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Rock History

Is Rock Dead? A Discussion On the Genre’s Dwindling Commercial Sales and Thriving Underground

Is rock dead?

It’s a question that’s frequently debated, and arguments for its demise have been around since The Doors recorded “Rock Is Dead”—an hour-long jam (and 16-minute-plus edit) about Jim Morrison’s frustration with music critics—all the way back in 1969.

The question has been posed more frequently in recent years, with some of the industry’s heaviest hitters declaring the genre deceased. Marilyn Manson included a song called “Rock Is Dead” on 2015’s Mechanical Animals, and Gene Simmons recently doubled down on his famous belief that the genre is over. 

But I’m here to tell you with complete confidence: Rock is not dead. 

Sure, it’s been more than 30 years since Metallica played to 1.6 million people in the Soviet Union and nearly three decades since Rod Stewart played to 3.5 million in Rio de Janeiro. Rock might never see something on such a massive scale ever again.  

But Rock and its many subgenres are alive and well. In fact, one could even argue that it’s never been healthier. And it’s all thanks to its thriving underground scenes.

Why People Argue Rock Is Dead

Let’s start by taking a look at some of the most common reasons people give for saying Rock is dead:

Vice: ‘Rock Is Dead, Thank God’

Back in 2018, Vice published a rather popular article entitled, “Rock Is Dead, Thank God.” 

In this article, author Dan Ozzi gives two primary reasons for his perspective.

First, Rock doesn’t chart anymore, with Pop, Hip-Hop, and EDM regularly consuming more of the general population’s attention. 

Second, young people are regularly choosing other genres. Ozzi gives an example from the Governors Ball, an outdoor New York festival he had recently attended. The younger kids in attendance, he observed, gravitated toward Post Malone and Halsey. Even The Gaslight Anthem, once a powerful live act, played to small pockets of fans.

The Monster Riff Rebuttal

The charts argument was true then, and it’s still true now. In the last year, the biggest hitters in the rock genre from the Billboard 200 were Classic Rock acts. As of today, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Queen, Fleetwood Mac, ACDC, and Journey are all in the top 70. In fact, in an article from January of this year, Genius pointed out that Classic Rock basically carries the entire genre when it comes to chart performance.

That’s bad news for contemporary Rock acts. When societal trends basically guarantee that the likes of Taylor Swift and Post Malone will achieve prominent placement, there are few opportunities for new Rock acts to emerge.

“In a broad sense, Rock as a commercial vehicle is indeed dead,” says Pale Wizard Records co-owner Dan Flitcroft. “Just take a look at most of the lineups for major music festivals. It’s mainly bands that have been around for decades. There’s very little new music coming through which has proved popular with the mainstream. But as an underground scene, it’s alive and kicking. In many ways, it’s how it should be. The charts are consumed with poorly-written and over-produced Hip-Hop.” 

But Rock acts do chart—often without mainstream acceptance. 

Clutch, for example, charted with Book of Bad Decisions in 2018 (16 on the Billboard 200) and with Psychic Warfare in 2015 (11 on the Billboard 200).

Among contemporary acts, Royal Blood has consistently charted well on each release, including their self-titled 2014 debut (which reached 17 on the Billboard 200). More recently, Typhoons (released this year), peaked at 48. 

Now, it’s certainly true that Royal Blood’s sound has grown more polished and a little more commercialized with each release, but they’re still rooted in that bass-heavy Hard Rock that originally endeared them to so many fans. 

It’s more noteworthy that Clutch is charting, to be honest. Here’s a band that’s largely remained underground throughout its existence, but has still managed to build a massive cult following large enough to chart on the Billboard 200. 

That alone speaks volumes: It’s not that people don’t appreciate Rock; people want great Rock—something you won’t often hear on the radio. 

Of course, there’s also the argument that the charts don’t matter. “As for the music charts, I believe they have become completely irrelevant,” says Flitcroft. “I couldn’t name you more than two number one singles from the past 10 years. That’s how ridiculous it is. Since the CD single format was ditched, the whole thing has become a joke.” 

