In an article over the weekend that reads less like a piece of journalism and more like a suspiciously boastful press release, the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi made a case that NPR’s music site has become “something of a tastemaking force” in the world of indie music. To some extent, this is true. In the past three years, NPR has been aggressive in promoting the likes of the Decemberists, Animal Collective, and the Fiery Furnaces to its large national audience, and these efforts have certainly introduced many listeners to artists whose fan bases generally skew much younger than public radio’s core aging Boomer demographic. This is great, but it’s maybe not such a good idea to conflate influence with tastemaking, as NPR’s programming has almost entirely followed the lead of Pitchfork and the music blog aggregator Hype Machine.
If we’re going to give NPR credit for anything in their indie-music initiative, it ought to be for finding a way to cater to a new generation of listeners likely to donate money to public radio. NPR is hardly discovering new artists or setting an agenda, but they are doing a great job of delivering exactly the sort of music most enjoyed by affluent, highly educated types these days — i.e, the kind of tunes favored by the blogosphere. This is mostly a matter of self-preservation, and they should be commended for having the sense to simultaneously give their audience what they want and to create content such as podcasts of live concerts by artists like Sleigh Bells, Spoon, and Joanna Newsom that will draw in new listeners from the Internet. There’s no questioning that a substantial — if not enormous — audience for this music exists, and NPR is wise to position itself as a home for indie on terrestrial radio since it is totally ignored by most mainstream commercial stations. This is definitely a positive thing for both NPR and fans of indie music, but it’s a bad idea to lose sight of NPR’s place in the hype cycle: They’re broadcasters, not tastemakers.