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Industry Insider: Bob Boilen

February 1, 2010
As the host of NPR''s All Songs Considered, Bob Boilen listens to a lot of new music each week.

As the host of NPR''s All Songs Considered, Bob Boilen listens to a lot of new music each week.

Radio consolidation has helped create an ironic new reality: There are fewer places on the dial to get new music played at a time when it's easier than ever for musicians to produce their material. Still, some media outlets do seek out and play new music, and a standout is National Public Radio's All Songs Considered. Bob Boilen is the show's creator and host, and he listens to a huge amount of new releases every week. He is also an accomplished musician in his own right, with his band Tiny Desk Unit. With these credentials, we knew he'd be well-suited to comment on the state of music today, its future and how material is selected for the show.

How much of what gets on the show is from independent artists?

Unsigned music is an enormous part of what gets sent in and played on our show. Today, it's both easier to make music and easier to get it into the hands and ears of a lot more of people. The groundswell of home recording and the quality that can be achieved thanks to the computer is amazing. The ability to have so much at your fingertips now, to put something down while you are inspired and capture it in decent quality is such a part of this revolution.

Some would say that it's not good that technology allows everyone to make music — that it reduces the quality. What's your opinion on that?

It's good, absolutely. Some people would disagree with this, but for me this is the best decade for music, at least for the qualities that I like in music and feature on the show — which is personal music made from the heart. These are qualities that recording at home gives you. Think about it, musicians used to have to pay $250 per hour to record music in a new, strange environment, all while playing their best often in front of people they've never worked with before, and often in ways in which they weren't used to. But the home studio has changed this. Technology now allows you to record when inspiration strikes in the comfort of your own home, on your time. And that's a huge difference I hear in music today.

What do you say to people who think that technology dehumanizes music?

True, technology is technology. It's not like picking up a guitar and strumming. But the way I look at it is, there's always some unseen collaboration that we do with machines and software. I am of the mind that when I work with Native Instruments' Kore 2 synth or when I play with [Apple] Logic, I am actually collaborating with engineers and programmers. And when that collaboration is successful, it's absolute magic. So it depends on the musician. For me, when I make electronic music, I'm not rigid about it. I let accidents happen. And that's what humanizes it, and to me that's when the music really works. It's like that string buzz you get from the guitar that can sound awful or excellent depending on how you work it into the song.

Technology not only makes it easier to create music, it also makes it easier to distribute it. This has opened up the floodgates. Do you see that as a good thing?

Yes, definitely. Think back to before the year 2000 when most artists who made music weren't heard by anyone outside of their local bar or coffee shop. They were limited because they didn't have the right connections to get a record contract and get heard on the radio. It was one big filter after another and those filters let only a very small percentage of what was happening in music into the ears of the population. When I was a kid, back in 1967, I could go to the store and there were probably 50 albums a whole year available for purchase. But now, today, there's so much. We receive a constant avalanche of music at our show — some 200 to 300 CDs a week. And that's just a fraction of what's out there. All this does is highlight the importance of the curators who have to sift through all this music and discover the good stuff. But the good news is you don't need any experience to be a curator. It doesn't have to be NPR where you discover your music. With music blogs and such, anyone can do it.

What is it that you are looking for when you choose music for your show?

I like hearing stuff that is put together in a way that I've never quite heard before. I like to hear adventure and mystery. Lyrics are really important, but they have to speak to me in some way that is not clichéd — lyrics that tell me something in a new light that I hadn't thought of. If it feels like it's slightly different than anything I've heard before, then I'm intrigued.

Can you tell us your process of choosing music for the show?

Every week, I have to find six to eight songs for All Songs Considered. I listen until I find 10 of them. The first thing I do is have an intern go through all of the mail and put all the press releases in the recycle bin so I just have the CDs. Then I go through them one by one. When I find my 10, I then see which ones go together and put them on the show.

So it's still about listening to CDs?

Yes, for me at least. I do get lots of e-mail with electronic downloads, but I like those less. I know I shouldn't love the plastic so much, but it is a very handy way to hold in your hand the artist's vision. You see the artwork, the titles and the notes. Seeing a live show is another — I see a lot of live shows. So in order it would be CDs, live events and then digital downloads.

What would you tell musicians who want to make their CDs and music stand out?

First, you want to be sure you are proud of what you have done. Make sure that you can objectively sit back after a month of doing it, listen to it, and say, “Yeah, this is it. This represents what I love and what I love to do.”

Second, make the first song really good. For someone like myself who goes through lots of material, that is usually where I start. So don't begin the disc with a spoken-word piece or a song that takes 14 minutes to build up. This is kind of awful because I'm a fan of music and I wish I could listen to every CD I get from beginning to end. I know there is a lot of heart and soul that goes into these things, but making the first song really representative of what you do is a real good way to get our attention.

Third, artwork is important. Make sure it conveys your vision. I find in the world of CDs and music, you can, in fact, judge a CD by its cover, and I'd say it's about a 95-percent hit rate. Interesting CD art is going to be an interesting CD. When I see a CD with a woman in a cocktail dress, maybe that's her vision, but it tells me an awful lot. It's very staged, preplanned, doesn't show the kind of adventure and mystery that I personally seek in music.

Fourth, you have to be persistent. I shouldn't say this, but if I get an e-mail from somebody that says, “I have been making music for this many years and what I do is unique. Here's why I think it is unique, please give a listen to my record,” I generally go and listen to it. If they just say, “I made a record, please listen,” I generally won't.

Lastly, find the right venue to play your music. I get some CDs in, and I'm thinking, “Why did they send this to me? Do they not listen to the show?” So a big, flat-out, I'm-going-to-send-it-to-everybody is silly. You've just got to put yourself in the shoes of the person who is going to listen to it and ask if this is something that they would show interest in.

Where do you see the future of music?

If you are asking me where the music business is going to go, I frankly could care less. But for music, I think it's just going to get more fascinating as more and more nonmusicians play with this art form and get heard. I think you'll hear stuff that you just wouldn't have imagined. That's what I am excited about every time I pop open a new CD, download a song or go see a band. I'm hoping that I am going to find somebody who is approaching this audio art form from a completely different perspective. In the end, it's really about the art. And it's better now than it absolutely ever was.


Randy Chertkow and Jason Feehan are authors of The Indie Band Survival Guide: The Complete Manual for the Do-It-Yourself Musician and The D.I.Y. Music Manual, and founders of the open and free musician resource IndieGuide.com.

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