On classic rock (as defined by radio)

As one might conclude from reading my Presty the DJ posts, my musical tastes can be described as more than anything else what radio calls “classic rock.” (Independent of my unfulfilled career interest in being a rock radio DJ.)

I am one of those music listeners who might tend to confound classic rock radio station programmers. With few exceptions — of course, Chicago — I listen to songs, not bands. My new smartphone therefore has about 400 songs from probably 100 different acts, a few of which aren’t rock acts (for instance, Johnny Cash, the UW Marching Band and the London Symphony Orchestra).

So what is “classic rock”? It is, probably first, a radio station format. Nearly every radio station market has at least one — WKLH in Milwaukee, WAPL in the Fox Cities (which calls itself “mainstream rock”; their playlist tends to get more new at night), WIBA-FM in Madison, WTCX in Fond du Lac, WGLX in Wisconsin Rapids, and Eagle 102 in Dubuque are several I have heard on a semi-regular basis.

As a genre of music … that’s a more interesting question. It seems to start around the Beatles, but not include the Beatles’ more pop early works. It includes all of the Rolling Stones, because the Stones have been harder rocking at least since “Satisfaction,” though good luck finding “Route 66” on the radio. The “classic” part of classic rock seems to refer to a similar timeframe as “classic hits” (WOLX in Madison, Super Hits 106 in Dubuque, The Bug in Wautoma, the Great 98 in Mayville) or the relatively new “classic country” genre.

When I was in college I did a magazine journalism class story about Madison radio station ratings, which had Z104, then and now the pop music station, as number one. For that story I interviewed WIBA-FM’s program director, who said he was uninterested in any radio listener younger than 18. That was in the days when WIBA-FM’s playlist went from the Beatles and Stones to harder rock of those days.

The funny thing about WIBA-FM is that every time I hear it now, it appears to play almost exactly the same music as it did when I listened in high school and college. (With an exception I’ll get to later.) If they go so recently as Pearl Jam and Nirvana, I haven’t heard them on 101.5.

(WIBA-FM is owned by Clear Channel, and Eagle 102 is owned by Cumulus, and those two are the two biggest radio station owners in the U.S. So if their version of classic rock is more homogenized than others, that’s probably why. Both carry Bob and Tom — who are unlistenable for anyone with kids in the car, and really are not appropriate for a music format anyway — instead of an actual local morning show, and WIBA-FM carries Sixx Sense with Nikki Sixx, formerly of Mötley Crüe — who replaced Nights with Alice Cooper — instead of an actual local nighttime show. The evils of satellite radio and voice-tracking is a subject for a different blog, however.)

The Five Thirty Eight website moved from the New York Times to ESPN.com, and is branching out besides politics in such areas as the definition of “classic rock” by radio station market:

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 stations operating in 30 of the country’s largest metropolitan areas for a week in June. 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.

I found that classic rock is more than just music from a certain era, and that it changes depending on where you live. What plays in New York — a disproportionate amount of Billy Joel, for example — won’t necessarily fly in San Antonio, which prefers Mötley Crüe. Classic rock is heavily influenced by region, and in ways that are unexpected. For example, Los Angeles is playing Pearl Jam, a band most popular in the 1990s, five times more frequently than the rest of the country. Boston is playing the ’70s-era Allman Brothers six times more frequently.

To put today’s classic rock on a timeline, I pulled the listed release years for songs in the set from the music database SongFacts.com. While I wasn’t able to get complete coverage, I was able to get an accurate release year for 74 percent of the 2,230 songs and 89 percent of the 37,665 song plays. The earliest songs in our set date back to the early 1960s; the vast majority of those are Beatles songs, with a few exceptions from The Kinks and one from Booker T. and the MGs. A large number of songs appeared from the mid-’60s through the early ’70s. Classic rock peaked — by song plays — in 1973. In fairness, that was a huge year — with the release of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”(an album of classic rock staples), Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy” and Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” —  but the trend steadily held for the rest of the ’70s and through the mid-’80s. …

But clearly it’s not just when a song was released that makes it classic rock. Popularity matters, as does as a band’s longevity, its sound and a bunch of other factors. To find out why some artists are considered classic rock, I spoke to Eric Wellman, the classic rock brand manager for Clear Channel, which owns nine of the 25 radio stations in our data set. He’s also the programming director at New York’s classic rock station, WAXQ. Wellman said release years have nothing to do with what makes a song “classic rock”; the ability of the genre to grow based on consumers’ tastes is one of the things that’s given it such longevity.

