June 1997. A sunny Saturday afternoon in West London. I've got my window open, and, like several other people on my street, I'm listening to the radio. There's a lot to choose from in this part of town. I could turn the dial to the bump-and-grind ragga rhythms of Station FM, or hear revival reggae on Skyline FM, which is advertising a community dance. Tickets are available from a barber shop round the corner from my house. But I want to listen to something faster, because I'm getting ready to go out. Further along, another station is pumping out jungle: clattering drums and dark, scary bass lines. The signal's weak, and they don't give a station ID. It's as if it just appeared out of the void. The DJ is reading a list of dedications over the beat. "Shout goes out to all Black City crew. Shout goes out to all Grove crew. Shout goes out to all you Willesden massive. Big up yourself! Yeah." It soon breaks up in static. I keep scrolling along the dial. If I'm lucky, I might find Kool FM for more jungle or Girls FM for some house music.
I can't look up program schedules online or in a magazine, because none of these are legal stations. Turn on your radio anywhere within the M25 ring, the orbital freeway that surrounds London, and on the weekend you can find dozens of pirate radio stations broadcasting. Because of a history of governmental hostility to independent broadcasting, the British underground radio scene is one of the most developed in the world. For the last 30 years, the pirates have fought a cat-and-mouse battle with the authorities who control radio spectrum. It's a battle that's been fought for various reasons - to give voice to communities that had none, to have fun, to get gang respect, and for sheer love of music. Pirate has its heroes and one major villain, the Radio Communications Agency of the UK's Department of Trade and Industry.
Tired of playing with the FM dial, I go into the other room and fire up my Mac. There's one bunch of pirates who have outwitted the DTI, who have gotten bored with transmitting irregularly to a few thousand people in one city. The crew who used to run FACE FM have turned themselves into InterFACE and have decided to bring the London underground sound to the world. No more crackly signals, no more fiddling with transmitters at the top of high-rises. InterFACE is pumping CD-quality RealAudio through its Web site at www.pirate-radio.co.uk/. You might say this is what Saturday night is going to sound like in the 21st century.
A few days after that first dance around my bedroom, I'm in a basement in Farringdon, a soulless part of East London - all warehouses and office blocks. I'm with Plug, who is showing me round the InterFACE studio.
Plug (very occasionally known as Andrew Lazonby) got his nickname from a childhood resemblance to a comic strip character, and he still has a cartoon quality about him. Plug is tall and thin, with a big smile and a thatch of gingery hair, and when he DJs, he often gets carried away, bouncing around conducting the record he's just put on the turntable. His vast, irrepressible energy is perhaps due to the fact that in his other life, he has to spend most of his time waiting around for a brief moment of glory. As percussionist for (among others) the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Plug will spend minutes, even hours, following a score and counting along to the music before gravely hitting a triangle a single time. But as DJ, purveyor of "the vibe" - as he invariably refers to his guiding principle - and distributor of swirling, abstract techno grooves, he can express himself to the fullest. And he does.
The studio space is obviously used by artists. Huge papier-mâché sculptures of heads and body parts are strewn around in the corridor, making the place look like the morning after Carnevale. There are two tiny rooms, one with decks, mixer, and monitors, the other with some chairs, a fridge, a kettle, several ashtrays, and a couple of PCs. I get the impression this is the right order in which to list the room's contents. Hanging out, and the trappings of hanging out - beer, cups of tea, and the occasional joint - come far higher on the agenda than technology. The tech is there to serve a purpose - no more, no less.
Mad Ash, aka Ashley Gillard, is the other half of InterFACE. He's hunched over the keyboard, talking to someone in the Web site's chat room, his ponytail bobbing up and down. When Mad Ash types, he likes to use his words forcefully, and he likes his sentences to fill whole lines:
Like Plug, Mad Ash's energy is palpable, radiating from a face that looks like it's seen some heavy party action. He's had the "Mad" epithet since the old FM days, apparently because of the lengths he'd go to to keep the station on the air. Mad Ash has been "doing pirate" for years and has had more scrapes with the authorities than he cares to mention. He and Plug make an odd couple - a couple that, as I am later to find out, isn't necessarily very stable. Yet, for the moment, the classically trained percussionist and the South London wheeler-dealer complement each other perfectly. Mad Ash has the grit and the know-how gained from operating illegal radio stations. Plug has the yen to experiment.
