Streaming music is coming to DJ software, but one step at a time

Streaming is coming to DJing. Last week saw new announcements from Tidal, SoundCloud, Serato, and several other software makers. But progress is uneven – expect these features at first to be primarily about discovery, not what you do at a gig.

The news this week:

SoundCloud announced coming support in Traktor, Serato, Virtual DJ, Mixvibes, and more:
Just announced: Soon you can access SoundCloud’s catalog of music directly through your DJ software [SoundCloud blog]

Serato announced support for SoundCloud Go+ and TIDAL premium and HiFi subscriptions in forthcoming DJ Lite and DJ Pro releases. They didn’t post even a news item, beyond sending a press release, but TIDAL added this minisite:

http://tidal.com/serato

The markets

First, before talking about the technology and the deals here, we need to first talk about what “DJ” means. Across that spectrum, we can talk about three really different poles, as far as use cases:

Wedding DJs (read: people taking requests). This is the big one. You can tell, because when streaming site Pulselocker shut down, there were screams from people who were playing wedding gigs and suddenly lost access to their music. This isn’t just about a technological shift, either. As American music markets have fragmented and mainstream pop music has lost its hegemony – and as DJing and music consumption have become more global – the amount of music people might request has grown, too.

Whatever you think of wedding DJs, you can imagine weddings as a place where global cultural and technological changes are radical and inseparable. And that’s good, because I don’t know about you, but if I have to hear “At Last” one more time, I may try to drown myself in a punch bowl.

If you have to take requests, access to all music becomes a need, not a luxury.

DJs playing hits. There’s also a club DJ crowd looking for big hits, too, which tends to overlap in some ways with the wedding DJs – they’re going for popularity over digging deep in a particular genre. That means that certain big hits that a particular streaming site has (cough, Tidal) become relevant to both these groups. (I was recently schooled on the importance

Underground DJs. More at the CDM end of the pond, you’ve got DJs who are trying to discover new music. Tidal might not be so relevant here, but SoundCloud sure is.

If you routinely tab back and forth between SoundCloud and your DJ app, integrating the two might have appeal – even for underground digital diggers.

The question of what DJs in each of these groups would want to do with streaming also varies. There’s discovery – some people are looking to play tracks on their digital DJ decks without first downloading, or for integration of streaming sites. There’s playing in actual gigs, with a live Internet connection. Then there’s playing gigs where you don’t have an Internet connection – more often the norm – where you might want tracks from a streaming collection to be synced or cached to storage.

How the DJ streaming landscape just shifted

Amsterdam Dance Event last week tends to center on the business of electronic dance music, so it was a stage for some of the players to crow about new achievements – even making some of those announcements before the solution is fully available.

In particular, DJ software maker Serato and streaming site SoundCloud were vocal about their coming solutions.

Some takeaways:

These solutions are online only. Let’s start with the big disclaimer. Downloads are here to stay for now, because these services work only when online, and standalone decks are left out.

Streaming tracks are fully integrated – I’ve confirmed that at least with Serato, who say when you’re connected, the tracks cache and perform just like locally stored tracks. But that’s when you have an Internet connection.

Pulselocker, the service specifically focused around this idea, had offered the ability to store tracks locally. None of these integrations offers offline access, at least initially. I’ve been told by Serato that if you lose an Internet connection mid-track, you can at least continue playing that track; you just lose access to other streaming content.

Wedding DJs or some clubs where you can rely on an Internet connection I expect will take advantage of streaming functionality right away, for DJs who take requests. For DJs who prepare music in advance, though, it’s probably a deal killer.

(Pulselocker was acquired by Beatport earlier this year, a sign that the big players were making their moves.)

Once upon a time, there was Pulselocker. But the service was acquired by Beatport, and nothing yet offers offline functionality as it did. (Blame licensing?)

SoundCloud and Serato are looking to get ahead of the curve – while we wait on Beatport and Pioneer. SoundCloud is partnering with all the major software vendors. (Only Algoriddim, whose djay product line for desktop and mobile is already integrated with Spotify, was missing.)

And Serato are leading the way with Tidal and SoundCloud integration, replacing their existing Pulselocker functionality.

Timeframe for both: “coming months.”

There’s reason to pre-announce something here, though, which is to try to steal some thunder from some market leaders. Beatport and Pioneer are of course dominant players here. We know both are readying solutions – Beatport making use of that aforementioned Pulselocker acquisition, presumably. We just don’t know when those solutions will become available; Pioneer CDJ hardware in particular is likely fairly far into the future.

Just don’t underestimate the Serato/Tidal combo, or even Serato/SoundCloud. Those are big partnerships for the US market and genres like hip hop, both of which are big and growing.

DJ compatibility is a way to sell you subscriptions. Yes, artists and labels get paid, but there’s another factor here – DJing is becoming so widespread that it’s a way to upsell music subscriptions. DJing really is music consumption now.

Use Traktor, Serato, Virtual DJ, Mixvibes, and others? SoundCloud hopes you’ll buy a top-tier SoundCloud Go+ subscription.

Using Serato, and want to play some top hits in high quality? Tidal can offer Premium (AAC) or HiFi (including lossless FLAC and ALAC streaming) tiers.

In case you doubt that, both services will work with full integration using just a 30-day trial.

SoundCloud still lags in quality. Just as on the site, SoundCloud for now is limited to 128kbps at launch, as reported by DJ Tech Tools.

Yes, streaming DJs could represent a new revenue source. This is one potential bright spot here on the creator side. Assuming you can reach DJs who might not have purchased downloads on Bandcamp, Beatport, and the like, the streaming sites will divvy up those subscription fees and calculate revenue sharing for track plays by DJs.

What does all this mean?

It’s easy to assume this is all meaningless. Serious DJs playing big club and festival gigs – or even underground DJs playing with dodgy Internet connections and meticulously organized USB thumb drives of USB – you’re obviously not going anywhere near this when you play.

And those DJs taking requests at weddings and playing the latest dancefloor megahits, well, that’s relevant to you only if you’re producing those kinds of hits.

But there remains some potential here, even with these launch offerings, whenever they do materialize.

For all but the most specific boutique labels and artists, I think most music creators are trying to maximize exposure and squeeze revenue wherever they can. A whole lot of those labels do put up their music through distribution, meaning you can download directly on Bandcamp, for instance, but you can also stream catalogs on Spotify and iTunes. (Anyone who’s doing digital distribution has likely seen long lists of weird streaming and download sites you’ve never even heard of, but where your music gets dumped and … eventually ripped and put up on pirate music sites, too.)

If this gets more people on premium subscriptions, there’s hope. It’s better than people listening to your music on YouTube while you get paid next to nothing.

The real question here is how streaming integration looks. If discovering new music is really what this is about – at least until fast Internet becomes more ubiquitous – then the integrations need to actually make it easy to find music. That shouldn’t just be about some automated recommendation algorithm; it will require a whole new approach to DJ software and music tools. Or at the very least, these tools should make you want to sit at your DJ rig with some friends, punch up some new artist names and find tracks. They should be as appealing as going to a record store, thumbing through records, and putting them on turntables – in a virtual sense, anyway.

