Thursday, May 17, 2007

Snack-o-tainment: Listening in Today

Listeners today all have M.A.D.D. (Media Attention Deficit Disorder)--I know I do. While I listen to The Hype Machine or scour blogs for some song I want to hear, I have the T.V. on mute, a dozen websites open to Digged articles, YouTube videos, or my email. If I don't like a song or a clip within maybe 10 seconds, it's on to the next. I am a tough customer, to be sure, but I don't think I'm alone.

Neither does the March issue of Wired Magazine which featured Snack Attack!, an article profiling the "snack-o-tainment" lifestyle characterized by today's fast-paced, up-to-the-minute culture. Tracing the trend of "distilling things to their essence" back to Moses' "first top 10 list," Minifesto for a New Age summarizes:
Music, television, games, movies, fashion: We now devour our pop culture the same way we enjoy candy and chips - in conveniently packaged bite-size nuggets made to be munched easily with increased frequency and maximum speed. This is snack culture - and boy, is it tasty (not to mention addictive) (via Wired).
I couldn't agree more. What would Susan Douglas have to say about this trend? Well, in the intro of her excellent book Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, she writes:
People who grew up with radio still pine for the old radio days, for their intimate relationship with the box in their living room or bedroom, for a culture without television. They miss what now seems like the simplicity of those times, the innocent optimism (even during the Depression and the War), the directness of the medium itself. But what they yearn for most is the way that radio invited them to participate actively in the production of the show at hand...They miss their role in completing the picture, in giving individual meaning to something that went outto a mass audience. They miss the mental activity, the engagement, the do-it-yourself nature of radio listening. They miss radio's invisibility (4).
Douglas covers a number of important issues here.
  1. The "Intimate" Relationship: that seems to have largely shifted to iPods, Blackberries, Cell Phones, and Computers. People view these new technological devices as an extension of themselves: they feel lost without them.
  2. The "Simplicity" of olden days: Yep, that's certainly gone. With information coming at you a mile a minute, there is no escaping the constant influx, confusion and noise today.
  3. The "directness" of radio: You could argue that iPods, Podcasts, Internet Radio, and blogs are more direct than old radio because they cater to exactly what you want to hear. But these new forms are certainly not direct in the sense that you have to seek all of this out in the first place. You have to have access to a computer or an expensive player. You have to know what you're looking for and go find it. New radio today is still working on its "filter" system. Old radio would just shoot stuff at you and you didn't really have a choice--but people liked what they were hearing, so it was OK. Now with so many choices, nobody is willing to settle and they go the indirect route of searching out their best option, instead of the most direct.
  4. Audience "participation:" this is another aspect you could view in two ways. What Douglas refers to is the individual participation of listeners and their imagination. This may be decreasing with podcasts, blogs, internet radio, etc. because there is increasing amounts of visual accompaniment to everything--because it's possible. A multi-media clip is certainly privileged today over a sole audio byte--but not necessarily because it is better. It is just more stuff. The other way to see this is that audiences participate much more actively today because they are choosing what they are listening to, they are producing it, and they are completing the picture in new ways. They hear a song and imagine a video for it...then they create it and put it up on YouTube and then it is on the band's website! A number of artists have fielded fan-participation to the extent that it's getting a little much--like come on artists, do your job yourself (see Incubus, The Decemberists) But that's what the scene is like today--it's all about audience interaction and direct participation.
I think the way we listen today is very contradictory. We are pulled towards two extremes: listening distractedly and listening actively. We want to find something new quickly and we want to hear exactly what we want to hear when we want to hear it. In trying to find something new, we are impatient and listen quickly and actively (as in, actively waiting for our patience to dry up and clicking to the next thing). In hearing what we want to hear, we listen actively by creating content. We are listening more, but less deeply.

Case in point, one of the features in the Wired Article Tiny Tunes was about the first ever patented radio format: Radio SASS. The founder of Radio SASS (Short Attention Span System), George Gimarc--a veteran programmer and former DJ from Dallas who started Radio Sass--said, "People's patience for music - even the stuff they like - is thin. Twelve songs per hour won't cut it." To remedy that, Radio SASS employs editor-musicians to use their "intuitive editing" skills to trim unnecessary, non-catchy parts of old hits to get them down to "their essence."

