Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Curtain Call

It's been a year since I made my last post on the state of pop music, and how massively ignorant those in the industry are about their own line of work. Unsurprisingly, a post about the mental shortcomings of such an out of touch industry has dated exceptionally well. But I've recently been checking up on a lot of other sectors of entertainment and seeing just how far things have (not) come over the last decade. While the rest of pop culture continues its decent into the abyss I have begun wondering what the future holds for it all. In the process of searching I came across something strange. So for this post I will return to my favorite whipping boy: the death of Rock music.

In many ways the music industry is the canary in the coalmine for the rest of popular culture. What happens there has a bearing on the rest of it. But to go into how much things have changed in such a short time I want to use an example.

I want to talk about a band, specifically The Hives. Anyone who was between the ages of 13 and 33 between the years of 2003-2008 have almost certainly have heard of them, and if not you probably have heard the song linked above. I want to talk about them because they are the very last band to come from the old age of the music industry. They come from a time that no longer exists. Specifically I will be pulling from this article just written last year where the lead singer, Howlin' Pelle Almqvist, discusses their five albums and where they were at when they were each made. It's quite eyeopening in its straightforwardness and how out of left field the ending is.

Before the late '90s, most bands signed to major labels were those who worked their way up from the indie circuit. The Hives were no different, forming in 1993 (though possibly earlier as they were all childhood friends) as a bunch of kids playing around after school, they soon got to the point where they put out their debut Barely Legal in 1997. It's a very rough album typical of debuts from young bands being more attitude and sound than much in the way of songwriting. But it did show promise and with enough charisma that they signed to a bigger label. You kind find examples of this going back to Buddy Holly. But the late '90s were already a hazardous time for the music industry.

Thankfully the band avoided the major labels at this point. It might have destroyed them early. The majors had all but ejected every rock band from their catalog, paving the way for the Nu Metal explosion to come and instead putting all money behind their disposable pop acts. The Geffen/Interscope merger in particular destroyed many up and coming careers throwing out band after band for shallow and thoughtless reasons. Indie still worked as it should. At least at this point. They still did what record labels should: pushing, promoting, and getting some radio play on smaller stations. It was enough for a band to get a foot in the door to bigger opportunities. Again, at this point. In less than a decade indie labels and radio stations would actively avoid specific genres and play only what big money told them to. However for now in the late '90s the indies were the only place to be.

In 2000 The Hives released their breakthrough album, Veni Vidi Vicious. It was not an instant hit. For two years they toured while their songs Main Offender and Hate to Say I Told You So began receiving more and more radio play. The band then signed with a UK label that put out a sort of best of compilation of their early material from Barely Legal, Veni Vidi Vicious, and select obscure EP tracks which coincided with the rise of the Garage Rock Revival movement in the early '00s. Because of this perfect storm of events and effort on the band's part, they finally hit out of the underground.

As the Mr. Almqvist in the article linked above said:
"When we put it (Veni Vidi Vicious) out contemporary music made no sense to us, it was only a year or two later when The Strokes and The White Stripes got popular that it seemed like we had a place in the popular world. We kind of knew we could make the hits in the UK in a way by calling the album Your New Favourite Band because it seemed like such a perfectly UK thing to do – and it worked! It was a clever bit of writing and awesome rock ‘n’ roll that made us popular."
For those that remember pop music from the year 2000 you will understand exactly what he meant. Major labels and their payola had locked down the radio and TV airwaves for their manufactured sugar and angst, slowly squeezing out anything they didn't craft themselves. A band like The Hives were completely unlike anything on the majors at the time. Their breakout hit, Hate to Say I Told You So, was a major underground hit for these exact reasons. Listening to it now it is fairly obvious it did not fit in the popular landscape of 2000.

I'm sure everyone reading this blog is familiar with the video for the song. You should, because it is the last one of a band who had an independent hit break out into the mainstream to be signed by the majors. What was once a common occurrence now no longer exists. Not long later were music videos irrelevant and the relationship between indies and majors completely severed. It was the end of an era.

