Every corner of popular culture has its breakout stars. It’s an age-old concept: the hot young thing who arrives out of nowhere and becomes the talk of the town, racking up column inches (or the modern equivalent, YouTube views), starting conversations. Hollywood has them, TV has them, pop music, hip-hop and R&B have them.
The one area that hasn’t had an honest-to-God breakout star in a long time is rock’n’roll. Not since the late 90s and the days of nu metal, Marilyn Manson and the Foo Fighters has it produced a band or artist that has broken beyond the genre’s boundaries. That isn’t to say that it hasn’t had its next-gen success stories – Ghost, Halestorm and countless others have all given lie to the glib notion that rock is dead – but no one has truly stormed the gates of mainstream culture the way they used to.
Or at least they haven’t until now. In the past two years, Greta Van Fleet have gone from being a bunch of goofy Midwestern kids who sound a lot like Led Zeppelin to being proper breakout stars. The Michigan band have crossed over in a way that many people thought would never happen again. They’ve played at Coachella and celeb-studded parties – the sort of places bands who look and sound like GVF do don’t normally get invited to. They bagged four Grammy nominations, including one for the prestigious Best New Artist (the last rock band to be nominated was Paramore back in 2008, and actually won the prize for Best Rock Album; the last one to win was Evanescence four years before that).
But Greta Van Fleet represent something bigger too: the potential resurgence of rock’n’roll as a cultural force. Last month Rival Sons released Feral Roots, their sixth album and their first for a major label, Atlantic. British nouveau-glam rockers The Struts spent a large chunk of 2018 supporting the Foo Fighters on tour in the US, and their second album, Young&Dangerous, was one of the year’s most talked-about releases.
“I think there was a scepticism on the part of the music industry that this kind of music would ever come back,” says Jason Flom, CEO of Lava Records and the man who discovered and signed Greta Van Fleet. “But now you’ve got a bunch of guys playing pure rock music, who are bringing this sound and this experience to a new generation.”
It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when rock began its commercial decline. The last genuinely momentous movement was nu metal in the late 90s. But even at its height, that genre was never a guaranteed express elevator to the top.
“Breaking a rock band is a long process, regardless of the climate,” says Benjamin Berkman, manager of The Struts, the British band who are leading the charge alongside Greta Van Fleet. “As the great Bon Scott said, it’s a long way to the top – and that was in 1975.”
But rock’s commercial potency undeniably began to wane in the mid-00s. A thesis could be written on the cultural and generational changes that precipitated this decline, but one major factor that played a part was that young people found other ways to entertain themselves.
“Traditionally the music industry and its investment in new talent is led by the younger generation, and young people are attracted to things other than music,” says Chris Ingham, co-organiser of the classic rock-themed Ramblin’ Man Fair festival. “Even within music, they have more choice now. Grime is just this generation’s punk.”
The emergence of streaming culture has only compounded matters. The likes of Spotify (launched in 2006) and Apple Music (2015) tend to spotlight more popular – and lucrative – genres such as pop, R&B and hip-hop. Rock fans have to take at least part of the blame themselves for that – studies show that they’re less likely to engage with Spotify than fans of other styles of music.
“I believe that the rock fan is more about the album than the pop or hip-hop fan is,” says Benjamin Berkman. “Those audiences seem to be song-driven, and with a few exceptions probably don’t consume entire albums or longer sets of music. To be deemed a ‘credible’ rock band you still need an album or at least an EP. While EPs and albums certainly exist on the streaming sites, it doesn’t seem that most consumers utilise these platforms for that purpose.”
How you view the potential return of rock depends on whether you think it went away in the first place. Every festival essentially stands or falls on the strength of its bill. Ramblin’ Man Fair boss Chris Ingham says a big part of its draw is their commitment to new bands. The likes of Black Stone Cherry, Rival Sons and Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown have all appeared on the main stage at Ramblin’ Man, while the popular Rising Stage offers a unique platform for new and unsigned bands. Acts that have broken through on the latter include Bad Touch and bluesrock hotshot Kris Barras.
