Music Store Showdown: iTunes vs Amazon vs eMusic

So Amazon recently threw its hat into the thunderdome of online digital music sales. The store’s big brand name and huge retail operation instantly make it one of the top tier marts for digital music. As Amazon MP3 is seen primarily as a challenger to the iTunes Store’s throne, I originally wanted to do a compare and contrast with that gorilla, but later thought that unfair to eMusic, who consistently claims to be the second largest online store on the net. The iTunes Store has more than enough going for it that an equilibrium will eventually be met with whatever competition comes its way. eMusic, however, might be quite vulnerable to Amazon’s might and muscle.

music Store Showdown

But just how does that muscle shape up?

I took a look at Amazon MP3, trying to gauge its place on the market and judge its strengths and weaknesses compared to its more established rivals. Each service was evaluated using the following criteria:

  • Format & Quality
  • Selection
  • Search & Ease of Use
  • Pricing
  • Artwork and Tagging
  • Free Stuff

Format & Quality

Amazon MP3

As the store’s name suggests, Amazon MP3 provides music in the MP3 format. MP3 is incompatible with any type of rights management and the most notable claim of AMZMP3 is the freedom of the file format it is willing to sell. MP3s, of course, work on virtually all portable devices. Amazon MP3’s also pitches its files as being high quality. The site claims to supply a very healthy bitate of 256kbps for its downloads, but the files I’ve purchased have averaged 214 (VBR) kbps. Though they sound fine to my ears, it is less than the site advertises.

Getting info on the file tells me that it was encoded using LAME 3.97.

eMusic

Like Amazon, eMusic provides free and open MP3 files and has been doing so since 2003. The MP3s are encoded around 192kbps (VBR) using LAME 3.92. The music sounds great.

The iTunes Store

The iTunes Store has been the spearhead in the adoption of the AAC format, selling AAC encoded files since the store’s 2003 inception. AAC is billed as a successor to MP3 and is particularly noted for sounding better at lower bitrates. At the time of this writing, the iTunes Store is providing two flavors of AAC. The standard encoding is 128kbps, which to its credit sounds pretty good. The store benefits from having the songs encoded from the original master recordings, rather than being ripped from a CD. Throughout much of the store’s history, however, Apple has been forced by its contracts with record labels to include the much-criticized and oft-despised rights management, FairPlay, on all song downloads. Most of the songs it sell come packaged this way.

Recently though, the store has made moves to free its music from those restrictions. The iTunes Plus service sells songs with no DRM attached and doubles the bitrate to 256kbps. There’s a lot of debate about the merits of AAC vs MP3 at higher bitrates, so the benefit of the increase may not be that significant, but surely, it can’t hurt. Currently, about 1/3 of the store’s inventory is offered via iTunes Plus.

Winner: 3-way tie (with edge to Amazon and eMusic). The files supplied by each store, while not lossless, sound quite adequate for the majority of listening applications and music systems. iTunes loses a couple points for the continued existence of FairPlay, but the way things are trending, it probably won’t be around for much longer.

Update 28 March 2009: Apple has announced that by April 2009, 100% of its music content will be DRM-free. It that comes to pass, then there really will be little to debate about format choice. All three stores will be using files that are compatible with a large number and wide range of players and hardware.

Selection

Each store likes to boast about its large catalogue. iTunes is by far the largest with about six million songs to choose from. eMusic and Amazon both claim to offer more than two million songs each (Playlistmag says eMusic has 2.7 million UPDATE 11/7: Macworld reports that eMusic now stores 3 million songs in its catalogue, while Amazon’s complete list shows 2,479,112 at the time of this writing). Impressive numbers all around, but catalogue size doesn’t mean squat if it doesn’t have the songs you’re looking for. So, I went through the music libraries of three people and randomly choose 20 songs from each. I then looked for those songs on all three services, giving one point for songs on the album I was searching for or half a point for the song in another context (soundtrack, compilation, greatest hits, etc).

