Friday, 31 October 2008

Spotify - not sure about the name, but liking the service

When you've been too busy to mess around much on the internet, or go through the thousands of items that have built up in your Google Reader feeds, it can be a bit difficult to come up with something to blog about... Happily, though, it seems I must have read about something called Spotify some while ago, applied to beta test it, and completely forgotten all about it, because a few weeks ago an invitation popped up in my inbox - just in time to provide me with a whole load of new music to accompany all of that aforementioned being busy.

Because that's what Spotify is, a new music service. And, I'm happy to say, a pretty damned good one.

Essentially it's legal, ad-supported streaming - download the Spotify player, search for music, create playlists, the usual thing - but remarkably smooth and easy to use. It's quick to load, intuitive, and very rarely, and only ever briefly, glitchy. As for the range of music; you'll be pleasantly surprised what's on there (some quite obscure stuff, plus, unusually for these things, quite a lot of classical), and occasionally surprised at what's not (Four Tet's albums, say), but that always seems to be the way with these things and, hey, it's still in beta - I'm assuming, in other words, that they'll be constantly adding music.

Drawbacks? Well, just a few. A few albums I had on my playlist suddenly became unavailable and haven't yet returned (some licensing problem, maybe?), and perhaps a little more work could be put into a mechanism for discovering new music (next to some artists you'll find suggestions, but not others; however, checking out other artists appearing on the same compilation album can pay dividends), but really there's not much to complain about. In particular, the staggered launch seems to be ensuring that the service stays quick and stable, so hopefully that sensible approach to building the customer base will continue.

But what about the advertising? Well, besides the odd unobtrusive image on the player, the ads primarily arrive in the form of occasional between-track radio style ads, but far shorter and far less frequent than on commercial radio. They'll break the mood, sometimes, if you're listening to a whole album, but you can always pay £0.99 to listen ad-free for the day, or £9.99 for the month - not bad, really, if you're someone who would otherwise buy at least one CD a month. On the other hand, sometimes there isn't an ad for ages...

Whether it's a, of course, I'm not sure, since I still haven't got around to that... but either way, I'd thoroughly recommend it - if nothing else, it's great for trying before you buy.

However, at present, anyone wanting to give it a go will still need to apply to beta test it.

Actually, not quite anyone:

I have one spare invitation. Yours, to the quickest commenter off the mark.

EDIT: I forgot to mention that there is a radio function, which also helps a bit in discovering new music. You can select genres, time periods and combinations thereof and just listen to whatever Spotify throws up; or when you see the 'Artist Radio' option, click it and Spotify will play similar music, mixed with that artist's own. The latter option's nothing like as sophisticated as Pandora, yet, though, or MeeMix; so something more still wouldn't go astray.

Also, the invitation has now been taken, but if I get any more, they might be posted here again...

Thursday, 9 October 2008

The sun's gone dim and the sky's turned black

This week The Times gave away Joy Division's final album Closer*, doubtless lifting the national mood no end - in the present financial climate shouldn't it be looking to keep readers, not give them yet more encouragement to leap from the top of the nearest tall building?

Happily, though, the Guardian Online had a much better idea: posting 12 tracks from Icelandic bands playing at the upcoming Iceland Airwaves Festival. If Iceland can help us mess up our economy, surely they can help us feel a bit better with some soothing (and angry) music, too - right?

And they can. Especially in the form of Ólafur Arnalds' deeply lovely 3055.

But what's any of this got to do with technology, you might ask?

Well, the clue's in the title of the blog post: while pretty reflective of the gloomy state of the world economy just now, it's actually the name of the gorgeous closing track of IBM 1401: A User's Manual. Composed by another Icelander, Jóhann Jóhannsson, IBM 1401 was inspired by his father's recordings of one of Iceland's very first mainframe computers - it's chief maintenance engineer, Jóhann Gunnarsson learned of a way to make music with it, and when the machine was decommissioned in 1971 recorded its melodies as they were played for the last time. You can read the full story behind the album here.

As for the track from which I borrowed the post title, it can't fail to lift your mood (the video perhaps not so much) - shimmeringly beautiful from beginning to end, and from about 04:43 it's even more so:

So, yep, Iceland - it's not so bad really, is it?

UPDATE: If you're interested in seeing all this financial scariness from the perspective of an everyday Icelander just trying to make sense of it all and get on with her life, Alda Kalda's The Iceland Weather Report blog is excellent reading.

*once described to me as "probably the most miserable album ever." At the time, I have to admit, I considered this a recommendation, and it didn't disappoint.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

New news about old news

"Experience the new look ITN Source website," my inbox told me this afternoon. I politely declined and decided to just look at it instead.

Upon entry to the site, an implausibly young Cliff Richard doing his best - i.e. still pretty bloodless - Elvis impression greeted me, but for some reason I still stuck around. I'm not quite sure why. Mainly, I think, because it took me a few seconds to work out "What on earth's wrong with Elvis?", by which time the video window had somewhat incongruously switched to footage of bats. That was followed by a clip of a portly black-and-white person on stilts. There being no sound, I had no idea what any of these were about, but at least I was spared Cliff's singing.

Possibly out of gratitude, then, as well as mild bemusement, I decided to actually find out what the site was all about: selling archive footage, mostly. And the reason for the 'beta' label: this version of the site makes it easier to search for, buy and license footage (in other words, to give ITN money). I expect it also looks nicer now, but having not seen it before I have no idea.

Why, though, am I writing about it?

Well, for those of us not looking to insert classic footage of grassy knolls, broken German walls, or one of a doubtless much in demand compilation of clips of Michael Winner into some creative endeavour, it could at least be quite a handy place to view such things - over one million hours of them (though, sensibly, just a few minutes of Michael Winner), with 20 more hours being added every day. As well as being a kind of NewsTube, then, it could also prove quite a useful research tool.

Just one proviso: a little less browser crashing would be nice - at present the site seems to play videos in a few different formats (QuickTime, Flash, and whichever one it was that kept crashing my browser).