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October 13, 2009

Paul Bingham on Alternative Airplay

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Today's guest post is by long-time reader Paul Bingham, who highlights an ignored corner of the music scene.

* * * * *

"Music hasn’t been this cool since the ‘70s," is the constant refrain one hears from SWPL [Stuff White People Like] who weren’t actually around then. Of course they’re not talking about what one hears on the radio. It’s the Indie Artists writing and performing what Gram Parsons called "Cosmic American Music." Musicians who are heroin thin, with a thrift store chic; children of ‘90s, raised on rap, punk and grunge who cried when Kurt Cobain’s brains went A.W.O.L.

The materialism of the ‘80s and ‘90s was as much of a creative outlet for them, as extreme poverty was for their idols. Children of single parents, who lived through broken homes and those insensate, educational facilities, known as public schools, found that was possible to live relatively well in a psychological squalor which would be the creative fuel for their works.

"Alternative" means unlimited by genre. Recently, The Fine Print, an album by, the Drive by Truckers, which describes itself as a "collection of oddities and rarities," outsold pop-country starlet Taylor Swift’s latest release.

Anomalous, because the Drive by Truckers are not a country band. Their work runs the gamut from their debut cowpunk album, Gangstabilly, to their epic double-album Southern Rock Opera, a chronicle of the rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd, to serving consecutively as the backing band for soul legends Bettey Lavette and Booker T.

But despite a heavy touring schedule, best-selling albums, and 4-star reviews from Rolling Stone, the Truckers, have never charted a successful single, or received any significant airplay.

Money not merit is what gets songs in rotation. Radio stations, owned by conglamorates, play music to sell advertising. Of course record labels are interested in ‘what the public wants.’ The identity of this public is anyone’s guess, but fortunately, the record companies know exactly what it doesn’t want—spontaneity and originality.

Producers have any number of tricks in their bag to make any artist sound “commercially viable.” An album can "sound derivative" or it can ‘display influences.’ Beauty, after all, is the eye of the beholder. Commercial viability means that an artist’s works must fit both a genre, and a demographic. A developed, polished sound, in the language of L.A. producers means that the music has been sufficiently tamed.

To compensate for the loss of creative control, newly prominent artists are allowed to make pronouncements on politics and society from a brand new bully-pulpit. This, and the money usually makes it worth their while.

For those artists who won’t compromise, and can’t sell records, with their faces, there’s Americana, a broad genre encompassing everything from the punk rock sensibilities of Jeff Tweedey and Ryan Adams, to Justin Townes Earle, whose recent "folk-pop" album, Midnight at the Movies, runs the gamut of what one might hear on the radio, in 1965. Hank Williams III often plays three sets in one gig, the first for elderly fans of his grandfather’s songs, the second, his own country-works, and a third of raucous hellbilly music set for hardcore metalhead fans.

There are any number of Grammy-winners like Shelby Lynne, channeling Dusty Springfield, who can’t get airplay.
Bands like Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles, or Those Darlins "walking that fine line between punk and country" play to large crowds at festivals, but one can only hear them ocasionally on XM radio. Their influences may be from the ‘60s and ‘70s, but bands like the Detroit Cobras and The Gore Gore Girls bring something entirely original to the table, even when covering their icons. Yet, they are largely unknown except to Chicago hipsters.

Any number of alternative artists and bands have gained commercial success without going mainstream or compromising their creative integrity. The Donnas, the hardest rocking girl band of the 1990s, recently started their own label following a precedent that is becoming more popular and successful.

Vinyl records are staging a comeback and Itunes is ending the release of large albums, as we knew them.

Is it a new beginning or a return?

Alternative music lacks a mass audience, partially because many of these artists are SWPL catering to audiences of inebriated SWPL. Their ironic, stream of consciousness lyrics go over well on college radio stations, but less so with blue-collar types and adults over thirty, in general. Ironically enough, any number of ‘roots’rockers fail to reach their roots audiences in the rural south and midwest. Mechanics, construction and factory workers, listen to classic-rock. Their wives, working at Wal Mart, listen to Top-40 Country radio, and their children to the latest pop-hiphop sensation. Most use the Internet only for email, many have only a dial-up connection, making it difficult to download from Itunes. Radio is still an integral part of their lives. They only encounter alt-artists in bars, but must like what they hear, because these artists are making a living playing such venues.

