The Gated Reverb Conundrum

Do I know someone over at Vox? Perhaps there's some psychic mind-link? I ask because the music topics the site covers in its ongoing video series are coming from my unbeknownst internal wishlist.

I mean, here's an eight-and-a-half minute video on gated reverb. Holy cats.

Okay, so we've got to talk a little bit about music production trends. These trends represent sounds, styles, and motifs that, at best, enhance a song and, at worst, shackle the recording with the baggage of its era. This is a prison where the Yamaha DX-7 electric piano serves jail time with the drum n' bass time-stretch. The gated reverb drum part is in a curious place as past uses of this technique do often sound dated, but also curiously contemporary in some examples.

I think that Peter Gabriel's use of the technique still holds up (listen to "I Have The Touch"). This may be due to the artist's objective. I always believed Gabriel embraced the gated sound not for trendiness but because it evoked the big tribal drums that shaped his rhythmic fascinations. In this way, the huge drum parts create an uncanny overlay to his songs. This reminds me of Jon Hassell's definition of fourth world music: "unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques."

Notwithstanding a period's technological limitations, if an artist makes production choices that are evocative and intentional, as opposed to 'on trend,' there's a better chance for the music to have persistence. In the case of the gated drum, Gabriel and his cronies helped set the trend, but you get the picture.

On the other hand, you get the preponderance of heavily gated kits (kick drums included, yikes) that overtook some strains of '80s electronic music and a couple of Cocteau Twins albums. Of course, much of this is enjoyable, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with being anchored to a particular era of music production. But the key is to be mindful. I'm not convinced Cocteau Twins would have gated the kick drum if they were making those records now, but I'm sure Phil Collins would still add the reverb to the drums of today's "In The Air Tonight."

Vox notes gated reverb is being rediscovered by modern producers and is trendy again. I can't say I would have noticed at first as these productions are so processed overall. And I think there's a distinct difference to those using the technique to fill out the aesthetic vision of the song and those looking to evoke 'that '80s sound.' Both processes are intentional, but the passing years will tell if they are timeless (or, unstuck in time, as the case may be).

I ran across the blog Songs From So Deep which provides some closing thoughts on the subject:

This is the thing. Production fashions are an arms race. This is how it happened last time gated reverb was the thing. One artist does something, the next one repeats it but takes it further, everyone piles in until a point is reached where someone says, OK, enough, and sets their own trend.

When I was a teenager in the mid-1990s, listening to contemporary rock music and forming my own tastes and preferences, nothing could have sounded older, more tasteless or garish to me than a big, gated-reverb drum sound. It was the preserve of poodle-haired corporate metal bands. Later on when I’d grown up a bit, I had to train myself to put those objections aside, to listen past the obvious signifiers and give the music a fair hearing. But nevertheless, my tastes were formed in the era they were formed in, and despite this being the sound of the popular music of my childhood, it’s not my sound. Perhaps the folks making these records are too young to have these hang-ups.

Side Note: Susan Rogers is interviewed for the Vox video. That gives me an opportunity to highly recommend this interview with Rogers over at Tape Op. It's one of the best production-related behind-the-scenes interviews I've ever read. A must for Prince fans, too.

Destroying the Perfect

On the Building New Law podcast, Seth Godin had this to say:

We always destroy the perfect before we enable the impossible. For example, sonically CDs are not as good as vinyl, and MP3s are not as good as CDs. But this degradation is necessary to get to the technological point of 'every song in your pocket,' and audio quality will someday catch up.

And we've seen it before. The eight-track tape: sounded like crap but you could play it in your car. Then came the cassette, also crappy but you could go for a run with a Walkman at your hip. Compact discs eventually improved the quality and kept the mobility. But there's another level of convenience that no one anticipated, which is the convenience of library and access. This facet was the promise of "every song in your pocket," and that means it was a step back to move forward, courtesy of relatively lo-fi MP3s.


Are we now at the technological point of 'catch up' Godin mentions? For many of us, the bandwidth is now there, and bandwidth has been the primary constraint. Is it time to seriously upgrade our stereo systems for streaming? From BBC News:

Qobuz, along with rivals Tidal and Deezer Elite, offers streaming of "lossless audio" that throws nothing away.

"Is MP3 as interesting as it was ten years ago? Not really, because bandwidth has improved," says Malcolm Ouzeri, head of marketing at French streaming and download provider Qobuz, founded in 2007. "Now the industry is going towards more quality."

The highest quality MP3 has a bit-rate of 320kbps, while a hi-res file can go as high as 9,216kbps. Music CDs are transferred at 1,411kbps.

There is also talk of Spotify launching a lossless audio option. Some users report seeing this option in limited test cases. And then there's the adoption of the LUFS standard by Spotify and other streamers, showing a renewed attention to sound quality. But many of these services make hi-res an add-on option. The rumor is that Spotify's hi-res audio will be available as part of a more expensive monthly plan, as Tidal currently offers. A Qobuz 'highest quality' subscription is presently £349.99 a year.

I'm not sure if hi-res audio will make an impact as long as it's seen as an add-on for those with extra change to spare. Even the option titles – such as Deezer Elite – make hi-res seem elitist. I don't know what the additional costs are to the providers, but it will be wonderful to finally enter a world where hi-res audio is a sole and affordable option as bandwidth grows and accelerates. Once we've arrived, the only ticket for entry will be our choice of speakers.

