The Freelance Mentalists.
Friday, October 29, 2004
There are reasons to believe that music will return to the free (so-called "commercial") airwaves sometime in the near future. From ClearChannel's problems to new formatting approaches on independent stations, to the growing spectre of satellite radio, there are enough disparate trends afoot to suggest that the Dark Ages of the past two decades are about to end.

But the death of John Peel is occasion to remark on a related trend and one which artists must reckon with sooner or later: the playlist.

My introduction to John Peel, as a kid growing up in New York City, was not via the BBC but, rather, a recording: the Peel Sessions of Joy Division. The brilliant premise of allowing a new and "iconoclastic" band to take over the airwaves not for a single song but an entire set is Peel's legacy -- and part of Nic Harcourt's contemporary appeal.

But I would hazard that technology which made the Peel Sessions possible -- i.e., cheap radios, a wide spectrum for multiple BBC transmissions -- now makes a similar enterprise increasingly unlikely. Today, it is the Internet and not the radio which is driving culture.

Unlike radio tranmissions, the Internet's own spectrum -- bandwidth, if you like -- requires compression and packets. While the number of Americans who have access to broadband Internet access recently topped 45%, it is still the case that most media consumed via the Internet and, thus, the personal computer, is delivered in bits and bytes.

No doubt, this method of delivery will change in a few years' time with the advent of "ultra-broadband" wi-fi technology, enabling anyone with a mobile phone/mp3 player/camera/dvd and game player to pick up an entire album without the use of a computer.

But in the meantime, the demise of the album -- or the electronically transmitted long format musical performance -- may be a done deal. Certainly, home taping (e.g., mix tapes) began this movement away from the album. But, the MP3 has certainly completed this drift.

As a fan of Seinfeld, I must now add "Not that there's anything wrong with that..." The album format did not come down from Mt. Sinai engraved in a gold disc. The author is dead, long live the mix tape. Moreover, without mix tapes, we would not have the important contributions of the DJ and the sample-based artist.

But if you feel that a single is not the best way to get to know every artist, if you feel that commercial mechanisms do not always reward creativity or, even, artistry, then I think you might have reason to worry about playlists and their impact on our music culture.

I'll end with an example. The other day I was discussing playlists with a fellow electronic music artist here in SF. He informed me that he had recently downloaded from the iTunes store an entire album, I believe from 1980s, only to discover that the tracks were out of order.

It's not surprising. Unlike the "record stores" of yore, iTunes, iPods and their like trade in individual files -- not albums.

Given that the future of radio may in fact not involve radio at all, but, rather, the wireless data networks, it would behoove us to think a bit harder on what the new radios (i.e., mp3 players, both software and hardware) are doing to the "long playing" album.

No doubt, commercially-biased artists are already predisposed to think of their album as a collection of singles. Should every recording artist be forced to do the same thanks to playlists?

--Jose Marquez
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