If rock’s not dead, it’s on life support

Good luck finding a top-grossing act these days with a young lead singer

If rock’s not dead, it’s on life support

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

When U2 wrapped up its 360° tour last month, they closed the book on the highest-grossing tour of all time, raking in over $736 million. Rock bands, it seems, can still make a dollar or two on the stadium circuit.

Of the 10 highest-grossing tours last year, seven were by traditional rock outfits, with Bon Jovi, AC/DC and U2 leading the way. Among the interlopers, appropriately enough, was “Walking with Dinosaurs—The Arena Spectacular,” which seemingly differentiates itself from the rock performers on the list by featuring animatronic dinosaurs rather than figurative ones. Because while the touring circuit, at least as far as the big earners are concerned, is still dominated by rock acts, they are increasingly aging rock acts.

A Deloitte study published in January found that, of the 20 top-grossing live acts between 2000 and 2009, the lead singer for eight of them will be in his or her sixties this year. Moreover, the older acts are still soaking up the vast majority of the touring cash available: 94 per cent of the money earned by the biggest live acts in those years went to those whose lead singers are now 40 and older; not a single one had a singer still in his or her 20s.

While the last wave of big rock acts seems inclined to perform forever, there’s no sign yet of a new guard. Which isn’t to say rock itself is dead. But the relative absence of newcomers suggests its status as the prime mover of popular music is imperilled, if not already lost.

Rock’s last great push is now arguably 20 years old. The year 1991 was a momentous one, with several of rock’s biggest acts releasing some of their best-known work. Among others, it was the year of U2’s Achtung Baby, Metallica’s self-titled (or “black”) album, Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and Pearl Jam’s Ten. And as countless commemorations of its September release are sure to remind us, it was also the year of Nirvana’s Nevermind. “That may be one of the last times a very large number of rock fans all agreed at the same time that this was a brilliant band and a brilliant record,” music writer and broadcaster Alan Cross says of the album that brought grunge out from dingy clubs and into the mainstream’s living rooms. “Now, there is no consensus.”

Indeed, between 1967 and 1987, only four albums from outside the rock canon topped Billboard’s year-end album chart. In the 23 years since, the only rock acts to snag the top spot have been Hootie and the Blowfish, Alanis Morissette and Linkin Park. And though a handful of big names have emerged in recent years—Nickelback, Kings of Leon, Coldplay—they remain outliers. According to Nielsen Soundscan data, the combined sales of rock, metal and alternative albums have declined by 44.4 per cent since 2006 (when rock was officially categorized as a genre), compared to 31.4 per cent for the industry as a whole.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that the decline of rock in the mainstream coincided with Soundscan’s arrival in 1991. According to a prominent Canadian music publicist, the public release of actual sales figures exposed two major undercurrents in the industry that went a long way to marginalizing rock and roll: “Country music was selling more than it was ever given credit for, and regional hip hop was making it onto the charts,” says Eric Alper, the director of media relations and label acquisitions for eOne Music Canada.

Meantime, the rock scene was splintering into a million little pieces, with sub-genres giving birth to their own sub-genres until it no longer spoke with a singular, dominant voice. “As big as the Black Keys are right now, and as big as the White Stripes were,” says Alper, “they weren’t as huge as, say, Mariah Carey.”

Of course, rock itself had to fight for its place in pop culture lore when it first hit radio airwaves. In a 1960 bit titled “The Old Payola Roll Blues,” comedian Stan Freberg predicted the kids would quickly ditch the rock ’n’ roll radio stations were shoving down their throats and go back to listening to “real music”—meaning jazz and swing. And as of halfway through 2011, jazz is now the second-least popular genre in the industry, ahead of only New Age. Oh well, whatever, nevermind what Freberg thought.


If rock’s not dead, it’s on life support

  1. Why does a top grossing act need to have a young singer, and why do they need to be commercially viable. Last time I checked, bands like Phish, Dave Matthews Band, Widespread Panic, were all making a pretty penny, by doing it there way, without the hype. Phish just sold out a American wide tour, playing all kinds of rock music. You gotta think a little outside the mainstream, make a record, get it played on the radio, tour, sell records traditional way of doing things. BTW, not sure what you consider ROCK but Mumford and Sons have a sold shit ton of records….

  2. This article is so far out to left field it’s unreal.

    A) Country music has always sold HUGE numbers in Canada – that is NOT a new realization in the Canadian Music Industry….sorry.

    B) Hip Hop doesn’t even do the 8-10% it should of US sales, unless you’re talking major artists (Eminem, Jay Z etc.) – urban music in general for that matter.  Ask hometown “superstar” Deborah Cox, she’ll tell you.  Regional Hip Hop??  Are you speaking of Classified?  Yes, great artist, who’s be slogging away in this industry for YEARS….with COUNTLESS albums released, only to get the recognition from mainstream media.  Who else has had success in this country with any form of sustainability on a national scale that merits mention? 

