Originally published October 25, 2007
6:08 PM – I arrived at the hotel. I was told numerous times to be there by 6:15. If I was late it would be trouble. This was serious business after all. I entered the Best Western Sterling Inn, so named for its’ location in Sterling Heights, Michigan, not for any resemblance to the british pound, or for being built of silver having the standard fineness 0.925, which it is not. It is an ordinary hotel with an indoor water park and banquet rooms and overpiced commercial artwork mass produced to look unique.
I proceeded to the folding table at the far end of the lobby where two older women sat with stacks of papers. They looked official. This was serious business after all. I was asked to produce identification, I did. I was then instructed to write and sign my name across from my printed name on the ledger before me. I did. I was then instructed to enter the room and find a seat.
There, about the cut-rate carpet, reverse pyramid chandelier, rows of folding tables with banquet room linens and chairs and water pitchers and glasses and mints, 1 per seat, were the others. This was serious business. 60 of us in total, we were all there for the same reason.
To determine the future of country music.
About 2 months ago while parousing the etc section of the help wanted pages on craigslist looking for oddball writing jobs, I came across a post regarding taking part in a music survey. I would have the opportunity (If I met the demographic requirements of course) to help mold the world of commercial radio as we know it. I, a humble boy of midwestern values and bizarre musical taste, would have the chance to tell the big-time, hot-shot, fancy-pants radio pundits in their ivory towers what songs they should play and what songs they shouldn’t. This was very exciting. This was my big chance. Plus it paid cash, so I was game.
I responded with the basic requested information – name, age, sex, occupation, location, etc, etc. Days went by, weeks even – no reply from the marketing machine. I felt unworthy. My fragile self-confidence was dented yet again. I should have known all along, no big radio man in the sky would ever care what little old me thought. Who was I kidding? The only time a radio station ever acknowledged my fledgling existence was during the WDET pledge drives. I wrote the checks. I tried to buy their love. It filled me with joy for a moment, only to leave me discombobulated, weeping in a gutter hours later when I realized they didn’t love me, they just loved my money.
I moved on. So what if I wasn’t worthy of market-research? Fuck you guy in the mall with a clipboard, I hate your stupid surveys.
Then came Monday afternoon. Walking out the door to catch Transformers at the Imax when my cell phone began to vibrate. 248 area code number, didn’t know it, answered it anyway, why not live dangerously.
Sue: John, it’s Sue!
Sue: How are you? How’ve you been?
Me: Ok. I’m sorry, do I….
Sue: The survey gal.
Me: Ok (clueless as an M. Night Shyamalan film)
Sue: You answered an ad I had on craigslist for a music survey recently.
The tingling began in my toes and fingers, racing through my circulatory system like happy rocketships from the land of awesome, headed straight for my heart and mind at equal speeds.
Sue: What are you doing Wednesday night?
Me: (in my head) Whatever you tell me to do almighty survey gal!
Me: (out loud) iunno
Needless to say there was a music survey taking place and I, that’s right this guy, was invited. Did you hear that everyone who ever said I was nothin – I was I N V I T E D. Radio people were gonna give me $75 to tell them stuff about stuff I like and stuff I hate. I have value.
Sue the survey gal made sure I understood this was serious business, in those exact words, about 8 times during that phone call. I was to arrive no later than 6:15 PM. NO LATER. The people there wouldn’t care if my furnace blew up and my house burned down, if my dog ran away, if my car broke down – they would give my seat to some other schmoe and turn their back on me as if I never existed if I wasn’t there by 6:14:59 with my photo ID and a printed copy of the confirmation email she was going to send me. She sent it. I printed it. I brought it with me, nary I be that forlorn soul inches from greatness only to have my dreams snuffed out like the last candle burning in a condemned church because stupid me forgot my letter.
The old ladies said they didn’t need to see my letter, just my ID. I claimed an empty seat in the back row, poured myself a glass of water and mentally prepared to redefine country/western music as we know it, at least in the context of the metro Detroit radio market.
