SpiralFrog Developments

spiralfrog.jpgYesterday, the anticipated agreeement between EMI and SpiralFrog was announced. Coming on the heels of UMG’s acquisition of BMG, this gives the not-quite-free download service more critical mass. Tucked into the announcement was a nugget that I consider more important to the evolution of digital music, free or otherwise:

In addition, SpiralFrog has also obtained a worldwide license to enable users of the service to search for and display the lyrics of EMI Music Publishing’s English language repertoire.

When records were king, album covers provided the visceral kick missing from simply listening to the songs. The CD diminished this experience signficantly (particular as baby boomers’ vision waned and microscopic liner notes got harder to read); the download age eliminated it completely.

That’s sad, because the digital music experience has the potential to provide all kinds of rich content, with the cooperation of copyright holders of course. That’s why this announcement is big. Here’s a challenge to EMI (and UMG): why not include the lyrics in the ID3 placeholder, where they rightfully belong? In the media player, offer an option to stream them, news-crawl style, on the screen?

Really, that’s only the beginning. Musical credits open up a whole other realm of possibilities. And don’t get me started about what could happen when WiFi MP3 players become the norm. Ticket pre-sales, track previews, street team swag – the sky’s the limit, guys.

Wake up from your petulant, lawyer-enabled fog and create the future.

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Today’s Free Download – Oneside

oneside.jpgNot a download (RealAudio stream), but one of the most interesting alt-country bands I’ve seen in a long time. Electric banjo – need I say more?  It’s a video of a performance given at the Kennedy Center, almost an hour long.  Check out their MySpace site for studio tracks.

They’re steeped in bluegrass traditions, but they can dish out neck-snapping progressions and time signature changes, and really lay down some blistering grooves.  It’s high voltage Americana that never rips the roots from the soil.

Oneside plays Proctor Academy in Andover, NH September 11, Salt Hill Pub in Lebanon September 16, and the Heritage  in Charlestown October 14.

Local Rhythms – Opera House Happenings

coh.jpgFrom the Thursday, September 7 2006 Claremont Eagle Times:

The coming Claremont Opera House season promises an eclectic mix of music, theatre, comedy and children’s shows. Hal Ketchum leads things off October 1, returning after last year’s well-received show to reprise country favorites like “Small Town Saturday Night” and “Hearts Are Gonna Roll.” Polish American Heritage month gets an offbeat salute when Gary Sredzienski & the Serfs meld Old World traditions to a modern sound October 7.

Then the thespians take over, when the Jane Austen classic “Pride and Prejudice” is presented for two nights, October 13 & 14, by the award-winning (and locally-based) Performer’s Playground ensemble. In November it’s all local talent, as “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” plays six times over two weekends, including a Sunday afternoon show on November 5.

Named along with Stephen King and Andrew Wyeth as one of the most “memorable Mainers of the 20th century,” David Mallett brings his easy folk singing style to the Opera House November 25. It’s a fitting resumption to music – among the many artists who’ve recorded Mallett’s songs is Hal Ketchum.

Familiar family fare dominates in December, with Performer’s Playground’s Peter Pan (a lot of alliteration!) and the New Hampshire School of Ballet’s production of the Nutcracker Suite.

Comedy cures the winter blues, and two shows have me personally quite excited. Bob Marley offers “high energy, offbeat observations” January 7. Robert Dubac performs his one-man show, “The Male Intellect: An Oxymoron?” February 8. I’ve seen it, and Dubac’s stand-up routine, several times. His intelligent, witty humor never gets near the gutter. You owe it to yourself to check it out.

For children, there’s a series of morning shows scheduled, with tickets a modest five dollars. C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe” happens October 11. “School House Rock,” an on-stage re-creation of the hit television show, plays November 15, with “The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” set for December 13.

