Is Rock Music Dead? Not If You’re Really Listening
Every year, critics and so-called experts ask: is rock music dead? Not with a new breed of young talents aiming for legendary status.
Is rock music dead? Every year, it seems, the mainstream music media sounds the death knell for rock. “Rock Is Dead. Thank God” scream the headlines. “Rock’n’Roll Is Dead. No, Really This Time” say those who cry wolf. And year after year, the same examples are held up to support these claims, without any conclusion ever being drawn to the point in question.
First the classic artists will be discussed. They’re not getting any younger, but even though they’re still big draws at the box office, they obviously won’t be around forever. Then the conversation will turn to more current rock acts who can easily draw a crowd. And yet, though the young hopefuls may be capable of filling arenas on their own – be they Queens Of The Stone Age, Black Stone Cherry or Twenty One Pilots – it’s left undecided as to whether they have what it takes to reach the lofty heights of Festival Headliner.
What the “experts” say
Sometimes pundits will get involved. Industry “experts” will add their thoughts and opinions on whether rock music is dead in an attempt to add some weight to the discussion. Then the musicians wade in, explaining how rock bands are regurgitating the same old clichéd riffs and tired ideas, often in an attempt to promote their own clichéd riffs and tired ideas; after all, aren’t they the very people in a position to change the ship’s course and steer away from the oncoming iceberg?
But then, in 2017, music changed. A study conducted by Nielsen in the US concluded that hip-hop and R&B overtook rock as the most-consumed genre for the first time ever. Taking into consideration album sales, downloads and audio/video streams, only two non-hip-hop or R&B artists featured in the entire Top 10 (Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift), while those genres have also been cited as a factor in the rise of on-demand streaming services in the US.
The report also found that Metallica were 2017’s best-performing rock artists, off the back of their 2016 release of Hardwired… To Self-Destruct, and a slew of revamped, repackaged, and expanded reissues, including the thrash classics, Ride The Lightning and Master Of Puppets; a re-selling of their back catalog to capitalize on their longevity, perhaps. For it is, of course, in album sales that rock truly reigns.
Michael Jackson still holds the top spot for the biggest selling non-compilation album of all time in Thriller, with around 66 million claimed in sales. However, other albums that have exceeded sales of 40 million include Eagles with Their Greatest Hits (1971-75) and Hotel California, AC/DC’s Back In Black, Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon, Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell, and Rumours by Fleetwood Mac, with Whitney Houston and the Bee Gees as the only other artists to have an album whose sales have exceeded 40 million.
Dig a little deeper
But, every one of those rock-specific albums was released in the 70s, which has given them more than 40 years to rack up the numbers. And with record sales in free fall, and chart numbers bolstered by streaming data and radio airplay, things start to look bleak for rock music. Dig a little deeper, however, and there are rumblings coming from the underground that suggest the old dog’s heart is still beating strong.
Take Imagine Dragons. In August of 2018, the Las Vegas-based quartet became the first band in chart history to occupy the top four spots on Billboard’s Hot Rock Songs chart. And that was no mere flash in the pan. Their most recent single, “Natural,” entered the chart at No.4, behind its preceding three singles – “Thunder,” “Whatever It Takes” and “Believer,” all from the band’s latest album, Evolve – each having spent 22, 17 and 29 weeks at No.1, respectively.
Theirs has been a slow-burning path to success. Formed when frontman Dan Reynolds met drummer Andrew Tolman while attending Utah’s Brigham Young University in 2008, the pair hooked up with guitarist Wayne Sermon and bassist Ben McKee and released a trio of EPs from 2009 before the big time beckoned in 2011. But it wasn’t until 2014 that the electro-rockers really came to prominence, when they won the Grammy for Best Rock performance after breakthrough hit, “Radioactive,” spent a massive 18 months hovering around the Billboard Hot 100.
