A Great Sound for a Great Gig

Last week I saw Belle & Sebastian at The Roundhouse in London. I can honestly say that it was one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to. First of all it had the factors that all great gigs seem to share:

  • It contained a good mixture of songs from the whole of their career – singles, album tracks, old and new (unlike some people)
  • The band seemed to really be enjoying themselves
  • So did the audience

There were also a couple of surprises thrown in, from audience participation to a rendition of the Ski Sunday theme tune (!), which just added to the fun.

But one of the best things about it was the quality of the sound: it was the second best sounding gig I’ve ever been to (and first place is taken by another Belle & Sebastian gig I went to a few years ago). It was loud, but not so loud that the audio was distorted. It was loud, but not so loud that I left with my ears ringing. It was loud, but not so loud that you couldn’t distinguish the sound of each and every one of the thirteen (!!) people on stage.

I really wish more bands and engineers would take the time and effort to turn it down a little. You may be the world’s greatest lyricist, or a wonderful guitarist, but if your sound is indistinguishable from the rest of the mushy, distorted audio being forced through speakers which have no headroom left, you’re doing both yourself and your audience an injustice.

But huge thanks to B&S for a great gig and great sound. I’ll definitely try to catch you on your next tour.

A few follow-ups

Just a quick follow up on some earlier posts:

• British sci-fi Primeval, which finished with a cliffhanger and was then cancelled, has been brought back from extinction. It may not be the best programme in the world, but there’s little enough home-grown sci-fi as it is, so beggars can’t be choosers.

• In an effort to revitalise the concept of an “album” in a world of individual track downloads, Apple launched their “iTunes LP” format, as I discussed previously. Despite being little more than a zip file with a load of HTML in it, it seems that Apple are using it as a hugely overpriced money making scheme which is only open to the major record labels with deep pockets. Indie labels need not apply (note: in fairness the update from Apple on that page indicates that they will be releasing free and open specs for iTunes LPs “soon” – but with no indication of when “soon” might be. Until the specs are out, I guess the $10,000 price tag still applies)

Edit, 30th November 2009: It looks like “soon” is “now” – I’m glad Apple decided to go down the open-specs route on this one, though I still prefer my idea of a “collection” rather than trying to prop up the outdated concept of “the album”

• Having thoroughly enjoyed Okami on the Wii, and been disappointed that there wouldn’t be a sequel, I was delighted to discover news of Okamiden (and here) on the DS 😀

EDIT: A late addition – it looks like Gnome Zeitgeist might be just the answer to my “honest serving men” question, if and when it reaches fruition. Definitely one to keep an eye on

Putting The Album on life support

I hadn’t planned to write any more about the decline in album sales, but just when I thought I’d put the subject to bed, I stumbled across this article.

The short version of this not-very-long-anyway article is that Apple has apparently partnered with several major music labels in a scheme to push album sales through the inclusion of extra interactive widgets with your download.

Now I don’t mind the addition of extra content, but I fear that this is just another attempt to shore up a dying business model – and probably a thinly disguised attempt to get the serious fans to buy the content they already own all over again. Yes, it will probably increase album sales on iTunes a little – but unless the extras prove to be particularly good value for money, I predict that the upturn will be short lived.

Edit, 29th July 2009: There’s a little bit more information in this Wired article

Edit, 11th August 2009: It’s not just Apple – some of the major labels are launching a rich album format of their own now

Collections: Playlists on steroids

A couple of posts ago I suggested that the agglomeration of audio tracks known as “The Album” is an anachronism in a world where individual tracks can be downloaded at the click of a button. Not wanting to be all cloud and no silver lining, I followed that up with a suggestion that an artists corpus can be sliced and diced in more ways than just the thin sliver of time that usually dictates the content of an album. For convenience I spoke of “collections” of tracks that spanned years or shared a common theme.

So far I’ve talked about collections as though each consists of a bundle of audio tracks – but that’s just the effect that the user sees. Really a collection is nothing more than a list of tracks. The observant amongst you will quickly realise that there’s not much difference between a “collection” and what most audio software refers to as a “playlist”. You’re right, there’s not much difference. But what difference there is, is one of location.

Playlists tend to be local things. You create a playlist of your favourite tracks, or a themed playlist of some sort. Perhaps you share playlists with friends, but ultimately it has to live on your music player to be of any use to you. No matter where it comes from, it ends up being local to your music (which doesn’t necessarily make it local to you – think of playlists on a streaming music site, for example).

