Dear young Buster: why do you look so sad and lonely? Don’t you know that having a yellow Teenage Engineering pocket modular is all the love you need?
Okay, so Buster is in fact Millenial Swedish pop star up and comer Emil Lennstrand, and he is the first face of a record label (really) from the perpetually-open-to-creative-distraction crew of Teenage Engineering. You see, having done cameras for IKEA and marketing campaigns and various synthesizers and … bicycles and lamps and other things … the Teenagers are now getting into a record label.
It’s surprisingly silky-smooth pop from this otherwise fairly hypernerdy and experimental Stockholm shop. But it does predictably feature Teenage Engineering instruments – in this case the pocket operator modular.
They bill the song as “partly produced” by that system 400 (what – the modular isn’t used on the vocals?). But it’s slick stuff, for sure.
The other star of the music video is this – TE’s pocket operator modular series.
So what’s up with the record label? It’s tough to tell from this one track, but here’s what the Teenagers say for themselves:
first teenage engineering started their own band to field test their instruments. now they are taking the next step starting a record label for songs made with teenage engineering products. there are just two rules, it needs to be a good song (easy) and have at least one of teenage engineerings instruments used in the song. the main distribution platform for their releases will be spotify.
Now that’s some serious Swedish loyalty, going Spotify only.
I’m slightly confused, but intrigued. To my mind, the OP-Z remains the best thing recently from Teenage Engineering hands down, but stay tuned for my explanation of why I feel that way.
And there’s more Teenage Engineering stuff to come, including me joining them in Barcelona during SONAR+D this summer – which means a chance to grill them for more information, of course.
If you need a break from buttoned-up techno, dance music as business and fashion statement and morose wallpaper – take a holiday with some “trippy mindfkk-muzzikkk.” Here, we’ve got 170 tracks from 1991 Cologne to today to get utterly weird.
In 1990s Cologne, if the techno scene was spread too thin, you could just manufacture a few dozen aliases and DIY the whole thing. At least that seems to be the approach taken by our friends Air Liquide, aka Cem Oral and Ingmar Koch, and a half dozen or so core artists – a band of buddies making weirdo sounds. See the full alias list at bottom, but DJ DB (aka DB Burkeman) traced the history of the duo for the now-defunct THUMP from VICE:
Now, just when you thought it was safe to go back to Germany, Air Liquide have returned to make European electronics mindfkked again.
We’ve got over 16 hours – 170 tracks – on streaming services like Spotify, chronicling the evolution (or whatever it was) of Air Liquide from 1991 through today. The sounds are futuristic, spacey, hyperactive, bizarre – everything in turns. You know you need some broken ultra-fast acid piping through Spotify on your next workout, of course:
But in addition to that history, their label Blue is back.
Maybe this comes at an ideal time. With so many records sounding like generational loss – copies of copies of 90s records, watered down and sanitized and fed through Instagram – the new Air Liquide project is both real media archaeology and real invention. You get remasters and rereleases of the actual original records, and – this is important – they’re making new stuff.
Air Liquide are back.
So albums like Liquid Air and Mercury EP are returning on colored vinyl and cheap-for-everybody digital. But you can also expect new creations, like a mini-album called “ALTR” which they’ve let CDM know they’re finishing now with German rave legend t.raumschmiere. And there’s upcoming collaboration with American poet Mary S. Applegate – yes, the cousin of Christina Applegate – later this year, along with other releases.
There’s even some unreleased 1992-93 era stuff in store, they tell us.
Included is “some crazy tripmusic we love – paired with some of our own brain fkk trax” – up to 94 tracks and over 8 hours so far, from around the world and the years:
Their favorite machines
One thread through all this music is a real, profound love for sound and electronics – and synths and noisemakers and effects, like, everywhere.
