Follow-up on music: local radio & digital music

Today at PopMatters, Ben Rubenstein has a “Mixtape Confessions” column up about the loss of two local radio stations in Boston. In particular, there are two passages I took note of and that prompted me to further thought on themes from yesterday’s music post.

First, Rubenstein notes the role that one of the stations played in introducing him to certain “classic” artists and songs:

When I was growing up, the Rubenstein car radio was controlled largely by my parents, which meant a steady diet of Oldies 103 during any car trips. The station introduced me to The Beach Boys’ “Barbara Ann”, Ernie K. Doe’s “Mother in Law”, the Shangri-Las’ “Leader of the Pack” and all the rest. Sure, I still gravitated toward Kiss 108 when left to my own devices, but those songs are as much a part of my childhood as anything Rick Dees introduced me to.

But he goes on to ask what role local radio might play in a context where people who want to hear music have tools like Pandora or Spotify at their disposal:

It all leads to a larger question, one that station managers have likely been trying to answer for a few years: What does a traditional radio station really offer now that we can create our own, customized stations with a few clicks? What drives that relationship beyond convenience?

In the first excerpt, I think that Rubenstein notes a couple of key elements to local radio that are harder to reproduce in a digital context, or in a world where radio is largely de-localized and no longer programmed by people who are members of the community for which they play music.

While different local radio stations certainly carved out niches for themselves, even where you found a favorite, you were likely to hear artists and songs that would not be your choice. You were always dealing with someone else’s tastes, but ideally someone with refined tastes whose selections could direct you to artists that you may not have found on your own. I think that ‘discovery’ works very differently in a context where you are giving yourself over to someone else versus picking and choosing on your own.

The other point I want to note from the first passage is the shared aspect of radio. The means of listening to music used to be more scarce, and as with Rubenstein’s family, in mine, other people tended to control the radio (and the stereo), or, at least, what station to tune to (or what album to play) became a subject of negotiation between family and friends; which is another way in which analog technology fostered a context where discovery often came from the need to deal with others, and their preferences, rather than being driven by self-selection.

It is easy to romanticize one’s own formative experiences, and I don’t want to do that here. Local radio was no less of a commercial enterprise than the stations now owned by Clear Channel, and that means ads and certain songs being put into heavy, heavy rotation. Furthermore, as Rubenstein implies, while relying on others for music selection can be enlightening and educative, by definition, those choices will never be exactly what you would choose on your own. I spent many an afternoon listlessly switching between stations until I found something I wanted to hear. The main reason I made mixtapes for myself is to have, essentially, personal radio.

Which is what Rubenstein is pointing to in the second excerpt: the appeal of digital services like MOG and Pandora is user control, of listening to what you want to listen to, or, at the least, to set parameters for listening and, in many cases, to pick and choose individual songs as you listen. For a fee, you can usually lose the ads, too.

On balance, as an adult, is is hard to to argue with that model. As I admitted in yesterday’s piece, I don’t have the same kind of time to devote to music that I once did. Why sit through ads and repeated plays of songs to which I am indifferent or that I may actually hate just to get to something that appeals?

And yet it is primarily the search for new music that I missed, or that decayed, after college.

Digital music services do offer tools and opportunities for discovery, but these are largely based on inputs that the user provides. As noted above, in one sense this is a feature, but in other senses it is a problem. This kind of ‘narrowcasting’ ensures a steady diet of listening that is likely to be appealing, but it is less likely to provide an interesting juxtaposition or to cross genres. If I had this kind of technology when I was a teen, I’m not sure how I would have ended up listening to Lone Justice, or becoming a devotee of the Indigo Girls in college. The one exception to my lack of musical engagement after college is that Anne-Marie and I started going to Grateful Dead concerts, something my teenage self would have found unthinkable. In practice, I’m sure that there probably are a host of ways in which I could have ended up listening to any number of things if I’d had Spotify and instead of local radio and MTV, but user-driven radio/listening seems to work against wider ranging discovery.

Related to that point is another sense in which digital narrowcasting poses a problem, which is that branching out and finding new music depends on the user making an effort to try something or new or to take up recommendations. And as useful and rewarding as that activity might be, it takes time and energy of a kind that listening to your local DJ doesn’t, and, again, is, I think, less likely to provide a surprise.

As a teen and young adult local radio often provided a soundtrack for hanging out. Waiting for the next song became part of our social activity, as did debating the merits of the selections. Music sharing seems much different for A and her friends. Most of her friends are very intolerant of anything new or unfamiliar (and for all I know, A is that way when she is at their houses). Clearly, ‘kids these days’ have some means of finding new songs to like, via YouTube mostly as far as I can tell, but they also seem used to just shutting off what doesn’t immediately catch their ears.

It could also be that I am underestimating the role that face-to-face relationships play in developing one’s musical tastes. Rubenstein mentions his parents and the car radio. We clearly have an influence over what A listens to, even if she isn’t always able to share what she likes with her friends (and they, in turn, must be getting musical influences from their parents). That kind of thing becomes increasingly rare among adults though, except where you have get togethers of people who play music. At least, this has been my experience.

Right now I am motivated and have time to devote to building my universe in MOG, and I am encouraged that the “Editor’s picks” seem to range across time periods and genres, which gives me an immediately accessible adjunct to more targeted recommendations on the service*. And yet when I have to get back to prepping and teaching classes I suspect that I might miss having a couple of go to radio stations, places staffed by people who love and know music and who program for a specific local audience. Or maybe the digital music bubble I am finally making will be all I need.

Read Ben Rubenstien’s full column at PM:

*Yes, I read reviews, but following up and hearing what is being recommended has been a barrier in the past. Read my prior entry for context (linked in the intro).