IN THE ENTIRE HISTORY of rock & roll, 2010 was a commercial low point, a year without hits. Not a single rock record wound up in the year-end Top 25. Jack Johnson's To the Sea scored highest, coming in at Number 27. In an era of tanking sales, rock did even worse than the competition, falling more sharply than country, hip-hop or pop. And bands that sold millions of copies of their last albums, from Linkin Park to the Kings of Leon, stiffed. Says Doug Podell, a veteran Detroit programmer who is now a consultant and WCSX classic-rock DJ, "Rock isn't dead yet, but it's getting pushed around pretty good."
So what happened? Rolling Stone spoke to 21 music-business sources, and the picture that emerged was of a rock drought driven by two forces: a lack of compelling mainstream releases and broad, industrywide trends that work against the genre.
The first problem is partially the result of top acts' release cycles coincidentally making 2010 an off year. "There just weren't that many strong releases," says Ish Cuebas, Trans World Entertainment's vice president for merchandising music. Even Mike Shinoda, Linkin Park's co-founder, didn't find much to listen to: "As a music listener, I was gravitating a little bit away from [new] rock records, because stylistically it was a little boring."
But rock's real problems are trickier, and interconnected. Many in the business blame radio for failing to break a major album for the first time in memory. (Even in 2000, the year of Britney and boy bands, Creed's Human Clay sold 6.5 million copies.) Thanks to important stations switching formats in recent years, a Number One rock-radio hit leaches just 12 million listeners, compared with 81 million for Top 40. This gap is far wider than it was in 2009 or 2006, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And many of the stations that are left have seen their ratings fall. "I don't know if it's cyclical — it's problematic," says Richard Palmese, executive vice president for promotion at the RCA Music Group, home of the Kings of Leon and Daughtry. "Rock-radio stations are struggling in markets around the country to deliver winning ratings."
In addition, two of rock's biggest subgenres petered out in 2010 — emo/pop-punk and Nickelback-and-Shinedown-style "active" rock. "Emo had its heyday — then there were too many bands that sounded like Fall Out Boy," says Bob McLynn, manager of that band, as well as Hole, Train and Panic! at the Disco. As a result, major record labels are shying away from signing new rock acts and spending less money on the ones they have, according to industry sources. "[Labels] seem like they don't want to be in that business anymore — not ideally, anyway," says Peter Katsis, manager of Korn and Jane's Addiction. "You're just seeing them spend a lot less money on marketing and promoting rock acts."
Major labels have also made 360-degree deals the standard for new acts, which gives the labels a cut of concert and merchandise sales. With majors and rock radio losing their power to reliably produce hits, bands that do well on the road have little incentive to sign such deals. "We still are extremely, extremely focused on bands who can tour," says James Diener, president of A&M/Octone, which reps Flyleaf and Maroon 5.
Given the unfriendly environment, top artists have begun fleeing the majors, either to release music on their own (Wilco, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead) or to shift to smaller, more attentive labels, as Paul McCartney and Paul Simon have done with Concord Music Group. Says Tony Margherita, Wilco's manager, "For a certain level of artist who has spent some time building a career and has a fan base, the structure and the services provided by a major label — and the percentage they take to provide those services — doesn't make a lot of sense."
Rock maintains its dominance in one crucial area: touring. Bon Jovi, Roger Waters and the Dave Matthews Band were Pollstar's top three acts on the road last year, grossing a combined $270 million.
A new middle class of bands — Arcade Fire, the National and Spoon — all sold respectable numbers of records while thriving on the road, without needing hits on rock radio. Some of those, like Mumford and Sons, Vampire Weekend and the Black Keys, thrived by touring relentlessly and breaking their singles via college stations, SiriusXM programs and ad licensing to clients from Cadillac to Tommy Hilfiger. "If you look at the most prominent festivals — Coachella, Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits — they're doing pretty good business with basically a rock-band format," says Daniel Glass, chief executive of Glassnote Entertainment Group, Mumford and Sons' independent label. "The club business, in most parts of America, also has a healthy circuit of artists that are touring and doing quite well."
And 2011 looks better than 2010, with planned releases by superstar rock acts including Green Day, Coldplay, Radiohead, R.E.M., the Strokes, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2 and Foo Fighters. "It's just the cycle," says Rob McDermott, former manager of Linkin Park. "The 'Is Rock Sleeping?' article comes out every five years, and I actually think it's the greatest article in the world, because you're foreshadowing it's about to make a big comeback."