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Herewith notes on what I’m listening to in 2021, and why that’s a problem. With recommendations both for music and for things we can do to keep it alive.
Sometimes I listen to music on LPs — usually a combination of classical, elderly, and obscure. Otherwise these days it’s mostly YouTube Music (YTM). Which is very good at one of its jobs, namely finding me interesting music. But it’s terrible at its other job, which is being a constructive part of the music ecosystem.
Pretty soon, Covid allowing, I’ll be adding another mode: Live concerts! You should too; more on that below.
YouTube Music · It’s the successor to Google Music, which attracted most of its customers because it was quick, easy, and free to upload your own personal music collection (however acquired). My collection is old and eclectic and includes lots of stuff that, I’ve always assumed, would never make it into a mainstream online service. From my social-media stream, I learned I was far from alone in liking this.
GMusic automatically scanned your iTunes music library and efficiently uploaded it all with no fuss. YTMusic can upload but you have to do it a track at a time, so your 10K-song collection is a real problem. I wonder which Google Thought Leader decided to toss out the most attractive feature? Now to be fair, YTMusic did bring along my uploaded GMusic library so I’m fine personally. Maybe this was something useful only to grizzled Boomers and Google knows what it’s doing.
I decided to pay for YTMusic in the hope that money would filter through to musicians. When you first fire it up, it throws up a huge random selection of artists and asks you to select a few you like. It reacted badly to me picking twenty-five or so.
Given a little time for the algorithm to stabilize, I’d have to say it does an awesome job of discovery. I’ve fallen in love with multiple artists who (probably due to being old) I’d never heard of.
Having said that, I occasionally feel like I’m wrestling with the algorithm. The only tool you have are the thumbs up/down buttons, but it seems to interpret those sensibly. For some reason it initially thought I was all about slow dreamy/doomy stuff and yeah, I do like a lot of that, but then the world also has Rock & Roll and funk and bluegrass and, you know, everything created before 1900 or so.
For a while it got the idea that all I really wanted was Bohren & der Club of Gore — German Doom Jazz, more or less. And yeah, they’re fine. For a while.
Enough bitching. When I turn on what it calls “Your Supermix” I usually end up happy with what I hear.
On top of which there are some really brilliant thematic mixes; probably my favorite is Produced By: Sly & Robbie, just dripping with Reggae/Dub excellence and then some occasional surprises from for example Grace Jones.
I’m not saying Spotify or Apple or Amazon isn’t just as good at this stuff. I don’t use them so I don’t know.
Musical breakage · I’d like to introduce you to a couple of my new jams. But first, there’s something wrong with this picture: It’s starving musicians. For an excellent (albeit UK-focused) overview I recommend the BBC’s MPs call for complete reset of music streaming to ensure fair pay for artists. Basically, the streaming services pay a derisory pittance for each song delivered, which the business side eats most of and emits a few pennies to the actual musicians. It’s horrible.
I pay about US$8.50/month for YTMusic. A while back there was a week when I had to do a lot of driving. I told Android Auto “Play Radiohead” and left it there for a few days. I tried to work out how much Thom & the boys took home for earning quite a few hours of my continuous attention. It’s hard because the whole system is opaque; the answers I got were all over the map, but all amounted to “not enough for anyone to live on”.
Neither musicians nor (it seems) music lovers enjoy much political influence. And the music biz is, what’s left of it after recovering from its Twentieth-century addiction to selling cheap pieces of plastic at like 90% gross margin, is pretty happy with the way things are.
How can we help out the creators? Well, to the extent there are petitions to sign and campaigns to support, sign and support. But there’s one concrete thing you can do starting now that will send money to the people who need it and also improve your own quality of life.
Buy concert tickets! · Live performance is about the last useful way that a musician can generate noticeable revenue and retain a sane proportion of it. And it’s not a bed of roses, what with Ticketmaster’s egregious monopoly and the way a high proportion of tickets mysteriously migrate to extra-cost resellers. By the way, my own province is trying to do something about it with the just-arrived BC Ticket Sales Act. Good on ’em!