CDM asked for some of the duo’s favorite stuff, and here’s what they’ve come up with:
erica synths technosystem
akai mpc3000 (modded)
akai mpc60 mk 1 (modded)
ensoniq asr x (modded)
superpocketoperator build by doc analog with 2x teenage engineering po32, ipad with patterning2 and erica synths fusion valve filters. all in an old army flightcase
endorphin.es black noir with twisted electrons crazy8beats
ninja tune zendelay
erica synths & gamechanger audio plasmadrive
bastl instruments dark matter
crazy tube circuits stereo splash mk III
snazzy fx wownflutter
on the wishlist:
korg prologue 16
emu e II+ (modded)
roland 750 (modded)
superlatives sb1 spacebee
Postlude: namedrop this, m************:
Yeah, okay, starting a sentence with “maybe you’ve heard of” with Air Liquide could take a while if you want to check on all their aliases. From the VICE report – amazingly, possibly even incomplete:
Madonna 303, Black One, Digital Dirt Inc, Ingy-Babe, John Amok, Unit 700, Acid All Stars, Der Tote, DR. Echo, Free Radicals, Flüssige Luft, G 104, Message, Oral Experience, Alpha Unit, Basstards, The, Bionic Skank, Cipher Code, Cube 40, Denpasar, Electronic Dub, Ethik II, Even Brooklyn Grooves, Fridge Pro 1, Future Shock Project, Futuristic Dub Foundation, G.L. Posse, German Electronic Foundation, M.F.A., Mental Bazar, Multicore L.T.D., Non Toxique Lost, Outernational Steppers, Restgeraeusch, Rub-A-Slide, Set Fatale, Slime Slurps, , Time Tunnel, Titanium Steel Screws, Tone Manipulators, Trancemagma, Dzeta Walker, Ultrahigh, UMO, Vene, View Point Odyssey, Zulutronic, Black One, Digital Dirt Inc, Dr. Walker, Ingy-Babe, John Amok, 370°, Acid Force, Air Liquide, Alternate States, Atlantic Trance, Bleep, The, Brotherz In Armz, Cipher Code, Commando, The Creature, Denpasar, Dr. Walker & Electro Atomu, Dr. Walker & M. Flux, Electrochic, Electronic Dub, Elevator 101, Ermionis Phunk Crew, Ethik II, Fridge Pro 1, Future Shock Project, German Electronic Foundation, Gizz TV & Walker, Global Electronic Network, Helden Der Revolution, House Hallucinates, GEF, Khan & Walker, Lovecore, Mental Bazar, Mono-Tone, Multicore L.T.D., Pierrot Premier, Planet Love Ink, Planet Lovecore, Psychedelic Kitchen, Radiowaves, Recall IV, Red Light District, Rei$$dorf Force, Resist 101, South 2nd, Stardate 1973, Structure, Tantra-M, Technoline, Time Tunnel, Trancemagma, Trip 2001, Unbelievable, Unlimited Pleasure, Vermona, View Point Odyssey, Dr. W and X-911.
They have shared this new short bio/history with us, to give you the full story:
Born out of innovation & originality, Air Liquide are for many people one of contemporary electronic music cultures most pioneering, important and inspiring projects.
Cem Oral aka Jammin Unit and Ingmar Koch (Dr.Walker) first met in 1989 in a Studio in Frankfurt Main, in Germany. As it often is when like attracts like, it wasn’t long before they recognized their mutual love, not only for experimental, abstract and lo-fi musics but also for Alien, Bigfoot, Telepathy stories of Parallel Universes and Fairytales with a somewhat darker side. So it was just a matter of time before the two were getting together in the studio at the end of their respective dayshifts, to commence their own nightshift recording sessions of abstract noise, cut-ups and experimental soundscapes.
As well as Techno itself, likewise Acid, Industrial Noise, Ernste Musik, Ambient, Kraut Rock, Space-rock, 70s Psychedelia Underground Hip Hop and Musique Concrete were all somehow present and in the mix of the evolving Air Liquide sound, sitting comfortably and perfectly at home with elements of Turkish and Arabian traditional Music’s. The production process took on board a similar innovative and pioneering approach in its fusion of Modern Dub paired with the intensity of the all important groundbreaking Roland 909, 808, 303 and 101 must have technology of the day.
In 1991, they formed Air Liquide.
The fusion that was created boldly incorporated a past it was proud of, free of revivalism or plagiarism, clearly created in and reflecting undeniably a soundscape for the here and now that proclaimed uncompromisingly and assuredly, welcome to the future!
In keeping with every other aspect of their venture, Cem and Ingmar followed their intuition and instincts rather than established tradition, and immersed themselves in freestyle jam sessions, recording the entire one or two hours that they lasted. Upon later listening it would be decided if any parts of the jam session were up to the pairs criteria to be edited out and tweeked into tracks for release.
This is the paradigm within which the Air Liquide creative process birthed “Neue Frankfurter Elektronik Schule”, their first record, released in 1991 on their own label ”Blue”. The first pressing of 1000 copies, released on coloured vinyl, sold out in the first hour after its release!
This was a remarkable achievement, for an unknown band without any direct link to the House Music Scene. Via experimentation Air Liquide reintroduced a living breathing life affirming energy into contemporary music culture, much the same as techno and house did via rave and most importantly dancing. No surprise then that in a very short space of time, accolades like ‘The true heirs to Can’, ‘The Greatful Dead of Techno’ & ‘The spearhead of German Techno’ were incoming thick and fast from the International Music press. Their mixture of Hip Hop, Psyche & Krautrock, Acid & Techno endeared them to a rapidly established and increasing fan base around the Cologne area.
Their eclecticism, originality and self respect, as apparent in a seemingly “no respect for any rules” approach endeared them to that international music press, fans and professionals alike, especially as those professionals were born of the same spirit, as it had been in their own break through years. Like attracts like, the true fans of such musics, such fusions and the spaces that are created for and by these musics, of course could and can feel that, and step up to support it without question.
