Maybe We’ll Just Stand Still: The End of CDs and the Slow Decline of Rock Radio

Even as the bedrock of every form of popular music, it’s popular to continue to wave the ‘rock is dead’ banner. Being so reflective and appreciative of it’s past, the music industry is confusingly self-congratulatory while also progressive in a quick, albeit, erratic way. Perhaps because the sounds that could identify closest with traditional rock and roll the most are also the ones that are not as easily accessible (read: ready to be packaged wholesale to a demographic rather than an audience full of people), it is very easy to cut away the attention given to those artists and their means of expression.

Pictured: The Past, Present, and Future

Reading back on that sentence, it seems that rock and roll, finally, is part of the pantheon of modern art. It is something that is crafted, honed in on, and appreciated by the educated and creative few who would appreciate the sort of albums generally judged best nowadays, in that they provoke thought. Still, the spirit of rebellion bursts through, and as rock artists continue to take on and speak out on the major issues of our day, just as they do since the 1960’s, it seems that the labels that represent them have no interest in helping them express themselves, especially as the criticism comes back to those very labels.

There were two very interesting stories recently, charting current trends in how we consume music. One story regarded the slow painful death of rock radio — particularly, the absolute lack of modern rock in even the largest markets, like New York City. This was featured in the latest Rolling Stone magazine, and reflected a conversation I had recently — a classic rock morning drive DJ, who works a small radio market.

The other story worth tracking  is the recent news, a rumor really, that the major labels will soon put a cease to producing compact discs.

If rock ain’t dead yet, it’s considering putting Doc Kevorkian on the speed dial.

More after the jump.

Detroit, MI

The control of the radio industry is held by a very few number of companies, the greatest of which is held by Clear Channel — whose history of homogenizing playlists, voice-tracking jocks from afar, and being conservative-friendly is quite well known — and followed by Cumulus. In October this year, according to the RS article, Clear Channel cut ‘hundreds of jobs,’ ranging from programing to on-air jocks in order to cut costs. Instead of locality, which most stations only get through (maybe?) individualized station IDs, a massive key playlist and shows helmed by big personalities that have no background in radio, or even music in general.

A spokesperson from Clear Channel called this a move in ‘giving our listeners what they want,’ in addition to being a spectacular idea in making more economic radio. This quote bothered me, because if the audiences don’t care about local talent and tastes, playing the same 50 songs or so every hour, then it would seem that rock fans have abandoned radio all together, or that the death of the local top 10 records lists that made radio so engaging in the 60’s made them give up, and only now are people actively looking for new sounds, which are only available through the digital market, which is still dominated by the artists peddled by the majors. Even though you and I may be well aware of how to navigate the world wide web for the sake of finding new music, the fact that poppy non-rock bands like Maroon 5, and the tired post-grunge sounds of Nickleback and Lifehouse, are considered rock is a painful reality to bear — especially when all three of these bands can be found on adult contemporary stations in equal rotations and time slots. As for classic rock, the most dangerous affect that Clear Channel’s lead on the format is the idea that all markets would have an equal appreciation for the same playlists. While classic rock is a format that is comfortable with spoon-feeding its demographic exactly what it wants (being the music of middle aged dudes who like their TV loud and their beer cold), it just seems backward to cater to a region’s taste in music. There is no reason for Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers to get as much play as they do here in New York as they do in, say, Atlanta.

I have a theory: if classic rock stations were more willing to commit to the idea of an entire album being worthy of play (as the so-called ‘album-oriented rock’ format suggests), and stray away from the tracks that the stations do focus on and really dive into an artist’s playlist for some music the demographic probably hasn’t heard since skipping gym class, you’d probably find a remedy for the phenomenon of the mid-life crisis. But I digress.

But then what of alternative acts who bring in big bucks through tours and festivals? Some of those bands (who, RS considered Red Hot Chili Peppers and Coldplay as peers and worthy of being considered ‘rock,’) could find home in more adventurous classic rock stations. RHCP certainly do, and in a few years time, who knows where the Black Keys will wind up, as the one band whose music is perhaps primed to be considered classic rock. Give it 20-30 years.

