Spotifying my way through incapacity

I fell down and broke my ribs. Upshot: I’ve got a couple of weeks on the couch ahead of me. This is day five. You’d think I’d use that time to buckle down and get some serious writing done, but morphine had other ideas about that.

So with limited concentration, and while I’m drifting in and out of consciousness every half an hour or so, it’s nice to be listening to some music. And while I’m not enjoying the injury itself (note the understatement), it’s really good to finally have some time to sit down and actually listen to music – not just have it on while I work.

I can’t get up and down and change records, so vinyl’s not much of an option at the moment (plus, things aren’t quite unpacked and in their final resting places just yet) – and my big hard drive of music is at the office. So I thought I’d give Spotify another go. Yes, it’s lacking in transparency and “does not do a good job of explaining its benefits to artists” (or “rips off artists“, depending on who’s telling the story), but from this listener’s perspective, Spotify has been a bit of a godsend recently.

I’m mostly listening to other people’s playlists. It’s one of my favourite things about Spotify.

Normally, sure, I would want to listen to “my” music – which usually means stuff I bought on Bandcamp or own on vinyl. Stuff I’m committed to and have made conscious and deliberate decisions about.

Right now, I want reasonably interesting (though not overly challenging) mixes of music that I didn’t know I wanted to listen to. My favourite playlists seem to be made of around 60% things I’ve never heard before, 20% songs I’d almost completely forgotten, and another 20% songs I know well but haven’t heard for ages.

Joe Muggs made quite a nice Winter Evening With Wine playlist that’s doing the trick right now. There’s someone who’s made an ever-growing playlist of everything Gilles Peterson has played on his BBC 6Music show, which is handy. Even some of the Spotify out-of-the-box playlists are surprisingly good (though some are predictably terrible).

Some interesting phenomena:

1) there are whole playlists that I absolutely love, but it occurs to me that I would not pay for an album by a single one of the artists;

2) there are some people whose taste in music I really like, but whose playlists completely leave me cold – especially when it comes to their “best of the year” lists;

3) I am currently completely incapable of making a mixtape that I would want to listen to myself, or that I would want someone else to listen to. I tried.

It’s nice to have music curated for you. For all their faults, streaming services allow you to listen to lots of music you might really enjoy, but only really ever want to listen to once or twice, in the right context. Nothing else offers that in quite the same way.

So – I’m back on the Spotify bus for a bit, and I’m enjoying the ride. Perhaps once I come off the industrial strength painkillers, I’ll have different opinions about it. For now, it has exactly the right bedside manner.

I’m after playlist recommendations, of course. Feel free to drop links in the comments or tweet them at me (@dubber).

Do please bear in mind, for the sake of context and to guide your recommendations, that there’s about a foot of snow outside and I’m sitting in an old wooden farmhouse with an open fireplace in a forest in the north of Sweden. I’m quite drowsy, I have pile of pillows at my back and several layers of blankets on top – and I’m not in the mood to get up, get down or wave my hands in the air.

Let’s hear what you’ve got.

The trouble with ‘The Trouble with Uber’

I use Uber from time to time. I’m no apologist for the company – but I found it very useful in Boston, where I first encountered it, as well as in a number of other cities around the world. Over the past few days in London – especially during yesterday’s tube strike, it’s come in very handy. It’s also an extremely good customer interface and service.

This morning, thanks to a Facebook friend, I came across an article in Jacobin about the service. They have come in for some pretty bad press recently – but this article is particularly damning.

“Uber takes 20 percent of my earnings, and they treat me like shit — they cut prices whenever they want. They can deactivate me whenever they feel like it, and if I complain, they tell me to fuck off.”

Uber is, of course, far from unproblematic. But when articles appear explaining that it’s basically worse than Ebola and that the so-called ‘sharing economy’ steals jobs and ruins lives, I tend not to have what I imagine to be the desired reaction. Instead of outrage, I experience deep suspicion.

