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By Reporter
NBC News
updated 6/7/2005 3:37:36 PM ET 2005-06-07T19:37:36

NEW YORK — The early '90s witnessed the explosion of the alternative music scene with genres like the grunge of Seattle and the progressive hip-hop of the East Coast finding audiences eager to embrace new and innovative sounds.

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Unearthing the alternative music scene shot acts like Pearl Jam and the Fugees to the top of the music industry, with each garnering awards and mainstream acceptance along the way. 

Unfortunately, mainstream radio's support of diversity in the music industry fell flat not long afterwards, says Maurice Bernstein, founder of giantstep.net, a multimedia company specializing in the promotion and marketing of alternative music.

"There are some people who are in the music business and then there are some people who are in the business of music, and that's just basically seeing how they can make money out of music," explained Bernstein.

The combination of the "business of music" and radio stations, which are controlled and owned by a small number of large corporations, is what Bernstein says has commercialized radio, creating an industry more interested in maximizing profits than promoting a wide array of artists and the diversity of music.

"Yes, we play the hits over and over," said Carla Ferrell, Operations Manager for WQUE-FM, WYLD-FM/AM, and KSTE-FM in New Orleans. 

Ferrell defends mainstream radio, saying people turn on their radio to hear their favorite song. "We have to program to the masses and by doing that we have to repeat our hit records and play the songs everyone is singing and listening to." 

But by repeating hit songs continuously, Bernstein argues mainstream radio does not provide consumers with the diversity and quality of music they really want.

"The whole Internet radio and satellite radio goes against that stream of theory, and has proven that people actually want something different," Bernstein said. "People are now willing to pay for radio to get something different." 

Satellite radio booms in popularity
The popularity of Internet and satellite radio has become a phenomenon unto itself, boasting a combined total of nearly 108 million listeners (45 percent of the U.S.), according to the 2005 Internet and Multimedia Report by Arbitron, an international media and marketing firm that measures radio performance including internet, satellite and traditional radio.

Overall, Internet and satellite radio have seen rapid growth over the past three years with Arbitron reporting 37 million unique Internet/satellite radio users for March 2005 alone.

"People are realizing that there are many more dimensions to music today than has been historically represented by terrestrial radio," said Eric Logan, executive vice president of programming for XM Satellite Radio, a monthly-fee-based satellite radio provider.     

Although Arbitron does not include what proportion of its listeners listen to satellite radio only, it does report that satellite radio is one of the fastest-growing radio formats in the country.

A March 2005 report says that awareness of XM Satellite Radio, commonly referred to as "XM," has tripled since 2002, from 17 percent to 50 percent, while its rival Sirius Satellite Radio has increased even more significantly, from eight percent to 54 percent.

“We have a subscriber base of over 4 million,” said Logan, who notes that XM is the fastest growing satellite radio provider.  Its rival Sirius radio boasts nearly 2 million subscribers.

Available in most new-model cars and as a portable music device for the home or leisure time, satellite radio is the new funnel for the underground music scene, matching trendy music lovers with alternative artists via music channels that cover nearly every genre of music imaginable.

Bottom line, listeners will pay to listen
Unlike traditional radio, which listeners can receive free through a radio transmitter, both XM and Sirius charge listeners a monthly fee of $12.95, which surprisingly has not been much of a deterrent, Logan said.

“I don’t mind paying for XM because you get so much variety and they are always playing new music that I've never heard,” said Marcus Taylor, a 29-year-old civil engineer from Wisconsin, who has been an XM subscriber for two years.

“A lot of radio plays the same songs over and over, but XM has a Neo-soul channel and an Old-school channel that are unlike stations I can get on the radio,” said Taylor.  

"When you don't have a major record label or the opportunities that come with a major label it's really important when you get the kind of love from a major entity like satellite radio to push you along," said Shannon Joseph, who manages neo-soul artist Ledisi.

Joseph credits XM with giving independent artists like Ledisi the exposure needed to sell out small venues while gaining the attention of mainstream radio and music executives. 

"I have to say word of mouth works well for us. I can't tell you how many people come up to me and say they heard Ledisi on XM," explained Joseph. "And that is good because it gets the word of mouth going, and the whole underground movement has a life of its own."

Movement with a life of its own
As satellite radio has gained in popularity, the artists it provides exposure to have been able to reach large audiences in a way unknown before, without mainstream radio's embrace.

Robert Earl Keen, an alternative country music singer who has been struggling in the music business for over 10 years, has recently amassed a cult following largely due to exposure on satellite radio.

"I've been around the block, and I know there's a lot of music out there that all people deserve to hear," said Keen. "Thank God for an alternative to what's happened in the commercial radio industry."

Keen, who describes his music as "movies for the ear" about life in Texas, says before exposure on XM, he was always looking for his next gig. And although he still has to work hard to promote himself, he says this exposure has helped get him paid bookings and sell tickets for his shows.

And selling show tickets is important for business, saod Howard Stein, owner of New York's Au Bar.

Stein recently wrapped up a two-week engagement featuring Ledisi, where the XM Radio starlet received rave reviews from fans and the press.

"I was impressed with the seamless fusion of jazz, R&B, soul and gospel," said Stein.  Comparing the singer to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, he added, "Ledisi was a completely integrated mix of all those sounds."

Like Keen, Ledisi has cultured a large fan base through her musical performances on XM and the buzz she generates from her highly anticipated live shows. 

After being turned down by several record labels, she independently produced and distributed her debut album, "Soulsinger," which sold an impressive 80,000 copies. And from the buzz generated from XM, her "limited edition" second album, "Feeling Orange and Sometimes Blue" recently sold on eBay for $100. 

As a singer with perfect pitch and a multi-octave range that rivals Mariah Carey, Ledisi said mainstream acceptance is not the only measure of an artist's success. Pointing to satellite radio as a large factor in her ability to travel internationally and promote her art, she said, "Even if I don't get on [mainstream radio], I have my live audiences and my underground and I am cool."

Satellite radio as the new 'breakers' of music
XM has made its mark through its unsigned channel, which promotes unsigned music acts, who would never receive that type of exposure in the mainstream. 

Giantstep.com also has the ability to break new music through its online jukebox, playing new music not commonly heard on mainstream radio.

But while Logan said exposure on XM has helped at least 15 acts get record deals, some industry insiders still feel mainstream radio is the only way for an artists to get a hit record, according to DJ Herbert, who has been breaking new music at the popular Freedom party at New York's Discotheque for nearly 10 years. 

But even with satellite radio and club exposure, many struggling performers remain unhappy  with the music industry and its response to new music.

Keen, whose new record "What I really Mean" debuted May 10, argues that the repetition of the same records squeezes the life and creativity out of music. 

"If you took a big handful of clay and you squeeze it real hard, for a while it stays in your hand but you keep squeezing, it's gonna start squirting through your hands," he said.

"And I think that's what's happened to commercial radio…. all the good stuff is squirting through their fingers and they are gonna open up their hands and they are not going to have much left."

Terry Wynn is an NBC News associate.

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