Decoding a Pocket Symphony

Posted by the Polyphonic YouTube channel, this video essay illustrates all the remarkable things that happen in the three minutes and thirty-nine seconds that comprise The Beach Boys' "Good Vibrations." It is remarkable when the details get laid out: the convention-defying sections of the song, the ingenious chord combinations, the metamorphosing moods and transitions, even how the deceptively simple lyrics reveal a deeper meaning. "Good Vibrations" is indeed a "pocket symphony."


The making of "Good Vibrations" was unprecedented for any kind of recording, with a total production cost estimated between $50,000 and $75,000 (equivalent to $370,000 and $550,000 in 2016). Building upon the multi-layered approach he had formulated with Pet Sounds, Wilson recorded the song in different sections at four Hollywood studios from February to September 1966, resulting in a cut-up mosaic of several musical episodes marked by disjunctive key and modal shifts. It contained previously untried mixes of instruments, including jaw harp and Electro-Theremin, and it was the first pop hit to have a cello playing juddering rhythms.

Its title derived from Wilson's fascination with cosmic vibrations, after his mother once told him as a child that dogs sometimes bark at people in response to their "bad vibrations". He used the concept to suggest extrasensory perception, while Love's lyrics were inspired by the Flower Power movement that was then burgeoning in Southern California.

The instrument that steals the show in "Good Vibrations" is more often than not mistakenly referred to as a theremin. Kudos to Polyphonic for initially calling the instrument on the recording by its actual name: the Electro-Theremin. He gets it wrong the second time around, though.

From an article about this instrument via NPR:

… in the 1950s, trombonist Paul Tanner and an amateur inventor named Bob Whitsell made an instrument that made sounds similar to Leon Theremin's creation, but made it a lot simpler for non-experts to hit specific notes and control the volume.

Tanner's instrument — like the theremin — was used in science fiction films and a very popular television show from the early 1960s called My Favorite Martian. Tanner featured it on his 1958 album, Music for Heavenly Bodies. The few people who bought The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds when it came out in May of 1966 would have heard Tanner's instrument on the song "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times." But in the autumn of that year, every American teenager heard that weird sci-fi sound on every AM pop radio station, when Paul Tanner performed his Electro-Theremin with The Beach Boys on "Good Vibrations."

One more observation: near the end of the video I found myself thinking, "Wow, Brian Wilson did look exactly like Paul Dano." Then I realized that was Paul Dano. Sneaky.

My Every Day Album Discovery Routine

I was recently asked, "what are you listening to these days?" I explained that I listen to a lot, and it's because every day I aim to listen to an album I've never heard before.

A couple of years ago I was writing a 'best of' list and came up short for my top ten favorite albums of that year. I realized I didn't listen to a lot of new music and that made me feel stale. Of all people, especially in my line of work, I should be on top of what's new. And one of my most enjoyed pastimes is discovering new music.

I made a pact to listen to an album a day, and one I had not heard before. It doesn't have to be a 'new' album, just new to me. Bonus points if I'm not familiar with the album artist, too. I keep track of my progress by posting the day's album on my Twitter feed and my personal Facebook page. I'll often add short commentary and post a link to an informative review or article about the work.

Digital streaming powers this process. Spotify is my personal choice, and the freedom I have to check out and discover new albums is exhilarating. It's also addictive. And I know your next question: how do I find a new album a day?

I get my money's worth out of my Spotify subscription fee as I'm using the service almost non-stop. Because of this, Spotify knows my taste well, and its suggestions are usually spot-on. My Discover Weekly playlist is fascinating every time it refreshes. You know the algorithm is doing its job when a song I loved a decade ago but haven't thought of since pops up. And the Discover tab under Browse yields terrific album choices regularly.

However, I like getting outside of my comfort zone. Spotify's choices reflect my taste as the algorithm sees it, and that's cool. But I sometimes want to get outside of my perceived taste and find entirely new (to me) artists and sounds.

So, I pluck titles from the review pages of a few music web sites. The ones I regularly visit:

  • The Quietus - I love that the music The Quietus reviews is all over the place. I never know what I'm going to hear.
  • Resident Advisor - Almost always in the electronic spectrum, RA's album reviews are diverse and filled with treasures, and aren't as dance floor focused as you might think.
  • Pitchfork - I know I'm not supposed to go here, but this is where I find what's new in the broader sense. Relatively mainstream albums rub shoulders with underground gems, and I'm willing to sample it all.

I do have a few rules. I grab an album from the bottom of whichever review list I visit. The ones at the top might not be out yet, thus not available for digital streaming. I'll give any album a chance for two or three songs. If an album doesn't float my boat, I'm not going to listen to the whole thing. I move on and select a new album when a selection doesn't satisfy or pique my interest. When I find an album that I'm into enough to finish, I'll read the review to learn more about it. I'll also do a quick search for the artist and album to see if there's anything else I can glean. Then I'll post it on my pages.

Know that when I post an album on Twitter or Facebook, it's mainly for my benefit. I'm keeping a running tab on what I've been checking out, and I like to look back to see what made a lasting impression on me. I'll listen to those again someday, but only after I've digested something new. If you, the casual onlooker, consider my postings as recommendations and listen along then I'm flattered.

That's the process. An album a day. I've missed days – in fact, I've missed a lot of days lately – as life and travel get in the way. But this has proven to be an enriching practice that I'd like to make into a daily routine. If you also love discovering music, then I'd recommend giving this schtick a try.