I’ve been watching the concert announcements like a hawk and have purchased tickets to upcoming Vancouver shows by Cousin Harley, Tinariwen, the Cowboy Junkies, July Talk, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Sons of Kemet.
You know what? Some of these are many months off. I might be out of town. I might be sick. I might be dead. Covid might come back and screw everything up again. So what? My concert-going budget for the last 19 months has been exactly zero, and it’s time to make up for that.
The classical concert scene seems to be having a really tough time getting rebooted. I hear them saying things like “We can’t book anything until we have absolute clarity about allowed audience sizes.” Um, there’s no flexibility even when the alternative is impoverishment? Go learn from the rockers and the jazzbos, they’re getting back on the damn road, figure it out.
Enough ranting about the industry. By way of thanks for listening, let me introduce you to a song.
Farewell Transmission · I was driving somewhere and suddenly there was a pair of voices flowing like water, a nice sinuous mellow male and then this woman wielding her voice like a razor. They sang alternately and together, in a graceful descending line:
The real truth about it is no one gets it right
The real truth about it is we’re all supposed to try
There ain’t no end to the sands I’ve been trying to cross
The real truth about it is my kind of life’s no better off
If I’ve got the maps or if I'm lost
This song is Farewell Transmission, written by Jason Molina, whom I’d never heard of. He created a lot of good music and drank himself to death in 2013, aged 40. Damn, rock & roll eats so many of its children. The performance is by Kevin Morby and Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield; the two are currently sweethearts.
There’s a YouTube video but they both look nervous, out of sorts — here’s the YTMusic link or just dial it up on whatever other streamer.
And when streaming technology turns you on to an artist you hadn’t known about, go look up their tour schedule and pull out your credit card if they’re coming anywhere near. Because streaming isn’t anywhere near the least you could do.
Comment feed for ongoing:
From: John Cowan (Jul 21 2021, at 08:42)
Y'know, there's no reason why you have to book only shows in Vancouver if you want to get money into the hands of artists you like. You can book them for a concert in Caracas, even if there is no chance you are going there. They'll take your money, and the fat person in the seat next to you will bless you double-blind for not showing up.
The reason the system of payment is so opaque is that it benefits Big Music for it to be so; it's probably even written into artists' contracts not to reveal it. The social stricture against saying publicly how much money you make similarly plays into the hands of employers, who can get away with paying Alice 1/3 as much as Bob with little chance of being caught at it.
From: Mike Hayes (Jul 21 2021, at 08:55)
I took great comfort from listening to the St. Cloud album from Waxahatchee during the lockdown(s).
Also during lockdown I started buying albums during Bandcamp Fridays, where all the revenue goes to the artist. It's not a perfect solution but at least it's something. You get your choice of download formats (including lossless) or you can listen through Bandcamp itself.
From: Doug K (Jul 21 2021, at 10:10)
the other thing that might help, is Bandcamp.
So when I hear something I like on Spotify or YT or wherever, first check is Bandcamp, where I buy whatever the artist has on offer. I have CDs I've never played..
The vinyl from Bandcamp does get played, though, along with the streamed music ;)
From: Ade (Jul 21 2021, at 14:48)
I like YT Music as far as it goes but it appears to be another service that Google launches and then allows to atrophy, until it gets shut down or replaced with a rebranded version of further reduced functionality. There are a lot of feature gaps, none of which ever seem to be addressed. The integration of your uploaded music with the rest of your library is poor. And of course, because it's a proprietary service using DRM, nobody else can release an improved app. It could be a decent Spotify competitor but Google appear to have given up on that before they've even tried; now it feels like it's only there to fill an obligation in their portfolio.
From: Alex Hayes (Jul 21 2021, at 15:22)
Re: Bandcamp, they still take a cut, it's way better than what streaming takes of course but still...
Bandcamp take 10% and then PayPal take a cut somewhere around 2.9% to 4.5% (from memory)
As an example for merch, let's say you but a t-shirt, in Australia commonly that's $30 (not including $10 shipping).
