New ways of listening

As I said, it took me a long time to adjust to the new ways of listening implied by clever tools like iTunes. A concrete example: what I used to do was exactly analogous to listening to a CD: flick through the long list of playlists until one catches my eye, double click to play. No change there. Later I downloaded a ‘play random track’ applescript and, together with the ‘shuffle’ button, that became my standard way into the library. But sometimes, random can be a bit too random. So now I use iTunes’ search function, which is simple enough. I just free associate until I get an interesting-looking playlist. Then shuffle through the results. This is really orthogonal to the experience of ‘putting an album on’ – ‘artist’, ‘album’ and ‘genre’ are secondary to mood or ambience. Meanwhile, the whole MP3 universe is still organised into albums – MP3 players even try to locate album cover art when you play a track – but the new ways of interacting with music must imply at least a loss of emphasis on the album. Once we’re accustomed to ‘dialing up’ a mood or a feeling or an era, will we want to buy albums at all? Or will we buy (or rent) an hour of ‘contemplative’ or ‘aggressive’ or ‘Renaissance’ or whatever? Click ‘MORE’ for an example playlist. iTunes search terms were ‘I’m’ and ‘You’re’.


Today we bought fireworks. I mean we really bought fireworks. They’re having a toofer at Tesco’s so we wound up with a shopping trolley-full of fireworks for half price. Driving them home was like the Wages of Fear – I maintained a steady 5 mph as the sweat beaded on my forehead. We’re going to set them all off in the garden next weekend. I hereby prophesy that we’ll manage about three Roman Candles before one or all of the small children present goes bonkers and we have to call the whole thing off.

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Sublime Audio

Here’s a piece I’ve just written for The Guardian about music.

For ordinary human beings, music is the closest we come to the sublime. The history of recorded music is the history of better and better access to the sublime.

We have the recording industry to thank for this. In little more than a hundred years, the stable musical universe of Church and hearth has been blown apart. Music is everywhere and anyone in any reasonably developed place can be exposed to hours of new and varied music daily.

Much of the music we listen to now would not even have been possible without the recording industry. Music and recording technologies have worked together.

As a result, the contribution of the recording industry to the fund of human happiness cannot be underestimated. Which other business can claim ‘bliss’ as a day-to-day value? There can be few better examples of the role technology can play in social and cultural change. Music, and our lives, have been immeasurably improved by the efforts of the music business. So it’s doubly disappointing to watch the recording industry missing an epic opportunity, perhaps on the scale of the recorded music revolution itself.

The latest giant misstep involves a new CD format called ‘Super Audio’. To understand why Super Audio is a misstep you need to understand how the listening habits of music fans are changing. And for this purpose I’m going to invite you into my kitchen. On the counter by the breadbin is a two year-old Macintosh computer with a flat screen – our ‘Kitchen Cube’. On the Cube Apple’s excellent iTunes MP3 application cleverly catalogues over 35Gbytes of recorded music – 23 days of continuous music, it tells me. Almost all of this music has come from the big stack of CDs now gathering dust in our sitting room. To call this Macintosh our jukebox is to hugely understate its meaning to us. To this machine my wife and I have entrusted 8,000 tracks by hundreds of artists – a vivid summary of our lives as influenced by music.

The kitchen is the social hub of our home. We spend most of our time there and since we’ve added music to the room we listen to more of it, from a greater variety of artists and sources than ever before and we listen to it in very different ways.

It takes a while for old musical habits to fade. In the early days, choosing something to listen to would be much like choosing a CD. Think of an artist, flick through the library for an album. Double click to play. With time, though, new ways of selecting sounds emerge. How about dialling up a mood or an ambience? Type ‘happy’ (65 tracks by 47 artists) or ‘light’ (37 tracks) or something more abstract like ‘you’re’ (32) or ‘red’ (24) into iTunes and see what you get – a playlist linked across genres, periods and artists by a loose, often surpising, theme – creating unexpected connections. Tighten the theme for something more specific or just ‘shuffle’ the entire library for one surprise after another. Or play only the tunes you’ve listened to most in the last few weeks – or only the ones you’ve never listened to. This is a radically different way of encountering music and one that I don’t need to tell you is not possible in any other format.

So we, like millions of others, are busy inventing a new relationship to music, weaving it more tightly into our lives. Remarkably, though, all of this has been done despite the recording industry – it might even be illegal. And Super Audio, the latest development in the ongoing drama of ‘geeks vs. suits’ is a particularly insidious twist. You see, Super Audio CDs won’t play in a PC so I can’t add the apparently pristine sound from these discs to my library. So, as the ‘digital hub’ takes hold and early adopters reorganise their musical lives around MP3s, the industry is planning to take us down a new technological dead end. Instead of adapting to new habits – coming up with a way to charge for file sharing, for instance – they have devoted millions to a spurious enhancement to quality inaudible to ordinary music fans and left the next generation of eager consumers out in the cold. Far from bringing us closer to the sublime, the record business is ready to close it down.

