There’s a certain kind of music fan that seems to enjoy arguing about music, almost as much as listening to it. Categories can be broad an all-encompassing — Top 10 Songs Ever,Desert Island Discs,Most Important Artists, or the topics can by specific — Best Songs About Food,Greatest Quincy Jones Productions, Ten Best Beatles Songs, but in almost every case, the conversations are ardent.
Both WXPN in Philadelphia and Slacker Radio are filled with people like this — passionate music obsessives who like a good dialogue, and love contextualizing music. They don’t just hear melodies and lyrics, they experience the political, social and pop culture matrix of the song’s era.
So, when Bruce Warren, music obsessive and programming lead for WXPN, mentioned to me that they were planning a special month around the Greatest Year In Music History, we got very excited.
Surely there had to be one year that towered over the rest. How could there be a better year for music than 1967, the “summer of love”, and its soundtrack of Sgt Pepper, Good Vibrations, and Aretha Franklin’s Respect? Well, tell that to a jazz head who counts 1959 as the year that Brubeck’s Take Five, Mingus’s Ah Um, and perhaps the greatest jazz album ever, Miles Davis’s Kind Of Blue were released. And what about 1984 with pop royalty like Prince, Madonna, and Michael Jackson all releasing argubably their greatest albums, while The Replacements, Husker Du and a slew of American college radio heroes reinvented the underground in response?
What was the greatest year in music history? On second look, this was a really tough question to answer. Music is so personal, and so hard to pin down. Still, the question itself seemed like a perfect fit for a quick partnership between WXPN, Slacker, and our respective audiences. Could we collectively try to answer what is perhaps an impossible, or at least impossibly subjective question?
We are enormous fans of WXPN and their take on radio — hand-crafted, intelligent, with a distinctive editorial voice. Their hosts are knowledgable and relatable, and they know their music history backwards and forwards. Slacker, in turn, has a passionately engaged audience, some pretty impressive musicologists of our own, and a technology platform perfect for skipping from year to year as you listen and decide.
When I was a kid, pre-Internet, I had a love/hate relationship with the radio.
I grew up in New York, and in my teens WNEW-FM was my constant companion. WNEW positioned itself as the station “Where Rock Lives.” Every song seemed perfectly picked, placed, and contextualized — it was music curation at its finest. Listening as a twelve-to-thirteen-year-old, I discovered tons of new music, or at least artists who were new to me. Rock really did seem to live on that station. Its DJs were true hosts. I clung to every word that Jonathan Schwartz, Vin Scelsa, and Scott Muni uttered. After all, in a time before message boards or social media, these people were my friend – intimate friends who turned me on to Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead, and Bob Dylan.
But after a while, I became frustrated with WNEW-FM. I had discovered a whole new world–punk rock –and WNEW wasn’t playing very much of it. I heard an occasional Ramones song, but where were the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Jam, and Wire? WNEW was too busy playing Foreigner, Styx, and Journey. Yuck, yuck, and yuck. (Ironically, I now have a custom-made Slacker station called The Bands I Hated in High School Kinda Sound Good to Me Now–but I’m getting ahead of myself here.)
Eventually I broke up with WNEW. The station had betrayed me. There was just so much Foreigner I could take. It certainly was no longer the place where my rock lived. I abandoned WNEW, and I abandoned the radio.
Years later, Napster came onto the scene, and music listening changed forever. All the world’s music accessible with a click of a mouse. I loved Napster at first but soon grew uncomfortable with both its bad song results and its lack of artist support.
Through the 2000s I drifted from service to service online. Rhapsody, Imeem, Lala, iTunes, eMusic…I tried them all. But somehow, despite the cool music platform that the web had become, something was missing. Some days it was enough and I found treasures, but most days it felt a bit cold, clinical. Listening to music on these services was mostly clean and efficient, but it wasn’t all that entertaining, and it certainly wasn’t magical. These were algorithms and applications…not good friends crafting music experiences. The human element was missing.
For the first time in years, I found myself missing the old WNEW-FM.
Then, in 2011, I found Slacker.
Slacker would have seemed like an impossible dream to the eighteen-year-old me. It worked everywhere. On my computer, on my phone, in my car. Best of all is the curation. At Slacker, I have more than 200 pre-programmed stations to choose from. Sure, there are the expected genre stations — Today’s Hits, New Hip Hop, Country, and an excellent slate of Alternative stations. But Slacker also digs really deep with Eclectic Rock, Great Songs You Forgot, Old School R&B, and Grunge: 20 Years Later. These are thematic stations that terrestrial radio could never dream of.