Now with three albums to their credit, Imagine Dragons sit somewhere between rock, electro-pop, and R&B. Some might argue whether their often poppy sound is a worthy successor to rock’s biggest legends. But then rock always had one foot in the world of synthesizers and an urge to explore a more radio-friendly sound, much like Bon Jovi, who regularly troubled the top end of the singles charts in the mid-to-late 80s, and U2, who were never afraid of experimenting with more synth-centric pop sounds. It’s a path that could even be traced back to The Beatles, whose influences knew no bounds as their career took them from the Merseybeat rock of “Love Me Do” through to the oddball “I Am The Walrus” and the hard-hitting “Back In The USSR.”
Whether you want to call Imagine Dragons’ hybrid sound rock or not, it’s nevertheless taken them to arenas all over the world. And despite the detachment fans can feel with bands in large venues, their music is still capable of connecting with the listener on a personal level. It’s perhaps that level of relatability that will make the Nevada rockers a long-term prospect. After all, it’s surely the slow burners who last the longest.
For something with a bit more grit, Tyler Bryant &And The Shakedown call to mind a period in the early to mid-00s, when garage-rockers the likes of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club were deemed to be rock’s great saviors. Bringing a swagger evocative of their adoptive home of Nashville, Tennessee, Bryant, and his gang certainly have a pedigree, as well as a career trajectory, that suggests they have staying power.
Bryant knew he was destined for rock greatness when he picked up the guitar at the age of six, learning his chops from mentor and seasoned blues veteran Roosevelt Twitty. An early bloomer, the young Bryant’s talent was spotted by guitar legend Eric Clapton, who, in 2007, invited the 15-year-old to play his Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago.
The Shakedown was formed when, at 17, Bryant relocated from his native Honey Grove, Texas, to Nashville. Within a week the singer/guitarist met drummer Caleb Crosby and, hitting it off, formed the basis of their current band. After meeting guitarist Graham Whitford – son of Aerosmith guitarist Brad – they convinced him to relocate from his native Boston, before Noah Denney joined their ranks on bass.
With their heady mix of Southern, blues, and roots rock, Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown are building their fanbase the old-fashioned way: through relentless touring. Since their live debut supporting REO Speedwagon in Amarillio, the band are scarcely off the road, and have shared stages with the likes of AC/DC, Aerosmith, BB King, Jeff Beck and ZZ Top, as well as select dates on Guns N’ Roses’ Not In This Lifetime… tour. This is a band who are aligning themselves with hard rock greatness and has the chops to ride along with them.
But whereas bands such as Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown fit a particular mold, other groups are a complete anomaly; one such band is Broken Witt Rebels. A cursory listen to their self-titled debut album conjures up vivid images of southern-states landscapes, whereas opening track “Loose Change” would be the perfect soundtrack for a dive bar in Nashville. “Shake Me Down,” meanwhile, has a soft Southern groove that surely could only be a product of having grown up in the likes of Georgia or Mississippi.
Indeed, the lyrics only serve to reinforce this image. Take “Snake Eyes” as an example: “Here in the south/Where the river runs dry/I’m gonna hang from the noose, baby/If you tell me no lie.” There’s an unwritten rule of geography that dictates there’s no other place these blues rockers could be from, right? So it might surprise people to learn that frontman Danny Core is a painter and decorator from Birmingham, England.
Formed in 2013, Broken Witt Rebels refer to themselves as a band of brothers. In fact, Core and bassist Luke Davis have been friends since before primary school and formed the band while working together as decorators. But more than just the Southern rock’n’roll vibe, guitarist James Tranter brought in blues and hard rock influences, as well as a strong mainstream sensibility through his love of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Oasis – the very artists who inspired him to take a first-class honors degree studying music at university.
But there’s more depth to these Midland rockers than mere sounds. They have a soulful vibe, too, and that’s a quality that can’t be replicated by mere copycats. Soul can’t be learned from a sheet of music, it’s something that comes from within. And another thing that comes from inside is this band’s dogged determination to hit the big time, so much so that they’ve quit their day jobs to hit the road – the one place they’re guaranteed to get their name and music heard.
