content resolver

Boffin is a content resolver for XSPF playlists which uses local files. Very cool.

This app is still raw, and I ain’t saying it’s going to take over the world or nothing. But this seems like the time to point out that the XSPF architectural principle of separating specific files from song references has turned out to be very durable. We originally conceived of it as an issue of matching up references to shared playlists with MP3s in your local stash, and I don’t know how crucial this feature is. But the important idea is that sharing taste in a world where every file isn’t shared means passing around identifiers rather than files, then resolving the identifiers to files at playback time, in the context of the listener’s music acquisition resources. At that level of abstraction cloud-based catalogs like Rhapsody, Spotify, YouTube and Seeqpod can do a lot of useful things.

Starbucks free song

I got a quickie espresso at Starbucks and they gave me a little card to download a song on the iTunes music store. The program is called “Pick of the Week.” You get a card with a redemption code for iTMS. You take it home, fire up iTunes, hit “iTunes Store”, find the “Quick Links” section in their home page, find the item named “Redeem Code”, type 12 uppercase letters from the card into an entry field and then, uh, I don’t know what comes next because the iTunes client makes you sign in and my password isn’t working. It’s easy to reset your password, but I’ve already way way overinvested in this stupid song. It’s free on filesharing networks. It’s free on the web. It’s free at Myspace. And none of those make me sign in.

But I know why you have to sign in, and I guess I think it’s reasonable. The issue is that this download is highly controlled. Every angle on every bit has been scrutinized by committees at Apple and Starbucks. And everybody involved knows that it’s not going to make much, if any, money, so giving a smooth customer experience is not worth investing in. It’s the essential worthlessness of a free download causing the problem.

covers getting legal on YouTube

YouTube has struck a deal with a Japanese publishing company to allow YouTube users to do legal covers of compositions in that catalog. According to Billboard:

Under the new agreement, users can legally post video clips to YouTube in which they play and sing e-License-managed songs. Uploading music data from CDs and artists’ promotion videos remains prohibited. E License, which manages some 17,800 songs, is the second Japanese copyright agency to sign a blanket licensing contract for music use on YouTube after Japan Rights Clearance.

Once Google has achieved broad enough coverage with these deals, musicians will be able to do covers online legally as long as they publish them on YouTube. If the publishers can create enough legal risk related to covers, Google will have a big competitive advantage over other video sharing services and over independents who publish their own media.

Google’s risk is that this pushes YouTube’s operating costs up, and it’s already hella expensive to run. However, user-contributed music where Google only has to pay royalties on the publishing and not the sound recording is still relatively cheap compared to the stuff iMeem is paying for.

This isn’t an academic point. The recent ruling on payments owed by webcasters to publishers gives a yardstick for operating costs associated with publishing, and it is not a trivial amount.

songs as instruments (spirit rappings #3)

Conversation on the Spirit Rappings #2 post wandered over to the idea of releasing songs in the form of the raw source files used for the final mix, starting with this comment of mine:

Releasing songs as their raw multitrack sources would carry this idea to its practical extreme. Every sample and every track would be preserved in the best possible detail. And why not? It’s true that these would be very big files, but bandwidth and disk space keep getting better.

Jay replied that this is doable, but misses the point:

The raw multitrack sources for my musical output over the last year are on the order of 25 gigs total. It’d all easily fit on any current iPod-like device or be inexpensive to store and serve up from Amazon S3 or Dreamhost.

It’s absolutely practical to now release many versions and raw sources of music online–it’s in many respects simpler to release 25 gigs of raw audio sources online than it is to get 650 mb of that onto a CD that is shipped to people.

But, at what point are we just talking about recorded sound objects vs music? Not that I think there is a big distinction that needs to be made in absolute terms, but rather in any specific relationship between music creator and listener (or, co-creator).

There is an art to the “release” of music, which reflects the process of curating, editing, aggregating, sequencing, packaging etc., as well as the relationship with the music’s potential audiences.

You can’t sidestep the need to make a definite statement, to say something specific, to be clear about what you aren’t saying. And given that, what does Jay feel he’s definitely saying with his music?