They run InterFACE in the traditional pirate manner. No one gets paid. There is no advertising. In fact, the DJs pay a fee to play on the station. It doesn't matter how famous you are, whether last night you were rocking the biggest dance floor in London, or whether you've just flown back from Tokyo after playing a stadium. If you want to do a set on InterFACE, you pay 10 quid (US$16) an hour. This is, as Mad Ash explains, to ensure that people are there for the right reasons. "If you're paying, you're doing it for vibe. Not for ego or money. You're there because you believe in the music." In return, the DJs get to play whatever they want, a liberty everyone appreciates - no promoter forcing them to adhere to a particular club's music policy, no radio-approved playlist, no idiot punter tapping on the DJ booth wanting last week's Number One. Often, it's hard to get DJs to stop spinning when the station goes off the air. Hours after their sets are over, folks are chatting, swapping information, and hanging out. A lot of hanging out ...
If someone were creating awards for the most determined and most dedicated media producers in the world, the artists filing into the InterFACE studios would be winning them. With a growing Web audience (InterFACE has notched up more than 3 million visitors since its launch in February 1997), these artistic entrepreneurs are pumping out music close to the street, responsive to every innovation and shift in taste in the complex system of electronic dance culture. They are exactly the types of fast-moving operators who will shape the mediascape of the future. And the Web is their medium of choice.
Back at InterFACE, the evening session is well under way. Akin Fernandez is midway through his set. Tonight, he's gone even further out than usual. A veteran of the acid house scene, Fernandez's record company, Irdial Discs, has always put out a lot of weird music, tracks the mainstream won't touch. His playlist seems to consist largely of white noise, interspersed with snatches of Patsy Cline. Occasionally, there are slivers of a techno record, the same riff surfacing again and again, strange and obsessive. In the middle of all this, Akin grabs the mike and announces the "Irdialani national anthem." "Stand up!" he shouts at the world on the other end of the connection. "Stand up!" Then he charges into the other room, where a group of us are doing some hanging out. "Stand up, damn you! Show some respect." Nonplussed, we find ourselves on our feet. After a few moments of respectful silence, we sit down again and resume hanging out.
This is an average night at InterFACE. Everyone who comes through the door with a bag of records seems to bring along their own brand of madness. There's the Gabba crew, who specialize in "headwound" techno. This is even more intense than "nosebleed" techno, which they also claim to dominate. It runs at up to hundreds of beats per minute and consists mostly of a thudding kick drum. There are the boys from Clear Records, who can seamlessly mix Miles Davis into electronic music so that you think the two are part of the same thing; there are the junglists, who spend their time huddled in enormous Tommy Hilfiger jackets, burning reefers and nodding their heads to the beat; and there is the ambient crew, which turns up for its 6 a.m. slot in an advanced psychedelic condition, but still somehow manages to pull off a blinding set. These are the disparate faces of the other London underground, the one that doesn't run tube trains.
Stephen Jones, who runs a Web site that monitors pirate radio activity, estimates that about 40 pirate stations broadcast in Greater London alone. And as the demand for dance music increases, so does the need for pirate radio. The dance culture is now a significant sector of the UK economy, with a turnover running into the billions. Prime Minister Tony Blair has started to make speeches praising UK music as a successful export, and earlier this year he invited chart-toppers Oasis to 10 Downing Street to chat. For the nation's clubbers, who are used to fleeing from police and being accused of all manner of antisocial behavior, from encouraging drug addiction to ruining the countryside, it's all too surreal. Meanwhile, the pirates, who definitely do not fit in with Blair's vision of the New Britain, keep driving things forward.
