We need to discuss race in electronic music, and we need a new way to communicate

A social media meltdown reveals some deeper issues in the electronic dance music world – and the ways in which online media are amplifying divisions.

Humans and technology melted down this week – but that shouldn’t avail us of an obligation to stand up for people, even when it’s uncomfortable.

Forest fires are raging in California because of trivial sparks, literally. So, without weighing in on every social media tempest, we should still talk about some of the issues beneath. And this matters to music production and music technology because this is fundamentally about who produces music, how that interacts with privilege, and how technology is involved in musical production and communication.

First, here is what happened in paraphrase – one of this week’s microcosms of breakdowns in racial discrimination and online communication. (Resident Advisor has the full sequence since some content was deleted – no, the Internet doesn’t forget, sorry.) The details and even the incident aren’t really important in any large scheme, but see if you can spot the point where compassion goes badly off the rails.

  • Siberian-born Nina Kraviz got a haircut and took some selfies.
  • NYC-based Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson (among others) talked about why that related to deeper feelings about racism, and why it could be hurtful to other people of color.
  • Nina Kraviz told Frankie in effect those feelings were unimportant to her, because her perspective on the meaning of her gesture was different, and went as far as turning the accusation of racism the other way, without evidence. (Direct quotes: “I can wear whatever I want!” and “You think that spreading hate, agression [sic], separation, bullying in our scene and validating reverse racism is OK. “)
  • A whole lot of people of color spoke to their own experience about why that could trigger deeper feelings about racism, and why it could be hurtful to other people of color.

Then, in real-time, there was something we’ve seen regularly in social media: a pile on of short, on-the-spot monologues about the writer’s personal opinions, in a crescendo of polarized sides amplifying their own position. Troublingly, many attacks were directed at people of color and people who speak out about these issues. We’re seeing this cycle over and over again, yet at the same time, we can’t dismiss the problems beneath.

Now, what you saw of all of this is highly variable – not only through the very real filter of all of our own biases and internalized racism, but literally what the technology showed you. And this happens fast: the time window to see the originating tweets was roughly 2-3 hours on Monday evening.

Depending on who you follow on social media and how millions of lines of computer algorithms are personalizing that feed to heuristics about your taste, you may have missed this story altogether, or made a gesture that signaled to those algorithms your disinterest, causing them to vanish.

Alternatively, the algorithms’ complex mathematical rules may have bombarded you with an explosion of impassioned comments and chosen which would get priority. This weighting is constructed, as extensive research has shown, primarily to increase engagement and profit, with a questionable weighting on either your well-being or the accuracy and balance of what you’re shown. Even before these reached your brain, they were filtered by statistical machine learning rules intended to maximize your engagement.

And whether by algorithmic weighting or most-recent chronological ordering, the longer these discussions go, the more likely you are to see copy-of-a-copy punditry and waves of frustration than the original discussion, as if you walked in on the end of a barroom brawl.

This also leads inevitably, in any case, to the same claim: “why aren’t xx people talking about yy.” Very often, these mirror a non-online, real ignorance. But rather than helping resolve that issue, social media can present an unmanageable torrent of disorganized information and even actively amplify ignorance, all while distorting timescale (again, realizing that some people are joining a conversation hours or days later than others).

To the extent it seems like discussions on Twitter have gotten more heated since, oh, about 2016, they absolutely have, due to algorithmic changes. Facebook has similar heuristics. Both are intended to keep you focused on these products.

Putting all that aside, whatever did reach your brain was filtered again through years of learned experience about race, which will have been very different based on who you are, what your skin color is, and where you grew up with that skin color. This changes your behavior, which then … feeds back into the algorithms.

We’re dealing with both human and machine heuristics that can be toxic and divisive, and worst of all, they’re locked in a feedback loop. Machines are learning from some of our worst impulses even as we fail to learn to be better. It also needs to be said, this same system is open to outside manipulation – and with or without that manipulation, it skews our perception of one another and of issues.

The technology shouldn’t excuse bad behavior or learned racism and bias. On the contrary – it means that racism and bias have more urgency than ever. If ever there was a doubt, time’s now up to listen to who is marginalized and needs to be heard.

While social media rages away, this also means it’s worth reading long-form content and taking time to consider.

So let’s read:

Ash Lauryn: Keeping It Real… [Underground & Black]

The author, a Detroit-based DJ / writer / radio host, was one of the first to react and one of the first to bear the brunt of a full-on pile on, often from white people (which is a serious sign that something is seriously wrong here, having nothing to do with hair or Russian DJs). Full credit – Axmed of Dutch Dance with Pride posted this; you can find this and other links to their organization on Linktree.

It’s possibly even useful reading the article – and other posts – more than once, to be really aware of the message and unpack our own reactions as well as to process what she says. Sometimes, a re-read can help remove some of our own filters; empathy doesn’t require agreement, but empathy takes practice.

