The internet sucks the romance out of everything, including romance. But it’s also provided a second life for obsolete media like 45s, cassette tapes and, bizarrely, pirate radio.
A new generation of radio pirates are taking advantage of free livestreaming services to broadcast radio as they like it. Far more casual than “traditional” internet radio, the pirates on YouTube play 24 hours straight with no interruption, no DJs or presenters – and a rabid following that dwarfs even some of the most popular internet radio stations. After some 20 years of internet radio, shoutcasts, Live365 and everything else, it’s anonymous “stations” with no marketing, no names and usually with a drawing of an anime kid as a static image drawing thousands of listeners. Channels obviously have names but the “programs” themselves are usually just a bunch of keywords crammed into the stream title. YouTube seems to promote them, or their algorithms do. Click on one and five more will appear in your recommendations, like mushrooms.
I’ve been fascinated by the phenomenon of “internet pirate radio” since I first picked up on it two years ago. At first, I was just interested in investigating a “new” way in which people are experiencing music. Innovation in this space rarely follows the path that the bosses and CEOs like, and this outgrowth was yet another strange diversion nobody had planned or anticipated.
At the time, referencing this phenomenon as a new outcropping of pirate radio was often regarded as a joke. How could someone just playing their favorite records on the internet be in any way compared to the ships, sea platforms and covert antenna ninjas of actual pirate radio?
But the rise of streaming has lead to a “legalization” of streaming, with licenses and fees which none of the internet pirate channels pay. This (which even the old school pirates never had to deal with) has placed a target on their back, even while they prosper. That certainly makes them as much pirates as their brethren from the 1960s to the present day.
Do these pirate channels serve a useful purpose outside of Spotify playlists and Pandora algorithmic stations? I think they do, but I wanted to know more. For the second time in my life, I sent a message to someone via YouTube and engaged in a short but meaningful conversation with a YouTube broadcaster who asked me not to name his channel and to refer to him only by the initial “G.”
These chatboxes on youtube, believe it or not, have become a respite from the screaming hellmouth of social media & internet conversations.
G.’s channel has been around for about nine months and from the times I’ve visited ranges from 500 to 5,000 listeners. He sent me a screenshot of a YouTube analytics graph which I won’t include here but shows a sweeping upward curve of listeners and subscriptions that would make most podcasters, internet radio DJs and even some terrestrial radio stations salivate. He’s definitely in a growth industry.
G’s tools are simple: a laptop, wifi and a looped iTunes playlist. He buys music because “autoplaying from another playlist crashes a lot” and usually wasn’t around when it happens.
G. said he’s a student and started the channel for his own listening. “I saw some other people that were into it and my roommate suggested using the livestream button on YouTube. Just start with a screenshare of your desktop and go. I don’t want to upset people and I will take down anything anyone asks me to and never play it again. But this music (mainly chillwave) isn’t really popular and I want to share it.”
Spotify and Pandora’s algorithms are great if you’re listening to pop music or well-defined genres, he says, but are lacking when it comes to the blurry fringes of modern music. The large streaming services try to address the flaws in their machine-brained jukebox by having humans curate playlists, but the influential playlists have become a pay-for-play business that would shock listeners with their opaque shadiness.
* * *
But the human element is at work on internet pirate channels every day, and they have what Apple Music and Spotify lack: an actual community. A real human community forming around different channels has become the secret to their exponential growth. Spotify doesn’t have a livechat, because everyone is listening to something different anyway. This is the atomization of modern life, and we often forget there is something emotionally binding when 10,000 people are watching or listening to the same thing and having a conversation about it. These chatboxes on YouTube, believe it or not, are a respite from the screaming hellmouth that has become typical of most internet conversation. Reading that 11,145 people are WATCHING NOW stirs a crazy feeling of intimacy and leads to people behaving like they have something in common. It tickles the same part of the lizard brain as live coverage of events. Even if you’re not actively participating, it feels like you are.
YouTube algorithms, then, pick up on both the consistent 24/7 broadcasting and this insane level of engagement and give it a boost across the platform.
G. makes no money from his channel – some other broadcasters have experimented with crowdsourced funding like Patreon and YouTube “superchats,” in which people can pay usually small amounts to have their message posted at the top of the chat. This complicates matters, since it’s profit captured by the broadcaster and not shared with the artist.
It’s not necessarily an ethical decision for G., though. “I never thought of the music ‘industry’ as something you make money from,” he told me. “I guess some superstars do.”
Internet pirate radio all seems incredibly ephemeral, like it’s destined to be a short-lived, quickly forgotten phenomenon. G. is okay with that. While he and his roommate both plan to stay involved in music when they finish school, they don’t see themselves broadcasting professionally. “It sounds like a lot of bullshit,” he told me, “just to give people something to do while they sit in their car.”
It seems unlikely that YouTube couldn’t suppress the streams if they really wanted to, and it’s surprising that Big Tech hasn’t figured out the accidental engagement trick that made the internet pirates an overnight sensation. In the meantime it’s the next and seemingly last great outlet for the lone weirdo seeking other weirdos.