Cleveland Watkiss, MC and producer for Project 23, a band whose fusion of jungle and jazz is on the cusp of mainstream success, says pirate radio is a vital network. "Sometimes a pirate is the only place you can find out what's going on in your area - who's putting on clubs, who's making records, what's happening on the weekend. From the underground comes everything. The entire history of black music - even jazz back in the '20s - was an underground thing."
Indie labels and pirates unite
The UK has hundreds of independent record labels, but only a limited number of legal radio stations (194 throughout the British Isles, ranging from talk-radio channels in rural Scotland to the five big nationals run by the BBC). This makes it difficult for a small label with a tiny budget to compete for airplay. Bridging the gap very nicely, pirate stations have become the main conduits through which underground music can break into the mainstream. Bristol, in the west of England, is a perfect example of a city whose thriving underground music scene has spawned international talent. Local groups such as Portishead, Massive Attack, and Tricky have all hit big-time sales after local pirates gave them much-needed airplay.
Even music PRs, off the record, admit they support pirates much as they would legal stations, sending them new releases and keeping them informed.
"We'll always help out pirates," says a publicist for a large London label who doesn't want to be named because of her work with legal, mainstream stations. "It's difficult to liaise with pirates, as they often disappear," she says. "Your only contacts are mobile phone numbers, but they're essential to the scene."
So the pirates are an integral part of British popular culture. In many ways, the pirate vibe is reminiscent of the computer hacker ethic. The same finger held up to the authorities, the same consuming belief and passion. Mad Ash started off in pirate running a hardcore station in 1991. Over the following six years, he set up a variety of stations, dealing with the many hassles ("It's a 24-hour-a-day job") to stay on the air. "It costs at least £400 (US$650) a week to keep a pirate radio station running," Mad Ash explains. "That's how much equipment you lose in raids.
"But then again, they're just blokes doing their job," he adds with an equanimity that belies the frustration with the busts, court appearances, and surveillance and the hundred other varieties of grief pirates are likely to have at the hands of the men from the ministry. In a typically British manner, pirates and DTI officers retain a cool but polite relationship. At one point there was even known to be a regular day when government busts would happen. But that relationship can quickly sour. Mad Ash is scornful of the pirates who ruin it for the rest - the amateurs with poorly built kits that interfere with air traffic control, those who block legal stations' frequencies, who physically threaten DTI inspectors, who trash buildings in an effort to secrete their equipment.
A basic case of economics
At this point, business types may find themselves scratching their heads. If there's genuine demand for this music, surely a commercial enterprise can give the people what they want. Why, in short, should pirate radio have to exist at all? The reason more pirates haven't made it into legal broadcasting is less X-Files and more economics.
The explanation is quite simple. Radio spectrum is scarce, and, like any sensible landlord, the British government is interested in maximizing revenue. So a Greater London FM license, for instance, can cost as much as £73,000 (about US$120,000) a year. On top of that, the legal radio operator must pay a fee to the Performing Rights Society (the body that administers British musical copyright). To recoup this money, a station must sell advertising. To sell advertising, the station must have a definable and commercial musical policy that advertising buyers can recognize and match up to the demographic of the people they are trying to reach. Advertisers will always push in the direction of populism, since, understandably, they just want to sell their product to as many people as possible and have no reason to be interested in experimentation, artistic integrity, and keeping the faith with the folks from the neighborhood.
London-based recording artist Daniel Pemberton underscores the dangers of commercialism. "The difference between the underground and the mainstream is that 9 times out of 10, the underground folks are doing what they do because it's something they love and care about. As soon as it becomes mainstream, money is involved and people get into it for all the wrong reasons. At the end of the day, the music suffers because people aren't trying anything different." Although Pemberton believes that about 75 percent of the music-buying population is easily manipulated through hype and advertising, there's another 25 percent who think for themselves. "They're the ones who want to choose, not have choice forced upon them."
On BBC Radio One and Kiss FM, the two most influential British music stations, a compromise has been reached. During the day, playlists reign supreme. In the evening, DJs have more freedom to experiment, with specialist shows catering to many of the types of underground music beloved of the pirates. It's not a bad arrangement, and independent records do get played, but one hour once a week is not a lot of air time, especially in the fractious and faction-ridden world of British dance music, where adherents of one genre often refuse to soil their ears with productions of another.
