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What makes the genre


A short narrative based on data analysis of classic rock radio stations

Just another conversation around Classic Rock!

Rock is vast genre of music, with various sub-genres and artists. One of the very popular sub-genres being Classic Rock has been defined in various ways but never with an actual definition. In recent years, several other artists can be heard on the Classic Rock radio stations, which doesn’t seem to fit the bill. With such confusion, one might wonder what is it that defines Classic Rock?

Classic rock is a radio format which developed from the album-oriented rock (AOR) format in the early 1980s. In the United States, the classic rock format features music ranging generally from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, primarily focusing on commercially successful hard rock popularised in the 1970s.

Let’s have a look at Walt Hickey’s article ‘Why Classic Rock Isn’t What It Used To Be’ on Walt 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. 

The 10-year period from 1973 to 1982 accounts for a whopping 57 percent of all song plays in the set. If we look at the formation year of popular and widely accepted classic rock bands, we see that most of the bands are from the same era as above.

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. Because music is a multi-dimensional, multimedia phenomenon, the design of a musical composition can be described on several levels. The “Elements of Classic Rock songs” described below explain specific terms and concepts that will help us better understand and describe the style of Classic Rock music.

Current Scenario

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Non classic


Currently, radio stations are playing the role of defining the genre. As people would agree, back in those days since radio stations were among the biggest music source, whatever the stations played would make a huge impact on listeners. In fact, radio stations are now using data to make their music selection and any radio company with the resources conducts regular studies in its major markets to find out what its listeners consider classic rock. 

Wellman, the Classic Rock brand manager for Clear Channel has 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.”

By the same data from radio stations, the bands which are considered classic rock and played more often in those cities were plotted and analysed. We can see recent bands like Metallica, Nirvana are being played a lot by classic rock radio stations in cities like St. Louis and San Francisco.

But if we look closely, out of the 20 bands plotted only 5 of them can truly be considered under classic rock. The commercialisation of music has led radio stations to define the genres in the way which seem fit to the mainstream listeners and fetches them the revenue.  


Ideologically, 'classic rock' serves to confirm the dominant status of a particular period of music history – the emergence of rock in the mid-1960s – with its associated values and set of practices: live performance, self-expression, and authenticity; the group as the creative unit, with the charismatic lead singer playing a key role, and the guitar as the primary instrument. This was a version of classic Romanticism, an ideology with its origins in art and aesthetics.

‘Classic’ as a word means ‘judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind’ and that is what makes Classic Rock a ‘closed’ genre. With that being said, a lot of music from the non-classic Rock genre can be easily identified and further categorized into newer genres like Progressive Rock, Alternative Rock, Punk Rock etc where the sounds are similar and ‘inspired’ but can’t be termed as Classic. It can be defined as the type of rock music that appeals to white male baby boomers’ nostalgia but what also makes it Classic is its appeal and likeability to listeners irrespective of them being alive during that period. 

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