The piece includes these fascinating graphics:

Some of these are, frankly, inexplicable. The Allman Brothers are part of the Southern rock genre, and certainly Boston meets no one’s definition of “Southern.” You’d think either Billy “New York State of Mind” Joel or Bruce Springsteen, from the Jersey swamps, would be number one in New York, but instead Springsteen is number one in Chicago. You’d think Yes’ popularity in Seattle and Pearl Jam’s popularity in L.A. would be reversed. Particularly amusing are the apparently enduring popularity of REO Speedwagon in Tampa, Paul McCartney and Wings (which stopped recording together around 1980) in Houston, and Kiss in Charlotte.

According to classic rock radio, here is your top 15 most played classic rock songs …

… and artists of all time:

Of the first list, I have only these four on my smartphone:

Of the second list, I will eventually have all of them, but not necessarily the songs people would expect from those groups:

What about Chicago? Glad you asked! WIBA-FM used to play a few early Chicago songs, such as “Make Me Smile” (only part 1 of “Ballet for a Girl from Buchannon”) and “25 or 6 to 4.” Since I live on the border of being able to hear them, I don’t know if they still do that. I’m guessing not if their playlist has slid from ’60s through ’80s to ’70s through ’90s rock. Chicago perhaps has been more pop than rock since probably the “Hot Streets” album, but “25 or 6 to 4,” “Questions 67 and 68,” “I’m a Man,” “Free” and “Dialogue” should count as rock.

Then again, one thing that’s always struck me as strange about the definition of classic rock is its emphasis on bands over their music. Classic rock stations play the Eagles’ “Lyin’ Eyes” and “Southern Skies,” even though they really are country songs. (How do you tell? The contraction of “cannot” is pronounced “cain’t,” which is odd for a band based in California. Then again, you’d never guess from their sound that Creedence Clearwater Revival came from California, not a Southern state.) I like Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” though I’m not sure that sounds like a classic rock song either; nor does “My Hometown.” Dire Straits gets a lot of classic rock airplay, but do “Sultans of Swing,” “Walk of Life” or “So Far Away” sound like what else is played on classic rock radio?

Classic rock is what used to be called “album rock,” the album (as opposed to single) versions of rock (as opposed to pop) songs. The album version of Chicago’s “Beginnings,” from the band’s first album, “Chicago Transit Authority,” is seven minutes long.

The single version, which was played on AM Top 40 radio stations, is about three minutes long. (And edited so badly as to be almost unrecognizable.)

Radio has gotten more segmented over the years, to the point where there are classic rock stations and there are current rock stations. (Any station that plays current music, of course, is at the mercy of today’s music. Listeners who think today’s music is of poor quality — Britney Spears? One Direction? — won’t listen.) Segmentation was an apparent response to a decrease in listeners (and corresponding drop in ad revenue), and yet listenership to music on the radio continues to drop. It’s not clear to me that this approach is working. Giving listeners less — less variety in music, fewer live and local voices — is not more.

To pick up on what I wrote 1,500 or so words ago, my tastes are more to songs than bands. You might be able to tell from the above-listed songs that I am not a fan of sappy ballads (which takes out a lot of Chicago’s work since “If You Leave Now,” the band’s first number one single), and not really power ballads, and not very many slow songs.

A proper rock band should have at least one guitar, a bass guitar, keyboards and drums. Plus, of course, a trumpet, trombone and saxophone, but you knew that.

 

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