Interesting Textures

I bring this in from my LJ – which is sadly even more out-of-use than this blog.

Dupobs got sampled for a PSA for a local noise show that apparently never plays our music. Cool! Listen to it here. It’s clearly “Introducing Le Barf Ball“, from our Shindig show last Autumn.

The new A Spectre Is Haunting Europe LP Embers is almost almost done. Just 4 more songs need vocals added to them, and then it’s mixdown time. I so want to share, but have vowed to myself not until it’s finished. I can’t believe it’s been almost two years in the making.

On that note, we’re still fixated on the donation model of record releasing, even in this post-In Rainbows era. So if you want vinyl, you’ll have to donate to the label’s paypal account using the button below. Otherwise, it will be available for free download anyway. That’s inescapable. But no CD, barring a massive petition from the people.


I will say this: baby Isabel will be featured somewhere on it. It’s amazing what a 7.5 month old girl can do with her pipes. Wow.

Last.fm, CBS and the future of music

OK, I was going to take a lot of time and write a measured and considered manifesto, but in the spirit of the impulsivity, that, according to my friend Jason, haunts, and characterizes the blogosphere, I’ve decided to have a little blurt and then go enjoy the blistering West Coast sunshine. Blogs are for blurts; journals are for more careful screeds. Or maybe I’ll think differently tomorrow morning.

Last.fm was just bought by CBS Corp for a whopping $280 million US. According to the site’s blog, CBS “gets it”, which can imply a lot. Or not. Let’s try and untangle this problem, shall we?

Last.fm’s brand image is cloaked in thought-choking terminology including “the social music revolution”, “the wisdom of crowds”, “discovery”, “exploration”, and “sharing”, the usual stuff of second generation (Web 2 point oh) utopianism. So what would it say about CBS’ strategic vision, to say that the company “gets” this? To my mind, it indicates the following:

CBS wants to monetize what they predict will be fundamental changes in the way music is distributed and shared – changes that center around the evolution of taste publics, and Last.fm – with its mode of connecting users into taste publics, and its recognition of the way music earns value via its social contextualization – is the most valuable indicator about how these processes unfold.

I agree that Last.fm is probably the best indicator yet developed (partly due to the fact that it has scaled to a large user base, which means that it has now become useful to CBS by having generated a critical mass of aggregate data) of how taste communities are formed and evolve.

And like Nancy at Online Fandom is, I am also uncertain whether the users of Last.fm will revolt against the company, fearing ads, the commoditization of their listening habits, or whatever other evils of the commercial Internet they may anticipate. I doubt there will be much of a backlash, so long as users derive value from it and it does not devolve into a top-down or non-neutral barometer of taste.

But what is the potential impact of this buyout? I think the answer, for now, resides in questions. I’ve thought of a few, anyway:

Now that a major media company has thrown its money behind it, how will CBS reproduce its business model through the Last.fm paradigm of music consumption/dissemination? Will CBS be responsive to changes in taste, or will it still try to foist dull things upon listeners? Will they respond to a supposedly “organic” evolution of taste publics, or will they steward or even manufacture these publics? Will they adequately represent minority/fringe interests, or will these suffer from the tyrrany of the American Idol-obsessed “majority” of music fans?

How will Last.fm account for the distinctive modalities of cultural reproduction in different taste publics? Consider the use of fan fiction in sustaining fan communities around particular bands or artists. This is a mode of social reproduction that works by a logic that simply doesn’t exist in other musical circles (consider art music, or folk traditions, where dissemination depends on a whole other set of genre rules).

And finally, how will the CBS Last.fm make use of indie content on the site? Currently, labels and artists on the site enjoy a you-get-the-organic-viral-stuff-for-free-but-you-can-pay-for-real-promotion system (which is far better than the opaque system over at the News Corp. Myspace, which hand-picks featured content, following supposedly ‘old-fashioned’ music industry practices*).

How will independents fare under the new arrangements? I think that the minute Last.fm gives indies the short end of the stick and emphasizes featured content (they already do this a little bit, using banner ads and other paid promotion features), the accuracy of their engine for tracking user tastes depreciates. Additionally, under such conditions the site becomes more an instrument of managing or “programming” taste (to borrow the evocative, and appropriate terminology of conventional radio) than an instrument that reflects it – in Gramscian language, a hegemonic institution rather than a site for counterhegemonic resistance.

