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Soundbites

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UNSOUND SYSTEM: Though it doesn't appear on any of the Weekly's critics' Top 10 Albums of 2001 lists (it's appeared on dozens of others), the coolest music story of the year has got to be the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack (Lost Highway).

While what passes for contemporary country radio seemingly eschews anything with the slightest twang, here was a compilation that encompassed nearly every variety of traditional roots music under the sun--bluegrass, folk blues, gospel and country--and without the benefit of much promotion or any commercial radio airplay, dominated the Billboard Country Album chart, spending months at the top spot. (In its 54th week on the chart, it still sits at number two, having sold well over 3 million copies. Of the current Billboard Top 20 Country Albums, only the Dixie Chicks' Fly, on the chart for over two years, and Garth Brooks' Scarecrow, released only a few weeks ago, have sold more.)

It's as though the masses finally stood up to give systematic radio programmers (are there any other kind these days?) the collective middle finger with one hand while insistently pointing at the guilty parties with the other: "Just because you tell us Faith Hill is country, it doesn't make it so."

And just in case you don't realize exactly how huge of a coup the album's success really is, let me direct you to a series of articles that puts things into perspective. Eric Boehlert, on Salon.com, recently chronicled, for those of us who thought we knew how bad things had gotten, exactly how insidious the music industry has become at the hands of media conglomerate behemoths like Clear Channel Communications. In case you're unfamiliar with the corporation, Clear Channel has systematically been buying up every music-related company it can get its grubby paws on, most frequently those in concert promotion and commercial radio.

Not so many years ago, what Clear Channel has done was illegal; there used to be strict caps on how many media outlets one company could own in any given market. But under Bill Clinton's abominable Telecommunications Act, those restrictions were virtually tossed out the window, making room for megaconglomerates like Clear Channel to come in and buy out the little guys, often at hugely inflated prices--in other words, serving up an offer they simply can't refuse.

Then, to save money on their investment, the company strips the stations of any sort of local flavor they once had, preferring to hire a small group of programmers to program all of its stations nationwide. That means that there's a core group of suits making the decisions as to what gets played on over 1,200 stations nationwide.

If that weren't enough, Boehlert details the practices of independent promoters who act as "liaisons" between record labels and commercial radio programmers, alleging that nearly every, if not every, song that you hear on current hit radio was paid to be played. (For even more detailed information on these indie promoters, check out Fredric Dannen's frightening 1990 exposé, Hit Men, and keep in mind that things have gotten far worse since it was written.)

What all of this basically means is that, unless a band or performer is on a major label that is willing to shell out huge amounts of money to stations via promoters to secure airplay, that band has almost no shot at breaking. The system is in place, and unless the rules are followed, an album will tank no matter how good it may be.

Unless that album is the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou, which has bucked the system entirely to somehow become one of the year's best-selling releases. It's a small win, to be sure, but it's one of the only heartening music stories in a climate that increasingly views music as mere product.

Just in the last couple of weeks, small Denver-based concert promoter Nobody In Particular Presents has taken on Clear Channel, filing suit against the media giant for using monopolistic, predatory and anti-competitive business practices. NIPP alleges that Clear Channel has actually blocked advertising on its Denver stations for shows that NIPP has booked, and has even dropped NIPP-booked acts from its playlists to ensure the shows' failure.

It'll be an interesting case to keep an eye on, a real-life David and Goliath scenario to be played out in court; and if there's any justice, it'll be one of next year's most heartening music stories.

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