I CAN live without my radio…

After posting my last blog on digital vs analog music, I saw the media commentary about the decline in Triple J’s audience numbers. There was a suggestion that younger people no longer listen to the radio, and have shifted to digital formats such as streaming and podcasts. As is often the case, the headline doesn’t necessarily tell the full story – and thanks to Tim Burrowes, we also have a deeper dive into the underlying data.

Seems like we CAN live without our radio (especially Triple J…) (Photo of LL Cool J by Janette Beckman, image sourced from Bloomberg)

I’m obviously not part of Triple J’s target demographic (18-24 year-olds), but I find the concept of age-oriented radio (and music) somewhat bizarre. If I was that age again, I’d probably find it highly patronizing that a national broadcaster was trying to force me into a random age bracket, on the assumption that they knew my taste in music, and/or they knew what was good for me. It’s an arrogant, simplistic and reductionist approach to broadcasting. Even now, I may not listen to all the exact same music I liked when I was that age, but my taste in music didn’t suddenly change when I turned 18 (or 24). Humans are much more subtle and idiosyncratic than demographers, marketers and programmers may like to think.

Anyway, it got me thinking about my own experience of listening to the radio, and how it formed my outlook on music. Once I had access to a portable transistor radio, it meant I got to choose which stations I listened to, and what types of music I heard, rather than what my parents or older sisters were listening to in the rest of the house. Although as a young teenager, I still kept an ear out for what was popular, I tuned out of the Top 40 format early on, in favour of pirate stations like Radio Caroline (which played mainly prog rock and psychedelic sounds), and the John Peel show on BBC Radio 1 (during his heyday of 1976-83 – the punk and post-punk era). When I first heard the whole of side 1 of Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” album played on the radio in 1974 (I was 13 at the time), I realised that the 3 minute, 45 rpm, 7″ vinyl single wasn’t the only option…

Alongside broadcast radio, the UK’s infamous weekly music papers were the major source of information about the industry. With three titles, New Musical Express, Melody Maker, and Sounds, dominating the market in those pre-internet, pre-MTV days of yore, the inkies were the main way to find out about new bands, new releases, upcoming gigs, as well as album and live reviews. Then there were the listing magazines (which covered more than music), and the fanzines that proliferated in the wake of punk.

As I had more access to live music during my teenage years and beyond, music radio became less important. And although my gig attendance is more sporadic these days (no reflection on Melbourne’s excellent live music scene!) the only music radio stations I currently listen to are ABC Jazz, SBS Chill (especially Sunday mornings…) and Stuart Maconie’s Freak Zone on BBC Radio 6. I can’t bear to listen to most commercial radio or so-called popular music stations (age-oriented or otherwise) – it’s not only because of the music they play, it’s the actual production quality, programme format, presentation style and the absence of “space”: everything is crammed into every available piece of bandwidth, compressed within a decibel if its life, and the content lacks variety, depth or subtlety.

When I moved to Melbourne 20 years ago, ABC Radio National had a weekly programme called “Sound Quality”, that featured some of the most varied, interesting and challenging new music around – in fact, it was probably the only place to hear this stuff on national radio. It also encouraged listener-contributed content, and I was fortunate to have several of my own pieces played on air (ok, so I’m biased). Sadly, the programme was decommissioned in 2015, and nothing comprarable has taken its place.

In a further twist, I tend to hear about new (and old) Australian music via my local record stores, particularly the ones that specialise in vinyl, namely RockSteady Records, Northside Records, Dutch Vinyl and The Searchers.

Next week: Reflections on The Kimberley

 

Digital Perfectionism?

In stark contrast to my last blog on AI and digital humans, I’ve just been reading Damon Krukowski‘s book, “The New Analog – Listening and Reconnecting in a Digital World”, published in 2017. It’s an essential text for anyone interested in the impact of sound compression, noise filtering, loudness and streaming on the music industry (and much more besides).

The are two main theses the author explores:

1. The paradoxical corollary to Moore’s Law on the rate of increase in computing power is Murphy’s Moore’s Law: that in striving for improved performance and perfectionism in all things digital, equally we risk amplifying the limitations inherent in analog technology. in short, the more something improves, the more it must also get worse. (See also my previous blogs on the problem of digital decay, and the beauty of decay music.)

2. In the realm of digital music and other platforms (especially social media), stripping out the noise (to leave only the signal) results in an impoverished listening, cultural and social experience; flatter sound, less dynamics, narrower tonal variation, limited nuance, an absence of context. In the case of streaming music, we lose the physical connection with the original artwork, accompanying sleeve notes, creative credits and even the original year of publication.

Thinking about #1 above, imagine this principle applied to #AI: would the pursuit of “digital perfectionism” mean we lose a large part of what makes analogue homo sapiens more “human”? Would we end up compressing/removing “noise” such as doubt, uncertainty, curiosity, irony, idiosyncrasies, cognitive diversity, quirkiness, humour etc.?

