Pop Goes the Rock
30 January 2011
By Nadine O’Regan
Niall Breslin is leaving his newly-adopted hometown of London this afternoon.
He plans on being out of contact in Kent for awhile, as he’s got some songwriting to do and he wants a little peace of mind.
The songwriting won’t be for his band the Blizzards, though.
Just two years ago, the Mullingar pop-rockers had a top three hit in Ireland with their song Trust Me I’m a Doctor. In Breslin, they had a frontman that girls swooned over and even non-musos admired (Breslin is no skinny indie kid – he used to play rugby for Leinster).
And when they played live, they rocked good and hard. By Breslin’s own admission, they hadn’t yet made the album that would break them into the big time, but they had the potential – and, seemingly, the hunger and drive – to do it.
But the Blizzards disbanded over a year ago, unwilling to battle any further with an industry that refused to let them through the door, no matter how loudly they threatened to break it down.
Now two of the band run a pub together In Mullingar, another has gone back to college to study classical music, and Breslin is working as an all-genres songwriter and producer for 19 Entertainment, the London company founded by Simon Fuller, the brains behind the Spice Girls and American Idol.
When Breslin, 29, talks about the rock music industry, he can’t help it: his tone turns terse and a little angry. ‘‘What kills me about the rock thing is that the music fans who I call the purists love real music,” he says. ‘‘They love the underdog bands, the bands that are a little more left of centre. I can’t understand how these bands can’t sell albums if real fans love them.
“Why can we get Rage Against The Machine to number one to piss Simon Cowell off, but we can’t get bands we love into the charts? People are giving out about it, but they’re not actually buying these albums.”
Breslin’s experience is typical of a young rock act trying to make it in today’s music business.
These days, the only show in town is the one provided by chart-toppers such as Rihanna, Katy Perry and Jay-Z. Rock, as made by young people, is not at the races. A recent report in the British music press revealed that only three rock songs made it into the top 100 singles of 2010 in Britain – and one was a re-release of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, which was first released 29 years ago.
‘‘It is the end of the rock era,” said veteran DJ Paul Gambaccini. ‘‘It’s over, in the same way the jazz era is over. That doesn’t mean there will be no more good rock musicians, but rock as a prevailing style is part of music history.”
In Ireland, Rihanna, Katy Perry and Cheryl Cole ruled the Irish singles charts last year. In 2010’s top 100, only four singles could be classified as rock, and that’s by a rather generous definition: folk-rockers Mumford & Sons featured twice, and the relatively poppy Heathers and Journey (again) made the list.
In the albums list, only two rock albums (by Kings of Leon and Mumford & Sons) made the Top 20 in 2010- and, again, that’s a generous definition of rock.
Sales of all recorded music in Ireland over the past five years have fallen by 56 per cent, a stunning statistic that explains the redundancies, the downsizing and the general mood of despair that has gripped the industry in the past number of years.
Over the last three years,14 Zavvi stores have closed; Galway lost Redlight Records and Mulligan Records, while Zhivago Records has just closed; Road Records in Dublin is gone, and so is Abbey Discs. City Discs is also due to shut up shop.
While it would be massively inaccurate to say that it’s just young rock musicians who are feeling the pain – the entire industry is facing huge challenges due to illegal downloading – their suffering, at least in terms of album and single sales, and thus monetary success, appears disproportionately high.
Unlike pop artists with their pocket moneyed young followers, rock artists tend to have older fans who know how to use computers to their advantage and are reluctant to spend money from their own pay packets.
Rock music itself may be thriving – no one would dispute that the number of bedroom artists has increased exponentially and the passion to create rock music is still there.
Music equipment has become cheaper, and anyone can record an album on a laptop.
But if no one can make money from rock because not enough people are reaching into their pockets to pay for recorded music, then, at least by the traditional model of measuring success – good old hard cash – rock music is dead in the water.
Rock critics and fans may adore Irish acts such as Oliver Cole, Adebisi Shank and O Emperor, but there is an ever-wider disparity growing between the acts praised on the pages of music magazines and the acts that people are actually buying.
Although most bands don’t shout about it, they often can’t stump up money for petrol or their mobile phones. When they’re touring, they try to sleep wherever a friend might let them, and few bands can afford to tour with their full line-up; instead, they adopt a stripped-down approach and hope that their public won’t mind too much.
