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.
For the most part, the pop channels--"alternative rock," "modern country," "lite jazz," "hottest hits"--don't outperform their commercial counterparts by much, except for less repetition. (The "rap" channel is an exception; it pulls no punches, mixing West Coast and East Coast, gangsta, pop, and progressive. And because there are no FCC sensitive language regulations for cable, records stickered with "parental advisory" warnings get played unexpurgated.) Still, DMX is clearly about micro-programming for a variety of tastes, and the diversity is expanding.
While home subscribers are still limited to 30 channels, worldwide businesses can now get 97 channels via satellite feeds (with Cajun, bluegrass, acid jazz, Indian, flamenco, Japanese, and Chinese music channels, not to mention 4 German slots--German rock, German oldies, German folk, and yes, German easy listening). And another 23 channels are about to be added.
Despite its superiority in terms of content and fidelity, DMX doesn't present an immediate threat to radio. It can't get into a car or an individual's office space like radio can. And it doesn't provide the sort of companionship that radio does, with its hosts and information. But as a trouble-free soundtrack source in the home, and as a music information source, its benefits are plain.
Furthermore, DMX's potential as a marketing tool has yet to be exploited. A clue to its future lies in the button on the remote control labeled "BUY." Though inactive at the moment, the company eventually hopes to have an interactive setup that lets listeners order by pressing a series of buttons whenever they hear something that piques their curiosity. The purchase can either be charged to a credit card or tacked onto the monthly DMX bill.
It's fairly impressive stuff. But looking ahead, DMX seems like an interim step toward online music services, at least in the home. With the advent of cable modems--which some observers are guessing will revolutionize the online world in the next few years by enabling transmission of high-fidelity audio and video on the Internet--and the imminent arrival of Internet TVs, which will move web culture into the home entertainment space, DMX's little decoder box is already looking quaint. Instead of 120 channels, there may be 200, or 2,000. And instead of an LCD text strip, there may be a full-screen reproduction of a CD package and liner notes. Plenty of online folks are already working to make it happen.
The Online Record Shop
As the number of CDs in print globally increases at a frightening clip, the chance any conventional record store will stock precisely what you want at any given time gets slimmer and slimmer--especially if it's not a current hit or widely acknowledged classic. Specialty stores are useful for certain genres (indie rock, Latin, DJ music), but even these operations have problems maintaining deep-catalog stock. The two main problems conventional stores face in this regard are display space and cash flow, and the latter problem is exacerbated by the rise of discount record clubs and electronics stores such as Best Buy which, for promotional purposes, sell new CDs at near or below cost.
For that matter, record shopping isn't what it used to be. Unless you're doing business with mom & pop operations, chances are the staff will be ill equipped to advise you on purchases or place special orders (most of these jobs, after all, are high-turnover, close-to-minimum-wage drudge work). Some retail outlets have experimented with computer-assisted, in-store shopping services. The defunct local Title Wave chain used what is known as an I-Station, an interactive kiosk which allows customers to sample bits of songs on thousands of releases, and special-order them on the spot if they aren't in stock. The irony is that technologies like the I-station are rendering the stores around them practically redundant.
The number of online record stores is growing; with some creative website construction and a warehouse space, almost anyone can set up shop. Right now, most observers consider CD-Now (http://www.cdnow.com/) to be the largest and best-run operation going. According to President Bill Brennan, they did roughly $6 million in business last year, and expect things to go up from there.
Having spent some time browsing in CD-Now, I confess I found it a great source of information. If you search for a CD, you get not only the title, label, and price, but also frequently an image of the cover art, a song list, a personnel list, and a short review of the band and/or recording. If a record is forthcoming, it includes the title and release date. For those obsessive and/or bored enough, their are various chat options to discuss music with other customers.