Radio SASS describes their mission, stating:
Radio SASS (Short Attention Span System) takes the playlist and musically condenses songs to their essence. Through time compression, you get the memorable heart of each song, with an average length of aproximately two minutes with NO self indulgent guitar solos, NO long intros, NO repetition of choruses again and again. Radio returns to the snappy song length of the 1960s. (italics mine)
HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAH. Apparently, the reason radio is falling behind in this "Bite Sized" environment of fast paced TV, news, movies, etc. is because musicians are sooooo self indulgent! That makes perfect sense! Ugh. This idea is so laughable to me and so offensive to anyone with a creative artistic sense, I can't imagine how it will fly--but I bet it will. Why? Well, here is the "hard sell" from SASS itself:
It's all about SPEED

Today's culture moves at a breakneck, multi-tasking, fast-forward pace. The time is right for a new dynamic way to experience radio. Enter, Radio SASS. This new protocol changes radio history in several postive ways. Listeners get more music, and more variety. Recording artists get 3x the airplay and exposure. Records labels get increased spins, increased sales. Radio gets a new sound.

So, this new fast-paced culture requires even more corruption of artistic integrity? This radio sounds like it will be homogeneous, poppy, crap on crack. Music wasn't meant to be all catchy hooks and the "good parts." As Susan Douglas points out, the anticipation and repetition and gratification in songs and playlists is all part of a really important combination that the best musicians AND DJs employ to get, hook, and keep listeners. I don't think this will be the answer to the new "snack-o-tainment" culture, but it certainly is an interesting attempt.

Three Two A Days

An infrequent daily dose of music stuff for your listening pleasure.Podcast: NPR All Songs Considered
This podcast features a variety of songs....chosen by actual people! There is variety--some of the stuff you might like, some you might not, but they definitely include a great variety of styles of music, including popular music and unknown independents, even if the reviewers can be a bit dry. Except for Bob Boilen, the weekly host. I love this guy: he's kind of geeky and soft spoken, but he's clearly a music fan and his voice is so very soothing. I also like his taste--which runs the gamut, just like mine. The great thing about all NPR podcasts is they allow you to access all of the content from the station, particularly niche shows you might never get from your local affiliate. It also offers all the benefits of radio---original content, a human voice talking to you--in the form of a podcast--time and space adjusted for your hectic lifestyle.

Blog: Brooklyn Vegan
Brooklyn Vegan is the gossipy music blog that, along with Fluxblog, helped begin this craze. Brooklyn Vegan is similar to Fluxblog in that it posts concert reviews, mp3s, some snarky observations on life and general goodness. It is not so much like actual radio, but more like a competitor for it and an additional marketing/communication tactic it could and has adopted.