In the past, such constrictions were a rite of passage for a band, who believed that their creations would one day win them material comforts. But increasingly it has become obvious that the music itself will have to be their sole reward.
They have to be content with ‘‘success’’ in the form of YouTube hits and MySpace friends, and the number of times they would guess people downloaded their album for free.
The excellent Irish band the Cast of Cheers didn’t even bother to try to persuade people to pay for their Choice Music Prize nominated debut album- they simply made it available through their website, their decifromsion a nod of defeat in the face of an industry revolution.
It’s hard for bands to stay positive about themselves in this climate, even if they’re supposedly established.
‘‘Artists feel devalued,” says Stuart Clark, deputy editor of Hot Press magazine. ‘‘They say: ‘Why should my profession be deigned to be not worth anything?’ People like Tim Wheeler of Ash have said: ‘Why should I spend my whole life working on a catalogue of music when someone can go to a bit-torrent site and download it in four minutes?”‘
There are still rock acts who do make money, but it’s mainly from two non-album sources of revenue: live shows and merchandise. And the bands who are succeeding in these areas are almost uniformly older.
‘‘I’d wager a guess that Def Leppard are making a killing from their merchandise,” says Clark. ‘‘A lot of their fans would be in theirmid-40s now, doctors and lawyers who would think nothing of blowing €150 on a tour jacket.”
Bon Jovi were the highest-grossing live act of 2010 – the band generated $201.1 million in worldwide ticket sales. That might sound impressive, but, at 48, Jon Bon Jovi is more a symbol of a dying industry than a harbinger of lucrative times to come.
Forty per cent of the frontmen of the top 20 highest grossing live acts in the US will be 60 or more next year. Almost one in five of Them will be over 50.When these cash cows finally hang up their guitars, who will replace them? Lady Gaga, Rihanna and Katy Perry are the most likely contenders – but, of course, they all play pop music.
That stadium rock vacuum is largely down to the decision by radio stations not to play music by new rock acts.
Radio stations have been brutal in their refusal to make stars out of anyone other than pop artists.
‘‘Having hit records is very hard in this era,” says Willie Kavanagh, managing director of EMI in Ireland and chairman of the Irish Recorded Music Association. ‘‘Radio stations are at war against each other. They have to focus on the music that will get them the biggest audience.”
He cites the recent album by Dublin musician Oliver Cole, formerly of Turn, as an example of the unfairness of the industry.
‘‘Oliver Cole toured the album to a degree, but because radio didn’t pick up the singles from the album, it didn’t create hits, and therefore his live work wouldn’t be as beneficial,” says Kavanagh.
‘‘I would be very concerned for someone in that genre, where you can write beautiful songs that are really well presented on record, but instead of somebody going out to buy them they just download them for free. The artist gets paid no money.
“The record company gets paid no money. And then you have to question, do you make another album?” Even indie-rock artists that have hit the number one spot in the Irish album charts have trouble getting airplay.
‘‘What disappoints me is when you have an album from Cathy Davey or Villagers that is number one and has clearly crossed over, and yet, with few exceptions, radio in this country doesn’t deem it fit for daytime airplay,” Stuart Clark says. ‘‘If I’d been on Jools Holland, picked up Choice Music Prize nominations, and I wasn’t getting daytime airplay, I’d feel aggrieved.”
Some of the ambitious rock acts have decided on one solution for the career problem besetting them: take their rock songs and paper them over with pop stylings in the hope that radio stations may reluctantly embrace them.
For the most part, the only rock bands who are making a dent in the charts these days are those who have watered down their musical styles to the point where you’re not even sure whether you could accurately call them rock.
Are the Script, Snow Patrol and Kings of Leon playing pop or rock? In the video for their single Sex On Fire, the members of Kings of Leon were featured writhing sweatily on tables, licking their lips suggestively and having water sluicing down their naked chests.
At times, the video looked suspiciously like Take That’s Pray, which featured the members of that band rolling around on a sun-kissed beach. But at least Take That were honest about the hormonal crowd they were trying to attract.
‘‘Someone sat Kings of Leon down in a meeting and said: ’You could become the biggest band in the world and be millionaires, or you could keep doing what you’re doing,”‘ says Niall Breslin. ‘‘Kings of Leon made their choice.”
Their decision was easy to understand.
