We Can Control the Medium: Radio’s Dying Gasps

“We can control the medium/ We can control the context of presentation…” – T. Gabel

Radio has been dying a slow death for the past decade, losing ad revenue to companies who have increased their ad spending online. I don’t claim to be an expert on the intricacies of radio but I knew enough in college that getting a degree in broadcasting was a poor choice and quickly switched my emphasis to something more scalable (at least that’s what I told myself at the time). I’ve always held contempt for the radio system. Pay to play payola was and has been rampant for decades even though its not really talked about much now. Besides, public airwaves sold to private companies to sell products to consumers seemed like a blatantly flawed system in any context. The sad part about radios decline is the only people that don’t seem to recognize the change in the minds of consumers is people that work for the radio stations, or at least the station owners—cigar smoking, baby-seal-cowboy-boots on a desk made out of elephant tusks grinning maniacally while sipping a tumbler of chilled baby’s blood with a ‘What? Me Worry’ approach to business. You get the point.

My years spent as a music consumer helped me understand how terrible radio is—or at least that time spent skimming channels for interesting content gave me some perspective once I had determined that I despised the ‘format’ before identifying what that ‘format’ was and is. I liked morning shows. They break up the monotony of song repetition. Program directors of local radio shows have made the single a commondity. They are the assholes known as tastemakers. They are the ones making or breaking artists. They’ve helped perpetuate the culture of mediocrity by playing a song so many times consumers are compelled to plug their ears while the stations mine the tune until the little flicker of brilliance in the song has dulled.

Everyone just tunes out. I didn’t discover half the music I listen to by waiting by the radio for a ‘new’ song from a ‘new’ band. Youth will find a way and now that youth has the internet, what is the point of listening to the radio?

That kind of artifice is evidenced in every contrived little between song BS sesh of the ‘disc jockey.’ These guys used to be inspired lovers of music. True aficionados of sound. The original ‘audiophile’ who, with just the right amount of knowledge and charisma could inspire a listener to expand his or her horizons. That was way before my time. Corporate greed has always help perpetuate this system of diminishing returns but until the FCC allowed companies to buy multiple stations in local markets there was a semblance of diversity. Even though that diversity has been suspect. As a result, music has become predictable, less dangerous and more disposable. Why would I buy a song I know they’re going to play 3 more times in the next hour sandwiched between some terrible Seether song and a lame Pearl Jam track from the fucking Ten record?

Then there is the question of relevancy. San Diego’s 94.9 touts itself as a truly independent station. They are probably the best commercial radio station I’ve heard, though I’d still prefer a dentists drill to the radio. They have beaten out Rock 105 AND 91X in San Diego. Most of the songs they play are surprising to hear on commercial radio. Ten years ago I never would have heard “Holiday in Cambodia” on a station other than one broadcast from a college campus. And they’ve won the holiday concert war with the best line-up. Their ‘Holiday Hootenanny’ has Queens of the Stone Age headlining and support from some local hero’s like Pinback and Louis XIV.

I was a witness to the train wreck that was 91X’s Nightmare Before Xmas concert. The station had to have given away hundreds of tickets just to fill SDSU’s Cox Arena ‘pit’ area. You know the ‘pit’ area where you have to pay extra money to STAND. What had initially been planned as a two day festival event with dozens of bands turned into a handful of mid-level bands playing to what I estimated to be a thousand or 1700 people (who knows what the actual count was, I bet 91X won’t tell) Bad Religion, Against Me!, and late 90’s nu-metal band, Seether were the ‘big’ bands of this little holiday party. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some AM! and some BR but can either of those bands pack an arena? Probably not. How about Angels and Airwaves? You would think they could in their own hometown but they didn’t. It was depressing. And of course, between bands and on the promenade fans are exposed to advertisers and you don’t even have the option of ‘changing the station.’

