Wednesday, December 31, 2008

TUN3R's Top 10 Pop Hooks in Rotation from 2008

One of the things I'm always on the lookout for is the next addictive Pop Hook. Pop Hook's by their nature tend to be ephemeral and can be annoying after a while. I once heard a story that George Harrison wrote the song "I've got my mind set on you" to prove that it's trivial to write an addictive Pop Hook. Harrison actually never wrote the song (it was written by Rudy Clark), but to me, that's like Albert Einstein saying that science is easy if you just give it a shot. But I sort of get Harrison's point. What I will say is this: in the same way that Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt tend to have access to better scripts than say Christian Slater, many big pop stars tend to have access to better Pop Hooks than your average performer. But there's something Darwinian about Top 40 charts which allows so many unknowns to appear, and in fact I would say that the Top 40 depends on an unending stream of "One Hit Wonders" to consistently engage listeners.

Although I'm not a Musicologist by training, I reckon that the first person who could regularly crank out Top 40 Pop Hooks was Johann Sebastian Bach. In an interview in Wired magazine, Brian Eno put forth the argument that "structured" music was necessary during the baroque and classical eras because you might only be able to attend a live performance once in a lifetime and would want to get your money's worth. He went on to point out that Jazz music was only possible through the invention of the phonograph because it was possible to listen to the same piece of music several times over, and thus begin to appreciate its nuance. To prove his point, he placed a tape recorder at a busy urban intersection and recorded 20 minutes of audio. He listened to the tape at least 50 times and noticed that what previously sounded random began to sound structured. It's cool stuff, but today I'm here to talk about Pop Hooks, and lay out my list.

What makes a great Pop Hook? I don't think there are any hard and fast rules, but I'll list a few basic criteria:

  1. You should derive enjoyment the first, second, or third time listening to the song.
  2. You should be able to listen to it at least 50 times before growing sick of it.
  3. Young children should also be able to appreciate the melody.
  4. There should be some aspect that is unique and distinguished to the Hook. Many Pop Hooks sound recycled from previous songs, and are already spent by the first listen.
  5. Often a Pop Hook benefits from a unique dovetailing of the singer's voice with the melody. As such, Pop Hook's can even emerge from unlikely sources like Ozzy Osborne. You can't separate "Crazy Train"s melody from Ozzy's voice. To do so would surely undermine its Pop Hook.
  6. The Pop Hook is in a way modular, and can be easily repurposed into other genres, such as: uptempo dance music. You'll often hear baroque and classical melodies repurposed into modern dance and hip hop songs.
  7. In rare circumstances, lyrics and the story behind them can drive a Pop Hook.
If you're hunting for Pop Hook's, a good place to go is the Dance Hit stations. Stations that stand out for me are: Energy 98, iPartyRadio, Maxxima, and Lolliradio Dance. If you're more into alternative music, an excellent station is Pig Radio which really stands on its own, but Soma's Indie Pop Rocks! ain't bad either. And I would be remiss not to mention both Luxuria and Soma's Illinois Street Lounge which live in a parallel Pop Hook universe. But this is only a tiny smattering of picks, and many other similarly excellent stations are out there which I haven't listed (but feel free to ask me).

Without further ado I present to you my picks for Top 10 Pop Hooks in rotation from 2008:

Ten: Because I Love you (September)
What is it about Scandinavian singers and world class Pop Hooks, I'll never know. Actually, having lived in Copenhagen for 3 years, I do have some theories which I'll blog about another time. In this department, honourable mention should go to Lucky by Lucky Twice which would be on this list if there was enough room, but there's not. Better luck next time Lucky Twice.

Nine: Just Dance (Lady GaGa & Colby O'Donis)
This is probably the most recognizable song on this list, and some of you may be sick of hearing this song by now. Sure it's been overplayed, but I still enjoy it. While many songs with great Pop Hooks struggle to fill time between the Hook, this song never feels like it's killing any time. It's what I admire about great bands like The Beatles, The Pixies, Nirvana, and The Strokes.

Eight: The Longest Road (Morgan Page remixed by Daedmus)
There's a line in the movie "The Blues Brothers" where Belushi and Akyroyd arrive at a bar they are scheduled to play at. They ask the owner what kind of music they normally play. She responds by saying: "We play both kinds of music: Country and Western." It's a joke, but I've always wondered if there is an element of truth to it. Is there such a thing as "Western music" that is distinct from "Country Music". I dunno. But if there was, I would peg The Longest Road as one of the best "Western" songs I've ever heard. In fact the very first time I heard this song on the radio, I paused and thought "Wow! That's a very cool sound I haven't quite heard before." I once drove from San Francisco to Toronto, and this song reminds me of driving through the stretches through Nevada and Utah.

Seven: 4 AM (Kaskade)
As anyone who knows me, Blade Runner is one of my favourite movies of all time. The soundtrack by Vangelis is untouchable. As Moby described it:
The contrast makes it: a relentlessly gritty film with this ethereal music on top of it. Without the music, the movie would have been good. But with the music, it was close to perfect.
While I hesitate to compare Kaskade to Vangelis, there is something very Blade Runner-esque about 4 AM that appeals to me. In fact, if you were to replace the end credit song of Blade Runner with this one (perhaps in some new Full/Alternate/Fan/Directors Cut), I wouldn't take offence.

Six: The One (Sharam & Daniel Bedingfield)
Award goes to The One for the least time wasted to get to the Pop Hook. What is it about male falsetto singers and Pop Hooks? I once saw a movie called Farinelli about a Castrato singer (of the same name). That's right, there was a time where people would sacrifice having children to achieve the perfect voice. We don't have Castrati singers anymore, and the best grown men can do is a falsetto voice. There may be some hope for us Castrati deprived listeners. I recently read that researchers in Turkey have located a puberty gene, and there are actually rare instances of people who can never hit puberty. Hey, where there's crisis there's opportunity.

Five: Sensual (PhonJaxx)
If you enjoy listening to music while having sex, you may appreciate this song.

Four: Underneath (Alanis Morissette - remixed by Morgan Page)
One of the more substantial songs on this list. Alanis has one of those incredibly versatile voices that has its own ability to generate Pop Hooks. Morgan Page's remix nicely re-frames the wonderful Hooks in this richly textured song.

Three: What You Got (Colby O'Donis featuring Akon)
This song is grounded in its narrative and lyrics. From a pure melody perspective there are better songs on this list, but what this song illustrates to me at least, is that the Pop Hook can often transcend melody if it is well supported by the right lyrics. In some ways written poetry pre-dates the musical Pop Hook, and while I'm sure my friends would tease me for saying this - there is some decent poetry in this song.

Two: Your Love Still Haunts Me (Joseph remixed by DJ Bam Bam)
This song is State-of-the-Art for 2008. If you asked me to define what a State-of-the-Art song for 2008 sounds like, I would play Your Love Still Haunts Me. Apologies for the useless circular definition. This song will put you in your own Starship.

One: You You You (James Kakande - remixed by Alex Gaudino)
This song came out in 2006, but is still in rotation on some stations - and rightfully so. It's one of my favourite songs of all time. There is something perfectly effortless, playful, and sentimental about this song that it can often bring a tear of joy to my eye. There are a few perfect songs out there. This is one them.

Looking over this list I've probably missed a lot of big name Pop Hookers. Where's Madonna, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Timbaland, Justin Timberlake, and Beyonce Knowles you ask? I like a lot of this stuff too, but it tends to get overplayed to the point where I'm burned out. But I also find that they tend to be more risk averse and will write songs that are enjoyable after the first or second listen, but burn out after 10-15 listens.

So what's in store for TUN3R in 2009? That would be our iPhone app.

