“Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Pumps Brakes on Progressiveness,” was the headline from Billboard.com. “A Dad Rock Spectacle for the Ages,” is how Cleveland.com put it. Both, of course, were referring to the Hall’s Class of 2018 (The Moody Blues, Dire Straits, The Cars, Bon Jovi, Nina Simone and Early Influence inductee Sister Rosetta Tharpe).
There’s been a lot of criticism of the Hall’s “Boomer bias” of the past couple of years, and it’s absolutely not without justification. To fulfill its mission, the Hall needs to broaden its range, and there’s evidence that it’s taking steps to force the older-white-male-dominated voting committee out of its comfort zone and at least catch up a little bit to the more progressive NomCom, including recruiting members as young as their 20s. And even if it adds to the overall complexity, it may very well take some procedural changes as well, something like the change suggested (by a Millennial) here.
But just to play devil’s advocate, the Hall may not actually be rushing to bring this about, at least on a scale that will satisfy everyone tired of classic rock’s dominance, and here’s why: The fact is, Boomers and early Gen X’ers aren’t dead. Yet. While the oldest ones are out of that coveted 25-54 demographic, they have disposable income and are deeply invested in their music and the experience built around it. Seven of the top 20 tours worldwide in 2017 according to Pollstar were classic rock acts – McCartney, the Stones, GnR, Roger Waters, Billy Joel, U2, and Tom Petty (nine if you count Depeche Mode and Metallica; Springsteen’s Broadway shows weren’t even counted). Yes, the ticket prices are higher, but again, old folks are shelling out. They pony up in droves for events like 80s in the Sand, and cruise ships full of inebriated Boomers are criss-crossing the world’s oceans as you read this, reliving the glory days on the Kiss cruise, the 80s cruise, the Moody Blues cruise, et al, et al.
Now, here I get into conjecture territory: without wanting to draw broad stereotypes, clearly, Millennials experience their music differently from previous generations; they tend to value ownership of music (and most things) far less and experience live music in a festival setting as opposed to single headliners far more. Big conjecture on my part, but I’m not sure that fandom of any particular artist or band plays the same role in self-definition that it did for their parents. Please note-this is a value-neutral statement. I’m not saying this is a bad thing; in a lot of respects it may be a healthier thing. Culture is more participatory for much of this generation than it was for us, and they don’t engage in the hero worship that we did, for lack of a better term.
And while a lot was made about Radiohead’s exclusion, the band doesn’t care, and I’m not sure how much their fan base does. I’ve said it before, but I was taken aback by their poor showing in the fan vote, dragging along in 11th place even before the announcement that they’d be in another hemisphere during the induction ceremony, finally finishing in 12th.
All this is relevant because the RRHOF has so strongly linked its nomination/induction process to cranking the turnstiles at its museum, possibly more than any other such institution, along with the HBO telecast of the induction, which has of course been cited as the primary source of corruption in the process. (While ESPN telecasts the MLB HOF ceremony, MLB is clearly in the driver’s seat). Whether or not it’s pernicious, once that’s the premise, it’s just business: which group would you cater to, as the Foundation, the Museum, HBO or an advertiser? And once you’ve made that decision, you’re hanging a building-sized banner off the side of a downtown Cleveland building emblazoned with an image of a (young) Jon Bon Jovi, right after he’s pulled off a massive end run (aka dick move) around you by announcing his personal choice of inductor.
It’s been voiced that people should be patient with the Hall trying to balance all these demands, and I’ve thought that myself. But didn’t it wedge itself firmly between the (proverbial) rock and the hard place? I definitely wouldn’t want to go the three-name-only-per-class route, but the Country Music Hall of Fame has scrupulously kept its induction process separate from its Museum management for 54 years now, and while the actual HOF element has its inevitable detractors, it’s managed to maintain its cachet while going under the radar and coexist with a successful Museum that’s actually one of the relatively few such institutions accredited within the industry. It can be done.
The CMHOF also maintains a pretty high degree of transparency about their rules and processes. The RRHOF has apparently stated that transparency is a goal, but I don’t think we’re going to see this for a while. Right now, the voting committee is driven by its biases. If the voters choose an all-white, all-male slate and the Hall needs to massage that for better optics, they’ve still got the wiggle room and the ends justify the unseen means. Of course, if a band like Radiohead gets snubbed as punishment for a lack of enthusiasm, or because the Hall wants time to try to sweet-talk them into playing along, or just snubbed period, that doesn’t have to be seen either. Right now, the NomCom by acting according to its mission is doing the work of progressiveness, while the powers that be are catering to the bulk of their official voters even as they quietly work to dilute their influence to achieve a greater goal. Until that’s worked out, “selection by one’s peers” is a good thing to promote and takes the heat off the problem.
(An aside: another thing that undermines the Hall’s credibility maybe as much as bias and lack of transparency is a lack of simple professionalism. When you have to add names to a band’s inducted personnel due to “inadvertent error” after the fact and don’t bother to contact those members yourself so they find out from their wives, and when you can’t contact the acts that aren’t inducted that year, but send them a form letter, it’s pretty cringeworthy. (Note to the NomCom: this book is excellent and has handy charts so you can see who was in a band at any point in time).
On the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast covering the class, Brian Hiatt and Andy Greene acknowledged that “there’s an image problem with (the RRHOF and) young people” and then asked hypothetically, “Does everything always have to be about young people?”
At least for right now, maybe not.