Monday, September 15, 2014

U2’s free album, the music industry, and metadata

Not actually on vinyl, which is kind of the point.

So, as many of you know, the band U2 came out with their new album this week, Songs of Innocence, with very little foreshadowing. And they released the album by letting anyone who has iTunes download it for free between its release and October 13. In fact, the songs just appeared in everyone's library. I won’t spend much time reviewing the album, because you probably can listen to it for yourself. If you would like a review, you can read this one from Peter Tabakis, which I pretty much agree with. In summary, it’s a pretty good album, well-produced, with great (but maybe not outstanding) songs. It’s supposed to come from Bono’s late 1970’s mind, kind of like a memoir. Fear is a big theme.

Instead of “how good is it?”, the question I would rather answer is “why did they give it out for free?”, which is how people will probably remember the album, anyway.

U2 doesn’t need to make money on albums. In fact, albums sold on iTunes make very little for most musicians. U2 makes money is touring and licensing. So, this album and its strange release was about publicity for them and for Apple, which wants everyone to put everything on their cloud (and which has suffered some from the recent iCloud celebrity picture scandal).

While I know now that my iTunes music can be stored on the cloud, I’m not convinced by this release that I should keep my files there. For one thing, there was the big flub with the Songs of Innocence digital booklet. Unless a user visited the iTunes store, searched in their “recently purchased music” folder, and downloaded the album again, the digital booklet did not load. Besides showing that cloud downloading is not quite infallible, Apple’s mistake goes to show that the digital music industry doesn't really care about metadata. Which I already knew from the dearth of information filled in on the music I’ve downloaded already and the woefully inadequate or wrong genre labels that are sometimes assigned.

I should also note that only big acts like BeyoncĂ© succeed when they release an album out of nowhere. Most albums or songs take longer to get the top compared with just few years ago. Look at Meghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass”, which is currently at the #1 spot on Billboard—it took about four months from its release to get to that spot, and that's pretty quick compared to some indie music being released.

Vocab: metadata

Monday, September 8, 2014

Alex Ross and the Classical Cloud

Is your music okay up there? From

This week in The New Yorker, classical music critic and writer Alex Ross wrote an essay about the state and future of online classical music. You can read the whole essay here.

Amidst some dalliances about his favorite obscure classical music, Ross does not look kindly on the state of today's online classical music. Is he just an old curmudgeon dreaming of the good-old past, or are these concerns not quite so easily dispelled?

I think his main concern with online music is quite solid: online albums don't make as much money for the artists as physical copies (nor do the streaming services),
unless artists are already famous, making it less sustainable for the long-term creative marketplace. This the main reason I still buy physical albums myself (aside that online music is usually licensed, instead of bought). Ross also suggests that physical record collectors are now seen as hoarders, carrying around shelves of albums when a small hard drive or even the ethereal cloud storage could do. As someone in the middle of a move now, I think he may have a point, especially since those little plastic boxes usually end up a landfill (I'm glad many CDs are now packaged in cardboard, but the CD itself is still there).
Ross's other problems with online music, however, bear some additional scrutiny, especially from a music librarian's perspective: online browsing capabilities are severely limited and liner notes with their pictures and information are often absent. These problems are not insurmountable, however. A browsing tool could be developed (albeit with difficulty), and liner notes and other metadata could be added to make an online collection more searchable and informative. However, this kind of data detail and development takes time and money for which neither music producers or consumers seeming willing to pay, at this point.
It should also not be difficult to create a "Listen Again Pile" online tool; in fact, I do this already with a "listen again" playlist in iTunes.
So, is the moral of story that consumers should just be willing to pay more for their music and the information attached to it? Maybe. But the draw of online music is partially based on being freely or cheaply available, so perhaps some other monetization strategy needs to be developed. Which I guess is literally the million (if not billion) -dollar question.

Vocab: metadata

Monday, September 1, 2014

Video: the History of Jazz Piano in 11.5 minutes

This YouTube video released several months ago by pianist Kris Bowers and his band takes you through the history of style of one instrument—jazz piano—since its inception in the late 1800s to today. In less time than it takes to cook pasta. 

What I really like about this video is how Bowers 1) gives us a taste of all these styles with musical examples, 2) does it in real time, and 3) plays it all himself.  What a performance!

While I disagree with the reductiveness of the video (such as the claim that one person inviting ragtime or the stride style, for example), I understand that in the short time they had, they gave their audience of lot of really interesting information. They also understandably spend much more time on the present day than warranted, and perhaps too much time on Herbie Hancock, important as he is.

For more commentary on the video, I first saw the video linked from the NPR Jazz blog, a Blog Supreme by Patrick Jarenwattananon. Enjoy!

