Can Classic Rock remain relevant in an increasingly brutal radio environment?
The ways that people consume music have changed rapidly in recent years. Internet and satellite radio and streaming have made significant inroads, weakening the power of traditional radio. In some ways, Classic Rock has weathered the fickle industry better than other formats. But it can sometimes feel like Classic Rock is its own worst enemy.
Salon recently posted an interesting piece about Classic Rock radio. It noted several issues facing the format and offered suggestions for 10 songs that Classic Rock stations should stop playing. Salon’s point was that overreliance on certain chestnuts might feel like a sensible defensive move in the short term. In the long run, however, such limited thinking could lead the format to its own downfall.
Keeping the issues raised by Salon in mind, I took a look at a week’s worth of playlists (for the period from April 12 through April 18, 2016) for WZLX, the premier Classic Rock station in the Boston market. Of course, this is just one station, though as a part of the CBS radio group, one might detect some issues that could apply to similar stations under the same owner.
WZLX’s published playlist excluded a few hours that didn’t feature locally-produced programming. Otherwise, the playlist represented about 160 hours of music, featuring approximately 645 songs. Of the ten songs that Salon suggested that Classic Rock put on ice, WZLX played nine of them, most of them more than once. Only Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)” didn’t turn up during that week’s regular programming.
Examining WZLX’s playlist turns up some interesting observations.
Most of the artists you’d expect to hear on a Classic Rock station were there. The top ten acts played weren’t a big shock. In order, they were: The Rolling Stones (54 plays), Van Halen (44), Led Zeppelin (44), The Who (40), Tom Petty (38), Aerosmith (38), U2 (37), Pink Floyd (36), AC/DC (32) and The Beatles (32). Among those acts, all the biggest hits you’d expect to hear made the week’s playlist, some multiple times. But WZLX also managed to feature lesser known singles and album cuts from most of the acts, providing some welcome variety.
The prominence of U2 demonstrates how effectively ’80s music has penetrated the Classic Rock format. Classic Rock originally focused exclusively on hits from the ’60s and ’70s. The decision to add the ’80s about a decade or so ago wasn’t an easy evolutionary step. But now the ’80s are firmly entrenched. Not only that, but Classic Rock has embraced the ’90s and even started playing some songs from the early ’00s. The styles represented at Classic Rock include hard rock, southern rock, traditional/AOR rock, folk rock, progressive/art rock, grunge, blues rock, psychedelia and heavy metal. It covers a lot more ground than one might think.
However, the WZLX playlist bears out a common criticism of Classic Rock radio: it’s repetitive. From a list of about 645 songs, less than a third were played only once. Approximately another third of the list represented songs that were played twice. More than a third of the list represented songs played three or more times. The most played song on WZLX for the week was “Must of Got Lost” by The J. Geils Band, spun seven times. Nine songs were played five times. Another 43 songs were played four times.
Compared to a contemporary hits station, that might seem like a comparatively low level of repetition. But when you consider that Classic Rock is a format that has decades of music available to it, whole albums and not just singles, that seems rather limited. Consider that the top five acts on WZLX for the week accounted for more than a third of all the songs on the playlist. No one is suggesting that stations should abandon the Stones or Zeppelin. But clearly the format can do a lot better at spreading the attention around.
Another observation that Salon made is borne out by WZLX’s playlist. Female artists are horrifically shortchanged. Out of 645 songs, only 14 featured a female lead or co-lead: eight plays for Heart, three for Fleetwood Mac that featured the band’s female singers (out of four Mac songs played), two for Janis Joplin and a single play for The Pretenders. In a week when WZLX managed to give three spins to a Rolling Stones cover act, they couldn’t find time to play even one song from Pat Benatar, Joan Jett, Scandal, Stevie Nicks or the Motels, all of whom had #1 rock singles in the ‘80s.
Salon noted several female acts that are shamefully missing from Classic Rock playlists. I’d add the likes of Sheryl Crow, Alanis Morissette, Alannah Myles (the last female solo artist to top the Mainstream Rock chart, back in 1990), ’Til Tuesday, The Cranberries and Tracey Chapman. The eras covered by Classic Rock were rife with successful female rock acts. Ignoring women adopts the worst trait of contemporary Active Rock radio.
Classic Rock radio has other diversity issues. Artists of color fare slightly better than women, receiving 30 spins for the week. But that statistic is less impressive when you consider that all 30 were for two artists, Jimi Hendrix (24) and Santana (6). Not that Hendrix and Santana don’t deserve the attention, but they’re hardly the only non-white artists important to the evolution of rock music. How such an ‘80s-focused playlist could ignore the decade’s iconic, genre-defying stars Prince and Michael Jackson is baffling. And is there really no room for Bob Marley, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston and Lenny Kravitz? These are genre-spanning artists, many of whom are explicitly acknowledged as key influences on a variety of rock acts.
With that in mind, it’s almost progressive that WZLX devoted so much of its playlist to Queen (30 plays), whose frontman exited the closet long ago. A few other LGBTQ artists or lead singers were featured, including Judas Priest (6 plays), David Bowie (18) and Elton John (3). Frankly, John feels underplayed, given his importance to Classic Rock’s development and popularity. And while Bowie gets a good number of plays, all the songs picked were fairly obvious and highly repetitive, ignoring his vast, complex catalogue.
This isn’t an attempt to force a PC agenda on a retro format. These female, non-white and non-straight artists were vital hitmakers in the decades covered by Classic Rock radio. Ignoring them now amounts to a shameful whitewashing of rock’s past. How can a format claim to be “Classic Rock” when it omits core artists?
No one’s expecting Classic Rock radio to make massive, wholesale changes. Fans love the artists and songs that receive heavy exposure on the format. There are good reasons this music has endured and remained in the spotlight. But that doesn’t mean that better balance isn’t needed.
Even if Classic Rock has zero interest in improving diversity, it can still provide more variety among the artists it does play. WZLX’s playlist revealed several other acts one would expect to be more prominent not getting much attention for the week. That includes Bon Jovi (2 plays), Bruce Springsteen (11), Cheap Trick (9), Genesis (6), Jackson Browne (2), John Mellencamp (4), Journey (9), The Kinks (1), Kiss (6), Metallica (9), Peter Gabriel (5), Red Hot Chili Peppers (6), Foo Fighters (5), Steely Dan (2), Styx (4) and Van Morrison (1). Based on a one week sample, it’s impossible to say whether those are trends or anomalies. The disparity between the most played acts and these neglected stars is curious either way.
Classic Rock can be a fun, engaging format. It needs to be bolder in evolving its sound and in providing variety. With such a vast universe of great songs available to it, one can’t but feel that the format is passing up the opportunity to bring in new listeners and remain vital.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on April 21, 2016.