Over and over again, I heard this – while many people focused on Nina’s original hair selfies, they ignored the concerns that it was the response from Nina that was so offensive. Highlighting that bit:

Rather than listen and attempt to have a constructive conversation about her use of the term “ghetto” and cultural appropriation, she jumped right into defense mode. The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was her having the audacity to call one of the most dedicated people to diversity in the scene right now, whom also happens to be a black woman, a racist. That’s the point when I lost all respect.

Also, something I heard many people echo, she talks about why this is so personal (excerpt) – that this is a particular badge of pride in particular because it represents what had been denied:

As a black woman who wears cornrows on a regular basis, I find pride and strength in rocking the style, and it often feels like a form of resistance against the white society that tells me I need to wear my hair straight to be accepted. Perhaps this is what makes the topic a sensitive one, because to me, the style is not simply a fad or a costume for the night- it’s my heritage.

This issue of cultural appropriation clearly isn’t a simple one, because the core of it is dealing with people’s emotions. And much as the right-wing pundits in my native country loves to mock that aspect of it, caring about people’s feelings and how you impact them is the essence of compassion.

And yet, for all the apparent trendiness of the issue, it’s clear the questions of racism don’t get talked about enough or with enough depth. That was the overwhelming message of the frustration with Nina Kraviz I was able to dig through – that this didn’t come out of the blue, but sparked a long-standing, quiet frustration with ignorance and appropriation.

I’m disappointed in Nina Kraviz, though I hope she will find a way to undo this damage. I respect her as an artist, for her label, for what she’s had to put up with because of sexism and jealousy directed at her. But when she finishes her discussion with “I am not a racist. And I hope you know and feel that” – she misses the point. If you rephrase this discussion with “this hurts people, and connects to a history of hurting people,” and the response “no, it doesn’t, I can do whatever I want,” you get at the core of the issue. The question isn’t who is “a racist” or not, like asking if someone is a Methodist or a plumber. We say things, they have consequences, they impact other people.

So the question is whether we listen and respond when that impact is hurtful. This isn’t political correctness; it’s basic human compassion and decency.

Some messages are simple – there is absolutely no reason to argue that Frankie was in the wrong; she defends herself on that:

Some issues this episode has raised are much harder, in that they might not only be uncomfortable to talk about but might require real reflection and disagreement and even radically different viewpoints. I do hope we tackle them, and I appreciate that they’ll take time. I also know plenty of writers have already written extensively about this issue, researched this issue, and they deserve more of a platform and more awareness.

I went back and re-read Frankie’s answers to this site, as she talked about self-care and how she handles social media. It’s also important to note the ways she said at the time social media can be important and productive – and I think we have to listen to those, too. (It’s absurd not to be able to use a medium and to criticize it – I would flip it around and say it’s necessary to do both those things.)

Yes, to Ash Lauryn’s plea that the press and artists need to respond to these kinds of incidents, we damned well better find a way to do it. Yes, folks like me have an added responsibility to educate ourselves on our privilege because otherwise we’re part of the problem.

No, this can’t always happen in real-time, and it can’t always fit on social media, because of the limitations of human health and the fact that social media platforms are moderated by machines, not humans, and the machines’ priorities are set by corporations.

The best I can do is suggest we respond as thoughtfully as we can on social media, and make some space outside social media to have conversations, too. And since the press in the past hasn’t always done a job of opening up space, I hope that independent, open Web media can try to do better. That should mean giving up some space to other voices.

This is not labor to do this in music; it’s a privilege to have the opportunity to share with others access to a medium that lets us channel how we feel. When race, class, accessibility, gender, geography, sexual orientation, and other variables become barriers to music, we’re lucky to have any chance to make any change. So we need to listen to what we can do.

I can’t personally say more beyond that, so let’s just finish on Ash Lauryn’s mix for RA. If anyone says “make it about the music,” don’t worry – the people I quoted here are on that, too:

If people do want to share experience, and if there are other articles to add, please get in touch. You can actually reach me on Twitter, even. (Ahem.)

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42 Hours of Buckminster Fuller might be just the vision we need right now

Electronic creativity has always embraced futurism – not uncritical futurism, but visionary imagination that leads out of apocalypse and dystopia. So there’s no time like the present for someone like Buckminster Fuller.

Fuller gave his “Everything I Know” lectures in two weeks in January 1975. All 42 hours are online, in video form and text transcripts.

This is how presentations should be done. Yes, he went through his work, covering the likes of his famed Dymaxion house and car (and bathroom!) and those iconic geodesic domes. But even in an age when you couldn’t just look up someone’s portfolio online, these were obviously fresh takes on his lifelong fascination in deeper themes of architecture, design, philosophy, mathematics, and how to engineer a better world.

“Or relative size of any of the data.” by saschapohflepp is licensed under CC BY 2.0

And it’s that sense where Fuller’s approach might be most relevant today – not the answers he found, some of which date better than others, but the questions he asked and the way in which he asked them.

