6 December 02010

Tony Hall on teaching by not teaching

Tony Hall at the Royal Festival Hall

Tony Hall takes photographs and makes photomovies. At the same time he describes his interests as "thinking about sustainable learning communities, shared learning in public spaces, using social media". Like me, he's a regular at our weekly meetings on self-organised learning, so I've absorbed his views about learning through conversations by osmosis and, indeed, many conversations.

But that doesn't mean that I always agree with him. I've done only a light edit on the transcript of this discussion with Tony — which took place in our regular spot in London's Royal Festival Hall and also involved Patrick Hadfield, Fred Garnett and David Pinto. Hopefully this captures some of the spirit of the conversation, as it circles around rather than progressing linearly, veering as it does so between the serious, the subtle and the throwaway. You may also detect a hint of amused frustration from me (though the most flippant and testy exchange has been edited out, at Tony's request).

As well as conversations, key words in Tony's vocabulary are gentleness and conviviality. Some of my frustration stems from my attempts to square this emphasis with the idea that learning frequently involves elements of challenge and risk. While Tony wriggles away from my attempt at confrontation, it's clear by the end of the discussion that he's no stranger to risk and conflict in his practice. So his way of dealing with my questioning is perhaps an instance of gentleness in action.

I'm not convinced yet, but I am intrigued, and I hope you will be if you cast your eye over the discussion.

Meanwhile, I'm not sure if this will be the last of this series of interviews, at least in this form. The format is obviously text-heavy — which I defend in comparison to audio or video since it's much easier to skim and select from — but the transcription and editing process is not that agile (it's taken me over three months to get from recording this discussion to publishing the blog post). Advice or suggestions for alternative approaches very welcome.

David Jennings: How did you get into teaching, and how did you learn your craft?

Tony Hall: I got into teaching through not wanting to teach, basically. I got into teaching because a few people in a youth centre were interested in something I was interested in: photography. They felt that I could probably help them. "Help" is the wrong word. Not help, just get involved in photography in some way. And being outside of school was important and interesting.

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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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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.)

4 July 02007

Revisiting Subscription versus A-La-Carte models

E-commerce Times iTunesThe contention between subscription and à-la-carte models for online music has been running for at least five years, and I suspect it has at least another five years left to run. Rhapsody was the first to start offering a subscription service, where you pay a monthly fee in return for access to (but not permanent ownership of) a vast catalogue of music, in 02001. iTunes has remained firmly in the à-la-carte camp, selling music track-by-track for a unit price. Steve Jobs has maintained that consumers don't want to 'rent' music, and so far the market has backed him up. Then there are hybrid models such as eMusic, which offers a fixed number of permanent downloads for a regular monthly fee.

Max Blumberg sent me this E-commerce Times article in which he's quoted explaining what puts people off subscription services. We had a bit of an email exchange about this, and here are some of my thoughts.

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20 April 02007

Are the Creative Archive and remix culture being sidelined?

A few days ago the BBC announced plans to open up its archive of TV and radio programmes for on-demand access. Mention of the BBC's recent Creative Archive initiative was notable by its absence.

According to this latest announcement,

Full-length programmes, as well as scripts and notes, will be available for download from the BBC's website. The pilot is part of the BBC's plans to eventually offer more than a million hours of TV and radio from its archive.

So is this the Creative Archive going mainstream, or is the "mix it, share it" ethos of the CA being quietly dropped or sidelined? I don't know for sure, but the signs seem to imply the latter.

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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?

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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7 August 02006

Playlist services: Mixlister review and FIQL re-vamp

A couple of updates about playlist services.

Cloudbrain contacted me last month to let me know about about Mixlister, their new playlist sharing service. This comes at a time when GoFish has withdrawn from playlist services, FIQL and MyStrands are enhancing their offerings, and some others (e.g. Upto11) appear to have remained unchanged for the best part of a year.

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4 June 02006

Full versions of articles now available

Last year I posted teasers here about articles I had published on Word of Mouth Marketing and Playlisting and on Remix Culture (the articles were featured in Five Eight and The Spectator respectively).

Their value as 'exclusives' has expired, so I've published the full version of the Word of Mouth piece on my Net, Blogs and Rock'n'Roll blog, and the Remix piece is available as a 64 KB PDF file for download.

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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21 May 02006

A clutch of future-gazing events to plug

First is the b.TWEEN 06 forum of future entertainment, coming at the end of this week (25 and 26 May) in Bradford. The programme covers pioneering cross-platform work that straddles art and commerce. Sadly I can't make it this year, but I enjoed the 02002 event, and aim to be there next year.

I will however be at the one-day Content 2.0 event at the RSA, London, on 6 June. The programme looks interesting, as long as it doesn't descend too much into voodoo-speak and hand-waving about brands. If you'd like to attend, let me know, as I may be able to do a deal (for one person only) on ticket price.

