THE VERY LONG INTERVIEW
Toronto, Canada, guitarist/composer Jamie Bonk was a contributing editor to NewAgeReporter.com in 2005. He conducted a series of interviews entitled Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series. His questions come from an artist's perspective vs. the typical interview.
A Conversation With Stephen Hill
It's as if Hearts of Space producer/host Stephen Hill has been peering into my life. Or at least how I listen to music. Over the last few years I, like millions and millions of others, have changed the way I access music. Stephen knows this. And he knows that the march of technology, and all of the changes it brings, is not slowing. His description of HOS as an "online music service provider" is an apt one and one that points to the future of, if I can still use the term, radio. Of course, technology is only part of the HOS picture. Where HOS shines is in the programming. Lots of great music, programmed by someone who loves (and understands) the music he's programming. And that's the way it should be.
Jamie: Let's jump right in — Where's radio going?
Stephen: There are a growing number of answers to that question and most of them don't concern me. So I'd like to talk about the big picture and then look at where I think radio is going for niche music producers like me.
The short answer to the bigger question is "everywhere." In general, mass media broadcast radio as we have known it for the last 100 years is over. We're at the lively corpse stage at the moment, and it's confusing for everyone, even radio professionals.
To put in historical terms, once we invented a mass audio communications medium using radio transmitters and receivers, we could start to assemble audiences for various kinds of radio programming. This reflects a basic distinction I'll come back to, between the technical delivery method and the content or programming — which are now diverging.
Because broadcast bandwidth was such a scarce and precious commodity, and interference between stations on the same or nearby frequencies was a technical problem that made the medium unusable, very early in the game we got regulation by the government and the concept that the radio airwaves were a public commons. This gave us the FCC in 1934 and the rules we've operated under for the last 70+ years. To put it in Internet language — radio, and later TV stations were regulated, monopoly content providers in a limited bandwidth universe.
The split between commercial and non-commercial radio happened in the 1960s, when the the FM band and television opened up new broadcast real estate. Congress and the regulators in their wisdom decided to allocate a fraction of these bands to non-commercial or educational content as a benefit for minority audiences which commercial broadcasters were not interested in serving.
Out of this came the Pacifica network with stations in Berkeley, New York, LA, Washington DC and Houston, community stations all over the place, and later large non-commercial networks — NPR for radio and PBS for television. The commercial broadcasters concentrated in the mass market formats and maximizing their advertising revenues. The whole system was based on scarcity: there was only so much bandwidth on AM and FM and only 24 hours in a day, so the amount of programming 'inventory' that could be carried was very limited.
The other big reality of the broadcast era that's ending is formats. In the U.S., the concept of 'appointment listening' to scheduled shows was replaced after World War II by a generic kind of programming that made it unimportant when you tuned in and made it easy to predict what you were going to hear on a station. Within these formats there could be regular appearances by DJs or talk show hosts, and programming in blocks, which was called 'dayparting.' You knew that you were going to hear news and talk during drivetime and certain music shows in the evening.
Formatting completely took over commercial radio years ago, while public broadcasting maintained the old scheduled program system for a long time. However, over the last 10 years, an increasing number of public radio stations have gone to the 'News and Information' format, or to all music formats, like classical, jazz, folk, or regional music like Bluegrass or New Orleans jazz. Basically, as (former) XM Program Director Lee Abrams says, formatting has been "a fact of life" in the radio business for generations.
All that has been blown away by new technologies that have appeared in the last 10 years. First the Internet, and then satellite radio from XM and Sirius. What these new technologies represent is an expansion of the amount of broadcast bandwidth and distribution 'channels' available to move a radio program from a station or producer to the public. It's revolutionary, and we are nowhere near done with it.
Real Networks introduced streaming audio around 1995. Before that you had to download audio over slow connections and it was a geeky, tedious process. Once you had a digital audio file, you needed special software to play it. Real made listening to music and radio over the Internet much more user-friendly, to the point that almost everyone has now used Real Player or Windows Media Player or listened to radio directly through their web browser.
The key difference is the delivery method: instead of moving a program over the scarce public airwaves, it moves over the Internet, where the available bandwidth is a limited only by hardware. When you need more you just build it, and we have. The Internet 'bubble' of the late 90s resulted in a huge increase in transmission capacity for all kinds of digital media, including radio programming.