At a time when humans face a unique existential challenge to our survival, maybe it’s time to toss disciplines (as Fuller did), or at least bring them together. And the kinds of exercises Fuller designed, which incorporated questions of self-sufficiency and survival, might be even more vital to our thinking than they were a year ago. Those approaches tended to the, how shall we say, unconventional:

The first exercise—called “Who Are You and What Are You Thinking?”—simply dropped them off in the isolated wilderness for three days with just $10 and an emergency whistle. The idea was to understand through their absence the human extensions that they would be designing for the rest of their lives.

R. Buckminster Fuller: Southern Illinois University of Carbondale, article at Radical Pedagogies

In a way, actually, it’s too bad that early techno music embraced the Tofflers and their eventually conservative corporate-friendly Future Shock and not someone like Fuller who might overthrow some of those same power structures, but … hey, the night is young.

Good luck, kids! Hands-on pedagogy, open air style. “Buckminster Fuller Black Mountain College” by POET ARCHITECTURE is licensed under CC PDM 1.0
“Buckminster Fuller” by maiabee is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Fuller’s beauty is that his work is relentlessly experimental, and ultimately his philosophy of the human is built on that notion. From the opening of this series:

All humanity has always been born naked, absolutely helpless, for months, and though with beautiful equipment, as we learn later on, with no experience, and therefore, absolutely ignorant. That’s where all humanity has always started. And we’ve come to the point where, in our trial and error finding our way, stimulated by a designed in hunger designed in thirst these are conscious inputs; designed in procreative urge we have such an enormous amount of, as we learn later on, of designed in automated processing of the inter-relationships of all the atoms in our organism, starting then, with a consciousness of the hunger, giving a drive to go after…to seek to experiment. Man having, then, no rulebook, nothing to tell him about that Universe, has had to really find his way entirely by trial and error. He had no words and no experience to assume that the other person has experience.

Session 1 / Part 1

I think the last thing the world needs it more hero worship or dead white guys. But Fuller’s thinking is the kind that makes you want to run out into the wilderness and, you know, build a geodesic dome or something. It’s the kind of elderly wisdom we need – the wisdom to toss all the elderly wisdom and do something.

And some of the templates here, for treating survival as an engineering problem, have clear implications to people even with a background in media tech or electronic music invention. (As it happens, I’m working on the calls for two more MusicMakers Hacklabs now, so some of you will get drafted into that mission.)

It’s lovely watching through, or reading through, or doing a needle drop on any of this material.

What to do next? Well, we’re all naked and none of us knows the rules. So let’s try something.

Article and context from 2012: Everything I Know: 42 Hours of Buckminster Fuller’s Visionary Lectures Free Online (1975) [openculture]

https://www.bfi.org/about-fuller/resources/everything-i-know [Text archives]

https://archive.org/search.php?query=collection%3Abuckminsterfuller&sort=-publicdate [full downloadable videos, Internet Archive]

[Buckminster Fuller Institute is the one authorized and complete source for this information]

There’s also this documentary: https://buckminsterfullerfilm.com/

At top/featured image: “R. Buckminster Fuller holds up a Tensegrity sphere. 18th April, 1979.” by POET ARCHITECTURE is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

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Years of MySpace music deleted; Internet weeps

It’s not so much that anyone expected MySpace to be alive at this point, let alone a safe place for music uploads. The demise of years of MySpace music is more like a sad reminder of the direction of the Internet.

First, there’s actually a few events in the timeline of how so much music disappeared from the service in the first place.

Remember that about ten years ago it had only just been surpassed by Facebook. Since then, relative traffic, revenue, and headcount have plunged dramatically. The 2016 acquisition by Time Inc. was of a far weaker company, but even then ad revenue was seen as its value. Part of what Apple, Spotify, Facebook, and Google-owned YouTube have done, arguably, is weaken the overall market for ad revenue and premium services in music. That’s why it’s still worth watching SoundCloud’s creator-driven strategy, in contrast to the rest of the industry.

In the midst of the business meltdown, the circumstances of MySpace’s “loss” of years of much are highly suspicious.

Users on reddit have been the ones to chronicle what was going on at each step. Keep in mind, here they’re referring to their own user-uploaded content.

About one year ago, reddit users reported being unable to access a lot of previously available music, and got this cryptic response from MySpace:

There is an issue with all songs/videos uploaded over 3 years ago. We are aware of the issue and I have been informed the issue will be fixed, however, there is no exact time frame for when this will be completed. Until this is resolved the option to download is not available. I apologize for the inconvenience this may be causing.

Also from March of last year:

We’re in the process of doing a huge maintenance project for videos and songs. Due to this maintenance, you may notice some issues playing songs or videos. During this process, there may be possible downtime. We are actively working to ensure there is little to no issues with your listening experience. Please bear with us.

You may also notice missing artwork during this transition. We’re diligently working to get this resolved asap.

Please also note, all FLV videos can no longer be played due to an update to the player. We updated our player to HTML5. Unfortunately, we do not offer a way to play or download these videos.

Eight months ago, the player displayed this notice:

As a result of a server migration project, any photos, videos, and audio files you uploaded more than three years ago may no longer be available on or from Myspace. We apologize for the inconvenience and suggest that you retain your back up copies. If you would like more information, please contact our Data Protection Officer, Dr. Jana Jentzsch at DPO@myspace.com.

