“I AM A GOLDEN GOD” Russell Hammond of fictional band Stillwater shouts down to the enraptured crowd at the house party in Topeka.
Why does this scene in Almost Famous, in a film packed full of quotes, quips and an incredible soundtrack, stand out? Because Russell’s spectre, the image of him on that roof - if you saw it for real, (let’s hope someone did)- it would be burnt on your brain for all time.
See, music lends itself to the spectre. When it’s only taking place via sound in the air, these images stick. Graphics stick. Record sleeves stick. Logos stick. Not being “one of the out of focus guys” sticks.
At a time when you could know nothing about a band apart from the design they’d chosen for their LP and the lyrics they’d added to the inner sleeves, the images a band chose to communicate to you with - all the way down to fifteen-year-old William Miller in his bedroom, records shoved under his bed - were everything.
But William is one of the lucky ones. We fall down the rabbit hole with him. We go back stage. We go on stage. And when the daydream is over, even for William, all that he’s left with are the physical reminders. The interview tapes, the backstage passes, the ticket stubs, the records and the merch. The Topeka party, the tour bus, the hotel rooms, it would only be a dream, if not for all of this.
We join Stillwater at “the death rattle” of rock and roll. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s excellent Lester Bangs tells William and, by extension, us, that the music he idolises is OVER; we’ve joined our valiant protagonist for “the last gasp, the last grope”. The year is 1973 and music is in flux. Stillwater snake across the country on a tour bus, not yet upgraded to a plane. Woodstock, some four years previously, saw 300,000 people show up in a meadow, and Peter Rudge, The Who’s road manager at the time, said that the minute the record industry got a look at that (which had, up until then, been kind of a cottage industry), they realised there was a lot of money to be made. Arena tours began en masse.
Later in the film, Stillwater’s manager Dennis Hope tells us: “If you think Mick Jagger will still be out there trying to be a rock star at age fifty, then you are sadly, sadly mistaken”.
Of course, we know otherwise. With the rise of arena tours came an actually legitimate way for a band with a combined age of 297 to continue making enough money to warrant global tours well into their mid 70s. Music ebbs with the tides of change as much as it resists, and often, as with Mick (or definitely Keith), in a way that defies logic or expectation.
Forty five years later, latter-day Millennials examine mixtapes with the same disinterest that early-day Millennials examined Betamax. Spotify runs your party. Retweets and YouTube views determine how your favourite band are treated by their record label. An app manages their sold out gig waiting list.
What will save music in 2018? What remains when the tour is over: Merchandise.
If that surprises you, it’s time to change how you think about merchandise. It’s time to invest in Terrible Merch.