Podcaster Brian Ibbott has turned out Coverville, a 40-minute podcast of cover songs and commentary, three times a week since September 2004, with only a few misses here and there. Ibbott works freelance as a web consultant in the mornings, listens to and sorts dozens of requested songs every afternoon, and shuts down his laptop at 5PM to spend time with his wife and child. When he hits 500 episodes of Coverville on August 15, it'll happen at a five-act Las Vegas concert he booked and organised mostly himself. Brian Ibbott, in other words, is a busy man, but his show is a light-hearted breath of fresh air for roughly 15,000 music fans each week. We spoke with the man behind one of the net's earliest and most consistent podcasts about his organisation techniques, working as a true freelancer, and what it's like to manage 108 GB of music as part of your job.
Lifehacker: How did you get your first Coverville podcast together? Was it an outgrowth of hobbies you already had, or something you kind of dived headfirst into?
Brian Ibbott: Much more the latter than the former. I grew up listening to radio, I always had a little transistor radio with me, all the time, listening to AM stations, pop music, and I always had this vision of what it was like to be a disc jockey, that was probably based on WKRP. (laughs). It had nothing to do with, you know, heavy rotation, and labels coming down on you saying, "You have to play this." Growing up, I never really pursued it, I went into graphics, went to art school, and then tried to turn that into a customer support job, later on. For a few months in the early 90's, I tried to do the wedding DJ thing. I thought, "Well, this will be the way I kind of get my DJing started going ..." So every Saturday night I'd dress up in a tuxedo, haul this equipment to a local hotel (laughs) ... and I'd play "Achey Breaky Heart," and "Love Shack," and "Old Time Rock n' Roll" by Bob Seger. And that just got so old so quickly. I mean, it was worse than what I thought radio was. It was basically the same 75 songs. You would just play them in a different order, some nights, just to break the monotony.
... After that didn't work out, I put it on the back burner for awhile ... Then I was watching ... one of Leo Laporte's shows (on CNET TV). He was talking about this guy, Adam Curry, doing this thing called an MP3 blog. You'd go there every day and download it, and he was developing this thing called iPodder to help download it. I started listening to that and thinking, this could be the way I could do the radio show that I've always wanted to listen to. I've kind of been a collector of music, not just covers, but just rare and unusual music, ever since I was a kid. Twelve-inches, 45 RPM singles, I mean, anything that had a B-side that wasn't available on the album, I'd go for it. So, inadvertently, I ended up with a lot of rare covers and unusual music like that. I thought the show should have a focus, so let's make it cover songs. And, like you said, jumped in with both feet, and did the first show, which, I listen to now, and I just cringe, thinking how scattered it sounded, and how unprofessional ... I mean, it's not totally professional now, but compared to then, it's night and day.
Lifehacker: Do you remember what kind of equipment you used to get that first show together?
Brian Ibbott: I had the G4 laptop back then, the Apple PowerBook 12-inch G4. Plugged into that was a little plastic condenser mic, which you get with a computer (laughs). Even back then, I was just using WireTap to record, or Audio Hijack, and still playing the music live. That's the one thing that hasn't changed since show one, I put all the songs in individual QuickTime windows and I play the whole thing live and record it live, like a regular radio show ... Coverville is totally done live to tape, so to speak, and I very rarely go back and edit it, unless I make some huge mistake, like having a coughing fit halfway through the show.
Lifehacker: You take cover requests and ideas from a voicemail line, emails, the forums on your site, and your own listening. How do you filter all that raw material into lists?
Brian Ibbott: If it's something in my collection, that obviously makes it easy. But for the stuff that they're telling me about that I don't have yet, that actually is a big determining factor on if it makes it onto the show or not. I hit all the pay-by-the-song services—Amazon, iTunes, MP3.com, eMusic, Amie Street, stuff like that—and I'm able to locate about 95 percent of what people request. If it's not there, I hit the Amazon Markeplace and see if I can find a used copy. Once I get the song, I listen to it, and decide for myself, "Would I want to hear this, if I was listening to the show?" Or is it too ... maybe not unusual, because I play a lot of unusual stuff, but maybe too far beyond what the average listener would want to hear.
... Once I make that decision, it goes in the playlist. I have a big iTunes playlist that I keep everybody's request in, and from that, I just kind of listen to see what songs go together. I'll manually shuffle the top 15 or so things in the list, which are usually the oldest requests, and decide, "Does this song go without any of the rest?" If so, I'll put it with that, and arrange the show. If a song stays in that top 15 for more than 2-3 weeks without getting added to a show, then I usually just move it out into another playlist and kind of keep the playlist short enough to manage.
Lifehacker: What is your typical day look like when you're doing Coverville production?
Brian Ibbott: I do some consulting work on the side, which takes up about the first four, five hours of my day ... From that point on, it's constantly listening to music. I have a stack of CDs next to my desk that never seems to get any shorter, from labels and performers that send me their music. It's hard to find bad things in all this stuff. Everything that somebody sends, there are gems in there, there's some real unusual stuff and really cool, kind of hidden tracks that I think work well on the show, so I'm always listening to albums.
And about 60 percent of my time is responding to email (laughs) ... I try to actually respond to everybody who sends an email in, which is probably a losing battle. But I feel like, they're taking the time to write, so the least I could do is reply back with an, "Oh, excellent suggestion, I know that track well, I'll put it on."
Lifehacker: What do you use to manage your email, and manage your time?
