Boomers yearn for their music while radio, recording industry look to younger market

Posted: Friday, November 09, 2001

Growing up, Geoffrey Littlehale formed a high school band called The Sultans that was inspired by the rock music world's supergroups: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who.

Nearly four decades later, the Washington public relations executive laments that he just can't get no satisfaction.

''Back in the day, you heard Mick Jagger singing 'Satisfaction,' and you knew he wrote it ... and he really knew it. Now you aren't sure if performers are performing their own music,'' Littlehale, 52 said. ''You heard John Lennon, and there was meaning to your life. Now there is no meaning.''

Still, baby boomers and their music are hardly obsolete, which bodes well for the music industry. Consider that while Littlehale isn't compelled to buy today's hits, he's spending a fair amount to convert all his vinyl records to compact discs.

Also keep in mind that the boomer musicians dominated last month's Concert for New York, a tribute to the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. David Bowie opened the show, and was followed by a litany of performers loved by boomers: Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Elton John, Billy Joel, and James Taylor.

But it's also true that the nation's 76 million boomers are older, and thus the music industry isn't paying as much or at least the same kind of consistent attention they enjoyed years ago.

Littlehale is like many of his boomer peers, people who thought they'd never get old and that their music, from 'Revolution' by the Beatles and 'Blowin' in the Wind' by Bob Dylan would always be cherished. True, their vinyl shaped much of what's on CDs today, but the times are a changin'.

Consider, for example, that it's getting harder for the oldest boomers, who turn 55 this year, to hear tunes from their formative years on the radio. Stations are playing less Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, somewhat less music from Motown and the British Invasion and more songs from the late '60s and '70s, including those of Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Van Morrison and Fleetwood Mac. That's because the listeners most sought by radio advertisers are those ages 25 to 54.

''Traditional oldies is starting to face a crisis of how to keep the 25 to 54 listeners, and so what (stations) are doing is moving up the parameters,'' said Tom Taylor, editor of M Street Daily, a radio trade publication.

''You are seeing radio station owners walk away from the 'oldies' format, because the demographics are now 45-plus,'' said Sean Ross, group editor of Billboard's trade publication The Airplay Monitors.

Stations are replacing oldies formats with classic rock that includes later stuff by the likes of Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen, Ross said.

But what about the tremendous buying power associated with the entire boomer set?

While boomers have a lot of cash and don't mind spending it on themselves, it seems they aren't driven to be as avid consumers of music as their kids.

''You run out of time, you have kids. It becomes harder to take chances on music,'' said Richard Gehr, a music columnist for AARP's My Generation magazine, and a boomer himself.

''We're busy making a living. To go out and stay up until three in the morning and see a concert -- forget about that,'' said Joan Neubauer, 49, a writer in Georgetown, Texas.

Meanwhile, it's much easier to sell to teens and young adults, who also have a healthy supply of disposable cash.

''Teens and young adults are much easier in the sense that they are more active concert goers and music buyers. It's easier to track their tastes,'' Taylor said.

And the young population -- the so-called tweens and Generation Y-ers -- is also big.

''There are really just as many 8- to 24-year-olds out there now. That's why you are seeing marketing to teens. It's a vast opportunity,'' said Fred Jacobs, president of Jacobs Media, a radio consulting firm in Detroit that is credited with developing the classic rock format in 1985 in Lansing, Mich.

And teens' preferences for boy bands, rap, lipgloss and hip-hugger pants is as well documented as their parents' love for boy groups, controversial lyrics and long hair back in their day.

Still, boomers should take heart that their music still matters. Their generation's music is still heard in college dorm rooms, and it's continually referenced in popular culture. There have been countless ad campaigns featuring boomer music -- Gap commercials featured Donovan's ''Mellow Yellow'' and those of Chevrolet used Bob Seger's 'Like a Rock,' to name a few. The theme song of Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign was 'Don't Stop' by Fleetwood Mac.

There are more recent examples, as well.

And Bob Dylan's newest album 'Love and Theft' outsold Mariah Carey's soundtrack album 'Glitter', in the week following their Sept. 11 release, said Ross of Billboard.

''These artists continue to be vital,'' said Jacobs, the radio consultant. ''They're the soundtrack of boomers lives.''

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