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

Good luck finding a top-grossing act these days with a young lead singer
Kurt Cobain and Dave Grohl of Nirvana during MTV Live and Loud: Nirvana Performs Live - December 1993 at Pier 28 in Seattle, Washington, United States. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)
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.