And what about ownership? I think it’s important for DJs to be able to differentiate between always-on access to all music everywhere, and their own music collection, even if the collection itself is virtual.

Why not put SoundCloud streaming in your DJ app, but offer one-click buying to add downloads?

Or why not use the cloud as a way to sync music you’ve already bought, rather than make it exclusively an overwhelming supply of music you don’t want, which you lose when you lose Internet access?

At the very least, labels who are already squeezed as it is are unlikely to savor the thought of losing download revenue in exchange for hard-to-track, hard-to-predict subscriptions. $10 a month or so seems utterly unsustainable. A lot of labels already barely break even when they pay for even basic PR and mastering services. Imagine the nightmare of having to invest more just to be found on streaming services, while earning less as flat fee subscriptions are divvied up.

There’s an idea here, but it’s far from being ready. For now, it seems like the best strategy is to keep your catalogs up to date across services, keep building close relationships with fans, and … wait and see. In a few months we should see more of what these offerings look like in practice, and it seems likely, too, we’ll know more about where Pioneer, Beatport, and others plan to go next, too.

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Streaming music is coming to DJ software, but one step at a time

Streaming is coming to DJing. Last week saw new announcements from Tidal, SoundCloud, Serato, and several other software makers. But progress is uneven – expect these features at first to be primarily about discovery, not what you do at a gig.

The news this week:

SoundCloud announced coming support in Traktor, Serato, Virtual DJ, Mixvibes, and more:
Just announced: Soon you can access SoundCloud’s catalog of music directly through your DJ software [SoundCloud blog]

Serato announced support for SoundCloud Go+ and TIDAL premium and HiFi subscriptions in forthcoming DJ Lite and DJ Pro releases. They didn’t post even a news item, beyond sending a press release, but TIDAL added this minisite:

http://tidal.com/serato

The markets

First, before talking about the technology and the deals here, we need to first talk about what “DJ” means. Across that spectrum, we can talk about three really different poles, as far as use cases:

Wedding DJs (read: people taking requests). This is the big one. You can tell, because when streaming site Pulselocker shut down, there were screams from people who were playing wedding gigs and suddenly lost access to their music. This isn’t just about a technological shift, either. As American music markets have fragmented and mainstream pop music has lost its hegemony – and as DJing and music consumption have become more global – the amount of music people might request has grown, too.

Whatever you think of wedding DJs, you can imagine weddings as a place where global cultural and technological changes are radical and inseparable. And that’s good, because I don’t know about you, but if I have to hear “At Last” one more time, I may try to drown myself in a punch bowl.

If you have to take requests, access to all music becomes a need, not a luxury.

DJs playing hits. There’s also a club DJ crowd looking for big hits, too, which tends to overlap in some ways with the wedding DJs – they’re going for popularity over digging deep in a particular genre. That means that certain big hits that a particular streaming site has (cough, Tidal) become relevant to both these groups. (I was recently schooled on the importance

Underground DJs. More at the CDM end of the pond, you’ve got DJs who are trying to discover new music. Tidal might not be so relevant here, but SoundCloud sure is.

If you routinely tab back and forth between SoundCloud and your DJ app, integrating the two might have appeal – even for underground digital diggers.

The question of what DJs in each of these groups would want to do with streaming also varies. There’s discovery – some people are looking to play tracks on their digital DJ decks without first downloading, or for integration of streaming sites. There’s playing in actual gigs, with a live Internet connection. Then there’s playing gigs where you don’t have an Internet connection – more often the norm – where you might want tracks from a streaming collection to be synced or cached to storage.

How the DJ streaming landscape just shifted

Amsterdam Dance Event last week tends to center on the business of electronic dance music, so it was a stage for some of the players to crow about new achievements – even making some of those announcements before the solution is fully available.

In particular, DJ software maker Serato and streaming site SoundCloud were vocal about their coming solutions.

Some takeaways:

These solutions are online only. Let’s start with the big disclaimer. Downloads are here to stay for now, because these services work only when online, and standalone decks are left out.

Streaming tracks are fully integrated – I’ve confirmed that at least with Serato, who say when you’re connected, the tracks cache and perform just like locally stored tracks. But that’s when you have an Internet connection.

Pulselocker, the service specifically focused around this idea, had offered the ability to store tracks locally. None of these integrations offers offline access, at least initially. I’ve been told by Serato that if you lose an Internet connection mid-track, you can at least continue playing that track; you just lose access to other streaming content.

Wedding DJs or some clubs where you can rely on an Internet connection I expect will take advantage of streaming functionality right away, for DJs who take requests. For DJs who prepare music in advance, though, it’s probably a deal killer.

(Pulselocker was acquired by Beatport earlier this year, a sign that the big players were making their moves.)

Once upon a time, there was Pulselocker. But the service was acquired by Beatport, and nothing yet offers offline functionality as it did. (Blame licensing?)

SoundCloud and Serato are looking to get ahead of the curve – while we wait on Beatport and Pioneer. SoundCloud is partnering with all the major software vendors. (Only Algoriddim, whose djay product line for desktop and mobile is already integrated with Spotify, was missing.)

And Serato are leading the way with Tidal and SoundCloud integration, replacing their existing Pulselocker functionality.

Timeframe for both: “coming months.”

There’s reason to pre-announce something here, though, which is to try to steal some thunder from some market leaders. Beatport and Pioneer are of course dominant players here. We know both are readying solutions – Beatport making use of that aforementioned Pulselocker acquisition, presumably. We just don’t know when those solutions will become available; Pioneer CDJ hardware in particular is likely fairly far into the future.

Just don’t underestimate the Serato/Tidal combo, or even Serato/SoundCloud. Those are big partnerships for the US market and genres like hip hop, both of which are big and growing.

DJ compatibility is a way to sell you subscriptions. Yes, artists and labels get paid, but there’s another factor here – DJing is becoming so widespread that it’s a way to upsell music subscriptions. DJing really is music consumption now.

Use Traktor, Serato, Virtual DJ, Mixvibes, and others? SoundCloud hopes you’ll buy a top-tier SoundCloud Go+ subscription.

Using Serato, and want to play some top hits in high quality? Tidal can offer Premium (AAC) or HiFi (including lossless FLAC and ALAC streaming) tiers.

In case you doubt that, both services will work with full integration using just a 30-day trial.

SoundCloud still lags in quality. Just as on the site, SoundCloud for now is limited to 128kbps at launch, as reported by DJ Tech Tools.

Yes, streaming DJs could represent a new revenue source. This is one potential bright spot here on the creator side. Assuming you can reach DJs who might not have purchased downloads on Bandcamp, Beatport, and the like, the streaming sites will divvy up those subscription fees and calculate revenue sharing for track plays by DJs.

What does all this mean?

It’s easy to assume this is all meaningless. Serious DJs playing big club and festival gigs – or even underground DJs playing with dodgy Internet connections and meticulously organized USB thumb drives of USB – you’re obviously not going anywhere near this when you play.

