Classic Rock Fan Base Growing, Not Fading
New generations discover '60s and '70s music and feel its power
Many of the classic rock bands — loosely defined as those from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s — may have lost some of their band mates and broken up a few times, but their fans are still hardcore about hitting their concerts and buying their new albums, just not on vinyl.
Classic rock artists are still raking in millions of dollars. An Eventbrite study found nearly 40 percent of those surveyed still attend rock concerts, and they tend to be affluent, earning more than $130,000 a year. What’s more intriguing is that classic rock is no longer just a nostalgic trip down Memory Lane for those who remember the political anthems and songs of social consciousness at Woodstock.
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The kids who rolled their eyes in the backseat of their parents’ car are now embracing the playlists they once mocked. Psychology Today published an article suggesting that vintage classic rock fans who became parents tended to introduce the genre to their kids, which led the millennial generation to develop emotional attachments and sentimentality to the music.
This may explain in part why the classic rock listener demographic has grown younger. In 2014, Nielsen ranked classic rock as the ninth most listened to format by millennials. Technology has allowed younger generations to discover their musical roots through streaming audio, online radio, iTunes, film soundtracks, YouTube song covers and social media.
“Music holds up when the elements that originally attracted fans are powerful enough to excite new listeners. This happens with increasing frequency today, when virtually the entire history of recorded music is only a few clicks away,” Kurt Loder, legendary Rolling Stone editor and former MTV News anchor, told LifeZette.
From the time of classic rock’s heyday to now, media patterns fueled the nostalgia. The excitement and experimentation of new technology — from the record player, Walkman, boombox, speaker systems, CDs, to digital computers and iPods — offer endless new modes of music consumption.
Music collectors who once took pride in their vinyl portfolios eventually began to aggregate more albums with the help of new media options that made storing music easily transportable and more manageable. No prior generations had the ability to pass music down at nearly the same rate.
Another curious development: Classic rockers have remained in the spotlight for several generations because the stars simply don’t want to retire. Despite their senior-citizen status, the musicians who filled stadiums in the 70s continue to sell out tours around the world.
They’ve also become business savvy. In addition to the tours, a number of rockers have published autobiographies to reflect on their legacies and provide new context to the narratives surrounding their music.
Famous rockers continue to fuel the media hype by snarking at their fellow classic rockers. In a recent interview for Esquire Magazine, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards ripped The Beatles’ classic work, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” calling it a “load of s—.”
Unsurprisingly, the comment made waves in the sea of social media and reinforced the relevance of these bands. The message: They may be vintage (euphemism for “old”) but these rockers are no old-timey fuddy duddies.
Yet, there’s an even more compelling reason the 50-year-old musical genre continues to have so much staying power. This is the soundtrack of the baby-boomer generation. There’s a first time for everything, and those memories are relived through the lyrics and rhythms of classic rock.
These are same music producers and executives who now run corporate music and media outlets, so it’s understandable that classic rock holds a place of reverence and authority to some degree in our culture.
The classic rock era peaked before 24-hour music television such as MTV pressured artists to become more telegenic. The 1960s and ’70s were comparable to the television show “The Voice” today. An artist wasn’t judged by his or her attractiveness, per se, but by the melodies and artistry that came across when the needle hit the vinyl.
The era naturally maintained a raw quality of experimental vocal harmonies and instruments. The music industry was on the verge of a technological dawning, but it was still a time when talent remained essential. Over the decades, studio-quality technology found ways of masking or altering a mediocre performer, and all bets were off.
“Some of it is nostalgia, but most of it is rooted in the ambition and genius of the best artists of that era,” David Wild, Rolling Stone contributing editor, remarked to LifeZette.
Gary Eaton, who played in The Continental Drifters, a band featuring members of the Bangles, The Cowsills, and some other underground bands, believes the musical era was a renaissance of not only rock musicians, but also a time of creative, original music production in every genre.
“Though I’m not that nostalgic, I do wish I’d been a working musician during the Wrecking Crew years. That group of musicians defined ’60s and early ’70s pop music. They played on everything,” Eaton told LifeZette.
The originality of classic rock musicians enabled them to remain relevant even when electronic pop stars emerged in the ’80s and ’90s.
“There have been technical improvements in rock music for sure — digital recording, synth technology, sampling, etc. Rock music is still largely driven by guitars, drums, and bass … so that hasn’t really changed much,” veteran rock radio programmer Harve Alan told LifeZette. “Rock music has gotten harder, but in my opinion that has helped pull back its popularity. So, from a texture standpoint, the softer and more melodic side of rock music has been chased away to Alternative and Hot AC/Top 40. Someday it might cycle back.”
The period’s music became the amber in which the youth of boomers is frozen in time. Modern technology enables them to experience it in new and innovative ways. Karaoke is one of the more popular traditions that’s kept classic rock alive. The incidence of singalongs across generations is a testament to the power of the era’s timelessness, talent and inspiration decades later.
The artists of this music period could be considered “modern-day Mozarts,” Alan said.
“Styles change, but talent and inspiration are eternal. People tend to lament the passing of the past,” Loder said.
Eaton said it’s about “time and place.”
“I think it’s more of a nostalgia thing for a lot of people. That music takes people back to a ‘time and place.’ I know it does with me. For instance, every time I hear The Police’s ‘Roxanne’ I think of driving up the 405 in my beat-up Toyota pick up truck,” he said.
Judging by the continuous airplay and concert loyalty, classic rock has a foundation of skilled artistry that continues to merit nostalgia while it invites new listeners to join the ride. If there was ever a genre capable of wide appeal across generations, it’s rock — an authentic style of music that harkens back to a simpler time that even younger generations can appreciate.