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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.