About AEF | Newsletter | Site Map | Legal | Advanced Search
Print Version

Ideas & Trends; Rock for Rock's Sake Is No Longer Enough

LIZ PHAIR stares down from a Calvin Klein billboard in Lower Manhattan. Luscious Jackson supplies a song for a Gap television commercial. Lenny Kravitz's current tour comes courtesy of Tommy Hilfiger, Filter's from Miller Genuine Draft Beer. Everlast sports Avirex clothes in magazine ads. The band Garbage performs the theme of the new James Bond movie, ''The World Is Not Enough.''

Increasingly it seems that alternative rock's biggest stars are committing one of rock 'n' roll's original sins: they're selling out. Why have these supposedly self-respecting artistic rebels risked their credibility? Don't they recall the Byrds' lacerating 1967 hit, ''So You Wanna Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star?'' Weren't they inspired when R.E.M. turned down Microsoft's multimillion dollar offer to use their hit ''It's the End of the World as We Know It'' in a commercial for Windows 95?

Rockers don't shill, after all: they rock.

But big changes in the recording industry and consumer tastes have left alternative rockers with fewer alternatives for getting their music out there -- heard on the radio, seen on TV, stocked in stores.

''Rock is dead in regards to the charts,'' says Adam Sexton, a marketing executive at Arista Records. ''They're dominated by teen pop, rap and movie soundtracks. Rockers are having a hard time of it right now.''

A glance at the current top 10 albums reveals the diminished presence of alternative rock, with only Korn's latest offering, ''Issues,'' making an appearance.

Today's musical marketplace -- roiled by consolidation and emerging technologies -- is more mercenary than ever. As success proves ever more elusive, alternative rock 'n' rollers have become more pragmatic. Licensing tunes for movies or commercials, or appearing in ads, has become quite attractive to bands seeking exposure.

The stigma of selling out has begun to wane.

''It's not so much selling out, it's an awareness of the marketing potential,'' says Loren Chodosh, a New York entertainment lawyer. ''Bands are less precious about such things -- they have to be.''

Radio has been swept by mergers. Just three companies -- Clear Channel, CBS and ABC -- dominate the $13.9 billion industry. As a result of this concentration, and broadcasters' obsession with niche programming, predictable formats and play lists are the norm at most radio stations.

On television, MTV continues to exert its 18-year near-monopoly of nationwide video broadcasts. Indeed MTV's parent company, Viacom, just bought CBS, giving a whole new meaning to the term crossover hit.

The $38 billion recording industry has also consolidated, with Warner Music, Sony, BMG, Universal and EMI controlling most of the action. More important, a different culture has taken root at the major record companies.

Labels used to routinely nurture the careers of rock bands over the course of a number of albums, providing tour support and promoting media coverage and airplay. This strategy helped rock acts gain momentum and achieve stardom, from the Beatles and Rolling Stones in the 60's to Radiohead and the Smashing Pumpkins in the 90's.

But this commitment is made less and less, a casualty of high costs and an emphasis on the bottom line that often comes at the expense of a band's longevity and creative development. The industry adage is more true now than ever: The big labels are just trying to make some music in the money business.

''Majors now take an album and if it's not happening in three months, they move on to the next one,'' says Dave Bedford, a London-based band manager and former talent scout at Island Records. ''Now it's the big hit or else. It's very sad, really.''

Take the experience of the Spin Doctors. Despite a hugely successful 1991 debut album, ''Pocket Full of Kryptonite,'' the group was dropped by Epic Records in 1996 after their third studio album -- despite having sold millions of records.

In other words, the labels have sold out the artists. ''The cost of doing business has gotten so exorbitant, the only way the labels can make their money back is with a huge hit,'' said Leigh Lust, who signs bands at Elektra Records.

Many musicians have gravitated to smaller independent labels. But at a price. While independents are generally more dedicated to their acts, they have smaller budgets for recording, promotion and distribution.

For many alternative rock artists, the Internet is the next great hope. Music sales over the World Wide Web were just $170 million last year, but a growing number of bands have established a presence on the Web by allowing fans to download their music at little or no charge. And even though musicians have begun to sell their songs over the Internet and earn on-line royalties, a recent study cited by Variety magazine concluded that the Internet's true impact is years away. As Mr. Sexton points out, bands still need some sort of hit -- and the best way to attain that is to put out a record on a major label.

The punk band Girls Against Boys followed this approach when they made the leap from an independent label and signed a lucrative contract with Geffen Records after a bidding frenzy a few years ago. While recording, the group felt pressure from the label to come up with radio-friendly songs -- their huge advance needed to be justified -- as well as from punk purists who wanted a record to their liking. The band ignored both sides and made the record they wanted to.

Unfortunately, despite a heavy promotional push by the label, the album, ''Freakonica,'' did not sell well. Now the group is awaiting word on when they'll be able to finish their next release.

''I really don't care if someone thinks I sold out,'' says Eli Janney, the group's keyboardist. ''That really doesn't concern me. We just want to make music that's interesting and cool, and hopefully it will get recognized by people. We're not trying to sell millions of records anymore.''

Instead, Girls Against Boys and other bands have come to regard financial success as a means to secure artistic freedom. ''The thinking is, money sets us free,'' Ms. Chodosh says. ''I know that sounds bad.''

This new reality is articulated in the chorus of ''All Star,'' last summer's ultra-catchy single by Smash Mouth:

''Hey there, you're an all-star, get your game on, go play/Hey there, you're a rock star, get the show on, get paid/All that glitters is gold, only shooting stars break the mold.''


By IVOR HANSON, December 5, 1999, The New York Times

Copyright © 1999, The New York Times Co.. All rights reserved.