Monday, February 13, 2006

Radio ruined music

A long time ago my J-school professor explained to me that most people who subscribe to the Wall Street Journal do so for the sake of appearances. They have the WSJ delivered to the lawn to cover up the fact they're really reading the commuter rag or the big state paper.

He further explained this is not just a newspaper statistic, it's the mentality of the average American for nearly every media purchase they make. This is especially true of music, where payola and pay-for-play schemes have controlled the mass radio market since the advent of the rock-and-roll era.

"But payola scandals ended with Alan Freed!" you might protest. Not so. Distributors have been telling radio stations what to play, thus telling you what's "good" and "popular" right up until right now. And it will continue in the future. As a matter of fact, Sony BMG and Warner Music Group recently settled third-party payola (paying contractors to pay radio DJs to play their music) just last year.

So the truth is you haven't decided what's popular.

Not only that, but a recent study at Columbia University suggests the average person's listening habits are not always based on objective listening. They're just as likely -- and probably more likely -- to be influenced by social pressures.

Furthermore, listening habits broken down into genres are greatly influenced when you are young -- and most likely to be influenced by both repetitive radio play and social influences.

So the American music industry is controlled by the distributors, create an atmosphere of "cool" for the young, and manipulate an entire generation with very little objectivity.

My personal experience is a very small number of Americans have the capability to objectively listen to music. How could they? They've been exposed to a very tiny portion of what's out there, and you can lump everything as diverse as drum-n-bass to Jessica Simpson to college radio all into one big pile -- it's still a small fraction of the diversity of music being produced.

Americans don't grow up with an arts education unless they are pursuing an arts education. By and large, their music education is filtered through the radio, and if it's not a "whitebread" 4/4 danceable song, it's not on their music agenda. Even the rap I hear that is often put in the "funk" genre is so not funky, so far removed from the improvisational New Orleans second-line riffs that first inspired them, the artists don't even realize their heritage has been stripped down to appeal to white audiences who buy the bulk of their music.

Musicians have their own tastes. They may play in an alternative punk band, then run back to the bus to listen to Miles or Chick Corea or some world musician. What's sad is their influences are not often allowed by their heavy-handed corporate producers, because it doesn't fit into a tiny little box called "popular music."

I write this with a grievance against the music industry because I'm a musician who is fed up with accounting-based music programming. I don't expect Americans to ever embrace the complications of jazz or the intricacy of classical, but they deserve a chance to be exposed to it. Americans own the airwaves, and they don't even know their rights have been limited by the financial pressures of a music industry that lost its way 60 years ago.

My bigger concern is the art form of American instrumentation -- guitars, bass, drums, keyboards -- will eventually be lost with another century of this kind of programming. More and more, kids are being exposed to cheaper, technological driven music. That's fine. I think there's a place for that. But I also think we have a responsibility to pass on some kind of instrumental heritage, otherwise in 100 years kids will be playing sampled instruments without the most rudimentary knowledge of the instruments from which the sounds came.

For my nieces and nephews, that's a frightening future.

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