MAINSTREAM ROCK RADIO
Three Days Grace, FM99, Stone Temple Pilots
The problem at its core
by Pete Crigler
The concept of Mainstream Rock radio is quite confusing, particularly if you look at the format's history. It started out as essentially what we now call Classic Rock, before transforming into a juggernaut that included outdated bands like Seether, Five Finger Death Punch, Breaking Benjamin, and Three Days Grace. The fact that bands like these are still achieving success when other, better bands are struggling highlights how kind of irrelevant this whole format has become.
The concept of Mainstream Rock was cemented with Billboard's creation of a chart to follow the trajectory of artists like Eric Clapton, Steve Winwood, and ZZ Top. Originally called Top Tracks upon its debut in the magazine's March 21, 1981, issue, it went through changes both in format and in name. "Rock" was added to the name in 1984, before the format was redubbed Album Rock Tracks from 1986 until 1996, until finally it became Mainstream Rock Tracks. Not only has the name of the chart changed but so has the overall style of what is played on these types of stations.
When the chart began, there was a lot of The Who, ZZ Top, John Mellencamp (who is one of the biggest names in the history of the chart), and Bryan Adams. Essentially, what you would find here were the last vestiges of seventies arena rock and AOR, before MTV came along and a lucky few were able to maintain success, if only for a short time. As the eighties wore on, hair metal and arena rock and heartland rock became the vogue, but the charts became a safe space for artists like Little Feat, .38 Special, The Hooters, and others who wouldn't stand a chance on the radio any time after 1988. What's shocking is that artists like Ozzy and Metallica who are now staples of the format barely ever got any love at all. Ozzy didn't score his first number one on the chart until freaking 2007, while Metallica didn't score massively until 1996. But these oversights must have seemed okay at the time as long as Bryan Adams, Phil Collins, ZZ Top, and the Stones were scoring number ones off songs most of the general public doesn't even remember these days. If anything, the biggest band in the genre before the early 2000's was Van Halen. It seemed like every VH song went to number one, even if the band was boring as shit when Sammy Hagar came into the picture.
Mainstream Rock had a difficult adolescence in the early nineties, as the format had no idea how to handle the transition from Mötley Crüe, Warrant, and Bon Jovi to Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Alice in Chains. Some bands, like Kings of the Sun, Human Radio, and Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers, were allowed through and had some decent success before basically being forgotten by the public at large. The image we seemed to get from Mainstream at this juncture was "we hate that grunge shit--we just wanna hear some real rock!" Therefore, in the early '90s, bands like Cry of Love and Brother Cane became huge in the format and had massive hits.
The first half of the nineties were such a confusing time for the format that even the Black Crowes, who had been one of the most successful bands, fell out of favor by 1994, done in by both stylistic changes into a more hippie sound and Chris Robinson's bullshit attitude. Their fall enabled bands like Soundgarden and Stone Temple Pilots to take over and have massive success on both Mainstream and Modern Rock stations. Not to mention how Collective Soul effectively swooped in and took over from the Crowes to become one of the most successful rock bands of the latter half of the decade.
But even with these newer, more rocking sorts of bands having big hits, there was still room on the dial for established classic rock blowhards like Pink Floyd, Clapton, and ZZ Top, which made for an interesting dichotomy on the charts. Meanwhile on the Modern Rock charts, grunge had firmly taken over and was getting ready for a pop-punk invasion. The format seemingly had its identity established, which made it all the more confusing for Mainstream Rock, as it couldn't seem to figure out what the hell was going on.
This pattern seemed to keep going for the rest of the nineties as songs like "Blue on Black" by Kenny Wayne Shepherd and "Touch, Peel & Stand" by Days of the New became some of the biggest hits the chart had ever seen but Clapton and Mellencamp were still having hits. It was a weird thing to see, but it would keep going until the end of the decade, when the tides began shifting for good.
By the end of the '90's, bands like Sevendust, Creed, and Godsmack were really starting to make waves, and it was time for their voices to be heard on this now seeming relic of radio. The format's playlists really hadn't been updated for years, and it was hard to hear Rob Zombie or Megadeth's new singles, but they were playing the hell out of whatever Van Halen or Metallica was cranking out. A new shift was needed, and boy did it happen.
Right around 2000 and 2001, the music was getting a lot heavier and was even including stabs at rapping and scratching. That seemed anathema to the format as it had been up to that point, but in the next few years, the likes of Clapton, ZZ Top, and Tom Petty, who had all been superstars in the format, saw their last charting singles as the format moved on to the likes of Red Hot Chili Peppers, Foo Fighters, and Korn. These were bands the format should have embraced years earlier, but they were so late to the party that it was kind of ridiculous.
