n’roll — once a hugely profitable cachet — joins the music industry in its death throes. And the only rockstar acts still making money are from an age that wasn’t one of instant gratification — and instant dismissal

I’ve been struck by two vaguely related thoughts this week. The first concerns the collapse of the music industry. Growing up in the 1970s, we all regarded the music business as the future of the entertainment industry. By 1974, there was more money in rock than there was in the movies. The music business had revenues that exceeded Hollywood’s and the (now largely-forgotten) husband and wife team of James Taylor and Carly Simon (they divorced later as rock stars are wont to do) made much more money than Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, till then the most glamorous and prosperous couple in showbiz history. (Taylor and Burton also divorced but unlike Taylor and Simon, they later remarried — only to divorce again.)

These days, the music business is dying. EMI, once the greatest music company in the world (home of the Beatles) has gone bust and changed hands. Columbia Records, once the company that claimed to understand rock best, is hardly ever heard of. Richard Branson sold Virgin Records (though there has been talk of him joining a bid to buy back the company at a knock-down price, recently).

The problem is that hardly anybody pays good money for music any longer. Part of the reason for this is technology. Nobody wants to buy a CD when they can just download songs for nothing (or virtually nothing) from the Internet. But another part of the problem is that young people seem to want to own music much less than my generation wanted to.

Nowadays, the charts are no longer based only on CD sales (it used to be record sales in the heyday of the business) but include the figures for downloads of songs. If you look at the figures of music sales in the charts these days (CD sales plus downloads), the figures are still much, much lower than they were for record sales in the 1920s or even the 1980s.

So it isn’t just a matter of technology. Even if you factor in Internet-based formats, music means a lot less to this generation of young people than it did to their parents.

There are many reasons for this. For one, the young have a lot to distract themselves with these days because entertainment technology has got more and more advanced. In our day, all we could do was listen to music. And for another, rock music has lost that central position it occupied in the youth universe in the later part of the 20th century. Then, Bob Dylan was a prophet; Mick Jagger was a revolutionary; Johnny Rotten was challenging the system; and Elton John was providing the soundtrack for a generation.

Now, it is all just entertainment. A song has no greater significance today than an episode of a TV show, a movie or a computer game.

What all this means is that any rock star who wants to finance a lifestyle developed during the heyday of the music business has only one way of making serious money from music: by playing live.

In the days when I was really into music, a rock concert was a big deal. The Beatles never played a live show after 1966. When Bob Dylan went on tour in 1974, it caused such a sensation that books were written about the tour. When the Rolling Stones announced a show, people would sleep outside the box-office all night in the hope of getting tickets when the counters opened the next morning.

If Led Zeppelin were performing, tickets sold out in minutes. These days it is all very different. Because he no longer sells many records, Bob Dylan embarked on what was called The Never-Ending Tour. The Rolling Stones travel the world, playing their old hits and making millions. Zeppelin has broken up but guitarist Jimmy Page keeps trying to get the band together so that Zep can tour again.

Which brings us to my second point. Perhaps one reason why music has not really gone far beyond the big names of the 20th century is because of the live act phenomenon.

Look at it this way. The Stones are still performing 50 years after they first played together. Now, think back to the Stones as they were in 1971, the year of Brown Sugar and Wild Horses. Were the Stones competing with any music act that had been around for 50 years? To be fighting for space on the charts with the Stones in 1971, a 50-year-old act would have had to have started performing in the 1920s. Even Frank Sinatra, who lasted longer than most musicians of his generation, would have had difficulty in matching the record of the Stones.

And it isn’t just Mick, Keith and Charlie. What about The Who? They’ve been around since the early 1960s. But as anybody who heard them at the Olympic closing ceremony will admit, they still sound great. And what of Paul McCartney, the star of the Olympic opening ceremony? He brought the stadium to its feet with a song that was a hit in 1969.

Can you imagine any musician in 1969 getting such a response to a song that was on the charts in 1926?

Yet, such is the power of classic rock that the old stars and the old songs just seem to go on forever.

Is this a good thing? Well, yes and no. Speaking for myself, I love the fact that I can see the Stones, the Eagles, Eric Clapton, Leonard Cohen and so many other artistes whose concerts I have recently enjoyed without much difficulty these days. Once upon a time, when these guys sold millions of records, it was impossible to see them live.

But sometimes I wonder if the longevity of these stars has contributed to the slow death of the recorded music business and the failure of new big-time acts to emerge. Perhaps they have all just stayed on for too long.

And that’s why we have so few real hit records these days.

We just listen to travelling juke boxes playing the hits of the 70s and the 80s. New great songs rarely emerge. And every rock anthem is at least two decades old.

It used to be said that rock music was a young man’s game. That’s no longer true. It’s an old man’s pension plan.

(Vir Sanghvi is a celebrated Indian journalist, television personality, author and lifestyle writer. To follow Vir’s other writings, visitwww.virsanghvi.com)

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