Archive for the ‘future of music’ Category

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Media technologies are additive

October 11, 2011

I’ve been watching the debate over Amazon’s e-book rental service, announced a few weeks ago. I can’t help but notice how it recapitulates the debate over streaming music.

Here’s a pretty normal day for me and music: I’ll listen to the radio in my car en route to work. I take my iPod, loaded with MP3s, to the gym. At my desk, I stream music via Spotify, or Last.fm, or by using ex.fm for MP3 links, or Hype Machine, or more. Or I stream more radio. On the way home, I listen to CDs (my car is too old to have an auxiliary input). I might stream Spotify to my phone as I walk out to meet friends for dinner. And I’ll put a vinyl record on when I come home.

Similarly, my office is full of text. Textbooks. Large-format coffee-table style books. My Kindle. Hand-bound copies of all of my theses. PDF e-books on my computer. Printouts of manuscripts to review. Bookmarks to online texts in my browser. Novels: hardbound, trade and pocket paperback. On my phone, Kindle and Instapaper.  Workbooks.

I recently downloaded a number of illustrations from Ernst Haeckel’s 1904 book, Kunstformen der Natur, from the Wikimedia Commons. They first existed as sketches, then engravings, then the lithographs that went into the book. Someone scanned the pages and uploaded them as high-resolution images, which I downloaded, opened in image-editing software, converted to greyscale and resized, and then downloaded to serve as the screensavers on my Kindle.

It’s a fallacy to think that the existence of one technology supplants another. Sure, technologies become obsolete. But as a user and a lover of the content (the text, or the music, or the images), I’m not interested in hurrying up the process. Different technologies have different affordances, and my primary interest is in being able to reach for the most appropriate one for my purpose.

[photo: lost box of tapes! by Flickr user wayneandwax, used here under its Creative Commons license]

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Rethink Music: the structure of revolutions

April 25, 2011

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn famously wrote about science undergoing “paradigm shifts”: that scientific change occurs in sudden upheavals. It’s normally not all that dramatic, even. What I’ve observed to happen is something like this: at a conference, someone will present evidence for an alternative explanation of data. Some people will listen, some will scoff, and some will go off to do more experiments. The next year, more people are on the side of the ‘novel’ explanation. Repeat for another year or two, and everyone is on board with the new idea.

Watching the music industry evolve and struggle and try to reinvent itself, on the other hand, reminds me of what Kuhn wrote about the humanties. “[A] student in the humanities has constantly before him a number of competing and incommensurable solutions to these problems, solutions that he must ultimately examine for himself.”

The Rethink Music conference, starting today in Boston, aims to give “creators, academics, and industry professionals” a chance to think and discuss some of these solutions for the music industry.  A collaboration between the Berklee College of Music, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, and MIDEM, Rethink Music’s goal is to foster a dialogue between the ‘traditional’ music industry and the artists, researchers, and entrepreneurs who are exploring a musical universe that’s not a holdover from moving around shiny silver discs. The high-powered speaker lineup suggests that Rethink Music is on track: it includes artist management, lawyers, researchers (including Lawrence Lessig and Nancy Baym), CEOs of a host of companies including SonicBids and The Echo Nest, Kickstarter founder Yancey Strickler, and RIAA head Cary Sherman sharing a stage with Google’s senior copyright counsel Fred Von Lohmann, formerly of the EFF (I have high hopes for a deathmatch).

Rethink Music is quite unusual in how it’s bringing people from across the spectrum together. As a counterexample, at SXSW Interactive this year, I went to two panel discussions around metadata: the first featured researchers from UC Berkeley, and the second was organized by a representative of NARM (the music industry trade organization). Even though both panels were nominally on the same topic, they were worlds apart: one group was talking about things like crowdsourcing taxonomies of musical knowledge, and the other group was talking about linking MP3s with the release dates of albums. So I’m excited to see Larisa Mann, one of the researchers from Berkeley, on the Rethink Music lineup.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there is already some evidence of friction in this uneasy alliance of interests. Wayne Marshall, a DJ and a researcher in ethnomusicology at MIT, withdrew from the conference over the boilerplate language of the speaker contract (you can read his letter to the conference organizers here). Articles on Hypebot and Mashable took issue with the planned release of an ‘instant album’ by Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman, Ben Folds, and Damien Kulash of OK Go (Palmer’s response is here). But of course, the tensions are likely to be what makes Rethink Music an interesting few days.

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Best of 2010: debcha’s tops in [Boston music] tech

December 23, 2010

 

Cross-posted from Boston’s best local music blog, Boston Band Crush.

 

Boston is a music town. And Boston is a tech town. So it’s hardly surprising that Boston and Camberville produce an enormous amount of interesting stuff at the intersection of music and technology. Here are five of my favorite examples from this year:

1. Mashup Breakdown

Benjamin Rahn, of Cambridge, created an addictive site that visualizes the use of samples in songs, and launched it with (of course) Girl Talk’s new album, All Day. As you play tracks from the album, each of the samples used is highlighted and identified. The best part? It’s an ongoing project. So if there’s a song that you’ve always been curious about, go to the site and find out how you can participate.

