Tag Archives: Music

Steampunk radio

A remarkable story about Victorian media innovation

Radio is changing. The first digital radio platform – DAB – is in danger of being eclipsed before most of us have even bought one. The second wave is evolving fast, but widespread Internet radio is years away so radio stations are investing in web sites and apps. Meanwhile, audiences for radio everywhere are steady but looking fragile and everyone’s waiting for a persuasive mixture of content and convenience to justify the switch to digital. And billions of cheap-to-own FM radios are a huge impediment to switching.

130 years ago, nearly thirty years before the first public radio broadcast, at an international electrical exhibition in Paris, entrepreneur Clément Ader prototyped a package of content delivered on a new platform, the telephone. He called his prototype a ‘telephonic opera’ service because opera performances were the main content (just as they had been in Zurich in 1878, when a performance of Don Pasquale was relayed via telephone only months after its invention). The prototype became a commercial product later in the decade under the name Théâtrophone.

Subscribers to the service, including, I kid you not, Marcel Proust (in his cork-lined room at 102 Boulevard Hausmann), dialled in from their home telephones (a technology that was only a decade old itself) and asked to be put through to one of the participating theatres. They then listened to the evening’s performance live. In stereo. At the time of the original demonstration, Scientific American said:

The singers placed themselves in the mind of the listener, some to the right and others to the left. It’s easy to follow their movements and to indicate exactly, each time that they change their position, the imaginary distance at which they appear to be.

Two separate telephone lines delivered signals from two stage microphones: one right, one left (this Wikipedia entry suggests eighty microphones and, since they weren’t really microphones, just crude acoustic receivers, that doesn’t sound unreasonable).

A subscriber to an equivalent service in London, Electrophone, described the process:

You lifted your ordinary telephone receiver and said ‘Electrophone please’ and in a moment you were asked which theatre you wanted and in another moment you were in your armchairs around the table listening to musical comedy at the Adelphi…

Theatres, music halls – and, later, places of worship, all over London were wired up to the Electrophone exchange at 34 – 35 Gerard Street in Soho and Electrophone attendants (we’d call them Studio Managers or OB engineers) were stationed in each to position mics and connect subscribers.

Electrophone listeners in 1901

If you’d lived in Budapest in the 1890s (and been a wealthy gadget freak) you’d have subscribed to a service called Telefon Hírmondó which, you’ve got to admit, was startlingly like a modern radio network, with content organised into ‘channels’, a daily schedule (including stock quotes, local press, finance, theatrical and sporting news) in addition to the usual operatic performances (what is it with the opera?). There were children’s concerts, acts of worship, folk music, recitals. Advertisements, inevitably, were inserted between juicy news items. The company employed 100 people, with job titles like ‘editor’ and ‘programme controller’ and, at its peak had 6,000 subscribers.

The Théâtrophone receiver
The Théâtrophone receiver

But what’s remarkable for me about these services (there were dozens worldwide) is how closely they resemble the ones we’re building now on The Internet. Clicking ‘play live’ for Radio 3’s nightly live concert is essentially the same as asking the Electrophone ‘attendant in charge’ to put you through to the Wigmore Hall – a personal, two-way circuit connecting you to a live event a long way from home. Nineteenth Century opera nuts were using two-way telepresence to enjoy remote performances that were significantly more immersive than what was to come from terrestrial radio decades later. The spatial separation and specially-designed in-home kit (the ‘Electrophone table’ and Théâtrophone’s special receiver) that came with these services must have made these experiences extraordinarily vivid. Vivid enough for Proust to listen to a performance of Pelléas and Mélisande all the way through in 1911.

They even had pretty sophisticated tiered business models – an extra £5 per season for Covent Garden, for instance (no freemium as far as I can tell, though). These pioneers built a highly immersive Victorian cyberspace on the first of the really big wired networks – and, let’s face it, mostly because they misunderstood what people would actually wind up using their telephones for. The implications for the services we’re designing and promoting now set the mind reeling.

  • Google ‘Théâtrophone‘, ‘Electrophone‘ or ‘Telefon Hírmondó‘: you’ll find plenty of web sites about these pre-radio experiments. Here’s a good technical overview of Electrophone, for instance. I owe the inspiration for this post to a terrific Sunday Feature from Radio 3 last year called The Pleasure Telephone, presented by Edward Seckerson. The programme is sadly unavailable. Hunt down a recording if you can find one.
  • The picture at the top shows a coin-operated Théâtrophone receiver of the kind that would have been installed in cafes and special listening rooms. All the pics are from the Wikimedia Commons.