And those DJs taking requests at weddings and playing the latest dancefloor megahits, well, that’s relevant to you only if you’re producing those kinds of hits.

But there remains some potential here, even with these launch offerings, whenever they do materialize.

For all but the most specific boutique labels and artists, I think most music creators are trying to maximize exposure and squeeze revenue wherever they can. A whole lot of those labels do put up their music through distribution, meaning you can download directly on Bandcamp, for instance, but you can also stream catalogs on Spotify and iTunes. (Anyone who’s doing digital distribution has likely seen long lists of weird streaming and download sites you’ve never even heard of, but where your music gets dumped and … eventually ripped and put up on pirate music sites, too.)

If this gets more people on premium subscriptions, there’s hope. It’s better than people listening to your music on YouTube while you get paid next to nothing.

The real question here is how streaming integration looks. If discovering new music is really what this is about – at least until fast Internet becomes more ubiquitous – then the integrations need to actually make it easy to find music. That shouldn’t just be about some automated recommendation algorithm; it will require a whole new approach to DJ software and music tools. Or at the very least, these tools should make you want to sit at your DJ rig with some friends, punch up some new artist names and find tracks. They should be as appealing as going to a record store, thumbing through records, and putting them on turntables – in a virtual sense, anyway.

And what about ownership? I think it’s important for DJs to be able to differentiate between always-on access to all music everywhere, and their own music collection, even if the collection itself is virtual.

Why not put SoundCloud streaming in your DJ app, but offer one-click buying to add downloads?

Or why not use the cloud as a way to sync music you’ve already bought, rather than make it exclusively an overwhelming supply of music you don’t want, which you lose when you lose Internet access?

At the very least, labels who are already squeezed as it is are unlikely to savor the thought of losing download revenue in exchange for hard-to-track, hard-to-predict subscriptions. $10 a month or so seems utterly unsustainable. A lot of labels already barely break even when they pay for even basic PR and mastering services. Imagine the nightmare of having to invest more just to be found on streaming services, while earning less as flat fee subscriptions are divvied up.

There’s an idea here, but it’s far from being ready. For now, it seems like the best strategy is to keep your catalogs up to date across services, keep building close relationships with fans, and … wait and see. In a few months we should see more of what these offerings look like in practice, and it seems likely, too, we’ll know more about where Pioneer, Beatport, and others plan to go next, too.

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Upload music directly to Spotify: streaming giant goes in new direction

Spotify has begun opening uploading not just to labels and distributors, but individual artists. And the implications of that could be massive, if the service is expanded – or if rivals follow suit.

On reflection, it’s surprising this didn’t happen sooner.

Among major streaming players, currently only SoundCloud lets individual artists upload music directly. Everyone else requires intermediaries, whether that’s labels or distributors. The absurdity of this system is that services like TuneCore have profited off streaming growth. In theory, that might have meant that music selections were more “curated” and less junk showed up online. In reality, though, massive amounts of music get dumped on all the streaming services, funneling money from artists and labels into the coffers of third-party services. That arrangement surely makes no sense for the likes of Spotify, Apple, Google, and others as they look to maximize revenue.

Music Business Worldwide reports that Spotify is starting to change that now:
Spotify opens the floodgates: artists can now upload tracks direct to the streaming platform for FREE

See also TechCrunch:

Spotify will now let indie artists upload their own music

What we know so far…

You’ll upload via a new Web-based upload tool. Check the tool and FAQ.

It’s invite-only for now. A “small group of artists” has access for testing and feedback, Spotify says.

It won’t cost anything, and access to releases will be streamlined. No fees, the full commission – the deal is better financially. And you’ll be able to edit releases and delete music, which can be a draconian process now through distributors.

Regions are a big question. The tax section currently refers to the W9 – a tax form in use in the USA. So clearly the initial test is US-only; we’ll see what the plans are for other regions.

You have to look into the future before this really starts to matter, because it is so limited. But it could be a sign of things to come. And bottom line, Spotify can give you a better experience of what your music will be like on Spotify than anyone else can:

You’ll be able to deliver music straight to Spotify and plan for the perfect release day. You’ll see a preview of exactly how things will appear to listeners before you hit submit. And even after your music goes live, you’ll be in full control of your metadata with simple and quick edits.

Just like releasing through any other partner, you’ll get paid when fans stream your music on Spotify. Your recording royalties will hit your bank account automatically each month, and you’ll see a clear report of how much your streams are earning right next to the other insights you already get from Spotify for Artists. Uploading is free to all artists, and Spotify doesn’t charge you any fees or commissions no matter how frequently you release music.

Now in Beta: Upload your music in Spotify for Artists [Spotify Artist Blog]

The question really is how far they’ll expand, and how quickly. If they use all of Spotify for Artists, as their blog news item would seem to imply, then some 200,000 or so verified artist accounts will get the feature. (I’m one of those accounts.) 200,000 artists with direct access to Spotify could change the game for everyone.

The potential losers here are clear. First, there are the distributors. So-called “digital distribution” at this point really amounts to nothing of the sort. While these third parties will get your music out to countless streaming services, for most artists and labels, only the big ones like iTunes and Spotify count to most of their customers. At the entry level, these services often carry hefty ongoing subscription fees while providing little service other than submitting your music. More personalized distributors, meanwhile, often require locking in multi-year contracts. (I, uh, speak from experience on both those counts. It’s awful.)

Even the word “distributor” barely makes sense in the current digital context. Unlike a big stack of vinyl, nothing is actually really getting distributed. More complete management and monetization platforms actually do make sense – plus tools to deal with the morass of social media. Paying a toll to a complicated website to upload music for you? That defies reason.

The second potential loser that comes to mind is obviously SoundCloud. Once beloved by independent producers and labels, that service hasn’t delivered much on its promise of new features for its creators. (Most recently, they unveiled a weekly playlist that seems cloned from Spotify’s feature.) And SoundCloud’s ongoing popularity with users was dependent of having music that couldn’t be found elsewhere. If artists can upload directly to Spotify, well … uh, game over, SoundCloud. (Yeah, you still might want to upload embeddable players and previews but other services could do that better.)

Just keep in mind: Spotify for Artists was 200,000 users at the beginning of summer. At least as of 2014, SoundCloud was creating 10 million creators. So it’s not so much SoundCloud losing as it is another sign that SoundCloud won’t really take on Spotify – just as Spotify (even with this functionality) really doesn’t even attempt to take on SoundCloud. They’re different animals, and it’s frustrating that SoundCloud hasn’t done more to focus on that difference.

But all this still remains to be seen in action – it’s just a beta.

Just remember how this played out the first time. Spotify reached a critical mass of streaming, and Apple followed. If Spotify really are doing uploads, it’d make sense for Apple to do the same. After all, Apple makes the hardware (MacBook Pro, iPad) and software (GarageBand, Logic Pro X) a lot of musicians are using. And they tempted to capitalize on their strong relationships with artists once, with the poorly designed Connect features (touted by Trent Reznor, no less). They just lag Spotify in this area – with the beta Apple Music for Artists and Apple Music Toolbox.

