Monday, July 20, 2015

Music news round up #2

This week, here are some more music articles that I found interesting to read:

1. An article about a scientific study looking for the universalities in music across disparate cultures. The result? Small scales, arching or descending melodies, rhythms based two or four beats, and men singing. Of course, there are many outliers, and this article is dumbed down from the actual research. And I wonder if the focus on men might be a bias by the people who put together the body of work they analyzed, the Garland Encyclopedia of World Music, though probably not.

2. An article about the lack of transparency in the music industry about where the money goes. "Anywhere from 20-50 percent of music payments don't make it to their rightful owners." You can hear a somewhat related story in a recent Planet Money podcast about manufacturing the song of the summer (rebroadcast from 2011) and how much money the industry gambles on making a hit.
3. An article about rape and abuse of teenagers by people in Rock & Roll. If you weren't aware already, an industry focused on sex can have some really bad side effects. Eye-opening and horrifying, perhaps, but not surprising. (P.S. unlike the other two, this article doesn't have a picture of Taylor Swift).

Happy reading and/or listening!

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The ethics of field recording

Ethnomusicology has changed as the world has become more egalitarian. Instead of the white man showing up in a small village, setting up a wax cylinder or microphone, recording some volunteers, and then selling the recording for their own scholarship or profit with little or no attribution, native performers are now getting more credit and monetary rewards for being recorded.

But how do we correct the wrongs that have been done in the past? Well, museums are giving back pieces of art work and historical objects that had been stolen. Sometimes, this is called repatriation (though the Elgin marbles are not going back to Greece anytime soon). Can we do that with recorded music, too?

Well, NPR did a story recently about someone trying this approach, going to a village to give back music recorded 65 years before:

Besides a delightful vignette of villagers singing their version of Jimmie Rodgers the man-eater, this story touches on a limit of this approach of musical repatriation: who has CD players? Not these villagers.

In librarian terms, this is a recording preservation issue—in order to preserve and play back a recording, you need a specific machine, and those machines aren’t as prevalent as the recordings. Case in point: they don’t even make VHS players anymore (in fact, I would bet that there are more 33 1/3 players than VHS players nowadays). CD players will probably die out faster than CDs do (I’m giving them another 30 years). But there, I guess, is a root of the field recorder’s problem—when the recordings were made originally, these villagers were not ready to keep and maintain the recording machine or preserve the recordings; and it looks like they still don’t really have a preservation plan. Does everyone making a field recording need to also teach that culture how to maintain a playback machine and store the recording? It seems a tall, perhaps impossible order in some cases. But even if the culture could keep and preserve the "original" recording, music recordings are inherently a copy, so we can’t really return the object as is the case with physical art.

So, while music repatriation is an interesting idea, and could certainly work in some cases, I think we’ll have to use other approaches to paying people back for music exploitation most of the time. Or at least, when an ethnomusicologist finds a new music-making populace and before they start to record, they should think for a while about ethics and how a recording could best benefit that particular population.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Signifying Sound and Fury's Apple Music review: discovery limits and metadata woes

It's all shiny and colorful now...but what's on the inside?

This week saw the release of the long-awaited Apple Music, a music streaming service. Although I’ve never tried a streaming service before (besides Pandora Radio, which is a very different model), I decided to try out the free trial period, and I’ve been playing around with it this week.

Although the New York Times’ initial reaction stated that the Apple music’s design was strong, I would argue that there’s some big problems with discovery and metadata (which is a big part of discovery), among other small issues.


The first thing a person encounters when signing up for the service is a bunch of bubbles with artist names. I thought these bubbles were weird—setting aside the limited genres, even when I kept hitting the “more artists” button, I was surprised at how few artists were featured. Also, once you’ve selected some artists as your favorites, liked bubbles stick around on the screen while the new artists come in, limiting the number you can pick. Why did I need to pick favorites among such few artists? Pandora’s system, with thumbs up and thumbs down when you here the song, makes much more sense. Supposedly, the new heart system (you can heart both songs or albums), similar to Pandora’s system, also leads to more personalized “For You” results, despite me adding lots of hearts, I haven’t really seen any change in my “For You” recommendation tabs. Also, even when I have gone back and un-liked on artist I initially had liked, the recommendations did not change. And why can’t we heart by artist, as well?

While you can always search for artists or albums (though this was difficult to find, too), the other main problem is the limited ways to browse to discover music. There are only two ways I can see to browse music: the “For You” tab (a list of playlists and albums created by your preferences and supposedly your “hearts”), and the “New” tab (a curated list of new music). Why aren’t there any other ways to browse music? It’s pretty easy to browse by genre in the iTunes store; why can’t this functionality be used for streaming music? And if I browse music genres in the iTunes Store, iTunes doesn't make it easy to stream that music; you have to go back and search in Apple Music (which involves a couple of other clicks). Also, why not, like Spotify, allow Apple Music users to see playlists from friends (note: you can share playlists, but it is limited and hard to do) or search user-created shared playlists? (Apple Music also has lot of “radio stations” that I haven’t explored yet, but those again are curated lists).


But a larger issue here is metadata. Pandora is meticulous about their metadata, creating an entire genome of metadata about a song. As I already know from the data I normally get when I download an album, Apple’s metadata is limited to say the least. I frequently change genres and have my own list of genres that I use because my own collection is so big, I need to discover it again myself. Some of my albums I’ve even recently bought don’t have album covers uploaded, to say nothing of the beaten-up albums I bought used at library sales (which form a large part of my collection). I don’t know how well Apple can coordinate good radio stations or playlists when their metadata and genre distinction is so bad. One of the worst offenders: iTunes thinks that “Artist1 (feat. Artist2)” does not mean that "Artist1" is the artist of a song; sometimes iTunes even creates a different album for these qualified statements of responsibility.

