Personal Collection or Archive?: A Closer Look at What Defines a Library

archive

I was recently contacted by Dan Gravell, founder and programmer of the server-based music management software, bliss. Bliss received praise from Andrew Everard of What Hi-Fi and their official website calls it a tool “for people who care about their music collection.” Dan posed several questions about my library, and about what differentiates an average personal music collection from a true archive. He suggested that my response might prove useful as a journal entry at Innerspace Labs, so I’m sharing my response for others who might ask the same questions about their own meticulous collections.

So let’s dive right in –

Regarding the difference between run-of-the-mill “playable” music libraries and what one might call an “archive,” there are a few primary factors which could differentiate the two. The first is one of practical function and intent. If a library is for personal use for playback alone it is most likely the former, whereas a consciously organized collection of significant size and scope which is representative of a particular period or culture and which sheds contextual light on that era might serve a greater, almost scholarly purpose as an archive. Uniformity of structure, organization, navigability, and accompanying supplemental metadata enhance a library such as this to greater usefulness than mere playback. And it appears that it is precisely this focus on consistency by which Dan has endeavored to empower users like me with his bliss project. Another important factor is the long-term sustainability of an archive, which I’ll touch upon momentarily.

Next Dan asked whether my source media is exclusively physical. My collection comprises only a few thousand LPs, with a significant focus on the history of electronic sound. This spans the gamut from early notable works of musique concrète to the Moog synthesizer novelty craze, all the way through the international movement of ambient electronic music. I’ve also a predilection for archival box sets, like the Voyager Golden Record 40th Anniversary set with companion hardcover book and the special release from The John Cage Trust, as well as the previously unreleased collection of Brian Eno’s installation music issued earlier this year on vinyl with a new essay by Eno. But the bulk of my library is digital. This is both for practical and financial reasons, as digital libraries are far easier to maintain. (I don’t blog about digital nearly as often, as 450,000 media files are nowhere near as fascinating as a handsome limited edition LP!)

Dan also inquired about my workflow, which is critical to any archive. Early on in the development of my library, (around 2002-3), I began ripping LPs with the following process:

Exclusive analog recordings are captured using a Denon DP-60L rosewood TT with an Ortofon 2M Red cart, powered by a McIntosh amplifier (later replaced with a vintage Yamaha unit), and are saved as lossless FLAC via an entry level Behringer U-Control UCA202 DAC. I previously utilized a Cambridge Audio DacMagic DAC but after it failed I opted for the Behringer and it has been more than sufficient for my needs. Audio is captured using Audacity on my Linux-based DAW and basic leveling and noise reduction are performed but I minimize post-processing to maintain as much of the original audio’s integrity as possible.

Dan specifically inquired as to where the library information was stored (barcodes, etc) and asked about my policies on which metadata are included. This is fairly straightforward, as nearly all of the vinyl recordings I ripped pre-date the use of barcodes or were limited private releases with only a catalog number, which I bracket as a suffix in the release folder path.

Polybagged LPs are stored vertically and organized by primary genre, then by artist, then chronologically by date of issue. Due to the entropic property of vinyl playback, discs are played once as needed to capture the recording and subsequent playback is performed using the digital files. I employed a dozen static local DB applications over the years for my records, but eventually migrated to a Discogs DB which increases accessibility while crate digging in the wild and provides real-time market value assessment for insurance purposes.

But honestly, I almost never need to perform the rip myself, as the filesharing ecosystem has refined itself to the point where even the most exclusive titles are available through these networks in lossless archival FLAC with complete release details. There has never been a better time to be alive as an audio archivist.

Once digitized to FLAC, my assets are organized with uniform file naming conventions with record label and artist parent folders and parenthetical date of issue prefixes for easy navigation. gMusicBrowser is my ideal playback software for accessing large libraries in a Linux environment. Release date and catalog numbers have been sufficient metadata identifiers, as subsequent release details are only a click or a tap away on Discogs. Occasionally I will include a contextual write-up in the release folder where warranted, like in the case of William Basinski’s The Disintegration Loops 9LP + 5CD + DVD set as it related to the events of 9/11.

Next Dan inquired about how my archive is accessed. I employ Sindre Mehus’ Subsonic personal server application on my Linux DAW to make all of my audio and music video film content accessible from my phone, tablet, or any web-enabled device. I use both the official Subsonic app and the independently-developed Ultrasonic fork by Óscar García Amor for remote access of my library, (about eight hours daily). You can see a short video walkthrough of the features of the app that I put together here:

To return to his initial question about what differentiates a playback collection from an archive, my own library incorporates a few key factors which might lend itself to the latter:

– lossless bit-perfect FLAC wherever possible
– index documentation
– a systematic process guide for new acquisitions
– a 76pp manual highlighting special collections and large libraries of the Collection
– disk mirroring in multiple physical locations for preservation and sustainability
– fire protection for further indestructibility
– routine disk operation tests to mitigate risk of data loss
– complete discographic record label chronologies suffixed with catalog numbers
– elementary data visualizations created using Gephi and Prezi web-based tools
– the use of TrueCrypt whole disk encryption to prevent unauthorized access
– and the active use of Subsonic and Ultrasonic for enhanced accessibility

And scale is another noteworthy factor in my circumstances. Just to cite one example, I’ve collected every LP and single issued by the electronic duo Underworld that I’ve been able to get my hands on, and the digital audio branch of my Underworld collection comprises 482 albums, EPs and singles, including 2850 tracks and DJ sessions totaling well over 385 hours of non-stop music, spanning 36 years of Karl Hyde and Rick Smith’s work in all of their many incarnations. This collection is uniformly tagged, organized into a network of categorical root folders, and substructured into chronological subfolders by date of release. And the complete record label collections are a definite differentiator from the majority of casual-listening libraries.

