March 21, 2004

Rundown On Real [6:36 pm]

Real’s fight with Microsoft is profiled, although the real question the article addresses is whether their bet on the subscription model will win out over the iTunes/song-based model of music e-tailing: Musical Chairs With the Big Boys

With its 350,000 subscribers, RealNetworks is the largest of the digital music subscription services, a nascent market that allows users to listen to music without storing it on their computers. It includes MusicNet, Musicmatch, Roxio’s Napster and others. At the end of last year, the music services had more than 700,000 paying subscribers, triple the number of a year earlier, industry analysts estimate.

No one knows how the emerging digital music business will evolve. Some insist that the pay-per-song formula will prevail because it is more like the way people have traditionally bought music. Others say Rhapsody is the future of music, allowing unlimited sampling and experimentation. The subscription model, they say, will transform the experience of listening to music in the same way that TiVo digital video recorders have allowed users to personalize television viewing in all sorts of new ways, by pausing, rewinding and replaying TV programs.

On the subject of digital music, analysts are often sharply divided, as are the industry’s leading executives. “Customers do not like the subscription model - it’s a failure,” said Mr. Jobs, Apple’s chief executive. “They pay $120 a year and they don’t like the idea that if they stop paying monthly fees, their music goes away.”

For his part, Mr. Glaser points to the $7.9 million in revenue that RealNetworks’ subscription music services collected in the fourth quarter of 2003, a 70 percent increase from the third quarter. “If you call 70 percent sequential growth a failure, I’m happy to be a failure,” he said. “Steve’s model works for him, and ours works for us. We don’t compete head-on.”

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Artistic Creativity and Popularity [6:30 pm]

A followup to Another Datapoint: Sources of Creativity — the article’s last line (cited below) carries quite the mixed message! We’ve Got Algorithm, but How About Soul? [pdf]

Executives at PolyphonicHMI and Anastacia’s representatives are now at odds over whether the software was actually used to produce the single. A producer who worked with the song acknowledges that he uses Hit Song Science but declined to say whether he had used it for this single. Anastacia’s publicists say the software was not used, and in an e-mail message stated that the singer “does not use, support, rely or believe that this is a technology that should figure into any type of creative process now or in the future.”

Whether the technology was used for this particular single or not, sources at several labels, both major and indie, confirmed that the product was being used. But their requested anonymity and the vehemence of protest from Anastacia’s camp are telling. Since Hit Song Science was announced publicly a little more than a year ago, it has been decried as everything from snake oil to the death of innovation in music - largely because, like the Dia art project, it seems to reduce both the creative process and popular tastes to mere equations.

[...] The British neurologist Semir Zeki is at the forefront of a field he calls neuroaesthetics and others call blasphemy. In the soon-to-be-released anthology “Neurology of the Arts: Painting, Music, Literature” (Imperial College Press), he contributes a chapter in which he argues that art is a human activity with a biological basis, ultimately dependent upon - and obedient to - the laws of the brain. He was unfamiliar with Hit Song Science, but supported, in theory, the idea that an algorithm could define popular art. “The brain’s capacities are not infinite,” he said on the phone from London. “There is a finite number of ways in which music can appeal. You get rid of discordant sounds at the beginning. You keep getting rid of the obvious and soon you’re down to a reasonable number.”

Dr. Zeki, too, has heard people get quite upset at his work’s implication. “People say, ‘You cannot reduce beauty to a formula!’ ” he says. “But the fact that I know what happens in my brain when I see something as beautiful will not stop me from seeing it as so.”

Or as Mr. McCready puts it, “We didn’t invent these patterns. We just point them out.”

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Grey Album and the Underground [6:25 pm]

Consumed: The Grey Album

Ever since Napster came along, digital distribution of music has been seen as both threatening (to the music industry) and promising (to those who believe the music industry stifles creativity). Proof of this promise part could take the form of a music-world parallel to ”The Blair Witch Project”: an apparently Web-driven breakout phenomenon. And maybe it has just happened.

[...] What’s less traditional is for such a collection to soar out of the underground. Yet this is what happened. And it happened in large part despite — or really because of — Danger Mouse’s failure to get copyright permission from EMI Music, the Beatles’ record label. EMI’s displeasure led to a legal fracas that attracted a great deal of attention — and, thanks to the Internet, a lot more listeners than any reasonable person might have predicted Danger Mouse could get. In fact, the bickering over what ”The Grey Album” means to copyright law obscured what it means to popular music: it must be the most-heard ”underground” record ever, not to mention the branding event of the year.

[...] But Downhill Battle’s Nicholas Reville has a point when he says the Danger Mouse episode ”was about people deciding to become the curators for this work, making sure it couldn’t be suppressed.” ”The Grey Album” comes at a watershed moment in the history of what listeners are allowed to hear. In 1991, U2’s record label quashed a song by the band Negativland that used an unauthorized sample. Now unauthorized remixes can serve as promotional vehicles for the artists they sample; in fact, the vocals-only version of ”The Black Album” to be released next month by Jay-Z seems an awful lot like bait to potential remixers who ultimately drive attention back to the original. ”The Grey Album” is something new: unauthorized and almost instantly available on a large scale — call it mass underground. ”Once you hear about it,” Reville said, ”you have to hear the record.” That’s been true before. What’s different this time is how many people actually did.

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