NPR’s Adverse Effect on Country & Roots Music
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.
One 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.
And 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.
August 23, 2010 @ 12:08 pm
Glad you put these thoughts into words. I’ve been batting some of these ideas around with other musicians for the last several years. I always felt this NPRization started with Alison Krauss’s “I’ve Got That Old Feeling” cd. It sold to a lot of folks who would not otherwise buy a bluegrass cd, and (I think) helped create a market for a softer brand of bluegrass and string band music.
Bottom line is, no matter what intentions most musicians start out with, they end up wanting to rack up the numbers. And eventually, most will do whatever they have to do to accomplish that. There’s a market out there right now for “alt” country and bluegrass. It requires the artist to take most of the country and bluegrass elements away from their sound, maybe just keep a little in their wardrobe. Assuming the market continues to grow, there’ll be hundreds of bands out there swearing they’re influenced by Hank Williams and Bill Monroe, despite the fact their records sound like…well, nothing like Bill or Hank. There’s no great sin in that, except that it’s a great big fake job.
August 23, 2010 @ 2:04 pm
This is to be squarely placed on the shoulders of the recording artists themselves and the audience that supports this kind of schlock. This has been a trend in American popular music for as long as there has been a market for it. The age old art v commerce argument should be inserted here. I don’t mean to sound dismissive of this article. I think the idea is provocative and has legs. But the big picture is about the free market in its purest form. Musicians, writers, recording labels, studios, booking agents, managers and promoters all over the USA are working in the spirit of Adam Smith’s invisible hand. That is to say they should be producing the right amount and variety of goods by working in their own self-interest. To blame NPR for having a large homogeneous audience or Nashville corporate golf-rock for the same, is folly…perhaps. As an artist who prides himself on a long career of raw, spirited music formed from the rich and varied strains of the American musical heritage, I want to find the reasons and cast blame for my having never risen to the top of the pops, so to speak. But those grapes are too sour for a man to make good wine. So, I rather pride myself on making these small batches of my music that are appreciated by a small, but ever growing loyal group of fans. Enough for me to have made a decent living most of my life from this small musical grove I inhabit. There are many like me. But, there are just as many who will whore themselves and their music. Take note of the staggering number of bands that have gotten their break from TV commercials and TV shows. This is a sad trend that sometimes makes me want to just give up. But, then I play a show for some people who truly appreciate what I do and I am recharged with a passion for it once again. From this perspective I can honestly say that it is the responsibility of the artists to create music in the way that honors the great cultural heritage while still maintaining a sense of modernity, originality and integrity.
August 23, 2010 @ 3:57 pm
Honestly I think I was putting more of the blame on the artists than on NPR. NPR is just trying to give its audience what it wants. My problem in the most simple of terms is artists making their music to fit the NPR format.
Also feel the need to say that this article had 30+ comments, and a few by me that clarified this point and others from above. But this website got hacked, and one of the casualties were all the comments for this particular post.
Saving Country Music » Blog Archive » Listen To New Justin Townes Earle & NPR Revisited
August 30, 2010 @ 10:04 am
[…] was the inspiration for a story I wrote called NPR’s Adverse Effect on Country & Roots Music. I honestly had no idea at the time that NPR would be the advertising vehicle the JTE camp would […]
September 2, 2010 @ 2:05 pm
Hey Triggerman they must know you’re listening cuz NPR is on a country kick. Two days ago they aired interviews with George Jones and Bobby Braddock (writer of “He Stopped Loving Her Today”). Yesterday they had Ryan Bingham on and he played a pretty sweet mariachi instrumental. Maybe they’ll have Hellbound Glory on today to perform “Either Way We’re Fucked”.
Review-Justin Townes Earle’s Harlem River Blues « Saving Country Music
September 14, 2010 @ 10:38 am
[…] struck me as music specifically created for optimized NPR play, and I used as an example of NPR’s Adverse Effect on Roots Music. My suspicions were validated when NPR offered a full preview of the album through their site. In a […]
May 9, 2011 @ 2:00 pm
I revisited this article after reading your Jason Isbell review.
I mostly understand your theory of “Glossification”.
But:), my question is this. Is part of this glossification due to the fact that, these days, people can produce slick records from their bedrooms? Today’s recording technology can be had at a reasonable price. Mix that with a little “know-how”, and some great music can be recorded.
I don’t think sonic audio quality, should be attributed so much to glossification.
I loved the idea behind the Secret Sisters album. I like hearing the old, done in the now. I would’ve maybe liked the album itself more, if there was more original material. (Now granted, the budget for that album was probably through the roof).
