Sunday, March 8, 2009

IBS Conference Recap Part 1 - Tom Moon's Plea for Musical Exploration

Tom Moon Waxes Philosophical about His Passion for Music

I was in New York City over the weekend at the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System's School and College Radio Conference. It was my first time at an IBS conference (they've been going on for nearly 70 years) and it was an intriguing slice of the student radio world. Compared with the CMJ Music Marathon, the crowd was a bit different, with a range of station personnel (MDs, techies, PDs, GMs, etc.), including many station advisers, professors, and old-timers from the record and radio biz. It also seemed more regional, with the vast majority of panelists and attendees hailing from the New York/New Jersey area. As one of the host stations, Stony Brook University's WUSB on Long Island understandably had a huge contingent, with many of its staff members on panels throughout the conference.

There was a lot of talk at the conference about the future of radio, the music industry, and technology; as well as numerous sessions about the ins and outs of running a college (or high school) radio station and tips for DJs.

Vinyl Records for Sale at Urban Outfitters in NYC (many are on Mr. Moon's list of essentials)

The first session that drew me in was journalist Tom Moon's keynote on Friday, March 6th in which he talked about his book 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die and how he feels that the record industry (and commercial radio) has let down consumers by making the assumption that music listeners don't want to explore new sounds.

Tom began by reiterating a thought that was a big theme at Noise Pop's Industry Noise conference, saying that music fans are in a "weird zone" today, with "everything at their fingertips," but not much guidance about what to listen to. At the same time, he argued another common refrain these days, that "music is essentially a devalued commodity." He blamed commercial radio in part, saying that it no longer exists to "develop curious listeners."

He praised college radio (he listened to KCRW, WXPN and a lot of online radio while researching his book) for continuing to surprise listeners with interesting music and added that a huge benefit of radio is that it "is the best way to encounter music" and that it's a very different experience than listening to music that one has already selected and chosen to download.

Tom's book, like college radio, is designed to "facilitate exploration." He implored college radio DJs to embrace the medium and to "give people more than they can get at the commercial marketplace." He added that college radio listeners are eager to learn about new music and are looking for a "tour guide with a flashlight" to guide them to it.

Oldies but Goodies at a NYC Record Shop "House of Oldies"

Another point that Tom made was that record labels used to not only focus on new artists, but also "advocate for the work that had come before" with executives who were committed to unearthing "lost gems" in their catalogs. It saddened him that this doesn't happen today, with many influential pieces of music completely off the radar of young listeners and nearly impossible to find.

When he was talking about this, I couldn't help but think about the massive music libraries at many college radio stations and the amazing opportunity for DJs to shed light on masterpieces from the past and present. Many stations regularly highlight cool picks from the past, bringing them to the attention of both DJs and listeners by putting them back into rotation. I think this is an excellent practice and another reason to preserve a station's "back catalog."

Music Exploration in the Stacks at KUSF

Not that long ago I heard an amazing track from Virginia Astley on KUSF that was brand new to me. I went back to my station's library and found the LP, along with a bunch of other albums by her that hadn't been played in nearly a decade. It was such a treat to realize we had it and then give it a spin on the turntable at my station and potentially turn on a bunch of new listeners to her music, just as I'd be clued in by another college radio DJ.

An audience member asked Tom what advice he'd give to someone at a college station who is being pushed by the students and station adviser to focus on mainstream music. Tom suggested that, "the perceived mainstream thing...can be the bridge" to more adventurous music and argued that DJs can help listeners expand their horizons and make musical connections. He added, "...the beauty of radio is...for every....[person]...saying 'what the hell is that?' there's another...[person]...looking it up."

At the end of the session, a DJ in the audience from WUMD-FM (University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth) shared her station's strategy for getting new DJs to explore unfamiliar music in the station library. When new DJs are going through training, they are required to do their first two shows using only vinyl. I love it! In fact, that's a great way to get all DJs to expand their playlists.


bhance said...

Just wanted to drop you a line and re-iterate how insanely awesome this blog is - there are, indeed other college radio nerds (like myself) out there who appreciate coverage like this.

Keep up the station tours - they're awesome :)

Robert said...

Enjoyed the posts on the IBS conference... as a college radio GM, I always wondered how it went. We only had money enough for two professional organization memberships, and IBS wasn't one of them. But I always wanted to attend. Sounds like it would have been a font of ideas.