Why Classic Rock Isn’t As Classic As It Used to Be

You may have noticed that radio stations that feasted on classic rock for decades are sounding a little different. To some ears, they just aren’t, well, as classic as they used to be. Many of the tracks from the 60s that used to form a big chunk of the format’s foundation have been shuffled off to the Land of the Oldies. Meanwhile, songs that were once considered too cutting edge for classic rock have found themselves aging into the format.

Hey, Nevermind came out 24 years ago, right? If you’re in that sweet spot of new rock listeners–those 18-24–you weren’t even born when the record came out. And it’s not just Nirvana that’s in its pensionable age, radio format-wise. Pearl Jam, the Chili Peppers, Green Day, Jane’s Addiction, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails–they all fit the age requirements for being classic rock. Okay, maybe not the image and spirit of what has traditionally been promoted as classic rock, but we should face facts about our march towards the heat death of the universe.

The original classic rock audience–those who thirsted for a steady diet of Beatles, Zeppelin, Stones, etc.–are aging out of the coveted ad demos. Those coming in behind them have no history with the culture of the 60s and 70s. Their classic rock begins in the 80s. Time to change up the music on the radio station

The FiveThirtyEight takes a deeper look at the changing sound of classic rock radio. There’s some really hard data here that explains everything.

Led Zeppelin is classic rock. So are Mötley Crüe and Ozzy Osbourne. But what about U2 or Nirvana? As a child of the 1990s, I never doubted that any of these bands were classic rock, even though it may be shocking for many to hear. And then I heard Green Day’s “American Idiot” on a classic rock station a few weeks ago, and I was shocked.

It was my first time hearing a band I grew up with referred to as “classic rock.” Almost anyone who listens to music over a long enough period of time probably experiences this moment — my colleagues related some of their own, like hearing R.E.M. or Guns N’ Roses on a classic rock station — but it made me wonder, what precisely is classic rock? As it turns out, a massive amount of data collection and analysis, and some algorithms, go into figuring out the answer to that very question.

No one starts a band with the intention of becoming classic rock. It’s just sort of something that happens. Figuring out which genre a band fits into — is it techno or house? — has always been a tricky part of the music business. Identifying what’s classic rock is particularly challenging because it’s a constantly moving target, with very different kinds of music lumped together under the same banner. How the people who choose what music you hear — whether on the radio or an Internet streaming service — go about solving this problem reveals a deep connection between data and music.

To see what the current state of classic rock in the United States looks like, I monitored 25 classic rock radio stations1 operating in 30 of the country’s largest metropolitan areas for a week in June.2 The result, after some substantial data cleaning, was a list of 2,230 unique songs by 475 unique artists, with a total record of 37,665 coded song plays across the stations.

Keep reading.

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.

One thought on “Why Classic Rock Isn’t As Classic As It Used to Be

  • October 19, 2015 at 9:05 am

    As time goes by the fashion and trend stuff fades and you’re just left with the music. Zeppelin, Nirvana and Green Day are all guitar-based rock. That the latter two sneered and wore ripped clothing becomes less and less consequential.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

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