Music as app

The New York Times on Bjork’s latest album, offered as an app/interactive experience:

via Wikipedia

The traditional, linear version of “Biophilia,” released this month, can be downloaded from services like iTunes. The far more exciting option is to acquire the “Biophilia” program from the iPad App Store. Alas, the iPad is the only device that delivers the full experience. But what an experience…

On the iPad screen a galaxy unfolds that you can twist and zoom and pan. Each of the 10 major stars represents a song. When you tap a star, you are offered ways to explore, understand and interact with the tune. There are lyrics and detailed musical analyses. You can watch a scrolling score of the song or simply listen as a colorful visualization passes by.

The real magic happens when you press “play.” That doesn’t tell the machine to play the song; it means it’s time for you to play the song.

Bjork and her team have created a small visual toolbox for each track. A few, like “Crystalline,” play much like a simple video game. In “Crystalline” you tilt and swivel the iPad to add colorful crystals to a growing agglomeration as you zoom along neon tunnels. It is one of the few elements of “Biophilia” in which you are not controlling the sound. Instead you are having a visual and motor-control experience meant to complement it.

Major points here. The one thing I do wonder: sure users can manipulate the songs within the confines/design of the app. But what about outside that? In some sense this seems like a major step forward in terms of producing “music” and offers users a fairly thin set of new options for experiencing it. But do those users really have control to fully reimagine it? Or can they only do so within the narrow mechanics of the artist’s vision? In other words, if listening is the ultimate experience-the-artist’s vision and remixing is creating an entirely new vision, this seems like a middle ground. Still working within the confines of the artist’s vision, but in a new way. So still huge points for creativity. All I’m suggesting is that this might not be a new bar for user control.

Spotify killing piracy

Via The Atlantic Wire:

Spotify is increasingly looking like a winning strategy for record companies trying to fight piracy. A new industry survey from Sweden where Spotify started reports that the rise of the streaming music service has coincided with a 25 percent drop in people stealing music over the past two years. In fact, streaming services are the most popular way for Swedes to consume music with over 40 percent of people surveyed admitting to using a streaming service versus less than 10 percent who confess to pirating. This is good news for the company that’s always billed itself to record companies and consumers alike as an alternative to stealing.

As I wrote in this screed of a post, bolstering the music industry should be seen as a major negative if you’re someone interested in the end of industrial music and a return to folk music culture. (I’m using folk to denote a model of production, not a genre.)

If your first instinct is “Well, at least the artists are getting paid” think again. It’s not at all clear that artists are winners in the Spotify model. Nor is it clear that producing music was ever really a very profitable exercise for artists themselves.

Meanwhile, Spotify is partnering with Facebook, which only furthers my concern that we are ceding too much control to a handful of companies in a way that is fundamentally at odds with what has been the ethos of the web.

(Btw, if you want to get a sense of what it actually costs to produce a record – which is relevant here if indirectly – I posed that question at Quora. Short answer: a few grand to do it decently. $20-30k for a professional-level album. However, big stars pay way more for well known producers.)

Dear Spotify: the internet is bigger than you

Spotify is awesome. I’m still going to use it to some degree. But I have a major issue with it that has driven me back to Grooveshark, my previous music streaming service. I don’t download or buy any music, so I’m 100% streaming. Before Spotify that meant a mix of Pandora (especially on mobile when I run), Grooveshark, YouTube, and occasionally MySpace (still a great spot to listen to bands’ stuff). So when Spotify came out I was psyched.

And there is a lot to like. It’s sleek, it has a wide selection (with some annoying gaps), and it’s clean. In particular, there aren’t a million versions of the same song, by and large. And if you select a song, it will play. (On Grooveshark you’ll occasionally get errors.) One downside is that it has ads. If that seems small, it mostly is. But it means, for instance, that you can’t just throw on a Spotify list for a party without your guests wondering why the heck there are random musical interludes followed by pitches to buy the music.

All that would be easy enough to put up with. Except…

Sharing music on Spotify sucks. Sharing with other Spotify users is great; my roommate and I co-created a playlist one night which was a lot of fun. But there is no easy way to share music with non-Spotify users, which is almost everyone. I’m sure Spotify would respond that as it gets more users, this will matter less. But that’s not a good enough answer.

