Tag - music

Now Playing on the Celestial Jukebox: The Swell Season

Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová are the charming duo who starred in the 2006 (!?) romantic musical "Once" and now perform together as "The Swell Season."   Strict Joy is their second album together, and it's a marked improvement over the first, which was mostly the soundtrack from the movie. 

Swellseason The first album was notable for the raw, raging quality of Hansard's vocals, which tended to overpower Irglová's more delicate performances.  That over-the-top quality derived from Hansard's roots as a street singer (as portrayed in the film) who had to rely on extended vocal histrionics to hold the attention of passersby.  In fact, the vocals on that first album can be grating; after you've gotten past the novelty of hearing the songs from the movie again (like Falling Slowly), the album is difficult to listen to. My wife put it on in the car the other day and as soon as I heard the first notes I was, like, "urgh… not that one again…" 

Strictjoy But this album is going to hold up to multiple listenings.   Hansard seems to have matured as a singer; Where he unleashed great fury in the first album, on this one he holds back, content now to let the power of the songs surge from other sources while he plumbs his own vocals for a different kind of depth.  The effect is most notable on The Rain and High Horse, where pulsing, multi-layered instrumentation provides a firm bedding on both Hansard and Irglová weave their intricate, contrasting harmonies. 

This new album was featured a couple of weeks ago on NPR, and offered in its entirety, and it looks like you can still listen to it there.  However, now the album is in release, and you can listen to it the first time for free via Lala.com or drop a buck and listen to it all you want.  I'd say it's a buck well spent. 

There is also a "Deluxe Edition" of Strict Joy that contains more than thirty tracks; it looks from the listing like some of them are live versions of songs from the movie and the first album.  I haven't listened to that one yet, but you can get the "web album" at Lala for a whole $2.79.  

In the meantime, here's the standard version: 

Strict Joy – The Swell Season

The Unspoken Truth Behind Google’s Music Search? Ultimate Price Point = Zero

CapitolRecordsBuilding-Oct08-004a Yesterday, Google and a handful of music and tech types converged in a small auditorium in the basement of the old Capitol Records building in Los Angeles (you know, that cylindrical edifice that supposedly looks like a stack of records on a spindle?) to announce the details of the "Google Music" search service.

It's hard to imagine a more perfectly anachronistic location for such an event: Within a monument to music-as-a-product, yet another announcement heralding the end of that era.

Now speculation is rife re: what it really means.  Is this new layer of search results a "game changer"?

The actual service is pretty straightforward, about what you'd expect Google to come up with, and it would appear that Google has chosen its partner services wisely.  This video will give you some idea how it all works:

Essentially, what this new search function does is integrate a pop-up music player from either MySpace or Lala.com into Google's search results.  That in of itself is probably not a big deal.  It's convenient, but that doesn't make it a "game changer."  Hell, the game changed ten years ago.  Everything now is an incremental improvement toward the inevitable, and this new development certainly qualifies on that score.

The incremental improvement that the Google Music search layer offers is the likelihood that its convenience will get millions more users accustomed to the idea of having "access" to a vast music library instead of "owning" just a tiny subset of that library.  

Both MySpace (with its new subsidiary, iLike) and Lala.com are included as the primary providers for the Google service; both provide streaming audio players that pop up in their own window once the results of a music-related search are delivered.  There doesn't appear to be any particular logic as to which player comes up, and when asked at the event yesterday Google's spokesman would say only that the results are evenly distributed between the two partners.

Clearly the big winner in this new set up is Lala.com. With this single stroke, Lala suddenly achieves the sort of "household name" status that MySpace enjoys — despite MySpace being a hideous wasteland.  Lala, by comparison, is elegant, clean, comprehensive and useful. And it can't hurt that this Google announcement comes on the heels of an alliance with that other Internet-swallowing monster, Facebook.

The big loser is the "30-second clip." Soon enough, any music service that continues to rely on song snippets as an enticement toward purchasing whole song downloads is going to start to wonder where their traffic went.  Are you listening, iTunes?  Do you see the handwriting on the wall yet, Amazon?

