Monday, May 27, 2013

Discovering Music Now That Radio Is Irrelevant

Alternative Rock Radio: The Sad, Unwarranted Decline Of FM Rock Stations.
(By Christine Pawlak,, November 15, 2011)

I was 24 when I first lost my job as a radio DJ. I was 30 when it happened again. In both cases, my employers changed the stations’ formats, abandoning “alternative rock” for gospel (at Philadelphia’s Y100) and news (at Q101 in Chicago). Just this year, another Philadelphia station, WYSP, as well as New York’s WRXP and WVRX in Washington, D.C., have shifted from rock music to talk radio formats. This is just the most recent round of deaths—over the last few years, major rock stations like New York’s K-Rock, Indie 103.1 in Los Angeles, and WBCN in Boston have gone silent. These stations haven’t been disappearing because the format’s a money loser. It’s because a handful of executives have decided that rock radio doesn’t belong on the FM dial.

In February of 2004, I moved to Philadelphia to host the night show at Y100. I was incredibly excited about being on the air in such a big city. During each five-hour show, I wrote “Weekend Update”-esque zingers about music and entertainment news and counted down the day’s most-requested songs. I had just fallen in love with the band Muse, and watching them at a private show for our listeners was one of my favorite Y100 moments. But about a year after I arrived, I walked into our weekly DJ meeting and found the station in chaos. We were told that Y100 was going off the air immediately, and our services would no longer be needed. I thought I’d never get such a cool opportunity again.
Thankfully, I was wrong. Emmis Communications owned Chicago’s Q101 when I started my new gig as a midday host in 2005. At the time, the station had responded to the iPod’s popularity by using the phrase “on shuffle”—you never knew which random musical gem might pop up after Nirvana, Pearl Jam, or Foo Fighters. We supported local bands and those with local roots, like Rise Against, Fall Out Boy, Chevelle, and Smashing Pumpkins. And to the chagrin of many “alternative” fans, we played Metallica.

I’m actually not a fan of the alternative label. It’s limiting because it’s subjective: One listener’s alternative is another’s mainstream. I just knew that Q101 played music that I loved when I was growing up, and that made it fun to go to work. I’d walk into the studio excited to play a request or crack a joke that made someone’s workday a little better. My enthusiasm caught the eye of Chicago Magazine, which named me Best Radio DJ in 2008, praising my “playful riffs on topics breathtaking for their sheer randomness.” I loved my job, and my listeners—eventually—grew to love me.
Behind the scenes, though, the station’s parent company was facing financial struggles. Emmis, a publicly traded company boasting more than 30 media properties, limped through the recession and a failed attempt to take the company private. With more than $300 million in long-term debt and its stock valued at around $1 per share, CEO Jeff Smulyan decided to sell off three of Emmis’ radio stations: WRXP in New York, and The Loop and Q101 in Chicago. A few hours after the sale went through, we learned that both Q101 and WRXP would be shifting to all-news formats.

The man who decided that alternative rock radio was over in Chicago was Randy Michaels. Michaels, who resigned from his executive position at the Chicago Tribune after revelations of inappropriate and loutish behavior in 2010, made his triumphant return to media moguldom by buying my station. “My favorite format has always been spoken radio,” Michaels said in the July 31 press release announcing the launch of Chicago’s FM News 101.1. “I’ve long had a nostalgic love affair with the big AM stations known for the format, and today—as music moves to the iPod—it’s time for spoken word to move to FM.”
This isn’t the first time that one man’s actions have dealt a blow to rock radio. Howard Stern’s hugely popular morning show debuted on New York’s K-Rock in 1985 and was ultimately syndicated on dozens of rock stations. When Stern took his talents to satellite radio in 2006, K-Rock changed to an all-talk format called Free FM, with disastrous results. Most critics blamed the plunging ratings on Stern’s departure, but I’m convinced that the sudden, drastic format change sealed the station’s demise. I wonder what might have happened if K-Rock’s programmers, or those at WBCN and Indie 103.1, had been patient and given rock music a chance. (Consider that multimedia giant Clear Channel, which owns 850 American radio stations, launched a successful alternative rock station in Philadelphia two years after the death of Y100.)

Though the rise of satellite radio was supposed to prophesy the death of AM and FM, that’s not anywhere close to happening. Even so, Sirius/XM is unquestionably prying ears away from terrestrial radio. So are iPods; music-sharing services like Pandora and Spotify, which appeal to fans with instant access to millions of songs; social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter that provide constant streams of personalized content; and all the other entertainment options in this era of 1,000 cable channels and 24/7 connectivity.  An FM radio station, by comparison, lacks customization and can’t be heard “on demand.” But I don’t think music is ready to vacate the airwaves, or that someone who acknowledges a bias toward another format should be the arbiter of that decision.
FM radio doesn’t have the buzz of more recently minted technology, but that doesn’t mean it lacks listeners. The Chicagoland area is the country’s third-largest media market and has an audience of more than 7 million people. According to Arbitron, the research firm responsible for radio ratings, Q101 had roughly 1.2 million different listeners during its final weeks on the air. They weren’t all listening at once, and they wouldn’t all say that Q101 was their favorite radio station. They did, however, all make a choice to tune in. It’s too early to know if FM News 101.1 will match the size of that audience: Michaels’ Merlin Media LLC is conjuring new stations from scratch, unlike other radio conglomerates that have decided to simulcast established AM stations on crisper FM frequencies. Currently, Arbitron is reporting that 1 million fewer people are tuning their dials to 101.1 than when I was on the air. When I look at those numbers, I wonder how many of those missing million listeners remember their old friend Q101 when they turn on their iPods.

