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Everyone is so scared to make them. Mistakes, I mean. As students in class, we never raise our hands unless we are sure we have the right answer; even then, upon answering we search the faces of our teachers, our classmates for affirmation that we are correct when we speak. The common consensus stands that errors are bad, and so we refrain from making them.
Our pursuit of perfection is a lie that we know well. We have all heard that we are “only human,” and should therefore not expect perfect precision in our endeavors. The very phraseology of this expression attests to the observed inevitability of mistakes. As it applies to others, and when it is posed as a solely theoretical concept, this idiom is easily accepted and generally upheld. But as it applies to ourselves, we cannot accept that to be human is to be imperfect. We curse ourselves under our breath, flush red with embarrassment when we blunder, rush to immediately correct the wrong that we have committed the moment we discover it. It is another one of those very human paradoxes to know that mistakes are inevitable and yet to seek to eradicate them.
As new deejays, we have a definite fear of mistakes (we can each attest to the onset of heart-palpitations at the mere mention of our first air-check). But there is a case to be made for the benefits of errors. Because of their ubiquity, we find nothing more comforting than the presence of mistakes; they remind us that we are all human, validating our hopes of societal acceptance. Each mistake is a genuine moment of happenstance. In seizing these moments, we make art, enrich our lives, and we evolve. In no other medium is the positive power of the mistake more prevalent than that of the live performance – in our case – live radio.
Miles Davis put it best: “when you hit a wrong note, it’s the next things that make it good or bad.” This statement is remarkable for two reasons. One: a jazz god is admitting that he has experience with mistakes. Two: he does not denounce said mistakes. When listeners conjure up the image of a jazz musician, they see him from atop a pedestal. The term “virtuoso” has fallaciously become associated with flawlessness, much to the detriment of musicians and listeners alike. Although practicing with the intention of achieving perfection is key to virtuosity, true virtuosos come to a point where they realize that mistakes cannot be avoided, and thus must be willingly incorporated into their art. Doing so creates a strength of character and confidence as a musician, and adds a fresh dimension of vivacity to an artist’s music, as unforeseen musical possibilities present themselves. In being able to adapt to a mistake, one conquers the negative connotation associated with error and can then be more free to focus on expression, thereby allowed to make a truer piece of art. If “the emotional reaction is all that matters” as John Coltrane contends, is not an artist then making his work more meaningful by freeing up his attention to focus on the emotional content of his work, as opposed to the aesthetic appeal that many would associate with “perfect” music? Mistakes take on a new meaning when they are seen as an opportunity to create. An incomplete song can finish itself in unpredictable ways, a live performance can take listeners and performers alike down an unexpected path and lead all those present to a wonderful and unanticipated end.
On the surface, many would assume that the appeal of virtuosic genres such as jazz – or any art-form requiring honed technical skills – would lie said art-form’s faultlessness. Upon closer analysis, quite the opposite is true: we appreciate immensely technical works of art due to the expenditure of energy it takes to make them so near-flawless. Think: would the symmetrical tessellations of the Blue Mosque be so awe-inspiring if not for the knowledge of all the effort the stone mason must have put into his work? When we gaze at the designs, we don’t just see a beautiful motif; we see years of perspiration, careful attention to detail – all that which went into developing expertise. It seems it is only within the context of our errors that we measure our successes. We find work to be exemplary based off the degree to which a work’s creation is steeped in mistakes. Perseverance is beautiful, not perfection.
That being said, we learn best from mistakes. However, in school, we are rarely ever afforded the time to make mistakes. We realize their happening to our dismay, and then must learn new material. Our brain “alerts us in less than a second of an impending mistake so we don’t make it again.” We police ourselves with much greater efficacy than any instructor ever could, but we need time, repetition, and feedback from our instructors so as to take advantage of our brain’s self-correction system. To be better learners, we must first acknowledge that learning requires error. Furthermore, we must undo the emotional scarring associated with mistakes, so as to allow for better correction of them. When a student “feels stupid” after making a mistake, she generally tries to hide it, to deny its existence; a shortcoming that is enforced from above by the teacher, who does not wish to dwell on mistakes (as their student’s errors might reflect their own inadequacies). Despite the discovery of their students mistakes, teachers immediately move onward with course material, generally with an ambivalence toward poor scores. To the unconcerned teacher, mistakes represent laziness or lack of intelligence on behalf of the student; a sentiment which is inevitably absorbed into the psyche of students, leading to a negative feedback loop regarding mistakes and lack of improvement.
