Monday, March 9, 2015

My Year-Long Study on Democracy Now! and Culture

This was originally published in March of 2015.

I'm a topical musician by trade. To rephrase that, I'm an expert on how to tell stories about the world around us in a way that is effective and particular to the form of communication that is music. By effective, I mean telling stories in a way that reaches people emotionally in a way that most other forms of communication don't do as well. On March 4th's edition of one of my favorite radio shows, Democracy Now, Amy Goodman said, in reference to John Legend's musical contribution to the film, Selma, that “culture is so important in getting out information.” I completely agree, and I agree that Legend's song, “Glory,” achieves this end brilliantly.

I love Democracy Now, Amy Goodman, and John Legend – and I speak now in all sincerity, in case you're wondering if you should be reading in an edge of sarcasm here, there is none. Nonetheless, I've had a conflicted relationship with the music breaks on this wonderful, extremely popular radio show. There are two of them on each show. They do them for station identification, but of course so many of the show's listeners are online, and not hearing any local radio programmers cut in and identify their stations. Together, we're talking about two 30-second clips of music in each show, sometimes longer if they're having trouble reaching someone they're about to interview, or some other glitch of the sort that happens often in live broadcasts.

So, you may be thinking to yourself, this guy is getting himself all worked up about a couple of 30-second music breaks on a news and information show? Well, yes. And if you keep reading, I think you'll understand why.

I thought I'd start by laying out the facts that I've gathered. I'm not a statistician, but I went to a good high school and understand the rudiments of the scientific method, which I did my best to apply to my experiment. DN's music breaks had been grating on me for years, and, after first trying occasionally over the course of years to plead with Amy and several of her producers personally to pay more attention to how they're doing their music breaks, In December, 2013, I started up a blog, A Musical Review of Democracy Now, in which I have been keeping track of musical selections (and, in some of the posts, making observations about them). I listen to the show religiously anyway, like many people reading this right now. So jotting down what was in the music breaks wasn't hard, once I got into the habit of doing that.

There were certain pieces of information I wanted to gather together. After listening to a total of 105 shows over the course of 15 months on a completely random basis – approximately 1/3 of the shows they've done in that time period – a total of 210 music breaks, the breakdown of the musical selections I've heard works out as follows.

First of all, about one-third of DN's music breaks fall into the category of “unnamed instrumental,” usually classical Arabic oud music, electronic music, or classic jazz tunes. The unnamed instrumentals are not part of the statistics that follow. For the sake of simplicity I'm focused on the most relevant sample of the music, to my thinking, which is songs with lyrics in English, the common language of listeners to this show. Songs in English represent approximately half of the music breaks. (Incidentally, I am not criticizing here whether music breaks are instrumental or with lyrics, or whether they're in English or not, I'm just explaining my methodology here.)

So, of the 106 songs in English played, out of the 210 music breaks I kept track of, 88 of them were written by famous people. 18 of them were written by independent artists. I'm not good at math, but I believe that breaks down to 17% of the songs played are songs of indy artists, leaving 83% to be from famous artists.

Of the 128 music breaks with songwriters or composers who were identified (basically not counting unnamed oud music and some other instrumental stuff), at least 69 of them, or 53%, were from the 20th century, most of those from the 1960's or 1970's. At least 40 of the authors, or 31% of the total, are dead.

Why are these statistics relevant? Amy Goodman said “culture is so important in getting out information.” So one question is, what information are we mainly talking about here? Stuff that happened 60 years ago is certainly information, but is that mainly what a current events show like DN is focusing on? And what kind of information is communicated about the relevance of culture, when the overwhelming majority of music is derived from famous people from the early part of the latter half of the 20th century? John Legend of course is not part of that statistic, though he very much is part of the “famous” part of the equation.

Of course, maybe you had never heard of John Legend until you heard his song on DN – the left is a pretty insular bunch, so I'm sure for some of you that's the case. (Insert smiley emoticon here.) But many millions of people have already heard of John Legend. He's on commercial radio and TV a lot. I'm not saying that's bad in itself, but it's a fact. And 83% of other songs played on DN fall into that kind of category.

