Vol 3, Issue 5: Talking Shop with Alan Cross: An Exploration of Music, Making it, & Canadian Mass Consumption

When inquiring among music consumers as to why they enjoy particular “popular” tracks, I all too often hear the heart-sinking reply that it’s because they find said tracks “catchy and easy to dance to.” We’ve gotten to a point in music listening in which lyrical content has sunk to such minimal importance that artists such as Katy Perry (aka Katy Hudson) who began as bible-totting “holier than thou” gospel singers, can take on new last names, and start singing about lesbian affairs. Worst yet, despite these blatant hypocrisies, and obvious marketing ploys, no one seems the wiser.

Back in the hippie days however, musicians, such as Bob Dylan, were not merely considered the producers of a consumable art form, but rather the people looked up to them to be their voice, and to address issues, in their lyrics (among other places), that needed addressing.

This apparent debasement of the musical craft has left me contemplating how it is possible that we have come so far technologically, and globally, yet lost so much of the dignity that the music industry once had, in the process? The only person I felt capable of taking on the challenge of responding to this query of mine was music history guru and host of the infamously popular radio show, The Ongoing History of New Music: the one, the only Mr. Alan Cross.

Though our discussion with each other regarding the music industry’s current state of affairs did enjoy a fair amount of bantering and debate (including a dissection of the character, that is, Madonna) as he took the position of the industry and business expert, and I, the one of the lowly indie rocker, out of our, at times, heated discourse, we came to the conclusion that we have at least three convictions in common:

1) there is no easy or quick solution to the current illegal downloading situation

2) the ease of access with which people can obtain music as well as the over-saturation of the music marketplace has led to a devaluing of the art form coupled with superficial music listening, and finally,

3) the Canadian music industry really needs to bone up and acknowledge all of the talent that it has given birth to, otherwise we are going to continue to lose our best acts to the US of A.

On that final point, Cross went so far as to say that Canada has an inferiority complex when it comes to its artistic offerings; hence the reason why so many Canuck acts have to break in foreign markets, before they get recognized in the True North Strong and Free. He feels our national preference for “egalitarian mediocrity” (as opposed to elite excellence) is also the driving force behind industry standardization regimes such as Cancon which force radio djs to spin a certain percentage of Canadian content on a weekly basis in order to honour quota mandates. Such programs, in Alan’s view, prevent Canadian artists from ever being taken seriously on the world stage.

For those of you unfamiliar with the colossal CV that Mr. Cross has managed to amass for himself, before we get too deep into our interview, I feel it’s necessary to provide a brief (and hopefully entertaining) overview of some of the highlights of his life, thus far:

Alan grew up in a small rural Prairie community in which FM radio ceased to exist and one of the few venues that actually sold music, in a consumable form, was a clothing store named Robinson’s, of all places. It was 1974 and The Ramones hadn’t yet formed. The Beatles had fallen out of favour, and Led Zep and The Rolling Stones were far too exotic for someone who was secluded from urban life, and reared in the sticks. Contrary to the alterna-head image with which Cross is now notoriously linked, the first album that Alan ever set his sights on was the work of, perhaps, the industry’s most ultimate diva.

It wasn’t Madonna (she didn’t launch until ‘83), Cher was still doing her thing with Sonny, Celine Dion was, likewise, still ”in the making”, and though Tina Turner would have been a viable option for the prelude to Alan’s remarkable career, the credit goes to a Sir Elton John and a certain dance variety involving crocodiles who like to rock.

From that point onwards (well perhaps, after puberty set in), Cross bounced from radio joe-job to radio joe-job acquiring as much technical, and media know-how as possible, as well as endeavouring to expand his musical horizons to include everything from highly experimental jazz to bands he describes as psychedelic versions of Jesus & The Mary Chain to straight up unapologetic fuzzy alt- grunge rock like that of, whose origins have been credited to, Nirvana. In fact, Nirvana’s very existence marks a rather important juncture in Cross’ career.

As one of the radio djs burdened with the task of delivering the news of Cobain’s tragic end back in 1994, it is clear that this is a band to which Cross will forever remain emotionally attached. Though he is the first to acknowledge that Nirvana were, in actuality, a fluke, and that their success can largely be attributed to the fact that the world was ready for a bunch of “hard rocking cynical anti-stars”, he is also the first to defend the brilliance of Nevermind, and the important lasting effects of Nirvana’s influence.

According to The Edge 102.1's official website, Alan’s flagship show, The Ongoing History of New Music, debuted in February 1993, and since then, has aired more than 600 episodes, all researched, written and produced solely by Alan, himself. The Ongoing History is currently syndicated through almost a dozen stations across Canada, has spun off four books and more than a dozen CD compilations, and currently holds the title as the longest-running music documentary in Canada. Alan has additionally appeared as a guest on various TV and radio shows, written official biographies for a variety of rock bands including The Making of NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine & Downward Spiral, narrated TV shows, documentaries and info-mercials, and written articles for both newspapers and magazines, alike.

In other words, if radio djs were allotted the same degree of celebrity as rockstars, Alan Cross would undeniably be the media world’s James Brown sharing the joint title of the “hardest working man in showbiz”. It’s this astonishing work ethic, and sea of accomplishment, together with his personal ascend from humble roots, that formulates the basis for his perspectives regarding today’s indie musician.