Although most students and teachers intuit the logic behind the necessity of mistakes (let us recall the ubiquitous use of “we are only human”) and science corroborates this understanding, the sentiment we carry regarding mistakes is just that: sentiment. We feel shame, we don’t think it. Being corrected for our mistakes feels like a personal attack, as though our intelligence is being insulted. However, regardless of how painful it may be at first, we must swallow our pride in order to learn. Not only do we have to be aware of our mistakes, but we have to be specific about them. “Knowing that answer #3 is wrong doesn’t mean much. Knowing that they didn’t understand mitosis gives them a mandate for getting better.” Knowing that you got something wrong is just the first step; learning how to fix your specific mistakes must follow their identification in order to improve. In letting students know that mistakes are fixable, that learning is a process, one makes success more feasible. We all stand a little straighter knowing that we are capable of success in the face of our inevitable blunders.
As deejays in training, it is important for us to take these last few paragraphs into account. Dead air, flubbing on a PSA or underwriting, clipping, playing the wrong track/entering the wrong track into Spinitron; a whole host of mistakes await us, or have already been committed. And in the live setting that we are throwing ourselves into, it is important that we understand both the inevitability and the power of our mistakes. There is a certain invincibility we have gained in the past few weeks on our mentors’ shows. There was only so much preparation we were allowed. Truthfully, nothing could prepare us in full for our first time on air. However, despite our sweaty palms and racing hearts, we got through our mistakes. Our mentors corrected us when we misstepped, and our breathing eventually slowed as we learned to embrace our mistakes so as to proceed on to becoming better deejays.
Here’s a secret: people listen to us because we mess up. If our listeners wanted perfection and predictability they would listen to Spotify or Pandora. Sixty-three percent of drivers still use traditional AM/FM stations as their main audio source. Why? In a sense, because we are all lonely. Humans crave other humans. It’s why we go to the mall even while we have Amazon at our fingertips. It’s why we go to parties. And it’s why we listen to radio. When a listener hears a deejay on air, they don’t hear a voice, they hear a person. Listeners are not drawn in by perfect enunciation and flawless segues. They are drawn in by a deejay’s humanity. And what is the cornerstone of our humanity? What makes us “only human”? You betcha. Mistakes. And if not overtly mistakes, the possibility of them proves to be enticing enough to both the deejays and the listeners.
As listeners, we love to feel included, as though the deejay is speaking right to us. Although faceless and known only by a pseudonym, radio deejays hold our attention by talking to us conversationally. Errors are abound: twisted tongues, flubbed lines, bad jokes, lost references, nervous laughs, careless sighs. These are inglorious signs of our humanity. This vulnerability is what draws listeners in and keeps them there. From a blunder comes the knowledge that the person on the other side of the transmitter is actually a person. You might be tempted to laugh out loud at their mistakes, and as you do so, you might find it easier to laugh at yourself. To accept their flaws, to see that their mistakes do not bring about the end of the world, – and by extension that yours will not do the same – is a blessing that no algorithm could ever bestow.
Computers make no mistakes. Computer scientists contend that “if you get a wrong answer, it is because you fed in wrong data or set up wrong parameters or calculations.” While this infallibility is comforting, it is not engaging. Computers make no mistakes, but as a result are confined by a strict set of limitations. Because of mankind’s ability to err, we can learn, expand our abilities; mix it up, so to speak. Although an algorithm can predict musical trends with great accuracy, it cannot guess what will make listeners happy. There is no code that provides that level of context; the parameters are not wide enough to accommodate something as abstract as happiness. But deejays can intuit the impact of their actions, and therefore successfully communicate with an audience, giving them the connection they actually desire. Listeners are not tuning in so as to experience an appropriate or logically sequenced playlist. They are listening for songs that make them feel connected, excited.
