Saturday, November 18, 2006

Patroclus Has A Go At The Media. Again.

In the comments on the last post, Realdoc asked:

'How come no-one is playing all this stuff on the radio though, it's not as if it's difficult. Like Valerie I got Matson Jones, Tilly and the Wall, Howe Gelb and Lovage after your last cast and wondered why the hell I hadn't heard any of it before. Shouldn't 6 Music or someone be playing this stuff?

Which is an excellent question, and not just because it includes a pleasing endorsement for my inaugural podcast. Why do none of the established radio stations play obscure American indie tunes?

Well, in fact, I'm pretty sure they do, from time to time anyway. I've heard some good stuff on BBC 6 Music on the couple of occasions I've listened to it (although I was probably only tuning in for the purpose of stalking DJ Dr Snackspot - hello DJ Dr S.).

But the real answer is that it's all to do with the internet and the so-called long tail, a phrase coined by Wired editor Chris Anderson to denote a large volume made up of lots and lots of little things. There's a *huge* amount of music on the internet now, as bands don't need their record labels to do their distribution any more - they can just upload their stuff straight to the web, and it's available worldwide.

And where there's a huge amount of music, there are a huge number of musical styles and a huge number of niche audiences, rather than one 'mass' audience. So I like jangly American indie-pop (among other things). Valerie and Realdoc, as it turns out, also like jangly American indie-pop. (Hurrah!). Nibus, on the other hand, likes ambient stuff with tweeting birds and the sound of telephone wires oscillating in the breeze. Rafael likes mashups. James likes obscure covers and sparkly electro-pop. Prolix likes alt.country. Tim likes literate indie-pop. Billy likes intelligent alternative rock. Llewtrah likes metal. Spinny likes indie-rock. Cello likes Rameau. Some of us might like some of the same things, but essentially our tastes are all quite different.

All this is great, but the mass media, like Radio 1, and XFM, and BBC6 Music, are all predicated on playing to as big an audience as possible, at least within their 'brand identity'. They can't cater to everyone's taste - there's no mass media radio station that could keep even the twelve people listed above happy all the time. So they have to play it safe, and choose songs that are going to be liked - as opposed to loved - by a lot of people. I don't know how they choose what they're going to play (but I would very much like to know, so if anyone has any insight then please do chip in), but what you end up with is a bunch of 'safe' music from bands that are usually on established record labels with proper marketing machines behind them.

BUT (and cello will hate me for saying this, because it's an extension of the same argument we've been having all over the internet), the great thing about music and the internet is that you don't HAVE to listen to the mass-media radio any more for your fix of music. Why listen to a radio station that's been chosen to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, when you can listen to a radio station that only plays the music you like or are likely to like?

That's the thinking behind last.fm and pandora.com, which are personalised radio stations (and, in the case of last.fm, also a social community) that only play music that they calculate will appeal to you. And it works like a dream, broadly speaking. Having tried them both, I can't think why anyone would want or need to listen to Radio 1 or XFM any more.

Some might argue that by listening to music that lots of other people allegedly like, you're participating in an enriching shared cultural experience. But I don't want to have a shared cultural experience with a load of other people, not in terms of music anyway. Music is culty and snobbish - and I like it that way. I don't want to like music that lots of other people like. I want to feel like the music I like belongs to *me*. I'll happily share it with you, dear blog readers, because you're all lovely, and this is a blog, and blogs are the new spiritual home of music - but I don't want to see it on MTV, and I don't want to hear it on Radio 1, and I don't ever want to see Howe Gelb in Heat, in fact I'd be quite happy never knowing what Howe Gelb looks like. I like being in a tiny niche audience for the music I like, and I'm happy for it to stay that way.

Of course, if I have my way, the bands I like won't ever make it 'big', and they won't get rich or marry Hollywood stars or get inducted into the UK Hall of Fame (whatever that means) or have kids named after fruit.

So in conclusion: I am a selfish élitist snob when it comes to music, but I'm happy about that.

Which is no kind of answer to Realdoc's original question at all, is it? Would anyone else like to have a go?


UPDATE: Someone has just found this blog by searching for 'iPod as Ideological State Apparatus'. Blimey. Discuss.

