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Little Green

As I write this update, I’m listening to Joni Mitchell’s Little Green at possibly too high a volume for 11 o’clock at night, but I have no idea how thick these walls are, so let’s find out. This unusually unneighborly behavior has been brought on by watching the new High Fidelity TV series (yes, based on that Nick Hornby book), starring Zoe Kravitz in the role played by John Cusack in the 2000 film, and look, the whole thing is sublime. Watch it, because it’ll remind you that you were once young and played your music loud. And that it’s been too damn long since you’ve heard Darondo’s Didn’t I.

This is also made possible by the fact that I’ve finally traded in our aging Asus router for a pair of Netgear Orbi mesh routers. Only 1.5 years after moving in. And so the internet is now flowing into a part of the house that I’d neglected before because what in the hell am I supposed to do in a room with no WiFi? This room is now going to be a place where I can sit in near darkness, streaming really warm sounds out of a cranky first-gen Beolit speaker, writing on my iPad, and drinking. Aww yes.

Speaking of Little Green…

I spent most of last year getting up to speed on personal finance basics at the ripe old age of a̷l̷m̷o̷s̷t̷ 4̷0̷. For most of my working life, money and investing was an essential resource that I never fully understood, and I was mostly happy to have it sit in that blind spot, content that simple saving would do alright “for now” and nervously assuming that the “for later” part would sort itself out in the end.

I put some blame on the false absolutes we were taught in school: kids are sorted into separate paths focusing on either sciences, economics, or the arts around 14, if I recall correctly, and it’s too easy to let that define you to yourself. I ended up with the thinking that money was for the money people. Of course, I accept the residual blame for hiding behind that lazy excuse all these years.

So when I read Ramit Sethi’s approachable book “I Will Teach You to be Rich” last month, I was relieved to find that I already knew the majority of its lessons. As he puts it, the best time for me to have started investing was 15 years ago; the second-best time is now. Another practice that made sense to me: setting up monthly financial check-ins as a family. Even if there’s no news to update each other about, it sets aside time to think and plan.

In any case, it certainly seems like personal finance is being discussed a lot more frequently in casual conversation today than it was when I was growing up, or even in the past 10 years, for that matter. Financial literacy has probably never been higher.

I attribute this to the rise of fintech startups, how many there are, and how visible their services are in our Instagram feeds. If you live in Singapore and haven’t seen a StashAway/Endowus/Syfe/Kristal ad, then I’ve got a referral code to offer you.

For the unfamiliar, these are all so-called roboadvisors, usually helping you to buy into a portfolio of ETFs based on your asset allocation preferences/risk appetite, while taking a sub-0.8% cut for management fees. It’s remarkably easy to get started once you’ve educated yourself and decided you want in — whereas back in my day, before online banking (let alone mobile banking), starting a trading account was an arcane art that required serious capital.

Based on what I’ve seen, the equivalent offerings from traditional banks (DBS, UOB, OCBC) are only playing catch-up, both in terms of fees and design. It would be fun to do some research on how the boundaries of trust have moved and what Singaporeans’ financial behaviors look like now. I used to wonder what the big deal was with the local licensing exercise around digital banks, but now that I think about it, there’s obviously blood in the water.

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Listening (Remembering): 2019

Playlists here: Apple Music | Spotify

Dear reader, I had NOT realized that I skipped last year’s blog post for this. I did, however, make a playlist that I was personally very happy with. You can find it here (Apple Music only).

This year ended up being a much better one for music than I initially thought. As usual, this exercise kicked off from having to pick a single song to contribute to my office’s Best of the Year playlist which we send out to friends. The general feeling amongst us all was that there wasn’t much new music worth listening to, and there was a bit of moaning and sighing while trying to think of something.

