Jack White
Deep Dives

Is Rock Music Dead? A Deep Dive

Is rock music dead? No, rock isn’t dead; it is still thriving, although it now takes many forms. This is because the original ethos and sound of rock music have evolved so much since the genre’s inception. So, is classic rock dead? Well, it certainly isn’t the most viable genre commercially anymore.

So, is the death of rock a myth? If we look deeper, we might see the picture more clearly.

The Creation of Rock Music

Rock music arose in the 1950s as it was birthed from blues, gospel, and country. The genre resembled freedom and, most of all, rebellion. All of these were prominent African American musical styles, so the foundation for rock and roll’s emotive melodies and soulful rhythms were initially a reflection of the struggles and aspirations of the African American community.

While the creation of rock and roll was a collective effort, there were key pioneers who acted as catalysts for its rise. Artists like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis embraced the genre and helped popularise it among a broader audience. Tracks like “Hound Dog” and “Johnny B. Goode” captured audiences astounded by their personalities and musical performances.

Rock and Roll became a phenomenon; it made people go crazy idolizing individuals. Then The Beatles happened. This took Rock music fanaticism to a whole new level. Emerging in the early 1960s, their innovative sound and songwriting changed the genre.

They introduced complex harmonies, experimental studio techniques, and a diverse range of musical styles into their work, setting new standards for creativity and musicality. The most important thing that came from this, and contemporaries such as The Kinks, was that the four-piece band was created.

That’s Not What I Thought Rock Was?

The Rolling Stones Bowing
The Rolling Stones Bowing (Credit: Raph_PH)

I know what you were thinking; I thought rock was heavier. When we think of rock music, we tend to forget its inception and instead concentrate on the peak of its success. We look more at the late ’60s and ’70s with bands such as The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Queen, and Pink Floyd, as well as artists such as David Bowie and Jimi Hendrix.

The 1970s saw rock music take on new forms thanks to an increase in experimentation. Progressive rock became prominent, with bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, and Genesis pushing the boundaries of musical complexity and concept albums.

Hard rock and heavy metal also flourished, with the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Deep Purple captivating audiences with their electrifying performances and iconic riffs.

The punk rock movement exploded onto the scene, fuelled by a rebellious spirit and DIY ethos, with bands like The Ramones, Sex Pistols, and The Clash challenging the establishment and redefining the genre.

I’m not going to do a deep dive into every genre, but now we know about the rise, let’s look at the fall, and let’s determine if rock music is dead.

The Near Death of Rock Music?

Rock music had been the premier music genre for 50 years. From the initial peak of the ’50s to the garage band revival of the early 2000s, it had dominated the charts and inspired generations of artists. However, rock music began to decline towards the end of the 2000s; this was down to a multitude of reasons.

Let’s have a look at three of them.

The Rise of Streaming Services

Someone using music streaming apps
Someone using music streaming apps

As platforms like Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube gained popularity, music consumption habits shifted towards single-track streaming rather than purchasing full albums. As rock music was rooted in heading into a studio and releasing full albums, as opposed to recording a single at a time like other genres, it found the required output difficult to keep up with initially.

Albums were beginning to die out. This, therefore, killed the classic approach rock artists would have when creating an album that told a full story. Other genres, however, were strengthened by this. Hip-hop thrived as each track had a catchy hook and was easily consumed.

As album sales declined, rock musicians had to adapt. In 2010, the average rock album sold 22,000 copies, whereas in 2019, this figure had dropped to just 12,000. Here are a bunch of stats on the rise streaming.

The Death of the Record Label

This is somewhat linked to the previous reason. With streaming services rising, the need for an artist to be signed to a major label quickly diminished. This shift caused major issues with both labels and artists. Artists that were signed to contracts still had obligations, which they began to be dissatisfied with, and simultaneously labels were still required to honour the monetary commitments they had made. This was all as profits from albums diminished.

As rock music was dwindling, labels began to abandon rock artists in favour of rising genres. This then meant that a lot more rock artists had to go independent and sacrificed having large marketing funds. But this factor also became somewhat a strength of rock musicians that we will talk about later. Anyway, this allowed the rock community to sustain itself for some time while it adapted, but it also limited the genre’s mainstream reach and impact.