But just how good are they? If the band are to be believed, they’re fantastic. Yet it’s a claim they make without a hint of ego or arrogance. It’s the assertion of a band who know they’re onto something good and who have the bravado to back it up by putting in the work and proving it with endless touring… Well, that’s when they’re not satisfying their insatiable desire to make music; they’ve wrapped up recording on album number two less than a year after the release of their debut. There may be a huge disconnect between their lads-on-tour look and the music they play, but that can only mean it comes from that place music is supposed to come from: the heart. And with a commercial sensibility that calls to mind Kings Of Leon, who would bet against a similar success?
Born to do it
If commercial sensibility is a measure of greatness, there are some who have a flair for songwriting that seems to come naturally. One such person is Nashville-born Jaren Johnston, who, when he’s not penning hit singles for the likes of country superstars Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, and Jake Owen, fronts The Cadillac Three. Being the son of a musician – Jerry Ray Johnston, drummer of 80s country group Bandana – you could say he was born to do it.
Johnston’s own career started in the band American Bang. Signed to Warners, the group had moderate success with two studio albums and a single, “Wild And Young,” that went as far as bothering the charts. When the band went their separate ways, Johnston got together with his high-school friends and fellow American Bang members Kelby Ray and Neil Mason to form what would become The Cadillac Three. And with two high-profile songwriters in their ranks – Mason’s credits include tracks for Jake Owen, Kelly Clarkson, and Rascal Flatts – the music started to flow.
For The Cadillac Three, country and Southern rock fit together like a foot in a cowboy boot. The result is as potent as the whiskey-on-the-porch vibes that permeate through their songs’ storytelling. There’s not a lot of deviation from Southern rock’s holy trinity (that’s whiskey, women and being from the South), but it’s like the familiarity of pulling on an old pair of jeans: it’s a style staple that’s been around for decades and it’s just so darn comfortable.
Like a revamped Lynyrd Skynyrd or Allman Brothers Band for the 21st century, The Cadillac Three think nothing of playing back-to-back gigs while criss-crossing the Atlantic. It was in 2015 that they played a show stateside on the Friday, before jetting off to the UK’s Download Festival for a slot on the Saturday. No sooner had they finished their set, they were on their way back to the US for another festival on the Sunday.
They’re not reinventing rock’n’roll, but if it isn’t broken then why try to fix it? Kelby Ray claims the honesty in their music is their biggest draw, connecting the band with their fans. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and, after all, isn’t rock’n’roll supposed to be about having a good time all the time?
With their latest album, Legacy, as the title might suggest, they’re approaching their music in terms of what they’ll leave behind and what they’ll be remembered for. And with two highly successful songwriters in their ranks, The Cadillac Three get to cherry-pick the best of their output. In fact, the title track was originally earmarked as a pitch to Tim McGraw and Faith Hill or Eric Church, until Mason heard it and suggested they work on it as their own. It just felt right. Being in a position where The Cadillac Three can seemingly churn out smash hits at will, the sky is surely the limit for their own success.
But where whiskey goes hand in hand with good-time Southern rock, it can be a demon for many musicians. Rich Moss thought his musical career was over after the death of a former bandmate who struggled with an addiction to alcohol. But once you’ve been bitten by the rock’n’roll bug it can be a hard feeling to shake. After four years away from the scene, Moss formed Stone Broken in 2013.
The first song he wrote with his new bandmates, guitarist Chris Davis, bassist Kieron Conroy and drummer Robyn Haycock, was called “This Life,” and it served as the Midlands band’s MO. “It’s about taking what you’re good at and using it as a vehicle to move forward, because you only have one shot at life,” says Moss. “We all came into this band a lot more mature and with a greater understanding of the industry, and we agreed between us there should be no half-measures.”
Following the release of their debut album, All In Time, rock radio stations were falling over themselves to playlist Stone Broke’s anthemic hard rock with its big riffs and even bigger choruses. And whereas The Cadillac Three struggle to get any radio play, it seems Stone Broken has hit on a sound that was primed for it. It’s the path that Def Leppard trod in the 80s with Pyromania and Hysteria. And now here, 35-odd years later, is another British hard rock band unashamed to flirt with commercial appeal.
