Local Rhythms – Internet Radio Update

Even though Congress was mostly busy saving the economy last week, they did find time to pass the Webcaster Settlement Act of 2008.

President Bush is expected to sign the bill, which grants a stay of execution to the burgeoning Internet radio business.

Readers of this column know that, a little over a year ago, the government-run Copyright Royalty Board made a decision that threatened to put most webcasters out of business.  The influential Broadcast Law Blog called it “disconnected from the realities of Internet radio.”

The ruling left no wiggle room, and after months of battling for a fairer deal, companies like Pandora were ready to pull the plug.

With the patient so close to flatlining, Congress finally acted.

“There may now be a light at the end of the tunnel in the fight over Internet radio royalties,”
Representative Jay Inslee, a Washington Democrat, said last Sunday.

The new law didn’t set reasonable rates; it simply makes it easier for the two sides – copyright holders and webcasters – to hammer out legally binding agreements of their own.

Whether things get better is, no pun intended, still up in the air.

Writing for Broadcast Law Blog, attorney David Oxenford said the WSA “makes it easy for settlements to go into effect – now we need to see if the hard part – actually entering into those settlements – will occur.”

Companies like Pandora and Last.fm have until next February 15 to sit down with Sound Exchange. Only a cockeyed optimist would count on smooth sailing when that happens.  The history isn’t good.

Sound Exchange is the RIAA-created performance rights organization in charge of collecting royalties. Over the course of this debate, they’ve dismissed the promotional value of webcasting and unblinkingly demanded payments 7 times those of terrestrial radio.  They seem hell bent on eating their seed corn.

According to Pandora CEO Tim Westergren, 70 percent of people who listen to his service on the hugely popular iPhones are doing so for the first time.

“It’s changed the perception that people can listen to music on the phone,” Westergren said in a conference call Monday.

Greed and ignorance could derail this progress.

These missed opportunities hurt everyone.   The new law only buys time until February.  Two much more substantial (and very different) Congressional bills are currently stalled, as everyone waits for the election on November 4.

But at least it’s a step in the right direction.

What’s ahead in entertainment?

Thursday: Chimu Inka, Gusanoz – These Peruvian cultural ambassadors have performed all over the region recently.  They have just a few more shows before heading home, including a stop at the Warner Fall Festival this weekend, and Woodstock High School on Monday.  Their name comes from performer (and Chimu Inka Musical Director) Guillermo Seminario’s pre-Incan ancestors, who were conquered by the Incas.  Seems appropriate for Columbus Day weekend.

Friday:  Moondance, Downtown Windsor – “A whimsical celebration of the moon and its magic” featuring fire-eaters, jugglers, balloon artists and more, celebrates its ninth year.  Of course, there’s music, with Juke Joynt and Vermont bluesman Chris Kleeman.  The forecast at press time was for a perfect autumn night.  Since much of this event happens outdoors, that’s a very good thing.  Circus Smirkus and a dance troupe will also add to the fun.

Saturday: Springfield Apple Festival, Riverside Middle School – This two-day even marks fall’s arrival in my mind.  I tend to welcome out of town guests a lot this time of year (who doesn’t?), and they’re always asking about apple picking and apple cider.  If I take them to this annual Springfield festival, now in its’ 26th year, they’re sure to get their fill.  Great music too, including singer-songwriter Josh “Cherries Jubilee” Maiocco and Alli Lubin.

Sunday: Lindsey Buckingham, Lebanon Opera House – The brains behind Fleetwod Mac has a fantastic new solo album, “Gift of Screws,” and his live shows are stellar.  Never content to stay in one artistic place for long, Buckingham can be challenging.  But this time around, there’s plenty of Mac elements at play on the new disc, which should translate well to the stage.  It’s quite a “get” for Lebanon, really.

Monday: Bryan Greenberg, Iron Horse – The star of the recently cancelled “October Road” television show hits the road with his guitar and a smile.  I have to say, his music sounds pretty good in a John Mayer kind of way.  I wasn’t crazy about the show.  Greenberg just finished making a movie in Boston, “Bride Wars,” with Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway.

Wednesday: Fred Haas & Sabrina Brown, Elixir – A dinner show and jam session with the piano playing, sax blowing Haas and his wife, with an early (6:30) start.  Each week a different artist’s oeuvre is explored – could be Ellington, Porter, Holliday, who knows?  I can tell you that the New York City vibe is spot-on, and their French Fries (secret ingredient: sugar) are my all-time favorite.

Radio Your Way

pandoracrop.jpgFrom the Thursday, September 7 2006 Claremont Ealgle Times:

iPod, YouTube, MySpace – personal possessive adjectives are all over the Internet these days. To find the “new tastemakers,” said the New York Times recently, “music consumers are increasingly turning away from the traditional gatekeepers and looking instead to one another — to fellow fans, even those they’ve never met.”

