Aimee Mann’s ‘Bachelor No. 2‘.

Right around the time she did the Magnolia soundtrack, I fell hard for Aimee Mann’s solo career. Something about the place I found myself in my life combined with the smart and scathing songwriting she’s so great at just broke my brain in the best way and I was infatuated. Ever since, I’ve studied her successive albums and pored over every note, every chord change, every sardonic and heartfelt lyric. Her music’s changed the way I think about songwriting in a way that few other influences can claim.

Bachelor No. 2 (Or, the Last Remains of the Dodo) is quite possibly the canonical collection of songs that exemplifies the best parts of her craft. There are a ton of songs among the albums that followed that absolutely crush me, but the set that appears on Bachelor is so perfectly organized that it defies understanding. From start to finish, it swings poppy hooks tempered with the gravity of lyrics that paint pictures from the cheeky to the utterly melancholy. The vocal tracks are layered in such exquisite ways and the songs move along at a perfect pace, carrying you to the end of the album without even realizing how you got there.

She’s an incredible artist, and continues to release fantastic work. But Bachelor is the album I return to time and time again to wallow in a perfect sadness, surrounded by brilliant song structure and melodies. I was listening to it again today for the millionth time and wanted to put some thoughts down on it. If you appreciate great songwriting, it’s worth your time.

Apple Music and ownership.

There’s been a ton of discussion about the technical differences between iCloud Music Library and iTunes Match, since Apple is keeping both products around (at least for the time being). The core issue seems to lie with the way tracks are delivered back to you from the cloud depending on how and when you uploaded them.

iTunes Match (iTM) provides a storage locker and retrieval service that delivered DRM-free tracks back to you on demand. iCloud Music Library (iCML), as part of Apple Music, based on its pricing structure, appears to be delivering DRM-wrapped tracks when requested for offline access. This is an obvious move on Apple’s part, as it doesn’t make sense for you to download and keep DRM-free versions of tracks you didn’t actually buy for all time, the way it allowed you to “upgrade” your low-quality rips with iTunes Match. However, if you go all in on iCML and upload your entire catalog, dropping iTM, if you don’t keep local copies of those tracks, when you go to re-download them, you will receive DRM-wrapped versions. Which… will cease to work (as I understand it) should you cancel your Apple Music subscription.

Kind of a crappy solution. But crappier is the fact that it’s not exactly clear how and when this happens unless you really think about it. Keeping a local copy seems to be a safe play, though, and this whole thing only seems to become problematic if you have no local copy to fall back to.

What I’ve chosen to do (and I assume this will be ok for me) is:

  • Keep my local full library copy (already uploaded to Match and stored in iCloud) at home, on a NAS, attached to a Mac mini, and backed up in a bunch of places. This library will no longer be synced/uploaded with any Apple cloud service.
  • I have a full library copy in iCloud now, which I assume will remain as long as I continue the Apple Music subscription (which I plan to). I’m assuming this because I’ve completely disconnected that Mac mini and signed out of iCloud, and all my music is still showing up through Apple Music, having enabled Music Library.
  • I plan to cancel Match this September, which will remove my ability to re-download DRM-free versions of my music, but it’s a non-issue since I have multiple safe, offline copies anyway.
  • If I buy new music (unlikely since I don’t buy much to begin with anymore, and with AM, I can listen to whatever I want) it will automatically be available in iCloud.
  • I will then download the purchased music through iTunes on that “safe” Mac mini and store it in that offline local library.

This way, as long as I maintain my Apple Music subscription, I have a full library copy in iCloud along with everything else. If I cancel, I have the ability to re-upload a known good copy from my archive, at any time, to any service. Hell, I could even run a server again at home if I feel like it, which I did for years.

This stuff is crazy confusing, and it’s unsurprising Apple isn’t making a fuss about it. They’d probably love for it not to be so labyrinthine, but music licensing is nothing if not arcane. The safe play seems to be pretty simple: don’t delete your local library if you can help it. Stick a good copy on a hard drive somewhere and forget about it if you have to. But hang onto it in at least one good way, just in case, and have fun with the new goods.

Like anything else relating to computers, backing up your stuff always pays off.

