Published on Sunday, September 28, 2003 by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Why the Music Stopped
by Dennis Roddy
There was a time Greg Falvo, then 21, was the toast of Lima, Ohio -- a place he has never visited but in song.
In 1969 Falvo was lead singer for a Johnstown band called "The Kindred Spirit." They covered a Rolling Stones song called "Under My Thumb." An enterprising fringe label sent the 45 to radio deejays around the country, turning it into something that was, at that time, called a "local hit" -- a song that never made the national charts but broke through in isolated places like Athens, Ga. or Pocatello, Idaho.
"I got a royalty check one time for $3 and some change. I was so broke I cashed it," said Falvo, who now sells cars. "To us it meant everything. We were a bunch of kids. We didn't care about making money -- we just wanted to hear ourselves on the radio."
Falvo now wishes he'd saved that check. It is an artifact of a time garage band kids in towns like Johnstown could actually dream of airplay.
The local hit is a thing of the past. The homogenization of popular taste has at once turned commercial music into a sonic convergence in which Martina McBride sounds not much different from Britney Spears and radio listeners are now sectioned off into broadcast ghettoes where one station serves the old, another the young, one the white, another the black.
What was once Top 40 radio, a format that consisted simply of peoples' favorite songs as charted by the sale of 45 rpm records, has all but vanished. It was a gathering place where a fairly wide age range of listeners tuned in and heard songs that were capable of "crossing over" from their genres to a general audience.
"In the old days I could call and ask what 45s were selling and then I knew what songs to play," said Jim Quinn, who, before he became a conservative talk icon in Pittsburgh spent nearly 40 years spinning records. Today, playlists are sent out by corporations with names like Clear Channel and Cumulus, based on research that looks for one hit and then locates others that sound like it.
Where once Johnny Cash could rub his gravel voice against the intro to a Beatles song that would then fade out, ceding the next three minutes to Frank and Nancy Sinatra, broadcast music has split into specialized stations. There is adult contemporary, country, rap, soft rock. A town's radio station was once a place where parents knew what their children listened to because they were, in varying measures, listening along.
Now the rebellion of youth is done out of listening range. Many bands now live in a subculture in which they no longer pursue radio exposure -- focusing on obscure concert venues, CD sales on independent labels and downloads from their own Web sites. Singles have vanished, replaced by CDs that critics complain usually consist of one decent song surrounded by filler. The problem is locating the hit.
"If somebody gave me $16 for their album, I don't know what song motivated them to buy it," Quinn said. What broadcast chiefs do, instead, is assemble test groups in auditoriums, play them snippets of music and wait for their reaction. These auditorium music tests, which sometimes determine play lists for dozens of stations at one time, can guarantee listeners but not necessarily exciting music.
"The stations don't take any chances. Neither do the major studios. If they get a hit, they try to clone it," said Lee Ferraro, general manager of Pittsburgh station WYEP-FM, one of a handful that programs with virtually no market research. "We had Britney Spears. Christina Aguilera came along and even though Christina was a much better singer, they sort of marketed her that way, as another Britney. . . . Even the sound between light rock and country is not that different."
That sameness has threatened to creep into more than the music. After Natalie Maines, lead singer for the Dixie Chicks, disparaged President Bush in a concert in London, the chairman of Cumulus issued a diktat that essentially banned the group from play on the chain's country outlets.
After the 9/11 terror attacks, Clear Channel issued an advisory list of songs to avoid playing, John Lennon's "Imagine" inexplicably among them. Music with a hint of politics now finds itself cornered into specialty stations. What remains of the left in music gravitates to WYEP, a public station that does not need to worry about skittish advertisers. Country music stays safely to the right -- the Dixie Chicks last week announced they were shifting from country to rock -- something country music has essentially been doing since it transformed from a culture to a commerce.
The Chicks will, of course, have little competition from outside the pretested system when they search for air time. There are no Kindred Spirits out there threatening to edge in from the margins simply because some deejay in Lima heard their record and thought it worth a spin.
Falvo knows the brief, happy run he had is now as unlikely as a sock hop. "If I had a disc and said 'Hey, guys, I have a record, how about playing it?' They'd probably say, 'Love to, man, but you're not on our play list.' "
Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist
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