The Stagnation of Rock and the Road Ahead

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It’s fair to say that currently, rock is going through a rough patch. And I’m not talking about album sales or market share, because statistics can be used to manipulate the truth. I’m talking about the quality of music and artistes on offer. I know I’m not the final authority on this and my views are my own, but I do think rock is at a crossroads right now.

There was much fanfare about the fact that rock albums accounted for over 34% of sales in 2013, accompanied with startlingly original headlines like “Rock ‘n’ Roll is not dead.” Now, by itself, this statistic may be cause for optimism. But let’s try to put it into context. Rock as a genre is one of the most popular in the world. There are thousands of bands and millions of people who are in the rock industry.

Which was the last rock band that broke out? The last band to take the music industry by storm? Green Day, Foo Fighters, Nickelback, The Black Keys, maybe, and Coldplay — if you categorize them as rock. All of those bands are at least ten years old, with the exception of The Black Keys. A new generation of rock bands simply has not arrived to take over for the previous ones. And even then, Green Day’s last album was a commercial disaster, and a huge band like Red Hot Chili Peppers only managed to sell 2 million copies of their latest LP, I’m With You (their lowest for any album since 1987). Bands like Coldplay and Maroon 5 have transitioned to pop rock/electronica and shed their rock roots.

So, now that we are all sufficiently depressed, let us try to examine why this has happened. It is not a phenomenon affecting only rock, and is a part of a wider malaise. But it has affected rock the greatest. Is this because the quality of music has declined, or has the general audience’s taste in music changed? It’s my personal opinion that there has been an overall decline in the quality of rock music since the 90’s, and even early 2000’s. Like I’ve mentioned, no band has emerged in the past 5 years. But much more disappointing has been the absence of a new sub-genre of music to get us excited.

There was psychedelic rock in the 70’s, glam rock in the 80’s, thrash and metal in late 80’s and early 90’s. Grunge appeared in mid 90’s and nu-metal in the late 90’s, and then the early noughties 2000’s. It has been more than ten years since the last wave of bands brought with them a new sound. As despised as it may be in the rock and metal community, nu-metal was the last music genre to truly capture a wider audience’s attention and bring in a mini revolution. There has been no development in rock music over the past few years. No new style, no new tunings, no new sounds, no gimmick to capture our attention. There has been no musical movement in the past decade, not taking into account the rise of metal subgenres like djent and hardcore, which cater to a very niche and selective audience. On the other hand, EDM has been at the forefront of a boom in dance/electronic music and has become highly popular within two years.

One of the reasons for this is the target audience. Music is for everybody, but music sales are highly dependent on the those ages 18-29. This leads us to my second point: changes in music taste. Glam rock and thrash prospered in the 80’s because there was an audience for over-the-top, flashy, technical music. The rise of grunge was, in part, a response to that, with its stripped down, barebones approach serving as a contrast. Today, music tastes have become diverse. There is a plethora of music available on the internet, most of it for free. Although by no means easy to make, EDM is more accessible and easy to comprehend, with most songs following a uniform pattern. And it is something new. The first time I heard Skrillex I remember thinking “What the hell is that ?” But it managed to capture my attention.

So, like Axl Rose so succinctly puts it in “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” where do we go now? For a few years at least, rock music will be driven by older bands. Already, Pink Floyd’s upcoming album has generated massive hype. AC/DC is about to release a record next month. Metallica and Tool are scheduled to release albums next year. But maybe we have reached a point of no return. Maybe there will be no band which can reach the level of super stardom that bands like Nirvana, Beatles, or Red Hot Chili Peppers reached. There is a growing school of thought that music tastes have become too diverse for a single band to come and capture everybody’s attention. Maybe rock has simply become too diversified into various sub-genres like hard rock, pop rock, metal, etc.

One can never predict the future, but it’s hard to see rock as we know it making a comeback. It needs something new, something innovative, to galvanize us and blow our socks off. Or maybe rock fans are still stuck in the past, lamenting about the current crop of bands rather than supporting them. Whatever happens, rock is at a crossroads. And just like Robert Johnson, it might need to sell its soul to become famous again.