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Is rock dead?

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James McLaren James McLaren | 08:39 UK time, Tuesday, 11 January 2011

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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  • Comment number 1.

    Dear James

    I think the speculation shouldn't be about whether Rock Music is dead as it clearly is not and may or may not be cyclic in terms of chart success ( although may not be as meaningful these days ). The question should has rock as a culrtural and artictic and social influence been diminished ? I think it has. Music is only one of the vast number of choices we have now in the 21st century ( games ; blogs ; eb TV etc ). The culture developing is instant ( and fleeting ). It will be like jazz and big band music - popular in in it's day but retired from the mainstream of culture.

    Also there really wasn't much distinction between rock and pop - teh best rock bands made the best pop music and a great 3 minute pop song is as good as any Yes 3 hr album ( and I hate Yes ).

    I lament the state of pop music today and not get much from hip hop or dance or electronica ( I listen to some but doesn't get me excited ).

    Rock is the most amazing and prolific genere as it can really encompass so much different kinds of music and generes as well as embrace and other arts like theatre ; film ; visual ; dance.

    I just don't it matter much to people anymore as it once did. We're much older now and the younger generation has moved on. The cycle has most likely ended or spiring an every narrower circle. I love it dearly but there is no collective appreciation as there once was.

    Anyway thanks for the article.

  • Comment number 2.

    Perhaps the buying trends are also a reason for the decline in the perceived popularity of rock music. Currently, there seems to be more focus on singles than albums due to things like iTunes, and in the majority, rock bands tend to lean more towards the album format, compared to the more single orientated pop-dance-rap etc world.

    The requirement of buying an album to get specific songs just isn't there anymore, and if the people pumping money into the rock music machine are spending big bucks to produce, develop and promote an album, and on the whole the sales are going to one or two songs, then the business model isn't sustainable, and profits in turn decline, leading to less money being spent on promoting rock for the next cycle.

    I for one love the album format and would hate to see it die, especially for the often beautiful "deep-cut" album tracks that wouldn't cut it in the single world, but perhaps for the cycle to once again favour rock music the industry needs to adapt it's business plan to match the buying patterns of the mass market.

    There are exceptions of course, take a successful album like Plan B's last release as example; by having a concept album be made and promoted as a complete piece of work, encompassing a storyline rather than a collection of standalone songs, there could be considered more of a desire to own the entire thing, after all, you wouldn't buy a chapter of a book alone.


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