A few years ago, I developed a habit of giving my friends and family music documentary DVDs on their birthdays. This was partially due to the fact that I had grown weary of my previous gifting methodology, but it had more to do with my appreciation for the way a sharply rendered music doc can deeply galvanize people, creatively or politically. Depending on the recipient, I usually give either Jem Cohen's arty, introspective Fugazi diary, Instrument; the elegantly edited Clash biography Westway to the World; or Rock 'n' Roll Heart, the Lou Reed profile produced for PBS's American Masters series. I now plan to add Before the Music Dies to that rotation.
Austin-based writer-director Andrew Shapter and his editing-producing partner, Joel Rasmussen, spent months traveling around the country talking frankly with artists, DJs, and a whole range of music-industry insiders (including a disguised executive from domineering radio behemoth Clear Channel) about the homogenization and consolidation of commercial radio. Although the idea came to him while working on a coffee-table book he never completed (it would have compiled his 15 years spent photographing musicians in Austin), it was the stumbling block of sexism that really ignited the project. "I wanted it to be dedicated to hardworking musicians...the ones not doing it for money but because they loved it," he explains via phone. "However, when it came to talking to female musicians, I kept noticing that if—God forbid—they were over 30, the issue of appearance came up right away. I didn't know where it was coming from, but I knew they felt this tremendous pressure about their looks and fitting into the industry's idea of who is allowed on the radio. And right now, that's very, very young pop stars."
Chatting with everyone from veterans like Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt to Future of Music founder Jenny Toomey and dedicated buskers on the streets of Seattle, Shapter illuminates the ways pop stars are manufactured (including a rather brilliant sequence in which the filmmakers send a teenage fashion model to a recording studio, armed with auto-tuning software to sweeten her off-pitch vocals) and how edgy artists remain perpetually on the margins. He acknowledges that outlets for independent distribution and promotion have increased in our digital age but says that within the major-label-dominated realm of commercial radio, the outlook is particularly bleak. "I think it's getting better from the independent side of things, but it's definitely getting worse for mainstream channels," he says, with audible sadness. "Major labels have tremendous power to influence radio for the better, but they just don't use it." For any passionate public-radio supporter who cringes when the stereo dial accidentally lands on a Clear Channel station, this is essential viewing. Shapter will be in town to screen his film at EMP's JBL Theater this Saturday, April 14, at 7 p.m., and will be participating in a postshow panel discussion about the current state of the music industry. This will probably sell out, so be sure to buy tickets in advance at www.emplive.com or get there right when doors open at 6:30.
Speaking of music on the margins, it's a safe bet that any band called the Fucking Eagles isn't going to find itself in heavy rotation on mainstream radio anytime soon, but that's not stopping me and almost every other DJ at KEXP from falling in love with the group's Oblivians-influenced sound and playing it as often as we can. The willfully ramshackle Tacoma-based garage punks will swagger into the Sunset this Friday, April 13, to celebrate the release of their Johnny Sangster–produced debut, A Million Dollars Worth of Music.
In other Sunset-related news, I was sad to hear that longtime Sunset booking agent Kwab Copeland is stepping down from his post at the end of this month, but it's nice to know his role will be filled by the very capable Mike "Jaws" Jaworski. Jaws has plenty of booking experience plotting tours for the artists on his fledgling label, Mr. Fuji Records, and via his own role as frontman for the Cops, so it's not surprising that Sunset owner Max Genereaux gave him the gig. Kwab, we're gonna miss you; Jaws, make us proud.
Lastly, hearty congrats to the Cave Singers, who recently signed to Matador Records, and to Grand Archives, who have landed not only an opening slot on the forthcoming Modest Mouse tour but a deal with Sub Pop Records.