I’m going to be on the road for the next few days, exploring the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island. One of my favourite driving songs seems strangely relevant, since the forecast looks perfect.
Archive for May, 2009
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:
Imagine Elvis never happened. Imagine Elvis Presley recording all his music for a dollar in the little booth where he cut that first 78 for his mother’s birthday. And imagine a music industry which, instead of investing in a single massive star called Elvis, distributed ten thousand stars, all recording for a dollar, in totally different styles, all appealing to small, highly self-conscious cults in a fragmented society. A society in a state of fabulous confusion, exploding into fragments. Our society, now.
Sound familiar? That text is from an essay, titled “Pop Stars? Nein Danke!” by famously eccentric Scottish musician Momus (pictured). And it was written almost two decades ago (in 1991). As that quote demonstrates, it’s an astonishingly prescient essay; in fact, I stumbled on it while I was trying to find the earliest use of the phrase, “In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen people.”
A bit more to whet your appetite:
The feeling I get when I walk into a record shop is not that there is a battle of titans ‘clashing for the number one spot’. That is the model of the old monopoly capitalism. Entering a record shop now, a good one like Tower or the Virgin Megastore, is like standing in C.S. Lewis’s Wood Between the Worlds, where you can pick a pond and enter one of an infinite number of worlds at different stages of their evolution….
…To stay sane, to stay plausible, pop artists must drop their claims to universal stardom. Let’s abandon the nostalgia, let’s drop the rhetoric, let’s restructure the music industry. We now have a democratic technology, a technology which can help us all to produce and consume the new, ‘unpopular’ pop musics, each perfectly customised to our elective cults.
Now go and read the whole essay. And by the way, music industry? Don’t tell us that nobody saw it coming.
My favourite recommendations embody unsolicited enthusiasm, so I thought I’d share this one:
Back in the day, I used to really like this website called Sad Steve, which basically searched SeeqPod, but gave you their sources as downloadable links. When SeeqPod died a couple of months ago, I was therefore quite sad, since sadsteve.com became non-functional. However, somehow Sad Steve managed to get their search running again and I am convinced (based on the little I have used it today), that it is better than SeeqPod was. I don’t know how they did this, but I have gotten a lot more results than I used to when they just used SeeqPod. I even managed to find a 16-second clip from this obscure Vermont funk band that I like.
It’s a lot more than just a search engine, so check it out!
At the SanFran MusicTech Summit last week, Terry McBride continued to beat the drum for streaming music versus downloading media. He argues that mobile devices will enable us to listen to anything, anywhere, thereby obviating the need to select and store music ourselves. I respect McBride and what he’s done with Nettwerk tremendously. But, at least at the moment, the streaming-only model of music has some significant challenges.
Streaming requires an always-on connection. Some places where I’ve listened to music in the last couple of days: At my desk. On the highway. In my apartment. Somewhere in the Snoqualmie-Mount Baker National Forest. In the weight room of my gym, which is in its basement. Only two of these places have a reliable connection to the outside world. It was pointed out (by Robb McDaniels, I believe) that you can always push music to a device faster than you can listen to it, which means that you have a buffer. Of course, this seems to defeat one of the few advantages of streaming: that you can select music spontaneously.
Bandwidth is a much scarcer resource than storage. Raise your hand if you think that we have lots of wireless bandwidth to go around. Now raise your hand if you think that that we’re near the lower limit of memory storage size and price. You over there, doing the Superman impersonation, put your hands back on the keyboard and go learn about the tragedy of the commons and Moore’s Law. If I want to listen to the Hold Steady and Malcolm Middleton cover of Bryan Adam’s “Run to You” a hundred times (and I do), I can download it a hundred times and save the storage cost, or I can download it once and not have to worry about bandwidth and a connection. And frankly, I much prefer the solution where I’m paying the cost of storing the music on my nth generation iPhone rather than making everyone else share the cost by wirelessly streaming it everytime I want it.
I don’t trust the music companies. Unfortunately, there isn’t a technological fix for this one. After a decade of RIAA, DRM on iTunes, and more, we’ve been Charlie Brown to the music industry’s Lucy a few too many times. I don’t trust them to not yank the football of my music away from me – it’s as simple as that. I’m happy to stream music, especially when it’s well-curated and new (thank you, KEXP). But if I’m ever going to want to listen to it again, I want a physical copy or an unrestricted digital copy. I want to own it – to have unrestricted, irrevocable access to it indefinitely, so I can listen to it without EULAs or unilaterally-defined ToS.
What do you think? Am I hopeless Luddite, clinging to the notion of music as property when I should be embracing the Great Big Jukebox in the Sky? Has the ability to stream music changed your buying habits? Let us know in the comments.
