Is rock dead?
This morning I have read two separate articles bemoaning the lack of rock success in 2010, with one in The Guardian analysing the claim that 'rock is dead' in the charts and in sales, and one in the NME asking if Radio 1 has turned its back on rock.
A lot of facts and figures are bandied about: looking at the 100 best-selling singles of 2010, The Guardian tells us that just three of them are 'rock' - down from 13 in 2009, and far behind the likes of hip hop, R&B and pop.
Paul Gambaccini, broadcasting veteran and music nerd, has declared rock to be dead, consigned to the musical mausoleum alongside jazz. He points to short-termist profit-chasing in the X Factor world, with a lack of investment from labels.
Also, there's the worry that big-ticket rock draws are all heading towards retirement age, with a report by Deloitte saying that eight of the 20 highest-grossing live acts in the US in 2010 will have frontmen over 60 next year. All of which has promoters and labels in a tizz as their cash cows begin to look frail.
Meanwhile, the NME puts readers' questions to the head of Radio 1, George Ergatoudis, and of course its self-selecting audience probed him about the lack of rock and indie on the station's schedules. In an answer to a question asking why rock and indie is 'banished' to the small hours of the morning, Ergatoudis replied: "Alternative music is very much part of the daytime Radio 1 mix and it always will be, but... there is a music cycle and right now the appeal of guitar driven indie/alternative music is at a low point amongst young audiences in the UK. But don't worry, in time the cycle will shift again."
Ergatoudis is right, and he's backed up by the Martin Talbot of the Official Charts Company who said to The Guardian: "Most interesting and challenging rock music comes out of periods of austerity. Maybe Tory governments make for more challenging rock music - and now we have one."
It would be a nonsense to suggest that there aren't challenges ahead for the world of rock, indie and alternative music, not least from falling record sales, filesharing and so on, but teeth-gnashing as to the paucity of great, new bands is short-sighted.
I remember in the late-1990s that rock was declared dead and that dance music was the big thing, crushing all before it. When sales of record decks outstripped sales of guitars, the press went nuts and declared that the end of the world was nigh, everyone would be popping pills before work and wearing day-glo clothes to the office. Of course, it didn't, and the cycle of music churned around again, driven by the likes of The Strokes, Queens Of The Stone Age and Muse. Sales of guitars rose once more and the culture commentators of broadsheet newspapers were happy again.
Martin Talbot has a point: in the 1980s pop massively outstripped rock sales, at least in terms of singles. With Stock, Aitken and Waterman spitting out pop cheese for Kylie, Rick Astley and Bananrama. Lest we forget, 1989's biggest-selling album was SAW's Jason Donovan with Ten Good Reasons. Then along came Madchester, baggie, grunge and eventually Britpop. Indie music made the 6 O'Clock News.
Fifteen years earlier, the charts were dominated by disco and cheese. There were some classics, but most of it was awful. Most would say that punk lit the fuse, but the sales for rock music really started racking up in the first few years of Thatcher's government, with The Clash, The Police and Blondie. Then of course the 1980s got all shiny and things got a lot more 'pop' again.
If great, angry alternative music is borne out economic hardship, as Talbot suggests, maybe we won't have that long to wait. The demographic waiting for something new and exciting, with something intelligent to say, never goes away, as the questions to Ergatoudis in the NME show. No, bands will never sell as much as they did in the 1990s, not with the digital world as it is, but things will swing back again as they always do.
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