On the satellite side, XM and Sirius each bought one billion dollar licenses to use a chunk of microwave spectrum to create multichannel radio services similar to cable TV systems. There are over 130 radio channels available on each of them, and new home and car receivers that allow you to navigate around it.
Satellite solved the localization problem that ordinary radio never completely overcame with networks. With XM and Sirius, everything they offer is available all over the U.S., much of Canada, Hawaii etc. It's a real boon for people who travel constantly and for anyone who lives in rural America. Suddenly they had a lot more choice for $12.95 a month.
But the real deal is online. While satellite radio delivers an useful expansion of broadcast capacity, it's trivial compared to the infinite number of real time channels, archives, discrete programs, and interactive services that can, are, and will be supported on the Internet.
Not only that: online offers a true revolution, which is 'on demand' access. Satellite radio and broadcast radio cannot do this. They can only fake it partially by allowing users to record a few hours of broadcast shows and play them back later. With on demand you listen or watch what you want, when you want. No more schedules. And more important — no more being limited to a few dozen of the most popular shows and formats.
So the Internet demolishes every one of the limitations of time, space, formats, and bandwidth we had to live with in 20th century radio and television. This is the revolution we are living through right now.
To come back to your question: radio programming — creating original programs or adding value to raw material like music by selecting, mixing, sequencing, commenting and hosting — will be more valuable than ever. There will be infinitely more of it available and it will be arriving from space, over DSL and cable, from wireless data and the cell phone networks — maybe even over the power lines. It will come to your computer, your (new) digital radio and television, your home network, your laptop, your portable media player, PDA and cell phone. And you will listen to it or view it on your own schedule.
At the same time, there is an effort to make regular broadcast radio digital, which could mean a modest service expansion there with several audio channels on each station. Finally, we have so-called 'smart radios,' which use the spectrum much more efficiently and will allow a lot more capacity over the air in the future.
That's where 'radio' is going.
It doesn't mean that broadcast radio is going to die, but it will have to change substantially to respond to all the new competition. For music producers like me, though, it's like heaven arrived early. Niches like our contemplative/ambient music program were always a tough fit in the world of mass audience, formatted broadcasting — even in public radio. Over the last four years we've redefined ourselves as an 'Internet Music Service provider' with our Hearts of Space Archive service. I couldn't be more excited about it if God and all his angels paid us to play at our launch party!
Jamie: So what does all this mean for music?
Stephen: Well, music is not technology, but technology helps make music possible. And right now there are many ways that changing technology is changing music.
The old physical product media system is crumbling and causing stress and heartache for those who are unwilling to change with the times, but I'd make the general statement that it has never been easier for the average artist to make, promote and distribute the music they are passionate about. You can acquire what you need to do it easily, and no one will stop you from doing exactly what you have in mind.
In the last 20 years, most of the barriers to entry have been abolished insofar as access to music education, instruments and tools for making recordings are concerned. What's happening now is the beginning of what is being called the 'hyperdistribution' era in music and every other kind of media. (A good book I recommend that evaluates the changes and highlights the new opportunities is The Future of Music by Dave Kusek and Gerd Leonhard.)
In the music business, the artist is really the brand. Record labels are rarely noticed by consumers. The exceptions, like Atlantic in the 60's, Warner in the 70's, ECM and Windham Hill in the 80s, and perhaps 4AD and Def Jam in the 90s — only prove the rule.
In the physical media era that's now ending, the key problem for every musician and record label was distribution. For labels, getting the LP or CD onto the retail shelf was the hard, expensive work. Artists concentrated on getting signed to the major labels because they had the best distribution and could afford the most effective marketing. The alternative was independent labels and specialty distribution — a poor substitute for the wide angle distribution and expensive marketing that characterized the mass market era of popular music.
Low selling niche music ultimately became the exclusive concern of the independents, who evolved their own strategies for staying alive and fighting for a place in a system that was really set up for hit records and big selling artists. Even ten years ago, an artist without a label had no distribution and was locked out of the retail system and effectively invisible except for live performances.
