And why not a glamour shot, as such?
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere (and probably bored a lot of people to death about), going to the EMP Pop Conference each year is a treat in and of itself — meeting up with old friends, making new ones, getting to see my good friend Mackro and more besides. But I admit that I really, really wanted to present at one of them as well — and I’ve tried, several times! So getting the nod this year was both a thrill and a bit of wish fulfillment. (And I should say again, of course, much thanks to the committee for accepting my pitch!)
I also admit I hoped I would have a good crowd at my panel — why not a full audience, after all? And I say this having covered panels and presentations where the audience members can be counted on two hands — that happened with more than a few presentations I saw this year, while I missed others with that amount that sounded amazing. So on that front we lucked out — looked like every seat was full, plus other folks standing or sitting around the edges of the Learning Labs. I’m under no illusions why our panel’s audience was so packed — our anchor presenters, Douglas Wolk and Tim Quirk, are longtime veterans of the Conference, each having presented some of the most well-received entries in past years — and Nick Minichino and I both felt like the party crashers, especially when Conference cofounder Eric Weisbard ended up moderating the panel after Tim Lawrence was unfortunately stuck in London given the volcano ash problems affecting Europe. But we did our best!
I feel in reviewing the video that my nerves do show — I think I rushed the delivery a bit, and more than once use the podium less as a place to rest my hands and more to give me something to grip on to. That said what could have been the most nervous moment — Douglas’s revelation that the story I was citing him about turned out to be one he made up, as he hilariously stage-whispered — was actually one of the most hilarious and memorable, and I loved it. You can’t plan stuff like that! I also enjoyed the question and answer session later in the panel — a few questions were directed to me specifically and allowed me to touch on some things I couldn’t have included in the presentation as it stood. (Tim also offered a good thought on Gracenote in response to my mention of it before beginning his own presentation, which I should have written down somewhere!)
I kindly received many specific compliments after the panel concluded, both in person and via other comments elsewhere, and I do thank everyone for them. But the best compliments were that the panel as a whole was strong, and I had to agree — I think there were a lot of interrelated issues much on everyone’s mind. Chris Estey’s blog coverage for KEXP on the day (scroll ahead to the TMI panel coverage), while focusing on Douglas’s and Tim’s presentations for the first two paragraphs, explores a bit of that tension in the third paragraph; there are other angles that could be mentioned. Chuck Eddy in his question brought up the issue — in response to my own rather suspicious (or to use Chuck’s word, cynical) take on the Eichler piece in my presentation — that there is something potentially lost if access is indeed too easy and too immediate, that music really simply might not mean as much. I’ve heard variations of this thought from other writers and musicians I know and respect, and while I disagree with it, it’s something worth engaging with more.
Which is good because my piece is meant to open up conversations and suggest ideas. It was an interesting exercise all in all, and I’d like to think of it as an ‘of its time’ piece, something that may well be severely outdated sooner than I think — then again, perhaps not. I don’t claim any deep revelations, but hopefully there is something here of interest for the general reader as well as those whose interests cover music, information science or the two in concert.
I should also say that many people offered up thoughts and ideas that ended up in the paper, among others, I have to thank jaymc and dad a on ILM and Maura J. in particular, while various fellow UCI library employees (most of whom were actual librarians!) as well as Prof. Stephen Franklin from the campus’s ICS department heard me present an earlier version of the paper; their critiques and suggestions were invaluable. Finally, of course, I wouldn’t have a video record of the presentation were it not for the kindness of the inestimable Jacki M.
The text follows the video clips; as per YouTube’s usual practice, the presentation was split to allow each clip to go under the ten minute limit. All feedback happily welcomed, and thanks for checking it out! Final overall EMP 2010 thoughts to be posted tomorrow.
