This week’s Chicago Reader has an in-depth story on the Chicago radio station Q101, and its decision to play the forthcoming White Stripes album, Icky Thump, in its entirety a couple of weeks back. It’s an interesting read for a lot of reasons–we find out that the album was transmitted via YouSendIt to Spike, the Q101 music director, who “doesn’t believe in file sharing,” among other things. But the biggest hook of the story to us is the sad-sack depiction of radio–the medium that, for the longest time, has been used to setting taste agendas but has now been reduced to supporting-player status because of its place in the industry and the wild-west nature of the Internet:
But a bigger question was left practically untouched: why would a major commercial radio station resort to playing pirated MP3s in the first place?
“It’s hard to be the leader in new music,” says Spike. “Say a record leaks and kids are passing it around on the Internet for two weeks. [Record labels] still want me to talk about the world premiere broadcast I’m gonna do. And you wonder why people listening to the radio don’t think of us as a source of new music anymore. They’re getting it before we are.”
Listening habits have changed dramatically in recent years, due in part to the rise of on-demand media and the popularity of products like the iPod, which allow people to choose not only what they consume but when they consume it. Satellite radio networks XM and Sirius both offer upwards of 200 commercial-free channels, and there are countless Internet radio stations and podcasts catering to even the most esoteric niches. If none of those options suits you, and you don’t have any qualms about copyright infringement, downloading music illegally has never been easier.
The entire radio industry is struggling to adapt, but for stations like Q101, geared toward audiences between the ages of 18 and 34, it’s an even bigger challenge. “Alternative is under an immense amount of pressure at this point,” says Fred Jacobs, president of Jacobs Media, a nationwide consulting firm that helped popularize the classic-rock format in the mid-80s and advises both Q101 and its sister station, the Loop 97.9. “The Gen-Y audience in particular has a tremendous amount of media and tech options available to them. When it comes to the use of FM radio as the primary medium for exposure to new music, those numbers are lower for alternative than for mainstream rock or classic rock. I mean, it’s still the number one source by a long shot, but a lot of other factors are coming into play: everything from social networking sites to iTunes to sites like Rhapsody.”
If anything, Q101–which has as its current slogan the unwieldy phrase “Everything alternative, now on shuffle”–was probably hoping for one other outcome: gaining in alternative rebel-cred what it’s lost in the possibility of an exclusive White Stripes interview. After this kerfuffle, which garnered the station a lot of attention, Q101 can now tell prospective listeners that it loves music so much, it’s willing to risk the wrath of Jack White to prove it. Of course, proof of the station’s love for music would probably be better provided by not having warmed-over bands from 2001 comprise the lineup for their signature show of the summer, but that move probably wouldn’t get nearly as much ink.
Why Play Leaks? [Chicago Reader]