I grew up in Sacramento listening to 93 Rock, which changed about midway through my hometown life to 98 Rock – same music, different spot on the dial.  93 Rock played Guns N’ Roses, Metallica, AC/DC, Skid Row, Poison, and the list goes on.  Now, to some extent, I imagine that most rock stations played this music then, but I guess what’s important to note is that 93 Rock leaned toward the heavier side of rock – playing things like Metallica and Megadeth far more often than Journey, for example, and not just the singles either.

I would imagine as a result of this, that’s why I grew up leaning toward the heavier side of the genre as well.  But the question is, did I lean toward these choices because the radio station where I grew up played them more often, or did the radio station play those more because I and other people from Sacramento liked heavier music to begin with and requested it more?  Don’t answer that before we talk about the role record labels play.

It’s no secret that record labels have long influenced radio stations and encouraged them to play their artists.  They know that exposure on the radio is the best way to make people aware of and interested in new music.  Most people don’t go out looking for new music, especially pre-internet, so forcing it on them during their daily commute is about the easiest way to make them aware.

They use to just pay them money, but when various artist rating systems came out that were based on radio airplay instead of record sales, it seemed unfair to rate an artist more popular just because their record label paid to get them more airtime.  So, they made that illegal and called it payola.  That didn’t really stop labels from investing money with radio stations to get more exposure for their artists.  Now they just pay some other company, a consulting group, who “encourages” radio stations to play their artists; they donate concert tickets, send gift baskets, whatever.  It still happens; it’s just less direct now.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I immediately noticed a change in the rock they play on KROQ, L.A.’s biggest rock station, compared to the rock they play on 98 Rock back home.  It’s still apparent when I go home that Sacramento just rocks harder.  KROQ plays softer rock most of the time, and doesn’t take as many risks as 98 Rock does with the artists it plays.

For a long time, I assumed that the watered down experience you get here was directly related to the proximity of the stations here to the labels themselves.  It’s easier for labels to influence the stations here – they don’t even have to go anywhere.  Also, it’s probably more important to influence the L.A. market because it’s just bigger.  So, it made sense to me that stations here just do what the labels say.

But here is what I have recently started to wonder: Does KROQ play watered down rock because the labels are influencing them into playing these more digestible pop rock artists, and Sacramento does so less because the labels don’t care as much about that market?  Or, do labels in fact affect 98 Rock and other outlying stations just as much, but in a different way?

Perhaps Sacramento music fans lean toward the harder side of rock naturally.  Maybe the culture where you’re from has more to do with what you’ll like than what the stations play.  My taste was definitely influenced by my friends, my parents and others, in addition to the radio.  The real question is, would listeners in Sacramento lean even further toward the edges of rock if given the choice, and in fact the Metallica, Megadeth and Alice in Chains we heard growing up WAS the labels influencing us back into the mainstream, but only as far as they knew we’d go?  Here in Los Angeles, with our plastic surgery and fake smiles, they know they can push it all the way to sucking, so they do.  In Sacramento, they knew they had to keep it a little edgier, or we’d find somewhere else to get our tunes.

So the question is, who really shapes the radio stations –the labels, the listeners, or both?  And, do labels get involved in every market, or is the reason Sacramento is less like Los Angeles is because labels simply don’t push them as hard?  And do people just listen to what they’re fed, or eventually will they get fed up?

In the words of the great AC/DC: “Who made who?”

I’d be interested in feedback from anybody who thinks they know.

Joey Flores
CEO, earbits.com
[email protected]
LinkedIn http://www.linkedin.com/in/joeyjflores
Twitter: @earbits

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