Just What Makes Modern Rock “Active”? (Or “Modern,” For That Matter?)

Al Shipley | November 1, 2007 12:15 pm

Since many people find it hard to tell the great from the godawful when it comes to 21st-century mainstream rock, welcome to “Corporate Rock Still Sells,” where Al Shipley (a.k.a. Idolator commenter GovernmentNames) examines what’s good, bad, and ugly in the world of Billboard‘s rock charts. This time around he tries to distinguish just what separates one modern rock radio playlist from another if there’s room for Evanescence on both:

I’ll give you a topic: rock radio is neither modern nor active. Discuss.

This week, I thought I’d compare and contrast Billboard’s two big rock singles charts, Modern Rock and Mainstream Rock. And I also thought I’d precede that with a brief history of the industry developments that led to these two vaguely defined formats–if that old chart-hound Molanphy hadn’t stolen my thunder by doing just that in the comments section earlier this week.

But the long and short of it is that Modern Rock and Active Rock (the radio industry’s name for the heavier “mainstream” variant) stations have always been slightly at odds with each other, even while having a lot in common on their playlists. Growing up in and around Maryland in the ’80s and ’90s, I had a front-row seat for the development of both, thanks to pioneering stations in each format: the Annapolis/D.C.-based WHFS, which was arguably the flagship modern-rock station of the East Coast, and 98 Rock in Baltimore , which cemented the mid-Atlantic as a hard-rock mecca as much as Heavy Metal Parking Lot.

WHFS thrived with the ’90s alt-rock explosion, hosting the massive HFStival every year and setting trends nationwide with its playlists. But as the format declined, so did the station, and in 2005 corporate parent Radio One flipped a switch and gave HFS’ frequency over to reggaeton. Around the same time, several other modern rock stations went off the air–although, as we learned yesterday, one station in Connecticut just switched back to rock. WHFS briefly made a comeback, playing music on nights and weekends via the auspices of 105.7, a talk station, but even that was short-lived, and the station now exists only as an Internet stream.

While 98 Rock openly gloated about its victory (one wonders if Active Rock jocks have an “anti-choice” style cutdown for their competitors. “Inactive rock,” perhaps?), if any station killed WHFS, it was DC101, the Active Rock/Modern Rock hybrid station that covers most of the same broadcast area. Perhaps it’s because the rock radio audience is no longer big enough to support two distinct audiences for different types of new music, or perhaps no one wanted to listen to a station that was heavy enough to play Nirvana but not heavy enough to play Metallica. But cross-format mutants like DC101 are likely the way of the future for rock radio, especially if the respective charts stay as similar as they are right now.

Billboard‘s current top 20s in Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks and Hot Modern Rock Tracks have nine songs in common, and if you give them a week or two to change, the two charts could probably reach 50% synergy. The usual suspects that have been dominating rock radio for half the year–including the Foo Fighters, Linkin Park and Finger Eleven–are on both charts, but when the formats diverge, it’s hard to even tell where the dividing line exists. It’s not surprising that Ozzy Osbourne, Godsmack, and Atreyu are on the Mainstream chart, but not the Modern one. But why exactly are some hard rockers, like Kid Rock and Papa Roach, fair game on both charts? And most confusingly, why is the girly alt-metal act Flyleaf in the Modern top 10, but completely absent from the Mainstream chart? Sure, there are no female-fronted bands at all on the Mainstream chart right now, but the slightly less metal Evanescence has done just fine on Active stations in the past.

One wonders if it’s only a matter of time before Billboard re-evaluates the necessity of two separate charts that are so frequently similar, with both moving toward the homogenized neo-grunge soup that has made Chad Kroeger an unstoppable force in popular music. Unlike the Hot Rap Tracks and Hot R&B/Hip Hop Songs charts, there’s no easily defined musical component like rapping or the absence thereof to help parse the difference, just the whims of each format’s various program directors. If I had to make a prediction, I’d say that hybrid stations like DC101 will keep swallowing up the remaining Modern Rock stations, leaving a respectable number of Active Rock stations standing. In a few years there may be only one kind of station for contemporary loud guitar music, while the quieter, more artsy strain of alt-rock will slowly rise to an increased number of Adult Album Alternative stations. Except by then, the format will probably just be called Blog Rock.

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