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Is Rock ‘n’ Roll on Its Last Legs? or Just in a Slump?

Guess what’s practically disappeared from the Billboard Top 10 this week? Here’s a hint: Something that is such an elemental ingredient in the pop experience that you never imagined it could disappear.

Would you believe . . . rock ‘n’ roll?

With AC/DC’s “The Razor’s Edge” at No. 9 this week, there’s only one rock album in the Top 10. In fact, it’s been nearly 14 months since a rock group topped the Billboard charts (when Motley Crue spent two weeks at No. 1 in October, 1989).

Look at it this way: In 1988, five rock groups had No. 1 albums (U2, Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi and Van Halen). In 1989, it was just two (the Crue and the Fine Young Cannibals). In 1990: zero.

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What worries record industry execs even more is that Contemporary Hit Radio (CHR), radio’s key hitmaking format, has been ignoring rock too, focusing on dance, rap and pop hits. (Just look at Radio & Records’ CHR chart, which has only six bona-fide rock singles in the Top 35.)

Is rock simply in a slump? Has MTV ruined rock ‘n’ roll? Are rap stars like Vanilla Ice and M.C. Hammer stealing away young fans? Or is putting together a garage-rock group no longer a big part of the adolescent American dream? We asked some industry experts for answers.

Bob Pfeiffer, A&R; exec at Epic Records: “The fundamental problem is that in recent years liquor laws have changed and forced rock clubs to restrict admissions to fans 21 and over. So club scenes are dead everywhere. That’s hurt young bands because it took away a big economic base of support. But more importantly, the root experience of rock ‘n’ roll--the excitement of turning 18 and going to see a live rock band--is over. If you’re 19 now, you’re either going to movies or watching MTV. By the time you’re 21, that combination of sex, drinking and rock ‘n’ roll isn’t so vital anymore. Live rock just isn’t such an integral part of kids lives.”

Hale Milgrim, president of Capitol Records: “There’s no doubt that middle America really got into rap music for the first time this year. When CHR responded by playing a lot of it, it became a lot harder to find a new rock band on the radio. Does that mean rock is dead? I don’t think so. Maybe it won’t be as important to today’s kids as it was to the generation that grew up in the ‘60s. But I think it’s just going through another evolutionary phase. Growth isn’t unhealthy, even if it isn’t all positive. Who would want rock to just stay the same?”

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Bud Scoppa, vice president of artist development at Zoo Records: “You definitely get the feeling that the field of play has diminished. With radio looking elsewhere, there aren’t many viable avenues of exposure for rock music. The video monster has taken up so much of our revenue as an industry--and attracted so much attention from consumers--that rock bands are aiming for MTV stardom now. They’re not out playing in smoky dives every night. And the ones you do see, especially out here, aren’t playing for the love of music. They’re trying to tailor their performances to get a record deal.”

Carey Curelop, program director at KLOS-FM: “We’re at a fork in the road with CHR radio. The recent ratings show that people are burned out by the steady diet of dance and rap hits. In the fall of 1989, Power 106 had a 6.2 share of audience. This summer they fell to a 4.3. KIIS-FM was at 5.4 last fall. Now they’re at 4.9. There’s been a similar downtrend across the country. I think you’re going to see radio broaden its playlists and make room for guitar-oriented bands like the Black Crowes and Slaughter.”

Ed Rosenblatt, president of Geffen Records: “Lack of support from CHR radio is definitely a big factor--it’s totally turned its back on rock. We’ve sold a million copies of our Black Crowes album with minimal CHR play. But there just haven’t been that many rock records in the marketplace. Look who hasn’t put out a record this year--Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith, Van Halen and a ton of other bands. Wait till next year.”


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