31 July 2007
From Waves to Bytes: Radio Online
ABC Classic FM’s Australian Music Unit producer Stephen Adams outlines the recent changes to the AMU and speculates on some of the likely effects of the online environment on the presentation of new music at the station.
While grappling with this article, I couldn’t help wishing that I was writing website text. I could then pursue each issue independently on its own webpage, with multiple in-text links for readers to follow connections at will. Of course, there is no reason bar habit why you can’t ignore the following arbitrary sequence, using the headings to move between sections as you please, but the Web actively encourages such non-linear forms of creation and consumption. How will the AMU respond to the opportunities of the online world? But first, what is the AMU?
The Australian Music Unit (AMU) was founded in 1989 as an initiative of the then Head of ABC Broadcast Music, Gwen Bennett. It was created not as an archival unit, but as a broadcast support unit to facilitate the re-use and wider dissemination of the ABC’s Australian music recordings, both within Australia and overseas.
More recently, the Unit has become increasingly active in both commissioning and presenting Australian music recordings, as well as playing a major role in the documentation and discussion of this music both on air and online.
As well as collaborations with ABC Radio’s Regional Production Fund and Radio National Music, the AMU is involved in the ongoing production of New Music Up Late and the ABC Classic FM Australian Music website (www.abc.net.au/classic/australianmusic).
However, given the increasing use of web technology, it is the AMU’s web-based activities that are likely to grow most dramatically (and unpredictably) over the next few years. What follows are some reflections and speculations on the current and future possibilities of the Web for the AMU and the Australian music community.
Pitching to the world
...it seems as if participation is the way of the Web...The ABC website and a handful of other public broadcasting websites offer complete pieces of music embedded in on-demand streaming of regular broadcast programs. An online presence expands audiences by enabling people to listen when they want to, and by putting Australian music onto virtual desktops around the world. This is the case with ABC Classic FM’s New Music Up Late (www.abc.net.au/classic/newmusic), which already receives some international listener mail.
Alongside the potential to build an international audience, these radio programs now compete for audiences with web-based presentation of music from around the world. How are we going to get the attention of Web audiences for new Australian music? Apart from our success in linking and otherwise publicising our websites, obviously strengthened by association with an established ‘brand’ with strong public credentials and infrastructure such as the ABC, the edge must come from the quality and quantity of the music and associated information on offer. But, potentially, success might also come from the inventiveness and appeal of the ways in which the content is presented and navigated.
The online delivery of radio programs has the initial advantage that there is already a steady flow of new material being produced for the established platform of radio broadcast. This guarantees quantity and a tested delivery of content that has a known quality. While the majority of music webpages provide information and limited audio samples aimed at selling product, the ABC’s music webpages are rich in whole pieces of music.
Will radio exist in 10 years time? How will listening online change the way we hear and think about music?In the case of Classic FM Australian Music, the music is offered not in the context of the streaming of complete on-air programs, but as individual pieces of music, streamed on-demand and presented along with text and images as part of a curated online audio ‘exhibition’. This approach takes the music content away from the dynamics of a radio program with sequential choices of music and spoken commentary, and into a realm in which music can be listened to in any order, repeatedly or only in part, with the supporting text commentary being read separately, simultaneously, or not at all, as the individual chooses.
To date, there have been six such exhibitions. All have contained exclusively ABC recordings of new Australian music and sound art, variously focused around conceptual themes and specific festivals and events. The site also offers a handful of talk-based downloads, as well as links to online ‘Features’ – generally complete radio programs with a special Australian focus available as streaming on-demand. And in the near future, the Australian Music page is likely to begin offering free music downloads!
While this content has been distinctive and of high quality, it is not a great volume of material for the page’s first two years, and one of the greatest challenges for the AMU in managing the Australian Music page is to find ways of increasing the volume of content and the frequency of new material.