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Big brains stay home

Esther Dyson’s European Tech conference, High Tech Forum – the choice of big brains and moguls alike – has been cancelled for the second year running. Last year’s event was cancelled because of the post 9/11 chill but this year’s? Is the Euro tech recovery still on the back burner? Looks like it. This is particularly annoying for me since I was planning to join the big brains for this one (they have a special enclosure for the smaller brain). Meanwhile, Kevin Werbach, who used to edit Esther’s Release 1.0, the cerebral IT newsletter, has moved on and keeps sending me ‘personal’ invitations to a new event he’s calling Supernova. Many of the same big brains will be present. The theme for the first event is ‘decentralisation’. It can’t be a great time to be kicking off a new tech conference in Palo Alto, so I wish him luck.

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ecommerce is rubbish

New data: 51.3% of ecommerce purchases are unnecessary, 16.9% rubbish, 13.9% embarrassing, 11.4% stupid, only 6.5% life enchancing. Poor Ellen Feiss was a celebrity for less than the regulation fifteen minutes. I got the mug anyway. Napster went bust ages ago. I got the t-shirt anyway (site seems to be finally down). Looking now for more faded or bust Internet phenomena to memorialise in trashy merch.

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My come-back

I haven’t blogged for nearly a month. It was the shock. My carefully constructed weblog exploded. I won’t go on about it. I’m better now. Anyway, I can confirm that blogging is not like riding a bike. I’m back on my bike now, though, thanks to the gorgeous Movable Type and to an excellent book (UK, US) I just got from the nice people at O’Reilly about blogging. So I’m going to ease myself back in with some frankly trivial stuff. Bear with me…

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Normal service will be resumed…

The general weirdness and flakiness of Blogger lately (look at my lovely links!) has pushed me over the edge. I’m going to import the whole lot to Movable Type later today. Using the special temporary blogger template the MT people provide for this purpose I don’t even need to set up an RSS feed (thanks to Robin for the research). I don’t want to speak too soon but this could easily be my last day as a user.

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The film industry is the least of our problems

I watched an interesting feature about the flakey British film industry tonight on BBC 4. As you’d expect, it was mostly whinging and hand-wringing from all sources ? hyper-interventionist culture-boosters and laissez-faire populists alike. The giant lacuna was the glaringly obvious fact that the British film industry is hopelessly held back by an economy about a sixth of the size of the mother of all markets ? the USA. Outside the scope of the programme was the equally obvious conclusion that we desperately need to boost the overall size of our economy (both here in the UK and in the wider EU). Governments of all complexions have been trying this without success for decades, naturally, so this represents a great opportunity for a Government ready to try something new. Macro and micro tweaking are not working. For a hundred years, the economies of the West have grown at roughly the rate of inflation ? effectively zero growth.

The American example shows us that what we need is a really serious boost to the population itself – more bums on seats, more contributors to the media economy, more warm bodies creating value. Look at Japan: twice the population on about 50% more land. A simple calculation suggests that Britain could easily handle about 100M people. Not enough to challenge the US directly but enough to lift us out of the third division and, possibly, to give us access to the kind of doubling effects that drive the US economy. Remember, recession or not, the US economy is just getting bigger and bigger and this is in large part because the inward movement of people keeps the economy growing ahead of its structural rate. Large economies grow faster than small ones and, the faster they grow, the faster they grow ? if you see what I mean. All of this seems academic right now but the evidence is mounting that US population growth is accelerating while the European population is going into reverse (while already vast Asian economies mature and compete better). Old economies ? like ours ? will shrink faster and faster. Irrelevance beckons.

So how do you grow the population of a small country whose birth rate is already behind the replacement rate? You encourage immigration. Britain happens to be the focus of interest for migrants from a large swathe of Eastern, Central and Southern Europe. Who knows how long this popularity will last? Precedent suggests that it won’t be for long. Only fools would refuse these eager migrants entry. Only lunatics would actually deport them.

and another thing…

What’s happened to all my links? All my lovely links over there on the right have stopped working (likewise the stylesheet for that bit of the page?). Blogger seems to have thrown away every single URL from my laboriously-entered anchor tags. I think this is the last straw. Movable Type here I come. It can’t be an OSX.2 thing can it? Or a Mozilla 1.0 thing (I just switched over from Explorer. Everybody going on about tabbed browsing was driving me mad)?