Big B and Toast, and the Morning Zu Crue, at your Local Radio Station.

The beauty is that the smallest markets, some that could still be considered in metropolis-type cities, are still locally owned, and could break emerging artists, if a programmer and jock is attentive to the Internet buzz, and hope to make it translate. But of course, the success of that artist then becomes entirely reliant on whether their popularity in Frog Nuts, Arkansas will spread to somewhere bigger like St. Louis.

But then the question is how to judge radio’s influence on sales in regional markets, when the labels are finally — finally! — figuring how to command this digital market thing, and just nip CDs in the bud.

While vinyl has enjoyed the resurgence that it has in the recent years, it indicates that while some artists and genres are capable of keeping the format alive by appealing to audiophiles, hipsters, and obsessives. But those aren’t the people dominating the consumption of music. Like cult-favorite television shows that face the threat of cancellation, this would affect a small but extremely passionate audience that demands such a level of quality. The actual audio quality of LPs can be debated back and forth and forever, and the supposed reduced quality of CDs seem to suggest that we could survive on LPs and digital format alone. But the fact remains is that, technologically speaking, there is still a market that has yet to adapt to digital 100%, nor are LPs and digital the most economical formats themselves.

CDs still count. Maybe not they did in their early 90’s heyday, but it’s the format that Billboard measures in terms of success. If LP and digital downloads were to be the only formats available, we’re looking at a completely polarized market that forgets a middle audience that still exists and consumes music. And while being exclusively digital indicates that the industry is finally getting over the idea that digital music is not synonymous with piracy as a concept, it would seem foolish to return to the open arms of vinyl as the format of measuring success.

Now, I am not a smart man, but it would seem to me that the music industry is still living in the stone age in terms of how to measure a record’s influence and success. But this does leave other questions open about how we as the audience consume our music, and beyond format. I’m talking about behaviors. Who we like, why we like it, and how does it appeal to us, the most passionate of audiences, in terms of the canon of all-time great rock and roll? Even as a wildly changing animal, from decade to decade (some better than others), rock and roll still speaks to us, as plainly yet articulately, as any other art form.

We know the industry is a bunch of lumbering dinosaurs. So tell me: what the hell is our problem!?

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3 responses to “Maybe We’ll Just Stand Still: The End of CDs and the Slow Decline of Rock Radio

  1. Who knows? Progress isn’t always a step in the right direction, right?

  2. Our problem is that we are undervaluing music, dammit. There’s become such a commodification of the essential expression of the human spirit that we’ve been accustomed to getting fed the same repackaged shit year after year. An album in the 90s had much more staying power than an album today. An album last week is old news. An album a month old? Forget about it. We’ve gotten a type of musical ADD that can only be remedied by pressing next on an iPod or skipping to “that cool part” in a song. Music in general is undervalued and we’d rather buy individual songs on iTunes or Amazon than appreciate a CD as a whole for its good and bad parts.

    • Somebody else made a comment recently about judging what should count for a ‘representative voice’ or a ‘classic album’ after time has passed. An album that has ‘staying power’ from the 90’s wasn’t immediately so, it just happened that by 1999, people were still going nuts for Nevermind, Ten, Siamese Dream, What’s the Story, Morning Glory?, and Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik, (among countless others, but those are the first to come to mind in the realm of rock music), and looking forward to those anniversaries. In fact, having the first two Smashing Pumpkins albums being released recently, it only pointed out how much they were products of their time. They defined the era, and they’re still great individually, but some of those characteristics make it stand out and recall the era. Perhaps because the 90’s and the birth of alternative/indie rock, and defining how they sound — and how they’re ‘supposed’ to sound — has given us elements to compare and contrast to.

      Ask anyone nowadays, and they would at least give a small smattering of truly great albums that have been released in the past ten years. Chances are, that list will include The White Stripes, the Strokes, the Hives, and all the lot that exploded onto the scene in 2001. You just need to take some time to let it digest.

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