Classic Rock’s Era of the Album Gives Way to Today’s Track Stars

Success today is all about the tune and the team behind the artist

Katy Perry

Classic rock is dead.

Not only are the children of the baby boomers pushing 30, in some cases exceeding that threshold, there’s a whole new generation of barely pubescent children who have never experienced freeform radio and sitting in front of the stereo listening to full-length albums.

During the MTV era, at least different genres of music were entertained. It was not only Boy George and Duran Duran, but Bob Dylan and Tom Petty too. There was still a thread to the past. But now that thread has been broken.

Exhibit one: Paul McCartney’s new track “New.”

It’s just not good enough. Sure, he worked with Mark Ronson, but someone was afraid to tell him to push it just a little bit further, because just like the AM radio of the ’60s, Top 40 only has time for the best.

Of course Top 40 is a shadow of its former self. The deejays are jive and the playlist is limited. But it’s the only radio format, other than country, that truly matters anymore. It’s where those truly interested in music — the young ’uns — go to check acts out.

Lady Gaga’s got the same problem as Sir Paul. No one told her “Applause” was not good enough. When you play on a world stage, when everybody is watching, you’ve got to ace the test, which is why labels employ writing camps, why every record is massaged: There’s a ton of money at risk, and they don’t want to blow their chances.

So put on your headphones and pull up Katy Perry’s “Roar.” Hold your nose, close your mouth and listen.

And if you don’t hear catchiness, you don’t know what catchiness is!

Yes, that’s the problem with the wannabes and the whiners — they’ve got no idea what a hit is. It’s not something you need to play 10 times to get; it’s something you want to hear again before it’s finished playing through.

And if you think Katy Perry could construct such ear candy alone, you probably think Mariano Rivera can win the pennant without the rest of the Yankees. An entire team is involved: Max Martin and Bonnie McKee and Henry Walter and Dr. Luke. Mr. Gottwald and his right hand, Cirkut, produced. Sure, Katy gets a writing credit, but really she’s just the front of this monolithic enterprise. Sold like a new chewing gum, with online teasers, a tsunami of marketing. Yes, the major labels may still be bitching about piracy, but they truly do get the Internet: They’re chock-full of marketing gurus who leave no stone unturned.

Not that all the music has to be light. The sleeper hit of the summer is Lorde’s “Royals,” an even more infectious track than “Roar.”

And sure, Lorde did it without a team, but she’s got one of the three best tracks of the year. And so far everybody else who has made it has not been an unknown.

The point is that people only want these excellent songs, and if you string enough of them together you can sell out an arena. Sure, the classic rock acts are still plying the boards, but look at the performers at the festivals — they’re not 60-70 but 20-30. Just because the boomers control the media, don’t think a revolution has not taken place. The change in the music business has been staggering. And it’s got little to do with piracy and more to do with a whole new generation coming into power who are not beholden to $100-plus-an-hour recording studios and the construction of album-long listening experiences. They grew up in this megahit era.

It’s now about the song more than ever. Despite all the hype about online video, most of these performers have such a thin personality and so little credibility that it does not work when you see them, which is why they surround themselves with trappings when you see them live. Just put them on the stage alone and there’s virtually no charisma.

Music is something that goes in your ears, not your eyes. And that’s a good thing. First and foremost it starts with the song, the record. Same as it ever was, only more so!

Read more Bob Lefsetz columns at Lefsetz.com.