There are degrees of “famous,” of course. Bruce Springsteen is one one end of the spectrum. Pete Seeger isn't as famous as Bruce Springsteen, but he's still famous. So what is my definition of famous here? I just kept it simple. If my investigation turns up that the author had at least one top 40 hit in the charts in the US and/or the UK, and/or that they won one or more Grammy awards, and/or were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, they're famous.

I guess I've made the basic statistical point. From here I could wax philosophical, for better or for worse, but I've done plenty of that already in previous essays you can read if you want to (such as the Cultural 1%). What I hadn't done was collected and collated the actual facts to back up what I'm saying, which I have now done.

Basically, I guess it's all very subjective. But I'm completely convinced that a 30-second music break between segments on a news show can change people's lives. The show is too popular to ignore it when they consistently miss the opportunity to use those breaks to really support their stories with powerful, contemporary, independent music, of which there is so much to choose from.

But you have to look for the independent stuff. You have to know how important it is to do that. Otherwise you default to what you know, and if you grew up in the US, what you knew is what is or has been popular. The other stuff is harder to find, so it needs to be an actual priority to find it, otherwise it doesn't happen. The elitism inherent in 83% of music played being derived from the cultural 1% probably happens by accident. It's just the default to do that. But it's still damaging. It still communicates the wrong message. It says that contemporary independent music and culture is irrelevant, quite simply. What you don't play communicates as much as what you do play.

It's not that Bob Dylan or Bob Marley should be ignored – they shouldn't. But if you're doing stories about contemporary issues, struggles, etc., inevitably, the music that will be powerfully on topic is going to be equally contemporary. And independent. Can you imagine if DN only interviewed best-selling authors? There would be an uproar. Their listeners would abandon them and call them bad names. Because everybody knows that the people we want to listen to and interview and read, etc., are primarily not authors, thinkers and activists who manage to get on the bestseller lists, or who have first been featured on CNN before you get around to having them on your show. Everybody knows that CNN's judgment of who is important is not ours.

So then why should a music break have to be a song that's been in the charts, in order for it to be played on DN? It's not that bestselling authors or hit-producing artists have nothing important to say – some of them do. But the much larger number of artists out there who have never been in the charts are the ones producing the much larger number of great songs. Even if you're not a professional indy musician like I am, even if you haven't observed what I'm talking about firsthand, you know what I'm saying must be likely to be true, statistically. Of the millions of songwriters in the world, it stands to reason, statistically, that most of the good ones can't possibly be the very few that come pre-approved by Clearchannel or even by the BBC or the Motown Records label, and yet that's exactly 83% of what DN plays in their music breaks that involve songs, according to my study.

On a personal note, it feels relevant to add that criticizing any aspect of Democracy Now is a really terrible way to make friends. Understandably enough for various reasons that I won't bother going into, people worship that show, and its wonderful host, who I am privileged to have met on many occasions. I used to be one of the few indy musicians played fairly regularly on the show, usually several times a year. A significant amount of my audience in the US is derived from having been played on DN, particularly around 2001. The last time I was played on the show was the same week I started the blog analyzing their music breaks. The response from many of the people who wrote me after I first started writing analyses of DN's music breaks was basically, “wow, you've got a lot of sour grapes, why don't you quit whining and start your own radio show,” or something along those lines.

Nonetheless, what I'm saying is relevant and important, so I'm saying it. Whether or not it influences DN or anyone else is not up to me. What's up to me is speaking my mind. And what I'm talking about is much bigger than this one radio show, of course. It's about our culture much more broadly than that. The same patterns DN engages in can be found in independent radio shows at community stations throughout the country and the world. In our collective subconscious, whether we ever listen to commercial radio or not, Clearchannel calls the shots in our minds, and will continue to do so as long as leaders of independent media such as Democracy Now rely primarily on popular artists from the 20th century for most of their music breaks.

One of the first times I met Amy Goodman, I asked her for a quote, as aspiring artists do when they meet famous or influential people. She floored me, in a very positive sense, by saying, off the cuff, “how about 'he's the musical version of Democracy Now?'” I've been proudly identifying myself with this quote ever since (changing the “he” to “David Rovics,” since that's who she was referring to there in the Firehouse studio in lower Manhattan 15 years ago).