In front of me where the following:
Number 2 pencils, sharpened (X 2)
A pad of hotel stationary
A packet of Scantron worksheets binder clipped to a laminated cover page which said in big bold letters not to open the packet until I was told to do so.
1 aforementioned mint (gross)
60 chairs, 60 people – hahahahahaha people who came late, your seat is gone, do not pass go, do not collect $75 dollars, go back home and explain to your wife that you can’t buy groceries this week because you didn’t follow directions. Put one in the win column for responsibility.
Just before 6:30 a pleasant, plump, Al Roker-before-he-lost-the-weight looking guy named Maurice came in, he was clearly the man. He was the moderator. He would be our shepherd, leading us through the fields of Travis Tritt and Carrie Underwood, Waylon Jennings and Toby Keith, maybe even a little Lyle Lovitt. Not to be stereotypical (which means I’m about to be), but he didn’t appear to be the prototype country music fan. Then again, I am not the prototype country music fan. I’m not really a country music fan at all.
I admit it, I was perpetrating a hoax, a scam, a con – I was about to hoodwink the shit out of the marketing machine for cold hard cash and live to tell the tale.
I don’t listen to any country music stations, at least not of my own volition. It isn’t that I despise the genre, I like good music regardless of what category it is labeled. My Grandfather was a country western musician. He was the first man to put a guitar in my hands. He was a little bit country. I was a little bit rock-n-roll, we made a great team. I have friends that regularly listen to country music and when in their company I too hear the songs. It’s just that I can’t ever recall independently deciding to listen to country music. Yet there I was, 1 of 60 people chosen to represent 150,000 listeners of country music radio in the Detroit market.
The survey was to be simple; we were going to hear 600 songs, we would provide feedback on each song on a sliding scale. Not 600 complete songs mind you, just “The Hook”, a 3-5 second clip of the chorus. We would hear these songs in blocks of 100, one after another after another with a second or two in between. The Scantron sheets in front of us were numbered and coded to match the songs we would hear. In between blocks of 100 songs we would fill out pages of a survey designed to obtain our opinions on things like whether we enjoy DJ’s talking about their personal lives, if a radio stations website was interesting and if winning backstage passes was important to us.
I was fascinated by the culture of the endeavor. How did each of these other people end up here? Where did they come from? Was this really an effective cross-section of the targeted demographic or just 60 people who wanted to make $75 for listening to music for two hours?
We were to score each song with one of 6 choices as follows:
1 – UNFAMILIAR: never heard the song before
2 – NEVER LIKED: likely to make me change the station
3 – TIRED OF THE SONG: used to like it but find it overplayed, likely to change the station
4 – NO OPINION: Self explanatory
5 – I LIKE THE SONG: Also self explanatory
6 – FAVORITE: Likely to turn up the volume, sing along and/or smile
Considering my status as a soft-core country music fan at best I felt it appropriate to deviate slightly from the standard scoring system. It was likely that many of the songs I would hear would be new to me, the prospect of marking the number 1 several hundred times seemed a waste of energy. There are not many country songs I can say I am tired of hearing, as there are not many country songs I have heard more than a handful of times, if I was even really paying attention. With that said, I adopted the scoring system as follows:
1 – DOESN’T RING A BELL: New, not awful enough to hate, not good enough to praise, modern and likely new to most country music fans
2 – THIS SUCKS: I would rather listen to the death cull of my only child than hear this vapid shit for any length of time
3 – THIS SUCKS AND IT GETS PLAYED ALL THE TIME: Even I have heard this puke a hundred times
4 – NO OPINION: Self explanatory
5 – NOT BAD: I could tolerate this song, it has some musical value to me
6 – IS THAT FREEDOM ROCK MAN? YEAH MAN! THEN TURN IT UP MAN!!!!: Mostly reserved for Johnny Cash and All My Ex’s Live in Texas
After a last chance to go to the bathroom Maurice fired up the stereo and a calming, automated female voice said ” Number 1″. The first song was a speedy, mono-syllabic ramble about a dog and a woman and what they had in common – I scored it a 2. “Number 2” – High-pitched female singer with a good guitar lick – I gave it a 5.