David Hepworth – a Q&A about curating music

Word Magazine issue 100 covermount CD artwork

It has been my privilege, over the last few years, to write a few pieces for Britain’s best music (and arts and movies and stuff) magazine The Word – including, a couple of issues back, an article about the curation boom (my articles about Wikipedia and archiving the web are on the web site).

The magazine’s publisher is David Hepworth (its editor – and the man to whom I tremblingly submit my copy – is David’s long-time publishing partner Mark Ellen). David oversees the selection of tracks for Now Hear This, The Word’s covermount CD: a monthly curatorial gem that regularly stays in our car CD player for the whole month (until the next one comes out).

I asked David a few questions about this rather successful example of 21st Century music curation (and also about his Saturday morning vinyl curation habit #platterday).

SB: tell me about the Word covermount. How does it come together each month?

DH: It’s put together by Andrew Harrison and Alex Gold with ideas thrown in by everybody else.

Are you extensively schmoozed by label PRs? Do bands send you stuff?

The record business is on the bones of its arse but you wouldn’t know that from all the stuff we get sent. Yes. PRs are instructed to try and get certain acts on the CD. it’s one of the few places where they can place unheard music and assure it gets heard.

Are there punch-ups in Word Towers about who’s on it or do you keep it all to yourself until its done?

No punch ups. You chase thirty tracks and you can’t get all of them. You might get twenty possibles which you edit down to fifteen. You need a mix.

What are the economics of the covermount? A few years ago everyone seemed to have one – and the newspapers went mad for them. How do they work?

Newspapers etc. have them for totally different reasons. They pay big money for music in order to outsell their competitors. Eventually they realised that the likes of Prince were taking them for a ride. They cost a lot of money because you have to pay mechanical royalties with them.

What’s the fate of the covermount? Will you replace it with a memory stick or a Spotify playlist?

No. It works because it’s a physical object.

Supplementary question: tell me about #platterday. Is it a model for publishing in the social media era or just what you do with a bacon sandwich on Saturday mornings?

I just got out my old deck and loved restoring the ceremony of playing black vinyl records on Saturday morning. Twitter just seemed an obvious way to share that experience. I posted a picture of a shelf full of my records and people started saying “oh play that one” which is clearly insane.

What is curation in this new sense? Is it different from being an editor?

I dunno. What I’m always trying to do is say something that doesn’t sound like the usual over-heated recommendations. It’s very hard. I find 99% of recommendations don’t actually convey anything about the nature of the thing recommended at all. They’re just endless variations on the expression “it’s brilliant!” Saying something meaningful about music is very hard, that’s why most people don’t bother.

Is there a business in it?

Shouldn’t think so.

David keeps a rather good blog of his own and curates a storytelling night called True Stories Told Live.

UPDATE: I asked David why he no longer picks the tracks himself. He says:

I did it for three years and was only too delighted to pass the job on. If you choose the tracks you have the unenviable job of writing the accompanying blurbs, which is like pulling teeth.

Amazing Radio actually amazing

You might want to know: I work at BBC Radio but these are the opinions of a civilian radio nut and not those of the BBC.

I’ve developed a bit of a radio crush on a new station called Amazing Radio. Amazing‘s a national digital station mounting a head-on challenge to the music radio status quo. Unless you’re a radiohead like me you’ve probably never heard of it, though. And it’s worth a listen because it’s very different. For a start, there are no stars, no record labels and no ads. The station plays only music by unsigned artists, uploaded by those artists to the amazingtunes web site where it’s sold for 79p per track. The station even carries an ‘ethical’ label, presumably because artists keep 70% of online sales.

Listening is a fascinating, slightly disorienting experience. What you hear sounds like a conventional music station – music grouped into recognisable genres and linked in the usual, slick way by DJs (apart from the off-peak hours when the robots are in charge). The music goes out in familiar slots – there’s a breakfast show, a rock show and a chart show… But listen for twenty minutes and it’ll dawn on you that there’s something odd here: you haven’t heard any of this stuff before. It’s all new.

And listening to a radio station without the elemental familiarity of even the most ‘challenging’ conventional stations is a bracing experience. Tracks flow by without the contextual cues you’re used to: no history, no celebrity, no personal memories. And none of the credibility that comes with a play from a name DJ. Amazing DJs sometimes help by defining a track in terms of an established artist: “here’s a Crystal Castles-style track from…” or “if you like Florence…”

I’m a convert. I like the DJs and I enjoy the unanchored listening experience. There’s something compulsive about this stream of new stuff and you get a sense of the ocean of talent that’s out there waiting to be discovered – but I can’t listen for too long. It turns out that providing your own context is quite hard work.

