Best Revenue Model for Musicians: Sell or Stream?

I’ve bought thousands of LPs and CDs in my life, and a surprising number of them I only played once.  Now I rent music from Rhapsody and Rdio – total cost $15 a month.  In my heyday of buying CDs, I’d usually spend 10x that or more per month.  I never got into stealing music.  I want the artists and record producers to make their money like they deserve.  However, it’s doubtful I’ll ever go back to buying CDs, and since I’ve acquired the streaming music habit, I have no desire to go back to buying music at all.

The question I’d like to know is:  Can the artists and producers make as much money by streaming as they do by selling?  Finding out about revenue from various music distribution sources is difficult, but there are some clues.

Problem #1 – Artists Used To Make a Lot of Money Off of Crappy Songs?

If I buy a CD for $15 and whether I play it once or a million times, the musicians and producers earn the same amount of money.  If I go to iTunes and sample an album and buy one song I like for $1.29, again it doesn’t matter how many times I play the song, they’ve gotten their money.

Now if I go to Rhapsody and play an album or song, the artist and their record company will get a tiny payment, I assume.  Now if I find one song that I love so much I play it 20 times a day for the entire month, that song should theoretically pay the creators of that song more money for my extra love.  But does it pay the music people enough?  Evidently not, according to The Black Keys, who have pulled their new album from streaming services.

I’m pretty sure selling CDs was the best way of making the most money.  Music lovers had to buy everything pretty much on faith.  The money was up front.  Money from streaming comes after fans play the songs.

Problem #2 – Can Streaming Succeed if Too Many Groups Pull Their Catalogs?

Artists and record producers want to sell albums.  But let’s be honest, how many albums in your collection are ones you like to play straight through and love all the songs?  Or even half the songs?  Or even one song?  Music lovers want to find songs push their music loving brain cells into ecstasy.  But we don’t know which songs do that until we play the album.  In the old days you bought a CD and rushed home hoping to find at least one, and hopefully several great songs on an album.   I’m through with that.  Those days are over.  I’ve been burned too many times.  Streaming music lets me try out all the albums I want, and the songs I love get added to playlists.  Life is easy, but will it last?

If music producers start pulling out of deals with the streaming music services it won’t.  Now we could see a tiered delivery service like we see for movies and DVDs.  Netflix is a cheap all you can eat service, but content comes there last.  This might work for streaming music, where albums go on sale for a period of time before they go to streaming.  I can dig that, but then I’m old and patient.

To get some idea what streaming music does offer, read “Spotify vs. Rdio: Who Has The Exclusives?” over at Wired.  I wished Rhapsody had an API to let it be compared too because I feel from just daily use Rhapsody has the best catalog.  What Wired did was look up 5,000 albums at both services to see which had the most.  Rdio was the winner to me, but Spotify had some much loved exclusives.

It also revealed the holdout groups for streaming music:  The Beatles, King Crimson, AC/DC, The Eagles, Led Zeppelin and Frank Zappa – but hell, I’ve already bought those, some more than once, some even three times.  Streaming music still has millions of albums, so for $4.99-$9.99 it’s a great deal.  But, how many groups have to pull their catalogs before people give up on streaming music?

Problem #3 – Can Artists Make Money Only On How Often a Song is Played?

To make money on streaming music services artists must create songs people want to play and play and play.   If you create an album with 10 songs and people only play one of them, then 9 songs won’t be earning revenue.  Streaming is a dog eat dog world of music competition.  Hit songs will make money.  But will they make the same kind of money as selling hit songs?  I don’t know, and I can’t find out.

Problem #4 – Can the Music Industry Convince People to Buy Music Again

Because of stealing sharing songs free on the Internet, a whole generation feel music should be free.  The convenience of streaming makes getting music for $5-10 a month far easier than stealing, so it might be a viable revenue stream, but can it compete with convincing people to buy music again?  And now that I’ve spent years using streaming music, I don’t know if I’d want to go back to buying music.  But then I’ve got 18,000+ songs I’ve already bought and I’m 60 years old, so I could coast awhile without buying.  If I did go back to buying music I’d buy single songs at Amazon and hope Amazon stays in business for the rest of my life.

Problem #5 – What Happens if Most Fans Go With Streaming?

