Posts Tagged ‘music’

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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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Why “music isn’t as good as it used to be” is a fallacy

October 10, 2010

Every once in a while, I hear someone argue that music isn’t as good as it used to be — that at some point in the past, usually the 1960s or 70s, music was better. If you’re one of these people, I submit three reasons why that’s unlikely to be the case.

Time is the mother of all selection biases.

Go look at charts for different years – we only remember the gold, and we forget the dross. Time is a fantastic filter for the good stuff.

You are not the same person you were (10, 20, whatever) years ago.

Your relationship to music has changed. I don’t know if this is apocryphal or not, but it’s said that the magic age is 21: that you imprint on what you listen to then (hence the existence of oldies stations).

People have been saying that the older music was better for as long as popular music has existed.

Elvis? What are kids listening to these days?

Beatles? What are kids listening to these days?

Punk? What are kids listening to these days?

Rap? What are kids listening to these days?

Lady Gaga? What are kids listening to these days?

Get the picture? Do you really think that you’re different and special, and somehow the music from when you were a teenager actually was better?

It’s not that a case can’t be made for the superiority of music from one decade or another. It’s just that it’s really hard to convincingly make the case based on your personal experience of music, because you are not a disinterested, dispassionate observer.

I propose a new rule: that you’re only allowed to make sweeping generalizations comparing music from different time periods if they are at least a generation older than you. “The 1880s! That was a terrible decade for music. No soul, man – not like the ’70s!”

I look around, and I think that we may very well be living through the Cambrian Explosion of music. Music has never been easier to create or to distribute. There’s no reason to believe that the amount of good music hasn’t increased too.

Image: Mayan Calendar by Flickr user NCReedplayer, used here under its Creative Commons license.

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z=z at Tourfilter Night, Thurs Sept 16

September 15, 2010

Cambridge! Somerville! Boston! Allston Rock City! Late notice, but I’m guest DJing at Tourfilter‘s monthly residency at River Gods, just outside Central Square, Cambridge this week: Thursday, September 16th, and the festivities start at 9 pm. Same drill as last time: my playlist is composed entirely of songs from artists with shows lined up for the Boston area in the next month or so. And the fall concert calendar looks fantastic.

UPDATED: (Friday, September 17th) Here’s the full playlist:

01     Guided By Voices, “I Am A Scientist”    Friday, November 5th at Paradise Rock Club

02      The Motion Sick, “Winged Bicycle”     Saturday, September 18th at TT the Bear’s

03     Great Big Sea, “When I’m Up (I Can’t Get Down)”     Friday, September 17th at Orpheum Boston

04     Screaming Females, “I Don’t Mind It”      Tuesday, September 28 TT the Bear’s Place

05     Me First and the Gimme-Gimmes, “The Rainbow Connection (Muppets cover)”    Thursday, October 21st at Paradise Rock Club

06     Superchunk, “Hyper Enough”     Tuesday, September 21st at Royale Boston

07     James, “Laid”     Saturday, September 25th at Paradise Rock Club

08     Belle and Sebastian, “Judy and the Dream of Horses”     Friday, October 15th at Wang Theatre

09     Frightened Rabbit, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land”     Friday, October 29th at Paradise Rock Club

10     Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, “First We Take Manhattan” (Leonard Cohen cover)     Friday, September 24th at Church

11     Sufjan Stevens, “Chicago”     Wednesday, November 10th at Orpheum Theatre

12     Born Ruffians, “What to Say”     Wednesday, September 29th at The Middle East

13     Teenage Fanclub, “Your Love is the Place Where I Come From”     Saturday, September 25th at Royale Boston

14     Swans, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” (Joy Division cover)     Thursday, September 30th at Middle East Downstairs

15     Stars, “This Charming Man” (Smiths cover)     Thursday, September 23rd at House of Blues Boston

16     Mates of State, “Get Better”     Sunday, September 26th at Paradise Rock Club

17     Sea Wolf, “You’re a Wolf”     Tuesday, September 21st at Middle East Upstairs

18     Cake, “Short Skirt, Long Jacket”     Saturday, September 18th at Orpheum Theatre

19     Oranjuly, “I Could Break Your Heart”     Thursday, September 16th at Great Scott

20     Pavement, “Stereo”     Saturday, September 18th at Agannis Arena

21     Of Montreal, “Coquet Coquette”     Thursday, September 16th at House of Blues Boston

22     Broken Social Scene, “Texico Bitches”     Friday, September 17th at House of Blues Boston

23     Built to Spill, “You Were Right”     Friday, October 1st at Paradise Rock Club

24     Sleigh Bells, “Tell ‘Em”     Tuesday, September 28th at Orpheum Theatre

25     The Xx, “VCR (Matthew Dear remix)”     Sunday, October 3rd at Orpheum Theatre

26     Holy Fuck, “Lovely Allen”     Sunday, September 19th at Paradise Rock Club

27     Gary Numan, “Cars”     Thursday, October 22nd at Paradise Rock Club

28     Caribou, “Odessa”     Sunday, September 19th at Paradise Rock Club

29     Ratatat, “Drugs”     Wednesday, September 29th at Paradise Rock Club

30    LCD Soundsystem, “Dance Yrself Clean”     Tuesday, September 28th at Orpheum Theatre


Image: River Gods by brixton, used here under its Creative Commons license.

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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 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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Power, communication, and files

May 2, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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