Monday, March 12, 2007

DISCOVERING MUSIC: LISTENING VS. LUNCHING

DISCOVERING MUSIC: LISTENING VS. LUNCHING

Another kind of radio that I think has lost its way is "Alternative". What says it all is that originally it was called that because it was an...Alternative. Along the way though, it became a format name seemingly meaning current era artists that don't fit the old AOR or CHR definition. A throw-away. Alternative isn't an Alternative...it's a format name. In fact it's about as alternate as Mc Donald’s. If some alien landed on earth and heard "Alternative" radio they'd wonder what's alternative about this? It's yet another component in radio bullshitting listeners. And you wonder why radio has a bad rap among younger listeners? The thing that really gets me about “Alterative” is that there seems to be an FCC regulation that all these stations have to have the filtered “man in a box” production not to mention a striking sameness in graphic identity. Sameness is pretty common, but it plays to the absurdity of “alternative”. Alternative things are…alternatives. Alternative radio stations that are the same as other Alternative radio stations strikes me as …weird, and not “good”: weird. Lame weird. Hardly an alternate to the mainstream.

One thing that happens at some stations, but not nearly enough is for stations that are all about DISCOVERING music, having programmers that actually LISTEN and SEEK interesting new artists. At FM I noticed that practically all programmers relied on record companies and trade papers to learn about emerging artists. That makes NO sense—at least is very limiting. I call it “lunch instead of listening” where if that programmer would spend as much time listening and studying the underground than lunching and chatting with promotion people, they would provide an infinitely better music perspective to their listeners. Record companies and trades are a part of the equation, but for a station that’s about discovery, nothing is more important than sleuth work…being ahead of the curve. By the time a label is plugging it, it’s too late—plus they are looking for tonnage where a “discovery” oriented radio station should look for cool and interesting—Before it hits the label radar. And Trades are simply regurgitating what another stations are playing based on what labels tell them to play. Personally, I used to scan every issue of Melody Maker, Sounds, NME and other UK trades. I found SO much music—some for personal pleasure, others for recommendations to clients. I discovered Genesis way before the “industry” did by reading about them in Melody Maker, then the important music mag in England.

No bash on labels or trades—they are part of the equation. But for being a station that is about DISCOVERY, labels and trades are increasingly irrelevant. Pouring over true alternative (not “alternative radio”) charts, college info, and the hundreds of other tools, instead of being a sheep and ONLY following the label and trade herd is where it’s at. And it really isn’t just about “youth” formats. It’s about ALL formats where musical discovery is a factor. Listening vs. Lunching. Getting BACK to the street that radio in particular and the Industry in general has seemed to forget about as you get sucked into the “system”…and the system is sick.

Last week I was the CMW Conference in Toronto. Overheard two guys, apparently from “Alternative stations”. They were debating lunch plans. One guy wanted to go to a record store and check it out. The other insisted that he had to go to lunch with a promotion guy. I’d want to hire the guy who went to the record store. Record company relationships are a good thing but my guess is that the lunch was…a lunch and probably more about back slapping than anything tangible. The guy going to the store was IN THE GROOVE. The guy going to lunch was IN THE INDUSTRY. Big difference. The “Industry” is baggage…the groove is the street. In a perfect world—the label guy would go with both of the programmers to the record store and blow off lunch…but the world ain’t perfect.

Along these lines, I recall when overseas radio was Government controlled docu-radio and the USA had the excitement. In 1964, rebels created Pirate stations off the coast of the UK to present American style radio in an era when the BBC types were still in the 1930's. NOW its 180 degrees from that, the exciting terrestrial radio is overseas. well, not completely as many emulate US radio, but the point is that it seems the critical experimental qualities of American radio that live on the edge of culture has been erased by a research and marketing driven cause that tries to figure out how to get the message across without actually doing anything beyond the marketing message. You know--the station that talks about "On the Cutting Edge" but in reality--they ain't. As if listeners will buy that. Lies! The 180 degree change in the attitude of artists visiting America is scary. Back then, artists would come here and couldn’t keep their fingers off the dial. It was exciting. Now, artists come here and the tendency is to talk about how they wish we had stations like they had in their home Countries. More Junk Culture thinking invading our Nation’s once proud entertainment heritage.

