Why indie acts are everywhere, except on the radio

Commercial stations are less interested in new music than they are in replaying 90s rock


Saskatoon's The Sheepdogs at the 2011 MuchMusic Video Awards. Darren Calabrese/CP

She stands in the spotlight, swaying back and forth, her eyes staring off at no one in particular. The lips that launched a thousand think pieces are obscured by a black mic as she sings, rather unremarkably.

Lana Del Rey’s debut Saturday Night Live appearance was by most accounts an unmitigated disaster, confirming in the eyes of critics that she was the manufactured fake many had assumed her to be. But perhaps more significant was the fact that Del Rey was able to transform her burgeoning online celebrity into an appearance on the late-night institution without the support of commercial radio.

She’s hardly the only indie act to break into the mainstream. The last decade has brought forth a slew of artists subscribing to the same aesthetic whose success can be attributed almost entirely to online buzz. Fêted by tastemaker sites like Pitchfork, and supported by eye-popping videos and savvy use of social media, these acts, including Del Rey and indie acts like Sleigh Bells and Bon Iver, who appear to be everywhere, have infiltrated the mainstream via festival slots, song placements in commercials and film and late-night television appearances. Yet they’re all suspiciously absent on the one medium where you’d expect to find them. “We’re seeing this divide between the acceptance of certain indie aesthetics in other media,” confirms Alan Cross, radio personality and former senior program director at modern rock radio station CFNY, The Edge in Toronto, “and not so much on radio.”

Radio playlists have long been a source of consternation for fans and musicians alike. But their frustration is based on the assumption that radio is actually interested in presenting new, cutting edge music, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

“It’s not radio’s job to break new music,” says Dave Farough, Vice President, Brands and Programming for Corus Entertainment’s 37 commercial stations. “In some cases, listeners want to hear new music. But in most cases they just want to hear what they like.”

Modern rock radio seems like a perfect home for the teeming hoards of indie artists looking to make the leap to the mainstream, but even stations like CFNY and Vancouver’s CFOX are loath to take a risk on music their listeners may not have heard. While some acts have managed to squeeze their way into modern rock radio playlists–a quick perusal of recent ones reveals bands like Said the Whale, MGMT and Crystal Castles peppered into programming–there remains a heavy reliance on 90s alt-rock and 2000s post-grunge acts like Bush, Foo Fighters and Alice in Chains and ubiquitous CanCon filler like the Trews and Finger Eleven.

According to Farough, the average Edge listener is about 30-years-old, and the ’90s are still dear to their hearts. “They grew up on ‘90s music,” he says, “and they still want to hear it, so that’s what we give them.”

Most stations get their market research via BBM, a not-for-profit research company sponsored by the broadcast industry. To calculate ratings in Canada’s five largest markets–Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton–the company supplies volunteers with a Portable People Meter or PPM, a pager-sized device that detects and stores identification codes embedded in radio transmissions. The data is then uploaded to a hub that transmits the data to BBM via household telephone landlines.

BBM’s data runs counter to the popular belief that radio is dead. Listenership is steady, profits are plentiful and radio’s reach—the percentage of the population that has access to it—has hovered in the low 90s for decades. And of course, it’s free.

All of which is why airplay is still huge for artists. Yet with programming power being placed in the hands of fewer and fewer people, and technology giving anyone and his dog the ability to record and distribute music, cracking the medium is harder than ever.

Farough believes that if a band wants to break into mainstream radio, they’ve got to be willing to work. “It’s like looking for a job,” he says. “Most bands these days don’t want to put the work in. They record a song and then expect radio to play it. I owe you nothing, just because you recorded a song.” Building a story is key if they want programmers to take note, he says. “If the music is good and the band is working hard to promote themselves, they’ll get radio airplay.”

Perhaps no band embodies this way of thinking more than Saskatoon’s the Sheepdogs. Two years ago the quartet was playing any dive that would have them and peddling their Allman Brothers-aping record Learn and Burn to anyone they thought might give it a couple of spins. But after scoring a deal with Atlantic Records and landing on the cover of Rolling Stone via the magazine’s “Choose the Cover” contest, the band all of a sudden found that the same programmers who originally dismissed them were now giving them regular spins.

But while radio can still fast-track a career, there are other routes to fame. Good press and word of mouth helped land Sleigh Bells a coveted slot on SNL, while Neko Case and the National co-headlined gigs in hockey rinks in Toronto and Montreal last year. And Bon Iver racked up over three million YouTube views alone for his song Holocene, sold out two nights at the 2000-seat Massey Hall in Toronto in December and scored two Grammys.

