Remembify

UnknownI found the early days of Netflix to be incredibly frustrating.  Despite my earnest attempts to allow their servers to get to know me, I kept finding myself being unwillingly shoved to the far edge of the long tail.  Even when I tried to convince them that I did indeed appreciate my fair share of mindless entertainment, I got volley after volley of French documentaries and forgotten TV series foisted upon me.  Although there was (is?) a part of me that wouldn’t mind being thought of as someone who appreciates French documentaries, forgotten in the entire process was the fact that I was there to be entertained.

I later learned that Netflix’s behavior was largely financially motivated (as they paid less for the obscure), but they are far from alone in romanticizing the distant end of the long tail.  The most recent service that promises to enrich your life by serving you up the incredibly obscure is Forgotify.   Inspired by recent statistics released from Spotify that evidence that 20% of the songs in their catalogue (a full four million) have never been played once, Forgotify will serve you up a song that has never been heard.

While it’s a cute premise, Forgotify’s promise is tantamount by helping you decide what to cook for dinner by suggesting a list of foods that nobody has ever eaten.  Even putting aside the fact that the reason why these songs/foods haven’t been consumed is the simple fact that they’re not worthy of consumption, Forgotify is trying to solve the wrong problem.

The real issue isn’t that forgettable music is being forgotten by the world; it’s that we don’t remember much of what we have already discovered to be awesome.  If Forgotify wanted to help me, it would tap into that track that made my week two years ago, but quickly found its way to the recesses of my hard drive.

I’ve written about this topic before, but it’s worth a quick re-hit.  Take the track below, “Play Your Part (Pt. 2) by Girl Talk (remember him?).  I’ve played this song over 20 times since downloading it (a non-trivial amount), but the last time I played this song was nearly a year ago.  Had I not made a point to look at what I was listening to a year ago, who knows if and when I’d ever enjoy this again.

Play Your Part (Pt. 2), Girl Talk

I always want to be exposed to the best of the new music in the world, and I’ll always want help with that.  But, equally, I want help remembering what I already love.  Both are equally important to any music lover.

Radio’s Suffocating Security Blanket

It can be tempting to shrug off terrestrial radio as a quaint reminder of years’ past, nostalgically nestled between the cassette and the CD on history’s shelf.  But despite the tech transformation of the past decade, old school FM radio remains by far our most popular source of music.

The real surprise is what has happened within radio during this same decade.  Beset by competitive threats, radio has responded by becoming dramatically narrower in their focus on what’s most familiar.  As evidenced in the chart below from the Wall Street Journal, radio played the biggest hits of 2013 nearly twice as much as the top songs of 2003.

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As evidenced by the endless stream of superheroes in our cineplexes, a greater reliance on fewer blockbusters is an increasingly popular strategy for entertainment companies.  When a handful of smash hits account for the lion’s share of your profits for the entire year, it can be good business to big on a select few (if you would like for a HBS professor to repeat this sentence over and over again, there is a book that you might like).

Seeing themselves in an escalating fight for listener attention, radio has placed their bets on the belief that their consumers are likely to continue listening when they hear something familiar and turn the channel (or turn the radio off altogether) when they hear something they don’t know.  From this, radio surmised that they should just shut up and play the hit. Continue reading

The Scarcity and Power of Surprise

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In our on demand world, so little truly surprises us.  Every iota of new music is previewed, leaked, retracted, seeded, announced, featured, live streamed, and retweeted with a predictable cadence that numbs the effect of the publicity it’s meant to ignite.  But, because it has become so scarce, this elusive surprise that is the most powerful publicity tool in our hyper-social world.

Until a year or two ago, suggesting that a superstar drop their entirely-unnancounced album in the middle of the night would ensure your swift departure from the music industry.  But now, such surprise breaks the internet and sales records alike.  In the first three hours of its sudden availability (the hours of 12am-3am, not traditionally associated with peak sales), Beyonce had sold 80,000 albums.  12 hours into the album’s existence, it had generated 1.2 million tweets– 5,300 tweets per minute at the height of its fervor.  In their attempt not to be forgotten, Facebook said that mentions of Beyonce spiked more than 1,300% in the hours after the album dropped.

So as not to dampen the early days of its allure, I’m not going to post any tracks from the Beyonce album.  Instead, I’ll once again share a track that I’ve been brought back to as it makes a well-earned appearance on most “best of” lists for the year.  I never would have guessed that a haunting, six minute, semi-hippie track would have lingered amongst my favorites for so long.  As both Beyonce and Phosphorescent demonstrate, sometimes what you remember most is what you least expected.  

Song for Zula, Phosphorescent

The Demise of Turntable.fm and the Difficulty of Leaning Forward

Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 1.08.15 PMI fondly recall spending the better part of the summer of 2011 on Turntable.fm.

Oblivious to sunshine or sleep or other such distractions, I spent hours hunched over my laptop plotting how to get a roomful of avatars to bob their heads back and forth.  I looked up only long enough to breathlessly blog about the phenomenon.

I was far from alone in my fandom.  Soon dubbed “the most exciting social service of the year,” Turntable.fm had everyone from Zuckerberg to Diplo at the decks and was reportedly drawing money from the likes of Lady Gaga and The Roots.

But then, a mere matter of months after being dubbed the next big thing, the wind began to seep from Turntable’s sails.  And now, a year or so after most people presumed Turntable dead, this week the axe finally fell on yet another music service.

Why did Turntable fail?