First, and most importantly, a seriously disruptive business model challenges the status quo. And the status quo usually has the best press contacts. Second, the problem is not the sharing economy model, but the fact that in this particular instance, the model is driven by the logic of corporate capital. Third, while it highlights some important and valid points that need discussing, the article misunderstands or misrepresents employment vs entrepreneurialism as binary (perhaps because Uber also make that false claim in the other direction). The fact is that creating a platform that allows people to earn, and taking a percentage of revenues for providing the architecture and technological back end isn’t inherently corrupt (see, for instance, Bandcamp).

Uber is incredibly problematic, and there would seem to be some particularly unpleasant individuals involved in its management – but there are worse business models. In fact, there are worse business models in the taxi industry. The trouble with this kind of journalism is that it contributes to the rather unhelpful cultural project of dividing the world into goodies and baddies. It is, of course, actually more complicated than that. Things always are.

Michela Magas wrote a very good blog post about this very thing just yesterday.

Dialogue between innovators and legislators needs to be ongoing, and focus on the ethical ‘first principles’ from which the laws arise, rather than from the rules themselves. Disruptive innovation will often be transgressive by nature, but it need not be at odds with what is good for society, culture and the economy.

I’d argue that Uber is in large part a very good idea. It’s certainly a very good customer experience and user interface design. It’s probably even fixable on the ethics front, with some major soul-searching, a bit of legislation and some change of management. But journalists running around shouting ‘burn the witch!’ when people do new stuff smacks rather strongly of a protectionist lobbying position. And that makes me suspicious of the author’s intent… and by extension, the article itself.

And that’s the real “trouble with Uber”. If, as the Jacobin article claims, the business is worth $18b, then somewhere, a budget line allocating large sums of money to swaying popular opinion against them is certainly in somebody’s balance sheet. As a public readership, we have no way of telling where the lines are between PR, journalism and lobbying.

I’m from Hicksville too


I read Dylan Horrocks’ Hicksville last night. It’s a comic book about a comic book author from a town of comic book enthusiasts. It’s been described as “a love letter to the medium” – but it felt to me more complex than that.

It’s about someone exploring their culture, their heritage and their inheritance – the thing that has both provided both the context and connecting thread for their whole lives, but with which they have an uncomfortable and uncertain relationship.

It’s a homecoming after some time in the wilderness – but with a sense of inevitability and resignation about it. Your community is not the people you choose, the people who like you – or even the people who are like you. They are the people you have ended up with.

I haven’t read a comic book (or graphic novel, if you prefer) for a long time, but I’m a fan of the medium and its rich possibilities for narratives using image as well as text. I have enough of a passing understanding of them to recognise a few of the references. I also know about some of the exploitation in the industry, as well as the mythologising and hero creation (of the artists themselves – not just of their flying crime fighters) that goes on.

It reminded me of the music industry – and my own uncomfortable relationship with it. It’s different in many ways, of course – but everything is similarly complex, fraught and mythological. The love for music and the conditions of its production, the dedication that people have for it despite its challenges as a way of life, and the idea of a canon of work that transcends time – and from which people draw inspiration, meaning and worth.

In Hicksville, there’s a troubled artist. There’s a naive enthusiast. There’s a person who ran away. There’s a keeper of the archives. There’s an entire nation literally adrift. There’s a cartoon manifestation of a subconscious torn between enthusiasm and fatalism… and there are love affairs that are lost and broken – as well as an unbreakable connection with the people and places who go to make up a life.

Hicksville made me feel a couple of things quite strongly: we do this (whatever ‘this’ might happen to be) because it helps express who we are and how we are. And that the important bit is the people, whoever they might happen to be.

Oh – and one third thing: that I’d love to write something that caused someone to feel, rather than just to think.

I already own an original Dylan Horrocks sketch. I knew that Hicksville would be good. It was better than I anticipated. I’ll be going back to it again to get more from it – and I’ll be buying his new one, Sam Zabel and The Magic Pen next…

Seminar at SOAS

Last night, I gave a presentation at SOAS – the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. I attempted to tie together the various BCU projects I’ve been involved with in India, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil that are about music as a tool for social change – with the Manifesto for the Future of Music Technology Research (or MusicTechiFesto, as it’s become known), and the Music Tech Fest itself – all through the frame of Media Ecology.

