Thursday, August 30, 2007

Active Listening vs. passive listening and the pop hook

Another post from James Wallace
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Hi everyone. In responding to my last post, radio gnome from the station Radio Hidebound made a comparison between passive and active music listeners.

Passive listeners have music in the background and hum along with the melody, while active listeners try to soak in all different aspects of the music such as the lyrics, the tone of the instruments and the different rhythms and melodies. As a teenager, whenever I discovered a new artists or a song I was really crazy about, I would play that music for people I knew anticipating that they would be able to find the same aspects of the music that I dug so much or even better: perhaps they would hear something that I didn’t and would be able to give me a whole new perspective on the music. Usually I would get a cool response like “oh, it’s ok” or “not bad” or “I don’t know.” I can only think of a couple of people who were able to give me instant feedback and would be able to describe what they heard and reference other music in the process. I realized that a lot of people need time to come to accept new music, particularly music that is challenging and does not use a conventional approach to melody.

This brings me to the pop hook. Popular music of all genres needs to have the pop hook to function. The chorus of the new country song or the beat of the latest hip-hop track all need to have a certain melodic structure in order to get the listener humming along. Modern pop music particularly focuses on a repetitive chorus that is catchy and easy to sing along too. You will rarely hear music that ever breaks this rule on contemporary radio and it is this “hook” that is a necessity for the passive music listener. My friend’s father from Romania used to love singing along to the chorus of Country and Western songs and would just mumble during the verses. The lyrics of the song where irrelevant to him and didn’t really matter, as long as he had that chorus to come back to.

As I listen to Sun Ra’s Spectrum on Sky FM’s Modern Jazz station while I write this blog entry, I think of the vast universe of music that gets left out of the equation when the need for the conventional pop hook usurps all other aspects of music. Many peopled have argued with me that it is this approach to melody and song structures that people are drawn to at an instinctual level. However, I don’t know whether or not this is true. I lived in South Korea for five years (An-yong-hae-se-yo!) and I got the chance to listen to a lot of traditional Korean music. This music (along with other traditional music from across Asia) has a total different point of reference in terms of melody and rhythm than what is found in the western musical cannon. These melodic structures developed out of this society. Unfortunately, this music is nowhere near as popular these days in South Korea as the very commercialized pop music which fills the radios and television sets across the country(though there is great stuff happening in the underground). The westernized pop hook has infected their culture.

What I came to realize was that Korean traditional music requires more active participation from the listener for it to be truly appreciated. And I find that this true of most music that doesn’t follow the conventional pop structure. The listener doesn’t mindlessly hum along to the chorus but rather has to be engaged in the experience. Just as a Thomas Pynchon novel requires more of the reader than one written by Stephen King. Just as a Werner Herzog film requires more of the viewer than one made by James Cameron. However, if the listener, reader or viewer is willing to do the work, then the rewards I think are huge. I would love to see listeners of commercial radio be able to take the time to really appreciate beauty of Indonesian Gamelan music or the compositions of Bela Bartok. But then again maybe I’m dreaming.

In case you didn’t think I liked any pop music, here are some of my favorite pop albums:

  • Brian Eno-Here Comes The Warm Jets
  • The Jesus and The Mary Chain-Psychocandy
  • The Pixies-Doolittle
  • Change Of Heart-Smile
  • The Rheostatics-Introducing Happiness
--James Wallace (jwcwallace@yahoo.com)

Friday, August 24, 2007

Tony Wilson: 1950-2007, RIP

About 2 years ago I caught the movie 24 Hour Party People, directed by Michael Winterbottom, and starring Steve Coogan as Tony Wilson, an impresserio who led the "Madchaster" movement in Manchester, England during the late '70s towards the early '80s, on the heels of the punk rock. Wilson is credited for [among other things] having launched the seminal '80s new wave movement, spearheaded by his backing of Joy Division, which went on to become New Order. More concretely, he helped form the label "Factory Records", and founded a club called The Ha├žienda which was arguably the nucleus of this scene.

While the story of Tony Wilson might be seen as a story of the musical universe, I think it's equal parts the business universe.

While Tony's behaviour was at times erratic, what rose above all else was his sincere dedication to the scene he was promoting. While he was as a matter of intent and instinct, a businessperson, and understood his fiduciary obligations. He believed in what he was promoting, and maintained a rare integrity to the end. Of course, to a certain extent you could argue that this was his downfall, and quite frankly I wonder if he could have had his cake and eat it to.

