Tag: Spotify

The Case for Radio

Car Stereo

“Is radio dying?” I’ve been hearing this ominous question for years, especially in the context of the plethora of digital music platforms—Spotify, Pandora, our personal music collections, YouTube, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and many more. Can good old-fashioned radio continue to thrive among the other options out there? I believe the answer is yes; radio is evolving, not dying, and there are foundational principles of radio that can’t compete with fancy new technologies.

On February 7 I hosted Musochat, a weekly new music Twitter conversation (Sundays at 6 p.m. PT) to discuss related topics with this passionate online community. You can read the entire summary here, but since I didn’t chime in with my own answers I’d like to share them here.

Do you still think of “radio” as on-the-dial only? If not, how do you define it in this day and age of digital platforms?

It’s definitely not on-the-dial only, but in order for it to be radio, it must be a unique channel of music curated by a human that cannot be paused, skipped, rewound, or altered in any other way. This includes terrestrial/HD radio, their online streaming simulcasts, and continuous streaming channels like KING FM’s Second Inversion, WQXR’s Q2 Music, and New Music USA’s Counterstream Radio. Some people mentioned Pandora in their responses, so I added the sub question, “Do you think Pandora is radio?” I say, “no,” as Pandora’s model is opposite to my definition of radio: the infinite channels are not unique, they are generated by a computer, and the listener can control the experience.

What is your #1 most used music platform and why?

Outside of my office, where it’s the endless wealth of new music new releases (roughly 70% on physical CDs and 30% digital files) for airplay consideration on Second Inversion, my go-to platform is radio. Since I spend so much of my work week choosing music for other people to listen to, I take immense pleasure in consuming playlists that other humans have curated when I’m on my own time. I listen terrestrially if I’m in my car or at home and stream the audio on my phone if I’m walking or bussing, and I rotate between Seattle’s public radio stations, including KPLU (jazz), KEXP (a little bit of everything), KBCS (folk & bluegrass), KING FM (classical), and KNHC (pop and dance remixes). I value that I can count on these stations to help me discover something new almost every time I tune in. I’d also define radio as a community of listeners hearing the same thing at the same time and the ethereal bond that I have with who-knows-how-many other people at any given moment is another fundamental reason why I love radio.

If you could change one thing about your #1 platform to make it better, what would it be?

I’m tempted to say nothing, because what I love about radio is its reliable unpredictability. Unrelated to the audio product, I would love to see a space where listeners can chat about what they’re hearing in real time to turn the aforementioned ethereal bond into a more tangible bond.

How much talk do you want to hear when you’re listening to music?

Not a lot but definitely some. Roughly 60-90 seconds of historical or anecdotal information is ideal for me. The human voice is something that radio uses in a meaningful way that other streaming tools such as Spotify, Pandora, and YouTube don’t offer. This furthers my case for radio being a reliable source for learning, discovery, and context.

Research shows that the #1 core value for classical radio is “to relax.” Does this apply to you? If not, what is yours?

And to clarify, this applies to audiences of major market classical radio stations which typically play mostly Baroque through early 20th-century repertoire from the Western canon. For me, classical music can be relaxing, but I don’t listen to it to relax. I listen with intent, focus, and an analytical ear and hope to feel something, whether it’s good or bad. If I don’t feel anything, I turn it off. From the peanut gallery on Musochat—most people firmly said, “no,” and offered some great answers: to engage, to get pumped, to discover, to think, to question existence, “to kick my brain into gear” (@EdWindels), “to ponder new sounds in a more solitary setting than a concert” (@ursulasahagian), to be thrilled, stimulated, excited. While I wasn’t surprised to hear the lack of agreement with relaxation amongst a group of adventurous listeners, I was thrilled to see such a wide variety of very strong values for radio.

How much does the actual video content matter in YouTube videos? Do you use it mostly for the audio?

I brought this question up because video has become a presence in the evolution of radio. As people are choosing to stream radio stations on devices with screens, creating a visual reflection of the station’s mission is a natural step. This is one way for radio stations to infuse their identity into additional content that can be spread across widely used platforms, such as YouTube or Vimeo, and embedded into social media.

I think the video content does matter, tremendously so (“Like, if you’re gonna have a video you gotta make it worthwhile, even if it’s just a great performance video” @sammelnicomposer chimed in), but YouTube has become very saturated with content that doesn’t actually have any video, e.g. a still image of a CD cover, a headshot of the composer, or a nature shot. This does not constitute a proper video experience for me, so I tend to use YouTube as an audio search tool. If there is a well-produced video attached, I’ll save it to watch again later, tweet it, or e-mail to a friend. Good videos should be shared actively and put on a pedestal and at KING FM and Second Inversion, we’re trying to set the standard for what classical music videos can and should be.

