The Unbearable Whiteness Of Being Indie

The Unbearable Whiteness Of Being Indie
It's all there in black and white. In early October, the American record industry reached a milestone: for the first time in its history, every slot in Billboard's top ten singles chart was occupied by an African-American artist. Meanwhile, on this side of the border, college radio's rankings tell a troubling tale. Of the 48 non-compilation albums in Earshot's November Top 50, 43 were made by all-white acts, while only five were made by groups with at least one non-white member. What the hell is going on here?

Of course, the comparison between the Billboard and Earshot lists is somewhat unfair, especially because the former tracks singles while the latter focuses on full-lengths. Moreover, the U.S. results are necessarily shaped by the enormous impact that blacks have traditionally had on American pop culture, a phenomenon which has no corollary in Canada.

But no matter the excuses, the root issue remains: in its ostensible role as a bastion of openness and diversity, Canadian college radio is falling short of its responsibilities. In its statement of principles, the National Campus and Community Radio Association (NCRA) brazenly proclaims that "mainstream media fails to recognise or in many instances reinforces social and economic inequities that oppress women and minority groups of our society," going on to add that "community broadcasting serves the needs of socially, culturally, politically and economically disadvantaged groups in society."

Because university stations must adhere to the CRTC's minimum requirements for ethnic programming, the NCRA's latter contention is upheld. But insofar as charts are concerned, campus music directors are scarcely more progressive than their mainstream counterparts.

The Earshot rankings are compiled based on the number of spins received for each album as reported by the organization's member stations. Spins, in turn, are determined by individual DJs who draw their selections from the group of albums that have been shelved by the station's music director (MD). While some stations' shelving decisions are made by a committee, most MDs make their selections all by themselves.

Given that a typical MD receives up to 200 new CDs per week, you might expect the Earshot rankings to be diverse. But faced with such a staggering number of submissions, MDs fall back into old habits, shelving the indie rock recordings that have typically dominated college airwaves while giving short shrift to marginal genres, many of which originate from non-white sources.

In their defence, campus radio advocates point to the number of specialty ethnic shows as an indicator of the form's inclusiveness. But in point of fact, the treatment of marginalized genres proves that campus radio is a mirror image of our nation's multicultural policy, one that ghettoises minority celebrations to specific events while ignoring the culture the rest of the year. Just as Toronto's self-congratulatory Caucasians point to festivals like Caribana as proof of their unerring liberality, so too does relegating a dancehall show to pre-dawn satisfy advocates of campus radio – if however unjustifiably.

Sadly, campus stations are not the only alternative outlet ensuring the hegemony of white music in Canada. CBC's Brave New Waves, long the most adventurous show on national radio, also demonstrates a marked preference for white and Asian interpretations of non-white forms. For example, BNW might play a track by a jungle appropriator like Squarepusher while not playing tunes by Shy FX, the black Briton whose oeuvre set the template for the former's interpretation.

To her credit, host Patti Schmidt has all but banished conventional indie rock, a style that had thrived under previous BNW regimes. But as for the program's contention that it includes "the widest universe of genres possible every single night," it simply does not. As with any radio show, this one reflects the tastes of its host, which tend to run toward the self-consciously noisy and experimental end of the aural spectrum, genres that are invariably the domain of middle-class white kids.

In the end, it's only by acknowledging such biases that our nation's independent programmers can address them. Rather than smugly trumpeting their inclusiveness, alternative programmers need to start letting the music speak louder than their words. Can I get a witness?