Archive for the ‘future of music’ Category

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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.