Stay TUN3D.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Interview: ErrorFM's Eric Howey discusses the past present and future of collaborative radio

A while back I interviewed a deejay (Manny) from a station called Nekkid Radio. What intrigued me about Nekkid Radio was the fact that they are distributed all over the world across hemispheres and continants, and yet manage to keep the music flowing as well any terrestrial station. To whit - Manny referred to Nekkid as "a global party". Since then I've encountered other stations that have also adopted this model. ErrorFM is one of those stations.

Listening to ErrorFM is like listening to a well funded terrestrial station. The imaging is great, the deejays sound like pros, and there is a decent amount of talk programming. While a lot of people strictly want music, I quite enjoy the context a good DJ provides to the music experience.

But what are the limits of this model. Is it the way of the future, or a temporal niche. In this interview with Eric Howey from ErrorFM, I hope to shed some light on the matter.

Q1 Neil: Eric, thanks very much for taking part in this interview. How did ErrorFM get its start? What's the back story?

A1 Eric: Neil, it's a pleasure to be here. Thank you for your interest in ErrorFM. We are quite proud of the station we have built. ErrorFM is a listener-controlled radio station based in the UK. It was originally a small shoutcast server run by Emohawk of External Error, streaming off his own pc. He used to broadcast a selection of whatever music was found cluttering up his hard drive. Today, it has turned into a fully-operational 24/7 Live radio station, with all kinds of DJ's all over the world. As Manny from Nekkid said, "a global party" is the best way to describe us.

Q2 Neil: What music does ErrorFM mainly play? What is your average listener profile?

A2 Eric: ErrorFM has two channels that are totally different from each other. Channel 1 began in 2002, a free for all where hosts log in and broadcast whatever they like. There were no rules, and no restrictions. We created channel 2 because we wanted a place listeners can listen if they don't like what they hear on ch1, and to experiment.

We decided to play indie pop/AAA music in the summer of 2007. We created a programming design out of all of the songs we enjoyed listening to. We narrowed down the list by looking up the Wikipedia page of all the artists we collectively believed made up the core of the format. We have 6 ch2 Music Directors, from other countries all over the world looking for music for ch2. We built clock patterns & experiment with specific programming, targeted to the young adult and their parent. You can call it a Daddy & Daughter station. The format is called indie pop/AAA to reference what we believe is the next progression in rock radio, but the format has no specific catchy name or reference. It's closely related to New AAA.

Q3 Neil: I like the fact that you've got a decent amount of talk programming. Can you tell me about some of the shows you've got in this regard?

A3 Eric: Our talk shows are what radio used to be. They empower the broadcaster to say whatever they want, speak what's on their mind. A lot of our talk shows are very opinionated and some are just flat out silly. The Friday Shot Day Show is a show that features a bunch of guys drinking the strangest concoctions of alcohol while talking about showbiz. Tilted Talk radio is a talk show about life, culture and every day stupidity with blunt opinions and political incorrectness. It's talk that actually interests people and isn't controlled by a program director on a power trip. We also encourage an interactive radio experience by utilizing our chat room. If you ever want to talk with the DJ's, more than likely you will find them in the chat room. If you haven't checked out the chat room yet, you're missing a huge part of the true ErrorFM experience.

Q4 Neil: Where are all your DJs and personalities logging in from? How do you manage this.

A4 Eric: Using a combination of standard software and custom built applications; we make the technical management possible for DJ's to broadcast from all over the world. We have put years of development into this process and created a solution that works for us. Our DJ's also find our custom system easy to use and manageable on their end.

Q5 Neil: Can anyone participate as a DJ for ErrorFM? What do you look for in new applicants?

A5 Eric: Absolutely! Our DJ staff is located from all around the world. We have DJ's ranging from the United States, to Europe, to far east Asia. We look for applicants who have a passion for music or radio and have the creative spark that brings a unique experience to our listeners. Experience is not required but creativeness is. Anyone who would like to apply as a DJ for us can visit and fill out our application.

Q6 Neil: Is ErrorFM as a commercial venture, a not-for-profit, or something in between? If it's not commercial, do you see this model as being a viable commercial alternative to the current mode of running a radio station?

A6 Eric: As of now we are a listener supported station. We have considered going commercial but we are finding it difficult to figure out an approach that won't interfere with our feel. We really frown on having commercials on air. I feel we could go commercial if we can still cater to the small artist; we also strongly feel that we should continue our "free for all" channel 1 broadcasting. If we could find advertisers that would be interested in this kind of programming, then I don't see we couldn't switch to a commercialized model.

Q7 Neil: Once of concerns about the collaborative model is that it tends to be DJ-centric. For example, there is a dearth of kids music stations on the Internet. I have two young children who would love a station that plays Raffi and The Backyardigans, but don't know many people interested in actually playing that stuff. Forgetting about ErrorFM - do you see the collaborative model as viable for all types of formats, or only certain formats?

A7 Eric: A format is only as collaborative as the program director will make it. Our Director of Programming Barry Funkhouser works in the commercial radio industry and he knows where it has gone terribly wrong. Its technology restricts it from being able to broadcast that kind of programming without having a major listener tune out. Web radio makes this possible by offering channels that can vary in programming to accommodate this. This goes more along the lines of our channel 1 model. We can have certain DJ's that play Raffi and if certain listeners do not like it, they can switch to another channel without leaving the station.

Q8 Neil: Is there an ErrorFM theme song? If not, what would it be?

A8 Eric: Well for years our transitional DJ music has been Sofa Surfers – Sofa Rockers the Richard Dorfmeister remix. I suppose this qualifies as a theme song. Why not break tradition.

Q9 Neil: What are the future plans for ErrorFM?

A9 Eric: Honestly, we have no idea! ErrorFM has been an experiment since its first day of broadcast and as of now we are still in those stages. We know that we want to be a supporter of independent music and artists, but we are still figuring out a strategy to make a business out of it. As an independent artist, I feel that it is way too hard for us to get any airplay. I would like to change that.

Monday, September 29, 2008

2008 Webcaster Settlement Act / The Payola Paradox / My advice to Webcasters

CNET News just reported that the 2008 Webcaster Settlement Act has passed. I'll be honest with you, my knowledge of this Act is scant, other than the basic gist of it. In fact, I'm embarrassed to admit this, but I hadn't even heard of it until today. I checked Wikipedia and couldn't find any info on it. Googling "webcaster settlement act" turned up a number of results for news stories, such as the CNET story. There are also results for a 2002 Webcaster Settlement Act, which I'm presuming is different from the 2008 Settlement Act. I occasionally check in with Kurt Hanson's Radio and Internet Newsletter (RAIN), and Radio World Online, and don't recall any mention of this bill in the last few weeks (admittedly I don't check these sites every day). I also read a number radio blogs, and no mention there either. I'm not implying anything conspiracy-like. Rather, I'm amazed how quickly this thing has gone from virtually unknown to congressional sign-off. But let me explain why I think this is...

In essence (and this is all based on my reading of the CNET article) the Act allows for webcasters to negotiate directly with copyright holders (read RIAA), and negotiate lower royalties than what are stipulated by the Copyright Royalty Board's decision. So what does this all mean, and why did this new Settlement Act pass through so quickly when the Internet Radio Equality Act stalled?

My guess is that Tim Westergren (founder of Pandora) convinced RIAA that it was making them more money than it was costing them. Namely, Pandora (like many other webcasters), sells music through it site. While I have no idea what kind of margin Pandora gets for each sale, I do know that most of that money goes back to RIAA's major labels. While the overall amount of cash going back to the labels might be less than what RIAA could have got had they received the original CRB rated royalty, it's still an overall net profit for RIAA's labels. Therefore, if Pandora were to shutter its service, the music industry would effectively be "cutting off their nose to spite their face". I suspect this is why Pandora has restricted its service to US customers only. I suspect this is why Pandora has been publicly threatening to shut down its service.

