Friday, January 2, 2009

The System, Area, and electronica on Sirius XM

Well, the merger has gone through, and as I speculated a year ago in this post, The System didn't make the cut. I can only guess at the reasons why. The big one was probably the fact that the channel was one of the two remaining XM channels being sourced from Worldspace, and both XM and Sirius had been moving in the direction of doing all of their own production in house even before the merger.

I do have to say one thing: over the past year, The System had become a shadow of its former self. That was a shame, and I imagine that it occurred because Worldspace knew they were going to be dropped, so they stopped putting the effort into it. I'm not knocking Zoltar, who is a very capable program director and does a great job with his Subterrainian show. Reality is reality, and there's no point in trying to improve a product that is going to be dropped anyway. But it was disappointing to note, over the past six months in particular, how the playlist was stagnating.

Now, for my next controversial point: The Sirius carryover trance channel, Area, is not bad. It does seem to depend on what time of day you catch it (so far, I've enjoyed the daytime programming the most). I'm liking the Paul Oakenfold shows. I must say that, from what I've heard of it, I don't care for The Juicy Show that much. In the last few weeks, Area seems to be picking up some of The System's playlist, which is a good thing.

However, it's still a bad trend. I've done some ranting on about the dropping of Beyond Jazz, for which there is no replacement. Beyond Jazz was playing a fair amount of acid jazz, which is another facet of electronica that doesn't come anywhere close to airplay on terrestrial radio. And don't even get me started on the long-departed Music Lab. In the dance music category, Chrome was also dropped and not replaced, and Chill has drifted way off message -- it almost sounds like an easy-listening channel now. Satrad was created with the idea that it would be genre radio, carrying almost any kind of music you could imagine with its multitude of available channels. However, we're seeing many of the genre channels being dropped in favor of more mainstream channels, largely duplicating programming on existing channels. What's up with that? It makes no sense.

So, the long-term future of electronica broadcasting appears to be Internet radio. Internet broadcasting has a lot of good points, but there are two downsides to it, one for the listeners and one for the artists. For the listeners, there's the problem of how to receive it affordably in the car or other mobile means. Plus, even at home, you are still at the mercy of your ISP and bandwidth provider. Podcasts may be the answer to this, but it misses the immediacy of live broadcasting. For the artists: Note that part of the problem that satrad is having now is the spiraling royalty rates being forced on Sirius XM by the Copyright Commission. It isn't widely known, but the Commission has within the past two years raised rates for satrad and Internet broadcasting to far higher than what terrestrial radio pays. (This of course occurred at the behest of the NAB, which apparently has the Commission in its pocket.) Satrad can't escape this; it has the choice of paying, or going out of business.

However, Internet broadcasters have a third choice: go offshore. There are plenty of small Carribbean and Pacific Island nations that are willing to charge Internet broadcasters far lower royalties, and their governments will politely ignore American demands for higher royalties. Or, they can move their operations to Russia and pay no royalties at all, although reliable bandwidth there is a concern. As a practical matter, there is no way the U.S. government can filter these broadcasts at the border. The net result: the excessive royalty rates will actually result in little to no royalties to the artists. Ironically, The System, or at least a shadow of it, survives on XM's online service. My understanding is that this is just an automated jukebox of the songs that were on The System's server space at the time the satellite channel was dropped. It's better than nothing, but in the long run, it's not likely to survive either.

There is one more factor that needs to be touched on, though: fan support. If you look at the Dance Discussion forum on, you will note that over the past several years, up until recently, there have been many fan posts concerning Chrome and BPM, but almost none for The System. I tried posting a few things System-related, and none of my posts ever got a reply. I can see how a program director, faced with making a decision about bandwidth, might look at that and conclude that fan interest for The System didn't exist. Moral of the story: In this day and age, if you want electronica (or whatever your favorite form of music is) to survive, you have to support it.

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