It was recently reported (by Fox News, of all places) that Clear Channel radio stations had been instructed not to play tracks from Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Magic. It’s been impossible to ignore all the praise the album has received; it even picked up a solid review from Pitchfork Media, which is pretty unusual for an artist that you, your parents, and your children (if you’re old enough to have them) have all heard of. I’d imagine someone around here even had nice things to say about it.
There aren’t too many artists with broader appeal to Americans than Bruce Springsteen. The steel-town nostalgia, the solid rock guitar riffs, the voice that at times seems drenched in whiskey, other times coated with coal dust, all of these add up to one of the most easily marketable stars in music history. And yet Bruce has had no trouble remaining wedded to his populist sentiment and progressive politics. Bruce is the Warren Buffet of the rock and roll world –- someone who hit it big, but truly never changed, inside or out.
Why on earth would any radio station not want to play Bruce Springsteen’s music? It’s hard to imagine that “Born in the USA,” which is ostensibly an anti-war song, would have received reduced airplay following the attacks of September 11th. It tapped into our reflexive need to chant “U-S-A” and provided us with the necessary familiarity and comfort we needed at the time. If there was a time to mute its message, it would have been during the Walter Reed scandals earlier this year, but it seems doubtful that anyone would have made the connection.
A motive for killing Magic seems fairly transparent when considering Clear Channel itself. While Clear Channel was growing to maturity in Texas, its founder Lowry Mays was shrewd enough to cultivate a close relationship with the Bush family. It currently enjoys a very cozy relationship with the FCC and has reaped the benefits of deregulation during W’s tenure, consolidating its hold over radio and television markets wherever possible. Tom Hicks, the vice-chairman of Clear Channel, is similarly connected to Republican politicians. Given Bruce Springsteen’s enthusiastic campaigning for John Kerry in 2004 (or what may have been properly characterized as enthusiastic campaigning against the incumbent Bush) it seems to follow that the Boss’s political message would be at odds with the implicit goals of Clear Channel’s bosses.
But it gets much less simple when you consider the E Street Band’s tour to support the new album. A number of the dates on the tour are to be promoted by LiveNation, which is one of the spinoff corporations created when Clear Channel split into three separate entities in 2005. So many of the interests between the two companies are coherent; why wouldn’t Clear Channel radio use its airtime to help promote an album whose tour would reap profits for its sister corporation, LiveNation?
As stated by Lowry Mayes, “We’re not in the business of providing news and information. We’re not in the business of providing well-researched music. We’re simply in the business of selling our customers products.” In an objectivist mindset, which the managers of Clear Channel seem to embrace lovingly, the bottom line trumps all. Profits are the ultimate end, and it’s hard to imagine that anyone at Clear Channel would throw money out the window just to make a point.
Except that they’re not.
It has taken zero effort to sell out the dates on the Magic tour; Springsteen has a dedicated cadre of fans that will happily pay to see him play regardless of when, where, how, and why he tours. They don’t need to be told about the shows –- they’ll find out about them. And this situation enables Clear Channel to eliminate this as a business decision and consider it on a nakedly personal level.
When the boycott of the Dixie Chicks music occurred, Clear Channel was an enthusiastic participant. Bruce was unequivocal in his support of the trio — he wrote: “To me, they’re terrific American artists expressing American values by using their American right to free speech. For them to be banished wholesale from radio stations, and even entire radio networks, for speaking out is un-American.”
In a curious aside, it’s worth noting that Bruce Springsteen and the Dixie Chicks are both recording for the same label, Sony’s Columbia Records, although it’s difficult to draw a connection since Sony and Clear Channel’s business interests don’t seem to intersect (unless you draw Fox/NewsCorp into the picture, but that gets a bit tin-foily, even for me).
At the end of the day, most likely the reason for Clear Channel to put a hex on Magic is simply personal. They don’t like Bruce Springsteen or his message, plain and simple, and there’s nothing to be gained by promoting the album. And, more importantly, nothing to be lost by not promoting it. Their tour dates will sell out without any difficulty, and the radio silence enables them to give a nice wink and a nod to their friends in the administration, without costing them a cent.