Even though I own the Beatles, Frank Zappa, Eagles and others on CDs, I no longer play their music.  I went out and bought all the remastered Beatles CDs when they came out and then didn’t even play them.  Streaming music is too convenient and great.  I just don’t mess with my collection anymore.  I recently uploaded it to Google Music, but I don’t play it.  Spotify will call up my library when it can’t find it in theirs, and that’s cool, but I wished Rhapsody and Rdio did that.  I want all my music in one place – in one search engine, and I want it in the cloud, so my playlists work from any computer or mobile device.

Sorry Black Keys, but I’m not going to buy your new album.  Leaving Rhapsody and Rdio doesn’t make me want to go buy your album.  My world of music is now streaming.  If the song ain’t there it ain’t anywhere, at least in my musical reality.

Sources of Streaming Music News and Reviews

JWH – 12/14/11

Redesigning the Television–Will Apple Revolutionize the TV Next?

Before Steve Jobs died he told his biographer that he wanted to create a television set that was completely easy to use.  Can you imagine a TV that’s as revolutionary as the iPhone or iPad?  Well, I think it would be fun to guess its features.

World TV

Right now there are different technical broadcast systems all over the world so I would think the first area of simplification would come from jettison outdated technical standards.  Why not design one TV that will work with all 7,000,000,000 citizens of the Earth.  I can’t imagine Jobs would want to design a TV that had to work with set-top boxes from other companies selling content.  Nor could I imagine he’d want to design something that used over-the-air channel reception.  Because the Internet is universal across the world, why not just design the future TV to be an Internet TV?

Picture a TV with one power plug and built-in wireless networking.  Now that would be a simple and elegant design.  It would essentially be a computer with a 24”-62” screen using 1080p, that could work anywhere in the world with a different power cord.

The TV antenna will go the way of the buggy whip, and so will set-top boxes and DVD-Blu-ray players.

Physical Design

Now we need to imagine the design of the device itself.  Currently I have 5 remotes and a keyboard with trackpad to use with my 52” TV entertainment system I built myself.  If our new future TV used something like Siri, we could get rid of all remotes and keyboards.  The only external control that Siri couldn’t handle is a game controller, and with a Kineck type sensor even that might be eliminated.

Having to connect a receiver and surround sound speakers to HD TVs is a pain.  Our perfect TV should have a sound bar built-in with great surround sound.  And it should play music fantastically too.  No more Hi-Fi component, speakers and wires cluttering up the living room.

My new LG computer monitor has no physical buttons on it, but light sensors, even for the on/off switch.  I think our perfect TV wouldn’t have mechanical buttons either.  It should be voice activated only, but if it did require a manual power switch it should be light activated.

This TV will be more futuristic than anything on the Jetsons.

jetsons_l

Content

Now I can’t imagine Jobs thinking he could design this TV and just throw iOS 5 on it.  The TV opening screen and menu system is the hardest feature to imagine.  This is why Apple is the success it is, and why other companies copy its design.  Our prefect TV needs to show:

  • Internet broadcasts – live TV
  • Recorded shows from the past
  • Movies
  • Personal videos
  • Photographs
  • Internet
  • Games
  • Music
  • Telephone
  • Teleconferencing
  • Online courses
  • Presentations
  • Business and education software

For Internet TV to work we need TV networks to switch to streaming their content, but there’s needs to be a paradigm change first.  How many shows need to be live?  Think about that.  The news, sports, reality shows, special live concerts and performances.  We actually don’t need live TV all that much.  Most of what’s on TV is recorded.  Because of DVRs and services like Hulu, how many people even watch new TV shows that premiere each week live?  Cable/satellite services provide hundreds of channels because of their technical limitations, not because we need hundreds of live TV channels.

Content from networks like TCM, National Geography, Discover, History, etc. can be served just as well from a web page, they don’t need to be live.

Recorded TV shows and movies can come from services like Netflix, iTunes and Amazon Prime.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s we had 3 television channels.  There were no DVDs or DVRs to catch a show later.  You either watched the show when it aired, or maybe had another chance the following summer during rerun season, and that was it.  Each fall we were presented with a new line-up of shows and they would generally run a whole season – shows were seldom canceled mid-season.  Once you learned the lineup on shows in September you pretty much knew what was going to be on television until next summer.  Special shows were indeed special and rare.  That was simplicity then.

Back then watching TV was as easy as basic arithmetic.  Today with cable, satellite, iPads, smartphones and internet television channels, along with DVDs, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Blockbuster, Redbox and DVRs deciding what to watch on television is more like advanced calculus.  We now live in a TV age of painful complexity.

