Your best friend's downloading "Me & U" by Cassie. Your sister's listening to Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" on her iPod. Your neighbor is addicted to Snoop Dogg's XM station.
The musical landscape is far more fractured than in the days when you and seemingly everybody else on the block knew the latest Michael Jackson song, the new Madonna hit or the current Prince jam. Any tune that was "No. 1 with a bullet," the most frequently played cut on Top 40 radio, blared from cars, storefronts and boomboxes in the park. Regardless of the genre, if the song sat high on the charts, it's likely that anybody with a radio heard it.
Those days have long passed.
Despite the disparate nature of today's pop music consumption and the implosion of the genre's distribution, there are still "tastemakers" out there, people who influence what many of us hear on TV (the last bastion of massive music promotion), commercial radio, surging satellite radio and the Internet. These people aren't publicists, record producers or frustrated artists-turned-critics. They started out as music fans, then parlayed their passions into rewarding careers behind the scenes - on TV, through satellite radio and online - managing to carve out a role exposing listeners to new music. Here are a few of these influential names to know:
Reigning on the radio
Nic Harcourt, author, music director at KCRW in Los Angeles and host of the syndicated radio show "Morning Becomes Eclectic" and its spinoff, "Sounds Eclectic"
A native of Birmingham, England, Harcourt helped launch the careers of Garbage and Moby during his eight years as music director at WDST-FM, a respected radio station in Woodstock, N.Y. In 1998, he became the music director at KCRW, where his influential work as host and director of Morning Becomes Eclectic has garnered praise from such esteemed publications as Esquire.
"A handful of tastemakers can make or break a career," the magazine said in a December 2003 profile. "The most artistically savvy of them all is Nic Harcourt."
Through Morning Becomes Eclectic, he has developed or enhanced the reputations of such varied and notable artists as Norah Jones, Damien Rice, Pete Yorn, Jem, David Gray, Sigur Ros and Coldplay. In late 2000, KCRW and Public Radio International launched Sounds Eclectic, a weekly, two-hour, best-of version of Morning Becomes Eclectic, which airs on weekdays.
Last fall, Sasquatch, a publishing house in Seattle, released Harcourt's first book, Music Lust: Recommended Listening for Every Mood, Moment and Reason. Around the same time, KCRW and Nacional Records issued Sounds Eclectico, the ninth compilation of live tracks performed in-studio by artists who have appeared on Morning Becomes Eclectic.
Like anyone who is influential in the music industry, Harcourt is regularly inundated with CDs and press kits from record labels.
"I pick the music that's on my show," says Harcourt, 48. "There's a lot of freedom there. Sometimes it strikes a chord; sometimes it doesn't. Usually, it's something that makes me want to tap my feet or a lyric that stops me, something that stands out different from the pack."
Harcourt's broad reach extends into other media. He has worked as a music supervisor for such TV shows as CBS' Love Monkey, Showtime's Queer as Folk and ABC's In Justice, which he also co-produced.
TV ads have become another platform to push music, and Harcourt has overseen music for campaigns including Mitsubishi Motors, Apple iPods and Victoria's Secret. In the movie realm, he has selected tunes for Anchorman, Ice Age and The Dukes of Hazzard.
But his devotion to music began in a simpler, less technologically savvy time. Growing up in England in the 1960s, his passion was sparked after hearing the Beatles for the first time. "That's where it starts for me," he says. "They were really good with melody and proper songs that had a beginning, middle and end - not that I'm not into artier stuff that deviates from that."
Getting tunes on TV
Alexandra Patsavas --music supervisor for "Grey's Anatomy" and "The O.C."
There's no formula to what the Chicago native does every day as the music supervisor for two popular primetime TV shows. And she likes it that way.
"It seems obvious to say this, but to be a music supervisor, you have to really be a music fanatic," she says. "I mean, love it in that 'My life would be a big, dark room without it' kind of way."
In her job, Patsavas, 38, has helped push into the mainstream some of the most talked-about bands in indie rock. Just last year, music by Modest Mouse, the Shins, the Thrills, the Killers and the Walkmen all appeared on Fox's The O.C., the young-adult soap opera focusing on a group of beautiful teens in an affluent harbor-front community in California. Death Cab for Cutie, a Bellingham, Wash., quartet, is perhaps the most famous example of an act that has benefited from exposure on the show.