Finally, I may be at the MusicStrands summer school on The Present and Future of Recommender Systems in Bilbao, 12-13 September, which includes participants from MusicStrands, Yahoo! and several universities. Thanks to Paul Lamere for flagging this.

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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4 May 02006

Aggregating the non-music stuff about music

screen grab of MusicStrands mash-up toolThe MusicStrands Labs seem to have a good head of steam at the moment: it's worth keeping an eye on their blog. The recent announcement that caught my eye was their music-related content discovery (we need a better term for this!) mash-up. The thumbnail on the right (click it to enlarge) shows the Wikipedia entry, YouTube videos, Flickr photos, blogs indexed by Technorati, and goals entered on 43things, all relating to Neil Young.

It's a simple but effective application of Web 2.0, and would become even more valuable if and when it could aggregate reviews, interviews and gig listings in your country. All these 'collateral assets' can enhance people's discovery and learning about music. The MusicStrands tool is the closest thing I've seen yet to the outline for social software to enhance personal media collections that I wrote eighteen months ago.

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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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)?

23 April 02006

Update on playlist services

In preparing the White Bicycles playlist yesterday, I revisited a subset of the playlist services that I reviewed last year and in January.

Here are some notes on what's changed, plus some notes on different contexts for searching for tracks.

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17 April 02006

Visualisation of music collections

thumbnail of visualisation from Musicstrands research paperThe picture on the left is an annotated version of a possible visualisation of someone's music collection, as proposed and described in a research paper available from Musicstrands. The segments in the circle represent different genres of music within the collection; the distance of each track (represented by dots) from the centre shows how old or recent it is; adjacent tracks all come from the same album; and the colour highlights show whether a track is part of a current playlist. I've shrunk the image down to about half size, partly to minimise accusations of infringing the authors' copyright, but also to give some indication of what this visualisation would look like on the screen of a mobile phone, iPod or other handheld device — not much use, I think you'll agree (download the paper, 580 KB pdf, for full-size image and explanation). I take that as reinforcement for my instinct that iPods, phones and such like will not be the main music device for serious music fans (people with more than a thousand tracks), but will continue to be just portable playback devices.

However, I'm not writing here principally about music devices, but about music visualisation in general, and assuming no particular constraints on screen size. I'm interested in visualisation for people organising and managing their own collections, sharing them with others and exploring others' collections, plus generalised visualisations of what might be called the 'music universe' (i.e. all the tracks and artists in the world), and how music maps onto other non-musical domains.

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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?

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

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?

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

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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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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2 March 02006

Radio feature on Audio Branding

BBC Radio 4 broadcast a feature on audio branding today, based around interviews with three of the speakers — Dan Jackson, Martyn Ware and Alasdair Scott — at the event I chaired last week. For the next week (until 9 March) you can hear the feature via this page, then it will move to this page until 16 March. Here's a direct link to the Realmedia file (11mins 40secs).

The event turned out to be a lot of fun, as well as being informative. My notes are inevitably patchy, and probably not worth publishing, but a report of the event should appear on the NMK site at some point. [Update, 8 May 02005: here's the report.]

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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6 February 02006

Audio Branding Event, 23 February

In a couple of weeks I'm chairing an event called Sounds Subliminal: Branding the future with audio in London.

The event is about the pros and cons of using sound as part of brand identity. There's an impressive range of speakers, including Dan Jackson of Sonicbrand, who literally wrote the book on sonic branding, and Martyn Ware, now of Illustrious Company. See the event details for a full list of speakers and a link for registration (£80/50).

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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.

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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.

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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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15 December 02005

Musical Battleground — article in The Spectator

My article under the title Musical Battleground is in the arts section of the Christmas issue of The Spectator, out today. It covers the remixing potential of digital media, using the BBC Creative Archive and The Grey Album as examples. Here's an excerpt:

But are the products of this 'remix culture' any good? Though technology has made it almost embarrassingly simple to re-appropriate media in the way that Kurt Schwitters and William Burroughs did more painstakingly, few of the works made with the new tools come near to matching those predecessors. Now that the means to collage and cut-up our news, audio and video are installed in many a suburban living room, the ends of these practices seem to have been shorn of the radical, disruptive credentials that were once claimed for them.
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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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30 November 02005

A cure for messy music metadata?

Gracenote has added over 650,000 CDs to its database in the seven and a half months since I last checked. That's quite a lot, and unfortunately it seems likely that there a significant number of duplicate records among them — cases where the same CD appears with the title or artist name written in a slightly different format. I noted before that the Gracenote database used four different ways of writing the titles of the six CDs in the Anthology of American Folk Music collection — now there seem to be one or two extra ways on top of the original four.

These inconsistencies create annoying problems for people trying to find particular albums or tracks on their MP3 players, as noted in this Wired article by Dan Goodin. His solution is to get tag editor software and sort out the metadata formats the way you want them, on your own. But surely there should be a less labour-intensive option?

