Musicians Want the Airwaves Back

Passing the Local Community Radio Act will be like opening your windows on that first day of spring after a really long winter. We've been listening to the same stale, recycled music since the mid-90s. Who's particularly thrilled about the bill's potential? Musicians.

- - -

The musicians of America are packing their gear and heading to Austin, Texas, this weekend for the annual South by Southwest (or SXSW) music festival. With more than 1,900 acts expected to descend on the city (and those are just the ones we know about), SXSW presents precisely the sort of explosive and diverse soundscape we could expect to start hearing on the airwaves again if Congress takes action this year.

The Local Community Radio Act (HR 1147 / S 592) is the perfect antidote to the drudgery on the radio dial since 1996, when massive radio consolidation resulted in stations constantly spinning the same songs across the country.

For musicians, Local Community Radio Act will be invaluable. It’s become nearly impossible for local bands to get their songs played in their hometowns as playlists have become automated and computers have replaced the local deejay with her ear to the ground. Gone are the days when artists could bring their music down to the local radio station for a chance to be “discovered” as the next big thing. As far as commercial radio goes, you’re lucky if anyone’s at the station at all.

Making music, reaching people

I have a special place in my heart for this bill, both as a musician and as a former community radio station volunteer. For the past ten years, I have been making noise beside my friends and working alongside them to set up shows, promote albums, and sell t-shirts in bars, basements, attics and anywhere else people are eager to come see live music.

We do it because we love it – because we don’t know how not to – and none of us are really expecting to strike it rich. We simply want to make music, and we want that music to reach as many people as possible.

Luckily, we have a community radio station that plays our music, and the music of other artists living in the Pioneer Valley. But what about those places where only commercial radio exists? Might as well be static.

Corporate media would like us to believe they’re only feeding us the content we’re clamoring for, but don’t be fooled. We hear the same songs over and over again because it’s cheap and easy to produce and because payola – a rigged (and illegal) pay-to-play game where record execs bestow prizes and gifts on DJs – has come to dominate the commercial radio market.

Because of this crooked system, to actually get radio play is not a reflection of talent or merit or even taste. Instead, it’s all about money, and usually the only way a band can get on the radio is to follow the beaten path of seeking record deals and distribution through the major labels, who judge bands not on their sound, but on dollar signs.

No substitute for radio

The closed game of commercial radio is totally out of sync with the dramatic changes that have taken place on the production side of music. Over the past decade, technology has made it increasingly easy to record an album. The Internet has connected us to more affordable options for packaging and distribution. Social networks like MySpace have led to success stories, with unknown artists reaching a massive audience overnight. And online radio stations and podcasts have allowed new and underground content to reach even more ears.

But while the Web is great, it’s no substitute for broadcast media. With 40 percent of America still not connected to high-speed Internet (the kind of speed required to stream audio files), we can’t look to the Web as the definitive solution. Radios are a one-time cost (there is no monthly subscription fee) and you are connected for life.

The airwaves, which belong to the public in the first place, should be returned to communities. With the Local Community Radio Act, thousands of new noncommercial stations can be licensed across the country, giving musicians and fans an opportunity to hear an astonishing array of music, from local talent to a tune from across the ocean.

And if you don’t agree with the deejay, you can get your own show and share your love for reggae, metal, freak folk, electronica or whatever else you fancy.

Passing this bill will be like opening your windows on that first day of spring after a really long winter. We’ve been breathing the same stale, recycled air since the mid-90s.

Let’s turn up the volume already and make this happen.