But! When I went through my “Recently Added” album sort view one Apple Music, and looked at the various playlists I threw together over the year… a lot more happened this year than Billie Eilish: new albums from Chance the Rapper, Anderson.Paak, Beck (bleah), Shura, Leonard Cohen, Common, and Bruce Springsteen to name a handful. The worst part is that I’ve barely even sat down to listen to most of them.

Still, I found enough to make a playlist of the songs that I played repeatedly and that made me feel something. This then is my musical diary for the year. The recurring themes here are synths (yay!); melodies that veer deliciously close to other ones you’re sure you‘ve heard elsewhere, irritating like an itch that moves as you try to locate it; videogames; queer women; and nostalgia (mined from samples, covers, and posthumous releases).

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Imma keep it moving like it hasn’t happened

Uptime report

It’s midnight and I’m up thinking about best-of-year lists and trend forecasts and whether it’s more productive for us to grade a year by the quality of its events (“what do you mean no beloved musician died?”), or to just come out and grade freelance bloggers and thought leaders on their ability to wring meaning and get hits out of random, time-bound raw material. Well, really I’m awake here waiting for my wife to get home because the end of the year is also a time for working too hard to meet deadlines*.

* In some geographies and industries.

2019 has been pretty dismal for side projects, finding new obsessions, practicing photography, and writing anything for the hell of it, although the fact that I’m on here again might be an indicator of improvement. I’ve also just tonight confirmed an order with a printing company to put some awful! simplistic! doodles of mine on physical items that I might give away or try to break even on at a flea market someday — I guess that counts as making something?

At the day job, in terms of seeing similar organizational challenges play out in totally different industries, it’s been a jackpot. I definitely get to work on more interesting problems these days, and I am reminded that this is what was on the other side of the glass when my view was confined to advertising years ago. My parents still think I work in advertising, I think. The problems are interesting but in that “may you live in interesting times” kind of way. While the solutions can be estimated in board rotations, expectations of change are (understandably) timed in internships.

A recurring theme this and every year is dealing with a sort of design debt: either paying or preventing the high price of not properly addressing flaws or missing data the first time around, deferring the clean-up or more thoughtful work to some future version of yourself or your team, without realizing how the laws of compounding interest also apply to… well, everything. In the rush to launch X by the close of Y, you’re really just writing some consultancy a fat check to be cashed five years later, one the finance guys don’t see coming.

I guess what’s different now is the focus is usually on a part of the problem, but increasingly there are opportunities to get at the root. More work to be done in this space next year, infinitely more to learn and improve on, can’t hug every cat, etc.

On my metaphorical iPod

Janelle Monáe’s new song, That’s Enough, from the Lady and the Tramp live-action remake’s soundtrack of all things, is giving me the chills. She’s saying things with the quality of her voice I didn’t know she could.

If you watched Netflix’s surprisingly good and very Appley/Beatsy reality tv rap contest Rhythm and Flow (such a missed opportunity for the Beats brand and for Apple it might have been an acceptable apology for Carpool Karaoke), you will most certainly remember Old Man Saxon, an impressive performer whose creativity and talent go far beyond the gimmick of his dapper appearance.

Well he’s got a new mini album out today, The Peacock Honey. I recommend it along with his last EP, Goldman Sax (at first listen, I think that was better produced). I hope he blows up next year. I’ll link a music video from the last release that really impressed me below.

While we’re on the topic of music, I started a tradition at work back in December of 2017 where we would compile a playlist of our favorite songs each year and send them out as a sort of Christmas card to all the other global offices. We’d also make an email card, a microsite, and other fun stuff like a Christmas chatbot (ironically!) or sketches of each other to go with it. But the music was always the point.

This year, we’re going to try broadening that out exponentially to include Best Of picks for film, games, books… it’s in progress and I don’t know how well it’s going to work out. But it’s more exciting than just doing the same thing again for the sake of tradition, which is what I was afraid we would end up doing this time around. I’ll link it when we do it, if I can.

