If you’re older than 35, chances are you declared “Rock is dead” sometime between 1995 and 2000, then barricaded yourself in a room with all your old Stones, Joan Jett and Nirvana albums.
Occasionally, you’d read about a new act on the Internet, or maybe you’d peruse the Billboard charts. But the names you encountered — the Ne-Yos, the Gagas and the Biebers—merely confirmed your declaration.
“The pop stuff is definitely taking over everything,” said Levi Beanway, who books shows for the Pozo Saloon. “It’s what the kids are listening to.”
And he’s right — right now pop is the undisputed champ. This week’s Top Ten Billboard singles chart — dominated by Jennifer Lopez, The Black Eyed Peas and Chris Brown — proves it. But there are still bands that play real guitars. And many of them wouldn’t dare distort their voices with Auto-Tune.
“I think it’s still out there,” said Korie Newman, who co-owns Downtown Brew in San Luis Obispo, which books a variety of musical acts. “It just isn’t as popular.”
The best-known newer rock bands, such as Kings of Leon and Arcade Fire, tend to fit more into the modern indie rock genre. But there are also retro acts, like Eli “Paperboy” Reed, Kings Go Forth and The Black Keys, who mimic old-school rock and soul with big bands, brass sections and throaty vocals.
The problem is, you just don’t hear about retro acts as often—unless they’re Amy Winehouse, who tends to get more publicity for her rehab than her music. And that’s generally true of most newer rock acts.
“I think you really have to do a lot of research to find truly talented musicians,” said Ethan Burns, who leads the local band Ragged Jubilee with his gravelly Tom Waits-like vocals. “Because nine times out of 10, you’re not going to find it on the radio.”
While Burns is just 20, he grew up listening to the music his father liked.
“I was raised on blues,” he said.
Occasionally, he’ll pick up on a newer act, like The Black Keys—which he first heard playing on a stereo at Boo Boo Records — or Ray LaMontagne. But mostly he’s into the classics, like Neil Young and Bob Dylan. Today’s popular music tends to be performance-based, he said —more theater than music. And he prefers his music a little more back-to- basics.
“Rock ’n’ roll should be a little gruffer — if it’s done right,” Burns said.
While local rock bands still gets gigs—Ragged Jubilee plays Downtown Brew tomorrow night — both Beanway and Newman said rock acts aren’t drawing that big of crowds right now.
“Almost all of the genres do better than rock,” Newman said. “In general, all hip-hop shows do well. Electronica/dance music is blowing up. It’s crazy how popular that is.”
And rock? Eh.
“It needs resurgence,” said Beanway, who books rock, country, hip-hop and reggae acts. “But I don’t know who’s going to be the one to do that.”
Part of the problem is that there’s just so much music out there, it’s overwhelming. With new technology, anyone can put out a record, with or without a label. And because they don’t have to heed a label’s desires, they can record whatever they want.
“It’s the Wild West right now in the music industry,” said Travis Hawley of the local band PK. “There are so many genres right now.”
Odds are your parents haven’t heard of shoegaze, dubstop or bitpop. And even if they were into roots reggae, as Newman notes, that was soooo five years ago.
Now California reggae is in.
Not that you were supposed to know that. The reason you only hear about Lady Gaga, Eminem and Justin Bieber is because they’re the among the few that still get label marketing support.
“It’s not bad music,” Hawley said. “It serves a purpose. And of course, there’s the spectacle of it.”
Yet, Hawley’s band, which often draws comparisons to The Cure, proves that you don’t have to perform pop to get recognition.
His band was recently featured in Rolling Stone magazine’s top unsigned acts contest, giving them national exposure.
As his band recently drove down to Los Angeles for a gig, they listened to rock acts such as Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon and Led Zeppelin, along with the old school hip-hop of Dr. Dre and newer rock band The Killers.
“I think there’s still listeners for every type of music,” Hawley said. “So, definitely, rock is still there.”
Still, there may be a shift occurring, as younger audiences seem to crave fresh rock.
“Someone like the Eagles or the Stones — they’re not going anywhere,” said Beanway, noting that the Stones will always draw massive crowds. But smaller old rock acts, like Lynyrd Skynyrd, have lost favor with audiences, he said. “They’re cool and vintage, but they don’t do anything new. And the crowds that have already seen them aren’t going to buy tickets to see them anymore.”
Still, big classic rock acts, like Aerosmith and Tom Petty have filled the seats at the Mid-State Fair. The Moody Blues and David Crosby recently did well at the Performing Arts Center. And older acts such as Al Green, Huey Lewis and Billy Idol always seem to draw big crowds at the Chumash Casino.
Yet those venues tend to draw baby boomer crowds. And the fate of rock ’n’ roll now lies in the hands of those 20 and under.
As Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues told The Tribune recently, “The big changes in music belong to young people. The most valuable commodity in the music business, no matter what you say, is youth.”
At Downtown Brew, which tends to draw more college crowds, rock hit a low about five years ago, Newman said. But there are signs that it’s making a comeback.
“I would say it’s resuscitating,” Newman said. “It feels like it’s slowly climbing back up.”
And, again, the Billboard charts seem to support that. Last week’s top albums chart included older rock acts like Foo Fighters and The Cars, plus newer acts such Mumford & Sons, an English folk rock band; and The Fleet Foxes, a folk band out of Seattle.
The Fleet Foxes might not be Crosby, Stills and Nash, but they know how to play instruments and harmonize.
So is rock dead? Nah. But it’s also not 1969.
“Every generation has a different type of rock,” Hawley said.