Is rock music dead?

What happened to rock music? With pop and hip hop dominating the charts, it feels like the days of bands are over. Where is it? We study the state of the rock

It’s a debate on the tip of the tongue of music journalists and guitar-loving musos. Is rock music dead? Let’s explore what happened to rock music. Is he really out of breath or are we just not looking hard enough?

Accessible music technology

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

The end goal? To capture a moment of magic.

The analog recording method gave rock music its raw edge. But here we are today; sophisticated audio software resides in every recording studio.

A loose take is movable, ringing it in time, while auto-tuning hides characterful vocal nuances. The pristine brilliance of modern recordings is not conducive to a rock record.

“Cost and convenience make digital music creation the norm”

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

Nowadays, this is no longer a necessity. Programming drums on a computer is as easy as filling in cells on a spreadsheet, and voila, a drum beat. Only the discerning listener is aware that they are not listening to real live drums.

This technology 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 that means the energy of musicians working together is lacking.

While many argue the old ways are best, cost and convenience make digital music creation the norm, and ease of use suggests bands are going to die out.

Risk-averse record labels

Record companies don’t bet on rock music. They want safe bets. This usually means that they sign acts with many social media followers who will receive the big push from the media. Even if a rock band has a million followers.

There’s a lot of pressure to sanitize recordings to the auto-adjustment standard. In this way, the recordings fit the overproduced mainstream and are likely played on the radio.

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

Closure of rooms

Credit: Alain Hughes. Gwdihŵ in Cardiff was one of many concert halls that have closed over the past decade

Every rock band needs a stage, and we’re not talking about massive arenas, just small popular venues to learn their craft. Yet these places continue to close.

COVID was the final nail in the coffin for some popular music venues. When the UK reopened there was a glimmer of hope for survivors, but few could predict what was happening around the corner.

As energy prices soar, it’s harder than ever for smaller venues to break even, let alone turn a profit. In desperate attempts to stay open for business, venues are turning to tribute acts to stay afloat.

Tribute acts are not the problem, more a solution to help places stay open. However, in turn, there are fewer opportunities for original rock bands that have yet to develop.

New rock bands

Wait, surely UK’s favorite genre hasn’t been forgotten? Far from it, rock music flourished. There’s a disparity in sound between 1960s rock and 1970s rock, so it’s only natural that rock music in 2022, more than 50 years after the release of Led Zeppelin IVhas 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 feeling remains.

“Michael Kiwanuka mixes soul and rock while the Foals combine indie rock with elements of techno”

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

The truth is, new rock bands are out there, you just have to dig deeper. A search of online music blogs reveals a plethora of new alternative rock bands. It’s a simple case where they don’t get mainstream exposure.

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

The revival of vinyl

According to the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), in 2021 vinyl record sales reached five million. Not only is this an 8% increase over the previous year, but it is also the 14th consecutive year of growth.

Here is the kick. Of all those vinyl record sales, 60% belonged to the rock genre. Vinyl bestsellers of the year include Fleetwood Mac, Queen, Nirvana and Pink Floyd.

While cynics may point to nostalgia as the main inspiration for vinyl sales, it wasn’t just classics. Rock bands Mogwai, The Lanthums and The Snuts have all reached milestones. Each reached number one on the official album charts with new releases.

There is an undeniable statement in these numbers. Rock music is timeless and far from dead. In fact, it is more in demand than any other genre.

Music trends come and go

Arctic Monkeys' Alex Turner singing on a red-lit stageCredit: Kim Erlandsen, NRK P3, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Arctic Monkeys and Taylor Swift are set to battle it out for the top spot on the UK charts in October

At the 2014 Brit Awards, Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys took to the podium to collect an award and said: “This rock ‘n’ roll, it just won’t go away. It might hibernate once in a while and fall back into Marsh.”

He has a point. Music goes by trend, and maybe the last two decades have been a hibernation period for rock. But is the tide turning?

Sam Fender has announced a monumental homecoming show at St James’ Park next year. It sold out within minutes, as did the extra date. Now touts are selling tickets for eye-watering sums of money.

“It can hibernate from time to time and fall back into the swamp”

Wolf Alice shot their album blue weekend in February 2022, and all shows on the 18-date tour have sold out. Now they’re reviving Glastonbury and selling out shows in the US – even America can’t get enough of alternative rockers.

So even though trends come and go, there is always a demand for rock music. Nothing compares to the power of a rock show, and it will always inspire. Whether it’s the pounding of the drums, the growl of the bass, the cutting guitar solos, the lyrics or the charisma of the lead singer. There is a connection with the public.

Returning from a concert by Wolf Alice or any other rock act, a handful of spectators will have left the show forced to recreate rock music in the image of their idols. As Wolf Alice would have after hearing The Vines and Courtney Love, and so the cycle continues.

Someone, somewhere is creating rock music on the guitar right now, and it’s these musicians who will continue Britain’s long line of rock music production.

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

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

Read more: Who has won the Mercury Prize over the years?

Read more: What’s behind the British jazz revival?

Follow the best stories from Reader’s Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter