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You can’t be Sirius

Satellite radio grasps desperately for street credibility.

In this age of tech-sector caution, it was an audacious how-do-you-do: A 20-page tabloid ad insert in the Sunday New York Times trumpeting the Sirius Satellite Entertainment service. Granted, it was on bleached newsprint stock, but even the cheapness of the paper was a deliberate part of the overall presentation, which leaned heavily on distressed type and other fanzine trademarks. Only, this was a fanzine that probably cost half a million dollars to produce and distribute.

The big pitch, timed to coincide with the Grammy Awards (which were being carried live over Sirius), could be seen as a last-ditch effort by Sirius to surpass XM in terms of mindshare and establish itself as the satellite service of choice.

A year-plus into the great satellite-radio land grab, the final two contestants are XM and Sirius, with neither in particularly great shape: XM cut half its staff in November to stem the flow of financial losses; and Sirius has shown either losses or puny gains every quarter since it went public. The question seems to be less a matter of which service is better than of which service will live to fulfill its subscribers’ service contracts.

But that’s not the issue here. The fact that Sirius was trying to make a big splash wasn’t notable; its methods were. The Times insert–which Sirius termed a manifesto–asked what could be seen as some hot-button questions playing to the music business’s image as a payola-driven, all-surface-no-substance hype machine.

“How many times has music played second fiddle to corporate agenda?” it asked in its call for unsigned artists. “How much music has gone unheard so that boy bands might be seen? … There are times when the entire industry holds the music hostage by pumping out more and more commercially driven clones.”

The more jaded among you are excused to go retch for a moment. The insert raised some legitimate issues, but there was a strong sense of the pot calling the kettle black in the way they were addressed. A few readers might be old enough to remember the pathetic attempts by the record industry to co-opt the hippie culture of the late ’60s with such lame ad slogans as “The Revolutionaries are on CBS” and the immortal “The Man Can’t Bust Our Music.” Sirius’s come-on was just slightly less clumsy.

Is that all Sirius’s overtures amount to–an attempt to establish credibility with a market segment that it presumes is easily flattered by a lot of my-aren’t-you-unique talk? I once heard someone say of bike messengers, “Wow, they’re all such nonconformists in the way they dress exactly alike.” That’s how Sirius seems to perceive its audience: as individuals who can easily be pigeonholed.

It’s not hard to spot cracks in Sirius’s rage against the machine. A list of Sirius’s corporate partners starts with Ford, Audi, Chrysler, Dodge, Hertz, ABC, the BBC, and FOX. And it’s no chore to find Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera on Sirius’s US-1 channel, its anti-pop diatribe notwithstanding. With all that, Joe Alt-Rock is supposed to believe Sirius has his interests at heart over Sony’s?

It’s no sin for Sirius to try to buddy up to the hipoisie, but pretending to be opposed to the types of corporations it clearly shares a bed with is disingenuous at best. The idea of big business trying to align itself with grass-roots movements and ideologies is as old as the hills, and even moderately savvy consumers can see through it.

The crazy thing is, Sirius sells a good product. Instead of doing contortions to feign indie cred, why not let the quality of satellite radio, which is substantial, speak for itself?

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