For a half century, rock was the darling of the pop music industry — it was both the sound of teen rebellion and the cash cow of the business. But over the past few years the genre has grown steadily weaker, due to a lack of new blood and the passing of such legendary single-name icons as Bowie, B.B., Prince, Petty, Berry, Fats and Lemmy marking a grim milestone in rock history.
Rock is no longer a staple on the album sales charts nor Top 40 radio playlists. Last year, just seven albums that even loosely could be termed “rock” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart: Foo Fighters, The Killers, Arcade Fire, Linkin Park, LCD Soundsystem, Brand New and U2. Only Grammy winner Portugal. The Man’s quirky Motown homage, “Feel It Still” (which also won a Grammy for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance), garnered any appreciable mainstream Top 40 airplay.
“Classic rock radio is as healthy as ever,” insists veteran rock programmer Ken Anthony, who covers the genre for industry trade All Access and takes an on-air shift at L.A.’s venerable rock station KLOS. “But new rock presents its own unique set of challenges.” He notes that there hasn’t been a massive rock-based cultural moment since the ‘90s grunge triptych of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden. “It’s almost like rock is now your dad’s music.”
However, longtime artist manager and label owner Allen Kovac has doubled down on rock over the past decade with his indie Eleven Seven Music Group, dominating the Active Rock radio format with bands like surprise three-time Grammy nominee Nothing More. The band, formed in San Antonio in 2003, has released five studio albums, and received nominations for Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song and Best Rock Album. Their most recent release, “The Stories We Tell Ourselves,” peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard 200 and they’ve dominated both Active and Mainstream rock radio formats with the Grammy-nominated single “Go to War.”
Kovac points to the band’s success at streaming services, which he describes as “today’s FM radio,” citing Spotify Global Head of Rock Allison Hagendorf’s “Rock This” playlist — which combines rock and alternative — as an example of a bright future.
“Rock will never have the metrics to compete with all that manufactured pop and hip-hop,” he says, showing off some vintage rock attitude.
“Rock ‘n’ roll is very ‘shook’ right now,” insists Grammy-winning Portugal. The Man front man John Gourley. “It’s too formalized, with its own rules and regulations. You can’t just be a rock star by rehashing things you’ve seen or done before. Bring something new, which is what hip-hop does best.”
The veteran indie outfit from Portland-by-way-of Alaska dominated the pop charts and commercial syncs with “Feel It Still,” fueled by a bassline cribbed from The Marvelettes’ classic, “Please Mr. Postman” bringing some ‘60s spin to Gourley’s falsetto. After five indie releases and three albums for Atlantic Records, the veteran group scored their breakout hit, prompting them to issue the tongue-in-cheek T-shirt, “I liked Portugal. The Man before they sold out.”
“You can never predict a hit,” nods Gourley. “This song just came together naturally. The bassline is the first thing I came up with — that thump made me think of Motown, soul and real tight songwriting. I want to share music that we grew up with for this generation, the music my parents shared with me.”
Ironically, the band dubbed the new album, “Woodstock,” after Gourley discovered his father’s tickets to the landmark 1969 rock festival, and even begins the album with a sample of Richie Haven’s “Freedom,” a hallmark for the record’s stylistic diversity.
“No one wants to recreate what was done before,” says Gourley. “This is about a time when music was fresh, when the sound was expanding, which is all we wanted to do.”
To judge by the reaction to budding midwestern rockers Greta Van Fleet during a three-night stand last fall at L.A.’s Troubadour, blues-based rock ‘n’ roll would appear to be alive and well. Signed to veteran rock A&R Jason Flom’s Lava Records and repped by industry gatekeepers like attorney Nick Ferrara and WME’s Marc Geiger, the young band consists of 21-year-old twin brothers, lead howler Josh and guitarist Jake Kiszka and their younger sibling, bassist Sam. Greta Van Fleet is the poster band for combining the rock and alternative formats, garnering airplay on both KLOS and alternative powerhouse KROQ. In some quarters, they’ve been touted as a new Led Zeppelin, an accolade they whole-heartedly embrace, even as the 7 million-plus streams for the band’s most popular song, “Highway Tune,” are dwarfed by the 1.4 billion for Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.”
“We’re trying to create something new based on what’s come before,” says Josh Kiszka, whose high-pitched wail has evoked comparisons from Robert Plant to Bon Scott and Janis Joplin. “It’s something that comes very naturally to us as we were raised on this music. We want to create our own ‘60s in the ‘20s while still in our 20s.”
Whether rock’s demise is imminent or we’re on the cusp of a rebirth, Gourley is just pleased his band’s music is getting wider recognition. “I like the challenge of writing music without being the coolest guy or band in the room” he says. “We can’t predict ever having a hit like this again. But we’re still going to try like hell to have another one.”