Published Jul 01, 2004If you are serious about rock music, you've probably given up on commercial radio - just as commercial radio once seemed to have given up on you. After the advent of internet stations and peer-to-peer file trading, corporate-sponsored modern-rock outlets briefly scrapped their hopes of establishing niche audiences, preferring instead to target casual listeners with a dependably narrow selection of hits from the likes of Linkin Park or Creed.
Never content to allow a potentially lucrative market to slip out away, corporate stations are now scrambling to lure heads back out onto the airwaves, nowhere more fervently than in Los Angeles, where a new station (Indie 103.1 FM) is drawing praise from even the staunchest of obscurantist hipsters. Since taking to the airwaves late last year, Indie has built buzz by hiring street credible disc jockeys (like Henry Rollins) and playing edgy tunes from bands like Bright Eyes, the Shins and the Von Bondies, groups formerly consigned to community and college stations. In addition to those newer acts, the station also plays songs by groups like the Ramones, the Clash and Nirvana, thereby drawing a unifying line through the last three decades of alternative music.
Just as the classic rock format sprang up in the 1980s to address the nostalgic tastes of baby boomers, so too does Indie's cutting-edge and "alternative gold" approach appeal to aging generation X-ers, a target group now entering its prime earning and consuming years. Given Southern California's renown as a crucial testing ground for new radio formats, Indie's success has sprouted imitators in Seattle, Boston and Atlanta, a ripple effect that has forced even Canadian modern-rock stations to expand their play lists beyond the typically rancid rotation of post-grunge, pop-punk and nu-metal.
For indie heads, the corporate adoption of groups like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs might be a scary proposition, especially considering that Indie 103 (indie1031.fm/main.html) is closely allied with Clear Channel Communications, America's notoriously monopolistic entertainment conglomerate. Co-opted and broadcast to the masses, might indie rock become the new punk, a form drained of its vitality by the infiltration of capitalist ethos?
The short answer to that question is no, for no matter how broad the corporate radio format, most independent music will forever be relegated to the outer reaches of the dial. Rather than interpreting the rise of Indie 103 as a fatal threat to independence, it's best to view the station's introduction within the context of a larger pop cultural upheaval, a development recalling the last decade's flowering of alternative scenes that climaxed at Lollapalooza '94.
Ten years on from that legendary tour, Perry Farrell has put together a splendid line-up for 2004, taking cues from the highly successful Coachella festival to include hip-hop (Michael Franti & Spearhead), reggae (Lee "Scratch" Perry) and dance music (Basement Jaxx). Considered alongside the recent chart successes of indie stalwarts like Postal Service and Modest Mouse, the rebirth of Lollapalooza represents the pinnacle of a new golden age for alternative music.
As attested to by the box office success of corporate-backed documentaries like Bowling For Columbine and Super Size Me and the bestseller status of Naomi Klein's No Logo, there's money to be made in dissent, a reality that big business is exploiting with zeal. For artists who figure they can change the system from within its walls, the next few years will provide them an unprecedented opportunity to do just that. Whether they will succeed or be subsumed remains to be seen.
Regrettably, the latter scenario seems more likely, as evidenced by Roland Emmerich's latest summer blockbuster, The Day After Tomorrow, a lame disaster flick marked by platitudinous moralising about the effects of global warming. As Chicago Reader film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum noted in his review, "The movie does acknowledge a big problem and warns us that things could get worse - which could be seen as a significant step forward for American pop media. Yet it's not clear whether we're supposed to take the theme seriously and scoff at the treatment or the other way around - assuming we don't scoff at both." Sponsored by Rupert Murdoch, movies like this one do not bode well for the future of dissent in the world of corporate entertainment, no matter how many records Modest Mouse sells.