Alternative Music and Rock Radio

This post is inspired by this Boston Globe article a friend had sent me a while back: 90s rock dominates Boston radio

I’ve noticed that its often impossible to find new music on any of the 3-4 rock stations I listen to during my 45min commute to and from work. On each radio station there is just the same shuffling of what I call “big hits” still on high rotation as if the song just broke to the top of the charts. Whether its Pearl Jam, Stone Temple pilots, or Nirvana the airwaves are crowded with music that is quickly slipping into the “classic rock” genre. While radio has always played classic hits, the airwaves are so choked with these “big hits” and new singles are not given room to flourish.

It would seem that replaying the same music over and over would be an attempt to hold onto an existing audience rather than gain new listeners. Its the equivalent of a television station running Seinfeld & Home Improvement reruns all day: sure those were big hits in the 90s, and there is definitely a built-in audience that will enjoy them, but even Seinfeld is beginning to look dated and how many new fans could the show gain during the current age of Family Guy watchers? Perception and tastes shift over time. A large piece of a work of art’s identity is attached to the age in which it was created. A new audience is coming down the road and they will have their own identity, their own popular culture. In order to survive a radio station needs to be continually picking up new listeners as most of the young crowd grows up and these old farts stop rocking n rolling and start listening to adult contemporary or talk radio (or eventually die).

So why is so little airtime given to new music? Sure with the invention of the internet and the proliferation of portable music players there are many other ways for music lovers to listen to and discover new music. But radio has traditionally been the way major music labels push new music for consumers to discover. However, since radio stations are independently operated from music labels they choose to play the music which they believe will give them the biggest market share. In the past radio stations have gone along with the music labels’ push for new music, but since the end of the grunge era radio stations have not moved forward. Instead it seems they feel that keeping the “big hits” on high rotation is the best way to compete for an audience. It would seem to me that they are instead attempting to keep their old audience. Why has there been a shift to this philosophy?

In the Boston Globe article 90s rock dominates Boston radio Mike Tierney, vice president of broadcast operations for WFNX offers his opinion: “The biggest thing contributing to that [heavily playing 90s rock] is just how fragmented the rock landscape has become…The diversity that runs from Passion Pit to Chevelle and everything in the middle – it’s really difficult for one station to serve all those niches…The ’90s alternative just has a much larger quorum than today’s alternative…There’s just so many more people who can agree on Stone Temple Pilots and Pearl Jam than Vampire Weekend.”

That a radio executive could use both Vampire Weekend and Pearl Jam to describe the same genre of music shows just how muddled the genre of “Alternative” music has become. Alternative music has always been a broad label used to describe any music that is an alternative to mainstream music. Pearl Jam was certainly an alternative to the glam and hair band rock of the 80s, but once Pearl Jam broke into mainstream the band can no longer be considered alternative music. You could still call them “Grunge”, but Grunge is just a sub-genre of Rock. Pearl Jam (and other 90s bands such as Nirvana, Soundgarden, etc) are modern Rock just as Guns n Roses, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles all were in their time. Vampire Weekend is the true “alternative” of the two, as their syth pop/electronica experimental sound differs significantly from the band-oriented drums, bass, guitar, and vocal Rock sound of Pearl Jam and their fore bearers.

Growing up on the North Shore of Massachusetts I had my choice of many rock radio stations. WHEB in Portsmouth, New Hampshire was the home of tried-and-true rock hits while WBCN and WAAF were locked in a fierce completion to be the best rock station in the Boston market. I always felt that WBCN played a larger mix of “alternative” music while WAAF was clearly the home of cutting edge hard rock. WFNX was the home of all things new and strange. Its no surprise then that WFNX was the first radio station to play Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the air.

When Nirvana exploded in the 90s and Grunge became popular the definition for Alternative music became muddled and this is the root of the problem: Radio stations have lost their genre compass. Suddenly “alternative music” was mainstream and Grunge swept away hair-metal as the most popular genre of rock music. Mainstream radio stations jumped on board each announcing that they were the “alternative station” for the Boston market. These radio stations have seemingly ridden the “Alternative” wave for so long that they forget where they came from and are afraid to move forward. Now “Alternative” means a Passion Pit, Vampire weekend, and Neon Trees. You can’t get the same audience that likes grunge playing that.

