NPR’s Adverse Effect on Country & Roots Music

NPR LogoLast week an article was posted on No Depression lamenting the glossification of bluegrass. Of course my first thought was to point out bands like Trampled By Turtles, The .357 String Band, Split Lip Rayfield, The Hackensaw Boys, Larry & His Flask, and many others. But aside from that, I think you can make a case that all mass produced music IS going through glossification. Certainly mainstream and pop country is, as nobody is willing to take big risks or have the music sound too dirty. The formula works, so they stick with it.

But specifically why are mainstream bluegrass bands and other alt-country/Americana/roots-based bands and legacy country acts whose music would never be played on mainstream corporate-owned radio anyway sounding so clean? I think National Public Radio is to blame, at least partly, and here’s why:

First you must appreciate just how big NPR’s audience is, and how much it is growing while most radio is experiencing dramatic contraction from digital technology and the economy. In 2000 NPR had 14.1 million listeners. In 2008 that number jumped to 20.9 million during a period when most of radio’s listernship was shrinking. NPR’s numbers increased 9% from 2007 to 2008. And with NPR’s national syndication, public funding, and saturation of markets with sometimes multiple affiliates, NPR has a dramatic strategic advantage over local-based radio. (Read more about NPR’s rapid growth HERE.)

NPR also has a huge web presence, with NPR Music receiving a whopping 1.7 million unique visitors each month, and growing. NPR also has one of the largest and most listened to podcast networks and podcast subscription bases ever assembled. And NPR is increasingly focusing more on music comparatively to other interests throughout its platform.

NPR MusicOne of the reasons NPR’s music coverage is growing is because the music covered on mainstream radio is shrinking. In this regard, NPR’s music coverage is a good thing. However when you command such a large audiencean audience much bigger than any one local radio stationhomogenization can set in. And then you can have artists and labels creating music not oriented in trying to mine the heart of a song, but to what they think a specific target audience wants to hear; no different than the same criticisms that haunt mainstream country radio and radio in general.

My first beef with NPR music had to do with The Dixie Chicks. In the early 2000”²s, The Dixie Chicks enjoyed unlimited support from country radio”¦until Natalie Maines said she was ashamed that George Bush was a Texan. And as their corporate-owned radio support dwindled to virtually nothing, NPR affiliates began to pick up the slack, playing The Dixie Chicks not only in locally-produced radio shows, but as the “bumper” or “return” music to their huge nationally-syndicated news shows like “Fresh Air” and “Morning Edition”return music being the songs they play in and out of commercial/sponsor/news breaks.

This was good for the Dixie Chicks, but I wondered why had NPR ignored this band for years as hayseed Texans, and then all of a sudden they were part of the Dixie Chick fan club. One word: politics.

NPR has one of the least diverse, most narrowly-oriented demographic makeups ever assembled in media, especially when considering the dramatic size of their audience. For example NPR’s listenership is 86% white. They are described as “extraordinarily well educated,” with 65% owning bachelor’s degrees, while only 25% of the US population can say the same. The NPR listener is older, with their median age at 50, and they are more affluent, with an average annual income of $86,000/yr compared to the national average of $55,000. They live in cities, especially on the West Coast. And the NPR listener is decisively liberal. (See all the demographics HERE.)

Songs and artists with a left-leaning agenda tend to get preferential treatment on NPR. But this isn’t about politics, this is about music. With such a focused, attentive, affluent, and large audience all in one place, it is only natural that artists and record labels would start manufacturing music to attempt to court NPR and the massive audience that they command. What makes the courtship sinister is that NPR prides itself in promoting music regardless of commercial value. And as a news organization first, their opinions hold more credence with listeners as publicist Lois Najarian O’Neill explained in the New York Times:

“it feels like a pure, unadulterated and credible endorsement from a press outlet.”

In fairness to NPR, there are many locally-produced radio shows on affiliates that choose their own music, some of which pride themselves in giving local bands and smaller artists the same exposure as national acts. But these slots are not nearly as sought after as the ones on the nationally syndicated shows or on the NPR music website.

Could NPR’s demographics be one of the primary reasons for the “glossification” of country and roots music not slated for mainstream traditional radio airplay? Affluent, white, educated, urban-based older people want to hear clean, refined, mature music. They want a resemblance of the roots, but they don’t want harsh tones or messy recordings. They don’t want to touch the roots, just get close to them, like hovering over a public toilet seat.

Old Crow Medicine Show Tennessee PusherAnd so artists and labels looking for an outlet for their music, being turned down by “mainstream” radio (but with their huge listenership, NPR could easily be considered in the mainstream), they happily cater, or pander, to the wishes of NPR’s extremely strict demographics.

What are some examples? Take Old Crow Medicine Show’s last album Tennessee Pusher. I’m a fan of the producer Don Was, but why did we need Don Was to produce an album that is supposed to be old timey string music? Some fans complained the album was missing something, that edginess, that dirtyness. It was glossy.

Another is Justin Townes Earle’s upcoming Harlem River Blues. I predict this album will be huge, even though there’s a good chance it will get a neutral, or even a negative review from me. There’s just no direct connection with the roots in his music any more. It has been cleansed for top NPR compatibility. As his press release reads, it’s “more mature” than his previous albums. Well I guess that makes me immature.

There are many other examples that can be found throughout the alt-country catalog, and as No Depression pointed out, through the bluegrass catalog. And I’m sure this effect is not limited just to music under the country music umbrella. And I don’t mean to criticize people just because they listen to NPR. I happen to be a fan of many NPR programs. But I’m also a fan of keeping music as pure as possible to the vision of what artists have for songs and albums. NPR holds its nose high for not just pandering to what’s popular, but to what is good. But as NPR grows, the roots, the dirt, the devil that ignites something in fans is being bled out of the music, and this is a bad trend that is no different than the trends that have infected corporate-owned, mainstream radio.