Another local band, The Transit War opened the show. They were great. Those boys have come a long way. But the music isn’t what is in question here. It’s the apparent lack of communication between the station and its constituents, i.e. the listener—not the companies that buy ads. How often do they actually play Bad Religion on the radio or when can you hear The Transit War short of staying up until 1am on Monday morning for the Loudspeaker show? Seeing the military there actively recruiting young male concert goers made me want to vomit and then I dry heaved when I saw some poor schmuck walking around taking pictures with kids in a Geico the Gecko costume.

Against Me’s Tom Gabel lambasted the event from the stage, telling people not to buy anything and had they known, as a band, that the Military was a sponsor of the event they would never have agreed to play. Its rough to issue a Mea Culpa from the stage as you are playing the event but at least he saw through the bullshit and shared his indignation with the audience [make a fist, put your foot down, pout from the well branded stage]. Of course all the overly sensitive people that are in the military or have family in the military will be sending angry letters to 91X bemoaning a point I’m sure they completely missed. But, whatever right? It’s the music business and like Radio’s corporate counterparts in the record industry, they’ll continue to stick their head in the sand and wait for someone to save them. Sort of like a frog in a pot of water set to boil.

AM! did an on-air interview with Kallao and Capone. It was as cringe-worthy in broadcast as I’m sure it was in person. I’ve done my share of interviews with bands and it was really fascinating to witness the interviewers stumble and squirm when the band basically got hold of the reigns and took them to task. Asking Gabel who he was going to vote for in 08 warranted an especially prickly response. He said he didn’t know cause he didn’t know who the nominees were yet. Dead air and back peddling ensued. Nothing better than watching two douche bags choke on their own lack of preparation.

AM! was significantly antagonistic, more so when asked idiotic questions about working with Butch Vig and the ‘White People for Peace’ video. Anyone could ask the band those questions by looking at a bio their publicist had sent. It was amateur hour and it was telling of how unconnected to music people in radio seem to be. Most of the folks that know the most about music are the interns doing work for free and staying late, just for that ‘one chance man. To make a difference and get some real music on the air…’ Ah, the ellipsis of youthful hope trails off into guaranteed disappointment.

As a caveat to Gabel’s quickness to bash the music industry through song and defiantly voice disgust with performing at a concert with active military recruitment, I question the bands willingness to do a performance appearance on MTV’s scripted soap opera, The Hills the night after playing the 91X concert. MTV and MTV2 have aired US Armed Forces ads for years and the show, The Hills is a perfect representation of disposable entertainment. What would have come across initially as some fist pumping ‘fuck the man’ style punk rock angst instead came across as some petulant jerk whining about a system he’s willingly embraced when he signed a contract with Sire. I enjoy the music of Against Me!, but the context of presentation has lost most of its credibility.

How will 91X look in 2008? We’ll lose Cantore who is getting replaced by Adam Corolla in the Mornings in 08’ so if you didn’t get enough irrelevant banter from Adam and Danny Bonadouchebag before they got scratched from what became Sophie, you’ll get a fair amount next year. What other necks are on the chopping block at 91X? They’ve taken a local friendly rock format from sort of mediocre to notably shitty in less than a year. Then they’ve tried to take on the Disturbed/System of Down/Creed style hard rock format of Rock 105 and to no avail. Rock 105 has taken some shots across the 91X deck by declaring some semblance of turf war-like ownership on the ‘rock’ format ‘Rock 105.3. San Diegos ORIGINAL Rock Station,’ says the whiskey voiced announcer.

Alas, like most institutionalized businesses the corporate management never asks the right questions of the right people because they are certain they can provide their own answers no matter how ill informed and misled they are.

We CAN control the medium. But when will the radio accede to a paradigm shift determined by the listeners?

Against Me or With me?

