27 April 02005

The Roots of London Calling

A few weeks ago, I advocated the creation of 'imaginary' celebrity playlists, which could become an interesting form of musical essay on both the celebrity and the acts in his/her playlist. I'm working on one for Neil Young, which so far may include tracks from The Shadows, Roy Orbison, Otis Redding's cover of Satisfaction, Bobby Darin, Linda Ronstadt, Devo and, of course, The Premiers' Farmer John.

In the meantime, Andy Kershaw's latest programme has a fairly literal take on this theme, which he refers to as "the roots of The Clash's London Calling" — Andy's "most complete rock'n'roll album of all time". He plays three Clash songs from the album, and four original reggae, ska and rock'roll tracks on which these were based. The rest of the show is pretty damn good too: you can hear it online until Sunday.

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24 April 02005

Downloading from the radio

Last week's MusicWeek had a article about UBC Media preparing to offer listeners to some of its digital (DAB) radio stations the opportunity to download the songs they broadcast. I can't find the exact story on the web, but here's a feature on similar developments in radio, which details the lower data bandwidth available with DAB, by comparison with broadband Internet.

Leaving aside concerns about commercial radio programming becoming even more narrow in its playlist range (playing just the songs most likely to sell), a radio download service presents a further blurring in the way people listen to and control their music. What was previously an unpredictable stream of music has an on-demand element added. This form of radio becomes another data-point on the spectrum of control I outlined previously:

  • terrestrial radio — no control over programming, track selection or scheduling;
  • digital radio with the Bug — limited 'micro' control of scheduling through ability to pause, rewind and record live radio;
  • Internet radio with time shift capability (e.g. BBC Radio Player) — control over what programmes you listen to and when, but no control over programme contents;
  • Internet radio with interactive programming (e.g. Last.FM — track selection can be rejected by users, and users can also determine how closely the programming is tailored to their profile of preferences (from 'personal radio' to 'random');
  • MP3 player in shuffle mode — user has total control over the library of tracks, but no control over sequencing; to
  • MP3 player in playlist mode — user has total control over selection and sequencing.
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17 April 02005

Time and Timelessness: Laurie Anderson, Doris Lessing, Jem Finer

Alongside her performances at the Barbican next month, Laurie Anderson is participating in a public conversation with Doris Lessing on the theme of Time and Timelessness (26 May, at the Royal Institution). The blurb for the event proffers:

Since the year 2000, the lighthouse on Trinity Buoy Wharf in London's Docklands has been home to the continuing performance of Jem Finer's Longplayer, a 1000-year-long piece of music commissioned by Artangel [donate]. Impossible to listen to in a single lifetime, does this constitute timelessness? Or maybe its simply a way for us to think about more than just our own experience, as science has always done.
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16 April 02005

BBC Online Music Library tender

The BBC has a Request for Information from potential suppliers of an Online Music Library. These suppliers are invited to provide details, within the next month, of the type of music content they can supply, the metadata that goes with it, the available audio formats, and any agreements with music industry publishers and licensing bodies. Full details are in the document you can download from this page.

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13 April 02005

Creative Archive launches licence; where's the pilot?

The 'Creative Archive Licence Group' is launched today at creativearchive.bbc.co.uk. While the identity politics of URLs seem to have the BBC still in the lead on this development, the lack of BBC branding suggests they are not going to have exclusive 'ownership' of it. The British Film Institute, Channel 4 and the Open University are also founding members of the Licence Group. The BFI already has a holding page for its own Creative Archive.

Re-reading the notes I took last December, which referred to a 'pilot service' being launched in the first quarter of this year, it looks like the plans have changed. I assume that small-p political interests have reined in the BBC development team to ensure that the Beeb doesn't just steam ahead on its own, and that it brings other public-sector players along with it. Which is fair enough. The new site has a project timetable, which is a model of vagueness, specifying four activities, all called 'campaigns', with no intermediate dates specified over the next 18 months. No-one wants to create any hostages to fortune.

