Rock and roll is dead. No, it isn’t! Or is it?
Fewer new rock albums are being made and sold these days than in decades past, with the genre slowly taking on the dreaded label of “the oldies” in the entertainment industry and listeners’ minds alike. And with rock music fading out of relevance, so, too, ends the reign of the electric guitar.
Electric guitar makers are seeing their sales steadily plummet. Leading guitar companies Fender and Gibson are both in debt; Fender was forced to abandon a public offering in 2012, and Gibson’s annual revenue fell from $2.1 billion to $1.7 billion over just the last three years. Guitar Center, the largest chain of its kind, is $1.6 billion in the red.
Some fans blame the rise of the internet, streaming services, video games, and record labels’ pivot of interest to faster-paced genres like hip hop and electronic dance music. Others say it’s the frenetic speed of modern society that’s dulled the world’s appreciation for rock music. Bob Dylan blames race relations.
There is a harder-to-stomach answer: Rock music, without fresh faces who show enough potential to usurp or at least rival the greats, may simply be getting stale.
“What we need is guitar heroes,” George Gruhn, a 71-year-old Nashville guitar dealer who’s sold instruments to the likes of Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, and Neil Young, recently told the Washington Post (paywall). Gruhn and fellow guitar sellers reminisced about the glory days of their trade, when new tracks from Jimi Hendrix and The Beatles were constantly getting people to bolt to their nearest music store for guitars, amps, and pedals to outfit their own basements and garages. Paul McCartney himself also said to the Post:
The electric guitar was new and fascinatingly exciting in a period before Jimi and immediately after. So you got loads of great players emulating guys like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, and you had a few generations there. Now, it’s more electronic music and kids listen differently. They don’t have guitar heroes like you and I did.
Acoustic models began to outsell electric guitars in 2010, and that trend has only continued with every new soft-crooning Ed Sheeran- and John Mayer-like doppelgänger climbing the music charts. And even then, unplugged guitar music has to compete on the charts with the more synthetic sounds of pop and rap.
Guitar makers are sure not giving up without a fight. Fender, for instance, will launch a subscription-based teaching service next month aimed at hooking guitar beginners, and it is also busy designing elaborate new gear such as a line of updatable, Bluetooth-enabled amps. But without enough interest from young music fans—the likes of whom are more obsessed with Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber than Nirvana—the market for shiny new electric guitars may be limited to their parents, who have little reason outside of pure nostalgia to go out and buy them.
Update, June 27: Fender CEO Andy Mooney told Quartz via email that Fender currently has under $100 million in debt, less than half the amount it had in 2012. “Sales of fretted instruments are in great shape and Fender’s electric guitar and amp revenues have been steadily rising for several years,” he said, adding that electric sales are holding steady, acoustic sales are on the rise, and “ukelele sales are exploding.”