According to a little online research, Houston's KRBE radio was the first station in the nation to use the term “Classic Rock” to describe the music it was playing on the air. That was in 1983, and KRBE exclusively played rock music from the 1960s through the early '70s, responding to a nostalgic and aging Baby Boomer population that was less than enthusiastic about the sounds they were hearing from newer bands.
A few years earlier, a radio station in Ohio had described itself as “Cleveland's Classic Rock,” and played a mix of music from the mid-1960s onward. But it was KRBE that used the term to describe the rock of the '60s and '70s as “Classic Rock,” attaching a term associated with quality from the past to a specific era of music, instead of the stodgier-sounding “Oldies” that it could have. Soon after KRBE's inspired branding, “Classic Rock” became the widely used descriptor for the format within the radio industry, and the name for it that the general public most often used. A format, and a music culture of sorts, was born.
The format remained popular for decades, and still is, although with many of its original listeners and the bands themselves hitting their golden years, I've begun to wonder, will the music we know as classic rock continue to be listened to by newer audiences as time goes on?
Quality is quality, and much of the music of the 1960s and '70s is great, deserving of the status it has long enjoyed, but will people still be listening to it in 20 or 30 years when the bands and original audiences who loved them are gone? Musical tastes change as time marches steadily onward, and most kids often don't seem passionate about the music of their grandparents or great-grandparents. Yeah, there may be a handful of younger folks who listen to Benny Goodman not out of irony but because they really like the music, but I'm betting that there are very few people lacking gray hair who groove to “Bugle Call Rag” these days.
The classic-rock format, or at least the songs and artists that seemed to be its foundation in the early '80s, has changed over the decades, too. Some artists who used to be in heavy rotation 30 years ago have fallen out of favor and been replaced by others who weren't even around in 1983, a nod to the middle-age tastes of Gen X, which may have been the last generation to experience rock music as the primary sound track of its collective youth. Listening to contemporary classic-rock stations, they tend to play a mix of the older baby-boomer bands, as well as music recorded two or three decades later — Nirvana and Pearl Jam songs seem to have found common ground with, or at least a lot of the same listeners as, Led Zeppelin and The Who. But what will the future hold?
In 2112, will people still be listening to Rush? Or will rock from the ’70s sound as old and quaint as harpsichord music from the 18th century? Granted, that's a very long ways off, but will Jefferson Airplane still find an audience then? How about in 40 years? Will children born today be listening to songs by the Beatles when they hit middle age?
Recently, I came across an interesting article about the “Eternal Jukebox,” or how rock radio periodically phases out certain once-popular hits as they become less popular or new generations of programmers are put in charge of deciding what music is played. And that may be the eventual downfall of most of the music catalog that makes up “Classic Rock,” which is already composed of a select group of cherry-picked hits by a small number of really popular bands from decades ago. Most stations playing the format are going to spin the same four or five hits by a handful of bands, so someone is much more likely to hear something by stadium rock-era Pink Floyd than anything from the Syd Barrett days on the radio, and a whole lot more likely to hear Lynyrd Skynyrd than anything by Moby Grape.
With that kind of selection as an ongoing process, it's not too outlandish to predict a day when almost no rock music from the past 50 years is really listened to anymore, unless it's used in movies as part of a period piece.
A few years from now…say, in 2045, will young people still be listening to what we consider to be classic-rock bands? I can't know for sure, but I like to think that good music is timeless and there will still be a place in some people's hearts for the Beatles and the Stones, even if kids in the future have never heard of Grand Funk Railroad. Only time will tell.