Whatever Happened To The Beatles?

When I was growing up, back in the 1960s, there was a band called The Beatles that was more famous than any other band.  From 1964 to 1969 they were always in the news, always on the radio, often seen on television, setting the pace for sixties pop culture.  You heard their songs everywhere, either ordinary folks just singing, or professionals covering their tunes.  I bought all their albums as they came out, with each new release a big occasion.   Then The Beatles broke up and everyone was sad.

the-beatles

Years later, when CDs came out, I bought all The Beatles albums again, but this time the albums were different from when their songs came out on LPs in the 1960s.  The CD albums were repackaged like they had been first released in England as LPs.  For a while, this brought The Beatles back into my life.  For decades when I listened to music it was by listening to CDs, and now and then I’d play The Beatles.  I still thought of them as the most famous band on Earth.

Starting many years ago I switched to Rhapsody subscription music, and after a few years to Rdio, and after another few years to Spotify.  I listen to streaming music at my computer, or when walking around with my iPod touch, or on my big stereo through my Roku connected to my receiver.  The Beatles have never been on streaming music.  As I slowly stopped playing CDs, The Beatles were forgotten.  Then they released their albums again on remastered CDs.  I bought them all except Yellow Submarine.  However, I didn’t even play all these new CDs because I’ve gotten out of the habit of playing CDs.  Some of those remastered CDS are  still in the shrink wrap.  Maybe I’ll get around to them eventually, but streaming music is my habit.

I’ve gotten so used to listening to streaming music that if I can’t add a song to my playlists, or call the album up when I think about it, it doesn’t get played.  So I don’t’ hear The Beatles anymore.  This year when they had all the 50th anniversary stuff it was fascinating to watch on TV.  That would have triggered memories and gotten me to add some of their songs to my playlists, if they had been available on Spotify, but since they weren’t, I haven’t.

I said to my wife, “I wonder what Beatles songs I’d add to my playlist if they were available?”  I never found out, because they still aren’t on streaming.

I have two sets Beatles CDs, plus all their songs ripped to my computer, and even uploaded to my Amazon Music and Google Music accounts.  Rhapsody/Rdio/Spotify has ruined me.  I now think of music as what I hear everyday from Spotify.  I sometimes get out my favorite albums I play on Spotify and play them on CD just to hear their better sound quality, but I don’t play The Beatles because I don’t remember them anymore.  My music world has become Spotify, and The Beatles are not part of that world.

I know people who still play The Beatles, not their CDs, but digital songs they’ve stolen or bought as singles.  Those folk are still stuck in the past of owning music.  Statistics show streaming music is catching on, and even the number of illegal downloads are down.  Sales of purchased digital songs are down too.  If stolen and bought songs are in decline, and renting is on the increase, when are people going to play The Beatles?

I wonder if other people are like me, and have forgotten The Beatles because their songs aren’t available via streaming music?  Well, new people who never knew The Beatles don’t even know what they are missing.  But for us old farts, it’s, “Whatever happened to The Beatles?”  It’s a new world out there when it comes to discovering and playing music.  Some bands are bucking the trend because of the money.  And I can understand that.  But music seems to be in two places now, either live or streamed.  Who plays albums anymore?  Or the radio?

Hey, whatever happened to The Beatles?

JWH – 7/10/14

Moondance by Van Morrison–Spotify v. FLAC

van-morrison-moondance

Moondance, Van Morrison’s third solo album, recorded from August to December, 1969, and released February 28, 1970, is a true classic rock album.  Moondance placed #65 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and was inducted into The Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999.  A detail history of the album can be read at Wikipedia.  Discogs lists 64 different versions of the Moondance, the most of any of the 51 Morrison albums listed there.

Play the album while you read.

As I wrote yesterday, “Pono, We Have a Problem,” I just bought a new Denon AVR-X1000 receiver that can play 24-bit FLAC files and I wanted to find the best album I could to test out high definition audio.  At the time I couldn’t decide for a number of reasons, but mainly because I couldn’t find a FLAC album I wanted to spend $25 on that I would enjoy listening to the whole way through.  Then one of my readers, paintedjaguar, chided me for not having the patience to savor a whole album, and I realized he was right.  I needed to not think about hit songs, but just find a great album.

Concurrent with looking for a FLAC album to buy, I was setting up my new receiver to play Spotify and I thought, “Why don’t I play some albums from my HDTracks wish list to see if I can sit through any of them.”  The first one I picked was Moondance, and as an extra surprised, Spotify had a recent remastered 4-CD edition of Moondance.  I fired it up and was blown away by the sound.

I don’t know if it was my new receiver, or the new remastered CD, but between the two of them Moondance sounded awesome.  The soundstage was huge, and every instrument was distinct, bright and highly textured.  I sat and savored the entire album in one sitting.  It was like listening to a fantastic concert.  I later read that Van Morrison wanted to record the album live, and tried to make it sound like a live performance in the studio.

Listening to Moondance has taught me I was wrong to always want to just buy hit songs, and that sometimes a whole album is a coherent work of art that should be experienced occasionally as one performance.

I was so impressed with the sound quality of Spotify’s streaming that I wondered how could it possibly sound better.  This streaming MP3 version impressed me like playing SACDs or 180g vinyl.  When it was over I knew I had to buy the 192kHz 24-bit FLAC version.  If Neil Young was right, the high definition version should make the MP3 version feel broken.

So I did.  And it didn’t. 

To be fair, there’s a problem in making the comparison that tells a very complicated story.  The Spotify version, which is a MP3 compressed file streaming at 320bps, should have only a fraction of the recorded information that the 24-bit FLAC file had, and thus it should have sounded fractionally good.  The trouble is the FLAC file apparently is from an older CD release, and the Spotify version was from a newly remastered CD, and they’ve done an excellent job, like the recent remastering of The Beatles CDs.  I was not comparing apples to apples.