Online stores like Amazon have long hinted at this approach’s potential; iTunes, Napster and Rhapsody also recommend similar artists to song buyers. Rhapsody has taken it a step further with Artist Radio – click on “James Taylor Radio,” for example, and you’ll hear a steady stream of JT interspersed with Jim Croce, Carole King and maybe something you’ve never heard before.

But the real revolution is in the rapidly evolving world of “community based radio” – not local outlets like WOOL-FM, but virtual stations formed from the shared musical DNA of a world of computer users. Sometimes, the listener is the DJ, sending their actual record collections – or, more accurately, digital versions of them – across the ether.

What follows is a look at three leaders in the field. Each is a free service, requiring only a broadband connection and a PC. Two, Pandora and last.fm, are Mac compatible.

Last.fm

Last.fm calls itself part of a “social music revolution” – and in another nod to the immensely popular website MySpace, signing up automatically creates a personal home page. Users employ keywords, called tags, to build their radio stations. For example, presenting the tags “slacker,” folk rock” and “psychedelic folk” produced an eclectic mix of neo-Celtic paired with Danish post-rockers Foetus. Band names can also be used; the combination of the mainstream “Led Zeppelin,” “Beatles” and “Rolling Stones” delivered U2 and Eric Clapton songs in short order.

The community aspect is fostered through user groups, blog-like “journals” and “friends” with similar interests. Type in the name of your favorite band, and their multi-tabbed home page will pop up. Clicking on the “fans” tab will locate users who also like the band, and drilling down will produce more user details, including their most-listened to songs, group memberships and journal entries.

Users build personal preferences by selecting a “love” or “ban” icon as each streamed song is played. The process, called “audioscrobbling,” refines an ever-maturing musical profile, and matches it to others. All of the music played through the Last.fm player can be purchased with a click, though oddly only in compact disc format – there are no links to iTunes or other digital music stores.

Rating: Ease of use – 3.5, Accuracy – 3, Overall – 3

Mercora

Using a loophole in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Silicon Valley-based Mercora allows users to hear music collections from all over the world, and webcast their CD collections as well. Every member is a de factor peer-to-peer (P2P) DJ looking to build an audience.

Mercora is Windows-only (a Mac version is in the works), and runs in a browser, but a standalone application is required to build playlists for webcasting. It’s a “network of networks,” each adhering to the copyright laws of different countries, and users must click through a complex legal agreement before they start the program.

Their “user contributed network” is a community in the strictest sense of the word. There’s a link to the top 100 DJs on their hard to manage home page (it’s not auto-generated like last.fm, and the editing options are hidden). Each DJ Icon indicates the member’s online (webcasting) status. Clicking on the DJ icon brings up a home page; Mercora’s DJs typically offer anywhere from 1 to 5 streams.

The top DJs manage their content with care, but they only represent a small fraction of the overall Mercora community. This can cause some odd genre blending, a situation that happens most frequently when using the music search option to find a song or artist. For example, a search for “Rolling Stones” led to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a reasonable choice by any measure. The homepage of DJ hosting the song, however, wasn’t nearly as mainstream, with an odd mix of hardcore rap and soft rock. Because most users simply point to folders on their computer to add music, without providing much context, the results can be jarring.

Rating: Usability – 4, Accuracy – 2, Overall – 3

Pandora

The most fully realized personal radio station to date grew from the lofty-sounding “Music Genome Project,” an effort to identify the building blocks of music. Where last.fm and Mercora mostly rely on the wisdom of crowds for their picks, Pandora is a professorial music theorist that considers terms unfamiliar to most people for its choices. Type in “Eagles” and Pandora will search not for classic Seventies bands, but tracks with “subtle use of vocal harmony, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, major key tonality, a dynamic male vocalist and acoustic rhythm guitars.”

You always knew you liked laid-back southern California rock. Pandora tells you why, and suggests following “New Kid In Town” with Fleetwood Mac and Boston. Users rate recommendations with a Tivo-like thumbs up or down. This refines the station’s mood for listeners who like “New Kid in Town,” but consider “Life in the Fast Lane” too hard.

Users can build an unlimited number of stations, and modify them to be more thematically open-minded. For example, a Beatles station could be augmented with Nirvana and Pearl Jam to create a jangle grunge stream.

Pandora is the most helpful in locating new music. Cycling through the Eagles, Dixie Chicks, Byrds and Nickel Creek led to tasteful track from the obscure band the Tennessee Boltsmokers. Most won’t note the “acoustic sonority” of “Hit The Road,” but may eventually buy the record. Pandora users can click to purchase music from both Amazon and the iTunes Music Store.

Pandora also sells a network-based standalone radio, the “Squeezebox,” which can be plugged into a stereo system. It costs around $250, and comes in both wired and wireless models.

Rating: Usability – 5.0, Accuracy 4.5, Overall 4.5