Brian Eno and the changing musical Scape

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If you take a long-view of recorded music in history, the medium has only been around for a very short while. In 1877, Thomas Edison patented a phonograph that could record and reproduce sound and kicked off methods and technology which led to the recording of music as we know it.

Today, musicians release a definite and finite version of their recorded work as a collection of songs on an album. That medium represents a band or musician’s artistic vision as they want to be heard. As technology gets more advanced and collides with other disciplines, visioneering artists like Brian Eno are exploring how recorded music can be moved into an infinite space.

Eno’s latest album Scape exists as an Apple iPad app. Following in the success of his generative interactive music app Bloom, a collaboration with Peter Chilvers, Scape is pitched as “a new form of album which offers users deep access to its musical elements.”

It features a palette of musical sounds, created by Eno and visualised for a tablet’s screen by Chilvers. 15 original “scapes” represent the traditional album form can be listened to but the same elements that make up Eno’s own scapes are available to the user to create their own.

Where you place the each musical element, its size, its spatial relation to the others or which background you select determines how the music sounds. It’ll always adhere to an accepted musical rule or compositional principle as set out by Eno meaning it will sound harmonious as the user interacts or adds new elements.

Like Gwilym Gold’s Bronze format earlier in the year, the musical structure is in place but you’ll never hear the same piece of music twice. The music of both Bronze and Scape falls under ambient music, the only genre that suits this sort of non-linear interactivity and endless running time. But intelligent self-creating music is in its early forms. Early pioneers like Eno, Chilvers and Gold are pointing towards a musical future where there are no definitive versions only interpretations.

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Gaga’s Artpop app as an album

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I’ve written lots in Beta over the last three years about artists using varying strands of multimedia to promote their music. Recently though, it feels like we’re approaching the cusp of a bigger change. The ubiquity of multiple devices from smartphones to tablets and laptops skinnier than a magazine have helped decentralise music consumption and all that surrounds it, and has made the promotion of music way more interesting.

With music videos no longer as important as they once were, more artists are turning towards expanding their creative horizons. Last week, the Dirty Projectors followed in the footsteps of Kanye and released a 20 minute short film called Hi Custodian featuring lots of inexplicable scenes and of course, the soundtrack was taken entirely from their new album Swing Lo Magellan. Noted electronic producer Flying Lotus also made a short film for his new album Until The Quiet Comes (See it at flying-lotus.com) which focuses on an LA public housing complex shooting, soundtracked by his music.

Gwilym Gold’s Bronze format has been mentioned here a couple of times but the “album” featuring the technology is out this week on iPad and iPhone. The album sounds different every time as it’s constantly being re-interpreted by the app.

While it’s all well and good for someone like Bjork to explore the use of apps in music, perhaps it’ll be Lady Gaga’s forthcoming ARTPOP release that will mark the real cusp of change for music in the mainstream. Gaga has said it will be a “multimedia experience”, rooted in an app featuring films for every track, games, magazines and extra music.

Gaga intends for the definitive ARTPOP album to be housed in the app, not an album. It’s a savvy move for a worldwide popular artist whose identity is as much visual as it is aural and who has cultivated a Little Monsters fanbase and social network. Pay attention, Gaga may be about to switchup the game completely.

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Buzz band gamification

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When you arrive at your favourite pub, you check into Foursquare to ensure you’re still the mayor. When you go for a run, you fire up Zombies, Run! on your iPhone to make it less of a chore. When your tweet gets retweeted by dozens of others, you check Klout to see what effect it had on your score. You check your Fantasy Football scores after a big match.

If you recognise any of these actions, you’ll be familiar with the concept of gamification, a recent trend that utilises the mechanics of games around real-life situations or social network actions. Far from being just some faddy term (although it is that as well admittedly), gamification can have positive effects. It’s has been used in education to make study less boring or to encourage recycling.

Now moving into music, game mechanics are being utilised in a new app aimed at music enthusiasts and those who the first amongst their friends to discover new music. The app, TastemakerX for Apple iOS devices works like a virtual stock market for music. Developed by two former A&R men, Marc Ruxin and Sandro Pugliese with $1.8 million backing, the app gives music tastemakers to opportunity to invest in their ability to spot hot new artists.