So what’s the big deal? Since radio isn’t interested and indie acts are doing fine on their own, everyone could just go back to their little worlds and carry on as they have for decades. But radio and indie rock need each other more than either side is willing to admit.

For all its faults, radio does have its advantages. “Radio is definitely still the fastest way to gain a large audience quickly,” says Cross. Vancouver indie rockers Said the Whale saw the benefits almost immediately after their song Camilo (the Magician) started trickling onto to modern rock radio playlists. “We saw attendance at our shows skyrocket and ticket sales went up and record sales went up,” says the band’s singer and guitarist Tyler Bancroft.

But if radio hopes to continue to hold on to this power, critics say it’s going to need to make some serious changes. “A lot of people under the age of 25 don’t listen to radio anymore,” says Cross. Though they remain modern rock staples, Nirvana and Pearl Jam’s most famous records are now two decades old. “If I’m 17, 18-years-old, I don’t give a crap about something that happened 20 years ago.”

The statistics jibe with Cross’s sentiment. BBM’s Fall 2010 Radio Survey says the average Canadian spends over 17-and-a-half hours a week listening to radio, while listeners falling into the 17 to 24 age range consume just under 12—a figure that’s been declining three times as fast as the national average.

Tamara Stanners, assistant program director at adult album alternative station CKPK, The Peak in Vancouver, believes that there is room for improvement, particularly when it comes to winning back younger listeners. “Radio has to do the same paradigm shift that record labels have had to do,” she says. “It is our job to go out and support these people who are there already and they’ve been there for a long time.”

The Peak is in the midst of attempting to do just that. It helps that the station is owned by the privately held Jim Pattison Group, which gives its programmers more control over what gets played. They flexed this muscle early: the first two artists played on the station were Vancouver indie-folk singer Dan Mangan and Newfoundland indie-poppers Hey Rosetta! Forty per cent of The Peak’s programming must be Canadian Content and 15 per cent what the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission defines as emerging artists, artists who have never had more than two songs in the top 40. In contrast CFOX is only mandated to play 30 per cent CanCon and has no emerging artist provision. “Having adventurous ownership is key,” says Stanners. “(Pattison) is an 83-year-old billionaire and he sees the value of it.”

Cross agrees. If radio hopes to make itself relevant to this next generation, the powers that be “need to think of a long term digital strategy and be damned with quarterly results,” he says. “It’s going to take an investment of time and money with a payoff that’s a few years away.”


Why indie acts are everywhere, except on the radio

  1. Radio is just like any corporate industry — too many people who think they’re the smartest guys in the room. Or more accurately, too many people afraid of losing their jobs by not toeing the party line. Good on Pattison, we need him in Ontario.

  2.  It’s not hard top understand when the noise is called music.

    • Uh, what?

      •  Apart from my accidental spelling error of “to” the meaning should be crystal clear. The product of the group in question is also clearly a cult thing.

  3. if you have materials to submit you can send them to will@soundfm.ca  or mail them out to Sound FM CKMS 142 Waterloo St, Waterloo N2J 1A8 . 

  4. Back in the 90s commercial radio was playing music from the 70s.  Now it’s playing music from the 90s.  In 2030, it will be playing Bon Iver.  That’s just the natural order of the universe. 

    • The problem is, say specifically with CFNY, that they used to play unfamiliar artists in the 90s. And it was AMAZING.

      Then something in the mid-to-late 90s changed and the playlists became increasingly stale and I stopped listening. I switched to electronic and indie rock not played on the radio and have been happy since. I find it hysterical though that I can turn CFNY on now and they’re still playing the same stuff as 20 years ago. It’s practically tragic.

  5. When bands write songs that cause people to line up outside the club, down the block and around the corner, when said CD is selling boatloads – then and only then will radio, record companies, booking agents and managers be interested.  It is a DIY world.  You can’t have it both ways.

    • Quite simple. Isn’t it? The only real thing that’s changed is the competition. Greater number of acts than ever before. And the difference between one band/artist’s success is how far & long will they work hard to get noticed. It’s a razors edge really. Being broke grows tiresome. I suppose once you have nothing to lose, it’s easier to sign a contract. But that’s another conversation altogether.

    • Which doesn’t jibe with the facts in the article.

      As stated, artists like The National and Neko Case are selling out hockey arenas in Canada’s largest cities. Maybe it’s time for commercial radio to wake up and realize, ‘Hey, maybe there’s a bigger demographic than we thought who want interesting new music.’

      • I was at the National show at the Bell Centre in Montreal. I bought my general admission ticket at the door and I can you that it was not a sold out show.