If you change the “the” to “a,” the quote is true. I, and many other musicians who write songs about the news of the day – topical music, a longstanding tradition in many genres of music – are indeed musical versions of Democracy Now. And oddly enough, the host of the show herself made this observation. But in actual practice, the musical versions of Democracy Now are almost completely ignored by Democracy Now, and the impact that this oversight has on how DN's listeners experience and understand the relevance of culture and its ability to communicate is very negative, whether or not many of them are aware of this, since music breaks can have a sort of subliminal quality, and people who aren't musicians or serious music aficionados wouldn't generally give them much conscious thought.

But it does matter, it does have an impact, and if you don't know this from your own experience, then take it from someone whose musical career was partially launched by being played regularly on the most popular radio show on the left in the US – it matters, and it has an impact, what you do with your music breaks when you have that many listeners.

What goes on between the music breaks, that's for another essay. Mostly I think it's fantastic, and praise-worthy, and I'd miss it terribly if the podcast weren't around to download to accompany me on the road. But there's room for improvement, and I'm just trying to put a little more of the demos in democracy.


Diane Crowe said...

I, too, have been disappointed in the music played on DN! lately. They should hire me to supply updated, indy music.
Diane Crowe

ScarabusRedivivus said...

You’ve talked with Amy, David. What’s her overall purpose in playing songs or instrumental snippets during breaks? By which criteria does she decide which works advance that purpose? Does she make the choices, or is that handled by a producer or intern?

Obviously I love it when something happens in the morning; David Rovics writes a song about it in the midday (while airport officials try to decide whether he’s a welcome visitor or an outside agitator); and then he posts the new song in the afternoon. (Death of George Tiller?)

But I also love it when I find reminders that the fabric of life can be stretched in various ways without losing its integrity and connectedness. A story about the SAE frat boys’ favorite song, followed by an interlude where we hear Billy Holiday singing “Strange Fruit”? Playing Pete Seeger’s “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy” while showing images of U.S. troops waist deep in Middle Eastern rocks and sand?

What’s she trying to accomplish during those interludes?
How successful is she in accomplishing it?
Was it worth accomplishing?
Should she instead have tried for something different?

Unknown said...

I agree with you that DN! can provide more time to independent musicians. I also sympathize with you that DN! appears to be cutting back on your music after you blogged your opinion.

But I think the end of your post (which is similar to what I say above) and the headline of your post are quite different. Your headline accuses DN! of "elitism" and in support you say 83% of the music is of the cultural 1%.

But by your own measurement, if you include the non-english music the number will drop to less than half of that - about 40 %. Meaning 60% of their music is devoted to independent musicians and music from around the world - this is something the American elite will never do.

Hence, the elitism accusation does not hold water even as I agree with you that they can provide more percentage of time to independent artists.

Best regards,

David Rovics said...

Thanks for the feedback, all of you. I'm not sure what the overall purpose of the song choices are. I guess it doesn't make much sense to me, overall. I'm pretty sure Amy isn't involved.

In terms of counting the unnamed instrumentals as independent music, I'm not sure. Since I don't know who wrote the pieces, I can't say which ones are independent. I think the percentage of songs in the language of their listeners that is by famous people is a relevant statistic.

steve s said...

I was first introduced to your music on DN about 15yrs ago David..I was really floored to hear someone telling story's through song that were so pertinent to our sociieties unraveling... I don't watch the program anymore because indie media sources have gone way beyond DN's format...But I'm still a loyal fan of your straight forward songs and I'm still waiting for the massacre at the Haliburton Boardroom...

Dick McLeester said...

Hey. I too think there is something not right about Bob Marley and John Lennon songs are so much more popular than current living artists music. But I am not sure "cultural elitism" really explains it. And I do not know how to change it, in the world, or in my own head. Sometimes I would much rather hear a good, unique cover version of one of my favorite songs, than listen to new music to find something new to like. Something happens in the brain with familiar music. Familiar biases.
Also, there are many questions for me about music on DN. I do not know who does the research or makes the decisions about the music. Is it done by Amy or by some interns? Is the goal to educate and inform, or to give listeners brains a break to let the news sink in? This discussion seems like it would be better as a discussion with those at DN who do make the decisions, if that were even possible.
Sometimes there is a useful role for principled criticism, backed by analysis, and other times it does not do anything much useful.