This year’s SanFran MusicTech Summit had a lot going on. Somewhere north of 600 people turned up, including tech/development people, marketers, and business development people, and I’d say about half of the crowd put up a hand when asked if they were a musician (I suspect there’s considerable overlap between that category and the others).
Unfortunately, with three concurrent tracks, it’s easy to miss a lot of the conference. If you’re interested in knowing more about what went on than what’s in this post, here are some other summaries: CNet, NY Times, Washington Post. And if you think Twitter, and not journalism, is the first rough draft of history, you can read what people (including me) said about it in the heat of the moment by searching for #sfmusictech.
Biggest tease: Paul Lamere of Echo Nest demo’ed their extension to Spotify that uses their musical analysis-based technology to create extended Spotify playlists, based on a seed song, for example. It looked great, and you can read more about it at Paul’s blog. Unfortunately, because of the byzantine licensing arrangements (another theme of the conference), Spotify is not yet available in the US. It’s gonna be the future soon, right?
Second-biggest tease: We wrote about Band Metrics, a music analytics service that aggregates data from across the web, a few months ago. The site was demo’ed at the conference. While it’s still in private beta, conference attendees were given an invite code. Unfortunately, it turned out to be only valid for the day, so my attempt to register after the conference was unsuccessful. Stay tuned for more info about the service in the coming weeks (I hope!).
Biggest app north of the border: I talked to Darryl Ballantyne, of Toronto-based LyricFind, and he mentioned that their free iPhone app is one of the most-downloaded in Canada. The company does all the back-end work to make licensed lyrics available (their engine powers Lyrics.com, for example) and they’ve recently branched out into consumer products. Worth checking out (and I’m not saying that just because they brought kegs of Canadian beer for the reception).
Biggest fight: By far the most, uh, lively panel I went to was the Monetization: Idealism in Practice panel. Jim Griffin talked about Choruss, which is a proposal to charge colleges a flat per-student fee for access to music, in whatever form (torrents, streaming, purchases, whatever). The school would collect data on how students acquired and listened to music, and use that data to disburse the collected funds to artists (by means which were not fully explained). It was worth going to the panel just to see the Electronic Frontier Foundation (in the person of Fred Von Lohmann, one of their senior staff attorneys) on the same side as the major record labels (Choruss was started by Warner and is backed by several other majors). However, this is still a pretty contentious proposal, especially since the colleges are kind of paying protection money (‘you promise not to sue us, right?’), because it’s not clear how the indies or unsigned musicians will be represented, and because it seems incompatible with other business models. I know that many z=z readers are musicians, associated with a college, or both, and I’d be really interested in what you have to say – does the Choruss model make sense to you? Why or why not?
Guest blogger Scott writes:
As technology has enabled increased efforts by musicians to sort customers by willingness to pay, it’s no surprise that people would be developing Web sites to bring those tools to smaller-scale creative projects. Kickstarter came to my attention when my friend Eric started a non-music-related project there, but musical projects are well-represented, unsurprisingly: you can also support the editing for a documentary about The Kinks (which I’d already heard about – it’s getting local press), for example, or you can buy a Creative Commons-licensed album on vinyl. Or, if it’s more your thing, you can support creative begging. According to Eric, there are still some minor process issues, but the developers are in the process of working out, well, The Kinks.
What is it with naked women in the visuals at techno shows? I went to see Dietrich Schoenemann at ReBar a week or so ago, and the images included, yup, women in various stages of undress. This was a persistent peeve for me at Midweek Techno in Cambridge (I haven’t been there in a while, so I don’t know if it’s still heavy on the softcore, although I imagine it is).
Here are three excellent reasons to avoid female nudity in visuals. VJs, please listen up.
It’s boring. Do something more creative! Resorting to porn basically tells the world that you are bereft of good ideas. It must be easier than ever to find interesting videos or (better) to create your own graphics – do it!
It’s distracting. Human beings are hard-wired to look at people. Really. Lots of T and A in your visuals is incredibly distracting from what we are really there for, the music. It’s also difficult to abstract people; no matter how much you visually distort the images, our monkey brains persist in focusing on them.
It’s off-putting. Techno is, at least in the US, a sausagefest. There’s a reason why women frequently get discounted admission. Putting naked women on a screen sends a message to any females that do show up that they are not the target group and that they are somewhere they don’t really belong. And honestly, would you rather have two-dimensional women on the screen, or real women in the crowd?