I will get back to the Settlement Act in just a minute, but want to discuss a related piece of news first. Namely, a couple weeks ago Wired reported that Adman Doug Perslson proposed a business model around Payola. Wired's journalist (Eliot Van Buskirk) did a good job at explaining the background and the idea, but was ultimately dismissive of the concept. My take on payola? It's now both inherent and irrelevant to radio. This sounds like a paradox, but let me explain. Payola as you may know is the illegal practice of paying off stations to force their deejays to play music so as to boost the music's sales. The reason it failed listeners is that the music wasn't always what deejays wanted to play, and by extension what listeners were counting on the deejays to play for them. Now things are different. Because of affiliate programs (like the iTunes affiliate program), anyone and everyone is in a position to "sell" music. Remember all those innocent mix tapes you made as a teenager for your friends. Back then it was all about making a cool tape that you were hoping your friends would appreciate, or that you could turn them on to new music. Now all you need to do is fill out a form or two and get paid for doing just that. Does this mean you would create a tape that would sell better? Take some time to think about this. I think you'll realize that you would make the same recommendations since your objective (unless you're some kind of sadist) is to turn your friend on to new music that you think they would like. Not only do you know your friends and family better than anyone else, but you also influence them the most too. Take me for example. My friend James (who's blogged here before) turned me on to tons of music, and never saw a cent from any of this. While I doubt he would have got rich off me, he was always a guy I looked to. For a non-conformist, and skeptic of capitalism, James probably made more money for the music industry through his recommendations than anyone else I know. If he were to be paid after-the-fact with no pressure on his decisions before-the-fact, I doubt he would have changed his behaviour much, apart from possibly recommending even more music.

So what's my advice for webcasters? My advice is (if you haven't done so already) to sign up for one or more affiliate/associate programs (e.g. iTunes,, and remind listeners that if they like the track they're hearing they should buy it from your site to keep the station going. For now, streams are not the same as a custom radio application like Pandora or, so it's harder to be sure that your recommendation results in a purchase from your site (hence my skepticism that webcasters are out of the woods yet). This is why it's important to remind people of where they should go to make their purchase if they like the song. It will be these numbers which will be your strongest argument if it ever comes to negotiation with the labels.

The good news is that the message is finally hitting home that Internet radio is making the labels money and not taking away. Common sense prevails!

Stay TUN3D.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Interview: Athena Reich Shares an Artists's Perspective on The Business of Art

I've known Athena since I was in high school (or maybe it was middle school). She was friends with my sister but unlike other friends my sister brought over, Athena always stood out. Back then I knew Athena as a "free spirit" who was passionate about all things artistic: Singing, writing, dancing, acting, and even painting. But at that age it's sometimes hard to tell apart those that talk about going off and becoming an artist, and those that actually do, and succeed. I even know someone who was on Degrassi Junior/High during the same period. And although he's still working in the film industry, he's no longer in front of the camera. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Choosing art as a career path is incredibly risky. But if you were to choose the arts as a career path, you'd do a lot worse than to follow in Athena's footsteps. Here are but a few small lessons I've learned from Athena:

  1. Move to New York City and start showing up to auditions.
  2. Always keep writing and other acts of creativity going. Keep releasing stuff and booking gigs.
  3. Nurture all of your talents.
  4. Learn how to market your abilities.
  5. Look for other opportunities your talents can be used to earn a living (e.g. teaching).
Because it's rare to find such a savvy artist, I thought I'd take this opportunity to learn more about "The Business of Art" (to use an expression borrowed from another great Canadian artist, Tegan & Sara)...

Q1 Neil: Thanks for taking the time for this interview! Last time we spoke you were recovering from surgery to remove polyps on your throat. You're not supposed to sing. I know you've got a lot of other talents to fall back on, but this sounds rough. How are you coping with this? What's the prognosis?

A1 Athena: I got hit with a really bad bout of bronchitis last spring and there might have been some pneumonia mixed in with it. The doctors are guessing that the virus damaged a nerve in one of my vocal chords and partially paralyzed it. Or, it is possible that I was born with a partially paralyzed vocal chord, and never noticed it until now, although that scenario is less likely. At the time, I was also teaching a lot (music & theater), auditioning constantly (musical theater), and recording my 5th CD on the weekends. Partially paralyzed vocal chord + extensive use = polyp.

A polyp is a little bump, caused by a blood vessel bursting. Luckily, mine was small, and stuck out from the vocal chord, so it was easily removable. I went to the best doctors in the city, who specialize in working with professional singers. The surgeon removed the polyp with laser surgery, using the latest technology. I went through speech therapy afterwards. All in all, I couldn't talk, off and on, for 3 months. It was really challenging to live life as a mute!

couldn't sing, write songs, or audition. I couldn't even talk when I went to the grocery store, or to my lover at night. So I typed a whole bunch and started drawing constantly. I took life drawing classes and created oil pastel portraits in the middle of the night when all my pent up fears and frustrations would surface.

Visual art was my first love, before I discovered performing at age 9. I always thought I would come back to it, when I was ready to calm down a bit. Well, this was a forced slowing down!

I ended up having one of the "quickest recoveries ever" (as quoted by my speech therapist), and am now back to singing, auditioning, and talking as much as ever. There is no evidence that I had any surgery on my vocal chord. Even the doctor was surprised that there was absolutely no scaring, only 2 weeks after surgery. I still have partial paralysis on my vocal chord, as that is not something you can heal with surgery. The doctors say it might go away over time, or it might stay, but that it doesn't really matter. "The proof is in the pudding", they say. If I can sing, talk, and belt out a tune as much as I could before (which I can), then I am golden. Apparently, lots of professional singers (opera, rock, musical theater etc), have funky things like partial paralysis. All it really means is that I have to continue to take good care of myself.

It's a good life lesson, in the end. I am taking Pilates classes, and maintaining a healthier lifestyle, with less stress and more fruits & vegetables. I've become a better singer, and voice teacher, with all that I have learned. And I am still drawing. I have even begun selling my work!

Q2 Neil: Your background is diverse and quite robust. Napoleon Dynamite famously said people need "skills" to be successful. You're flush in this department. How would you describe your "skills", and what talent gave you your first big break?

A2 Athena: Acting, Singing, Writing, Performing, Business, and Teaching are some of my strongest talents. I think my secret is that I am also talented at learning. I can quickly pick up new skills. For example, I just started learning tap and am having a ball! Maybe it's because I'm a Gemini that I constantly crave new creative outlets.

What gave me my first break was acting. I was intensely devoted to it as a child and got my first agent at age 12. I quickly began performing in TV, Films, Commercials & Theater. Sometimes I worry that I might be spreading myself too thin, by nurturing my visual talents at the same time that I'm auditioning, releasing my 5th CD, and taking up Tap. But, they say "Follow Your Bliss". And I am so happy when I just let myself create, learn, and express as I please.

Q3 Neil: I've asked you about royalties in the past, and part of your income is being supported through royalties as a writer. Is this system working for you? Is there any way in which you would change it?

A3 Athena: Honestly, I'm not making that much money through royalties. There have been times when I performed on commercial radio or TV and never saw a cent. But then every now and then I get a check and I have no idea why. I think all in all it's a pretty good system. It would be great if we could start making royalties off Internet radio. Although that won't happen until Internet radio starts making money, I imagine.

Q4 Neil: As for music itself, with the Internet it would appear that many smaller artists are now able to get a toehold and launch a successful career, whereas before they couldn't get beyond a local "scene". Is this how you see it?