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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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22 June 02005

An American ballad collection: Playlist #3

A few weeks ago, I started reading the collection of essays The Rose and the Briar, which re-imagines America through the lens of its ballads — mostly from the twentieth century, though the origins of some go back much further (and to parts of the British Isles). As soon as I started reading, I realised that it would be a frustrating experience unless I could hear the songs being written about.

There is a CD to accompany the book, but it's only available on import in the UK, so I couldn't get it quickly. Instead I turned to the web, since several versions of the ballads, particularly the older ones, are freely available in various audio formats. I compiled a selection of them in a playlist on webjay, so that you can hear them on your computer. (This is the third in a series of shared online playlists — see #1 and #2.)

There are clearly going to be more of these book-CD tie-ins — see the Love Supreme book-CD-radio promotion, for example — but what scope is there for audience-generated resources that augment products in the market place, while also helping to broaden and deepen the audience?

The rest of this posting starts to address this very general question in the specific terms of compiling a Rose and the Briar playlist, focusing on availability of material, its quality and the legal issues.

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17 June 02005

Licensing of BBC music audio and video

For those of us trying to read the tea leaves concerning how different parts of the enormous BBC archive may be licensed in the future, this Guardian article on a Universal-BBC deal makes interesting reading. "Anything ever recorded or filmed by the BBC by Universal artists since the 1920s to the present day could be sold on CD or DVD," according to the article, and "both the music label… and BBC Worldwide hope to earn several million pounds from the five-year deal".

So it doesn't look as if these music recordings are going to form part of the Creative Archive. The article refers to the BBC being "hell-bent on being a record label" two years ago, as though it has retrenched from issuing extensive music material since then. (Here's BBC Worldwide's music page, and Googling found me this curio history of BBC Records.)

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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.

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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.

16 May 02005

Bootstrap Network/interview with me

I met Graham Stewart a few months ago in connection with some online social networking developments. Graham's very active in building, and experimenting with, social software. His latest endeavour (with Neil McEvoy) is the Bootstrap Network, a "self-organising community of Internet entrepreneurs seeking to collaborate and create new business ventures". (For geeks, the Bootstrap Network, like Ecademy, is written in Drupal.)

Graham recorded an interview with me, posted in his Bootstrap Network blog, which covers some thoughts on online learning, and on music-related learning resources with particular reference to podcasting. The interview was done over the phone, so please excuse some of the awkward pauses and less-than-articulate mumblings.

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.

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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"

16 April 02005

BBC Online Music Library tender

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

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13 April 02005

Creative Archive launches licence; where's the pilot?

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

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

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10 April 02005

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

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

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

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

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8 April 02005

Radio David Byrne and Celebrity Playlists

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

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

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

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"

15 March 02005

Classification of online music resources

After four months of keeping my bookmarks on Furl, I thought it was time to reflect on some of what I've collected — particularly in the music resources topic.

I created the music resources topic for items — web pages, databases, print, radio, TV, film/DVD, or anything — that are about music. That includes anything in the tradition of liner notes, reviews, artist interviews and 'paramusical' elements of recorded music like sleeve design.

My set of music resources links runs to 91 items at the time of writing. I've now reviewed and classified all these items (before anyone says anything, yes, I know that using a system that allows easy browsing using tags, like del.icio.us would have made this easier than it is with Furl). This is a work-in-progress research exercise at the moment, like my taxonomy of 'making of' features.

The biggest surprise for me was how many classifications I needed to cover all the bases. I was expecting maybe eight or nine, but ended up with nearly twice that number.

Continue reading "Classification of online music resources"

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"

11 February 02005

Shadowy music promotion in online social networks

A couple of months ago, I wrote about record labels using online social networks to promote their artists. The current issue of Music Week has a feature on this. Says the article,

Most web PRs now reject the shadowy practices of the past, when online marketeers could frequently be found taking advantage of the anonymity of the medium to sow their recommendations in chatrooms. "Having been at the frontline of that, way back when I started out, I am not really convinced of its merits," says [MD of Hyperlaunch, Don] Jenkins. "There is something a bit piss-poor about the notion of people from marketing companies posing as other people."

However, some PR agencies still inhabit the shadows, as demonstrated by this exposé of a large number of identical messages on several online forums that aimed to head off the ridicule being heaped on Ashlee Simpson (a singer, apparently) after she was booed at a broadcast performance. A dumb own goal. And an American PR agency has recently been posting job ads saying "We are looking to hire 30 Online Marketing Ambassadors to Chat and Write Message Board Messages. Multiple Shifts available…"

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"

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.

Continue reading "Public Service Broadband content"

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?"

5 January 02005

More Martini Media

Nine months ago I borrowed the term 'martini media' from Ashley Highfield of the BBC, and said I wanted to promote its use. I thought he might be constrained from promoting it too much, since plugging a brand name doesn't fit with the BBC's advertising-free ethos. But in the weeks either side of Christmas this site was hit by masses of users searching for 'martini media' or 'definition of martini media', which I attribute to Mr Highfield's gnomic use of it at the end of this Guardian interview (requires free registration).