A new departure, and more distinctive in its presentational approach, is the A-Z of Spiritual Music: a user’s guide launched on the Classic FM website in December 2006. This is a self-contained, hybrid web form, presenting music and spoken word audio plus text within the frame of a dictionary structure allowing navigation according to the letters of the alphabet and a range of musico-spiritual ‘theme words’. The project was developed by composer Richard Vella in collaboration with myself (as Australian Music Curator), ABC Media Arts and Sonic Art Ensemble.
As a single artist project, the Vella A-Z is a relatively self-enclosed use of the Web. However, the structure of the website offers a possible model for new forms of web presentation, combining music with ideas about music in a fairly fluid manner, and it is not difficult to imagine a structure such as this one being adapted to more open uses. Visitors to such a site might add their own music, comments (spoken or written) and additional theme words or category pages in a freely expanding manner, limited only by server space and whatever moderating processes are necessary to prevent serious abuses.
And it seems as if participation is the way of the Web…
User-generated content and Creative Commons
In this new environment, user-generated content is the next obvious step, and one that many independent networks of web presentation have already taken. Creative Commons agreements allow for the free contribution of material and responses to material, as well as the free appropriation (with acknowledgement) of other contributors’ material into new works.
The ABC is poised to step into this world with ‘Poool’. Hosted by ABC Radio National, this web construct has been developed in collaboration with UTS Media Arts and the University of Wollongong. The site will house user-generated sound art/musical content with the capacity for registered members of the public to take material from this webspace and re-work it or incorporate it into other structures to produce anything from re-mixes and collages to new works with no audible debt to their source material.
In this environment, while institutions (eg. the ABC, universities, the AMC or the National Film and Sound Archive) continue to create and prepare their own material for presentation on their websites, it is now possible for individual members of the public to interact with and provide content directly to these institutional websites. This is a possibility the AMU is keen to develop.
ABC archives and the Web
The ABC is not resourced to function as a fully-fledged archive. Archival recordings are only transferred to current audio formats and extended rights negotiated when an immediate broadcast use is envisaged, a use which presumes a significant audience interest in the material broadcast.
But what if the content of the discs containing thematic and other groupings of selected Australian musical works (such as those owned by the AMU), were available to programmers via an online network in which audio files, linked program text files and relevant audio interviews, were available with extensive cross-referencing, enabling searching according to a vast array of thematic and other categories? No need to produce physical booklets and re-produce CDs. No need to limit recordings to inclusion according to the groupings and categorisations of individual discs.
What if recording producers loaded new music recordings into this online system as a routine part of their post-production processes, eliminating the tyranny of majority taste over what is made more readily available?
What if these recordings were available to the general public online?
What if the entire back-catalogue of specialty programs such as New Music Australia (1992-2004), The Listening Room (1988-2004), the Charles Southwood Australian composer interviews (1991-3), Random Round (1990-1992), Surface Tension (1985-1987), John Hopkins’s 1970s Prom Concerts, and so on, were available as on-demand streaming?
Most of these programs are unlikely to be re-broadcast, due, among other reasons, to the dated nature of many of their specific references, but the Web operates according to different imperatives. The Web is the world of niche interests. Here audiences for specific content items can be extremely small, so long as the cumulative audience over a range of content, measured in overall visitor numbers, downloads and streaming hours for a site, are high.
Suddenly there is an opening for all kinds of specialised Australian music content to be re-visited, providing fascinating insights into the work of specific musicians, composers and sound artists, illuminating cultural ‘moments’ or contexts for the creation of new music and sound art. In the context of the World Wide Web, it may be possible to contemplate offering such programs in their archival form, introduced by written text providing the necessary context for understanding the content, to a new generation of fans, music students and researchers. The sky’s the limit, or are there some invisible barriers?