I understand that my archive is small compared to the 12-20 TB libraries of some more seasoned users, but I feel that discretion and selectivity are virtues of my personal collection so that I can focus on only the most exquisite and remarkable recordings of my principle genre foci.

So what about your own collections? Do you employ standardized uniform file naming conventions and organizational standards? Do you supplement your library with relevant documentation to add context to your media? Does your collection offer insight into a particular era or musical culture? And do you take measures to ensure the longevity and sustainability of the work? If so… you might just have an archive.

Supplemental Note:

A good friend was kind enough to offer his thoughts about what sets an archive apart from other collections, and his remark was too good not to share. He said –

I think another major difference between the average personal collection and an archive is retention and adaptation.

A casual listener or collector wouldn’t have the retention of a true archive. The individual may build some playlists or even some advanced structure for locating and listening to music, but there is a very good chance that after some time, that particular music will get buried by the newer, or the most current thing the user is listening to. The casual listener may not want the huge or growing library, so when they feel they have moved on, the music will be removed from their collection. I cannot see someone who is keeping an archive remove anything from their collection. So retaining the entire collection and not removing anything because they are bored with it would be a difference.

I also mentioned adaptation. This is a rather basic idea but would be rather important in the grand scheme of things. Lets say you have a collection of 100 songs, all with 4 points of meta data. You realize as you begin to add more songs to your collection, a 5th point of data is needed. A casual listener may leave those 100 songs in the current state they’re in, with the 4 points of data. The archivist would need to go back, and add that 5th point to all 100 songs, and the new ones. Add another zero to those numbers and that can be a daunting, but necessary task for the archivist.

I really appreciated his input!

Will Pop Eat Itself? – A Contextual Examination of The Golden Age of Sample Culture

Every once in a while, a book finds its reader, in a strange and inexplicable fashion. I happened upon Will Pop Eat Itself? while visiting a massive three-story used bookshop in Niagara Falls with a friend. I wandered to the basement after requesting the lights be switched on by the proprietor, and quickly found myself in the music section where the title practically leapt off the shelf insisting that I pick it up.

A quick scan of the back cover seized my attention as The KLF were mentioned repeatedly, and leafing through the pages I beheld countless references to their work. And no fewer than three paragraphs into the first chapter I found the author drawing comparative parallels between postmodern music and Finnegans Wake. I absolutely needed this book in my life. I read it voraciously in the days ahead, pacing myself to take careful notes.

What made my discovery particularly serendipitous was that I was at the very same time exploring other historical examinations of sample culture, most notably Benjamin Franzen’s 2009 documentary film, Copyright Criminals which tells the story of the golden age of sampling – precisely the period about which the book was written.

Jeremy J Beadle - Will Pop Eat Itself

In the introduction, Beadle states that “If you really want to know what’s going on in a society look at its popular culture” and that pop had invariably always been eating itself. He cites Elvis’ covers of other musicians and how “Rock Around the Clock” was just a rework of the earlier hit “Shake Rattle & Roll” as early examples. Beadle presents one of his main points here:

‘Pop’ as we understand it was – whether you date it from Haley, Presley or some other more recondite marker of your own devising – born around 1955 or 1956, and reached a point where it seemed exhausted about thirty years later. The digital sampler proved the ideal tool for pop to take itself apart, thus arriving at modernism and postmodernism simultaneously.

He asks, “is there any future in this autocannibalism? Or is this idea that pop will eat itself a much older one than we realize?”

1. Things Fall Apart

The first chapter wastes no time in diving into the history of artistic self-consumption. Finnegans Wake is offered as an early example of how popular culture can be enlightening and how every artefact somehow reeks of the period of its creation. Other significant works cited include the cultural escapism of Gone With the Wind and The Sound of Music.

Beadle begins to examine the temporal nature of cultural phenomena, describing the disintegration of cultural hegemony – the Soviet Union lasting fewer than 75 years and America’s economy being mortgaged to the Chinese. He notes how the sixteenth century established forms of tonality were rejected by the composers of the Second Viennese School and explores medieval allegorical writings segueing to staples of modernist literature to contextualize the evolution of the arts. Henry James’ In the Cage and The Golden Bowl, Eliot’s The Waste Land, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Joyce’s Ulysses are visited to frame the deconstruction of literary tradition and cultural ideals.

And with the birth of the gramophone record, the teenager, disposable income, and the consumer came the concept of the pop star. Beadle explains:

The pop-star business was the child of two particularly twentieth-century phenomena – the technology of recording and mass marketing.