That's all changed now. In the last decade while CD manufacturing prices were tumbling to commodity levels, we got artist, genre and venue web sites, online ticketing, Internet-powered CD fulfillment via Amazon, CD Baby and others, and direct digital delivery over broadband — originally via MP3.com, Napster and eMusic, and more recently by iTunes, Rhapsody, MusicMatch, Napster 2.0 and others.
After the 1970s revolution in affordable recording hardware gave us the home studio, virtually anyone could make an album and could have some level of worldwide visibility and distribution online. And though distribution and fulfillment of physical goods is still consolidated in a fairly small number of companies, it has become much more efficient and comprehensive, allowing full catalog delivery almost anywhere in the world in a week or so. I ordered an old Coldplay CD from Amazon recently, and it arrived in 6 days from Argentina!
With fully digital media, the theoretical gains in distribution efficiency are such that the cost of online delivery ultimately will approach zero. The P2P networks like Kazaa, Limewire and BitTorrent are an early, illegal example of this. This is the hyperdistribution era I mentioned — it's a revolution in access to books, music, film and video, games and software, periodicals, journals, archives and databases. Anything that can be digitized has already been partially or completely transformed — and we're just getting started.
For entertainment media, by the time Amazon opened their platform to input from niche labels and individual artists with the Amazon 'Advantage' consignment program, the game had changed for good. (Smaller online retailers like CD Baby offer the same kind of service.) We still have hits, but we also have 'the long tail' that Chris Anderson described in a now famous WIRED article in 2004. Basically, digital delivery and online fulfillment make niche media profitable at last, which changes everything about the media business for the smaller players and has even become a significant part of the business for larger ones.
With distribution finally out of the way, the key issue becomes promotion and marketing. Since recording, manufacturing and electronically distributing music is now open to all, the problem is visibility: how do I know you exist? Right after that is relevance: once I know about you, why should I care?
It's confusing because marketing and promotion mean vastly different things depending on where you are in the sales curve. Not much has changed for the big-selling artists, who still account for the spike at the head of the long tail and command the billboards, music videos, television appearances and other forms of blue-chip promotion. But the home studio revolution and cheap CD manufacturing added hundreds of thousands of artists and album titles to the long tail itself. For them, it's a new world with new rules.
In the last few years many new tools and strategies for solving the problem of niche genre and independent artist marketing and promotion have emerged. These include the obvious ones like artist web sites, bulk email, independent promotion and marketing service companies, digital agencies like IODA and IRIS, comprehensive online service sites like reverbnation.com with their own user communities, genre-specific music sites, and fan networks. New ideas include incentive programs and 'super-distribution' schemes like Weedshare (Ed: R.I.P), plus a growing array of co-marketing programs that deliver music to non-traditional venues like Starbucks, gas stations and grocery stores.
It all means that there is more music than ever. More being made; more being streamed, downloaded, copied and traded; more being sold and licensed, and more venues for live performances. Just as one example, consider all the DJ networks, dance parties and events that happen every night of the week in every major city. There must be close to ten thousand of these every year in the Bay area alone.
One of the biggest problems I see is that artists are misinformed about how to establish themselves and build a successful career. There is just a lot of mythology and bad information being shared among musicians, and the mainstream media doesn't help when it focuses almost exclusively on the top tier artists and their (generally) excessive lifestyles. I'm sorry, but what's happening to Puff Daddy and Christina Aguilera is totally irrelevant to 99.9% of musicians.
As a result, we have hundreds of thousands of musicians with the infamous 'day job' making wholly or partially ineffective efforts to support themselves doing music. Most of them give up when they start a family and reduce music to a hobby or something they do just for personal enjoyment. That's not necessarily a bad thing!
The other side of the coin is that with more music being made there is more competition than ever, so it takes real dedication and extended, consistent work to overcome the inertia and get something going. If lightning doesn't strike early in your career, then it becomes a game for patient, determined people with a long term commitment.
My work as an online music service provider is just one of the new ways that music — in our case mostly ambient instrumental music — moves from artists and specialty labels to the public. As a radio producer, I add value to the raw output of the market by selection, editing, compiling and commenting on the best music in my area.