You see, Spotify, the internet is bigger than you. Spotify wants to be the “killer app” for music. It wants to be your browser. This doesn’t feel all that weird for music, since many people are used to reliance on iTunes. But when you think of it in the context of the rest of your internet activity – and specifically your social activity – it’s easy to see that it’s a bad model.

The browser is the web’s “killer app”; everything you do on the web flows through your browser. But there’s a huge difference. Your browser is mostly detached from the content you view online. If you use Firefox that should be particularly clear. Mozilla isn’t responsible for all the web pages available online. Google, creator of Chrome, is responsible for organizing a lot of the web, but even it is mostly not in the content business. Basically, the people who make the content of the web aren’t the same ones who make your browser.

Spotify wants to do both for you with respect to music. They want to be the one with the legal rights to stream all the world’s music AND they want to provide the killer app. They don’t really care about sharing outside of Spotify because they don’t want people to use music outside of Spotify.

That’s bad news.

The internet is bigger and broader than any service, company, or app. That’s why the web is so powerful. It’s not “brought to you” by anyone really. It’s a set of standards that anyone can use to create web pages, build browsers, etc. No one controls each stage of the process by which you log onto the internet and access a web page.

Spotify wants more control. Sure, they aren’t your internet provider. But other than that, with respect to music at least, they want to be everything else. That’s not good. We shouldn’t give any one company such control. (That includes Apple, who has had too singular a presence in much of digital music up until now.) For that reason, we should resist Spotify.

Oh, and also it’s a huge pain in the ass. The thing I love about Grooveshark is that I can link to any song, or to a playlist I’ve made. I can share music with friends and family via email, social media, gchat, etc. As long as they have a web browser, the Grooveshark page will load and they can listen. They don’t need to provide information, download anything, or start using the service themselves. That’s the beauty of the web: everything is a link. Everything can be shared.

Spotify either doesn’t get that or doesn’t care. I’ll still inevitably use it to some extent since it’s great software and a great service. But I won’t be abandoning Grooveshark any time soon.

How bands get paid

This is a fascinating post from an indie band, via Techdirt, laying out how much they get paid for various purchases or listens across platforms. It’s worth a read. But since I took a little heat for my recent post/screed on Spotify and the record companies, I want to share a few highlights from an actual music creator:

If you decide to pay nothing, well, we get nothing, but at least you didn’t give money indirectly to major record labels, which seems to be the case with Spotify!!

And here’s Techdirt:

What really comes through from all of this is that, as has pretty much always been the case with all but a handful of top acts, musicians don’t make much money from selling music. At least, as an indie band, Uniform Motion actually does make some money from all of these methods. If it was a signed band, they’d almost certainly be making zilch on each play or sale, because the label would keep it until they “recouped,” which for nearly every signed act is approximately never.

However, it does drive home the need for ancillary revenue streams — such as performances. Performance revenue has issues too, but to make a living making music, it seems pretty clear that most acts need multiple revenue streams.

The main point I want to make here is that figuring out how to make sure artists can live a comfortable life is mostly divorced from how we actually paid for music in the late 20th century! The centralized record company model was a means for a tiny percentage of artists to make a whole ton of money. Pretty much nothing about that makes sense. Especially now since distribution costs roughly nothing.

There is then the separate question of how a whole class of musical artists should be compensated. We can have that discussion. But let’s start it out by remembering that the answer so far has mostly been they basically didn’t. So when I raise the possibility that maybe they don’t need to, it shouldn’t seem like a totally wild notion.

NYT ignores draconian copyright terms

The New York Times had a lengthy piece on a legal battle between musical artists and the recording industry. Here’s the lede:

When copyright law was revised in the mid-1970s, musicians, like creators of other works of art, were granted “termination rights,” which allow them to regain control of their work after 35 years, so long as they apply at least two years in advance. Recordings from 1978 are the first to fall under the purview of the law, but in a matter of months, hits from 1979, like “The Long Run” by the Eagles and “Bad Girls” by Donna Summer, will be in the same situation — and then, as the calendar advances, every other master recording once it reaches the 35-year mark.

The record companies object, and there seems to be a legal battle shaping up. But nowhere in the article is there any mention of the fact that no one should own these recordings after 35 years!

