For music fans with a taste for rock and a tolerance for history, the date April 5 has a certain weighty presence on the calendar. On that Tuesday in 1994, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain ended his own life, and along with it the momentum that had carried the grunge band’s anti-establishment rock into music’s mainstream.
As a result of Cobain’s death and the corporate consolidation of the music industry in the ’90s, “artistic aspirations have never again rivaled commercial aspirations in mainstream rock,” according to Adam Caress, a Montreat College music business educator. The struggle embodied by Cobain — an inherent tension between authenticity and marketing genius — plays the main stage in Caress’ debut, The Day Alternative Music Died. He’ll read and discuss the book at Malaprop’s on Thursday, Aug. 6.
Although Cobain’s demise inspired the book’s title and several chapters, Caress says, the discrepancies between artistic merit and commercial success in the alternative music sphere began with Bob Dylan’s popularization of politicized folk rock in the mid-’60s (for which he was tormented by folk purists at the time).
Meticulously assembling rock’s complex history into a chain reaction of artistic movements, Caress chronicles the motivations behind countless alt-musicians’ careers and dissects the precursors to and effects of each genre’s prevailing ethos. Along the way, he adds industry executive perspectives, analyses on modern music production and consumption and plenty of quotes from cultural notables.
Weaving the comprehensive tale — without leaving out pertinent history gems like the “superfluity of crotch shots” in Led Zeppelin’s film The Song Remains the Same and gut-churning glimpses into the life of Gene Simmons — took Caress nearly four years. In the final stretch, he handed segments of the work over to his Montreat students for feedback.
“There’s a lot of new and interesting research in there,” he says, citing the post-digital industry landscape as one major area of investigation. “I hope it can become part of the cultural conversation about these issues.”
Both the motivations behind alternative music and the meaning associated with the term have vacillated over time, as Caress points out. What “once described a scene that contained countless styles of music and was defined only by its lack of mainstream success … was increasingly coming to describe a very specific stylistic genre of music, a homogenous sound and attitude chosen specifically for its perceived marketability and modeled on its most iconic band: Nirvana.”
Caress’ revisiting of already storied artists throughout the book feels nothing like blind idolatry. In some cases, he actually highlights the frivolity of deifying stars. In other instances, he demystifies the intense social climates that made contributions from pioneers like Dylan and Cobain so indelible in popular culture (and so ubiquitous among J.C. Penny racks).
After 20 years of experience as a recording and performing artist, booking agent, talent buyer, music writer and editor, Caress delivers his findings with the aplomb of an industry insider and the fervor of a devout and optimistic listener. “As much as the book could be kind of a downer in a sense of where corporate culture has gone, it really ends up taking a hopeful note,” Caress says. “There have been times where it might have been easier to find the more artistically substantive music in the mainstream, [but] I think this is one of the best times for musical creativity. It’s just that you have to look under the surface for it.”
WHAT: Adam Caress reads from The Day Alternative Music Died and will be interviewed by Kevin Auman, director of the music business program at Montreat College
WHERE: Malaprop’s, malaprops.com
WHEN: Thursday, Aug. 6, at 7 p.m.