Radio Song

Hey, I can't find nothing on the radio / Yo! turn to that station

I mention the intro from REM's "Radio Song" as way of saying I'm glad that Bill pointed out John Boydston's comments last week on the XM Kids playlist.

When I first read John's comments (which are every bit as wry as he is in person and on record) last week, the reason I didn't feel like posting something about it is, well, I don't think I agree. But Bill's comments made me go back and think about it a little bit more and... I still don't agree.

First, a conflict of interest note -- both XM Kids bigwigs Kenny Curtis and Mindy Thomas are voters in the Fids and Kamily poll. Next, as for me, I've been a XM Radio subscriber for more than a couple years now. We really don't listen to it around the house much, but I flip between XM Kids, XMU (their "college indie rock" station), the Presidential Election station, and whatever else catches my fancy, usually as I'm going to and from my job. Given the comparatively brief snippets of time I hear the station -- maybe a half-hour a day, 5 days a week -- I'm not sure I offer complete coverage, but it is possible to track when artists appear on XMKids...
The community at XMFan offers a band/song search of their playlist, and it's instructive. Look at... Candy Band, or perhaps The Hipwaders, the Asylum Street Spankers, or Lunch Money. They're all getting played on a weekly and daily basis. Maybe without quite the frequency that they were played last year, but I'm guessing that has to do more with the fact that those artists (excepting Lunch Money) all released albums last year -- it wouldn't be surprising if they were getting fewer spins this year.

And while I understand the "13 Under 13" playlist argument (a link to the latest version is there on the sidebar), I'm not sure that there's any difference in the "indie" nature (or, to be more precise, the TV/movie nature) of the lists over time. Yeah, there's always going to be TV- and movie-related music in the playlists, and, I'm willing to guess that that's more prevalent in the spring and early summer. (Note: Nothing can explain the continued popularity of the Alvin and the Chipmunks soundtrack which, at last count, has been on the charts for 27 weeks and gone gold.

So I guess what I'm saying is that I haven't heard a significant change in the playlist. Believe me, they're ramming the Jonas Brothers, the Naked Brothers, and the Smothers Brothers down our throats. (Just kidding on the Smothers Brothers.) They did it last year, and I think they did it the year before.

Having said all that, I can't say that I was all that happy when I picked up my paper this morning and saw that the FCC Chairman is recommending that the XM-Sirius merger be approved. Both systems carry Radio Disney as well as a non-Disney channel. The best result that could be expected would be to take the 4 channels, give up one in the merger, keep Radio Disney, and make one channel a broader "tween" channel and one for kids 8 and under. What we're more likely to get is 2 channels, one Disney, and one sort of like what we have now, targeted (mostly) at a younger audience.

And I will say that I haven't heard the Justin Roberts or Ralph's World as much as I seem to recall hearing them, say, a couple years ago. But it's hard to tell if that's because they're being frozen out of the playlist, people saying, "I'm sorry, I don't hear a single," or if I've just missed 'em. (Answer: probably the last answer.)

One final comment. Many artists have links to XM's (and Sirius') request lines, and they're there for good reason -- XM really pays attention to (and uses) listener requests. Sometimes a song (like Secret Agent 23 Skidoo's "Easy") takes off because it draws an immediate listener reaction and/or it has strong backing from the DJ. But the playlists are so unstructured and there's so much airtime to fill, that any feedback really can help a song. So the next time your favorite kids-rocker asks you to request a song, do so.

Wednesday update: Bill's updated his post, and I've responded somewhat in the comments there at the bottom.

To summarize: Bill and I still disagree.

I can't really disprove his points, nor can he mine, but it does beg the larger questions of a) whether it matters at all, and b) regardless of whether it matters, how can new music "break through" and does radio have anything to do with it?

As for whether it matters, I'm not sure. I'm sure XM Kids reaches more listeners than any other radio show (excepting Radio Disney), but I don't know if it has any effect on driving sales. I mean, it can't hurt, but I'm not sure what the marginal benefit is of having a song reach the top-played "13 Under 13" chart. And if it does, how much of additional sales is due to airplay and how much is due to the fact that the song must hold some intrinsic appeal to kids and families anyway otherwise it never would have reached that point?

For that matter, how do websites like this one or excellent radio shows like Bill's fit into the broader kids music world? I like to think that we're both "early adopters" within the genre, that we seek out, find, and broadcast (via the written word or over the air) music that is worth your while. And somewhere down the line, either through our websites or our other connections, our opinions ripple outward enough places (readers, librarians, mainstream radio, print magazines, concert venues, TV) that sometimes a band or artist achieves a critical momentum that propels them forward to more mainstream.

By no means am I suggesting that I'm responsible for the success of any artist I've talked about here, but I think at least part of my role has become to find things early. By definition I'm going to be more diverse in my scope (which is why reviewing Disney CDs is the exception, not the rule, 'round here). Bill is, too, thankfully.

In the end, though, I don't think there's any great secret to "breaking through" -- artists need to write and record good music, and get that music in front of as many people as possible, via the internet and live. That's what the current stars of the genre -- Dan Zanes, Justin Roberts, Laurie Berkner, to name a few -- did, and what the next set of stars will do, too.