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After Losing Ground In the Streaming Era, Rock Charts Its Comeback
From left: John Gourley from Portugal. The Man, K.Flay and Dan Reynolds from Imagine Dragons.
As streaming continues to eat away at sales, rock and roll has slipped from its place as the leading genre in the country. But reports of its demise are way, way too premature.
If a rock band records an album in a garage and no one is around to stream it, does it make a sound?
Maybe not for long: In July, Nielsen Music reported that rock ceded its place atop the music consumption pyramid for the first time since the company began tracking data in 1991. The genre was far and away the leader in physical album sales, accounting for 42.7 percent of the industry's total, but that is the equivalent of maintaining beachfront property on a rapidly-sinking island. As streaming spurs the music industry’s expansion, rock's portion of audio on-demand streams (18.1 percent) was dwarfed by hip-hop and R&B (30.3 percent), allowing the latter genre to take a 2.1 percent lead in overall consumption.
That shift has increasingly meant that listeners are flocking to playlists, where the genre has lagged. Spotify's premier rock playlist, Rock This, has significantly fewer followers (4 million) than RapCaviar (8.4 million) and ¡Viva Latino! (6.7 million); and also lags behind Hot Country (4.3 million) and dance-music playlist mint (4.6 million). Even the genre's crossover hits haven't been mega-streaming records; Portugal. the Man reached No. 4 on the Hot 100 with "Feel It Still," but never cracked the top 25 on Streaming Songs; Imagine Dragons' "Thunder," which has spent the past eight weeks in the Hot 100's top five, only peaked at No. 19. (Both have instead done well at radio; the two groups are just the second and third rock bands to top the Radio Songs chart since 2001.)
"As a cultural movement, rock and roll is at a low ebb," says Glassnote founder/president Daniel Glass. "I think the hip-hop and country communities borrowed a lot of the style and swagger in a good way and ran with it better than rock and roll, so rock and roll got boring."
Despite the lull, many in the rock world believe the genre is poised for a comeback, as the industry works harder to hook album-loving rock fans on streaming. After all, the interest is evident: rock stalwarts Guns 'N Roses, Metallica, the Red Hot Chili Peppers and U2 ranked among this year’s top global touring acts, and converting rock’s older devotees to streaming is a clear way to squeeze revenue from that demographic's listening habits.
"It’s not that rock's popularity has necessarily waned, but it's had growing pains as consumption shifted from an owned, album-based economy to an access- or tracks-based economy," says Dylan Lewis, head of digital sales for indie label Glassnote.
Zach Katz, president of repertoire & marketing for BMG U.S., says that while fans in the rock community have been viewed as being slow to adopt streaming, "It goes both ways, with the DSPs also having been slow to adopt the playlisting and showcase of the genre. It’s difficult to crack the consciousness of streaming when the opportunities presented to listeners for other genres of music just aren’t available to rock acts."
Katz says BMG’s independent rock label, Rise Records, has had "massive success with their digital fanbase. With artists like PVRIS, Of Mice & Men, At The Drive In, and Issues, their YouTube channel, for example, has over 2 million subscribers. It’s really just been over the last year to year-and-a-half that we’re seeing indicators of both the DSPs and rock fans beginning to embrace one another."
Secretly Group co-founder/director of marketing Phil Waldorf says he’s also seeing an upward trend.
"More and more people are adopting their preferred platform of choice as their primary place to consume music, and with that comes a lot of people whose listening habits can apply to genres that are more focused on albums. With that, our numbers are increasing greatly."
It's not just that rock stalwarts are finally flocking to streaming; the services themselves may also be shifting to better serve those fans. Even though R&B and hip-hop listeners have adopted streaming much quicker than aging rock fans, "Spotify is putting a ton of resources into making content for rock," says Jessica Page, director of digital marketing at Mom + Pop Music. Such content includes a video with Mom + Pop signee Tash Sultana, who also has a pair of singles with over 20 million streams on the platform; another Mom + Pop act, Alice Merton, has earned 43 million streams on her only single, "No Roots."
"I think it took even [the streaming services] a minute to realize how rabid the alternative and rock fan base can be," adds Billy Burrs, executive vp radio promotion for 300 and a 15-year veteran of the rock promotions department at RCA.
Alex Luke, a former rock radio programmer who now serves as global head of programming and content strategy for Amazon Music, points to Amazon's voice-activated Echo smart speaker as another growth opportunity, as a way to bring in some of rock's older fans who grew up blasting Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin on the stereo. "[They] simply ask Echo to play rock music, which has some of the attributes of radio listening," Luke says. "It's like preset No. 2 in the car."
But one label executive thinks streaming platforms still have work to do for rock to truly thrive -- especially when it comes to liaising with indie labels. "The area in which both Apple and Spotify can improve is more transparency on who's programming what and how these playlists are organized," the executive says. "They tend to build a wall between independent labels and the playlist editors. We could do a better job of pitching and targeting playlist submissions if there was more transparency."
Rock acts are also struggling to straddle streaming and terrestrial radio when it comes to timing.
"Sometimes a song can be a smash hit at streaming long before it gets radio play," says Imagine Dragons' manager Mac Reynolds. "That can be difficult for an artist when they're trying to sync things up and focus on a campaign. And I don't know that it's necessarily good for anyone."
And K.Flay, who earned a 2018 Grammy nomination for best rock song, doesn’t see rock fans ditching their albums just yet, saying, "I think there's a predilection for alternative, rock or indie rock listeners to consume music in that holistic fashion."
Still, optimism abounds for rock’s rebound.
"If [rock] mirrors the trajectory that hip-hop has had, we see this major growth opportunity," says Glassnote’s Lewis. "If hip-hop can do it, other genres can."