Meanwhile, I wouldn’t write off labels or genre-specific stores just yet. If you’re making music in a genre for a more specific audience, dumping your music on Spotify where it’s lost in the long tail is probably exactly what you don’t want to do. Streaming money from the big consumer services just isn’t reaching lesser known artists the way it is the majors and big acts. So I suspect that perversely, the upload feature could lead to an even closer relationship between, say, electronic label producers and labels and services tailored to their needs, like Beatport. (We’re waiting on Beatport’s own subscription offerings soon.)

But does this make sense? It sure does for the streaming service. Giving the actual content makers the tools to upload and control tags and other data should actually reduce labor costs for streaming services, entice more of the people making music, and build catalogs.

And what about you as a music maker? Uh, well… strap in, and we find out.

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Watch The Black Madonna DJ live from … inside a video game

Algorithmic selection, soulless streaming music, DJ players that tell you what to play next and then do it for you… let’s give you an alternative, and much more fun and futuristic future. Let’s watch The Black Madonna DJ from inside a video game.

This is some reality-bending action here. The Black Madonna, an actual human, played an actual DJ set in an actual club, as that entire club set was transformed into a virtual rendition. That in turn was then streamed as a promotion via Resident Advisor. Eat your heart out, Boiler Room. Just pointing cameras at people? So last decade.

From Panorama Bar to afterhours in the uncanny valley:

This is less to do with CDM, but… I enjoy watching the trailer about the virtual club, just because I seriously never get tired of watching Marea punching a cop. (Create Digital Suckerpunches?)

Um… apologies to members of law enforcement for that. Just a game.

So, back to why this is significant.

First, I think actually The Black Madonna doesn’t get nearly the credit she deserves for how she’s been able to make her personality translate across the cutthroat-competitive electronic music industry of the moment. There’s something to learn from her approach – to the fact that she’s relatable, as she plays and in her outspoken public persona.

And somehow, seeing The Black Madonna go all Andy Serkis here puts that into relief. (See video at bottom.) I mean, what better metaphor is there for life in the 21st century? You have to put on a weird, uncomfortable, hot suit, then translate all the depth of your humanness into a virtual realm that tends to strip you of dimensions, all in front of a crowd of strangers online you can’t see. You have to be uncannily empathic inside the uncanny valley. A lot of people see the apparent narcissism on social media and assume they’re witnessing a solution to the formula, when in fact it may be simply signs of desperation.

Marea isn’t the only DJ to play Grand Theft Auto’s series, but she’s the one who seems to actually manage to establish herself as a character in the game.

To put it bluntly: whatever you think of The Black Madonna, take this as a license to ignore the people who try to stop you from being who you are. It’s not going to get you success, but it is going to allow you to be human in a dehumanizing world.

And then there’s the game itself, now a platform for music. Rockstar Games have long been incurable music nerds – yeah, our people. That’s why you hear well curated music playlists all over the place, as well as elaborate interactive audio and music systems for industry-leading immersion. They’re nerds enough that they’ve even made some side trips like trying to make a beat production tool for the Sony PSP with Timbaland. (Full disclosure: I consulted on an educational program around that.)

This is unquestionably a commercial, mass market platform, but it’s nonetheless a pretty experimental concept.

Yes, yes – lots of flashbacks to the days of Second Life and its fledgling attempts to work as a music venue.

The convergence of virtual reality tech, motion capture, and virtual venues on one hand with music, the music industry, and unique electronic personalities on the other I think is significant – even if only as a sign of what could be possible.

I’m talking now to Rockstar to find out more about how they pulled this off. Tune in next time as we hopefully get some behind-the-scenes look at what this meant for the developers and artists.

While we wait on that, let’s nerd out with Andy Serkis about motion capture performance technique:

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Eurorack’s prices are dropping, as Herr Schneider laments

With the proliferation of modules, the phrase “Eurorack bubble” has been floating around for a while. But now it appears to be translating into falling prices.

The basic problem is this: more demand means more interest, which translates into more manufacturers, and more production. So far, so good. Then, more distributors pick up the goods – not just boutique operators like Schneider, but also bigger chains.

Where’s the problem? With too many modules out there in the marketplace, and more big retailers, it’s easier for the big retailers to start to squeeze manufacturers on price. Plus, the more modules out in the world, the greater the supply of used modules.

Andreas Schneider has chosen to weigh in on the issue personally. You can read his statement in German:

Jetzt auch XAOC bei Thomann ..

And in an English translation (with more commentary by Schneiderladen in English):

HerrSchneiders statement on current developments in the Eurorack market [stromkult]

There’s actually a lot there – though the banner revelation is seeing the cost of new modules suddenly plummet by 30%:

You asked for it: Due to the increased demand for Eurorack modules in Europe, even the large retailers for musical instruments are now filling the last corners of their warehouses and buying complete production runs from manufacturers and everything else they can get. Some manufacturers might be happy about this, but the flooding of the market already leads to a significant drop in prices here and there, some modules are already available with a 30% discount on the original calculated price and yet were still quite hot the other day!

As SchneidersLaden we have decided to go along with this development and of course offer corresponding products for the same price to our customers, although most of them have already bought them when the goods were still fresh and crisp! We’re almost a little sorry about that, but hopefully the hits are already produced and the music career is up and running? Nevertheless, sorry – but the decision for this way lies with the manufacturer and was not our recommendation!

By the way… we don’t advertise with moneyback-warranty… we’ve always practiced it. But please: get advice first, then buy – like in the good old days. Because it’s better to talk to your specialist retailer – we know what we are selling. And by the way: We do free shipping throughout Europe and there are Thursdays on that we are in the shop until nine o’clock in the evening …and real CHAOS serves creativity.

That had to be said – end of commercial break.

Okay, so some different messages. To manufacturers, with whom Schneider seems to place a lot of the blame, the message is to avoid glutting the market by selling so many units that then they lose their price margin. (That seems good advice.) There’s also a “dance with the one that brung you” attitude here, but that’s probably fair, as well.

To buyers, work with specialists, and please research what you buy so you don’t shoulder retailers and manufacturers with lots of returns. That seems good advice, too.

(Hope I’ve paraphrased that fairly.)

It does seem there’s a looming problem beyond just what’s here, though. For the community to continue to expand, it will have to find more new markets. It does seem some saturation point is inevitable, and that could mean a shakeout of some manufacturers – though that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The used market should also be a worry, though on the other hand, some people do always seem to buy new.

I’d echo what the two posts here say, which is the synth maker world will likely be healthy if manufacturers and consumers do some research and support one another.

Before anyone predicts the sky is falling, I’ve had a number of conversations with modular makers. Those with some experience seem to be doing just fine, even if some have expressed concern about the larger market and smaller and newer makers. That is, those with some marketing experience and unique products still see growth – but that growth may not translate to greener manufacturers who are trying to cram into what is becoming a crowded field.

Other thoughts? Let us know.

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Synths may be spared worst of US trade war – for now

Following Moog Music’s alarmed email regarding US trade policy, some in the synth industry have responded that the immediate impact on manufacturers will be minimal.

