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?

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Streaming round-up

This week, NPR produced a whole slew of articles about streaming music, and with Apple announcing its own streaming service today, it picked a good week. The articles, including the one I wrote about last week, cover a lot of ground. There a lot of interesting points in there, so I recommend that you read all of them. In case you want to be choosey, I'll just list the articles in no particular order with a few points I found interesting in each.

1. Why can't streaming services get classical music right?
I love that this article is about metadata and that it reads like an exposé. And you know what, it is not just classical metadata that streaming services get wrong, as I've written about before. But even Naxos, the hero of this article, could improve on its classical music metadata. Here's another true statement: "If classical recordings can't be found and heard, they functionally cease to exist." Because classical music recordings are such a small chunk of the American music industry, though, no one cares enough to fix it.

2. Streaming utopia: imagining digital music's perfect world 
This article interviews people about their ideal streaming music platform, but mostly focuses on figuring out how musicians can actually make money from streaming. I think that the most interesting idea from this article is from Bjork: why can't the audio streaming world be like video, with a lag between an album's release and the album being added to a streaming service? Sounds good to me.

3. How streaming services are remaking the pop charts
While YouTube, Vevo, and Spotify enter into the billboard rankings, Pandora (the most popular streaming service in America) does not. The article also has some interesting could-have-beens. 

Online streaming music is unstable—we can’t own it or preserve it. And it is not just the music that disappears, it is the context around the music: "When platforms go poof, a lot more disappears than awesome dance vids." There's also a lot of variety on how trustworthy the metadata is: ""Official" archives — those within public libraries, museums, or universities — are better organized, but have been slow to digitize. Spotify has complete albums, but no commentary. YouTube seems to have everything, but because anyone can contribute to it, it can't be trusted as a source." While the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (ARSC), the hero in this article, is putting forth a major effort preserve sound, funding can be hard to find for anyone. 

As I used to consider my musical tastes my defining characteristic, this article struck a chord with me. Streaming services are good for discovery, but actually pretty bad for keeping tabs on your favorites. Spotify seems to be much better suited to collecting songs for different musical contexts than personal playlists. On the other hand, playlists are now the mixtapes of the future.

Looking for some out-of-the-way music? This article might be for you. "Beyond these well-traveled areas lies a vast and generally unmapped terrain governed by collectors, hobbyists, fan clubs, and artists themselves, sharing gold that once could only be found through hours of prospecting in library reading rooms or at record fairs."

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Streaming music: ownership and beyond

I've talked about music and streaming in the past on this blog, but I haven't come close to talking about all the important issues. Today, NPR posted the first article in a series about how streaming music is changing music today, both in the way we listen to music and the music industries themselves. I'm looking forward to reading more about their insights.

One of the big points of today's article is ownership:
"For a large part of the recording industry, the move to embrace streaming actually solves a long-time paradox: one of ownership...Streaming, at least the label-sanctioned version, puts the genie back in the bottle. Every time you click play on a streaming service, from Pandora to YouTube to Spotify, you're licensing the right to listen to the song in that particular moment, whether you pay a subscription or sit through an ad. Ownership is never even an option."
The idea of ownership is important to libraries, which were founded on the idea that because they buy media, they in turn can loan it out. Streaming is a problem for libraries, because even if libraries are allowed to subscribe to streaming services (which is unusual), they still don't own and so can't preserve the media; and we know from experience that media producers aren't very good at preserving their own collections. It is also more expensive for libraries to subscribe to big streaming databases year after year (though they may be given access to a wider selection). The move toward more streaming will cause, and indeed has already caused, some big problems in terms of preservation and access now and in the future.

I also liked the following list of questions from the article, questions that still need to be answered about people's behavior in the face of music streaming:
“Do we listen differently when we have unlimited options? Does the rise of the streaming service eliminate the very need for a library of one's own, or does it just change how we acquire and interact with that library? Do your musical preferences belong to you? What role do listeners play in ensuring the life of music and the livelihood of musicians?”
These are all questions that would warrant at least a blog post, if not a book. Perhaps we'll learn more about these later in NPR's series.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Can a song change your life?

Continuing last week's theme of why humans developed music, this week I want to highlight a recent post from NPR Music's feature The Good Listener, where Stephan Thompson answers the question: "Can a song really save your life?" Here's the original column.

While many of the comments and responses submitted were about people literally being saved by music, many others were about people allowing music to change their lives. NPR Music's All Songs Considered did a follow-up podcast on The Good Listener post and much of the discussion was about these life changes. Here is the follow-up podcast (9 minutes).

I think my favorite part of the podcast is this quote by Stephen Thompson: "Songs are windows into the perspectives of other people...they're windows into other ways of thinking and that can have a very positive impact on your judgement." In other words, because music allows strong emotions to be attached to words, all packaged in patterns made to be attractive to ears and memorable to brains, songs can really get our attention and cause us to think deeply about concepts. As songs are often written from a first-person perspective, these concepts can easily be directly related to ourselves, allowing introspection that may change our behaviors. If we let them, songs can change our perspective, perhaps more easily than other forms of communication.