Just three years after hard rock's commercial vitality was in doubt, the first-week sales splash of Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails adds dramatically to the mounting evidence that the aggressive musical genre is thriving.
Soundgarden's "Superunknown" album sold an estimated 163,000 copies last week to enter the national pop chart at No. 1, while Nine Inch Nails' "The Downward Spiral" sold an estimated 119,000 to enter at No. 2 when Billboard magazine hits the newsstands Saturday.
That's the highest 1994 first week sales showing since the holiday shopping spree ended in January with No. 1 and No. 2 albums by Mariah Carey and Pearl Jam generating similar sales tallies.
"Anyone who tells you that rock 'n' roll is dead is completely out of touch with what's going on in the music industry," said Mike Fine, chief executive officer of SoundScan, the New York research firm that monitors sales data for the music industry.
"Five years ago, no one ever saw an underground rock act burst on the mainstream pop chart the way they do now. But ever since Nirvana crossed over, the commercial potential of alternative rock is taken seriously by the people who run the music business."
What's particularly encouraging to the industry is that Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails now appear to add to an already impressive list of young best-selling bands, including Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Smashing Pumpkins and Soul Asylum. Both the new Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails albums are expected to continue to sell strongly through the spring and summer as the bands tour across the country.
"Rock is definitely going through a big resurgence right now," said Al Cafaro, president and CEO of A&M Records Inc., the label that releases Soundgarden's music.
"There's a flurry of brilliant artists out there like Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails, each exploring their own creative vision. These aren't musicians who manufacture contrived products to appeal to the pop marketplace. The reason they're so successful is that they make inspired, high quality music."
While surveys suggest that the number of rock fans purchasing music has declined since 1989 from 43% to 33% of the $10-billion domestic market, rock-oriented consumers still purchase twice as many albums as country fans and four times the amount bought by rap fans.
Rock music accounted for more than $3 billion in domestic sales last year with many of the nation's biggest hits being delivered by new acts. Pearl Jam--which broke the record for the biggest selling debut in October with its 950,000-selling "Vs."--sold more records in the United States last year than any other artist, generating an estimated $72 million from sales of its two albums.
The success of alternative acts from Pearl Jam to Nine Inch Nails coincides precisely with the rise of Generation X, whose alienation is captured succinctly in a new rebellious music that helps differentiate young fans from their parents.
Many in the industry also credit alternative rock's sudden high visibility to SoundScan. In many cases under Billboard's old system, store personnel frequently failed to report the sales of budding bands with whose music they were unfamiliar.
Alternative rock artists fare much better under SoundScan because figures are entered into a computer every time a clerk runs an album through a bar code scanner at the sales register.
Analysts speculate that this week's showing for Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails will encourage record executives to gamble on signing more unconventional young artists--laying a foundation for an even broader resurgence.
Record companies have already begun to invest more money to develop new acts, giving "baby" bands more time and bigger budgets to build a fan base and hone their chops on the concert circuit. Such efforts have paid off handsomely in grooming acts like Spin Doctors, Blind Melon, Counting Crows, PJ Harvey, Liz Phair and the Afghan Whigs.
"The 13-year-old to 21-year-old customer is a huge chunk of our business and they're buying tons of music by a brand-new crop of original rock artists," said Mike Murray, vice president and general manager of the Ft. Lauderdale-based, 520-outlet Blockbuster Music. "There used to be only a couple sure-bet heavy-hitting superstars out there who dominated the rock industry, but that's just not the case anymore."