Nic Harcourt Sounds Off

Back in October when I was at KCRW to do a small feature on Spoon, I had the opportunity to speak with Nic Harcourt, KCRW’s Music Director and host of the world-famous radio show, Morning Becomes Eclectic. In case you’re not in the know, KCRW is a community-supported radio station out of Santa Monica, CA. The station has a tremendous reputation for showcasing some of the best music in the world. KCRW also happens to be one of the few redeeming stations in the sprawling metropolis that is Los Angeles.

I sat down with Nic just after he had finished the show to talk about KCRW’s influence, the music industry and of course his own music preferences. The following interview was conducted on October 23, 2002.

Brad: Tell me a little bit about how you got started at KCRW. I know that Chris [Douridas] was doing the show before you came in. What were you doing before you got here?

Nic: I was up in Woodstock, New York running a small-market, modern-rock station. I’d been there for almost 10 years. I started off as a part-timer, working overnights and weekends. Through persistence, sticking around and hopefully knowing what I was doing, I ended up being the morning guy, the music director and the program director, all at the same time I might add. That’s small-market radio for you.

I was pretty happy there. I was a big fish in a little pond and it was fun. I was living in a house on 7 acres in the woods of the Catskills and then the opportunity to come to do this job came up for me. It was suggested to me by a friend that I should apply for the job. They had been looking for somebody for a while because Chris was busy doing other things and couldn’t juggle everything. I didn’t immediately respond to it because I was kind of happy where I was, but I thought about it some more and I figured I should really go out and have a look at the opportunity. So, I applied for the job and to cut a long story short, I got the job and came to L.A.

Brad: You’ve become a pretty important part of the music community here in L.A. just because of KCRW’s influence on the music scene and the Los Angeles community. There’s a lack of good radio in L.A. and KCRW fills that void in a lot of ways. As the Music Director and host of Morning Becomes Eclectic, what do you feel you bring to the table? Did you have any goals when you took the job?

Nic: I didn’t really come here with a plan. There was no agenda when I got here. The first thing I wanted to do when I got here was just sit tight and wait for all the people that were pissed off that Chris had left to relax and then sort of chart my own course. Whether you’re doing it in this market or your doing it in Poughkeepsie [New York], at the end of the day what you bring to it is yourself. It so happens we’re in Los Angeles, probably the most important music market in the country. That’s partially because the entertainment industry is here it’s even more important because of the influence of the people that listen to the radio station.

You bring your tastes, you bring your history, you bring your background and when you’re doing free-form radio, that’s really what’s going to come out on the air. So, that’s what I bring to it. I bring myself, my background growing up in England, listening to the Beatles when I was a kid, listening to T. Rex and David Bowie as a teenager and listening to punk rock the first time around. All the other stuff that I was influenced by as a kid, a teenager and a young man is what influences and informs the music that I like and listen to today. That’s what I put on the radio. I try and cast as wide of a net as possible, and I learn all the time as well. My horizons expand by doing the show. At the end of the day it’s all subjective. Whatever you’re going to play on the radio, on this type of a show, is just going to be a subjective decision. If I like it, it gets played. If I don’t, it probably isn’t going to get played. That’s just the way it is.

Brad: Speaking of likes and dislikes, you are a part of The Short List Music Project. Tell me how you got involved in that.

Nic: It was started by two guys. One of them is a publicist (Greg Spotts) and the other guy is an A&R executive at MCA (Tom Sarig), and they’re both music lovers. I knew Tom a little bit and he and Greg were just sort of sitting around talking one night, bemoaning the state of the music industry, the music awards like the Grammys and stuff like that, saying, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we had an award that reflected artistic merit rather than how many records you sold.’ There’s a similar award in England called the Mercury Music Prize, and they based it on that. Then they came to me and asked me if I would be interested in being one of the List Makers. This was the first time around, last year, and I was obviously honored that they would ask me. When I became involved in making my list and talking to them a little bit more, it became clear that we had the opportunity, with the radio station, to help spread the word about what The Short List was. That’s been my involvement with it last year and this year.

Brad: Who are some of the bands that you are liking a lot this year? What are some of the albums that have come out this year that are your personal favorites?

Nic: Doves and The Flaming Lips records are on The Short List and they’re also two of my favorite records of the year. There are other records that are not on The Short List that I like. The Mexican band, Kinky that I’ve been playing the last year and a half, who I love. I think they’re just so refreshing and exciting and now. I like the DJ Shadow record that came out earlier on this year. I’m looking forward to the new Groove Armada record, which I’ve heard a little bit of. It comes out next year. There’s a lot of really good music out there. I get to hear a lot of bad music as well as good music [laugh]

Brad: [laugh] I would imagine…

Nic: And that’s no reflection on the people making it. I mean there’s a lot of people that want to make music and only so many are actually good at writing songs and performing. Out of all the music that’s out there, there’s a lot of really good music in a lot of different genres. I just mentioned a couple of the people that I like, but there’s a lot of really great stuff out there.