In a discussion on the Internet site I Love Music, or ILM for short, one participant recently asked his fellow board members for assistance with an Erykah Badu song title:
“so what is jump up in the air actually called:
“jump up in the air and stay there”
“jump up in the air (and stay there)”
“jump up in the air (stay there)””
He followed up that request with a further comment:
“it’s when i ask questions like those that i reflect on how last.fm has ruined my life”
His request and comment is a perfect summary of the kind of position that we, collectively if conditionally, now find ourselves in. We are a group shaped by access to technology and the time and interest spent on those things we consider most dear. We possess the knowledge – conscious or implied – that we are no longer simply listeners of music, or even consumers of it in a previously understood sense. Using technological resources only recently developed, we are collators of information, we are identifiers of sound, we are resources of reference.
“…as much as I’ve become used to clicking through my library over the past few months, this transformation of music into something post-physical freaks me out. There was value in music having a physical presence—even those records that you’d only pull out for very specific reasons reminded you of their existence during a routine house-cleaning. Now it’s easy for songs to get lost in the shuffle. The labeling can be faulty; the artist’s name could be in a weird nether-region of the library that you never scroll through.”
As did the ILM user, Johnston touches on the issue of correct naming, to which I will return. Yet even more telling is her use of a common word twice within the course of the paragraph, a word that appears at the top of the lefthand column in every standard iTunes window. She speaks of her collection not as a collection, but as her library. And as she has her library, she has her self-chosen role as the curator of that collection – as the librarian.
We are all librarians now. It does not matter if we have a formal degree, we nonetheless are librarians, electronic librarians, or to use a more current term for the field, we are all information scientists in an online world. As noted, this state is conditional – it is based on everything from access to cheap energy and technology to the availability of information infrastructure to the economics of personal time, it seems permanent without actually being permanent. Yet here we are, in a world where those born at the start of this millennium will never have not known Google, iTunes, YouTube, Twitter. The names of these companies and products are not as important as the assumptions and the tools they provide, everything they encompass, the new baselines of experiences that have been created.
It is hardly something new that we are librarians or experts on collections in general – the physical objects generated which captured performances, from the original wax cylinders forward, were over time seen less as novelty, more as something that could possess a longer-term value. If you wanted to know what it was that you had heard and wanted to return to it, you had to organize and be able to search for it. But it is important to note that the original time of this historical moment itself saw the codification of the home book library as a key status symbol – something that a middle-class household had to possess. It is one of the greatest legacies of the European Victorian age, and remains a powerful one to this day – think of the lingering appeal via advertisements that some in my age group or older may remember about needing to have a good set of encyclopedias at home, reference books, great novels.
The development of recorded audio provided a new extension of the impulse. Using America alone as an example, within a few decades the idea of the quality record collection was commonplace, with labels and marketers attending to new canons, from the classical tradition to jazz to Broadway musicals and from there into the archives of rock, soul, funk, metal, dub, hip-hop, the list continues. The record shelves of my youth, filled with vinyl by my parents, was no less important a possession – a presumed necessity – than the books on the walls. By the time I started my own collection of CDs, I was working within a well understood approach – and the groundwork was already being created for the upending of it all via the Internet and modern computing.
For myself, I’ve found riding this wave to be absolutely fascinating, worth the trip, but this is far from a universal feeling. Johnston’s piece is one example of this ambivalence. In a piece last December in the Boston Globe, “Untouchable,” Jeremy Eichler vented more directly. At one point his complaint was familiar – and incomplete:
“For a real collector, the hunt to find an object can at once take on the dimensions of sport, art, and life’s quest. Even a casual music lover can appreciate the feeling of working hard to track down a particular recording, thumbing through the bins, or scouring the holdings of used-music stores.
“Today’s increasingly preferred mode of acquiring music – downloading – is a surreally effortless activity. A few clicks of the mouse, and, as if some cosmic spigot has been opened, the music pours onto your hard drive. If you are converting a large CD collection, there are services that will do the entire thing for you. It has become, in some senses, too easy.”
The language in this would require endless unpacking to be studied in thorough detail – starting with the third word, ‘real.’ But I instead call your attention to what is absent in this passage, and what has often been absent in similarly phrased stories over these last few years – the step before the search. What do his idealized real collector and his presumably deeply unreal computer user need before their searches? They need to know what they are looking for. How do they know what they are looking for? What information do they have to hand? How do they use that information? Is that information easily gathered? And is it accurate – and will it lead them to what they want to find, or hope they might find?
