Is rock dead?

March 12th, 2012     by ddeal    

What does the future look like for rock and roll? It’s a question that will surely be on the minds of participants at the 2012 South by Southwest Music festival, which kicks off this week. I believe the future of rock and roll is very bright — if you’re willing to think of rock as the sugar in someone else’s tea.

Rock was, at best, a supporting player at the 54th Annual Grammy Awards, with major rock awards such as Best Rock Song and Best Rock Album being relegated to the Grammy pre-telecast. And if Billboard magazine is any indication, rock is actually being assimilated into a more diverse palette of genres ranging from pop to rap. Rock was barely an afterthought in Billboard‘s Year in Music for 2011 issue. Pop acts like Adele and Justin Bieber ruled the year based on sales figures, with club music asserting itself as a force to be reckoned with. Likewise, Billboard’s 2010 Year in Music issue noted that in 2010, only one rock band reached the Billboard Hot 100 top 10 (Train, with “Hey, Soul Sister”).

In fact, no rock act has cracked the Top 10 in the annual Billboard Top 200 in either 2010 or 2011. The list of Top 15 Billboard artists in 2011 says it all:

Rank Artist Billboard Genre
1 Adele Pop
2 Justin Bieber Pop
3 Taylor Swift Country
4 Lady Gaga Pop
5 Lil Wayne R&B/Hip Hop
6 Susan Boyle Pop
7 Lady Antebellum Country
8 Jason Aldean Country
9 Kanye West R&D/Hip Hop
10 Jackie Evancho Classical Crossover
11 Nicki Minaj R&B/Hip Hop
12 Eminem R&B/Hip Hop
13 Mumford & Sons Rock
14 Rihanna R&B/Hip Hop
15 Zac Brown Band Country
Note: the rankings are based on data provided by Nielsen Entertainment, including sales of physical and digital units sold, radio airplay, and digital streams.

Billboard also notes that based on attendance figures, social media popularity, and units sold, “electronic dance music is rapidly becoming the sound of young America” with artists like LMFAO and Dave Guetta creating a “dance revolution of 2011.” Billboard‘s message is clear: “Hope I die before I get old” is no longer the rallying cry of rock but of R&B/hip hop, country, dance, and pop.

Meantime Rolling Stone‘s 2011 in Review issue lamented the demise of rock radio. “There just aren’t that many rock stations left,” Rolling Stone pointed out. The venerable rock magazine noted that Chicago’s Q101 and New York’s WRXP (“influential stations that helped break everyone from Coldplay to the Black Keys”) switched from rock to talk formats in July.

“Overall, a Number One rock hit reaches just 12 million listeners, compared to 81 million for a Number One at Top 40 — a far wider gap than in 2009 or 2006, according to Nielsen BDS,” Rolling Stone reported.

The bright spot for rock acts? Touring. Rockers U2 and Bon Jovi were the top two touring acts of 2011, racking up a total gross of nearly $500 million between them. Roger Waters, pushing 70 years of age, racked up $149 million with his Wall tour. But of course Waters, U2, and Bon Jovi are all classic acts, and their popularity serves as a reminder of the dearth of fresh rock sounds to capture our imagination.

As if to underscore the point, GQ‘s November 2011 Gods of Rock issue featured mostly older artists such as Keith Richards and Robert Plant (while paying lip service to Eminem and Lil Wayne on the cover — neither of which I’d consider to be from the rock genre, per se). I’ll be the first to tell you that Richards and Plant deserve the attention. But GQ had little if anything to say about younger artists who have inherited the mantles of the rock’s golden gods.

So what’s happened to rock as a genre?

  • Marketers now have the technology to track audiences and cater to their tastes. In 1991, Nielsen made tracking musical tastes more of a science with the introduction of SoundScan, which is now the official method Billboard uses to track sales of music and related video. In addition, marketers have at their disposal increasingly sophisticated tools that allow them to segment consumers into more highly refined ways based on their digital behaviors — not just by age or life style, but age, lifestyle, location, purchasing preference, and a host of other attributes. Marketers can more accurately reflect with more precision how we consume media and tailor to those needs.

A music executive quoted in Billboard also cited the decline of albums and the rise of singles as our preferred way of sampling new music:

According to [Chairman & CEO of Island Def Jam Motown Music Group and Universal Republic Barry] Weiss, rock could be in further trouble as labels trying to make their bottom line find that pop acts can deliver the most revenue streams in the shortest amount of time.

“Bands required a different kind of development — it’s a longer gestation period,” he says. “Kings of Leon and Phoenix took four albums to develop, so it’s different from an artist like Ke$ha, who can have a hit almost instantly.”

I believe there will always be a market for “traditional” guitar-heavy rock bands like Kings of Leon — just not a mass audience waiting to be conquered through the release of a record album followed by a tour as was the case back in the glory days of rockers like Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones.

On the other hand, bands have more ways to find their audiences than ever before — ranging from burgeoning social media platforms like Facebook and Google+ to brands such as Mountain Dew that act as music labels for lesser-known artists. And with tools suck as Kickstarter and PledgeMusic, musicians can find fans to fund their art, too, albeit for small amounts of money. Emergent rock and rollers will succeed by finding smaller but very loyal micro-markets.

Rock isn’t dying. It’s becoming reborn into something more exciting and diverse as other genres like country co-opt rock forms. It’s ironic: rock took root in the 1950s and flourished by melding diverse styles such as gospel, country, and R&B, the most famous example being Elvis Presley, who was as powerful a country and gospel singer as he ever was a rock star.

Now the reverse holds true: country artists like Jamey Johnson have clearly assimilated rock into their sound (check out Johnson’s guitar work). And R&B and hip-hop have been slowly incorporating rock for years. In 1982, Michael Jackson incorporated Eddie Van Halen’s tough guitar sound to Thriller. Now hip-hop artists regularly sample rock more directly (as Kanye West did so brilliantly by sampling progressive rockers King Crimson on “Power”).

It’s 1954 all over again.


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  1. 3 Responses to “Is rock dead?”

  2. By Ted Kolota on Mar 15, 2012 | Reply

    Big band and doo wop died because they were one dimensional. Rock has shown us many forms beyond slashing guitars and will continue to evolve. One major factor in perceived loss of popularity is the reemergence of the single. In the 50’s and 60’s, when top 40 radio ruled and singles outsold albums in total dollars, there was a wide variety of of top selling artists heard by a mass audience. Today singles are back, or at least sales of individual songs. The difference is now everyone has their own personal channel, filtered through their online communities. It’s not jus t that rock has gotten smaller, it’s much easier for niche forms to flower virally. The oppressive label influence is mostly gone. It’s a great time for music, including rock.

  3. By ddeal on Mar 16, 2012 | Reply

    Thank you, Ted. The re-emergence of the single is an example of how the the 1950s seem to be back. Another example is the popularity of touring to build a following. As a genre, rock is capturing a smaller share of our listening ears, but I’m not so sure that’s a bad thing. Contemporary music is a lot more interesting with the growth of other forms of music such as electronica and dubstep. One aspect of rock that bothers me: I don’t see too many younger artists coming along to inherit the mantle of the well established acts like Springsteen and U2. Overall, I do agree that it’s a great time for music (although not for the music industry).

  4. By DVC on Apr 11, 2012 | Reply

    Of note that the only really young artist in the top ten is not rock or a popular genre, it’s a young girl singing classical. How surreal is that?

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