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An Open Letter to "Democracy Now!"

Music Matters

by DAVID ROVICS

To whom it may concern:

I have been a regular listener to (and more recently sometimes viewer of) Democracy Now! for about twelve  years now.  It’s one of the best daily news shows on radio anywhere, and among progressives in the US it’s easily the most popular non-corporate show on the airwaves.  (No, NPR doesn’t count as non-corporate and neither does MSNBC or Comedy Central.)  I first met Amy Goodman and many of her show’s producers, interns, etc. around twelve years ago, during the attempted coup at the Pacifica Foundation, when DN! was largely relegated to the web for a time.  I have since listened to the show regularly, and being a musician, I have paid special attention to the music breaks and to stories related to culture.  Over the years the music breaks have changed in dramatic ways, haphazardly going from really good to really bad to just plain bizarre.  Over the years I have talked with many other people who have had similar reactions to DN!‘s music breaks, and to many other people who share my consternation at DN!‘s persistent inability to use music effectively, at least for the past ten years or so.

It probably should be someone else writing this letter.  I’m a musician, and certainly I’m a musician who would like to be played more often on Democracy Now!, so I’m a completely non-objective party here.  Worse, I’m a musician who was once played often on DN!, so I’m kind of like a jilted ex.  But the annoying thing is that this is also what puts me in a unique position to write about this, since I’m just about the only indy musician who can actually tell you first-hand and unequivocally that Democracy Now! not only has a lot of listeners, but there are lots of people out there paying close attention to the music breaks.  Occasionally they are profoundly moved by them, but most of the time they are just a bit perplexed.

I’m sure there aren’t enough people out there who care about what happens during the music breaks of any radio news show anywhere in the world to have a critical mass around doing anything about any of them.  It’s just not high on anybody’s priority list.  I realize I have an obsession.  At the same time, it does matter, it does affect hearts and minds in a big way (if used well), and it is worth talking about.  The problem is, it may only be musicians who are likely to understand this or think about it.  It’s the same thing with doing a gig through a shit sound system – it’s only the person on the stage (like, say, me) and a few people in the audience who will know what the musician is whining about when he’s complaining about the sound.  Everyone else in the room will say, “it sounds fine,” even as they leave the room because they think the music is boring and perhaps the musician is a whiny prima donna – not realizing that the problem is actually that they can’t hear the guitar.

In any case, for those who are interested, I will briefly make my case, one point at a time.

Democracy Now! matters.  DN! is not just a great independent news show, it is a very influential one listened to by many, many people.  It deserves and needs the support of those who recognize it’s value to society, and it’s also too important a show not to be constructively criticized on occasion.  Given its stature I’m sure mine is not the only voice of criticism out there.  I was recently talking with a couple of attorneys from the Center for Constitutional Rights who mentioned that most of the time when they ask someone how they first heard of CCR, the inevitable response is “I heard about it on Democracy Now!”  When I ask people who have come to one of my shows in the US how they first heard my music, the response is often the same.

Music matters.  On news shows small and large around the world, everywhere I’ve ever been except for the USA, they play entire songs as part of every “news hour” type show.  Usually they’re promoting local (or national) artists.  It is already very revealing that DN! is, consciously or not, emulating NPR, rather than, say, Canadian, Australian, Swedish, British, Irish or other broadcasters.  American corporations, like their counterparts around the world, have long realized the power of music, and they use it every minute of the day to sell their products.  The US government and governments around the world have long recognized and used the power of music to recruit soldiers for their militaries and to maintain morale within them.  All social movements of any significance around the world have used music in a central way, and indeed if you ask someone at a protest, for example, how they first got involved with activism, the name of a band will be as common a response as any, and if they’re under fifty years old you’re likely to hear names like Public Enemy, Rage Against the Machine or the Clash as seminal influences.  Since Reagan deregulated the airwaves it’s been almost impossible to find independent music of any kind on commercial radio, but there have been some bands such as these that have managed to sell millions of records and get lots of commercial airplay.  For most, though, this is a pipe dream, and our outlets have shrunk to such a degree in the US that it is indeed the case for me that when I ask people how they first heard my music the response is often a music break on Democracy Now!.   And if you asked these same people if they have ever heard of any number of other artists doing similar work to mine, you can be sure that in most cases they haven’t, and I am frequently (and very wrongly) identified by well-meaning people as “the only one” doing this sort of thing.  But as many people in positions of power know, words when sung go directly to the emotional center of the brain.  Music communicates in a way that nothing else does.  It can be used to great effect in so many ways, or it can be ignored, the great potential impact lost.