These are the questions that dominate the work of librarians, of information scientists. For some decades in this computer era a cliché has been, per Canadian writer Bruce Sterling’s endlessly referred-to (and nearly always redacted) phrase “Information wants to be free.” A more aspirational reworking would surely be “Information wants to be found.” We are here to talk about information that presumably wants to be found, the musical creation that its creators want people to hear. Per Dr. Seuss, if the Whos that lived on Horton the Elephant’s puffball had to shout “We are here!” as loud as they could to avoid being destroyed, the musicians of the world must shout all the louder – or, if not shout, at least find a way to see that others can find their way back to them. It is the eternal problem that any and all artists, have – to capture the attention. To be found.
In 1998 in the online journal Hermenaut, Chris Fujiwara’s essay “Disintermediated!” addressed what has proved to be a series of relevant issues for the current state of research in general, though his focus was literary rather than musical. To quote a concern that has essentially come true:
“Claims have been made that the Internet, with its potential to link together unlimited stocks of digitally represented knowledge, will disintermediate the library and the university, both subject to the fatal disadvantages of spatial location and world-time.”
What do people use to search for music in the present day? Do they use the Library of Congress, or their local libraries? These are options, but clearly not the most popular ones. Instead people can use retailers, sellers like Amazon and Apple, who employ their own staff to work with artists and labels to catalog material – but they are not the only sources. Not in the world of last.fm, of Wikipedia, of YouTube, of Discogs.com, of eternal Google queries. The contributors there may take their cues from those ‘formal’ sources, or be obsessive cataloguers themselves – or they may not be.
On ILM, the same poster whose quote was noted at the start of this presentation said elsewhere that a fellow poster had once observed “our brave new digital future sometimes feels a lot like unpaid data entry work.” It is work approached by each person as they choose to approach it, there is no formal ‘training’ in place, and there will likely never be.
What are the consequences of this? Consider where the potential for error can be introduced in this sequence of events: a song is released to the world, via a livestream, via a radio debut that’s immediately ripped, it does not matter. Is there a date of its uploading? Its recording? Is that provided? Should the artist provide it? Should the label, if the artist is signed? Is it a live version? Is it a demo version? A mixtape version? Are there guest artists? Are they new, do we know who they are? Is it definitely different from a formally released version? Will it ever be formally released?
For all that there are multiplicities at work, there’s also simplicities that can create massive consequences. Consider the story of Gracenote, formerly the Compact Disc Data Base or CDDB. This site has become the de facto 800 pound gorilla of digital music information, designed to collate and present correct mp3 ID tags, an automated process – a CD is read by a computer, it is matched with an entry at Gracenote and the information is sent back to one’s own computer. However, each individual disc must be entered into the system at some point – and often it’s down to whoever gets around to it first, one anonymous listener out of the entire world.
Consider how the potential for error has also appeared over time as first promo CDs and then mp3 promo releases are sent out to the world, quite often without a Gracenote entry or without the ID tags in the mp3s to identify the tracks. This leaves it to the music writer or the radio DJ or someone similar to do the work that arguably should have been done by the person or group releasing the album or song – as perhaps some of us have thought with a sigh, contemplating an unlisted thirty-track various artists compilation.
This question of error is therefore of paramount importance. If he’ll allow my indulgence in pointing it out, my fellow panelist Douglas Wolk has written on an example of this problem before for the July/August 2008 issue of The Believer – having acquired a copy of Huey “Piano” Smith and the Clowns’ Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu, he entered the data into iTunes and submitted it to Gracenote, as the site returned no match with the disc. At the time of writing, he had never found a copy of it since, and the tracklisting he submitted via iTunes has since been borrowed and reproduced many times – each time containing an error he had introduced to that track listing. The ‘real’ tracklisting has now been subsumed completely by the erroneous one.
