How I Ruined Independent Music, and You Don’t Look So Good Yourselves

Twenty years ago I joined the staff of my college radio station. By the next year I was in the music department, and before I left the place I had been the music director and program director.

College radio in the early to mid 1980s was an aftershock of the FM radio revolution. Most stations were format-free, and the DJs played what they liked. Since punk rock had been through and smashed up genres pretty thoroughly, us 19-year-old music freaks spun a mess of different things: punk, new wave, electronic, reggae, metal, rap, folk, etc. Since most of us were middle-class white kids, there was a lot of guitar pop, but the term “alternative radio” was not a joke; it really was a format-free alternative to commercial radio and the new and frightening MTV.

College radio, because it reached so many music buyers, had influence beyond its size. Although the stations were weak and unreliable, and the DJs inept, the music was unique and the listeners were both heavy consumers of music and “tastemaker” types who turned their friends on to new music as well. The music industry began to pay more attention to college stations.

As a music director, I would every week call in to College Music Journal and give them our top played music lists. They acted as a kind of minor league Billboard and listed the top 100 in college radio. Usually this was a list of 100 very different songs, but the top 10 or so were almost always some kind of guitar pop: REM, Echo & The Bunnymen, etc.

By the time I left the station in 1987, it was clear that the CMJ Top 100 was the record industry’s farm team. Anyone who ended up in that top 10 was either on a major label or heading there. Some stations reacted to this by refusing to play anything from any major label, causing the playlist to look like the catalog of Gerard Cosloy’s Homestead Records half the time. Others went with the flow and started programming to the Top 100 themselves. This schism bred another format, called “indie”.

At about this time all the college radio music geeks got jobs at record companies, and decided because they were now “professionals” with “responsibility” they should sign acts that were as close as possible to the CMJ Top 5.

Within five years the whole thing was a smoking wreck. There was now a musical genre called “alternative” that consisted of four white guys playing guitars and drums. There was another genre called “indie” that consisted of four white guys playing guitars and drums more dissonantly. College stations themselves were a patchwork of warring genres; you’d hear a block of “punk” and then one of “goth” and then one of “alternative”. And in the end, our reward for all of this was Matchbox 20.

I would like to take this time to personally apologize for my part in ruining college radio and independent music. If you look at the words “alternative” and “indie” you probably realize that they meant something different at some point. I am terribly sorry that they are now pathetic.

My advice to the current crop of 19-year-old music freaks is: DON’T LET THEM MAKE A CHART. And whatever you do, don’t take a job at a record company.

6 thoughts on “How I Ruined Independent Music, and You Don’t Look So Good Yourselves

  1. You didn’t do it. You could have not called CMJ, if you had somehow had this incredible prescience about what the future would hold, but the same thing would have happened.
    When I worked in and managed indie/alternative/whatever record stores, I dealt with CMJ a lot, and I actively tried to skew the list by giving them false sales figures–underreporting bands I knew were doing well, like REM and U2 and whatnot, and helping the local scene by shamelessly overreporting extremely obscure local bands like the Gin Blossoms. The consequences of my well-intentioned deceptions speak for themselves. I think you’ll see my karmic punishment is far worse than yours, my friend. We are but pawns in the larger game.

  2. How did you know what would have happened? Who know the corporations would take over that time. Who knew that MTV would turn into ‘yo mtv raps’ 24/7?

  3. The first time I realized that “Alternative” was being used to describe a genre of music I experienced a similar confusion to when I see the term “Modern” used so much in art. A lame use of classification if you ask me. This is different than my objection with the creation of a unit of measure by a marketing team (tall/grande/vente)… though a close cousin.

