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Why indie acts are everywhere, except on the radio

Saskatoon's The Sheepdogs at the 2011 MuchMusic Video Awards. Darren Calabrese/CP

From Macleans Magazine:

Commercial stations are less interested in new music than they are in replaying 90s rock

She stands in the spotlight, swaying back and forth, her eyes staring off at no one in particular. The lips that launched a thousand think pieces are obscured by a black mic as she sings, rather unremarkably.

Lana Del Rey’s debut Saturday Night Live appearance was by most accounts an unmitigated disaster, confirming in the eyes of critics that she was the manufactured fake many had assumed her to be. But perhaps more significant was the fact that Del Rey was able to transform her burgeoning online celebrity into an appearance on the late-night institution without the support of commercial radio.

She’s hardly the only indie act to break into the mainstream. The last decade has brought forth a slew of artists subscribing to the same aesthetic whose success can be attributed almost entirely to online buzz. Fêted by tastemaker sites like Pitchfork, and supported by eye-popping videos and savvy use of social media, these acts, including Del Rey and indie acts like Sleigh Bells and Bon Iver, who appear to be everywhere, have infiltrated the mainstream via festival slots, song placements in commercials and film and late-night television appearances. Yet they’re all suspiciously absent on the one medium where you’d expect to find them. “We’re seeing this divide between the acceptance of certain indie aesthetics in other media,” confirms Alan Cross, radio personality and former senior program director at modern rock radio station CFNY, The Edge in Toronto, “and not so much on radio.”

Radio playlists have long been a source of consternation for fans and musicians alike. But their frustration is based on the assumption that radio is actually interested in presenting new, cutting edge music, which couldn’t be further from the truth.

“It’s not radio’s job to break new music,” says Dave Farough, Vice President, Brands and Programming for Corus Entertainment’s 37 commercial stations. “In some cases, listeners want to hear new music. But in most cases they just want to hear what they like.”

Modern rock radio seems like a perfect home for the teeming hoards of indie artists looking to make the leap to the mainstream, but even stations like CFNY and Vancouver’s CFOX are loath to take a risk on music their listeners may not have heard. While some acts have managed to squeeze their way into modern rock radio playlists–a quick perusal of recent ones reveals bands like Said the Whale, MGMT and Crystal Castles peppered into programming–there remains a heavy reliance on 90s alt-rock and 2000s post-grunge acts like Bush, Foo Fighters and Alice in Chains and ubiquitous CanCon filler like the Trews and Finger Eleven.

According to Farough, the average Edge listener is about 30-years-old, and the ’90s are still dear to their hearts. “They grew up on ‘90s music,” he says, “and they still want to hear it, so that’s what we give them.”

Continue reading the rest of the story on Macleans Magazine