Illustration by Kyra Kendall/Torontoist.
Alan Cross calls himself a “music geek,” but after chatting with him this past Monday, “music scientist” seems a fairer term.
It’s a daunting task, picking the brain of Canada’s most notorious tunage guru. The host of radio rockumentary program The Ongoing History of New Music (snippets of which you hear at HMV while you shop) and svengali behind website ExploreMusic can turn from rock music archivist to online social networking pioneer on a dime, mining the past and the future simultaneously for our enlightenment, as he has done and will do again at this year’s NXNE: on Tuesday, Cross gave his dissertation on how the internet has changed how we consume music as a panellist at the Architects of Community discussion; on Friday, Cross will revisit the late 1980s–early 1990s Seattle grunge-rock scene with Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner at the Hyatt Regency Hotel; on Monday, he somehow managed to make both topics fit together to us.
“Grunge was this weird little thing that basically started as twelve people,” Cross explained at the Hyatt Starbucks. “Up the Pacific Northwest, where it rained a lot, they were off the beaten track for a lot of tours. Not a lot of big bands would go to Seattle because it was too far away. So what they got was what was on the radio: Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest, Kiss, Neil Young, all that sort of stuff. At the same time, what they would get, sort of insidiously, were these California bands that would come up—Black Flag, Bad Religion, Dead Kennedys—and play the universities. At a certain level there was this mingling of sludgy mainstream metal, mainstream rock, and hardcore punk. So what these grunge guys did—maybe it was the coffee, maybe it was the rain, maybe it was the drugs—was take punk and slow it down to Led Zeppelin’s and Black Sabbath’s speed.”
The movement heralded the rise of such bands as Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam, and the reinvention of bands that previously played conventional metal—most notably Alice In Chains, who traded in their glam image for grunge rock’s feedback, fuzz, and flannels. Once grunge broke, labels picked up acts outside of the Seattle scene—Chicago’s Smashing Pumpkins were one example—and the money kept rolling in. Even Canada had its own burgeoning grunge sound coming from Halifax at the time, notably Sloan’s earlier days.
But the good times couldn’t last forever. Bands wrestled with success—Kurt Cobain was uncomfortable with his notoriety, and Pearl Jam stopped making videos after their label pressured them to make a clip for the song “Black.” The trends changed, too: Cross noted that more aggressive music tends to walk hand-in-hand with Republican presidential administrations, while pop tends to be heard when the Democrats sit in the White House.
“That [grunge] scene was mined to death,” he said. “The more you photocopy it, the fuzzier and fuzzier it gets until you have Creed, and then it’s dead. That’s what happens with every movement. They have a lifespan. It goes from discovery, to popularity, to peak, to decline, to dustbin. And this alternative nation scene ran out of gas by about 1996, because the people who had made this scene possible had all grown up and moved on. Generation Y was listening in the expansive years of the late 1990s. They didn’t know anything about recession. So what they had was pop music. The Spice Girls, Britney Spears, the boy bands, they all came along out of nowhere. And the record labels just piled on. It was a huge thing. And that started to show cracks because as these kids went off to college they wanted music with a little more meaning. So they started listening to the White Stripes and the Strokes. But things are different now, because of the role of technology.”
Too right. The advent of Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and any other online social networking tool you care to name, coupled with devices such as the iPod and iPad, has fundamentally changed the way we produce and consume music, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Cross argues that as music becomes more accessible, listeners have discarded tribal allegiances and traditional media, and now make their own decisions. (To a degree: Cross notes that television, radio, and print music journalism still reach millions every day, and for its part, MTV is currently on the hunt for a “TJ,” or Twitter jockey.)
“The traditional media gatekeepers have lost a certain amount of power,” Cross said. “The individual gets to make the call, and when the individual makes the call, that consensus breaks down. In 1983, let’s say, you could not be a mainstream rock fan and an alternative fan. It was not done. You could not listen to AC/DC or Aerosmith if you liked New Order or The Cure. Now, it’s perfectly okay for a kid to like a hip-hop song, to like a Lady Gaga song, to like a Beatles song. It doesn’t matter. It’s all music. That’s kind of cool because it has flattened everything, and it allows people to listen to whatever music they wish to without necessarily being subjected to any kind of bias. It’s very possible that as a result, we won’t see the trending highs and lows that we used to have.”
Such accessibility does present problems, however. With so many bands out there, the task of searching for the next big thing can overwhelm a listener who only has so many hours in a day. Moreover, a music act may have a shorter lifespan, given that we have so many more options. If you can download thousands of songs onto your portable player, how much time will you devote to any one song or band?
In any case, the game has changed, and Cross suspects that it may just be to our advantage as the consumer.
“The question is, ‘yeah, it’s much more democratic, but does that create much more confusion?'” Cross said. “The thing about record labels—and this is why they were very good—is that they had people going out listening to all the bad bands and killed their careers before they had a chance to multiply and waste their time. Those guys were the ultimate frontline curators. Now we’ve evolved into something much more virtual. A lot of musicians have a hard time believing that nobody owes you a living and just because you write a song doesn’t mean it deserves to be heard. That’s not harsh; it’s reality. You’re going up against a ton of competition and the only way you’re going to get heard is to be better than everybody else. So theoretically, this could raise the level of musicianship.”
Alan Cross’s panel with Mudhoney’s Mark Arm and Steve Turner takes place between 3:30–4:30 p.m. in Regency Room B. on Friday, June 18.