When we did our AOR thing in the 70's and 80's the one thing we never did is even remotely claim we were underground, which was the “alternative” of that era. We weren't. We were above ground. We were as underground as Stairway to Heaven. Imagine if we tried to be underground. Listeners would have seen right through that. That's where I got my first lesson in TRUTH. Tell it like it is and listeners will ultimately respect you rather than resent you.

There's new terminology out there, or at least terms we’ve known for eons but have hit the mainstream. I think radio has to get more involved in the language. Terms like digitally remastered, Box Set, Bonus Track, demo, Download. Pretty common stuff but I don't hear these terms being mentioned in a lot of DJ raps. Another disconnect with contemporary “street” vernacular? OK—many people could care less, but overhearing a conversation at a popular coffee bar, a bunch of guys were arguing about the “demo” version they heard in a box set being better than the digitally remastered version. Hmmm…you don’t hear a lot of radio people talking this language. In fact, many radio stations are satisfied with simply playing the “radio” version and not even considering alternative versions of songs much less discussing them. Mike Marrone at the Loft collects alternative versions in his temperature controlled CD and vinyl vault under his home. He played me unusual mixes of everything from Sgt. Pepper to Fleetwood Mac to Todd Rundgren. I was blown away. You’d think that, assuming it’s legal, you’d WANT to turn listeners onto cool different versions. To inform. I know you can “educate” listeners to the point where it becomes tedious, but who wouldn’t want to hear different and interesting versions of popular songs? Well, some may not, but MANY may. The point being there’s more to music than radio versions and there’s more to radio than limiting yourself to banal “radio raps:.

John Mayer Artist Confidential at Jazz at Lincoln Center happened on March 2. George Taylor Morris and the entire crew went up via Amtrak the night before. I scoffed at the idea of being on a train for three hours and opted to take the Delta Shuttle the next morning. The 7:30 was cancelled...then the 8:30...then got on the 9:30. Sat at the gate until 11. Then they said it would leave at Noon. That would put me in NYC one hour AFTER the show was over. I missed it. First one I've missed in the 60 we've done. The crew reports back that it was incredible. Maybe I'll take Amtrak next time...or just fly myself. I didn't this time because the weather in NYC was REAL bad.

Speaking of Weather, I have a love/ hate with The Weather Channel. I do respect them for putting some entertainment value in the weather. I recall joking back in 1970 that one day there'd be a channel that had nothing but weather. Roars of laughter as the others in the room suggested equally bizarre ideas like a channel of all cartoons. But the Weather Channel came and I admire some of the lines they've come up with like "Alberta Clipper" or 'Nor’easter'. They INVENTED these dramatic terms for weather events. Then about a year ago they started wording their casts as if they were IN your town. Some weather person at headquarters says "Here in Toledo, we are feeling the cold...." Wait a minute you are NOT in Toledo, you are in Atlanta. They do that A LOT—tricky wording to imply that they are IN the city they’re referring to. If it’s a remote with a person on the street—fine, but their studio is clearly NOT in your home town. That’s just as bad as a voice track guy in Austin pretending he’s in Spokane. That stuff WILL haunt you later. Pure media trickery.

Stanley Jordan is one of the great, and completely under-rated guitarists. A genius. He is penciled in to play at XM and I’m pretty excited. I first met Stanley in a very odd and amusing situation. Back in about ’82, we had a Superstars convention which was an annual get together of our clients and half the music industry. Those were the heady days when record companies would go all out and rent lavish suites, fly in artists and put on a show. The days were intense sessions about the state of radio and music, and the nights were massive partying that went till dawn. Four days of health ruining debauchery, but tempered with intense learning, dialogue and interaction. One night, our client the NBC Source Network had one of the lavish suites. Steve Ray Vaughn came by and jammed, and a new guy named Stanley Jordan was in attendance. Early in the evening he was sitting around playing. Man—was he playing! Weird tunings, strange technique with unbelievable speed and accuracy running though brilliant solo works including a life changing version of Eleanor Rigby. We were floored. He became the centerpiece of the packed room. Around midnight Stevie Ray comes in and plugs in. In all total respect to SRV, he tried to jam with Stanley and after about 10 minutes hung up his guitar and bowed to him. Totally different styles of course, but anyone of SRV’s caliber that bows to another guitarist is saying something pretty powerful. Stanley kept playing all night. SRV watched intently. By 6am the suite finally started to clear out. I said—Lets get breakfast! I recalled a place called Lester’s Diner. So about six of us piled into the rented Chevy and attempted to drive over to Lester’s…pretty buzzed and blinded by the morning South Florida Sun. I am to this day, amazed we weren’t arrested…or beat up. First there was the completely reckless driving—even drove by a bunch of Police officers arresting someone and yelling some obnoxious but pro-police lines like “You guys Roooock”. Since Stanley didn’t do as much as LOOK at the drugs and liquor that was going around—the plan was to have HIM talk if we got stopped, backed by then Source GM Frank Cody who was as fucked up as the rest of us but has this ability to look completely un-stoned. Then we made it to Lester’s. Picture a lot of Southern truck drivers and laborers and in walk a bunch of ragged rock n roll types and a jazz musician. Got some strange looks.

