25 October 2008

The Survival of the Music Industry: Part II - The Relationship Between Music and Radio


By the end of World War I, commercial radio waves carried news and entertainment across the country.  Records seemed destined to become obsolete.  Why would anyone continue to build his own library, piece by piece at a high cost to himself, when all he had to do was tune in to hear music far more expansive than he could ever likely own?  Record labels feared the worst, and many forbade their acts from appearing on radio.  From the Wikipedia page on the History of Radio:
"Radio ownership grew from 2 out of 5 homes in 1931 to 4 out of 5 homes in 1938. Meanwhile record sales fell from $75 million in 1929 to $26 million in 1938 (with a low point of $5 million in 1933). Although it should be noted that the economics of the situation were also affected by the fact this took place during the Great Depression."
A 1923 copyright lawsuit determined that radio stations had to pay royalties, and thus record labels got over their anti-radio anxieties.  Funny how money is the answer to so many problems.

In the 1950s, many of the longrunning radio shows either transitioned to television or lost a large part of their audience--and hence, their sponsorship.  Contemporaneously, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate Road System infused Americans' love affair with driving with a whole new energy.  Cars had radios, and drivers did not want to hear The Shadow.  Driving 55 miles per hour on Route 66 called for tunes, daddy-o.  And so music helped radio survive its struggle with television.  The system was simple: Record labels produced singles, disc jockeys played singles over the air and drivers made sure to let them know what they did--and did not--want to hear.  A horrible part of our country's history, the Jim Crow laws segregated the races as thoroughly as they could, and this meant that music by African-American artists was limited to broadcast on stations designated for African-American listeners (in urban areas, of course; there weren't many "Negro" stations in rural America).  Of course, once the white youth were on their own, many tuned into these stations to hear the raw energy of such artists as Little Richard.  They might not get away with buying his singles and bringing them home to play, but his music blared in their Fords on the outskirts of town.

The most power in this situation was actually held by the local disc jockey.  He decided what he would play, what he would talk up for local listeners.  And he knew that his popularity--and his paycheck--depended on whether his bosses had evidence that people listened to his show.  Today, that evidence might be found in online message boards, but in the 1950s that evidence came from phone calls to the radio station, either excited about something he just played or begging him to play something else.  The DJ's job was to create a sense of community among listeners, with himself as its heart and soul; making stars out of artists was incidental for him and his community.  Many artists were big fish in their little ponds, playing concerts in regional circuits and stopping along the way to get local DJ's to spin their singles.  Rarer still were those artists whose popularity sprawled from circuit to circuit, until all of a sudden he was a bona fide national star.

Uniting this cross-racial musical diversity, popularity with young listeners and the label/station/sales triangle was a daring young artist out of  Memphis, Tennessee named Elvis Presley.  Elvis's first few singles were fairly conservative, country and gospel tinged numbers, but he quickly outgrew Sam Philips's Sun Records and RCA bought out his contract.  Elvis brought black energy to white music; he personified the generation gap.  DJ's, like everyone else, were divided.  Old guard DJ's often refused to play his music, insisting that it crossed too many lines.  Younger DJ's insisted on playing his music, for precisely the same reason.

Two anecdotes really capture the anxieties over Elvis and his musical style.  Shortly after he covered Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky," which was much faster than the original version, Elvis met Monroe backstage at an entertainment function.  Elvis was certain, when Monroe approached him, that it was to lash out at the upstart.  Instead, Monroe insisted that he loved the new arrangement and had, himself, begun to perform it that way.  On the other hand, Irving Berlin personally called on every disc jockey he knew to get them to ban Elvis's recording of "White Christmas" when it came out in 1957.

Singles, by Elvis or otherwise, generally clocked in between two and three minutes, a standard that held for decades.  By keeping singles short (partly dictated by the spacial limitations of 45s), disc jockeys could play several songs per hour.  The DJ himself was part of the fun, often introducing songs with an anecdote about the artist and updating teens on the goings-on of the night.  In some ways, he was the vocal equivalent of the classified ads, pointing listeners to Saturday night dance halls.  The songs and artists changed regularly, but a solid DJ was the constant for listeners.  No other DJ best exemplified this position than Wolfman Jack, and all you ever need to know about him you can glean from American Graffiti.

Music, though, is an art and not just a commercial product.  As the 1960s wore on, many artists in many fields reacted to the calls for social equality among the races and sexes, and the condemnation of war.  The counter-culture arose concurrent with FM radio.  FM radio boasts a much stronger signal than AM radio, meaning radio stations's listenership areas increased dramatically.  Instead of switching AM frequencies on a cross-county drive, you could stay tuned to one FM station.  One consequence was that one DJ now covered the area previously covered by two or three AM DJs.  Another consequence was that FM DJ's were expected to compete with their talkative AM competitors and one way of doing this was by playing more music.

Dave Thompson, in his liner notes to Hip-O Records's 2005 compilation Classic Rock Gold, explains.  "FM Radio was dedicated to album rock--that is, bands whose statements were entirely bound up within the breadth of an entire LP, and who barely gave a hoot for 45s."  These were musical statements, not jingos.  Just as earlier DJ's had to decide whether or not to play Elvis for the fans who "got" his music, these DJ's had to decide where they stood on this new, revolutionary music.  For those who did "get" it, it wasn't about the quick turnover from one sing-along song to the next on a Saturday night drive.  This was about tapping into the social message and musical artistry of serious artists.  How could anything meaningful be contained in three minutes?