  4. How I created Adult Album Alternative, and nobody listened
    OK, it wasn’t “at a 3,000-watt radio station in Fresno, California,” as Ted Baxter would say, but it was close: a 160-watt station in Indiana.
    It was late 1984, and I was a happy alumnus of three years, but still hanging out with the campus crowd. We managed to “get control” of the campus radio station (a separate story that’s full of its own mighty drama, left for another time), and we set out to bring some structure and direction to an anarchy that consisted mostly of Midwestern farm boys playing their favorite heavy metal and saying “Dude!” on the air entirely way too much.
    On my many trips to and from home in Florida, I passed through Atlanta and listened to Album 88, WRAS, the nation’s most powerful college radio station, and one of the most influential. (Somewhere, I have tapes of the station circa 1984-1985.) Twenty years ago this month, three of us made a “field trip” to Atlanta in the dead of winter to visit WRAS and learn everything we could. We brought back the formatics (even trying to brand us as “Album 91”), rotation, and theory… and the folks at the station in Indiana hated us with a passion. Our “control” of the station ended within two months, with much additional drama. I did my shtick at that station for a little while longer, and then I moved across town to the “real” university, and their 25,000-watt FM blowtorch, where I held court on Sunday nights until I finally left the area at the end of 1986. (And in 2000-2002, I did it all again online, until the RIAA put a premature end to that venture, alas.)
    As I listen to the shows I threw together (in fact, I’m listening to Nov. 2, 1986, right now), I realize in retrospect that I had a damn good thing going on, all modesty aside. Sure, I saw the CMJ lists, and I reported to Rockpool for a while (sheesh, Rockpool, remember them?), but I took a different approach. I used the old progressive-radio strategy of going deep, deep, way deep into the albums I picked for top rotation. I generally shunned noise for the sake of noise (The Pixies’ “Surfer Rosa” is one of the seminal events in the collapse of modern music, and certainly marked the end of 4AD’s golden age, if you ask me), and I didn’t automatically start playing something because CMJ told me to play it.
    I believed in the power of the melody, the most fundamental of pop tenets, and the result was “alternative” music that appealed to a broad audience and was “alternative” only in the sense that commercial radio wasn’t playing it. (In fact, when I took my stuff to commercial radio in 1988-1989 and competed with a college station, I frequently used the tagline “Alternative music doesn’t have to be bad to be good.”)
    In a self-indulgent burst of bragging, here’s the playlist for the 10:50pm-11:50pm hour I’m listening to right now:
    Brilliant, “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”
    Felt, “A Wave Crashed on Rocks”
    The Chameleons, “Caution”
    Marc Almond, “Brokenhearted and Beautiful”
    Stockhausen, Bruninghaus, and Studer, “Stalinspur” (WOMAD music sampler)
    The Bible, “King Chicago”
    This Mortal Coil, “Morning Glory”
    The Housemartins, “Flag Day”
    Mummy Calls, “Let’s Go”
    Eyeless in Gaza, “Twilight”
    The Communards, “Heavens Above”
    OMD, “Shame”
    Everything But the Girl, “Cross My Heart”
    I venture to say there weren’t many radio stations in 1986, not even the great Album 88, that had such a mix. And, somehow, it all worked. Change the names of the artists, remove a little of the most obscure stuff, and now it’s called Triple-A. Meanwhile, back down below 92 MHz, every time I try to listen, I get assualted with noise, rap/rock, or Four White Guys Playing Guitar And Drums. We could have done better. A couple of us did. But this is America, after all, so our efforts were doomed even before they started.

  5. And one more thing
    Our grand plans to singlehandedly “save radio” failed because there has been a fundamental shift in how music radio is used. We listened to it in the foreground, but now it is a background activity. The stuff I played made you sit up and take notice — not because it was dissonant, but beacuse it was well-crafted.
    Four White Guys Playing Guitar and Drums are entirely interchangeable, as are all of those “Listen At Work Stations.”

    1. Re: And one more thing
      Your playlist looks a lot like mine. Good stuff.
      And your points are well made. Most music is made for people who don’t like music, just as most food is cooked for people who aren’t very interested in food. Thus the bulk of what oozes out of radio is the equivalent of Denny’s burgers. If you want a nice hot Korean BBQ or even a decent bowl of chowder you have to find the independent provider.
      My father, who wrote quality fiction, liked to point out that the same 10% of people have always bought good hardback fiction and there aren’t any less of them; there are just more morons buying bad books than there used to be. I think maybe the same thing is true of office radio and generic slurm music. There’s a big market for it and it dominates, but people can still make good music for each other if they choose to do so.

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