Curiosity can make a listener tune in to a radio station. Loyalty will make him stay, and loyalty must be earned. Making that kind of connection isn’t easy, and it takes patience. It helped that I worked for a company that trusted me to host a request hour and didn’t require me to pre-record shows for the weekend or for stations in other cities. Recording a show to sound live or local when it’s neither makes a DJ sound like the great and powerful Oz—a disembodied voice behind a curtain, not to be trusted. That practice, known as voice-tracking, is a way to cut costs by consolidating stations into regional clusters with a minimal number of employees. The industry started moving in that direction in the late 1990s at the behest of Clear Channel, specifically the head of Clear Channel’s radio division ... Randy Michaels.
It would be easy for me to resent Michaels, but radio is a business. He wanted to maximize his company’s profits in a volatile, vulnerable industry, and he met that goal. Consolidation made financial sense, even if it sacrificed the medium’s humanity.  Michaels’ faith in FM news is more subjective. CD sales have fallen sharply with the rise of digital downloads, and there are few alternative rock artists topping the iTunes charts. It’s tempting to conclude that tech-savvy consumers don’t care about hearing new rock music on the radio. If so, the absence of oldies, classic rock, and Latin music on those iTunes charts would imply that those formats aren’t financially successful on FM radio either ... but they are.  What I know from my years as a DJ is that listeners know what they like when they hear it. Q101 fans reached out en masse during our last days, sharing their memories of the station’s almost 20-year run. Chicago natives who’d moved away for jobs, school, or military service listened via and sent us heartfelt emails and texts. Even now, I get choked up reading the hundreds of comments on my old Facebook page: “I feel like I've lost my best friend.” “You have no idea how much we'll all miss you guys.” “A big piece of my generation's life just died.” Then, there’s this: “Sure, the iPod can play music, but nothing can replace the personality that you brought to the station.”

Once we knew that the end was near, Q101's programming department let the DJs pick their own music. I "dusted off" songs I hadn't played in years, like "Little Black Backpack" by Stroke 9, The Cure's "Lullaby," and "Song for the Dumped" by Ben Folds Five. I played newer artists I've grown to love: Mumford and Sons, Foster the People, and naturally, Muse. I allowed myself to be nostalgic, emotional, and honest.  Those last shows were the best of my career. Passion isn’t quantifiable like ratings or revenue, but I’m proud that Q101 inspired it in our listeners, no matter how many we had. Technology will change; the need to connect with each other through stories and songs won't. When it comes to rock radio, I don’t think the preferences of a few should affect the interests of so many.
Discovering Music in 2009: The New Tools
(via Gizmodo by Adrian Covert on 4/15/09)

MTV doesn't play music videos. Magazines are dying. Radio is all about the $$$. It's no secret the old modes of music discovery have been thrown out the window. Thankfully, new music-finders are here:  I think anyone reading this understands that the internet is the new trading post for artists, listeners, critics and salesmen. It's impossible to avoid some of the marketing campaigns carried out on MySpace and YouTube, but mostly music's move to the internet gives listeners more power to develop their own tastes, for better or for worse. You can turn to MP3 stores, recommendation services, internet radio and podcasts, MySpace—and even personal music blogs and forums that'll help you "sample" pirated music. Here's my take on each method of discovery and the relevance it has to listeners:

Recommendation Services

The Pandoras, Rhapsodys and Last.fms of the world are nice, because they do most of the discovery work for you, without pushing some corporate agenda on you behind the scenes (...ahem...Clear Channel). Even better, these services cater their first song selections around your initially revealed tastes, and as you give the software feedback as to what you like and don't like, they continue to refine and improve their artist recommendations. Zune's Mixview also provides a similar service, visually recommending similar artists and songs to those already in your library.  But my problem with a service like this is that you don't necessarily get music that's really new or groundbreaking. Sure, it might be new or exciting to the casual music fan, or just someone who spends all their time listening to these services, but for the true junkie—okay, maybe "music snob"—it's hard to really be wowed by any of these services. We've seen and heard most of it before.

MP3 Stores

Sometimes looking for new music to actually buy is a great way to discover new stuff. Whenever I stop through the legendary Amoeba Records in SF to buy actual, real CDs and vinyl, half my stack is full of stuff I'm completely unfamiliar with. The same holds true with MP3 stores.  Whether it's the monoliths like the iTunes and Amazon mp3 stores, or smaller music peddlers like Boomkat, Bleep, Beatport or Juno, most these stores not only let you click through and listen to all the 30-second clips you can handle, but they have tons of recommendations in the sidebars, allowing you to explore similar artists and sounds. The only problem with this? If you don't want to buy all these tracks, hunting them down again is a drag. And in the case of some of the more obscure stores, you might not find the songs anywhere else.