The timeline of news around the issue this week is actually incorrect, because it appears that all of this happened about a year ago. Seven months ago was when one redditer got a notice from the company saying files had been deleted. Yet only this week it seems mainstream sites (including this one, erm, okay mainstream sites plus this one) took notice.

You’ll notice what happened there. Files disappeared without notice, then messages suggested that they might be somehow part of a migration, then suddenly they were “corrupted.”

By the way, Dr. Jentzsch apparently a third-party legal counsel in Germany, not MySpace management.

This paints a clear picture. It’s highly unlikely that this was an engineering error so much as the company poorly managing messaging about dropping old content entirely. That was the theory put forward on Twitter by Andy Vaio, veteran of Kickstarter, waxy, upcoming.org, and others:

Uh, yeah:

In fact, the language used (“corrupted,” “server migration”) also appears not to be written by an engineer – in that an engineer would be more specific.

BBC and I are at least seven or eight months, maybe one year late on this, but yes, it’s on BBC:

MySpace admits losing 12 years’ worth of music uploads

But, okay, this part is obvious.

Equally obvious: you shouldn’t count on services to be the only copy of your stuff. These services generally have no obligation to keep things accessible.

Also equally obvious: a lot of us know that and do it anyway.

Obvious follow-up: we should go right now to places with our music, download it, and put it multiple places that are safe – both physically and online.

No, like right now.

And we should be particularly mistrusting of big services this month, in which both Gmail and Facebook suffered major, multi=hours outages for which their enormously wealth corporate owners provided absolutely no explanation.

There’s a broader issue, though, beyond our own stuff. We need to begin to properly archive online content, and imagine how it will be more widely available – what we assumed the Internet would do in the first place. And there, folks like Jason Scott of the Internet Archive have been working on just that.

Charmingly, he’s even archiving skins for Winamp:

But I think we need a complete reboot of what we’re doing with the Internet for music. I’ll be writing about that in coming weeks and trying to get your input (readers) and the input of other people involved in projects from the past, present, and future.

The situation right now is bleak – and the fact that people really were still looking to MySpace for their music demonstrates how bleak. Music uploaded to the “old Internet” may quickly be lost forever. Music now disappears into a black box of distribution services. Some of those distributors will actually remove music from streaming and download sites if the creators or publishers don’t pay up on a regular basis. And once on these sites, many artists will never see any amount of real, measurable income – whatever Spotify and Apple may be quarreling about currently.

In fact, I’d go as far as arguing that the focus on whether music makers get paid for their work ignores the fact that a lot of music makers feel they aren’t heard at all.

Which brings us back to MySpace. The early days of the Internet were full of music – even illegal music. It was the age of the netlabel. And then MySpace was the dominant social network from 2004 to 2010 – meaning that social media was dominated by music.

Obviously, that’s not the case now. Now we have “influencers” and selfies and literally Neo-Nazis and hate speech and fake news and almost everything but music.

If people are suddenly lamenting the loss of years-old data on MySpace, it could be because music online hasn’t grown as we hoped it would.

There’s still time to change that. We’re not getting any younger – and neither is the Web. So that time is now.

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Why is this Valentine’s song made by an AI app so awful?

Do you hate AI as a buzzword? Do you despise the millennial whoop? Do you cringe every time Valentine’s Day arrives? Well – get ready for all those things you hate in one place. But hang in there – there’s a moral to this story.

Now, really, the song is bad. Like laugh-out-loud bad. Here’s iOS app Amadeus Code “composing” a song for Valentine’s Day, which says love much in the way a half-melted milk chocolate heart does, but – well, I’ll let you listen, millennial pop cliches and all:

Fortunately this comes after yesterday’s quite stimulating ideas from a Google research team – proof that you might actually use machine learning for stuff you want, like improved groove quantization and rhythm humanization. In case you missed that:

Magenta Studio lets you use AI tools for inspiration in Ableton Live

Now, as a trained composer / musicologist, I do find this sort of exercise fascinating. And on reflection, I think the failure of this app tells us a lot – not just about machines, but about humans. Here’s what I mean.

Amadeus Code is an interesting idea – a “songwriting assistant” powered by machine learning, delivered as an app. And it seems machine learning could generate, for example, smarter auto accompaniment tools or harmonizers. Traditionally, those technologies have been driven by rigid heuristics that sound “off” to our ears, because they aren’t able to adequately follow harmonic changes in the way a human would. Machine learning could – well, theoretically, with the right dataset and interpretation – make those tools work more effectively. (I won’t re-hash an explanation of neural network machine learning, since I got into that in yesterday’s article on Magenta Studio.)

https://amadeuscode.com/

You might well find some usefulness from Amadeus, too.

This particular example does not sound useful, though. It sounds soulless and horrible.

Okay, so what happened here? Music theory at least cheers me up even when Valentine’s Day brings me down. Here’s what the developers sent CDM in a pre-packaged press release:

We wanted to create a song with a specific singer in mind, and for this demo, it was Taylor Swift. With that in mind, here are the parameters we set in the app.

