Many indie artists would find mainstream acceptance, given mainstream exposure. There’s no shortage of folk-pop, folk-rock, new-folk and alt-country bands, both acoustic and electric, together with a bumper crop of 6-string-wielding and keyboard-playing singer-songwriters who aspire to bigger audiences. Yet the industry has no dialog aimed at finding "the next Jackson Browne," or "the next Nitty Gritty Dirt Band" or even "the next Nora Jones."
Instead, the moguls have decided to prevent Internet radio from bringing indie artists to the unwashed masses. The recent FCC/big label/corporate radio payola settlement and the RIAA action to protect artists from Internet radio exploitation are, despite their paternalistic claims, really just the latest efforts to freeze out the indies.
Indie artists need the exposure once given through hometown radio stations. Corporate control and centrally-planned, payola-driven playlists ended that access. Big Radio’s latest payola settlement with the FCC does mandate compensatory airtime for indie labels, but when you amortize it across all the stations they own, the actual airtime is insignificant.
Meanwhile, growing numbers of music fans enjoy Internet simulcasts of broadcast radio like Tied to the Tracks and Folkscene, archived podcasts of some public radio shows, and web-only programming, like Folk Alley. (We listed dozens of these in last year’s two-part roundup.) But success can make you a target. The RIAA’s new demands for collecting per-song, per-listener payment will make most Internet radio unsustainable. Who are RIAA and the big labels protecting? Their own hegemony.
Remember the TV commercial wherein brobdignagian financiers are mildly annoyed by the lilliputian small business owners? They try to fry the little guys under Hubble-sized magnifying glasses, or send them scurrying away from colossal golf balls like Indian Jones and the cave boulder. It could be an RIAA ad.
Still, art always finds a way. This year’s Grammys were the most folk-friendly in memory; perhaps that’s what scared the pop and country big boys. The Dixie Chicks won five, the Klezmatics won for their Woody Guthrie album, and Bruce Springsteen was in there with his Pete Seeger tribute.
We’d resigned ourselves to being niche-market folkies, celebrating the best indies with an assortment of other honors like the 2006 Just Plain Folks best album awards won by Susie Glaze & Hilonesome, Lisa Haley & the Zydekats, and Bob Malone. February brought the international DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Convention, where Album of the Year honors went to local folk artist James Hurley for his fine CD, The Sun and the Moon. It’s the same honor that L.A.-based keyboard-folkie Amilia K. Spicer won three years ago for her album, Seamless. Amilia has spent the last eight months opening nationwide for John Gorka. Non-mainstream recognitions can matter to an indie artist.
But will they matter as much if new media is sabotaged as an exposure and delivery system for indie music? Marshall McLuhan or Andy Warhol – sources vary – observed that the medium is the message.
Historically, radio has been the medium. It’s brought new artists and new music, beginning with its advent after World War I, when it first enabled a musical revolution.
How You Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm After They’ve Seen Paree? Simply put, society didn’t. The returning troops needed to escape the shellshock horrors of the trenches and the monotony of rural America. They drove America’s rural-to-urban migration, the Lost Generation’s poetry and literature, the Roaring ’20s, the ascent of jazz, the roots of swing, the speakeasy response to Prohibition, and the desire for radio.
The contrast was harsh. From childhood, the troops knew songs like On a Bicycle Built for Two and K-K-Katie played on the Edison gramophone. Changed sensibilities and radio technology developed in wartime created Al Jolson, Cole Porter, Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli. (Catch a show with Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys and you’ll hear the scope of that musical change.)
Three decades later came the 1950s rock revolution, from artists who were children when the portable thunder of steam locomotives was replaced by the monotonous burble of the diesel. As society’s backdrop became boring, rock artists musically replaced the lost raucous cadence of the steam train. Johnny B. Good didn’t just sit beneath the tree by that railroad track. He absorbed the energy of urgent brass bells, steam exhausts, and their combined rhythmic syncopations. Radio let Johnny go, go, go to the masses.