DN!‘s music breaks matter.  More than 250 days per year DN! is on the airwaves, on a thousand radio stations and on the net, reaching the hearts and minds of millions of people.  Or at least the minds.  The hearts?  Less so.  As many radio broadcasters know, and as someone like Amy Goodman should know but clearly does not, how you begin or end an interview, how you frame it with music during the breaks that most radio shows have in between segments, can massively amplify the message, eloquently driving a point home, or it can dilute the message or cause the listener to think maybe it was all just a joke in the first place.  When someone hears a powerful interview with someone just back from Afghanistan, by the end of the interview they are primed for an emotional component, they are expecting it, the music break that’s inevitably coming.  If they then hear a song that brings the war to them in a way that basically describes what the last story was about in a musical form, addressing the current military occupation of Afghanistan or something else current, this can be a powerful, sometimes life-changing experience.  (I have met people who have been deeply affected by this kind of experience many times.)  If, on the other hand, you follow an interview like that up with a song by James Brown or  Johnny Cash or Donovan that isn’t related to the subject at hand, and that, unlike the person just interviewed, everyone has heard thousands of times, what message does this communicate?  That the story is just as unimportant as the song?  Or that while it’s important to give voice to people who are not heard on the corporate airwaves, the only relevant music to play are by artists who have sold millions of records?

DN!‘s criteria for picking music breaks matters.  I have heard many times from people who know Amy Goodman far better than I that she isn’t interested in music or art.  I have no idea whether this is true from first-hand experience, but listening to the show, this seems to be the case.  On the rare occasions when she’s interviewing artists, she generally has no idea what to ask them about, and usually does a bad job of it, in stark contrast to her well-honed interviewing skills when it comes to politicians or intellectuals.  And DN!‘s policy with regard to music breaks, as I understand it, is simple:  how to fill those two or three segments of each show with music is left up to one young producer and his or her musical preferences.  There is clearly no guideline that the music be related to the story, or if there is one, no one is paying attention, because it’s not happening.  There is also clearly no guideline with regard to promoting non-corporate music.  By my account, keeping track carefully for a sample month, more than half of the music breaks consist of artists who have sold more than a million records.  (That last sentence bears repeating a few times for impact, so just pretend I did that.)  DN! used to be different, not because it was structured differently – music for the breaks has long been chosen by a producer – but because for a couple years over a decade ago, the show had producers who were at least making an effort to be finding and playing music that was directly, currently relevant to the various topics at hand.  It was during the time that one of these producers was Senior Producer when the show instituted the policy of naming the music played during the breaks.  But those producers are long gone, they’ve moved on themselves to becoming college professors or best-selling authors, and in more recent years when the music in question is an electronic instrumental that’s been played for the nth time on the show for no apparent reason, or some million-selling artist strongly associated with the 1960’s, I get the feeling the person choosing the music is trying to mock Amy, and Amy is sadly unaware of this self-mockery.  People could be forgiven for thinking Amy has an obsession with 1960s hippie music or 1970s motown or reggae.  She doesn’t, I can say with some confidence.  In fact, she doesn’t even smoke pot.

