The Drama You've Been Craving

For some time now my antennas have been picking up signals of changes afoot.
Ani DiFranco sold out Carnegie Hall recently. Photo by Rhea Anna
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Monday April 16, 2001

For The Rock Underground, Small Can Be Beautiful

Artists as different as Ani DiFranco and the Soft Boys can fill the ballrooms

By Michael Goldberg

Predicting the future is a dangerous game. If you chance to be right, you're a visionary, but more often than not, you're wrong. And who wants to be a failed fortuneteller?

Still, for some time now my antennas have been picking up signals of changes afoot. While the mainstream listens to the likes of the Dave Matthews Band, Shaggy, Limp Bizkit, old Tupac leftovers and, yes, the Beatles' One, there are signs that the music we referred to a decade or two ago as "college rock" has found a healthy audience, and is gaining momentum.

Within the last few weeks, the reunited Soft Boys sold out the Fillmore in San Francisco, and offered a galvanizing performance, according to one report. Earlier that week at the Fillmore, Guided By Voices (who sold out the Crystal Ballroom in Portland a few days previously) put on a sold-out (and transcendent) show. In New York, meanwhile, Ani DiFranco packed Carnegie Hall.

Teen pop, hip-hop, mainstream rock and rap-rock get the airplay, but there appears to be a growing audience that wants something more. It's not large enough to fill arenas; to a large extent, it doesn't even want to be in arenas.

It's easy to forget that in the mid-to-late '60s, the circuit for modern rock bands like Jimi Hendrix, Country Joe and the Fish, and the Who consisted almost solely of ballrooms like the Fillmore and the Crystal, where a band would perform for one or two nights, depending on their draw. Just like Sleater-Kinney, who did two sold-out shows at Irving Plaza last year, and Sonic Youth, who sold out multiple nights at ballrooms and theaters the year before.

The Wrong Path

With Woodstock and the early-'70s mass marketing of late-'60s youth culture, the stakes were raised. A "successful" band was expected to fill first arenas (the Rolling Stones in 1969; the Who in 1971; Dylan and the Band in 1974), and eventually stadiums (Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, U2, Michael Jackson, Springsteen).

Concurrently with the inflation of live music, entertainment corporations acquired many once-independent record labels, and brought with them increased sales expectations. Where once a band selling half a million copies of an album ("gold" in music biz parlance) would be recognized as a real success, by the '90s a band needed to go multi-platinum to get industry props.

Back To Basics

Rock was once an underground music, the alternative to mainstream "pop." It was always a whole lot cooler to see a great band at a club, ballroom or theater than at an arena or an outdoor amphitheater. While there was something amazing about the Tibetan Freedom Concert events — a stadium of people supporting a solid cause and experiencing the music of some of the world's greatest rock artists — more intimate venues are the rightful home of rock (a term I'm using as a catchphrase for punk, indie and all the rest).

Never have more great artists been releasing equally excellent albums, and from my perspective they seem to be finding a receptive audience. Does a band really need a million fans, or 2 million, to be successful? I don't think so. I understand Ani DiFranco sells about 200,000 copies these days when she releases a new album; Sleater-Kinney sell less than that. Yet both DiFranco and S-K have been at this a long time; they tour each year and appear to make an OK living while delivering one masterpiece after another. Both have attracted thinking, feeling fans who have stuck by them.

With some major labels now behind a new generation of rock and power-pop artists including Modest Mouse, Grandaddy, Idlewild, Coldplay, At the Drive-In, and Creeper Lagoon, we may just see some commercial breakthroughs (serious radio play, serious sales). If that happens, the mainstream landscape could change almost overnight.

For a handful of artists, that could be a good thing. But if it doesn't happen, so what? What really matters, I think, is that good artists are reaching an audience that really cares about their music. And it doesn't take a fortuneteller to tell you that that's already happening, every week, all year long.

Michael Goldberg is the president of He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.

© 2001 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.