The public don’t want new rock from young acts – they want soft rap like Jay-Z, TV pop from the cast of Glee and the winner of The X Factor, and R&B-influenced-pop of the kind that Rihanna and Beyoncé can offer.
Music magazines worldwide have had to adapt their cover story agendas accordingly – these days, you’re as likely to see Justin Bieber or the stars of Glee on the cover of Rolling Stone as U2.
In Ireland, Hot Press magazine attracted negative feedback last year for putting Jedward on the cover, but they had a simple justification for their decision.
‘‘We felt that, in that fortnight, there was no one that Irish people were more interested in than Jedward,” says Clark.
While rock fans may not have liked it, it was probably the right decision. Jedward had the second biggest-selling single in Ireland in 2010 with their cover of Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby, while their album came in at number 24 in the bestselling albums list of 2010.
Leaving aside the Rubberbandits and their comedy hit Horse Outside, the nearest Irish pop band to Jedward on the list was the Script, who came in at number 24 with For The First Time.
No rock band came within miles of them on either the singles or the album charts – the nearest were Villagers, at 44 in the albums chart.
From a commercial perspective, what else was Hot Press going to do?
Public appetite for pop is also dictating the direction of Oxegen, the country’s largest music festival.
For the last four years, its promoters have solicited fans’ opinions as to who should play the festival, and they’ve ended up with line-ups which included artists such as Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Lily Allen.
‘‘The promoters don’t pick the acts, the fans do,” says Justin Green of MCD. “‘We actively seek the fans’ wish list of who they would most like to see on the line-up.
There are 153,360 people on our Oxegen Facebook group, so you can instantly find out information.
‘‘We also hold Oxegen fan focus groups throughout the course of the year. Popular artists run parallel with what people expect to see – which is why we’ve had Lady Gaga, the Script, Jay-Z and Plan B over the years.”
Amid the gloom, is there any hope for young rock acts who would like to actually make a living from their craft? If there is any glimmer of light at the end of this tunnel, it resides in the campaign towards a digital rights bill in Ireland and the take-up of legal services like Eircom’s Music Hub, which allows customers to stream music inexpensively.
‘‘You hear all these idiots talking about the new business model, about free stuff on the internet,” says Willie Kavanagh. ‘‘They’ve never been in the music business, and they never will be. By definition, the music business has to be a business first. I think we’re very close to legislation which will make it an offence for an internet service provider to facilitate the theft of music across the internet.
“As soon as that legislation is in place, and we can get what is called injunctive relief against an internet service provider, then the internet service providers will have to work with us in the same way that Eircom already works with us.
‘‘It’s only when that happens, and when people are punished for stealing tracks off the internet for free by having their internet postponed or cut off, that the music industry and the artists, the creative forces behind great songs, will thrive.”
But nobody is expecting miracles. ‘‘If they could get back 10 to 15 per cent of lost sales, they’d be doing well,” Clark says. As for rock music itself, the hope expressed by many of the people interviewed for this piece is that rock music may stage a dramatic resurgence over the next few years.
‘‘Because there hasn’t really been a massively successful new British rock act since Coldplay, some journalists in Britain panic and try to write off the genre,” says Brian Adams, head of music at Today FM.
‘‘We were told that dance music had killed off guitar rock in the 1990s, but that was just before the Britpop explosion that brought us Blur, Oasis, the Manics and Radiohead.”
Jim Lockhart, veteran musician with Horslips and an RTE producer, agrees. ‘‘It’s dangerous to say that rock is dead,” he says. ‘‘You’re reminded of Dick Rowe the guy who turned down the Beatles for Decca, saying that guitar music was on the way out.
The fact that pop is in the ascendant isn’t a cause for despair.
‘‘Music is actually in a healthier state than it ever was. It’s a much more central part of people’s lives. Since people have become used to iPods, they’re never without their fix.”
Most importantly, from an artistic perspective, the passion for creating music is very much still around. Bands have become used to making music despite all the obstacles.
Many are prepared to continue in the face of indifference and penury, even when it seems all hope is lost.
In London, Niall Breslin is already working on a solo album – he says it sounds like Weezer with keyboards – that he aims to release next September.
‘‘I hope one day the Blizzards will make another album, and for the right reasons – just to make a good album,” Breslin says. ‘‘But at the moment I’m making an album that I’ve wanted to make all my life.
“Whether I’m in the industry as a producer or writer or performer, I don’t really care. But I’m never going to leave music.”