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.