July 2005: Radio and records in ruins

I recently attended a Learning Annex symposium in Manhattan which featured Steven Van Zandt as the guest speaker as part of an ongoing series moderated by Dennis Elsas of Q104.3 FM. I attended because I've been very interested in what "Little Steven" has been doing in the past few years and his self-described crusade to save rock n'roll. Of course we first heard of Little Steven through his involvement with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, for whom he has been a writer, producer and guitar player since the 70s, and then may have heard of his own group Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, or seen his anti-apartheid video on MTV entitled "Aint Gonna Play Sun City". Others in attendance this night were merely there to see Silvio of The Sopranos live in person, though he spoke only minimally about the hit HBO series, indicating that they were now shooting for episodes to be aired in 2006. He also described the fateful coincidence that led to his being picked for the role of Silvio - director/producer David Chase just happened to be flipping the cable dial when Van Zandt just happened to be presenting the award to The Rascals at the only Rock n'Roll Hall of Fame event ever to be televised (he had also personally led a crusade for the Rascals to be inducted after years of being passed over).

Though I'd never been a big Springsteen fan (maybe just a song or two, like "Pink Cadillac") I was very intrigued when a friend told me a few years ago that Little Steven was hosting a weekly radio show called "The Underground Garage". I was very excited by the title, because I'm a huge fan of garage rock, the type of music I've been trying to define in this column for about a year now, basically the very raw, stripped down sound of songs from the 60s like "Louie Louie", "Wild Thing" and "Dirty Water", as well as the more modern punk-tinged revival most famously exemplified by the White Stripes - though scads of lesser known bands have been twanging away in garage rock for decades. That's where the "underground" part comes in. Garage rock has a long history of spreading and developing through small regional scenes with small, barely-known or completely unknown bands. Part of the charm of garage is the simplicity mixed with the pure emotional drive, sometimes clumsily executed but almost always endearing to other garage fans. That's why fans of garage rock often feel that the rarest and least-heard-of bands are sometimes the coolest to discover. To me, the term underground has always meant unsigned, unknown and almost a secret from the rest of the world.

So I eagerly tuned in to Little Steven's Underground Garage, a two hour show heard on Sundays nights at 10 PM in the New York area, directly following The Sopranos, on "classic rock" station Q104.3, which also was the very first of the 200+ stations carrying it to take a chance on the show when it debuted. What I found was that the radio show was not truly "underground" -- almost everything played is on a major or minor label of some kind. And the format is not fully "Garage", as Steven plays songs from a host of genres including classic rock, punk, psych, rockabilly, R&B and more, although pretty much everything he plays means something to the garage fan. As music has so many inter-genre relations and crosswoven influences, it's always a matter of unraveling the songs and dates and back-stories to make meaning of the history of this body of music. With each "episode" guided by a different theme, Steven plays a mix of old and new music, sometimes with soundbytes or even Sopranos clips, to lay out for the listener a bit of history and a bit of recommendation for contemporary garage and new releases. He at times spins yarns of a different time, when rock's icons were young, or at other times waxes poetic and sometimes just raps to the audience about the songs he's played, who's making them, where to find them. To me, this and internationally syndicated two-hour program is without a doubt the best thing on commercial radio. It's popularity has led Van Zandt into a deal with Sirius Satellite where he runs an entire 24-hour a day channel devoted to the same type of music and where several other notable hosts do their own weekly programs, including Bill Kelly, the veteran garage rock puppetmaster who has hosted the definitive garage radio show on WFMU for some 28 years. Others include "Handsome" Dick Manitoba of The Dictators and Andrew Loog Oldham who produced the early Rolling Stones albums among other impressive accomplishments.

Back to the symposium: as Little Steven talked about his career and answered questions from the audience, one of the most striking things to come up was that new rock acts are so much on the decline in terms of commercial viability, that there isn't a single new rock act signed to a major label now. Since the decline of the Nirvana-led "grunge" scene, the number of rock acts being signed by major labels has slowed to just about zero. Dave Matthews, Green Day, and The Black Crowes' acts are all over 10 years old now! Rap and boy/girl pop now dominates the charts. The White Stripes are probably the biggest new band in rock now, but are hard to even categorize with their stripped-down blend of garage and delta blues sounds. Little Steven also railed against the big labels who no longer take the time and investment to nurture artists, rather they squeeze what they can out of them and dump them. It was pointed out that most of the greatest rock bands we know and love didn't hit their sales peaks until their third or fourth albums - Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin being perfect examples. Many artists won't get a chance to make a second album before they are dropped. Radio is a major problem today as stations are literally robotized and programmed for the lowest common denominator. It costs upwards of a quarter-million dollars for a new artist to get a record played on the radio, in a shameful form of legal payola disguised as marketing agency fees. Dennis Elsas, himself a high-ranking program director at NY's biggest classic rock station was a bit measured in how much he could criticize his employer Clearchannel, but he related interesting comments from a top record company exec, saying that year after year, the steadiest selling albums are the same Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Jimi Hendrix albums originally offered 30 years ago. The Beatles also keep reaching higher and higher sales plateaus, having had huge #1 albums the past few years. Why then, are there so few rock stations left?