Brad: Some of my favorite records from this year have come out of the UK. Doves is definitely one of my favorites. Bands like The Electric Soft Parade and The Music…

Nic: [interrupts] Yeah, I like some of that stuff. I don’t like all of the stuff on The Music’s record, or The Electric Soft Parade’s record for that matter, but there’s definitely some good songs and music coming out of England, but there’s good music coming out of here as well. There’s a lot of really good lo-fi, alt-country kind of stuff going on now in the middle of America. Bands making records in places you would never expect like Nebraska. There’s a record by a guy whose name I can’t remember, but he calls himself Iron And Wine. He’s got a CD out and he’s doing alt-country lo-fi stuff in Miami, which you would never expect to come from that part of the world. You just have to sort of look around and listen to the music that’s out there.

Brad: The Internet has played a really important part, especially in the last year or two, with breaking new artists. There’s been a lot of discrepancies between the labels and the consumers as far as how they find their music, among other things. I think KCRW provides a amazing service to sample a lot of music that might not normally get heard anywhere else, which I suppose is a nice reflection of you.

Nic: Thank you.

Brad: What’s your feeling about music as it relates to the Internet and how it helps people discover new music.

Nic: The net has provided an outlet for a lot of music that wouldn’t get heard otherwise. Whether it’s kids just file swapping bands they’ve never heard of that have a buzz going on about them or a couple of tracks out there, that’s a way of helping to generate some attention for music that people might not know about. It’s another way, another distribution system and opportunity for people to hear music.

Radio, in general, is so sewn up with corporate money, that bands can’t get heard. College radio is kind of hit and miss. I mean there are some cool college radio stations, but there’s a lot of very self-indulgent college radio out there. There’s a lot of music that doesn’t get heard on college radio. The thing about the Internet is that everything is out there, if you’re prepared to go look. Of course you can find some cool college stations and there’s a lot of great public radio stations and there are stations in France and in England. Radio Nova in France is a great place and Xfm in England is another great place, so through the web people have the opportunity to hear stuff that they wouldn’t ordinarily be exposed to.

I think what the record industry has done (or not done) in the last five years is really disgraceful. They refused to accept that the technology was there and they needed to address it and find a way to work with it. When they realized that it was something that people were rampantly using, and that it was indeed beginning to impinge on their territory, then they tried to kill it. They’ve tried to kill it in a whole bunch of ways, and the radio industry as well. In my opinion, and I can’t prove it, but it seems to me that the radio corporations that own thousands of stations…

Brad: Clear Channel…

Nic: Yeah, Clear Channel, Viacom and all these people, along with all the record companies, have tried to shut down Internet radio, and they’re succeeding. It’s a disgrace. It’s really sad, to be honest with you. The thing about the Internet is that it will find a way around it. It’s mutating and evolving. There’s going to be somebody who finds something. I just think it’s really disingenuous for the record industry to say that Napster and people like that killed the record industry. The record industry killed the record industry because they stopped investing in artists. They stopped promoting careers. They were just looking for hits. When you do that, then you aren’t developing any catalog for the future. The thing that kept the record companies going for the last 10 or 15 years was selling back catalog on CDs. People who had all those albums on vinyl started converting their collections into CDs and [the record companies] were just making money with their back catalog, and that’s fine. The problem is they haven’t created any more back catalog for today. Now they’re in trouble because all they’ve got left are these songs that they’re throwing at radio and most of the stuff is not that interesting.

There are good bands out there. There are important bands out there making careers for themselves. Radiohead is a good example. They’re a band that really believes in reinventing themselves and that music is art.

Brad: Do you think that labels are becoming more obsolete? It seems like more and more bands are taking things into their own hands. A band like Radiohead has the leverage to go off and do something on their own, but the developing artists don’t have that luxury. Do you think that’s something we’re going to see more of in the future, or will the labels provide a service besides just bankrolling artists?

Nic: The thing about record labels is that they do serve a purpose. There are some very basic functions of labels that are important for the music business – tour support and providing the opportunity for bands to…like Radiohead, when they first started, they were bankrolled by money that EMI was making from selling Queen records. That’s a simple fact. They couldn’t have afforded to bankroll this band and put them out on tour if they hadn’t have been making money from something else. So, they serve two purposes: they’re a filter, which is a useful purpose because if you and I have to…well, I actually do have to listen to everything, but if most people had to listen to absolutely everything, you wouldn’t get to the good stuff. So record labels can serve a purpose to filter the music and they can help bands get out there and tour. Obviously, musicians who become wealthy have the opportunity to do things differently. I don’t think the record labels are obsolete. I think that they will re-invent themselves and they will get back to basics and they will find a way to embrace the Internet.

People will be buying downloadable music at some point, but I think that there are other things that will be going on as well. There will be more cooperatives and more artist groups who are putting music out there. I think what really needs to happen is for younger people to stop thinking of a music career as a job or a career opportunity. You know, ‘oh, I wanna be a rock star!’ It’s like, ‘no, if you want to be an artist, then you can probably have a career.’ Then you are doing stuff that’s worth while and people are going to want to listen to you. If you just want to dress up and be on Teen Idol or whatever it’s called, then there’s no future in that stuff.

Brad: Thank you very much for your time, Nic.

Nic: No problem. It was my pleasure.

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