At a UC Berkeley that seems to reinvent itself every ten years with new waves of lefties, evangelical Christians, scheming Republicans, and geeks, one thing has always remained constant: The campus radio station, KALX. The station has been documenting the underground since its inception in 1962 when it began in a cigar box — yes, a cigar box — in some guy’s dorm room. It was the alternative even after the word “alternative” became co-opted, with shows that segue flawlessly from Hungarian bluegrass to Television bootlegs to Hella to Blackalicious. It is widely viewed as one of the leading college radio stations in the country, one that others look to for inspiration. Being music director at KALX is a coveted and important job.
Ian Hetzner shares that job with Paul Koehler. Among their duties is to compile a weekly list of the station’s top thirty albums and send it to hundreds of other stations, record labels, music writers, and promoters in a mass e-mail. They also send their list to the only centralized verification center for college radio airplay, CMJ, or the College Music Journal.
Most music aficionados are familiar with the yearly CMJ Music Marathon, where hundreds of bands play showcases all over New York City. But for radio stations, CMJ is the organization that documents their work. Each week its trade magazine, CMJ New Music Report, prints the playlists of more than 1,200 stations across the United States and Canada, which pay a $345 yearly subscription rate for the service. CMJ New Music Report is the Billboard magazine of college radio, and earlier this month, Ian Hetzner made its publishers very, very uncomfortable.
It all started when Hetzner decided to double-check the station’s playlist in the back of the magazine. Everything looked fine, except for one thing. Listed in position 19, where KALX had charted East Bay country outfit Loretta Lynch, was a CD called Certain Damage.
Obviously there’d been some mistake; CMJ had somehow replaced a local disc with something that might be mistaken for a mid-’80s hardcore compilation. But Hetzner recognized the interloper immediately, and he was pissed. Certain Damage is a commercial sampler that bands and their labels pay CMJ up to $3,000 to be on. To the majority of college music programmers, the comp is a throwaway. “They are pretty much worthless compilations,” Hetzner says. “CMJ doesn’t go, ‘Oh, I love this record, let’s arrange to put their tunes on our compilation!’ No, it’s record companies approaching and paying to put their songs on the compilations. As long as you have money, you can get your shit on CMJ.” Having the record on KALX’s published playlist was not only incorrect, it was embarrassing.
Hetzner decided to go back and check CMJ’s KALX charts for several weeks, and discovered that similar swaps had been happening over a period of at least two months. Loretta Lynch — a band so sweet that its members actually gave out pieces of pie at the end of one of its shows — was replaced twice; an R&B compilation from King Records was replaced twice; and local band the Advantage also lost its position on the playlist. In every case, the chart entry had been usurped by the same album: Certain Damage.
Most disturbing to KALX was that the record replacing the legitimate hits was one produced by CMJ itself, and one in which the company had a sizable financial interest. At $2,000 to $3,000 a song, and a minimum of ten songs — but usually fourteen or more — by various artists, the samplers are a cash cow for CMJ.
Last year, the company released at least six volumes of the compilation series, totaling 125 tracks, which, according to CMJ’s pricelist would have grossed a minimum of $250,000.
“There are certainly good artists on the comps,” Hetzner says. “The thing that sucks about them is that there’s nothing new there.” All of the songs appear on the artists’ records as well. “Besides,” he adds, “if I like a band on the compilation, I’m going to just put that band’s full-length on our charts, not some comp they appear on.”
Though both of KALX’s co-music directors say they’d spoken to CMJ representatives on several occasions about other, similar problems with their charts, Hetzner decided to do something a bit more rash this time. He sent out a mass e-mail to everyone on KALX’s mailing list, complaining about the Certain Damage snafu. Fellow stations promptly responded, and the music director realized KALX wasn’t the only one having the problem; others had been reporting the same discrepancy since last fall.
