Friday, October 31, 2008

Sirius About Music? Not Really.

(seriously updated below)

I got my first satellite radio over 3 years ago, shortly after Howard Stern announced he was going to say bye to the constraints of terrestrial radio and the offensive actions of the FCC. It seemed like a good idea, both for Howard (who had been mercilessly been reined in and still suffered censorship on a daily basis) and for me, who welcomed something cool and new, having a car radio that actually played good music, listening to Howard uncensored, and all those music channels, especially Little Steven’s Underground Garage. I mean they actually had jazz channels (note the “s”), a reggae station, a bluegrass one, and one that actually played garage bands. For $12.99 a month, it seemed like a good deal, and I must confess I’d pay 12.99 just to listen to Howard, as there is simply no other show like it (but plenty of imitators). The multitude of music channels seemed to be the icing on the cake. Well, now that Sirius merged with its only competitor XM, you’d even get more music you would think, right? Wrong! I can buy a Best of XM package for another $4, but it doesn’t include any music stations, though it does include the Oprah channel What the hell makes them think any reasonable person would want to listen to a 24 hr Oprah station! So I get no more music stations–even if I wanted to pay more (fat chance of that!). Explain again how this merger benefits the consumer, please!

least I have all those great Sirius music channels yet though. Trouble is, they got a big problem with their music channels. They are all programmed and formatted to fit one little segment of their supposed listening audience and then only the most popular or well-hyped and financed bands get the airplay. Those jazz stations? Well, they took my favorite one, Planet Jazz, off the air and even that was spotty. They now have Jazz Café or smooth jazz (actually bland instrumental pop music) which sucks, a “new age” station which isn’t even jazz (Yanni!), and Pure Jazz or as they describe it, classic jazz. Well, you can’t go wrong with classic jazz, right? Wrong! Lets check in and see what they’re playing—hmmm-someone named Brad Mehldau leading a piano trio. Well the next song will be more hoppin...It’s a Jon Hendricks tune. I never really liked jazz vocalists except for Mose Allison. It seems their playlists come from some white guy picking songs out of a book or, more likely off the charts. They do slip in a Miles Davis (rarely from his electric stuff, my favorite period) or Lee Morgan, and they have a weekly Coltrane show (an hour, of course). However, a good bit of the programming seems to be complete drivel with none of the soul, vitality, and spontaneity that is the heart of jazz. They have a Blue Note HOUR every week , instead of a daily show, and most annoying is the nightly host, Les Daniels! I cringe every time he opens his mouth and tries to “educate” us on the great stuff he’s playing. I long for the glory days of Philly’s WRTI when it was a 24 hour jazz station with great DJ’s like Harrison Ridley and Ludwig Von Trikt who actually immersed themselves in not only the music but the culture as well. Their shows were both a learning experience and a celebration of the power of jazz. Stale whitebread commentary like Daniels’ even detracts from the woefully scarce good tunes he plays. My favorite decade of jazz from 68-78 gets almost no attention. Sun Ra, no. Spiritual jazz, no. African jazz, no. Soul jazz, no. Funky organ combos? No way–that’s not pure jazz! Since I love jazz, I may be being a bit harsh, but clearly the station is a bit mellow and monochromatic, as it tosses off the adventurous and avant garde as if it didn’t exist. At least, Sirius has all those rock channels, that have to have a wider variety of choices, right?

Well, they have some classic stations! Using their descriptions: Classic Vinyl (60s and 70s classic rock), Classic Rewind (70s and 80s Classic Rock), The Vault (Deep Classic Rock), Buzzsaw (Classic Hard Rock) and 1st Wave (classic alternative) Classic, indeed. You get the idea. But wait, they have a self-described eclectic/freeform station, Disorder, that surely must be something a little different, right? Not quite, imagine a station programmed by laid back old FM Djs (note the term “old FM Djs” was used instead of hippies, a gesture of kindness toward the hippies on my part). You know, those people who think Little Feat was an “important” band. They play a lot of new stuff and a little old stuff, lots of singer/songwriters, an occasional punky song (they like Patti Smith). Generally the music is just a tad too tried and true. Why not Captain Beefheart? Ornette Coleman? The Holy Modal Rounders? Joe Cuba? You can go on and on, but somehow the programming just doesn’t deliver on its freeform promise. To be fair, Disorder deserves some credit as both David Johanssen and Lou Reed have their own weekly shows which feature swell tunes from all kinds of crazy bands that you never hear the rest of the week. Dave Marsh also has a talk and music show which brings, if nothing else, a welcome Detroit perspective to the show, much like Ko Melina, the Dirtbombs bassist, does with her weekend show on the Underground Garage.

