Spotify — in defense of its potential for music discovery

I’ve heard more than a few people criticize Spotify as lacking good music-discovery features. While I’ll always lean on the side of human introduction (really knowledgable DJs, music nerds, like-minded friends), and next on solid algorithms based upon large sample-sized (a shit-ton of Scrobbles if you’ve lived in the painted-red Last.fm world), I think Spotify has recently done a workable job of this, and simply so.

In Spotify, pick an artist you really like, and not just a track or two, but have go-to albums for. Click the “Related Artists” on their page. Out of the 20—it always seems to be 20, even for a relatively obscure band like Shrimp Boat (my quick test without getting too “out there”)—choose one you’ve never heard of or have never listened to. That last bit is important. And then just listen.

Ironically, I think this process works slightly better the more varied one’s tastes are; people into a broad range of music, especially music with experimental leanings, will see greater sparsity between sounds of those “related artists”, as they become less related by their similarities and more related by their shared deviation from pop or pop-ish formats. Those with flat music taste: you may have a harder time finding something that knocks you off your feet–you may need that human touch to be steered towards something different but not too different.

This isn’t even including the whole notion of public & collaborative playlists, real-time ticker feed, and the recently added “follow” feature for artists/bands/public figures. Granted, these other features could still use some work, but I think as a whole it’s a program that provides many solid outlets for discovery, though no silver-bullet ideological wizardry. Spotify’s enormous catalog reach allows it—when paired with a decent algorithm—to, as far as I can tell, always recommend related artists; one only needs to travel a level or two deep into this web to have a new listening experience.

Haterade

Haterade: it’s drunk with the ubiquity and ease of those that carry mystery whiskey in hard, little, metal flasks, because why pay for others hate when yours is so readily available, and much, much cheaper?

Of course hate is not hate in this context; it’s criticism. But like most things, it’s not inherently bad on its own; it’s how it’s used that imbues it with its acridity. Because most people don’t sip their haterade—they spew it. It sprays from their lips, it slops out their glass as they boorishly walk through a crowded space to return to their circle, it dribbles down onto hands, cuffs, tables, devices. And now it’s available everywhere, accessible from the airwaves and groundwaves, seawaves and fiberwaves, coaxial waves and telewaves.

What bothers me, a critic if there ever was one, is that hating or debasing is a thing to be kept proper, handled in form, and recognized. Sipped, aerated, swirled, even enjoyed.

Because this is about taste, about ideas, judgment, art, feelings—things that are impactful. I’m constantly a witness and participant in discussions, small-talk, debates, banter, arguments, and the like, where the territory takes turns quickly and spritely, and the immediate response of someone to the subject broached is “that is good” or “that is bad” or “I like that” or “I hate that.” But rarely are those ideas elaborated on, elucidated about, given life and air to breathe and float and receive input. When pressed, people fumble around the basest notions of their opinion, and, if we’re lucky, how they arrived at it. It’s one thing to be a critic with a breadth of knowledge of a field, and to be able to discuss, critique fairly, to put into context. Though for the vast majority of what I witness everywhere around me is just flaccid opinion presented as de facto correctness. And if not that, a pure statement of boring taste.

If you’re going to undercut something in conversation, whether it be a film, an album, a book, a piece of art, the way someone sings, give a good reason, give openings to others to connect the dots as to how that thing fits into the greater scheme of things, of what we can access as beings on one little, bursting planet. If you can’t sip your haterade through a crazy-straw, or swirl it up and out of the glass into your gullet in the manner of a magician, or blow bubbles into it like a lovely child before slurping it up humbly and winkingly, then just sit there and drink quietly. Then try a different drink.

TKOL RMX 1234567: Radiohead remixes

[Preceding an upcoming release party in about a week, the whole set of tracks is available to stream for free on Soundcloud]

Feeling the blahs about not just one of my favorite bands, but an objectively important and vastly influential one, is not an easily reconcilable feeling. While I found moments in In Rainbows (including “Videotape”, possibly in my top-ten personal favorite tracks of theirs), Radiohead’s most recent album, The King of Limbs, left me without any interest to revisit it after a concessionary second listen. A trip back to 2003’s Hail to the Thief is necessary for me to remember that compassion, and their mid-era genius is certainly feeling more and more like a Dali-esque leg to stand on.

But over the course of the last few months, a few TKOL remixed tracks at a time were measuredly dosed upon the public, from heavy-hitters such as Four Tet, Caribou, Jamie XX, and Modeselektor, to lesser-known (and in some cases, up-and-coming) producers/artists like SBTRKT, Brokenchord, and Nathan Fake. Suddenly the plain language of TKOL was translated into various nuanced exotica, and Radiohead is now again on my radar and in my thoughts, along with a slew of peers and influencees. There were more than a handful of moments where I got that old feeling of “wait, what?!” as some next-level interpretation blindsided me, or, on the opposite side of things, a subtle, meek-but-gorgeous texture (lookin’ at you, Jamie XX’s “Bloom” rework) provided the glue for the more obvious thumps, sequenced snaps, and saw-synths.