I'm always surprised when I get into a conversation about music (and by default nowadays, that means music the Internet), and discover that whoever I'm talking to  has yet to discover the myriad and joyous functions of Lala.  "I just changed your life," I tell them, and once they start using it, the reaction is something along the lines of "I should have known about this sooner."

Now everybody who searches for anything related music via Google is going to find out about Lala and begin to use it.

After the formal announcements and presentations by Google, MySpace/iLike and Lala, there was a panel discussion of sorts featuring a couple of artist types (Mos Def, Mike Shinoda of  Linkin Park, Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic) and a couple of label types (Syd Schwartz of EMI, Wendy Nussbaum of UMG, Steve Savoca of indie Domino Records).  They all tried to wax meaningfully about what this portends for their businesses.  They kept using words like "monetize."  Because apparently they still think people are going to keep "buying" songs. 

But Bill Nguyen — CEO and Co-founder of Lala — gave away more than he probably intended when he started waiving his iPhone around and bragging about Lala's pending mobile app (which is still in beta).

Asked by somebody in the audience "How do you monetize all this free stuff? Is there an option to buy?" Nguyen whipped out his iPhone and described how having a service like Lala makes "everything I just bought available to me…"  What he neglected to say is that what he's "bought" is not the 99c download — but the 10c "web" track (and I will bet that becomes a flat-monthly fee sooner rather than later).

I don't think any of these panelists fully realize that they are jumping into an abyss without a parachute.  This may not be the game changer, but the game is certainly changing — again — and this new service could be a big part of the end-game.

So it was most intriguing to hear Steve Savoca of Domino Records  talking about the need to "change consumption behavior" — particularly after stating that "50% of our business is digital."  Then he went on to praise the new Google service as "instant gratification… a zero friction music experience…"

Which makes me wonder if he's even listening to himself, or if he hears the real consequence of what he's saying.  Because if this service takes hold, and if vast numbers of users begin to get comfortable with "access" to — instead of "owning" — music, that 50% of his business is going to shrink by a factor of 10.  His dollars are about to become dimes. And then pennies.  And then… poof.

Again, from the consumer perspective, this is all great.  I'm hearing a lot more music now than I've ever heard. As Google's Marisa Mayer (VP Search Products and User Experience) correctly pointed out, more efficient search "means people find more things in same amount of time."

But the big behavior change that Google Music takes farther down the field (and remember, we're already well inside the 10 yard line…) is the expedience of streaming over downloading.  With Lala's player jacked into the search results, a whole new legion of users is going start thinking "hey, for a dime a track, I can listen to TEN TIMES as much music as I can listen to by downloading MP3s…" and then the Dominos of the world are really going to start falling.

The most telling moment of the whole nearly-90-minute press conference came very close to the end, when one of the journalists in attendance asked the panel how the revenue from these transactions is going to be distributed.

Mos Def — who had been sort of mumbling and incoherent earlier in the proceedings — pointed to the 800 pound gorilla in the room: " "they don't want to talk about that," he said, clearly enough for the whole room to erupt in laughter.  Nervous, gallows-humor laughter.

You have to give the label conglomerates some kind of credit; by getting on board with something like this, they at least acknowledge that the technology is now their master, and they are doing what they can to adapt (finally). You just have to wonder when they're going realize that the train is going over a cliff.

Enough already. I learned about some bands I've never heard of before at yesterday's press conference.  Now I need to go "consume" some more free music…

Delusions Persist: Nashville ‘s Music Row Chimes in on Google Music

Google-music This morning Nashville’s Tennessean assesses the impact that the new Google music service — revealed yesterday but not to be  officially announced until next week — will have on the crumbling ruins of Music City’s most visible industry:

The news comes as music CD sales have tumbled dramatically over the past decade. Sales of digital downloads have not made up for the revenue loss.

But Nashville area record label executives, along with those in the creative side of the industry, said Google’s initiative could help them reach more listeners — and sell more music

It’s hard to explain to people who’ve built their livelihoods on the concept of “selling music” that their business model is going away completely. It’s hard to drill into their heads the idea that the shift from “ownership” to “access” virtually obsolesces the whole idea of “selling” music.