I see my own recorded music as creating musical instruments that other people play. I think everyone’s recorded music really functions in this way, but I definitely feel this way about my own. Everyone (who listens to or plays the music) makes it into their own music when they play it. And, with my own, I am excited by the possibility that some people will find creative and interactive ways to play it beyond just the songs passively showing up in the shuffle on iTunes. (But, even in the passive case, the music itself is interactive and can become your own–can change into something new and personal to you.)

And gurdonark articulated his experience as both a sampler and source of samples within the endless feedback cycles of the remix subculture:

I love the use of my own and others’ available sound clips as samples for manipulation and processing.

In an earlier time, one had to worry about concepts like “plunderphonics” to realize the possibilities in appropriation of sound. That idea seems more quaint than revolutionary now.

With Creative Commons and public domain sources, the whole paradigm shifts. I can go to the Freesound Project or the mixter or librivox or netlabels which permit sampling and snap up a recording of this or that. I can then sequence it through my 25 dollar softsynth and create something new. The sound is not just an instrument, but also a string, or a motif, or a loop, or even an indescribable discordant pad. The customary definitions are merely touchstones, old-technology concepts inadequate to describe the starchild of possibility inherent in captured open source sound.

When sound manipulation offers so many possibilities–most of which are accessible via use of freeware or inexpensive shareware–then the “buy my record, worship me, make me a star” thing eventually fades away into some obscure past. Collaboration and exploration step in and create arguably fewer fankids and groupies, and more pioneers and innovators.

Generations removed from peoples’ tastes tried to create a rarified form of music appreciation, accessible to only a chosen few. But now, the experience of being bathed in the possibility of manipulated sound creates huge niches of listeners no longer bound by the old conventions of how they “must” or “should” make music. Instead, new ways of experiencing music and sound can arise and evolve with quantum software-release speed.

I can take Lucas’ voice, and make it into a monastic drone. I can take his guitar and make it into a warm blur of gorgeous echo. Yet the fun begins when the next remixter takes what I create, and turns it into something new and unexpected. It’s no longer arty condescension to make some abstract point. It’s a swimming pool of sound, remixed and reveled within, and the water is just fine. That’s the possibility in open source music, and, like the myth of salvation, it’s available to all.

In my personal explorations of sheet music from before the recording era I have to think a lot about how that level of abstraction is special. Music notation is an incredibly skeletal way to describe or communicate a piece of music, and it changes the music to be written down. Writing out music sends the message that what is eternal about a composition is the selection and order of pitches, regardless of what instrument you play them on: it says that “this is song is ‘C’, then ‘B’, then …”.  And I don’t know that this is *true*.

Spirit rappings

Spirit Rappings (title page)

August 20, 1852, Wednesday

Page 2 of the New York Times, 695 words

Mr. ORVILLE HATCH, of Franklin, Conn., has become insane, he having devoted considerable attention to the subject of Spirit Rappings. Mr. HATCH is a farmer, and has been instrumental in introducing many important improvements in agriculture into the town in which he resides.

Madame Pamita, whose performances involve both spiritualism and really old American music, sent me a pointer to sheet music for an 1854 tune called “Spirit Rappings”, presumably because it’s a great number for Halloween. This post is my version of it.

Since I did a vocal part for once, the mix has the guitar and vocal parts hard panned to left and right so you can pull out the singing and do karaoke.

This recording is under a Creative Commons ShareAlike-Attribution 2.0 license. See also my boilerplate copyright statement.

Direct links:

Spirit Rappings (mp3)

Spirit Rappings (vorbis)

William Litten song

Cover of 'William Litten's Fiddle Tunes'

This post is a recording of a fast and furious guitar performance of a fiddle tune called “Kiss My Lady” which was transcribed in 1800 (or so) by a ship’s musician named William Litten.

Musically I wanted something energetic and raw. I didn’t care about mistakes except if they were bad enough to really mar the listening. The final performance definitely has mistakes, and both my dogs got into the action by barking.It usually takes me a lot of takes to get something with the right feel and no fatal mistakes. In this case I did a few takes a day for a few days before I got one I liked.

