Feist, Bon Iver and The National have all sold-out large venues, and have appeared on prime-time television and in major ad campaigns. So why can’t we hear them on the radio?
Lest you require any more proof that indie-soft-rock is the new mainstream, this week offers conclusive evidence. On Dec. 1, Feist plays a sold-out show at Massey Hall; five days later, her friend Bon Iver begins a two-night stand of his own at the historic concert hall on Shuter Street, on the heels of picking up four Grammy nominations last Wednesday. On Dec. 8, their equally sophisticated peers in The National make the leap to headlining the Air Canada Centre—a venue that recently hosted the likes of Kanye, Jay-Z and Prince. Not that anyone should be surprised by these plum bookings: These are artists who debut in the Billboard Top 10 and appear on Saturday Night Live and at the Grammys. Their songs have been used to sell everything from iPods (Feist) to whiskey (Bon Iver), or to soundtrack crucial scenes on Grey’s Anatomy (The National). But despite these artists’ successes and accessibility—heck, even Barack Obama’s a National fan—you will not hear any of them on mainstream commercial radio in Toronto.
Some might argue that Feist, The National and Bon Iver are already overexposed. While that may be true within the hive-mind mentality of internet music discussions (or, in Feist’s case, among CBC Radio 2 listeners), the fact is, if those artists actually received consistent mainstream-radio airplay, they could potentially be headlining stadiums instead of theatres. Even though radio has shed many listeners to self-curated iTunes playlists and other digital distractions, it’s still the major determining factor between an artist being a household name versus a dorm-room one. As a mate in the music industry recently told me, when it comes to breaking a new band, “Radio has never mattered less…but nothing will ever matter as much as radio.”
Now, I’m not under any illusion that mainstream commercial radio’s goal is to facilitate artists’ careers. Its function is to get as many people as possible in a specific demographic to listen to the Speedy Glass commercials that run between the songs. However, if audience retention and expansion are the ultimate end games, shouldn’t our mainstream rock radio stations actually reflect what’s currently happening in mainstream rock?
Alas, Toronto’s commercial rock stations adhere to a rigid demographic science, which dictates that playlists are compiled according to eras rather than actual shared musical aesthetics. Classic-rock kingpin Q107 refuses to acknowledge that any new bands have emerged since The Black Crowes and the Hip; its fellow Corus-owned counterpart 102.1 The Edge pretends music didn’t exist before 1990, judging by its post-grunge, alterna-jock-baiting music selection (which one wouldn’t expect to include the statelier likes of Bon Iver or The National, yet the station still makes room for UK aesthetes like Mumford & Sons and Florence + the Machine). Boom 97.3 offers a more accurate reflection of post-iTunes shuffle-mode listening habits (by recognizing that a Rush fan might also enjoy The Cure and Green Day), but its playlists are based on purely nostalgic ’70s, ’80s and ’90s parameters.
A recent survey of radio listeners revealed that their primary reason for tuning in is not to hear the current selection, but rather the anticipation of waiting to hear what’s next. The flipside to this theory is that listeners will tune out—a station’s greatest fear—if the next song doesn’t fulfill their expectations. However, radio playlists compiled according to era ultimately lead to false and forced associations, and, by extension, reactionary turns of the dial. During a recent listen to Boom, I heard Lou Reed followed by Gowan—do you know anyone who’d want to hear those artists back to back? Such curious combinations highlight the sheer illogicality of Toronto rock-radio playlists: The Sheepdogs and The White Stripes (both 102.1 the Edge property) have way more in common with Q107 staples like The Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers and Zeppelin than the Edge-rotated Foster the People and Crystal Castles, who would be more at home with the ’80s new-wave hits heard on Boom. Ultimately, Toronto’s rock radio stations serve to separate music from the audiences who would appreciate it the most.
Ironically, smaller-market stations outside of the GTA, like Y108 out of Hamilton, or Windsor’s 93.9 The River, have proven to be far more progressive than their Toronto counterparts when it comes to matching classic-rock artists with their contemporary equivalents. (The former boasts a more brawny mix of Black Sabbath and The Black Keys, while on the latter you’ll hear Adele and Metric alongside Talking Heads and Bowie. Neither station is perfect—Y108 is not immune to Nickelbackitis, and The River still dusts off its Jewel albums—but at least they understand that just because I came of age in the 1980s doesn’t mean I only want to hear music from then.) If a complementary mix of old and new can play in these proverbial Peorias, what are our radio stations so afraid of? Radio is, of course, an inherently conservative of medium, but in the case of artists like Feist, Bon Iver and The National, the market research has already been done, in the form of those prime-time TV appearances, sold-out concert-hall tours and high-profile ad placements—what more do they have to do to prove they have mass appeal? And why are our commercial rock stations so convinced that their listeners aren’t among the thousands of Torontonians going to see them play this week?
Maybe I’m naive, but I find it hard to believe that a Joni Mitchell or Neil Young fan would immediately tune out upon hearing a Feist song on Q107, but will eagerly keep it locked on for another spin of .38 Special or Styx. Speaking purely from a business standpoint, what’s the bigger risk for a commercial radio station: following up a song that a listener loves with a similar-sounding one they don’t know, or one that they’ve always despised?