A4 Athena: Yes, we do have the tools to launch ourselves into cyberland more than ever now. But there is a plethora of talent, and now that anyone can create a CD or YouTube Video, it's more difficult for the average consumer to really support any one artist. Although anyone can gather hundreds, or even thousands of fans on MySpace, it does not mean those fans will translate into dollars. And now, more than ever, the most successful artists are those who have millions of dollars in publicity behind them. In the 70's A & R reps used to actually go to clubs, scouting for original talent. Today, labels are very conservative, and mainly sign artists who fit into their cookie cutter molds for success.

For example, I have a friend who got a major record deal. He was a model and dancer. He told them, quite bluntly, that he can't sing. They said they didn't care, that they could teach him how to sing. He had a marketable look and body, so he got the deal. Now, on the other hand, the Regina Spektors and Arcade Fires of the world are still getting signed, so how do you add them into the equation? Basically, it's the luck factor. Most original talent is not getting signed, but every now and then, the golden rays of "being discovered" shine down on an original soul and give them a break. How do you increase your chances of getting a 'break'? Build fans, create a cyberpresence, perform live, audition, do what you love, take care of yourself, don't give up, and leave the rest up to fate. You might get a big break, you might get a series of small breaks, but if you stick with it, I believe good things come to those who are talented and work hard.

Q5 Neil: When I last saw you perform at "Not My Dog" in Toronto, you joked that it was the gig that Facebook built. I agree, but I also thought it was one of the coziest performances I've ever attended. There was a convivial mood in the room that night that was palpable. To what extent does Facebook and MySpace help nurture your audience?

A5 Athena: Facebook helped me reconnect with friends and acquaintances I had lost touch with over the years. That night was my first gig in Toronto in over a year, and since that time, I had joined facebook. Toronto is my home town, and I've been living in New York City for the past 8 years. That night was one of those rare nights where everyone showed up and most people were connected to each other in some way. It was a completely magical night. Not every gig is as magical, and I sense that people are losing their lust for facebook, just as the addiction to MySpace has slowed down. I wonder what the next networking buzz will be?

Q6 Neil: You're the NYC correspondent for Toronto's ProudFM 103.9, and have worked in their studios. What's it like working for a radio station? What does your job entail?

A6 Athena: I report on gay life & culture in New York City. I phone in, a couple times a month, and talk about the arts, night life, and queer scene in New York City. I got the gig because I had emailed them, and asked if they would be interested in interviewing me, in promotion for my upcoming performance at "Not My Dog". The interview went great, and I emailed them afterwards to suggest that I become their NY correspondent. They thought it was a great idea. So basically, I got the job because I gave them the idea for the job. If I were to give advice to newbie artists, I would say use your creative faculties when promoting yourself. Create your own work. Create your own visibility.

Q7 Neil: Radio used to be (and still is according to recent stats from Jupiter Research) a major means teens discover new music. I think radio's role is shifting though. How do you see radio?

A7 Athena: I think that it's very hip to discover new music on YouTube or MySpace. Radio does expose teens to new music, but the underground Indie scene is very alive and prominent in their lives as well.

Q8 Neil: Your music is very personal and emotional, so this is perhaps a tough question. Is there a single song you've written (or heard) that best captures the essence of Athena Reich?

A8 Athena: That is a tough question. My first instinct is to say that that's an impossible question to answer, as my essence is wildly diverse in feeling, expression, and genre. But.. if I had to pick one song, I think it would be "White Bandages". It starts out tentative and sad, and builds to a passionate cry for survival, amidst a sea of destruction and self hatred. A lot of my songs express a struggling spirit, determined to thrive in the throws of adversity.

Q9 Neil: What's on your horizon?

A9 Athena: My 5th CD will be released in the next few months. I will promote the CD by touring, creating YouTube Videos, and getting it out to important people in the industry, like Film & TV Music Directors, agents, etc. I also have some exciting auditions coming up. I will continue to draw and sell my work. I will continue to take care of myself, follow my bliss, and create art for the love of it, despite adversity.

Monday, August 11, 2008

[James Wallace recalls] Some Memories From the Past

This is a guest post from James Wallace.
I became a teenager in the late 1980’s (I was born in 1973) and like most kids, I was interested in music. Having spent my elementary and middle school years being saturated with the commercial pop of the day such as Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Bananarama, Corey Hart and Phil Collins, I began to suspect that there might be more interesting music out there to listen too. I always suspected that the pop of the eighties was based far more on hype and media saturation, rather than real substance. I could see a direct parallel between the way which this music was consumed and the desire of many of my classmates to wear all the hip brands like Polo, Roots, Ocean Pacific or Lacoste. There was a certain disposability to these songs.

My instinct about the nature of this music was confirmed for me when I began listening to music from the 1960’s and 70’s such as The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Now here was music that was rich, passionate and seemed to place a greater emphasis on creativity and artistic vision rather than commercial marketing. I began to feel cheated that I was living in the culturally vapid acid wash jeans wearing era of the late eighties. I wished that I had been entering grade nine in the late sixties or early seventies.

However, as my knowledge of music expanded, I soon realized the time I was living in was not as bleak as I had once thought. I began to discover the huge underground music scene of the eighties. This music represented numerous genres and I soon found myself listening to everything from The Violent Femmes to Danzig, from the Forgotten Rebels to Bauhaus, from Bad Brains to Sonic Youth. This music had the same focus on creativity as the music from the sixties and seventies that I loved so much. What was also interesting to me was that the vast majority of my high school classmates seemed to have no clue that any of these bands or artists even existed. This rich tapestry of sounds was there for me and my friends to enjoy.

When Nirvana’s breakthrough came in 1991(I was in my final year of high school), a whole generation of music listeners felt that they had been waken out of a cationic state of bad eighties music. “Grunge” and “Alternative” had become the soundtrack of a new generation and it seemed that some really decent rock music had finally permeated the mainstream. It was great to see bands like Nirvana and Soundgarden at the top of the charts and bands like Mudhoney and even The Melvins getting all kinds of press coverage. Much harder edge bands like Ministry, Helmet and The Rollins Band were even becoming better known. What I found tragic about this situation though was that all the bands that were the pre-cursors to this current crop of bands didn’t get anywhere the same amount of recognition. Bands such as Black Flag (well at least Rollins was getting his due), Hüsker Dü, Flipper, Killdozer and Mission of Burma remained relatively unknown to mainstream ears and were not touched by commercial alternative radio. The musical revolution that had hit mainstream radio in 1991 had been in fact at least ten years in the making. But it was still wonderful to see decent music becoming part of the mainstream.

It only took a couple of years before the mainstream tamed and reformed this “new” musical sound. Soon we were subjected to The Presidents of the United States, Sugar Ray and other easily digested forms of pop. The good music was generally back in the underground. Since then there have been a few moments where really good underground music has punctured the mainstream, but in my opinion the state of mainstream rock radio is as boring and uninteresting as ever. Please no more Nickelback!

Here is a sizeable list of great bands from the Eighties American (and Canadian) underground. I am sure there are many more that I have missed.

  1. Black Flag
  2. Flipper
  3. Scratch Acid
  4. No Means No
  5. Mission Of Burma
  6. Minutemen/Firehose
  7. Misfits/Samhain
  8. Band of Susans
  9. The Wipers
  10. The Gun Club
  11. Voivoid
  12. Big Black
  13. Bad Brains
  14. Dead Kennedys
  15. Whitehouse
  16. Husker Du
  17. Minor Threat/Embrace/Fugazi
  18. Rites of Spring
  19. Live Skull
  20. Savage Republic
  21. The Dream Syndicate
  22. The Big Boys
  23. Killdozer
  24. Swans
  25. Butthole Surfers
  26. The Replacements
  27. The Feelies
  28. Sonic Youth
  29. Social Distortion
  30. Die Kreuzen
-James Wallace (

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Culture Wars on CBC Radio 2

Short blog this week.
I wanted to draw your attention to this article by Robert Everett-Green of the Globe & Mail which is the first in hist three part series regarding culture wars that are currently being fought out on CBC Radio 2.