On the other hand, this implies a whole lot of possibilities to consider.

  • There’s still plenty of room to improve CD technology.
  • There’s still plenty of room to improve MP3 technology.
  • There’s still plenty of room to improve streaming technology.
  • Albums can vary significantly depending on how they are mastered.
  • How is the loudness wars affecting our listening?
  • Where do FLAC editions come from?
  • Would playing the remastered CD version of Moondance in 192kHz 24-bit FLAC sound significantly greater?
  • How important is hearing ability in all of this?
  • How important is being in the right frame of mind at the time?
  • How important is the playback equipment?

All these possibilities are starting to make my head explode.  My quest to enjoy my favorite music in the highest resolution possible has led me on quite a chase.  Moondance is a fantastic album.  It’s so good it sounds great on AM radio all the way up to my big stereo system.  Does it matter how high resolution is the recording?  I’m listening to the album as I write, played through Spotify on my Klipsch THX computer speakers.   It sounds great, but nothing like last night when I had kicked back in my recliner and played Moondance loud through my new receiver and my floor standing Infinity speakers.  Then I felt like I had traveled back in time to 1969 and I was sitting at a table in a small club listening to a concert.  And that was with a MP3 recording, technology with supposedly the least quality of all the formats.

Don’t get me wrong, the 24-bit FLAC recording sounded incredibly solid.  Van’s voice was rich and thick, and the instruments were smooth and deep sounding.  It has the warm feeling that vinyl fanatics always gush about, but it lacked the punch of the remastered copy, and it soundstage was smaller, with the instruments less distinct.

It’s also important to understand when I played Moondance I was in the most receptive mood possible.  It was at the end of the day and I wanted to relax.  The bright sun was fading and the moment felt serene.  I was in my La-Z-Boy and I didn’t want to go anywhere, or do anything else.  I had just read paintedjaguar’s comment, and I was challenged to experience a whole album.

This says, if you can find the time to listen to an album, you should make an effort to hear the best possible version you can on the best possible equipment you have.  Music deserves the same attention we give a movie when we’re at the theater.  We don’t want to hear other people chattering, or chomping on their popcorn, or feel the glare of their iPhone screens in our peripheral vision.  When we’re watching a movie we stop thinking and experience the show.  That’s how we should listen to music when we’re ready to play a whole album.  I know most of the time we want music to be the daily background music of life, and that’s perfectly copasetic, but sometimes you should just listen to music like watching a movie at the theater.

I beg my friends to come over to listen to albums with me and they all claim I’m crazy.  They can’t believe I waste time that way.  They think of nothing of getting me to sit in a dark movie theater with them for two hours, but won’t spend forty minutes with me playing an album.  Of course, some of them will spend $50-150 to go to a live concert, especially to see dinosaur rockers long past their prime, trying to recreate their classic songs from the albums I want them to come listen to with me.  Go figure.

High definition audio is cool, but it’s not the point.  Albums are works of art.  They have history to be understood.  They are moments in time.  They are powerful expressions of creativity.  The lesson I’ve learned in this pursuit of higher fidelity is to play the music on the best equipment possible, with the best speakers or headphones available, and to take the time to listen when you can shut off your mind and let your consciousness flow down steam with the music. 

And yes, play your music as loud as you can stand, (yet don’t offend your neighbors).  A whole lot of fidelity comes through just by turning it up and paying attention.

JWH – 4/25/14

Pono, We Have a Problem

Pono, the promised portable 24-bit FLAC player scheduled to ship within a year, has me all excited about high definition music.  Because I couldn’t wait, I started researching options to play 24-bit FLAC files now.  I ended up buying a new Denon AVR-X1000 receiver, and here’s where I discovered three huge problem that Pono might have.  I’m all dressed up with no place to go.

Neil-Young-with-Pono-on-L-008

Music Selection

I’ve been clicking through HD Tracks catalog of HD audio files, and even though they have big selection, I can’t find anything I want to buy.  Now I must admit, when SACD came out I bought about 15 of my all-time favorite albums in that format, and see no reason to buy them again.  Those SACD albums are available as FLAC files, and if I hadn’t bought them on SACD, they would have been my first purchases.  The selection is very disappointing if you want 96-192kHz 24-bit high resolution music files.  I could think of plenty of albums I would buy, but they aren’t there.  Ironically, there’s no Neil Young.

Most of the 192kHz/24bit files are for older albums, which is great, but I’d like to hear new stuff with studio master quality.  The new Bruce Springsteen came out as 44.1kHz/24bit.  If the whole selling point is massive high-resolution files, this misses the target.

I have to hope when the Pono comes out, and the Pono Music store opens, this will change.  And there are rumors that iTunes will start selling high resolution music files.  I’d prefer to buy from Amazon, since my other digital music purchases are stored there.

Album v. Song

Right now, you generally have to buy a whole album, and this sucks.  The digital music revolution has taught us we want to buy songs, not albums.  There are many albums at HD Tracks that have songs I would buy, but I just don’t want the whole album.  Right now it seems like Pono is a scheme to get people to buy whole albums again!  I don’t know if that’s going to work.

I’ve been thinning my CD and LP collections and it’s so painfully obvious that I bought most of them for one song.  Many albums that are legendary in my memory, but when recently replayed showed I no longer have the patience to sit through entire albums.  On many CDs, some now 30 years old, I’ve even forgotten the song that made me buy the album in the first place, and sometimes even after playing the entire CD I can’t remember.

It’s a hit song world now.  Few albums are like Blonde on Blonde by Bob Dylan, where I love most of the songs.  And that’s the first SACD I bought, along with Layla, and The Allman Brothers Band at the Fillmore East.  (Isn’t it odd they were all double LPs.)