The New Business of Music: Artist 2.0

Blogs, podcasts and internet radio—everything about the internet, actually—are changing the music business. They are changing the way artists are made, promoted, and perceived. Last Sunday’s NYT Magazine had a fascinating article on this trend, entitled “Sex, Drugs and Updating Your Blog” that chronicles the new breed of aspiring rock star which Clive Thompson calls Artist 2.0.Jonathan Coulton is an interesting example I had never heard of before the article. In September 2005, he quit his day job and set about to write and record a song each week, posting each one to his blog in a project called Thing A Week. Eventually 3,000 people, on average, were visiting his site every day, and his most popular songs were being downloaded as many as 500,000 times(!!). He was making between $3,000 and $5,000 a month by selling CDs and digital downloads of his work on iTunes and on his own site. The NYT article states:
Along the way, he discovered a fact that many small-scale recording artists are coming to terms with these days: his fans do not want merely to buy his music. They want to be his friend. And that means they want to interact with him all day long online (via NYT).
Blogging, artist podcasts (OK Go has one here), artist’s iTunes playlists, and instant and free access to music on internet radio or MySpace or any number of illegal download sites make for a completely different fan-artist dynamic. In the past, radio and TV would put an artist on a pedestal and make them seem very far away—even if you could hear or see them in interviews, the ability to interact with them was limited. Thompson writes:
In the past — way back in the mid-’90s, say — artists had only occasional contact with their fans. If a musician was feeling friendly, he might greet a few audience members at the bar after a show. Then the Internet swept in…Performing artists these days, particularly new or struggling musicians, are increasingly eager, even desperate, to master the new social rules of Internet fame. They know many young fans aren’t hearing about bands from MTV or magazines anymore; fame can come instead through viral word-of-mouth, when a friend forwards a Web-site address, swaps an MP3, e-mails a link to a fan blog or posts a cell phone concert video on YouTube (via NYT).
As this statement indicates, the old gatekeepers of fame and fortune are being dismantled by all of these different technological developments. Old terrestrial radio is part of the “establishment” that is on its way out and “new radio”—podcasts and internet radio, as well as music blogs, are taking over as a completely revolutionary type of promotional platform. More than just promotion, however, these sites are about access and personalization. Thompson also points out, "Musicians are at the vanguard of the change. Their product, the three-minute song, was the first piece of pop culture to be fully revolutionized by the Internet. And their second revenue source — touring — makes them highly motivated to connect with far-flung fans.” What was it about music that made it the first piece of pop culture to be revolutionized by the internet? Was the technology just there and simpler than say TV or movies? Was it the format—a bite-sized 3 minute song—that made it appealing and immediately digestible by the young internet audience? I don't know, but these changes are upending the music business as it currently operates and making it easier for many artists to get their music to an audience--their audience.

The article also points out the different impact the internet makes on corporate, A-list stars like Justin Timberlake, Fergie, Beyoncé vs. Artist 2.0 like Jonathan Coulton or Poddington Bear (who I will post about in a minute). It states the A-listers
are still creatures of mass marketing, carpet-bombed into popularity by expensive ad campaigns and radio airplay. They do not need the online world to find listeners, and indeed, their audiences are too vast for any artist to even pretend intimacy with. No, this is a trend that is catalyzing the B-list, the new, under-the-radar acts that have always built their success fan by fan. Across the country, the CD business is in a spectacular free fall; sales are down 20 percent this year alone. People are increasingly getting their music online (whether or not they’re paying for it), and it seems likely that the artists who forge direct access to their fans have the best chance of figuring out what the new economics of the music business will be.
So, it seems that traditional radio still holds the key to the massive audiences A-list artists already command. But podcasts, internet radio, and all the internet’s other options offer an expanded set of tools for the younger, B-List artist--and some A listers as well (hey, even John Mayer has a mostly lame, sometimes entertaining blog). "B-listers" have a better chance of finding their audience with these tools, but does an Internet-built fan base inevitably hit a plateau? The article states:
Many potential Coulton fans are fanatical users of MySpace and YouTube, of course; but many more aren’t, and the only way for him to reach them is via traditional advertising, which he can’t afford, or courting media attention, a wearying and decidedly old-school task. Coulton’s single biggest spike in traffic to his Web site took place last December, when he appeared on NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday,” a fact that, he notes, proves how powerful old-fashioned media still are. (And “Weekend Edition” is orders of magnitude smaller than major entertainment shows like MTV’s “Total Request Live,” which can make a new artist in an afternoon.)
So there you have it, old school media is still very important, but Coulton wouldn’t have had a chance of being on NPR if he hadn’t garnered all that attention online first. It's a combination of factors that makes an artist popular, and it does appear that the old-fashioned media sources are also incorporating new media approaches and drawing largely on the artists popularized by the internet.

Many musicians, like OK Go (of treadmill dancing fame), still continue with the traditional route of signing up with a label and using the internet as promotion. The significance of internet radio, podcasts and blogs cannot be underestimated, however, for the success of the new “B-List” type artists like Coulton who construct their entire business model online. Thompson argues, “Without the Internet, their musical careers might not exist at all.”

