The Moody Views – The Rock Radio Problem, Part 1
When’s the last time you bought a song or album after hearing it on the radio?
Okay, now when’s the last time you bought a song or album that you heard on rock radio?
If you didn’t answer because you don’t remember or don’t listen to rock music, you’re in luck. I’m not sure if this is something that applies to you, but I haven’t bought an album because of rock radio since 2007. While I still buy music I hear on college radio or see plugged on various music blog sites (Pitchfork, NPR’s music blog, Popmatters), I haven’t actively engaged with a song on rock radio in the past five years. Today, I’d like to begin to explore why that is the case.
Rock and roll music in the United States circa 2012 has a problem. It’s not dying because it still has a presence on the charts (and because AC/DC told me that it was also a pollutant-free form of expression with immortal tendencies). But anybody that’s listened to any type of commercial FM radio where rock and roll once thrived and changed the format will probably reach the same conclusion as the New York Times: Rock music is currently spinning its wheels with faceless, interchangeable bands that are quickly eschewing the things that make rock music transcendent when done right.
This isn’t to say that all music is bad. If you choose to find your music through Internet sites like allmusic or Pitchfork (or us! How ya doin’?), you’ll find a bevy of riches, often too much to sort through in one life. Combine that with the easy content delivery systems of Spotify, Pandora and Grooveshark, and you have a good life. Yet we often think about ourselves as representative of a majority when we clearly are a niche-driven group driven by our individual personalities and idiosyncratic natures; in fact, according to Salon and Toure there is no mainstream culture anymore, which makes Toure sad and Stephen Hyden giddy. Your mileage may vary on this subject, but you cannot deny that the center of rock music no longer exists…
unless you listen to FM radio. It’s hard to believe that a little over a decade ago radio could be easily qualified as the popular expression of the masses, and though that may not be true today FM radio still holds considerable cultural cache. Currently there are 127 modern rock FM stations across this country. Think about that: 127 stations playing what could be considered the newest form of rock spin for the listener base across the entire United States. Scary. Most of those 127 stations belong to Clear Channel, the United States’ largest radio company and corporate controller of roughly 850 radio stations.
Before we go any further, I must give a note of confession: I once contemplated working for Clear Channel after graduating college. I decided against this. However, this won’t be a big spin against Clear Channel, rather an assessment of what happened in radio over the past fifteen years. But you can’t talk about the current state of radio without mentioning large conglomerates like Clear Channel or Cumulus Broadcasting. I think they’re part of the problem, and I’m not the only one.
There are probably several people who could make the following general complaint that Dr. Joseph Turow, professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, stated about how radio left behind younger listeners. “The radio industry had its collective head in the sand for years when it came to younger listeners. They lost the opportunity to guide the musical choices of an upcoming generation.” And maybe your friend also made the following statement that Sebastian Bach (former lead singer of Skid Row, and he was on Gilmore Girls!) made about radio in a recent interview with The A.V. Club Chicago:
Finally, we get a commonplace complaint from a random stranger named Jonathan Adelstein. “Consolidation has led to increased homogenization of what gets played. It’s harder for local and new artists to get on the air. Today I wonder: Will the next Elvis throw down his guitar in disgust because he can’t get on the radio?” Okay, I take that back, Adelstein isn’t a random stranger. He was speaking as the commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) when this interview occurred, and currently the administrator of the US Department of Agriculture Rural Utilities Service. Adelstein was speaking about the 1996 Federal Telecommunications Act (FTA), a federal law that ended regulation of radio and allowed companies like Clear Channel to buy multiple radio stations across the country. Adelstein was commissioner of the FCC from 2002 to 2009, making him an authority on broadcasting changes and their effects. This adds to his credibility when discussing this for audiences.
Okay, well so what? How does that affect radio? With a tighter grip on programming, Clear Channel has standardized radio playlists across the country, meaning that the number of songs that can be deemed acceptable for those playlists is shrinking. As of 2005, the typical Top 40 station had a playlist of 200 songs, which was less than half of what it had been before the FTA was passed. Now, that list will shrink even more since there is less need for variety and more need for advertisers that will help Clear Channel pay its growing bills. Sadly, those remaining 600 regional stations (the other 250 are located in large-market cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles) will eventually have all local DJs removed as the company plans to move towards a wholly-national playlist for all consolidated stations, most of which will be spinning the same music across several different frequencies on your radio dial.
