Music Quarterly

Longing for Night

Meet the Producers

What Remains

Armstrong's Revenge


Highway Ambition

Riding the Fader

The Past Takes It Back

Riding the Line


Behind a Glowing Television

Forget the Producer

Allan Steed's Little Boom Box

When She Backs Up She Beeps


Let's Get Ready to Rumble

The Two Together Couldn't Ruin It

Prank #3: Fan vs. Band Vengeance

One Hundred Shades of Blue

Loud Motherfucker

Same Shade of Blue

Touch That Dial

Prank #4: Band vs. Audience Vengeance


CD Review Revue

Among the Ghosts

Prank #5: Intra-Band Vengeance

Que venga la noche

Movie Review Revue

Fan Mail: An End to the Discussion

They have names like Weenie Roast, Bake Sale, and Log Jam, but music industry people group them all into one catch-all derogation: "the whore tour." They're commercial-radio festivals, all-day-and-into-the-night concerts sponsored by radio stations and featuring anywhere between four and 20 of the moment's top hitmakers. These bands play sets, ranging from 15 to 45 minutes in length, to stadium crowds that often pay as much as $75 for tickets. But despite the fact that a combination of star power and on-air promotion damn near guarantees these festivals will sell out enormous venues, the bands are rarely ever paid, in money anyway. Bands are remunerated with "spins" of whatever single their labels are promoting. So, where does the money go? To the radio stations, silly. And what happens if a band is invited to play and says no?

"They will almost definitely get dropped from the playlist," says one radio industry insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's just the way things are. The stations have all the power, so if a label wants spins for their artist, they better fucking well convince that artist to go kiss the babies, or they're out."

Isn't that the same as payola?

"We don't like to use that word anymore," the insider laughs.

The festival schedule runs like this: Roadies load in by morning; the band gets picked up a couple hours before set time for a five-minute on-air interview/photo opportunity; the band plays about six songs and heads over to the autograph tent/commerce pavilion to sign still photos, CDs, and T-shirts for hundreds of avid children; the band cashes in its lunch voucher and heads back to the road. Though cushy compared to what many touring bands go through every day, the world of the radio festival--and by extension, of mainstream rock itself--brings musicians nose-to-nose with a cross section of the popular audience best described by that much-abused collective noun, "the masses."

Radio festivals, like the stations that sponsor them, are an outward manifestation of commercial (which is to say "youth") culture. These are the first concerts many of these kids have seen. The dynamic of the event is designed to equate being a music fan with being a consumer, from the ubiquitous advertising banners to the endless array of booths selling memorabilia, paraphernalia, food, drinks, and cell phones. Teamed with the in-person appearance of bands who seem like stars, and the natural adolescent hormone explosion that results when 15,000 teens converge on a single sun-drenched fairground, this mad consumerism creates an atmosphere of hysterical acquisitiveness.

The kids want to see as many bands as possible play as many hits as they can. The brevity of the sets, and the wild reactions of the fans when "the hit" is finally played, makes the spectacle seem less like a rock festival, and more like television: Audience members are there not for a "concert" of artist and audience, but to see a live approximation of what they hear on the radio every single day, and to take a piece of it home with them.

For some bands, the radio station festival is definitive evidence that they've arrived, playing before a huge audience that goes completely apeshit when it hears the hit. For others, it's a soul-killing exercise in pandering to a common denominator that could not, by definition, be much lower. For still others (usually the headliners), it's just another show.

For the vendors, the festivals are a wet dream of brand-building and market targeting, wherein a willing, captive audience can be rounded up and aggressively sold to, practically begging for more.

But the radio stations are the real winners here. Aside from the money they might make from the gate (a substantial amount, though hardly guaranteed after expenses for promotion, production, and insurance), the shows are a marketing orgy--living, breathing, sweating proof for advertisers of the station's power to draw the young, and further, validation in the eyes of the music industry that big-selling bands will bow when the station demands it. In both cases, the festival is the clearest assertion that, despite what Napsterphiles and Net revolutionaries would have you believe, commercial radio is still the boss of the music industry.

The author was in a band that played several dozen radio festivals between 1998 and 2000 and has the laminates to prove it.