With Slacker, I can access the biggest hits, or reinvent the concept of formats, on a daily basis. Only people who live and breathe music every day could come up with stations like Dive Bar Jukebox, Broken Heart Radio, or The 50 Most Embarrassing Facebook Songs. No algorithm in the world can put a music mix together like these stations.
With Slacker, I am able to follow hosts like Mat Bates and Scott Riggs, whose expert curation routinely blows me away.
I love Scott’s Indie Hits mix and I find Mat’s New Music First stations invaluable. I really couldn’t live without The New 40, the Slacker station that plays the best 40 songs regardless of genre, each and every week.
Yet as good at turning me on to music as Mat and Scott are, I love being able to overrule them, to have more power than the DJ, to take a good station and make it better. I can fine-tune any station by tweaking the music mix based on related artists, song popularity, and song age. Fine-tune is an extremely cool feature. I can add sports from ESPN, news from ABC, and talk from American Public Media.
At Slacker, I have total control of a music library of more than 13 million songs. I can lean in and make custom playlists. I can lean back by simply typing a band or song name into the Search box and just let the music play. For a guy who spent days as a kid making mixed tapes, this seems unbelievably fast, efficient, and wondrous.
Most important, at Slacker I feel like the human spirit of the old WNEW FM lives, but within a new technological construct. Experts like Scott & Mat make superb stations – they are bringing music curation back. The technology platform makes everything easier, better, more customizable.
So go ahead, poke around, play a station, or enter a song. It’s up to you — with Slacker, all you have to do is listen up.
I have been slacking off from blogging. Time flies by. Here are 11 things I have been doing instead:
11- Understanding & Pricing Out The Cloud: If you are like me, and flit around from site to site streaming and buying — I’ll easily hit iTunes, Amazon, eMusic, RDIO & Rhapsody in a week — then the various cloud-music propositions presented lately will make your head spin. Keeping track of which one is $20 a year for 15GB’s, which one is $25 for a year for 20GB’s, which one rewards you for shopping at their store, which one matches and duplicates your existing content, etc. — is a crazy jumble. Heck, the Amazon, Google, iTunes options alone make the NY Times pay-wall rules seem positively simple. Jon Pareles from the NY Times on The Cloud That Ate Your Musichere.
10- Testing Cloud Music Offerings: Wow. Has setting up something geared for convenience , ever been so inconvenient?! I tried Amazon (glacially slow), Google (makes Amazon look nimble) and what iTunes has to offer so far (you try finding the correct preference prompts to set up an iPad, iPod, iTouch & MacBookAir) — it takes the patience of Job to even experiment with the existing library options.
9- Obsessively Listening To A Reclusive Artistic Genius Who Locks Himself Away At Home: If I told you that I was listening non-stop to a morose, funny, poignant, cutting singer-songwriter who refuses to record with a band, make videos or tour — I’m sure you would say “Really, Paul Westerberg again Jack”. Well not this time, mister. FM Coronog is an incredible singer-songwriter, who in between his 9-5 slog at Home Depot, somehow manages to home-record a brilliant album every few years under the moniker of East River Pipe. Check out his page on Merge Records here, and an unofficial, naturally, YouTube clip below.
8- Thelonious Monk: Universal just put out the complete Riverside collection. 16 CD’s for $80 at Amazon. Redundancies and all, it’s just too much to resist. Details here.
7- Fighting with Anthem Blue Cross: Just how incompetent, obstructive and systematically infruriating is our health care system? Ladies and gentleman I submit to you, from the California Watch website – Anthem Blue Cross:
In its own way, Anthem Blue Cross became the Toyota of the news cycle yesterday. The company was credited with reinvigorating the health reform drive, stood accused of violating California law hundreds of times and was found to exhibit a prolific pattern of profit taking. It was also linked to a denied liver transplant and a plan motivated by its famous 39 percent rate hike that, well, might not work….The Los Angeles Times reported that state insurance commissioner and former gubernatorial candidate Steve Poizner accused the company of violating state law 700 times between 2006 and 2009.
I have spent countless hours on hold with Anthem, back-tracking through paperwork, and generally fighting for my families money. Yet I understand, interrupting my blogging is the least of Anthem’s moral offenses.
6- Driving: I live in (East) Los Angeles, work in San Diego, and have friends and business contacts clustered all across the west side of L.A. Have you ever tried to get to Venice Beach from Pasadena after 2pm on a weekday?