There is a naturally tendency to want to hear songs we’re obsessed with at the moment.  Back in the 20th century when LPs and CDs were the only way to get music, I’d buy 2-4 of them a week trying to find music I’d love.  It was always a gamble.  iTunes has taught us not to gamble, but just buy the song that presses that button in our brain that makes us want to play songs over and over again.

With the prices they charge for high resolution music, and the fact that I have to buy a whole album, that means I will only buy albums that are truly incredible.  Sadly, those are few and far between.  I would be very tempted by those old Rhino double CD anthologies as FLAC files, especially those for Quicksilver Messenger Service, Graham Parker, Free and Savoy Brown.

If HD Tracks sold by the song, I would have already bought about 50 of them, even at twice the price of an iTunes song.  As it is, I’m struggling to find the first album to buy to test out my new receiver.  I hate to waste $25 just to test the concept and end up with only one song I like.

Price

I’ve been going through the HD Tracks catalog anxiously looking for something to buy and the $25-30 sticker shock is making the decision agonizing.  Most of the albums I want I already own on CD, or even twice on CD because I’ve already bought the remastered edition.  And for a handful of my favorite albums, I’ve already bought them on SACD.

Rich audiophiles probably think nothing of the pricing of 24-bit FLAC files, but for the masses, it’s going to be a problem.  For the Pono or other high resolution players to catch on, I think music publishers will need to be willing to sell by the song, and I hope that’s what iTunes will do.  I’d prefer to get my songs from Amazon though.

Mass Appeal

I truly doubt high resolution music files will catch on with the masses.  Several of my readers have told me my posts about high resolution music are the ones that bore them the most.  (Sorry guys.)  And I’ve talked with a bunch of my music love friends, and they have little interest either.  And despite Neil Young’s famous video of all these big name musicians getting out of his car and exclaiming the Pono sound blew them away, I’m not sure if the average person can tell the difference.

My new receiver allowed me to play my SACDs again.  I haven’t played them in a while since my new player wouldn’t work with my old receiver.  I put on a SACD and I was amazed at the sound quality – for a while.  I tried Blood on the Tracks and instantly said to myself, “Just listen to that guitar!”  The texture of the bright strings made it feel like a guitar player was right in the room.   However, this magic only worked as long as I applied my full focus of concentration.

I then played my favorite song,  “You’re a Big Girl Now” via Rdio.  My mind sensed something was missing, that this version wasn’t quite as good, but as soon as I relaxed my concentration, it no longer mattered.  MP3 music isn’t bad at all, it’s just not all there, and you have to really focus to notice the missing stuff.

To appreciate high resolution audio you have to concentrate.  You have to listen to the music with total rapt attention.  I listened to some 24-bit classical music and it felt like I was at the symphony, but only while my mind stayed razor sharp on the music.  As soon as I relaxed and listened to the music like a drug washing over me, the high resolution sparkled disappeared.

I’m not sure if most music fans ever concentrate on their music enough to appreciate high resolution sound.  It’s not a dramatic jump like going from analog TV to HDTV.  Which is why 4K TV probably won’t catch on either.  And it’s why all those articles by geeky guys explaining how the Red Book CD standard is more than enough for the average ear is probably true.

I still want to buy a 192kHz/24bit album to test on my new receiver, but between limited selection, finding an album with enough songs I love, and price, it’s proving to be damn hard.  Sorry, Neil, we have a problem.

[Read about which FLAC album I pick and the testing.]

JWH – 4/24/14

Do They Love Old Vinyl or Do They Love the Old Music?

This morning at The Huffington Post, Peter Dreier describes how his daughter Amelia has discovered his old vinyl record collection.  Last night at the movie Transcendence, the future tech scientists played their music on ancient tech vinyl – it made the couple seem hip in their uber-geekness.  All over the world, young people are rediscovering record players and LPs.  I have to wonder though, are they embracing the quaint technology, or the old music?

record_player

When I was young and discovered 1930s big band music in the 1970s, it wasn’t by playing old 78s.  All the old music Peter Dreier’s daughter discovered is available on Rdio, Pandora or iTunes.  Why did it take finding dad’s old LPs to get his twins interested?

Year before last, I got back into vinyl LPs again because of nostalgia, but I’m giving them up again.  I love holding records and their covers, but I hate playing them.  Yes, their sound is retro-warm, but it’s like going back to VHS video.  I just got sick of the skips, pops and skates.  Even though I still call our refrigerator the ice box, I wouldn’t want one that actually required blocks of ice.  I’m an old fart, but I love convenient technology.

Can’t young people discover old songs without rediscovering old LP albums?  Or have they discovered they love holding music after growing up with invisible files?  They should rediscover CDs.  They sound better, are easier to play, and you can hold them too.  Will young people go and buy all those old albums at $25 a pop as FLAC files for the Pono when it comes out?  They are used to free music on the internet, and free LPs from their parent’s attics.

I’m actually ditching my LPs again so I can discover new music.  The time I spent shopping for records and monkeying with getting them to play is better spent on actually listening to music.  Rdio and Spotify give me access to millions of albums – I just need to find clues for what to try.  I do this through reading.

Whenever I read a story or article and someone mentions loving a particular song or album, I go play it.  Rdio makes it that easy!  I just read The Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk which inspired me play many forgotten late 1950s early 1960s Greenwich Village folk artists, and make a new playlist.   I watched 20 Feet From Stardom and played the solo albums by these great backup singers.  I read The Wrecking Crew by Kent Hartman about 1960s studio musicians and played many Phil Spector Wall of Sound hits.  And I’m trying all the 1940s and 1950s jazz greats because of reading Jack Kerouac.  If I had waited to find all these artists in old record bins I might not never have discover them.

Discovering great music takes study.

