Synthtopia Interview January 2005

Originally published in January 2005 at Synthtopia:

Mark Rushton – Podcasting Electronic Music

Podcasting is a new technology that’s becoming popular among owners of iPods and other portable media players. Podcasts are a way of automating the delivery of audio content to portable audio player. Mark Rushton is a electronic musician that’s jumped into the world of podcasting. Rushton is based out of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but he is using podcasts to expose his music to people around the world.

A podcast is just a collection of audio files, usually in MP3 format, connected by a text file that provides information about the programs. The podcast content can be music or any other audio programming.

Podcast software lets you subscribe to a podcast, and then your computer will automatically check for new programs and copy them to your portable audio player. This lets you listen to the program at your convenience. Podcasting is an easy way to keep fresh content on your player.

Rushton created his first podcast in December 2004. His program features an informal mixture of music and discussion. The shows introduce listeners to Rushton’s style of hybrid modern instrumentals, along with providing some insight into Rushton and his thinking.

Rushton believes podcasts are a great way to promote independent music. “Since I put out my first podcast in December 2004, traffic to my site has gone way up and I’ve seen an increase in CD sales and positive feedback as a result,” he notes. “People are hungry for free yet quality programming, and I’m happy to provide it.”

We recently asked Mark about his music, podcasting and being an electronica/ambient artist in Cedar Rapids, Iowa:

Synthtopia: Mark, can you tell us a little about yourself and your music?

Mark Rushton: I’m in my late 30s, married, and have a couple of young daughters. My job is in software testing, so I’m generally able to listen to music all day long while I work. In the past I’ve attended art school and been a DJ. I still paint and have been in a number of regional exhibitions over the past year. I’ve played different instruments, mostly woodwinds, since grade school, so I’ve always had a music background.

Since 2000 I’ve had an interest in creating music using my computer and have produced nearly 200 completed pieces and remixes during that time. Most of my music falls into the ambient, electronica, downtempo, and avant-garde genres.

Synthtopia: How do you create your music?

Mark Rushton: Everything is assembled from audio pieces and loops and mixed using ACID 4.0 Pro. While a lot of the loops come from libraries and collections I’ve acquired over the years, I also like to make “homemade” loops using the various keyboards and instruments I have in my studio or abuse library loops using Sound Forge. I also carry around a Sony Minidisc recorder and microphone so I can acquire “found sound” at various locations.

I’ve tried to get into MIDI, VSTs, and even bought a copy of Reason at one time, but all of it became boring. Nothing could be more dreadful for me than trying to compose a melody using a sequencer or programming a drum machine for hours on end. I’ve always said that I wanted to be a remixer, and that’s where I derive the most fun when I’m creating music.

Synthtopia: Is it tough being an electronica artist in Cedar Rapids, Iowa?

Mark Rushton: Creativity-wise, I have no problem being inspired. When it comes to things like live appearances or promotion, it is very difficult. Last year I bought a very nice sound system for live appearances, the Bose PAS, and started sending out promo CDs and requests to play my music in coffee houses and such but I got zero response back. I sent out my CD to practically every public/college radio station in Iowa and only one of them has played me. Luckily it was the coolest DJ in Iowa, Bob Dorr on KUNI-FM, so I was thrilled.

It doesn’t matter all that much if I’m not accepted where I live. I realize that I work in a specific niche, and that niche has fans of the kind of music I produce worldwide thanks to the Internet. I’m sure there is a market in my area for unobtrusive and upscale hybrid instrumental music while people chat, sip their lattes, and surf the Internet, but they just don’t know it yet. This may sound strange to those living in larger cities or college towns, but Cedar Rapids only got a couple of decent coffee shops in the past year or two.

There is a thriving DJ culture in the region, and it sort of shocked me when I discovered it. Radio certainly doesn’t play that kind of music at all. Commercial radio stations here are extremely parochial, like they are in most of the United States these days. How does somebody discover techno and chillout when the local radio stations force feed corporate schlock? It’s a mystery to me.

Synthtopia: How did you find out about podcasting?

Mark Rushton: It was an article on Wired’s web site, I think. Once I understood the concept I Googled around to find out more and it sort of snowballed rather quickly.

Synthtopia: Do you have any favorite podcasts?

Mark Rushton: Other than my own? Not so far.

I’ve downloaded a few things here and there. A lot of the shows are still in their infancy. Mine included. Things will mature over time.

Synthtopia: What are you trying to do with the podcast?

Mark Rushton: When I was in college and working at the radio station we’d play a weekly show that was sent to us by a record company. It would feature music by different bands, along with an interview featuring the artists or some factoids by the announcer. That’s sort of what I’m trying to do with my podcast, but on a single artist scale.

Having a musician talk about their own work is difficult, but it’s probably a good discipline. I never know where listeners are coming from as a frame of reference, so I try to be colloquial about it, although I do write my thoughts out before I read them so that I’m not doing 10 takes. It’s really acting as a “musician as curator” which has a lot of possibilities.

As far as the podcast angle, most radio stations these days are computer-controlled, so it doesn’t take that big of a stretch of the imagination to realize that eventually community/public/college stations will soon be gathering and playing syndicated content from the web. NPR has already played a podcast. There’s bound to be more.

Synthtopia: What sort of response have you been getting from your program?

Mark Rushton: The first podcast, which I put out at the end of December, had nearly 1000 downloads in the first 3 weeks with minimal promotion. It was a long program – almost 30 minutes and 30MB in size. I’ve since cut the length of the program back to the 12-15 minute range and limit the choices of music to 3 pieces. The emails I’ve received have been very positive. It’s also fun to look at the stats and discover that people from other countries around the world have been downloading the podcasts.

Synthtopia: Is podcasting something that you think other musicians should check out?

Mark Rushton: Sure! But there’s a lot of things to think about before doing a podcast.

How long of a show do you want? How often would you do it? Do you have the space to host the file? Where will you produce it? How will it be structured? Can you stand the sound of your own voice? Do you tend to ramble on? There’s a lot of factors to consider.