Rock is Dead

Is It Farewell to Guitar-Based Music?

It’s a question that is familiar with many music publications – always seeming to capture the zeitgeist of each generation. In the 70’s, many rock fans and critics lamented the death of ‘true’ rock n’ roll due to the emergence of disco. This also includes glam-rock which transformed into the theatrical hair metal of the 80’s. Then came the idea that rock music had again died a terrible death in the late 80’s when white kids learnt how to fight for their right to party. It’s a recurring theme. The 90’s with Kurt Cobain’s suicide. The mid-00’s with the amalgamation of pop-punk, emo, and post-hardcore. And finally as we reach nearly the end of the 10’s, rock music has been turfed out by rappers whose sonic palettes eschew mean, gun-toting screwfaces, in favour of tumblr-worthy aesthetics, and ultimately taking back control of a dated interpretation of black masculinity.

It would appear that rock’s obsession over authenticity is – as Auslander describes – “an essentialist concept”. Those artists that possess it know that it’s child’s play. Those without it are seen as contrived and ‘trying too hard’. It’s typical in both genres. Hip-hop may have had a problem with its ostentatious displays of wealth and overdone lyrics – but the repackaged images of dead-eyed indie boys and all-black clothed rockstars has become tiresome. It may explain then why Nielsen has reported that in 2017, hip-hop and R&B have overtaken rock as the ‘biggest’ music genre in the US for the first time ever since it started tracking music patterns back in 1992.

Of course it does have to be pointed out that rock music still dominates album sales with 40% of the US’s album physical and digital sales. Some of the biggest albums last year included Queens Of The Stone Age’s ‘Villains’ and Foo Fighter’s ‘Concrete and Gold’ – titans of the rock genre. The biggest selling per number, however, was Ed Sheeran’s ‘DIVIDE’ at 2.764 million units with 1.1 million coming from traditional album sales. For perspective, the traditional album sales of Taylor Swift’s ‘Reputation’ came in at 1.9 million.

Therein lies one of the few technical reasons as to why rock music is on a spiralling decline – how services are changing the way in which we access music. It makes sense since royalty-generating streaming services have made free models obsolete. They’ve also been influential in the music business: Ghazi Shami, founder of EMPIRE Distribution, realised that consumers were spending less money on music and more time on the internet. He expanded the company to champion artists based on relentless promotion (regardless of sales); press campaigns; and publishing administration. It’s success can be shown through Kendrick Lamar – distributed by EMPIRE and whose successes need not mentioning here.

As a consequence, Nielsen has included both streaming and traditional album sales into the total consumption of music sales. It could be that streaming service are more – pardon the pun – streamlined and thus more accessible for hip-hop than listening via a traditional album. Theoretically, the average music listener may wish to listen to a ‘rock’ album back to back – and equally – a ‘hip-hop’ album in fragments via different singles on streaming services. Or, it could be because streaming is free – to a point. Although streaming services have gained the seal of approval with 65 million paying subscribers, how many of you have pirated music via Youtube, rather than purchase a physical copy of a CD or a vinyl? For example, YouGov has found that it’s not millennials driving the vinyl resurgence but rather mid-life nostalgia from older music obsessives, purchasing records that are already have cultural capital: think Pink Floyd, The Beatles or The Doors. Nielsen fails to take into account the units purchased of smaller, up-and-coming bands that rock often romanticises.

Perhaps then the argument typical of the rock vs hip-hop debate, that there is more sales within hip-hop than rock, is due to cultural attitudes within each genre. Rock musicians still expect to be signed by a label, independent or major, and consequently make a profit from the album/single sales and touring. It may be various structural factors, too. YouTube have threatened to take down videos from independent labels who don’t agree to YouTube’s terms, while Coachella will feature no closing rock acts but instead host Beyonce, Eminem and The Weeknd. Of course Coachella is not exactly a beacon of rock music, but it does provide some insight into the cultural hegemony of hip-hop.

A further reason may come from how rock/metal merchandise has often been the same-old all-black with not much imagination in terms of design. Hip-hop, on the other hand, has recognised that while it’s possible to make money from record sales, there’s lucrative profits to be made in touring and clothing. Fashion and hip-hop go hand in hand, that’s without a doubt if you look back at the Run DMC x Adidas collaboration. In more recent times, hip-hop artists has been creating one-of-a-kind designs that are high quality and limited to go with their tour merchandise. Rappers such as Chance The Rapper have mentioned they give away their music for free and make money from touring and selling merchandise. While it is true that music should be at the heart of every artist’s endeavour, the rise of globalised media communications, especially social media sites such as Instagram, give artists more of a relationship with their fans. This is even more pertinent since Instagram’s reliance on ‘the image’ gives access to a more organic creative space, which hip-hop, in comparison to rock, has actively – and encouraged others – to engage with.

This innovation is apparent within hip-hop music compared to rock. Take for example, the video of Rae Sremmurd’s ‘Black Beatles’ that fuses both rock and hip-hop imagery. Or how the musicality of hip-hop has gone from rehashing soul samples via Kanye West’s ‘Graduation’ to becoming more aggressive and bleak, reflected in artists such as Travis Scott’s ‘Flame’ or Kodak Black’s ‘Painting Black’. Many newer hip-hop artists are adopting rock aesthetics, most notably Lil Uzi Vert whose video and song ‘XO Tour Llif3′ subverts emo imagery. Hip-hop then, has borrowed many tropes that defines ‘stale-white-male’ guitar music – heartbreak; nihilism; and much sadness.

Also, let us not forget how hip-hop has come forward in terms of social commentary compared to rock music in recent years. The Black Lives Matter movement adopted Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’ as the definitive anthem of protest while the LGBT community have Frank Ocean; Princess Nokia; and Mykki Blanco. Rock music continues to hold the torch of protest music with bands such as Rise Against!, yet this torch will be quickly put out if the genre does not keep up with the freshness of pace that is found within hip-hop. It needs a new Rage Against The Machine. It might explain why Trump supporters, on the whole, prefer to listen to rock. Clinton, or more socially progressive, voters prefer to listen to a diverse range of music including hip-hop.

Yet, there’s an obvious reason why rock music is on a decline: the categorisation. Can we really consider a band or artist as rock purely on the basis that they play a guitar? If so, Ed Sheeran must therefore be a rock artist. Or rather, can we consider an artist to be ‘rock’ if they play a guitar in a certain musical arrangement, with certain chords, and a certain mood? If so, then Kid Cudi’s 2015 album ‘Speedin’ Bullet 2 Heaven’ must be a contender. And what is hip-hop anyway? Kendrick Lamar’s ‘TPAB’ sounds vastly different to 21 Savage x Offset x Metro Boomin’s ‘Without Warning’, which sounds vastly different to A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Midnight Marauders’. Can we consider Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ or Rihanna’s ‘ANTI’ to fuse pop sensibilities with hip-hop? Finally, how do we categorise musicians such as Cosmo Pyke who are innovating rock/indie by investing in jazzy undertones and alternative hip-hop?

The question, then, is not necessarily rock vs hip-hop, but rather, how we conceive of genre. Artists are actively blurring the boundaries of genres as a result of our post-materialist world, which favour autonomy and self-expression over physical individual values. But it has been undoubtedly hip-hop that has continued music’s evolution. And while we may not be listening to musical anarchy just yet, since genres of music can’t necessarily “die”, rock music needs to reformulate itself quickly before being eaten up by hip-hop.