Okay, so what’s going on?

The matter of discussion is still a document by the US Trade Representative regarding proposed tariffs or import taxes. These are 25% additional tariffs imposed by the USA on Chinese goods as they’re imported into the United States.

This document has changed over the past months. But the USTR does provide a public comment period for any changes – meaning, while these tariffs are set to go into effect this Friday the 6th of July, theoretically there shouldn’t be any additional changes.

And that’s where there’s a legitimate problem with the way Moog Music – and my own writing here on CDM – presented the problem.

Paul Schreiber, an engineer who has worked with multiple companies in the industry, posted a heated rebuttal to the Moog letter. That was not necessarily to defend Trump administration policy, but rather to suggest that Moog and others may have overreacted or mischaracterized the immediate realities of the policy.

See, previously:
Moog urges US citizens to take action to stop Trump import tax

Long story short: the idea is, the tariffs apply only to small components, like LEDs and potentiometers, but not to more significant expenses like the “circuit boards” Moog mentioned in their email.

And in fact, the cost of those really shouldn’t significantly impact the cost of US-made products, including Moog’s – even on an instrument that’s covered in LEDs and stuffed with circuits, those particular parts make up a relatively small portion of the cost. They’re not meaningless – shaving dollars and even cents off individual components is a pretty major part of the design process. But they’re not the sort of thing that would disrupt jobs or hurt the economy.

The area of confusion may be around circuit boards, as Schreiber observes – and I’m forced to admit, I agree with his assessment. He writes in a follow-up post:

If you search the tariff PDF for ‘printed circuit assemblies’, you get many hits (ATM machines, radiation detectors, etc) and here in Section 90, this one listing.
The ‘issue’ is that the listing of the tariff codes are an ABBREVIATED DESCRIPTION, not ‘as formally written’ in the ACTUAL codes.
The 9030 section of Chapter 90 is SPECIFICALLY talking about oscilloscopes. And this 9030.90.68 is referring to a non-US company, importing a ‘kit of parts’ into the USA, including a stuffed pc board, and then building a scope in the USA.

That’s not necessarily a definitive list, and it is open to interpretation but … I do tend to agree with this interpretation, unless someone can present a compelling alternative reading.

There are still reasons for the electronic musical instrument building community to be concerned. An escalating trade war between the USA and its trading partners could pose unexpected problems in the near future. And if these trading difficulties hurt the US economy, that impact could be felt, too. But it’s important to separate that from the immediate impact on making synths, which for the moment may indeed be negligible.

Other industries have greater cause to worry. The US automakers in particular are seriously concerned about costs for raw materials and retaliatory penalties abroad – but they’re impacted differently than US synthmakers are. Agriculture are concerned, too, as punitive measures cut off markets they need for exports. (And, okay, yes, synthesizers make up a much smaller part of the US economy than cars or agriculture, obviously. I guess we still have work to do? Or we have to figure out how you can ride synthesizers to different places, or … eat them.)

The DIY community I shared in my original post are harder hit, too, as a lot of their products are just these components – see Boing Boing’s story on maker products.

And there’s the fact that the US President is saying threatening things about the EU in general.

But in a heated political climate, it’s important to separate long-term risks from immediate problems, and to keep concerns in scale. For now, it’s reasonable for makers like Moog to protest isolationist or protectionist US trade policy, or heated up trade rhetoric and potential trade wars. But the rules going into effect this week, when viewed just inside the context of our industry, likely aren’t catastrophic – not yet.

I’m awaiting further comment from Moog on their activism and will update this story when that’s available.

Feature photo (CC-BY Paul Downey.

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Trump’s tariffs could be costly for made-in-the-USA music gear

Industries like automative (and motorcycles) may be getting the attention, but music gear and even Eurorack could feel the impact of trade restrictions in the United States.

This is CDM, not the Economist, so let’s back up and review the issue but stick to the impact on makers of synthesizers, guitar pedals, and the like.

First, it’s important to note that for now, this is all talk – a threat by the Trump Administration meant to provoke rival China. Specifically, we’re talking about a the Trump Administration threat last week to impose stiff import tariffs on $200 billion in goods produced in China. But even the talk is relevant, as tensions between the superpowers can turn a threat into reality – especially if they cause the negotiations to fail.

Here’s what’s happened. Early last week, the Trump Administration threatened new tariffs on Chinese goods:
U.S., China Rattle Trade-War Sabers in Vowing Harsh Tariffs [Bloomberg]

Bloomberg immediately speculated that electronics could be hit hard. The result could be higher prices for consumers of those goods in the USA – presumably including some Chinese-made electronic music gear. CDM readers from South America, for instance, can attest to this reality – ask someone from Brazil, for instance, how expensive it is to get a popular music controller or mixer. Those tariffs hit the bottom-line cost of goods, so the penalty is passed on to the consumer, not necessarily the manufacturer (though more on that in a moment).

Then things got more specific – and interesting. The US Trade Representative (USTR) – essentially the office that both develops the President’s trade policy and represents the US on behalf of the Administration – published a list of just which Chinese goods it had in mind.

There’s a lot in that document, if you feel like reading it:
https://ustr.gov/sites/default/files/files/Press/Releases/301FRN.pdf

According to the USTR, this exhaustive list of products is selected based on goods that “benefit from Chinese industrial policies, including Made in China 2025.” (That in itself is a pretty striking statement – even in a western country like the USA, it’s hard to imagine that industries don’t benefit from government policies.) Then, from that list, the USTR claim they’ve removed products that would disrupt the US economy.

And then the whole lot of these products gets a proposed 25% increase in tariffs – on top of what’s already there.

The whole process of identifying this list is based on public hearings and comment. So if you’re a US citizen, you can actually participate in a public comment process if these tariffs would impact you.

And then you get into the list. The way the global trading system works is, you have a set of codes that describe specific categories of goods, to an absurd level of detail. Here, you have pages of particular kinds of steel and aluminum and machinery.

But one thing the list has a whole lot of us is electronics components: motors, batteries, but also LEDs, capacitors, diodes, transistors and the like. There are also a whole lot of machines and components used in the manufacture of electronics, from injection molding to electronics assembly.

There are also weird things, like electrical particle accelerators and nuclear power reactors, but we can forget about those.

The bottom line is, a lot of the ingredients of electronics are included under the tariffs, but then a lot of the assembled goods – including, as near as I can tell from this list, musical instruments and music and sound electronics – are excluded. Assembled TVs and (perversely) tape VCRs are taxed. But most other finished goods aren’t.

So if you thought your made-in-China pocket recorder or keyboard would be slapped with a tariff, that’s not what’s happening – not in the proposed list. In fact, it’s the made-in-the-USA gear that winds up getting more expensive, because American makers use components purchased from China.