Then you have guests at your live jams like Michael Rother, Holger Czukay, Luke Vibert, Helmut Zerlett, Craig Anderton, Arno Steffen, Caspar Pound, Fm Einheit. Then your 100% improvised live shows successfully bring surprise, ecstasy, the unexpected and exactly all that people are wanting from you, as well in ways they are not expecting, all in a guaranteed we deliver way, regardless however it may be presented. Then you will be invited to join the roster of USA sm:)e records, the cult sub-label of Profile, that being the label of Run DMC. Likewise in UK, being asked to release on Casper Pounds all important Rising High Records.
And when your fusion of the experimental soul of contemporary electronica and krautrock creates such a superb and flawless fusion that fans from both sound spectrums love you for it, well then one of the all time forward thinking labels ever, Harvest records, will come out of retirement and re activate solely for the purpose of releasing your recordings.
Which is exactly what happened in 1993. That happens if you mean what your doing and if what you are doing is truly valid and unquestionably relevant.
Air Liquide were inspired, moulded by and arose from within that timeless borderless creative Freezone that births truly great Sound & Vision in every respect. It is where they still reside, and it is from there that they now re-emerge to mark 3 decades of living on the frontiers of International ground breaking contemporary ahead of the curve Music, Art, and attendant Technology subcultures.
Air Liquide represent the ultimate fusion of ideals, not believing the hype, not being swayed by past or present dogmas and staying true to their innermost aims and feelings, without question. The real thing if you will. Air Liquide were since their inception in 1991, always have been and still are very much the real thing, through and through!
Modern photos by George Nebieridze; all pictures courtesy Air Liquide.
SoundCloud has a new pitch to creators: upload your music not just to SoundCloud, but to all major music services, too. Distribution is launching in a new beta as part of Premier service, and the terms look appealing.
Okay, first, to understand what digital distribution is, let’s go back in time. Digital music for many years meant primarily CDs and … well, piracy, despite some early (fairly horrible) stores. Then along came Apple’s iTunes Music Store. When it launched, you needed to have a label deal of some kind to make your music available; Apple dealt with those labels much as brick and mortar stores deal with labels and distributors. The first loophole was CDBaby – the name is a reminder that at the time, independent music producers were still largely duplicating releases on CDs. Pay for CDBaby, and you get your music on iTunes for sale.
Now, the landscape is different. Apart from DJs and specialists, most people get their music through streaming services. But the only major destination where you can upload music directly these days has been SoundCloud (though Apple and Spotify may soon change that).
So if you want your music on other services, you typically sign a distribution deal. Some of these are pay-once or subscription services open to anyone. More traditional distributors require multi-year contracts you can’t get out of – though they may offer personal relationships with curators at online stores, and the promise, at least, of getting you placed as “featured music” or on playlists.
If you just want to get your music out there, the issue is that the distribution costs can actually cost more than you bring in.
SoundCloud’s offering, then, could be at least cheap and convenient. Here’s how it works:
Qualified users with a SoundCloud Pro or Pro Unlimited account can sign up for an open beta right now.
You can select original music to distribute to a range of services, including Amazon Music, Apple Music, Instagram, Spotify, Tencent (the leading Chinese network), and YouTube Music, inside your SoundCloud account.
Then you keep 100% “of your rights” (need to read the fine print on that), plus 100% of distribution royalties from third-party services. There’s no additional cost for distribution.
Most other services either take a cut of royalties, or charge fees for distribution; here, what you’re paying already for your account already covers those costs.
So wait, what’s in it for SoundCloud if you get all the money? It seems the main goal is to attract users to their subscription services and provide monetization options to keep them there. In fact, you don’t have to include your music on SoundCloud or monetize it there if for some reason you don’t want to – like if for some reason you want it just on Apple or just on Spotify or some other combination. SoundCloud hopes you will, though; a spokeperson for the company tells us, “Monetizing tracks through SoundCloud Premier monetization gets creators the best revenue share rate on SoundCloud and fast payouts.”
I suspect SoundCloud does hope to use this offering to help build up their catalog, of course – which makes sense for them. The big challenge SoundCloud’s business faces is, while the service has a lot of original music the likes of Spotify and Apple lack, their catalog still lags the major music a lot of people want to listen to. And they’re in the unique position of wanting to attract both creators and listeners. That could be good in the long run for us as creators, but so far it’s meant that we tend to use SoundCloud as a way of building audience for other services (and for a lot of us, trying to convince people to buy downloads or physical music).
SoundCloud’s creator-facing tools are essentially unparalleled; the limited tools on Spotify and Apple are fairly weak and confusing. The real pitfalls here aren’t so much about SoundCloud as they are about streaming – streaming revenue for a lot of smaller artists is disappointing or even nonexistent. And this won’t help your music get playlisted or found on those services; it’ll just get you over the initial barrier of distribution.
In other words, I think generally the pricier services for distribution that just dump music on streaming are going to get run out of business, in favor of offerings like SoundCloud’s. But that leaves opportunities for distributors who do work on promotion, as well as the “we’re not dead yet” strangeness of cassette tapes and vinyl still being viable distribution formats in 2019.