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10 April 02005

How many CDs are there in the world? Gracenote and metadata

At the end of last year, I tentatively made the prediction that "the catalogue of music recordings readily available in the northern hemisphere will continue to increase by 50% every five years until 02025 when it may start to plateau or saturate". But I can't test this prediction until I have some reliable measure of the catalogue and of how much of it is 'readily available'.

So far I'm drawing a blank even on the simple measure of how many CD titles have so far been issued. Last week Gracenote announced that their CDDB® database for music recognition has been used two billion times to identify CDs. They claim CDDB "contains the largest online database of music information in the world". As of today it has data for 3,598,785 CDs and 46,002,354 songs (note the iTunes Music Store has only 2.5% of these songs available).

Is CDDB a good measure of the total catalogue of CDs? I've heard reports of up to 5% of CDs not being recognised by CDDB — though the only time I've experienced this was with a spoken word CD — which would suggest that CDDB underestimates the total catalogue. However, it also overestimates the number of CDs because the database contains several duplicate entries. I have the six CDs of the Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith on my iPod, with metadata taken from the CDDB. But two of the six CDs appear twice in the database, and one appears three times. You can see this by going to the web interface for the database, and searching on 'Anthology of American Folk Music' (n.b. a fourth volume was released separately from the original three-volume, six-CD set). Try it for other albums as well.

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8 April 02005

Radio David Byrne and Celebrity Playlists

Following the thread of my last-but-one posting, about sharing music in an office, it's interesting to see how David Byrne introduces his Radio DavidByrne.com:

A friend who relocated to California from NY said she missed hearing all the odd variety of music that was played around the office here.  "I miss hearing what you all are listening to," she wrote. This "radio" is my response.

But, as the research I mentioned implies, sharing music with an anonymous public carries different weight and nuance from sharing it with a small group you have eye contact with on a day-to-day basis. In the same way, the relationship between writer and reader of a published article is not the same as writer and reader of a daily stream of office emails.

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7 April 02005

Happy Birthday Frukt!

From today's Five Eight daily email:

It's our birthday today. We are four. To celebrate, we ask that your gift to us is that you let any colleagues/friends/contacts or clients know about us. It isn't always easy being the little guy, so please know that your support of FRUKT/Five Eight is very much appreciated.

They're offering a free trial of their news service. And they're having a party tonight. I like them for their open and generous spirit.

6 April 02005

Researching how communities share music via iTunes

This research paper on patterns of sharing iTunes music in an office, presented at the CHI (originally Computer-Human Interaction) conference yesterday, is the other side of the coin from the personal-stereo research I reviewed in my last posting.

Where that research was about using music to reclaim public space as private space, this paper is about how people project and present their identities in social settings, through their music collection. Where I was disappointed that the personal-stereo research had little to say about the music itself, this research is very much concerned with the choices people make between different musical selections, and how they relate to their personal collections. As the press release puts it,

Employees in a mid-sized U.S. company reported that they consciously worked to portray themselves in certain ways through the collections of music they shared with co-workers, some of whom they barely knew. Sometimes their self-portrayals were misread by co-workers with different musical interests and knowledge. Nevertheless, music sharing served to build a community within the workplace.
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3 April 02005

Researching use of personal stereos: Sounding out the City

A year ago, I said that, in order to anticipate models of listening to music in the future, "We need long term and longitudinal ethnographic studies that chart how [music listening] habits change in response to changes in format and economics". In 02000, Michael Bull, a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex, published a book based on ethnographic interviews from ten years ago with users of Walkman personal stereos. A follow-up book on use of iPods is expected to be published soon.

From reading the first of these books, Sounding out the City: Personal Stereos and the Management of Everyday Life, Bull's focus and research may be useful to people concerned with iPods and competing MP3 players. However, people concerned with the take-up of digital music services in general or of 'à la carte' (e.g. iTunes Music Store) versus subscription (e.g. Napster) services will find little of use. Bull's research and theories have little interest in music per se, and concentrate on people's instrumental (if you'll pardon the pun) use of music to manage their everyday lives in metropolises.

What follows is a review of Sounding out the City, from the point of view of a slightly disappointed reader who is more interested in how people select, listen to and enjoy music qua music than in the use of hardware to re-define social relations, or in the application of Critical Theory to aural experience of urban life.

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