Thursday, July 28, 2011
Yesterday afternoon I was relaxing in my easy chair listening to DJ Jitar’s show and reading Harry Turner’s book “This Magic Moment”. I was tapping my toes to a classic Wanda Jackson tune and reading about the “backbeat” that was the hallmark of the early rock and roll and soul music. Suddenly it dawned on me, just how special the 50s and 60s were in the genesis of rock music and how much radio played in making it all happen.
The major record labels had a stranglehold on the popular music of the late 40s and the early 50s. Rock and Roll was looked down upon by our parent’s generation as being too loose and degenerate. Artists performing rock and roll were being repressed by the major record labels and they were not getting air play. Rock and roll artists became the mainstay of many of the independent labels and they started distributing their music through promoters directly to the radio stations who played rock and roll and to the record stores who sold it. This created a shift of power that gave birth to a whole new family of major record labels and to Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), the first performing rights organization in the United States to represent songwriters of blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel, and—ultimately—rock and roll. These were the genres that the other performing rights organization, ASCAP, did not want to represent. BMI was the primary licensing organization for Rock, Country and R&B artists, while ASCAP centered on more established Pop artists.
Radio stations were the key link between the new record companies and the teen audience that was the primary consumer of rock and roll. Every week, the promoters would come by and bring a stack of samples that they wanted the stations to play. The program director or music director of the station would go through the stack and pick the ones that would be added to the play list. These “up and comers” would then be added to the existing rotation of top 40 hits and oldies. Usually around that time, the new Top 40 list would be generated based on requests and record sales in the local area. So these playlists had a definite local flavor. This is important, because the only way for a local band to “break out” would be to convince the person choosing the new records for air play to add them to the mix. This is how new stars were added to the national scene. They came through their local radio stations. DJs travelling around on vacation of business would hear the station in the neighboring city playing a hot tune and they would add it to their rotation too. Eventually the band would go “regional” and if very lucky, “national“.
I remember sitting in the production studio of my old station with our program director, Woody, listening to the new stack of tunes. The process was almost brutal. We would start the song and listen to the first 30 seconds or so, as far as the first chorus. In case you were wondering, this is why the chorus is also called the “hook” of the record. If the song hadn’t hooked us in by then, it was unceremoniously ripped off the turn table and tossed into the grab bag to be used as prizes in a contest. Each station wanted to be the first to identify and play the newest hit. Sometimes, we would have to go back into the grab bag and retrieve a record that some nearby city was playing. None of this happens today because for most corporate radio stations, the play list is controlled from some far away corporate headquarters. Even if the station claims to be “live and local” this one aspect of it is usually not local. That makes it much harder for the indie bands of today. Oh MY!
Copyright 2011 Rick Wrigley