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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.]

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Omodaka: The Sound of an Electronic Edo

If you like traditional Japanese folk songs (you shall recognize them by the winding female vocals traveling up and down a scale unlike anything else, usually sung by geisha in period films, accompanied by a shamisen) AND ALSO LIKE CHIPTUNES(!) you’ll love the music of Omodaka. Here’s an article from 2010 that I found, which mentions the songs are composed on a variety of devices including a Sony PSP, Nintendo DS, and a Game Boy.

From what I can gather, the group is a vessel for producer Soichi Terada’s experiments and collaborations — most of which feature intriguing art music videos. Check out the one below: it’s trippy as hell.

Later in the day, I was pleased to get a retweet from Terada’s Far East Recordings account (@fareastrecordin), which seems to tweet info about upcoming shows in Japan. I’ll be heading that way soon, so maybe seeing them in the flesh will happen.

The Sanosa album is a collection of singles released over the years, and should be a good place to start. You can listen to it on Spotify in the player below [direct link].

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Random Access Memories

The new Daft Punk is incredible. The more I hear it, the more it unpacks waves of hidden melody. I was underwhelmed the first time, listening while walking home (on bass-weak Etymotic headphones), but now it’s like a whole other record.

iTunes Link

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Tricks & Cider

About two weeks ago, I kinda realized that two people I knew online were in a band together, and preparing to put out their first EP. I visited their website, bought the record when it came out, and ended up seeing them live at the Esplanade last Friday. Hear for yourself through the embedded player below.

In addition to Bandcamp, you can get the 5-song collection on iTunes and Spotify.

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At the Esplanade Outdoor Theater

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Lunchtime concert on Raffles Green