Around this time as well, newer bands like Seether, Three Days Grace, and Shinedown were beginning their careers and becoming instantly popular. Mainstream stations began spinning them in near constant rotation, and they quickly started having number ones. The old guard was gone forever and was replaced by the likes of Five Finger Death Punch. Some stations were quick to roll with the changes, while others began getting left behind and couldn't cope.
As the 2010's rolled around, bands such as Three Days Grace, Shinedown, Seether, and Death Punch were bigger than ever, and it really began to make fans take notice about older bands. One could question how the likes of Metallica, Rush, Ozzy, and AC/DC were shortchanged number ones. Each of these artists should have had at least 16 number ones throughout their career, yet each had fewer than 10. AC/DC didn't have their first number one until 1993, and poor old Ozzy didn't have one until 2007! That seems completely asinine. Meanwhile, in less than fifteen years, Three Days Grace had racked up enough number ones to dethrone Van Halen, a band that had held the record since 1998. This development was completely shocking and made you wonder about the "tastemakers" programming these stations.
This notable shift carried on for the next few years, but over time stations began trying out newer artists in an attempt to find something other than Puddle of Mudd. Bands like Dinosaur Pile-Up, Bring Me the Horizon, Rival Sons, and The Hu ended up having big hits and surprised a lot of people because the format had been so unwilling to embrace newer artists that didn't fit into the same worn-out mold. The Hu are interesting because they combine Mongolian throat singing with heavy metal. They're not the worst new band to come out, but there's not much there to recommend. Of course, the format picked them up and started spinning them into oblivion. This is where the format was by 2020, and it didn't seem as if the format could get itself out of this infinitely repeating pattern.
Though 2020 was crippled by Covid-19 and everything else that was going on, the format still carried on like it was 2009. Seether, Five Finger Death Punch, Godsmack, Breaking Benjamin, Green Day, Foo Fighters, and Theory of a Deadman all scored number one hits. The thing is, all of these bands are well past their primes and haven't released great records in quite a while. The only "newer" bands that had the same success were Bad Wolves, I Prevail, and The Pretty Reckless, all of which have been around for quite some time. Even Chris Cornell scored his first number one with a folky, acoustic cover of Guns N' Roses' "Patience." It was one of the worst tracks of the year, the man had been dead three years and had a decent solo career for almost 20 years before his passing, and this is the song that got him to the top? Ridiculous.
Death Punch ended up scoring the biggest song of the year even though it wasn't on top for the longest amount of time; that honor went to AC/DC and Godsmack. They can't even give the song of the year to an artist that actually got it right. Bands like The Blue Stones were able to make some headway, and of course the format is getting ready for new Royal Blood and other bands, but in 2021 it's just going to be more of the same old thing, and people are going to continue to look at the format as they did in 1992, as a place where the dinosaurs go to act like the rest of the world hasn't forgotten about them.
One of the best examples of the format's overall decline is FM99, based out of Hampton, VA. The station became well-known for the FM99 Lunatic Luau, a major festival held in Virginia Beach. Over the last twenty or so years, they've drawn the likes of Disturbed, Stone Sour, Stone Temple Pilots, Alice in Chains, Kid Rock, and Sevendust. The station was basically a mix of hard rock like Disturbed and more grungy fair like STP and Alice. Around that area of Virginia, there weren't many options for rock of that nature so even though you would hear every song Metallica made a hit over and over again sprinkled in with enough Guns N' Roses and outdated Kid Rock to make you sick, it was generally acceptable and you just went along with it.
But in more recent years, the station has seemingly gone nuts. They still play Breaking Benjamin, Three Days Grace, and, inexplicably, Puddle of Mudd, but they've also begun playing way more Green Day. They've even sprinkled in songs that don't fit with the format at all, like "Buddy Holly" by Weezer and "Sex and Candy" by Marcy Playground. It seems as if this particular station has been having a massive personality crisis over the last couple of years and they don't know what else they can do to spice things up. That seems to be where the format as a whole is these days. It's generally become a laughing stock in the music world as the format that is consistently stuck in the past and generally unwilling to embrace the future and accept new sounds. Ironically, that's about where the format was back in the early '90s, when Petty and Mellencamp were still having hits. Thirty years later, the cycle repeats itself. Where can the format go from here? Lord only knows, but the programmers have quite a way to go to straighten themselves out and fully embrace new sounds.
Also see Peter Crigler's blog
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