The article addresses another aspect of the Artist 2.0 that the internet has greatly affected: their emotions. It notes, “This phenomenon isn’t merely about money and business models. In many ways, the Internet’s biggest impact on artists is emotional. When you have thousands of fans interacting with you electronically, it can feel as if you’re on stage 24 hours a day.” Tad Kubler of one of my favorite bands, The Hold Steady, wonders: "Are today’s online artists ruining their own aura by blogging? Can you still idolize someone when you know what they had for breakfast this morning? 'It takes a little bit of the mystery out of rock ’n’ roll,' he said." The creative process has also changed, to the point where fans are completely involved in the process—making suggestions, making their own music videos or “mash-ups.” The article ultimately asks:
Will the Internet change the type of person who becomes a musician or writer? It’s possible to see these online trends as Darwinian pressures that will inevitably produce a new breed — call it an Artist 2.0 — and mark the end of the artist as a sensitive, bohemian soul who shuns the spotlight.
Referencing famous recluses J.D. Salinger and the lead singer of the Cowboy Junkies, Thompson asks, “What happens to art when people like that are chased away?” I don't know if I see this type of extreme shift coming in who becomes an artist. I think the internet participation of fans will become normalized and as artists get used to interacting with their peers, they will figure out how little privacy they are comfortable with.

One of the most interesting bands Thompkins analyzes is The Scene Aesthetic, a band whose popularity on MySpace vaulted it to fame, and precipitated a national tour, and an album. The band began as a side project when Andrew de Torres wrote what would become the breakout hit “Beauty in the Breakdown” and recorded it in his basement with a buddy. Within days it had racked up thousands of plays on MySpace, friend requests came surging in, along with messages demanding more songs. De Torres and Bowley quickly put out three more; when those went online, their growing fan base urged them to produce a full album and to go on tour. Their album is due out this summer, and they have roughly 22,000 people a day listening to their songs on MySpace, plus more than 180,000 “friends.” They just finished a cross-country tour in December that netted them “a pretty good amount of money.” This type of artist is typical Artist 2.0--the new breed.

Thompson concludes:
This sort of career arc was never previously possible. If you were a singer with only one good song, there was no way to release it independently on a global scale — and thus no way of knowing if there was a market for your talent. But the online fan world has different gravitational physics: on the basis of a single tune, the Scene Aesthetic kick-started an entire musical career. Which is perhaps the end result of the new online fan world: it allows a fresh route to creative success, assuming the artist has the correct emotional tools.
In the end I think the significance of this article for the study of new radio alternatives is the amount new artists ignore traditional terrestrial radio--its importance has completely diminished except for the highest tier of Top-40 commercial artists. For young, fledgling artists like Jonathan Coulton, The Scene Aesthetic, or even The Hold Steady and OK Go--bands with record deals--the internet offers unparalleled forms of communication with fans, personalization of their "ad campaigns," promotion, and most importantly, creative expression. There are so many more ways that artists can build their fan base from a grassroots approach that doesn't privilege traditional radio or MTV or Rolling Stone. It means greater and better access for musicians and fans looking to share music. It also means big challenges for traditional radio and a record business looking to find a way to profit off of Artist 2.0.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

KEXP: Lessons in Multi-Tasking

KEXP 90.3 Seattle "Where the Music Matters" is a great example of how many media sources today operate on multiple platforms to maximize their exposure and ability to communicate with listeners/readers. Started 35 years ago as University of Washington station KCMU (10 watt!), KEXP has been at the forefront of technological innovations in the radio and recording industries for the past several years. They were the first station to provide real-time playlists of songs as they were broadcasting and in 2000, KCMU became the first station in the world to offer uncompressed CD-quality audio on the Internet, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It was also first to provide an online archive, where its broadcasts can be replayed for up to 14 days. In 2001, KCMU became KEXP 90.3, maintaining all staff, the same format and frequency, while almost doubling its wattage from 400 to 720 and moving to a new technologically-advanced studio near downtown Seattle. Through a partnership with Experience Music Project, the station's eclectic music programming was expanded and enhanced to provide a richer musical experience for listeners.

