Originally published in Performing Songwriter Magazine
Issue #47, May 2000
Do you remember FM radio? It began going wild in the early '60's, filling the airwaves with everything the hidebound, commercially-oriented programmers wouldn't play on the "real" AM radio stations. FM radio had disc jockeys who chose their own playlists, and we'd tune into certain stations because we shared their listening tastes. Independent in the extreme, FM was radio without walls – sometimes without commercials, sometimes without professionalism, but always with heart. Without FM radio, Bob Dylan would never have seen airplay. I could easily make the argument that without FM, there'd have been no '60's "revolution"; no counter-culture, no be-ins – in short, no sixties. FM was the thing that bound us together. Because of its independence, we were independent too. It kept us in concert, giving us a common reference point through the music that was "ours", even if we lived in Pocoima.
Remember Motown? It began because Berry Gordy couldn't get a foothold in the white world of AM radio success. The charts were divided into white and black; records by black artists were called "race records", and the two charts never met. Berry Gordy created an independent record label that soon superseded many of the "majors". Because of that independence, he wasn't tied to the Usual & Customary Rules. Eventually he managed to cross his acts over onto the "white" charts and made music history.
I remember those days, and remember them well. Without FM radio, I would have no career. Without Motown crossing the race barrier, we wouldn't have the kind of diversity we see on the charts today, where Whitney Houston (formerly "black chart"), Shania Twain (formerly "country chart"), and Radiohead (formerly no chart) stand shoulder-to-shoulder. There's more diversity in radio today than ever before, appearances to the contrary. Without the technological advances and FTC rulings that made FM radio a viable contender, the world as we know it would be quite a different place, and the music industry would still be full of people like Mitch Miller running A&R departments, refusing to sign The Beatles, and maintaining that "Rock and roll will never last." FM shook everything, and everyone, up, forcing the industry to find new ways to survive.
Remember all the little labels? Criteria, Mushroom, tiny labels that succeeded against all odds, breaking bands like crazy and giving us something to listen to other than Mantovani?? Remember how all the major labels jumped on that, creating their own "independent" labels (which were in reality merely subsidiaries of the majors)? Soon all the independents were bought up by the majors; the few holdouts are gone now.
Remember when disk jockeys had personality? When you'd tune in to a particular station at a certain time of day because you knew Murray the K was going to be playing "your" music and talking about "your" artists? When radio personalities were encouraged to have just that – a personality? Whether you liked the screamers or the sweet-talkers, at least there was variety. Nowadays every music radio personality has the same voice, and the same playlist.
Remember when there were 20+ major record companies, all operating independently? When people stayed at a label for life, and helped to form its ethic and business outlook? When one person could truly make a difference at a company without behaving like Bill Gates? Goddard Lieberson, a staff member and ultimately president of Columbia Records (which later became CBS and is now owned by Sony) personified all that was good and decent in our industry. A ferocious businessman, he got his way without screaming or descending into adolescent whining. Not only could he sit with the CBS Board of Directors and argue that providing a haven for the great classical musicians of their time – Igor Stravinsky, Isaac Stern and the like – would somehow increase sales even though "highbrow music" was never going to get on the charts. He could also sit with an artist and discuss the best sax players in town, or show you how to write an eighth-note triplet. He hired people who would think creatively and independently, and then wisely stayed out of their way. Looked at from the perspective of our current business state, when "You can't get fired for saying No" seems to be the watchword of the day, he was incredibly daring.
To quote Blue Note Record's Bruce Lundvall:
"You have to [balance commerce and art]. I learned this from Goddard Lieberson and John Hammond at Columbia Records many years ago. Those were my mentors. Goddard's whole philosophy was, 'We have two responsibilities: a responsibility to the corporation 'cause we're a business but first and foremost we have a responsibility to an artform called music.' That was a pretty bold statement in 1959. When I was at Columbia (where he served as president) I wanted to make sure that if we were involved in country music, classical, jazz, whatever, that we had the premiere talent. That was the other thing that Goddard taught me. That's how you build a great record company as opposed to a profitable record company."
Build a great record company. Strive for the extraordinary, side by side with commercial success. Sign the best, whether they'll increase profits or not, because sometimes overall profits can be measured in prestige and visibility, rather than hard numbers. Let the commercially successful recordings finance your less successful acts. What antiquated concepts!
The older programmers, music directors, record company people in our industry come out of a time when mentoring someone was assumed to be part of the job. Where are those people today? How many record companies can boast a chain of command that includes the kind of open exchange of information and hard-won wisdom we saw when "gentleman" was a good word in business?
