Feature Article


 

Stephen Hill 
Founder and Host of
Hearts of Space.

 


AV would like to thank Hearts of  Space for sending along this article for us to include in our new articles section.

Powered By Love: Niche Music in the New Millennium 
by Stephen Hill

 

If you read Ambient Visions, there's a better than average chance that you are also a Public Radio listener. You probably fit comfortably into a group that is now being called the "cultural creatives." You are vitally interested in personal growth and the cultural and media products and services that sustain it. You follow your own interests, and you're not deterred if others don't come along. You have confidence in your own tastes and ability to learn. You steer your own ship through life on a journey of exploration - and chances are you also enjoy music, especially music that supports your personal evolution.

I'm a music producer who has made a career exploring music that falls outside of the mainstream; music that supported my personal journey, and in time, the journeys of many others. Back in 1973 I innocently started a local late-night radio music program in Berkeley,CA. I discovered I'm the slow, steady type; to my astonishment, 28 years later I'm still doing it - it's called HEARTS of SPACE.

A BIT OF HISTORY

After ten years as a local show, the program went national in 1983 via the NPR satellite. Our audience exploded, and within two years we could be heard on over 200 public radio stations nationwide. What we were doing didn't have a name and didn't fit into any category, but people liked it. When the record decided to call it New Age Music in 1986, Hearts of Space was already well established and our audience grew even larger. We still hear from listeners who discovered the show in those days and have fond memories of the early music and the programs we created. We've been amazed by the response from all kinds of people, and learned not to generalize too much about our audience, which includes all ages and levels of society from nice little old ladies to (I swear...) Charlie Manson. One of my all time favorites is: "Even though I am a redneck, I enjoy your music."

In the early years I was just having fun with my radio hobby and making it up as I went along, but I soon discovered that the music that appealed to me and my listeners had a long history.  I was originally drawn to electronic space music and other high-tech explorations, but underneath the patch cords I discovered the centuries-old tradition of contemplative sound. Today our mission statement is down to four words: contemplative music, broadly defined. It's one that can encompass acappella sacred choral music a thousand years old, trancey tribal sounds, electronic meditations, and cutting edge fusions.

Ignoring the Orwellian overtones and without much thought, in 1984 my original partner Anna Turner and I started a small record label to release some of the fine independent music we were broadcasting. Later, under the capable management of my wife Leyla Rudhyar Hill, that casual decision grew into a group of five labels, 22 employees, and a catalog of over 140 releases until we sold the record company in 2001. We were very fortunate with our choices, and during the Celtic music boom of the 90's we had a big hit with our "Celtic Twilight" compilations. I still produce new albums for the label, which is like all the fun and almost none of the hard part.

NICHE AND MAINSTREAM

As a result of these experiences, I've had a lot of time to reflect on the differences between the music that I've been working with for the last 30 years and the 'mainstream' genres - pop, rock, rap, and country. From the beginning, 99% of the music I was playing on the radio and releasing on the record label fell outside of these genres. Like most people in the independent side of the music business, we inhabited what are called the niche genres.

Public radio was also a niche medium. Commercial radio in the 1970s and 80s was abandoning classical music and jazz, which had become the dominant music formats on NPR stations. But there was also a diverse, healthy mix of niche music on public radio: Sean Barlow's "Afropop" - an early harbinger of the World Music trend, Fiona Ritchie's delightful "The Thistle & Shamrock" - covering the Celtic tradition, Felix Hernandez' "BluesStage," Latin "Club del Sol" and R&B "Rhythm Revue" programming, and Hearts of Space - bringing together space-creating and contemplative music from many cultures and traditions; plus hundreds of local niche music shows covering everything from pipe organ to polka.

All niche music regardless of style or content has one thing in common: it's all something that relatively small numbers of people really, truly, love. And around these loves they build lifestyles, schedules, rituals, and relationships.

If you were an active fan of one of these niche music genres in the last 30 years, you learned to scour the broadcast schedules and back bins of record stores looking for your fix. You might get an hour a week of airtime if you lived near a good station, maybe two if you were lucky. It was hit and miss. When you found an album in a record store, you grabbed it, because you knew that it wouldn't be there forever. You subscribed to newsletters, signed up for mailing lists and did the best you could to find out about your favorite artists and genres. It was a lot of work, but if you cared you enjoyed the challenge and took pleasure in it.

Statistically, music listening decreases as people age. They settle for the least disagreeable radio format, buy a few favorite CDs a year, and rely on word of mouth or television to find out about new artists. (It's a fact that new age chanteuse Enya became a big star when her music was used in a television commercial, and Yanni became a household word after appearing on Oprah.)

But most people simply give up. Trying to keep up an active interest in any kind of niche music takes time and effort.  As people get older, the responsibilities of jobs and families take over their disposable time budget, if not their disposable income. As a result, the vast majority of active music buyers are under 30, and most radio listeners, especially public radio listeners, are 30 and older -- often much older.