If you were in charge of a new music radio show, 24/7 stream, or podcast, what would you include? List 1-3 things—general or specific.

Since I am in charge of such a thing, I’ll say that with Second Inversion, I’m most excited to present a wide variety of musical flavors, brief spoken introductions from passionate voices (composers, performers, advocates), and on-demand content (videos and live concert recordings). Common answers included current performances from cities all over the world, diversity (music from non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual, non-cisgender composers), strong opinions, humor, interaction, and emerging composers who don’t already have national recognition. I’m proud that all of those are already integral parts of Second Inversion’s programming, and we’ll continue to include them as time goes on.

To recap this interview with myself, there’s no doubt in my mind that radio will continue to be one of the many valuable media consumption options. The human-curated element and innate community of radio is unique to the medium and something that you simply cannot get with an algorithm-based streaming aid (Pandora), nor a searchable music database (Spotify). In this day and age, radio has evolved with digital technology such that you can stream a radio station in your city, seek out another station that offers content you prefer, or maintain the connection to your hometown station if you move to a different city. At KING FM, we’re proactively thinking about what the “21st-century radio announcer” is, and it’s not just someone behind a microphone in a booth. That’s still part of it, but producing creative audio content, having active voices on social media, and engaging with the community are important pieces of the puzzle, too. I’m even more assured about radio’s ability to keep reinventing itself and adapt to changing trends, with research to be conducted by Station Resource Group (SRG) in the coming years.
If you don’t share my optimistic outlook or feel like you’ve lost touch with your local radio stations, I encourage you to visit one of them today online and check out what they’re doing. Are you surprised? Positively or negatively? Either way, I’d love to know your take on the state of radio and its future.

No Crystal Balls, Ever

New Music Editions: Otto Luening

Quick, someone mail this to Spotify’s CEO!

When people ask me to describe what new music sounds like, I often say that I have no idea and that’s precisely why it is interesting. While such a stance makes it difficult to market new music (since marketing is usually predicated on fulfilling expectations), never quite knowing what you are about to hear is what keeps new music from ever being a routine or a nostalgia trip. In fact, not knowing precisely what it will be allows for an infinite range of individual creativity and expression. The minute you can come up with a list of things that new music is and a list of things that it isn’t, especially in terms of what it should sound like, you circumscribe its possibilities and, in so doing, it ceases being new.

The same is true with the future. I am thrilled that I don’t know exactly everything that is going to happen tomorrow or even later today. That’s why life is exciting. Yet these days so many people feel compelled to tell all of us exactly what is going to happen even further into the future than later today or tomorrow—more like five or ten years and beyond, especially folks involved in technology-based industries. And since we are so in love with all things technological these days and are all so afraid of being left behind in the dustbin of history, we’re often willing to buy into such messages lock, stock, and barrel.

It makes me feel old to type this, but this attitude is an almost 180 degree change in perspective from when I was growing up, and I’m only in my 40s. I was a little kid when anti-corporation types kept correcting everybody when they used the company name Xerox as a verb, claiming that to make the action of a machine Xerox produced in larger quantities than anyone else into a standard English language verb would be giving a large corporation too much power over our lives. But nowadays the brand names of at least one highly successful technology company’s products have become the de facto words for the services they render with very little questioning. And when folks complain about such usage they are frequently dismissed as Luddites. It’s ironic considering this same company’s extremely prominent global advertising claim that it inspires us to “think different”; rather, it seems to have engendered a scary conformity.

I remember conversations I was part of only a decade ago debating Ray Kurzweil’s claims that we were in a process of gradually moving beyond our carbon-based life form limitations and heading to an era where our minds would be “alive” eternally as a result of fusing with machines like the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Lots of folks thought what he was saying was—aside from being utterly terrifying—somewhat preposterous. Yet if he made the same claims nowadays in a technology-based publication, I’d venture to say that he’d probably be taken far more seriously.

As an editor for a web-based publication for over a dozen years at this point, it might seem strange for me to be voicing all this technological skepticism. But what we must never forget is that technology, in order to advance and to ultimately benefit our lives, must also not become something predictable, and one approach should never be allowed to sweep all the other alternatives under a rug. I was delighted the other day to come across the following quote from Daniel Ek, the founder and CEO of Spotify, on—of all places—the CNN website:

“I probably shouldn’t even admit this […] I’ve started becoming a bit of a vinyl buff so I actually listen to vinyl. There is something warm, and I just really enjoy vinyl. So I tend to buy a lot of vinyl records. I like it for the artwork but also for the warmness in sound.”

Things that are truly new, as so much new music already teaches us, often include an embrace of older things. And newness for newness sake gets old pretty quickly. Once again, new music can serve as a model metaphor for how to live one’s life.