By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
RealNetworks aimed, from the start, at the corporate stratosphere. It recruited big-name broadcasters (ABC, NPR, Fox) to jump online, and before any of its competitors were out of the box, RealAudio was the default for radio stations, TV networks and live Net events.
"That’s absolutely what we’re about. We’re about empowering great numbers of people," says Nullsoft’s Rob Lord. "We’re about ground-up self-publishing. We’re not about trying to partner with ABC News, or broadcasting investment information to Wall Street insiders. We look at things from the bottom up."
"One of the reasons Shoutcast was so inviting to me from the get-go is that it really is a lot closer to the users. It’s totally niche-market based," says Ian Rogers, who joined Nullsoft only recently. Before that, as a consultant for Grand Royal, the Beastie Boys’ label, he set up the Shoutcast station on the L.A.-based GrandRoyal.com Web site. The station streams music by the Beasties and other bands on the label.
Grand Royal’s Shoutcast stream is relayed by another L.A. Web company, the Ultimate Band List. The UBL, in turn, is a part of Artistdirect, begun and run by Lollapalooza co-founder Marc Geiger. His site offers the ultimate in niche marketing: a collection of online channels, each devoted to a single band.
Geiger’s operation is the antithesis of the clandestine kids at KLA. Occupying two floors of an Encino office building along a thoroughly mini-malled strip of Ventura Boulevard, Artistdirect employs upward of 90 people and is running out of room for them in a hurry. The reason for the company’s rapid growth: Geiger’s belief in the power of the niche.
"When cable came in, the networks said, ‘Why are people going to watch an all-sports or all-news network?’ They missed it. Now even cable’s missing the next level down of niche-ification," says Geiger, who used to work for American Recordings, the first major label to go online. "The niches get finer and finer. We always thought the artist was the brand."
Geiger has found a way to turn the Net’s propensity for narrowcasting into a swelling corporation. Other online broadcasters niche-market on pure instinct, by a simple technique long banished from the conventional radio business. They call it "playing stuff you like." Want to tune in trip-hop 24-7? It’s out there. Relentless ’70s metal? That’s a click away as well. It’s no exaggeration to say that there’s an online radio station for every musical palate. The Shoutcast Directory (http://yp.shoutcast. com) lists all Shoutcast servers operational at any given time. Last time I checked the Top 10 list (ranked by number of listeners at that moment), it sported an all-trance/techno station in the No. 1 slot, followed by a gospel broadcast, an "’80s pop" station and one guy who plays nothing but tunes by his fave band, Phish.
The mainstream broadcast industry is not impressed.
"For niche audiences, I suppose the Internet holds great appeal. The fact is, I think most people are satisfied with what they hear on their local radio stations," says Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. "Your paper’s readers, many of them are probably into alternative music, which would appeal to them. But these are folks who are a certain age, who will eventually graduate to a different type of format at some time in their life. Maybe they won’t. But most of them do."
Nonetheless, any skepticism that ç Internet radio, and Shoutcast in particular, is a big part of music broadcasting’s future was put to bed June 1 by America Online. The behemoth service provider acquired tiny Nullsoft, along with Internet music broadcaster Spinner.com, for the tidy price of $400 million worth of AOL’s robust stock shares and options. Another Seal of Approval for Netcasting: Dallas-based Broadcast.com, the largest aggregator of online radio stations, was bought out by Yahoo! earlier this year for a staggering $4 billion.
In fact, conventional broadcasters are dipping their toes into Internet radio by the hundreds. A visit to the Broadcast.com site (http://www.broadcast.com) reveals dozens of stations in every mainstream music category, as well as news and sports, live concerts and events. Most of them use RealPlayer streams, or Windows Media Player.
Broadcast.com is extensive, but not all-inclusive. In Los Angeles, for example, KIIS-FM streams its broadcast without Broadcast.com’s help (http://www. kiisfm.com). The Santa Monica–based National Public Radio station KCRW streams programming largely separate from its over-the-air broadcast (http://www.kcrw. org/online), though it does include lots of Morning Becomes Eclectic reruns.
Even Wharton concedes that "There are so many opportunities in this new field, you would be crazy not to be exploring that if you’re a broadcaster."
Conventional broadcasters, however, have done little with their online editions except mirror their over-the-air signals.
"Their first instinct is to repurpose their content," says Geiger. "The old radio industry has not leveraged this new opportunity yet. Spinner.com, Shoutcast, Broadcast.com — how many of them were owned by broadcasting companies? Zero!"