Wednesday, February 29, 2012

On KNRK and the sad state of radio in general

Knrk, these are the call letters of our local "Alternative" station. My first experience with this station was as a radio surfing teenager, flipping between it, top 40 stations (which we would make fun of) and whatever else that was on the dial. Then, several years later during the four months I spent as a file clerk at a law firm I had a pretty intimate relationship with corporate Alternative music. The office manager I worked with insisted on having this station on each day, every working hour and at lunch. I was in the process of really finding myself as a music fan and the steady diet of 94.7 and its daily rotation of songs ranging from supposed Gen X classics like "Under the Bridge" and "Come As You Are" to Nu-Metal atrocities like "Blurry" by Puddle of Mudd (the extra d? Awesome), "Its Been Awhile" by Staind (missing an E? Awesome) and "Freak on a Leash" by Korn would really wear on me during the day. I'd come home desperate for musical variety, quality and most importantly: authenticity.
     A lot of ink has been spilled over the past year about the death of radio and, perhaps not coincidentally, the death of the music industry in general. More and more Americans are replacing talk radio with Podcasts and Audiobook and replacing terrestrial radio stations with services like Spotify and Pandora. For years, serious music fans have used larger hard drives and faster internet speeds to curate their own libraries that would rival the catalog of many independent radio stations.   Considering all of this, its surprising to me that not only are millions of people still listening to radio, according to recent surveys - they love radio!  According to the Future of Music Coalition,  ten parent companies that control two thirds of both listeners and revenue nationwide. Two parent companies – Clear Channel and Viacom – control 42 percent of listeners and 45 percent of industry revenues. Here in Portland, local firm Alpha Broadcasting controls six of the stations on the dial (the aforementioned KNRK being owned by Entercom - the 4th largest broadcasting company in the country)..The result of all this oligarchy? In 155 markets listenership has fallen by 22 percent since its peak in 1989. Making matters worse, in a desparate attempt to find the next big "hit" corporate radio moguls are overplaying mediocre tracks. According to the New York Times "Of the 10 songs that have notched the most plays in one week, 8 joined the list in the last three years. And the oldest of the 10, Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated,” dates only to 2002. (The all-time most-played song across all radio formats is Santana’s “Smooth,” with more than 1.1 million total plays since it was released in 1999.)"
     At this point you might be curious as to why I find all of this so lamentable. The answer lies in the peculiar problem that music fans face today. The ease and availability of recording equipment has allowed bands and artists to be heard all over the world, regardless of merit or talent. This trend has flooded the internet with so many songs that for the average listener finding music has never been easier, but discovering new music worth listening to is nearly impossible . Its worth noting that throughout the past 30 years most popular bands and artists, whether indie darlings or massive stars, have relied on two things to find a wider audience: critical recognition and radio airplay. That first mechanism is alive in well in the internet age. Websites like Pitchfork are breaking previously unknown bands (some have estimated that the "Pitchfork Bump" is equivalent to 40,000+ sales which is a significant sum in a dying record industry) and critical aggregators like Metacritic are allowing listeners to gauge the overall reception of an album with a simple search. Sadly, while internet music criticism has flourished, Radio has all but lost its role as musical tasemaker. This is mainly due to the McDonaldsization of radio stations with playlists being dominated by either the familiar, or the banal.
     This all became clear to me when several weeks ago, I decided to revisit 94.7 KNRK. I wanted to find out if listening to it on a daily basis was as unpleasant as I remembered. I had planned on listening to it exclusively for several weeks but after the first day, in fact the first hour, I realized this was an unsustainable activity that might have resulted in self-inflicted bodily injury (I must say I was very encouraged to find out that KNRK had expunged Nu-Metal from its playlist porbably the worst sub-genre of music aside from Crunk or Brit-Pop).   So instead, for two weeks each weekday I would tune it at roughly the same time and note the first two or three songs I heard. Its amazing how easily the following tracks fit in to one the two categories I mentioned earlier: 

"Under the Bridge" - Red Hot Chili Peppers
"Tighten Up" - The Black Keys (aired twice)
"Brain Stew" - Green Day
"Today" - Smashing Pumpkins (aired twice)
"Santeria" - Sublime (aired twice)
"Coldplay" Viva La Vida
"The Cave" - Mumford and Suns (aired twice)
"1979" - Smashing Pumpkins
"Drive" - Incubus
"Blister In The Sun" Violent Femmes
"You Are a Tourist" - Death Cab for Cutie (aired twice)
"Undone (The Sweater Song)" - Weezer
"Little Lion Man" - Mumford and Suns (aired twice)
"Vertigo" - U2
"Wonderwall"- Oasis