The tech press has responded accordingly:

Gadget makers are bracing for Trump’s trade war: Trump’s tariffs could spell doom for small hardware startups [The Verge]

But maybe even more interestingly, DIY-focused site Hack-A-Day weighs in:
MAKING ELECTRONICS JUST GOT 25% MORE EXPENSIVE IN THE US

For example:

This will hurt all electronics manufacturers in the United States. For a quick example, I’m working on a project using half a million LEDs. I bought these LEDs (120 reels) two months ago for a few thousand dollars. This was a fantastic buy; half a million of the cheapest LEDs I could find on Mouser would cost seventeen thousand dollars. Sourcing from China saved thousands, and if I were to do this again, I may be hit with a 25% tariff.

(Emphasis mine.)

Potentiometers are included. PCB components.

A 25% increase in parts costs is fairly significant. It’s eating directly into profits. And what’s strange to me is, an easy way to avoid the tariffs would be to assemble the product outside the United States, since for most product categories – as ours are in music – the components are impacted but assembled products are not.

Sourcing from China saved thousands, and if I were to do this again, I may be hit with a 25% tariff.

For now, all of this is hypothetical. And I don’t want to overstate the case here. Trade and economic instability would likely threaten boutique music gear makers far more than these kinds of tariffs. That is, those boutique synth makers might be able to work out a way around the increased tariffs, and/or adjust prices. But if a massive trade war between the US and China erupts and crashes the economy, lost demand for synths would hurt more.

I do think this illustrates two important points, however.

One, even as electronic music offers some respite from politics and headlines, the news will inevitably reach electronic music and gear. You can’t escape the news in the end.

Two, it’s more clear than ever that the world is an interconnected place. DIY music and independent boutique music gear makers have exploded thanks to both the Internet and global trade. That’s included cheap access to prototyping, cheap components and machinery – even for those makers producing in the USA. For other engineers, cheap and expanding Chinese manufacture has allowed people to become manufacturers who otherwise never would have done so.

That’s not to get into the deeper questions of how positive these trends have been, or what impacts they may have had along the way – societal, environmental, human.

But the world of 2018 sees musicians and inventors tied together across borders and distance in ways they never were before. And with that world order shifting fast, those connections are likely to change along with them, in unpredictable ways.

Okay, you’re now free to go apply some unpredictable modulation to an oscillator if all of this made your head hurt.

All comments welcome. (I’ve reached out for comment to some manufacturers; I expect an ongoing conversation here around these issues, especially as we get more news.)

Feature photo (CC-BY Paul Downey.

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Minds, machines, and centralization: AI and music

Far from the liberated playground the Internet once promised, online connectivity now threatens to give us mainly pre-programmed culture. As we continue reflections on AI from CTM Festival in Berlin, here’s an essay from this year’s program.

If you attended Berlin’s festival this year, you got this essay I wrote – along with a lot of compelling writing from other thinkers – in a printed book in the catalog. I asked for permission from CTM Festival to reprint it here for those who didn’t get to join us earlier this year. I’m going to actually resist the temptation to edit it (apart from bringing it back to CDM-style American English spellings), even though a lot has happened in this field even since I wrote it at the end of December. But I’m curious to get your thoughts.

I also was lucky enough to get to program a series of talks for CTM Festival, which we made available in video form with commentary earlier this week, also with CTM’s help:
A look at AI’s strange and dystopian future for art, music, and society

The complete set of talks from CTM 2018 are now available on SoundCloud. It’s a pleasure to get to work with a festival that not only has a rich and challenging program of music and art, but serves as a platform for ideas, debate, and discourse, too. (Speaking of which, greetings from another European festival that commits to that – SONAR, in Barcelona.)

The image used for this article is an artwork by Memo Akten, used with permission, as suggested by curator and CTM 2018 guest speaker Estela Oliva. It’s called “Inception,” and I think is a perfect example of how artists can make these technologies expressive and transcendent, amplifying their flaws into something uniquely human.

Minds, Machines, and Centralisation: Why Musicians Need to Hack AI Now

IN THIS ARTICLE, CTM HACKLAB DIRECTOR PETER KIRN PROVIDES A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE CO-OPTING OF MUSIC AND LISTENING BY CENTRALIZED INDUSTRY AND CORPORATIONS, IDENTIFYING MUZAK AS A PRECURSOR TO THE USE OF ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE FOR “PRE-PROGRAMMED CULTURE.” HE GOES ON TO DISCUSS PRODUCTIVE WAYS FOR THOSE WHO VALUE “CHOICE AND SURPRISE” TO REACT TO AND INTERACT WITH TECHNOLOGIES LIKE THESE THAT GROW MORE INESCAPABLE BY THE DAY.

It’s now a defunct entity, but “Muzak,” the company that provided background music, was once everywhere. Its management saw to it that their sonic product was ubiquitous, intrusive, and even engineered to impact behavior — and so the word Muzak became synonymous with all that was hated and insipid in manufactured culture.

Anachronistic as it may seem now, Muzak was a sign of how tele-communications technology would shape cultural consumption. Muzak may be known for its sound, but its delivery method is telling. Nearly a hundred years before Spotify, founder Major General George Owen Squier originated the idea of sending music over wires — phone wires, to be fair, but still not far off from where we’re at today. The patent he got for electrical signalling doesn’t mention music, or indeed even sound content. But the Major General was the first successful business founder to prove in practice that electronic distribution of music was the future, one that would take power out of the hands of radio broadcasters and give the delivery company additional power over content. (He also came up with the now-loathed Muzak brand name.)

What we now know as the conventional music industry has its roots in pianola rolls, then in jukeboxes, and finally in radio stations and physical media. Muzak was something different, as it sidestepped the whole structure: playlists were selected by an unseen, centralized corporation, then piped everywhere. You’d hear Muzak in your elevator ride in a department store (hence the phrase, elevator music). There were speakers tucked into potted plants. The White House and NASA at some points subscribed. Anywhere there was silence, it might be replaced with pre-programmed music.

Muzak added to its notoriety by marketing the notion of using its product to boost worker productivity, through a pseudo-scientific regimen it called the “stimulus progression.” And in that, we see a notion that presages today’s app behavior loops and motivators, meant to drive consumption and engagement, ad clicks and app swipes.

Muzak for its part didn’t last forever, with stimulus progression long since debunked, customers preferring licensed music to this mix of original sounds, and newer competitors getting further ahead in the marketplace.

But what about the idea of homogenized, pre-programmed culture delivered by wire, designed for behavior modification? That basic concept seems to be making a comeback.

Automation and Power

“AI” or machine intelligence has been tilted in the present moment to focus on one specific area: the use of self-training algorithms to process large amounts of data. This is a necessity of our times, and it has special value to some of the big technical players who just happen to have competencies in the areas machine learning prefers — lots of servers, top mathematical analysts, and big data sets.

That shift in scale is more or less inescapable, though, in its impact. Radio implies limited channels; limited channels implies human selectors — meet the DJ. The nature of the internet as wide-open for any kind of culture means wide open scale. And it will necessarily involve machines doing some of the sifting, because it’s simply too large to operate otherwise.