Watching TV fifty years ago meant three channels of choice.   Today we’re getting closer and closer to being able to watch anything that’s ever been on television at any moment.  The choices aren’t infinite, but when someone asks “What’s on TV?” it might be safe to say, “There’s a million things on TV tonight.”  And that’s painful to deal with.

Our perfect TV needs to have an operating system that allows the viewer to find what they want to watch as quickly as possible.  It needs to be as simple to use as an iPad for a two-year-old.   When the set is turned on it needs an opening screen – the top menu, and the basic functions can be simplified to these:

  • TV
  • Library
  • Telephone
  • Games
  • Music
  • Computer

This makes six tiles – is Microsoft on to something?  TV would be live TV, Library would be recorded shows, either TV, movies, personal videos, photographs, or other content.  Telephone could be two way video or conferencing.  Games and music are obvious.  Computer would be anything from online courses, business presentations, science simulations, word processing, blogging, etc.  I think we’ll be surprised what we’ll want to do from the family TV in the den.

Think what a game changer such a television would be.  It would be the Holy Grail of integration between TVs and Computers, but also phones, stereos and game units.  Is it any wonder that Steve Jobs wanted to tackle such an exciting project?  Sadly, think how many companies it will put out of business.  We won’t need Blu-ray players or discs, or Google TV or Roku, or music CDs, or movies and TV shows on DVD.

How To Get From the Complexity We Have Now To A New Simplicity?

If you have cable with hundreds of channels how do you even know what to watch?  And what great shows are you missing?

Live

The first thing we need to do is separate live content from recorded content.  We need to bring back the demand and understanding of live TV and we need to reduce the number of channels offered.  Because our system works with the world, live TV could be from anywhere on the planet.  We want our TV user to select any channel they want, but we need to simplify the TV menu system.  I like how Roku does things.  It offers hundreds of channels but you only add in the ones you regularly use to you main menu.  I’ve done the same thing with my over-the-air TV, reducing about two dozen local channels down to five.  It makes life easier.

When the user says “Live TV” to our new set they should see a small listing of favorite live channels.  They could be numbered on the screen so the user could say “Number 4” or just “PBS.”  Or they could say “Add channel” and then go into a menu of all possible live channels to add.  They might say, “Japan” and see live TV channels from Japan.  Or they could say “American football” or “British reality shows.”

This system would allow for simplicity from an unlimited offering.

Also, the Live function could connect to web cams around the world.  TV doesn’t have to be produced.

Library

The selection of recorded shows could run to the millions.  Any movie, any TV show, any documentary, any home video, etc.  We’d need a system to help people find good content.  The basic search engine could find things if user already knew the name of the show, or certain related details, but for discovering new shows they would need help.

What we need is the wisdom of crowds – hit lists of all kinds to let people find what other people are watching and rating.

The default Library screen could have pull down menus on the left and a list of shows on the right. The pull down menus will let you pick for Year, Genre (and Subgenre), Audience, Now/Then, Rating, and maybe others. The default might be Current to see the most popular shows people are watching right now. But under Time you can change it to a listing by year or decade. Under genre you’ll see a detail list of genres and from Audience you can pick age group.

This way you could put in 1950s, Science Fiction, 60-65, Now – and you’d see a list of 1950s science fiction shows and movies that people 60-65 are currently watching the most. You can also switch to Then and see what the people back in the 1950s watched the most.

So if you want your daughter to learn about astronomy you could request the most popular documentaries on astronomy that are viewed by 10-20 year old girls that are rated 8-10 stars.

We’d need supplemental features that used the techniques of Amazon customer reviews, Netflix, Wikipedia, Rotten Tomatoes, MetaCritic etc. to help people find shows.

The system could have an encyclopedia of TV shows and you could find any TV series that’s ever been made and start watching them from the first episode to the last.  Such a TV system will kill off DVDs.

Finally, our Library feature could also integrate with your local libraries, to their special collections, or to libraries around the world.  There’s more to our culture than old movies and TV shows.

Telephone

Wouldn’t it be cool for one family on Christmas to see and talk with other family members who can’t make it home that year?  The possibilities are endless. Science fiction has been predicting for the wall screen telecommunication device for decades.  It’s time to get around to making one.

Games

It’s pretty obvious games need to be integrated into this system.  Essentially our TV will be a computer, whether it runs Mac OS X or Windows 8 or Linux, it will be competing with console gaming.  It could signal the end to console games.  But won’t Angry Birds be cool on a 62” screen at 1080p?  Or future versions of World of Warcraft?

