London’s unique, lickety-split digital version of rap was built by teenagers with little-to-no formal musical training, taking whatever cheap (or free, illegally “cracked” and downloaded) software they had to hand, creating strange, glowing, sci-fi sounds from whatever tools they could find.
Grime’s early-2000s pioneers like JME, Skepta, Wiley, and So Solid Crew broke the mold with none of the synths, samplers, and drum machines that had been vital to hip-hop production, instead doing much of their world-building on basic PC software like FruityLoops Studio. Inevitably, the sound was determined by the technology itself.
One of grime’s only consistent formal attributes is that, like its sibling genre dubstep, it runs at around 140 beats per minute — the consistency is important for DJs to be able to mix records seamlessly. Producer Plastician is not the only one to have observed that FruityLoops’ default tempo is set to 140bpm, which “may have a lot to answer for.”
—Brian Eno, A Year With Swollen Appendices
Less helpful are the opinions of the moronic, racist alt-right, who recently blundered their way across his blog and, well, you can guess what happened next.
I’m used to cultural conservatives calling me racist for talking about racism. But I wasn’t sure why this guy was harping on the word “postmodernist.” It’s an accurate description of my scholarly approach, but it also describes everyone I know. It would be like disparaging me by calling me an American. This is before I found out that “postmodernism” is a Jordan Peterson buzzword.
Then, a couple of weeks later, the real excitement began.
This isn’t the time for ambiguity, or irony, or publicity-seeking controversy. Those days are gone, and I miss them, as I am part of a generation that profiteered from the assumption that political correctness was a done deal, and now we could have fun jumping in and out of its boundaries, like street kids round a spurting water main. But the Nazi-saluting pug bloke has just joined Ukip so his racist dog doesn’t seem remotely funny any more.
If Breitbart or Spiked can roll out your comments approvingly online you have fucked up. Nowadays, your true intentions have to be written through every inch of your content, like the word Blackpool through a stick of rock, so at any point the useful idiots of the hipster “alt-right” and their fellow travellers in the opinion industry chose to snap it, it still can’t be repurposed. The trouble is, there’s no longer any way to make the case that Morrissey ever meant anything other than what he says.
And then one day, a revelation: It occurred to me that it was no longer just difficult to hear all the music I’d amassed, but impossible. I mean literally, mathematically impossible: I calculated that if I lived another, say, 40 years, and spent every minute of those next 40 years — that’s no sleeping, no eating — listening to my collection of music, I would be dead before I could make it all the way through. That means there are records I own today that I will definitely never hear again. It was a sobering thought. Toward the end of David Foster Wallace’s 2001 short story “Good Old Neon,” the narrator recognizes the “state in which a man realizes that everything he sees will outlast him.” With one single calculation, made on a whim, I had placed myself in this very state.
What did I do after spending a few reflective moments reckoning with this bleak logic? I bought some records. I did so not as an ironic palliative to the grim calculation I’d just made, as narrative might dictate. On the contrary, I did so thoughtlessly, compulsively, simply because it was part of my routine. Clearly, I needed to make some changes.
I concocted a bold experiment: For the entirety of 2017, I would listen to just one album a week.
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.
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.
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.
In an otherwise boring conversation about some press release or another, a Spotify PR person mentioned to me that an artist who had a big hit on the platform’s Fresh Finds playlist was discovered when one of the curators just happened to see them play a show in Bushwick. I was as surprised as anyone really can be by an email from corporate PR.
Fresh Finds is one of Spotify’s prized products, a weekly playlist crafted from a combination of two different data inputs: it identifies new, possibly interesting music with natural language processing algorithms that crawl hundreds of music blogs, then puts those songs up against the listening patterns of users their data designates “trendsetters.” What’s going to a show in Bushwick have to do with it? I had visions of a bunch of suits using their business cards to get into cool shows for no reason other than to feel like Vinyl-era record execs for a night. It seemed extremely redundant, and more than a little like posturing. Why bother?
“It’s basically their job,” I was told. Okay but, excuse me, how is that a playlist curator’s job? To find out, I asked if I could tag along with on a few of them on their nights out. I did not expect the answer to be yes, mostly because I thought it should be obvious that my intention was to point out how weird the whole thing was.
