Thursday, April 19, 2018

In Praise Of Classic Rock Retirement

It’s now become a thing, aging icons like Elton John, Neil Diamond, Paul Simon, Rush and Joan Baez announcing their retirement from touring or even renouncing their careers entirely. While they may cite different reasons, from Parkinson’s disease to young children at home, it all adds up to one of the biggest sea changes in the landscape of popular music since The Beatles broke up. 

Cue the hand-wringing: "It's extremely worrisome,” agent Marcia Vlasic told Rolling Stone, echoing the thoughts of several others in her field. “Once these artists really do retire, who will be the replacements?" 

Ron Delsener, who has been promoting concerts since the 60's and is now Live Nation’s New York Chairman, takes a more sanguine view: “We'll always have superstars,” he says in the same article, "Justin Timberlake and the National, they're the new guys coming up—they'll be the new U2 or the new whatever." Hope for a big-ticket arena-filling future also comes in the form of the usual Top 40 suspects: Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Lorde, etc. 

Except some of those acts are already proving soft at the box office. Taylor Swift, for one, riding the last gasp of poptimism and also pricing out her family audience; Lorde, for another, likely due to being more of a niche artist than initially suspected. 

So from a purely business angle, I can see reasonable arguments for both hope and despair. But from an artistic, soul-nourishing perspective, when it comes to classic rock retirements, I say: Bring it on!

By staying on the road so long and driving up prices far beyond inflation, these legendary acts selling the warm milk of nostalgia have turned concert-going into a sometime thing, a once-a-year special occasion, just at the time when musicians are coping with seismic changes that have forced them to secure most of their lifeblood from concert revenue. All the greatest-hits shows and complete-album residencies are cutting our younger artists off at the knees, which is where the true danger to the music itself lies. 

I see a couple of dozen concerts a year, with an average ticket price of $12, not only supporting local and touring artists near the start of the career, but also experiencing the intimate and spontaneous magic that may have led you to popular music in the first place. Sure, some of the bands I follow may lie at the more musically obtuse side of the equation, but plenty of others provide the sweet satisfaction of rock & roll at its best or deliver on the promise of the singer-songwriter model better than any arena-level star today. 

You have to ask yourself: Whose compass are you following? Are you following the received wisdom of radio stations with extremely limited playlists and just going with what’s comfortable and familiar? Or are you willing to put in a little bit of effort (and even less cash) to give something new a try and give a shot in the arm to young artists who were likely at least partly inspired by those hoary dinosaurs still roaming the arenas?

If you’re still reading, you may be wondering how you might go about getting out of the rut that has kept the concert business in a false state of security for far too long. You also want to avoid the path some of my bereft friends have followed, which is to turn to the increasing array of tribute bands. Even if some are astonishingly competent that’s still an investment in the past. 

So, here are some practical steps you can take - and ones that don’t involve my shoving my own taste down your throat. If you want to get an idea what I like, check out my Best Of lists from the last few years or follow my Of Note In 2018 playlists, all of which are linked below. 

  1. Download the following apps: Songkick, Bandsintown and Fans. Create accounts, turn on location sharing, and let them scan your music collection, whether on Spotify, Apple Music or any number of services. You can use these sites on a desktop as well but they really shine on a smartphone.
  2. Use the apps to see who’s playing closest to you in the near future. None of the artists you’re tracking may be on tour, but you can let the algorithm suggest things you might like. Bandsintown makes this easy with a slider on the Events tab that goes from “All Artists” to “Recommended” to “Tracking.” If you put it to Recommended, you will get an alphabetically arranged cloud of names with the artists you’re tracking in bold type and the rest in a lighter color. Songkick also has a Recommended tab where they explain the origin of the suggestion, i.e. “Tracked by people who track artist X,” which can give you an idea of what type of music it may be. Depending on where you live, you may also want to adjust the radius of your search to the maximum distance you’re willing to drive to see a show. 
  3. Start clicking some names. If a date and location seem feasible, use your preferred service (Spotify, YouTube, etc. - there’s also a lot of free listening on Bandcamp) to investigate the relevant music. If you subscribe to Apple Music, Bandsintown will let you click right through to some songs. If you like what you hear, buy tickets immediately (commitment!) and put it on your calendar. Invite an adventurous friend or two if that’s how you want to roll. 
  4. Go to the show. If it’s good, share about it on whatever social networks you use, inducing FOMO throughout your network. Also, say hi to the band - they may be at the merch table, which is certainly not going to happen at an arena concert. And buy something! Even a $1 pin or sticker will help them out. 
  5. Make sure to track your new favorite artist. Was the opening act good? Track them, too. That way you'll know when they're coming back while also giving the algorithm more information for new recommendations. Lather, rinse, repeat! After a few good experiences, you'll be completely disinterested when yet another Hall Of Fame act goes on their umpteenth retirement tour. You'll be living in the now.
The benefits to giving this a try are enormous, both for young artists and for your own listening life. The worst that can happen is that a band gets huge and you find yourself priced out (or sold out) of their next concert. But then you’ll be able to say you knew them when, which is always fun. Let me know how it goes!

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