“There is a huge amount of talent out there,” says Ingham. “We had more than five hundred bands apply to play on the Rising Stage last year. I would have given the top thirty of them recording contracts. They were all that good.”
He says the Rising Stage’s popularity is indicative of the passion that remains for rock music – and a desire from the people involved to share their discoveries with like-minded music fans.
“Many people who come to the festival are lifelong rock fans,” Ingham continues. “It’s often GETTY literally a lifestyle. And while they may have their favourite bands from 1980, they didn’t give up listening to or wishing to discover new music in any way. ”
The presence of a thriving grass-roots community of rock fans with an appetite for new music is underlined by a Facebook group called The New Wave Of Classic Rock. It was founded in 2017 as a platform for people to share videos and recommendations of new bands they’ve heard or seen. “We all felt that there were so many quality new bands around,“ says its co-founder and administrator Jeremy Wills. “It really feels like something is happening.”
Wills says one of the reasons the group was set up was as a reaction to rock fans who were disparaging of the current scene. “We were fed up of people saying: ‘There’s no good new bands, music’s rubbish,’” he says. “So we said: ‘How can we think of something to get the older fans to check out the new rock bands?’ And that’s where we came up with the New Wave Of Classic Rock name. We thought it might get them to have a look.”
It’s clearly working – the group currently has 10,000 members. But it’s more than just a means of swapping tips on exciting new bands – it also acts as a support system for the grass-roots rock scene. When Australian band Tequila Mockingbyrd had their equipment stolen during a European tour earlier this year, Wills and his colleagues printed and sold T-shirts to help them out financially. When a Bad Touch gig in Cornwall was left on the verge of cancellation after the promoter pulled out, the group swung into action again, advertising the show and adding another band to the bill. After NWOCR marshalled the troops, ticket sales for the gig rocketed.
The rise of Greta Van Fleet has provoked what Wills calls “a Marmite reaction” on the group’s page. “Some people love them, some people don’t. But it feels like they can open the door for a shedload of other younger bands. If it means even one teenager starts playing rock music, that’s a good thing.”
While the success of Ramblin’ Man Fair’s Rising Stage and the New Wave Of Classic Rock Facebook group is proof of a vibrant grass-roots scene, it’s a huge leap from there to putting rock music front and centre on the cultural landscape once again.
With rock fans generally having a mutually antipathetic relation with Spotify and Apple Music, and mainstream radio virtually ignoring the genre – even Greta Van Fleet struggle to get played on pop radio – it has forced bands and managers to come up with more inventive ways of reaching potential audiences.
For The Struts, this has included appearing at the Victoria’s Secret’s Fashion Show, and duetting with pop star Kesha on a version of this year’s Body Talks single. As Struts manager Benjamin Berkman, points out, the latter isn’t a new idea – Aerosmith did it more than 30 years ago when they teamed up with Run DMC for Walk This Way.
“I think it’s always been important to push the limits and look for ways to expose yourself to the fan bases of other, perhaps more popular artists,” says Berkman, who points out that Kesha is “a total rock chick at heart” and has collaborated with Alice Cooper and the Eagles Of Death metal. “Given that the listening audience at rock radio is paltry compared to those at the pop formats, you definitely need to selectively find ways to separate yourself from the pack, while of course doing things that remain ‘on brand’.”
That’s not to say the traditional routes to success don’t still work. “Honestly, from where I sit it’s about live shows and it’s about playing for more people in each city than you played for the last time you were in that city,” says Pete Ganbarg, the A&R executive responsible for signing Rival Sons to Atlantic Records for their new album, Feral Roots. “Which is not that different from how it went in the seventies. If you’re getting into the rock business as a label, you have to be more patient. You can get a hot rap record that’s going to stream twenty, thirty million times a week. You can’t expect that from a rock record.”
