Dusted and Goliath
The online music zine Dusted (dustedmagazine.com), based in Chicago and New York, claims a respectable amount of traffic--four to five thousand unique visitors every day and roughly two million hits per month. But the site has also earned credibility that raw numbers could never account for: in a little more than two years it's become the best alternative out there to the national clearinghouse of college-radio airplay data in CMJ's long-running New Music Report.
"I don't think we ever set out to do that," says Dusted coeditor and founder Sam Hunt, who launched the site in January 2002 with his friend Otis Hart. "Unlike [CMJ] our focus is more on bands that are really small and don't have a huge marketing budget behind them."
A Berkeley native, Hunt moved here in 1998 to attend the University of Chicago. During his sophomore year he began interning at Thrill Jockey, and by that summer he'd left school to work full-time for the label, handling college radio promotions. Talking regularly with hundreds of music directors and DJs, Hunt heard grumbling from all quarters that the New Music Report had crawled into bed with major-label advertisers and abandoned the adventurous, anticommercial campus radio programmers that initially made up its core audience. "People were always complaining about how they were completely misguided or that they'd become too corporate minded," he says.
When Hunt left Thrill Jockey in late 2001 to return to the U. of C., he began brainstorming with Hart, a former college music director himself (and currently a sportswriter for the Associated Press in New York). They decided to launch a niche Web site that would better serve the college radio community, and approached music programmers and DJs across the country about contributing. As a result the reviews and features on Dusted--which cover everything from free jazz to folktronica, from playlists to programming--are principally written by college radio staffers, past and present, for the benefit of other college radio staffers. The site quickly took off. "I think people had been looking for another option for a while," says Hunt.
Most crucial to its success, Dusted also began compiling its own weekly airplay chart--and unlike the New Music Report, which asks $345 for a year's subscription, the site is free. College stations use charts as programming aids, but just as important, they rely on them to demonstrate to labels that they're playing the promo CDs the labels send--most stations can't afford to buy much of their music. Though CMJ collects airplay data from roughly 500 stations every week and Dusted only works with 40 to 50, Dusted's reporting stations--including locals like WHPK at the U. of C., WNUR at Northwestern, WRRG at Triton College, and WZRD at Northeastern Illinois University--are spread out coast-to-coast in 25 states and four Canadian provinces. And though Dusted makes no attempt to maintain separate retail charts, as CMJ does, its airplay figures have proved to be a reliable barometer for the state of new music, in part because the zine handpicks stations it deems sincerely committed to ferreting out promising acts. Alt-folkies Devendra Banhart and Sufjan Stevens both made strong showings on Dusted's chart more than a year before their present critical and commercial successes.
"People appreciate that we take charts from a smaller number of stations and calculate them in an evenly weighted manner, whereas CMJ weighs every station based on how powerful it is or its estimated audience," says Hunt.
Dusted got a shot of free publicity in February 2003, when the East Bay Express published allegations by staffers at UC Berkeley's KALX that CMJ was misreporting stations' charts by replacing every album its computers didn't recognize with a CMJ-produced pay-to-play compilation. Dusted made a cameo appearance in the article as the "most promising" rival to the New Music Report. "A lot of people contacted us because of that," says Hunt. "We got some legitimacy that maybe we didn't have before. One funny thing that's happened is some former CMJ employees have gotten in touch and offered to help us out."
Dusted remains ad free--and revenue free. Hunt and Hart, the site's only real staffers, work on it part-time and pay its expenses out of pocket; contributors are volunteers. "From the outset we didn't want to sell ads because we didn't want to be beholden to labels," says Hunt. "As it grows it becomes more expensive to run, but it's still not that much. At some point we may try and do something that at least generates an income so we're not taking a loss. For now we'll keep going like this as long as we can."
In the meantime Hunt's back at Thrill Jockey, where he's now regional publicist. He also recently launched his own label, Velocirecords, which debuted earlier this summer with a disc from Brooklyn dance punks Breaker! Breaker!, who open for Oneida at the Empty Bottle on Saturday. This fall Hunt plans to release a solo album from Dan Friel, front man for New York electro-prog outfit Parts & Labor.
Five Days in the Galactic Zoo
From Wednesday, August 4, through Sunday, August 8, the Empty Bottle hosts the inaugural Million Tongues Festival, sponsored in part by Chicago's Galactic Zoo Dossier zine and LA-based music and arts magazine Arthur. The brainchild of Galactic Zoo editor and local musician Steve Krakow (aka "Psychedelic Steve"), the festival gathers 32 psych, folk, noise, outsider, and avant-garde artists from around the world, many performing in the U.S. or in Chicago for the first time.
Two all-female bands, Tokyo's Nisennenmondai and Chicago's own Spires That in the Sunset Rise, play the kickoff show on Wednesday. Seattle's Kinski headlines that night, pairing up with Acid Mothers Temple guitarist Makoto Kawabata for a live reprise of last year's Kinski-Mothers tag-team album on Sub Pop.
On Thursday Tokyo psych-guitar legend Jutok Kaneko teams up with drummer Koji Shimura (High Rise, White Heaven) for the headlining set. Also on the bill are LSD-March from Himeji, Japan, making their first American tour. And Taurpis Tula--the duo of former Telstar Ponies guitarist David Keenan and pedal steel player Heather Leigh Murray, late of Texas free-folk group Charalambides (who play Saturday)--travel from Glasgow to make their stateside debut.
Friday's headliner is Mick Farren, front man of 60s British acid punks the Deviants, who'll play his first-ever Chicago show, backed by Krakow's combo Plastic Crimewave Sound. Minnesota guitarist Michael Yonkers, whose never released 1968 album Microminiature Love was issued on CD by Sub Pop last summer, makes his inaugural Chicago appearance to close Saturday night's bill; he hadn't been heard from since he put out a handful of self-produced albums in the mid-70s, but on Microminiature Love his experimentation with odd guitar tunings anticipates Sonic Youth. Brit folkie Simon Finn, now living in Montreal, headlines on Sunday with a solo set, his U.S. debut; his only LP, 1970's nightmarish Pass the Distance, has long been sought after by collectors and was recently reissued on CD (along with a new EP called Silent City Creep) by the Durtro/Jnana label.
Tickets for Million Tongues are available at emptybottle.com and musictoday.com, or by calling 800-594-8499. Nightly passes are $15, and a festival pass is $60.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.