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Published on July 21st, 2011 | by Alan Cross


Grunge Nearly Ruined Alt-Rock: Discuss

I have a theory:  grunge nearly ruined alt-rock to the point of killing it altogether.  But it wasn’t grunge’s fault.  Here’s why.

I’ve been following a Facebook group called Remembering the Spirit of Radio CFNY 102.1 for a couple of weeks now.  It’s populated by people who remember the CFNY of the 1980s, a time when the station (and all things alternative) were far beyond the fringes of mainstream music.

I was part of that era.  I joined the station on October 3, 1986, not really knowing what I was getting myself into.  I was from the Prairies, fer crissakes.  Where I grew up, people believed that rock had attained perfection years earlier.  What more did you need than Deep Purple’s “Highway Star” playing on the Roadstar cassette player in your Firebird?

But within hours–literally, hours–of joining the staff, one question kept going through my head:  “Where has all this music been all my life?  And why did I have to move across the country to discover it?” 

The 80s were a fascinating time for alt-rock.  The people involved in the scene–from the bands and managers to the labels and DJs to the record stores and fans–reveled in their outsider-ness.  We wanted nothing to do with the mainstream.  Which was fine, because they wanted nothing to do with us.  It was all very, very tribal–and we liked it that way.

The few commercial alt-rock stations that existed back then were connected only by anecdotes.  None of the radio industry magazines published alternative charts or tracked airplay.  Each station simply served up music it thought its local audience was like.  That’s why CFNY sounded so much different than say, WFNX in Boston or KROQ in LA.

Consequently, a staggering breadth of music made the playlists was staggering.  Techno-pop.  Industrial.  Every flavour of punk.  Early rap and hip-hop.  Goth.  British indie.  Remixes that made you want to unselfconciously dance.  Ethereal dream-pop.  And yes, a smattering of guitar rock.

Here’s the top ten from CFNY’s year-end list from 1986:

  1. Peter Gabriel/So
  2. The Smiths/The Queen is Dead
  3. New Order/Brotherhood
  4. REM/Life’s Rich Pageant
  5. Depeche Mode/Black Celebration
  6. Paul Simon/Graceland
  7. OMD/The Pacific Age
  8. The Cure/Standing on a Beach
  9. Steve Winwood/Back in the High Life
  10. Love and Rocks/Express

Scanning through the rest of the list, you’ll find reggae (UB40), pop-funk (Level 42), mainstrema rock (Genesis’ Invisible Touch), rap (Run-DMC) and folk (Bruce Cockburn).

But as artistically fulfilling as this may sound, it wasn’t good for ratings.  To get big ratings, you need to appeal to the greatest number of people and get them to listen as often as possible and for as long as possible.  And as much as we still want to believe that the world craves Good Music, it doesn’t.  While there may be millions of us, there are billions of people who just want songs they can sing along to in the car and once in a while, they buy a CD at Wal-Mart or at the counter at Starbucks.

And since a radio station’s revenues depend on ratings (higher ratings = more revenues), commercial alt-rock stations struggled along from month to month, always with the spectre of a format change looming overhead. 

Salaries were low to the point of poverty (trust me), but these places were staffed by hardcore music fans, people who were on a mission to deliver Good Music to the masses.  I know it sounds stupid to say this, but it really was about the music, man.

And so it was for the so-called Golden Age of commercial alt-rock radio.

But then came grunge. 

Hints that the world was ready for a change came in March 1990 when 25,000 people rioted outside a record store in Los Angeles as Depeche Mode prepared for an autograph session around the release of their Violator album.

Then twenty years ago this week–July 18, 1991–the Alternative Nation was born.  The first Lollapalooza show kicked off in the Arizona desert.  This was Perry Farrell’s invention:  an old-school touring caravan of fringe acts, all supporting Jane’s Addiction’s farewell tour.

