Why does music on the radio always sound the same, viz. terrible?
How often have you turned on your radio recently, only to find the same boring old stuff being pumped out – artists past their sell-by date, worn-out oldies, the same “commercial” garbage? Isn’t there an alternative? You might think there ought to be, given the explosion in new media in the last few years. Why is it then so hard to find original new material on the air? Or even to hear something great that you’d forgotten about from years ago, which suddenly pops up to surprise you?
Music programmers are stuck in a rut they’re seemingly unaware of. Record companies push the latest release by the big established names, who are at No.1 in the chart a few days later. It’s all so utterly predictable, safe, formulaic. Where’s the excitement? Not just in the latest sleazy video, surely? Music of quality should be able to stand by itself, without the hype machine hammering good taste into the ground. Big business has taken over to the extent that it’s hard not to turn a deaf ear.
Once upon a time, there was a fusty old service called the BBC Light Programme. It didn’t play pop music (Heaven forbid!) but it offered you easy listening, a little light jazz and opera, some big band swing and the occasional concert. In the music revolution of the early 1960s, this cosy little service got left behind. Anyone who wanted to hear the new, exciting sounds of the day had to tune their radio to foreign services like Radio Luxembourg, or pirate stations Caroline and London.
In ’67, pop went Establishment with the setting-up of a new national service, BBC Radio 1. Meanwhile the old Light Programme changed its name to Radio 2. Fast-forward nearly some 40 years, and we find a new pecking order: this “second-class” service for seniors has outstripped its younger, trendier rival and now boasts more listeners than any other station in the UK. It’s done so by increasingly encroaching on Radio 1’s territory, so it now plays a bit of everything – including the Top 40 and even, on occasion, a bit of hard rock – but covers very little of its original remit – the easy, swinging kind of “light” music intended for the mature listener.
Its defenders would say the reason for this is that the country’s demographics have changed (i.e. a lot of its listeners are now dead) so it can move on to something sexier – although the recent popularity of Rod Stewart’s Great American Songbook and the like seems to show there IS still a market for pre-Elvis material. Ever since the mid-1960s, indeed, the BBC has seemed terrified of being left behind by its commercial rivals, or of seeming “behind the times”. Commercial stations now scrabble around trying to maximise their audience by playing the most popular, familiar music they can find – which the BBC is already largely playing anyway. Plans to privatise Radios 1 and 2 have been mooted from time to time, the argument being that the commercial sector is penalised through having to pay its way, and that the BBC gains an unfair advantage funding its stations from the licence fee: as commercial operations, would their “pop” services sound noticeably different? But I digress.
Music is still the main reason people switch on their radio. Of course they may want news, weather, traffic info, jokes and quizzes and gossip as well – but music is the basis of most popular radio programming. Isn’t it amazing then how little thought is put into which songs are put on the air? The attitude of many presenters and producers to the music they provide is incredibly casual. In many cases it seems to amount to flinging on the first record available, as a handy way of filling the gap between the important bits of programming, i.e. the speech. As a trainee I was bemused by an eminent radio professional who has achieved great success in the world of commercial radio informing us, his students, that the key to popular radio was emphatically not, as he put it, choosing to play track 4 rather than track 5 from an album. But for sure, it might make a world of difference! The stations which are at pains to cream off what they perceive to be the very best music they can find (admittedly rare) and which actually put some care into its sequencing (even rarer) ought to attract the biggest audience. But do they? Is it rather that programmers on the whole prefer to come up with a generic type (urban contemporary, or some such term of reference) and then indiscriminately go along with anything that can be said to fit into that pigeonhole?
This labelling of different kinds of music comes from America, which ought to have the best music radio in the world, but obviously doesn’t. It’s a system designed to suit programme makers, record company producers and pluggers, lazy music writers and their publications – everyone except the listening audience, who may presume to know what they like but care little about having their tastes so coldly melted down and force-fed to them. The excitement of turning on the radio comes from hearing something new and unexpected (new to you, that is) and getting a kick out of it. This suggests that the key to a successful playlist ought to be the art of combining the familiar with the unusual in a dynamic and creative way. So then you (the listener) gain access to something new and different, something you haven’t heard before, but with your old reliable friends along to reassure you.
Sadly, it seems most music programmers have neither the time nor the imagination to tackle this question – which is why on oldies stations we get the same bloody records played over and over again and why the charts are full of flashy, derivative rubbish cooked up by industry professionals, lining their pockets by selling the latest 3-minute wonder teen sensation (or Madonna). For a new, different, original group struggling to break through, how does their stuff get heard? John Peel has gone the way of all flesh and there’s no obvious successor, even if anyone at Radio 1 was interested. But the new artists that DO make it rarely last the course anyway, for some reason. Pressure to duplicate what’s gone before, and to sound like everything else, surely plays a large part. Turn on MTV or VH1 (or rather, don’t) and you’ll see music television is in an even worse state. Talent shows like The X-Factor are heavily dependent on familiar oldies to “sell” their instant stars to the public.
