July 8, 2010
TALKING ABOUT ANOTHER REVOLUTION
(Reprinted from Modern Acoustic magazine, November 2005; to download the issue, click HERE)
From the parents of baby boomers to teenagers today, the names are familiar to us all: The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. Jimi Hendrix. Bob Dylan.
Even less popular acts – Canned Heat, Moby Grape and Ten Years After – are known to many. Nostalgia? Yes, much of what we hear today about the 1960s and its musical legacy are based on nostalgia. It is incessantly and nauseatingly packaged on radio stations nationwide as “Classic Rock.”
But it is more than nostalgia that makes up the legacy of the decade’s songs. Sandwiched between the slick love songs of the ’50s and narcissistic ’70s disco, ’60s music was borne as part rebellion, part social change, and part love-in. It was a time of exploration, experimentation, and naivete.
The influence of the music then was a reflection of what was going on in America: an unpopular president, an unpopular war, student protest, civil rights, women’s rights and young people questioning and defying the mores of their parents.
There was also an explosion of exploration through visual art, music, theater, and film, at least in part fueled by psychedelic drugs. Technology was improving: Stereophonic sound became the norm for recorded music. Television, now a part of the furniture in homes, beamed back the first live images of war in living color, and Americans looked on in horror.
And all this was synthesized into the songs. Young musicians allowed themselves to be carried by their ideals and emotions, and for the most part, were naive to the “business” of the music business.
So could this kind of musical revolution happen again? Modern Acoustic posed the question to Roberta Schwartz, Assistant Professor of Historical Musicology at Kansas University to lend her perspective. Does she believe the ingredients are still here to spark something new and original? Here is her wonderfully in-depth response:
No one knows what the future will hold, but I’m inclined to say that the kind of musical revolution that occurred in the ’60s won’t happen again. However, I believe that we are in the earliest stages of a musical revolution, albeit one that is different in many respects.
The forces that brought about the “Renaissance” of the 1960s cannot be replicated. In the ’60s the world was a more dangerous place than ever before, thanks to the threat of nuclear annihilation.
These dangers were mostly created by the older generation, which created a sense among young people that maybe authority didn’t have all the answers (or any of them); consequently, other foibles of modern society were questioned, and societal mores and expectations were weakened. World War II made the world a smaller place through the spread of popular culture. Paradoxically, this narrowed artistic choices while also creating room for new ideas and views, especially those from the East.
These combined with economic prosperity of an unprecedented scale that gave youth more freedom to pursue interests beyond subsistence living. The entire movement was underscored by increasing notions of equality, in part brought about by the early flush of rock ’n’ roll, which brought black music to white youth.
This idea extended beyond a black-white binarism to encompass all races, sexes (to a degree), religions, musical styles, and forms of expression. Psychedelic drugs and optimism were catalysts; these elements, above all others, captured the attention of a larger public.
The sounds, sights, and messages were so outrageous, in comparison to the standards of the time, that “straight” America (and England, to be sure) had to take notice. This, I sense, is the key factor of the ’60s that can’t be replicated. In our media-saturated society, where every form of outrageous behavior, both innocuous and heinous, has been televised, the ability to shock bourgeois sensibilities is no longer a simple proposition!
The current social and political situation in the United States is in many ways similar to that of the ’60s, though the climate is one of increased repression, rather than openness and tolerance. Still, the incubator is in some ways ready, and there are signs that political activism and music are coming together again.
Acts as varied as Green Day, Eminem, Bruce Springsteen, the Dixie Chicks, and Steve Earle have produced overtly political recordings in the past few years that have been commercially and critically successful.
However, their tone is not optimistic; rather, they evince strident criticism of politics and other institutions. Punk rock has left an indelible mark on popular music, and its influence will be felt for quite some time.
Still, music that engages social issues is a refreshing change from the escapist, materialistic fare that dominates the Top 40. Hip-hop, long a vehicle for political content, has been revitalized as well. The current “worldrap” movement, exemplified by artists like M.I.A. and rappers X-Plastaz from the African Maasai tribe, demonstrates that in many parts of the globe rap has proven an excellent vehicle for political commentary among the poor, oppressed, and dispossessed.
Musically, the key ingredients of the ’60s musical revolution were ones that increased potential musical influences. Rejections of popular culture led to revivals of pre-war styles, especially folk music and the blues, which expanded the possibilities of musical creation, as did the new soul sounds emerging from Motown, Stax, and other independent labels.
New technologies like the massproduced electric guitar, the Mellotron, and effects pedals introduced a broaderpalate of tone colors, and the standards and possibilities for studio production granted unprecedented control over the sound of a recording.