Since 2001 we've been building an online vehicle to deliver it to ordinary listeners who like our approach and programming. Our service helps focus attention on the artists we believe in, routes listeners to their web sites and pays performance royalties to the collection agencies, which provides them with another income stream from their recordings. Later this year we will start selling downloads as well. For this, we'll be paying artists and labels directly, just like Amazon and other online retailers. This is the medium I always needed for what Hearts of Space does. I just had to wait 28 years for it.
Jamie: Only 28 years? Doesn't seem that bad : ) Okay, so here's the self-interested musician question: If you were an indie/boutique label musician looking not just for industry presence, but actual sales/income, how would you use all of the emerging technologies to your advantage?
Stephen: That's the hard question — but as a musician you have to ask a few other hard questions first, or you risk wasting a lot of time and energy pushing rocks uphill.
First and most important: What kind of music are you making and why?
And then: What level of income do you consider 'success'?
These questions put everything else in perspective and establish a set of boundaries within which you will have to operate.
After watching and working with indie artists for over 30 years, it seems to me that the vast majority of them decide what kind of music they will make without giving much thought to the business implications. Most often it's a matter of feel or intution that takes you in a musical direction that fits your personality, your skills and your artistic goals, which is the way it should be.
But obviously, if we are talking about sales and income, what you choose matters a lot. You can be the best bass marimba or ocarina player on the planet and your opportunities will still be very limited in today's environment. The same goes for many kinds of electronic music, jazz, world and experimental music. And even with the more obviously popular genres, there are limitations tied to geography, competition, available venues for performances and other factors you can't control.
For example, if you live in LA, New York, Nashville or even Chicago, your opportunities for getting session or scoring work are remarkably better than if you live in Portland, Toledo or New Haven. On the other hand, if you are making any kind of 'regional' music like New Orleans or Texas derivatives, you need to be there. So location matters a lot too. In deciding what you have to do to make a living from your music, are you prepared to move to the place where your chances are the best? (That said, one of the best musicians I know lives in Toledo and he does just fine!)
I should also say that there is another group of musicians who approach the whole problem from the opposite perspective — making a living. They adapt to the conditions in their environment, find places to play and create material that fits those opportunities. When they record or produce, they do it with an eye to the sales they know are possible with the audiences or clients with whom they are in direct contact. These artists have a better chance to earn a living, but the downside of adapting to the marketplace is that they rarely create anything original and are ultimately limited by that. Originality is a key differentiator in a world of abundant choices. On the other hand, you can be original and still be doing something that the audience just doesn't like.
Then there's the question of how much is enough? Do you want a subsistence living or do you want more comfort, more choice and the ability to support a family? Or do you want fame and fortune? I recall an interview with Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins who said flatly "We always wanted to be huge." Well, if you want to be huge, that desire alone will organize most of your other choices. On the other hand, if you don't think big enough, that will handicap you as well.
We've only had recordings for about 100 years, and it's only been possible to create your own recordings and market them independently for 30-40 years. Before that, virtually all professional musicians were full time performers. So making a living from selling recordings is really the exception historically.
After the home studio revolution in the 1970s, a lot more artists tried the composer/recording route, and the new age category became a dumping ground for thousands of these releases. And probably 99% of them ultimately failed, because recordings by themselves are rarely enough to provide any artist with a consistent income. Of course there have been a few exceptions, but as a musician do you really want to work against 99:1 odds? To reduce the odds you need to create multiple income streams from your music activities and set them all in motion at once.
To come back to your question — the emerging technologies I mentioned earlier are just one piece of the whole music creation/outreach/promotion/marketing challenge.
IF you are satisfied that the music you are creating has the potential to attract enough people for you to make a living (sometimes you can't answer that question definitively, but it has to be theoretically possible) or IF you live in a city where you can get other kinds of session, scoring or performance work as a musician to make a living, and IF your desires for success are reasonable and possible to achieve.... then you can start to learn about using these tools and techniques to help solve the challenges you are up against.
For the typical indie performer/recording artist, I think you have to have a long term view of your career and you have to get into a consistent working pattern that results in a regular flow of new music, new recordings, releases and performances. Five years between releases really isn't going to cut it unless each one is a mind blowing masterpiece. Things change too fast, and people will be too distracted by new input to remember you.
In the digital network era, those who do appealing, original music and are the most productive will definitely have the best opportunity to maximize their income. Each copyright you create is a potential income stream. Think of them like little sailboats you launch into the big digital distribution lake, each with its own destiny and trajectory. Today you can launch some of them online with Creative Commons licenses as free advertising for your work.