There isn't a definition of martini media beyond the 'anytime, anyplace, anywhere' catch-phrase (one third of which, as pedants will note, is tautologous), but it can be illustrated by example, and I've been collecting what I call harbingers of the martini media era. Here are a few more.

Continue reading "More Martini Media"

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"

15 December 02004

Latest on the BBC Creative Archive

Here are my notes from a talk given by Paul Gerhardt, Strategic Director of the BBC Creative Archive, at Tate Modern this afternoon.

The current BBC Charter (due to expire in 02006) apparently provides for public access to the BBC archive, but 'access' means going in person to BBC premises to view or listen there. The archive is a huge cultural asset — one that the BBC 'factory' is adding to daily. The original expectation in the Creative Archive team was that they would re-create the broadcast experience, but they quickly recognised that the web encourages sharing rather than just on-demand broadcast.

Continue reading "Latest on the BBC Creative Archive"

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"

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.

Continue reading "Content vanishes from BBC web sites"

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?"

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"

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"

21 October 02004

Pressure building for access to BBC radio archives

A month after Ofcom's mutterings about enforced licensing of the BBC's radio archive, a new report commissioned by DCMS concludes "The BBC should examine how it can enter into joint ventures with the commercial sector when considering future archive-based services." The message seems to be that if the BBC isn't making active use of its archive, it should make it possible for others to do something with it. (And the report goes on: "the lack of any formal relationship between the BBC governors and Ofcom… is a problem.")

There's a certain inevitability about this. As convergence comes to fruition, the digital world has a hell of a lot of frequencies, bandwidth and disk storage to use up (cf. an iPod is an "empty beer glass waiting to be filled") . On the other hand, there's a massive pile of historically and culturally exciting stuff hanging around doing nothing. It's natural that policy makers and regulators should want to get this material to an audience one way or another.

This is an acutely sensitive issue at a sensitive time for the BBC. As anticipated in my previous posting on the BBC's digital direction, they need both to conjure a seductive vision of potential archive offerings, and to position themselves so that they are central to delivery of this vision. In this light, reports that the first pilot of the BBC Creative Archive may be too little too late must seem a bit worrying.

16 October 02004

Review of online artwork by Stanza

My review of Stanza's collection of twenty online audio-visual artworks, Amorphoscapes, is now available on the Furtherfield web site. Furtherfield is building an extensive resource covering many areas of art in online and convergent media.

Apologies for the recent scarcity of postings on this site — I've been ill.

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"

18 September 02004

This is not a music museum

Next week there's a seminar to consult on proposals for the Manchester District Music Archive.

Now I like a cheeky acronym, but how popular are they going to be when staid grown-ups who control grant funds imagine teenagers googling for MDMA? Very Madchester.

No-one (not even the press) has mentioned comparisons with Sheffield's National Centre for Popular Music, but I will.

Continue reading "This is not a music museum"

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.

11 September 02004

The BBC's digital direction

Based on interviews in the last fortnight with the BBC's Director General (Mark Thompson), Chief Technology Officer (John Varney), and Director of New Media & Technology (Ashley Highfield), you might hope to be able to discern, by process of triangulation, a clear corporate position and direction. But what you get is a much more postmodern mix of perspectives that only rarely hint at connections.

Given the scale and complexity of the issues, combined with the uncertain organisational context with the impending renewal of the Charter, you can forgive the interviewees sounding a bit tentative in some areas. Here's a summary of the points I found interesting.

Continue reading "The BBC's digital direction"

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"

30 August 02004

Building a wiki learning resource

Over the last month I've built a web site that allows me to test out a few ideas about collaborative and 're-mixable' learning resources. And to indulge a passion for The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, my favourite album.

69 Love Songs information is a 'wiki' site. I've touched on wikis briefly before. The technology — which allows many people to edit the content of web pages without knowledge of HTML or restricted logins etc — has been around for several years, though its adoption has remained most enthusiastic with the technical community. I have found one other wiki site devoted to a cultural artefact or artist — a sophisticated site for They Might Be Giants with over 70 contributors — if you know of others, please let me know.

The rest of this posting covers how the site is built and develops, what its potential for learning might be, and the limitations that I have either hit already or expect to hit.

Continue reading "Building a wiki learning resource"

24 August 02004

The job I'm aiming for

It's time to come clean about the motivation behind the many articles on this site about how people learn about, and consume, music online. Yes, I am angling for work in this area. My interests are in a niche music-and-learning opportunity that I believe will emerge over the next few years.

Right now this is probably some way from being viable enough to pay anyone a serious salary. In the medium to long term, I feel my mix of experience makes me particularly well suited to being a part of a team that could deliver a full product/service, but I'd need collaborators — both individuals with complementary skills and organisations that might offer alliances and help develop a 'route to market'.

