An Observation of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame


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In the wake of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ NBA championship season, Clevelanders can finally say “we’re home of the champs”. They can also rest easy knowing their city nestled on the shores of Lake Erie isn’t just known for its abysmal sports teams and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. It’s worth noting that the economic benefits of hosting a winning sports team are numerous, especially to an industrially stagnant city like Cleveland that has struggled to keep up in this post-recession era. Like the Cavaliers basketball organization, the Rock Hall is an organization that requires new revenue and their induction nominees in recent years are indicative of such.

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Chuck Berry circa 1950s

In the Beginning…

When the Rock Hall opened in 1986 under the direction of Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun and Rolling Stone magazine co-founder Jann Wenner, the choices for induction were plentiful if not obvious. Music that helped shape the sound of radio from the mid-century onward filled the first twenty years of ceremonies.

The inaugural class induction list read like the jukebox choices of a Space Age diner: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and The Everly Brothers. The signers of the Declaration of Rock. A mighty list of talent with incalculable influence on American culture over the past five decades. Subsequent inductions followed the same line–a list that dwindled by the year, yet, each year included a stalwart choice that made sense.

In recent years, division between the hoi polloi and the braintrust of music criticism that make up the museum’s voting committee has surfaced to a level unseen in Hall history as the voting committee begins to broaden the nominee criteria. The Hall has always been self-aware of its effort to bridge the R&B, Blues, Soul genres into the rock music category. The idea being to give credit to the roots of rock music and give it a permanent home, canonized in Cleveland. Recently its included several pop singers and hip-hop/rap artists, leading to a divided consensus on what exactly is “rock music” and should the museum drop the “rock” from its title and simply call it the “Music Hall of Fame” to avoid the confusion.

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The “Million Dollar Quartet” at Sun Records: (left to right) Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash

Mixed Roots

Artists like Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Louis Jordan, Hank Williams, Elmore James and John Lee Hooker were inducted within the first ten years of ceremony as “early influences” on the rock genre. These non-genre inductions are logical. Rock n’ roll music grew out of the early blues singers like Johnson and Waters. There would’ve been no British Invasion without these players. Waters and Wolf stand out due to the mark they left on artists like Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jimi Hendrix who spent the 60s and 70s emulating their guitar chops.

The British Invasion gave the old blues artists greater exposure then they had in their youth at Chess records. In fact, many of the old blues players like Muddy Waters found new legs in the last years of their life due to the exposure of his music to rock fans of the time.

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Mick Jagger (left) and Keith Richards (right) play concert with Muddy Waters (center). 1981

Regarded as the “King of Rock & Roll”, Elvis Presley cited a variety of influences on his sound that included blues, country, gospel and pop singers like swing crooner, Dean Martin, who Presley regarded as the “King of Cool”. You can hear Martin’s baritone style come out of Presley’s earliest ballads. Johnny Cash, a label-mate of Presley’s in the 50s at Sam Philips’ Sun Records, was inducted to the Hall in 1992–making him one of a few artists to be inducted in both the Rock and Country Music Hall of Fame. There’s no doubt that Cash was regarded as a country music icon, but, his induction verified the overlapping input country-western music had on the genre from its earliest days.

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Waylon Jennings (left) with Buddy Holly.

Sun Records was the launching pad for artists like Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, and Conway Twitty who began with a rockabilly sound but spent the majority of their careers recording country music. Legendary rock guitarist, James Burton, played on many of Ricky Nelson’s earliest hit singles, yet, spent the 60s playing twangy honky-tonk licks on several of Merle Haggard’s classic country albums. Country music legend, Waylon Jennings, was a bassist for Buddy Holly & the Crickets–declining to get on the fateful flight that took the lives of Holly, Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. “The day the music died” as it’s been eulogized.

One could argue that just about every musician worth listening to on the radio in the past five decades is in the Hall–a diverse list that includes pop-singers Michael Jackson, ABBA and Madonna, jazz artist Miles Davis and hip hop group N.W.A.. In 2017, rapper Tupac Shakur will be eligible for nomination and will likely be inducted. Artistic merit and popularity aside, the long and short explanation for these non-genre inclusions is a combination of revenue generation and politics.

The committee has sifted through a majority the artists worthy of mention from the golden decades of the 50s, 60s & 70s and face a demographic problem in the years to come. As the selection committee starts looking into the past two decades for artists, the lists become more sparse–coinciding with the rise of MP3s and consumer refusal to pay the artists and labels for their product.