The boom-and-bust cycle
Pirate culture rejects advertising and playlisting not just out of some righteous purity, but because allowing DJs freedom of expression is the way new musical styles arise - and in the fast-moving world of electronic music, evolution is everything. Consider the story of jungle music. For several years, this hyperspeed offshoot of early '90s rave music (think hip-hop rhythms on crystal meth) was a byword for bad taste. Nurtured entirely by suburban warehouse parties and pirate radio, the music developed, despite being ignored entirely by the mainstream media. Then suddenly in 1994 jungle became fashionable. Soon every pop and rock band was hassling its record company to give its music jungle remixes, cashing in on the genre's newfound radical chic. Three years later, in the UK at least,the frenzy has peaked. The latest people to jump on the bandwagon are no less than Eric Clapton and David Bowie - a true signal to the underground that the style is dead. Meanwhile rumors of something called "speed garage" are percolating into the overground media, and stations like Freak FM have popped up on the FM dial to cater to the trend. And so the wheels turn.
This boom-and-bust cycle is the lifeblood of the popular-music industry. You could think of the pirate scene as the industry's R&D wing, a research program that's working overtime. The number of musical styles seems to be doubling faster than computer processor speeds, governed by some as-yet-unknown dance-floor version of Moore's Law. The Net will speed up this research work even further. When musicians in Japan have instant access to the ebbs and flows of the UK underground (and vice versa), the rate of innovation will increase exponentially. Techno music, ignored by most of the United States, is a US invention, developed in the early '80s by producers in Detroit and New Jersey. Fifteen years later, you can hear variations of the Detroit electronic sound in bedroom productions coming out of everywhere from Israel to South Africa - in fact, anywhere the basic home-studio setup of PC, sampling software, and keyboard controller has found its way.
The underground music played on InterFACE is made by people in small studios and distributed via a network of shops, clubs, and DJs. Most wealthier cities in the world have this network, but it's essentially a local affair. That's where the Net really comes into its own.
It's also why Mad Ash was so excited to meet digital entrepreneur Adam Laurie. Laurie is the man behind InterFACE's online presence. Through his West London company AL Digital, Laurie has access to the technology that allowed Mad Ash and Plug to bring the underground to the whole world - without having to worry about the law. In his office, Laurie proudly displays some shell casings - souvenirs from Sarajevo, where he went last year to set up the city's first postwar Web server.
Laurie has provided InterFACE with free equipment, server space, and bandwidth and has brokered a deal with RealAudio that includes free streams. He's convinced that the pirate style, combined with digital delivery, will add up to the media of the future. InterFACE's impressive roster of British underground DJs is a potential gold mine at a time when the US is just waking up to techno and when many people in the States have no way of getting to hear the music. The only catch is the relatively undeveloped state of the British communications infrastructure. InterFACE connects to AL's headquarters via ISDN. It's not distributed there; it's pumped under the Atlantic on a 2-Mbit pipe. The RealAudio is sent out to listeners from a hub on the East Coast of the United States. Why? The bandwidth InterFACE has access to in the States, Laurie explains, would, if you bought it off the shelf in the UK, cost about £500,000 (US$800,000) a year. "Even if you took a 2-Mbit pipe in the UK and dedicated it to RA," says Laurie, "it would cost £100K (US$160,000) a year, and you'd only get enough bandwidth for 125 simultaneous listeners." With bandwidth prices this high, it's not exactly the economics of a media revolution. British listeners also have to pay local phone charges, which means that for them, InterFACE isn't "free to air" like other forms of music media.