Continue reading "The job I'm aiming for"

23 August 02004

BBC interactive Media Player: news & review

There are contradictory reports about the BBC's interactive Media Player (iMP), which would significantly extend the scope of on-demand listening and digital storage of broadcast media. Last Tuesday Netimperative quoted a BBC spokesperson saying the iMP remains an "aspirational service", with "no concrete plans for a roll-out" of the trial service to the general public.

But today a Guardian journalist reports at the end of an extensive review of the iMP that he was told that its launch "could be just nine months away".

There's nothing official and recent I could find on the BBC web site, though the iMP is mentioned in this October 02003 speech by the BBC's Director of New Media & Technology and in this chapter from the BBC's assessment of its future.

20 August 02004

Rise of digital intermediates in D-cinema

Hollywood Reporter has a useful article on the latest trends in the impact of digital technologies in independent film-making, covering shooting, post-production, and exhibition.

Some might be surprised to hear that digital mastering is leading to an increase in the use of Super 16mm film for shooting, as well as digital formats. One post-production agency reports seeing 50% 35mm film, 30% High Definition video (digital), and 20% Super 16mm film. One factor in the return of 16mm, is the increased use of digital intermediate (DI) mastering. A digital intermediate digitises an entire film with a scanner, creating digital image files that can be manipulated with color grading and special effects, and then 'output' in a variety of forms.

Continue reading "Rise of digital intermediates in D-cinema"

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?"

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.

Continue reading "BBC 6 Music as a learning resource"

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"

29 June 02004

Friends of the BBC Creative Archive

As the BBC announces a "radical manifesto" for its future, heavy on digital Britain and "public value", I've come across a campaign for the BBC Creative Archive. So far the main action has been an open letter, urging that the archive should be: broad, accessible, free (for non-commercial use), whole (i.e. not just excerpts of material), soon, complete (i.e. including independently produced material commissioned by the BBC) and sustainable.

It's too late to sign up for the letter, but you can join a free mailing list to keep in touch. [Update, September 02005: This mailing list has now been superseded by the UK FreeCulture list.] There is also a project page at the Union for the Public Domain, with several links to features on the Creative Archive. See also my earlier posting on the archive.

Continue reading "Friends of the BBC Creative Archive"

27 June 02004

Is digital cinema fixated with wide shots?

In an earlier posting I quoted George Lucas playing down the impact of digital technologies on film-making: "a camera is a camera is a camera so it doesn't really make any difference... You frame the film the same... the aesthetics are exactly the same."

But critic Mark Cousins suggests in the June issue of Prospect Magazine that Lucas may be blind to the way he has changed his practice since he started shooting digitally. Cousins' article notes a trend towards wide shots that he says is part explained by changes in technology. A similar trend emerged and then retreated when CinemaScope was first introduced.

Continue reading "Is digital cinema fixated with wide shots?"

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.

2 June 02004

Puttnam on digital impact: my notes

David Puttnam's lecture this evening focused on skills (he spends a fair bit of his time advising the Department for Education and Skills these days) and on intervention to stimulate digital distribution and exhibition of films in the UK (he's a Labour peer).

He addressed the potential impact of digital technologies on production of films/motion pictures, on distribution and exhibition, and briefly on aesthetics.

Continue reading "Puttnam on digital impact: my notes"

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.

10 May 02004

Lord Puttnam lecture on digital technology and film

Following on from their very useful digital film event last November, Cass Business School is hosting a lecture by David Puttnam on The Impact of Digital Technology on the Film Industry: Opportunity or Threat? on 2 June.

Here's the link for more details and registration. It's free (including the drinks) and less than 200m from my front door, so I'll be there for sure...

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.

28 April 02004

Mobile information appliances for museums

Earlier this month, the UK's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) announced its support for a project to develop hand-held, touch-screen, wireless computers that will 'offer a host of relevant information including text, video, pictures and sound' when pointed at a museum exhibit.

The breathless stream-of-buzzwords tone is probably just par for the course in press releases, which invariably concentrate on technological fetishism rather than boring old human behaviour. This project is interesting for showing what's technologically possible; but it's unclear how much attention will be given to the ways in which people's habitual and preferred behaviour in the social space of a museum will affect use of the technology.

Continue reading "Mobile information appliances for museums"

15 April 02004

Online art review

The Furtherfield web site is an online platform for the creation, promotion, criticism and archiving of adventurous digital/net art.

I've joined the team of reviewers, and you can read and discuss my first review — of Linda Duvall's Stained Linen.

6 April 02004

David Byrne and the (bogus) PowerPoint art debate

Last autumn there was a flurry of comment spurred by Wired pitching Information Design guru Edward Tufte against artist and musician David Byrne on the pros and cons of Microsoft's PowerPoint software. Tufte argued that PowerPoint is Evil for "elevating format over content", while, in Learning to Love PowerPoint, Byrne said "I soon realized I could actually create things that were beautiful... and use [PowerPoint] as an artistic agent."

