As readers of this blog know, I stepped out in early February to talk about the Arctic Monkeys, a new Brit band that sounded exciting to me. They were breaking sales records across the pond, I listened to the single and a couple of other tracks on their site and was impressed. I liked the music, it sounded fresh, and while we're always looking for "the next big thing," this band sounded like it had potential. Not Nirvana, but at least something that rocks and it's different.
What has occurred over the past several weeks has taught me a lot about our format, the record industry, our business, and perhaps why we're in the shape we're in.
First, I should come clean here and remind you that Jacobs Media (to great degree because of my urgings) has taken a very conservative stance about new Rock over the past six months or more. We have continued to see bad signs in perceptual research, as well as our web polls, regarding the state of new Rock. Our newest Tech Poll (completed in late February) reinforces this safe approach. Even fans of Alternative are far from sold on the quality of new music coming out these days, and Active Rockers tend to be bearish.
So perhaps it sounds contradictory for me to even be championing something new at this juncture. However, in all of the discussions with our Active Rock clients over the past year on the subject of new music, there's always been an important proviso: if something, fresh, new and potentially big came along, stations needed to retain the flexibility to react to it and include it in their package. That's the beauty of the Active/Mainstream Rock position - whether you call yourselves "Everything That Rocks" or you preface music with "If it rocks..." that positioning leaves you open to anything that's new and good.
So what's the problem with the Arctic Monkeys? Well aside from whether programmers like the song or not (a big determinant, of course), there are all sorts of interesting barriers that speak volumes about why Rock Radio (and the record industry) has gone astray.
First, it turns out that the Arctic Monkeys have only been marketed to Alternative stations. Right there, most Active PDs aren't going to take notice. And in fact, some are actually put off by the fact that Alternative is the destination format for this band. Therefore, for just about every Active station, the Arctic Monkeys aren't even on the radar screen. Hey, we're guilty of it, too. When I've asked my guys here at Jacobs Media about the band, I frequently hear that it's not a Rock record.
Isn't this part of what's wrong with the entire industry? Music fans and even casual radio listeners don't think about songs and bands as being Rock, Alternative, or Pop. They just know what they like. And as we've seen over the past few years, they're going beyond radio to find great new music.
That means that programmers (and yes, consultants) need to go outside the lines in order to discover new bands. If we're waiting for some guy in a satin jacket to drop off CDs at the front desk, we're kidding ourselves. First, the record industry's track record is nothing short of abysmal. They have failed to develop artists and brands, they have dropped the ball when it comes to telling great artist stories, and by and large, they have come up short in the areas of helping radio showcase bands, via interviews, backstage access, soundchecks, and the like.
If you think I'm painting the record industry unfairly with too broad and critical a brush, then speak to programmers out there who have been frustrated by the lack of access to musicians, along with the mixed signals they so often receive. If the money spent on indies over the years to garner meaningless spins would have been redirected to true artist development, how many more great bands might have been born? Instead of hyping airplay to the industry, how much smarter would it have been to organize fan fests where listeners could have had great access to bands - not unlike the way that books are marketed.
While it's not a common occurrence, stations have gone out on the limb and added a second track or a different track from a CD - only to be told by the label to drop those songs because they aren't part of the band's overall marketing strategy. Say what?
Instead, their goal is for multiple stations in the market to play the single to the point where repetition breeds contempt. No wonder so many listeners believe that radio airplay is bought and sold. It probably sounds that way to them.
The ways that music is exposed and discovered are changing. Fans are being turned onto music in different ways and from different sources. In our new Tech Poll, less than half of Alternative respondents say their primary new music outlet is the radio. Friends, Internet sites, and even music magazines are filling the gap. There's MySpace and Fuse. Starbucks now sells music - and a lot of it. And consumers aren't buying CDs, they're buying songs.
So, screw the labels, screw the trades, and screw the system. Listen to the Arctic Monkeys - and anything else you hear on iTunes, "The O.C.," or from that guy who lives in the loft upstairs - and decide for yourself whether it's right for your radio station.