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I just returned from the Public Radio Music Conference, which despite it’s encompassing name, is really just about Classical stations.  In fact, I was the only non-classical person there!
That said, music stations of any stripe have much more in common than they have differences, be they classical, jazz, AAA, or for that matter, commercial stations.

Classical stations in particular, struggle with new music.  Only in the classical world is the term “new music” not just a descriptor of current releases, it is actually a formally recognized and defined sub-genre that describes anything written (depending on who you ask) after WWII or so.

Of course, when the bulk of your musical inventory consists of pieces that range from 150-300 years old, things that are a mere 75 to 80 years old can seem new.

We have the same thing in jazz.  Artists that KCCK informally refers to as “Contemporary” generally started releasing records in the early 70s, so we’re fine ones to talk.

But I have to admit I was amused by a session where some contemporary classical music was featured.  It was entitled “A Concert Featuring Living Composers.”

Wow.  They should have titled it “Concerts featuring Undead Composers,” then they could have at least capitalized on the Zombie fad….

Symphony Orchestras go through the same thing as radio, although I am proud to say our own Orchestra Iowa has done some very nice positioning of the new music they have programmed, particularly in a recent season where they included music from Iowa composers in each of their concerts.

Orchestras, radio, any organization involved in presenting music, has to find an answer to the question, “How do we expose our audience to something they haven’t heard before?” It’s the hardest question a musical organization can ever struggle with.

Because, no one wants to hear anything new.


But wait! You’re thinking. Our audience is always saying, “Bring us something new and fresh.  That’s why we like you, you’re not boring.”

They’re lying.

OK, not everyone, but almost.  Back in my commercial media days, I saw study after study that in essence said people will tell you they crave variety but what they want is consistency.  Give them anything other than musical comfort food and as soon as another outlet gives them the familiar, they’ll desert you in droves.  And I have seen that very thing happen many, many times.  Cool, interesting station playing a wide variety of tunes, both old and new, gets stomped on when an Oldies station goes on the air.

For most normal people, musical tastes and favorites seem to get frozen in the teenage or college years.  If you’re a literate person, you will find and enjoy new authors to read throughout your entire life, but I’ll bet that you can count the number of musicians you’ve heard in the last ten years that you now call a “favorite” on the fingers of one hand.

Personally, I think of myself as someone who is open and actually seeks out new music to listen to, but I recently was looking through an iTunes playlist I’d entitled “New Stuff,” and discovered there were tunes in there that were released in 2002!

Better than just about anyone, Contemporary Top 40 radio stations know that you need to give the audience the hits.  New music is usually not introduced until it’s been “warmed up” by some other medium.  In the old days, that was done by touring and building a live following.  Today, it’s a YouTube video that goes viral.  But the effect is the same.  People tune in or buy a ticket because they want to hear their favorites.  As a presenter, you need to find some way to introduce them to something unfamiliar that maybecome their favorite without scaring them off.

Back when I was a commercial music director, “predicting the hits” was one of the things that was most fun about the job.  And, I was lucky enough to hit more times than I missed, at least according to the gold and platinum records that still adorn my office wall to this day.  But even when a local DJ could control the tunes he or she played, you still had to carefully balance what new tunes you introduced, almost spoon-feeding them to the skittish listener who would dart away when things got too unfamiliar.

And that might be one reason why most of us miss out on new music as we age.  Even with Pandora, social recommending services, etc., it’s just too darn much work to find the really good stuff.  My iPod Favorites playlist will run for 223 hours before repeating, I don’t need anything new.

But, if I don’t keep searching, exposing myself to new artists and genres, then I truly will be old.

So, if as media and music presenters, we want to find a way to keep from just becoming museums, the onus is on us to curate the best of the new stuff that’s out there, and then to find ways to present it in an engaging, non-threatening, positive manner.

I would like to hope this is a niche that local organizations, be they radio stations or symphony orchestras, can fill.  For me, I’m banking my career that the idea of a person, sitting in a radio control room, playing and talking about music for which they have a passion,  will be a music discovery model that lives on.

I haven’t outgrown it yet!  So, don’t be afraid, come on in.  The music’s fine!  And the stuff you haven’t heard yet may be the best ever.

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