Rebel! Revolt! Riot! (And crank the radio volume up to 11)

Today I read a quote from Radiohead front man and all round music visionary and good guy, Thom Yorke and it read:

“I think a lot of the time the reason people pirate, is they want access to good music. And they don’t get it because the radio is shit.”

I guess video can now stop being blamed for having killed the radio star – radio is well capable of killing radio stars fine enough on its own.

He wasn’t lying though. Thom (looking at me calling him by his first name like we’re old friends) speaks the truth – he is telling it without being all preachy and self-important, and neither is he encouraging us to rip artists off. The music that we hear on the radio speaks at a dire need for a change. I can remember a time when I used to listen to songs on the radio and record them on a cassette tape. I grew up knowing what it meant to stuff paper, or even sellotape, in the corner of the cassette tape – when radios still had tape decks. If you want to be all technical about it, you could call this “piracy” as well. But the music was most definitely better then. It was the early 90’s, and the Internet wasn’t used as a tool to monitor peer-to-peer sharing and promote slogans of anti-piracy.

Mixtape

This got me to thinking about when I was in my early 20’s – 21 if I am not mistaken. I was living in Durban and a conversation with friends raised some interesting points. We had all established that radio was headed in one direction that didn’t please any of us. The music that we listened to was not played on the radio for countless reasons. DJ’s and the radio stations they worked for became the scum of the earth in our eyes. They were all complicit in the killing of our beloved music. They were to blame for the perpetual state of hunger that characterized the starving artist. We talked and the more we did the angrier we got. We had a solution though. We were not just angry youths without a plan. We would “Hijack The Radio Waves”! That was our plan. It all sounded very simple, except it wasn’t. It was highly illegal to start off with.

Hijacking the radio waves. What a novel idea it was. The idea was premised on our ability to make our way to a radio transmitter where we could essentially piggyback on some random radio station frequency and play the music that we wanted – not frills and even less bullshit. And to spread the word we would design and distribute these cryptic flyers that mentioned only the frequency number and the time at which all interested parties should tune in. Boy were we excited about doing something so illegal that it would have probably ended up with us being passed around a police station’s holding cells by 15-year old veterans of the juvenile system for the odd smoke. Mind you we were by no means skinny little wimps but going up against a group of street-hardened kids who probably bit like cane rats and were as unpredictable in a fight as a burning sack filled with ferrets in a meth lab, was not the way we would have wanted to spend our night. But we were definitely excited. In theory the idea was brilliant – in theory, but the practicality of it was a whole other story.

Boombox

This excitement didn’t go unchecked, however. A friend much older than we were talked us out of our plans of The Great Radio Wave Hijack of 2001. Still then the idea stayed with us. My friends went on to become integral parts of all types of musical formations, and I got to write about all types of musical formations. The idea never left any of us though. That’s the problem with ideas, they never know when to let go. It seems it is such an idea that settled into the minds of some others throughout the world. It is this idea that led to the formation and increased popularity of Internet radio stations. Stations that play the music that we want to hear. The biggest challenge though is that not everyone has access to the Internet. And when we do, we are faced with the very harsh realities of cost, Internet speeds and amount of available bandwidth at our disposal.

Whether you applaud the sheer ingenuity of the idea or scoff at its immaturity, there is that widely held belief that radio has let down the artist and the industry. Or should I rather say that the business of radio has let both the artist and the industry down? These days the long-standing formula of many commercial radio stations reads as:

Big sales + Massive studio backing + Enormous Hype = Radio Play 

This as we are well aware of, is thanks to the unrelenting efforts of the likes of Simon Cowell, Scooter Braun and their ilk. And it does not mean that we get the best from our radio stations. The music that we want to listen to is relegated to the bottom of the playlists and is occasionally snuck in – unbeknownst to his superiors who are snoring in their comfortable beds – by some adventurous disk jockey who plays the graveyard shift.

But – of course – it’s an issue more complicated than that. Radio stations have always been a veritable number of things at once – businesses, the most accessible mediums for news and entertainment and the place where the next best thing can be first heard. They have to cater along the lines of what they deem to be the most accessible and most profitable. The problem that radio has faced over the years is that it is subjected to the controls and regulations set forth by governments. Maybe some of the music or artists we enjoy may not suitable for mass consumption, or mass distribution. The codes that they too have to operate within do have the tendency to sometimes frustrate, but that is not always the case that stops radio stations and their personnel from playing what many of us call “real” music. Sometimes the artists or their representatives are unable to stroke or massage the requisite egos quite in the way that they are accustomed to. Bye bye, thanks for coming.

Within the varied roles played by the radio stations, contradictions abound. On the one hand managers of artists and other industry commentators are frustrated by the inaccessibility to the charts or even airplay; and on the other the radio stations are sometimes quick to associate their brands with the incoming tours of major international artists. At this time the radio stations are accused of being glory hounds by some quarters of the industry, and by commentators of all shapes and sizes. No matter how hard they may try, somebody always gets left behind or offended or feels slighted even.

The most intriguing development that has always followed closely on the heels of the radio stations’ inability to satisfy the musical needs of their combined and varied listener ships, is the increase in live music events. These range from performances in the most compact of bars and indoor venues, to outdoor festivals that last anything from a couple of hours to a couple of days. These events pick up the slack from the radio stations and deliver to the people the music that they want to hear. And what is even better than the radio stations, is that these events sometimes carry the merchandise of the bands – the tangible element that many music lovers want to take from the experience. Should these events grow larger and become more famous, the radio stations find themselves interested in partnering in some manner with these new brands.

Whether or not radio stations make it their main objective to return to a time when they played the music – good music – or whether they feel that they have an overriding obligation to their bottom line, one thing is clear: The radio stations that play the music that we want to listen to are consistently seen as the exceptions. They thrive on being the anomalies. That is not the optimal state of affairs – there is more music than there are radio stations to play.

What I can say is that music has to come back home to radio. All parties concerned have to play their roles. If all else fails we shall rebel, revolt and riot!

Please note that the author does not hate radio stations or people associated with them. And while this piece does have the radio stations in its crosshairs, the author notes that in many cases the quality of the music that they are requested to play is certainly not up to a standard worthy of any amount of airplay. The artists also have a role to play, so do their managers. It is not enough to just be in a band for the sake of avoiding having a 9-to-5 job, but the perfection of their craft must be their burden and drive. And also, the author has a face for radio.

What is your take on this? Leave a comment and let me know. Feedback is appreciated and welcome here.

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Watch this space for regular updates in the Music and Opinion category on Running Wolf’s Rant.

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Menzi Hlongwa

Menzi Hlongwa

Music. Film. Art. Literature. Current Affairs. Culture. I document. Speak out of turn. Think. Engage. Offend. Witness.
Menzi Hlongwa

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