Music Industry

Further to Hip Hop Passing Rock in the US: Could This Be Part of the Reason?

The story about hip hop’s market share passing that of rock (in the US, anyway) has been circulating on the interwebs for the last couple of days. To hip hop fans, these sales/consumption figures just confirm something that they’ve known for years. Rock fans are either confused or in denial. But hey, the numbers don’t lie.

I’m interested in the “why” of this cultural sea change. Here are some thoughts.

  • Hip hop has been on the ascendant for a couple of decades, so anyone who chose to extrapolate its popularity vectors could have predicted this long ago.
  • Record labels–especially the majors–are focusing most of their attention on servicing and catering to hip hop and rap audiences. By comparison, the promotion of anything with a guitar has fallen drastically. We’re seeing the results with the public.
  • I’d like to see the ratio of hip hop/rap/R&B radio stations to rock stations in the US. More exposure inevitably means more popularity.
  • Hip hop (with help from R&B) is constantly generating new major stars. Rock has lagged behind with superstar creation for most of this century.
  • The hip hop industry is filled with great marketers. Say what you want about Kanye, Jay Z, Diddy, Drake, Beyonce and so on, but they do a fantastic job of keeping their names and their music in the news.
  • There’s a certain consumerist aspect to hip hop that might appeal to a wider range of people. While rock fights labels of “selling out,” hip hop has always had an element of “cashing in,” something that fans understand and appreciate.
  • Hip hop and R&B are voraciously consumed through streaming. So far, rock fans lag far, far behind in adopting streaming. Like I said in a couple of interviews yesterday, it’s extremely rare to find even ONE rock song among the top 200 streaming songs in any given week. (Why are rock fans not streaming music in the same numbers as fans of other genres? That’s a great question and will be the subject of a separate post.)

Ah, streaming. This might be the biggest clue to what’s happening. This is from Quartz.

In the 1990s, CD sales still dominated. Digital-music streaming has now outstripped physical album sales and iTunes downloads as the primary way people listen to songs; with this new order comes both a new audience and a revamp of music charts.

Streaming’s audience is young, and young people identify more with the innovations in rap culture than the somewhat stagnant, parents-generation genre of rock, which hasn’t put out much many new icons in the last few decades. Some rappers are also notoriously prolific and business-savvy, and their off-beat marketing tactics are winning listeners over.

Chin up, American rock fans. Your music is still number one when it comes sales of actual CDs and vinyl with a market share of 40%. That’s nice, but since streaming is the future…


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37893 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

2 thoughts on “Further to Hip Hop Passing Rock in the US: Could This Be Part of the Reason?

  • Couple points: First, it’d be interesting to see the cost of producing hip-hop albums vs. rock albums because no doubt the record companies factor that into their decisions around which to sign and push. If you can lock in a couple hip-hop producers to label-friendly deals to create the beats, they can likely find someone to mumble over them easily and save big over a full band/session players/extensive studio time.

    Second, with the impossibility of tracking the number of time CDs are played, we can’t trust the share of total spins numbers beyond the streaming segment. However, we can seemingly trust the numbers from various tours and the composition of the lineups for major festivals (although I find that live hip-hop rarely sounds good in either club or festival setting).

  • I think one of the issues that should be explored further is the link between Top 40 and streaming, rather than just hip hop. The fact hip hop dominates both streaming and the Top 40 just furthers the underlying ephemeral nature of popular music. Meanwhile rock music has much more staying power, and therefore generates substantial album sales.

    I’ve seen this behaviour in my own household:
    – My oldest daughter is a Top 40 girl, and streams constantly. Owning music isn’t something she cares for, because there’s always a new fresh track coming out that will overtake the current one. Other than the occasional throwback Thursday, most of her listening is focused on songs less than 2 years old.
    – Meanwhile, my 2nd daughter is an emo kid, and while she streams a lot of music, she is also building up a CD collection. When asked why, she points to owning that piece of music, and listening to it over and over and over. These albums are often 5 to 10 years old, but she has built deeper connections to these artists and wants to own their entire catalog, even if the songs are all available online.

    Based on the numbers that have been bouncing around lately, I can definitely see it as a microcosm at play in my own home.


Let us know what you think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.