I kind of get the idea from this article that Roots = “harsh tones and messy recordings”. I imagine back in the 30’s and 40’s, that if they had better recording tech, they would’ve made even better sounding recordings.
Personally, I think songwriting is a bigger contributer to the glossification rather than production. A song can be produced many different ways. But it’s always the same song.
For instance, Bob Wayne’s latest release. The long-time fans may feel it’s lost some edge because it’s a sonically clean record. It’s not Nashville, but it sounds really nice. The production is cleaner, but I don’t think the songs themselves lose any of the grit or edge. They’re still some of the most butt-kicking country tunes you’ll find, if you ask me.
Anyway, I’m out of breath;)
Keep up the good work Triggerman.
January 15, 2013 @ 5:25 am
Is there anything in this world you can’t find a way to blame on NPR and pointy-headed lefty intellectuals? Anything?
January 15, 2013 @ 11:44 pm
No, because apparently I do it all the time. That’s why you had to go back 2 1/2 years to find an appropriate article to post this comment on.
I’m not sure where this recent thread of saying I blame everything on NPR and the left is coming from, but it’s clearly not coming from an updated view of this website. I get the same exact type of comments from folks on the right as well, which I’ll take as a sign that I’m right in the middle where I’m supposed to be. My goal is to run an apolitical site. As I have explained many times, I’m a big supporter of NPR, and that is why I showed this concern.
January 16, 2013 @ 6:50 am
It seems that you’re getting lumped in with many who are passionately anti-hipster and anti-NPR (I can think of one Moonrunners blogger who I think fits that description, for example). It would seem that there are some lefties out there who share something with George W. Bush. They don’t “do nuance” (his words). I do think that there are some are too quick to dismiss artists embraced by NPR and maybe the somewhat left leaning Americana community (my opinion), but overall, I don’t think you do.
This is probably one of the first articles I read on this site. I became aware of the site after some postings of yours on No Depression after the JTE meltdown in Indianapolis. I think there was a somewhat of a rant article on NPR shining a light on “New York folk music” that might have linked to this one. At the time, I wondered if you were being a bit harsh on Harlem River Blues, which was being heralded by many in the No Depression on-line community, of which I was (is) an enthusiastic member. Shortly thereafter, I picked it up along with Midnight at the Movies, which you were very high on. I still think your assessment that there is “no direct connection with the roots in his music” based on Harlem River Blues is a bit overstated (I think the title track and “Move Over, Mama” are rootsy enough for me, for example), but I find there are some snoozers on this album such that I usally cherry pick my way through it. I don’t have that problem with any of JTE’s other releases.
January 16, 2013 @ 9:08 am
Here’s the article, and I still can’t believe Meredith Ochs completely forgot about the Greenwich Village folk scene, or the fact that New York City has been the epicenter of American folk music since its inception when she put it together. This was the first time she committed a ridiculous act of “journalism”. She since has done it many other times I’ve caught.
However that doesn’t mean I don’t support NPR as a whole. I usually have 2-3 articles or audio stories from NPR linked in my news stream at any given moment. I go to NPR music every single morning, and sometimes 2-3 times a day. I love 80% of the music coverage they give over there.
The problem is some folks are following some thread somewhere else, maybe on Facebook or a chat room, and someone said that I don’t support NPR or “liberals”, and then links to articles like this one from 2 1/2 years ago, and then a bunch of folks get all huffy puffy about it like all I do around here is bash the left, when in reality, there’s a small handful of articles like this in the over 1,500 I’ve written in 5 years. It’s anecdotal. And by the way, I think I went out of my way in this article to explain the good things NPR is doing for music as well.
Same thing happens with Shooter Jennings fans. I may write 4-5 articles about him total in a given year, and mention him in passing in 4-5 more. But since some Shooter fans only come to the site when they hear I’ve written a negative article about him, from their perspective, that’s all I do, and I’m “obsessed” with him.
And of course, you never hear anything when Shooter or NPR are mentioned in a positive way.
January 16, 2013 @ 10:41 am
That’s the one. I think that’s the first article that I ever commented on here. As someone originally from the New York area, I got a big kick out of and appreciated the notion of a native Texan lecturing an NPR journalist on New York’s extensive folk music history.
“However that doesn”™t mean I don”™t support NPR as a whole. I usually have 2-3 articles or audio stories from NPR linked in my news stream at any given moment. I go to NPR music every single morning, and sometimes 2-3 times a day. I love 80% of the music coverage they give over there.”
Yep. I get that.