The Problem with Muzak

Here’s another article about Spotify, a company that fascinates me. The Problem with Muzak starts by examining the mood playlists that feature prominently on the platform:

Spotify loves “chill” playlists: they’re the purest distillation of its ambition to turn all music into emotional wallpaper. They’re also tied to what its algorithm manipulates best: mood and affect. Note how the generically designed, nearly stock photo images attached to these playlists rely on the selfsame clickbait-y tactics of content farms, which are famous for attacking a reader’s basest human moods and instincts. Only here the goal is to fit music snugly into an emotional regulation capsule optimized for maximum clicks: “chill.out.brain,” “Ambient Chill,” “Chill Covers.” “Piano in the Background” is one of the most aptly titled; “in the background” could be added to the majority of Spotify playlists.

[…]

One independent label owner I spoke with has watched his records’ physical and digital sales decline week by week. He’s trying to play ball with the platform by pitching playlists, to varying effect. “The more vanilla the release, the better it works for Spotify. If it’s challenging music? Nah,” he says, telling me about all of the experimental, noise, and comparatively aggressive music on his label that goes unheard on the platform. “It leaves artists behind. If Spotify is just feeding easy music to everybody, where does the art form go? Is anybody going to be able to push boundaries and break through to a wide audience anymore?”

It goes on to excoriate the branded playlists and the idea that companies should need to “show the world what kind of music your brand likes to listen to while partying, driving, or enjoying a cup of coffee.”

It is absurd to suggest that a playlist created by Bacardi, Gatorade, BMW, or Victoria’s Secret could exist for any purpose other than the sale of its liquor, sports drinks, cars, or fancy lingerie. And this encouragement of a false sense of objectivity found on its Terms of Service is seen nowhere on its “Spotify for Brands” website, where it has published a series of articles luring corporations to the platform: “In the biggest game of the year, many of the ads feature music front and center, whether it’s a big hit like Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’ [Chrysler’s memorable 2011 spot] or an indie jam like Hundred Waters’ ‘Show Me Love’ [Coca-Cola’s 2015 spot],” the article explains, directly equating branded playlists to an expression of commercialism. “Using music effectively can also mean curating the perfect playlist that reflects the sound of your brand.”

Brand playlists are advertisements, even if Spotify strives to imbue them with so-called editorial integrity. Such uncompensated advertorial playlists are harmful in that they offer artists no option to opt-out, but also because they undercut what can sometimes be a valuable source of revenue for artists.

Last.fm was the only music social network that made sense

At present, Last.fm has a lot of difficulty generating a profit. Possibly because it no longer serves a purpose aside from logging what its users are listening to. It’s no longer a catalyst for discussions and events, given that there’s already Facebook and Songkick; nor is there need for a personalized radio thanks to algorithm-driven recommendations from various streaming services. In the end, the music industry to which Last.fm was a counterpoint no longer had to the power to create renowned musicians from meager local artists, nor direct public tastes: Today, labels only try to acquire, through an artist’s name, a preexisting community of fans that the artist garnered themselves. Last.fm didn’t pay a central role in the changing of this paradigm, maybe because it never understood how to make itself flourish economically. Investing in the concept of a personalized web radio and deciding to charge a fee for it turned out to be an unwise choice in an environment where music was practically becoming free and accessible, through tenuously legal YouTube uploads and the rise to prominence of streaming services.

Source: Last.fm Was the Only Music Social Network That Made Sense – Noisey

One way or another, a reasonable chunk of what I listen to ends up scribbling to Last.fm. But I can’t remember the last time it was any use to me—recommending a new artist, matching me with another user, suggesting events—all things it once did fairly frequently.

The article mentions its ill-timed sale to CBS and that is certainly a factor; hindsight tells us there were many more suitable partnerships it could have developed, although it would have required some fairly far-sighted execs to bring about any large success. Spotify was apparently in talks to buy Last.fm before it acquired The Echo Nest, which led directly to the development of their personal recommendation services, such as Disover Weekly and Release Radar, which feature regularly on this site.

App: The Human Story

Back in July 2014 I backed a Kickstarter project called App: The Human Story. As with another long-delayed project, it’s just delivered, some two years after the original estimated date.

It’s a 70-minute documentary about the people who make apps. The main narrative thread isn’t anything we don’t already know about the app market: 10 years ago, revolutionary new consumer devices were launched; this enabled the democratisation of app development, and many people jumped in; over time, app prices and revenue fell through the floor; now, only large companies or those with investor support are likely to have continuing success.

So what makes this film interesting are the main subjects. Melissa and Nicki learned app development at an expensive bootcamp and are now shopping their apps around, looking for investment. Cabel and Steven are the co-founders of Panic, an established Mac software firm. Their initial forays into iOS development are not progressing as well as they expected. Finally, Ish is one of the early ‘nobodies’ who has enough success with a breakout app to go all in on this new career. Will he be able to sustain his success? (Spoiler: of course not.)

