23 March 02010

University of Death by Sean McManus: A Review

University of Death book coverThere's a pivotal scene in University of Death where the muso-technology geek at the heart of the story struggles to persuade the venal record industry boss to buy-in to a groundbreaking new scheme that will change the industry forever. To accomplish this, the geek plays the boss a new composition, which has been engineered to embody the latter's favourite musical tropes — to push his buttons, if you will.

Without giving too much away, it works. The boss, called Clive in a knowing nod to a well-known industry mogul [Sean assures me no such nod was intended and any similarity to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental…], takes the bait and employs the geek to create more of these personalised sure-fire hits. Not just to create them, in fact, but to seed them virally through targeted online discussions.

I felt an uncanny doubling of the impact of this scene. The book touches on so many of the themes that interest me, and which I wrote about in Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll, that I began to wonder if a very clever geek had written it for the express purpose of pushing my buttons. It had, after all, reached me via a well-targeted email from a software bot claiming to be a writer called Sean McManus, who comes complete with a convincing back story.

Here's a couple of examples of how this canny piece of Artificial Intelligence works. It has taken my old blog post about listener behaviours and reframed it in part of the caustic portrait of record company cynicism:

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13 November 02008

Fighting cultural surplus: a review of Bill Drummond's 17

Bill Drummond's 17When Brian Eno released his Generative Music 1 album — music that is created 'on the fly' by a computer following a set of rules that Eno programmed, released on floppy disk, and now virtually unplayable on any current hardware — he wrote "I really think it is possible that our grandchildren will look at us in wonder and say: 'you mean you used to listen to exactly the same thing over and over again?'".

If you were feeling mean, you might classify a strand of Bill Drummond's musical output as an agitprop popularisation of some of Eno's ideas. 17 fits that profile, as Drummond wants to play his part in getting rid of recorded music and perhaps not just recorded music. "Imagine waking up tomorrow, all music has disappeared," begins one of his many manifestos. He declares Year Zero in the history of music, razing what has gone before and starting again — and all of this single-handedly, or with a bit of help from some travelling companions and some yet-to-be-convinced schoolchildren.

What's interesting about the campaign Drummond conjures in 17 is that it re-interprets the current state of the recording industry not as a commercial crisis, but as a cultural one.

recorded music has run its course, it has been mined out. It is so 20th century, like paper money and fossil fuels… all (or should that be 99.99 percent?) of music being written, composed, created [is] done to be recorded, and once recorded, to be experienced in a very limited way.

The first hundred or so pages are carried by Drummond's commitment to asking the basic-but-necessary questions and articulating his discontent:

What is music for? And why do we listen to it in the way that we do? And what would it be like if…? But the big questions seemed to be 'Why am I so frustrated with it?' and 'Why do I want it to be something other than it is?' and 'Why do I want it to exist in some other sort of way than it already does?'
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8 January 02008

The Age of the Free MP3 Player

Radiohead USB sticksThis is the season where many bloggers are providing their predictions for the year ahead. I tend to opt out of these because a year is both too long and too short to foresee many types of change, which are like rainstorms or earthquakes: you know one's coming, but you don't know quite when or where until the early warning signs appear. I'm more of a Long Bets man, so today I'm going to revisit something I've touched on occasionally in the past, most recently nearly two years ago: the falling price of MP3 players and the possible implications for listening/buying experiences.

In the last year or so there's been a growing wave of music being distributed on USB sticks — the picture is of Radiohead's 6-album "boxed set" in its USB version, which, at $160 or £79.99, somehow cost twice as much as the CD version of the same albums. The problem with these products is that, once you've copied the data off the stick, the stick is just… a stick. You can keep it on a shelf, back-up your homework or your novel on it, forget about it in the glove compartment or loan it to a friend who forgets it in his glove compartment. It's a piece of plastic with some data on it.

But add a player to it, and it has a different kind of value. Now you just have to bring your own headphones (or powered speakers) and you've got all you need to keep you entertained for as long as six Radiohead albums turn you on (about 15 minutes in my case, but these people may differ).

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25 September 02007

Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll is published

Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll coverMy book is out in the UK. If you buy it from Amazon.co.ukBuy Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll from Amazon.co.uk, you'll make me happy. If you can add to the reviews for the book, you'll make me even happier.

I believe the book is out imminently, if not already, in the US as well — based on the Amazon.com pageBuy Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll from Amazon.com, where you can also order it.

My book blog has an extract from the book and details of where and when I'm speaking about it.

I hope the absence of recent posts on this site hasn't created the mistaken impression that I've been slacking. I've been using the book blog as my main outlet recently. All my posts there are linked from the sidebar on the home page. If you're using an RSS reader, I recommend my 'compilation' feed, which brings together posts from this site, my book blog and my furl bookmarks related to digital music and digital culture. (This feed uses Yahoo Pipes. It seemed a little unreliable to me at first, but has now settled down: let me know if you have any problems with it.)

19 November 02006

Just what the world needs: another music wiki

I checked the Alexa traffic ranking for this site last week, and it's down 60% in the last three months… I will be emerging properly from hibernation in a couple of weeks, and livening things up around here.

In the meantime, does anyone know what happened (or is happening) to Napster's Narchive (this link doesn't work for me at the moment, but it used to be the Narchive's address and I can't find one that does)? I mentioned it when it was launched six months ago, as "the people's music archive". I added some comments to one or two entries shortly thereafter, and I noticed the level of activity was low. For a month or more, now, I haven't been able to reach it at all. Have Napster quietly killed it?

Part of the reason I ask is because, I've just come across the Wiki Music Guide, which is in beta (isn't everyone?), and seems to be aiming to occupy a similar space, albeit with a format that's much closer to Wikipedia and also uses MediaWiki software. I added a brief profile of Philip Jeays. Right now, there are fewer than 250 artists on the guide, and those that are there vary between stubs and puff pieces that wouldn't qualify under Wikipedia's neutral-point-of-view criteria.

Continue reading "Just what the world needs: another music wiki"

4 October 02006

Soundflavor moves into music recommendation client software

Soundflavor is the latest playlist sharing service to move beyond just their sharing community (see my review) to offer a software download that plugs into iTunes to recommend playlists. The download is called Soundflavor DJ™, and you can download it here.

Soundflavor DJ browse windowI haven't been able to try the software yet as it's only available for Windows, but versions for Mac and for players other than iTunes are promised. From the descriptions, it looks like a fairly similar product to the MyStrands plug-in. It also supports discovery of music in other people's libraries (provided you are on the same local area network), which is an interesting extra dimension.

I like the way that, on the same day they announce the product, Soundflavor also publicise some research that shows — guess what — that digital music users are crying out for just the kind of support that Soundflavor DJ offers.

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10 September 02006

UK survey of digital music and discovery

I'm posting here a duplicate of something that first appeared on my Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll book blog, just as a reminder to regular readers that, if postings here appear to be thin on the ground, it's worth checking there as well. What I'd like to do is provide an RSS feed for the two blogs together, but I haven't yet found an easy way to do that — suggestions from more RSS-savvy people very welcome. (In the meantime though, I do have a Feedburner RSS feed that combines posts here with my Furl bookmarks.)

Chart of music discovery from Entertainment Media ResearchThe Digital Music Survey by Entertainment Media Research (and, apparently, Olswang) covers many interesting areas, from MP3 players to DRM to illegal downloading. There's a 106-page PDF with a rich set of figures available for free download from Entertainment Media Research's site. I'm going to focus here on a couple of the findings concerning discovery and sharing of music.

The chart on the right shows the different ways in which people find out about new music. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: don't write off radio (outside the US, at least).

The proportion of people discovering music via community sites like MySpace and Bebo is only 1 in 25.

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25 May 02006

Groups and behaviour patterns among music listeners

Not all music listeners and digital consumers are the same. It's an obvious thing to say, but in what ways do they differ? Are there any groups or patterns of behaviour among them?

Youth subcultures are well known. Is it just my London perspective, or do people in the UK revel in the finer points of 'tribal' distinctions more than anywhere else? Channel 4 recently launched the UK Tribes website, dedicated to mapping the current groups here, from established subcultures like goths and grungers to myspacers, Nathan Barleys (explanation for non-UK readers) and blingers. However, this is a scattershot picture that doesn't give much sense of how the different tribes align and interact with each other.

In my book, I'm interested in the dynamics that drive word-of-mouth recommendations, including the types of people that make a point of spreading the word. The most useful data I've found has been published by Emap Advertising and is again UK-based (Emap owns several magazines and radio stations). In 2003 they did a first research study, under the name Project Phoenix, looking specifically at the attitudes towards music of people between the ages of 15 and 39. They identified four main degrees of interest in music.

