Category Archives: music & such

On losing Rdio

“Logged into Spotify. Ugh. It was like walking into a Sam Goody after years of shopping exclusively at a local, boutique, carefully-curated record store.”

–Rdio user Criminology

Yeah, so I accept that it’s a little weird to write a eulogy for a website. I accept that it’s completely self-indulgent to have gone into a deep funk over what is, effectively, a business going under (much less a business tin which I have no financial stake). But that’s what I’m here to do, because today the music streaming service Rdio will go dark. And I’m pretty damn sad about it.

First, some background. I mostly (and now only very occasionally) write about museum stuff here on this blog, but my background is originally in music. I have a composition degree from Berklee, and music remains one of the great loves of my life. When I’m at work, when I’m at home, when I have even a few minutes to myself, I’m listening. Like most people who are serious about (listening to and/or making) music, I am mildly irritated that there is still music out there that I haven’t heard yet. I’m constantly looking for new things I’ll love–listening for me is a never-ending quest of discovery. While living in Boston, I took jobs at music stores (whassup Nuggets!) mostly so I could get discounts on records.

So when I first heard about that Spotify was going to hit these shores in 2009/10, I was ready. I never invested much in the iTunes store model; when everyone around me was suddenly purchasing tunes for 99 cents and listening to playlists instead of albums, I was still buying CDs at Other Music. I managed my (ripped) mp3s in iTunes like everyone else, but the idea of spending real money on a non-physical medium just always seemed wrong, as if every mp3 I bought was helping to artificially prop up a dying business model. The kind of “all you can eat” unlimited streaming model made so much more sense. But in 2010, Spotify was still locking down licensing deals and hadn’t hit the US. Rdio beat them to the punch, and from the beta release (I joined in June 2010), I was hooked.

Rdio wasn’t perfect when it launched. It had gaping catalogue holes, and the social aspects of the service felt (at first) pretty tacked on. But they fixed that stuff pretty fast, and Rdio very quickly became a regular part of my life (apparenly, I’ve listened to over 2,700 hours of music on Rdio since joining). By the time Spotify made it to The States, the experience of using it was so miserable that there was no way I was going to make that switch. Every bit of Spotify just felt like I was being upsold at the register. Rdio was light-years ahead, both in terms of actual design, but also in terms of community design. Rdio was much better tuned tuned (pun! sort of!) to the needs of music lovers rather than music consumers than other platforms.

Music lovers and music consumers, as groups, are quite different from one another, despite their surface similarities. There’s a level of obsessiveness there that sets us apart. Music lovers won’t settle for the crappy 80s re-recording of  You Got Me Hummin’ when they can have the original version (don’t even try to tell me that some faceless 80s studio drummer is an acceptable substitute for Al Jackson). Music lovers will, when they find a new artist they like, spend days listening to every single record released by that same label. Music lovers will assemble a playlist of tunes featuring The Wrecking Crew studio musicians, just because:

So yeah, music lovers are weird. And most music platforms just aren’t tuned to what we need. We’re not going to listen to The National just because some piece of shit algorithm determined that that’s what we’d want to listen to after binging on Tortoise records. We rarely give a shit about what’s “hot.” We find mostly insulting the kinds of suggestions that probably make sense to a marketing person who is just trying to move units (“sorry, no results for John Zorn. Perhaps you’d be interested in the latest Katy Perry single”). Rdio mostly avoided this crap. It felt like Rdio made an attempt to understand us, in a way that is pretty rare with web “properties” these days. I’ll never forget the day that Rdio added a little link that allowed you to see an entire label’s catalogue at once. Things like that matter. Rdio’s “assets” (not the product itself) have been acquired by Pandora, with the goal of Pandora supposedly spinning up an on-demand service in late 2016. I would love to see something come out of that with the same degree of community response, but I’m not holding my breath. Pandora has to move units.

Sigh. I realize it’s strange to write about lines of code as if I’ve lost a friend, but that’s how it feels. You know, first world problems and whatever. I guess I’m less objective about music than other things. I’ve reluctantly moved to Spotify, and in so doing have said goodbye to a lot of people who I came to know over the last five years almost exclusively through their listening tastes. I’m sure I’ll get used to Spotify, and all will be well, but I agree with Criminology’s statement above: I just want to listen to music, but Spotify needs to upsell me at the register to stay in business. I understand that and accept it, but I don’t have to like it.

So that’s it, I guess. Rdio goes dark in a few hours, and with it goes another part of the web that felt special to me. If you need me, I’ll be listening to the new Katy Perry.

