Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

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On a world of distributed Medicis

November 26, 2012

Parlour Trick

In the 1970s, everyone was pretty sure what it meant to be successful as a musician. The requirements of scale for physical distribution meant that you were pretty much either filling stadia or you were in a weekend band. But with the rise of digital distribution of music, there are endless discussions by artists on what’s happening to the music industry, and how to make it as an artist, and just what it means to ‘make it’ anyway.

But I’m not an artist. I’m a music fan. And what I want as a music fan is pretty simple: I want there to be an endlessly renewing supply of music that I like.

With the rise of affordable professional-quality tools the barrier for entry to music production is lower than it’s ever been. And with digital music formats, the incremental cost of distribution is no longer related to economies of scale. And with the rise of one-to-one or many-to-many networks (instead of the the one-to-many of broadcast), there’s a way for artists to find an audience–not just an audience, but their unique tribe. All this means that the ‘music industry’, for lack of a better phrase, now has the potential to support a musical middle class.

I want this to happen, and here’s why. It’s far more valuable to me for there to be twenty artists who each make fifty thousand dollars a year than for there to be one who makes a million dollars annually, because I’m likely to like at least a few of the twenty and I may or may not like the millionaire. This isn’t anti-populist snobbery. Music is so deeply personal:  it’s about what resonates with your psyche, not just what’s critically-acclaimed or popular. The more productive artists there are out there, the more likely there will be music that speaks to each of us personally. And yes, I know that music isn’t alienated labour, and that musicians will always do their best to write and play music. But they still have to pay the bills, and the biggest threat to there being music I like is still that artists have to go get a job at Jiffy Lube in Boise, Idaho.

Even better than there being lots of musicians whose work I like is the possibility of actively contributing to the creation of the music that I want to hear. Until recently, this ability has been the privilege of princes and popes, or at least the fairly rich. But the rise of mechanisms like Kickstarter means that anyone can be a patron of the arts (well, a micropatron at least).

One of the drawbacks of the Kickstarter model is that it’s deliberately focused on ‘projects’, which means that often making the music itself (from buying groceries to paying for studio time) is mostly taken care of, and you’re essentially prepaying for the physical distribution. As well, Kickstarter’s emphasis on rewards you can hold in your hand doesn’t work as well for people who want just the music, not the merch. Singer-songwriter Jamie Kent has created another model that he’s calling The Collective. Like Kickstarter, it has tiers of backers with appropriate rewards, but unlike Kickstarter, it’s explicitly about backing his career, rather than a specific project. I’m curious (and not sanguine) about how well it worked though, given that the date on that page is 2009.   [see 'EDIT', below]

One of the side effects of supporting musicians with a world of distributed Medicis is that relationships matter. Cory Doctorow called this one back in 2006 in the context of writing, but it’s equally applicable to music:

But what kind of artist thrives on the Internet? Those who can establish a personal relationship with their readers…[who have] the ability to conduct their online selves as part of a friendly salon that establishes a non-substitutable relationship with their audiences. You might find a film, a game, and a book to be equally useful diversions on a slow afternoon, but if the novel’s author is a pal of yours, that’s the one you’ll pick. It’s a competitive advantage that can’t be beat.

That photo above is from the Kickstarter for Meredith Yayanos‘s musical project The Parlour Trick, which I backed. I would never would have heard her music but for her work on Coilhouse and her presence on Twitter, and knowing her on Twitter was a big factor in backing her. That’s true for most Kickstarter projects: having a relationship with a community is key to successful funding (just ask Amanda Palmer). And the Kickstarter format itself, with videos and updates, is really about building and sustaining this relationship with backers, sometimes through a rocky fulfillment process.

This does make me a tiny bit sad as a fan, though. I hear about and can support lots of great music, but somewhere there’s an introverted teenager who’s making the most amazing electronica in her bedroom, and I want to hear (and support) that too.

EDIT: I am completely remiss for forgetting about Kristin Hersh‘s sustained crowdfunding initiative to support her music production, Strange Angels, which leverages the CASH Music set of open-source tools for musicians. Thanks to @jimmynohands for the reminder.

Thanks to Maia for pointing me to Jamie Kent’s project. The image at the top is for the first album by Meredith Yayanos’s band The Parlour Trick; go back it on Kickstarter.

