Aug 29 2011

Can We Get An Automated Internet Radio Programming App That Doesn’t Assume We’re Lame?


Consider the Pandora IPO.  A few months back this really crappy radio app got $2.6 billion! … the company must assume that we all want to hear those same six songs by our favorite artists over and over again.

Taking a break from the usual far out futurism, psychedelic explorations and what have you…  and taking an opportunity to merely rant about something trivial, but nevertheless irksome.

Back in the early 2000s I did an interview with Cory Doctorow in which he quoted Bruce Sterling that real value is created by “wooing the muse of the odd.” In other words, a service that offers the best selling stuff may do OK for awhile, but a service that can get you access to the odd thing that only a few people want and is hard to find is probably going to do better over time.  Doctorow said, “This is because we are all odd in our own way.”  I wonder.

Consider the Pandora IPO.  A few months back this really crappy radio app got $2.6 billion!  Now, Pandora CEO Tim Westergren is a nice enough guy and I even had him on my NeoFiles podcast (when I was doing that) back a few years during his battle with the RIAA over their attempt to impose absurdly high royalty rates for playing tunes.  But the company must assume that we all want to hear those same six songs by our favorite artists over and over again.  Go to Pandora and create a station using, say, David Bowie and Pink Floyd (I’m a  ’70s guy so that comes immediately to mind). How many times do you want to hear “Ziggy Stardust,” “Space Oddity,” “Welcome to the Machine” and “Comfortably Numb?”  Pandora’s programmers seem to think you want to hear them pretty much every time you log on.  And in deference to the “musical dna” of those performers, you might get to hear “All The Young Dudes” by Mott The Hoople, “Fool In The Rain” by Led Zeppelin, “Hey Jude” by the Beatles… ad infinitum. If you’ve ever wished you could time travel back to the ’70s and find a  mediocre FM station, this is for you.

The point being that Bowie, Floyd, Mott, Zep, and The Fabs have deep catalogues — there’s thousands of songs in there.  It would be a delight to open up a “radio station” and here “The Cygnet Committee,” “Corporal Clegg,” “Crash Street Kids,” “Celebration Day,” and “Blue Jay Way.”  Maybe Bowie would lead to some Philip Glass or John Adams.  (A boy can dream.)

I did locate a better bet in Last FM, which I guess reads your mp3 library and then gives you “neighbors” with similar tastes.   Then you can hear a randomized mix of their libraries.  My neighbors did not choose to put only the same half-a-dozen songs by favorite artist that we have all heard a hundred times before into their music libraries.  That might seem to indicate something that Pandora might want to consider.

So Last FM is ok, but even that got repetitive after awhile.  Plus, they’re asking me to pay for — on my iPad — what I’ve been getting for free on my laptop and desktop.  Off I went in search of alternatives.

Well, there’s Slacker.  So I had a great time building up a randomized selection of my favorite artists that popped into my head and I clicked on play.  What did I hear?  “Paper Planes” by MIA, “Break On Through” by the Doors twice (and nothing else by them), “My City Was Gone” and “Brass In Pocket” by The Pretenders, “Closer” by NIN… ad infinitum.  The hits!  (As I type this, Slacker has finished serving up the second Psychedelic Furs hit that I’ve received in the last hour and… whoops… oh boy, here’s “Burning Down The House” by Talking Heads.  Haven’t heard that one since… yesterday.)

Here is what I’d like to see.  You go onto an Internet music “station” and you type in the names of 100 artists.  The company gets their entire goddamn catalogues or as much of them as they can manage.  Then they hook it up to other music with similar “musical dna” and they randomize the whole fucking thing… maybe programming it to favor your 100 selections over their cousins… but not favoring particular songs.  Then you get to be surprised and delighted when that song you haven’t heard in twenty years or never heard at all suddenly comes on.

Is anybody listening?

Aug 15 2011

JT LeRoy & the Absolute Necessity of Persona


Artist Jasmin Lim has created an installation about the JT Leroy affair at ATA (Artists Television Access).

The right to pseudonymity  — and the right to contain and express a multiplicity of voices — is felt to be very precious within most on the expansive edge of transhumanist thought.

But I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone bring home the absolute inner necessity for speaking and writing through another name and persona as succinctly — and in such an emotionally true fashion — as my friend Laura Albert aka JT LeRoy does in this video of her 10 minute performance at “The Moth.”  (Sound quality is a little rough).

Albert — for those of you who ignore everything in literature that isn’t SF — authored a series of brilliant and intense novels, Sarah, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, and Harold’s End under the persona of JT LeRoy, a male teenage prostitute.  LeRoy became a major literary figure among those who lean towards hip, challenging, sexually charged works. Many rock stars — including Billy Corgan, Tom Waits, and Shirley Manson — became fans and advocates.  The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things became a film directed by Asia Argento.  Plans to film Sarah ended badly, when Antidote Films reacted to the revelation that JT Leroy was actually Laura Albert by successfully suing her for fraud.

The building and maintenance of the persona, in itself, became an art form, as Albert — among other maneuvers — incorporated a female friend — Savannah Knoop — to play the boy genius in pubic appearances.  (The story in all its complexity is too much for this post.  Here’s the big NY Times reveal.)

After the real JT Leroy was revealed, she was reviled by many leading figures in avant-garde literature in the US — some who felt personally used by the masquerade.  But as the dust settles — and after being celebrated during a visit to Paris — Albert nee Leroy may be in for a period of reconsideration and acceptance.

