Category Archives: audio

mainstream-ification and podcasting

This week, i went to Duke to participate in the Podcasting Symposium. It was a great opportunity to talk to folks dealing with podcasting from different roles – podcasters, lawyers, scholars, businesspeople, etc. I participated on the Identity and Performance panel; here’s a synopsis of what i said.

I began by quoting James Polanco of Fake Science:

“The issue with today’s community is not a lack of professional content or a lack of audio quality that many listeners or media would assume. In my mind it’s the almost cult like adoration and exclusionary attitudes that is causing many of my fellow podcasters much grief. Too many of today’s major community leaders are playing in a popularity contest instead of focusing on what I feel podcasting should be about, creating interesting content… Over the last year, Adam Curry has re-emerged as a public icon and with urging from the community he is now the golden-child and the face of podcasting. The community worships Adam in a sycophant, cult-esque way that really frustrates me. The community has deemed titles upon him such as the ‘podfather’ which Adam then quickly embraced. Look at the front page of the podcasting iTunes site for the graphic for his new show ‘podfinder’. Adam is dressed in an all white reverend suit with a rainbow over him and his hands are out like he is giving podcasting to us straight from God.”

(I apparently hit a nerve using this quote since many in the audience were quite ecstatic to hear someone throw a punch at Curry. ::sigh:: It is sad when movements acquire leaders at the expense of other practitioners.)

Next, i talked about how the rapid mainstream-ification of podcasting has really splintered the early community and made it difficult for an organic community to grow and learn from each other. The combination of mass media podcasts and iTunes popularity systems make it very difficult for amateur production to emerge and for groups to actually support each other. This is quite sad because i think about how valuable the community element of blogging was, even though it was quite diverse and there were many different communities – it let a wide range of practices emerge under the header “blogging.”

Podcasting mainstream-ification has cemented the idea that podcasting is about one-to-many. For those allured by this mass audience possibility (preachers of religion, culture, news and politics), this is *fantastic.* But it also leaves behind those invested in one-to-few. People talk about podcasting being about niche markets, but it’s still visioned as getting everyone of some particular niche. When i think of one-to-few, i think of my grandfather leaving audio recordings of his life or families in India talking about what they see out in their hometown for their loved ones who are far away. I think about audio storytelling for groups who know each other, not just gossip for the masses.

Finally, i talked about how remix is about mixing consumption and production and allowing communities to come together through shared cultural references. Remix has its roots in the ephemeral, not the permanent. Yet, the persistence of things like podcasting means that it is not only public but very very public. Remix was always available at the local club, but now that niche community can be observed by anyone.

I also included a bunch of questions:

  • Who are podcasting creators/consumers? Who are we supporting? How are we supporting them?
  • How has the emphasis on one-to-many and popularity affected podcasting?
  • What about one-to-few populations? Do we care about them?
  • Do we want to make the new radio? Is this only about create mass audiences? What about helping people express their thoughts in audio?
  • How are technology and business choices affecting practice?
  • How do people deal with different constructions of ‘public’?
  • What happens when underground behavior goes mainstream?

pandora: authority-driven music streams

Thanks to Ryan, i’ve been playing around with various music streaming sites. I’m particularly having fun with Pandora which creates radio stations based on “essential” qualities of particular songs. You put in a particular artist and they rotate around that.

To test it, i created four different stations – Bluetech, Tipper, Ani DiFranco, Aphrodite and Ween. Tipper is a bit strange – they seem to think it’s jazz. (Perhaps there’s another Tipper that doesn’t do breakbeats?) With Ani, i get a lot of folks and i am not really into folk other than Ani, but it all makes sense in terms of “essentials” – this is just where cultural components are missing because i connect things like Kaia to Ani even though they’re structurally different sounds. Bluetech is *dead on* and i got to listen to a whole lot of psychill by artists i’ve never heard of so that was super super exciting. Aphrodite is also fantastic, but drum and bass is pretty easy to match. Ween is interesting. They seem to be latching on to Ween circa “White Pepper.” (For those who don’t know Ween, Ween is known for mocking every music style on the planet, from country to funk, sappy love songs to deathcore.)

Most hysterically, when you look at why it recommends certain songs, it tells you a bit about their “essentials.” Apparently, most of what i listen to has “mumbling vocals.” Aphrodite has “lyrics about partying.” ROFL.