I showed a few videos along the way – including from the Culture Shock project, Monkey on the Roof, Occupy Music, Un-Convention and others.

I also talked about how I thought that the idea of hacking – both culturally and in terms of creative technologies – give us new opportunities to think about the ways in which music makes meaning for people, and can change people’s lives – as well as acting as a seed for new commercial products and services, art installations and performances and research agendas.

I’m writing a book chapter about that over the next week or so – so it’s good to think that stuff out loud so I can hear how it sounds.

Great crowd – and a surprisingly diverse mix. Despite my exhaustion and consequent subpar performance in terms of coherence and structure, it seemed to go remarkably well. I’m looking forward to working with some of the people in the room soon… both on new research projects and on getting SOAS students and staff involved Music Tech Fest in different places around the world.

Music Tech Fest Paris


And that’s Music Tech Fest for 2014. After events in Wellington, Boston, London and Berlin, we ended up in Paris over the weekend for the festival of music ideas at IRCAM, Pompidou Centre.

The festival brings together some of the most innovative and fascinating performances, research, art projects, new business ideas and inventions in the world – and the quality of what we saw in Paris completely blew us away.

We run a 24 hour music hack camp over the course of the weekend as well – and the projects that came out of that were completely stunning. Given a challenge and a bunch of components and gadgets, what people can make is just incredible.

My main job over the next week or so is to write a book chapter about hacking and its place in the music industry innovation process. I have no shortage of material and fascinating case studies – from a hat that converts brainwaves into music and adds effects depending on which direction you’re looking, to software that takes the voice of Stephen Fry and manipulates it with the wave of a hand…

We film everything at the festival, live stream it online and make every presentation, performance and demonstration available as a YouTube video after the fact. Given that we had 90 different people onstage in London, and at least 50 at Berlin and again in Paris – all in the last couple of months – there’s a bit of a backlog. But we’ll get there…

The academic ‘afterparty’ symposium that followed yesterday was a full day of intensive conversation about potential research projects, collaborations, European proposals and partnerships – as well as entirely new and disruptive ways of approaching transnational and interdisciplinary research.

I’m really excited about the opportunity to do something really interesting and innovative with the entire Montreux Jazz Festival archives (including multitrack recordings and videos) – and can’t wait to meet with my colleagues at BCMCR and at the Umeå University to discuss these ideas further. I have one or two ideas about other researchers I could rope into this amazing project too…

In the meantime, I’m in London for a few days having meetings, presenting seminars and trying to recuperate from the most intensive few months of my life. I’m absolutely shattered – but my brain is buzzing with all the exciting new stuff that’s bouncing around inside it. I need all of December to process – and all of next year to turn it into writing.

We’re on track for MTF Scandinavia in Umeå in May, we’ve booked Ljubljana for September – and we have New York, Hilversum and more in our sights for the new year. I’m exhausted thinking about it – but even more excited.

Until then – here are a few snaps of some of the many highlights of MTF Paris. Lots more on our Flickr page









Break on through to the other side

It’s been a little while.

Right now I’m in Paris. Tomorrow evening, we kick off Music Tech Fest for the last time this year. It’s almost 3:30am and I’m waiting for someone to arrive on a delayed Eurostar train from London. I can then let him into the apartment and then I can go to sleep.

I’m exhausted – perhaps more than I ever have been before – but I still have four days to get through before we’re done. Four more days and it’s all over. As much as I love this festival, I’m ready for a proper break.

The plan is to spend a bit of time recovering, make it to December and then the thinking and the writing can start again. I have a lot to say and a lot of things to report. Certainly, a great deal has changed and I also owe someone a book chapter or two.

For now, I’m just determined to put these few words together and get them out into the world as a way of breaking through the ice. Then the thoughts can flow.

I’m looking forward to being back.