Music

Apple wants you to buy music from iTunes – that’s such ancient 20th century thinking.  I’m surprised that Steve Jobs didn’t recognize the simple beauty of streaming music libraries like Rhapsody, Rdio, MOG, Spotify, Zune and others.  Why mess with owning music and having to worry about backing it up and protecting it for the rest of your life.  Streaming music rental libraries is just too damn easy to use.

Like the “Live” TV function, the “Music” screen should allow users to add subscription services to the default screen.  Probably only one, but they should get to pick which one.  I’m sure the future TV from Apple will show iTunes, but unless iTunes starts its own streaming music service, this will keep the Apple model of future TV tied to the past.  Right now I subscribe to Rhapsody and Rdio, and use the free version of Spotify.

Computer

Lot’s of people want to predict the death of the desktop computer but you just don’t want to do everything you can do on a computer from a 4” screen, or even a 10” screen.  Online education is going to be big.  Doing business presentations is already huge and getting bigger.  Everyone will learn to create content, whether you’re an artist, teacher, musician or mathematician.  Imagine letting kids paint on a 62” canvas?  Or studying math from a library of the best teaching programs from around the world.  For many families the desktop might go away, or it might become the family TV.  Or the bedroom TV.  Pretty soon a TV will be a computer and a computer a TV.

Summary

It’s like Dylan said, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.  Many young people have already abandoned the family TV to get all their content from smartphones and tablets.  The shift to Internet TV has been going on for years, so it doesn’t take much imagination to predict a perfect TV.  I wished Jobs would have lived into his 90s to see everything he could have revolutionized.  Actually it would be fun to see if he ran out of things to reinvent. 

At some point things have got to settle down.  If you contemplate this TV I’ve imagined here, it integrated a lot of technologies into one simple device.  I’d expect one screen in every room.  And then everyone would have a 4” smartphone and a 10” tablet and maybe a 12-16” laptop if they needed one.  After the war of gadgets we’ve been seen in the last decade will we see a gadget peace for a time?  Reading Engadget makes that hard to believe.  But the Flip video camera was killed off because of video cameras in smartphones.  What will the iPhone 4s do to the digital still and video camera market?  What’s happening to portable DVD players and handheld game units?  Does anyone buy handheld GPSs anymore?

Just when Microsoft was getting into touch, Apple comes out with a voice interface.  Schools are giving up teaching cursive handwriting.  When will typing disappear?  Always remember, the evolution of machines is away from moving parts.  Now that consumers have access to 3 terabyte hard drives do they really need them when everything is moving to the cloud?  How much does the iMac look like the future of computers and TV?  Evolution appears to be moving toward intelligent flat screens.  The smartphone suggests that everyone will have a personal 4” screen they take everywhere.  Some people will also need 10” screens (tablets).  At what point does voice controlled touch screens invalidate the need for 12-16” laptop computers?  And when does the 24” computer monitor in the bedroom merge with the TV?  And can one OS handle all screen sizes?  Will it still be Microsoft v. Apple v. Linux?

My recommendation if you are buying a new TV now is to pick one with the most Internet features built in.  But expect Apple to come out with something in 2012.  Will it be as revolutionary as the iPhone?  I don’t know.  Too much depends on TV networks, cable channel systems and content providers.  But I can’t help believe that cable TV will go the way of the floppy disc.  Expect CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs to disappear quickly too.  Cable TV and Satellite companies will put up a big fight for years, but the Internet will allow content produces to do an end run around them.

How quickly will all this happen?  Well, how quickly are ebooks taking over printed books?

JWH – 10/30/11

The Significance of the Spotify Revenue Model–A New Social Promotion Paradigm

Spotify is popular European streaming music service that has come to America.  It’s not that we didn’t already have American streaming music services from Rhapsody, Rdio, MOG, Napster, Microsoft, Sony and others, but Spotify is different, it has a free, ad-supported option besides it’s two paid options.

Allowing people to listen to music for free is significant.  Lala.com, also offered a free option, but Apple bought Lala and killed it.  I wonder if Apple will buy Spotify?  Free is a threat to the status quo, but legally free means a new paradigm in promoting music.

Would-be rock stars dream of riches so how will free music help them? To become an actual star means finding a million fans – it’s all about promotion.  If your songs sucks, no amount of promotion will help, but if they are great, without listeners no one will know.  And the best way to promote a product is word of mouth.  And social networking on web pages, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, or even email, is word of mouth promotion on steroids.