Blake Carrera, the creative force behind Aiwass, agrees with this sentiment. “It comes down to a value conversation. Do we care what plays on the radio or what charts anymore? Maybe a decent amount of people do, but I barely know anyone who even listens to the radio—it’s all streaming now. Sure, it’s cool to be charted, I guess, but does that matter as much as it used to? Ultimately, that’s a capitalist conversation about money and the value of art.”

Now, to address Ozzi’s second point: I wholeheartedly believe that he saw the kids drifting toward Hasley and Post Malone. I don’t doubt that in the least. 

But for every kid that shoulders their way to the front of a Post Malone concert, I can show you another one who recently picked up a guitar and formed a rock band. Delco Detention, for example, famously features 10-year-old Tyler Pomerantz on lead guitar (and songwriting duties), and he’s recorded with legends like Clutch’s Neil Fallon and even had a one-on-one lesson with Fu Manchu’s Bob Balch.

More importantly, Hard Rock and Metal have always been bastions for young outcasts. I still remember my awkward high school classmates who clung to bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica because these bands expressed something they felt deep in their core—all while exploring the fantasy worlds they regularly escaped to. When they felt alone and ostracized, Metal was there for them. 

On top of that, there’s plenty of research out there detailing Metal’s therapeutic qualities, and some studies even suggest it could be good for kids. Although that may seem weird in the U.S., that’s not always the case elsewhere. Abroad, Metal is sometimes even marketed to children. Finland, for example, is the home base for Hevisaurus, a Heavy Metal band that performs for kids while dressing up in dinosaur costumes.

So, sure, Rock and Metal might not be popular among your average set of kids in the U.S., but it’s still important for folks who feel like outcasts and children in other parts of the world.

Gene Simmons: ‘Rock Is Dead’

Gene Simmons is the bassist and lead singer of one of the most popular Rock groups of all time (KISS), so people tend to listen when he has something to say about the state of the genre.

In an interview with Esquire back in 2014, Gene Simmons rightfully observed that record companies were more interested in supporting Pop, Rap, and Country instead of Rock music. 

Heavy Consequence recently checked in with him about the topic, and his response was much the same. In that interview, Gene Simmons pointed to file sharing and streaming services as reasons why the genre has been cut down at the knees. He also pointed out that it has been decades since The Beatles stormed the world, and no one seems to be capable of picking up such an enormous mantle.

Bands these days, he argues, don’t have a chance.

The Monster Riff Rebuttal

With all due respect to Gene Simmons, he seems to be approaching this question with only the commercial side of the business in mind. 

Sure, Rock music in the form of KISS or The Beatles has largely died out, but there are tons of musicians and bands who write radio-friendly Rock songs without appearing on the radio

Ben Kweller and Ben Folds (who once joined forces with Ben Lee to form a mini supergroup called The Bens) are outstanding solo artists who regularly write catchy Rock songs packed with hooks. 

You’re excused if you’ve never heard Ben Kweller before, but much of his early music was composed of catchy, hook-filled Rock songs, not far off from the likes of Weezer.

These musicians are adored by their fans, but their concert tickets are still incredibly affordable.

As Gene Simmons has pointed out, there’s a feedback loop at play here: The industry puts something in the spotlight that’s catchy, people hear it and ask for more, then the industry goes and creates more of it to generate more revenue. 

If you’re not creating exactly what people want, you can’t become a commercial success. Strange enough, though, that’s part of the reason why the multi-platinum Nickelback became incredibly popular in the ‘90s and early 2000s. In an interview with Canadian Musician, frontman Chad Kroeger explained how he used to examine every song he heard on the radio to craft better-selling songs and albums. Their hit song, “How You Remind Me,” was written with these lessons in mind.

On top of all of this, however, is the simple fact that great musicians are still writing Rock and Metal. Monster Riff regularly writes new album reviews generally focused on the Stoner Rock scene. As small as the scene is, there are countless great acts that genuinely deserve radio air time; they just don’t have the financial backing to make it happen.

