Don’t go looking for the compact discs of country singer Toby Keith and jazz player Ellis Marsalis, Jr., in the same section of a music megastore. Don’t expect to find a concert venue where downtown poet Patti Smith will share the stage with uptown pianoman Billy Joel. And don’t even imagine that you will be able to tune in that magic radio frequency where Neil Diamond’s croons, Pearl Jam’s rocks and Van Dyke Parks explore the musical byways of Americana.
An examination of the CD collections of most Americans will still reveal the sort of diverse tastes that find room for the acoustic folk rock of the Indigo Girls, the alternative rock of Michael Stipe and REM, and the classic rock of Don Henley and the Eagles. But an increasingly corporate and commercial media rejects this very American penchant for diversity in favor of tightly formatted radio stations, lowest-common-denominator marketing strategies and the sort of homogenized and sanitized music that sounds as if it was created by a poll or a focus group — as opposed to an artist.
Musicians of all stripes are starting to recognize that the galloping consolidation of American media — especially in radio, where most Americans were first introduced to their favorite songs — has reduced the ability of recording artists to take the risks that reshape our consciousness, to explore new ideas and new sounds and, ultimately, to be heard. Since Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which removed barriers to the number of radio stations one media conglomerate could own, the largest of these conglomerates — Texas-based Clear Channel — has grabbed more than 1,200 stations and shaped a musical mix characterized by the homogenization of playlists, the death of programming diversity, less local programming, reduced public access to the airwaves and rapidly declining public satisfaction with radio and the music it plays.
“There are clear lessons from the dramatic consolidation of ownership in the radio industry following the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and how it has impacted the historic goals of localism, competition and diversity,” says Ann Chaitovitz, Director of Sound Recordings at The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). And the lessons are not good for American music or American musicians.
That’s why now, as the five members of the Federal Communications Commission consider a series of rule changes that would open the door to more consolidation, commercialism, corporatism and corruption, Keith, Marsalis, Smith, Joel, Diamond, Stipe, Henley, Parks, Pearl Jam and the Indigo Girls have joined two dozen other prominent artists to sign a letter that asks the FCC to halt the rush to enact six major rules changes by early June.