32 comments:

cello said...

First of all, I will never hate you for anything you say. Well, at least, not about media. It's really not that important.

And, if you remember, what I said was that the highly individualised, narrow but deep pursuit of various passions could and would co-exist quite happily alongside big, communal, social gluey things. The former won't kill off the latter because human beings need to have both.

So this morning I listened to some Stravinsky and this evening I watched Strictly Come Dancing. Someone else's personal thing might be Tarkovsky and their communal thing Arsenal. Music is one of the most tribal and fragmented interests, mind you.

Business used to favour mass but it's now a bit easier to make the long tail pay. But even without the forces of global capitalism promoting mass we will still create mass experiences of our own from time to time just because we like and need them.

Tim Footman said...

I could spend all day on this, but I've got a deadline looming, so three points...

1. Cello; when I was a kid, the communal, gluey stuff came in the form of Morecambe & Wise. I still find their work, at its best, sofa-wettingly funny. The new glue is Big Brother. It makes me feel slightly unwell. Has the world changed or have I changed, as someone once asked.

2. 6Music was, as I understood it, a cheap and cheerful way to extend the John Peel philosophy ("I play stuff I like") to a whole network. However, 6Music seems to be hobbled by its insistence of appointing mostly Never-Mind-The-Buzzcocks-friendly DJs, who, I'm sure, only play stuff they like, but the stuff they like can be numbingly predictable. I've got no objection to an enthusiasm for Ian Dury or Prince Buster (I share it) but it doesn't exactly push the aesthetic envelope, does it? I was half expecting something along the lines of Resonance FM. Silly me.

3. The side-effect of tearing up the playlists on 6Music was always going to be that the other stations would become more mainstream and demographic-targeted, but what the hell. Similarly, BBC2 and C4 used to offer challenging, risky programming, but the controllers can side-step that now, because those strange people who really do prefer their evenings not to revolve around microcelebs or house prices have BBC4 and More4. I recently watched Jonathan Miller's BBC4 show about atheism. My immediate reaction was that it was meaty, intelligent stuff, that was more interested in the journey towards a conclusion than the conclusion itself. But then I realised that this was exactly the sort of thing that the likes of Jacob Bronowski and James Burke used to do on BBC2, in mainstream slots. I really don't like using phrases like 'dumbing down'; but maybe it's not that TV programmes are getting more stupid (which seems to contradict what I said in point 1, but maybe Big Brother is just as clever as Morecambe & Wise, but has other qualities that I find repugnant), but that stupid TV (and radio) is expanding sideways, into areas that were once oases of experimentation, risk-taking and, what the hell, elitism. (Although I've never had a problem with elitism that favours people who read books.)

It's not dumbing down... it's dumbing outwards.

"Bring me sunshine..."

patroclus said...

Ooh, excellent points, thank you very much both. Cello, I know what you mean about the big social gluey things, but I'm wondering if the internet has made it so easy to find other people that share our niche interests, that the big social gluey things will stop mattering so much? I don't feel like I need things like I'm a Celebrity or Tom Cruise's wedding to bind me to the people I want to spend time with, for example. But then I am a terrible misanthrope.

Tim: I'm interested in this BBC6 Music ethos. Everyone knows how John Peel chose the stuff he liked, because we know all about how thousands of people sent him their demo tapes, and how he listened to them all the time. But how do 6 Music's DJs choose the stuff they like? Where do they hear it in the first place? Anyone?

Anonymous said...

Well, this is a very interesting discussion and I've enjoyed reading everyone's thoughts on it. I'll contribute my own once I've worked out what they are.

james henry said...

I seem to use music magazines like Word and Uncut with their free mounted CDs as a way of keeping in touch with the 'sort of mainstream', although they tend to be a bit middle-aged.

Other than that, it's music blogs all the way (predictably), but then you have to know what you like in the first place in order to know what to look for, if that makes sense. I must have another go at getting Last.fm to work though.

I predict 'BSG Thing' as the next media buzzword, by the way...

Anonymous said...