Bpm set to slow to create a pop ballad
To give the verses a rhythmic feel, the note length settings were set to “short” and also since her vocals have great presence below C, the note range was also set from low~mid range.
For the chorus, to give contrast to the rhythmic verses, the note lengths were set longer and a wider note range was set to give a dynamic range overall.

After re-generating a few ideas in the app, the midi file was exported and handed to an arranger who made the track.

Wait – Taylor Swift is there just how, you say?

Taylor’s vocal range is somewhere in the range of C#3-G5. The key of the song created with Amadeus Code was raised a half step in order to accommodate this range making the song F3-D5.

From the exported midi, 90% of the topline was used. The rest of the 10% was edited by the human arranger/producer: The bass and harmony files are 100% from the AC midi files.

Now, first – these results are really impressive. I don’t think traditional melodic models – theoretical and mathematical in nature – are capable of generating anything like this. They’ll tend to fit melodic material into a continuous line, and as a result will come out fairly featureless.

No, what’s compelling here is not so much that this sounds like Taylor Swift, or that it sounds like a computer, as it sounds like one of those awful commercial music beds trying to be a faux Taylor Swift song. It’s gotten some of the repetition, some of the basic syncopation, and oh yeah, that awful overused millennial whoop. It sounds like a parody, perhaps because partly it is – the machine learning has repeated the most recognizable cliches from these melodic materials, strung together, and then that was further selected / arranged by humans who did the same. (If the machines had been left alone without as much human intervention, I suspect the results wouldn’t be as good.)

In fact, it picks up Swift’s ticks – some of the funny syncopations and repetitions – but without stringing them together, like watching someone do a bad impression. (That’s still impressive, though, as it does represent one element of learning – if a crude one.)

To understand why this matters, we’re going to have to listen to a real Taylor Swift song. Let’s take this one:i’

Okay, first, the fact that the real Taylor Swift song has words is not a trivial detail. Adding words means adding prosody – so elements like intonation, tone, stress, and rhythm. To the extent those elements have resurfaced as musical elements in the machine learning-generated example, they’ve done so in a way that no longer is attached to meaning.

No amount of analysis, machine or human, can be generative of lyrical prosody for the simple reason that analysis alone doesn’t give you intention and play. A lyricist will make decisions based on past experience and on the desired effect of the song, and because there’s no real right or wrong to how do do that, they can play around with our expectations.

Part of the reason we should stop using AI as a term is that artificial intelligence implies decision making, and these kinds of models can’t make decisions. (I did say “AI” again because it fits into the headline. Or, uh, oops, I did it again. AI lyricists can’t yet hammer “oops” as an interjection or learn the playful setting of that line – again, sorry.)

Now, you can hate the Taylor Swift song if you like. But it’s catchy not because of a predictable set of pop music rules so much as its unpredictability and irregularity – the very things machine learning models of melodic space are trying to remove in order to create smooth interpolations. In fact, most of the melody of “Blank Space” is a repeated tonic note over the chord progression. Repetition and rhythm are also combined into repeated motives – something else these simple melodic models can’t generate, by design. (Well, you’ll hear basic repetition, but making a relationship between repeated motives again will require a human.)

It may sound like I’m dismissing computer analysis. I’m actually saying something more (maybe) radical – I’m saying part of the mistake here is assuming an analytical model will work as a generative model. Not just a machine model – any model.

This mistake is familiar, because almost everyone who has ever studied music theory has made the same mistake. (Theory teachers then have to listen to the results, which are often about as much fun as these AI results.)

Music theory analysis can lead you to a deeper understanding of how music works, and how the mechanical elements of music interrelate. But it’s tough to turn an analytical model into a generative model, because the “generating” process involves decisions based on intention. If the machine learning models sometimes sound like a first year graduate composition student, that may be that the same student is steeped in the analysis but not in the experience of decision making. But that’s important. The machine learning model won’t get better, because while it can keep learning, it can’t really make decisions. It can’t learn from what it’s learned, as you can.

Yes, yes, app developers – I can hear you aren’t sold yet.

For a sense of why this can go deep, let’s turn back to this same Taylor Swift song. The band Imagine Dragons picked it up and did a cover, and, well, the chord progression will sound more familiar than before.

As it happens, in a different live take I heard the lead singer comment (unironically) that he really loves Swift’s melodic writing.

But, oh yeah, even though pop music recycles elements like chord progressions and even groove (there’s the analytic part), the results take on singular personalities (there’s the human-generative side).

“Stand by Me” dispenses with some of the ticks of our current pop age – millennial whoops, I’m looking at you – and at least as well as you can with the English language, hits some emotional meaning of the words in the way they’re set musically. It’s not a mathematical average of a bunch of tunes, either. It’s a reference to a particular song that meant something to its composer and singer, Ben E. King.

This is his voice, not just the emergent results of a model. It’s a singer recalling a spiritual that hit him with those same three words, which sets a particular psalm from the Bible. So yes, drum machines have no soul – at least until we give them one.

