30 Nov


Sometime in the early 80s one of the more obscure American Rock Legends of the 1960s was invited to a radio station in Tuscan, Arizona to guest DJ a spot. This guy was known to be more of influence then a best-seller and c.1983 was not a good time for such as him. So there he is in the studio and he whacks his latest record on. Within minutes the programme director calls the control room ordering the music be cut in favour of the standard list of then ruling dinosaurs: REO Speedwagon, Journey, Foreigner. The guest DJ hears this, stands and walks out. His name was Frank Zappa.

The programme director phoned the order in from somewhere else, New York maybe. LA? Who knows. The radio station had recently been taken over by the Abrams network in that early round of media concentration taking place during the 1980s. Economies of scale inspired the new owners to forgo inefficient local programming in favour of centralized control with standard playlists developed by marketing experts maximizing advertising revenue. This, considering Zappa’s extremely esoteric tastes and famously cantankerous demeanor, made the decision to invite him on air at all an embarrassing waste of time and money. Here was one guy – anyone remotely familiar with him wouldn’t doubt this – who would not play this game. Why bother?

Let’s get inside that Tuscan radio station from the technocrat’s point of view. The resident DJ has to do what the programme directors tells him to. The PD is not even in the city, there is no interpersonal relationship and the ability of that DJ to negotiate anything outside the standard playlist is nil. Do it or find another job, full stop: end transmission. Even if the PD were in the building that leeway would be non-existent. The playlist decree had been compiled by statistical marketing robots somewhere unknown. There’s three tiers of bureaucracy here separated on purpose by an impenetrable wall of authoritarian control systems. The DJ can’t make a decision to do things a little differently, the PD can’t either. Whoever’s directly upstairs might be able to bring the matter up at the next meeting of relevant heads. If they do a decision’s likely to come down sometime the following decade: MEMO re Zappa – No.

A centralized, standardized apparatus requires that directives eminating from those organs of command must be followed. No recourse. There is simply no way the DJ can talk to a person senior in the chain and say “Look, Zappa’s not gonna play our game but it’s worth cutting him 2 hours of slack for the kudos it’ll win this station with that part of the audience who’ve got high standards blah blah blah.” This doesn’t fit with The Formula. It’s a distraction from the Goal and therefore gets dealt with harshly in the ever expanding mega-tomes of protocol that Human Resource department spew out each year. It doesn’t compute that, altho’ 99.5% of the Tuscan audience gives not a rat’s about Zappa there are .5% that do. And they care a lot! And that it’s exactly that .5% that form the most powerful cogs in the wheels of word-of-mouth.

But it doesn’t have to compute. The deep-lovers of rock music have been collated with other minor factors in the marketing mix and it’s been found by the cost/benefit razor gang to be immaterial to the prime goal which is more ads for more money. The formulas that decide the ideal playlist for garnering large shares are friendly with the formulas that determine the entire repetoir of songs that occupy them. There’s about three formulas for writing songs. They only use two of them now. Downsizing.

Elsewhere, during 1980s David Geffen signed Neil Young to his label and had nothing but trouble. Young was a bit of a prize, the avatar of authenticity. In the post-punk era of fallen and jaded idols Young was the one Hippie-era rock god who’d both emerged unscathed by the great rock war of 1977 and managed to sell records as well. Geffen was stoked at first, then disappointed and finally blind furious. The first thing Young did was put out a synthesizer record! Then he went country. He went all over but the one place where Geffen wanted him to go and stay put – Classic Rock. Did it occur to him that ‘classic rock’ was simply a certain time along a process chain and that what’d made Young so authentic in the first place was that he basically did what he felt was right? No. Geffen wanted his authentic rocker writing and recording and playing to brand. He wanted Neil Young to produce standard Neil Young music. What he got instead was Trans.

I must be one of the few people in the universe who like Trans. I have to admit it would be a little perplexing for various marketing nerds and apparatchiks in the editorial offices at RockMag Inc. It’s 1982 and the quintessential folk-dude produces a synth record! What’s he doing? Is he selling out and trying to be hip now? Like that would work. Who’d buy scruffy old Neil Young in concert with Duran Duran and the Human League? Haircut 100 even? Forget it. But he’d never even come close to selling out. He didn’t even know what was going on out there submerged in his northern California ranch. He just got his hands on some new technology and liked the sounds and cut a record from them. Simple, easy to comprehend and yet totally inscrutable to those who’s job it is to apply The Formula.


One Response to “THE FORMULA”

  1. roguevert May 30, 2011 at 7:08 pm #

    Trans fills me with joy.

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