Stone Broken’s second album, Ain’t Always Easy, is jammed full of pile-driving riffs and massive choruses. It’s a band that sounds confident in who they are and what they want to achieve: they’re aiming for arenas, just like the bands who inspire them such as Black Stone Cherry and Alter Bridge. And songs the likes of “Worth Fighting For,” “Let Me See It All” and “I Believe” could almost be calls to action, reminding the band themselves what they’re here for and where they’re headed next. They already have tunes and riffs big enough to fill arenas, which is half the battle.
Aiming for legendary status
Where some bands align themselves with contemporary artists to set their markers, others are purely aiming for legendary status. If Greta Van Fleet has yet to find their way onto the mainstream’s radar, judging by the waves they’re currently making it won’t be long before everyone’s talking about them.
Formed by three brothers, twins Josh and Jake Kiszka, on vocals and guitar, respectively, and bassist Sam Kiszka in 2012, they were joined by drummer and lifelong friend Danny Wagner the following year. Though an early track by the Michigan hard rockers was used on a local Chevy commercial, the real buzz didn’t start until 2017. The first ripples were created when the track “Highway Tune” was used in the US version of the TV comedy-drama series Shameless, in January of 2016. Momentum gathered a year later when the track was released on iTunes and Apple Music named Greta Van Fleet artist of the week. That’s when the floodgates opened. By the end of the year, they were winning awards and opened a show for legendary rocker Bob Seger. And that’s not to mention the debut tour that completely sold out in five minutes.
So let’s get the obvious out of the way: vocalist Josh does sound uncannily like Robert Plant, to the point the Led Zeppelin singer has acknowledged the similarities himself. But many have tried to emulate the legendary frontman in the past and just as many have failed. For Josh, however, it’s more that it just happens to be the sound his lungs push out whenever he opens his mouth to sing. And while the young quartet won’t deny a fondness of the British rockers, they are at pains to make it known that their influences reach far beyond just one band.
Having been raised on a steady diet of vinyl, it’s unsurprising that Greta Van Fleet’s sound takes in many artists from the 60s and 70s, and that those artists are almost entirely rock and blues acts. And yet, though their main inspirations include the likes of The Who, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Janis Joplin, John Lee Hooker, and Muddy Waters, they never set out to become a rock’n’roll band. Playing from the heart rather than their minds, rock’n’roll is the product of the natural chemistry between the four musicians.
Though Greta Van Fleet is yet to release their debut album (so far they have only released the double-EP, From The Fires), they are nonetheless setting a high standard for themselves. Certain bands are renowned for releasing indelible first albums, with Greta Van Fleet naming those artists like Van Halen, The Black Crowes, and Led Zeppelin. It’s a feat the young band wants to follow, and are itching to release a debut album that no one is going to forget in a hurry.
With little in the way of fanfare, this little band from the small town of Frankenmuth, Michigan is currently making a big noise in rock circles. Greta Van Fleet made their UK live debut at the Black Heart in Camden – a tiny pub tucked away in a back alley – in September of 2017. And yet, with no fuss or bluster, and more than a month prior to the release of their debut album, Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, the young rockers have already sold out two nights at the Kentish Town Forum in November 2019. A third night was added, with a slew of other UK dates not far behind.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Greta Van Fleet, however, is that they’re aged just 19 (Sam and Danny) and 22 (the twins) years old. Not that age is a handicap, but it means that, with a lot of growing still to do, it’s impossible to predict where they might end up given the benefit of time and experience. Could they actually be the saviors of rock that the media, and, indeed, festival promoters, are so desperate to find? Come what may, if history is any indication, there will be a lot more than the Black Heart’s capacity of 100 claiming to have seen Greta Van Fleet’s first-ever UK show.
Is rock music dead?… Pay attention!
With album sales seeing a steady decline in recent years, it may stand that Michael Jackson will never lose the accolade of biggest-selling album of all time. And hip-hop and R&B can have their day in the sun when it comes to streaming and radio airplay, for it’s in the live arena that rock music still reigns supreme. In 2017, Guns N’ Roses earned almost half a billion dollars for their Not In This Lifetime… tour. That’s the fourth-highest grossing tour of all time behind other rock giants Coldplay, The Rolling Stones and U2.
