05 February 2010

A Rumination on Mainstream

How does the mainstream affect us? As a starting point, let’s look at some numbers… as I am often told that numbers don’t lie.

There is no doubt that Lady Gaga has dominated the pop charts. Her recent album’s, “The Fame Monster” (23 November 2009), lead single, “Bad Romance,” dominated the charts, with top ten singles in Australia, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, and the USA, while reaching the #1 position in Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the UK. All in all, 17 top ten standings, 10 in the #1 position. This is impressive for any musician. By comparison, Muse’s lead single form “The Resistance” (14 September 2009), “Uprising,” did not peak at #1 in any country, and only entered the top ten in Finland, Norway, Portugal, Switzerland, and the UK. Compared to Lady Gaga, they only entered the top ten in five countries. Hands down, Lady Gaga is “more” mainstream than Muse, as she has toppled the top 40 charts. But remember that the top singles charts usually represent radio play (though other factors are included, such as singles sales, they are out-weighted by radio play as the leading factor as I have written about before (link)). So it may come as a surprise when you switch which chart you are looking at, like to the album charts, you get a different picture. Lady Gaga enters the top 10 in Australia, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Italy, New Zealand, Sweden, the UK, and the USA, while taking the number # 1 position in Ireland and Poland. All in all, 11 top ten spots, with 2 at #1. Muse’s “The Resistance” reached the top ten in Finland, Mexico, Portugal, Sweden, and the USA. They took the #1 position in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland, and the UK. (All numbers are from of ACharts). All in all, they reached top ten in 18 countries, with 13 at #1. And if you compare the touring schedule, there is no comparison. Muse will play in front of many more people, have more shows, and headline a slew of festivals. So, if Lady Gaga is outwardly the more popular of the two, the more mainstream, as reflected by her single, why are her album figures and touring numbers not greater than Muse’s?

On 2 January 2010, a reader posted a comment, which in part read, “You should put up an article about how mainstream stuff affects society today, cause it like, so does…” This comment got me scratching my head about the relationship between the mainstream and society, the affects that mainstream has on its audience (in this case, radio listeners), and really how to define what is mainstream and what is not. The later is simple enough: mainstream music receives radio play and is reflected in the singles pop charts. Though I really do not pay creed to charts, because if I like something or not is not determined on how many units sell, but I started with them to prove a point: just because one band/artist gets more radio play, enjoys the “privilege” of being mainstream, does not mean that it enjoys more exposure and success than another. Furthermore, I do not think that “mainstream” can be defined in anyway that is universal. On 30 January 2010, the number one single in France was “Stereo Love” by Edward Maya and Vika Jigulina, and it has charted in six other European countries. But this is a song (and artists) that is basically unknown in the United States. And though Erasure would break the top 20 in the USA three times since 1985, they would do it twenty-nine times in the UK. And this last example reveals a small fact that may easily go ignored.

We could say that there are cultural norms at play that make Europeans more receptive to the over-the-top, flamboyant antics, irrepressibly gay Andy Bell of Erasure, and this in part would be true. Just look at European countries left and right legalizing some form of same-sex civil union or marriage in recent years. But I think that lines of thought like this, these sort of essentialist ideas, are dangerous. They misrepresent what the entire populace thinks, and ignore why program directors really pick out the music they do for airplay. There is a definitive reason why in the UK program directors are willing to play a wider range of music and musicians, regardless of who or what they are. (Though of course, even in the UK, many artists get snubbed for one reason or the other.) I think the difference is in how radio stations raise capital for operation. Unlike American radio stations, the BBC (the mother company of Radio 1) is funded primarily through licensing fees. Commercial time, or in the appropriate lexicon, “need time,” is often limited to operational costs, not to generating profits. To supplement income, BBC Radio 1 has an array of studio shows that eventually releases CDs and DVDs for public consumption. Ultimately, nations that have broadcasters that rely on licensing (like the UK) are not at the mercy of corporate sponsorship, but are of their public sponsorship. So the more open-minded the nation is to social issues and about what kind of music they listen to, the greater the breath of music that is played, as long as of course it fits within the language requirements of some nations, which favor the mother tongue dominance in their radio broadcasts. Ultimately, the only limitation is really not to outrage a significant amount of the license paying audience, in the tens of millions in the UK.

In the USA, program directors are dictated upon corporations that buy commercial time that pay for operations and profits. If the selected music can “damage” their image or product, they pull their money. As I have said before (link), this only leaves American radio stations (and any other nation with this format) playing what is safe, the least common denominator, and not the full range of what is out there. With the constant threat of having corporate sponsorship pulled, program directors have to be careful not to alienate consumers and/or tarnish the product that is sold. By comparison, couple the UK’s (and other European nations) use of licensing and their rich tradition of music festivals (from Rock am Ring to the Frequency Festival – not to mention Reading, Leeds, and Glastonbury Festivals), the general exposure to music that Europeans get compared to Americans is by far greater.