In order to draw an audience, a deejay must first be enthusiastic about their work. Despite our ardor, if the proper provisions are not taken deejaying can become monotonous and lead to boredom, which compromises the broadcast as a whole. Maintaining energy is key to maintaining an audience. Hence another silver-lining of mistakes: they keep us interesting. A study conducted by students at Emory supports the hypothesis that “‘the brain finds unexpected pleasures more rewarding than expected ones.’” To see a football player fumble with the ball only to make a spectacular recovery is certainly more entertaining than to see him complete the expected outcome (i.e. to catch the ball). The same applies to radio artists. Both listeners and the deejays themselves find the broadcast enriched by the presence of mistakes. When things go wrong, it is a test of a deejay’s adaptability and prowess to correct their untimely error in a timely manner. The first spike of the adrenaline rush initiated by fear of failure soon fades to the warm glow of self congratulation and perseverance. At no other point will a deejay feel more accomplished than when she has just avoided crisis.
The triumph associated with this moment is dynamic. In the event of dead air, audience members lean in, groping through the static for the voice of the deejay on the other side, anxiously awaiting the reformation of the connection they fear to be lost. But after a brief pause, a bit of “dead air” they are exultant, or in the least relieved at the recommencement of the program. At no other point will they appreciate the voice of the deejay or the power of the songs they play than after a moment of fearing they won’t get to hear them.
Although the FCC does not tolerate the occurrence of mistakes, it makes provisions for them in the event that they occur (disclaimers read after accidental use of profanity, etc). The existence of said provisions attests to the FCC’s uneasy acceptance of the fact that radio deejays are human. The irony that a large bureaucratic organization so removed from the actual production of radio art (being consumed with its regulation) so readily accepts one of the most intimate truths of human production while the individuals that produce the art remain adverse to it is bewildering. It seems in all contexts except those that apply to our own actions, we can forgive mistakes, even celebrate them. As our current adversity to mistakes still stands, we make our jobs more difficult for ourselves by fearing the inevitable, and at times may handicap ourselves from fear of failure. But this failure is temporary. Mistakes do not define our work, but rather force it and us to grow.
The very nature of radio is imperfect. The range of our transmitter fluctuates. The vinyl and CD’s we play music from are prone to scratching and skipping. Equipment must be calibrated, re-calibrated, and tested to ensure that it works. We stutter. Our hands slip. We misspeak. If art is an accurate reflection of our humanity, than our mistakes are but a genuine facet of our capabilities. We have been taught by prior experience (in school and other social settings) that mistakes are the bane of our existence. But what if they are the crux? Although we have the illusion of control over the airwaves given to us by the impressive presence of the soundboard, there are still variables beyond our control within our medium. And I would argue that those are some of the most exciting elements of radio. To harness the power of the unexpected, and thereby pass it on to others through our artform, we deejays come as close to invincible as any humans can be – but we are forever far from flawless.
Some people say that the dawn of the digital era is synonymous with the end of traditional radio. The rise of Internet radio stations would have made the original ones become obsolete. Their emergence, at the beginning of the 90’s, have been compelling : in 2007, Olga Kharif wrote in ‘’The Last Days of Internet Radio ? ‘’ that the number of online radio listeners was more substantial than the combination of satellite radio, high-definition radio, podcasts, and cellphone-based radio: it was representing more than 57 million weekly listeners in the United States. It is estimated that this number is now more than 176 million. Why is web radio such a great success? What does that change for the listeners and for the artists? What does that mean about our culture?
The term ‘’Internet radio’’ designates all media that can be accessed instantly by anyone, everywhere in the world, as long as an Internet connection can be reached. For the most part, web radios are using streaming, podcasts, and playlists. But these technologies do not only make them possible to be autonomous from broadcast waves – it also makes possible more independent in regards to time for listeners, record labels for artists, as well as the rules, money, and space for broadcasters (or, here, webcasters). One more time, the Internet is claimed to be the prophet of liberty.
Web radios were permitted by the creation of MP3 music files in 1992, that gave birth to a revolution of downloading and music file sharing started by Napster. From one day to an other, people did not need to buy cassettes and CDs anymore: they could find the song they wanted to play for free, simply using their computer. Plus, if you could acquire those files, you could also share them very easily. This was certainly one of the greatest inventions of all time, and people saw this as a real revolution. Webcasting requires much less material than broadcasting – a computer, a downloading software and a good Internet connection are everything you need. Which means that you do not need a lot of money, you don’t have to become popular to survive, you do not have to sell your soul to the devil; playing commercial music that would attract an audience that is not necessarily interested in your initial artistic identity.