In other words, if you wanted to hear something new, there’s not much that will be found on those shrinking playlists. This small rock radio base has an adverse impact on the listener base of the artist as well. According to the A.V. Club, “the number of rock radio stations also continues to shrink; Nielsen BDS recently reported that a No. 1 rock hit reaches 12 million listeners, vs. 81 million for a No. 1 pop hit.” That means Adele, LMFAO or Katy Perry are almost seven times as likely to be heard as the latest Billboard rock single (The Black Keys’ “Lonely Boy”).
(By the way, Billboard has listed Lana Del Rey’s debut album Born to Die as the top-selling rock album of its most recent chart, selling more than Leonard Cohen and the Black Keys. Somebody shoot me.)
Further examples of rock’s decline: only Mumford & Sons and Kid Rock broke into the Top 20 best-selling albums of last year. Meanwhile, Adele, Taylor Swift, LMFAO, Katy Perry, and Michael Buble ran away with the best-selling albums of last year. Adele herself sold six million albums (and good for her, she deserves it for 21), while her closest competitor was Michael Buble. With a Christmas album. Oy. 2010 was even worse, a year so bad that the BBC declared it to be the worst year for rock ‘n’roll since 1960, and where Train’s “Hey Soul Sister” was the only song approximating rock (it’s not a rock song, period) that made it into the Billboard Top 10.
So, after all that long buildup, it’s question time. How did we get to this point with rock radio? Why is rock music fading away from cultural relevance in 2012? I think that Black Rebel Motorcycle Club ask it most clearly: “Whatever happened to my rock ‘n’ roll?”
Part of my problem? I got old. Rock and roll has always been a young man’s game, at least in terms of cool and cultural impact. People have been complaining about the fact that the Rolling Stones are still a band since 1969, long before Keith Richards had blood transfusions to maintain corporeal form and Mick Jagger inspired a song about his dance moves that is destined to haunt weddings and crappy club floors. If that’s the case, then I’m the one to blame, but I knew this would happen. As I approach my thirties, I find I have less time to actively search for new music. The responsibilities of academia, family matters, impending married life, bills, and other assorted adult endeavors have removed the time I spend seeking new music that appeals to me. Instead, I find myself at the mercy of other media to provide me with new music. I have Spotify, Pandora Radio, Grooveshark, and Iowa City’s excellent college radio FM station KRUI-FM. Now I don’t have to think about what I’m missing out on while those kids go out and have fun. I can be happy and relive the days of 1997 like there was no tomorrow, and it’s my choice. While I’m sad that I can’t find out about the latest music from the radio, I at least have options to find the fringe music of my youth.
Yet where is the music of younger persons? Artists like Foster the People and Kings of Leon are derivative of other bands, regardless of any quality. Sometimes I get the feeling that the Black Keys are only on the radio because they fit comfortably between the Smashing Pumpkins and George Thorogood, and also because the White Stripes don’t exist as a band anymore. Beyond that, if you had to ask me the difference between the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus and Five Finger Death Punch, I couldn’t tell you any at all.
Part of this has to do with the fact that radio is a broadcast medium, one that is aimed at the widest group of people possible in order to justify the costs of advertising. But if you buy that argument, I’ve got a bridge to sell you as well. Artists have never fully fit into one genre very comfortably. And as we’ve seen before, plenty of smart people know that homogenization is killing music and radio. Then again, don’t expect that to change on Clear Channel’s end. Even with $20 billion in debt, the company claims that the syndicated national programming is doing better in terms of listeners than the local programming it supplanted. Sadly, this means that local voices are being shut out even at the gateway point, and local DJs will soon be a thing of the past on FM dials, replaced by Ryan Seacrest, John Tesh, and Dee Snider. Thankfully, I’ll still have my O.P.R.A.H. radio in the fall semester.
But what about that person who doesn’t have that musical connection or choice? How about the person who is stuck in the middle of Flyover Country, away from the New York City or Los Angeles or Chicago music scenes? How about the kid that doesn’t have access to smart mobile technology or is just very poor? I’m writing about an audience that doesn’t get to see the words I’m writing because their exposure to music doesn’t come from blogs, Pitchfork, Spotify, or any one of those mediums. What about that person whose only access to music comes from the radio dial? Isn’t that scary?
This is why rock radio matters: Because it is still supposed to be the voice of youth in this country. It’s supposed to be the entry point for younger listeners not sure of what the world of music has to offer. Instead, it’s been co-opted and taken away from younger listeners, and the effect is like watching a fish gasping for breath and slowly dying on a piece of ground somewhere.
