There are a number of things wrong with the music business these days. But one of the most disturbing things is that there is just not a comprehensive mechanism in place for pop music. Adele is an exception to this statement and perhaps one or two other acts. But for the most if you are a rock-based pop act, there are very few places that you can go for exposure.
Last week I had an opportunity to see Jack’s Mannequin. Jack’s Mannequin is essentially one guy, Andrew McMahon. Prior to Jack’s Mannequin, Andrew fronted Something Corporate. A credible, but pop-based rock band that has a very big “cult” following. The truth is Andrew is one of the best songwriters we have today. For sake of comparison, think Billy Joel, circa 1980. Early in his career Billy got played at rock radio as well as Top 40 and Adult Contemporary. He would release rock songs that would be huge hits on rock radio. But on each album he would have one or two “schlocky” songs that would cross over to become pop hits. Songs like “Just the Way You Are” and “My Life” got some airplay on rock radio, but the staples of those formats were “Captain Jack”, “The Stranger”, “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant”and “Only the Good Die Young”. “It’s Still Rock ‘n’ Roll to Me” was Billy’s first #1 single. That song was played on both album oriented radio as well as pop radio. Prior to this, Billy was much more popular in New York and the rest of the Mid-Atlantic States. Thanks mostly to radio stations like WLIR, WNEW, Philadelphia’s WMMR and WBAB in Billy’s home on Long Island.
All this multi-format and especially Top 40 success enabled Billy to become a huge touring act. He can still play arenas and stadiums throughout the country, nearly forty years since his first album for Columbia. He also hasn’t recorded a pop album in nearly 20 years. This is amazing and a tribute to strength of Billy as an artist.
Andrew McMahon has managed to maintain his artistic and indie credibility with his work in Something Corporate and Jack’s Mannequin Due largely to the fact that despite a robust and excellent catalog of music, he has had nothing resembling a hit. Andrew’s music has never been especially successful at radio. Not because the music isn’t good enough, but because it is much easier to reach the masses if you are an urban/pop artist. This is mostly due to the fact that most major pop stations are in large markets. Markets inhabited by a very diverse population. The more diverse the population, the less likely you are to hear, for lack of a better term, white pop music. The radio stations have to play to the broadest possible audience, so they need to find music that will appeal to an African American and Hispanic audience, as well as the whites. The Top 40 radio station audience is also predominantly females between the ages of 12-24 that can reach to 34, but not much older. This obviously benefits the really teen acts like Bruno Mars, outstanding female artists like Rihanna and others. But leaves little room for a pop act that has found a home with college aged kids. This was the audience that broke Billy Joel…30 years ago.
This audience really doesn’t listen to the radio. There is just nothing for them to listen to on their local radio stations. Mostly these fans have to find their music on line and through their friends. In Jack’s Mannequin’s case, support from Twilight author Stephanie Meyer, who “directed” an early video for the band and lots of TV placements, has allowed the band to tour to sold out clubs in most markets. Andrew’s fans know every word to every song he plays. If there are more outlets for music like this, Jack’s Mannequin would be an arena act.
Rock radio barely exists any longer. Youtube is the new MTV. But in order to see the new videos by your favorite artists, you have to know they are on Youtube. “Swim” is the most viewed Jack’s Mannequin video, with just over 1 million views. This is a fraction of what acts that get played on Top 40 radio typically see on their videos.
So the question remains, are the radio consultants and program directors playing what they think people want to hear? Or, do people come to like whatever these outlets play a lot? I think it is the latter. I believe MTV proved my point, when just about anything that got played in heavy rotation on MTV, went onto sell tonnage. If music is good, frequent rotation will breed the trends, as opposed to the other way around.
The same goes for artists that are essentially rock artists. Ben Kweller is a very talented indie artist. He plays clubs across the country and probably sells less than 100,000 albums. He is a contemporary Jackson Browne. In the 70’s and 80’s Browne and artists like Springsteen, Bob Seger and others had the benefit of airplay on rock and sometimes Top 40 radio. Rock radio is nowhere near as impactful as it once was. There are barely any major markets with current intensive rock or modern rock stations in their markets. So, relatively no one will hear the new Bruce Springsteen single “We Take Care of Our Own” and even fewer people will hear new smaller artists like Ben Kweller, Brent Dennen and Amos Lee. These are artists whose careers are being restricted by the demographics of the market place. It is not all about radio. However, it is still the #1 place people go to hear new music. So as a result there are many, very talented young artists who toil in relative obscurity, who deserve so much more. There is nothing glamorous about being a “rock star” these days. Unless you like living on a bus or in a van. Superstars stay in the Four Seasons and fly in private jets. Everyone else sleeps on a bus, van or if they are lucky a Super 8.
It just doesn’t seem fair that these very talented young people will have to work ten times harder than their predecessors and that the chance of them reaching superstar status are very slim. I hope something will occur to give this music and these artists the attention they deserve.