Digital, Online and On-Air
Online radio is helping musicians break free from their reliance on big-name stations. Want to get your album tracks played? There’s a show for that.
There’s a particular tree somewhere in Sheffield. It would be tricky to pin down an exact date, but if you’d taken a wander down there at any time in the late 1990s, you would have found a 14-year-old boy crouched underneath it, twiddling the knobs on a transmitter, speaking into an old mixer and broadcasting to his area via a transmitter lodged in the branches of the tree.
That boy was Mista Montana. He’s a little bit older now, and has gone from broadcasting under a tree to becoming one of the biggest Internet radio stars in history. His hip-hop music show Conspiracy Worldwide is massive. It began in 2004, and through a single-minded devotion to playing non-mainstream music (helped along by an endless procession of high-profile guests), it has become one of the trailblazers of the medium. Broadcast as a live show on Friday nights and as a downloadable podcast, Conspiracy Worldwide can claim around 100-200,000 downloads for every episode per month.
Internet radio has changed how we listen to music, and Montana has been right in the thick of it for over seven years. “I suddenly realised the potential of what the Internet could do,” he says talking about the show’s early days. “[But] I never thought it could do what it has done. It really has revolutionised everything I ever did. Back in the day, I was broadcasting to a town and we had six texts come in throughout a three-hour show. Now, it’s phenomenal – the reach of what we’re doing. Over 180 countries! To have that audience and be able to track it is, to me, the perfect picture.”
It seems strange to think just how recent Internet radio is, given the dominance of some of its leading broadcasters. But it has only been a few years since it came on the scene and began cutting into the dominance of what’s known as terrestrial radio – think AM and FM music stations like Capital, Kiss and BBC Radio 1. While these stations have certainly made themselves available online, they continue to operate under the same narrow music paradigm. In those studios, it’s all chart shows, new music from the big-name pop stars and vapid DJs who have no say in the music they play. While there are exceptions, this is the norm.
But in the online world, these stations now have to compete with broadcasters who capture huge audiences without being in thrall to advertisers or stony-faced programme controllers. It used to be that any budding musician looking for airplay would have to go through the iron gates of a playlist committee meeting. If they didn’t meet strict standards regarding what the station’s format was, they were utterly ignored.
But with online stations, the game has changed. DJs and station personnel are often directly accessible, and the dedication to niche music genres (such as Conspiracy’s focus on raw hip-hop) has meant that it’s up to the DJs to chase down new music. What that means is that artists suddenly have a real outlet for their material. That heavy rap single got rejected from KISS? Not to worry. There are hundreds of online shows who will play it, and they have a collective audience of hundreds of thousands.
It’s having an impact on the notion of radio singles as well. Gone are the days when an artist had to have at least one commercially-friendly track on their album. If a rock band wants fans to hear their nine-minute long live jam session that was a bonus track on their album, they don’t have to try to corner Jo Whiley when they see her at a show. They can just take it to somewhere like Total Rock.
Total Rock is a unique example; a station which began in the terrestrial era and which has become one of Internet radio’s leading lights. Perhaps more than any other station, it has shown the viability and longevity of online radio; the owners have battled multiple bankruptcies, studio relocations and more, and are still going strong. It gets around 35,000 listeners every week.
It’s tempting to think of Internet radio shows as being the realm of small-time DJs, doing it for love out of a basement somewhere. But that’s not always the case. Conspiracy Worldwide may have a small staff (Montana and his co-host Menace) but there are certainly plenty of stations and shows on the web who go a little bigger. Total Rock is one of these. As the name suggests, it plays rock and metal, and it operates under virtually the same template as a big-name station. Its offices in London’s Denmark Street are typical: faded music posters, dusty piles of long-forgotten CDs, assorted wires and broken mixers. It’s a little more relaxed than most other stations – you probably won’t find a life-size skull perched in the production studios at Radio 1 – but there’s no mistaking that this is a station that means business.
Tony Wilson is a former BBC sound engineer, and he’s been around since the early days of the station in the late 1990s. A quiet man with a professorial air, he looks slightly out of place next to the grinning skull. But he knows his rock, and he knows his radio – especially the challenges of bringing a station online. “In the earliest days,” he says, “in order that people could receive it and you didn’t use up too much bandwidth, you had to deliver it using a 24kb mono signal. But that’s [changed] as bandwidth grew and broadband started.”
Neither Total Rock nor Conspiracy Worldwide makes a profit. Total Rock earns enough to keep afloat, but like almost all online stations, it doesn’t pay its DJs. Montana says that he has never made a penny from his show – and, surprisingly, doesn’t mind a bit. In fact, he thinks it gives them an edge over the big stations: “When it comes to the legal stations and the bigger stations, they don’t fully want to accept the Internet because they’re not sure what to make in terms of business off the Internet. They’re trying to get a business plan … they haven’t worked out how they stay in control and [maintain the revenue].”
In the last few years, one of the key challenges that radio as a whole has faced is how to compete against sharing music on the Internet. To explain: radio shows were the place to go to find the hottest new single, the next big act, the freshest album of the week. But with all that material readily available on blogs, the role of DJs as tastemakers has eroded somewhat. Why listen to Choice FM’s track of the week when it was available on Mediafire three days ago?
It’s a big challenge for Internet radio, though Wilson says he still believes the role of the online DJ is to act as a filter for the huge amount of music available: “All of our DJs are not radio presenters; first and foremost they’re music fans. That’s what [gives us the edge]. We’re very street-level, very fan driven…The philosophy of what we do is that the DJs are the key to it. They do a lot of blogging and social networking and bring that into the station. I think that it’s a matter of developing their profiles as tastemakers and I think radio still has a lot to say in that area. It’s like a magazine: you get a combination of new music, you get introduced to music, you get interviews and it’s happening all the time and you can dip in and out of it.”
Montana agrees: “If you go to [rap blogs] 2DopeBoyz or HipHopDX, and they didn’t update their leak list everyday people would stop looking at them as a leading light. Hip-hop appears every day. Every show has got the best of the last seven days music. You get an instant supply. You don’t have to wait for CDs at the post office … finding new artists is not as difficult as it once was. But you have to stay current, and I’ve said this on the show before: I feel like a week now in hip-hop feels like a year. That’s because of the blogs … that’s a problem for radio.”
Jane Ostler is the communications director of UK Digital Radio, which handles all the administration of the UK’s non-analogue radio streams. “One of things that appeals about digital radio is that everything is going digital,” she says. “If you look at the way you store your music, watch TV, explore news and information, you can do more with digital. It’s more interactive – you can have extra information, programme guides – all the things you can’t do using analogue. It’s the natural progression for any medium.”
And, it would appear, the natural progression for music as well. Much of the interaction between online radio and the music it plays is uncharted territory, and the long-term impact remains to be seen. But there’s very little doubt that, even in their short existence so far, Internet radio stations have begun to change the game. For more information on Total Rock visit www.totalrock.com, or for Conspiracy Worldwide visit www.conspiracyuk.com.