The influence of Spotify’s curated playlists

Neil Cowley, writing in The Guardian about how his jazz tune became unexpectedly successful when a Spotify staff member added it to a curated playlist:

Some radio play and a few posts on social media meant that we got the track to 3,000-odd plays in the first couple of days. […] Enter stage left the “Spotify playlist”. Though I far from realised it at the time, this is the holy grail for independent artists such as myself. Overnight I was lifted out of the musty basement section where men with National Health spectacles hang out, and up on to the shiny new rack next to the checkout counter. All because I composed a solo piano piece that Spotify in deemed fit to feature on one of its more popular playlists. “Peaceful piano” with 1.9m subscribers put me in the company of Ludovico Einaudi, Nils Frahm and Max Richter and gifted me on average 25,000 plays a day.

The idea here is that people might not choose to listen to a broad playlist named ‘Jazz’, but they’d listen to the same songs if they appeared in the more specific ‘Peaceful piano’ playlist.

This feels like an ongoing shift in taxonomy that influences curation and UX copy. Presumably Spotify knows that users are less attracted to traditional genre labels, but prefer mood, activity or theme-based descriptions which might cut across multiple genres.

Setting aside user preferences for playlists over albums, it suggests that an artist like Cowley, despite enjoying more plays of this particular song, will see a much more modest increase in plays of the parent album which might well contain jazz music that isn’t ‘peaceful piano’.

Bad versions of good songs

Aimee Cliff for The Fader on bad cover versions of good songs:

Covers like this don’t seem to build on original ideas, but to reduce them. Perhaps it’s this sense of emotional simplification that makes me narrow my eyes at the Top 40; but I think it goes a little deeper, still. After all, it’s not so different to what my favorites were doing back in the ‘00s, when songs were being subsumed into a formulaic pop sound in the same way — but back then, it wasn’t acoustic indie pop or tropical house, it was bubblegum pop. The older generation might have hated Britney’s take on “I Love Rock N Roll” for polishing Joan Jett’s rebellious anthem into a pristine product — but, in a way, you could see that bubblegum-ifying process as a rebellion in itself. Feminized pop music was always an easy target to hate on, given its creators and defenders were mostly young girls. What makes the popular covers of 2016 a little more troubling is that they come from a totally different demographic: bros.

I have a friend who repeatedly sends me links to slow, acoustic covers of songs. They’re generally awful. Several of them are so reductive, removing so much much nuance and cultural context from the original, they are borderline offensive.

Take Jonas Blue. His adaptation of “Fast Car” is bound to be irritating to anyone who appreciates the subtleties of the original and dislikes the current tropical house trend. As Jonas said himself to Idolator, “I wanted to create a new version of it for the younger generation.” Does that mean it’s inherently bad? No. But what does give pause is the way in which the song — a woman of color’s dream about escaping a cycle of poverty — has had its edges softened. Chapman’s “Fast Car” has a heavy weight, as the protagonist’s fantasy of a better life is undermined by the grimly realist final verse: I’d always hoped for better/ Thought maybe together you and me would find it. In Jonas Blue’s version, the song instead ends on the hope that its hero will live in the suburbs, and the pop-friendly house beat suggests pure escapism. All this, in order to turn a tragic song into a commercial hit for a man who posts Instagrams of himself with the hashtag #fastcar.

A limit to human longevity

Brian Resnick reports for The Verge on how the average human lifespan is increasing, but the maximum remains constant:

The researchers analyzed the Human Mortality Database, which contains hundreds of years of population and mortality data for 38 countries.

They saw that while the percentage of people living to 70 has risen greatly since the 1900s (due to increased survival in childhood and better health care), the same cannot be said of people living past 100.

There are some gains in longevity after age 100, but they are much more modest. And the gains drop to near zero approaching 110.

