Who decides what's "classic rock"?

Using a technique published on the Digital Audio Insider blog, and statistics published on Last.fm, it's possible to get a very rough estimate of listeners' devotion to particular artists.

Matt Rosoff
Matt Rosoff is an analyst with Directions on Microsoft, where he covers Microsoft's consumer products and corporate news. He's written about the technology industry since 1995, and reviewed the first Rio MP3 player for CNET.com in 1998. He is a member of the CNET Blog Network. Disclosure. You can follow Matt on Twitter @mattrosoff.
Matt Rosoff
4 min read

In Seattle, there's a classic rock station, KZOK, that's been around forever. It was already old when I discovered it in junior high school in the early 1980s, and of all the music stations in Seattle, it's the only one that still has exactly the same format. I mean, the playlist yesterday is exactly the same as the playlist in 1982, although they might stick in a song by an artist that used to be known as "new wave" (U2, Talking Heads, Pretenders), or a band that didn't exist in 1982 (Guns and Roses), and there's probably a little bit less of the 70s guitar stalwarts like Robin Trower or Montrose (but only a little less!). It's still preset on my car radio for those rare times when I'm stuck without my iPod or Zune and am sick of listening to NPR and my usual college/indie radio station.

But one of the things that's always bugged me about "classic rock" radio--and this isn't to pick on KZOK, they're using a format that's common across the U.S.--is the definition of the word "classic." On one hand, it's obviously a marketing tactic--classic rock is music that was popular on FM rock radio in the 70s, and other songs that could appeal to the people who listened those stations--I'm guessing mostly white males born in the 50s. But there's always that song or that artist that makes you wonder "how did this make the cut?" Musical taste is subjective, but how many people get excited whenever, say, a Bob Seger tune comes on the radio? I mean, he sort of rocked back in the day, but do people still really love him? Do people ever come home from a hard day at work and grab a beer and put on Bob Seger? A whole album? All the way through? If not, then why is he still played on classic rock radio in such heavy rotation?

A couple of days ago, the Digital Audio Insider blogdid an interesting thing with numbers from Internet radio service Last.fm. For each artist, that service shows how many individuals have listened to the station featuring that artist, and the total number of songs by that artist that have been played by all listeners. If you divide songs by listeners, you get the average number of songs each listener has played for each artist. This gives you a very rough measure of listener devotion to particular artists.

Of course the technique is flawed. It only measures a very particular audience: computer users who listen to this particular music service on their computers. Artists with deeper catalogs should tend to have higher numbers than artists with only an album or two. And artists with really long songs might have lower numbers than those with short songs.

Nonetheless, the results on Digital Audio Insider contained some interesting tidbits. For example, I listen to a lot of bands in a genre that some call "post rock." (Horrible term, but I use it for lack of a better one...it basically means long, heavily amplified, mostly instrumental songs played by fairly large ensembles, with lots of big building dynamics...sort of a poor man's classical music played by ex-metalheads or -punks, I suppose.) Within this genre, fans of Explosions in the Sky, Sigur Ros, and Mogwai apparently listen to lots of songs by these bands--their averages are all in the 30s. But Godspeed You Black Emperor, who practically invented the genre, has a much lower average--down in the 20s.

I really like Godspeed. But come to think of it, I often skip their songs when they come up on random shuffle. I like to think it's because they're too long, too heavy, and demand too much attention. Or that they're only listenable in the context of a complete album. But then again, Sigur Ros has many of the same qualities, and I always listen when they show up. So maybe I don't like Godspeed as much as I thought I did.

Digital Audio Insider's chart focused on newer indie-rock artists, with The Beatles as the control group. But that got me thinking about classic rock radio, so I did my own measurements.

Pink Floyd came out way at the top of the list, with 49.27 plays per listener (athough still way short of The Beatles' 64.48). This was somewhat gratifying, as I'm a big fan...then again, I guess I just fit right into Last.fm's target demographic. Bob Dylan (34.14) and Led Zeppelin (32.36) were in the 30s, which isn't surprising given their lasting influence and breadth of audience, and Rush also scored high (33.68), which shouldn't be a surprise to anybody who's ever met a hardcore Rush fan. Then again, the Grateful Dead have similarly hardcore fans, but they were much lower at 24.71.

Queen surprised me with a 27.59. Other relatively high scorers included U2 (26.76), David Bowie (26.29), and AC/DC (24.99). The Stones (22.27) and The Who (20.41) scored surprisingly low, given their breadth of influence and prominence on classic rock radio.

But guess who was at the very bottom of the list--below power-pop like Van Halen (15.85) and Journey (13.78), below quintessential 80s pop bands like Talking Heads (17.13) and The Police (13.36), even below my other favorite "why do they play this band?" band, Bad Company (8.52)...Bob Seger. On average, his listeners played only 7.89 of his songs on Last.fm.

(Sorry to pick on Bob Seger, but it had to be someone. He's just the one that always sticks out to me. For the record, I still kind of sort of like his songs "Katmandu" and "Get Out Of Denver," the latter of which contains the great line "cause you look just like a commie and you might just be a member.")