Spotification

spotify logoI don’t use Spotify much. To be honest, the main reason is that I’m still stuck to the concept of “owning” music, mostly still on physical CDs, although I do always rip them into compressed format for playing at home, or in the car.

But I also have reservations about how much, or how little, Spotify pays artists. (This is a couple of years old, but it makes a powerful point. If you could live on 150 album sales a month on CD, you’d need 4,053,110 Spotify plays to match that income. [http://www.informationisbeautiful.net/2010/how-much-do-music-artists-earn-online/])

Today, I found another reason. When I started up the Spotify client, I was working on something else concerning open files, and I happened to notice outgoing network connections. A lot: 271 of them. Because the command I used was helpfully doing reverse DNS, I could see the host names. Ones you’d expect, like something.spotify.com and (say) something.disney.com (for the adverts).

The majority, though, were obviously the home PCs of ordinary users; (in the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands, as it happens, although I have no idea if that is representative).

I checked the Spotify website to see what the fuck was going on, and found nothing other than a claim of “clever technology” to avoid buffering. It was the Wikipedia article [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spotify] which gave me the answer: Spotify uses a peer-to-peer system for sharing streamed music around the internet, although the details are not made public of how it works.

As is common, my home network has a firewall which blocks incoming connections, but it allows outgoing ones; and once a connection is established, it can be used in both directions. (After all, that’s how, say, normal web browsing works.) Presumably, the software on my computer is being given a list of addresses to call. That list must be constantly updated and downloaded as people go on and off line.

If you assume that everything is kosher, compared to other streaming services the only downside is the extra network traffic in the “up” direction from your computer to all the other Spotify customers you’re connected to. If you’re on fixed broadband, neither the volume nor cost of that is likely to be significant. If you use mobile internet and pay for your data, it may be more of a concern.

No worries then if you trust Spotify. You have to trust them because the technical details are a secret, and the network traffic is actually encrypted. So cross your fingers and hope that their software is behaving responsibly on your computer, and also hope that their design is robust enough to stop it being hacked. (And, for the latter, almost no software is.)

With my background in internet security, I have a few rough ideas on how I might hijack the hidden Spotify connection between your computer and my computer to plant bad software on your system. Not that I would, of course.

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(I only use Linux, but I haven’t bothered to try the specific Spotify client, which originally only worked with Premium accounts (maybe still the case?). The latest Windows software for Spotify works fine on Linux, with Wine providing the Windows compatibility.)

Packing Heat

When I returned to the public stage as a musician in about 2005, I had to bring some of my old sound equipment, because the other members of the band were new to live rock and didn’t have performance gear. For a venue which didn’t have its own PA, that amounted to my own small PA, with tops and bass bins, mixer, wedge monitors, two EQs and two amps; along with two guitar amps; my bass amp; and all the required stands, microphones and leads. Fortunately, the drummer was responsible for her own kit.

With the back seats of my Honda CR-V lowered, there was adequate room to pack everything, but I developed an optimum packing plan which kept stacking to a minimum. (Meaning less scope for bits tumbling around. You should see how I drive.)

Anyway, being a true nerd, I made sure that I got it right every time by drawing out a plan on paper. I found it the other day, and since I don’t have that car any more, I may as well trash it. Although not before scanning it for posterity.

packing honda

Rock’n’Roll Zombies

We’ve all witnessed the one-hit wonders: bands or artists who make one successful pop single, and then disappear immediately into obscurity. Sometimes, the success is a fluke, driven, say, by a novelty feature; or by being chosen for a television advert, as has happened more than once. But, on the other hand, sometimes the hit can be a hit because it’s a great pop record, and the reason they have no more hits is that they never make such good music ever again.

However, there’s another, similar phenomenon which doesn’t have a name. That’s when a band or artist has a big hit and then does not disappear immediately into obscurity, but goes on to have a successful career at some level without ever making any good music ever again.