That said, history has judged him well, and from our perspective here and now, how can we fault him?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Music to my ears: Sprint is spending $5 billion on WiMax

Just read this article.

Sprint claims that their service will reach up to 100 million people upon completion! For those of you who are new to WiMax, it's basically a wireless technology that was originally developed by Motorala under the name Canopy. The technology is a lot like WiFi, but a single WiMax "hotspot" can cover up to a 50 km radius. Furthermore, multiple hotspots can be "meshed" together to form a continuous uninterrupted wireless broadband network.

The future of Internet radio will be intertwined with WiMax, and the availability of cheap GSM/CDMA networks. When people ask me why Internet Radio isn't more popular if it's so great, my answer is: "When the entire population can drive around in their car, and listen to it for practically nothing, then we'll see big changes."

I believe at this point, Internet Radio will see dramatic growth, mainly at the expense of terrestrial and satellite radio. It will be possible for both terrestrial and satellite to carry over large portions of their listenership to Internet radio - especially terrestrial radio which tends to have a local focus. However, satellite radio will be hit hard, and may be forced to reconsider their business model.

Consider this: when I was in Seoul Korea a few years ago, everyone was chatting on their cell phone in the subway. You couldn't get an FM radio signal down there, but you could listen to Internet radio (assuming you could afford the data charges). In a different situation, I was talking to Bob Hamilton from New Star Radio, and he told me that he was RVing around the mountains in Colorada and while his Internet radio connection through his Motorola Q was flawless, but his satellite connection was being constantly interrupted due to line-of-site interferences because the mountains were always getting in the way (this can also happen when driving near high rise buildings).

While I don't claim to be a psychic, there are certain events that can be easily predicted, especially when the march of technology is in clear view (as indicated by $5 billion infrastructure investments). If we look at the telecom markets, it was predicted that once VoIP technology became reliable it would cut into traditional telecom revenues. This is clearly happening right now. I see the emergence of cheap ubiquitous wireless broadband as accelerating the adoption of VoIP, and will carry Internet Radio with it.

Okay, enough technology for now, next blog we'll get back to talking about music.

Stay TUN3D.

Monday, August 13, 2007

From FM Terrestrial to Internet Radio: A DJ's firsthand account

Hi folks,

A short while back, I asked Kevin Hiscock (aka Radio Gnome) of radio hidebound (Dial spot: H9) if he could guest blog on the differences between DJing for a good ole' fashioned terrestrial radio station, and DJing on the Internet.

For me, the DJs studio is one of those iconic locales which I believe has always captured the popular imagination. For me personally, I had a friend who DJed late Saturday nights for the University of Waterloo's college station CKMS. After bugging my buddy for weeks, he let me hang out one night with him, and the place was everything I imagined: tons of records spilling off shelves; studio equipment; but most of all, a strange sense of intimacy with the microphone and the turntables that felt less like "just spinning tracks", but more like speaking your mind. Reading Kevin's reminds me of this time, but also shows me the work that goes into running a station, that at the time I probably took for granted.

So, without further ado: Kevin's first guest blog on his experiences DJing from terrestrial to the Internet
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For me, the two are drastically different. I was "on the air" over 20 years ago playing "brand new music" and now I'm never actually "on the air" and playing, mostly, the music that was brand new over 20 years ago.

For the most part, my "on the air" experience was at WXYC, the college radio station in Chapel Hill, NC. I also spent a year or so at Chapel Hill's only commercial station, an AM Adult Contemporary Hits (at least that's what it was called back then) format. My commercial radio experience was pretty awful and aside from a few possibly funny anecdotes I told over the air, it's not really worth mentioning other than in no way was it fun or "art".

My college radio experience was just the opposite. I loved being on the air, even though at WXYC I hardly ever said anything other than, "that was {some song} by {some artist}, before that we heard blah blah blah and before that was blah blah blah . . . it's 24 minutes before two o'clock . . . you're listening to WXYC . . . and here is a new song from {some artist}.

