Wednesday, 21 October 2015

SoundCloud: an Elegy

In 2014, a SoundCloud survey asked: how likely are you to recommend SoundCloud to other people?

I clicked '5' out of a possible '10', and then I began to write in the 'why?' box, but the reply grew too long. Here are some thoughts developed between then and now.

I'm not just a SoundCloud listener. I'm a music maker, a visual artist, and I was the moderator of a SoundCloud group. My motivations tend to be non-mainstream. For instance, I used to recommend SoundCloud to people because it offered access to unusual, non-mainstream music, and audio works which are not even classified as music.

I liked the old menu-bar greeting ('hej, hej', in Dutch). It hinted at resistance to US/UK pop culture, with its glossy, performance-driven karaoke, where musicians are meant to be flattered if their tracks are used as throwaway emotional backstops in movies, sit-coms, and ads. But I probably read too much into that 'hej, hej'.

Recent changes at SoundCloud seem to align it more emphatically with mainstream commercial culture, to the detriment of its individual charm and breadth. That's predictable, but not very interesting to me, artistically-speaking.

In its earlier form, SoundCloud uniquely integrated social networking with the shared activity of listening to sound and music. I enjoyed having micro-conversations with artists via the time-line comments, but after the 2013 redesign, clicking on a timeline comment no longer brought up the whole of a related conversation (the chain of replies and replies-to-replies). It didn't even bring up the whole comment, if it was longer than a few words.

To even try to engage in a conversation via SoundCloud track comments after 2013 you had to navigate to a separate page dedicated to a given track, where it could be difficult to  read comments and replies sequentially, and so to have a conversation. The effect of this was to bring listening into conflict with social interaction on SoundCloud, and so to undermine one of the truly unique qualities of the platform. Overwhelmingly, comments have become the textual equivalent of yelps from a crowd.

SoundCloud groups were passed over in the 2013 design changes. Technically, the group moderator interface remained in an old "classic" form, there was no added functionality in terms of rearranging tracks in groups, making the page more attractive, or anything else. Behind the scenes at SoundCloud, groups seemed to be of little interest. In 2015 the process of listening to group submissions became incredibly fiddly and time-consuming, apparently because the old "classic" format made it easy for users to rip (copy) tracks against the wishes of the owners. Interestingly, SoundCloud chose to address this security issue at a time when it was negotiating licensing deals with corporate rights holders: perhaps not out of concern for the rights of individual (independent) users, then?

Keeping a SoundCloud group going takes time, and in 2015 it feels as though it might be wasted time, as though an individual content creator is by their very existence swimming against the tide of corporate priorities. I asked if this was the case on a SoundCloud forum, and received a reply from SoundCloud that I would be wise not to spend too much time moderating my group, as there were no plans to support groups in future. A straightforward answer, at least. [1]

I also suggested that the data-and-metrics driven model of online commerce to which SoundCloud seemed drawn was bound to be less engaged with the quality of online interaction with music. That idea was resisted, with a response implying that all my clicks "counted". Well, what I'd meant was that clicks are, precisely, "counted", or harvested and aggregated as quantitative evidence; but that this does not provide qualitative insight.

All this means that as a user I am more ambivalent about SoundCloud than I would have been a few years ago. It seems that the push is on to align the platform with the buzzy idea of "music discovery", and to monetise it, over and above the level achieved via user subscriptions. I note that the shift to commercial orthodoxy doesn't usually favour small, independent players (see: YouTube contract changes around monetisation, miserable payouts to independent artists on streaming platforms, etc.).

Having said all this, as a single user of a free account I share none of the risks taken by those who created SoundCloud. I must acknowledge that its owners can do what they want with it,  and that my particular disappointments will probably not be of concern in the drive to leverage company value prior to sale or flotation.

I am, after all: dyspeptic, anti-blandout, economically-disenfranchised-and-not-very-interested-in-money-anyway.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

What Mister Salmon Did And Didn't Do Recently

Mister Salmon iPodtrait
The short story:

He failed to complete not one album, but several.