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17 May 02006

Behaviour patterns in collecting music and video

Delicious Monster screenshotI'm looking at patterns in how people collect different media, and how collecting relates to repeat listening/viewing/using. In the UK, estimates of the average number of CDs in a collection vary between 126 and 178 for men, 135 for women. Are there any similar figures for DVDs or games, or for US markets? I'm still looking.

I'm also doubtful about whether reliable figures exist for the number of digital downloads in collections. There was a report last year indicating that the average number of tracks on an MP3 player is 375, with 50% of players having fewer than 100 tracks. But this is a fast-moving, unstable area, clouded by allegations that 'most' tracks on players are 'stolen', which can't make it any easier to get reliable reports from users.

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13 May 02006

Book announcement: Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll

People have access to vastly more music, video and other entertainment than ten years ago. In the case of music, record companies are releasing twice as many new albums per year. Not only that, but some are 'rescuing' old and deleted tracks for release in the digital marketplace.

So how do people find out about all this material? How do they judge what they might like? I'm writing a book that addresses these questions. The title is Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll: Who knows what's next in media and music in the new era of digital discovery and the download culture (the lengthy subtitle may change). It will be published next year by Nicholas Brealey Publishing, UK publishers of John Battelle's The Search and many other titles on digital enterprise and learning.

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3 May 02006

Spoofing music recommendation services and personalised radio

Music recommendation services and personalised radio stations like Last.FM depend on tracking the behaviour and preferences of their users, and building personal profiles on the basis of this. So what happens if the data you feed into these services isn't a human's preferences, but something else, like the programming of a traditional radio station or the output of another recommendation service?

At the risk of putting 2 and 2 together and making 5, there's another link here with last week's BBC Creative Future announcement. In the music section of the announcement there is a recommendation to "Enable people to create their own virtual radio channels out of the wealth of our existing output, channels reflecting their own personal tastes". That doesn't sound identical to Last.FM — which makes virtual radio channels out of a catalogue of music tracks reflecting users' personal tastes — but it is kind of similar.

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1 May 02006

Celestial jukebox moves a little closer?

It's supported by ads, you can only play tracks five times, the tracks are streamed (not downloaded) and of modest quality, and (most significantly for me) it only works in the US, but apart from that, the free Napster service — launched today — is the closest thing yet to the vision of a 'celestial jukebox'. In that vision, people have access to all the music in the world on demand in return for a flat-rate payment.

The free Napster service is ideal for try-before-you-buy auditioning of music (and the recording industry will be pleased that it will help chip away at the argument that people 'only' use unlicensed peer-to-peer services for try-before-you-buy purposes).

Napster has also announced the horribly-named Narchive service, which sounds like an attempt to build a proprietary wikipedia for music. At the time of writing, though, the Narchive site just says "beta coming soon".

29 April 02006

Satellite and internet radio recording: 'could' versus 'should'

After nearly three years of blogging, I'm beginning to appreciate one of the ways it keeps you honest: your past projections and predictions are still there to haunt you when (to mix metaphors) the chickens come home to roost. I don't think what I wrote about 'martini media' one or two years ago was wrong exactly, but some of it reads as slightly naïve.

Early last year, for example, I got enthusiastic about the TimeTrax software for recording satellite radio in the US — particularly the feature that allowed users to instruct your software to record every track by a particular artist broadcast on any station (to be fair, my enthusiasm only echoed Wired's).

Now a couple of US senators are backing an act to constrain this 'ripping' kind of recording from the radio. However, their act does sanction some degree of 'time-shifting' recording for larger bundles of programming. From Senator Feinstein's web site,

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28 April 02006

Neil Young: Living With War

Cover of Living with War album by Neil Young[Click the image to hear Neil Young's new album in full.] Even if I didn't like all the results when Neil Young first donned a vocoder and got a synthesiser in 01982, when he put out a rockabilly album months later, followed by a country album, and so on, I liked the fact that he was brave enough to make life difficult for himself. While a lot of people were sniffy about his Greendale album three years ago, I saw him play acoustic versions of the whole album before it came out, and it was astonishing. The point being that, at 57 years old, most people would be looking to rest on past accomplishments, but Neil decided it was time to have a go at narrative performance art.

And now that he's built a reputation for these curve-balls, his record company have finally realised that they can build on this, rather than always being painted as the villains of the piece. So the new myth is that Neil wrote an anti-Bush "metal folk protest album" in a week or so — he got fed up waiting for a younger singer to do it — recorded it in five days at the start of this month, and it will be in digital stores next Wednesday. At 60, he's done it again.

They're leaving no 21st Century promotional stone unturned. Here's the blog, the MySpace profile, the YouTube interview (worthwhile just for the CNN interviewer's question, "there's a song called Let's Impeach the President — what is this song about?" and Neil's predictable response). As of today, the full album is streaming from the Neil Young web site, though the buffering of tracks is slowing as more of America wakes up (the double entendre was unintentional and probably wishful).

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25 April 02006

Virtual listening sessions with your buddies

For years it's been common for people posting to music-related email lists and forums to sign-off with a note saying "now playing" (abbreviated to "np") followed by the title of the album they had on while composing the message. It's a way of adding a personal touch, disclosing a bit more of your musical identity, and hoping some of the aura of the music would rub off on you.

Of course, you could always claim you were listening to Trout Mask Replica when you actually had a Carpenters compilation on (I'm not casting aspersions: both have a place in my collection). But if you're listening with iTunes or Windows Media Player, and you have a new feature in MSN Messenger 7.0 enabled, then your buddies will automatically be able to see what's actually playing on your computer.

For me, this would get interesting if you could actually elect to listen to what your buddy is playing: the virtual equivalent of saying, "please can I listen in on one of the earphones on your iPod" or just sitting in the same room playing records and chatting about them. Clearly there are licensing issues with this, but Mercora has a legal solution that allows users to stream music from friends' collections.

What I have in mind is a solution that enables both streamer and streamed-to users being able to listen more or less synchronously, and have a chat via instant messenger at the same time. Does anyone know if this functionality is available anywhere (Mercora is Windows-only, so I can't use it)?

13 April 02006

Copyright infringement in shared playlists: don't blame the carrier?

Webjay play pageWhen I created a playlist on Webjay last year, I noted the varying legal statuses of the recordings I included — from public domain to creative commons to promotional 'giveaway' — including one I deleted when I knew it was not authorised and had read Webjay's legal guidance.

This Reuters article seems aimed at stirring up trouble for Webjay (and its relatively new owner, Yahoo!), claiming it "makes downloading the Beatles' music or Kanye West's full-length video as easy as a keyword search and a click of a mouse". Well, the Webjay legal guidance does say (perhaps inadvisedly), "[Webjay] helps you find music like Google helps you to find web pages". What they mean by this comparison, however, is that Webjay isn't responsible for making the music available, any more than Google is responsible for publishing all the web pages it indexes. So is Webjay's case being highlighted unfairly?

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5 April 02006

Music recommendation data spread about

Having written last month about Pandora apparently opening up, and having drawn comparisons with Last.fm, two music services have licensed some of the Last.fm data to add recommendations to their sites.

Download store and magazine site TuneTribe.com is perhaps the less interesting example. Their home page now has a search facility "powered by Last.fm". Provided your search gets an 'exact match', you get a link to recommendations for similar artists. Thus TuneTribe's similar artists for Brian Eno are effectively the same as the Last.fm listings of similar artists for Brian Eno — though interestingly the rankings are slightly different, suggesting that TuneTribe does not have a 'live' data feed. The Last.fm-TuneTribe arrangement is reciprocal in that the Last.fm web site includes links to download tracks from TuneTribe.

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9 March 02006

Something fishy about MusicStrands recommendations

When I reviewed MusicStrands at the end of last year, I noted something odd about the recommendations that the system gave me. I started entering a playlist that I'd already entered on several other similar services (including Art of the Mix, Mixmatcher, FIQL and GoFish). When I was half-way through entering the playlist on MusicStrands, I noticed the recommendations that MusicStrands was suggesting were exactly the same tracks that made up the second half of the playlist, as published elsewhere.

As this could not be a coincidence, I posted a MusicStrands journal entry in January to ask if MusicStrands was importing data. When I got no reply to this, I sent a message in February to Byron Prong, described on his profile as "the resident Musicologist and helpful guide to the MusicStrands site", referring him to the journal entry. Still no reply or acknowledgement at the time of writing this.

