Archive for August, 2009

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After the Goldrush: The Album, CMX, Cocktail and Networked Music

I first became aware of Nancy Sinatra when her song “These Boots Were Made For Walkin'” climbed up the charts in the 60s. The song was written by Lee Hazelwood, and I had the sense that it was a kind of novelty rather than being representative of a body of work. The song was released in February of 1966, and featured a back-up band known as the “wrecking crew“— they were made up of first call session players in Los Angeles.

Ms. Sinatra caught my attention again recently with her editorial in the New York Times regarding the inequity of payments for songs played on the radio. Composers and publishers receive payment each time a song is played, but performers get nothing. The presumption is that the performing artists receive promotion when their songs are played and that serves as their compensation. Ms. Sinatra notes that the practice of mentioning the title and artist of a song just played is no longer common practice. And she reveals that ten years ago Clear Channel was asking $24k per title, to mention a song’s meta-data. A radio mention is meant to serve as a kind of link to a commerce service point.

Just as the telecom industry is coming to terms with the fact that voice is indistinguishable from any other kind of bits traveling through the series of tubes, the radio/music business is learning that there’s no such thing as a ‘sound only’ Network. Recorded music needs an extensible interface, sound is only one of the channels. Video, text, images and commerce are some of the channels that need to be included in the digital bundle. When you ‘right-click’ on a tune, what options will you see? If you look closely, you can see the distinction between the player and the thing played is beginning to disappear.

The music industry has responded to this opening with the CMX file format. As currently defined the format will allow playback and viewing of multiple media types, transactional capabilities have not been mentioned. Apple has rejected CMX in favor of its own format called Cocktail. Early rumors are that the Cocktail format will be playable on a new generation iTunes player, although it may also work as standalone software with an incorporated runtime.

Rolling up the various media files associated with a music release into a single new format will create a new container that can be sold to the music buying masses. If all goes according the plans of the record labels, the public will be thrilled to restock their music libraries with new containers of the same music. After all, the public has done it a number of times before. Presumably, the new format will also feature stronger DRM as an attempt to re-establish the old sales model. The most intriguing part of Apple’s Cocktail format is the rumored integration of a social media layer into iTunes.

Some think the record business was destroyed by the MP3 file format. Because an MP3 is simple to digitally copy, the theory is that sales suffered as the listening audience simply distributed free copies of music over the Network. While there’s a grain of truth to this, ventures like the iTunes music store could not have been successful if it were the dominant behavior pattern. The real threat to the music industry was the return of the single and the rise of the playlist.

The record album became the standard unit of sale for music some time after the Beatles managed to fill their offerings with hits from the first track to the last. Once the public stopped buying singles and started buying albums, the goldrush was on for the record companies. The album also served as a kind of filter, bands that couldn’t sustain a level of quality over an entire record didn’t last long. The album became a canvas, a programmed static playlist of music that eventually lead, for better or worse, to the concept album.

The high cost of recording music combined with the album format resulted in a batch production mode for music—also known as the recording session. Batch mode production is closely related to the kind of production done in factories. A special environment is created, set away from ordinary life. Real life is what you return to when you’ve finished your shift working in the factory. With the cost of recorded music production plummeting, the batch mode becomes less and less necessary. Real-time production occurs in-line with real life, the process might look more like the basement of Big Pink instead of the specialized and fully-equipped recording studio.

A bundle of static files wrapped up in a new format is an attempt to get some additional mileage out of the album format. There’s a sense in which this is a duplication of the shrink-wrapped software model. The music industry should look to the recent strategic shifts made by the king of shrink-wrapped software: Microsoft. Microsoft has shifted to a software + services model that includes the full interoperability and the integration of public social media streams. Some of their product will be free, some ad supported and others will be fully paid. And just as the batch mode of software production has been deprecated in favor of real-time, in-line code updates over the Network, music (and all digital media) will eventually move toward this new model.

The battle that Nancy Sinatra is waging on behalf of the performer will not be won in the landscape of radio. That playing field is receding, becoming a small piece of the puzzle, rather than whole ballgame. The new canvas for the digital performer and recording artist is starting to emerge and the examples provided by Microsoft, Google and Apple will lead the way.

