David Mandl on Mon, 21 Feb 2005 12:13:39 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> In Praise of the Segue


In Praise of the Segue
by Dave Mandl

The cultural changes wrought by the iPod and the MP3-trading movement are 
now well known, but here's something to add to the list: It seems that 
radio listening habits--or at least online radio listening habits--have 
been deeply affected as well. At a recent staff meeting at WFMU (where I 
do a regular music show), the station manager shocked most of us by urging 
all DJs to change the way our archived programs are accessed over the 
internet. Instead of the default format, where we offer just a single link 
to each two- or three-hour show, he strongly recommended that we make our 
archives accessible by individual song. The newest generation of music 
listeners, it turns out, is almost completely song-oriented, and is far 
more likely to click on a radio archive to hear a specific tune (as found 
on our online playlists using a search engine) than to sit through the 
entire show, no matter how brilliant the whole may be.

In retrospect, the reasons for this change in orientation are obvious: On 
of music listeners coming of age in the past five years thinks of music as 
collections of MP3s--that is, as individual tracks--swapped with friends, 
downloaded off the net, or purchased from online music stores, then 
listened to on a computer or MP3 player, possibly in random shuffle mode. 
The basic unit of music consumption is now the *file*, rather than the 
album or CD. Nevertheless, this development has come upon most creative 
radio producers as a rude surprise. Having been suckled on the "freeform" 
radio tradition, we tend to view our shows as almost indivisible entities, 
even more than performers of live music do.

In freeform radio--a rapidly dying format, sadly, simply because it's not 
calculated enough or bad enough to survive in the Free Market--the *segue* 
as an organic whole, with the transitions between songs the crucial 
connecting tissue holding the whole thing together. You may go from koto 
music to the New York Dolls to free jazz in the course of an hour (which 
is the kind of thing freeformers are proud of), but it's how you *get* 
from A to B that counts. Anybody can throw *Too Much Too Soon* on 
Turntable 1 and Albert Ayler on Turntable 2 and call it a day, but 
creating something that holds together, catches subtle and unexpected 
connections between tracks, and creates some kind of unified mood (or a 
shifting sequence of moods) is what a great set is about. You may have a 
kickass record collection, but just slapping things on the air in 
effectively random order--where's the art in that? And what listener wants 
to be dragged through a jolting cacophony of 
loud-soft-acoustic-electric-spoken word-folk-world-music-comedy, like 
Segues aren't explicitly talked about very often even by DJs. And there 
are situations where it's not even necessary to think about them, like an 
all-garage rock show or an all-gamelan music show, where they just happen 
naturally. There's also nothing wrong with wanting to simply hear a 
particular song you love now and again. But the importance of segues in 
music sets can't be stressed too much. In the days when I first auditioned 
for a radio show (and later screened other prospective DJs), audition 
tapes were made with most of the body of each track removed, leaving just 
the segues and the few seconds before and after each transition. Once it's 
been revealed which track the DJ has chosen to go to after the current 
one, the rest is more or less an anticlimax, at least when you're 
evaluating the person's chops. It's not just your musical vocabulary and 
taste that matter, but the ability to put it all together in some 
meaningful way. Having a listener give you three hours of valuable time to 
spin absolutely any music in the world for them is both a privilege and a 
challenge, and creating some kind of unique sound environment for them 
(and this applies to rock and roll just as much as more obvious genres, 
like ambient or soundtrack music) is about the best thing you can do in 
return. The idea of "psychogeography" is no less important in a set of 
music than in an experimental film or an actual psychogeographical drift 
through a physical space.

But back to iPods and file-swapping: With MP3s becoming the de facto 
currency of music listening and trading, and with shuffle mode becoming a 
more and more common way of programming an hour of music--Apple's recent 
introduction of the iPod Shuffle is pretty clear evidence of that--the art 
of the set and the segue is in imminent danger of dying. As a DJ in his 
forties, I'm aware of the risks that saying this kind of thing entails, 
but I'm not simply dismissing the younger generation of listeners as a 
bunch of Xbox-playing philistine punks. In fact Top 40, with its purely 
single-song-oriented approach, dates from long before freeform radio. It's 
interesting to note that the earliest rock and pop music listeners, with 
their carrying-cases of vinyl 45's, were strikingly similar to today's MP3 
collectors; freeform radio was originally a product of the late-sixties 
post=96*Sergeant Pepper* era, with the blossoming of LPs, 
eight-minute-long tracks, and "serious" listening. Today, with the 
staggering variety of recordings of every conceivable style and provenance 
available (a situation only helped by MP3 technology and file-swapping), 
and the ease which they can be combined--sometimes literally, in the case 
of mashups, which can almost be thought of as vertical segues--we have the 
opportunity to create greater meta-masterpieces than ever, tailored to 
people's moods, or the time of day, or the weather. Why destroy all that 
by getting lazy andy pushing the "Shuffle" button?

Dave Mandl

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