So Music Row types who are reading the Tennessean this morning are probably reaching for their pitchforks when they read a quote from a certain blogger re: the ultimate future of digital music delivery, in which the Google move is just more step in the inexorable direction:

“I’m worried that we are on the threshold of a time when the
remunerative value of music is zero,” said Nashville writer and
entrepreneur Paul Schatzkin, whose Celestial Jukebox blog focuses on digital music.

“Your browser is becoming your iPod,” Schatzkin said. “There is a behavioral
shift afoot where consumers are getting accustomed to the concept of
access to an infinite universe of music versus ownership of a limited
personal library.”

Elsewhere, the tech blog Ars Technica weighs in, confirming yesterday’s report that the service on Google is only going to offer “snippets,” not the full “first time for free” stream that Lala.com users get:

According to insiders speaking to the Wall Street Journal, the music will come in the form of free, embedded streams from either Lala.com or iLike.com.
Those who are interested in buying the music will be able to do so from
either of those two sites—iLike allows users to buy unprotected MP3s
directly but also provides a link to iTunes, while Lala only sells the
unprotected MP3 with no other direct links….

Some leaked screenshots allegedly of the new service are available at TechCrunch,
showing that users won’t be able to listen to an entire song from
Google’s search results, but rather just a snippet. Realistically, this
makes sense—most searchers want to confirm that they found what they
were searching for, and then click through to buy or browse through
similar music.

Agreed, that is the only reason a 30-second snippet of music ever makes sense — when I’ve already heard something somewhere else, and want to confirm that that’s the track I’m looking for.

Ars Technica tries to make the case that Google Music (or Audio, or whatever its called) is not a “game changer” for music delivery, but I wonder if they’re missing the point.  Maybe “incremental game changer” is an oxymoron, but that’s what this is — another step in the arrival of the Celestial Jukebox.

Granted, I’m not an objective observer on this subject, but I can’t help but think that the big winner in this is not Google — and certainly not the calcified Luddites on Music Row — but Lala.com, and, by extension, the music audience.

The link through Google search will bring more people to Lala.com, where many will discover for the first time the marvel of unrestricted access to an virtually infinite library of music (if it’s more than you can listen to in a lifetime, that might qualify as “infinite”).  Then they’ll start shelling out that dime-a-track to listen to things they like again; once that happens, they’re hooked on the “access” model, and Music Row will never again be able to sell (at least those people) encoded plastic wafers for $15 a pop.

Is the Celestial Jukebox the “Killer App” That Kills the Internet?

Gizmos Surely, by now, you've heard the expression "killer app."

Ordinarily it's used with a
positive connotation, referring to an application or function that drives a larger market. Like
spreadsheets and word processors were the 'killer apps' that drove the sale of PCs in the
80s; like desktop publishing and Photoshop were the 'killer apps' that
drove sales of the Mac in the 90s and 00s. Like… well, "apps" in general are the 'killer apps' that drive iPhone sales. 

But there's a "killer app" lurking in our mobile devices that could bring down the platform it's supposed to live on — the symbiont service that threatens to kill its host. And it's precisely what this site is dedicated to, the arrival of "the Celestial Jukebox."

To whit: The spreading popularity of "cloud-based" music  storage and delivery services like Pandora, Slacker, Last.fm, Spotify, Rhapsody, etc. threatens to bring the essential delivery system those services and devices rely on — wireless broadband — to its knees in the foreseeable future.

Are you one of the rapidly expanding legions of people that use Pandora ?

If so, then consider this article in the Sunday NYTimes Magazines.  It's a great inside look at how Pandora really works, how it manages to deliver songs that are consistent with the song or artist you have chosen to launch a "channel."  Called "the music genome project," it's a fascinating — if costly,  labor intensive, and time consuming — effort.

Westergren But you might hear alarm bells ringing when you read this:

…thanks in part to the popularity of the Pandora iPhone app, its fortunes have lately improved. It has attracted 35 million listeners and claims about 65,000 new sign-ups a day (more than half from mobile-device users). About 75 companies are working Pandora into a variety of gizmos and gadgets and Web platforms.

That statement demonstrates the rapidly expanding potential for music delivered from "the cloud." But "65,000 new sign-ups a day" accounts for a LOT of wireless bandwidth.  And those 75 companies, they are all creating services and devices that will offer Pandora to still more customers, all them demanding still more bandwidth.