Do you qualify?
The open beta requires a SoundCloud Pro / Pro Unlimited subscription, and you have to be an adult (18+ or age of majority).
You have to control all the rights to your music. So if you’ve signed music to a label, for instance, or you have an existing distribution deal, you can’t upload even your own music – technically, you’ve signed away the right to do so.
You also can’t have any copyright strikes against you on SoundCloud. That’s a dicey issue, I know, though SoundCloud points CDM readers to firstname.lastname@example.org if you’ve got a question about copyright policy or you have a strike against you.
And you need at least 1000 plays in countries that have advertising available – US, UK, Canada, Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, The Netherlands, New Zealand.
It seems you don’t necessarily have to be living in one of those countries, however.
When do you get data or get paid?
This is the part I really like.
You get monthly reporting of numbers from all the services where you’re distributing.
There are monthly royalty payments, with no minimums.
This is a big break from the truly terrible way the industry often operates, which is to lock you into long-term contracts, take a big slice of the money you’ve earned, and then make data hard to retrieve and slow, and hold up what money is left based on weird payment schedules or minimum thresholds.
So the appeal of just logging into a SoundCloud account and taking care of all of this – leaving time for you to go figure out who to talk to to make your music popular – that’s hugely appealing.
There’s a separate music ecosystem of DJ services like Beatport and Traxsource, plus of course the isolatedbut artist-friendly world of Bandcamp. I hope to check in with both those services soon.
And there will still be room for distributors who offer more advanced customer service and relationships with those outlets, or bundle distribution with other services (including label management).
For everything else, though, the new SoundCloud offering looks like a significant breakthrough. I’ll be testing the beta, for my own music – even though the label we operate, Establishment, has a few weeks left on one of those terrible contracts I mentioned. Let us know if you have questions about this and we can ask our Berlin neighbors at SoundCloud.
As we remember Alan R. Pearlman and the impact his instruments had on music, here’s a survey of the many places ARP sounds appeared in music culture. It’s a reminder of just how profound electronic music tools can be in their influence – and of the unique age in which we live.
Perhaps now is the perfect time for an ARP revival. With modular synthesis reaching ever-wider audiences, the ARP creations – the 2500, 2600, and Odyssey featured here – represent something special. Listen across these tracks, and you’re struck by the unique colors of those ARP creations across a range of genres. It’s also significant that each of these designs in their own way struck a balance between modularity and accessibility, sound design and playability. That includes making instruments that had modular patching capability but also produced useful sounds at each patch point by default – that is, you don’t have to wire things up just to make something happen. That in turn also reduces cable spaghetti, because the patch connections you make represent the particular decisions you made deviating from the defaults. On the 2500, this involves a matrix (think Battleship games, kids), which is also a compelling design in the age of digital instruments and software.
And lest we get lost in sound design, it’s also worth noting how much these things get played. In the era of Eurorack, it’s easy to think music is just about tweaking … but sometimes it’s just as useful to have a simple, fresh sound and then just wail on it. (Hello, Herbie Hancock.)
It’s easy to forget just how fast musical sound has moved in a couple of generations. An instrument like the piano or violin evolved over centuries. Alan R. Pearlman literally worked on some of the first amplifiers to head into space – the Mercury and Gemini programs that first sent Americans into space and orbit, prior to Apollo’s journey to the moon. And then he joined the unique club of engineers who have remade music – a group that now includes a lot of you. (All of you, in fact, once you pick up these instruments.)
So I say go for it. Play a preset in a software emulation. Try KORG’s remake of the Odyssey. Turn a knob or re-patch something. Make your own sound design – and don’t worry about whether it’s ingenious or ground-breaking, but see what happens when you play it. (Many of my, uh, friends and colleagues are in the business of creating paid presets, but I have the luxury of making some for my own nefarious music production purposes that no one else has to use, so I’m with you!)
David Abravanel puts together this playlist for CDM:
Some notes on this music:
You know, we keep talking about Close Encounters, but the actual sound of the ARP 2500 is very limited. The clip I embedded Monday left out the ARP sound, as did the soundtrack release of John Williams’ score. The appearance is maybe more notable for the appearance of ARP co-founder David Friend at the instrument – about as much Hollywood screen time as any synth manufacturer has ever gotten. Oh, and … don’t we all want that console in our studio? But yes, following this bit, Williams takes over with some instrumental orchestration – gorgeous, but sans-ARP.
So maybe a better example of a major Hollywood composer is Jerry Goldsmith. The irony here is, I think you could probably get away with releasing this now. Freaky. Family Guy reused it (at the end). We’ll never defeat The Corporation; it’s true.
It’s also about time to acknowledge that Stevie Wonder combined Moog and ARP instruments, not just Moog. As our industry looks at greater accessibility, it’s also worth noting that Wonder was able to do so without sight.
