November 16, 2005
The appeal of classic rock continues to endure

I first noted a story on how Kids Today were becoming an increasingly large share of the Classic Rock audience. Via John, I see that the WaPo has picked up this theme. It's a long and fascinating piece, and it left me wondering if this phenomenon may finally be the fulcrum for a few changes at the classic rock stations.

[R]adio stations that play "-rock" prefixed by blues, prog, psychedelic, folk, hard, Southern, acid, country, etc., are recording upticks in young listenership: The percentage of 12-to-17-year-olds listening to classic rock stations increased from 2 percent in the summer of 1999 to 2.4 percent during the same period this year, according to Arbitron, which gathers ratio ratings across the country. While that might not seem like a huge jump, an Arbitron spokesman says that 2.4 percent represents the format's highest level of teen listenership since the fall of 1998, the first period for which data is readily available.

"We've surpassed the level we ever thought we could get to in the ratings, and that's primarily due to younger people making this their music," says Bob Buchmann, program director for the New York classic-rocker WAXQ-FM (104.3). The whole thing happened swiftly, he says. "Five years ago, it wasn't cool for kids to listen to their parents' music. But now all of a sudden, it is."

Says Max Dugan, program director at the Arrow [in Washington, DC]: "It's really come to a head in the last three years or 24 months." He adds: "We're getting all these calls and e-mails, with stuff like, 'I heard a great song today; it started with a guitar and ended with piano and there was something about "Layla." Who is that and how do I download it for free?' " (For the 46 readers who don't know, it's a 1970 song by Derek & the Dominos, featuring Eric Clapton. But please consult your family attorney before pursuing an illegally downloaded copy.)

And the digital data are out there, too. Sort of.

Neither AOL Music, iTunes nor Rhapsody could provide any sort of meaningful demographic information about who exactly has been downloading "Back in Black," "Purple Haze" and "Behind Blue Eyes." But Yahoo Music, which claims more than 20 million users monthly, reports that teenagers, the majority of them male, make up about a third of the "active audience" that's listening to and reading about core classic-rock acts like AC/DC, Hendrix and the Who.

Yahoo cannot provide any historical context to show whether this share has or hasn't grown over the past five years. And online music consumers are generally young, anyway. But still, says Jay Frank, a Yahoo Music executive: One-third is hardly an insignificant fraction.

"When some of these [older] artists show teens reacting at rates of 30 percent or greater, it's quite out of the ordinary," he says.


Digital downloading, legal and otherwise, is among the keys to classic rock's resurgence, as the oldies are now a mere mouse-click away.

The recent resurgence of guitar rock has also helped, as young music fans who like the White Stripes might be compelled to check out the band's most obvious influences, such as Led Zeppelin -- in basically the same way their parents might have discovered Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry via the Rolling Stones.

Back in the prehistoric days, when I was discovering what is now known as "classic rock", the way to familiarize yourself with a band's catalog while staying on a budget was to seek out a "Greatest Hits" album (a "Live" album often also sufficed). Those suckers correlate pretty tightly with classic rock station playlists nowadays. With teenagers - who are a growing part of these stations' audiences, and a pretty desireable demographic for advertisers - learning about their fave new discoveries via downloads, which may well take them places that the Greatest Hits albums left unexplored, I wonder if the formats will eventually expand to include a few of the lesser known songs by these artists. It wouldn't be much of a stretch for the Arrows of the world to break out "Happy Jack" or "Magic Bus" alongside "Who Are You" and "Won't Get Fooled Again" if that's what their new listeners start to request. You don't want to bore your new fans with the same old stuff all the time, right?

Well, they're probably still too small a piece of that audience to make much difference, but you never know. In the meantime, I don't know how long this fad will last. It does have one thing in its favor, which is that the music itself is for the most part pretty darned good. There's a reason it endures, and it ain't marketing.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 16, 2005 to Music | TrackBack

"You don't want to bore your new fans with the same old stuff all the time, right?"

Are you not aware of the Clear Channel programming strategy?

But on another note, I'd like to admonish you for the suggestion that purchasing of Greatest Hits collections are a worthwhile approach. Rock snob that I am, I think you can only count yourself as a fan if you've got the first four albums of any band and cast a disparaging comment or two upon any more recent material as being "too commercial." Lacking such context, anyone else is only to be considered a fad follower.

Posted by: Greg Wythe on November 16, 2005 3:38 PM

The fifties retor craze hit when I was but a high school hippie, saving my ticket stubs from the Who and the Stones concerts.

The 80's retro craze seemed to appear about the time Debbie Harry put on a few pounds.

Perhaps the kids following the new retro craze will get as sick and tired of those old songs as we did when we welcomed the New Wave with a "Thank God for some new music!"

Posted by: ttyler5 on November 16, 2005 7:11 PM