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If musicians could change pop music, they would...

(ran GB edition)

You know what's wrong with pop music, I know what's wrong with pop music, the guy down the street and the musician on the stage knows what's wrong.

It's the radio. No, it's the record companies. Uh, it's the pigeonholing and labeling of musical styles. Wrong _ it's the censorship.

Probably it's all of those things and more. The music industry certainly is experiencing the doldrums these days, a fact borne out by stagnant (even declining) sales, the financial troubles of several major national record-store chains and the failure of record companies to develop and nurture new talent to replace older, declining acts. More important, how much music have you heard lately that isn't derivative or just plain lethargic?

So what are the solutions? For the past several months, I've asked the musicians I interviewed this question: If you became the overlord of pop music, what would be the first thing you'd change?

Radio was the most frequent answer _ and not just from musicians whose records don't get airplay.

"I would demand that radio be taken over," says Ed Kowalczyk, singer for Live, a band that's received its share of airplay and then some in the past four years.

"First, we'd clone all the greatest college radio stations in the country. We'd have to clone their program directors and their formats and make that the dominant radio scene for music in general _ free-for-all madness, so every station you turned on was completely unique and always blew your mind because it played things you never heard before and you found out about new bands all the time."

This isn't Kowalczyk biting the hand that's fed him millions. He just wants radio to be both entertainer and teacher _ the way it was when Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry started out.

Perry watched radio change dramatically over the past 25 years since his band's first record. And not for the better.

"You would tune into the stations like (Boston's) WBCN and they would play whatever they wanted," Perry says. "That's how you heard the newest stuff. The playlists now are so restricted. If the owner of the chain of stations says this is what they're going to play, then that's what they play. It's frustrating."

You'd think Perry wouldn't have any problem with radio, given the airplay songs like Cryin', Crazy,Love in an Elevator and so many other Aerosmith songs have received.

"But there's a lot of material on our records that doesn't get played," he says. "If you're a rock band, they play your ballads and nothing else."

Tens of thousands of bands would love to get on radio. Jason Bonham, son of the late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham and leader of his own band, says if he were overlord, "I'd give everybody a chance." Skipper, the bass player in the Chicago party-rock band the New Duncan Imperials, would change radio programming "so it wasn't the same 35 songs being played in every city on every station."

You'd expect the have-nots to complain. But Tom Dumont of No Doubt? His band has practically lived on radio in the last year or two. If not Spiderwebs or Just a Girl, it was No Doubt's Don't Speak saturating the airwaves.

Dumont, the guitarist for the southern California pop-ska band, thinks radio, by playing the same small selection repeatedly, is killing off bands. He'd require radio to play unknown artists "instead of playing the select few that are the superstars right now over and over again.

"It's easy to say that," Dumont says. "I've had my success and I've got my money in the bank, so to speak. So it's not that important anymore. But I just remember loving songs and loving bands that got played to death on the radio."

Singer-songwriter Dan Fogelberg made his reputation on the radio with hits like Run for the Roses,Part of the Plan and The Language of Love. What would he do as the overlord of pop music?

"I'd probably go back to my original nose," he says, pausing and then adding, "That's a Michael Jackson joke."

"I think I'd have disc jockeys play what they want," says Fogelberg, turning serious. "The overlord of pop music really is radio, no question about it. You get played and you sell records. If you don't, you don't. We've watched radio go from what it was in the '70s _ FM was so creative and it was part of our lives _ to becoming a corporate entity where they sit there and push buttons and let the tapes play."

Some musicians think it's radio's narrowcasting _ as opposed to broadcasting _ that's the killer. If the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can accommodate Duane Eddy's twang and George Clinton's funk under one roof, why can't radio stations?

Ex-Van Halen lead singer and now solo artist Sammy Hagar waxes nostalgic about his youth, when FM rock radio would play the latest music by B.B. King, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Percy Sledge, Otis Redding, Janis Joplin.

"It was rock radio and all music was considered rock _ R&B and blues and rock," Hagar says. "Now it's so segregated that it's just crazy. There's stations that will play Sammy Hagar and won't play a (hard-rock) band like Tool. It's like, "Come on, man, this is all rock music.' "

But ZZ Top bass player Dusty Hill doesn't think radio's the problem; the way people listen is what's wrong.

"People who only listen to one type or one style of music _ that's great, I have my favorites too _ but they're really shortchanging themselves," Hill says. "There's good stuff all over the radio, but you've got to move it around. Don't just stick with a station."

If radio isn't the problem, what is? It's the way the music business is run, many musicians say.

"The attitude of record companies" leaves much to be desired, says Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood.

"I'd teach them the art of nurturance. I think the record business in general has forgotten how to nurture talent. They slap things up against the wall and if you don't stick, they get rid of you. And I think that's a real shame."

Paul Rodgers has seen both sides of the business _ one where the record business can't do enough for you and the other where no one knows your name.

"I'd dismantle all the corporate record companies," says the former lead singer for Free and Bad Company, "and make a lot of smaller, independent companies that competed in a fierce but friendly manner so there wasn't too much power at the top end. And I'd give young talent a chance because the dollars are so shut tight and difficult to get."

Former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, now fronting his own group, Ratdog, says what he would change is changing. And that is "the infernal insistence that the music industry has had in pigeonholing bands in types of music."

"Until just recently, if you were a heavy-metal fan, then you didn't listen to punk," Weir says. "If you were a punk fan, you didn't listen to hip-hop. If you were a hip-hop fan, you didn't listen to anything else. If you were a Grateful Dead fan, you didn't listen to anybody else's music. Those lines seem to be fading, and people seem to be a lot more willing to play stuff that isn't clearly definable.

"Now the industry seems to have caught up with the music and is saying, "Okay, we don't know how to market these people so we'll market them as them, rather than the new heavy-metal sensation, or whatever.' "

Then there's the issue of censorship. Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello says the industry needs to make sure that all music is available to everyone, particularly in small communities where consumers might only have one store that sells compact discs.

"Especially in the middle of the country. You're always going to have the hipster community who's going to be tied into the latest indie (independent) releases. But from the perspective of a guy who's from Libertyville, Ill., my choices growing up were Kiss and Fleetwood Mac _ and on a good day, they added a Donna Summer record at the local record shop. Which may be like choosing between Perot, Perot and Perot."

As the singer in Black Sabbath and as a solo artist, Ozzy Osbourne has fought numerous battles over censorship _ from towns who wanted to ban his live performances to people who accused him of Satanism.

If he became overlord of pop music, "there wouldn't be any censorship because it's freedom of the arts, you know. Censorship is ludicrous. When you've got censorship, you've got people _ for the shock value _ writing about killing people and harming people."

Is there anything to fear from rock 'n' roll?

"Absolutely not," Osbourne insists. "The only thing to fear is fear itself."

But what if children are hearing inappropriate language? The master of funk, Rick James, would take lyrics in the opposite direction.

"I'd want music where a 3-, 4-, 5-, 6-year-old would be able to listen to it without being offended or steered in the wrong direction," he says.

And yet with all the problems the music business faces, maybe what the overlord of pop music should do is give the industry a little rest. Singer-songwriter John Prine would.

"I'd give everybody the day off," Prine says with a hearty laugh. "There's much too much music out there. Take the day off, we'll see you on the golf course."