Archive for May, 2010

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The remix nation needs legislation

May 28, 2010

If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you’ve heard of something called “The Swinger.” It’s a piece of Python code that debuted at the San Francisco Music Hack Day a few weeks ago, which uses The Echo Nest‘s remix software to automagically stretch and shorten beats in a song to give it that swing. It went massively viral—over the last few days, somewhere north of a million people listened to these “swing” versions.

Naturally, I decided to get in on the fun – you can hear my contribution to the meme, a swing version of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows,” below. I uploaded it to SoundCloud, which asks you what kind of licensing you want to use – all rights reserved, a Creative Commons license, or no rights reserved – and it stopped me cold.

The legal status of remixes and sampling is grey, to say the least, with differing rulings on whether it constitutes, for example, transformative use. One solution would be compulsory licensing for remixing and sampling, similar to what currently exists for covers (this is why the Sex Pistols were Sid Vicious was able to cover “My Way” – unhappy though he was, Paul Anka had no legal recourse).

Calls to address this aren’t new, of course (Lawrence Lessig is the most vocal advocate). But what really struck me over the last few days is how urgent the need for legislation is getting, given the rapid rise of tools that let even musical and programming ignoramuses like me create remixes. The next iTunes is probably going to look a lot more like Google Picasa, since the tools that are the musical equivalent of crop, resize, or ‘remove redeye’ are pretty much on our doorstep—simple, painless and requiring no special skills or expensive software. It’s past time for the laws to catch up.

EDIT: Sid Vicious, not the Sex Pistols. Thanks to Martin Packer for the correction.

Thanks to Quinn Norton and Ethan Hein for excellent discussions on the legal issues surrounding remixing. And a very mild disclaimer of a collaborative relationship with the fine folks at The Echo Nest.

Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows” (The Swing Version) by debcha

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The album is dead. Long live the album.

May 11, 2010

Rumours of the album’s death are greatly exaggerated. Ars Technica graphed some data from Tunecore and the RIAA on single and album sales. Here’s the graph for the RIAA data:

It doesn’t look very good. But figure that each album contains about ten tracks. Here’s a graph of songs bought as singles versus songs bought as part of album:

Doesn’t look quite so apocalyptic now, does it?

Another metric of the album’s not-quite-so-imminent demise comes from Spotify founder Daniel Ek, who noted during his SXSW interview this year that fully 30% of playlists on the music streaming service are albums.

Of course, none of this is really meaningful without longitudinal data. And if we’re going to go that route, we might want to consider that the 1990s were an aberration in single sales: since CD singles (unlike 45s) were barely supported by record companies, consumers had little choice but to buy whole albums. But as digital downloads (both legal and illegal) made acquiring tracks à la carte possible again, music lovers were quick to take advantage of it.

Of course, albums themselves are an artifact of a technological system, governed by the difficulty of distributing music-as-atoms, and how many minutes you could fit on long-playing record (the rationale behind the duration of audio on a CD is a little more involved). Given digital distribution, there’s no reason why artists can’t release singles, EPs, LPs, double albums, sextuple albums…whatever works best with their artistic vision. There’s nothing magical about an 80 minute set.

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zed equals zee happy hour in Brooklyn!

May 9, 2010

New Yorkers! Feeling left out because the previous two zed equals zee happy hours were in Cambridge? It’s your turn! Join me and host of like-minded people to talk music, technology and culture. We’re meeting on Sunday, May 23rd at Radegast Hall in Williamsburg, from 4-6 pm. Feel free to RSVP in the comments or via e-mail so we know to expect you, but just showing up is fine too. Hope to see you there!

EDITED TO ADD: I’ve gotten a bunch of RSVPs via e-mail, and it’s shaping up to be a fun conversation with cool people!

Image: NYC – Brooklyn – Williamsburg: Radegast Hall & Biergarten by Flickr user wallyg, used here under its Creative Commons license.

NYC – Brooklyn – Williamsburg: Radegast Hall & Biergarten

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Power, communication, and files

May 2, 2010

Processor power increases exponentially. Hard drive storage increases exponentially. And the energy density in batteries? Decidedly not exponential. Lithium ion batteries are thought to be nearing their technical limits, and alternatives are still probably a few years away.

I thought about this the other day when I was working at my local coffee shop. On the table in front of me I had both my fancy smartphone and my ancient MP3 player, which is what I was listening to. Because, frankly, I don’t trust my phone to have enough juice to make it through the day if I use it for frivolous things like playing Plants vs Zombies. Or listening to music.

Streaming music over the 3G network, is incredibly energy-intensive – like talking on the phone constantly. Rhapsody and Spotify have figured this out, unsurprisingly, and their iPhone apps enable you to download playlists of music to your phone over WiFi. (With an average speed of 22 Mbit/s for an 802.11g network, you can download a 5 min song at a bitrate of 128 kbit/s in just a couple of seconds, so you don’t need to spend long in a hotspot.) But having a bunch of playlists on tap is still pretty far from true streaming music.

Given a constant energy density, of course, one option is just to make the battery bigger. And my coder friends tell me that clever programming can help a lot with battery life. But for smartphones, we really just need much better power sources before the promise of whatever you want to listen to, whenever you want it, wherever you are, can become a reality. Dear materials scientists and electrical engineers, please get right on that, will you?

Thanks to Mark Chang for some technical background to this post; any misapprehensions are entirely my fault, not his.

Image: New Battery Generations, from the Argonne National Laboratory, posted here under its Creative Commons license. How freaking cool is that?

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