Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What Made the Music Box Run Down?

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. ~Lesley P. Hartley
I don't have trains of thought; I have buses. You know, you take the number 12 to here, transfer to the number 10, go to there, transfer to blue line, and so on. That's how listening to the Mamas and the Papas led me to discover the reason for the demise of radio and pop music.
The other day, I was listening to the Mamas and the Papas song “Monday, Monday.” I got to thinking about a disk jockey named Jay Lawrence. Lawrence was on KYW-AM in Cleveland, and he was a good DJ, but more than once, when he liked a new song, it disappeared into oblivion. One day, he was premiering “Monday, Monday” and began to wax eloquent on what a great song it was. Then he caught himself, saying, no, wait, every time I really like a song, it goes nowhere. “So, I hate this song! Do you hear? I hate it!” he shouted. Then he whispered, “But I really like it.”
People who have grown up listening to “formula radio” with its interchangeable voices and format du jour have no idea of the influence of disk jockeys in the 1950's and 60's. You may have heard of Allen Freed (mostly because they made a movie about him), Wolfman Jack (mostly because he was in a movie), or Dick Bionde (mostly because he was nationally syndicated), but it’s hard to imagine the impact that even the lesser lights had on music. Most large cities had several Top-40 AM radio stations that competed ferociously against one another. The front line troops in this combat were the DJ's, whose on-air personalities set the tone of the station. People became loyal to their favorite jock. If he moved to another station, they set a new button on the radio.
Allow me a brief digression. You should not get the idea that all DJ's were highly paid celebrities. Most of them were low-paid spear carriers for the main one or two big guns. On big stations, that is. On small stations, there were no big guns. ALL the DJ's were low paid serfs.
When I was in college, I did a tour of duty at the campus FM station, WRUW-FM (91.1 on your dial, if you’re ever up that way), a ten-watt powerhouse that had its antenna on a graduate residence house. Still, being in the inner city of Cleveland, we had a fair non-campus listenership, and a few staffers occasionally got delusions of grandeur about going pro. Whenever someone got started on that subject, I'd pull out the latest copy of Billboard magazine and turn to the want ads. There'd be a few offerings of minimum-wage ads in tiny little towns, where you did 4-hour shows six days a week, ran errands, mowed the lawn, did promotional appearances, and anything else to get enough money to survive. On the same page, there'd be three or four times as many ads for DJ's looking for work.
That's not the kind of job market that makes a career look attractive.
At any rate, AM Top-40 was king for a long time. KYW and CKLW (in Detroit, although the transmitter was across the river in Canada) were 100,000 watt clear-wave giants. “Clear-wave” meant that no other station could be on their frequency, so, unlike most AM stations, they didn't have to reduce power after sunset.
After sunset, atmospheric effects cause AM signals to travel farther, so stations end up jamming each other. FCC regulations force them to reduce power to avoid this. Unfortunately, it also means that, unless you live next to their tower, you lose the station. That's why the clear-waves had so much clout. Not only did they not have to reduce power, but the atmospherics let their signal reach even farther.
Big station DJ's knew their music. They also fought tooth-and-nail to introduce new records by big artists. Record companies knew this, and, a couple of times, this led to scandals where the record outfits bribed DJ's to hype some new hit. The “Payola” scandals ruined more than a few careers. Since bribery was out, the record companies had to satisfy the big stations by giving them “exclusives” now and then, like first shot at the latest Beatles single. In return, stations might look a little more favorably at a company's lesser offerings.
Also, the DJ's liked to showcase the local talent. If a local group could get a record cut, they were pretty much guaranteed of some air play unless the song totally stunk. Thus, AM radio exposed listeners to a variety of sounds. They didn't get into much heavy rock or extended songs, though. It was FM that filled that gap.
FM was the poor relation of AM for years, playing elevator music most of the time, simulcasting AM on occasion. I don't know who got the bright idea to actually develop formats for FM, but it was hard rock that broke through. Overnight, we could hear all 15 minutes of Inna Gadda Da Vida, or the full versions of songs by Hendrix and Cream. In addition, they would play cuts from albums that hadn't been released as singles, so you could really hear what an artist could do.
The music industry prospered, and listeners were happy.
Two things happened to louse this up. First, big companies started buying up clumps of radio stations, diminishing the importance of the radio personality while emphasizing advertising. When that happens, music is secondary. The top bosses determine the play list, which becomes very short, and increase the number of commercial breaks, which become very long. The companies go with formula formats that pretty much preclude a DJ getting experimental.
Second, MTV happened. I used to watch MTV when they played videos, but as the video got to be more important than the music, people seemed to lose the desire to simply hear the song and put their own images to it. It was easier to watch someone else's images. As well, small-time artists had a tough time breaking through unless they could get a contract with someone who could fund a video.
As AM disappeared and FM became more monotonous, music got to be less fresh. Ironically, MTV, which had done its part to kill radio, pretty much stopped playing videos, which cut exposure to new sounds even further. The net effect has been a dreary sameness as music has descended into its own repetitious formulas. If you doubt that, look at the various all-time listings when it comes to music. They seem to be dominated by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the like, with just a smattering of post 1980's groups. There's probably a lot of good music out there, but it's bloody hard to find. Kind of a shame actually.
Oh, excuse me, my bus is here.

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