Startups and Rock N Roll – Part 4 – How we got here

I’ve written four other posts linking starting a business and programming and being a musician. Scroll down to find them.

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With surprising frequency I find myself arguing/discussing the end of glam rock with other people. I am an unashamed hair metal enthusiast and marvel at how easily people dismiss a ~10 year period between 1982 and 1992 where bands in spandex, makeup, and hairspray ruled the rock world. Musically most of the songs written by everyone from Night Ranger to Trixter consist of the same chord progressions you hear today from the Black Keys and Jack White, so I find it odd that many people universally say Poison, Skid Row, Cinderella and the like “suck” while new music is awesome. Its really the exact same music, just packaged and processed differently.

Anyway, the prevailing argument from most people is that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and the accompanying success of Nirvana “killed” hair metal. This statement is partially true at best and extremely revisionist. The reality is that three things killed hair metal:

1. The Fender Mustang guitar.
2. James Hetfield’s haircut.
3. Vince Neil quitting Motley Crue.

People who point to Nirvana’s (and Pearl Jam’s) huge debut successes conveniently forget that metal was exploding at the same time. Metallica, Ozzy Osbourne, Anthrax, and Megadeth all crossed over to the mainstream and had their most commercially successful records and tours at the same time. Guns N Roses was filling arenas and stadiums (with Metallica). While MTV was inarguably playing more “grunge” videos, they had not at all backed off playing traditional hair-metal artists. If anything, the genre suffering at the time was pop music as the New Kids on the Block were long gone and NSync was yet to be. There was a near even mix of “Seattle grunge” and “LA metal” on the airwaves between 1991 and 1993.

So what changed things? Simple: new artists and new bands no longer had to focus on the visual component of performance. Kurt Cobain played a Fender Mustang in Nirvana’s videos. The Mustang was a cheap, entry-level guitar that could be had at most pawn shops for under $150. Instead of saving up $800 for a Les Paul, BC Rich, or Ibanez guitar a person interested in learning how to play could get a guitar for $150 that was socially acceptable as “cool.” When James Hetfield cut his hair for the Black Album it represented another turning point; it was no longer necessary to have long hair to be in a rock band. If James Hetfield could lead Metallica with short hair then it was acceptable for high school kids to start bands in their garage without worrying about having long hair. The rest of the pagentry and costumes soon followed in a fall out of style. Suddenly a band could wear shorts and T-shirts like Pearl Jam or Hootie and the Blowfish.

So what was the final death knell for glam rock and hair metal? Simple – the natural order of things dictated that bands released records every two years. When GNR was taking a break then Van Halen had a record. When they were taking a break it was Bon Jovi or Poison. For nearly 12 years between 1980 and 1992, fans could count on one of the 5 or 6 biggest rock bands being on the road and on MTV supporting a record. In the summer of 1992, it was Motley Crue’s turn in the rotation…and they didn’t release an album. Suddenly there was a void in the “name” hair-metal bands in the music-fan consciousness. This void was filled by the Lollapalooza which owned the summer of 1992 with a tour featuring Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

ALl in all, the death of hair metal was not the advent of grunge but something much simpler: the barrier to entry had been lowered substantially. A band could play the same chord progressions they always had but no longer needed to dress up like girls in leather pants and have lasers at their shows and play $1000 guitars. It became cheaper to have the equipment needed to start a band and it became simpler to “look” like a performing musician.

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Technology startups followed the same path a decade later. It used to be that it was expensive to start a software business. It required a specialized knowledge set, access to expensive equipment, money to pay hosting costs and marketing costs. Now the barrier has been lowered. A reasonable business idea can be launched with a few hundred dollars and some passion. No longer do CEO’s need to be 50 year olds in suits but rather can be 22 year olds in hoodies and flip flops.

An argument can made that rock music started going downhill when it became easy for everyone to participate. The same argument can be made about the internet and the app store: there are a LOT of bad websites and bad apps out there. That said, it’s important to realize that more people participating in the creation of things, whether it be music or websites, should be applauded as a good thing as it advances the overall culture around us. Zuckerberg probably couldn’t have started facebook in 1990 just as Radiohead might have never gotten on radio in 1990. Sometimes lowering the barrier to entry is a good thing.

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