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Why Did Rock Music Decline and Can It Make a Comeback?

Updated on October 30, 2016

There was a time when rock was the dominant form of popular music. The decline of rock apparently began in the mid 1960s. By the 1970s, disco had taken over. However, rock still remained a force until the late 1990s. By the 2000s, pop rock was for the most part the only form of the rock that was charting high on the Billboard Hot 100. Pop rock even struggled between about 2009 to 2011 when dance and electro music largely took over pop radio.

Now, pop radio has radically changed again and pop rock has made a comeback. Electro-rock band Imagine Dragons and pop punk band Fallout Boy are enjoying success on both alternative and pop radio. Indie, folk, and country inspired music are enjoying pop success as are R&B and funk.

With pop radio embracing more diverse forms of music including pop rock and electro-rock, is there a chance for the guitar driven rock similar to what was popular in the 60's and 70's to make a comeback as well?

Simplistic Arguments for the Decline of Rock

I found a forum that asked the question of why rock is in decline. These are samples of some responses.

Music for youth is now about the packaging and the presentation-not the music.

Today's 'stars' are nothing more than video created characters that rely too much on flashing lights, back up dancers, video editing to make them look like they're actually singing and much much more.

its all about making lots of money now

Except image has always been important in music. Rock legends like The Beatles and Elvis Presley were very well packaged. Bands from decades ago like The Osmonds and The Monkees were as much video characters as musicians. The music industry has always been about making money and finding the next big star. Some people like to blame MTV and the rise of the music video. But rock survived well into the late nineties, more than a decade after MTV's arrival.

These are reasons I think rock music may be in trouble.

Demographic Problems for Rock Music

One of rock's problems seems to be demographic. Modern rock music is mainly being purchased by young, white males. Girls and women 40 and under mainly purchase pop music. Despite the success of some later female rockers like 10,000 Maniacs and Alanis Morissette, rock still seems to have a problem attracting female buyers. In 2006, the website smartgirl.com surveyed girls around the world on their music taste. While the survey didn't provide percentages, rock only appeared in the other category and that was just a tiny slice of the overall pie chart. Now, it's possible that some rock fans chose alternative (which covers several genres) but this was still less than half the size of the pop category.

In one 2002 survey, 52% of whites versus 29% of nonwhites said they like rock music. Half of all American children under the age of 5 are a minority. Rap and hip hop have given urban and minority youth the kind of irreverent outlet that rock gave to white youths in the past. The potential buyers for rock music are in decline.

Unfortunately rock, which had it's origins in blues music, produced few well known African American stars. Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry and Little Richard (and BB King if you include blues rock) are just a few who are still widely known today. The most well known black artists from the past mostly sang soul, R&B and disco.

The early fan bases of rock stars like Elvis Presley and The Beatles were heavily female. However, rock stars themselves were largely male. Female rocker Janis Joplin felt that she had to become one of the boys to succeed in rock. Joan Jett also had a very masculine image. Like rap music today, rock was often criticized for having misogynistic lyrics and was considered an aggressive expression of male sexuality. Despite this, women made up a large portion of the fan bases of rock bands.

Groupies were a prominent part of the 1960s and 1970s rock music scene. Groupies were girls, sometimes underage, who would seek sexual contact with members of their favorite bands. Some would actually travel with the band for a time.

So, why have women and girls become much less interested in rock music? I don't know but perhaps the feminist movement is one reason. The overt sexism and masculine nature of rock may have been a turn off to girls raised with ideas of female empowerment. The rise of strong women in pop music, such as Madonna, may have made it more appealing to girls and women as both listeners and artists. Perhaps young women could identify more with independent women in pop than oversexed male rockstars.

The modern rock I hear on alternative radio is still heavily male and seemingly mostly white. Rock music probably became too white and too male to remain hugely popular.

Did rock music become too male and too white?
Did rock music become too male and too white?

Rock Has Become Too Serious?

I listen to both pop and alternative radio. Alt radio, of course, plays a lot of modern rock. These songs are often very serious and somber. Rock music wasn't always so serious. Some of it was fun.

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Queen's We Will Rock You, Joan Jett's I Love Rock n' Roll, and The Beatles Yellow Submarine and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds (which was about a picture preschooler Julian Lennon drew), were upbeat and fun songs. So, was Third Stone from the Sun by Jimi Hendrix even though the alien involved decided to destroy the Earth. The Pixies have a song about sea monkeys called Palace of the Brine. Both Van Halen, and David Bowie with Mick Jagger covered Martha and the Vandellas Dancing in the Streets.

