Who hasn’t had an unexpected and, to be honest, unwanted assignment? How often has that kind of work changed the course of your career?
Alan Cross worked as a DJ for years before the studio bosses at CFNY in Toronto told him his job was being saved during a time of cutbacks, provided he host a new long-form radio show to explain this new sound that was coming out of Seattle and other cities. They called the show the Ongoing History of New Music, a title the station manager admitted was terrible, but it was only going to last about six months anyway. More than 750 episodes and 20 years later, the music industry, like journalism, has changed wildly, as has the way in which fans can interact with their favorite bands while finding new music.
“Back in the beginning, when I started this, there was no internet,” Cross said. “There were very few books written on alternative music because at that time it was this weird fringy stuff that nobody was talking about. We can get you thousands of books on the Beatles or Led Zeppelin or the Rolling Stones, but if you wanted a book on the Clash or the Sex Pistols or the Ramones, those things just did not exist.”
In the beginning, he relied on record company files, information gleaned from record stores and people in the industry who were willing to fill in the gaps. As time went on and that six months stretched to a year, then two, then five, the focus of the program and its tone changed to become something more all-encompassing.
“The cool thing was that, I was able to evolve the program away from being just the simple exposition biography, rather, and into something a little bit deeper, where you explain why things are the way they are,” Cross said.
Everything about the music industry has changed since Ongoing History kicked off in February 1993. Not only are music fans no longer buying physical copies of the new release from their favorite bands, oftentimes there’s no purchase made at all. The way in which people listen to music, both the medium and the environment, has changed drastically.
“In an era where we have streaming music services, there is no allegiance or context with the music that anybody listens to. They listen to a song, consume it, discard it, move on,” Cross said. “It’s not like it used to be where people spent hard-earned money to buy an album and then, by God, they were going to listen to it over and over again until they learned every single word on that record because they paid for it.”
There might be greater access to bands thanks to social media, but while “legacy” artists who have been around for decades are retaining their fans, newer artists are in a state of crisis. “There’s so much noise out there, they can’t be heard,” Cross said.
Now musicians need to know how to code, how to maintain an online presence, how to best invest in off-stage and out-of-the-studio work to build a fan base. Money’s not coming from the music; it’s coming from touring, merchandise and other collateral that has nothing to do songs or albums.
On this week’s It’s All Journalism podcast, producers Amber Healy and Michael O’Connell talk to Alan Cross, award-winning music DJ and host of the Ongoing History of New Music radio show. Cross talks about his journey as a music fan and journalist, as well as how the internet has changed the way people buy, listen to, perform and write about music.