I think it's better not to call them albums, but "projects". I will probably release some singles over the next year or so, because if each project is treated as an album in the old-school sense, it will take so long that death may well release me before I can release them. My projects are ways of categorising different kinds of ongoing musical work, and there are tracks near to completion in several categories:

Mister Salmon on the Nature Trail. The long-delayed second album. Mainly songs, addressing the idea of nature from different positions. Some titles may give clues: Curlew; Like Arcadia; A Creature; Men and Mice; Summer Stings; Planet Shows; Swamp Thing; Nature Trail.

Mister Salmon's Fireside Songbook. Personal and quite dark songs from and for the hearth of the real or metaphorical cabin on the hill. Sparser instrumentation and production. High-risk vocal exposure.
Mister Salmon Shakes the Wattle. Songs  with an intended political edge. Probably guitar-led, at least at the point of recording. High risk of unflattering "protest song" comparisons. Regarding the wattle: it's nothing to do with huts.

Mister Salmon Takes to the Road. Not a live album. Longer tracks about journeys away from home and back home. Quite a bit of krautrock influence/homage here. And a clue to my choice of performing name: life-cycles, doom, and all that.

Mister Salmon Stops Singing. Instrumentals, obviously.

The long story:

A second album was planned for release in late 2012. However, I don't like to release anything until I feel I have squeezed the very best out of the mixing and mastering process, and the mixes didn't pass my final test. The test consists of putting my own tracks into a playlist with twenty or thirty others I currently admire (for their musicality, impact, and technical production) and listening repeatedly. There were one or two things I felt I could address technically, but it meant rebuilding every mix.

In the time it took to do that, other people established families.

As each mix became clearer, weaker aspects of my musical performance were exposed, requiring some re-recording. Terrible struggles ensued: with vocals, with the mismatch between metronomic computer timing and live playing, with sampled drum sounds, and with the fact that there was usually way too much going on, almost everywhere, in every track.

Whilst all this was slowly happening, I initiated new tracks, which were not part of the planned album. New ideas occur (a good thing). Lyrics might be composed on a walk, with a hint of tune or manner of delivery, and if a recording isn't made almost immediately the spirit of the idea can easily evaporate, the precious few couplets be forgotten. Of course, if a recording is made, then I want to develop it, because it's new and exciting. So I do, instead of finishing what's started.

There are plenty of positive aspects to this drawn-out process. Dedicating many work sessions to the detail of the same ten or eleven mixes, month after month, may be necessary, but it also demands a particular kind of concentration which might not be the most vital aspect of music making. Stuck at the mixing coalface, it's important to constantly freshen the listening ear. I also find that starting new material is a preparation for letting go of any long-running project. Emotional commitment can be shifted to the new, lessening the angst of releasing what's done with, and exposing it to judgement.

Unlike a gigging musician who has to finish things in order to perform them, perhaps I over-indulge the freedom to get beyond my initial ideas. I edit and trim words to rhythms and time-frames. I try to find the elusive aural tweak or harmony that takes a recording beyond the obvious. Compositionally, I want to do all of it, and I do all of it, but my processes are laborious.

I also have to make a living, constantly fix up the place I live in, and (more recently) recover from a wee bit of surgery. But those are minor things.

I hope you can hear my new project/album one day. It's nearly done.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Real Grimsby, Real Black, Real Folk, Real German

A friend recently attended a folk festival. Afterwards he remarked sarcastically on the preambles given by some singers to establish the authenticity of their songs; and about a leftish performer, who presented himself in the mould of a 1980s Red-Wedge-era Billy Bragg. I find the question of authenticity around any musical form interesting. Especially as a musician self-consciously referencing the sounds associated with folk, psychedelic and so-called krautrock music.