“Sure,” you say, “but couldn’t the machine learning eventually learn how to set the words ‘stand by me’ to music”? No, it can’t – because there are too many possibilities for exactly the same words in the same range in the same meter. Think about it: how many ways can you say these three words?

“Stand by me.”

Where do you put the emphasis, the pitch? There’s prosody. What melody do you use? Keep in mind just how different Taylor Swift and Ben E. King were, even with the same harmonic structure. “Stand,” the word, is repeated as a suspension – a dissonant note – above the tonic.

And even those observations still lie in the realm of analysis. The texture of this coming out of someone’s vocal cords, the nuances to their performance – that never happens the same way twice.

Analyzing this will not tell you how to write a song like this. But it will throw light on each decision, make you hear it that much more deeply – which is why we teach analysis, and why we don’t worry that it will rob music of its magic. It means you’ll really listen to this song and what it’s saying, listen to how mournful that song is.

And that’s what a love song really is:

If the sky that we look upon
Should tumble and fall
Or the mountain should crumble to the sea
I won’t cry, I won’t cry
No, I won’t shed a tear
Just as long as you stand
Stand by me

Stand by me.

Now that’s a love song.

So happy Valentine’s Day. And if you’re alone, well – make some music. People singing about hearbreak and longing have gotten us this far – and it seems if a machine does join in, it’ll happen when the machine’s heart can break, too.

PS – let’s give credit to the songwriters, and a gentle reminder that we each have something to sing that only we can:
Singer Ben E. King, Best Known For ‘Stand By Me,’ Dies At 76 [NPR]

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Resident Advisor shuts down comments; what’s the forum for non-toxic chat?

Resident Advisor announced today it’s shuttering comments on its site, closing on-article commentary on one of the world’s leading venues for electronic music information.

Comments are already closed on the article, so — sorry, toxic commenters, no chance for you to chime in! But many of the comments on Twitter are in the “’bout time” category:

Hateful comments aren’t victimless, and the victims are disproportionately women, minorities, and LGBTQ members of the community. That means shutting down comments could have a major positive impact for those people. And note the link above – the conversation continues elsewhere.

But that raises a question: how do you make online conversation more productive and inclusive and less hurtful? The editorial announcing the change seems to blame comments for being antiquated:

Social media introduced a more broadly accepted way for people to communicate online. Comments sections served an ever-smaller portion of users, not just on RA but across the internet.

That raises a question, however: did social media absorb mainstream conversation, leaving toxic commenters in threads on articles? Or has social media itself inflamed ever-lower standards of interaction? Haven’t social media channels been blamed for exactly the same sort of toxic chatter?

When RA’s own Will Lynch singled out sexism in comments a couple of years ago, it was Facebook, not article comments on RA, were originally the case in point:

Opinion: Misogyny and mob mentality

And that’s just one case; countless others have seen Twitter, comments on Facebook posts, comments on Facebook and YouTube videos. Maybe comments on articles serve few enough readers to warrant turning them off. But toxicity is alive and well on mainstream social media.

RA for their part promise “new ways of fostering community that are more in line with the times and, most importantly, that are welcoming and inclusive to everyone.” For now, we can’t really fault them or credit them, not knowing what they have in mind or how it will work.

In the meantime, there are no shortage of ways of communicating with RA. Part of the challenge of a site today is the sheer magnitude of moderating all those social media channels. But note that all those channels are operated by large corporations, each of which sets the rules for how moderation works.

RA in the same editorial encourage readers to communicate with them on “Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.” For the record, that’s:

Facebook, Inc.: California-based, publicly-traded corporation, 2.2 billion active users (01/18), established 2004.
Google, LLC: California-based, publicly-traded corporation. (YouTube LLC is the California-based subsidiary, established 2005).
Facebook… again.
and Twitter, California-based, publicly-traded corporation, 300+ million active users monthly, established 2006.

I don’t mean to implicate RA here – far from it. I started writing online (and in print) in the early 2000s. RA was established in 2001; CDM in 2004, publishing regularly starting early 2005. You can see the problem from the dates above: YouTube and Twitter didn’t even exist yet. Google had recently gotten into blogging with Blogger. Facebook existed but was still limited to campuses. Now the world has changed. And while this is a topic for a different article, I think it’s fair to implicate these large corporations for worsening the problem, by resisting moderation (especially human moderation), and emphasizing “engagement” in the interest of rapid growth and corporate profits. That “engagement” often translates to turning up noise and down signal.

I’ve certainly made major missteps running CDM (mostly single-handedly – mea culpa). I’ve failed at administering online forums – twice. I’ve had the site overrun with spam – numerous occasions – and even once compromised by a right-wing European group. (That was an interesting day.) I’ve screwed up on major social media sites, too.

Comments will continue here, but we’re fortunate to have built up a community here over 14 years. I know a lot of regular readers personally now. And this site is obviously on a much smaller scale than RA. I’ve stepped in when comments turned ugly. I believe firmly in moderation, and as I hope CDM does expand its community offerings some time in the future, that means designing moderation into it.