2. The Swinger

It’s been a great year for Somerville’s The Echo Nest, a music intelligence company. They closed on a major round of funding, and provided the brainpower behind a host of great projects, like MTV’s phenomenal Music Meter site (yes, I know you’re thinking “MTV? Doing something worthwhile with music. Really?” Yes, really. Check it out.) And they had a viral hit on their hands with The Swinger, a bit of computer code that can make any song swing by automagically time-stretching the first half of each beat and shortening the second. Check out some examples here.

3. The Toscanini Gestural Interface

Boston hackers Lindsey Mysse and Robby Grodin showed off the Toscanini Gestural Interface (named after the conductor, not the ice cream) at the most recent Boston Music Hack Day. It’s a watch that turns movement into music (via Max/MSP commands). See it in action in the video here.

4. Dance Central and Rock Band 3

Across from the Middle East, an unremarkable office building houses the giant of music games, Harmonix. While they face an uncertain future, they released not one, but two incredible games this year. You’re probably already spending your evenings rocking out or getting down in your living room.

5. Another Green World (33 1/3 Books)

What possible relationship can a book about a 35-year-old Brian Eno album have with the Boston music/tech scene? Geeta Dayal, a Boston-based arts critic and MIT grad, wrote a short but brilliant book that investigates Eno’s 1975 album, which is deeply rooted in technology and technical concepts, especially in the field of cybernetics (defined and named by MIT professor Norbert Weiner in 1948). Even if you’re not a techie, it’s worth a read for how it illuminates one artist’s creative process.

 

 

Deb Chachra (debcha) writes zed equals zee, a Cambridge-based blog about music and technology, and curates the associated Tumblr. You can catch up with her at shows around the city, or you can just follow her on Twitter.
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Wanted: a way to aggregate streaming tracks

December 3, 2010

I’ve decided that I really want a mashup of exfmShuffler.fm and delicious, with a dash of smart playlisting thrown in.

Here’s the problem: Every day I find cool streaming music in lots of different places. Soundcloud. YouTube. Tumblr. (that’s a piece of my Tumblr dashboard, above). But for most of it, I listen to it once. At most. Because listening to streaming music in an atomized form is a pain. Having to choose and click on a new song every three minutes might be fine for an ADD teenager, but I don’t want my music listening to be completely interrupt-driven. I just want a continuous stream of music I like (and judging by the continuing popularity of online and terrestrial radio, and the love for Shuffler, I’m not alone).

In an MP3-centric world, I’ve dealt with the increasingly decentralized creation and distribution of music by, in essence, centralizing it: by downloading MP3s into my library, and using that as an aggregator. And exfm, which I just started using, is pretty good at getting around the downloading issue. But as more and more music is straight-up streaming, how do we make those tracks into part of our ‘virtual library,’ so that we can find them, embed them into playlists, and otherwise listen at will?

What I really want to be able to do is this: Every time I find a streaming track I’m interested in (whether in Tumblr, YouTube, SoundCloud or anywhere else), I flag it as part of my ‘library’, like delicious does for bookmarks or exfm does for MP3s. Note that, unlike delicious, I don’t want to manually tag it. Because, well, I’m lazy. But also because I either know the song, and I can classify it ways I can’t easily articulate into a folksonomy, or I don’t know it, and can’t classify it at all. So I’d really like some tools to automagically organize it into playlists in a range of ways. And then I’d like to just be able to listen to a Shuffler-like continuous stream that pulls together my flagged streaming tracks, my own MP3s, tracks from streaming services like last.fm, and more.

Oh, and I’d also like a pony. Or maybe a unicorn.

What do you think?

This post is the result of a conversation this morning with Jason Herskowitz, prompted by a question from Mark Mulligan.

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Brian Whitman, “Music in the Time of Data”

November 23, 2010

Brian Whitman, the co-founder and CTO of The Echo Nest, gave a great talk at Olin College in Needham, MA last week, as part of the Technology and Culture Seminar Series.* His talk was a combination of personal narrative, a recent history of computer-generated music, and a look into the future of the interaction of music and technology.

*For those of you who only know me through this blog or Twitter: I’m on the faculty of Olin College and an organizer of the seminar series, and that’s me doing the intro. And yes, I have the best job ever.

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Engineering and music at the Frontiers of Engineering

October 4, 2010

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate to be able to attend the National Academy of Engineering’s Frontiers of Engineering symposium on behalf of my day job. One of the sessions focused on Engineering and Music, organized by Daniel Ellis of Columbia University and Youngmoo Kim of Drexel University, and some of my notes are below. (Links in the titles go to PDFs of short papers by each speaker.)

Brian Whitman, The Echo Nest: Very Large-Scale Music Understanding

What does it mean to “teach computers to listen to music“? Whitman, co-founder and CTO of The Echo Nest, talked about the path to founding the company as well as some of its guiding principles. Whitman discussed the company’s approach to learning about music, which mixes acoustic analysis of the music itself with information gleaned by applying natural language processing techniques to what people are writing on the Internet about the songs, artists or albums. He shared their three precepts: “Know everything about music and listeners. Give (and sell) great data to everyone. Do it automatically, with no bias, on everything.” Finally, he ended on a carefully optimistic note: “Be cautious what you believe a computer can do…but data is the future of music.” Earlier this year, Whitman gave a related but longer talk at the Music and Bits conference, which you can watch here. [A disclosure: Regular readers of z=z will be aware that The Echo Nest is a friend of the blog.]