By the time we reach later life our DNA has accumulated damage and our organs stop working. More of us are reaching later life, but there’s an apparent ceiling. The researchers estimate that a human living to age 125 is a once-in-a-10,000-year event. I can kiss goodbye to seeing the next century, then.

Behind the scenes of ‘Gosh’ by Jamie xx

Director Romain Gavras filmed in a fake version of Paris with 300 Chinese schoolchildren:

Here’s an interview with Gavras by Selim Bulut for Dazed:

Bulut: What’s the name of the actor who plays the main character?

Gavras: His name is Hassan Kone. We found him in Paris. He’s 17, still in high school. He was amazing because it was a first time thing, he was street-cast. At first – and this is what I was saying about the process – I didn’t want to cast him. I just went to my casting director and I was briefing him to find somebody interesting to be the main character, so there was, like, 20 guys to go by. I didn’t want just an interesting face, I wanted somebody that has an emotion that’s really strong. And there was that kid. He was the only albino (in the casting), and although I was not looking for that, I thought ‘Oh, he’s really interesting. He moves me, I don’t know why, but he moves me.’ So then when we were in China, we looked for Chinese albinos – which is not easy to find because they’re not accepted socially. We found them through Chinese Facebook links, and I ended up in a party of Chinese albinos. They hang out with each other, and some of them were great, and we cast them for the video.

As a reminder, here’s the finished video:


On Iggy and the Stooges

I didn’t know until reading Judy Berman’s article for Pitchfork that Jim Jarmusch has made a documentary about Iggy and the Stooges:

Berman describes the film:

If you came to this film looking for rollicking tales from a legendary wild man, then you might see Iggy’s calm, well-reasoned recollections of a time when he was often in some altered state as another flaw. His interviews may even make each stage of the Stooges’ emergence look more deliberate than it actually was.

I’m not sure if it is a US/UK thing, but the ‘intelligent’ Iggy has been in the ascendant here over the past few years. His 6 Music shows show him to be a laconic, intelligent, artistic and darkly funny man. I don’t think this detracts from his stage presence either now no 50 years ago.

Also of note: Jarmusch recruited James Kerr, the Scorpion Dagger guy, for some animation! I had no idea he was so widely known, but I’m glad he is.

Apple Music’s new personalised playlists

Reggie Ugwu’s Inside Apple Music’s Second Act for Buzzfeed:

The other big change is the addition of two new personalized playlists: My Favorites Mix and My New Music Mix. The playlists are generated by algorithms, a first for the service, which has largely relied on human curation for its playlists up to this point. Revealing how the mixes operate for the first time to BuzzFeed News, Apple claimed a potential advantage over similar algorithmically personalized playlists, including Spotify’s Discover Weekly and Pandora’s Thumbprint Radio: deep historical knowledge of individual users’ tastes and habits, based on years of data carried over from iTunes.

If you gave high ratings to a song or album in your old iTunes library, or just played it a lot more than others, you’ll find that behavior reflected in your My Favorites Mix. Meanwhile, the My New Music Mix algorithm serves recently released songs — as well as songs that Apple Music knows you haven’t played before — that the service’s music experts have flagged as similar to others in your taste profile. Apple Music executives suggested even more personalized playlists will follow in the series; but only after prototypes have been vetted, with all possible outcomes — intentional and otherwise — given careful consideration.

I’m still using Spotify’s Discover Weekly and Release Radar on a daily basis, but the two Apple Music playlists are a good start. Looking forward to seeing more.

Update: Spotify are rolling out Daily Mix, similar to Apple Music’s My Favourites Mix.

Pat “The Detective” Shannahan clears samples for musicians

Aaron Gonsher, for Red Bull Music Academy:

Aaron: You’re talking about explaining sampling as an art form. When you’re pursuing people and trying to clear rights, how do you contextualize what someone like the Avalanches are doing for, say, an older musician who has zero connection to their world or a tenuous grasp of sampling as a concept in general?