It used to be radio airplay created hit songs. But who listens to radio anymore?  Now-a-days people use YouTube.  Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” is at 106,083,210 plays on YouTube.  Of course that could be 10 million fans listening 10 times each, or 1 million fans listening to the song a hundred times, or it could be me listening for 10 times before I bought the CD, and another guy out there listening to it for 106,083,200 times.  But this is the kind of promotion that payola can’t even touch.  Free is more contagious than the common cold. 

Most people I know who want to share a song with a friend checks YouTube to see if there’s a video so their friends can hear it for free.  But what if there’s no video?  Bummer.  There’s always finding a pirate copy, but that’s a pain and could be dangerous.

Spotify is the new kid in town that could replace YouTube’s as the go-to place to have friends try out songs.  But there’s a minor hitch.  You have to be a Spotify member and install the client software before you can play songs for free.  Now that’s not much more work than getting Acrobat Reader so you can read PDF files, but it is some extra work.  If Spotify gets the kind of market penetration as Flash then it will be a snap to share songs.

Spotify will replace Billboard as the definer of Hit Lists. But this depends on everyone using Spotify.  It would help if they had a web client.  It would also help if they had an embeddable player so web pages and blogs could just add a play button so when someone writes about a song they could press a button and listen while they read. 

WordPress does have a MP3 player I could embed in my writing here, but I’d have to load the song onto the WordPress server first, and since most songs are copyrighted, that’s illegal.  But Spotify, and other streaming services, could legally arrange to stream music to such embedded buttons, and they and the record companies would want such buttons if they also had a button next to the play button to return you to the album page where you’d see ads and more promotions for the artist and their albums.

Now this assumes Spotify remaining the only music streaming service with a free option.  What if that’s not the case?  What if they all offer ad-supported listening?  This will cause terrific competition for membership.  People will chose which service from a variety of features.  Price has always settled down to $5 a month for computer streaming and no ads, and $10 a month if you want to hear music on your mobile device (smartphone, MP3 player, tablet).  I would expect the Spotify competitors to come out with free ad-supported versions soon.  The ad supported version is like getting heroin for free.  Anyone who loves music will pop for the $10 deal eventually.

What the artists and record companies will want is the most efficient way to create massive audiences for songs.  I would guess royalties from subscription music is based on plays.  If no one listens to your album, you don’t make any money.  So they game switches from how many songs you can sell, to how many people can you get to play your song on the various subscription services.  Money from subscribers and ads are out of your control – everything is about getting people to listen.

And since anyone can listen for free, this should wipe our piracy – at least for songs on subscription services.

I’d love to be able to write album reviews and be able to embed a player for each song I review so people could play the songs while they read what I’m saying about them.  Right now I can do this:  “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele.  If you have Spotify you can click the link to play that song.  What I want is a graphic with CD controls and a play button so if you pressed it the song would play right in the browser where you are reading this.  WordPress offers that feature if I pay $19.95, but I couldn’t legally upload the song for you to try it.  If I could, I would gladly pay the $19.95 – but then the artist wouldn’t earned royalty credits.  It would be much easier for all concerned if streaming music services just offered embedding controls that WordPress, Facebook, etc. could incorporate like they do when I embed a YouTube video.

If such subscription music players were widely used, artists would get more play credits.

By the way, Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” gained 26,000 plays as I wrote this blog.

JWH – 8/5/11

1959 by Fred Kaplan and Kind of Blue by Miles Davis

If you have a Spotify account you can listen to Kind of Blue while you read my review.   Visit this link and it will launch Spotify and play the album. If you don’t have Spotify, request a free account here.  Having at least the free Spotify account means you can always try a new album when your friends rave about a new album discover.  Kind of Blue was first released in 1959.  I’ve included YouTube versions of its five songs below.

I am becoming more and more fascinated and entertained by history – but not the history they teach in school, but the everyday history of people, inventions and art.  We take every new thing for granted, as if it sprung fully formed new on the scene.  Take the hit gadget of the moment, the iPad.  It was far from the first tablet computer, and the concept goes back to at least to the Dynabook imagined by Alan Kay in 1968.  Nor could the tablet computer exist without the integrated circuit which was patented in 1959 by Jack Kilby, hence the connection to the book I want to talk about, 1959 by Fred Kaplan.

In 1959 Kaplan writes several related essays about how 1959 was a pivotal year for all of us who have been living since.  Essentially, you can do this for any year, but Kaplan makes a good case for 1959.  Whether it’s birth control, jazz, Fidel Castro, atomic warfare, Beat writers Kerouac and Ginsberg, Motown, integrated circuits, Malcolm X, Vietnam, Grove Press, or any of the other happening events of 1959, they all impact on us today.  Everything evolves, and everything trails a history, and the past gives birth to the now.

