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COMMENTARY    
posted 16 Mar 04                    



Alarmed


Earlier this year, a song called "45 RPM" was sent to a handful of influential British DJs. The song arrived on a white CD with the name "the Poppyfields" on it. There were no other identifying marks.

Wow, thought a few of these DJs. Pretty cool tune--at once jumpy and driving, with a catchy chorus, fervently sung, in the style of some of the popular new wave bands of the late '70s and early '80s.

"45 RPM" started showing up on British radio. No one seemed to know who the Poppyfields were but what the heck, a hot new band with a hot new single is all anyone's ever looking for.

Except that in this case the hot new band wasn't new at all. The Poppyfields were actually the Alarm--a band that does, indeed, date back to the new wave era.

Mike Peters, the band's leader, wrote "45 RPM" while the Alarm toured in the U.S. this past fall.

"We knew it ws good when we finished it," the 45-year-old band leader told the Philadelphia Inquirer in an interview published on March 8. "And we knew if we'd taken it to radio as an Alarm record, it wouldn't have a chance."

Thus the invention of the "Poppyfields"--named for a series of Internet-only CDs the band has been doing in recent years, called In the Poppy Fields.

"We felt we had nothing to lose," Peters said. "It seemed to be the only way we could get a fair hearing."

As the single moved into regular rotation on British radio, the Poppyfields abruptly needed some credible promotional material. In short order, the Alarm concocted a fake bio for a young punk band and even had a video shot featuring four teenaged musicians, play-acting convincingly.

The single rose into Britain's Top 30 before word finally spread about the Poppyfields' true identity.

The "45 RPM" ruse makes a great little story. There's even an interesting lesson to be learned, although it may not be what you expect.

Yes, the music industry shamelessly prefers image over substance, youth over age; yes, this inclination, while always in the air, has worsened over the years as market research has long since replaced gut instinct when it comes to what's played on the radio.

Even so, this situation--however frustrating and unfortunate--cannot be helped, because it is really an outgrowth of a larger problem that is all but intractable and in many ways isn't truly a problem at all.

This "problem" is that there is too much music.

Not too much music for music fans, no no no. There can never be too much music for us music fans. (Right?) But from the perspective of radio programmers, the amount of music available these days is nothing short of, um, alarming.

Think about it: when the Alarm started, in 1979, the entire history of rock'n'roll, from Bill Haley onward, was contained within the previous 25 years. The Beatles had arrived in America only 15 years earlier, ushering in a sound upon which the classic rock of the '60s and '70s would be based.

For rock'n'roll radio professionals in 1979, a working knowledge of most if not all worthy bands and albums in the rock genre--particularly the post-1964 rock genre--was not only still expected at that point (imagine that!), it was also quite possible to have.

Today, 1979 itself is 25 years ago. Rock'n'roll history is twice as long as it was back then, and the amount of music contained therein has multiplied many many (many) times beyond.

What is a commercial rock station, seeking an identifiable sound, supposed to do about this? Clearly, most seek a specialty. While this is often presented as a demographic necessity, I'm beginning to see formats as commercial radio's way of coping with there being too much music otherwise to filter and present in a cohesive manner.

While we tend to think of radio formats as genre-based--all-country stations, all-hip-hop stations, all-hard-rock stations, and so forth--radio may be more tellingly seen as segmented chronologically. When it comes to rock music in particular, commercial radio has effectively sliced off groups of years for us, presenting popular music in chronological clumps.

This trend began with the so-called "oldies" stations, which first appeared in earnest in the late '70s and early '80s. Pre-Beatles music--which sounded different in any case--was given its own sonic ghetto, and that seemed to work pretty well.

Until, that is, there was simply too much music to deal with--which happened, as far as I can see, between 1984 and 1994. Consider those the "tipping point" years.

This is when the "classic rock" radio format arose. Like the oldies format, the classic rock format sliced off a particular chunk of rock's history and stayed there, forever. In classic rock's case, the focus is on roughly 15 to 20 years' worth of music

Because classic rock cuts off somewhere in the early '80s, there have also emerged '80s rock stations that play music from the '80s only--
another chronological clump of music.

This will continue to be necessary and will continue to happen as long as rock'n'roll continues to exist in some form or another.

But radio's need to slice rock'n'roll history into manageable aural chunks has left few rock-based stations either willing or able to mix older and newer rock music together effectively.

So when an "old" band like the Alarm records an otherwise current-sounding song, we may suspect age prejudice at work, but it's really more like organ rejection. With rock history divvied up into historical format/segments, it becomes difficult if not impossible for radio stations to pay attention to bands that stay around too long.

Thus the Alarm/Poppyfields, and the wacky irony that it's easier for a young band to get airplay sounding like the Alarm than for the actual Alarm to get airplay.

Unfortunately for the Alarms of the world, radio isn't changing; it can't. Radio was simply not designed to deal with such a thing as a 25-year-old rock band with new records coming out. The Alarm is on its own.

As are we, the thoughtful music fans of the world. Not only was it easier to program a radio station back in 1974, with only about 10 years' worth of useful music to choose from, it was a lot easier to be a music fan back then too. Nowadays there is no keeping track of everything. We need each other here because no one can do it on his or her own.

Such a reality may frustrate the determined collector and other sorts of quantitative-oriented aficionados. But maybe it's not otherwise so terrible. Maybe, without radio to guide us effectively, music fans will grow to rely on an intuitive, synchronistic sort of browsing, whether online or in actual record stores (as long as they continue to exist!), to find what pleases them.

Speaking from my own experience, I find that this type of approach to the music scene can lead to unexpected places full of wonderful, even magical sounds.

The truth is that no one will ever know all of rock'n'roll again. For some, this may be alarming. I think it's kind of exciting.


-Jeremy Schlosberg      









OTHER COMMENTARIES
"Playlist Nation: The Unbearable Lightness of Sharing" - posted 22 Mar 10
"Farewell to the Casual Music Fan" - posted 9 Nov 09
"Music is Not Like Water" - posted 23 Apr 09
"Got To Do What You Should: A Free and Legal MP3 Manifesto" - posted 26 Jan 09
"The Sound of a Brand New World" - posted 10 Jan 08
"The Future (or not) of the Album" - posted 2 Aug 07
"The Secret...okay, a different one" - posted 24 Mar 07
"Foulplay" - posted 16 Jul 05
"14 Arguments for the Elimination of Pop Music Critics" - posted 10 Feb 05





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