Friday, June 09, 2006

A Saucerful of Bolton

Where But For Playlists Would I? (part one)

(Yawn) Of course Microsoft had to get a music service. Dunno about you, but every time I hear about a new music subscription/download service with x million songs I get a mental image of a million-strong army of singers who look and sound exactly like Michael Bolton. I know these sites actually offer a sizeable chunk of music I love, but I can’t help myself; it’s such an inhuman thing to say to someone: “here, have a million songs”.

How times change. Remember the CD player? With only fifteen tracks or so at one’s disposal what kind of a geek would you have to be to program it to play songs in a particular order? Shuffle mode was almost always good enough for a quick mix. But – in the Boltonverse, as in the real world of CD rips and p2p – the prime importance of playlists has yet to be appreciated. In iTunes they’re almost an afterthought, while although million-Bolton-army subscription services usually offer a way to tailor your listening according to previously-noted likes and dislikes, none provide an actual journey through your personal soundworld the way a mix tape can.

I have been making compilation tapes and, later, CDs for myself and friends since I first got my hands on a tape recorder. Re-ordering, re-contextualizing songs I’m familiar with and music I’m still getting to know, and keeping these in a permanent form – or packaging them up as a postcard from my musical travelogue – has been a way for me to mark my passage through the fascinating, challenging, moving and ever-changing world of brain-stimulation-thru-soundwave. Rediscovering them later takes me straight back to that time.

Cassettes were easy (provided you had all day with nothing better to do). As long as you could connect your tape deck to your source – be it record player, CD, another tape deck, video even – you were away. It was pretty clear what you could and couldn’t do, though finessing your edits required a bit of practise. And as with everything in the pre-MP3 era, the fruit of your labours was an actual thing you could hold in your hand and lose at parties! (In another ten years music-as-artefact will probably seem strange to us: music will have reverted to its naturally ineffable state.)

I don’t look back so fondly on the CD-comp-making-process.  Too many choices that have little to do with the actual work of building a playlist, like which software to use. I ended up using video editing software quite a lot, because the audio tools are so basic. As long as it could cut a track into pieces, I could work with it. One thing I do like about CDs is the effortlessness of making perfect (or tweaked) copies for different friends. When MP3 dawned (for me, around 2000) I started using MusicMatch Jukebox for instant playlist comps, and this was the quickest, easiest, and having-a-life-outside-comp-making-est process so far. There was a major downside was that, having no physical existence, many of these have been lost with changing computers, etc.

Now that I can leave the house with most of my unfeasibly large record collection in my pocket, the business of playlist-making has become more casual and sporadic, yet the need for it is greater than ever. I may not quite have a million songs in my jukebox, but on the plus side no poodlecut crooners  are going to assault my ears, even in shuffle mode (although my player does seems to have an unstatistical predilection for Foo Fighters).

Which brings us to the nub of my complaint: can we really do no better than random? My player says to me: “Hey! I’ll be your DJ. Select the tracks you like, then I’ll play them back. No particular order, OK?” Call that a musical journey? Even radio DJs have been known to pay attention to running order occasionally, in between novelty items, and for every other kind of DJ it’s their bread and butter. “I’m afraid Paul Oakenfold can’t be with us tonight, but he’s sent his iPod along and told us to play it in shuffle mode.” Doesn’t happen. Playlists need to have shape and timing and cunning and wit and juxtaposition and yes!-moments. That’s before we get into the possibility of cutting up or overlapping tunes. It’s not rocket science, but it is an art.

Y’all know I don’t believe computers have an ounce of creativity in them, but we could perhaps bake a little humanity into a future playlist engine by get tagging right.  Alongside the ubiquitous Artist, Album and Title fields, MP3s and other audio files can store information such as Tempo, Preference, Mood and Genre, though currently they’re not much use, as they either don’t get filled in or people can’t agree on what they mean. What genre, for example, should we assign to ‘I Might Be Wrong’ by Radiohead? ‘Pop’, ‘Rock’, ‘Techno’, ‘Experimental’, or something else? (My copy is rather misleadingly tagged ‘Ambient’.) Clearly one tag alone cannot capture the many-facetedness of even a single recording. But if we associated a whole cloud of tags – genre terms, mood indicators – a folksonomy like could provide our playlist engine with the raw materials, both averaged and specific, on which people-made playlists like the ones at tinymixtapes are based.

A typical journey might start with a couple of ‘beginning-y’ tracks (by picking two opening tracks - one quiet , one loud, say - from different albums, which could be as diverse as you like), then perhaps proceed by matching two random genre tags on successive songs. Half a dozen songs in, a sudden change of direction could be effected by basing the next change on something rather non-musical such as year, or a word common to both titles. I’d also like my database to register whether tracks fade in or not – don’t want to cross-fade when we can jump-cut. The system could have a simple scripting language to describe the kinds of changes that are allowed at each point, how much to randomize, and when. The end of the script would describe the kind of closing tracks required, and how to get there. If you can think of it, we’ll make the engine do it. I have some ideas about how this could be done, but I’m going to defer that to my next post. I’m still fuzzy on the details, and very open to suggestions. Write to me if you want to discuss it – my gmail address is the obvious one – or catch me on the pho list.

We are only just beginning our journey into networked music. Already you can have Pandora piped wirelessly around your house; it surely won’t be long before we have handheld, pay-through-the-nose access to the Boltonverse of songs; and not very far behind that will be the fabled and (by some) dreaded Big Black Box – a portable device with enough capacity for the entirety of recorded music, or at least a Boltonfull or two. (How do I know it will be black? Because white is already looking tawdry, and black is always cool.) By then we will hopefully have realised just how ridiculous is the squabbling between Creative and Apple over whose idea the most basic, unhelpful, just-about-works music navigation system actually was. Meantime, who’s going to be the first to make a player that actually enhances, rather than obfuscates, our enjoyment of music?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Fin de Tout?

I just read the Introduction to Ian MacDonald's famed Beatles analysis, Revolution In The Head. There seems little point going on to read the track-by-track analyses, not being a Beatles aficionado, but the Intro puts forward a superb theory I haven't encountered before and which, in our decadence, we might be justified in trying to ignore: that the Sixties, far from being the beginning of a new age, was in fact the last attempt to preserve some sort of sense in a post-religious world of an eternal, carnal present. You really have to read it.

Anyhow, in this Register piece Andrew Orlowski is clearly thinking along similar lines. Mashups of the cultural and more particularly technological kind have, he contentds, led us to a postmodern nomansland strangely redolent of Futurism, Vorticism and all that far-sighted early 20th Century braggadocio. Blogs pointless asides to the real business of Googling.

Well, PAFF! to that. If we do live in an eternal, amoral present, bereft of context and meaning, that doesn't mean we will never make sense of anything ever again. If one is drowning, does that mean that dry land no longer exists? Has never existed? Of course, Mr MacDonald, the transition to a wholly scientific worldview was always going to be painful; and if anything the psychological challenges of the always-on, connected world are even greater. Not every blog offers profound insight, not every mashup a revelation into the relationship between genre, musical structure and the power of marketing. But this is democracy in action. If we are going to make the most of the speck-like nature of our societal role, maybe we need to learn to clam up more, but conversely to make every action - every blog post, every mp3 distibuted - really worth it.

Blogged with Flock