Register Saturday | December 15 | 2018

Hanging the DJ

Webcasts Usher In a New Class of Music Nerds

There are many colours in the nerdy rainbow, and today I'd like to focus on the "music nerd" shade. It encompasses the "indigo" and "violet" of your basic ROYGBIV nerd-scheme. At this point, a typical music nerd would likely make a joke about Michael Bivens, ever eager to prove his or her mastery of the subject matter. But we at NerdWorld will refrain, because we've gone to certain lengths to avoid being control-freak collector scum when it comes to music. One day last year, we hauled all of our albums to a used-CD store and now rely solely on our computers for music. And we've never looked back.

We like to think of ourselves as the other type of music nerds: those who are nerdy, enjoy music, but wish to avoid the mania of living like little Napoleons, from one album conquest to the next. We're fans of letting iTunes have its way with the MP3 library-but when the playlist logic becomes too obvious and precious, Web radio wins out. It's the perfect option for the noncommittal music nerd. Why own CDs and play your own music when you can let the DJ be victimized by situational cachet indicators? Why not make the DJ be prisoner to the internal decision-making tree? You know, the one with splitting forks of label affiliation, packaging and judgements based on how stupid the artist has been in interviews. We would rather just listen and then submit snotty reviews of various webcasts in our biweekly column.

We like to think of ourselves as the other type of music nerds: those who are nerdy, enjoy music, but wish to avoid the mania of living like little Napoleons, from one album conquest to the next.

My dear pal, currently living in Berlin, suggested this station to me some time back. FM4 is a free, government-supported webcast from Austria. If you have concerns about the language barrier, chuck them. The DJs speak as much English as they do German (everyone, it seems, has given up trying to translate slang). And even if you didn't sign up for a year of German in high school just to learn how to properly pronounce Einstürzende Neubauten, the jibber-jabber on FM4 is all Austrian, so it lilts prettily.

The playlists at FM4 are phenomenal in scope-even a little too democratic for my taste-but are crafted with skill and are full of the music one is meant to like these days. A recent sampling included Bright Eyes (no), Dresden Dolls (not my thing) and Asian Dub Foundation (fine, okay). I'm not enthusiastic about any of that music, but it was a good listen nonetheless, if only for the pleasant sense of surrendering to a guided journey, feeling out all the weird shared experiences of global "youth" culture. The result of my journey: the realization that buying into Mando Diao is a transnational phenomenon. I snickered. I felt smug for a moment. And I kept listening, although I couldn't explain why. FM4 just feels ... inevitable. Like Nike or Starbucks, but without the guilt. It's best-case-scenario public radio. Listen, and gain portable knowledge to empower you in your next conversation with a record-store clerk who has something to prove.

Such clerks put me in a mind to discuss Maximumrocknroll. Among the more notable non-personal zines found in record stores, MRR is the equivalent of the middle-aged guy standing in the back at an all-ages rock show. Entirely volunteer-run and over twenty years old, MRR stands as a testament to punk rock's never-ending fascination with itself. To return more explicitly to our metaphor: you never, ever date that old guy who goes to all the shows, but his presence is always appreciated and gives a sense of continuity. So it is with MRR. To take it seriously is an invitation to conceptual migraines; to ignore it is to experience phantom pains for one's sixteen-year-old heart.

Fortunately, MRR Radio offers a convenient alternative to the sometimes-infuriating sidebar components of punk culture, captured forever in stapled newsprint. The music is still so good, and it's a delight to be able to listen to it without paying a cover or being the oldest person in the room. MRR Radio has been around since forever-before the zine even-but thanks to the Internet, you no longer need to stay up past your bedtime to tape it from the radio.

I don't need to believe I have a stake in someone else's art, or that the whole routine is something more than a marketing exercise. But when a song comes on that predates my premature onset of bitterness, I'm a changed nerd. Suddenly, it does matter.

For a volunteer effort, MRR Radio is a well-coordinated weekly affair, a radio program that can be downloaded, free of charge, for personal or broadcast use. I listen to it on KCPR out of San Luis Obispo. Thanks to the time difference, the webcast coincides nicely with my mid-morning hate-on, and it gets me skipping down the hall to my next meeting. I'm out of touch with punk culture and music these days, but the songs I recognize (approximately one in five, in this case) make for two-minute surges of magic. A tip: if you like some of the new music MRR plays, don't try to find it on vinyl. You'll only feel frustrated and old when you have to pay with "well-concealed cash" instead of your boyfriend, Mr. Visa.

Before signing off, I'd like to bring you back to that time before Visa but after punk. Remember college rock? Remember when people could just say, "Uh, I like college music," and you knew exactly what they meant? Ah, that was quite a time. In today's sophisticated market, however, personal lyrics and minor chords just don't cut the mustard. Where can people turn when they need to throw giddy devil horns and karate kicks along to old-timey jams while at work? I don't live in the US anymore, nor am I in college, so I didn't really know the answer to that question. I consulted the Radio Locator, which is fantastic, and chose the station affiliated with UC Berkeley, KALX. I simply assumed that if ever there were a college radio webcast that controlled asses the world over, it would be at Berkeley.

I was wrong. In true SF fashion, KALX is a bland, community-oriented, politically correct enterprise. It respects the personhood of its DJs by permitting them to submit hour upon hour of useless programming. Each time I tune in from my cubicle, I hope for college rock, but all I hear about is community affairs, none of which concern me. I think I heard a Solex song once, but I can't remember whether it was just a hopeful mirage in a desert of identity politics. This is all perplexing to the extreme, since most Americans who are not fans of the Billboard Top 200 grow up believing San Francisco to be the capital of Taking Care of Business. We may conclude that some things are not what they once were: mostly, that people doing college radio are young. College-aged! They have their own ideas about nostalgia, which, like their community affairs, don't include me.

I suppose that's the point. I don't want to be involved in the silly dramas of music fandom, whether it's college kids or the middle-aged concert-goer. I don't need to believe I have a stake in someone else's art, or that the whole routine is something more than a marketing exercise. But when a song comes on that predates my premature onset of bitterness, I'm a changed nerd. Suddenly, it does matter.

The Internet-if it doesn't keep me young, at least it keeps me honest.

David and Vanessa currently live and toil in Toronto-for, respectively, a large technology corporation and a large eCommerce vendor. They met via their blogs and were married in the winter of 2002. They have a hamster and two dogs, but no yacht. NerdWorld now appears alternating Mondays.