Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer, tap water is mind control, Hillary Clinton is Satan, the earth is flat, whatever. That’s all noise. The real conspiracy, dear reader, is FM radio.
Here’s how the average artist gets their song onto a radio station like 94.9 or 99.7: they don’t. It’s basically impossible for an artist, especially one who is unsigned or signed to an independent (“indie”) label, to get their song on the radio. (The only exception in recent memory is Adele, who is signed to British indie label XL Recordings. But that’s a different story entirely.) Basically, the three major labels — Sony Music, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group — have enough cash to keep a chokehold on American FM radio, which is more dangerous than it might seem.
According to a 2012 Nielsen report, 48 percent of Americans still use the radio as their primary tool of discovering music, even with the advent of Spotify, YouTube and the like. Despite the equalizing forces of the Internet, major-label artists still get to dominate our attention by dominating the radio. And because people keep listening, major labels — from a purely business standpoint — have little incentive to switch up the sort of music they release.
Indeed, this is why it takes so long for trends to slip in and out of all the songs that are heard on the radio. Pop music can sound like anything, really — right now, it’s a lot of “tropical house” and trap rap — but these trends literally take several years to ebb and flow. Electronic dance music’s turn in the limelight has finally faded, but in the first few years of the 2010s, it was like a virus on the charts, years after it should have expired.
Even when a force of innovation miraculously appears on the charts, they often face resistance from the major label executives that help finance their music. While it’s true that Lorde was cashing in on a creeping trend of minimalist pop when she released her debut, “Pure Heroine,” her music was still alarmingly fresh in the world of 2013 mainstream pop. But she faced pushback in realizing her vision. In a Newshub documentary on the New Zealand singer, when she plays her most unconventional song (the stunning “Ribs”) for an executive, he wants to change the song’s cyclical, offbeat structure; she refuses to budge, though, until he finally concedes.
What’s so funny to see now is how the structure of a song like “Ribs” has bled into the rest of pop — most recently, Beyonce’s “Formation” imitated its bifurcated structure, both songs flitting from one set of hooks to another in a gorgeous, restrained crescendo. In the world of radio pop, innovation does not beget innovation — it mostly creates imitators, evolutionary steps instead of revolutionary ones.
All of this matters in a much deeper way than just striving for better songs on the radio, though. Considering that many Americans are brought up listening to mainstream pop, on the radio or otherwise, it serves as a form of musical conditioning, especially because a lot of it is so homogeneous. Yeah, the radio can play everything from “Bodak Yellow” to “Look What You Made Me Do,” but those songs have far more in common than they do in contrast.
This isn’t a problem, necessarily. But it’s important to note that the musical indoctrination of FM radio benefits one party, and one party only: major labels. They’re absolutely loaded and get to dominate our musical attention, and their conditioning leaves people averse to other kinds of music — most of the stuff that comes off independent, or “indie” labels — so most Americans keep listening to them. It’s a vicious cycle, an echo chamber. Looking out at the landscape of modern music, that’s had a knock-on effect — I see echo chambers throughout music. It’s a severely divided part of our culture.
Just examine the state of music criticism — I swear it’s written in a language other than English, one that’s basically impenetrable for an average reader. Most reviews are filled with references to obscure artists and movements, but even between different music websites, musical reference points have drifted so far apart from each other that reading a given music website is like parsing unique ciphers, cracking a cultural code. Music critics James Parker and Nicholas Croggon rightfully eviscerated the insularity of music journalism in 2014, referring to many journalists’ tendency to refer to an obscure subcultural niche as an elitist, isolating tactic — an “infection,” to be precise.
But, in an effort to be fair to your average music writer, it all starts with the cult of FM radio, which creates a process of subcultural insulation — like cliques in a high school, except with types of music. In the shadow of a corporate behemoth, small-scale musical subcultures — like the Pacific Northwest’s folk scene, or Seattle punk, or Brooklyn indie, or Midwestern footwork — are forced to develop and become incredibly tight-knit, usually in an effort for labels and artists to survive, on a very literal, financial level. FM radio pop is almost like a divisive dictator, in this way forcing smaller artists to cower in fear from each other, even as it harnesses all its power from smaller, independent music. (Skrillex didn’t invent dubstep — the genre started out of a very specific political and cultural context in South London.)
Incredibly, even as the Internet paved the way for some of those boundaries between musical subcultures to dissolve in the 2000s, major labels found a way to cash in, to keep up a boundary between the “mainstream” and the “underground.” Nowadays, majors have picked up both independent artists from various subcultures (LCD Soundsystem, Death Grips, Vampire Weekend) and also created imitators (Young the Giant, alt-J, Twenty One Pilots), but they don’t put these guys on the radio. Instead, they use bands like those to appeal to those subcultures, and the brutal trick is that those independent artists who are signed — on a literal, financial level — have no reason not to. FM radio creates subcultural division, and then subculture becomes corporate culture. It’s a classic story — it happened with hip-hop in the ‘90s, it’s happening with several genres now, and it’s going to keep happening.
There’s something to be said for how musical echo chambers are — well, echo chambers. A divided culture is a divided nation, at least in a small way. The truth is that the boundaries between types of music — capital-P pop and underground indie, metal and ambient, etc. — are vanishing edges. The trick of FM radio is that it plays pop music, but no one knows what pop music actually sounds like. Pop songs don’t even have to have proper choruses anymore (see: “Ribs”), so … who cares? It’s all pop music. And you’re missing out.
I said that FM radio was a conspiracy, and maybe that’s an exaggeration — it’s just a tool of the corporate machine. Conspiracy theories are mostly stupid, anyway (they’re up next on You’re Missing Out). But for real, Lorde was invented by the Church of Satan, just saying.