WXYC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, reported having a record in its top thirty replaced with Certain Damage at least once. Ditto San Francisco’s KUSF, which earlier this month had a compilation called Fourth Annual Portland Old-Time Music Gathering replaced with the CMJ sampler. Stations from around the United States and even Canada were complaining. “We got a whole lot of responses from promotion companies, label folks, and otherwise, saying that this isn’t the first time that they’ve heard of this problem, that it had happened in other states,” Hetzner says.
WFMU, of Jersey City, New Jersey, is considered the “biggest” college radio station in the country, if not for its size (300,000-plus listeners a month), then for its innovative programming, a free-form petri dish of arcane music and the best underground rock, jazz, and hip-hop out there. It also doesn’t hurt that its signal reaches Manhattan, with Lou Reed and Jim Jarmusch counting themselves among its loyal listeners. Like KALX, WFMU didn’t want to be associated with Certain Damage, yet the comp also showed up on its charts in the back of CMJ’s trade rag.
Prior to that, the station was having problems with disappearing playlists. “We’d go weeks without our charts even being published,” says Brian Turner, program director at WFMU. “I’d follow up and was constantly assured, ‘Yeah, there’s some glitch,’ or ‘You aren’t hitting the submit button after you finished inputting,’ like it was all our fault. This went on for months.”
Top CMJ execs indeed blame the charting replacements on a computer glitch. Apparently if their computer database doesn’t recognize an artist, it throws the station’s entire list out. They say they decided to use Certain Damage as a default place-filler when an artist couldn’t be verified. But for a company that prides itself on championing college radio — a form that revels in the local and the obscure — why build a system that can’t “recognize” underground artists?
To many people affiliated with college radio, the problem was yet another example of CMJ, once an indie cheerleader, bowing to commercial interests. It is a widely held view among small labels, DJs, and record promoters that CMJ gives preferential treatment in its reviews section to labels and artists that advertise in its magazines.
CMJ execs deny these charges, but the perceptions are more than just sour grapes. The entire cover of CMJ for the week of February 10, for instance, was all but an ad for Virgin Megastores, and the Certain Damage comps, despite the punk-sounding name, are stacked with a who’s who of bands from major labels — Arista, Capitol, Columbia, MCA, Virgin, Warner Bros. — the list goes on. CMJ’s perceived courtship of the majors also coincides with widespread industry rumors that the company is on shaky financial ground.
If college radio stations feel CMJ is selling them out, it hasn’t helped matters that programmers regularly gripe about the company’s “arrogant” attitude: When they call to complain about screwups in their listings, program directors say, they often receive a “deal with it” response from CMJ management. In the us-versus-them world of the underground, CMJ is looking to many like a very big Them.
Why then, do indie radio stations that feel this way continue to play the game? For the moment, at least, CMJ enjoys a monopoly on the college radio market. It’s the only official place for stations to share their playlists with the music industry. Stations, especially smaller ones, depend on CMJ’s charts to demonstrate to labels that they are playing the music they’ve been sent — many rely on those promotional records to survive. It’s also helpful for little-known bands to be able to say they’ve charted in CMJ, and there’s nothing college DJs relish more than being able to document that they were the first to expose a new artist who later hit it big.
But the Certain Damage fiasco has the underground industry abuzz. For those who already had reasons to distrust CMJ, this seemed a calculated plan to promote the company’s own compilations, leaving many to wonder whether CMJ can still be trusted and, equally troubling for the company, whether it is still relevant.
CMJ, or the College Media Journal as it was first known, was started in 1978 by Robert Haber, a seventeen-year-old resident of Long Island, New York. As Haber, known to most as “Bobby,” tells it, the journal began in his parents’ basement. “I was music director at Brandeis, WBRS,” he says over the phone from his New York office. “We found that we had a lot of listeners and just couldn’t understand why there wasn’t a publication that was out there tracking not only one little college radio station, but all the stations across the country.”
So he started one, not realizing at first the enormity of the task he’d undertaken. “At that point there was no MTV, and album radio was really becoming the format. … But in Boston there were some twenty to thirty stations. I realized that they in themselves created a powerful force. One thing led to another, and we began to talk to stations across the country, and that’s how we got to where we are today.”
