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

Noisey:

"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

Billboard:

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.

2017: Saxophones No, Flutes Yeah

The Outline:

There’s no song in the Top 40 right now with a saxophone solo. There’s hardly a defined saxophone part on any of those songs at all, which is incredible because for most of American popular music’s history, the saxophone was the backbone of making a song a hit. In today’s pop, the saxophone is used sparingly, because instead of seeming cool and propelling singles, it runs the risk of making you look corny.

{A} shift — toward electronic production and away from acoustic, as exemplified by the rise of disco in the ’70s — was notable. The saxophone thrived in jazz fusion with guys like Grover Washington Jr., Tom Scott, David Sanborn, and Michael Brecker. But as the genre became gentrified, there was a definite move away from saxophone sections and horn sections, to the sexy saxophone solo.

Big name ’80s pop stars started using the saxophone to create hooks that were catchy, but inescapable and incredibly annoying. And that use took it from being a cool instrument with a strong sound, to being a weird, almost tacky gimmick. Saxophone historians skim over this section of the sax’s perception in spite of the fact that it was the site of a major turn. When George Michael used the saxophone as the intro to “Careless Whisper,” its grooving, sensual riff became a parody quickly. Much to the dismay of saxophone lovers, the indelicate saxophone riffs of ’80s pop became the instrument’s primary associations, and the instrument fell out of fashion.

“I’d say once we hit the 2000s, it’s almost like the saxophone had become extinct,” {professor of woodwinds at Berklee College of Music Jeff} Harrington said. “It’s like a dinosaur now.”


GQ:

Flutes are an incredibly wack instrument. Possibly the wackest. Instruments like the oboe and the clarinet are more sonically irritating, and the douchiness of intentionally complicated instruments like the Chapman stick exceeds the flute's pompous reputation (which it held well before Jethro Tull inflicted itself on the world). But the flute stands alone at the intersection of irritating sound and annoying personality.

And yet in the hands of "Mask Off" producer Metro Boomin, the historical weight of every shrieking prog rock flute solo and "Actually the term is flautist" ever inflicted on the world evaporates in a cool, blunt-scented breeze and the mournful soul of Tommy Butler's Selma soundtrack. Through some powerful occult maneuver, Metro's made the flute not only tolerable, he's made it bang.

In fact, the flute's become one of the stickiest trends in hip-hop production. It probably has something to do with the inevitable aural fatigue that audiences developed from Southern mixtape rap's years-long reliance on maximalist bombast and blaring, Inception-style horn arrangements (something Metro Boomin once specialized in). It might also be related to the surging interest in gentle New Age sounds that's popped up in other genres like indie rock and dance music.

Or maybe we've just been wrong about the flute for all these years. Maybe we let prancing prog rockers and irritating small-time band-class divas get in the way of a perfectly fine and exceptionally chill instrument when we could have been letting it soothe our ears with its mellow tones. Whatever the reason is, it's starting to seem like this is going to turn out to be the Year of the Flute, and I'm not even a little mad at it.

Blockchain and the Rights Management Renaissance

Mediachain Labs blog, one year ago:

The problem is simply that no central database exists to keep track of information about music. Specifically, there are two types of information about a piece of music that are critically important: who made it and who owns the rights to it. Right now, this information is fiendishly difficult to track down, to the great detriment of artists, music services and consumers alike.

If we want to enable maximum value flow and creation, we’ve got to solve the data problem first. Given that context, we should view a blockchain solution as a simple metaphor for shared, networked, media metadata.

Platforms like Spotify and Soundcloud have an incentive to find a reliable, long-term solution to the fractured data problem in order to avoid future lawsuits. Spotify seems to be leading the charge, having recently committed to “fix the global problem of bad publishing data once and for all”. They also have the scale and technical resources to ensure the availability and operation of the network.

Mediachain Labs is leading the open source development of Mediachain, a decentralized data network that aims to make it simple for organizations, creators, and developers to share and reuse information about creative works. As a shared metadata network for music, Mediachain offers a uniform interface to data contributed by multiple participants with no central authority. Because Mediachain is open source and decentralized, all participants remain in control of their data and there is no central point of failure.