I think it’s great that kids are discovering records and record players.  I think it’s great that they are discovering our generation’s music.   Vinyl collecting makes a nice hobby.  But don’t let be your only path to old music.   Would Peter Dreier’s girls have tried old music if their dad hadn’t spent so much time talking about the concerts he went to as a kid? 

Talk to your parents and grandparents.  Go through their music.  If you discover you love the Beatles, read books about the Beatles and the songs and bands they grew up loving.  Ditto for any other artist you find you love.  It’s been long enough for these bands to have become history.

I’m exploring classical music on Rdio through listening to “How to Listen to Great Music” by Professor Robert Greenberg for 1 credit at Audible.com.  I also bought a paperback book he wrote on the same subject from Amazon.  (If you want the video from The Great Courses, wait until it’s on sale.)  I also bought 1001 Classical Recordings You Music Hear Before You Die on a remaindered shelf.  Keep an eye at Barnes & Noble’s remaindered books, music history books are very common.

When you play old albums, look at the inner sleeves.  They often have ads for other albums on them.  Call them up on Rdio or Spotify.  Go to audiophile sites like HDtracks or audiophile USA to see what’s being reprinted and look them up on streaming services, or even try to find the original albums used.  If you really get into vinyl, the real fun starts when you hear about a rare album that you’ve just got to hear, and tracking it down becomes a quest.

A lot of kids are discovering The Beatles, but I’ve yet to hear any of them talk about The Byrds, or Buffalo Springfield.  Just study this chart and try to track down all the albums on the Californian Country Rock chart that shows a musicians family tree showing the children groups formed from the breakup of the bands The Bryds and Buffalo Springfield.  Most of these albums are available on Rdio and Spotify.  Click for larger image.

byrdstree

If you end up loving 1960s and 1970s rock music you discovered through your parent’s old albums, a cool way to time travel to the past is subscribe to The Rolling Stone, and then sign up to use their free archives to reread old issues and their album reviews.

There are many record collecting and music review magazines in print and on the net.  Once you get out of the trap of only listening to current hits, and start time traveling through the past, discovering new old music becomes an addiction.

Just for fun, here’s an old favorite of mine that you might not have found in grandpop’s old records.

JWH – 4/21/14

Twenty Feet From Stardom–Six Films About Wanting to Make it Big in Music

Have you ever wanted to be a star?  Have you ever wanted to be on stage in front of thousands of admiring people?  That fantasy is a nightmare for me because I’m so shy, but some people crave the limelight.  Recently I’ve watched five films and read one book with a related film about people getting very close to music stardom but not being famous names to us all.  For these people, this can be crushing, especially the ones who get inches away from achieving their dreams.  Some of these people chronicled in these films actually liked being twenty feet back.  Not every studio musician or backup singer wanted to be front and center on the big stage, but many did.  These films are:

Twenty Feet From Stardom is about backup singers, Standing in the Shadows of Motown and The Wrecking Crew are about the musicians that played on most of the hits of the 1960s.  Searching for Sugar Man and Big Star are about three artists that made artistically great albums in the early 1970s but were completely ignored by record buyers.  And finally, Inside Llewyn Davis is a fictional account of a folk music singer during the heyday of the folk revival who painfully could not grab the brass ring no matter how hard he tried, or how many people he used or hurt.

The gist of these films are about people climbing Mt. Fame, and even having the talent to get within sight of the summit.  Failing to achieve stardom after getting so close creates a psychological crisis that all of these people dealt with in different ways.  To me, the most tragic was Chris Bell of Big Star.  Sixto Rodriguez’s story in Searching for Sugar Man is so unbelievable that its stunning, and I can’t help but wonder if he’s the reincarnation of the Buddha. 

After seeing Darlene Love, Marry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Patti Austin, Judith Hill and many others in Twenty Feet From Stardom I went to Rdio and played their records that I could find, and surprisingly, there were many.  There are so many records out there that never make it to the top of the charts that are still worthy of your ears.  This is the true value of Rdio.  But this also teaches us something.  Evidently there are more great singers than there are hit songs.

Watching Standing in the Shadows of Motown and reading The Wrecking Crew, both about studio musicians who played on the defining songs of my teen years back in the 1960s, just crushed me emotionally.  These guys never even got liner credits for the most part, yet all the wonderful riffs and melodies that are burned deep in my soul were created by them.

All of these people deserve more fame, and luckily we have film makers that are helping them to finally get the spotlight.  And like I said before, there are more great singers and musicians than there are hit songs.  A hit song, the kind that tens of millions will notice, are a combination of songwriters, singers and musicians.  But what makes a star?  Time and again in these films they talk about the drive and ego it takes to become a star.  These films are about many people who had talent, but the lacked something to go the last twenty feet.  What separates Bruce Springsteen from Chris Bell and Sixto Rodriguez?  What separates Aretha Franklin from Darlene Love?

Standing in the Shadows of Motown was illustrative.  It had the original musicians playing the original songs, but got other singers to sing them.  This showed both the importance of the musicians and the singers.  If you’ve ever listened to recreations of original sixties hits it’s so apparent that something is off.  Hit songs are extremely hard to make, and most often it’s accidental I think more than intentional.

Thanks to YouTube, I can give you a taste of each of these films.

 

 

 

My favorite song from Standing in the Shadow of Motown

 

 

 

My favorite Chris Bell song.

 

 

I hope The Wrecking Crew comes out soon because I’m very anxious to see it.  I’m curious if younger people will like these movies, because essentially all of them are about people from the baby boomer generation.  I’m sure one day there will be films about Katy Perry’s musicians and backup singers, but for now, these are the stories we have.  And I’m grateful to Netflix, because documentaries are not widely distributed.

JWH – 3/28/14

Pono? Just What Did They Hear in Neal Young’s Car?