The following is from a 1995 exchange between author and music journalist Jon Savage and Deep Soul/Northern Soul impresario Dave Godin:
J.S. Why do people become purist about this [black, soul] music?
D.G. Maybe it[']s aesthetic. I find that when you get into a passion about anything, you get into a refining process. If you were paid to see every film… if you’re exposed to a lot of something, your taste becomes refined. You become conscious of what you prefer, and with soul music, it is so much more than just music. It is also part of black American history. It’s as if some cultural thing had been developed in Grimsby, which totally reflected Grimsby, and lived and thrived in Grimsby for two hundred years before it began to seep out, there would always be a Grimsby authenticity, we would always be able to tell what was just pretend.[1]

An Australian in Alice Springs once told me that Aboriginal painters were becoming wise to the fact that visiting art buyers had absorbed the basics of native Australian culture, and often wanted to know the story, or "dreaming" behind an otherwise purely aesthetic dot painting. It was suggested that, to meet this demand, stories were being mashed up, or just invented. This was partly to encourage sales, but also to conceal from the touristic mind the deeper content of native Australian culture.

Let's say that some of the men and women whose songs were recorded by the great folk song collectors were also giving performances, perhaps tempered for the visitor who was going to record their song.[2] I wonder how the collector, dropping in for a day with notepad or tape recorder, was able to distinguish what today's folk aficionados would like to call "authentic" from that which was deliberately nuanced for the visitor's attention.

I was once a guest in the house of an Irish fiddle player before, during and after the visit of a German fiddler who came to learn some tunes. I can't make a detailed judgement of the music transmitted from musician to musician, but I remember that personas and behaviours were subtly altered during the visit, and that some quite humorous things were said in the house afterwards.

Typically, the process of distinguishing what's authentic from what's not involves setting limits which reflect the rule of an interested group. Dave Godin uses his 'Grimsby' example - in which only the insider can make fully-informed judgements - to illustrate the importance of insider status within musical tribes. A made-for-sale Aboriginal painting can be the authentic work of a painter's mind, hand and eye, without necessarily being an authentic part of what the buyer wants to think of as Aboriginal culture. A fiddler might demonstrate some tunes for a visitor, but reveal little of the life he leads - a life nevertheless said by the aficionado, later, to be intimately linked to the authenticity of the music. If, twenty-five years on, I learn the tunes from the German visitor, will I be acquiring authentic Irish folk music?

Authenticity is questionable even at the founding level of an artistic category. It can't be objectively established, because the preferences and arguments of an authenticating group can be as influential as the defining forms. The category of folk music may depend on the existence of long-established musical and narrative forms, but it's maintained by various individuals and groups, many of whom will set different criteria of inclusion. There can be forms and fans and arguments, but authenticity can't be settled.

[2] Many know of Cecil Sharp (re. U.K.) and Alan Lomax (re. U.S.), but there are many more. Try

Friday, 23 March 2012

Feeling it and Knowing It (Eno, Reich, Nancarrow; Marc and jumping Keef)

A recent blog thread about the use of "glitch" effects in music provoked one poster to suggest that Eno was "deeper" than Moby. Arguments like this often reveal the overlap of feeling and knowing around music.

We can care about music because it affects how we feel, and because it is structurally intriguing and we want to know how things are made. There's no point in arguing with someone who says Moby is better than Eno if their reason for saying this is how Moby makes them feel. It doesn't matter, in those emotional terms, how carefully or knowingly the music in question was made.

'Get It On' by T-Rex, or any track from the first Roxy Music album will probably always be "deeper", for me, than anything by either Eno (solo) or Moby, because of the circumstances in which I first listened to those tracks. I don't even care if Brian Eno tells us that Roxy Music were all about artifice [1]. For me, their early music causes the involuntary recall of adolescent emotions. I can't resist, and unless I want to eradicate my sense of the person I once was, I don't want to.

