Greta Van Fleet is one of the few big break-through rocks acts in 2018.
There’s been a lot of discussion about how this year’s Coachella and Governors Ball lineups both focused heavily on hip-hop and R&B. Likewise, the streaming and radio charts have recently also been thoroughly dominated by the same sounds. While these genres are thriving, new rock acts are having trouble breaking through. While there has been a lot discussion on this, there has been less conversation about why so few rock bands are emerging.
The problem is not that rock fans have disappeared, nor are we lacking musicians who want to be in rock bands—they are still playing even though fewer people are hearing them. Instead, there are disadvantages for new rock bands that artists in other genres don’t have. It’s these disadvantages—not lack of interest or talent—that are potentially leading to the death of rock and roll.
The most obvious disadvantage for rock bands is the high cost of touring a band at the entry level. Moving bands with multiple members, crews, and their thousands of pounds of backline equipment is far more expensive than moving a rapper or DJ who only needs a MacBook Air (or even just a flash drive) to perform. Upon being offered a gig that promises new exposure, a new hip-hop act or DJ can fly anywhere in the country for a $1,000 pay check and potentially at least break even. They can even piggy back these events on opposite coasts in the same weekend. Flying a fledgling band, lodging them in multiple rooms, providing catering, and renting full backline for that same opportunity is prohibitively expensive.
Given these realities, the only practical approach for new bands to get gigs outside their hometown is by touring in vans. This is not only expensive, it means playing smaller markets on off nights long before word of the act has reached those cities. But while rock bands are leaving their jobs and trekking across the country in vans, acts that fly can drop into a city for prime weekend nights, and work a day job the rest of the week. This eases the financial burdens new acts face and leaves their schedule far more flexible when opportunities arise last minute.
Having to tour the old-fashioned way also forces rock acts to spend more on management. Touring in a van typically necessitates having a professional booking agent who can route the tour and fill in off dates. Acts in other genres usually can handle scheduling one-off dates themselves until there is enough demand to attract an agent. Because of the lower touring costs, the agents and managers of many DJs only take commissions on the net earnings of live performances — the profit made by the performer. However, because there is so little profit in touring new rock bands, rock agents and managers are unwilling to take anything less than commissions based on gross receipts for the evening, often before the band has received their cut.
Another disadvantage rock bands face is not having comparable opportunities at soft ticket gigs like established club nights with built in audiences or early slots on festival lineups. For club nights, because crowds will reliably be on the dance floor on the weekend, established dance clubs are looking for hip (and cheap) new DJs or hip-hop acts. Hopefully the new act adds to attendance, but, even if they don’t, the club may still be packed. There is not a common equivalent to these soft ticket plays for a new garage, punk, metal, or indie rock band. Even worse, rock clubs that depend on hard ticket concerts are wary of giving up prime nights to unknown acts, which forces them to play on harder nights when it’s tough to draw a crowd.
Acts from other genres also have an easier time getting booked at festivals. Talent buyers know that they can get quicker confirmations from DJs or hip-hop acts for slots that are early in the day on festivals because the acts are already set up for fly-ins and one-offs. Rock bands are often scrambling to sort out logistics and travel costs, and have a hard time confirming fast enough to get that last-minute gig. Also, the small foot print on stage from a DJ or hip-hop act means fewer logistics need to be worked out before confirming the act.
A lack of collaboration between artists in rock is another disadvantage that hurts promotion and stifles creativity. The culture of collaboration is ingrained in hip-hop and new records now have guests featured on almost every track. This means that fifteen or twenty other artists with their own social media channels are promoting all the songs on an album. The DJ culture of remixing the work of other artists has the same effect. New DJs remix known hits and big names remix great tracks that haven’t yet been discovered to show they are themselves tastemakers.
Rock does not have the same culture of artists collaborating. In part, this is because the logistics of collaboration are more difficult for rock bands. While acts in other genres might collaborate on a track by emailing samples and verses back and forth without ever meeting in person, recording rock doesn’t work that way. Instead, because rock acts often record entire albums in a studio in one session, they need everyone in the same room. This makes collaborating, even if appealing, logistically challenging. The lack of collaboration can also hurt a rock band’s creativity. The creative mentors that new acts in other genres develop expose them to new sounds, introduce them to new collaborators, and push their boundaries. This just doesn’t happen in the same way for rock bands.
Rock radio is also hurting rock bands. Rock radio is fractured into ridged formats that make it hard for any acts that defy narrow categories to be represented on radio at all. These are exactly the kind of interesting acts that should be getting played the most! Rock radio all but ignored Portugal. The Man for years until after they became a huge Top 40 hit. And although Pop and R&B driven bands like LANY or The Neighborhood are considered rock by Top 40 radio, they often are considered too “Pop” or too “R&B” for Alternative or Active Rock radio.
Hip-hop radio embraces new trends much more quickly. One label marketing executive recently told me that when they pitch new singles to urban radio, they pitch the streaming numbers, show YouTube plays, and social media engagements. When they pitch to rock radio, they still have to show local physical sales and paid download (iTunes) numbers. In this executive’s opinion, rock radio programmers do not care about, or understand, what streaming numbers mean for an act. Turn on urban radio and you will hear mostly current songs, but turn on rock radio, and the playlist could still be dominated by acts from the early 90s. The most buzzed about new rock acts should not have problems making it onto radio, but currently they do.
While all these problems may be out of an individual band’s hands, one factor that is in their control is the concept of sticking with the album as the main unit of artistic output. Hip-hop acts and DJs release singles, EPs, mix tapes, and remixes far more frequently than bands release albums. Many hip-hop acts are headlining festivals and concert tours long before a formal “album” has been released. New bands should spend less time working on albums and instead release music as it’s produced with less down time between releases.
In addition to holding on to the album format, rock acts have poured energy into vinyl and cassette releases while streaming is dominating how consumers listen to music. While these retro formats have a certain appeal and there is charm in holding a physical product in your hand, they are poor vehicles for spreading new music. There is simply no chance for a track only released on a cassette or vinyl to go viral. The time, energy, and money new rock acts are putting into their analog releases are thus distractions from working on releases in a way that could grow the band online. This is one reason why “SoundCloud Rappers” are flooding the charts and “Cassette Tape Rockers” are not.
Although any one of these disadvantages on their own may not seem like a big deal, they compound. Since Malcolm Gladwell published Outliers in 2008, a lot has been written on how “10,000 Hours” of practice is required to achieve high levels of success. Of course, this concept can’t explain why new rock bands are having less success—rock musicians put in just as many hours practicing and touring as other artists. But the book’s other, less discussed argument does explain the problem: the benefits from early advantages accumulate over time.
Every time a rock band isn’t able to book a last-minute gig because it’s too expensive to fly, or they aren’t asked to put in a guest spot on a new album, or they’re not played on the radio because they don’t fit an established niche, it adds up. After a while, even if a rock band is putting out fantastic music, they’ll still be stuck in an Econoline van driving to another small gig while a DJ that started performing publicly the same year is spinning at Lollapalooza.