Art vs. Commerce

My friend (and old boss) Seth Resler posted a meditation on art and commerce yesterday, and it inspired me to sit down and write for the first time since...gosh, February? Really? Anyway, here's a quote:
The trick, of course, is to play tons of Nickelback, but make people think you’re playing Radiohead a lot more than you really are. So you “image” yourself with Radiohead by finding excuses to say their name without playing their music. Contests and specialty features are a great way to do this. I was the king of this kind of smoke and mirrors. During my time at BRU, the playlist was all Green Day, Linkin Park and the Chili Peppers, but the contests were all about Deathcab for Cutie, Modest Mouse and the Dropkick Murphys. Few people fake indie cred as well as I do.

And this never bothered me, because I knew that the only reason people would ever be able to hear the cool indie bands was because I played mass-appeal bands like Nickelback. Nickelback records pay the bills. And while the true music lovers may hate the band, they fail to realize that without Nickelback, their favorite bands would never get any airplay at all.

So, I got all fired up and started to leave a comment. And it just kinda went for a while. So, I figured, since I haven't posted on my own bloviation centerg for a million years, why not take this opportunity to inch Marvin Gaye down the page a bit? So then I was all like:

Hey Seth,

In spite of myself, I agree with a lot of what you're saying here. Especially the bit about the Nickelbacks of the world indirectly making life easier for the indie band du jour. I don't think Radiohead a very good example because I'd argue they're propelled by a loyal mainstream fanbase that they accumulated long before Kid A, and that if Sr. Kroeger ever wrote a song as crunchy, gritty, or mainstream-sensible as "Creep," a lot of his detractors would just shut the fuck up and find something else to gripe about. But still, a rising tide lifts all boats and all that. I'm with you.

But I have to be picayune for a moment and take issue with what I know isn't your main point: I wouldn't be so quick to pat myself on the back for faking indie cred on the radio. That's only good enough when there's absolutely no alternative, and it breeds resentment more than loyalty. Anyone who cares about indie cred can see right through the smoke and mirrors, and will gladly "make the switch" (remember that shit?) if something more authentic comes along.

These days, I don't know a single person who really cares about indie cred that turns the radio on and listens to anything other than news, sports, or public radio. "Faking" it has chased all but the Luddites (and there aren't many indie-craving Luddites around) away from terrestrial music radio broadcast, to either their iPods, or the plethora of narrowcast options available to them via the Internet that cater more directly to their tastes.

Now, As you said, that's a pretty small fraction of the population, and I do know plenty of people who still listen to the radio. They like Nickelback. They like American Idol, too. But they don't like fake indie cred either, albeit for different reasons. To them, it's just an inconvenience. They reach for the dial when a band they don't know comes on and it doesn't sound like a hit in the first 5 seconds.

I guess what I'm surprised to find myself arguing is that faking indie cred has already cost radio one small subset of listeners, and is chafing at another, larger one. Maybe, from the radio station's perspective, it's time to cut the act, stop trying to be everything to everyone, and just play exactly what brings the ratings.

Did I really just write that?

1 comment:

  1. Hey Mike,

    You make an assumption that I don't think is valid - namely, that an audience can tell when an artistic outlet of any kind is "faking" indie cred and when they mean it. You speak as if the audience can (or is even bothering to try) to divine what the motivations of a programmer are. When a theater mixes Ionesco plays in with Andrew Lloyd Weber productions, is the audience alienated by this "fake" indie cred?

    It's easy for those in charge of artistic outlets to overthink the importance of their own position (Lords knows that I have) and assume that people care about their motivation. The truth is that the people who care about indie cred tend to be, as you say, a very small subset and don't have a huge economic impact on these institutions. The vast majority, who make up the economic base of any artistic outlet (not just radio) simply have other things on their mind. So radio's smartest move is to play the hits but image yourself properly. The textbook example of this is KROQ in Los Angeles, which remains the most viable alternative station in the country.

    Faking indie cred hasn't chased people away from radio. If anything, radio's failure to fake it well has hastened its demise. But radio's failure has far more to do with technology than it has to do with content. Bottom line, its a mass medium in a world where people can use the internet to get individualized programming. This is due to outdated technology, and no amount of good programming could have prevented it.