Hip-hop wins out

Kendrick Lamar
Hip-hop overtook rock music (Credit: Kenny Sun)

The rise of hip-hop in the 2010s played a pivotal role in the decline of rock music’s dominance in the mainstream music landscape. Hip-hop’s immense popularity and cultural influence attracted a diverse and growing fan base, drawing attention away from rock music.

As hip-hop artists like Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Cardi B topped charts and won critical acclaim, rock acts faced increasing challenges in maintaining similar levels of commercial success.

The genre’s emphasis on storytelling, social commentary, and embracing diverse musical styles resonated with younger audiences, contributing to hip-hop’s rapid ascent and the decline of rock’s prominence. Rock had passed on the baton of social commentary, and again we can link this back to technology.

Gone were the days of needing recording studios, thanks to the decreasing costs of audio interfaces and music software, people could now record music at home. This meant rap could be easily produced with loops, and told truer and more down to earth stories.

So, Is Rock Music Dead?

Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice
Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice (Credit: Raph_PH)

With all these struggles you would assume that Rock music is dead. But, it is difficult to kill off something that is so rooted into music. Rock music might be less commercially successful, but it is still thriving within the undercurrents. It has managed this because even after some initial flaws, it too managed to adapt to streaming’s demands.

Let’s have a look at three reasons why rock music is still very much alive.

The Growth of Rocks Subgenres (Indie and Alternative)

The 2010s witnessed a remarkable diversification and growth of subgenres within rock music. This played a crucial role in keeping the genre alive and relevant in an ever-changing music landscape. As access to music grew, thanks to streaming, more people could implement what they were listening to into their style. This led to the emergence of new subgenres, each with its distinct sound and character, appealing to a wide array of listeners.

The genre embraced electronic elements, utilised folk rhythms, and started to experiment with production techniques. This kept rock music on its toes and meant that each artist was in keeping with the developments within music as a whole. This applied to some major rock artists too, such as the Arctic Monkeys, Muse, and Jack White.

The diversification also kept rock alive because each artist established themselves a niche. Therefore, while a lot couldn’t compete with mainstream success, they did have a more loyal and committed fan base that anticipated every release.

The Look at the Past

Revisiting the sounds of iconic bands and eras allowed rock musicians to tap into a shared cultural heritage, creating a sense of unity and connection with their audience. Many artists paid homage to their musical influences through cover songs, reinterpretations, and tributes, bridging the generational gap and reaffirming rock’s enduring legacy.

While they may not be everyone’s cup of tea, Greta Van Fleet established themselves by heavily drawing upon the blues rock of Led Zeppelin. It isn’t just classic rock that this has happened to either. Pale Waves took from 80s synth-pop, Wolf Alice embraced Grunge, and Bad Nerves embracing classic punk. Everything has began to come full circle.

This interest in the past also benefited older artists as it introduced a new generation to their kind of music. This respect for rock’s history and spirit ensured that the genre remained an enduring and influential force in the ever-evolving world of music.

The Increase of the Independent Musician

Once rock embraced the DIY attitude, the indie artist began to thrive. Indie rock saw significant growth, providing a platform for independent artists to work outside of a label. This allowed for more artistic freedom and exploration. The result was unique sounds that created devoted fan bases. The artists vision was now the only factor in their success.

What then happened as a result of this was a revived importance of the local live music scene. Independent rock artists relied on touring as a primary source of income, which strengthened the connection between musicians and their fans.

Rock music was so much less about selling out arenas, and so much more about authenticity. This ethos resonated with listeners, who appreciated the sincerity and passion behind the music. Rock was now back in the same realm it was created in.

The Current State of Rock Music

A local music gig
A local music gig

Is rock music dead? Far from it, in fact you could even argue it is more alive now than it was at its commercial peak. It has regained its down to earth attitude, diversified itself, and it has adapted to the needs of modern music listeners. Therefore it is difficult to say rock music is dead.

Has rock music seen a decrease in sales, yes it has definitely dropped. But just look at Muse, My Chemical Romance, Paramore, and Phoebe Bridgers, the genre still manages to sell out stadiums worldwide, and they still manage to creep their way into the mainstream.

From classic rock to indie and alternative rock, the genre’s rich legacy remains strong, captivating both old and new generations of fans. This passionate fan base, deeply connected to the music’s raw emotion and powerful storytelling, ensures its enduring relevance. This combined with the innovation and willingness to adapt from rock musicians means that rock music is unbreakable.

Head here to see more about whether Blur achieved success in America.

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