Saturday, 31 October 2009

Happy Halloween!

Or is Halloween supposed to be happy? I'm never too sure. Anyway, whatever it's supposed to be, here are some Halloween-themed links:

Nightmare pop

First up, a Halloween soundtrack: a podcast of Halloween music selected by the already gloriously spooky Fever Ray (registration required, to download). And as a bonus, here's their recent cover of Nick Cave's 'Stranger Than Kindness':

In much the same nightmare pop vein, Esben & The Witch's EP '33' is currently available as a free download from Soundcloud. Wonderfully creepy stuff.

But saving the most unsettling for last, here's a blood-soaked video by the Finnish band Eleanoora Rosenholm (I guess you could describe their music as murder disco; or at least I gather that the album's all about a serial killer, or something like that):

Eleanoora Rosenholm: Maailmanloppu from Sami Sänpäkkilä on Vimeo.

More Eleanoora Rosenholm videos here.

The obligatory pumpkins

If it's Halloween, then it's time once again for Wired magazine's annual gallery of elaborate (and generally quite geeky) pumpkin carvings. Last year's Star Wars efforts here.

Lego fun

Customised zombie mini-figures, Lego horror films, a short remake of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a shot-for-shot Lego recreation of Thriller, and various other Lego horror: all linked to by

Here's the Thriller one:

If you have a surfeit of orange bricks (and time), how about building a 3D Lego pumpkin?

Halloween games

Or if browser-based ghosts and gore sound more like your cup of time wasting, Jay is Games has a round up of Halloween-friendly casual games to while a way a few hours.

If you'd rather escape from all the pumpkins, though, how about Escape from the Pumpkin Room? (Erm, it does involve being in a room with a pumpkin, though, and trying to escape. So maybe not, then).

Goth Zombie Monster Linkorama

The weekly Web Zen link collection is always worth a look, and this week's no different (apart from being monster/goth/zombie themed).

Real life horror

Recently, in aid of charity, one man subjected himself to 24 consecutive hours of watching rom-coms - mostly, very bad ones - with nothing stronger than chocolate and Lambrini to ease the pain. If that isn't a waking nightmare, I'm not sure what is. Read the blog of his torment, then donate here.

And just because...

Goths in hot weather. Does exactly what it says on the trenchcoat.

Friday, 30 October 2009

Selling music post-MP3: part 3

When people began listening to music on the iPhone and (iPod Touch) a number of programmers and musicians spotted an opportunity: with its motion sensors, touch screen, microphone, and processing power, why should the iPhone be just another device for playing MP3s? Why not use its capabilities to let the listener interact with music? Perhaps even enable the listener's ambient environment to affect the listening experience?

Not only might the iPhone offer new ways of creating and listening to music - that listeners might be willing to pay for, and that could go far beyond the CD, never mind MP3s - but in the form of the App Store (and your phone contract) it even has a simple, quick payment method built in.

Just what kind of a revenue stream the iPhone might represent for artists, and to what exciting creative possibilities they might put its capabilities, I guess time will tell. But for now here are a couple of recent applications that just might point the way:

Deadmau5's remixable album

Whether Deadmau5 was actually the first artist to offer remixable exclusive tracks as an iPhone app, I have no idea, but Touch Mix was certainly the first such app I became aware of. You'll see below exactly what it can do, but basically Touch Mix is simple mixing software (though only usable with the Deadmau5 tracks), allowing phrases to be looped, effects added, mixing and cross-fading between tracks, BPM adjustment, scratching, etc. - all the usual DJ tricks and techniques:

I expect other artists will have since done similar, and probably offered more options and innovations, but even so, you can see from the above how this kind of release might appeal - especially to fans of electronica artists, like Deadmau5, or to fans of any other genre where remixing is prevalent. And with that in mind, let's now have a look at just how elaborate things can get...

RjDj: reactive, augmented listening

According to the website, RjDj is a music application for the iPhone that "uses sensory input to generate and control the music you are listening to." Shaking the phone, tapping it, stroking its screen, letting it pick up noises around you, speaking into its microphone, or any combination of the preceeding, can be used to randomly and/or intentionally alter the music that you're hearing. Moreover, RjDj users can record what they're hearing and share their favourite tracks with other listeners.

As for the artists; RjDj enables them to create "reactive music", "music as software", music that can be "updated, upgraded, or extended" - and which can either be sent straight to the phones of fans, or distributed as stand-alone apps. As a format, RjDj, allows artists, firstly, to take music and their own creativity in new directions, but also it enables them to reach listeners on a more personal and involving level - and if the key to persuading music fans to pay for your music is to offer them something more than they would get by simply downloading an MP3, then for artists and labels something like RjDj might well be a distribution avenue that's more interesting to explore even than the remixable album.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Selling music post-MP3: part 2

FM3's Buddha Machine

There are two very good reasons why vinyl records haven't died out: 1) that particular vinyl sound; and 2) turntablism. Value is to be found not just in the music the physical format contains, but also in the format itself: not only do records give a different, some would say warmer listening experience, but in skilled hands they can also be used creatively. If musicians want to make money from their recorded output, then, perhaps one way might be to find intrinsically useful, desirable, even unique physical formats on which to distribute it.

