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Is Marketing Killing Rock and Roll?



For some years now, this hum­ble opin­ion­ista has found him­self deeply alarmed about the in­creas­ing weight­less­ness of rock and roll. As Elvis Costello pleaded more than 30 years ago: Where are the strong? Who are the trusted? Where is the harmony?

The first flow­er­ing of my bud­ding ob­ses­sion with rock and roll came as July melted into Au­gust, 1971. From the back seat of my father’s new Cougar con­vert­ible, lis­ten­ing to the ra­dio tuned to then-Top 40 sta­tion KRTH, I was sud­denly over­come with quiet rage. My (then) all-time fa­vorite song—the Raiders’ po­lit­i­cally coura­geous (at least to my pre-adolescent ears) sin­gle “In­dian Reser­va­tion (The Lament of the Chero­kee Reser­va­tion In­dian)”—had just been un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously booted out of its #1 slot by the trea­cly “How Can You Mend a Bro­ken Heart?,” from those ba­nal Aus­tralian schlock­meis­ters the Bee Gees.

Some­day, some­one would pay for this. I had had my first taste of bloodlust.

Flash for­ward eight years or so, and join my Mu­sic Critic Ori­gin Story in situ:

Suf­fice it to say that from roughly 1979 through the band’s break-up, I was a huge Clash fan. Along with many other true be­liev­ers, I rec­og­nized the band as rid­ing the crest of rock and roll’s fourth (or maybe third) great wave (#1: Elvis; #2: Bea­t­les; #3: Vel­vet Un­der­ground; #4: Pistols/Clash, etc.). Through­out my fresh­man year at UCLA (1979-80) I com­muted from home to West­wood (about 35 miles one-way through L.A.’s worst traf­fic), play­ing over and over, on my baby-blue ‘65 VW’s car stereo, a home­made 8-track tape of Lon­don Call­ing.

I had been a pas­sion­ate rock and roll fan since I was eight or nine, but Lon­don Call­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ized my sense of mu­sic, art and com­mu­nity, and turned me into an evan­ge­list. Two years later, the UCLA Daily Bruin ran a pseudo-hip, half-baked dis­missal of San­din­ista! that pissed me off. Know­ing I could have done bet­ter, I strode into the Bruin of­fices and, on the strength of a test re­view (of the Go-Go’s’ Beauty and the Beat), be­gan, in Th­elo­nious Monk’s words, danc­ing about archi­tec­ture. Within a year, I was the paper’s re­views ed­i­tor; by grad­u­a­tion I was at the Bruin more of­ten than I was in class.

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, I shifted from one writing/editing job to an­other, gen­er­ally hav­ing a fab­u­lous time, and al­ways on the prowl for that elu­sive fifth (or maybe fourth) wave. Since punk broke, the clos­est rock and roll has come to pro­duc­ing an­other true prophet is Kurt Cobain. His core vi­sion, how­ever, was of shared pain, which ul­ti­mately proved fa­tally introspective—an artis­tic and com­mu­nal cul-de-sac. This is not to say that the mid-80s marked the death of rock and roll (as some crit­ics fatu­ously claimed back in the day). The Re­place­ments, Los Lo­bos, Husker Du, the Blasters, the Min­ute­men, Elvis Costello, XTC, the Meat Pup­pets, plus about 849 oth­ers (in­clud­ing sev­eral dozen women, and it was about damn time), bright­ened up my days and nights.

But un­like the Clash, none of them wanted to be big­ger than the Bea­t­les (who in their day, of course, wanted to be big­ger than Elvis… who ap­par­ently wanted to be big­ger than Dean Martin).

In 1991, I started up as a staff writer for the MCA Records pub­lic­ity de­part­ment and dis­cov­ered why the phrase “mu­sic in­dus­try” is two words long. For­tu­itously, at MCA (now Uni­ver­sal) I had landed at just the right van­tage point to ob­serve what I have come to be­lieve is the sin­gle key mo­ment in post-punk rock and roll his­tory: the gen­e­sis of niche marketing.

