Music For Robots
In the dim basement of a rock club on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Blair Carswell ’00 hunches over his turntable, cueing up a record. The crowd of twentysomethings at The Delancey is there to hear four indie rock bands and dance between sets to the tunes Carswell’s spinning.
Some learned of this March 2007 event from Carswell’s posts on music.for-robots.com, a new-music blog he started three years ago with two college chums, J.P. Connolly ’00 and Mark Willett ’00, where visitors can download songs, read posts, add responses, and follow links to bands’ Web sites and MySpace pages. In a world of some 70 million blogs, Music For Robots has a solid reputation among rock fans in the New York metropolitan area and music-industry followers, attracting up to 8,000 readers a day and producing a modest income stream from ad and merchandise sales.
J.P. Connolly ’00 (left) and Blaire Carswell ’00 (right) on Ludlow Street, Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Photograph by Phyllis Graber Jensen.
This is 29-year-old Carswell’s second deejay gig for the week, with another planned back at Bates the following weekend. But despite his growing immersion in the music world — he now rents space at the club Element for a monthly dance party called “People Don’t Dance No More” — Carswell, a technology specialist at the private Churchill School, is keeping his day job.
“It actually pays reasonably well, and nothing in the music business does,” says Carswell, who lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Daphne Gomez-Mena ’01, a rock singer and freelance video editor. “It also means I can have some balance in my life, between the work I do for Churchill and the work I do for fun for Music for Robots and deejaying.”
Music For Robots emerged from a familiar post-college dynamic as the friends tried to keep in touch in the real world. As students, Willett and Connolly were in Strange Bedfellows together, while Connolly’s and Carswell’s social circles overlapped. The three became closer friends during senior year, and after graduation Connolly headed to Dartmouth to earn his master’s in microbiology, while Willett worked at his hometown newspaper in Laconia, N.H. Carswell had just moved to New York City after having worked for Bates’ media services department and deejaying on WRBC.
“It was back in the day when blogs were brand-new, before everyone and their cousin and their cat had one,” says Connolly, who now teaches science at Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn — he’s the “leader of the hipster crowd,” according to a post at RateMyTeacher.com — whose wife,
Tamara, designed the Robots’ Web site. “We each had our own little blogs, the common theme was music, and we thought it would be fun hopping back and forth between our different pages.”
While they thought it might have a wider appeal, they had no idea whether anyone other than their friends would find their site among millions of emerging blogs on the Internet. (A blog is really just a Web site specializing in frequently updated personal content. The word is a portmanteau of “Web log.”)
Going live on April 12, 2004, Music For Robots was one of the early MP3 blogs. “We started to write just for ourselves, but then people started reading us,” says Carswell. “We’d ask them to put a link to our page on their blogs, and we’d link back to them. We went from dozens of hits a day to hundreds and now thousands.”
Four years later, in a fluxive blogosphere where there are already 200 million ex-bloggers, the site has stamina. The blog features daily entries by Carswell and several other regular contributors — including Anders Pearson ’01, Jon Cresswell ’01, and David Brusie ’02 — whose eclectic musical tastes broaden the site’s appeal. Connolly says he’s into “weird pop music” from Japan and Korea, Pearson covers metal and industrial music, Willett’s into pop and indie music, and Carswell’s known for dance tracks.
Having the latest music attracts traffic from rock fans who want to keep on the cutting edge. The buzz increased early on when a major label, Warner Bros. Records, took the unusual step of encouraging various MP3 blogs, including MFR, to post free music from one of the label’s bands. But that overture became a minidrama when Willett noticed that some oddly lavish praise for a Warner Bros. band had been posted on MFR, which he traced back to computers at Warner. “I know we’re dealing in relatively uncharted territory here,” Willett told The New York Times in 2004. “But I’d expect a slightly different level of participation…. We’re not an AOL chat room.’’
When MTV aired a feature on the blog and its discovery of a Brooklyn band called the Hysterics — comprised of Connolly’s students, in fact — the Times again chimed in, noting that “this is how the Internet was supposed to help music.” And around this time, Willett got noticed by Motormouth Media, a boutique PR firm specializing in cutting-edge music and pop culture accounts, and he’s now on the West Coast working as a publicist for the outfit.
MFR also remains a must-read for record-label execs, The Boston Globe noted recently, such as A&R man Sam Riback at Atlantic Records. “Our readers have come to know who we are, based on our musical tastes, and they’ve come to see that it’s a brand they can trust,” says Connolly. “We’ve succeeded by taking what is essentially a labor of love and catapulting it into a revenue-generating model. Whether it’s the music we write about or a compilation CD or advertising for a live performance, it’s all the same formula — we share stuff that we really enjoy.”
New York-based journalist David McKay Wilson writes regularly for college magazines around the country. This is his first article for Bates Magazine.