Mike Wu of FIQL has assured me that he hasn't licensed any of his playlist data to MusicStrands. There's nothing wrong in principle with one service provider making such data available to others to generate recommendations, as long as no personal data is involved and no privacy is infringed. I'm not sure if there would be any way for one provider to 'harvest' another's playlist data without their permission. So I'm not levelling any accusations at MusicStrands, but you'd think that, if there were nothing to be embarrassed about, I might have got a reply by now.

Continue reading "Something fishy about MusicStrands recommendations"

8 March 02006

Is Pandora opening up?

There's an interesting press release about Pandora and Friendster hooking up together to bring a social dimension to Pandora's 'personal radio stations'. (The press release currently appears on Friendster's site, but not on Pandora's — not sure if there's any significance in that.)

Bringing Friendster and Pandora together takes the experience to another level: Friendster Radio expands the universe of music discovery beyond the individual listener to the listener's friends and the entire Friendster Network. Friendster users build radio stations that can be shared, evolve, and even become 'hits' on Friendster.
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21 February 02006

Is it the music or the player that's free?

Eleven months ago, when writing about Magnatune's TunePlug USB Drive that comes pre-loaded with music, I asked the question, "is it possible that we'll start to see promotional products that bundle player and music at prices little more than you would normally pay for the music alone?" Now that Dixons is offering a 512MB MP3 player for £39.99, pre-loaded with music from unsigned bands, that day is more or less here.

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12 February 02006

Yahoo: music and authenticity

There have been a couple of interesting postings in the last week on the Yahoo! Music Blog — almost as interesting for their candid, open style as for their content.

First, Ian C Rogers outlines the new features of the Yahoo! Music Engine. Ian's blog post seems to take the place of a corporate press release [correction, 14 February 02006: there is also a press release], and it's the antithesis of the normal approach of such press releases: it reads like a personal message from someone who has himself worked hard on the product and genuinely cares about it. It has personal asides (including publicly airing a gripe about another supplier's service), and even the screenshot features the Music Engine playing one of Pere Ubu's finest tracks, which no PR assistant or focus group would ever sanction. Anyone can add a comment to the blog posting, and Ian himself replies quickly to the grumbles.

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2 February 02006

Online radio revisited and updated

It's almost two years since I argued here that online radio is the model for listening to music in the future. I know there aren't many who mark this anniversary as a national holiday, but to me it felt like a point where several things clicked into place in my mind.

There's a fascinating article in today's Guardian, about the rise of digital and online radio, and how this changes the listening experience. While radio listening as a whole (analogue and digital) has not changed much, within that total the amount of listening accounted for by digital (DAB) radio has doubled in a year to just over 10%, and internet radio's share has increased from 1.1% to 1.8%. (Figures in the US show a nearly three-fold increase in online radio listeners over a year.)

Victor Keegan, the article's author, then goes on to explain how aggregation of internet radio provides the potential for listening to the radio to be a database experience rather than a serial one.

Continue reading "Online radio revisited and updated"

25 January 02006

Active and passive music listening

There's a passage near the beginning of David Toop's Haunted Weather (reviewed here) where he writes, "trying to listen to everything has almost destroyed my desire to listen to anything". In a column in January's issue of Word magazine, Paul Du Noyer wrote about the ubiquity of music and entertainment being almost totalitarian, and referred his hesitation in replacing his iPod when it died, raising the possibility of evolving from an 'early adopter' to an 'early abandoner'. I experienced a similar feeling when my iPod died, and have now downgraded to the iPod Shuffle with the least storage. Finally, last November I blogged No Music Day, Bill Drummond's incitement to detox your earbuds by giving music a rest.

With that in mind, it's interesting to see the media reaction to the publication by Leicester University's Music Research Group of a study of music listening habits by 346 students, school pupils, workers and unemployed adults as they went about their everyday life. The headlines refer to download overload and listener apathy.

Continue reading "Active and passive music listening"

15 January 02006

Peer-to-peer recommendations coming to mobile

Proving that convergence is rapidly becoming a fait accompli, news of personalised radio on mobiles is supplemented by peer-to-peer recommendations on mobile devices, currently in prototype development through the Push!Music project in Gothenburg. The site encourages you to

Imagine that you have a mobile device that can store and play back music files, for example a mobile phone with an MP3 player. As you encounter various people, the devices you are carrying connect to each other wirelessly and media agents from the other nearby devices check the status of your media collection. Based on what you have been listening to in the past and which files you already own, new music might spontaneously and autonomously 'jump' from another device to yours (and vice versa). Later, when you listen to your songs, your Push!Music player also plays some newly obtained tunes that you had not heard before.
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9 January 02006

Personalised radio moves to mobile

An unavoidable usability limitation of mobile phones is that you can't create a small, multi-purpose user interface that is well-suited to all the tasks asked of it: text entry, information browsing, taking photographs, playing games and even making calls. That's why a phone will never have the ease of use for music applications that the single-purpose iPod — every aspect of iPod design is intended to help it do one job as quickly, easily and pleasurably as possible. But if you could find a music application that required just very simple user input, that would get round the limitations of a mobile phone's interface — which is what this announcement from Vodafone and Sony does.

Think of the user interaction with Last.fm radio or Pandora (reviewed previously on this site here are here, respectively). Mostly it's restricted to clicking 'I love this track', 'Skip it' or 'Never play this again', which is pretty simple. So the new Vodafone Radio DJ will replicate this on your 3G mobile:

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7 January 02006

Playlist portability: comparative review

One thing leads to another and, when we saw Barb Jungr play just before Christmas, I got a copy of her Every Grain of Sand album of Bob Dylan covers, which triggered another bout of my recurrent mania for these cover versions. I went through all my old covers albums again, ripped my favourite versions onto iTunes, scrabbled round on the web once again and even ordered a further album (The Bob Dylan Songbook).

I ended up with 81 songs in an iTunes playlist, which fills my iPod Shuffle to just over 80% full. The rest of this posting is the story of what happened when I tried to upload and publish this playlist using three different playlist sharing services.

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22 December 02005

Research on playlists and sharing as means of recommending music

The transition to online music distribution is occurring at the same time that consumers have an exploding number of sources of information about music, from established media sources to Internet-connected friends and strangers. As a result, getting the word out about new material, new bands or back catalogs is made more difficult for music marketers and artist promoters. Harnessing the instinct of consumers to share music and information about music and the communications tools available will be an important strategic thrust for music labels and distributors.

This comes from a research report about online playlist services by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Their twelve-page report — a free download (536 KB PDF file) — is based on a survey of early adopters of digital media.

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19 December 02005

MusicStrands: playlist sharing and music discovery

Last week MusicStrands launched a major upgrade that extends its scope by adding new ways to tag, discuss, and discover music — see the overview of the new features. This is moving in the direction of the MySpace music community — technically I think it's a step ahead of MySpace, but clearly lacks the latter's current buzz — so in some ways it's unfair to concentrate just on its playlist sharing features. But that is what I'm going to do here, as I didn't include MusicStrands in my previous reviews of playlist services.

To try out the new MusicStrands, I first created a new Philip Jeays 'imaginary celebrity playlist' (see more about this genre and more about Jeays), then I repeated my Neil Young playlist, to provide a direct comparison with creating the same playlist on other services. More about the details of these below, but first an overview of MusicStrands playlists, using my standard criteria.

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7 December 02005

Will Internet music radio have no competition?

"When given a choice between listening to music over the Internet or traditional radio stations, 54% prefer the Internet while 30% prefer radio," according to this research from Bridge Ratings. Is this a simple trade-off between the two, or, if it is that simple in the US, might it be different elsewhere?

I was reading The Future of Music recently, and was struck by the grim picture and grimmer forecasts it makes for traditional radio. However, the story the book told was just about radio and the US, which appears to be run by an oligopoly of characterless media conglomerates. The apparently dire state of traditional radio there has opened up opportunities for Internet radio and satellite radio that might not be so great if there were strong traditional broadcasters in the US market, as there in other parts of the world.

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28 November 02005

Does music have a genome?

Alongside the Last.FM model of personalised online radio (which I covered at some length and have cited in several other posts), Pandora provides an alternative based on different technology and classifications:

We take your input (artists, songs) and feedback ("I like this", "I don't like this") and use the Music Genome Project™ to create stations that play songs that are musically similar to what you've told us. That's it; only the music counts. We don't care how popular the artist is, who's backing them, and we don't care which genre bin they usually belong in. Only the music matters. [Source]
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21 November 02005

No Music Day

I found out rather late in the day (via the Soundscape UK email list) that today is No Music Day. This idea began with Bill Drummond, who apparently chose 21 November as it is the eve of St Cecilia's Day — St Cecilia being the patron saint of music.

The idea of No Music Day is to create some space in your listening so that you can, in Drummond's words, "do nothing but think what it is you want from music, and develop ideas of how that could be achieved".

