The resurgence of pandemic calls for substantial change within the landscape of contemporary arts, culture and the everyday politics surrounding those. However, this actually came out at the exact moment. When the idea of ‘sight’ starts to diminish in the current neoliberal context — the abundance of online advertisements, web-based meeting rooms, for example, surely played some part in this exhaustion — ‘sound’ captivates as a form like no other. Walls of sound, as loosely termed as it might be — from silence to noise, to the joy of listening — unfurls many dimensions (and contradictions) previously unheard of.
Indeed, within many areas of life, the world has turned its eyes and started to tune in – shifting the focus towards the enjoyment of the ears: What can the act of listening do? What can the experience of listening, if any, impact any of “us” and, furthermore, the idea of being humane? Can ‘sound’ be compiled somehow and turned into something more meaningful than just as a pleasuring performance for the ears? Within the current contemporary world and its situation, sound cannot be considered only as a thin-foiled issue no more. It is a method for political contestation, according to Anja Kanngieser.
If we shift our current focus of sound as a concept on its own to the infusion of meaning into sound, arguably, sound can be explored and gestured along various dimensions. One of the most well known and celebrated dimensions of sound is through music. From music, it is transversed, transmitted in many shapes or forms, and one of them is as a mix. These days, mixes have reached the contemporary web of the internet, spanning across multiple channels such as independent internet radio broadcasted in an individual manner and affixes to the ever-popular sites Mixcloud, Soundcloud, Spotify, and more. This sound-concerned discipline has evolved beyond the ordinary concept of tape as an object to disseminate the mix. Its current contemporary state is bounded by the internet and dependent on the web network for them to explore its capability of mediating knowledge and ideology. And as we delve deeper into the following section, the possibility of mix as a sound practice is virtually endless, particularly if we locate them beyond the realm of an only compilation of sound and music.
In this speculative essay, exploring, considering, and arguing to the possibilities of a temporal and sequential concept might be possible: internet radio mixes by Norrm radio as an agent for (indirect) transcultural dialogue through a structured imagination, converting them as micro-level, contemporary geopolitical relations beyond the binaries of “inside” vs “outside.” By transcultural dialogue, signifying their collaborative practice as involving and extending across cultures is more important than ever. It is an extended form of quasi-critical geopolitics that makes use of sound practice within the current realm of global situations, and by finding its meeting ground, music that ‘appeal to quirkiness,’ as the ‘commons,’ for example, it consistently shaped discourses between cultures without having to be in direct contact with one another. Thus, internet radio mixes serve as a non-conforming sound practice for developing indirect exchange in the future, especially if we perceive COVID-related issues as a somewhat dystopian prophecy of the time ahead. The focus thereof is not merely theorizing, rather, situating (the praxis of) Norrm radio shows’ mixes across geographical and political contexts and what can be said at the moment and the afterwards. Having said that, towards the end of the writing, a potential critique could further be explored, an objection that can be directed towards the said praxis.
Digital Mixes: A Tiny, Tiny Consideration
Mixtapes, or in this article understood simply as ‘mixes,’ is a product of a popular front with a long history and both cultural significance and importance. It is a medium vital to the development of contemporary music culture that extends beyond its commercial value. It was once acknowledged exclusively as a creative form, utilized for independent distribution of musicians wanting to make it in the industry. However, the paradigm soon shifted and realized that it challenges the notion of commerciality in popular music from the utilization of independent distribution. Furthermore, the premise of cassette tape and internet mixtapes are indistinguishable. It acts as a space for politics to be examined and cultural expression to be manifested. Particularly, in this case, after the transition from “all things physical,” physical copy and physical public floor to a more nuanced personal space that can even be extended to the non-tangibles: digital and cloud-based media. Another revival is coming its way and it calls for more exploration. With that in mind, it is important to note that explorations on this topic are still limited at this point. Only a small list of publicly available publications can be considered and most of them are mainly from the field of mixtape/cassette tape studies, where it serves as the base for this exploration and making it possible to develop the ideas and examine the discourse into the domain of digital mixes.
The Case of Norrm
Norrm is a Bandung-based independent online radio with an extended arm in the retail business. The radio was established sometime in 2017. Mentioned as an ‘alternative media platform,’ they championed rare grooves, offbeat balearic, intelligent electronica, collections of universal oddities dug across the globe that transcends all musical tastes with internationally-acclaimed DJs and music enthusiasts at their disposal. Moreover, they are a multi-discipline platform for creatives, serving as a forum for like-minded individuals to gather and connect through their fair share of love for record digging, hearing, and listening.
Norrm’s radio show program consists of a tight-knit community of DJs and individuals from Bandung and beyond. Beyond means that their selection of hosts is not limited to local Indonesians. Primary examples are the likes of “UPE MUZIKA Show” hosted by Hokkaido-based DJ, Kazuya aka PEE, “Electric City” hosted by Telly Onishi, Kobe-bound DJ and producer, and “Tea Time” hosted by Antony aka Fuji’s Bazaar from the United Kingdom. Most of them also have broadcasted mixes on another internet radio establishment at some point, or even simultaneously and they also have guests filling in for their absence. These shows are mostly monthly excursions of music across the globe that can only be best described as a personal artefact of the said hosts. The shows are archived in Mixcloud, and the radio maintained specific schedules for the shows mentioned above as well, besides it is also sporadically aired on Norrm’s website.
