What Will Become of Classic Rock? I Think It’s in Trouble

I’ve been thinking a lot about classic rock lately, specifically as a viable radio format.

  • At what point do demographics make classic rock irrelevant?  If the sweet spot for advertisers is adults 25-54, when is the classic rock audience too old to bother with?
  • When the Baby Boomers die off–and they’re starting to–what will programmers do about their classic rock stations?
  • What happens when the classic rock artists start dying off in large numbers?
  • How long can classic rock artists continue to tour?  Many of the bigger stars are in their upper 60s and lower 70s.  Good for them, but time is not on their side.
  • What is classic rock, anyway?  Yes, it’s Beatles, Boston, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Van Halen.  Old rock?  But how old do you have to be before you’re, you know, classic?  When alt-rock radio started picking up in the late 80s, “classic” was anything ten years old or older.  In 2000, “classic rock” was anything before about 1985.  So where’s the dividing line today? So many bands of the Alternative Nation era have been around for decades now.  Will bands like Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Soundgarden and the Chili Peppers ever see their music pass over to The Other Side?  Should it?
  • Or is it possible that there are certain classic rock songs/artists that will live forever?  Could it be, for example, that today’s music just isn’t as good as that old stuff?

And it’s not just classic rock.  Radio consultant Sean Ross takes a look at timeless songs that apparently aren’t so timeless anymore.

Five years ago, or so, it seemed that some songs had been assigned a place in the “eternal jukebox.”  Certain all-time classics had an appeal that didn’t depend on actually having grown up with them. There were obvious common-denominator wedding/party/barroom songs — “Brown Eyed Girl,” “At Last,” “Respect,” “Margaritaville,” “Summer Of ’69,” and especially  “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Don’t Stop Believin’”.   In addition,  an enterprising music supervisor in TV or movies could at times turn any obscure oldie into hipster exotica for a moment as well. And you could count on hearing “Limbo Rock” at any toddler’s birthday party, even if it wasn’t on the radio.The conditions were right at that time for people to listen to oldies that went beyond their own high-school music. Sharing music among friends, especially on a zip drive full of MP3s without artwork, removed the “my dad’s music” stigma. Current Top 40 and country product was rapidly improving, but not yet dominating. Current rock product was weak. The 17-year-old who liked classic rock was quickly moving beyond the anecdotal stage to something seen in ratings and station research. The oldies/greatest hits format had made a PPM-era comeback that revealed its audience to be 25-54, not just 45-plus.

Many of those conditions are different now.

Continue 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.

Alan Cross has 38321 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

10 thoughts on “What Will Become of Classic Rock? I Think It’s in Trouble

  • Here’s the last 20 songs played by K-Rock in Edmonton, AB;

    cheap trick
    bad company
    38 special
    jimi hendrix
    bon jovi
    neil young

    red rider
    led zeppelin
    the eagles
    tom petty
    zz top
    van halen
    allman bros
    guess who

    I’d say that the only band on this list that is ‘new’ in the Classic Rock catalog is Bon Jovi and given that Livin on a Prayer is from 1986, yes, Classic Rock is going to die.

    Maybe it’s different elsewhere, but at K-Rock, new songs aren’t being added, and they don’t even want to pursue that angle. I recall when Nirvana’s You Know You’re Right was revealed, the local paper asked all the radio stations how important it was. K-Rock’s answer was; “Who’s Nirvana?”

    I think as a genre is destined to live on on satellite or streaming internet stations, but it can’t be a viable radio format for much longer.

  • I suspect the classic rock era will hold a special place in history for centuries. A confluence of forces combined to create a very unique period in time… amplification, the electric guitar, multi-track recording, the LP, FM radio and a host of sociological and demographic factors. In my opinion Classic Rock started around the time of Rubber Soul (IMO the first real album), the next decade was awesome and then the machine became too big… but it took a while to die. I don’t know what that means for radio and demographics but it’s hard to imagine it going away anytime soon.

  • I’ve heard REM, PJ, Nirvana, Big Sugar, The Hip and a few other 90’s rock songs slipped into Q-107 the past few months, it will be a gradual transition, but the classic rock stations will just broaden their spectrum

    • Heck the last 12 hours on Q have included REM , Ramones, Teenage Head, Junkhouse, The Tragically Hip, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and The Clash, and a bunch of other Canadian artists from the 90’s we’d all like to forget except they somehow ended up hosting an afternoon drive show and that justify’s playing his crap songs few times a day

  • Well said, Dan! Here’s my take:

    Weezer = The Cars
    Smashing Pumpkins = Boston
    The Black Keys = Bad Company
    Radiohead = Pink Floyd
    Pearl Jam = Hendrix/The Who/Neil Young/The Doors
    Nirvana = Beatles + Cheap Trick
    White Stripes = AC/DC + Led Zep
    Guns N Roses = The Stones
    Arcade Fire = Talking Heads
    Soundgarden = Sabbath
    Beastie Boys = Bowie (cultural chameleons)
    Springsteen = Dylan

    so what’s the problem again? I’m not saying the above artists are equals or just as great or whatever (that’s all personal taste of course), just showing sonic similarities. I’d take a station that plays most of the above any day of the week over virtually all other options (stodgy NPR talk/cheesy country/lite rock/nauseating Top 40/Pandora’s faulty algorithms/monthly streaming service fees to keep ads away, etc.). A formula almost disgusting in its simplicity & effectiveness: “we simply play THE GREATEST ROCK OF ALL TIME.”