We talk about the Internet as this place where you can find any and all sorts of new music. Stephen Hyden said it himself when talking about the eradication of the monoculture. Well, I’m sorry to Mr. Hyden, but it doesn’t always work like that in the real world. If anything, the Internet has allowed these niches and fringes of the rock world to exist and evolve outside of the mainstream, while the mainstream has become more streamlined and cut out almost all differences. The Internet doesn’t bring us all together, it draws a bigger line in the sand between music fans. Now if you don’t want to hear a specific type of music, you can immediately cut it out of your life without a second thought. It’s cut out middle bands that bring in levels of difference and elements of other sounds and genres. Thankfully we have bands that thrive on energy more than talent such as Cage the Elephant to break up the monotony, but I’m afraid that these bands are few and far between.
The hyperbolic streamlining of these sounds means that it becomes harder for bands to join that mainstream core sound. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that even classic rock stations are cutting down their playlists. Think about how many times you heard the same Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, or Rolling Stones songs when you know that the back catalog for every one of these bands could support plenty of playlists. But no matter, you’ll only hear “Whole Lotta Love,” “Fortunate Son,” or “Start Me Up” in some areas because that is supposed to be representative of these bands. Sebastian Bach’s recent interview captures the distinct frustration of making new music that radio will never play because it focuses on his older hits, and while I don’t agree with all of his opinions I have to point out these exchanges as important to the whole crux of this argument.
I’m not alone in this distinction. Mr. Hyden himself brings it up in a later realization of the divisive power of radio, especially when comparing the album debuts of new LPs by Staind and Bush to those of critical “indie” bands (I hate this term so much…more later) Girls and Wild Flag:
Moreover, it seems that the Grammys have been quicker to recognize the validity of music outside of the typical rock radio playlist, and the awards are often seen as anachronistic and terminally unhip. The Best New Artist was Wisconsin’s finest export Bon Iver, a bearded Justin Vernon & co. that made the most 80’s album of 2011. Go Bonny Bear! Last year’s Album of the Year winners Arcade Fire would fit perfectly on a rock radio playlist if somebody would play them. But you won’t hear them on contemporary radio, meaning that people on Twitter will become angry like they did when Paul McCartney was on the air. I mean, who is that unknown guy with the bad haircut anyways?
Sadly, we’ll not get to hear Bon Iver on modern rock radio in Iowa anytime soon. I can’t imagine they’ll be playing it at 103.3 FM in Lexington, which was once the alternative rock station in town before management changed in 2001 and it became a “New Rock” station. Gone was the Weezer, the White Stripes, and the Hives. Guns ‘N’ Roses and Warrant returned like it was 1988 all over again. This situation quickly repeated itself across the country.
Instead, as Mr. Bach puts it, “I would like to say to every radio programmer reading this: You are a fucking pussy. You are not a rock fan. You are hustling nostalgia and you have no balls and you suck.'” Again, not the language I would have used, but he has a point.
Think about it: This is a man who is benefitting from radio play of his songs complaining about an excessive overuse of his old music and a lack of new music on the airwaves. Granted, he says this to point out that stations should play his new music, but he’s still right. Radio doesn’t provide any new sounds for the listener. Instead, rock radio is content to provide safe music for advertisers, shutting out the local flavor in order to match a shrinking roster of national playlists.
Today, many people argue that rock is faceless, humorless, and largely devoid of any character whatsoever. A common complaint is that rock is lacking a band that could serve as a gateway point, and the biggest ones are so insular, faceless, and an interesting combination. There’s no personality, just a celebration of loss of personhood.
With all respect to all the people writing these criticisms, that’s simply not true. Personality will always emerge from any music because it is impossible to separate a creative endeavor, however facile and shrewd, from a commercial artifact. I would say that all the bands currently making up the “faceless” bunch of the Billboard Top 20 rock songs are a cult of personality that has permeated the modern rock and hot rock FM radio format since the early part of this past decade. They aren’t faceless, they are in fact part of a larger trend that I find disturbing in today’s modern rock music.
No, modern rock has a personality, and I hate it. So do many of its listeners. But that personality and current public visibility needs some greater explanation.
And we’ll talk about that cultural side of modern rock radio on Thursday. In light of the fact that I need to leave you with a good new rock song, here’s a song that I hope more rock radio stations will plug. It’s a pleasant little ditty from an Iowa dance band Poison Control Center called “Being Gone.” Hope you enjoy!