It’s Still Alive
It’s funny that I’ve never written about the music industry.
It’s funny because the music industry has essentially been part of my life since birth. I grew up a child of rock and rollers. My father has been a DJ since 1963. He grew up listening to Elvis and Buddy Holly. My mother was a Beatle freak and nothing short of a 60’s party girl. My mom used to call my dad on the request line and tell him he sounded cute. Thirty years, a ton of concerts, a garage full of albums, some crazy drugs, and one slightly freaky daughter later, here we are.
My first job was when I was 15, as a radio station promotions flunkie. When I was 19, I did the college radio thing at WPRK-FM, Rollins College. I was PD my senior year and I know for a fact I was the first person to play “Smells Like Teen Spirit” in the state of Florida. The first time I heard it, I knew it was the most influential rock record since “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” I worked as a DJ in South Florida (at the only rock station that plays new music) for four years; quitting out of general malaise over the complete lack of musical progress at the station and the fact that my boss was an asshole. Currently, I work for — well, let’s just say I’m deep in the corporate-checkbook number-crunching end of the biz.
I’m not saying I’m an expert in the field. It just happened that I’m a writer who, for the better part of my life, has held legit jobs in music-driven fields. I’ve seen a lot of different aspects of this industry. People inevitably ask me about music and why radio sucks and why they have to pay Ticket Monster service fees and why can’t I get them free tickets to shows. Like I know?
Well, maybe I do. When I was a paid commercial DJ, never fail, I’d get at least one call a day from someone asking me to play — for the sake of argument let’s say: Rancid.
Sure, I like Rancid. They have a damn good following and probably could sell anywhere between 300 and 500 tickets if you booked them in any major city in America. They’ve been playing a long time, they’ve got a good catalog of music, and although they’re not household names, who is in this MTV age?
But at 11:15 on a Tuesday morning, I couldn’t just play “Time Bomb.” There’s about as much freedom in a radio station playlist as there is in a Gulag. Inevitably, the caller would reply with, “They’re a great band,” “You guys never play anything cool,” or “If you played it people would like it.” Maybe. I think maybe people would like it. But as far as the radio station is concerned, “maybe” isn’t good enough.
What you may or may not know is that every song that you hear on the radio is tested in music surveys over and over and over again, and unless it scores well in the station’s key demographic, it doesn’t get on the air. It’s as carefully thought out as a master chess match.
“But,” the caller would say, “I know all my friends are into Rancid. We just went to their show and there were like 500 people there.”
Ok. Say Rancid did a 30-city tour and sold 500 tickets in every town. That’s 15,000 people. If 1000 people in every one of those cities owned Rancid CD’s, that’s what? 30,000 people. So if, on the average, 200,000 people are listening to that South Florida rock radio station at 11:15 in the morning on a Tuesday, if you’re a programming consultant, you better damn well play Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some” for the 729th time that week and NOT “Time Bomb,” because if you do, the likelihood is that at least two-thirds to three-quarters of your listeners are going to turn the station because they don’t know what the hell you’re playing and frankly, they don’t want to know.
Radio stations cannot take that kind of a risk on an unproven band — even if playing it will make the band huge — because their checkbook is riding on it. That’s the sad reality of the radio industry. They program what their consultants tell them to program, because the consultants pick the music that they think the people who spend money will like. Period.
Now, if Rancid signs with a major label and produces a radio-friendly, poppy, predictable single, gets great PR, a great video, and a profoundly funny appearance on Loveline, then maybe a station will put it on, but only at night when they know Rancid’s core audience (12-25 years old) will be listening.
There’s no reason radio stations can’t play other Bosstones records besides “The Impression that I Get. ” I can pray every night that “Intergalactic” gets played as much as “Teen Spirit” did when it came out. But it won’t. Because the idiots in radio programming still associate sampling and grooves, and Chili Peppers and Primus-style funk, with “black” music.
I don’t know about you, but I’m white, and as long as I can remember I’ve been listening to rap. Rap hit big just about the time we started buying records. But for some reason, the music industry still hangs onto a sad, antiquated opinion that white kids don’t listen to black kids’ music. It was that way in 1955, it’s that way now. I think the best music these days has found a happy, aggressive medium between rap and rock. But you’re not hearing it because “they” don’t think you like it. They don’t want to admit that there’s been a change. It would mean they’re out of jobs.
Regardless of what you hear or don’t hear on the radio, the only way to gauge a band is to see them live. But even then, concert promoters can’t fork over hundreds of thousands of dollars on a band with one radio hit. It doesn’t make financial sense. You wonder why ticket prices are high? They have to be. Promoters are responsible for paying everyone- from the artists themselves to the parking attendants to the insurance brokers in case there’s a fight in the mosh pit. Logically, they can’t risk booking a one-hit band in a huge arena.
