Photo: Chris Koontz
Sure, rock has always been driven by its listeners. Most of the best guitar-centric musical movements -- from the positive psychedelic rock of the Beatles to the grinding death metal of Cannibal Corpse -- were elevated despite the upturned noses and furrowed brows of polite society. No matter how much radio stations, MTV, and soft drink ads pushed bubblegum pop and adult contemporary, rock, punk, and metal have always drawn so many rabid fans that they can’t be ignored. There have always been gold in them hills, even as dudes in spiked leather scream about running to them.
What changed was the industry, especially with the arrival of the Internet. The advent of streaming platforms like YouTube, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp meant that a big, overplayed radio single couldn’t sell whole albums, and fans could vote with their dollar. Suddenly, flashy bands being touted as the next big thing by label hype machines were getting less attention than the vulnerable kids down the block making music in their basement apartment. Bit by bit, this closed the gap between mainstream and underground acts, inspiring labels, managers, and venues to work with artists who would’ve been considered too weird, loud, or low-to-the-ground back in the day.
As such, all of rock -- even the most palatable, radio-friendly genres -- has become somewhat underground. Even the biggest bands who play aggressive, guitar-based music exist outside of the public eye, certainly much farther out than hip-hop and pop do toay. That’s because those genres thrive, at their cores, on glamor, mass appeal, and the cult of personality, whereas rock fans are drawn to it because they’re helplessly completed by it. If a bubblegum pop star is no longer the flavor of the week, they stand to lose it all; rock musicians, on the other hand, will always appeal to a body of people who need them.
To put it another way, Paramore and Nine Inch Nails may play larger stages than Meshuggah and The Black Dahlia Murder, but they all make music for fans who feel like the world doesn’t understand them.