Rock's next megaband may be ... no one

Britain's Coldplay could be the last best hope to follow in the footsteps of the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and U2.

Will there be another U2, Led Zeppelin, or Beatles? Some observers point to Coldplay - the sensitive British band fronted by Gwyneth Paltrow's hubby, currently on tour across the US - as a band with the potential to attain Pink Floydian proportions.

But to do so, Coldplay and other would-be heirs to the throne will have to build a base audience, grow in clubs, thrive in theaters, then move on to arenas and stadiums. They will have to capture a young audience that stays with them as both band and audience age. And they'll have to stay relevant so that new generations of listeners become fans along with their older siblings - and parents.

In an era of increasingly diffuse and niche-oriented outlets for music - especially radio stations and Internet sites - it's more and more difficult for any one band to break out into the mainstream and conquer large numbers of ears. Can a band that emerges in today's climate, where pop music seems ever more disposable, ever hope to attain the colossal popularity of a Metallica, The Rolling Stones, or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band?

It's possible, suggests Ray Waddell, a senior editor at the trade magazine Billboard. "But the planets have to align, and everything has to be perfect,'' he says. "If a band hits it right, the opportunity for mass exposure has never been better.'' He notes popular Internet sites like MySpace.com as being vital in this process - that is, if enough people can wade through the thicket of unknown bands to find a good one.

Much has changed since U2, arguably the last band to to become megastars, broke out of the box with "Boy" in 1980 and toured small American clubs. The pop world has become more fragmented, says Mr. Waddell, and when that happens it creates a situation where people become fans of songs - fewer fans latch onto an album and take the journey all the way with the band. We're living in a singles-oriented iPod market, where hits are compiled on a "Now" CD. An overnight success story, à la "American Idol,'' doesn't automatically lend itself to longevity.

"There's a musical element, too," adds Entertainment Weekly pop music critic David Browne. "Who else is writing these big sweeping anthemic songs that work well in arenas? It seems most bands have gone for a small, specialized audience. And U2 was never like that, even from the beginning."

Mr. Browne suggests that it takes a certain drive and boldness to make music that connects with a big audience. Moreover, one has to continually refresh the brand, as U2 did with the iPod ads.

As to the much-touted Coldplay, Browne avers: "They don't act like a great band on stage. [Singer-pianist] Chris Martin is pretty animated but not on a Bono level. He seems pretty awkward and self-absorbed."

And there's the question of whether music means as much now as it once did. U2 came to prominence in the creative, vital, post-punk era, and were influenced by the Clash and Christianity, offering a shard of hope, even transcendence, in doom-laden times.

Some in the music industry admit that what they're selling doesn't have the heft it once did. "It's more ephemeral. It's like a utility now - whenever you turn on a spigot, you get as much or as little as you want,'' says a music industry executive who requested anonymity. "People don't sit down and read liner notes. Everything's a quick hit." Musical empires, he suggests, are built on albums and a back catalog.

Not everyone agrees with this assessment. "I definitely think it's possible for an artist to have a very lengthy career in this day and age," says Oedipus, the one-named former program director of Boston's WBCN-FM, who is currently a vice president of alternative programming for CBS radio. "To say there will be no more great artists or musicians that become icons - that's inconceivable to me. I can't tell you who it's going to be, but I think an artist will cut through even bigger and broader than U2, and that artist will utilize the new technology, primarily the Internet. That's a world of access to billions," he says. "It's probably the end of it in the old, traditional way, but great artistry cannot be denied."

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