CD-Now also proved a good source for obscure records. In their jazz stacks, I found 24 John Zorn titles (including Japanese imports) and 17 Cecil Taylor titles. On the rock shelves, there were 10 titles by German rockers Faust, and a half-dozen by the kindred Amon Duul/Amon Duul II, along with American indie records by Tortoise, Folk Implosion, and Ui. World music was less impressive, but still not too shabby. Brazil's prolific Caetano Veloso had 13 titles listed and Cuba's seminal Trio/Groupo Matamoros had nine; the late African superstar Franco was only represented with two titles out of the dozens available on CD.
Pricing is nothing special--at CD-Now, an average of 10 percent below suggested retail for both domestic and import titles, plus shipping charges. Buying music online is not about saving money, though, but about convenience. In fact, according to their demographic research, 45 percent of people who shop in CD-Now do it while at their jobs--an edge which conventional stores would be hard-pressed to match.
Access to customer demographics is another edge online stores have. CD-Now, like most websites, incorporates advertising links into its information pages. Because it tracks and recalls each user's movements through the "store," CD-Now can target advertisements--or, as online marketers prefer to call it, "customized information"--to individual customers. Thus, if I've spent time in the jazz section, I'm more likely to be greeted by ad links for jazz records when I log onto the site, where someone who usually browses for chamber music will see ads for classical labels in the same spot. Orwellian, to be sure. And it works.
Now as a rule, I support local, independent record stores. I like talking music with knowledgeable staffers and picking up recordings on the spot. And I understand that if buyers don't go out of their way to support these stores--even if it means paying that extra dollar or two for a particular title--they'll cease to exist. But even independent record stores are looking at online marketing as a way to expand their sales reach, and keep them afloat in a fiercely competitive marketplace. Schoolkids Records in Ann Arbor, Michigan is one of the Midwest's best independents; they began selling records online back in 1994, thinking it would be a huge boon. It didn't exactly work out that way, according to Anne Dickens, the store's head of advertising and marketing--it was fairly expensive to get into, and the sales numbers have been moderate. But with weekly online sales averaging between $300 and $500, according to Dickens, the site (http://www.schoolkids.com/) is more than paying for itself. And it offers the sort of informed bias of a good small record store, highlighting unusual CDs (especially classical, jazz, world music, and indie rock) with informed commentary from staffers and a few sound samples.
The latter--the opportunity to audition records--is an especially big appeal of online music shopping. Recently there's been a shift from downloading soundbites onto the hard drive (which can take many minutes for even a 30-second clip), to setups where the clip or song is playable in real time using a software utility called RealAudio. Still, the sound quality is marginal, even if you've got a 28.8 (high speed) modem and all your peripherals are in order. And most stores have very limited access to sound clips. CD-Now has what they call an "Internet Jukebox," which will play select songs all the way through in RealAudio. But the ideal of being able to sample multiple tracks from every record in a stores catalog is still a ways off.
Most techies agree that online audio won't take off until the quality improves, and also that substantial improvements are likely to happen soon--probably in six months to two years. But few agree on exactly what the new technology will produce. Some anticipate the introduction of cable modems that will replace narrow-capacity phone lines with greater-capacity cable feeds. Others argue that cable companies will be unwilling to invest in expensive system modifications at this stage in the game; they predict advances in compression technology along the lines of what RealAudio and other software packages use, which will enhance the ability of 28.8 modems to carry high-fidelity sound. Ken Rutkowski, a Chicago-based computer consultant and host of the broadcast and online computer show Tech Talk (http://www.ttalk.com) believes that companies like AT&T and IBM have been sitting on advanced data-compression technology for years, waiting to see how the market plays out; now that the stakes are high, he anticipates big changes in a very short amount of time. That would mean a brave new broadcasting world not only for CD marketing, but also for online radio.
The Death of Radio, Part 2
For music fans, not to mention information junkies, online radio portends great things. As a fan of Jamaican reggae, a scene which churns out vast quantities of music that's mostly impossible to get stateside and gets next to no airplay, I'd be delighted to log onto a Kingston radio at my computer. Or Radio Havana, to catch the latest U.S.-embargoed sounds. Or a Johannesburg pop station, to see what's happening in a post-apartheid programming mix.
