Sunday, January 27, 2008

Two more modern-rock stations bite the dust

Two more modern rock stations died this month: 94.7 the Buzz in Oklahoma City switched to a harder-rock format, while 99X in Atlanta went Top 40 on Friday.

I grew up in Oklahoma City, and I remember how excited my friends and I all were when we first got 95X in the mid-‘90s. It didn’t last long, and switched to a lite-FM format, then came back as 94.7 the Buzz around 2002. In its second reincarnation, it was a fairly generic station (at first, it didn’t even have DJs), but it did have the “March Bandness” competition, which was a good way to support local music. It also had the good fortune to be around when the All-American Rejects and Hinder were taking off nationally.

99X is a much bigger loss. Considered one of the “tastemaker” stations of alternative rock in the 1990s, along with WHFS in Washington DC and KROQ in Los Angeles, 99X broke the Cranberries and Silverchair in the U.S. and launched the careers of Collective Soul and Shawn Mullins, among others. They hosted some of the original all-day festivals, later copied by lots of other stations, called Big Day Out. When I was living in England in 1998-99, I listened to 99X on the Internet to get my fix of American-style alt-rock.

What happened to 99X is similar to what’s happened to a lot of modern rock stations; the ratings started to decline around 2000 as fans of ‘90s stuff were turned off by Limp Bizkit, Korn, and their followers. Then when those bands imploded, stations tried to get the old listeners back by playing more and more ‘90s songs. One of 99X’s last DJs estimated that by the end, only one-fifth of the songs they were playing every day were new: that’s roughly three new songs per hour. As this happened, the station became less and less known for breaking bands. In addition, Atlanta became a hip-hop city: Outkast, Ludacris, TI, Lil’ Jon, Usher, etc. The last superstar rock act from the ATL was Collective Soul, and the last rock acts to have any hits were Shawn Mullins and Sevendust, both almost 10 years ago.

Most of the DJs at 99X were fired summarily two weeks ago, but a skeleton crew kept the station going since then. It is staying on for now as a “visual radio station” on the internet. You can listen here. As the individual DJs signed off Thursday evening, they each played little “fuck you’s” to their corporate overlords: the afternoon guy signed off with REM’s “Radio Song”: “It’s that same same song, DJ sucks… Makes me sad. I tried to turn it off, but damn that radio song… hey hey hey.”

At 4:50 a.m., according to the excellent Radio Talk blog (‘cause I wasn’t up), the final DJ gave a nice goodbye to the station and 16 years of music. The final half-hour of 99X consisted of:

Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”

U2, “One”

REM, “Radio Song”

Stone Temple Pilots, “Dead and Bloated”

Nirvana, “All Apologies”

Soundgarden, “Fell on Black Days”

Pearl Jam, “Black”

Jeff Buckley, “Last Goodbye”

At 5:25 a.m., they played Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of your Life),” then at 5:30 sharp, it went into Beyonce.

Atlanta joins Cincinnati, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., all of which have lost their modern rock stations in the last few years. If you live in Georgia, your choices now are an “active rock” station (think Linkin Park, Korn, or Flyleaf) or a “classic alternative” station (read: maybe you’ll hear the new Foo Fighters if you stick around long enough, but wouldn’t you rather hear “Big Me” again?).


Friday, January 18, 2008

Counting Crows are back

Over at I Am Fuel, You Are Friends, they've got a couple of mp3s from the new Counting Crows album, Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings, out March 25.
And... I'm not that impressed. The faster track, "1492," dates to at least 2000, and possibly as far back as 1997. The softer song, "When I Dream of Michaelangelo," deliberately echoes a 1996 hit, "Angels of the Silences."

Make no mistake, this is almost surely Counting Crows' last shot at being a big-time mainstream band, and not a cult nostalgia act. Their last big hit was almost four years ago and was a goofy, out-of-character pop song from a Shrek soundtrack. The hit before that was a Joni Mitchell cover with Vanessa Carlton, from 2003. To find the last time a real, sounds-like-Counting-Crows song was all over radio, you have to go back to 1999 and "Hangin' Around."

Now they still have a fanbase: they did a tour of minor-league baseball stadiums last summer with Live and Collective Soul (here's "Hangin' Around" from Tulsa with Graham Colton helping out:)

When you consider every one of their original albums has hit the Billboard Top 10, and a live album released last June managed to land at #52, maybe they'll be OK. Or maybe that's a sign that, like REM, Pearl Jam, or Tori Amos, they've got a fanbase who will buy anything the first week. Look at their sales figures:
1994: August and Everything After - 7x platinum
1996: Recovering the Satellites - double-platinum
1998: Across a Wire: Live in New York - platinum
1999: This Desert Life - platinum
2002: Hard Candy - gold
2004: Films about Ghosts (best of) - gold

Now consider that their live performances in the last few years can charitably be called erratic (I personally witnessed Adam Duritz have some sort of on-stage breakdown during a show in Atlanta in the summer of 2005, and have heard other stories), the long layoff and the fact that many of the hardcore fans were turned off by the Joni Mitchell cover and the Shrek song. And this might not turn out so well.

Now, supposedly Duritz has dropped 50 pounds and conquered his demons, and the band is ready to retake their spot atop the pantheon. I hope it happens. When they were at their best, they were a great band. Maybe they can be again.