Surprise! Rock and roll is the big seller in the music world as the classic genre beats hip-hop, R&B, EDM, country and even pop
by Jim Farber
Long live rock!
The pop charts may be filled with R&B, hip-hop and even country music — but, it turns out, your dad’s moldy old rock ’n’ roll rules as the nation’s largest seller.
The latest numbers from Nielsen/SoundScan reveal that rock comprised 29% of America’s total music purchases in all formats in 2014, slaughtering its nearest competitor (R&B/hip-hop) by 12 points. Rock nearly doubled the sales of pop (at 14.9%), and it’s in another land compared to country, which represented just 11.2% of sales. It killed trendy EDM (at just 3.4%)
Maybe it wasn’t such a surprise, then, when AC/DC opened the Grammys last week — or when the album of the year award went to Beck instead of chart-toppers Sam Smith or Beyonce.
“Rock may not be in the forefront of everyone’s minds, but there are an incredible number of fans that still want it,” says Robbie Snow, a vice president with the Disney Music Group.
But it’s telling just what kind of rock fans want.
Nielsen numbers show that classic rock — by acts such as Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin or the Eagles — account for 60% of the genre’s album sales. And with cataloge sales outdistancing sales of new albums for the first time this year, those figures take on greater meaning.
“When up to 50% of your sales come from catalog, and the base of that comes from rock, it adds up,” says the company’s number cruncher, David Bakula.
Nearly half the Top 200 Catalogue chart for 2014 featured rock titles.
Furthermore, one of the top selling acts in the country right now is a boy band called the Beatles. Forty-four years after the Fab Four let it be, the group sold more than 1 million albums in the U.S., according to Universal Music Vice President Steve Wengert.
Led Zeppelin moved over 800,000 albums last year, spurred by the sterling re-release of their catalogue overseen by Jimmy Page. At the same time, Fleetwood Mac sold 441,000 while Pink Floyd moved nearly 350,000 albums. That band’s seminal “Dark Side of the Moon” — which came out in 1973 — sold another 185,000 copies last year.
A few contemporary rock albums did sell swimmingly. Two of the year’s Top Ten sellers turned out to be Lorde’s “Pure Heroin,” whose 1.4 albums sold made it the No. 6 seller of the year, and Ed Sheeran’s “x,” which moved 1.39 million, nailing the No. 8 slot.
Still, the top selling rock album of the year mines the deep past. The “Guardians of The Galaxy” soundtrack — a compilation of songs from the ’70s — sold 1 million copies, recalling the glory days of K-Tel. It's the biggest selling soundtrack since "Frozen."
Classic-rock from the ‘60s and ‘70s isn’t the only rock moving significant tonnage. Green Day’s “American Idiot” and Alanis Morissette’s “Jagged Little Pill” keep drawing audiences. At the same time, popular contemporary rock acts, like the Black Keys and Foo Fighters, draw more listeners back to albums by predecessors from Nirvana to AC/DC.
So, who buys rock? It’s not only geezers, experts say.
“Rock from the 1960s and ’70s was so good, it has turned on whole new generations of kids,” says Mark Pinkus, president of the catalog label Rhino. “Each album is like a ‘Greatest Hits.’”
Small wonder fans of classic albums buy every track, while contemporary albums tend to inspire cherrypicking just individual songs. The result helps further bulk catalogue sales.
Wengert says certain classic albums serve as a youthful rite of passage. “Everyone discovers ‘Dark Side’ and Bob Marley,” he says. “You hear the Beatles or Led Zeppelin and you know you have to (buy) it.”
Another factor boosting rock is vinyl. 71% of sales in that turn-table friendly format came from guitar-based music. And vinyl's overall numbers grew by 38% this year, to 9.23 million.
Technology has also made it easier for younger fans to learn about classic albums and to purchase them. They can check out the music on YouTube, then download it on iTunes.
According to Pinkus, the ever-growing jam-band scene has clued younger fans to both learn about classic rock albums, and to purchse them. "If you're a Phish fan but don't know The Dead, we have lots of albums for you," he says.
Of course, there’s something depressing about old music having the edge over new. Worse, more and more listeners don’t buy anything, preferring to stream. On-demand streaming songs soared 54.4% in 2014. (In the streaming arena, rock still did well, finishing second to hip hop/R&B).
If anything, however, this lends deeper meaning to what people will still pay for. Label executives say sales of rock catalog albums are already up this year over last.
“One of the great things about music is that it can always find a new audience,” says Snow. “It lives forever.”
Will today's music find a new audience in years to come? I highly doubt it. Classic Rock 4Ever!