Tuesday, May 13, 2008

R.E.M. and College Radio

On Salon.com Andrew Leonard wrote a piece this week describing his shock upon hearing some new R.E.M. on a college radio station (KALX at UC Berkeley) recently. He talks about this interesting dynamic in which R.E.M. got its start on indie college radio, then got big and popular and was dropped from many college stations. He wonders now what it means when R.E.M. is once again getting played on college radio. Are they small again? Not relevant to commercial radio? He writes:

"...the band's record sales have precipitously declined over the last decade and a half. 1991's 'Out of Time' sold 4.5 million copies in the U.S. The band's 2004 release, 'Around the Sun,' has sold only 234,000 to date...

...to hear Stipe's voice on KALX was to hear a life-cycle metaphor. The band is back where it started -- no longer a staple of hit radio, no longer in high rotation on MTV, no longer selling out stadiums. Nope, back to blessed obscurity, back to college radio, back to singing unintelligibly about... Houston?"

Is R.E.M. really back where they started? Once someone gets a major label deal are they considered mainstream forever? Does your college station play R.E.M. today? Does it have a policy to stop playing bands that are commercially successful? I've mostly worked at stations that shy away from major label releases and commercial artists, so I can't say that I've played R.E.M. on the air since maybe the 1980s (and I still love their early stuff and have the same nostalgia that the Salon author writes about). I still doubt we're adding their latest and I think that it is hard for most of us to re-imagine a band as indie once they've gone big. What do you think?

P.S. I've heard plenty of major label stuff on KALX, so the fact that they are playing R.E.M. is not a huge surprise. And, it's not just KALX. College radio is very diverse and I get the impression that many stations aren't focused only on indie artists.

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