Only 20 years ago, bands like REM and U2 were able to build audiences over several years and a handful of albums before becoming household names. Musicians in these bands were able to use this time and space to deepen their artistic perspective and build success on their own terms.
Great point. With sales in a prolonged slump, the big record labels are reluctant to spend time and money on developing artists. Bruce Springsteen's first two albums were dismal failures. U2's debut, 1980's "Boy," reached only as high as No. 63 on Billboard's album charts. The next year's "October" did even worse, managing only a No. 104 placing. It took the Red Hot Chili Peppers four albums before they climbed into the top 100. It's unlikely any of these three now huge acts would've held onto a major-label record deal with similar sales performances today. It's hard to grow rock stars when you don't let them put down roots.
I teach college classes, and for kids today music is simply a background. They're more interested in the lives and cribs of hip-hop and rock musicians today than they are in the music. Music doesn't define them today in the same way it did before. When I was in high school you didn't just listen to punk, you were a punk.
It's easy to be dismissive of a generation of listeners who spend money downloading ring tones, but let's not be too hard on them. The enormous amount of time and energy being put into online fan communities seems genuine enough to me. And trust me, you only need put one inflammatory post on the hornet's nest that is a Fall Out Boy message board to see how much passion young fans have for their heroes. Even though overall music sales are down, digital album sales more than doubled last year. I have to think the tech-savvy youngers are a large reason for that. The kids might have questionable taste, but at least they're buying the music.
The pop culture is now a niche culture, with enthusiasts taking refuge in little islands of enjoyment, following the bands they want to follow in small venues for sanely priced tickets, putting the music they like on their MP3 players ... We're just not all speaking the same cultural language anymore.
-- Slackie Onassis
Slackie O nails it. Hard rock, alternative, metal, screamo, punk, hardcore, dance-punk, garage rock, blues rock, goth, grindcore, freak folk, jam bands, etc. With people parsing music so closely, how could one figure hope to bridge the gap? With so many subgenres to pick from -- and with the Internet making finding and joining like-minded devotees easier than ever -- it's increasingly difficult to imagine an artist breaking through and appealing to a wide spectrum of listeners. The idea of niche genres isn't a new one, but the thing about niches is that they don't die off, they just spawn new ones, making it ever more difficult for unifying figures to emerge.
Chris Martin (not the one from Coldplay -- I don't think) succinctly summarized what was perhaps the most common line of thinking:
As far as I understood, a good chunk of the music of the venerable Gen X bands was constructed as a reaction to the overblown "Rock Stars" of the '80s. Soundgarden summarized this quite succinctly in "Jesus Christ Pose." The Gen X alt-rock consortium that had a great deal of success in the early '90s was very much an outgrowth of the independent music of the '80s, which was in turn very influenced by punk and its ilk, and its DIY/anti-establishment bent. A great case study in this, especially in contrast to the more sensationalized story of Nirvana, comes from a band like Pavement.
-- Chris Martin
I think it's smart to point out that the musicians who rose to prominence in the early '90s were coming from a musical culture that saw rock stars as bloated and remote figures. But as much as I wish it were true (aside from Pearl Jam) the idea that the dearth of rock stars in the wake of grunge was the result of a generational rejection of rock stardom doesn't seem to jibe with the way things played out. Maybe the grunge rockers were less inclined to sport poodle haircuts and spandex (and thank God for that), but given the opportunity, Kurt Cobain still appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, Scott Weiland still spent plenty of time on big stages sans shirt, and the Smashing Pumpkins still put out expensive music videos. For all their welcome anti-corporate thinking, Radiohead still managed to hit No. 1 on the charts with the avant-garde "Kid A" -- you can't do that without going along with the star-making machinery to a certain extent, right? Even the Pixies, who never had anywhere near the success of the aforementioned bands, reunited when it became clear there was a big enough audience for their music. Musicians want their music heard and rare are the occasions when someone turns down the opportunity to expose their art to as wide an audience as possible.
-- David Marchese