October 24, 2008

Personal essay: Regarding the iPod as personal mainstream adult-contemp radio station.

Tiny iPod, giant opportunities

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)

(UPDATE, DECEMBER 2008: All four essays in this series are now available as a free downloadable eBook, for those who are interested.)

So here we are, ten months now into the Great iPod Indie-Rock Challenge of 2008, and things couldn't be going better; in fact, you could argue that the subject is of even more relevance to my life than ever, given that I'm now doing a monthly podcast myself devoted to showcasing the best of the latest free indie-rock music I'm finding online. That's been keeping the music flowing onto and off of my little 1-gig iPod Shuffle faster than ever, which regular readers will remember was an important detail of the original Challenge; not to become any kind of respected expert again on the subject of college music, after being fatally out of touch with the subject for over a decade now, but merely to get all my sad old '80s and '90s music off my Shuffle and replaced with brand-new music as quickly as possible.

And so to just run the numbers for a minute, here at the third-quarter mark of the year-long experiment....Since I like to keep around 250 megs of my Shuffle free at any given moment for my latest podcasts, that means I can have around a hundred songs altogether on my Shuffle at any given moment (or approximately 500 minutes of music, or eight hours, or nine CDs' worth, however you want to think of it); and right now, between all the music blogs I read and music podcasts I listen to, plus private research and reader suggestions, I seem to be downloading and keeping about an album's worth of new legal free music every single week these days, 10 to 14 songs by 10 to 14 different artists. Which when you add it up, means that I'm essentially refilling my entire Shuffle with new music once every two or three months; and that's why I sit down on a Saturday afternoon once every month or so here at home and do a major purge of my Shuffle, removing by the end somewhere between 20 and 40 songs altogether, or a third of the entire contents. And so that's why the majority of the music on my Shuffle at any given point is six months old or less, some of it six to nine months old, a little of it nine to twelve months old, and nothing at all older than a year, from when the Challenge first started.

In effect, it's turned my crappy little $70 Shuffle not just into a low-end standalone music player like it was designed by Apple to be, but into an entire one-man mainstream adult-contemporary radio station, with all the benefits that come with that -- brand-new music from a variety of sources, constantly updated and rotated, with the more popular songs played slightly more often (and with always a chance to skip over a song if I'm not in the mood), but with still a semi-random aspect to it all. But here's the thing -- it's a radio station I as the listener program, all by myself, without the need of a DJ or programming director, with every song guaranteed to be something I like or even love, and with no commercials or insipid on-air banter, or crappy songs slipped into heavy rotation because of a payola scandal, or any of the other things that usually drive people away from commercial radio stations. And that's...well, that's astonishing, in my opinion, literally the realization of the science-fiction dreams my friends and I used to talk about back in school in the '80s and '90s, back when we'd fantasize about how great it'd be to run our own pirate radio station.

Because see, what I'm talking about is different than simply owning an iPod full of interesting CDs; my Shuffle contains almost nothing but brand-new singles by a whole variety of different bands in different genres, as many different bands as there are songs and with no filler at all, none of the crappy little filling-time tracks that come with loading entire CDs to one's iPod. And when you combine the "random play" mode on my iPod with the option to weight the playlist by popularity, even listening to this music is much more like a radio experience than a Walkman one; the same exact exact experience, for example, as walking into your corporate job in the morning, hanging up your coat in your cubicle, and flipping on the radio sitting next to your computer there. What it essentially does is put the power of a full mainstream radio station directly into my hand, without needing the endless amount of middlemen who traditionally used to come with such a situation: since the labels directly "send me" the music (via public song posts at label sites, band MySpace pages, generalized music blogs, etc), there's no need for a programming director or label rep; and since there's no need for a soundboard or a broadcast booth or a human actually mixing the songs together, there's no need either for a DJ. And since none of these people need to get paid, there's no need for an advertising staff, which of course is part of the catch-22 of ad-driven creative projects; that the more popular you get, the more ad people you need and the more power they are given, eventually ruining the very thing that was inspiring the need for all those ad people in the first place. With the situation I'm talking about, you can simply skip over all these people, while still not losing the access to thousands of free songs and expert opinions on what's best that traditionally used to only come with a big expensive place like a mainstream radio station.

And in fact this gets us into the rapidly and profoundly changing nature of arts administration unto itself, the thing I do for a living too but in the world of books; because to be frank, this is an accusation I get on a more and more regular basis now, that people like me (i.e. the new generation of cultural arbiters) are simply replacing the people we rail against and complain about (i.e. the old-skool "cultural gatekeepers" of such places as paper publications and radio stations), that we are merely doing the same exact thing as they did, but now through online means and while pointing out hipper stuff than them. But that's simply not true, and you can look at the music blogs I follow for a perfect example of this, places like Discobelle and What To Wear During An Orange Alert; like me, none of these places are declaring that their picks are the only decent things out there, but merely acknowledging the huge unending plethora of cool things out there, and merely saying, "Here's the little bit of stuff we've come across that we thought was cool, but you should definitely keep looking on your own for yet more cool stuff."

That's the difference between someone like me and an old-skool literary cultural gatekeeper, someone like a New York Times book reviewer or Simon & Shuster editor; those people tended to say, "Here's the stuff I've declared cool, and you shouldn't even bother with anything else besides what I'm telling you to check out. Certainly you should never take anything seriously if it was self-released by the artist, or exists only in electronic form instead of a physical one, or not put out by a 'reputable' company and with other 'reputable' cultural gatekeepers telling you it's decent." That's another thing that all this technology is rapidly making obsolete; because when you have a Sony Reader and a broadband connection (or an iPod and a broadband connection, or a Kindle and a broadband connection), suddenly you have direct access to much more creative work than you'll ever possibly have the time before you die to consume, and no longer need someone making sweeping declarative statements regarding what "rocks" and what "sucks" and so on and so forth.

That's certainly not what I'm looking for, whenever I frequent the music blogs and podcasts I do; I'm looking more for a gentle guide, a gentle advisor, someone who simply points me in the right direction and with some tips on the matter, but leaves the majority of the individual wandering and browsing up to me. I now pick the 12 new songs a week that will go into heavy rotation in my life, not a bunch of random strangers at a radio station; this new generation of cultural arbiters simply point out the 100 or 150 songs from which I pick those 12, plus tell me more about the context behind the music, plus tell me more about the latest in general music trends. That's what I want from my cultural arbiters, not just some pretentious hipster doofus telling me, "Listen to this, don't listen to that, this rocks, this sucks;" that's why I pick the music experts that I do, and that's how I try to write my own recommendations of artists and projects here at CCLaP.

I'm telling you, who knew I would stumble across so many fascinating philosophical issues about the arts in the 2000s, when deciding back in January that I was simply sick of all my old Pavement and Replacement albums? It's been a fascinating thing, seeing how all this new technology is profoundly changing the very way we think about the arts; all in all, I have to declare the Great iPod Indie-Rock Challenge of 2008 to be a runaway success. I hope that you think so too, and that you are enjoying these days the monthly little music roundup that I put together here myself. And of course, around Christmas I will have one more official entry in this Challenge series, at the same time at CCLaP's 2008 Year in Books report, telling you in final terms how the one-year music experiment went. I hope you'll get a chance to stick around for that.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 6:28 PM, October 24, 2008. Filed under: Arts news | CCLaP news | Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Music |