Sunday, December 11, 2011

TUN3R is signing off at the end of 2011

The headline says it all. Peter and I have decided to shut down TUN3R - the web site and the iPhone App will no longer be available by the end of this year.

TUN3R was officially launched in July 2007 with respectable fanfare. In 2006, when Peter showed me a demo of the technology behind TUN3R', it was one of those rare moments that seemed like magic. The ability to move around a mosaic of stations, hearing the sound flip in real time - just like a traditional analog TUN3R - was exhilarating. The Internet has always been a great place to find "long tail" nichey stuff, but I've always found the rigid organization and latency in browsing to be off-putting. Searching has always been a necessary evil, but TUN3R made it fun to find stations on the web. Serendipity was reborn. There were other things that made TUN3R more useful than the average radio aggregator: We we the first to crawl playlists, and allow users to search against them (also the station's web site). Later we added the ability to browse major city's AM/FM dial which we called "City Dials". Finally, we (well, basically Peter) released an iPhone App.

Others were impressed too, and for a while it seemed like TUN3R had a very prosperous future ahead of it. So why didn't things play out this way? I'll be the first to admit that under different, harder nosed, sharper elbowed management it may have done better. Although there were a few major obstacles we encountered along the way which I'll explain...

First, we thought it would be possible to make TUN3R a consumer company driven by business-to-business revenues. The original idea was that stations would pay to appear prominently on TUN3R's Dial. Unfortunately, the stations that most wanted to be on TUN3R's Dial were Internet based stations running on a very limited (if any) budget, and could barely afford their streaming costs, let alone a marketing budget (some stations even ask to be removed from TUN3R for fear of running out of bandwidth for their more loyal listeners). The stations that were well funded (i.e. the big FM stations) were and are as clueless about the impact of the Internet to their business as the music labels were and still are. Most of these stations outsourced their Internet strategy - that is to say their future business strategy - to data streaming and web site building job shops. Sigh.

The underlying problem wasn't so much that we couldn't sell into AM/FM stations - it's that these stations are not very interesting to Internet radio fans (i.e. TUN3R's fanbase). FM stations have too many commercials (most of which are still localized), antiquated restrictions preventing them from being heard outside their country, a looming reputation for accepting Payola bribes, limited playlists, too much empty filler, and inconsistent proprietary streaming formats. At most Internet stations, the DJs are in charge. At most FM stations, there is often no human DJ to speak off.

Internet radio has flourished somewhat in the free market of radio. But sadly, Internet radio is increasingly being seen as synonymous with Custom Radio - that's what Pandora and Last.FM are selling. It's a neat idea with huge appeal. But, it's one of those situations where the idea sounds better than it really is. A great DJ must be heard to be believed: I can talk to you until you're blue in the face about a great Internet radio stations (like the Soma stations or Radio Paradise, or the Swiss BigBeat), but until you listen to these stations you won't know to even look for them. Pandora knows this all too well, and has since launched non-custom pre-programmed genre stations. In the future, I wouldn't be surprised if Pandora had more listeners listening to DJ led stations than its Custom Radio offering - especially given the social direction the web is moving. Custom Radio == Lonely and Isolated Radio.

Therefore, we concluded that for TUN3R to be successful, we would have to focus solely on the listener. That is to say, TUN3R would become a pure Business to Consumer (B2C) business.

B2C is an arena that typically requires a combination of a lot of capital and/or guerrilla marketing. We did get approached by a well heeled VC from the US (it's been a nuclear winter for VC here in Canada since the dotcom bubble burst), but they came to us before we had any revenue to speak of, and since moved on by the time our iPhone App began bringing in cash. As for guerrilla marketing - it's for better or for worse a necessity. There are so many iPhone Apps now available that most App bloggers (and magazines) can and do charge for coverage. Translation: there's very little honest coverage of iPhone Apps out there as most of it is dictated by Payola. Generating grass roots buzz often requires various forms of spamming, something which we never felt was well suited to TUN3R's ethos.

But, word-of-mouth still serves us well.

Speaking more frankly, we both have families to support and bills to pay. Without quitting our jobs and getting funding, there's not a lot of time left in the day to build out the product and brand. There was certainly no shortage of good ideas.

Without trying to sound pedantic, it's not possible to pursue new ideas without freeing up time and money from ongoing projects. And for this simple reason we are putting TUN3R on an indefinite hiatus.