Three more kid’s shows are set for early next year, along with the family-pleasing Trent Arterberry in March. For 2007, there’s also a modern dance program, old time radio comedy, the gender bending “Female Odd Couple, chamber music with the Portland String Quartet, and “guitar wizard” Joey Leone pays tribute to guitar gods like Hendrix, Page and Clapton in a show in early May.

All in all, it’s a nicely varied season, with tickets mostly in the twenty-dollar range. For the near term, here are some entertainment choices to consider:

Thursday: Pat Green, Pearl Street Ballroom – I know, gas is expensive and Northampton is a long drive – believe me, this show is worth it. Green plays hockey rinks in his home state of Texas, but he hasn’t conquered the nation yet. That’s just a matter of time. Songs like “Don’t Break My Heart Again” and his new single “Feels Just Like It Should” have a Mellencamp vibe mixed in with the twang.

Friday: Sirsy, Salt Hill Pub – A two-person band with a HUGE sound. Singer/percussionist Melanie Krahmer sings like Fiona Apple after the Prozac has worn off, and guitarist Rich Libutti might as well have four arms for all the wonderful noises he produces. Salt Hill continues their reign as the top stop for original talent. My next two picks are bands that are both due into the Pub next weekend. That’s almost an unfair advantage.

Saturday: About Gladys, Seven Barrels – My former guitar teacher Wally Wysk and Wherehouse founder Rich Thomas front a band known for their tasteful readings of the classics. Moby Dick, the Great Gatsby, Wuthering Heights. Wait, I meant “Some Like It Hot,” “All Right Now” and “Play that Funky Music.” The dime-sized dance floor should be cheek to cheek for this night.

Monday: Oneside, Proctor Academy – I live for surprises like this band. Hailing from Boston, this original four piece features the first electric banjo I’ve seen, in a band anyway, since the Dixie Chicks arrived on the scene 10 years ago. Steeped in Americana and alt-country traditions, singer Ned deBary will remind you of Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, but their sound is all their own. If you can’t make it all the way to Andover (NH) for this show, check them at Salt Hill next Saturday.

Tuesday: Tyrone Wells, New England College – How a band this funky (from Southern California, of all places) found their way to Henniker is a question for another day. They’re playing a bunch of free college shows, including another stop at Colby-Sawyer September 21. Wells cites Stevie Wonder and Patty Griffin among his influences, which makes sense – just like those two, his voice soars over whatever arrangement his band plays.

Finally: Good luck to Hexerei, playing at Mark’s Showplace in Bedford tomorrow for a chance to open the Family Values Tour at the Tweeter Center.

Radio Your Way

pandoracrop.jpgFrom the Thursday, September 7 2006 Claremont Ealgle Times:

iPod, YouTube, MySpace – personal possessive adjectives are all over the Internet these days. To find the “new tastemakers,” said the New York Times recently, “music consumers are increasingly turning away from the traditional gatekeepers and looking instead to one another — to fellow fans, even those they’ve never met.”

Online stores like Amazon have long hinted at this approach’s potential; iTunes, Napster and Rhapsody also recommend similar artists to song buyers. Rhapsody has taken it a step further with Artist Radio – click on “James Taylor Radio,” for example, and you’ll hear a steady stream of JT interspersed with Jim Croce, Carole King and maybe something you’ve never heard before.

But the real revolution is in the rapidly evolving world of “community based radio” – not local outlets like WOOL-FM, but virtual stations formed from the shared musical DNA of a world of computer users. Sometimes, the listener is the DJ, sending their actual record collections – or, more accurately, digital versions of them – across the ether.

What follows is a look at three leaders in the field. Each is a free service, requiring only a broadband connection and a PC. Two, Pandora and last.fm, are Mac compatible.

