The Other American Idols

My wife’s in the other room watching American Idol, and while I’m amazed it’s been going so long, you gotta admire its emphasis on quality and professionalism. And no mention of money (isn’t there something vaguely obscene about a program like Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader where avarice and greed are paraded before kids as incentives to learn?)

Anyway, while my wife’s watching idolatry on a production line, I’m trading emails with the guy who wrote my favorite software of the moment, SuperNoteCard and a composer whose music I discovered as pirate tapes on the streets of Bangkok 20 years ago: Tim Story.

His Glass Green was the soundtrack to a dark period of my life and I still can’t listen to those deceptively simple songs without being transported back to the night bus north to Sisatchanalai, pulling out of Morchit in the rain.

Anyway, I once confessed this to him in an email (after I’d tracked down the originals) and he was forgiving and very pleasant, so I’m proud to be one of the first to sign up for his new CD, Inlandish, not needing to listen to know it’s going to be well worth the money. (Yes, it could be on MP3, but who cares?)

The point? I hate it when I can’t even find an address on a website when I’m buying something. But that’s so old wave: The new world is when we can discover and communicate directly with our heroes, whether they write great software that makes us more creative, or music to inspire us. And it feels good to support them.

American Idol fulfills an important role: finding the hidden gems scattered across America. But maybe the Internet does something even better: helps us find artisans who may be less interested in becoming idols to just making enough to be happy, and making others happy in the process.

Internet Radio in the Bedroom

 

I’ve lately been looking for a way to listen to Internet radio away from my computer. This looks like a good, albeit somewhat expensive, answer: the WiFi Radio from Acoustic Energy (about S$600, that’s $415ish).

The WiFi Radio connects to your router and stores more than 5,000 radio stations by country, updated each time the machine is switched on, which you can scroll though via the somewhat pokey LCD display on the top. There’s a buffering delay but once the station kicks in the sound is great. You can also use it to stream music from your computer.

It’s a classy solution to the problem. But I think there might be a simpler one, if you’ve only got a handful of stations you want to listen to, and just want a small device you can carry around the house with you. Perhaps I could even use an old PDA with WiFi built in? Where’s that Tungsten T3 I saw lying around?

wifi radio – further information : acoustic energy

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User Generated Discontent

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I know in my previous post it sounded like user-generated content isn’t the be-all and end-all, but it has its place. Like this one, from iTunes Store, where Ricky Gervais’ new show is available as an audiobook for 10 quid. The description is the usual blurb-like drivel written by an intern and proof-read by someone on their toilet break:

Ricky delivers hilarious and insightful observations on the nature of fame, and in the process displays his talent as Britain’s foremost comedian to the fullest extent yet.

I’ll leave copywriters and editors to paw over that particular bit of prose. But what I love is the Customer Review below:

Ricky Gervais seems to have convinced the majority of the British and American public he is some sort of genius. Take away that stupid dance [and] the inane grin and what are you left with? An average …. More

I know the More … bit is just part of the way the web page truncates the review, but it seems somehow apt.

I’m not knocking Gervais, who did exhibit some genius with The Office (the UK version), but I find it amusing that the iTunes store, such prime real estate and so carefully designed, allows such prominently displayed counteropinion.

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That’s the true power of user generated content, in my view: A counterblast, a breath of fresh air, a guy standing at the counter when you’re about to part with your cash who nods towards the DVD clutched in your hand and murmurs in your ear, “load of crap, that. Waste of money, frankly.”

Foiling EMI

Further to my rant yesterday about digital rights management, my friend Mark tells me that getting around the Coldplay X&Y copy protection is easy — just rip it on a Mac. He’s right, at least for me: Works like a dream, after no joy at all on two ThinkPads.

This may not be true with all copies of the CD. I bought mine in Hong Kong in 2005, although it appears to be imported from Europe. A piece on ConsumerAffairs says the “CD’s restrictions also prevent it from being played or copied on Macintosh PCs.” Some folk reported problems playing it on their Macs.

Hopefully this idiocy will not last much longer. Boing Boing reported a couple of weeks ago that EMI was apparently ending copy protection on new CDs, although I’ve not seen anything since. If this is true, I suggest we all send our Coldplay and other copy protected CDs back to EMI and demand copies without DRM on them.

The Death of DRM, the Rise of Patrons

Forget being a big old mass music consumer. Become a Patron of the Arts.

The IHT’s Victoria Shannon chronicles the last few gasps of life in Digital Rights Management (DRM) for music, saying that “With the falloff in CD sales persisting and even digital revenue growth now faltering in the face of rampant music sharing by consumers, the major record labels appear to be closer than ever to releasing music on the Internet with no copying restrictions.” This has the inevitability of death about it (this morning I tried again to rip my DRM-crippled Coldplay CD of X&Y, unsuccessfully) which makes me wonder: What will follow?