Looking forward, the Atoms for Peace guys (Thom, Flea, Nigel Godrich) will be touring soon. I saw them with two of my best buds on a warm, breezy desert night at Coachella ’10 under soft neon-lit palm trees and amongst thousands of admirers and appreciators. It was mind-blowing and lovely.

Giving, aiding, tipping

Seeing articles this morning about Facebook’s Zuckerberg giving away half his fortune to charity reminded me of this interesting interview I heard on PRI a while back:

TTBOOK: Ethics of Western Aid

Dambisa Moyo makes the case that Western aid to Africa has been a disaster. Peter Singer lays out the argument that virtually everyone in America has a moral obligation to give money to help the desperately poor. Jacqueline Novogratz combines capitalism and charity to apply business principles to philanthropy in a way that benefits people’s lives. Abraham Verghese reads passages from his novel and talks with Steve Paulson about his own experience with the mission hospital system in Africa.

(Granted, philanthropy and governmental/NGO Western-aid aren’t synonymous, but they’re in the same spectrum, at least for the purposes of this post.)

The part most alluring to me is the one that challenges something that most people never question: Is foreign aid good thing? Listen to Dambisa Moyo make a strong argument that—in the case of the US and other rich nations’ aid to poor African countries—it’s not. An unpopular stance, but one that is backed by an appeal to sound reasoning and statistics. I’m not saying I agree with all of her points, but that it’s a worthwhile topic to discuss and debate.

I had a harder time agreeing with Singer’s argument that it’s a moral obligation for everyone to help the less fortunate. I believe many of us have obligations to society, but perhaps he didn’t have enough time to argue his point to my liking. For the record, I enjoy Peter Singer as a thinker, and his book, Animal Liberation, is what prompted my trial and subsequently vegetarianism (well, technically pescetarianism–I have fish once in a while); I’ve not had meat in three and a half months. It’s hard, but I’m glad I’m doing it.

Many of these topics interest me, but my healthy skepticism relegates me to being a strong fence-sitter on most topics. I can take stands, but they’re usually nuanced, strangely shaped opinions that don’t fit into the round, square, and sometimes triangular (if we’re lucky) slots. This New York Times post, Tipped Off, has also thus reminded me of another topic that has been one of contention for me: tipping.

Studies have shown that tipping is more about guilt and other non-service-related factors than a return for good service. The prevalence of tipping before being served (or not being “served” at all; just being handed an item) is a strong indication to me of its automatic nature. I once had an off-duty bartendress call me out at LA’s Spaceland venue because I only tipped her on-duty friend 1$ for a 4$ drink while I was using a free drink-ticket… provided to me by Spaceland. I guess I should’ve tipped 2$, and thus used the free drink-ticket as what she believed it to be: a half-off coupon.

Tipping is also cultural. Using an argument that something is “cultural” without understanding why or how it’s cultural seems a throw-away argument.

Update: The Washington Post recently posted a story, “Why some restaurants are doing away with tipping”, that sheds light on some of these issues and more.

I’ll leave you with Mr. Pink and his questionable(?) opinions:

Wondering Wandering Thoughts

How i’ve been a critic–or at least a constant critiquer–most of my life. Quick to complain, though usually with good intentions of improving the issue/item at hand. Wanton idealism?

I’ve been aware of it now for a while. Sorry, Alcoholics Anonymous, but Step 1 shouldn’t be “admission”, it should be “awareness”–you have to be aware before you can truly admit. I feel I’ve been wanting more and more to curb this habit of critiquing left and right. I’m always curious about the disconnect between subjective and objective, formalism of opinion, contextualism of the self. How it’s unwritten law that we are to assume when someone says that “x is great”, what they really mean is “I think x is great”. Sometimes they think what they think is great coincides with what really is great, whether universally or just humanly.

But I digress. I’ve ignited efforts to stop my own wanton criticism, to focus on spreading word of what I like (with the assumption that those around occasionally want to know what my tastes are), and not so much saying this is bad or that is bad, unless we’re formally deconstructing something.

[Ratatouille semi-SPOILER ALERT! (go watch this film tonight if you haven’t seen it yet)] A salient reminder: Ego’s review/monologue at the end of Pixar’s superb Ratatouille. So eloquent, so pithy. I get chills just thinking about the ending, especially this quote:

“We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

A film about taste, aspiration, friendship, creativity. I still know people that will call such works “cartoons”, often ignorantly and not condescendingly. Regarding Pixar’s talented Brad Bird, via wikipedia.org:

“When Bird and producer John Walker recorded the Director’s Commentary for The Incredibles’ DVD, he jokingly offered to punch the next person that he heard call animation a genre instead of an art form.”

How delightful! Ratatouille and Pixar’s others are no cartoons: They’re finely-crafted stories that evoke, explore, and teach some core, true human emotions, usually while dazzling the eye and ear. In middle school “awkward phase”, I’d dream of entering college so I could forever be done with [list your favorite worst memories here], and either A) design video games, or B) help create animation in what was then a new “genre” of film: Pixar. Since graduating college some five years ago, I’ve done one of these things to a satisfactory level of success. Perhaps one doesn’t have to indulge all of one’s idle “dreams” that were solidified by the stale walls of brick and book reports. But it never hurts to be inspired.