Artist Jasmin Lim  has created an installation about the J.T. Leroy affair at ATA (Artists Television Access) in San Francisco.  On Wednesday, August 24, she will be joined by Laura Albert for a  moderated conversation.  Info here.

J.T. Leroy website

Cool Recent Commentary on JT Leroy Affair

Paris Review Interview

R.U. Sirius Interviews Laura Albert

Jun 09 2011

The Death of Music


Composer John Cage

We are at a sad time in human history. We have lost one of our most vital forms of expression, music, and we are only now coming to grips with the realization. It is hard to tell exactly when music breathed its last gasp, but most experts pinpoint the time of death within the past few decades, leading up to the melding of all musical genres into one endless Dubstep mash-up. It is hard to believe music is dead, I know, no one wants to admit it. Admitting that music is dead means that we killed it, or more precisely the music industry and digital production technology killed it, and killed it good. But we are the murderers. Music is dead and it is our fault.

You may not understand what I mean when I say music is dead, because you can hear music everywhere you go, or hear musicians perform for large audiences. But what you are hearing coming out of your ear-buds and amplifiers is not music, it is the badly reanimated corpse of a once thriving and evolving monster, now extinct as the dodo, cloned and recycled into a consumer commodity. For those of you who are not convinced that music is dead, here are a few indicators that should sway your opinion.

There are no new musical genres. Some people believe music died in the ’70s and ’80s, when Disco and Punk and New Wave grew out of the remnants of rock and took over the world. Some people believe music died in the ’90s, when Hip-Hop merged sampling and spoken word, Grunge wrung the last gasps out of rock, and computers made it possible to synthesize any beat, melody, or noise within the range of human hearing. In the decades since electronic music took off, existing genres have been run through every possible permutation, every song has been sampled, re-sampled, and recycled. Experimental composers have made music with static, glitches, silence, ambient noise, abstract sounds, and tones that go outside the range of human hearing. It is the end of the road for creating something new. The last new musical Genre created by humans is Filk, a folksy blend of sci-fi and fantasy fan music, and it sounds like a terrible parody of older better music. That’s the future.

There are no new musical instruments. The last musical instrument humans will ever create is the Eigenharp, a synthesizer you can play like a drum, a stringed instrument, a woodwind, a brass instrument, a keyboard, and whatever else you can think up and program. This instrument can produce any sound, and can be played in any way. It is every instrument ever created, and all instruments that will ever be created. Tellingly, this instrument looks exactly like the crazy saxophones used by the Cantina Band in Star Wars. If you have an Eigenharp, you can play every part of any song or symphony ever written in the exact style it was composed. And since you can loop and layer tracks on an Eigenharp, one person can become an entire band, or you can program the instrument to play automatically without the need to thump, strum, or blow. It is a musical instrument that can play itself. The only other musical instrument since the Eigenharp is the iPhone/iPad, which is an extensible platform that can perform a limited set of the Eigenharp’s functions depending on which app you load. And you can produce and mix professional quality tracks on the same device you play as your instrument. And it fits in your pocket.

There are no more musical styles or sounds to sample. Every style of traditional, ethnic, and world music has been incorporated into the modern pop uber-genre. There are no more Afro beats, throat singers, Middle Eastern microtonal scales, Buddhist Ohms, Irish sea shanties, American folk songs, Navajo ancestral chants, and so on, that haven’t already been chewed up, digested, and shat out by modern pop composers. Since the Beatles went to India, no style of World Music has remained outside the clutches of the uber-pop corporate regime. The entire planet has been sampled. Every natural sound, every gust of wind, every bird chirp, every wave crashing on the beach, every siren, every car horn, every gun shot, every power drill, every electronic bleep and bloop… It’s all been done. Hi-Fi, Low-Fi, No-Fi, 8-bit, acoustic, acapella, you name it. There are no more sounds to steal. We have devoured every last morsel.

There are no more sounds to steal. We have devoured every last morsel.

The world’s biggest pop stars are not producing new or ground-breaking music. Every new song sounds like an old song, and the artists that try to innovate move towards deconstruction and atonal noise, because that’s all that’s left. A musician today cannot innovate new musical styles because there are no more musical styles to invent, so the only way to get attention is to be louder, wear a crazier costume, wear less clothes, be angrier, be more provocative, be more controversial, be more “real” than the next artist, or perform some kind of publicity stunt that has nothing to do with the music. In terms of lyrics, songs have covered every topic known to humans, they’ve told every story, they’ve portrayed every emotion. Whatever mood you can think of, whatever strange otherworldly atmosphere you want, whatever lesson you want to learn, whatever ridiculous philosophy you want to reinforce, there is already a song for that. We’ve heard it all before.

And even though music is dead, musicians will insist on dragging the dead corpse around for who knows what reason. You can make the same comparison to visual art. Since the evolution of surrealism, cubism, abstract expressionism, pop art, and op art, every new artist has to compete with distorted frames of reference, no frame of reference, paint splatters, subtle shades of grey, soups cans, and geometric grids, all called masterpieces. If you want to create art that has photographic depth and realism, too bad, Caravaggio already did that at the turn of the 17th century, it’s all been a downhill experiment in postmodern deconstruction since then. If you can find something more innovative than a blank canvas, or a symphony that consists of nothing but twenty minutes of silence, good luck. Art has reached the point in its evolution where the absence of art is the most radical thing you can produce. But when you want to listen to something new, forget about it. All we have now is the memory and the echo of history, because music is dead.

James Kent is the former publisher of Psychedelic Illuminations and Trip Magazine. He currently edits, a drug blog featuring news, humor and commentary.