As with Ozzi’s article, Simmons’ comments also hint back to the issue surrounding today’s youth. They do listen to more Pop and Hip-Hop than Rock. Like I mentioned above, Delco Detention may be one of the most exciting bands in the underground right now, but Tyler’s father (and Delco Detention drummer), Adam, says the kids at school aren’t really interested. 

“The kids at Tyler’s school have zero interest in Delco Detention songs or anything that Tyler has accomplished. There are a couple of teachers and a music teacher who think it’s really cool, but I think it comes back to the parents. They need to tell them to put down their phones and their tablets and sign up for music lessons.” 

That’s true: When the kids are largely influenced by social media, YouTube, and their friends, their parents may be the next best opportunity to learn about Rock.

Anna Papathanasiou, the vocalist for Puta Volcano, places the onus of drawing in the kids back onto creators in the Rock community. ”Does Rock care enough to engage with the younger generation? I think we must reinvent the genre and make it more approachable by addressing current matters, including the LGBTQ community, and by making the whole thing less macho and masculine. Rock needs to step up its game, as some bands have already begun to do.”

On a positive note, Papathanasiou is right: Bands are beginning to shift. Although you’ll occasionally spot pockets of Nazism and other toxic communities with Metal, we’re beginning to see more and more bands in both Rock and Metal openly supporting communities like BLM and LGBTQ. The values shared by many of today’s youth are definitely there! 

Better yet: Much of the intolerance that does exist is being actively shunned. The Stoned Meadow Of Doom, for example, was one of the biggest resources for new Stoner Rock music until the founder was ostracized for being antisemitic, sexist, and racist (and a slew of other reasons). 

If you stick around in the scene long enough, you might even see a meme or two from the Metal community about scrutinizing album covers before a first listen to check for Nazi symbols.

Ultimately, though, whenever I start to worry about the fate of metal among the kids, I remember that a very progressive country (Finland) has a metal band for kids. 

Take that, “Baby Shark!” 

Ultimate Classic Rock: ‘Rock Stars Who Claimed Rock Is Dead’

Back in 2017, Ultimate Classic Rock published an illuminating article packed with perspectives from Rock heroes who believe the genre is dead.

Their general reasons were all fair:

  • It’s harder for newer bands to stand out like the bands of the ‘60s and ‘70s. From Iron Maiden’s Steve Harris: “Now there are so many bands and not so many outlets for it. And it’s tougher than ever to earn a crust doing it, too. I sort of feel sorry for bands in a lot of ways.”
  • Sales within the genre have dwindled. From John Mellencamp: “I’ve got two boys, 22 and 21, and I don’t think they ever sat down and listened to a whole album in their whole life.”
  • There are fewer classic acts now than before. From Jack Black: “I contend that the last band to really have [the kind of transformative power of The Beatles], I’m gonna say, was Nirvana. Who since Nirvana has been as big as Nirvana, in that way?”

The Monster Riff Rebuttal

All of these points are valid. And while it largely comes back to streaming, it also comes back to capitalism.

Any business designed to make money follows the money

If interest in Billie Eilish completely dried up tomorrow, people would stop supporting Billie Eilish—and her team would drop her soon after.

To that end, we’ve even seen a few modern icons of Rock shift their sound to be more radio-friendly.

Modest Mouse started their career off with the rough, unpredictable sound of This Is A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing to Think About. That was back in 1996. Compare the somber tones of “Dramamine” to the dancy attitude of “Lampshades on Fire” from 2015’s Strangers to Ourselves. (For argument’s sake, I will admit here that Modest Mouse’s The Golden Casket released earlier this year was a much more psychedelic affair, and few songs are as radio-ready as Modest Mouse was on Good News for People Who Love Bad News or We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank.)

This sort of transition isn’t unusual in today’s space.

We’ve already mentioned Royal Blood’s evolution, but a similar transformation has taken place in Queens of the Stone Age’s discography. 

