I watched a documentary on the Independent Film Channel the other day titled "Before the Music Dies." It was about the various factors in the music business that were stifling the development of great music and promoting mediocrity, including: The consolidation of commercial radio stations in the hands of fewer companies like Clear Channel Communications, with an increased emphasis on rigid play lists and the bottom line; fewer recording companies, now publicly owned and answerable to shareholders; and the production of formulaic music as a product, with a strong emphasis on "pretty" people who don't need to have musical talent to have a music career. The film makers showed how it was possible to pick out a pretty woman with no singing talent and then run her vocals through a computer program that "fixes" the off-key tune.
The part about the radio stations and their rigid play lists didn't surprise me at all. As they put it, radio's job is to sell products, and the music is there to keep your ears listening through the commercials. The music doesn't have to be good, it only needs to be inoffensive enough to keep you from switching the channel. The dissatisfaction with mediocre repetitive music is one factor in the rise of satellite radio networks like Sirius and XM, with dozens of different choices for consumers.
Locally, there's a fairly new station called Bob-FM. It's a quirky name for a radio station, but over the past couple of years, it has risen to the #2 ranked station in the area, behind only WAVV-FM, the easy listening station for the old folks. It's moved ahead of WINK-AM, the local talk radio station which sits at #3. "Bob" has a very wide play list: The station plays rock and pop music from the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and even more recent stuff from the past few years. Their tag line is "We play anything." It even plays music that I don't immediately recognize, which can be a good thing.
Contrast this with your typical "classic rock" station: You know that if you listen to it, you will hear a Led Zeppelin song within one hour, or it's free! A couple of nights ago, I was driving to work, and Bob went to commercials. I hit the button for a classic rock station from the Tampa Bay area. First song: "Black Dog" by Led Zeppelin. I rest my case.
Now, I don't have anything against Led Zeppelin, but you know, sometimes I want to hear something different, something I haven't heard before. Something NEW. And on the classic rock stations, you won't ever hear anything you've never heard before, because the format prohibits it. When listening to them, it's like all of the crazy lefties were right back in the '80s and Reagan got us into a nuclear war and brought about the end of the world, because apparently no music was made after that.
Not too many years ago, the classic rock stations ruled the ratings roost, but in the latest ratings article in the paper a couple of weeks ago, I think there was one classic rock station mired somewhere in the bottom half of the top 10 stations in the area. The rise of Bob and the decline of the classic rock stations tells us something about the changing tastes of the radio audience. We really don't want to hear "Carry On Wayward Son" again today. Throw us something different, please. Or we'll change the station or get satellite radio and listen to the really cool stuff.