During a 2004 episode, two characters argued about the band while listening to one of its songs. Soon after, sales of the quartet's fourth album, 2003's Transatlanticism, soared to more than 200,000 copies. And Death Cab for Cutie landed a major-label deal with Atlantic, releasing Plans in August. The CD made its debut at No. 4 on Billboard's pop album charts.
With a weekly audience of about 4 million, The O.C. undoubtedly helped introduce the band to many who probably wouldn't have heard it otherwise. In selecting music, Patsavas says, "We always have a very clear vision for the shows. We have whimsical, lighthearted moments and sad, heartbreaking moments. And we find music that suits those moments."
The same is true for Grey's Anatomy, an ABC drama centering on the interlocking lives of interns at Seattle Grace Hospital. That show's average weekly viewership is more than 14 million.
Wherever Patsavas is, her ear is open to new sounds, potential cuts to use on the shows.
"As a music supervisor, you're always working," Patsavas says. "I might hear a song on the radio, in a restaurant. I get music from places as far-flung as Iceland."
While studying political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Patsavas started booking acts such as Jane's Addiction and Smashing Pumpkins in bars and campus venues. She moved to Los Angeles in 1990 and worked in a talent agency mailroom and in the film and TV department of BMI. It was her next career move, in 1994, that paved the way for her current position: At Concorde Films, she worked with B-movie king Roger Corman, overseeing the music on 30 films, including Caged Heat 3000 and Piranha 2.
She branched out in 1998 to start her own company, Chop Shop Music Supervision, whose recent projects include CBS' Without a Trace and HBO's Carnivale.
"There's never an ordinary or normal day in what I do," Patsavas says. "That's what makes the job so interesting."
Sarah Zupko --founder, editor and publisher of PopMatters .com
The Internet is perhaps the biggest factor in the implosion of pop music. Not only has it revolutionized the way songs are distributed, the Net has also changed how pop fans learn about new sounds. Old monthly magazines like Rolling Stone are no longer the sole arbiters of what's hot.
In the past decade, sites such as www.Pitchforkmedia.com and PopMatters.com have gained cultural currency. Based in Chicago and founded in 1999, the latter centers on international musical and cultural trends and issues in its reviews, commentary and interviews.
"Tastes have gotten really eclectic since the explosion of the Internet," says Zupko, 38. "I think people like the idea of not sticking music in different genre baskets."
Before launching PopMatters, Zupko founded PopCultures.com, a comprehensive resource site on pop culture, in 1996. Where that site was more academic in tone, the writing on PopMatters.com is more relaxed but no less informative - it attracts 1 million readers a month.
With a staff of more than 20 editors and associate editors and hundreds of freelance writers in different parts of the world, the daily Internet magazine has been heralded by such mainstream publications as Entertainment Weekly. Music critic Jim DeRogatis has said that "writing as thought-provoking, engaging, insightful, witty and just plain ol' fun as much as the fare on PopMatters is a rare and wonderful thing, and it should be treasured."
For Zupko, who designed her own interdisciplinary degree in music, film, theater and art history at the University of Chicago, the Internet is the ideal place for the wildly eclectic pop cultural salad that is PopMatters.
"All along, my intention was to publish material that's accessible to anybody with an interest, yet have some academic depth," she says. "All along, we were aiming for global distribution. It seemed logical to do it via the Web."
From the Pussycat Dolls to the Delgados, from Elan to Christian McBride, PopMatters represents a potpourri of musical styles. Reggae, mainstream hip-hop, art-pop, underground soul, progressive jazz - various genres from around the world are regularly covered with depth and nuance.
"We really want to keep that international voice in music and everything else we cover on the site," Zupko says. Her day-to-day duties vary from selecting art for the site to choosing what gets reviewed in the music section.
"I really make an effort to recruit smart writers, and I trust them and allow them to pursue their interests," says Zupko, who was an Internet executive for Tribune Media Services for 10 years before focusing on PopMatters full time in April. "Our strength is really trusting our talent. It's a communal effort."
Eric Logan --executive vice president of programming for XM Satellite Radio
In a way, Eric Logan is a step up, and a step removed, indirectly influencing what millions of listeners hear.
"I have no idea what I do," says Logan, from his Washington, D.C., office. "I wake up, and a bunch of fairies have done my job in the middle of the night."
If only it were that easy. Logan oversees programming for channels offered by XM - all 172 of them. Since taking the position in 2004, the Oklahoma native has richly diversified XM's programming to include channels devoted to chill music, Southern gospel and the popular sub-genre reggaeton, a kinetic mash-up of reggae and Latin dance beats infused with hip-hop swagger and lyricism.
