Friday afternoon at work, and you’re stuck at your screen for another three hours. On one open window, a still-to-do list barely fits on the page, and another, too many unread emails to face. But something on your Facebook feed, on a window surreptitiously tucked behind, grabs your attention. Maseo from De La Soul is spinning summertime soul on a sun-drenched rooftop somewhere in London to a blissed out small posse, chatting and grooving like the beautiful people in the back of an episode of Soul Train. Your mouse pointer hovers, you adjust the volume, notify your co-workers you’ve got a bunch of urgent invoicing to address, and lose yourself in your headphones…
Something is driving the rise and rise of online radio and music broadcasting, and perhaps it is this – the option, now just a click away, to escape the timeline of work and patch yourself into an other people place in the online world. While other areas of music infrastructure – records, record deals, publicity – wither in the economic climate, new music platforms (offering radio, live video and, increasingly given the available technology, both combined) are opening on a daily basis.
Some of the profoundest characteristics of music – its transience, intangibility and deep subjectivity – are fulfilled better by broadcasting than the 180 gm vinyl reissues that many obsess over. Admittedly there’s an element of escapism, even exoticism, in listening to a radio station on the other side of the world, or gawping at your browser window where DJs are smoking, chatting and generally hanging out in the sleazy booth at Amsterdam’s Red Light Radio. But there is a physical flipside to this global electronic network, too. As someone at the recent Online Radio Festival in the Dutch capital put it to me after I hosted a panel there, radio stations now do what record shops used to – they are nodes for music makers and DJs to meet, learn and make connections, whether swapping gossip in the changeover between shows, or digging through dusty archives of music.
This theme of physical connection in the digital age is echoed in Robert Barry’s piece in the current issue on François J Bonnet, better known as Kassel Jaeger,
composer, writer and currently artistic director of Ina GRM in Paris. It may be a venerable electronic institution with a rarefied reputation, but like EMS in Stockholm, it is now open to music makers of all sorts to work together. “We are like a crossroads,” Bonnet enthuses. “You have this aspect of meeting people, talking to people, exchanging ideas. The human aspect is still very important.”
When I used to work for a chain of record shops, it was shocking how few female employees were behind the counter – a situation that persists in the blokey elitism and oneupmanship fostered by some boutique vinyl emporiums today. Thankfully, it’s another area that online radio stations are opening up. Before, if you wanted to release a record, a label might want you to have a track record, a reputation on the DJ circuit, a proven pair of hands in the studio – all qualifications that can be barriers to entry. But in the Wild West of broadcasting, if you have a show that’s already making waves, or with a unique angle on music, labels start taking interest. Recent years have proved that listeners are more forgiving about technical standards of music production than certain gatekeepers would like – if you can work some faders, if you have an ear for sound, you can put a radio show together, you can release music. Indeed it’s a similar ideology that made GRM a breath of fresh air in the postwar period.
Any new area of music brings new conventions and orthodoxies. The DJ-led aesthetic that’s come to dominate online radio prioritises flow, feel, texture; I’d like to see platforms experiment with other types of format, with broadcasters or journalists hosting documentaries, discussions, prioritising ideas and communication as much as mood. I also worry about online radio that includes live video, and whether the performative aspect of online broadcasting, such as the (admittedly great) Maseo set from Boiler Room mentioned above, weakens the specific context and direct connection with an audience that can make a DJ set extra special. But I didn’t get time to raise these questions as there was so much damn new radio to talk about. Derek Walmsley
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