Photo credit: Matt Becker, www.melodicrockconcerts.com
A bunch of old rock and rollers are the toast of Coachella. AC/DC, rebounding after the loss of two key members, played a set April 10 that earned the band the kind of acclaim and attention that any artist would envy. Stereogum rated AC/DC the best act of Coachella’s first day, and The Guardian called the band’s return to the stage after six years a triumph. But by performing at Coachella, one of the de rigueur festivals of the millennial generation, AC/DC achieved something else important: cultural relevancy.
Being relevant to the contemporary zeitgeist is important to classic rock bands that continue performing long after qualifying for AARP membership. After all, rock and roll is supposed to be the music of youth and an influence on contemporary society, not yesterday’s news. No one wants to experience the embarrassment that U2 suffered when many people on social media asked “Who are these guys?” after Apple dropped the band’s latest album on fans via an iTunes download in 2014. Here is a rulebook for relevance that successful classic rockers usually to follow:
1. Embrace Digital
It sounds like fan branding 101 at this point, but some Baby Boomer-era legends are more willing to adopt digital than others. You can find the Rolling Stones on Spotify, but not AC/DC (proving that the band has some work to do yet earning its relevancy stripes). Although the Stones seldom release any new music, the band has effectively used digital channels ranging from the Web to mobile to maintain brand relevancy. Moreover, Joan Jett (being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame April 18), Annie Lennox, and Robert Plant do an excellent job using digital to share their lives and music with their fans. Plant relies on Instagram, Tumblr, and YouTube, to tell a narrative of his reinvention as an artist. For instance, he recently posted a documentary on YouTube about his travels to Mali in order to participate in the Festival au Désert.
Meantime, Joan Jett shares tour highlights on Instagram; and on Facebook, Annie Lennox shares photos that capture everyday moments in her life in London. In her own words (posted on Facebook), Lennox says, “I blog and post pictures of small things that catch my interest or give me solace.”
Especially with the visual stories they share, Jett, Lennox, and Plant makes themselves relevant to a generation that uploads 1.8 billion photos a day.
2. Sell Out
By “selling out,” I don’t mean compromising artistic integrity; I’m referring to the practice of selling songs for brands to use in their advertising. The Beatles, the Clash, Iggy Pop, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones are among the Baby Boomer artists who have relied on brands to be their DJs via commercial spots, some more successfully than others.
Classic rocker John Mellencamp summed up the appeal of getting into bed with brands when, in 2007, the vocal opponent of selling out did an about-face and licensed his song “Our Country” for a Chevrolet ad. As he told The New York Times:
People say I sold out. No, I got sold out. Sometime during the ’90s record companies made the decision that us guys who had been around for a long time and had sold millions of records and were household names just weren’t as interesting as girls in stretch dresses . . . The bottom line is, I’m a songwriter, and I want people to hear my songs . . . This is just what I did this time to reinvent myself and stay in business.
But selling out is an imperfect and difficult path. Bands need to consider carefully whether their brand partner is itself going to remain culturally relevant and cool. And advertisements, however well crafted, create fleeting impressions. On the other hand, another popular form of selling out — having your music in a movie or TV soundtrack — can create enduring appeal. The Sopranos finale in 2007 lent enormous contemporary cultural gravitas to “Don’t Stop Believin’,” which Journey recorded in 1981. More recently, in 2014, the popular soundtrack to Guardians of the Galaxy, Awesome Mix Vol. 1, introduced to the digital generation a slew of 1970s-era musicians and songs, including “Hooked on a Feeling” from one-hit wonders Blue Suede. Awesome Mix Vol. 1 became the first soundtrack of previously released material to top the Billboard charts.
3. Play at the Right Places
Appearing at one of the hip and talked-about music festivals such as Sasquatch is an excellent, albeit infrequent, way for older musicians to latch on to current fashion so long as they don’t make fools of themselves onstage. Not only do festivals attract powerful tastemakers, they generate intense social media buzz.