Douglas Repetto, Columbia University: Doing It Wrong

I felt a little for Repetto, who presented a short primer on experimental music for an audience of not-very-sympathetic engineers. He started with Alvin Lucier‘s well-known piece, “I am sitting in a room” and then played a homage made by one of his students, Stina Hasse. In Lucier’s original, he iteratively re-records himself speaking, until eventually the resonance takes over and only the rhythms of his speech are discernible (more info). For Hasse’s take, she did the re-recording in an anechoic chamber; the absence of echo damped her voice and her words evolved into staticky sibilant chirps, probably as a result of the digital recording technology. Repetto presented several other works of music, making the case to the audience that there was a commonality of experimental mindset: for both the artists whose work he was presenting and the researchers in the room, the basic strategy was to interrogate the world and see what you find out. Creativity, he argued, stems from a “let’s see what happens” attitude: “creative acts require deviations from the norm, and that creative progress is born not of optimization, but of variance.”

Daniel Trueman, Princeton University: Digital Instrument Building and the Laptop Orchestra

Trueman, a professor of music, started off by talking about traditional acoustic instruments and the ‘fetishism’ of mechanics. Instruments are not, he stressed, neutral tools for expression: the physical constraints and connections of instruments shapes how musicians think, the kind of music they play, and how they express themselves (for example, since many artists compose on the piano, the peculiarities of the instrument colour the music they create). But in digital instruments, there is nothing connecting the body to the sound; as Trueman put it, “It has to be invented. This is both terrifying and exhilarating.” Typically, the user performs some actions, which are transduced by sensors of some sort, and then converted into sound. But the mapping between the sensor inputs and the resultant audible output is pretty much under the control of the creator. Trueman presented some examples of novel instruments and techniques for this mapping, as well as some challenges and opportunities: for example, the physical interfaces of digital instruments tend to be a little ‘impoverished’ (consider how responsive an electric guitar is, for example), but these instruments can also communicate wirelessly with each other, for which there is no acoustic analog.

Elaine Chew, University of Southern California: Demystifying Music and its Performance

Chew, with a background in both music and operations research, presented a number of her projects which use visualization and interaction to engage non-musicians with music. The MuSA.RT project visualizes music in real-time on a spiral model of tonality (see image above), and she demonstrated it for us by playing a piece by the spoof composer PDQ Bach on a keyboard and showing us how its musical humour derived in part from ‘unexpected’ jumps in the notes, which were clearly visible. She also showed us her Expression Synthesis Project, which uses an interactive driving metaphor to demonstrate musical expressiveness. The participant sits at what looks like a driving video game, with an accelerator, brake, steering wheel and a first-person view of the road. The twist is that the speed of the car controls the tempo of the music: straightaways encourage higher speed and therefore a faster tempo, and tight curves slow the driver down. As well as giving non-musicians a chance to ‘play’ music expressively, the road map is itself an interesting visualization of the different tempi in a piece.

Some quotes from the panel discussion:

Repetto on trying to build physicality/viscerality into digital instruments: “Animals understand that when you hit something harder, it’s louder. But when you hit your computer harder, it stops working.”

Trueman on muscle memory: “You can build a typing instrument that leverages your typing skills to make meaningful music.”

Chew on Rock Band and other music games: “It’s not very expressive: the timing is fixed, with no room for expression. You have to hit the target—you don’t get to manipulate the music.” More generally, the panelists agreed that the democratization of the music experience and communal music experiences were a social good, regardless of the means.

Things I never expected to write on this blog: I am grateful to the National Academy of Engineering, IBM, and Olin College for sponsoring this post, however inadvertently.

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Thinking about playlists

September 5, 2010

I love playlists. I live and die by them, and make new ones almost daily. My car doesn’t have an MP3 input and I have a daily commute, so a good chunk of my music listening is in the form of burned CDs—de facto sub-75-min playlists. And I realize it’s antediluvian, but I still trade mix CDs with many of my friends (via snail mail, no less; I think we all love the charm of the hand-made packages in the post), and those CDs are one of my favourite modes of music discovery.

Almost all the playlists I make are custom, largely by necessity: the songs are usually hand-selected, and they are frequently also hand-ordered. In time for this weekend’s London Music Hack Day, The Echo Nest debuted a powerful and flexible set of tools to algorithmically generate playlists, and I did a little gedanken experiment to compare the playlists you can currently generate with these tools with the kinds of playlists that I make.

Here are some examples of playlists I’ve made or updated recently, ordered roughly from least to most amenable to automating:

New music: I have a playlist called ‘Current’ where I throw recently downloaded music for further listening.

Albums: If I download an entire album, I’ll keep it together, at least for the first few listens (and then I decide that I really only like “Sprawl II” off the new Arcade Fire album).

Artists: Today I will listen to every Elliott Smith song I own.

Playlists by geography: I have a playlist called ‘CanCon‘ that I made for a friend of mine who just moved to Canada. Amazingly, this looks reasonably easy to do with Echo Nest’s new APIs, although it might require a bit of careful tweaking to include my hometown of Toronto, since it’s well south of the 49th parallel.

Workout playlists: Recently, I’ve been doing musical sprint intervals: moderately-high tempo songs intermixed with short, loud, fast songs by punk bands like the Ramones or Pansy Division.

Playlists of bands with upcoming shows: Boston-based concert tracking service, Tourfilter, has a monthly residency at a local bar, at which I DJ’ed a few months ago. All of the songs are by artists that are playing in the Boston-area in the next month or so.

