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Could The Eternal Jukebox Be Unplugged? posted on March 6th, 2014

By Sean Ross

Five years ago, or so, it seemed that some songs had been assigned a place in the “eternal jukebox.”  Certain all-time classics had an appeal that didn’t depend on actually having grown up with them. There were obvious common-denominator wedding/party/barroom songs — “Brown Eyed Girl,” “At Last,” “Respect,” “Margaritaville,” “Summer Of ’69,” and especially  “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Don’t Stop Believin'”.   In addition,  an enterprising music supervisor in TV or movies could at times turn any obscure oldie into hipster exotica for a moment as well. And you could count on hearing “Limbo Rock” at any toddler’s birthday party, even if it wasn’t on the radio.

The conditions were right at that time for people to listen to oldies that went beyond their own high-school music. Sharing music among friends, especially on a zip drive full of MP3s without artwork, removed the “my dad’s music” stigma. Current Top 40 and country product was rapidly improving, but not yet dominating. Current rock product was weak. The 17-year-old who liked classic rock was quickly moving beyond the anecdotal stage to something seen in ratings and station research. The oldies/greatest hits format had made a PPM-era comeback that revealed its audience to be 25-54, not just 45-plus.

Many of those conditions are different now. Oldies/greatest hits is a less consistent presence from market to market. Most broadcasters would be willing to trade places with WCBS-FM New York, but not every station is top three with a wide demo-spread anymore. The resurgence of Hot AC and the adult appeal of top 40 means that not even every 35-54 listener is promised to any gold-based format.

Whether for those reasons, or just as a result of the passage of time, the last year has seen a drastically reduced ’60s presence at greatest hits stations, and some records that had cheated time are being looked at as a lot less transcendent these days. WCBS-FM is down to one ’60s title an hour and sometimes slightly less. Nielsen BDS Radio’s top 100 most-played Oldies/Greatest Hits titles include only three ’60s songs — “Brown Eyed Girl,” “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” and “Mrs. Robinson.”

“Respect,” once the most common-denominator of songs, is well outside the top 100, getting just over 100 spins a week. The Tommy James & the Shondells version of “Mony Mony” is at 88 spins, just ahead of Billy Idol’s version at 80.

As for other ’60s songs that had picked up some extra pop culture durability in the ’80s and early ’90s, they’ve officially been declared old again. Manfred Mann’s “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” is at 78 spins. Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” is at 98 spins. The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” from 1965 but a throwback even then, used to be a top-of-the-page perennial on any oldies or AC music test. It now gets 45 spins a week. The Contours’ “Do You Love Me” is at 19 spins.

As the ’60s fade at many stations, a few are starting to push into the ’90s or beyond. WDRC-FM Hartford, Conn., plays a Sheryl Crow-type ’90s title every other hour. KOLA Riverside, Calif., is playing two ’90s each hour, including some like Sublime’s “Santeria” or C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” without obvious oldies connections. WOLL (Kool 105) West Palm Beach, Fla., always played a few ’90s titles. Now it’s playing Katy Perry’s “Roar” and other recurrents. Some oldies/greatest hits stations are able to evolve to gold-based ACs or Hot ACs because the station in that market that used to fill that function has become more current-based.

The phenomenon isn’t limited to the oldies/greatest hits world. Urban AC, brought to prominence by the hits of the ’70s and ’80s, is becoming newer as well. A few years ago, Al Green’s “Love & Happiness,” the one-time “Stairway to Heaven” of the format, started to look like just another song in music testing. Beyond that, in talking to younger PDs who didn’t grow up into the ’70s and ’80s, it’s interesting to see the format’s once timeless acts — the Isley Brothers, Earth, Wind & Fire, George Clinton/ Parliament/Funkadelic — lose their icon status and become just more “old music” to anybody.

Therein lies the first challenge to the eternal jukebox — or at least some songs’ status within it. Oldies is as much a function of what owners and PDs feel about a body of music as what listeners think. Each new generation of titles generally has to wait until programmers who grew up with it are in charge. Each generation of titles is vulnerable to the next group of PDs and usually goes off the air at least a little bit before the audience for them is gone.

Also, it’s hard for even iconic songs to bear the weight of being the only titles in the category. Late summer/early fall ’67 is a pretty great time for music, and “Brown Eyed Girl” is not the only song I want to hear from that era. For anybody fitting that description, the perennial hits have been fried for years. For anybody who didn’t grow up with “Brown Eyed Girl” it is, at least, losing its novelty. Even “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Don’t Stop Believin'” are now often simultaneously liked and burned in research. Listeners’ enthusiasm hasn’t been entirely sapped, but it’s further along than once seemed possible.

There’s also the psychological hurdle of being a 40-year-old song, a mark that “Sweet Home Alabama” will pass in a few months, much less a 50-year-old song. That one may be more of a programmers’ distinction, too. The whole point of the eternal jukebox was not that listeners knew how old songs were and decided to give them a pass. Anybody under 45 bum-rushing the dance floor for “Play That Funky Music” has probably never known it’s from 1976 or really even wondered about it.

The Beatles’ anniversary on the Ed Sullivan Show is celebrated with increased fervor in any year ending in four. Yet, it’s hard to imagine them losing their eternal jukebox status even with the 50- year mark having been noted repeatedly in the last month. Some kids go through their Beatles phase before the concept of new and old music even takes hold. Right now, the Beatles represent a lot of the playable ’60s for oldies and classic rock stations. We’ll know soon enough if that changes, but it’s hard to imagine “Come Together” suddenly becoming less universal because it’s 45-years-old and by a band that broke here fifty years ago.

In the era that radio is still comfortable acknowledging, the all-ages party records and those that have some hooks in a later era are still pretty dominant. “Old Time Rock & Roll” is the No. 2 most played song at oldies/greatest hits, and “Margaritaville” is No. 3. “I Love Rock & Roll” hovers around No. 50 at both that format and Adult Hits. And it’s no accident that KOLA’s forays into the ’90s include “Santeria,” a song that would still test at top 40 for listeners who weren’t even born in 1995. Even with more passion for today’s music, the eternal jukebox isn’t unplugged yet. But some records have been changed, perhaps prematurely.