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Why Does Classic Rock Overperform?
So many outlets comment on this, and we've seen it, too. Why is this?
By Kent Anderson
Classic rock — which I’ll define as rock music that came out 20 years ago or more on the young side and ends with Elvis at the other extreme — is a source of some puzzlement. When you play it, write about it, or review it, this particular genre seems to consistently exceed expectations, attracting larger audiences, generating more followers, and getting higher spikes than a lot of more current music, or other musical genres.
I’ve seen it again and again, from bands to critic sites to my own dabbling in writing about music. Touch something from the classic rock oeuvre, and the needle moves. Try something from pop, country, metal, rap, jazz, classical, or hip-hop, and the needle may shiver at best.
The following is my attempt to figure it out.
It’s a “best of” collection in waiting. “Classic rock” has been filtered — only the best songs have survived as part of the genre. There were plenty of bad songs produced during those decades — I recall a band named Wrabit, some truly bad April Wine songs — but they haven’t been carried forward. In essence, “classic rock” is a greatest hits selection from a set of decades. It’s tempting to think that this aspect carries a lot of weight, but again and again, I see people exposed to classic rock songs they’ve never heard — many of which aren’t in rotation on classic rock playlists or radio stations — react with wonder at the sounds, songs, and performances.
It’s a repetition thing. People like music the more they hear it. Classic rock is played in a lot of venues, and has been revived by singing shows like “The Voice” and others. But, again, first-listen reactions undercut this. There’s something more.
It’s an “age thing.” This one I don’t buy. I know plenty of young people who have a lot of classic rock on their Spotify playlists, and who seek out classic rock stations and concerts. Crowds at the recent Rolling Stones tour were far more balanced from an age perspective than you’d think would be the case for a band where most members are in their 8th decade. Also, rap is an old genre by now, yet it doesn’t get the same responses when played.
What could it be, if not a result of bad songs being eliminated and oldsters acting as tastemakers? Here are some possible reasons.
It sounds better. There seems to be something sonically that people still find very appealing about songs in the classic rock genre — especially compared with the hyper-compressed sonic landscapes of modern pop, hip-hop, metal, and rock. Compression has come with digital music, creating soundscapes that seem to have a more limited range of dynamics, are uniformly loud, and feel more aggressive and less warm and friendly. There’s also the fact that most of the instruments vibrated wood — guitars, pianos, Hammond organs, amplifiers, and more. There’s a warmth there that may come across in the sound.
Harmonies. Pivoting from the prior point, the classic rock era is known for some incredible harmony singing, from the Eagles to Hall & Oats to Boston to Queen to Kansas to Chicago to the Doobie Brothers to REO Speedwagon to Def Leppard to Bon Jovi — the list is long and lustrous. Specific vocal groups — now usually “boy bands” or “girl groups” — can still excel with harmonies, but to do it while shredding? That’s something classic rock still owns.
Musicians. Another pivot, this time to the comparative prominence of musical virtuosity among classic rock acts. It was the era of guitar gods, monster drummers, and keyboard legends. Musicians gained adulation for their playing. I don’t see that happening as much now, in the producer-heavy, singer-centric world of pop. Don’t get me wrong — the musicians are still out there. They just aren’t mixed, marketed, and made front and center in the same way.
Big sound setups ruled. During the heyday of classic rock, powerful amps, large speakers, and entire rooms were devoted to playing the music of the day. Today, it’s earbuds and small Bluetooth speakers more often than not. David Byrne’s theory about musical arrangement and sound profiles being created to fill an available space may be worth bringing in at this point. Classic rock came to fruition when music was being played in a number of settings in parallel — clubs, bars, concert halls, arenas and ice rinks, living rooms, bedrooms, and outdoor venues — all publicly and most often loudly and proudly. The sound had to work in all of them, with the result being a big sound that is also warm. Now, a lot of listening is private or in specific places. You get sub-genres like lounge, club, and bedroom from this. In the classic rock era, big, clear, public sounds were nearly the only goal.
Bands ruled. Most enduring classic rock acts were bands. There’s a magic with a band, in that a good one can make almost any composition come to life in a particular way as ideas are channeled through the members and the collective group. Bands of talented individual musicians working together gave each act a particular sound, as seeking new collective identity was the norm. Perhaps the overall effect — a music that sounds human — came out of this. Think of the Cure vs. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Very different bands, on purpose, mainly because of the players.
In the end, I think the major elements of why classic rock overperforms when discussed in forums like this is that it has a sound that’s warmer, more human, more suited for “big” sound, and less compressed than other genres. The musicianship, the harmonizing abilities of many of the groups, the palette of band identities, and more all contribute to songs that sound more organic and approachable.
Maybe those are the reasons it overperforms. We’ll see if that holds true once again when we review the data from this post . . .