fitteR happieR – How Depressing are Radiohead Songs?

Via Freecodecamp’s weekly email, I came across this R-based analysis that estimates and charts how depressing and sad Radiohead songs are, grouped by album. The level of sadness is determined using a function that accounts for both melodic factors (i.e., is the music sad) as well as the lyrical content. An interesting read from a coding standpoint, and after listening to a bunch of songs and comparing with the results, I think it’s about right. A lower score is a “more depressing” song.

Music I Discovered in 2016, and Some Thoughts on Subscription Streaming

I spent some time organizing my music over the long weekend, and thought I’d share a playlist I kept throughout the year of songs and artists I discovered. Most of it was released in 2016, but there are plenty of exceptions that were simply new to me. For those who know my taste in music, it’s about what you’d expect – half americana/country/folk with lots of pedal steel guitar, and the rest a mix of indie, alternative, hip hop, and electronic.

For full albums from the artists above, I’d recommend just a handful:
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth – Sturgill Simpson
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit – Courtney Barnett
Paradise – The Wood Brothers
The Education of a Wandering Man – Jamestown Revival
Schmilco – Wilco
Soft Animals – EP – Sofi Tukker
Fear Fun – Father John Misty (I also recommend his newer album, ‘I Love You Honeybear’)

It’s easier to share music on Spotify, but I’ve come full circle back to Apple after the Apple Music subscription service launched. I started with Spotify when subscription streaming first began, but never liked the UI. I switched to Google Play in 2014, which was an improvement, but I still found myself using Apple for my existing music library. So when Apple Music launched in 2015, it was the obvious option for me. I prefer Apple’s interface and playlists over those from both Spotify and Google Play, and like the integration with my mostly obsolete library of music I accumulated from 1994-2015.

But Apple still has quite a bit to work out. It can be buggy across devices, and there should be a better social component to the platform. There should also be easier ways to share more than a preview of songs, especially if they are shared with someone who has an Apple Music subscription.

It’s interesting to see the music industry converge on a $120 per year subscription revenue model. You can now pay Apple, Spotify, Google, and a range of smaller providers $10 per month for basically unlimited access to all available music. There are some exceptions, such as regional access – earlier this year I was frustrated that quite a bit of Japanese music isn’t available in my Apple Music subscription – but just about everything is available.

After making the leap to a subscription model, I think most people who care about music will be locked in for a long time. There may be some switching between platforms, as I have done, but there’s a huge incentive to avoid ever paying for an album or song again because everything’s already included in the subscription. I now only buy albums when I want the vinyl or know the artist. And once you go a few years without buying albums or songs it becomes pretty difficult to walk away from the subscription model. You’ll either lose all the music  you discovered over that period, incur a big cost to purchase it a la carte, or settle for an ad-supported model with no downloads on mobile devices.

I suspect most people will just keep paying the $10 per month.

It seems odd to me though – maxing out at $120 per customer each year feels like a sub-optimal outcome for the music industry. With music ownership – physical albums and digital downloads – it was easier for the music industry to extract different amounts of value from different market segments. Casual listeners may have only spent $20-30 per year on a couple albums or a handful of songs, but music enthusiasts would spend substantially more. For many years I probably averaged $300-400 per year on music purchases.  With unlimited streaming subscriptions, it’s much more difficult to price discriminate across these segments. My streaming subscription is worth more than $10 per month to me, but that’s all I have to pay.

As I was thinking about this I became more curious about the streaming subscription market and found some data on music revenue trends:

US recorded music revenues peaked in 1999 at over $14B per year when CDs still dominated, went into free fall for the next decade as pirating became a thing, and then stabilized at around $7B per year in 2010 and have stayed there since. In 2010 streaming subscriptions represented just 3.5% of the market. By 2014 they were 12% ($800M), and in 2015 were 18% ($1.2B). With Apple reporting 20M paid subscriptions globally last month, that’s about $2.4B per year assuming prices are similar between countries. At least half of this is probably in the US. Add in Spotify, Google, and the long tail of smaller players, and I’ll bet last year’s US paid subscription revenue was well over $2B, passing CD revenue for the first time.