I acknowledge that these questions could also be relevant to a discussion of the pre-CBS Last.fm, which was built-for-buyout, despite the obvious benefits users derive from it. But the buyout forces these questions into the spotlight, and there’s no better time than now to raise them, while everyone’s paying attention.

Comments? Questions? BS barometrics? Holler back.

Jonathan Coulton, repoproduction, and technological determinism

A recent story in the New York Times about the Jonathan Coulton phenomenon (remember – he’s the guy who posted a song a week on his blog for a year and so launched an infamous viral campaign interacting with fans who made videos for his songs, and who even recorded guitar solos for him to use) raises the spectre of how the internet has revised the rules of interaction between musicians and their listeners. I particularly like the second half of the article, where the author discusses the changing definition of what it means to be an artist in an online mediated regime of musical exchange:

Will the Internet change the type of person who becomes a musician or writer? It’s possible to see these online trends as Darwinian pressures that will inevitably produce a new breed — call it an Artist 2.0 — and mark the end of the artist as a sensitive, bohemian soul who shuns the spotlight. In “The Catcher in the Rye,” J. D. Salinger wrote about how reading a good book makes you want to call up the author and chat with him, which neatly predicted the modern online urge; but Salinger, a committed recluse, wouldn’t last a minute in this confessional new world. Neither would, say, Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, a singer who was initially so intimidated by a crowd that she would sit facing the back of the stage. What happens to art when people like that are chased away?

This resonates strongly with my own missives and misgivings on art in the age of digital recoproduction (or maybe it’s the age of repoproduction?).

But skim down the article a bit to get to this stuff – the first half of the piece is just more empty technological determinism such as we often see in conventional journalism:

In the past — way back in the mid-’90s, say — artists had only occasional contact with their fans. If a musician was feeling friendly, he might greet a few audience members at the bar after a show. Then the Internet swept in. Now fans think nothing of sending an e-mail message to their favorite singer — and they actually expect a personal reply…

The article goes on to credit the internet for its seemingly mystical ability to raise artists from obscurity to fame, arguing that “without the Internet, (Coulton’s) musical career might not exist at all.” Of course, this determinism grossly underemphasizes the basic characteristic of technology that explains why some musicians build profitable careers online while others do not: it’s what you make it. If Coulton is successful in building a profitable musical life online, it’s precisely because he is predisposed to a specific kind of marketing expertise that is appropriate for internet-mediated exchanges between himself and his listeners.

In simple terms – for whatever reason, this sort of musician is more comfortable or motivated working at his/her laptop for six hours a day than s/he would be pounding the pavement, harassing college radio programmers on the phone, postering, and getting friends of friends to submit reviews of his recordings to local music rags (how it was done – and still is done – in many localized music scenes). And then when a critical mass of indies take up this practice, it becomes just as mundane, routine, and enlurked by snake oil salesman as the old indie-major terrain used to be (and still is). The difference between people who successfully navigate one or the other network (or both networks), in my view, comes down to the simple calculus of which mode of communication they can tolerate better – yakking on the phone all day or clacking on their keyboard.

Anyway, I’m off to enjoy some much-needed sunshine in my still-musically-peripheral-city-despite-the-internet.

Wikis, Authorship, and Botdom

Last week I experimented briefly with content syndication on Clicknoise, part of a wider campaign of mine to tinker with WordPress plugins. I accidentally succeeded in syndicating posts from Inner Ear Infection, where my friend Bruce writes. Surprised to have gotten the php correct, I quickly removed all of the new content from this blog, as I hadn’t asked permission to syndicate it (and didn’t really want to do so anyway).