Brian Ibbott: It's something that I actually learned from (Lifehacker). You'd posted a while back a speech that Merlin Mann gave about Inbox Zero. I use that methodology combined with multiple Smart Mailboxes in Mail.app. I use a collection of four different Smart Mailboxes— the first is messages within the last three days. The second is the past week, and everything older than a week gets dropped into one of the last two mailboxes—one is the last 30 days, the other is 30 days and older. Basically, anything messages that look like they'll take a minute or less, I just whip them out and respond to them. For requests, I will reply back to the person, thanking them for the request ... I transfer that (request) to a program called Things, based on the Getting Things Done methodology. I've got a group in there called "Requests." It's a lot easier when you're looking for requests, to look for 10 at a time than it is to break away from email, find one request, then get back to email, find another, and so on. So I try to do all my song-searching at the same time, which is something I've learned from that whole Getting Things Done methodology.
Lifehacker: Are you storing all this music on racks of external hard drives, or can you actually fit it all inside your MacBook?
Brian Ibbott: I actually can fit it all in my MacBook. Every time they come out with a new, larger maximum, I have to run out and go and buy one. Currently, I've got 108 GB of music in iTunes—29,330 tracks.
Lifehacker: How well does iTunes—since most of us will never find out—handle 108 GB of music, nearly 30,000 songs?
Brian Ibbott: You know what? It handles it pretty well. If I just put the music on shuffle, there are never gaps, no problems. The only thing I ran into is, with the new iPhone , using it with the Remote application. That first time you power up Remote, you better go get a cup of coffee or make a sandwich, while you wait for it to catalog everything into Remote ... One more figure for you here: 12,744 of those songs are covers, or just under 50GB ... the rest are originals.
Lifehacker: I have to imagine it's kind of hard not to let Coverville, or your other podcasts, spill over into your family or personal life. Have you ever had moments, or set up rules, that determine when and where the line is?
Brian Ibbott: Absolutely, and it's a lot easier now that I'm doing the consulting for the first part of the day. Really, from about noon until five I can do Coverville, and then at 5pm turn it all off, push it all away, and focus on my wife and my son. The only time it becomes difficult is on the weekends, because, for some strange reason, I still try to do a Sunday night, all-request show, which doesn't always work, as you might have seen last night. But weekends are a trade-off with the family. I can go and scoot away from the family to record a show, but it's a little bit harder, especially during the summer.
Lifehacker: You've said on the show that you were considering doing (Coverville) full-time, or at least looking into it. If that's true, how are you weighing that decision? What would make or break turning your hobby into self-employment?
Brian Ibbott: It's already pretty close. The sponsorships account for about 40% of my annual income, which is really good, compared to doing this solely as a hobby four years ago. I've actually been thinking about for quite a while ... doing a paid version of the show, that would be primarily for people who don't have the time to listen to three episodes a week. There are a lot of people who send me an email saying, "Just listened to show #435. Loved it!" I look over, and I'm on show #485. It's obvious there are some people that are pretty far behind. What this show would be would be a weekly one-hour, one hour and 20 minutes show that would cull together the songs that have the most positive feedback from the previous week ... it would be a whole new show, and I'd throw in a few extra songs to reward those who already heard the past week ... It'd be probably something along the lines of $4 or $5 a month. There'd be no ads, and I'd still fit in the trivia segments, but for the most part, it'd kind of be the best of of the previous week.
Lifehacker: Is it hard to wrap your mind around the idea of leaving behind "normal" work?
Brian Ibbott: It'd just be the ideal situation, to be able to do what I love and get paid a livable salary doing it.
Lifehacker: Do you use any of the music sharing and recommendation services like Last.fm, or Pandora, and do they factor into the show at all?
Brian Ibbott: You know, I don't. I tried using iLike for a while, and I just got too swept away in hearing all this stuff that, frankly, wasn't covers. I'd start out with, like, a Jason Faulkner track, and then I'd move into these other recommendations based on that. And I loved it, but it wasn't helping me put together anything for the show. There isn't really a way to say on those, "Show me just the cover tracks," and filter only for those.
Lifehacker: What do you wish you were able to do more efficiently, or what goals do you have for yourself?
Brian Ibbott: I think the main thing is email, actually communicating with listeners and responding to requests. That seems to be the part of my day that takes the longest. It seems like the recording and actual show development should be the thing that takes more time ... I've been talking to my wife about hiring a personal assistant that would track music down for me, respond to emails ... but I'd be worried that I'd be taking too much of the personal feel of the show away from me ...
Lifehacker: What appeals to me about the show, and I think a lot of people, is that commercial radio-drive-time DJs, pre-producted syndicated shows—are so utterly slick. No clipping, no staggers ... On your show, if Tristan runs in the room, you hear it. If a track miscues, you hit pause and say, "Whoa" ... If you were going to do the show full-time, for a larger audience, would you want to keep that level of personality in it? Or do you listen to some shows and say, "If I had an audio guy ..."
Brian Ibbott: Sometimes ... There are times I wish I had an engineer, a producer or something. I think it's to a point—I don't want to say I think the show needs to always be as loose and informal as it started out ... While that one-to-one feeling is what makes the show appealing, you don't want to over-step that, cough into the microphone, or take it for granted that people will listen to you deal with something ... I think you're seeing a general switch to that in radio, anyways. So many things I'm hearing on the radio these days are not what we're used to growing up on it. They're hiring more ex-musicians, famous people. Alice Cooper has a show. Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, I think, did something on Sirius for a while ...
Lifehacker: Stevie Van Zandt and the Undeground Garage show ...
Brian Ibbott: Yeah, and there's so many of these people who aren't classically trained in radio who are delivering that more personal feel to the songs, saying [affects British accent] , "Oh yeah, when I was touring with Jeff Beck, you know, we did this song right here" ... It's something you wouldn't normally hear on radio. They stammer, they say "um" a lot, they go off on ridiculous tangents. And I think it's what makes that radio more of a personal experience and less like wallpaper, less like just background noise you have on while you do something else.