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Best of 2014: Music February 1, 2015

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech, Media.
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I’m awfully late posting my “best of,” so I’ll get right to it. More or less in order, the following were my favorite new releases of 2014:

  • D’Angelo “Black Messiah” – smooooove
  • Wovenhand “Refractory Obdurate” – my favorite quasi-Christian rocker is still full of fire and brimstone
  • St. Vincent “St. Vincent” – doesn’t sound like anything else, esp. when she plays guitar
  • The Choir of Gonvill & Caius College, Cambridge “In Praise of St. Columba” – if Celtic monks didn’t sound like this, they should have
  • Sturgill Simpson “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” – ignore the title: he’s got some Hank Williams in him
  • TV on the Radio “Seeds” – my obligatory “catchy, quirky alterna-pop” for this year
  • Run the Jewels “Run the Jewels 2” – actually makes some political points
  • Prince’s twin releases: “Art Official Age” and “Plectrumelectrum” (with 3rdeyegirl) – he’ll always be the best funk rocker
  • Robert Plant “Lullaby…and the Ceaseless Roar” – obligatory “old geezer who hasn’t lost it”

There were 3 or 4 good singles on the Pixie’s two EPs, Lucinda Williams’ double album was about one-album’s worth of solid, and everybody should listen to “Primus and the Chocolate Factory” at least once.

I bought 29 albums or EPs — 7 from the back catalog. That’s about the same as in 2013, and half of what I bought before streaming caught on. I don’t think I’m the industry’s worst nightmare, i.e., a former heavy-album buyer who switches over to $10/month. No, that would be the never-buyers who get all their music from YouTube. Mark Mulligan is right: though $10/month is a fabulous deal for fans,we’re going to need another price point before it’s mainstream. And Aram Sinnreich seems to have been on to something back in the Jupiter days: it took mobile streaming to take adoption beyond the niche aficionados.

Pals who work in and around the industry and I agreed it was pretty mediocre year. When I look back at what I liked best over the last few years, I’m struck by the relative lack of sure-to-be-standards. I won’t fall back on the “no unifying cross-audience genre” argument, nor the idea that YouTube, iTunes, and Spotify have killed the album. (Singles are the native format for popular music; albums were an unnatural phenomenon of the ’70s.)

I’ll just say that, compared with the last 5 years, I didn’t hear any breakthroughs in my favorite genre to match Parquet Courts, Japandroids, Titus Andronicus, Surfer Blood, Black Keys, or Savages. “RTJ2” is no “Yeezus,” “1989” can’t touch “Pure Heroine” or “Bangerz,” The War on Drugs is a poor man’s The National, and please, FKA twigs vs. M.I.A? no comparison.

 

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Best of 2012: Music December 23, 2012

Posted by David Card in Digital Home & Personal Tech, Media.
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I may be an old geezer – early GenX, please, not late Boomer – but I listen to and actually purchase new music. This year I bought about 35 albums, a little fewer than last year, but only 4 from the back catalog. All downloads, 99 percent from Amazon. Most of my listening is from stored files on my Zunephone or a docked iPod.

I subscribe to Rhapsody, and use Spotify and MOG. The music streaming services are great for try-before-you-buy listening, and for stringing together ad hoc playlists. (So is YouTube, of course, which often has a deeper catalog.) Making and keeping playlists is hard work, and makes you appreciate DJs. I trust artists, and albums.

The music streamers can be great for music discovery. I prefer Rhapsody’s  curated content, and band and genre info, to Spotify’s sharing orientation. Rhapsody’s recommendations are only okay, possibly because I’m not using it as my primary listening platform. But that’s a problem all discovery tools face. There’s a reason iTunes Ping flopped. (Well, a lot of reasons.) Aggregating usage signals across devices in support of recommendations and programming remains a big potential market opportunity.

An easier problem to solve, but a smaller opportunity, is blending discovery means. That would suit what we at Jupiter Research used to call “digital music aficionados,” that relatively small group of fans (15 percent of online adults) who are big music spenders as well as digital users. I also use Pandora “radio,” online music reviews from Pitchfork and traditional media, Amazon recommendations and reviews, and, of course, friends’ advice. It’s fun to see what people listen to via Spotify or Facebook, but that is just one input. Spotify is smart to integrate Pitchfork content via an app.

Best New Albums of 2012 

I realize I’ve been mis-titling this annual post. “Best of” is awfully judgmental for a list of personal favorites, but what the heck, there is probably more SEO juice in the headline. Roughly in order, just barely in time for stocking stuffing, the following are my faves of the year:

  • Japandroids “Celebration Rock” – indeed it is
  • Swans “The Seer” and Godspeed You! Black Emperor “Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!” – I especially like it when the guitars drone like bagpipes
  • Various Artists “Chimes of Freedom” – the country Dylan covers work at least as well as the punk ones on this massive Amnesty International compilation
  • Killing Joke “MMXII” and Metz “Metz” – the world didn’t end but KJ is back to form, while Oh, Canada can these Metz guys make noise
  • Chromatics “Kill for Love” – lush Italo disco with a killer Neil Young cover
  • Divine Fits “A Thing Called the Divine Fits” and Metric “Synthetica” – who said the ’80s were over?
  • Dum Dum Girls “End of Daze” – showing no-longer-surprising depth on this EP
  • Fiona Apple “The Idler Wheel…” and Cat Power “Sun” – both are raw and emotional; Fiona’s stripped-down approach works better for me
  • Heartless Bastards “Arrow” and Murder By Death “Bitter Drink, Bitter Moon” – rockin’ Americana: HB channels Janis better than MBD does Cash
  • Shearwater “Animal Joy” – with no Decemberists this year, I had to have one pretentious but catchy indie rocker on the list

DRM doesn’t have to be all bad April 23, 2012

Posted by David Card in Uncategorized.
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The e-book price-fixing lawsuit against major publishers and Apple renewed discussion among the digerati last week about the evils of DRM. But digital rights management doesn’t have to be all bad. Companies should use DRM to unlock new revenue streams, rather than lock in outmoded business models.