It took me 3 months to write this Against Me! feature (posted friday). I had spent some time with Tom and Co. in Austin during SXSW. We ‘hung out’ at the No Idea party where we watched the Draft and Chuck Ragan play. I had made a bet with Warren against James that Chuck and the Draft would join forces and do a Hot Water Music song. James was adamant that it wouldn’t happen, he had that twinkle like he knew but Warren and I were so convinced. Blinded by our love of HWM I guess. James was right. The Draft played their last drunken song, thanked all the other bands but Chuck and got drunkenly off the stage. It was like being at a party with a pair of divorced parents and their new love interests. Tom was friendly, though weary of my journalist swagger I suppose. Hows he supposed to know I’m a super fan? I wasn’t swooning. (visibly)

The reason the feature took me so long was because when I interviewed him I was looking for revelation. Some sort of punk rock reasoning behind all their decisions leading up to that point. He said one thing that conceded all the rhetoric, “We’re a rock band.” Explaining that punk rock in its facile philosophy was binding and didn’t allow for expansion outside the ‘box,’ of expectation. People talk shit about AM! and their politics, screaming sell-out. And MRR, a zine’ I’ve always respected, declares a fatwa, but if you listen to the lyrics of New Wave, the dude is lambasting the system he’s become a part of – isn’t that what punk rock has become? ‘Punk Rock’ ceased to be a social movement dictated by music and fashion in 1982. ‘Punk’ as  a statement, or a genre tag, or something you use to describe something irreverent is still culturally significant. What are punk rock ethics? Is it some sort of instilled integrity from listening to Minor Threat and The Clash? Pointedly away from that nihilism of notables like GG Allen, Sex Pistols and to an extent Iggy and the Stooges?  Somewhere along the line there is something that has informed me. Something that I see as the structure of what punk rock is. There is the DIY aspect of all punk rock before 1990. Before it became easier to be heard across multiple platforms. Those bands from Our Band Could Be Your Life, traveling across the country, where they were basically traveling bums playing instruments. The true spirit of the troubadour.

Against Me! paid their dues the same way. They traveled in a van, played shitty clubs, went hungry, got fucked over by promoters – all those wonderful things that happen on the road. It is easy for armchair punks to criticize a band like AM! which they are really criticizing Tom Gabel. Real punks don’t have a fucking computer, if you want to get technical. Real punks, at least anarchist punks, don’t spend anytime online checking the fucking boards at Punknews.org waiting to bitch about the latest news from AM! Kurtz would all them napalms. Just as easy to understand that AM! is really a Rock band and always has been. It would be financially impossible for a band to maintain their punkness.  You’ll probably cite Fugazi. But you forget that there is only ONE Fugazi. There is only ONE Ian Mackaye. He has been as maligned with things he said in his youthful naivety as Tom.

Tom didn’t offer up any explanation as to his bands past politics and current association with the major label. He was a thoughtful interview and at first I thought he was kind of closed off but he just carefully worded everything. Chalk that up to experience. His word isn’t gospel but with enough weak minded people lionizing celebrity out in the ‘world’ its no wonder he choses every response carefully. Maybe his lyrics are response enough.

Against Me!: an interview with Tom Gabel

Against Me! started out as a solo acoustic project by singer and principal songwriter Tom Gabel. His penchant for blue collar lyrics, peppered with folk punk musings on everyday life built a solid base for what many fans and critics consider paramount among Against Me!’s strong points: great lyrics and amazing songs.

Against Me is made up of vocalist/guitarist Tom Gabel, guitarist/vocalist James Bowman, drummer Warren Oakes and bassist Andrew Seward whose collective energy makes for one of the most engaging live bands yours truly has ever seen.  The consistency and passion that AM! performs with is inspiring, leading crowds into a frenzy of sing-a-long choruses while fists pump the air in rock and roll solidarity.

I have witnessed the power of Against Me live more than a dozen times over the past year.  It’s scary. Not like watching The Shining scary but scary like I can’t honestly say I’ve ever been let down by their performance – scary.  I know what you are thinking, ‘more bullshit hype from a sycophantic music journalist asshole,’ but seriously this band kills it every time.  However, the most impressive time I saw AM! destroy the stage was in Austin at some sweatbox of a bar, where the stage was only a foot off the ground and folks in the front row could reach out and touch Tom or James or Andy between songs. Check out the pics! They did a spot-on cover of The Replacements’ “Bastards of Young” for their finale. It was fucking epic. I geeked out! Wrung my sweat soaked t-shirt, drunkenly proclaimed my love for them to Vanessa (AM!’s publicist) and left, wondering if I’d ever bear witness to such greatness again.