Songs I can play on bass: Sadly, a very short and slowly-growing list right now (“Green Onions,” “Seven-Nation Army,” and a handful more).

My friends’ bands: A playlist of music by people I know.

Playlists for other people: Playlists or mix CDs made I’ve made for friends of music that I think they’ll like, based on what I know of their tastes.

Playlists by mood: Usually not just ‘happy’ or ‘sad,’ though. I have a recent playlist I made as a soundtrack when I was feeling melancholy and restless (lots of Waterboys, Sea Wolf, Frightened Rabbit).

Playlists by theme: As an example, I made a playlist of ‘embarrassing’ music for a friend of mine, which was mostly songs at the intersection of nerdy, funny and bawdy (think The Bloodhound Gang’s “The Bad Touch”).

‘Best of’ lists: Like most music geeks, I like making lists of the stuff that I like best (although I guess if I was a real music geek, I’d describe it as ‘the best music’)

What do I feel like?: Quasi-random concatenations of whatever I feel like listening to on a given day.

The first half are pretty straightforward. The second half get a little tougher—some of them are nearly algorithmic, but only if you happen to be me. The thought processes behind the last two are opaque even if you are me. Coming up with those last few seems very close to a musical Turing Test;  not that I’d put that beyond the ability of people like the Echo Nesters, although there might be a few existential crises along the way.

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Women, digital distribution, and visual image

August 26, 2010

Another crosspost, this one from Music Think Tank Open; it was written as a companion to the zed equals zee post, “Women in Music: the lost generation.”

As a fan, I’ve been excited for the rise of digital distribution and for the direct interaction of artists and listeners because it means I’m more likely to hear great music that I like. It means that I get to decide what I want to listen to, rather than having a slew of A&R folks and radio programmers make the decisions for me.

But lately, I’ve been thinking about how record labels are not only gatekeepers for the music itself, but also for the visual image of artists.

I get it. Artists are performers, and looks matter.

But it’s pretty clear when you look at Top 40 artists that the standards for successful female artists and successful male artists are not the same. Music industry executives are predominantly male, and their professional tastes are, frankly, boring. So female artists have to be conventionally attractive, but male artists can look like Nickelback—middling-attractive guys (whose videos are then stuffed full of women in bikinis).

Deviate from these norms, and you face opposition. Roadrunner tried to get Amanda Palmer to re-edit her “Leeds United” video; because it contained a shot of her exposed belly that didn’t conform to the taut, airbrushed Britney-Beyonce-Lady Gaga standards. (She and her fans rebelled, and ultimately won. If you haven’t seen the video, go watch it. Amanda Palmer is undeniably hot, whatever her former label thinks.)

How many awesome female artists are there that didn’t get signed or supported because they didn’t fit the narrow visual criteria of the guy on the other side of the desk? Janet Weiss, of Sleater-Kinney, talks about how photographers wanted the band to look playful and sweet, and to dress them up like they were dolls. She says, “We wanted to look like the Stones, to be cool, to be tough, to be heroes. Why don’t women get to be heroes?”

I want female artists to be heroes. Or anything else they want to be. And I’m delighted that it might finally happen.

This post is adapted from one at zed equals zee, a music, technology and culture blog. debcha is a music fan, academic, and geek (not necessarily in that order). She also writes the zed equals zee companion Tumblr, and you can follow her on Twitter.

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SXSW Interactive 2011: music panels worth checking out

August 24, 2010

Crossposted from Hypebot. This post complements the previous zed equals zee post, which focuses on more technically oriented panels.

Thinking of heading to Austin in March? Before the South by Southwest Music Festival, there’s also South by Southwest Interactive, a conference that focuses on technology, media, marketing and culture. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the evolution of the music industry is a hot topic at SXSWi.

The program is partially crowdsourced: people who are interested in presenting at the conference submit proposals, which are then made available to the public to vote on and to provide feedback. Voting opened last week, and is open until August 27th (you do need to register to vote, but it’s quick and easy).

Here are six music / tech panel proposals that are intriguing:

Digital Strategies for Optimizing the Fan / Artist Connection
Pretty much what it says on the package: this panel will focus on the tools to measure and ‘optimize’ fan engagement.

Neither Moguls nor Pirates: Grey Area Music Distribution
Heitor Alvelos, of the University of Porto, argues that music distribution is typically seen as bipolar: music is either legal and paid for, or it’s piracy. Alvelos looks at other models of music creation and distribution besides these two.

Free Is Dead. Fan Experiences are Priceless
This is a topic that’s close to my heart (I wrote a related MTT post, “What Are Music Fans Willing to Pay For?“). Chris McDonald of Indiefeed focuses on the ‘experience economy’: providing unique experiences to fans, that they’re willing to pay for.

Caching in on Collaboration: Allee Willis and Pomplamoose
Heather Gold moderates a discussion between artists Allee Willis and Pomplamoose, who collaborate on both songwriting and visuals.

A Digital Rolling Stone: Disruptive Technology & Music
This panel has a pretty broad brief: to “analyze the current digital ecosystem and reveal creative and innovative solutions to utilize digital technologies in music that progress with and reflect culture,” but the proposer adds that they plan to present research as a case study, so that might make it a little more focused.

The Positive Effects of Music Tech
Samantha Murphy, of The Highway Girl, plans to discuss ways in which the independent artists have been empowered by new technologies around music, particularly those that simplify tasks like tour planning on clearing rights for cover songs.

