What’s Wrong with Alt Music Today? Industry Pros Speak Out

If you’re a regular reader of these pages, you’ll know that I’ve been writing about today’s state of rock and alt-rock. With everything that’s happening in the world–a possible President Trump, ISIS, terrorism, the refugee crisis, Wall Street crooks, #blacklivesmatter, Zika virus, the growing wage gaps, et al–you’d think that the young would rise up and start protesting through music. But in a break with history, the current generation has instead turned inwards, producing what seems like an endless stream of introspective mid-to-low tempo songs instead of picking up guitars and screaming their heads off. The vibe across all rock and alt-rock is distinctly poppy.

In my capacity at 102.1 the Edge/Toronto, I spend time with the music department going through lots and lots and lots of music each week and, well, I can’t help wondering what’s going on.

Turns out I’m not the only one. The Sands Report, a weekly industry newsletter that’s sent to alt-rock industry pros (especially radio people), had this to say this past week. (And yes, I asked Richard if I could reproduce it.)

The State of Alt Music: Not All Unicorns and Rainbows

Judging from the comments that I heard after last week’s issue, maybe the state of Alternative isn’t quite as rosy as it might seem. “I highly doubt you can say the

“I highly doubt you can say the state of Alt radio is good when the programmers are playing so many recurrents, and so few actual currents,” one veteran record promoter confided to me. “Do the guys you quoted know what they are saying?,” asked a long-time radio insider, concluding that if PDs and MDs don’t like what major labels are presenting them with, they can simply seek music from other sources. He added rather incredulously, “You can’t find anything to play that fits your sound in the entire world?”

The normally brutally blunt Michael Halloran, the PD at 91X/San Diego off and on since 1986, sees a reason for optimism. He claims that the state of Alternative is, “in flux.” On the one hand he notes, the poppier music that many stations are playing is not really Alternative. But on the other, not all the pop sounds are bad to him.

“Certain artists, like Lorde for example, are solid in my book. Even though she went full-on Top 40, she’s proven herself with the Bowie tribute and her relationship/influences with the band called Why?,” Halloran states.

And better yet as far as he’s concerned, the Pop stance the stations in the format adopted a few years back is starting to move on.

“It seems to me that some, yet not all of these Pop bands are now being replaced by cool new artists,” he tells me, citing The Shelters on Warner Brothers as one example.

But it’s not just the cool new artists, Halloran is excited to see good stuff from older bands like Wolfmother, and local San Diego artists. He says, “The Frights and The Young Wild are making a serious impact here. The Frights sold out  SOMA on the CD release party—that’s amazing!”

Oldtimers like me, and even some not so oldtimers who have been around the block have seen many trends come and go at Alt radio.

Let’s see. Besides Pop, I can recall grunge, Britpop, “the Lilith Fair” female artists period, the Limp Bizkit hard-rocking’ days. It all comes and goes in cycles, right?

Willobee, whose panel at SxSW last week was a huge, standing-room-only success, notes that in the past labels would try to break a record at the Alt format and after a good run, they would then try to cross it over, either to Top 40, Triple A, Hot A/C, or even all three.

He says, “It seems these days, more and more, labels are just throwing a record out there to many formats to see where it takes hold. That has really blurred the lines between formats. What sets us apart from Top 40, Hot A/C, and Triple A if we are all playing the same tracks at the same time? What used to make Alt stations special as “new music discovery” ports has been reduced to playing anything that is new or that is hit-oriented. The days of deeper records are gone.”

He then candidly revealed this to me: “We tried following the Alt chart at KRZQ for our first two years and our ratings were in the toilet. We needed to fix it or we would be toast.”

Troy Hanson’s comment in last week’s issue about going where the audience wants us to go was a big topic of discussion in Austin.

“It’s not a problem to be playing music people like,” Hanson tells me. “Each programmer will have to figure out how to best use the Pop hits as weapons while weaving in Bear Hands and JR JR.”

Yes! That reminds me about something a jock at Live 105 once said to me after the station later purged its library of pop. “Isn’t Pop just a shortened word for popular?,” he asked me without a hint of irony.

How about at the label end? Often times, it’s not easy for them either. Because an artist sometimes delivers an album that doesn’t have a natural home at radio, even if the band was once played at Alternative radio.

“It kind of depends on the band and what lane they ultimately see themselves living in,” says Roadrunner President Mike Easterlin. “In the case of Paramore’s last album, most of the biggest songs were Pop songs. We could have taken lesser songs out to Modern Rock and tried to force it…but those songs just weren’t there. Yet when you see the band live, even with the more poppy stuff, they still truly rock as a live band.”

Michael Halloran takes a historical view of how we came to be where we are now. “Look, we had the 4AD revolution before the Lilith Fair. We owned 99 percent

“Look, we had the 4AD revolution before the Lilith Fair. We owned 99 percent of the female artists back in the day—Patti Smith, Bjork, Cocteau Twins, Alison Moyet…and the pop stuff of the ‘80s was brought to you by us anyway. All of that stuff on MTV, but sadly, there was no true Top 40 station to play it back in those days.”

To Halloran, what’s missing now is that all of those bands that Alt played back then had “cred.” And many of the artists and songs worked to Alt now have no “cred” to speak of.

But of course, if that “cred” thing is a problem for Alt, you can take heed of the words from the Alt radio insider I spoke of earlier. He says, “If you don’t like what the labels are sending you, go out and find something on your own.”


Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

One thought on “What’s Wrong with Alt Music Today? Industry Pros Speak Out

  • March 25, 2016 at 8:33 pm

    Lorde is a special example not born to become a star but a true lover of Music. Her Magnets song with Disclosure is one of the best last year. With 60m views and being on SNL it has never made the billboard 100. Lots of comments by views are why have I not heard it on the Radio.

    Answer that and maybe you will find corrupt system.


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