I could write the entire post on the Underground Garage, which is sort of where I tried, with mixed results, to make a little dent in the music world. A station that plays the MC5, the Velvet Underground, Roky Erickson and the Stooges surely has to great one would think. Unfortunately, I have reserved some of my harshest criticism for them. Their best shows are on the weekend when they have my favorite Djs , WFMU’s Bill Kelly, Ko Melina, and the legendary, and still kickin’ Kim Fowley. Only problem is the same shows played Saturday are just shuffled and played again Sunday The Djs are great to listen to and they have great stories when not reading off a script, but why the hell cant they have each DJ do two separate shows? Regular listeners don’t want to hear the same show twice, and the stations playlist(?? ) is so small there’s enough repetition already They might as well run infomercials Well, they sorta do. You see this is Little Steven’s station and he has a label, Wicked Cool Records, which has some good bands I like—the Chesterfield Kings, the Charms, and The Maggots, and, surprise, all those bands, in fact ,100% of his label’s output gets heavy airplay and plugs. I don’t have a problem with that as long as he does the same for the other labels that submit music to his station, but he doesn’t. In fact, the playlist seems to be so limited that his label seems to be played more than any other label period. Steven’s bands are cool, but they inhabit a very narrow spectrum of what could be called Underground Garage—basically they all have a 60s based fuzz garage sound with pop overtones. I could listen to 60s garage bands all day, but hearing an endless stream of imitators with nothing new except squeaky clean sound gets a tad bit boring. For every awesome song like the Flairz Rock and Roll Ain’t Evil”, there must be 50 Woggles songs.

Enough is enough, really. I guess fame and fortune can buy your own radio station to promote your records and even tell people where to buy them (FYE) Fuck, wish I was rich. But those are just two of my beefs with the Underground Garage. My last major beef is that they play little Underground or Garage, and in fact could even be called the Dinosaur Graveyard Yes, the Beatles have their own show , Breakfast with the Beatles, the Who, the Moody Blues, Neil Diamond( ), the Four Seasons( ), Dion( ), the Ronettes, and, surprise, Bruce Springsteen all get regular play. Oh, Bruce has his own 24 hr station, too, along with the Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffett, and AC/DC. True underground garage acts like Bobb Trimble, Michael Yonkers, George Brigman, Cold Sun and, even well known ones like Captain Beefheart, Hawkwind, and Can don’t get played. Bill Kelly throws an Unrelated Segments and other real garage band rarities in every once in a while, but he tells me he’s only allowed a handful of picks for his show and the rest comes off a set playlist. You know, the ones you hear a few times everyday if you listen a lot. With the breadth and depth of the real underground garage, there is no reason why the dj’s shouldn’t be allowed total freedom. You might hear some one else’s favorite bands instead of just Little Steven’s Still, the station gives much needed props to Roky Erickson, and actually lets Handsome Dick Manitoba be a dj–they do play a lot of good music, I just wish they would live up to their name. If they insist on playing new music, why not Wooden Shjips, Six Organs of Admittance, Endless Boogie, Dungen, Pierced Arrows,Wooden Wand, countless others and maybe even George Brigman’s last CD?

Of course, Sirius does have an indy rock station, Left of Center, which you might think would play some of the above bands, but they really don’t-- they play bands like Chairlift, Pinback, Deerhunter, and Crabpot Ok, so I made Crabpot up—thats my imaginary minimal wave death metal boogaloo band, but you get the idea. These are bands that people at CMJ and Pitchfork love for reasons totally unknown to mere mortals like me who would rather listen to BTO. They do slip a good song in now and then, but like the rest of the stations seem to be a bit narrowly formatted, and the range of music seem much narrower than the best terrestrial indy or college stations. It seems as if, with the glut of music options these days, Sirius is concerned with getting the most listeners possible to increase revenue, and adopted a strategy to go after demographics at the expense of diversity. The inherent problem with that approach is: people paying to listen to the radio don’t want to hear what any other station would play. Hence, the popularity of Howard Stern, who may have kept satellite radio afloat with his millions of listeners who would pay for uncensored exclusive content.