I’m very fascinated by this because its antithetical to the tagging approach. This is all about having an authority tell you what music you should like based on qualities that they have marked as experts. As much as i love tags, i’m already pissed that some asshole on Last.FM labeled shit like Led Zeppelin and Tool and Stone Temple Pilots as psytrance. This totally ruins my ability to stream all things tagged psytrance since i can’t alter others’ tags. Clusterfucking the radio station is far more irritating than messing with my Flickr photos. At least with Flickr, i can scan and skip and not be too annoyed. But with a stream, it disrupts my focus completely.

Once again, issues of authority versus collectives come up…

why podcasts need DJs (kudos to Fake Science)

When i went to see War of the Worlds, i spent most of the film trying to crawl into my mothers’ lap because i *hate* scary movies. As i tried to calm myself in the theatre, my conscious mind told my reactive mind that it’s just the music and if it weren’t for the scary music, you’d just think that watching Tom Cruise was as fun as watching fratboys. Try watching the opening scene of Apocalypse Now without the audio – it’s an entirely different movie. Music matters and movie folks know it.

Film is not the only place where music is put to use to help tell a story. For example, NPR uses sound for many of its pieces. As much as the music between the segments on NPR can annoy me (because they have dreadful taste), they also help the transition and place the listener into the mood to hear the story. There’s an art to putting together an audio production and it’s not the same as just talking talking talking.

When i realized that a DJ friend of mine put together a podcast, i was curious enough to actually revisit my ban on podcasts. I was floored. Fake Science’s The Lab Report weaves interviews and music. They pay attention to the entire sound of the podcast, focusing on transition and creating breaks in the speaking by reviewing different music. !Plus! they have brilliant music taste so each transition includes some heavenly dub, downtempo or ambient music.

In listening to their podcast, i realized that podcasts really need DJs, or at least people who really understand the flow of sound. There is an art to sound design. While we all learn how to write in school (and some of us enjoy it more than others), we’re dreadfully ill-equipped to produce persistent, asynchronous audio without conversational feedback. Far fewer of us know how to turn audio (or video) into an art that really communicates what we’re trying to convey. And listening to someone’s awkward speech is worse than reading someone’s arbitrarily vomited words.

While Fake Science definitely is focused on the topic of music, i would strongly encouraged everyone interested in podcasting to really think about how they’re transitioning their thoughts. Talk to a DJ or sound designer, add some sound bits in an intelligent manner. I don’t really care about the music industry but i can listen to an hour of Fake Science, unlike most podcasts. And the reason is simple – they make the transitions palatable, they pay attention to how the entire podcast sounds.

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Music-Driven Networking

[From OM]

I’ve been actively watching last.FM lately [1] [2]. I believe that the value of this tool has yet to be truly uncovered (partially because it’s buggy as hell and there are key features missing). Still, i think that it is quite relevant for this discussion and important issues arise when considering it.

In an article entitled “The Focused Organization of Social Ties,” Scott Feld discusses the role of interests in social networks. You and i may both know five people, but if we also have five diverse interests in common, we are far more likely to get along. Furthermore, if you and i have five diverse and rare interests in common, we are very likely to know many people in common. In his article, he introduces foci to the structure of social networks, emphasizing that “foci tend to produce patterns of ties, but all ties do not arise from foci” (1018). Foci are not simply interests, but also people, places, social roles, etc. [Anyone interested in issues around modeling foci in social networks in applications *must* read this article.]

Music is one of the best focis out there. We naturally turn to our friends for music recommendations. People access music through their friends and people (most notably subcultural youth) find friends through music. Particularly among younger groups, i would posit that much about social network can be understood through music distribution and tastes. [Anyone have good research on this?]

Music is a cultural foci, one that i think has a lot of salience for these tools. It is present in most of the sociable articulated social networks and the most important factor for MySpace (built on indie rock bands) and (built on Burning Man culture which is fundamentally a music/art festival). Yet, it is last.FM that takes it to the next level and lets you connect for and because of the music, directly appreciating others’ music tastes.

