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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A plea to DJs: make sharing part of digging

Many DJs still believe track lists and track IDs are proprietary information to be guarded … for some reason. But however defensible this position may have been in the past, opening up information matters now like never before.

The issue blew up again in the past 24 hours as The Black Madonna and other responded to Developer, the label chief for Modularz. Developer argued that people should “find their own gems” and he had no interest in sharing track listings or track IDs because he spent “hours” digging for tracks. He has since deleted those tweets (including one reply to me suggesting I go use Shazam), and didn’t respond to my request for comment. He did, however, leave up various retweets of people defending the position.

But this isn’t about Developer – and on the contrary, I’d rather he and others changed their minds. I totally agree with his learn to hunt idea. But what I don’t understand is why you’d brag about hiding tracks in the first place. So there’s clearly some disconnect here.

Some DJs I quite like keep doing … this every time someone asks for a damned track ID:

Noncompliant puts it succinctly:

This is about producers. Electronic music is now flooded with new people DJing, new people making music, and new people becoming music fans. That should be a healthy combination, one that supports the people making music.

Making music involves a heck of a lot of vulnerability. A lot of artists are desperate just to be heard – not widely, to be heard and appreciated in some real way even once often means a lot. They fight depression and insecurity and day jobs and the need to do tax accounting to put music out there for an audience that often ignores them.

Total obscurity is toxic to expression. It robs makers of fans, and fans of experiencing something unique. And there’s a lot of music being condemned to that fate. Music streaming isn’t just lowering the value of music returned to creators; it’s raising the cost of getting your music heard – because it’s being consolidated in the hands of a few major companies (Apple, Google, Spotify) who then fix algorithms and channels based on mainstream tastes and inward-turning circles of machine learning. Meanwhile, independent journalism has dwindled, dominated by large corporate interests and pay-for-play schemes even at smaller sites and … okay, I’ll just stop. It’s not all bad, but there are some major challenges out there that can be devastating to some great music.

With streaming poised to take over DJ booths, far from defending the exclusivity of DJing, we are fighting against a possible future where most DJs select music based on algorithms and Instagram influencers. (There’s some better scenarios here, but some of them are indeed scary.)

But then that makes me utterly mystified why DJs would pick this moment to get precious about their playlists.

So, okay, let me address that crew now, even if it means I have to duck into a phone booth (kids, ask your parents) and change into my not-at-all-secret superhero identity – [Disney Marvel Studios presents] CAPTAIN OBVIOUS!

Photo (CC-BY) jlggb.

You don’t have to answer pests. I get it – there’s that person at a club who ought to be dancing who won’t leave you alone. I’m not talking about any of them; that’s fine to refuse them. And if your Facebook page or Instagram inbox is overflowing with requests, I get that, too. Don’t stress; you’re free to ignore them.

But don’t sell yourself short. Come on. What DJ has ever only made a mark only based on picking obscure secret weapons? You’re a good DJ (or you’re not, but then you really shouldn’t be arguing here). It’s about mixing and placement and edits and adjustment and reading the crowd and the narrative of the evening and the moment and … are you seriously arguing you’re giving away something if you tell someone the name of a track you liked? I’m sorry, I’m still mystified as to why I’m even having to write this, but here we are.

That said …

These tracks aren’t yours to protect. Okay, apart from if you made the track yourself, in which case this resistance is exceedingly weird, what the Hell are you doing? Someone made a track that you played and someone loves it. Don’t you owe it to the person who made that track to give them credit? And speaking of which –

Encouraging people to buy music is great. I found it especially odd that DJs were complaining about people going and buying $2 downloads. Uh… that’s not normally something labels and artists are opposed to having happen more often.

But you know, even apart from that:

We’re lucky to share our passion with other people, right? I talked to Noncompliant who talked about enjoying showing people record sleeves back in the day. Hell, I’ve had the most fun in the booth when people do ask me for IDs or I wind up striking up a conversation with a friend who’s playing. Sometimes those tracks are rare; sometimes they’re totally obvious but still lovable.