As you probably know, zed equals zee is a mostly one-woman show, and occasionally life gets in the way. My apologies for the unscheduled hiatus. I’ll be at the the SanFran MusicTech Summit tomorrow, so stay tuned for a report on the events, and for more incoming transmissions later this week.
So tomorrow (Thursday, May 14th) is the University of Washington’s annual Lawnapalooza, put on by the student union. There are assorted carnivalesque activities, but the real draw for me is the music—three local bands are performing. The Cave Singers (pictured) headline, and they are being supported by Telekinesis and z=z faves Hey Marseilles. The festivities get going at around 11 am on the Husky Union Building lawn. Unfortunately, it’s not clear if the weather will cooperate (it is Seattle, after all), but if you are on campus or in the area, you should certainly check it out.
Hypetape describes itself, somewhat redundantly, as ‘the illegitimate lovechild of The Hype Machine and Muxtape.’ It scrapes the web for MP3s, and lets you put together playlists, which you can save and share. They don’t host any of the music (so they aren’t vulnerable to filesharing charges). It’s a neat idea, with a straightforward interface, but there’s one major problem: music posted to blogs is almost always ephemeral, whether by choice or necessity. That means that the life expectancy of your playlists is shorter than a snowball in a supernova. I did a test search on British Sea Power and I think that the resultant songs were ordered chronologically (“Come Wander With Me” was at the top), but it would be useful to see a posting date, so you’d at least have a sense of when the best-by date would be. What would make this a really compelling application, as far as I’m concerned, is if I could use Hypetape to pull together a mixtape, and then for it to automagically find and download the MP3s, and have them appear as a labeled playlist in iTunes. Ideally, it’d be coupled with a good music exploration or recommendation system, to make it easy to find artists that I didn’t already know about (if anyone is listening, I would also like a pony).
What do you think? What would you want to see in a playlist site?
[image: buy the t-shirt!]
Next Monday, May 18th is the SanFran MusicTech Summit, and it’s shaping up to be pretty interesting. Speakers include Dave Allen (of Pampelmoose), Terry McBride of Nettwerk (who gets around), and Fred Von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, with panels on social networking, digital delivery, monetization (with the description, ‘idealism in practice,’ which sounds promising), and more. It’s at the Hotel Kabuki in Japantown, and full conference and registration details are here. I’ll be heading down to SF for the weekend, and there’ll be a report-out on z=z. If there’s something you are particularly interested in hearing about, let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best.
Okay, now I’m really annoyed at the music industry. How come my local radio station played all kinds of crappy third-rate Nirvana wannabes on the other side of the continent, but I had to wait until 2009 to hear about Visqueen? (Seattleites and dedicated indie-music lovers, feel free to upbraid me for my cluelessness.) I caught their song “Beauty Deluxe” on KEXP a few weeks ago (off their sophomore release, Sunset on Dateland) and I’ve been exploring their back catalog since. Their power-pop sound has a bit of a harder punk edge, like The New Pornographers laced with the Buzzcocks. Couple that with lyrics like, “Circuitry has soldered me like fuses to a frame/a tiny dial, and love erupts on broadband” (from “Crush on Radio”) and I’m a goner. The best part? It looks like they are set to release a new album this year, their first since Sunset in 2004, so I’m crossing my fingers for a chance to see them live.
So far 2009 hasn’t been a very good year for Decibel in terms of attendance at our one-off events, which isn’t a good sign for the 2009 festival. Not sure what to make of it, but if we can’t raise the necessary money by the middle of June, the 2009 festival program will be cancelled.
Like many promoters, Horton and fellow organizers have been fronting the money for the festival on their own credit cards. The credit crunch has reduced their ability to fund it this way, including foiling Horton’s attempt to take out a loan against his house. On top of that, attendance at yesterday’s gala fundraiser was far lower than expectations.
It’s an incredible pity, since Decibel 2008 was fantastic (I bought a pass before I even moved to Seattle and went out every night, to what seemed like pretty crowded venues). One issue is that Decibel, unlike other festivals such as Mutek, only recently registered as a non-profit, thereby becoming eligible for local arts funding. Advanced sales for Mutek and Movement are pointing towards increased attendance from last year (as was the case for Coachella), so it’s quite possible that Decibel would also do fine this year, but that’s a hell of a risk to take when it’s your personal financial wherewithal at stake. Here’s hoping they get the funding sorted out. If you want to help, you can make a tax-deductible contribution via their funding partner, Shunpike.
This Saturday, May 9th, is the opening of the Muppet Rawk II group show at Ouch My Eye Gallery, just south of downtown Seattle. The mandate was to take an existing rock album cover, and re-imagine it using Muppets, in a 12″x12″ format. You can see a preview of one of the paintings at Boing Boing.