So what is mainstream, what can be seen in the single charts and receives radio play, is quite often in corporate sponsored medias, determined before the listener even gets a chance of listening to the full range of music. The “mainstream” has been “affected” before your reception of it, it has been predetermined. Not to mention that indie labels in this environment cannot compete with the millions spend on promoting large corporate releases. (And of course, print and Internet media either can embrace these chosen select artists, or offer the complete opposite and specialize in a specific niche. Just look at the magazines in the music section at your local Barnes and Noble – just look at this blog.) Any effect that the “mainstream” has in society is to lock you out of a certain range of exposure; that range is just greater in some nations than others. Albeit, at the end of it all, I am not advocating that the USA and other like countries need to have licensed broadcasts like the UK, but I am saying that there should be more transparency. Listeners should be aware of how musical selections are made by program directors. Furthermore, we started with a premise composed as a question: how does the mainstream affect us? In this situation, it does not, for it is corporations who do. The “mainstream,” just the byproduct of corporate commercialism, is what is affecting the listener; therefore, we are at the whim of big corporations that have nothing to do with music, that determine what we think is hip and acceptable. But really that opening question should be completely rephrased: how do we affect the mainstream?

I am a complete advocate of getting my news from various sources – if I read “The New York Times,” I then read “The Wall Street Journal.” If I watch the love fest at MSNBC, I then go to the hate fest of FOX News – the kind of “fest” shifts depending the president. My approach to music is much the same. I look for a wide range of music, and have come to check quite a few sites for new bands, trust the word of mouth of certain people, listen to specific radio stations online, just walk into venues to check out a live show of local or touring musicians, and just take a chance on the Internet on MySpace or YouTube. One does not have to accept music from only one source. Furthermore, if you want to affect the mainstream, start demanding! Demand your local station play Editors, My Luminaries, Northern Portrait, and Surfer Blood. Start Facebook groups, go crazy on Twitter, and/or reach out to people on MySpace. Start going crazy about social issues that are important to you, as their acceptance will change the face of what music is going to be played on the radio as well. But if that seems like too much of an ordeal, then please do not complaint about what the radio is playing. Ultimately, I never do, I take my own advice: search out music on your own.

The point is this, going back to the numbers, real musicians do not give a rat’s ass if their single is being played. They tour, they sell albums, and they reach a large audience by establishing their fan base over years of touring and a steady output that shows integrity and craftsmanship. What nascent band/artist does not want to reach the iconic status of such bands as The Cure, Depeche Mode, Manic Street Preachers, Metallica, Muse, NIN, and Placebo to name a few? And for that fact, tomorrow’s veterans are already producing incredible music (no, I am not going to share who I think they are). And the number of units sold is ultimately not the goal, but the legacy they leave behind and how they have touched their listeners. As for the mainstream, I don’t give a rat’s ass for it myself, and though I know what is “popular” (whether here or abroad), I am often not amused by it, as my niggling mother taught me not to allow anyone to push her/his ideas on me. Nevertheless, I do not think that licensing levels the field all of the time, but I do think that we need to rethink the infrastructure of how music is delivered to audiences. Ultimately what I have learned from this process of thinking about “mainstream” (and running this blog) is that there is no universal mainstream, that many of the biggest and most successful bands in the world don’t chart on the singles chart, and that there is always someone behind the person shoveling out the music you listen to on the radio – whether it is a commercial buying corporation or an indignant public feeling that its licensing fees are being misused.

So to answer that comment that was posted: the mainstream does not affect us at all, it is commercialism or an indignant minority of the license paying populace that finds fault with something aesthetic. As for what is mainstream, it will continue to change (remember that Elvis was not allowed to be filmed waist down because of all his gyrating, but these days who isn’t gyrating in performances?). Fads will come, fads will go; the real question is how many people will buy it or reject it for something more substantial? There are options of where to find new music, from satellite radio, to press media, to the Internet. As for this notion of “mainstream,” it is like “school yard words”: it means nothing unless you believe in it and buy into it.

Here are eight videos from the aforementioned artists:

Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" from the LadyGagaVEVO Youtube Channel.

Erasure's "Breathe" from their MySpace Video Page.

Breathe (Video)

Erasure | MySpace Music Videos

Placebo's "English Summer Rain" from their Vimeo Channel: PlaceboWorld.

Placebo - English Summer Rain from PlaceboWorld on Vimeo.

Nine Inch Nails' "Only" from their MySpace Video Page.


nine inch nails | MySpace Music Videos

Depeche Mode's "Precious" from their MySpace Video Page.


Depeche Mode | MySpace Music Videos

Edward Maya and Vika Jigulina's "Stereo Love" from the SpinninRec YouTube Channel.

Muse's "Uprising" from their YouTube Channel: muse

Editors' "You Don't Know Love" from their YouTube Channel: editorsofficial.


  1. There are a lot of songs out in the world that are as good and way better than lady gaga's songs. I dont really even listen to the radio anymore becuase it plays mostly the same songs over and over sometimes. But in the end some people just need to broaden their taste an d style of music.

  2. From my personal opinion, I still think that experience has a lot to do with credibility too. Mainstream really could dictate what a generation would do.

  3. its the people that choose the mainstream in my opinion. If it appeals to them, it'll receive airplay based on requests, top selling charts etc. On second thought, something that should be taken into consider is the fact that more people tend to download mainstream while those artists that are ignored by the people tend to sell more records due to the fact that it isn't popular. In a way, its a cycle