The moment rock graduated from the single to the long-playing format, people fell in love with The Big Rock Album. These were records where songwriters, musicians, producers, engineers and art designers pushed themselves — and each other — for months, sometimes years of major-label-bankrolled time to create an experience that would captivate the senses and hold our near-complete attention for 35-80 minutes at a stretch. Whether they were Pet Sounds, or Rumours, or London Calling or Thriller or Nevermind, Big Rock Albums were made possible by economic, technological and social forces of popular culture — as well as being upheld and loved dearly as art.
But in 2012, owing largely to a long list of deathlessly-cited factors (the Internet, shrinking record-label budgets, audience fragmentation, iPods, American Idol, etc., etc., etc.), the circumstances that helped create the Big Rock Album have been replaced by circumstances that make those records far less likely to happen. And yet there remains an audience — undoubtedly smaller, but no less dedicated — for The Big Rock Album, and a pool of equally-enchanted musicians who are still striving, against all odds, to make one. Yes, there were plenty of lo-fi projects made by two-member garage bands this year. Which creates interesting paradox: For the first time in history, it’s easier for beginners to get an initial burst of attention while holding onto their day jobs than it is for career acts to bankroll, record, promote and tour a radio-ready album. The days when David Bowie, ELO and Pink Floyd took years of major-label funding to realize their full artistic and commercial potential are gone forever. Nevertheless, one needn’t dig deep this year to hear discs that felt and sounded Queen-big (fun.’s Some Nights), Fleetwood Mac-big (Rufus Wainwright’s Out of the Game), and Pink Floyd-big (Tame Impala’s Lonerism). How is it that Big Rock Albums are still being made during the Big Rock Recession?
In the ’90s, a major-label record could turn a profit after selling just 100,000 albums, and so when artist-friendly majors like DGC and Elektra signed experimental acts like Sonic Youth and Stereolab, they were left alone to be weird because the labels knew that even “weird” was going to turn a profit. These days, it takes considerably more than 100,000 albums sold before labels see green, while at the same time the number of acts who can reach that threshold has diminished. The result is that major labels hedge their bets and pair ambitious smaller bands with producers who’ve achieved considerable success far outside indie’s insular bubble. Where fun. had previously teamed with Redd Kross bassist Steven McDonald for their 2009 debut Aim and Ignite, their major-label breakthrough Some Nights was made with Jeff Bhasker, a hip-hop/R&B dynamo who co-produced, co-wrote and played keyboards on some of Kanye West and Beyoncé’s best records. The result isn’t hip-hop nor R&B, but it does pack the rhythmic and vocal authority of both while maximizing leader Nate Ruess’s ability to write anthems in the mode of Queen’s “We Are the Champions” via mega-hits like “We Are Young.”
The Shins partnered on their second major-label album Port of Morrow with Greg Kurstin, a chart-enabler for Kelly Clarkson, Pink and Ke$ha; the result was less of a band effort and more like an elaborate James Mercer singer-songwriter record packed with Big Rock on the scale of “Simple Song.” Wainwright went even further on Out of the Game, emulating the sound and scale of early ’70s Big Rock singer-songwriters with Mark Ronson, Amy Winehouse’s retro R&B wiz. But where Fleetwood Mac in their prime — and, indeed, Wainwright himself for much of his career — camped out at expensive studios for months at a time and experimented to their coddled hearts’ content, the singer and his celebrated collaborator here “had to totally watch our back the whole time and do the job without any kind of drama getting in the way,” as he explained to eMusic earlier this year. Even when pursuing rock classicism, musicians must now stay within a much smaller 21st-century budget.
Despite their merits, these producer-assisted Big Rock records didn’t always result in similarly-scaled sales figures. Olympia, Washington, disco-punk trio Gossip also teamed with a non-rock producer — Brian Higgins, the head of Xenomania, a British production team who’ve worked with pop and dance icons from Cher to Saint Etienne. Their album, A Joyful Noise, was every bit as accessible as its predecessors, as Top 10 chart placements in France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Belgium attested. But it failed to catapult the threesome beyond the gay/dance glass ceiling they can’t get seem to shatter in America, and that’s a shame; a song like “Get a Job,” which reprimands a rich, spoiled roommate in no uncertain terms, deserves to be heard on the radio between Ke$ha and Katy Perry.
With conventional Top 40 radio snubbing rock more than ever, musicians must look elsewhere to get their stuff heard. They’ve got to get placements on the movie soundtracks, trailers, TV shows — and even a format once deemed beneath them: commercials. As Galaxie 500′s Damon Krukowski revealed in his eye-opening Pitchfork essay, music streaming services aren’t paying the bills of anyone beyond their own employees and investors. It would be difficult to find a 2012 indie breakthrough more down-to-earth than bluesy soul-rock revivalists Alabama Shakes, yet the quartet had nearly every media outlet courting them like jocks clamoring for the head cheerleader’s hand at the homecoming dance. Even before their debut Boys & Girls was released, the Shakes had charmed NPR, played CMJ, wowed the New York Times, made MTV’s list of Artists to Watch and, most bizarrely, landed “You Ain’t Alone” in a Zales jewelry ad. That pre-release buzz combined with talk show performances and festival gigs, landed their album in the Top 10. Even Hollywood is on their side; their latest song, “Always Alright,” just landed on the soundtrack for a film currently generating Oscar buzz, Silver Linings Playbook. Although Alabama Shakes didn’t court controversy like a Rihanna or a Ke$ha, their arrival of this bi-racial, bi-gender roots band was nevertheless orchestrated to be a major pop culture event.
And so although indie music began as a reaction against Big Rock, it’s lately become a vehicle through which to preserve Big Rock’s artistic ambition through scaled-down, hands-on means. Tame Impala’s one-man-band Kevin Parker from Perth, Australia played and self-recorded nearly every note of his grander yet poppier second album Lonerism, but Dave Fridmann — the indie rock knob-twiddler who helped MGMT, Flaming Lips, OK Go and other offbeat mainstreamers — mixed the record, maximizing both the songs’ psychedelic sprawl and Parker’s substantial tunes. Fellow Aussie Gotye similarly worked mostly on his own for his American debut, Making Mirrors, emulating the Big Art-Rock sounds of Sting and Peter Gabriel while down on his parents’ farm in the remote Mornington Peninsula. His inescapable smash, “Somebody That I Used to Know,” was quite likely the least-expensive recording to make the biggest international splash in 2012. Whereas indie bands of the past once kept their sounds intentionally obscure and even willfully twee, Big Rock has for some become today’s ultimate quixotic, DIY pursuit — one that for Gotye yielded huge commercial dividends.
It’s been said that touring is the only way for bands to survive in today’s musical economy. But for ex-Grandaddy Jason Lytle — whose self-composed/played/produced Dept. of Disappearance was crafted amidst the mountains of Montana to evoke the majesty of ELO-inspired symphonic rock — there’s nothing more self-destructive than treading a beaten path. “In order for bands to make any money, they have to stay on the road constantly,” he explains, “but I would rather go broke because [conventional touring] is at the expense of my health and peace of mind. It has to have more of an emphasis on having fun. If I need a comfortable night here and there, sure, but I also have no problem sleeping in the bushes.”