In fact, let me pause and say this – thank you. This site got its start partly thanks to what you’ve written in comments – your ideas, your corrections, heck, your copy editing, your constructive criticism, your tips. If anything, I think I owe it to the readers to find new ways of creating online community because you’ve demonstrated what that community can be. And if that’s because this site is small and niche, well, maybe there are some good things about small and niche.

But this is about more than this site. I hope we can make a platform to start to discuss what online community can look like – technologically and culturally. This is surely as much a part of music technology today as a drum machine or a DAW. And it’s also been a place with arguably the least innovation, in a field dominated by those massive transnational information megacorporations that now dominate traffic on the Internet.

I’m glad to see RA comments go. But we all need to come together to create something better – and we can’t count on Silicon Valley to do it for us.

Worth reading:

Opinion: Why we’re closing comments

I welcome your … comments. Still open below. What should future discussion look like? And is there a place for comments on articles at least on smaller sites like this one? (Okay, selection bias there, but sound off!)

Try not to call me or anyone else names. Actually, me, I can take it – just not anyone else. Thanks.

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It’s time for music and music technology to be a voice for migrants

From countries across Europe to the USA, migration is at the center of Western politics at the moment. But that raises a question: why aren’t more people who make music, music instruments, and music tech louder about these issues?

Migration – temporary and permanent – is simply a fact of life for a huge group of people, across backgrounds and aspirations. That can involve migration to follow opportunities, and refugees and asylum seekers who move for their own safety and freedom. So if you don’t picture immigrants, migrants, and refugees when you think of your society, you just aren’t thinking.

Musicians ought to be uniquely qualified to speak to these issues, though. Extreme anti-immigration arguments all assume that migrants take away more from a society than they give back. And people in the music world ought to know better. Music has always been based on cultural exchange. Musicians across cultures have always considered touring to make a living. And to put it bluntly, music isn’t a zero sum game. The more you add, the more you create.

Music gets schooled in borders

As music has grown more international, as more artists tour and cross borders, at least the awareness is changing. That’s been especially true in electronic music, in a DJ industry that relies on travel. Resident Advisor has consistently picked up this story over the last couple of years, as artists spoke up about being denied entry to countries while touring.

In a full-length podcast documentary last year, they dug into the ways in which the visa system hurts artists outside the US and EU, with a focus on non-EU artists trying to gain entry to the UK:

Andrew Ryce also wrote about a visa rate hike in the USA back in 2016 – and this in the Obama Administration, not under Trump:

US raises touring artist visa fees by 42%

Now, being a DJ crossing a border isn’t the same as being a refugee running for your life. But then on some other level, it can allow artists to experience immigration infrastructure – both when it works for them, and when it works against them. A whole generation of artists, including even those from relatively privileged Western nations, is now learning the hard way about the immigration system. And that’s something they might have missed as tourists, particularly if they come from places like the USA, western Europe, Australia, and other places well positioned in the system.

The immigration system they see will often come off as absurdist. National policies worldwide categorize music as migrant labor and require a visa. In many countries, these requirements are unenforced in all but big-money gigs. But in some countries – the USA, Canada, and UK being prime examples – they’re rigorously enforced, and not coincidentally, the required visas have high fees.

Showing up at a border carrying music equipment or a bag of vinyl records is an instant red flag – whether a paid gig is your intention or not. (I’m surprised, actually, that no one talks about this in regards to the rise of the USB stick DJ. If you aren’t carrying a controller or any records, sailing through as a tourist is a lot easier.) Border officials will often ask visitors to unlock phones, hand over social media passwords. They’ll search Facebook events by name to find gigs. Or they’ll even just view the presence of a musical instrument as a violation.

Being seen as “illegal” because you’re traveling with a guitar or some records is a pretty good illustration of how immigration can criminalize simple, innocent acts. Whatever the intention behind that law, it’s clear there’s something off here – especially given the kinds of illegality that can cross borders.

When protection isn’t

This is not to argue for open borders. There are times when you want border protections. I worked briefly in environmental advocacy as we worked on invasive species that were hitching a ride on container ships – think bugs killing trees and no more maple syrup on your pancakes, among other things. I was also in New York on 9/11 and watched from my roof – that was a very visible demonstration of visa security oversight that had failed. Part of the aim of customs and immigration is to stop the movement of dangerous people and things, and I don’t think any rational person would argue with that.

But even as a tiny microcosm of the larger immigration system, music is a good example of how laws can be uneven, counter-intuitive, and counterproductive. The US and Canada, for instance, do have an open border for tourists. So if an experimental ambient musician from Toronto comes to play a gig in Cleveland, that’s not a security threat – they could do the same as a tourist. It’s also a stretch of the imagination that this individual would have a negative impact on the US economy. Maybe the artist makes a hundred bucks cash and … spends it all inside the USA, not to mention brings in more money for the venue and the people employed by it. Or maybe they make $1000 – a sum that would be wiped out by the US visa fee, to say nothing of slow US visa processing. Again, that concert creates more economic activity inside the US economy, and it’s very likely the American artist sharing the bill goes up to Montreal and plays with them next month on top of it. I could go on, but it’s … well, boring and obvious.