As the music ownership markets gradually disappear – taking  the most valuable music customers with them – and subscription streaming becomes dominant for the foreseeable future, I suspect we’ll see new pricing models that try and extract more value from heavier subscription users. A few thoughts come to mind. Caps on the number of monthly streams could be added, not unlike mobile and home broadband data caps. Quality tiers could be introduced (i.e., making Tidal a feature, not a product). There could be higher price tiers for access to new music within the first few months after release. Taking this a bit further, artists with negotiating power who want to maximize new album revenue, such as Taylor Swift, could charge via the streaming music providers for early access to their new releases.

I’d bet overall subscription prices rise at some point as well. Prices are currently set at levels to acquire new users and grow the market. The music industry needs to convince the masses to try a new way of paying for music. Once the subscription market is relatively saturated and few people are buying music to own anymore, I would think the music industry would raise the cost per stream, forcing Apple, Spotify and the rest to raise their prices. Maybe not in 2017, but I’d guess soon after as the music industry regains some confidence after a painful and uncertain 15 or so years.

World Away

Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer, who plays the drums, recently released a 20 song album, Sukierae. I just gave it a full listen last week. First reaction: much of it is awesome. I didn’t expect to enjoy it for the drumming, but I found myself extremely impressed with Spencer. Particularly World Away and Diamond Light Pt. 1:

Some of that is reminiscent of Bonham. Great rhythms. By about two thirds of the way through though, it seemed as though a handful of songs didn’t need to make the cut. They’re all good, but they simply reminded me of older Wilco or solo Tweedy, or even Mermaid Avenue without the Guthrie lyrics. And while I welcome new material, I’d enjoy the “whole album” experience a bit more if it were a bit more concise, focused only on what makes this new family collaboration different from Jeff’s prior work. That said, I definitely recommend checking the whole thing out.

Andrew Combs’ Rainy Day Song

I discovered Andrew Combs about a year and a half ago when he opened for Shovels and Rope at the Sinclair in Cambridge. He’s got a really nice country/folk/americana thing going on, and if you like that sort of sound, I recommend checking out his album Worried Man on Spotify, and his earlier EP Tennessee Time.

I recently saw him a second time at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge, and he opened the set with a folk song off his upcoming second album which brought the noisy bar room to silence. I just found a recording of it, and thought I’d share. Doesn’t quite compare to how it sounded live, but beautiful nonetheless:

Some Nice Americana: Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis

Our YearI just discovered and really enjoyed Our Year by Austin-based Bruce Robison & Kelly Willis. The album came out late last month, and has a nice mix of Texas country and folk. The pace varies a good amount as well, with some upbeat tunes and plenty of mellow ones. And there’s some great harmonica and pedal steel work. The whole album’s on Spotify.

Here’s a blurb from All Music: “On their sophomore duet outing, this husband and wife deliver a soulful take on traditional (not retro) country music”

And here are a few tracks:

1969 Reviews of Led Zeppelin

Magazine writers in the 1960’s probably didn’t think their content would be easily accessible, searchable in fact,  more than 40 years later. The internet is an amazing thing. My good friend Ed recently sent along a fairly negative 1969 review of Led Zeppelin I that was written by John Mendelsohn and published in Rolling Stone magazine:

“The latest of the British blues groups so conceived offers little that its twin, the Jeff Beck Group, didn’t say as well or better three months ago, and the excesses of the Beck group’s Truth album (most notably its self-indulgence and restrictedness), are fully in evidence on Led Zeppelin’s debut album.

Jimmy Page, around whom the Zeppelin revolves, is, admittedly, an extraordinarily proficient blues guitarist and explorer of his instrument’s electronic capabilities. Unfortunately, he is also a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs, and the Zeppelin album suffers from his having both produced it and written most of it (alone or in combination with his accomplices in the group).”

