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Consumed With Hate: Modern Rock Radio

🎸 It's Got a Backbeat, You Can't Lose It...

The Crime: Modern rock radio
The Guilty Party: It's complicated...
Overview: Attention-grabby production techniques coupled with a de facto payola system, monopolistic business practices, and the stagnation that comes with age all contribute to rock terrestrial radio stations sucking.

Why I Hate It...

Before I go into this tirade about kids these days and their rock music, let me just say that I'm not actually complaining about kids these days and their rock music. The scope of my ire here is pretty narrow and has less to do with youth culture than it does with hyper-conservative (small-c conservative, I should say) business practices. So, yes I'm a grumpy old man, but give me a couple paragraphs to make my case before you write me off as a grumpy old man. Which I am.

When it comes to commercial art, form follows medium. Just to give an example, there's a reason hour-long television shows used to have a 4-act structure with A and B plots--they were built around commercial breaks and you needed things to cut between. Then, with the rise of prestige television and on-demand streaming, that formula largely disappeared and was replaced with serialized cinematic storytelling because that's more bingeable. The format changes, so does the art, because as a rule, artists are very good at making the most of things while working within the bounds and strictures of their medium. And I would argue that this holds true for basically any art form that's aimed at consumers.

Think about how music has changed as formats have changed. In my post about Pink Floyd's The Wall I talked about how the mechanics and costs of vinyl record production mandated that single albums be approximately 40 to 45 minutes long. When cassette tapes became the default format, the emphasis shifted towards albums you could listen to front to back without skipping songs, because it wasn't very easy to do that. Then when CDs became the default format, there was a shift again towards albums that had one or two must-own songs, so albums would max out at two or three radio singles tops. When Napster exploded and mp3 became the default format, suddenly there was a need to make your song stand out among the other mp3s, and it turned out the easiest way to do this was to just make it louder.

The process and reasoning gets a little technical, but I'll try to keep it straightforward. Our brains have a bias towards loudness. If something is louder, we think it sounds better. Not to say that we like things to be deafening, but all other things being equal, if you are comparing how two things sound, you're going to pick the one that's louder. Now with CDs, you can't just make them louder. I mean, you can to an extent, but there is a ceiling to how much signal you can put on a disc. What you can do is raise the average volume of the song using compression and limiting. These tools can make the quiet parts louder and even out the overall volume level of a recording. And these are not new tools, but the CD era was when things started being mastered with loudness in mind. To wit, remember circa 1987 when a bunch of classic albums were issued on CD for the first time but they sounded real quiet compared to modern albums, and then a few years later they got remastered and released again? Yeah, that's because they weren't originally mastered for loudness, but then they needed to be in order to sound good alongside contemporary music.

Now, there's a trade-off to mastering for loudness. At a certain point, you start to lose clarity. Sound isn't supposed to have a uniform volume, so the more you squash things, the less intelligible the individual instruments become. Suddenly, the only thing you can hear is whatever's loudest in the high, low, and mid range. This favors songs that have very clearly delineated bands of sonic information--something loud in the bass, something loud in the treble, and lots of space for the vocal in the middle--and certain genres fare better than others. For instance, pop and rap work real well with these kinds of arrangements. To be fair, pop does because it borrowed a lot from rap in the 90s and rap does because its musical roots are in funk and disco, but as rap started expanding and developing its sonic identity, it kept those sensibilities to its sonic map. Listen to Nuthin' but a "G" Thang or Sure Shot and what do you have? Deep bass, something filling out the top, and plenty of space around the vocals.

But we're here to talk about rock and roll, which is notably quite different from rap. Importantly, rock music is very mid-rangy. That's because rock is guitar-driven, and guitars sit in basically the same sonic space as a male vocal. There's a tendency to mix rock with the guitars very far forward, and to layer them to create thick arrangements that are either lush or crunchy. That's just part of rock's aesthetic, especially harder rock. But when you compress the snot out of a rock song--for instance, when the rock radio station slaps an aggressive limiter across their broadcast signal--the vocals get lost and the whole thing turns to mud. So as the loudness wars escalated, rock needed to adapt.

Another factor at play is changes in recording technology. Getting a whole band together in a studio with acoustically treated rooms and a good recording console run by a skilled engineer... that's expensive. It can easily run thousands of dollars a day, and that's not including the musicians' time. You know what's not expensive? Running Pro-Tools on a laptop in your spare bedroom. And the tech is just getting cheaper and more powerful. Back in the day you'd get everyone in a single room for a good take of the song and then overdub in leads and vocals. Nobody does that anymore outside of country, jazz, and anything produced by Rick Rubin. More commonly, the producer works with the musicians individually on their parts, which are all captured separately and edited together. This, in turn, has led to a couple of interesting trends.

