Is rock music dead?

BY Neal Sawyer

19th Oct 2022 Music

Is rock music dead?

What happened to rock music? With pop and hip hop dominating the charts, it feels like the time for bands is over. Or is it? We investigate the state of rock

Accorong to MidderMusic,it's a debate on the tip of the tongue of music journalists and guitar-loving musos alike. Is rock music dead? Let's explore what happened to rock music. Is it really on its last legs, or are we just not looking hard enough?

3 Reasons rock is dead

Accessible music technology

In the past, music recording was primitive. A recording engineer placed microphones in front of instruments. The producer pressed record and beckoned the band to play. There was a human touch to recordings.

The end goal? To capture a moment of magic.

The analogue way of recording gave rock music its raw edge. But here we are today; sophisticated audio software sits in every recording studio.

A loose take is moveable, making it sound in time, while auto-tune masks characterful vocal nuances. The pristine sheen on modern recordings isn't conducive to a rock record.

"The cost and practicality makes creating digital music the norm"

Let’s not forget, being in a band is laborious. You need like-minded competent musicians to rehearse for hours on end.

Nowadays, this isn’t a necessity. Programming drums on a computer is as simple as filling cells on a spreadsheet, and there you have it, a drumbeat. Only the discerning listener is aware that they aren’t listening to true live drums.

Such tech is even accessible on a smartphone. Whether on a train or in a bedroom, you can create a full band track without a live band, but this means the energy of musicians working together is missing.

While many argue the old ways are the best, the cost and practicality makes creating digital music the norm and the ease of use suggests bands will become extinct.

Risk-averse record labels

Record labels don't gamble on rock music. They want safe bets. This usually means they sign acts with high social media followers who’ll receive the big media push. Even if a rock band has a million followers.

The pressure is on to sanitise the recordings in line with the auto-tuned norm. That way, recordings fall in line with the overproduced mainstream and likely receive radio play.

You can forgive record labels. After all, with streaming services like Spotify paying £0.0031 per stream, the books have little room for error. But while record labels focus on pop, rock music remains in the shadows.

Venues closing

gwdihw music venue in cardiffCredit: Alan Hughes. Gwdihŵ in Cardiff was one of several music venues that closed over the past decade

Every rock band needs a stage, and we're not talking massive arenas, just small grassroots venues to learn their trade. Yet, such venues continue to close.

COVID was the final nail in the coffin for some grassroots music venues. As the UK re-opened, there was a glimmer of hope for the survivors, but few could predict what was around the corner. 

As energy prices rocket through the roof, it's harder than ever for small venues to break even, let alone make a profit. In desperate attempts to stay open for business, venues turn to tribute acts to stay afloat.

Tribute acts aren't the problem, more a solution to help the venues stay open. However, in turn, there are fewer opportunities for original rock bands who are yet to grow a following. 

3 Reasons rock is alive

New rock bands

Hang on, surely the UK's favourite genre hasn't fizzled out into obscurity? Far from it, rock music has flourished. There's a disparity in sound between 1960s and 1970s rock, so it's only natural that rock music in 2022, over 50 years since the release of Led Zeppelin IV, has evolved.

Artists, inspired by the great rock bands, seek to put their own spin on this classic genre, in turn spawning sub-genres. From psychedelia to indie, the rock sentiment remains.

"Michael Kiwanuka blends soul and rock while Foals combine indie rock with elements of techno"

Michael Kiwanuka blends soul and rock while Foals combine indie rock with elements of techno, both with underlying rock characteristics.

Truth is, fresh rock bands are out there, you just need to dig deeper. A search through online music blogs reveals a plethora of new alternative rock bands. It's a simple case of them not receiving mainstream exposure.

As such, rock bands are now considered underground, but the flame still burns bright.

The vinyl revival

According to the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), in 2021 vinyl record sales reached five million. Not only is that an eight per cent rise from the previous year, but it's also the 14th consecutive year of growth.

Here's the kicker. Of all those vinyl record sales, 60 per cent were in the rock genre. The year's top vinyl sales included Fleetwood Mac, Queen, Nirvana and Pink Floyd

While cynics can point to nostalgia as the principle inspiration for vinyl sales, it wasn’t just classics. Rock bands Mogwai, The Lanthums, and The Snuts all hit milestones. Each reached number one on the Official Album Charts with new releases.

There's an undeniable statement in these figures. Rock music is timeless and far from dead. In fact, it’s in higher demand than all other genres.

Music trends come and go

Alex Turner from Arctic Monkeys singing on red-lit stageCredit: Kim Erlandsen, NRK P3, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Arctic Monkeys and Taylor Swift are predicted to go head-to-head for the No.1 spot in the UK album charts this October

At the 2014 Brit Awards, Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys sauntered up to the podium to collect an award and said this: "That rock ’n’ roll, it just won’t go away. It might hibernate from time to time and sink back into the swamp."

He has a point. Music goes through trends, and maybe the past couple of decades were a hibernation period for rock. But is the tide turning? 

Sam Fender announced a monumental homecoming show at St James' Park next year. It sold out in a matter of minutes, and so did the extra date. Now touts are selling tickets for eye-watering sums of money.

"It might hibernate from time to time and sink back into the swamp"

Wolf Alice toured their album Blue Weekend in February, 2022, and every show on the 18-date tour sold out. Now they're rousing Glastonbury and selling out shows in the US—even America can't get enough of the alt-rockers.

So, although trends come and go, there's always a demand for rock music. Nothing compares to the power at a rock show, and that'll always inspire. Whether it’s the pounding of the drums, rumbling of bass, cutting guitar solos, the lyrics or the lead singer's charisma. There’s a connection to the audience.

Returning from watching a Wolf Alice gig, or any other rock act, a handful of onlookers will have left the show compelled to recreate rock music just like their idols. As Wolf Alice would’ve done after hearing The Vines and Courtney Love, and so the cycle continues.

Someone, somewhere, is creating guitar rock music as we speak, and it's those musicians who'll continue the UK's long lineage of producing rock music.

Perhaps Neil Young was right after all when he sang, “Hey hey, my my. Rock and roll can never die."

Banner photo credit: Ralph ArvesenCC BY-NC 2.0, Wolf Alice

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