With hindsight, it’s mildly amusing given Zeppelin’s subsequent recognition and fame, but not all that surprising — innovative music takes some time to catch. And there are plenty of stories of early critics predicting Zeppelin’s downfall (tangentially related — this Radiolab episode has a good historical anecdote about an audience rioting after hearing some innovative classical music).

But out of curiosity, I immediately searched to see if John had reviewed Led Zeppelin II, which in fact he had. Eight months later here’s what he had to say about the album and Jimmy Page:

“Hey, man, I take it all back! This is one fucking heavyweight of the album! OK — I’ll concede that until you’ve listened to the album eight hundred times, as I have, it seems as if it’s just one especially heavy song extended over the space of two whole sides. But, hey! you’ve got to admit that the Zeppelin has their distinctive and enchanting formula down stone-cold, man. Like you get the impression they could do it in their sleep.

And who can deny that Jimmy Page is the absolute number-one heaviest white blues guitarist between 5’4″ and 5’8″ in the world?? Shit, man, on this album he further demonstrates that he could absolutely fucking shut down any whitebluesman alive, and with one fucking hand tied behind his back too.”

The review goes on, and if anything, becomes even more over the top. Looks like he came around.

The Broken Spoke

I spent the Thanksgiving break with my girlfriend’s family in Austin, and finally made it out to The Broken Spoke, a country venue known for some of the best honky tonk in the area. We had tried to go almost a year ago, after it was recommended to me by a friend who lived in Austin for a number of years, only to find out it was closed the day after Christmas. We went back this time and made it in. It’s a pretty interesting place, that from my limited experience, at least appears to capture the Austin country scene well.

Inside there are a number of tables surrounding a large dance floor, with a stage in the far back. On stage was Gary P. Nunn, an apparently well known Texas country musician, who started out in the 60’s and was big through the 80’s. He played with a simple band — just a drummer, an upwright bassist, and a pedal steel guitar player — and Gary sang and played the guitar. I wasn’t blown away. They were good, but I’ve enjoyed even some of the countryesque bands at Toad, or even some of the music we saw at White Horse in Austin a year ago, much more. But it was fun, and the atmosphere was unique.

The best part was the people watching. The crowd varied from young people in their 20’s to some who seemed as though they’d been coming for 40+ years. Many on the dance floor killed it — showing off some impressive swing on other something-step dance skills that I struggled to fake. I definitely recommend checking it out, although if I were to go back, I’d make sure to look up the band in advance.

Here’s the place from the outside:

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And here’s my girlfriend and her brother showing off their moves:

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Andrew Combs

Last weekend I went to see Shovels & Rope at the Sinclair in Cambridge. A few things to quickly note.

1. I can’t really describe Shovels & Rope well, but if you haven’t heard of them, check them out. A recent NYT article actually gets it pretty close: “They like to say they are “making as much noise as they can” with two old guitars, a kick drum, snare, harmonica, tambourine and occasional keyboard. I dare to match them with the couple that set the standard for country duets, Johnny Cash and June Carter. Both couples share Southern roots and that music-from-the-back porch country sound.” They were great live too, although they didn’t quite meet my (very high) expectations.

2. I liked the Sinclair a lot. It’s a new music venue right behind Harvard Square. They seem to have a good line-up of artists coming through, the sound is great, and the layout’s well-done. A nice addition to Cambridge.

3. The opening artist, Andrew Combs, completely blew me away. And I almost skipped his set. He’s a Tennessee-based guitar player and singer, and performed an acoustic set with just a pedal steel player backing him up. Reminded me a bit of Ryan Adams, but he’s definitely got his own thing going on. Here are a clip I shot.  The quality’s not great, and it doesn’t do his set justice, but it’s something:

Thanks to Ed and Cress for the tickets.