When asked what advice he had to offer to the current independent artist, Alan, unfalteringly, began with “the world doesn’t owe you anything”. Admiring bands such as Oasis, who triumphed despite arising from hidden backdrops of familial abuse, poverty, and alcoholism, Alan believes that being a musician, “is supposed to be hard, and if your stuff isn't good enough, or if the public chooses not to like it, there's nothing you can do about it.” However, in saying that, Cross still maintains an optimistic, if somewhat idealistic, view.

Although for any musician (and media personality like Cross), one’s relationship with the internet is ambivalent at best, Cross acknowledges that the net has provided today’s musicians with a power that none of their predecessors could’ve ever dreamed of experiencing. Without leaving the comfort of one’s home, musicians are now able to record, disseminate, and exploit their art to global proportions. But, there is another side to this coin: because production technology, that is capable of making even the most tone-deaf drowning cat-esque vocalists sound melodic, is so widely available, and because the vast majority of the social networking sites that bands use to campaign themselves are free, the competition is beyond steep. And so, in Alan’s eyes, if you truly want to get the attention of a larger label (which he feels is necessary for success), you need to provide them with a turnkey solution: that being, a product that is pre-packaged and ready to export to the grand stage. The only way to do this (and I can contend) is to work your ass off playing lots of gigs, developing your fan base, and making sure that all of the people who come out to support you are always taken care of so that their loyalty sustains.

Though I think Cross makes a valid point regarding how so many musicians underestimate the work involved in “making it”, I personally believe that he’s missed a central feature to his provided equation for success: as talented and as marketable as your act may be, whether you like it or not, there is still an element of luck involved, and often (more often than they should), connections trump everything.

With his expansive musical knowledge, I’m sure that Cross could list tons of bands that haven’t made it that should have, and equally on the other side of things, tons of bands who did make it who shouldn’t have. But, in his defence, Cross would argue my rebuttal by stating that we require the bubble-gum mainstream artists to appeal to the masses in order to generate new capital that can be invested in underground acts that are really doing something interesting. The problem with this formula however, is exactly the fact that it has become too formulaic, and almost invariably, once a unique indie gets picked up by a label, they are transformed into the hit making machine that began the whole process, therefore never allowing mass consumption of, in my opinion, “good” music. But obviously, this is clearly a matter of tastes, and neither one of us can be more right than the other.

Putting our differences aside for the time being however, I think its important for me to express my high degree of respect for Mr. Cross and to acknowledge, that myself, as well as all of you, my fellow musicians, could learn a great deal from what this man has to offer, and so we ought to respond to his benefactions in the only way that is appropriate in the realm of wireless telegraphy: that being, all ears.

Mimicking the aims of the great musicians of the past who made this industry what it is today, Cross himself is an artist in his own right as it is clear that his mission is both to educate and inspire.

Taking this into consideration, his loyalty to the radio waves makes perfect sense because when people need to know if things are safe, and/or want to keep in touch with the rest of the planet without having to be tied to the computer, it is the FM dial to which they naturally turn.

Though he’s been almost 30 years “in the making”, I think its fair to assert that Alan Cross has most certainly made it. Long gone are his days of broadcasting out of what he terms an “elevator-music” radio station situated between a wheat field and a mental hospital. Cross has worked diligently throughout his career to open up our minds to music that would have otherwise gone unnoticed, he has resurrected lost artists from the past, and embraced new artists of the future, he has sparked debate regarding the music industry, and Canada’s place within it, all while managing to stay true to his homeland roots giving hope to the rest of us that are proud to call this great nation our home.

And with that said, I, on behalf of Alan, have but, one final note that deserves to be said: Alan Cross believes that, “headphones, in public, are a blight on the development of society” further contributing to the modern-day phenomenon of “ego-casting”. According to Cross, “technology now allows us to shut out any material, concept, sound, or sight that we find disagreeable so much to the point that we can cocoon ourselves in a warm bath of just the things that we like, unencumbered by the stuff we don’t.” With this kind of control and impenetrable mindset, he begs the question, how will people ever grow as music fans? This is a question, I will leave all of you to contemplate.

*For more information on Alan Cross, check out the Edge’s official website located at and be sure to catch the debut of his latest buzz-generating endeavour about which he remains tightlipped: ExploreMusic (launching Oct 6th). *

About the Author:

Rose Cora Perry the frontwoman for Canadian hard rock band ANTI-HERO known as “The 21st Century Answer to Nirvana”, as well as the sole owner and operator of HER Records, a management company in which she offers marketing, promotion, publicity, tour booking, and artist development services.

Her band ANTI-HERO has toured extensively across North America playing notable festivals such as Warped Tour, Canadian Music Week, NorthbyNorthEast, Wakefest, and MEANYFest.

Voted “Best Rock Act of the Year” by numerous industry publications, their critically acclaimed debut album, "Unpretty" is available worldwide for purchase.

Rose Cora Perry is a dedicated promoter of D.I.Y. ethics, and an avid supporter of independent musicians.For more information on Rose Cora Perry and her band's accomplishments, please visit
http://www.anti-hero.ca/ or http://www.rosecoraperry.com/

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