It is getting harder and harder to break through in the music business these days. It is not because there is not a lot of good music being made. It is because the old system has almost totally broken down and there is not a reliable new way of getting music to the masses. Sure you can make your own CD, put it on iTunes and sell it. It is nearly impossible to get a new artists’ music into retail. After all, the only outlets that are left are Target, Best Buy and a few independent accounts. Have you gone into Best Buy recently and seen how many CDs they have in the stores. Not many.
Radio is going through its own difficulties. People actually listening to radio stations that play music has declined sharply. With the possible exception of Top 40 and Urban radio, audiences have been in steady decline. Teens still listen to the radio (not as much as the last generation did however). Because kids are listening on their way to school and pop stations rotate songs frequently, it is still possible to break a new act at Top 40 radio.
Rock oriented music is facing an uphill battle. Audience reach is down drastically from even five years ago. Most rock oriented stations have shock jocks on in the morning, so they don’t play music. There is some music in the afternoon drive slot, but that is usually nothing but proven hits. No one is listening to rock radio at night. Almost all the new music on Modern and Active Rock radio stations gets played after 10 PM. The result is…no one hears it enough for it to have any impact.
What is the worst problem is that there is something very real going on in music right now that radio is totally missing. You can call it Indie Folk, Alt Folk music, Folk Music. All of these terms probably fit. I just came from the Newport Folk Festival. It was sold out for both days. With the exception of Elvis Costello, almost every single act that played over the weekend, gets little or no play on radio.
Fifty thousand people saw fit to plop down $80 a ticket, plus food, plus parking for 2 days and they saw nearly 50 acts that they can’t listen to on the radio. There are real stars among these acts. But virtually no one knows who they are.
Amos Lee, a artist who should be a superstar, was astounding. Amos had a #1 album the week his latest project “Mission Bell” was released. True it sold about 40,000 units to his hard-core fans and it was enough to debut at #1 on a slow week. The sales plummeted after that, because almost all his fans bought the record the day it was released.
When I say Amos Lee should be a superstar I really mean it. Dave Matthews has nothing on him. The difference was DMB was able to get some airplay a while back and his consistent years of touring has garnered him a legion of fanatical fans.
Radio is totally missing the boat on this movement. Virtually no radio stations with any audience reach play bands like The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Amos Lee, Fleet Foxes, Brett Dennen, Ben Kweller, The Secret Sisters, the list goes on an on. These acts are terrific and major stars in the world of Alt Folk (or whatever else you want to call it.)If the public actually got to hear these bands regularly, they would be stars. They can play live and make a decent living, because they have loyal fans. The trouble is, there aren’t a lot of them. Not because they are not good enough, but because no one knows who these people are.
We saw it happen at the Grammy’s this year. Who stole the show? Mumford and Sons and the Avett Brothers. One band who broke in the UK first and the other who has been struggling for years and recently got picked up by a major label. Their fans say it their last album was not their best. Their independent records were much better, but this one got noticed. Both these acts have seen their success skyrocket this year. Why? Because they are great and people have gotten a chance to hear them.
Probably the last real thing in rock music was “Grunge”. It started in Seattle with Soundgarden. Alice In Chains and Pearl Jam broke through and Nirvana came and kicked the door down. But at that time, there were two radio formats, Active Rock and Alternative that were playing this music. Not alternative as much, but certainly Active Rock. There were about a hundred stations at that time and in some cases two in some major cities. That just doesn’t exist any more. Corporate radio has brought consolidation. There are many markets that don’t even have one current based rock station (New York for one) and no Alternative Music station. Triple A radio only exists in a handful of markets. Those stations spin new artists so infrequently, it is difficult to break through. College radio plays this new generation of artists, but no one is listening. Sure, you can argue that stations like WFUV have listeners as do many NPR stations. But their numbers do not come close to those of a major market powerhouse like Z-100 or Q104 in New York.
The answer is easy. But whether or not someone has the guts to do it is another question altogether. It is my contention that if a struggling station, say “Fresh” in New York (formerly known as WNEW-FM) would embrace a format of young Alt Folk artists and played the best of these artists 40 or 50 times a week we would see a music revolution. Other stations would follow suit and in the matter of a year, we would have stations like this all over the country. Satellite radio plays some of these artists, but they are spread out over many different channels and the music is essentially gold-based. Sirius?XM is making life harder and harder on the terrestrial stations these days. A radical shift in programming may be the one thing that could give new life to your local radio station. People have stopped listening to their local radio stations as much as they used to for a number of reasons. The main one seems to be that the local stations are just not that interesting any longer. Once the shock jock is off the air, few people are interested in listening to the same old songs yet again. It needs freshening up.
Better exposure of these and other artists would help the struggling live market as well. It is expensive to tour and people aren’t willing to come out and see artists they don’t know.
Someone has to have the nerve to do it. Is there a consultant or a corporate programmer or owner that is willing to gamble and try to put their mark on what may be the Next Big Thing in Music? Why not. Things in terrestrial broadcasting are not going all that well presently anyway.
There are terrific artists out there making very interesting new music. Now the trick is to get the public to hear it.