Side note: Here I am on Spotify. I don't make my listening private, so you are welcome to see what I'm checking out in real time. I'm also proud of the playlists I put together and would love for you to give them a go.

Songwriters Getting Paid as the Robots Listen

There are a few options for businesses to legally play music on premises, whether that business is, say, a nightclub, restaurant, or hair salon. An in-store music service like Mood Media (formerly Muzak) can supply channels of pre-cleared tunes for a subscription fee. These services are like radio in most cases, as the business won't be able to choose any particular song that's played. The business could also just play music by friends and enter into a direct licensing agreement with each songwriter. That would be a huge hassle and dramatically limit the available catalog.

The most popular option is to pay for the compulsory licenses offered by the performance rights organizations – PROs like ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC. These licenses allow the business to play songs represented by each PRO. A few factors determine the fee, such as venue capacity, and the business usually obtains a license from all the PROs. For one thing, it's a lot of work to determine which PRO represents a song the venue wants to play, and the music customers would like to hear are distributed amongst all the rights organizations. Paying fees to all creates full coverage and the freedom to play whatever you'd like.

A venue's requirement to get a compulsory license is one of the most misunderstood aspects of music publishing. The venues themselves especially misunderstand this requirement. I've spoken to many business owners who don't understand why they have to pay for such a license. The phrase "it's nothing but a shakedown" is used on more than one occasion. But the simple fact is this: if your business is profiting off of someone else's music – and playing music to enhance your business qualifies – then the songwriters should get a cut of some sort.

There is another argument made by business owners that I find harder to dispute. Nightclub owners often argue that the fees they pay to the PROs aren't going to the songwriters whose songs they are playing. This statement is often true. Presently, the PROs have no way to track the songs played in their licensed venues. The businesses could submit a list of all the songs played in a day, but no one is going to do that. Instead, the PROs pool the collected fees and distribute the royalty to songwriters they assume are the ones getting played the most. In other words, popular songwriters, for the most popular songs.

I can empathize, as I DJ'ed hundreds of times exclusively at underground clubs and very few of the songwriters I played (if any) ever saw a penny. I've heard tales of clubs in some territories tackling the problem by having the DJs write down all the songs from their sets. I guess it's the thought that counts, but this is obviously an unreliable and haphazard solution.

There's a change coming, though. Advances in audio recognition are making song tracking in venues possible. Using technology popularized by the likes of Shazam, songs get identified and, in turn, the appropriate songwriters paid. From a story in Complete Music Update:

Collecting societies PPL and PRS For Music have confirmed that they are expanding a pilot project to test the use of music recognition technology in clubs, pubs, bars and hotels to monitor what music is being played in those spaces.

Peter Marks {CEO of UK clubbing chain The Deltic Group} has welcomed the pilot, saying: “Music is the very heartbeat of our business and it’s in our interest to see that talented artists are rewarded for their creations. With online streaming and other digital technology, it’s increasingly difficult for songwriters and musicians to make a living from their creations, so anything we can do to help and attract and support the latest local talent has to be a good thing”.

I believe GEMA in Germany has also been testing this out.

The ramifications are enormous and welcome; accurate tracking in venues (and eventually across other outlets such as radio and sporting events) will create a great benefit for non-mainstream songwriters.

It remains to be seen if US PROs might look to adopt this technology. The fact that there are multiple PROs in this country may prove to be a stumbling block. A device that listens, identifies songs, and sends data to the PROs would have to be installed in every participating venue. It would be a hassle if each PRO had its own device for every business to install. Could they agree on one shared device? Part of me thinks it unlikely as the US PROs are fiercely competitive. That said, the recent news of ASCAP and BMI collbaorating on a musical works database gives us a glimmer of hope.

The US is often the country left behind when it comes to advances in rights management. Let's hope our industry is proactive in embracing this technology solution to a longstanding problem.

The Upside of Music Piracy

For a legacy act, taking a nuanced stance on the effects of music piracy is surprising and somewhat brave. But that's what Def Leppard guitarist Vivian Campbell is doing in a recent interview with Ultimate Classic Rock:

“The way the band works is quite extraordinary. In recent years, we’ve been really fortunate that we’ve seen this new surge in our popularity. For the most part, that’s fueled by younger people coming to the shows,” Campbell said. “We’ve been seeing it for the last 10, 12 or 15 years, you’d notice younger kids in the audience, but especially in the last couple of years, it’s grown exponentially. I really do believe that this is the upside of music piracy.”

Techdirt has some thoughts:

This is the part of music obtained freely that never gets mentioned: the multiplier effect it has on a bands relevance and longevity. This isn't to say that such a model works for every band in every instance, but it's refreshing to see an artist step back and try to get the full picture of what's really going on here. It would be quite easy for someone like Campbell to see the young faces in his audience and never give a second thought to how those younger fans got to a Def Leppard concert. By taking an intelligent look at that question, however, Campbell has reached a place where he's found a friend where he might have seen an enemy.

It is extraordinary how attitudes are changing across the board as larger artists begin to find advantage in the new music paradigm. (When it comes to topics like this, I wonder how much influence Bob Lefsetz is having on classic rockers.) The only question I might have: is music piracy still a concern when it comes to younger audiences? Are teenagers and fans in their 20s still downloading files? As statistics show streaming gaining traction at an accelerating rate, one might assume Daniel Ek's mission to eliminate piracy might be paying off.

