Friday, 26 March 2010

Buried Radio treasure. It's out there, somewhere. Got a map?

I've written this for my website, to go onto a new Selector/Music programming section, but I'm posting it here as well. It's a humble suggestion to programmers, and adds to the debate about what exactly music radio is in the second decade of the 21st century.

How we get and how we use our music has changed. Music itself has changed: it was the thing that pulled young listeners in. In turn, radio was the place to hear the hot new stuff.

Now? We get hot new stuff from the net, from friends, on phones. Pandora in the US, and Last-FM and Spotify in the UK can give you want, when you want it. Radio can’t compete with the web. Instead of enthralling and seducing the listener, to its discredit, much radio has devalued its music and retreated into conservatism.

Worse still, many radio professionals have abandoned the idea of ‘owning’ their music, and have farmed out their programming to remote services, sometime hundreds of miles away.

I’m not saying that music radio has a divine right to continue to exist in the face of hot new technology; after all, the technology that empowered music radio helped to kill off earlier forms of music distribution, like sheet music and piano rolls.

But I still think that there’s a LOT to play for. Radio, on whatever platforms it now uses, still has several prime assets: Radio has a direct connection between presenter and listener, in a way that rival media can not match.

And in music programming, of all types, there’s still a vital ingredient that is out there, waiting to be grasped: localism. By this, I don’t mean a parochial approach. I mean a sense of locality, identity and community. Localism becomes doubly valuable when set against the overwhelming globalisation of the record industry, and centralised programming that, while expedient, ignores potential local variations. It always shocks me when I visit a different country - and hear exactly the same music being played on the radio that I’m used to at home.

One of the non-radio projects I am working on taps into the world of new independent music making, which now exists online. It is thrilling, vital, and exciting. Because musicians can use web tools and computer based recording equipment that is now spectacularly cheap, the quality is often spectacularly good. Musicians the world over have side-stepped record companies to distribute their material directly, and I don’t blame them. If all a record company is interesting in signing is yet another ‘Three Tenors’ clone, or another Beyonce wannabe, or the next Michael Buble, then why go to the trouble of trying to get them to take a chance on your material?

But that’s not to say that the new online alternatives don’t have radio value. It does mean you, the programmer, have to do a bit of work to find it, but that shouldn’t be too hard. And this material can have huge impact, especially if it ‘belongs’ to your town, or your region, or even your country.

So, my question to those programmers who still have the freedom to determine what they can put on their radio stations is: are you entirely sure that those global successes the record companies thrust at you wouldn’t benefit from a judicial addition of something that you know - from experience - matters in your town, your region, or even your country?

Think about it. It could be your usp in the radio war.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

West Midlands Mix number 2 (19 Artists, 5 minutes)

I've just had a blast putting this together, following the rather gratifying response to Mix Number 1. This is more of a radio mix, harder, faster, shorter, non-chronological, and genre-mangling. Can you identify everyone?
Bottom line: listening back to this fills me with pride, gratitude and respect for the musicians of the West Midlands. We've got a lot to shout about, right here.  

Another observation: I simply would not have had the tools to put this together back in the day. This used to be the sort of thing you needed four hands to mix. And it's those same tools that have opened up a new level of web-powered creativity that's made our local music scene even more powerful and interesting. I'll have a lot more to say on this subject in the coming months. 

As always, mix suggestions and comments are most welcome.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Own your music: Selector (and other scheduling systems) tip 4

Number four in a series of tips for Selector (and other scheduling system) users.

When I talk about ownership, I’m talking about really getting hold of the material you’re going to play. Simply put, if you have no real idea of what’s important in your library, or why, you’re going to sound messy on air. A  big, deep repertoire is a wonderful thing. But it's absolutely no use to you, unless you know what you’re going to do with that repertoire. If you think about it; you win. If someone else does the thinking, or worse, nobody does the thinking, you lose.

An example: A small-scale station was setting up at the end of last year. They had no money for a library. So staff lent their own CD collections to copy to the station server. This is not at all unusual. They happily ripped everything they had: complete albums, dozens of them. This rapidly built up a library of several thousand cuts. However, the station’s system just happened to be off-line… so, no CDDB/Gracenote, and no artist or title recognition. Giving a database full of Song1, Song2, and so on, performed by Artist1, Artist2… and so on.  And, because they were ripping complete albums, including hits packages, that database was also full of duplicates. That’s a nightmare scenario, one which will take far more time to correct than it would have taken to think about core material in the first place.

I’ve seen this happen too on courses I teach at college radio – I do a couple a year. Hundreds of tracks get dumped into memory, just to get something to work with. That’s not building a library.

Here’s why. Take a look at your Ipod. Chances are you’ve done much the same thing, especially if you’ve got a lot of memory and you want to have a BIG library to brag about. And how is that huge choice working for you? Have you taken the time to go through everything in iTunes and prioritise every single track in to favourite and less favourite? I'll bet you haven’t. What about deleting stuff? Tricky. I bet your shuffle play is… random.

Here’s the thing. Even through we’re in the era of single song downloads – a healthy development - we’re drowning in easy availability. We don’t value songs for themselves anymore - that’s so last century. Music, like so much else, has become commoditised, and it’s not healthy.

I believe that each song needs to be looked at hard by any radio programmer, before being put forward for scheduling. Don’t misunderstand me: I am not arguing for 100-song playlists like they have at a lot of stations in the US these days. There’s no reason not to go ahead and build up a huge library. Just make sure, before you do, that there’s a good reason to add each song in the first place (somehow, ‘I just like It’ isn’t quite enough).  Thinking about your stuff before you add it also helps you to build a coherent structure for your scheduling system. Core songs by core artists – no matter what your format – is a great place to start. You can work it out from there.

And it might be wise to make sure you’re online when you're ripping :-).

If this has been useful, pass it on to friends and colleagues. It’s on me. If you'd like more, on a 1 to 1 basis, reply to me through the blog, or email me via the website (link at left under Work-related).

24 artists, 43 years, 9 minutes

This has been by far the most popular post I've put up this year, so I'm going to keep it front page for a while. 

I put this together last month for a radio class I taught to US students. I wanted to put the West Midlands in perspective for them. They knew some of the bands, of course, but not all (do you?), and had no idea that they all came from/worked in the region. There was a role for local radio in supporting pretty much the first 16 or so in the sequence, but those days seem to be over. Shame...

This is a montage, not even close to a proper mashup - for that, check out Sam Redmore's brilliant work - but I had a ball putting it together. The range and diversity makes me proud of my town.

With just one exception, I have interviewed and/or hung out with, worked with, shook hands with, or hugged and kissed all of these guys.