The gist of Tufte's argument is easy to grasp for anyone who's sat through interminable slides of bullet points. But David Byrne's brief essay is more oblique, and the examples of his slides available on the web — links below — don't make much of a case themselves. thumbnail of one of David Byrne's PowerPoint slidesAs a consequence much of the commentary declared Tufte the 'winner' — here's a typical example. Intrigued by the difficulty of pinning down Byrne's use of PowerPoint, I shelled out the £50 for his Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information (EEEI) book/DVD package to take a closer look. It's clear from looking at this that there never was a real 'debate' of any kind between the Byrne and Tufte positions, as Byrne's purpose is in many ways orthogonal to Tufte's.

Continue reading "David Byrne and the (bogus) PowerPoint art debate "

31 March 02004

Impact of DVDs on film aesthetics

There's a very interesting article by Mark Cousins about the implications of the 'DVD revolution' on the film industry in the March issue of Prospect.

DVDs are apparently the "fastest growing entertainment technology of all time," and Cousins suggests some reasons why this technology has been embraced when the introduction of CDs took much longer. For what it's worth, I would add to his reasons the different habits of (a) collecting and (b) repeat viewing/listening that have applied to films and albums respectively in the past.

But the interesting bit is in Cousins' identification of two impacts of the revolution: that weekend box office figures have become an "ancillary revenue stream" rather than the be-all-and-end-all; and "the very idea of what [kind of film] is makeable changes." "Isn't it inevitable that filmmaking aesthetics in the future will be more widely influenced by DVD's appetite for context and rearrangement?" he asks.

Continue reading "Impact of DVDs on film aesthetics "

30 March 02004

BBC Creative Archive and 'Martini Media'

There are several interesting points in this speech by the BBC's Director of New Media & Technology. The points that caught my attention were:

  • the first use I have seen of the term 'Martini Media' — anytime, anyplace, anywhere — to denote a concept I have elsewhere referred to as ubiquitous access;
  • some pointers to the future shape of 'BBC On Demand' and the pilot of an Internet Media Player;
  • more news about the BBC's "Creative Archive [which] will give everyone in the UK the freedom to search for and access clips from the BBC's television and radio archives via bbc.co.uk. They will be able to download clips free of charge and use them in a way that will enable them, we hope, to explore their own interests more fully. The clips won't expire, users will be able to keep them forever and will be able to manipulate and add to them."
Continue reading "BBC Creative Archive and 'Martini Media'"

10 March 02004

George Lucas on aesthetics of digital film making

At the end of an extremely hagiographic article about George Lucas, which casts him as the originator of just about every technological innovation in cinema in the last 30 years, and even compares his role to David Bowie's Thomas Newton character in The Man Who Fell to Earth, there are some very sanguine comments from Lucas himself:

Digital imaging is a tool of cinema, just like the camera is a tool and the projector is a tool... They aren't new tools, they're simply improvements on the tools that already exist and have always existed... And a camera is a camera is a camera so it doesn't really make any difference on a practical level. You frame the film the same and you light the film the same — the aesthetics are exactly the same.

Which I take as further support for my instinct that, if 'D-cinema' is going to have cultural and aesthetic impacts, these will be come about from the increased range of material that it will be possible to project to significant numbers of people, using networks and low-cost production facilities — not from new kinds of big budget films. And because some of these changes might require changes to the 'darkened hall' physical architecture of cinemas themselves, it will be decades rather than years before the impacts are fully felt.

More background in this old posting. And thanks again to E-cinema Alert for the original link.

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"

15 February 02004

Digital versus analogue

This article reports how the American Society of Cinematographers is responding to digital cinema (with thanks to the E-cinema Alert for this link). While they seem to be embracing digital cinema, it's interesting to read the comment that 'major' movies are expected to be shot on film for many years yet: "The studios are not, as a rule, going to spend 60, 80, 100 million dollars on movies shot digitally, and it actually benefits the intermediate process because film provides more information to extract."

Compare this with the debates about audio recording formats, including this choice quote from Neil Young about digital recording throwing the baby out with the bathwater: "along with the hiss went depth of sound and the myriad possibilities of the high end where everything is like the cosmos, exploding stars, echo. From the 80s on, no records contain that kind of quality any more and those are the very things that stimulate the human body into reacting, feeling, and enjoying music."

11 February 02004

Why digitise cultural collections?

The Facet Publishing web site currently has a free download of the first chapter of Lorna Hughes' recent book, Digitizing Collections: strategic issues for the information manager. This 28-page chapter introduces the costs and benefits of digitisation in a very straightforward and easy-to-read manner.