Again, Thompson describes the situation.  "Once, it was considered revolutionary to play two singles back-to-backm without a break for chatter or commercials.  Now, entire sides of albums were being aired without interruption, or songs that were the length of an album side...Dylan's "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," Iron Butterfly's "In A Gadda Da Vida," Cream's live "Spoonful."  This meant "less talk, more music."  The local DJ still mattered, because he had to know what his audience wanted to hear, and what it would go along with and what it wouldn't, but now the audience knew him a little less.  Thus began the decline in the relevance of the on-air DJ.

These new, album-centric artists revolutionized the music industry for their generation.  Not only were the songs not designed to be commercial friendly (in length and, often, content), but album art took on a whole new meaning.  Before, singles often simply depicted the title of the song and name of the artist, along with the logo of the publishing record label.  Albums, when issued, were generally given stock publicity head shot photographs of the performing artist.  In the 1960s and 1970s, though, album art often included bare breasted, or even entirely nude people (often in nature settings).  Many times, album art was just that--actual art, many times completely abstract, yet compelling.  Album sleeves took on a role they had previously lacked for fans and consumers.  Your mom might have hidden her Elvis 45s in with the rest of her singles because her parents had to read them to know what was on them; there was no way she would mistake what an album whose sleeve depicted five long-haired young adults standing stark naked in the woods contained.  Out with subtlety, in with in-your-face artistry, both lyrically and visually.

When the fervor of the civil rights movement and Viet Nam subsided with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the music scene again shifted.  There were still rebels, but now they lacked a cause.  Gone were the days of civil disobedience; now, popular acts were just plain disobedient.  Instead of fighting for equality or peace, the rockers of the 1980s fought for their right...to party.  Corporate greed also took on a new persona, and thus began the work of consolidating radio stations.  FCC regulations restricted how many broadcast stations each ownership could have, and many began the act of reaching that limit--and finding ways to get around it, such as forming different "investment groups."  Just as FM radio had overshadowed AM radio, now national programming directors began to usurp the power to decide what to play from local DJ's.  Gone were the days of organic, grass-roots movements to introduce artists.  Now, the only chance a newcomer had for getting on the air was to be signed to a big label, and have its promotions department "persuade" radio programmers to play their music.

The Reagan 80s were marked by several social themes: greed, fear of Russia instigating a nuclear holocaust and figuring out how to address the rifts of the 1970s.  Where their predecessors confronted these issues head-on, 1980s rockers just wanted to party to get away from it all.  In many respects, this mirrored society's emerging axiom: "let someone else deal with it."  Cocaine was the way to get away from it all, and cokeheads don't want to hear Dylan.  They needed something energetic and loud, and that's what they got.  The rock and pop music of the 1980s reverted back to being commercial-friendly jingos.  The birth of Music Television (MTV) and music videos made fans even more superficial about music than they had ever been before.  Now all an artist had to do to be popular was to be loud, energetic and associated with sexual imagery.

The 1990s saw the pendulum swinging less wildly.  Pop music became nearly entirely about thoughtless energy, and rock music (such as it was) tried to re-connect with its 1970s counter-cultural sensibilities.  These were the Clinton years, when things were good for most of us, and some artists demanded that we not lose sight of the fact that things were not so good for others.  This, of course, gave rise to what has since become the "Indie" movement; artists whose music and messages are not commercial-ready, but resonate with fans.

With the advent of digital music, these artists have circumvented the commercial model of yesterday to find an audience.  Today's youth still respond to energy, just as their grandparents responded to Elvis, and they still respond to thoughtful songs, just as their parents responded to Dylan.  They just don't need radio to bring them these artists and their songs.  Commercial radio has existed, for twenty years, on the premise that labeling artists "this" or "that" and then playing them on the stations designated for "this" or "that" will lure in listeners, who prefer "this" or "that."  They have removed the local DJ from the equation as much as they have been able, and it is no accident that today's youth find today's radio soulless and impersonal.

Radio can still introduce listeners to artists and their songs, but it must look beyond the neatly constructed box it has put itself into to do it.  Radio can re-connect with its audience best, though, by de-centralizing its playlists and putting local DJ's back to work, feeling out what local fans are into and (gasp) what they want to hear.  Clear Channel stations post their playlists online, but no longer have call-in request hours.  DJ's will air a taped request for a song, but it is always a song already in their rotation.  Polling listeners for which of the current 40 songs their corporate programmers have added to their playlist they want to hear next is hardly audience involvement.

Radio listenership's current decline can be partially attributed to the ever-growing list of entertainment alternatives, yes.  Drivers now plug in their iPods instead of tuning in while driving; teens hear more Classic Rock on Guitar Hero than they do the radio.  If radio reconnects with its organic, grass-roots past, it has a fighting chance of re-connecting with an audience.  That means less Los Angeles and New York, and more Mayberry.  Your local listeners don't need you to play current singles to hear them, so why restrict your playlists to them?

Another long gone staple of radio's golden days is the live appearance.  If Best Buy and Walmart are turning significant profits off retailer exclusive music releases, then it stands to reason a radio station could do the same.  Radio only remixes, acoustic and live versions of songs would help make radio broadcasts stand out more to listeners.  In studio appearances would also be good.  When an act is in town, why not get them to drop by and play a few songs on the radio before the concert?  Stations would catch drivers in afternoon rush traffic (a golden hour for radio anyway), as well as stoke interest in that night's show.  Without these, or similar efforts, radio will have only itself--and its unimaginitive corporate offices--to thank for its decline and eventual demise.

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