Things I like this week, volume 4.

OmniFocus for iOS
I’ve been using OmniFocus on and off for years. It’s such an amazingly powerful platform for task management, but it comes with a learning curve. But once you get it, it’s seriously transformative in how you think about your time.

The Omni Group has been going through a process of making all its apps universal and OF got the treatment last week, bringing feature parity to iPhone and iPad. This new version of the app is absolutely fantastic. It adds some new customization abilities, and if you go Pro, you can do some seriously advanced stuff from anywhere now, including your phone.

The company has also been terrific and transparent about assisting with upgrades, free Pro unlocks for previous users, and rebates for folks who’ve already purchased parts of the suite. The people at Omni truly care about their users, and it shows in every interaction, and shines through in the choices they make for their software.

OmniFocus for iOS / OmniFocus for Mac (MAS) / OmniFocus for Mac (Omni Store)

Death Cab for Cutie – Kintsugi
I’ve written about how much DCFC’s Plans means to me. I love many of their other recordings, but some didn’t quite land with me in the same way. Could be a product of timing, mood, or almost anything else, but I don’t love everything the way I love Plans.

Kintsugi has some potential. I’ve listened to it a few times since picking it up last week, and I keep coming back to it. I’m still in the phase where I’m listening for patterns and things I like in the music more than the lyrics, but it’s good. Really good.

Plans / Kintsugi on iTunes

Things I like this week, volume 3.

Here’s a few things I’m enjoying this week.

Carousel by Dropbox
When Carousel launched, I’ll admit I was underwhelmed. I have a lot of pictures stored in Dropbox, and they’re all neatly organized into folders (big surprise there, I’m sure). Initially, Carousel’s performance seemed lacking with massive libraries, and the app would pick up images from throughout your Dropbox, with no way to specify which folders to use. The option to proactively pick a “photos” directory is still missing, but the app did get the ability to hide entire folders from the web. Previously, it was possible to hide individual images from the iOS app, but now if you visit on the web, you can right-click to select an entire folder to disappear as well. There’s also a “flashback” feature which we’ve seen with other photo services before, but which is a nice addition since I used it last. This stuff, plus some nice speed enhancements, which make it very usable with my large library, have given me a reason to throw it a second look.

Amazon Music with Prime Music
Another app that’s improved over time is Amazon’s music offering. While the title evokes a Microsoftian naming convention, the app’s UI has gotten a little better over the past few months, and the Prime streaming service, while nowhere near as comprehensive as Spotify, Rdio, et. al., has improved a bit as well. It still lacks the super deep catalog of those other services, but I have been pleasantly surprised at what I did find as I browsed. The curated playlists and recommendations are pretty good (for me at least), and it’s gotten more fun to use, with some swipe controls to move through the different sections of the app. If you’re a Prime member, it’s worth taking another look. If you have little kids, there’s a ton of great music on there that you can stream and add to your library for free.

The freedom of a captured moment.

I’ve been a musician since I was in fourth grade and was handed a violin. It’s always been a part of who I am and how I think about myself. I taught myself to play guitar, bass, and later drums because I was curious and had the time and willingness to learn. During my college years and the years immediately afterward, I spent a great deal of time writing, recording, and performing music. For a lot of reasons (avoidable post-adolescent turmoil chief among them, I’m sure), it was a primary focus in my life. 

As I’ve grown older and taken on more responsibilities, a home, a family, and a demanding career, I find less time to play than I used to. I enjoy it just as much, and try to keep my chops up, but the fact of the matter is that I simply don’t have the time to sit for a few hours and work through ideas in the same way I did when I was 25. I’m ok with this, mind you–I love my family and everything that’s changed in my life for the better–but time is still working against me.

I often find myself feeling really guilty about this. I tell myself that my spare time should be spent working those muscles out, staying in shape. But maybe I just want to read. Or play a video game for a few minutes. Or just stare off into space and breathe, whatever. I feel like I should be playing music more. But when I try to unpack that, I guess it means going into my studio, working on songs, recording them, mixing, polishing, and having an end-product. That’s what I feel guilty about–that it should all be leading somewhere.