Never heard of Grove Press?  Well, it took on U.S. censorship and since then we’ve had sex and dirty words in books and movies.  Now you might not think that’s a good thing, but it is a pivotal change in society.  What Kaplan is getting at is you could experience pop culture before 1959 it would be much different from anything you know now.  Not unknown, because everything before is still around, but it would be missing a lot of stuff that’s come out since.

This is hard to explain.  I lived before cell phones were invented, in any form.  People who grew up with cell phones can’t imagine what life was like without them.  What Kaplan is trying to explain in a series of essays is what life was like before 1959, and what came out that year that has changed everything since.

One of the essays that really stood out for me was the one on Miles Davis and his sextet recording Kind of Blue.  It’s easy to understand the impact of technology.  Kaplan writes about the invention of the integrated circuit and we’ve been living with the technology it generated ever since, from computers to high definition TVs.  That’s obvious.  But can you understand the impact of a kind of “new technology” in music?  I struggle for that, but it’s pretty obvious if you spend time listening to Kind of Blue.  Most young people today will not understand the roots of their favorite music, but their favorite musicians who create the music will.

I find it tremendous fun to time travel via pop culture.  For most of us baby boomers, we were kids in the 1950s, and our memories of the times are fleeting and tainted by TV.  It’s easier to remember Leave It To Beaver than the politics of Dwight Eisenhower.  I was born in 1951, so I lived through most of the decade, but I have few memories of it.  I do remember the 1960s vividly, but putting the puzzle pieces of the 1950s together makes the 1960s make more sense.

Kind of Blue is a transition marker in the art of music.  If you like to play the six degrees of separation game, it will link you to many cool people.  It’s both a tipping point and a crossroads.  You can listen to the music, but it’s also fun to read about its history.

Kind-of-Blue

Kind of Blue is considered to be one of the best jazz albums of all time, and the best selling jazz album.  A 2001 NPR report claims it sells 5,000 copies every week.   There are no words to describe how beautiful this album is, that’s why I provide the link to Spotify above.  The album has a fascinating history that you can read at Wikipedia or listen to on this NPR documentary – I won’t try to rephrase that history since these sources do it so well.

As I read 1959: The Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan, a columnist for Slate magazine and also columnist on jazz at Stereophile magazine, I realized the Kaplan had a gift for music history.  I thought the chapter on Kind of Blue in 1959 was full of wonderful historical details and the his descriptions of music are very precise and vivid.  It’s very hard to describe music in words.  Check out Kaplan’s video introduction to the book in this video clip at Amazon.  It opens with music from Kind of Blue, Kaplan will give you a better idea of his enthusiasm for writing about 1959.

I turned eight in 1959, and I was living in New Jersey, out in the country, where I was oblivious to the world at large.  I’m not sure we even had a TV set at the time.  Kaplan covers a quirky view of 1959, but one I can identify with because all the topics later impacted my life.  I didn’t discover Kind of Blue until the late 1980s.  I was reading Kerouac and Ginsberg in the late 1960s.  Fidel Castro took over Cuba in 1959, and I spent most of my youth growing up in Miami living with the results, so I’m like one degree away from that chapter, plus I spent the 1960s loving hits from Motown which was started in 1959.  I never knew I had so many connections to 1959 until I read this book.

Kaplan is right about 1959, people and inventions from 1959 have slowly weaved themselves into the fabric of my life over the last 52 years.  I wished I had been given a record player and the LP of Kind of Blue when I was 8, because I grew up with AM rock n roll and that has shaped the musical tastes of my lifetime.  I wonder if I was exposed to jazz at 8 if I would have been a different person.  For the most part I don’t even like jazz, but I love Kind of Blue, and Time Out by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, another masterpiece of jazz from 1959.

I have been able to travel back in time to enjoy the jazz of the 1920s and 1930s, and through the swing era of the 1940s.  Then came Bebop, which was beginning of modern jazz and although I can admire it intellectually, I don’t feel it.  I feel the same way about most classical music.  Neither kind moves me emotionally.

Miles Davis worked with Charlie Parker, one of the pioneers of Bebop, and then Davis moved on to Hard Bop, which brought R&B, gospel and blues into jazz.  I bought several Art Blakey and John Coltrane CDs in the 1980s trying to get into this era of jazz.  Again, I could semi-enjoy this kind of jazz, but something was missing.  Why?