Haber’s magazine helped usher in what people refer to as the “golden age of college radio.” The 1980s was an era in which college stations became respected as the industry’s oracles — the discoverers of the next big thing in pop-music trends and cutting-edge artists — especially following the success of superstars like REM and U2, which were first embraced by these small stations. Major labels began to view college radio as their farm-team system, culminating in the “alternative” explosion of the early ’90s, when bands like Jane’s Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and, of course, Nirvana sprang from the underground and went very profitably mainstream.
Mirroring the DIY ethic of punk, college radio defined itself by its independence and anticommercialism, fostering an us-versus-them mentality that exists to this day. The culture grew out of DJs reveling in the promotion of unknown gems, funneling out interesting foreign music, and building a solid foundation for seminal indie bands such as New Order, Hüsker Dü, Sonic Youth, and Yo La Tengo.
Growing in reputation alongside its noncommercial compadres, CMJ quickly became synonymous with independent radio, offering an alternative to other radio-charting entities such as Billboard and the now-defunct Gavin. If a band began appearing on numerous CMJ playlists, other stations took notice.
“It was a connection to the industry,” says WFMU general manager Ken Freedman, who has been involved in college radio since 1977 and was on hand for the ’80s explosion. “It was important for us, because we have relationships with hundreds of record labels. It was really important to record labels that we report to CMJ; our peer stations reported to CMJ and we would look at what they were playing and they would look at what we were playing.”
In 1981, CMJ launched its annual Music Marathon, a convention that was originally comprised of discussion panels, and by ’83 incorporated live music. It has since become a major music event, with thousands of musicians and labels converging each year from all over the world to take part. Along with South by Southwest, the Music Marathon is among the largest alternative music festivals in the country.
Somewhere along the line, CMJ became quite profitable. “It wasn’t until the Seattle explosion,” Haber says. “When Nevermind was released on Geffen, the business was such that, as radio [formats] got tighter and tighter and tighter, it really didn’t have anywhere else to go than college radio, and not just for rock. Anything that couldn’t get stuck somewhere else ultimately landed in CMJ’s world.”
By the mid-’90s, CMJ was the only nonmainstream game in town, dominating the college radio market. In 1999, with dot-coms on the rise, CMJ partnered with the Internet company ChangeMusic, only to abandon ship and return to being an independent a year and a half ago.
These days, following a series of layoffs and disastrous losses from a Music Marathon that had been scheduled in Manhattan for the week of September 11, 2001, rumors about the financial health of the company have been rampant. “I know they almost went down the tubes financially,” Freedman says. “They’ve had terrible, terrible financial problems.”
In addition, freelance writers for CMJ report trouble getting paid. “I wrote a cover story for them about a year and a half ago,” says one writer, “and have had to resort to threatening them with lawyers.”
Haber shrugs off the money rumors. “Since I’ve been nineteen, there’s been suggestions of CMJ being in trouble,” he says. “Actually, CMJ is in the best financial situation we’ve been in for three years.”
Of course, even if true, that doesn’t mean CMJ is thriving. Indeed, it would be surprising if it wasn’t hurting from the same market conditions that folded longtime rival Gavin magazine last March. In an article for Salon last fall, Gavin managing editor Todd Spencer cited the rapid consolidation of radio during the ’90s that led to thousands of radio-industry layoffs and put thousands of stations in the hands of giants such as Clear Channel and Infinity Broadcasting, which have subsequently cut back on advertising.
Rumors of CMJ’s money problems are fueled by the fact that the company now appears to rely heavily on major-label support. Editorially, it’s hard to tell that CMJ stands for “College Music Journal.” CMJ’s New Music Monthly, a glossy consumer magazine available at newsstands, regularly features a major-label artist on its cover. And CMJ’s Web site tends to feature major-label artists — most recently Ryan Adams, Blur, and Tenacious D. As for the weekly trade publication that goes to radio stations, none of the programming directors interviewed for this story depend on its articles and reviews for inspiration. “There was a certain point a couple of years ago when all you started seeing was industry people on the cover instead of musicians,” says WFMU’s Freedman.