So why shouldn’t the increasingly popular micro-broadcasting, phenomenon herald the return of local radio, by challenging the hegemony of monotonous mainstream radio? Hispanic, and more recently H’Mong, stations are successful in serving a small, selective audience. Why shouldn’t every community have a local radio station or two, playing music which reflects its background?

* * * * *

Thank you, Paul.

What he writes about is parsecs off my cultural radar, so I'll stand by and see what else on the subject pops up in Comments. Blogging is a nice way to learn about things.



posted by Donald at October 13, 2009


This topic is certainly near and dear to me for overlapping reasons.

My wife is a musician who long ago gave up any (well, almost any) illusions about commercial success. Back in the mid-70s she was part of a group that considered itself a laboratory for composer/songwriters. I was involved writing lyrics, mixing sound, helping to produce concerts and so forth. The band used to go months at a time between performances and tended to work up a batch of new material for each show. And I shouldn't put this in the past tense, the group recently performed at a special concert in Manhattan both as "session players" backing a folk-rock singer songwriter on his tunes then closing the show with a set of their own material.

At one point back in the seventies an engineer working for Columbia who wanted to move up a rung approached the group about being their producer and recording an album. He, of course, wanted the band to shorten songs, add lyrics to the instrumentals, and otherwise get the group to fit more comfortably into one or another radio friendly genre. While certain pieces could be re-imagined more conventionally, overall the group remained too "hyphenated" [jazz-fusion-avant-folk-rock-etc.] to suit the producer's needs and he moved on to work with a band already comfortably radio ready. Years later he talked about how he missed seeing the way the group could have been targeted to the then emerging New Age market. Not that they were New Age per se either. New Age is, however, an example of a genre that discovered new ways of reaching an audience without commercial radio.

At the same time, The Wife also has been a community radio programmer for the better part of the past thirty years, first on WPKN, which broadcasts from Bridgeport CT, then after our move to Maine on WMPG, a college/community station affiliated with the University of Southern Maine. I did college radio and a few years back took the training and now also volunteer as a programmer on WMPG. [Both stations are available on-line at and]

These and similar stations across the country offer a wide mix of musical genres and local affairs programs. When traveling I always scan the FM dial, usually at the low end of the spectrum, and almost everywhere I find some modestly powered, non-commercial radio station offering music and public affairs programming that serves the local community. As Paul noted, however, the average "mechanics, construction and factory workers, listen to classic-rock. Their wives, working at Wal Mart, listen to Top-40 Country radio, and their children to the latest pop-hiphop sensation." Admittedly, these stations tend to have a somewhat progressive/left political tilt, but then again it is difficult to imagine a right leaning or libertarian community station reaching out to offer training and program slots to the local Cambodian or Latino immigrant communities along with hosting music shows that cover everything from alt-country to zydeco. Despite the snarky edge, it is the SWPL crowd, not the NASCAR crowd who willingly cede blocks of airtime on "their" radio station to programmers delving deep into modern rockabilly, classic jazz, or Russian rock music shows.

BTW, the Drive by Truckers, not to mention Gram Parsons, Bettey Lavette, Booker T, Jeff Tweedey, Ryan Adams, Justin Townes Earle, Shelby Lynne, The Donnas, et al are all familiar to WMPG - Greater Portland's Community Radio Station listeners.

Posted by: Chris White on October 13, 2009 12:16 PM

Interesting post. Like Donald, I'm pretty much at sea in modern pop music. My exposure to new music is pretty much restricted to what I find through Lastfm, the music-streaming service. Sadly, much of what I find are obscure late-sixties/early-seventies folk-rock groups, the stuff I've been listening to for 30 years.


"...but Itunes is ending the release of large albums..."

What's this about?

Posted by: Chris Burd on October 13, 2009 12:41 PM

"...but Itunes is ending the release of large albums..."

I don't presume to speak for Paul, but I'm guessing he meant that iTunes' focus on singles has essentially ended the album as a viable packaging unit, at least on line.

