You'd think that a country that gave birth to The Beatles and The Rolling Stones would have radio stations belting out plenty of new music. But in Britain, critics complain about a surprising lack of variety and an absence of risk taking among many broadcasters. The BBC gives some exposure to new bands. But if you're arguably the country's most respected independent record label, and you want to promote your acts, you might just start your own radio station.
On Monday Domino Records — the label behind Animal Collective, the Arctic Monkeys and Franz Ferdinand — launched a format-free, playlist-free radio station, hosted by musicians themselves. You can listen all week here.
And while the bands from the independent label may not be polished broadcasters, they are experimenting with radio in a way that many feel has been sadly missing from the British airwaves.
"We've all had amazing formative experiences [as we] sat listening to our radios," says Domino Radio's Program Director Jacqui Rice. She says many of her artists are looking forward to becoming radio announcers. "You'll see another side of the artists that you don't often see because they're not going to have to talk about their tour or their new record. They'll be talking about the music that they love. ... When we were younger, you'd hear that band talk about a band they loved and you'd immediately investigate that band and it would just open up the musical world for you. So we still think that could be really, really exciting for fans of The Kills, The Dirty Projectors or Animal Collective."
Domino Radio won't just be playing music by Domino artists or asking only its acts to be temporary radio hosts. For the label, it's a big experiment. It'll be on the air for just one week. But it's following in a tradition of renegade radio in the U.K.
In the 1960s, when the government refused to allow commercial radio to compete with the then staid BBC, pirate stations like Radio Caroline found a way around the law — broadcasting from ships in the middle of the freezing North Sea.
Today, there's something called Student Radio. But it's a relatively new idea.
Many stations' signals don't reach much farther than the edge of campus and new bands can only dream of the kind of exposure they get on college radio in the U.S., as Max Bloom, guitarist and singer for Yuck explains.
"America is just a really big place and with that comes a lot more opportunities," he says. "There's so many college radio stations in each place you go to. I guess England is relatively smaller and there's less opportunities to do things like that."
There's a lot riding on this week-long trial broadcast. Not least the worry that by starting its own station, Domino could upset the BBC, which it relies on to give many label artists regular airplay. Rice thinks that's unlikely.
"We've always made it absolutely clear that we're on the airwaves for a week," she says. "We're not your competitors; we're a record label. It's a huge project, a huge undertaking even just doing it for a week. So I don't think we'll have the manpower to make it a regular thing. But it's a fun thing to do just now and then, maybe a couple of times a year. "
Domino isn't just streaming sets on its website or podcasting — it's also broadcasting on 87.7 FM in London, a frequency taken over for weeks at a time by many different programmers.
The label is utilizing social media to galvanize fans already on its bands' mailing lists to tune in. But at a time when you can find pretty much anything online, it's fair to wonder: Is this just a gimmick?
Mark Story is a programming consultant with more than 30 years of radio experience. "When radio first started in the States it was owned by people who manufactured radios and people who had records to sell," he says. "So that model has been around for a very long time. There certainly has been a growth of people who have decided that they find conventional radio stations — where you get the same product everywhere in the country and no variety — a rather homogeneous product. They're looking for something different."
So perhaps, in an era of flashmobs and viral marketing, an eclectic radio station that pops up for one or two weeks of the year could become something special that people look forward to.