When AM radio stations first went on the air, they soon became the primary entertainment media. NBC, CBS, and ABC all settled in to broadcasting schedules in the 20s and 30s that offered news, shows, and religious programming all designed to be uplifting and a positive influence on American society. Advertising was regulated and limited, not being allowed in prime evening hours other then mention of the sponsor's name. But the Great Depression gave advertisers the upper hand over desperate radio stations. Ever since, "Commercial Radio" has been just that, full of crass, abrasive ads selling products and services much of which are intended for the least intelligent segments of society. Music going out over the air was almost always performed live by studio orchestras. The idea of playing records over the air was protested vigorously by musicians and publishers who would not be paid per spin. It wasn't until television took over that radio became the second-tier form of media it is today and the unofficial "deal" was struck: record companies would provide music to radio stations in exchange for promotion. this led to the advent of the disk jockey, a live performer who would play records. DJs grew dedicated audiences and could make or break songs, bands, even genres. Today only the short-term buck drives demand and consequently we have less choice, less variety and less new material coming to our radios. This kind of iron-fisted control goes back to the early 1900s, when the music publishers of New York's "Tin Pan Alley" banded together to aggressively market their printed sheet music meant to be played at home by piano players who knew how to read and play. They would pay off Vaudeville theater managers to slip their newest songs into the night's performances. They would hire celebrity entertainers like Al Jolson to perform and popularize the songs. Then when the earliest records came into being, the publishers, led by famed bandleader John Phillip Sousa lobbied to get copyright laws changed so that each song's publisher got payment for every unit sold. In 1914 they formed ASCAP and began closely monitoring sales of records. Not everyone was allowed to join ASCAP though, as many Black composers and performers were shut out of the closed, private network. ASCAP controlled most of what the public heard (and bought) all the way up till 1939, over 20 years that folk, blues and jazz were completely suppressed. Though ASCAP opposed records being played over the radio, they actually made about two-thirds of their total income from radio royalties! Then with their broadcast royalty contract was set to expire, they demanded double their existing fees to renew. In reaction, NAB, the organization representing hundred of radio stations formed rival the publishing body, BMI (Broadcast Music Inc) and for about 10 months in 1940, no ASCAP music was played - no Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter. Not only did the public barely notice, but this led to the debut and popularization of other forms of grassroots music such as jazz, hillbilly, country, blues, and boogie woogie that would influence the earliest rock 'n roll musicians.

Today, the consolidation and corporatization of the radio industry has led us back into another dark period. The same goes for the entire music recording industry, where nobody with a loving ear towards music history or appreciation seems to be in charge. Rather, the ever-merging, overly-layered bureaucratic megaconglomerates control everything, blind to the ways of successful artist handling, where talent and songs are properly cultivated . Today, the major labels operate stupidly: they have a quota for new albums to be released each quarter. If nothing blows the roof off, the releases are washed away for the next quarter quickly approaching. Labels are also deaf to the cries of the fans who prove their love for rock by filling stadiums every year. Fans turn to downloading more and more, going back "underground". Despite the changes in technology, musical tastes and payola scandals, the unwritten "deal" is the same today. Because of the dearth in lasting musical acts today, radio and records have become a merry go-round of disposable music and obvious, formularized songs. Niches and specialty music is, as it was long ago, ignored save for the public, college and listener supported stations at the far ends of the dial. This is where to listen!

What we need today, are a few good DJs on commercial radio to bring together good music with big audiences. The way to get big audiences is trust built off of reputation, and of course great music. The way to foster great new music is to give time and resources to dedicated talent. The business is set up today to do none of these things, although I encourage you all to listen to Little Steven simulate what radio used to be like. If not, get satellite - the money you pay is probably worth the elimination of the thousands of ads being driven into your head. Or go online - find links to Little Steven's and several other fantastic on-demand radio shows and streams right now at http://vonghouls.com/gogo

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Jake is lead singer of The Von Ghouls, local garage punk combo appearing Saturday July 9 at Olives in Nyack and Sat Aug 27 at Asbury Lanes in Asbury Park, NJ. For more info go to VONGHOULS.COM