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14 November 02005

Discovering new music: rationality and randomness

Do you behave completely rationally when you buy music? These days it's a lot easier to base your purchases on sound evidence (pun unintentional). You can Google an artist you've heard of, check out their reviews in the press; read about their development and discography on All Music Guide or Wikipedia; see if there are any freely available MP3s or streams on the artist's own site or on Epitonic; or, failing that, listen to 30-second samples on the iTunes Music Store or Amazon. If you haven't got a particular artist in mind, you can listen to Last.FM or Pandora for a bit and hear the music that people who share some of your tastes like, or you can just ask them on your favourite fan chat forum. There's really no excuse for not being fully genned-up before you splash your cash.

But do you sometimes like to let a little randomness into your life? Is there anything you've bought that was based on some looser intuition about what might appeal from you, or what might broaden your horizons beyond what you normally listen to? Do you even buy music on the basis of a good track title, or the singer's haircut? If you've got any good anecdotes to share, please send them to me, as I'm collecting little stories that illustrate different ways of discovering new music.

Meanwhile, here are a couple of stories of my own, going back to the days before everything you needed to know was available on demand.

Continue reading "Discovering new music: rationality and randomness"

28 October 02005

How niche radio combines broadcast and on-demand formats

A whole radio station dedicated exclusively to one artist? That's what US satellite radio broadcaster Sirius is offering from next week in the shape of E Street Radio, promising "round-the-clock Springsteen music" — at least until the end of next January.

As well as the standard album tracks, there will be musical exclusives and interviews. Whether the music will be wall-to-wall Bruce, or whether it will include related material like the artists that influenced him or were influenced by him, is unclear. But this radio 'first' may be a harbinger of a new format of music listening that combines the cyclical patterns of broadcasting with the niche targeting of on-demand technologies.

Continue reading "How niche radio combines broadcast and on-demand formats"

26 October 02005

Proliferation of music products

When Robbie Williams' last album was released three years ago there were 10 bits of content: the album package itself, a few singles, and associated videos and ringtones. When his new album was released on Monday, there were 164 bits of content. These include material for DualDisc, individual tracks for music download stores, and a whole set of different ringtones, 'wallpaper' and special bundles of content, some of which is exclusive to individual mobile carriers like T-mobile and Sony Ericsson.

These are the figures given by Williams' manager, Tim Clark of IE Music, speaking at a MusicAlly debate yesterday evening. They give a sense of how the music industry is embracing the ethos of lifestyle gadgetry in providing the maximum number of diverse, tailored products for different platforms.

Continue reading "Proliferation of music products"

6 October 02005

Age and tradition in music buying

One other thing about the 'infomercials' that I mentioned in my last entry: the LA Times article reports that the informercials "will be largely targeted at the baby boomers who 30 years ago fueled the music industry but who today buy fewer albums". A Universal Music president is quoted as saying, "Nobody has found a way to capture the 40-year-old and older audience". Though a slew of statistics that have been issued recently suggests that the older audience isn't sitting passively waiting to be 'captured' but is actively researching and buying more music than ever before.

This connects with my essay at the start of the year about the increasing breadth of both the ages of popular music buyers and the eras of music being listened to. The argument there was that a combination of demographic, technological and cultural factors that resulted in the upheavals of rock'n'roll and punk. At the time, these youth-led 'revolutions' seemed to change the landscape irrevocably, but from further away it's easier to see the continuities and the traditions that stretch back well before Elvis released his first single.

Continue reading "Age and tradition in music buying"

4 October 02005

Record labels make their own documentaries

Bob Dylan album sales have registered a tenfold increase in the wake of the Dylan documentary produced by PBS and the BBC. With windfalls like that, it's not surprising that major and independent record labels are getting into the business of making their own documentaries and features.

Mute is among the early UK labels starting to offer podcasts related to its releases. And Universal is reported to be making its own TV documentary 'infomercials' to help sell box sets of its catalogue.

Continue reading "Record labels make their own documentaries"

30 September 02005

Finding and auditioning music online

If online music services are really going to take off, they need to demonstrate that they work, and work well. That means a seamless of experience of discovering tracks, previewing or 'auditioning' them, and committing either to buying them (in the à la carte, iTunes-style model) or downloading them 'to go' (in the subscription model of Napster, Rhapsody and Yahoo Music Unlimited). This article is an assessment, using the example of playlist services, of some areas where the experience could be better.

Continue reading "Finding and auditioning music online"

29 September 02005

Stealth P2P research and its limitations

As the major-label record industry seems to be getting increasingly confident about pressuring peer-to-peer (P2P) music services to get into line, there is more open discussion about analysing P2P use as a source of marketing intelligence that can be used to grow sales. But by focusing exclusively on quantitative data obtained by stealth, the industry is still playing with one hand tied behind its back, denying itself the possibility of getting a richer understanding of what the figures really mean in terms of listener behaviour.

Continue reading "Stealth P2P research and its limitations"

9 September 02005

In-depth music documentary sources

While I was working through all the pages on this site I listened to the last six or seven episodes of The Story of Atlantic on the BBC Radio Player. They were broadcast on 6 Music Plays It Again, and you can still catch some episodes if you're quick.

This was a 14-hour series made by the BBC — presumably before the days of extensive independent production — in 01988. It's a salutary sign of the scope and seriousness of commissioning back then, in the days before the market was flooded with specialist music magazines forever digging up in-depth features on lost Syd Barrett sessions recorded in a sauna in Croydon. Rarely does any music documentary subject get more than one hour-long radio programme these days.

Continue reading "In-depth music documentary sources"

5 September 02005

Growing the market for music as an experience

In his Musicworks keynote presentation last week, Sholto Ramsay argued that the music industry ought to stop thinking of music as a 'product' and more in terms of an experience. The corollary of that, he said, is that music should be priced on the basis of its features (e.g. packaging and other extras), quality (as in audio fidelity) and how people access it (on-demand or via different devices).

Applying a marketing perspective, Sholto spoke in terms of growing the market for the music experiences by addressing search, interaction and transaction costs. Here are some elaborations on what he said on each of these points, spliced with some of my own reflections.

Continue reading "Growing the market for music as an experience"

11 August 02005

Bigmouth Strikes Again — Five Eight article

My article on word-of-mouth recommendations among music fans and playlist sharing is the cover feature in the August issue of Five Eight music business magazine. Here's the introduction (written by Five Eight editor, Eamonn Forde):

Word of mouth is a term passed around the marketing playground everyday. But in a culture where the marketplace is increasingly connected, it is time to ask how these powerful and very personal phenomena can be understood and exploited. Word of mouth springs from communities — increasingly more powerful because of online and mobile — where trust is key. How can the music industry effectively work in and, crucially, with these communities and build a relationship of trust and effective recommendation systems, particularly through playlisting?

To read the full article, you need to subscribe to Five Eight.

Continue reading "Bigmouth Strikes Again — Five Eight article"

8 August 02005

iPod death leads to music buying paralysis

Two weeks ago the hard disk on my iPod packed up, rendering it even more useless than if the battery had failed (as is more common). It's a second generation iPod, bought in April 02003, just a few weeks before the third generation (cheaper, bigger) was announced, which made me sick as the proverbial talking zygodactyl. Having been caught out once, I naturally paused before rushing out to buy a new one.

And when I paused I realised that the smart thing to do is to save my money for as long as possible. I assume a lot of iPod users have fairly big music collections — though the stats suggest I'm at the top end even of this group. I have just under 2,000 albums and buy CDs fairly regularly, if less frequently than I used to (see details). According to last week's IFPI report, the average person in the UK bought 2.9 albums last year, more than the average in any other country. For that to be true, it must be that for every consumer like me, there are about thirty who buy no albums at all.

Continue reading "iPod death leads to music buying paralysis"

31 July 02005

iTunes an unreliable gatekeeper for podcasts?

When the latest version of iTunes, with new functionality to hear podcasts, was launched at the end of June, an Apple spokesman was quoted saying "We've tried to include as many [podcasts] as possible" in the iTunes directory, and, "We're not trying to be the gatekeeper of podcasting". But by having and policing a directory of podcasts on one of the most popular locations for hard-disk-based MP3 players, Apple is de facto a significant gatekeeper, if not the gatekeeper.

As iTunes v4.9 was launched the day after the US Supreme Court's ruling about companies that 'promote infringement' of copyright — presumably this timing was a coincidence — you can understand why Apple would want to avoid any shadow of a doubt by ensuring that their software does not list podcasts that might infringe rights.

Continue reading "iTunes an unreliable gatekeeper for podcasts?"