And succinctly describes the dilemma of pop thusly:

Pop music is after all a necessarily limited form – a simple, memorable melody, which requires a relatively simple tonality and series of tonal relations, usually over a regular four-in-a-bar beat. There is only a limited number of permutations through which these basic requirements can be met. And when forms are exhausted the tendency is to turn inwards.

Beadle closes the chapter demonstrating that, with the advent of the sampler, pop music endeavored to rip it all up and start again, just like The Waste Land, Schoenberg, and cubism – examples he explores in greater depth in subsequent chapters.

2. Bricks in the Wall of Sound

The second chapter explores milestone events which shaped the nature and influence of the gramophone record. At the outset Beadle explains that the sampler empowered the producer to emerge as the artist themselves and cites several pivotal moments of recording history. The first example he offers is Caruso’s 1902 performance of ‘Veste la giubba’ where the recording offered listeners the closest thing to the real experience of a live performance. He goes on to describe Walter Legge’s notorious recording of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – likely the first known example of ‘dishonest dubbing’ wherein the voice of Legge’s wife was substituted for the credited performer in order to hit the highest notes of the piece. And with Culshaw’s recording of Wagner’s Ring Cycle for Decca, Beadle explains, the studio became an art form itself rather than merely a tool, as studio effects rendered a produced recording arguably superior to that of the concert hall experience. The production wizardry of Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, and George Martin are discussed, as well as Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland, (each of Motown fame) and a host of others.

3. Stars on 45

Pressing on through history, Beadle describes how punk briefly revitalized the concept of the single in the uncertain marketability of the post-Beatle age. Anti-racist sentiment helped usher in the reggae revival and the rise of ska with 2-Tone Records. The Jam similarly spearheaded the mod revival.

The chapter explores the Stars session musician medley phenomena in parallel to the birth of the political soundbite era of Margaret Thatcher, before moving onto the image-focused pop icons of Michael Jackson and Madonna. He closes with a summary of other aspects of the mid-80s musical landscape, from Christmas novelties to dance pop, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Wham!, and the academic wave of British art-school neo-minimalists.

4. Scratching Where It Itches examines the emergence of the scratch-mixing DJ, the birth of rap, and Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s visionary sampladelic work as The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu. A brief history of black music is chronicled, from early spirituals to jazz to blues, then onto reggae and ‘toasting’, funk, and eventually to DJ and rap culture.

5. Kick Out the JAMs dives into the anti-song anti-instrument philosophy of Drummond and Cauty’s first album, 1987 (What the Fuck Is Going On?). Their outright cynicism and straightforward purloining of other artists’ work was a direct challenge to copyright and Beadle notes that “for all its cynicism about much contemporary pop music and public attitudes, [was] a deeply serious social and political statement.” Only 500 copies of their debut single, “All You Need is Love” were produced, and all were court ordered to be seized and destroyed elevating the cult iconic status of the duo. The chapter analyzes the raw and subversive nature of The JAMs’ 1987 and gives the record the detailed examination warranted by such a surreally iconic moment in contemporary music history. Beadle observes, “The point about this chaotic collage – chaotic in the sense that no apparently consistent frame of reference is maintained – is precisely that the listener is left without an objective correlative.” The epitome of postmodernism.

6. Hitting the High-tech Groove (Not Entirely Legally) provides a history of the sampler and examples of its execution from the author’s own experience in the studio. Beadle touches upon “The Singing Dogs (Medley)” novelty recordings, early synths, the Mellotron, and the Fairlight before describing the studio production process of his own experiments using an Apple Macintosh and an Akai S100 sampler with an 8MB board for the sample bank. (This was, after all, 1990.) It’s amazing to reflect on what was achieved with such minimal computing power at the dawn of the digital age.

7. Pump Up the Volume considers the single of the same name that Beadle argues marked pop music’s advance into modernism. He parallels its revolutionary impact to that of Schoenberg’s aforementioned chromaticism and to Picasso’s post-impressionist creations in that each of these artists purified their respective artistic landscape by reducing visual and auditory objects to their constituent elemental parts, abandoning conventions, and starting anew. Beadle critically examines the studio perfection and the artistic merit of this watershed recording. He concludes the chapter posing questions to the reader about the artistic merit of sampling, noting that any critic claiming that samplers merely reuse prior materials would have to say the same of Eliot’s The Wasteland or Joyce’s Ulysses, and that the very same could be said of Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Mahler, Beckett, and countless others.

The remaining chapters further contextualize the then-emerging story of sampling. 8. Dirty Cash outlines the flood of sampler cash-in records that followed the release of “Pump Up the Volume.” 9. Mix-omatosis examines the decline of the pop single around 1989 and the nostalgia-soaked commercialism of the era’s advertising, and the hollowness of the Jive Bunny phenomenon. 10. And The Law Won (But the Jury is Still Out) presents several examples of sampled music in the courtroom, including the Biz Markie case and the DNA remix of “Tom’s Diner.” But it is the book’s finale which properly and most thoroughly addresses the question of the title.

