Are solo artists an endangered species at Mainstream Rock radio?
For more than a decade, it’s certainly felt that way. The confluence of various industry trends has combined to push solo artists from the top of Mainstream Rock playlists. After years of prominence at the format, solo artists are lucky to get any notice there.
It’s not a problem for all of rock radio. While Alternative has had periods where solo artists have struggled, that format has re-embraced them in recent years. They never went out of style at Adult Alternative. Classic Rock continues to play vintage hits by rock solo artists (and occasionally some more recent cuts, when veteran acts release new music).
How did solo artists become such a marginal factor at Mainstream Rock radio?
It was a different story in the ’80s. Going back to 1985, Billboard’s Mainstream Rock chart was filled with solo artists. Dozens hit the chart every year, often with multiple singles. But rock radio was a different place then.
Billboard’s Mainstream Rock radio panel was a much larger tent in the ’80s. It was dominated by Classic Rock stations and targeted a somewhat older audience. Acts that came to prominence in the ’60s and ’70s were still making a lot of new music and were staples at the format. Hard Rock stations were a smaller, though influential, component. Alternative stations also were accounted for in the Mainstream Rock panel (and wouldn’t be separated out into the Modern Rock chart until late 1988). Mainstream Rock also featured a shocking number of what would now be considered Soft Rock artists. People you could never imagine popping up on rock radio today (Richard Marx, Michael Bolton, Marilyn Martin) all hit the Mainstream Rock Top 20 at the time.
In general, Mainstream Rock had more of a “give anything a spin once or twice” ethos. It also emphasized albums over singles. Even the biggest hits could race up and down the Mainstream Rock chart in only a couple of months. With such higher turnover, there was a lot more room for a variety of voices. Well-known names like Bruce Springsteen, John Mellencamp, Pat Benatar, Sting, Robert Palmer, David Lee Roth, Stevie Nicks, Don Henley, Robert Plant and Bonnie Raitt turned up regularly.
Beginning in the late ’80s and early ’90s, various trends began reshaping the world of Mainstream Rock. The exodus of Alternative stations to their own Modern Rock chart removed a lot of solo artists from the Mainstream Rock chart. Female artists especially were in shorter supply after that move. The increasing consolidation of radio stations in the hands of a few big media conglomerates tended to remove a lot of the programming power from local stations. That meant a bigger focus on singles instead of albums. Songs began staying on the Mainstream Rock chart for months, sometimes the better part of a year. That cut down on available space and was the downfall of the “play anything” ethos.
Many Classic Rock artists began to release music less frequently. As a consequence, many Classic Rock stations began focusing more on past hits and dropped out of the active radio panels that determine Billboard chart positions. Some of the “active” Classic Rock stations eventually became known as “Heritage Rock.” But over time those stations’ playlists drifted more toward Active Rock.
Active Rock stations came to dominate Mainstream Rock. They focused on sounds that were more attractive to the youthful male audience that their corporate parents wanted to reach. That meant a turn toward hard rock in general, especially various shades of metal, and post-grunge. Harder edged alternative rock also did well. In fact, over the course of the ’90s and well into the ’00s, playlists for Mainstream Rock and Alternative had an unusually high correlation.
It’s not a shock that solo artists didn’t fare well in a format emphasizing hard rock. That sound requires a complex interplay of a driving rhythm section and shredding guitar attack. Harder-edged vocals are prized above melodic flow. That sound is easier to achieve with a band. Not that solo artists can’t work in that style, but record companies often find bands easier to promote.
That bias for bands over solo artists drove another phenomenon. In earlier generations, successful bands tended to beget successful solo artists. When bands of the ’60s and ’70s either broke up, went into hibernation or took a break for awhile, members often launched solo projects. At the time, Mainstream Rock tended to embrace those solo efforts. Famous band singers like Mick Jagger, Stevie Nicks, Roger Daltrey, Robert Plant and Phil Collins often juggled successful solo careers with band obligations. And solo stars like Eric Clapton, Rod Stewart and Steve Winwood all worked with well-known bands early in their careers, even if many fans forgot that.