The Toronto show was at the old Exhibiton Stadium.  Along with Jane’s, the line-up included Siouxsie and the Banshees, Living Color, Ice-T and Body Count, Butthole Surfers, Rollins Band and some weirdo new group called Nine Inch Nails. 

The tour was a modest success despite many, many unsold tickets.  But the fact that upwards of 20,000 people would pay to see all these decidedly non-mainstream bands convinced everyone to do it again.  So they did.

By the time the 1992 tour started exactly one year later, alternative was no longer “alternative.”  It was well on its way to supplanting the mainstream.  And the thing that did it was grunge.

Thanks to riff-ready songs from Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and especially Nirvana, alt-rock began to coalesce around hard guitar rock.  Sure, there was still room for the odd electronic-based band and ballad-loving chanteuse, but as the record labels piled on and as record sales went through the roof, the focus settled on guitar rock.

By the middle 90s, grunge was alt-rock.  Here’s CFNY’s (renamed The Edge in 1993) top ten for 1996:

  1. Smashing Pumpkins/Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
  2. Oasis/(What’s the Story) Morning Glory?
  3. Soundgarden/Down on the Upside
  4. Tragically Hip/Trouble at the Henhouse
  5. Pearl Jam/No Code
  6. Garbage/Garbage
  7. Bush/Razorblade Suitcase
  8. REM/New Adventures in HiFi
  9. Stone Temple Pilots/Tiny Music:  Songs from the Vatican Gift Shop
  10. Nirvana/From the Muddy Banks of the Wishkah

No, it wasn’t all grunge.  The list also included Tracy Bonham, Radiohead, Ashley MacIsaac, Poe, the Cranberries and the Cowboy Junkies.  But the overwhelming majority of acts were guitar rockers, with most of them being grunge (or at least grunge-ish).

Guitar-based alt-rock bands–led by the grungers–continued to sell records and concert tickets in ever-increasing amounts.  Everyone piled on.  Alt-rock stations proliferated across the continent as companies jumped into serving the new, growing and hungry Alternative Nation. 

Industry magazines started compiling charts and monitoring airplay.  Now when a program director in, say, Des Moines, wondered what songs he/she should add to the playlist, the first thought was “I wonder what KROQ in LA is doing?”  A quick check of the charts and suddenly Des Moines was following LA instead of trying to come up with something that would work in Des Moines. 

The result was a unstoppable homogenity of sound.  Grunge was so big and so popular that it effectively became alt-rock.  All those varied sounds that were so big in the 80s?  Squeezed out in favour of big guitars and screaming vocalists.

Please don’t get me wrong.  Grunge was great.  I can’t imagine a universe without Nirvana or cousins like the Pumpkins.  Not only did they make great music, but this was alt-rock with training wheels that lured people in with its different-yet-familiar approach to traditional guitar rock.  Once someone bought a Nirvana record, they were sucked inside the Alternative Nation.  Millions were inspired to go deeper into alt-rock (and beyond!) and found their lives richer for it.

But when it came to commercial alt-rock radio–well, grunge became the foundation of its sound for many years.  Instead of taking a chance on something truly new and different, it was safer from a ratings point of view to play something grunge-ish (i.e. guitar-based, preferrably with dropped tuning).  And as listeners empowered themselves with iPods and MP3s and torrents, stations tightened their playlists more each year to keep those ratings and revenues up.  Charts and airplay monitors only served to reinforce this circle-the-wagons mentality.

For a while, it looked grim.  The original grunge bands died off and we were left with dreck like nu-metal.  The grunge well went dry and for a while, there was nothing concrete to replace it.

Happily, things have loosened up a bit over the last five years as indie rock has exploded.  Thanks to the White Stripes, the Black Keys, Cults and others, we’re hearing a wider variety of sounds on commercial alt-rock stations. 

But will we ever go back to the kind of alt-rock radio we heard in the 80s?  No.

