Guitar-driven music is not in the rudest of health, but little by little its vital signs are getting stronger, industry insiders say
"I have no doubt rock is not dead," says the man often suspected of being its killer. George Ergatoudis, the head of music at Radio 1 and 1Xtra, stands accused of the premedidated murder of rock bands, of promoting manufactured pop, of ensuring the demise of the great British tradition of four skinny lads in tight jeans clutching guitars. Except, he points out, there’s no corpse.
Rock music’s death certificate is signed with startling frequency. A year ago, after three rock songs featured in the 100 bestselling singles of 2009, the DJ Paul Gambaccini announced: "Rock as a prevailing style is part of music history." This month, after rock’s share of album sales fell to 29.4% – its lowest proportion since 2003 – the obituarists came out once more.
In fact, Ergatoudis says, rock’s vital signs are getting stronger, little by little. "There has been something of a shift," he says. "The obvious signs like the top 40 don’t really tell the story about the underlying interest in guitar-driven music. This year we will start to see the pendulum swing back a little."
Then, he says, there’s the issue of how to define rock: is it just guitar bands? He points out that hugely successful dance acts such as Nero, Chase & Status, Skrillex and Pendulum blend rock with electronica. Pendulum played at the Download heavy metal festival last year, and Skrillex has been booked for this year’s other big metal festival, Sonisphere.
It also depends how you define death. "On the live circuit, it is very healthy," says Cerne Canning, who manages Franz Ferdinand and one new UK guitar band who did break through last year, the Vaccines. "It’s possibly the driver in the live market." Indeed, guitar bands are the staples of the medium-size venues that are the staples of the touring circuit. And heavier bands with little or no mainstream presence are able to fill the biggest venues.
Not that guitar music is in the rudest of health, as even its defenders admit. "As someone who looks for talent, I would admit this area hasn’t been great in recent years," Canning says. "I do worry the cards are stacked against it – it’s as hard [to break a guitar band] as it has been since I’ve been involved with music, since the mid-80s."
At the heart of rock’s supposed demise is the issue facing the whole music industry: the collapse in profits caused by illegal downloading. The conventional narrative holds that with money harder to come by, the major record labels – Warner, Sony and Universal (which has agreed a deal to buy the recorded music arm of the fourth major, EMI, pending official approval) – are less inclined to invest the time and money needed to develop young bands over several albums. Instead, they seek the quick financial fix of putting proven songwriters and producers together with malleable artists, resulting in the glut of X featuring Y hit singles of recent years.
Jim Chancellor, the managing director of the Universal imprint Fiction, is one of the few label bosses to have bucked the prevailing trends. He has helped Elbow and Snow Patrol to massive success after their careers began inauspiciously. Two weeks ago, the third album by another Fiction guitar band, the Maccabees, entered the charts at No 4. The same position was taken this week by the St Albans group Enter Shikari with A Flash Flood Of Colour.
"I’ve always looked to bands for careers," Chancellor says, "because they get better with age. Bands grow into songwriting." He believes the web-driven churn of new music has penalised young bands, who are thrown into the public eye before they are ready and then written off for not being good enough.
What’s missing at the moment isn’t individual bands but a banner around which they can rally. "What there isn’t at the moment is a big scene," says Neil Pengelly, who books scores of rock bands every year for the Reading and Leeds festivals. "There’s not a major label band being successful and then 16 Identi-Kits coming through in a wave and being signed." That’s how rock thrived in recent years, be it Britpop in the mid-90s the garage rock revival spearheaded by the Strokes and White Stripes a decade ago, or the glut of young bands around the time the Arctic Monkeys emerged in the middle of the last decade.
But those flowerings sow the seeds of their own demise, clogging up release schedules with inferior imitators. For every Oasis there are a dozen Northern Uproars, for every Arctic Monkeys a glut of Little Man Tates, and music fans tire of the declining standards. "When I started this job six years ago it was all about guitars and British urban music was nowhere," Ergatoudis says. "British guitar bands were coming out of every orifice. But listeners started to email in saying it all sounded the same. Then the cycle shifted and it’s been difficult for British guitar bands to make any headway."
Within three years, he reckons, the argument about rock’s death will have died, because another flagship band will have begun the cycle again. That band will combine three things: "You need a minimum of one iconic member. They have to have something to say both lyrically and in the public arena. They will need some great tunes, and a bit of an original edge. That’s the magic formula."