Tuesday, 24 May 2011

The Know How #1: Transmission

Radio, live transmission (Joy Division, 1979)

Yesterday saw the first in a series of public seminars ran by Generator, one of the leading music development agencies in the UK, entitled ‘The Know How’ in which a panel of industry experts discuss the latest developments within the industry.  The first panel, subtitled ‘Transmission’ was focussed on a consideration of the present and future role of music broadcasting, specifically as it applies to radio in its various forms (analogue, digital, online, etc) and how the platforms can be employed in such a way that emerging artists can get themselves noticed.

The panel comprised a high profile selection of guests from across the audio spectrum including Trevor Dann (former Head of BBC Music, writer and independent radio producer), Jeff Smith (Head of Programming at BBC Radio 2 and 6), Huw Stephens (DJ/Presenter BBC Radio 1) and Dave Haynes (Vice President of Business Development at SoundCloud).  While the first three panellists all have an obvious connection with radio, Haynes was quick to admit to feeling like somewhat of a charlatan amongst the others.  However, as many online music streaming services are opting for radio licences like We7 and Last.FM, it made sense to include the service that is increasingly being used by artists, producers and consumers alike to discover new music.  Indeed, this point was one of the first to be considered by the panel when Dann asked the audience how many of them used Radio 1 or 2 as their primary ways to discover new music (the answer: very few). When asked how many people used Radio 6 the audience response was slightly higher, but when asked how important the internet was for discovering new music the results were as expected – a unanimous sea of arms.

One of the key questions at the start of the debate involved a consideration of radio’s enduring importance as a means of connecting music lovers with new artists, something Radio 1 has been focussed on heavily in recent years ever since their ‘In New Music We Trust’ campaign began, and more recently with ‘Introducing’.  In some ways the BBC has played a large part in bringing new music to the attention of the public, especially across Radio 1, 1Xtra and 6 Music.  There is much needed promotion of emerging talent across the public service broadcaster as commercial radio, according to Smith, is ‘not bothered on a whole by new music’ – their focus is driven by hits and familiarity, which audience and advertisers alike appreciate.  For Smith the BBC ‘like to lead taste’ not follow it.

In many ways presenters like Stephens act like taste makers or gate-keepers akin to John Peel, listening to all the music, both good and band, so the audience don’t have to.  Stephens’ popular Wednesday night slot on Radio 1 gives him free reign to play what he likes and enables listeners to discover something new.  He admitted to playing music that he personally doesn’t like, but that he knows the listeners might. There was an acknowledgment that services like Spotify offer music consumers to create their own bespoke playlists to share amongst friends, enabling people to come in contact with things they’ve never heard before – radio has to compete with these trends.  He regularly gets sent music from emergent artists via email, MySpace, SoundCloud, Twitter, etc like many consumers do, many of which he will play if they are interesting enough.  Stephens sees his show as a ‘filter’ for the masses of music we come in contact with now – it has to be a varied mix otherwise people would never find new stuff they didn’t know they like.

Much of what Stephens had to say chimed with what Haynes said about SoundCloud.  The aim of the service is to push audio to people and enable people to share music.  If presenters like Stephens represent a certain type of quality filter (ie new music good enough to reach a large audience), it was suggested by Dann that services like SoundCloud are devoid of quality control yet they must have detailed information about what is popular on the site.  It was put to Haynes that this must lead to a temptation to exploit that knowledge to provide a commercially driven product to the SoundCloud user base.  However, this idea was rejected by Haynes as not being in keeping with SoundCloud’s desire to enable artists to ‘reach their audience no matter how big or small’.  Other digital services might do this already, but SoundCloud doesn’t have a ‘big discovery push’ on their service and only occasionally promoting content – mainly from small acts or undiscovered artists.

The panel spent some time discussing the merits and pitfalls for emerging artists in trying to get themselves heard.  The option to hire a plugger to promote content to presenters like Stephens or those in control of playlists, like Smith, can either be very beneficial or beset with unscrupulous people looking to make some quick money from the uninitiated.  This is where tools like SoundCloud come into their own – Haynes suggested that the amount of free or cheap digital platforms online has enabled artists to build a presence like never before, and with this presence comes an audience.  It makes very little sense to try and charge people for digital singles if you haven’t built up a loyal or interested audience.

Ultimately, the message coming out of this seminar for emerging artists is that it pays to think and act smart when it comes to trying to break through and gain attentions.  There are many ways of building and maintaining interest in new music but being creative and determined to succeed are crucial – from shooting video diaries on YouTube to doing novel cover versions of familiar tunes.  Artists have to think strategically and network with as many people as possible to build a buzz around their content