Technologically speaking, all this is possible to do now, if the stations had an interest in doing so. Using html programming, you simply set up a website, purchase a hardware/software package (such as the Streamworks Solution package sold by Xing Technology Corporation in Arroyo Grande, California; see sidebar, right), and off you go.
In the year-old (give or take a few weeks) medium of net-casting, Minneapolis has already earned itself a place on the map. Net.radio is a local operation that claims to be the first Internet-only broadcast venture, as opposed to radio stations that are simply feeding their on-air signals onto the net. Net.radio went up last November; at present, their site (http://www.netradio.net) features three separate music feeds: "Vintage Rock," "Indie" (a mix of demos and some independent releases that leans heavily on pop/rock styles), and "Maestro," a classical music format. It also features links with music-oriented websites, news and information (mostly Internet-related), access to video clips, and occasional live broadcasts. (Dr. Mambo's Combo performed online earlier this year.)
Like real radio, you can simply tune into net.radio and other netcast programming and forget about it; the RealAudio software that delivers the music allows you to move on to another website--or to another software package, if your machine can handle the multi-tasking--while the music plays on. And web stations can offer all sorts of website information and services. Depending on the 'caster, a web station can be a multimedia extravaganza--a radio station, TV station, chat line, data server, audio/video archive, record store, and more. (Net.radio President Scott Bourne prefers to call his operation an "entertainment site.")
Of course, the big question, as with all online media, is content. And frankly, current net radio operations have little to recommend them beyond their formal novelty. The redundancy of simulcasting commercial rock or pop stations online is obvious, at least if you live in an urban center with a reasonable radioband selection. And so far, net.radio's programming offers little in the way innovation. "Vintage Rock" is a narrow version of '70s AOR format, heavy on Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones, and other dinosaurs. Their "Indie" channel reflects little of the vitality and vision of modern small-label music; it seems thrown together from whatever demos or promos turned up in the mail. "Maestro" offers nothing that the average NPR-affiliate doesn't do better at higher fidelity.
Mind you, people without access to broadcast radio--those living in the wilds of Nevada, or Alaska, or Siberia, say, might have a different take. (According to net.radio, some of the pipeline workers in the Arctic Circle are big fans.) But clearly, online radio is a medium still in the process of being realized. As an international medium and marketing tool (with both audio and graphic ad capabilities), it obviously has great potential. How that potential will manifest itself, and how much it will have any genuine cultural value, remains to be seen.
When lacquer disc recordings became widely available in the '20s and '30s, the music world was transformed. Hawaiian recordings became a craze in the continental United States, and the sound greatly influenced the development of country-western music; Trinidadian calypso and Cuban son 78s travelled from the Caribbean back to Africa, where new music styles grew from their seeds. Similarly, cheap cassette recordings and playback equipment increased the mobility of music even further. Indigenous disco recordings began popping up in Algerian market stalls. Bootleg hip-hop cassettes flooded South and Central America. Portable 4-track analog and DAT recorders put the means of production into the hands of more and more artists from sea to shining sea.
Other technologies have been more revolutionary from a marketing standpoint than a cultural one. The compact disc format was essentially forced on consumers when companies simply stopped manufacturing vinyl LPs. It offered certain improvements over the LP in terms of convenience, portability, and (arguably) sonic quality. But its downside included the extra cost (still an average of $5 per title over LPs), not to mention the stymieing of DJ culture (which still thrives on vinyl LPs, since CDs can't be manipulated adequately by hand) and album art (which must now be shrunk into a 5 x 5-inch square).
The advent of online music services seems to promise wonders on many fronts. For music fans, it should open up a whole new world of sonic access. For musicians, one envisions all manner of online recording and performing projects, such as the free-jazz concert that recently took place at the Cyber X Cafe in Minneapolis featuring Douglas Ewart at the Cafe, Leo Smith in Santa Monica, and Leroy Jenkins in NYC, all jamming together in real time.