Neal Young, is promoting a new portable sound system, called Pono, that plays uncompressed digital music files, promising sound quality equal to the 24-bit master recording files.  Young claims music consumers are only hearing a fraction of sonic fidelity that goes into producing a song when playing MP3 files on the mobile devices, or even CDs on their home stereos.  Visit the Pono Music site for the full press marketing campaign.

Watch this video.  Just what are those people hearing when they are in Neal Young’s car?  Their glowing comments sounds like it’s 1967 and they weren’t talking about music.  These guys are used to working in studies, recording songs with master 24-bit files, playing them back on the absolute best studio equipment.  They are also used to playing music live.  Why would they claim this is the best sound they’ve ever heard?  Sure, some clarify, the best in a car, but others are saying anywhere.

I can understand the complaints against MP3, but against CD too?  What the hell am I missing?

I’m not going to pledge to buy a Pono at Kickstarter, but when they come out I’m willing to drive over to Best Buy and try one out.  But even if I bring my V-Moda headphones, will it sound as good as Neal Young’s car?  I doubt it.  I can’t help but believe that buying a Pono also means buying a deluxe sound system to support it.

And what about the music?  Once again, I’ll have to go buy my favorite albums all over again.  I’ve bought some albums already on LP, CD, MP3 and SACD, and now I’ll need to go buy them again as 24-bit FLAC files?  See, this is where I wonder about the success of Pono.  I’ve switched to streaming subscription music.  I’ve given up on owning music.  Buying a Pono means going back to owning music again, and I’m not sure I want to do that.  If I hear what those people getting our of Neal’s car claim to hear, maybe I will.  But it’s going to have to be a Hubble telescope leap in high fidelity!

Let’s say I have to buy my favorite 100 albums again.  That’s $2500-3,000, assuming the prices are like current 24-bit files.  Pono could make things cheaper, but only if millions buy it.  Pono appears to be like any other high-end DAC player, but scaled for portability.  If you look at the other products at the Ayre.com site, the company that will be making the Pono player, you’ll see what I mean.

There is nothing technically stopping Rdio or Spotify from streaming 24-bit 192kHz FLAC.  We’d need 24-bit DACs to play such music, but that’s not far-fetched either.  People are streaming HD video, so why not HD sound?

I wish Neal Young all the success in the world for his Pono device because I hope it brings about a new high fidelity revolution.  Two years from now I might not own a Pono, but I might be listening to 24-bit 192 kHz music.

JWH – 3/14/14

Twenty Hours to Playing Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone”

I have no musical ability what-so-ever.  But, I’ve always wished I could play guitar.  I tried when I was young, but got easily frustrated, and merely ended up playing chord patterns I made up.  I had no discipline at all.  A complete wimp when it came to practicing.  If I had known about the 10,000 hour to greatness theory of practice, I would never have tried at all.

Today a reader, Andreas, posted a comment about a Josh Kaufman TED Talk, “The First 20 Hours – How to Learn Anything” that was far more encouraging.  What Kaufman claimed from his studies is that it takes 20 hours of concentrated practice to get beyond the frustration stage and see encouraging results.  Watch his TED Talk yourself.

Now, that got me to thinking.  I messed around with a guitar back in the 1960s and 1970s, but I didn’t put in 20 hours of concentrated effort at actually learning anything.  Ten years ago I bought a cheap guitar and was going to try again.  I tried a few of times, probably spent less than an hour, and again got frustrated and quit.  The guitar has been sitting on its stand ever since – untouched.  Well, I dusted it a couple of times.

What if I conducted an experiment to test Kaufman’s hypothesis?  Would twenty hours of concerted effort, applying myself in a systematic way, get me past the frustration barrier?  Would just twenty hours get me to a point where I felt like I was getting somewhere?  If Kaufman’s hypothesis is true, I could apply it on all kinds of little ambitions.

Don’t we all give up too easily?  Is twenty hours of good practice the real solution to getting past the frustration barrier?  

To test this idea, I think would need something very specific as my goal.  Playing “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan immediately came to mind.  If I could learn to strum the guitar and friends could recognize the song, no matter how badly I played it, I think that might be a good enough proof.  It’s only five chords, so I don’t think I’m being overly ambitious.

Just how much would I have to learn in that twenty hours?  Luckily, the web gives me a tremendous head start.   For example, at e-chords, here is the song with chords and words, and even animations showing the finger positions of the chords:  Like A Rolling Stone – full arrangement

And here are two YouTube videos with guitar teachers.

There seems to be an endless supply of guitar teachers on YouTube teaching “Like a Rolling Stone.”  Some offer music and chord theory with their lessons that just confuses me.  There also seems countless ways to strum the song, as well as many variations for the chords used to play the song.  These kind of details are detrimental at this point.  Kaufman advises in his video to:

  1. Deconstruct the skill
  2. Learn enough to self-correct
  3. Remove practice barriers
  4. Practices at least 20 hours

I think I have deconstructed the skill here already.  All I’ve got to do is put on some new strings on my neglected guitar and practice for twenty hours.  I’ll get back to you in about a month to let you know what happens.

JWH – 1/24/14

Hey, Rdio, Rhapsody, Google, Spotify–Add These New Features, Please

I’ve been a streaming music subscriber for years.  First with Rhapsody, now with Rdio, but I’ve also subscribed to Lala, MOG and Spotify.  Each service takes a different approach to the best way of listening to music from a gigantic online library.  All provide the basics, search on artist, album and song, play album in order, random, repeat and repeat one, and create playlists.

New reports claim that music publishers now feel they are making more money per user from subscription services than by selling songs.  This implies that subscription services are succeeding – let’s hope.  I think there are many features that subscription services could add to their product that would make them stand out from each other, and maybe completely kill off the idea of owning music.