On the other hand, for most musicians, getting really good at live performances will be more important than ever; right behind that are meaningful contacts and collaborations with other musicians, visual designers and technologists. Each one of these helps you to build a pyramid of support and helps to fill in gaps in your own set of skills and talents.
The center of each musician's universe is their own web site. You absolutely must have one, and ideally it should be as personal an expression of who you are and what inspires your music as you can possibly create. Find a web designer to work with and collaborate with them to create a memorable site. Make sure you can update it yourself and keep it fresh. A simple blog with news and upcoming events will handle this nicely and requires no web skills other than typing and uploading image files. Use Typepad or WordPress or Blogger or any other the other blogging platforms, set it up and update it religiously. If it's not important to you to tell your own story, why should anyone care?
Think about ways to build a long term relationship with your audience. Every person you contact should have a two way path to communicate with you and you with them. Mailing lists, online forums, blogs (update: Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, etc.) or any way you can get into the communications flow is good. Regular email about new content on the web site, or establishing RSS feeds with new releases enclosed as personal podcasts is also a good method to promote yourself.
That's all in the outreach category. An even bigger challenge in the hyperdistribution era is promotion and marketing of your recordings. I wish I could say there was some easy solution for this but it's just the sum total of a lot of steady, incremental work — sending out emails every day, looking for targets to send sample CDs and press kits, finding and contacting the radio and online programmers who are really interested in your material and will work with it, setting up reciprocal relationships between your site and your online programmers/partners/affinity group sites and fans. It ain't glamorous, but one or two organized, determined people can do it. After a while it all adds up to more attention and more traffic, more tickets and more sales — as long as you really are delivering the goods in your albums and performances.
You have internalize the realization that while lightning does NOT strike 99.9% of musicians, if you are doing something you are convinced is worthwhile, you can slowly, steadily build up a following and a reputation. This is the 'stick to your knitting' theory, or 'stick to your guns' if you prefer. If you are not going for world domination like Billy Corgan, it makes a lot more sense, and you wind up with a lot more confidence and control over your destiny when you operate this way. And even if it doesn't ultimately result in the level of financial success you would prefer, you have the priceless satisfaction of knowing that you did it right, and you did the best you possibly could.
Jamie: Such a good point! From my perspective, that's the best reason to make music — because you love it. Of course, we all have to make a living (reality can, and often does, rear its ugly head!), but the best records and performances I've ever heard were done for the music first and foremost. So we've talked about radio, music and musicians. Let's complete the circle — How will all of the changes we've been talking about affect the listener and how she/he listens to music?
Stephen: That question is the subject of an enormous amount of interest and innovation right now. Clearly we've entered another 'disruptive' period driven by advances in the technologies of media delivery. Two hundred years ago things were a lot simpler: we had live music and that was it. Then we got printed sheet music, then piano rolls, then the gramophone, then radio and all the rest. Each advance in reproduction and distribution added another layer to the ways that music moves from artist to listener. (Interestingly, the old ones continue, they just get move over and get smaller when a new one arrives.)
The thing that makes it confusing is that all the new technologies, like broadband, iPods, cellular data networks and the rest will be taking their place as the newest layers of this many-layered system. So as I mentioned earlier, the one thing you can say for sure is that there will be more ways for more music to reach more people than ever.
One 'meme' or contagious idea for this has been the dream of the 'celestial jukebox' — a machine that can deliver any musical work to anyone on-demand. Ultimately, the Internet can do do this, but first we have to conquer both time and space.
As far as time is concerned, it's pretty clear that regardless of how it happens technically, any method that offers immediate on-demand access to the music you want at any particular time will be embraced by listeners. For the generation of kids now growing up digital, it's already their baseline experience.
The other aspect of access is space — the ability to play what you want anywhere — which really means portability. The huge success of the iPod is because it offers both on-demand access and portability in a small, user-friendly package. But the iPod is only the tail end of whole system of licensing music, ingesting it into an organized service (the iTunes Music Store), shopping for it online, then downloading it to your main computer before it is finally made portable at the end of the process.