Limits to the Web utopia
Format and platform change put financial and work power pressure on large organisations and individuals, as ‘keeping up’ involves the continual transfer of recordings from old to new formats. ABC radio over the past 20 years has moved from reel-to-reel to DAT to CD to hard-drive digital storage formats, with further complications arising from internal differences between ABC broadcasters in the digital recording platforms and storage files they use. And then there are the current transfers between formats for different forms of delivery (DAT/CD - WAV file - mp3 - flac files - streaming file in 2 formats with multiple delivery speeds!). And of course, even in the wealthier countries, not everyone has access to the Web, and the level/quality of access varies greatly. What will be the affects of this new ‘class structure’?
And will richer audio formats with more ‘musical’ delivery continue to develop and improve, or will the resulting slower download times or need for higher band-width streaming, not to mention provider hard-drive storage capacity, cause presenters to turn to lower-quality forms of audio to maximise access? Will music online have much of its bodied and sensuous content stripped out of it, thus reduced to its informational content? Would this take music in the direction of the idealised abstractions of the ‘pure music’ theorists, or take it closer to language in its sense of ‘representing’ rather than ‘being?
Apart from server capacity and related technical issues, there are two other significant limitations on this capacity: the cost of producing new content; and the cost of paying for web rights to recordings made during the 70 years of the ABC before artist contracts contained Web rights.
Rights and wrongs
The story of the Web remains the story for the ABC and other large institutions – vast potential for presentation of content, but little or no new funding to create this content. This means that, while the ABC has the infrastructure to provide outlets for content, it cannot pay (at least, not at yesterday’s prices) for this content to be created.
Artistic content such as Australian ‘art’ music (for want of a better word) is almost entirely created and owned by independent artists, and the cost of paying separately for Web rights on top of existing fees – not to mention the timely exercise of battling with moral rights – limits the range and quantity of the artistic content that we can present either temporarily or for long-term archival access.
While this potential impasse is being challenged at the big end of town by a bewildering array of file-sharing and independent Web presentation networks, in the smaller cultural milieu of new art music, the pressure is being felt from the potential the Web offers to get your music to a larger specialist audience, so long as you’re happy to give it away!
Web music sales are far smaller in value than the CD sales they are increasingly replacing. It’s clear that the majority of music downloading, whether authorised or illegal, is taking place at no cost to the user. If artists, whether composers, independent chamber ensembles or one of myriad varieties of improvisers and sound artists, see the value, then institutional websites such as the ABC’s offer excellent opportunities for increased exposure.
Whilst web streaming on demand offers a somewhat more protected form of music delivery, the reality is that the big growth in online listeners is for downloads, whether as regular podcasts or an endless series of one-off selections. The AMU website offers substantial amounts of music as streaming audio, with moderate audience figures. But the small amount of Australian music so far on offer as download material has elicited huge jumps in web audience numbers, in spite of the much more limited nature of the material on offer.
Is this because the download material offered so far has been primarily talk about music rather than discrete individual works (as in the large collections of individual works offered in the ‘Fresh Sounds’ web streaming exhibitions)? Or is it because most people prefer to listen away from their computers on portable mp3 players? Or is it because many people’s computers and Internet connections are still inadequate for reliable music streaming, suffering from interrupted connections while re-buffering the stream, or even dropping out altogether?
Whatever the reason, this increases the attraction of downloading for artists, some of whom are now keen to take the plunge and make their music more widely available in this way. As I understand it, their reasoning is that there is, in any case, little money to be made by selling these recordings, and making music available as free downloads will maximise their exposure, increasing the amount of interest in their music and the likelihood of more paid work, or better grant outcomes, as a result.
Horses for courses and models for Web presentation
If anything can go on the Web, then who should hold what recordings in what form? What kinds of access should be possible? Who should be able to use the stored recordings and for what purposes? Is it the role of the ABC to be putting large amounts of archival material on its website, or should this material be available through more explicitly archival institutions such as the National Film and Sound Archive and National Library of Australia’s MusicAustralia? This would leave the ABC free to concentrate on the contemporary and the new.