There’s danger inherent in this shift. One, users may be lazy, willing to let their preferences be tipped for them rather than face the tyranny of choice alone. Two, the entities that select for them may have agendas of their own. Taken as an aggregate, the upshot could be greater normalization and homogenization, plus the marginalization of anyone whose expression is different, unviable commercially, or out of sync with the classes of people with money and influence. If the dream of the internet as global music community seems in practice to lack real diversity, here’s a clue as to why.

At the same time, this should all sound familiar — the advent of recording and broadcast media brought with it some of the same forces, and that led to the worst bubblegum pop and the most egregious cultural appropriation. Now, we have algorithms and corporate channel editors instead of charts and label execs — and the worries about payola and the eradication of anything radical or different are just as well-placed.

What’s new is that there’s now also a real-time feedback loop between user actions and automated cultural selection (or perhaps even soon, production). Squier’s stimulus progression couldn’t monitor metrics representing the listener. Today’s online tools can. That could blow apart past biases, or it could reinforce them — or it could do a combination of the two.

In any case, it definitely has power. At last year’s CTM hacklab, Cambridge University’s Jason Rentfrow looked at how music tastes could be predictive of personality and even political thought. The connection was timely, as the talk came the same week as Trump assumed the U.S. presidency, his campaign having employed social media analytics to determine how to target and influence voters.

We can no longer separate musical consumption — or other consumption of information and culture — from the data it generates, or from the way that data can be used. We need to be wary of centralized monopolies on that data and its application, and we need to be aware of how these sorts of algorithms reshape choice and remake media. And we might well look for chances to regain our own personal control.

Even if passive consumption may seem to be valuable to corporate players, those players may discover that passivity suffers diminishing returns. Activities like shopping on Amazon, finding dates on Tinder, watching television on Netflix, and, increasingly, music listening, are all experiences that push algorithmic recommendations. But if users begin to follow only those automated recommendations, the suggestions fold back in on themselves, and those tools lose their value. We’re left with a colorless growing detritus of our own histories and the larger world’s. (Just ask someone who gave up on those Tinder dates or went to friends because they couldn’t work out the next TV show to binge-watch.)

There’s also clearly a social value to human recommendations — expert and friend alike. But there’s a third way: use machines to augment humans, rather than diminish them, and open the tools to creative use, not only automation.

Music is already reaping benefits of data training’s power in new contexts. By applying machine learning to identifying human gestures, Rebecca Fiebrink has found a new way to make gestural interfaces for music smarter and more accessible. Audio software companies are now using machine learning as a new approach to manipulating sound material in cases where traditional DSP tools are limited. What’s significant about this work is that it makes these tools meaningful in active creation rather than passive consumption.

AI, back in user hands

Machine learning techniques will continue to expand as tools by which the companies mining big data make sense of their resources — from ore into product. It’s in turn how they’ll see us, and how we’ll see ourselves.

We can’t simply opt out, because those tools will shape the world around us with or without our personal participation, and because the breadth of available data demands their use. What we can do is to better understand how they work and reassert our own agency.

When people are literate in what these technologies are and how they work, they can make more informed decisions in their own lives and in the larger society. They can also use and abuse these tools themselves, without relying on magical corporate products to do it for them.

Abuse itself has special value. Music and art are fields in which these machine techniques can and do bring new discoveries. There’s a reason Google has invested in these areas — because artists very often can speculate on possibilities and find creative potential. Artists lead.

The public seems to respond to rough edges and flaws, too. In the 60s, when researcher Joseph Weizenbaum attempted to parody a psychotherapist with crude language pattern matching in his program, ELIZA, he was surprised when users started to tell the program their darkest secrets and imagine understanding that wasn’t there. The crudeness of Markov chains as predictive text tool — they were developed for analyzing Pushkin statistics and not generating language, after all — has given rise to breeds of poetry based on their very weirdness. When Google’s style transfer technique was applied using a database of dog images, the bizarre, unnatural images that warped photos into dogs went viral online. Since then, Google has made vastly more sophisticated techniques that apply realistic painterly effects and… well, it seems that’s attracted only a fraction of the interest that the dog images did.

Maybe there’s something even more fundamental at work. Corporate culture dictates predictability and centralized value. The artist does just the opposite, capitalizing on surprise. It’s in the interest of artists if these technologies can be broken. Muzak represents what happens to aesthetics when centralized control and corporate values win out — but it’s as much the widespread public hatred that’s the major cautionary tale. The values of surprise and choice win out, not just as abstract concepts but also as real personal preferences.

We once feared that robotics would eliminate jobs; the very word is derived (by Czech writer Karel Čapek’s brother Joseph) from the word for slave. Yet in the end, robotic technology has extended human capability. It has brought us as far as space and taken us through Logo and its Turtle, even taught generations of kids math, geometry, logic, and creative thinking through code.

We seem to be at a similar fork in the road with machine learning. These tools can serve the interests of corporate control and passive consumption, optimised only for lazy consumption that extracts value from its human users. Or, we can abuse and misuse the tools, take them apart and put them back together again, apply them not in the sense that “everything looks like a nail” when all you have is a hammer, but as a precise set of techniques to solve specific problems. Muzak, in its final days, was nothing more than a pipe dream. What people wanted was music — and choice. Those choices won’t come automatically. We may well have to hack them.

PETER KIRN is an audiovisual artist, composer/musician, technologist, and journalist. He is the editor of CDM and co-creator of the open source MeeBlip hardware synthesizer (meeblip.com). For six consecutive years, he has directed the MusicMaker’s Hacklab at CTM Festival, most recently together with new media artist Ioann Maria.

http://ctm-festival.de/

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BBC gives away 16k WAV sound effects, but disallows you using them

Maybe it’s time for the idea of a “commons” to get a new boost. Whatever the reason, BBC’s 16,000 sound effects are available to download – but with strings attached.

The BBC Sound Effects site offering has gotten plenty of online sharing. This is a sound effects library culled from the archives of the BBC and its Radiophonic Workshop, a selection of sounds dug up from broadcast sound work. There’s both synthetic sound design and field recording work – sometimes not really identified as such. I know this, because I used what I believe is the edition of this that was once released on a big series of CDs.

If you just want to listen to some interesting sounds, you can stream or download WAV files of sounds ranging from “‘Pystyll Rhadn’ falls, North Wales, with birdsong” to lorries, and, this being England, lots of exotic sounds from the far reaches of the former British Empire and a bunch of business to do with ships. (There’s a reason English is dotted with obscure boat-related idioms like saying someone is “two sheets to the wind” when they’re drunk.)

And it’s good fun. Right now the sound of a parrot is trending:

http://bbcsfx.acropolis.org.uk/

The catch is, you’re probably thinking of downloading those files and making a Deep House track with the parrot. But you can’t – not legally. If you want, you can wade through the murky terms, which seem to be written for schoolchildren in terms of language level, but oddly evasive about what it is you’re actually allowed to do:

https://github.com/bbcarchdev/Remarc/blob/master/doc/2016.09.27_RemArc_Content%20licence_Terms%20of%20Use_final.pdf

I can save you the trouble, though. There’s no explicit allowance for derivative works, which rules out even “non-commercial” sampling. That is, your parrot track is out, even if you plan to give it away. Non-commercial use itself suggests you need to have a site that not only has no ads (like this one does), but may even explicitly have some educational purpose. “Personal” use implies you can sample the sounds, so long as no one else hears your remix, which rather defeats the point. So you almost certainly can’t sample the parrot and even upload the result to SoundCloud.