As well as feeling things, I also want to know how music is made. Here, Eno's solo work was interesting to me once, prompting me to experiment with cassette recorders, homemade instruments and guitar effects instead of doing my homework. By the time Moby came along (decades later) the structural things he could have showed me were quite familiar, and I already had musical markers for most of the feelings his music evoked for me. I had found that Steve Reich's early works or Conlon Nancarrow's player-piano studies (for example) were more structurally intriguing than either T.Rex, Eno or Moby. What's more, the Reich and a few Nancarrow pieces made me feel something, too, so I wanted to listen to them and figure out how they were done. These composers were technically clever but also, apparently, emotionally invested.

Caring about music is inconsistently related to knowing about it, in all the ways we can know about it. Virtuosity and history are both overrated and underrated. To those whose listening is intertwined with their knowledge about music, performance (as interpretion) and lineage (provenance) really matter. To others, they hardly matter at all, as long as the desired emotional hit (upper or downer) is delivered.

Returning to glitch effects. My teenage copy of The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street used to skip a groove or two in the playout of 'Torn and Frayed'. The cassette copy I listened to most often, as a suggestible youth, included just such a skip. That recording made the jump in the record a predictable certainty. Consequently, "my" 'Torn and Frayed' is one that interrupts Keith Richards half a syllable into a word, adding a few loops of unintended (thirty-three-and-a-third r.p.m.) rhythm into the playout. I can't hear that track anywhere now without anticipating the jump, and I'm slightly disappointed, emotionally, if it doesn't happen. I now have a cleaner recording of 'Torn and Frayed' on my iPod, but it lacks the emotional particularity of the version that glitch rewrote for me.

There is a plug-in called Grungelizer, for old versions of the music creation software Cubase VST. It simulates audio reproduction from old records, and I used it on the track 'Sheffield Philharmonic' when trying to evoke a memory my grandfather's suburban music room. He gave me his old record player, probably hoping I'd get into classical music, but I destroyed it listening to T.Rex and the Stones, Eno, Faust, Can and Tangerine Dream. Maybe I listened to Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and Holst's The Planets a few times. In a final twist on the feeling/knowing theme, a correspondent on SoundCloud who seems to me to be an accomplished pianist [2] commented that the tone of my 'Sheffield Philharmonic' piano was 'too clean and prominent'. In this case, then, it doesn't matter how well I thought I knew the music I was making, or how reasoned my approach; my listener just didn't feel it.

[1] e.g. in Simon Frith, Howard Horne, Art Into Pop (London: Methuen, 1987), p. 118. On Google
[2] Tom White:

Monday, 9 January 2012

Letter to a Musician

[Here's an edited copy of an email I sent to someone whose music really fascinated me when I found it...]

Dear Musician X,

I recently discovered your first two albums. I want to pass on my appreciation of them.

I don't know how specifically your music is to do with the area you're associated with in your online bio but, if it is, you have a fascinating take on it. It's also the area where I used to roam as a teenager, and I've often returned to it imaginatively. My own first album probably reveals a darker take than yours on what is the psycho-geography of my childhood. However, it is a delight to find your albums.

I admire the way you've stuck to a particular way of doing things, and a particular combination of elements, even though the result is some quite long tracks in which change accumulates slowly. You have some beautiful, clear sounds (guitar, trumpet?) chiming out there at crucial points – for me that effect is very like an object or a light becoming clear in fog or mist – but you've been brave enough to make the moments of clarity as important as the ambience.

The support text for your second album is interesting. I see your geographical reference point is on the south coast of England. However, there is still something in your sound-world that reminds me of moorland, woods and conifer plantations leading down into valleys: the topography that I will always associate with Greno Woods, Wharncliffe Side and the drop down into the strange hinterland of railway lines, old bomb craters and quarries, around British Tissues in Oughtibridge (in the 1970s). I wonder if we're both interested in re-imagining earlier experience, and representing that process within a topography? The phrase about songs containing characterisations and re-enactments is something I could have written about my own work.

Emotionally, your second album puts me (now) in mind of the west of Ireland, with which I have a more recent association, and in which I have found new creative sources. There's something Van Morrison-like in the structure and build of some of your pieces ('Inarticulate Speech of the Heart' period). One of your tracks reminded me that I have some extended recordings of hundreds of ropes-against-masts in a windy Dun Laoghaire marina that I have yet to use. There are so many models for structure in music...

