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The Decline of the Rock Group - Comment

  by Nick Dent-Robinson

published: 21 / 6 / 2022

The Decline of the Rock Group - Comment

Over the past half century or so, for many of us it was the major rock groups of our youth that defined our musical coming of age. From The Beatles and Rolling Stones through Motown trios and glam rock line-ups to more modern boy and girl bands, the musical history of the past six decades was littered with them. But, according to many producers and others who know the music industry, this will not be so for much longer. Lately there has been a seismic shift in the musical landscape. During April, only a couple of the Top 40 hits were by bands (one by UK trio Bad Boy Chiller Crew and the other by indie rockers Glass Animals). The remaining 38 hit records were by solo artists. Yet, 30 years ago, in April 1992, 23 of the Top 40 records were by bands – and 40 years ago, in 1982, there were 27 Top 40 records by bands. In the mid-1960s, the proportion of Top 40 hits by bands was even higher – in some weeks sometimes reaching 35! Maroon 5's frontman, Andrew Levine, has recently commented that “bands are now a dying breed” whilst Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmangli asked in an interview, “What has happened to all the bands? Do people find them corny now? I fear their days have come and gone”. Alice Cooper also said, “I feel sorry that fewer younger musicians are making it in bands these days. They seem to be eclipsed by solo artists and I think that's rather sad. Young bands no longer get the limelight.” Whilst it is true that the big stadium acts like Coldplay, Foo Fighters and veterans like the Rolling Stones still sell out their tours and sell lots of records, it is single artists like Ariana Grande, George Ezra, Justin Bieber, Billie Eilish, Ed Sheeran and Adele plus many from the worlds of hip hop or rap who are the most successful now, commercially. And younger bands are becoming a rarity. Why is this? Veteran producer Mike Dunford gave his view to me in some detail. “Through the 1940s and 1950s it was the big bands – like Glenn Miller – that everyone wanted to see and hear. Then, by the early 1960s, for reasons of economy, four and five-man beat groups took over. It was easier for venues to stage a small group than to accommodate a band of 30 or more - and far cheaper to pay them, too. And then, from The Beatles era on, there were several decades of groups dominating the music scene – with a great variety of output from R & B to folk rock and glam rock (like The Sweet) and provocative punk (the Sex Pistols) to the very different easy lyricism of Abba. Fans knew every detail of each member of every band and there were huge rivalries between the bands themselves and between their fans. In the 1960s, people tended to be either a Beatles or a Rolling Stones fan; in the 1980s you liked either Duran Duran or Wham - or maybe Human League or Spandau Ballet. By the time the 1990s arrived, it was a choice between the ruggedly northern Oasis or the smoothly southern Blur. But, come the Noughties, things began to change. The late 1990s had seen the emergence of more manufactured groups like the Spice Girls and Steps (both formed after their members answered adverts in a stage magazine) or the Irish group Boyzone – created by talent manager Louis Walsh. And this phenomenon of artificially produced girl and boy bands with mass appeal was supercharged by TV talent shows like 'Pop Idol' and 'The X Factor' - which gave us Girls Aloud, One Direction and Little Mix plus many more. The problem now was that these winning acts were signed by just one or two huge labels like Syco, TV mogul Simon Cowell's record company - and rapidly many of the independent record labels which used to spot and nurture new talent were replaced by just a few giants who were only ever interested in a quick hit. In the 1970s and 1980s there were literally hundreds of individual record companies, many specialising in particular musical styles. So it is now far harder to develop a career over a period of time and gain real skills - in the way people like The Beatles or Stones did. Music streaming has also made everything harder. It has had a huge impact on profits and solo acts are easier to handle, cheaper and more reliable. Band members often fall out or try to argue with management; few solo artists dare do this. As Steve Van Zandt (guitarist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band) put it to me a long time ago, 'Why would a record company now encourage a group of four talented individuals when they could have four profitable acts rather than one plus they'd be spared the tensions and fallouts that happen in any group of really capable performers?' Also, if a young musician wants to progress by joining a band, they need to find bandmates with a similar vision plus they need expensive instruments and kit and then they need to hone their craft out on the road. But as a solo act, that person can just download the right software, shut the bedroom door and get creating immediately. The new technology is shaping the culture. Which is sad - but a fact of life.” Polydor Records' co-president, Ben Mortimer has confirmed this point, commenting that an individual can now create vast electronic symphonies - just from a bedroom keyboard. And this makes bands almost redundant, sadly. The lone wolf with a laptop and some quite inexpensive software can do so much, now. And people's listening ways have changed, too. Music streaming means people can pick and mix, choosing individual tracks rather than downloading whole albums. So it is harder to promote expensively-produced albums effectively which in turn means costs have to be kept at rock bottom. The highest return on investment is from a single artist working with pre-recorded songs often written by teams. And they will use social media effectively - and relentlessly - for direct promotion. Young people know all this. So very few of them now yearn to be in a band. Which is rather sad.

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The Decline of the Rock Group - Comment

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