Here are the results:

The iTunes Store is easily the champion in this contest, besting its two rivals combined. Of the 60 songs searched, iTunes scored 46 points, Amazon finished with 20 and eMusic ranked in with 14.5. Within those results, there were only 2 instances where either AMZMP3 or eMusic had a song that iTunes did not and 5 instances where eMusic provided a song that Amazon did not. In total, there were 10 songs that none of the stores carried in their inventory.

But besides the run-of-the-mill catalogue, each store has its selectional perks.

iTunes offers tons of exclusive content, such as its iTunes Originals series, celebrity playlists or the AOL Sessions series.

eMusic has an extensive selection of “eMusic Only” releases, many of them full live concerts. The site also hosts the world’s largest collection of DRM-free music, which eMusic notes come from 20,000+ independent labels. However, the iTunes Store and Amazon are both gaining in that respect. What you won’t find, however, is any of the majors, which is a bit ironic considering that Universal used to own the place.

In contrast to eMusic and iTunes, Amazon MP3 is lacking in the exclusives department. There’s no “Amazon Presents…” or the like, just search-and-download. In a notable coup, however, AMZMP3 is the first and only store to offer digital downloads of Radiohead’s albums (plus one single for the completeists out there). Though the band’s label, EMI, also participates in Apple’s iTunes Plus program, Radiohead only wants to sell complete albums, which violate Apple’s policy to offer track-only purchases. Thus, OK Computer at Amazon, but not at iTunes. Update 3 June 2008: Radiohead’s complete catalog is now also available DRM-free from iTunes.

Winner: Each store offers a reason to shop there, but at the end of the day, it’s the iTunes Store that will most likely be selling what you’re looking to buy.

Search & Ease of Use

iTunes

In typical Apple fashion, the iTunes Store screams ease of use.

The storefront is built into the iTunes desktop app, making for one stop shopping. Apple has gone to great lengths to integrate the offline library management functions of the program with the online sales environment. The ubiquitous “iTunes Store” arrows and the “Minibrowser” might be a little intrusive, but those can be turned off.

Once in the store, finding songs/albums/artists is trivial; just type it into the search bar, though most of the time you have to sort through movies/tv shows/podcasts/etc in the results. The store does a pretty good job of segregating the various types of media. iTunes falters when it comes to the exploratory level. In the four years since its launch, I’ve never found it all that comfortable or appealing to browse the place for an extended period of time.

Like almost all online shoppes, the iTunes Store allows users to leave feedback, ratings and comments about albums. It also provides rudimentary recommendations in the form of “People who bought X also bought Y.” Users can also contribute to the store via iMixes, compilations put together by individuals and submitted to the store. However, the presentation is pretty sparse and there’s minimal “social aspects” to them, i.e. you can see what another person has rated or look at their iMixes, but you can’t “befriend” them or interact or see recommendations based on tastes you might have in common.

Once purchased, songs download straight into your library. It’s seamless. But be sure to make a backup of everything you buy. Apple only allows you to download the song one time, though if a catastrophic event wipes out your collection, the store does permit an unpublicized one-time re-download of your purchase history.

Some songs, usually determined by length, are not available as a single download, but must be purchased as part of an album. That can be a drag when you just want the one song.

eMusic

eMusic’s storefront is HTML-based. The store can be accessed and songs downloaded from any web browser. Recently though, the company released eMusic Remote as a way to integrate the online store with the desktop. The app runs on Mac/Win/Lin and is based on the Mozilla browser. Think: iTunes-Store-inside-Firefox. eMusic Remote provides an easy way to navigate the store and manage downloads, which can automatically be added to your iTunes library, should you so desire.

The site’s search feature could use some vast improvements. Often, the results it returns are far too many, especially for simple queries, and they don’t seem to be prioritized and are not sub-sortable. Sometimes, I find it easier to do a Google site search instead: site:emusic.com.

