Rock isn’t dead.
We know this, you know this. It’s a consistently fruitful world, populated with passionate voices. But it’s also a different world compared to the one that really kick-started rock’n’roll as we know it.
It can feel like a rather contradictory, unpredictable state of affairs. Bands getting going today have to contend with a society that makes it easier than ever for them to make music (and share it), but won’t readily pay attention when they do. More broadly this is a society that exalts the chasing of dreams to the point where it’s so overcrowded with people doing precisely that that it’s very hard get noticed on a major scale – and thereby secure the backing you need to keep going.
The much-maligned millennial generation, including those with rock’n’roll hopes, was told to shoot for the stars... and we did, all of us, at the same time. As we did, the means (i.e. the kit, the disposable resources) with which to realise our aspirations kept growing.
So the technology is there. The motivation and impetus is there. And it’s an infinitely tougher market to break as a result, especially when rock simply isn’t the mainstream force it was in previous decades.
Earlier generations of rock stars made music as an act of rebellion, of expression, of cathartic release. The current crop of emerging bands do this too, but they also use words like ‘career’ and ‘business head’ a lot more. They do it because they have to, if they want a shot at making music more than a weekend hobby.
Like we said: a contradictory, unpredictable state of affairs...
So what’s life actually like for today’s emerging, unsigned bands trying to make their mark? How does our changed world actually affect the experience of being in an emerging rock band? What are the main obstacles? The positive shifts, as well as the frustrating ones?
Motley's Crue's long-awaited movie The Dirt hit Netflix last month, and while it reaffirmed much of what we know about the past – that rising bands could freely indulge in as much sex, drugs and rock'n'roll as opportunity would feasibly allow on route to fame and fortune – it's also a reminder that times have changed.
For a start, rock stars – now kept in check by relentless social media scrutiny and lessons from previous generations – generally indulge less than previous generations. Don't believe us? Ask a musician.
“It feels that new bands trying to get on and get a name for themselves can’t afford to come across in that excessive way,” says Steve Hill, singer/guitarist with Leicester rock power trio SKAM. “You can’t piss the venue off and smash the place up because they’ll never ever have you back! It's led to a polite breed of rockstar. Even if you look at some of the big boys like Black Stone Cherry, they carry themselves very well as far as I can tell – they’re very nice chaps. And I’m not sure exactly how I feel about all that.”
In truth he might as well be talking about himself. SKAM are “very nice chaps”, without a doubt. They're the sort of dudes you’d go for a pint with – as plenty of fans of theirs do, post-gigs. The sort you’d keep your daughters away from? Not so much. And that’s the kind of vibe that prevails at the gigs of so many bands at a similar level.
For Chris Catalyst, singer/guitarist with Leeds rockers Eureka Machines, it’s a similar story. His band play the kind of fizzling, brilliantly more-ish pop rock that would’ve made them stars in the 90s. The only trouble is they started in 2007. Today they’re a DIY operation playing 400-capacity venues rather than arenas, and are quite happy to do so.
“I think it’s cool when we play with a band and can go ‘wow, they were fantastic’, rather than doing that 90s thing where everyone was looking over their pints at each other, hating each other and slagging each other off,” he says. “Coz we’re now ultimately all in this together, and we’re trying to do something good and create a force for good, and the more people you can get behind that the better, rather than making it a competition about who’s got the most fans or the prettiest T-shirt.
"I think that’s a really nice thing about the underground rock scene in the UK; people do work together and support each other and buy each other’s merch and go to each other’s gigs and look after each other."
But beyond stories of the scene supporting itself and the less-than-lurid tales of bands comprehensively failing to trash their hotel rooms, there's something else going on.
As discussed recently in Classic Rock, we could be at a turning point. Most obviously, Greta Van Fleet’s recent, astonishingly swift rise appears to be proof that ‘proper rock bands’ can still break in a genuinely massive way.
But it doesn’t stop there. Biopics like Bohemian Rhapsody and Netflix’s The Dirt are taking classic rock, and the characters within them, to the mainstream. On both sides of The Atlantic The Struts are thriving. And Facebook group New Wave Of Classic Rock (NWOCR) has gathered thousands of followers since its inception in October 2017, generating a passionate, hugely supportive community of fans and emerging bands.