But hey, if you're reading this and disagree, feel free to express your ideas. But I should warn you: At this point we're not short on ideas; just time and money.

What then will become of this blog? Given that it's free to host, I'll probably just leave it up for posterity. Who knows, maybe I'll throw up one more post before the year is out.

A final shout-out to all the great Internet stations and DJs - you know who you are. It's been our pleasure to see you on the TUN3R Dial.

Signing off now.

Monday, September 12, 2011

INTERVIEW: Cornucopia Radio founder, Peter Beeston

One of the simple pleasures of modern life is embarking on a long car trip, turning on the radio to find a meaty engrossing radio show. With all the variety out there, most radio is geared towards what I might describe as snacking: short song sets broken up by news breaks; DJ chatter; and annoying commercials. There are talk radio stations which occasionally can be entertaining, and while a step up from the nachos and cheese of music stations, they're more like burgers and fries: one-dimensional pundits preaching to the choir.

The only exceptions I've been able to find are the liberally sponsored government backed stations. Stations like the BBC, NPR, or CBC. Ironically, in spite of their "socialist" government backing, they succeed quite impressively within our free markets. In fact, here in Canada, the CBC has the third highest overall listenership of any station, and leads in high value demographic groups like seniors, university graduates, Canadians in professional occupations, and skilled sales people. I often wonder why there aren't more stations that attempt to embrace radio dramas, poetry, lectures, spoken word, and sketch comedy.

Well thank goodness for Internet radio, and stations like the Cornucopia Radio Show. CR, based out of Sheffield UK, plays the sort of material I've only hitherto heard on public radio stations like the CBC or BBC. I only learned of it two weeks ago. Since then, I've been periodically tuning into this unique and fascinating station, often lingering for an hour or more. As a sample of what I've heard, I listened to 'Bluff Cove Disaster' a radio play about the Falkland Islands War, a lecture on the philosophy of art "The Creative Act" by Marcel Duchamp, some spoken poetry, spoken word, various sketch comedy, a ghost story radio play called "Ghost of a Chance", and on the music front a syndicated version of Hype Machine Radio, featuring the latest tracks from the very best music blogs around the world. Let me be clear, this is no amateur college/university station. The quality is very much what you would find on a BBC station.

This brings me to the subject of this blog posting. Peter Beeston, one of the key pillars of Cornucopia has graciously agreed to this TUN3R interview.

Q1 Neil: Thanks Peter for taking out some time to respond to these questions. I've poked around the CR web site and can see that you're both involved in running CR as well as contributing to it. Did you also found the station? How did CR get its start?

A1 Peter: Yes, I’ve been involved since the beginning. We started just over 4 years ago, broadcasting for one hour a month on our local community radio station. At that point it was just myself and a few friends creating stupid comedy sketches, but pretty soon we were creating much longer radio-plays and utilising lots of local performers & writers. A few years later and we found ourselves producing several different shows a week; in the process working with various creative groups around the world.

Sadly however, the economic crisis began to affect the community station and the type of output it could support. So instead of giving up we decided to utilise all the material we were currently producing and offer our programs up as syndicated shows and more importantly, use all of our material to create an online radio station, one which was representative of the things we believed in.

Q2 Neil: There's so much variety on Cornucopia. What segments resonate most with your listeners? What's your most popular show?

A2 Peter: The radio drama plays we produce are very popular (both on the station and as podcasts), as this is a genre which has been ignored by most stations over the last 50 years. However I think the term ‘Variety’ is key to everything we do. We’re living in an increasingly commercialised world; one in which broadcasters like to believe that people can easily be pigeon-holed or catalogued; that just because somebody likes ‘X’ they’ll never like ‘Y’. They’re petrified of taking people out of their comfort zone.

I think that’s rubbish. People love to explore and discover new media; finding material they don’t yet know they’ll love. So I hope what people like the most about ‘Cornucopia’ is not any one show, but more the philosophy behind it. The idea being, that we’re going to broadcast a whole load of creative stuff, produced by talented but under represented people from across the world and If you don’t like one show, hold on; the next thing that comes along might be totally different.

Q3 Neil: I really enjoy The Hype Machine - I've actually found some real gems, like some of the remixes of Lisztomania. How did the relationship with Hype begin? What other musical programming do you have?

