by Kevin Kimmes
It has been over 20 years since Frank Zappa left the mortal coil. Upon discovering some of his writings from 1968, I got to thinking about what Frank might have thought about the music business and all the changes that have happened since his death. Hell, with his belief that time isn’t linear in the way that we commonly believe it is, what follows could be/has/is happening right now in some other time stream.
We Want The Airwaves, And By We, I Mean The Corporations
Research the list of names in “Freak Out” and you’ll find the names of several disc jockeys on the list. I hesitate to use the word DJ, as the modern connotations are not helpful here. Zappa was a fan of men like Wolfman Jack (whose voice is immortalized in the classic film “American Graffiti”) and Art Laboe (the man credited with coming up with the phrase “Oldies but Goodies”). Sadly, the disc jockey is a dead concept these days.
As a few corporations (Clear Channel being the main offender) bought up as much of the airwaves as they could, it became clear that the days of the man in the booth taking requests and introducing folks to new tunes were soon to be no more. Instead, they were replaced by a faceless voice playing the same 20 songs hour after hour, day after day with the sort of clockwork precision you can set a watch by. How did this all happen so fast? Well for that answer, I’ll let Corey Deitz of About.com explain:
Well, here’s how we got to where we are. Last century, in 1996, Congress passed the “Telecommunications Act of 1996”, which covered a lot of changes to cable, TV, telephone service, satellite and terrestrial Radio. Actually, only a small part of the law dealt with Radio but here’s what changed everything:
Title II, Sec. 202 (a) modified the previous law, now allowing any company to own as many total Radio stations as it wanted. In effect, the Congress shouted, “FOOD FIGHT”, created a buying frenzy and trashed “any provisions limiting the number of AM or FM broadcast stations which may be owned or controlled by one entity nationally.” “WHOO HOO!”, shouted Corporate America, sounding just like Homer Simpson discovering pie in the fridge.
Next, in Sec. 202 (b)(1), the law laid out what percentage of Radio stations in each “market” one company could own.
For instance, if your city had 45 or more commercial Radio stations, one company could “own, operate, or control” up to 8 of them, but not more than 5 of which were in the same “service” as in AM or FM.
Thanks, Corey. So you see this is why today you can spin the dial and find the same 20 songs on 5 stations in your area all on about an hour and a half long loop. Now this isn’t to say that alternatives didn’t rise up to try and combat this. Internet radio gave those seeking reprieve from the tiring drone of terrestrial radio an alternative. With no corporate overlords to dictate content, anyone could create their own station and choose what got played. This, to me, feels like where we would find Frank, still fighting the good fight against censorship and established schools of thought. Maybe he even has his own station a mix of blues, Beefheart, doo-wop, and classical.
I’d tune in.
You Call This Reality?
“The Real World” debuted on MTV in 1992. No one knew it at the time, but it would spell the impending death of the “M” in MTV. Soon, the music video would become an endangered species as more and more of the daily programming calendar gave way to the soon to be dubbed “reality TV”. Whose reality this type of television actually represented is still unclear to this day.
As shows like “The Jersey Shore” and “Teen Mom” (two concepts that sound like satirical parodies fit for an early Mothers album) became the stations norm, less and less time was being dedicated to music, the thing the station was built on. The shift lead to a dumbing down of the station’s content as artistic mini-movies set to music gave way to newlyweds who didn’t know what was in a can of Chicken of the Sea (“Is it chicken or fish?”) and cheap cash grabs were made by musicians now in their twilight years (yes, we’re looking at you Ozzie).
The reality trend wouldn’t be limited to cable either, as the major networks all took their stabs at something similar and the reality contest archetype was born. It was trash TV mixed with a gameshow (which sounds a lot like the opening of “200 Motels” when you think about it) and the music industry was ready and willing to accept it with open arms.
American Idol. The Voice. X-Factor. All attempts by the networks (and labels) to continue to keep a stranglehold on popular music. I can almost hear Frank right now:
“And you too can be a musician by just standing in line for hours hoping to catch the eye of a casting director, and if you do they will have you sign your life away for the chance to be humiliated on national television and you will thank them for the opportunity. And you will be America’s sweet heart for a moment, until America’s next sweet heart takes the stage and you are forgotten and thrown out like last night’s bathwater. So is the way of pop stardom, Suzy Creamcheese.”
Now, imagine an out of touch FOX executive reaching out to Zappa about being a judge on American Idol. Preposterous you say? Just remember that NBC’s casting department recently approached Americana Music Award winner Jason Isbell to be a contestant on The Voice and anything is possible.
Thing is, Frank could have made a difference.
This goes one of two ways, either he approaches this as an opportunity to expose these things for what they are (a farce) or he could actually work from within trying to use his expertise in composition, arrangement and performance to help mold a future generation of performers who don’t feel bound to musical convention and carry the torch brightly into the future. You know what, scrap the American Idol thing entirely, now I really just want to watch Frank help build up free thinkers, dreamers and artists and expose mainstream music for the safe, canned, rehashed and sanitized tripe that it is. That’s the show I want, and maybe, in some other reality, that show exists.
Well, it’s time for me to go to work at the record store and do my part in promoting good music to the masses. Stay weird my friends.