As for #2, like the author, I’m not a total Luddite when it comes to digital music, but I totally understand his frustration (philosophical, phonic and financial) when discussing the way CDs exploit “loudness” (in the technical sense), how .mp3 files compress more data into less space (resulting in a deterioration in overall quality), and the way streaming platforms have eroded artists’ traditional commercial return on their creativity.

The book also discusses the role of social media platforms in extracting value from the content that users contribute, reducing it to homogenised data lakes, selling it to the highest bidder, and compressing all our personal observations, relationships and original ideas (the things that make us nuanced human beings) into a sterilsed drip-feed of “curated” content.

In the narrative on music production, and how “loudness” took hold in the mid-1990s, Krukowski takes specific aim at the dreaded sub-woofer. These speakers now pervade every concert, home entertainment system, desk-top computer and car stereo. They even bring a distorted physical presence into our listening experience:

“Nosebleeds at festivals, trance states at dance clubs, intimidation by car audio…. When everything is louder than everything else, sounds lose context and thus meaning – even the meaning of loud.”

The main issue I have with digital music is that we as listeners have very little control over how we hear it – apart from adjusting the volume. So again, any nuance or variation has been ironed out, right to the point of consumption – we can’t even adjust the stereo balance. I recall that my boom box in the 1980s had separate volume controls for each speaker, and a built-in graphic equalizer. To paraphrase Joy Division, “We’ve Lost Control”.

Next week: I CAN live without my radio…

The bells, the bells…

Melbourne is host to a remarkable work of sculpture, in the form of the Federation Bells. Part sound installation, part open-air instrument, this ensemble of tuned percussion represents a quirky exercise in public access arts: not only do the Bells play three times a day (featuring a repertoire of specially-composed pieces), there are also opportunities for members of the public to interact directly with the instrument and play it for themselves.From time to time, the Bells have featured in live performances by contemporary composers and electronic musicians, most notably, Pantha Du Prince back in 2013. More recently, Melbourne artist Cale Sexton has released a wonderful album that was composed using the Bells.

There is also a mobile phone app that replicates the notation and sound of the Bells, as well as plug-ins for various digital audio workstations. For anyone wanting to learn more about composing for the Bells, there are occasional workshops and open competitions for new submissions.

Next week: New Labor?

Music with literary leanings

A few weeks ago, I responded to a question posted on Twitter about “songs named after books”, little realizing the rabbit warren I would subsequently find myself going down (social media can have that effect…).

Image sourced from L.W.Currey, Inc.

There has long been a close relationship between popular music and literature – think about the connection between “West Side Story” and William Shakespeare, for one. Songwriters are often inspired by the titles or themes of books and plays for their own compositions – “Wuthering Heights” by Kate Bush being one of the most obvious, and “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane being one of the more lysergic…

Some bands even name themselves after literary references; William Boroughs can claim credit for bestowing both Steely Dan and Soft Machine with their monikers. (In Australia, The Triffids, The Go-Betweens and Sexing the Cherry offer similar examples of groups taking their names from novels.) And of course, David Bowie employed Burroughs’ cut-up technique for writing his lyrics, as well as being inspired by Nietzsche, Orwell and Burgess, etc.

A number of bands I listened to in the late ’70s drew on their own teenage reading as key reference texts. Groups like Joy Division, Magazine, The Cure, The Buzzcocks, The Fall (naturally!), Josef K (of course!) and even The Jam all revealed their familiarity with Penguin Modern Classics and Pan paperback editions of Kafka, Sartre, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Fowles, Ballard, Murdoch, Bukowski, Plath, Nabokov and Huxley, to name but a few.

Of course, this traffic is not all one-way. Writers such as Ian Rankin and Nick Hornby, in their respective ways, have made use of musical themes and references for their novels. Elvis Costello is an interesting example of this flow and ebb of influences (conscious or otherwise). In his 1982 album, “Imperial Bedroom”, Costello name-checks books by Evelyn Waugh, Mary Scott and Emlyn Williams. In turn, the album seems to have inspired Brett Easton Ellis and Stephanie Bishop.

However, for sheer worm hole appeal, the works of Thomas Pynchon deserve a Nobel Prize for inspiring a whole thread of academic research in this area of literary influences. There’s probably a PhD thesis or two out there on this exact topic. At the risk of making this an indulgent and self-referencing blog, the band I was in from 1979-1983, Greenfield Leisure, recorded a song called “Too Fat To Frug” (the one song of ours that John Peel liked). The words were adapted from “Miles’s Song”, one of the lyrics Pynchon wove into “The Crying of Lot 49”, published in 1966. Even back in the ’60s, Pynchon was a source for popular culture, if the title of a 1967 comic is anything to go by, and a trend which seems destined to continue.

Finally, my thanks to Gary Wigglesworth for triggering this post.

Next week: My love/hate relationship with Science Fiction