An innocent mistake?

Lots of music news lately, most prominently U2’s free album, Songs of Innocence, appearing in the music library of every owner of an iTunes Store account. And it seems like many people have serious issues with this.

I originally sided with those saying that this is a real first-world problem: “Oh no, I got a free album by a famous band on my €700 pocket computer.” But I hadn’t really looked at it from the other side until I read Marco Arment’s blog post:

Apple set everyone’s account to have “purchased” this album, which auto-downloaded it to all of their devices, possibly filling up the stingy base-level storage that Apple still hasn’t raised and exacerbate[d] by iOS’ poor and confusing storage-management facilities. And when people see a random album they didn’t buy suddenly showing up in their “purchases” and library, it makes them wonder where it came from, why it’s there, whether they were charged for it, and whether were hacked or had their credit card stolen.

It was a sloppy, hamfisted execution uncharacteristic of Apple, much like the painfully awkward, forced, cheesy Tim/Bono marketing skit announcing this promotion that slaughtered the momentum of the otherwise very important iPhone 6/Pay/Watch event.

I’ve had auto-downloads turned off since it’s been available, and I’d forgotten that it was an option in the first place. But I’m not surprised, particularly with Apple and cloud security having been so much in the news lately, that some people thought their accounts had been hacked. It’s easy, as a tech-literate person, to assume everyone had heard about this release, but they hadn’t.

As I didn’t have auto-downloads turned on, I had to actually seek out the album. It wasn’t worth it. I haven’t listened to it in depth, and I probably won’t bother, but to judge by the first few tracks, it’s ground that U2 has been over before, in better songs.

Incidentally, I did enjoy, but is anyone really surprised that a band that peaked in the ’80s and had their latest release five years ago is unknown to a lot of sixteen-year-olds?

Zappa and Varèse

WQXR’s blog, with a rediscovered recording of the Frank Zappa-led 1984 tribute concert to Edgard Varèse.

Zappa’s love for Varèse began long before he became the mustached icon of eccentric rock and jazz. In fact, it began when he was about 13, after he read an article about a New York record store that somehow managed to sell an album called “Ionizations: The Complete Works of Edgard Varèse, Volume One.” The magazine labeled the music as an unpleasant mashup of drums and sounds, a description that inspired Zappa’s obsession to find it

I have to admit, Varèse was never really my cup of tea, but his influence on 20th Century music is incalculable, and you have to admire any composer whose music can put Zappa and Pierre Boulez on the same stage.

One to check out.

On the Classical Cloud

I’ve been turning over Alex Ross’ piece from last week’s New Yorker, The Classical Cloud, in my mind for a little while now. A sort of nostalgic look at CD collections and the problems with subscription-based music, there’s a lot right with it. Ross writes:

My working process as a critic revolves around a stack of disks that I call the Listen Again pile: recent releases that have jumped out of the crowd and demand attention. None of this happens as easily on the computer. I experience no nostalgia for the first music I downloaded, which appears to have been Justin Timberlake.

A Listen Again pile will be familiar to any music fan who’s grown up in the last fifty years. For some, like my dad, it was a stack of vinyls wedged between record player and cabinet for convenient access. For others, it was a compilation patiently cobbled together on a 180-minute mixtape. For me, it was four or five CDs squeezed into the ludicrously oversized pockets of the trousers I used to wear to school.1

But the absence of nostalgia for downloads is Ross’ experience, and mine differs. Today, I keep an equivalent playlist on my phone: albums I haven’t heard for years, that deserve a listen anew, or that I’ve just bought, and am listening to on repeat. And, unlike Ross’ Justin Timberlake download, I have favourite artists and albums I’ve never heard on CD: Kate Bush, Martin Stig Andersen, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio; Peter Aidu’s extraordinary solo performance of Steve Reich’s Piano Phase.2 Would my enjoyment of The Sensual World have been greater if I’d heard it on CD instead? I don’t see how it could have.

Ross goes on to highlight some of the problems with streaming, the primary one being the pittance made by musicians and labels on Spotify. Writing of Leon Fleisher’s extraordinary recital All the Things You Are, released by family-run independent label Bridge, Ross concludes that “only by buying the albums are you likely to help the label stay in business.” He may be right.

But he makes a point in the article that I find it hard to agree with:

There is a downside to the glut of virtual product and the attendant plunge of prices. … [T]he streaming model favors superstars and conglomerates over workaday musicians and indie outfits. Its façade of infinite variety notwithstanding, it meshes neatly with the winner-take-all economy.

Ben Thompson, author of the business blog Stratechery, has argued that the internet provides a new kind of market. The incredible size of the internet allows a handful of giant corporations to dominate, as large corporations always have, to a scale that they haven’t reached before. But the diversity and reach of the internet are also unprecedented, and no corporation can satisfy every desire of every customer. 