Whether DN!‘s music breaks are related to a story or not matters.  Also, whether DN!‘s music breaks are breaking the sound barrier created by corporate culture and playing censored artists matters.  The fact is, the best music DN! could be using to drive their stories home on the much-neglected emotional front is being created today by indy artists who are locked out of any corporate (or “public”) airplay in the USA at least.  I can list names you’ve probably never heard of but I won’t bother (some of them are on my website’s links page if you’re interested).  But aside from the music being generally of a higher caliber as well as being fresh and new stuff for listeners to experience, there is another reason to play independent artists:  because no one else is doing it.  Because we are unofficially censored by the US media.  Because by accident of birth we (or many of us) are living in the one country in the world that produces most of the crap the western world listens to, but which has no means to promote independent artists, at least in the sense that other countries do, not since 1980 or so anyway.  And what does DN! do in the face of this?  Play million-selling artists that everybody has already heard too many times on commercial radio.  Why?  Because a young man who works for the show grew up listening to certain artists who sold millions of records, he likes them, and so that’s what we all get to hear every day on Pacifica’s flagship show.  Aside from playing better, more relevant music, DN! could be going such a long way to enrich society, enrich social movements, bring unknown artists to a large audience, help those with a small audience get a bigger one.  It could be the difference between dozens or even hundreds of artists making a good living and enriching the lives of so many people.  But it isn’t.  I have many friends who are some of the best songwriters the world has ever seen, in my humble opinion.  It just so happens that several of them currently have cancer, so the question of whether they will, in their lifetimes, ever be played on Democracy Now! and have the opportunity to move an audience like that with a poignant song about one of the subjects that DN! covers would seem to be clear – probably not.

Whether DN‘s primary intent is just to report the news or to influence public opinion in a more progressive direction or both, it doesn’t matter – playing contemporary independent artists is the best and most effective thing to do regardless.  When I’ve griped to some folks about DN!‘s music break choices, they’ve said perhaps the idea behind emphasizing the very famous artists is so they can come off as more of an objective news show and less of an advocate for leftwing causes.  Play the familiar hits of the past, stuff considered “normal,” so people will think of DN! as “normal” too.  But for anyone who’s seriously into independent music this is a laughable position, because the best of the indy songwriters out there hard at work today writing songs about current events from the US to Iraq to Pakistan are not trying to come off as wild-eyed leftist advocates for a cause any more than DN! is.  Those who take their roles seriously are, just like DN!, trying to write in a way that is accessible to the average English-speaker, trying to move people emotionally in the same way that DN! is trying to educate people – by telling a good story from planet Earth, about what’s happening now, about things the corporate media doesn’t want to talk about.

What’s clear about DN!‘s policy with regard to music breaks is basically that there is no policy, only a huge lost opportunity and a lot of embarrassing moments (or moments that should be embarrassing to Amy, but instead us listeners just feel the embarrassment on her behalf, and the lost opportunity to boot).  I hope it’s still possible for the show to start paying attention to what goes in those breaks, and the many music-lovers who, despite their love of music, listen to Democracy Now! on a regular basis, can go from feeling embarrassed and uncomfortable to feeling empowered and represented.  Just to be clear, I like Johnny Cash and James Brown, too.  But I’ll be very happy if I don’t hear either of them ever again on Democracy Now!.  There are simply too many artists writing much more relevant and effective music for those precious music breaks to fill even one more of them with an artist who you can hear every day when you walk into the pharmacy looking for toothpaste.  Some of those artists in question have been lucky enough to sell a million records, but only some – the vast majority of the best ones have not, and if you don’t have a policy that involves promoting good, relevant music, then the default policy is what will be in effect, and that will be the policy created by corporate culture, and therefore the answer to the question will once again be Johnny Cash and James Brown.

David Rovics is a musician living in Portland, Oregon. He is on tour throughout Europe and North America for all of September and October. Help him record his new album, Unindicted Co-Conspirator, by donating to his Kickerstarter page.