However, there’s far more potential benefits from subscription music than just playing music from a rented library.  One recent article claims that most artists will make more money in the long run from subscription music than from selling hit records, but it involves a new paradigm of promoting songs.  The old paradigm was to promote a hit, get as many people to buy it as possible, and then move on to creating the next hit.  The new paradigm is to create a portfolio of songs that are played forever by lifelong fans.  The old paradigm is based on selling the song once, and the new one is based on getting it played the most over time, year after year, decade after decade.

This makes techniques used to find songs and albums from almost a century of music, and adding tunes to personal playlists, the most important marketing tool for bands.  Theoretically, songs from the 1940s could becoming bigger hits than songs from the 2010s, if the right discovery tools were created.

It would be great if Rdio/Spotify/Rhapsody had an AI (artificial intelligent) program that could look at a person’s playlist and then guarantee them a list of songs from the past will be much loved.  Unfortunately, such computer magic doesn’t exist yet.  If there’s a Miles Davis track out there that you’ll play for hours on end in Repeat 1 mode, you’re going to have to find it yourself.

Some recording artists might be protesting streaming music for low royalty rates, and that might be true too, but streaming music is probably the best long term solution for helping new artists be discovered.  Digital Music News reported that 90.7 percent of all artists are essentially undiscovered.

With both Spotify and Rdio now offering completely free ad-supported subscriptions there is no reason not to try them.

So what features could the subscription music services offer to help fans find more songs to love?  Here what I want.

Top 100 Songs/Album/Artists By Year

Streaming music services need to quickly add Year to their search feature.  Having the New Releases, Current Hit Album/Song pages is just too damn limiting.  I need to be able to saying, “Show me what you got 1957!”  What would be even more fun would be to ask Rdio to play me the hit songs from the week I was born.  Or if I felt like returning to the summer when I was 14, tell Spotify to play music from the summer of 1965.

Who were the hit artists for 1938?  What labels were big in 1947?

I would also like to be able to play songs by release dates, and all songs from specific hit charts from a particularly week.

We might also need a composed year field, so I can ask for the music of the 1850s.

Far More Record Charts

Right now it’s possible to know which songs and albums are popular by everyone using the service, but that’s so limiting.  What I like to see is a chart of top songs being played by 62 year old guys who were computer programmers and who love science fiction.  Or if I wanted to sample another demographic, what songs are being played by college freshmen at the moment, what classical music symphonies are being made hits at the moment from Julliard graduates playing them, or what country tunes are being played the most in Nashville versus Austin or Denver, or what songs are loved by retired DJs who worked in the 1960s, or what songs are played the most by people over 90.  See what I mean?

Search by Catalog Number and Label

Now that subscription music services are vast libraries of songs that span decades, and record collectors have probably squirreled away all the great platters, it would be fun to play music historian on the cheap, and listen to music by label, especially all those rare labels put out by extreme music aficionados.

Years ago when I bought LPs, record companies would advertise other LPs on the inner sleeves of albums.  I especially loved the ones by ATCO and Warner Music.  For example, I’d love to be able to call up ATCO albums from 1970s, and just see what Rdio has.

Here’s a screenshot from MusicMatch for a search of Verve, showing a portion of the results near Janis Ian.  As subscription services grow, they will become closer to complete libraries of music history, and searching by label and catalog number will be more important.  Instead of collecting music from the past, it will be all about playing the music of the past.

verve

Browse by Genres and Subgenres

Sometimes I want to play music by genre, especially genres I’m not familiar with, but most streaming services have very limited ways of doing this.  Rdio is pretty nice for genre browsing.  I can browse by “Stations” and pick Jazz, and then have the choice of 10 sub-genre stations, and then a 5 position control that ranges from Popular to Adventurous.  But what if I wanted smooth piano jazz from the late 1950s?  Or to hear the musical heirs of Charlie Parker?  Right now this kind of feature is one of the best ways to discover new old music on Rdio, but it could be infinitely refined.

jazz

Better Playlists and Collections

Right now I can have playlists and a collection to organize my musical favorites on Rdio.  Playlists are just lists of songs.  I’d love to have Album Playlists, to group albums I’d like to play together.  I’d also like to have multiple collections, so I can keep my jazz albums separate from my rock albums.  I was keeping my Collection on Rdio limited to albums I liked a lot, but when I downloaded the local client, it looked at the albums I owned on my computer, and added all of them to my collection, which is now one big mess.

Playlists and the Collection is how I get to remember what I liked on Rdio.  Without them I’d forget tons of music.  When using a subscription music library it’s very hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of music I can play.  20 million songs, which is probably a million albums.  I’m lucky if I could sit down and write a list of my 100 favorite albums from memory.

When playing subscription music I mainly listen to what I already love.  But I, and new artists, want me to try new stuff.  Often I go through the weekly releases of new albums and try as many of them as I can.  There’s always more than I can try.  And if I find a song I like I can at it to a playlist, or add the album to a collection.  What I’d like to have is a personal library, which has unlimited collections.  Now some collections I want to name myself, but others I want Rdio to auto-generate.  So if I add Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen to my Rock Collection, it would automatically add it to a 1975 Collection, and a Columbia Record Collection, because there will be times when I’d love just to play my favorite albums from 1975, or even December, 1975.

Collections and Playlists are the way I distinguish my music from the background library of everything.  I want more tools for organizing my music, and even browsing it visually.

Higher Fidelity

Over time, as technology changes, I want streaming music to offer better fidelity.  It’s wonderful now, but I don’t want to be tempted by any new technology to come along that would make me want to start buying individual songs and albums again, either as digital files or on physical medium.  I’m over owning music.  Renting is so much more convenient.  I’m happy to let Rdio do all the library scut work.  Nor do I want to hop from one service to the next, as new companies promise features old ones don’t.  I’m currently thinking of subscribing to another service, adding Rhapsody or Spotify, for a while, just to see if they offer more.  But I’d rather they didn’t.  I invested a lot of love into Lala, only to have Apple ruin it.  Now that I’ve spent so much time with Rdio I want it to both succeed and keep competitive.