It's a fascinating topic and revolves around the government's role in defining and promoting culture. The crux of the argument is this: The CBC (and by extension the elected Canadian government) should promote "permenant music", and eschew "ephemeral music", as it always has... until now. At least this is how the debate is being framed by the old guard. Of course "permenant music" is code for Western Classical music, and "ephemeral music" is code for contempary [pop] music. In actual fact the "ephemeral music" could hardly be considered mainstream fare and is usually on the experimental side of the equation. No matter. In the "permenant" camp we are on a slippery slope to cultural ruin.

Why I find most interesting is that Canada is not unique in this view that Western Classical music somehow represents some version of the truth. If you look at all the state run broadcasters, they all dedicate at least one station to classical music. Even KBS of Korea feels obligated to dedicate a station to mainly Western Classical Music when there's plenty of eastern classical music out there.

While I enjoy Western Classical music as much as the next guy (do film scores count ;) ), I welcome this debate since it exposes the undefinable nature of art. To define and quantify culture and art is chasing rainbows, but you learn a lot along the way. In the meantime, I'm happy to enjoy the debate.

Monday, July 21, 2008

3G iPhone: Revolution or Evolution for Internet Radio?

I happened to walk by a few stores selling the new iPhone last week. They instantly sold out and pretty much everyone in line had been there since the store opened its doors. There was even some dude who was standing by himself since 3pm the day before. I'm sure there were several others like this guy around town at other stores. I never see women doing this though...

Here in Canada there is only one wireless carrier that can sell the new iPhone. Namely, a company called Rogers. Since they're the only GSM carrier in Canada they basically got the iPhone by default. (Interesting factoid, Rogers was founded by Ed Rogers Sr. who invented and made a fortune from the world's first batteryless radio - prior to Rogers' 1925 invention, radios required expensive batteries). Rogers flouted their monopoly position by gouging customers, and generated a lot of bad will which they're still recovering from. They backed down a bit, and offered a 6GB plan for an additional $30 per month. But the cheapest plan costs $60/month, and only gets you 150 minutes of outgoing talk-time. Most people will want at least 300 minutes talk time and will have to spend $75/month for that. You'll probably also want call display, so add in another $15/month. Oh, but we still need to add in the dreaded System Access Fee which is another $6.95, and of course the 911 service fee for $0.50. We're now up to $127.45 per month plus tax. But not so fast, you still need to pay for the phone itself ($199 for the 8GB model, and $299 for the 16GB model). To be safe, I recommend the 16GB model. There is also a $35 activation fee. This gets us to $324. If I add in all the taxes (federal GST + Ontario PST) I get a whopping $366.12 plus $144.02 per month. Oh, and that requires a 36 month contract. Damn!!! To put things in perspective, I can get a brand new Kia Rio for zero down and $167.06 per month.

Looking at the economics, it's hard to imagine the iPhone will be a truly mainstream device for some time to come. The biggest problem of course are the wireless carrier fees. While I suspect the carriers will try to provide more value for the price (e.g. increase your data quota), I'm not sure if prices will decline so quickly.

But there are other problems with the iPhone. For starters, it doesn't provide decent support for background applications, so you can't really listen through an Internet radio application and surf the web at the same time (there may be workarounds to this that I'm not aware of though). The iPhone also lacks a proper QWERTY keyboard like the Blackberry's have. The design is so pure I wonder if it ever will. I know for a lot of people this is a major showstopper.

I'm not trying to poo-poo the iPhone. It is easily the greatest smart phone ever created. No other device of similar form factor behaves nearly as well, and is as easy to use. The iPhone represents a benchmark and toehold for practically all future cell phone development. Just the touchscreen technology alone with its pinch gesture is incredible. It certainly has the potential to usurp the PC as the de-facto computing device. Steve Jobs may have the last laugh after all.

But will the iPhone provide the much needed Internet radio lift-off that we've all been waiting for? I certainly think it will be a shot-in-the-arm. Internet radio is an "application" that does a nice job of showing off the 3G bandwidth improvements, so I think a lot of people will take advantage of this. However, the poor support for background applications may hinder its adoption.

Ultimately, I see Internet radio as a niche application until the advent of dirt-cheap wireless data. The base fees for wireless data alone relegates these services to the wealthy (or those who live outside their means). The roaming fees are even scarier, and if you've got your Internet radio tuner going while driving your car outside of the city, you may be in for a nasty surprise after your next wireless bill rolls in.

I still stand by my guns that WiMax is really the only viable path we have for mainstreaming Internet radio. If things go according to plan, there will be no distinction between wireless broadband and wireline broadband. We'll also see a slew of new hardware devices to further simplify Internet radio's adoption. The bad news: none of the telcos or cablecos are in any rush to see this happen.

Stay TUN3D.

Monday, July 14, 2008 Launches new Royalty Scheme: Activism or Confusion?

This week launched a new royalty scheme. What makes this royalty scheme new and original is the fact that unsigned artists (i.e. artists that are not affiliated with a label or collecting agency) now have the opportunity to collect royalties.

To be sure, there is a positive message here. The largest collection agency - SoundExchange - has been widely criticized for only paying royalties to 31,000 artists through 3,600 labels. It is worth noting that there are tens of thousands of artists that do not get any royalties. There are also questions of transparency (to be fair, some of these restrictions have been mandated by the Copyright Act)

However, it's one thing to criticize the shortcomings of an existing scheme, and another to do something about it. When all is said and done it is worth asking: Is this this new scheme beneficial or detrimental for artists and radio at large, or does it even matter? Time will tell of course, but that's not going to stop an amateur pundit like myself from throwing his two cents in.

Some relevant background: is an automated Custom Radio service that builds playlists based on what music you already listen to and by extension, what others who also like the same music also listen to. It works reasonably well, but I've argued that human DJs can do a far better job. Because utilizes the Wisdom of Crowds (or tyranny of the masses depending on your perspective), it is important to note that artists (or anyone claiming to be an artist) are now in a position to game the system to boost their music's popularity - in much the same way Google is constantly being gamed to boost a site's PageRank. While this has always been a possibility with, it's not as likely given that artists receiving royalties through collection agencies are confirmed artists. Now, it may be possible for an enterprising hacker to create a song and game its popularity, and get paid for this. That said, the damage is not so much that this hacker is bilking for royalty cheques. Rather if it ever got out of hand, it could undermine the integrity of the system from a listener's perspective.

Getting down to the nitty gritty, what is being paid out here? To simplify matters, I'm going to ignore the on-demand download service (which pays out higher royalties), and focus on the radio royalties. If you read the Terms and Conditions, the payout for radio is divided into two categories: Premium and Free. I'm going to attempt to figure out what the payout might look like, but it would be nice for to publish some actual numbers to give us a clearer idea of what to expect.

Okay, so for the free service, artists receive:

10% of the Share of’s Net Revenue from the free radio service

For the personalized premium service, artists receive:
the greater of 10% of the Share of’s Net Revenue from the personalised radio service or US $0.0005 for each complete transmission on the personalised radio service of a track which forms part of Your Content transmitted on the service.