We’re living in scary times. The solution to protecting the value of the DJ is not to hide your tracks – because that will only accelerate a trend where music is unknowable and left to unseen forces, and those unseen forces are not benign. It ought to be a privilege to play other people’s music, not a burden to share the authorship of that music. And if DJs go and dig up rare and obscure sounds, nothing will illustrate that like letting people know.

No high tech solutions needed. There are plenty of interesting techie solutions to publishing playlists via Twitter or Pioneer’s servers or Richie Hawtin’s servers or Skynet or whatever, but I’ll leave that for another time.

You can show people record sleeves. You can hit the INFO button on a CDJ someone can see (thanks again to Noncompliant for both of those). You can tell someone or write them a note. You can share playlists manually on Facebook or Twitter or your website, as many people now do, and then you won’t get nagged.

But it’s not just me saying this. And this isn’t just “kids today” wanting all their information free so they can talk about it through fancy Snapchat filters while they eat Tide Pods. In fact, I’m totally biased as a producer first and an independent label and generally a pain in the ass. So here are some other people saying it, using fewer words because they’re not me.

Look, I’m not here to make a point. I really do hope this message spreads.

We need you, DJs – every ID, every listener makes a difference.

#digandshare

Photo at top: CC-BY Irma Daidone.

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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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Haken’s ContinuuMini is expressive, post-keyboard sound for $899

Want some evidence that the future of expressive digital instruments and MPE is bright? Look to Haken’s ContinuuMini, which emerged over last year, bringing greater portability and a US$899 price to the out-there controller.

Forget anything else, and listen to this gorgeous video (using a clever setup with an Onde acoustic resonator*:

Why does the ContinuuMini matter?

Expression really is a combination of sound and physical control. Say what you will about piano keyboards (and some electronic musicians who hate them certainly do) – the reason an acoustic piano is still expressive has to do with the sound of a piano.

So when we talk about MPE, a scheme for allowing polyphonic expression through MIDI, we’re really talking about allow greater depth in the connection of physical gestures and sound.

If this is going to catch on, it’ll require more than one vendor. I think it’s wrong to assume MPE’s future, then, is tied solely to ROLI as a vendor. From the start, MPE was an initiative of a range of people, from major software developers (Apple, Steinberg) to hardware inventors (ROLI, but also Roger Linn and Randy Jones of Madrona Labs, for instance).

And Haken Audio has been a boutique maker pushing new ways of playing for years – including with MPE on their Continuum. The Continuum may look arcane in photos, but feeling it is a unique experience. The ribbon feels luxurious – it’s actually soft fabric. And the degree of control is something special. But it’s also enormous and expensive – and that means a lot of people can’t buy it, or can’t tour with it since it won’t fit in an overhead.

I believe that what makes an instrument is really finding that handful of people to do stuff even the creators didn’t expect, so if you can lower those barriers for even a run of a few hundred units, you could have a small revolution on your hand.

That’s what Haken have done with ContinuuMini, which closed crowd sourcing late last year and has started shipping of the first hardware.

Here’s what sets it apart:

It’s a Continuum. Well, first, nothing else feels like a Continuum. That feeling may not be for everyone, but it’s still significant as a choice.

It’s continuous. Because you aren’t limited by frets or keys, there’s a continuous range of sound. This is a controller you’ll want to practice, finding intonation with muscle memory and your ear. And there are artists who will want that subtlety.

It has internal sound. Like its larger sibling the ContinuuMini has an internal sound engine. That means that it’s not just a controller. Haken have conceived control and sound in a single, unified design. You can play it without connecting other stuff. And the builders have worked on both the physical and aural experience of what they’ve made. I think that’s significant to anyone making an investment, particularly in an age in which abstract controller hardware tends to stack in our closets.

It’s 8-voice polyphonic, as well. The ContinuuMini isn’t just a controller: it’s a complete, gorgeous polysynth and a controller, for this one price.

