NPR has become a major player on the indie rock scene

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 6, 2010

When the indie folk-rock group the Decemberists debuted its new album last year, the first place to hear it wasn't on iTunes or MySpace or any of the other big commercial music sites. Instead, the Portland, Ore., outfit played the album live in a webcast carried exclusively on National Public Radio's music Web site (

Cue that up again. National Public Radio? The Washington-based home of "All Things Considered," "Car Talk" and other earnest news and talk programs? Yes, indeed. Although the typical NPR news listener probably wouldn't know the Decemberists from a December calendar, the group knew something about NPR Music -- namely, that music fans are paying attention to it.

The Web site, officially in business only since late 2007, has become something of a tastemaking force in the fractured and fragmented music business. Through its blogs, news articles, lists, podcasts, videos and album and concert streams (including a number from Washington venues), the site has attracted a steadily growing following, averaging about 1.6 million visitors a month. The site's nine-member staff also feeds some of its audio features to NPR's news shows; recent segments of "All Things Considered" have featured NPR Music's ongoing "50 Great Voices" series and a report on the 25th anniversary of Katrina and the Waves' megahit "Walking on Sunshine."

In turn, NPR Music has attracted the attention of the music industry. In its relatively short existence, it has scored some notable coups, thanks to industry cooperation. Radiohead and Tom Waits played exclusive concerts. Bruce Springsteen made his album "Working on a Dream" available for streaming before its release. When Bob Dylan's "Tell Tale Signs" album went up on the site before its release in late 2008, visitors streamed it 300,000 times in under a week. "They've made a really aggressive push to be a go-to place for music," says Dan Cohen, vice president of marketing for EMI, the giant record label. "They've done a great job of becoming that place."

Well, some kinds of music, at least. In addition to jazz and classical -- two genres that many public stations around the country still play -- NPR Music tilts toward alternative rock, folk-rock and pop artists. The site is skimpier in its coverage of other popular genres, notably hip-hop, R&B and soul, Latin, heavy metal and country. Top 40 is out, too -- NPR leaves that to commercial radio. Cohen describes the aesthetic as "a little left of center, adult-leaning" and designed to appeal to "a Brooklyn hipster."

Ostensibly, NPR Music is a kind of passport to coolness for NPR's core radio audience of aging baby boomers. While many of NPR's older listeners know Springsteen, Waits and Norah Jones (another NPR Music fave), they're probably not as familiar with many of the other bands that NPR has championed, indie darlings such as Arcade Fire, Neko Case, LCD Soundsystem, Ratatat and Sleigh Bells, an up-and-coming pop duo from, yes, Brooklyn.

"We're hoping to offer a deep music-discovery experience," says Anya Grundmann, NPR Music's executive director. "There's so much stuff out there. It's our job to weed through it all and find the great music that you don't know about."

That's NPR's strength, says the musician-songwriter Moby, who was spotlighted last month on NPR's "Project Song," a segment that follows the creation of a song from concept to recording. As a non-commercial entity, he says, NPR isn't beholden to charts or sales figures or even popularity. Hence, it can take chances: "Commercial radio is more generic. It's pitched to the lowest common denominator. NPR is more idiosyncratic and personal. People go to NPR to be exposed to new things, to be challenged. It's amazing to me how powerful it's become in the past few years" as a venue for new music.

The typical NPR Music visitor probably isn't the same person tuning in to "Morning Edition" on the way to work. The median age of people who listen to NPR's news and talk programs is 55. The median for a visitor to NPR's music site is around 40, according to Arbitron's research. Both groups are well-educated; nearly 80 percent of music visitors said in a survey that they have college or postgraduate degrees.

Which is another reason the music industry has taken notice. "It's an educated audience with some spending money," says Bob Boilen, senior producer and host of "All Songs Considered," NPR's first webcast music program.

The soft-spoken Boilen, 57, might be the godfather and guiding spirit of NPR Music. As director of "All Things Considered" for almost 20 years, he selected the musical bridges that played between the news stories. Listeners were often so passionate, for and against, these brief musical selections that Boilen pitched the idea of doing a full-length musical webcast to NPR's management in 1999. "All Songs Considered" debuted in 2000, at a time when the music industry, in the middle of its Napster agonies, was still "afraid of the Web," he says.

Several revolutions later (iTunes, podcasts, streaming, etc.), industry publicists are beating on Boilen's door. He says he and his staff ignore these entreaties and focus on the music, selecting only that which "speaks to us. . . . We don't have to do stuff because we think it will be popular," he says. "The judgment can be made on the basis of artistic merit alone. That's not the case at Sirius [satellite radio] or a commercial station."

Boilen is also the co-creator and host of another popular NPR Music segment, Tiny Desk Concerts, a series of mini-shows that have showcased the likes of Tom Jones, Bettye LaVette and more obscure performers. The twist is that the artists perform literally beside Boilen's desk on the fifth floor of NPR's headquarters on Massachusetts Avenue NW (the name riffs off of Boilen's psychedelic dance-rock band, Tiny Desk Unit, which was the inaugural act at Washington's 9:30 Club in 1980 and still performs).

Although NPR Music has attracted music-industry "underwriters" (public broadcasting-speak for advertisers), NPR hasn't sought to monetize its growing musical clout by, for example, selling the music it features. Such commercialism might conflict not just with NPR's nonprofit status, but its independence as a news and information source as well, says Grundmann. Besides, she adds flatly, "We are not a store."

Nevertheless, the site's popularity offers other brand-building benefits for NPR and public radio. One is the opportunity to feature the work of 12 "partner" stations that contribute musical pieces. The site also cross promotes the hundreds of public stations that broadcast NPR's programming each day; the music Web site carries links to every NPR-affiliated station that streams music, including WETA-FM and WAMU-FM locally.

Another benefit is that NPR Music has been a reliable traffic magnet for, accounting for about 15 percent of its visits each month. That suggests that NPR Music might be NPR's best hope for recruiting not just music fans, but music fans who may not be familiar with NPR's news programs. In other words, woo them with a song or a singer. Then get them to listen to "Car Talk."

NPR Music will webcast full performances from the Bonnaroo Music & Arts festival, June 11-13.

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