By Matt Birchler
Topic: music
Posts: 31

3 Great Early 2016 Albums

Blue Wave by Operators

Dan Boeckner is one of my favorite individual musicians working today. Wolf Parade, Handsome Furs, and Divine Fits is a pretty damn impressive resume, and his latest project Operators, is every bit as amazing as I hoped it would be.

Holy Ghost by Modern Baseball

I had no idea who these guys were before this album, so this hit me by total surprise. If you're into mid-2000s indie rock (even more so if you loved The Weakerthans then Modern Baseball is going to get into your head.

Painting of a Panic Attack by Frightened Rabbit

I thought I was done with Frightened Rabbit, I really did. I loved 2008's masterful The Midnight Organ Fight as well as their incredible follow up The Winter of Mixed Drinks, but it had been 6 years since then and nothing had really impressed me since then. Painting of a Panic Attack is a wonderful return to for this Scottish group.

Spotify is Worthless If You Own Music

Paul Thurrott1 wrote a piece yesterday about how woefully inadequate Spotify is for people like him who want to bring their personal music collection with them.

Spotify, alas, does not provide this feature. I’m actually quite surprised by this, given how popular it is, and initially assumed I was missing something. But no: Spotify will recognize any music that’s on the device you’re currently using. But if you make a playlist that contains that local music, it will not be available from the web or from other instances of Spotify on your PCs, tablets and phones. (Unless you go through the arduous task of copying the music around, I guess.)

That is unacceptable.

He concludes that Google Play Music is the best fit for him, and that he actually likes Apple Music, although its lack of a web player is a deal breaker.

I'm completely behind Paul on this one. Spotify is pretty nice in many ways, but it critically does not allow me to carry my entire collection around with me, and that's a baseline feature that I personally need to be there. The majority of my music is available on most streaming services, but not everything.

People talk about the iPad being able to do 90% of their work, but they keep the Mac around because of that last 10%. That's how I feel about Spotify. It has 90% of my stuff, but I really miss the 10% that's just not there.

And when you think about how many artists are starting to have music that is exclusive to one streaming platform or another, this gets even more dicy. Drake just released his album exclusively on Apple Music streaming, but if you don't use Apple Music, you can buy it from iTunes and upload it to Google Play Music or even Microsoft Groove. However, if you want to listen to it in Spotify, you're shit out of luck. Even torrenting it won't get you very far because you won't be able to get the tracks into Spotify on your phone.

I understand that I am a bit of a relic and "the kids" don't have MP3s anymore, but somebody's buying all those Taylor Swift songs on iTunes! For now, I'm going to stick with Apple Music because not only do I like its streaming options more than anyone else, the ease at which it lets me listen to my entire collection, no matter the source, is critical.

  1. Who I actually like the majority of the time, even if I have written a few critical pieces in response to some of his other pieces. 

A Simple Way to Make Following on Apple Music Way More Useful

The Rural Alberta Advantage is one of my favorite bands, and I just realized yesterday that I was not following them on Apple Music. I tapped the Follow button because that's what you do for bands you like, but I realized that this was a completely empty gesture.

See, following someone on Apple Music means you see them in the Connect section of the app. You know, that thing no one uses and people like me have set up parental controls so they never have to see it.

What I would like that button to do is sign me up for notifications when that artist has new music become available on Apple Music. It could either be a push notification or an email, but I'd like some way to know that my favorite bands have new music I can listen to. This would be such a valuable service for me, because there are plenty of bands who I like, but don't follow on social media or obsessively read updates about to see what they're up to.

The current implementation of the Follow button is a little weird, because it's a truly meaningless gesture most of the time. Most artists are not on Connect, so following them in Apple Music means nothing changes at all. There are no top charts for popular artists, and no way to see what posts are trending on Connect. Connect also can not send you notifications when something new is posted, so you always have to go to it to see if anything new has happened.

Apple may have wanted Connect to take the music world by storm, but it's pretty clear it's Ping 2.0 and is mostly a ghost town1. By adding the ability to get new music notifications for any artist you follow2 (opt in, of course), Apple would make following artists more consequential and provide a benefit to listeners even if the band they're following doesn't use Connect.

  1. Although Ellie Goulding is constantly posting there and is 80% of my feed. 
  2. This is already a feature of the iTunes Music Store. You've been able to sign up for email notifications from the desktop app for years. 

Modern Classic: Thunder, Lightning, Strike by The Go! Team

The Go! Team made a bit of a splash in the indie music scene in the mid 2000s. They were a part of the mini British invasion of that decade, along with bands like Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party, The Kooks, The Fratellis, and Franz Ferdinand, and their debut album, Thunder, Lighting, Strike is one of my favorite albums of all time.

Panther Dash (preview)

Thunder, Lighting, Strike doesn’t waste any time getting out of the gate, with album opener “Panther Dash” really giving you a good idea of what you’re in for over the next 40-or-so minutes: pure, feel-good energy. I still listen to this album over a decade after its initial release because I just love its insistence that I have a good time. It doesn’t matter how my day is going, or how much I have on my mind, all that melts away when this record comes on and everything seems okay.

The Power is On (preview)

Get it Together (preview)

If you don’t know this album, you have probably heard “The Power is On” which was their biggest hit. It was most notably used in the NFL’s Play60 campaign where, you guessed it, it was used for its infectious energy. The song “Get it Together” was used in an early trailer for the PS3 game LittleBigPlanet, causing more than a few gamers to perk their ears up and ask “what is that awesome song?”