What about U2? Well, that’s The Edge’s guitar routed through the ARP 2600 for filter distortion and spring reverb. That’s a trick you can steal, of course – especially easily now that Arturia has an emulation of the 2600.
Expect our collective reader knowledge exceeds anything we can contribute so – let us know what other artists using ARP inspired you, and if you have any notes on these selections.
Spotify has begun opening uploading not just to labels and distributors, but individual artists. And the implications of that could be massive, if the service is expanded – or if rivals follow suit.
On reflection, it’s surprising this didn’t happen sooner.
Among major streaming players, currently only SoundCloud lets individual artists upload music directly. Everyone else requires intermediaries, whether that’s labels or distributors. The absurdity of this system is that services like TuneCore have profited off streaming growth. In theory, that might have meant that music selections were more “curated” and less junk showed up online. In reality, though, massive amounts of music get dumped on all the streaming services, funneling money from artists and labels into the coffers of third-party services. That arrangement surely makes no sense for the likes of Spotify, Apple, Google, and others as they look to maximize revenue.
You’ll upload via a new Web-based upload tool. Check the tool and FAQ.
It’s invite-only for now. A “small group of artists” has access for testing and feedback, Spotify says.
It won’t cost anything, and access to releases will be streamlined. No fees, the full commission – the deal is better financially. And you’ll be able to edit releases and delete music, which can be a draconian process now through distributors.
Regions are a big question. The tax section currently refers to the W9 – a tax form in use in the USA. So clearly the initial test is US-only; we’ll see what the plans are for other regions.
You have to look into the future before this really starts to matter, because it is so limited. But it could be a sign of things to come. And bottom line, Spotify can give you a better experience of what your music will be like on Spotify than anyone else can:
You’ll be able to deliver music straight to Spotify and plan for the perfect release day. You’ll see a preview of exactly how things will appear to listeners before you hit submit. And even after your music goes live, you’ll be in full control of your metadata with simple and quick edits.
Just like releasing through any other partner, you’ll get paid when fans stream your music on Spotify. Your recording royalties will hit your bank account automatically each month, and you’ll see a clear report of how much your streams are earning right next to the other insights you already get from Spotify for Artists. Uploading is free to all artists, and Spotify doesn’t charge you any fees or commissions no matter how frequently you release music.
The question really is how far they’ll expand, and how quickly. If they use all of Spotify for Artists, as their blog news item would seem to imply, then some 200,000 or so verified artist accounts will get the feature. (I’m one of those accounts.) 200,000 artists with direct access to Spotify could change the game for everyone.
The potential losers here are clear. First, there are the distributors. So-called “digital distribution” at this point really amounts to nothing of the sort. While these third parties will get your music out to countless streaming services, for most artists and labels, only the big ones like iTunes and Spotify count to most of their customers. At the entry level, these services often carry hefty ongoing subscription fees while providing little service other than submitting your music. More personalized distributors, meanwhile, often require locking in multi-year contracts. (I, uh, speak from experience on both those counts. It’s awful.)
Even the word “distributor” barely makes sense in the current digital context. Unlike a big stack of vinyl, nothing is actually really getting distributed. More complete management and monetization platforms actually do make sense – plus tools to deal with the morass of social media. Paying a toll to a complicated website to upload music for you? That defies reason.
The second potential loser that comes to mind is obviously SoundCloud. Once beloved by independent producers and labels, that service hasn’t delivered much on its promise of new features for its creators. (Most recently, they unveiled a weekly playlist that seems cloned from Spotify’s feature.) And SoundCloud’s ongoing popularity with users was dependent of having music that couldn’t be found elsewhere. If artists can upload directly to Spotify, well … uh, game over, SoundCloud. (Yeah, you still might want to upload embeddable players and previews but other services could do that better.)
Just keep in mind: Spotify for Artists was 200,000 users at the beginning of summer. At least as of 2014, SoundCloud was creating 10 million creators. So it’s not so much SoundCloud losing as it is another sign that SoundCloud won’t really take on Spotify – just as Spotify (even with this functionality) really doesn’t even attempt to take on SoundCloud. They’re different animals, and it’s frustrating that SoundCloud hasn’t done more to focus on that difference.
But all this still remains to be seen in action – it’s just a beta.
Just remember how this played out the first time. Spotify reached a critical mass of streaming, and Apple followed. If Spotify really are doing uploads, it’d make sense for Apple to do the same. After all, Apple makes the hardware (MacBook Pro, iPad) and software (GarageBand, Logic Pro X) a lot of musicians are using. And they tempted to capitalize on their strong relationships with artists once, with the poorly designed Connect features (touted by Trent Reznor, no less). They just lag Spotify in this area – with the beta Apple Music for Artists and Apple Music Toolbox.
Meanwhile, I wouldn’t write off labels or genre-specific stores just yet. If you’re making music in a genre for a more specific audience, dumping your music on Spotify where it’s lost in the long tail is probably exactly what you don’t want to do. Streaming money from the big consumer services just isn’t reaching lesser known artists the way it is the majors and big acts. So I suspect that perversely, the upload feature could lead to an even closer relationship between, say, electronic label producers and labels and services tailored to their needs, like Beatport. (We’re waiting on Beatport’s own subscription offerings soon.)
