Posts Tagged ‘future of music’

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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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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:

Streaming vs downloading: Do we really want a jukebox in the sky? Or does it make more sense to hold it in our hands?

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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The name-your-own-price model: some data

October 26, 2009

WoG distributionIndie musicians are thinking and talking about the name-your-own-price model for digital music (what Radiohead did with their last album). There’s a dearth of data though—Radiohead, for example, never released their numbers. But last week, San Francisco-based indie game developers 2D Boy ran a NYOP birthday sale for their game World of Goo, and they plotted and shared the distribution of how much people paid for it. As well, they surveyed purchasers about why they paid what they did. (You can read their full analysis here.) One thing that really stood out for me—and that has clear parallels to musicians—was the collateral rise in full-price purchases of 2DBoy’s other titles.

The other thing that struck me was that they plotted a distribution of how many people bought the game at different price points. But that plot didn’t take into account how much money they made at each price point – one person who pays a dollar is ‘worth’ as much as 100 people who pay a penny. So I took their data and replotted it, first multiplying the number of people who paid in each price range by how much they paid (this is analogous to something I do in my day job). It’s only an approximation, since I took the amount paid as the mean of each bin but it’s probably a little lower, since a lot more people would have paid the round number than any other amount (for example, for the $2.00-$2.99 bin, I approximated the amount paid as $2.50, but I imagine a lot more people paid $2 than any other number, so that would skew the mean lower). You can see from the graph (click for a cleaner PDF) that people who paid around $5 contributed the most revenue, followed by people who paid $1 and people who paid $10.

What does this mean for musicians? Well, it seems really discouraging that most people paid the minimum amount. But you can think of this group of people as just taking a chance on you, and helping to get the word out. Because when you put it in dollar terms, the many fewer people who paid $1, $5, 0r $10 had a disproportionate impact.

Note, of course, that the NYOP model is a whole different world when you’re dealing with physical CDs, since they don’t have a negligible incremental cost.

(thanks to @zeroday for the pointer!)

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Music, tech and culture roundup

October 13, 2009

sunboxes

Help with research on music blogs: This came out a month or so ago, but I forgot to share it. Sophie Vernon, a master’s student at Nottingham Trent University in the UK, is trying to understand the relationship between music blogs and word of mouth. She’s put together a survey; it’s really short, and if you’re reading this it’s relevant to you, so go help her out.

Billy Bragg on piracy. A couple of weeks ago, a group of UK artists convened to discuss the issue of Internet piracy. Billy Bragg wrote an editorial for the Guardian where he makes a point I haven’t seen very often: he argues that any attempt to suppress filesharing entirely (by the recording industry asking legislators for ever-more-draconian sanctions) would entail giving unacceptably high control of the Internet to corporations. Read the full editorial here.

Sun Box installation: Important Records is hosting an installation art piece by Craig Colorusso this Saturday, October 17th. The piece consists of an array of speakers, each playing a guitar sample. As they’re solar-powered, what you hear will depend not only on your trajectory through the site but also the length of the day. Important is a Boston-area label, but it’s not clear where the piece will be set up; you can e-mail for details. (Via Justin Snow of Anti-Gravity Bunny.)

Policing leaks with politesse. Last year, z=z covered the new Hold Steady album, which had been leaked. We had noted that a company called Web Sheriff was sending ‘highly civilized takedown notices’ to blogs posting leaked tracks, so we posted a link to the approved track—and received a thank-you note, much to our surprise. The Guardian has an article on the company that is policing unauthorized tracks with reason and social engineering, not by threats.

What CD sales mean for artists. Last year, of 115,000 CDs released, only 6000 sold more than 1000 copies. Over at CNet, Matt Rosoff takes a sobering look at what different levels of CD sales means for artists. This is not likely to be news, but it pretty succinctly makes the case that CD sales alone aren’t going to make being an artist sustainable.

And, finally, some nerd love. Rolling Stone has a track-by-track guide to They Might Be Giants breakthrough album, Flood.

464 Massachusetts Avenue

Arlington, MA  02474

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What will music fans pay for?

October 9, 2009

portrait-debcha

This piece was crossposted to Music Think Tank.

