I love debates, and I’m more than thrilled that my original Rock Is Dead post has caused quite a stir. Many sides of the debate have pointed to several data points that are purported to provide evidence to the contrary. Let’s look at these arguments:
MORE ROCK DOWNLOADS WERE SOLD IN 2010
Right after my post, Bill Werde, my friend and Billboard’s Editorial Director, tweeted me about how wrong I was. Four days later, Nielsen Soundscan sent out a press release saying that rock is the most popular digital download genre. Coincidence? Perhaps, but let’s take a close look.
The press release is obviously factual, with rock narrowly edging out pop overall. But look closely at how current titles are selling and the story is different. The truth emerges that new rock is actually ranked 4th, well behind Pop, R&B and Rap. Of the rock downloads sold, 72.4% are catalog titles. In otherwords, nearly 3 out of every 4 rock downloads is an old song. Just because Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is still selling a ton, does that mean rock is still vibrant?
But…if rock was truly selling that well, wouldn’t Nielsen have acknowledged it the first time around? Two weeks ago, Nielsen released the 2010 Music Industry Report complete with analysis. The number of rock mentions in their “Factoids” section? The only one I could find is a mention that Metallica’s self-titled album is still the best selling album of the “Soundscan Era”. If Rock was truly successful, why wouldn’t it have been mentioned in their Year-End Report? This same report noted that the only genres that had less than double digit year-over-year declines were Rap and Country. (Pop, as noted in Part 1, is not measured.)
In my opinion, this new report only shows me that rock is existing mostly because it’s become a largely oldies format. Too few rock titles in the top sell. 3 out of 4 tracks sold are old ones. If new rock were vital, we’d see a different story. I’m sticking with my initial conclusion.
LIVE MUSIC IS DOMINATED BY ROCK
A quick look at the top 50 tours of the year by Pollstar is certainly littered with many rock acts. Mostly old ones, however. Of the new acts, the top one is Lady GaGa who had nearly double the business of the top new rock act (Muse). I would give at least this end of the argument some credence, were it not for the fact that live music declined 12% last year. This business was supposed to be resistant to declines like this. I can blame ticket prices like most everyone else, but can a contributing factor be the lack of new rock acts developing? If rock was so strong, and dominating this area of the business, why would this dip so much so suddenly?
A related argument I heard was the robust festival business. People often cited the huge success of Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza as a sign that rock is still very much alive. Yet these people seem to forget something: each of those festivals needed to pay a NON-ROCK act a huge guarantee to headline. Each of these festivals also had packed areas away from the main stage…in the dance tent. Would any of these be needed if rock was working so well? And hey, attendance was up at these festivals. Lollapalooza averaged 80,000 per day. Bonnaroo and Coachella averaged 75,000 per day. Sounds good…until you hear that the Ultra Music Festival drew over 100,000 per day. The Electric Daisy Carnival drew over 90,000 per day. If I’m reading it right, the Detroit Electronic Music Festival drew between 85,000 and 95,000 per day. These festivals also did not need out-of-genre acts to augment ticket sales. It was pure dance music. The biggest rock festivals were actually not the biggest festivals.
POP HAS DOMINATED BEFORE, AND ROCK ALWAYS COMES BACK
Most people cite the last pop boom of 1999/2000 as a time that rock was left for dead, but rose back up. In actuality, rock was extremely healthy then. In those years, 1/3 of the Top 30 selling albums were rock albums. The acts were neatly divided between new rock successes (Creed, Limp Bizkit), resurgent veterans (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Santana) and pop crossovers (Blink 182, Sugar Ray). But in 2010, the only act to be found in the same range is Jack Johnson.
The insinuation of this argument is that pop is disposable and these acts were quickly forgotten. Amazingly, even THAT argument doesn’t hold up. Within the Top 30 sellers in these years is Eminem (still had a top selling album in 2010) and Britney Spears (who just sold nearly 500,000 downloads in one week). Sure, some pop acts have vanished (hello, 98 Degrees?), but it’s actually the ROCK acts who have faded more. Only Kid Rock can count as still successful and active, with the 2nd best selling rock album of the year, but that only came in at #34 overall. Some of these successful rock acts are still around, but they don’t top the charts anymore. Yet the pop acts do. You see my point?
To some degree, I think the chapter in my book about releasing more songs more often is where rock has failed. The most successful act of the last decade, Nickelback, has released four albums between 2001 and today. That’s on par with most rock acts since the early 90s. However, in recent years, the success stories are mostly more rapid fire than that. Rihanna has released five in half that time. Taylor Swift has released three in five years. Lady Gaga, Ke$ha and Justin Bieber have done rapidfire releases, re-releases and EPs. Now this is not everyone, but there are many signs pointing to more success with more releases. As an example, top rock seller Jack Johnson had seven albums in the last decade, including his Curious George soundtrack and live album.
The best arguments I had were actually debated privately by some industry execs whom I respect greatly. One exec pointed out the success that Arcade Fire has had, specifically their touring successes and their financial success. This is notable because they are independent artists who own their recordings. While I can argue statistically about mainstream awareness of this band, I can’t argue the success of the band structure. Rock may likely exist now as a mostly below-the-radar niche genre that has a greater chance of financial riches because of direct-to-fan pathways. I applaud and am excited that this reality is working. However, that doesn’t mean it is an overall success.
To that end, the other exec I argued with eventually led to an agreement that qualified my original argument: mainstream rock is dead. If that’s a necessary qualifier, then I’d probably agree with it. Sure, there will be some exceptions, but the days that a new rock band will achieve mainstream success are nearly over. I’m sticking with my assessment. Rock is dead. Long may it live in the underground.