2017’s Biggest Music Takeaway: Rock Music’s Last Rites?

Rock music may not be not dead…but its prognosis is pretty grim.

As 2017 drew to a quick close, there were several reminders this past year that – as far as being the exciting, cutting edge and predominant force it used to be – the rock music genre has been on life support for a long time.

Imagine Dragons had two of the four rock songs that finished among 2017’s 100 biggest hit singles.

Now that’s nothing new in the 2010s.  For several years, rock’s purists have lamented the state of affairs for what historically has been popular music’s most resilient, most lucrative music genre as they’ve watched its market shares continue to decline and the number of new household names in the rock genre have dwindled to a mere handful.

It is indeed a far cry from, say, the 1960s and ‘70s, when new and iconic rock acts were pouring out of the woodwork seemingly weekly with music that was loud, raucous, at times countercultural and usually  innovative.

But 2017 also saw some fresh symptoms of rock’s impending demise emerge, and they couldn’t be more dire in spelling doom for the genre that has dominated modern popular music since 1955.

Consider the following:

1. Rock music fell to second place in consumption percentage behind hip-hop/R&B in Nielsen Music’s 2017 mid-year sales reports.  For the first time, more people purchased – by way of combined streaming, paid downloads and physical sales – hip-hop and R&B music (25.1%) than rock and roll (23%). Second-half statistics for 2017 have yet to be released, but it would be surprising if the story changed.  The two biggest hits in the U.S. since July were both by rappers – Cardi B and Post Malone – with hip-hop owning a significant percentage of the remaining upper part of the singles charts in the past six months.

2. When Billboard released its year-end list of the 100 biggest hits on its weekly flagship singles chart, the Hot 100, only four of the songs on the list fit squarely into rock or any of its sub-genres.  Two of those were by one act: Imagine Dragons.  This continues a disturbing trend for rock, which has seen as few as three songs populate the year-end list in recent years.

3. By contrast, at least 40 of the songs on 2017’s year-end list were either by or featured a hip-hop or R&B artist.  That includes all three songs by Maroon 5, which counted as a pop band for the purposes of this article. Maroon 5 teamed up with rappers Kendrick Lamar, Future and R&B singer SZA for their three biggest hits of ‘17.

4. When this year’s Grammy nominees were announced, the “big four” categories (Best Song, Best Record, Best Album and Best New Artist) were dominated – for the first time – by hip-hop/R&B artists.  The rock genre was completely shut out of those marquee awards.  As the music industry’s most élite of honors, the Grammy Awards have rarely  been considered a legit  barometer of the greatest accomplishments in rock music, with NARAS traditionally recognizing some of the greatest rock musicians many years after their most creative periods have passed.  Still, this year’s list of nominees in the general field is as notable for R&B and hip-hop’s dominance as it is for rock’s absence.

5. Eight of 2017’s ten biggest-selling albums were of the hip-hop variety, according to Billboard, including Kendrick Lamar’s year-end No. 1 title, DAMN.  The highest-ranking rock album on that tally: Metallica’s Hardwired…To Self-Destruct, at No. 12.

Current hip-hop king Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN was the top album on Billboard’s 2017 recap.

Actually, with numbers like those, industry trade publications and others who chronicle these things could make a strong case that we are no longer in the “rock and roll era” of modern music, but the “hip-hop era”…and that we have been for several years now.

Metallica’s latest album, Hardwired…To Self-Destruct, was the biggest-selling rock album of 2017, but ranked 12th overall.

It’s not that rock musicians aren’t still making music, clearly they are.  But as it now stands, rock is fast becoming a niche genre, at worst, or an exclusive platform for older, more respected “heritage” rockers at best.

After all, aside from a few notable exceptions, rock’s best ambassadors seem to be those that have charted for more than fifteen years, many of whom have packed large concert venues for decades.

Consider these names from Billboard’s ranking of the 50 biggest rock acts of 2017 (based on album sales, song/album streaming, downloads and concert box-office receipts): Linkin Park, Metallica, Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Coldplay, John Mayer, Guns N’ Roses, U2, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, Queen, Fleetwood Mac, Green Day, Journey, Depeche Mode, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Billy Joel, Elton John, Eagles, Roger Waters, Bon Jovi, Fall Out Boy, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Nickelback and Sting.

That’s 27 out of the 50 top “rock” acts of 2017 that’ve been charting for at least 15 years, several as long as 40 or 50 years.

Conversely, the ten highest-ranking newer artists on this year’s list were Imagine Dragons, twenty one pilots, Portugal. The Man, The Lumineers, X Ambassadors, Panic! At The Disco, The Revivalists, Gorillaz, Fitz And The Tantrums and Rag ‘n’ Bone Man.  And several of these artists  have significantly blurred the lines between rock and other genres, including hip-hop and R&B.

Along with other newer artists like Arcade Fire, Kaleo and LCD Soundsystem, several of these rock musicians have put out promising music in recent years and had commendable success in 2017.  But they’ve got a long way to go to be at the same level as their iconic rock music forefathers.  To expect them to carry a whole genre back to its former prominence would be a stretch goal at best.

Arcade Fire had one of the critically acclaimed new alternative rock albums of 2017.

But rock music still had a lifeline in 2017…in the form of those aforementioned concert touring receipts.

Heritage artists like Paul McCartney, Billy Joel, U2, Metallica and Tom Petty (before he died) were still huge concert draws this past year, and there’s nothing to suggest that artists like those won’t continue to make rock the biggest money-maker when it comes to live-show box office receipts.

But who will take up the slack when those older artists retire from performing live?  Newer headliners such as Imagine Dragons and twenty one pilots are arguably in their primes commercially yet they still play smaller venues, with attendance averaging in the 10k -12k range, versus the 40k-plus that the Metallicas, Billy Joels and Paul McCartneys of the world can (still!) draw.  It’s hard to imagine that, say 30 years from now, there will be as many rockers approaching their 60s and 70s who are filling the types of venues that artists who first emerged in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s are playing today.

But who knows?  As we’ve seen in the past, these things are cyclical.  After all, disco was declared “dead” nearly 40 years ago and yet its had many lives since then in the form of various forms of dance music in the ‘80s, ‘90s and especially today (EDM anyone?).

As we flip the calendar to 2018, it may be too early to pull the plug on the very resilient rock or its many sub-genres.  But rock music’s situation isn’t looking too good today.

And as hip-hop continues its current path to omnipresence and consumer dominance, there doesn’t appear to be a light at the end of rock’s long dark tunnel.

And the hip-hop era continues…