James Cridland


It’s 4.45am. Do I wake this man up? He’s a slightly dishevelled taxi driver, asleep in the car in the road outside my house. I think I ought to. Bang bang on the glass. Driver smartly wakes up, pulls up his chair, and looks at me expectantly. “You for the BBC?” Aha, success. I ask for the radio to be put on - anything’ll do, I say. I instantly regret it when the radio display says 102.2 and I get Smooth Radio’s “we’re only doing it because Ofcom tell us to” overnight service which contains nothing but shit smooth soporific jazz. Eurgh.

I’m off to Amsterdam today, to speak about music at the AES, the yearly audio equipment show. Normally full of complicated discussions about microphones and audio compression techniques, they have one session around services like last.fm which allow you to discover music that you might like, and I’m talking about a few things the BBC is doing.

“Where you going?” snaps the security guard in the distinctly dowdy Heathrow Terminal 1. Why, I’m going to claim my free bowl of cornflakes and try my luck on the coffee machine in the BMI lounge, that’s where. I’m reluctantly let through. I find the cornflakes. I press the button for a coffee, and it churns, and stops, and I reach for the cup, and it starts again, and covers me with boiling water, so I wait for it to stop again, reach for the cup, and it has a final spit of boiling water, covering me yet again. I have a feeling I’m on Candid Camera.

Strike jackpot on the plane. Get a row to myself. Result.

Squish on the train from Amsterdam Schipol airport to the RAI station. The train empties all of the smart people at Amsterdam Zuid, a kind of Canary Wharf type place of sparkling new just-built buildings. Then the slightly dull looking people with pens in their shirt pockets all get off at the RAI, including me. Mmm. Audio Equipment. The only other time I’ve been here is for the IBC - this is altogether a quieter affair, and much of the RAI is covered by building hoardings; they’re doing it up - and building a new subway line here by the looks of things. That won’t be done by IBC later this year, so it’ll be a mess.

Microphones. Lots of them. Mixing desks. Microphones. A large selection of books. And some microphones. The lanyard has a peculiar central bit in it which, after looking around, appears to be for your mobile phone, so you can dangle that from your neck as well as your name badge. I ask politely for a pencil from the Yamaha stand, so I can write my speaker’s notes - having long given up on the “busk it with the slides” lark. The amount of freebies is very low indeed; though Yamaha tried to press me into a writing pad as well. No, but thank you.

In the session. Quite interesting bunch of people - dense but interesting presentations from people doing technical work to automatically spot features within music - like a soft male voice or a piano - and even to automatically choose genre, based on auto-analysis alone. A good demo. Then Liz from last.fm comes perilously close to explaining how their service recommends songs, which was quite open and cool. I felt my bit (talking a little about the relationship between /music and /programmes, and highlighting our last.fm integration and a hackday thing we did a while back called moose6) went well, and I got at least one laugh. There is good interest from the audience, though of course a room full of audio engineers start moaning about audio quality online. Someone else on the panel says that 256k WMA sounded quite good.

Into town via the newish subway, lugging heavy laptop, to find a space to sit and churn through emails aka ‘the BBC senior-manager chinese water torture mechanism’. My recent “send a message back to anyone who’s cc’d me saying I won’t read that email” rule appears to be working amazingly well. Resolve to check the cc folder tomorrow.

Amsterdam Centraal is bright and sunny, and quite hot, though windy. Amsterdam never ceases to amaze me - it’s a beautiful city, particularly in the sunshine, but also grubby and unpleasant in equal measure. I walk for miles trying to find somewhere nice for a spot of lunch, and everywhere is either, seemingly, a “coffee shop” full of spacemen smoking happy tobacco, or a really nasty cheap “slice of pizza from a shelf” type place. End up in a little bar which is cigarette-smoky inside - which I now find really unusual, now that the ban in the UK is so established. I order a cheese sandwich which is massive, and dutch fries which aren’t on the menu as a separate dish, which when they come are enough to feed 50, enough salt for 75. Order beer - Bavaria pilsner, on draught, but so fizzed up that the actual amount I ended up with was so under-measure it would have given CAMRA a heart attack. Grizzled man with bushy ginger hair under cap, skin as if it gets a daily sandpaper, weathered clothes, props up the bar, slowly sucking on his ciggy, staring into middle distance, drinking very slowly.

After half an hour, grizzle-man disappears. Where’s he gone? Oh, over there. I think he fancied a different view.

Email done, I continue walking - discovering delightful squares and enjoyment - walking through the flower market, which kicks up the hayfever a little. Indeed, I keep walking through the sunshine, and end up walking all the four miles from central Amsterdam back to Amsterdam Zuid station (close to the RAI). My initial suspicions were right - it’s like Canary Wharf or the BBC’s White City complex: a characterless, brand-new area, all concrete and glass and health and safety notices, with the equivalent of a Davy’s Wine Bar full of ID-badge toting, suit-wearing corporates at the end of their working day, having a beer with their team-members and PAs before terminating their working timescales for the early evening thirst/hunger solution portfolio.

To Schipol, where there’s a little pub at one end which is actually quite nice - proper dutch pub, all wood, and a rotund landlord with white moustache, permanent smile and rosy cheeks. A pint of Amstel later, and a trip to “Food Village” for a sarnie, and I’m back in the air - and then back in a taxi - and then home, where the cat, pissed off that I’ve not been in, yowls at me to let him out while I try desperately to get some sleep.