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Making Mu$ic

These days, becoming a pop star takes more than talent and good looks.
Big record companies spend a ton of money advertising and promoting their artists. We talked with Robert McChesney, an author and professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, about these big companies, popular music and how it gets to your ears.

Q. Who decides what music gets played on the radio?
Backstreet BoysA. More and more, the people who decide what gets played on a radio station aren't the station DJs. Only a few large companies own the majority of radio stations across the country. The decision about what gets played on a radio station is increasingly made at the national headquarters of one of these companies, instead of at the radio station.

Over the past five years, this has really affected the choice of music on the radio. If you drove across the country in the 1950s and '60s, you would hear different music for every new area you drove through. You would hear music that you might never hear in your hometown. It made travelling by car very educational and entertaining.

Today, if you travel across the United States, you will hear the same small number of songs over and over again, because the same big company picks the songs for all of the stations. That's a very bad thing for musicians and music fans. It means that many musicians can't get their music heard by the public. It also means that music fans don't have an opportunity to hear new music.

Britney SpearsQ. How did this happen?
A. In 1996, a law was passed that increased the number of radio stations that a single company could own. It used to be that a company could own only 28 radio stations. Now they can own as many as they want. The most famous of these companies is called Clear Channel Communications, which now owns about 1,100 radio stations. Another company that owns a ton of stations is Viacom. Viacom is a very important company because it not only owns radio stations, but also television networks like MTV, VH1 and CBS. So whether you're watching music television or listening to the radio, the same few people might be deciding what you hear.

Q. How do these big companies decide what music to play on the radio?
A. The music that sells the most is played the most. Because of this, music companies are very eager to sign recording deals with the same sort of musicians that are already being played on the radio. As a result, a lot of great music won't get played on the radio because it isn't selling in large quantities. The whole system causes music to stay the same and become stale.

Q. How do bands and artists become popular?
A. Record companies try to match certain types of music with certain kinds of fans. They try to create acts that they think the listener wants to hear. *NSYNC, The Backstreet Boys and Britney Spears are examples of these creations. They are not just a bunch of artists who came in off the street and started making great music. Instead, everything about these groups and artists is planned around what the record companies think will be the most popular sound to make the most money. When a new-sounding act is successful, like Nirvana, then record labels start searching for groups that sound just like them. They think that if people are buying Nirvana CDs, then they will also buy CDs from groups that sound like Nirvana. However, there is usually only one Nirvana. The people who imitate them typically don't sound as good.

Q. Where can you learn about different kinds of music, the good stuff that doesn't get much promotion from the record companies?
A. There are several places to find out about new music. Many communities have local radio stations that are not owned by big far-away companies. These radio stations are usually found down at the left end of the dial. Often these stations are connected with the local colleges or universities. They may play reggae, blues, pop, rap or rock music that you can't hear on big commercial radio stations. They're also very nice to listen to because there are fewer advertising interruptions. Similarly, the Internet is an excellent place to go to hear and learn more about different types of music. The problem with the Internet is that it takes a little more work to use search engines. But there are very good sources out there for discovering new music. There are also magazines you can read, and some of them are online too.

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