One of the favorite stories for the music industry press to write in the last few years is one titled something like “Is The Guitar Dead?” or “What Happened to Rock Music?” It’s a lot of hand-wringing over the fact that the music that’s being enjoyed by younger listeners right now doesn’t sound anything like what has been prevalent in the last 60 years or so. Gone are the rock anthems, replaced by the producer-driven hits from Taylor Swift, Kendrick Lamar, St. Vincent and everyone else that’s hot right now.
The latest sign that things are changing, at least if you live in the Chicago area, is this past weekend’s format switch at WLUP, 97.9 For years that station was The Loop, a home for “classic rock” radio for 40 years and a place where just about everything played was based on the singer/guitar/bass/drums model. AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Van Halen and others were in constant rotation. Now, after being sold to Educational Media Foundation, it plays the nationally-syndicated K-LOVE format featuring contemporary Christian music. Gone is “Highway to Hell,” replaced by “I Can Only Imagine.”
On the one hand the shift has a lot to say, as recapped here, about the current state of the radio industry. Terrestrial radio is suffering from the disruption introduced by Spotify, Pandora, YouTube and other new forms of music discovery. The economics have certainly changed.
But it’s about more than just an industry that doesn’t operate like it once did. It’s about the changing tastes and preferences of the generational shift and how you’re only cool until you’re not.
Consider that in the last year the music industry has been rocked by a steady wave of announcements from the giants of the “classic rock” scene that they will be retiring from touring. Neil Diamond is leaving the road because of health issues. Elton John wants to settle down and enjoy time with his family. Paul Simon has called it a day, more or less. Everyone assumed their R40 tour was a swan song, but Rush seems to be officially done.
It’s not universal, of course. Donald Fagan continues to tour under the Steely Dan moniker even though partner Walter Becker passed away last year. Same for The Eagles, who continue to hit the road. These and other acts keep going out, motivated by some mix of financial necessity – they’re not putting out new records and even if they did streaming doesn’t pay the same as physical sales did – and not knowing what else to do with themselves.
Reality is, though, that these acts are not long for this world. How many more times can Chicago replace members before fans say “enough?” How much longer can Billy Joel maintain his residency at Madison Square Garden?
The changing landscape represents how the audience that has sustained these artists for decades are getting older, just like the artists themselves. And the culture they – we, as I’m 43 and am very much part of this group – created is rightfully fading into memory.
When the Baby Boomers got older and started taking jobs in media they turned it into a reflection of their own tastes. Jann Werner started Rolling Stone so he could champion the kind of hip rock acts he and others enjoyed and felt were important. This is the group that created “classic rock” radio because they wanted to keep playing and listening to The Eagles and Led Zeppelin even as musical tastes were changing 25 years ago with R.E.M., The Replacements, Pearl Jam and other acts coming to the forefront. As with many cultural aspects, the Boomers used their numbers to keep things going well past their expiration date. And as with most of that culture, it was largely dictated by white men.
Now they’re retiring and the grip they held is beginning to loosen. If the impact of that change seems to be having a bigger impact than previous shifts it’s a testament, again, to the size of that group. They created magazines, radio stations and other institutions – including a huge network of outdoor concert venues specially designed for touring rock bands – that are now increasingly irrelevant to younger audiences.
It’s worth noting, as the Tribune story points out, that this isn’t the first time The Loop has evolved, starting as rhythm and blues, then jazz and then to rock. Even in my lifetime of listening to the station, which I’ve done frequently, it’s changed in a way that illustrates how holding tightly to the past isn’t a sustainable business model.
When I was in junior high and high school – mid-80s through early-90s – The Loop played the same kind of artists it did up to the end. But in addition to older (even at that time) songs from Aerosmith, Van Halen and AC/DC it was playing new songs from those acts and artists. So “Dream On” was a favorite, but so was “Love In An Elevator.” “Running With The Devil” and “Poundcake.” “You Shook Me All Night Long” and “Thunderstruck.”
Again, though, those acts eventually stopped putting out new music, at least with the regularity they once did. The Loop and other stations weren’t willing to let go, becoming locked in amber some time around 1995. If you listened to The Loop at any random moment you would be forgiven for believing Pearl Jam’s third album was the last new music released anywhere in the world.
That’s an experience that’s easily replicated through the new streaming services that have caused such massive issues. The “Classic Rock” playlist Spotify keeps recommending to me is a decent approximation of what The Loop offered on a daily basis and is more convenient, so sure, that’s fine. Best of all (at least for me) it comes without the presence of Mancow Muller, who hosted the station’s morning drive time and whose sexist, alpha-male, frat guy persona was not only extremely tired but which seemed increasingly out of date and out of touch even before #MeToo and other movements.
Much better in the Chicago area is WXRT’s Lin Brehmer, a genial good-natured host who seems authentically Chicagoan (unlike Mancow’s obvious desire to be a regionless Howard Stern circa 1992) and whose goal is to be “Your best friend in the whole world.” Sure, Brehmer loves The Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, but he’s also going to play Alice Merton, The Shins and other more current acts alongside the oldies.
(Brief sidenote: Once again, the Boomers have ruined things for their kids. Radio stations that play *my* music from the 80s and 90s are few and far between. “Grunge” got lumped in with rock, a dying format, and everything else seems to be relegated to “soft rock.” We seem to have skipped two decades of music and I’m not thrilled. I’m not saying “Hangin’ Tough” is better than “The Immigrant Song” but we kind of missed our generational shot here.)
It’s natural that one generation gives way to the next. When I was a kid yearning to listen to my own music in the car my dad steadfastly kept the radio tuned to WJMK 104.3, which at that time played what was termed “oldies” (again, a label affixed by Boomers), featuring a selection of Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, The Four Tops and other acts. And in that tradition, I’ve subjected my own kids to what, by that standard, would be considered “oldies,” music from 20-30 years ago that I grew up with. Some of it they dig, some of it they don’t. That’s fine. It’s as it should be. My generation’s music spoke to me, their own generation’s music speaks to them.
Letting go of what felt so vital, so important, to you can be tough. It’s especially difficult, it seems, for those who have been at the top of the food chain for so long and thought their culture would endure forever. It was all just fleeting, though, as they forgot that their own parents bemoaned the shift from Benny Goodman and Frank Sinatra to The Beatles.
The Loop has faded away, just one example of a changing of the guard in media and culture that’s to be expected.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.