The demands and listening habits of the public have changed irrevocably in the last 30 years.  We cannot (and should not) go back.  Commercial alt-rock radio of the 80s was an era in media whose time has passed.  If you were around then, remember it fondly.  Check out that Facebook page.

Above all, try not to say dumb things like “In my day, music was SO much better!”  We all need to remember that every generation has the right to believe that the music of their youth is the greatest of all time.  It’s an argument you will never win.  You’ll just sound like Grandpa Simpson.

But will 80s-style alt-rock live online?  Absolutely.  Try Rdio and fill yer boots.



About the Author

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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10 Responses to Grunge Nearly Ruined Alt-Rock: Discuss

  1. Mark A. says:

    I'm just old enough to have caught the tail end of the glory years of CFNY, and absolutely did it ever shape my taste in music. I actually lost interest when grunge hit, simply because of overexposure, and I completely stopped listening to "Edge One or Two" by the time nu-metal came along. After years of Ned's Atomic Dustbin, Pop Will Eat Itself, New Order, Butthole Surfers, Lush, Curve, etc, I went off in the direction of electro-industrial, synthpop, futurepop, etc.

    Speaking of homogeneity of music, did you ever catch "The Four Chord Song"? Here's a recent update on it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOlDewpCfZQ

  2. Mark A. says:

    Failed at linking the YouTube URL, oops:

    Axis of Awesome – The Four Chord Song (2011)

  3. Keith says:

    Here's what I think, and I'll try to frame things historically. The way that music is consumed invariably changes the forms of expression. When classical composers were in their heyday most music was consumed live; the size of the orchestra was daunting, and the music was complex and seemed to be at a higher level than its audience. Indeed, much of the music composed was commissioned by royalty/nobility to be entertained.

    When music started to be pressed onto vinyl (especially in the United States, arguably the birthplace of pop music, maybe as a manifestation of anti-royal sentiments but I digress), we started seeing more popular composers, Gilbert and Sullivan were famous for thumbing their noses at the upper classes (as were a lot of others). Musical theatre became a place to celebrate dissent during the time when liberal democracies were budding.

    The radio similarly changed things, it really democratized music, in that stations popped up all over the place, and local radio really is the last bastion of local news (which I think satellite radio is killing, and I'll get to that later). It allowed for local cultures to make a footprint, and those footprints overlapped to an extent. African American music started to spread through these circles. The Blues, Jazz, and Country music created new circles of popular music (rock'n'roll comes out of this blending of styles).

    Television began to change music in the 60s, when aesthetics became every bit as much of a sell as the sound. This allowed for the creation of music television, videos were a fresh way to sell music, and it was a new and vibrant art form. It was, naturally, accompanied by people making new and vibrant music. When the 90s rolled around videos were already getting stale for the American audience, and they were mixing in pop culture news/shows to fill the gaps between their music videos, and it's gotten to the point where music videos are almost non-existent on any music television.

    The thing that we need to keep in mind about all these different eras is that it all ties back to local radio (at least, that's what I believe). Local scenes are the lifeblood of creativity; it becomes a community to share with people you know, and meet people you don't. Music doesn't just pop up out of nowhere, although it feels that way as communication advances, and there were scenes (l'll try to keep this term consistent now) throughout history.

    The blues, jazz, and country didn't just pop up out of nowhere, they only became popular later on when new forms of media allowed them the space in the marketplace. Similarly rock'n'roll, punk, new-wave/post-punk, noise, hip-hop, electronic music, and even grunge had precursors, and a lot of them were in localities that spread because the forms of media eventually allowed it.

    The 80s didn't just have great pop music, there were a lot of undercurrents that still permeate music today. Sonic Youth's EVOL was NOT a huge sell, but it still gives us a look at the New York art scene which produced a lot of bands. The Velvet Underground wasn't a huge sell, but nobody will debate their importance to modern music.