Export and List Features

A lot of work goes into discovering new music and creating playlists and collections, so if Rdio went out of business I’d loose a lot of knowledge I’ve put into their system.  I want to be able to export that knowledge to another streaming service.  Or if I subscribed to two streaming services, I’d like to sync that knowledge.  I’d also love some database tools to just study big data views of my music, or make printouts, like for putting on this blog.

Conclusion

The phrase “You ain’t seen nothing yet!” is an apt one for music streaming technology.  I’ve lived through so much technological change in my life, even just in the music industry, that I know nothing stays the same.  If I live another ten or twenty years I expect amazing things, and since I’m running out of time, I’d rather have them now.

Music Technology News

If you’re interested in reading more about subscription music, try these sites.

JWH – 1/19/14     

Models of Making Money by Making Music

Songwriters and performers dream of writing a hit song that will be heard by millions and make them rich enough to quit their day jobs.  As a life-long music lover I want my song making heroes to make as much money as possible, so it disturbs me when I read stories like “Get Ready for the Streaming-Music Die Off” that report artists are making so little from my favorite method of buying music that it might die off.  I’m upset that the artists aren’t getting paid properly, and I’m upset that I’m losing my favorite all-time method of buying music.

Music is very important to me, it’s brought my life much joy, solace, inspiration, happiness, stimulation, and pleasure.  It’s well worth the money I pay for it, and it’s angers me that so many people don’t.  Anyone who doesn’t pay for their music has no respect for music, or its creators.  Nor do they have any respect for capitalism and our economic well being.  With the music business we want to do two things:  reward the creators of music, and reward the business of promoting, publishing and distributing of music.  Sadly, it appears that the publishers of music have always been greedy and routinely ripped off their artists.  With the new digital technologies of music distributions it appears artists are getting an even shorter end of the stick than ever before.

Most people think little about music, and even less about how it’s bought and sold.  But if you love music, and you know who you are, it’s very important to know how your favorite artists are paid – their songs are the soundtrack of your life.  But we want more than that.  We want to promote economic strength in our country, and we want a vital music industry.  Americans are making less and less to sell to the world, so unless you want everyone working at a fast food counter, it’s important to promote industry too.

What Business Models Benefit the Artists?

There are two basic ways to sell music:

  • Artists sell digital and physical records directly to their fans
  • Artists sign with a publisher that sell their work in a variety of ways

In a perfect world fans and artists would cut out the middle man, but there’s a problem.  Getting a million people to listen to your song is hard.  Getting ten million people to hear it is far more than ten times harder.  If you want to get rich selling music you have to work with a publisher, and that involves working with loads of other people that take a cut out of the preverbal pie.

Every Tuesday new albums come out.  On Rdio I page through so many I can’t count them.  There are millions of would-be recording stars out there, all wanting millions of other people to listen and buy their music.  Most, if not practically all of them, will never make any money, not the kind of money that would let them live off their creative efforts.  In all the articles I read about the artists complaining of unfair treatment by the music publishers, I don’t see any figures on how many fans does an artist have to find to make a living.  That would be very interesting to know.  If a song writer wants to make a million dollars on his song, how many people have to buy the song directly, or listen on the radio, or hear it from one of the ever growing ways of hearing new tunes.

We know if an artist sells a song on their web site for a $1, it will take 1 million fans buying the song.  But how many would it take if the song was sold on iTunes or Amazon?  How many plays would it take to make a million dollars from fans listening on Spotify or Rdio?  Or Pandora or iTunes Radio?  Or just a plain old radio?  Each method of distribution has it’s costs, and investors that want their share of the action.

Artists are complaining bitterly about streaming music services not paying enough, but as the article linked above shows, it’s the music publishers who make the deals with the streaming services, and it might not be the streaming services to blame for low royalties.

I now get my music almost exclusively through Rdio, which I play $9.99 a month.  I’m contributing $120 a year to the music industry and their artists.  It troubles me when I hear that artists get little from this business model.  Would I benefit artists and the industry more by buying $120 worth of CDs?  Or $120 worth of MP3s from Amazon or iTunes?

To complicate the mathematical understanding of this problem, many of the songs I play on Rdio are ones I already own on CD.  I use Rdio as a convenience.  My favorite playlist is just over 200 songs.  I play it 90% of the time, and listen to new albums 10% of the time to find new songs to add to my playlists.  Probably 100 of those 200 songs I own already, so for about $120 I could buy the others, and go the MP3 buying model of business.  If I did that, I’d probably spend about $50 a year on new songs.

It’s doubtful I’d ever go back to buying physical CDs.  That means paying $120 a year to Rdio puts me at my maximum spending, and the artists on my playlist are getting paid a tiny fraction of a cent every time I play one of their songs.  Thus the solution by my standards would be to pay the artists at a higher rate, and the publishers less.

What Business Models Benefit the Fans?

For most music fans, the casual back ground music listeners, radio, whether AM, FM or various internet service, getting music for free is all they want.  They pay for their music by listening to ads.

Let’s ignore the barbarians that steal music.

Next up are fans who love songs enough to buy them.  They might buy a handful of songs a year, just the ones that are catchy enough to keep.  They will spend a $1.29 here and there.  Over their lifetime they will collect and own a playlist of their favorites.

Then we have fans willing to buy whole albums from their favorite artists, either digital or physical.  They are willing to commit $10-15, or more.  These kinds of music lovers often buy one or more albums a month.  However, this model of business is disappearing.  Fewer and fewer fans collect albums.

For the hard core music fan that loves the widest variety of music, nothing beats streaming music at $10 a month.  (Or $5/month if you only listen from your computer.)

How to Grow the Industry?