And the experience highlights just how dependent we are on DJs and stations for their judgements and their stories and their categories. In fact, listening to Amazing helps to explain the function of mainstream radio’s unfashionable props – the cosy playlists and charts and the guiding hand of the DJ.

Amazing must be doing something right. The station has just tempted Trevor Dann, grizzled radio veteran and outgoing Director of The Radio Academy, to join as Director of Programmes (he’s been presenting a show for a while now). So I asked Trevor if he’d answer a few questions about Amazing:

Does Amazing represent an alternative to the mainstream, label-based music biz? A kind of parallel music economy?

Yes. We think of it as a music-based social network which takes the power out of the hands of the playlist committee and the A&R men and gives it back to the artists and their fans. In the digital world we need tastemakers and trusted guides but we don’t need gatekeepers.

Do you aim to break artists?


If an Amazing artist crosses over and becomes a big star will you participate in their ongoing income – will you become a kind of label?

In tune with our ethical stance, we don’t seek to control or exploit anyone but we are here to help artists on their musical journey. First, they upload their material to amazingtunes.com. Then, if it’s popular on the website, it’ll be featured on Amazing Radio. If they get in the Amazing Chart and there’s a real buzz about them, Amazing Music may offer to help with everything from management and gig promotion to publishing and even record manufacture and distribution. But none of these services are compulsory.

If Amazing’s a hit, do you expect record labels to join in and upload tracks to amazingtunes? the way they came to trust iTunes and later Spotify? Will you encourage them to do so? Will you support a more conventional royalty scheme, for instance?

We don’t have any plans to broadcast music by artists signed major record labels. That model is in decline. Ours is the future.

It’s fascinating to hear a playlist assembled entirely from unplayed music with not a label in sight. How does the process differ from playlisting at a conventional station?

The playlist is chosen by the consumers of amazingtunes.com. There is some human intervention to prevent too much of one genre dominating the sound of the station and to take account of the time of day. But broadly speaking the playlist is ‘crowd-sourced’.

Will you build domain expertise? Hire DJs who have deep regional or genre knowledge? Will you give them freeplays? Will they become curators?

The ‘specialist’ presenters – Jim Gellatly (winner of the Radio Academy John Peel Award in 2008), Mark Ryan etc. pick their own music from the wealth of material on amazingtunes. I wouldn’t want to put words in his mouth but I think Jim in particular would be happy with the word ‘curator’. Part of his mission (and everyone’s at Amazing) is to encourage more bands to upload music so they can get airtime.

What does your research tell you about listeners? Who are they?

We are not part of RAJAR and we don’t publish any audience data.

What’s the natural audience for unsigned artists? Do you think that younger listeners are more open to unfamiliar sounds?

Feedback shows that our audience is very varied. It’s certainly not exclusively young or old, male or female. Rather like 6Music I think we have a very varied audience which encompasses old fogeys like me (and dare I say you Steve!), teenagers with an appetite for emerging music and everyone in between. I think the traditional radio obsession with demographics is rendered obsolete by a service like ours.

How about live shows? Will you add a few hours of live output so that DJs can interact with listeners?

We launch our first live daily show in January. Details shortly.

Is there enough good stuff out there to fill a radio station? Are you surfacing artists overlooked by the labels? Is an Amazing artist different from one with a record deal?

I’m constantly amazed by the quality of music uploaded. The radio station could fill its playlist many times over with really brilliant stuff from all over the world. The weekly review show I present has music from 7 different countries this week.

What do the labels and the collection societies think about the Amazing model?

We don’t know about the majors and don’t really care. We are licenced by PRS who have been very encouraging of our effort to give exposure to more talent.

Thank you Trevor!

  • Listen to Amazing on DAB (“just to the left of the BBC”, as they say on the station) and online.

The XX on working together

6 Music ran a lovely series of programmes about this year’s Mercury nominees. They did a simple thing and recorded the artists introducing the tracks, describing the inspiration and the creative process for each song. It’s like watching a movie with the director’s commentary switched on. Superb night-time radio (and unimpeachable public service output – could a commercial network play out a whole album in this way?).

If you can lay your hands on a copy (it’s gone from the 6 Music site) listen to the episode featuring the XX. And not just because you’ll hear the quiet and entirely unjaded voices of THE FUTURE but also because you’ll learn something about the creative process that you’d have missed if you’d listened to the unglossed album a dozen times.