The final chapter, 11. Justifiable or Just Ancient? is a fantastically analytical framing of The KLF’s later catalog. Here Beadle approaches the exhaustive and intricate cultural contextualization later perfected by John Higgs in his book, The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds. Beadle notes that “As The KLF they have managed to create a myth which is self-propagating, self-sufficient, self-consuming, and self-referencing,” which is precisely what makes the duo’s zenarchistic career so fascinating to critique and to curate.

Beadle concludes touching upon other artists who at the time were employing the sampler more as a natural production tool than a novelty and appropriately discusses the gritty, anti-consumerist recordings of the band Pop Will Eat Itself. He surmises that the sampler will find greater acceptance into the rock ethos in the years ahead and closes the text re-examining the question of the book’s title. Beadle successfully reinforces the twin points of his primary theme – that the sampler is a viable tool for composition, and that pop inevitably MUST eat itself by its very nature. Thus, Beadle demonstrates that the sampler is the most important creative innovation of the postmodern age and a principal figure in the future of music.

Will Pop Eat Itself? stands as a fitting historical document of the events and philosophies of the golden age of sampling, and is a wonderful addition to The Innerspace Labs’ library.

Sonemic: A Powerful New Tool for Music Discovery

Many listeners have voiced a shared concern that the algorithms and predictive technology for music recommendation from services like Spotify and Pandora fail to match the sort of intuitive wisdom held by record shop gurus and librarians predating the digital revolution. What these algorithms lack is the human element – the chaos factor which leads an individual to suggest a recording not quantifiably parallel to one’s previous listening habits, but which still has a quality which would lend itself to the listener’s favor. Engineering that visceral comprehension into a recommendation engine has been one of the most insurmountable challenges of the digital age.

That is precisely what has made communities like RateYourMusic.com an incredible asset to those in search of music beyond the well-tread path of popular song. The community-built database and forum features user-generated lists, listener reviews, and a powerful search function to drill down to impressively nuanced metrics to yield charts based on a wide range of criteria.



RYM launched in December of 2000, and has since outgrown its name and its site design. To enhance the user experience, a new public beta site was launched in the last week of July, 2017 at Sonemic.com boasting a sleeker, more modern design and greater functionality.

The term Sonemic, (rhymes with phonemic), comes from an interview with Brian Eno, in which he suggested that the word “music” was too limited in scope, and suggested the term “sonema” to refer to the broader sense of “sonic immersion and environment”. All RYM user data was migrated to the new network, but the FAQ notes that no new content will be saved to Sonemic until the official launch.


The network seamlessly integrates three separate sites – Sonemic for music, Cinemos (an anagram of Sonemic) for film, and Glitchwave for video games. There will also be a Sonemic+ subscription option with extra features to be announced. Logging in on one site will log you into all three, and site settings, messages, etc will be unified.


The search functions of the site are impressive though results vary as it is still in development. When building a custom chart users are presented with numerous options. Chart type can be best, most popular, esoteric, or worst. Charts can rank by either releases or by individual tracks. Release types include albums, EPs, and singles as well as mixtapes, DJ mixes, video, compilation, and even unauthorized recordings. And the site will generate playlists on the fly.



Further functions permit a user to generate charts by genre, subgenre, influences (secondary genres), languages, and what is perhaps the greatest differentiator – descriptors. Here users can enter incredibly specific properties which unify otherwise disparate recordings based on a theme, such as aleatory, boastful, cinematic, dense, ethereal, hedonistic, introspective, lonely, misanthropic, nocturnal, quirky, raw, ritualistic, surreal, uncommon time signatures, or winter.


By selecting genres, influences, date ranges, and descriptors to include or exclude, Sonemic can return results you might never find from a commercial streaming service. There is even a 5-degree slider to control the influence of popularity on the results. You can also search for recordings based on reviews of a particular community member or of a given geographic area. Together, these functions empower users to discover music far more dimensionally and has the potential to shed light on works which transcend the simplicity of genre labels.


This will definitely be a community to watch in 2018.


The Innerspace Labs Essential Recordings Guide

Another successful project implementation at Innerspace Labs!

For the last year, I’d been keeping a list of music to listen to in a checklist app, but the scope of the project quick outgrew the checklist format, so I reconstructed it as an organic digital music journal that can grow with my listening habits.

The initial process guide built from my notes comprises 76 pages of content, organized into 50+ sections with decimal numbered subsections. The journal also includes genre surveys, links to web resources, articles and reviews, and much, much more.
It will be fun to build and explore, will promote new and rewarding listening experiences, and will serve as a historical document of my musical journey. Perhaps it can even survive me as part of my legacy to help future listeners explore the world of music I leave to them when I’m gone.

That legacy factor developed into a second project which I’ve just completed this evening. While my blog and the journal will outlast me and serve well for any curious future listener looking to discover great music, I felt it would help to have something more digestible and more concise to introduce new readers to my archive.

That’s when I had the idea of generating a user list on RateYourMusic.com to showcase favorite recordings from my library with very brief statements about each work. Tonight, the resulting list is live on RYM.

Check it out here!