In order to (eventually) write anything truly meaningful about the difference between "being on the air" on a terrestrial radio station and running an Internet radio station, I should probably write a little about WXYC itself. From the perspective of a DJ, aside from not getting paid (hmmmm . . . I'm sensing a pattern emerging), it was the closest thing to a perfect radio station that I can imagine. While we did have something resembling a format, the format was "anything good and let's focus a bit on music released in the last six months". While we focused on newly released music, a station favourite from many of the jocks was Nick Drake, so keep that in mind I guess. For most of the day's "programming" at 'XYC the only requirement was to play at least five songs every hour from our playbox. Our playbox had three parts, heavy rotation (about 25 records), medium rotation (about 25 other records) and light rotation (another 50 records or so). We were to play three heavies, one medium and one light every hour. Given a specific record in the playbox, we could play any song from that record we wanted to. Other than that, we could play whatever the hell we wanted to. Sometimes I'd play my five rotation songs and sometimes I might only play two or three of them. The new music rotation rule was really more a guideline.

When I started working (if that's the right word) at 'XYC in the fall of 1981, I was a typical 70's prog-rock junkie. I new absolutely nothing about punk, new wave, etc. etc. and, to be honest, didn't even particularly like it. I started on the path of learning about this "New Music" slowly, the station manager would keep telling me to play more new music and less Genesis et. al. and after six months or so I had changed my aural palette. Over the next four or five years, that palette grew and grew and grew. I kept playing Genesis et. al., but I played less and less as time went on and far more Teardrop Explodes and The Church and Rupert Hine - the 80's Rupert Hine, not so much the 70's Rupert Hine. And while I could have done all of this without being on the air, doing so in order to actually be on air and play songs was, I think, different than just listening to new music for myself.

Similar to many college radio stations, I had, for the most part, one two-hour shift every week. Those two hours were precious to me and I was very picky about the songs I played during those two hours. Those two hours were my way of saying, "here is the best music I think is being recorded today". Allow me to introduce you to U2, Echo & the Bunnymen, REM, Dream Syndicate, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic, Martha and the Muffins, Juluka, Guadalcanal Diary, Green on Red, the latest from Kate Bush and Peter Gabriel and David Bowie and Brian Eno and Bill Nelson. While I wasn't playing the Top 40 as defined by Billboard, I was playing the Top 400 as defined by the radio gnome. I would go to the station about 30 minutes before my show started and look at the list of songs played by the jock (we never really used the term "DJ", we were just "jocks") before me and the one before them to know what I couldn't play, since I didn't want to repeat anything they had played. Then I would go into the records library and pull 30-40 records for my two hours. I might not play a song from all 40 records, but I'd pull enough records so I could pick various things based on context. Then I'd take my 40 records into the control room and at the top of the hour, I was on the air.

The biggest part of actually being "on the air" was segues. When I started, I didn't know any segues, I didn't even know what a segue was. But over time I learned how to listen to both the beginning and ending of a song to get ideas about other songs to play before or after a song I was hearing for the first time. For songs in the playbox, if I "heard a great seg", which means I would hear it in my head while the playbox song was playing, I would rarely have the record the song was on in the control room. I'd make a mad dash into the library, pull the record, run back into the control room and cue up my song. Sometimes I made it back to the control in time, sometimes I didn't (oh the joys of college radio). Most of the time I made it back into the control room in time to cue the song. Which brings me to slip-cueing. Our turntables had felt covers on them so one could cue up a song, then a few seconds before the song currently playing would end one would put a thumb on the turntable for stability, put a ring finger (it had to be the ring finger, using the index finger was simply not sexy enough) on the vinyl, start the turntable while holding onto the record and then at an appropriate moment . . . let go . . . and the next song would start at a precise time. After getting reasonably sufficient at slip-cueing, I would actively search out segues with a high degree of difficulty, segues that would require me to . . . let go . . . at the exact split second or have the segue be spoiled. I could write a bit about cold fades and warm fades and false ends, but then we might be here for awhile.

All of this led to a very tactile aspect of being on the air. My fingers were almost constantly touching something while I was on the air. At times it was a bit like playing an instrument and sometimes even slightly athletic.

Fast forward 20-something years to running an Internet radio station. Because I decided to attempt being some kind of time capsule of what I did at WXYC, there is not much of a new music component to radio hidebound and definitely not one where the whole point is to find the best of everything released this week. There is also no real concept of "being on the air". I'm never really "on the air" at all. I suppose I could sit down and run the station manually for a couple of hours, but . . . why?

Instead of pulling of records from the library at WXYC, I rip CDs into mp3 files.

