Thursday, December 31, 2009

TUN3R's Top 10 Pop Hooks in Rotation for 2009

A reader of this blog recently posted a comment on an old posting by James Wallace lamenting the current state of music, in part due to an over emphasis on Pop Hooks.

I think I understand where this guy is coming from. Pop Hooks provide an effective way to short-circuit the overarching challenging of writing and recording a great song by means of a few clever bars - a key if you will. But in my opinion, this is what makes music so egalitarian and grass roots. Practically anyone has the potential come up with the next great pop hook and in turn leap frog trained singers, studio pros, and composers to the top of the charts.

Take for example the popular show American Idol. Every year the show ends with a winner who then triumphantly sings the final song written just for him or her. The song is probably designed to showcase the winner's powerful vocals. Unfortunately the song is also bereft of discernible melody, and is henceforth forgotten immediately. I'm sure a lot of money goes into writing and preparing that final song, and even more money goes into promoting it. The song represents the culmination of hundreds of millions of dollars of earned revenue. It always sucks.

Nevertheless, good talent can be still bought for a reasonable price, and if you're lucky that talent will produce a killer Pop Hook. But even from this perspective I still believe that there's a lot of luck that goes into generating a killer pop hook, whomever the source of success.

Before proceeding to my top 10, I should warn you that some of these songs may generate a certain amount of cognitive dissonance - you might hate some of these songs, but good luck on un-listening to them.

Ten: Stereo Love (Edward Maya & Vika Jigulina)
I have a soft spot for any song that can invoke imagery through its Pop Hook. I especially like songs that remind me of a different time or part of the world. Stereo Love's Pop Hook invokes Greece and The Mediterranean. Yes, the song has a fair amount of fluff in it, but it does remind me of good times vacationing on Ios Island

Nine: I Hate This Part (The Pussycat Dolls)
This song was released near the end of 2008, but didn't pick up much steam until January of this year. To tell you the truth, when I first found out it was from The Pussycat Dolls, I was a bit surprised. This is one those songs where the vocals form an integral part of the Pop Hook. Sadly, it's so popular you're all probably sick of it by now.

Eight: Party in the USA - Cahill Radio Edit (Miley Cyrus / Cahill)
I knew this song had to be on this list after hearing a distraught and confused sounding middle-aged woman requesting it on a morning radio show. "I'm so embarrassed to ask you to play this song. My daughter played it to me, and I can't seem to get it out of my head". Yes, there is something troubling about this song. Are we going down a slippery slope with The Wiggles, Backyardigans, or Baby Einstein as our final destination, with Mini Pops on the way? Who knows. Anyway, be sure to check out the Cahill Radio Edit version of this song for maximum Hookness.

Seven: Right Round (Flo Rida feat. Ke$ha)
There were a lot of good covers [sorry, "samples"] this year, including another song on this list. I began to wonder why the original "You Spin Me Right Round" by Dead Or Alive had not seen a successful hip hop cover until now; after all it has one of the best Pop Hooks from the 1980s. It probably has to do with the fact the original exudes a white queer vibe (as do most new wave songs from the 80s). Some how Flo Rida figured out how to mainstream the hook into hip hop. If he can do the same for Tainted Love and Come On Eileen I suspect he'll do well financially.

Six: Motherlover (The Lonely Island feat. Justin Timberlake)
This is a song about two recently released convicts who formulate a plan to have sex with the other's mother. Motherlover lives in its own little dead zone: Two weird for the angry anti-establishment crowd to get behind, and too offensive and mainstream sounding for the happy-go-lucky alternative crowd to support. But if it weren't for the lyrics, this song could easily be in high rotation and on the charts. I'm only aware of one Internet radio station that plays this song, and I doubt you'll ever hear it on terrestrial radio at all. Perhaps I've answered my own question about the limits pop hooks.

Five: Fireflies (Owl City)
This was the "unknown" breakout of the year. While not everyone cares for this song, I think it exemplifies the egalitarian nature of the Pop Hook. Just like Whitetown and Babylon Zoo, you too can create a chart topper.
If this song doesn't end up in some quirky romantic comedy by the end of next year, I'll be damned.

Four: Sexy Bitch (David Guetta feat. Akon)
It's been a great year for David Guetta, and this is easily his best release. Just one question about the G rated version of this song: What exactly is a Sexy Chitch?

Three: Major Tom (Shiny Toy Guns)
As strange as this may sound, I seem to find more and more music through television commercials. This version of Major Tom recently debuted on a Lincoln MKZ commercial. Another great song I found this year through a McDonald's commercial is "Blue Steel" by Bot'Ox. It was also through teevee commercials that Moby was able to get exposure for Play, which in turn took his career to the next level. I've read remarks from people critical of these artists for taking this approach. But let's be clear: these commercials provide tremendous exposure, the artists would not normally get. In turn, it cannot be said that the artists are "endorsing" the product being advertised, since the artists are unknowns. Only established celebrities are in a position to endorse products.
Getting back Major Tom. A big problem with songs reliant on Pop Hooks, is that they tend to exhaust the hook by end of the song. Major Tom sets itself apart by building up to a true Pop Hook crescendo - a rare phenomenon.

Two: This is the Life (Amy MacDonald)
Although first released over two years ago, I first heard this song as dance remix on Lolliradio this year, and immediately decided it had to be on this list. I was pleasantly surprised to find out Ms. Macdonald is from Glasgow, Scotland (which is where my parents are from), although the song sounds more Irish to my ear. While most of the other songs on this list are a bit poppy and shallow, this tune has some meat to it. As with Stereo Love, I find this song to be evocative. It reminds me of the day I walked across the entire island of Bornholm (in Denmark) in the rain with a friend. It was a miserable walk that took us a few hours complete. We ended up resting in a cozy pub sipping on pints of Tuborg until it was time to catch our ferry home. This is the life...