TechCrunch, today:

Spotify has acquired the Brooklyn-based blockchain startup Mediachain Labs, whose team will join the company’s office in New York where they will work on developing better technology for connecting artists and other rights holders with the tracks hosted on Spotify’s service.

This is an area where Spotify can use some help, as it turns out. Last year, Spotify settled a licensing dispute with the National Music Publishers Association (NMPA) in the U.S. over unpaid royalties. Spotify had claimed that it didn’t pay out the royalties because it simply didn’t have the necessary data to help it figure out whose claims were legitimate, or even how to locate the parties. It said it lacked an authoritative database that covered all existing music rights. This opens it up to litigation, which is obviously not the ideal way of managing these payments.

With Mediachain, Spotify potentially has a solution on its hands – but instead of building out a centralized database with music rights information, it looks like it will build a decentralized one. Mediachain says it will turn over the technology it had already built to the open source community as it moves to Spotify.


There's this announcement – and the dotBlockchain Music Project's recent alliance with SOCAN, Songtrust, CD Baby, and FUGA – and ASCAP, SACEM, and PRS for Music collaborating on a blockchain-powered "shared decentralized database of music work metadata with real-time update and tracking capabilities" … could we be on the cusp of a rights management renaissance?


Previously and Previously.


Update: CMU Daily once again with the definitive take:

How do you convince the music industry that you’re taking the data issues that continue to hinder the streaming business seriously? Tell em you’re going to fix it via the blockchain and ‘boom’, no one knows what you’re taking about, but boy are they impressed.

Hitting the Links: Paper Synths, The Velvet Underground, and Cuban Numbers Stations

Perhaps a budding Sunday tradition? Once again, I present five online articles that caught my fancy over the past week:

Meet The World's Most Obsessive Fan Of 'The Velvet Underground and Nico’

Satlof's collection began in earnest in 1987: a $90 autographed copy from "a record dealer in an antiques mall on Canal Street," with a scrawled signature that the seller said was Warhol's, but turned out to be Reed's. Satlof casually picked up more of the albums over the years, paying "$10, $20, like $100 for ones with the full banana." He stresses that his hobby is due to the brilliance of the music and his love for it. But really: 800 copies?


Miniature Analogue Papercraft Synthesizers by Dan McPharlin

Each miniature synthesizer is meticulously handcrafted from framing matboard, cardboard, paper, plastic sheeting, string and rubber bands. Rather than replicating the existing machines, the focus was more about creating a revisionist history where analogue technology continued to flourish uninterrupted.


In Pictures: The 10 Most Stunning Places to Make Music

Some of the best making-of-the-album stories are those where a wild, remote or inspiring location becomes a powerful inspiration on the music-making - The Rolling Stones at the Cote D'Azur mansion Villa Nellcôte for Exile on Main St.; Can at Schloss Nörvenich for Tago Mago; Killing Joke inside one of the Great Pyramids at Giza. In those cases, the band brought their own recording equipment with them. For the less intrepid, the world has many ready-made, custom-built, luxurious studios in gorgeous locations to fire up creativity.


Cuba’s Mysterious Numbers Station Is Still On The Air

While evidence suggests HM01 is operated by the Cuban government, it's virtually impossible to tell who it's sending to, which is one of the main tactical advantages of numbers stations: You can easily see the intended recipient of an email, but you can't prove someone listened to a radio broadcast unless you catch them in the act.


The Word-Of-Mouth Resurgence of Arthur Russell

Shortly before his death, Russell and his family took a small boat out to Baker Island, a flat rock half-covered by seaweed, four miles off the coast of Maine. The musician sat on a slab of granite and recorded the sound of the waves breaking against the shore. The next year, the Russells scattered his ashes from the same rock, and they watched as the waves slowly pulled him away. On summer nights, for decades, unbeknownst to Russell or his family, locals have boated out to this same rock. They play music, and move together under moonlight. They call the place the Dance Floor.