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Tangible user interfaces for home audio

June 25, 2012

Last week, I was invited to the Copenhagen Institute for Interaction Design to see student projects created during a four-week module on Tangible User Interfaces for home audio. I talked to one of the lead faculty, Vinay Venkatraman, and he said the theme was inspired by a recent trip to China coupled with his knowledge of Danish audio companies: while there was a lot of emphasis on the technical aspects of audio, companies weren’t giving much thought to the interaction design elements.

It was a fruitful area for the six student teams to explore. The projects mostly focused on two spaces: interfaces for home environments (especially the kitchen), and music discovery, especially within the users’ own collections. One piece for the kitchen was designed for the refrigerator door: it consisted of fist-sized ‘building blocks’ that connected together audio controls (volume, shuffle, source, skip). The students had set it up on an actual refrigerator door, which led to a moment of cross-cultural confusion. One of its creators said, “But this is a prototype–of course, the real thing would be smaller,” and I responded by saying, no, you’d want it to be nice and chunky so you could hit the controls with your wrist or arm if your hands were dirty from food prep. It took me a moment to realize that I was thinking of US-sized refrigerators (a little to a lot bigger than her demo door) and she was thinking of standard European refrigerators (a lot smaller!).

But my favourite piece, pictured above, was called Past.fm. Designed by Razan Sadeq, Hideaki Matsui, and Zubin Pastakia, it was rooted in how people associate particular songs with specific time periods, and vice versa. The little ball at the left is a token, which links to a particular Last.fm user. The slider then maps onto a date range, say April 2005 to June 2012. At each point, it plays your most-played song that month, and displays the title and artist in the display. The use of tokens means that you can listen to other users’ music history, or even things like ‘the most-played hip-hop of the last ten years.’ As someone with a carful of mix CDs with labels like “May 2008″, I really loved this idea of having a temporal jukebox.

As of this writing, they’re not up, but full details of all the student projects should be here shortly.

Thanks to Mayo Nissen for the intro, and Alie Rose for the invitation to visit CIID.

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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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Death and the Powers: a critique

April 6, 2011

This is a guest post by Irene Ros. Read more about Death and the Powers, the “robot opera,” here.

A few weeks ago, I attended one of the few Boston performances of Tod Machover’s opera, Death and the Powers. Needless to say, to me, any opera that manages to weave terms like “simulation'” “system” and “cables” into its narrative sounds like an exciting (and nerdy) experience. Enthralled by the display arrays and semi-autonomous robots, I was ready for an evening of fine music and a story that I can identify with. Sadly, I left the show far more disappointed than I thought one could be, given the subject matter.

In the opera, the main character, Simon, is a successful businessman who basks in the glory of the capitalism that made him who he is. But he’s also terminally ill, and he decides to use his hoards of money to migrate his being into the System, an infallible “place.” (Any resemblance of the System to the Singularity is, well, probably not coincidental.) As as I chuckled at Simon singing about his ‘big bucks,’ I started to feel some pangs of missed opportunity clawing at mind. Why pick (another) rich white guy as the protagonist?

Shortly after Simon’s transition to the System, we watched the two female characters in the opera compete for who could appear weaker. His wife Evvy literally loses her voice after Simon’s departure; her subsequent appearances on stage show her as practically unhinged, wandering around the stage wearing headphones to hear the voice of her sublimed husband: after his disappearance, she apparently has no reason to remain a human being with a personality of her own. While Nicholas, Simon’s son, immediately follows him into the System, his daughter Miranda is the only character in the opera who expresses unease. But Miranda’s anxiety is largely presented as how much she misses her father. Her reasoning is so well hidden behind a wall of fragile loneliness that the viewer can’t possibly focus on the legitimate questions she was (almost) asking.

In leaving reality for the System, and taking his wealth with him, Simon somehow crashed the world’s economy (sound familiar?). He resists the entreaties of earthbound organizations to do something to repair it, and the needs of the sick, poor and children then receive their 15 minutes of fame: I was left speechless as a band of what appeared to be zombies walked on stage and attacked Miranda. Why would the needy look like zombies? And were they planning on dancing to “Thriller? Portraying capitalism in such a glorified way, as the destroyer and savior all at once, is nothing short of shameful in my mind. I couldn’t imagine how the opera could get any farther from actually shedding light on our society.