Earlier this week, I talked about how NPR and webcomics have a business model that’s predicated on the primary work (the radio broadcast and the webcomics themselves, respectively) being available for free; once the overhead is covered, the incremental cost of additional readers or listeners is approximately zero. I pointed out that music has historically been very different: the business model for music is based on people paying for the music itself. But now that music can be transmitted digitally it also has, not coincidentally, an incremental cost of zero. And unlike NPR, you don’t need a radio transmitter to share it with your friends.

I know that there is ideology on both sides: people who feel that all music should be free, and people who feel that downloading any music you didn’t pay for is theft. But how you feel about the issue doesn’t change the facts: listeners have the option of not paying for music. And, as Cory Doctorow has pointed out, it’s never going to get harder to move bits around than it is right now. So it might be time to think about a business model that reflects this.

I’m not a musician. I’m a fan. And from my perspective, it’s clear that fans do want to support artists that they like. Taking a page from NPR’s book, here’s a list of things that fans will pay for, even if they can get your music for free:

The music. First and foremost, many people will (and do) pay for digital music, even if they don’t have to. This might be because it’s easier to use iTunes than BitTorrent. Or it might be because they want to support the artist. Or both.

CDs and merch. Atoms, not bits. Do you pledge money to NPR to support the programming, or for the This American Life DVD? I’ve bought merchandise even when there was no rational reason for me to, simply because it was a way to support an artist I love. I buy CDs at concerts, because I know the money goes directly to the artists (and because I can listen to them in my car).

Relationships. Anything signed or limited-edition is not just about the article itself—it’s about expressing a relationship with the artist. And relationships aren’t fungible. Jonathan Coulton and Amanda Palmer are two excellent artists who have close relationships with their fans, who in turn support them.

An experience. The canonical example of this is, of course, the concert – whether it’s $5 to see your favorite local band or hundreds of dollars for an arena show. But this also includes things like doing ‘shrooms in a Lamborghini with your favorite drummer.

Something unique. The illustration at the top of this post is a commissioned portrait (“Portrait of the Blogger, with Johnny Toaster,” by rstevens). Definitely worth paying for.

A narrative. What’s a story worth? Apparently, quite a bit. The Significant Objects art project posts thrift-store finds for auction on eBay, along with the back stories. But the back stories are fictional, and are described as such. Nevertheless,  the items go for substantially more than their market value.

What are you willing to pay for? What have you offered to your fans? Other thoughts?

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Music, webcomics, NPR, and money

October 5, 2009

box of money[click for full Diesel Sweeties strip]

The topic of creators and money seems to be in the air at the moment. Last week, Amanda Palmer wrote a blog post, “Why I am not afraid to take your money,” which is burning up the Twitterverse and the blogosphere, and a recent PBS MediaShift article discussed financially self-sustaining webcomics.

In the webcomics article, Richard Stevens, the creator of Diesel Sweeties, describes how he makes a living off his work by selling merch, like t-shirts. His site gets about 30,000 hits a day; he reports that he only needs one or two percent of these readers to buy something to make the whole thing self-financing. While he provides something to everyone for free (the comics), he also provides the opportunity to support the comics by buying something.

It dawned on me why this sounded familiar when I turned on my radio to discover that WBUR is in the middle of a pledge drive: it’s exactly the model that NPR has been using for decades. It’s the nature of digital distribution that, above a certain threshold, works have an incremental cost of zero: once something has been created, the cost of instantiating and distributing the creation is pretty much negligible. NPR is one of the few cases where this was true in the pre-digital age: once they’ve paid for their news bureaux, staff, and transmission, it doesn’t matter if ten (or a hundred, or a thousand) extra people tune in—it won’t cost them anything extra. And even though only a tiny fraction of their listenership donate, it’s enough to make up 30% or so of their operating budget. NPR puts more emphasis on your money supporting the programming and less on the Car Talk CD you get, while Stevens puts more emphasis on you getting the cute red robot and less on supporting the comic, but the net result is the same: the fraction of the people who pay for physical items can support the whole digital (or radio) endeavour.

NPR and webcomics are native to the world of zero incremental cost, and have a financial model that reflects this. The music industry, on the other hand, does not. They were in the business of recouping their costs with every CD sold, and now they are trying to recoup costs with every track downloaded. But that’s clearly not working anymore. More on this to come.

PART 2: What will music fans pay for?

MP3: The Flying Lizards – Money (extended mix) [buy]

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