In addition to music, Logan added Take Five, a 24-hour talk radio channel for women. And in September, he will help XM launch perhaps its most-anticipated channel, featuring talk-show queen Oprah Winfrey.
"It's a very big job I have, but it's about trusting the people you work with," says Logan, who started his radio programming career 20 years ago at KEBC in Oklahoma City. "I want people who are passionate about what they do."
Soon after becoming vice president of programming at XM, Logan, who's referred to as E-Lo by XM employees, secured a partnership with Snoop Dogg. On The Rhyme, XM channel 65, subscribers can hear the drawling California rapper spin his favorite classic hip-hop cuts. We live outside the mainstream, Logan says. We play unsigned artists. People bring music to us. [Hit Houston rapper] Paul Wall is new to a lot of people, but he was doing shows for us on RAW [XM channel 66] for four years.
Since his exposure on XM, Wall, who's also known for his diamond-studded grills, has released a platinum album, last year's The People's Champ.
XM Satellite Radio is steadily growing beyond its 6.5 million subscribers. This year, the service became available as an integrated part of the factory audio system in 140 new car models by Lexus, Porsche, Nissan and others.
"In the 1980s, some wondered: Would people pay for cable?" Logan says. "The same questions were asked about satellite radio, and the answer is yes. People want more diversity, more choices, even in their cars."
DJ Lil' Mic --local DJ and host of XM's "The City"
Michael John Frierson, better known to area club-goers and a generous sliver of XM subscribers as DJ Lil' Mic, talks as fast as he splices beats.
"I do strictly hip-hop and neo-soul and play [stuff] you've never heard of, exposure to completely new artists," he says. "I try to expose you to something you're not going to hear all the time. I keep my ear to the street."
For the past four years, Mic, 26, has been one of the most in-demand DJs in the city. As a telecommunications major at Morgan State University, he established his reputation, spinning music on Strictly Hip-Hop, a program on Baltimore's WEAA-FM. But beyond playing cuts at such local haunts as Goodlove and Eden's Lounge, Mic has developed a fluid and creative mixing technique - splicing, dicing and layering beats old and new.
Mic fell in love with music at age 6. Around that time, after his mother grew tired of the boy using her pots and pans as a makeshift drum kit, Mic's parents bought him a real kit. But at age 12, his interests shifted to the art of mixing beats.
"I never concentrated on a lot of commercial music," Mic says. "I've always wanted to bring you to the elements of partying when cats used to practice their dance moves before they went to the club, where everybody's having a good time. I play familiar songs around the new stuff."
As a budding tastemaker, Mic has championed Raheem DeVaughn and Lupe Fiasco, two buzz-worthy artists in soul and hip-hop.
"I guess you can say he turned me on to Raheem," says Walter Maxfield Jones, host of Warm Wednesdays, a spoken-word show at the 5 Seasons lounge. Mic has DJ'd the program for the past seven years. "He seems to get everything before everybody. ... Mic's known more for his hip-hop mixes. But he plays reggae, old-school [R&B;], everything. As far as I'm concerned, he's Baltimore's No. 1 DJ - the only one I know who works, like, two clubs in one night."
But Mic wonders about the changing role of the DJ.
"The DJ doesn't have the same level of influence as before because access to music is so wide and easy," he says. "But there's still room for DJs, because there's so much music to focus on. Somebody has to rein it in. It's not what you play - it's how you play it."
On their iPods
With piles of CDs in the mail every day and their own large, diverse private collections, there's hardly time in the day when our tastemakers aren't listening to music. Here are some mostly new artists they have been into lately:
Ferraby Lionheart, a Los Angeles-based folk-pop singer-songwriter
Syd Matters, a French folk-influenced singer-songwriter
The Figurines, a Danish indie rock outfit
Corinne Bailey Rae, a quirky-voiced, pop-soul ingenue from England
The Editors, a post-punk quartet from Harcourt's native Birmingham, England
Zero 7, a U.K. soul outfit made up of producers Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker
The Ark, a glam-rock-inspired Swedish pop group
Camile, a French-born alternative pop singer
Strange Fruit Project, a soulful underground hip-hop group from Texas
DJ Lil Mic
Rick Ross, Miami-based rapper
Lupe Fiasco, Chicago-based rapper
PJ Morton, New Orleans-raised soul singer