Perhaps fun rock music is still being made but it isn't being played on my local alternative station, so I'm not aware of it. It looks like pretentiousness has taken over rock music. If a song doesn't have a serious meaning, it has no right to exist. Rock fans decry the death of "real music." This is a turn off to many people who want music to serve different purposes. Sometimes, it should be fun. Sometimes, it should be serious. Sometimes it should be about things we can relate to whether that's falling in love or a painful breakup. Sometimes it can deal with social issues.

Can Rock Comeback?

With radio diversifying, the moment is ripe for guitar driven rock to come back. Just like Avicii is popularizing folktronica such as folk/country/bluegrass mixed with electronic music on pop radio and Imagine Dragons are popularizing electro-rock, someone may come along who makes guitar driven rock that can appeal to pop audiences, as well as women and minorities.

Imagine Dragons are having a lot of success with electro-rock

An unreleased blues rock track by Kesha and Patrick Carney

Maybe some already successful artists will bring rock back. Perhaps a group like Imagine Dragons, who are having so much success with electro-rock might be inclined to release some traditional guitar rock to pop radio. Or perhaps Fallout Boy will at some point reduce the pop in their punk and sell a rockier sound to pop radio.

The always ambitious Ke$ha hoped she would be the one to bring rock and electric guitars back to pop radio. After all, she was partly responsible for the electro takeover on the radio. Unfortunately, her label wouldn't let her. They rejected her rock songs and told her she had to record pop songs instead. However some rock and country tracks still made it onto her album Warrior. Hopefully, Ke$ha, who recorded rock, country and blues music as a teenager, will win her bitter struggle to gain creative control over her work. Ke$ha is a genius when it comes to writing catchy hooks. Mixing her catchy lyrics with rock, blues rock or country rock could work on the radio. Add to that, pop radio loves her.

Foster the People are given some of the credit for bringing indie music to pop radio. Adele is given a lot of the credit for bringing back the ballad. I can definitely see pop radio embracing rock. All that's really needed is for someone to break through and popularize it. If other artists can capitalize on their success rock may become a force in popular music again like it was in the 1990s with Nirvana and Alanis Morissette.

Maybe the rock purists won't like the form it takes because it doesn't sound exactly like 60's and 70's rock. These are the purists who consider a group like Linkin Park inauthentic because they mix rock and metal with rap and hip hop. But that shouldn't matter. Music has always evolved and changed and it always will. Great music has always incorporated influences from other genres. I would prefer to see rock change and remain popular rather than become a niche genre like jazz.

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      Matthew Hegarty 3 years ago

      I think Rock music has already made a massive comeback in the UK with heavy acts like While She Sleeps, Enter Shikari, Bullet For My Valentine, Bring Me The Horizon, Marmozets And not so heavy Rock bands like Mallory Knox, You Me At Six, The Vaccines etc all getting in the charts and on the BBC Radio 1 daytime playlist within the last 2 years alone and A7X, BMTH haven gotten in the top 5 albums there is always guitar bands on BBC Radio 1 (biggest UK Current music station) and an increase in popularity for many bands and those bands are also becoming very successful and last year in the US Rock was the most popular music in the charts with over 30% (more than any other genre got) so I think Rock's comeback is happening but you just don't realise it yet

    • JoanCA profile image
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      JoanCA 3 years ago

      Matthew,

      I'm hearing more rock on HAC stations here, which play a mix of pop and adult contemporary. The top 40 stations are playing more pop rock and electro-rock. So, I think it could happen that we'll see more rock in a couple of years. Things seem to be moving that way.

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      Jacob 3 years ago

      Demographics is a huge problem for modern rock. It's too dependent on males in their 20's and under. Everyone buys pop music. Blacks, whites, Asians, hispanics, men, women, teens to people in their 40's and 50's, straight and gay. Rock has to find a way to appeal to a wider demographic to become relevant again. I think the success of Imagine Dragons is a good start. Maybe as people become more used to hearing rock, they'll embrace it more.

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      Nyx 2 years ago

      HA im a girl & feminist & only listen to rock music, dunno why I'm being blamed for the death of rock LOL! Author doesn't sound like they really know what they're talking about. Rock n roll is still alive often there are 2-4 punk/prog/psych rock shows a week were I live and the crowd's and pits are only getting bigger. You have all genders attending the jams, the whole bro thing is dead. If you're talking about mainstream rock, yeah it is in decline - which is a good thing. a lot of the really good artists these days don't get featured in the media so their shows are cheap and uncorporate. You want to hear music comparable to the old days? You gotta turn the tv off and see it live.

