Saturday, August 13, 2011

Locked on?

"I think London pirate radio is generally pretty boring now, tbh. there's still some great DJs and MCs, of course, but bland house and minimal has really taken over, with DJs seeming to see it all as a stepping stone to Pacha or wherever.

There's a lack of energy to most pirate shows now. It's nothing compared to the vibe of 5 or 10 years ago. you now have to be quite careful to pick out a few shows to get anything worth listening to - you used to be able to just switch on the radio at random."

-- Simon Silver Dollar Circle

In a short Dissensus discussion of the role of London’s pirate radio stations during the London riots, this quote from early grime blogger Simon made me think about pirate radio.

The question “is London pirate radio less healthy now than it was 5 years ago?” breaks into two components. Firstly you have to factor in your subjective judgment on how you feel about house. Not UK funky but the kind of international trad house that currently dominates a lot of the pirate shows. Because if you’re not into its sophistication and/or - depending on your viewpoint - blandness, it would stand to reason that you were happier in ’05 when grime was more dominant.

But the other component is the real question here: is the medium – not just the type of music it’s carrying – more or less healthy?

Now I should flag here that obviously I’m a massive pirate radio fan, playing Rinse is the highlight of my month and I’ve been tuning in to Rinse and stations like it (Deja, Raw Mission, Kool, Heat...) for over a decade. But like other medium’s I love, vinyl for example, I know its reach and role is not fixed over time.

I spend quite a lot of time thinking about technology, probably a lot more than this blog lets on, and my base position it is fairly simple: great technology should do a job best. Some people are so into tech and online that they believe in technology for its own sake - but I don’t buy it. If an online version of something works better than a physical version, then I’m in. If it doesn’t, count me out.

So what “job” does pirate radio “do best?” Well, in the last 30 or 40 years, what it’s done is empowered people to get heard who couldn’t get the chance to broadcast via traditional media companies. Mainstream UK broadcasting calls itself “broadcasting” but outside of the BBC, in the music sphere it mostly narrowcasts, using the old model of building a large audience [for advertisers] using the mediocre middle ground. Pirate radio is far more long tail, with large numbers of pirates broadcasting to (in relative terms) a smaller, though not insignificant audience. It was User Generated Content (UGC) broadcasting, long before the term “UGC” was invented. So to answer the question what “job” does pirate radio “do best?,” it gives or indeed gave people a voice when they had few other alternatives.

The thing is, in 2011 people have never had more ways to express themselves, especially musically. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, blogs, Sound Cloud, iPhone apps, BB Messenger, file sharing, podcasting, self digital music distribution (Tunecore etc), software for music production – there’s so many this list is incomplete.

I think a good example of this is road rap, south London's variant of hip hop that is like a cousin of grime and has emerged since social media became ubiquitous. Demographically it's exactly like grime and other hardcore continuum variants, except as far as I can see it has no significant club infrastructure nor pirate radio backing.

People take the path of least resistance, especially when it comes to getting heard, so for road rap that's YouTube hood videos or mixtape free downloads on In 2005 the path of least resistance for many people that probably was still pirate radio when it comes to music. But buying and sticking up a transmitter is expensive, hard work, not to mention illegal, and so in 2011 I don’t think pirate radio has a monopoly on self expression with those excluded from mainstream broadcasting anymore. And that’s cool - most medium’s have had their monopolies broken by the internet: ask TV stations, newspapers or book publishers – that’s just how things are in 2011.

Despite all the choices, I still listen to more Rinse podcasts as hours per month of music than anything else. It’s that pirate mentality but broadcast in a 2011 way.


Anonymous said...

Id swap "sophistication" for "generic" but in fairness it may not seem that way the kids who listened to nothing but Grime and HipHop previously.

Still more crucial shows happening then you could even attempt to listen to. Even if the WTF moments are a bit less frequent, they're still there.

Anonymous said...

i think the biggest thing to consider is saturation.

the counter-culture immediately becomes pop-culture due to availability, quick-access, attention deficits, impulse listening, and of course, the internet. people are downloading 1000 songs in 20 minutes (or less). and i cant even imagine how full your inbox is of tracks you do not have time to sift thru. i bet everyone's itunes has at least a handful of tracks they've never heard. you never had this problem with a vinyl crate.

we used to save up and go to the record store and buy the album on the release date. then we'd go home and call the crew and have a session and enjoy a listening. the sanctity of music has diminished.

as far as listening, spotify just arrived in the U.S. and has caused much controversy. iTunes has tightened their processes significantly. blogging and free downloads still run the trends and tendencies. pirate radio is segregated to the point of elitism, as is the dubplate culture.. ::sigh::

like i said, the sub-culture is the pop-culture, with no time for shelf-life... hence why "dubstep" became "dooooosh-step" before people knew who what it really was.

overall, there's a fine line between keeping an art form tightly knit and being a selfish elitist. with the information age at its peak, everybody becomes nearly arbitrary.


Kyran said...

I think underground promotion is diversifying such that it doesn't rely so much on pirate stations anymore. Services like Soundcloud and such offer broader distribution albeit a less immersive experience than tuning in at showtime.

Music production and creativity

Anonymous said...

Yeah totally agree on the 'path of least resistance' analysis, Martin - those left marginalised by existing underground hierarchies (often as a result of wanting to do something different) are now far more likely to use myspace/youtube/soundcloud to get their music out, than set up a new pirate station as the likes of Geeneus and Target did...

but as you suggest, i'm not sure that the changing role of pirate radio, and the predominance of sophisticated/generic/bland house on pirates can be treated separately - the former leads to the latter, I'd guess. I'm observing as an outsider with hardly any direct knowledge of the people who run pirate stations - but it certainly seems an older crowd than it was 5-10 years ago? Certainly, the people running the stations then are often the people running the stations now. So pirates have got far less of a youth club vibe, and much more of a smart club vibe. Seems natural, I guess. But sad, too.