Ninja Tune's Peter Quicke: "Spotify is our Biggest Revenue Source"

[PIAS]'s The Independent Echo blog regularly posts wonderful and informative interviews with various record label managers. The latest features Ninja Tune's Peter Quicke who has been managing that label for 25 years. It's always interesting to hear the perspective of a label that once made its bacon through vinyl and CD sales, now that we are well on our way into the streaming age. Says Quicke:

Spotify is our biggest revenue source. Would it be better if streaming never existed and we carried on selling vinyl and CD? I don’t know. In a way, the reverence for the artifact is tied up with the emotions of the music. Streaming is gradually breaking that down – people’s relationship with music is possibly becoming more incidental and less involved and emotional. But on the other hand, it makes it possible for people to listen to music all the time.

{Spotify feels} like an honest broker paying a fair royalty. But the other thing they’re doing is making the long-tail thinner and probably making the pool of music that gets listened to thinner. That’s not a good thing. It’s the tyranny of choice. People don’t know what to listen to so they listen to the Spotify playlists. From our point of view it’s fine [with a large catalogue], although we’re always learning what works and what you have to be careful of. Whether culturally it’s good long-term is an interesting debate.

It probably is harder now {to start a successful label}. But when I started doing this, for years I worked all day and all night, and it was fucking hard. Nobody wanted to review our records. There were a few fans, but nobody cared. We sold 2,000 or 3,000 at best. It’s hard whenever you start a record label. In a way it’s easier now because you don’t have to spend loads of time fretting over manufacturing. Starting a label at any time in history is just shit-tonnes of work for years.


Be sure to read the full interview HERE.

About Charts and the Disparity of Pop Music

This morning on our Slack channel (message me if you might want in) I was having a discussion with Jon Curtis, newly responsible for the wonderful blog A Poke in the Ear (With a Sharp Stick). Jon posted an article about the apparent inevitability of Spotify windowing out big new releases from their free tier. I commented that this might somewhat curtail the recent phenomenon of multiple songs from a single album release simultaneously filling up the pop charts, now that streaming numbers affect position. I shared a link to an article in The Guardian about Ed Sheeran doing just that, with 16 album tracks in the UK top 20.

Jon Curtis:

The takeaway: "The problem isn’t so much the charts as what streaming is doing to music itself. The vast gap between pop’s behemoths and everyone else is a problem that the medium only compounds." The charts were always about popularity … initially number of products sold, now number of products streamed. This skews the playing field dramatically. And, like most questions that are posed in online headers {in this case: "Can the charts be fixed?"}, the answer is no, they can't be fixed.


My response:

I don’t know if I agree with the quote. I think the disparity of ‘pop behemoths’ vs. the second tier is reflective of such growing (and troubling) disparity overall in our society, and there are other factors unique to our time – such as rampant media consolidation and the fact that there are now three ‘major labels’ – mainly to blame. But, on the flip-side, there are now more people making a living in creative fields due to the democratizing effect of the internet (which includes streaming) then there ever were. The most disappointed are those feeling they’ve been cheated out of their Led Zeppelin-style private jet because it’s not like it was in 1975 (spoiler: it wasn’t like that actually).

Regarding charts: I managed a major retail store during the introduction of Soundscan and saw firsthand how that stuff was gamed. But now that we’ve got a million easy-to-access niches (and many self-released artists making a reasonable, lower middle class living off music streaming and such) things like ‘charts’ are even less relevant. I think the Ed Sheeran bit above is hilarious, and it’s fine with me. If that’s how they want to set the metric for their charts then so be it … all this does is send true music fans away from traditional outlets (charts, corporate radio, etc) and into avenues of discovery.


I also admitted that even I'm strangely fascinated by my recurring mix of optimism and cynicism.

The Tale of Vulfpeck's Silent Album

Today I Found Out just posted a video detailing Sleepify, that fascinating crowdfunding ploy by Michigan band Vulfpeck:

An important bit that's mentioned in passing is that Vulfpeck encouraged sleeping fans to play the silent album on repeat overnight (thus, Sleepify) to add to the playcount coffer. Though this tactic was initially creative and effective (really, hats off to 'em), I do think Spotify were justified in putting a stop to the potential trend of 'silent album'. There would certainly be hundreds of uninspired copycat 'silent albums' with a sole money-making purpose if this was tolerated (Spotify's already dealing with new ridicule for a preponderance of "karaoke versions" and the like mucking up the works).