Previewing music comes in the form of downloadable m4u playlist files, which can be opened by iTunes or Quicktime Player. The process can be tedious for single tracks, but is really quite nice for checking out complete albums. Though, I’d rather they switched to Flash-based, in-browser previewing. UPDATE 04/17/08: Hooray! eMusic recently switched to an in-browser sample preview system. It greatly improves the ability to get a taste for a song/band/album before deciding to buy.

In contrast to iTunes, eMusic’s social aspects are more robust. While similar in theory to what iTunes does, the execution is better. Each album’s page shows any reviews that members have written; that’s not special. But, where iTunes says “People who bought X also bought Y,” eMusic is more specific, giving recommendations based on what a handful of particular fans also enjoy. These make great springboards for further exploration.

Also, an album’s page shows which users’ ‘playlists’ it appears on. Akin to iMixes, a user playlist can be whatever the author wants it to be. A playlist can be as simple as someone’s public bookmarks, or as indepth and voluminous as “80+ Reasons Why Japan Rules,” much like Amazon’s Listmania.

One of the best music discovery tools I’ve run across on any platform is eMusic’s Neighbors screen. It shows fellow music fans with similar tastes. Hover over a shared artist and get recommendations based on that artist. On my current screen, based on my interest in Mogwai, I have five neighbors telling me to check out Cat Power, Of Montreal, and eight other artists. Using this tool, I’ve found a number of new and interesting bands based on my intersections with my musical neighbors.

eMusic, unlike iTunes, offers no restrictions on the number of times you can download a purchase. Hard drive melt? Just log into your history a grab it again. Also, unlike iTunes, eMusic has no restriction on songs based on length. There are no “album only” purchases. Every song, even a 30 minute opus, is available as a single purchase.

emusic neighbors
eMusic Neighbors screen

Amazon MP3

AMZMP3, like eMusic, is browser-based with both direct download for singles and a desktop app for grabbing albums. The company knows how to run a web store, and its expertise shows. If results are available, a search will return a list of artists, albums and song that match. Songs can be previewed immediately via a nifty on-page Flash-based system, or more details on the album can found on the album’s page, which integrates the feedback, reviews and ratings from the physical CD’s entry in the vast AMZ database.

Likewise, if MP3s are available, the option to buy them appear on the actual physical CD’s page. A useful gimmick that doesn’t seem to be in place though is, “Buy a CD, download MP3 immediately” type bundles. I suspect that would result in a fair amount of up-selling.

Getting the actual music files is straightforward enough. For single songs, click the “Buy MP3” button, confirm payment and a single MP3 will be all yours for the downloadin’. Whole albums require the Amazon MP3 Downloader program. When purchasing an album, a reference file is downloaded to the desktop. That reference file tells the Downloader which album to retrieve. Then the music begins to flow. When finished, the app will auto add to iTunes if requested. The process requires a couple extra steps, but it works.

Like iTunes, some music at AMZMP3 is album only, though it’s hard to know what or why. Those Radiohead albums for example, no individual songs can be purchased. The length of the song isn’t necessarily a factor. There are some 17 and 18 minute-long Mogwai tracks available separately, while at least one 11 minute Sonic Youth song is album only. Adding to the confusion is the store’s somewhat perplexing price structure.

Overall though, the site is still considered to be “public beta,” so we can guess that it will improve with time.

Winner: Each services is pretty much on par with the others on the ease-of-use front. None have a particularly show-stopping difficulty. iTunes gets points for the all-in-one solution, while Amazon is a known quantity that now extends to MP3 sales. eMusic’s search can be challenging, but its re-download policy and music discovery tools make it very appealing to the adventurous.

Pricing

The iTunes Store charges a flat $0.99 per song for individual tracks. Albums cost the sum of all songs, or $9.99, whichever is lower. It’s the same way throughout the store; there are no variations.