One: Day 'n' Nite - Crookers Remix (Kid Cudi / Crookers)
The first time I heard this song, I found it to be a bit simplistic - it feels too effortless. But this is one of those songs that you must listen to with a decent pair of headphones to properly appreciate the nuance of its Pop Hooks - especially its central refrain. I'm also fond of the song's lyrics. For those that remember, the early 90s was a heyday for slacker culture. Bands like Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam framed slacker culture in three dimensional self-reflective way. These days most slacker culture is about celebrating the notion of "it's fun to be dumb". Day 'n' Nite brings us back to a more existential perspective. It is what it is.

So what's up for next year? Although we just launched the TUN3R iPhone App Peter is nearing completion of TUN3R's next app. I was already blown away by the alpha version.

This next app will forever change the way you listen to and interact with music.

Stay TUN3D...

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

TUN3R Launches iPhone App with Innovative Station Recommendation Feature

The TUN3R iPhone App has finally arrived!!!!
Search for 'TUN3R' in the Apple iTunes store, or click here:

Here is the full press release:

Toronto, ON - December 15, 2008 - Internet radio aggregator TUN3R today announced the availability of their much anticipated iPhone/iPod application in the Apple iTunes App Store (

The TUN3R iPhone app raises the bar for Internet Radio applications by offering for the first time in the Apple iTunes App Store an Internet Radio Player featuring:
-Real-Time audio/visual browsing of over 2,000 stations representing the crème-de-la-crème of Internet and AM/FM radio. Stations are organized as a continuum of genres and cities for intuitive browsing
-Recommendation [Might Likes TM] feature which suggests radio stations based on what iPod artists were listened to last. Recommendations change over time and are always current
-Find stations based on what they play (artist or song title). Or find stations based on the contents of their web home page
-Visual bookmarks for fast and simple switching between stations' live streams
-Live streaming playback options including: Built-in player; Safari (for background listening); and RadioBox integration
-Top 10 lists showing: Most Popular Stations; Recently Added Stations; Recently View Stations; and Random Spotlights

The application - which has been in the works for over a year - represents the ideal embodiment of TUN3R's critically acclaimed approach to Internet Radio. The application also solves a major problem for users new to Internet radio: How to find live stations of interest among the thousands of stations available. TUN3R's solution is very simple and effective: Users can simply press the "Might Likes TM" button on the search screen. The application automatically looks for the last ten artists played from the iPod library, and then searches for stations that play those artists. For example, if a user has recently played classical music on their iPod, they will be presented with classical stations.

"TUN3R is a tactile application to begin with, so browsing on the iPhone's touchscreen feels very natural. Seeing is believing." said Neil Hepburn, TUN3R’s co-founder and general manager of marketing. "With the iPhone's recent iPod API integration, we saw an opportunity to create an entirely new kind of recommendation feature which we expect newcomers to Internet Radio will find very useful. As we like to say 'Your mood. Your station'"

TUN3R plans to expand its business through its proposed Profit Sharing for Webcasters business model, which will provide users with high quality streams, and in turn compensate stations based on usage.

About TUN3R

TUN3R is an early-stage partnership between founders Peter Gray and Neil Hepburn. TUN3R launched in July 2007. Since its launch, TUN3R has had over 500,000 visitors from over 200 countries, all through word-of-mouth. TUN3R is owned by Conalgo Incorporated. Conalgo was established in 2002, and is based out of Toronto, ON.


Media Contact:
Neil Hepburn
Co-Founder and GM of Marketing for

(416) 315-5514

Monday, November 9, 2009

Bell Mobility's HSPA network brings Internet Radio to the next level

This week marked a turning point for Internet radio - at least in Canada - with the launch of Bell Mobility's HSPA wireless network and the Bell Mobility iPhone. What does this have to do with Internet Radio you ask? In short, everything: As I have repeatedly stated in the past, the biggest obstacle preventing Internet Radio from becoming the de facto radio medium can be summed up by this simple fact: Until people can listen to high quality Internet radio streams uninterrupted in their car when commuting, it will continue to play second fiddle to terrestrial and satellite radio.

Reliability is what's been missing up... until now.

Radio geeks like myself all know that for some time you have been able to listen to Internet radio in your car, even before 3g networks were rolled out. True enough, it has been possible (for at least 5 years now) to listen to Internet radio on the go. But until the 3g networks were launched, you had to listen to a low AM quality stream. Then when the 3g networks were launched it did become possible to listen at high quality - indistinguishable from a CD in sound quality - but with the major caveat that streams tended to drop frequently enough to make the listening experience a bit frustrating, some days worse than others. I myself used to take the bus to work and enjoyed listening to Internet radio, but I always found it annoying when the stream would drop. Some days I would be constantly hitting the reconnect button before giving up and switching back to my iPod music library.

The reason for this is simple: while the Rogers/Fido 3G network was technically capable of supporting high quality streams, it was basically "redlining" the minimum required bandwidth. It's a bit like driving a moped on the freeway: Yes you might legally be able to hit the lower speed limit, but you don't have much room to maneuver if you're being tailgated by bus.

The remedy for this problem is obvious to any iPhone user: Get the cellular network to work as fast as a WiFi hotspot, which almost never drops streams. Listening to Internet radio through WiFi is fantastic, but the second I switch to Rogers/Fido 3G reliability becomes an issue due to the bandwidth requirements.

