Classic Rock Is Now A Young Band’s Game
Some of the music industry’s biggest players are betting that a new sound is ready to catch on. It’s called classic rock.
The genre is being reinvented by young musicians, some of whom are barely out of high school, who are channeling bands their mothers and fathers grew up with.
Greta Van Fleet is a rarity in today’s music business: An old-fashioned rock band that could, some music executives say, break into the pop world.
The Frankenmuth, Mich., group is made up of 21-year-old twins Jake Kiszka, the band’s guitarist, and Josh Kiszka, its singer; their brother and bassist Sam Kiszka, 18; and drummer Danny Wagner, 18. Greta Van Fleet’s debut EP, “Black Smoke Rising,” which features Josh’s Robert Plant-like howl and Jake’s guitar hooks, opened at No. 1 on Apple’s iTunes rock chart. “Highway Tune,” their single, recently topped Billboard’s mainstream rock radio chart for five weeks. Despite having just four songs, Greta Van Fleet is selling out clubs like New York City’s Bowery Ballroom.
Championing them are two of the industry’s most powerful names: Marc Geiger, head of music at talent agency WME, which represents Adele, Foo Fighters and Kendrick Lamar, and Lava Records executive Jason Flom, who helped launch Lorde, Katy Perry and Kid Rock.
The band is releasing a “double-EP” on Nov. 10 that will include “Black Smoke Rising” and four new tracks—two originals and two covers. “Black Smoke Rising” showed the band’s knack for catchy, tightly-crafted songs but was also criticized by some fans as derivative of Led Zeppelin. The new songs, including a cover of soul singer Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” aim to prove the band isn’t a Zeppelin clone by showing its other musical influences, Sam Kiszka says.
The band’s ascent is reviving a question pondered by industry executives ever since hip-hop took over America’s youth culture: For younger music fans who see Led Zeppelin, Guns N’ Roses, and Nirvana as the distant past, can “classic rock” be new again?
Greta Van Fleet played an hour-long set in Baltimore earlier this month consisting mostly of songs that were unknown to the packed audience.
“There’s a theory that rock needs one new band showing up and getting people to talk about rock again,” says Eddie Trunk, a longtime rock personality who hosts a daily radio show on Sirius-XM’s “Volume” channel. “Could this be that band?”
“We grew up listening to blues and soul,” not classic rock, says Josh Kiszka. The Kiszka brothers’ father is a blues musician with an extensive record collection, their grandfather, an accordion-player on the polka scene. Jake Kiszka first got into classic acts like Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and the band followed. The group took its name from an 86-year-old Frankenmuth musician, Gretna Van Fleet, who plays the dulcimer. “It’s a little piece of home that we can travel with,” Josh Kiszka says.
It isn’t just Greta Van Fleet giving classic, guitar-driven rock a modern twist. Tyler Bryant & the Shakedown are playing to bigger crowds, recently opening shows for AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses. The band’s new album, due Nov. 3, features tighter, punchier songs—a decision it made after playing a 25,000-capacity venue with AC/DC and realizing they needed bigger-sounding material.
The Struts, whose singer Luke Spiller channels Queen’s Freddie Mercury, delivers ‘70s-style rock with singalong choruses; they’re touring with Foo Fighters. “From Day One, our ambition has always been to compete with the biggest pop or hip-hop acts,” Mr. Spiller says.
No one thinks it will be easy for 20-somethings playing classic rock music to achieve a level of stardom on par with Drake or Taylor Swift.
Today, streaming services mint stars, not radio stations. But rock fans don’t stream nearly as much as hip-hop fans do: Greta Van Fleet’s “Highway Tune,” for example, has under 7 million streams on Spotify compared with female rapper Cardi B’s recent hit “Bodak Yellow (Money Moves)” with 146 million. Talented, upstart musicians who in previous eras might have tried to be rock stars have embraced rap, says David Jacobs, a music-industry lawyer. Meanwhile, the few recent bands to explode, like Imagine Dragons and Twenty One Pilots, are considered pop as much as rock. Many of rock’s most critically acclaimed new names are indie-oriented or female acts such as The War on Drugs and Courtney Barnett.
What separates Greta Van Fleet, Mr. Trunk says, is the considerable promotional machinery behind them.
With their retro sound, youthful energy and good looks, Greta Van Fleet could appeal to three key demographics, Mr. Flom says: Older “classic-rock Dads” who tune into rock radio shows and attend classic-rock concerts; younger male fans curious about 1960s and 1970s rock, soul and funk; and young women who, in the past, have helped mainstream rock bands become pop stars.
Concertgoers listen to Greta Van Fleet’s set at the Ottobar. As Led Zeppelin borrowed from their blues heroes 50 years ago to craft a new sound, Greta Van Fleet’s channeling of Zeppelin and other classic acts may sound fresh to a new generation, the band’s backers say.
Greta Van Fleet’s rise to stardom started when tour manager Mike Barbee discovered them at a cookout in Frankenmuth in September 2012. He courted the Kiszka boys’ parents for months. As his charges gained local notoriety, he reluctantly agreed to hand them to a more experienced manager— Aaron Frank, whose family runs a major U.S. concert promotion company—a move that led to WME’s Mr. Geiger and eventually, Mr. Flom.
For Mr. Flom, who signed ‘80s rock bands like Zebra, Twisted Sister and Skid Row, Greta Van Fleet represents a return to his rock roots. Mr. Flom took Greta Van Fleet’s song “Highway Tune” to David Dorn, senior director of Apple Music, who helped it onto the streaming services’ playlists, where the song immediately gained traction. In April, Apple Music named Greta Van Fleet a “new artist of the week.”
“I’ve known Jason for a long time. He’s someone with a proven record,” Mr. Dorn says. Spotify has been supportive too: The band has recorded a not-yet-released cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” at Spotify’s studios.
Greta Van Fleet’s backers are having them play smaller venues to hone their chops even if they can get booked in bigger ones. “You need to give people the, ‘I saw them at the Troubadour,’ ” Mr. Geiger says.
Minutes before a packed show earlier this month at Baltimore’s Ottobar club, the band drank beers and hung out with Mr. Flom in a small green room as Mr. Flom made jokes about infamous “tour riders” from pop-music history. Josh took sips of whiskey from a plastic cup. They performed an hour-long set full of songs the crowd—a mix of 30- and 40-somethings and younger fans—had never heard before.
During soundcheck hours before, guitarist Jake Kiszka briefly played “ Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” by Tom Petty, who had died the day before. With so many of rock’s pioneers dying, Greta Van Fleet’s music provides a reassuring continuity, music executives say. “What’s going to happen when all of that [classic rock] is gone?” Jake Kiszka says. “What is going to fill that void?”
Write to Neil Shah at Neil.Shah@wsj.com