21 March 2008

OPINION: Some varied thoughts on the current state of progressivemusic in the United States

NB: I don't claim to have better answers (or any answers) or greater insight into the state of the music industry than anyone else out there. I'm just this guy, you know? What I do have is 20 years of listening to this music, and a sincere love of the genre. Well, and a huge CD collection, but that's beside the point.

The following are taken, with occasional edits/additions, from a series of e-mail exchanges I have been having with the US PR rep of a major independent progressive music label. I'm not going to say who, or which label, because ultimately that is unimportant. You may or may not agree with what I have to say. I encourage commentary and reply.

Italics are the rep, bold is me:

'We need to see a prog resurgence here in the US.'

The realist in me says it won't happen.

Of course, I'd love to see bands that play progressive music (including groups that play material that looks back to the traditional symphonic sound) selling huge amounts of records, but I think in general the bleeding edge of progressive is going to be bands using it as a springboard. I know it's in vogue to label bands like Tool and The Mars Volta and Radiohead as progressive, and when compared to the mass of dross that make up most top 40/100 music, they certainly are. But I fear the days of a band sounding like Yes landing an 8 minute long track in top 40 radio are long gone.

(additional note to this posting: lest you think this a strange statement to make, consider this: at one point, WPST 97.5 FM in the US, which is unabashedly a top 40/today's hot hits format station, once or twice had Pennsylvania progressive rock band echolyn on live in the studio, and used to frequently play the unedited album version of Yes' 'Roundabout' as part of a 2-fer with 'Love Will Find a Way' or 'Shoot High, Aim Low' in 1988-1989.)

Here on the east coast, we're very lucky to have fests like ROSfest and NEARfest (which I attend every year) and Progday...as well as the new 3 Rivers Fest in Pittsburgh. But they're not enough to break new bands...if you want to get ticket sales, you need old bands the core audience (35 to 55, male) have heard of. We all pay lip service to new bands and new sounds, but what sells best? Catalogue Yes and Tull and ELP and Kansas releases. The fifteenth reissue of Leftoverture will sell 150,000 copies while the new Riverside may sell in the 4 figures here in the US. It's sad, it's incredibly telling, and it shows how marginalised the genre has gotten.

I do what I can...I think it is going to become increasingly important to push newer bands without relying on comparisons to the past. It may be hard on old time fans, but...

...I mean there are great new prog bands, but they will never get the recognition that they deserve at least over here in the states.

No airplay. And for all we do for PR (all the various websites, like Progscape, MSJ, Sea of Tranquility, Progarchives, ProgressiveEars, et cetera), all they end up doing is preaching to the converted. And the converted resists new...unless it sounds like the old. (additional to this posting: unless they are a new converted listener of progressive music who has been introduced to the genre via bands like Dream Theater or Symphony X, in which case the old stuff just sounds...old. And not technically intense enough. And not heavy enough. And why did Dream Theater have to open for Yes, anyway, when they're so much more awesome and metal?) And there's definitely nothing wrong with retro-prog...a great bit of my collection includes newer bands that look back at the traditional sympho-prog sound. I think the next big shift in progressive music is really going to come from the fringes...extreme bands like Opeth and Enslaved, with Opeth getting exposure this summer on the Progressive Nation tour with Dream Theater...and electronic music. I mean, Can is being sampled in rap songs, with attribution. Kate Bush is being hailed by people like the guys in Outkast, and getting covered by bands like Placebo. Crimson and Tull and Yes touring can only do so much.

And I was one of those kids who didn't know anything 10 or 15 years ago...I thought progressive music was gone. Until I went to an ELP/Tull show, and discovered Progression magazine, and found out there were hundreds...perhaps thousands...of new bands creating music that held some connection to the music I loved. I discovered Spock's Beard and echolyn and Mastermind and a dozen other bands...then found a hundred bands I never heard of that were contemporaries of Yes and Crimson and the like...and as pleased as I was to find this vast and poorly tapped vein of wonder, it was frustrating and depressing at the same time.

I'm a voice in the wilderness, trying to talk up the music. I play it all the time at work, and occasionally someone asks what it is I am listening to. And I can only hope that someone gets turned on and buys a CD.


Anonymous said...

OK, 1 point here: D.T. Opening for Yes is a good thing for a "minor league" albeit outstanding Rock band!!
I went & saw Yes in Holmdel, NJ in July 2000. KANSAS opened for them there!!

Mark said...

In response to the last line, I fear that it's more likely someone will get turned on and find an illegal download of the band they heard.
Assuming you're still posting some years down the road, I expect to see a post entitled "The current state of recorded media"

Ezra said...

First off, I found your blog a couple weeks ago, and immediately added it to my RSS reader. Great blog!

I don't understand your comment about younger prog listeners introduced to the genre by Dream Theater & Symphony X. You seem to be suggesting these fans lack a true appreciation for the genre.