Aside from the newer songs (6) I remember listening to nine of these tracks on 94.7 over 5 years ago, in fact, some of them I heard on this station when I was a teenager! Now, theres nothing wrong with these legacy tracks per se (with the exception of Incubus: Hootie and The Blowfish for Millenials, and Oasis - who managed to marry all the shitty parts of 40 years of British rock music with lyrics so awful they would make Pat Monahan of Train chuckle) but, did anyone need to hear these songs again? Let alone multiple times in a two week period? 
     Most offensive to me was the airing of Coldplay and, worst of all - U2. Hearing these bands on an "Alternative" should be about as likely as turning on IFC or Sundance and seeing Transformers 2. Regarding the other new songs, tracks by Mumford and Suns (I had no idea they were getting this much airplay), Death Cab for Cutie and The Black Keys - again, there is nothing wrong with these songs, but is this really the best new music you have to offer? And do these bands really deserve this much airplay? Look, I'm aware that KNRK has other new bands on its playlist, even a local band or two, but the songs that wound up in my daily log demonstrate something more important than just coincidence. In fact, nearly every "indie" or local act that they play from Phoenix, to The Black Keys to Wilco, to The Shins to even Portugal The Man had already established a following and, more importantly, critical notoriety before they received airplay. A good example of this was KNRK's sponsorship of an "I Saw Them When.." concert featuring the Shout Out Louds - three years after Our Ill Wills made them critical darlings. There's little risk involved with playing these established acts because they're as likely to develop a following among radio listeners as they were elsewhere. There's also the bonus of some of their regular listeners recognizing these "hip new bands" and feeling ahead of the curve. The Blak Keys are a good example of a band that had been around for years before getting airplay. 
     I have to say a few extra words about the Black Keys, though. Their music has never interested me, but until recently I always thought they seemed like cool dudes (filming a DVD at Portland's own Crystal Ballroom, being friendly with independent record stores and the like), and I was encouraged by their meteoric rise to stardom. That is, until in they really embarrassed themselves in recent interviews. They characterize the Indie-Rock community as "private-college kids who rule the indie rock world—kids who never really have to worry about anything, because they always have some sort of backup plan that they can safely fall into” - a group of Straw Men less plausible than the "Welfare Queens with their Cadillacs" that Ronald Reagan rallied against. Worse still is their defense of licencing tracks from Brothers to virtually every corporation that would cut them a check, likening themselves to an older generation of blues musicians  (“my heroes,” Guitarist Dan Auerbach claims) who “take all the money they can get." Well Dan, you know what old blues artists weren't doing? Clearing six figure sums from playing 2,000+ seaters (now basketball arenas, even) every night and getting massive festival paydays. A band as succussful as The Black Keys taking commercial money feels a lot more like greed than just making a living. As Ani DiFranco put it in her classic track "Napoleon" - "i still make a pretty good living, but you must make a killing."
     I mention this because there is something very troubling about the willingness of the new Indie upper-middle class to  attach themselves to corporations. Case in point: Is there anything more nauseating than indie-darling Zooey Deschanel's cotton commercial? (The answer is yes, check out this article where she mentions not enjoying her first year of college because "none of these people understand what's cool about me. My specialness is not appreciated in this place.") Its hardly surprising that the bands embraced by corporate radio are either the least interesting or the most willing to be coddled by corporations. In the case of Deschanel, she not only produces music boring enough to rival commercial background music for its placidness, she's also a horrible actress starring in a hit network sitcom. Whether she is more worthless as an actress or as a musician has become one of life's unanswerable questions.  
     The result of all this, is that "Alternative" stations have become to Generation X what Classic Rock is to Baby Boomers. The negative consequences of this are twofold. The first being that, just as Classic Rock radio has reimagined a warped narrative of the 60's and 70's featuring little else han Pink Floyd, Led Zepplin and Arena Rock like Bad Company (witness a generation who doesn't even know who Paul McCartney is)  - "Alternative" stations will give listeners the false impression that there was nothing more to the 90's than corporate grunge and bands like Sublime and the Smashing Pumpkins. Sure, serious music fans will look back on the 90's and discover bands like Pavement, Guided By Voices and My Bloody Valentine much in the same way that serious students of film and television have posthumously canonized stuff The Wire and obscure 70's films - but these bands were deserving of recognition while they were still making vital and important art. 
     The second, and more serious consequence, is that the hundreds of bands that deserve success will languish in obscurity unless their PR is sophisticated enough to connect with outlets like Pitchfork or they are lucky enough to catch the ear of a music supervisor for a television show. 
     Its no surprise that there is a direct correlation between the decline of quality Radio and the death of the music industry. In both cases, corporations are lazily picking the quick buck over a path that is more nurturing to artists and that would ultimately lead to greater sales and listenership. In the end, it may be up to serious music fans to promote bands and artists deserving of attention, and preserving the legacy of quality music not suited to corporate radio airplay. Its that aim that ultimately led me to create this blog in its current form. So, thanks for reading. Click back next week for something a bit more positive. 

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