Is rock going soft?

Soft boiled egg I’m not talking about soft rock. I’m talking about soft rockers.

My favorite under-the-radar band, Walk Off The Earth, finally released its new album, Sing It All Away, which I heard them perform in a killer show last month. But it made me wonder about my other favorite up-and-coming acts, who have been MIA of late. Every month I check for A Great Big World’s sophomore album, but zilch so far. AGBW had a hit single with Christine Aguilera two years ago (“Say Something”) and a hit album two winters ago (Is There Anybody Out There?). But no product since then—an eternity in the world of popular music

Meanwhile Fun. continues its long sabbatical from performing and recording—a disastrous move, given the direction their career was headed after they racked up three hit singles and a chart-busting album by 2012 and won two Grammys (one for “Best New Artist”) in 2013. I understand that band members want to do side projects, but in this case the mother ship hasn’t been fully launched. It would be like Bono and Edge putting U2 on hold to pursue solo projects just as they began achieving fame in the mid-80s, BEFORE the band broke through internationally.

Yes, Fun. has the talent to merit comparisons to U2. Whether they have the maturity and resilience to go the distance is yet to be determined. Just as many work teams and organizations have the talent, but perhaps not the discipline. Or lack the ability to subsume their egos for the greater good of the team. Billboard in an article "Is Fun. Done?" questions whether the band is really "on extended hiatus" and can ever work together again. If so, dumb, dumb, dumb.

Another fave of mine, Lake Street Dive, put out a cool album, Bad Self Portraits, nearly a year and a half ago, but nothing since, despite many TV appearances. (But they seem level-headed enough to continue their steady rise.)

Maybe I’m spoiled, but “in my day” (when dinosaurs roamed the earth) rock acts put out albums EVERY YEAR, especially early in their career. Is the modern rock community going soft?

Sure, there’s another side to the argument. Many acts make their money from touring (and selling merch at gigs). And touring uses up a lot of time and energy that would otherwise be spent in the studio. But, say I, constant touring didn’t stop the Rolling Stones from putting out one to two new studio albums per year in their prime (and three albums one year). They even recorded some of their best stuff in stop-off cities during their tours. And those albums (and singles) produced big-time royalties—especially for songwriters Mick & Keith. Nowadays in addition to album sales there's a good payoff for song placement in movies and TV shows. But that requires new material.

Also, we have kinder, gentler artist management these days that doesn’t want to push its acts too hard. In ye olden days record companies contractually demanded constant product from the artists—often multiple singles and albums a year—which bands moaned about but delivered. And the fittest survived. I doubt that the Stones, looking back on it, regret their workaholic ways in their workaholic days. (Granted they don’t do that now, but that’s because they’re 100 years old. And they still manage to do long tours with some regularity.)

Maybe we need a return to the more competitive days when the top young acts were in a hard-nosed (albeit friendly) rivalry with each other to be top dog—to score that next gold single or album.

Easy for me to say, sitting in the gallery now as a rock observer (and rock journalist wannabe) rather than full-time touring musician. But I did my share of all-night recording sessions and sleeping in the back of Econoline vans or on studio floors. In fact, decades ago, in the back room of Richard Alderson’s recording studio on W. 65th in NY, my mattress every night was Bob Dylan’s Fender amplifier. (The closest I ever came to greatness, by the way.) Didn’t even have a pillow.

As Woody Allen once said, “80% of success is just showing up.” I wish more albums were showing up by these new bands.

Any opinions on this out there?

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  1. It is a trend, yes. Best Beloved and I spent one summer watching a dozen 1-season TV shows on Hulu. Some were very good, moving toward greatness, in my opinion.

    But they weren't brilliant right out of the chute, and nobody was willing to let them grow.

    Publishing only wants the hits.

    Maybe bands have picked up on the need to win by a knockout in the first round, and either assume the TKO, or realize it didn't happen, and bail before they've had their own chance to grow.

    I've never done the touring and recording bit; just noodle in my music room downstairs. But it seems obvious to me that you need to continually create new stuff, and also continually promote the new stuff and the old stuff. But, as I said, obvious to me is obvious to someone who's never done it.

    Sidebar on solo acts and bands: my 40-year wait for a follow-up to Chris Squire's Fish Out Of Water (which altered my perception of many things) ended Monday. Sadly, it ended. Chris was Yes, plain and simple, and never got the buzz from his side projects that he got from being the core of the band.

    I miss him already.

  2. getting crotchety in your old age?

    maybe these bands just don't give a damn about commercial success.

    1. Some bands don't care about making a ton of money, but most of them would at least like to be well-known, respected by their peers, pulling good crowds, etc. Writing and recording new stuff on a regular basis is an obvious means to that.

      And then there are bands, like Fun., who appear to be highly ambitious but don't have the "ego management skills" to keep the team together. A different problem.

  3. I wonder if economics has something to do with. Back in the day, you'd make a fair amount of money from even a moderately well selling album. Today, with piracy rampant and earnings coming from a streaming-based market, you earn peanuts from a good seller. So, as you note, you earn money from touring. BUT... To do that you need a show: lights, dancers, props, the whole caboodle. So I think people's creative energy goes into the presentation as much as the substance. Plus the crowd reaction to new songs seems to be, "Play some old stuff we know" so I think acts become cautious about releasing too much new stuff that they can't work into a show without risk of losing their audience.

    Mind you, take the 70’s albums from Steely Dan, Elton, Bowie, Roxy Music and John Martyn and these 5 acts would give you a large and astonishingly high quality collection.

  4. Opinions?

    Sure... when have I ever not had one?

    Very simply... most people in business don't know enough about what they're doing and should/shouldn't be doing - and their success is often in spite, rather than because, of their actions.

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