Many completely disarming glimpses of the teenage creative process – a keyboard bought for £3 on eBay, at least one song composed when Romy and Oliver were sixteen, the kind of completely obsessive attention to detail that must have had their parents typing ‘OCD’ into Google. And something about the epic luck of finding someone you can work with when young, and just clicking. They’re a quietly inspiring pair: I hear the kind of generosity and trust that makes a collaboration bulletproof.

And there’s also something here about A&R and a supportive, courageous creative context. I don’t know much about Young Turk/XL but to have given these rather unprepossessing kids the keys to the studio while barely out of school was a fantastically smart and open-minded thing to do. There’s the value of the whole, creaking, benighted music business in a nutshell, if you ask me.

Now watch them split up just after I click ‘publish.’

Picture by jamieleto. Used under licence.

Three reasons #PromsXHQ is important

Panorama taken at Prom 62, Royal Albert Hall, 1 September 2010

Radio 3 have improved the quality of their live online stream – it’s an experiment called #PromsXHQ (‘XHQ’ for Extra High Quality). For the final week of the Proms you can listen at 320kb/s AAC: a big improvement but not, on the face of it, a big deal. I think it’s important, though.Why?

1. It’s awesome. I don’t want to gush and I didn’t expect to notice much difference, but the higher quality is stunning and addictive. I’m no expert – in fact, I have cloth ears – but the additional detail is genuinely gorgeous. Listening to the Berlin Phil last night (a quite awesome Prom, by the way), tiny details of the sound jumped out with an uncanny vividness – the mental scene created by the audio seemed more complete, more involving – a quite delirious experience, in fact. A simple but massively effective product enhancement.

2. It’s from the BBC. There are 320kb/s classical streams on the net but none is from the BBC. This experiment is engineered to BBC standards, from end-to-end, with BBC professionalism and passion for the output. That’s a big deal. Audiophiles and classical fans will want to try it for that reason alone (and I like the fact that it’s a change that came from the engineers, not from a focus group or the marketing department).

3. It’s agame changer.’ This is the kind of incremental improvement that could change the behaviour of listeners. Once they’ve tried the improved service, listeners will want to drag computer and hi-fi closer together so they can run the 320 stream through their stereo or home cinema system. If that happenswidely, manufacturers will make hi-fi quality players, streaming to your stereo will become a mainstream activity, players will be incorporated into high-end integrated devices, TVs and so on. It’ll be like when LPs went stereo or when CDs arrived.

Really suffering for your art

Everyone says music is getting more physical again. We continue to get our daily sounds from ever more insubstantial sources, floating above us like those glittering landscapes in Neuromancer, but we’re going to more concerts and festivals than ever and buying more stuff while we’re at it (merch. fancy limited editions. Even musical instruments are booming).

Turns out we love schlepping around for some actual, physical experience of music in an actual physical place as much as we love the disembodied bits. But there’s twenty-first Century physical and there’s eighteenth Century physical.

I’m reading a terrific book called 1791: Mozart’s Last Year, by H.C. Robbins Landon (who died last year). And it’s essentially a catalogue of grim physical trials – of epic journeys (in horse-drawn carriages quite often bought specially for the trip), of intolerable living conditions and diabolical food provided by hateful grandees who never paid their bills, of mysterious debilitating illnesses and (of course) of lives cut short by service to art (and to miserable patrons). The book’s full of enervating phrases like the one at the top (which is from an account of a dinner performance by Mozart) and:

The mail-coach with four horses left Vienna at eight o’clock in the morning and took three days, with twenty-one post stations, to arrive at Prague in the morning

(a trip to Prague to perform at a coronation). And here’s a job ad from Vienna in the period:

A musician is wanted, who plays the piano well and can sing too, and is able to give lessons in both. The musician must also perform the duties of a valet-de-chambre…

(My italics). And then, of course, there was the final, ghastly physicality of his early death:

Suddenly he began to vomit – it spat out of him in an arch – it was brown, and he was dead.

(and that’s from a book based on his wife’s recollections, quoted by Landon).

What I’m left with is an image of the musician as grafter, as under-appreciated, barely-recognised labourer in the fields of art. Sacrifice, privation, hunger, physical collapse – evidently the necessary preconditions for creation in that golden age.

Taking a tin opener to a BBC meeting

There’s a big quarterly departmental meeting at BBC Audio & Music Interactive (which is where I work). We call it the ‘departmental’ and it’s always a pretty big deal – the magnificent Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House is the venue and it goes on all morning, spilling out into surrounding conference rooms for smaller sessions.