Indeed, online radio also represents a way to escape from the music industry and the rules that it had established. In the early 1900’s, the market was almost exclusively controlled by six major record labels. In the 50’s, they were only three. But the Internet opened an access to every music that was created and shared on the web, without any filter – at first.
However, this new ability of downloading and sharing music files for free became very controversial: artists and record labels were seeing it as stealing their property. After years of debates, Bill Clinton signed the Digital Millenium Copyright Act in 1998: like AM/FM radios, web radio stations would have to pay royalties for the music that they would find online, and for the music that they would share. The price would vary according to the popularity of the artist.
This might be, or might be not, a reason why many online radios started to play obscure small rock music bands: to avoid paying royalties. But it is for sure that one of the reason of the great popularity of this new technology is that it was offering new artistic alternatives to traditional corporate and standardized radio, for people who would not share the common tastes or who would like some variety: it became easy to create your own website to share very specific music that might not be played by local radio stations, and to attract an audience that would be curious about special interests. This way, DJs could corner new markets, and individuals are now able to choose to listen to a specific genre he wants to listen to, or to a mix of different kind of musics, or to artists that are unsigned by labels… In fact, it plainly changed the culture and consumption models.
Playlists have become the favorite way of listening to music. Why ?
First, because most of the principal radio stations are extremely conservative. A Wall Street Journal article revealed that ‘’the top 10 songs in 2013 were played twice as much as the leading songs in 2003. […] The reason for this increasing repetition comes down to data, which suggests that replaying top songs keep listener engaged.’’ This sad assertion is based on the observation that the majority of the listeners do not want to listen to unfamiliar music. This way, playing more experimental genres would mean taking the risk of seeing the audience shrinking and, of course, of loosing money. The New-York radio programmer Ebro Darden testifies: ‘’Taking risks is not rewarded, so we have to be more careful than ever before’’.
But what about the people who are curious about being surprised by new talents ?
That is where Spotify, Pandora, and all those on-line music recommendation services have been clever. They are using downloading technology to provide millions of streaming music protected by Digital Right Management Act. Their method is largely criticized, because the royalties that they pay to artists are ridiculous (between $0.0006 and $0.0084 each time that a song is played, before the label takes its part). But there is something even more vital than money that these services can provide to new artists – it is exposure. Today, being exposed is the only way to access popularity if you can not afford a powerful record label. And popularity leads to ticket sales, album sales, and Internet streams.
An other reason of the rise of web radio at the expense of traditional radio is that, contrary to territorial radio, it made the consumers confronted to their own personal choices. Instead of listening some music imposed by a DJ, they had to think about what genre, what band, what song, they want to listen at this exact moment, at this exact place. And if you do not want to have to take any decision, you can just select a web radio that you know is playing music that you like. This is a possible thing to do with traditional radio, but you have to find the specific DJ, playing on the specific local radio, and after you found it, you would only be able to listen to his music for one to three hours – during the time of his show. And you would have to adapt to his schedule. An other way to discover new music can be to browse in the gigantic discovery source that the Internet is representing : MySpace, Soundcloud, YouTube, Tumblr, Mixcloud… We are spoiled for choice. But having too much choice can be discouraging for some of us.
Today, with the reign of Pandora and Spotify, the best playlist that you could ever imagine can appear in a fraction of second, just by selecting an artist that you like. If you want to discover new songs, these services propose you a panel of tracks that perfectly fit your tastes. Those « On-demand services » do not even require you to demand anything anymore — they are anticipating your desires. That can even be disturbing – sometimes it feels like our Internet radio better knows our own tastes then ourselves.
Last week, I was doing some shopping in a vintage store. I thought that the music that the shop was playing was amazing. They were playing only songs from my favorite albums of my favorite bands. During one hour, I could have sung by heart every lyric of each song. Before leaving, I asked a staff member who created the playlist (I absolutely wanted to meet him/her – he could become my best friend, that was for sure). The seller answered me that the playlist was made by Pandora. I left the store, without knowing if the idea that I just met my ideal musical algorithm instead of my musical soul mate was something I should be excited about. Then, I realized that, in contrast to my Spotify radios recommendations, the playlist that I was just listening to was not made for me. It was representative of a community of people who have the exact same musical taste as mine.
A lot of people blame web radios that are using algorithms because « it is so impersonal ». I don’t think it is. It is probably because it is so personal that it can be disturbing. I love listening playlists that are created by people, podcasted or broadcasted. But they will hardly fit my artistic personality the way algorithms do.
