Classic rock

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This article is about the radio format. For the magazine, see Classic Rock (magazine).

Classic rock is a term originally used to define a specific radio format concentrating on playing proven Album Oriented Rock (AOR) content which has a high audience recognition and identification. Since the mid-1980s, classic rock has become a loosely defined genre and a general marketing category. Also known as 'oldies', 'gold', or 'retro', playlists usually encompass the mid-1960s to early 1980s years with an emphasis on guitar based bands such as Led Zeppelin, Bad Company,Cream, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Foreigner, Free, Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, and Vanilla Fudge. Many of the bands considered classic rock could also be classified blues rock and/or hard rock during their active careers. The most common classic rock band line-up is: a lead singer, lead guitar player, a rhythm guitar player, a bass guitar player and a drummer, although many bands also featured a keyboardist, at least on some tracks, in place of the rhythm guitarist. Since the 1990s the format has increased in popularity due to the consumer power of Baby boomers,[1] radio marketing,[2] and latter day reunions of many bands that defined the era.


In the 1960s FM radio began to attract listeners who were bored with mainstream programming following new FCC rules that forced owners of AM/FM combos to limit their simulcasts of AM radio programming on FM. As a result, FM became experimental for awhile. One of the earliest (if not the earliest) progressive rock stations in the country was WNEW-FM in New York with a short lived format in November 1966, while San Francisco's KMPX, programmed by disc jockey Tom 'Big Daddy' Donahue in April 1967, is generally regarded as the father of the FM radio format.[3] Donahue, a former Bay area promoter and manager, saw the need for stations to tap into the prevalent counter-culture mood and exploit emerging non-commercial bands such as The Doors and Blue Cheer, without need for being tied to formal playlists.[4] This freeform style of radio radicalised the way music should be programmed by allowing whole albums to be played, not just a restricted selection of single top 40 tracks. A number of pioneering releases during this period greatly enhanced the value of FM radio for record companies and artists, including The Moody Blues' 1967 Days of Future Passed, regarded as the first unified concept album, Iron Butterfly's 17 minute opus 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida', and the Pretty Things' SF Sorrow, the world's first rock opera concept album in 1968. Since concept albums were never recorded with the hit single format in mind, FM stations began to play select tracks or entire sides (called 'sweeps') ahead of AM stations, with very few interruptions with talkback and advertisements. This format eventually transformed into 'progressive rock' radio, where rock oriented 'head music' in the seventies as FM began to become more structured.[5] AM was still the band for top 40 music, but by July 1978 FM had overtaken AM stations at least in terms of music station numbers.[6] Former top 40 empires such as WABC and WINS inevitably became talk stations.[7]

The end of the 1970s marked the first beginnings of radio industry deregulation, which allowed big companies to gain a stronger foothold on the radio industry. Many FM radio stations which once played cutting edge and experimental music during the 1960s and early 1970s, under the AOR umbrella, were forced by the economics of rationalisation and networking to solidify playlists for consumer consumption, leading to further market segmentation.[8] Donahue had predicted that freeform radio wouldn't last as the format became less unique and radical over time.[9] As the original listenership demographic for the AOR broadcasters aged, in order to maintain advertising revenue, some stations adopted a policy targeted at the older 'Boomer' segment of the market. Invariably younger listeners were also co-opted into the branding of the songs, as being representative of a nostalgic 'golden age' in music.[10]

Films such as FM in 1978 captured the awareness of change between the consideration of playing music foremost and that of the encroachment of corporations on playlists. Radio station employees at Los Angeles' QSKY fight running commercial spots on what was a non-commercial station. The soundtrack for the film featuring Boston, Steve Miller, Tom Petty, Queen, Steely Dan, and Linda Ronstadt would become part of what would be called the classic rock format and was an essential part in the marketing of the film.[11] The television series WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982) also touched on the issue of changing formats - top 40 pop versus classic rock. The plot revolves around the new program directors plans to adopt a new 24-hour 'rock' programme due to falling ratings.[12]