A3 Peter: As we’re mainly ‘spoken word’ producers, we have to use syndicated music shows to fill that quota on our station. However I’m also very keen on promoting ‘Creative Commons’ work (all our work is released under the same license), so broadcasting the Hype-Machine is a very natural fit (like yourself, I think it’s great way to discover new music). Getting them on board was just a matter of a simple polite email. We’re all in the same boat, and by broadcasting their show we’re helping them get their own message out to the masses.

Q4 Neil: All the material on CR is IMO of a quality on par with the BBC. How many contributors do you have? Where do most of the contributors come from?

A4 Peter: We’re very lucky to be based in Sheffield, which has one of the highest concentrations of people working in the creative industries of anywhere in the UK. So we’re never short of people who want to get involved in what we do. Across the city we have a core team of around 10 local writers and performers who are involved in making a lot of our content (documentaries, drama, comedy ect) plus we have an even bigger pool of actors and actresses who we can call at any given time.

Also we work with a number of audio drama groups from across the world. Helping to broadcast their own work on our station (as well as on our FM radio shows). A lot of these internet relationships have been fostered on and which are excellent resources for people wanting to produce spoken word radio shows; some of the work produced is mind blowing!

Q5 Neil: How is the station managed? How do you decide what material gets accepted and what is rejected, and when it gets aired?

A5 Peter: We have an open door policy for anyone that wants to produce a radio show. Whether that’s somebody who wants to work face-to-face with us in Sheffield, or an individual who wants to create work on the other side of the world. All we ask is that the show is creative and different. That it’s something you wouldn’t find anywhere else.

In terms of scheduling, I like to embrace a quirky randomness to our schedule (as fitting our ‘Cornucopia’ name) A weekly schedule consists of a randomly repeating 8-12 hour running order which gets completely overhauled and updated every weekend with new shows.

Now I appreciate this is a slightly different way to program a radio station. Some people prefer to know that a program is on at the same time each and every week; but that isn’t the type of station I want to create. I want to create a station in which you never know what you’re going to hear next, a station where you’re confident enough in our ability to feel that we’re never going to let you down.

Q6 Neil: Although I didn't hear any, do you have any talk shows (e.g. interviews, discussion forums)?

A6 Peter: Yes, this is often covered by our Mind Labs strand, which is our primary home for shows which focus on ideas, topics and discussions. We also syndicate great talk shows such as Frequencycast which is an amazing technology & gadget discussion program.

One thing which we should try and do in the future (which we’re not doing at the moment) is to have more round table discussions with our writers and performers about the work they create and produce. We should try and illuminate the process of making a radio drama (which I think people at home would find really interesting). So keep an ear open for that!

Q7 Neil: I don't hear any commercials on CR (which I like). Does CR make money? Is there a business model, or is it a labour of love?

A7 Peter: Well, this is a problem for all radio stations, especially in the current climate. Some of the FM stations I’ve worked with are constantly in debt and always on the verge of closing down (the slump in the advertising market has been going on for years). So instead, you have to look at different ways to operate. One of the most important things is to try and keep costs down, but making sure this is done in a way which doesn’t affect quality. You have to think, if you’re spending money on something which isn’t going to help your broadcast, is it really worth it?

I’m also currently up to my neck in writing funding applications to arts organisations, trying to get support for helping local writers and performers. There aren't that many ways for creative people to break into writing for radio in the UK (outside of the BBC), so hopefully somebody will appreciate what we’re trying to do and give us more money to do it better in the future.

Q8 Neil: I'm sure you've crossed paths with many people from many different backgrounds. Is there an interesting story you can tell about running Cornucopia?

A8 Peter: Well, sometimes I have these big crazy ideas which seem fine when talking with friends at a bar, but then turn into these mammoth projects which I have to manage as best I can. The one that stands out is when ‘Cornucopia Radio’ decided to organise a day long live broadcast in a major public space in Sheffield. It featured live bands, sketch comedy and poetry. It lasted seven hours and was running uncontrollably over-schedule. At the height of this madness, I was suddenly interrupted by ‘Doctor Who and the Daleks’, who were in the area to promote a live stage show. They heard we were doing a live radio show and wanted to take to the stage and help us out. So in my frazzled state, I bizarrely found myself trying to conduct an unplanned live interview with a Dalek and wondering where best to stick the microphone.

Yep, radio can be a little weird sometimes...

