25 January 02007

Last.fm makes personal radio stations easily shareable

I like this. In the new beta version of Last.fm, you can now share different playlists with others via an embedded Flash player, like this:

That playlist is my 'loved tracks' on Last.fm, but you can also hear all the artists and tracks I've tagged as 'french' or those any of my other most frequently used tags. The beta service is only available to Last.fm subscribers at present, so that link may not work for ordinary mortals until it comes out of beta — which is usually a couple of weeks or so [Update: tested and confirmed that it doesn't work, so try this link from February].

By the way, the deadline for the 'final draft' of my book is 9th February, which is why it's gone a little quiet around here once more. Back soon.

3 January 02007

BBC Music web resources updated and integrated

BBC Music Artists and AlbumsIt's been a long time (2.5 years) since I wrote much about the BBC's online music resources. Though I still use these resources fairly frequently, I don't always do so particularly attentively (if you know what I mean), so I don't know if the changes I noticed today are very recent or months old.

Previously I grumbled that there were multiple BBC profiles of bands like The Smiths that seemed independent and unaware of each other. Things are much better now, with a single Artists and Albums section. Every page within that section has sections for related material 'elsewhere on the BBC' and 'elsewhere on the Web', as in the new profile for The Smiths. There's an RSS feed for new album reviews. I'd still like some feed or other alert to tell me when the next broadcast featuring, say, The Smiths is coming up.

The BBC used to license some of its artist profiles from Muze. To be honest, these profiles were not good: flat text, poorly laid out (requiring clicking through several pages). They've gone now, replaced by the BBC's own commissioned and user-generated content, plus links to Wikipedia and All Music Guide. If you look at 6 Music's Album of the Day page, you'll see a mix of links within the BBC, to Wikipedia, and (at the time of writing) one to Ink Blot magazine. There have been previous cases of online sites like GoFish and Upto11.net placing their trust in Wikipedia instead of licensing commercial sources like Muze or AMG, but is the BBC the first large traditional media corporation to do so?

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.

Continue reading "UK survey of digital music and discovery"

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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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,

Continue reading "Satellite and internet radio recording: 'could' versus 'should'"

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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30 March 02006

Musicube sharing of BBC listening profiles

musicubeThrough Radio 1, the BBC has introduced a Flash interface to its on-demand 'listen again' feature, which enables listeners both to personalise the user interface they use to access radio programmes, and to share this interface with their friends. My personal 'musicube' is shown below. The elements I got to specify are the genres included in the 'cube', and the amount of space they take up.

One blogger has reviewed the musicube as "a cool (if fairly useless) concept". The cool bits are the ease of personalisation, the sharing capability and the eye-candy look. As far as the utility goes, if you're an efficiency-conscious hacker, there are quicker, less pretty ways of building your own console for the BBC's radio programmes.

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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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19 February 02006

Is the dust settling on podcasting?

Is it just me or are all the bubbles in the podcasting lather turning into a thin layer of slightly manky detergent on the surface of internet pond life? There was a spell last year, after iTunes first included podcast subscriptions, where the response to everything seemed to be "The solution is to start podcasting — now, what did you say the problem was?" This year there seems to be some sanity creeping into assessments of what podcasts might actually be good for.

Apparently the Ricky Gervais Show on Guardian Unlimited is going into the Guinness Book of Records as the most downloaded podcast. I subscribed to the podcast a few weeks ago, so I've helped contribute to the record, but I didn't get round to listening to one of the episodes until a couple of days ago. It was crap; like the Wayne's World cable broadcasts, but without the irony. As with most podcasts, I didn't get to the end.

Continue reading "Is the dust settling on podcasting?"

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"

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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15 December 02005

Resonance FM — five more years

Congratulations to Resonance FM on being awarded a five-year licence to continue its broadcasts. Resonance is a 'radio art' station catering for minority interests (I like Peter Cusack's environmental recordings series and my friend Eric Namour's [no.signal] shows of ambient, improv and electronica music, for example), and it started broadcasting three and half years ago. It's only available over the airwaves in London, but you can hear it anywhere online. Here's the Ofcom press release.

