Is rock ’n roll dead? It’s a question Columbia Records executive Isaac Green is asked on an almost daily basis — and one to which he doesn’t quite know how to respond without sounding as if he’s being deliberately vague.
“People love talking about it,” he says, from his office at 550 Madison Avenue, the post-modern building previously known as the Sony Tower (the parent corporation of Columbia).
Among millennials music essentially means pop, r'n'b and hip hop. It’s likewise telling that the biggest rock stars in the world nowadays are overwhelmingly middle-aged and over (Arcade Fire’s Win Butler is 37, Coldplay’s Chris Martin 41). Raise the subject with Green, senior vice president of A&R at Columbia, and the response is a long, thoughtful pause.
“When people talk about rock .. will it come back?… they have a very pre-conceived notion of what rock is going to be. I’m sure that [the preconceived notion] isn’t coming back. I think there will be an artist or a moment or a number of artists, or some combination, and they will create music that is taking upon the traditions people are thinking about.”
One of the most esteemed A&R executives in the business, Green will share his experiences at the Music Cork event April 25-27. He will, you suspect, have a lot to say. Green’s entry into the business was through working with hip early 2000s Manhattan bands such as French Kicks and The Walkmen, both of whom were tipped for an imminent hugeness that failed to manifest.
At Columbia, meanwhile , he’s worked with everyone from dance-floor kingpin Calvin Harris to Arcade Fire and Bjork, in addition to signing Passion Pit, Foster and People and Swedish trio Peter Bjorn and John, who had a big hit in 2006 with ‘The Young Folks’.
His career has, along with everything else, spanned the business’s rise, fall and tentative revival. The industry, as Green knows only too well, survived a near-death experience in the mid 2000s when physical sales gave way to piracy.
Today streaming is increasingly the major revenue stream for labels (in the first six months of 2017, streaming accounted for $2.5bn of the American music sector’s total income of $4bn). Nevertheless Columbia and its peers are a considerable distance from their money-printing pomp (in 2000, Nsync’s third album, No Strings Attached, set a record for Sony by shifting one million units in a single day and 2.4m in its first week).
Green’s take is that the old days weren’t exactly a bed of roses either. Back then, music was presided over by gate-keepers, from the mogul who could sign or drop you, all the way down to the bar manager who might or might not give your band a gig depending on his feelings regarding your haircut.
“It used to be that in the past, at all turns, there was somebody who had taste and trusted it — and may not have agreed with your music. That could have been at so many levels. It could be at a small club that you really needed to play and they weren’t going to book you, so you were frustrated by that. It could be in getting distribution.
“The distributor had a certain kind of taste.. you couldn’t get your CDs anywhere. To get your video played, rather than YouTube, you had a meeting at MTV of six people. They would decide what video to play. People forget how frustrating those gate-keepers were.” Green had a front-row seat to what is generally acknowledged as one of the last great modern scenes, the New York rock uprising of the early 2000s — a movement that included The Strokes, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Rapture and others.
Back then, he ran his own label, StarTime. The roster included singer-songwriter Brendan Benson (whose mother is from Youghal, Co Cork), French Kicks and The Walkmen, the last a gritty indie five-piece seen as capable of pushing The Strokes all the way for title of most exciting band in New York.
Things didn’t quite work out that way, despite considerable critical acclaim. The period was famously chronicled by Lizzy Goodman in her 2017 bestseller Meet Me In The Bathroom — a-warts-and-all-portrait of a music scene that simply couldn’t exist in today’s atomised age, where music is regarded almost as a utility rather than art.
“Mostly it was great,” Green recalls.
You’re young — everything feels possible. But you’re also hitting against reality all the time. There was never quite enough money for anyone involved. It was always close — maybe one more release, one more tour would put things in a position that they were truly working.
The media’s tendency to lump all of the New York bands together had positive and negatives. “You don’t want to be compared to The Strokes all the time if your aesthetics are different,” says Green. “[But] in some ways, the opportunities were better after The Strokes than before. Before The Strokes people were convinced that boybands and nu-metal were going to be unstoppable, dominating music forces into infinity.
“Afterwards that changed — at 2001 to 2003, people wanted punch-to-the-gut old school rock’n roll. The Hives [a Swedish punk band] were the biggest beneficiaries. They literally released the same music the year before to very little acclaim. Afterwards they were being flown around in private jets and being feted by the largest executives in the music business… Overall, the feeling was phenomenal. It was great. I couldn’t tell if it was just that I was young and I was feeling the energy of the city, but even people who were older were saying, ‘no, this is truly exciting and thrilling for all of us’.”
One of the biggest differences between now and then, he feels, is that technology has made it possible for bands to figure out who they are on record before becoming a cohesive entity on stage.
That’s quite a contrast with the ’90s and 2000s, where groups would forge their identity playing dingy clubs. Today it’s possible for an act to have a viral hit before even performing for the first time.
“It has changed in that basically artists now sort of create the music before they play live,” he says.
You can, with a little effort, and a lot of time just make a terrific sounding piece of music at your home or in your bedroom and then figure out live after that. Early on the live shows often aren’t very good.
“It used to be that, even if you were playing one of the most basic early live shows, whether in Whelan’s in Dublin or Dublin Castle in Camden Town, an act would probably have played a number of gigs before that.
“Now you’ll make a splash online and distribute your music on the internet and get some sort of buzz and then play your first show, whether that is at Dublin Castle or Whelan’s. It will be your first show. You won’t have figured anything out in terms of being compelling live.”