Do you know what is the easiest part of anonymous shit talking in this so-called scene is? Never having to own up to your words, no matter how irrelevant or hurtful.  Suffice to say, accountability is sacrosanct when it comes to holding George Bush responsible for the country’s problems but in the punk ‘scene’ any self-proclaimed anarchist will be boo-hoo-hooing about a band selling out, even though that band has pretty much had to live off of scraps while touring non-stop for years with barely a nod for their efforts or a viable way to pay their bills.  Though they’ve never publicly accounted for their switch from indie to major, nor felt it necessary to explain the motivation behind their decisions, New Wave is indictment enough against the machine their currently part of – an irony not lost on Gabel. AM!’s latest album and debut for Warner imprint label Sire New Wave,  will no doubt garner the Gainesville quartet at least 3 squares a day and some much needed national attention from the major label marketing machine (and hopefully enough revenue to buy that bio diesel tour bus and graduate out of the passenger van). Or not, cause that wouldn’t be punk enough.

There is of course the ever looming fear or assumption that the whole ‘record business’ is on the verge of collapse with the recent bankruptcy of Century Media imprint Abacus, Tower Records shutting its doors, V2 Records closing down and EMI merging Virgin and Capitol into the Capitol Music Group losing the smaller bands and dozens of staff from multiple divisions in the process.  Bands that have come up from the underground like Mastodon, Cursive and Against Me can make the rocky transition from obscurity to top of the dog pile in the ever-expanding genre classification wars.  While flavor of the moment bands can perform their ‘dance-y’ hit single off-key at Live Earth, looking like a muttoned chopped reincarnation of Chris Farley in slim-tapered women’s jeans and trucker hat, bands like Against Me! prepare for the release of New Wave after several long months of work with famed producer Butch Vig (Nirvana Nevermind, Smashing Pumpkins Siamese Dream, Garbage).

Tom is articulate and well spoken and though he is loathe to make any disparaging comments about the current state of music or his contemporaries he does take the optimistic approach, stating; “There will always be people who say ‘music is bad’ but you just have to know where to look to find the right stuff.”

Moving from Fat Wreck Chords to Warner Brothers was a big step for a band with fans as scrutinizing and judgmental as any grass roots built ‘DIY’ band with roots in the punk community. Of the label experience, Tom explains, “Its been a completely positive experience thus far. I’m trying not to be naïve about things and I know that the relationship can turn at any point but I’m sure the relationship hinges on if we meet their expectations of how successful we should be or whatever but that is a back and forth they have to meet our expectation s of how much they should work for us.” Reiterating, “I’m trying not to be naïve about things but thus far they like the record.”

“I think the record we made would not have been possible without him working on it and would have been a completely different record in all regards if we wouldn’t have worked with him. That’s both sonically and for the songwriting. I wrote 25 songs for this record and when I thought or we thought we were done Butch would be like, ‘no man, keep writing songs. And so without him being there saying that, (and I’ve never had anybody say that before) we would have stopped and I think some of the best songs came at the last moment. It was kind of like having, in a lot of ways, another member of the band. I think it takes a really special type of person to be able to let your guards down and let a total stranger into your group and let them dissect a song that you’ve written and give their opinion on it and take their opinion into consideration.” Adding with a laugh, “He’s a fucking nice person. He’s totally cool to be around. He’s the kind of person you want to be friends with. And he’s really talented.”

After an exhausting six month recording process, countless moaning from the vocal few in the punk ‘scene’ about moving to a major, they’ve kept New Wave ranked in the top ten on Smartpunk.com for the past three weeks for sales.  If there is a litmus test for success in this ever-changing consumer driven music climate it is your own fan base making a dent in sales and that is a good thing. And no matter what the future holds for Tom and Co. the fact they’ve worked so hard to get to where they are is what makes them such an engaging rock band.