Internet Radio and Podcasts

The beautiful thing about radio in its prime was that, top hits and genres-aside, you never knew what you were going to hear at any specific moment. That unpredictability has an addictive quality to it, and internet radio preserves that spirit to a degree. Though not as popular in the era of the iPod, I still tune in to internet radio stations when I'm feeling bored with my music collection.  Two of my personal favorites are KCRW out of LA, which sticks to indie and the non-top-40 pop hits, and Rinse FM out of London, which has a current rotation of DJs spinning Grime, Dubstep, House and whatever other electronic genres are currently bubbling over there. My favorite thing about these two stations are that they put the content above all else—playing music they like, and not necessarily music that will sell. (On perhaps the complete other end of the music spectrum, Wilson recommends similarly free-minded stations WFUV in New York, and KEXP in Seattle.)  The risk you run in your path of discovery, however, is that if your ears are at the mercy of the DJ you're listening to on internet radio, and if you don't like their taste, hard luck.

MySpace and Twitter

This is what I sort of view as the great democratic project in music. The complaint while the internet was in its infancy was that big media and big corporations had too much influence over what music made it, and what didn't. Obviously that's all changed, in large part to MySpace.  As a social media service at large, MySpace is an eyesore and an abomination. But as a place to discover new music, believe it or not, it's an invaluable goldmine. Big artists, small artists, fat artists, skinny artists—hell, your mom—all have the same basic framework at their dispersal to reach the masses when they're using MySpace. Here you can find your favorite established artists sneaking new tracks up on their page, you can find work from newer artists who have no official releases out, or you can stumble upon that completely random, brilliant band of 17-year-olds from Pawnee, Oklahoma throwing out avant-garde acid pop.  But the best part, is that you can click around their grid of friends, who most of the time are other musicians, and you can get lost in musical worlds you didn't know existed. I spent eight hours doing this one night last winter, and found enough new artists and styles that kept me interested for the rest of the year.  On the Twitter side, it's mostly just good for gathering names and news, but the fact that more musicians, writers and other people of interest are using the service to jot down thoughts means you get to see what they're into at any given moment. People ranging from The Root's ?uestlove, to The New Yorker's music writer Sasha Frere-Jones, to Diplo all twitter frequently about the new music they're digging at the time.

The Online Music Media

The big music magazines, like Rolling Stone and The Source, went from influential and respected in their prime for their great taste and writing, to walking punchlines later on for their willingness to make a buck at the cost of content. What this did was open the door for music blogs to jump in and give readers a new place to figure out what's new and good in the world of tunes.  Most of the bigger/more general music blogs (Pitchfork, Stereogum, Gorilla vs Bear) will never be the first ones to break a new artist, but they will be quick to tell you when known artists have new works available or coming out soon. Smaller, niche blogs (The Fader, Xlr8r, Valerie), however, will cultivate their sites like boutiques of taste, and always look for what's next in music, as opposed to what's now.  Filtering through sites like this takes a decent amount of work, however, and is for the dedicated music fan. Lesser enthusiasts need not apply.


The Somali method is for the most hardcore of the hardcore. People who don't want to wait for the media to tell them what's what, and would rather just "sample" it for themselves, hit the internet hard and heavy for albums that leak weeks, sometimes months, ahead of their release.  "Sampling" these albums is not for the faint of heart. It takes a general sense of music knowledge, music news, ability to follow the right websites and some technical know how. Bittorrent (and once upon a time, Oink...RIP) is a hotbed for many music leaks as they hit, but since it's tough to mask your IP address if you're not in a private community, it's easier to "sample" the same album using RapidShare, MegaUpload or Mediafire. (In case you're wondering, avoid RapidShare at all costs, use Mediafire whenever'll save like 5 years of your life).  Generally the best place to "sample" these links to new album leaks are in the threads music-related forums. This could be a forum for an artist, a record label, a genre, or just music in general, but people always start an upload thread full of links for you to troll.  There are also blogs and sites that keep track of the latest leaks. Bolachas Gratis is probably the most famous of the bunch, famously hopping from blog service to blog service, finding a new home to post links to albums for you to "sample." aims to do something similar, while there's another site, Did It Leak, that just lists albums it's seen floating around the internet. They even have a Twitter feed. 

These days, once you have an album title, its as simple as visiting Google Blog Search, MAYBE typing an album name in the search bar in quotes, and MAYBE adding a 2009 and "+rar" or "+zip" to the search string (NO IDEA what those mean!). Search around for a few bit blogs that may have a link, and bam—new music to "sample".  This is undoubtedly the best method for pure discovery, because it lets you chase down the latest and greatest in music without being tainted by anyone else's opinion or tastes. But it also requires an obsessive, nerdish approach to music fandom that may have ramifications on your social life. Not to mention a total disregard for the economics of the music business, and for the needs of artists to be remunerated for their work. So, you know, proceed with caution.


No comments:

Post a Comment