Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Where's Spotbook?

Jeremy Schlosberg shows some good insight into the failure of the current playlist ecosystem, in his article Playlist Nation, which was posted to the pho list.

As something of a playlist nut myself, I recognised a lot of truth in his assertions about the personal, internal use of music. He's quite right, for instance, that it's often more fun to make a mixtape for someone than to listen to one they made for you. But I disagree with his main point that playlist sharing has no future.

For a start, he has it backwards about Apple, whom he credits with inventing the playlist, and putting it centre stage on the iPod. Apple's approach to listening is: music all the time. Party Shuffle is the epitome of this - you can add music if you want, but in any case it will just add random stuff to keep it going. And generally - he's right here - that's all people care about. But it's the antithesis of playlist making, which is about a journey from A to B via X, L and P. The functionality iTunes and the iPod lack is to turn the bunch of songs you happen to have just been listening to into an instant playlist, effortlessly. You have to think to yourself: "today I'll make a playlist". Which of course, unless you're a saddo like me, you rarely do.

It's also painfully obvious that the author hasn't has first-hand experience of Spotify. It's a game changer with regard to playlists. He's wrong about it not having playlist sharing built in, but more importantly playlists are its default use case. There is no Party Shuffle; it wouldn't be very helpful anyway as you'd be shuffling the whole of (available) music.

Spotify may look like iTunes, but functionally it's more like other music players such as Winamp or foobar2000, where the only distinction between "Now Playing" and a new playlist is whether you've hit the 'Save' button. Spotify's 'radio stations' are awful, so the user is confronted with two options: either create a playlist or listen to someone else's. It has been a boon to magazine sites and other tastemakers, such as Drowned In Sound or, which publish regular Spotify playlists.

I take Schlosberg's general point about playlist sharing. It can't be anonymized; can't go many-to-many. I used 8tracks a couple of times then forgot it existed because it's too hard to find the nuggets. Whereas I often listen to my friends' libraries, even though they lack that "journey" quality I crave.

But I think playlists have yet to take their proper place in music discovery because there are still unnecessary hurdles in their creation, for which Apple is partly to blame. Spotify has forced users to at least think about finding, creating and sharing mixes. Also, currently portability is a real headache, and the cure for this, the XSPF format, has yet to be properly realised. But the cloud will smooth this problem, even if the wished-for global music id system fails to emerge.

My playlists are primarily missives to my friends and future self. I want them in a permanent form, available everywhere. Combine a properly-stocked Spotify with a facebook-like intimacy and you might get an explosion of one-to-one events.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Accio Value!

I'm getting fed up hearing that music has lost its value - to pirates, the internet, goblins or what have you.

Of course recorded music has value! What it lacks is price. It is the nature of the internet to lubricate communication, and it turns out that the apparent correlation between value and price is completely dependent on a certain friction in the marketplace. If it takes no effort to bring something to you then the actual price of that good is zero. This would be equally true if we could summon bananas to us at will from plantations on the Ivory Coast. It would be tough on the growers, but in a frictionless market they could no longer realise the value they had put in tending the plants. Of course such banana-summoning is clearly theft by any definition that has meaning today, but if we all suddenly had this Harry Potter-like power, what - short of a sudden outbreak of global altruism - could be done to stop it?

Music may have been the first sector to experience this effect, but it's not alone. And since the whole issue of music copying is fraught with emotion, consider instead the market in news. The internet has actually increased the value of news by making it both more immediate and longer-lasting, and by giving readers everywhere the ability to interact with and discuss it. Although there is no such thing as "news piracy", the true market price of news is also being revealed to be: nothing. This is why News Corp is trying to sue Google, and Robert Thomson of the Wall Street Journal was prompted to say that "Google devalues everything it touches"1. But it's the internet itself which is to blame for such reduction in cost, even as it ramps up the value - Google is but one of many lubricants which - fantastically! - enable us instantly to find what we want. The downside (if that's what it is - perhaps we should say, less judgmentally, "side-effect") of this unfettered access is the stark and unavoidable separation of value from price.