The public station (which is affiliated with NPR) currently offers traditional terrestrial broadcasting, live streaming of that on the web (= internet radio), "on demand" content including archived streams of terrestrial shows, podcasts, live performances, print music reviews, a blog, events...and a partridge and a pear tree. They offer some of the best music podcasts on the web, including KEXP Song of the Day (previously featured here), KEXP Live Performances Podcast, Sonarchy Music (experimental NW artists) and Music That Matters; you can find them all here. They also maintain a highly entertaining, informative blog, KEXP Blog, with lots of news updates, interviews, video and audio clips, etc. The pull some of the best up-and coming (mostly indie) acts to their studio for live performances and interviews, usually very well done. So they are providing a ton of original content in different, easily accessible and digestible formats.

Brier Dudley of The Seattle Times writes,
The station's biggest contribution may be the way it advocates for music fans and performers, by exploring the outer limits of the stifling regulations that the recording industry uses to protect its aging franchise. What's most impressive is that KEXP has found ways to do more with music online without breaking rules or alienating record companies. (via The Seattle Times)
KEXP really seems like a model for the future, fully embracing new media while continuing with their "traditional" terrestrial station as one component on their varied roster. All the aspects of KEXP flow together--there is inter-promotion for the station and the artists it features, which is dually beneficial to the station, artists, and record companies (if applicable). Dudley also makes the important point that KEXP has been successful largely because it has "appealed to performers who appreciate the station's role in promoting music. It also convinced record labels that a little flexibility and exposure will help their sales." Most of the artists being featured on KEXP stand to benefit greatly from the station's tastemaker reputation and broad listenership in the music business.

Tom Mara, executive director of KEXP said,
We're becoming quite agnostic about how people are experiencing music, how the music is being distributed. We just really care that you get it in a meaningful way, and we also care that we do it in such a way that people can share it with others. I don't mean that in any sort of illegal sense, but just getting others in the fold. (via The Seattle Times)
I see this trend across the music business and it means vast changes for radio. Radio has to diversify in order to retain its relevance. The key to keeping radio in the mix at all, however, is the individuality, specificity and quality of the content. There should be a point of view and an audience to speak to. Clear Channel style "lowest-common-denominator" marketing won't work for much longer. KEXP is so successful because their DJs select a varied, interesting set of music and produce creative content. KEXP looks like it's figuring out the new model as it goes--and it means good times ahead for artists and listeners alike.

Radio or Jukebox?

Sorry for the extended hiatus--other finals and dad turned 60! Blogging, like anything else one tries to do every day, requires a strong commitment and discipline--whoops! Two things I apparently don't have. No, but this does point out a major difference between "professional" blogs like Stereogum and "amateur's" personal hobby sites, like my other blog, I'm With the Band. Bloggers that make a living doing this and employ a staff of writers are able to devote their entire day to tracking and breaking stories. Amateurs or individuals blogging more casually are at a greater liberty to pick and choose what they post about. They also don't have as much time or incentive to post as frequently--though that point is arguable because generally the more one posts, the more "hits" they get. The distinction between "pro" and "amateur" blogger is important, however, because the pro can make enough money and amass a seriously large audience (and compete or supplement mainstream media sources), while amateurs are more likely to blog frequently for a couple of months and then eventually get bored and abandon the practice (though anyone can make a little $ with google ads). There's lots of fun facts about bloggers in this Pew report--I'll go more in depth in another post.
Since I just finished gushing about The Hype Machine, I figured I would continue down that path and talk about my other favorite site in the world, Stereogum. Stereogum is one of the most reliable and fun blogs about music on the web. Started by Scott Lapatine in 2002, this gossipy blog updates very frequently--one of the marks of a successful blog--posts lots of *great* audio clips, and is an excellent hit picker/maker. Many of the items that get featured on Stereogum eventually make it into Rolling Stone's Breaking section or other mainstream mag's "Band to Watch."

Stereogum also recently added a detachable audio player called "Gum Mix" which plays the last 12 or so tracks that have been posted to the site. This is one of the reasons I'm including blogs in looking at new avenues for music radio. Blogs now have the technology to make "mix-tapes" or their own DJed accompaniment to their written posts.