A collection, on the other hand, would be a more global thing. It would be understood by your music player – in which case it acts like a playlist (though possibly with extra artwork, links or other media embedded into it). But it would also be understood by iTunes and Amazon – in which case it acts like a suggestion list for your shopping basket. Clicking to buy a particular collection would actually have the effect of buying all the individual tracks – or at least queuing them up to be bought.

We’ve all got tracks which repeat across our music collection. There’s the single version that you bought when it first came out. Then there’s the same track on the album that you bought a little later. Then it cropped up on some compilation album you bought. And the “Best Of…” album. Four copies of the same track, when really you only want one. How about if your music playing software could talk to the MP3 vendor when you try to buy a collection? If you already own some of the tracks in it, you wouldn’t get a second copy of them (and might even get a discount!) – but when using the collection as a playlist the audio software would be sensible enough to insert your original tracks at the right places.

This would only be possible if there was a way to uniquely identify every track, so that your music player knows that you’ve asked for a collection containing “The Power Of Love“, rather than “The Power Of Love” or even “The Power Of Love“. Luckily there’s already such a collection of unique identifiers in existence.

Great! So now we’ve uniquely tagged every song in Amazon and Apple’s catalogue (or any other download vendor of your choice). We can click on a collection and opt to buy it – in which case only the tracks we don’t own already will be downloaded and we’ll be charged for either the tracks we buy or the price that the whole collection has been set at, whichever is the cheaper. Collections could contain extra material for those artists that want to give something extra to their fans – or who just want to include some “sleeve art” with the collection that is their latest album. Is there anything else we can do with a concept of collections?

How about allowing collections to “contain” references to other collections alongside individual track references. A “Complete Collection” purchase could then actually contain not only all the artists tracks, but would automatically download the collections for the individual albums, singles and EPs. Having bought the “Complete Collection” the user already has all the individual tracks, so the extra collections come at no extra cost.

How about letting customers create their own collections? It’s just a playlist of sorts, after all, so why not? Send a collection to your friend, and when they start to play it they’ll be prompted to buy any missing tracks (or substitute them with alternatives – in case they own the radio edit of the album track you included). So while the record companies will be missing out on the opportunity to sell us the same track four times, they’ll be gaining from people broadening their musical horizons as they actively seek out collections that closely – but not exactly – mirror the tracks they own.

How about collections that can be updated in future? These types of collections would be something you subscribe to, rather than download once and never modify again. It would be ideal for those “Complete Collection” downloads – when the artist releases a new track you would automatically be given the chance to download it. Did you buy a collection of love songs? There are a couple of new love songs on the latest album, so you would be prompted to download them if you want to.

Finally, although I’ve mostly talked about collections with reference to individual artists, it should be obvious that a list of unique identifiers doesn’t preclude that list containing tracks from other artists. Cross genre, label and artist collections could be the most interesting of all – and makes a lot more sense of being able to create your own collections or share them with friends. Did you enjoy the mix of music at a party you went to recently? Get the host to send you their collection, tweak it a little, click a button to buy any missing tracks, and you’re all set for your own party.

There’s nothing tricky about the technology needed to do this. MusicBrainz’s identifiers have already dealt with the hard part – the rest is just a case of finding a format that Amazon, Apple, the music companies and everyone else is happy with. Collections offer huge benefits for consumers, vendors, publishers and artists alike. All that’s needed is a little collaboration and cooperation… which means it will probably never happen.

Posted in Music. No Comments »

If not albums, then what?

My previous post posited that ‘If the record industry wants “The Album” to survive … they’re going to have to start thinking a bit more creatively’. Yeah, it’s easy to say that, but how about putting forward some actual ideas?

First of all, I don’t think the album is going to go away any time soon. So long as there’s still sufficient profit to be made from people buying pressed CDs, the record companies will keep churning them out. Note the word “sufficient” – it’s not enough to simply make a profit on each CD, they also need to make enough to cover their costs, plus whatever margin they feel is acceptable. Smaller labels may well continue to make albums for longer, due to their lower overheads – but as smaller labels tend to be more dynamic than the prehistoric behemoths they compete against, they might equally drop the concept of albums a bit sooner, in order to spend their time and resources on something more radical.