Unlike iTunes, Amazon charges a variable price for downloads. At launch, Amazon’s typical price per song is $0.89, though some are $0.99. Most complete albums run $4.95 to $9.99, though I’ve not figured out how those prices are computed. Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves is 11 songs at $0.99 each or $7.97 for the whole album, a difference of $2.92. Pink Floyd’s The Wall is currently $8.99 for all 26 songs ($0.35 vs $0.99 a piece), whereas Dark Side of the Moon has some songs for $0.89, others for $0.99, or $7.99 for the album, a difference of only $0.62. It doesn’t make much sense, but in some cases, you might find a better deal than the iTunes Store.

eMusic’s business model is different than the pay-per-track services of Amazon and iTunes. Similar to the Netflix model, subscribers pay for a membership plan to access a certain number of downloads per 30-day cycle, rather than paying for songs individually. In my case, I pay $14.95 for 50 downloads every thirty days. If I download all 50 songs, I end up spending just $0.30 per song. There are more extensive bulk plans that will bring the price down to $0.25 per song. Also, the length of the song doesn’t matter; a 30 minute epic track costs just one download credit, as does a 30 second interlude.

Maximizing the value of one’s subscription requires diligence however. It’s never happened to me personally, but if one forgets or is too busy to retrieve their current downloads, well then, they get squat for their $15. In my case, the worst I’ve ever done is have 6 credits left at the end of the cycle. I’m usually plagued by the *other* subscription conundrum: Wanting a 10-song album, with only four credits until the next refresh. Most of the time, I solve this dilemma by grabbing the first four songs, bookmarking the album in my “save for later” area, then return first thing after the refresh (I have an iCal reminder tell me when it’s time). Alternately, I find eMusic to be an inexpensive way of exploring classical music.

Winner: On price alone, eMusic wins, provided you take full advantage of your subscription. With the $14.95 plan, you’ll be on par with iTunes as long as you download at least 15 songs per cycle. At this time, Amazon is also undercutting iTunes on price. This could change after the honeymoon period, as more popular songs might be priced higher than $0.99, but for now, iTunes is the loser on the money factor.

Artwork and Tagging

Songs from all three stores come with comprehensive ID3 tags, providing song name, artists, album, genre, etc. AMZMP3 provides high-quality album art embedded in the file, while iTunes supplies it in a separate sidecar file. eMusic will download a jpeg along with the MP3s, but it must be manually added to the files. eMusic’s jpeg however is a pitifully small 150 x 150 pixels. so I either use iTunes to retrieve the album cover or search for better art using sloth radio. UPDATE: 4 Dec 2008: However, a recent redesign of the site does provide high-quality album art in the browser. It must still be manually added to the music files, but at least it’s right there when you download an album.

Winner: Slight edge to Amazon for embedding the art, slight knock to eMusic for making me work to find better art.

Free Stuff

The iTunes Store provides free content across its entire product line, from TV episodes to movie clips to sample audiobook chapters and of course, music, not a day goes by without some kind of freebie posted and available for consumption. Most notable is the Single of the Week, which changes every Tuesday. There are entire websites devoted to tracking the latest zero cost offerings at the store.

Likewise, eMusic also offers free downloads. You don’t even need to be a customer to snag them. eMusic offers two types of freebies. One, the Daily Download is updated every day. Other, long term free tracks are kept in their own part of the site. At the time of this writing, there are roughly 70 tracks up for the taking. Since eMusic caters to those outside the mainstream, most of the free tracks are from the relatively obscure, so if you’re looking to explore a bit, here’s a chance to do so without spending a cent.

I’ve not found much zero cost music at AMZMP3. There’s certainly no breakout section saying “Free Downloads Here.” However, the list of every available MP3, sorted by price, reveals a total of 36 songs available free of charge. The store is young, so who knows what kind of free stuff is planned for it.

Winner: Each store has something to give away, but eMusic gains an edge by not even requiring an account to download it. iTunes has a lot of variety, plus the entire podcast directory and iTunes U, so mucho bonus points there. Amazon lags at a distant third.