What models of web presentation will be appropriate for the ABC? Will ABC Classic FM maintain the organisation of content around on-air program categories, with pages like Australian Music as idiosyncratic asides? Or will other models based on themed and cross-linked categories of audio material become the norm? At the moment the Australian Music Unit is in the early stages of consultation with ABC Classic FM’s new Web Producer to redevelop AMU web’s structure to serve the move to significantly increased audio content and user-generated content. What the results will be it’s too early to say, but reader and site-visitor comment and feedback would be useful.
Thoughts on time and space on the experience-explanation continuum
Meanwhile, the questions continue. Will radio exist in 10 years time? How will listening online change the way we hear and think about music?
Radio is a time-based medium in which presenters weave and articulate time-based experiential relationships between musical works (from conventional 'announce-playback-announce' formats to montage or ‘mashing’ structures exemplified by Radio National's 'The Night Air').
Radio programs have a specific duration and ‘niche’ programs on new and experimental music generally don’t get a lot of airtime. Given the relative paucity of opportunities to hear this music, should such programs cut talk to a minimum in order to give airtime to as much new music as possible? But given its very new-ness and experimental nature, doesn’t this music need more explanation to be ‘understood’?
From one point of view, the optimal music program might be one in which the music largely explains itself, the sequence of pieces providing, in themselves, both context and commentary for each other. For others, nothing can replace the separate articulation of ideas and experience in words, testing and reflecting on the musical experience from the external vantage point of another medium of thought and feeling.
Enter the Web, not a time-based medium, but a hyper-spatial network of virtual ‘objects’ with parallels to the library, supermarket or art exhibition. In presenting music on the Internet, these temporal issues don’t arise in the same way. The biggest temporal issues for web presentation relate to the speed of downloads, websites and pages opening, and streaming kick-ins. As to how much music, talk or ‘program notes’, and whether they are presented simultaneously or in what sequence, these questions can be entirely in the hands of the audience. Just so long as the links and pathways are clear and reasonably efficient! The navigation system, sign-posting and linking, the labelling of content, musical or otherwise, and the grouping and linking of this content through chains of association, then become the chief ‘programming’ issues.
What does this mean for music? How will the Web affect the ways in which we hear and create music in a world where the online experience has supplanted all other forms of media? Download and streamed programs allow the maintenance of time-based delivery structures or 'programming', complete with spoken presentation, though without radio's immediacy of listening – an experience shared in the moment by a large number of otherwise disconnected listeners. The podcast gives back some sense of the shared social space through its regular delivery, creating a social relationship somewhat similar to reading the weekend papers or a regular magazine. Will we nostalgically prefer these forms that most closely mirror the pre-determined temporal structure and presenter framing of past media? Or will we change? Will we prefer to freely mix and match streams of music and text-based information? And will we prefer web structures that invite us to become active contributors?
And so more questions and an arbitrary end to an article infected with the repetitions and non-linear jumps so typical of the World Wide Web.
Google searching under ‘new music’ and ‘experimental music’ revealed only a handful of other pages out there providing more substantial music audio content, mostly as streaming or very low-grade downloads. At the top of the former category, unsurprisingly, was the BBC (www.bbc.co.uk/radio3)with their on-demand streaming of BBC Radio 3’s weekly ‘Here and Now’ and weekday ‘Late Junction’ programs, while hyped sites such as NewMusicJukebox (www.newmusicjukebox.org) prove disappointing, offering only audio samples as a teaser to score sales. The other more interesting pages were those operating as independent networks of individual artist/presenters such as NetNewMusic (netnewmusic.net), s900 (s900.org)and epitonic (www.epitonic.com), plus the amazing archival audio site UbuWeb (www.ubu.com), self-described as ‘a completely independent resource dedicated to all strains of the avant-garde, ethnopoetics, and outsider arts’. This points the way to the richer area of music-related web content. While artists may still be hastening slowly towards giving away their music, there are no shortage of opinions and research-based articles on music available for free!
© Australian Music Centre (2007) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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