Vocab: ragtime, stride

Monday, August 25, 2014

AV Preservation at the Library of Congress, Part II: "There is no average life span for a CD"

Same CD, different results. From the Library of Congress report discussed below.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about IRENE, a tool used by the Library of Congress to lift the audio from vinyl discs and wax cylinders without actually touching them. This week, NPR documented another research project of LOC's preservation arm: CD longevity research.

While CDs will last longer than magnetic tape media, many types of CDs are not built to last. To complicate preservation more, CDs (like other digital media) are hardware and software dependent (I'm sure many of you have noticed that many laptop computers do not even have CD drives in them any more). But laying the access problem aside, this study for the Library of Congress attempts to answer the questions: How long can the physical compact disc last before becoming corrupted? How well and it what way does the CD age? 

The short (and unfortunate) answer is this: it depends. There happens to be a wide range in the quality of CDs produced. Climate control and limiting use, however, does make a difference in increasing longevity. Click here to read the full report, or here to read the LOC summary. Obviously, more studies are needed. I was able to meet one of the people mentioned in the NPR article, Fenella France, as she told our tour group about this research, and I got to see in person the CDs shown above, both artificially aged to very different results. While CDs are more likely to become completely obsolete than vinyl, there are still vast stores of information that are only on CDs, and a huge part of some libraries' collections are on CD. In other words, these questions will only get more important.

Vocab: magnetic tape, compact disc, vinyl

Monday, August 18, 2014

"I guess the show's going on": album review of Nickel Creek: A Dotted Line

Image from Amazon

Well, they're back. I'll be the first to admit I didn't think this record would happen—at least not anytime soon. After various solo and group projects (including Sara Watkin's Sun Midnight Sun and various Punch Brothers' albums), Nickel Creek—surprise!—has returned from their hiatus with a new album and tour. Despite the success of Chris Thile's Punch Brothers and various other solo albums, he has yet to reach the popularity of Nickel Creek at their peak, suggesting that collaborating with Sean and Sara Watkins brings something out of Chris that appeals to a wider audience. I do think it shows some humility on Chris's part to take a step back and let other people have the spotlight after being the most successful soloist of the trio. I wrote recently about Nickel Creek's first three albums, the history behind them, and the term Newgrass with which they've been labeled, and today I'll review their new album, A Dotted Line. Can this album live up to the genius of the previous three albums?

For this album, Sean and Chris seem to share the bulk of the songwriting (all three are listed on the music credits for the original songs, but lyrics are attributed individually), though Sara did pen the lead single "Destination." Sean's songs are more in the tradition of classic bluegrass than Chris's, but even with the modern twists (like the ironic "21st of May", about a preacher proclaiming the date of the second coming), I think they are good enough to become classics. Chris' songs ("Rest of my Life," "Elsie," "You Don't Know What's Going On") are much less traditional than Sean's, but perhaps less experimental than Chris's recent work. "Rest of my Life" is a fitting start for the album, a song contemplating starting over after finishing something big. Although Sara Watkin's solo record showed that she is the least talented of the three creatively (and she takes a secondary role in creation here) her violin and vocal prowess (especially in the cover "Where is Love Now?") contribute greatly to the album.

"Elephant in the Corn" is classic Nickel Creek—taking the stylings of bluegrass and twisting them just enough that it's refreshing but still in the same genre. The song changes moods several of times, of course with with a languorous bass solo by Edgar Meyer. The title gives it away—instead of "Turkey in the Straw," this instrumental track features an exotic animal in a bluegrass setting. As fun as "Hayloft" is (and they seem to have the most fun doing other people's songs), I was disappointed that they turned to electronics for this cover, especially considering the group's previous successful forays into the acoustification of electronic music, though the electronics were mostly limited to one riff.

I think A Dotted Line is an apt title. While Nickel Creek continues to encircle bluegrass, keeping roots there, the dotted boarder allows other influences to get in and out. The album has the charm of bluegrass, but with more complexity and quirkiness. A Dotted Line has all the things we've come to expect from Nickel Creek: modern lyrics that twist bluegrass themes, interesting textures, unexpected chords, irregular phrase lengths, and complex forms. We can't predict what will happen in the song , but looking back after listening, we can tell they are tightly constructed.

Is this album on par with the other Nickel Creek albums? It took me a couple of listens to really get into it, and I don't think it has quite the charm, power, catchiness, or novelty of the previous records, but still I think it's a solid effort. All three are great vocalists AND instrumentalists, which is not something that happens much in groups, and they show off both here. None of the songs are throw-aways, and strangely many often get more interesting near their end. Mostly, it's great to hear these childhood friends making music again.

What did you think of the album?

Vocab: theme, texture, phrase