At the end of it all, rock is music’s greatest survivor and has weathered the storm of changing trends for around seven decades. Legends weren’t born overnight and, as hard as it is to believe now, there was a world before the likes of Led Zeppelin, The Who, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Black Sabbath, et al. They were all unknown bands to start with, and it’s only through time – and their timelessness – that they’ve earned such enduring appeal. Rock music lives on in spite of cultural trends, which is exactly what all of the above bands exist to rebel against. Will any of them be headlining festivals in 2028? If only we had a time machine to find out.
Listen to the best rock songs on Spotify.
October 1, 2018 at 2:41 pm
October 1, 2018 at 3:40 pm
Apparently only derivative and mediocre bands can save rock n’ roll.
October 18, 2018 at 5:07 am
Kyle B, if I could upvote this comment a million times I would.
Article starts out lampshading how every “Rock is Dead” article begins with cliched tropes, then doesn’t actually address those articles points, and then it proceeds to fall into it’s own “Rock’s still alive!” cliches. It just names a bunch of mediocre bands of moderate notereity who have identical sounding roots rock sounds with one post grunge band thrown in for good measure. *They’re* gonna save rock?
It’s just more evidence the genre is in its dork age.
June 14, 2019 at 2:55 am
My thoughts exactly.
October 1, 2018 at 2:42 pm
Rock N Roll creative hights was from,1955 to 1975. It’s been on a redundant creative front, since then.
March 1, 2021 at 2:12 am
I don’t like to tell someone they’re wrong but I’m sorry I have to say you’re wrong on this. I’ll use my favorite band, Rush as an example. They were just getting going around the time you said creativity was ending. Rush was creative on every album all the way to the last. Queens Of The Stone Age aren’t creative? Nirvana, The Replacements, Husker Du weren’t creative? Foo Fighters are still turning out material that makes you say, “WOW!” I could go on but I have better things to do.
October 1, 2018 at 3:52 pm
Only to close minded Spotify people. There are tons of great rock out there, you have to find it. Inglorious, Dream Child, Gygax, Jason Richardson, Rival Sons, Black Spiders, Quaker City Night Hawks, Sheepdogs, Saxon. Judas Priest is still around.
J Patrick P
October 1, 2018 at 7:47 pm
If that rubbish is going to save RnR it might as well be dead.
October 1, 2018 at 8:52 pm
Listen to Manic Street Preachers you’ll soon hear that Rock is very much alive and kicking.
October 2, 2018 at 12:40 am
I will do that Jackie
October 2, 2018 at 7:12 am
Highly Suspect steps on the neck of Greta Van Fleet, and Imagine Testicles but doesnt get mentioned?
October 2, 2018 at 12:13 pm
Yup. You just confirm what I feel about rock music, and I still love it and listen to it. But it hit a creative dead end some time around 1977. Since then some talented musicians have pulled into that dead end, but they’ve got nowhere to go. Musical innovation now comes from genres such as jazz, electronica and hip-hop, and there are signs that hip-hop is running out of creative energy.
October 2, 2018 at 6:03 pm
How can one leave out Mark Knopfler. He is one of the greatest rock stars alive (and ever). Heis so consistent over 40 years and his varied music is so tasteful.
October 2, 2018 at 7:48 pm
I think today’s music has known heart and soul like the music I grew up with from the 60s and 70s and even the 80s that was the best of the hard rock. I love the old hard rock the kids today have know idill what real rock is about. I ask someone to play me some ZZ top and then they ask me who. Rock is not dead it’s that today kids have not been tune on to all of the great old hard rock from the good old days.
October 7, 2018 at 1:12 pm
Not surprisingly a lot of musicians have long since retired or died. Rock music isn’t dead, it is alive and thriving, albeit not on a scale as it was during the 70’s and 80’s.
As mentioned in the article the lack of radio air play has hit the genre hard. With the loss of great pioneers such as Alan Fluff Freeman, Tommy Vance, and John Peel the amount of listeners plummeted, and with Radio One’s insistence on not playing anything over 5 years old also stabbed another nail into the coffin that just wont shut.