    • Write songs we will all remember, and makes people want to buy your merch two songs into your set.  That’s what it’s all about. 
      Every 15 – 20 years another Genereation of classic rock is born, now it’s the late 90’s turn. 
      Radio is in it to make – “surprise” – money.  just like every other company.  
      This is a business kids.  You favorite band survice or die based on their ability to create revenue.

      Now w/ Technology and 40 billion web pages, tweets and twats you have a way to get your music out now.  So you better be damn good.  there’s 39 Billion plus indie bands acts, djs, death metal, Gaga’s right behind you, or more likely in front of you. 
      Chances are your act actually sucks.  you just don’t know it yet because you can’t admit it. 
      But…Keep going kid, you just never know who’s gong to make it.  As every generation has it’s one hit wonders too. 
      They can’t all be Led Zep, or Pearl Jam, and who ever is next to sell out arenas consistantly.  This business is cruel, and relentless….it also has a dark side too.

      Til then, the songs that end up being played the most are ones that are actually pretty good.
      There will be always be sub genres and underground music, which is a great thing.
      But what will you do to get your act and songs into the ears of a bigger audience so you can play to more thatn 1000 people and headline.  That’s when you are in music business!  And that is when media pays attention.  You actualy have to be exceptional.  not just great.

      • Oh…and that’s why Sattelite radio is great…if people listened, you would find that there is an all CDN Indie Rock station.  24-7.  It’s cheaper than a stop or two to Star#ucks, and the radio all around is what you have been looking for in all formats. 

        No – i don’t work for em, just a music head, who wanted to hear something different on the radio, so I changed what I was listenting to.
        Best couple of bucks I will spend this month or any month.
        Good radio is out there.  it’s just not in conventional formats.

        Conventional radio only plays whats going to cut through.

        PS: Well Said as always Chesney, your’re the King!

  6. Radio was always the place to find and hear convenient free music, and while a station would occasionally play something you didn’t care for, you could pick your station to minimize it.
    For teens now though, their place to find convenient free music is the internet, their place to hear it is their MP3 players or smart phones, and those *never* play things they don’t care for.

    Teens aren’t listening to radio for music, so radio receives no significant increase in their audience when they play music the teens want. It shouldn’t come as any surprise then, that radios not that interested in trying new music.

    However, if radio stations want to compete, they’ll have to come up with stuff that folks can’t just download from the internet. That means reducing the music programming dramatically and instead playing up their radio personalities and live interactions.  Of course, doing this will alienate the older audiences who still primarily want music from their radios so.. it’s gonna be a hard balancing act, and I expect most won’t make it.

  7. Such

  8. I am 2hours 2days and 2years from being 80 ….500 songs,  37 albums later and I dont give a F****….

  9. The Buggles need to remake their one-hit wonder:

    Internet killed the radio star, Internet killed the radio star; in my mind and in my car, my Bluetooth tunes will go as far, Streaming came and broke your heart, put your blame on Metallica.

    • okay, so it doesn’t rhyme, sue me.

      •  Internet Killed The Video Star – has already been done. Its available and yes – its an indie artist – The Limousines.  :-)

  10. It’s interesting. I posted a note here just moments ago indicating where the Indie Artists are REALLY getting air and internet play. Within a few minutes of my posting that information my posting was removed. Hopefully McLeans will place it back here – it actually sheds a positive light on this somewhat slanted story.

    If not then we will know the magazine wanted to have the story slanted. If that’s true – shame on them.

    David Marsden

    • Well I know where to go and listen to real music on Saturday and Sunday evenings from 7:00pm until 12:00. 94.9 The Rock Oshawa Ontario Canada!

    • The author obviously doesn’t listen to 94.9 The Rock FM out of Oshawa Ontario Canada. I listen to David Marsden there every Saturday and Sunday night and hear indie acts all the time that don’t get the airplay anywhere else. Oh, and did I mention I live in Florida, radio cultural waseland of the universe? The fact that I can get my music streaming live over the internet from someone who has championed indie acts his entire career, is a big plus for me.

  11. CBC Radio 3 Online!  All the indie you want and more! Lots of great new music with a focus on Canadian artists. :)

  12. the writer has never heard of amazingradio.com then….

  13. Payola, in it myriad forms, still rules terrestrial radio. Many of the so-called “indies” are just corporate pawns as well. So, if you want today’s real music, as everyone knows, listen elsewhere.

  14. I’m not sure how you can write that many words about the radio landscape without mentioning the role of campus/community radio. I agree with “Thwim” that the younger than 30s are not listening to as much live radio, partly due to the music content of commercial radio which doesn’t cater to their tastes, and partly to avoid commercials and excess DJ gum-flapping. This is why our podcasts are almost as important as our broadcasts, and an engaging website with lots of exclusive video (music and interviews) doesn’t hurt either.