For nearly 40 years, up un­til the early 90s, the mu­sic industry’s ma­jor la­bels had been fa­mously in­ept at pre­dict­ing or rec­og­niz­ing the un­prece­dented po­ten­tial (artis­tic, so­cial and mon­e­tary) in­her­ent in rock and roll, the most de­mo­c­ra­tic art form ever cre­ated. Ex­am­ples of in­dus­try my­opia are le­gion; the most damn­ing is that nearly every ma­jor artist or band, from Elvis to Nir­vana, was first signed by a small, in­de­pen­dent la­bel, only to be ac­quired later by a ma­jor (Dy­lan is the big exception).

So, one day in the early 90s (let’s say, just for kicks…August 27, 1992), some ner­vous ju­nior ex­ec­u­tive at one of the ma­jors held up his or her hand at a meet­ing and meekly sug­gested that maybe in­stead of slic­ing the pro­mo­tional pie into just five or six pieces (pop, rock, R&B, coun­try, jazz, maybe gospel), why not make 15, or 20, or 50 slices—each with its own mini-staff of pub­li­cists and pro­mot­ers? Not just R&B, but Ur­ban Con­tem­po­rary, Dance, Hip-Hop and Quiet Storm. Not just Rock, but Al­ter­na­tive, Hard Rock, Adult Con­tem­po­rary, Adult Al­ter­na­tive, AOR, DOR. Then, sub­di­vide even fur­ther: Grunge, Thrash Metal, Sad­core, Dream Pop, Skate Punk, Elec­tron­ica. I could go on and on and on.

Out of the mouths of crit­ics, this kind of mu­si­cal name-dropping can, at its best, rep­re­sent an en­joy­able game of lex­i­co­graphic one-upmanship. How­ever, from the of­fices of the quickly-con­sol­i­dat­ing ma­jors (and then there were three…), genre omi­nously mor­phed into strait­jacket. Thirty years ago, a la­bel was judged by how many gold and plat­inum records it could hang in its lobby. Now, the la­bels fig­ured that, rather than blow their an­nual bud­get on five or six po­ten­tial plat­inums, they could squeeze an equal or greater amount of profit out of 50 or 60 tightly pi­geon­holed niche-marketing cam­paigns, each mov­ing 50,000 to 200,000 units apiece.

What in God’s name, you ask, does all this have to do with the Clash, fer­cryi­nout­loud?

OK, here’s where it gets ugly. Back be­fore the Niche Mar­ket­ing Era (as I’ve tried to iden­tify it), an 11 or 12 year-old as­pir­ing rock star still had the en­tire uni­verse spread out be­fore her. Thanks to the gen­eral hap­less­ness of the mu­sic in­dus­try, rock and roll still be­grudg­ingly re­served a chair for the un­cat­e­go­riz­able dream­ers, the ob­sti­nate op­ti­mists who just might ex­plode into the Next Big Thing. In the mid-90s, how­ever, the newly minted army of niche mar­keters be­gan in­sist­ing to an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of mu­si­cians that un­less their mu­sic matched one of the spe­cific sub-categories that the la­bel was will­ing to mar­ket, the young-’uns might as well stick to dri­ving trucks.

As a profit-making scheme, niche mar­ket­ing worked smash­ingly well for the record com­pa­nies (al­though, truth be told, the ob­scene prof­its of the 1990s were just as likely fu­eled by plung­ing CD man­u­fac­tur­ing costs). But—and here’s the truly evil part—after three or four gen­er­a­tions of kids having been lec­tured by record-industry suits that the road to rock and roll im­mor­tal­ity lies best within the care­fully delineated bound­aries of their given mar­ket­ing niche, that lie became the truth that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions of punks and pun­kettes be­lieve. It’s the only op­tion they’re given. And if you can’t re­al­ize that there ex­ists the pos­si­bil­ity to dream be­yond genre, to aim higher than you pos­si­bly can reach, to change the world for the bet­ter, well… you aim lower and dream smaller. And you don’t even know you’re shrinking.

To quote an uniden­ti­fied pic­ture cap­tion from the San­din­ista! press kit: “The Clash made promises they couldn’t keep, kept promises no-one else could have made, res­olutely stuck them­selves in the fir­ing line with the sin­gle­minded courage of lu­natics or chil­dren, got knocked down, got up, made fools of them­selves, dusted them­selves off and car­ried on.”

I’ve been search­ing for those qual­i­ties in a band, and not find­ing them, for 25 years.

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