The easy way to look at this is, you can build an educational app around these sounds or listen to them on your own, but you can’t really use them the way you’d tend to use sound samples.

For that, you need to buy a licensed product. Sound Ideas has the full library for around four hundred bucks. And then you can use, they advertise:

1936 Raleigh Sports Bike
Euston Railway Station
St. Paul’s Cathedral
1986 Silver Sprite Rolls Royce
Audience Reactions at the Royal Albert Hall
County Cricket Match
Big Ben
Markets in Morocco, Algeria, Niger, Zaire, Ethiopia, Kenya…

I’m sure the CDs themselves also had a lot of license restrictions attached, though owning a physical object might make you feel as though you had purchased rights for use.

British taxpayer license fees fund this sort of work, just as taxpayer money funds media in many countries of the world. That raises the question of what a government funded archive should be, and how it should be made available.

For background, this project came out of a now-ended four-year project to make UK archives publicly available:
https://bbcarchdev.github.io/res/

I’m not arguing the BBC have made the wrong choice. But it’s clear that there are two divergent views on public archives and content in the public sphere. One looks like this: the government retains copyright, and you can’t really use them beyond “research” purposes. The other is more permissive. For instance, the US space program actually does allow commercial use of a lot of its materials, provided an endorsement is implied. So even while releasing content into the public domain, the US government is able to avoid implications of endorsement or people posing as their space agency, which the BBC agreement above does, while allowing people to get creative with their materials.

And that ability to be creative is precisely what’s lacking in the BBC offering. Restricting content to “research” and “noncommercial” uses sounds like a lofty goal, but it often rules out the activities of artists – the very impulses that generated all those BBC sound effects in the first place. The reason is, unless you explicitly allow derivative and (often) even commercial use, it’s too easy for those creative uses to technical qualify as a violation.

It seems like this idea of commons could use a fresh boost, around the world. (The British taxpayer-funded sounds should have been an easy one; it gets much harder as you go to other parts of the world.)

The US government’s notions of public access content date back to the 1960s. But there are signs governments can begin fresh, digital-friendly initiatives. For one example, look to the European Space Agency, who last year managed an open access programs across a variety of different governments and private contractors (no small task):

http://open.esa.int/

Anyway, for now, it is still fun listening to that parrot.

http://bbcsfx.acropolis.org.uk/

By the way, speaking of Creative Commons: the feature image for this story comes from Paul Hudson, taken at Rough Trade East (of a tape machine from the BBC Radiophonic Workshop collection), under the attribution-only CC-BY license. It was released on Flickr, from a time when this sort of license metadata was deemed important.

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Adobe drops QuickTime support, as visual artists look for a solution

The story: Apple leaves QuickTime securities unpatched on Windows; Adobe drops support in their product line. But that leaves creative people stuck – including live visual artists. And now they’re looking for solutions.

First, here’s the sequence of events – and if you’ve been watching the general mayhem in the US government, you’d be forgiven for missing what was happening with, like, QuickTime for Windows security.

First, from the US Department of Homeland Security (really, even if the headline looks more like Macworld):

Apple Ends Support for QuickTime for Windows; New Vulnerabilities Announced [US-CERT Alert (TA16-105A)]

And from a private security firm:

Urgent Call to Action: Uninstall QuickTime for Windows Today [TrendMicro]

To follow that advice, you can perform that installation on Windows as follower (macOS users aren’t impacted):

Uninstall QuickTime 7 for Windows

That is, Apple had already dropped QuickTime for Windows development, including fixing security vulnerabilities – and this known one is bad enough to finally uninstall the software. It’s a Web-based vulnerability, so not particularly relevant to us making visuals, but significant nonetheless.

Developers should already have begun removing dependencies on QuickTime some time ago. But because of the variety of formats artists support, this starts to break some specific workflows. So here’s Adobe:

QuickTime on Windows [Adobe blog]

And before you get too smug, Mac users, you can expect some bumps in the road as cross-platform software generally tries to get out of QuickTime as a dependency. That could get messy, again, with so many formats out there. But let’s deal with Windows and Adobe software.

What works: uncompressed, DV, IMX, MPEG2, XDCAM, h264, JPEG, DNxHD, DNxHR, AVCI and Cineform), plus “DV and Cineform in .mov wrappers.”

What breaks: Among others, Apple ProRes (the big one), plus “Animation (import and export), DNxHD/HR (export) as would workflows where growing QuickTime files are being used (although we strongly advise using MXF for this wherever possible).”

Moreover, Adobe is dropping QuickTime 7 codec support on all April releases of their full CC product line:

Dropped support for Quicktime 7 era formats and codecs [Adobe support]

Adobe advises customers to move to newer codecs, but that isn’t always an option. PC World have a tough appraisal of the situation (one I’m sure Adobe could live without):

Adobe on QuickTime: You’re up the creek without a paddle [PC World]

That’s by Gordon Mah Ung, the editor who has been around this business long enough not to mince words.

David Lublin of Vidvox writes CDM to let us know that in the short term, this also impacts Adobe software support for their high performance, open Hap format (plus DXV and many other legacy codecs VJs may tend to use). I also spoke with Mark Conilgio of Isadora, who said he was sad to see QuickTime support go, and that it would prevent cross-platform file support, Isadora 3 will remove QuickTime dependencies and work with native file formats on the respective platforms.

Hey, Adobe: Get Hap!

A silver lining: this may be a chance to “shake the tree” and convince Adobe to add native support for Hap, a high performance format that leverages your GPU to delivery snappy playback, ideal for live and interactive visual applications. And given that’s an open source format, and unlike anything else available, that’d be great. There’s already a proposal online to make that (hap)pen:

https://adobe-video.uservoice.com/forums/911311-after-effects/suggestions/33853372-support-the-hap-codec

Hap was built in collaboration with talented developer Tom Butterworth. And Adobe has incorporated his code before: in 2016, Character Animator added support for Syphon, the inter-app visual texture pipeline on Mac:
https://www.adobe.com/products/character-animator/features.html

Work with Hap right now

For Hap support – and you really should be working with it – here are some immediate solutions.

Encoding to Hap from the command line using FFmpeg

Converting movies to the Hap video codec

But I’d love to see Adobe support the format. It’s just a codec; there’s no real UX requirement, and the code is there and flexibly licensed.

Meanwhile, perhaps this is a nice illustration of how important it is that live visual art move to open, cross-platform de facto standards. It makes work and art future proof and portable, and removes some overhead for developers making both free and commercial tools. And given that computers are based on many of the same architectures, it makes sense for the ways we store video and express graphical information to be portable and standardized.

For Vidvox’s part, there’s a nice summary on their page of what they support – and a lot of the formats they’re championing can be used by developers on Windows and Linux, not just macOS:

Open Source At VIDVOX

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