Janelle Monáe’s new song:

https://music.apple.com/sg/album/thats-enough-from-lady-and-the-tramp/1489003167?i=1489003168

Old Man Saxon:

https://music.apple.com/sg/album/the-peacock-honey/1488526372

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Just Press Pay

[Here’s an unfinished draft post I’ve had for awhile now that I figure I’ll post as it is.]

We all like music, yeah? Some people don’t mind leaving anything on in the background, but I like the ones who are a little passionate about artists, who look up lyrics, study movements, read liner notes (past tense of “read”), and get more involved in the stories behind the tunes because they felt something and just needed to respond.

I’ve always wanted more ways to take those feelings and do something with them, while recognizing that musicians only garnered a tiny fraction of the profits from a CD or iTunes sale — think 10-20% — with the rest going to labels and distribution. When CDs and record stores were still a thing in my younger days, I’d sometimes buy two copies of an album I liked, and if I met someone who might appreciate it too, I’d pass the spare along. That was the only way to “do my part” as a fan, apart from evangelizing bands every chance I got.

These days, with album sales barely a thing that musicians rely on, it’s a bit harder to know what one should do as a fan. Share Spotify/Apple Music links on social media? Start a botnet to stream their songs on repeat? Buy tickets if they drop by to play live? Gigs just don’t scale.

I’ve had a foggy idea for years that there’s room for a live performance streaming platform, where any artist can play intimate shows in a studio and let people tune in, sort of like the annual iTunes Music Festivals that Apple used to do, and charge a nominal fee and/or allow donations. Even if they just did it once in a regular tour schedule, it should be almost pure profit from their most dedicated followers, with logistics and event management out of the picture. And these days we’re pretty much there, what with Twitch, Patreon, and live-streaming baked into a dozen other apps. It should be a more common way to spend an evening in front of a computer.

A couple of months years ago, an indie artist I randomly found online and fell hard in love with announced he was putting out a new album. Instead of pre-ordering on iTunes, I decided to try messaging him directly on Instagram to ask if he had a PayPal account. After all, I already pay for Apple Music and would stream it when it was out. Could I just send him the money I would have paid for the album, and he’d get 100% instead of 10%?

I shouldn’t have been surprised to get a reply, but I come from a time when you just didn’t get many chances to talk to your heroes. He offered a couple of other ways to give him money, which would get me physical goods in return, but in the end I was happy to PayPal him and got something pretty priceless in return: scanned lyrics to the earlier song that had made me a fan, that I had never been able to figure out. That was a better-feeling transaction than the music publishing industrial complex had ever been able to give me in the past decade.

[Present day]

I should mention here the phenomenal soundtrack to the video game Sayonara Wild Hearts, by Daniel Olsen and Jonathan Eng, with vocals by Linnea Olsson. It might be the endorphin association talking, but I think this might be my album of the year. Every song takes me right back to the experience of playing the game (one weekend afternoon on a lumpy hotel couch in Manila a couple of months back when I was there for work; in all honesty not a memory that gives this soundtrack any bonus points), but also stands on its own as really fine music.

A couple of weeks after coming out, the soundtrack disappeared from Apple Music and the iTunes Store for a couple of days and I was in a panic. I scoured Twitter for information and found the musicians and developers equally bewildered, answering other concerned fans who were missing their hit of electro Clair de Lune. That was a community moment right there. Anyway, it turned out to be some copyright fuck up that got fixed the following week, but my immediate thought at the time was, “I sure wish I’d bought this on iTunes so I’d still have it now.” One day we might all feel this way about a lot more things.

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Listening, Remembering: a 2017 Playlist

In the early days of this blog and being online, I’d make mixes and upload them somewhere for friends and readers. Those were usually one and the same, who am I kidding? Personally, I hardly have time to listen to playlists made by experts, so I don’t know why I thought people would listen to mine. Adult hindsight: I made them for myself.

