Hello! We turn our Ello Ambient / Relaxed Machinery Community interview to Rusty Hodge - who created and runs SomaFM Internet Radio - http://somafm.com | @somafmofficial
From past interviews, I've learned SomaFM was created because Rusty was tired of so many commercials on terrestrial radio, and he'd always loved college radio where people were free to focus on different music but the programming changed every hour. Why not a station on the internet that had channels of 24 hour commercial free music on different stations?
In 1999 he launched Drone Zone and a couple months later Groove Salad and Secret Agent.
Now he had a station, but needed a name. Rusty told me: "We started in the South of Market area of San Francisco, known as SoMa.
But I also liked the name because it was the "perfect pleasure drug" that the people in "Brave New World" took when they danced to the "Electric Music Box". I liked the thought that we were that perfect pleasure drug." He registered somafm.com and launched in the middle of February 2000.
Soma FM is 100% listener supported through monthly fundraising campaigns. There are now 28 stations of eclectic music and quite a few dj's running the stations. Rusty's traveled the world going to festivals like SXSW and Defcon and International Radio Fest. He's a featured speaker at these events and is well respected throughout the internet radio world. He's also been to Washington to discuss royalties paid by online stations vs. terrestrial, the RIAA, and Sound Exchange.
I'm thrilled to have a chance to ask Rusty a few questions about the future of Soma FM and his plans.
Image: Rusty relaxing with some awesome vinyl.
John: Let's talk about your idea of opening an artist studio - with instruments and turntables - a place where artists can gather and listen or perform. You mentioned it in interviews from a few years ago and you and I have discussed it recently. Can you elaborate on your ideas and what you hope to have happen?
Rusty: It's more a dream, or a goal right now rather than a plan. I imagine it as a kind of "artist-in-residence" place, but for music. It would be a cross between a real recording studio and a home project studio. Namely, it would be one big room, filled with instruments and recording gear. Kind of the ultimate home studio, one with great acoustics, great equipment and a bunch of stuff to inspire creativity.
Part of that inspiration might come from some really interesting surroundings.
I have a friend with a cabin on a lot of acreage in Mariposa. It's old and weathered, but he had decorated and arranged it to be a pretty creatively-inspirational place. There is an old stereo, lots of strange and random vinyl sourced from local thrift shops and garage sales, not to mention a beautiful old Victrola and a pile of 78s. You really get out of your normal space when you're there, and it really frees the mind to wander and get creative.
It's got a big loft/attic about the main house that I've often imagined turning into a big studio space. Which in turn led me to thinking about creating a creative retreat. A relaxing space to go unwind and get your creative juices flowing. Be it a house with a big loft-like attic or a converted barn, where you could make music and not worry about anything else. And a place where "tape is always rolling" so if you come up with a great idea it gets recorded. Often my best music has been created while I was "practicing" and not actively recording it. I think that kind of environment could bring more improvisation into electronic music.
As a kid I was really into Elton John's Caribou album, which according to the liner notes was recorded at this guest ranch recording studio called the Caribou Ranch outside Boulder, CO. It was super popular in the 70s and early 80s as a place artists would go to escape the urban environments. Sadly it shut down as a recording studio after a fire in the mid 80s. But the idea of what was going on there always inspired me.
And now that audio and music recording and production gear is so much more affordable, I thought that it would be cool to do a version of that for the smaller, niche, indie artists. And definitely angled towards electronic/experimental music production. So like a cross between Steve Roach's Time Room and the Caribou Ranch. And maybe just on 10-20 acres to make it affordable.
And who knows, maybe have a live camera or two in the studio, and sell subscriptions to the audience to have access to the behind the scenes cameras. Some big electronic artist was doing this... you could subscribe to watch him work in the studio.
So maybe it's one part Caribou ranch, one part Time Room, one part Big Brother.
John: This is such a beautiful dream - I do hope it happens someday!
Rusty: It's a ways off but I continue to find a way to make it happen. Finding the right-- affordable-- real estate is the biggest challenge.
Image: Some of SomaFM's wide array of stations.
John: Where is music going in terms of formats and how people listen? Physical media seems to be heading further and further into niche fan territory to me.
Rusty: I can see that. I mean, no doubt digital is so much more convenient to listen to things. Even in the audiophile world, digital audio servers controlled by iPads and touchscreens are becoming hugely popular. Especially if you're only concerned about the quality of the sound you're listening to.
Physical media was more about the ritual than the sound quality... although I know some will disagree with me. A lossless file on a hard disk is not going to sound worse than a CD.
John: Beautiful physical releases still coming out but in smaller and smaller numbers. How do you see digital releases in the future?
Rusty: I like to joke that there is a huge vinyl section at Urban Outfitters where young people buy records to decorate the walls of their apartments!
We're seeing more bands do Blu Ray releases with HD videos and hi-res audio tracks.
At South by Southwest last year, there was a lot of talk about artists releasing books to go along with their digital music releases. I kind of like the book to accompany the digital release idea. They're like a small coffee-table book.
I'm a bit of a luddite where I still want to own and have offline access to my music. Online music services are great, and of course I love internet radio; but I like having something else as well. I can't bring myself to get rid of my CDs and don't think I ever will, same with my vinyl.
But then I don't actually listen to the vinyl that much. Except the occasionaly weeekends I find myself at my friends cabin, where all we do is listen to vinyl there. But that's because there isn't a computer in the old cabin!