So with that said, let’s look at what an album actually is. Ignoring compilations and best-of releases, an album is typically made up of a number of recordings that were made in a short space of time (often a couple of weeks in a studio somewhere), which haven’t been on a previous album (though may have been singles or b-sides, in the old parlance), and which have been assembled into some kind of order. The tracks are a mixture of good, not-so-good, and “growers” (initially not-so-good, but turning into good if you play them enough times). There may be other tracks from the recording that don’t make it onto the album for whatever reason.

In short, an album is a snapshot of a short period in an artist’s career.

Now that’s just one way to group a collection of songs – by recording date. But what happens if you broaden your collection to include the artist’s older recordings, or those that wouldn’t normally be deemed “good enough” to get onto an album. Now you’ve got a larger group of tracks – potentially much larger for a prolific writer, or one who’s been around for a while.

So let’s cut our “album” a different way: how about an album of love songs? Or hate songs for a more cynical artist? An album of guitar-led tracks? An album of synth-led tracks? Acoustic tracks? For a band with more than one singer who takes the lead, you could split albums based on the vocalist. Slow numbers, fast numbers, quiet numbers, loud numbers. All are equally valid (and equally arbitrary) ways to split an artist’s repertoire.

Then there are the albums which tell a story. Bear in mind we’re picking from the whole of an artist’s back-catalogue here, which could span many years. So we can start with the plaintive songs of a loveless youth, move through balladic love songs signalling a new romance, onto the passionate dedications… then the cynical backlash and bitterness of separation and divorce. Yes, the rise and fall of a relationship is an easy story to tell via such an album simply because these are the sort of events that artists tend to write songs about. But if there are sufficient songs to tell a story (or make a concept album) about any subject, that would do as well.

What I’m suggesting is replacing the idea of “albums” with a concept of “collections” – at least where downloadable tracks are concerned. The traditional group of ten or twelve tracks from a particular recording session is one type of collection. A themed group of tracks from across the artist’s entire back catalogue would be another collection. A collection of love songs. A collection that tells a story. A collection that follows a theme. Of course there would be the “best of” or “greatest hits” collections – but there could also be a “worst of” or “biggest flops” collection (I think John Otway might have already pioneered the latter!).

The point about a collection is that at its simplest, it’s nothing more than a list of tracks. Yes, it could be pressed onto a CD and sold as a traditional album, but in the world of the download that’s not the best way to do it. Keep it download-only, and there are minimal overheads with creating a collection. The artist or label might want to provide some special artwork, or bonus materials (video downloads, for example) if you buy a particular collection – but ultimately it’s still just a list of tracks in a particular order.

Once you decouple the idea of an album from its current narrow definition, and re-form it as just one way of specifying a group or collection of tracks, you can potentially start to do some very interesting things. That’s something I’ll describe in more detail next time…

Posted in Music. No Comments »

File Sharing Down in the UK

Well, sharing music files at least, according to this article.

Funny, isn’t it, how illegal file sharing is going down just around the time that new services (such as Spotify) and new music stores (such as Amazon’s) are finally starting to provide some viable legal alternatives.

One section of the article that I found particularly interesting is this:

The results also show there are now more U.K. music fans regularly buying single track downloads (19%) than file-sharing single tracks (17%) every month. However, the percentage of fans sharing albums regularly (13%) is still higher than those purchasing digital albums (10%).

It strikes me that there’s a simple explanation for this: people need to know what they’re getting before they can decide what it’s worth. Single tracks are most likely to be those that have been played on the radio, recommended by a friend, or a particular favourite from an older album previously owned on a physical format. They are tracks that consumers specifically buy because that’s the song they want.

Albums, on the other hand, often contain unwanted tracks. Back in the days of audio cassettes and the Walkman it was a pain to skip them – which sometimes had the surprising effect of initially dismissed songs becoming “growers”, and eventually firm favourites. Now that skipping a track is as simple as pressing a button, there’s less chance for “growers” to plant their roots. So not only do albums contain genuinely unwanted tracks – they also contain unwanted tracks that in previous years would have become wanted. The end result is that an album is less value for money now than at any time before – at least if you look at it as a ratio of the number of good tracks to the number of skipped tracks. No wonder people are opting to try before they buy via filesharing… but of course once you’ve tried, you’ve got a little less incentive to buy.