The film is well-made. It’s sharply edited, doesn’t outstay its welcome, and has great, subtle visual effects and a lovely score. On the downside, it does feature (thankfully briefly) my arch-nemesis Marco Arment. Worth watching.

My restaurant ruined my life 

Cooking would have remained a hobby if I hadn’t stumbled across old footage of Michelin chef Marco Pierre White preparing a stuffed pig’s trotter on YouTube. It was an audacious dish and maybe even a bit sinister. It looked a little like a stubby, sun-baked human hand on a platter. I loved how the deft skill of an unlikely genius and a few choice ingredients transformed a cheap cut of meat into a beautiful plate. The dish was transcendent to me, and in a rough kind of way, so was its creator. White smoked. White sneered. White swore. He was handsome. I could envision him swaggering around his Hampshire restaurant, the Yew Tree Inn, dropping exquisite plates of food in front of wealthy customers with all the bombast of a star footballer. As he got older and no longer cooked in the kitchen, he was known to hang about the bar and drink cider with customers, at times with a .22 rifle close by in case he had the sudden urge to go rabbit hunting. To me, Marco Pierre White was inspirational. I wanted to be him. And I wanted my own Yew Tree.

It’s safe to say that this plan—starting a restaurant off the back of being a bit interested in food—doesn’t go quite as well as the author would like.

Source: I poured my blood, sweat and life savings into my restaurant. Dumbest thing I’ve ever done

The unpredictability of Medium

“Ev Williams is trying to brute force his way through the problem of publishing and monetization,” said Choire Sicha, cofounder of The Awl network, which migrated a handful of its sites onto Medium during its publisher partner phase in late 2015 and early 2016. “In doing so, he has upended people’s lives — he has upended good publications.”

“I understand the desire to be agile and to pivot, and to try new things when things aren’t working,” Sicha continued. “But it’s destructive — you can’t try people and things on, then discard them. It’s not how a media company or a publishing company can work.”

Ev Williams Wants To Save Media — Again. But Some Writers And Publishers Are Skeptical.

I have mixed feeling about Medium. I launched a publication for work, and that’s gone brilliantly well; I get mostly interesting things delivered to me in the digest emails; people I follow on other platforms (Twitter, mostly) surface great Medium content.

Increasingly, I read a headline and think “that sounds interesting”, yet I can’t read the article, as it’s for members only. But will I subscribe? No, because I’m not confident that this membership model will exist in 6 months. Something will change. The baby will get thrown out with the bath water. It’s not worth the bother. (I hope I’m wrong.)

Selling pizza to Italians

How a British pizza chain is succeeding in Salina, Southern Italy:

Only a handful of restaurants overlook the seafront on the Via Marina Garibaldi in Lingua, one of the few villages on the Aeolian island of Salina. Among them is Da Alfredo, famous for granita – made with figs, peaches, melons, mulberries, citrus fruits or even pistachios – which has been here since 1968.

‘It’s perfect, isn’t it? Granita is just what you want to eat after pizza, so it is fantastic to have this place beside our restaurant,’ says Giuseppe Mascoli, who this summer opened a pizzeria, Franco Manca, in the shop next door.

Recognise the name? Franco Manca is a hugely successful British chain, founded by Mascoli in 2008 in a small unit in Brixton Market, south London.

Speaking of Italy, I recently completed the Italian language tree in Duolingo. Having started and stopped it a few times, it was good to get it finished. As expected, my spoken Italian is not great, but I can read and wrote fairly well. I’ve bought a book of short stories to assist with the latter; I will simply have to spent time at my local Italian bistro to improve the former. Oh well.

You are the product

John Lanchester:

What this means is that even more than it is in the advertising business, Facebook is in the surveillance business. Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality. Note that the company’s knowledge about its users isn’t used merely to target ads but to shape the flow of news to them. Since there is so much content posted on the site, the algorithms used to filter and direct that content are the thing that determines what you see: people think their news feed is largely to do with their friends and interests, and it sort of is, with the crucial proviso that it is their friends and interests as mediated by the commercial interests of Facebook. Your eyes are directed towards the place where they are most valuable for Facebook.

I finally got round to reading this—I currently, and temporarily, have a lot of free time on my hands, so I’m reading everything—and it’s fantastic. Recommended reading for anyone interested in the nascent subject of web platforms (in fact this piece is reminiscent at times of John Herrman, who is currently the writer of the most interesting and relevant articles on the topic).

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’.

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 business of Bandcamp

Ben Ratliff, for the NYT:

Does streaming from Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal answer your needs in terms of audio quality and how well the artist is paid? Do you have a good record store nearby, and does it sell cassettes and vinyl, too? Do you only buy new records directly from artists, with a cash transaction and a handshake? Do you love spending time on iTunes?

If you answered no to all these questions, you probably know about Bandcamp, the online music site known for its equitable treatment of artists, and one of the greatest underground-culture bazaars of our time.