1. How I’m taking control of my oversized vinyl collection, one record at a time

    Posted December 10, 2013 in Diary, music  |  No Comments so far

    I own far too many records.

    These records total over 2,000 and they’re sorted in alphabetical order by artist. A couple of months ago I decided to go through them systematically, one at a time. For each record I find, I ask myself a simple question: do I want to listen to it, all the way through, then and there?

    If I don’t, then the record gets listed for sale on Discogs. If I do, and I like it, it gets to stay; but if it gets a “meh”, then it gets listed for sale too.

    When I started this exercise I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. Now that I’ve passed the 200-record mark – still less than 10% of the total – I’m realising that it’s going to take ages to finish. Which is not such a bad thing. This long-running triage project is, after all, good fun. It’s nice to re-immerse myself in records I’ve not listened to for years. And it’s curious, almost exotic, to subject myself to its strict alphabetical discipline.

    In this digital age of expensive algorithms and the mind-bending calculations they perform to choose music that takes us to the precise centres of our comfort zones, it’s an odd experience to step away from the “Genius Mix” or the “Recently Played” playlists into an unforgiving regime of alphabetically-sorted vinyl. So you didn’t want to listen to Analord today? Tough. Thinking of leaping out of sequence to Sun Electric just because you ‘feel like it’? Again, tough: list or listen, that’s the rule. Selecting music based on what mood I’m in or what I want to hear will often bring me down the same old pathways to the same old group of albums, and this project is forcing me to do something different, which is great.

    I’ve come to realise that a lot of my record collection had become like junk DNA, lots of seemingly useless detritus that pads out the interesting stuff. Records that I’d regularly flick past without considering, on my way to the releases I wanted to hear. But, like junk DNA, many of them have turned out not to be so useless after all. Having to stop and subject each record to the “list or listen” test has kind of re-connected me to each one of them, encouraging me to remember why I bought the record in the first place, and to imagine future situations where I might regret having sold it. And there is some good stuff in there too. I’ve discovered that even records you’ve purchased can be ‘slept on’.

    OK, this all sounds like a convoluted description of a straightforward nostalgia trip, which it is in a way. But as much as I harp on about rediscovering music and things like that, this whole exercise has one clear and unsentimental objective, which is to reduce the size of my record collection. I’ll probably always own too many records, but one day I hope they’ll all be records I actually want to listen to.


  2. Sinthpop – is it a musical genre or is it just a typo?

    Posted November 9, 2011 in ephemera  |  3 Comments so far

    In a café on Upper Street I saw a poster for a club night. It seemed innocent and unremarkable but my eye kept being drawn to it for some reason. Then I realised why:

    80' night with Sinthpop

    Ironic or accidental?

    There are two things wrong with the poster.

    The first is that it says “80′ the way it should be” when presumably it’s supposed to say “80’s the way it should be”. This is obviously a typo.

    But the second one is more mystifying – “Sinthpop” instead of “Synthpop”. At first you might think it’s a typo as well, but maybe it isn’t? Maybe “sinthpop” isn’t a typo but is in fact a genre of music? Does anyone know?

    If it is, it wouldn’t be the first time a typo gave rise to a genre of music. In the early 1990s some people mis-spelt the word “techno” as “tekno” and before long “tekno” became a distinct genre which even has its own Wikipedia page.

    So maybe “sinthpop” is the same. Maybe it’s pop music with a sinful nature. Maybe “It’s a Sin” by The Pet Shop Boys is a seminal sinthpop track. Stranger things have happened.

    I know I could use Google to answer these questions but I don’t want to. Some mysteries are best left unsolved.


  3. Another Radio 4 proposition that they probably wouldn’t like – “Desert Island Noise”

    Posted July 30, 2011 in ideas  |  3 Comments so far

    When you think about it, the pretext of Desert Island Discs is pretty strange. I’ve never been able to figure out how it works.