Closer to home, back around 2000 or so my good friend Mackro and I completed something we had been working towards for years – a collation of the out of print EPs by the UK band Disco Inferno. As it happened, I was the person who submitted a tracklisting for this collation, titled The Five EPs, to Gracenote. In doing so, I made a noteworthy mistake – based on the order in which the song titles appeared, front and back, on the second EP’s CD cover, I assumed that the third song of the compilation was “From the Devil to the Deep Blue Sea” and the fourth was “A Rock to Cling To.” Over time, as copies of my CDR began to circulate widely, questions were raised about this, finally confirmed by Brian when he found a copy of the original vinyl single, but first indicated by the fact that what I thought was the song “From the Devil to the Deep Blue Sea” actually contained the lyric ‘a rock to cling to.’ I had switched the song titles. The error in identification can and still has cropped up over time, and even the just-announced formal release of this collection will likely not stop this error from recurring.
These kind of issues are not simply academic or of limited interest. Consider this section from a recent story in the LA Times about SoundExchange, the nonprofit organization created by Congress in 2001 to deliver royalty payments based on digital streaming online and elsewhere:
“…at any given time, about 25% of the money SoundExchange gets from online music services such as Pandora, XM Radio and Last.fm can’t be distributed because the artists can’t be tracked down, [noted] John Simson, SoundExchange’s executive director.
“The problem stems from what Simson calls “bad data.” Music services have been required by law since 2001 to send royalty payments to SoundExchange for the songs they stream online. But they often provide scant details. Stations routinely get promotional discs in the mail that aren’t properly labeled, so the performers often go uncredited. Other times, music services keep sloppy records of the songs they play. Some tunes, for example, are titled “Unknown” and performed by “Various Artists.”
“”We have this inside joke [said Simson] that if you want to make millions in the music business, just form a record label called Unknown and a band called Various Artists, and before you’ve even recorded a track, you can collect millions of dollars.””
This would only be amusing if there were not consequences – but given the history of the music business when it comes to an uncompensated artist, whose work provides a living for everyone else involved but the performer or songwriter him or herself, often it’s not funny in the slightest.
There are many signs that more is being demanded and expected, as the digital music world reaches a level of, to use a slightly loaded term, maturity. On the level of business alone, as just noted, compelling reasons are clear when it comes to providing correct information. Meanwhile, when web services like Shazam can analyze a song one hears and give you full information about it back, it seems a perfect solution exists – except that such a service, like Gracenote, relies on a database that by definition is never fixed nor universal.
That may well be the eternal stumbling block – the idea that there’s always going to be more information out there to catalog and describe, perhaps too much information at heart. There is always ‘more’ music, new, old, constantly produced, discovered, out in the world, being made for the world. More than one library professional I’ve spoken with has said, with a wry smile, that this current situation is a way for general members of the public to sense just what it is that goes into library work, that sense of commitment – of professionalism – that requires careful attention, accuracy, focus, and a similar realization that the work is never truly done. That it started before they were born – and will continue after they’re gone.
Keeping this in mind, I should say my discussion hasn’t really been about music. Not entirely. It never was. It never could be. It’s about those points I raised at the start – about access, about ability, about what could be found. Music is the reason we are here, it’s why I’m talking to you, it’s our particular realm. But we are not simply creatures responding to notes and nothing else.
So many of the positive dreams and clichés of futurist visions have come true, however haphazardly, however unexpectedly. The instant access to ‘everything’ via a device in your hand. That we have an imperfect world of inequity and injustice rather than a perfect one is just as much of a commonplace, and the real tragedy of time and existence. However much greater the opportunities, life daily reminds us of the losses, the limitations – that there is so much unfairness of things, enough to make you scream in anger at those who refuse to see it.
Then why, out of all the concerns one should be aware of in this world, why a call to be more self-conscious about ourselves as the electronic librarians, the archivists, the markers of ‘art’ as we define it? We all create more knowledge than may ever possibly be used by any one person, and yet it is there now. We provide the help to the person in the first step in the search so they may progress to the second. We provide the tools for the future, the signposts, the way to get to that thing that was written, recorded, whatever, for someone to encounter, to consider, to be inspired by – and not simply musically.
That was always what a library did, what a librarian did. We all now have that role. And there is now so much more we can do, to contribute and to give back, each in our ways.
In doing this, we inspire the future by enabling the present. The rest will follow.