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Rock Is Dead - But Why?


Instruments set up for a rock band set

Rock is dead. Or at least according to Porcupine Tree drummer Steven Wilson. According to the prog metal master, rock and roll has gone “cult” like jazz before it, appealing to aficionados, but never again to achieve the popular listenership it once had.


Gone are the days that rock bands would sell millions of LPs:


“It doesn't happen with rock albums any more…. Rock has become the cult music of the 21st century, in much the same way that jazz became a cult.”


Wilson seems to believe that this is a matter of taste. Fads, even macro-genres like rock and jazz, fade over time. But I contend that there’s more to the story.

The Death of the Band

When jazz broke onto the scene it was a raucous free-for-all. Concert nights were less bills of multiple bands showing up for a gig than musicians showing up with their instrument to jam on whatever songs happened to be popular.


Then came the era of the big band. As musicians began to establish themselves in the scene, they started to form elite groups. These bands, sometimes called jazz orchestras, often consisted of ten or more musicians, a rhythm section (drums, bass, guitar, keys), and several horn sections, all playing a set list of songs.


However, when recording established itself as an industry, the big band was on its way out. As the swing era waned and bebop took the fore, the impracticality of touring with 10, 20, 30, or 40 musicians bore heavily on the scene.


Vocalists began striking out on their own, and jazz bands, with some exceptions, began hewing down to a small rhythm section and maybe one or two horn players.

Rock and Roll Lives

Around the same time, the three to five piece rock band began to establish itself. Rock distinguished itself for the most part by doing away with horn sections altogether, giving the guitar or keys the lead instrument role.


Rather than long excursions with elaborate solos, the music centered around the vocals, simple arrangements, and relatively short sections.


The rock band was far more friendly to the studio and the club. With a four piece band, you could mic every instrument in a relatively small room and cut a song in one take. By the same token, you could play a club and actually have a decent chunk of change for each musician at the end of the night.


The public still had a taste for jazz, as indicated by the popularity of giants like Miles Davis and Sun Ra, but without the big band scene, the genre began to fall into “cult” obscurity. A 24-minute horn excursion just wasn’t as interesting with one instrumentalist playing over the rhythm section.

What Killed Rock and Roll?

Certainly there had been solo artists forever, but producing them was no more advantageous financially than producing a rock band. In order to support the recording of a solo artist, you’d need to call in session musicians who often cost more than the members of an established rock band.


Then came the era of the synthesizer, the sequencer, the punch-in, and the backing track. Now solo artists could be supported by one person playing or programming all the instrumental parts. You no longer needed to assemble a touring band to replicate the sound of the record in order to play clubs and concert halls.


This was the beginning of the death of rock and of bands generally. Why would a club shell out $800 to pay four musicians for the night when they could pay half that for a solo artist with twice the popularity? Why would a producer want to rent the space to fit a four piece band when they could rent the space for a vocal booth and punch in the rest of the instruments one by one?

Is Rock Dead?

Judging from the sound of modern solo artists, there’s still a craving for the sounds of multi-instrumental acts. From the distorted guitars and pounding drums of Olivia Rodrigo’s “All-American Bitch” to the synthesized big band arrangements of Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s “Crazy in Love.”


And certainly rock bands are still selling out concert halls too, with Gaslight Anthem selling out four consecutive dates at White Eagle Hall in Jersey City last month, and the Bad Times Record tour selling out most of their dates last summer.


It’s not rock that’s dead; it’s the band. Now, touring with a four piece is more likely to land a band in debt. You have four mouths to feed. Carrying around that personnel and equipment requires a larger vehicle with worse fuel economy. And then there’s of course the ticket sale split, merch cuts, studio rental, label cuts, managers, booking agents, all of which dig further into an artist’s budget when split multiple ways.


If rock and roll is dead, capitalism killed it.

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