With bands like Guns n’ Roses, Nirvana and possibly Pearl Jam being inducted the first year they’re eligible, there’s reason to believe the Hall will need to adjust their voting criteria in order to keep ticket sales up into the next decade or risk irrelevancy.

Paying for Past Transgressions

The Hall has begun to weed through the music of the 90s–a decade that witnessed the sharp decline of rock music and the last decade that saw stable album sales. Aside from the Seattle-based “grunge” alternative-rock movement that followed the glam metal of Motley Crue and Def Leppard in the 80s and the short-lived nu-metal phase that included the likes of Korn and Slipknot, rock music has struggled to re-establish itself in a fragmented music industry.

With the rise of Napster and illegal music downloading the in late 90s/early 00’s, the record industry took a massive hit in record sales that it never recovered from and the echoes have reverberated throughout the music industry–leading to labels consolidating assets, merging, layoffs of songwriters, record stores closing shop and CD manufacturers going the way of the Dodo bird. Music simply isn’t as profitable as it once was and likely never will be again.

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Napster. File-sharing service that allowed users to illegally trade MP3 files.

Ever wonder why ticket prices for concerts are astronomical? Have you wondered why it takes young, talented artists like Adele and Katy Perry five years to record ten new songs? With the rise of digital streaming and the decline in physical media, artists are adjusting to make profits that used to come from album sales. Sadly, this makes it more difficult for artists to become established as opposed to the golden age of record sales–creating a funnel effect in the industry that gives us a few winners and a slew of losers. In the 50s and 60s there were numerous female jazz singers signed to major labels on the level of Adele. Today, Adele is an anomaly.

In 2016, the top three highest selling albums include Adele’s 25 (1.2 million sales, 168 million streams), Justin Bieber’s Purpose (435,000 sales, 758 million streams), and Rihanna’s Anti (423,000 sales, 765 million streams). These numbers are modest compared to album sales twenty years ago. There’s not enough meat on the bone to justify recording an album of new material because it’s no longer profitable to do so. Think about the long-term repercussions that has on an institution like the Hall and you’ll come to understand why jazz and rap musicians are now being featured in their exhibit line-up. This problem will only get worse as new artists struggle to find footing due to streaming services like Spotify, YouTube and file sharing being the norm for music listeners.

Music listeners purchased more old music in 2016 than they did new music. This is a first in the history of the recording industry and likely to become more common trend simply because the recording industry doesn’t produce as much new music as it used to. This trend correlates with the stale creativity in Hollywood who piles on sequels, prequels, and remakes yearly. It would seem the free-for-all digital age has sapped the incentive from aspiring artists because there’s not enough money in it anymore. The result is independent recordings on YouTube with indie artists making revenue from views but where does that leave institutions like the Rock Hall? Will there ever be a consensus on who should receive recognition like there was for Chuck Berry or Beach Boys?

Whatever happens, celebrity singers still have bills to pay. This is why you see current artists in their prime on game shows like The Voice as “judges”. They need the supplemental income that albums sales used to provide. People require compensation to continue working otherwise the fruit dries on the vine.

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For what it’s worth, when people were buying music they were predominately buying rock. Out of the top 100 albums ever sold, only two are in the hip-hop/rap genre (Eminem’s The Marshall Mathers LP & TLC’s CrazySexyCool). Be that as it may, a loud scrapping sound is now emanating from the board room of the Hall as they scrap the bottom of the pot, struggling to justify new inductees to a growing number of disenfranchised music listeners. Rock fans basically held a protest to get the Hall to budge on inducting 70s cult-favorites: KISS and Rush–both of which have openly mocked the institution, rationalizing their participation as a tribute to the fans. This certainly has more to do with a grudge against Wenner’s Rolling Stone magazine, which frequently ostracized hard rock acts in the 70s.

Artists themselves have expressed anger toward the institution, most recently Steve Miller who publicly accosted the museum for its elitist attitude that doesn’t think twice about throwing industry veterans under the bus at the expense of their bottom line. When Miller asked the Hall to let Elton John to do his induction speech, they ignored and plugged in modern rock torch-bearers, The Black Keys, to Miller’s dismay. Can this be viewed as anything other than a cynical tactic to prop-up the young duo as baton carriers in a rock music wasteland?