Another side of the coin: Def Leppard are active on YouTube and engage on social media, regularly posting new content, which is also rare for a legacy band. Though Campbell's perspective is refreshing, he may be off-base about the reality of what is mostly driving young fans to his band's concerts.

Update: Music 3.0 blog also asks Does Music Piracy Still Exist In The Age Of Streaming?

'Ways of Hearing' Explores Listening in the Digital Age

I'm excited about this new Radiotopia podcast named Showcase. Mostly because the first season consists of the six part series Ways Of Hearing, hosted by Damon Krukowski who you may know as the drummer for Galaxie 500 and a member of Damon & Naomi.

Apparently inspired and culled from Damon's recent book The New Analog, Ways Of Hearing explores how listening has changed as audio delivery moves from analog to digital. It looks to go much deeper than that, touching on subjects like modern changes in the sharing of information and how audio affects our sense of time. So far the podcast doesn't go down the tired analog vs. digital rabbit hole, and I don't expect that it will. Listen to the first episode HERE.

On a side note: certain bands or songs send waves of melancholy down the spine. For me, Galaxie 500 is one of those bands. When "Tugboat" starts playing in the first episode of this podcast I'm overcome with tingles. The song evokes a time and a place, an overwhelming nostalgia, a part of my life (my early 20s) filled with loneliness and sadness. I recorded a Galaxie 500 copycat song, complete with my imitation of Dean Wareham's first album wail, and played it for a girl I liked. She asked me why I was so sad and then I never heard from her again.

And if you'd like to read the harrowing tale of a great band dissolving then you should check out this oral history of Galaxie 500 on Pitchfork.

Update: If you're having trouble listening from the player on the show's site then try this player on PRX's page.

The Rhythmic Surprise of Syncopation

Treat yourself to this ten minute explanation of syncopation, using the deceivingly complex rhythmic basis of Radiohead's "Videotape" as its example. "Videotape" is my favorite of the Radiohead 'dirge' songs but what I didn't realize is that it actually grooves at a very un-dirge-like 155 BPM.

Vox has been on fire with their videos for a while now. I watch them all. Check more of their output HERE.

If You Are Losing the Game, Best to Change the Rules

Ben Thompson for Stratechery:

The long-rumored competitor to Amazon Echo and Google Home was, fascinatingly, framed as anything but. {Tim} Cook began the unveiling by referencing Apple’s longtime focus on music, and indeed, the first several minutes of the HomePod were entirely about its quality as a speaker. It was, in my estimation, an incredibly smart approach: if you are losing the game, as Siri is to Alexa and Google, best to change the rules, and having heard the HomePod, its sound quality is significantly better than the Amazon Echo (and, one can safely assume, Google Home). Moreover, the ability to link multiple HomePods together is bad news for Sonos in particular (the HomePod sounded significantly better than the Sonos Play 3 as well).

Of course, superior sound quality is what you would expect from a significantly more expensive speaker: the HomePod costs $350, while the Sonos Play 3 is $300, and the Amazon Echo is $150. From Apple’s perspective, though, a high price is a feature, not a bug: remember, the company has a hardware-based business model, which means there needs to be room for a meaningful margin.

The result is a product that, beyond being massively late to market, is inferior to the competition on two of three possible vectors: the HomePod is significantly more expensive than an Echo or Google Home, it has an inferior voice assistant, but it has a better speaker. That is not as bad as it sounds: after all, the iPhone is significantly more expensive than most other smartphones, it has inferior built-in services, but it has a superior user experience otherwise. The difference — and this is why the iPhone is so much more dominant than any other Apple product — is that everyone already needs a phone; the only question is which one. It remains to be seen how many people need a truly impressive speaker.

Coming from a music industry POV, an emphasis on sound quality as a feature – as it applies to music playback – is a great move and may even raise the bar for competitors' forthcoming hardware. I look forward to personally assessing just how good this HomePod speaker sounds, and find it fascinating that the HomePod has been successfully positioned so that the sound quality is what I'm mostly curious about.

Hitting the Links: Music's Technological History, Repetitive Pop Lyrics, and Peter Saville

Technology In Music: A Chronological Playlist Through History:

Let’s start from from the beginning, in 1937: a timeless feel – eerie and alienating at times, permeates ‘Oraison’ by French composer Olivier Messiaen. The song was originally written for an ensemble of early electronic musical keyboards called Ondes Martenot. The Ondes Martenot is a very expressive instrument, meeting Messiaen’s avant-garde composition techniques. If you’re expecting beat drops you may want to keep in mind the release date.

Peter Saville On His Album Cover Artwork:

{Saville on New Order’s Technique cover:} It was a garden ornament and we rented it for the shoot. It’s a very bacchanalian image, which fitted the moment just before the last financial crash and the new drug-fuelled hedonism involved in the music scene. It’s also my first ironic work: all the previous sleeves were in some way idealistic and utopian. I’d had this idea that art and design could make the world a better place. That even bus stops could be better.

Are Pop Lyrics Getting More Repetitive?:

In 1977, the great computer scientist Donald Knuth published a paper called The Complexity of Songs, which is basically one long joke about the repetitive lyrics of newfangled music (example quote: "the advent of modern drugs has led to demands for still less memory, and the ultimate improvement of Theorem 1 has consequently just been announced”). I'm going to try to test this hypothesis with data. I'll be analyzing the repetitiveness of a dataset of 15,000 songs that charted on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1958 and 2017.

