My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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the music industry would be proud: I bought music this year

I love music and I refuse to be one of those people whose listening habits were formed in college and never progress. I pride myself on acquiring music on a regular basis, but I absolutely positively refuse to buy DRM-ified music. I’ve been buying CDs and ripping them for years, grabbing music from friends, and downloading using P2P software (even though I know that all three are “illegal”). Because most of the music that I listen to has a short run on CDs (and is not carried by any of the Top 5 distributors), I usually can’t buy the CD if I don’t get to the album in the first few months. As much as I love psyshop, it’s really irritating that the majority of albums are “not available.” This means that my only option is to “steal” them. Not an ideal situation. The other problem is that I hate having to wait for CDs – they take forever, especially when they’re being shipped from Europe. Thus, I’m more likely to grab them by any means necessary than to buy them, not because I don’t want to buy them, but because the inconvenience factor is so high.

Another issue with music shopping has been the dreadful “recommendation” systems. Any system that can’t tell the difference between psytrance and house needs to be shot. I want nuance in my recommendations because “electronica” doesn’t describe my tastes. I had been really hopeful that Last.FM would be the answer, but it seems as though their algorithm is incapable of taking into consideration context. Just because I listen to Dr. Toast and Johnny Cash and Ani Difranco doesn’t mean that I’d ever put them together in a playlist. Also, people suck at tagging music. Mega suck. I need to find good new music, but the systems haven’t been in place. Historically, Fake Science always had music that I loved, but they’ve closed their doors.

To make matters worse, my music situation has always been a combination of wires and hacks and crap. And interesting new stuff comes out on PCs but I don’t do Windows. Even my nightmare with Leopard is more bearable than Windows.

Things have been changing in the music industry for a while and for the first time in a long time, I feel like the music bits came together for me. It’s a weird hodgepodge, but it works surprisingly well. For those who are curious about how others handle music, let me detail it. For those in the industry, maybe my “solution” might give you some ideas.

Setup: Airport Express attached to stereo. iPod with car iPod input. Airfoil for streaming anything other than iTunes to my Airport Express (including Pandora and Firefox). 70 gigs of current music on computer, another 100 gigs of “haven’t listened to recently” on backup drives simply for space reasons. (I’m waiting for Airport Extreme to really work.)

My iTunes is organized by genre (obsessively with genres like ClitRock and PsyChill) with smart playlists to combine my genres. Because iTunes still doesn’t do tagging (damn you Apple!), I’ve resorted to creating even weirder genres like “CalmGirl-Folk-80s” so that I can smart playlist around it. Music from iTunes gets auto-uploaded to Last.FM through the Scrobbler software.

When I want something new, I switch to Pandora. Because the Pandora app doesn’t update to Last.FM, I go through Pandora FM and set Airfoil to stream it to my Airport Express, but Airfoil doesn’t really do well when Firefox crashes so I end up listening to Pandora less than I’d like to. When I hear something that really impresses me, I jump to Last.FM to find out more about the artist and preview the tracks. I then jump over to Amazon to buy the album through the MP3 download. I don’t know what has changed in the last few months, but lately, everything that I’ve wanted to buy has been available for download at Amazon. It’s been shocking. If it’s not available, I usually don’t buy it. If I’ve heard it a bunch of times and desperately want it and it’s still not available, I decide if I want the whole album. If not, I just go P2P. Because MP3 downloads have finally happened on mass, I’m buying a whole lot more music. $7.00 or so for an album is AOK by me.

There are still things that I want. So, for you out there who are thinking about music, help a girl out.

1. Pandora/Last.FM: let me save artists/songs on a wishlist (Last.FM’s playlist feature is not good enough). Let me store the names so that I can go back to them and buy them. Right now, I put the album in my Amazon wishlist but that’s downright silly and I only do that if I _really_ like something. I’d buy more music if I had a record of the things I liked and could go back to them.

2. All y’all: while I usually love Pandora’s recommendations, I think that a recommendation system could be a whole lot better if it would combine music structure with the network structure of listening. Take into consideration context. A song relates to another song if it’s played shortly after the first one. Build networks of songs, connect them.