    So we come to the digital age. Satellite radio's promise of no commercials is enticing, and it hurts local radio. It's essentially the place that local scenes are allowed to flourish in a place that's accessible by anyone. So you're right in that radio execs want to "give the people what they want". I remember a great Frank Zappa interview where he talked (I'll paraphrase) about old cigar chomping music execs that would give anything a shot, throw it on the wall and see if it'll stick; later on those execs got replaced by cool kids, who knew what people wanted to hear and music becomes bland as a result. Interesting thought, although it was probably romanticized by one of the great musical geniuses of the 20th century (if a music exec couldn't give Zappa the time of day, then we'd all be doomed as far as music goes).

    The true democratization of music has now come in the form of the internet. You did a great piece on the OHoNM on the Infinite Musical Archive, where we're told that a 160gig iPod only costs a few hundred dollars, but to actually fill it with content costs thousands up on thousands of dollars. So naturally the digital music age has given us an incentive to SHARE our music. Those underground scenes in New York, or Seattle, or New Orleans, or Toronto etc. are now accessible at the click of a button. I think this drives music listeners to want to find something new almost every day (I know that's how I'm functioning these days) and a programmer just can't keep up with those kind new music demands.

    TLDR: Essentially, we can get whatever we want, when we want, at the quality we want, wherever we want. We can become so compartmentalized that we can milk any scene we want for all its worth (look at the all the sub genres upon sub genres we have). If I want to milk the post-punk surf rock minimalist genre for all its worth, I can get it, and no amount of satellite radio will fill that need for me, and if they can't, then it's no wonder local radio can't compete either.

    So no, grunge didn't do it. I think that digital media is simply outpacing radio, and with technology getting better all the time it's going to take someone truly revolutionary to revitalize radio and I think subsequently a lot of local music scenes.

  4. I think Alan's point was that the end of "alternative" began well before the digital age. My theory is this: I blame everything on the big record labels. The only reason the kind of music that a station like "They Mighty Y/The Spirit of Radio/CFNY" played emerged, was because of the DIY record labels that began popping up. This only lasted a few years before the big record companies started swallowing them up. Once they disappeared, the music sucked again. I remember my friends and I in the latter half of the 80s lamenting about the direction music had gone, after having been so great from about 1978-86. We all said "something has to happen." That something was grunge. But something new happens once every dozen or so years. Ten to 12 years after grunge came the Strokes. But because big labels rule what we listen to, and bands ultimately want to make money, we will never have an era like we did in the early 80s.

  5. Keith says:

    I disagree completely, I think that we've compartmentalized scenes in a way other than geography. That will, inevitably, kills local radio stations.

    Right now we've got huge music sharing networks that allow you to listen to whatever you want to listen to. More than ever the 'big 4' (? I forget if some of them have amalgamated or not) have less and less control of what we listen to.

    A group like Odd Future has created their success almost exclusively on the back of social media like tumblr and twitter. They released a plethora of free mix tapes and all their videos for free on youtube.

    You've got Radiohead completely free of the ties of record labels altogether, and they're able to publish what they want and how they want.

    Really this is a golden age for creativity. With the way technology is advancing your home, apartment, garage, outdoor park, anything can be a studio. You can make the sounds you want to hear. It's just not going to be served up on a platter for you to consume. It's great for music fans who want to seek out the next new sound you can go out and find it regardless of locale; for people who want their music delivered to them in small compact segments/singles, it's gonna continue to be really stagnant.

    Be excited, pick up something new for the heck of it. If you like the artwork of an album give it a listen. It's tough, because Alan's disclaimer at the bottom basically warned against people saying "my era is the best and everything else stinks" and generally we like to stay in our comfort zone because of the emotions that music brings us. A perfect example of the emotional attachment that comes with music is the success Girl Talk is enjoying. He's mashing up pop samples with anything and everything, and playing with our emotional response to songs to get us excited. He reminds us that pop music is supposed to be fun, we're supposed to dance and cheer, and not cross our arms and dare an entertainer to actually entertain us.