Which brings us to the dark lining in the silver cloud, the hard rain that could one day fall.  If these services keep expanding — if people become comfortable with "access" to over "ownership" of their digital libraries — we are going to need a LOT more bandwidth.  And probably a lot more after that. Indeed, the potential for utilizing broadband channels for music delivery grows exponentially now that mobile devices like iPhone are being used for just that purpose.

The potential severity of the issue — and the concurrent potential for all kinds of conflicts of interest — was highlighted in a recent blog post in the Wall Street Journal online that predicts "The Coming Mobile Meltdown," by Holman W. Jenkins Jr.:

Renocol_HolmanJenkins Consider: A single YouTube viewing consumes nearly 100 times as much
cellular bandwidth as a voice call. In Asia, some 200 million people
already watch video on their smartphones. No wonder Google (whose
YouTube unit serves up one billion videos a day) is an investor in a
new undersea fiber line connecting North America to the Far East.

More omens: Data collector AdMob reports that mobile Web page
requests grew 9% from July to August—a 180% annual growth rate. And
Motorola recently went public with worries that a handful of mobile
Slingbox users (a video streaming device) could wipe out cell service
in a whole neighborhood.

This is a mobile meltdown in the making. (italics added)

Of course, this being the Wall Street journal, the article then goes on
to use the prospect of restricted bandwidth as a justification for the big corporations that provide that bandwidth being liberated from the shackles
of the "net neutrality" controversy.   That's the sort of "socialist" canard with which the WSJ
(which, you'll recall, is now a sister company of Fox News, aka "Fixed
Noise") loves to take issue.  But that may be beside the point.

Jenkins identifies an even larger issue lurking behind the "net neutrality" issue:

…we persist in suspecting that the biggest political scrum
in the near future won't be over classic net neutrality at all—it will
be a battle over usage-based pricing, which is one of the few ways to
keep excessive demand in check (though key help will also come from
technologies that opportunistically dump wireless traffic back into the
fixed Net).

Boy, there's a super-sized can of worms.

Right now, I enjoy more or less 'net neutral' unlimited bandwidth use on both my laptop and mobile devices.  I can suck as much data off the Internet as I want on either platform.  I can listen to music all day provided by any one of a number of services.

Jenkins foresees the time when all this bandwidth demand will run up against limits; when that happens, the 'net neutrality' debate will be forced aside, and the ISPs will argue that they need to start charging heavy users (like me) for my torrential bit-flow in order to pay for the infrastructure that needs to be put in place to keep all those gigabits flowing.

Well, that's fine, I guess.  I don't really have a position one way or the other on Net neutrality and the revenue is going to have to come from somewhere to pay for all those cell towers. 

But it occurs to me that there is another issue that just got lost in that shifting debate: the fact that, by charging for "usage," the ISPs will, in effect, be charging for content.  If I listen to a lot of music over my "Celestial Jukebox" rig, and I am charged for that usage,  am I not in effect being indirectly charged for the use of that content?

In that scenario, shouldn't some of the revenue also go to the content providers who are the reason for the bandwidth use that would justify higher charges?

I am increasingly perplexed by the implications that virtually free (a dime-a-track comes pretty damn close, compared to $15 for a CD…) hold for the creators of all this nifty content that's pouring through my MacBook and iPhone these days.  I mean, when it gets to the point that recorded music has zero value — because it's all in the cloud, all the time, and accessible from anywhere — then how in the hell are my musician friends going to make a living?

So Holman W. Jenkins, Jr.  proposes that ISPs be freed to start charging for bandwidth usage.  Great.  But I wonder how Mr. Holman and his bosses at the W$J will feel about ISP revenue being shared with the millions of artists who create the content that creates the demand for new bandwidth — seeing as how so many of them are crunchy-granola eating, left-leaning, right-brained subversives?

Point is, if there is no provision made for the creators, there won't be any content, so there won't be any need for any more bandwidth, at which point we can go back to worrying about "net neutrality."