However, from a carriers perspective there is no easy fix as this requires a tremendous investment to upgrade the network. Bell Mobility has done just this: Upgraded to a shiny new HSPA network that is orders of magnitude faster than the Rogers/Fido network. Fortunately, Bell has also managed to strike a deal with Apple to sell the iPhone which means they've got all bases covered.

Admittedly, as a Rogers customer I can't help but feel that Bell's success leaves me feeling a little envious. Such is life.

So how do I know so much about Bell's new network if I'm a Rogers customer? Full disclosure: I have worked with Bell in the past as an external contractor, and still maintain a professional relationship with the company. As a kind gesture they presented me some preliminary results indicating quite convincingly that Bell's network is orders of magnitude faster than Rogers.

I asked if someone could perform the ultimate Internet radio litmus test which is to tune into a high quality Internet radio station and drive around the city to see how frequently the Internet radio stream was being dropped: Bell vs. Rogers/Fido. While they didn't have time to put together a formal study, they did do some ad hoc tests, and shared the results with me. Apparently the Rogers network dropped the stream "several times" whereas the same stream (Radio Nigel at 128 kbps through QuickTime) never dropped on the Bell network, during a 45 minute driving excursion through various parts of the Greater Toronto Area.

If these claims are true (and I have no reason to doubt these guys), this would indicate Bell has crossed a significant threshold for Internet radio listeners. From what it appears, users on the Bell HSPA network should be able to listen to Internet radio uninterrupted whenever they get into their car and drive to and from work. Not only is this more enjoyable - it's safer! The less I'm likely to fiddle with my iPhone to reconnect to streams, the less likely I am to be distracted and get into an accident. I am optimistic that these claims will be proven out through more testing, not to mention customer testimonials.

That said, I encourage my readers to find out for themselves.

Going ahead, I have asked Bell if they could provide controlled tests to better quantify:
1. How reliable is streaming 128 kbps streams through the iPhone 3G and 3Gs, respectively?
2. How long on average does it take to connect to a 128 kbps when tuning in on the iPhone 3G and 3Gs, respectively?

It's still the first week of their launch, but from what I've seen I'm beginning to believe that the HSPA network has upped the ante for Internet radio, and quite possibly laid the infrastructure making it possible to lift Internet radio out of the realm of geeks, and truly democratize the medium.

Exciting times! Stay TUN3D...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

INTERVIEW: Cyr3n and Dekker Deyer on the newly launched 8Bit FM

Video games have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. My earliest memories are when I was 6 or 7 and my parents took us up to a family resort in The Muskokas called Cleveland's House. In the main lodge they had a table-top version of Space Invaders. Back then my weekly allowance was a quarter a week, but my dad always treated me to a game after dinner every night. It was a nice way to end a long summer's day.

Later, I discovered the Atari 2600 (liked it), the Intellivision (loved it), and the ColecoVision (determined I needed it to "complete me" and never stopped asking for it till I got one for Christmas). Later I moved over to an Apple IIc, and then a few years later a Sega Master System which my parents bought me as a goal reward for losing weight as a teenager (well, it got me there, and back again). I then pretty much stuck with PC games till about 2 years ago when I bought a Nintendo Wii - mainly out of curiousity about its new controls. I also had a few GameBoys, and play games on my iPhone occassionally. At one point in my life I was probably something of a "hardcore" gamer and would construct maps of dungeons for games like The Bard's Tale using pencil and some graph paper. I have fond memories of playing Smurf, Q*bert, Buck Rogers Planet of Zoom, and BC II: Grog's Revenge with Jamie and Jeff for the Coleco. Great memories playing Shark-Shark, Frog Bog, Utopia, and Bump 'n' Jump for the Intellivision with my buddy Aaron. I always loved those text adventures like Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy and Bureaucracy (anyone remember Miser for the PET), and later all those Sierra "Quest" games - wish people would make more games like these. I loved all those "shrimp kid" games like Wonder Boy and Kid Niki for the Apple II, and was possibly addicted to Phantasy Star (the SMS swan song). In my twenties when I lived in Copenhagen, a favourite Sunday passtime was smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and playing Command & Conquer: Red Alert in the various net cafes around the city, followed up by a few rounds of Unreal, and a little BomberMan. These days I mainly play Mario Kart Wii, and consider myself a basic simpleton in the gaming world - but I kind of get a kick out of 8 year old kids passionately advising me on which character I should use in games like Super Smash Bros. Brawl. (Ike is where it's at apparently).

Why am I telling you this? Well, an e-mail came across my desk last week for a new station called 8bit FM - the new brainchild of producer/director couple Dekker Deyer and Cyr3n (Julia Howe). In short, if you - like me - see video games as a part of the social fabric, then this is our soundtrack. While I must pay respect to stations like All-Games Radio, and Slay Radio: Stations which play [among other things] music from video games; 8Bit FM is distinguished in that it plays both retro video game video game music but also music borne out of the culture of game music. I've been listening for over a week now and in summary I would say that its rotations are very tightly and professional programmed - but will need to work expanding it's playlist. If you were to pipe 8bit FM at a party for a slightly geekey Gen-X/Y crowd, I'm certain it would be well received.

In spite of 8bit FM's retro name and inspiration, there's something futuristic about the stream. I am so very fortunate to have Cyr3n and Dekker participate in this interview.

Q1 Neil: Dekker I know a little about your backround from your Wikipedia page, but for the benefit of our readers, what is your career background? Is it true your parents were travelling puppeteers? What was that like?

