My recent examination/half-assed appraisal of Pointessential 6, The Point's collection of 39 local bands crammed onto two discs, resulted in an avalanche of angry letters, and the hubbub was enough to spur a re-evaluation of the release. The result? The promotional tool is still tough to stomach, but most compilations are: It remains a mix of maddening derivation, ambivalent mediocrity and, yes, moments of inspiration.
The most useful comments came from those who were frustrated that, in an effort to be fun and quirky, I avoided the "insightful criticisms" that are par for the course in the music section (yeah, right), relying instead on a bunch of cheap shots that served no critical purpose. Point well taken, no pun intended. Then there was the brainiac gentleman who intelligently queried in writing: "Hey, Randy, what band are you in again? What song of yours have I ever heard on the radio? Have any labels expressed interest in signing you? You have been playing the skin flute for so long. Now what are you going to do? I guess you can (sic) better keep kissing your boss's ass to keep food on the table." Responses to those questions/ comments, in order: (1) I'm not in a band, though I recently started taking banjo lessons yes, I am King Dork, I don't deny it but I know musical crap when I hear it, and it's my job to point it out. (2) You have never heard a song of mine on the radio, nor will you ever, because, with a few exceptions (shining moments on The Beat, 100.3 FM, and the occasional Rush or AC/DC jam on The Rock, 97.1), the music on commercial radio sucks. (3) No label, therefore, has expressed interest in signing me, though I did run a tiny indie label for a few years out of my basement. It failed I'm not the brightest bulb when it comes to business but the music was great. (4) The skin flute is a tough instrument to master, but I keep practicing, night and day, in the hopes that someday I will stand onstage at Carnegie Hall and perform Bach's elusive and stunning Sonata in B Flat for Skin Flute and Harpsichord. (5) What am I going to do now? Uh, right now I'm getting ready to go to the bathroom. (6) I don't kiss my boss' ass; I caress it lovingly.
Many of the letters were angry that "the scene," whatever the hell that is, would get such a thrashing. Read the pieces again. Once you get over the initial shock that the music critic is actually telling the truth regarding his experience with the music that it was occasionally no fun and often, well, excruciating you'll realize that nearly as many bands were praised as were dismissed.
Simple truth: If the rock community in St. Louis must rely on the dingy money of a commercial radio station to keep afloat, and if the most comprehensive collection of local music released this past year comes from the coffers of said mediocre radio station, well, that's a community that deserves honest assessment. And if a piece-by-piece examination of a 39-song double-disc collection doesn't reveal some duds, why isn't the St. Louis music scene on the national map? Blindly propping an aching rock scene and offering the bland opinion that everything released in the community is brilliant and original is way more insulting than telling the truth. There's a lot of crap in this here community; you know that. Would you prefer a Prairie Home Companion "happy happy joy joy," we-all-shit-strawberries assessment week after week?
Predictably, and understandably, Point program director and Pointessential 6 co-executive producer (along with Matt Costello) Allan Fee is livid when contacted: "It just seems like you've got a vendetta against the radio station," he says. "Here we throw 39 bands on a disc, and really try and get a good cross section of the market, and give people a chance, and give back we get criticized for that, too. I don't really know how to win the RFT game, and I'm not sure I want to, because the day you guys start saying great things about me, my numbers are going to be very small."
But you'll have a more interesting and musically adventuresome radio station, that's for sure. (Fee's response: "I will take any radio station that you could put together musically based on what you've said and what you've written vs. my radio station, and my radio station will destroy your radio station.")
Fee was most upset by the final jab: "This is the best rock in St. Louis? No wonder the Point's ratings have plummeted in the last year." The reality is much more complicated, according to Fee. "I'm not sure why you made it look like the station was on a down slide when there have been three other stations added to the marketplace," he says. "The pie's gotten smaller. Two radio stations, direct competitors, signed on against the radio station. Just by continuing to do what we were, The Point's music was not exclusive anymore. Bands like the Foo Fighters, Everclear, all of those are now on five different radio stations, and somehow that's The Point's fault. And the fact that there is no Alice in Chains, Soundgarden all of those bands are breaking up now is our fault. It's so funny that we're the problem, but we're reflecting of that audience that's out there. I can show you every ounce of listener feedback in St. Louis that reflects these choices."