FM3, a China-based electronica duo, have done just this. Based on a popular Buddhist temple souvenir designed to aid meditation, FM3's Buddha Machine is a small plastic box with a speaker that allows you to play and switch between any of nine ambient music loops specially composed by FM3 (rather than the Buddhist chants played by the original gadget). Looped, the contemplative music that FM3 have created, as well as the nostalgic lo-fi crackle of the speaker, somehow combine to be at least as meditative and relaxing as the souvenir which inspired their creation. Here, format complements music - is almost indivisible from it.

The Buddha Machine, much like vinyl, also represents a creative medium: FM3 positively encourage other artists to use the loops in their own compositions (such as Light and All These Accidents by Track A Tiger), but moreover, the machines have given rise to live performances called Buddha Boxing. As the video below will illustrate, this essentially involves people taking a number of Buddha Machines and placing them, one at a time, onto a table to create a semi-random musical composition, then removing them one at a time until none are left (and the piece ends):

Recently, someone clever has even created a website that lets you play with a wall of 21 virtual Buddha Machines (well worth a try, if you're ever looking for a relaxing way of passing some time); the main difference here from actual Buddha Boxing being that the virtual Buddha Machines have no volume control, so unfortunately loops can only be stopped dead, rather than faded out.

But FM3 didn't just stop there. Last year, saw the release of a Buddha Machine 2.0, with a different set of loops and an additional pitch control wheel; an iPhone app version was released this summer; and, following collaboration with Christiaan Virant of FM3, next month Throbbing Gristle will release Gristleism, their own version of the Buddha Machine, containing twice the number of loops and a doubled frequency range.

But back to the loop player as a physical format. While the music can, of course, be lifted from a Buddha Machine (it has a line-out/headphones socket), even so, and even more than vinyl, this is a format that plays an integral part in the music's effectiveness. Not only is it the best way to play the music (unless you happen to own software that will play the music as loops and don't mind only listening via your computer), but it also allows the listener some input into his/her listening experience, and even provides musically-minded listeners with sounds they can create their own songs around. For the right bands, then, a loop player could be both a very interesting way of spreading their music and of getting paid for it.

NEXT TIME: Innovative iPhone apps...

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Selling music post-MP3: part 1

I expect everyone's seen what Lily Allen had to say about illegal downloading recently - and indeed what everyone then had to say about Lily Allen. So rather than rehashing the whole debate about pirating music, I thought this blog might instead take a look at a related matter: the various clever and intriguing ways that musicians and allied techie people have been inventing to persuade people to actually pay for music. Whether that be remixable iPhone apps, new music formats, or innovative distribution methods, for the next however long (i.e. until I run out of links) this blog will semi-regularly highlight as many of them as I can dig out of my bookmarks folder. Or at least the ones you might not have heard of.

Today, then, let's kick things off with a look at Kristin Hersh's Strange Angels subscriber project.

An introduction

As part of Throwing Muses, solo, and most recently as one-third of 50 Foot Wave, Kristin has been releasing music for over 20 years now, notably through 4AD; however, in October 2007 she took the decision to opt out of all her recording contracts and try things her own way. Her plan? To release a new song every month, as a free download - in both high quality MP3 and lossless FLAC format, complete with the raw recording files as "stems" for remixing, the lyrics and an accompanying essay - and for financial support rely primarily on optional payments, touring, merchandise and various levels of fan subscriptions.

Named Strange Angels, after a previous album - and presumably also in reference to angel investors - her subscribers, in addition, receive various levels of exclusive items and access to recording sessions and gigs, depending upon which level of subscription they buy. Furthermore, a non-profit organisation called CASH Music (Coalition of Artists and Stake Holders) was set up to facilitate the project, and now also provides a platform for a number of other artists.

As a model, though, this perhaps isn't anything particularly new - Einstürzende Neubauten, for instance, initiated a not entirely dissimilar series of supporters projects and internet community in 2002. So why highlight Kristin Hersh's version?

A social media natural

In terms of the success of a subscriptions and micropayments/free tracks financial model, it of course can't hurt that Kristin is already an established artist, and indeed that model might not even be an option for many newer bands, but where her project differs, and indeed where it excels, is that she is just an absolute natural with social media - an engaging and distinctive writer anyway, she also seems genuinely interested in the creative and artistic possibilities of an active and lively dialogue with her fans; notably, via her Twitter account.

Just click on that link, though, and you might assume that she ignores followers - she only follows two other accounts and rarely makes an @reply - but, in fact, you soon realise she just has her own way of using Twitter: rather than follow all the tweets of 5,000+ people, she takes the more practical and personal approach of Direct Messaging followers personally when they reply to her tweets, or from time to time using the account to (in effect) chair and participate in often very interesting discussions about the future of music, or where to take her own. Moreover, unlike so many bands who just tweet tour dates and the latest download release, Kristin actually gets Twitter - she has her own distinctive voice on it, with her tweets genuinely funny, persona(b)l(e) and worth the read.

Twitter, you feel, is simply another string to her bow, an extension of who she is and how she does things, rather than only a form of marketing. Ditto the essays and daily photoblog on her website. Without it ever coming across as forced or cynical she just involves people.

And that's why I highlight the Strange Angels project rather than another similar endeavour: because if selling music post the invention of the MP3 is about giving listeners something more than the music, Kristin Hersh does so in an unusually open, self-deprecating and involving way, without the slightest hint of contrivance. She understands and embraces that music is a two-way relationship. In fact, she seems to thrive on it. And as a result, two years down the line, her music making is now completely independent - giving her the freedom to just do what she does best, and what she does so engagingly: being Kristin Hersh. Which surely is the point.

NEXT TIME: something shorter.