Let's contrast this to the royalty rates set out by Copyright Royalty Board (payable through SoundExchange): For this year, 2008, SoundExchange is entitled to collect $.0014. Next year, it will jump to $.0018, and in 2010 it is $.0019. Furthermore, SoundExchange states that it pays 45% of their collected royalties to Featured artists, and 5% to non-featured artists. I'm not quite sure what happens to the other 50%. I think it has something to do with the split between performers and song writers (but don't quote me on that one). The language used in their 2007 annual report is confusing, and no concrete examples are provided. Furthermore, since there isn't much transparency we don't have any concrete examples to go by. Beyond that, it's not clear how much a label hands over to the artist at the end of the day. The whole thing is utterly confusing. SoundExchange could clear this up by providing a few examples of how a dollar is divided up when it's collected, and what an actual artist is getting. But they're a slipperly bunch, and won't even tell you what constitues Fair Use (rather listing a bunch of things that are possibly NOT Fair Use). Aaarrgh!

In an attempt to simplify things more, I'm going to focus on featured artists and the premium service. From what I can tell, a Featured Artist (e.g. an artist like Moby or Eminem) would still get more through SoundExchange than through's royalty scheme. So, Moby and Eminem would be crazy to forfeit SoundExchange's deal and go for's scheme.

However, once you start crunching the numbers a subtext emerges: Namely, (and I'm not going to pretend this is breaking news) you are either a Featured Artist (like Moby or Eminem) , in which case you can earn a living making music. If you're not, then you're probably working towards becoming (or working with) a Featured Artist. Looking at Last.FM's model I have to wonder if a $10 cheque once a year is really going to make a difference for anyone (and as an artist, you need your track to be played in full at least 20,000 times to get just that!)? Of course life is not so cut-and-dry and there are other options still on the table. But realistically you better be prepared to hustle your ass by continually marketing yourself and/or showing up for live performances, even if that means swallowing your pride from time to time and doing weddings and Bar & Bat Mitzvahs.

I came to the conclusion ages ago that the music business is both fun and insane. As a career path I don't recommend it. However, if you can find the time, and you enjoy it, go for it. Don't expect to make very much money though - there are too many people willing to work for nothing. Coming up with original sounds and lyrics is also harder than it looks. However, if you're one of the few that's been blessed with a combination of talent, luck, and a strong work ethic, and you can find a respected label to back you you may be in a position to go full time and pursue music as a real career. At this point, you're going to want to protect this privilege. Hey, it's good work if you can get it.

As for this royalty quagmire. I'll let you know if I ever figure it all out.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Holes found in The Long Tail theory. What does this mean for radio?

In a recent article published in The Harvard Business Review, Anita Elberse presents strong evidence to suggest that Chris Andersen's Long Tail theory may be overstating the facts.

For those of you who don't know what The Long Tail means, I'll briefly explain the background. The Long Tail takes its name from the long tapering line of the normal distribution when presented in line-graph form. This graph is also known as the bell curve (for its resemblance to a bell). The typical example people site when talking about bell curves (and the long tail, before it was called this) is IQ scores. Most people have an IQ of around 100 (in fact IQ tests are occasionally re-calibrated to ensure this). Most people have either slightly above average IQ or slightly below average IQ. But the farther we go in either IQ direction (i.e. those that are extremely "mentally disabled" or "supergeniuses") the fewer we see, and they drop off from the curve quickly. The same goes for purchasing patterns. We know that most people cluster around the same movies, music, and television shows, and the more exotic we get, the fewer people we see consuming these products.

What The Long Tail theory argues, is that because the Internet creates such a massive marketplace, it is now possible to serve these exotic tastes like never before, and so industry is moving away from serving up hits and blockbusters, and moving towards niche products. While I have no doubt that there are more opportunities to sell niche products over the Internet, the big question remains: is there as much spending and interest in hits and blockbusters? Ms. Elberse's research suggests that in fact we do not compromise on the blockbuster front. Rather our niche purchases are just more sliced up, and we make more of them. To use an analogy with food: We're still buying meat, potatoes, milk, and all those staples as we did before (and probably more so). But instead of going out to a Chinese restaurant once in a while, we dine out more frequently and those outings are now split between: Dim Sum; Sushi; Ehtiopian; Korean; Indian; Persian; etc.

But how does radio relate to The Long Tail? The short answer is: In a big way. The long answer is...

From one perspective, radio has always been the biggest influence when it comes to pop music hits. While I don't believe that radio DJs can actually control what constitutes a hit, they can quickly accelerate the popularity of any given song or artist. The hit (or blockbuster) relies on Opinion Leaders to get the ball rolling. From there, the masses will take over, and a new hit is born. Critics point out that this isn't very democratic, and that services like iLike,, and YouTube better serve the masses. However, I would argue that these services effectively replace the DJ with with a hitcounter which serves the same purpose to guide the masses.

Whether it's a poor DJ (or unethical, in the case of Payola) or a gamed hitcounter, we often run into a problem known as Information Cascade and its close cousin GroupThink. This is why we often see songs like "Who Let the Dogs Out" take on a life of their own, without any one person in particular claiming it to be a song they actually like. In fact most people agree it's one of the most annoying song they've ever heard. Indeed, a stinging moment in my own childhood was going to see a film called "Sky Bandits" for my birthday. I happened to see the trailer in the same room as some of my classmates. They all exclaimed "That movie looks awesome, I gotta see it!" I didn't have quite the same reaction, but second guessed my instincts and chose it for my birthday party. It was a dreadful film and we all walked out shaking our heads. To this day my friends will ask me why I forced them to sit through this boring crap.

Critics of radio will say that bands like Metallica thrived without airplay, and point to the successes of "Ride the Lightening" and "Master of Puppets". True, artists don't require radio to be successful. But keep in mind that Metallica's self-titled 1991 album was even more popular, while getting airplay on the top 40. What's the difference between The Pixies "Doolittle" and Nirvana's "Nevermind"? Why do we know The Smashing Pumpkin's "Siamese Dream", but not "Gish"?

It's easy to be cynical and assume that there is some kind of conspiracy at work here. I don't buy this for a second. Chosing to listen to music requires decision making, and decision making is inherently stressful. If we desire to broaden our artistic horizons, there are plenty of DJs and stations to cater to this. Many people simply just want to hear a catchy hip tune to get them through their day. Admittedly, I've made, and will continue to make bourgeois arguments protesting this. But I'm also a realist (and possibly a hypocrite).

But most interestingly, The Long Tail has come to rest on top of radio itself, which I believe will be a driving force of change to how the next generation of hits will arrive. Like never before, we have the most incredible options available to us when it comes to variety of formats and stations. I suspect a lot of people (myself included) will continue to cluster around the big names like Ryan Seacrest and Howard Stern, but at the same time we are in a better position to elevate the discovery process. I don't know if we'll see a radical change, but there is no question in my mind that we're definitely seeing a positive one.

Monday, June 30, 2008

Is Radio Still Controversial?

George Carlin's passing last week has forced me to reflect on radio's controversial history, in particular with respect to free speech. For those that don't know, George Carlin recorded a now legendary stand-up piece on what you cannot say on the radio. Seven Dirty Words poked fun at our uptight and puritanical values. This bit was played by WBAI (a Pacifica Foudation member station), and led to a formal complaint to the FCC by John Douglas who was unhappy his son had heard it. What are these seven dirty words? They are:

  1. Shit
  2. Piss
  3. Fuck
  4. Cunt
  5. Cocksucker
  6. Motherfucker
  7. Tits
To this day you cannot say these words on radio air in the USA. To be fair, a big part of the reasoning for this argument (on the government's side) is that there is a scarce supply of frequencies, and sooner or later children would tune into a station and hear this foul language. Keep in mind that the crux of this argument is frequency scarcity. Since satellite and Internet radio don't have this limitation, all bets are off, and these media are not restricted in the same way. In fact, when it comes to television, this argument is all but meaningless since most Americans watch television through satellite and cable now. This point was raised again during Janet Jackson's famous wardrobe malfunction at the Superbowl. And let us not forget about Howard Stern's standing fine for having said the word "masturbation" on air.