As you can probably tell, I’m an “old soldier” when it comes to authoring and crediting sources (and here I’d like to credit my friend and collaborator Phil Western with that phrase, as he refers to himself as an “old soldier” with music). I’m deeply attached to the things I originate, and the geneaology of works of art in this age of electronic re/coproduction is equally troubling to me as it is exciting. While I believe that co-produced knowledge (e.g., wikipedia, nowpublic, del.icio.us) is a truly emancipatory project, when it comes to artistic production I am less convinced. No historical example of collective authoring satisfies me; I obstinately refuse to give up my stake, my investment in things I’ve crafted. I get my hands dirty in some source material and turn it into something else. If someone grabs the thing I’ve just made and transforms it, but fails to mask it in their own personal aesthetic contrivance, I think my feeling of being ripped off is justifiable. But most bootleggers don’t do that, do they? I hear tons of mashups, most of them flat, derivative dross. The perceived value of mashups might depend merely on the recontextualization of well-known works (and, as Cory Doctorow has suggested, their appeal possibly also depends on the perception that the appropriation is subversive or illegal).

I was just reading this, and while I find much of it to be overblown (Wikipedia – not “the” wikipedia – is a community of editors – many of whom are well-known to each other, hardly an example of the idea of the “hive” of automatons Lanier is erecting and whacking at like so much pinata), Lanier’s invocation of the value of people, of authors, of those who take responsibility for their utterances has a deep resonance for me when applied to art.

Of course, I’ve blogged about this before, and then again, after that.

I might launch a parallel syndication-only blog in the coming weeks as an experiment. I’d like to see what a bot can do using the same RSS feeds and random google searches that I use to churn out Clicknoise in my old skool manner. The only remaining question – what to call it?

R.I.P. Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard has died. For all his warts (e.g., his ideas inspired tons of unwatchable drek such as The Matrix, as well as his light-headed book Passwords, among other disappointing late writings), he was one of the most influential public intellectuals of the 20th Century (right up there with Chomsky, Foucault, Heidegger, Sartre and the bunch). He gave us (or at minimum elaborated on it best) the simulacrum, and along with Debord and others, punk’d up social theory during the golden age of mass media and advertising (which are fading along with him, hopefully…)

Some might say he was anyways always already dead, or never really alive. Baudrillard himself remarked in 2000 that “Well, let’s see, at 70, I would say that I am … transfini” (meaning “beyond the end”) (source). Maybe TV never existed, either?

I had a fun discussion on a conference backchannel last week (over Skype – interestingly, a full two weeks later, that backchannel is still going on…) about how real life doesn’t exist, the real conference doesn’t exist, only the backchannel. Only Skype. Only the Internets. That it seems so perfectly everyday (and not merely everyday to academics) to adopt such positions is a concise testament to the importance of Baudrillard’s legacy for Western thought.

What a guy.

Podsense Speculation

Google appears to be gearing up for the release of a new podcasting product, uncoincidentally right on the heels of the Nov. 1 discontinuation of Audioblogger.

This would be insignificant, and barely worth me diverting my attention from reading Marcuse and trying to get articles done by their deadlines, except for all the speculation by others about an Adsense product for podcasts. Wait a sec – would that mean placing context/keyword sensitive audio ads inside podcasts?

The implications are pretty huge, if so. Jeff Molander at Seeking Alpha writes:

Will Google use its patented ability to take voice and turn it into a search query… and scale it? This would allow Google’s AdSense for Audio service to “listen” to podcast content and provide contextually matched text ads on a Web page. Yet what’s stopping them from placing audio ads at the front and/or tail of audio programs delivered via the Web? This is not a new idea (there are a handful of start-ups like Podbridge, Podtrac promising this or a variation of it) but Google has the proven ability to scale and Madison Avenue presence – just like Podshow does. Hence, I believe this move by Google is bad news for a variety of startups promising a ‘podcast – advertising’ match service.

Surely such a keyword/context aware audio adsense service for podcasts, if plausibly launched at all, would have at least as many (if not more) issues with speech recognition as would, well, speech recognition software, which has a built-in machine training curve that is impractical for the pace of the online advertising industry. Without speaker-centered training for ad campaigns on particular podcasts, ads could easily misfire on common homonyms or even rhyming words (“sex” and “text” come to mind as being particularly problematic). Not insurmountable problems, to be sure, but problems to solve, yes.

I predict that if we see anything this year from Google on this front it will be a much simpler, non-automated affair. Something less exciting, but more doable. Perhaps we’ll see something as simple as tags. Hoorah.

Anyway, back to Marcuse.