Radio Last

Last night I had a dream
You were in it
And I was in it with you
And everyone I know
And everyone you know was in my dream

I was at a radio convention.  And there was a band playing on stage.  Their number resembled Vanilla Fudge’s reworking of "You Keep Me Hangin’ On".  The lead singer was blond, and he was playing a portable keyboard.  But there were two more keyboard players behind him, and one to the side.  Like I said, it was a dream.

And it was clear that this song was a hit.  Oh, it needed to be polished, finished in the recording studio, but it had the raw essence.  Actually, it was more than that, this band HAD IT!  They lacked charisma, but the instrumentation was innovative, the sound was low-key, it wasn’t in your face, but the melody was catchy, and your mind was set adrift.

And when the band finished playing, a guy near the stage started pontificating, about the radio plan.  And I shouted out from the back, RADIO LAST!

The whole room went quiet.  Everybody looked at me.  I had the feeling that drove me to psychotherapy.

I don’t know what it is about altitude, but I’ve been having crazy dreams all week.  Last night’s starred my ex-wife.  For a long time.  Usually, she just makes brief appearances.  The distance, the superiority, the manipulation, it creeped me out.  Then my friend Kate let me out the back door to avoid the killers.  I flew to South America to evade their grasp.  But the most memorable dream I had was the one in the middle, with the band and the radio convention.

Radio conventions used to rule.  Radio used to be what it was about.  That was the goal, TO GET ON THE RADIO!  Back when radio was addictive, when it was the tribal drum, when you had to be tuned in to know what was going on.

Oh, first there was Top Forty.  I’m considering 1964 Year One, when the Beatles broke, everything before that is B.C.E., before the common era.  But then there was free format.  Free format was about the EXPERIENCE!  The deejays picked the tunes, they took you on an aural adventure.  Then came AOR.  AOR wasn’t so bad at first.  A lot of songs were played, there was hip news, everybody was in it together.  Then came corporate rock, and eventually the whole system crumbled, especially when these same AOR stations wouldn’t play Human League’s "Don’t You Want Me" and Soft Cell’s "Tainted Love".  AOR lost its stranglehold on the audience.  Suddenly, AOR wasn’t cool.  And suddenly, RADIO wasn’t cool anymore either.  MTV was where it was at.  And new Top Forty radio stations grew side by side with the video channel, to play the same hits.  And then came the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and radio consolidation and the whole system imploded, radio no longer mattered.

And it still doesn’t.  Everybody believes radio sucks.

But with MTV not playing any music, radio is the easiest way to reach the most people, so the major labels, interested in making a buck, focus on these lame stations.  They can only see through this prism.  Whereas only the lowest common denominator music fan still trusts the radio.  Radio is a joke.

So you go to radio last.  If you want cred, if you want to have a career.

That’s what I was going to tell the assembled multitude, if they’d ever opened their mouths, if it wasn’t a "Springtime For Hitler" moment, if I hadn’t woken up.

Take the easy way out and longevity eludes you.  You’ve got to grow from the ground up if you want to have a career today.

Used to be you had to build it on the road.  And that’s still a good plan, but it’s slow.  Although fans made on the road last forever, since it’s about the performance, and you’ve got to be good live to win people over.

Now you can also gain traction on the Web.  Just as long as you’re not pushing.  Street teams are just one level above radio, they lack trustworthiness too.  Can you say SPAM?  If someone says ANYTHING is that great, especially if you don’t know the sender, the poster, you tune it out.  We can tell what’s real.  Hell, are you ever confused, do you ever believe a spam e-mail is a real one?

No, you’ve got to get your act going through word of mouth.  You’ve got to be good, and then you have to give people the tools.  You’ve got to post MP3s that you allow people to trade, you’ve got to have a Website updated DAILY!  You’ve got to have a policed message board.  You’ve got to have a real bio, hopefully a road diary.  You’ve got to be a friend.  You can’t be above the audience.  That’s for doofuses like Paris Hilton.  Real musicians are in it together with their audience.

Point is, a friend sends you an MP3.  And if you like it, you want more.  You immediately go to the band’s site.  Maybe even their MySpace page.  But MySpace is to CHECK OUT an act.  If someone is already a believer they want a hub that’s the act’s own.  Without endless Flash animation, but tons of useful information.

And if you’re good, word spreads.  But there’s never an overwhelming sense of ubiquity.  Because there’s no place to EVIDENCE this on the Web.  There’s no SoundScan number.  No Top Ten.  No site that rates ascension of a new act.  It eludes the system, therefore the only person who knows something is happening is the act itself.  And fans continue to build the act, telling everybody about their newfound favorite.  You can be a star and nobody really knows.  You’ve got something real that can’t be quantified by traditional metrics.  Because the traditional metrics quantify everything but soul.  There’s no soul in a sale.  But soul is what keeps people dedicated.

And THEN, MAYBE, you have a radio hit.  Sweeping up newbies, but not alienating the hard core, that knows you’re real.

Classic example, the Dave Matthews Band.  By time "Crash Into Me" hit, the act had hundreds of thousands, if not MILLIONS of fans, who were THRILLED the act they’d been into for years was getting the recognition they believed it deserved.

In other words, radio comes last.  It’s the icing on the cake.  It’s the victory lap.  It’s the seal on stardom.  IT’S NO LONGER THE BEGINNING!

If you’re BREAKING an act on radio, you can bet it won’t last long, it will never be classic.  You break an act in the audience’s hearts and minds.  Reached in these new ways.  To think otherwise is to be in it for short term gain.

I saw a vampire
I saw a ghost
Everybody scared me but you sacred me the most
In the dream I had last night
In the dream I had last night
In my dream

There used to be promo people, radio consultants, the people in attendance at the conference in my dream.  There are people like this who still exist in the music industry today.  They spread their bullshit, make like their old ways still rule.  But if this were so, why would radio listenership be dropping?  Why would CD sales be off 15% this year?

It’s a new era.  To hold on to the old ways is to be Michael Dell.  Someone who created a system that delivered riches that ultimately became outmoded.  Breaking acts on radio is an outmoded paradigm.  Unfortunately, like Michael Dell, the old music industry guard doesn’t know what to do.  They know they want to continue to rule, but they can’t make up for being asleep at the wheel for the better part of a decade.

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  1. Pingback by newcritics – » Why I Still Listen To Radio | 2007/02/04 at 03:48:44

    [...] ur Sonos system) and came across an email from Tony Alva with a link to Bob Lefsetz’ Radio Last post.   [...]

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