What is the Difference Between Rock and Classic Rock?

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I recently realized I don’t know what the difference is between classic rock and rock music. I thought I had it figured out, but then a younger friend casually mentioned that Nirvana is a classic rock band. So what is the difference between rock and classic rock?

Here’s what I think, being a music fan for decades:

“Rock” music is the mother genre of modern music. And almost everything since Elvis Presley falls under this broad category. Classic Rock is simply a simple subgenre of rock but is at least 25 years old. But Classic Rock typically excludes older rock songs that are soft and mellow.

When I heard my friend’s comment, I stopped cold in my tracks. Nirvana? Classic Rock? What? How can Nirvana be put in the same category as the Eagles or Fleetwood Mac?

I had to get to the bottom of this.

But what exactly makes a song or a band “classic” rock? How old does a song have to be to be considered an oldie? Do bands shift from one genre to the other as time goes marching on?

This is what I found out.

How old does a song have to be to be called classic rock?

A song should be at least 25 years old to be considered classic rock. Additionally, the label generally applies only to songs that were a solid commercial hit without being a one-hit-wonder and are still getting regular airplay on the radio.

But generally, it also excludes really soft rock stuff like Morris Albert’s “Feelings” or anything by Cat Stevens. So basically, if it was super soft rock or pop-rock (sorry, Donny & Marie), it’s not classic rock.

By definition, it has to . . . well, rock!

It’s kind of crazy to think that it has been thirty years since Nirvana’s groundbreaking Nevermind gave voice to the disillusioned youth of Generation X.

And it turns out that thirty years is just the right amount of time for music to age into the “classic rock” category.

But time alone doesn’t earn a band or a song the classic rock badge. There is a bigger picture here with broader criteria.

Is 90s rock considered classic rock?

Early 90s rock music is now considered classic rock. As the label applies to rock music 25 years or older, anything up through the mid-90s is now considered classic rock, including bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains.

If you are like me and shocked to hear the sounds of your youth popping up on classic rock stations, it’s time to face reality.

90s music is slowly working its way into the classic rock genre. Blame it on time, data, and the advertising industry.

With sophisticated tools, data analysts in the music industry can determine the specific tastes of a market and the entire demographic profile for the listeners of a certain genre.

If listeners in a survey approve of a Nirvana song showing up in a classic rock playlist, then guess what? Nirvana just earned itself the classic rock badge.

The genre grows and evolves based on what the consumer wants.

Fivethirtyeight did a study analyzing exactly what years are most represented on classic rock radio station playlists. Surprisingly, only a small number of songs from the 90s and early 2000s are getting thrown into the mix.

But they’re there.

The top rock bands from the 90s are starting to show up more and more frequently on classic rock radio stations, on streaming channels, and in the classic rock section of your local record store.

Is 70s rock too old to be called classic rock?

70s rock is not too old to be considered classic rock. And, in fact, it is the backbone of the classic rock genre and the era for which that term was first coined. So 70s rock bands such as Lynyrd Skynyrd, Backman Turner Overdrive, or Boston are still very much considered classic rock.

In that same FiveThirtyEight survey of over 37,650 songs getting airplay on classic rock radio stations, 57% of them were released between 1973 and 1982.

So, while you may hear Desperado on an oldies station, you are more likely to find the Eagles on a classic rock playlist.

Speaking of the Eagles, I recently did an article about that old feud between Glenn Frey and Don Felder. I wanted to know if Don Went to Glenn’s funeral back in 2016. Click here to check it out and read it on my site.

The Eagles, Aerosmith, Queen, and the Rolling Stones are just some of the groups that have aged like fine wines, occupying places of honor in the classic rock category.

How old does a song have to be to be considered an oldie?

The oldies category typically includes rock songs that are between 40 – 70 years old. Oldies is a subgenre of rock that has traditionally included artists and songs that were popular in the 1950s through the mid-60s. 

But as the circle of life keeps rolling, and the generations slowly turn over, the oldest of the oldies are getting left off the air to make room for the oldest of the classic rock category.

If a band like Nirvana can age into the classic rock genre, one would assume that an established classic rock band can age into oldies eventually.

We often think of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, or the Four Seasons as the kings of oldies.

And they are. But more and more often, The Stones, the Beatles, and even singers like John Mellencamp (yikes!) are getting airplay on oldies’ playlists.

In the end, the genre a song or band gets put into is determined by listener preference.

As the population ages, musical tastes evolve. This is especially true when it comes to the nostalgic value attached to classic rock.

Take the Rolling Stones, for instance. These guys are the geriatric godfathers of rock with an incredible career spanning over 60 years.

The Stones have made an incredible fortune, part of which is from a steady stream of royalties from guaranteed airplay on the classic rock radio stations and streaming services around the world.

If you want to learn more about how the Rolling Stones made most of their money, be sure to check out this recent article of mine. I get into exactly how much money they’ve made if the former members continue to make money, and who is richer: Keith or Mick.

Just click that link to read it on my site.

What bands are considered classic rock now?

In addition to 70s rock bands traditionally labeled classic rock, other bands now considered to be classic rock include Green Day, REM, Pearl Jam, Guns N’ Roses, and Nirvana. 

The music fans who came of age during the alternative rock, grunge, and pop-punk heyday are well into middle age by now. (I know, sad but true).

We fondly appreciate the music of our parents but love reliving the moments of our youth when we hear a classic song like Losing my Religion.

Nowadays, the classic rock category is scattered with two generation’s worth of icons. 

Take Van Halen, for example. I recently wrote in a recent article about whether or not David Lee Roth ever sang Sammy Hagar songs. (Hint: he has, at least once).

Just click that link to read it on my site.

But the crazy thing is that these days, AC/DC, the Who, and Aerosmith share the classic rock genre with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Foo Fighters, and Alice in Chains.

While you may not think Bruce Springsteen is a good guitar player (there is a debate about it actually, which you can read about here), you cannot deny that he has a solid home in the classic rock genre.

Born in the USA may have never been heard on the same radio station as Smells like Teen Spirit thirty years ago, but nowadays, you may very well hear them played back-to-back.

What is Classic Rock?


The fact is that times change. People grow old.

And music genres? They evolve along with the people who are listening to them. The difference between rock and classic rock can be debated and nitpicked, but the simple truth of the matter is that classic rock is the label reserved for the best of the best.

Classic rock is the home of those songs that make up the soundtrack to our lives.

When a rock song is so good, so universal in its appeal, and so lasting in its influence, it graduates to the classic rock category.

After exploring the subject a bit, I am more than happy to put rock gods like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or Green Day into the classic rock genre!

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

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