Most thoughts seem to be on the free music, supported by advertising, and largely distributed as promotion for expensive live concerts:

Jacques Attali, the French economist … who forecast in his newest book that all recorded music would be free in the next several decades — consumers will instead pay for live performances, he predicted — said the business model of digital music should reflect the old radio model: free online music supported by advertising.

“A lot of people will still make money out of it,” he said during an interview at Midem.

I think this shows a lack of imagination and understanding of how music has fractured. My sense is that while Britney Spears will continue to exist in the Celebrity for Celebrity’s Sake World, music has already spread via MySpace etc into much smaller, more diverse niches. I’m not saying anything sparkingly new here, but given that most articles about the majors and DRM and online file sharing focus on the big numbers, I would have thought a much more interesting model to look at is that on places like eMusic, of which I’ve been a subscriber since 2002.

What happens for me is this: I find an artist I like by searching through what neighbors are selecting for me, like this balloon on my login page:

And then I’ll follow my nose until I find something I like. Or I’ll listen to Last.fm until I hear something I really like and then see if it’s up on eMusic. This is all pretty obvious, and I’m sure lots of people do this, and probably more, already. But what I think this leads to is a kind of artistic patronage where we consumers see it in our interests to support those musicians we love.

In my case, for example, if I really like the stuff of one artist I’ll try to contact them and tell them so: No one so far has refused to write back and hasn’t sounded appreciative to hear from a fan. Examples of this are Thom Brennan and Tim Story, whose music I find a suitable accompaniment to anything, from jogging to taking night bus rides to Chiangmai in the rain. I’m summoning up the courage to contact my long time hero, David Sylvian, who doesn’t have a direct email address.

Of course, nowadays one can view their MySpace page, or join an email newletter, and build links up there. But my point is this: My relationship with these musicians is much more along traditional lines of someone who will support their artistic output through financial support — buying their music in their hope that it will help them produce more.

Surely the Internet has taught us one very useful lesson in the past year: That it’s well-suited to help us find what we want, even if can’t define well what it is. First step was Google, which helped us find what we wanted if we knew some keywords about it. Next step: a less specific wander, a browse in the old sense, that helps us stumble upon that which we know we’ll want when we find it.

Fripp, Eno and the Microsoft Sound

I don’t know whether to be delighted or depressed, but it seems many of my musical heroes are now writing music for computers. And it’s emerging as something of an art form in itself.

Robert Fripp, for example, is doing the music for the Windows Vista startup sound, as part of an 18 month project, according to this AP piece, to create good sounds for the software:

Fripp, best known for his work with the ’70s rock band King Crimson, recorded hours of his signature layered, guitar-driven sound for the project, under the close direction of Ball and others at Microsoft. Then, it was Ball’s job to sort through those hours of live recordings to suss out just the right few seconds.

You can hear the start-up clip there, and I have to confess it sounds lame. Perhaps it’s not the finished product but it doesn’t sound like Fripp. Scoble seems to agree, saying the final product is a version with very little of Fripp in there :

I was there while he was recording this, and I TOTALLY agree. You should have heard the raw sounds while they were being recorded. He did THOUSANDS of iterations.

In fact the sounds Fripp makes in that video are a piece in themselves.

The challenge they set for themselves is a tough one. Jim Allchin at the Windows Vista Blog says the startup sound

  • is made of dual ascending ‘glassy’ melodies played on top of a gentle fading Fripp ‘AERO’ Soundscape
  • has two parallel melodies played in an intentional “Win-dows Vis-ta” rhythm
  • consists of 4 chords, one for each color in the Windows flag
  • is ~4 seconds long, end-to-end
  • is a collaboration between contributors Robert Fripp (primary melody + Soundscape), Tucker Martine (rhythm) and Steve Ball (harmony and final orchestration)

Indeed, it was Brian Eno, another hero of mine, who recorded the music for Windows 95. If you’ve forgotten what it sounds like, it’s here, and now I realise why I love it. Eno found himself enjoying the limitations set for him and it triggered a creative spurt. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Brian Eno from The SF Chronicle explaining how he came about to compose the music:

Q: How did you come to compose “The Microsoft Sound”?

A: The idea came up at the time when I was completely bereft of ideas. I’d been working on my own music for a while and was quite lost, actually. And I really appreciated someone coming along and saying, “Here’s a specific problem — solve it.”

The thing from the agency said, “We want a piece of music that is inspiring, universal, blah- blah, da-da-da, optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” this whole list of adjectives, and then at the bottom it said “and it must be 3 1/4 seconds long.”

I thought this was so funny and an amazing thought to actually try to make a little piece of music. It’s like making a tiny little jewel.