My top whatevers of 2010

I’ve never done a year-end wrap-up post here at kovenjsmith.com before, but this seems better than doing real work, so here we are. A few things that I liked (or at least noted) in 2010:

  • Most important conversation I had in 2010: At Museums and the Web in Denver in April this year, Bruce Wyman had a long conversation that began with him saying, “you should really consider applying for the Director of Technology job at the Denver Art Museum.” And here we are!
    • Honorable Mention: The conversation I had with Madelyn five minutes after that, in which she said, somewhat tentatively, “yeah, I might consider moving to Colorado.”
  • Best Concert: Tune-Yards at the Bell House in Brooklyn. Holy crap! She blew us all away with just a uke, a floor tom, her voice, and a bad-ass bass player.
    • Honorable Mention: Pearl and the Beard at Union Pool for the Farm to Folks fest. If you haven’t seen these peeps yet, you need to do that right now.
    • Honorable Mention Runner Up: The True Love Always reunion show at the Rock Shop. Seeing John Lindaman on stage always makes me smile.
  • Best Moment With Madelyn: After driving three days (in separate vehicles stuffed with luggage and cats) out to Colorado, we stopped at the overlook on the Denver/Boulder Turnpike at Mile 42 to see Boulder Valley all lit up, just before driving to our new house for the first time. Yeah, that was the shit.
  • Continue reading My top whatevers of 2010

Homunculus

Earlier this year, I posted some in-progress music for a short film I’d been asked to score. Well, the film is now finished, and it is called “Homunculus.” The film was produced by Humble and conceived and directed by Sam Stephens. I love it. Check it out:

Homunculus from HUMBLE TV on Vimeo.

…aaaand just for fun, here’s the score alone, for those of you who want to check to see if the math works out (it doesn’t):

There’s a little bit more about the thought process behind some of what you’re hearing in my original post from March. From the more overtly 12-tone approach described in that post, I added in some chopped-up found-sound recordings of music boxes, and some hot blaxploitation-style drums for the “chase” parts of the film. All in all, I’m pretty happy with how the whole thing turned out. There’s more about the making of the film on Humble’s Vimeo page.

I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, etc., etc., etc.

Allow me to take a moment away from my thrilling and dynamic series of posts on “Museums and the Digital Domain” to post a photo of my costume from from this past weekend’s Halloween shenanigans, courtesy of Ms. Morgan Holzer:

Oh yeah, that’s me, your humble narrator, dressed like freaking Number Six! Although I ended up having to explain all night long who I was supposed to be, and the balloon I was using as Rover flew away during the day, it was still totally worth lining my good jacket with gaff tape and wearing white pants. You can clearly see from the expression in my face that my life is my own, and that you won’t hold me.

So if next year, I finally get David Byrne’s Big White Suit together for Halloween, the circle will be complete.

The obligatory Michael Jackson post

Well, what can I say? Shock. Distinctly remembering multiple birthday parties in fourth grade in which Thriller was the only album we played; once we got to the end of a given side, we’d just flip that rekkid over and listen all over again.

My favorite moment of yesterday, though, came at the end of the Femi Kuti concert at the Prospect Park bandshell. As everyone began filing out, the sound guy had the bright idea to play “I’ll Be There” over the soundsystem. Several thousand people suddenly stopped in their tracks, and started singing together:

[audio:http://kovenjsmith.com/audio/appreciation/beThere.mp3]

It was a beautiful moment, and one that sent actual chills down my spine. I wish you could hear the singing better in the recorded excerpt above, but you get the idea.

New short film music

Just a short post today, in between working on lots and lots of things. I’ve had the good fortune to be asked by a friend of mine to score a short (three minutes) animated film, and I thought I’d post some of what I’ve been working on to that end. I don’t think I can reveal too many details about the film itself at this point, so I’ll confine myself to talking about the music.

The director was looking for something relatively dissonant, or at least unsettling, for the main texture of the piece. To that end, I whipped out George Perle‘s Twelve-Tone Tonality, which is, after 15 years of stealing (and mostly misusing) its ideas, still one of the most difficult/rewarding music theory texts I have ever read. Perle is so pithy that there’s nary a single wasted word in the entire text–every bit is crucial.

Aaaanyway, working from the “Inversionally Complimentary Cycles” section of the text, I worked out a tone row for the piece, and then transposed it into four additional voices, moving in parallel, which gave me some nice tonal blocks to play with. After orchestrating these blocks a bit with some sounds I liked, I recorded them and then cut up and arbitrarily pieced the shards back together, which produced the “glitchy” sounds you hear. I then worked out a little melody with an inversional relationship to the original row, and started flying that over the top. This is shaping up to be a fun little piece, methinks. Anyway, have a listen, and let me know what you think!

P.S., As I was writing this post, I found out that George Perle passed away in January at his home in Manhattan at age 93. To a guy like me, who’s still at heart a music theory geek, this was heartbreaking to learn. He will be missed.

