What Is Happening To Rock Music?

Rock is having a moment right now, culturally and as a business.  When was the last time American rock music produced a celebrity? Using festival lineups as a barometer of demand and as a snapshot of where rock is stylisticly, you can see a genre spinning its wheels.

Broken Radio

The top slots in major festivals are mostly hip-hop. Of those artists, they are typically all played on the radio. Very few, if any, top slots at major festivals are rock bands, and if a rock group is top billed, they rose to prominence before 2010-2011 or are not American. And if they are a new rock band, they are not played on the radio. The correlation: radio is a significant part of the ecosystem of hip-hop headliners and older rock acts.   

Decline of Blogs

Festivals came of age during the Golden Era of music blogs. Between the early 2000s and this decade, the music blogs were the last effective engine of new music discovery. As streaming services took hold, and people had no need to download free, legal MP3s, people no longer learned of new rock at a fast enough rate. 

photo by Ricardo Romero at River City Rockfest in San Antonio

photo by Ricardo Romero at River City Rockfest in San Antonio

Proliferation of Subgenres and Lack of Cross Pollination

Rock music had several stages of evolution before either hip-hop or EDM were even a thing. Rock music continues to evolve and go through trends. Usually a handful of styles garner the majority of rock audiences. Due to the fragmentation of sounds, we have groups of audiences and groups of preferences that mix and separate in interesting ways. Fans of certain bands angry-hate the music of certain types of rock. For example: if you love The Dead Milkmen or Radiohead, there is a good chance you very much dislike 21 Pilots and Imagine Dragons. Where as liking 21 Pilots, is no indication one will dislike stylistically different rock music. Correlations also exist between age groups and rock style preferences.

The lack of cross-pollination prohibits monolithic fandom like we saw during the era of Elvis or The Beatles. Mass audiences for new rock bands is almost unheard of. Rock bands that grew to prominence during the era of blogs like Arcade Fire, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Broken Social Scene, Grizzly Bear have large audiences that could fill a theater multiple nights but wouldn’t necessarily be able to fill an average sized arena.

Becoming Roots Music

As mainstream interest in jazz music waned and rock music grew in popularity in the 1950s, jazz artists never stopped innovating or pushing the genre forward. There were always new crops of jazz musicians and new individuals listening, up until this day, there is new jazz music being created. But the percentage of people who listened to and took part in jazz diminished over the years and rock and roll audience grew exponentially. It could be argued that the same is happening to rock music as new forms of popular music is created. While I hesitate to use the word "decline", all of these factors feed into rock music's moment of stagnation. 

Time Magazine put out a list of the Top 20 Most Popular Rock Artists on Spotify (7/2017):

  1. Coldplay (not American)
  2. Twenty One Pilots
  3. The Beatles (pre-2010)
  4. Linkin Park (pre-2010)
  5. Red Hot Chili Peppers (pre-2010)
  6. Panic! A The Disco (pre-2010)
  7. Metallica (pre-2010)
  8. Arctic Monkeys (pre-2010)
  9. Queen (not American)
  10. Fall Out Boy (pre-2010)
  11. Green Day (pre-2010)
  12. AC/DC (not American)
  13. Pink Floyd (not American)
  14. Blink-182 (pre-2010)
  15. Paramore (pre-2010)
  16. Guns N’ Roses (pre-2010)
  17. Nirvana (pre-2010)
  18. The Rolling Stones (not American)
  19. The 1975 (pre-2010)
  20. Kings of Leon (pre-2010)