Screenshot from 2017-11-21 20-12-46

 

Published in: on November 21, 2017 at 8:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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On the Merits and Caveats of Audio Formats and the Misconstrued Myths of Inferiority

 

SliderSliders on TL Audio VTC (1), Metway Studios by Jeremy Keith is licensed under CC BY 2.0

As audio formats have risen and fallen from favor, there have always been a segment of audiophiles there to fly the flag of their favorite format and to shun the supposed failures of those they oppose.

Truly, each format has its respective merits and caveats. The choice of one format over another is mostly preferential based upon one’s circumstances. The favor for portable digital formats is most often made for convenience, and those listening from their mobile devices while commuting are seldom concerned about the quality of the device’s internal DAC or of the lossy compression which leads other audiophiles to write their congresspersons in fits of anger and audio activism. Pragmatically speaking, (respectable fringe circumstances aside), portable listening environments, given the significant white noise and distraction of passersby, reduce the need for performative excellence in audio signal reproduction as much of the nuanced perfections of a given recording are lost in the chaotic shuffle of human transport.

CDs are a sufficient marriage of quality and convenience for many listeners. They lend an optimum sound quality for properly-mastered and mixed recordings, are a widely-supported format, and can readily be converted to lossless EAC or lossy MP3 for added portability.  They suffer the usual limitations of physical media – entropic decay, limited capacity forcing albums to restrict runtime, and jewel case hinges which are frustratingly breakable. Title availability is often limited to commercially-viable recordings, which may or may not be an issue depending on your genres of interest.

There appears to be a curious consensus that the many of the earliest discs (roughly 1981-1989) are inferior in their sound quality. Listeners often complain that these discs sound “tinny”, “bright”, or “thin”. However, a quick search reveals intriguing opposing views, suggesting that the supposed poor sound quality of early discs may be a myth after all. It is important not to mistake earlier, quietly-mastered CDs as inferior. Podunk from the quartertothree forum offers the following:

“…mastering techniques have changed a lot since the 80’s and early 90’s. The most significant change is the tendency of mastering engineers to apply a lot of compression or hard limiting to final mix, which greatly decreases the dynamic range of a recording but makes it sound really loud and punchy. Recordings from even the early 90’s sound much quieter than modern recordings because of this practice. The advantage to that kind of aggressive compression is that our ears initially percieve loud recordings as sounding generally better, bassier, punchier, etc. Also, a loud recording will reveal fewer of the weaknesses of a cheap cd player/receiver/etc, because you don’t have to turn it up until you start to hear the background noise from your system. The disadvantage to that sort of mastering is that listening to a recording with very little dynamic range is fatiguing, but at first blush, that is probably the #1 reason that a new CD would sound better than an old one: at the same volume level, a new one will sound much louder and punchier.”

Ethan Winer of Music Player Network agrees, stating that some early CDs were poor due to improper mastering, but that these are the exception rather than the norm. During the early days of CDs some engineers directly used …”master tapes meant for vinyl records, with treble added to counter the known high-frequency loss of LPs.” Alan Cross published an article on 10 of the Worst-Sounding CDs of All Time, which includes the terribly hissy My Aim is True by Elvis Costello. But you’ll find that each of the early albums on his list is an example of shoddy production work at the hands of the studio and not limitations of the format or its technology.

Another factor to consider is that early 80s music itself is characteristically bright and tinny, further contributing to the perceived poor sound quality in comparison to post-loudness-war era recordings. Personally, I delight in the sound of early synth-pop albums and their characteristic brightness, and if I elect I can simply adjust the equalization to taste – far better than having to deal with the over-compressed dialed-up-to-eleven victims of the loudness war!

Cassettes rival other formats in two primary regards – their portability, and more importantly, the participatory factor of the mixtape – a cultural phenomenon which permitted the listener to contextualize and identify with their music and to share it with others. Music became far more socially interactive with the birth of the cassette. This also created an environment for DIY home recorded genres like punk and were critical to the development of independent music.  This, of course, continued with the democratization of CD burning technologies some years later.

Even as a devout record collector, it is important to state that the format’s allure is largely fetishist and a placebo effect. Young listeners born in the era of digital music enjoy discovering the retro format as it provides a tactile and real-time listening experience and it gives a (literally) substantial value to music they would otherwise perceive as common, elemental, and as plentiful as air and water. Gatefold artwork is often breathtaking and elegant. Sound quality is dependent on a combination of the source audio, the mastering process, the condition of the disc, and the playback equipment utilized. To various degrees of impact, the selection of tables, tonearms, cartridges, interconnects, preamps, power amps, and speakers each play a role in the resulting sound. However, the nostalgic “warmth” described by many vinyl lovers is simply a distortive property of the medium – a characteristic of playback altering the true audio signal of the artist, producer, and engineer, just as the crackles and pops of a well-worn and well-loved LP add a vitality and character to the music representing its history as a badge of honor, like the scratches and scars on the face of a dedicated soldier.

One important additional characteristic of the vinyl format is that there are tens of thousands of titles issued on LP which will never be made commercially available in a digital format. Thankfully, listeners have risen to this challenge and through online music journals and sites like Archive.org, have come together to digitize worlds of music which would never see the light of day without their efforts. In fact, the very same has been happening in the cassette community, both in the audio and video realms.