A few days later I was back in Atlanta and RAVED to everyone about Stanley. We got a ton of play on Eleanor Rigby and a few other tracks…but then kinda lost touch as he went back into Jazz land. I guess that’s his natural place, but on the other hand ANYONE who likes the sound of the guitar needed to and needs to discover this guy! It IS OK for channels to play songs that are “out of format” in many cases as Stanley sounded GREAT on AOR then. I remember that WLRS in Louisville had a Fusion Jazz show on Sunday’s and played Mediterranean Sundance by Al DiMeola ONE…The phones went berserk for a week. They added the track. It went crazy. It was the fastest most intense guitar imaginable and the Clapton/Beck crowd completely embraced it. I spread the word to our other clients and the reaction was the same everywhere. I try to impress that we need this kind of thinking again---where its about exciting he LISTENERS and not being so tied to the rule book that you can’t do some crazy things musically that helps turn listeners into FANS.

5 Comments:

At 10:34 PM, Blogger Jay said...

long time reader, first time poster (just like AM sports/talk shows)...I agree about the alternative radio comments.
living in Houston where we didn't have an "alternative" rock station until it was the hip format. and now it is the ONLY rock station.
I still think Ethel could use some of that "hipness" again. Glad to hear Stabwalt again, but he needs to do more than an hourly "new music" show.

 
At 1:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Um, Lee... Alberta Clipper and Nor'easter ARE NOT Weather Channel inventions. They are terms describing specific weather conditions. Both phrases that have existed for many many years, predating cable TV by quite a few years.

 
At 3:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love the blog, Lee--you are a true music hero!--and of course, the cerative backbone of XM!

Unfortunately, XM has enabled this "alternative" by hiring Stve Kingston.

The pre-Kingston XM alternative landscape was brilliant, and unique. Steve Kingston has brought the FM way of stagnant playlists, paint by numbers programming, and most of all the apsect of "following" to XM. I guess that is all you can do when you don;t really know and LOVE the music.

...and at the end of the day, he is just not a talented music programmer--Average sucks, and that is exactly what we have on Ethel.

Stabwalt's show is genius, but it is buried (and sometimes even mocked by Cane, who I migt add knows nothing about the music--and is more of an on-air gossip personality)in the schedule, and 99% of the songs never get added--and the few songs that do get added are usually added AFTER FM gives Steve Kingston the greenlight (like Cold war Kids, TV On The Radio, etc).

 
At 2:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

IMO, Fred, Lucy, Squizz, and XMU really get it--They are all really well programmed channels.

It is Ethel that remains lackluster and boring. What I don't get is that people like Steve Kingston have programmed "alternative" as if it were CHR--and in effect, I think that has hurt this sector in record sales. If you program "alternative" without conviction as a song driven disposable hit-type genre, then that is what you'll get on the sales end--or if you breach the trust of the audience--then you actually end up hurting the music you are programming.

The fact is, alt music no longer sells that much anymore so why not AFDI the channel instead of capitulating to the fickle fancy of the casual CHR audience (who isn;t really into this stuff anyway)--this is what Stvee Kingston has brought to XM.

 
At 3:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

---seems to be a lot of lunching going on at Ethel.

 

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