New technology is changing the way we hear music

For some, the fondest memories of college might center around a frat house or a particular pub. For me, it was the campus radio station--WHRW-FM, an especially innovative noncommercial outfit based at the State University at Binghamton, NY. I logged far more time behind its control board than in classes, spent more hours perusing its record shelves than in the library. It was the reason I took my BA on the five-year plan, and when I reluctantly left town with the idea of getting something like a life, WHRW was what I missed most.

Soon, I should be able to tune into WHRW again, thanks to the World Wide Web. An alumni newsletter informed me a few weeks ago that the station needs to raise around $6,000--not peanuts, but hardly major capital--to get the station online.

Many stations are doing it already. The sound quality, like most Internet audio, is lo-fi mono--on the average system it's comparable to AM radio in an old car. But the prospect of tuning into WHRW and other innovative broadcasters on my computer anytime is thrilling. What's more, it means that, at least until the lawyers arrive, anyone with some cheap microphones, stereo gear, a mixer, and some computer hardware can potentially be a radio station, with a broadcast radius spanning the globe. And any musician with a modem can turn their rehearsal space into a club. Imagine being able to hear bedsit techno mixers in Bristol, free-jazz players in Prague, or community orchestras in Cairo, all doing their thing online, in real time. With e-mail or net-phones or live chat lines, you might even make requests.

This is just one picture of how new technology is transforming the way music is heard, commodified, and consumed. Another is already under way on the retail front, as online users preview and mail-order CDs through a variety of online record stores. And in the near future, "buying records" may simply be a matter of downloading audio files to hard drives or recording optical discs--complete with digital liner notes, graphics, and video.

Right now, the technology seems like a shaky-legged foal, with earnest marketeers already setting odds for future trifectas. But it's clear that in a few years' time, the effects on the music world will be profound. What follows is a look at three operations that are merging music and technology in the mainstream in new ways, and whose services raise interesting questions for the future.

The Death of Radio?

Say you're a music freak, a fanatic record buyer. But you find it tougher and tougher to keep up with new music. You read reviews, but they can't always be trusted. Record store listening stations are helpful, but are crowded and/or limited to certain titles. You tune in to radio, but the programming--be it country, R&B, classical, or rock--is dull and repetitive. And half the time when you do hear a great piece, you miss the announcement of the title.

DMX was introduced in 1991 as a supplier of music for businesses--essentially an alternative to Muzak. At the time they offered 30 channels of cable-fed uninterrupted, CD-quality music programming, which spared bars and shops from reloading CD changers and cassette decks, or subjecting customers to broadcast announcers and ads for competitors. A restaurant with DMX could punch up the jazz or chamber music channel for weekend brunch, the folk-rock channel for slow afternoons, the blues or rock channels at night.

Pretty soon the service was being marketed to home cable subscribers as well, for about $12 a month. What intrigued me about the service, aside from the programming, was the remote control: It features a tiny LCD screen that delivers a readout of information on whatever song is playing on the system, including the title, artist and LP name, and label info. Recently, after hearing DMX a few times at a local restaurant, I gave in to my curiosity and subscribed. If you already have cable TV, setup is pretty idiot-proof: It involves simply screwing in a Y-connector between your TV and the line coming out of the wall, running a second line from there into a dictionary-sized reception box, and running a standard audio cable from there into the auxiliary input on your stereo. And I'll admit I was impressed when the first thing to shoot through the system after I set it up was Lou Reed murmuring "Pale Blue Eyes" (on the "folk rock" channel, no less).

That moment wasn't wholly reflective of the programming quality. But the folks who assemble the playlists definitely know what they're doing. The eclectic "folk rock" channel mixes new (Vic Chesnutt, Jann Arden, Aimee Mann, Ben Folds) and old (Fleetwood Mac, Richard Thompson, Bob Dylan). The "dance" music channel is techno-oriented, but favors ambient/trance and house grooves over hardcore. The "traditional country" channel mixes Gene Autry and Hank Williams with vintage George Jones, Johnny Cash, and '70s corn (Mickey Gilley, Donna Fargo, Jeannie C. Riley, Eddy Arnold). The "traditional jazz" channel keeps it fairly straight-ahead (mostly bebop & cool school), but like the classical channels ("symphonic" and "chamber music") and Latin channels ("salsa" and "ranchera/tejano"), it's generally less mainstream and more connoisseur-oriented than its broadcast counterparts.

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