Forgotten Tributes: 25 Monumental Relics of Yugoslavia:

If you were to travel today through the area that was once Yugoslavia, you would come across some incredible massive objects that allow an unexpected look directly into the area’s past. Before dissolving into several smaller countries in the 1990s, Yugoslavia became home to a number of large-scale futuristic monuments.

Gary Vaynerchuk on Impact Theory (Podcast):

I think that Steve Jobs came along {and} became an icon, but the sad part of that narrative was he did not treat his employees well. He became an icon and the narrative became he got the most out of people by being a jerk, and that became romanticized. And a lot of people in Silicon Valley today run companies where they're mean because they think that's the right thing to do because they put Steve Jobs on a pedestal. I want to become that big {but} what I want to come from that is that kids that aren't even born today think that they can build a five billion dollar company and {still} be a great guy or a great gal. I want to build the biggest building in town ever by just building the biggest building in town, while I think most people try to tear down everyone else's building.

Cranking the Wheel


"Spotify playlists, and Spotify charts, and Spotify plays, have become the number one tool that labels and artists and managers are using in order to break artists and measure success," said industry analyst Mark Mulligan, speaking to Wired earlier this year. "If you get things working on Spotify, that's going to crank the wheel." Anyone who's opened Spotify and found themselves clicking on their Daily Mix playlist, or fired up the app's Discovery Weekly playlist already knows this. The app, and the impact of its playlist placements, are now an almost unspoken reality of the industry's digital growth.

And so we come to this week's news, of Spotify playing coy about what determines the song of the summer. In a blogpost published on Wednesday, the streaming service's US team announced a – you guessed it – playlist of the tracks that they "predict" will soundtrack your BBQs, house parties and whatever other photogenic events you'll be attending in the sunshine. "To create this year's Songs of Summer predictions," they wrote, "Spotify tapped the insights of its genre and trend experts, analysed its streaming data and considered factors such as a song's performance on the charts, on key Spotify playlists and how it's performing over time. The team also factored in buzz on social media to create a list of songs perfect for essential summer moments."

At a glance you'd look at this and think, 'oh cool, Spotify are predicting the future. That's fun! They're fun!' But when you take a closer look, a couple of issues become clear. First, that you walk right into a chicken-and-egg situation. Do songs chart well because it's been playlisted dominantly, and thus listened to by lots of people on Spotify? Or does it make that Spotify playlist position because it's performing well on the charts? We don't know about those inner workings within Spotify. But it's bizarre for the company to both aggressively use reams of data to thrust certain songs under our noses, then act as though it doesn't consequently set the agenda for what casual music listeners grow to like.

Music as Data, and the Wisdom of the Crowd

The Conversation:

The Musical Genome, the algorithm behind Pandora, sifts through 450 pieces of information about the sound of a recording. For example, a song might feature the drums as being one of the loudest components of the sound, compared to other features of the recording. That measurement is a piece of data that can be incorporated into the larger model. Pandora uses these data to help listeners find music that is similar in sound to what they have enjoyed in the past.

This approach upends the 20th-century assumptions of genre. For example, a genre such as classic rock can become monolithic and exclusionary. Subjective decisions about what is and isn’t “rock” have historically been sexist and racist.

With Pandora, the sound of a recording becomes much more influential. Genre is only one of 450 pieces of information that’s being used to classify a song, so if it sounds like 75 percent of rock songs, then it likely counts as rock.

Meanwhile, Shazam began as an idea that turned sound into data. The smartphone app takes an acoustic fingerprint of song’s sound to reveal the artist, song title and album title of the recording. When a user holds his phone toward a speaker playing a recording, he quickly learns what he is hearing.

The listening habits of Shazam’s 120 million active users can be viewed in real time, by geographic location. The music industry now can learn how many people, when they heard a particular song, wanted to know the name of the singer and artist. It gives real-time data that can shape decisions about how – and to whom – songs are marketed, using the preferences of the listeners. Derek Thompson, a journalist who has examined data’s affects on the music industry, has suggested that Shazam has shifted the power of deciding hits from the industry to the wisdom of a crowd.

Decolonise: A Punk Fest Celebrating People Of Color

The Quietus:

For those who have no experience of being a person of colour the fact that this event is even happening may come as a surprise. Why would anyone need a punk festival for people of colour in 2017? What does race have to do with the music you listen to? Why are you complaining, isn’t racism over? You might be reading this thinking the very same. Well despite your misgivings I can explain why WE ALL need a festival dedicated to the music of people of colour, today more than ever.

Looking back at the snotty, gob-throwing days of the late 70s punk scene in the UK you might at first think the stories of punks of colour ended with Poly Styrene, lead singer of the effervescent X-Ray Spex. Of course, delve a little deeper and we find other bands such as Alien Kulture, a majority Pakistani Muslim punk band who formed in the late 70s in defiance of Thatcher’s 'fears' of being swamped by new cultures. Even going back to the roots of punk you’ll find Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a queer black female guitarist who combined the fire of gospel preaching with the soul of early blues to devise the earliest form of rock & roll.

No matter where you look in history you can find stories of people of colour going against the norm to either add to genres previously considered white or create whole new spaces for themselves. We are there but our stories are fragmented across history. There is no linear narrative to this narrative because as with all history it is written by the dominant culture who, whether with malice or ignorance, repeatedly seek to prop up their own achievements forgetting to acknowledge the black and brown people who inspired or helped them along the way. It’s why the Sex Pistols had two documentaries made about them but a Poly Styrene documentary is only just in the making and had to be crowdfunded by her family.