The band’s debut album was a fitting follow-up to Josh Homme’s days in Kyuss, offering plenty of fuzzed guitar fury. Today, I frequently summarize the band’s shift in sound by pointing out Villains (their 2017 album) starts with what is basically a dance song—”Feet Don’t Fail Me.”

While I’m not the biggest fan of this shift, I understand it. Professional musicians who’ve achieved spotlight status have a sort of twisted responsibility to follow the money. In Runnin’ With the Devil, former Van Halen manager Noel Monk describes the small armies that would follow the band around in order to make every show happen. 

If Van Halen suddenly stopped, those road crews would be out of work. In that sense, Van Halen supported entire families and communities every time they went on tour. 

But let’s start addressing some of the ideas thrown out above. Jack Black, for example, points to the cultural phenomenon of Nirvana. 

He’s right: There are few bands who have fundamentally changed the scene like Nirvana.  

But for every band making headlines, there’s another one influencing the underground. 

In the ‘90s, Kyuss and Sleep influenced legions of metalheads desperate for heavy, bass-drenched music, eventually becoming immortalized in the Stoner Rock and Doom communities.

Today, bands like Elder, Lowrider, Baroness, and Uncle Acid & The Deadbeats have received heaps of praise from fans and contemporaries—but you’ll likely never hear “I’ll Cut You Down” while flipping through radio stations on the way to your Uncle Jim’s cookout.

Does the simple fact that these bands aren’t selling millions of albums every year make them bad?

No. Not at all. They’re just underground.

And that’s completely OK—and it’s still enough of an opportunity for bands to sustain themselves, says Fireball Ministry guitarist Emily Burton: “There’s such a broad scope of accessible music now, and while Rock may not be forefront in the Pop/music mainstream or #1 with today’s youth, there is still a large market for it particularly within the Stoner/Doom underground. Given the shift from major label domination to a more DIY approach, bands do have the opportunity to sustain themselves with their music via direct album sales, the resurgence of collectible vinyl, and in the live realm. And isn’t live Rock where it’s really at anyway?” 

Why Rock Isn’t Dead

We’ve already given a few rebuttals up to this point, but let’s look at a few more reasons rock isn’t dead. 

1. Rock (obviously) still has tons of fans. To illustrate, check out this lineup for Hellfest 2022:

Hellfest 2022 Lineup
Source: Hellfest

At first glance, I’m reminded of Dan Flitcroft’s quote we mentioned above. Faith No More? Scorpions? Guns N’ Roses? Metallica? Deep Purple? Judas Priest? Alice Cooper? 

We’re talking about bands that peaked last century

This lineup is riddled with members of the old guard, and that’s often an indication that there’s no one from the new guard who can rightfully replace them. 

But Elder, Baroness, Red Fang, Witchcraft—these are (relatively) young bands currently taking the underground world by storm. 

Sure, they might not enjoy the commercial popularity that bands like Megadeth or Korn received in the past, but that’s also not the point: Rock might not be mainstream, but it is in good hands. 

Furthermore, people are still buying Rock music. Back in 2018, Statista showed Rock was the third most popular genre by album consumption. Not by charting singles—by album consumption. Rock fans are often a rabid bunch, and your typical Rock diehard enjoys listening to an entire album instead of a single song.

It’s not surprising, then, that Statista also found that Rock also ranked third in physical music sales in 2020 (behind Jazz and World music). Think about that for a second: Streaming was supposed to have killed off the Rock genre, but people are still buying physical records.

This is, no doubt, thanks in part to the resurgence of vinyl. As more and more people have turned to digital music over the past two decades, rebels have returned to vinyl as a way to once again physically connect with the music.

2. Rock might not be popular in the states, but it is elsewhere. This subgenre might not be incredibly popular in the U.S. at the moment, but Greece, Germany, Sweden, and other countries have thriving underground music scenes hungry for fuzzed-out guitars and heavy bass lines.

Sure, there are other popular genres in other locations, but like we’ve already covered: Finland has a metal band for children. 