Despite this drawback, Laurie is confident that, even if the UK lags behind technologically, the pirates are beginning to make a global mark. The InterFACE site alone is notching up thousands of listeners every evening, mostly from the US, where there's a hunger for the music and relatively few outlets. Mad Ash, Plug, and Laurie are putting out live broadcasts 90 hours a week via ISDN. They have also secured a lease from the government's Radio Authority to broadcast via satellite, thereby bypassing the bandwidth restrictions entirely. Pemberton agrees that the momentum is building. "InterFACE is one of the most exciting projects on the Internet. As music has evolved, more and more niche markets have grown up. There is no longer one dominant musical force like there was with rock music. However, this change still has yet to reflect itself properly in mainstream media. By giving people access to tools that allow them to broadcast to others without having to go through the usual hierarchical channels, things will happen faster, and people will be able to hear the music they want to, when they want to."
Net broadcasting also allows independent record labels with little or no international distribution to compete with the giant global media companies. And, for the moment at least, the authorities aren't going to beat down your door for running a Web station.
That moment, however, might be short-lived. Already, the copyright protectors are beginning to break out into a cold sweat. Mark Isherwood, director of new technology for the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society/Performing Rights Society Alliance, is one of the people who has to do the impossible - try to enforce old media copyright rules in the face of this new breed of high tech buccaneers. "It's a gray area," he admits, emphasizing that as far as the Alliance is concerned, Internet pirates are still on the wrong side of the law. "Anyone broadcasting audio over the Net is probably breaking all sorts of laws."
But there doesn't seem to be much the organizations can do, apart from developing relationships and issuing short-term experimental licenses. It's unclear why Isherwood expects Net pirates to come forward and be licensed voluntarily, and he ultimately hints that the problem won't be solved without a radical rethinking of the whole idea of copyright. "I believe there will have to be a change of emphasis in the way rights are licensed to deal with a global environment," he says. "You cannot allow a whole marketplace to become a culture of infringement while you wait for the law to catch up."
September 1997. In typical pirate fashion, events have moved fast since the beginning of the summer. Plug and Mad Ash the odd couple have turned into Plug and Mad Ash who want nothing to do with each other. The old euphemism of "artistic differences" goes some way toward explaining things, though "violent personality clash" might be a more accurate description. Accusations have been flying fast.
But in a world without bandwidth restrictions, the divorce has a positive effect for listeners. InterFACE has split into two separate channels, both accessible from www.pirate-radio.co.uk/. Mad Ash has kept the old name and a roster of old-time pirate DJs. He's determined to keep the pure radio vibe alive on the Net. Plug, meanwhile, has formed the Global Channel, approaching the rising stars of the underground dance scene and putting together a program of talent from across the musical spectrum - not just house and jungle, which always formed the staple of the pirate diet. He's also started to broadcast from a swish Internet café in London's Soho party district. Visiting DJs from the US, Europe, and Japan are doing guest sets.
While Mad Ash has opted to be faithful to his radio roots, Plug, in broadening his base and making international connections, seems to be the one who's better adapting to the online world. Plug has also signed a deal with the fashionable Japanese techno label Sublime and is on his way to being acknowledged as an artist in his own right.
Meanwhile, the InterFACE model has been catching on fast in Britain. Gaialive (www.gaialive.co.uk/), run by Mr. C - a member of the pop band The Shamen and part owner of The End, one of London's top nightclubs - has just started netcasting. London superclub The Ministry of Sound has opened its own 24-hour mainstream dance station, while various commercial radio stations have started offering sound feeds from their sites. And, not surprisingly, Richard Branson is getting in on the act; reps from his VirginNet have been spotted at the Global Café checking out Plug's Web broadcasts.
As for good old radio spectrum, a rash of in-car route finders and other such frequency devices are flooding the market, making the airwaves even harder to come by. All the more reason why the Web is the natural next step for Britain's finest musical innovators. Mad Ash certainly knows what's coming. "This is the future. It's so deep," he says in his strong London accent. "Communication around the world. Communication without prejudice - it's what I've been looking for for a very long time. What about if we said to ourselves, 'Let's have a free party for the year 2000'? How many people would turn up and meet each other and say, 'Cor, I didn't know you was black, I didn't know you was 84 stone, I didn't know you didn't have no legs.' In here, everyone is equal. That's the beauty of it. They live their normal lives, but as soon as they get onto the other side of the screen, they're rebels - and the atmosphere is good."
This piece appeared in Wired 5.12