Apple Music albums seem to have even less metadata than the iTunes store version of the album, such as the day the album is released, the popularity of tracks on the albums (which I find very useful), or reviews. Wouldn’t it be easy to just transfer that information over? But of course, neither platform includes musicians on the record or composition credits or liner notes.

Other problems

Besides the main problems of browsing and metadata, there are some other problems:
1. I was forced to sync my music with iCloud, which I have resisted until now. This sync took a very long time because I have a lot of music, and was not very effective; Apple is very bad at matching your songs to the versions they hold in the cloud, probably because of the bad metadata.

2. I signed up for the family account, but it was not intuitive at all how to add other people to account. In fact, I discovered that other family users have to be Apple users to share the account; so this option won’t work for people with iTunes on their PCs (iTunes homesharing was removed, too).

3. One creepy thing: Apple Music Connect figured out which music artists I’m already following on Twitter. On the other hand, if they are going to be that creepy, why couldn’t they use that information to tell which artists I already like to add to the "For You" recommendations?

4. Unlike many people, I’m not connected to the internet all the time, so streaming doesn’t work the best for me on the road. Apple Music, however, does allow users to download songs for listening later, which would be awesome except that my iPod touch is too old to have the latest OS or iTunes app.


My take-away for Apple Music: like other streaming services, you can find a lot of music, but it is hard to use, doesn’t allow for music discovery beyond their narrow scope, and does not use metadata at all well, even metadata that is already available to them. Right now, I’m planning on enjoying many albums I haven’t yet had the chance to hear (from lists I’ve curated myself from friend recommendations and new music podcasts), but at the moment, I don’t plan to renew once my free trial is up. On the other hand, maybe even the bad service is worth $10 a month—though I’m not optimistic that much of this money will trickle down to the artists making the music.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Politics appriopriating music: Trump vs. Young

Some of you might have seen Donald Trump's announcement of his presidential campaign. Among the many strange things that happened during the event was Trump's use of Neil Young's song "Rockin’ in the Free World." One of the first people to protest was Neil Young himself, who does not support Trump. While Trump's campaign claims they bought the rights to use the song, there turns out to be something extra needed when the song is used in a political context—seeking the permission of the songwriter. This misappropriation of songs for campaigns is not a new story; as this NPR story explains, there is a long list of songs that have been used in political campaigns that have received cease-and-desist requests.

But something stranger than use without permission is going on here—the lyrics of "Rockin’ in the Free World" (and many of the other songs misused by political campaigns) directly contradict the politics of the candidate using the song. It turns out that the music of this rock song (or at least the chorus) is powerful enough to be appropriated out of context and in spite of the lyrics (which are difficult to understand sometimes, anyway). If you want to read a theory explaining how this appropriation works, check out this excellent piece by Liam Viney of the Conversation, who does a great job of using music vocabulary to construct his argument. And thanks to Will Owen, who brought Viney's column to my attention.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Pop music as genre fiction

Musical genre.

We use musical genre labels all the time for important reasons: to try to make sense of the overwhelming selection available, to signal the generational influence of this music to older music, and to sell recordings (the main reason why genres were developed by record companies).

Sometimes, though, I ask myself: why are so many pop songs about love and sex, when there are so many other emotional things to write about? Why do so many groups use the same instrumentation? Why are songs within a genre of similar length? If you ask these questions to artists or record producers, I imagine the answer might be “well, that is how pop music is done” or “if we do it that way, it will probably sell,” or “that’s the way I learned to do it.” But I want to dig a little deeper.

To try and make more sense of how musical genres operate, I’ve recently started thinking about music genre (pop music genres especially) in terms of literary genre fiction, such as science fiction, fantasy, romance, or mystery novels. People enjoy having variations on their favorite theme in popular literature, and the same is true in popular music. I myself read the science fiction/fantasy genres almost exclusively. Here are some ways that pop music genres are similar to genre fiction (or course, as with any generalizations, there are exceptions).

Songs in the same popular music genre usually share:

1. Similar vocabularies, both musically and lyrically
Literary genres have themes and similar protagonists, and this happens in popular genres, too. You wouldn’t have a punk song that is gushingly romantic because it would seem out of place, musically and culturally.

2. Similar structures
Like the hero’s journey in novels (especially fantasy), pop music has developed a length and structure (ABABCB), though some popular genres will stretch the length of this form or have their own common structure. Of course, the popular form changes over time, just like romance novels have evolved over time—for example, for a long time the favorite popular American music structure was AABA, which in turn evolved from an extra long chorus.

3. Similar themes
For much of pop music, that theme is love and sex, but we know that country music or death metal have their own conventions.

4. Subgenres
Each genre has divisions, with different people carving out their own favorite repeated themes, or narrative structure.

5. Similar ways of distribution
For SciFi/Fantasy, it’s a book trilogy; for music genres, it would be an album with a certain number of tracks or a length. Pop musicians have to put out an album, even if everyone knows there is only going to be three good songs on it.

So why would analyzing popular music
this way be useful? It has certainly proven useful for literature—genre theory is a big field among literary academics, but it isn't quite so developed in music. I think this type of genre classification could be helpful for composers/songwriters, too, because once genre conventions have been identified, it is easier to break barriers and mix things up; it is exciting to have someone take a well-known genre convention and either use the themes, structures, and vocabularies better or differently than the rest of their genre, or bend the genre expertly enough that the old genre is apparent in the new piece of art.

I’m sure there is much more to say about this, but I’ll stop for now. Is comparing music genres with genre fiction helpful for you at all? Or is it unhelpful?