The Record Companies
As with any artistic movement, both cultural and artistic factors can be cited to account for its existence and ultimate demise.
Progressive Rock was initially dependent on the existence of an 'underground' culture, spawned by the drug era before its deleterious side effects were discovered, spurred on by the illusion that individual enlightment was on the point of being attainable by all, and that global enlightment could be effected by the youth of all nations if only they could agree on their aims, as exemplified in their reactions to the Viet Nam War.
It became public because the boom times of the late 60's gave record companies the confidence to indulge their more experimental artists (an attitude rare today), aligning rock even more with middle-class attitude. - Allan Moore, the writer of 'The Primary Text. Developing a Musicology of Rock'.
It's true that lot of money is needed to support a progressive group, the production cost like hiring an orchestra, a large tour crew. Also, the musicians did was not mainstream sound, to invest in Prog Rock was an initiative gamble.
But most record companies to take the risk are big label like Atlantic, Virgin, EMI, etc. Except the reason above, I also think that the success of Beatles gave the confidence to record companies. Like Polydor in Germany raised Faust, but what Polydor first wanted to do was to make a German version of Beatles.
Progressive Rock was never a working class style, and progressive rock musicians never set out to be working class heroes. To the contrary, Progressive Rock, especially in its early stages, was the vital expression of a bohemian, middle class intelligentsia.
Most of the major Prog Rock musicians were born and raised in the south England between the 40's to the 50's.1 Before the mid 70's, central and northern England were more working class and blue collar while the south and east England were more professional and white collar. As a style like Prog Rock, with its references from classical music, art and literature of high culture, was not going to spring from a working class environ. We can understand why the Prog Rock bands were from the south England.
The classical music has always played an important role for the European middle class families in the 40's and 50's, as the Prog Rock musicians, classical music may have certain influenced to them. It made Prog Rock happened in UK rather than US; Greg Lake (ELP) once commented, it was a natural for them (Prog Rock musicians) to draw on their European classical heritage as it was for American popular musicians to draw on tier native Blues, Jazz and gospel heritage.2
And most of the Prog Rock musicians dropped off the universities3 as they believed that to be a rock musician was a far more authentic and ultimately 'honorable' option than entering the nine to five world of 'straight' society. It maybe relate to the hippies/bohemians style of living.
1. The members of bands such as Yes and Genesis hail largely from the London/Kent/Surrey area; King Crimson and Gentle Giant are south coast bands, hailing from Bournemouth and Portsmouth, respectively; Pink Floyd has contained members from both London and the ancient university town of Cambridge. Of the major progressive rock bands of the late 1960s and 1970s, only Moody Blues (based in Birmingham in the industrial Midlands) and Jethro Tull (formed in Blackpool on the northwest coast) came from outside of southeast England. - Edward Macan from Rocking the Classics.
2. From 'Emerson, Lake & Palmer: A Force to be Reckoned with' by Eric Gaer.
3. Bill Bruford (Yes/King Crimson) dropped out of Leeds University; Tony Banks (Genesis) abandoned Sussex University, Tony Kaye (Yes) and Rick Wakeman (Yes) dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, etc. , Edward Macan from Rocking the Classics.
No matter Prog Rock bands were formed outside the south England, however, they ended up in London as they could launch their careers from specific clubs like the UFO club, the Middle Earth and the Marquee. In the late 60's when Prog Rock was going to explode, Prog Rock bands were used to play those clubs, which were not too big, so the musicians and audiences were close to each other.
The audiences were about the same background with the musicians; on age, education, view on art and literature. The only major difference between was the gender, there's no female musician in the Prog Rock era but the audience had a roughly equal female-male ratio.
And the audiences, or the English hippies also liked to listen to their Prog Rock records in a small group in someone's apartment, often while smoking marijuana. Moreover, English hippies were a music-based subculture in the truest sense of the word1, they didn't dance with the music when listening to records or in live concert, the music itself served as a springboard for whatever conversation took place.
I think in all other genre of music (except classical), the performers are not happy to see their audiences sit without dancing. But it may not happen in Prog Rock:
One of the biggest influences [on Soft Machine during the late 60's] was the atmosphere at [the] UFO [club]. In keeping with the general ersatz orientalism of the social setup you'd have an audience sitting down...
Just the atmosphere created by an audience sitting down was very inductive to playing, as in Indian classical music, a long gentle droning introduction to a tune. It's quite impossible if you've got a room full of beer swigging people standing up waiting for action, it's very hard starting with a drone.
But if you've got a floor full of people, even the few that are listening, they're quite happy to wait for a half hour for the first tune to get off the ground. So that was a wonderful influence, or a terrible one according to your taste, but it was an influence on what the musicians played. - Robert Wyatt.2
Poster of UFO club, a Pink Floyd live show
But during the early 70's, the Prog Rock bands became true rock stars; they no longer played in small venue but big stadium. And after they broke the US, they spent few months and even a year in US for touring, which was much more than they spent in UK. Maybe this could be one of the reasons that Prog Rock fell in UK faster than in US.
So why Prog Rock could break the US? Was there any difference between the US Prog Rock audiences and the UK Prog Rock audiences?
In fact, Prog Rock did not work well all over the US but in the Midwest, Northeast and Mid Atlantic regions:
In a sense, I suspect progressive rock's British nationalism provided a kind of surrogate ethnic identity to its young white audience at a time when (for the first time in American history) the question of what it means to be a white person in America was coming under scrutiny, many of whom had lapsed from mainline Christian denominations, a surrogate religion.
In turn, the nationalist elements of British progressive rock probably also contributed to the lack of interest the style held for blacks, Hispanics, and most of the southeast US, where the white population had always defined itself as a culture distinct from the northern mainstream. - Edward Macan from Rocking the Classics.
Also, most of the US audiences were baby boomers born from 1947 to 1951, as they were all well educated to receive the messages from the Prog Rock. And they found interesting to hear classical pieces in the rock style. For those who appreciated intensive sound like ELP and King Crimson rather than mellow Genesis and Renaissance. And so they combined the complex structure of Prog Rock with heavy metal to fuse the sound they like.
Beside, the media like the album oriental radio (AOR) format between the early and mid 70s played a major role to spread English Prog Rock in the US. Same as the English hippies, the audiences liked to sit in a small group to enjoy the Prog Rock records and discussed the contents of the music.
For the audiences who not in the same generation, I think they most attracted by the idea of fusion of classical and rock music, and the great idea and technique of Prog Rock musicians, which all these once pushed rock music into a new and extreme status. They may know about Prog Rock from books and magazines (Mojo, Classic Rock) but maybe from older family members, like me.
As it was so called as the post hippies period, Prog Rock didn't create certain kind of fashion like Punk and heavy metal. Both musicians and fans still dressed like hippies: shoulder length hair (unisex), hats, paisley shirts, beads and bells or some were in simple jeans and T shirts, and that maybe colourful as were in psychedelic era.
1. From 'Profane Culture' by Paul Willis.
2. Quoted in King, Robert Wyatt, May 5, 1967.