The Beatles performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
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Over the past couple of decades, there has been a dramatic decline in musical bands with widespread popularity. This trend has been happening for a long time, but the slow decline and recent official breakup of Panic! At the Disco has brought this issue back to the forefront of the industry. In 2022, the Billboard top 50 reported the lowest percentage of bands, with only 8% of the top 50 musical artists being bands. This modern era is a far cry from the explosion of bands from previous decades. For those who have grown up in the 21st century, it seems that not long ago there were popular bands popping up left and right. This dramatic decline has many people asking, where did all the bands go?
Looking In the Past
To answer this question, it takes some reflection on how the modern band started and has changed over the years. With the rise of rock and roll in the 1950s, bands became more common, but they were more focused on a front man with a rotating group of musicians as accompaniment. It wasn’t until the British Invasion in the 1960s that the modern band exploded. The new formula was a group of musicians who shared the spotlight and name. It started with groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and then eventually American bands like The Doors followed suit. Music was changing, and the rise of bands was integral to this change.
As music was changing, the world was changing too. In the 1960s, the rise of rock coincided with the rise of countercultural movements. This culminated in the notorious Woodstock festival in 1969, which secured the bond between bands and alternative movements. Similarly, in the 1990s, the rise of the alternative, grunge movement was paired with another explosion of bands.
Nick Durst, a junior political science major, said that bands are inherently transgressive.
“The stereotypical band is tied to rock,” Durst said. “Rock is, by its very definition, meant to be very anti-establishment and countercultural … All these bands were formed around breaking the rules.”
There is also a very cyclical nature to music trends. Like many other aspects of pop culture, it tends to move on a 20-to-30-year cycle. The highly commercialized music of the 1950s was followed by a more organically focused movement in the 1960s, and the corporatization of 1980s music was followed by a revolt from the alternative community in the 1990s.
Cutler Armstrong, a music industry studies professor, drew the parallels between the 60s and 90s music eras.
“[In the 1960s] you have those original style bands emerging … and some of that would be related to protest movements and commentary on the events,” Armstrong said. “I think there’s a parallel to that. In the 90s, there was more of a revolt of ‘over-corporatization’ like that of the hair metal genre … People may have wanted something more natural and organic.”
The recent decline in bands could be the result of these trend cycles. It has been 20 to 30 years since the last large boom in bands, so the 21st century has existed on the downturn of that band cycle so far. This could mean that another explosion is just around the corner. There are already signs of this shift.
Looking Toward the Future
The 2000s and 2010s were dominated by pop star icons like Britney Spears, who were influenced by hip-hop and the electronic dance music scene. This type of music was highly commercialized and relied more on production and spectacle than instrumentals. In recent years, there has been a shift with singer-songwriters like Taylor Swift who are putting emphasis on lyrics and performers like Beyonce or Lil Nas X who focus on social commentary. Many artists like Olivia Rodrigo also draw heavily from past icons. This shift mirrors that of the 80s to 90s. The popularity of bands like Greta Van Fleet, as well as surges in popularity from biopics like “Bohemian Rhapsody” also signal a change in the industry toward rock bands.
However, younger generations are not entirely mourning the decline of bands. Lindsey Brooks, a junior business entrepreneurship major, is skeptical that bands will make a comeback.
“I think that music has changed so much that we’re only interested in solo artists,” Brooks said. “There are bands, but they’re not as big as bands have been in the past. I would hope there would be a comeback, but I don’t see it any time soon … That’s not what people are looking for anymore.”
As well as shifting interests, changes in the broader entertainment industry are impacting the type of music that gets made. This started with TV shows like “American Idol” and “Star Search” which seek to find singular talents to launch into fame. Since these shows created opportunities for individuals, people had more incentives to remain a solo artist. These reality shows had a tight grasp on the road to stardom.
Even One Direction, one of the most popular bands of the last decade, was formed from the competition show “The X Factor.” This band is a far cry from the original rock bands. Bands like One Direction are based on the personality and branding of its members. They are also less reliant on instrumentals and social commentary. Similarly, K-Pop bands like BTS have become extremely popular in recent years. Like One Direction, the branding and image are a vital part of their success. Solo careers, like that of Harry Styles, have also been launched from boy bands. The boy band to solo artist pipeline is easy to make since these bands already have a dedicated fan base and pop star style.
This trend continued into the 2010s as music streaming services like Spotify also made it more advantageous to be a solo artist by changing the way artists make a profit. More of the market is taken up by streaming revenue, which is much less reliable for music artists due to the low pay per stream. It is more advantageous for artists if they – and their record company – are the soul recipient of these royalties, rather than sharing royalties among band members. Previously, when the industry was dominated by CDs and other forms of physical distribution, artists were less reliant on royalties. Armstrong helped demonstrate this difference.
“Think of it this way: if somebody was selling a CD for $12 or $15 retail, and they sold 10 or 20 million of them versus somebody streaming a couple million streams, and then the payout is $0.003, and then that has to be divided up – there’s a difference if that money is going to be divided up equally among a band, as opposed to mostly going to a solo performer,” Armstrong said.
This new system seems to make it difficult for bands to thrive in the industry, and gives fewer incentives for them to try. However, the industry has made drastic shifts before, so who is to say it could not make another. Vinyl sales have been up substantially in the past few years which could mean that profit channels are changing yet again. If these trends continue, the tides could turn in favor of bands. Some think that shift is within sight.
“[Bands are coming back] without question, and I’m really excited to see it,” Durst said.
So, with all of this in mind: where did all the bands go? Will they come back? That is largely up to the perspectives of the public. The bands didn’t go anywhere. They still exist, and they can be resurrected. With all the resources available to discover music, bands of the past, present and future can be as relevant or irrelevant as the public decides. The best thing each person can do is educate themselves about music and support the artists they believe in.