The thing that struck me about your podcast patch was that every song on it was immediate yet quirky and intelligent without being preachy. I could listen to the radio all day and never hear more than 1 or 2 songs that I felt that way about. Billy's podcasts also have lots of stuff I like.
The trouble is I'm a bit evanglical when it comes to stuff I like and spend too long trying to convince people that some song, film or TV programme is the best thing ever. This is usually a very thankless task. You end up thinking you're a freak and then suddenly I find this place where I'm not a freak and it is OK to like jangly indie pop, and whatever else even though you're 40 and everyone else you know thinks that James Blunt is talented and Little Britain is funny.
Sorry sort of got a bit emotional there.

patroclus said...

Aww, realdoc, thank you - that's the nicest thing anyone could possibly say about my podcast.

But the thing is, that was 11 songs from a collection of 2,146, and I'd be hard pushed to find another 11 out of that lot that are as quirky and immediate and intelligent as those ones. (I've had a go at making another podcast, but I'm suffering from Difficult Second Podcast syndrome, because all the really good songs went in the first one - ooh, it's like Bagpuss's chocolate biscuit factory all over again).

If I had to play songs every hour of every day of every week, there would either be a significant drop in quality, or you'd end up getting the same songs again and again. Or both. So running a radio station can't be easy by any means.

Also, it's right to be evangelical about the stuff you like! More people should be evangelical about the stuff they like, it's the only true PR there is.

James: I can't bring myself to buy Uncut because it's far too blokey, but the one time I did, I got that Howe Gelb 'But I Did Not' song off the cover CD, which may be middle-aged, but it's also great. The alternative is reading Pitchfork, then downloading the things it recommends from the Hype Machine, then buying albums based on that - which seems to have become my modus operandi for discovering new music.

As an aside, I'm wondering if the Hype Machine is actually killing mp3 blogging...I'd wager that fewer people actually *read* mp3 blogs now they can just find the downloads they want without trawling through them...which would be a shame, because there's some fantastic amateur music journalism out there that has none of the up-its-own-arse, cooler-than-thou superciliousness of trad music journalism...

Pro: Good to see you! I'd be interested to know how you (and indeed, everyone else) discovers new music these days.

Tim Footman said...

I read Uncut. And Mojo. And The Word. And The Wire.

Only need to add Saga and The People's Friend and I get some kind of prize.

patroclus said...

I saw The People's Friend had The Russian Futurists on the cover the other month.

I read Wired, The Economist and Elle Decoration, and a fine triumvirate of magazines they are too.

Oo, everyone - what magazines do you read?

llewtrah said...

I like metal, but I also like orchestral, baroque, harpsichord, hammered dulcimer (and loads of other classical styles), indie, ska, punk, prog rock, classic rock, folk, sitar, blues rock, trad blues (roots, gospel etc), kraut rock .... in fact it's easier to say what I don't like: jazz, blues ( unless it's roots or rock) and r'n'b (the modern stuff). My music collection includes some very weird and wonderful non-metal stuff!

patroclus said...

I know Llewtrah, sorry, I don't know what I was thinking when I tried to pigeonhole everyone (including myself) there. I'm surprised it's taken this long for someone to object!

Smat said...

I prefer making music to listening to it, so have spent this afternoon singing "Zadok the Priest" and "I Vow To Thee My Country". And sitting through a patronising lecture about being nice to my chavvy neighbours if their houses burn down.
I'm a weird demographic all of my own I reckon.

patroclus said...

Ahh, I Vow To Thee My Country, sigh...

Why would their houses burn down? Do you have Brandstifter in the Umgebung?

llewtrah said...

I'm not really objecting - after all, I am off to Slayer/Lamb of God/Children of Bodom tomorrow and you can't get much more metal than that!

The Curve said...

I can't believe you don't know what Howie Gelb looks like.

patroclus said...

Oo, hello Curve, welcome back to the blogosphere! Well, yes, I do know what he looks like (he looks like this), but it wouldn't matter a jot to me if I didn't.

Spinsterella said...

I like 6music very much.

When I first discovered it some years ago I almost fell off my chair in excitment - I guess the novelty has worn off but I still like much of the music they play (the djs less so).

6music does have a playlist, but it does still surprise you every now and again. A couple of years ago I was seeing a lad who was fond of reggae and dub and he kept hearing songs he knew that he was really shocked to hear on the radio.