But does this make sense? It sure does for the streaming service. Giving the actual content makers the tools to upload and control tags and other data should actually reduce labor costs for streaming services, entice more of the people making music, and build catalogs.
And what about you as a music maker? Uh, well… strap in, and we find out.
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.
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.
NUGEN Audio has released version 1.5 of its MasterCheck Pro loudness, dynamics, and codec toolset. The update comes with enhancements embracing support for the Apple AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) iTunes Plus native OS X codec and also the PSR (Peak to Short-Term Loudness Ratio) measurement update to AES Engineering Brief 373. “I have to deliver […]
The biggest break from how we’ve normally thought about DJ software comes in the form of automatic mixing and selection tools. One is powered by machine learning working with DJ sets, and one from data collected from listening (Spotify).
Automix AI is a new mixing technology. And hold on to your hats, folks, if the “sync” button was unnerving to you, this goes further.
When we say “A.I.,” we’re really talking machine learning – that is, “training” algorithms on large sets of data. In this case, that data comes from existing DJ sets. (Algoriddim tells CDM that was drawn from a variety of DJs, mostly in hip-hop and electronic genres.) Those sets were analyzed according to various sonic features, and the automixing applies those to your music. So this isn’t just about mixing two different techno tracks with mechanical efficiency – it’s meant to go further across different tempos and genres.
It’s also more than matching tempo. Automix AI will identify where the transition occurs, decide how long the fade should be, and apply filters and EQ. So, if you’ve ever listened to existing Automix features and how clumsy they are with starting and stopping tracks, this takes a different approach. Algoriddim explains to CDM:
The core of this tech is finding good start and end regions for transition between two songs, while also respecting the corresponding sound energies and choosing an appropriate transition accordingly (e.g. most likely EQ or short filter transition if you have two high energy parts of the song for the transition)
Then there’s “Morph” – which Algoriddim argue opens up new ways of mixing:
This actually goes beyond what a regular DJ can do with two hands. Morph not only syncs the songs but seamlessly ramps the changed tempo of the inactive deck to its regular speed as the transition progresses. E.g. in the past if you had a hip-hop song at say 95 BPM and an electronic track at 130 BPM, syncing the two and making a transition would leave the new track in an awkwardly rate changed state (even with time-stretching enabled). So as the transition starts, both songs (in this example) would be playing at 130 BPM but as we are doing a simultaneous tempo “crossfade”, the hip-hop track ends up being back at 95 BPM at the end of the transition. This ensures the tracks always play at their regular tempo and these types of mixes sound very natural, allowing for seamless cross-genre transitions.”
Also impressive: while you might think this sort of technology would be licensed externally, the whiz kids over at Algoriddim did all of this on their own, in-house.
On the Spotify integration side, and also related to automating DJing tasks, “Match” technology recommends music based on BPM, key, and music style. Existing Spotify users will be familiar with some of this recommendation engine already. Where it could be good for producers is, this means there’s an avenue by which your music gets exposed by algorithms. And that in turn is potentially good news, if you’re a producer whose music isn’t always charting the top of a genre on Beatport.
These “autopilot” features are all under your control, too: you can choose which parameters are used, choose your own tracks, switch it off at will – as you like. Or you can sit back and let djay Pro run in the background while you’re doing something else, if you want to let the machine do the DJing while you cook dinner, for instance.
Pro features, for humans
Okay, so at this point, djay Pro 2 may sound a bit like this:
But one of the disruptive things about Algoriddim’s approach to DJ software is, it has simultaneously challenged rivals both among entry level and casual users and more advanced users at the same time.
So, here’s the more “Pro” sounding side of this. Some of these are features that are either missing or not implemented quite the way we’d like in industry leaders like Serato and Traktor.
A new audio engine with master AU plug-ins. A rewrite of the engine now allows high-res waveforms, post-fader effects, higher-quality filters, plus the ability to add Audio Unit plug-ins as master output effects.
Integrated libraries. iTunes, Spotify, and music in the file system / Finder are now all integrated and can be viewed side-by-side.
Integrated library views bring together everything on your local machine as well as Spotify.
Smart filters. Set up dynamic playlists sorted by BPM, key, date, genre, and other metadata. (Those columns are available in other tools, but here you get them dynamically, a bit like the ones in iTunes.)
Keyboard Shortcuts Editor. There’s a full editor for assigning individual features to custom shortcuts – which in turn can also map to custom hardware or the MacBook Pro Touch Bar.
CDJ and third-party hardware support. Whereas some other players make their own hardware or limit compatibility (or even require specific hardware just to launch, ahem), Algoriddim’s approach is more open. So they’re fully certified by Pioneer for CDJ compatibility, and they include 60 MIDI controllers in the box, and they have an extensive MIDI learn function.