In a blog post about a presentation by a Pandora director, James Cridland writes "Says that his service is all about ‘Discovery’. Irritatingly calls it radio. It’s not. It’s a music jukebox. Grr." In a previous post, he writes that to get young people to listen to radio, one strategy would be to "- ensure broadcasters invest in content and talent so we have a clear differentiation between ‘radio’ and jukebox services like" So, what is distinctive about internet radio or podcasts with DJs is the content in between the music and the personalities connecting the music together. I agree with the importance of this distinction and I see a value in both versions. So far, blogs are offering a "jukebox" version like or Pandora, but with their own personal selections and music from recent posts. I think this is a particularly cool combo because it enables a listener to use the jukebox to jump around to tracks they like and then read about them as they wish. They can also detach the player to listen while they surf other sides--bonus!

Monday, May 7, 2007

Poll of the Day: Hype Machine Worth the Hype?

The Hype Machine: The Future of All Media or More Hype?

Blogs are closer descendants or offshoots of print journalism than of radio, but the recent popularization of “blog aggregators” for music blogs serve the same function as radio. The most popular of this new breed of technology is The Hype Machine, which defines its mission stating, "The Hype Machine exists to create a medium that favors discovery of new music through public discussion while encouraging legitimate distribution of audio."

In essence, the site culls all the music posted on various music blogs (the blogs they search amp3 blogs which post audio; sites can be added by user request) in one easy to access site. The playlist on the front page is continuously updated and includes links to the blog entry from which the song was taken. An iTunes and link to buy the track makes The Hype Machine one stop shopping: if you like the song, you can read about it, buy it, or steal it*. If you don't, you skip ahead (better than radio).
*One important note about the stealing: The Hype Machine consciously tries to encourage "the legitimate distribution of audio" despite the fact that most/many of the songs they link to are illegally provided for downloading. They haven't encountered any large legal problems yet, but most major labels have their current songs pulled within hours of posting. This helps explain why most/many of the songs posted are a.) indie/unsigned artists who want exposure or don't care b.) live recordings or c.) older material from major label stars

The blog aggregator format is beneficial for a number of reasons. Because the content is based on what is being blogged about, it is all user generated. Music blogs do disproportionately represent indie rock and some underground hip-hop music, however, which can be limiting. The top tracks listed in my new sidebar addition are representative of any given day. The Hype Machine doubles as a customizable playlist or a great blog search engine because you can search by artist or website and create playlists or podcasts from the results. Another plus to the blog aggregator format is it allows you to get to the meat of a mp3 blog--the music! You don't have to read through somebody's explication of a bunch of songs to get to what you're looking for--you can use your ears and listen, and then maybe go back and read up. This flips the purpose of a music blog on it's head to a certain extent, but The Hype Machine does encourage visitors to go and post on the blogs about songs they likee. Downsides to this format, though, include that the order is completely random and the songs aren’t related to one another in any way a DJ would assemble a setlist. You also have to sort through a lot of stuff you might not like in the straight playlist version but you get a greater diversity of selection and options than any other site I know. It was even described to John Heilemann in a article, Capturing the Buzz, as "the future of all media."
The Hype Machine also has it's own radio, Hype Radio, not to be confused with Hype Radio: The Ghetto People's Station (no joke). It's an internet radio station powered by blogs—all the songs that are streamed on the station have been mentioned in blogs and featured on the The Hype Machine. Because the station includes the music people are writing about, it encourages a good deal of diversity because music bloggers make the playlists rather than a computer---there are a variety of uninterested (?) sources being drawn upon. This is a benefit for most people that like to have choice.

Heilemann describes The Hype Machine's progressive, functional appeal, writing, "While the Hype Machine may never be as famous or influential as Napster or Rolling Stone, Volodkin's baby contains elements of both, updated for the age of blogs - which is why it's so damn interesting." (via The Hype Machine shows the new ways people are developing technologies and formats to collect the music people are talking about into a delivery service and forum.

*Full disclosure: I LOVE The Hype Machine and use it every day. Have you ever tried it? Will you now?