A1 Dekker: Ha! Well, I don't actually get asked about that much. It was fun. I was very young, and an only child. My mother would tell me the puppets were my brothers and sisters. They were very large. It was... eerie, but just part of growing up in an artistic family.

Q2 Neil: Julia (Cyr3n), what's your background? How did 8bit FM get started?

A2 Cyr3n: 8Bit//FM is probably a closer match to what I do in my day-to-day than Dekker's bag! =D I've been an independant game developer and gamer for years. My first major project was "Rubies of Eventide" mmorpg where my role was scoring original background music. Simultaneously, I was running a terminal-mode BBS system for Cyber Warrior Inc's Internet Service Provider, known as Cyberwar ISP to the '201' folks. Since then, I've worked as a Game Producer on 2 other mmorpg titles, and am now the Community Manager for Vogster Entertainment's larger than life PC game title "CrimeCraft".

Q3 Neil: 8bit FM feels like a new concept - something more than just retro video game music. For example, some segues between tracks have a punchy anime quality. Occasionally I hear some dude who sounds like Dennis Hopper (from Blue Velvet after inhaling nitrous oxide) say "This is MC Frontalot you're listening to 8bit fm." Different. I like it!. How would you describe 8bit FM's concept and vision?

A3 Dekker: MC Frontalot is amazing! It's about artists like him. It's about artists like BitShifter and Glomag. I was appearing at an anime convention where these guys were performing and I was blown away. I'd seen MC Frontalot at a private party for G4 a year earlier and a comedian I worked with on a show named Kimmy Gatewood had made a documentary about him even before that. When I saw him performing with these lunatics playing music on Gameboys I was hooked. That's when I knew that the game music, the chiptunes, and the nerdcore hip-hop could work together in a lineup.

Chiptune artists have become the breakout stars of the station. Chip music is this generation's punk rock. It's people using these low-tech tools to make amazing sounds. At a chiptune show you can feel this thick magnetic energy. We needed to bring this to as large an audience as possible.

A3 Cyr3n: Dekker's summed it up pretty well but I'd just like to add that as a gamer girl, the crowd this music draws is very nonjudgemental. It's all about coming out of the game closet and having fun with people who share a common hobby with you without awkward introductions. One thing that stands out about chiptune events in particular is the lack of "chicken-hawks" and creepy dudes looking to hook up with drunken co-eds. You don't have that element here. Everyone's primarily here to support their friends, dance, and have a good time!

Q4 Neil: You refer to a "nerdcore" as a type of music on your site. What is nerdcore, and who are the major players?

A4 Dekker: Nerdcore is just another flavor of hip-hop. It speaks to people who love sci-fi, comics, video games, anime... it crosses so many themes... but it's about a lifestyle. Most people probably heard nerdcore for the first time on Adult Swim's show Sealab 2021. MC Chris was working at Williams Street and started laying down tracks about things that were insane at the time, like Star Wars characters. He got the genre a lot of exposure, but there are so many artists doing it. It's real. It's from the heart. This doesn't speak to a subculture, it speaks to the mainstream, they just might not realize it yet. There's even a concert, Nerdapalooza, happening in Orlando this year.

A4 Cyr3n: What can I say... "Nerdcore" is like the cooler hipper younger brother of "Filk" that got all the good genes! There have been mainstream artists in the past who've peppered their works with encrypted nerdy lines, brief homages to their favorite video games and comic book heros. But that doesn't make them nerdcore. To qualify, one has to be part of that cadre of hip-hop artists who are openly rhyming about geeky topics, have a history of doing so, and self-identifying themselves as "nerds". The power players who are getting the most requests on our station are MC Frontalot, MC Chris, MC Hawking, and Optimus Rhyme.

Q5 Neil: I've heard of bands like the "The Minibosses", and travelling orchestras like "Video Games Live" and "Play! A Video Game Symphony". Do you see these as one-off gimicks, or are we seeing a growing proliferation of bands reinterpreting classic video game music?

A5 Dekker: Actually, I got an email from Tommy Tallarico the other day. He's a certified bad @$$ and one of the composers behind Video Games Live. He's been really supportive. Bands like The OneUps have also really embraced the outlet, and I'm glad that we're able to help open up a new venue for this kind of stuff. I don't think it's about "video game music" as some kind of a genre, I think it's all MUSIC which just happens to be composed for games. Games gave us new sounds. It wasn't just guitars. It was strange and we grew up on it. As the games became more complex so did the music we played them to. That evolution is hard-wired into everyone that played Nintendo as a kid. It's about hearing elements of the familiar and using that as a launching pad to something even more exotic.

A5 Cyr3n: Oh yea, I think its here to stay. Why is it that weird though.. Considering music from other origins get remixed and played by cover bands? Maybe people are looking at it as a gimmick because its "game" music and not generally accepted as music for music's sake? As a person with a musical background I don't find game music getting redone as orchestral or chiptunes as weird. Bards will always find a way to make music no matter what the medium =)

I guess what's striking people on the outside of this movement as strange is how connected people are to their video games. But it's not that hard to imagine when the average RPG game can take longer to complete than reading a book. Compared to other forms of entertainment like a movie or a play, you're interacting with a game not just passively observing it. So all things considered, a classic game tune from your past can summon massive feelings of nostalgia. One's associative memory has strong somatic-markers linking childhood with classic video games... especially for our 25+ crowd.

Q6 Neil: I discovered this addictive remix of the Super Mario pipe music - a track called "Super Mario Bros (RAC Mix)". I couldn't find anywhere to buy it. Where do you get this stuff from? Is it possible to buy?