My brother, a law student, pointed out to me that mine is a normative claim, whereas the article centers around a legal battle. True. But it’s more than that. By the criteria the Constitution sets out for intellectual property, today’s excessive terms clearly fail. The purpose, laid out in the copyright clause, is:

To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

I can’t say it any simpler than this: no one seriously thinks today’s copyright terms are maximizing the creation of art and culture. It’s blatantly obvious that terms could be significantly shorter without any loss in terms of creation. So by the the criteria set out in the constitution, the battle NYT describes is a sideshow; the real story is that copyright terms are out of control.

All I’m asking for is a brief mention. The artists’ “side” is represented, as is the record companies’. What’s missing? The public’s side. This is the tragedy of what political scientists refer to as concentrated benefits/distributed costs. Artists and record companies each gain dramatically from excessive copyright protection. The public loses out, but each individual loses only a little bit, so it’s hard to organize politically to institute more sane policies. That explains the politics of copyright, but one would hope the NYT would go out of its way to give voice to public interest arguments.

Record companies are for it? Then I’m against it.

What is the biggest impediment to a digital read-write folk culture in music today? Draconian intellectual property law, of course, that resists the application of fair use, presumes bad faith, and seeks to intimidate. What accounts for the continued existence of draconian IP in music, and for the over zealous attempts to enforce it? The record companies, obviously.

So what should we say to the fact that Spotify is a darling of the recording industry? Should we rejoice that we finally have a free streaming service that’s immune from legal hassles? No. We should count it as a minus. The worst thing about the otherwise excellent Spotify is that the record companies support it.

Now you might argue that Spotify represents the capitulation of the record companies, as they have finally agreed to make their catalogues freely available under relatively minor restrictions (the free version is interrupted by a good number of ads.) I don’t buy it. The industry didn’t wake up one day and decide it hated making money. So either 1) it sees Spotify as a way to get consumers to start buying music again or 2) it thinks ad revenue is the way to go.

The problem with #1 is that there’s not really any reason why we should have to pay for music now that the cost of delivery is zero. And while I have less of an issue with #2, I’ll believe it when I see it. (See: newspapers.)

Moreover, even to the extent that the recording industry can wring money out of a Spotify model, that represents an impediment to a return to folk culture of the kind that Lessig and others have described. If the recording industry uses Spotify to endlessly advertise their “stars”, any progress they make will come at the expense of unknown artists that might otherwise thrive under the folk model.

I realize I’m working off of a number of assumptions that I’ve not previously blogged, but I just can’t see a digital folk culture for music so long as the record companies are a significant piece of the puzzle. So when you are shopping for a digital music solution, ask “do the record companies like it?” If the answer is Yes, that counts as a negative.


Apple’s music social network, Ping, and a followup on Facebook feeds

After my last post, I had a few conversations with friends about a categorized or sortable Facebook feed.  The point of my post was as much about how Facebook could have better managed the transition from profiles to feeds as it was about categorizing updates, but the latter was, for whatever reason, what I ended up debating.

What I heard from multiple people was, basically, “I don’t use Facebook that way.”  As far as I can tell, my friends mostly use Facebook to post pictures, view pictures, and write on walls.

Perhaps this is the wrong conclusion to draw, but I think this is just more evidence that Facebook is continuing to miss out on an opportunity.  The people I spoke to aren’t thinking about Facebook as a tool for discovering new music, books, interests, etc. because Facebook hasn’t made it easy for them to do so.

If my friends are any indication (and perhaps they’re not?), Facebook users view the platform as a place to see what their friends are up to, and to stay in touch.  They don’t see it as an unprecedented social graph with massive potential to inform and recommend various aspects of their lives.

But that’s what it is.

Perhaps the introduction of a music social network by Apple will spur innovation at Facebook.  After all, is a sortable/categorized news feed really all that much to ask?  Maybe I’m nuts, but I think people would learn to appreciate it quickly.

UPDATE: Apparently, Facebook is testing a feature to “subscribe” to certain friends, to be sure you don’t miss any of their updates.  I have nothing to say about this now, and it’s not directly related to what I’m talking about, but I’ll count it as news feed innovation.