    A better question might be: how little evolution can classic rock radio get away with & still thrive? Black Sabbath, ZZ Top, The Stones & Paul McCartney have all put out pretty good new music (70 is the new 50?). Not to mention the grungesters (Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains), U2, Green Day & Foo Fighters are still alive & kicking. The Strokes/Hives/QOTSA/NIN/RATM/Sex Pistols/Patti Smith/Velvet Underground = other artists besides the above that Classic Rock radio could easily play if they ever want to “evolve” slightly (then again, Duck Dynasty & WWE & Monster Trucks & a Babe of the Day on your website are all BIG business in America these days, so apparently evolution is overrated).

    So play all the above bands (even if it’s only 1 or 2 songs each from the 90s alt bands), throw in Sublime, Marley, The Dead, a little 80s hair metal, Clapton & The Eagles & that’s a pretty impenetrable shield of ROCK to ward off any and all (insert streaming/fancy tech gadget/app here) pretenders to the throne!

    Classic Rock radio is like comfort food…the twinkie of radio formats? A safe, known, proven commodity that the business community (esp. in smaller markets) can get behind (unlike say, hip/hop/rhythmic formats), regardless of any public perception that they are “behind the times” or could play “more diverse eras/types of rock music” or even if the DJs are seen as unlikeable and/or offensive! The twinkie is not necessarily the best thing for your overall health though, obviously, as race plays a factor as well (mostly white business owners are scared of black artist-dominated formats & even if a radio company knows they will get HUGE ratings with rhythmic Top 40, they know they won’t be able to “sell” it & make money because of advertiser reluctance to be associated not only with that style of music, but with the audience that likes it). Racist or prudent business move? You be the judge…Conversely, in areas (like Houston) where the Hispanic population is large & supports radio, alternative rock stations that had proven successful for many years have been flipped to all-Spanish in a heartbeat. So I guess what I’m saying is, once the hip-hop generation (regardless of skin color) takes over enough businesses to control local advertising pursestrings (IF that ever happens), you might see the demise of classic rock radio. If not, you won’t. Like “ever, ever, ever” (to quote Clear Channel subsidiary radio star Taylor Swift).

  • Classic rock will always have more lasting power than the disposable music of today. There are millions of classic rock fans across the globe–old and new–dispossesed with the current state of music. The key is to tap into that. The trick is to repackage and forcefeed the timeless music of the past down the throats of both the music industry and fans of chart-friendly pop to the point where they would have no choice but to accept it and step aside. Basically this involves a new technology that will ultimately redefine what music is.

  • Thanks Jeff, I would add that I don’t think any of us want the world to be this way. I was fortunate to grow up in the 70s and early 80s…. akin to living in Vienna during the time of Mozart. Unfortunately the world keeps changing and not always in ways that favour musical creativity. It’s also true that the well has been tapped dry and it really is difficult for current artists to bring fresh sounds (but not impossible).

  • I live on Long Island NY. Radio sucks here. Absolutely sucks. The rock stations we do have are variations of the classic rock model adding to their playlists 80s/90s hair bands and other more “modern” sounds. Kind of like the Q107.1 (Toronto) style. (From what I remember, when I lived in Waterloo 12+ years ago)

    For some reason whoever manages these ny stations seem afraid of playing new music — so they’ve interpreted “classic rock” as anything that has been commercially successful in the past

  • In the Philly (Philadelphia) area, I found (3) radio stations playing Led Zeppelin simultaneously!
    I feel internet radio fowled things up. Collect a bunch of MP3 you didn’t buy, subscribe to online steaming, presto, you have a radio station (as the call “At Work”)! There are some services that actually grade past songs. Why a lot of stations sound the same; similar playlists.
    Even those songs that can be categorized as Rock aren’t played, mainly Adult Contemporary – as I describe as songs that don’t feature primarily electric guitars! I don’t feel radio needs listeners, why they NOW offer paid vacations as rewards. They show their sign-up lists to advertizes as proof. Don’t feel Arbitron is doing much of anything for radio, with everyone wearing ear-buds – so much for PPM! Will (Classic) Rock die? Not really, it will just thin out on radio. DJ aren’t even music collectors, so much for anything interesting played. Many a too young to remember “Classic” Rock. No such thing as Classic Rock, just like “Oldies”, depends who you ask.

  • Meh, classic rock sucks. Even stupid garbage like Rebecca Black’s “Friday” is better than anything classic rock. Listen to good music instead, like R&B, country, New Orleans jazz, 2000s rock, blues, and folk. Leave the dadrock in the past where it belongs.


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