What I’ve finally realized is that this comes down to nothing more than a miscommunication from my 25-year old brain to my current one. Back then, I had time to play for pleasure, but I had lots of time to work, too. I could spend four hours in front of Pro Tools because I had four hours to spend. Now, I sit down to play, find a few chords that I like together, capture them in whatever tool I’m using on my iPhone at the time, and probably never return to them. They’re saved, but presumably only to be revisited in a cursory way at best, and for a moment, like lazily flipping through snapshots.

Here’s the big epiphany for me, though: this is totally ok. I’m sketching in a notebook, little doodles here and there, sitting for a minute and drawing something in my field of vision. I’m not painting the Sistine Chapel, or drafting the Constitution. I’m sketching. Not consciously setting out to make a thing, just… sketches. Polaroids, not elaborately framed and time-lapsed landscapes. 

I keep notes, folders, files of all these little ideas. I listen to them from time to time. I like them all in some way. They needn’t grow into anything more, just the way your idle circles traced on the back of an envelope while you’re waiting on the phone don’t need to grow into a full art installation. It’s a moment, depicted in aural brush strokes, captured and stored. The weight of the activity is gone, only the pleasure of creating remains. I can’t believe it took me so long to see it. And I can’t wait to enjoy those fleeting moments with my guitar a little more now, without a second thought.

Death Cab for Cutie’s ‘Plans’.

In 2005, Death Cab for Cutie released Plans to mixed reviews. The follow-up to 2003's Transatlanticism, it provided an interesting counterbalance to the previous release. At the time, all I knew of the band was that they were on the OC soundtrack or something, and that was enough for me not to be interested. I was more of a dumbass then, admittedly.

Which means when both of these albums were released, the band wasn't even on my radar. I came to discover Plans in the early part of 2007, at the end of a particularly tumultuous winter for me. I think I started listening to it in March or early April, and my attitude was something along the lines of “let's see what all the fuss is about”. Needless to say, it immediately made an impression–I wasn't sure if I liked it–but I was pretty sure I needed to listen again, and so I did, immediately after finishing the first run-through. Then I started listening to the lyrics, and seeing scenes come together in my head. I think by the third or fourth listen, things were coalescing and I had made up my mind that I liked the album.

In the intervening years, it retained a place as one of my very favorite (and in my opinion one of the most well-rounded and balanced) albums in my collection. Each song is a tiny story, and although that sounds incredibly asinine (duh, all songs are tiny stories) there is a thread of longing, melancholy, and loss throughout them all–even the upbeat ones. It's partly a combination of the time in which the album entered my life and partly the achievement of the band in putting a handful of terrific songs together that hang so well next to one another, but it really does change my emotional state on every listen. And while I realize the inherent bias I may have toward its quality, I do believe as a musician that it's worth looking at, because it's increasingly rare to find a collection of tracks that work together the way these songs do.

If you've never heard it, I would highly recommend a listen. Maybe a few. Give it a little time to take root. I could go on about the individual songs and why they're great, but I don't want to drift into music critic douchenalysis. Conversely, it's the kind of album that makes me want to go make more music, and that's what I need more of in my life.

How to Takk… about Sigur Rós albums.

We really like Sigur Rós at the office. However, like you, we have found it’s really hard to speak about the albums because of their… interesting names. So we came up with a system to refer to them, and you’re welcome to use it. It is as follows.

Will now be known as “Ghost Baby”.

Will now be known as “Tree Trellis” or just “Trellis” for short.

Will now be known as “Buttcheeks”.

Will now be known as “Angel Embryo”.

Will now be known as “Parentheses”.

Will now be known as “Instagram Ocean”.

Will now be known as “Planets 1 and 2″.

Will now be known as “Scary Mask” or “General Grievous”.

Feel free to share this guide with your friends who also struggle with Icelandic pronunciation while enjoying the dreamlike soundscapes this great band provides us.

Epiphanies.

After a delicious Korean dinner with my sister and brother-in-law tonight, I had two thoughts occur to me on the way home, courtesy of my ~18-mo nephew playing with the iPod in the car.

