Monday, March 31, 2014

Is the UK Rock Music scene on the wane?

There’s little doubt that the genre of classic rock music has enjoyed something of a revival over the last ten or fifteen years, but there seems to be more and more evidence that the glory days are over and that a decline may have set in.

The 1990s were a fallow time for fans of old school, classic heavy rock music. With the late 80s as distant a memory as the permed hair and spandex of that time, the chart success of Whitesnake, Kiss and Def Leppard, to name but three, had been replaced by the introspective, navel gazing of a host of Kurt Cobain wannabees, clad in checked lumberjack shirts and staring downwards.

But in the late 90s something started to stir. Disgruntled by the down trodden lyrics of grunge and with Britpop having run its course, the appetite for stylish riffs, flashing solos and the feel good factor of 70s and 80s sounds was whetted once more, and so the rock loving public welcomed the emergence of Classic Rock magazine (1998) and Planet Rock radio (1999).

Together with an Iron Maiden line up reunited with Bruce Dickinson (2000), Judas Priest back with Rob Halford (2003) and the on off reunion of Ozzy with Black Sabbath (pick a year), the first decade of the twenty first century represented a much happier time for the likes of Y&T, UFO and Saxon who were energised both live and on record by the apparent return to real rock.

So what’s the problem?

Well, has the revival runs its course and, moreover, is it just a temporary blip or is rock music destined to return to its niche market, never to return to the mainstream?

During March 2014, I went to three gigs in three different rock music venues in South Wales, all of which were far from full to capacity. The Steelhouse club in Ebbw Vale hosted Bonafide (above) to an audience of little more than 75, The Answer (four albums in, and having supported AC/DC on a huge tour just a few years back) played to 200 at most in Swansea’s Sin City, whilst a three band bill headlined by Triaxis at Newport’s Meze Lounge probably had no more than 20 paying punters, after netting out those connected to the acts themselves (a far cry from the halcyon days of the famous TJs, once the centre of what was laughably labelled the new Seattle, but now another boarded up building).

And this is in a part of the country where there has long been a passion for music at the heavier end, possibly second only to its Midlands heartlands.

It’s not helped quite frankly by announced tour schedules which have no Welsh dates amongst them. Time after time a UK tour is announced which comprises English venues plus maybe Glasgow. Too many touring bands see Bristol, part the O2 Academy circuit, as sufficient to tick the Wales and the West (including Devon and Cornwall) box. Long gone are times when certainties amongst the dates were St David’s Hall or Newport Centre (today's long haired undergraduates in black t shirts stare at me open mouthed when I tell them I saw Metallica there in 1988).

Perhaps of greater concern than the numbers attending the gigs is the age profile of the crowd, the demographics as the marketing people would say. Acts made up of fresh faced twenty somethings look out and view thinning or greying hair, a parade of forty and fifty year olds still loyal to the music of their youth. It used to be the case that young fans worshipped their older heroes, not the current scenario.

So where are the kids?

In my forty fifth year, I shouldn’t be getting anywhere near the front of the stage. That should be jammed full of testosterone filled young ‘uns, headbanging and spreading their dandruff in amidst the body odour. Not an appealing thought I know, but that, together with the smoke and the booze, were the defining smells of a night at a show.

It might just be that times have moved on. Whereas rock was once the default sound for teenagers, perhaps the influence of music television and the internet had made the American drum and bass feel of R’n’B (that’s rhythm and bass by the way, not the rhythm and blues which so influenced The Stones and The Who) more accessible.

Furthermore, the instant fame of TV shows like X Factor and The Voice means that copycat stardom is a faster route to success than slogging your guts out in the garage / community hall / studio (delete as appropriate) or up and down motorways on the club scene. It’s not difficult to see why someone would do this. You only have to see the appeal that pub rock tribute acts have, plying their trade playing the ‘comfort’ sounds of The Stereophonics, Kings Of Leon or The Killers and hence bringing a feelgood factor to the Saturday night crowd who rarely pay to go into venues.

