How We Define ‘Classic Rock’ in Boston

A FiveThirtyEight investigation found that the musical genre is defined differently depending on the region.
Associated Press

Associated Press

Classic rock, like “oldies,” is a musical genre that is constantly shifting as time passes. It is also a genre with a definition loose enough to mean something different in Boston than in New York or California. The word “classic” suggests a value judgement about older rock music, and that means that its open to interpretation just which songs play on a local station like Boston’s WZLX.

FiveThirtyEight, the website started around Nate Silver’s brand of number-crunching data analysis, has a fascinating piece exploring how we define classic rock. The writer, Walt Hickey, found that indeed different cities end up playing different bands in different proportions:

I found that classic rock is more than just music from a certain era, and that it changes depending on where you live. What plays in New York — a disproportionate amount of Billy Joel, for example — won’t necessarily fly in San Antonio, which prefers Mötley Crüe. Classic rock is heavily influenced by region, and in ways that are unexpected. For example, Los Angeles is playing Pearl Jam, a band most popular in the 1990s, five times more frequently than the rest of the country. Boston is playing the ’70s-era Allman Brothers six times more frequently.

U2 is also a band that is played most disproportionately here in Boston, Hickey found, where 2.7 percent of all songs on our classic rock station are by Bono and company. Our brief glimpse into these patterns confirms that since midnight this morning, WZLX has played about 100 songs. Two were by the Allman Brothers Band, one was by Gregg Allman, and two were by U2. (It’s worth noting that these airplay frequencies have nothing on the modern pop music industry. Kiss 108 has probably played more Iggy Azalea in one day than ZLX has played U2 in a month.)

There are geographic and demographic reasons for some of the preferences. Both New York and Tampa like Billy Joel, perhaps because there’s a lot of migration between the two regions. What’s to explain Boston’s love of the Allman Brothers? WZLX likes them so much, they’ve suggested a Ben & Jerrys flavor be named for them. But the state of the current radio industry suggests that the preferences really begin with a station’s listeners, not its employees. WZLX Music Director Carter Alan writes in an e-mail, “Feedback from the listeners is critical.  Plus, we note other physical evidence like album sales and, especially, attendance at concerts.”

So to the extent that Boston plays a lot of Allman Brothers and U2, it’s because the people who live here just like those bands more than other Americans, for whatever reason. “New England has always been a strong area for U2 and the Allman Brothers, so, you’ll hear those bands at ‘ZLX more because the demand is there,” Alan says.

So if you love classic rock, and you especially love the Allman Brothers and U2, congrats, you’re in the right place. If you love Billy Joel, sorry but better move to New York (or switch the dial to Magic 106.7.)

This post was updated from an earlier version.

Eric Randall
Eric Randall Eric Randall, Contributor at Boston Magazine