Does the modern music industry have that kind of patience?
“I know that Atlantic Records does,” he says. “Our philosophy is definitely one of patience and artist development. I would rather be the one label with patience, and hopefully be patient enough to be standing side-stage at Madison Square Garden when Rival Sons or Halestorm or whoever it is is actually headlining. ”
Of course, being on a major label isn’t the be all and end all. Neither is it a guarantee of success, as countless bands can vouch. But wider commercial success is indicative of how healthy a scene is – and, let’s face it, everyone wants to see their team winning.
There are positive ramifications to what’s happening. The music industry habitually follows its own lead. If one band does well, its natural inclination is to invest in more bands like it. By that measure, the success of Greta Van Fleet could have a beneficial effect on the likes of Rival Sons (who, ironically, were doing this long before the GVF’s Kiszka brothers picked up their instruments).
The ‘Greta Van Fleet effect’ is already starting to kick in, according to their label’s Jason Flom. He says he has seen a rise in the amount of music the label has received from pure rock’n’roll bands. “I have and I love it. Naturally, now more than ever bands want to be on the label that Greta Van Fleet are on. It’s logical – they see what’s happening, and they recognise that there’s a good vibe there.”
(By contrast, Atlantic’s Pete Ganbarg says he hasn’t noticed any uplift. “Not specifically, no. I think that two guitars, bass and drums was here before them and will be here after them.”)
The behind-the-scenes factors that combine to make or break a band or artist are many and complex: the right business strategy, a strong team behind you, the support of radio and streaming service, and, crucially, great songs. “And only the very best will make it to the top,” says Chris Ingham. “But that still leaves enough others that will be good enough at a level whereby they can make decent-sounding music and perform at decent-sized venues.”
Ultimately, what we’re seeing now is just the latest cycle that stretches back to the beginnings of the music industry. Genres, notably rock and hiphop, have had the last rites read to them, only to come back stronger than ever.
“I think all pop culture is cyclical, and right now the zeitgeist is reflecting hip-hop and pop artists as the ‘rock stars’ of today,” says Benjamin Berkman. “At one point no one could imagine a band like Guns N’ Roses or Nirvana topping the charts. But they did, and I think it will again should another band emerge with music that is as brilliant and has a frontman or woman of the calibre of Axl Rose or Kurt Cobain.”
Even if GVF do prove to be rock’s sole new breakout stars, they’ve at least proved that the genre is far from dead. There’s no point waiting for the resurrection of rock’n’roll. It’s already happening.
Five bands who could be the next Greta Van Fleet
Llivewires whose dirty rock’n’roll noise sounds like the bastard offspring of the blues and heavy metal. They’ve attracted the attention of both Slash and Roadrunner Records (who recently signed them). For fans of: Greta Van Fleet, The White Stripes.
Kentucky power-pop garage-rock heroes who are unafraid to rock out ’77-style. The title of their second album, 2017’s The World’s Best American Band, might be tongue-in-cheek, but it’s also pretty accurate. For fans of: Cheap Trick, Biters.
Ultra-classy LA rockers fronted by powerhouse singer Dorothy Martin. Their two albums, 2015’s Rockisdead and 2017’s 28 Days In The Valley, were released on rap superstar Jay-Z’s Roc Nation label. For fans of: Halestorm, the Rolling Stones.
The unlikely point where DIY punk, 70s rock and vintage R&B all meet. Singer Tina Halladay has charisma to burn, while the band’s 2017 debut album, Need To Feel Your Love, adds an underground twist to classic rock’n’roll. For fans of: Alabama Shakes, AC/DC.
They are: “New York City rock’n’roll”, according to them. An utterly glorious nod to the kind of skyscraper-chorused primo 80s hard rock that grunge tried – and clearly failed – to kill. For fans of: Def Leppard, Skid Row, H.e.a.t