  1. Listening to Kelly Clarkson’s music, and most pop songs in the same vein, is roughly equivalent to the act of an adult eating Pixy Stix. You know it’s a terrible idea, but something is compelling you to do it anyway. Upon starting to eat the overly-sugary treat, you start regetting the decision, and ultimately end up killing the idea 2/3 of the way through, having become comepletely disgusted with yourself. Later, you become angry with yourself for even considering it and do something diametrically opposed to the earlier mistake (either eating healthy food or listening to Nine Inch Nails).

  2. The music of Jason Mraz is the result of the unholy union of Steely Dan and Jamiroquai having sex in the backseat of a Chevy Nova. Mraz has some chops, and some similar studio tricks to Steely Dan, such as the liberal use of overdubs on his vocal tracks, but a peppiness and slightly annoying tinge, as Jamiroquai is pretty ok, but can also get on your nerves after a while. The Chevy Nova comes into play because I feel like it’s the kind of car in which those two entities might fornicate. Also, it seemed funny at the time.

I keep sinking further in.

(Reposted from sethclifford.tumblr.com [Sat. Mar. 14, 2009] for continuity)

Last summer, I was at a point where I was content to use Facebook for just about all social communication and online silliness. Then I discovered Last.fm. Then there was Twitter. Then the connection between the Flickr, the Facebook, the Twitter, the Last.fm, the Hulu… and so on. Tonight I joined Blip.fm, because I listened to Leo Laporte and Sarah Lane on this week’s net@night while I was in the shower and they got all excited about it. And I was definitely not doing it. Until I signed up and started doing it.

I see myself as having two choices: I can stop now, and say enough is enough, and possibly miss the next cool thing to come along, or I can just say fuck it, and go full-bore, exploring every new tech toy that comes along, the way all the tech journos do. Of course, it’s not actually my job, so there is that inherent downside. But hey, why fight the inevitable, right?

It bothers me on some level, that I find myself so hopelessly enamored with all these new services, but then again, they’re freaking cool. And I like cool things. And I like people who think of cool things for me to do. So I figure it’s a natural evolution. I just need to find a way to manage them all seamlessly… Now THAT’S a cool thing someone needs to think of… A website solely for managing other websites. Brilliant!

The death of entertainment, at the hands of its purveyors.

As I sit here, patiently waiting for the FiOS installation to be complete at my fiancée’s apartment, I can’t help but think about the massive effect it’s going to have on our entertainment consumption. But more specifically, I’m thinking about how my entertainment consumption has changed over the past few years, due in no small part to the senseless and otherwise counterintuitive anti-consumer actions that companies have taken to prevent people from enjoying their content.

Right now, we are in a transitional state for entertainment. People are spending more time online in social communities and experiencing media from thousands, if not millions of different sources, and the Internet has inspired regular people to create content and share it. More importantly, the companies that give us a large part of the content we enjoy are observing this sea change and want to monetize it, and for good reason. Content can zip around the world online in seconds, and being online opens a dialogue between provider and consumer that simply didn’t exist before. Media companies can now instantly gauge how people react to their products, which is tantamount to their discovery of the Holy Grail. Untold amounts of money get funneled into focus groups and audience analysis for this very reason.

Ironically, although unsurprisingly, these same companies are resistant to this idea of their content being available on the Internet. It took an extremely long time for them to even accept the iTunes model, and it’s been immensely successful for all parties. Music, movies, and television are all readily available through the iTunes store, proving that most people – most – will pay for something if you make it easy enough to access and readily available for them (read: organized, searchable, low barrier to entry).

There is, of course, a subset of the population that will always turn to BitTorrent or other “pirate” methods to obtain media. Entertainment companies want to grind this phenomenon out like a spent cigarette, but they fail to realize that it is this community that does all the innovating, and this community that figured out how to push huge amounts of data around the world with a startlingly easy amount of effort. Many have speculated that the file sharing protocols BitTorrent uses would be of great use to the entertainment industry, if they’d only get behind them, and support them as opposed to fighting natural technological progress tooth and nail, at every turn.

