Sunday, October 29, 2006

The aesthetic reasons songs aren't played on the radio

There is a lot of music in the world. A lot. I can not emphasize just how many bands and soloists and producers there are on Earth, and the list grows as I write this. As the means of production become more accessible, anyone who before could only wish that they could make a record now has only to look in the right places to find a studio that will fit inside your computer.

But don't think that this rise in accessibility has much of an impact on the music industry - not even the indie labels. Even though The Average Joe Band has their shiny disc for sale on CDBaby and a couple tracks on Myspace, they are likely to see very few sales. Their market consumes such a niche space that it receives very little attention. Indeed, there are so many different spheres of accomplishment and recognition that it becomes easy to lose the prize in the mist.

Since there are so many garage bands, bedroom musicians, jam bands, singer-songwriters, DJs, bands, singers, orchestras, and supergroups, chances are that whatever the average music consumer hears is the cream of the crop. While even the most non-discerning consumer will be able to tell you which bands absolutely suck, this itself is remarkable - A band has been separated out from all the other millions of bands. A record executive has singled out one band from a multitude of others and determined it to be worthy of an investment. But any record store will have hundreds, if not thousands, of other bands' albums and singles. Several record executives have found sounds they believe will appease the marketplace.

That of course leads to reaction from the music consumers. A target audience usually consists of the core market for certain genres of music. Bands within those genres compete for the tarket audiences' attention. This happens in every record store. The record store, in response to the target audience, will supply the target markets with the music the store believes will appeal to the most people. Inevitably this leads to discontent from consumers who see their tastes and preferences excluded from the market. These discerning consumers will turn to niche markets or second-hand markets for the music they seek.

It is the indie genre that arises from the collective of unhappy voices. The previously marginalized product finds a new market that completely disregards the consumers from the major spheres and chooses only to appeal to smaller, less viable spheres of consumers. In the course of this process, some genres or performers are ignored at each level, leading to new spheres, including music distributors that operate by putting artists' songs into the iTunes market, for example. There are so many different spheres available that perhaps almost all music consumers will stay within the three biggest spheres - major pop/rock artists on big record labels, indie pop/rock artists on big record labels, and indie pop/rock artists on indie record labels.

But what does that have to do with me? I'm just a volunteer record reviewer for a community radio station, KXCI. Once ever week or every two weeks I drop off CDs I've analyzed and pick up some more. KXCI gets hundreds of CDs in the mail every week. The process never ends. I don't know how many other volunteers do what I do, but what I do know is that every week the music director's small office, equipped with two desks and a couple bookshelves, is stacked high with CDs. CDs occupy the bookshelves, they lean on each other in small crates piled like little appartments, they lay scattered across the desks, they cover the floor, they are everywhere. These CDs encompass a wide variety of genders and genres. These CDs were recorded by people all across the United States and some of them are from other countries. These CDs were produced by professionals and amateurs alike. What these CDs share is that the public at large will near none of them - maybe one or even two.

Half of the music I hear is unfit for radio. I'm not pretentious, I'm not picky - I just review music and determine its suitability for airtime. KXCI has standards, and I have standards. People locally and all around the world listen to KXCI, thanks to FM and streaming audio. If I cannot listen to an album without later talking about it in violent terms to my half-interested friends, there is no way I'm going to recommend it for radio play.

So ignoring all the spheres, all the economics, and all the radio, I'm going to tell it straight: Some music will never be heard by the general public because it is bad. no, I tiptoe - Half the music that exists is bad. I would immediately change the channel if the music I have to hear was played on the radio. Some of the albums I hear I would not wish on my worst enemies, and as a reviewer I listen to every song on the albums I review.

Bad music is almost indefinitely prevented from entering the three biggest spheres - I am not talking about music I don't like that others may like. This is despicable music I am talking about. However, music is quite subjective. When I talk about bad music, I talk about music that subsists in the smallest spheres, that appeals to the smallest markets.

The simple explanation for why many bands remain unknown is simply that they are bad. They appeal to far too few people to be successful. It is not a matter of marketing a band or writing the write songs or meeting the right people. If you are bad, no one will listen to you. I'm telling this to all the unknown bands out there: Mediocrity is the number one obstacle to success. A lot of music in the world is bad. The scope of the world's mediocre music is so vast that few people in the world will ever hear the scope. I am exposed to far more unpleasant music than I would prefer.

There is a lot of music in the world, much of it bad. The reason people at large don't hear it is because a filter like me will catch it. There is a good reason why you haven't heard of the bands The Weegs or An Albatross - And if you know who they are, you have "bad" taste in music - Someone has determined that you in all chances won't like those bands. People like me, who review music, decide on a daily basis which bands have a chance of going on the radio. If radio is life and death, half the bands that send their CDs to radio stations, hoping to break into the market will die.

The thing about reviewing records is that reviews are not absolute - Any music journalist could tell you that. There is no rubric for the constitution of a 10 on the ratings scale; instead, scores for music are based on other music. Actually, it is a question of how well does the music plays in comparison to other bands - the opportunity cost of radio, if you will.

So really, why does some music never play on the radio? I'm not going to tell that it's because it fits only a niche market or because there are better bands that could be played. Frankly, if your music doesn't get on the radio it's because it sucks.

1 comment:

Victor said...

I'm a wannabe musician and I agree 100% with your article. I believe that while music is subjective, there is overall GOOD and overall BAD. Suckness is a universal constant. I hope to send you something of mine in the not so distant future so that I can got an honest and non-generic review.

-victor