We could actually shortcut all that by simply transmitting the music direct to an iPod, a PDA or a cell phone with a wireless Internet connection. In the next year or two you'll see a number of services like Rhapsody and Napster 2.0 doing this in the U.S. as the cellular phone carriers roll out their new data networks.
The big issue for listeners is "do you want to own your music, or just rent it?" "Do you need 100% flexible access anytime/anywhere on earth, or can you be happy just getting it at home and in your car, where 90% of music listening happens for most people?" This comes down to a choice between music as a product and music as a service.
These issues aren't necessarily black and white — there are and will be lots of variations. For example, our own online music service works by streaming, so if you subscribe to the Hearts of Space Archive today, you can only get it where you have a working Internet connection. That's a limitation, but we still have thousands of very happy users listening at home, at work, and even while traveling, when they can find an Internet connection. Today that means millions of hotel rooms, Internet cafes, libraries and offices. So it's not a serious limitation unless you are always on the move.
The other technology I should probably mention is surround sound, because it has a direct impact on the music listening experience, unlike the others I've mentioned which only increase access or production power. I work with ambient and space music and I believe that surround is the destiny of ambient. It's the natural medium for this kind of music, and it increases the degree of involvement with any kind of music.
Surround has been around in one form or another since the 1970's. Aside from Dolby Surround in movie theaters, for most of that time it's been a medium for enthusiasts only. Two things are changing that. First, the mass marketing of home theaters is finally resulting the installation of surround systems in the living room. It's mostly used for movies and TV shows, but today any artist that wants to release a DVD with surround audio finally has a way to do it.
That alone won't be enough to make a big difference, but newer digital music formats like Windows Media and AAC (which Apple uses for iTunes) also allow you to release music in multichannel surround as a single digital file. The next big step in the evolution of home entertainment will give us the home network and the so-called 'home media server' — a digital box connected to the Internet on one end and your main TV and surround system (eventually all the other TVs and speakers in the house). It will be wireless, which will take most of the pain out of setting things up.
I'm a tech buff, so I think all this stuff is cool, but I recognize that many, perhaps most, music fans find it confusing and alienating. It has to get a lot easier for average folks just like the iPod did for digital downloads. When that happens, you'll see it really take off.
Jamie: I think it's not only the technology that some music fans find confusing and alienating, but also the search for new music. Unlimited choice can be overwhelming. Personally, I feel the need for a filter (human or otherwise) becomes more important as the amount of available music increases. You've addressed this challenge by listing on your website all of the Hearts of Space shows by genre and by allowing listeners to search for specific artists/records. For someone who would like to subscribe to Hearts of Space, what else can they expect from the website and what can they look forward to in the future?
Stephen: For the last 40 years, radio was the main engine for music discovery. During the 1970's we had a kind of golden age of music radio with 'free form' FM stations and really passionate, knowledgeable DJs who were given carte blanche to make their own playlists and put a personal stamp on their shows. Today, commercial radio is about as far from that as imaginable in the era of consolidated, centrally programmed corporate radio — a negative trend for which Clear Channel Inc. is the demon poster child.
Non-commercial radio tried to take up some of the slack with certain niche formats like classical, jazz, blues, folk and new age. It helped, but for various reasons, it was an incomplete and ultimately unsatisfactory solution. As I mentioned earlier, many public radio stations are now abandoning their music formats for all news and information, which reliably gets them larger audiences and more financial support.
That has more or less left the Internet as the default medium for finding new music, which is great because it can do a lot better job. Internet music companies call this the 'music discovery' process. One of the big reasons for the huge success of the original Napster (aside from free music!) was that it was easy for friends to recommend music via email, and then you could go and download a song in a few minutes and 'discover' it. For music fans, that was a huge improvement over asking a friend for a cassette copy or calling a radio station and begging them to play something, which might happen two days later or not at all.
Legal music streaming and downloading services like Rhapsody and later Apple's iTunes have come online in the last few years, and now you can easily play 30 second samples of almost every commercially released album. It's still amazing to me how quickly you can decide whether you are interested in a genre, artist or album from hearing a few seconds of it.
In addition, Amazon offered low quality streaming samples of many of the albums it sold, and began a trend toward automatically displaying 'personalized' recommendations to customers based on the behavior of other buyers. This led to the now-familiar "Customers who bought [A] also bought [B, C, and D]."
