It seems like a strange time, 2016, doesn’t it? It’s almost as if George R. R. Martin is writing this chapter of our collective experience.
When Lemmy died in the waning days of December of 2015 it felt like a cataclysmic, unknowable, and singular event. Lemmy, a candidate for the one true embodiment of rock ‘n’ roll if there ever was one — a walking, talking, drinking avatar of its raw power and eternal youth — it turns out had the same inbuilt obsolescence as the rest of us. As a paid-up member of the church of rock ‘n’ roll, his death shook me to the core. I was left reeling, and I knew I would need a long and uneventful stretch of time to process the news. A few months of serenity to get my head straight.
Well, we all know how that panned out. In the course of a few short months since Lemmy’s passing we have lost David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Garry Shandling, and, just last Thursday, Prince. Even Abe Vigoda chose 2016 as the year to shuffle off this mortal coil (because let’s be honest: Abe Vigoda chose). April hasn’t even ticked over into May and it now almost seems that after the universe took Lemmy — the one who could never be taken — the universe realized it could take anyone. And take it did.
At times the run of high-profile celebrity deaths this year — actors as well as musicians — feels like one of those strange, ineffable, almost supernatural-seeming trends. A bit like three of the most renowned guitarists of all time — Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton — being born within 18 months and a few miles of each other.
So what gives, Universe? What cosmic trick are you playing on us? What mystical spell of death have you cast over 2016?
I jest, of course. It would be too easy to pronounce this a freak year; some sort of cursed harvest. Like most magical fires, however, this one can be put out by a cold bucketful of logic. I mean, yes, the passing of Lemmy upset the natural order of things and unsealed the maw of oblivion, obviously, but there are other forces at work here. Upsettingly cold and reasonable, rational forces that mean this is only going to get worse.
We are seeing the tail end of a historical blip. The era of all-conquering superstars that began with Elvis and The Beatles after the War and that eclipsed most of the latter half of the last century is coming to an end, the heroes that were born and created during those years are ageing out, and we shall never see their kind again. As with all things, this is a result of a confluence of interrelated factors, but at the centre of the nexus is the birth of the internet, and the revolution begun by its mass uptake. As the marginal costs of the key components of the information age have plummeted (hard drive space; bandwidth) and in some cases tended towards zero (musical reproduction and distribution), the music industry and its myth-making ability has irrevocably (but reluctantly) morphed in kind. When it began to believe its own narrative of permanence, the music industry as we know it sowed the seeds for its own destruction.
2007 was the year that the volume of music sold on the internet overtook what was sold on every other medium, but thanks to the rise of free file sharing and the a-la-carte options offered by online retailers the public’s overall actual spending on music has plummeted. It is not a coincidence that the monstrous drop-off for total spending on music in any medium from $14.6 billion in 1999 to just $9 billion in 2008 aligns exactly with the global spread of the internet.
If we look at the list of best-selling albums on Wikipedia (a somewhat limited and flawed methodology, but illustrative nonetheless) and we break it down into decades, a distinctive profile emerges:
1960’s - 2
1970’s - 14
1980’s - 25
1990’s - 22
2000’s - 8
2010’s - 1
It took the record companies and music industry as a whole a few decades to set up the systems of distribution, monopolization, and artist support (and exploitation) to achieve the mind-boggling levels of penetration and profit of the late 80’s and 90’s.
And then, in one fell swoop, the internet stormed the compound and demolished it.
(As an interesting aside, and because I’ve had a few beers, I printed out an arbitrary list of top-selling albums from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, put it on a dartboard, and threw a dart with my eyes closed. It landed on Boston’s (awesome) 1976 debut, ‘Boston’. That album ended up selling 17 million units. That’s a random album in a random year that still ended up selling more than the top 5 records of last year (which was a relatively healthy year for this decade!) combined).
Figures and spending and financial breakdowns only tell the first part of this story, however. It’s heroes we speak of, not end-of-quarter reports.
But of course, the two are intertwined. The splintering of the industry and the staggering multiplication of available music, endlessly re-inventing itself and self-reflexively riffing at a phenomenal speed had the same effect on our attention and our affection as it did on our wallet: we could suddenly have a little bit of everything we might ever want, but we would end up injecting less and less of ourselves into each one of those bits. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s found in the spaces between creator and consumer, in the effervescent electricity that leaps between the two. And each one of us has only so much electricity to go around.
The mystique, too, is mostly nothing like it was. As legendary producer Tony Visconti said of David Bowie: ‘His death was no different from his life — a work of art.’ Kept under total wraps until the final hour, and foreshadowed by a haunting music video, it is emblematic of the way celebrity used to manifest itself before the internet’s blanket, infinite coverage took over. There are those who, like Beyonce, can still surprise and put out work like Lemonade without mountains of pre-release hype and anticipation, but that’s becoming a rarer and rarer thing.
It should be noted there is no value judgement intended in this account. One system is not inherently better than the other.
The salient point is that the game has changed. A few notable exceptions aside our heroes are more nebulous, more ephemeral. They are less heroes, and more creatively productive social media associates. They don’t tower above us, they post updates on Instagram. The musical ones are the ones that I have focused on but the same applies to the other pantheons. Cinema, as Dustin so eloquently put it, is relying more and more on franchises instead of the waning and previously unassailable power of A-list stars and so is also feeling the effects of this implacable tide.
So it is that we find ourselves at a beginning of the end of the age of heroes. We will have no shortage, of course, of talented and charismatic performers and artists going forward. In fact if anything we will have a far wider selection than we have ever had before. But the stars that shine in our night sky will be — just by virtue of their sheer number and our naturally limited attention span — in far fiercer competition with each other than those few great and powerful ones now reaching the end of their lifecycles. They will shine, and we will appreciate and love them, but their passing will be marked much less than those that came before.
Petr Knava lives in London and plays music