But are dirty words and nudity still controversial, even though it's still illegal to say them on the air? Maybe, but it's basically a resolved issue. We know there's an arbitrary rule that prevents it on public airwaves and that's that.

But here's the good news: Foul language is nothing more than a distraction. The really really dangerous ideas and controversial topics are not only still out there, and legal to discuss, but they are just heating up. Some may think I'm referring to Don Imus' "colour" comments. Actually, I'm thinking more along the lines of Rafe Mair who recently prevailed in a 9-0 Supreme Court of Canada decision to uphold his right to use hyperbole when criticizing Kari Sampson and her decision to uphold the banning of three books depicting same-sex parents (the books were banned within a Surrey school-board's purview). This decision is good news for free speech and radio!

For those of you who remember the 80s, Talk Radio was at the time a relatively new format. In Toronto, I used to listen to Pat Burns. Like most Talk Radio personalities at the time, he was pretty right-wing and loved to talk about the death penalty. Back then, Talk Radio was exhilirating. Some of you might even remember Oliver Stone's film Talk Radio (IMO one of Stone's best movies), whose protaginast Barry Champlain (played by Eric Bogosion) was inspired by the late Alan Berg, who was brutally murdered by an angry caller. Berg never used any of Carlin's seven words. His style was provocative for sure, but the topics themselves were even more provactive.

I pray that nothing like this ever happens again (and to my knowledge it has only happened once), but I do hope radio continues to push boundaries and remain controversial. Carlin's seven words are just hand grenades. Current and future hosts are still building up their stockpiles of ICBMs in the battle of ideas. We ain't seen nothing yet.

Stay TUN3D.

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Media Guru, Paul Levinson talks radio, media, and his new book

About 10 years ago my sister gave me a book for my birthday entitled The Soft Edge, by Paul Levinson. My head was deep in the "dot com" boom, and at the time, I was living in Copenhagen working for a large Yahoo-esque portal called Jubii. Those were heady days indeed. The current Web 2.0 push - while still exciting - cannot compare to the confusion and optimism I was experiencing in 1998. I had my own instincts, but was hearing crazy stuff like "profits are no longer relevant", and major companies like NBC were already proclaiming that television was a thing of the past (anyone remember the original It felt like all the rules had gone out the window, and we were rapidly heading towards some kind informational singularity utopia, but with little or no direction beyond "The Internet".

The Soft Edge was the closest thing I had to a compass. For those that have never heard of it, "Edge" is a history of media, and media revolutions. Recommended.

While I can't recall everything in the book, here are a few things that really stuck with me that I never knew before reading it:

  1. The printing press was invented in China, hundreds of years before Gutenberg was even born. It never took off in the same way as Gutenberg's, mainly due to the inherent complexity of Chinese script.
  2. Levison argued that Gutenberg's printing press filled a necessary pre-requisite for the European settlement of The Americas. Namely, it would not have been possible to convince the greater masses of the existence and opportunities in The Americas without a means of direct and reliable communication coming from the Kings and Queens of the time. In other words, a key piece of the "broken telephone" puzzle had been solved. A problem that hindered the Vikings from settling North America, even though they had discovered it earlier.
  3. Black and White photography, while thought to be doomed after the invention of colour photography, found a respectable niche after it was recognized that colour could obscure an image's essence. As a side bar, you might say that Mr. Levinson indirectly helped shape TUN3R and bolster our own convictions that a B&W Dial is more usable than a colour Dial.
  4. Radio's eventual popularity was almost accidental. Levinson points out that Marconi invented radio communication as an improvement over Bell's invention of the wireline telephone. Marconi set out to create a wireless telephone, but the radio technology quickly took on an unintended life of its own as a one-to-many broadcast medium. How's that for serendipity!

After reading this, you might take Mr. Levinson as a full time media researcher/theorist, kind of like Marshall McLuhan. Far from it. Paul has one of those epic careers that would make anyone green with envy. He started out as both a singer and songwriter, then moved into radio production. He has since spent a great amount of time in academia, earning all manner of degrees and distinctions, and is now the Chair of the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University. During this period, Paul has published several books both non-fiction and fiction (mainly science fiction). He has also served as President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

I believe that Paul is one of those rare guys you actually want to be sitting next to on an eleven hour Greyhound bus ride from Toronto to Wawa. So by that key measure, I feel incredibly fortunate that he has agreed to this interview.

Q1 Neil: Thank you so very much for giving me some of your time and insights. You write about media, but you're also a part of it. I want to first learn more about your radio background. What did you mainly focus on as a radio producer, and how has that experience factored into your writing and teaching?

A1 Paul: I put together "sets" for Murray the K and Wolfman Jack - groups of records around a similar theme. For example, for Murray, one of my favorites was a "law and order" set, consisting of "Take a Message to Mary," "I Fought the Law," "Indiana Wants Me," "Gotta Get a Message to You," "Tom Dooley," etc. The "set" idea originated with Murray, when he pioneered FM progressive radio on WOR-FM radio in NYC in the mid-1960s. Murray and Wolfman were attempting to make Top 40 radio more sophisticated when I worked with them at NBC Radio in NYC in the early 1970s.

This behind-the-scenes work in radio gave me keen insight into all that goes into a seemingly live, unscripted medium such as radio - I often make that point to my students. As for my writing, no disk jockeys have yet appeared in my fiction, but music from that era populates most of my science fiction novels - music recordings make good markers for time travel stories.

Q2 Neil: You worked with "Murray the K" and "Wolfman Jack". What were these guys like to work with? What do these DJs have in common? Are there contemporary DJs you've seen that compare?

A2 Paul: Both were egomaniacs, but I'm more or less one too, so we got along fine. Murray and I had more in common - I'd been a fan of his since I'd first heard him on WINS radio in the late 1950s (I was 12 years old, then). In fact, Murray invited me to work with him after reading my "Murray the K in Nostalgia's Noose" (not my title, just a line in an article I had published in the Village Voice in 1972). It was my second published article. (My first was in defence of Paul McCartney.) Wolfman Jack was a tough-as-nails businessman - behind that big hug lurked a lot of industry know-how. Bob Shannon, long on WCBS-FM Radio in NYC, is about the closest to Murray and Wolfman nowadays. Shannon has a lot of Murray and Wolfman's historical savvy, maybe even more.

Q3 Neil:
Changing lanes now. There is clearly a trend towards on-demand, and personalization (think iPod, YouTube, PVRs). The trade-off (as I see it), is a loss of The Shared Experience (i.e. many people having the same experience at the same time). Television and Radio defined the mass Shared Experience, but it is less common with the PVR (I love my PVR btw). I reckon that radio will survive for some time as a primarily live medium, but for how much longer I can't say. Do you believe that we are indeed giving up on The Shared Experience and living in our own media cocoons. Is the Shared Experience going through transition, or will history see it as a 20th century fossil?

A3 Paul: I don't know that radio - at least insofar as a rock 'n' roll medium - was ever primarily a completely shared experience. Of course, when a record is played on the radio, all listeners hear it at the same time. But almost all of them are not in the same place. So is that a shared experience? In the non-mediated pre-technological world, a shared experience entailed seeing the faces of those in the sharing, hearing their voices.

Nowadays, listening to a CD or mp3 or radio station in my car is pretty much the same experience as listening to radio - except that I have no control over what's on the radio, which can be pleasantly surprising. (The iPod shuffle is a limited form of this surprise - because I'm the one who programmed it in the first place.)