My own music collection has become subject to a ruthless Darwinian winnowing. Albums essentially never survive intact. I have not been able to bring myself to delete parts of symphonies and operas yet, but I star the bits I like and uncheck the boring stretches. It's only a matter of time.

Posted by: robert61 on October 13, 2009 5:00 PM

"Why shouldn’t every community have a local radio station or two, playing music which reflects its background?"

Outside of immigrant groups, most communities are too heterogeneous for one station to cater too without having multiple shows playing multiple musical styles daily. That, and the the fact that the internet pretty much does this already. Oh, and the FCC would probably have something to say about it as well.

More broadly, people like what they like.

Posted by: JV on October 13, 2009 6:21 PM

The real revolution comes when someone brings Pandora to your car radio.

We are all a community of one.

Posted by: dzot on October 13, 2009 7:09 PM

JV - stations like those college/community stations I mentioned generally DO have multiple shows featuring various musical styles. They may only have one program in a week that targets say the local Cambodian immigrant community, but a daily dose of blues or folk with different programmers giving those slots their own spin or emphasis (e.g. early country blues predominates on the Monday blues show while the guy on Wednesday tends toward electrified Chicago style blues).

dzot - Pandora seems to be finding ways to overcome the tech difficulties that tie it to the listeners' computers with the goal of making it available in the car or via devices like the iPhone. Those who consider themselves "a community of one" will increasingly move their listening to such platforms, just as MP3 players have replaced transistor radios as the portable sound source of choice among most listeners.

While I have built myself a batch of Pandora "stations" and listen at times while working on the computer, I still crave the connection that comes from listening to a real live thinking human selecting music and making comments, especially when local events, weather, and news are part of the mix. The fact that commercial radio stations are increasingly automated with programming choices being made by national services rather than local DJs makes them more like a Pandora station created by someone else and less like "old fashioned" pop radio, the result being the worst of both worlds.

Tune in to a local community station today to see what they are doing. Be sure to flip back every three or four hours to see how different the programming is as various personalities take over the board. As an old promo for one of those stations had it "... some songs I like, some songs I don't like."

Posted by: Chris White on October 14, 2009 8:25 AM

Along the same lines as Chris White's post, KEXP in Seattle plays much of the music decried as missing from the public airwaves. There slogan is "where the music matters." They can afford to play what they want because they are listener-supported, and every quarter the listener is subjected to a pledge drive. Not that it helps those without internet access, but they also stream on the web.

Another, more hidden access point to great music (and free), are torrent sites. Again, internet access is required. DSL or cable access helps even more. Neil Young provides live shows free of charge at

Hundreds of other bands friendly to live recording by fans, including the Drive By Truckers, Built to Spill, Gov't Mule, 311, Blind Melon, Black Crowes, and Blues Traveler have live shows available for download by bittorrent are at All perfectly legal, and encouraged.

One band not mentioned yet is the Felice Brothers. They recorded one of their more popular songs in the chicken coop on their upstate New York farm, where they were raised. I highly recommend them.

Unfortunately, as previous posters have stated, there will be no return of this type of music to corporate radio stations. Their goal is the pursuit of money, not the music scene. Examine the "Jack FM" format if there is any doubt. No human DJ, just a computer. A programmer inputs the song rotation, the commercial rotation, and pushes play. No need to pay a DJ or have to listen to any surprises. This is the future of commercial radio.

Posted by: mtech on October 14, 2009 12:50 PM

I had to laugh at the bit about "ironic, stream of consciousness lyrics go over well on college radio stations, but less so with blue-collar types and adults over thirty, in general". That's very true. One of my bands is made up of college-educated middle class people (except for myself) and it's exactly like that - the lyrics are either completely nonsensical or about something like cooking a nice romantic dinner, but buried in enough wordplay and obscure cultural references that they might as well be nonsensical. "Deep" lyrics pretty much mean nothing more than "a normal guy who works as a plumber would tell you they're stupid bullshit".

Me, I'll take "shallow" lyrics that mean something to regular folk any day. The lead singer has learned to never ask my opinion about lyrics, haha.

Posted by: Drogomir Smolken on October 15, 2009 9:01 AM

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