    Is the idea that you’re on a ship that’s sunk and you’ve escaped with six records, a book, and some random luxury item? Or are you victim of a harsh but bizarrely genteel pogrom, summoned to Broadcasting House and processed by Kirsty Young before being handed your requested records and then forcibly, irreversibly deported from civilisation?

    Neither scenario strikes me as particularly credible, and this is probably why I often wonder about changes to the Desert Island Discs setup. Except the changes that come to mind always make it less feasible and more ridiculous.

    People that know me in real life have probably heard me pitching the idea of Desert Island Desert Island Discs, a show in which the budding castaway has to choose six episodes of Desert Island Discs to preserve their sanity in future exile. I don’t know which six I’d choose but among them would be Sir Digby Jones and his selection of motivational power ballads.

    Digby Jones

    Fun fact: this man, Gordon Ramsay, Michael Howard and Tessa Sanderson all chose Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do (I Do It For You)" on Desert Island Discs

    But Desert Island Desert Island Discs has a flaw. A few years into its life a new controller would inevitably arrive at Radio 4 and say, “we need to go deeper”. Desert Island Desert Island Desert Island Discs would be born. Not long afterwards the audience will demand another layer – Desert Island Desert Island Desert Island Desert Island Discs. And when would the madness end?

    No, Desert Island Desert Island Discs is a dangerous path to take. So instead I’ve got another proposition for Radio 4 – Desert Island Noise.

    The setup for Desert Island Noise is quite simple. You are being banished to a desert island (shipwreck or pogrom, whichever floats your boat). You have been given a digital music player and some speakers. The music player has a single audio file on it. That audio file is precisely one second long. That is all you have to listen to, for the rest of your life, on this island. Hence the name, Desert Island Noise.

    It’s harsh and unfair, like a gameshow designed by a psychopathic computer, but it would be interesting, don’t you think? Maybe Sir Digby Jones would take a 1-second wav of someone saying his name approvingly (“Digby!”). Maybe Andy McNab would have a burst of gunfire or the last shriek of a vanquished adversary. And god only knows what Benny Hill would have chosen. Well, I’d want to find out anyway.

    Should Desert Island Noise be made? And if it was, and you were on it, what noise would you choose?


  4. The thing with Ping

    Posted September 24, 2010 in social media  |  No Comments so far

    Ping, which launched a few weeks ago, is a social network for music built on top of iTunes. So far it’s been a bit of a damp squib. Immediately after launch some were extremely enthusiastic about it:

    The future of social commerce… It can tell me who my friends think are cool… Some of my friends are famous deejays. Others just have eclectic musical tastes.
    Om Malik, GigaOM, 1st September 2010

    Others, however, were more guarded:

    The interface is still buggy and slower than molasses in January at the North Pole during a legitimate Ice Age. And that slowness is a big turnoff and an inherent factor of working within iTunes. We don’t love Ping yet, but we don’t hate it, either.
    Jolie O’Dell, Mashable, 1st September 2010

    In the last few weeks discussions about Ping have become increasingly negative. Analysis of online chatter published by Buzzstudy on September 15th showed that:

    With the exception of a huge spike on the day of its release, Ping chatter has been surprisingly low… [sentiment analysis revealed that] iTunes Ping was clearly the most negatively talked about service.
    Buzzstudy, September 15th 2010

    Some recent coverage of Ping has the tone of a post-mortem, an instructional case study of historic business failure, with inside sources dishing the dirt on what went wrong:

    …Apple launched Ping without insight from a major part of the industry: the A&Rs and digital marketing teams, the people whose job it is to connect artists with fans. Perhaps this accounts for why Ping is so, well, boring.
    Austin Carr, Fast Company, September 22nd 2010

    The prevailing wisdom seems to be that the breakdown of talks with Facebook has been to blame, and indeed Facebook is being portrayed as a bit of a villain:

    “Working with Facebook as a large company is challenging at this stage, very similar to mid-late-90s Microsoft,” says one Silicon Valley veteran.