I’ve highlighted another eight panels that are more technically oriented over at my own blog, zed equals zee.

Want more? Try searching the list of Interactive panel proposals using ‘music’ as a keyword. Know of a panel that belongs in this list? Feel free to add it in the comments.

Hope to see you in Austin!

Deb Chachra is a music fan, academic, and geek (not necessarily in that order). She writes zed equals zee, a blog focusing on the interaction of music, technology and culture, as well as the zed equals zee Tumblr. She’s debcha on Twitter, Last.fm, and elsewhere.

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SXSWi 2011 panel proposals in music and tech

August 16, 2010

Thinking about heading to South by Southwest Interactive next March? There’s a host of intriguing panel proposals in the music, technology and culture space. Below is a round-up of the zed equals zee faves. Click on the titles for more info and to vote.

Love, Music & APIs

(Dave Haynes, SoundCloud and Paul Lamere, The Echo Nest)

Regular readers know that zed equals zee hearts Music Hack Days. Learn more about why developing an ecosystem around putting music in the hands of developers is good for companies, for music and for fans.

Finding Music with Pictures: Data Visualization for Discovery

(Paul Lamere, The Echo Nest)

I’ve heard Paul speak several times, including his talk at SXSW 2010. I love his talks because they are both idea-rich and visually interesting, and I always feel smarter by the end. Can’t wait to see this one.

The Evolution of Radio and Digital Music

Jim Rondinelli, Slacker.com

The Future of Music

Drew Larner, Rdio

Digital Music ADD – Streaming, Clouds and Stores

Dan Maccarone, Hard Candy Shell

Clearly, this year’s hot topic: how the jukebox in the sky changes the landscape of music consumption. From the (admittedly brief) descriptions, it sounds like Rondinelli’s will have a bit more emphasis on what it means for artists, Larner’s on what it means for companies, and Maccarone’s on what it means for consumers.

Digital Music Smackdown: The Best Digital Music Service

David Hyman, MOG.com

Spotify, MOG, Pandora and Rhapsody executives will mud-wrestle for your amusement. Well, not really. This presentation is billed as a “fiercely competitive discussion” in which the four companies battle it out for the the title of “Best Digital Music Service.” Bring your tough questions.

Music & Metadata: Do Songs Remain the Same?

Jess Hemerly, UC Berkeley

If your iTunes library looks anything like mine, there is a jumble of songs at the bottom that are missing titles, artist information, and the like−missing good metadata, in other words. But bad metadata is more than just an inconvenience: every year, hundreds of thousands of dollars in song royalties from music streaming services go unpaid for lack of information about who to send the cheque to. And music recommendation, discovery, social sharing and purchasing all rely on good metadata, from tags on up. This panel will also discuss legal issues around metadata (and I  hope they will also look at some future directions).

We Built This App on RocknRoll: Style Matters

Hannah Donovan, Last.fm and Anthony Volodkin, The Hype Machine

Dear music developers: make your apps look cooler. And if we see another damn headphone girl, we’ll laugh at you and then go elsewhere. A discussion of why design is important from the people behind two of the coolest-looking music sites on the web.

Something good that I missed? Let me know in the comments. Voting is open until August 27th.

EDIT: Check out Paul Lamere’s complementary picks over at Music Machinery.

[and a bit of off-topic self-promotion: I've proposed a panel related to my day job - please check it out too!]

Image: Music Hack Day Stockholm by Flickr user paulamarttila, used here under its Creative Commons licence.

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Women in music: the lost generation

August 9, 2010

If you spend any time at all listening to apologists for the music industry, you will hear (over and over again) two primary justifications for its existence: i) that they find and nurture talent and ii) that it’s the only way for artists to reach the top tier of music stardom.

So, here are some of the top-selling female artists:

And here are some of the top male artists:

Notice anything?

It’s abundantly clear what the critical criterion is for female super-stardom. And just as clear that the same criterion is not applied to men. The music industry might like to think of itself as nurturing talent, but in reality, it’s a gatekeeper – among other criteria, it keeps women (but not men) who aren’t in the 99th percentile of attractiveness, and willing to exploit it as much as they can, out of the Top 40.

This asymmetry between men and women can be traced to the launch of MTV in 1981 and the rise of visual culture in music. Think about female musicians in the 1960s and 1970s – Joan Baez, Janis Joplin, Carole King – all attractive, certainly, but there wasn’t the marked differential between male and female musicians that is on display in the images above. I mark the start of the double standard for male and female artists—and therefore the start of the ‘lost generation’ of female artists—with the band Yazoo (Yaz in the United States). Yazoo featured Alison Moyet’s fantastic singing backed with songwriting by Vince Clarke (formerly of Depeche Mode, and who later founded Erasure). They released two brilliant albums in 1981 and 1982 before disbanding: Upstairs at Eric’s and You and Me Both, which hit #2 and #1 in the UK, respectively, but barely cracked the top 100 in the US. (You and Me Both eventually went platinum in the US, seven years after its release.) Here’s a promo video that their UK label, Mute, released for Yazoo’s first single, “Only You.”

It’s plausible that Yaz’s relative lack of success in the US stemmed from Alison Moyet not conforming to ideals of female beauty at the exact moment (within a year of MTV’s launch) when the music industry decided it mattered.