Why was Jack Kerouac and his Beat buddies so blown about by jazz of the 1940s and 1950s?  It drove them insane with excitement, but it’s all too cool emotionally for me.  Then comes 1959 and Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck produce two albums that turn me on, but also turn on a zillion other people to jazz again.  When I read Kaplan’s chapter on Miles Davis I wanted to go back and try to get into those jazz years I can’t connect with.  My friend Mike who got into jazz about the same time as I did broke the barrier and left me behind.

For those of you who didn’t take the time to join Spotify, here’s “So What” the first cut off of Kind of Blue.  It really helps to have good speakers to enjoy the textured loveliness of these tunes.

Maybe the reason why I dig this new direction in jazz is because it jettisons so much of the old forms of jazz.  Miles Davis and Bill Evans prepared very little in the way of musical notation for the musicians to follow.  Fred Kaplan explains what they are doing in words, but these seven musicians are improvising from very little structure, mainly just the mood of the piano.  I wish I understood music to know what they are doing, but I don’t.

All I know is this music lights up my mind.  I highly recommend getting a copy of Kind of Blue and play it when you are ready to just relax and listen.  Let your mind go with the music.  It’s very different, yet this album has influenced many artists since.  I really got into The Allman Brothers in 1969, and even got to see them before Duane was killed.  Duane Allman loved Kind of Blue and claims it influenced his music.  In can feel “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” in “Freddie Freeloader” which you can play here:

“Blue in Green” is so moody that it feels more like a soundtrack for a story, or music for a modern dance piece.  This third track was the final song recorded in the March 2, 1959 session.  Give it a listen:

The final two cuts were performed on April 22, 1959.

“All Blues,” the first cut on the back side of the LP, picks up the tempo and is the longest cut on the the album (11:31), and my favorite, but sadly it’s cut short here on YouTube because of the 10 minute limit.

The last track, “Flamenco Sketches.”  This is so far from modern pop music that I’m not sure if young people will be able to get into this kind of music at all.  I think one reason why I love this Miles Davis over his earlier work is because the music is slower.  I couldn’t handle the frantic tempo of Bebop, nor did I relate to the old tunes being blended into Hard Bop.  This music is as modern as NASA, the agency that was created just a year before in 1958.  This music is light-years away from the teen idols I was hearing on the radio at the time.

Is this really the sound of 1959?  The music of bomb shelters and revolutions in Cuba?  It certainly sounds like music for books by Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg, but how many regular Americans listened to this album?  I’m sure its as esoteric as Zen Buddhists to mainstream America, yet it was significant to our culture.

Us baby boomers can’t let go of the 1950s.  Look at TV shows like Mad Men, that started with 1950s ad men confronting the beginning of the 1960s or the film The Tree of Life, which tries to put the 1950s in context of the whole history of the universe.  Or read a book like The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, which is a nostalgic memoir of the times by Bill Bryson.

I wonder what people from generations after us baby boomers think of the 1950s.  It must be as alien as the 1920s are to me, the decade my parents were children, or the 1930s, the decade they were teens.

Kind of Blue was a musical experiment.  A few other albums after it pursued the same techniques, but as far as I know, it’s a dead end for a trend, yet fleeting pieces of its sound show up in music all the time.  Modern pop music is almost a rigid formula – I almost ache to hear something new and different.  What musical experiments are going on now in 2011 that will be written about in the 2060s?

JWH – 7/30/11

Spotify versus Rdio, MOG, Napster and Rhapsody

[This review of Spotify is essentially part 2 of my review of MOG v. Napster v. Rdio v. Rhapsody.]

Spotify is finally here and I got my invite to use the free portion of the service, which is ad supported for streaming millions of songs through a computer.  Spotify also offers two other pricing options.  For $4.99 you can get unlimited computer streaming without commercials, and for $9.99 get unlimited computer streaming and on-the-go music for your smartphone or iPod.

Spotify requires downloading and installing a client to use, unlike all the other services that can work through the web.  Think of the client as a customized browser just for music.

My first impression is Spotify is BLAZINGLY fast!  Second, the sound quality is excellent with 320kbps streams.  Third, without me noticing it, Spotify indexed all the songs on my computer and added them to their search engine.  One of the first things I did was search for music I know that’s not on the other services, and was deceptively blown away when Spotify started playing Willis Alan Ramsey’s legendary out-of-print CD.  It wasn’t until after I searched on Nanci Griffith’s “Daddy Said” and it started playing that I realized I was playing my own songs.  I was disappointed that Spotify’s library wasn’t truly unlimited, but this is a very cool feature.  With one search engine I can play Spotify’s library of 15 million songs and my library of 18,000+ songs.