19 July 02005

Last word (for now) on playlist sharing

Having initially reviewed four playlist sharing services, three providers of further services have let me know of what they're doing in this area. I've already posted addenda on FIQL and Mixmatcher. Here are some comments on the GoFish playlist service, and a consolidated comparison table.

Continue reading "Last word (for now) on playlist sharing"

1 July 02005

Mixmatcher playlist sharing service

After my original review of playlist sharing services, and FIQL addendum, I've been contacted again, this time from Ben of Mixmatcher. So here's a quick canter through a review, based on my experience of setting up the same-old, same-old playlist using Mixmatcher.

Continue reading "Mixmatcher playlist sharing service"

29 June 02005

FIQL: a further playlist service

Following my review of playlist sharing services, Mike Wu of FIQL.com got in touch to point me to his site. Mike writes,

FIQL.com is also a playlist sharing site and we have close to 2,000 community contributed playlists divided up by genre, mood and occasion.

Our playlists are hooked up to itunes, msn music and we recently added support for Real Rhapsody. The latter is great because if you're a rhapsody subscriber, you can listen to entire playlists with one click and that's been incredibly popular.…

We also have writers who pen regular columns for us about playlists covering such diverse topics as "Songs With Backmasking" to "Prom Songs". Each (often heavily researched) column includes an accompanying playlist. These can be found off the homepage and in the "buzz" section.

Anyway, there are many similarities between our site and the sites you've played around with recently but we do think we also have some advantages. We hope you'll take a look and let us know how we compare.

Which I'm very happy to do.

Continue reading "FIQL: a further playlist service"

26 June 02005

Playlist sharing services: a comparative review

Since my series of postings about different playlist sharing experiments, Wired has picked up on the theme with a feature on the playlist phenomenon a few days ago. This focuses on the social and community potential of sharing playlists, though, in my opinion, it's important not to get carried away with the everyone-a-DJ concept: if DJs act as 'filters' and mediators for new music then, when more people become filters, you start to need filters for the filters…

Over the last few weeks I've tried five different online playlist services: you can see my pages on Webjay, Soundflavor, Upto11.net and Art of the Mix. I've used GarageBand.com as well, but not extensively, since playlists created there are restricted to tracks from other GarageBand.com members. [Update, 19 July 02005: I've now used three further services — see this posting for reviews and comparison.]

Based on that experience here are a few review comments on how each of the services measures up in terms of audio, community features, usability, portability of playlists, and their main selling points.

Continue reading "Playlist sharing services: a comparative review"

26 May 02005

Creating legal independent music podcasts

The use of music in podcasts is a legal grey area, but there are an increasing number of tools and services that make it easier to source music legally, usually from 'unsigned' artists, creating a genuinely grassroots channel for independent music and musicians.

The reason for the doubts over the legal status of music podcasting is that, in terms of format, podcasts emulate radio programming, but technically they are downloads. While rights owners may be in favour of the exposure they get from radio-style features, they don't want podcasts to give listeners 'permanent' versions of their music, which could cannibalise sales. In the US, the collecting society ASCAP updated its Internet licensing to make allowance for podcasts. Though this might have given the impression that podcasters just had to obtain this once licence to make their work legitimate, the situation remains more complex for 'standard' copyright music — see the articles podcasting, music and the law and legality of using music in podcasts remains foggy.

So, as it stands, music podcasters appear to have four options available.

Continue reading "Creating legal independent music podcasts"

25 May 02005

Full article on the economics of consumer attention now available

Originally I published only a couple of paragraphs of my article on the The Economics of Consumer Attention on this site, as a 'teaser' for the full print article (published under the title One Recommendation Under a Groove). Since it's now six months old, the editor of Five Eight, where it was published, has agreed I can publish the full text myself, so here it is.

I'm currently working on a follow-up article on the subject of word-of-mouth recommendations and how they operate online, which will probably appear in the July issue of Five Eight monthly.

6 May 02005

Recommendations for enhancing iTunes' sharing features

Since my posting on research into iTunes music sharing, I've got a copy of the full paper and found time to read it on a recent train journey. Last time I focused on how people manage the impressions that others get from their music collections, but the research also has interesting things to say about unanticipated uses of iTunes sharing, and implications for enhancing the sharing features.

The paper — by Amy Voida and four co-writers — points out how iTunes differs from the large-scale peer-to-peer applications (like the original Napster, KaZaA etc), which tended to anonymise music sharing. With the latter, a user downloading a track will typically have no interaction with the person who made it available for sharing. With iTunes, sharing is restricted to people on the same subnet, which often means the users know each other personally off-line. In the 175-employee organisation where the research took place, there were four different subnets, three of which were restricted to single floors in a building. This significantly alters the nature and dynamics of the sharing. For example, where the big peer-to-peer applications require thousands of users before they reach critical mass or tipping point, this research suggests that iTunes sharing can be viable and valued with just two users — in circumstances where they also share experiences and understandings in other parts of their lives.

All the research findings reflect different ways in which technical, musical and organisational factors (or, as the researchers call them, "topologies") are overlaid and interact with each other.

Continue reading "Recommendations for enhancing iTunes' sharing features"

2 May 02005

Freesound project: Flickr for sound samples

The freesound project enables people to share sound samples under a 'sampling plus' Creative Commons licence.

The site is clearly heavily indebted to Flickr, which has set the standard for sharing and community facilities for photographs. You can see this in freesound's approach to tags (cf. Flickr tags), comments and forums. One difference is that Flickr allows a broader range of Creative Commons licences, as well as the traditional 'all rights reserved' copyright.

At the time of writing, fewer than seventy people have added sound files to freesound. I've uploaded the two recordings I did for a sonic art course eighteen months ago. One of the smart things about freesound is that, as well as browsing by tags, you can also browse other samples that sound similar to a particular sample. So, from my recording of a Thameslink train journey, you can get a list of similar sounds, which include some 'literally' similar sources (an announcement at a Malaysian airport, a train coming into a Barcelona metro station) and some more laterally connected (oriental sliding strings). A valuable resource for anyone interested in making sound art or mash-ups.

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.
Continue reading "Downloading from the radio"

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.

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

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.

Continue reading "Radio David Byrne and Celebrity Playlists"

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.
Continue reading "Researching how communities share music via iTunes"

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.

Continue reading "Researching use of personal stereos: Sounding out the City"

18 March 02005

The re-invented cassette format for the digital age

Magnatune TunePlugDigital music innovator Magnatune, having re-invented the concept of a record label, last week introduced what could be seen as a new music format that is both digital and physical.

Their TunePlug is a reusable USB Flash Drive that comes in various sizes: from $19.99 for the 64MB version to $69.99 for the 512MB. Each version comes loaded with tracks from ten leading Magnatune artists as MP3 files — the largest having ten complete albums by these artists. That's under $7 per album, cheaper than CD or iTunes Music Store. And if you don't like any of the tracks, you can 'tape over' them by deleting them and freeing up the storage for other tracks (or data) of your choosing. So it has all the traditional features and uses of an old pre-recorded cassette. All the music is licensed under Creative Commons so you can copy it wherever and whenever you like, as long as the copying is non-commercial. The design of the packaging could do with some attention, however.

[Update 24 March 02005: I met John Buckman, founder of Magnatune, at a Pho meeting last night. He clarified a couple of points: first, whichever version you buy, you can get all ten full albums, but with the smaller versions you have to download the extra tracks rather than having them all pre-loaded; second, the price of the TunePlugs is pretty much the same as you'd pay for 'blank' USB flash drives of the same capacity.]

Continue reading "The re-invented cassette format for the digital age"

8 March 02005

Notes on Playback (Mark Coleman)

The subtitle of Mark Coleman's book, Playback is "From the Victrola to MP3, 100 Years Of Music, Machines, and Money". It's a story that moves to and fro, from technology (the format wars over cylinders and discs in the days of Thomas Edison) to culture (the role of the DJ in disco, reggae and rap) and back to technology (Napster, iTunes and piracy).

Along the way, Coleman mixes anecdote and analysis, covering key personalities and broad social trends, as well as the power relationships in the music and technology industries. His century-long overview offers some perspective on the current tribulations, by showing that tribulations and turmoil are almost the norm — so the current impasse is in many ways 'business as usual'. The history of music and playback technology is a history of old wars and reconciliations, of markets contracting and expanding again.

Coleman's century covers the rise and fall of records as the primary music reproduction technology. Records first competed with live music, and with wax cylinders: they won. They competed with radio, skirmished for a while, but ended up in peaceful co-existence. Finally, records competed with cassettes and CDs, and, DJ culture notwithstanding, they lost.

What follows is not a review of Playback, but my notes of the points I found most salient.