For the music business, online advances promise all of the above and more. For one thing, online customers are demographically specific customers. They're more attractive to advertisers, who naturally want to know as much about their potential customers as possible, so that pitches can be tailored to their audience. Online radio stations with a commercial bent will likely evolve into home shopping channels, where any song playing can be purchased instantly with the click of a mouse. ("Classical 24" and other national radio programming services that offer listeners the opportunity to purchase the music they're listening to are already moving in this direction.)
What about access? Like all online technology, it will be restricted to those with the money and knowledge to take advantage of it. But just as computer prices have fallen, and their use is growing more common across various cultural strata, so should online music advances touch all musical cultures. To those who think otherwise, one need only point to the rise of hip-hop--music of pure technology transformed by pure creative vision--as an indication that, whatever happens in the playground of online music, the revolutions are as likely to be led by those with the most imagination as by those with the most money.
Of course, those with the most money and power will do their damnedest to wrest some sort of control. But even large interests are having trouble getting a handle on the new technology. In what may be the most notorious example of corporate bumbling on the new music technology front, a collaborative venture between IBM and Blockbuster was formed in 1994 with the idea of a record store that would essentially manufacture CDs for customers on-the-spot, downloading and capturing audio from a centralized digital database onto recordable optical discs. The idea was a good one: to offer a vast number of titles without the cost of maintaining stock and the required floorspace. Unfortunately, the music industry was less than thrilled at turning over manufacturing capabilities--and profits--to retailers, and after what was rumored to be millions in R&D dollars, the project died a quick death.
But as the big boys scramble for lucrative footholds, small operations will no doubt be the ones to make this new technology sing. And that's why I just sent a check off to my old alma mater earmarked for WHRW and their online project. Because all the choice in the world isn't worth much if all the choices suck. CP
LOCAL RADIO ONLINE
IN THE PAST six months, software packages like RealAudio and StreamWorks have enabled a lot of radio stations to put their broadcasts on the Internet. KEGE-The Edge (http://www. 937edge.com) was one of the first local stations to go up , and traffic on their website has been heavy since its debut on March 15, according to Kristen Gordon, New Media Services Manager for the station; by KEGE's count, the site received 333,000 hits in the past 30 days.
But what's the benefit of putting the station signal on the Web? At this point, it's mainly a promotional tool, as the station doesn't yet earn income directly from the online broadcasts. "It's a novelty, I guess," says Gordon. "The quality isn't what you'd get on your stereo. But there are a lot of people working in their offices who want to listen but aren't allowed to have a stereo--according to the Nielsen Internet survey last October, 66 percent of people who'd logged onto the Internet in the past 24 hours had done it from work. Live audio online is partly for that." KEGE's sister station, KQRS, is scheduled to begin broadcasting at its own website this week (http://www.92kqrs.com/); the site will feature click-and-play audio files in addition to the broadcasts, allowing users to listen to archived routines from the station's morning show programs without downloading special software.
Other broadcasters are biding their time with the new technology. Rev-105's Assistant Program Director and resident computerhead Thorn says he is excited by the potential of the technology, but not by the way it's currently being used. "Most radio stations are just putting their same broadcast signal up there," he says, "instead of doing something that really merges the two media." Rev is currently working with Bitstream Underground on developing their website, and plan to have a broadcast feed in the future. "But not until the technology is there to really let us do something different."
Minnesota Public Radio (http://www.mpr.org) isn't broadcasting online yet either, though they've begun adding audio files to their website, and plan to offer continuous stream broadcasting by fall. John Pearson, MPR's manager of online services, says it's too early to tell how the new medium will shape up. "We're looking at the way people use radio," he says, "and how that adapts to radio delivered over a wire without any geographic boundaries. People who really want to participate in their audio environment will be able to pluck audio from a variety of radio resources and assemble their own their own personalized listening experiences." Pearson suggests the possibility of multiple online music services, so fans of 20th-century classical music, say, could access an archive or stream broadcast on either a pay-for-use or membership basis.