In 1989, Perry Farrell had a novel idea. He took seven or eight popular, but still small-venue acts of all different genres, who, if they each toured on their own, could sell anywhere between 500 and 2500 tickets a piece. He booked all the bands in one place, charged $30, sold 10,000 tickets, soda, food, beer, tattoos, and merchandise. It was a great idea, a great time, and we ate it up. It sure beat paying $40 to see a double bill of Warrant and Bon Jovi with a bunch of bitchin’ Camaro rockers that you hated like poison, anyway.
Unfortunately, Perry Farrell made a shitload of money doing it. And if you can still remember what the state of music was in 1989, it was a pretty desperate situation.
Lollapalooza was like a two-hundred seat life raft drifting by the Titanic. Promoters, record companies, sponsors, MTV, and anyone with a brain in their head dropped everything they were doing and got on board. That’s why the labels suddenly started pouring millions of dollars into completely unknown bands (especially in Seattle) in hopes at least a few of them would get remotely popular, in order to package them together at a later date for, you guessed it, a festival show.
Voila. Here were are in 1998, where radio stations only play what bands the record companies are pumping the money into and MTV makes sure to play their videos in hot rotation so that when they come through town the promoters are sure to sell enough tickets to the festival show at their brand new 20,000 seat amphitheater.
Now it’s all about festivals. Lilith. HORDE. Ozzfest. Smokin’ Grooves. Further Festival. Warped Tour. You can’t blame anyone, really. Well, you could blame Perry. But he did spare us another Def Leppard tour. Like Dr. Frankenstein, he didn’t intend to create a monster. Festivals are, I think, good for the industry and the concert-goer. I’d much rather shell out $50 in one shot and get to see at least one of one my favorite bands plus a whole bunch of others I probably dig, instead of $30 every time one band comes through town.
But if the record company isn’t promoting your favorite band and they aren’t getting airplay and they aren’t on a festival, yet where does it leave you? Cold, probably. Probably still slugging it out at the independent record store, buying stuff that no one knows about that you’re gonna try desperately to keep a secret; keep them to yourselves, because all great music speaks only to you.
Do yourself and the band a favor. Spread the word. The Bosstones slugged it out for fifteen years before they had a mainstream hit. Christ, everyone knew the Bosstones. But when “everyone” grew up and a couple of them got jobs in the music industry, that’s when they got big.
Bottom line: do the bands that should make it ever do? Yes. But not as often as they could. I don’t think I’m making a crazy assumption when I say that our generation, at least, anyone who might read this article, probably isn’t satisfied with the state of music today. I’ll even go so far to say as that the industry isn’t happy about it, either. Their strings are being pulled by computerized numbers and corporate monopolies and radio consultants being paid millions of dollars to tell other people what they THINK you MIGHT want.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t watch MTV and I don’t know anyone who does. The music I like still doesn’t get any radio airplay. I prefer songs like “Spin the Black Circle” over “Paradise City.” I like Sarah McLachlan as much as I do Rage Against the Machine. I own Fear of a Black Planet.
We’ve got the power to change what we hear, what we see, and most importantly, how we see it. Problem is, we’re not bothering to do it.
So, what to do?
Well, I say support small shows. Support small bands. Support small radio stations. All great things start small. They have to. Only then can you make what you like the norm We can tell the people making the decisions, who, for the most part, don’t have a fucking clue what is going on, what we want. We can’t just complain about things and then not take action. If I can get old, tired, crappy 80’s hair metal off the radio and replace it with something remotely stimulating, so help me God I can die happy.
As for me? I’m gonna rush out and buy the Beastie Boys CD and just to aggravate my boss, spend my concert dollars this summer on Pearl Jam — even though I’ll probably have to fly to Atlanta to do it. There’s something to be said for the power of a band that puts out two mediocre albums back-to-back and still can sell out 20,000 seat arenas in a matter of hours. I think it’s great that they aren’t cowering to MTV, to their record company, or to anyone else. They make the music they want to make and dammit, that’s all you can ask out of a rock and roll band. They’ve reached that magical Who-esque plateau where anything is possible. The industry bends to according to their rules; the fun in that, of course, is that they’ll take on anyone and anything simply because they can. If they lose, so what. They don’t care. Pearl Jam can abuse their privilege because they’re the closest thing to the kings of rock that we have right now.
That alone should give you a little hope if you’re still roughing it out as a punk, or skanking and wishing No Doubt never happened.