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.

Continue reading "Will Internet music radio have no competition?"

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]
Continue reading "Does music have a genome?"

13 November 02005

The slow evolution of DAB digital radio devices

My excitement and predictions about the Bug — the digital radio that can pause, rewind, record and convert to MP3 (pictured right) — seem so far to have been overstated. The Bug DAB digital radio, from Pure DigitalSixteen months ago, I said I'd trade my iPod for a Bug, and just over eleven months ago I recorded the prediction: "next year it will be possible to download the programme guide to your Bug digital radio, set it to record your favourite programmes for the week onto flash memory and then copy them to your iPod" (I can't honestly remember whether that originated with me or someone else at the event I was writing about).

In the intervening period, iPods have gone through several generational changes (including the introduction of the iPod Mini in the UK, followed by the Shuffle and the Nano). By comparison, the Bug seems to have more or less stood still, and is nowhere near being a pace-setter in the market. I thought I'd wait to see how the second generation Bug looked before buying one, and I'm still waiting.

Continue reading "The slow evolution of DAB digital radio devices"

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"

10 October 02005

Recording online radio vs. podcasts

iFill screenshotIn the last year or two, the concept of martini media — 'anytime, anyplace, anywhere' access to whatever audio and video you feel like — has shifted from being a vision of a possible future to being an almost taken-for-granted inevitability. The speed with which it comes about will be slowed by the friction of dealing with rights-holders' concerns (some valid, some less so), but momentum will nevertheless bring it about in the end.

Hence I've not really been keeping up with my collection of harbingers of martini media; they are too many and various these days. What brings me back is another radio-related technology: the Griffin iFill software, which fills up your mp3 player with recordings from online radio stations. (Last year, Griffin produced the hardware-based radio SHARK, which provides some of the same functions for AM and FM radio.)

Continue reading "Recording online radio vs. podcasts"

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.

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23 July 02005

BBC 6 Music podcasts and learning

It's almost exactly a year since I posted my review of BBC 6 Music as a learning resource on this site, and nearly eight months since I commented on the disappearance of some of the web resources from the 6 Music web site. Now 6 Music has begun a weekly podcast of speech highlights from its programmes as part of the BBC's download trial, so it seems a good time to review what's changed.

Continue reading "BBC 6 Music podcasts and learning"

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"

27 April 02005

The Roots of London Calling

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

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

Continue reading "The Roots of London Calling"

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"

16 April 02005

BBC Online Music Library tender

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

Continue reading "BBC Online Music Library tender"

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"

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.

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27 January 02005

User interface for on-demand radio

A couple of days ago the BBC launched Version 2 of its successful BBC Radio Player. Rather than attempt a review — except to say it seems to be an all-round improvement, notwithstanding the frames that make it more awkward to link to individual programmes — here is The Guardian's assessment [free registration required] and an account from Dan Hill, who played a leading role in its development.

Stations (or channels) have less relevance in on-demand listening, except insofar as they map onto clear genres of programming. When it comes to music, I find great programmes on all five of the BBC's music stations, and often on Radio 4 as well (many excellent music documentaries in the Tuesday 13.30 slot). Radio Player v2 allows users to browse by genre (the same genres the BBC Music site has been using for a while, plus documentaries), which is a major aid to cross-station listening for those (all?) of us who cannot regularly scour all the listings for all the stations.

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15 January 02005

Public Service Broadband content

Here are my notes from yesterday's Public Service Broadcasting: Beyond Television event organised by the Broadband Stakeholder Group.

I've decided to present the notes I took on my palmtop fairly unprocessed, since (a) most of the sessions were panel discussions, which it is hard to condense, (b) I don't think there are any clear or snappy conclusions, so presenting the different voices sometimes talking across each other is perhaps the most fair representation of the proceedings, and (c) I have neither the brainpower nor the arrogance of strong opinion to give an 'angle' on what was said.