Streaming music is based on the idea that fans will pay a monthly fee to hear whatever they want whenever they want.  $10 a month gets convenience.  This is the model I prefer.  I was hoping this model would be the one to succeed.  I show off Rdio every chance I get, but I have convinced damn few people to buy it.  The streaming music model is like owning a giant record store for $10 a month.  It’s an unbelievable deal, but it’s not popular.  Spotify is hoping to get 40 million subscribers, but only has six million now.  It would take a 100  million subscribers to make subscription music a 12 billion dollar a year industry, and that’s not likely, but it would make music into a cable TV like industry.

If digital music had never existed, and the only way to own music was via physical media, the music industry would be huge, but I doubt we’ll return to that business model.

Let me tell you a story.  My friend Leigh Ann brought over a stack of old LPs she had.  She thinks she got them from an estate sale.  They were old Broadway show soundtracks from the 1950s and 1960s.  They looked rare, valuable and in good condition.  Most of them were on Rdio.  My $10 a month gets me whole areas of music I’ve never even tried.  Mostly I use my $10 a month service to play the same 200 songs over and over again.  I haven’t even begun to explore 1/10th of 1/10th of the music on Rdio.  $10 a month for unlimited streaming music is the best money I’ve spent in my life.

Leigh Ann and I started playing her albums but it became obvious that it was much easier just to call them up on Rdio.  I could buy her albums, but the artists that created them wouldn’t get paid.  Someone, probably not the original artists, do get paid, even if it’s a tiny amount, if I play them on Rdio.

Artists should get better rates from subscription music, but subscription music should be the model to market music.  It has one fair concept – artists are paid every time a song is played.  That’s better than what they get from stolen MP3s or people buying used LPs and CDs.  And streaming music keeps millions of albums in print that would be forgotten.

JWH – 12/6/13

How Internet Pricing Influences My Buying Decisions

You can go out at night and see a movie for $10.  Watching a movie a night would cost $300 a month.

If you like to own and collect movies, you could buy DVDs and Blu-rays for the same amount of money if you shopped for bargains, ending up collecting 365 movies a year.  But if you’re buying a new movie every night to watch, when would you re-watch anything in your collection?  Ownership ain’t what it used to be.

Then there’s cable TV.  For $80 a month, 24×7 movies, don’t worry about going out, shopping, collecting or shelving.

But for $7.99 a month can join Netflix and get one disc out at a time, and if you watch them immediately, and live in a city with a distribution center, might squeeze in a dozen movies a month, paying 67 cents a movie.  $15.99 a month you can get 3 discs out at a time, and probably cover having a movie every night of the month, getting your per flick cost down to 53 cents.

For that same $7.99 you can get Netflix streaming, and theoretically watch twelve 2-hour movies a day all month.  $7.99 / (12 x 30), which is about 2 cents a movie, or a more realistic 26 cents a movie if you watching only one a night.

Of course, you could just steal movies on the net and pay 0 cents per movie, but hey, we’re not thieves.

In other words, the Internet makes things cheaper.  But does it improve our lives and society to let people watch a movie for 26 cents?

In 1965 I became a record addict, and averaged buying 2 to 4 albums a week until I found Internet Pricing.  In the old days I bought LPs, and then CDs.  At it’s peak I was spending $200-300 a month on music.  Now I spend a flat $9.99 a month at Rdio and get access to over 20 million songs.  Internet Pricing strikes again.

My wife and I used to subscribe to the local paper and over twenty magazines.  Except for a couple e-magazine subscriptions on my Kindle, I no longer subscribe to periodicals and read stuff off the internet for free.

I’d like to get The New York Times, but at $15 a month is too expensive to what I’ve got accustomed to from Internet Pricing.  For $18 a month I get Netflix streaming and Rdio, or tens of thousands of movies, television shows, documentaries, and a couple million albums.  So why would I pay $15 for a single daily paper?  Why isn’t there a company that charges $7.99 a month to read all newspapers from around the world?

Next Issue charges $15/month for access to 107 magazines.  That’s the same price The New York Times charges for 1 newspaper.  Sadly, none of my favorite magazines are available through Next Issue (The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, New York Review of Books, Scientific American, Smithsonian, Harpers, Discover, New Scientist, Sky & Telescope, etc.)

See, I’ve been corrupted by Internet Pricing.  At one time getting The New York Times for $15 a month would have been a tremendous bargain.  Now, I feel it’s too expensive when I compared other content I buy off the Internet.  My innate sense of pricing was also distorted by reading the NYT for free online for years, and the fact there are many good newspapers from around the world that are still free to read online.

Would we have a more vibrant economy, with more jobs, if the internet didn’t exist?

I’ve been corrupted by Internet Pricing in other ways.  Last month I wanted to buy an issue of Harper’s Magazine to read one article.  But I just couldn’t let myself spend $5.99 to read one article.  However Harper’s is tempting me.  For subscribers to their paper copy, they give access to 163 years of back issues on the internet.  I can get a year sub to Harper’s at Amazon for $15.  See how Internet Pricing is disruptive?  $15 for one month of the NY Times, or $15 for 163 years of Harper’s Magazine for a year.  The New York Review of Books recently offered me 10 issues for $10 that included 50 years of online archives.  The Rolling Stone also has a similar deal for $19.95 for a 26 issue sub and a complete run of back issues online.  I don’t want paper copies of anything, but I do want access to complete archives.  However, they won’t sell me just the archive access.  Those savvy magazines publishers have figured things out, sell their old technology at normal prices and give Internet Pricing for free.  I took the $10 deal, and I’m seriously considering subscribing to magazines again if I get their complete archive.

I go into a bookstore now and it kills me to pay list price for a magazine.  I’ve been corrupted by Internet Pricing.  Now I might just be a cheapskate, but what if I’m typical.  How is being corrupted by Internet Pricing affecting people across the world. What is its impact on GDP?

JWH – 9/23/13

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