As a contemplative music producer I'm always looking for ways to sustain a relationship to music that feeds the hearts and souls of people at every age and level of interest. For years I did this in public radio and independent music; it was never particularly easy or lucrative, but during the past few years a series of upheavals in the record industry and mounting pressures on public radio stations to "focus" and "format" their programming have brought increasingly difficult challenges. Consolidation of these businesses is changing the rules and making it much more difficult for niche companies, producers, and artists to reach their audiences. In fact, the stability of the whole system is in question and the odds are you will not be finding niche music in mainstream record stores or hearing it on local radio in the future.

All media industries depend on technology, which does not stand still. Like many other music producers, I saw a glimmer of hope in the Internet and the new technologies of "streaming" and "downloading" music. You've heard of the furor over Napster and MP3.com, and you may have heard about Real Player and Windows Media Player - free software that enables your computer to play music from web sites. During the internet boom years, despite uncertainty over rights issues and high entry and operating costs, this was a landscape filled with big dreams, big illusions and big players - almost all of whom are now history! These folks were looking for big money and big audiences quickly, and for many reasons it just didn't work.

But underneath all the frontier hubbub I sensed the potential for a small niche providers to connect with their audiences in a meaningful and cost-effective way. Following this intuition, I spent two years researching the possibilities. It was confusing (even Enron was trying to get into the business!)  and occasionally discouraging, but we persevered and in August, 2001, we successfully launched our first online music service: The Hearts of Space Archive.

HEARTS OF SPACE via SATELLITE and INTERNET

We are using these new technologies to get our music to listeners. Where we previously were limited to public radio and operating as an independent record label, we have now expanded our programming to XM Satellite radio nationwide (AudioVisions Channel 103), and an exciting new subscription-based online service that gives our listeners anytime, anywhere access to our entire 600+ program archive of radio programming going back to 1983! 

For rural listeners, underserved urbanites who have been starved for airtime, and for our core fans who have longed for 'anytime, anywhere' access to current and past programs, this is a dream come true. We have one subscriber who lives in the deep northwoods of Wisconsin. He uses a generator to power a satellite internet connection so he and his moose friends can listen to the HOS Archive!

Streaming audio is only about seven years old. Conceived as a way to offer users immediate access to audio files over the internet rather than forcing a lengthy wait for a download, streaming had three other benefits that were not immediately obvious.

First and most significant, it enables listening-on-demand. This may not sound like much to fans of pop, rock, and rap who can get it 24 hours a day, but for niche music audiences it's nothing short of a revolution. If you have odd, singular, or discriminating taste in music, you have always had to wait for a few crumbs at off hours. From now on you can decide what you want to hear, when, and how much.

Second, since the music is played as it is being transferred and not saved, unlike downloads there is none of the computer overhead needed to manage, file, label, copy or backup huge audio files. All the functionality is built into the web interface of the streaming service you choose, and it works anywhere you have an internet connection. Just sign in and click to listen.

Finally, the internet can support an infinite number of niche "stations," ending the channel scarcity problem for good.

RESURRECTING MEDIA

For the Hearts of Space Archive, we designed an intuitive interface that lists the programs by number, title, date, description, and genre classification.
(You can see it at http://listen.hos.com).
It's so easy to use, there's no manual. If you can use a web browser, you can figure it out in less than two minutes.

Sounds too good to be true. Is there a downside?  

Right now there are two. 

First, the current costs of running a legal streaming service (mainly bandwidth charges, transaction processing, and royalties) mean subscription costs are still too high for some people. To deal with this, we've created several different access plans with a range of prices. But everyone expects the cost to decline in the next few years as niche subscription services become more common.

Second, streaming services are not portable like normal radio, or like downloads after you take the trouble to transfer them to a portable electronic music player. This is a deal-breaker for many commuters or people who spend a lot of time travelling. Wireless internet service will overcome this problem eventually. In the meantime, heavy portable music users may find downloads a better solution, or will just stick to CDs.

ACCESS and CHOICE

But for niche music fans, the world is already becoming a friendlier place, with increasing choices and easier access to the music that is truly meaningful to them. So while you may still support your local public radio station, cable or satellite provider, you can also have one or more subscriptions to wide and deep online services that represent your most cherished affinities and affections - the kind of choices that define who you are.

Our streaming service has not only provided more flexible way to deliver music to our audience - it has given us a fresh opportunity to interact directly with our listeners. Fortunately, our subscribers have been very satisfied with the performance and quality of the service, and have provided a constant stream of praise!  And thanks to email, I find myself communicating directly with listeners more than ever before, which is a deeply gratifying experience. How could it not? After all&ldots;niche media is powered by love.

:: SH

We invite you to stream four free hours of Hearts of Space on line at http://listen.hos.com