It would be funny, now, to learn that you live in Vancouver and your music is entirely a work of imagination onto which I have projected all these associations! No matter. Congratulations on two great albums.

[...Musician X did not reply].

Monday, 1 August 2011

New Weird Europe (New Weird England)

I've set up a moderated SoundCloud group: "New Weird Europe (New Weird England)". Obviously it responds to 'new weird America', 'freakfolk' and similar recent genre definitions.

I'm hoping to bring together some quite personal music, perhaps with an insular, cultish feel, but which still acknowledges a bigger cultural or political world. I'm thinking of music that confronts ideas of 'tradition' 'identity' or 'belonging' – easily associated with folk music in general – with a kind of disaffectedness.

There are some formal, technical aspects to this, but nothing is fixed. For instance, acoustic instruments and non-studio or field recordings might play a part in establishing an intimate scene in the context of a wide natural or urban environment. Totally synthetic studio creations probably don't do that, as a general rule. However, as a contrary example, I often think of 1970s German experimental rock as a kind of folk music made with electronics. This is because the music evolved, to a varying extent, as a set of grassroots projects expressing a German identity unlike any previous German-ness; and today an aura of clannishness and mythology remains around some of the groups and cities involved.

A lot of current weird- freak- and psych-folk is being made in America by artists reworking folk, rock, and psychedelic forms, especially from the 1960s. Some of these forms were heavily commercialised. Others were not, and so can still stand for a sense of marginality, oddness, and even a kind of authenticity in the face of homogenous, industrial pop. New music makers seem to be temporarily reclaiming these earlier forms and some of their associated ideas for quite personal ends.

My SoundCloud group is a place to collect together some current European music and audio related to the ideas summarised above. I want to keep the group focused, more like a selected compilation than a wide-spectrum new folk list. I do appreciate reasonable production values (even if it's 'lo-fi') but I'm more drawn to things which are strong in themselves rather than being preoccupied with trying to be good in any conventional way.

Suggestions of or from artists active on SoundCloud are invited.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

What is an Online Fan? What counts as Interaction? (later: pictures!)

It's obvious that online music fans engage in a variety of ways with the music they 'fan'. As a music producer putting my work online, I'm interested in the quality of interaction there, and the difficulty of assessing it. Take listening, for starters...

A few seconds' listening on Myspace, Soundcloud, or ReverbNation counts as a 'play'. Bandcamp distinguishes between "full", "partial" and "skipped" plays. On a track has to play up to somewhere between halfway and two-thirds through to be "scrobbled" and added to listener statistics. However, because can't or won't pay the royalties incurred in running a play-on-demand service (like Spotify) all plays are part of partially randomized radio streams. Tracks are usually not chosen by the listener. Instead, users try to personalize their radio streams by limiting the contents of their profile libraries, or listening to artists grouped according to much-contested "similarity" or descriptive "tags". In general, I think, listeners are quite likely to have listened to entire tracks... but how do I judge the value of a full listen from a user who's had my track pushed to them by the algorithm, as opposed to a half-listen from someone skipping through the tracks of my album, in order, on demand, on Bandcamp?

The big variation in what counts as a 'play' in different online environments is one of the more obvious ways in which it is difficult to make sense of the quality of listener interaction online. This surely ranges from cursory to meaningful, and it might be meaningful in terms of, say, mutual appreciation between musicians, or between musician and fan; or meaningful commercially; or meaningful in terms of crude numbers of Listeners, Fans, Friends, Likers, etc.

All this is bound to impact on how a music producer regards their online fans. The question comes to mind as I get to about half-way through recording Mister Salmon's second album. In lieu of finishing it, I made some images for each of the tracks on the first album, to try to enrich your online experience of it, friends, fans, followers, listeners...

Mister Salmon Yorkshirama

A Tale with Pictures
by Mister Salmon