In fact, I made 84 pieces. I got completely into this world of tiny, tiny little pieces of music. I was so sensitive to microseconds at the end of this that it really broke a logjam in my own work. Then when I’d finished that and I went back to working with pieces that were like three minutes long, it seemed like oceans of time.

According to the Music thing blog, Eno was paid $35,000 for the sound. What I’ve not been able to find out is who did the music for Windows 98, Windows Me and Windows XP. One rumor in the comments to the Music thing blog posting is that

The story I was given by an Microsoftie was that Eno set up the contract to be paid royalties for playing it, meaning that Microsoft’s attempts to use the sound for branding purposes in a commercial would mean royalty checks sent to Eno for each person that heard the sound (not merely hearing as the machine booted up). Way more expensive than the initial $35,000 payment.

Next time around for Win98, Microsoft farmed out the splash sound to an internal sound production crew. 🙂

I’ve no idea whether that’s true. I’ll try to find out. Of course, it’s not just system sounds that big musical names are getting involved with. Ryuichi Sakamoto, another god, has been recording ringtones for Nokia’s high end 8800. You can hear some of the sounds here. And Sakamoto’s most recent collaborator, Alva Noto (Carsten Nicolai), has offered up some ringtones of his own, which you can download as a ZIP file (go to the music page.)

I think that’s a cooler idea. How about David Sylvian, Bill Nelson, Thom Brennan and Tim Story put together their own collections of sounds for Windows, Macs and cellphones? I’d buy ’em.

Talking About Two Generations

 Nothing captures the intersection between the old and the new worlds, as well as the ambivalence many of us must share about the direction, than this NYT piece (there’s a version in the IHT, but they edit out several key bits for space) about the tension between the remaining members of The Who, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey (bassist John Entwistle died in 2002, original drummer Keith Moon in 1978):

Mr. Townshend, always interested in new technology, announced that the concerts would be Webcast, only to retract those plans a few days later at Mr. Daltrey’s insistence. Eventually, the band made a deal with Sirius Satellite Radio to broadcast the shows as part of an all-Who channel that will continue throughout the tour.

“I don’t particularly like the world technology has created,” Mr. Daltrey said. “Has anything really gotten better with the computer, or are you just doing more and more of less and less? I’m incredibly paranoid about it, especially after what happened to Pete. I think the Internet is just an advertising device of very dubious returns.

Daltrey is referring to Townshend’s arrest on charges of possessing child pornography. Daltrey could easily be characterized here as a reactionary Who Doesn’t Get It (that could be another album title, perhaps) but it’s more complex than that. Daltrey was never the creative engine of the band but there’s no denying his personality and voice are integral to its legend. But he also has a business acumen that doesn’t always sit well in this new media world, but cannot be ignored:

“Also, I haven’t got the luxury of throwing the kind of money at it that he can,” he continued, referring to Mr. Townshend’s songwriting revenue. “I haven’t got the publishing, I’m just the singer. So I have to look at it much more hard-nosed as a business and ask if I can put a million dollars into it, and the answer is no.”

Townshend, the artist (and presumably comfortably provided for with decades of publishing revenue under his belt) can afford to be the modern visionary:

Mr. Townshend responded: “Roger likes things that are finished, and with the Internet, everything is a work in progress. I try not to bludgeon him with this stuff, but I can’t help it; it’s my passion.”

Impressive that these two guys managed to stay together this long, and testament to both of them. But I guess is what is most interesting is that both guys have a point. I feel caught in both camps — I still think of artists as those who labor away in garrets, cellers, studios or mansions creating something of genius, something that really lifts us out of our time and age, before delivering it to us adoring and wowed fans.

This is no longer the case with new-media influenced art, and the contrast is nowhere clearer than in the perceptions of The Who’s two remaining men about their latest offering, Endless Wire:

For Mr. Daltrey, “Endless Wire” closes a door for the band that was left open after the death of the high-flying Mr. Moon (about whom he is developing a film project, with Mike Myers committed to the role). “We were ill equipped to deal with Keith’s problems at the time,” he said. “If we’d known then what we know now about rehabilitation, we wouldn’t have lost him. So it always felt that if that had really been the end, it wouldn’t have been right. With this album, now there can be an ending. I don’t want it to be, but it can be, and I’m at peace with that.”

Mr. Townshend, characteristically, disagreed with that assessment. “It doesn’t feel like closure; it feels completely new,” he said. “Closure implies that we couldn’t do it again, couldn’t do another album with the same quality and dignity.

Townshend is as impressive as he is combative. Perhaps he’s right. Or maybe while his passion is the impermanence of the Internet, Daltrey’s passion is that of a man looking back and seeing something that has gone, never to return.