It’s All Relative, Man

The Hall is going to have a real problem on its hands in coming years. Unlike like athletic halls of fame where individual player statistical achievements and championship rings are all the merit needed for an induction, the criteria for the arts is more hazy. There’s always going to be more talented athletes. The same cannot be said for established musicians. If you go just by album sales, influential acts like Deep Purple and The Kinks would never be inducted. If you go by Billboard Top 40 hit records then Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin would never be inducted. If you go just by pop influence, why is Janet Jackson up for nomination but The Carpenters are not? Where do we draw the line on who should be included? Is there a line?

The decision to induct non-genre groups like N.W.A. and Miles Davis can be interpreted as tired exercises in political correctness that reflects our participation trophy culture, but, it’s mainly just about selling tickets. Let’s look at how Ice Cube defends his groups induction in a Twitter exchange with KISS front-man, Gene Simmons. By his definition, “Rock ‘n’ Roll is not an instrument. It’s not even a style of music. It’s a spirit…”.

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Frank Sinatra courting Bruce Springsteen (left) and Bob Dylan (right) at his 80th Birthday Tribute Concert, 1995.

If arrangement, instrumentation and style isn’t a qualifier for determining musical genre, then, what’s stopping the Hall from inducting Al Jolson? Jolson was the highest paid entertainer of the 30s, once regarded as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer”, and was instrumental in introducing black music to white audiences long before it was fashionable to do so. Inductees Rod Stewart, David Bowie and David Lee Roth have all cited him as an influence on their stage performance.

If a rebel “spirit” were enough to be considered for induction in the Hall, why isn’t Frank Sinatra in? In the last decade of his life, Hall inductees like Michael Jackson, Bono, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan all gushed over how inspirational Ol’ Blue Eyes was on their rebellious attitude, some of whom participated in his 80th Birthday Special on ABC in 1995. Rappers also seem to be comfortable with emulating the “gangsta” Rat Pack image that Sinatra himself originated.

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Bing Crosby (right) sings “Little Drummer Boy” with David Bowie. 1977

Why not add Bing Crosby to the Hall? After all, he was one of the first popular singers to utilize the microphone and sold billions of albums before they started keeping track of record sales. He had more number-one records than The Beatles and Elvis and has the best selling record of all time in his “White Christmas”. His recordings reached the charts 396 times, more than Frank Sinatra (209) and Elvis Presley (149) combined. The man was at the front of nearly every technological advancement in recording music, essentially originating the structure of the modern pop song. Who can forget his last Christmas special duet with David Bowie in 1977?

As stated above, country music has overlapping timelines with rock music. How many years away are we from inducting a Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Conway Twitty or even Garth Brooks into the Hall? Brooks did something totally different than his predecessors by mixing country with rock showmanship. Has any country artist incorporated as much of the rock spectacle into their live performance as Brooks?

Who had more of an original spirit than Mozart, whose mark on music is unparalleled? Or Beethoven whose Ninth Symphony and classical training helped urge a young Ritchie Blackmore of Deep Purple fame to pick up a guitar–spawning the first guitar riff all kids learn to play on guitar, “Smoke on the Water”. If the Hall is willing to give credit to the roots of rock, how far back and how wide are they willing to go?

Garth Brooks performs on stage

Garth Brooks performs on stage

What’s Good for the Goose…

It’s possible that the Hall has opened a can of worms. There’s an old adage: “when you try to please everyone, you please no one”. Dissatisfaction of music listeners and the artists themselves has been thrown towards the Hall for their inability to draw lines. By straddling the fence, they made themselves targets for the vitriol of heavy metal fans, rap fans, roots rock fans, pop fans, folk rock fans and a growing list of industry veterans who have gone public with their grievances. By doubling down on criteria advocated by Ice Cube, the Hall will now need to recognize other non-genre artists, accommodate everyone or risk becoming irrelevant in a music streaming age. These sorts of institutions are mirrors of the relativism in our culture that strives to avoid stepping on toes in attempt to recognize all opinions as equal. It’s a bed they’ve made and, for better or worse, will be forced to lie in.

If “Rock & Roll” is a broad, umbrella term that simply connotes originality and spirit, it’s a party welcome to the entire music world and that’s a tricky precedent to follow and satisfy everyone.

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Rent the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for Private Party

The Rock Hall has opened their museum up for private events, weddings, proms, holiday parties and more. For a price you can rent the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame museum for anywhere between 20 to 2,000 people. Event planners can reserve the Lower Level, “Meet to the Beat” conference room, Foster Theater, The Cafe, or Behind “The Wall” exhibit. No matter what size party you plan on holding, there’s a price point and section of the museum to meet your needs.

 

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