From there on the songs tended to blend together. There were 8 Johnny Cash songs that I counted, some Faith Hill, Garth Brooks, etc,etc,etc intertwined with about 400 songs I had never heard before. For the record George Strait came on at song 575 with the previously touted All My Ex’s Live in Texas, now that’s a 6. Perhaps it was Sam Elliot dancing with the waitress in the diner in Roadhouse while that song played that stuck with me all these years, perhaps I am fascinated by a womanizing crooner who has a state full of ex-girlfriends, perhaps it’s just a cool song, who knows. The point is I just admitted I have strong memories from the movie Roadhouse, which is essentially license for you to tease me relentlessly.
There was a short break halfway through, brownies and sodas were available. A good 50% of the room ended up outside sucking down Winstons and Kools, babbling about song such and such and how so and so hated the song and so and so loved it and blah, blah, blah…..where is the bathroom?
It is times like these when I observe. I love writing. It prompts me to watch people when they don’t think ayone is watching. The habits of the country music fan sequestered are deliciously interesting to this geekly soul.
We were told at one point that each one of us represented approx 2,500 people in our media market and that our opinions would directly impact the playlists of the sponsoring radio station (which was never revealed) for up to six months. If you are a rabid country music fan in the Detroit market with a gripe about what is getting played in the coming months, feel free to send your anger my way. I’ll deal with it. I’ll file it somewhere between “Oh yeah, well I got $75 to make circles on pages for 2 hours” and “What were you saying, I wasn’t paying attention”.
That probably sounded crass, I do hope those that love the genre and listen to that mystery station are satisfied with the collective choices made by your appointed test-dummies, myself included. But if you don’t, just remember – you could always try not listening to country music for a while….you might get your dog back, your house back and your wife back, shit, never mind, that’s what happens if you listen to the songs backwards.
That subject was one of trepidation for me belive it or not. Going into this thing I realized I had fallen victim to some pre-conceived notions and jokes regarding the music and those that play/listen to it. In the interest of fairness to the social experiment and trying not to be a close-minded asshole I told myself going in that I would take each song for what it was, not generalize, not stereotype.
Did I mention the guy next to me was wearing a John Deere hat and spitting his chewing tobacco into a styrofoam cup the whole night? God’s honest truth, seriously, go get me a bible and I will lay my hands on it and tell it on the mountain.
As I mentioned previously, one of the items on the table was a pad of paper. Early in the process I realized this was an opportunity to collect some data of my own. I began adding a check mark to a column every time I heard one of the following things referenced in a song:
God (56 times), the Red, White & Blue (29), a Dog (52), A Tractor (18 – including a song called She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy), the Military (24), Cowboys or Cowgirls (49), A Horse (17), Dixie (8), Any State south of the Mason/Dixon Line (74).
You can’t fight science. Actually you can but science normally wins, science has quick feet and a wicked left hook.
BUT….I must admit, there were a number of songs I scored a 5 or 6. I did not keep track of exactly how many, it was frantic enough between the scantron sheets and my own little private spreadsheet, but I would guesstimate perhaps 150 songs out of 600 fell into the top two categories.
People literally woo-hooed aloud when the recorded voice said “Number 100” for the sixth time. There was post-survey babbling and many instructions on how to package our documents and where to pass what and to whom. There was also the whole matter of passing out cash to each person as they exited. I imagined for a moment a bad bandito storming the room and making off with the loot while 60 people all stood slack-jawwed at the same time. But I got my booze money, we all did. What else did I get? I’m glad you asked…..
I got a feeling of satisfaction knowing that my voice would be heard by people in power. I got a brownie and a Diet Coke. I got a tingly ass from sitting in an uncomfortable chair. I got a new found respect for country music. But mostly, I got $75.