The confusion, and the ongoing dilemma in this kind of discussion, is that the critic and the commercial radio jockey are arguing apples and oranges. Case in point: I wouldn't consider the bands Fee mentions Alice in Chains, Soundgarden to have any redeeming qualities whatsoever, though I'm always giddy when someone plays Nirvana. One is arguing for quality an elusive and slippery term (though I am right, of course) whereas the other is arguing that quantity high Arbitron numbers equals quality. When one of the idiots on The Point morning show was talking to local band Mesh a few weeks ago about my comment in the paper that they were Matchbox 20 sound-alikes, he expressed confusion as to why that would be a bad thing the band must be good, because they've sold 10 million records. Guess what? An artist can still suck even if they sell 100 million records (see Garth Brooks).
When a band decides to appear on a radio-station promotional tool, which is what ultimately Pointessential 6 is, they're plugging into a mentality they wouldn't plug into if they were appearing on, say, a Way Out Club compilation; they're knowingly participating in a money game and the requisite baggage that accompanies it. There's a philosophical difference between the corporate "charity" aspect of The Point's compilations and the dedicated, heartfelt passion of such a collection coming out of the scene itself. The context for appreciating such a device is different; the intentions are different and, regardless of whether it's intended, the way one hears the music is different. Bands are no longer "contributing a cut to a local-music compilation." They're helping promote the music on a commercial radio station; they're overtly supporting the philosophy that relies on "focus groups," "demographics" and Arbitron ratings. Word of advice: Be wary of the intentions of anyone who refers to the St. Louis music community as a "market."
Fee, though, sees it differently: "If Donald Trump donates $1 million to build a children's hospital for a tax write-off, is he a problem? You may say half may say "Gee, it's a tax write-off, and it helped him make more money.' I come from the school of thought that here's a guy who built a children's hospital, and everybody wins. And how many people are building children's hospitals for people? He had the means to do it, so he did it. And we're in a situation here where it's a win-win for everybody. We think we give a lot to promote local music, we spend a lot of money to do that, and we're also a business that has to generate money to do that. If McDonald's is going to sell Big Macs for $1 and donate 10 cents to charity they make 90 percent of the money but they're donating to charity good for them. By the way, we do make charitable contributions for a lot of these projects. We're a business that's giving back to a community."
And any radio station that compares itself to Donald Trump and McDonald's when talking about music isn't speaking the same language I am; it's that simple.
Asked how many of the 39 bands on Pointessential 6 are in regular rotation, Fee is direct and unapologetic: "Right now we've taken a couple singles that we've decided to focus on and that's a trick question and you may debate me on this but, in particular, your favorite band, Mesh. There's a song that certainly has a good radio feel to it. And the Die Symphony does also. They're credible radio singles. And, again, if one of us is Republican and one of us Democrat, we can agree to disagree on certain things; you probably don't like Creed's "One' as a song. You were probably over it 2,000 spins ago. But, again, it's drawing an audience. We put some focus on Mesh they've got a chance to get some record deals, so we're spending a lot of time to help that band out. Die Symphony same goes for them. And those are bands, by the way, that are committed to becoming full-blown bands, and they want record deals. They've really gotten involved, and they've really tried to learn the process, and we feel like we're giving back."
Yes, we're speaking two different languages. Unlike Fee, I don't associate being a "full-blown band" with the desire to get a major-label record deal. Nor do I think that appearing on Pointessential 6 is an inherently dirty thing. It is, alas, one of the only ways many of these bands will be heard by a larger audience. And for that, the series should be praised. But not blindly, and not out of charity.
Randall Roberts' new show on KDHX (88.1 FM), Sovereign Glory!, makes its debut from 8-10 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 19. Point listeners will hate it.