Algorithmic Trading and the Streaming Data Complex: A Little Bird Told Me

A_Little_Bird_Told_Me

While the shouting over whether Twitter has any value is largely over— there’s still some question as to what that value is. The search for a single qualitative value to which Twitter can be reduced is, of course, futile. It would be like trying to identify the single value of ink/paper, email, telephones or http.

When looking for meaning and value, there are a number of routes we might take. The denizens of Forrester, Gartner and Red Monk might take one direction; the host of burlesque performers and vaudevillians hanging out shingles as ‘social media’ experts may take another. Generally the process involves modeling what a business might do with ‘social meda’ (Twitter). The Profit/Loss in these models generally operates in the realm of public relations, marketing, good will and social capital. There is some argument for Twitter as a customer service channel, but while it’s optimal as a hailing frequency, it’s inadequate as a customer solution medium. This soft approach has some chance of success during a bull market, and a better than even chance during a financial bubble. While some, like Umair Haque, argue that these soft social revenue streams ultimately must provide a context for hard revenue streams, at the moment the stock market doesn’t agree. Positive sentiment on Twitter doesn’t translate into more demand for an equity. Adoption is currently limited to businesses that either can afford the luxury, or have replaced existing marketing and public relations modes with the Twitter channel.

On the hard revenue stream side of the ledger, we might look at how algorithmic stock traders are beginning to use Twitter. In trading, the asymmetry of the dispersion of news is a trading opportunity. We’ve seen how flash traders can create algorithms that determine the market’s direction from real-time data before the rest of the trading fraternity can even open their eyes.

Wall Street & Technology Magazine’s Melanie Rodier is reporting that algos at hedge funds are starting to consume data flow from Twitter to gauge the direction of sentiment toward an event or stock. The compact size and real-time nature of the tweet makes its ingestion and analysis particularly attractive. StreamBase Systems, a vendor of a complex event processing (CEP) platform, has announced a Twitter adapter that allows its applications to both consume and publish tweets. The designated (tracked) twitter streams are spliced with market data, financial ratios, newswire information and other data streams to build a more fully dimensional picture of a particular stock (company). Waiting for news to be collected, digested and emitted by Reuters can add too much latency to the news/information release pattern.

Just as reading the early reports from a newswire requires an understanding of context, history and the politics of news construction and distribution; reading a tracked Twitter stream as a part of a data complex requires a particular interpretive skill set. If the old adage ‘buy on the rumor, sell on the news’ has some truth to it, Twitter has just added a deep data layer to the ‘buy’ side of that equation.

A Loss of Connection: Digital Intermediaries

third_eye_camera

It’s a behavior pattern that has emerged in a number of realms and many are taking note. Michael Kimmelman, of the NY Times, noticed it while he sat and sketched in the Louvre. The visitors to the museum weren’t actually engaging with the art work. They either walked blindly through the galleries or were primarily focused on their personal digital machinery. Rather than directly experience the work in front of them, they seemed to be under the impression that paintings and sculptures can be collected in a digital camera for viewing at a later, more convenient time.

There was a time when people making the grand tour of Europe’s cultural treasures would prepare themselves by learning to make pencil sketches. Their sketching and painting were not primitive modes of recording images— they were, and are, modes of seeing and understanding (in the sense of making connections). We are not allowed to touch paintings in a museum; we can’t take our fingers and trace the shapes to feel their relationship to the entire composition. We can, however, accomplish this touching through seeing with a pencil and a sketch pad.

sketching_art

As we wander the world and only act as digital sample (sound/vision) collectors, we are not present in real time. We act today for the future time when we can look back on the present. As McLuhan said, we live our lives in the “rear view mirror.” We mechanically collect the digital artifacts of what might have been our own experience. We exclude ourselves from the real-time moment in favor of standing apart and playing the role of the recording machine operator at the service of the great digital archive (the Simulation).

The tragedy is that many miss the real experience because they’re busy collecting, and then they never even go back to reflect on what was collected. They don’t even bother to look in ‘the rear view mirror.’ They miss the sound and its echo, the image and its afterimage. They’re caught in the shadow between the motion and the act, losing all contact with our life in real time as mortals on this earth.