Automatic recommendations are done by computer algorithms. Amazon's success with this led to a lot of recent work on 'recommendation engines' for all kinds of selection decisions when buyers are confronted with too much choice. Another online development has been leveraging the 'hive effect' through so-called 'social networks,' where groups of people either consciously collaborate to accomplish something, or allow their actions and choices to be tracked and processed by the software that runs the site. Media sites like flickr.com have adopted a strategy of user-'tagging' or adding descriptive keywords to content (in their case, photos) so you can very easily see what your peers consider interesting and valuable. You can search the tags and even subscribe to them. Essentially, it's a way of optimizing 'word of mouth' promotion without the mouth.
The result of all this work will be much more sophisticated and granular services that understand who you are and what you tend to like, and can show you both similar items and media that other users whose taste overlaps yours have read, watched, listened to, purchased, downloaded or recommended.
All that helps the music discovery process, but it does not mean that the role of the expert, the editor or the critic will be any less valuable in the future. In fact, many think that they will become more valuable, since as we've said, there will be a lot more music accessible to the average person and we will need expert guidance. It all comes down to saving people time, reducing friction and connecting them to musical and artistic experiences that are really meaningful to them.
That's essentially what we've been doing with Hearts of Space for the last 30 years — connecting people to a particular dimension of musical experience in a compact format called a program. That worked fine during the mass market radio era now ending, but in the Internet era, you have to do more.
Selecting, editing and presenting music adds value by itself, but in an era of radically improved access to music you have to offer a much more comprehensive service, which is why we created the HOS Archive. Not only can you access every program we've ever done, we are now building a carefully selected archive of albums by our core artists, which will ultimately be the biggest part of the site. Right now it's all streaming, but at some point we may add downloads of the albums (or individual tracks) as well.
The search and category selection features you see today on our site are simply tools for navigating the musical content we offer. We recently added some basic personalization features as well — we now allow registered users to save their favorite programs, albums, and tracks on a personal page, and we allow subscribers to queue up multiple programs and play them in sequence. (Update: We now support unlimited personal playlists as well as personal favorites.)
As for the future, the biggest improvement will be the ability to make our music portable. I mentioned that we'll be offering downloads of material in the ALBUMS section of the site. To do this legally we have to negotiate special licenses with each of those artists and record labels, so we'll be adding material slowly and steadily over the next few years. At some point the licensing roadblocks will become easier and we will be able to offer downloads of our radio programs as well — probably with and without the voiceovers for listeners who want to use them as continuous background music. And we will have a rich network of links to artist, label and review sites that fall within our area of musical interest.
Essentially, we are turning into a web-based software developer. We'll build and provide anything that saves time and facilitates a deeper, more efficient and more satisfying relationship with our music. This is how we turn music from a product into a service.
Jamie: You created HOS in 1973 and a lot has changed since then. As you've pointed out, technology has given us numerous possibilities — there has never been a greater number of ways to reach a listener. And there has never been more music for a listener to experience. Of course, nothing comes without a cost. All of those options bring added challenges — more tech headaches, more music to sift through and now with HOS planning to offer downloads, legal/business concerns. We talked a lot in this conversation about HOS, technology, the listener and the music business in general, but to focus on you personally, how has your own relationship to music changed since the first HOS program back in 1973?
Stephen: I was an active music fan and record buyer from the age of 16, but I really got into it during the late 60s. In that era the mainstream discovered marijuana and music was leading the culture. After I moved to San Francisco in 1970 I combined that interest with my childhood interest in radio and started working at a public station, which led me to start a local show on KPFA in Berkeley in 1973.
At that time my personal goal was simply to have some fun on the air and share the fascinating new music I was discovering with others. My approach was completely intuitive — I was a listener with no formal education in music.
With the hindsight I have now, I can say I did not fully understand what was attracting me in the electronic and contemplative music I was programming. I would characterize it as a period of musical and personal discovery; I went through it on the air, but every active listener does the same when they search for music that appeals to them and collect it for their own use.
In 1980 my partner Anna Turner and I decided to get more serious about expanding the program and we did several things. We started a mail order business to sell the albums we were playing; we began to lay the groundwork for national syndication; and we wrote a kind of catalog/book (now out of print) called The Hearts of Space Guide to Cosmic, Transcendent and Innerspace Music.