The obvious but incomplete reason is that it’s a major pain in the ass to run a music service that is both legal and profitable.  Labels, still persistently pursuing immediate pennies over dollars of the future, insist on licensing deals that make the economics of music services virtually impossible (because, you know, why would the music industry want to incentivize consumers to discover new music?).  Having decided to be legal (and global) from the early days, Turntable set a profit hurdle that was nearly certain never to be met.

But the bigger reason for the demise of Turntable and other such services is that it is wickedly difficult to get consumers to lean forward for music.

Interactive music discovery services remain like those foreign documentaries in your Netflix queue: you’re proud to have found them, you have every intention of leaning forward into them someday, but you keep finding yourself slumping into the couch and watching House Hunters.

Likewise, when you put the time into it, Turntable was unquestionably more rewarding than the Pandoras of the world.  Trouble is, generally speaking, we don’t end up putting the time into it.  Effortless okay almost always wins out over time-consuming awesome.  This trade-off of ease for awesome remains the Gordian knot of music services.

It’s hard to substantiate sadness for the end of a service that I had left long ago.  But yet here I am, reaching for my wallet to buy the t-shirt that they’re printing to commemorate what was… just like the nostalgic concert t-shirt for a band that you always knew was going to break up.

Ironically, this unfinished demo from J. Cole is the song that I posted when I first wrote about Turntable.  As I re-post the track, I do so hoping that Turntable served as an unfinished demo for what music can become: something for which we don’t have to give up awesome for easy.  I’ve got high hopes for Ian and my friends at Beats Music as they make their debut next month: if they can crack this dilemma, we’ll all be the better for it.

Cheer Up, J.Cole (unfinished demo)

Remember When?

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As more and more of our music streams, what is this going to do to our memories?

Music’s role in memories is one of those universal truths that is so ubiquitous that it feels redundant to even bring it up (See also: pictures and memories.  Another spectacularly obvious observation, but an intertwined one.  More on that later).  First loves, first jobs, first dances: all of us have songs that we attribute to these capital B Big Moments.  And technology isn’t going to change any of this.

But do you have any idea what you were listening to a year ago today?  Could you even begin to guess?  Without the assistance of my admittedly obsessive iTunes play listing, I’m just as likely to remember what I was listening to last November 2 as I would what I had for lunch that same day.

Recently, I typically attribute any memory hiccups to the haze of semi-amnesia that accompanies new parents (Yes, I realize this excuse is reaching its shelf life.  But it’s awfully convenient, so I’m holding on as long as I can.)  But in the case of music and memories, I think more is at play here than (not so) new parenting.

First of all, it’s kind of hard to have a memory without a moment. Continue reading

Is the Future of Music Good Enough?

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In a world where technology makes music more convenient, will we end up remembering much of what we heard?

After a handful of days of tinkering, I’ve found iRadio nothing if not easy.  Pandora-esque in its passivity, the only thing you need to do is press play and walk away.  And, perhaps because of the data it has silently scraped from my iTunes, there are even fewer fast-forward moments than I’ve found in Pandora.

Last night, I listened to iRadio for the bulk of two hours and didn’t have to expend any effort whatsoever.  I also don’t remember one song that was played.

In 2009, there was an article in Wired entitled “The Good Enough Revolution: When Cheap and Simple is Just Fine.”  Looking over innovation after innovation in technology (flip cameras, Skype, even Predator drones), the article concluded that good enough was taking over aspect after aspect of our lives.

“We now favor flexibility over high fidelity, convenience over features, quick and dirty over slow and polished. Having it here and now is more important than having it perfect. These changes run so deep and wide, they’re actually altering what we mean when we describe a product as ‘high-quality’.”

Music was a featured example of the good enough economy.  The advent of the mp3, and all of the ease that the file format entails, have all but eviscerated the sonic fidelity of the music we own– even for audiophiles such as myself.  Even though I own a fancy stereo system, for years now 90% of the music I play through said system is made up of mp3s.  It’s like serving up a frozen dinner on fine china, but I do so because it’s so easy… and it’s good enough.

Now, as streaming services are sending mp3s the way of CDs, music is being transformed by another “good enough” revolution.  The core promise of the Pandoras and Spotifys and iRadios of the world is that your listening experience will be just fine.  You’ll get a steady diet of music that is pretty much like the music you already like, and the entire experience will be entirely automated.  You’ll seldom be surprised because, well, that’s the entire point. Continue reading

Don’t Bonk: A Playlist

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On the brink of a birthday, I’ve resolved to run more. Not more frequently, but longer. Since my daughter was born, I’ve become all too accustomed to runs more apt to be measured in blocks than miles. 15 months in, it’s time to shelve the excuses and stretch it out in search of endorphins.

If recent past is any prologue, I’m going to need some help.

Unceremoniously entitled “Don’t Bonk,” this playlist is meant to get me going. Its running time clocks in at an optimistic hour and a half, and it spans a wide range of genres in search of an extra gear.

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1. Avicii, “Wake Me Up”– Fair warning: this mix isn’t above the somewhat cheesy use of situation-specific lyrics. But if you’ve just hauled yourself out of bed early, you’re not above someone encouraging you to wake up.

2. Kanye West, “Power” (Swizz Beatz remix)– You’re now awake enough to be registering the inevitable inconvenience of the first mile. A little swagger will help.

3. Lil’ Wayne, “6 Foot 7 Foot”– Let’s double up on that dose of swagger.

4. Diplo & GTA, “Boy Oh Boy”– Putting some topspin on a beat from Missy and Tim, we’re looking to find a bit of a groove here.

5. TVOTR, “Will Do” (XXXChange Dancehall Mix)– If I’m going to see the second half of this playlist, I’m going to have to settle the pace a bit.

Continue reading