Its bizarre to think that radio stations such as WAAF are so confused with their musical identities that they cannot forge ahead confidently to choose new music. Maybe radio stations are just waiting for “the next big thing” to come along. But there is already a ton of great new Rock music which would fit well with mainstream rock-oriented playlists such as WAAF’s. Let WFNX play “Alternative” and as the genre changes delve into what alternative means now as opposed to back in the 90s. WAAF should be seeking out bands such as Crash Kings, Manchester Orchestra, Kings of Leon, White Stripes, and Caged the Elephant and stick with what they’ve always played even when they were “Alternative”: Rock.

OK Go’s Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky

The first time I heard Ok Go’s song “This Too Shall Pass” was when I saw their great video on YouTube. I really liked it. After listening a few times I realized that the audio was distorted but figured it was because it was on YouTube. Later I heard the song on the radio and it was still all muffled and distorted. Well today I finally got to listen to the cd and was disappointed to discover that the entire album is distorted. This is not a warm fuzz, but the cold crunch of music that was over-cooked when mastering the album. The kick drum clips, the bass crunches, and the vocals are all muddled together.

In an interview on the “extra nice edition” of the album the producer defends the distortion on the album. “You’re missing the point. We want it to sound, even at the lowest audible level, like your shit is on fire” A band member chimes in “We want it to sound totally fucked up. That’s why its awesome”.

No that’s not awesome; its a sad little gimmick.

The album sounds like how many local band’s recordings sound; all crushed and muddled because they had the levels set wrong during mixing and mastering. If you’re an unsigned band with no budget: rock on. But if you’re a working band who pays good money to cheaply distort the music you worked so hard on: shame on you.

Add Of The Blue Colour Of The Sky to the pile of loudness war casualties that include Metallica’s Death Magnetic and Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Californication albums. I’m certainly not paying for music that was “totally fucked up” on purpose.

Remember kids: No one wins the loudness war.

Double Disc Version of Jerry Cantrell’s Degradation Trip

I’ve been listening to the double disc version of Jerry Cantrell’s solo album Degradation Trip a lot this week.

Anger Rising was the big single off the initial single-disc release of the album. It was a very Alice In Chains sounding song. Now listening to the double album version its obvious he left most of the songs that sounded like AIC off of the single-disc version.

The second disc is very much a AIC album. Especially now that AIC did release a new album… that sounds a lot like solo-Jerry Cantrell.

There’s a bunch of excellent songs on here that weren’t on the single-disc release which is to bad since I think most people who bought the single disc version wouldn’t buy the two disc expanded version.

Songs I’d highlight are Dying Inside, Pig Charmer, and Thanks Anyway. All of which would sound at home on any of AIC’s albums. Like the new album, Black Gives Way To Blue, the subject matter seems to be about Layne for many of the songs.

Bottom Line: If you liked the new AIC album consider picking the double-disc version of Degradation Trip.

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s Howl and the Sony Rootkit

BRMC’s Howl is one of my favorite albums. I listen to it all the time. Mostly for the song “Ain’t No Easy Way Out”. I’m a sucker for acoustic rock songs, though I love the whole album. But I’d never recommend the album to any of my friends. Why? It could damage your computer.

Sony, in their never ending quest to punish their customers, put an auto-installing root kit on the CD. If you purchase the CD and listen to it on your computer the root kit will silently will install itself, phone home to Sony, hide all files that begin with ‘$sys$’, as well as cause occasional crashes and lockups. Attempts to remove the rootkit will disable your cdrom.

For more information check out this article. There was a class-action lawsuit against Sony because of the damage caused by the rootkit that was settled in 2005. But there’s still a ton of these CDs floating around out there so be careful.

But there’s hope! Now thanks to Amazon I can finally recommend this album to friends as a mp3 download. I recommend you give it a listen.