A6 Dekker: It's tough! We have people scrubbing the internet looking for these remixes and new artists. It's still kind of an underground scene. Some of the soundtracks and remixes are available as Japanese imports. In Japan it's been common practice to sell the music of a particular game, especially if it's a series, in record stores for decades. A feature that we're trying to add is a way to track down these albums for purchase and we're going to roll that out as soon as it's ready.

A6 Cyr3n: We're getting new artists into the request catalogue as quickly as our monkey-fingers can handle! Some of our artists are published with fans, others are emerging from the underground scene with their own style. It's a welcome challenge from our end to serve the needs of artists on both sides of the spectrum. Our primary goal with 8Bit FM is to give artists more exposure and help generate numbers self-publishers can work with.

Q7 Neil: Getting back to the original composers (most of whom I assume are Japanese), who are the titans? Do you have any favourites?

A7 Dekker: I'm going to go out on a limb and say Kōji Kondō. His compositions have proven to be so versatile while maintaining an iconic sound. Super Mario Brothers, Legend of Zelda, Pilot Wings, Star Fox... his sound is haunting. You can play it with a heavy beat, you can orchestrate it... you can rip it apart and chunk it back together and it still sounds like Kōji Kondō. There's an album we've been playing as nerdcore called The Ocarnia of Rhyme which features artists like Snoop Dog. It uses samples from Legend of Zelda games almost exclusively. It's a perfect example of Kondō's modular music.

A7 Cyr3n: Growing up in Japan, my favorite video game composers hands down are Koichi Sugiyama (Dragon Quest series) and Yasunori Mitsuda (Chrono Trigger and Chrono Cross). They take their craft very seriously and really know how to match the mood of their music to their games' visuals. I think the Japanese game studios put a great importance in the quality of sound and music .. moreso than other studios in that era. These days its undeniable how music and sound are key in establishing real emotional value in video games.

Q8 Neil: A common question that comes up in video game circles is whether or not a video game will ever be art in the same way a movie or book is. I go back and forth on this one. How do you see video games in this regard?

A8 Cyr3n: There are many genres of video games these days and some are easier to promote as 'art' than others for different reasons. Games are multidisciplinary endeavors and I don't think the merits of their art department alone can define whether a game is aesthetic or artful. I think the best litmus test is what the game's output is in terms of end user experience. Like all art, its in the eye of the beholder.

Q9 Neil: Is there an 8bit FM theme song/anthem? If not, then what would it be?

A9 Dekker: We're not playing favorites! This is why we have the Top 20! All requests weigh into the Top 20, so make sure you request the tracks you like to hear. Right now Antenna by New York chiptune artist Bitshifter is in the top slot.

A9 Cyr3n: 8Bit//FM is trully the sum of its ever evolving parts! Like the music we play, everything is in motion.

Q10 Neil: Dekker, Julia: Thanks so much for doing this TUN3R interview. What's in store for the future of Dekker, Julia, I know you've got a ton of irons in the fire? What else are you working on?

A10 Dekker: I'm gearing up to shoot a horror movie this summer, which I can't talk about yet. But after that I'm slated to shoot a series a created with actor Phil Morris called Emissary. It's a gritty super hero show that has other great guys involved like Aaron Douglas from Battlestar Galactica and Brian Thompson, one of the scariest (and funniest) actors I've had the pleasure to meet.

A10 Cyr3n: I'm primarily working on CrimeCraft, which is now taking closed-beta applications. Anyone who wants to play a totally new genre PC game should head on over to and fill that bad boy out! For Mnemosyne, we just released a new client for "Rubies of Eventide" with some snazzy new content and "Tentacle Grape" is doing purty well for being a hentai soda brand (probably because we're the ONLY hentai soda brand) but I nerdgress.. 8BIT//FM is poised to make a huge splash this year and we intend to promote the hell out of it! The party calendar on is looking ram-jammed with events this Summer so that's definately a destination to bookmark.

Thank you for taking the time to interview us! It's a pleasure being part of the Tun3r network and we look forward to watching the chiptune and nerdcore genres grow with your listeners' support.


Monday, April 20, 2009

INTERVIEW: Television Columnist Rick McGinnis on TV, Radio, Newspapers, and the Future of The Media Establishment

For anyone who knows me, I've always been a fan of public transit. Whenever I travel to a new city I always make a point to check out their subway or commuter train. We're also a one-car family. So needless to say I rely on public transit for my daily commute.

Starting about 10 years ago, a free daily showed up called "The Metro", which was distributed around most Toronto subway stations. I must admit at first I avoided the paper as I saw it as an affront to quality journalism

(this was before Fox News, so my concerns seem quaint now). One day, after looking at the same subway ad for the zillionth time, I decided I needed to divert my attention and reluctantly picked up a copy that was lying next to me. The paper is in tabloid form and is clearly designed to be consumed in a single commuter trip. Most news articles are presented as "snacks" rather than a "meals". Nevertheless, The Metro does employ some writers who clearly take pride in their work and strive to create something that people actually look forward to reading.

Rick McGinnis exemplifies this. His television column - "The Idiot Box", rebranded, "Intellivision" - was not only my favourite Metro column, but also one of my favourite columns in general (up there with Roger Ebert's writing). His droll sense of humour grounded in humility was coupled with a sincere interest in the medium of television. These qualities really made his columns resonate in the post Pulp Fiction/Simpsons era. Rick spoke to the modern audience: The audience that can both appreciate pop culture on the surface non-ironically, but also enjoys peeling back the facade to dissect the underlying mechanics and manipulations. While for some this may seem to blur the line between "laughing at" and "laughing with", I feel this approach is actually more egalitarian and inclusive in its nature.