The change hasn’t come overnight. By the early ’90s, perhaps partly due to some backlash against the success of college radio, the journal’s reputation among the outsiders that helped build it was already slipping. In 1991, Village Voice writer Robert Christgau wrote that CMJ’s “promo-friendly, trend-happy charts have less good music on them than Billboard‘s — a lot less. … Unlike his desperate-to-be-hip consumer-press counterpart Bob Guccione Jr., Haber gives off the vibe of someone who has found his virtuous, interesting, and of course profitable niche.” Christgau did, however, admit a certain respect for the trade publication. CMJ, he wrote, “remains above all a programming aid for college radio. With its rah-rah reviews, DIY correspondence, agate playlists, and genrefied charts aimed at genrefied ad bases, it’s a trade with pretensions. But those pretensions are modest, earned, and far from delusory.”
Since then, however, CMJ’s respectability in the independent music sphere has eroded, especially among the college stations that have come to view the organization’s charts as some necessary, but not necessarily accurate, evil they have to deal with. Stations that used to simply fax in their weekly top thirty now must painstakingly enter the data into CMJ’s online database, a time-consuming task. Some stations feel stiffed by the fact that they pay CMJ a yearly subscription fee, then have to do all the footwork themselves. They feel especially stiffed when the listings that get printed are wrong.
The mass e-mail fired off by KALX’s Ian Hetzner following his Certain Damage discovery soon had pierced tongues wagging all over the country. This is his message, minus the typos:
“OK people, here it is, part #too damn many in the occasional series known as KALX folk ripping apart CMJ. The particular crime that I am about to divulge is actually one of the most heinous to date. … Certain Damage is the name of CMJ’s very own compilation series featuring all of your least favorite bands that have way more promo money than fans (since labels apparently have to shell out the dough to get a tune on them comps). So why was KALX charting these records? We weren’t, it turns out that when CMJ fails to recognize a record that we chart (i.e. local artist, or just a record that very few stations have) they substitute it with their own damn compilation on the charts, killing two birds with one stone (keeping truly independent artists from charting and charting their own filthy corporate bullshit at the same time). … When is the major CMJ coup going down? ’cause KALX is more than ready to jump the proverbial ship. Fuck CMJ, thank you, and good day.”
Hetzner now says he regrets sending the inflammatory message in anger, and in fact apologized to its recipients the following week for “the somewhat obnoxious tone of the e-mail,” despite what KALX describes as a “flood of responses” from other stations voicing agreement.
CMJ, on the other hand, was livid. Mike Boyle, vice president and general manager of the company, responded to KALX with this missive:
“Ladies & Gentlemen (and I use the terms VERY lightly),
“One of the first things you will learn when you finally become adults is how to act in a mature manner when you have a problem or question with something. That being said, rather than be immature and trying to show off to all of your buddies what ‘big people’ you are and that you have the ability to call people/organizations names (wow that will look real good on a résumé some day), why not call CMJ and inquire about the situation before showing your true maturity level in a mass e-mail? Did it ever occur to you that you may not have all the facts before slinging your mud? Obviously not.
“Bottom line, we’d welcome the opportunity to explain the situation to you, but how would you know if you never tried asking, like the professionals you’re supposed to be in the first place? You may not like the answer/explanation, but at least you will know you acted like professionals and not a bunch of half-cocked three-year-olds.”
Boyle, who has a reputation in the industry for relishing his role as “the bad guy,” refused to offer an explanation until KALX issued an apology. Paul Koehler, a Cal student and KALX’s co-music director, responded to Boyle’s message, noting that in fact KALX had alerted CMJ before about other inaccuracies in its charts. “We have brought this problem up with several reps from CMJ over the past couple of years, and never received a satisfactory explanation for why a record that has never gotten a spin on KALX would still be listed on our charts.”
Boyle, nonplussed, shot back: “You obviously have made your mind up that we’re what’s wrong with the world and CMJ; sorry you feel that way. If you’d like to cancel your reporting status, say the word and we’ll turn yours off and big, bad CMJ will no longer be a thorn in your side.”