Part of the reason people continue to engage in this behavior is because it is so unimaginably difficult for an everyday person to do what they want to with most of their media. Sure, you can rip CDs into iTunes, but you can’t do that for DVDs. Nope, you can rip them legally, but the act of circumventing the encryption of the disc content is illegal according to the terms of the DMCA. So you’re technically allowed to back up your videos, but only if you know of some kind of binary alchemy that gets the video off without touching the encryption. Impossible. Furthermore, I can’t legally take a movie I purchased on a physical disc, rip it, shrink it, and watch it on my iPhone without breaking the law. I’m supposed to buy another “iPhone ready” copy – of something I already own. This blatant disregard for both honest, paying customers and the shifting needs of consumers at this point in time is insulting, illogical, and ultimately obnoxious. Think about buying a shirt that you were allowed to wear to work, but if you want to wear it to the supermarket, you can’t. You need to buy the same shirt again, slightly different – the “supermarket compatible” version of the garment. It’s fundamentally insane.

The important fact to remember is that the move to ubiquitous, legal Internet content availability is not only inevitable, but it’s already here. Sites like Hulu have made enormous inroads in the Internet world by working directly with content providers, in this case NBC and Fox (and most recently ABC) to bring the content directly to the masses, in a palatable, ad-supported structure. Here’s where things get interesting, however. In a world where ad money flows based on archaic metrics like Nielsen boxes, the Internet becomes a finitely quantifiable entity. When a network sells ad time now, they tell advertisers that they have X million people that they assume are tuning in, based on the extrapolation of data derived from those Nielsen systems. In a time when Google Analytics makes keeping track of your mom’s blog in minute detail not only possible, but relatively simple, this kind of disingenuous statistical manipulation only serves to further weaken a system that is already feeling cracks in its foundation.

The mathematical constant in this equation is greed. Greed fueled by a logic set that is firmly rooted in another time, and only applicable to a culture that is indistinguishable from the one we live in. If I record a show on a DVR, I always jump commercials. No question. If I watch on Hulu, I am forced to sit through a few commercials, but they are fairly unobtrusive, very short, and I don’t even mind them. So why is it that my Internet “eyeballs” are less valuable than the broadcast TV “eyeballs”? Simple – they know exactly how many people are watching – or not watching, as the case may be – online. Broadcast TV, by the very nature of those metrics, does not know, and hence, can continue in an increasingly failing business model, charging money for ads people aren’t watching, and losing viewers in the process, as people move to other distribution methods.

Case in point: if I can see the last five episodes of 24 on Hulu, and have never seen another single episode, yet want to get involved in the series, and perhaps ultimately begin watching the regular broadcast because I fall in love with it, why can’t I see all the back episodes on Hulu? Wouldn’t Fox rather I sit through six or seven year’s worth of episodes and embedded ads (which I  happily would, by the way) than not? I’m not buying the DVDs, nor am I purchasing all the seasons on iTunes. I could rent them from Netflix, a company that is successfully (albeit slowly) bridging the gap between old and new distribution channels with their movie streaming model, but I’m not doing that either, because I’m done dealing with physical media, if I can help it. What I want is to be able to turn on my computer, go to Hulu, and see my episode. Period. No complications, no jumping through hoops, no waiting. I get what I want, instantly, and they get my attention, compliantly watching advertisements I would otherwise ignore, avoid, or not see at all. Instead, I see this, at the top of the Hulu 24 page:

We can offer five current episodes on a rolling basis.

We are currently cycling through Season 1, posting 5 episodes to start, adding one every Tuesday and taking down the oldest as we do so.

It just doesn’t make sense. So unless I happen to sync my life with the schedule Fox is allowing Hulu to use, I can’t see what I want, when I want it. It’s like missing broadcast episodes all over again. It’s absolutely ludicrous!

The world is changing, and peoples’ needs are changing with it. If you force people to stick to something they don’t want anymore, and don’t offer a better alternative, you face two choices: either they abandon you and go somewhere else entirely, or they continue to get your content through the method they prefer, which is sometimes illegal, but easier. Entertainment companies need to embrace these new distribution channels and listen to the voices that actually are consuming the content, not their internal, sycophantic analysts. As for me, I’ll be catching last night’s Dollhouse season finale on Hulu later, just as soon as the FiOS guy gives me the thumbs-up.