Poor chart showings have led some to proclaim the death of rock as a genre -- but the truth is more complicated
Long live rock 'n' roll
Rock'n'roll is dead, according to a rash of anxious reports this month.
Marginalised by the boom in talent-show pop and hip-hop, guitar music is in a commercial and creative slump, which some industry pundits believe is terminal. Rock singles sales are at their lowest ebb since before The Beatles formed 50 years ago.
The evidence is compelling. Just three of last year's 100 top-selling UK singles were officially classified as rock. One was the 30-year-old Journey track Don't Stop Believin', dragged back into the limelight by the cult US television show Glee. The other two were Hey Soul Sister by the US band Train, and Dog Days Are Over by Florence and the Machine. All are broadly guitar-based, but otherwise wildly dissimilar, illustrating how nebulous and slippery the "rock" label has now become.
This is not just a temporary, local phenomenon. Rock is traditionally seen as an album-based genre, and global album sales have been steadily falling for most of the past decade, with the steepest decline affecting the world's two biggest music markets, America and Japan. Meanwhile, sales of online downloads continue to rise - a format far more suited to the one-off pop single.
Last year, no rock bands at all made the Top Ten round-up of worldwide album sellers. In 2009, just one: U2 with No Line on the Horizon. Instead, the same clutch of British and American pop heavyweights dominated global sales, led by Lady Gaga, Susan Boyle, Justin Bieber, Eminem and the late Michael Jackson, eclipsing even hugely successful regional superstars such as Nancy Ajram.
According to figures from the industry newspaper Music Week, rock's paltry 3 per cent share in last year's UK singles market was dwarfed by dance music at 10 per cent and pop at 40 per cent, with hip-hop and R&B claiming the lion's share of 47 per cent. These sickly statistics prompted the broadcaster Paul Gambaccini, a highly respected BBC radio veteran nicknamed the "Professor of Pop", to announce the death of guitar-based rock'n'roll.
"It is the end of the rock era," the 61-year-old New Yorker told The Guardian newspaper. "It's over, in the same way the jazz era is over. That doesn't mean there will be no more good rock musicians, but rock as a prevailing style is part of music history."
If we take these figures seriously, rock certainly seems to be an endangered species. Superstar DJs and wholesome pop idols have clearly won over scuffed leather jackets and loud guitars. However, the trouble with such monolithic predictions is they often turn out to be reckless snap judgements. Pendulums swing, music goes through cycles, exhausted genres reinvent themselves for new generations.
It is true that rock has traditionally been an albums rather than a singles genre. Indeed, classic-rock legends Led Zeppelin refused even to release singles during their phenomenally successful 1970s heyday. Despite a general downward trend in CD sales globally, guitar-based rock still accounted for over a quarter of albums sold in the UK last year, and over a third in the US. Guitar bands also dominated the live arena in 2010, with stadium tours by Bon Jovi, U2 and AC/DC all out-grossing Lady Gaga, Jay-Z and Eminem.
Gambaccini's claims have certainly rattled rock's champions in the media. Websites and newspaper columns have been ablaze with scornful commentators and irate musicians. "Calling the singles chart a barometer of the music in 2011 is like saying Metallica aren't a big band because they haven't sold many cassette tapes this year," seethed Ben Patashnik of Rock Sound. "Singles stopped being relevant almost a decade ago and pretending otherwise is woefully out of touch."
Ian Fortnam, deputy editor of the London-based magazine Classic Rock, tells The National that rock has been wrongly declared dead many times before. "Every single time someone reads the last rites to rock 'n' roll it comes back brighter," he says. "Sex Pistols, Stone Roses, Oasis, Strokes - without troughs there would be no peaks."
The National put some of these counter-arguments to Gambaccini himself. Is there not a danger he might have set himself up to be the 21st-century equivalent of Dick Rowe, the short-sighted Decca Records talent scout who turned down The Beatles, telling their manager Brian Epstein that "guitar groups are on the way out"?
Gambaccini seems amused by the comparison. "There's always the possibility," he laughs. "But the difference is, I'm a historian. I'm not setting myself out to be a predictor. I'm saying what's already happened. Believe me, as a private listener, I consume far more rock than synthesised dance music. I would be very happy if there were artists the quality of The Beatles or the young U2 currently making music. But the fact is, we now have Taio Cruz and Tinie Tempah, and we've got to live with that."
Protesting that his critics are merely shooting the messenger, Gambaccini admits singles sales are not an infallible gauge of overall trends. But he insists rock has been slowly losing global market share for decades. We are not witnessing a standard seasonal cycle, he claims, but an historic tipping point.
Gambaccini blames rock's decline on the current "karaoke era" of manufactured pop puppets and TV talent shows, with cash-strapped record labels now favouring short-term profits over long-term artist development. He believes this cultural shift began with MTV in the 1980s, ushering in a new age dominated by slick choreography and computerised studio-pop. It is a persuasive argument.
Then again, the age of digital downloads has changed consumer habits forever, empowering specialist fans and splintering rock into thriving micro-genres. By measuring cultural vitality in terms of chart position, we risk learning the price of everything and the value of nothing. Besides, the highest-grossing live acts of the past five years have been guitar heavyweights including the Rolling Stones, U2, Metallica and Bruce Springsteen. Madonna and Celine Dion are the only non-rock acts in the Top Ten.
Ironically, Gambaccini seizes on these figures as further proof of rock's failing health. "The average age of the top-grossing artists is around 50, which suggests that it's the so-called heritage artists that are drawing them in," he says. "This is a cause for real concern among concert promoters, who fear that 10 to 20 years from now there won't be bands pulling them in."
This is where Gambaccini's argument seems to falter, conveniently overlooking guitar-toting superstars such as Coldplay, Kings of Leon, Muse, My Chemical Romance and Linkin Park. All are in their late 20s and early 30s. All are hugely successful, headlining stadium shows and selling millions of chart-topping albums. Behind them stands an army of younger groups including Pendulum, Paramore, The Gaslight Anthem, Airbourne and Mastodon. Hardly household names, but all selling out arenas.
Meanwhile, heavy rock festivals continue to multiply, from big-brand perennials such as Download and Ozzfest to relative newcomers such as Sonisphere and Dubai Desert Rock. Selling more than 25 million copies worldwide, the phenomenally successful computer game Guitar Hero has also boosted music sales for rock acts old and new, bypassing the need for prehistoric marketing platforms such as singles charts.
"Beneath the radar of the mainstream media, rock has never been healthier," insists Ian Fortnam of Classic Rock. "Many of the world's greatest live draws - AC/DC, Metallica, Rush - are hitting the road with young support bands destined to inherit their stadium-stuffing status for a fresh generation. Kids will always want to rebel, and rock still provides an off-the-peg 'dangerous' lifestyle choice that won't die until a viable, practical replacement is found."
Guitar music may be in a sales slump right now, but much of Gambaccini's stance feels like nostalgia for some lost golden age of Baby Boomer rock. "Certainly, every new generation is entitled to a popular music experience that is completely involving and fulfilling," he says. "However, that does not mean every generation lives during a period of great creativity. It is the misfortune of people who are 16 today that they don't have the creativity around them that existed for 16-year-olds in 1965 or 1975."
The 1960s gave us The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. Today we have Radiohead, Muse and Nick Cave - plus, of course, unprecedented online access to half a century of brilliant pop. Is this truly a decline or a brave new world of infinite choice? Record companies may be shrinking, and singles sales increasingly detached from real public tastes, but there is still a vast wealth of great guitar music out there waiting to be discovered. For now, at least, rumours of rock's death have been greatly exaggerated.