One of the reasons why I’m excited about the increasing ability of musicians to interact directly with their fans is because it heralds the end of this type of gatekeeping for female artists. Perhaps optimistically, I think that the event marking the end of the lost generation of female artists is the Belly Incident. Boston artist Amanda Palmer chose to break with her label, Roadrunner Records, and strike out on her own, and a major contributor to that decision was Roadrunner’s insistence that the video for “Leeds United” (at top of post) be re-edited to remove a shot of her bare belly which didn’t conform to their ideals of taut, airbrushed perfection. Palmer’s fans rallied in her defense, posting photographs of their own stomachs in Belly Solidarity, and in the end, the original edit stood.

I’m not arguing that the physical appearance of performers is unimportant—it is, and until our society changes pretty drastically, it will continue to be more important for women than for men. But now that the music industry no longer completely controls the distribution channel for music and who has access to it, people like me and you can hear more music by awesome, creative, challenging, talented, compelling female artists—without requiring them to also look like they’ve stepped out of a record executive’s sexual fantasies.

MP3: Amanda Palmer – Do You Swear To Tell The Truth The Whole Truth And Nothing But The Truth So Help Your Black Ass [why, and buy]

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Pay-for-downloads and self-fulfilling prophecies

June 15, 2010

A recent Guardian Music article discussed the evolution of payola for the social media age: companies who promise Facebook friends or Twitter followers to musicians in exchange for cash, or pay people to download songs:

One of the worst examples of a company taking advantage of desperate artists is a new Australian venture called Chartfixer (the clue is in the name). For $6,000, Chartfixer will crowd-source 1,000 downloaders to each buy a digital copy of an artist’s track from iTunes. After purchasing the track, the downloader can claim the cost back and obtain a reward of one dollar. In Australia, 1,000 sales can get you into the top 80, whereas 5,000 sales (which would cost $25,000) can buy you a potential top 20 hit.

While this makes any music lover fume, here’s the problem: it might work.

Earlier this year, Clive Thompson wrote an article for Wired describing the work of Duncan Watts and Matthew Salganik, at Yahoo Research, who performed a series of elegant experiments to address the question of whether songs in a social environment become popular due to their intrinsic merits, or due to luck. Briefly, they created a pocket universe: a music site to which they uploaded 48 songs by unknown bands, which participants in the study could rate and download. They ran the experiment repeatedly, with new groups of people (nearly 13,000 in total) listening, rating and downloading the songs. Watts and Salganik found that certain songs would often rise to the top, and certain would fall to the bottom, but for most songs, their final ranking was unpredictable: the swirl and flow of ratings and social pressures would deposit them high for one test run, and low for another. They concluded that about half of a song’s success could be attributed to its intrinsic appeal, but the other half was due to it randomly quirking up or down, which was then amplified by the social environment into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Where does this leave Chartfixer and a band who hires them? Well, for a market as small as Australia,  a relatively modest amount of money might be enough to nudge the song upwards. Assuming the song isn’t completely terrible, this kind of pay-for-download scheme might bring it to the attention of listeners, at which point the self-fulfilling prophecy of success can take over. Whether this is the case in practice, of course, has yet to be shown. And the body behind the Australian charts has, unsurprisingly, already come out against the scheme.

Interestingly, Watts and Salganik followed this study with an even cleverer one that suggests that manipulating the ‘charts’ in this way does kind of work, but results in fewer downloads in total. As Clive put it: “If you lie about the merits of your product, you might suppress demand across your entire sector.” Gee, I wonder if that’s ever happened in music…?

Go read Clive’s full (and fascinating!) article on the Watts and Salganik studies here. Or download the research papers here and here.

Image: Australian Currency by Flickr user Krug6, reposted here under its Creative Commons license.

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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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Audio fidelity is overrated

April 8, 2010

For most of us, more audio fidelity isn’t better. It’s a bar. And above that bar, you’re fine.

My car is old-school enough that it doesn’t have an MP3 input, which means I listen to everything on CD. That means I’m regularly swapping between purchased CDs (LPCM audio) and burned MP3s – it’s not quite an A-B comparison, but it’s close. Could I tell the difference if I was sitting quietly in a soundproofed room? Maybe. Can I tell the difference over engine and traffic noise on my factory-installed car stereo? Not a chance.

In general, advances in reproduction of music have been about making it more accessible, not about making it sound better. From live musicians to player pianos, from record players to iPods, most consumer-oriented music technology has led to music being available to a wider range of people, in a wider range of environments. And Paul Lamere made a related point in a discussion earlier this week: “The audio fidelity you can buy for $100 today is a lot higher than what $100 would have gotten you thirty years ago.”

Note that I can think of two counterexamples to this general progression of increased access and lower quality. One was deliberate: the move from AM to FM radio, which sounds much better but generally has a  shorter range. The second counterexample is really more of a side effect: the move from vinyl to CD, which was clearly mandated by the convenience of the shiny little discs. I know that many people argue that vinyl sounds better than CDs. I’ve never done the comparison myself (although I’m sure that many people reading this post have), but I can readily believe that a pristine LP on an expensive system would sound better than a CD. But in the real world? I have CDs that I’ve been listening to regularly for well over a decade, and they sound as good as they did when I first ripped off the cellophane. I doubt that would be true for a record. Digital fidelity is not to be sneezed at.

