Who is Beck? A fair portion of music fans might be searching for the answer to the part-meme/part-serious question, but one radio format that isn’t is adult alternative.
Thanks to its strong support for the singer/songwriter’s Morning Phase, crowned album of the year at the 57th annual Grammy Awards Sunday (Feb. 8), the niche format continues to solidify its status as radio’s tastemaker that foretells greater mainstream acclaim.
“Beck is just the latest example,” says Rita Houston, program director of WFUV New York. “Mumford & Sons … Adele … Arcade Fire [the winners for album of the year in 2013, ’12 and ’11, respectively]. Now, Beck, and Sam Smith, too. Adult alternative has been the foundation for so many acts. We’ve also been playing Hozier for more than a year now.”
“Was it a surprise that Beck won? No, it was affirmation of what adult alternative stands for,” echoes Sky Daniels, PD of KCSN Los Angeles. “The format exists to support creative artists, both new, like Smith, and legendary, like Beck.”
As Beck welcomes new followers, adult alternative (aka, “triple A,” for album adult alternative) has long led the way at radio, never more than with the stark, intimate Morning Phase, his first release on Capitol Records (and a set he recorded largely at home, as he marveled during his Grammy acceptance speech). “Blue Moon,” the album’s lead single, became his first No. 1 on Billboard‘s Adult Alternative Songs chart, ruling for two weeks last April. He’d tallied five prior top five hits in 2003-08 (including “Lost Cause” [No. 3, 2003], from Sea Change, the album that informed Morning Phase, in many ways the former’s sonic sequel).
Looking further back, to the early part of the 2000s, Norah Jones, whose Come Away With Me took album of the year honors in 2003, also started as an artist dotingly nurtured at adult alternative before spreading her wings and taking flight at multiple formats. Meanwhile, other fairly recent winners in the category have generated mainstream buzz, and enjoyed continued adult alternative backing, even if they haven’t largely, or at all, crossed to other radio formats. Among them: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, U2 and Steely Dan.
“It’s become more apparent that the album of the year Grammy is truly an artist-centric award,” says Brad Holtz, PD of WTTS Indianapolis. “As adult alternative considers itself an artist-centric format, the parallels just seem natural.”
“Adult alternative started as an almost anti-Grammy, anti-mainstream format,” notes WTMD Baltimore PD Scott Mullins. “But, over the years, the format has evolved to include more rock, indie and R&B, to go along with the various Americana derivatives that made up a large part of its early sound.
“This year’s Grammy nominees and winners included Hozier, Ryan Adams, the Black Keys, Jack White, Haim, St. Vincent, Alt-J and others whose records were first supported by adult alternative stations around the country.
“The list of artists who received their first significant airplay at the format is long and impressive.”
HE’S A WINNER, BABY
As for Beck specifically, despite the trending of #WhoIsBeck, “He’s a core artist on ‘FUV,” Houston says. “I mean, Odelay and ‘Loser’ are both around 20 years old. Morning Phase was voted our No. 1 album of 2014 by our listeners. Granted, it’s a very different-sounding Beck. He’s not dancing or rapping this time! But, when I first heard the album, I thought that ‘Blue Moon’ was a song that could stick, because it has a great melody.
“For album of the year to go to essentially an acoustic record is such a cool thing. Morning Phase is a subtle beauty.”
“Beck made a graceful, intelligent record that resonated with our audience,” Daniels concurs, noting that Morning Phase was likewise the top vote-getter last year among KCSN listeners. (It’s sold 301,000 copies in the U.S. to date, according to Nielsen Music, a sum that’s sure to swell significantly in the wake of the Grammys.) “It appeals to thoughtful, erudite fans, so it wasn’t a surprise that the Grammy voting members found it to be worthy of the honor.”
Still, few artists are a lock for airplay despite their heritage at any format. But, when Capitol signed Beck and began promoting “Blue Moon” last year, support was strong from the start.
“Reaction was immediately positive out-of-the-box,” says Dan Connelly, Capitol VP of adult alternative radio promotion. “Beck is a one of-a-kind artist. Sea Change also helped set the groundwork for Morning Phase. He’s an artist with a two-decade history of good music, and he delivered again. Our job was to communicate that, and radio responded. Everyone was in the boat with us.”
“I was as shocked Sunday as Beck was,” Connelly says. “But, when you think about his long career and consistent level of quality, it’s not that surprising. It’s such a testament to his whole artistry.”
“Beck’s win speaks volumes to the fact that a great artist with great heritage can receive the recognition they deserve when they make a record not to be commercial, not to be anything more than an expression of their art,” adds Capitol executive VP Greg Thompson. “The beauty of the Grammys is that they’re in the business of recognizing that.
“There’s no doubt that this album is a reflection of Beck’s inner soul and an important record to him … that’s now an important record to the world.”
Going forward, Daniels feels that adult alternative’s streak as a barometer for future Grammy, and often mainstream radio, success should continue. He even offers an early prediction for the 2016 Grammys (where, as one playful media member Tweeted Sunday night, we might expect to see a virtual duet between Mel Torme and Iggy Azalea!)
“Don’t be surprised if, next year, Father John Misty shocks a lot of pundits,” he says. The folk singer/songwriter’s jangly “Chateau Lobby #4 (In C for Two Virgins)” rises 23-21 on Adult Alternative Songs this week. Parent album I Love You, Honeybear arrives, on Sub Pop Records, today (10).
Beck could even repeat. Connelly says that he could release his next album “relatively soon,” i.e., perhaps this year. But, don’t expect a third installment of a potential Sea Change/Morning Phase trilogy. At least, not yet. “He won’t stay the same for two records.”
Ultimately, as Houston asks, “What if adult alternative didn’t exist? Especially the extra-adventurous stations [including “non-comms,” or non-commercial stations, like WFUV and KCSN, that rely on underwriting and listener donations instead of traditional advertising, thus, fostering an especially intense need and desire to optimally serve listeners’ tastes]. The way the format is getting recognized at the Grammys, it’s so meaningful. And, our audience has never been bigger.
“We’re proving that music fans want to find a place to discover music. That’s what we’re about.”
“Adult alternative is the ultimate proving ground of quality music,” agrees Connelly. “Plus, these stations are so locally focused. If something works in a market after careful research, there’s a good chance that it’ll work nationally.”
As Mullins says, “If you want to hear what the rest of the world will be listening to tomorrow, listen to adult alternative radio today.”