Is Rock Dead?

Or is it just today’s Jazz?

There is a great deal of online comment on music sites about the “ death of rock/metal music.” (Google “Is rock dead”, you will see what I mean.) Of course, “dead” in this context means marginalized in a mainstream music consumption sense by the domination of hip/hop, pop, and EDM. Much of this commentary contains angst-ridden attacks on contemporary popular music, fulminations on the execrable taste of Gen Zedders, and younger Millennials, and, moaning about what my father would have called with his tongue firmly in his cheek, “the general decline of everything.”    I would like to make a couple of observations. There is a great deal of psychological evidence indicating that most people’s musical tastes are fixed by the age of 30. This is obviously not good news for rock and metal which has almost no mass profile with consumers under 30. Rock/metal has indeed become a niche genre. The five-man electrical band now lives on the reservation where they can be seen grazing in the grass with other endangered species like the jazz quartet, and the polka ensemble. There is nothing wrong with being a niche genre, as long as you don’t whine about it. Nicheville is indeed where jazz lives, and most jazz lovers are fine with that. It does, however, make it much harder to make any money in a rock band unless you are social media stars.

Why aren’t the under 30s listening to rock in large numbers?  Rock music hasn’t evolved in very interesting ways in the last twenty years. There may be some bands that are both melodically interesting and innovative in the way that Radiohead was, but I don’t know who the hell they are, and I listen to a lot of music. Also, rock music seems to have lost the battle of the lyric to both hip hop and some of the more innovative pop music. Kendrick Lamar just won a Pulitzer Prize for his lyrics, and Billie Eilish is winning Grammys for songs about body image and suicidal tendencies that really speak to her own generation. Not much of that going on in rock music since Kurt Cobain died. Remember “The Who, Talking ’bout My Generation” – well they did speak to their generation — and younger musicians better find a way to do that because Young Fans apparently care about the words (along with the beats and the hooks). And these fans are wayward souls. They move on quickly, and when they do, they are likely gone for good. And to be real about this, I’m an aging Boomer with a far-greater than feckless youth attention span, and a guitar player who is well aware of the technical virtuosity contained therein, but I can’t listen to a fifteen-minute Van Halen guitar solo without starting to fall asleep. (Maybe it is the warm milk at my 8:00 pm bedtime.) 

A lot of these rock bands are their own worst enemy from a mass consumption perspective — too much instrumental virtuosity and not enough hook or emotional engagement. Spotify keeps what’s called a skip statistic which indicates that if your song doesn’t get to either a point of lyrical or melodic interest within its first 15 seconds, bye-bye listener. Now sure, you can deplore the shorter attention span of the digital playlist listener, but that is the way it is. Either deal with it or be content with your status as a marginal sector in the music business. This attention-span issue raises another question — what is it, musically speaking that most quickly and intensely engages the listener. The answer is the human voice. When admirers used to say that Jimi Hendrix or Prince could make their guitars talk/sing, they were paying about the purest compliment one could pay to an instrumentalist. With the exception of music created for dancing, this is the era of vocal pre-eminence and the solo artist triumphant.  Much of the most compelling pop and hip/hip, (and the most successful) manifests stripped-down, tight mixes with the vocals out front and very, very clearly audible. Good luck to any band purveying mumble rock with the vocal parts buried in the instrumental mix either because their vocalists aren’t good enough, or because the lyrics are an afterthought. This is not a recipe for success with younger listeners whose fingers are hovering over the playlist skip song button.

Speaking of instruments, let’s talk about the decline of the distorted guitar and the rise of music created by layering digital samples. My lord, there is a lot of hate on for this shift among the lovers of rock bands. I have some sympathy for this viewpoint. The recording of live instruments, at least in the good old days, introduced a certain free-form spontaneity into recordings that is lacking in the auto-tuned digital music world. However, and  I’m bracing for the hate here, you can make great music in a bedroom with a digital audio workstation. The range of sounds available to skillful creators and producers working this way is astonishing. It is a different way of creating music, building up a structure from very small parts and cunningly interwoven layers. Unfortunately for rock lovers, very little of this music includes wailing guitar solos, which causes much gnashing of teeth and wringing of hands among the faithful.

Sad to say, these moaners and dissers are speaking only to each other. Gen Zedders and younger millennials do not care what a bunch of cranky older white males (mostly) think about their music. These critics don’t realize it, but they sound like a bunch of 1950s parents convinced that Elvis’s gyrating hips were going to send their kids straight to Hell. Teenagers didn’t care then and they don’t care now.  

There are other reasons for the decline of the rock band, in particular, how much less promotional money labels have to deploy because no one buys their CDs anymore. (It is cheaper to bet on a guy in a bedroom with a DAW or a turntable than it is to support a touring ensemble of musicians.) A change in the Telecommunications Act in 1996 allowed corporations to gobble up independent FM radio stations which they did with voracious enthusiasm — the result being that thousands of radio stations are now programmed by three guys in New York who all like the same 50 songs, most of them twenty-five years old or older. This gives younger musicians little room for radio exposure unless they are creating in the dominant paradigms, i.e. pop, hip/hop, or EDM. I really, really hate listening to the radio and I  am actually rooting for the entire FM universe to implode. It almost certainly will because the under-thirties are just hooking up their phones to their car speakers and cranking their Spotify playlists.  May those three guys in New York and their corporate masters rot in hell for all I care, I used to like Stairway to Heaven, can’t listen to it anymore. Be that as it may, it is time to accept gracefully the decline of interest in rock among younger music fans. You diehards have your niche which has never been easier to explore thanks to the web. You will eventually have your concerts again, where you will be able to bounce with your fellow over 45’s. I hope some of you will keep open ears and really listen to the new music that’s being created in the pop/hip/ hop genres – some of it is great.

Great music has always been relatively rare. As we get older selection bias kicks in making us think that the music we loved when we were under 30 came from some great golden age, which is a very distorted view. Find the good in the new, or seek what you love in the margins like fans of Charlie Parker, or live in the past — your choice.