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.

Underscores, optimization & arms races

Eventually, people wanted to have the whole title of their article show up in the web address. Part of this was just because it looked cool, but some folks had started to suspect that having those words in the address might help a blog post rank higher on Google. (Google was still a smaller player in the overall web search market at the time, but it was already by far the most popular search engine amongst internet geeks.)

But here’s the thing: web addresses can’t have spaces in them. To include a full title with spaces in a web address for a blog, the spaces would either have to be removed (ugly!) or converted into something equivalent. Since we were one of the first to encounter this issue, our team designed to have our content management system use underscores, based on the rationale that underscores were the character that most closely resembled a blank space.

The end result? Anybody who used our tools could write a a blog post entitled “My Great Cookie Recipe” and it would live at an address that looked like example.com/2005/04/my_great_cookie_recipe.html. By contrast, the WordPress team thought that hyphens looked better, so blog posts published on their tool would look more like example.com/2005/04/my-great-cookie-recipe. Sure, these different tools made slightly different choices about which character to use, but such a subtle distinction couldn’t be meaningful, right?

As it would turn out, we’d stumbled across a harbinger of how the entire web was about to change.

Source: Underscores, Optimization & Arms Races – Humane Tech – Medium

How hyphens vs. underscores kickstarted the race to optimise for, and game the systems of, the web’s biggest players.

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.

Why Slate is moving its URLs to https

As a web developer and product dabbler, I love URLs. URLs say a tremendous amount about an application’s structure, and their predictability is a testament to the elegance of the systems behind them. A good URL should let you play with it and find delightful new things as you do.

Each little piece of our new URL took a significant amount of planning and effort by the Slate tech team. Let’s break it down:

Source: Why Slate is moving its URLs to https.

It might seem trivial, but I’m a big believer in having readable and useful URLs. Useful insomuch as they are a secondary navigation, hackable by users to move up one or more levels in a site. The decisions made here are all sensible and will benefit Slate readers, or at least the portion of users who are as odd as me.

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.

Why do we use non-English words?

We resort to foreign words for a number of psychologically interesting reasons. A lot of them, I’d argue, are rooted in the middle class aversion to bluntness or crudeness. When what we’re saying has an underlying tone that may cause embarrassment to either the speaker or listener, we borrow from Latin or modern European languages (often French) to give a veneer of refinement, glossing over what’s crass, base, or stark.

Source: Strictly entre nous: why do we use non-English words? – OxfordWords blog

For example, on the use of entre nous: “I want to gossip but gossiping is common so I’m going to get away with it by using the pretentious French phrase for it.”

Following Spotify playlist curators around New York’s live music scene

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?

Source: Following Spotify playlist curators around New York’s live music scene – The Verge

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.

Getting ratioed for your bad take

Technology is a constant source of new vocabulary – not just new words but new ways of using existing words. One I’ve noticed this year is ratio as a verb in internet slang, which I’ve bundled here with the more familiar take as a noun.

Ratio entered English in the 16thC as a noun borrowed from Latin, gaining its familiar modern sense decades later in a translation of Euclid. About a century ago – the OED’s first citation is from 1928 – ratio began life as a verb meaning ‘express as a ratio’ or similar. Here’s an example from Harold Smith’s book Aerial Photographs (1943):

Each print which departs from the average scale or shows any apparent tilt is rectified and ‘ratioed’, or corrected for scale, by means of a projection printer.

And now a new sense of ratio as a verb is emerging on Twitter.

Source: Getting ratioed for your bad take | Sentence first

Here’s an intro, if needed, to the use of ‘ratio’ on Twitter to describe Tweets which have disproportionately more replies than retweets or likes. And, after that, an exploration of how it is used as a verb.

See also nominalisation: how verbs become ‘zombie’ nouns. I’m particularly bothered by two (at the moment): ‘bake’, as in the thing that was baked; and ‘ask’, as in the instruction.

Kickstarter launches subscription platform Drip

Kickstarter seeks to take on the likes of Patreon, Flattr et al:

Kickstarter’s hesitance to launch new products over the years gets back to this same apprehension. “Once you start to have some success, everyone, both inside and outside the company, starts asking, ‘Why don’t you try this or launch that?’ I’ve seen how that can be insatiable, and we’re always trying to watch out,” Chen explained. “Very quickly through inertia, you can end up at a place where you don’t have control.” For many employees, this restraint became a point of frustration. “We’re falling behind the competition, and we’re at risk of losing our lead in some key categories,” a current staffer told me.

Source: Kickstarter launches Drip, a new service that lets fans subscribe to their favorite creators – The Verge