5- Turntable FM: If you are over 30, you no doubt remember gathering at a friends house and playing each other music. Chances are the M.O. was a variation on “OK, suckers…can you top THIS?” Turntable FM recreates this by layering a Social Media blanket over a full song streaming interface. God, that sounds like tech-speak gobbley gook. How about – Turntable FM allows you to go online, play songs for your friends, and is crazily addictive fun. They may or may not have a prayer of a business model, but you should check the site out now here.
4- Thinking about the New York Times: Last weekend I thought I could get some blogging in, but on Friday night I went to see Page One, the new movie about the NY Times. The movie covers a lot of territory – Wikileaks, the run up to the Iraq war, the recession, etc. — all unified by the Times’ struggle for economic stability in the age of the internet. It’s a great movie. My excitement about the film, lead to buying the book Hard News, which covers the history of the times through the prisim of the Jason Blair scandal, and reading the book took up much of Saturday. Next thing I knew it was Sunday, which, naturally, means it was time for the Sunday Times…
3- The NY Times iPad App: Back in March, I wrote about the NY Times pay-wall strategy, and theorized that the approach was just too convoluted and expensive to be successful. Now, after experiencing the total brilliance of reading the NY Times daily on my iPad, I am happy to have my Fonzie moment…
I WAS WRONG.
The digital version of the NY Times, with it’s elegant interface, and superb use of interactive elements like photo galleries, is spectacularly good. I find myself gladly paying for the full subscription, and consuming more content in both print and digital form during the course of a normal week. You can read more about how wrong I was here.
2- WFMU’s The Best Show hosted by Tom Scharpling : I came to this show late. It is tough to explain how a program this meandering, could also be this good. The best I can tell you is that if you could imagine a parallel universe where Howard Stern was 15 years younger, magnitudes hipper, and deeply immersed in indie-rock you would start to paint a picture. Add in recurring guests like John Hodgman, Patton Oswalt and Paul F. Tompkins, and a host of faux callers such as “Philly Boy Roy” (an unflinching supporter of all things Philadelphia), “Timmy von Trimble” (a genetically modified, two-inch-tall racist), and “The Gorch” (a senior citizen from York, Pennsylvania, who claims that the character of The Fonz on the TV show Happy Days was based on him) and you start to get the picture. The fact that all these callers are voiced by Superchunk drummer Jon Wuster just adds to the appeal.
1- Working at Slacker Radio: Between the natural arc of learning the intricacies of a new business, and diving into the complexities of music label licensing from the other side, working at Slacker is a time-consuming affair. I consider myself shockingly lucky to be enjoying it as much as I am so far, and can’t wait for everyone to see the things we are working on for the rest of this year. Today’s AOL/Slacker announcement is just the tip of the iceberg, read about that here.
So there you have it. My Spring of non-blogging, cataloged and perhaps a bit rationalized.
Blame the Fonz, Timmy von Trimble, Thelonious Monk, the Times, and gainful employment.
If I can tear myself away from these obsessions, then I’ll talk to you soon.
In honor of the recently announced return of MTV’s 120 Minutes, I thought a flashback was in order.
What better than “Every Word Means No” from Let’s Active — the ultimate 80’s College Rock video?:
DMI Tip: Why is this the ultimate “80’s College Rock video” — I’m glad you asked:
1- This is Mitch Easter’s band. Mitch of course produced R.EM.’s Murmur, aka as the definitive College Rock album of the 80’s.
2- The band, Let’s Active, is simultaneously under-appreciated and legendary.
3- The ‘dancing in place” two-step move that bassist Faye Hunter employed is textbook. Belinda Carlisle took this move mainstream in the video for “Our Lips Are Sealed”.
4- The college-rock pogo is also in full affect. Note, this is a slower and gentler pogo than the 1976-1978 British Punk version.
5- The fuzzy sweater vests. This look certainly swept College Radio programming offices throughout the early 80’s. Kurt Cobain took it to a whole other level when he went full-fledged Cardigan in the early 90’s.
6-The eye-makeup. Many folks think Pete Wentz took “guy-liner” straight from the 70’s Metal and Glam acts; but College Rock certainly had its eye makeup run too. Pun intended.
7-Big hair. Big guitars. Small drum kits.
8- It sends signals of innocence and prolonged adolescence. Note the puppies.
9-The song, “Every Word Means No” put the J in Jangle.
10 – Let’s Active and ‘Every Word Means No” remains to this day, completely obscure. A College Rock necessity.