The band got so popular off this they were roped into a major label deal not long after. Their constant touring and strong albums made them an easy fit for guaranteed success. Major labels at this point only signed bands with pre-made success following them. After all, the band only had to keep doing what they always did. But success is success, and it has a way of changing people.
“There were a lot of people who had ideas of what we were going to do and who we were, and to their credit the label we ended up on left us alone a little bit. But they signed a band that was popular and didn’t really know that they were going to be popular, so they let us do what we do. It was weird that people were invested in us and we didn’t know them, which led to varying degrees of paranoia in the band. 
“Compared to some of the other bands around at the time, we coped with success better. Part of that was because we’d been an unsuccessful band for a couple of years before we became a successful one. Because some of the other bands’ first thing was really successful, when you start to think that’s normal that’s a dangerous place to be in. I guess for us it was more of a cynical realisation that all of a sudden the world turned and made us popular, but we didn’t really change, we were just doing the same thing we were doing. The fact that we’d known each other since we were children also meant that it was harder to get a big head because there were always people around you who had seen you as a naked six-year-old. It’s hard to become too much of a rockstar within the group!”
Now if you play rockstar bingo you might know where this story is going. So many end up in the same place. But this story is different. The band didn't get full of themselves, sell out, and cash in. They also didn't give the label the finger and become obnoxious brats about it while wasting it away on junk albums. What they did was what they were hired to do. They made a rock record.

You see, to me, the most fascinating thing about their third album Tyrannosaurus Hives is that it didn't feel like the band lost their way. The first album was more or less a rough around the edges Punk/Garage rock album, but every release since they had sharpened their songwriting and playing and they were growing naturally. It was as if the jump to the majors made little difference in what was making them popular. By 2004, they were big and their sound matched it.

The public must have thought so too, because the album continued their forward momentum up the charts despite the label not really doing much in the way of promotion. Walk Idiot Walk was a huge hit and it kept them going, but I can't escape the lingering feeling that if the Garage Rock Revival wasn't in full swing when the album came out that they would have been dropped despite its success. Few rock bands survived on the majors in the '00s, and few more would be left by decade's end. The labels were looking for excuses.

The band's third album was a hit, but by the time they got around to album #4 it was clear to everyone at the time that the days of the majors were at an end. This was around 2007, ten years after the band's first album released. Mr. Almqvist describes the feeling well:
“We looked at it like the last days of Rome because the record industry was going into the shitter and we got a lot of money from the record industry, so we figured it was kind of our duty to make a big budget rock record and spend some money on it. We could make a cheap record and keep all the money, but where’s the fun in that? It was a challenge to ourselves. We have to play these kind of mind-games with ourselves to feel creatively challenged.”
The Black & White Album is wonderful for a lot of reasons. It's the last big budget rock album from rising and fresh talent instead of oblivious Boomers going through the motions. Pharrell Williams, of all people, guests on the record. There is an honest and zealous attempt to go for the Phil Spector Wall of Sound that had been heard in decades. It genre hops like a record hadn't since the '90s. It's the longest album of their career. And it doesn't sound overproduced in the slightest. This from a "garage" rock band.

The album also sold extremely well and was their highest selling by far. Tick Tick Boom was a titanic hit, and other popular songs such as Try It Again, You've Got it All . . . Wrong!, and Won't Be Long, are some of the best they had ever recorded. At the same time they put out the non-album Fall is Just Something that Grown-Ups Invented which was another popular track. In other words, by 2008 The Hives were at the top of the world.

This is the sound of a band on the cusp of ruling the world.

But The Black & White Album was the last album The Hives ever put out on a major label. In fact, since 2008 The Hives have only put out one album since and have instead been focused on touring. They do still get attention from the public, but the industry totally failed them. This from a band that did everything the right way.

This isn't the story of a could-have-been or a has-been that just didn't meet the mark. This isn't about a bunch of divas that had a chance and threw it away. It's not about a bunch of screw-ups who made bad choices. No, this is about a band that actually did everything right and still ended up on their own.

So you might be wondering how this happened. Well, it's a bit complicated. Here is what Mr. Almqvist says about their last (to date) album, Lex Hives:
“It took a lot of doing to get this done and that’s partly because we were in charge of it ourselves. It made things slower not having anyone on our backs, but the plug was out of the tub for the record industry so they had a lot less money, and we always licence our record to record companies but the economy wasn’t really there any more. We knew that we were going to make a record and have whoever wanted to release it release it because that’s what we wanted to do. We were in a time where we wanted to feel closer as a band and work more together again after getting produced. We had a lot of people and producers working on the record before, so what happens if we just do it ourselves? Fuck it, let’s build a studio, build a microphone, build a guitar amp, you know? That’s why it took such a long time ha ha!"
Yes, a band that put out hit singles, music videos, and albums, was unable to get any sort of backing or support from an industry designed to do just that. The album itself is what you would expect from The Hives, full of catchy garage rockers and songs that could have been huge hits had anyone backed them. As it is, the album did as well as could be expected in the post-bubblegum industry, but the band deserved better. And for those curious, Lex Hives came out in 2012. The record industry was already that bad by then. Can you imagine what it's like now?