I like to think I'm one of these younger prog listeners (I turn 29 in a couple days), and was introduced to prog via Dream Theater. (Though the first concert I ever attended was ELP with my dad when I was probably 13-15, so I like to think my love of prog was brewing in me from an even younger age.)

I discovered DT when I was in high school in the mid 90s. But it was not until college that I started to listen to Yes (other than Fragile/radio hits) and a little Spock's Beard, and it wasn't until even later when someone gave me a copy of Nursery Cryme that this prog fan really found what he was looking for.

Now I'm listening to all kinds of great prog. Right now in my car CD changer you'll fine Dream Theater's Systematic Chaos, Ayreon's latest album, Close to the Edge, Selling England by the Pound, and Spock's Beard's V. On my iPod some of the most recently played bands are VDGG, The Tangent, Magenta, The Flower Kings, and Symphony X.

Anyway, I'm sure this was a pretty rambling post, and this really isn't the place for my prog biography, but I just wanted to voice my opinion and see if you could offer any clarification about what you were saying.

Again, thanks for the great posts so far. Keep it up!

Bill K. said...

Thanks for joining us here...I appreciate your expansive and well thought comments.

I think it's very easy to stereotype things, or try to distill them down to pithy little bon mots and soundbites. Having said this, when Dream Theater went on tour with Yes in the summer of 2004, I heard a large amount of complaints from DT fans that the following was wrong with the tour:

a) DT should have headlined.
b) Yes isn't as good as DT.
c) Yes was blown off the stage every night.
d) No one in Yes is as great a player as in DT.

All of these are of course incredibly subjective things. But I don't have enough fingers on both hands to count the number of people I have seen say that, or heard say that, going so far as to say that DT is the absolute pinnacle of progressive music, and no band could aspire to be 1/10 the band DT is.

I certainly don't think that all DT fans, or all fans of newer progressive music, lack true appreciation of the genre. Believe me. I know a lot of people who are younger than me (at nearly 35) or you who possibly appreciate the music more than I do...or at the very least, have the same seeking nature when it comes to finding great music, new or old.

If the genre is to survive, it's going to be because newer listeners discover great old AND new progressive music, and through newer bands that create music that pushes back stagnant musical forms just as the progenitors of the genre did.

What will kill the genre is closed-mindedness, an unwillingness to accept progressive music that does not hew close to the stylisitc structures developed by Yes/PF/Genesis/ELP/et al, and an unwillingness to accept the difference between big P progressive and small p progressive, which is a subject for another lengthy post entirely.

So here's a lengthy reply to your lengthy reply, which is motivating me to expand on things more soon :-)

Ezra said...

Thanks for the reply, Bill. I understand what your saying about some DT fans being somewhat... fanatical. I think that DT has fans that have come from a number of different musical tastes, and this probably leads to some of the strife.

Some may have gotten into DT through other prog bands (like Rush, which I forgot to mention before, but they were probably the band that really lead to my introduction to DT), but many are coming from a purely metal background. I always notice a ton of people wearing Metallica t-shirts at the DT shows I go to, and those people are a simply a different kind of fan than I am; they appreciate different parts of the music. Perhaps they go strictly for Petrucci's virtuoso solos, but I have a feeling they didn't enjoy the Marillion/Pink Floyd medley that DT played last time I saw them (which was amazing!).

Now I love DT, and am going to do my best to go see them on their upcoming tour (even though they're not coming to my hometown of Portland, AGAIN!). And I understand where I think DT falls in the hierarchy of great prog bands. But someone from a different background may see DT as the ultimate prog band if what they mainly appreciate are aspects different from those that others of us appreciate, especially if those aspects are some that other prog bands (Yes, or whatever) don't necessarily embody in their music.

Anyway, very interesting topic. Thanks again!

firefly said...

When I saw DT warm up Yes outdoors in MI I think it was, they did a small version of Machine Messiah! I think it was a good matchup, and Alan White once considered Spock's Beard and/or ELP to warm them up.
Incidentally, I think all bands have their hayday ... ELP came to the Nut House in Dayton in early 2000? and were great, but there wasn't hardly anyone there- they played Pirates, too!
Many of these great bands go on to form other sub groups: like Yes got Billy Sherwood from World Trade, and Joe P. formed many G3 groups, look at Asia, Magellion, Circa and GTR. (now I will read the original post, LOL). It's all good!_! Check out The Bears w/ Adrian Belew ... from Lauri Anderson, Kate Bush, etc. (my age is 47)

firefly said...

Okay, now that I've read the post, I think we are all talking about the advent of "underground" music here. I talked to the Flower Kings about it, and they agreed with me, that the new stuff is just too good for the average radio listener, you must go on line, like Mark alluded to, to find them, or in magazines as mentioned. You can also form your own web links like here. Some pop bands can still pull off a decent show with enough fans to stay afloat, Utopia comes to mind.
(network, New Mars, Google, etc.)