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April 28, 2005


Alternative radio finally dies

You may remember that time in the early 1990's when suddenly a totally new style of music magically came into existence: "alternative". Even though bands like Red Hot Chili Peppers and Jane's Addiction had been around for years, fans had been suffering in silence without a marketing term to describe the music they liked. Once Nirvana got really big and formerly underground music became fashionable, many radio stations jumped on the trend, and changed their formats from regular/classic rock to "alternative," a name that was instantly made meaningless when the music it described ceased to be an actual alternative to anything.

Anyway, at long last, those days are over: the Times reports that the alternative format is dead dead dead. Formerly big stations in big urban markets are changing their formats from "alternative" (it's even harder to imagine what kind of music that means anymore, especially since downloading has erased the boundaries between mainstream and indepedent music) to formats like R&B, '80's, or talk radio.

Radio listenership among young rock fans has also dropped lately. The article says, "The share of the 18-to-34 age group that is tuning in to alternative stations has shrunk by more than 20 percent in the last five years, according to Arbitron, while stations playing rap and R&B or Spanish-language formats have enjoyed an expanding audience."

Another potential reason for decline in listeners is rock stations' decision to stop even trying to appeal to women. A former radio programmer and current VP at MTV describes how this marketing decision seemed to make sense at the time for stations that play rock music, but ultimately hurt them: "When you listen to alternative stations do their 90's flashback weekends, you can hear something as meaningful as Stone Temple Pilots and Soundgarden to something as silly and quirky as Harvey Danger and Presidents of the United States of America. When [your listeners] become 65-75 percent guys, you're leaving a huge audience on the table." I'm not sure what the implication is here about what kind of music women like, but I can say from personal experience that it is not Harvey Danger.

Of course, another obvious explanation is that young people who are into new music aren't listening to traditional radio anymore; they're either listening to free internet radio or their iPods.

But I'd like to think that Americans have stopped believing that listening to Nine Inch Nails or Beck is a tribute to underground music, or a rebellion against mainstream music produced by entertainment multinationals. The word "alternative" stopped meaning anything as soon as it was used to describe Pearl Jam, whose first album sold 11 million copies and saturated radio and MTV. There have always been and always will be loads of bands that are genuinely underground, but I doubt any radio stations are going to start adding them to their playlists any time soon.

A few stations that have avoided the whole "alternative" trend by continuing to play truly alternative music all along: WFMU in Jersey City, and pretty much any college radio station (WZBC and WUNH being good examples.)

categories: Business, Media, Music
posted by amy at 1:16 PM | #

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For the record, my wife loves Harvey Danger. She got into them from the remake of "Save it for later" found on the 200 Cigarettes Soundtrack. Along with my wife, I know plenty of females who enjoy "quirky" bands, including HD and The Presidents.

Posted by: Kev at April 28, 2005 2:42 PM

Maybe what this MTV guy is saying is that in the '90's, "alternative" stations played music that appealed to both men (Soundgarden) and women (Harvey Danger). Whereas now, these stations are only playing the heavy loud stuff, and they've lost a big part of their audiences.

Posted by: amy at April 28, 2005 3:11 PM

Hell, I am not afraid to say that I liked that one silly song by The Presidents of the United States of America better than I have ever liked any Stone Temple Pilots or Soundgarden music...

Posted by: MSosostris at April 28, 2005 4:11 PM

Also, WFUV plays some great new and old music, but I doubt they would label themselves as "alternative."

Posted by: MSosostris at April 28, 2005 4:12 PM

I think one cause of this loss of listeners might be the pervasive 'clear channel alternative' mentality that plays the same 20 songs over and over again because those are the bands they're currently promoting. In the past couple of years it's become more and more obvious which stations are playing good radio and which are playing corporate radio, and I think people respond to that as well.

Posted by: katekat at April 28, 2005 5:18 PM

I always thought they called it 'alternative' because it alternates between fast and slow, soft and hard (exemplified in the anthem Teen Spirit). It clearly is not alternative to other forms of hard rock...

Posted by: Martin at May 2, 2005 12:33 PM

I think there are lots of definitions of alternative out there. I use it in reference to the sort of music that WFUV plays, but that's probably because I like that sort of alternative music better.

And I agree completely that the loss of listeners is a direct correlation to the clear channel mentality.

Posted by: Mary at May 3, 2005 12:03 PM

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