At KEXP, technology and music embrace
A cornerstone of Seattle's alternative-music scene, KEXP has found ways to do more with music online, inspiring digital-music ventures while supporting fans and performers.
Seattle Times staff columnist
When I heard that the recording industry was piling on royalties that would hurt Internet radio broadcasters, my first concern was for Seattle's KEXP.
Not just because I'm a fan of the station but because it's an institution, a cornerstone of the city's alternative music scene. KEXP, at 90.3 FM, also has an outsized influence on the local tech industry. It has inspired several digital-music ventures, and it brings local tech and music types together through programs such as a "tech lab" held last summer to brainstorm new ways the station can use the Web.
The station began 35 years ago as a University of Washington student service, then called KCMU. It's now autonomous but continues to serve as a laboratory for the engineering school, which helped build its cutting-edge systems.
It also has ties to Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, whose donations, which began in 2001, funded upgrades that extended its reach and enabled it to stand on its own financially starting last year. Allen is why the station was renamed KEXP, reflecting ties to his Experience Music Project.
Yet the station's biggest contribution may be the way it advocates for music fans and performers, by exploring the outer limits of the stifling regulations that the recording industry uses to protect its aging franchise.
What's most impressive is that KEXP has found ways to do more with music online without breaking rules or alienating record companies.
The station was the first to provide real-time playlists of songs as they are broadcast, using a software application it cobbled together with help from the UW Computing and Communications Department.
Later, it was first to broadcast uncompressed, CD-quality audio 24 hours a day on the Internet.
It was also first to provide an online archive, where its broadcasts can be replayed for up to 14 days. Last year it started delivering free music podcasts through its Web site and iTunes.
All along, it finessed the regulations by appealing to performers who appreciate the station's role in promoting music. It also convinced record labels that a little flexibility and exposure will help their sales.
Tech companies are paying attention.
"Technology innovation in music is dangerous inherently because the labels are always afraid that somehow technological innovation is going to further encroach on their sagging revenue," said Bill Baxter, chairman of WSA, a technology trade group, and a KEXP fan. "Rather than trying to embrace technology to improve revenues, their knee-jerk reaction is to figure out how to strangle technology.
"When KEXP tries to figure out how technology is going to play relative to what they do, they have to be very careful because ... they need labels and the artists to be successful, to do some of the creative things they do," he said. "They can't upset those guys too much."
Baxter said KEXP was an inspiration for SnapTune, his radio-recording startup.
RealNetworks founder Rob Glaser said he likes and respects the station, but not exclusively.
"Having said that, my tastes in radio have generally run a bit more toward alternative rock rather than KCMU's pure eclecticism," he said via e-mail. "My favorite radio stations in Seattle over my 24 years in town have been KYYX, KJET and KNDD."
Microsoft paid tribute to KEXP last year when it tried using the station to add indie-music credibility to its Zune music player. Station host John Richards was onstage with Bill Gates at the Zune launch, and Richards supplied playlist suggestions to the Zune store.
The attitude of KEXP on content-sharing differs from most tech companies, though. Take the time that Kevin Cole, senior programming director, discovered a blog that had recorded a live performance of his show, then posted it in MP3 format the next day.
Instead of unleashing lawyers, Cole downloaded a copy "and burned it so I could play it the next day," he said.
The station would have shared its own recording eventually. It obtains rights to music that bands regularly play in its performance studio. Bands are happy for the exposure, especially to the music tastemakers who listen to KEXP.
"I think it's a philosophical question, within reason," said Tom Mara, executive director. "Our philosophy is to try to bring this music into people's lives, right? So if Bob is able to turn Judy on to this music, however he does it, that's an extension of public service, because now Bob's played a role in our mission to bring music into people's lives, to Judy.
"So we're becoming quite agnostic about how people are experiencing music, how the music is being distributed. We just really care that you get it in a meaningful way, and we also care that we do it in such a way that people can share it with others. I don't mean that in any sort of illegal sense, but just getting others in the fold."
One of last week's in-studio performances was by Lymbyc Systym, a Tempe, Ariz., duo that played in Portland the night before. Band members drove up just to play at KEXP, before turning around to head to their next concert in Santa Cruz, Calif.
"It's a radio station that I always listen to," said keyboardist Jared Bell. "It has a wide appeal to the indie scene."
KEXP's mojo may also influence a spat over higher royalties that the recording industry persuaded the federal Copyright Protection Board to impose this year. The regulatory body is boosting per-song fees that online broadcasters pay, which could increase royalty costs for broadcasters by 300 to 1,200 percent.
KEXP won't be hurt as much as small, independent Internet radio stations, but the new fees could potentially increase the nonprofit's expenses by "six figures," Mara said.
Last week Mara was in Washington, D.C., helping broadcasters lobby against the new royalties.
Among the people he visited was U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Bainbridge Island, a KEXP fan who, with Rep. Don Manzullo, R-Ill., introduced a bill that would lower the increase and provide special consideration for educational and nonprofit stations.
Eye to expansion
Meanwhile, uncertainty about the fees could hold up projects KEXP plans this year.
Under the guidance of Cole, an Amazon.com veteran, the station plans to upgrade its Web presence.
Among the possibilities: more video, such as clips of in-house performances. The station is also considering some type of social network for its listeners, so they can discuss new music and perhaps share photos and video.
There are lots of social-networking services, but it will be worth watching to see how it's done by an organization not in the business of selling ads, music or gadgets and is motivated only by love of music.
Mara said the trick will be to come up with something that uses listeners as "agents to extend public service."
"How do we get it set up in such a way that it's relevant, timely, meaningful, genuine?" he said.
"I think that's one of our challenges for the future. We've got this sociology that we've got to learn more about. If we can figure that out, I think that will be yet another way of extending, providing public service."
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Information in this article, originally published April 30, 2007, was corrected April 30, 2007. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that the UW Computer Science and Engineering Department developed streaming archive and other technologies introduced by KEXP. They were developed with the UW Computing and Communications Department.
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
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