Foo Fighters’ long-form HBO series ‘Sonic Highways’ makes a lasting connection with audiences by flying in the face of current music business thinking.
Nobody has any time for albums anymore. Sales are as dismal as ever and engagement is low. So why is an exhaustive documentary series about the making of one single album so engaging?
That series is “Sonic Highways,” Foo Fighters’ eight-episode HBO show that chronicles the making of the alt-rock veterans’ upcoming eighth album. For the recording sessions, the Foos traveled to storied recording studios in eight American cities, and “Sonic Highways” gives a one-hour history lesson on each city’s music scene as it relates to Dave Grohl and company. The show debuted last week with an episode on Chicago and continued Friday with Washington, D.C. Upcoming episodes feature Nashville, Austin and more. (Sorry, the Foos didn’t deem Detroit worthy of a visit.)
“Sonic Highways” is a big boutique project that runs in the face of current music business ideology. The latest sky-is-falling report on the woes of the music biz came this week when an article in Forbes pointed out no single artist’s album has sold 1 million copies in 2014. That is alarming, but it’s likely about to change; Taylor Swift’s “1989” arrives Monday and could sell 1 million copies by Election Day.
Swift is the world’s biggest pop star because of the strength of the connection she has with her audience, and connection is at the heart of “Sonic Highways.” It’s also what’s missing too often in music today: There was no connection when U2 dropped copies of its new album into your iTunes (even though you didn’t ask for it), no connection with Radiohead singer Thom Yorke’s recent out-of-nowhere BitTorrent project. And as the “surprise” album becomes the go-to move for artists looking to excite their audiences — everyone wants to pull a Beyonce, but there’s only one Beyonce — the connection is often what’s cut out of the equation.
“Sonic Highways” should be ridiculous, and in many ways it is. The Chicago episode was a deep dive into the city’s blues and punk scenes, featuring interviews with everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Buddy Guy to Grohl’s cousin’s friend who led a punk band in the city. And while the 2011 Foo Fighters documentary “Back and Forth” neatly summed up the drugs and drama that made Foo Fighters one of its generation’s most enduring bands (in under two hours, no less!), Ken Burns-ing us with the back story of their new album seems wildly indulgent.
Yet it works, mainly because Grohl is so obsessive. Just when it feels like the show is about derail on purposeless anecdotes, episodes of “Sonic Highways” end with a performance of the song that was recorded during that city’s visit, and you’re left with an understanding of the music you wouldn’t feel if you were hearing it for the first time without context.
That’s not to say every album is deserving of a documentary project. That is not the answer. But it’s an answer, and that’s something fewer and fewer artists are able to come up with these days.
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