I don't think you have to imagine. Just think of the last star to break out of a major label and if you've heard any of their songs outside the confines of the dead radio stations. Chances are the answer is most likely that you have not. They will never have another Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson, and all that is due to the goodwill burned after decades of iron fist control of their industry and choking out any life from it.

I've posted before about the death of pop culture and the fragmentation of a formerly homogeneous society. This isn't anything new, it's been happening for a while now due to higher interest in short term profits than in building a lasting platform or relationship with an audience. It's also clear that it is too late to reverse the trend. Decades of abuse and disrespect lead to empty seats and store shelves full of overstocked product.

So what does the future hold? Hard to say, but centralization doesn't appear to be in the cards. A future of blue collar folks creating product for each other and hoping to be found by larger audiences in the process, I suppose. Smaller audiences are an inevitability in a fractured climate, and who knows if we'll ever return to the age of the superstar again. It won't be any time soon.

Perhaps it is how it was always meant to be. Without a gate-keeping middleman both the customer and creator have less restrictions than ever before. Now customers have more options and entertainers need to work twice as hard for that beer money.

Here's hoping we can live up to the task. One thing is for sure: things will never be the same again. This is the curtain call. Goodbye, pop culture. This is the fate you've chosen.

I'm still waiting on word for the physical version of DimensionBucket Magazine, but the electronic version is readily available here if you don't want to wait. Of course if you're looking for last minute Christmas gifts there is always StoryHack #3 and Grey Cat Blues. I'm still putting it out there for ya, folks!


  1. J.D.,

    GREAT post. The Hives are a fantastic band, and I learned a lot about them from this post.

    This also strikes me as a musician who tried to make it as a career circa 2006-2012. It is impossible to make any kind of money. Indie is really the only way to go, and in order to elevate music--at least rock music--from anything beyond a hobby, is to do it 24/7 full-time, non-stop. The Internet helps, but it also hinders because of the fractured market, as you say.

    People will always continue to make music that the tastemakers would never put out, because there are people who just love music. It might not be a career, but oh well. Artists will make art regardless. Thank God for the Internet.

    One thing that utterly sickens me is how songwriting has become a bland, boring engineering project guaranteed to work on the human mind the way heroin does, or soma in Huxley's Brave New World. Give me the weirdos of the past over the predictable drek we have these days in the rock and pop world. At least Lady GaGa started out somewhat interesting, and say what you want about Madonna, but she was at least unique.

    The 80s might have been peak weirdo, and that's a good thing. I wrote about that here: https://amatopia.wordpress.com/2018/08/08/the-80s-were-awesome-music-edition/

    Anyway, awesome post. I love when you write about music.

    1. This is Alex, by the way . . . I don't know why I'm showing up as "Unknown."

    2. Thanks for coming, Alex! I've been having issues commenting recently, so I hope this is just a google blogspot issue.

      I was heavy into Rock since I was a kid, but my prime years were the early 00s. In fact per this post I think the last mainstream album I bought was the Black & White Album by The Hives.

      It was frustrating due to how fragmented everything became. Beyond the endless and pointless scene wars (all of which are dead) dealing with record companies who could do nothing but milk the same tired music for... well, they're still doing it... was frustrating. Within the last year I decided to take a look around and it is like nothing changed at all. I'm amazed at anyone who stuck around long after I left. I don't know how they did it.

    3. It's cool. I've actually been trying to comment for a long time, and realized that Blogger eats my comments when I try from my phone, but not my laptop. Live and learn.

      You sound like you're slightly younger than me, but my prime years were kind of in your ballpark. Rock was, and still kind of is, a way of life in the sense that the good stuff provides a healthy emotional rush and just enough depth to keep from being silly, but still doesn't take itself too seriously. As a genre, rock is a great Anglo-American legacy up there with jazz, if you ask me .

      Sadly, rock has steadily and firmly ensconced itself up the devil's backside. Just look at Pitchfork reviews: they rate music not just on the notes involved, but on the politics of the artist and where they stand on various issues.

      Rock is equal parts wimpy and self-absorbed with songwriting designed to appeal to an ever-dwindling group of urbanites . . . at least the stuff that gets pushed by mass media.

      There's plenty of good, fun stuff as well that's relegated to the schlock pile because it's not woke enough.

      Check some of my posts with the tag "rock" or "rock music" on my blog. I have one calling for a pulp revolution in rock. Once I have the time and money to buy some instruments again, I might just start the damn thing myself.

    4. Sounds good to me. I'll definitely check it out.

      One of the reasons I gave up on rock a while back was because it didn't look like anyone cared enough to fix the problem. It's good to hear that at least someone else is aware of the problem enough to want to fix it.