John: Urban Outfitters joke... awesome. Regarding the SXSW comment seeing books. I saw an episode of Shark Tank where a company pitched "superfan" booklets and bundles of things for those mega die hard fans - sold through Walmart - so you can get that special deluxe release of Kidz Bop 29. They also do special backstage pass bundles and other all tactile physical things the total opposite of digital. While Kidz Bop and Walmart don't interest me a ton ... the concept is interesting. http://www.zinepak.com/superfan
Rusty: It is but "superfans" in general don't shop at Walmart. Superfans-- with the exception of kids-- generally aren't a mass-market audience.
But I totally understand the drive to have physical artifacts related to the music you love the most.
John: Personally - I've embraced digital almost fully. I miss the romance and tactile element of looking through my vinyl years ago - and pulling them from their protective clear sleeve - then the inner sleeve from the cardboard, then the record from the inner sleeve. The smell. Putting it on the turntable, setting the needle down... yeah - loved it!
Rusty: ...it's a great experience! CDs didn't have that experience, and that's why I think CDs ultimately failed when digital came along.
John: But! I rarely ever play my vinyl anymore (at least a decade now) and I ended up with so many cd's I didn't have shelf space any longer in our small house so pulled them all from their jewels - recycled those - and put the artwork in tubs in the basement. All the cd's went into media holders. I used to keep about 600 cd's at work in our server room in those cases. Then in 2008 I got my first ipod... and... wow - eventually put the cd's in the basement and quit carrying them around.
Rusty: I can relate!
Do I miss the racks and shelves of vinyl and cd spines in my studio? yes... but I think I love the minimalism of not having them there even better - and it's all portable now.
My compromise has been to give 95% of my personal CD collection to SomaFM. And sadly, in the mid 80s, I sold all my vinyl because I didn't have room to store it anymore. Sad because I had a lot of stuff that never came out on CD or the CDs that did come out were sonically inferior. I did keep probably 100 of the 2500 LPs I had, but in retrospect should have kept 2-3 times that many of them. 300 LPs isn't an outrageous amount to store!
Anyway, now I'm back up about 1000-1200 LPs in my collection. But it is a much more curated collection, usually only buying stuff on vinyl that I already had on digital and really really like or think is a really important recording.
John: Have you seen a new startup trying to get funding called http://bckstge.com/ yet? Or anything similar?
Rusty: That's doesn't appeal to me, because it is still digital. I like having the physical artifact. Something I can touch. There are a lot of digital releases now that come with elaborate PDF "books". But it's digital again, and it doesn't do it for me.
I'm assuredly not anti-digital, I just don't only want digital stuff. Especially when it comes to looking at images and reading text. I'd like to have a hard-copy option. A beautiful hardcopy option.
John: Interesting - really good point there.
Posters and "art prints" are also cool. I love the artwork that Tycho aka Scott Hanson sells to go along with his releases and shows. He has the benefit of being a professional designer as well as an artist.
Image: a few more of SomaFM's stations.
John: Big anniversary this year for Soma FM - 15 years! Congratulations! What's planned to celebrate?
It's still kind of fuzzy. We're still trying to nail down a venue and date for a big event. We're also debating whether it will be a musical performance first and a party second, or vice versa. Because if it's a party first, the musical performance will be more intimate.
We want to have 2 rooms or distinct areas, because our programming is so diverse we want to counter-program the rooms, like we'll have an indie rock act on the stage, and in the other room have an ambient artist. Or have Dion who does our 7" Soul channel spinning 45s while we have a downtempo act performing on the other stage. We have over 25 channels we need to represent!
At the same time, we want to have an area where people can talk and mingle, where our listeners can get to know each other.
So we're still working on it, and want it to be really great. But it's taking a while to get things together, especially because we don't have much of a budget to pay the artists that will be performing. But it's going to come together. We just had a planning meeting this morning about it even.
John: Sounds like it's going to be a tremendous event!
I don't want to over-hype it but I'm hoping so!
Image: Rusty interviewing Steve Roach
John: I always like to end an interview with a wide open bland space. What do you wish I'd asked you? What would you like to share with the community reading this?
Rusty: Ask me what's the hardest part of running SomaFM!
The fundraising part is the biggest challenge, and can often be demeaning. People say things like, "stop begging for money and just force people to pay a subscription". Or "why does it cost that much to run? You can rent a virtual server for $50 a month!" We do run SomaFM on a shoestring budget, and I'm lucky that so many of our DJs are volunteers who only occasionally get small "gratuities" to make up for all the time they spend working on the channels.
The other thing is all the legal and reporting stuff. Dealing with the music royalty side of things takes a lot of time, and isn't enjoyable at all. The users of copyright-- that is radio stations-- and the royalty collection and licensing groups have often contentious relationships. The royalty collectors always are pushing to get the royalties raised, and we're always in a position where we can barely afford to pay the royalties at all. And it's not just in the US, but we get the royalty collection agencies from all over the world wanting to collect. They're often trying to collect independently for the same thing. It's a pain to deal with and prove for example which percent of our listeners are in Canada vs the US. It's a mess of international regulations.
That's what I like least about running SomaFM.
Of course, what I like best is finding really interesting music and playing it for other people, and getting to know the artists and labels who are releasing amazing music that never gets heard by the majority of music listeners. That mostly makes up for all the parts I don't like.
John: I have the same thing with Relaxed Machinery on a ridiculously smaller scale... the great stuff - seeing a release go out and knowing we helped an artist get in front of people they might not have without us... that's what makes the trickier and sometimes grumpier times all wonderful!
Rusty: It's like that old saying: If you're doing something you really love, you never have to work again.
John: Thank you, Rusty, for taking the time for this interview. I truly enjoyed it.
a few more images for you:
Image: Rusty suggested some examples of great physical releases from Numero.
Image: Rusty working on the SomaFM servers in their rented dataspace in San Francisco.