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In terms of service, the stores are fairly evenly matched. Some foibles here and there, but, hey, nobody’s perfect. Amazon is a worthy contender and an appealling place to look when you just have to have a song right now. eMusic pretty much rules for those who enjoy exploring off the beaten path. But if you want to be absolutely sure to find the songs you’re looking for, iTunes can’t be beat. You just might have to pay a premium for the convenience and hope it’s not poisoned with DRM.

Personally, I find each to be a fine service and I see no reason to exclude any of them from my music-buying arsenal. In fact, I look forward to using Amazon a little more. And maybe, just maybe, the pressure will drive those other two companies to improve their digital music services.

Note: In the interest of disclosure, you should be aware that tunequest acts as an affiliate for two of the stores mentioned in this article. They send me a pittance whenever I send them a customer. However, that relationship in no way changes my opinion of each company. The fact is that I would not have chosen to become affiliated were I not already impressed with the services in the first place. They each have their strengths and weaknesses.

Johnny Greenwood – Bodysong: Accessible Abstracts

Johnny Greenwood - Bodysong

get bodysong at amazon

All the recent Radiohead hoopla reminded me about the band’s other driving creative force: Johnny Greenwood. He’s the lead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist responsible for a lot of those awesome riffs that Radiohead fans love oh-so-much (he tied with fellow band member Ed O’Brien as Rolling Stones’ 59th and 60th greatest guitar players of all time). Besides his work in a rock band, Greenwood also composes music of a more classical nature. In fact, he’s been the BBC’s composer in residence since 2004.

His first solo release is Bodysong, the score to the 2003 film of the same name. I remember reading a little about it when it came out, but have just now gotten around to giving it a serious listen. Overall, the album’s style is aligned with contemporary classical, but its exact nature is hard to pin down. It sweeps between orchestral strings, flighty jazz and mellow ambiance while maintaining a cohesive identity.

Unlike what is typically thought of as abstract/avant-garde music where the art derives from the sculpting of sound that isn’t necessarily pleasant to listen to, Bodysong is largely recognizable as traditional music, though not with much pop sensibility. The music here is compelling, if not particularly catchy.

In the case of many of the score’s more mellow tracks, it’s tempting to describe them as “soundscapes,” like a minimalist rising and fadings of tones. But the work here shows too much structure to be classified that way, with rhythm and percussion giving form to the formless. Greenwood’s compositions are abstract without being inaccessible.

Of the thirteen tracks on the disc, Convergence and Splitter are the two highlights. Convergence takes a page from Steve Reich’s book, feature overlapping layers of pure percussion that mesmerizingly diverge and converge with each other. It’s hard to not try a pick out the various patterns. Splitter, on the other hand, is a freeform jazz piece that could easily be using the same New Orleans jazz band from Amnesiac’s Life in a Glass House.

One of the more interesting results of Bodysong is how it reinforces the idea that Radiohead really is a functioning unit. Johnny’s influence on the band’s music is readily apparent in the soft piano of the album’s opener as well as in the various electronic interjections.

Overall however, I was quite surprised by how listenable Bodysong is, despite being what should be “difficult but rewarding.”

And a multi-track sampler from the film:

Jonny Greenwood – Bodysong

8 Ways to Improve the iPod (and could be done with a firmware update)

The iPod is supposed to be “iTunes to go” but as the little music player has advanced over the years, it still lags behind in some relatively basic features, features that have been a part of the desktop program for some time. iTunes’ capabilities seem to be constantly improved and refined; its portable counterpart’s behavior has remained relative unchanged, even as it has gained photo and video support.

Forget touchscreens and Bluetooth, FLAC and DivX; here, I present a list of the iPod’s more troublesome foibles, all of which could be overcome with a firmware update, making it an even better music player.

Toggle display of the Composer tag

This is something I’ve wanted since Apple added the Composer field to iTunes five years ago: A display of the composer when listening to classical music. The 5G iPods have more than enough screen real estate to accommodate an extra line of text. It makes no sense that after all this time and after adding a way to browse and select by composer, Apple still doesn’t allow a way to view it while playing. Classical music aficionados have to either do without or devise elaborate tagging systems to see who the composer of a piece is.

