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Is there hope for rock music?

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The White Stripes
The White Stripes: Stewart Isbell/Retna

Is there hope for rock music?

The music industry sucks.

Or at least that’s the story told in recent weeks by such reputable publications as Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal. The market is awash in boring, overproduced trash and the public isn’t buying it anymore: In 2001, music sales were down five percent — the biggest drop in decades.

But it’s old news. The new story is that there’s a shimmering light at the end of the tunnel, a bright, beautiful future filled with something major labels have shortchanged for years: It’s called ”Good Music” and it’s heading to a record store near you — even Walmart.

The success rate at major labels is incredibly low. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out, fewer than five percent of the albums released by the five major record companies make any profit at all. So label execs try to minimize the risks by signing replicas of the last big thing, i.e., proven sellers like Britney and Creed, leaving America to suffer through the blandest common denominator. But lately, even that hasn’t worked as the watered-down stream of HoobastankTheCallingPlusOneKylie isn’t generating the sales of the orgininators.

Finally, a few exasperated and desperate label execs decided to take some real chances. Critical acclaim and hipster appeal don’t usually go far in the mainstream music biz, but last year A&R execs entered a potentially brave new world, signing three bands, The Strokes (RCA), The White Stripes (V2), and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (Virgin) with massive buzz but seemingly zero mainstream appeal. To everyone’s surprise, the Strokes’s album ”Is This It?” is a staple on the Billboard albums chart, while the White Stripes — a bluesy garage band supposedly miles from the mainstream — are getting major airplay on modern rock radio, between Creed and Linkin Park songs.

Spurred on by that success, Interscope recently signed a band that’s about as far away from Britney Spears as possible: Austin noise punks …And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead (though, in a nod to its old stodginess, the label is pushing the name Trail of Dead). And unlike the Strokes and White Stripes, whose albums got minimal label promotion and languishes for months in obscurity until word of mouth made them major hits, Interscope is going all out for …Trail of Dead. In addition to widespread advertsising and promotion, the label struck a deal with Tower Records to sell the disc at a discounted $8.99 opening price.

The Trail of Dead signing may spur a further feeding frenzy: Virgin Records struck a similar deal with Tower for the critically acclaimed CD from N.E.R.D. (the Neptunes plus one), selling it for an unbelievable $6.99. And indie new-wave noodlers the Faint are now the opening act for No Doubt’s national tour and are considered next in line for the majors.

It’s often said in the music industry that bad times spur great music. Think of the punk explosion during the late-70’s recession, Nirvana during the early-90’s recession and Gulf War. In the last six months, the world has been turned on it’s head, and in a development we can be happy about, so has the music industry.

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