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21 December 02004

A virtuous circle of free and paid-for material

A couple of months ago I wrote about how I was enjoying Ashley Kahn's book A Love Supreme: the Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album. Since then I've heard two sets of radio documentaries on A Love Supreme — one 30-minute BBC Radio 4 feature by Jez Nelson, and a four-programme series by Courtney Pine on BBC Radio 2 — both featuring extensive contributions from Kahn, and relying on his narrative.

This looks like a fairly close synergy between two paid-for items — Kahn's book and the recently issued deluxe two-CD reissue of Coltrane's album — and the free-to-air broadcast medium. Everybody stands to win from this, and because the copyright owners have realised this, they've co-operated to make good, cost-effective radio and promote sales of back-catalogue recordings and a relatively new book.

Continue reading "A virtuous circle of free and paid-for material"

20 December 02004

Where broadcasting blurs into downloading

The coverage of this press release on the positive response to the BBC's podcasting experiment — see my November posting mentioning the experiment — shows that podcasting is still making the 'novelty' news, but some continue to confuse its implications.

This Digital-Lifestyles feature concludes, "The impact of this form of distribution will be significant. The barriers to anyone having their own radio station are removed. Of course, any form of enclosure can be catered for, including video. Beware broadcast TV, look out TiVo." I don't have a TiVo, but as I understand it podcasting offers few if any features not built into TiVos or other personal video recorders.

More significantly, podcasting does not remove the significant barriers to anyone having their own radio station, at least not if it includes music or other copyrighted material. Publishing podcasts that includes copyrighted music is equivalent to uploading it to a blog or peer-to-peer service, and subject to the same risks of legal action.

Continue reading "Where broadcasting blurs into downloading"

6 December 02004

Content vanishes from BBC web sites

At the end of last week the redesigned BBC 6 Music web site was launched. In the process of its revamp, the site has lost much of the specialist content that made it unique. For example, the Kings of the Wild Frontier pages that I wrote about here have gone, as have all the interviews from Andrew Collins' page. The audio (and occasional video) of Hub sessions that I referred to here are no longer available and neither are any of the artist profiles.

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29 October 02004

RadioSHARK (post postscript)

In the interests of comprehensiveness — as well as a little bit of banging on that "I'm right, you know" — I risk being boring by adding one more new development to my list of gadgets that pre-figure a future of martini (ubiquitous, on-demand) media. This follows an original article on this subject, and a first postscript.

Griffin Technology's radioSHARK is a $70 (less than £40) device that you plug into your USB port, allowing you to schedule recording of FM and AM radio programmes onto your hard disk, and then move them directly onto your iPod. It does for FM/AM what the Bug does for DAB digital radio, with the added advantage that whatever your record is already on your hard disk.

At the time of writing, the radioSHARK is available via the Apple store in the US, but not the UK. I don't know what's behind this, or if and when it's likely to change. It works with Macs and PCs.

27 October 02004

Handheld satellite radio: one more harbinger

A short postscript to my recent posting on harbingers of martini media: a US announcement of a handheld satellite radio that can receive 130 digital stations and record up to five hours of music, which you can schedule when you want. Here's the official page and specs for the Delphi XM MyFi™, and here's an interesting, if slightly contrived, comparison of the benefits of the MyFi against iPods-plus-podcasting. One selling point of MyFi for some people will be "No computer downloading or list management; absolutely no computer needed."

I've collected some more reviews and stories on the MyFi in my collection of bookmarks on music devices.

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"

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"

16 September 02004

Enforced licensing of BBC radio archive

There's a new spin on access to the BBC's archive in this article in today's Guardian. The regulator Ofcom is proposing that the BBC could be forced to share its radio archive with the commercial world. The idea is that this would make digital radio more attractive and thus drive take-up by listeners.

In his speech yesterday, Ofcom's Chief Executive says: "My question is… this: would non-discriminatory, non-exclusive access — for a fair payment — to the BBC sound archive allow commercial services to enhance their offering to the listening public; and, crucially, do so without damaging the BBC's ability and commitment to offer a strong digital radio service proposition?"

At the moment, access to this archive is a unique selling point of digital stations like BBC 6 Music (see my posting on their use of the archive) and BBC 7. Ofcom's proposal must be seen as a vote of confidence in the value of what 6 Music is doing, even if it could be seen as threatening their pre-eminent position. It could also, indirectly, accelerate the timescale for offering the kind of service I'd like to develop.