I liked to think that it kept me in touch with new music but then I saw MTV2 late one night at a friend's house, and I had no idea who anyone was.

Oh well.

patroclus said...

The only time I watched MTV2 it showed two songs by Hard-Fi in a row. I think that's when I decided never to listen to any British indie music ever again, which might have been a slight over-reaction, but it seemed sensible at the time. Although the Shortwave Set and Tunng sneak in occasionally, so I'm not *completely* biased.

cello said...

Yes, I Vow To Thee, My Country goes straight to the old tear ducts. Pity about the words of the first verse. Of course, you can just listen to it in its original form in Holst's Planet Suite:Jupiter without any words fucking it up.

And mags. I'd rather use up my reading time on you lot. But mags are very shiny. Not Private Eye though, which is my favourite mag, despite the snide public school fnarr-fnarr-ness of it.

The only shiny mags I read are Gardens Illustrated, The Garden and Country Life (yes, despite my wet, liberal, anti-fox-hunting feelings). But I love property porn and I actually read those articles on safeguarding hedgerows and how to make church bell-ropes.

Going back a long way, Tim, don't fret about Big Brother. It is a totally evil programme made by vicious people. Stick to Strictly Come Dancing or I'm a Celebrity.

And P, if you are lucky enough to live most of your life in cyberspace then yes, you can create a lovely big gluey community online and commune away to your heart's content, and dispense with 'popular' culture. Sadly, some of us have to go and work with people in the physical world. Touch them even sometimes...

patroclus said...

Eww, touching, ewww. Unclean.

No, I *was* going to say that I've met (and even touched) lots of internet people in the real world without the aid of Strictly Come Dancing, but then I remembered that that was because you made me do it!

But hey, this *is* popular culture. It must be, because my dissertation says so - although to be fair, I haven't got my results back yet.

I love Country Life, all those houses with acres of paddocks and heated dovecotes and beagling sheds. My Granny is under the severe misapprehension that my brother is its art editor, so it's almost like a part of our family.

Marsha Klein said...

You see, this is the kind of discussion I really want to take part in but feel I don't know enough about music online. I do like the idea of last.fm though and as I've got very diverse (odd?) musical taste, it seems like an ideal solution.

As a parent I rather regret the decline of big, communal, social gluey things like Morecambe and Wise, although Dr Who has provided a more than adequate substitute. We've also introduced the kids to "Spaced" and "Black Books" via DVDs (the younger one is still a little too young for "Green Wing"). Actually, I'm sure the last 3 don't count as BSG things - too culty? - but Dr Who definitely does.

Magazines: Anything glossy which promises me my "most organised/best/most relaxing Christmas EVER!" I fall for it every time!

The Blind Flaneur said...

Working, eh-hem, in the same building as the good people at 6 Music means I have a small insight into their modus operandi.

As Spin notes, there is a playlist, which is selected during meetings between producers and the powers that be. The playlist comprises new tracks by artists who fit the remit of the network. There is an A-list, B-list and C-list - with tracks on the A-list getting most plays. The playlist at 6 Music is smaller than the playlists at Radio 1 or 2 - providing presenters with greater opportunity to demonstrate their good taste (or otherwise, in the case of Phil Jupitus).

The rest of the music is either 'built' by a producer (often in association with presenter, depending how knowledgable / busy / committed they are) or left to chance, with a computer generating sequences of songs, iPod shuffle stylie. In the latter instance, producers will tweak the schedule, hopefully replacing crap songs with good ones.

Record companies send 6 Music all their new releases - often in the hands of a plugger who has built a relationship with the producers - to the station. Producers then spend quite a lot of time listening to these records, so they can alert their presenter to anything worthwhile.

Sadly for Patroclus - and the rest of us, for that matter - obscure Americana tends to slip through the net.

Anonymous said...

I've just realised what BSG stands for and I agree with Marsha it's nice as a parent to be able to watch, and enjoy something with the kids. I guess that's why Doctor Who is so popular it has a high BSG rating.

Sara said...

