Old Players, New Players:

The Main Event That Isn't

1If you have a look at the concert schedules around Australia (and elsewhere in the Western world) these days, you could be forgiven for thinking that you've suddenly been transported back in time: there is a procession of old players, playing (mainly) old songs. The Rolling Stones came through a while ago, as did the Eagles, Creedence Clearwater Revival's John Fogerty, and James Brown. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant played updated versions of Led Zeppelin's music, with some new songs strewn in on occasion. The Beach Boys served up a double blast from the past, touring with America ("Horse with No Name") as their opening act. Australian content in this trend is provided by the odd assortment of media darling John Farnham, ex-Grease girl Olivia Newton-John, and former Phantom of the Opera Anthony Warlow, who are touring under the unlikely name of 'The Main Event'; Australian rock legends Cold Chisel have also reformed recently, with a reunion tour to follow. On the more prestigious end of the pop mainstream, The Three Tenors have only had one concert in Australia recently, but publicity-savvy as they have proven themselves to be during the Football World Cup it's a fairly safe bet that they'll be rolling into Sydney Opera House in time for the last Olympics of this millennium, in the year 2000. Thankfully, we've so far been spared of a remaining-Beatles reunion and tour (they did release their Anthology CDs and videos, though), but it wouldn't really come as a surprise anymore.

2Why this wave of musical exhumations; why now? Admittedly, some of the reunions produced interesting results (Page & Plant's update of Led Zeppelin songs with world music elements comes to mind), but largely the bands involved have restricted themselves to playing old favourites or producing new music that is content with plagiarising older material, and so it's unlikely that the Beach Boys are touring, for example, because they have a strong desire to take surf music to the next level of art. A better explanation, it seems, can be found in the music industry and its structures, and in the way those structures are increasingly becoming inadequate for today's mediascape.

3For much of this century, popular music in the Western world -- while music itself is a global obsession, the marketing industry largely remains dominated by the West -- has come in waves: to give a broad overview, jazz was outdone by rock'n'roll, which was followed by the British invasion and the British blues revival, leading to the stadium rock of the 1970s (co-existing with disco), which in turn caused the punk revolution that fizzled out into New Wave and the new romantics, which were superseded by Alternative Rock and Britpop. Looking at this succession, it's not difficult to see that the waves have become smaller over time, though: recent styles have failed by far to reach the heights of interest and influence that earlier waves like rock'n'roll and the British invasion achieved. How many people will remember, say, Oasis in three decades; how many will The Beatles? The question seems unfair. This gradual decrease in wave amplitude over the years is directly linked to changes in the media structure in the Western world: earlier, new musical waves swept the few available channels of radio and TV to their full extent; severe bandwidth limitations forced the broadcasters to divert their entire attention to the latest trends, with no air time to be spared for the music of yesteryear.

4 As the number of channels increased, however, so did the potential for variety; today, most cities of sufficient size at least have stations catering for listeners of classical music, over-40s easy listening, mainstream rock, and alternative rock, and perhaps there's also an open-access channel for the more obscure styles; stations for more specific tastes -- all-jazz, all-heavy metal, all-goth -- are now also viable in some cities. As new style waves come in, they might still sweep through the mainstream stations, but will only manage to cause some minor ripples amongst the less central channels. Similar trends exist among music stores, and the music press. The mainstream might remain in the middle of the musical spectrum, therefore, but it's been narrowed considerably, with more and more music fans moving over to the more specialised channels. There is now "an increasingly fragmented international marketplace of popular musics" (Campbell Robinson et al. 272).

5 In media-rich Western nations, this trend is strengthened further by changes to the mediascape brought on by the Internet: the Net is the ultimate enpander of bandwidth, where anyone can add another channel if their needs aren't met by the existing ones. With an unlimited number of specialised channels, with fans deciding their musical diet for themselves instead of having radio DJs or music journalists do it for them, and with the continued narrowing of the mainstream as it loses more and more listeners, new waves of musical styles lose their impact almost immediately now. Whatever your specific tastes, you'll find like-minded people, specialty labels and CD retailers, perhaps even an Internet radio station -- there is now less need than ever to engage with outside trends. Whether that development is entirely desirable remains a point of debate, of course.

6 The paradox for the big old players in the music industry is that the ongoing globalisation of their markets hasn't also led to a globalisation of musical tastes -- largely because of this exponential increase and diversification of channels. Music is a powerful instrument of community formation, and community formation implies first and foremost a drawing of boundaries to everything that isn't part of the community (Turner 2): as musical styles diversify, therefore, there are now more musical taste communities than anyone would care to list. Instead of turning to some mainstreamed, global style of music, listeners are found to turn to the local -- either to the music produced geographically local to them, or to a form of virtually local music, that is, the music of a geographically dispersed, but (through modern communications technologies) otherwise highly unified taste community (Bruns sect. 1 bite 8ff.).

7There certainly are more such groupings than the industry would care to cater for: the division of their resources in order to follow musical trends in a large number of separate communities is eating into the profits of the large multinationals, while small specialty labels are experiencing a resurgence (despite the major labels' attempts to discourage them). As Wallis & Malm note, "the transformation of the business side of the music industry into a number of giant concerns has not stopped small enterprises, often run by enthusiasts, from cropping up everywhere" (270). The large conglomerates are remarkably ill-prepared to deal with such a plurality of styles: everything in their structure is crying out for a unified market with few, major, and tightly controlled trends.

8This is where we (and the industry) return to the Beach Boys & Co., then. Partly out of a desire for the good old times when the music business was simple, partly to see if a revival of the old marketing concepts may not reverse the tide once more, the industry majors have unleashed this procession of the musical undead (with only a few notable exceptions) upon us; it is a last-stand attempt to regather the remaining few servicable battleships of the mainstream fleet to grab whatever riches are still to be found there. Judging by ticket prices alone (Page & Plant charged over A$110 per head), there still is money to be made, but these prices also indicate that such 'mainstream' acts are now largely a spectacle for well-to-do over-35s. Amongst younger audiences, the multinationals remain mostly clueless, despite a few efforts to create massively hyped, but musically lobotomised lowest-common-denominator acts, from the Spice Girls to Céline Dion or U2. Most of the acts the major industry players cling to as their main attractions have quite simply lost relevance to all but the most gullible of audiences -- in this context, the advertisment of the travelling Farnham / Newton-John / Warlow show as 'The Main Event' seems almost touching in its denial of reality.

9It's not like the industry hasn't tried this strategy before, of course: reacting to the fragmented musical world of the early 1970s, with styles from folk to hard rock all equally vying for a share of the audience, the labels created stadium rock -- oversized concerts of overproduced bands who eventually became alienated from their audiences, causing the radical back-to-the-roots revolution of punk. Stadium rock mark II is bound to fail even more quickly and decisively: with most of its proponents not even creating any excitement in the all-important 'young adults' market in the first place, it's the wave that wasn't, and should properly be seen as the best sign yet of the industry's loss of touch with its fragmenting market(s). It's time for new, smaller, and more mobile players to take over from the multinationals, it seems.