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Updated: July 14, 2010 17:13 IST

Are music podcasts the new rave?

Michaelangelo Matos
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Some DJs still don't want to give away free mixes for people to download online. File Photo.
The Hindu Some DJs still don't want to give away free mixes for people to download online. File Photo.

The future is always uncertain, especially when it comes to online music. Four years ago, at an "unconference" in Seattle (at least it wasn't a "webinar"), the topic was podcasts: digital files, audio or video, released in a series, nominally to subscribers. The focus was on radio-tyle programmes with music and talk. Because it was Seattle, a keynote speaker referred to podcasts as ?the new grunge?, to audible groans.

He should have said "the new rave". In 2010, dance-riented websites and blogs such as Resident Advisor (RA), Fact, XLR8R, Bodytonic, mnml ssgs, Little White Earbuds, as well as club nights such as Brooklyn?s the Bunker, have bolstered their traffic by podcasting mixes from new and veteran DJs.

The communication has been two-way, with house, techno, dubstep and other dance styles evolving as they spread via the podcasts. "Online mixes move so fast, they actually propel the culture forward creating new connections and pathways and widening people's listening sensibilities at a supernatural rate," says Kiran Sande, an editor at the London-based online magazine Fact, whose twice-weekly mixes posted on Mondays and Fridays have been one of the format's most influential. "A mix these days is a far better way for an artist connecting with a large audience than any interview. In the context of blogs and social networking, web mixes are conversation starters," says Philip Sherburne, an American techno DJ and critic based in Berlin. "I also suspect that in the game-like economy of the social web, web mixes have a certain amount of social capital. Blogs and websites are racing to lock down exclusive mixes in order to shore up their own brand. It's worked that way for Bryan Kasenic, the Bunker's promoter. "It helps familiarise people with the music, and gets them out more," he says of the Bunker Podcast, which features sets recorded at his parties. When he was in Europe last year for festivals, Kasenic says, "three out of four" people he met mentioned the podcast when they found out he was from the Bunker. They've never been to the party, so that's their main frame of reference. While it wasn't the first dance-music podcast, the format's standard of uninterrupted DJ sets, accompanied online by a short interview and (usually) a track list, was set by the Monday mixes from techno webmag Resident Advisor, which was founded in Australia in 2000. "We realised technically [doing a podcast] was relatively simple," says Richard Chinn, who books the DJs for the podcasts. The first RA Podcast, 84 minutes of minimal techno from Berlin's Troy Pierce, appeared in March 2006, and four years later, the RA podcast sits comfortably at the top of the heap. Soon RA had friendly competition. In late 2008, Fact began posting a loose, unrelated bunch of sets they soon began numbering. Like RA, the Fact Mix commissions a startling mix of talent, and unlike RA, Fact moves beyond dance music. That means occasional sets by rock bands such as Maximo Park, F****d Up, and Blank Dogs, and wild cards like Bass Clef's joyous set of African pop.

But Fact's mixes are rooted in dance particularly the London bass underground. In spring and summer 2009, sets from Brackles, Hot City, Cooly G, and Untold melted dubstep, funky, hip-hop, old-school rave, and tweaked-out R&B into something that felt like continuous updates from the most happening party in the world. That's what's earned Fact's podcasts an average of around 30,000 downloads each, with the most popular hitting 50,000.

"One of our strengths and interests is a kind of blow-by-blow coverage of what's happening in the London scene," says Sande. "One really senses the centrality of London to club culture and creative dance music at the moment." Sande counts Untold's mix as the series watershed: "It was around that time that the whole world seemed to suddenly twig to the groundswell of post-dubstep creativity that was happening in London, and which we'd been tracking for some time, and the mix became a kind of emblem of that." Fact's occasional rock mixes tie in with an increase in indie mix podcasts, such as Thizz.Face.Disco, run by Joshua Hernandez and Mike Melero in Oakland, California. Thizz.Face. Disco began running mixes in April 2009, including sets by cult rockers such as John Dwyer of Thee Oh Sees and Coachwhips and Vivian Girls guitarist Cassie Ramone; the latter's mix is the site's most popular. The duo hopes to attract film-makers, writers, activists, and visual artists for future mixes. Melero also admits that the podcast is there to boost traffic: "We noticed that the music posts were getting the most hits. Though most I spoke to credited podcasts for much of their sites' traffic, Chinn insists the podcast represents less than 5% of RA's traffic. Nevertheless, he's happy to note the stature the RA holds. "We often hear stories about how DJs see a big increase in booking requests off the back of the podcast," he says, "and their mixes driving interest in events, releases and labels." Speaking as an artist, the DJ and producer Chrissy Murderbot, who posts mixes on his own website, says: "Honestly, I think it's preferable to blog hype. Giving away an MP3 generates buzz, but it's also me giving away a product for free. In a podcast, you can't extract the whole product out of the mix, but at the same time, people have an example of what you sound like." His mixes are downloaded, he says, between 7,000 and 10,000 times a week on average.

As far as mixers go, the publicity economy of podcasts favours the young. There are some DJs, especially older ones, who totally don't get it: "Why am I doing a free mix for a website for people to download?" says Kasenic. They don't think there's any value in giving anything away, ever. The younger guys just want to get out there and play and be known, and if that's how people are listening to music, they're happy to do a mix for anybody who asks. All these artists are hounded for material now. When people are being pushed so hard for content, the overall quality's just bound to go down. Now podcast bookers don?t have to chase mixes: they report a glut of unrequested submissions. People are clamouring, and it's a matter of turning stuff down and being picky, says Andrew Smith of San Francisco's XLR8R Magazine, which runs a stellar podcast, averaging between 20,000 and 30,000 downloads a time. "To some extent, we've become something like a record label, which is not a [role] we ever expected to play, but we have that voice. The artist needs another promotional tool in their arsenal. It's still fun to write articles and features, and it's something we?ll always do, but this is a new angle." And podcasts are just the tip. Thanks in part to file?streaming sites such as SoundCloud and Mixcloud, more DJ sets are online than ever, both old (as longtime fans upload favourites) and new (as amateur DJs document their newest sets). The glut of old mixes in particular has produced a kind of historical flood. The web has always exposed people to obscure music, but dance music is best understood in the mix, and a couple of these sites act as explicit history lessons. Promo Mixes, run by RA editor Todd Burns, offers a monthly set dedicated to a specific time and place. Chrissy Murderbot's just-completed My Year of Mixtapes features 52 mixes that tell a kind of alternative history of dance music. Philly soul, Kraftwerk, and Giorgio Moroder all received tribute mixes, alongside showcases for 1990s rave and jungle classics.

"I didn't set out to make some historical archive of dance music nobody remembers," says Murderbot. "But frankly, I would have liked one of those when I was 14 and reading about "acid house" or "acid techno" or whatever in rave zines and being like, "I need a glossary." But maybe the root of the success of these podcasts is down to the thing so many music fans treasure about the internet: the promise of free stuff. "You look at the Most Popular section of our site, and it's mostly mixes at the top," says Fact contributing editor Tom Lea. It's the way the internet is, I guess. People prefer free music to writing."

Copyright: Guardian News & Media 2010


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