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Changes: For Better and Worse

Photo by Danny Clinch

Fading Lights?: Candlebox's second album, "Lucy," was one of several major disappointments in 1995 from once-promising bands.

New acts got new exposure in 1995, but on the whole, it was a fallow year for rock & roll

By Gina Arnold

This past fall, while in Europe, I visited some friends who run Munster Records, a tiny independent label based in Madrid. The last time I was in Spain, the label head shared a grungy apartment with four other struggling indie-label record fans. This time, I found him living in an elegant new flat near the Palacio Real, furnished with classy cast-off couches from Almodovar films, all purchased thanks to the success of the Offspring's hit album Smash.

Munster's sudden boom time--the fortuitous result of holding the European licensing rights for Epitaph Records, an independent label that puts out the Offspring, Pennywise and several other popular hardcore punk acts--was just another indication of how the last few years have changed the face of the record industry.

Thanks partly to Nirvana and partly to Soundscan--the relatively new method of charting record sales--the radio and record industries have completely revamped their policies toward airplay for new artists, new radio formats and marketing strategies that emphasize new acts.

One can hardly remember it, but fewer than five years ago, metal and glam acts like Guns N' Roses, Metallica, Aerosmith and Poison ruled the charts and the airwaves. Nowadays, many more diverse and sophisticated acts--like Edwyn Collins, Freedy Johnston and Melissa Etheridge--get more than half a chance at being heard on the radio, while even independent-label acts like the Offspring enjoy decent opportunities to make a dent in the charts.

That development came just in time. Before 1994, only a couple of new bands--namely the Police and U2--had made the leap from theater act to stadium act, and as Jerry Garcia's death this year proves, even legends won't live forever. But thanks to the success of previously unknown bands and debut acts like Candlebox (4 million), Green Day (10 million) and Hootie and the Blowfish (11 million), radio is no longer the real Jurassic Park.

Photo by Randee St. Nicholas

Diversity: Sophisticates like Melissa Etheridge continued to gain exposure in 1995.

Sadly, however, the results of the opening up of the airwaves brings as many bad aspects as good ones. On the one hand, new bands have finally broken through the barrier. There's room in this world for PJ Harvey and for Spearhead, for both Rancid and Rusted Root. On the other hand, a look at which acts are really succeeding still gives one pause. After all, a world ruled by Hootie, Mariah, Live and Boyz II Men is not an especially fertile realm.

These artists may well be the people's choice, but their bounden mediocrity is sure to have a dampening effect on the future. In fact, it already has. Whereas 1994 was a banner year for record sales in general, with people flooding record stores to buy titles ranging from the Offspring to the soundtrack to The Lion King, 1995 has been an entirely different story, colored by the slow sales of acts previously considered surefire hits.

Lucy, Candlebox's follow-up to its smash debut, has bombed big time, as did follow-up albums for former hit acts like Blind Melon and the Spin Doctors. Even Green Day's Insomniac is thus far nowhere near as big as Dookie was.

Meanwhile, many of the newer bands that the industry expected to break as big as the Offspring--like Wilco, Elastica, Oasis and Rancid--continue to post relatively low numbers. According to Billboard magazine, the industry believes that this year's big downturn in sales is due to a huge rise in CD-ROM and video-game sales, as well as a comparable increase in personal computer and Internet software purchasing. They believe that people's disposable income is being stretched between an ever-expanding number of entertainment choices, and they may be partially right.

But another possibility is oversaturation. Too many records are being released, and too many of them sound like bands that came before them. Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins and Green Day sound-alikes abound, and although critics are loathe to admit it, there is some justice in the marketplace.

Most people don't like to throw bad money after good any more than they enjoy doing the opposite; and judging by the extreme blandness of bands like the Toadies and 1,000 Mona Lisas, the margins--once so vital--have been swallowed up. Alternative rock is a wasteland of nobodies, and all of them are Better Than Ezra.

Madonna recently made an interesting comment on the subject in the latest issue of Spin, when she said, "We have to realize that the same country that acquitted O.J. is the same country that makes a complete piece-of-shit movie No. 1, that buys Mariah Carey records. It's this homo-geneity ... but it's got nothing to do with art."

She is correct. To date, rock & roll has been cyclical: sometimes exciting, and sometimes very dull, and unfortunately, 1995 is an extremely fallow point in its history. Moreover, it'll continue this way, until kids stop forming bands in the hopes of getting popular and rich. Only when people return to being hopelessly creative will a new set of subversive icons emerge, who will in turn influence the mainstream as did Public Enemy, the Talking Heads and the MC5 before them.

Of course, good rock is good rock, and beloved bands are beloved bands. Certain acts--the Beatles, Pearl Jam, Garth Brooks and even Michael Jackson (whose HIStory has sold a respectable 5 million since its release in July, proving that somebody still likes him, though god knows who)--will always sell in voluminous numbers, based on fans' personal loyalty to the stars, rather than the much sketchier allegiance to "a sound."

And rock will also always find room for the obscure and the unique: the Ben Lees and the Bikini Kills, the Lloyd Coles and the Alex Chiltons. Still, one can only hope that 1996 provides a more interesting field of dreams for the potential stars of tomorrow to play on.

Best Albums Of '95

Dereliks, A Turn on the Wheel ...

Diesel Queens, Hooked on Moronics

Jawbreaker, Dear You

Lois, Shy Town

Mystik Journeymen, 4001 EP

Ol' Dirty Bastard, Return to the 36 Chambers

The Queers, Move Back Home

Seam, Are You Driving Me Crazy?

The Bomb DJs, Return of the DJ.

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From the Dec. 28, 1995-Jan. 3, 1996 issue of Metro

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