The first is a trend away from naturalistic sounding recordings. Fake naturalism is tricky to get right, and sometimes stylized artificiality sounds just as good. So artists lean into it. For example, modern music doesn't have a lot of reverb or delay on it. These tools are used to give an instrument atmosphere and to localize it within a three dimensional space. But modern songs aren't recorded in a single room, so why would you try to make them sound like it, especially when those effects are just going to make things muddier once you compress them? So instead, the guitars and vocals are mixed to be right in your face. Seriously, the next time you listen to a modern song compared to an older one, listen for those echoes on the instruments that would give you an idea of how far away they're supposed to be. In most modern music, it's just not there.

The second trend has been a shift away from artist-driven albums to producer-driven albums. Recording music isn't about capturing a band's performance anymore, it's about assembling the song in the computer, so the people making the decisions are the people who are talented at editing and assembling songs, or people who have access to a desirable sound library. This is how Danger Mouse got to be a household name--and it's not a coincidence that he started out in hip-hop. To be clear, I'm not complaining about this. I love Danger Mouse, but you can't deny that Beck's Modern Guilt sounds more like a Danger Mouse album than it sounds like a Beck album. Frequently, albums won't have a single producer, but a team that work on songs individually. In extreme cases, three or four producers will each work on a song and then compete to see whose version gets on the album. And in those cases, what version of the song wins? It's the one that grabs your attention.

And that's how we end up with songs like Dangerous Night by Thirty Seconds to Mars, embedded above. I didn't pick this song because it's particularly bad, but rather because it's emblematic of these trends. At any given moment in that song there's only one or two things going on--whatever that is, it's right in your face. The movements shift abruptly. Musical ideas don't develop over the course of the song. There's no ebb or flow, just an unrelenting progression of stripped down motifs. It's too simple to engage me, but it never pauses to catch its breath, so for me, it's kind of the worst of both worlds: simultaneously boring and exhausting, like a slightly less obnoxious version of dubstep. And it's not just this song. I could just as easily have picked their new single Stuck or Bring Me The Horizon's Lost or any number of new songs that feel like they were assembled in a factory because, not to put too fine a point on it, they were.

And yet, these dominate the radio... sort of. The thing is, rock and roll hasn't been one of the cool kids for a while now. All of these other trends in changing production techniques and the loudness wars happened right as rock was losing its cultural cachet to gangsta rap and bubblegum pop. Nü-metal and emo had their moments, sure, but they never had the clout that grunge did. So, half the songs on the St. Louis "New Rock Alternative" radio station are 30 years old, and I'm going to assume that it's basically the same in most areas because they're all owned by iHeartRadio and we effectively only have one rock station in this country.

And here's where we get into the weird economics. There's a business arrangement called "payola" where record labels will pay money to get certain songs into heavy rotation and... it's illegal. But some form of it that skirts the legal definitions of "pay" are surely happening. The small handful of conglomerates that own the major record labels have relationships with the small handful of conglomerates that own all the radio stations, even if there's not explicit payment for spins. But these are all enterprises run by frightened old white dudes who are risk averse and in a panic because the music industry is not doing great. So what are they pushing? The stuff that worked before and attention-grabby trend-chasing lifeless "hits" that were assembled by the music factory to satisfy as many listeners as possible.

The frustrating thing is that there is a lot of good, new rock and roll out there that has adapted to the loudness mindset. Just the other day I found this song by The Beeches, and it's a bop. And it sounds good compressed, because the arrangement moves the guitars up higher in the spectrum, leaving space for the vocal in the mid-range. And if you check out some modern alternative stations on Spotify, you'll hear a lot of that. Guitars that are thinned out and pushed higher up--there's a lot of jangly New Romantics influence in the air right now. In fact, some of my favorite albums of the last few years have gotten very creative with how they're placing instruments and creating space while still allowing for loud mastering. Because it turns artists are pretty good at working within the strictures of their medium.

It's a shame that none of it's on a major label, so you're never going to hear it on the radio.

Next week, we're going to take a look at the Joel Schumacher contributions to the Batman franchise, nips and all...

In CONSUMED WITH HATE, Kurt is revisiting media that he absolutely did not like one bit. See more posts.