This very affair of multicultural broadcasting talent and its programming nature raises interesting notions to be further explored and questioned, albeit in a compact form. Nevertheless, offering this kind of structured interpretation within (critical) geopolitical relations might be crucial in looking at the practice:
- Internet as geography
- Norrm Radio as a platform
- The hosts as a political subject
- The hosts’ mixes as a program – the political object
- A hybrid condition where the platform and the program meet within the realm of geography, producing discussion.
Imagine all the situation above is simulated like a de-facto sovereign state; the platform occupies the geography and space; the host and their program are the subject/object entities within the nation/state; then what comes last is the resulting politics.
At first glance, the very surface, conservative geographical assumptions are acknowledged, as mentioned beforehand with each of the hosts’ milieu. It is important to make this issue visible since it will likely have direct implications with the way to perceive it. However, in-depth observation suggests that it goes beyond that. Multicultural programming defines the station and occupies the platform: for ‘good music’ to be dispersed and transcultural dialogue to be had while simultaneously still attaining specific sensibilities that the international hosts possess. They attach their sensibilities to commonalities, in which they share offbeat music as the object of the commons. Upon investigation, it is non-violent, not a clash of culture-type thing. The hosts express and construct their ideal worldview through the one or 2-hour time slot of a sonic expedition across various embedded socio-historical contexts. Through their music choice and mixes construction, it transforms dialogue beyond the boundaries of a singular paradigm of music.
On the other hand, the mixes broadcasted by Norrm serves as a powerful ideology transmitting tool where it stands with a variety of everyday politics through each of the hosts’ selection of music and curation. Following Don MacKinnon’s idea, “songs are liberated from their albums,” he said when observing the practice of cassette tapes, internet mixes by the hosts worked similarly. It is not confined to territoriality: it can be a straight-forward jangle pop from the Balkan or percussion-heavy African folk. It can be some spoken words that celebrate diversity or anti-Anthropocentric drum machine solos. The songs are loose. It does not have to be music from their respective hosts’ culture, but the personal artefact is represented rightfully; there’s the conscious curation. By means of the mixes, it drifts away from geographical demarcation that, if we borrow ideas from several critical geopolitics debates, created space-spanning networks that produced and sustained “regionness” by way of the altered understanding of cultural processes that are multifaceted. It is not merely antagonistic, however, since the principal object of this is to depart from identity politics. Therefore, it might be possible to argue that by aversing from and limiting the play of identity politics, they could be more explorative in experimenting with the space and its profound political object, the mixes. Moreover, the space is cathartic for the time being, and the concept is extended through the uploading, gaining further appeal from the masses, the listeners, through thorough and casual listening.
From all of the experimentations, it is possible that this activity of doing the digital mixes would result in the reinforcement of the link between cultures, undoing severe clashes and (unwanted) power dynamics during this unprecedented time. For them to still be able to establish and maintain the connection even during times of global crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic that the world currently experienced, though not innovative per se, is still very much appreciated.
The pandemic has urged us to rethink the many ways in which we live our lives. Another exhausting area lockdown might start to be rolled up in some places pretty soon: it looks like we are going to have to live with it for several more months or even years before it submerges, and the population will have to adapt to new life models. Internet radio might be one of the new life models since it possibly accommodates people who have adjusted to collectively rely on a platform-run initiative from the comfort of their own home or even the said ‘new norm.’
Concurrently, Norrm, as a platform, without a doubt helped redefine music and digital streaming through the airwaves and in the capacity of doing that in more than a local context. This analytical-experimental reading of Norrm’s mixes raises additional questions that can be framed here as an open-ended, explorative objection. Even though hypothetically, it is well appreciated that they are able to find a meeting ground through music as a way to nurture transcultural dialogue through sound dimensions and further extending the possibility of contesting the hegemony dominated by first-world country internet radios, it is also possible to argue that it left us with one of the most important issues that could result from the praxis: aesthetic commodifications. An outsider looking-in perspective could offer more context.
The practice of independent online radio disseminated by Norrm is still an anomaly, especially within the Indonesian creative collectives without undermining other existing platforms that might be similar to Norrm. It might never be about popularity; operating on this scale is not easy and might be costly both in the short term and in the long run, though it does not have to be in an economical manner. Outside of it all, it looks promising with the kind of hosts they can attract, yet, for that very specific reason lies the critique, though at this moment might be of little depth. They could treat the music and its proprietary sensibilities as a commodity. The ‘differences’ that they boast are commodified in a more negative nuance. It capitalizes on its quirkiness and offbeat-ness of it, and that possibly hurts their position within the archipelago.
With the choice of music they decided to be affiliated with, the residents they are connected with, it produces a new hybrid exclusivity by way of collective identities creation that is probably an unwanted dis/advantage. It sure goes beyond the ideas of ‘territorial trap’ – if, possibly, it critically raises questions and assumptions for the future of spatiality, but nonetheless this harms the exponential potential that Norrm possesses. That ultimately could also result in Norrm shying away from the contemporary discussion since it is too busy constructing and preaching its own coolness within the presumed geography of the Indonesian music scene and the internet. It is difficult to locate their actual intent and purposes within their aesthetics and presume their innocence for now, but this point surely needed to be raised not only for Norrm but also for other existing internet radio with similar ideas.
At the end of the day, sincere appreciation and respect should be given rightfully. Norrm as a platform successfully nurtures transcultural dialogue beyond the expectation, not confined by spatiality and geography during these difficult times of COVID restrictions, of economic recession, of burnouts.