"People will also be able to interact with other people while they're listening to things," he says. "For example, Garrison Keillor had a program at the end of April on jokes, and he announced at the beginning that people could e-mail jokes into the program. By the end of the broadcast we'd received between 200 and 300 jokes, some of which we put out over the air. So I think with online broadcasting we'll be seeing people interacting with radio in whole new ways that aren't necessarily definable because the experiences haven't really emerged yet." Despite the medium's novelty, Pearson doesn't believe in the wait-and-see approach. "If you're waiting for it to be perfect, you'll be waiting a long time. Meanwhile, there are a lot of interesting and creative things that can be done with it just the way it is today."
However online radio shapes up over the next few years, the medium does seem to be a big part of the message, meaning conventional broadcasters who don't adapt new strategies for the Net will be irrelevant there. "I personally think that just putting the same broadcast signal from a normal radio station on the Internet is completely worthless," says Michael Goldberg, editor of the San Francisco-based online music magazine Addicted to Noise, whose "Radio ATN" section presents long-form audio features through click-and-play files. "We're trying to do things that don't exist in the non-online world. This is a medium that's about reaching a much narrower audience, but a worldwide audience. There could only be 10 fans of punk rock
in some little American town where everybody else hates punk rock. But those 10 fans can listen in [to your station], along with maybe
20 fans in some town in Poland, and so on
and so on. You add everybody together,
and you can end up with a substantial audience. So this medium really allows you to do much more interesting programming--you don't have to be programming for the lowest common denominator." CP
HOW TO START YOUR OWN ONLINE RADIO STATION
WANNA BROADCAST ONLINE from your website? Streamworks Solution, produced by Xing Corporation of Arroyo Grande, CA (805-473-0145) is one of the most popular packages. The basic setup includes the following:
1 Transmitter/CPU: Takes in raw audio and translates into MPEG encoded data streams (approx. $2,500).
2 Server software: For any feed up to a T-1 line (approx. $3,500).
3 Client software: StreamWorks: Decodes MPEG stream. Downloadable free from Xing website (http://www.xing.com).
Total cost: about $6,000, plus microphones, mixer, cassette deck, and CD players. CP
ONLINE RADIO SITES
MOST OF THE programming below requires a 28.8 modem to work optimally (or at all), along with either RealAudio or StreamWorks software, which is "easily downloadable" for free at each site. (Good luck...)
Net.radio (http://www.netradio.net): Classic rock, indie/unsigned bands (mostly pop/rock), classical .
KPIG (http://www.kpig.com): An aging hippie-style mix of alt-country, rock, acoustic pop, bluegrass, Cajun, and world beat. Broadcasts from Freedom, CA.
First Radio (http://www.firstradio.com): Web-only broadcasts. Incredibly banal top-40 pop mix with little rhyme or reason. Site includes a note to potential investors, who can call "Chairman Juerg Grau" at one of his various international offices.
Talk America (http://www.talkamerica.com): Online talk radio featuring such luminaries as Bo Gritz, Jerry Brown, and Mr. Z ("The Biker's Program").
KUSF (http://126.96.36.199/pub/kusf/kusf.htm): Cool free-form college radio from University of San Francisco.
KOYN (http://ww2.audionet.com/pub/kbla/ kbla.htm): Decent modern country mix. Broadcasts from Paris, Texas (no, it wasn't just Wim Wenders's imagination)
Radio ATN (http://www.addict.com/ Radio_ATN/): Great radio features as part of the Addicted To Noise Internet magazine. Current programs (on Sonic Youth, Neil Young, and Cracker) run 45-60 minutes, and can be played on demand.
The Edge (http://www.937edge.com): Modern rock radio and website gee-gaws.
KBLA (http://ww2.audionet.com/pub/kbla/ kbla.htm): Radio Korea test site. Originates from Los Angeles.
AudioNet (http://www.audionet.com): Online radio network featuring links to some of the above stations, as well as the AudioNet Jukebox, which at last check had 161 obscure CDs spinning, some of them actually worth hearing (see October Records' Minneapolis Does Denver).CP
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