So this idea of being prescriptive about audio fidelity—”Oh noes! You’re storing all your music at MP3s! You’ll regret it!”—doesn’t seem to be in line with what people actually do with music, which is to readily trade fidelity for accessibility. Kryder’s Law being what it is, it’s increasingly possible to store lossless versions of music on your hard drive—but how many people will take advantage of more hard drive space to simply store more songs? I love music, but I have no illusions about being an audiophile. Based on the overwhelming evidence, I’m not alone.

The open question remains: how low can you go? A friend of mine finds satellite radio intolerable because of the high degree of audio compression low bitrate [see EDIT, below] (many people are oblivious, including me, although I do find it intolerable that there are 200 channels and barely anything worth listening to). As streaming becomes an increasingly viable alternative to downloading, is something similar going to happen with audio on mobile devices?

Feel free to flame me for being a audio Philistine in the comments. Or just share what you think.

EDIT: Mike corrected me in the comments, below: satellite radios use a lower bitrate, not a higher degree of compression.

Image: MP3 vs CD quality (PCM) by Flickr user filicudi, used here under its Creative Commons license.

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Mobile collaborative playlisting (a prototype)

March 19, 2010

One of my colleagues at Olin College, Mark Chang, teaches a course on Mobile Applications Development. Instead of a midterm exam, he runs a design contest. We invited Paul Lamere of Echo Nest to campus to talk about their APIs, and Mark’s students had ten days to build an app for the Android that used those tools – kind of like Music Hack Day. Mark was kind enough to ask me to be a judge, so I got to see all the great prototypes they came up with.

While all of the apps were excellent, the one that I thought had the most interesting concept was the DJMixr (by students Miguel Bejar, Rhan Kim, Hyeontaek Oh, and Poorva Singal), an app to make a collaborative playlist for a party. The app would allow guests to add songs to the playlist directly, and also would scrobble song information from the phone’s music player (it would be backed with a streaming on-demand music player, so it would only transfer the song information, not the songs themselves). The Echo Nest back end would be used to interpolate recommendations based on the seed songs, in order to allow smooth transitions between songs to avoid musical whiplash.

While this app is just a prototype, of course, one of the things I find intriguing about this is that it’s a different social model for the music at a party. Rather than having one person be responsible, or at best having people wandering over to a laptop between drinks to maybe add a song or two or change the Pandora station, an application like this would make it possible to have a truly collaboratively generated soundtrack to an event. It seems like there would be some interesting emergent behaviors, like maybe a metastable equilibrium between music for the people who want to dance and those dedicated to indie rock. What do you think?

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Music Hack Day, the Stockholm edition

January 31, 2010

This weekend was Music Hack Day Stockholm (you may recall posts about the Music Hack Day in Boston a few months ago), and I spent far too much of my weekend following the events via their live feed – a little glimpse into the future of  how we interact with music.  I think my takeaway for the weekend was twofold: i) damn it, I really wish I wasn’t a mediocre coder and ii) Can we hurry up and have Spotify in the US already?

Some fave hacks out of the weekend (you can see a full list here):

HacKey: Matt Ogle‘s lovely hack takes your Last.fm listening history and generates a pie chart to tell you what proportion of your favourite music is in different keys. And if you click on a wedge, it’ll play you a song sample in that key (thanks to Tim for letting me use his pie chart!)

My City vs. Your City: Lets you compare what artists are being listened to in any two cities. I think it’s ‘differentially listened to’ (like Netflix’s ‘Neighborhood’ feature). This is kind of a cool music exploration tool – what are the outlier artists that I’ve never heard of?

Holodeck: This site elegantly links together your info from SoundCloud, Tumblr, Songkick, and Last.fm. The main use case is for artists – it’s a one-step, one-stop web presence.

One that looks great but isn’t quite ready for prime time:

Songkick on Tour: This hack links together info from two focused social media sites,  Songkick for concerts and Dopplr for travel, to make concert recommendations for your upcoming trips. Since I travel a decent amount and always check to see if there are cool shows, I would love to see this app go live (you can see a video of the demo here). And now I want to start using both Songkick and Dopplr more.

And one that I really, really want to play with but I can’t because Spotify isn’t here in the US yet (but if you’re reading this from the UK or other Spotify-friendly countries, enjoy):

TuneMyFeed: Takes any RSS feed (a Twitter stream, frex) or uses Facebook Connect to log into your FB account, pulls out keywords, and creates a list of related songs in Spotify. Want.

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Live music venues and demographics

January 7, 2010

Much has been made of the future of music being in live experiences, rather than in CD sales. But as someone who sees a lot of live shows, I can’t help but ask, ‘Where are the fans?’ It’s pretty clear that the slice of fans who regularly go to indie rock (for lack of a better term) shows is startlingly limited: largely in their 20s, more male than female and, even in a city as diverse as Cambridge, predominantly white.

Leaving aside this last point—although it certainly seems like there’s a pattern—it’s pretty clear that age (and, to a lesser extent, gender) is governed by the venues. I frequent fantastic local bars that support live music but they’re still, well, bars. They make their payroll by selling alcohol, and this has consequences. If you want to see live music in Boston, you pretty much need to be over 21. You need to be okay with staying up late on a work night, because it doesn’t make financial sense for bars to host early shows. You need to have enough flexibility with your home schedule that you can hang out for an evening (although one of the reasons I love my local bars is because they post and stringently adhere to set times). You need to be comfortable in an environment where most people are drinking. And you need to be able to get home late at night, especially in Boston, where the subway unfathomably stops running before bars close. (It’s easy to see how the latter two factors would seriously affect the gender balance, even without any additional cultural issue.) Coupled with the aversion that many people have to the risk inherent in live music, only a tiny demographic slice of fans goes to see shows in small venues.