Spotify works with a client that must be installed on your computer – and for disciples of Steve Jobs, yes, there is a Mac client.  If you have an iPhone or Android smartphone, and you’re willing to pay the $9.99/month Premium fee you can sync your Spotify playlists to play offline.  If you’re online (Wi-Fi or 3G/4G) you can stream the entire site.  Users of the Free and $4.99 Unlimited plan can use the Spotify client to load your personally owned songs to your mobile phone or iPod.  What this means is Spotify wants to replace Windows Media Player or iTunes to manage your music – but it doesn’t require any conversion – Spotify just indexed my songs immediately after installing.

The client for Spotify is streamlined and basic, with a dark background – it reminds me of sleek basic version of iTunes.  Spotify is rather plain looking compared to Rdio my current favorite streaming music service, and Rhapsody, my longtime favorite.  Those sites love to show lots of album covers, but Spotify doesn’t do that.  It has two areas of the client where random visual ads pop up, but they hardly bother me, and I hate ads.  One reason why they don’t bother me is who looks at the client when they are playing music?  But on the other hand there are audio ads!!!  Now that might take some getting used to.

Having an ad support site means millions of people can try subscription music and discover why spending $4.99-$9.99 a month for subscription music is one of the most fantastic bargains on Earth right now.  I can even get my wife and other friends that refuse to pay for music hooked on Spotify.

I’m playing Colbie Caillat’s new album All of You while I write this review and so far I’ve had three commercial interruptions between songs.  The ads so far seem to be music related spots, and the audio ads have been either for Spotify Premium or other album artists – nothing as offensive as AM radio ads – so far.

Spotify does have social features but not wonderfully integrated like Rdio.  They seem to depend on Facebook or Twitter, although you can get the URL of any album, song or playlist and send it to your friends who have Spotify and they can then play what you want them to hear.  I didn’t test the Facebook feature because I hate sharing on Facebook.  I’m afraid Spotify would annoy my friends like Farmville fanatics with their sharing.

Spotify is slick in its simplicity.  Here’s what it’s Chart’s list page looks like, that show the Top 100 Songs and Albums.  [Try clicking on the images to see larger views.]

Spotify

Notice the ad on the right.  Now here’s what the album page looks like:

Spotify-Album

And here’s how Spotify shows my Bob Dylan albums.

Spotify-LocalSong

Go to http://spotify.com and request free invite.  Try out the service.  If you’ve never used a subscription music service Spotify is a great introduction.  But do yourself a favor if you like it, spend $4.99 and try out http://rdio.com for a month.  Read my review of the four other top music subscription services.  They each have unique features that make them all worthy considerations.  At the very minimum, if you love music get the free version of Spotify.  If I wasn’t so attached to Rdio right now I would buy the Unlimited version of Spotify, and I might still, it’s a very slick and FAST music player.

The reason why I’m sticking to Rdio is I have two friends at work that use it too, and the social features are addictive.  For so long music has become a solitary pursuit with people plugging in and tuning out.  Now, music is becoming social again.  I have great nostalgia for when I was growing up and me and my friends would get together and play albums.  No one seems to do that anymore.  Well, with subscription music services you can, just not together in the same room.

A third co-worker is definitely going to join Rdio, and a fourth is considering it.  That kind of momentum is sealing my allegiance to Rdio.  But subscription music is just catching on and Spotify might be the service to join, especially if you have a lot of music buddies on Facebook.

To sum up the comparisons I’d say MOG is a top consideration if you want the most efficient way to make playlists and you want to play music through your Roku.  Napster is your choice if you love playing songs from Billboard charts that go back to the 1950s.  Rhapsody might have the widest selection of songs, and it seems to have the most supplemental information and it has a great blog.  Spotify is great for two reasons.  First, there’s a free version, so everyone can use it.  Second, it’s perfect for people who have large personal collections of MP3s because Spotify integrates its collection with yours seamlessly.  Finally, I believe Rdio is best for people who like to share music with real world friends and discover new music by social networking with online friends.

I imagine all of these services will evolve quickly and develop new features and copy the best features of their competitors.  I believe streaming music is the future of music distribution and the end of owning music – except for true collectors who like to fill their houses with 78s, 45s, LPs and CDs.

JWH – 7/21/11