I titled this article The Death of Independence because I fear that, from a recording and radio standpoint, our industry is dying. It's moribund, slow as a turtle to respond to new technologies, over-concerned with protecting its assets rather than braving new frontiers, and frantic to find anyone who will tell it just which new frontiers are worth investing in with no risk. I remember the industry's reaction to stereo when I was ten ("it'll never last!") and cassettes ("no one will ever get paid royalties again!") and the like - I'm watching the same mistakes repeated in their response to the Internet, Liquid Audio, MP-3, digital publishing, and everything else that gives the little guy a chance (and incidentally forces the industry to get its feet out of the cement and change with the times). I'm completely disheartened that after all these years, songwriters still have no union. and artists have no power.
Isn't it interesting how we've come to regard the '50's and '60's in America as a time of "enlightened radio programming"? I've actually heard people who grew up in the '80's mourn those days, regarding anything since as over-commercialized tripe. I can understand their point; those decades were a time of explosive growth for our entire country. In retrospect, a radio format that was playing The Rolling Stones side by side with Bob Dylan looks pretty good.
But in fairness to the programmers of this decade, let us not forget some of the less stellar moments in radio of that era. After all, there was another side to the coin. During the '50's we had a real glut of pretty boys with questionable voices; Fabian, Pat Boone, Tab Hunter (honestly) and the like were topping the charts. There were only six gold records in 1959, and they went to Ernie Ford, Johnny Mathis, Mitch Miller, The Music Man, South Pacific, and Peter Gunn. The Top 40 Hits of 1963 included "Blame It On the Bossa Nova" by Eydie Gorme, "Candy Girl" by the Four Seasons, and "Dominique" by the Singing Nun. If you think Brittany Spears is a manufactured artist, whose "handlers" have created a package complete with clothing, hair style, and pout, take a look at old videos of American Bandstand, easily the most popular (and often the only) music show of that era.
The #1 record of 1962 was Big Girls Don't Cry. The situation was not much changed in 1964, when Grammy awards went to "The Girl From Ipanema" (Record of the Year) and "Hello Dolly" (Song of the Year). Not exactly Ornette Coleman or Jimi Hendrix. 1964 also saw Dean Martin's "Everybody Loves Somebody" in the #1 Billboard slot, a far cry from cutting edge. Let us not forget that '60's, a time when radio brought us The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, also gave us Bobby Goldsboro and The Archies.
I remember the '50's and '60's charts largely because portions of them were so unbelievable. Who could fail to enjoy The Cowsills, and wait anxiously for their next bold release? Or long for the "Boss-Town Sound", the East Coast's answer to the Flower Power drifting in from San Francisco? And forget about seeing female role models playing guitar, bass, drums in a band. In fact, forget about seeing female role models period, unless you were into high glam and watched The Supremes or Dusty Springfield. Women in the '50's and early '60's were either sluts-with-a-heart-of-gold, or girl-from-bad-neighborhood-makes-good, or good-girl-next-door. If you grew up a female musician or writer in that time, you were male-identified. You had no choice. Female artists such as Nina Simone, who played piano on her recordings and onstage, created the arrangements, and wrote a good portion of her material, were rare and under-valued. And they certainly weren't on the charts.
The "good old days" of our industry were fraught with the same issues we face now. Artists weren't signed because they were wonderful artists; they were signed because their music smelled like profit for the record company, and higher numbers for radio. If you were an artist in the '50's, an A&R Man chose your songs. A manager chose your clothing. A choreographer told you how to move on stage. If you were lucky, you got to record songs you liked, and wear clothing that fit your self-image. When you made a record, the producer picked the musicians and engineer, recorded the tracks, then pulled you in only to sing. From that moment on, your job was done. Even your album cover was created without you, and the only criteria was marketing. As late as 1968, I still found myself arguing with the record company over song choices, titles ("Maybe if you changed it from 'Jesse' to 'Leaving A Light By the Stairs,' we'd have a better shot at radio. After all, who is Jesse to the listener?"), and my liner notes ("Do you really think buyers want to read the lyrics?")
In Nashville, where I live, there's a constant argument going on over radio. Does radio play what the record companies force down its throat? Left to their own devices, without the pressure from Arbitron and the need to sell commercial space, would radio programmers boldly venture where no man has gone before, and actually play their own favorites? That's what the radio people say. They say their hands are tied by the product provided to them. They yearn for the "good old days", when Bobbie Gentry, Dr. John, and Bob Marley were played next to one another. They liked being educators, bringing new music to the audience. They miss that.
The record people, on the other hand, say that radio forces them to place artists in narrow niches, because radio will only play certain sounds and formats. They complain that the entire music industry is just "chasing radio". They say they're tired of listening to finished product and sending both artist and producer back into the studio with the instructions "There's nothing like this on radio; give me a single they'll actually play, one that fits the current format". To hear the record companies talk, they'd like nothing better than to sit on the cutting edge of destiny, pushing artists they believe in and throwing commercial worries to the wind.