Paul McCartney is the master at being in the right place at the right time. The 72-year-old living legend has appeared at a number of hip music festivals including Bonnaroo and Coachella more than once (including a surprise appearance with Afrojack in 2011, which did wonders for his street cred). In June, he will headline Firefly and then Lollapalooza in July.
Sir Paul and festivals enjoy a symbiotic relationship: he gets street cred, and the festivals get one of the biggest headliners ever. Many other artists have borrowed a page from his playbook, including Elton John, Madonna, and Roger Waters.
At 2015 Coachella, both AC/DC and Steely Dan injected a strong dose of Baby Boomer rock. In an article published before the bands appeared onstage April 10, Los Angeles Times writer Lorraine Ali explored the benefits and potential drawbacks of festivals featuring older acts. On the one hand, AC/DC can provide the kind of “curveball” that surprises younger audiences and increases the curiosity factor; but featuring Baby Boomer acts can also potentially alienate and confuse younger listeners. But a band that is hungry to succeed can overcome any reservations.
As AC/DC lead singer Brian Johnson told the Los Angeles Times, “Kids have been spoiled with so many things online, but I think . . . seeing bands live is still exciting. Still makes your hairs go up and get goose bumps . . . Not just us — any band that comes on and they’re good.”
4. Collaborate with the Right Artist
The right producer or musician can inject fresh blood and create a curiosity factor, as recently happened with “FourFiveSeconds,” the song that Paul McCartney, Kanye West, and Rihanna recorded together. In the 1990s, Johnny Cash (not a classic rocker, per se, but certainly a Baby Boomer era great) and superstar producer Rick Rubin demonstrated what can happen when an artistic legend meets a hot producer with a fresh ear. Their American Recordings collaboration not only rejuvenated Cash’s flagging career but also made him cool again and compelled music fans to think of the country star in a rock-and-roll context (as happened in the late 1960s after Cash released At Folsom Prison). Cash and Rubin recorded songs Cash had written as well as carefully chosen music from contemporary musicians such as Beck, Nine Inch Nails, and Soundgarden. Instead of sounding like an old guy trying to succeed with songs from younger artists, Cash relied on his distinct vocal style and fresh song arrangements to claim the songs as his own. Arguably, Cash’s rendition of the Nine Inch Nails’s “Hurt” superseded the original version and will likely be remembered as “a Johnny Cash song” for many years.
5. Cozy up to Jimmy Fallon
Whereas Saturday Night Live remains an important destination for contemporary artists, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon is a lightning rod for older artists appealing to contemporary crowds. Recently we’ve seen Madonna perform “Holiday” with Fallon and the Roots, Robert Plant sing doo-wop, and Neil Young sing “Old Man” alongside Fallon dressed as Neil Young (a stunt that Fallon pulled off with Bruce Springsteen during Fallon’s Late Night run).
On the other hand, whereas Saturday Night Live has been a music mainstay for decades, the show is more choosy with Baby Boomer musicians. Within its past few seasons, only Paul McCartney’s appearance in 2012 and Prince’s in 2014 would be considered Baby Boomer material. But Fallon seems to revel in the opportunity to rub elbows with his elders. And in return, the older rockers get a chance to share some of Fallon’s one-person brand mojo in front of a large audience, especially among younger viewers.
Finally, the most important rule of relevancy is to stay true to your music. Few if any artists become culturally relevant by putting current fashion ahead of their art. In fact, just the opposite is true: change your sound to appear up to date, and your music will forever sound dated and of the time, as anyone who has heard 1980s-era synthesizers can attest. AC/DC hasn’t changed its sound in decades. On the other hand, Elvis Costello has reinvented his music constantly — but in doing so he has stayed true to himself because Costello naturally experiments with different musical styles as part of his artistic journey, not because he’s trying to pander to the flavor of the day. Both Elvis Costello and AC/DC on their best days sound fresh and exciting — on their own terms.