Is Rap Really Dancing On Rock's Grave?

Despite the preponderance of rap albums in the top 10, rock is still tops, industry experts say.

Word of rock's death has been greatly exaggerated.

The old saw -- "Rock is dead!" -- gets resuscitated on a regular basis. The latest line of reasoning, advanced by a rash of articles in mainstream publications such as the New York Times and Newsweek magazine, goes that rap and hip-hop artists are dominating sales charts and have marginalized rock.

"Rock's not selling as well as it should, and alternative rock's not capturing the airwaves and popularity waves," Tower Records founder/president Russ Solomon complained. "Even starring acts aren't doing huge numbers."

A glance at the weekly charts tracking album sales would seem to indicate that rap and hip-hop artists have, indeed, staked out the top ranks as their exclusive turf.

Following a week in which only one rock album made it into the top 10 on trade magazine Billboard's 200 albums chart, the New York Times ran a story below the headline "Crossing Racial Bounds, Rap Steamrolls Rock." The Oct. 15 article claimed that such mainstream rock artists as the Smashing Pumpkins, Hole and Marilyn Manson, as well as a range of alternative-rock genres from ska and electronica to the re-emerging glam scene, are being "steamrolled" by the rap juggernaut.

Then, in the first week of November, the weekly newsmagazine Newsweek ran a story on street-level rap promotion, stating that "While high-profile rock bands like the Smashing Pumpkins, Hole and Marilyn Manson have had disappointing sales, hip-hop acts like Lauryn Hill, OutKast and the various protégés of New Orleans entrepreneur Master P have conquered."

So is rock dead?

Well, maybe it's a little early to schedule the funeral. A look at the bigger picture offers a very different perspective.

The fact is that, over the course of the year, rock album sales are holding up quite nicely.

Through the end of September of this year, sales of what SoundScan (a Hartsdale, N.Y.-based firm that monitors music sales) classifies as alternative-rock titles (everything from retro-rock crooner Chris Isaak to metal-rockers Korn) were outpacing sales of rap titles to the tune of 77 million vs. 54 million units. The figures echo SoundScan's numbers for 1997, which showed rock outpacing rap 107 million to 62 million.

Tower Records general manager Jay Smith explained the discrepancy this way: "Rap albums burn out very quickly."

His simple assessment was echoed by a number of industry experts, who agreed that many rap albums storm the charts and post impressive numbers their first week out, but added that few have the stability and staying power of rock acts such as Matchbox 20 and Third Eye Blind, both of which have logged more than a year on the charts.

For every Jay-Z, whose sophomore rap album, Vol. 2 ... Hard Knock Life, has been lodged in the top spot on the Billboard 200 albums chart for five weeks straight since its debut, there's a Mean Green. Mean Green's album, Mean Green Presents Major Players Compilation, debuted at #9 last month but, within two weeks, had dropped out of the top 200 altogether.

"With both hard rock and rap, you have that very eager consumer that has their ear to the ground -- they smell the street date [of an album's release]," Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for Billboard, said. "They don't just know [the street date], they have to own [the album] that first week. And generally, it's not the kind of music that has mass exposure on pop radio or MTV."

Mayfield and other industry insiders agreed that the ability of titles by gangsta-rappers such as Master P and his dozens of No Limit Records acts to earn bullets (a chart notation signifying a fast-rising record) stems from the unique ways hip-hop labels promote their product.

Many labels send teams of representatives onto the streets of major cities to sticker targeted neighborhoods and hand out free promotional items for new acts, sometimes months in advance of an album's release.

Others, like Master P's No Limit, promote upcoming releases in booklets that come with new albums, creating street buzz for acts that, in some cases, haven't even entered a studio yet. Both practices are vital for non-mainstream rap titles, which often have little or no exposure on commercial radio and MTV due to their lyrical content and to the lack of outlets programming that genre.

"With us, it's more about a heavy campaign before the album comes out," said Barbara Pescosolido, vice president of marketing and publicity for No Limit. Pescosolido said that making the label's releases a "team effort" and including ads for new artists in platinum-selling albums by core artists such as Master P and former Death Row rapper Snoop Dogg are the label's signature sales tactics.

"You sell a couple million of those," Pescosolido said of albums such as Master P's quadruple-platinum Da Last Don and Snoop Dogg's Da Game Is To Be Sold, Not To Be Told, "and now you have a couple million people knowing about a new group without much of an advertising cost."

According to Pescosolido, while nearly every one of the company's 16 1998 releases landed in the top 10 during their first week, few of those artists will get the benefit of a second single or video to promote their albums, unlike best-selling folk-rock singer/songwriter/Lilith Fair founder Sarah McLachlan or double-platinum hard-rockers Creed.

