27 April 2005

Time Machine Diaries: Volume 1

Warning: this entry spiralled out of control.

Going back in the catalogue to the Dead Kennedys. They're a brilliant band, one of the bands that makes you wish you were in their time on their scene if only to experience the hysteria they generated for being a band. A song like "California Uber Alles" still retains its anger even though the song itself had to be updated from Jerry Brown to Ronald Reagan as the DK's career continued. I mean, here's Biafra grafting one of the most plainly recognizable ultra-nationalist references to a state being run by a guy who achieved the nickname "Governor Moonbeam."

In the time of the DKs I was in elementary and middle school. It is amazing how timeless many of their themes are, though: brain washed consumers, right wing fascists, dippy liberals, religious zealots, and power subverting knowledge are all entities still with us. It'd be unfair to say that there aren't bands like the DKs around today, because much of the DK reputation is built on music historians digging the past and setting the canon. The DKs were marginal in their day, as were the Sex Pistols, who let's face it, only ever mounted one US tour and that ended poorly.

However, it may seem that the DKs inhabited a space that doesn't exist anymore: as they warned (see for instance "Pull My Strings"), corporate music spread and consolidated power in the twenty years since the DKs stopped functioning. The independent radio stations have been gobbled up by corporate giants who have made rigid playlists the law of the land. For those who remember WHFS pre-1993, the loss is tangible. WHFS had quirky, DJ-driven programming that spanned reggae, blues, electronica, and eclectic modern rock (note: not "alternative"). Not that the DKs were regular members of the playlist on HFS, but in a climate of local programming, radio stations can take on identities that lead to respectablility, if not profits. Unfortunately, WHFS became just the Washington outlet for a test-marketed corporate radio scheme. It's not much of a surprise that the station suddenly became a Spanish language channel literally overnight -- it had no more individuality than a beige carpeted apartment.

You might call the stuff about WHFS a digression, but it's part of the music industry that's inextricably linked to the Dead Kennedys' anti-corporate stance. Like the local Dischord group, the DKs recognized the necessity of circumventing corporate control at least at the point of production by forming their own record label, Alternative Tentacles. At least you can put the stuff out, but then there's distribution, marketing, and airplay. We've got a system that's fundamentally changed and is still changing.

Distribution used to be the bottleneck for small labels, but that's only when conglomerates like Tower Records, Borders, and Barnes and Noble were crowding out the local independent stores that stocked stuff you wouldn't find at National Record Mart and Target. These days, distribution is a mouse click away.

As for marketing, it's mainly important for artists who want to rule the world (or whose handlers want to rule the world): see late nineties boy bands, Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, etc. I look forward to the day they are dragged down in the death throes of the traditional recording industry.

And now we come to airplay. The state of radio is very sad. Very very sad. However, internet radio -- despite royalty questions still to be resolved -- is a major positive development, and satellite radio could offer hope. A further development, if the FCC will ever stop kowtowing to the massive broadcasting corporations, could be local broadcasting, with low power FM stations.

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