Continue reading "Notes on Playback (Mark Coleman)"

2 March 02005

Radio on mobiles

Two recent developments in bringing radio to mobile phones bring ubiquitous access one step closer. So I'm adding them to my collection of harbingers of 'martini media'.

Sony Ericsson has revived the Walkman brand with a mobile phone, reviewed in The Register by Andrew Orlowski. As well as playing MP3 and AAC files, and having a slot for a memory stick, the phone has an FM radio, and you can connect it to your hi-fi or TV.

Continue reading "Radio on mobiles"

15 February 02005

Napster, iTunes and Xdrive: multiple music models

Shortly after the launch of the Napster To Go music service, The Register published an article predicting it would flop. This was based on a comparison of the costs over three years of paying for an MP3 player and online music to put on it, comparing with Napster To Go with the iPod and iTunes Music Store.

The article attracted a lot of comment arguing it was wrong-headed, including these letters and this rejoinder from Gerd Leonhard. I'll come back to those later. First let's have a look at the comparisons.

Continue reading "Napster, iTunes and Xdrive: multiple music models"

16 January 02005

The records to beat

Later today it's a pretty safe bet that the thousandth No.1 hit single will be announced in the UK Singles Chart, and Elvis Presley is odds-on to get it.

Elvis also had the 999th No.1 in last week's charts, which set some interesting records, according to Music Week. Firstly, it was the oldest recording ever to top the chart, and also the most posthumous. It sold fewer copies than any other No.1 in history, and the singles market as a whole shifted the lowest number of units since quantifiable sales data became available.

It's pretty clear that, as an indicator of what's fresh and exciting in pop culture, the singles chart is heading towards meltdown. It's a second-hand measure of developments that start elsewhere in charity (e.g. Band Aid), TV (e.g. Pop Idol) and cultural anniversaries (e.g. Elvis).

Continue reading "The records to beat"

8 January 02005

Collective Blanket Licensing: simple and usable?

Collective Blanket Licensing (CBL) is the term given to a proposed solution to the media downloading/sharing dilemma. As described in this new report from the Digital Media Project at Harvard Law School,

Rights holders would form a collective blanket licensing (CBL) organization, and, rather than attempting to collect per-use fees for each specific item, would offer consumers a flat-fee license to access and use all works, without restrictions over copying or further distribution. The CBL organization would count the uses and remit payment to rights holders accordingly.

You can think of it as similar to the model whereby a pub landlord pays a one-off licence fee to the Performing Right Society and is then entitled to 'share' an unlimited amount of music with his customers, in the sense of playing it in his pub.

The CBL model appears on the face of it to have simplicity on its side, and almost certainly has usability advantages over the more draconian 'lock-down' solutions of Digital Rights Management and enforced constraints on sharing. In at least some quarters, it looks to be building up a head of steam.

Continue reading "Collective Blanket Licensing: simple and usable?"

23 December 02004

Using social spaces to seed sales

Interesting to see how this Guardian report of a record label recruiting school-children to help promote its artists in schools (requires free registration) led almost immediately to the label, Universal, suspending its scheme. Clearly it crossed some taboos about commercial and possibly cynical 'exploitation' of children, even though the children were clearly happy participants.

This practice is common outside schools, where labels refer to their under-cover promoters as 'street teams'. The 'street' is also moving online, according to this report from CNET. Universal probably got caught out by the blatant physical presence of posters on school boards and children giving presentations in class. The children apparently had to prepare 'school reports' to evidence their activity. By comparison, the idea that children might discuss their favourite music in online forums and chats is likely to feel less sinister, less obtrusive, as well as being easier to evidence. It seems a fair bet that some labels are still doing that now.

Continue reading "Using social spaces to seed sales"

7 December 02004

Jim Griffin on paying for music

At this Playlouder/Music Ally event last night, Jim Griffin from Cherry Lane Digital presented a very concise and simple argument for change in the way music is paid for. This is how it went, based on my notes, with editorial comments in [square brackets].

Continue reading "Jim Griffin on paying for music"

1 December 02004

Back-of-a-fag-packet prescription for the music industry

In preparation for this afternoon's event, here are my notes of the main points I'm planning to make. I reserve my right to change my mind in the light of how the discussion evolves!

  • The good news for the music industry from recent experience is that people's demand for music is showing no signs of being sated once they have a few hundred, or even a few thousand, albums' worth of material.
  • There's an opportunity to support this increased consumption with more information and critical features, as magazines like Word and 'free-to-air' services like the BBC's have realised (I like to compliment my fellow panelists, but this is not merely cynical: see my appreciation of the BBC's Sold on Song site).
  • What the industry needs to help it target its promotion of more 'consumption' is more information about the emerging habits of listeners as the distribution landscape changes. Not just buying habits, but 'sampling' or previewing habits, letting friends access collections, radio listening, web site viewing, magazine reading and gig going.
  • One option would be to mount promotions that encourage listeners to access and discuss music with their friends, possibly even trying to 'harness' peer-to-peer distribution, in return for collecting data about these habits.
  • Privacy is an important consumer concern, however. Would it be possible enable listeners to collect data about their own habits (using technologies like Audioscrobbler), and then provide some of this at their discretion to retailers or labels to facilitate permission-based marketing?
  • Another opportunity is to enable consumers' to enrich their experience of their own collections by building detailed learning resources about — the socially-mediated equivalent of sleeve notes and fanzines for the Internet age — as described in the outline I wrote a few weeks ago.

30 November 02004

Roundtable discussion: Beyond the digital download

Tomorrow afternoon I'm taking part in a roundtable discussion on how consumer behaviours may change as music radio, music TV, digital downloading and music retail overlap more and more. I'm one of the panel members along with Andrew Harrison (Associate Editor of Word), John Strickland (CEO of Tunetribe), Simon Hopkins (Head of BBC Music Online), John Ingham (Head of Content Development at O2), and Seth Jackson (Head of Marketing at YR Media).

The event (in central London) is organised by Fathom, and entry is only by their invitation. There may be one or two last minute places, and you could ask Jon Watts or Sarah Bradley there if you'd like to come.

29 November 02004

Does content protection undermine usability?

The INDICARE project is dedicated to researching the consumer acceptability of Digital Rights Management (DRM) in Europe — its partners include two German organisations, one Dutch, and one Hungarian. Its web site features regular and insightful articles on content protection across different platforms — mobile, Internet — and reviews from a user perspective.

Usability of online content affects its sales. But often the interests of users are pitched against those of providers. Users are perceived as wanting complete control over the media content in their possession, free of any DRM restrictions. Providers and copyright owners are seen to be 'getting in the way' of users by pegging back the sharing and unpaid distribution of their material.

Continue reading "Does content protection undermine usability?"

12 November 02004

The Music of Loudspeakers (notes from CyberMusic event)

Having organised the three-day symposium for Cybersonica '03 and edited the proceedings, it was a more relaxing experience to attend today's event as a punter. (Apparently Cybersonica '05, scheduled for late April, will return to full-length format.)

My notes from the event focus mainly on Robert Worby's talk on "The Music of Loudspeakers" and Jon Cambeul's Wacom tablet guitar.

Continue reading "The Music of Loudspeakers (notes from CyberMusic event)"

11 November 02004

The economics of consumer attention

Here's the beginning of an article I've written for the current issue of Five Eight — for the full article, please subscribe to Five Eight monthly.

A recent survey by The Guardian asked the question "Where do you go to find out what music to listen to?" Of the sixteen options they listed as possible answers, over a third are web-based and did not exist a decade ago. What's more, these online channels are themselves fragmented, each jockeying for listeners' attention.
So where should the industry invest its money and effort to reach its target audience? The economics of consumer attention suggest strategies that target 'trusted intermediaries' to build profile and reputation. Only when an act already has an established reputation capable of guaranteeing attention is going direct to the audience a reliable tactic. [excerpt ends]

[Update 25 May 02005: Five Eight's editor has kindly agreed that this article is now a 'catalogue' item and can be published here in its entirety, so here it is (including links not available in the print version!).]

Continue reading "The economics of consumer attention"

9 November 02004

Outline for social software to enhance personal media collections

I had an idea today for a bit of software and/or web-based service that would combine the features of cataloguing all your personal media collection (CD, DVD, digital files of various formats) and linking each item to the commentary (reviews, interviews, fan comments) that may enrich your experience of the song, album or film. This would combine the database functions of software like Media Catalog Studio with the facilities for sharing and 'social tagging' of resources offered by del.icio.us and Flickr.

It would enable you to compile your own 'boxed set' for your favourite albums, artists and films: the core media content that you've acquired through normal retail channels, plus the 'extras' that you and others have compiled to go with it.