The Decolonise Fest starts June 2 in London. More info HERE.

Spotify Settles With Songwriters


Spotify has reached a settlement with a group of songwriters who had sued for copyright infringement, eliminating an potential complication to the public offering that the streaming service is planning later this year.

Under the agreement which will need to be approved by the court, the streaming company will set up a fund worth $43.4 million to compensate songwriters and publishers whose compositions the service used without paying mechanical royalties.

Spotify has to pay record labels to use their recordings and publishers to use the underlying compositions; it pays mechanical royalties directly to publishers and public performance royalties to performing-rights groups like ASCAP, which distribute the money to their member publishers and songwriters. Streaming services don’t need to negotiate with publishers, since they can take advantage of a “statutory license” offered by the federal government.

But they need to find the right publishers to pay -- a challenge in cases where recordings have entered Spotify's system without proper metadata. Spotify has always made a point of holding money aside for publishers it couldn't identify, but doing so doesn't make it compliant with copyright law.

Beyond past and future compensation, the settlement agreement outlines a process by which Spotify and the class counsel “will work collaboratively to improve the gathering and collecting of information about composition owners to help ensure those owners are paid their royalties in the future," according to the plaintiffs’ motion.

Previously, Previously, and Previously.

Update: Complete Music Update does a great job explaining this mess:

In some countries, the music publishing sector has traditionally licensed the performing and mechanical rights separately through different entities, meaning streaming firms need to ensure that – not only do they have deals in place for both recordings and songs – those deals cover both the performing and mechanical rights of any works streamed.

In the US this has proven challenging, because while there are collecting societies that licence performing rights, there is no one-stop society that represents mechanical rights. In other countries where the two elements of the copyright are licensed separately, there is a mechanical rights society that can provide a licence to cover any songs that are not subject to direct deals between the streaming firms and the big music publishers.

On one level this shouldn’t matter because there is a compulsory licence covering mechanicals in the US, which includes a set statutory rate to be paid, so streaming services don’t need to negotiate terms and they know from the outset what the mechanical costs will be. However, the compulsory licence obliges the streaming service to alert each and every rights owner that it intends to exploit their work or – where they can’t identify the owner – it should file paperwork with the US Copyright Office instead.

Few services did this, mainly because of the big music rights data problem, whereby there is no one stop publicly accessible database to tell you who controls which song copyrights, nor which song is contained in which recording. However, by failing to adhere to the formalities of the compulsory licence, whenever a streaming service streams a song in the US which is not covered by one of its direct publisher licences, it is technically committing copyright infringement.

Update 2: Music•Technology•Policy:

Compare Spotify to Facebook. Facebook has no licenses. None. Zero. Zilch. They know they have no licenses and they don’t seem to be in much of a hurry to solve this problem. For all of Spotify’s problems, Facebook is not Spotify. Facebook is a royalty deadbeat.

What the Spotify cases should tell Facebook is that Facebook should not expect to get a pass for their bad behavior. Facebook should expect to write a very large check for the past and a very large check for the future.

Make LUFS, Not (Loudness) War

Ask Audio:

It appears as if Spotify have decided to join the majority of online streaming platforms and reduce their streaming target loudness from -12 LUF to -14 LUFS! By my own measurements, a solid thirty to forty minutes of the Top 50 global playlist off the free Spotify app yields an integrated value of -14 LUFS with true peaks well below -1 dbTP.

Spotify has long been the outlier in terms of online loudness, streaming a full +4 LU (1 LU = 1dB) above AES recommended streaming practices of -16 LUFS/-1dBTP and causing no end of confusion in the last days of the loudness war. So this move brings Spotify into the same Loudness ballpark as TIDAL who are normalising to no louder than -14 LUFS, YouTube who seem to be normalising high view count videos to -14 LUFS, and 2 LU higher than iTunes and iTunes radio with “Sound Check” loudness normalising to -16 LUFS.

As of now, most online streaming services are matching the perceived loudness of tracks to each other to a unified target level. So regardless of how much you worked on squeezing a few extra dB out of your hyper-compressed “master”, if an online streaming service measures your track as higher than -14 LUFS (integrated) YOUR MUSIC WILL GET TURNED DOWN!

Unfortunately for us electronic music makers we still have to deal with SoundCloud and Bandcamp, and neither service even seems to be aware of the loudness issues facing their content. SoundCloud and Bandcamp are a free-for-all at the moment with incredibly loud music being uploaded every day, and it sucks that dance and electronic music is the last bastion of the loudness war. Soundcloud was never built on its reputation for quality audio, but a target loudness value of -14 LUFS/ -1 dBTP is highly recommended regardless of your “competition’s levels”.

A Poke in the Ear (With a Sharp Stick):

So, you could care less about The LUFS Standard and will just mix and master your track or project so loud that it will blow out your listeners eardrums on the first listen. Fine, go for it. It's your music.

Just remember that if you ever want your tunes to be on one of the major Music Streaming Services or on The Tube Of Yous they are going to turn the level down for you. If it hits the Broadcast Airwaves it's going to be turned down even more.

Would you rather have control over what it sounds like when it gets turned down, or do you trust the Providers and Networks to do that for you? LUFS ain't going away kids - it's a Standard and a Broadcasting Law in the US and Europe. Start adhering to it now and you're futureproofed, but if you do make headway in the Industry you'll have to invest time and money to remaster your older works.

