John Lennon was probably a lot like the rest of us. He turned on the radio – to be entertained and informed, to pass the time, for companionship, and very likely, to discover new music.
Techsurvey 2021 is out of the field, loaded with insights about radio, technology, and of course, music. Every year, we ask our large sample of mostly radio fans – this year, more than 42,000 strong – why they still enjoy broadcast radio.
They have a long list to choose from. And one of the options that I always keep an eye on is “to discover new music.” When we look at those who are fans of a music station in the survey, we see a descending pattern. Nearly every year, a smaller percentage turns to radio for new music.
There are many theories – here are some of mine.
First, radio's demographics are moving older. And in general, younger people are more “into” discovering new music and new artists. That's just a fact.
Second, radio is moving further away from younger-based formats. So, less stations that cater to younger people mean fewer stations playing new music. Period.
Third, 2020 was a tough year on all of us – especially for musicians. If you're Taylor Swift or Dave Grohl, it's all good, of course. But for most musicians and bands, it's been a challenging time. And many put their plans on hold until the pandemic slows down.
And finally, nostalgia works especially well during rough times. As you'd expect, most gold-based formats performed quite well through much of 2020. On the other hand, Top 40 and Alternative, not so much.
In fact, a major discussion in Alt-world these past many months has revolved around the relative health of the format. While that's been a perennial topic among format thought leaders since Kurt Cobain took his life, the conversations have taken a more serious turn in recent months.
Some blame it on so-called “top down” corporate radio, always a convenient scapegoat. But others are pointing to “what's in the grooves” – the quality of new music.
So, while breezing through Twitter late last month, I wasn't surprised to see this critical quote blaring at me:
“I hate all new rock for the most part.”
This wouldn't surprise anyone if it was attributed to a music critic or a Baby Boomer curmudgeon.
But it's a direct quote from Corey Taylor, main guy in both Slipknot and Stone Sour.
This wasn't a backstage interview with the alcohol free-flowing. It's an introspective, full-ranging interview with the Cutter's Rockcast. And it's a revealing look at a successful musician who calls them the way he sees them.
In the interview below, that conversation begins around 26:25, courtesy of Blabbermouth.
Not a pretty picture from someone who has enjoyed much success in the music business.
And he's not alone. Earlier this week, Adam Levine, front man of Maroon 5, went off on bands – or the lack of them. Chatting with Zane Lowe on Apple Music, Levine let ‘er rip:
“I feel like there aren't any bands anymore, you know?…There's no bands anymore, and I feel like they're a dying breed….I mean, there still are plenty of bands. And maybe they're not in the limelight quite as much or in the pop limelight, but I wish there could be more of those around.”
But you get his drift. And it's in the same zone as Corey Taylor's laments about a dearth of new songs.
I wish there weren’t any Adam Levine bands anymore.
— Andrew Jacobs (@andrewjakeobs) March 5, 2021
Few new songs. Few new bands.
It's hard to imagine an interview with say, John Lennon, Prince, or Jack White where these guys came up empty when asked about new music or new bands they enjoy. While all three are/were especially discriminating writers and performers, none would have been stumped by the age-old question, “Heard any great new music lately?” or “Any new bands you've been listening to?”
But that's the world in which we live. And if you've been tasked with putting together great clusters of new/recurrent music for testing these past couple years, chances are you've struggled as much as Corey Taylor and Adam Levine.
So, what's the problem? Why does music seem to be in a trough, and with it, radio formats that depend on what's new?
I've talked about radio's systemic issues, exacerbated by a rating methodology that seems to conspire against stations that focus on the new and unfamiliar.
And music discovery is fragmented across hundreds of different platforms. Everyone's making their own playlists, and we're all listening to different things.
And let's not forget the confluence of an economic recession, a global pandemic, and a tepid music environment all of which set up this perfect storm of conditions that are good for the Eagles, Queen, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, and not so good for those kids practicing their craft in their garage or bands building fans by playing small clubs.
The headwinds for great new music finding its audience are stiff, despite the fact there are myriad more distribution outlets now. But back in the day when Jim Morrison, Morrissey, and Alanis Morissette all broke out, there was no Pandora, Spotify, SiriusXM, YouTube, or TikTok. Everyone heard new music from one of two sources:
Friends and family or the radio
So, technological and sociological forces conspire against the phenomenon of an artist coming on the scene, and truly enjoying the kind of mass appeal Sinatra, Elvis, the Beatles, or Michael Jackson enjoyed.
But despite the barriers to exposure, shouldn't there be be more mainstream smash artists and songs that connect with us?
It would seem so, and perhaps it's just one of those times.
Maybe as we pull out of this existential crisis we all find ourselves in, artists, musicians, and producers will be inspired by better times. As many have suggested, perhaps we'll enjoy this century's version of the Roaring 20's once the pandemic and other societal drags are safely in the rear view mirror.
If you're looking for green shoots, I may have a little nugget for you. Earlier this week, I heard the new single by Wolfgang Van Halen – son of the late, great Eddie. His new band is Mammoth WVH, and I thought to myself, this is one of the best rock songs I've heard in a long time. And better yet, it doesn't sound like dad's band, Van Halen.
And maybe, just maybe, it comes back to where it started – the radio – a medium that despite the speed bumps and assorted bruises, still has the ability to connect with more people than any other medium.
Maybe it's time to stop bragging about reach, and instead demonstrate its power.
At the very top of this blog post, you can see a wonderful photo of a former Beatle tuning in a radio way back when, likely looking for a great song. And then there's Lennon's mates, the Who, celebrating the re-release of The Who Sell Out box set with a tribute to radio:
The Who Sell Out SDE out 23 April via UMC / UMe / Polydor. Pre-order https://t.co/QZTR5TpKk0. 112 tracks (46 unreleased) 5 CDs &+ 2 7”singles + 80-page book + notes by Pete Townshend + posters + memorabilia.
— The Who (@TheWho) February 26, 2021
Later in the Apple Music interview, Adam Levine added these thoughts about the medium:
“The radio’s a really valuable, cool thing to have. I’ll never not romanticize the idea of having our songs played on the radio. And I think that’s a beautiful thing, so I wanted to keep chasing that.”
But until radio broadcasters put that much-hyped reach into practice, safely scheduling a current and a recurrent per hour isn't going to move any needles.
As unlikely as it may seem with all the digital audio around us – streams, podcasts, audiobooks – broadcast radio has a chance to play hero again. There's a niche to be carved here, but someone has to fill it.
I keep looking longingly at all those clusters where there's one perennial loser station – the one that always seems to be 16th ranked and going nowhere. The one where there's no point in even marketing it because no one in the chain of command believes there's a there there.
You get the feeling John Lennon, Corey Taylor, and Adam Levine see (or saw) the world in distinctly different ways.
But on this issue, I'm thinking they're very much on the same page.
New music needs a champion.
Special thanks to Paul “Lobster” Wells for posting the Lennon Instagram, and getting this rant going. – FJ
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