Continue reading "Outline for social software to enhance personal media collections"

3 November 02004

Unpacking the digital boxed set concept

Still on the subject of Apple's latest iPod announcement, one element that got less attention than others was the introduction of the concept of the digital box set — in this case 400 U2 tracks bundled together and downloadable with a single click, plus $149. Steve Jobs describes this just over 28 minutes into this stream of the event.

Such commentary as there has been has focused on the pricing, since 400 tracks for $149 works out at a lot less than the 'standard' $0.99 per track. But I find pricing boring: the idea of reducing unit price for bulk purchases is not an innovation to set the pulse racing.

What's interesting about the digital box set is that it recreates the idea of a collection — remember how many people have been saying that downloads herald the end of the album — though I think this first example of the genre is a fluffed opportunity.

Continue reading "Unpacking the digital boxed set concept"

22 October 02004

Podcasting: another harbinger of martini media

Podcasting enables you to subscribe to regularly updated audio material, and then take it with you on your MP3 player and listen to it when it suits you (the term podcasting is clearly derived from iPods, but the practice is not limited to them). As such, it's a combination and application of technologies that gives another glimpse forwards of 'martini media' — being able to listen to (and, to a lesser extent, watch) your selected tracks or programming 'anytime, anyplace, anywhere'. I don't know the difference between 'anyplace' and 'anywhere' either, but you get the idea. Here's a Wired News article on podcasting, with further links and examples.

In the same way that RSS feeds allow people to track and read multiple text-based web sites through one interface, podcasting offers the promise of subscribing to multiple audio programmes through one device. In fact, podcasting depends on the latest version of RSS to 'enclose' the audio files. Right now it's a little geeky to implement, and your MP3 player has to be linked to a PC with a broadband connection while it updates. But clearly with time (less than five years?) plus a little workaday graft — no miracle innovations required — that could be turned into something easy and foolproof to use, updated by high-speed wireless connection direct to the player.

Here's a re-cap of some of the other harbingers of martini media that I've been collecting, followed by more details of podcasting.

Continue reading "Podcasting: another harbinger of martini media"

4 October 02004

Results of Guardian digital music survey

Some of the results of the Guardian digital music survey that I reported earlier were published on Friday.

Unfortunately these results don't add much to the sophistication of anyone's understanding. Basically they say that people are still wary of downloading, but that more people are paying for downloads than a year ago (which everyone already knew from sales figures). And broadband will make downloading more attractive.

The survey is a missed opportunity in concentrating on short-term trends focused exclusively on downloads. It ignored longer-term shifts in the broad picture of how people learn about music, including streaming, live events and intermediaries other than download and file-sharing sites. My original posting gives a more extended critique of these points.

27 September 02004

Paying for music in the next decade

The very interesting text of a talk by Andrew Orlowski of The Register projects the problems and opportunities for the music business in the next ten years.

The main problems are that attempts to restrict music distribution through Digital Rights Management are destined to remain very 'leaky'. The opportunities are that record companies will still own the rights to a commodity — if music can be called that — which will always be in demand. Part of the solution is to find a revenue stream for units of consumption that cannot reliably be counted: Orlowski proposes a flat fee model as a solution.

Gratifyingly several of the conclusions are similar to ones I've posted here before. Here are the key points as I see them.

Continue reading "Paying for music in the next decade"

17 September 02004

Handy ways to listen to online radio

Imagine a service where you could select your favourite radio programming from around the world, have it recorded for you, and then provided in a format you can load onto a portable player for you to listen to when you want. Wouldn't that guarantee more fresh and exciting listening than you get even with 10,000 pre-selected songs in your pocket? That is the direction that the AudioFeast service is heading.

You can take a 15-day free trial of the service — as long as you have player that runs Windows Media Player (i.e. not an iPod) — and then it costs $49.95 a year. I'm not sure if the service works outside the US (as a Mac user, I can't test it).

In a complementary way to the Bug — radio you can pause, rewind and store — AudioFeast is a step towards anytime, anyplace, anywhere martini media.

Continue reading "Handy ways to listen to online radio"

7 September 02004

The ingredients of online radio

Here's an article about MSN radio in the US, which I found interesting because it presses my buttons on both online radio and new 'gatekeepers' for discovering music. Microsoft is producing online stations that mimic local radio stations by adopting their playlists, but without DJs, traffic news, weather and commercials. The coup de grace is that they are — according to the article — using the local stations' call letters and slogans to promote their clones.

Continue reading "The ingredients of online radio"

5 September 02004

Cues for learning about and discovering new music

Imagine someone who's interested in jazz and has heard a little bit about Miles Davis's reputation. A bit of web searching may give you an overview of Miles' extensive career, such as this brief overview or this more extensive review. But if you go to Amazon.co.uk and search on "Miles Davis" you get 872 results. The iTunes Music Store (in UK) has a Miles Davis selection comprising 863 songs from among 62 albums, with a strong emphasis on selections from posthumous collections rather than the original albums.

There's a meticulously researched article by Wayne Bremser that highlights one-by-one the differences between the contextual information that is available about albums on iTunes compared with the original vinyl releases.

Continue reading "Cues for learning about and discovering new music"

29 August 02004

An embarrassment of riches

I am listening to Track 8 on a D.O.R. sampler CD that came free with The Wire magazine. The packaging gives no track information, so the piece is anonymous to me. If, 15 or even 5 years ago, I had heard it on an a radio programme adventurous enough to play this ambient mix that starts off evoking Bitches Brew-era Miles Davis with noodling bass and Indian hand drums, and accelerates towards a more qawaali feel, I would have pricked up my ears and been excited by it. I might have followed up by trying to find out more about the artist. Now I'm not sure if I'll even bother to put the CD in my Mac to see if there's a tracklisting on its data partition.

This stuff used to be rare. Now you can't move without tripping over free samples of it.

Continue reading "An embarrassment of riches"

18 August 02004

Guardian digital music survey

Having previously said it would be useful to see more real data about people's listening behaviours, it's good to see that The Guardian is running quite an extensive online survey of digital music use. Fill it in if you feel like it. [Postscript, 2 October 02004: the survey has now been withdrawn — see my posting on the results].

However, the way a few of the survey questions are structured betrays some of the same myopia as is evident in the digital music 'debate' generally. And there's a strong argument that surveys are not the best approach to get evidence of trends.

Continue reading "Guardian digital music survey"

30 July 02004

Developments in digital radio

For some reason I missed this Guardian article about digital radio and technology wars at the start of this month. It includes much talking up of the additional features coming to radio (pause, rewind, text and even, whoopee, purchasing opportunities) and some quotes such as "People are impatient — they want someone to do the filtering for them, to pre-select some content and for it to be available instantly" which is just as unlikely as the opposite claim that people are only concerned with control and personalisation in their listening.

A lot of commentators are more interested in which technical format will win out over the other. In this case it's DAB vs. 3G, but watch out for a tedious amount of speculation over whether Microsoft's music download service will knock out Apple's coming your way in the next few months. In the long term the people at either end of the supply chain — the 'curators' and programmers of music services, and the listeners — won't care about the transmission medium and storage device as long as it combines features for varying predictability, some kind of personal collecting, user-friendly navigation of massive collections, and some potential for innovative programming.

That said, the article is worth reading all the way through, as is The Guardian's Special Report on Digital Music.

28 July 02004

Preliminary sketch for online music listener research

What kind of data do you need to cut a swathe through all the commentators and tell you whether music download services are really going to spell the end of the album? Or whether on-demand features will change the relationship between listening to new music and owning it?

Notching up each extra zero on the end of the iTunes Music Store sales figures only gives you an impression of aggregate growth of this particular kind of service, the rate of growth, and market share relative to comparable services. This data will tell you that, in the next few years, more people are going to be downloading music, and the relative success of different services will wax and wane — which is not news really.

So I did some no-budget research and collected some data, based on the Last.FM service, the results of which ask more questions than they answer, but this process clarifies what further data would be useful.

Continue reading "Preliminary sketch for online music listener research"

20 July 02004

Maybe iPods are the end of radio after all?

So there I was, saying that random-play iPods do not a personalised radio station make, and just a few days later someone publishes expensive research saying the opposite (Media Guardian article, requires free registration): "One of radio's main perceived strengths is its spontaneity... iPod can even emulate that with shuffle technology," the research company says.

According to the article, their report goes on to identify two trends "both [of which] present the radio industry with a knock-on effect. The first is the shift towards personalisation. The second trend is a growing demand from younger consumers to have greater control over their media. As a result, The Knowledge Agency claims, 18 to 30 year-old radio listeners now want content that is more personalised and more directly relevant to their own tastes and needs."