Tomorrow’s is about innovation and we’ve taken a small step to opening it up to the world by encouraging participants to use Twitter to talk about the meeting, to ask questions of speakers and to provide their own ideas for discussion. We want people from outside the BBC to join in too as the morning unfolds.

You can see the discussion on the BBC Internet blog, which we’ve hijacked for the morning. Join us there if you can and, if you’ve got a useful insight about innovation or a question for participants, share it by tweeting with the hashtag #amint.

Being proud of the BBC

People have been talking about being proud of the BBC lately and I clearly can’t join in, since I work there and I’m inevitably partial. But, as I still feel obliged to say, I’m new at the BBC and I went to work there in my late forties, from a life doing all sorts of other things and from many years of well-documented criticism of the Corporation.

So I do feel qualified to say that I am immensely proud of the BBC – and, in particular, of the amazing people I meet there. Big-hearted, open-minded, clever and funny people like those in Jon Jacob’s brilliant Proms video. Jon works for the BBC College of Journalism but he’s a musician and a Proms nut and he – like the orchestral performers featured – does this stuff for love. What’s not to be proud of?

Streaming’s not evil

Stream, Steve Bowbrick

Cory Doctorow’s got this wrong. He’s having one of those slightly hysterical moments that only someone who really understands technology can have. The technically naive idea that streaming and downloading are different things has got him all wound up: “But they’re the same thing! They’re the same thing!” I can almost see him stamping his feet.

Of course they’re the same thing. But they’re conceptually different. And that’s enough to make the distinction descriptively useful. It may be a pretty fragile distinction but it’s not nonsense. There is a meaningful difference between enjoying content in real-time, as an experience, right now and storing it away forever – as a kind of horde of potential experiences.

And the thing is, the business of storing content away forever is in no way ideal. It’s a persistent idea but it’s obviously an anachronism – one we’ve carried over from all those millennia of atom hording. My record collection is now effectively infinite (or at least exactly identical to the entire corpus of recorded music) but that doesn’t mean I want it all on a hard drive in my house. In fact, there’s an absurdity exactly analogous to Cory’s 777 one (the crazy image of everyone on a plane streaming the same content at the same time) in the idea that we’ll all want to download and store away a slice of all the content ever made on separate hard drives in separate computers in separate houses.

Pissing away bandwidth on multiple identical streams may offend the geek sensibility but so does duplicating millions of tracks billions of times when it’s all available as an experience out there somewhere.

And Cory’s privacy and freedom arguments are flawed too. Since we’ve established that downloading and streaming are the same thing, it’s very difficult to argue that one is inherently more benign than the other. I’d go so far as to say that it’s perfectly possible to imagine a ‘good’ streaming protocol that masks identity, tracks nothing and permits proper downloading if you want it. Just as it’s possible to imagine a nasty perversion of downloading that transmits inside-leg measurements to the NSA or whatever.

Enough. I don’t usually do this. I think I reacted to Cory’s article because I recognised in it something of my own geeky absolutism. I often want to yell “but they’re the same thing” into the ether too.

Big bogus ratio

Anti-piracy people are fond of citing the big ratio. They’re talking about the ratio of paid-for music downloads to non-paid-for (i.e. stolen) music downloads. They like the big ratio because it makes things look really bad for the content industry – it dramatises the narrative. Here it is again, in the FT, quoted by Salamander Davoudi and Tim Bradshaw:

For every track bought online, 20 were downloaded illegally last year, according to IFPI, the international music industry lobby group

But the big ratio is, at best, unhelpful and, at worst, utterly misleading.

When they say: “look. N times as many tracks were downloaded illegally as legally. It’s a tsunami, a cataclysm, an [insert apocalyptic noun here].” they’re making a category error. They’re comparing different categories of behaviour: different because each is conditioned by a different price.

There’s no meaningful comparison. Tracks downloaded for nothing are not the same as tracks downloaded at a price. Stuff that can be acquired for nothing is wholly different from stuff that has to be paid for.

Here the wheelbarrow principle applies: if you hear that Tesco’s are selling tins of beans for nothing you’re going to leave the string bag at home and show up with a wheelbarrow. If the works of James Brown are available for nothing you’re not going to download the Best of… You’re going to download all of it. Discrimination, in zero price-world, is redundant. And, of course, that’s not to say that discrimination doesn’t happen any more or even that downloaders don’t practice it. It does and they do. Just not at the point of sale.

And meanwhile, the record labels continue to lean on the big ratio, a bogus comparator that doesn’t help us understand the behaviour of music downloaders and can’t help us measure the crisis for the content industry.