Why grandad rock still rolls

Published in The Guardian (June 29th)

Two of the most powerful brands in popular culture merge on Saturday. The Rolling Stones, creators of perhaps the most efficient money machine in music, finally succumb to the lure of the Glastonbury Festival, which somehow retained its spirit and soul while evolving into a linchpin of the British summer. It is a defining moment for both – and one that highlights the enduring dominance of the rock dinosaurs.

The Stones show should be epic. But look at how the same old names are filling stadiums and headlining festivals: Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Elton John, The Who, Iron Maiden and the Beach Boys. Next year, the Eagles land in the UK. These men of mostly pensionable age remain the people who can be relied on to shift tickets and sell music in difficult times. Black Sabbath just topped the album charts for the first time in 43 years, succeeding Rod Stewart with his first number one for 30 years.

This is no longer dad rock; we have entered the age of grandad rock. Although easy to mock, there is something almost glorious about the enduring appeal of their music. The artists themselves accept the incongruity of an art form once associated with youth rebellion turning into a lucrative cash cow for a few lucky pensioners. I was at an awards ceremony when Alice Cooper joked how strange it was so many winners still had jet-black hair, despite setting out in the 60s.

But without disparaging the acts – well, not all of them – it is depressing to see a vital national industry propped up by the past, reliant on homogenised former glories rather than focusing more on the messy future. Few of these artists remain genuine creative forces; instead they churn out hits from the past for baby boomer fans. The same stifling sort of nostalgia can be seen at festivals padding out programmes with second-rate vintage acts and promoters encouraging third-rate groups to reform.

The reasons are obvious. The downturn hit the young hardest, so it’s far easier to rely on old stalwarts appealing to richer demographics, especially when the average cost of three days at a festival is £423. Little wonder nearly two-thirds of teenagers cannot afford these events. Meanwhile the music industry lies shattered, with margins slashed and even the live market squeezed. So as it struggles to respond to the digital era, it has been seduced by the instant hit of overhyped sales rather than the more tortuous task of developing artists for the future. The result is bands selling hundreds of thousands of copies of their first album, then in bargain bins by their third.

Additionally, the relationship between artists and their audience has changed. In a single-orientated age of near unlimited musical choice, musicians are less important to fans than in the days when a teenager might invest a month’s pocket money in an album. An artist can sell 5m copies of a track and fail to see it translate into a significant social media following. Meanwhile more inventive dance and electronic music is replacing rock, while there is minimal coverage of new artists on television and so many extra distractions competing for attention for potential new fans.

Paradoxically, all this comes at a time when music has never been consumed more widely – global sales of recorded music grew last year for the first time this century. British artists account for an astonishing 13% of sales around the world, boosted by breakthroughs from Adele and Mumford & Sons. Yet even groups selling out middle-sized venues and playing good slots at Glastonbury struggle to earn a decent living – while who really believes Marcus Mumford and his mates will be headlining huge festivals for decades to come?

This combination of fickle fans, a risk-averse industry and many more artists freed by technology to chase a share of the pot, makes it nearly impossible to sustain careers to the long-lasting pinnacles of their predecessors. Curiously, this makes for a more dynamic music scene and creates more opportunities for artists. But it also means the most discussed album release this year was by David Bowie, aged 66; and the most talked about live event is when a band formed half a century ago walks out for the first time on that famous stage in Somerset.

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