This is not to say that there aren’t oddities involved. Your behavioral musical profile says so much about you that articulated versions of your tastes do not. I have already found myself temporarily banning certain artists because their dominance in my profile gives the wrong impression of my tastes. In other words, the visibility of my behavior has resulted in a behavioral change. That is indeed a very interesting end result of publicly visible behavior-driven social data.

music genres and moods

One of the reasons that i loved Napster was that you could see how people labeled their music, particularly the genre. In music, i use genre like i use tagging in Gmail, and Flickr, only i’m a bit more obsessive about keeping them organized. My playlists are all automatically created based on my idiosyncratic genre labels. The labels are not for you, but for me and i don’t care if PsyChill doesn’t really exist – it’s the label that ties together things like bluetech and Shpongle.

Due to 1) my new iPod, 2) the barfing of my Mac, 3) the scanning of CDs and 4) my obsession with last.FM, i am diving deeply into my music collection to re-genrify things. It is this attribute of last.FM that is given me the greatest curiosity. Last.FM is full of people with – shall we say – “interesting” tastes. I’m sorry but there is no playlist in the world that should have Gwar and Nina Simone together. Wrong wrong wrong. And why is Elliott Smith on the top artists page of the genre Breaks? No no no.

Of course, i’m part of fucking this up. I love Elliott Smith and i love breaks. Since i am in the breaks group, my listening to Elliott Smith is affecting that genre page. This is a problem. I know better when i manually genrify my music. Elliott Smith is is the MaleNeuvoFolk genre (which is effectively equivalent to Sadcore except can also be listened to when not depressed). I would never recommend Elliott Smith to a breaks aficionado.

I’m worried that this diverse listening pattern is messing up all the data. After three days of listening to non-stop chillout, goa and breaks, i should not be getting recommendations for Rancid and Ludacris. The problem is that there’s a big gap between Beth Orton and Son Kite and i fear that trying to resolve those two listening patterns will result in abysmal results. The system should know that i’m listening with two different faceted patterns – the chill danah and the dancey danah.

When i ask a friend for music advice, i don’t simply say “give me anything you listen to.” I know better. But i would ask “could you make me a dub mix?” or “what would complement Dr Toast?” Or think about the Back to Mine series (collections based on what musicians chill out to). I want my last.FM to understand that there are moods. All of my playlists get this. All of my genrification gets this. Now it’s time for last.FM. I should be able to play everything that userx thinks makes for “coding music” or for “chill out” or for “getting ready to go out.” I want to be able to cluster my music. I want to be able to inform Audioscrobbler to only tell the genre group “PsyTrance” about things that i’ve marked Full-On, Melodic, Scando or PsyChill. Or tell them about a playlist or two. Tag the genres so that i don’t blush when i see my love of Johnny Cash appear as appropriate for other Trip-Hop fiends.

music networks (last.FM and Audioscrobbler)

One of my favorite parts of the academic interim period is that i can catch up on all of the things that i have put on the queue as unacceptable procrastination devices. I sent my computer in to be fixed (damn optical drive), bought a new iPod and have been organizing my music.

Amidst this, i finally dove into Last.FM and Audioscrobbler (even later than Liz). Aside from the fact that it’s fascinating to see what all i listen to, it’s absolutely intriguing to see what others are listening to and to be able to listen to their music as “radio.” I’ve already found two new DJs that i *love*.

Music is a social tool. Most people get their music through their friends and social networks say more about music than anything else. Of course, many of my older friends are still listening to what they loved when they were in college because they no longer have access the diverse networks that introduce them to new music. And we’re not even going to begin discussing the weaknesses of radio. When Napster collapsed, my music explorations collapsed. The only thing that fixed that was a server my friends have that allows you to stream music. Folks in our crew upload music and we can all stream it. That is a fantastic way of connecting to interesting music that my friends have found. This is effectively what Last.FM is doing on a larger scale

Of course, i found songs that i liked, tried to buy them at the iTunes store, realized that they didn’t exist (because they aren’t so mainstream) and then re-downloaded LimeWire to find them. It’s frustrating because many of the CDs i listen to go out of stock relatively quickly or only have a few runs. It’s sooo important for me to find other people that have them and i’m still cranky with the RIAA for making it hard for me to find rare songs that they don’t even cover anyhow.

I’m very curious what will happen once more folks get on it (particularly youth and alternative cultures). I’m already pleased to find out that there are more than 100 psychonauts out there. This certainly looks like the type of sharing-driven social networking tools that i love.