Music, like water

Music, like water
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First Published: Sat, May 05 2007. 12 49 AM IST

Updated: Sat, May 05 2007. 12 49 AM IST
As recently as five years ago, my musical preference could be found in a higgledy-piggledy stack of CDs in the living room. Today, swept along with the MP3 revolution, it can be found in my iTunes collection. And, if I continuously played songs from artistes listed alphabetically from 4 Non Blondes to the Zutons, it would take me 10.4 days. However, at 45, I have less time to discover new music, trapped into listening to the same old familiar songs on my iTunes repertoire. A sad state of affairs since the digital music revolution is truly on its way with millions of songs downloaded from the Web every day—from BitTorrent to MP3 music downloads on Limewire to legal music downloads from iTunes, Yahoo, MSN and Rhapsody to other forms of free music online.
Ponder on this while you chew your sugar-free Wrigleys, celery stick, or whatever. Is the way we consume music going to change in the future? In their book, The Future of Music: Manifesto for the Digital Music Revolution, Dave Kusek and Gerd Leonhard serve up an enticing and provocative vision for the future—that we are moving towards 80% access and 20% ownership of music. Meaning, we want access to music and don’t necessarily want to own it. To take it further, Kusek and Leonard propose by 2015 a huge jukebox of all music… available any time and virtually anywhere as an inexpensive monthly subscription... music flows to ear phones, receivers, everywhere... like water! In their vision of 2015, music streams to you via Wi-Fi wherever you are... your “TasteMate” remembers your favourites and keeps those songs in rotation in your personal playlists... news and entertainment are available as well... and the music companies have a model of business that is fair and profitable.
For decades, broadcasters have been trying to figure out the formula that will generate the perfect series of musical content for its audience. Radio, as we know it, has become formulaic, consultant-driven stations that are less concerned with finding music that will draw listeners in than with eliminating music that might drive listeners out. DJs are hired for their voices and not their choices, severely limiting content and the joy of discovering new music. Music companies have historically dictated how music is distributed and they rarely develop new artistes into long-lasting acts, relying instead on short-term hits promoted in mainstream media. The result is numbing repetition.
But what happens if listeners have access to a much larger library of music on the World Wide Web? What if a website let listeners select their own parameters and preferences, with no commercial interruptions and no DJ schtick? Last week, I started using Pandora ( and Musicovery (, two music streaming websites that my friend, Arun Katiyar, recommended. Ironically, Arun was the station head for Radio City, Star TV’s FM station in Bangalore, a few years ago. The beauty of both these services comes from a common principle: A song listeners enjoy should lead to other songs they’ll enjoy—building a playlist of additional songs based on those musical features. Before reading further, why not log on and set up a little background music?
Simple and elegant, all Pandora requires is for you to type in the name of a band or song. It immediately begins building a playlist or station of similar tunes that the site’s recommender system—aka the Music Genome Project—has determined you’ll enjoy, and the music starts streaming to your Web browser—for free. By rating songs and artistes, you can refine the suggestions, allowing Pandora to create a truly personalized station. You can then refine the playlist by clicking a thumbs-up or thumbs-down button as subsequent songs play. Other buttons call up more information on the song or the artist, or whisk you to Amazon or the iTunes Music Store to buy the CD or file. Pandora chooses what to play next based on the current song’s genetic code—its rhythm, instrumentation and lyrics. Your feedback guides the growth of your station. A veto blocks a song and causes others like it to play less frequently. Give a thumbs up, and Pandora will toss in tunes with similar flavour.
So how does it happen? A team of 50 musician-analysts have been listening to music, one song at a time, studying and collecting literally hundreds of musical details on every song for the past seven years, capturing all of the little details that give each recording its magical sound—melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics... close to 400 attributes! All this musical ‘connective-tissue’ is used to quickly scan Pandora’s box of analysed music, almost a century of popular recordings—new and old, well known and completely obscure—to find songs with interesting musical similarities to your choice.
I had no problems setting up a Jazz, Blues and Alt Rock stations, but when I set up a music playlist featuring Manu Dibango, Fela Kuti, Ali Farka Toure and their ilk, Bjork landed up for the party, too!
This is a visually-entertaining Web radio where listeners select music from a mood-energy matrix or from a genre selection box. I can never get just the right music for my mood in my iTunes library, fiddling endlessly with playlists, playing a song that I feel like, the next one, and the next, and the next. If you’re like me, Musicovery to the rescue. Musicovery has a minimal simple layout, yet is very effective. You specify which genres (or all genres) and your mood (Energetic vs Calm, Dark vs Positive). Or you can select music by how dance-able it is and the tempo. You can also choose the period from which to hear music. I’m having fun listening to Bix Biederdecke while I type this column! Musicovery is great for on-the-fly listening, whereas Pandora requires a little more time and involvement.
I wonder, in the future, will we share, contribute, collaborate and trade music amid a constant flow of new songs that suit our tastes and preferences, without any major constraints or limitations? I wonder, in future, if music will be ubiquitous and served up in easy, friendly formats. Like water, it is simply present just about everywhere, any time.
I want to see this future.
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First Published: Sat, May 05 2007. 12 49 AM IST
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