Two months ago when Rick's column stopped appearing in The Metro, I at first thought he was just on vacation. Then after a couple weeks went by I got worried and Googled his name. That's when I found his blog "Life With Father" and discovered that he was "downsized" due to the recession. I must admit, it was one of the most surreal media experience I've ever had. I had been reading his column for all these years in paper form, and now with barely missing a beat, I was continuing to read Rick's daily musings through my iPhone... still on the bus to my office in east Scarborough.

It occurred to me then, that Rick might have some time for a TUN3R interview. While many of us are familiar with Rick's take on television, I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore his music and radio side. Enter Mr. McGinnis...

Q1 Neil: Rick, thanks very much for taking some time for this interview! To get things started, how long had you been writing the television column in The Metro? What was the best part of the job? The worst?

A1 Rick: I wrote the column for just over four years - 500 daily columns as Tube Talk, the original name of the column when I took it over, then 523 as Idiot Box, the name I came up with, and the one I always preferred. At some point last year our publisher and new editor decided that they wanted to change the name, claiming that they thought Idiot Box "insulted the readers." Frankly, I always assumed that everybody would guess that the idiot was the guy writing the column, but you really can't do much for the irony-challenged. They held an internal contest at the office for someone to come up with a new name, and Intellivision won, but before we could use it, the lawyers started fretting about infringement with whoever owns Coleco's trademarks, so it was slightly changed to Intellevision, which is a pretty bad pun any way you look at it. I wrote 136 columns under the name before I got laid off, along with all of the other reporters at the paper.

I guess that was the worst part of the job - working hard on turning an afterthought column into something worth reading, dealing with people who didn't really get it, building up a readership and then getting canned. There's no positive spin you can put on that kind of experience. Apart from that, I guess it was the increasingly tight word counts - 375 per column on average by the end - though any good journalist should consider that a challenge, I suppose. It made me a tighter, more concise writer, I'm sure, though I'm quickly squandering that skill with the blog, which lets me write at New Yorker magazine lengths.

The best thing was having to analyze, over a long period of time, my relationship with television, which had always been a big part of my life, even though I really didn't watch if for about 15 years - roughly from when I started college to the point in my mid-30s when my wife moved in with me. I watched a lot - A LOT - of television when I was a kid, and to some degree my conception of TV remained locked in place in the late '70s, when the big three networks were still unquestionably the industry monoliths, though cable was starting up, and all these small, local, specialty players were starting to nip at their heels.

Obviously a lot had changed by the time I started writing the column in early 2004, and I had to get up to speed pretty quickly. I started with the usual prejudices - reality TV was bad, a successful show had to pull pre-cable network numbers in the multiple millions, TV was an inferior medium to the movies - and had them all swept away in quick succession. It was, really, an exciting time to be writing about TV.

Q2 Neil: In your blog "Life with Father", you argue that there is no such thing as a Golden Age of Television, or rather today is the Golden Age. Do you think the same applies to music and radio?

A2 Rick: I think there have been patently more exciting, interesting eras for movies, music, maybe even books - definitely newspapers and magazine journalism - but TV has actually always been in the process of getting better. Of all these media, it's the one whose fate is tied most closely to technological progress, and all the technologies relevant to television have been surging ahead over the decades since it was invented, which has only widened the possibilities for what TV can accomplish.

Everything from broadcast quality to the sets and recievers themselves, not to mention the internet explosion and digital file-sharing, has made TV better, more integral to the way we live, in a way that movies, for instance, can't quite match. Everyone in the movie industry complains that the time constraints - the 2-3 hours maximum that a mainstream audience will tolerate sitting still to watch a film - necessarily reduce the scope of what they can do with story and character, but now that TV looks as good as the movies, the distinction between the two has been made irrelevant.

The way people consume TV also gives it an edge. Until recently, movies were an event - you had to go somewhere to enjoy them, and you paid to rent your seat for the duration of the program, with extra cash paid for food and drink. You watch TV at home, in a space you own, with your own food, and a bathroom without lineups that's as clean as you want it to be. The atmosphere is far more comfortable, so it's not surprising that people will spend a whole weekend at home devouring, say, a season of 24 - something they'd never really think to do with movies, which in any case are still limited by the duration and economics of the theatrical experience.

Of course, home video has taken film out of the theatrical venue, but it's too late - actors have realized that, if they can get on a series that really clicks, they can have the luxury of an audience, a longer character arc than they could dream of with a film, and something like a steady paycheque. In the long run, I can imagine the distinction between movies and TV blurring and ultimately dissolving - there's just no good reason that it wouldn't.

If it seems like the golden age of radio and music has passed, it's probably because circumstances have changed in the way we've consumed both of those. The golden age of radio as a technology was probably in the '30s and '40s, when it was the fastest and most modern of communications technologies, but its cultural golden age probably came later, when AM top 40 radio was literally an expression of the tastes of the baby boomers who made top 40 - and the music industry - wildly profitable.

It's a simple matter of demographics - any medium that serves such a huge, largely homogenous group will appear vital and timely. The Beatles are still the most famous group in the world because, for at least a decade or more, they were the favorite group of the majority of a huge demographic bulge. Even today, they're the gold standard for success for a musical group, though it's almost impossible that another group will ever duplicate their influence or impact.

I actually think that's a good thing. Any cultural phenomenon so overwhelming is a bit scary to me - like a demagogue, or a political movement. The balkanization of musical taste has been hell for the musical industry, but I think it's made the proverbial thousand flowers bloom. Ten years ago I would have thought that every band would be making music on laptops today, but the music scene is full of young bands playing acoustic instruments in the most arcane combinations, singing multipart harmonies. The irony, of course, is that all this creativity playing to small but loyal audiences is happening past the far fringes of commercial radio, which has come to rely on formats like talk, or that muzak-like "hit radio" formula that's so general it actually appeals to no one in particular.