Classic rock stations

The first station to anticipate a format move and call itself 'classic rock' on-air was WYSP Philadelphia, in January 1981.[13] Program director and midday disc jockey Dick Hungate teamed with AOR radio consultant Lee Abrams in a brain-storming session during which such alternate on-air describers as 'timeless' and 'vintage' also were considered. Hungate created the playlist and achieved a manual song rotation via colour-coded 3x5 index cards, sorted and separated according to age and perceived song popularity. He had worked across the street at competitor WMMR as music director and midday personality, so Hungate knew the local tastes for classic album rock. Hungate worked on the principle that the most enduring classic rock songs and artists would have proven to appeal to new generations of listeners as well as older listeners who knew the music when it originally appeared. After this first successful switch, KQRS in Minneapolis (led by program director Doug Sorensen) tried the classic rock format next, in mid-1981. The format took hold when programmer Tom Bender and radio consultant Fred Jacobs of Jacobs Media launched it in Dallas, Texas on AM station KRQX.[14] Another early classic rock station was in Lansing, Michigan (WMMQ) followed in quick succession in Kansas City (KCFX), Washington D.C. (WCXR), Buffalo (WHTT), New York (WXRK) and Phoenix (KSLX). By 1984, more than 40 stations in the United States were calling themselves classic rock music stations. In 1985, Coca-Cola launched 'New Coke', and as soon as the company recognised they had made a major mistake, they embraced the word 'Classic', endorsing the term further in popular culture.[15]

Two other factors also assisted the development of the classic rock format. Firstly, the adoption of the compact disc as the standard player format for radio in the mid-1980s also greatly enhanced the listener quality for many remastered and re-released recordings from previous years. Stations working within a tight budget spent money upgrading existing platterlogs often at the expense of new vinyl releases. Secondly, as record companies experienced financial difficulties in the late 1980s, the labour intensive Artist & Repertoire (A&R) departments invariably were reduced to limit expenditure. Labels found it easier to bank on proven artists, rather than risk new artists, and exploit their back catalogues where mechanical royalties provided a stable income for both record company and songwriters alike.

In 1996 a new Telecommunications Act was signed into law. It lifted the restrictions on how many stations a company could own in one city, and increased the few broadcaster conglomerates owning the majority of stations in the United States. This saved some stations from closure but resulted in a homogenisation of existing radio station formats. The largest conglomerate network is Clear Channel Communications, which has a series of classic rock stations that are usually branded as 'The Fox'.

Cultural phenomenon

The 1990s witnessed the development of classic rock as a cultural commodity.[16] Auction houses held high-profile events designed to assist them sell of particular rock collections, attracting not just private buyers but public sector museums that had become more interested in popular culture (and the everyday) as part of local and national heritage. Both the United States and the United Kingdom built Halls of Fame to cater to recognise the past. Classic rock has formed the staple of many movie soundtracks in the last few decades. One film, Wayne's World highlights the use of classic rock within the format of a cable television show dedicated to the music, while television series That 70's Show uses classic rock songs as episode titles as well as artist posters in various backdrops. MTV realised the potential for the market by launching VH1, which specialises in an older rock listening demographic. The video game market has also seen the release of Guitar Hero and Rock Band, using classic rock songs.[17] Magazines such as Classic Rock, Mojo, and to a lesser extent Shindig! and Relix, which specialise in classic rock artists have attained widespread circulation and readership. In 2008, Classic Rock surpassed long-time leading publication NME in readership numbers.[18]

Classic rock songs are increasingly used in advertising, as companies realise the potential of the 'Baby boomer' economy.[19] Advertisers realise that the interest in music can lead to interest in products being advertised. In 1995, 'Start Me Up' by the Rolling Stones was famously used by Microsoft for their Windows 95 campaign and 'Are You Experienced?' by Jimi Hendrix for internet company Excite. Other notable ad campaigns include the Styx tune 'Mr. Roboto' for Volkswagen and Mountain's 'Mississippi Queen' for Budweiser.[20]

The emergence of Grunge music mirrored the influence of classic rock. Grunge took the hard rock of the sixties and seventies found on classic rock radio programming and combined it with the aesthetics and grass-roots based business strategies pioneered and developed by independent record companies. As a result, the recording industry was able to expand its infrastructure into the sphere of small independent labels while at the same time garnering radio exposure. Bands such as Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Collective Soul, Alice in Chains, and Stone Temple Pilots, were able to be played alongside traditional classic rock radio repertoire. Green River obtained its name from a Creedence Clearwater Revival song, Dave Grohl cites Led Zeppelin as an influence, while Black Sabbath and Hendrix was often name checked by grunge music's leading guitarists.[21]


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