Ting TingsThis concept has occurred to me in the past, but I was reminded of it recently by a couple of newspaper articles about the Ting Tings, one a pre-album-launch publicity interview, and one a review of said album.

Strictly speaking, the Ting Tings don’t fit my definition, because they actually had two successful singles, the first of which, “That’s Not My Name”, was Number One in the UK charts. The follow-up, “Shut Up And Let Me Go”, peaked at a respectable number six. It was rapidly downhill after that as far as the singles charts were concerned, although the album containing the first two hits also got to number one.

The two hits were not great pop singles, in my opinion, but they were OK. (Even though SUALMG was very, very similar to “This Is Radio Clash”, except for more inept guitar playing.) The chart hits got the band onto festival bills in the Summer of 2008, some of which were televised, giving me a chance to witness them in action. And it was obvious that they weren’t any good. The odds of them making any more chart hit material seemed remote.

Any record company with the slightest clue about music would have quietly dropped them after 2008, but they’re signed to Columbia, (owned by Sony Corporation), who have funded them for the last four years to make a new album. That brings me back to the newspaper articles I mentioned. The first was clearly a put-up job by Sony, designed to present the Ting Tings as new, subversive and relevant to yoof culture. In fact, what I got out of it was that they are obnoxious, self-obsessed idiots with no detectable musical talent. Admittedly, I thought most of that previously anyway.

And when the album came out, the one review I read gave it a predictable two stars, so I don’t expect it to go platinum or anything. But hey, maybe Columbia will keep paying them for another four years; it’s some kind of a career.

Lack of sales success isn’t in itself a defining attribute of the one-hit zombie band. It’s perfectly possible for an act to follow up a good successful pop single with a string of bad successful pop singles. Let me present Exhibit A: the Spice Girls. I don’t care what anyone says, “Wannabe” was good pop. (I know it gets kind of flabby in the chorus, but it’s back into the main riff quickly enough to get away with it.) Everything else was rubbish, but they still sold records.

I’d contrast the Spice Girls with Girls Aloud, who managed to follow up their first smash success with several other good pop singles, before they too sank in a sea of over-emotional ballads churned out on the production line.

Another one I love to hate was Franz Ferdinand. Again, there was a hit, “Take Me Out” in 2004 — catchy, well-structured, lyrics that appealed — and nothing subsequent came close: all bland, guitar/synth rock. Remarkably, the band is still going, and are working on a fourth album. The world awaits with bated breath.

Well, that’s my suggestion for the terminology: the one-hit zombie, the band that is musically dead but is still walking around. I’m hoping it will catch on; there are a lot of acts it could be applied to.

Festive Fifty

The BBC started broadcasting digital radio, in the DAB format, as early as 1990, although the first official service began in 1995. Early DAB radios were ridiculously expensive, and the poor technical decisions made for the broadcasts meant that sound quality was actually worse than analogue FM. (It still is.)

In 2000, the Psion electronics company released the Wavefinder, a revolutionary computer peripheral which could turn a PC into a DAB radio. In order to cut costs, the Wavefinder had neither audio circuitry nor digital decoding chips: the host PC had to do all of that. The result was a market-leading low price, a mere £299. (Probably equivalent to spending about double today.)

The Wavefinder was a huge flop. Within six months, Dixons had cut the price to £49.99 to try to shift them, and production eventually stopped about 18 months after launch.

Naturally, with my eye for a technological bargain, I bought one of the discounted Wavefinders. I can’t remember if I paid the full fifty quid or waited for further price drops, but anyway, I got one. The device was a flimsy plastic ovoid with a metal aerial protruding from each end. In the central window of it, coloured LEDs would fade up and down in an inscrutable manner.
wavefinder
The PC software that came with it had an idiosyncratic and complicated user interface. It crashed frequently. But fortunately someone came up with alternative software which was more reliable and had more features, such as the ability to set scheduled recordings.