    Dan Frommer, Business Insider, September 21st 2010

    A lot of the problems with Ping are pretty glaring. You’re only allowed to like three pre-defined genres of music, artists are added to the system manually, and you can only use it within the iTunes application. When you think about it, it seems like it was conceived as the antithesis to everything we’ve learnt about successful social networks in the last five years.

    But there’s another big problem that I associate with Ping. It’s not a flaw in Ping itself – it’s something that Ping has brought into focus, something more general about the relationship between music and social interaction. In a nutshell, the problem is this: do people really want to know what music everyone else is listening to?

    Don’t get me wrong – music plays a huge part in my social life. Most of my closest friends are people I got to know through shared musical tastes and activities. Social discovery and enjoyment of music is important to me, and I don’t think people should be separated into isolated bubbles of mutual musical ignorance.

    But at the same time I don’t think that social discovery & enjoyment of music works well in the larger social networks, which is what Ping aspires to be. Broadcasting one’s musical taste to the world at large doesn’t feel right. I wouldn’t put my Last.fm listening history on my LinkedIn profile, for example, and I don’t think I’d gain much from seeing that information on other people’s profiles.

    Music is one sphere of life where there is still a strong case for communities of interest, rather than communities of acquaintance. It provides a great example of how most of us partition our lives, similar to the famous “work/life balance”. Religion and politics are other examples. Some relationships, especially professional ones, can work better when these subjects don’t take centre stage.

    For me at least, music networks are better if they are decoupled from the larger social spaces and allow me to control how much of my musical taste leaks through into them. And this is a basic problem with Ping as I see it. A Facebook-sized, music-based network that uses real names and forces people into a set of pre-defined genre boxes doesn’t really fit with how a lot of people engage with music. Music is a social experience, yes – but it’s a private one too.


  5. Is RSS the “vinyl” of digital media?

    Posted January 26, 2010 in media, web  |  No Comments so far

    For large stretches of my life, I’ve allowed my obsession with music to burn up huge chunks of my time as well as my money. Illness, poverty, hangovers, rain – none of these things would stop me leaving the house and spending whole weekends wandering London, going from record shop to record shop. Over time my vinyl collection grew while my bank balance fell, but I didn’t mind – because that collection of vinyl was (and still is) valuable in lots of ways. I didn’t just enjoy listening to those records – I also enjoyed playing them out. I played in clubs, made compilation tapes and distributed mixes over the internet.

    My vinyl collection helped me evangelise the music I loved to like-minded people. And before the worlds of music and the internet collided back in 1999, this sort of behaviour occupied a useful niche in the music ecosystem. Vast numbers of releases, especially in genres that flew under the radar of mainstream promotion, were filtered, curated and recompiled, helping normal people – who had better things to do than waste their lives exploring dusty record shops or compiling mixtapes in their bedrooms – explore obscure fields of new music. In this way vinyl kept influencing the public’s relationship with music long after it stopped being a mainstream format.

    Some records

    It’s a common mistake, especially when thinking about media formats, to see things in a binary way where the only two states are ubiquity and death. Many made this mistake when vinyl was eclipsed by the CD, thinking that its death was just around the corner. But this thinking was wrong. Although vinyl sales fell, its role remained important and it still is today – in fact, vinyl sales in the US actually increased by 33% in 2009.

    RSS, unlike vinyl, isn’t a formerly dominant format that’s finding a smaller niche. Instead, it’s a new format that’s failed to go mainstream: usage of RSS readers is in decline and Twitter is supplanting it as a mass-market feed delivery channel. But there are definitely similarities between the formats, and the role they play in their respective ecosystems.