But the answer was yes. So, for three weeks, I went with Spotify playlist curators to live performances in Chinatown, Bushwick, and an infamous club on the Lower East Side. I got dozens of half-answers to the question: Why are you here?
Spotify traditionally focused on using data and algorithms to surface new music. Apple Music, when launched, made a big show of their human-curated playlists. With the former’s interest in IRL listening, and the latter’s acceptance that computer-generated playlists can be good at scale, it seems like the differences are receding.
In 2003, the Long Winters released their second album into a crowded field of cleverly crafted, melody-driven guitar rock. Given the crop of that particular era—the Shins, Decemberists, New Pornographers, Pernice Brothers, Weakerthans (and lord, can I get a Beulah?)—you would be more than forgiven for not recognizing When I Pretend To Fall as the cream that rises more than a decade later. The album produced neither hit singles nor commercial jingles, and it all but destroyed the fragile league of extraordinary frenemies who created it. It’s the great sound of coming together while everything is simultaneously falling apart. John Roderick, the man at the center of When I Pretend To Fall, was striving: hoping to win back a girl and attempting to make his mark in a microcosmic indie-rock scene.
A fine oral history of a great record. John is a big hero of mine and I wish he’d record more.
“In the seventies, it was extremely rare that someone would start a song about a specific event or occasion,” says Tim Marshall, author of Dirty Northern B*st*rds, a history of British football chants. “But now, if anyone anywhere does anything notable – Gerrard slipping on his arse or whatever – there’ll be a song about it pretty much instantly.”
The idea of the football chant as one of the last true instances of popular folk song – a song originating among the people of a country or area, passed orally from generation to generation (or ground to ground), with myriad different versions and subtle alterations, marked by simple, instantly gettable melodies – is a strong one and luckily has nothing to do with Mumford & Sons. Even when a song has its base in a pop song – such as the recent, ever-popular chants set to Billy-Ray Cyrus’ saccharine ditty ‘Achy Breaky Heart’ – they are constantly in a state of mutation, warped by misheard lyrics, inebriated lead vocal, and immediate circumstance. There can also be an added element of ‘capture the flag’ for fans who find their rival team with a catchy new song: take what’s theirs and make it ours.
This is good, and rightly champions the terraces as a source of wit and invention. I’m surprised there’s no mention of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”: a chant about a politician(?!) to the tune of The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’, first sung at football stadiums around the country in celebration of footballers both famous and middling.
I’m particularly fond of a chant currently sung by Watford fans in honour of French midfielder Abdoulaye Doucouré, to the tune of Earth, Wind and Fire’s 1978 hit ‘October’. Altogether now: “… he never gives the ball away…”
Is your hearing now pretty good, considering?
This is a weird thing. What scientists discovered in the past five years is that when they look at people who work with sound in a professional capacity, the part of their brain [that processes sound] tends to be about five times bigger. So as people who work with sound get older, they know their hearing isn’t as good, but at the same time, a lot of guys can still do really good work. We don’t hear in any kind of passive, mechanical way. [Sound] interacts with your brain. So when you hear, it’s a bit like when the scientists talk about the nature of reality and how it’s like an illusion in our brain. Everyone has their own reality, in some sense.
My hearing is technically not perfect. In my early 30s, I had a dip from noise damage. But when it comes to music, I still tend to hear faults with equipment or things like that before most people. Because most music exists between a certain frequency range, and my brain is very focused on mid-range. You can have people with technically excellent hearing, but they can’t discern what’s happening because their brain isn’t processing it.
I’ll give you an example. Once, a very long time ago, I got really bad middle-ear damage from doing some live sound. Something happened, and my hearing collapsed, pretty much. It went on for quite a long time. If it’s more than two days, then you’re usually looking at permanent damage, and this was really, really bad.
Then, during this period of bad ear damage, the alarm system went off in the house. I noticed that I could really hear the components of how the alarm was put together in an incredibly detailed way that I never would have heard without my ear nearly being half gone. I could really hear shit that I could never hear before. My brain was essentially still processing whatever it was getting on a pretty high level—or working overtime. After years of practice, you just learn to work hard. Like muscles. So in that respect, I’m very conscious of my hearing at this point in my life.