The responses that flooded in to KALX following Hetzner’s initial e-mail confirmed that this had been happening to other stations, and led to debates among the stations about CMJ’s performance in general. WFMU program director Brian Turner was among those quick to take KALX’s side, especially since his station had also experienced the Certain Damage problem.
According to Turner, he complained to Mike Boyle about the discrepancy and was told CMJ was listing the sampler in place of records its staff couldn’t verify. “I said, ‘Well, if that’s the case, then I don’t want you to report our chart, because I don’t want records on our chart that we don’t report,'” Turner says. “And he responded by saying, ‘Oh, you should be glad that it got printed the way it did, when we often wipe the entire chart when we don’t identify a record.’ … I was furious.”
Boyle declined to comment for this story, but to Turner, CMJ’s behavior was antithetical to the ethos of independent broadcasting. “It seems to me to be a very conscious way on their part to define the parameters of what’s playable on the radio,” he says.
None of the other stations got satisfactory answers to their inquiries with CMJ either. “I don’t think any of us would be so upset if when we first brought it up, they had said, ‘Oh God, you’re right, this is a serious problem, let’s fix it,'” says KALX’s Koehler. “Their response has been exactly the opposite.”
Bobby Haber admits that his company knowingly replaced records submitted by radio stations with Certain Damage, but insists he had no prior personal knowledge of the replacements. The company’s computer system, Haber claims, was discarding entire charts if the computer didn’t recognize an artist, and Boyle thought it would be better to replace the unrecognized artists than to simply have the chart not run at all. “We tried to come up with the least problematic solution, which was not, of course, putting any artist in there, which would be incredibly irresponsible, but to come up with something that would allow the playlist not to be rejected,” Haber says. “And that was to put, as a placeholder, our compilation.”
But why not just put “Not Available” in the space, instead of something by which the company profits, and from which it benefits when the comp appears on the charts of influential stations like KALX and WFMU? “I will go on the record,” Haber replies, “and say that from a nontechie point of view, it does not seem like the best way to handle it. But I’m not the chief technical officer, and what you are dealing with literally depends upon hundreds of thousands of pieces of data — it is impossible to manually override it. So I think it was a clever fix, but one that we probably could have done a lot better.”
Indeed, some observers might question why a company whose job it is to document nonmainstream music depends on a system that punishes stations for playing little-known artists.
Haber’s explanation is that his company has gone through rapid changes over the last decade: The technology it acquired when it was owned by the dot-com, and subsequently inherited after buying itself out of that situation, has left CMJ with a “jury-rigged” computer system. “It’s been Band-Aid upon Band-Aid upon Band-Aid,” Haber says. “If there was ever any intent to falsify or to defraud, here we are putting something out in black and white, in print, for the entire world to see. Thinking logically, even with the most sinister motives involved, if there was any attempt to do so, why would we go so far as to put Certain Damage in on KALX to have them see and for the whole world to see?”
Regardless of the company’s intent, its actions have rocked the college radio world. “The thing that strikes me about this,” says KALX general manager Sandra Wasson, “is I can’t imagine that Billboard or R&R would do something like this. If they did, it would be seen as a really big problem.”
Last week, perhaps partly in response to snooping by the press, CMJ went into damage-control mode. Haber told employees that any media calls should be directed to him. He also announced a new policy for unverifiable chart entries: They will henceforth be listed as “Unverified” instead of Certain Damage.
“The reason this whole thing started,” Haber says, “was that we didn’t want to have happen what had been happening for quite some time, which was people submitting erroneous material that was either inaccurate or even falsified information, a ‘joke’ to see if they could pull one over on CMJ.”
Therefore, whenever something was charted that the CMJ didn’t recognize, staffers were supposed to verify its existence. Whether they actually tried is questionable: East Bay band Loretta Lynch can verified in twenty seconds by typing it into Google, as can many of the other titles Certain Damage had replaced. “When you’re dealing with 1,900 reports a week — literally tens of thousands of entries — there would be no way to interject some sort of manual override,” Haber explains. In short, the company claims printing inaccurate charts was the best it could manage.