My audio nerd friends are pretty excited about Spotify's decision. I'm thinking it's in preparation for the launch of a high fidelity audio plan. It still probably doesn't excuse the bad pun in this post's title.

Hitting the Links: Talk Talk, a Package from Felix Laband, and Hippie Architecture

Talk Talk - 10 of the Best:

Engineer Phill Brown, speaking to the Guardian in 2012, recalled “an endlessly blacked-out studio, an oil projector in the control room, strobe lighting and five 24-track tape-machines synced together. Twelve hours a day in the dark listening to the same six songs for eight months became pretty intense.”

Felix Laband - A Life In Collage:

Hailing from Johannesburg South Africa, Felix hasn't exactly become a household name here in the States. His obscurity made legitimate purchases of his music difficult, so like any rabid fan I resorted in the early 00s to piracy and felt the pain of having shorted an artist that has contributed so much to our well being. But now more than a decade later it's easier than ever to patronize the artists we love. And so we did, with the largest music-related purchase we've ever made.

Psychedelic Supersonic Silicon Space Age: Photos Of The Radical Hippie Design Sense:

In the 1910s, the horrors of the First World War had pushed disillusioned creatives to invent new ‘modernist’ modes of expression. Fifty years later, Vietnam, civil rights, and their political backlash had radical thinkers again refusing to get in line. We all know well the profound musical heritage of this period. But the influence of countercultural aesthetics on the graphic design and architecture of the era is far less recognized, even as its impact continues to ripple some half a century on.

Why Time Seems To Speed Up As We Get Older:

If our memories can trick us into thinking time is moving quickly, then maybe there are ways to trick our brains into thinking that time is slowing down — such as committing to breaking routines and learning new things. You're more likely to remember learning how to skydive than watching another hour of mindless television.

There’s a Replica of the Otherworldly Bedroom from 2001: A Space Odyssey in a DTLA Warehouse:

{Simon} Birch, a Hong Kong-based British artist, has transformed the space into a series of micro-exhibitions meant to take viewers on a “hero’s journey,” a reference to Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth. The various large-scale immersions feature projections, paintings, sculptures, and, in one instance, a lush patch of real grass. But the most Instagram-worthy is a bedroom—one that happens to be an exact replica of the one in Stanley Kubrick’s Oscar-winning film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Ceding Control to an Unseen Force

A reminder from Music 3.0 blog:

A website many times gets overlooked as an integral piece of your digital promotional life because there are so many other places that you can use as your online focal point. Having a Facebook page or Tumblr blog, or relying on another social network as your online central focus has a number of potential flaws, not the least is control of your message.

When you depend on a social network for your online presence, you’re ceding control to an unknown, unseen force that can change its will at any time with no regard to your online well-being. If you rely on an external network, sooner or later you’re going to get burnt. It’s the nature of the Internet to constantly change, and it’s too early to get a feel for the life span of even of the largest sites and networks.

An artist’s website is the only place online that you can control the look, feel, and information and never have to worry about it changing unless you want it to. Don’t trust your online presence to social networks.

This mirrors the first piece of advice I give every time I start consulting an artist or label. Relying solely on social media (or not having social media posts consistently point to the artist's website) is the most common and harmful mistake out there.

Sampling in the 21st Century

DJ Shadow in The Guardian:

"I’ve always believed in clearing samples, however I believe it needs to be done on a musicologist basis.” This would involve, {DJ Shadow} explains, breaking down a song in a forensic way, and working out compensation accordingly: “This bass line sample constitutes – based on the space that it occupies and the number of seconds that it plays over the course of the track, in relation to other elements that come and go ... this sample is worth 16.7% of the composition.”

“Now, if that could be done,” he says, “then I would clear everything. But the problem is, you go to the first person – they want 75% whether they deserve it or not. You go to the next person they want 70% – whoops – you can’t cut a pie that many times, there isn’t enough pie to go around.”

"In a strange sense I feel like music has never been worth less as a commodity, and yet sampling has never been more risky. We work in a hyper-capitalist time, where you grab what you can, get everything you can, doesn’t matter whether it’s right or wrong, it doesn’t matter whether it’s valid, it doesn’t matter whether it’s deserved."

My own story: I had to leave a song off Invisible Airline because it had a short vocal sample, and the publisher for the sampled artist (hardly a 'big name') wanted $10,000 and 75% ownership of the final song to clear it.

Then there's the unfortunate case of De La Soul, via The New York Times:

“We’re in the Library of Congress, but we’re not on iTunes,” {De La Soul member Posdnuos AKA Kelvin} Mercer said, adding that when the group interacts with fans in person or online, they always ask the same question: “Yo, where’s the old stuff?”

That old stuff may be fraught with problems, according to people familiar with the group’s recording and publishing history. In 1989, obtaining the permission of musical copyright holders for the use of their intellectual property was often an afterthought. There was little precedent for young artists’ mining their parents’ record collections for source material and little regulation or guidelines for that process.

“My understanding is that due to allegedly uncleared samples, Warners has been uncomfortable or unwilling to license a lot of the De La Soul stuff,” {sample-clearance agent Deborah} Mannis-Gardner said. “It becomes difficult opening these cans of worms — were things possibly cleared with a handshake?”