Apparently, the music stations are just window dressing. Don’t get me started on their country and bluegrass stations, or their “reggae” or latin stations. Just one (1) station for soul and R&B from the 50s-70s—you guessed it–Classic Soul & Motown. Left of Center did have a dj I really liked, the Cosmic Commander, who would play a strange mix of 80s punk, Australian rock and roll, 60s psychedelia, twisted country and just about anything, while he screamed a lot. He said his station was shit and he was the only one who played good music like Simon Stokes. Cosmo got moved to the “punk” station. (Don’t get me started on that station either, just blame it on Green Day and people who have way too much money). Well, Sirius took the Punk channel off, replacing it with a 24 hr AC/DC channel. And so much for listening to the Cosmic Commander, and one more blow against freeform radio. The ballyhoo about the merger and the allegedly increased options was just that. We got more channels offering less music options. If the powers that be at this new powerful broadcast medium would really care about their music offerings, they would offer totally unformatted stations or even carry existing terrestrial stations like WFMU who really stretch the boundaries with their varied and even unusual shows. Sirius does carry the Canadian indy station CBC 3, which is better than Left Of Center despite having to follow silly Canadian content rules. Oh wait, Sirius just announced another new music channel—The Led Zeppelin channel! Classic! No wonder Pandora and Slacker are much more fun if you’re listening to the radio for music. They’re free, too, unless you want to listen to them in the car. Sometimes you can’t win. Now if only we could get 5 shows a week out of Howard Stern, I’d quit complaining, just a little.

Update: Well, it seems Sirius has added "new" channels now while deep-sixing their Disorder station that had just a few listenable shows. "The Loft", a self-described blend of Acoustic/Eclectic Rock, is supposed to replace the only "freeform" station Sirius claimed to have. They also call it Singer Songwriter Rock and I call it boring. Kudos for bringing Lou Reed back om board, though. He played Captain Beefheart today, and it was great to hear. Shame the best and most adventurous DJs seem relegated to a 2 hour weekly shift! The Cosmic Commander has returned with a weekly 2 hour show on Faction, Sunday at 11. Typical of Sirius's musical philosophy, the Faction's music is described as "Action Sports"! In real life this means a bad headache-inducing punk/metal/skate hybrid with a Ramones song every now and then. Good to hear Cosmo again, even if its only two hours. It doesnt really seem as if any "new" stations actually are playing different stuff. We now have Willie Nelson's Willie's Place which plays some cool honky-tonk and western swing, and thats a welcome departure from all the band pop country on the rest of the dial.

The Jazz station has now become "Real Jazz", though its more like "the blandest most lifeless jazz with all avant garde or funky soul or African vibes wiped out". Im still waiting to hear my first Mulatu or even Sun Ra track. I mean, this is simply the most total pathetic excuse for Jazz programming ever, and a monkey could do a better job! The people that program the Jazz/Soul/Latin stations lazily program straight off the charts and probably Les Daniels' idea of Jazz--his listed formative experiences involve seeing Frank Sinatra and "Annie Get your Gun"! Of course, Les is on 6 hours a day, 7 days a week! Folks we are being fed a dish of crap! Its time to give subscribers their money's worth--instead of 50 stations playing someone's idea of "Classic" tunes. Play some funky music, white boys!

One more beef, then I'm done. This morning my leisurely morning snooze was interrupted by the Underground Garage's "new" show--"Breakfast With the Beatles". Its time to get rid of this Beatles crap once and for all! Yeeeccchhhhh!! I had to get out of bed and turn the radio off as "Obli-di, Obla-Da" caused me to wretch. I mean--what the hell is Underground or Garage about the fucking Beatles!! NO!! Get them and all the Dinosaur Rock off, and play some real Underground muisc--not pop CRAP! Maybe there was a reason why all those Beatles songs that guy plays didnt get released---they suck!! Little Steven--thanks for playing some true garage bands--but DO NOT call your station UNDERGROUND GARAGE and play nothing but pop crap, oldies, and every goddam band on your label! Let's open up the playlists and kiss the charts goodbye. That would be a true underground station--Imagine that--letting the DJs pick their music!

Obviously, satellite radio is still in its infancy and the jury is still out. A panacea of music it isnt. Offered as an unlimited supply of uninterupted music--its more like a ltd. supply of the same songs played over and over again on a daily basis. There are a few bright spots, but it seems as if the same bad habits from commercial terrestrial radio have a strangehold on any creative music programming. I think its time listeners vote for a change!

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