Michael Grossman: Oldies Music

This week, I started hearing Prince on my local oldies radio station. Not old school, classic rock or R&B, but O-L-D-I-E-S, as in the last way station before commercial radio’s cultural irrelevance. Admittedly, I wasn’t just scanning the dial and happened to catch His Symbolness; I plead guilty to listening to the station, meaning that marketers are almost demographically done with me.

For years, I found comfort in turning on the oldies station and hearing Elvis and the Beach Boys because they were already yesterday’s news. I could take comfort in being part of the zeitgeist and looking over my shoulder and down my nose at those who still listened to ‘that kind of music.’ Today, I feel like I should be telling kids to get off my lawn.

I mention this because there’s a similar demographic debate taking place over our nation’s energy system, pitting the pernicious fuels of the 50’s against today’s taxonomy of alternatives.

In the last couple of years, both the city of Los Angeles and the State of Nevada have said no to coal, leaving one of the largest coal generating plants in the nation, the Navajo Generating Station, minus 40 percent of it’s customers.

The question is, what do you do with all that excess energy that no one wants to buy? While this power plant has a lease through 2044, it’s facing the real prospect of something unthinkable even a decade ago—losing money.

Three things happen when music and energy get old in this country: they get very expensive to maintain a collection, they get replaced by newer technology or they get tossed away and forgotten like the records and record players in the basement storage room.

In marketing (as in life) demographics are destiny, and the fact of the matter is that fossil fuels are on the wrong side of the demographic divide. The Koch brothers may end up buying the LA Times or the Chicago Tribune to ‘even the playing field’ in terms of the coverage for old energy and the political candidates who support it, but what they don’t seem to understand is no matter how many newspapers they buy they’re playing on the wrong surface. We’ve moved on from Astroturf because we invented a surface more habitable to humans.

The same is true about energy. The patents and the investments? They’re going into clean energy in spades. So are the polling numbers. Slowly but surely the price of solar energy is coming down thanks to worldwide demand. Anaerobic digesters are turning dairy farms into the favorite energy source of every kid who likes to push the boundaries by saying cow poop. Meanwhile, when was the last time you saw an ad campaign touting “Coal Is Cool!”?

That being said, never underestimate the power of old age and treachery. The Bildungsroman of renewables is clashing head on with the tensile strength and comfort of yesteryear. Change can be jarring because it’s hard to accept. Renewable energy activists gnash their teeth at the well-funded and incessant shibboleth of Solyndra’s failure or the canard that clean energy can only survive with subsidies. They want to argue the facts instead of getting at the underlying agita—change is hard.

Winning heads requires winning hearts first, so put away the hockey stick charts on climate change and come up with a more palatable name for a carbon tax while talking about the kids who have to breathe coal dust in their lungs and their older siblings who fight (and die) in petroleum soaked conflicts. Maybe it’s disingenuous, but like the frog in the pot, it’s the change in temperature you don’t notice that ends up being the most effective.

Sure, the coal kings still want to party like its 1999, but they’ll never again find a station that plays their tune. They can put off the inevitable for some time by putting on headphones and only listening to the songs they choose, but eventually they’ll have to accept the new beat because eventually even they will find out their old petroleum based 45’s don’t play on an IPhone.

Source: Michael Grossman, FiftyPlusOne, May 2, 2013.