An added possible complication lies in the language of the agreements drafted for the use of all those samples. (There are more than 60 on “3 Feet High and Rising” alone — the group was sued by the Turtles in 1991 for the use of their song “You Showed Me” on a skit on that album and settled out of court for a reported $1.7 million.) If those agreements, written nearly three decades ago, do not account for formats other than CDs, vinyl LPs and cassettes, Warner Music would have to renegotiate terms for every sample on the group’s first four records with their respective copyright holders to make those available digitally.

In a statement, a person speaking for Rhino, a subsidiary of Warner Music Group that deals with the label’s back catalog, said: “De La Soul is one of hip-hop’s seminal acts, and we’d love for their music to reach audiences on digital platforms around the world, but we don’t believe it is possible to clear all of the samples for digital use, and we wouldn’t want to release the albums other than in their complete, original forms. We understand this is very frustrating for the artists and the fans; it is frustrating for us, too.”

There's an understandable nostalgia for the anything-goes sampling climate of the late-80s/early-90s, and a lot of sample-free music made today would sound completely different if that anomalous musical era didn't happen. Now we're seeing technological solutions paving the way for new sample-based producers, through services like Tracklib and maybe even Dubset (if you can clear unauthorized remixes using Dubset, then why not clear samples eventually?). But these services can't replicate the thrill and risk of surreptitiously sampling a favorite groove into your production. Take my word for it … it can be intoxicating.

All Is (Not) Fair In Love and Streaming

Complete Music Update:

Artist managers argue that they need to know more detail about the deals done between the labels and the streaming services, so that they can properly audit the streaming royalties their artists receive. This would allow them to better understand the streaming business and advise their clients on which platforms to champion. They could also then be reassured that the value of the booming streaming market is being fairly shared between all stakeholders within the music community, ie artists and songwriters as well as labels and publishers.

Noting that the new deal struck between Universal and Spotify – and the pending deals due to be agreed with Sony Music and Warner Music – continue to shrouded in secrecy, the CEO of the Music Managers Forum, Annabella Coldrick, said: “The news that Spotify and Universal have struck a new licence deal to help support continued streaming growth is welcome. However the lack of transparency around the terms of such deals means it is still impossible to properly understand and verify the flow of money from fan to artist and ensure those who create the music share in the growth in its value. Transparency is essential and should be baked into any new deal, not hidden behind NDAs”.

Music Tech Solutions:

The same criticism could equally be made of non statutory direct agreements by digital aggregators like CD Baby, Tunecore. LyricFind, Pledge Music, the Orchard and Loudr, each of which offer varying degrees of transparency of their own books, much less the deals they’ve made with digital services on behalf of the artists, songwriters, labels and music publishers appointing them as agents for relicense of music.

It would be very simple for aggregators to disclose the terms of their deals or to at least summarize them so that artists or songwriters who are considering who to sign with could compare payouts. It’s fine to tell people what their royalty split, flat fee, or distribution fee might be, but the assumption is that the revenue stream being shared is identical from one aggregator to another.

A related hot topic I encountered on more than one occasion at last week's Music Biz 2017 conference was access to data, and how this varies from deal to deal. For example, it's well known that the majors have negotiated access to more detailed 'play' analytics from Spotify (such as listener retention, more demographic options, and so on). And a plausible rumor is that the majors have negotiated others not have access to this information, giving preferred partners a leg up. Herein lies the danger of a few companies becoming the sole distribution portals for music streaming.

Blockchain: Anchoring Music in Time and Space

Benji Rogers (dotBlockchain Music) via MIDEMBLOG:

Blockchains represent the opportunity to anchor a digital event – in this case, music – in time and space. To say “at this time, in this place, these are the people that own the work.”

Today, in 2017, if I’m a songwriter or an artist, I have nowhere in which I can digitally express my rights. As an artist, I come out of the studio, I put that recording on a 20 year-old format like a FLAC or a WAV or an mp3, then I send it out into the world. And I rely on all these other architectures and databases to link together, talk to each other, and get me paid. The problem is that you usually only find issues after they’ve happened, and I just don’t think that’s a modern way to converse machine to machine, using these old formats.

If you’re going to create a new system to digitally enscribe rights, do you do it in a centralised way? That is, do you want to rely on one entity to be the holders of the keys, and therefore give them the ability to overwhelm the system? And if so, you have to trust and rely on them being good people and not wanting to screw artists or performers. If we consider that many centralised systems have been attempted before and have failed, what blockchains represent is a decentralised system, where you are equal among all peers within the system.

That’s powerful because today, if we put our rights into mp3s or WAV files, they’re all alterable. Wherever they go, there’s no way to talk to them. You have to talk to the service providers that administer them and pay out on them. What I think is a much simpler path is if you create a smart, modern digital asset, which is the music with the metadata, and you write that music & metadata to the blockchain, then what you have is a decentralised way of looking at 360°s of the rights of the asset itself. Therefore, wherever I send that asset, if changes are made at the blockchain level, they will express themselves outwards to the asset.

So the obstacles to overcome are that a bunch of the music industry does not want the transparency that this would engender; and a bunch of the music industry is highly invested in payments not reaching the right people in the right way. But that said, what those parties and players are seeing is that if they’re holding a thousand euros under the table, they’re losing out on a million over the table. This system would allow for massive speed in sync licensing, and in confirming who owns what, as opposed to who we think owns it. And I think the other obstacles are ideological: “we’ve already built everything we need, and we’re going to carry on with that, so you take your fancy blockchain somewhere else.” I think that’s a head-in-the sand attitude. It wouldn’t be the first time; hopefully, it’s the last.