It connects to other gear, without software. Bidirectional digital control – MIDI, with MPE, MPE+ – and bidirectional control voltage analog (with converter) are possible. That means you can play the ContinuuMini with gear and software (like recording MIDI and MPE in your DAW for playback), and likewise the ContinuuMini can control your software and gear. There are also two pedal inputs so your feet can get in on the action.

It’s only a quarter kilogram. 9 oz. You can tote the bigger ones with a case but – the ContinuuMini is incredibly portable.

It feels like an extraordinary development.

https://www.hakenaudio.com/continuumini

* Synthtopia has a great, in-depth interview on the Onde and Pyramid, acoustic resonators that make an electronic instrument feel more like an instrument and less like “something disconnected that produces sound through speakers” as with conventional monitors:

La Voix Du Luthier & The New Shape Of Electronic Sound

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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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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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Yes, Avicii’s death should be a wake-up call – and not just for EDM

The death of 28-year-old star producer/DJ Avicii comes as a shock to many. It’s also easy to reduce to another example of party world excess, or to say it’s just about big-money EDM and pop. But it should be a bigger wake up call than that.

To me, the most alarming reaction I’ve heard from the electronic music world is, “oh, who’s that?” – not from people who genuinely don’t know, but from those who are making a show of pretending not to know. And the reason that should be unsettling is, it allows people in the larger industry of electronic music to try to separate themselves from their own connections to this story.

Some of the warning signs that we got from Avicii are relevant to all dance music – including the bits that like to style themselves as underground. Some relate to the dangers of the industry around music, and its priorities. Some are personal ones, for anyone working in music and creative arts. And some of those speak on a pretty basic human level to asking ourselves what we’re doing with our lives. These are not questions any of us should be somehow “above.”

They’re also relevant to music technology, because our business is fueled by the music industry, because we’re personally often involved in this other world, and because we have self-care challenges of our own.

But, okay, let’s back up. If you genuinely don’t know who Avicii is – which in today’s heavily fragmented musical world is very possible – here’s a quick review. (Yeah, Wikipedia is your friend, too.) His real name was Tim Bergling, hailing from Stockholm. While he wound up with a long string of blockbuster hit singles, he started out making music with more of the profile of a lot of typical readers of, like, this site. He was posting remixes in forums at age 16.

You either know his music, or you’ve heard his music without knowing it – even the most disconnected from popular culture can do a quick YouTube search now and go, “oh, that song” with a few of them. He’s one of a handful of people who made dance music as big as it is at the moment, especially in the US market. And he had that sort of magical talent with both sound and hooks that I personally think is tough to argue with (even if people do out of some reflexive snobbishness). It’s immediate; it reaches people.

But whether this is your music or not, watching this kid play around with a Game Boy and smiling in front of a DAW arrangement – of course, this is us. You might not be a guy or white or Swedish or Grammy-nominated or played in front of huge crowds in Vegas or even know how to operate a CDJ. But I know if you read this site, you know that feeling of being excited about some new music well enough to start to tear up even for the passing of a perfect stranger.

About health

You can bet that a lot of discussion this week will center on Bergling’s health.

Mental and physical health are about more than just party culture. One of my personal heroes growing up was Jim Henson of The Muppets fame, who’s about as far from Ibiza as you can imagine. I even met him as a kid in Indianapolis and took a photo with him. And part of what I loved about Henson was his endless devotion to his work. And as a kid as well as in adulthood, I’ve always been able relate to this desire to be consumed by creating things.

I was just twelve when Jim Henson died, but part of what I understood at the time was that this drive also took his life. (He was in production at the time, and even delaying seeking treatment seems likely to have advanced the course of the bacteria that killed him.)

So, when processing the news about Avicii, the first question we ask I think shouldn’t be “is this the sort of music I like?” or “is party culture too much about excess?”

I think we should ask, “are we taking care of ourselves and other people, in terms of their health and their happiness? Who and what are we working for, first?”

