Perfect Sound Forever

Tie Me In and Radiate Me

On The Newish Lifestyle Brand Patronage of Independent Music
Part II by Domenic Maltempi

There are also counter-veiling forces out there that can expose us to great music without the logo glow potentially adulterating the experience. These forces and entities can give us a forum to communicate with people that genuinely want to share with others, and have an unmediated dialogue with. What follows are a few questions put to music directors and others involved in Free Form radio stations. The questions are not necessarily about branding and independent bands and all that. It seems to me that the importance of Free Form Radio and other types of unbeholden media is increasing year by year. The role of Free Form Radio as an important counter-veiling force in general must be recognized and supported, just like independent bands.

First we spoke about this with Brian Turner, the music director of legendary free form radio station WFMU.

PSF: In what ways does a station such as WFMU (Jersey City, NJ) not only allow listeners to more directly support independent artists, but create a solidarity or community of listeners that also acts as a bulwark against being introduced to music or experiencing music in connection with buying things, or creating 'buzz' for commodities in general?

BT: We try to inform as much as possible; our playlists, comments, blog, having intelligent DJ's who are discerning rather than just mindlessly plugging whatever benefits themselves. We play a lot of independent music, and I can account for many times when artists or labels talk about a spike in interest just merely by WFMU play. I try not to direct what gets played as much as make it available and inform people around here, and compile periodic reports on what has been getting a lot of attention in the last couple weeks. We have a lot of bands who go on to later acclaim have their baby steps here, on air, with live sessions, etc. If anything, we just direct them to finding the music by playing it and putting it into context. I mean, I also identify with a lot of labels who put out music in their own curatorial realm, and often make it known that that label is a good one you can check in on for some quality stuff. We don't specifically tell people to go out and buy things, but we most certainly try to help make that happen to support the people who put out music, because we want them to continue to thrive.

PSF: Free form radio is more important than ever for those that value among other things, complete independence from the effects of media oligopoly and moneyed interests on music/art, compromised programming-- et cetera. In what ways do you think Free Form radio contributes towards helping bands and listeners free themselves from the increasing tying-in with so called life-style brands- tie-ins that might negatively impact the music on both sides of the experience?

BT: I personally don't have an issue with bands tying themselves in with lifestyle brands, but I do when the brand tries to corral and co-opt under the guise that artistic expression feeds in to identification with their products. My take on freeform is that there's a curatorial sense in the loosest possible way; the pieces are all being assembled on the table, and the curator (or DJ) is conducting/threading this material in a way that it takes listeners on a directive journey, but the endpoint is more enlightenment in an unselfish, lobby-free way.

PSF: As music director of FMU, you have attended numerous festivals and showcasing events over the years. Are stark differences evident in the way companies or 'brands' nuzzle up to these scenes and artists- their role or presence in them, as compared to, let's say the early to mid-1990's?

BT: Most definitely, I mean these days, live music can be the main bread and butter for artists, so there's a bit of clamoring to get people connected with festivals and quite a few these days are run by product-connected entities. Whether it's more than say the US Festival or something in the '80's, I dunno, but it doesn't seem to be oppressively pushing people out of the picture who just want to do cool festivals on their own. If you are talking about the Scion thing in particular, I have to say it definitely puzzles me that there's this weird blurring of commerce and art - I mean, apparently some of these bands get offered a 7" and are told by the company that certain lyrics or graphics are not kosher to Scion, which kinda bums me out. But on the other hand, someone there has the smarts to bring some great bands over that probably wouldn't have money or ability to fly half way around the world to play.

PSF: Do you detect increased consciousness by bands on the cusp of finding a larger audience-about being branded-or the need to be branded to get-by and make music? If so, do you find some willing to accept these funds and 'loose sponsorship,' enthusiastically, cynically, or indifferently, as in, it's just part of what you got to do now to make enough coin to keep going?

BT: It seems to me a lot more people are resigned to it, and the blowback for doing it doesn't get them in a lot of trouble like in the 90's. I guess people might be eager just to get out there, no matter what.

PSF: I wonder if we are dealing with a different type of blowback, and specifically a different sort of blowback compared to '90's.

PSF: If you just started a Cambodian Thrash band (2011) that incorporated elements of 1970's Swiss psychedelic spiked dirty thermos disco- would you be more apt to sign a 'deal' with the people at Keebler, Schmuckers or perhaps the people over at Free Credit

BT: I'd definitely rather see elves playing jangly guitars over that Free Credit Report guy.

PSF: I'm with you on that.

We also spoke to Andrea-Jane Cornell Music- Programming/Resources Coordinator at another notable free-form radio station, CKUT of Montreal.

PSF: Has the role of your Free Form station CKUT (90.3 Montreal, Canada) changed in ways over the last few years as a response to dramatic changes in the music industry in general (way less sales, technological shifts, more independent acts) Or have you felt a need to increase a certain type of programming, or intensify a particular focus (local music?) in order to address something lacking on commercial radio?