Going back to the "I vow to thee....." situation is it the song that is so emotive, or the memory of Rupert and Colin pre Madge/ Bridget Jones?

Spinsterella said...

...Working, eh-hem, in the same building as the good people at 6 Music ...

Flaneur - does this mean, could it be, that you ARE actually Bruce Dickenson???

The Blind Flaneur said...

It could be that I am Bruce Dickenson. There again, it could be that I am a fixer of doors and cleaner of toilets.

In the words of Marcus Bentley: 'you decide'.

Spinsterella said...

Actually, it's Dickinson with an 'i'.

Hah!

You ARE a cleaner of toilets. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

patroclus said...

Marsha: I think the BSG things can still be quite culty, as long as they unite people - which television programmes will tend to, as their audiences are still quite broad no matter how culty they are. And Spaced and Black Books are admirable cultural fodder for kids, hurrah!

Flaneur: This is brilliant, thank you! Although it's more than a 'small insight' - you sound like you spend half your time Van Eck phreaking (just wanted to use that phrase) Phill Jupitus's laptop. I was wondering how much music reaches the producers and presenters through PR, you see, and how much they unearth themselves through mp3 blogs and last.fm and the like. Seems like the labels with the biggest marketing machines will still have the upper hand, then, even on supposedly 'alternative' stations.

Sara: Oo, hello! In my case it's definitely nostalgia for youthful Rupert 'n' Colin, can't speak for Smat, actually I can, it's bound to be the same for her...

Realdoc: Ever since my space-opera immersion week in Helsinki, I can't help but associate 'BSG' with 'Battlestar Galactica'.

Spin: Even though I'm aware of the BF's real identity, I shall henceforth imagine him as Bruce Dickinson. Or David Dickinson. Abd when I get bored of that, I might imagine him as Emily Dickinson. Or a mutant combination of all three.

Sorry, very tired...I had nightmares last night that bloggers were plotting to kill me.

The Curve said...

The problem with LastFm and Pandora etc. is one of too much control over content. Everything goes swimmingly for 10-15 minutes and then something hideous emerges from the speakers and you have no choice but to skip to the next track; then 5 minutes later repeat the above until the task of trying to listen to a radio station whilst you doing something else becomes a full time job in itself. At least with old school radio you know you just have to grin and bear it in the hope that something decent may come on.

Rich said...

I've heard Howe Gelb and Tilly etc on Mark Radcliffe's show on Radio 2.

More generally, I prefer radio to playlists, internet radio and so on because it's more human seeming. A record will sound better to me if it's prefaced with a random fact, a poor joke or whatever, because it makes me realise that I'm not the only person experiencing this.

The best bits of radio (for me at least) involve some interaction with the listeners, so that it goes in unpredictable directions (a bit like blog comments perhaps?).

patroclus said...

Curve: Yes, you do have to force yourself into a sort of zen state of only-half-listening, otherwise you just keep pressing 'skip', or at least I do. I'm very impatient. And that said, I haven't listened to last.fm or pandora radio for ages - current MO appears to be: download tons of tracks off a random selection of mp3 blogs, throw them into a playlist, listen all the way through several times and sift the good ones out.

Rich: Ah, you're with cello on the 'shared cultural experience' side of the fence - whereas I'm never happier than when I naively think I'm the only person in the world experiencing it. I don't even like playing music out loud, *in case* someone else hears it.

I expect it's because I went to boarding school - I've spent the rest of my life studiously avoiding communal experiences of any sort.

baggiebird said...

I used to listed to radio 1, but i haven't done for a long time now. If I have any radio station on it's usually Kerrang or Planet Rock. I think I would say i'm and Indie Rock sort of girl, I like bands such as the Killers, Razorlight, The Kooks, The Zuton, although I have just recently started to enjoy much heavier bands such as My Chemical Romance and AFI. I love going to gigs, the smaller the better, I like bands when they're pretty unknown it somehow feels more personal. I tend to listen to my walkman most of the time, at least then I know the music is going to be to my taste.

As for who decides what Radio stations play I think it's down to popularity. However I have taken part in a few radio surveys, and I regulalry complete questionairs for Kerrang radio, whether this makes a difference I don't know (probably not) but anything is worth a try.