I don’t have sheet music for this because I got it from a book which is not online. Here’s the story.Litten was employed as a ship’s musician, and along the way he wrote down a lot of music. I think that this was more like a notebook to aid his memory than a book for the public. His manuscript was brought home to Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of Massachusetts, by a local guy named Allen Coffin. The Martha’s Vineyard economy was based on fishing, sailing, etc, until it became a touristy beach destination in the late 20th century, and Coffin was probably on the ship with Litten. The manuscript ended up in the library of the historical society in Edgartown, the biggest town on the island.

In the 1970s a musicologist named Gail Huntington copied it into more readable notation, made some corrections and other tidying up, cross-referenced the songs in contemporaneous publications, and eventually published it. Her publication is copyright 1977 by Hines Point Publishers, Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts 02568. This was either self-publishing or a very small-time operation.

Here’s a description of the situation by somebody else familiar with the book:

William Litten was a ship’s fiddler in Royal Navy in the first years of the nineteenth century. What makes Litten remarkable amongst his peers was his ability to transcribe music. In the years 1800 to 1802 he was aboard the HMS Gorgon, leaving England in May 1800, arriving in China in February 1801 and passing through St Helena in 1802. During the voyage he wrote down much of his repertoire, thus giving us a unique snapshot of the musical and, in particular, the fiddle repertoire of his time. The original and now unprocurable book was assembled and published in 1977. Extensive searches failed to find the publishers. The book was reproduced from a copy on interlibrary loan from New Mexico for the purposes of study at a a workshop at the National Folk Festival in Canberra in 2006. A few copies remain and are offered here.

The copyright situation of the sheet music is messy. Huntington’s substantive contributions to the original entitle her to a copyright on her contributions. However figuring out what is a copyrighted addition and what is a public domain part of the original is totally up in the air. Since she and her publisher seem to have disappeared, this has turned into an orphaned work. The good news is that a public domain performance of the underlying composition and arrangement is completely legal as far as I can tell.

My own copyrights in these recordings are released under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license per my boilerplate licensing statement.

Direct audio file links

These are the real keepers:

Kiss My Lady sept 23 2007 (mp3)

Kiss My Lady sept 23 2007 (vorbis)

These are scratch recordings that I figured might be handy for sampling or comparison:

Kiss My Lady sept 20 2007 (mp3)

Kiss My Lady sept 20 2007 (vorbis)

Kiss My Lady sept 21 2007 (mp3)

Kiss My Lady sept 21 2007 (vorbis)

licensed lessons site

There is a licensed provider of guitar lessons:

On a new Web site, fans of Brit-pop band Blur or Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter KT Tunstall can learn how to play some of their favorite songs on guitar, bass or drums — from the artists themselves.

The site,, lets users download video tutorials for songs from a handful of popular musicians. So far, there are about 400 videos available in different bundles. The top tier downloads, priced at about $8, feature the stars talking about the song and then demonstrating the chords or drum beats.

$8 is an interesting price. This price is a lot like the cost of sheet music. If you buy a book of sheet music with 200 songs for $25, you’ll pay about $.12 a song. If you buy a single song in a standalone package, you’ll pay about $5. This price is lot closer to the standalone case.

This price suggests that the licensing process was a total nightmare. Add in production costs and whatever a rock star charges to give a lesson on camera and $8 makes perfect sense.

Except that $8 for one song is so high that it’s guaranteed to create a thriving black market. This price is based on the strange and barely functional economics of the music publishing industry. Music publishing is descended from the sheet music industry of the pre-recording industry, and I have the impression that the practice of publishing sheet music for individual songs is mainly an archaic habit.

The format of the Now Play It lessons is worth checking out, just to compare it to the less sophisticated learning tools of the pre-digital era. Instead of guitar tablature or music notation they do an animation of the fretboard, based on static chord diagrams, synced to the music. (Here is a freebie preview).

Guitar tablature image:

Chord diagram image:

Screenshot of fretboard animation:
(Thanks to Tom Barger for the link).