    • I agree, for me, it’s the commercials and inane dj chatter and not choosing what I want to hear when I want. There’s so many more alternatives, now. I think that commercial radio will soon be no more, but sites like youtube and vevo will fill the commercial void.

    • Except, oddly, it’s the DJ gum-flapping I’m thinking radio will need if it wants to survive. But not just inane stuff between the songs, rather things that get people interested and wanting to listen to the people speaking.

      I’m thinking things like Howard Stern, or if they got the TED talks on radio. In small niche communities (like college campuses) I’m willing to bet even a “gossip” type station might go over not too badly.

      Of course you’re right about commercials, and given that that’s basically the business model for private radio stations.. that makes it particularly difficult.

      •  Spoken word is technically not my dept. but we do have 20-30% spoken word shows including some syndicated shows like Democracy Now and some home grown shows (politics, health and wellness, media issues, a science show, even a 911 truth show). It’s campus/community radio, we get all kinds. I like to think we can keep it above Howard Stern’s level. But to my knowledge no one has proposed a “gossip” style show …yet.

        • Hm. What are the ratings like on the spoken word stuff, if you know/can tell? Better or worse than the standard music programming?

          Actually, you’d need to know the demographic split in the ratings as well. Probably a little much to expect out of a community station. You’ve got better places to spend your resources, I’d imagine.

  15. …it was probably obvious but I thought I should mention I am the music director of a campus /community radio station

  16. why are you showing the sheepdogs, they are hardly indie, more like derivative.

    • Indie isn’t a sound – it means not signed to a major label.

  17. Radio is a medium where you have no control over “choice”. There’s no point in being forcefed a preset playlist where for the first time in history, you can formulate your own tastes–choose the specific bands/music you want to hear–via the Internet juggernaut within 15 seconds. 

    • This does get brought up enough, and it’s true enough. With that said, I’ve never made my own playlists because I find it tiring. I like the more fine-grained genre choices that online streaming gives for that reason. I don’t have to choose specific tracks but I also don’t get stuck with the same dozen tracks every couple of hours either. 

  18. My two sons aged 16 and 15 couldn’t even name ONE radio station

  19. ““If the music is good and the band is working hard to promote themselves, they’ll get radio airplay.””

    There is no bigger load of b.s. than this. It doesn’t matter how hard you work, unless you fit very narrow parameters or radio is embarassed into playing your song, the VAST majority of good artists will never have their song played in more than a ‘feature’ rotation. Farough, you know that – shame on you for perpetuating a myth that tells artists like The Sheep Dogs and Feist ‘you’re not good enough’ or ‘you haven’t worked hard enough’.

  20. “In some cases, listeners want to hear new music. But in most cases they just want to hear what they like.”
    Why can’t that be both?  I frankly love hearing new music and when a station plays the same songs over and over again I switch stations, which is supposedly not what the stations want.  That goes for my 14 year old son.  He says commercial radio kills every song he likes by playing it to death.  He’s stopped listening and he’s the upcoming money-making demographic that radio should want and is losing.

  21. What it’s really time for commercial radio to do is tell Bob & June Baby Boom to frack off and let new music like The National and Neko Case be heard on these oldies stations like Q107 and Boom 93.6 (or whatever frequency it’s on.) It’s time for this demographic and the people/organizations/ad agencies to wake up and deal with the world as it is and stop stranding North American culture in the past like a prehistoric insect stuck in amber. The Beatles, Elvis, Gerry & The Pacemakers, etc., are almost dead and gone along with the eras that spawned them, and it’s time for these stations to go there as well.
    If it were up to me, all Classic Rot stations would be killed off by legally using the Cancon laws to do it. All of these stations nationwide would be forced to play new local music like the (hopefully) upcoming Indie 88.1 in Toronto, and those that didn’t would be forced off of the air, period. The world has changed, this is mother fracking 2012, and it’s time for those trapped in the past-culturally and musically-to get with the program of living in the present. If that means having to hear wall to wall screeching techno, then so be it. But it is time that they do so. 

    Those who love the past so much want to continue doing so, they can do so-but not with the public airwaves.

  22. Radio play is intended primarily to make money for sponsors and it used to be how people found music that they enjoyed but not anymore. The sheer repetition of the same popular songs ad nauseum reduces good artists to Muzak status. Most people use You Tube and we can browse a huge variety of songs from iTunes. Ed Sheeran is a perfect example of someone becoming successful through those means. If you spend a lot of time in your car you probably listen to the radio, if not, not.