Friday, June 10, 2005

Catching up with the digital music revolution

I know revolution is a pretty strong word (and particularly overused on this blog, i might add), but I've tried Yahoo's Launchcast radio for the past couple of months and am very pleased. For $2.50/month (if you pay for 12 months at one time) you get to hear a stream of music, commercial-free, and tuned to your personal taste, skipping past songs you don't like. I've been able to hear music that I was previously very familiar with, much that I was familiar with but hadn't heard in a while, and a lot that I was completely new to me.

Some of the music I've been happy to be reacquainted with : Cake (unique brass-heavy pop), Nick Drake (70s brit-folk, i recommend his "best-of" album Way to Blue), Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Asian Dub Foundation (brit-asian answer to RATM), System of a Down (especially their 2002 album Steal This Album whose existence I was previously unaware of) and Bruce Cockburn (canadian folk). I must admit to also having the nostalgia-inducing experience of listening to music from earlier times in my life (the Bangles, Def Leppard, Silverchair).

Among my favourites of the completely new stuff : Eisley (cherubic-sounding radiohead-inspired upbeat pop from Tyler,TX. I like the track "Plenty Of Paper".) , Jeff Buckley's absolutely breathtaking cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" (I like his version of Dylan's "I shall be released" also), David Gray (brit-folk), DJ Cheb I Sabbah (algerian berber-jewish DJ with a CD full of indian music --- what the ?), Orchestra Baobab (senegalese band with a cuban sound), Jai Uttal (rock interpretations of bhajans), My Vitriol (brit-sri-lankan guitar rock)...That list could probably be a lot longer but I'll stop.

What I like about the service :
- Access to a large catalog: now I can legally and cheaply listen to music I like without being restricted to my CD collection. Unlike satellite radio you can skip past music you don't like.

- Eclectic mix : Speaking as someone who until recently listened to music on CDs, and for whom changing the music usually meant pressing eject, changing the CD, and then hitting play, I really like being able move from, say, Femi Kuti (nigerian funk/jazz) to Rage Against the Machine to Fairport Convention (brit-folk) to U.Srinivas without raising a finger. Also listening to a particular musician/genre in small doses means that I get bored less easily and appreciate the music more.

-Potentially cheaper and fairer music distribution system : An internet-based distribution system seems like it could save by not involving the manufacture and shipping of those quaint plastic discs. Also by having listeners directly rate the tracks they listen to, the musician knows exactly how popular his music is. Ideally the system should have a low barrier of entry to musicians and let listeners decide exactly what music succeeds or fails: a more perfect marketplace.

-Potential to share music : you can listen to the music that others are listening to by listening to their launch station. While it is not an accurate representation of a person's taste (because of all the new music in the mix), it probably gives a rough idea. When I've got tired of my own station I've listened to the other stations --- both the genre-specific ones or individual member stations. The potential to build communities of listeners with similar tastes seems vast. Let me know if you have a launch station so that I can share in your music.

What I don't like :
- No repeats : While there is a forward skip button there is no backwards skip or repeat button.

- Limited control : If there is a specific track/album that you'd like to hear you can't be sure that you'll hear it. All you can do is go in and give that track/album the highest possible rating so that the probability that it will be played is increased. For example I just found out that Jeff Buckley covers Nusrat (!) on his Live at Sin-é album. So I gave that track the maximum rating and hit skip several times but didn't get to hear it.

-Clunky software : while the stream of the music is usually uninterrupted by buffering delays, the associated browser (that allows you to browse through artists, albums, genres and stations) is slow. It is a beta release so I expect they're working on improving it.

Actually for a few more bucks a month I could upgrade to their "Yahoo Unlimited" music service which would save me from my first two complaints. For the moment I'm going to be happy with getting music that I'm particularly desperate to hear multiple times, from my local public library.

I swear they're not paying me.
UPDATE : A couple of hours after that post went up I got the following email from a co-founder of launch-cast(!). Nice.

Thanks for the kind words about LAUNCHcast on your blog. Let me know if you ever have any more feedback about the service!

Todd Beaupre
Director, Personalization (and LAUNCHcast co-founder)
Yahoo! Music


Anonymous Manoj said...

heh. I could swear I saw Nick Drake being mentioned on some blog, but just couldn't remember which one. Your Kottayam post (& your other history nuggets) threw me off real bad...and I didn't think it was this one. Sorry.
Back to Nick Drake...the man(kid?) was awesome. I've managed to "acquire" all his albums over time. And I'm yet to tire of him. Will systematically check out all your other recos. Maybe even subscribe to Launchcast.

6/19/2005 03:30:00 PM  
Blogger ashvin said...

I'm flattered that you're taking my music recommendations :) See, Todd : my free advertising already seems to be working.

6/19/2005 06:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Manoj said...

When I scanned your listening list, it sprung up many familiar names. Anyone who listens to Drake/Fairport Convention, System of a Down, Asian Dub Foundation etc. must have a few recommendations that'll fit into my "ecelectic" collection too.

6/19/2005 06:39:00 PM  
Blogger ashvin said...

Anyone who listens to Drake/Fairport Convention, System of a Down, Asian Dub Foundation etc. must have a few recommendations that'll fit into my "eclectic" collection too.

That's good. I was wondering if I should warn you that some of those band (SOAD, RATM and ADF) were not that much like some others (Drake/Fairport/David Gray/ Bruce Cockburn) ; but I clearly needn't have been concerned :)

6/20/2005 09:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Manoj said...

And thanks for the spell-check :). I stared at that word for like 2 minutes after making the comment, wondering if an error-correction follow-up was necessary. Maybe I should've, considering it was in "" and all.

I just realized you didn't have any Indie-music on your list - The Shins, Iron & Wine types. Or maybe I didn't recognize any on your list. You should check them out...I'm sure Launchcast will have their stuff.

6/20/2005 11:28:00 PM  

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