The music industry has changed dramatically since the Current launched in 2005. In the early days of the station iPods and other mp3 players were still a fairly new revelation, and people still mainly purchased CDs—although those sales numbers were shifting dramatically.
As the Current celebrates its 10th anniversary, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the changes to the mainstream music industry affected our little noncommercial indie rock station here in Minnesota, and how, in many ways, the success of the station has become intertwined with the general public’s boredom with manufactured pop and hunger for new sounds.
But before we get too far, a little context.
Remember last year when we examined at the shifting tides of album and single sales over the past 40 years? Well, there happened to be a very sudden shift right around the time the Current was founded, and it’s worth revisiting now.
Here’s a graph of RIAA sales data that shows just how prevalent CDs were in 2003:
And here’s how quickly things started to change with the rise of the iPod, which started to spike in popularity around 2004 and had a strong impact on digital single sales in 2005:
And this is the part of the story that we already know very well: As more and more people gained the ability to navigate their own musical terrain, stock their mp3 players with whatever singles they wanted to buy, and connect directly with the hundreds of thousands of independent artists uploading their work to sites like MySpace, the corporately controlled music industry became increasingly irrelevant. Consumers were no longer depending on major label A&R reps to discover new talent and pump it out to the masses; on the internet, new talent seemed to be waiting around every corner, and the possibilities for discovery felt limitless.
When the Current launched in January of 2005, they were seizing a giant opportunity. After nearly a decade of the Telecommunications Act handing the airwaves over to major corporate monopolies and radio stations becoming more and more repetitive, the station provided a much-needed alternative. And after the internet turned the music industry on its head and opened the door for discovering new and independent talent, the Current could act as an incubator, testing ground, and launchpad for a new generation of rock artists.
This is probably a theory better suited for a different piece, but I would argue that the Current couldn’t have succeeded if it had launched any earlier than it did—the short-lived and still devoutly romanticized Rev 105 is proof of that. And I would also argue that it might not have worked had it launched any later. If the last 10 years have shown us anything, it’s that the record business has figured out how to capitalize on the spirit of so-called “indie” artists and package up and sell watered-down facsimiles of the art we once found so enticing. If the Current hadn’t been as savvy or as committed to discovering unknown talent, it could have easily ended up like one of those many stations out there that play Imagine Dragons on repeat.
But I digress.
As the Current’s 10th anniversary approached, I’ve been thinking a lot about the word “indie,” the culture that sprang up around it, and the curious ways that artists like Bon Iver, Adele, Arcade Fire, Macklemore, Lorde, Sam Smith, and one-hit wonders like Gotye, fun., and Foster the People have rubbed up against and crossed over into the mainstream.
To get a better picture of how the Current’s playlist has dovetailed with larger national trends, I decided to dig into the past decade of Billboard Hot 100 singles and see how many overlapped with songs in the Current’s Top 89 singles each year. Here’s a year-by-year snapshot of the similarities I found.
Billboard Hot 100 singles that also received airplay on the Current
#7 Gnarls Barkley, “Crazy”
#23 Snow Patrol, “Chasing Cars”
#97 Gorillaz, “Feel Good Inc.”
#93 Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Snow (Hey Oh)”
#97 Michael Franti & Spearhead, “Say Hey (I Love You)” (played on the Current in 2008)
#1 Adele, “Rolling in the Deep”
#7 Cee Lo Green, “Forget You” (played on the Current in 2010)
#13 Foster the People, “Pumped Up Kicks”
#24 Adele, “Someone Like You”
#1 Gotye feat. Kimbra, “Someone That I Used to Know”
#3 fun. feat. Janelle Monae, “We Are Young”
#12 Adele, “Set Fire to the Rain” (played on the Current in 2011)
#43 Adele, “Someone Like You” (played on the Current in 2011)
#64 Adele, “Rumour Has it” (played on the Current in 2011)
#68 The Lumineers, “Ho Hey”
#71 Adele, “Rolling in the Deep” (played on the Current in 2011)
#1 Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, “Thrift Shop”
#5 Macklemore and Ryan Lewis feat. Ray Dalton, “Can’t Hold Us”
#12 The Lumineers, “Ho Hey” (played on the Current in 2012)
#15 Lorde, “Royals”
#43 Macklemore and Ryan Lewis feat. Mary Lambert, “Same Love”
#52 Mumford and Sons, “I Will Wait” (played on the Current in 2012)
#65 Of Monsters and Men, “Little Talks (played on the Current in 2012)
#1 Pharrell, “Happy”
#10 Sam Smith, “Stay With Me”
#18 Lorde, “Team”
#20 Lorde, “Royals (played on the Current in 2013)
#75 The Neighborhood, “Sweater Weather” (played on the Current in 2013)
As you can see, whereas the Current used to randomly end up with a few Billboard Hot 100 outliers in its rotation, it is now frequently supporting artists who end up skyrocketing to the #1 position on the Billboard charts—and it seems to be happening faster and faster as time goes by. Where it once took artists like Adele over a year to really start to gain traction in the mainstream, young songwriters like Sam Smith and Lorde are now quickly bypassing mid-level venues and pole-vaulting right over the Current and onto Top 40 radio in a matter of months.
So what does it all mean? Time will tell. But it raises all kinds of interesting questions about what stations like the Current should be doing to connect those broad audiences that are just now discovering Sam Smith with the hungry audiophiles who want to hear about the next crop of underground stars who are just coming up. When someone like Lorde or even Hozier crosses over to the mainstream and plays Saturday Night Live, does that mean they aren’t “underground” enough to “deserve” airplay on noncommercial radio anymore?
I know these are questions our own programming team mulls over every day. One thing is for certain: if the music industry keeps fluctuating as wildly as it has since 2005, the next decade of the Current is going to keep all of us on our toes.