Is Rock Dead, Dying, or Just Changing?

Marc HenshallMarc Henshall
Culture & IndustryLeave a Comment

As a guitar player and someone who was brought up on classic rock music, a recent article by Classic Rock Magazine (CR) caught my attention. It poses the question, “Is Rock Dying?” and acts as a prelude to their 25 page report on “The Crisis Facing Rock”.

It’s not a new question; people have long predicted the decline of rock music or questioned when it will end, but in this instance, it seems like quite a bold question; particularly given the title of said magazine.

tape-rock-is-deadGiven that I’ve previously questioned whether society still values music in previous posts such as “Did Noughties Music Have a Scene” – I thought I would attempt to put my spin on this question…

So – Is Rock Really Dying?

CR’s blog post touches on many points I have previously raised as reasons for a possible decline: music downloads, the devaluing of music as a product, and the decline of interest in albums. In the article, the Cult’s Ian Astbury is even mentioned as declaring that the album has “reached the end of the line”. Additionally, the article raises one obvious, but strong point; namely that many of the great rock legends are dead, or at least getting on a bit. So, when the seemingly invincible Keith Richards finally does hang up his guitar – who will fill our big arenas and stadiums?

Although the points raised by CR might seem like bold statements, i do think they raise a point. All good things must, unfortunately come to an end, and for the days of classic rock dominating the airwaves, it really is over now from that perspective. Be that as it may, CR’s blog also points out that declining album sales, crumbling record companies, and closed record shops are not a phenomenon exclusive to rock music, or even the music industry. It’s happening everywhere; transcending musical genres, and affecting all areas of the entertainment industry that sell a physical product. In other words, DVD & Blue Ray will inevitably go the way of the CD, and just like the music industry before them, the film industry is suffering its own disruptive forces in the form of services like Netflix.

It’s a well documented fact that the way we consume music has changed, and for most, the concept of an album collection or any physical form of music is now an old fashioned one. The shift to digital has had both positive and negative impacts, and as CR have rightly pointed out – you could argue that we’ve never had it so good. We’ve got decades of truly classic albums to listen to, and all at the touch of a button. In many cases, it’s even free!

Does music still hold the same value in society?

For me, however, the radical shift toward increasingly fickle music consumption is exactly what’s killing music. The very fact that music is now accessible anywhere and essentially free has devalued music’s place in society.

Kids used to really get behind a band, and the whole scene that accompanied it. They’d buy the record, go to the gigs, get the t-shirt, and really “live it”. After all, records were expensive; you had really invested in something, and you probably shared the investment with your friends. For this reason, people would really feel they were part of something, and thus – a “scene” starts to emerge.

With today’s model, on the other hand, consumers pick and choose tracks from as many artists as they please. It costs nothing to do so, and they can drop it and move onto the next big thing whenever they like. From a consumer choice point of view, this is great. But, when you consider how throw away, and in many cases unprofitable music has become, it’s not hard to see why record labels are failing to invest in new talent. Instead, it’s much easier to continue selling nostalgia concert tickets to a dedicated audience, and more recently, thanks to the resurgence in vinyl – sell back catalogue records for extortionate prices to a niche audience. 

Don’t get me wrong, music will always hold some importance, but when its value is essentially reduced to zero, and when the focus of mainstream popular music is as throwaway as X-Factor – it takes someone with a deeper underlying interest in music to really cut through the crap. It would appear that decades of underinvestment and short term tactics from record companies has led to quality music becoming increasingly underground or independent. Real music has truly become a niche.

The Benefits of Music in the Digital Age

Before we go writing this off as a complete disaster for modern music, let’s look at the other side of the coin.

Thanks to our newly found freedom in the digital age, there are an increasing amount of acts able to make a reasonable go at being their own label. Thanks to digital technology & social media, it’s now easier than ever to record, publish, and promote your own music. Any reasonably tech savvy individual can now essentially cut the record label out of the equation and be their own boss. This has resulted in a previously unimaginable amount of exposure for many up and coming acts, and this, I feel, can only be a positive thing.

The End of Big Budget Rock

So where does this leave rock? I think the days of big budget ‘taking America by storm and conquering the world’ with music are truly in decline. I believe this model is becoming increasingly unsustainable for record companies. Nonetheless, there will still be big names in the music business – I just don’t think we’ll see another “Glam Rock” or “Brit Pop”. Due to our increasingly fickle consumption of music, there just isn’t the culture in place for anything like that to take hold. Noel Gallagher puts this point across well:

“The Beatles, The Who and The Kinks – that’s gone now and will never be repeated,” – “In the mid-nineties, it was the bands and a small group of fans that had ownership of it. Now it’s the consumer that drives it, so music will go wherever the consumer demands that it goes. We will not have another punk, or another acid house, or another Britpop. That’s a fact.”

Competing with the best

Another good point raised by CR, is that new music is also up against its own past. In other words, it’s worth considering the concept that rock has essentially achieved all it can – everything has been done before. I mean, when you really think about it: Dark Side of the Moon, Sgt Pepper, Electric Ladyland, Rumours, and many many more – can you really compete with that? All too often, any attempt to take the genre forward has merely resulted in rock becoming a parody of itself; as bands try pushing the boundaries of taste further and further into obscurity.

Saying this, there will always be bands performing great new music, and your “boundary of taste” may vary to the next man. However, I feel the following is true for rock music – it’s becoming a lot harder to produce something genuinely unique. The good news is; we’ve all got access to countless amounts of classic music – captured and secured for future generations to enjoy.

On that note, I’m off to listen to some classic albums. Decades of rock history; available to me on vinyl and digitally. That’s not so bad really, is it?

What do you think? Do you agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments.