Yesterday I was listening to the new TV On The Radio album, Dear Science, with a couple friends. One of them used to be a big music fan, but basically stopped following music in the early 1990s, circa Beck and Pearl Jam. Every time I play him a song by a band I like (Flaming Lips, Modest Mouse), he comes up with a terse response like "fun." If I press him, he can always come up with a reason why the artists of yesteryear are better. He hasn't bought a CD in ages, has never downloaded a song, and doesn't go to concerts unless it's an act he's known and loved for years. He assumes there's no good new music. I know dozens of people like him.
Then the song "Shout Me Out" came on. As the track kept increasing in intensity, closing with a bonafide kick-ass guitar solo, he couldn't believe it--new music that didn't suck! As he put it "this is the freshest song I've heard in years." Then, the million-dollar question: "Why don't they play this on the radio?"
I had no good answer. Commercial radio seems geared toward two audiences: kids with disposable income who might be willing to buy an album if the single's pounded into their head, and aging rockers who haven't been interested in music since they were in their 20s. In other words, the stations that play new music either play insipid teen music (metal or pop or R&B, all with dumb lyrics), or have a narrow demographically tested playlist that allows new songs only if they sound like they come from the early 1990s (adult contemporary). Or they don't play new music at all (classic rock, Jack FM). Once in a while a truly universal new song breaks through--"Hey Ya" by Outkast, "Crazy" by Gnarls Barkley. But apart from college radio, nobody's playing cutting-edge rock and roll with potentially broad appeal.
The death of relevant radio bears as much responsibility for the decline of the music industry as file-sharing and free downloads.
A related thought: if a band never gets radio play, who decides what its "hits" are? Last week I saw My Morning Jacket, and last night I saw Sigur Ros. Both are big in the indie rock world--their shows were sold out with more than 1,000 fans--but almost no mainstream penetration. (Although Coldplay's Chris Martin recently admitted that Sigur Ros is better than his band.)
At both shows, when certain songs began, the audience gave a loud cheer--the kind that used to be reserved for when an artist launched into a radio hit. So how did these songs become fan hits? Does MMJ always close with "One Big Holiday" to the same huge applause? Do fans cheer every time Sigur Ros launches into "Staraflur"? Is it possible that some songs are just objectively better than others, or does the response vary widely from city to city, country to country?