"We try to slowly build [our artists'] careers, but we also look for high [sales] numbers the first week because of the intense street buzz on our artists," Pescosolido said. She added that many rap labels do relatively little development work with their new artists in an attempt to build on their album's initial success: "Our fans don't have to hear four singles before they feel like they want to get the records."

While labels such as No Limit and Def Jam often bank on an initial rush of sales and quickly move on to the next project, alternative-rock albums are often marketed in a wholly different manner. An example of the long-term approach to breaking a new rock act can be found in the self-titled debut by the now double-platinum pop-rockers Third Eye Blind.

On the strength of five singles that have received significant alternative-rock radio play and MTV exposure, including "Graduate" (RealAudio excerpt), Third Eye Blind's self-titled debut album has lingered on the charts for more than 80 weeks, despite never rising higher than #25, according to Billboard.

Reprise Records President Howie Klein said he takes the long-term view in his approach to breaking a new artist.

"I'm not someone who believes every record needs to debut in the top 10 or it's a failure," he said.

As an example of the difference between many top-10-debuting rap acts and their slower-but-steadier-selling alternative counterparts, Klein pointed to his own recent success with the Canadian pop-rockers Barenaked Ladies.

The group's latest album, Stunt, has hung around the top 10 longer than nearly every other alternative or rap album this year, racking up an impressive 2 million album sales and climbing as high as #3 in its 16 weeks on the charts.

But that success didn't come overnight. The band formed in 1988, was signed to Reprise in 1991 and spent years doing extensive tours to build a fanbase, which ultimately led to its 1998 breakthrough with the #1 single, "One Week" (RealAudio excerpt).

"For baby bands, there's a whole different approach to marketing," Klein said, pointing to another Reprise artist, Orgy, who are currently touring with Korn.

"We're steadily selling 2,500 a week, every week," Klein said. "No one is thinking about getting into the top 10. Sooner or later, as a function of long-term strategy, maybe, but too many people in the record industry are losing sight of that [approach]."

A possible factor in rock artists' absence from the upper echelons of the charts is the steady stream of debuts by rappers -- unknown, up-and-coming or established -- week after week.

However, a closer look reveals that many rock albums do not necessarily storm the top 10 the first week out, but artists such as Third Eye Blind, platinum-selling Fastball and seven-times-platinum Matchbox 20 have a longevity on the charts unmatched, for example, by any hip-hop release in the top 200 for the week ending Nov. 7.

As always, there are exceptions to the rule. Fugees singer/rapper Lauryn Hill's solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, featuring the hit "Doo Wop (That Thing)" (RealAudio excerpt), has been on the charts for 11 weeks, occupying the #1 or #2 spot for most of that time.

Additionally, several Master P solo albums have hung around the charts for half a year, as has an album by Puff Daddy protégé Mase.

While the audience for rap has more than doubled in the past 10 years, rap and hip-hop still account for less than a tenth of the $12.2 billion U.S. recording industry's sales, according to the Washington, D.C.-based record-industry trade group the Recording Industry Association of America.

Based on year-end data for 1997 from the RIAA (the member companies of which account for nearly 90 percent of all recordings produced in the United States), rock consumers in 1997 accounted for a third of music purchases, followed by country fans, who rang up half as much.

Rap came in fourth, accounting for 10 percent of the U.S. market.

While heavily hyped albums by rock artists the Smashing Pumpkins, Hole and Marilyn Manson debuted in the top 10 in September and quickly fell, most industry sources contacted for this story predict all will eventually attain at least platinum status.

But just as some rap releases rocket to the top and plummet quickly, recent albums by such veteran rock acts as Kiss, Aerosmith and a reunited Black Sabbath debuted high up the charts, only to drop precipitously in their second weeks.

Rap's dominance at the top of the charts is likely to abate somewhat through the end of the year, thanks to releases by such high-profile artists as rock collagist Beck, confessional singer/songwriters Alanis Morissette and Jewel, Irish rockers U2, superstar folk-rockers R.E.M., punk-rockers Offspring, and four-CD box sets from late Beatle John Lennon and blue-collar rocker Bruce Springsteen.

"Eight years ago, people were saying 'rock is dead,' " Mayfield said. "Then, two things happened: the core artists like U2 and R.E.M. came out with new albums, and a new core of artists like Nirvana and Pearl Jam developed."

He added: "It's not been an exceedingly hot year for high-profile rock releases up until now, which has as much to do with the calendar as anything else."