That feature was of interest to me because I could use it to “time shift” John Peel’s programmes. I’d been listening for many years, but the perfidious BBC management kept cutting the broadcast hours and shifting the on-air time ever later. I think it was three week-nights, midnight until two, in the later years; totally unsuitable for someone who needs as much sleep as I do.

I’ve kept a selection of John’s latter programmes “on line” and not archived away — not intentionally, just through insufficient housekeeping — and these include the last “Festive Fifty” that John presented, from December 2003. I’m listening now. You can see a track listing here [http://peel.wikia.com/wiki/2003_Festive_Fifty] (and even, I think, access a torrent via that site. Sshhh.)

Some of the names you’ll probably recognize, and some you probably won’t (unless you’re much hipper than I am). In some sort of cosmic irony, the number one is ‘Don’t Touch That Dial’ by Cinerama, a band fronted by David Gedge, previously (and latterly) of the Wedding Present. Gedge is, in fact, the nation’s foremost archivist and statistician of Peel’s Festive Fifty. A total Festive Fifty nerd, in fact.

I don’t really have a Festive Fifty myself, but, according to last.fm, here are the 50 tracks which I’ve tagged as favourites, in the traditional reverse order of most frequently played:

50    Public Image Ltd. – This Is Not a Love Song
49    Television – Marquee Moon
48    Leatherface – Not Superstitious
47    Uber Glitterati – Tilt
46    Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Y Control
45    The Clash – Tommy Gun
44    The House Of Love – Shine On
43    s’gottabomb – yin yang
42    Colourbox – Breakdown 12″
41    PJ Harvey – Shame
40    PJ Harvey – Dress
39    Gang of Four – At Home He’s A Tourist
38    Fun Lovin’ Criminals – Scooby Snacks
37    The Smiths – This Charming Man
36    LaFaro – Mr. Heskey
35    Republic of Loose – Comeback Girl
34    David Bowie – Suffragette City
33    Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip – Thou Shalt Always Kill
32    Crystal Castles – Air War
31    Cud – Rich And Strange
30    …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – Source Tags & Codes
29    The Clash – Rock The Casbah
28    Killing Joke – Eighties
27    Duchampions – Girl Fight
26    MGMT – Kids
25    Cocteau Twins – From the Flagstones
24    John Martyn – Solid Air
23    Killing Joke – Love Like Blood
22    PJ Harvey – A Perfect Day Elise
21    Uber Glitterati – Armour
20    Tin Pot Operation – Million To One
19    John Martyn – Don’t Want To Know
18    The Ruts – Dope For Guns
17    Tortoise – Djed
16    LaFaro – Tupenny Nudger
15    Bloc Party – Helicopter
14    The Ruts – In A Rut
13    Magazine – A Song from Under the Floorboards
12    Cutaways – Lovers Are Lunatics
11    Leatherface – I Want The Moon
10    And So I Watch You From Afar – A Little Bit of Solidarity Goes a Long Way
9    Jedi Jane – We Collide
8    And So I Watch You From Afar – Set Guitars to Kill
7    Magazine – Shot By Both Sides
6    Cocteau Twins – Musette and Drums
5    Pixies – Monkey Gone To Heaven
4    The Psychedelic Furs – Pretty In Pink
3    The Only Ones – Another Girl, Another Planet
2    The B-52’s – Rock Lobster
1    Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart

Stuck In The MIDI With You

If you have a music keyboard that isn’t one of the most basic, it will probably have MIDI sockets on it. MIDI was invented in the 1980s, and in spite of retaining the limitations of the concepts and technology of the time, it’s still in use today.

The 5-pin connectors look rather oversized now, but that’s good. I like simple, robust designs. They carry a serial communications protocol that runs at 31,250 bits per second. There was a reason for choosing that odd figure, but I forget what it was. Anyway, it’s pretty slow. Nowadays, there are systems to carry MIDI signals over Ethernet or USB, but the old-fashioned direct connection is still the most common.