    Go out, 'explore music', it's fun.

    Albums I can't wait to hear coming out: The new Avalanches album (yet to be named, hope to god it comes out after 10 years); Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks "Mirror Traffic"; and Real Estate "Days". And I'll for sure find some new bands like Autre Ne Veut, who released their "Body EP" which is excellent.

  6. NK says:

    I just came back from Boston where I had a chance to listen to that city's alternative rock station (WFNX) for a couple of days, and subsequently on-line. I expected it to be pretty much a carbon copy of the predictably uninspiring grunge heavy playlist we're subjected to in Toronto, but was surprised at the diversity. What struck me the most was that they haven't compartmentalized the forefathers (Clash, Talking Heads,Ramones etc.) of punk/alternative music into rigid time slots, or specialty programming but actually play them as part of the daily schedule. This is not at the expense of newer artists either. The station is not perfect, but they do seem to be making an effort (they played LCD Soundsystem, this AM for christsakes!). They also play different album tracks from current albums, rather than playing the main single over and over again. What a concept! I understand that the days of wonderfully varied programming on one station are over, but the template is out there to make alterative radio in this town not necesarily great, but at least listenable.

  7. Mr. Bitterman says:

    I thought we were discussing what killed (past tense) alternative.

  8. Don says:

    Don Mitchell dislikes this conversation but could not find the dislike button. Here's my mf-ing philosophy…

  9. rd says:

    I was an avid listener of CFNY in the early to mid 80's and similar to many others, that period greatly shaped my musical tastes and continues to do so to this day. I have some thoughts, particularly about Alan's comment:

    We all need to remember that every generation has the right to believe that the music of their youth is the greatest of all time.

    I think that is mostly the case because people are exposed to the most diverse amount of music when they are in the age range of 15-25. You are most attuned to what is new and interesting and probably have the largest group of peers in your high school and university days to be exposed to interesting and exciting new music and feel like part of a 'scene'. As you get older, you start to see things begin to repeat (trends, styles, etc.) or find that what you once thought was new really borrowed heavily from the past, making things less new and exciting. Maybe a new genre or two come through that you aren't crazy about and you start to lose interest in what's new and turn back to that 'better' music of your youth.

    The point is, there is amazing music being made all the time – the real problem is how that music gets distributed to potential listeners.

    I think the problem boils down to this: the number of people out there who are willing to invest time and listen through different styles (that in the words of another commenter create the 'wonderfully varied programming on one station') is for the most part, smaller than the number of listeners required to run a profitable radio station. That and the fact that it takes a substantial effort to create and maintain varied programming that brings in new and interesting artists and styles – most can't be bothered.

    For those of us who listened to CFNY in it's heyday, we know that listening to 'wonderfully varied programming' is rewarded by finding a huge selection of amazing music to listen to. One place to find that sort of radio programming today is by listening to David Marsden at 94.9 The Rock!

  10. Mr. Bitterman says:

    Hey, Don. Good for you.
    I don't know why the focus has come to "when" people liked music most and that each generation thinks their music is the best. Here's the crux of the original article: "But when it came to commercial alt-rock radio–well, grunge became the foundation of its sound for many years. Instead of taking a chance on something truly new and different, it was safer from a ratings point of view to play something grunge-ish (i.e. guitar-based, preferrably with dropped tuning). "
    In those early CFNY days, that station did take a chance. I certainly did not state it was my favourite music or my favourite era. In fact, there are many bands from those days I can no longer tolerate. But there is a fact here: that between 1978-1982, there was a tumultuous change in music. And my original point was that I thought this change, this proliferation of new music had a lot to do with the indie record companies that popped up and the DIY attitude — which, as Keith states in his disagreement of me, is happening now with modern technology. I agree with Alan Cross. But I also believe "alternative" lost its lustre when the big record companies took over again.
    And by the way, there is a difference between "alternative" and "obscure."

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