Sonos vs. AirPlay vs. Our House

At Christmas, we flirted with a Sonos sound system in my household, but ultimately decided to return it. I know smart people who adore their Sonos systems, but when I’ve played with the hardware and software in the past I’ve never been more than mildly impressed. So when it came time to commit to installing another technical system in my household — the Sonos meant more plugs, more boxes, more management — I just couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm to outweigh the hefty price premium that Sonos charges.

Frankly, we’re an Apple household, so by my reckoning, we already get most of the benefit that Sonos offers from the AirPlay system that’s in the house already. We’re heavy users of our Apple TV for all kinds of video — iTunes movie rentals, Netflix, Hulu Plus, even ripped MP4s streamed from other computers in the house — and we rely on it heavily for audio, too. It’s hooked up to a pretty powerful Onkyo home theater system in the living room and out of the box it streams my entire music library from iTunes Match, which is what we listen to most often.

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What Streaming Music Can Be

One gift that I won’t be giving to loved ones this holiday season is music, sadly. In the age of streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, music has become so readily available that it’s lost its thingness, that meaning and scarcity that makes wrapping it up and stashing it under a tree special. I know it’s possible to give a subscription to Spotify, say, as a gift, but somehow that’s not the same as a record or compact disc that has been sought out and acquired and then becomes owned, an object to be kept and identified with oneself.

Physical media’s ship has sailed though, and I’m certainly not making a case for its restoration. Streaming music is clearly here to stay. But when I think about Spotify, which I subscribe to currently, and Rdio, which I’ve subscribed to in the past, I wonder what it is that prevents me from feeling that sense of ownership over the music that these services make available so readily?

Is it streaming music’s lack of physicality, the absence of actual discs and packaging? Actually, no. When I look back at my old collections of vinyl and CDs, my stomach churns a bit. I spent all of that money on all of those albums, and now they occupy a greater share of the real estate in my home than I can reasonably justify, like old chests full of sunk costs. In truth, I don’t miss records as objects at all, and don’t aspire to own any more of them.

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Forecast for Music in the Cloud

The just-announced Google Music Beta offers a cloud-based storage locker for your music, theoretically letting you play your files from anywhere or on any compatible device. The initial reports seem to indicate that it doesn’t work very well, but it’s sure to improve. Amazon already offers something similar in its Cloud Drive product, and Apple, it is rumored, will join in at some unspecified point this year with an offering of their own.

There’s an inevitability to storing music on the cloud, but what I’d like to see is something a little more ambitious. It’s great to eliminate the need for local storage of music files, but why simply move those files to a server somewhere? If music can be served with near ubiquity, why not serve more than just the music?

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Music at the Speed of Hype

A few weeks ago, fan site Radiohead At Ease — among other sources — reported on an unsubstantiated rumor that Radiohead’s long-awaited eighth album was already complete. Then, this morning, the Internet woke up to find that apparently the album is finished after all and fans can pre-order it immediately. Physical copies of the new record won’t be available for a few months, but the songs will be available for download this Saturday. Wow.

This is the way music works in the 21st Century: no waiting through months and months of unconfirmed deadlines, no release dates announced several quarters in advance, no slogging through interminable marketing campaigns trying to build up anticipation, no manufacturing timelines holding up the delivery of the songs, no record companies just generally getting in the way. When the music’s done, it ships. This will soon be the norm for record releases but at the moment it still strikes me as kind of amazing. Now, if the band could just finish recording their records a bit more quickly, we’d really be living in the future.

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A Metallic Taste

AnvilGenerally I’ve no truck with heavy metal music and like it that way, as there’s almost nothing about the genre that appeals to me. Nevertheless, that didn’t stop me from enjoying the hell out of Sacha Gervasi’s 2008 documentary “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” which I watched a few nights ago. The movie tells the sometimes hilarious, somewhat sad and shockingly heartwarming story of an indefatigable Canadian metal band that, some three decades after their initial, minor brush with success, continues to plug away in search of rock stardom. It’s surprisingly well made, being gorgeously photographed and incisively edited, and is also universally appealing, even if like myself you prefer a lot fewer serifs in your music, if you’ll permit me to contort a metaphor for novel purposes (you know what I mean!).

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Oh-Nine’s Ox Tails

Music. I listened to a lot of it last year. Not nearly as many as lots of people, I’m sure. But I had an Emusic account, an Amazon Prime account and a sufficiently generous credit card limit to supply me with days of listening entertainment — 1,530 songs played continuously over 3.7 days, according to iTunes.

Looking back, I liked a lot of the music I heard, and got reasonably excited about it too. Maybe not as excited as I used to get about music, back when I had a lot more free time, a lot less money, and a mistaken belief that pop music could be useful a framework for living one’s life. But for the first year in many years, I got genuinely enthusiastic about what seemed like a lot of new acts. Maybe it was a subconscious attempt to retain or rekindle youth as I entered parenthood, or maybe it was the fact that a brilliant record label run by a friend from my twenties came roaring back even more brilliantly than it had ever been before, but I found a lot to like when I plugged my earbuds into my iPod last year. Anyway you look at it, there were a lot of good tunes in 2009, and I’d like to share some of them with you.

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Having Fun with Pains

Last week, The Hype Machine, a sort of combination music meta-blog and playlist, published its round-up from the year just ended, including its listing of the top fifty bands of 2009, with each of the fifty slots illustrated by an invited visual artist. If you skip ahead, you’ll see that the indie pop contenders The Pains at Being Pure at Heart came in at number thirteen, and that the illustration was done by none other than yours truly.

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Muxtape Pushes Play Again

MuxtapeIn its original form, Muxtape, the still-influential and, at the time, insufficiently legal music sharing site was a service for users to load and share playlists of their own music. Since its demise last year, it’s been greatly missed.

In its latest incarnation, launched last week, Muxtape has been re-imagined as a service for bands, allowing them to assemble and customize promotional pages (including their own playlists) from stock parts. (For now, bands can only participate if invited by other bands.) It’s a radical makeover, but if you were to overhaul the now-iconic Muxtape 1.0, this would be a very sensible way to do it.

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This cover for the second record from Swedish chanteuse Frida Hyvönen really shouldn’t work. The comically wild typesetting for the word “wild,” the bland inset layout, the histrionic equine imagery, the leopard print… nearly everything about it offends my sensibilities. And yet I think it’s really something amazing, a piece of design that transcends pretension and slips into ‘art’ without fuss. I want it blown up big and framed on my wall. And the music is good, too.

Frida Hyvönen
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