This morning on my way to work I was listening to Black Country Communion’s debut album. I was listening really hard. Ok, I was rocking out. Ok, I was rocking out so hard that I missed my exit on the highway. Don’t worry, I got to work on time and everything is all good there. But why I’m bringing up this morning is because while I was listening to the band play their amazing, tough-as-nails brand of 70’s hard rock – which would have been just as at home in Chris Cornell era 90’s hard rock, by the way, I had a thought. This music is so damn good I thought to myself, but where did it go? I don’t mean this particular band, as depressed as I am over the fact that they don’t play together any more. I meant where did rock music go? Which lead to the next thought, which was is rock music dead?
As it turns out, this wasn’t a very original thought. In fact, the thought is all over the internet. For example, Andrew Woods of The Telegraph wrote that, “Rock and roll died at some indeterminate point during the Noughties.” Josh Indar at Popmatters asked, “Is rock and roll dormant, dying, or already dead,” with a pessimistic vision of the landscape. And even Gene Simmons has declared rock dead in an interview for Esquire. I guess I’m late to the party.
But how worried should we really be? It seems like everywhere you look now, mainstream music is dominated by the forces of pop, dance, and hip hop. Don’t believe me? Well, here’s a piece of anecdotal evidence for you – and we all know anecdotal evidence always proves things definitively. Growing up in New York, Z100 was the hottest radio station around. I know this is true, because it was even played over the cafeteria loudspeakers in my middle school, which actually was pretty awesome. Anyway, Z100 is still rather huge in New York. And every year since my middle school days, they throw a huge holiday season concert called the Jingle Ball. Many of the hottest Z100 stars play the show, so it’s kind of a big deal. Now, just for giggles, here’s the lineup of their 1995 show, parts of which I distinctly remember watching on television:
1995 Jingle Ball Lineup in alphabetical order: (data from setlist.fm and some also from my memory)
Dave Matthews Band
Goo Goo Dolls
Hootie and the Blowfish
Do you notice anything about this list? Yeah, you got it – these are all rock-oriented acts that feature live musicians who generally play instruments or or prominently showcase a backing band. Certainly they are on the lighter, poppier end of the rock spectrum, but I would still include all of those artists under the “rock” label. Let’s compare it now with the list of this year’s Z100 Jingle Ball lineup:
5 Seconds of Summer
Notice a difference? You should. The second list is dominated by pop musicians, mostly vocalists, that don’t generally play their own instruments and often feature dancers or elaborate stage shows rather than live musicians playing. Now, of course this is indicative of the fact that Z100 as a whole shifted from rock to pop, which doesn’t necessarily signal an industry-wide trend. But it sort of does: Z100 was and still remains a radio giant, and they felt that what was best for their bottom line was phasing out rock in favor of pop..
Don’t believe me that this is an industry trend yet? Let’s take a look at Australian radio. Every year, the Australian radio station Triple J conducts a survey of the top 100 songs amongst its audience, in its “Hottest 100” poll. The Guardian has created a wonderful graphic that analyzes the data mined from those polls, which you can view here. According to that data, in 1993, 34.5% of the Hottest 100 was rock music, while in 2012 it was only 12%. Meanwhile, over the same span, pop’s share has grown from 12% to 22%.
Ok, maybe this only tells us about the musical preferences of a particular segment of Australia’s population that listens to this radio station and responds to this poll. I realize I haven’t proven my case with anything approaching scientific certitude, but I’m not trying to demonstrate the general theory of relativity here. I don’t think I’m crazy in my general observations that rock music is a lot less dominant int he mainstream than it used to be. Hence all the “rock is dead” commentary. So what’s responsible for this shift? Perhaps it’s simply that audience preferences have changed, that taste has mutated, that the mass audience craves lighthearted danceable beats rather than heavy gritty rock and roll. But whether audience taste is the cause or the effect, it’s pretty clear that the music industry’s business contingent has decided that pop is more marketable than rock right now.
Which is a shame, because I think there is still a large audience hungry for great rock music. But the truth is, the music’s not dead anyway. The music’s out there. You just have to work a little harder to find it than perhaps you did in 1967 or 1993 because mainstream radio isn’t the answer anymore. I think every fan of Joe Bonamassa or Black Country Communion knows this to some extent. I mean, we were able to find this amazing music without it being played 10 times an hour on the most popular pop radio station. On the other hand, we have access to amazing tools now for discovering music that we didn’t have before: social media like Facebook and Twitter, music streaming services like Spotify and Pandora. So even if we have to do a little more work to discover great rock music than we used to, the task isn’t so insurmountable.
No rock isn’t dead. It’s just up to us to help keep the flame alive. Just like it’s up to us to keep the music of Black Country Communion alive. Guess what I’ll be rocking out to on my way home tonight? If I miss the exit on the highway, so be it.
– Brian R.