It works like any other stock market – buy and sell stock in rising artists before they hit pop culture consciousness and increase your TastemakerX capital, gaining social kudos in the process. Current top artists skew towards the same set of artists popular on music blogs: Frank Ocean, Alt-J, Spoon, Tyler The Creator and 2 Chainz so it’s a fun concept for those who visit music blogs regularly for their music fix. More info at tastemakerx.com

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Facebook, Airtime and the human connection

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Has Facebook hit its peak? That’s the question that lots of people have been asking recently. Last month’s damp IPO launch certainly didn’t help the volume of negative chatter around the future of the social network. A recent poll by Reuters suggested that people are spending less time on the site and that ads aren’t working. Meanwhile, Facebook is buying up the competition (see Instagram), has launched an app centre and is pushing advertising to its mobile versions.

Of course, when a giant of Facebook’s calibre stumbles, there will always be detractors ready to sink their teeth in. While Zuckerberg apparently flails, eyes have turned to what Facebook’s founding president Sean Parker is up to. Last week, he launched his latest project Airtime. Clearly still holding belief in Facebook, Parker’s Airtime.com is a social video platform which uses Facebook as a login system. From there, you can video chat with your Facebook friends, find someone anonymously who you share your interests with to chat to or watch videos online together.

So far, that sounds like Skype crossed with ChatRoulette to me. Parker reckons Airtime will solve the problem of real-life user engagement on the internet. “You are just clicking and never really engaging in a deep way with anyone,” Parker said. “There is a lot lost and the result is this sense of dehumanisation.”

Parker’s bold claim that social networks are only about clicking like or posting silly status updates ignores the real connections that are actually made every day via these kinds of actions. On their own, these individual actions may seem impersonal but stacked up together, they can have meaning and most are unquantifiable. Participating in the Twitter hashtag #coybig (“Come on you boys in green”) during Ireland’s Euro 2012 campaign this week was a rollercoaster of emotion and a good example of how we are synchronically sharing our trials and tribulations as a nation. That’s pretty human to me.

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Fight for your right to copyright

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Since the sad news that Beastie Boys’ Adam Yauch passed away at 47 after a battle with cancer, I’ve been delving back into the Beasties’ back catalogue pretty frequently. The New York trio were my first musical obsession when I was a teenager. I still remember vividly the copied cassette of the group’s 1994 album Ill Communication I borrowed from my sister that led me into a new world of exciting musical possibilities.

The Beastie Boys taught me that music didn’t have to be boxed off into definable genres, that any source was fair game for inspiration whether that’s a flute loop from a jazz track, punk and hardcore, funk, rap or even, a Tibetan monk chant, which was inspired by Yauch’s conversion to Buddhism. The band took these sources and formed their own identity that was completely unique to them.

It was the band’s 1989 classic album Paul’s Boutique that best exemplifies the “good artists borrow, great artists steal” sentiment. The album supposedly features anything between 100 and 300 different samples. The record is so littered with them that there’s a website, paulsboutique.info, dedicated to the album’s samples and its myriad of pop culture references.

Contrary to popular belief, the Beastie Boys actually cleared the majority of the samples on the album. According to Mario Caldato Jr., the band’s producer, they spent around $250,000 on sample clearances.

Nowadays, restrictive and expensive copyright licensing laws mean that a record like Paul’s Boutique would costs something in the region of $20 million to clear (according to bit.ly/beastiebreakdown) making the album impossible to release and subsequently influence so many people it has done in the last 23 years. The Beastie Boys were pioneers. Rest in peace Adam Yauch.

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Amanda Palmer – The Queen of Crowdfunding

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We can probably just anoint Amanda Palmer as the Queen of Crowdfunding and be done with it. The New York-based Dresden Dolls independent singer has demonstrated clever usage of new media tools more than once. Having previously persuaded her Twitter followers to participate in a web auction in which she sold $19,000 worth of merchandise and special once-off gigs, she ran two successful Kickstarter projects one to pay for an EP that raised over $8,000 dollars and another to pay for a US tour with her husband, the writer Neil Gaiman, which raised over $133,000.