Pat: When I’m reaching out to someone, I first send a written request and I describe the project. It’s really a very limited request. But if I can get someone on the phone who I would be dealing with, I would basically explain who the artist is – “These are the Avalanches” – and try to make them understand what creative geniuses they are, and how creatively they use the sample, too. That it’s something to be really proud to be a part of, and see if I can get them to negotiate something that’s reasonable.

The Avalanches are special because what they do is so different from what so many artists do. Not to diminish what other artists do, but some out there take a piece of a work, or maybe even a few bars of another artist’s song and recording, and they loop it throughout their entire track and then just put a rap over it. What the Avalanches do is this amazing layering process, which is why it takes them so long to make a recording, because they’re perfectionists. They keep working at it and working at it until they have woven this music that is so phenomenal. It’s like if they made a quilt: They took all these little pieces of all this material, and all this fabric for making a wonderful quilt, and somehow you sew it all together to create another whole big blanket. That’s about the best way I can describe what the Avalanches do.

It’s just phenomenal. It’s quite different and it’s all done from bits and pieces of things, until they have created a whole new work. A lot of the other artists may be taking a guitar lick or a drum loop, all of which is fine. But what the Avalanches do is just something amazing that nobody else has ever done.

See also: The Ultimate Beastie Boys Sample Source Collection.

The influence of ‘Maps’ by Yeah Yeah Yeahs


There is another story surrounding Maps though. One that very rarely gets told.

The story of how – despite it only getting to No.26 in the UK Charts; and barely even scraping its way onto the US Billboard Hot 100 – the Yeah Yeah Yeahs have recorded and released what may well be the single most influential song of the 21st century so far.

Its impact has been quiet but undeniable. Since it was released (first in 2003, on the album Fever To Tell; then as a single in its own right in early 2004) practically every last part of that song has been sampled, covered or copied in a number of other artists’ work.

Three songs in particular, each released five years apart, have used Maps in three very different ways. Each of those songs has arguably defined (or helped to define) the era of pop in which they were released. One of them may even have altered the course of pop music forever.

The only other thing to add to the ‘Since U Been Gone’ section would be Ted Leo’s masterful strumming medley:

15 songs by The Monkees

Andy Greene interviewed The Monkees for Rolling Stone as part of the run up to the 50th anniversary of the TV show debut. Dolenz, Tork and Nesmith talk about 15 key songs:

Listen to the Band (1969)

Mike Nesmith: This has a really interesting pedigree. I write half a chapter in my new book about it because it was such an unusual moment. The Monkees series was over and we’d already done the movie. That kind of put a tag on everything. I wanted to go down to Nashville while I still had some Monkee money and have my songs played by the Nashville cats like David Briggs, Jerry Carrigan and Norbert Putnam. These were the guys that put together this extraordinary music that launched a cultural revolution with Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin and the whole R&B thing.

When I went into the studio it was a completely different vibe then the Wrecking Crew guys in L.A. Those guys did commercials, orchestral stuff, TV shows and so forth. In Muscle Shoals, it was all R&B all the time. They were exceptional players. I played the song for them and they were like, “Yeah, that’s cool.” We laid down the tracks, and when I went back to Los Angeles I added horns to it.

I was thrilled with the result. I ran into Richard Perry, who was a producer of some note at the time and very successful with big acts. I met him on Harry Nilsson’s “Without You” record. I said, “Richard, I just did this record and I’m so proud of it. I really want to play it for you.” He said, “Oh, that is pretty good.” I said, “It’s gonna be on the next record. I’ll be happy to get you one.” He said, “Yeah, okay. I don’t think I’d ever buy a Monkees record, just on principal.” I just thought, “Wow, that’s what this is born into.” It was born an orphan. There was no place for it, no traction.

I absolutely love The Monkees—please don’t have the incorrect assumption that they are untalented or somehow not worthy of your attention. Go and buy Headquarters.

The article also includes a discussion of the wonderful recent single Me & Magdalena, written by Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie).