Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Apparently "No Longer On The Air" Also Means "Everything Alternative."

Ok, so I've not exactly been the biggest supporter of Atlanta's "only alternative" station, 99X, in the recent past, but I didn't want to see the station totally disappear from the airwaves.

By the end of next week, if I turn to 99.7 on my car radio, I'll get the station formerly known as Q100, and the same crappy playlist.

Now, 99X's playlist of late has been pretty poor, and had been terrible for a while (though I am apparently in the minority at finding Fred Toucher's wannabe Howard Stern shtick tiresome, they did have Butch Walker in for great and hilarious in-studio appearances--particularly the morning Butch cleaned house on Rock-And-Roll Jeopardy--which is far better than much of what they've trotted out lately) but to kick the whole station off the air to compete with the the All T-Pain, All the Time stylings of 95.5 The Beat?

Well, let's break this down, pseudo-Julius Caesar-style: First I will bury 99X--or at least point out the many ways they went wrong--then transition into some things they didn't have control playing a factor. And then grab your hankies because there'll be some nostalgic praise for the "good ol' days."

First, let's go back to that morning show. Now maybe I'm alone in this, but when I turn to an FM station billed as playing music, what I most want to hear is: music. Politics? Well there's WSB and NPR for that. Sports? 680 The Fan and 790 the Zone have that covered. What I don't really give much of a crap about in the morning:
Whether or not Crash Clark contracted any number of sexual diseases from desperate women at American Pie.
Hearing some potentially abused-in-her-childhood wanna-be softcore porn starlet kiss up to Fred Toucher while desperate guys called into a half-ass version of the Dating Game.
Hearing clips and commentary from the crappy shows watched by the guy who sounded like Jimmy but was actually Jenner's wife.
Reading the headlines off TMZ.com and passing them off as "Celebrity Sleaze" in between what this past fall was near constant plugging for the website's pseudo-ET show on Fox.

I remember the original Morning X (the Barnes, Leslie, and Jimmy version) being better, but that could just be because it was years and years ago...and the Big Day Outs then were massively better. When you can see a show with Beck and 311 for under $20, you tend to care less when Barnes spends half an hour talking about his tennis game.

But overall...I'd like to just hear music in the morning. 95.5 does sort of grasp this concept, as the few times I've been bored enough by other stations on the dial they seem to almost always have music on. Downside: they seem to have a 10-songs maximum playlist and since summer at least 30% must have T-Pain involved in some way (it used to be Akon.)

But it's not as simple as "play more music, less talk." The playlist for 99X is probably the largest factor in their demise. It can't look good to either advertisers or listeners with any functioning memory when the promo announces "99X: NEW MUSIC" and then starts playing "Come as you are" (a song now over 15 years old) or something by The Cure (which in some cases would be more than two decades old.)

Trying to have it both ways playlist-wise seems to lead to death for rock stations in Atlanta. How do you play to the nostalgia for the music you started out on, and play new artists or new songs?

The easy answer is to blame Cumulus Media for being to hard-headed, compared to the relative open-mindness of Susquehana (the previous station owners). But the playlist started turning at least semi-sour long before Cumulus came along in 2005-2006. Remember, they were the station that kept playing Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit (and worse, Creed) long after most of the music-listening world realized what massive tools Durst and Scott Stapp were.

(By the way, I'm not doing all of this from memory--much of the info here is coming from the 99X Wikipedia page, which I highly recommend, if only to take a nice guided jog down memory lane.)

Perhaps 99X's problem is merely synecdochic of larger problems--in the major label music industry, and in so-called "modern rock" radio in particular. Overall, the trends in album sales across the board point down. Music execs would be best served to quickly forget those heady days of the late 90s/early 2000s when a #1 release would move enough copies to be certified platinum after one week's time. Now if you can sell 30,000 copies of an artist's new CD in a week: welcome to the Billboard Top 10. Now the potential reasons for this (blame piracy--no blame the recession--no blame the fact that many of the CDs released and hyped just aren't that good) deserve there own post, so I won't get into them further. But people are buying less CDs, and in particular, there haven't been any real new "rock" artists to break through at all in the past few years.

Disagree? Well take a look at the current Modern Rock charts. A good 3/4ths of that list is artists who were around when I was in college (dating myself note: I'm class of 2003--so five years ago) and standbys like the Foo Fighters and the Red Hot Chili Peppers have been around for even longer. The list of "new rock" grows slimmer still when you realize that some of these bands are just leftovers of late-90s acts (Angels and Airwaves and +44 are remnants of Blink 182.) Maybe the likes of Pitchfork's favorites and "blog bands" are too esoteric (or in the case of some blog bands, just plain shitty) to play on the air. But why did Modest Mouse suddenly get radio airplay 4 years ago and I've never heard 99X play The Arcade Fire? What chance does an "alternative" station have when the OC soundtracks were far more eclectic and interesting? And most of these songs can't be dismissed on bad production values or length either. Songs I'd classify as "alternative" that I thing should be on a radio somewhere right now, off the top of my head:
Athlete - "Airport Disco" (Coldplay if they remembered how to occasionally rock out, and were a lot sexier, musically.)
Augie March - "One Crowded Hour" (it was the song of the year for Triple J in Australia and their musical tastes aren't that different from our own.)
Dredg - "Zebraskin"
Devin Townsend Band - "Vampira" (well, really better around halloween).
The Bastard Suns - "My Pint"
Groove Stain - "With You" (gotta give props to some neglected local rock bands...99X should've played more Trances Arc and Second Shift as well.)
Dragonforce - "through fire and flames" (thousands of Guitar Hero 3 fans would like it anway.)
Butch Walker - and song of "The Rise and Fall Of..." off 1969's website, or the demos off his myspace. 99X and The Marvelous 3 used to be like this, and unlike the station, Butch is still kicking it as hard as he ever did.
Pure Reason Revolution - "Nimos and Tambos" killer male-female harmonies

Anything by Ryan Adams or Rilo Kiley (sorry, was cheating a bit and scanning my iTunes list...but the I can't recall either being played on 99X, and for that matter I don't remember hearing Damien Rice since Cumulus bought the station and ended the iPod weekends.)

In short: it looks to me (and the folks at Idolator) that modern rock is dying as it breaks no new artists, ticks off listeners looking for something new by going down the nostalgia road, and generally limiting its potentially vast playlist for the same ready-made mix of Foo Fighters and VH1-Classic approved tracks off Nirvana's Nevermind. Maybe the "internet only" 99x will learn something from this.

(And now I look up and see things are getting a bit unwieldy here, so come back later for the happy and nostalgic part 2.)

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