Download This: YouTube Phenom Has a Big Secret –

Download This: YouTube Phenom Has a Big Secret –

Once the album was completed late last year, Ms. Digby and her label began looking for ways to gain visibility. “I was coming out of nowhere,” Ms. Digby says. “I wanted to find a way to get some exposure.”

That’s when the idea of posting simple videos of cover songs came up. “No one’s going to be searching for Marié Digby, because no one knows who she is,” Mr. Bunt, the Hollywood Records senior vice president, reasoned. So she posted covers of hits by Nelly Furtado and Maroon 5, among others, so that users searching for those artists’ songs would stumble on hers instead.

What strikes me about this strategy is that it’s an evolutionary approach to culture. The idea was to sell a new singer by attaching her to existing and already popular songs.

It’s the same strategy that nature uses in creating new lineages — take an existing winner and swap out part of it for something new. If you succeed then your new thing hitches a ride on an established lineage, and the lineage is improved as a whole. Maybe the mother’s cancer gene is swapped out for the father’s good singing voice, for example.

The buzz around this record (as the WSJ story documents) is that it’s a fraud. Letsetz says:

LonelyGirl15 was about the story. Modern medium allows closeted religious prisoner to reveal her inner thoughts. Once revealed to be untrue, it lost all its heat. Once the uber-beautiful Marié Digby is revealed to be just another young music wannabe, no different from any other major label priority, suddenly, there’s nothing of interest left.

But to my mind this story is mainly positive.

If the major labels are being forced to make their stars less packaged and more intimate, this is all for the good. How is it a bad thing if they finally do what the elite has been asking for?

And the videos in question may have been a staged scenario, but the performances and recordings were 100% genuine. The aspect of them which resonated with the listeners was not fakeable.  There is some stuff you can’t act.

Old tunes, new opportunities « Jon Udell

Old tunes, new opportunities « Jon Udell

As I watched and listened to all those different versions of The Tennessee Waltz, I couldn’t help but wonder what might happen if that dynamic were applied to out-of-copyright tunes. Can more of the old tunes be reborn? If so, will our new ability to share, teach, and learn turbocharge the creative process surrounding them? If so, will that process in turn lead to the production of new tunes? If so, will some of those new tunes achieve cultural ubiquity? If so, will some of those conceivably remain outside the copyright regime?

This is indeed a long shot. But in another sense it’s just a matter of patience. Think of it as a disruptive technology:

Sometimes, a disruptive technology comes to dominate an existing market by either filling a role in a new market that the older technology could not fill (as more expensive, lower capacity but smaller-sized hard disks did for newly developed notebook computers in the 1980s) or by successively moving up-market through performance improvements until finally displacing the market incumbents (as digital photography has begun to replace film photography).

For readers not from the tech industry, the classic example of a disruptive technology is that weak little PCs ended up replacing ultrapowerful mainframe computers.  Songs like Ella Waltz doesn’t have to be as obvious a source as songs like Proud Mary, they just have to outlast them.

Jon has the perfect example:

though I wouldn’t have thought Episcopal hymns would be toe-tappers, I love to hear — and play — John Fahey’s arrangements of tunes like In Christ There Is No East Or West.

It happens that this is a reasonably simple tune to play, the song has already lasted for an improbably long time, there is an easily accessible recording online, and not only is there guitar tablature available for Fahey’s version but the tab is published on Fahey’s own site.

It’s not an accident that we’re discussing this particular bit of music. For a song that isn’t a pop hit, it has an incredibly high chance of survival over the long term. And not just surviving but reproducing, in the form of lots of little baby covers which may themselves be covered and end up displacing our current generation of pop hits.

It’s true that next to current chart toppers this song doesn’t stand much of a chance of being covered right at this moment, but over time the odds will grow in its favor. The monster hits of 2007 will disappear from cultural memory, while coverable songs will hold onto their niche.

Try starting your view of history in 2006, as if you were born last year and had never lived in a time when music and physical media were tied together. The internet era has barely begun.