3. Apple: figure out how to make actually smart playlists. Learn from my listening habits, take advantage of recommendation systems. Help me listen to my own collection of music in a more interesting way. Let me start with a song and then you take me down a new path through my own music collection.

4. Labels: make EVERYTHING available via MP3 download. I know the quality isn’t as good, but y’know what, I still buy it. And if you don’t make it available for download, I don’t. What the hell are you afraid of? Yeah, I know.. you don’t like Apple having so much control and you’re not sure you want to work with Amazon.. you want something that’s just yours. Well, frankly, that’s just annoying because I never know what artist is on what label. Why can’t you all just get along?

5. Scion: while I appreciate being able to go to my playlists through my stereo, I hate that I can’t go to my genres that way. You also have the worst interface possible for scanning through 1500 artists. At the very least, let me scroll through the alphabet to get closer.

6. Someone: I almost killed my computer last week. I have 70 gigs of music on this system alone. Do you know how long that takes to backup and how much disk space I use doing so? Why can’t I “recover” through my playlist somehow? I know, I know.. evil labels think that the act of copying is akin to blasphemy and that I should buy everything over again rather than be allowed to back it up. But that’s just plain lame. Maybe this should be something insurance companies do… Tehe. I know plenty of folks who lost their music collections in a fire. Instead of having to pay them to buy it all again, imagine if the insurance companies would be able to just give them a hard drive of everything they’ve “insured.” Anyhow, labels, I know that you’re super greedy, but it might help if you respected your consumers a little bit. Give them some support when they’re down. I can’t tell you how much it sucked to have 250 CDs stolen a few years ago. And I can’t tell you how grateful I was when a nice kid in NY volunteered to burn off every psytrance CD I could remember having (and since I’m compulsive, I had an excel sheet for him with a record of all of the CDs I had owned). Yeah, it was illegal.. but y’know what? I had bought all of those CDs once and so I took the moral high ground and refused to buy them again just because some prick threw a rock through my car window and got into the trunk while I was living out of my car. So maybe y’all could get together and come up with a respectful way of preserving what people did buy?

7. Artists: please don’t go with Universal or its sublabels. They’re the worst abuser of their consumers and I refuse to buy their music in any format out of protest. There’s a lot to be said for remix and innovative distribution models and they’re so the big bully in the room. Is it really worth it?

8. Mobile phone people: WTF is up with your approach to ringtones? I know you see a big market and want to take advantage of it, but duuuuude, talk about abusive. Why is it more expensive to buy the ringtone than it is to buy the song? And why can’t I actually keep the song when I buy it as a ringtone? Definitely not humored.

OK… that’s my music rant for a while. Now back to writing…

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19 comments to the music industry would be proud: I bought music this year

  • Not sure it has your weird music, but Deezer.com seems to work on a system as reliable as yours (btw: I got Pringle cans to spare) – and they have playlists.

    You gotta love the English language for “I don’t do [insert something morally objectionable]”.

  • You can use ‘tags’ on Last.fm to mark songs/artists you like- so if you want to keep a record of all songs you are interested in kind-of-sort-of-maybe-buying, then tag them as such!

  • Dan

    “1. Pandora/Last.FM: let me save artists/songs on a wishlist (Last.FM’s playlist feature is not good enough). Let me store the names so that I can go back to them and buy them. Right now, I put the album in my Amazon wishlist but that’s downright silly and I only do that if I _really_ like something. I’d buy more music if I had a record of the things I liked and could go back to them.”

    Try PandoraJam http://www.bitcartel.com/pandorajam/

    “5. Scion: while I appreciate being able to go to my playlists through my stereo, I hate that I can’t go to my genres that way. You also have the worst interface possible for scanning through 1500 artists. At the very least, let me scroll through the alphabet to get closer.”

    In iTunes make a smart playlist for each genre, then on the ipod you’ll have the “dub” list, the “rock” list, etc.

    Happy New Year

  • Dan

    “1. Pandora/Last.FM: let me save artists/songs on a wishlist (Last.FM’s playlist feature is not good enough). Let me store the names so that I can go back to them and buy them. Right now, I put the album in my Amazon wishlist but that’s downright silly and I only do that if I _really_ like something. I’d buy more music if I had a record of the things I liked and could go back to them.”