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"

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"

26 July 02004

The Sound of Life

Just started this evening: a series of programmes on BBC Radio 4 called The Sound of Life, which covers the history of sound and hearing. The first programme goes back to the first sounds on earth — all water related: waves, rain, rivers and glaciers — before any ears had evolved to hear them. Here's the BBC programme page, from which you can listen to this programme (and the others in the series, once they have been broadcast), and the Open University (as co-producers of the series) have also created a web site of extensive further information, resources and links.

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.

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19 July 02004

BBC 6 Music as a learning resource

Born in the digital era, BBC 6 Music is a radio station at the intersection of traditional 'wireless' programming and less linear, on-demand access to audio and supporting material. It's in the vanguard of mixed (old and new) media and the BBC governors apparently want it to go further and "heighten the level of interactivity, develop the use of the archive and strengthen the station's relationship with its audience", according to this recent Media Guardian article (Media Guardian requires free registration to read its articles).

The Statement of Programme Policy includes an explicit, though very general, statement on listeners' learning: "6 Music aims to extend its audience's understanding of popular music, and programmes will continue to examine the cultural development of music, including less familiar genres like ska and backbeat, supported by information online and on-demand recordings." (As an aside, it's interesting to do a word search for 'learn' through this document to see the different contexts in which it arises for different stations.)

The rest of this (long) article reviews the learning features of 6 Music so far and suggests how they could be extended — using 'learning' in the broad cultural sense that I've referred to before.

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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.

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7 July 02004

BBC 6 Music and usability of archives

The campaign to lobby for the BBC Creative Archive is principally concerned with the form in which the archive material is made available, and specifically whether this is 'open' enough to allow (re)use for non-commercial purposes. My lobby is also to consider how the 'user interface' to this massive archive is made usable enough to ensure that everyday Jo(e) Punter can extract some value from it without needing to expend the time and energy that a researcher or artist might be prepared to commit.

The BBC's first digital radio station, 6 Music, is committed to digging up and re-presenting many of the amazing recordings they have in their archive. This week it has re-launched it most archive-based programme — the Dream Ticket, which replays recordings of live gigs and a few BBC sessions — in a tacit acknowledgement that the original format wasn't working. I think one of the problems was that it was serving up the archives in 'lumps' that were too large to be indigestible to the casual listener. The new format breaks the archives down into more refined grains, though this has cons as well as pros.

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24 May 02004

More art radio

New Media Scotland supports a series of sonic art webcasts under the DRIFT name. This week (23-29 May) they're running a series of themed radio programmes under the title Resonant Cities, curated by Robert H. King.

There's quite a long-winded login process to negotiate before you can listen to the programmes or even read the full programme notes, but it's worth it.

For an alternative take on sound on cities, see my notes on interactive sound environments from last year's Cybersonica symposium.

9 May 02004

New(ish) art radio station

Building on my contention that the Internet is bringing us a golden age of listening experiences (or 'radio with knobs on,' if you will), the New York PS1 gallery launched an online radio station last month, WPS1, which has access to some of the Museum of Modern Art's audio archive.

One reason this is radio with knobs on is that currently you can listen to previously broadcast programmes on demand. This allows you to 'time shift' your listening to suit you (just as a programmable video cassette recorder does for TV, but without the programming and the unwieldy cassette). It's not clear whether this feature will continue to be available for the long term with WPS1, but I hope it will be, and I hope Resonance FM — the UK's own arts radio station, celebrating its second birthday next week — will soon be equipped to add this feature.

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).

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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.

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22 December 02003

Music from North Korea

I remember hearing John Cage being interviewed sometime in the late '80s: he was asked what type of music he recommended people to listen to. The question seemed to expect an answer in terms of current schools of composition, but Cage typically confounded this and shifted the frame. Listen to the music that your political leaders and environment make it hard for you to hear, he said.

So listen to Andy Kershaw's Radio 3 programmes recorded in North Korea. Interesting, funny and occasionally scary. Good old BBC!