“We ran another group for rock and metal from back in the 70s/80s,” explains Jeremy Wills, one of the founders/admins of NWOCR, “and all we kept hearing members say there was ‘there are no good new rock bands anymore’ and ‘rock is dead’. We all knew this was untrue, as there seemed to be a resurgence in new rock bands coming through in the UK scene and beyond. So we wanted to start a group that would attract fans back to discovering new rock. To start with it was mostly the older rock fans that were joining, but more younger fans are joining now.”
Saying all this, the fact remains that for every band that makes it big – hell, for every band that manages to scrape a living on music alone – dozens more really struggle to keep functioning. This is nothing new (I’m not about to argue that all you had to do in the 70s was pick up a guitar for the lucrative offers to start pouring in), but as rock’n’roll has become further pushed into the underground, the whole nature of being in a smaller band has changed – from the audiences at their disposal to the lifestyle, the financial obstacles and more besides.
For Matt Gilmore, bassist with SKAM, rock’n’roll has been his raison d’etre for the best part of a decade. It’s seen him and his bandmates rise from garage-based beginnings to making quality records and playing tonnes of gigs to devoted, enthusiastic fans.
But like so many artists operating at this level, he also has a day job – as an electrical engineer, while his bandmates Steve (vocals/guitar) and Neal (drums) are both secondary school teachers – and has grappled with the practical, personal and financial obstacles symptomatic of the everyday life of bands. The three of them will get home at 3am, having driven back from a gig in another city, and get up at six to go to work. But like so many of their contemporaries they’ve so far failed to step up to the next level, and his feelings today are a little torn.
“I’ve realised I’ve now played over a thousand gigs,” Gilmore tells us backstage at Camden’s Underworld, a couple of hours before SKAM’s headline set. “I’ve played music for a long time and we’ve been working hard as a band, and I suppose I’m confused with the whole scenario, because I know we’re not bad.”
‘Confused’ is an appropriate word here. From a business perspective there's never been more data available to prospective label partners, but there's no guarantee that those Instagram likes will translate into hard sales, and this can make it hard to see exactly what rock fans really want.
And yet there are new bands; lots of them, including ones that probably ‘should’ be bigger than they are. We spend our days at Louder listening to new music, but in an age when more music is made than ever before, you can guarantee there'll be amazing acts who will never cross our path.
Sheer volume of competition is one of the big challenges. The classic rock and metal giants are touring for longer with bigger, more expensive shows – reliably drawing back returning customers and first-timers who were too young to see them back in the 70s/80s/90s.
We’re not knocking this; if you love Iron Maiden, say, and want to see them for the tenth time, why shouldn’t you? But with ticket prices not going down anytime soon, and other commitments – work, family, etc. – getting in the way, it's only natural that even the most committed fans go out less than they used to.
And it’s not just competition from other bands; it’s the immense waves of entertainment, information and procrastination at our fingertips between Netflix, Amazon, Youtube, social media scrolling, regular ‘old fashioned’ freeview TV and more. ‘More’ is the operative word here: there’s more of everything fighting for our attention.
“It’s difficult because on the one hand it’s easier than ever to produce and release music, in the same way it’s easier than ever to write and release a book or a short film,” says Catalyst. “But because of that there’s a real dilution of what’s out there, and as a music fan that means you just have to dig a little deeper. Which sort of makes the experience a bit more fun, if you’re willing to put the work in.”
“One of the other things is there’s simply a lot of bands,” Gilmore agrees. “We were just on tour for six weeks, but everyone else is. There are so many festivals, there’s a lot of gigs to choose from.”
Moment of frankness here: classic rock’n’roll has been so thoroughly explored over the years it’s hard to call most of it (great or crap) today truly ‘original’. This doesn’t necessarily matter – indeed, it often doesn’t in the slightest – until you look at the formulaic, uninspired end of the rock spectrum.
