Chart Beat

The Disappearing '80s: Is It the End of the World For R.E.M., The Cure and More on Alternative Radio?

The Cure, R.E.M. & Beastie Boys
Getty Images; Design by Ben Margherita 

The Cure, R.E.M. & Beastie Boys

This week, Billboard celebrates the 30th anniversary of our Alternative Songs chart. Here, we look back at some of those artists who were big on the chart three decades ago, and see which of them -- if any -- are still receiving play on alternative radio in 2018. 

The Cure. Siouxsie and The Banshees. Lou Reed. R.E.M.

When Billboard debuted its “Modern Rock Tracks” chart in September 1988, these were among the alternative artists who quickly became the ranking’s first class, encapsulating a new radio format that had made its name throughout the decade as a home for guitar music beyond big brother format AOR (album-oriented rock). Stations like KROQ in Los Angeles, WLIR in New York and KCMU in Seattle -- plus a legion of underground college programs -- all spun these songs relentlessly during the chart’s infancy, relying on ‘80s post-punk, new wave and goth-rock to help define their space on the dial.

But now, as the chart -- renamed “Alternative Songs” in 2009 -- celebrates 30 years of compiling the hottest tunes bubbling just under the radar, how many of those jams that first characterized the format remain in regular rotation on alternative airwaves? Do R.E.M. and Siouxsie Sioux still play a role amid today’s indie-pop and electro-rock heroes, or have surviving stations simply moved on?

Program directors from several of the most popular alt radio stations in the country seem to agree that while the forefathers of the format haven’t gone completely extinct, the era is certainly endangered in 2018 -- with only a handful of the most elite alt hits mixing in with more recent tracks. Mike Kaplan, Senior Vice President of Programming at ALT 92.3 in New York, estimates tunes from the ‘80s to only comprise about two or three percent of his station’s total spins.

“They’re generally the songs that have had the benefit of being a critical mass, almost top 40 song at the time,” says Kaplan, noting The Ramones, R.E.M. and The Cure as ALT 92.3’s go-to retro artists. “That’s what I see working to this day -- those songs that either hit top 40 or hit more than one format are what seems to still resonate with the masses here.”

At 101 WKQX in Chicago, Program Director Troy Hanson says his station has largely become Nirvana-forward. “And some guys even hate that,” he notes, as some in the industry believe alt stations should only be playing what’s new.

“There still is ‘It’s the End of the World’ from R.E.M., there still is The Smiths’ ‘How Soon Is Now?,’ there’s ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’ and ‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)’ from the Beastie Boys, and if we really want to venture back, we’ll probably look at a Clash track,”  Hanson says of the station’s older programming. “But that’s about the extent of it.”

And at Radio 104.5 in Philadelphia, Program Director John Allers calls the ‘80s stuff no more than “spice at this point.” “Ten years ago, we were playing multiple tracks from many of the ‘80s bands, while in 2018 we don’t go very deep on the ‘80s artists anymore,” Allers says, noting the station does still sprinkle in some Violent Femmes and Depeche Mode as well as the aforementioned staples.

This all jives with Billboard’s most recent ‘80s alt data: when diving into the last week of playlists from the 65 or so alternative stations who report to the chart, the Top 10 most-played ‘80s songs were (according to Nielsen Music):

1. Beastie Boys, “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)”

2. Violent Femmes, “Blister in the Sun”

3. R.E.M., “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”

4. Beastie Boys, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”

5. Beastie Boys, “Brass Monkey”

6. The Cure, “Lovesong”

7. R.E.M., “The One I Love”

8. The Cure, “Just Like Heaven”

9. Beastie Boys, “Paul Revere”

10. Pixies, “Where Is My Mind?”

But this is, of course, a top-heavy list, with only three of the era’s most popular groups — who all scored top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100 as well — comprising eight of the top 10. And even though Beastie Boys’ “Fight” is listed as No. 1 here, it is actually a lowly No. 202 when ranked against all songs played on alt radio in the last week that are considered gold by Billboard.  

As Kaplan explains, stations walk a fine line between a robust retro mix and venturing too deeply in what are now considered oldies by their target audience.

“You go out and the ‘80s are still very much in the mind of the millennial consumer… but there are also expectations,” he says. “People are coming to you in a certain mood and they know what they want and if you defy the expectation and play too much of a throwback sound [you lose listeners]. With alternative today, if you play a smattering of that I think it’s healthy but leaning too far in that direction is detrimental to your station.”

But for some call signs, especially those not as beholden to what’s climbing on Billboard, this isn’t exactly the case. Owen Murphy, a producer for KEXP public radio in Seattle (successor to KCMU), says their DJs still employ a full list of old records, from the artists mentioned to Kate Bush, Public Enemy, New Order and more as foundation acts that provide more seasoned listeners added context when juxtaposed with new bands on the station.

“For example, one of our new favorites is the English punk band Idles,” Murphy says. “And there’s no Idles without The Fall, or The Clash; or there’s no Janelle Monae without Prince, and one needs to play the music of both to properly tell a given story.”

But in most scenarios, as ‘80s alternative disappears from stations that are more in tune to current trends, the songs that were once the lifeblood of this format will likely continue to migrate where their predecessors did years ago — and where many of them have already gone — further into adult contemporary and classic rock formats. Yet therein also lies a problem. Songs that may now be considered too rock-heavy for alternative stations spinning pop-crossover artists like Portugal. The Man or Twenty One Pilots might also be too keys-laden or genre-bending for stations dependent on more traditional rock icons like Led Zeppelin or Tom Petty.

"The style of 80’s alternative music dictates whether it moves to classic rock,” Kaplan says. “Much of the indie/synth texture isn’t a fit for classic rockers who rely more on the guitar-based artists." Hanson adds: “I don’t think you are going to see Depeche Mode, Beasties or XTC suddenly make their way on classic rock stations, sonically it may not fit.”

So, does that leave ‘80s alternative floating in the radio ether, as a era without a home format? Kaplan wonders if such a hole could lead to “development for a ‘Classic Alternative’ format” in certain cities.

Wherever these songs end up, be it scattered across multiple formats or woven into a new fleet of stations, they are not alone in their departure on modern alt radio. Kaplan says many of the ‘90s hits -- once considered the bedrock of most alternative stations, and reflective of the format’s most commercially successful era -- are starting to be excised from rotation as well.

“Our core [audience] is 25-34 -- millennials,” he says. “And they have some appetite for the ‘90s and some ‘80s. But they’re really looking ahead more than behind.”

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