Thursday, 6 August 2020

A journey though a massive and messy music library

 Well, we all knew lockdown was going to be weird...

Fortunately for me, a project dropped into my lap in March, and it kept me very busy for months. I am only now rocking gently in my backwater, blinking, looking around, thinking of other projects.

With projects, I always go in too deep. This was no different. But oh, was it ever fascinating.

Some background first. For much of my time in radio, I have been gainfully employed sorting out other people's programming disasters, the ones that crop up in music scheduling and database systems.

The programming  beast 

The leading system I've worked in is, still, RCS GSelector, along with its RCS predecessors. If you're a fan, it's a splendid beast. But with all such systems, it's easy to paint yourself into a corner. You need decent music nous, allied to geekiness and tenacity. It's a tricky balance. Too much geekiness squeezes out on-air spontaneity.

The thinking behind computer music scheduling is, I find, often shared by musicians. Their shows are planned out: sets kick off with bangers, new material is nicely balanced, there's a flow built in, and the audience goes on a journey. Even when set lists are starting points rather than a rigid show structure, the same principles apply. If you know your stuff and your audience, you don't need a fixed safety net, either at radio or onstage. And that's as far as I'm going with that particular debate. 

The work

My cleanup work has taken me all over the UK and Europe. Often, one job has led to another; other times I have been put forward by much appreciated colleagues. It's been a lovely, magic carpet ride. But Covid19 has put an end to flying off to distant lands; now it's Zoom meetings and distance work.

I'm happy to work in any music format: the fundamentals, be they in Pop, Rock or Classical, are the same. Seriously, they really are, even while library sizes and presenter freedom vary enormously. Personally, I prefer a deep library in a station that values its presenters for their knowledge, but that's just my taste.

The Classical differences

But Classical? Well, there are differences. Tricky ones. Take durations for a start: Classical music radio is not the home of the 3'30” pop edit. Amazing works of 15 minutes and longer are common; you simply can't do without them. The 'bleeding chunks' debate - chopping out moments from Concerti or Symphonies - continues. Now, I love a complete work, an entire opera, a splendid soloist delivering fireworks to an audience... when I'm in that audience. But music radio doesn't work that way; instead, it offers a flow of music to take with you while you go about your day. Radio is rarely an 'appointment to listen' medium; you can now listen again with ease. So that's two challenges right there.

I've worked on Classical databases four times now: firstly in Ireland with the splendid RTE Lyric FM, where more than half the personnel were active musicians. Later came Bartok Radio in Budapest, and more recently pre-launch setup work at Scala Radio in London. And the most recent project, with all the Zooming and remote working, was for Radio Classic in Finland.

My job was to tidy up a messy database and set it up in GSelector before handing it back to the local team to take it onward. I won't go into all the gory details, but every conceivable data entry mistake was there... it was a tangle.

Mind your Language!

The interesting areas were the use of language, and the local market. Finland values its culture and identity. It supports the arts: national and regional orchestras are properly funded, unlike in the UK. It's admirable; I so wish we took this approach with the Arts in general, and music in particular. I also wish we had Finland's admirably low Covid19 infection rates.

From a population of less than 6 million, Finland exports a steady and impressive flow of talent: the first two conductors to follow Simon Rattle when he left the CBSO came from Finland; one of them now splits his duties between orchestras in Los Angeles, San Francisco and London.

Of course there were local composers whose works I wasn't familiar with; with these, the plan is for the Radio Classic team to strike the right balance. And that's the proper approach: radio has to reflect its locality, be it national or regional. Dumping a generic format onto a station is cheap; it directly affects the bottom line, but it may not build audiences. We often hear of 'MacDonalds Radio' in this context, but in truth, even that giant corporation goes to great lengths to cater for local markets. And it's worth pointing out that Classic Radio Finland are part of Bauer Media, who, admirably, have given their station free rein to develop as they see fit. It's easy to jump to conclusions about massive corporate radio groups, but those conclusions are not always spot-on.

So – back to the Classical job. How to describe a work? What language do you use? Do you say the Magic Flute? Or the original Die Zauberflote? Or the Finnish Taikahuilu? Verdi was, I am told, passionately in favour of works being sung in the language of the country where the performance was taking place. But, with works and orchestras in at least six languages, this aspect was increasingly complex.

The Web. Upending things. Again. Everywhere.

In working through the Radio Classic library, something else struck me: just how much emphasis has moved away from tradition and towards powerful performances. I contrasted an opera aria from a revered Finnish veteran, recorded in the 60s, with a fresh recording of the same piece by a contemporary superstar. The difference was extraordinary. The veteran was polite, formal and understated. The superstar was showy and explosive. That, change, in my view, has been driven by opera houses and orchestras competing online to deliver more of an experience to a wider audience, the more so because a lot of their work is now filmed and distributed either live or as special cinematic events. The days of 19th century polite salon performances of music designed to be played at home, once all the rage, are long gone. As elsewhere, the web has had its way, and we are now in the world of short-term spectacle.

Bottom line, as usual: what matters, and to whom?

The initial clean-up task completed, Radio Classic are now up and running. What are the next steps? Many classical stations embrace movie soundtracks; others rush to programme contemporary 'mindful' piano work from the likes of Ludovico Einaudi; still others incorporate gaming music, written for teenagers and young adults, into their output. Gaming companies are now so flush with cash that they can afford to hire entire orchestras to record their material – but I'm really not sure that an orchestra's playing qualifies a piece of music for use in Classical radio. It's a sliding scale of age appeal, which doesn't tempt me, but then I am very aged. That said, I can't say I'm exactly a purist either. The big question is to recognise the demands of the market, as I mentioned earlier.

My personal view? The great works are there because they have found their place over decades and centuries. That timescale means things change slowly; it's the complete opposite of pop. Recordings of individual Classical works may not generate huge sales figures, but that's partly because there are often literally hundreds of different versions of the same work available to the listener. Therefore popularity has to be measured in a different way; chart sales, downloads and influencer-driven YouTube views don't work in this arena. The picture is further muddied by a combination of stuffy conservatism in the classical industry itself, and the shift to showier, flashier performances that new technology has fostered, as mentioned earlier.

It's never easy. But right now, my best wishes go to the good folk at Radio Classic Finland, who are now navigating these tricky waters. I think they'll do just fine. You can, of course, listen to them here:

and if that doesn't work, go here:

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