In the worst cases it can seem as if they’ve thrown together some inoffensive NWOBHM-meets-’vintage rock’ chords, mixed in some cliches about booze and women, added long hair, chains and denim vests, and think they can call what they’re doing ‘good music’. By default. Simply because it has the hallmarks of ‘proper rock’. But rock is just as capable of producing shit as any other genre. And at the risk of stating the bloody obvious, good tunes still matter if you want to be noticed.
But more often it’s not as simple as that. How many bands have you been amazed by, only for them to languish in obscurity or vanish altogether? Probably at least a couple, or more if you regularly check out new music. Every week in Classic Rock’s Tracks Of The Week feature alone, we find quality new bands and songs that we think everyone should hear but have actually reached, well, almost nobody.
Then there's demographics. There are exceptions (See: Greta Van Fleet, The Struts) but rock audiences are, for the most part, getting older. Whereas in the 70s, 80s and even the 90s a rock band in their 20s could realistically expect to be looking out at punters of a similar age to them – or, as a colleague of mine once put it, “people they’d want to fuck”.
When I meet Gilmore earlier outside the Underworld, hours before he and SKAM go onstage, the eager, longtime fans chatting excitedly to him outside are a smiling middle-aged couple in sensible cold weather jackets. As Gilmore tells us, they first saw them when SKAM supported The Answer years ago, and have come back to their gigs since.
“We’ve got that classic sound, we’ve not done the Kerrang! or Radio 1 thing,” he says later. “So for me it’s the crowd that lived through the 80s. The kids have grown up, they’ve paid the mortgage off, and now they can come back to shows. The ages go up to 50-65. I’m not playing gigs to 20-year-olds.”
The by-product of this audience shift is a lifestyle and image makeover for the entire rock spectrum. Led Zeppelin, Motley Crue and Van Halen were performing for ‘the kids’. Rock bands today still perform for those kids, except they’re now adults – and because we’re all living longer than ever before, we want to keep enjoying ourselves for longer.
“People are getting older later,” Chris Catalyst agrees. “My mum was going to Glastonbury until two years ago, and her parents wouldn’t have dreamt of going to a ‘rock concert’ probably past [the age of] 22. There’s people that come to our gigs now that are old enough to be my mum and dad, which is cool, and they’re bringing their kids, even their grandkids. On a societal level I think it’s great, you have people having things in common with their grandparents - which two or three generations ago never happened.”
“In the same way that whatever race you are or whatever country you’re from or whatever sex you are you should be able to enjoy whatever your choose,” he continues. “My girlfriend was telling me recently about Safe Gigs For Women, because she’s been touched up at gigs before and that’s bullshit. It needs to stop. And it’s good that people can be called out on that. Gigs should be a safe space for anyone, whether you’re 70 or black or female or male or 16 or anything.”
Ultimately, however, a huge amount of it boils down to cold hard finance. Money is a huge challenge for growth in any industry, but in present-day rock it’s especially huge. Today’s up-and-coming bands don’t make money through album sales. Even in Classic Rock’s lifetime this hasn’t always been the case; when we first went on sale, online streaming wasn’t a consideration. Now it’s the way most people listen to music.
“The main earning capacity for any band nowadays is through playing live and selling merchandise,” says Peter Keevil of TMR Band Management, “and I include albums and CDs as merchandise. As you begin to 'succeed' and play larger shows that can earn more money, your costs tend to go up as well. Be that a sound engineer, lighting engineer, tour manager, merch person, transport, accommodation, etc etc. These are all costs that would need to be met before the act sees a penny. But again it is achievable with the right mindset and, of course, application.”
That said, plenty of good bands end up seriously struggling, or packing it in altogether. In recent months we’ve seen the likes of Dirty Thrills, The Amorettes, Black Spiders, Biters, Kill It Kid and more go their separate ways, although The Amorettes have since reconfigured their line-up to fulfil their touring commitments. The recent controversy surrounding Pledge Music, in which artists registered with the site have reportedly gone unpaid, has shaken confidence in what has been considered a ‘safe space’ for independent and smaller-scale artists.
It's not an easy ride. SKAM, for instance, recall agents asking for five-figure sums to buy on to a tour, and a record label (they won’t say who) offering them a service deal for a six-figure sum.