    • JoanCA profile image
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      JoanCA 2 years ago

      NYX,

      If you had comprehended the article correctly you would know I was referring to rock declining in the mainstream. And I never said women don't listen to rock. I listen to it. But it is far less popular with women.

      There are actually some statistics to back up the claim that rock has far fewer female than male fans. A study on gender differences in streaming found rock is far more popular with men and pop with women.

      And it's wrong to conclude women are to be blamed for the decline of rock. Sexism and a disinterest in encouraging diversity in rock music is a major problem. To quote Jack White "It's a real shame that if a woman goes onstage with an instrument, it's almost a novelty."

    • profile image

      Ell 2 years ago

      The presence of women at rock concerts doesn't tell us much about popularity. A certain portion of those women will be there accompanying husbands and boyfriends. What counts is sales and streaming and women aren't doing enough to get rock bands into the top 40.

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      Country Girl 2 years ago

      The same thing is happening in country music. There were never many minority singers but lots of women. In the past few years bro-country has largely pushed women off country radio and labels aren't providing much support to women. Female artists are becoming frustrated and it won't be to shocking if many would be women country singers switch to other genres. Bro-country is more popular with men so country may start to lose women as both listeners and artists if the labels and country stations don't make an effort to encourage diversity.

    • JoanCA profile image
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      JoanCA 2 years ago

      Country Girl,

      Record labels and country radio embraced bro-country because it attracted a large (mostly young male) audience that hadn't listened to country music before. They think they're expanding the number of country music buyers. The problem is they may drive away a lot of female artists and listeners in the process and end up making less money in the long run if they don't put out music women want to hear and buy. It makes sense to cater to everyone, something country largely stopped doing with the rise of bro-country and something rock isn't doing either.

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      Kv 23 months ago

      Im a white girl who is a teenager and ai listen mostly to 80s rock. I wouldn't say that rock is dead, but I would say thet it isn't popular to most younger people. But a lot of people do listen to rock still. And a lot of the old rock bands like ac/dc bon jovi still tour and still have sold out concerts. I think rock will eventually make its way back to being what everyone listens to.

    • JoanCA profile image
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      JoanCA 22 months ago

      Kv,

      I think a lot of 80's rock was far more pop radio friendly than the alt. rock that's common today. I could really see it making a comeback. If something like Van Halen's Jump was released now I think it would be a huge hit.

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      Doogie 22 months ago

      I actually don't think rock is really in decline. There are still plenty of good commercial alternative rock and mainstream rock stations out there with plenty of newer bands. I have also met plenty of high school and college-aged kids who listen to rock, both new rock and classic rock. Classic rock stations are still thriving. When people say "rock is dead," they're just referring to its lack of presence on today's pop radio stations or major music award shows.

    • JoanCA profile image
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      JoanCA 22 months ago

      Doogie,

      I agree that rock is far from dead. I think it's become so much easier to discover new music that being outside the mainstream isn't such a bad thing anymore. Many rock and R&B acts are having successful careers without having top 40 hits. It will be interesting though to see if rock bands can come back into the top 40 at some point. Popular music is always evolving and trends come and go so it's possible.

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      Dave 20 months ago

      I can't wait for the day when an excellent band comes around and brings everyone together with Beatle-esque songs and hopefully, Beatle-esque popularity

    • AlexDrinkH2O profile image

      AlexDrinkH2O 15 months ago from Southern New England, USA

      Okay but you start in the 1960s and ignore the real "birth" of rock n' roll, the 1950s (you mentioned Elvis and Little Richard and that's about it).How about Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers, Dion, the 4 Seasons, and all the "doo-wop" groups? Most of the crap that passes for "rock" today couldn't hold a candle to any one of them.

    • JoanCA profile image
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      JoanCA 14 months ago

      AlexDrinkH2O,

      I wasn't really focused on the history of rock here. But yes the heyday of rock was the 50's and 60's, perhaps into the mid 70's.

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      mumys123 14 months ago

      I think this article is great.

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      MagicKat 9 months ago

      Thanks for the great article! I am a fan of rock n roll from all different eras. The only thing I would disagree with is the so-called feminist perspective. I don't really believe the "cock rock" myth about rock music. Women artists who play rock are not trying to be boys but are being strong women. Despite Janis trying to be one of the boys, I think rock is a self-assured / confident expression from a youth perspective and women rockers do not pretend to be something they are not. For example, Suzie Quarto said that it never came to her mind that she could not play the music because she was a girl. She just wanted to do it. Rock is not for wimpy people.