Needless to say, this is what I will be doing on Saturday night.
A bit of pop culture commentary today…
What I Learned at the Pop Conference. From The Stranger, a lighthearted summary of the goings-on at this year’s EMP Pop Conference, which had the theme, “Dance Music Sex Romance: Pop and the Body Politic.” Under the heading, “People Like Gimmicks,” author Eric Grandy describes this talk:
Douglas Wolk, presenting a paper on the incorporeality of club and radio DJs, the disconnect between their bodies and the sound they produce—they can’t physically touch the sound they create the way that a guitarist can touch the vibration of a string, they aren’t physically interacting with their audiences, and if they’re doing their job right they might as well not even have a physical body—stood at the podium, silently shuffling his papers every couple minutes and cueing video clips while prerecorded voices read the paper he’d written. A cute and effective conceptual stunt.
The article is a great overview of the conference that captures both academic music nerdery, silliness and—the best part—the intersection of the two.
Auto-Tune reconsidered. Like most indie music fanatics, I have considerable disdain for Auto-Tune—at its best, it’s a crutch, and at its worst, it’s a way for people (young skinny beautiful people, that is) with no musical talent to become pop stars. That is, until I read this article in Frieze Magazine, “Pitch Perfect”. In particular, Jace Clayton pulls in examples from Cher to Kanye West to North African Berber pop, complete with embedded YouTube videos so you can listen. He argues that effective use of Autotune requires the vocalist to work with the electronics:
Unlike traditional effects such as reverb or echo, Auto-Tune actively responds to human error and pitch subtleties. It doesn’t flatten or smooth. Nor does it universalize. Ari Raskin, chief engineer of high-end Manhattan recording studio Chung King, explains, ‘if you sing really ‘on’ [key] then the effect is less drastic’. The software works hard to make wrong notes right, so correctly-pitched notes sound relatively natural. But a virtuoso will confound the software when sliding around notes. The interplay becomes complex.
and that this melding of the human and the digital is a ‘cyborg embrace.’ Check out the whole article and see if it makes you re-think the use of Auto-Tune, too.
[image credit: Mark Kaufman, The Stranger]
Music and technology news from around the Internet:
Canada is a nation of pirates. Arrr! The US Trade Representatives, who track intellectual property protections among US trading partners, elevated Canada from their ‘watch list’ to the ‘priority watch list’ last week, which puts it alongside China, Russia, and India. They only presented data for software piracy (not music or movies), on which Canada is at the bottom of the list of pirates. I’d guess that Canada got added to the super bad guys list because they didn’t pass a bill that would be Canadian equivalent of the DMCA, much like it got added to the list of countries whose citizens you shouldn’t talk to if you do DARPA or DoD-funded research right after Canadians declined to send troops to Iraq – never mind the larger picture. [via Ars Technica, from whence came the fantastic illustration above]
MGMT settles lawsuit against Sarkozy’s party. Speaking of piracy, MGMT sued French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s political party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), for using their song, “Kids” at rallies and on videos on the UMP website. MGMT weren’t offended by them using to song per se, but more by its unauthorized use by the UMP, who are pushing a new anti-piracy bill, with stricter penalties for downloading and filesharing. MGMT settled with the party, for somewhere in the ballpark of €30K, which they plan to donate to artists’ rights groups. [via CHARTAttack]
Best Buy to start carrying vinyl. Best Buy, which is the third-largest music-seller after iTunes and Wal-Mart, has decided to start carrying vinyl records at all its stores after a 100-store pilot project proved successful. They’re going to carry a pretty small selection at each store – about 200 albums, versus about 8000 CDs – but this is definitely seen as a net win by the music industry. A number of record companies have started re-releasing (or are gearing up to re-release) LPs, complete with original artwork and packaging. While they cost more to produce, and have lower margins than CDs, sales of vinyl are growing – pretty much the only bright spot in the world of physical music. [New York Post]
Home boozing is killing music. The Guardian reports that revenues from public performance of music in UK pubs and clubs fell for the first time ever, by about 2%. This corresponds with a drop in beer volume sales, and has been attributed to more people staying home and drinking, rather than spending money in pubs. Wonder if we’ll see something similar in the US soon. [via Current]
Richie Hawtin tweets track info while DJ’ing. Richie Hawtin has started using a custom version of Traktor Pro mixing software to automatically send out track information to Twitter while he’s onstage (you can take a look here). While this is obviously a boon to the kind of music nerds who want to know every track that’s getting played (er, guilty as charged), it’s a great way for lesser-known labels and songs to be identified, and may eventually lead to a better way for them to be compensated for performance rights. [via The Stranger]