MP3 offers the convenience of compression and shareability and was the first widely successful non-physical format. They offered the same flexibility as mix tapes with the added bonus of storage tens of thousands of tracks on a small drive, plus the post-scarcity economic quality of being infinitely replicable at no cost to the user. There was a brief “dark age” of digital music in the early days of Napster with no bitrate standard and file exchange systems based on tracks instead of albums or discographic archives of artists or record labels, but this quickly passed as technology progressed to appease more discerning listeners who demanded standardization of formatting and v0 compression.

Still, some listeners prefer archival quality audio and have no use for single-track exchange networks. This is where archival lossless digital audio factors in. Private FLAC-based trackers offer an incredible value to users with meticulously-structured and uniformly-extracted FLAC+.CUE + .log packages for all available libraries. Complete discographic archives are instantly accessible whether showcasing a single artist or composer or an entire record label or musical theme. Finally, a format had arrived which offered a truly contextual listening experience, complete with catalog numbers and uniform metadata for well-organized archival libraries and with enhanced accessibility.

Best of all, these communities offer vastly larger libraries of content than commercial channels which focus only on licensed recordings. FLAC communities offer artist demos, developmental works in progress, live performances (whether sourced from soundboard or field), and an array of other non-commercial recordings not available to the public at any price.

Streaming services have grown incredibly popular of late, given their convenience and accessibility, though more discerning listeners collectively deride the technology as being painfully inadequate for their own listening needs. The disdain is three-fold.  Firstly, the services are limited to commercial recordings for which they can secure licensing, which instantly reduces the available catalog to a tiny fraction of the world of recorded music. Secondly, inferior lossy compression rates have turned many off from using these services.  Finally and perhaps most importantly, there is the principle behind the service’s greatest flaw – namely that listeners never own any of the music they hear on these services. There have already been instances of titles being remotely deleted from user libraries, hinting at the dangerous potential for media censorship at the hands of the content distributor. The EFF and other open culture organizations caution consumers that collectively relinquishing ownership of creative works is incredibly dangerous for a society.  Fortunately, a percentage of listeners still hold fast to the concept of personal libraries and elect to retain the public’s control of our art.

What is to come of these formats in the years ahead?  Vinyl will retain an audience of collectors who desire a tangible connection to their music and a lust for magnificent artwork. CDs will experience a nostalgic retro-renaissance as all things do approximately 20 years after their era. Cassette culture is already on the rise, albeit a niche, (though the same was said about vinyl just a few years ago). Each format excels in areas which appeal to their respective fan base. It will be interesting to see what transpires with non-physical digital audio. As storage cost continues to plummet, we’ve reached a threshold where compression and storage are non-issues. And as accessibility (in both legal and non-legal forms) continues to become refined and democratized, we may approach a day where every user can possess a personal copy of the Library of Congress, readily accessible for their perusal, research, and literacy. As open culture explains, this has the potential to usher in a new age of artistic enlightenment.

I hope I’m around to see that day.

 

Published in: on July 16, 2016 at 1:51 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Rise of the Collective Market

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Over the course of the last decade, we have seen a significant transition of power – the stranglehold of the market loosening from the hand of the corporate gatekeepers as they are largely replaced by more efficient systems built by the citizens of the internet.

These markets crowd-source the knowledge of community members who are proficient in a particular field of interest, who develop databases, forums for discussion, and flat-hierarchal markets in which to distribute goods far more effectively than by previous corporate models.

For example; Abebooks and Alibris each do a magnificent job of empowering consumers and booksellers alike, by creating an easily navigable flat structure marketplace where bookshops large and small can offer their titles to a global community without any additional overhead.  This creates a buyer’s market where millions of titles are available at impressively low prices.

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Discogs is another successful user-supported market.  The site’s users construct and maintain a detailed database and thriving marketplace of millions of music titles ranging from Billboard chart toppers to incredibly rare test pressings.  By adhering to a core, (and greatly facilitated) organizational structure of data submission, the site is able to crowd-source a vast and well-organized database.  The site also automates personal collection appraisals based on market history, right down to the condition of each item.  The site even offers catalog submissions via UPC scanning to make library building a snap.  And its marketplace is empowering for record sellers great and small as well as for music consumers the world over.  Like other online markets, there are significant cycles of inflation, but regulation likewise occurs naturally.

Discogs.Logo

Etsy offers a market for artisanal creative projects.  And Audiogon is a community to help educate users about pro audio gear with both a forum and a trade-and-sell market of its own.  For every need that arises, knowledgeable users in the community establish a market specializing in that service.  This is a core tenant of the cooperative nature of the internet community.

Audiogon.jpg

As with any eBusiness construct, several key advantages separate these ideal virtual markets from the antiquated corporate retail brick-and-mortar chain stores which came before them.  Firstly, their operating overhead is minimal to non-existent, whereas physical stores must constantly grapple with expenses like construction, maintenance, electricity and heat, staffing expenses, and insurance.  And the physical limitations of a building cripple a store front’s merchandise selection which is often restricted further by the distributors with which the corporation has aligned itself.