It’s so difficult for young bands. Every year there seems to be one or two talking horses who are the next bright things tipped for stardom, often backed by the aforementioned Classic or Planet Rock. Take Heaven’s Basement for example. Initially called Hurricane Party, as Roadstar (Classic Rock Best New Band) they secured prestigious festival spots including opening up the 2006 Monsters Of Rock (pictured above) with Deep Purple and Journey topping the bill. A festival opening spot was the golden ticket once e.g. Motley Crue at Donington 1984. Roadstar split in 2007 to emerge as Heaven’s Basement but are still scratching a living well down the festival line ups with occasional low key tours of ‘downstairs’ clubs – you know what I mean.

Changes in the way in which music is consumed have hindered also. It pains me to agree with money making machine and uber capitalist Gene Simmons, but the day bands started giving away their music for (next to) nothing (Spotify, You Tube etc) was the initial injection of a deadly potion which ends with an all powerful consumer so spoilt for choice and access that actually paying for sounds is anathematic. I do feel for young bands. Does anyone under 40 buy CDs?

What’s the future?

Hard rock and heavy metal remains popular, Download festival is massive and in 2014 Sonisphere at Knebworth makes a welcome return, saved by the big hitters, Iron Maiden and Metallica.

Also, festival weekends indoors, spread throughout the calendar, have been the biggest growth area in recent years. The Hard Rock Hell brand has expanded from its initial 2 day bash at Butlins Minehead in 2007 into a sub culture of its own with regular holiday camp bills of Blues, Metal, AOR and Prog, as well as the original product this year reaching its eighth version, now based in Pwllelli in North Wales. You can add in Legends Of Rock shindigs as well.

Great fun though they are, is it the case that such events are part of the solution or part of the problem? An odd statement you may think, but there’s only so much money, and time, to come out of any one fan’s pocket. The weekends are great value at around £100 for 40 odd groups, headlined by the favourites of our youth, all in a party atmosphere shared with likeminded individuals.

Of course, if you’re seeing a band there, you may decide to skip the tour and that the £25 ticket plus 60 mile round trip on a school night to see the same act play the same tracks is a little unnecessary. And, if so, then you can’t blame the bands for not going out on their own tours with all of the associated fixed costs.

The rock royalty will go on selling tickets naturally, at least as long as they still can. The surviving members of the Holy Trinity of Beatles, Stones and Who are still performing into their 70s, with the heavier classic rock of Deep Purple, Black Sabbath (above) and Rush all continuing to delight. But they won’t go on forever, and their live shows are now largely exercises in nostalgia with minimal input of new material.

So who is taking this type of music forward?

Well to paraphrase Winston Smith, George Orwell’s fictional hero of the seminal 1984; “if there is hope, it lies in the proles”. That may sound as pretentious as a 1975 Yes lyric, but the truth is that it is at the grassroots, on the internet and in the democratic environment of social media that the future lies for rock music in 2014 and beyond.

There are many great new acts out there. Only last Friday did Planet Rock radio host a superb evening at Gloucester’s Guildhall presenting a bill of three of the best current UK bands, all of whom have the influence of yesterday but with the energy and freshness to inspire hope. The three acts are Buffalo Summer (Swansea based), Black Wolf (pictured above) and Tax The Heat (both Bristol). 

Festivals such as the Steelhouse - a case of having your cake and eating it?

All three are securing more and more festival bookings and will be appearing at this summer’s Steelhouse Festival (run by the same great guys who run the Ebbw Vale’s Steelhouse club), a well organised and old school style event attended by around 5,000 battle- and weather-hardened fans, which is well worth supporting.

I honestly don’t know where the future takes us. It could be a temporary drop off in the desire for hard rock or it’s part of a general fragmentation of the whole industry brought about by technological advances and changes to its very infrastructure.

What is for certain is that there is still much talent out there and lots of entertainment to be had. I guess all we can do is to continue to bang the drum (groan), spread the word and, yes, support the venues we have before even more close. I have faith that real music will survive and that the temporary fads for quick fix stardom will dissipate, it’s just that we have to make it happen.

The message is pretty clear - support live (and real) music.

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