Tuning In To Rock of (Older) Ages

Retro Renewal

With a silver loop in one ear, a goatee, and a pair of klunky Doc Martens on his feet, Scott Dirks doesn't look like the kind of guy who listens to the same music as his parents. He doesn't look like the kind of guy who gets excited about Fleetwood Mac.

But Mr. Dirks, assistant programming director at Chicago's WXCD FM, is part of a trend that's changing American radio. In the past two years, according to Arbitron ratings, the number of radio listeners who tune into classic rock stations like WXCD has risen by 70 percent nationwide.

In Denver alone, 30 percent of all radio stations play some combination of rock hits ranging from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, and The Who.

"This station began 25 years ago with a new rock format," Dirks says, thumbing through the racks that contain WXCD's collection of compact discs. "If they'd kept all the old vinyl records from that time, we'd probably be playing them now."

To some industry observers, this is a disturbing development. Classic rock's renaissance, they say, reflects the tastes of a prosperous nation more interested in nostalgia than experimentation.

It's a sign of cultural anxiety, they add, fueled in part by an avalanche of new media that makes it difficult for emerging bands to attract a loyal following.

As classic rock conquers new audiences, they argue, creativity suffers. "The music business is interested in creating new artists and franchises, that's where the money is," says Jeff Pollack, a Los Angeles radio consultant. "If there are fewer slots for new music on the radio, there's less exposure to record-buyers. As a result, modern bands tend to take fewer chances."

Goodbye, Seattle chic

Although music trends are cyclical, and classic genres almost always reappear over time, most observers agree that the popular music business is towing its anchor these days. The "Seattle Sound" of the early 1990s, typified by "alternative" rock bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, has run its course. The country music explosion of the past few years has fizzled, and new genres like rap have resisted the mainstream.

Across the nation, more stations are switching to Top 40 and dance-pop formats some critics denounce as "disposable music." Another chunk is dropping music altogether in favor of talk. Even established megabands like U2 and R.E.M. have been flagging at record stores.

It's a crisis that's spread throughout the music industry and caused chaos in radio circles. After a failed 15-month experiment with country music at WXCD, ABC Radio executives hired Bill Gamble as the station's programming director. After surveying Chicago's radio landscape, Mr. Gamble switched back to classic rock. It's a decision he describes as "kind of a no-brainer."

"We've been watching ratings and auditorium tests for new rock go down in recent years," Gamble says. "Meanwhile, as a guy in his early 40s, there was nothing here for me to listen to. Nobody else in Chicago was playing Fleetwood Mac, so it seemed like a natural choice."

So far, Gamble's strategy seems to be paying off. Among "nonethnic" males aged 25 to 54, WXCD has made substantial ratings gains. It's now somewhere in the middle of Chicago's radio pack.

The masses rule

By all accounts, classic rock's resurgence has much to do with demographics. When radio listeners reach 30, observers say, they tend to revert to the music that reminds them of their youth. For baby boomers and their younger siblings, classic rock fits that mold.

"There's no doubt that the masses rule," says Ron Rodrigues, editor of the trade publication Radio and Records. "One reason the 25 to 54 demographic is so prized by advertisers is that's where half the population is. If that's where the people are, that's what the format's going to be."

Although fans of classic rock argue that their music has a unique ability to cross generational boundaries (Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" remains the most requested song in FM radio history), others trace the music's rebounding popularity to deeper social currents.

"When the economy's good and people are working, you tend to get the least amount of musical experimentation," Mr. Pollack says. "In more troubled times, when the economy's down or there's a war, that's usually a catalyst for new musical thought. When people don't want to be challenged, they end up with the Spice Girls."

Beyond that, others say, the return of classic rock mirrors a larger American thirst for nostalgia. "We're coming into this new century, and I get a feeling there's some serious uncertainty," says Jackie Beard, a professor at Boston's Berklee College of Music. "People of all ages are reaching back in their culture for comfort, and that's why we're hearing more classic rock 'n' roll."

Moreover, observers say, the proliferation of video- music channels, industry magazines, Internet sites, and new musical genres like rap and Latin pop make it more difficult for new bands to capture the nation's collective imagination.

The pressure cooker

According to Pollack, today's emerging bands endure unprecedented levels of scrutiny. Several rock acts recently touted as "the next big thing" - The Presidents of the United States of America, The Gin Blossoms, and Soundgarden - have since disbanded.

"Today's cycle of exposure tends to cause burnout," Pollack says. "It's hard to break out in a marketplace where everybody instantly knows everything. The media are very judgmental, and today's fans can fall out of love with you quickly. It's no wonder stations are reverting to classic rock."

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