TS Eliot
The Hollow Men

V

Here we go round the prickly pear
Prickly pear prickly pear
Here we go round the prickly pear
At five o’clock in the morning.

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow

Life is very long

Between the desire
And the spasm
Between the potency
And the existence
Between the essence
And the descent
Falls the Shadow

For Thine is the Kingdom

For Thine is
Life is
For Thine is the

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

The Network as Real-Time Juke Joint

gaspares_jukebox

It started during a conversation over dinner. Gaspare’s has a classic jukebox, and looking at it, it suddenly struck me that word “juke” was simultaneously very familiar and completely foreign to me. While the mechanical jukebox was a common enough feature of my childhood, it was already beginning to feel nostalgic. I was aware that the word “juke” came from the earlier phrase “juke joint.” Like all high value network nodes, the juke joint was located at the crossroads:

Classic juke joints found, for example, at rural crossroads, catered to the rural work force that began to emerge after Emancipation. Plantations workers and sharecroppers needed a place to relax and socialize following a hard week, particularly since they were barred from most white establishments by Jim Crow laws. Set up on the outskirts of town, often in ramshackle buildings or private houses, juke joints offered food, drink, dancing and gambling for weary workers. Owners made extra money selling groceries or moonshine to patrons, or providing cheap room and board.

But the juke joint put me no closer to the word “juke.” My sense was that it was meant to describe a style of popular dance. But digging a little deeper, this definition of the word’s origin emerged:

Gullah, the English-based Creole language spoken by people of African ancestry off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina, retains a number of words from the West African languages brought over by slaves. One such word is juke, “bad, wicked, disorderly,? the probable source of the English word juke. Used originally in Florida and then chiefly in the Southeastern states, juke (also appearing in the compound juke joint) was an African-American word meaning a roadside drinking establishment that offers cheap drinks, food, and music for dancing and often doubles as a brothel. “To juke? is to dance, particularly at a juke joint or to the music of a jukebox whose name, no longer regional and having lost the connotation of sleaziness, contains the same word.

The hidden payload in the word “juke” is its connection to the “bad, wicked and disorderly.” Transgression is built into the cultural practice of the juke joint. This connected to Levon Helm’s description of the Midnight Ramble.

The story of the word “juke” is also a technology story. Juke joints began with live music and dancing. The mechanical juke box replaced live music and its real-time interaction. The musician as messenger was replaced with her recorded output. The juke box attempted to put all the commercial qualities of the juke joint into a machine, while excluding the wickedness of its origin.

juke2

The mechanical juke box provided access to the popular music of the day.  The users of the juke box assembled their own popularity charts by playing their favorites in the society of their cohort. The mass production and consumption of vinyl records and stereo equipment diluted the power of the juke box. The term “juke box” was preserved to describe the function of CD Players that could be loaded with hundreds of CDs, making the music on them readily accessible.

The original juke box became an object of nostalgia. We think of it as a cultural artifact of the 1950s. Its technology reached a terminal point, but its image was symbolically preserved.  John Lennon’s jukebox became an item of great interest. Through it we gain an understanding of his formative influences, his taste and what music moved him. Curiosity about the contents of Lennon’s jukebox is the equivalent of today asking about the music loaded on the iPod of a public figure. We make a game of interpreting the tea leaves of the playlists.

While the word “juke” has dropped away, the iPod has become our equivalent of the juke box. The social aspect of the juke joint has been submerged almost entirely. The iPod is a personal jukebox, loaded with only the music I like. The exposing and networking of playlists begins to recover some of the social aspects of the juke box, but none of the real-time interactivity of the juke joint.

The juke joint, the barrelhouse and the midnight ramble all had the quality of providing a refuge for disorder within the forces of order. Their location was the crossroads at the edge of town. The Network has the same relationship to space as television. Every point of interface is one click away. The edge of town can very easily become the focal point of a family’s living room. While the Network provides the basis for the retrieval of a real-time interaction with the musician, we still don’t understand how to manage the “juke” that might appear at any moment.

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