Today a similar broadening of possibilities is in play. Our on-demand world means that music – all kinds of music – is readily accessible. Virtually every conceivable form of recorded music, be it classical arias by Enrico Caruso, jug band music of the ’30s, or Yoruban highlife, is in circulation, and can be accessed through alternative radio, digital download, streaming audio, or your local record store. And it can be sampled, sequenced, looped, and manipulated from a home computer.
The possibilities for fusion are endless, and have begun to yield a dizzying array of combinations and sub-genres that range from merely interesting to extraordinarily vital.
The products of the American roots music revival are particularly interesting; I personally find the White Stripes one of the most exciting bands to emerge in years. Recent fusions of rap with jazz, soul, world music, and even country (who’d have thought?) have proven that hip-hop is not only the “new world folk music,” but also a resilient and expansive genre that can allow infinite variety.
Concert audiences of the past few years, particularly the jam-band sect, have demonstrated a willingness to embrace startlingly diverse acts in a way that hasn’t been witnessed since the late ’60s; last year’s festival circuit included the Dirty Dozen Brass Band from New Orleans (talk about “old school”!), The Polyphonic Spree – a clash of influences so disparate and strange that they defy classification in any normal sense – Yonder Mountain String Band, Los Lonely Boys, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Danger Mouse, Doc Watson,Taj Mahal, Ani DiFranco, Steve Winwood, and the Dave Matthews Band.
Such diversity can only be for the musical common good, and the fact that some of these acts have hit the Top 40 is an indication that a revolution of some sort is afoot.
The extraordinary freedom of artists to express themselves and experiment during the ’60s was the result of changes in the recording industry itself. Immediately after World War II only seven record labels controlled recorded output.
Tape recording reduced the cost of producing records, and small, local independent labels began to emerge. Their successes in marketing R&B, jazz, and rock ’n’ roll records led to the development of an independent distribution system that bypassed the monopolies of the major labels.
These independents launched nearly every major musical act of the 1960s; once their moneymaking potential was realized, the majors often moved in and capitalized on both the artists and the trends.
In turn, this created an environment of corporate risk-taking; as executives had no idea what would be popular (who could have foreseen Beatlemania?), they were willing to sign just about anyone who came highly recommended by young staff members, hip agents, or “those in the know.”
Once acts became successful, their ability to generate revenue was the only concern of their labels; the musicians were able to experiment fairly freely with a minimum of oversight.
Some musicians were able to thrive even without major label contracts. Many of the San Francisco bands gained popularity through exposure on FM radio; this new broadcast spectrum was relatively loose and not dominated by Top-40 stations.
This modest exposure was enough to promote concert attendance, which became a greater source of income for many acts during the decade; the Grateful Dead emerged as one of the most popular bands of the 1960s though they had no hit record or best-selling LP during that era and were never heard on popular AM stations. today.
Lately the major record labels have demonstrated that their ability to divine what the “next big thing” will be has weakened. The most convincing evidence emerged in the spring of 2002, when the majors were taken completely by surprise as acts like the White Stripes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, the Strokes, and the Hives emerged to shatter the dominant boy band-teen pop-nu-metal hegemony.
Recently “big money” releases by proven pop stars like Janet Jackson have generated disappointing returns, and the majors have had to rely on their smaller divisions (like Interscope, The Inc., and Vice) to produce successful hits.
As this trend continues, more local artists and styles (like southern crunk and the Detroit rock sound) will gain national exposure.
Moreover, the major labels have recently been taking some interesting risks lately, signing artists whose marketability is unproven.
Independent labels have also proven that they can compete on the charts and in the marketplace with independent or unorthodox distribution networks. Jack Johnson’s latest, “In Between Dreams,” on the Brushfire label, recently hit the top five; and the White Stripes, despite achieving mainstream success, remained with the independent Third Man Records for a while before signing on with V2.
Though only four companies now control all recording and corporate radio permits broadcast of very small sampling of music, there are now a host of alternatives. Alternative and college radio stations provide access to minor artists, though these stations have short transmission ranges and are not available in all markets.
However, their demographic is considered significant enough that the industry maintains separate “college radio” charts.
There is also a dramatic upswing in local radio startups and pirate radio stations – the latter particularly in Britain – and satellite radio, streaming audio and podcasting also offer alternatives to Clear Channel and other corporatecontrolled stations.
The Internet is likely to be the carrier of the new revolution; while Kazaa and similar services are enmeshed in legislative battles, legal applications serve as completely anonymous distribution sites, where any artist can post their own music for download or sale.
Anyone with a computer has a world of music at his or her fingertips at any time, day or night, and the most successful of these acts will emerge into the mainstream, not because major corporations think they might be saleable, but because they have already proven their appeal to a market niche.
In times of declining record sales, niche markets wield significant power. For example, the major record labels ignored blues and country music until they proved to be consistent sellers, even in the depths of the depression.
As long as those interested in new and independent music buy CDs and support concert appearances by these bands, the revolution will continue.