The end of year mix was a particularly fun undertaking. I don’t scrapbook, or watch algorithmically generated Year In Review videos from Facebook/Google/Apple, and I lack the openness to write an entry all about my experience of the year without doing it in relation to another topic. Hence music.

Every track you add is inevitably a personal choice. Some were soundtracks to moments, some were recommended by important people, others are evidence of flirting with new genres, trying to stay in touch with the distancing past or the youthfully new. A listener could conceivably read between the lines, but hopefully they’re already too busy forming their own reflections.

This year, I started a new job and as an end-of-year team activity, I thought it’d be good to compile a playlist with a couple of contributions from each member. Here it is.

That activity got me inspired to do a personal one, and I think I’m finally done at 34 tracks across 2 hours and 8 minutes. A double album! At the very start, I thought 2017 (not the best year, right?) would be a slim list. And way too many things that came to mind were actually from 2016. A year can seem like a small and fuzzy lump of time by December. But when you start going through your library, the months all come back and start to feel distinct again. It’s really therapeutic and I recommend it.

Anyway, here’s how my 2017 sounded. A few notes on particular songs follow.

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➟ The Beats Question

Apple’s Pursuit of Beats May Foretell a Shift
By BEN SISARIO, nytimes.com

If Apple makes a major marketing push for Beats’s subscription model — or, even better, if Apple integrates Beats into its ecosystem of online services and physical products — it could mean a big lift for streaming.

Apple entering the streaming music market (virtually overnight) with the clout and installed user base of iTunes would be massive, and it’s probably not an exaggeration to say Spotify’s days as currently structured would be numbered. Looks like we’re in for the next phase of music industry economics.

Since the rumor surfaced a couple of days ago, people have tried to rationalize why Apple would buy the headphone and services company. Some good theories and analyses of both brands have resulted; I think it’s fantastic to have lots of smart people simultaneously indulge in a thought exercise, the answers to which we will probably have in the near future.

My resistance to the idea has largely been because I’ve heard several pairs of Beats headphones myself, and haven’t been impressed. It’s not about being overpriced, but being bad experiences, functionally. A pair of BeoPlay H6 headphones at S$700 is subject to many of the same criticisms one might use against Beats: they’re too expensive, they’re made in China, the margins are criminally high, you’re paying for the brand, and so on — except the H6s really do deliver on the music experience. I suppose many Beats owners will say the same, but there are an awful lot of people with taste who disagree. Apple’s brand, to me, has always been on the opposite end of that spectrum. Perhaps this is an effort to change who we currently think of as their customers.

The Beats Music service, on the other hand, has been really impressive in my short time testing it out. There’s a feature called “The Sentence”, where you fill in a statement that defines the mood and situation you’re in, and Beats Music provides the appropriate soundtrack. I wish Spotify had something like it. I said in a tweet the other day that $3.2bn was the complacency tax of being asleep at the wheel of the world’s largest digital music store, and @craigmod noted that it was a rather low price to pay, in that case. Quite true.

The iTunes reluctance to play the streaming library game appears to be a legacy of Steve Jobs’s (and the senior executive team’s) approach to music as a tangible possession. He used to rationalize the download model by explaining how people prefer to own their music, and have collections, possibly informed by his own experiences with vinyls and CDs and so on. While it may have been true in the early days of the iTunes Store, I’ve observed even in my own listening habits as an older person that it’s no longer true. Collections matter, but song access is becoming ubiquitous and hence irrelevant. In a world where everyone pays $10/mo for music, we can build all the collections we want, without having to think about first buying a digital copy or worry about losing access. Why should you? It’s $10/mo for the rest of your life and everybody stays afloat and happy. Sold.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Beats Music became the backbone of a new iTunes Unlimited offering, and the headphones remained a standalone brand, sold prominently (as ever) in Apple retail locations.

[I first wrote this entry on my experimental blog about technological change, entitled T-Axis. I’ll be cross-posting stuff here for awhile.]