The MBV gig I went to in 2008 was the loudest thing I’ve ever experienced, so I’ve always been a little curious about how Shields and co’s hearing is holding up. Also: new album on the way!
I bought the subject of this episode—Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica—as a teenager and it has always been a curiosity to me: an album I admire more than I love or am inspired by. Here Estelle Caswell, with the help of Samuel Andreyev, breaks down album opener ‘Frownland’ to better understand it’s baffling mix of blues, rock and free jazz. It’s made me listen to the album again with fresh ears and notice things I wouldn’t have otherwise.
In the article, Sophia Ciocca gives three types of recommendation models that are used to generate the playlists. The first is collaborative filtering: crudely, your friends like this, you might like this too. Digging deeper, the mathematical modelling sounds fascinating. The third is raw audio models: analysis of the audio tracks themselves. This is why Release Radar works so well, despite the tracks not having been played many times.
But I didn’t know about the second one, the emphasis Spotify puts on natural language processing, or NLP:
Spotify crawls the web constantly looking for blog posts and other written texts about music, and figures out what people are saying about specific artists and songs — what adjectives and language is frequently used about those songs, and which other artists and songs are also discussed alongside them.
While I don’t know the specifics of how Spotify chooses to then process their scraped data, I can give you an understanding of how the Echo Nest used to work with them. They would bucket them up into what they call “cultural vectors” or “top terms.” Each artist and song had thousands of daily-changing top terms. Each term had a weight associated, which reveals how important the description is (roughly, the probability that someone will describe music as that term.)
Unlike many others, I’m a fan of the Apple Music UI and implementation. But I’ve not had terrific results with their recommendation engines. The opposite is true for Spotify. It’d be nice to save some money by cancelling one or other of the services, but they do such different things for me that I can’t see that happening any time soon.
Moneybagg’s songs have already appeared on the regional playlist The Realest Down South (324,000 followers), but the dream is to be featured on RapCaviar — “one word,” reminds Basa, “because of Aristotle’s ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.’” [Tuma] Basa selects the songs for RapCaviar on his own, utilizing predictive skills — “gut, gut, and gut,” he declares — honed at previous programming gigs at BET, MTV, and Revolt TV. “When something comes in and doesn’t smell right, I can detect it. ”
At Spotify, Basa also has access to a trove of data that enables him to gauge a song’s performance across the site: from how many times a song or artist has been searched for, to playlist-specific metrics such as percentage of people who skip the song (under 40 percent is desirable), percentage of saves to a user’s own playlists and percentage of users who listen to more than 90 seconds of a song, known as completion rate. When his instincts falter, Basa crunches the numbers. “Earlier this year,” he says, “one of my former co-workers at MTV called me. He’s business partners with XXXTentacion’s manager,” referring to the controversial underground rapper. “He said, ‘Yo, this guy is blowing up on Spotify.’ I said, ‘He is?’ I looked up his search results, and I’m like, ‘Oh shit. He really is.’” So I put it on Most Necessary, and reaction was instant.”
Part data scientist, part romantic laboring over a cassette mixtape, Basa sees himself as part of a hip-hop tradition. “Hip-hop has always valued curators: DJs, mixshow hosts, radio personalities,” he says. “This is just a different manifestation.” Officially, RapCaviar is updated weekly, whereby five or so new songs get cycled in, but Basa is often fiddling with it. Later in August, on a trip to Atlanta to kick off RapCaviar’s new series of branded concerts, he stops our conversation mid-sentence and grabs his Mac to add a track by rapper Ugly God, “Stop Smoking Black & Milds.” Over the weekend, he says, site search spiked for Ugly God, a leading indicator for Basa of vitality. To make room, he studies the data on a pair of J. Cole songs. One, “Change,” has a fairly high skip rate. With a couple of keystrokes, the song is ethered from the playlist. “If Tuma moves your song down on RapCaviar, your shit’s not working too well,” says Atlantic’s Greenwald.