Target.Colgate Toothpaste Screenshot

By stark contrast, online markets shed all of the restrictions of physical space.  Most of these markets are user-supported so little staffing is required, and buyers can purchase any of millions of available products from other users anywhere in the world without corporate loyalty to a particular supplier.

These independent markets are far superior to their predecessors in every way, disseminating operating expenses and rendering the monopolistic behemoths obsolete and irrelevant.  And as digital media rises to overtake the physical goods market, this obsolescence will only exponentially increase.

We are witnessing the end of the gatekeeper era.  The Net has given rise to a new and better model of distribution –  marketplaces which empower buyers and sellers alike.  These markets, built upon fundamental automation structures and cooperative operation far more effectively serve the interests of the community.

As John Perry Barlow famously declared in his Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace to the governments of the world:

Cyberspace does not lie within your borders.  Do not think that you can build it, as though it were a public construction project.  You cannot.  It is an act of nature and it grows itself through our collective actions…

You have not engaged in our great and gathering conversation, nor did you create the wealth of our marketplaces…

You are trying to ward off the virus of liberty by erecting guard posts at the frontiers of Cyberspace.  These may keep out the contagion for a small time, but they will not work in a world that will soon be blanketed in bit-bearing media.

The century-long corporate dominance of our marketplaces is at its end.  Together we have built something better which works for all of us.

We have won.

2016: A Music Odyssey – DISCOVERY ONE: Explorations of the Innerspace Archives

I had a nice afternoon to myself today so I got comfortable in bed with great tunes on the Hi-Fi and started revisiting my copy of Simon Reynolds’ RETROMANIA: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past.
 
I was grabbed, yet again by a chapter on collector culture, addressing vinyl fetishism, and the impact of the internet on collectability. Reynolds explored the psyche of the collector. First, how collectors identify themselves as somehow more noble than common mall zombies in that they are discerning and well-informed consumers. Their collections serve not their own interest, but act as professional research material to enrich their understanding of music history.
 
Then comes the pivotal moment when the collector realizes his/her collection may have exceeded the actual capacity they have to consume it in their limited life time. “Those potential pleasures stacked on the shelf stop representing delight and start to feel like harbingers of death,” Reynolds writes.
 
He goes on to identify the collectors’ need for constant craving, and that the one elusive missing album is always the most important, (until it is inevitably replaced with the next of holy grails).  This sort of niche activity was a fringe interest for decades, but at the turn of the millennium advancements in distribution technology made budding collectors of us all.
 
Still, a burn-out was inevitable at this rapid pace, and it came with the iPod. The chapter addressed the digital hording that takes place for so many users who discover that they can have all the world’s music for free, and the failure of such a model to satisfy the psychological anxieties previously fulfilled by the physical incarnation of collector culture.
 
The little white box, Reynolds notes, is a remarkably anti-social device. No matter how much music you pack into it, there is no personal memory attached to newly-acquired recordings. And earbuds isolate your musical experience, shutting out a world of potential participants.
 
And with no investment attached, the music is stripped of any potential significance. Hundreds of thousands of tracks might sit dormant on a player, unlistened or deleted entirely, with little to no consequence to the consumer.
 
Perhaps that very burn-out – the inconsequence of the music I compile has led me to start investing in exceptional works, like the several limited edition deluxe box sets I’ve ordered in the past month. After throwing a hundred dollars at a special collection, you’re damn right I’m going to set aside some time and actually LISTEN to the thing.
 
By the chapter’s end, I found myself back in my office taking notes on large collections I’d compiled but never explored after the initial acquisition. Given my own hording tendencies and the looming mortality such a collection bears, I made a personal resolution  this afternoon to set aside dedicated listening sessions with a checklist of works to survey in the weeks ahead.
 
It would be like “the old days” when I’d saved up $16 for a CD and played that one disc a hundred times until I knew every note by heart.
 
I’m reclaiming my music.
dis1_jp
Published in: on March 13, 2016 at 4:54 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Is anyone else getting rid of their physical media altogether?

Now that I’ve purchased my first home, it seems a great time to shed some dead weight from my material possessions. My top 3000 LPs will stay – I’ve got them neatly shelved and organized in my office. I enjoy the ritual of interacting with the medium and nothing beats gatefold artwork. But everything else – cassettes, VHS, CDs, and DVDs, all seemed pointless to keep anymore.

Today I boxed up hundreds of CDs and traded them at a local Disc Exchange for 25 cents each. The cash I made was well worth the space it freed up on my bookshelves for music literature. (Most of the reference texts I enjoy I much prefer to read in a physical format than as an ebook.)

Of my ~750 CDs I kept only a handful from artists who really shaped my listening in the 90s. I kept several 20-bit remasters of classic jazz LPs and several debut singles like Reznor’s HALO 1 Down in It, Manson’s Get Your Gunn single and the Live at the Snakepit bootleg, and the 1989 Caroline Records debut single by White Zombie, Make Them Die Slowly. But other than a handful of cassette and CD promos, it really seemed time to let the rest go.

Honestly they will function more as interesting artifacts and conversation pieces rather than as a medium for audio/video playback.

