Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Wow! While scanning through the World Music section, I ran across Monsoon. I first heard Monsoon on-- of all places-- a SIGGRAPH demo real in the late '80's or so. In particular, the song Ever so Lonely was used for some wacky/trippy super-shiny flying logo demo reel. The graphics were a neat math demo, but the music stuck with me. In particular, the absolutely incredible female vocalist quickly became a voice I would never forget -- Sheila Chandra.

The Apple music store has the album Monsoon featuring Sheila Chandra for $10-- $5 less than Amazon! It features a number of remixes of Ever so Lonely and is an all around solid/great album. The cover of Tomorrow Never Knows is also quite good.

I was equally as surprised to discover that the store has a bunch of other works-- and not the obvious ones-- by Sheila Chandra including ABoneConeDrone. ABCD is somewhat hard to define; it is basically Chandra's voice remixed into a series of vocal drones -- extremely ambient and relaxing, if that is your sort of thing. Parts of the more traditional-- and quite beautiful-- Moonsung -- A Real World Retrospective are also available.
11:28:43 PM  pontificate    

Some random notes:

I figured out how the music store defines the GUI within iTunes. It is entirely generated by the server side [WebObjects] application and is described by a big hunk of XML.

End result: It is trivial for Apple to integrate "iTunes content" into other media -- web pages, email, etc... Similarly, it is trivial to define just about any look and feel desired to be presented via the iTunes portal. Apple has built a strong foundation.

Playlist sharing rocks. Zachery pointed out that playlist sharing is not limited to Rendezvous. I had overlooked the "Connect" menu item. Right now, I'm listening to one friend's killer blues collection while Zachery and my other friend listen to random bits from my collection. And you can send people URLs into your music collection -- just ctrl-click on a song and "copy sharing URL" is one of the options!

Search in iTunes:

And some music recommendations:

Chet Atkins Chet was (he died last year) one of the pioneers of the electric guitar. He and Les Paul played together many times (Guitar Monsters is a particular good release that features both artists, but it isn't in the store yet). Beyond being a great musicion, Mr. Atkins has a great sense of humor -- see Picks on the Beatles for an excellent example of a combination of the two.

The music store has a surprising selection of Parliament albums. You really can't go wrong with anything on the list of albums offered. The collections are an excellent start. Surprisingly, the store is lacking Funkadelic albums -- different label/licensing, I suppose.

On the electronic front, I was surprised to find Jam & Spoon. Good stuff -- minimalistic electronica with a bit of fun thrown in. It wanders into heavy rotation about once a year.

Most people know Robbie Robertson from his work with The Band. However, he has done some excellent solo work. This album is particularly good; great production and excellent music combined with a heavy native american influence.

Bill Laswell -- a legendary producer in his own right -- traveled to Cuba and recorded a bunch of native cuban artists. Imaginary Cuba collects these recordings into a cohesive album that is sort of electronic ambience combined with that unique Cuba/Caribbean sound.
6:41:31 PM  pontificate    

If you don't know what store I'm talking about by now, I just can't help you....

In any case, some random music selections that I really like -- I'll add more as time goes on and as the store's selection grows. I have eclectic tastes, but do not like discord (except when very artfully done). I like good vocals, but I don't like trivial pop crap. I like electronica/dance, but can't stand anything with whistles or repeated "Aww! Yeah!". I like progressive rock. I do not like later Genesis. I can't stand holiday music, except when done well.

With that said, check these out (These links will only work on a Mac w/iTunes 4.0 installed) and buy a tune or two!

Praxis -- Transmutation Hardcore funk. This is artful discord with some awesome musicians. Bernie Worrell, Buckethead, Brain, Bill Laswell, etc... Brilliant and unique production.

Material -- Hallucination Engine Material and Praxis share many of the same artists and roots. It is amazing that the end result can be so different. This is a much more approachable able. Funktronica at its best.

James Brown -- Funky Christmas One of the very few exceptions to the 'no holiday music' rule. One funky Christmas it is. Excellent stuff.

Les Paul -- Complete Decca Recordings Les Paul invented the electric guitar, multitrack recording, overdubbing, etc... He basically invented modern popular music. Not only that, but Les can play! If you are ever in NYC, Mr. Paul plays every Monday night at the Iridium Jazz Club. This is a collection of his early recordings -- even if the music sucked (which it doesn't-- a lot of great stuff here), it represents some of the first times that many, many modern recording effects were ever used.

TransGlobal Underground -- Psychic Karaoke Combining middle eastern, european, and african vocals, rhythms and instruments, these guys just plain jam. Definitely has a dancey/electronic bent to it. Natacha Atlas does vocals-- beautiful.

Talking Heads -- Remain In Light A ground breaking album. Brilliant production work combining musical elements from many cultures and backgrounds. Emphasis on electronics, but never loses the analog groove. The Apple store seems to include most of Talking Heads albums from over the years. Cool!

Eurythmics -- In The Garden The first album. Was not available stateside for a long time. This is where it all started. While somewhat primitive in comparison to later compositions, you can definitely hear the roots of their later work. I really dig this album, but some Eurythmics' fans will not.
1:36:11 AM  pontificate    

Once you download a song (album's are just collections of songs), then you can't download it again no matter what, it appears.

That's a drag.

Note: Be sure to make regular backups of your music files (in your iTunes Music folder) by copying them to an external hard disk or other media. If your hard disk becomes damaged or you lose any of the music you've purchased, you'll have to reimport all your songs and buy any purchased music again to rebuild your library. You can also make an audio CD of the songs you purchase so you can listen to them in a consumer CD player.