Her latest crowdfunding project which aims to pay for a new studio album, an art book and a tour isn’t even over yet but it’s already surpassed the $100,000 target and is well over $700,000 at time of writing with a full 13 days to go. Over 9,000 people have put down money to help fund what Palmer has dubbed The Grand Theft Kickstarter Project. The incentives for funding include regular once-off vinyl mail packages, local art gallery shows in six international cities and an initiative known as The Loanspark Collective, where a fan can offer Palmer an interest-free loan that will be paid back after the album along private charity performances or art.

It’s easy to see why Palmer has had success. She has over 550,000 Twitter followers and has formed an affable relationship with them. She communicates with fans on a one to one level, no ego, just human connections being made every day. Much like Lady Gaga. As the most followed Twitter user on the planet (23 million plus), Gaga isn’t letting her major label do all the work. Along with her manager Troy Carter she has developed a social community platform called Backplane which powers her community site Littlemonsters.com which she will use to sell direct to fans and roll out to other artist communities in future.

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Is Spotify ready to go global via Coca Cola?

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Good news Irish music fans. It looks like we’ll be finally joining the 10 million active users and three million paying subscribers on Spotify soon. The service is said to be officially launching in Ireland this year soon as its held meetings with Irish ISPs about offering bundled deals upon launch.

Meanwhile, the company has made significant inroads into becoming the defacto streaming music site of choice. Its recently launched Spotify Play Button means that embedded tracks from Spotify can now appear anywhere on the web.

In an effort to accelerate launches in other terroritories, Spotify has formed a partnership with Coca Cola. The news was revealed at a press briefing last week in New York with Spotify’s CEO Daniel Ek saying “Coca-Cola is partnering with us to bring free music to the world.”

That’s a big vision and shows just where Ek wants Spotify to be. If other streaming services teamed with a major brand like this, the partnership be considered incongruous but for Spotify, battling outmoded terroritorial licensing laws that inhibit the platform from launching in every country of the world, the partnership makes sense. Coca Cola can underwrite Spotify’s expansion in countries it could not previously afford to launch in, setting it on its way to becoming the defacto global subscription service as well as gaining visibility in world events like the Olympics.

In return, Coca Cola will harness Spotify APIs in all of their apps, sites and social network sites citing that the partnership is “the opportunity to create a truly global music network.” The company will also be working with other major brands like Intel, McDonalds and Reebok on branded apps.

Spotify’s big gamble is to integrate itself into every fabric of life where music can exist. The service is attempting to make itself indispensable and everywhere. If it can do that then future partnerships will mean the company will be able to turn a profit while covering the costs of streaming royalties for the entire world of music makers.

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Lomax’s Global Jukebox goes online

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You’re never a few clicks away from discovering something new in the world of music these days. Do you feel like hearing what your recently-settled cousins and friends in Australia are listening to? Tune in the online radio stream of Triple J. Need some warm tones on a wintry day? Listen to a Trinidadian calypso band covering Michael Jackson on Spotify. Want to know what’s blaring from speakers in Ohio? Click to a local Cleveland music blog to find out.

Doing that kind of work in the past required dedication, travel and a lot of recording tape. Which is exactly why field-recordist Alan Lomax is so revered and important to the history of music. For most of his lifetime, Lomax travelled around the US to the UK, Ireland, the Caribbean and mainland Europe archiving and recording folk music of the world. He was the first man to capture Lead Belly, Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie to tape. When he died in 2002, he left 5000 hours of audio recordings behind (along with 3000 videotape and 5000 photographs) and a trail of invaluable ethnomusicology.

In February, 17,400 songs from the Alan Lomax archive were published online for all to hear at research.culturalequity.org. Every false start, every interview, ambient recording, mic checks and abandoned performance is available. Dating from 1946 up to the ’90s, there’s a lifetime of exploration. Chicago blues man Big Bill Bronzy performing in Paris, calypso concerts captured in New York, West Indies folk, English children’s lullabies, chain gang songs recorded in Mississippi State Penitentiary, New Orleans jazz, Soviet wedding songs, Transylvanian funeral laments and Moroccan courtship music.

Of particular interest to Irish listeners is the collection of music recorded here in 1951 and 1953. Made in co-operation with the BBC, Radió Éireann and the Irish Folklore Commission, it includes performances captured in Donegal, Galway, Kerry, Cork, Dublin as well as renditions of songs from Seamus Ennis, singer Margaret Barry and Brendan Behan in London. The world is now an instant global jukebox but Lomax was the originator.

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