About signs

As I write this, there hasn’t yet been a discussion of an immediate cause of death, but Avicii’s health problems have been public for several years now. Billboard has an overview:

Avicii’s Health Struggles: A Timeline

Heavy drinking at least appears to have been a factor early on. That is itself significant, because both in his native Sweden and in my native United States where his career took off, prohibitions in the music scene have focused on the drug MDMA (or even, perversely, marijuana) but largely ignored alcohol. That’s something that has been criticized by many health advocates. (Without stepping into the ecstasy debate, it’s worth checking out the cannabis debate – as its history in the USA is beyond bizarre.)

But that’s just one factor, if an important one. Touring itself seems to have been a culprit. And there are many more signs something was wrong with Avicii and deeply troubling about the world around him that advanced his decline.

If you want to get fairly depressed, you can watch the documentary True Stories that came out last year for a vivid picture:

This was a message that Avicii the artist wanted to get out. He was even brave enough to actively promote segments from the film that put him and his promotional team in a pretty bad light. From DJ Mag in November, you can watch some utterly chilling moments with his doctors and with his publicist:

Avicii shares distressing new footage from True Stories documentary: Watch

This isn’t just about whether someone was drinking too much at one point. In this segment, it’s clear that Avicii and his team sometimes chose keeping up appearances and continuing work at the expense of getting complete medical treatment or recovery.

That is an important, important point. Lots of people can abuse alcohol or drugs or engage in self-destructive or suicidal behaviors. But – coming back to my Jim Henson example – it’s also possible for any of us to get sick and then fail to get treatment. Sometimes a few hours’ delay getting to a doctor can be fatal, even for a health adult with no history of substance abuse.

So, what does it mean if we’re part of an industry, or talking to professionals, who actively encourage us to do something that harms us? What does that mean about musicians – or fans? That motivation can be as much about money as it is about something like substances. It’s not to ignore the substance question (someone’s making money on that, too, ahem), but to try to understand a deeper sense of what this is about.

Deeper calls

As I write this, Avicii’s site hauntingly still shows the text posted as he announced his retirement from live shows and touring:

WE ALL REACH A POINT IN OUR LIVES AND CAREERS WHERE WE UNDERSTAND WHAT MATTERS THE MOST TO US.

For me it’s creating music. That is what I live for, what I feel I was born to do.

Last year I quit performing live, and many of you thought that was it. But the end of live never meant the end of Avicii or my music. Instead, I went back to the place where it all made sense – the studio.

The next stage will be all about my love of making music to you guys. It is the beginning of something new.

Hope you´ll enjoy it as much as I do.

But it’s what he said in an interview in the Rolling Stone that I find most telling. And it’s actually not so much about his physical health per se as you might expect.

First, about partying, what he describes is more about personal relationships than about substances (even though the magazine’s question related to ecstasy, the pill):

“Parties can be amazing, but it’s very easy to become too attached to partying in places like Ibiza. You become lonely and get anxieties. It becomes toxic.”

Reading through this, it’s clear how traumatized he was by the experience. He also talks in the interview about not standing up to the people who told him to keep going, as seen in the documentary clip above in DJ Mag. But the part that really gets to the point in my mind is this one:

“I needed to figure out my life. The whole thing was about success for the sake of success. I wasn’t getting any happiness anymore.”

Avicii Talks Quitting Touring, Disappointing Madonna, New Music

Bob Dylan has the song Gotta Serve Somebody. This whole story can speak to that: we all have some questions about who and what we serve. That’s relevant to who we serve in our music, and for those of us making part or all of our living in music (including music technology), who and what we serve in those jobs.

The press and social media present an image of touring that is, oddly, devoid of both its real pleasures and perils. (And there are pleasures, too. I know people who really do love touring, and people who can be miserable stuck in their studio.)

Just don’t think for an instant that this doesn’t have anything to do with your corner of music.

