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Rock Steady

Loud guitar music makes yet another comeback. Will it stick around this time?

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Hail, hail, rock and roll! Even if you do sound like Arcade Fire.
  • Hail, hail, rock and roll! Even if you do sound like Arcade Fire.

Only Friday the 13th's Jason Voorhees has been declared dead as many times as rock and roll. Even as the music industry hits an all-time low, rock remains as solid as, well, a rock. There are several reasons for its most recent comeback.

First, some facts: Until Josh Groban suckered tons of old ladies into buying his holiday CD during the last few weeks of the year, Daughtry's self-titled debut ranked as 2007's best-selling album, moving 3.2 million copies. That's less than 2006's top two sellers: the High School Musical soundtrack, which snagged 3.7 million buyers, and Rascal Flatts' Me and My Gang, which checked in with 3.5 million. But Daughtry still bested 2006's top rock release, Nickelback's 2.7-million-selling All the Right Reasons.

Similarly, even as concert revenues slipped from the previous year's record haul, reunion tours by old rockers Genesis and the Police topped 2007's box office with more than $340 million between them. Meanwhile, radio stations across the country (like Cleveland's K-Rock) are adding all-rock formats. It all reflects a rising interest in music that can easily be grouped under the catchall genre of rock.

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, rock music has gained much momentum over the past three years. The genre suffered a prolonged seven-year slump starting in 1998. By 2004, its market share had shrunk 25 percent. After hitting bottom, it bounced back with unprecedented strength — leaping from 23 to 34 percent of the market by 2006.

"People's tastes go in cycles," says Fred Mills, managing editor of Harp magazine. "To the audience's credit, they don't like to remain in one phase for too long. Five years ago, could Band of Horses and Arcade Fire have broken through?"

The continued growth of P2P networks not only depressed sales numbers; it made them mostly unreliable and hugely irrelevant. The labels are understandably concerned. But from the typical artist's standpoint, it's not like anyone was going to see that money anyway (since royalties usually go toward paying the CDs' marketing costs). These days, bands are more concerned about concert revenue and merchandise sales.

"The Arcade Fire did 25,000 tickets [in New York City]," says Rich Egan, CEO of Vagrant Records. "That band sold 200,000 records. No more is SoundScan a measuring stick for how you're doing. It's how many people show up to your shows, buy your music, and share it with their friends."

While album sales have shrunk, concert income continues to skyrocket — from $1.7 billion in 2000 to $3.6 billion in 2006. Besides serving as a life preserver for new artists, cross-country tours have also lined the pockets of a bunch of old geezers. Classic rockers like Rod Stewart and Roger Waters place among last year's top-grossing acts, with $120 million between them.

Mills notes that many of the biggest live draws over the past few years have also logged the most miles, occasionally hitting a single city two or three times during a calendar year. "There is no way to explain why people are ready for the Shins and Band of Horses," he says. "But I'll bet that any of these bands is a heavily touring band."

Radio has also opened its doors to more indie-minded artists over the past few years. Indie labels often work just one CD at a time, thereby giving the bands 100 percent of their attention (see Wind-up with Seether or Sub Pop's Band of Horses). "The majors are still trying to do three or four records at a time," says Edison Media Research radio analyst Sean Ross.

And while some stations have had a hard time securing a middle ground between aggressive, male-centric active rock (think Disturbed) and female-friendly modern rock (think Coldplay), more and more programmers are testing broader playlists that combine the two.

That's allowed pop-punk bands like Gym Class Heroes to land on Top 40 radio, which hasn't exactly embraced this type of music during the '00s. It's a direct reflection of stations' increased adventurousness these days, notes Ross. Besides, he says, you can't overlook the power of iTunes and its list of the top daily downloads, which has become a must-read for radio programmers.

"It's sort of acted as an equalizer," he says. "For a long time, people thought of single sales as driven by R&B. And suddenly, you see Matchbox Twenty at the top, selling single-song downloads. It certainly changes the way people think about those records."

Yet rock's comeback hasn't been snag-free. It still has difficulty defining itself within the market. It only recently overcame a decades-old radio-inferiority complex. A key booster is Arbitron's new Portable People Meter, a device that accurately keeps track of the stations test subjects listen to. It replaces an ancient, error-prone method that involved listeners marking a diary every time they turned on their radios.

PPMs are being used only in Houston and Philadelphia right now, and both cities showed a much stronger rock market than anyone suspected. Not so surprisingly, a pair of rock stations popped up in Philly soon after owners got their hands on the results. So maybe rock and roll never disappeared after all. Maybe its fans just aren't the types to keep written tabs of their listening preferences. Or maybe they were just waiting for someone like Daughtry to show them the way.

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