Cornell: Technological shifts affect the station - as the $$ involved in setting up a sustainable and solid system to store digital music is unfortunately out of our current range and won't see the light of day for another 5-7 years... The one major effect of changes in the music industry from the major labels to the home-style labels is that it's harder for the station to receive free promotional copies of releases that are made available to the station's programmers and incorporated into the station's permanent collection. This hasn't really changed our programming, I mean, the volunteer programmers at CKUT are resourceful. We are not a "college" station, we are campus/community, meaning that a large percentage of the music programmers at the station involved in the local scene in some shape or form, some of them have been making radio for over 20 years here. Their insatiable hunger for new music will not be affected by upheavals in the industry. It's free form so for the most part, programmers are free to do what they wish, so long as they adhere to the Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission broadcasting policies.

Another thing I wanted to mention is this on-going conversation about how radio is dead and no one listens to radio. Indeed, I believe we are broadcasting to a small margin of the population - but it's the margin that we are mandated to represent. I mean, sure everyone's listing to their genius playlists - but where are you going to be turned on to fucked up shit you never heard before? Isn't it way better to have some music nerd always crate-digging her latest finds with you, the good and the bad- than to put it on shuffle? Where is the sense in adventure in that? How is the quest for musical knowledge fed?

PSF: Have you seen growth in community Free Form radio in Canada, or an increasing struggle to operate the way you would like?

Cornell: Free form radio in Canada - it's hard to say what that really looks like. All of the stations operate on such different models. Many stations in Canada work with open playlists that oblige programmers to incorporate a certain amount of new releases in their programmes so that they can generate charts for the industry. I have always felt that this places undue restrictions on the programming and means that the same artists will be played over and over during one week, not that this does not happen at CKUT, but it's limited. If the same artist/album is played more than 4 times in a week, it is somewhat miraculous. There is so much diversity and free range of choice- it's the most important thing. It would be horrible if we became a station that was predictable. I think that CKUT's programming - both spoken word and music- is so free in that it is decided by the volunteer programmers themselves. The station has no right to interfere in a programmer's content choice.

PSF: Your station makes it clear in statements found on its site such as "we affirm that radio is organized resistance and a tool to be used by social movements," that it's going way beyond passively entertaining people, or providing them with feel-good do little-- quasi balanced so called 'liberal' coffee-time programming. How does this sort ethos affect music programming at the station, or its relationship with musicians and listeners in your part of the world?

Cornell: It varies, not all programs have an agenda that relates to organized resistance, it all depends on what is happening locally/nationally/globally at the moment - different programmers will reflect this in their programming. The station as a whole is pretty radical- we are the only collectively managed station in the country (no station manager calling all the shots). Every decision is made by consensus and in consultation with the volunteer representatives (who represent something like 700 volunteers). So for instance, I coordinate the music department, meaning I am responsible for maintaining the library and liaising with industry, and overseeing 72 music programs and ensuring that the hosts have what they need to make their programming. And then I also manage the station - we are suckers for overworking, but we believe in what we do. We put the means of broadcasting in to the hands of members of our community.

In terms of Music Programming working towards organized resistance, (there was) last year's Tivoli Gardens, Kingston Jamaica manhunt, when the police were hunting down Christopher Coke and his brother for drug charges in the U.S.. Police tore Tivoli gardens apart and killed over 70 community members. One off our programmers put together an audio montage for his 2 hour program that had a lot of clips of people reacting to the Tivoli gardens Massacre, and then built his musical sets around the really emotional testimonies, creating a really powerful protest broadcast. Many of our music programmers are involved in CKUT's Community news collective that produces local/national/global reports and in-depth coverage of issues pertaining to social justice, and so their background is in grass roots movements and activism seeps into their music programming. We urge programmers to think outside of the fade-in/fade-out approach: music, talk, music, one track after another, way too mechanistic and formulaic. We look at our own programming and that of other stations and highlight great ideas and ways to push the studios to their limits, to make informed choices about their musical selections and to find interesting ways of delivering an idea through music. CKUT has always been the terrible teenager that refuses to be broken- we act out, talk out of turn and deal with any consequences of broadcasting, controversial or difficult subject matter as they arise, which they don't because we have a mandate to be radical, in a way. Our license states that we have to differentiate ourselves from everyone else on the dial - we sometimes do that to the extreme-- but it is worth it. We don't want to censor ourselves from critical discussion of the social and political realities that go underreported across the dial.

I also want to point out that Montreal is one of the cheapest metropolitan cities to live in in North America- that is why there are so many artists and musicians in this small-big city and most of this community is in tune to resistance movements and perform at benefits, and are part of social justice movements. It's all part and parcel.

Also see our previous interview with WFMU's Brian Turner

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