Q3 Neil: Are there lessons from the current trials and tribulations of the television industry that could be applied to the music industry and/or the radio industry? Were the television networks even to blame for their own decline?

A3 Rick: Oh, they were certainly to blame. They were able to guess that digital video files were as easily copied and shared as music files, and they've tried to avoid repeating the mistakes the music industry made by ignoring the changes for too long, then trying to litigate them into submission after it was far, far too late. But what they didn't quite see was how the broadcast TV model - which hasn't appreciably changed since the creation of commercial radio in the '20s and '30s - was becoming utterly irrelevant to their viewers. It isn't 1936 or 1956 anymore - people don't rush home to park themselves in front of the Stromberg Carlson or the DuMont to catch the latest Rudy Vallee with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, or I Love Lucy.

The PVR was the mp3 player of this transformation, and it caught on because people wanted convenience, and they got it in a technology that refined what VCRs and cassette tapes had offered, but in a far less sophisticated user experience. I just don't think the broadcast TV model has any life left in it, and the sooner the industry gets it the better.

The sooner they move from the scheduled broadcast model to the marketplace one the better for everyone. For instance, by June of this year the first leaks of the fall's TV pilots will start hitting the file-sharing networks, either put out there surreptitiously by the shows' producers to build buzz, or by people from all the points in the production chain - PR assistants, interns, staff at editing, duping and mastering facilities - who can get their hands on a screener DVD and slip it into their computer and out onto the net. I had the pilots for Life On Mars and True Blood weeks and months before they aired, and for the life of me I couldn't understand why the networks were waiting to air these shows when they had them in the can already.

No one thinks the strictly delineated fall TV season makes sense anymore, but it persists regardless, mostly because it's hard to get the industry to break from their stasis. It's partly laziness, partly fear, and partly the unwillingness of any single competitor to break out and do something new while everyone else nervously strains at the starting blocks, unwilling to try something that might fail, or might work spectacularly, or at least become something that works with some refinement forged by the market.

Q4 Neil: On a related note, do you believe that now that big media giants are beginning to crumble that we're seeing or going to see an increase in quantity, but a decline in quality?

A4 Rick: Not at all. Smaller players like AMC have produced shows as good or better than their competitors, and as long as you can spot talent - and get it to come up with an idea that doesn't, for instance, require you to build ancient Rome on a studio lot in Italy - you can make a show that people will want to watch. Digital technology has made cinematic sci-fi possible on TV, but TV's strength has always been attracting young, hungry talent willing to work long and hard to make their name, right from the early days of TV when New York was producing intense chamber dramas in tiny studios with all these Broadway and method names, or budding talents like Paddy Chayefsky and John Frankenheimer.

Frankly, I can't see why someone can't make a really compelling show with a consumer video camera, freeware video editing software and a YouTube account. It's certainly been anticipated for a few years now, though the fact that it hasn't happened doesn't mean it won't.

And besides, as the big media players start shedding staff and productions, they'll be freeing up people who - if they're at all serious about what they want to do - will want to do it wherever they can, and not just under the umbrella of a big, lumbering - and frequently interfering - media conglomerate's production arm.

Q5 Neil: A bit off topic for radio, but I have to ask. What ever happenedto the sitcom? It seems like a pinnacle was reached with Seinfeld, and we've never been able to reclaim that high ground. Is there a reason why this once popular genre seems to be stagnant?

A5 Rick: The genre just got tired. I assume you're talking about the 3-camera, "live" audience and laugh track sitcom. Don't forget that they still make them, and that one of them - Two And A Half Men - is still one of the most popular shows on network TV, even if it gets no critical love. There's definitely nothing now like the "golden age" of the sitcom - roughly the '70s, with shows like Mary Tyler Moore, Bob Newhart, Barney Miller and - though I'm not a fan - Norman Lear's shows.

It was a long, slow decline for the genre after that, at the end of which Seinfeld was a freakish little renaissance all on its own, mostly because it was such an ironic, knowing take on the sitcom, and one that assumed that the audience was perfectly aware of the traditional sitcom's inherent flaws, which Seinfeld both spoofed and defied. But it was a death blow to the genre, I think, and good riddance.

Q6 Neil: Getting back on topic. Growing up, what radio stations did you listen to? What kind of music were you into? How have your tastes changed?

A6 Rick: I grew up with this sort of schizophrenic radio experience as a kid - my brother and sister had CHUM AM and the top 40 music of the '60s, and my mom's was devoted to CHFI, which was on a total MOR "Music of your life" format, playing everything from James Last and Andre Kostelanetz to Sinatra and Tony Bennett and old big band swing and light classical. I still listen to most of that stuff today - well, maybe not the Last and Kostelanetz.

And then in the '70s I discovered my own taste - prog and FM album rock at first on CHUM FM, then punk and new wave on CKLN, which was broadcasting out of Brampton then, I think. Punk rock was really my music - the first music that I really owned, and wasn't passed down to me by my mom or siblings. I loved it - still do - but I quickly learned that most of it was wildly uncommercial stuff that even an FM maverick station like CKLN wouldn't play. If you wanted to listen to punk rock, you either made a lot of money and collected every record you could find, or you traded tapes with friends - or made friends with people who had the huge collections. If only we'd had file-sharing back then!