At this point I had digested Peter Michael Hamel's book Through Music to the Self and I was trying to understand the music I was working with more deeply. So from this point on, my relationship to the music was more conscious than intuitive. I discovered that the contemplative sound experience is a very, very old thing — thousands of years — and what was attracting me was more related to that tradition than the technology of audio or electronic music.
After we launched the national program in 1983, I had to do a lot of writing: scripts, reviews, promotional material, catalogs. The next year we started Hearts of Space records, and I became an A&R person who made considered decisions about the music and the artists we were releasing. So at this point my relationship to the music became professional — this was how I was making a living.
Professional judgments about music are complicated by all kinds of non-musical factors. At that point I was trying to reconcile business issues with the intuitive and conscious understanding of music I gained in the previous ten years. We had to make a few compromises along the way, but in general I'm very proud of the quality of the 140+ albums we released on the Hearts of Space labels. We sold over 3 million records in 17 years, which was an excellent performance for an independent label. My wife Leyla is responsible for most of that. She is a very talented manager and business person and she ran the company day to day so I could concentrate on the creative side of things.
Despite our success, by 2000 things were getting very difficult for record companies our size, and ultimately we sold the label to a larger company in 2001. Luckily we found Jon Birge of Valley Entertainment, who recognized what we had accomplished and has kept the HOS Records catalog together and available.
Letting go of the label and its demands allowed me to really think about what was happening to music in the wake of the Internet and respond to it positively. I found I was in a very good position: I had an established brand, a national audience, a little money to work with and was comfortable diving in to new and untested technologies. I was in the Bay area, where most of online music was developing.
I took it as a challenge to create something that fulfilled my longtime musical mission on a new level, using the new digital tools and techniques online to create an Internet music service. All this has deepened my relationship to the music that's important to me. I can watch the bigger music industry going through a very difficult period, but for the most part it hasn't affected me. I've been empowered by the new distribution technologies online. It's incredibly gratifying to have a vehicle that can deliver all the music we've discovered and programmed since 1983. We are the kind of niche media service that happens to be well-supported by the Internet, and I'm confident that as online music matures, the service we are creating will only get better.
So I'm glad I made the decision in 1973 to work only on music I liked, because it has allowed me to have a long career and a great deal of satisfaction from doing something I really care about. And I honestly think this thing is just getting to the place it should have been all along.
Jamie: I have to agree with you — the next five to ten years are going to be particularly exciting, interesting and ultimately fulfilling for artists, listeners and programmers. Can't wait to see what comes next! Stephen, thanks for taking the time to do this conversation — it's truly been great getting to know more about you and HOS!
Ghost Head Nebula (NASA)
|The 2nd Decade
an interview with Stephen Hill in 1993
|"The other big reality of the broadcast era that's ending is formats."|
|"...the Internet demolishes every one of the limitations of time, space, formats, and bandwidth we had to live with in 20th century radio and television."|
|"Over the last four years we have redefined ourselves as an 'Internet Music Service provider' with our Hearts of Space Archive service."|
|"In the music business, the artist is really the brand."|
|"With fully digital media, the theoretical gains in distribution efficiency are such that the cost of online delivery ultimately will approach zero."|
|"One of the biggest problems I see is that artists are misinformed about how to establish themselves and build a successful career."|
|"...it seems to me that the vast majority of indie artists decide what kind of music they will make without giving much thought to the business implications."|
|"Originality is a key differentiator in a world of abundant choices."|
|"...for most musicians, getting really good at live performances will be more important than ever..."|
|"...while lightning does NOT strike 99.9% of musicians, if you are doing something you are convinced is worthwhile, you can slowly, steadily build up a following and a reputation."|
|"...the one thing you can say for sure is that there will be more ways for more music to reach more people than ever."|
|"... I believe that surround is the destiny of ambient."|
|"It all comes down to saving people time, reducing friction and connecting them to musical and artistic experiences that are really meaningful to them."|
|"I discovered that the contemplative sound experience is a very, very old thing..."|
|"I can watch the bigger music industry going through a very difficult period, but for the most part it hasn't affected me."|