Sheri Barclay's streaming radio station puts artists first.
By Breanna Mroczek | May 2, 2022
In January 2022, streaming giant Spotify made headlines when Neil Young removed his music from the platform that continues to host Joe Rogan’s podcast which, the legendary Canadian musician argues, promotes misinformation. Several artists followed his lead and, just like any time there is a great tech reckoning, consumers pondered how best to consume audio content. The controversy around Spotify’s financial support of Rogan also reinvigorated the conversation around how little money independent artists receive from giant streaming platforms.
It’s moments like these when alternative platforms like Sheri Barclay’s KPISS internet radio station shine. Following Young’s departure, Barclay says that there was an increase in the number of artists reaching out to KPISS, saying they wanted to pull their content from Spotify and were looking for alternative venues. KPISS’ strength is that it has been built around supporting, and support from, both artists and listeners. KPISS isn’t trying to compete with Spotify, Apple Music, or Tidal — it’s trying to offer a better way to support independent artists, a more curated listening experience and a way for consumers to discover new music.
“The sheer amount of curated music and our content, platform and culture speak for themselves,” Barclay says. “We’re pushing the needle and promoting new music and music discovery and trying to not contribute to the Spotify streaming wars and all of this icky stuff going on in the world as we all are about to get swallowed up by the metaverse.”
When chatting with Barclay about KPISS, which she founded in 2015 and continues to manage, the pop culture reference she evokes most often is High Fidelity, the famous Nick Hornby novel that was adapted into a film back in 2000. “It’s about how certain music nerds that have either experienced trauma, or just can’t communicate or struggle with relationships in general, really find music discovery and collecting as an outlet,” Barclay says.
The “music nerds” of KPISS — the passionate, talented DJs — are, according to Barclay, united by their mission to be an “alternate universe internet college radio station without the college.” KPISS is currently self-funded by Barclay and several DJs — Barclay also has a job with TuneIn.com, a streaming audio service that offers internet radio streams from local stations and those around the globe — and by listeners via the Patreon platform. In addition to operational fees, funding supports artists directly by paying them to play events and collaborate on design. DJs promote new music and sales of that music by having each show feature one track available for purchase from that artist directly via Bandcamp.
“We have always seen the deep value of this and also how a lot of early college radio stations supported and were supported by doing this,” Barclay says. “I ask my DJs to source and play music independently. We take a lot of responsibility because we’re sharing content, but we are also creating our own content with our shows. I’m passionate about our responsibility to our DJs and listeners.”
Much like music is central to High Fidelity, it is central to Barclay’s life and her going-on-20-years journey — of which KPISS is just the latest iteration — to support and help consumers discover independent music artists. As a child, she lived in a Truman Show-esque Canadian Forces military base in Germany, where she would attempt to mimic radio shows on her dual tape deck and microphone. While attending Grant MacEwan Community College (before it received university status) in the early aughts, Barclay developed an indie music zine that she sold, along with an accompanying burned CD, in Edmonton and in New York City. “I have always been into packaging new and old music together because I believe that gives the audience something familiar to warm up to before discovering something new,” Barclay says.
After university she hosted a show on CJSR — and was one of the first DJs to interview local music legend Mac DeMarco. The show was picked up by Viva Radio, an internet radio station owned by clothing brand American Apparel at the peak of its popularity. A t-shirt with Barclay’s face on it was even printed in honour of the show.
After moving to New York City and connecting with a friend who hired her to do some marketing work for an audio startup, Barclay realized that what she really wanted was her own community radio station and own version of CJSR. She rented out a foul-smelling, urine-soaked (but inexpensive!) shipping container in Punk Alley in the Bushwick neighbour- hood to use as her studio, and, in a humorous nod to the container’s less-glam days, KPISS was born. After a visit from Canadian media giant George Stroumboulopoulos — who was interested in starting his own internet radio station — Barclay was introduced to Sloan’s Jay Ferguson who has become a regular contributor to, and host on, KPISS.
“It has been really cool to have this Canadian indie icon legitimize the whole project,” Barclay says. “As a kid, you couldn’t rip me away from MuchMusic, and I think there is a certain type of nostalgic music geek — the kind who hangs out in Edmonton at Record Collectors Paradise — who is always interested in discovering new music.”
At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, Barclay returned to Edmonton and has been managing KPISS from here ever since. “There would not be KPISS without Edmonton,” Barclay says. KPISS is currently available to stream online and via its app, though Barclay hasn’t written off the possibility of expanding it into the metaverse. No matter what the next iteration of KPISS is, Barclay wants the focus to remain on sharing new, indie music in a way the streaming giants aren’t. “If I had a little more money and knowledge of the metaverse I would set up a virtual reality version of KPISS that you could walk into and see an avatar DJ and talk to them and talk to other listeners. Maybe that will be a possibility someday, and I would like to engage more Edmonton talent to help me build that.”