If the record industry wants “The Album” to survive in a world where tracks can be downloaded, individually, in a matter of seconds and at a reasonable price, they’re going to have to start thinking a bit more creatively.

Posted in Music. 1 Comment »

Robert, ask Damon how it’s done

A while back I posted about my disappointment after going to see a gig by The Cure in which they played hardly any of their hits.

Yesterday I went to see Blur in Hyde Park, in a concert that really showed what a great gig can be like. They played a full two hour set, including almost all of their major hits – and still managed to fit in a healthy collection of fan favourites and other album tracks.

They also started earlier than most acts do, finishing at about 10:20pm. That made for a very pleasant change from the usual rush to catch the last train that I have to go through when going to gigs in London. I still didn’t get home until nearly 1am though, so I’m quite glad that I booked today off work 😉

Got a band? Had some hits? Then bloody well play them!

I went to see The Cure on Thursday at the 02 Arena in London (one of my least favourite venues, but that’s another story). It was a sold-out gig, with the stage at one end, which according to that Wikipedia link means that I was one of about 16,000 people.

The gig was in honour of their “Godlike Genius” award from the NME – given to them at an awards ceremony the previous night at Brixton Academy. According to Wikipedia, Brixton Academy has a maximum capacity of 4,921 – but I would guess that an awards ceremony would have been nearer to the all-seated capacity of 2,391.

So, two gigs in as many nights – one 30 minute set at Brixton, one 90 minute set at the O2. Here’s the set list for the 30 minute gig, performed to less than 5,000 people (taken from here):

  • ‘Lullaby’
  • ‘The Only One’
  • ‘Friday I’m In Love’
  • ‘Close To Me’
  • ‘The End Of The World’
  • ‘In Between Days’
  • ‘Just Like Heaven’
  • ‘Boys Don’t Cry’
  • ’10:15 Saturday Night’
  • ‘Killing An Arab’

Top 40 hits are shown in bold, top 20 hits in bold-italic. Looking at it that way, that’s a heck of a half-hour set list.

The set list for the 16,000 strong 90 minute set, with the same bold and italic coding (taken from here):

  • ‘Underneath The Stars’
  • ‘From The Edge Of The Deep Green Sea’
  • ‘The Perfect Boy’
  • ‘The End Of The World’
  • ‘Sleep When I’m Dead’
  • ‘A Forest’
  • ‘Three Imaginary Boys’
  • ‘Shake Dog Shake’
  • ‘Maybe Someday’
  • ‘The Only One’
  • ‘In Between Days’
  • ‘Just Like Heaven’
  • ‘Primary’
  • ‘Want’
  • ‘The Hungry Ghost’
  • ‘Disintegration’
  • ‘One Hundred Years’
  • ‘Its Over’
  • ‘Boys Don’t Cry’
  • ‘Grinding Halt’
  • ‘10.15 Saturday Night’
  • ‘Killing An Arab’

Let me pull one little quote out of that NME report for you:

…Smith said he saw the two sets as linked, and having done some of their more famous tracks 24 hours earlier, he was keen to showcase some different areas of their career at the arena show.

Yeah, thanks for that Robert. I’m sure that the 16,000 people at the O2 Arena really appreciated you showcasing different areas of your career, rather than including a few more well-known hits, for more than £30 per ticket.

That was sarcasm, by the way, in case you hadn’t twigged.

This is my plea to bands and artists who have had some hit singles: play them. Yes, you might be bored with them by now, but that’s what a large contingent of your audience wants from a gig. That’s not to say that you can’t go off on an indulgent ramble of album tracks and “fan favourites”, but you should make sure that you provide a good mix with the well known numbers. For every hardcore fan in the audience, there will also be someone who only really knows you from your chart successes. Try to make your gig inclusive enough for both sets.

So, in short, here’s a quick list of things not to do at a gig, if you don’t mind:

  • Perform mostly album tracks and very few hits
  • Rub your audiences noses in it by telling them that you played a load of hits the previous night at a gig that they weren’t present at
  • Play the whole of your new album from start to finish, leaving too little time for your hits (Ash, I’m looking at you)
  • Play the opening lines, or the first verse of your hits, but rarely get as far as actually finishing any of them (Prince, at least on the night that I saw him)
  • Go off on some rambling, self-indulgent, stream-of-consciousness instrumental break that takes up half the gig (yes I mean you, Hawkwind)

P.S. For what it’s worth, I do own about half of The Cure’s albums, so recognised a fair number of the tracks they played. I still would have preferred a higher proportion of hits and well-known numbers though.