The artists say they just want to make music, music they love, music they believe in. Economics aside (and they're never really aside, are they?), there's a good point to this. The real breakthrough acts, those that suddenly sell in the multi-platinum range out of nowhere, are seldom manufactured artists whose recordings chase radio. They're the mavericks, the ones who went from company to company being told "There's nothing radio-friendly here", until they found one true believer who worked to make it happen. That's how big careers get started, and that's what drives our industry sales up each quarter. The new, the bold, the adventurous.
But it's all a gamble. A radio station that went back to the free-wheeling days of early FM ethics would also need the money and time to educate its audience, an audience we've turned into a bunch of mindless button-punchers who only expect to hear the familiar. A record company interested in breaking new sounds and great music has to be prepared to educate the consumer, and spend the money on advertising and promotion for something radically different. And like any business venture, too different can spell financial catastrophe.
Annoyed. Irritated. Angry that record companies and publishers are trying to stop Napster, which provides free music to anyone with a computer and the proper software.
Aggravated with the state of radio, where formats change constantly and that station you finally found and loved has changed its playlist to Mexican Evangelical, based on demographic surveys and Arbitron ratings. More and more consumers are demanding that their car radios have scan buttons, so they can flip from station to station without thinking, stopping only when something piques their interest. Do we wonder why talk radio is so huge? At least you can count on the disk jockeys (read: talk radio hosts) having personalities. Why be faithful to one station, when all stations are playing the same records, and all jockeys sound the same?
Exasperated becase when they do finally hear a song they like, particularly on pop radio, they probably miss the singer's name and the song title. With no back-end and front-end announcing, there's no way for radio to create sales for artists whose voices and styles aren't immediately identifiable to the listener. Just try calling an info line to get this information – it's impossible.
Upset that the price of CD's stays high, when even a civilian knows they cost little to manufacture. Haunting the used CD stores, where last week's new Shania Twain release has dropped from $14.99 to $5.99. Put off because when they buy old catalogue, it rarely has the original liner notes (or even cover design). Further put off because purchasing CD's is senseless when you can download the music for free. If record companies can't see their way to providing CD packaging that interests the consumer, CD's are doomed. I got a visceral lesson in this last summer, when I bought my nephews the new Back Street Boys CD. Did they immediately put it on the player to listen? No; they put it in my computer, so they could watch the videos and interviews made especially for that CD, which weren't available anywhere else.
Uncertain of which technology to trust, let alone which company. My generation watched a slide from mono to stereo to 8 track to cassette to CD to mini-disc to DVD, displaying less enthusiasm with every step. Music is supposed to be fun, and easy. Each time record companies engage in a "newer and better" format for sound, they lose more consumer trust – particularly when each new format requires replacing your entire music collection!
As to the companies, it used to be that you could trust a specific brand name – Sony, for instance. You knew that buying Sony product ensured buying Sony quality. Unfortunately, each time a company comes out with a newer and better technology, their first generation is wonderful – and each succeeding improvement lowers the overall quality without providing anything the consumer really wants. Anyone who works with cassette recorders knows this first hand; the early Sony portable cassette recorder (TCS-310) is a marvel of engineering and sound quality. Just try convincing someone to sell you theirs! Each following generation brought lower sound quality, sacrificed to size, and some technology person's idea of what the consumer really wants. ("Gee, what I really want is degraded sound, a probable life-span of 6 months, and an AM/FM radio, alarm clock, and TV remote built into my cassette recorder...".)
Bored stiff. Tired of listening to the same old stuff, even if they don't know it yet. How many radio stations play a wide format, taking chances? How many major labels release records that will only sell in the tens of thousands, rather than the millions? And where are the niche stations willing to stick to their guns, to patiently continue losing money while they teach their audience to enjoy different forms of music? We hear a lot these days about "world music" and "world beat", but try finding it on radio. It's difficult enough to find your local acts being played, let alone something from another country.
When people are bored, they turn to something different. Talk radio vs. music. Videos vs. CD's. The Internet and computer games vs. recordings or radio.
I believe in heros. I believe in heroic stands, in David vs. Goliath. I think the good guy usually wins. I have absolute faith that consumers, en masse, are pretty wise. As performers, we see it in our concert audiences, who consistently call for the best songs rather than the most popular. Where are the heros in records and radio these days? Where's the wealthy entrepeneur who's willing to buck the system by buying a radio station and actually playing what he or she likes, or hiring programmers and jockeys to do the same? Who's willing to gamble that the public, offered something other than tripe, will take to it like a duck to water?
For my money, that's what the '60's proved in radio and records. That the consumer, if given a better alternative, will prefer that alternative. It's not something that can change overnight.
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