[Neil: See photo at top]

Q9 Neil: Silly question, but I always ask it. If there was one song that epitomized Cornucopia what would it be?

A9 Peter: Well, it’s a silly answer in return; but we’ve often used “There is Hope” by Misty’s Big Adventure as our theme tune. It’s stupid, random and doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it has an energy and enthusiasm that can win over even the toughest of souls.

I’m using the song as metaphor for what we’re doing at ‘Cornucopia Radio’; just in case you haven’t made the link ;-)

Q10 Neil: Where do you see Cornucopia headed for the future? And in more general terms do you believe that there could be a profitable business model for a higher minded radio station like Cornucopia, outside of the government sponsored model?

A10 Peter: I think there is going to be a massive change in the position of media production and broadcasting over the next few decades. Television, film, publishing and radio have been controlled by large organisations for at least a hundred years; not because they were necessarily the best, but because only they had the money, equipment and broadcasting channels that were needed. But this is all changing before our eyes. A simple iPhone in your pocket already has enough software to broadcast directly to millions of people across the world; all you need is the passion and the creativity!

You can see it all around you right now. Massively successful YouTube videos have audiences that any TV channel would kill for, popular blogs have more readers than Dan Brown could ever (poorly) imagine, and today’s interesting and unique radio stations will be tomorrows market leaders. Granted I think it’ll be less profitable for most people and run more like a successful hobby with a small income (I’m talking about the ‘long-tale business model’ here) but hopefully ‘Cornucopia Radio’ will be part of the revolution. Or maybe I’ll just get tired of the whole thing and give it up.

Either way, I’ll always be able to tell people that I once interviewed a Dalek...

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Forbidden Fruit / TUN3R's Top 10 Pop Hooks in Rotation for 2010

There are two themes I have been contemplating over 2010. The first is Internet Radio as "The Forbidden Fruit" of music. The second is not so much about radio but rather how music has changed over the past 10 years.

First, what do I mean by "Forbidden Fruit"? For example, if you listen to a decent Internet radio station with a focus on contemporary music (e.g. pop or techno), you will likely be exposed to songs that aren't yet making the rounds on other music distribution platforms (e.g. FM radio, satellite, Pandora, Last.FM, iTunes, etc.). The reasons for this is are due to the legal logistics required to secure the distribution of remixes as well as international restrictions. Because of the nature of live streaming Internet radio, it's regulated differently. Terrestrial and and satellite radio are more tightly regulated, and custom radio (e.g. Pandora and Last.FM) is entirely driven off of a centrally vetted catalog. Furthermore, it's often the case that I'll hear a cool song or remix I like and it's not even available on iTunes; even niche music retailers like BeatPort and MasterBeat won't have the mix you're looking for or it's not available in your region (and they can't have all the DJ remixes). You'd even be hard pressed to find many of these remixes through illegal download services. So, if you're if your one of those girls or guys that takes pride in "being into it before it was cool" (and who isn't?), live streaming Internet radio stations are the way to go. This is why I steadfastly maintain, Internet radio is the bearer of Forbidden Fruit, and why it holds such a great appeal to me.

The second theme that has been bouncing around my head this year is the question "How has music fundamentally changed since 2000?" If we look back to earlier decades (and I suppose part of the problem is we don't yet have an historical perspective of the present), it is fairly easy to see what has changed. If we compare music from 1960 to 1970 it is easy to point out what changed (Prog rock was born). In the seventies we saw the evolution of Prog Rock, the emergence of Disco, Heavy Metal, and Punk, and even the beginnings of electronic music and post-punk new wave. The eighties saw the maturation of New Wave, the rise of Rap and Hip Hop, and the evolution of Metal into sub-genres like Thrash and Industrial, and the reinvention of Disco as Techno, and in the underground, the nascent beginning of grunge. The first half of the nineties was mostly defined by grunge music, but other genres such as Industrial grew legs. The second half of the decade was dominated by hip hop, but a new alt-pop was growing in popularity. Alternative no longer holds meaning as a genre, and has really just morphed into the default genre for people who collect music (I've only met two persons who meticulously collected Top 40 music). Hip Hop and R&B have more or less converged. Prog Rock seems to have made a comeback, insofar that we're seeing a lot more musical instruments than the standard 3 piece ensemble. And, a focus on celebrity culture and singing competitions has from what I can tell amounted to a large and sapping distraction from anything we would normally associate with creative song writing. Yes, at a macro level, the past 10 years has seen change. However, there are so many songs I hear now where I'm asking myself "Would this song be possible ten years ago?". When the answer is "Maybe, but not quite" this for me is a more interesting way of examining the changes that have occurred over the past 10 years.