    You can’t ask mainstream users whether or not they use RSS in their daily course of Internet usage any more than you can ask the average couch potato whether or not they use Cathode Ray Tubes or Liquid Crystal Displays – Mashable, October 2008

    Not everyone wants to get to grips with concepts like Atom or OPML, learn how to use an RSS reader and incorporate it into their daily routine. That’s understandable: I know lots of voracious online readers who’ve never got to grips with RSS. Similarly, many people in the 1990s, despite loving music genres that released mainly on vinyl, didn’t want to join the anorak-wearing record shop brigade and start buying expensive import 12″s.

    But for media owners (whether websites or record labels) that vinyl-buying, RSS-reading audience is worth reaching if only because they’re in the habit of evangelising. A heavy RSS user is more likely to run their own website on which they’ll compile and re-publish that content, just as turntable owners are more likely to create mixes that showcase obscure records to a larger audience. RSS heavily influences how information moves online, and plays an indirect role in shaping the online experiences even of those who have no idea what it is.

    So even if RSS is never destined to become a mainstream format for delivering content online, reports of its death will prove to be greatly exaggerated. The internet needs a format which, like vinyl, appeals to the obsessives and whose very nature encourages compilation and re-transmission.


  6. How to post your Last.fm loved tracks to Twitter

    Posted December 8, 2009 in How-to  |  5 Comments so far

    I remember when Twitter was still quite new. Back then, a lot of people were still trying to think of uses for it and one thing that was fairly common was to plug it into your Last.fm account.

    In retrospect I can see why that was seen as a good idea. Twitter was supposed to be about broadcasting minor ephemeral details, and the music you were currently listening to definitely fell into that category. But there was a downside. People listen to a lot of music and, with a Twitter post for each track played, that added up to a lot of useless information on Twitter. Thankfully, the practise of scrobbling directly to Twitter soon faded out.

    Today there are some more useful and less irritating ways of posting information from Last.fm (or, indeed, its open source alternative Libre.fm to your Twitter account. One of them, Tweekly.fm, produces an automated weekly tweet of your top three artists. Another one, which I’m going to explain here, involves posting tracks that you “love” on Last.fm to your Twitter account.

    Here’s how it works:

    1. If you don’t have a Last.f account, create one here
    2. Get the URL of your “Loved tracks” RSS feed. This is easy: just change “USERNAME” in the URL below for your Last.fm username.

      http://ws.audioscrobbler.com/2.0/user/USERNAME/lovedtracks.rss

    3. Test the URL by opening it in a browser. You should see something that looks a bit like this:
      Last.fm RSS feed browser output
    4. If it works, go to Twitterfeed.com and create an account if necessary
    5. Once logged in to Twitterfeed, click on the “Create new feed” button to the top-right of the screen
    6. In “Step 1: Send Feed To”, select Twitter. Click on the large “Authenticate Twitter” button and enter your Twitter account details. You’ll then be directed back to Twitterfeed.com
    7. In “Step 2: Name feed & source URL”, enter a name for the feed – this can be anything you like. In the “RSS Feed URL” field, paste the URL of your RSS feed
      Twitterfeed screenshot 1
    8. Click on the “test feed” button to make sure the feed is valid
    9. Click “Advanced settings”. A bunch of new options will appear underneath. Here’s a screenshot with the things you need to check circled in red:
      Twitterfeed's advanced settings

    10. In “Post content”, select “Title Only”. This will ensure that the posts to your Twitter account only contain the artist, title and shortened URL to the track you loved
    11. Make sure “Post link” is checked and a URL shortening service is selected
    12. You might also want to enter some text in the “Post Prefix” or “Post Suffix” fields, otherwise your tweets might be slightly baffling
    13. You’re done – just click “Create feed” and that’s it set up.

    Now whenever you “love” a track on Last.fm, your Twitter account will post a link to it. This makes Last.fm’s “love” feature a bit more useful when it comes to recommending music to other people – especially people who don’t use Last.fm. And as long as you don’t love everything you listen to you won’t be clogging up your Twitter feed.