In supposedly “underground” techno (check William Morris), in experimental electronic music and art-y festivals, there are now plenty of big agencies. Five figure fees are standard stuff on even that “adventurous” or “experimental” side of things. Do the math, and you have enough of an industry around touring artists – at the same time that recorded music is collapsing – that a lot of people serve that financial stream more than they do any particular feelings about music or the humans making it. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing; it only becomes one if you aren’t aware of the potential conflict of priorities. What makes money in a tour is not always what takes care of the artist – as Avicii says, “success for the sake of success.”

It’s also easy for those of us in music technology and musical instruments to pass the buck over to the music industry at large. But we feed off those same economics and desires; we sell a lot of our tech to the people who dream of being Avicii. And we have our own demons and burnout to consider, too – obviously.

I also find myself constantly in conversations about making ends meet, about staying happy and motivated, and indeed about this question of touring and keeping up with it – or just keeping up physically with demands in general. There’s a natural human tendency to ignore our own limits and mortality and even our own moods and emotional needs. Now we have social media presenting a continuous image that’s always young, always happy – a world without sadness or death. The bizarre thing is, attempting to live in that world will actually make you utterly miserable.

You make ask yourself a series of questions

It’s so easy to turn this into prohibitions instead of self-reflection. And America is great at prohibition. So it’s great at cracking down on the “rave” scene or whatever it may be. It’s even just as easy to ignore what Avicii loved about his music career, while focusing on its tragic end. He did say that touring had ups as well as downs.

I think it’s better to ask some questions.

What does it mean for those of us who encourage music making that we make stardom its ultimate goal?

What does this stardom do to how we value music? To what extent are we weighing that music’s financial possibility rather than how it makes us feel?

Do we insist on presenting artists only in the positive sense, without talking about their struggles?

Are we purposely leaving out real discussions of health? Of mental well being? Of aging, even?

Are we placing all our emphasis on touring and not on other activities that can support artists?

Are we taking health and happiness as part of the goal of tours, of music careers?

Do we actively promote ideas that discourage mental health?

Are we stigmatizing mental health issues in music, even when music is often initially an outlet for people to find healing?

Can we reflect on the role of alcohol as the main revenue stream in so much of live music? What about other substances (including the impact of policies around both legal and illegal substances)?

Do we have accurate information for music-goers and event organizers of what health impacts of consuming substances or other behaviors actually are? (In the age of fake news and fake science spread via online communication and hearsay, accurate risk assessment seems essential, from infectious disease to alcohol to drugs.)

I’m certainly not claiming any kind of innocence either in behavior or intention, but – this is about asking questions, not just having answers.

And fundamentally:

Are we doing what we want to be doing? Is it making us happy? (Insert Underground Resistance here.)

Are we caring for ourselves and the people around us?

And how do we make music and musical instruments something that add to that care and that don’t just take it away?

Struggling with those questions need not be burdensome. I think it can be rewarding.

Remembering Avicii should be something all of us do. He’s been one of the biggest artists in 21st century electronic music, and what he chose to do was to make his personal struggles public. That isn’t easy, and we should be grateful he’s done that. And we should make sure that the questions he asked remain part of our conversation. Because just like last year’s chart-topping pop hit, the natural tendency of the music industry will be to simply move on – and we shouldn’t let them.

My deep condolences to Tim Bergling’s family, friends, and everyone who worked with him. I hope we can elevate the cause of health, happiness, and care that he worked to raise in the midst of his struggles.

I welcome any and all comments on those topics for music, creativity, and tech – this can absolutely be an ongoing conversation.

The post Yes, Avicii’s death should be a wake-up call – and not just for EDM appeared first on CDM Create Digital Music.

Behringer promises $49-99 Eurorack, but gets its ideas from Roland and forums

Uli Behringer is apparently just getting started trolling the industry, promising US$49-99 Eurorack. But so far, that announcement involves renderings of Roland gear and a plea for user forums to tell them what to do.

That’s right: even as people are buzzing about Behringer, all we’ve got are some shady renders, and a forum post. The designs are straight from decades-old Roland gear. There’s not even the work to engineer them. And the rest is talk.

