It seemed longer than a year, didn’t it? It what can only be described as a new “growth cycle” in the Alternative genre, 2004 saw the format become more rigidly defined, if not fragmented musically. The blurring of the line between Active Rock and Modern Rock sounds became much more focused over the last 12 months, creating a continental divide between meat and potato lovers and artful connoisseurs.

Has the entire format shifted back to its diverse roots, chucking aside research, auditorium tests and marketing figures, stringent label priorities, guitar solos and guttural angst? Well, no. Not completely. What has happened can almost be looked at like the 2004 Presidential Election map. Music affinities can almost be divided between red states and blue states. The red states stick to their Rock guns and cast a cautious eye on those silly Yankee hipsters and their trendy tastes. The blue states have turned up their noses at the Nu Metal, Rap Rock angst of yesteryear (minus a handful of grandfathered-in mega-acts) and are on a crusade to dig up the latest cool record that no one else has ever heard of and sounds like nothing else on the air. Lo-fi, Neo, Retro, Emo, Screamo, Emo Core, Retro Dance Rock, Indie Punk, Garage – whatever label you wish to bestow on the subgenres – they made serious inroads on the airplay and sales charts (to an extent).

Suddenly, some PDs began describing the new Alt sounds they were swimming in with this sentence: “We’re playing a lot of the Franz Feridnands and Modest Mouses (or is it mice?) of the world.” What, no Godsmack? Truth be told, we’re not sure if the Modern Rock format is just music or a sociological study. At least the Grammy voters caught on right away and nominated the two kingpin bands.

This fissure in the format, in some cases right down the middle of some station playlists, begs the question: Is a general Alternative Airplay chart relevant for radio programmers anymore? Has it outstayed its welcome? Be honest – how many of you are making up your own custom charts based on other stations that closely resemble your own programming philosophy and regional musical preferences? Where does this leave the chart game on the label side?

One thing that has definitely transpired on the label side is a tighter focus on working the right records to the right stations. For many, artist development has returned. Why now more so than the year before? More than likely, aside from the usual culprits – an overabundance of entertainment options – it’s because the format broke away from being Active Rock Light.

But even red state stations have made room for the proven “hipster” records like Franz, Mouse, The Killers, Snow Patrol and hybrids like My Chemical Romance, Lostprophets and Coheed and Cambria. However, diversity also breeds competition and a narrowing of slots on playlists for certain sounds. To overcome that, labels have to remain patient and vigilant and commit to artists they believe in a little longer than they were previously used to. Throwing it to the wall and seeing what sticks is no longer cost-efficient or even mildly possible when dealing with programmers on add day. On the flip side, some say programmers will need to stick with songs a little longer and give these fresh sounds a chance to really test.

Let’s hope 2005 really capitalizes on the musical inroads made in 2004 and we can all help make terrestrial radio sound a bit better than the pundits have made it out to be. As for FMQB in 2005, look for us to continue to cover the trends and events that define the Modern Rock format as we know it.

– Mike Bacon