Lou Pickney's Online Commentary
The Post-Payola Era
July 29, 2010
I've been in a major "discover new music" mode in the past several weeks. My college radio days at WUEV helped me to develop a love for great music that had yet to be discovered by the masses. While doing the indie rock show on the station, "College ID Required" (which I always thought was a silly name), I found all kinds of wonderful songs from mostly obscure artists.
Some of them made it big: "Lovefool" by The Cardigans or "Sex & Candy" by Marcy Playground might seem like obvious choices for songs that hit the charts circa 1997, but when I played them they were unknown. "Sex & Candy" didn't break big until the fall of that year, but I was playing that track when Marcy Playground didn't even have record label support. That song is the rare example of a track that made it to mainstream radio without any payola or cozying up to music directors or various other often seedy ways that songs made it to commercial radio in those days.
Note: if you think payola wasn't going on in that era, or even going on until a few years ago, you're na´ve. I know of at least one radio station in California that allegedly flipped away from modern rock because the payouts weren't coming anymore, or at least like they used to, from record label reps and "indies" as they are called (middlemen who make the payouts). But once Eliot Spitzer (yes that guy) started cracking down on stations in New York state taking payola, the entire radio industry got away from the indies.
As with most things, it was a mixed bag: crap music that had no place on the radio didn't make it on the air as much, but new artists had an even tougher time breaking through into the mainstream. There was a backlash to where on-the-level radio programmers of new music stations (be they rock or pop or country) wanted to avoid even the perception of payola. That was good news for established artists, but for the unknowns it was even tougher to break out.
Luckily there is the internet, which allows for all sorts of creativity and distribution by up-and-coming bands. No longer beholden to the mega corps that mostly control the terrestrial radio business, bands have found that they don't necessarily need terrestrial radio, or even in some cases record labels, to distribute their music. Making money off of it is another matter, but for those who truly are more about the art and the craft than the paychecks, the world wide web is a wonderland.
I've been listening a great deal to an online radio station called New Normal Music, a non-stop barrage of legit new music primarily from artists that haven't hit the big-time yet. It's mostly good music, and the site allows listeners to rate songs in real time -- which provides an interactive experience while also giving the programmers for the site immediate feedback from listeners. The higher-ranked songs stay; the lesser ones are dropped. Pretty smart setup, I'd say.
Between that and the music available on blip.fm, I have been able to craft a list of songs that I think are very good that you might enjoy hearing. You can plug almost all of these into blip.fm and listen for yourself if you'd like. Here is that list of mostly pop-rock tracks, in the order that I wrote them down on two oversized blue Post-It notes:
Stars "I Died So I Could Haunt You"
Japandroids "Younger Us"
Barcelona "It's About Time"
My Morning Jacket "By My Car"
Cinnamon Chasers "The World Is Yours"
Stars "Soft Revolution"
Jens Lekman "A Sweet Summer's Night On Hammer Hill"
Basia Bulat "The Shore"
Neon Indian "Sleep Paralysist"
The Black Keys "Tighten Up"
of Montreal "Coquet Coquette"
The Veils "Lavinia"
Julian Casablancas "11th Dimension"
Two Door Cinema Club "Something Good Can Work"
The Flaming Lips "Silver Trembling Hands"
Katie Melua "What I Miss About You"
If you find yourself longing for some good new music to hear, give some of those tracks a try. If they don't do it for you, then there's not much else I can do to help you out. Stars might be my favorite band of the bunch, an act that seems on the brink of breaking through with one great song after another. I could have listed another half-dozen awesome songs by them, but I went with strictly what I wrote down for the list.
Finally, as long as I'm writing about radio, I'm trying to figure out why someone who I don't know sent me a link today to this article about a lawsuit by Skywatch Traffic LLC against Cumulus Media. I don't have any rooting interest in this case, and I don't know anyone who is presently employed at Cumulus/Nashville. I'm not as interested in the case as I am on why it was sent to me. Usually I can figure these things out (I like to think that I'm a pretty damn good detective), but this has left me slightly baffled. Hmm...