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Feeling the Music in a Digital Age

Posted @ 12:13 pm by Grady Kuhnline | Category: Technology | 0 Comments

Music is a big part of my life and has been for as long as I can remember. I was just the right age that the Napster revolution hit right in the middle of my college years. At the time, I was busy converting my 200 or so CD’s into MP3′s, and the sudden rush of new music from the internet was revolutionary. I often tell people that I got into computers because of my love of organizing files. Of course, I burned most of my ill-gotten digital songs to CD so I could listen to them away from my computer.

The tangible aspect of listening to music has changed considerably over the past few decades. My siblings and I were reminiscing, over email, about listening to Sesame Country on record as children and studying the record sleeve, imagining playing the harmonica just like Ernie. My brother had found a digital copy of the album so that his son could also enjoy the Sesame Jamboree. Of course, baby Henry will be listening to the Muppet Mountain Band on the iPod in the family car and may never know the record sleeve ever existed.

It may be tempting to lament our changing relationship with music, but I’ve become immersed in the new possibilities that today’s internet gives us to interact with music. More importantly, experiencing digital music is no longer illegal and no longer leaves you tied to your desktop computer.

Streaming

Radiohead at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, CA

Long ago, Napster went legit as a subscription streaming service. Recently, Napster was swallowed by rival service Rhapsody, which is essentially the same thing. They both offered unlimited streaming for around $10 a month and have virtually the same library of music to choose from. Much has been made of another streaming service, Pandora, that went public last year. While Rhapsody is about offering a large, on-demand library, Pandora is about having a customized radio station. Pandora doesn’t allow you to browse the music library at all.

The new kids on the streaming block, including Rdio and Spotify, are really changing the game by adding social into the mix. Spotify has been making a big splash since it came to the US after becoming a huge success in Europe. It’s similar to Rhapsody in that it makes a vast library of music available for streaming. In fact, all of the digital streaming services have a vast and nearly identical selection of songs. They’ve got nearly everything except the digital holdouts like The Beatles, Metallica, and Led Zeppelin. But never fear, there’s always Captain Beefheart.

Spotify has a few distinctions from the earlier generation of streaming services. First, the social integration is a big deal. Now my friends can send me an album or a song to listen to really easily. I can hear a really great song and immediately share it with a friend. The Facebook integration allows me to annoy all of my friends every time I listen to a song because it automatically posts to my timeline. Of course, Facebook integration is a double-edged sword and not everyone wants to constantly broadcast their terrible musical tastes–it can be turned off.

Spotify’s second big distinction is app integration. You can listen to your music from your local collection as well as streaming from the internet. Spotify also allow for apps to be installed. And Spotify apps are a great way to find new music. I would recommend the Pitchfork App, which allows you to read Pitchfork album reviews and listen to the albums at the exact same time.

Mobility

Animal Collective at the Fox Theater in Oakland, CA

Of course we all know about iPods. But those were the first wave of portable digital music as we know it. The smartphone revolution has made it possible to take your streaming music with you on the road. All of the major services, including Rhapsody, Pandora, Rdio, and Spotify have iPhone and Android apps available. It’s a surreal experience the first time you connect your phone to your car over Bluetooth and stream Pandora. These services remove the issues with always having to sync the music on your iPhone. If a song comes up in conversation,  just pull out your phone and instantly stream it.

Scrobbling

One of the more interesting tools available today is scrobbling your music with Last.fm. Scrobbling is a funny term that Last.fm uses for their song tracking service. You can use their plugin to track all of the music that you listen to, regardless of your preferred music player. Spotify has Last.fm scrobbling built-in. They use the data to generate charts of popular music and they give you access to that data in your own profile.

It’s kind of cool to know, definitively, that Morrissey is my favorite artist of all time. According to my profile, I’ve listened to him more than 3,000 times since 2004, when I started scrobbling. It’s maybe a little embarrassing that Sinéad O’Connor is in my top six artists. Maybe Morrissey is embarrassing too.

Interestingly, they can also use the data to give you really good recommendations for music that you’d probably like. Last.fm has much better “similar artists” and “you might also like” features than competing services because they are based on real world preferences.

Concerts!

Even if meticulously tracking your music preferences seems a little too nerdy for your tastes, the benefits go far beyond the internet — you can go to concerts with that data. There are a few services, like Sonic Living and Song Kick, that can monitor your listening habits and make you aware of upcoming concerts for your favorite artists. Unlike the first generation of concert alert services, like Pollstar, that required manually subscribing to artists, these new services work by automatically scanning your iTunes library and storing all of the artists in your online profile. Of course, they can also sync with your Last.fm account, which means that every time you listen to a new artist, you will start getting alerts when they come to town.

In the past, I was always hearing about concerts way too late to do anything about it. There’s nothing worse that finding out that your favorite band is coming to town only after the tickets have sold out. I actually always wondered how the hardcore concert goers heard about the best concerts before everyone else. But now, with Song Kick (my preferred service), I get emails a few days before tickets go on sale. There’s nothing like discovering a new band using the Pitchfork app on Spotify and getting an email the next day from Song Kick to let you know they’re coming to town. It’s also nice that Song Kick will tell all of your Facebook friends that you’re attending so that they have a chance to get some tickets, or at least feel jealous.

My friends lament, “I wish I could’ve gone to Radiohead.” But I got the tickets the moment they went on sale because I knew ahead of time. Certain venues, like the Fox Theater in Oakland, offer pre-sales through Another Planet. Right now I’m in the middle of my fall concert rampage, going to four or five concerts a month. I’m looking forward to seeing Morrissey in November.

Living the Dream

Wilco at the Greek Theater in Berkeley, CA

It used to be a real chore to keep up with my music hobby. I would miss shows because I was too busy to scour the newspaper for concert listings. I would miss out on amazing new bands because I couldn’t find their albums. Now my music comes to me. My friends send me music on Spotify. I can easily listen to new bands using the Pitchfork and Rolling Stone apps. And I get to go see my favorite bands in concert, which is always something I wished I’d done more.

Digital music on the web has finally broken the fourth wall. I find my favorite bands online and actually go see those bands in person (and take pictures with Instagram, so the internet can share in the fun). If only Song Kick would buy the tickets for me and automatically schedule Uber to take me there.

 

Author: Grady Kuhnline is one of the original members of the SolutionSet technology team. Grady currently leads the front-end (HTML, CSS, JS) team at SolutionSet.

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