MIDI connectorsWhen you press a key on your keyboard, it sends a “note on” message out of the MIDI connector, and when you release the key, it sends a “note off”. That’s the core of how MIDI works. If you connect up a second keyboard, with “MIDI out” from the first plugged into “MIDI in” of the second, the second keyboard acts like a slave of the other: when it receives “note on”, it plays that note too. Neat! You can play two keyboards at once.

Actually, that’s not all that useful, is it? OK, you can have two different sounds at the same time, but you can only play them in unison. No, the real fun starts when you connect up a computer. Early PCs supported MIDI through spare connecting pins on their “Game port” for joysticks, so you needed a weird 15-pin adaptor thing, but these days you’re more likely to use a USB or FireWire adaptor: under £20.

Software on the computer (a “sequencer”) can record your playing, and can then send it back to the synth later; maybe after you’ve edited out the bum notes, or fixed up the timing with some quantization. Almost all keyboards will support multiple channels and simultaneously play several independent instruments’ sounds when instructed to by the computer. So you really can play more than one instrument at once, by recording each separately.

Sequencers generally have their own file format for saving MIDI sequences, but all of them will also support Standard MIDI Format, generally files with a “.mid” extension. Back in the early days of the Internet (and even before, on the dial-up bulletin boards) you’d get a lot of MIDI files in circulation, when talented musician/programmers would make versions of popular songs and give them away.

Remember, that’s not like MP3s, where you’re illegally swapping the actual sound of a performer. With MIDI files, you’re swapping data that describes how to play the notes. It’s exactly the equivalent of swapping sheet music. Of course, that’s an illegal copyright violation as well.

The copyright holders, the music publishers, did make some ineffectual efforts to prevent material being swapped, but what really killed the free scene was the invention of polyphonic ringtones. A lot of phones could play the MIDI files right off, or conversion was possible if they couldn’t. Free MIDI files disappeared off the net pretty quickly, to reappear as commercial ringtones. Yes, generally the same ones, stolen without credit or profit to the person who made them.

But the phones never really had sound synthesising hardware of any quality, so although they could produce a recognisable version of a tune, it always sounded as if it was being played on a vintage plastic Casio. Cute, maybe, on the first listen, but very annoying after that, even to the owner. More recent phones have the ability to play proper recorded music, as in MP3 or other formats, and polyphonic has largely gone out of fashion.

But that means that there’s no money in it, so free is back in fashion. You can now find loads of MIDI files on the Internet again. Most computers will already know how to play them through the on-board audio hardware. On Mac or Linux, although it’s quite vintage now, a program called Timidity* may be your default one. Or you can find sequencer software so that you can modify the music before it’s played.

Being free, the quality of the files varies from execrable to mediocre. I’m just listening to a rendering of Rock Lobster, downloaded from the Free MIDI File Database. The drumming is pretty good, and the overall structure of the song is accurate, but the instrument sounds of the bass, guitar and organ are very plastic.

So why should I bother? Why listen to a version of the tune on synthesized instruments, with no vocals, when I have the original on the album? For me, two things: I can make changes, say to transpose the key or change the instrumentation (Rock Lobster on the tuba); and I can play along. With a sequencer, you can eliminate any channel — any instrument — so you can add your own real one to the mix. There’s some software that combines MIDI sequencing with recording live audio, so you could even capture it for posterity.

I’ve just downloaded Pick Up The Pieces from the same site, and although the bass and guitar lines in the song are very simple, it’s going to be fun to try playing them with the rest of the virtual band.
*I once fixed a minor bug in Timidity, so my software could be on your computer

Speed Demon and the Demonettes

The BeatlesChoosing a good name for your band has always been a tricky business. The Beatles, you see, were a beat combo. Get it? If it hadn’t been such an age of innocence, a name like that would have faced utter ridicule. The band was quite good though.