In other words, as my purchased music library grows [and grows and grows and grows], backing it up (Apple's instructions) becomes quite the serious inconvenience. I have purchased 3 songs and already have 26MB of content to backup; doing the math indicates that I will have a greater-than-a-single-playlist (greater-than-a-single CDR) at around the 100 song mark -- around $100.

And I'm the kind of user that actually knows what a backup is and how to make one. What about all the poor sods that either don't know how to make a backup or think they do, but can't manage to make one correctly?

Given that Apple has all the purchase information and that the tracks come with built in DRM, I would think providing a re-download feature as a part of the customer service tools would be a natural fit. Outside of the bandwidth requirements-- the existing system does ensure that the bandwidth costs are built into the purchases costs as a known quantity-- this would seem to be a no-cost, good vibe, kind of feature to have without increasing the potential for piracy given the DRM solution.

Not a show stopper, by any means, but this will certainly cause some distress amongst some users in legitimately distressing situations. I sincerely hope that Apple improves the situation over time.
1:00:24 AM  pontificate    

There’s a flow to a good album. The songs support each other. That’s the way I like to make music.Trent Reznor

[via Michael Tsai’s Weblog]

Trent is absolutely right and some of NiN's albums have quite the amazing flow. Broken and Downward Spiral are both fine examples of albums with flow (both Nine Inch Nails -- I'd link to the Apple Music Store, but it doesn't support that yet). Both are available via the Apple Store...


Similarly, a good consumer experience must have flow. Apple obviously knows "flow" given the very carefully designed/controlled "flow" of the physical Apple Stores (the online store is currently, uh, extremely lacking in that department).

The "flow" of the music store integration in iTunes is nothing short of amazing. Now that the initial rush has calmed down a bit, the store is extremely responsive and the paths of navigation through the UI are generally clean and obvious while often providing a fork down which the user can easily explore related products-- an album, remixes, an artist, most popular purchases, etc...

It is snappy, obvious, and just works.

I'm impressed. Damned impressed. This is hard stuff to get right and Apple nailed it. The remaining issues appear to be one of selection, licensing. and fixing the pricing model slightly (one example: many albums have "filler" tracks that really shouldn't be marked at $1 -- should really be an album only purchase or thrown in for free if the songs on either side are purchased or something).

In any case, the team that created this stuff deserves an award.

If I sound enthusiastic, it is because I am. In thinking this through, this is the first really effective non "web based" online purchasing experience [that I can think of] where the "online" part of the "experience" is not only not tediously annoying but is actually a joy to use.

Though the track selection is currently limited -- 200,000 songs is not that many when you consider the coverage -- there are some tremendous gems within the selection available on launch. I wish there was a way to link into the store because there are about a dozen tracks that I would highly recommend to others....


I picked up my first three tracks from the Apple Music Store. Three The The tracks that are long versions or remixes of some of my favorite tracks. All three were off of the singles album for which I already have the other 17 or 20 tracks on other albums.

I could justify spending the money because it saved me money.... uh, yeah. That's the ticket.

In any case, that gave me a chance to play with the DRM a bit.

As noted the purchased tracks have the purchaser's information embedded in the tags within the file. They are not encrypted. If someone happens to have the specification for the tags embedded in an AAC/".m4p" file, it would be trivial to whip off some Python to parse 'em out. Please send pointers/URLs and I'll summarize here.

Clearly the files contain DRM information and that information is preserved when the files are copied to (and from -- I modified Podestal (unreleased version and this ain't it) to support AAC files) an iPod.

It isn't clear that the iPod actually uses the DRM information. It also isn't clear if the track contents are even encrypted. I didn't look hard and am not going to-- I'm not interested in breaking the DRM, just in learning how Apple has implemented this so elegantly (it is pretty frickin' amazing for a 1.0 -- "just works" was muttered around here a lot). Frankly, it would surprise me if the music data is heavily encrypted. The iPod is a pretty tight computing platform to start out with -- I can't imagine there are a lot of spare cycles floating around after doing the AAC decoding...

In any case, the DRM seems to be most tightly coupled to iTunes itself. In particular, you cannot download a track to an iPod from a computer that is not authorized to play the track. Authorization and de-authorization is painless. Double-click a DRM protected track and iTunes automatically asks you to authenticate.

I don't know what happens if you already have 3 computers authorized and try to authorize a fourth. The account summary page in iTunes indicates how many computers are authorized, but it doesn't give indication as to identity (which would be hard). The big question is whether or not one machine can effectively "steal" the authorization from another or if the account "owner" can break the authorization at will.


In looking at how the iTunes application talks to the back end WebObjects applications (I actually had a "your session has timed out" standard WO error message in my iTunes window today!), it is clear that there is some subtlety in that communication. A lot of effort has gone into making it both efficient and relatively opaque. I didn't try [and won't] to dig beyond the "is it HTML/XML?" level.

There is a lot of very interesting / subtle / cool engineering at work. It doesn't appear that iTunes has much of anything related to the Store within itself -- the UI, etc, appears to be defined by the store itself? If that is the case, how related is it to the work done in Sherlock? Given the blurred line between content and UI in a number of contexts, it would appear that the UI is largely defined server side.

If that is the case, then Apple has created one hell of a retail channel that could be applicable to many markets beyond music. It will be very interesting to see how this whole thing develops and where else we see this technology show up.
12:39:03 AM  pontificate