In fact, the single largest iTunes playlist I have is my punk rock one - over 20GB, and growing all the time. Almost everything on it was recorded between 1976 and 1982, and it's the soundtrack of my youth, albeit idealized, as if I'd grown up all over the U.S. and Europe, and picked up hundreds of singles a week in every record shop I'd find. I listen to a lot of music - jazz, old blues, prog rock, indie, ethnic (not "world") music. I have gigabytes of '60s garage music; are you aware how many little bands in the U.S. were printing nasty little singles on tiny little regional labels between 1965 and '68? The Beatles might have made a lot of people pick up guitars, but most of then ended up sounding like the Seeds, or ? and the Mysterians.

It was this kind of connoisseurship and packrat collecting that made writing about music the most natural choice when I left school, and I did that for years, until I burned out. I used to think it was unique, but there were obviously a lot more people who hoarded music and created their own radio stations using mix tapes and trading, creating a need for custom music experiences in the absence of the technology that would make it possible. Basically, I've been waiting for an iPod all my life (though I actually prefer the Zune.)

Q7 Neil: Have you ever listened to Internet DJ-mixed radio (e.g. Radio Paradise) or custom radio (e.g., Pandora, Jango)? Where does most of the music you listen to come from?

A7 Rick: I used to listen to the channels on Live365, and we have an XM satellite radio in the kitchen, where the family is together most of the time, but most of my music is downloaded, from iTunes, band and record label online stores, or file-sharing sites for obscure and out-of-print stuff, and I hear about new things - current bands or obscure old music - from mp3 blogs, which are the greatest thing out there for a music fan, as far as I'm concerned.

I discovered great new bands - Fleet Foxes, My Mourning Jacket, The Black Keys - thanks to mp3 blogs, most of whom got the tracks from the bands, as previews for albums, with permission to make them available for promo. When you find an mp3 blog run by someone whose taste you trust - something like Sound Bites, SirensSound, The Unblinking Ear or Milk Milk Lemonade - it's as good, or better, than reading Rolling Stone or Creem or Spin or Maximum Rock and Roll back in the day.

Tivoli loaned me one of their PAL internet radios to review last year, and we had it in the kitchen. It was great - the selection of stations was better than decent, there was a lot of variety, and the sound was fantastic. I love internet radio, but its lack or portability compared to, say, a plain old car radio would be a big drawback for most people and their radio habits. It's a technology issue, though, not a content one. People want more variety and choice in what they can listen to, and that need's being addressed very creatively - the technology will follow, I'm sure.

Q8 Neil: Recently, CBC Radio 2 has undergone a transformation from a mainly Classical Music station, to a station that plays a more eclectic music - sometimes indie pop music. Traditional CBC Radio 2 listeners got angry and felt that the programming consists of music that is "ephemeral" (note to readers: CBC Radio 2 also launched 4 Internet streams, one of which is classical, so it's only the FM broadcast that's been impacted.) My question isn't so much whether or not CBC made the right decision - although I'm interested in your opinion on that - but do you think the Canadian government, or any government have an obligation to intervene and shape culture? What should the government's role be in this regard?

A8 Rick: Government should get out of the culture business as much as possible. There's really no other way for me to answer this question. I think that the CBC is in a great position right now to get out of the business of competing with commercial television networks like CTV and Global - and the U.S. networks that they share the dial with, and compete pointlessly with for audiences.

I agree with Colby Cosh, a columnist at the National Post, who wrote a few weeks ago that the CBC should get off the airwaves and go online. Newsworld might make sense as a bare-bones news channel that commissions some original content but mostly licences news and documentary programming from other English-speaking countries, but a CBC that tries to pretend it's a player in the same league as CTV - or ABC or NBC - is an expensive joke. I think TV programming will go online eventually, so why can't we enhance our national prestige by leading the way?

I actually think CBC Radio is in more viable, but I think they should pare down to one, very basic national station focused on news, weather, and the most politically neutral current affairs programing possible. It sounds unexciting, but providing the country with the most utilitarian radio service imaginable is the essence of their mission. The rest of their programming - all the music and arts and cultural chat show stuff - should go into internet radio channels and podcasts.

I used to work in a record store classical music department back in the '80s, when classical music aficionados were replacing their LPs with CDs, after which the classical market collapsed. It's a niche musical interest, and it's most economically served by small, local broadcasters in cities, not a national, publicly funded radio network.

Basically, I just don't think you can legislate culture, or fund an audience into existence. We've been doing it for years, and there's never been any kind of unqualified success story; the movie industry has been an exercise in producing films for the smallest possible audiences, and CanCon regulations in music have become completely irrelevant in the internet age. We have to grow up, and the first thing we have to do is shed these old, counterproductive habits and assumptions about building culture, which barely made sense forty years ago, and have become anachronisms today.

Q9 Neil: Obligatory question: If you could have had a theme song for your Metro television column, what would it have been? Actually, make that two: One for "Idiot Box" and one for "Intellivision".

A9 Rick: No question - T.V. Eye by the Stooges: "I got a TV. You got a TV. We all got TVs. Big fucking deal." Words to live by. In a more sophisticated mood, "TV Is The Thing" by Dinah Washington.

Q10 Neil: Apart from typical freelance work, do you have any larger or personal projects in the works?

A10 Rick: I'm trying to get a couple of book projects going, and I have the usual unfinished novel in my desk drawer. Newspapers certainly aren't hiring these days, so whatever freelancing I do will likely be more online than anything else, which I'm actually excited about. Most of my reading happens online, so I can't see why I shouldn't be working there. It's a strange, anxious time in my business right now, though - no one knows where things are going, and I'm thinking that the fewer assumptions I have, the better.