But change is afoot, no question about it, when we look at the broadcast map of the UK and the bigger picture beyond. Digital broadcasts and the soon-to-be ubiquitous penetration of home computers, internet, I-pods and mobile phones that play music are set to radically alter the way we hear and acquire music in our daily lives. Leaving aside the economic question of how we pay for it (if at all) I am more interested in pursuing the question of how to uncover the material that is out there, how we access it and what use we make of it – our apprehension and appreciation of music.
It’s often been said that as soon as a truly original new artist achieves some mainstream success with its material, the quality that made it worth hearing in the first place will have gone, to be replaced by the pressing need to pander to the requirements of managers, media and public to play the industry game. Even in the so-called golden age of pop music – from the mid-60’s to the early ’80s – it’s also been well documented that a lot of successful artists like The Animals, Manfred Mann, The Move, Procol Harum, Cream and even Jimi Hendrix, Elvis Costello and Captain Beefheart, developed a deep dislike of some of the music they were expected to churn out (mostly the commercial “hits”) and opted to do their own thing by branching out into new areas. The genius of artists like Costello, The Beatles and David Bowie was that they never put out the same record twice, their music being in that sense truly “progressive”.
Yet it remains a safe bet that what you will hear when you tune in, is the same overused material you’ve heard a thousand times before – or maybe something “new” by an established artist you never want to hear again – and just occasionally, a song by an unknown artist that’s like a breath of fresh air. That’s exactly what Capital Radio was when it started up in 1973. Not only did it break the tired old BBC mould served up by play-safe Radio 1, it had a certain style and a distinctively recognisable sound. In its early years, Capital “broke” countless new artists and records, often weeks ahead of the Beeb, and it presented intelligent music streams that seemed to flow effortlessly and blend in with the other bits of programming around it – the jingles, presentation, the whole caboodle. Confined to a share of the London audience however, it could not do much by itself to breathe life into the stale music scene of the mid-’70s, and the brief emergence of punk as a vital force was a blast of cold air. Ironically, Capital was forced to change – since when, it’s never had the same cachet as before.
In the ’80s, considerable excitement was generated by the imminent arrival of independent national radio. Yet so far, Virgin and its ilk have failed to push all the right buttons, mainly because of a perceived narrowness in the kind of music being promoted, viz. so-called classic rock. Other commercial operations have suffered too, as they have generally sought out a niche market (jazz, reggae, easy listening, etc.) instead of trying to compete with Radio 2 by being all things to all people. Perhaps a chance has been missed, even though the BBC’s built-in advantage has already been noted (as a national, commercial-free network playing middle-of-the-road pop with mainly “celebrity” presenters, how could it not be No.1?). But what about the local scene?
Here, things are rather different, and it’s noticeable that the picture varies considerably across the country. BBC local radio tends to be more speech-oriented than its commercial counterpart, so it certainly takes the soft option when it comes to its music programming, which is regarded as less important. However, it does deserve some credit for its efforts to include some specialist music, albeit in the traditionally “dead” hours of early evening listening. As for commercial radio, its audiences are best in the north and west, where it maintains a stronger local identity. The music though is much of a muchness, with the usual suspects – familiar oldies and established chart material cropping up everywhere. In London meanwhile, there is more of a tendency towards the niche markets mentioned above, which is fine if you happen to like a certain kind of music (the American model) but which rapidly becomes totally predictable and unexciting: music as wallpaper.
The future pattern of radio listenership seems to suggest that help may be just around the corner. Already, there’s been a new development which seems certain to revolutionise the music in our heads: the coming of digital radio services, which in time will mean a plethora of new stations offering practically everything. Podcasting too should bring a greater variety of sounds on offer, if nothing else. Perhaps all that great, neglected music stored away on shelves and in vaults, never given airtime on any conventional radio service, will see the light of day. At last – a chance to open up that vast library of wonderful music from the past 50 years or so, much of it originally issued on dusty old LPs, recorded by real musicians, not machines, forgotten gems and lost treasure! A chance too for more innovation, with new artists breaking through the market’s established preconceptions.
Cynics might say: “Ha! You’re just another old DJ who wants to play his own record collection on the radio!” and there may be some truth in that. But why not? Peel we have acknowledged – also Bob Harris, Kenny Everett, Alan Freeman, Tommy Vance, Roger Scott and many more – they were great innovators and became radio legends because they were inclined to follow their own judgement and refused to be hidebound by the deadening, run of the mill playlists spewed out by a committee or computer. We shall probably never hear their like again – but at least we can try to stay true to their spirit. So much of what you hear on mainstream radio today is just so soulless, humourless, even talentless; drum machines, remixes, electronics – it’s utterly devoid of warmth and humanity.
In conclusion, we might agree with Marshall McLuhan that the medium is indeed the message. But in the end, the technology we use to listen to our music scarcely matters, be it wax cylinder, 8-track or DAT. The important thing is to ensure that the technology is serving us, and not the other way round. And it’s nowhere better summed up than in those famous lines of Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock and Roll”. You remember – or in case you don’t, why not give it a spin? See if you agree with me and Bob. But if not, it doesn’t matter that much. As the Stones said, ‘It’s Only Rock and Roll’ after all.
I still like it.