More cueing and looping. Version 2 now has up to eight cue points and loops, with naming, per song. (I recently lauded Soda for adding this.) You can also now assign loop triggers to cue points.
Single deck mode for preparation. Okay, some (cough, again Serato) lock you into this view if you don’t have authorized hardware plugged in. But here, it’s designed specifically for the purpose of making set prep easier.
Accessibility. VoiceOver support makes djay Pro 2 work for vision-impaired users. We really need more commitment to this in the industry; it’s also been great to see this technology from Algoriddim showcased at Apple’s developer conference. If you’re using this (and hopefully CDM is working well with screen readers), do let us know.
New photo / still image support.
And it does photos
Back to less club/pro features, the other breakthrough for casual users, weddings, and commercial gigs is photo integration. Drag and drop photos or albums onto the visual decks, and the software will make beat-matched slide shows.
The photo decks also work with existing, fairly powerful VJ features, which includes external output, effects, and the like. You can also adjust beat sync.
Still image support builds on an existing video/VJ facility.
Plus a no-brainer price
The other thing that’s disruptive about djay Pro 2: price. It’s US$49.99, with an intro price of US$39.99, on the App Store.
You’ll need Spotify Premium for those features, of course, and macOS 10.11 or later is required.
NUGEN Audio has launched version 1.4 of its MasterCheck Pro plugin for optimizing your mixes for today’s music delivery services. The update adds FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) and Opus encoding to the indispensable, award-winning loudness, dynamics, and codec toolset. The term codec is an acronym for coder/decoder. Music streaming services such as Apple Music® […]
SoundCloud’s CEO published a post saying SoundCloud is here to stay and uploads are safe. But it isn’t just SoundCloud’s business that’s troubled.
Okay, first – the one thing you shouldn’t worry about is music you’ve uploaded to SoundCloud. As I wrote at the end of last week, you should worry if you have media that’s important to you that’s located in any one place without backups, SoundCloud or otherwise. But while there have been plenty of signs SoundCloud’s business is seriously troubled, that doesn’t necessarily translate to any indication you’ll lose access to the service.
SoundCloud co-founder and CEO Alex Ljung was left scrambling in the wake of deep layoffs to assuage user fears. He took to the phones with at least one celebrity user, Chance the Rapper, who reported a “fruitful” call with the exec on Twitter Friday.
Also on Friday, Ljung posted a plea on the company’s blog:
The music you love on SoundCloud isn’t going away, the music you shared or uploaded isn’t going away, because SoundCloud is not going away. Not in 50 days, not in 80 days or anytime in the foreseeable future. Your music is safe.
Alex also refers dismissively to “an insane amount of noise” about the company.
But let’s back up. SoundCloud’s CEO can’t just shrug off fear and uncertainty when the company’s own messaging, actions, and even financial filings are largely responsible. Whatever’s going on with SoundCloud’s business, the company has lost control of its image. It’s hard not to view this “noise” as partly SoundCloud’s fault.
Co-founders Alex and Eric are each articulate and passionate advocates of music sharing. But the company has for years failed to articulate its business model. It’s talked about subscription services like SoundCloud Go, without being clear about how it can compete with entrenched competitors, and talked about advertising without being clear about how it will attract advertisers or how those ads will be effectively delivered. It’s been evasive about details of revenue and profit. It’s allowed bad press to accumulate, like allowing lavish office photos to spread just as financial filings were adding to concerns about its future. It has often failed to go on the record with press outlets (not mine, major press), while small rumor blogs flooded the narrative with leaked (and often inaccurate) information.
To see how badly SoundCloud’s media relations are going, look to recent reports by the likes of Forbes or even TechCrunch. That’s TechCrunch, who just last year were so bullish on SoundCloud that they said the company should be worth more than Spotify
The best SoundCloud could do by way of correction or response in this place was to say that the fourth quarter begins in 80 days, not 50, and that they meant they had money through the end of that quarter (that is, the end of the year) – but that means we’re not any further along than when Ljung initially made that same statement in a financial statement in January. You can watch the messy back and forth here: SoundCloud Responds to ‘Extensive Inaccuracies’ in Article Claiming It’s Almost Out of Money
[Indeed, TechCrunch has reason to complain here – SoundCloud doesn’t specify what it means by “extensive inaccuracies,” and actually appears to confirm some of the main gist of the article.]
Presumably these layoffs were planned for some time, so why did SoundCloud appear to be improvising its message to the press and its own staff?
And this problem isn’t a new one in summer. Way back in January, the apparent failure of revenue plans to keep pace with growing costs were fueling acquisition predictions. Now we have vague platitudes from the CEO that the company intends to remain independent, without any material on how they will do that. (That is, even after 40% staffing cuts, they’re still not talking about having money after the fourth quarter, unless by “foreseeable future” Ljung only means he can forsee 2017!) Here’s Fortune back at the end of the year; we actually know very little new information since then: Here’s Why SoundCloud Will Likely Look to Be Acquired Soon [Fortune]
I know SoundCloud can do better, having covered the company since its 2008 founding. I know its founders can do a better job of messaging than this, too, having known them almost as long. Rather than simply imploring its users to help, they need to provide a better picture as soon as possible as to how revenue growth will work versus costs – particularly now, having cut some of the staff who were responsible for making that revenue growth happen.