3. The Rock community is alive and well in the underground. I speak here from experience. I started Monster Riff because of my love for Stoner Rock. At the time, I thought I was pretty up to speed with the subgenre. But the more I talk to new bands and musicians, the more I find outstanding players and hidden gems in the scene. 

Just check out YouTube, where 666MrDoom regularly shares new Rock/Metal music and is gradually closing in on 200,000 subscribers. 

And although we don’t like to support the channel because of its racist and sexist overtones, Stoned Meadow Of Doom at one point had more than 300,000 YouTube subscribers, a massive Facebook group, and even dabbled in live festivals. Stoned Meadow of Doom operated much like 666MrDoom (but with some nefarious business practices mixed in) by focusing on sharing new music from the underground scene.

I’ve also mentioned The Obelisk a few times so far on the Monster Riff Presents podcast. The Obelisk is a daily blog dedicated to the underground scene. For a genre that’s supposedly dead, founder JJ Koczan publishes new content every day, amassing more than 150,000 monthly views.

Anecdotally, I can tell you that I’ve personally thought about going full-time into Monster Riff (I dedicate about 7-14 hours to it each week) because there’s just so much to cover. I could easily keep myself busy just trying to keep up with the latest bands, gear, albums, festivals, live concerts, and everything else within the scene. 

Final Thoughts: What’s Next for Rock?

I remember sitting in the car as a kid and listening to the local “Pop” radio station. Without fail, I would hear a stream of Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam mixed into the R&B that permeated the ‘90s.

I don’t know if we’re headed back to that anytime soon. 

But I do know that style is cyclical; things that were popular a few decades ago may one day come back again (I first experienced this when bell-bottom jeans were the rage in the late ‘90s). A Rock resurgence could be in the cards.

Here’s why: It might be years until we have a new Nirvana or The Beatles, but their influence is still undeniable. Billie Eilish is famously a major fan of The Beatles, and although she doesn’t specialize in Rock, that’s still good news for the Rock community. 

If the old guard continues to influence the new guard, we may eventually see another Rock renaissance. The Pop/Hip-Hop pendulum just needs to swing in the other direction.

Until that happens, I’m happy to continue listening to the passionate musicians in the beautiful underground.

8 comments

  1. Excellent article, Pat! I’m not sure if Rock will ever be dominant commercially again but, like you’ve written, that doesn’t mean Rock is dead. There’s plenty of great Rock music being made today.

    I like to think of it like this: Rock basically started in the 50s/60s and replaced blues and jazz as the most popular genre. Rock isn’t dead, but maybe it’s just old. Music and culture changes over time. People still make blues and jazz music, but it’s not culturally relevant anymore. This (could) happen to Rock. Maybe 20 years from now Rock isn’t as culturally relevant, but like jazz and blues of today, there’s still an underground with many diehards.

    I also think it’s interesting to see how genres react to each other. I’ve noticed that some popular Hip-Hop and Pop acts have taken a page out of the Rock playbook – like Beyonce playing live with a full band behind her, or something like that. It goes back to what I was thinking about Rock’s emergence in the 50s. Initially, Rock blended several elements of blues, jazz, and R&B to create something entirely new. Now, perhaps, Rock (the old genre) is being subsumed into the newer, more dominant genres of Pop and Hip-Hop.

    This is all very academic, but it’s interesting!

    Also, I agree with Jack Black: Nirvana was probably the last Rock band that was an international phenomenon. There have been very popular Rock acts since then, but nothing on that scale. Will another band like Nirvana emerge one day? I don’t know; I hope so.

    Either way, I agree with you that Rock will never (completely) die!

    1. Thanks Nick! And yes, you’re absolutely right: There’s a huge conversation happening between genres (there always has been), and there’s a lot of influence from one genre to the next. I touch on that lightly, but it’s one of many things I didn’t dig down into all the way.

      1. Def! That’s just my theory. That’s all academic stuff, though. I don’t think most Doom fans are thinking about it before jumping into the mosh pit lol

    2. Rock is dead…Coldplay drove a stake through it’s heart at half time of the Superbowl a few years back. R.I.P.

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