I also think it's unfair to compare Sleepify to John Cage's "4'33"" as Cage's purpose in 'writing' that piece wasn't to raise funds for a tour. But, I'll go one further and say that "4'33"" shouldn't be on Spotify either … it only truly resonates when performed live:

Road Maps, Rainy Days, and Digital Streaming

Spotify, Waze, and road trips, via Endgadget:

Drivers use their smartphone for both navigation and music, so why not put the two together? Waze and Spotify have announced that they've done just that: You can now navigate with Waze within Spotify and access Spotify playlists from Waze. After you set up a playlist, it'll automatically play when you start your journey, while letting you "easily" change songs. At the same time, you can browse playlists (and switch from one app to the other) when your vehicle is at a full stop.

The partnership is somewhat surprising, as Waze is owned by Google, which has its own Play music-streaming service that competes with Spotify. However, Spotify's 50 million-strong subscriber base dwarfs Google Play (and every other music service), so it could be a way for Google to prod all those users into trying the Waze platform.


Spotify, The North Face, and rain, via The Verge:

The Austin-based band White Denim has a new song out today, but you can only listen to it if it’s raining where you are. The North Face is releasing the track, called “No Nee Ta Slode Aln” as part of a partnership with Spotify. The whole thing is a gimmicky way to sell a rain jacket.

The streaming service is using geo-targeting to make the song available only in areas of the United States experiencing drops of water falling from the sky. If that’s not happening in your area, you’re out of luck. It’s currently not raining where I am, which means the song isn’t showing up on my Spotify.


Just as digital streaming has opened up endless options for defining a 'release' or an 'album', we're now starting to see this creative freedom applied to music promotion and integration. More of this, I say.

Pandora Premium Takes the Service On-Demand

As we're talking a little about Pandora, I would be remiss to not mention the company's long-awaited foray into on-demand streaming is launching this week …

Fast Company:

The idea of launching a new music subscription service in 2017 would be utterly insane if it weren’t for one detail: Pandora already has 78 million monthly active listeners. If the company has a shot at competing, it will come primarily from its ability to upsell some of these listeners to its new $10 subscription tier. The rollout of Pandora Premium will be iterative and targeted. It begins this week and will continue through mid-April in phases, selectively coaxing existing Pandora users that might be likely to sign up based on their listening activity. People who hit the song-skipping limit or frequently thumb-up songs by the same artist, for instance, are prime targets for the new service.

Pandora is peddling a very polished, well-designed product, but it’s unlikely to reel in many people who are already committed to a service like Spotify or Apple Music. That’s because there’s very little here, aside from aesthetics and a legacy of smart music curation, that can’t be found on other services. Even perks like personalized new releases and the “add similar songs” button found their way into Spotify in the time that’s passed since Pandora acquired Rdio. Unfortunately for Pandora, Spotify has vastly improved its own curation and discovery features over the last year and a half. Pandora Premium is solid, but if you’re already invested in another service, you’re likely to find enough here to


Macworld on what, if anything, sets this service apart from the others:

Pandora Premium offers automated playlist generation: You choose one or two songs and the service creates a full playlist based on their properties. Other services have similar features. Apple’s iTunes Genius, for example, automatically creates playlists from a user’s personal playlist. The advantage for Pandora, however, is that its ability to match songs is widely considered superior to what other services can do {due to the company's long involvement in the Music Genome Project -ed}.

The company is also very proud of Premium’s search capabilities and even managed to throw some shade at other services when discussing it. “Pandora’s team of curators, music analysts and data scientists have sifted through tens of millions of tracks to help you quickly find what you really want,” Pandora said in its announcement. “No more wading through covers, karaoke versions or tribute tracks to get to your favorite tune.” Spotify’s vast catalog includes numerous karaoke, cover, and tribute tracks that often come up in a search before the song by the original artist.


Update: Jim Dalrymple over at The Loop is optimistic about Pandora's offering, citing a focus on catering to the listener as the key to making it a potential improvement over other services.