“Hey, hey, my, my/ Rock and roll will never die,” Neil Young once famously sang.
According to the Grammys, it’s already in the ground.
The Grammy Awards are often seen as a barometer of what most Americans are listening to online; on their radio, television, smart phone; and at their local amphitheater. The 56th annual awards, telecast Sunday from the Staples Center in Los Angeles, is no different. Leading in the highest profile categories are Daft Punk, Lorde, Bruno Mars, Robin Thicke, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Taylor Swift, and others, none of whom could be identified as making music within a traditional rock band setting or using a guitar as the primary instrument in their music.
Even though rock music remains an endurable fixture in the music that passes through our ears every day, it doesn’t sell as much as it once did. According to Nielsen SoundScan, R&B was the only genre to post an increase in sales in 2013, growing 1.2 percent. Even though rock represents double the sales of R&B, its sales have continually been stuck in reverse for years. Last year, sales slid nearly 6 percent. Despite the release last year of new albums by some of the biggest rock bands of the current moment – Pearl Jam, Queens of the Stone Age, and even veterans Black Sabbath – the biggest sellers were hit albums by Justin Timberlake, Mr. Thicke, and Ms. Swift.
Of course, predictions that guitar rock is on its way out are legion, dating back decades. In 1962, Dick Rowe, the Decca Records A&R man who famously rejected the Beatles, did so because he felt “guitar groups are on their way out.”
Mr. Rowe’s sentiments were relayed into the future many times when similar predictions were made in the era of disco, synthpop, and the early days of hip-hop.
However, the ax appeared sharpest in the mid-1990s when hip-hop emerged as a more culturally relevant music, and rock found itself in a crisis moment, trying to amalgamate rappers inside rock bands, and punk rock bands with turntable stylists. The fad inevitably produced a backlash – a “return to rock” wave featuring new bands such as the Strokes, the White Stripes, and the Vines – but even that vanished not long after it appeared.
Critical to this shift is how music is now consumed. Commercial radio has long moved away from rock formats, or at least the ones that showcase new rock bands. Classic rock prevails on the dial, so that anything new is considered niche, relegated to satellite channels, online outlets, and word of mouth. Digital music, and the ease of finding and accessing new music, is also helping train listeners to expand their tastes so that one band, one song, one sound no longer defines a single generation as it did decades earlier. Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young’s “Ohio” may sum up the Woodstock generation, and Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” may sum up Generation X. However, identifying that single song for Millennials is not that easy.
“Downloading music has changed the industry dramatically for the younger generation who do not have allegiance to any format of music,” says David Fiorenza, a Grammy voting member who teaches at Villanova University outside Philadelphia. “Rock is still around … but it’s not played on the radio except for the Foo Fighters.”
As rapid shifts in technology are changing how music is heard, they are also democratizing how it is made.
Laptop recording has opened the door for people to make beats on their own, without the need of instruments or even other people. That insular model is more affordable than the traditional guitar-bass-drum model that has sustained rock music for decades, and it has proved key to the organic evolution of replacing guitar-driven music meant for the rock club with more synthetic sounds that are meant for the dance floor. Back in the early 1990s, when underground bands first started experimenting with computers, a term was born: “post rock,” to describe music made without instruments traditionally associated with rock.
“Music’s not in the garage anymore; it’s in the bedroom,” says Devon Powers, who teaches music criticism and culture at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “Computers are the new musical instruments to do so many things, so you’re recording, mixing, and doing everything you used to do that required a huge studio and huge amount of capital.”
Another hurdle for new rock bands is competition from the older generation in sales. Catalog titles by veteran artists, such as Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” or anything by the Beatles, continue to have robust sales through reissue campaigns that started in the mid-1990s as a surefire way for record companies to make money in the era of illegal downloading.
John Covach, director of the Institute of Popular Music at the University of Rochester in New York State, says that new artists now “have to compete with the Beatles and everything in-between” when they release new music, which suggests the demise of the genre. His own students “don’t want to hear new rock; they think the better music is from the classic period.”
“When there doesn’t seem to be much innovation past a certain point, that’s really the first signs of the end of a style. In many ways, we’re seeing rock music receding and the classic rock artists have formed a canon, and like any kind of dying style, it’s very difficult to get attention at the tail end,” Professor Covach says.
The Recording Academy, the industry organization that produces the Grammy Awards, likewise appears to prefer rock music played by bands that produced their biggest hits 40 years ago. For example, dominating the rock categories this year are Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Paul McCartney, in performance with the surviving members of Nirvana, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, and David Bowie. Shake your head very fast and you might think you were reading a list from 1972.
The industry’s leading producers also appear to prefer finding their hooks in nostalgia rather than taking a chance on something new. Last year’s hit album from Eminem borrows heavily from bedrock hooks by classic rockers Billy Squier and Joe Walsh, for example. There’s little mistake the album was co-produced by Rick Rubin, who is known for producing hit albums for many rock bands, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Metallica.
If rock music is losing its commercial vitality, it likely remains personally vital for some. No doubt budding guitarists are still learning riffs, and young hot bands are still working their way up through clubs. And there’s no denying the continued presence of artists such as Savages, Jack White, the Arctic Monkeys, or the Black Keys in keeping the flame alive.
But what is certain is that rock’s stature as the primary vehicle to express rebellion and individualism is over.
“This also has to do with the diversification of America as you have music with more Latin influence, more urban influences, and more women – that’s not to say they haven’t played rock, and they have – but you are getting new styles and influences and flavors coming forward,” Ms. Powers says. “Rock just has to share the stage with a lot of other stuff.”