Clearly, long-term, this is going to be a major problem (or opportunity, if you're so inclined): if journalists, editors and writers, like composers and performers before them, are unable to convert into a living the effort they put into their valuable work, continuing their socially important efforts will become unviable. Perhaps, instead of the seemingly impossible task of artificially raising prices we should start looking at ways to reduce the cost of living for all content creators (indeed for everyone) by spreading the gift economy into other sectors in a race towards a universal zero price.


Friday, March 07, 2008

Hound Them Out!

The public seems to be waking up to the reality that the British Army is not a force for good in the world. Not only have several Student Unions banned the army from recruiting there – on the very reasonable grounds that these new recruits would soon be off killing people in places where they have no right to be – but soldiers in at least one area have been instructed not to wear their uniforms in public for fear of vilification by members of the public. This conjures up quite a strange image of hardened squaddies skulking in the shadows to avoid dangerous mobs of Daily Mirror readers, armed with nothing but their rapier-like tabloid wit.

Predictably, Gordon Brown has appealed for these pillars of the State to keep their drabs on and for we subjects to show some dashed respect for what he calls “servicemen”, missing the point that it is their very apparent lack of service to either their countrymen or the citizens of the countries they are occupying which is prompting this reaction in the first place. What, Gordon, is this oh-so-important function which these unfortunates are fulfilling, without which our way of life would collapse? The silence is deafening.

So I urge everyone to follow suit – show these hirelings the same respect you would perhaps not to a crazed high school gunman, but to a hitman caught with his cloak and dagger askew. Jeers and catcalls, public shunning, ridicule… while perhaps not the do-as-you-would-be-done-by scenario I usually advocate, these seem a reasonable enough response to antisocial behaviour. (We have smoking ban, why not an overseas-interference ban, too?) Though come to think of it, I would like to think that if I decided to boss people around at the point of a gun I’d come in for some serious stick from my mates.

I’m sure some soldiers are in it for the violence, but the majority probably misguidedly join up to make something of their lives and do some good. Plastering over the macho ads with VSO posters, while keeping up a steady stream of barracking, seems like a good way to bring morale and eventually numbers down – with a full programme of forgiveness and rehabilitation for those who leave.

But of course the real problem is the sponsors of this international crime gang – us. We voted for the people who sent them there, and are even now funding their misbegotten exploits. So save the really nasty stuff for Brown, Cameron and everyone else who supports organised State violence – take their bloody jobs away.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Give Me Dissonance or Give Me Death

When I was growing up, back in the Eighties, disposability was a glorious thing - something for young bands to aspire to. Pop is disposable, ran the argument, because it is the thrill of being young, of living in the moment. Pop is disposable because, once you've heard that spine-tingling riff a couple of dozen times, like an overchewed piece of gum its buzz has worn out, and it's time to move on to the next quick thrill. Pop is disposable because we live in ever-changing times, and the best music reflects NOW most perfectly; its significance tomorrow will be only as an archaeological layer on which the next frothy edifice can be built. And Pop - the music of the people - is the state to which all music should aspire. A truly universal, proletarian artform.

Could there really still be critics who believe this twaddle?

For me, while I know that what we put in our ears is as political as the diet of our eyes and tongue, this self-serving argument has nothing to do with my experience of music. Disposability is a disappointment; it's the moment you realise that the little charmer - who yesterday folded their gorgeous arms around you, breathed seductively in your ear and so fully penetrated your mind - is no soulmate, no rock for hard times; is nothing indeed but a pretty dilettante, without an original or useful idea in their head, who could no more wire a plug or bring up a child than count through a bar of thirteen sixteen time. I refuse to celebrate airheadedness and aculturality as any kind of achievement.