Here are two and a half reasons why those two trends (which sound to me a little like different ways of saying the same thing) do not spell the end of radio.

Continue reading "Maybe iPods are the end of radio after all?"

14 July 02004

Jem Finer on music and creative commons

Jem Finer has an article in today's Guardian giving his perspective on the history and future of copying music outside the normal bounds of copyright control. He includes reference to Gilberto Gil, who — as Brazil's culture minister — is adopting Creative Commons for his own work. The Brazilian government has been making lots of noises about innovative and farsighted policies that could challenge the hegemony of Microsoft and the other big digital corporations. It'll be interesting to see how these get converted to implementation.

Jem's work gets special mention here on grounds that he is composer of the wonderful Longplayer, and his blog sits on the server as this one (both hosted by Paul Makepeace).

10 July 02004

The new gatekeepers for discovering music

As the means of accessing and consuming music change, so do the kinds of intermediaries who act as 'gatekeepers' controlling how listeners can discover new music. If you're shopping at the iTunes Music Store, surfing among thousands of online radio stations with Windows Media Player or RealPlayer, or using 'personalised' streaming services like Last.FM, then what you see and hear is not influenced by the same group of radio DJs/pluggers, music weeklies, in-store promotions, and friends' recommendations that were your your 'interface' to new music fifteen years ago.

And the sheer quantity of music available now makes the interface more important. It has to do more work to filter that quantity down into something that you find manageable rather than overwhelmingly complex or tediously unimaginative.

Some projections of what this means for future music consumption habits still seem dubious to me. For example, contrary to the predictions of one music journalist in this article on the impact of the iPod Mini, setting your iPod to play your entire music collection randomly sequenced is not like having your own personal radio station, and I've said before why I think reports of the death of the album are exaggerated.

Here's a few glimpses of the technological, media and social gatekeepers that may become influential to differing degrees.

Continue reading "The new gatekeepers for discovering music"

4 July 02004

Review of David Toop's Haunted Weather

I read much of Haunted Weather on holiday, on an apartment balcony overlooking the kind of Costa del Sol villa-sprawl that provided the setting for J G Ballard's Cocaine Nights. It's possible to read Haunted Weather through Ballardian spectacles: the latter's coining of phrases like "the marriage of Freud and Euclid" and "a Krafft-Ebing of geometry and posture" (both from The Atrocity Exhibition) could apply as a synopsis of Toop's concern with spatial and uncanny qualities of music, its root in our relation to our own bodies.

Continue reading "Review of David Toop's Haunted Weather"

12 June 02004

David Toop radio interview

For the next week (until end of 18 June) you can hear David Toop being interviewed on the latest BBC Mixing It programme, focusing on his new book Haunted Weather. The extended discussion touches on the effect of digital technologies on music, improvising traditions and what he likes about the Japanese music scene. The interview as discursive and episodic as the book.

I'm planning to post my own review of Haunted Weather here in July, but until then you can read Colin Buttimer's review.

9 June 02004

Proceedings of music and technology event

I never quite got round to getting my notes of the RSA's music and technology event, Visions for the future into shape to post here, but you can now download the 34-page proceedings of what went on.

Some of this account of the event is a bit revisionist, however. Either that or I was unconscious and time stopped for the bit where Peter Gabriel presented the thoughts that appear in the proceedings about his MUDDA initiative.

8 March 02004

Doubts about models for listening to music in the future

I've been reflecting more on my claim that online radio is the model for listening to music in the future, helped by a range of exchanges with others.

Being sceptical I've so far come up with four types of reasons why my bold conjecture might come unstitched:

  • Socio-Cultural;
  • Economics of Technologies;
  • Economics of Rights Management;
  • Aesthetics.

Of these I think the first and last are most interesting (but then I'm not a techie or a lawyer, so no surprise there).

Continue reading "Doubts about models for listening to music in the future"

29 February 02004

Why online radio is the model for listening to music in the future

At the RSA Music and Technology Event last month, Paul Sanders of State 51 described a scenario ten years from now where more music than you could listen to in a lifetime will be available on demand wherever you want it (at home, on the street, in your car). As he elaborated, the question then becomes, How do you facilitate listener choice in this world of ubiquitous music?

Paul rightly pointed out that the collaborative filtering systems used by Amazon et al to make recommendations to consumers are tiresomely predictable ("Customers who bought music by Bryan Ferry also bought music by Roxy Music and David Bowie" — you don't say!). My instinct in the face of the limitations of artificial intelligence is to replace it with human intelligence (see my justification for this). So, hey presto, in place of filtering technology we've just invented the disc jockey.

And then there's the question of how you pay for your access to this ubiquitous music. Perhaps a far-sighted government would set up a corporation to manage and develop this incredibly rich resource as an asset for the public good. Citizens with the equipment to access the resource might pay a license fee. So, hey presto, we've just invented the BBC.

Continue reading "Why online radio is the model for listening to music in the future"

14 January 02004

Music industry not in crisis?

Courtesy of 6 music news comes the news that "Album sales in the UK reached a record high in 2003, fuelled by falling CD prices" and, even more encouragingly, "2003 was also a record year for live music, with more money spent on gigs than at any time since records began in 1914."

Admittedly the drop in CD prices meant there was no increase in profits on their sales, but, hey, not much evidence (yet) to support those pundits who have suggested "the concept of the album is going to disappear" as I reported earlier.

(My own contribution supported only one of the trends: my CD purchases fell from an average of over 150 p.a. in 2001/2 to 68 in 2003, but I more than made up for this in hearing vastly more live music since I moved to London.)

11 January 02004

Robert Fripp on ethical and creative businesses

In his diary entry for New Year's Eve, Robert Fripp muses on ethical business practice. In this case he goes on to reflect on what he sees as the unethical behaviour of his previous record company (EG).

I'm sure RF has a rationale for not making the full archive of his diaries available (the above link will no doubt rot in a few weeks' time, I'm afraid), for I think that his diary reflections, in April 2002, about the ethics and performance of the company he formed in response to his dispute with EG — Discipline Global Mobile (DGM) — contain many lessons relevant to running an artist-focused business.

Happily I saved that entry; though, respecting RF's copyright, I should not reproduce lengthy portions. So the rest of this posting is based on my reading of the important bits.

Continue reading "Robert Fripp on ethical and creative businesses"

20 November 02003

Digital convergence and music (business) resources

MusicAlly publishes a fortnightly trade report on the impact of digital technologies on the music business, with the emphasis on business. The free sample issue is more concerned with intellectual property rights, licensing and "what's to be done about file sharing" than about music per se. The most interesting and music-related features for me are those on whether ringtones are really as important in the market as singles (Musically says not — phew); and about how a niche band like Phish is demonstrating that actually you can make money by selling downloads (in this case "official bootlegs" with no copy protection), with its profitable LivePhishDownloads site.

Being cheeky, it's hard to resist pointing out that the 15 page £40 newsletter offers a lot fewer bytes/£ than your average CD — and no studio costs — but is probably still better value than consulting a lawyer who'd charge a similar amount for picking up the phone and breathing down it once. For only £20 you can pick the brains of MusicAlly's Paul Brindley and two other industry insiders in Soho next Monday (event details and, after 24 Nov, report) , but unfortunately I'm on a course on Monday evening.

(Related postings on this site on the impact of technologies on music can be found here and here.)

22 October 02003

More on the Future of Music

Following my earlier posting about projecting the experience of music into the future, there's an article by Adam Sweeting in the current RSA Journal with projections for how recorded music will be bought and sold [link to RSA Journal current issue page | download article directly].

I think some of the arguments in the article are guilty of being dazzled by technological determinism. The most interesting parts relate to new organisational structures and practices.

Continue reading "More on the Future of Music"

6 October 02003

Making and Listening to Music in the Future

Listening to a two-and-a-half-year-old BBC radio programme about the future of music, I was struck by two things. Firstly, how slowly predictions about the future of music are either evolving or being realised — because this programme could have been made anytime in the last five or six years. Secondly, how little is being said about the experience of making and listening music.

In a perverse turnaround, the 'bad old' record labels now have lots of people focusing attention on what they do, and getting hung up about how we obtain and pay for music, when hardly anyone really bothered or cared before. Meanwhile what's happening to music itself is more subtle, but much more interesting.

Continue reading "Making and Listening to Music in the Future"

26 June 02003

Cybersonica 2003 Symposium

In May and June I organised the symposium strand of the Cybersonica festival of electronic and interactive music at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. I also managed the editing of the proceedings, along with John Eacott and Richard Barbrook.

You can download the abstracts of the papers as a 208 KB pdf file.

Continue reading "Cybersonica 2003 Symposium"