NPR Strikes Again, Sarah Siskind “Live” on the Celestial Jukebox

SarahToT OK, so if you've been following this blog at all, you know I'm something of a fan of Sarah Siskind, a Nashville based singer/songwriter who is starting now to break out nationally. She was a commanding presence in this falls's "Ten out of Tenn" tour (photo at right with Madi Diaz, Mikky Ekko and Andrew Belle).
Now she is featured on NPR's "World Cafe," talking about her career, her new CD "Say it Louder," and offering up some previously unreleased tracks:

October 13, 2009 from WXPNSarah Siskind began writing music at age 11. Born to a family of bluegrass musicians, she'd been exposed since birth to both contemporary music and the classics. Since releasing her first album at 14, Siskind has won several songwriting competitions, shared a stage with Doc Watson and Maya Angelou, and received a Grammy nomination for writing 2007's Alison Krauss song "Simple Love." In 2008, Siskind toured with the popular indie-rock band Bon Iver, which frequently covers her song "Lovin's for Fools" at shows.


Clickety click
to visit NPR.org, listen to the interview and in-studio performances, and the "bonus" tracks.

Or click the "play" button here to listen to "Say It Louder" in its entirety courtesy Lala.com: 

Say It Louder – Sarah Siskind

Orphan Business Model Attracts More Prospective Parents

For a business model that supposedly has no future, there sure are a lot companies trying to jump on to the "Celestial Jukebox" bandwagon. Earlier this week I read that British TV company BSkyB is planning a subscription service called "SkySongs." Now comes another entrant, from the guys who brought you Kazaa.  The New York Times reports:

The idea of selling monthly subscriptions to a vast catalog of online music has met with only limited success. That isn’t stopping a new batch of entrepreneurs from trying to make it work, The New York Times’s Brad Stone writes.

The latest and perhaps most surprising entrants to the field are the European entrepreneurs Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis. In 2001, they created and financed Kazaa, one of the original peer-to-peer file-sharing services that hurt the music industry. The two have created and financed a secretive start-up called Rdio, with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco.

I've lost count now, how many subscription services are now climbing on the Celestial Jukebox bandwagon. Let's see… Rhapsody and Napster are now the old kids on the block. There's my personal fave, Lala.com. There's the infinitely over-hyped Spotify, now I read about something called "Mog," there's the BSkyB service that is supposed to launch next week, and now Rdio, from the Kazaa guys.
For a model that so many people scoff at, the landscape is starting to get crowded. Hopefully I can get a decent count of the options before they start shaking each other out…

Now Playing on the Celestial Jukebox: Bonnie Bishop

Bonniebishop After the Americana Conference last month, I sat down with the showcase listing and Lala.com and started listening to the performers (someday I’ll explain why I hate the word “acts”) whose performances I’d missed.

One of the first performers I discovered was Bonnie Bishop, out of Austin.  The tune that sunk the harpoon is the second cut from this album, “Lucky Ones.”  With Bonnie’s throaty, softly growling vocals and a unique take on the vagaries of love, here’s the sort of song you will likely never hear on the radio that makes you — well, me, anyway — so grateful to have access through this channel I’m calling the Celestial Jukebox.

I listened to “Lucky Ones” about a half dozen times, and decided this morning I need to spring (right, the whole buck…) for the entire album.  And the rest of the record is just as strong as Lucky Ones.  But I’m going to hold out until Bonnie plays a show here in Nashville later this month before I spring to the actual CD, and maybe get Bonnie to sign it for me.

Photo of Bonnie Bishop by jbwutx via flickr.com

Now Playing on the Celestial Jukebox: Owl City

Owlcity I’ve heard some of this record before.  Electronica is not ordinarily my thing, but this is pretty infectious. If the first track doesn’t grab you, skip down to “Fireflies” and then come back for more.

This comes with a nod to digital music denizen Bob Lefsetz, who writes of the single “Fireflies:”

Where does the magic start?

Sure, there’s an ethereal intro, but it’s not riveting.

Then there’s that hooky groove, with the big bass beat, without sounding like what’s on Top Forty radio, which is only groove, sans melody. This guy with a thin voice is singing up and down the scale, this is not a Timbaland production.

