Has rock been crowded out?

Few of the winners at this year's Grammy Awards create their music in a traditional rock band setting.

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
Pharrell Williams and Daft Punk

“Hey, hey, my, my/ Rock and roll will never die,” Neil Young once famously sang. But as a genre, it appears to be in serious decline. Among the winners at the 56th Grammy AwardsDaft Punk, Lorde, Bruno Mars, Robin Thicke, Snarky Puppy, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis – few make music within a traditional rock band setting.

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 music sales still reign overall – double those of R&B – they have 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 veteran Black Sabbath – the biggest sellers were hit albums by Mr. Thicke, Justin Timberlake, and Taylor Swift.

Critical to this shift is how music is now consumed. Classic rock prevails on the commercial dial, so that anything new is considered niche, relegated to being promoted on satellite channels and online outlets, and by 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, but 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.

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. And any new emerging rock bands face competition from the older “rock canon” in sales. 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,” says Devon Powers, who teaches music criticism and culture at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “Rock just has to share the stage with a lot of other stuff.”

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