Houston Calling

Sometimes I feel like a beetle on its back

September 30th, 2004 · No Comments

I recently turned on the radio on the way home from work. A DJ on 91.7 KTRU was rambling about the songs he played during his show. He talked about a few of the shows the station hosts, including an experimental music show that runs during the week sometime (interesting). Just as I was about to switch to a CD, he announced he was playing a request–it turned out to be the song “Anthrax” by Gang of Four. Odd, since (1) you never hear that on the radio, even an independent station like this, and (2) Gang of Four’s Entertainment! was the CD I was about to listen to. Struck me as a strange coincidence.

It also made me happy to know that there are still a few stations on the air that continue to play nontraditional formats and are not part of some corporate media conglomerate. Stations in Houston like 90.1 and 91.7 are rarities, and it’s good to know they’re out there when you want to listen to the radio. Of course, there’s always WOXY online. This is by far one of the best radio stations out there–if you haven’t yet checked it out, do so immediately. It’s free.

Speaking of corporate radio, I recently read the book So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer’s Life
by Jacob Slichter (from the band Semisonic). I highly recommend that any fan of music, aspiring musicians, and especially anyone who listens to Rock 101, The Mix, or The Buzz (or whatever the stations are called in your city), read this book. It is a good look inside the workings of the music industry, told by someone who has experienced the highs and lows of being in a band that “makes it” and sells a lot of albums. Slichter is brutally honest, describing both his fears and insecurities as a musician as well as giving the reader a behind the scenes look at record labels.

His description of what it took to get the band’s singles on radio is disturbing, and made me dig out another book about the music industry, Hit Men by Fredric Dannen, an in-depth expose on the music industry and the corporate sharks that made them what they are today. Billboard called it, “A sobering, blunt, and unusually well-observed depiction of the somtimes sordid inner worksings of the music business.” Dannen’s book also covers the industry’s ties to the mafia and the practice of “payola.”

Payola is illegal now (this book covers the period from the 50s and 60s to the late 80s), but today it is done in different ways. Slichter tells of how, after Semisonic’s first album was released on a major label and subsequently fizzled without any hits, they owed the record label nearly half a million dollars (his estimate was $40K). What made up the difference? Something called “independent promotion”–really just a fancy term for payola.

Here’s how it works–record labels pay independent contractors (can’t you just picture these guys?) to promote the single they want pushed to radio stations across the country. The money paid to the promoters (and then passed on to the program directors at corporate radio) are recoupable costs for the record company. This means that all independent promotion costs get charged back to the bands–so before they can even make a dime from the sales of their albums, they have to pay back the record company for every cent spent promoting the album, recording the album, and any advance they might have received when they signed with the label, etc. The only way for bands to earn money that the label cannot touch is through a publishing deal, and not that many bands are shrewd enough to negotiate that into the deal. Heck, most are just happy to get the chance to sign with a major label and a shot at maybe becoming a star.

Independent promoters often work for multiple labels, allowing them to make a lot of money (much more than the average band with a hit single or album). It’s a shady practice, and Slichter’s book reveals a lot more than that about corporate radio–he recounts a station in Minneapolis that refused to play their song because the band agreed to perform at a rival station’s (an independent radio station) concert. It presents a catch-22 for the bands–they want to get their songs on the radio in order to sell albums. But they have to sell out their roots, for lack of a better term, in order to play the game and get the program directors at the local conglomerate-owned station to agree to play their single X times per day each week in order for the label to get the independent promoters in other cities to get the single on other radio stations. Most of these stations don’t even consider playing local music, and if they do it’s at night or late on the weekend.

I know a lot of this is not news to most readers, but I wanted to spout off about it regardless. Most of what is being forcefed to the masses via radio (and video channels) today is unlistenable tripe. I try to be as open-minded as I can be about music and I can honestly say my tastes run the gamut. Sure, my tastes may lean in one particular direction more than others but I can still respect what some musicians in every genre of music are doing. What I cannot take or respect, however, is the run-of-the-mill, cookie cutter boy band thing, and the “we’re so street and tough, we can dance” thing. It’s really pathetic. If I see another woman wearing some stupid beret or 70s pimp hat a la Brittany Spears or Christina Aguilera I am going to vomit. Seriously. Oh, and start another clothing label, please. Like we need another set of trendy pants. Sure, make them backward–that was a good look.