Instead of listening to boatloads of new music, I review the mp3 files to make sure they are technically okay and list the songs from each record I want to include in the playlist for radio hidebound.

Instead of sitting in the control room with a pile of LPs leaning against a cabinet, I load the mp3 files of songs I like into my broadcasting software's database.

Instead of opening boxes of promotional records we would receive at 'XYC, I search for CDs I to buy. Yes, I have to plunk down my own money to buy CDs I want to play on the station. WXYC would get promotional copies of everything under the sun.

Instead of opening my mic to say "it's 24 minutes before 2:00", I record canned mp3 file station IDs that say things like "it's 24 minutes before 24 minutes from now . . . you're listening to radio hidebound". I have no idea what time it will be when the station ID gets played and I have no idea what time zone a listener might be in when they hear it.

Instead of taking requests to play specific songs over the phone, I answer posts in my online forum about, well, whatever a listener wants to say.

Instead of having a personal Top 400 list of songs to choose from once a week, I have a library of over 10,000 "songs that don't suck" playing in an endless loop with various controls in place so that the same song or musician doesn't get repeated too frequently.

Instead of personally selecting what song to play next, I leave that to the logic of the software I use. Having said that, I am almost constantly amazed at how good most of the segs I hear on radio hidebound are. Sometimes there are some real losers, but in general I think they are pretty good and sometimes I'll hear two songs played together which I would never have thought of playing together and be thrilled at how well they blended together.

Instead of broadcasting to a very small potential audience in Chapel Hill, NC, I am broadcasting to the largest potential audience possible, the world.

Finally . . . there is all of the technology involved in running an Internet radio station and the reality that I'm responsible for all of it working. I didn't have to worry about anything like this at WXYC. Walking into 'XYC was like flipping on a light switch, I expected everything to work and if something wasn't working, all I could do was call the station's engineer. Now I'm responsible for:

- making sure my DSL connection is working
- maintaining the various computers involved in running radio hidebound
- installing, configuring, enhancing and trouble-shooting my broadcasting software
- connecting to my broadcast host and dealing with the bills, etc.
- making sure I'm legal with all licensing issues
- ftp'ing files to a non-php HTML host server (the original "web presence" for radio hidebound)
- installing, configuring, enhancing and trouble-shooting my own portfolio of php-based software to provide for an on-line community experience for my listeners
- making whatever vain attempts at marketing I can think of

Today, I probably spend more time on the community parts of radio hidebound than I do on the station itself. Of course I keep adding songs to the playlist, but doing so takes very little time, other than spending time listening to a record I'm unfamiliar with several times before deciding which songs to add. A process which takes a little longer than one might think because I also spend a lot of time simply listening to the station itself. Listening to my station. In part to make sure it is still on the air, but mostly because I simply enjoy listening to it. If I didn't, why would I go to all of this trouble in the first place? While, of course, I want to have other people listening to the station to feel somehow important, mostly I just want to enjoy listening to it. If someone else enjoys listening, great, if not, that's okay too.
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Friday, August 10, 2007

We got our first award. And, introducing new guest blogger

Hi folks,

We won an award to today! We won the MashupAward of the Day. We're all feeling a bit chuffed today.

I also wanted to take this opportunity to introduce a guest blogger for Monday's post. I've already taken a peak, and quite frankly, this is one of the most interesting blogs I've read in a long time. Namely, Kevin Hiscock (aka Radio Gnome) has generously furnished TUN3R with his first-hand account of transitioning from a terrestrial DJ to an Internet DJ.

This is a story I've been waiting to hear for a long time. Folks, this is what the Internet is all about. As much as I'm into new technology, it's these types of stories where I get off my ass to print out a hardcopy, and take it with me on the subway and read from beginning to end. This is the real shit folks.

Stay TUN3D.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Dial Presets (bookmarks) now live

We now have TUN3R Dial Presets!

In a nutshell this allows you to bookmark your favourite stations, and then quickly jump from Preset to Preset, using the left and right arrow buttons next to the "Bookmark" field, found in the station details area just beneath The Dial.

This is a feature I've been dying to see for a while now. While I think this feature is a no-brainer, what I think will make it more useful than the bookmark feature in most media players, is that TUN3R is not restricted to any media format (we're close to rolling out support for Windows Streaming Media-only stations), so you'll be able to flip through all your favourite stations from one place.