Heck, I could do this. CDM is proud to bring you $19 Eurorack modules. Of what? Don’t know. You tell us. When? Someday. How will they work? Oh, they might use an old design. Or you might design them. Don’t know – again, that’s up to you!

Let’s be clear: promising Eurorack modules for under a hundred bucks ought to be a popular idea. But then it’s easy to promise something. And it’s perhaps worth pointing out, if you don’t mind doing some soldering yourself – or even prefer that – you can assemble a budget modular system. Or, heck, you can run VCV Rack and even buy some top-quality modules for it for $100, all in. But that’s unlikely to stop random people on forums and news comments, who will embrace the idea that Behringer alone could do modular on a budget.

Nor are these new designs. Behringer describes them as related to the “legacy 100m” modules. Uh… that “legacy” would be Roland’s. And as with other Behringer forum posts targeting Roland, there seems to be no original idea other than copying what Roland has done. The timing is suspicious, as well. Uli took to the forums Saturday. CDM readers will know that we shared the news (along with some German press also in attendance) that Roland was reviving its 100M line with new SYSTEM-500 modules, showing them here in Berlin on Thursday. And of course, that’s an extension of a line that already existed.

New Roland SYSTEM-500 analog Eurorack modules spotted in the wild

Clones seem to be the order of the day, as Behringer promises to “bring back” more “legacy” hardware. In fact, Behringer are so hard up for ideas of what to actually do, they’re going beyond just posting quick what-if renders of Roland modules, or continuing this trend of posting teasers as a series of questions. (“What do you want to see? What should we charge? What color should this be? What do you want for lunch?”) Behringer are now posting to message forums asking for people to submit ideas:

You present is with your design (you need to have at least a working prototype) and perhaps show us a video etc. so we can understand your concept.

Provided you are OK with it, we could then post the video here and if there is enough interest, we would consider manufacturing and distributing the product for you. In return we would allow you to get a percentage of the revenue.

At the same time we would be featuring you and your designs so you get the well deserved exposure.

Here’s the thing: there’s already a community of engineers making hardware. Roland are certainly not above criticism, but to the credit of the Japanese giant, when they entered the market they partnered directly with an existing vendor. (On the modular side, they worked with Malekko Heavy Industry. The Roland Boutique Series SE-02 was made with Studio Electronics.) Buchla are working with original engineers, and many of the Buchla-inspired designs are made by people with years of experience doing Buchla repair. Moog are returning not just to original designs but original parts. I could go on …

And that’s to say nothing of vendors from MakeNoise to Mutable Instruments doing original designs. That originality translates into sound.

Behringer’s trolling is way ahead of their actual products. The Minimoog clone Behringer-D is accurate – and accurately reproduces the tuning instability of the original’s analog oscillators. The Behringer DeepMind is actually a pretty decent synth, but it’s also got competition in the same price range – some of it with fresher ideas – and Behringer’s endless forum posts about speculative products and clones ironically distract from the accomplishments on their one genuinely original synth.

I think the Eurorack manufacturing community is headed into some tougher times, especially as a glut of used products catches up faster than the market can grow. And price pressure will surely become a reality.

But what’s most stunning of all is that Behringer is disrupting the industry and attracting attention without actually making anything. This may give them additional attention, but somebody ought to same something.

Behringer Eurorack Modular [GearSlutz]

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Behringer’s so-called “website glitch” trades credibility for buzz

The day after Behringer posted a lineup of remakes of classic analog synth and drum machines, the company is calling it an error – and making no promises.

One one level, you can’t blame Behringer. You surely don’t need press conferences at pricey trade shows if you can mess around with buzz spread on forums and social media. And I’m surprised more manufacturers don’t devise some way of using that to their advantage – perhaps more honestly than here.

But you can blame Behringer for dissembling in communication, for setting out to harm competitors, and for mucking about with the trust of customers. All three of those things appear to have happened here.

In short: Behringer are again earning buzz, at the expense of the already questionable credibility of the brand.