Yet Haber hopes this incident, which he views as an unfortunate mistake, won’t hurt his company. “The minute we have sold our credibility down the river, than we have signed our own death certificate,” he says. “And we intend on staying around for a little while.”
From the viewpoint of some in the nonmainstream music industry, the recent controversy only highlights the declining value of CMJ’s college-radio charts. “If they are just going to throw in anything to substitute what a station’s playing, then how can those charts mean anything at all? How can we have any faith in them?” says Bob Weyersberg from Triage Music, a company that does radio promotion for independent record companies. “It just shows how meaningless the charts are.”
Weyersberg isn’t referring only to CMJ’s inaccuracies. College radio playlists, he notes, even those that are correctly published, aren’t always a good example of what’s being played on the radio. In many cases, they are a list of thirty records that program directors are asking their DJs to include in their sets — many other albums could be played just as often, but are never reported.
“I’ve been doing this for thirteen years,” Weyersberg says, “and in the past five years especially we’ve really considered CMJ less and less important to us. Because the college charts, the way they are created and how they are manipulated, and how they are so inaccurate, it doesn’t really do us any good. There are a lot of record labels and other promotion companies that live by those charts. It’s like a fantasy world; it doesn’t have a firm rooting in reality.”
Koehler says he hopes CMJ will embrace the scandal as an opportunity to put its house in order. “Hopefully,” he says, “what can come out of this is some hard thinking over there in New York. ‘Are we becoming irrelevant? Are we threatened with being seen as totally irrelevant because we have a policy of falsifying our charts?'”
The main question on the minds of indie-radio types these days is why there is no viable alternative to CMJ. Someone, they say, could be doing a better job. At this point, dropping out would be unlikely to hurt well-known stations like KALX or WFMU, which will continue to be serviced with promotional CDs no matter what — and anyone who wants to view the playlists can receive them via a weekly e-mail or on the station Web sites.
But smaller stations feel beholden to the system, and that means dutifully paying their fees and reporting their lists to CMJ. Even the larger stations feel that giving their charts to CMJ helps the smaller labels they champion get their names out there. In short, it’s a vicious circle, and while many in the industry take CMJ with a grain of salt, nearly everyone continues to participate. From the perspective of CMJ critics, that’s precisely why the media journal has done such a piss-poor job — it is built on a backbone of tiny, nonprofit stations with little clout, in a market with little competition.
A few start-up competitors exist, the most promising being the online magazine Dusted (www.dustedmagazine.com), first conceived in Berkeley about a year ago by Otis Hart, a sportswriter, ex-DJ, and music geek; and Sam Hunt, a former employee of Chicago indie label Thrill Jockey, where he did college-radio promotions.
As of now, the Dusted site only contains playlists from about forty stations; it’s also nonprofit and dedicated to remaining that way. “We make our charts up sort of the same way that CMJ does,” Hunt says, “in that we assign point values to positions on radio station charts and assemble what is basically a ‘top forty.’ But we try to take them only from stations whose music directors or charts reflect a certain degree of sincere interest in what they are playing.”
Dusted has been on more and more people’s lips since the semipublic pissing match broke out between KALX and CMJ, but more importantly, the incident has created a new level of dialogue among underground program directors across the nation. Though the music industry around college radio has grown fat and mutated, the stations themselves haven’t changed so much. Perhaps due to a steady influx of righteous young DJs, underground radio has managed to maintain much its old utopian ideal, the same ideal that gave CMJ its start in the first place. Cool things, it seems, will always exist under the radar.
“There are so many people producing really creative and interesting music on their own without a publicity firm’s help, so many homemade things out there that end up in our mailbox that I feel like it’s a really good time for music,” says WFMU’s Turner. “If someone wants to put a lasso around that for some kind of report, it’s just kind of fruitless. It’ll still happen anyway.”