Question: If you had to come up with a list of the top 50 or Top 100 or Top 1000 rock acts of all-time, how many of them would be British?
A lot. Just off the top of your head, you’d probably say: Beatles, Stones, Who, Zeppelin, Queen, Clash, Pink Floyd, Clapton, Bowie, Radiohead, T. Rex, Sex Pistlols, Black Sabbath, Cream, Def Leppard, ELO, Rainbow, Depp Purple, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motorhead, Free, Genesis, Faces, Police, Smiths, Kinks, Pet Shop Boys, and Oasis.
What about America? How many instantly come to mind?
Not as many. And on balance, not as high on the list. Elvis, Hendrix, Springsteen, The Doors, Metallica, The Beach Boys, Prince, Pearl Jam, Aerosmith, Van Halen, R.E.M., Eagles, G’n'R, KISS, Bon Jovi, The Ramones, Nirvana, Lynard Skynard, Van Halen, Grateful Dead.
Of course, this topic is highly subjective. But I don’t think it’s particularly controversial, either. British rock music took over around 1965 and has been dominant ever since. A Chi-squared test against the populations of the two nations would undoubtedly come back uber-significant. And I don’t think any rock fan would disagree.
More interesting, and the reason I was thinking about this today, was that a colleague of mine made the claim that the great American music acts tend to be individuals, or bands with a large-than-life individual, while the British acts tend to be more true bands. That rang true to me annecdotally, although I have no idea if it would stand up to an empircal test. What got me thinking was the obvious follow-up: why?
I suppose that any answer will tend toward one of two arguments (not including “chance”): cultural differences between the nations or the institutional structure of the music industry in the two countries. On the former, the obvious thesis everyone will reach for is some variant of “American individualism,” either that Americans are more likely to pursue individual creative endeavors, or that Americans are more likely to enjoy/respect/appreciate individual talents. I’m loathe to attach too much to this, but I think it has to be part of any answer.
I don’t know a whole lot about the latter, although my years stuyding the path-dependence of political institutions leads me to beleive that even a small difference in the structure of the music industry in, say, 1958, could have led to big differences in how things developed over the next 40 years. And that difference very well could have been Elvis. Without any knowledge of the details whatsoever, it wouldn’t suprise me if the dominating success of the King in the late 50′s both blossomed a generation of individuals who sought to play music as individuals in the U.S., as well as conditioned record labels to seek out and promote individual talent, either in search of the next Elvis, or just through a belief that it was the route to the greatest profits. Lacking such an overwhelming figure, British music didn’t hit the path-dependent lock-in until the Beatles and Stones laid the foundation, leading the English music structure down a different path.
Assuming that was the case, it’s not hard to see how a path-dependence would work in the industry: the labels hire scouts to seek out individual talent, develop engineers and studio men who are best at working with individuals, and produce the marketing strategies to promote individuals. These are capital investments that create costs if the path is to be changed. A feedback loop develops with the future stars, who see individualism as the path to sucess, and a second (albeit less-direct) feedback loop develops with American music fans, whose tastes are bent toward indie American acts. Then the British invasion happens (accompanied by a similar, band-oriented path-dependence in England) and each nations music industry finds itself hopelessly behind in the other’s sphere. Indy acts in England are forced to go it alone just as American bands are left out of the easiest channels to commerical success. This reinforces the overarching feedback loop, and helps explain why even compelling group acts in America are presented/marketed as individual talents (Van Halen, DMB, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Nirvana, etc.) or leave bands to become solo acts (Janis Joplin, David Lee Roth, Joan Jett, etc).
Is Stevie Nicks not the perfect example here? American member of British rock band, eventually leaves to do solo album?