Then there are the strings! Brian Wilson knew the power of strings, they’re not anathema to pop music, they’re not inherently schmaltzy, they add meaning, and texture.

Then the processed vocals when the song breaks down, kind of like Steve Marriott in “Itchycoo Park”, if Steve Marriott was a wimp.

Then, when the verse begins again, there’s more in the track. The calliope-like sound brings in joy, those strings add counterpoint. The line about the disco ball warms you up, then the whole track comes alive, like a denizen finally awaking from a slumber.

Then, back into that verse groove. You may tire of counting sheep, but now you’re fully enraptured, you’ve left the planet, you’re in music wonderland.

“I’d like to make myself believe”

That this track will be inspirational, that it will cause the business to do a 180, that melody will return, that music will eclipse marketing, that a whole row of infectious tracks will come driving down the pike.

Doubtful.

But this guy did cut this wholly alone, in his basement. He didn’t go on “American Idol”, didn’t need Kara DioGuardi to polish it into oblivion. All he needed was tools, to follow his muse.

I’d like to make myself believe that music this good doesn’t need a major label to break through. That just putting it up online is enough to get you started. That appears to be the Owl City story, then again, who knows where truth lies.

But the truth is “Fireflies” is a fucking great track. The best on the Owl City album, but not the only good one.

Admittedly, some of the music on this album is an acquired taste, especially for an acoustic-oriented fogie like yours truly. But, lLike the music or not, there is no denying that Owl City is a story that could not have happened in any era other than the one we’re now entering, Music 3.0.

Notes from AmericanaFest – 1

I spent most of Wednesday through Saturday of last week at the Americana Music Festival and Conference in Nashville.

I went to a lot of panels, and I took a lot of notes using an analog device known as “pencil and notebook.”  This antiquated technology works really well, at least until I go back and try to read what I scribbled.  But it was more convenient than trying to find an outlet in every room so that I could type notes on my laptop.

Jedhilly

First, a general observation: “Americana” seems at times like a brand in search of a genre.  Musically, the category covers a broad swath of the musical spectrum. Jed Hilly, the Executive Director of the Americana Music Association, did his best to narrow it down when he defined “Americana” (for the purpose of a new Grammy Awards category) as “contemporary music that honors and derives from American roots music.”

That does, indeed, cover a LOT of territory.  But more important than what the brand or genre represents musically is what the concept embodies as a movement.  Musically, this may be “roots” music, but market-wise, this is music that is coming up from the grassroots.  And, based on what I heard over this past week, it represents in some respects the very best of what the new grassroots paradigm has to offer the listening audience.  I mean, these people are GOOD and deserve the recognition that “mainstream” cultural forces are too often too slow to provide.

With that as a premise, here’s a note from the first panel I attended early on Thursday morning.

I didn’t realize until I got there that a discussion of “Raising The Next Generation of Americana Fans” would turn out to be a discussion about bringing this music to children, which is not generally speaking an area of my own personal interest.

Well… duh.  Music is sorta like cigarettes – if you want them smoking it when they’re adults, you gotta start ’em out as kids.  So (politically incorrect tobacco reference aside), what could be more important than a discussion of bringing “Americana” music to kids?

So once I realized where I was and why it was the right place to be, I started paying attention to Jason Ringenberg (aka “Farmer Jason“) and Miss Melba Toast as they described their experiences bringing music to children.

Khussey

Panelist Kathy Hussey said the one thing I found most encouraging: When she shows up for her songwriting-for-kids workshops, she said, “they start out wanting to write a rap song,” but their interest is very easily redirected.  “Kids are learning that they don’t have to consume what’s on the radio.”

When I was growing up, “what’s on the radio” was all their was, and we all grew up wanting to be The Beatles or The Stones.  But the impact of an infinite variety of cultural choices is beginning to have a diversifying effect on a new generation.

Kids today may show up wanting to replicate what they hear in the media.  They may think for a moment that that’s what’s expected of them  But if Kathy’s experience is any indication, the commitment is shallow.  They wind up wanting something resonates personally on a deeper level.

That’s a consequence of a world of infinite choices instead of just a few dominating channels.  More choice forces us to dig a little deeper to find what matters.  Mark that down as another upside of the new era, Music 3.0.