However, it should not be a reason to erase territorial radios from our listening habits. In fact, it is even a very good reason to keep listening to them.
Exactly two weeks ago, Donald Trump was elected to be the new President of the United States of America. Billions of people from all around the world threw up their hands in horror, wondering how such an unbearable thing did happen. The most surprised were the American people themselves. One question came to our mind : how is it possible that I did not realize how much Trump supporters I am sharing my own country with ? How was I so certain that the majority of my fellow citizens was approximately sharing my representation of life ?
That is how we began to hear about « filter bubbles ». The day after elections, Mark Zuckerberg was accused to have a great responsibility in Trump’s victory. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Snapchat are representing a great part of our social life, and for most of the users, they are the place where to access to all other media. But the articles we are reading on social networks do not appear by accident, and that is why it is so controversial. Using a very similar algorithm as the one that Spotify is using to offer a playlist designed to measure, Facebook is selecting the pieces of information in which the user might be interested. Which is actually comfortable: we do not have to research news to stay informed – they are coming to us, through our « News Feed ». It is very satisfying. But it is also very blinding.
Indeed, the idea that the individuals do not bother to choose the way they want to receive their informations is problematic. Because, apart from the fact that, this way, we are giving to social networks the opportunity to manipulate our opinions, we are above all disconnecting ourselves from the reality that is unfolding before our eyes. Facebook’s News Feed algorithm is collecting data about links that we read, posts that we share, comments that we like. Taking account of these pieces of information, it will, then, propose you to read articles that will please you, so you want to like, share, consume more news. Facebook’s purpose is not to depict a realistic representation of what is happening in the world, but to make us feel comfortable with your Facebook environment. But Facebook is not the only one to blame — it only makes the process, that we would make by ourselves anyway, easier. Who never deleted a social network « friend » because he was making statements that sounded improper to you? Each fascist, insulting, disgusting message is perceived as an aggression. And nobody likes feeling attacked in its opinions.
Yet it appears to be very wholesome, to say the least. First, because facing different opinions is challenging ours, and, by this way, either reinforces them or makes them evolve. Plus, because confronting them make us realize that they exist. And the only way to fight ideas that sound wrong to us is to localize them and take stock of how powerful they are.
Even though the issues are not proportional, social networks’ game of filters operates in the same way as big streaming radios do. Snubbing musical genres that we are not familiar with, leads us to focus only on what we know and are sure to like. It means closing doors to new potential areas of interest.
Thus, if web radio is an efficient way to « balance the audience desire to discover new music while belonging to a tribe » (one of the subjects of the Music 4.5 Smart Radio seminar 2012), tuning to traditional radio stations that are offering a wide variety of musical programs, with educational goals, stays the best way for individuals to open their horizons and to emerge from their cultural cocoon. The Internet can be the greatest opportunity to open our minds, but the reality is that we are often reproducing social and cultural patterns that we are experiencing in the society we are evaluating in. A more human and less maths-based approach to music seems essential for our ears to remain alert, and, by this way, to have a better understanding of the different cultures that are interacting in the world.
by DJ Choking Hazard, recent Intro to Radio graduate! You may be able to catch her on the airwaves next quarter, bringing contemporary psychedelic rock to the Great 88! Visit the Facebook page for a taste of what’s to come.
Father’s Day came up fast June 16th. My situation involved receiving a small package in the mail from my pops the other day, and inside the cardboard box was a small recyclable doggie-poo bag. Despite that informality, I found gold within this doggie bag – my dad’s radio on-air tapes from the 80’s! My family and myself hail from Sacramento and that’s where dad did radio when he was in his twenties. Quite a trip that we both got into radio at the same time in our lives at the same age. So as I listen to these old cassette tapes, everything about it a total blast from the past; the guy talking on air is my dad and he sounds just like I do now! I decided to take all of these old tapes and convert them to a digital format with my own introductions and commentary between them. The finished product for pops will be all of his analog air checks neatly compiled onto a CD with his own son’s radio voice talking about it! Better than a Hallmark card and golf balls…
Whether your paterfamilias devoted himself to an art, a tough career, a trade or just his family, make sure to recognize him for that. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it more than anything. And tell him you love him too-even if you do that already.
-J Dog; KZSC Jazz Music Director
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