There were so many opportunities missed in this opera to discuss not just the technology question, but also to comment on our social structure through the eyes of the future. While I am certain some would argue that it’s just an opera, and not necessarily the place and time to discuss the impact of capitalism, it would be hard to argue that the storyline didn’t glorify it, at the cost of devaluing anyone who isn’t rich (or male, or white).

Machover heads the Opera of the Future group at MIT’s Media Lab, and it’s past time for us technologists to stop separating our technology from its social context and its impact on society. Perhaps the opera is most successful at showing how technology, thoughtlessly applied, will only recapitulate the existing social and power structures. Where the digital and human merge, the ethical questions and possibilities for change extend far beyond the limited ones presented in Death and the Powers.

Irene Ros is an artist, musician and visualization research developer at the Visual Communication Lab of IBM Research, in Cambridge, MA. Learn more about her and her work at ireneros.com.

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So, why is indie music so white?

January 20, 2011

This is a response to Wendy Fonarow’s column for the Guardian Music Blog, “Ask The Indie Professor: Why Are There So Many White Indie Bands?” Briefly, in the article, Dr. Fonarow posits that indie bands reflect the makeup of their audience, which is predominantly white (which, while it’s true for the UK as a whole, is probably not true for many urban areas). She then goes on to argue that non-white people are not drawn to the aesthetics of indie music. You can read the full article here.

I’ve been a devoted indie music fan my entire life. I am the daughter of South Asian immigrants. And while I might not be an anthropologist, I am a professor of engineering and a researcher of the engineering student experience, particularly around gender and ethnicity. And much of what I’ve studied about engineering students, particularly woman and minorities, is also applicable to the issue of non-whites and indie music.

At its core, Fonarow’s argument is that there are few non-white people in indie music because they don’t want to be there. But any argument for underrepresentation of this form is suspect, because it fails to consider the effect of the environment on the individual. At a Belle and Sebastian show in Boston a few months ago, there were so few non-white faces in the large theatre that my companion and I played ‘spot the person of colour!’ At smaller venues, I’m quite often the only non-white person at the gig—and bear in mind that Boston is a fairly multicultural city, with a large student population. So while it’s possible that Belle and Sebastian and other indie bands have nothing to say to people who are not of Northern European descent, which is essentially what Fonarow is arguing, it’s far more likely that non-white music fans receive subtle but unmistakable messages of non-belonging. In my own field, women engineering students face a very different academic experience than their male counterparts in a host of ways, many of them subtle, but with a profound cumulative impact. There’s a large body of literature in psychology and educational research that addresses the effect of the cultural environment, and it’s just as applicable to clubs as classrooms.

Second, Fonarow argues that as “being part of a music community is sharing similar sentiments, it should be no surprise that people raised in the same culture would have a similar ethos…”. She also states that “this may not be appealing to immigrant or marginalised groups who have already experienced poverty and experience genuine outsiderness as a social class.” Whoa, seriously? It’s astonishing that Fonarow lumps together all non-whites, whether in the US, the UK, or elsewhere, in this way. To pick just a few examples, this suggests that a Somali refugee, the middle-class, university-bound children of educated immigrants (which is what I was—hardly an experience of poverty or ‘genuine outsiderness’), a fourth-generation Japanese-American, and the child of Latino migrant workers are all one category. Never mind the fact that the children of non-white immigrants, especially in wildly diverse cities like London or New York City, are being ‘raised in the same culture’ (note to Fonarow: it’s actually quite offensive to be told that your skin colour trumps your upbringing). And this cultural-essentialist approach does just as much of a disservice to white people; it fails to explain, as a friend of mine points out, why one of her children is into indie pop and another loves death metal, despite their identical cultural backgrounds.

As an indie music fan, I read and appreciated Fonarow’s book, Empire of Dirt, largely because of how deeply rooted it is in careful observational research. So why is indie music so white? I don’t know the whole answer, but rather than just cavalierly saying, “So indie bands are generally white in the US or UK, but so what?”, I would really have preferred Fonarow to use her ethnographic skills to talk with the people who care about these questions, not just blithely talking about them.

Image: Atari Teenage Riot @ the Sonar…, used here under its Creative Commons license.

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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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