This provides extraordinary opportunities for small enterprises too: there are niches that large companies will no longer be able to fill, but which are precisely what a small proportion of people want. And a small proportion of the people on the internet can still be an enormous number—more than enough to sustain a small business. Thompson has compared this, on his podcast Exponent, to a rainforest: fertile undergrowth thriving beneath enormous trees, but with little room for anything in the middle.

It’s not, in other words, a winner-take-all economy. It may be winner-take-most, but all is beyond the reach of even the most massive players.

That’s where Bridge comes in: in order to survive, independent labels like Bridge have to be extremely focussed, and there has to be a clear, desirable distinction between them and their competitors. And it may be that Spotify is not the place for them, that they need some other means of distribution that will make them both easier to discover and allow them to reap more rewards from that distribution. I do see some opportunities here: Spotify’s labelling of classical music is, as Ross points out, even more chaotic and inconsistent than iTunes’. And classical music makes complex demands for a relatively small audience: it may not even be worth Spotify’s or Apple’s while to fix it. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth anybody’s.

People have been prophesying the death of classical music for generations, but today it has a wider reach and more opportunities to be heard than at any other time in history. Labels will come and go, and small labels will be vulnerable for a long time, but the music is still here because people love it, and people always will.

1 Honestly. For what it’s worth, the other pocket contained a far-from-slimline Discman, cigarettes, and keys.

2 For two pianos. It needs to be seen to be believed.

How to talk to a female composer

Alex Ambrose, writing on the WQXR blog:

Begin with basics. Always lead with the question, “What’s it like to be a composer and a woman?” or “How does being a woman influence your music?” Women love having their personal, defining creative impulses reduced to outdated stereotypes of gender, and don’t at all find it ironic that men are never asked “How does being a man influence your music?” as if estrogen and testosterone were the creative juices feeding all artistic inspiration. Or, maybe estrogen just makes it harder to compose?

It wouldn’t take a lot to rework this article into How to talk to a female professional.

The Sound of a Lightsaber

There’s a great three-minute video interview with Star Wars sound designer Ben Burtt up on Mental Floss at the moment, where he describes the creation of that beautiful lightsaber hum.


I could really just sort of hear the sound. I guess somewhere in my subconscious I had seen a lightsaber before.

We tend to watch the Star Wars trilogy,1 I think, with rose-tinted glasses. While there are many things to be admired in them, they’re also flawed in a lot of ways. Sound design isn’t one of them. Think of how many iconic sounds come from those films: lightsabers, laser blasts, Vader’s breathing, Chewbacca’s roar, R2D2’s chirps and whistles, the engines of the Millennium Falcon. The list goes on.

I’ve written before about my admiration of good sound design. In the case of Star Wars, it was fundamental to the creation of the universe.

Which is all to say, check out the video.

Update: There are more videos, which Mental Floss are drip-feeding us. Here’s Chewbacca and R2D2, and explosions.

1The Star Wars trilogy.

A musical commemoration of World War I

It’s the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I this year, and I’ve seen some touching tributes. This is the first I’ve heard of a musical one, though. The London Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic have recorded a couple of pieces together under Simon Rattle, to commemorate the dead. Mark Brown, in The Guardian:

The commemoration at the St Symphorien military cemetery is one of three big events taking place on 4 August – the centenary of the declaration of war – and the only one with cultural content.

Rattle chose two works for the LSO and Berlin Phil to record: the last movement of Brahms’s German Requiem and George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad. The latter is laden with symbolism as Butterworth himself died in the trenches.

It’s a beautiful idea, and the pieces are well-chosen. I hadn’t heard of Butterworth before reading this piece, but using a piece by a composer who died in the war is as moving and true a tribute as I can think of. I took a short trip around some of the war sites in Belgium earlier this year, and what stayed with me most of all is what a pointless waste of life it all was.

Later in the piece, Brown mentions some problems that the orchestras had to overcome in playing together. Quoting Nicholas Kenyon, the creative consultant on the project: “There were interesting little problems, like they don’t play at exactly the same pitch.”

I knew that orchestras on the west and east of the Pacific used to play at slightly different pitches, but I’d thought that as recording spread, those changes were pretty much wiped out. There’s a video on YouTube where you can hear, in chronological order, the first two chords of every major recording of Beethoven’s third symphony. At first, it’s jarring, even unpleasant, with sometimes major differences in pitching. As you come into the sixties and seventies, though, it starts to feel more like a warped record, with generally just slight variations. You get to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and the only outliers are those played on traditional instruments, pitched noticeably lower than modern ones.

I suppose that at the level of these orchestras, the differences in fine tuning only become apparent when they play together.