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Columns > John Zinkand - Improvise

Published: 2002/11/23
by John Zinkand

Music, Inc.

I’ve been reading national press lately about how music radio is dead. Who cares? When it was "alive" back in the day (before super-hyper-ultra-mega corp. took over) it was very necessary. There was virtually no other way to be introduced to new and different kinds of music other than to hear it on the radio. Radio was vital. Privately owned stations broadcast anything they wanted, thus exposing people to great new music. It was an exciting time. When the big corporations took over somewhere along the line, the play lists for almost all the stations became stagnant. Depending on the station’s professed genre, they could only play a certain list of hits within the given genre (Classic Rock, 80’s, Oldies, Top 40, etc.) Now, in 2002, people are complaining about this for some reason.
Tom Petty’s new tune The Last DJ is about the lack of freedom in American radio. I think these complaints in song form are more than a little late. A better time to try and change the corporate sterilization of radio would have been the 80’s, ( for example, Roger Waters addressed the issue when it was still relevant with his 1987 album release Radio K.A.O.S.) a much simpler time before Al Gore invented the "information superhighway". In our current day and age of the internet, it is simple to be exposed to all sorts of different music (virtually every band has free songs and samples on their websites). I can trade music at a site like Kazaa or Furthurnet. Even if the sound quality is not perfect, I can still burn MP3’s to disc. I can download an FTP client and join sites like etree.org to download SHN files of live music that sound excellent when converted into WAV files and burned to disc. And blank CD’s are much less than a buck a piece, whereas blank tapes used to go for more than double that price.
Basically, right now it’s easier than ever to be exposed to all sorts of music thanks to the internet. Who cares if you can’t hear new and interesting stuff on the radio? Change has happened so we might as well embrace it. Gone are the privately owned radio stations that lived on the edge and played progressive new music for their listening audiences. No need to cry and whine and complain about it. Realize it and take action. When I’m in the car I either bring my own tunes or listen to Talk Radio. It’s not all Rush Limbaugh out there, you know?
I’ve also been reading some national press lately about how rock-n-roll stars are overexposed. Last month David Browne wrote the following in Entertainment Weekly:
"Anyone who recalls what it was like to be a pop fan shortly before the arrival of MTV knows this wasn’t the way it always was. Rock then had an underground, semi-secret-society atmosphere, and the media coverage reflected it."
David Browne reminds me of a jamband fan who insists that the best shows from a given band were "back in the day." These types of folks usually go on to explain that "the day" has now passed and currently we are enjoying only a watered down version of the real deal. How can national media convey a semi-secret society atmosphere as Mr. Browne states? By dint of it being covered by national media, rock-n-roll lost its "secret" feel. If the media coverage of the time did convey this "secret society" feeling, then it also quickly destroyed the possibility that any viewer/listener of the media might be able to experience it firsthand. He goes on to further explain his position:
"To actually see what a musician looked like, you had to stumble across an occasional article or, if you were lucky, see an extremely rare network-TV appearance on shows like ‘Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert’ or ‘American Bandstand.’ Unlike the movie stars who shamelessly ran up to any reporter’s microphone, rock stars weren’t ubiquitous, which was part of their appeal and mystique."
Isn’t commercialism great? While it’s true that the listening audience rarely had a chance to see a performer before MTV, this did not give the music scene a "semi-secret society" feel. Instead, music listeners learned of new artists by hearing them on the not yet corporate run radio stations. That was just the way it worked then. When newspapers or music magazines reported on a certain band, that band became more popular…the exact same way press works today. The only difference now is that music is a visual commodity first and foremost.
The vast music listening audience in America decides which bands to like depending on whether or not they are visually appealing. If the MTV video is nicely produced, the chicks are hot, and the dance steps are off the hook, the band becomes more popular with the kids and garners air play on the corporate run radio stations, thus further fueling the machine that sees music as commodity, not art. Then the mainstream press writes misinformed articles that complain about the high visibility of pop stars instead of writing an investigative piece that attempts to ferret out a true "semi-secret society" of rock-n-roll.
Of course, almost anyone reading this article knows where to find a "semi-secret society" of musicians who aren’t "ubiquitous." The jamband scene. This is the independent scene that David Browne wrongly assumes died with MTV. This is the scene where music matters and image means nothing. Our scene gets virtually no press coverage. But here we are, way off to the side, tucked neatly and quietly into our own little margin. Not that I want the jamband scene to get too much hype. It could become a corporate-controlled empty shell of its former self.
Browne goes on to finish up the piece with some final [deep] thoughts:
"Call me old-fashioned, but I still want to believe that my rock stars aren’t mere publicity-grubbing mass entertainers but people who make the most nakedly direct of all the arts, who can articulate thoughts and feelings many of us can’t, and who might actually irk someone like Joan Rivers."
I’ll call him something, but it won’t be "old-fashioned." I was thinking more of calling him a brain-washed complainer that doesn’t really understand the depth of music available in America, yet purports to be an expert. An industry shill. A person who can and, unfortunately, does shape opinions and beliefs of the lemming readers of his national press garnering, advertising revenue generating, popular magazine. Instead of complaining of music lost, he could have tried to find some new music. But why try? The American people only want Britney commercials and Gangsta Rap anyway, right? Something that SELLS! Or is that what the execs want? Hmmmm.
It’s too bad that corporations and their money fuel the entire music industry except for the little marginal groups like jambands, punk, jazz, and bluegrass. I’m sure the American public would like other music besides what they hear on corporate radio or see on MTV. The problem is, the vast majority will never even know other music exists. Of course, this is the intention of the corporations. MTV, radio, record companies, and the record stores all work together in force-feeding people profitable music. While a select few artists make a good buck and all of the execs make great money in the current "music as commodity" system, the American music listener has been stripped of freedom and choice. When music is created for art’s sake it can be great. When music is created for money’s sake, it becomes a benign art form, bereft of any true creativity or emotion…but what an investment!

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