Artists and presenters worldwide often simply ignore this visa system because it’s slow, expensive, and unreliable. And so it costs economies (and likely many immigration authorities) revenue. It costs societies value and artistic and cultural exchange.

Of course, scale that up and the same is true, across other fields. Immigrants tend to give more into government services than they take out, they tend to own businesses that employ more local people (so they create jobs), they tend to invent new technologies (so they create jobs again), and so on.

Ellis Island, NYC. 12 million people passed through here – not all of my family who came to the USA, but some. I’ve now come the other way through Tegel Airport and the Ausländerbehörde , Berlin. Photo (CC-BY-ND
“>A. Strakey.

Advocacy and music

Immigration advocacy could be seen as something in the charter of anyone in the music industry or musical instruments industry.

Music technology suffers as borders are shut down, too. Making musical instruments and tools requires highly specialized labor working in highly specialized environments. From production to engineering to marketing, it’s an international business. I actually can’t think of any major manufacturer that doesn’t rely on immigrants in key roles. (Even many tiny makers involve immigrants.)

And the traditional music industry lean heavily on immigrant talent, too. Those at the top of the industry have powerful lobbying efforts – efforts that could support greater cultural exchange and rights for travelers. Certainly, its members are often on the road. But let’s take the Recording Academy (the folks behind the Grammy Awards).

Instead, their efforts seem to fixate on domestic intellectual property law. So the Recording Academy and others were big on the Music Modernization Act – okay, fine,
a law to support compensation for creators.

But while the same organization advocated on behalf of instruments traveling – domestic rules around carry-on and checked instruments – but not necessarily humans. So it could be that there’s more interest in your guitar getting across borders than people.

I don’t want to be unfair to the Recording Association – and not just because I think it might hurt my Grammy winning chances. (Hey, stop laughing.) No, I think it’s more that we as a community have generally failed to take up this issue in any widespread way. (I sincerely hope someone out there works for the record industry and writes to say that you’re actually working on this and I’m wrong.)

More than anything else, music can cross borders. It can speak to people when you don’t speak their language, literally. When music travels, emotion and expression travels – artists and technology alike.

It’s personal – isn’t it for you?

I personally feel the impact of all of this, now having been seven years in Berlin, and able to enjoy opportunities, connections, and perspective that come from living in Germany and working with people both from Germany and abroad. I feel hugely grateful to the German state for allowing my business to immigrate (my initial visa was a business visa, which involved some interesting bureaucracy explaining to the Berlin Senate what this site is about). I’ve even benefited from the support of programs like the Goethe Institut and host governments to work in cultural diplomacy.

I’ve also had the chance to be involved writing in support of visas and financial backing for artists coming from Iran, Mexico, Kazakhstan, and many other places, for programs I’ve worked on.

And all of this is really a luxury – even when we’re talking about artists traveling to support their careers and feed themselves. For many people, migration is a matter of survival. Sometimes the threats to their lives come from geopolitical and economic policies engineered by the governments we come from – meaning as citizens, we share some responsibility for the impact others have felt. But whether or not that’s the case, I would hope we feel that obligation as human beings. That’s the basis of international rule of law on accepting refugees and granting asylum. It’s the reason those principles are uncompromising and sometimes even challenging. Our world is held together – or not – based on that basic fairness we afford to fellow humans. If people come to where we live and claim their survival and freedom depends on taking them in, we accept the obligation to at least listen to their case.

Those of us in the music world could use our privilege, and the fact that our medium is so essential to human expression, to be among the loudest voices for these human rights. When we live in countries who listen to us, we should talk to other citizens and talk to our governments. We should tell the stories that make these issues more relatable. We should do what some people I know are doing in the music world, too – work on education and involvement for refugees, help them to feel at home in our communities and to develop whatever they need to make a home here, and make people feel welcome at the events we produce.

That’s just the principles, not policies. But I know a lot of people in my own circle have worked on the policy and advocacy sides here. I certainly would invite you to share what we might do. If you’ve been impacted by immigration obstacles and have ideas of how we help, I hope we hear that, too.

Some likely policy areas:
Supporting the rights of refugees and asylum seekers
Supporting refugee and asylum seeker integration
Advocating for more open visa policies for artists – keeping fees low, and supporting exchange
Advocating the use of music and culture, and music technology, as a form of cultural diplomacy
Supporting organizations that connect artists and creative technologists across borders

And so on…

But I do hope that as musicians, we work with people who share basic beliefs in caring for other people. I know there’s no single “community” or “industry” that can offer that. But we certainly can try to build our own circle in a way that does.

Some examples from here in Berlin working on refugee issues here. I would argue immigration policy can find connections across refugees and migrants, asylum seekers and touring musicians, as everyone encounters the same larger apparatus and set of laws:

Photo at top: CC-BY Nicola Romagna.

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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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