LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)


Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search

The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The marriage of mobiles and music

By Norman Lebrecht / September 12, 2001

OF all the desperate recession-beating schemes to flutter down from corporate heaven in the summer haze, the Vivendi vision of a world wired to its music is the most pitiful.

At an August press conference in Paris, and again on a strut around the Salzburg Festival, Vivendi's chief executive Jean-Marie Messier touted a deal that will, from Friday, allow French users to access Vivendi-label recordings on their mobile phones. Anything from Bjork to Bruckner downloaded at the tap of a digit for just 100 francs (£9.50) a month. Irresistible, right?

The only thing wrong with it is the medium. Messier, who hopes to sign 200,000 subscribers by Christmas, says mobiles and music are a "fetish" for under-24s. Hooking them up will endow Vivendi, the French sewage-to-rail company that bought Hollywood's Universal giant, with kid-cred. The scheme will be watched intently across the atrophying music business, where Vivendi accounts for 22.5 per cent of global CD sales (and 40 per cent of classical output).

The phone, however, is no way to enjoy music. The last Frenchman to try it was the bedridden Marcel Proust, who in 1911 listened to consecutive performances of Pelleas et Melisande from the Opera Comique until he knew the work by heart. Phone sound is as feeble now as it was then. Kids may work out how to dub their downloads on to MP3 files, but that's hardly quick or cool.

All Vivendi has done is hitch together two media in decline: recordings are canned, mobiles have peaked. For live information and entertainment, people are turning back increasingly to the humble household radio.

Radio's audience is suddenly growing faster than television's is shrinking - growing not just on car-drivers and cooks but on millions who are seeking a medium that speaks for them. Marshall McLuhan, 37 years ago, defined radio as a "hot" medium and television as "cool" in terms of their relative responsivity.

The Canadian philosopher could not have anticipated radio's current revival, which results from its ability, in a bewilderingly diverse society, to protect sensibilities and define community. Turn on any TV channel at any time of day and you will be exposed to images, more or less explicit, of sexual and anti-social activity. On radio, you know both where you are and who you are. There may be unbleeped expletives on Talk-FM and exposed breasts on Howard Stern, but mainstream radio is a mirror of its mainstream listeners.

The medium is not so much a message as a membership card to a community of interests which, in a fragmenting culture, is a key to self-knowledge. People do not listen to Radio 4's Today programme just for news, but for the reassurance that others like themselves share the same morning routine and subscribe to similar values.

This need for community is the prime engine for a boom that has sent investors gold-rushing into steam radio. In Chicago, a mom-and-pop classical music station, WNIB-FM, that was founded in 1955 on $8,000, was bought this year for $165 million. Ford and General Motors are backing rival technologies for digital in-car radio. The first system, XM, takes off in California this month.

In Britain, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell will award five new digital franchises tomorrow. Digital uptake has been slow, mainly as a result of overpriced receivers and limited choice. Shares in commercial radio have lost half their value over the past half-year. But investors, like Virgin Radio's development director Lee Roberts, are confident that digital will "in the very near future pass the hockey-stick curve and go vertical".

There are downsides as well. Many US franchises, chasing the advertiser's dollar, are switching from low-yield culture to talk and rock. Privately owned classical music stations have shrunk from 52 to 37. National Public Radio, with 100 classic outlets, is under pressure to popularise. But when NPR stations, led by San Francisco and Washington, announced plans to cancel Saturday-night live operas from the Met, a lobby of angry listeners forced Washington to retract.

In the new radio environment, replete with e-mail interactivity, listeners feel empowered and the internet globalises their sense of community. BBC Radio 3, where I shall be exploring these issues tonight, is becoming the leading forum for cultural debate and contact. My show gets calls from Argentina and South Africa.

It has been a long haul from Marconi's weak signal, but radio is the medium that brings people together. Whoever controls radio - whose radio is it, anyway? - is going to determine the civilised agenda for the foreseeable future.

  • lebrecht.live returns tonight on BBC Radio 3 at 6.45pm. Email your views to lebrecht.live@bbc.co.uk. Phone in on 08700 100 444.

    5 September 2001: Digital dos and don'ts [Norman Lebrecht on BBC and digital television]
    3 May 2000: Heard but no longer seen [Norman Lebrecht on music and the BBC]
    18 July 1998: Go on - dare to be difficult [Norman Lebrecht on Radio 3]
    22 August 1998: Top Radio 3 job: no need to apply [Norman Lebrecht on Radio 3]

    Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




  • (c) La Scena Musicale 1999