Monday, September 29, 2014

My New Job: Music Librarian at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa

This week, I started a new job as the music and audiovisual librarian for the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. My assignment (which I haven chosen to accept) is to collect and curate resources and information and help the students and faculty at UHM find said resources and information. I'll be serving the whole university, but with a special mission for the department of music.

And the department of music at UHM is special. For those of you who would like a short introduction, here's a recent video about the music department, narrated by the music department chair Larry Paxton:

The broad range, diversity, and presence of many music cultures at UHM made the job appealing to me and I look forward to serving everyone here. Now, back to work.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Clean Bandit, classical music's influence in pop, and Japaneseness in music

Classical crossover?

Last week I mentioned new artist Megan Trainor and her slow-ish rise on the Billboard charts. This week, I’d like to talk about another new artist whose song is still climbing up near the Billboard top 10, even though it was released last January. This artist is Clean Bandit, and they are a British band whose membership grew out of a classical string quartet. Their heavily-played single is “Rather Be”, and features another British singer Jess Glynne.

When I heard “Rather Be” on the radio for the first time, the classical-sounding opening motive grabbed my attention as something you don’t hear on a top-40s station.

But, though this BBC article about Clean Bandit describes a mixing of classical music and pop, “Rather Be” is not really a classical approach to music—it’s a pop approach that utilizes classical instrumentation and texture. The music is riff-based like pop, formally constructed like a pop song, and uses a pop singer. The riff themselves, however, feature classical instrumentation and stylings (especially the piano and strings) and are heavily layered, probably influenced by classical counterpoint. I think it’s a wonderfully written and produced pop song (unlike their other main song, “Mozart’s House”, which, with its
depressingly confined string parts, doesn't really work).

Besides the classical texture with a pop sensibility, something else about “Rather Be” caught my attention. I thought the song sounded Japanese (even before I heard the word “Kyoto” in the lyrics), and so I was almost unsurprised when the music video was Japanese-themed, too. But the group and singer are British. What made music sound Japanese? I think precisely the same reasons that people want to talk about mixing classical music with pop: the mix of electronic sounds and classical, acoustic instruments. In this song’s case, especially the classical piano that sits on top of the electronic and string texture, which is common in Japanese movie and video game soundtracks.

Metal, baby?

Speaking of Japaneseness in music, I also recently found out about the band Babymetal, an attempt to mix metal music and Japanese culture. Check out "Gimme Chocolate!!" here. Unlike “Rather Be”, I’m not sure the “fusion” really works; it seems that any moment, the music is either metal or J-pop, not a mixture of the two. I enjoy the juxtaposition of the innocuous lyrics with the crazy metal distortion, though. “Megistune” is a little bit more successful in creating a fusion, using "Sakura" and traditional instruments, but still seems more like a one-time gimmick than a fertile, sustainable musical platform. We’ll have to see if the group has a future.

I do this both of these cultural hybrids is more interesting, subtle, and flattering than the appropriation of Avril Lavigne’s “Hello Kitty” video, perhaps because the others are attempts to mix the musical as well as as visual.

Vocab: riff, texture, metal, J-Pop

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