Does Alternative Rock Have An Age Problem?

Managing Editor, Music
01.22.18 10 Comments

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In October, Variety ran an exclusive news report announcing a new concert put on by iHeartRadio, dubbed “iHeartRadio ALTer EGO.” While many other alt-rock stations across the country were announcing the lineups for their holiday festivals, the radio giant behind Jingle Ball and many other large-scale music events decided to have their big rock show in January. The announced bill was, by all metrics, pretty stacked: Mumford & Sons, Beck, The National, Spoon, Cage The Elephant, Dashboard Confessional, and Walk The Moon. The bands featured run the gamut from some of the biggest stars that the radio format has produced in the past couple decades to, in the case of The National, a band that’s just starting the breakthrough on that level.

And, what’s missing from the lineup is obvious. The bill featured no acts fronted by women, which has been a problem at alternative radio for its entire history. In 2013, when Lorde’s “Royals” topped the alt charts, it was the first time a solo woman had done so in 17 years, while Elle King’s “Ex’s And Oh’s” is the only female-fronted song to top the charts since. Representation at these sort of events is a huge problem across the board — rival LA radio station KROQ’s pair of 2017 radio festivals featured Lana Del Rey, Paramore, and Lorde at their summer Weenie Roast, but women were entirely absent from their winter Almost Acoustic Christmas — and is a symptom of a greater bias within the genre. And if you were looking for people of color to be represented, none were found leading any of the acts featured, either.

But something else also stood out from this bill. In that Variety announcement, Tom Poleman, chief programming officer for iHeartMedia, said the event was created “to celebrate everything alternative rock.” Then he went on to say the following:

“Alternative rock is experiencing an incredible renaissance. Young bands in their 20s are making music with the same energy and power of the bands like U2, Depeche Mode and REM, that helped to create the format.”

The sentiment isn’t entirely untrue. Look no further than our favorite rock albums of 2017 to find a wealth of vital young bands that are largely going under the radar. But in terms of “young bands in their 20s,” ALTer EGO was not the place prove this argument. Beck, Spoon, Dashboard Confessional, and The National are all musicians that are in their 40s, not their 20s, while Cage The Elephant, Mumford & Sons, and Walk The Moon are led by musicians in their 30s. In fact, the only artist that was still in their 20s that was tapped to play the event were the late-addition sibling trio AJR whose current and only radio hit is bolstered by guest vocals from Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo, age 47.

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And this extends beyond the ALTer EGO bill. If you look at the biggest crossover artists to emerge in the past few years — Imagine Dragons, Twenty One Pilots, Portugal. The Man — only 21P is made up musicians still tied to their youth. That doesn’t stop them from making music that appeals to young people, but it also shows a disconnect between what a radio executive identifies as youth versus what is actually made by young people. One needed to only look around at the number of 30-somethings passionately singing along to Dashboard’s “Hands Down” in lieu of actual teens and college students in attendance to realize that alternative rock’s age problem is reciprocated by the people consuming the music.

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