Wednesday 21 February 2018

Radio: Digital age - when streams turn to nightmares

Presenter Fionn Davenport
Presenter Fionn Davenport
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

As we in print media know only too well, online technology has been a bit of a disaster for many people. In our case, essentially, digital is making the "print" part obsolete. Fewer papers bought, fewer jobs for people like me.

(Oddly enough, internet commenters don't seem too upset by the imminent death of "dead tree" media. Indeed they appear to revel in the fact that most of us will be unemployed within a few decades. If only we were coalminers, we'd get some sympathy…)

Anyway, it's not just newspapers and magazines: all areas of media and arts have been affected, with the possible exception of books - despite the hype about e-readers, print sales are stronger than ever.

Music has been walloped especially hard, ever since that American kid invented Napster and people realised they could get this stuff for free now. The situation has since moved on again, with downloads increasingly superseded by streaming to a smart device.

In an interesting essay on Front Row (BBC Radio 4, Mon-Fri 7.15pm), writer Laura Snapes explained how streaming has not only affected the business of music, it's actually changed the music itself: for two main reasons.

First off - and this is ironic, in an age of short attention spans and fans tending to buy (or steal) single tracks - artists are now making longer records than ever. The mathematics of streaming means that the more songs you have on an album, the more chance of that album "breaking through". It's a way, she said, of "gaming the system".

This is also creating greater homogeneity in music. Again, this comes down to numbers: for a track to be officially registered as having being streamed, the listener must play it for at least 30 seconds. Therefore, musicians are increasingly steering clear of anything jarring or discordant, at least in the opening of their songs - anything to make the streamer turn off and deny them that sale.

So if you're planning on releasing your debut single, I'd recommend you take out that opening salvo of hellish guitar feedback looped over audio of a lunatic screaming as he's burned at the stake (and played backwards). I think it sounds cool, but the numbers don't lie; switch that for an androgynous auto-tuned voice warbling about puppies and summertime.

Movies and TV have been transformed by the net too, to a lesser extent than music but still a significant one. On Inside Culture (Radio 1, Mon 10pm), Fionn Davenport explored how streaming services like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix have altered how screen entertainment is produced and distributed.

He'd assembled a good, knowledgeable group to discuss it all: filmmaker Neasa Hardiman who's currently working on a series about Zelda Fitzgerald for Netflix, Richie Smyth who directed the same company's well-received movie The Siege of Jadotville, and media and tech analyst Tim Mulligan.

Again, this new technology is not only changing the mechanics of the industry, but how creative people tell their stories.

As an obvious example, you can binge-watch an entire series online, as opposed to waiting a week for network broadcast, so producers needn't end each episode with a cliff-hanger, and can take their time unfolding the story. (They often take too much time, in my opinion, but that's a whinge for another day.)

Can it be possible I heard two stations simultaneously run live commentary of a challenge match? Yes: Game On (2FM, Mon-Fri 7pm) and Off the Ball (Newstalk, Mon-Fri 7pm) covered Tuesday's soccer friendly.

A non-competitive match. Against a minnow like Iceland. In its entirety. On two stations. Surreal.

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