Let’s review:

Yesterday, Behringer for the better part of the evening German time published complete product specs for drum machines and synthesizers, across multiple categories on their public website. That included references to a wide array of products from the KORG MS-20 to the Roland 808 and 909 to ARP 2600 and various other historical models.

Then, at 4 am German time, the company published the follow apology/correction or … whatever this is … to their Facebook page:

Dear Friends,
It was brought to our attention that early this morning a rather unfortunate error occurred on the Behringer product page. This error mistakenly posted information for a number of different product design concepts from our product management repository which is contained and part of an automated backend system for our websites. The cause of the error was due to a website glitch and was completely unintentional. The moment we realized the error, we removed the content.
As we are owning the mistake, we also feel it’s necessary to inform the public about this error as a sign of good faith. It was not our intention to mislead customers in any way nor use this as a marketing tool. To be perfectly transparent, the leaked information does not imply any availability at this time or even definitive evidence that we intend to officially develop or deliver these products in the future. At this stage, the leaked products are merely concepts and nothing more.
To be honest we are embarrassed by this glitch and sincerely apologize to you who have been so supportive of our efforts over the years. We greatly appreciate your support and understanding of the situation.

Sorry, assume a few people spit coffee on their computers there. “Automated backend system for our websites”?

This line we’ve heard before, too – that Behringer appears to view teasing products as a kind of trial balloon for measuring demand. The difference is, in the past, at least, they said that was what they were doing – they didn’t do it via a staged site bug.

Let’s talk about why this is problematic.

Fake news? Fake drums? Real Oberheim… Retro Synth Ad.

Behringer are being disingenuous in their communication. More bluntly: it’s very likely that they’re flat-out lying – or at least being tongue-in-cheek about this whole thing. Sure, it’s possible they keep product planning documents in the content management system they use for the site. And maybe then they use the production server for the task rather than a backup. And maybe they somehow automatically, accidentally published that same content to a production server publicly.

Though, if that sequence of events actually happened, uh, to the Web team … wow. Either way:

This encourages customers to delay purchasing competitors. This isn’t just about getting buzz. By hinting that Behringer will have low-cost alternatives of stuff users want, the brand can encourage customers to hold off purchasing shipping products from companies like KORG, Roland, and Moog. Indeed, specifically teasing recognizable products targets those competitors even more explicitly. And there’s anecdotal evidence to think there’s harm there, based on impressions on forums and comments. Even if that isn’t the case, retailers read those same threads, and this can spook them.

Uli Behringer’s extended rants about value and price, which imply (I think unfairly) that competitors’ products should be cheaper, also seems related to this strategy.

Behringer are hurting their own relationship with customers. I actually would encourage those same competitors to focus on this. Behringer are now over-promising in a pretty fantastic way. If they don’t ship this stuff, customers are likely to be disappointed with Behringer, not other companies.

And sure enough —

They’re still not shipping their Model D. Way back in March, Behringer were promising a low-cost Minimoog clone. But that clone still isn’t shipping, or seen on the site here – a fact not lost on social media (or CDM commenters).

They’re not exactly making the Curtis family happy, either. This is what the widow of Doug Curtis had to say about Behringer offering remakes of her late husband’s chips:

We are starting to see authorized chip remakes, however, as a competitors to what Ms. Curtis is referencing here. (COOLAUDIO Semiconductors have made the inexpensive chips that likely formed the basis for the product ideas above.)

Just don’t read too much into this. This understandably has generated a lot of buzz in December, a lull during which most manufacturers are focused on holiday sales, with product announcements mostly paused until late January.

But I think most people wanting a new drum machine, or a Roland Boutique, or KORG’s ARP recreations, or new Eurorack modules, on down the list are likely to go ahead and invest anyway. I think the relationships between those brands and their customers – from the Japanese giants to the one-person Eurorack boutique makers – are safe, too.

If this was (improbably) a mistake, Behringer, fix it. If it wasn’t, well – yeah, expect some of us to question your intentions.

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