What constitutes popular music today is a farce–and I pity the sheep who swallow it without question. Where’s the kool-aid when you need it? But people listen, and people spend, and Clear Channel and Infinity love when advertisers eat that up. Which brings me back to my point–it’s all about the dollar. Musicians might cry they’re losing money from downloaded music, and I am sure the original Napster (and the resulting rise in P2P networks) hurt labels’ profits (and took some money from musicians as well). The program directors who work for these stations have long ago stopped caring about the music. It’s about demographics, what sells, and what some DJ in Los Angeles says is cool today.

One interesting bit I pulled from Hit Men really opened my eyes to the sheer crassness of the music industry. The author gives an example of how label execs tested the system of payola (yes, they had grown tired of spending all that money to get their songs on the radio). In 1979, Pink Floyd had a number one hit with “Another Brick In The Wall” from The Wall. Since their stage show was so elaborate, the band only played four cities worldwide, one of which was Los Angeles. Around this time, the labels were sick of having to pay radio stations the “payola” to get their singles on the air, so the label exec at Pink Floyd’s label decided to run a test to see what would happen if he didn’t pay to get their song played on the radio in L.A.

Surely, with everyone under the age of 25 sporting Pink Floyd T-shirts, sold-out concerts, and The Wall being number one on the album charts, radio couldn’t ignore “Another Brick In The Wall.” WRONG. The song did not get played until the labels agreed to pay the usual fees to the program directors.

Makes me never want to listen to radio ever again.

Earlier, I saw a commercial for the local “at work” radio station. I know it was (and probably still is) the number one rated station in Houston. It’s a soft rock station–you know the type, there’s one in every city. You’ll hear some slow Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Elton John. Maybe they’ll get crazy after lunch and throw in a Goo Goo Dolls or Matchbox 20 track to liven things up. Is Mr. Mister really relevant today? The station is on thousands of corporate phone systems and is piped into countless elevators and dental offices. The station never repeat the same song in a day–and why should they? There’s been plenty of harmless, pointless songs released since the dawn of rock’n’roll. Backstreet Boys. Hootie. Michael Bolton. “Wind Beneath My Wings”? C’mon. This music is tantamount to lobotomy.

A lot of the bands making great music today can barely pay their rent. It pains me to think that these artists who bring great things into a lot of people’s lives have to travel in smelly vans or cars, eat fast food, and sleep on fans’ floors while on tour. Meanwhile, the “superstars” of the music world travel in buses, jets, and limos. At least I know they end up paying for that limo ride–whether they know it or not. If these bands put out albums on a major label, maybe they sell 15,000 copies, tour a bit, and then get dropped. And the masses continue to miss out on incredible music.

Want an example? Check out any of The Webb Brothers‘ albums. Or Kopaz. Or Caviar. Or Alta May.

I could keep going…

If major labels continue to cast aside artists that deserve development so they can release another single from the vapid pop star du jour, then I hope their profits continue to dwindle. Part of me hates the success of iTunes. Yes, I love the software–and the fact that people listening to iPods are not listening to radio–but I cringe when I think that the majority of every dollar spent is going back to the same people who fought against downloading (until they saw they could make money from it). Plus, there’s the fact that the top downloaded songs are the same crappy songs being played incessantly on the radio. And the musicians still get screwed by the major labels.

Like The Housemartins once sang, “It’s sheep we’re up against.”

More reading on how the music industry screws musicians can be found in an article by Steve Albini, titled “Why The Music Industry Sucks. You can read it here.

Hit Men can be purchased here. So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star can be purchased here.

Agree with me? Disagree? Hate me for bringing it up? Feel free to join the donewaiting.com message board and let me know your opnion on the subject. Maybe you like Jessica Simpson, 3 Doors Down, and think that Scott Stapp was a poet ahead of his time. Is Sheryl Crow cutting edge? Let’s hear it. Discuss here.

Now Playing in My iPod: The Starlite Desperation — Violate A Sundae

Tags: Music