We've also made it cookie based, so effectively we're storing the bookmarks directly into a browser cookie. This basically means that if you change browsers (e.g. from IE to Firefox) you may lose your Presets. We're working on a simple way of embedding Presets into a web address (URL) so you'll be able to easily save them in your Favourites, and e-mail them to your friends and family. We took this approach instead of forcing you to sign up for a TUN3R account, as quite frankly, there's no need to force users to register, and we want to keep things as simple as possible.

We're now working on another feature that's a bit more ambituous than Presets, and we're even more stoked about that one, but for now let us know what you think of the Presets, and how we might improve them to make your life simpler.

Stay TUN3D.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Another Rant

This is James Wallace's second blog entry for TUN3R.com.

Btw, folks we just updated the FAQ to explain The Dial a bit better. Check it out at: http://tun3r.com/faq.html

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Hi folks! In my last blog entry I made a slight error. I described Radio Hidebound as a hardcore punk station. This is actually not true. On my iTunes player, I have Radio Hidebound right next to PHC radio. Radio Hidebound is in fact a station that is trying replicate the sound of college radio during the eighties and they don’t really venture into full on punk hardcore sounds. They do however play many great bands from the 1980’s underground such as The Violent Femmes, Rain Parade, Dumptruck, The Feelies and Mission Of Burma. They don’t solely play bands from the eighties but that is there prime focus and it is a great all around station. PHC radio is a totally kick ass station and is the place to go to hear hardcore punk. I wish this station had been around when I was eighteen. Every time I listen, I hear punk greats such as Crass, Oi Polloi, The Exploited, The Lurkers, Dayglo Abortions, The Bruisers and numerous others. They don’t completely confine themselves to the genre as I have heard Devo, Killing Joke, Skinny Puppy and even both Blondie and Nina Hagen played in the mix. I love this station.

The way in which music is promoted and consumed is very different than it was in the classic rock era. Back then, there was not this same over saturated hype machine that exists in this day and age. Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd did not have to release singles that would be oversaturated on the radio, create a cheesy video to go along with it, appear on the talk shows and get write ups in magazines that have nothing to do with music. The music seemed to have much more of a mystery to it. I recently heard one music critic (sorry his name escapes me) say “the music was out there and the people believed in it.” Major labels gave the bands much more freedom and would allow them to experiment. This situation is a rarity these days.

Imagine if the Strokes had just been a band that was out there and touring and was not oversaturated with hype. Imagine if they gradually began to build a fan base and their legacy began to spread through word of mouth. They would have not been suffocated by the whole marketing hype machine that surrounded their first release. In the conversations that I’ve had with my friends, they point out that artists could potentially subvert the whole music industry by releasing their music entirely through the internet and could build a fan base through word of mouth, file sharing, and being played on independent radio stations. I’m sure there are artists taking this approach and would love to see a whole wave of artists stick it to the man. But for me this begs another question: How do we convince people to take more interest in trying to discover their own music rather than simply being passive consumers waiting for the major labels to show them what they should be listening to? Maybe my expectations are too high. Our society cares more about Paris Hilton than Darfur. And in turn entertainment is far more important than art.

Here are some bands/artists that I wish were more well known.

  1. The Fall
  2. Wire
  3. The Pop Group
  4. Gang of Four
  5. The Birthday Party
  6. Savage Republic
  7. No Means No
  8. Can
  9. Victim’s Family
  10. The Residents
  11. Pere Ubu
  12. John Fahey
  13. Henry Cow
  14. Chrome
  15. The Silver Apples
  16. Sonny Sharrock
  17. Mx-80 Sound
  18. Simply Saucer
  19. John Zorn
  20. Swans
  21. The Ex
  22. Sun Ra
  23. James Chance
  24. Lydia Lunch
  25. Discharge
You can read about these bands at: http://www.allmusic.com/
-James Wallace (jwcwallace@yahoo.com)
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Neil writing now. Thanks James!
I just want to mention that I was contacted by another James Wallace - who is the CEO of http://priceprotectr.com/
It turns out he's also a music buff who's used TUN3R, and read this blog, and was floored when he read about my buddy James also being a music buff. We had a great conversation on the phone, and now I know two cool James Wallace's. Hey, how's that for serendipity.
So, calling all James Wallace's and Neil Hepburn's out there - feel free to contact me. You never know what will happen.

Stay TUN3D.