Welcome to this months installment of the “Musicians Corner,” where each month a different musician from the NYC DIY landscape sounds off on an important topic in the music scene. This month, the reigns were given to Nick Sumner, front man of Nick Sumner and the Assistance on the complicated subject on if rock music is dying.
I was asked recently whether I thought rock was dying. It took me a full quarter of a second to say “no.”
To lay down the bedrock of this conversation, Merriam-Webster describes Rock and Roll as: popular music usually played on electronically amplified instruments and characterized by a persistent heavily accented beat, repetition of simple phrases, and often country, folk, and blues elements.
Rock music is a feeling. A wave. A message. A meaning. Forget sub-genres for a moment (rock, grunge, alternative, pop rock, pop punk, folk rock, industrial, shoegaze, post industrial new age… whatever) – looking to the above definition, rock centers around loud instruments and a persistent, accented beat.
Elvis took country and the blues and made it rock, and MJ took rock and made it pop. But Elton played the piano like a maniac (with his feet) and that was still rock. Pink Floyd’s Richard Wright was a sonic painter on keyboard and synth – and they had a record in the rock charts for over 900 weeks. I think the point is that it doesn’t have to be electric guitar alone that makes music rock; it’s as much the song, performer, message, and delivery of it that makes it rock.
But I just mentioned four musicians by name, three of whom are dead, and one who is literally on his retirement tour. This must mean that rock is dead or dying… there’s no one to carry the torch… no one to bring the thunder to the pit…
Everything moves in stages. Everything cycles. In the early 50’s it was crooners and country, until a pretty boy shook his pelvis on the Ed Sullivan Show and later became the King. The 60’s brought Beatlemania and the British Invasion. The influence of American country was gone from the music, but the American blues were deep in the roots. The 60’s ended with Led Zeppelin screaming onto the scene, but in the 70’s, Disco killed rock with a case of Saturday Night Fever.
With a dose of more cowbell, Disco Fever was cured and by the mid- to late 70’s, punk and new wave were coming out of the same club. Blondie, Talking Heads, The Ramones – all came out of CBGB’s in New York.
Nick Sumner and the Assistance playing the Way Station in July of 2019
Sadly, I think America, the country that birthed Rock and Roll, has turned its back on the genre. We have become so consumed by the instantaneousness of modern life, that no one has time for a well-crafted song. Bite-sized inanity being promoted by a member of the mega-conglomerate of the “Big 4” labels (Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, and EMI Group) is what makes it to mainstream. And beyond the label, it’s hard to go out and support local music – the small venues all seem to be dwindling and conforming to a method of playing that does not support the musician.
And yet, with the DIY method, the power is in our fingertips. To use Jason Isbell as an example, he and his wife (songwriter and poet Amanda Shires) started their own record label that handles all aspects of their music business. Granted, their success allows them to move more units, to use an old music biz term, but the concept of DIY is in the veins of their music and business model.
Rather than looking to the major labels – or any label – who in their heyday brought us Allman Brothers, Guns n Roses, Nirvana, and Foo Fighters, why not look to the artists who answer to no one when releasing the music in their souls. What I mean is, artists on a label answer to corporate heads, marketing managers, and the needs and wants of current trends. New artists that aren’t beholden to anyone but themselves and their fans. Those same fans who know to expect the band to be themselves. It’s sort of inspiring to think about this freedom allows us as artists.
You can look to artists like Gary Clark Jr., Catfish and the Bottlemen, Rival Sons, Khruangbin, The Bros. Landreth, or Biffy Clyro to carry the torch. They’re simply a slice of the rock world (remember, sub genres don’t matter here), but their power is obvious and their impact will be felt for years. And, of course, look to the local scene! Dollars to donuts, some of the best, most inspired, and heartfelt music will come from the band that rehearses down the street.
Remember, everything moves in cycles. Rock is not dead. It will evolve, but it will never die.
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