Archive for November, 2009

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If music recommenders were people

November 30, 2009

University of Cambridge psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen (yes, they’re related) and his research team have created instruments to measure two aspects of personality: the systemization quotient, which measures how oriented you are towards systems (anything with predictable inputs and outputs) and the empathic quotient, which measures how oriented you are towards people. People who are autistic tend to have very low EQs, but frequently have very high SQs. (You can measure your own SQ and EQ here.)

Pandora is clearly all about the systemization, with no empathic component – it’s practically autistic. Your friend saying “Best fuckin’ album I’ve heard in months” and sending you a link is all EQ, no SQ (and for most of us, that’s the killer app).

Baron-Cohen describes people who have similar EQs and SQs – that is, they are equally oriented towards people and systems – as being ‘balanced.’ Last.fm‘s social sharing and Hype Machine‘s ‘another user tried searching for [this band] next’ have moderate EQs and SQs. And The Echo Nest‘s Recommend + Analyze combo explicitly aims to have both a high SQ and high EQ – what people are saying about the music, coupled with its intrinsic characteristics.

Of course, just as with people, it’s all about the diversity of approaches.

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Music Hack Day Boston: the art of noise

November 25, 2009

I promised myself that I would actually make something at Music Hack Day Boston, not just hang out while other people made stuff. So I signed up for circuit bender Jimmie Rodgers‘s newbie workshop on making an Atari Punk Console, a simple synthesizer that Jimmie designed and has made available as a kit. It uses a two-up timing chip to drive a speaker which, when tweaked with a pair of potentiometers, makes some very fun electronic squeals. The whole circuit fits into an Altoids tin.

So, while all the real hackers got going on their projects, I settled myself down with a kit and a soldering iron, surrounded by a tableful of kindred spirits. Three of the fastest hours of my life later, I found myself delightedly pushing buttons and turning knobs to  make weird noises come out of my circuit. It was fantastic to reconnect with the pleasure of actually building something and having it work (that’s my handmade synth in the picture above).

I also discovered a new measure of awesomeness in teaching, one that’s so much better than the standard end-of-course evaluations: a whole bunch of Jimmie’s students (myself included) bought him drinks that night at the Echo Nestival.

You can look through a photo gallery, listen to Jimmie talk about circuit bending, and hear some of the great sounds in this piece for NHPR.

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A reason to regret the demise of radio

November 24, 2009

I never thought I would lament the end of radio.

In the pre-Internet age, commercial radio, TV news and the front page of newspapers, all provided a shared experience to their community (not, mind you, that this was an unmitigated good). Unlike the other two media, though, radio also reached back in time, since it didn’t just present the music of the day. I grew up with a good independent radio station, and as a result, I had a de facto education in alternative music from the rise of punk onwards, which was augmented by listening to this show every week. That kind of historical context can be lost if you’ve gotten all of your music online.

I thought about radio on the weekend when this question came up: “What is the most influential modern instrument?” (post-electric guitar, not post-sousaphone). My immediate response, “The drum machine,” was met with incomprehension. While you could argue whether this is the right answer (and please do, in the comments), you have to have some knowledge of the antecedents of today’s music in order to answer the question.  I’m not sure how widespread that will be from now on.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go shoo some kids off my lawn.

Exhibit A: New Order – Blue Monday (12″)

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Music Hack Day Boston: roundup

November 23, 2009

Right. So. The lights went out on my laptop this weekend. Literally, as it happened: the backlight on my screen died, and my plans to liveblog the Boston Music Hack Day died with it. So here’s a roundup instead.

Laptop or no, it was a great weekend, with three excellent panels and lots of hacking, including 30+ demos shown off on Sunday afternoon, and an amazing number of interesting conversations. Anthony Volodkin, a founder of Hype Machine, wrote a clear (and laudatory) summary here. You can also check out the PublicSpaces Lab post here, and there’s an annotated list of all the projects at Indie Music TechJen Nathan did a fun piece on NHPR’s Word of Mouth on the circuit bending contingent (more on that in the next post). If you prefer your reportage a little more à la minute, check out the Twitter hashtag #musichackday for observations and soundbites.

