Why indie acts are everywhere, except on the radio

Commercial stations are less interested in new music than they are in replaying 90s rock

Saskatoon's The Sheepdogs at the 2011 MuchMusic Video Awards. Darren Calabrese/CP

She stands in the spotlight, swaying back and forth, her eyes staring off at no one in particular. The lips that launched a thousand think pieces are obscured by a black mic as she sings, rather unremarkably.

Lana Del Rey’s debut Saturday Night Live appearance was by most accounts an unmitigated disaster, confirming in the eyes of critics that she was the manufactured fake many had assumed her to be. But perhaps more significant was the fact that Del Rey was able to transform her burgeoning online celebrity into an appearance on the late-night institution without the support of commercial radio.

She’s hardly the only indie act to break into the mainstream. The last decade has brought forth a slew of artists subscribing to the same aesthetic whose success can be attributed almost entirely to online buzz. Fêted by tastemaker sites like Pitchfork, and supported by eye-popping videos and savvy use of social media, these acts, including Del Rey and indie acts like Sleigh Bells and Bon Iver, who appear to be everywhere, have infiltrated the mainstream via festival slots, song placements in commercials and film and late-night television appearances. Yet they’re all suspiciously absent on the one medium where you’d expect to find them. “We’re seeing this divide between the acceptance of certain indie aesthetics in other media,” confirms Alan Cross, radio personality and former senior program director at modern rock radio station CFNY, The Edge in Toronto, “and not so much on radio.”

Radio playlists have long been a source of consternation for fans and musicians alike. But their frustration is based on the assumption that radio is actually interested in presenting new, cutting edge music, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

“It’s not radio’s job to break new music,” says Dave Farough, Vice President, Brands and Programming for Corus Entertainment’s 37 commercial stations. “In some cases, listeners want to hear new music. But in most cases they just want to hear what they like.”

Modern rock radio seems like a perfect home for the teeming hoards of indie artists looking to make the leap to the mainstream, but even stations like CFNY and Vancouver’s CFOX are loath to take a risk on music their listeners may not have heard. While some acts have managed to squeeze their way into modern rock radio playlists–a quick perusal of recent ones reveals bands like Said the Whale, MGMT and Crystal Castles peppered into programming–there remains a heavy reliance on 90s alt-rock and 2000s post-grunge acts like Bush, Foo Fighters and Alice in Chains and ubiquitous CanCon filler like the Trews and Finger Eleven.

According to Farough, the average Edge listener is about 30-years-old, and the ’90s are still dear to their hearts. “They grew up on ‘90s music,” he says, “and they still want to hear it, so that’s what we give them.”

Most stations get their market research via BBM, a not-for-profit research company sponsored by the broadcast industry. To calculate ratings in Canada’s five largest markets–Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton–the company supplies volunteers with a Portable People Meter or PPM, a pager-sized device that detects and stores identification codes embedded in radio transmissions. The data is then uploaded to a hub that transmits the data to BBM via household telephone landlines.

BBM’s data runs counter to the popular belief that radio is dead. Listenership is steady, profits are plentiful and radio’s reach—the percentage of the population that has access to it—has hovered in the low 90s for decades. And of course, it’s free.

All of which is why airplay is still huge for artists. Yet with programming power being placed in the hands of fewer and fewer people, and technology giving anyone and his dog the ability to record and distribute music, cracking the medium is harder than ever.

Farough believes that if a band wants to break into mainstream radio, they’ve got to be willing to work. “It’s like looking for a job,” he says. “Most bands these days don’t want to put the work in. They record a song and then expect radio to play it. I owe you nothing, just because you recorded a song.” Building a story is key if they want programmers to take note, he says. “If the music is good and the band is working hard to promote themselves, they’ll get radio airplay.”

Perhaps no band embodies this way of thinking more than Saskatoon’s the Sheepdogs. Two years ago the quartet was playing any dive that would have them and peddling their Allman Brothers-aping record Learn and Burn to anyone they thought might give it a couple of spins. But after scoring a deal with Atlantic Records and landing on the cover of Rolling Stone via the magazine’s “Choose the Cover” contest, the band all of a sudden found that the same programmers who originally dismissed them were now giving them regular spins.

But while radio can still fast-track a career, there are other routes to fame. Good press and word of mouth helped land Sleigh Bells a coveted slot on SNL, while Neko Case and the National co-headlined gigs in hockey rinks in Toronto and Montreal last year. And Bon Iver racked up over three million YouTube views alone for his song Holocene, sold out two nights at the 2000-seat Massey Hall in Toronto in December and scored two Grammys.

So what’s the big deal? Since radio isn’t interested and indie acts are doing fine on their own, everyone could just go back to their little worlds and carry on as they have for decades. But radio and indie rock need each other more than either side is willing to admit.

For all its faults, radio does have its advantages. “Radio is definitely still the fastest way to gain a large audience quickly,” says Cross. Vancouver indie rockers Said the Whale saw the benefits almost immediately after their song Camilo (the Magician) started trickling onto to modern rock radio playlists. “We saw attendance at our shows skyrocket and ticket sales went up and record sales went up,” says the band’s singer and guitarist Tyler Bancroft.

But if radio hopes to continue to hold on to this power, critics say it’s going to need to make some serious changes. “A lot of people under the age of 25 don’t listen to radio anymore,” says Cross. Though they remain modern rock staples, Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s most famous records are now two decades old. “If I’m 17, 18-years-old, I don’t give a crap about something that happened 20 years ago.”

The statistics jibe with Cross’s sentiment. BBM’s Fall 2010 Radio Survey says the average Canadian spends over 17-and-a-half hours a week listening to radio, while listeners falling into the 17 to 24 age range consume just under 12—a figure that’s been declining three times as fast as the national average.

Tamara Stanners, assistant program director at adult album alternative station CKPK, The Peak in Vancouver, believes that there is room for improvement, particularly when it comes to winning back younger listeners. “Radio has to do the same paradigm shift that record labels have had to do,” she says. “It is our job to go out and support these people who are there already and they’ve been there for a long time.”

The Peak is in the midst of attempting to do just that. It helps that the station is owned by the privately held Jim Pattison Group, which gives its programmers more control over what gets played. They flexed this muscle early: the first two artists played on the station were Vancouver indie-folk singer Dan Mangan and Newfoundland indie-poppers Hey Rosetta! Forty per cent of The Peak’s programming must be Canadian Content and 15 per cent what the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission defines as emerging artists, artists who have never had more than two songs in the top 40. In contrast CFOX is only mandated to play 30 per cent CanCon and has no emerging artist provision. “Having adventurous ownership is key,” says Stanners. “(Pattison) is an 83-year-old billionaire and he sees the value of it.”

Cross agrees. If radio hopes to make itself relevant to this next generation, the powers that be “need to think of a long term digital strategy and be damned with quarterly results,” he says. “It’s going to take an investment of time and money with a payoff that’s a few years away.”

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