The book appears to be aimed mainly at curators, librarians and other managers of collections, particularly linked to universities. Its focus is more on higher education, research and scholarship than what might called 'lifelong learning for the rest of us.'

Continue reading "Why digitise cultural collections?"

29 January 02004

Notes and resources on digital cinema

Here are some extended notes and links on digital cinema (aka D-cinema, aka E-cinema). I'm not an expert in this field, but I dip into it occasionally, and what follows is principally an exercise for my own benefit in collecting my notes and thoughts — if anyone else finds this of interest, so much the better. Such commentary as there is is not deeply considered: just my usual prejudices.

Firstly, should it be D-cinema or E-cinema? I quote from this authoritative Canadian source on the subject: "E-cinema or electronic cinema is both a generic term incorporating both D-cinema or digital cinema and E-cinema when it is specifically used to describe a less expensive form of digital cinema with lower levels of illumination and definition." In the latter context, E-cinema is about half the resolution of D-cinema (measured in thousands of lines), and less than half the price. D-cinema is claimed to have the same quality as 35mm film projection, as currently used in most cinemas.

Continue reading "Notes and resources on digital cinema"

16 January 02004

Are long periods of copyright ownership ever justified?

I'm just back from the RSA's Music and Technology conference. I found the arguments for shortening, or at least halting the lengthening, of periods of copyright ownership quite persuasive. When it was invented copyright, apparently, lasted for 14 years before lapsing or being renewed. Now it lasts, willy nilly, until 70 years after the originator's death in Europe and America. When Lawrence Lessig suggested that few businesses depend on planned revenue streams more than 14 years in the future, that sounded right, and I was on his side for a bunch of reasons.

But then David Vaver inadvertently got my goat by referring mockingly to the case of Mike Batt compensating the estate of John Cage for infringing the copyright of his 'silent piece' 4'33". I am grateful for being angered because this made me review my conclusions again. The example of John Cage makes one of the best cases for extended copyright ownership. Here's why.

Continue reading "Are long periods of copyright ownership ever justified?"

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"

10 December 02003

RSA Music and Technology event - 15 January

I mentioned in an earlier posting about the future of music about the RSA's forthcoming programme on music and technology, the RSA web site now has details of the first event, entitled Policy Frameworks for the Future. It's on 15 January 2004, the day after Lawrence Lessig, noted commentator on Intellectual Property Rights in the digital age, gives an RSA lecture called Getting the law out of the way.

Apologies for the scarcity of postings recently, which will continue until after I have moved office and home on 16 December.

1 December 02003

Digital cinema and changing film aesthetics

Thanks to planning my move of home/office, it's taken me over a week to collect my thoughts on a debate on the impact of digital technologies on the film industry, which was organised by Cass Creatives. Happily this delay has saved me time, since Interactive KnowHow has now posted a comprehensive eight page report on the event. Together with their background paper on the issues involved, these make very useful resources.

I've complained in the past about discussions of music and technology ignoring aesthetics, but happily this debate did address how digital techniques and formats are tied together with changes in the process and product of film-making, and in consumption. My notes concentrate only on these topics in the debate, and a few points not covered in the report.

Continue reading "Digital cinema and changing film aesthetics"

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.)

15 November 02003

Larking about with Sonic Art

For the last few Saturdays I've been doing Thomas Gardner's Sonic Arts course at the Mary Ward Centre. Today we moved from theory to practice, and started experimenting with applying various effects to soundscape recordings we'd made, using Max/MSP for the treatments.

There will be a performance of our collective composition, using live manipulations of our recordings, spoken text, and possibly my cracklebox, on 13 December. I quite like the recordings I made in their untreated state, so I've made mp3 versions of the sound of refuse collection outside my window — which I often get twice a day on weekdays — and a snippet of a journey on a Thameslink train (each is 1 minute long, and just under 1.2 MB).

Continue reading "Larking about with Sonic Art"

5 November 02003

"Intelligent Street" Interactive Music

I'm just back from the UK launch of the Intelligent Street installation at University of Westminster's Harrow Campus. I believe it should be running there for some time (months, or even a year) — though security is tight at the campus so it's not easy just to drop in.

The concept is fairly simple: music is played in a public space and the people in that space can send one-word SMS commands via their phones, such as 'dark,' 'cheesy,' 'energise,' and the music adapts accordingly. The music is produced on four channels using SuperCollider, and it can adapt to combinations of up to ten commands at a time (so, using the commands given above, you hear music that is dark, cheesy, and energetic all at once).

Intelligent Street is probably best seen more as R&D than art, but as project team member Mark d'Inverno suggested to me, it could also have educational applications, such as drawing schoolchildren in to understanding what qualities in music make it dark, cheesy or energetic.

25 October 02003

"Culture Online" first projects announced

The UK Government has announced the first seven projects it will be supporting under the £13 million Culture Online initiative.