There is a lot of rock bands out there on the small gig circuit, all of which are desperately trying to get that big break.
Sadly thee days, a lot of broadcast music is limited to DAB frequencies. And even then they are not all available on just one broadcast.network, with DAB being split into DAB and DAB+.
One day it will rise in popularity again. But as it stands I am happy with where it is at.
October 8, 2018 at 5:35 pm
Yes, Rock & Roll has died in the mainstream. But isn’t that good thing? Rock & Roll started as an underground revolution of rebellion. I was born in ’61 so I’ve had the privilege of growing up listening to the greatest bands of all time. I hear people bitch about today’s rock music. Let it go. R&R is almost 70 years old and you only have 7 chords to work with!! Just be glad there are still kids out there trying. I, for one praise and encourage any kid who wants to play Rock & Roll, to go for it. Just do it from the heart and not for the money. If the money comes that’s O.K. too. Rock ‘n’ Roll FOREVER!
October 25, 2018 at 3:09 am
Spoon? Your research skills are weak.
October 31, 2018 at 2:23 pm
Rock is only “dead” because of the way things are now reported. On sales (actual physical sales) most of the hip hop stuff in the US charts especially would be nowhere, it’s only because of streaming that they chart so high. Basically – rock sells, hip hop/pop/edm streams. When Spotify goes bust, which it will because it’s an unsustainable business model, the level of distortion will be minimised.
June 14, 2019 at 3:39 am
Uhh, ive played guitar for almost 20 years and while ive accepted im probably not going to reignite the fire of quality impactful meaningful music i also know that none of the pitiful carnival bands listed here will either. They arent even in the ballpark of good memorable music. This was more of a list proving rock is dead and i mean that with all my heart. With each mention more doom filled my spirit and forced out the last bit of denial. The problem isn’t a lack of quality music, its a lack of quality musicians, which is due to a lack of quality people. Winning a tv show doesnt make you a quality musician, nor does playing your instrument so fast that nobody can follow along who isnt a musician. Musics purpose has changed from a way to express ourselves into a sport, and platform to record your speech impediment while you mumble about drugs and being an over all dump POS sub human. In the 90s and 00s every genre of music had an abundance of epic music Rock including its 10.000 sub genres, Rap , Hip Hop which had artists that were all completely different and unique from one another , R&B etc. etc. etc.. Then the 2010’s hit and yes Rock died, so did all other music. We still make music but only to fill a void and ease the transition into a world where music isnt something thats enjoyed but something that is tolerated. I dont know about anyone else but im really sick of watching people pretend that music is still inspiring and enjoyable. Maybe if these morons would stop being in denial we could pick up the pieces an start fresh. Sure we still have the bands from 20 years ago and some are still making new music but that wont last forever.
August 18, 2019 at 7:10 am
Queen are – and have been for a long time – the most streamed legacy act on Spotify, beating The Beatles and Wacko by a long way.
August 12, 2020 at 4:40 am
Rock is dead..there are no more places for up and coming bands to play..there are no radio stations with their own playlists anymore..they have been gobbled up by corporations that force the brainless pop/rap/whatever garbage of today.Niki Minaj..Swift,,Bieber..even rap sucks big time.When Imagine Dragons is listed as a rock band..you know rock is dead.Nobody has an image or a stance anymore..lest they risk offending someone..with todays overly sensitive culture..rock must be polite and tow the line..so yes rock is dead..if it’s afraid to speak it’s mind without worrying about being politically correct..then it’s dead..me..I’ll keep Guns and Roses Appetite for Destruction and Lies on over and over again.
August 12, 2020 at 5:40 am
In citing modern rock bands, the article cited twenty One Pilots and Imagine Dragons. If those are rock bands, then who is the guitarist for either band? Who is the drummer, the keyboardist, the bassist? No one would ask you what’s your favorite Twenty One Pilots riff? Whoever wrote this article should be embarrassed.
December 17, 2020 at 1:41 am
Not remotely convincing. Rock music is not dead, but it sure is mediocre at best. These bands you mentioned, let’s do a list of great rock bands through the yeare. Something tells me they dont get an honorable mention.