People have needs that transcend the mundane. But today, corporate-mega-giants end-game capitalism freeze-out anything different, whether it’s Big Oil killing the electric car, or the hegemony of corporate radio’s sound-alike pop.
Those who control things oppose destabilization. And art, by nature, is rather chaotic. When art found a way, through niche-market music programming on public and Internet radio, the status quo was threatened. Hence, search-and-destroy backlash from the big boys.
Could we have expected anything else, amid predictions that corporate radio and big record labels were becoming irrelevant and obsolete?
Internet broadcasting may confound exterminators by routing itself through places that scoff at copyrights, like Cuba or North Korea (at least until we invade those places). A reef in Micronesia may fly a flag as The Indie Republic of Radionia. Sure, the indie artists lose if their rights to financial compensation are ignored, but then, they already lose with the big label / big radio hegemony that’s in place now, payola settlement or not. In any case, art will again find a way. It always does.
– – –
Real performance art can interpret and cover someone else’s songs and make the experience truly worth listening. Legendary songwriters Eric Lowen & Dan Navarro do splendidly on their 2006 Hogging the Covers CD (Red Hen Record) and Tim Tedrow & Terry Vreeland did it earlier this year with Songs We Stole from Our Friends (Trough Records). Both CDs present a fine duo of performing songwriters taking a holiday to cover their favorite songs written by others, bringing their own interpretative voices and instrumentation to the songs.
Similarly, both Kacey Jones in 2006 and Ronny Cox this year released tribute albums with songs of the late Mickey Newbury, one of the great under-appreciated songwriters of the past 40 years. The 2007 Folk Alliance National Conference in Memphis teamed the two artists to present a concert of Mickey’s songs, with his widow in attendance. Kacey Jones Sings Mickey Newbury (Image Entertainment label) and "How I Love Them Old Songs…" Ronny Cox Sings Mickey Newbury (Bay Sound Records) are both wonderful, beautifully packaged with lyric booklets, and highly recommended. If you don’t know Mickey or his music, start here.
All four of these "cover" albums received their world premiere airplay on the Tied to the Tracks radio show. That was an honor, not just because notable artists offered their latest projects, but because they’re fine musical experiences with worthwhile material, delivered by performers who are artists first.
– – –
The Times They Are A-Changin’ on these pages
Tied to the Tracks is moving to a new print publication home, as a result of the previously announced intention of the FolkWorks Board to cease print publication and have a web-only presence. While it is possible that FolkWorks print edition may be rescued and continue in a reduced size, that possible pardon from execution has come too late to undo this writer’s move. News of Tied to the Tracks, both on radio and in-print, is found at www.myspace.com/laacoustic, including the Acoustic Americana Music Calendar, LA’s most comprehensive and annotated descriptions of acoustic music performances, across the radio show’s folk-friendly genres. It’ll guide you to my print-media writings on Americana musicians and topics, from blues-to-bluegrass, Cajun-to-cowboy-to-Celtic-to-Quebecois, and new-old-trad-alt-post folk, from roots-Americana to today’s best "acoustic renaissance" singer-songwriters and bands.
Meantime, say howdy at a festival. There’s the new Stagecoach Festival, May 5 & 6 in Indio, the one that will be, without question, the live music event of the year. Also in May / June, there’s Northwest Folk Life in Seattle, the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado, and here in Southern California, Topanga Banjo Fiddle, Old Town Temecula Western Days, Conejo Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival, CTMS Summer Solstice, Live Oak, and Huck Finn.
I’ll see you Saturday mornings on the radio, in another print publication, and in some still undefined role here in FolkWorks. Thanks for riding these page 6 tracks for the past five years, and for your many kind words for the column and last issue’s western music cover story. Stay in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org and remember to check the radio show’s upcoming guests and the Acoustic Americana Music Calendar at www.myspace.com/laacoustic.