The objectives of this initiative include "to open up our cultural institutions to the wider community, to promote lifelong learning and social cohesion [and to] extend the reach of new technologies and build IT skills and support wider and richer engagement and learning by all adults." Although announced by the Arts Minister, Culture Online is also intended to link to Curriculum Online, which is run by the Department for Education and Skills.

It will be interesting to see how well these projects fulfil the criteria of good culture and/or good learning.

Continue reading ""Culture Online" first projects announced"

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"

10 October 02003

Audio and Image: running commentaries on films

The current (Nov 2003) issue of Word magazine includes a feature that rates some of the best and worst DVD commentaries — where those involved in making the film add their views on films, scene by scene. Thus apparently John Boorman reflects candidly on some of his mistakes in making Zardoz, while This is Spinal Tap has a spoof commentary with the characters getting their own back on the director who made such an unflattering portrait of them.

I'm interested in these commentaries because they represent another category in my list of 'para-texts' that aim to augment artworks, including indexes of novels and multimedia about paintings.

Continue reading "Audio and Image: running commentaries on films"

7 October 02003

Longplayer: 1,000 Year Composition

The Dome from across the Thames This picture was taken last Saturday, when I visited the Trinity Buoy Wharf lighthouse to see Jem Finer's Longplayer. Since then, the Longplayer web site has been overhauled, and the message about the funding of the project prompts me to explain why I think you should visit and/or donate funds, as I have done.

I first heard the idea of making music for 'the big here and the long now' from — you guessed it — Brian Eno. That phrase is intended to conjure a way of seeing ourselves beyond the confines of parochial concerns and short attention spans. Some of Eno's chums decided to do something about this, since cultural re-engineering is very much the bag of people like Stewart Brand and Bruce Sterling (you can just imagine the dinner party where this was conceived, can't you?), and they established the Long Now Foundation. You can spot a citizen of the Long Now by the way they write their dates, with a leading 0 on the year — as in 02003 — to remind us that the two millenia in what people like Julian Cope refer to as the 'Common Era' are just the blink of an eye in the big picture. I'd do this myself on this site if I could only work out how to hack the Movable Type code to do it! [Update: I eventually figured that out.]

Continue reading "Longplayer: 1,000 Year Composition"

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"

16 September 02003

Kafka Lite

sample page from Peter Kuper's book, copyright 2003 The Crown Publishing Group Peter Kuper's 're-imagining' of Kafka's Metamorphosis as a graphic novel (you know: comic for grown-ups) has in turn been excerpted as an entertaining animated multimedia sequence (requires Flash). Worth a look if you have three minutes to spare.

With acknowledgement to Booksurfer where I found this.

6 September 02003

Digital Film Distribution: mitigated success

BBC News tells the story of the first official launch of a feature film on the internet which apparently was a victim of its own success — or more precisely the success of its promotion — on its opening yesterday evening. "Overwhelming demand from the public to see the movie caused the site's streaming facility to crash."

The film is This is Not a Love Song, but whether or not it is working again now, I can't tell you because the site tells me "This is not Windows". Damn right. You have to have an operating system and application software from Microsoft, so the multiplex mentality is still present in essence if not in the practical details.

5 September 02003

Multimedia Soundtoys 1996/2003

Writing my review of the multimedia elements of the Tate E-learning portal reminded me of another review I wrote seven years ago. Back then CD-ROMs were still seen as new and a bit experimental. I thought there was a rich vein to be mined at the point where new multimedia 'toy' and game interfaces were used to make/manipulate/re-mix music. I thought the Header CD-ROM from Tui Interactive Media was the best example I'd seen of this at the time.

I hoped to stir up some of my comrades in the Usability/Human-Computer Interaction professions by championing something quite different from the interactive 'systems' we were used to working on. I failed in that and my other objective, but before I go into the details, and how things have changed in this field since 1996, here's the historical article, originally published in the British HCI Group's Interfaces magazine.

Review of Header #1 CD-ROM, September 1996

This CD-ROM challenges much of the received wisdom about usability and multimedia. From the opening screen — where the menu choices swirl in orbit and depth of focus, challenging you and the cursor to 'catch' one of them — it confounds conventions of user control and user feedback. This can be a risky tactic, and many recent multimedia titles have sacrificed even basic usability in the name of innovation. But with Header the risks mostly pay off. In the process, it presents its musical content in a range of settings which subtly reframe our ideas of what recorded music is, and what interaction with music can be.

Continue reading "Multimedia Soundtoys 1996/2003"

30 June 02003

Imaginary Evidence by Forced Entertainment

Imaginary Evidence, the Forced Entertainment CD-ROM to which I contributed, is now pretty much complete, and should be available soon. Contact Forced Entertainment direct for more details.

Continue reading "Imaginary Evidence by Forced Entertainment"

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"

28 May 02003

Visconti weblinks

I've curated a set of weblinks for the Luchino Visconti season at the Showroom Cinema - reviews, essays and historical background to the major films.