When you pick a name, or make one up, it should be unique. Having the same name as another act is definitely not good for your musical career. If you remember, Spinal Tap started out as The Originals, before finding that there already was a local band of that name. So they became The New Originals.

If the Internet had been invented when The Beatles were formed, they would have been able to check very quickly that nobody had prior claims to the name. Also, importantly, if you search for “The Beatles”, or even just Beatles, you would only find information about the band. It’s a good name in that respect.

Probably the worst band names for Internet access are those which are a single English word. Ash, for example. Search for that and you need to separate out all the stuff about trees, furniture and fires. Faithless, there’s another one. And Garbage, Muse, Placebo, Wire and many more.

The same goes for short phrases which are common turns of speech, or ones that you might find in the dictionary. Just off the top of my head, say I was going to call my new metal band “Evil Intent”. Without even checking, it’s a good guess that somebody will have thought of it earlier. (Now that I’ve mentioned it, I suppose I’d better go and check… Yup. Some illiterate with a stuck caps lock key is using it.)

The other thing you have to remember is that the average Internet user doesn’t know how to search for phrases anyway. Rather than type “Evil Intent” into Google or Bing (with the quotes), they give it the bare words and greatly increase the number of irrelevant hits — pages in which those two words occur, but not together in the right order.

The best Internet-age names have got to be either made-up words, or words that are creatively mis-spelled, but not too difficult for the average (semi-literate) computer user to remember. Evelyn Tent, say. Or Beatles. That would be a good one.

Accented Characters

ListenI don’t talk much, so I can’t be completely sure, and you never know with your own voice anyway, but I think most of my native Northern Irish accent has come back.

I never had a strong accent really, but I don’t know if this was because my working-class parents accidentally sent me to a middle-class primary school (rectified, fortunately, with transfer to secondary school), or whether it’s just the fact that I was born with a good ear for the sounds of language.

It does surprise me somewhat that people who read newspapers (of which even the lowest-quality use moderately correct English) or who obviously understand the likes of Trevor MacDonald or Ian Hislop or the Queen, still speak with the unique sounds and grammar of their own dialect. One common pattern in Ulster English is to swap “seen” for “saw”. “I seen” is common, and even “I have saw” occurs often enough.

I don’t say things like that, well, because it’s wrong. If you’re using the English language to communicate, then sticking to the standard forms is more likely to be successful. On average, at least.

I think I must have absorbed enough non-local English for my accent to be fairly muted even by the time I left school, because I remember in my first year at University in Edinburgh being introduced to a girl at a party. We chatted amiably for quite a while, and then my Scottish friend who’d introduced us came back and said “Ah, I thought you two would get along, since you’re both from Northern Ireland.” And we both went “Oh, are you from Northern Ireland?”

When I started work, I worked with a lot of people of different nationalities, particularly from America and India: both countries with an English that diverges from British English. I even became pretty bilingual in British and American, and sometimes found myself acting as unofficial interpreter in meetings. I wouldn’t say that I was ever fluent myself in Indian English, but I certainly did develop the ability to “tune in” to the different accent and rhythm.

On more than one occasion, an English visitor to our office in Belfast would ask me “How long have you been over here?”, assuming that I was English myself. But I don’t think it was that I had an accent similar to that from any part of England. I think my accent was probably “neutral”, with few Belfast features.

Although I have, from time to time, caught myself unconsciously imitating the person I’m speaking to. My sister-in-law is from South Wales and has the famous sing-song, look-you boyo, there’s lovely voice. I hope she’s never thought I was taking the mickey. Probably not. She’s probably just thought, “Well, now he’s talking proper. Isn’t it.”

Having an ear for accents, I can often pick up the original location. Of course, most locals can recognize differences within their own region — an Edinburger knows an Aberdonian, or a Belfastman a Derry Wan, hai — but I’m quite proud of my ability to distinguish, say, a Canadian from American, or New Zealander from Aussie. I’m not so good at imitating them though. I’ll just stick with what I’ve got. Whatever it is.