Because of Covid, we are in danger of sleepwalking into a hellish place where some of our most precious mechanisms are damaged, freedoms are eroded, and our shared culture handed to corporations on a plate. This is about to happen to rock music if we’re not careful.
Music is about to become moneyed in a way that we have never seen before. And they’ll tell you that it’s because it’s the only way rock can “survive.”
Expect solutions to be “offered” that are intended to “save” rock music over the coming years, perhaps to “improve” it, so it can be more refined, more profitable, and more respectable. Capitalists are about to buy music — and they’ll be shutting the doors on you.
Gentrification is a process. It takes the breakdown of an entire infrastructure before it can work. There has never been an infrastructure collapse like Covid. Gentrification involves the transformation of a whole community. And it requires “positive” business strategies. Such strategies involve social movement and political-economic change. British Chancellor Rishi Sunak (a guy who has a greater family fortune than the Queen) was quite clear about the new post-Covid setting; on October 6, 2020, he told artists, starkly, that they “should retrain and find other jobs.” He went on to say, in the same interview with ITV News: “As in all walks of life, everyone is having to adapt…”
If you don’t think rock music can go down a path of gentrification, remember that opera was (once) music for the masses. It’s hard to imagine it now, right? Although opera was born in royal courts, the music soon spread into packed churches and cathedrals (through the works of people like Monteverdi) and then into communities; initially as part of public parades and festivities, although it wasn’t long before it became popular entertainment for the masses. Opera brought broad comedy mixed with tragic and schmaltzy elements that were enjoyed by the average person. Opera appealed to the every-man. But the oligarchs feared that opera had gone mainstream. And so they strove to grab it back…
During the 17th and 18th centuries, rulers, nobles, and wealthy people used their patronage of the arts to support their own political and social ambitions, so they financed the opera houses. For example, after fire destroyed the former Teatro Regio Ducale in 1776, a group of wealthy Milanese gentlemen, who already owned private boxes in the burned-out theatre, received permission to build a new opera house on the former site of the church of Santa Maria alla Scala. Thus was born the famous “La Scala” (shown above.)
This would become one of the largest opera houses in Europe. The construction costs were covered by the sale of the luxurious gold boxes shown in the picture, which were quickly bought by wealthy business owners. The main floor had no chairs, so less wealthy spectators watched the shows standing up. And, like many theatres of the time, La Scala was also a casino, with games of chance in the lobby. British author Mary Shelley visited in 1840, and she reported: “La Scala serves, not only as the universal drawing-room for all the society of Milan, but every sort of trading transaction, from horse-dealing to stock-jobbing, is carried on in the pit…”
These days, principally in Europe, opera houses receive huge subsidies from the taxpaying public. For example, La Scala, mentioned above, gets about 40% of its annual income from public funds. In other words, “common people” pay for half of its shows, although it’s unlikely they’ll ever get to see them. In Britain the Opera North, the Royal Opera House, Welsh National Opera, and English National Opera (along with English National Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Northern Ballet) accounted for 22% of funds from the Arts Council’s national portfolio (during 2012-2015). Did you visit an opera or see a ballet in 2015? Yet you paid for them! In the ITV interview Sunak hinted such days were over!
The fear is that as money and opportunities dry up in a post-Covid world, prospects and capabilities will change, and we are likely to see rock music, and notably the humble rock gig, transform from a low value jam into a high value concert, probably taking place in all-seated amphitheater setting. Rock music is about to follow the same path as opera. In a post-Covid world, gentrifiers will be seen as “saviours” and will be placed upon pedestals by the “music loving” cognoscenti (sitting in ornate boxers, as the worthy did at La Scala) — while the rock ‘n’ roll industry will remodel itself to suit the (remaining) affluent market.
The UK pub rock scene (1972 to 1975) rose from a concerted effort to reclaim rock from the likes of “Billy Joel and Simon and Garfunkel” (according to rock critic Robert Christgau) while it ushered in a refreshing spirit of do it yourself energy that had not been seen since the skiffle craze of the mid-1950’s. It was an exciting time to make and enjoy music, and came in a period of unemployment and social unrest; punk was liberalising and significant as an art form. But could a punk-like rock revolution be repeated in the 2020s? It seems doubtful. Where are the pubs? Where are the improvisers? How can artists make money from DIY music when all revenue streams are closely controlled, under-performing, or rendered unfit for purpose?
And therein lies the problem… without a lot of money, rock music is doomed. To check this effect for yourself, ask what happened to punk. Green Day and Bad Religion signed to major labels. Blink-182 sounds were sold alongside Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. Billie Armstrong wrote the libretto for an opera (American Idiot 2004) and, yes, his opera went around all-seated theaters. In fact, punk sold-out when Clash signed with CBS Records. Nowadays we almost habitually connect punk with commercialism, mostly through high-street advertising and television promotion. When Vans (Warped Tour) and the Hot Topic chain more or less acquired punk rock for their own commercial purposes, they took away the last semblance of rawness and anger. Punk was supposed to be the music of disgruntled youth in the dole queue, but became the music of forty-something merchant bankers in the mall. It gentrified. Punk became what it most hated. Punk became “Billy Joel”.
So what’s next? Expect more venue closures. Expect big cancellations. Expect the end of “a party in a field.” Expect rock music to go the way they always wanted it: into the Albert Hall. Into the Royal Opera House. Into the all-seated theaters. When I saw that English National Opera staged Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell: The Musical at the London Coliseum, I knew it was the beginning of the end for rock music. I knew that once rock had been claimed by the operatocracy, the peasants would be turned away at the gates. And that happened long before Covid came along…
Also, expect ticket prices to be way out of your reach. Expect tours of cities you don’t live in. Expect intensive promotions, merchandising, selling, and marketing at every point in the transaction between you and the artist. It is already happening. You know it is. But Covid will be the excuse that big business has always wanted, the excuse to give that last big push into “horse-dealing” while ridding itself of the great unwashed.
What can you do about it? Fortunately, through social media we (as a public) have never been closer to the musical artists we admire. We can (and we should) interact with them (and they with us) all the time and in a way that excludes entrepreneurs and big business. Directly, face-to-face. On the socials.
As an audience, we must connect with the artists we hold dear — to tell them directly what we want from them, what we admire about them, what we need most, and offer them lots of ideas. And musicians, likewise, must short-circuit any obstructions that managers, agents, labels, and other business interests put in their way, to connect directly with an audience. They need to figure out for themselves what their audience needs, what they prefer, and what can be done to keep big business from muscling-in. All this activity should done by direct communication between artist and audience. The money men must be left out of the equation. This is the only way to get ahead of the inevitable embourgeoisement of our common sound.
Many artists have already started along this route and they are to be praised and supported. Others, of course, will see where the grass seems greener and may turn towards mammon, motivated by materialism. You know who they are. They already show streaks of mercantilism. You know the genuine ones too. Keep them close to your heart, and keep them safe…
But things look bleak.
Words: @neilmach 2020 ©
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