I want music that continually offers something new; that's worth a repeat visit to my eardrums; a re-imagining, a fresh experience with each revelatory listen. There's a lot more of this than you might think. It just takes some patience and an open pair of ears to find it. A subscription to doesn't hurt, either. No bubblegum on my bedpost - I am building a collection of music that will remain with me, my close companion until I die.*

I used to cling to the idea of "Experimental Music" like a dirigible in choppy seas, but nowadays music's emotion is more important to me than its novelty per se. Which is not to say that I've gone off music that challenges the ear. Rather, I'd argue that the ear must be challenged if there is any hope of communication on a musical level. But some settle for connection via the everyday language of speech alone, with the band just puffing alongside.

For it is the deviations from what is expected that reflect the opinions of the music's creators, their experience, their personality. The all-important what-it's-like-to-be-someone-else-ness that makes storytelling so compelling and connecting is right there in the composer’s necessarily singular choices. If not, hearing music is like having the kind of non-versation Al Swearingen from Deadwood so hates: "Do not repeat back to me what I just played in different fucking notes!" (The current UK scene needs to unhitch itself from the wagon of the celebrated but largely un-nuanced Arcade Fire. Go Godspeed instead!) Consonance is the very epitome of bland: Bach, Mozart and their ilk mercilessly subverted the very harmonic rules they invented to wring out feeling. We have to go so much further today to hit the real highs.

Recently I went to see Japanese "post-rock" outfit Mono. I don't really want to get sidetracked by the P-R thing, but - sorry! - they use drums, bass and two guitars; they produce all their own rhythms (no beatboxes or samplers); their music has melody and dynamics; it's all in either 4/4 or 6/8; THEY'RE A FREAKIN' ROCK BAND!! There's nothing "post" about them! Repetition and no vocals - is that all it takes to be on the cutting-edge these days? Bah! Anyways, they do make a lovely, lovely noise. The lead guitarist has an exquisite tone, and pulls convincing Andrew Latimer-style faces. In fact, every song seems cut from a chunk of Camel's mountainous 'Ice'. But will Mono keep me warm at night? Even when I've lost the rest of my teeth, and can no longer squeeze into a Medium? I doubt it. They don't have the stamina. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that, emerging from Brighton's seafront Engine Room where they played, a strong gust of sea breeze had carried them out over the English Channel.

I hate to say it, but there is about consonance - the staple harmonic arena of Mono and fellow travellers like Explosions In The Sky, Sigur Ros and Autumn Chorus - something weak and unsatisfying; a smoothness to which, like Pure Pop Disposability, many disparate and unlikely bands seem drawn, as if they can't wait to cast off everything that made their music interesting, special, different,... moving. I appreciate that this current crop of bands are, unlike pop entryists of a bygone age, trying to reclaim the bathetic allure of consonance as an art medium. And the peaks of this music can indeed be disturbing, as the best art should be: bleak in their unending, monolithic prettiness; or allowing some of existence's ugliness to protrude through the veneer. (Check out Pelican’s The Fire In Our Throats... for one of the best examples of this.)

Don't give me polish; give me rough, infinitely crystalline edges. Give me, in fact, large chunks of modern chart music: the wild syncopations of Missy Elliot and Kelis; raucous CSS shoutiness; the guitar grind and sample mania of Madonna and Britney - the best producers seems to have forgotten that Pop is bubblegum. Nowadays it's more like a radioactive gobstopper. (Though the sickly sweet vocal style that has plagued R'n'B since the 80s continues to ooze gooey tentacles, yielding toffee apples everywhere from Justin Timberlake to Avril Lavigne.)

Somehow, we never get around to actually throwing away the best Disposable Pop, because it snags us and refuses to let go. Music which requires passage through a pain barrier, some kind of dissonance, will often lead to the greatest long-term pleasure, because that barrier is precisely the price of admission to another soul.

It takes all kinds of culture to make a world, to soundtrack a life; I am not ashamed of the Abba and Duran Duran in my eternal jukebox, but I am vetting it for Rock-Post-Post-Rock taggers-on who slipped by while I was lost in thought, even as I enjoy recent discoveries such as the wild and moody 65daysofstatic. As with anything we do, music is only an adventure if you let it be.

*And yes, I did get a 160GB Archos - thanks, my gorgeous Lucy!

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