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Music Hack Day Boston, Nov 21

November 21, 2009

10 am: Saturday, November 21st:

I am a nerd imposter. Paul Lamere just announced that the primary activity for this weekend is hacking, and that everything else is optional. As someone who spends way more time doing experimentation and analysis than coding and soldering, I’m suddenly realizing that I’m the wrong kind of nerd.

I’m at Microsoft NERD’s sunny offices on the Charles River in Cambridge, in a room full of the right kind of nerd: people who are excited about spending the weekend creating at the intersection of music and technology. It’s still pretty early on Saturday morning, and the auditorium space is only about half-full (I guess the hackers are conserving their energy for some overnight hacking in the Echo Nest offices). Right now we’re listening to elevator pitches from companies like SoundCloud, SongKick, Collecta, Tapulous and more, all of whom are sharing their toys.

In a pleasant break from tradition, we ended the opening session twenty minutes early – let the hacking begin!

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Infographic: Seattle music connections

November 18, 2009

Rachel Ratner’s Cartographic Study of Musical Incest is a giant (60 sq ft) map of the connections between Seattle bands, from Nirvana to Fleet Foxes to scores of bands that you’ve probably never heard of unless you’re an Emerald City local. If you are, you can also see the full map (the above is a detail) at the Expo 87 art show next week.

Also, I’d love to see one of these for the Boston music scene? Anybody game?

(via Line Out)

Rachel Ratner’s Cartographic Study of Musica

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What does ‘selling out’ mean, anyway?

November 17, 2009

Three recent perspectives on artists licensing their songs to big companies.

The end of selling out. A predictably trite blog post in Newsweek about the ‘sudden shift’ to fans not really caring if songs get used in commercials.

What does it say about our culture? Carrie Brownstein, of Sleater-Kinney, wrote a post for NPR which offers an considerably more nuanced route to the same question that Newsweek asks: what does it say about us that we are no longer bothered about music being used in commercial contexts? Brownstein argues that our infinite access to music has led to a well-developed ability to divorce music from its commercial content. But she (rightly, I think) questions this tendency to decontextualize music.

What does it mean to sell out? Amanda Palmer, as usual, got to the crucial point, even though she wasn’t specifically discussing ads:

selling out is when you go against your own heart, ideals and authenticity to make money.

selling out is an action, a 180 from a stated position.

…but if neil young were to suddenly hire the matrix to write him a thumpin’ dance album and then appear on saturday night live snogging bob dylan, i’d have reservations about his integrity.

Like everything else, there’s no single right answer. When I hear “Lust for Life” soundtracking a cruise line commercial or “Heroes” behind a Microsoft Windows ad, it doesn’t diminish my respect for Iggy Pop or David Bowie, but it sure as hell diminishes my respect for those companies, or at least their ad agencies (and I’m not alone). Boston favourites The Motion Sick getting their videogame-themed love song “30 Lives” in Dance Dance Revolution is a win all around. And I must admit to more than a tinge of sadness when I listened to Modest Mouse‘s The Moon and Antarctica for the first time in ages and found my mind wandering to minivans.

EDIT: Make sure you check out the comments for Michael and meredith’s great remarks from the musicians’ perspective.

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Here from Hypebot or Daily Swarm?

November 5, 2009

portrait-debcha

Thanks for stopping by! zed equals zee is a music, culture and technology blog based out of Cambridge, MA.

You might also enjoy the following posts:

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Music, webcomics, NPR and money. What can independent artists learn from the business model of webcomics and NPR?

What will music fans pay for? A longer version of the post on Music Think Tank.

The future is what it used to be. An appreciation of an astonishingly prescient 1991 essay by Momus. Music industry, don’t say no one saw it coming.

The name-your-own-price-model: some data. An independent videogame company tries the NYOP for one of their games. What can musicians learn from their experiment?

Read: Fans, Friends and Followers: An interview with Scott Kirsner, author of Fans, Friends and Followers: Building an Audience and a Creative Career in the Digital Age.

128 or 320 kbps – can you hear the difference? Test yourself to see if you can distinguish between low and high bitrate MP3s.

Feel free to poke around the rest of the blog. If you’re intrigued, you can subscribe to the RSS feed or follow me on Twitter.

(image: a commissioned portrait of me by rstevens)

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