Jonathan Henley

Jonathan Henley

When the weekend began with the death of a rock legend, a certain kind of pall fell over the music landscape that was hard to get away from. Radio has sold its soul and the music industry itself has intentionally further disconnected from the fans. The fact that said rock legend was a drummer actually highlighted the lack of rhythm, the lack of beat and groove that now typify the hyper corporate music industry that seems to believe that music fans exist to support their companies.

Neal Peart’s death marked the low point of the death of rock music as we’ve known it. Rush was such an original band, such an accomplished band that they created their own musical weather patterns. Because of Rush, every other rock musician had to make artistic choices with true progressive rock in the background. Peart was the foundation of that altered reality. Rock history after Rush’s emergence was forever transformed. For example, one of the marked turning points in the emergence of “grunge” music came when Matt Cameron, drummer for Soundgarden and Pearl Jam among others, started bringing his newfound “Prog Rock” syncopations and grooves to the music of the Seattle scene — and the 30-plus years since drummer after drummer cites both Peart and Cameron as key mentors.

Even among church praise bands, the favored hazing of prospective drummers is to tell them that their audition includes playing “Tom Sawyer,” an impossible feat even for accomplished drummers. Peart’s influence is felt in the broadest array of musical styles imaginable — from jazz to hip-hop and of course rock. Himself deeply influenced by skins legends Buddy Rich, Keith Moon, Art Blakey, Chick Webb and others, Peart is likely only rivaled by Moon and John Bonham in terms of influence, mastery and originality at the kit. Peart’s death marks an end to a generation of creation that highly valued originality over marketability. In short, the days are upon us when towering musical figures who present epic and audacious innovations are obscured by corporate profits and interests.

No other innovation was more elemental to the promotion of rock, R&B, hip-hop, Country, and pop music as radio. While radio has always been susceptible to market forces, radio always held a certain capacity to push the envelope and stay responsive to fans — that capacity was best expressed by disc jockeys whose personalities connected listeners to music, to themselves, to their communities, and to other listeners. But corporate mergers, over leveraged capital, and the extinction of independently owned radio stations have resulted not only in the homogeny of music (aka boringly unoriginal playlists) but the enforced hollowing of radio personalities into little more than hyper talking ad readers who sound exactly the same in every market — partly because they ARE the same in every market.

Radio took a horribly giant step in its devolution when radio behemoth iHeart Radio, formerly known as ClearChannel, made news by restructuring. Granted, it was more interesting than their annual bankruptcy filing, but this restructuring solidified the company’s commitment to their stations sounding the same in North Carolina as they sound in any other market. The “employee dislocation” resulting from the restructuring creates an increased dependence on artificial intelligence and fewer on-air personalities who prerecord from studios that could be anywhere. For our local listening in North Carolina, it means that only the morning shows on some iHeart stations will be recorded locally with potentially everything else automated. This has been happening for a while, but never to this full extent as a sort of final nail in the coffin of personality and originality. All in the pursuit of profits, even ratings didn’t seem to matter anymore as some of our highest rated local programming (and jocks!) was summarily discarded. The last line of influence held by actual listeners, ratings, don’t matter anymore. It’s all about the short-term aim of profits, not the conveyance of music to the fans who buy the products.

That’s the same thing, exactly the same thing, that happened when the corporate-owned Rock & Roll Hall of Fame completely disregarded the fan vote for the 2020 inductees. Of the top five vote getters in the fan vote, the HOF only chose the Doobie Brothers who got the third most fan votes. The response that I got when I complained about this said that the fan vote is but one of the factors considered for induction — so then why even ask fans to take the time to log on and vote? The real answer is quite simple: they still need hits and activity on their web page to drive advertising. They likely knew who they would induct the moment they announced the nominees, but they promoted fan involvement which they apparently only used to appeal to their sponsors.

It was yet another way that the industry has devolved from being the providers and promoters of music to being an industry that views fans only as commodities. Once upon a time the music industry recognized the necessary balance of profits with fan appetites and interests — the fans mattered. Now, as exemplified by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the industry seems to believe that fans exist for the purpose of industry profitability. They give lip service to the importance of the fans, but when they do something is always for sale.

The death of Neil Peart began a remarkable week in which there was, for me at least, little to celebrate about the state of things related to music. I was excited about Pearl Jam announcing a new album and tour, so it wasn’t all bad. And I guess this is the way things in life evolve — life goes through cycles and things change, sometimes painfully. But I still believe in the human capacity to rise out of the ashes of the destruction caused by bloated institutions. The muses will still inspire great musical expression. The muses will still find people who passionately speak about music, who make sure that we catch how important it is. The bureaucrats in their ivory towers won’t understand it because their algorithms can’t predict it, but they are ultimately irrelevant to the deep expression of human experience that icons like Neil Peart share. The industry will never know better than the fans, but for now they think they do.

News Herald Correspondent Jonathan Henley is a United Methodist pastor, former host of Road Signs radio show, and a music fan. He writes a weekly column for The News Herald. Contact him at roadsignsradio@gmail.com.

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