    • JoanCA profile image
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      JoanCA 8 months ago

      Thanks MagicKat. A lot of women do say they've encountered significant amounts of sexism and harassment in the rock music scene, which may explain why some women may have felt they needed to be more masculine to fit in. But I agree that's not necessarily every woman's experience. However perceptions count for a lot. If women believe the rock music scene will be hostile to them, they may be wary of entering it to begin with. Fewer female artists may then mean fewer female fans.

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      Alex 4 months ago

      I don't think it's a flat plane as regards music. Sure a lot may be produced in every period but I don't believe or take for granted that the creation of art is separate from the culture or society we live in. It's kind of a neoliberal position to assume a division between independent creatives and the environment they're placed in. What I mean by this is that when people say there's never been a better time for music, that you can find any band you want on the internet they're half right. It allows a dude like me to get my music out there (such as it is), but when I ask people to name said bands, well on the off chance that they do, I can't say I'm impressed. So much rock music out there is derivative and I say this knowing full well my own music isn't original. But why? I think the environment isn't there to innovate, maybe it's also the fact that rock has reached maturation but a lot of bands are just interested in playing to a scene, sounding exactly like one band or just playing covers. There's a limited audience for music, people are more interested in the culture of social media, music isn't their primary medium for self expression. There's a whole confluence of factors I'm not smart enough to articulate precisely but we're living in an age of the Jerk, rich assholes running corporations have put a stranglehold on culture, corporatised it and made it difficult for artists to break through, this isn't just in music, it's in film, literature and beyond culture, in areas like social policy. What they fail to realise is that profit driven motives are like oil to the water of artistic creation, or say education and healthcare. You have the stagnation of the West via hyper capitalism, a broken system that's about to collapse under the weight of its contradictions. But in the age of the Jerk it muddles on, it's supported by rank and file jerks. And there's just a collective willful ignorance, a reaction against art or culture in favour of instant gratification and superficiality, it's a dynamism or zeitgeist, intangible, certainly not quantifiable for the neoliberal/capitalist informed mentality but there all the same and even more apparent retrospectively. The same ignorance and crappiness of culture could be seen in the 1930s/40s, there's very little I like about that era, or in the ultra limited art of the feudal era. Every so often the jerk mentality dominated and then is either broken or implodes under its own weight. So rock reflected a positive moment in human history, it was part of a postive dynamism with respect to the civil rights movements and counter culture of the 60s and since we're in the age of the Jerk/asshole, with everyone being assholes, it's no longer popular.

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      Magic Kat 4 months ago

      Hi Joan, Thanks for writing this article. I am glad to read someone who cares so much about rock music and wanted to offer a different point-of view you may like.

      My "good" news: The demographics you refer to might be the result of researcher bias and the initial "simplistic" explanation form the forums might be closer to the truth!

      First, the bias of the survey you mention: If pop music is what is being marketed to young girls then that will be the music they report liking. You see, they have been told that is their music. If the media were to all of sudden tell them that most pop artists are lame and that rock was the new thing for them, they would start buying rock again. Young people (male and female) are easily swayed by trends and when they respond to a survey the majority will report themselves as being hip to the trend.

      Second, another look at the "simplistic" explanations: It is true that the music industry has always sought to make the artists into a controllable commodity they can sell not only to the public but to other businesses. The industry is focused on the bottom line and they do want a winning formula. Rock groups (from the 1960s on) have historically been a counter-culture and anti-corporate force in our society. From the Rolling Stones to Led Zeppelin to Rush, the rock artists wanted success but not at the expense of compromising their art. They got into the music because they love the music and the Album-Oriented-Radio rock artist appeared because singles took too much of their attention away from playing and writing the music they truly cared about.

      I know you probably already know this but lets have a quick review:

      During the early 70s, the industry was making money but the ball was in the artists court thanks to album sales. The artists were close in age to their audience and could write music the "kids" could like for the sake of the music alone. Music from record albums became the lifeblood of the counter-culture. Singles, on the other-hand were for non-rock artists like the Captain and Tennille, Sonny and Cher, Donny and Marie and was very formulaic well into the 1980s (Disco was a singles game). In many ways, MTV killed the radio (AOR) star and slowly formulas emerged for rock that the corporations began to exploit (New Wave, Billy Idol fashion punk, glam metal, etc, etc). For a time, in the late 80s rock almost became the pop music when in 1987, all 5 of the top 5 selling artists were rock groups. But Guns N Roses started dressing down and rock artists rebelled against the 80s glamour and eventually, by the 90s rock had become grunge.