Enough rambling. Here are the Top 10 Pop Hooks of 2010 as per TUN3R's opinion:

Ten: We No Speak Americano (Yolanda Be Cool, DCUP).
I consider this to be the "Mambo #5" of 2010. It's immediately catchy and annoying all at the same time. What's most surprising is that it's not yet being used for a television commercial (at least not any I've seen). I could imagine it being put to good use selling the new Fiat 500 in North America.

Nine: Dynamite (Taoi Cruz). I overheard my kids singing this a few times already. I've heard a number of other young children singing this too. A family Pop Hook is a primal Pop Hook. I just wish it didn't have to be so cheezy sounding. This could have been a better song. I imagine there's a better song hidden in a downstream remix.

Eight: Amazing / Hot (Inna). Amazing and Hot both sound like the exact same song to me (I think there's a guy singing in Hot though). It goes to show the challenge of writing a decent Pop Hook. Instead of writing a brand new song, sometimes it makes sense to just tweak the one you've got and re-release it. I actually welcome this in the case of Amazing and/or Hot. I'll be surprised if Inna can top this, but given her, ahem, marketability, perhaps we'll be pleasantly surprised.

Seven: Rocket (Goldfrapp).
This is one of the songs that has got me wondering what has changed in the past ten years. Rocket sounds like a song taken right out of the late 70s, early 80s disco period. It reminds me of "Bette Davis Eyes" or "Total Eclipse of the Heart". I wonder, is this a progression of music or a rehash of older music. It's really hard for me to tell with this one.

Six: Feel it in my Bones (Tegan & Sara, Tiesto).
I'm glad to see Tegan and Sara have made peace with techno music. Not only have they collaborated with Tiesto, but they also released a remixed version of Alligator with Morgan Page. I first saw Tegan & Sara during a living recording of Open Mike with Mike Bullard back in 2000. It was immediately apparent that these twins from Calgary had some intense melodic-mind-meld thing going on and everyone in the audience was quite taken aback. Bullard himself, appearing stunned, told the audience off-camera that he'd never seen an act like Tegan & Sara before. I'm not surprised they've resisted techno remixes for so long. Their music comes across as obstinate and angry. Their melodies and lyrics have an intensity that is unique. I doubt Tegan & Sara have peaked and look forward to seeing what they come up with next.

Five: Sweet Disposition [Axwell & Dirty South remix] (Temper Trap).
The original version of this song never made any impact on me and is barely recognizable after you've first heard the Axwell & Dirty South remix. The odd thing about this song is I can't find it for sale anywhere. Especially weird given that this remix has spawned a whole bunch of remixes all of its own. This piece of Forbidden Fruit is tasty.

Four: 17 (Aquapura).
This is another song I struggle to understand if it could have been written in 1998. I think it could have, but have my doubts. Could it have been on Daft Punk's Homework, Air's Moon Safari, or Moby's Play? None of those albums could have existed in 1988. If you can answer that question then you've got a good grasp of how music has or hasn't changed over the past 10 years.

Three: Hello (Martin Solveig).
There's something I like about a blasé sounding woman sing. You can really hear the unique imperfections of the voice - personality shines through. Another good song in this same vein that just came out this year is Teenage Crime by Adrian Lux. But you can only get away with this singing style if you've got a killer pop hook to hang your vocals on.

Two: Excuses (Morning Benders).
I saw these guys open for the Black Keys in August and found myself wishing they could play the entire show (no offense Black Keys). There is something very genuine feeling about The Morning Benders that resonates with me. There are elements of Morning Benders' songs that remind me of all the great Pop Hookers: The Beatles; Beach Boys; and The Pixies. They've got talent and will go far.

One: Nothin' on You (B.o.B. feat. Bruno Mars).
My buddy Aaron introduced this song to me and I was immediately blown away. All pistons are firing here: familiar melody; lyrics that grab you; and both technically superior vocals dueling with imperfect and recognizable vocals. I can't imagine ever growing sick of this song.

We look boldly towards the next decade of music.

Stay TUN3D...