    C) Comparing Black Keys/White Stripes to Mariah Carey based on “splintering sub-genres” within the rock world????  WHAT?  There is no better place to look for sub genres than urban music.  When was the last time Mariah Carey relevant anyway?  The Black Keys would have barely released an album the last time Mariah did anything of significance. 

    D) OF COURSE Mariah Carey has sold more records…popular music always has and always will based solely on the fact that there is always has far more mainstream media support on a national scale. 

    Those are just a few inaccuracies of this piece.  As Ira points out below, there are a HUGE number of rock bands that are on the road, doing VERY well for themselves.  Does this reflect “on the charts” as Mr Alper infers…not so much any more, as “the charts” are becoming less and less meaningful in the grand scheme of breaking a band.

    Rock n roll is alive and well in Canada.


  3. I think that these aging acts are drawing money simply due to demographics. boomers are the ones that go to these shows (@ often $100+ a ticket) because these acts of of their generation. while millennials dont have the cash for that, and gen xers are simply less abundant.

  4. I certainly hope so!

    Old-people music

  5. What about the Kings of Leon?

  6. The decline in Rock and Roll began with the introduction of music with NO substance. Teen Beat magazine disco bands morphed into two chord wonder badd guy rock bands with poofy hair, tattoos and tongues, this ‘show band garbage’ morphed into just plain bad music as things began to be all about SHOW and nothing to do with substance and messages.
    This surely signified the culmination of recording companies controlling content (as evidenced by the worst music in the history of music becoming mainstream. Dorky Rap was added which really isn’t even music, its a cover of what the beatniks did in the 60splaying bongos while reciting poetry. The bongo’s have been replaced by computers ( apparently by the ‘Real Musicians’ of wrap.
    Now all of a sudden there was no real, new Rock and Roll music on mainstream. Other comments state ‘morphed’ or ‘diversified’ or ‘split’ into ‘sub genres’ … translation = degraded into garbage.
       A few real musicians like tom petty and other notable acts stuck around, a few ‘go for the cash’ big bands started touring and shamefully charged old fans that MADE them history and MADE their fortunes the classy prices of $300 and more per seat for a couple sets of 20 year old tunes.
    Quite simply real R&R is gone, and their is almost no-one left with the skills and the talent to bring it back..hope you enjoy your wrapcrap…

  7. I would have to comment on the fact that Philippe is missing a bigger overview of the music industry between the 70’s up to now.

    30 years ago there was no iTunes, no mp3 players, no Youtube, no anything except tape cassettes and vinyls. Plus 20 years ago you had way less music acts than you have today. So the focus was on a much lesser % than it is today.

    I’m going to see 3 bands – Two Door Cinema Club, Portugal the Man and Peter Bjorn and John. Those acts are far from being U2 and would never be even after 20 years but they are still bringing good quality music to the public. 30 years ago you would have some act like Sonic Youth to see – but can you see them and REM and Billy Idol for as much as 65$ (that’s what I paid for my tickets today, about 30$ back in 83′ ) No way you pay that little to see those acts back then

    My point is, 30 year ago there were less artists so they got all the spotlight  – today there are 10 times more acts who share that same spotlight so I would assume that in 20 years we would see acts of today still rocking (if they are really talented and likeable). Rock music isn’t going anywhere, its just evolving into something different.

  8. Kids who used to go to rock shows buy tickets to Skrillex now… Skrillex himself used to be in a band that was on the Warped tour. Now, he’s STILL on the Warped tour… playing dubstep. Rock n’ roll living itself (including the moshing and the clothes that go with it) aren’t dead… they’ve been channeled into a new genre, and that genre is dubstep.

  9. “Rock is dead, they say…long live rock!”

    – Roger Daltrey, The WHO, 1974

  10. The younger generation is too stupid for rock & roll. Rock still has a melody. Rap or hip-hop, which eliminates the melody and just involves talking or sing-song chanting over a rhythm track, is all the dumbed-down younger mind can comprehend. It’s like a whole generation of adolescents and older people, all chanting “Janie and Johnnie, sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g….”

    • Ahh these young people today eh?

      They don’t know what real music is…young whippersnappers!

      Why in my day….blah, blah, blah….

  11. Rock’s last great push was not 20 years ago, arguably it was in the early noughties with Indie Rock. We live in an ageing society and I think that might have something to do with the dominance of old bands in the genre at this moment in time, although I think corporate laziness might have something to do with it as well, in that an increasingly accountant-driven music industry is more interested in making a quick buck with artificial boy bands than taking the time to develop innovative rock music, and these cartels control radio and tv too, which is why it’s this type of music that gets the most exposure. Bands like Mumford & Sons are doing well, I know that they are folk but they’re more rock than pop, and traditional guitar acts like The Vaccines and Savages are still coming out, but it’s very fragmented and what we don’t have at the minute is a big scene like grunge or indie pushing the genre forward. This situation could be temporary, but if it’s not and we do face a future of rock involving old bands dominating, lack of exposure for new acts then it’s just part of a historical process and there isn’t much that can be done.