      It is really difficult to market ugly people to teenage girls so grunge was the nail in the coffin for rock as pop. Enter the Backstreet Boys, Spice Girls and the manufactured, packaged pop groups we still have today, like One Direction. Since the 90s most rock bands have kinda looked like your brother or guy on the street (a few exceptions of course). There has been no rock Elvis or Beatles or Marc Bolan or anyone with that "universal star quality" to appeal to the mainstream. Instead we got Weezer (and now a lot of guys who might need a shave).

      So I am not negating your article but saying the problem isn't that rock is for white boys and pop is for girls - this is something the industry has decided. You probably know that much of the pop music today is written by a small group of 5 or so middle-aged Scandinavian men - another formula. The people want good music and much of what is written for pop is formulaic and after awhile monotonous- always the same.

      I live near Toronto, Canada and personally know many young people of different races and genders who love rock. We have Vag Halen playing around here (a Canadian Lez Zeppelin). It isn't just for young white males - even if that seems to be the primary audience. Rock music has always been loved by young people because it was written with the idea that people could have their own identity distinct from the uptight norms of the culture in which they were raised. Kids dig that. They want to rebel and develop their own identities.

      The mainstream rock comeback will happen Joan: Vinyl records continue to increase in sales and popularity because they sound warmer to the young person's ears. Vinyl sales are currently beating streaming sales in the UK. The digital Scandinavian middle-aged male-written computer pop music is okay for streaming but if you expect vinyl warmth real instruments will have to played. People who learn real instruments learn from classic rock. The corporations will have to find music that fits the vinyl medium and Kesha will get her chance.

      I think the new rock will be different in some ways from the old but enjoyed by people of all kinds.

    • JoanCA profile image
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      JoanCA 4 months ago

      Magic Kat,

      You make a great point about what is marketed to young people. I have a young daughter who's developed an interest in alt rock with twenty one pilots as her starting point. Even though they aren't traditional rock, they gave her a taste of something beyond the pop and electronic she also loves. And she got that taste through pop radio. I don't know if twenty one pilots are going to be the ones to set in motion the rise of rock on pop radio but the potential is there.

      I agree that young girls aren't really getting a lot of exposure to rock and that impacts their level of interest. What I wonder though is why boys are more likely to seek out rock than girls.

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      SynGates 2 months ago

      Rock was always alive, from bands like Papa Roach, to Slipknot, to Linkin Park (maybe not their latest release though) to Green Day with Revolution Radio, which I thought was an amazing album. Papa Roach is one of the hardest working bands I know of, and if you listen to their recent songs Help and Crooked Teeth you'll see what I mean. Although (in my opinion) Help is a much, much better song than any of the mainstream pop songs which get 100 million views on YouTube in two days, hardly anyone knows about this song. The reason behind this is, as you mentioned, the packaging of pop artists today. They are packaged so well that the whole media advertised them everywhere, from the radio to the television and, as a result, people are only exposed to pop music. I do not blame the people who listen to pop music. I blame the media for advertising only this kind of music. People must be aware of these amazing bands and should here them on the radio more to KNOW that they like their songs. That is when rock will be back into the mainstream.

      Great article, by the way, very interesting.

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      Kolby 2 months ago

      Rock music's decline is directly correlated to labeling shit non-rock bands and blasting them over rock radio. I.E. Imagine dragons/mumford and sons, both blasted on rock radio, debated if they're even rock at all. So when these style of bands started to pop up, the rock stations in Louisville, Ky closed down and now all we have is like a classic rock channel. The new forms of heavy bands and them becoming soft is also a problem. Identity of these bands used to be metal even and now they're worse than top 40 pop (Five finger death punch, All that remains, Shinedown, Atreyu, breaking bejamin.) These bands listed are all in tolerable and are continued to be plastered all over the radio like nobody even cares. They're not up to par to their predecessors and are not even close to that par. The record sales show. Look at linkin park for example, Their own fan base is suck listening to then constantly promise a heavy record and then they always do some shitty poop record instead. Linkin park, Stick to writing rock. You're the worst pop act I've ever seen. (Other than papa roach, Shit pop acts.) (in hindsight both linkin park and papa roach atleast had one real album a piece.)

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      Jo 2 months ago

      Muse. Nuff said

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      Mike 8 weeks ago

      The reason rock is dead is few things. First off 50s-60s rock was successful cause they were singing about positive things not how bad there lives were or how strung out on drugs they are or how they have daddy issues. Listening to negative garbage makes you negative if you hear it long enough. Secondly every sound in rock has been heard already that sounds worth a damn to hear. Lyrics of today's rock is so cheap and negative.

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