    Try PandoraJam http://www.bitcartel.com/pandorajam/

    “5. Scion: while I appreciate being able to go to my playlists through my stereo, I hate that I can’t go to my genres that way. You also have the worst interface possible for scanning through 1500 artists. At the very least, let me scroll through the alphabet to get closer.”

    In iTunes make a smart playlist for each genre, then on the ipod you’ll have the “dub” list, the “rock” list, etc.

    Happy New Year!

  • If you’re looking for a way to avoid a crash in Firefox killing your music I recommend giving Mozilla’s Prism a spin. It’s essentially a program that creates a new independent instance of Firefox for each application that you ‘install’. At the moment it’s only a prototype but I’ve been using it for Google Calendar for the past week or so and it seems solid enough for that. I can’t say I’ve tried it with Pandora but it might be worth a shot.

  • If you are using a Mac, and if I remember right, you do, you should try PandoraJam – amazing software that let’s you sumbit tracks to last.fm, stream your music to Airport Express, use your remote with Pandora, and even support Growl. But the most amazing thing – It let’s you record tracks from Pandora and attach them automatically to iTunes with the album artwork.
    I’m not an advertiser. I just love that app…

    Enjoy the music!

  • In addition to Last.FM and Pandora, I really like seeqpod

    http://www.seeqpod.com

    It’s a playable search engine that finds songs uploaded on the net and lets you stream them to your computer, build and share playlists, etc. There are a few other services out there that do the same thing, but I prefer seeqpod.

    Not sure if it will find some of the obscure songs you’re looking for, but it’s worth a shot.

  • Hey danah…I second Devan’s Last.fm tags suggestion. I use it for the same thing on occasion. It’s not the most intuitive solution (it took me awhile to think of using it that way, and then I had to find all the places where I could tag things), but it works pretty well. If you’re worried about munging up the (I agree already bad, but I suck at it too) tagging cloud, maybe try namespace style prefixes or something… personal.wishlist, or wishlist:foo (ala delicious bundles).

    A better solution would be purely personal tags that don’t hit the tagcloud, I guess. But it could help!

  • Ripping CDs is neither illegal nor is it “illegal”.

  • I read your post with some great interest for a couple of reasons.

    For one, I’m a huge music person myself, and I can’t quite classify my own tastes with any suitable titles. I generally use the term “rock” and then shudder when I hear others use “rock” and include bands that I loathe.

    Secondly, I actually found myself looking for a decent reliable music resource. I had used Last.FM and Pandora, but I really hated the suggestions I was getting. In fact, I found myself hitting skip more often than not, and stopping only when I landed back on one of the initial bands I had listed as a favorite. I’m not sure what it is with humans and computer algorithms, but we try and apply them to just about every facet of human life. Frankly, I feel like sometimes, they just can’t apply. Particularly when you consider that music preferences is largely dependant on life experiences, cultural experiences, and so on, and so to base music purely based on what other people have listed – it seems very much like a speech bubble without the speech (if that’s not an expression, it should be!)

    Anyway, long story short, all I wanted was a reliable source that was purely community driven. Not driven by some back-end heartless computer that couldn’t pass the Turing test if it’s “life” depended on it – but by people. I found that the most reliable resource I ever used was Amazon. I’d just search a band and then see what other people bought. The downside was that more often than not, it gave me the obvious choices.

    In the end, I decided to just make my own site, a Wikipedian-like website, where users had complete say in what went on, and could update/modify/rate, and so on. The downside is – I’m a programmer, not a marketing genius – so while the site is live and kicking, it’s not getting anywhere near as many hits as I wish it would…I’m just a lone guy competing with the giants, I guess.

    I also tried to go above and beyond music, by including other categories like Movies, Books, and more.

    Anyway, I’d be totally interested in getting your opinion/input on things. I’d really appreciate any advice…

    The site is: http://www.ifyoulove.net (If you love X, then you’d love Y… catchy, huh?)

