a hidden musical culture

If you don’t subscribe to Robin Sloan’s P R I M E S newsletter, you should. In the most recent edition he talks about this video:

Robin says this video is “wonderful for its evolving sound and also for its inscrutability. I mean, how is he making those noises? How has he learned to play that monstrous instrument?? It’s amazing.”

Leave that video playing in a tab. It’s really nice. It’s also quite strange, because it exists. I get the sense, observing this hobby from afar, that most of these slow-building basement performances are ephemeral or, if recorded, never shared. This is a music culture almost totally orthogonal to iTunes and Spotify and even SoundCloud.

I love the vision of a modular synthesizer enthusiast — ideally 51 years old, a tax accountant with two children — padding down into the basement where the music machine waits to spend an hour pulling cables and twirling knobs, listening and tweaking, building an analog soundscape, thick and warm like a blanket, and, in that moment, theirs alone.

podcasts redux

Perhaps the chief thing I learned from my post on podcasting is that a great many people take “podcast” to mean something like “any non-music audio you can listen to on your smartphone.” Okay, fair enough; the term often is used that way. And I sort of used it that way myself, even though I didn’t really mean to. This made my post less coherent than it ought to have been. 

In more precise usage, a podcast is something like an audio blog post: born digital and distributed to interested parties via web syndication. We commonly distinguish between a magazine article that gets posted online and a blog post, even when the magazine posts the article to its blog and you see it in your RSS reader; similarly, In Our Time and This American Life are radio programs that you can get in podcast form, not podcasts as such. The Mars Hill Audio Journal is an audio periodical and even farther from the podcast model because it isn’t syndicated: you have to purchase and download its episodes — and you should!  (By the way, I couldn’t help smiling at all the people who told me that I should give Mars Hill a try, given this. How did they manage to miss me?) (Also by the way, MHAJ has an occasional podcast: here.)

So clearly I should not have used In Our Time to illustrate a point about podcasts, even if I do typically listen to it in podcast form. My bad.

In Our Time has a great many fans, it seems, and while on one level I understand why, I’m typically frustrated by the show. It typically begins with Melvyn Bragg saying something like, “So Nigel, who was Maimonides?” — to which Nigel, a senior lecturer in Judaic Studies at University College, London, replies, “Maimonides was born….” And then off we go for half-an-hour of being bludgeoned with basic facts by three academics with poor voices for radio. Only in the last few minutes of the episode might an actual conversation or debate break out. If you don’t especially like reading, then I guess this is a reasonably painless way to learn some stuff, but it doesn’t do a lot for me.

I also discovered that EconTalk has a great many fans, and indeed, you can learn a good deal on EconTalk about stuff it would be hard to discover elsewhere. But EconTalk is basically people talking on the phone, and the complete lack of production values grates on me.

So, sorting through all these responses, I have come to two conclusions. The first is that for a great many people podcast-listening is primarily a means of downloading information or entertainment to their brains. It’s content they want, and the form and quality of presentation don’t, for these people, count for a lot.

The second conclusion is that in these matters I have been really, really spoiled by the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Even though it is not a podcast, it is, I now realize, the standard by which I tend to judge podcasts. And they rarely match up. Ken Myers has a really exceptional skill set: he is deeply knowledgable and intelligent, he is a friendly but incisive interviewer, he is a magnificent editor, and he has the technical skills to produce a top-quality audio presentation. I’ve come to realize, over the past few days of conversing about all this, that what I really want is for all podcasts to be like the MHAJ. And while that may be an understandable desire, it’s an unreasonable expectation.