That said, I think SoundCloud are unfairly bearing the brunt of bad press and angry musicians.
Let’s not mince words: right now, the whole model of streaming appears economically broken, and surely all the major players deserve some share of the blame.
Talk about a rock and a hard place – maybe “buried under a pile of rubble” is more apt.
Content creators and owners believe they should get paid for music being streamed. So you’ve got the industry that represents them asking for higher royalty rates.
The problem is where the revenue to pay those royalties is coming from. Listeners don’t appear to want to pay much for subscription fees. That’s at least partly why Spotify and SoundCloud and others aren’t showing profitable results. Even if you don’t buy their arguments (lavish offices and huge headcount being evidence), there’s still a fundamental problem here. If users pay a flat fee for a subscription, then the company loses money the more they listen to the service – because royalty costs accrue. SoundCloud here actually has an edge, in that not all of the music uploaded requires a license – think spoken word and unreleased music. But SoundCloud hasn’t yet proven that they can make this work, either. (We’ll see if those staff cuts or other budget trimming helps.)
Advertising is the one thing that will grow with increased listening, at least in theory – more listening means more revenue for ads. But listeners and even content creators have been resistant to advertising. And selling ads in sufficient volume and with significant value means you need to have a talented staff able to liaise with big agencies and advertisers. Google is the one tech company who seem to have built a significant competency in the ad business, but they claim they’re not making money on ads, either.
And it gets worse. Largely missed in all the coverage of SoundCloud last week (but observed by some CDM readers), it’s really YouTube that dominates streaming. The Washington Post has just painted a bleak picture of the value of those YouTube plays to music.
In a pot-calls-kettle-black argument, YouTube weirdly warns of the dangers of consolidation in big players:
“The industry should be really, really careful because they could close their eyes and wake up with their revenue really concentrated in two, three sources,” said Lyor Cohen, YouTube’s global head of music, referring to Spotify, Apple Music and Amazon Prime Music.
Right, so it’s better if it’s concentrated in four, and the fourth is Google? Huh?
The real danger here seems to be a race to the bottom. Apple, Amazon, and Google can all afford to lose money on streaming, turning it into loss-leader business for other revenue streams. SoundCloud, Spotify, and other tech companies can afford to lose money by repeatedly turning to outside investment. (It’s absurd that we’re still calling this “runway” with those companies, as the business is now around a decade old at least. The runway metaphor only works if you take off at some point. A “hole in the ground into which you throw money” metaphor is what we seem to have here.)
I wouldn’t normally compliment the record industry, but to the credit of groups like the RIAA, at least they’re exerting some pressure up. The problem is, even a $7 royalty per 1000 streams may prove negligible to smaller artists and labels – and if the business that pays that royalty can’t survive, it’s a moot point anyway.
So, uh, how’s everyone feeling? Super… happy? No?
Of course, the buzzword that everyone seems to be running to at the moment is the blockchain – offering decentralized content and paying creators more directly. But describing one part of a larger solution isn’t the same as describing the whole solution. Will listeners embrace micropayments for music, or will they find it a hassle? What will make them migrate from services they’re already accustomed to using – and in which they’ve already assembled playlists and preferences? What about the fact that services like Apple’s are already integrated with the listening devices they own? How do you convince listeners to change their mind about what music should cost, when they’ve already grown accustomed to $10 monthly fees – or, very often, no fee whatsoever?
It isn’t all bad news. People are listening to more music. Streaming isn’t a nonexistent business – it’s US$7.7 billion in the United States alone. Someone, somewhere is actually earning money.
Also, because of the cost of PR and building fanbases, and the potential revenue earned from paying live (or selling physical goods), a lot of musicians I’ve talked to really do appreciate the promotional value of online streams. There are plenty of cases where giving away streaming music is viable – because you might then sell people vinyl, for instance.
And, look, while all of this shakes out, musicians and labels continue to pursue a strategy that caters to building relations on all these services. Some of them have great success stories with YouTube, with SoundCloud, with Spotify.
But maybe that’s the point. It seems to be the businesses in between that are non-functioning – or (in the case of futuristic blockchain propositions) just not ready for primetime.
Musicians and labels keep doing the hard work of making the music and fighting to get it heard. Yet investment and attention pours into the middleware between us and listeners – and that middleware really isn’t working terribly well.
At the very least, it seems totally valid to me that people who make music have reason to be frustrated. I think we should continue talking about our own solutions. And I’d like to see the captains of industry – music industry and tech industry alike – take some greater responsibility for what’s gone wrong and how it might go better. Well… one can dream, anyway.