Is rock music dead?

Over the past decade I’ve seen plenty of articles like this with clickbait titles; “There’s no good guitar music”; “All music is now pop and hip-hop”; Blah blah blah. As someone who grew up with rock being my genre of choice, if the community was not thriving that would suck, but I feel like I am seeing a lot of exciting artists. It just feels like a bunch of blokes clutching their pearls, as no one makes music like Nirvana anymore. Well I’m not here to moan about them, as fun as that might be. I decided I would actually look at what is going on with rock music and see what is going on. in the way I typically would. As I’m a scientist this means looking at some numbers. So join me on this fun voyage.

First up I need some albums to look at. To keep it simple I grabbed a table of every UK top 10 album for the past 30 years, along with each artists genre from Wikipedia. I figure if rock music really is on the decline we would see less albums hitting the mainstream over time. That’s not what I saw though. The graphs below show the 9 most common genres and how they change over time. Rock is a bit noisy, but it’s broadly staying the same. The number of rock artists with top 10 albums are actually holding pretty steady. The sub genres are also not changing, with indie rock still at the same level as its 00s boom.

The charts have changed though. There are over twice the number of albums that hit the UK top 10 in 2020, compared to 1990. I’m guessing our shortened attention span means that albums have less longevity. So even though there are the same number of rock albums, it feels like there’s less rock as they don’t stick around as long. Filling that gap is pop, hip-hop and R&B which are all steadily rising.

Is that our answer then? I doubt it. That’s a pretty subtle shift and just shows that rock music is out there if you want to listen to it. Instead maybe it’s the rock music itself that is changing. Spotify allows people access to its massive database that it uses to drive their algorithms. This includes scores for a bunch of different esoteric features of each song like: loudness, danceability, speechiness etc. The scores drive their algorithm. By looking at what type of songs you like, they can recommend similar songs. So I grabbed these scores for our UK top 10 albums to see what has been going on.

Lets start with `energy` and `loudness`. What is this? To give you an idea, right at the top for ‘energy’, is a pretty frenetic Orbital song with nearly a max score (0.99 out of 1). While right at the bottom is an acoustic number by Starsailor (0 out of 1). So those are our benchmarks. Well looking at our UK top 10 rock albums we can see a pretty drastic decrease since the end of the 2010s. It seems that when we decided we’d had enough landfill indie, we’d also had enough of rock music with drive behind it.

Pretty much every feature is changing a lot. `Valence’ a.ka happiness is yo-yoing up and down, `tempo` and `instrumentalness` are on a decline, while `acousticness` is rising. A lot of the time other genres are following similar patterns. The most dramatically different between pop and rock though is in `speechiness`. Top scores for `speechiness` are basically spoken word, while zero means it’s an instrumental piece. Over the past few years there has been a massive increase for rock, but not pop.

What this all means, I cannot tell you. It is clear that Rock is evolving. And this is probably why folks complain about the lack of guitars out there in the world. But to be honest music is always doing that and that is what makes it exciting. I don’t want to hear Red Hot Chili Peppers make the same album again and again. I’d much rather have artists like Rina Sawayama, or even 100 gecs breaking the rules and pushing these genres in whole new directions.

Words by Matt Paul.

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