The Listening Room

It’s been a while since I’ve done a music post here, so it seemed about time. For the last few months, I’ve been working on a commission for the choreographer Daniel Charon called The Listening Room, and I thought I’d post a few excerpts from the score as it develops.

This score has, for whatever reason, proved to be a difficult one to get a bead on–it’s gone through multiple iterations, each one evolving significantly from the last. The piece is in roughly four contiguous segments, with two themes evolving gradually throughout the piece’s 15 minutes. I’ve been attempting to strike a balance between harder rhythmic elements and more free-floating melodic sections, with varying degrees of success. On a purely technical level, I’ve been separating out rhythmic elements for more clarity, stratifying snares, bass drums, and cymbals in separate layers rather than mixing them together all at once, as I would normally tend to do.

Anyway, here are some excerpts. Hope you enjoy them!

Excerpt the first:

Excerpt the second:

BBC Radiophonic Workshop

While trying (mostly successfully) to avoid work over a delicious Thanksgiving weekend, I discovered this excellent BBC documentary from 2003 about the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. The Radiophonic Workshop, with its stable of composers including Delia Derbyshire, Brian Hodgson, and the amazing John Baker, was a lab for the production of electronic music, mostly for BBC radio and television programs (the most famous example being the Workshop’s “realization” of Ron Grainer‘s theme music for Dr. Who). Growing up in the U.S. of A., I grew up mostly ignorant of the pioneering electronic work created by these folks, but boy howdy, these composers were doing work that was easily the equal of their more heralded counterparts at IRCAM or in the Groupe de Recherches Musicales. That all of this unbelievable work was done with such limited resources makes it even that much more astounding. If you have an hour or so at your disposal, I highly recommend checking this documentary out. Amazing.

Levi Stubbs

I just learned this morning that Levi Stubbs, lead singer of the Four Tops and easily my all-time favorite Motown vocalist, passed away on Friday at the age of 72. Levi was just the absolute fucking best. It’s really easy to take the Four Tops for granted, given their ubiquity on oldies radio and the fact that, in many ways, they exemplified the sound of the Motown production machine more than somewhat more idiosyncratic acts like Marvin Gaye or Smokey Robinson. But goddamn, you listen to Levi on prime Tops tracks like “Bernadette,” “Shake Me Wake Me (When It’s Over),” or even late-period inconsequentialities like “Are You Man Enough” (from the soundtrack to Shaft In Africa), and you realize the man just sang with absolutely everything he had all the time. Nobody sounds more real, more heartbreaking, than Levi Stubbs. I miss him.

An album for every year you’ve been alive

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album coverImage via WikipediaSo this is an internet meme that’s been out there for a while, but I’m only just now finally getting my contribution in (how typical). I first discovered this on the excellent music blog Idolator; the idea is that you choose one, and only one, album for every single year you’ve been alive. I’m not at all sure why, but this proved to be an utterly riveting exercise rather than an exhausting one. It’s strange what limiting you to only one album per year does–it forced me to choose Outlandos d’Amour, my least favorite Police album, because 1978 didn’t have nearly the competition for slots that 1982, the year of my favorite Police album (Ghost In the Machine), did. Certain years were particularly painful to do (2003 and 2006 were especially heartbreaking), with four or five amazing albums gunning for the top slot, while some years were so thin with competitors that a wild card like Weird Al’s Dare to be Stupid could make it in. Anywayz, here’s my list. Derisive comments, as always, are welcome.

1975 – Miles Davis, Pangaea
1976 – Joni Mitchell, Hejira
1977 – Fela, Zombie
1978 – The Police, Outlandos d’Amour
1979 – Gang of Four, Entertainment!
1980 – XTC, Black Sea
1981 – Mission of Burma, Signals, Calls, & Marches
1982 – Michael Jackson, Thriller
1983 – Men at Work, Cargo
1984 – Talking Heads, Stop Making Sense
1985 – Weird Al Yankovic, Dare to be Stupid
1986 – Paul Simon, Graceland
1987 – John Adams, Nixon In China
1988 – Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back
1989 – Tone Loc, Loc’ed After Dark
1990 – Living Colour, Time’s Up
1991 – Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik
1992 – PJ Harvey, Dry
1993 – Sting, Ten Summoner’s Tales
1994 – Jawbox, For Your Own Special Sweetheart
1995 – Pie, Strictly Seance
1996 – DJ Shadow, Endtroducing…
1997 – Stereolab, Dots and Loops
1998 – Fugazi, End Hits
1999 – The Dismemberment Plan, Emergency & I
2000 – Faraquet, The View From This Tower
2001 – Bjork, Vespertine
2002 – Wilco, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
2003 – Jay-Z, The Black Album
2004 – The Bad Plus, Give
2005 – The Books, Lost and Safe
2006 – Matmos, The Rose Has Teeth In the Mouth of the Beast
2007 – Caribou, Andorra

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