I also spotted a large box of my fiance’s home-taped VHS tapes today. I offered to have her top 5 tapes converted to AVI and the rest we can dump.

Still, I confess – I’m keeping bargain bin VHS copies of cult classics including Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, YOG: Monster From Space, and the Pee-Wee Christmas Special… this is the shit I’m going to force my grandkids to watch someday.

So what about the rest of you digitally-savvy ladies and gents? Do you still hold onto physical media?

Published in: on October 10, 2015 at 9:46 pm  Comments (2)  
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The End of Scrobbling – A Farewell to Last.fm

Digital music has been a fascination of mine since the turn of the millennium.  Audioscrobbler came into being in 2002 while I was in college, and the thought of sharing my listening with a global network of musical peers was exhilarating.

Audioscrobbler merged with Last.fm in 2005, taking the social element of music to a whole new level.  There were forums to discuss listening trends, metadata analysis and recommendation engines… all while independent blogging exploded onto the scene in a flood of obscure music fetishism.

audioscrobbler

In the years since I admittedly lost touch with the service and dropped off the scrobbling radar to focus on personal relationships, collecting unscrobbleable LPs, and developing my career.  As the summer of 2015 came to a close my life was settling up nicely – I left Windows for Linux, I have a fiance, a fantastic career, and I’ve just purchased my first home.

With these stations of life secure, my mind returned to the world of scrobbling and the possibilities of merging big data and my own hyper-specific musical tastes.  I developed a ~500 day plan to scrobble every track from my library 24 hours a day for over a year to submit every title toward Last.fm’s recommendation engine.  Surely a library of over 110,000 tracks would produce some intriguing results!

But this evening, I logged into Last.fm and looked around to find that the site has retired all of its original functions.  The social forums are closed.  The “neighborhood” of your peers is now inaccessible.  The homepage offers only a most-popular-globally-this-week roster plastered with “Uptown Funk” and other predictable tracks.

last.fm top artists

The Wikipedia spelled out what I’d missed – CBS had acquired Last.fm for £140 million in 2009.  Wasting no time, in February of that year the service handed listener data over to the RIAA over concerns about a then-unreleased U2 album.  By 2010 the service closed the custom radio feature, (again over licensing issues) and in early 2015 they partnered with Spotify, further crippling the usability of the site.

But the nail in the coffin came in August of this year with their fully-overhauled website.  It received almost universally negative criticism from its users, who cited broken and missing features.

Given the new light of this information, I’m terminating the full-library scrobble project and saying farewell to Last.fm.  Still, I shall not mourn the loss for long.  The social function of digital music has experienced a parallel evolution in the world of private forums and closed groups on social media sites like Facebook.

Terry RIley - Persian Surgery DervishesA magnificent record I discovered thanks to a Facebook Record Community

Every morning I’m greeted with “now-spinning” rare vinyl treasures and independent music reviews which top anything you’d find from a recommendation engine.  One user from South Korea offered nearly 40 daily installments of records from his Tangerine Dream collection, each accompanied by a custom write-up on the featured release.

Private tracker communities, classic bulletin board systems, and other social structures of the web continue to serve as a brilliant resource for musical discovery.  Last.fm served us well during a pivotal time in the age of digital media, and it will be missed, but we’ll carry on.

last.fm

RIP Last.fm
2002 – 2015

Published in: on September 10, 2015 at 9:35 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Last.fm Project

My server is down for maintenance for the next 16 hours.  It was a perfect opportunity to begin my next long term music project.

When Innerspace Labs first switched to the cloud, I used the web-based RacksandTags service through my OrangeCD DB to create an index of all track information from my library.  Collections on the service can be searched by artist, album, or track, but lacks support for 2nd level organization like genre clustering, playlists, and other more valuable data points.

RacksandTags Interface

I later switched to Discogs.com.  Discogs offers real time market value assessment of your collection, but only supports physical media.  I was also disappointed to find that user-generated category foldersare not presently shareable with other users.  
Discogs Interface As I prepared for the downtime last night, I realized that I hadn’t given Last.fm a shot since I wiped my account clean in 2014.  That year I scrobbled 30,000 tracks, but was frustrated that there was no way to submit all my library’s data without playing every track in real time.

My goal was to explore the service’s recommendation engine, and my library data would likely produce some valuable results.

So last night, I went to work.  I quickly realized that the best approach would be to queue all 100,000+ tracks and to scrobble them in order of ascending track duration.  I organized the songs into four pools of nearly equal size.  Below is a map of my library based upon these four classes – less than five minutes, less than ten minutes, less than thirty minutes, and up to 24 hours.

Tracks by Duration

As the largest batch was that of the shortest tracks, there would be the greatest (and fastest) return from scrobbling these first.

I charted the play duration of each of these groupings to see what sort of timetable I’d be looking at for project completion.

Project Duration

Graphing the duration of each grouping clearly demonstrates that this was in fact the best course of action.

Projected Sync Progress

I began scrobbling immediately for the first time in a year.  Once the project is complete I’ll share some of the resulting recommendation data Last.fm provides.  I’m looking forward to it!

Happy Labor Day weekend everyone!