I think this exhilarating lack of control over live radio will keep it kicking for a long time - maybe even forever. It's part of what I call the "media ecological niche" - radio can do something we enjoy, that no other medium can. The other parts of the niche, for radio, come from the fact that we can listen to radio while doing other things - this makes radio different from reading a book, jumping around online, or even watching television. Indeed, this is part of what enabled radio to survive the ascent of television in 1950s (the other part was rock 'n' roll). But it's true of all acoustic media - CDs and mp3s as well as radio. I therefore think it is the lack of control we have over radio that will keep it viable in an age of mp3s.

Q4 Neil: This is a similar question. In The Soft Edge you discuss how after the invention of colour photography, Black and White photography repurposed itself. Given radio's small decline in numbers (although it is still one of the most popular mass mediums), do you see radio going through a repurposing of its own? If so, where do you see broadcast radio's strengths? What do you think radio broadcasters should be focusing on to stay relevant to younger audiences in the 21st century?

Well, adding to what I said in Q3 above: Radio's been wrongly counted out at least twice. First, when television came on strong in the 1950s, and co-opted radio's serial, sitcom, soap opera, and news programming. Radio defied all expectations, and became more profitable than ever was a medium of rock 'n' roll. Second, contrary to "Video Killed the Radio Star," radio survived MTV quite well - the Buggles had it wrong. Broadcast radio's main, enduring strength is that you can turn it on, and then do whatever else you like, and be pleasantly surprised by what the radio gives to you. It is a multi-tasking medium par excellence - you can drive to it, wake up to it, etc. Radio broadcasters in the 21st century should just keep surprising its listeners with great mixes of music. A good DJ can help, too.

Meanwhile, talk radio adds the additional factor of listening to other listeners speak. And, of course, the DJ in talk radio is essential to that use of the medium.

Q5 Neil: A topic that's near and dear to my heart is Custom Radio vs. Human DJ mixed radio. While I believe the current spate of Custom Radio (e.g., is a far cry from what a decent human DJ can pull off, I wonder more about Custom Radio's potential. Do you think that the Human DJ's days are numbered, and by extension do you think that within the next 25 years we'll see chart toppers composed entirely by computer algorithms?

A5 Paul: Much as I love a good DJ, they're hard to find. The upshot for your question: I think a good DJ is always better than what any kind of computer mix can put together. But a good computer mix is better than the average DJ. What makes a DJ good: a combination of incredible savvy about the music, and a good sense of humor - Bob Shannon, as I mentioned above, is a good current example. My guess is that human DJs will continue, but as more of a specialty item than is the case today. I would therefore expect that, 25 years from now, we'll definitely have some humans beating along with the algorithms.

Q6 Neil: You're both a media commentator/theorist/futurist and a sci-fi writer. Do you approach the two as one-and-the-same? I'm guessing there's a lot of entanglement here. Do you have any examples of how a sci-fi idea influenced your non-fiction writing/teaching and vice versa?

A6 Paul: My critics often say that my non-fiction reads like science fiction, and my science fiction deals with important media issues - I take that as compliment, though it often isn't meant that way (hey, wringing compliments from insult is a fine art, and, I think, essential to anyone in the creative arts). I started writing my doctoral dissertation, "Human Replay: A Theory of the Evolution of Media" (1979) at the same time as a time travel novel, back in the 1970s. I soon found I was enjoying the novel so much, I didn't want to write the dissertation. So I put the novel aside. (The first part was published as "Loose Ends," an award nominated novella, in the 1990s.) By the late 1990s, I was able to write Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium and my first science fiction novel, The Silk Code at the same time - and both were indeed published in 1999. Much of The Plot to Save Socrates (2006 science fiction) and Cellphone: The Story of the World's Most Moble Medium (2004) were written at the same time. Right now I'm writing my next nonfiction book, New New Media, and two science fiction novels - Unburning Alexandria (sequel to The Plot to Save Socrates), and a new Phil D'Amato novel. I'm also working on a television script (science fiction).

So, yeah, all of my writing comes from the same source, and sometimes it comes out as science fiction and sometimes scholarly non-fiction. In The Consciousness Plague, science fiction from 2002, I pick up on the question of why the Norse discovery of America in 1000 AD had so little world impact - an issue I explore at length in The Soft Edge in 1997. And I explored questions of physical v. cyberpresence in The Pixel Eye, science fiction from 2003, and Realspace: The Fate of Physical Presence in the Digital Age, also published in 2003.

Writing fiction, in general, is like daydreaming. Writing nonfiction is more like just thinking, or hearing myself talk. I enjoy doing both, and having each spill over into the other is entirely natural (at least, to me).

Q7 Neil: This is a variation of a stock question I like to ask: Let's say a director like Darren Aronofsky or Shane Carruth came to you to make a movie based one of your books (published or imagined), and asked for your input to select a piece of music that would set the tone for the movie. What would you choose to suggest, and in what context?

A7 Paul: First, I'd be thrilled. But in answer to your question: John Lennon's "Across the Universe" is one of my all-time favorite songs, and performances. It always brings tears to my eyes and heart. It would work in movies from any of my novels - not just Borrowed Tides, (2001) about the first starship to Alpha Centauri. It would probably work best in a movie made of my "Loose Ends" saga - since Lennon's murder may well play a role in its ending (which I have not yet completely written - so far, three parts of four have been published of the saga - all as long short fiction). A character in an earlier segment is already talking about "Real Love," which also breaks my heart every time I hear it.

Q8 Neil: I started using the Internet in 1991. I was a big Usenet junkie, and remember a time before SPAM and AOLers. There was a sense of optimism that lasted well into 2001. I naïvely thought that the Internet would lead to a greater enlightenment, and that most bullcrap would be weeded out through trust networks. But Fox News seems to do just fine. Are we better informed than before the Internet, or do we just think we are?

A8 Paul: Fox News is largely irrelevant - the Internet, not television (broadcast and cable), and certainly not newspapers any longer, is where people are increasingly getting their news. Obama's getting the Democratic nomination, and Hillary Clinton coming close to it, are examples of the enlightening effect of the Internet - an African-American and a woman would not have done that well even a decade ago. Wikipedia, YouTube, Digg, hundreds of blogs in different ways are getting out the truth. I think these "new new media" - in which readers and viewers are writers and producers - are fulfilling some of the optimism that was felt about the Web in 2000. It was just a little early. In fact, I'm flatly predicting that the neo-con Republican party will go the way of the Federalists and the Whigs in the US, in the next 20 years. How's that for optimism?

Q9 Neil: You're working on a new book called "New New Media" scheduled for a 2009 publication. Can you briefly describe what the book is about? Do you have any plans beyond this horizon?

A9 Paul: New New Media is about the revolution in user-driven media that I mentioned in my answer to Question 8. For the first time in history, experts are being replaced by everyone as sources of information and knowledge. Blogging, YouTube, Wikipedia, Digg, MySpace, Facebook, Second Life, these and other leaders of the new new media revolution will be the subject of my book - which will explore what is gained by this overthrow of gatekeeping, but also what may be risked (there is no such thing as a 100% beneficial technology).

Other projects:


The Flouting of the First Amendment, about how Congress and the FCC have systematically spat in the face of John Milton and Thomas Jefferson, and endangered the freedom of all Americans with unconstitutional fining and bullying of broadcasters, The New Golden Age of Television, how The Sopranos, The Wire, Lost, 24, Dexter, Rome, The Tudors, to name a few, have made current television the best it's ever been, and every bit as good or better than current theater and movies.


Unburning Alexandria (sequel to The Plot to Save Socrates), new Phil D'Amato novel (Phil has appeared in three novels and three short stories so far), and a sequel to Borrowed Tides. And a pilot for a television series that I'm co-writing, but can't say anything more about, without risking being kidnapped and never heard from again.