A Ripping Yarn, Pt. 3

Having ripped and converted all my CDs, it was time to play back the mp3 files on my Ubuntu box. I knew that I’d need to install some codecs which aren’t shipped with it by default (for legal reasons), but that wasn’t too tricky. A couple of quick commands later and I was able to play back mp3 files in the default media player, as well as preview them by hovering the mouse over them in the file manager.

What I hadn’t expected, however, was that my preferred music player, Amarok, should fail to play them. Even more annoyingly it didn’t bother to give any useful error message, it just kept zooming down the playlist not playing song after song after song, unwilling to stop but unwilling to actually play anything either. Not good 🙁

At first I thought it was confused about the location of my files. Previously I’d used Amarok to play the FLAC files, but they didn’t exist on the drive anymore, replaced by the mp3 files in a different (but similarly structured) directory. Perhaps it was still showing the FLAC files, but was skipping through them because it was unable to play files that weren’t there anymore. It seemed logical to me, so I double-checked the directories it should be monitoring, told it to re-scan the whole collection, restarted a couple of times, deleted the preferences from my home directory, told it to re-scan the collection again, and finally gave up.

It took a while to dawn on me that perhaps it just couldn’t play mp3 files, because everything else on my machine can. Eventually I twigged and a quick google found that I’m not the first person to have this problem. Sure enough the fix presented on that page worked (after logging out and in again), but a useful error message from Amarok would have got me there a lot faster.

A Ripping Yarn, Pt. 2

A couple of months ago I decided that it was finally time to re-rip my CDs. Not only were there numerous discs which hadn’t yet been converted to mp3 at all, but now hard drives were cheap enough for me to rip at a higher quality.

I purchased a 160GB drive, and started to rip. Thankfully hardware has moved on since I last did this, so ripping a CD was a faster-than-realtime affair – though it still took me a few months to finish the job. This wasn’t helped by my decision to be more fussy about getting the tag details correct and consistent, but as I don’t intend to rip these CDs ever again I figured it was probably worth the extra effort at this stage.

I chose to encode to FLAC – a lossless audio format which is smaller than a straight CD copy (though much larger than an mp3), but which retains all of the original data (mp3 is a “lossy” format in that it achieves its high compression ratio by throwing out bits of the audio that it thinks you won’t hear). By converting to FLAC I shouldn’t have to rip the CDs again – instead I can simply re-encode the FLAC files to another format whenever I need to. It might be 128Kbps mp3 files today, 384Kbps mp3 files next year, or some completely different format at some time in the future. Never again will I have to feed hundreds of CDs into a computer: I can just set a conversion program running against a directory full of FLAC files.

Sod’s law stepped in, and I found that my collection has grown to the point where my 160GB hard drive is just slightly too small to hold it. Damn. So I bought an external 250GB drive instead – which also has the advantage that I can keep it separate from my CD collection as an “offsite backup” in case of any real disaster (though the sort of disaster that would wipe out my entire CD collection doesn’t bear thinking about and an offsite backup of my music isn’t likely to be much of a comfort).

I used the CD ripper that comes with Ubuntu to do the initial rip to FLAC, EasyTAG to tidy up the track data, and flac2mp3 to convert the files to mp3 for use on my iPod (and to take up less space on my main computer). The conversion took a long time – about 60 hours for the 5000 or so files – but it didn’t require any intervention so I just left it going for a few days (with the occasional wiggle of the mouse to check that the machine hadn’t hung).

I also decided to scan all the CD covers. The audio player on my Linux box (Amarok) can grab covers from Amazon, but I wasn’t happy with the variable quality of this approach. I only scanned the front covers, and saved the resultant files as JPEGs (albeit at a larger physical size than most of the Amazon images), so maybe one day I’ll re-scan all the content of the CD booklets and save it at a high resolution in a lossless format. Until I find an audio player that will actually do anything useful with the extra images, however, I don’t think I’ll bother.

This is the result of all that effort (click for a slightly larger version, about 500KB in size), somewhat scaled down:

Scanned CD Covers