  • Oh also,

    @Jeffrey, actually Ripping CDs IS illegal (or at least could become illegal) – it’s actually pretty recent news. Just go on to Google News, and simply search “ripping” and you’ll see a variety of recent articles concerning the RIAA’s latest stance on CD ripping… they’re not prosecuting yet, it seems, but they’re definitely not pleased with it.

  • Wow – cool – thanks for all of the suggestions…. ::rushing off to procrastinate more::

    Dan – I have far too many genres to create a separate playlist for each – it would make playlists unusable for me. That’s why I want them to be separate.

    Jeffrey – my commenting on ripping CDs is in snarky reference to the hubbub over the Post’s coverage of the latest RIAA lawsuit. Incidentally, it was declared illegal in Europe but the RIAA said they weren’t going to go after users there for it.

  • i must have a pretty biased listening habit. namely listening to 95% complex electronic music. but because this is true, last.fm’s recommendations are extremely well made for me. probably much better than any human (or team of 5) that i know. part of it is that there is a setting for how obscure or popular you would like the music be that it recommends. so i just set that on 10% (leaning towards obscure) or so and discover good new music at an unprecedented rate.

    with someone who like you, danah, listening to Dr. Toast (who by the way f’in rocked my psychedelic world at the FP new years party at 6am) one evening and Ani the next i can see how LFM would fail at making an enjoyable playlist. what would be really smart is for them to consult a statistician and figure out that they should make a playback feature that respects the multimodality in the data. namely one which allows you to focus on naturally defined subspaces of the listening distribution.

  • @Alishah Novin, statements from the RIAA are not law. Ripping your own purchased CD has long been acceptable. It’s Fair Use.

    Even Sony is encouraging this now:

    http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20080104-lone-holdout-in-drmed-music-recommends-drm-circumvention.html

    @db, rip your own ringtones from your purchased songs. There’s no need to ever pay money for a crippled partial-pseudo-song.

  • I’m going to go ahead and plug a site I’ve been working on and using, starting with my friends, that fits nicely with your post. It’s in its infancy, but already very usable (imho). (Also, I’m keenly interested in getting feedback.) Highlights:

    – Compatible with any music acquisition method, including p2p.
    – Doesn’t even try to algorithmically recommend music; favors getting recommendations through your friends.

    http://plurib.us/musicrecommend/

  • Bruce

    Seems like a number of us are trying to combine our love for music with our love for technology. When it works, technology provides us with a convenient way of satisfing our desire to discover new music. We have “access” to an ever increasing amount of content and as a result, we find it harder and harder to find what we want. Many of the services listed above employ some form of social networking or computer intelligence to filter content in some cleaver way. Unfortunately, use and mastery of these technologies also takes time..which most of us don’t have.

    In today’s world of more is better, let’s not forget the value of “less is more” and the power of the “editor”. In fact, most people still discover music on the radio. Back in the “old day’s” most of us likely had our choice of one or two rock stations and if we were lucky, the local college station had a segment of “alternative” music. It was very limited, but this is were many of us developed our love of music first. We did things like put radio station bumper sticker on our cars (mostly as a sign of allegiance, often as a form of repair). The local DJ was often considered just as big of a star as the musical artists.

    The cool thing about radio is that it reflects the musical interest and mood of a particular town/country/region. In many ways, you can get as sense of what a town is like without ever going there. These day’s my favorite radio station is called “The Current” from Minnesota Public Radio (http://minnesota.publicradio.org/radio/services/the_current/). I often have it playing in the house (or as a podcast in the car) even though I live about 1000 miles away. The music they play features a lot of local artists and clearly reflect the taste of the local alternative crowd. All the cool music of Minneapolis without the sub-zero temps.. now that’s technology!

  • it seems that Sony might flirt with non-DRM but their right hand RIAA still has very hard stance on ripping

    http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20071002-sony-bmgs-chief-anti-piracy-lawyer-copying-music-you-own-is-stealing.html

  • Bruce, got to agree with you on all points. (Also, coincidentally, I’m fortunate to get The Current on the airwaves. Makes me proud.)

  • To tag in iTunes:

    http://blog.seanmcg.com/?page_id=116

    (supposedly, soon, with last.fm integration).