“We looked into label services as it was something new, and I know a few people so I made a few phone calls,” Gilmore says, “but ‘£250,000 and we’ll release your album for you’? I won’t lie to you, we looked at raising the funds to do it, but in the end it was a case of… I think we can be successful and do it for a living, so I’m like ‘let’s invest in ourselves and let’s do it’”.
Keevil reports similarly gulp-inducing experiences: “One of my acts was on tour in Europe having invested thousands only for the tour to be pulled five dates into a 25-date run because the booker went bankrupt having not paid the transport company! For another band, I'd secured a multi-album record label offer, only for it to be withdrawn just weeks later because the label was at capacity. Sure, I'm not in those bands, but you do celebrate the highs and suffer the lows in a very similar way.”
At pretty much every level, but especially at the smaller/emerging stage, bands depend more on gigs to sustain themselves than ever. But although this means more people forking out to see their favourite classic veterans, it also means more grassroots communities and fanbases building up around smaller live venues and tours.
“The scene is very live-based at the moment,” observes Jeremy Wills, of NWOCR. “There are a lot of bands touring and they all seem part of a very friendly scene. I've been a rock fan since 1986 and always supported live music, and I have never known so many good rock bands as we have now.”
And if you’re in one of said bands, and you love playing music, chances are you’ll keep doing that regardless of audience numbers. Some will never get the huge turnouts, and for others it just takes longer, but the experience – the drug, even – of writing and playing (not to mention spending time with bandmates you hopefully like) is there regardless.
“If you really want it, it really doesn't matter about day jobs, costs, real life, or playing to the audience,” says Pete Spiby, Black Spiders frontman-turned solo artist. “If it’s in you, it’s in you until you die. Getting attention is a lot trickier than, say, twenty years ago, even ten… There have always been other distractions, but if you are savvy, you can be included in those distractions and in your own way get involved in the psyche of the culture subliminally... You just need to be on your game. You can’t blame society and technology advancements for not getting noticed.”
“Our passion is music and that’s why I get in bed at three o’clock in the morning and get up at six and go to work,” Gilmore says. “I’ve got two daughters, one’s five and one’s one. We have literally given it our lives. I do it because I love it and I think we’re good. I think Steve’s one of the best guitarists out there, and not only can he play guitar he can really sing…”
He pauses and laughs, adding: “I mean we’re all musicians, we’re all arrogant, we all think we’re in the best band.”
Watching SKAM play to the 100 or so people gathered at The Underwiorld, it’s easy to forget the more taxing side of band life. Everyone has a thoroughly good time, lapping up chunky riffs, grin-inducing hooks and the living-in-the-moment faces of the three guys onstage. The songs aren’t rewriting any rulebooks – it’s like a happy marriage between the Foo Fighters and classic 70s/80s hard rock – but that’s hardly the point. And when it’s all over they decamp to the merch table to chat and pose for photos with gaggles of punters.
“The people we meet, they love it, and we love it but without them we have nothing,” Gilmore tells us, “we’re not really SKAM without them, we’re just three dudes that are old friends and love playing music. It’s the fans that come out in the T-shirts and know the words. They’re the carrier of what we do.”
“Every day was like a dream,” Spiby says, looking back on his years with Black Spiders. “Playing songs with people you have been friends with for that long and getting to travel around together and melt some faces, what more could anyone ask for? Like any ‘family’ there are disagreements, but everything was sorted out fairly. No arguments, no public spats, no on stage fighting. Every show was a high point.”
As corny as it sounds, the excitement of hearing a new song that makes us think ‘Hell Yes!’ never fades. And that’s very hard to kill that off. Need some tips? In addition to the bands cited previously try the likes of Joyous Wolf, Bishop Gunn, Thundermother, Lovehoney, KOYO, Kris Barras, Dorothy, Ulysses, Atari Ferrari, Austin Gold, Little Triggers, Rosalie Cunningham, The Texas Gentlemen, Hollowstar, Spielbergs and many, many more besides.
Rock may have gone further underground, but it’s never vanished – and there have always been people listening. And as all trends have a way of coming and going, who’s to say rock won’t reclaim a greater stronghold on the wider public? Right now there’s certainly the ammunition for it...