And while I enjoy every song on this album, the one that stands out the most is “Huddle Information,” a song that is so good I struggle to explain my love for it. Just listen:

Huddle Information (full)

Now while I am generally comfortable with the all-streaming world we live in today, this is an album that I’m happy to have in MP3 format. The album was originally released in the UK in 2004, but had to be edited for copyright concerns before its 2005 US release. I have the British version of the album, and the samples are just a little better than the US release. Pitchfork touched on this in their review:

These wondrous abilities are what had me dreading the American reissue of the Go! Team’s excellent debut Thunder, Lightning, Strike. If you haven’t heard the backstory, this lawyer-stuffed country made it difficult for the Go! Team to clear the original album’s samples for domestic release, forcing the band to slightly tweak the material in order to purge the recordings of legal pitfalls.

So yes, the album you can stream right now on Apple Music, Spotify, and everywhere else is the slightly less, but still amazing US version[1], but that’s okay. If you only ever hear the US version, forget I ever said this and you’ll never know the difference.

Thunder, Lightning, Strike is one of the best albums I have ever heard, and after 12 years it is still one of the records I keep coming back to over and over. Set aside all the hype over new albums coming out right now and find room for this in your rotation. I think you’ll be happy you did.

Listen to Thunder, Lightning, Strike on Apple Music, Spotify, or buy it directly from the band.

  1. I don’t know if the UK version of the album is streaming on your music services.  ↩

Not Even Kanye Can Save Tidal

You can't say Kanye doesn't try to help his friends. When his new album, The Life of Pablo was released 2 weeks ago...and you probably torrented it. And who could blame you? After a few fits and stops, the album was only available to stream on Tidal. Besides, you were by no means the only one to do it. While The Life of Pablo failed to even chart due to its Tidal-only release, it was pirated over 500,000 times in it's first 24 hours of release.

It ultimately seemed like a good turn of events for Tidal, as it quickly rose to the top of the App Store charts. So good on Kanye for getting people to download a free and and try a free trial of a music service. The question was whether this momentum would keep up. Would Tidal remain a highly downloaded app, and will people pay for the service when their free trial is over?

So where are we now? Tidal is currently sitting at #54 on the App Store's free list. That's right between Merged! and Fitbit, which isn't that bad. But Tidal doesn't care how many people downloaded their free app, they care about how many people pay for it. Tidal is now at #91 on the top grossing list. This is good, but it pales in comparison to other music services like Spotify(3) and Pandora(6). It even lags behind more niche players like Tunein(52), and Rhapsody(81).

The question you have to ask is this: where is Tidal going to be next week. Do you think something's going to happen that will get more people to download the app? Are more people going to start paying for Tidal when their free trial runs out in the next couple weeks? They've already had Kanye West and Rhianna release massive, exclusive albums on Tidal and neither seems to have had a lasting impact on Tidal's success. Blips sure, but lasting customers...not so much.

Ultimately there is only so much room in the music industry, and Apple and Spotify are sucking up all the air at the moment. Tidal doesn't have a clear pitch to users right now, and their current tactic of getting exclusive releases is clearly not enough.

The Case for Artists Selling, Not Streaming Music

It was announced at the eleventh hour that Adele's new record, 25 will not be available on any streaming service for at least a little while. What this means for people like me and basically everyone under 30 is that it won't magically show up in your music app and be available to listen to. This time you'll have to actually…gulp…buy it. Oh my god! This decision means that the only way to listen to this album is to buy it from iTunes, Google Play Music, Amazon Music, or even, and I hate to even suggest it, go to a store and buy the physical CD.

Now, of course there are people who have voiced their displeasure with this move by Adele. We've been spoiled into thinking that a measly $10/month entitles us to every song ever written, recorded, and released. So now when an artist decides to eschew streaming, we notice.

He’s what Spotify chief content officer thinks about the decision:

From a user standpoint, it’s a pretty hostile proposition. The notion that you would want to withhold records from people who are paying 120 pounds or euros or dollars a year is just really mind-boggling. It’s pretty hostile to punish your best customers and fans.

First, let’s not pretend for a second that streaming music customers are artists’ “best customers.” From a revenue perspective, streaming customers are just above people who pirate music. Why do you think that artists are trying to get you to go to their concerts, buy their CD at Target (with X bonus tracks), buy the digital album on iTunes, or buy directly from them on their website? Artists get a lot more money per listener when they sell directly to you, not when they are included in your streaming bundle package. Adele’s new album is $11 on iTunes, which is a dollar more than your entire Spotify/Apple Music subscription which gets spread out to Spotify and the dozens, if not hundreds of artists you listen to this month.

I also think there is a more touchy-feely reason for keeping your album off streaming music. With streaming music, all music is counted equal. It’s just as easy for me to stream Adele or Taylor Swift as it is for me to listen to anything else. There’s nothing special about one album over another when everything feels like it’s free. When you buy an album though, that strengthens your bond with that particular album. By dropping some cash on this album, it will stand out to you more than the endless tunes you stream day in and day out. You're also more inclined to like it since once again, you spent money on it. It's a bit "old fashioned" to buy a specific record these days, but I think it's still the best way to listen to music.

All this said, you could make the argument "that's fine for Adele" or "that's fine for Taylor Swift," and you'd have a point. It's much harder for a new artist to pull this off. People are more likely to drop $10+ on known quantities and few artists have a following that is loyal and dedicated enough to pull this off.

Whether it makes financial sense for an artist to withhold their music from streaming services is something each artist needs to decide for themselves. I think every artist who can pull it off absolutely should.

Apple Changes Course on Paying Artists During Free Trial

Apple has decided to change course and pay labels for the rights to stream their music during a 90-day free trial. The moves come after Taylor Swift penned an open letter to the hardware giant, writing that she found the company's insistence "disappointing" and "shocking."
- via The Hollywood Reporter

Well that was a quick turnaround. Kudos to Apple for making the right decision and making it so quickly.