Rock music is not dead. Far from it. In fact, it's still a hugely popular genre. A 2018 IFPI survey of 19,000 consumers aged 16 to 64 in 18 countries found that rock is the second most popular genre.1 And if you look at surveys of music listeners by age group, rock is still widely listened to, even among younger age groups.2
Still, there's been a noticeable decline in the dominance of rock music on the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard 200. AC/DC was the only rock band to have a number one album on the Billboard album charts in 2020. Four out of the 45 number one albums in 2019 were by rock bands. Rock music has fallen far enough that the Grammy Awards usually don't air the Rock and Alternative category. This decline isn't something that happened overnight and it has multiple causes.
Guitar-driven rock doesn't routinely chart in the top 40 these days, but neither does disco, Motown soul, reggae, seventies style funk, or folk. However, newer types of music incorporate influences from all these genres. Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars was a huge hit, but a song like Brick House by the Commodores likely wouldn't chart today. Many modern songs have disco influences but don't expect to hear anything that sounds just like the Bee Gees or ABBA hitting the charts. Many modern songs have soul influences, but the likelihood of songs reminiscent of Papa Was a Rolling Stone becoming top 40 hits is low. Folk songs generally don't become hits unless powered by an electronic beat like Avicii's folktronica hit Wake Me Up. Rock still influences modern hits, but songs like (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction generally won't chart today.
Rock was a victim of its own success
Rock music is respected, and that might be a problem. Anyone who has tweens and teens knows they often eschew things 'old people' like. Young people often want to separate themselves from the adult world. That's why many express horror at older people setting up TikTok accounts or mock Facebook for being 'old people's' social media. Young people like to have things they can make their own. The fact that mom and dad, and even grandparents, listen to rock music can make it less appealing to some.
The rise of rap
The question of whether rap replaced rock is controversial, but hip hop is currently the most popular and influential music genre. An argument I frequently see against this is that rap and rock have different audiences, but this isn't true because many people listen to both. Rock was once the music of social consciousness, struggle, and rebellion. Today, those things are mainly associated with urban music.
Rap began its rise in the eighties and overtook rock in sales in 2017. That may come as a surprise considering the last time rock music was huge was in the nineties during the Grunge era. But it wasn't just modern rock acts that kept rock on top for so long. Catalog purchases accounted for a sizable chunk of sales. In the early years of the digital era, many consumers put away their CDs and purchased mp3 versions of songs by popular rock acts like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Queen, Guns N' Roses, and Nirvana.
Rock music has always had competition. If you look at lists of number one songs in the sixties and seventies, you will see plenty of pop, R&B, soul, disco, funk, folk, and country. But rap was different. It took a while but it finally eclipsed rock in sales and influence. According to a study that looked at total album consumption in the United States in 2018, rock music came third in sales. But those sales accounted for just 14% compared to 22% for rap. Rap, Pop, R&B, and EDM, the sounds most heard on pop radio nowadays, accounted for 55%.3
Collabs and covers
Rap, Pop, R&B, and EDM/Electronic account for more than half of all sales. But a lot of modern songs can be hard to properly categorize. Many pop, R&B, and electronic songs have rap features. Rap songs often include pop, R&B, and electronic elements. There's a lot of overlap between genres that frequently chart and artists in these genres often collaborate with each other. Collabs have the benefit of introducing artists to each other's fanbases.
Where are the collabs between today's rock acts and today's pop, urban, and electronic artists? They happen but not frequently. And when they happen, they often send rock music fans into a tizzy. There was outrage and horror when Linkin Park did a song with pop act Kiiara. Collabs between rock acts and pop stars are often mocked. Pop stars who cover rock songs are often derided for destroying a classic rather than praised for introducing it to a new generation. Many rock fans want to keep their favorite rock acts segregated from the mainstream while also decrying the lack of rock in the mainstream. Even if collabs and covers could help to repopularize the rock genre, most rock fans are adamant about keeping it pure and unsullied by popularity.
Rock fans can be a cantankerous bunch
Snobbery exists in all genres, but it's widespread in rock music circles. For some, everyone who isn't the Rolling Stones, The Beatles, or Led Zeppelin sucks. Rock fans often turn against acts when they become popular. It's an all too common occurrence for fans to love an act when they feel they have them all to themselves only to turn against them when everyone else starts to love them. This isn't limited to rock music, of course. It can happen to any indie, alternative, or up-and-coming act despite their genre.
This kind of attitude can dissuade rock acts from aiming for mainstream success and doing the kinds of collaborations that could introduce them to new audiences. Rock acts can either be respected and marginal or top the charts and earn derision. Rock music fans paradoxically bemoan the decline of rock on the charts while also turning against any artist who achieves success on the charts.
Proper Rock Is Limited
What exactly is proper rock music? To many purists, it's a group with electric guitars, a bass guitar, drums, keyboards, and a singer. If that's real rock, then just about everything that can be done within that narrow format has already done.
Move outside of that format, and add a piano accompaniment or orchestral elements, is it still proper rock? What about adding electronic elements? Or rap? Or Latin beats? The traditional rock music of the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties has been done already many, many times. The direction to take musically can become a kind of catch-22 for aspiring rock acts. Stick with that formula and risk being seen as derivative or move outside that formula to experiment and be condemned for not making proper rock music.
© 2021 LT Wright