I guess I am really speaking about rock-oriented radio. Music that the general public would call hard rock bands. The industry calls Active Rock bands. Some of the cooler bands tend to be called Alternative bands. There is always the adult-oriented music. That, in the world of radio is called Triple A, or Hot AC music. Rock radio is really messed up. Top 40 is still very healthy. Why? Because they find good new music, from new exciting artists and play the hell out of it. It never gets boring because there are always new faces. It is not unusual to see a Pop station play a record 60 or more times a week. The music is good, people get to know it quickly and if they like it, they continue to listen. Certainly, the audience can tire of this music relatively quickly, but there is always more good stuff to take its place. That is why from an industry standpoint, while most of the music world is struggling, Pop Music and artists like Lady Ga Ga are doing so well.
Let’s look at the rock side of things. “Old School” rock music used to be called “Progressive”. That is when stations like WNEW, KSAN and KMET ruled the world of rock. Get a record on these stations and you were in pretty good shape. These stations typically would play two or even three different tracks from a new album. So, the audience got exposed to these artists pretty quickly. There was lots of new music on the air. Then came along a segment of the industry known as consultants. They figured and probably correctly that people liked to listen to music that they know. What they didn’t really do well was figure out how to get people familiar with new artists. So, as a result you have what now exists in rock radio. Stations that play the proven hits…old tried and true songs that people like and they have been listening to for ten or more years in most cases.
New artists have very little chance to develop. When a new artist is added to a rock or modern rock station, they tend to be added first into a nighttime rotation. Sometimes called “Lunar Rotation”. That means they get played about as often as the moon chases phases. In reality, it usually means once a night somewhere between midnight and 6am. How many people are actually listening? It usually takes quite a while to get out of this rotation. If you are lucky enough to “prove” yourself, the record then goes into a rotation where it gets played from 8pm to 6am…usually twice a day. Still, since most people listen during morning and afternoon drive times, there are relatively few people listening. Therefore, new music remains unfamiliar to the audience and is always a liability to the radio station. Yes, some records do make it into heavy rotation. But they are few and far between and seem to be records from artists that have been around a while. At least the great majority are. So, if you are a new artist, it is very, very difficult for you to be heard by a large audience of people. You rarely get a chance to prove yourself.
The Active Rock part of radio is suffering for the most part. Many major markets such as New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Fort Lauderdale, Miami, Charlotte, Washington D.C., Portland, San Francisco and quite a few more do not have an Active Rock station. A few of these markets have Modern Rock stations, but some of these markets have neither. New York is one of them. So, very little new music gets heard in these markets. Since a vast majority of the listening audience is not able to hear new music, new bands of these genres are struggling. Even when they have chart success, relatively few people actually hear them. Therefore a chart hit means very little in the terms of notoriety. How many of you know of a band named Cavo? They had a #1 Active Rock record and during the period that record was on the radio they sold an astonishing 18,000 records. They draw very few people to their concerts, despite having good chart success.
These bands are all having trouble drawing people on the road. Though the touring business is tough, bands that established themselves in the last century, when budgets were higher and more people listened to radio are still able to tour. But in many cases the attendance numbers are diminishing. There is no one coming up to take the place of the old groups. Who is the new Alice In Chains, Pink Floyd, Yes, etc. You can probably count the number of bands that have broken in the last ten years and can play arenas on a couple of fingers.
There are a number of reasons for this. Less people listen to music radio. Some would say that most stations aren’t interesting enough to have kept the audiences attention and they have moved onto to something else. Talk radio, CDS even satellite radio. Some would say it is a cultural thing and technology has led people away from radio. I contend that the fact that rock radio has essentially played the same records for the last 20 years has driven people away.
There is a phenomenon that radio programmers have not picked up on. For lack of a better term it is called Alt/Folk music. It is the one form of rock-based music that is thriving. It is thriving commercially and from a touring standpoint. Let me clarify. A handful of very good bands are thriving. There are many, many great acts that are still relatively unknown. Why? Because there is really no one radio format the plays them. I am speaking about bands like the Avett Brothers, Mumford and Sons and others. Surely, you know these acts. They have managed to break through and probably the one radio format that plays them called Triple A can be thanked for that. However, most Triple A stations rotate a song three times a day, max. It takes a long time for someone listening to a station for a half hour a day to get familiar with a band when it is played that infrequently.
What I am proposing is that some smart radio chain take a hold of this form of music and expose it to the public. Currently, there is not one current-based station in the country that plays this music a great deal or plays any of the artists in the format enough to get them familiar to the audience. Sure there are great stations like WXRT in Chicago and KFOG in San Francisco that play this music, but these stations are gold-based. Someone needs to take a chance and( strictly from a dollars and sense standpoint it is a chance) and develop a current-based format to expose this music. Play these artists 40 or more times a week. Don’t base your playlist on artists from 1970-1985.
If this happens, it could revolutionize the industry. Much in the way MTV gave music a big shot in the arm in 1981. It exposed us to bands like Duran, Duran, Men At Work, Bon Jovi and many others. Bands that were incredibly successful. Why? Because they were everywhere you turned. What would be wrong with hearing music from artists like Brett Dennen, Iron and Wine, Andrew Bird, Ben Kweller, Megan McCormick, Amos Lee and many, many others on a regular basis?
The positive result would be a refreshing change in the music scene. It is going on now amongst the 15 to 25 year olds, but they are learning about this music online. Just spend a few minutes on Turntable.FM and you will see a whole world out there that you knew nothing about. But it develops very slowly and a lot of good music falls between the cracks. People are passionate about these artists. But unfortunately not enough people. Amos Lee had an album debut at #1 on the Billboard Charts. It sold in the neighborhood of 40,000 records and it fell off quickly. Not an overly impressive showing, but it does show he has a passionate audience. But, still he is relatively unknown. If more people were exposed to this great artist his record would have been high on the charts for a long, long time.
It is time for something fresh and exciting in music. This is it. This music has proven it can sell. Right now it is limited to a handful of artists. There are many, many great artists out there that only get heard on NPR stations and in small helpings on Triple A stations across the country. For example WFUV in New York plays many of these artists. But they play so many of them and rotate them so slowly that is difficult to for the average listener to get familiar with their work. Give me a station that plays this music exclusively and I guarantee that music will be more commercially viable and more enjoyable to everyone.
People say that music is dying. It is not. It is very much alive on the computers of the young. It is just time to give it the mass exposure it needs and we will see a re-birth of the industry in many ways. Radio, still is the easiest way to reach the most people quickly. I am hoping someone will get smart and put this format on the air. New York, Boston and Washington DC, would be great markets to start in.