My colleague Mathew Ingram isn’t the only one saying publishers created their own problems by insisting on DRM-enforced copy protection on e-books. Author Charlie  Stross also makes the case that insisting on DRM helped Amazon increase its power over the industry. They and others recommend that publishers abandon DRM.

I’m skeptical that eliminating DRM on e-books would instantly make other retailers competitive with Amazon and dilute its market share – dropping DRM didn’t do much to Apple’s iTunes digital music dominance. And e-books still don’t have file format compatibility, a situation that creates similar user lock-in without DRM.

Don’t get me wrong. DRM always gets cracked, and doesn’t prevent real copyright thieves. Awkward implementations inconvenience legitimate customers and alienate fans. Consumers are used to owning content rather than thinking of purchased books, music and videos as licensing arrangements. Once upon a time, the media and entertainment industry could lock down consumer “rights” via physical media. The industry used physical products to manage pricing and packaging, distribution, reproduction and release windows. It has tried to do the same with device- or merchant-specific DRM.

It’s all in the implemenation

But smart DRM implementation can enable new products and marketing opportunities, while handling platform proliferation and consumer choice. That can mean watermarking, the way Pottermore’s trying to treat the Harry Potter e-books, rather than copy protection. And as consumers adopt identity services from companies like Facebook and Google, it is getting easier to associate authorized access to content services with an individual rather than a device. That will relieve the consumer pain of typing passwords or complicated codes.

Features and services “good” DRM facilitates include:

  • Rental. On-demand streaming is one way to deliver content protection, but what happens to a user’s Spotify experience when he can’t connect to the cloud? DRM has long enabled local storage of “rented” music for services like Rhapsody. And content services could make rent-to-own offers by applying rental fees toward outright purchases.
  • Lending and discovery. You can’t do e-book lending without some kind of DRM. Amazon enables use-limited sharing on Kindles, and e-book borrowing for Prime customers. Microsoft experimented with Zune-to-Zune song sharing and RIM’s got a little of that for BBM Music. Think how much more effective sharing would be across services.
  • Affiliate re-distribution. Although they’re no longer around, Weed and PassAong Networks played around with music super-distribution. Consumers could garner affiliate fees by re-distributing music to their friends.
  • Frequent buyer programs. DRM or watermarking makes usage and purchase points work across different retailers for media companies that aren’t in the credit card business.
  • Un-lockable bonus content. This is betters suited to physical products like CDs and DVDs, and Disney’s even putting codes on Marvel comic books. But tagged digital downloads can get customers to go to the content’s source where a media company can establish a direct customer relationship independent of the content distributor or retailer.

See? Not all DRM is evil. While it may be wise to eliminate copy-protection from content that consumers purchase, media companies would be crazy to give up on DRM entirely.

Question of the week

What new products or services could DRM enable?

Best of 2010: Music December 22, 2010

Posted by David Card in Media.
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It’s the time of year for Top Ten lists. I won’t bother apologizing.

I bought a little less music this year than last: about 50 albums and EPs, no singles, almost exclusively digital downloads this year. The Virgin Megastore closed. And I buy from Amazon, not Apple. Amazon’s cheaper and ships a higher bitrate MP3. That’s not to say I don’t do all my playing back on a Mac or iPod or iPhone, and manage my collection in that horrid spreadsheet of a music software app, iTunes.

My purchase mix was about 60/40 new versus back catalog, and I bought a little more jazz and a lot more Americana/roots than last year. I ripped a handful of other people’s CDs, but some of those I bought as gifts. I’m still way above the average American in music spending, even though the stuff I bought ranged in price between free, $3.99 and $5 (thank you, Amazon promotions) and $12-$13. Accent on the cheap stuff.

My favorite new albums of the year, in rough order were:

Best Albums of 2010

  • Titus Andronicus “The Monitor” – as if Springsteen were punk, channeled the Pogues, and did a concept album on the Civil War
  • Surfer Blood “Astro Coast” – lo-fi Beach Boys
  • Paul Weller “Wake up the Nation” – way more eclectic and lively than his recent post-Jam stuff
  • Various artists “Crazy Heart Soundtrack” – the actors actually sing borderline – but not quite – parody country songs very well
  • The Walkmen “Lisbon” – melancholy suits a sad year
  • John Mellencamp “No Better than This” – convincingly rootsy
  • Swans “My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky” – outright dirge
  • Neil Young “Le Noise” – old hippie sounds very modern
  • David Byrne & Fatboy Slim “Here Lies Love” – yeah, it’s a disco musical about Imelda Marcos, deal with it
  • Grinderman “Grinderman 2” – does Nick Cave get hornier the older he gets?

I liked another aging punk, former Sleater Kinney singer Corin Tucker’s “1,000 Years,” another soundtrack, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross doing “The Social Network,” New Orleans funk from Galactic (“Yo-Ka-May”), the collaborative headed by Danger Mouse & Sparklehorse (“Dark Night of the Soul”), another collaboration featuring The Chieftans and Ry Cooder and others (“San Patricio” Latino-Irish!). I was disappointed by the latest from Elvis Costello, the National, M.I.A., the Thermals, the Dead Weather, and Killing Joke.