Sunday, April 24, 2005

Satellite may save and/or kill radio

The most surprising thing in a worthwhile article/interview about Elvis Costello (Costello's road traveled only by himself) wasn't the great songwriter's post-mortem for the record industry as we know it but his dire thoughts about the state of radio.

"What a desperate waste the way radio has gone since the day when the management of these different crooners were making recordings off the radio of the shows," he said. "It was so revolutionary what they were doing... When all of this music was close together, the great
strengths emerge. That's how you get Elvis Presley. That's how you get rock 'n' roll.

By putting things in boxes and competing them against each other, you kill the music's ability to become like a chemistry set. You can write reams and reams of musicological analysis of Elvis Presley, but all he did was combine things he loved. He grew up with gospel and the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers and Bill Monroe and Big Maybelle, and all these things get mixed up."

If you think he's being too dismal, take a peak at the Billboard Hot 100 chart and see you think. Thanks to the magic of the Net, radio is being upended as everything else is in the music industry. With the sad condition of continued payola scandals (decades after this was supposed to have been cleaned up), rampant consolidation, shrinking playlists and central broadcasts covering several areas, it's not hard to find fault with radio. Supposedly, the savior and alternative is satellite radio, which offers hundreds of specialized stations to suite any musical taste: country, Christian, jazz, latin, classical, world music is all here.

But how much of a good thing is that? Costello seems to be saying that all these choices might be more of a curse than a blessing. His namesake Elvis was able to experience a smorgasbord of styles all together and make something of it himself with his own music. Imagine how different things would have been if Presley wasn't able to have that experience. When we're given dozens or hundreds of choices that can cater to each person's specific taste, that's a boon to many as it satisfies their need to hear the music that they love.

But it's also the music that they know well and have experienced again and again. Once it gets to the point that these people will settle into their favorite stations and favorite music (as we all do), what happens to the other choices, the other stations and the other music? We might accidentally flip by them on the way to our own choice but more likely, that won't even happen as we program our own choices into our receivers. This isn't any more surprising than a conservative turning to a conservative publication for news or a liberal turning to a liberal publication for their news. The same principle is at work here: with so many choices available, you now have the luxury to narrow what you see and hear specific to your tastes and thinking.

When you go back to Costello's quote again, you realize what's missing in this scenario. We do become boxed in then with our tastes and our favorite music. We don't stumble across left field choices or music that's alien to us or many times, a particular song in another style that might appeal to us. We're frozen out from worlds of music and discovery by our own tastes then and we suffer for that.

That's not to say that at any time, the overall charts were not fixed and that many songs didn't make it there or on the radio that should have. In fact, only someone with the broadest kind of taste will tell you that they live everything that's on the charts now and I'd be pretty suspicious of their taste at that. What was there, and is still there to some extent, on these generalized charts that track the overall top sellers is this (semi) unpredictable variety and surprises. Once we settle into our favorite station covering our favorite style, that's gone from us.

The way out of this trap isn't just a hit music format but also free form radio itself, the likes of which used to be the property of college stations and the occasional renegade broadcaster. While I've often argued that these stations aren't truly freeform is they don't play current or past hits sometimes, they can and do provide a mind-boggling variety. Granted that I have a prejudice for being in the Northeast but WFMU and WCRT are two great examples of this. One recent FMU playlist has Bauhaus, Jimmy Smith, Ringo Starr, Buddy Holly, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, Nellie McKay, Hugo Montenegro, The Rolling Stones, The Turtles, the Stylistics, Kurt Schwitters, a high school band, dub, ESG, Kid Koala, Beck, Brazilian funk and a bootleg remix. That sounds a lot closer in spirit to the music that both Elvis's enjoyed than most specialized stations. If trad radio ultimately loses out to satellite, that kind of open-ended format is something we might lose too. My own searches for freeform formats on XM or Sirius satellite stations provided pretty much nil (ED NOTE: if I'm wrong, please let me know).

Ultimately, that's the grave new world that technology is going to hand us and that Elvis C is worried about. If you'd like to challenged musically now and then, you might be concerned too. Since XM and Sirius are the only games in town for satellite radio right now, that's not going to change unless people start telling them that they're being cheated out of some real diversity.


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