More recent generations have gone a different way. When bands fracture or take a breather, their members are more likely to start new bands. Some ’80s and ’90s vintage frontmen have released solo work (Jerry Cantrell, Serj Tankian, Rob Zombie, Chris Cornell, Dave Navarro). Some have had hits at Mainstream Rock radio. But more often the format has seen alumni of successful bands remake themselves as the leader of a new pack.
Over the past couple of decades, Mainstream Rock doesn’t have a good track record of breaking new solo artists. The likes of Lenny Kravitz, Kid Rock and, most recently, Redlight King have managed to break through the band chokehold on the format. Otherwise, the handful of solo artists that do well at Mainstream Rock have been a few veterans who have managed to weather fickle trends to remain prominent. Most prominently, Ozzy Osbourne, Rob Zombie and Sammy Hagar.
How big has the decline been? In the mid-80s, several dozen solo artists fielded Mainstream Rock Top 20 hits. 1986 seemed to have been the peak, with almost 50 solo artists hitting the chart, often multiple times with different cuts. #1 singles for solo artists were common. Even female solo artists were a regular presence and a few (Pat Benatar, Stevie Nicks, Christine McVie) even hit #1.
Those numbers steadily declined over the next couple decades. Female solo artists became even rarer than their male counterparts. The last woman to have a solo #1 single was Alannah Myles in 1990 (with “Black Velvet”). No solo female artist has even made the Mainstream Rock Top 20 since Tracy Bonham did it in 1996 (with her Alternative #1 “Mother Mother”).
Things haven’t been much better for the guys. The number of solo artists dropped off significantly in the mid-90s, dropping down to a little more than a dozen or so. 1995 became the first year without a solo artist scoring a #1 single. It wouldn’t be the last.
As the number of solo artists on Mainstream Rock continued to dwindle, 2003 scored an unfortunate landmark: no solo artists appeared in the Top 20. That unfortunate feat was repeated in 2009 and 2011. Since 2003, no more than three solo artists have hit the Top 20 in a given year. Since 2003, Ozzy Osbourne is the only solo artist to top the Mainstream Rock chart. He did it twice, with “I Don’t Wanna Stop” in 2007 and “Let Me Hear You Scream” in 2010. The only other solo artists to come within striking distance of #1 recently were Redlight King (“Bullet in My Hand,” #3, 2011) and Chris Cornell (“Nearly Forgot My Broken Heart,” #2, 2015).
The outlook for solo artists on Mainstream Rock isn’t especially encouraging. The format has slowly been incorporating a little more variety into its playlists. Female voices have returned to the Top 20, and even to #1, but via bands. Cornell’s near-scrape with #1 suggests veteran frontmen might have a shot at solo success. Dave Grohl, who scored huge hits with both Nirvana and Foo Fighters, is working on solo material that seems like it will have a good shot at acceptance.
But other signs are less encouraging. Cornell may have scored a big hit, but it was 16 years between successful singles for him at Mainstream Rock. In between his two Top 5 hits, he released plenty of other solo material that the format bypassed. Other frontmen of bands with massive Mainstream Rock hits, like Gavin Rossdale of Bush or Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver, released solo material that didn’t connect. A few weeks ago, Lacey Sturm, whose former band Flyleaf had several big Mainstream Rock hits a few years back, became the first woman to top the Hard Rock Albums chart with her solo debut. And yet her single “Impossible” barely scraped into the Top 30 and never seemed to make it anywhere close to the Top 20. Songs by Alternative solo artists whose sounds would seem to fit Mainstream Rock (Elle King, Coleman Hell) got no attention.
For solo artists to truly find a home at Mainstream Rock again seems like it will require a significant shift in programming attitudes. If that’s on the horizon, it’s not obvious right now.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on March 31, 2016.