$16-22 goes to the company making the t-shirt.
$3 goes to Bandcamp.
$1.50 goes to PayPal.
Depending on how many you sell;
$1-$2 setup fee with supplier
$1-$2 goes to the designer
So the band walks away with maybe a few dollars from the $40 for their t-shirt.
It's even worse for recorded music if you calculate the cost of working in a studio, artwork and the time it takes to write, rehearse, record etc...
Not to say this is all doom and gloom, it's just that it's a volume game.
Fortunately most artists love what they do and make sacrifices and give us amazing art to enjoy!
From: Rob (Jul 21 2021, at 19:45)
Obligatory Gillian Welch:
Me, I listen to A LOT of internet radio (Radio Garden is tres cool, SomaFM can be pretty tasty). Also there are groovy sites like Alberta's own CKUA and Little Steven's Underground Garage.
From: Andrew Reilly (Jul 22 2021, at 00:00)
I still don't stream. Don't like headphones much, and covid keeps me in a room with a lovely stereo. I have a pretty decent "CD" collection, built up since CDs were a thing. LP records too, but like the CDs, they're all ripped to FLAC.
Bandcamp sell music as FLAC downloads: it's marvellous. Skews mostly indy (electronic, jazz, lots of stuff), so my taste has been skewing with it. I still traipse into one of the few remaining CD shops to buy "big name" releases that don't deign to release on Bandcamp, but less and less often.
Youtube is my discovery source these days. And colleagues and friends. They've shown me some really brilliant new musicians, who I then go and find on Bandcamp or shiny disc. Not too different to the days of radio I suppose. The artists didn't get much from that either.
From: Christof Damian (Jul 22 2021, at 00:29)
I also converted from Google Music to YouTube Music.
I also like both because of the uploaded music. I listen mostly to live Techno DJ sets coming through RSS feeds. Once they are local I drag the whole folder to YTM, which works pretty well.
But YTM removed some features for uploaded music and it doesn't show up as equal to streamed music. This makes it pretty much unusable for me and I started using Rhythmbox locally again.
I will miss some of the recommendations though.
Kevin Morby was also one of my discoveries and the song "In Every Dream Home a Heartache" by Roxy Music, which I somehow missed all my life.
The only reason why I don't cancel YTM is the removal of YouTube ads and because I use the family pack together with my girlfriend.
I considered going completely local, getting CDs again and using some other music hosting service, but nothing feels right.
My weird hobby are cassette decks though and once in a while I buy a new tape, which is super weird and nostalgic.
From: AndyK (Jul 22 2021, at 15:56)
It makes sense that youtube have a music service, even old me has started using them to listen to recent music. But all my old music collection is still on CDs, ripped to iTunes library, and dragged to my old iPhone to fill up the GB.
I always enjoy listening to music recommendations, but I can't say this "Farewell Transmission" did anything for me. Like the anthropomorphic owl on the cover, it just didn't sit right in my ears--too hipster for lack of a nicer definition.
If you want a couple of alt-folk singers who harmonize perfectly with clever AND meaningful lyrics, I'm always recommending Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer. Sadly, Dave is one of those musicians who died too young, not eaten by the music industry, just a weak heart. Tracy is continuing solo, but the 3 albums they did together are full of gems. Here is one of my favorite from their first album:
From: Martin Fowler (Jul 23 2021, at 06:03)
I'll put in another vote for Bandcamp. Like you I've been buying albums for years and I still follow that habit. Bandcamp seems a good way to get quirky music in a way that gives the artists a better cut of the deal. (Some recent picks of mine are at https://martinfowler.com/articles/2020-music.html)
From: foresmac (Jul 23 2021, at 06:07)
Jason Molina was also the frontman to a number of great bands, including Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Company. The latter also included a friend of mine from high school, a brilliant guitarist named Jason Groth. Check out his garage punk band The Coke Dares (which I believe was most of the backing band for Magnolia).