This was a perfectly fine state of affairs when the purpose of small local shows was to attract the attention of an A&R person: the slender stratum of early adopters was all that was needed to establish the public appeal of a band before they were catapulted into the world of record sales and radio play.

But if none of that’s going to happen, then live shows are it, and fans need to be able to come out. And based on the evidence, I’m not sure that’s happening.

From the perspective of the insider-fan, there’s something to be said for a small, discrete culture of concertgoers: everyone knows the etiquette, for example (something that can’t be counted on at bigger or all-ages shows).  But in the larger sense, I’m not sure that this model is the best one for musicians. While there are certainly artists experimenting with alternatives, like Amanda Palmer’s tweet-ups, for example, I can’t see a straightforward solution to this demographic conundrum.

Thoughts?

Image: Whisky a Go-Go by Mike Dillon, reposted here under its Creative Commons license.

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Why I don’t make predictions

January 2, 2010

Future or Bust!

I’m not really into making predictions. Partly because I’m much more interested in the second-order effects than the first-order effects, and it’s pretty much impossible to correctly pluck those out of the chaos of possible futures (although it’s fun to watch them coalesce). But mostly because, in the words of Alan Kay, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” And I’m fortunate in that I get to work with, talk to, learn from and teach people who are doing exactly that.

Come out to the zed equals zee happy hour and join us!

Image credit: Future or Bust! by Flickr user Vermin Inc, reposted here under its Creative Commons license.

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The death of the holiday single (hurrah!)

December 23, 2009

Much has been made of the fragmentation of music into niches, so the annual UK Christmas single race stands out as one of the last bastions of mass music consumption. As you probably know, Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name” took the top spot against the putative winner, the doubly-manufactured mediocrity backed by  X-Factor Svengali Simon Cowell.

Over at dysonsound, writer ledyard expresses reservations about this win, commenting that, although it might be considered a ‘heroic move’ this year, it might ‘signal the obliteration of that holiday tradition [the Christmas single] as anything but a complete and utter waste of peoples’ time and money.’ Ledyard also decries the absence of a defining Christmas song from this decade, and raises the concern that the RATM win is symptomatic: we are now tearing down traditions, but not replacing them with anything.

I come at this from a different perspective. While I appreciate the idea of the Christmas, my family has never celebrated it. Like an increasing proportion of Brits, Canadians, and Americans, I don’t have an ancestral memory of Burl Ives and chestnuts and carolers (I do have an ancestral memory of fireworks in the streets, though).

So I really see the overthrow of this monolithic model of music (everyone listening to the same Top 40 stuff on the radio, say, and running out to buy the latest hit single) as paralleling the decline in a single monolithic culture (everyone celebrating Christmas). It’s not like Christmas music is dead; any number of individual artists continue to record Christmas songs every year. But the absence of a dominant Christmas-themed holiday single in the last ten years in the UK (and elsewhere) is probably more reflective of an increasingly diverse culture than of Cowell’s machinations.

Just as I’m happier living in a world where I can listen to lots of different music, not just what ClearChannel wants to serve me, I’m a lot happier living in a world where Slade’s “Merry Christmas Everybody” isn’t the soundtrack to my entire December.

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Live music and risk

December 17, 2009

Live music, especially in small venues,  is about taking risks. And not everyone is comfortable with that.

A couple of months ago, I went with a friend to see The Killers play at the TD Garden in Boston. It was the first arena show I’d been to in many years, and what I was most struck by was how safe and controlled it was. The band transitioned smoothly from song to song, the lightshow was pretty, and all the songs sounded much like their recorded versions.

One of the things I love about seeing live music is the spontaneity and the interactivity. And, of course, that means that sometimes things go wrong. At arena shows, the larger scale means that everything needs to go right, and all of the rough edges need to be smoothed down. Something going wrong in a club show adds to the live experience; something going wrong in an arena show detracts from it.  Arena shows are low-risk events.

A few weeks ago at Music Hack Day Boston, Paul Lamere talked about the fanciful idea of a ‘risk knob’ for music recommendation. If you’re having a rough day at work, for example, you can turn down the risk knob and listen to familiar music. Or you can turn it up for wilder suggestions.

Most people, it seems, have their risk knob turned fairly low when it comes to live music. They want to hear something familiar. A tiny minority have their risk knobs turned high enough to go see bands in small venues, prepared to hear something they’ve never heard before. You can play a bit with risk homeostasis: unfamiliar bands can do covers, for example. Or someone might go see a favourite singer front a new band. But, ultimately, you can’t really change people’s tolerance for musical risk. And it seems that this would have implications for bands that are trying to make a living from live gigs.

Note, also, that if you expect people at your shows to take the risk to hear your music, they need to be comfortable in the environment and with the crowd—more on this soon.

Thanks to Michael Epstein for discussions around this topic.

Image credit: RISK AWR WC T7L LosAngeles Graffiti Art, by Flickr user anarchosyn, used here under its Creative Commons license.

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