Last.fm

Last.fm calls itself part of a “social music revolution” – and in another nod to the immensely popular website MySpace, signing up automatically creates a personal home page. Users employ keywords, called tags, to build their radio stations. For example, presenting the tags “slacker,” folk rock” and “psychedelic folk” produced an eclectic mix of neo-Celtic paired with Danish post-rockers Foetus. Band names can also be used; the combination of the mainstream “Led Zeppelin,” “Beatles” and “Rolling Stones” delivered U2 and Eric Clapton songs in short order.

The community aspect is fostered through user groups, blog-like “journals” and “friends” with similar interests. Type in the name of your favorite band, and their multi-tabbed home page will pop up. Clicking on the “fans” tab will locate users who also like the band, and drilling down will produce more user details, including their most-listened to songs, group memberships and journal entries.

Users build personal preferences by selecting a “love” or “ban” icon as each streamed song is played. The process, called “audioscrobbling,” refines an ever-maturing musical profile, and matches it to others. All of the music played through the Last.fm player can be purchased with a click, though oddly only in compact disc format – there are no links to iTunes or other digital music stores.

Rating: Ease of use – 3.5, Accuracy – 3, Overall – 3

Mercora

Using a loophole in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, Silicon Valley-based Mercora allows users to hear music collections from all over the world, and webcast their CD collections as well. Every member is a de factor peer-to-peer (P2P) DJ looking to build an audience.

Mercora is Windows-only (a Mac version is in the works), and runs in a browser, but a standalone application is required to build playlists for webcasting. It’s a “network of networks,” each adhering to the copyright laws of different countries, and users must click through a complex legal agreement before they start the program.

Their “user contributed network” is a community in the strictest sense of the word. There’s a link to the top 100 DJs on their hard to manage home page (it’s not auto-generated like last.fm, and the editing options are hidden). Each DJ Icon indicates the member’s online (webcasting) status. Clicking on the DJ icon brings up a home page; Mercora’s DJs typically offer anywhere from 1 to 5 streams.

The top DJs manage their content with care, but they only represent a small fraction of the overall Mercora community. This can cause some odd genre blending, a situation that happens most frequently when using the music search option to find a song or artist. For example, a search for “Rolling Stones” led to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a reasonable choice by any measure. The homepage of DJ hosting the song, however, wasn’t nearly as mainstream, with an odd mix of hardcore rap and soft rock. Because most users simply point to folders on their computer to add music, without providing much context, the results can be jarring.

Rating: Usability – 4, Accuracy – 2, Overall – 3

Pandora

The most fully realized personal radio station to date grew from the lofty-sounding “Music Genome Project,” an effort to identify the building blocks of music. Where last.fm and Mercora mostly rely on the wisdom of crowds for their picks, Pandora is a professorial music theorist that considers terms unfamiliar to most people for its choices. Type in “Eagles” and Pandora will search not for classic Seventies bands, but tracks with “subtle use of vocal harmony, mixed acoustic and electric instrumentation, major key tonality, a dynamic male vocalist and acoustic rhythm guitars.”

You always knew you liked laid-back southern California rock. Pandora tells you why, and suggests following “New Kid In Town” with Fleetwood Mac and Boston. Users rate recommendations with a Tivo-like thumbs up or down. This refines the station’s mood for listeners who like “New Kid in Town,” but consider “Life in the Fast Lane” too hard.

Users can build an unlimited number of stations, and modify them to be more thematically open-minded. For example, a Beatles station could be augmented with Nirvana and Pearl Jam to create a jangle grunge stream.

Pandora is the most helpful in locating new music. Cycling through the Eagles, Dixie Chicks, Byrds and Nickel Creek led to tasteful track from the obscure band the Tennessee Boltsmokers. Most won’t note the “acoustic sonority” of “Hit The Road,” but may eventually buy the record. Pandora users can click to purchase music from both Amazon and the iTunes Music Store.

Pandora also sells a network-based standalone radio, the “Squeezebox,” which can be plugged into a stereo system. It costs around $250, and comes in both wired and wireless models.

Rating: Usability – 5.0, Accuracy 4.5, Overall 4.5