Of course, not everyone has need for composer display. There certainly are people who don’t appreciate Prokofiev. Also, the field is often populated with junk from Gracenote/CBBD. A simple toggle in the iPod settings would fix that. Those of us who want to see the composer can turn it on and those who don’t can leave it off.

no composer visible
At a glance, there’s no telling who the composer is. One hack, though, would be to embed the composer name in the album artwork.

Support for the Album Artist field

iTunes 7 introduced a new data field to the song info dialogue box: Album Artist. Apple says it’s for assigning a primary artist to an album with multiple artists. It signifies a way to separate the artists producing the work from the artists performing it.

It’s a great idea for classical works that have a featured soloist in addition to the orchestra or when one artist is a featured guest on someone else’s song, eg, William Shatner featuring Henry Rollins. In this case, William Shatner is the primary artist and would be to sole “Album Artist” while “William Shatner featuring Henry Rollins” are the performing artists.

The tag works well in iTunes, keeping song listing nicely and tidily organized. The iPod, however, still separates “William Shatner” from “William Shatner featuring Henry Rollins,” leading to a cluttered interface that is difficult to use. Most of my music listening is done via iPod, so Album Artist remains under-utilized.

Album Artist would be a very useful tag. It would even solve my dilemma for tagging remix/dj albums. But without iPod support, the tag is DOA.

two shatners
Despite having the same Album Artist, these listings are still displayed by regular Artist.

Full Support for Sort fields. (accomplished)

UPDATE 3/19/08: Firmware version 1.3 for the Fifth Generation iPod adds support adds support for Sort Album and Sort Composer.

Other options recently introduced into iTunes but not into the iPod are customizable Sort Fields, which let you control how iTunes alphabetizes your artist and album listings.

By default, the iPod is smart enough to ignore “A,” “An” and “The” at the beginning of artist names. The Chemical Brothers are sorted with the C’s, for example. Starting with iTunes 7.1, you can customize the Sort name for Artists, Albums, Songs, Album Artists, Composers and TV Shows.

If you want Fiona Apple to appear with the A’s rather than the F’s, just set the Sort Artist to “Apple, Fiona” and you’ll soon see Fiona next to Aphex Twin.

It’s pretty cool, but…… on the iPod, it only works with Artists. You can customize all the albums and composers in your library and Gustav Mahler will still be chillin’ with the G’s and The Colour and The Shape will still be sorted with the T’s.

the thes
The “thes” like to hang out together in album view.

Browsable playlists

Music libraries get larger every day it seems. And the iPod’s hard drive does its best to keep up. At 80 GB, the device can hold a month or so of continuous music. For myself and others with large libraries, it’s effortless to create Smart Playlists that contain hundreds or thousands of songs based on specific criteria. Navigating those playlists can be nearly impossible as they show naught but a long list of song titles.

In my library, creating a Smart Playlist of Ambient music from between 1990 to 2000 returns 305 songs from 44 albums by 11 artists. Viewing the playlist on my iPod is a jumble of songs. I would love the option to sort and browse the artists and albums in a playlist.

Perhaps, when you select a playlist, the iPod displays an entry at the top of the song list: “Browse this playlist.”

Full-screen album art

When in full screen mode, I want the iPod to display album art as large as it can, no margins, no scaling. Just like when browsing photos, I want the image to take up the entire screen. This, the iPod can already sort of do…… if you plug it into an iPod HiFi, Apple’s own speaker system. I would like it to be standard. For more, read this recent rant.

Bonus Wishlist

I’m not annoyed by these missing features, but if they were real, I’d find them useful:

iPod Party Shuffle

A more limited version of iTunes’ Party Shuffle. When you’re shuffling, this would let you see a handful of upcoming songs. You could skip ones you don’t want to hear.

Profiles/Pre-sets

My listening preferences are different depending on whether I’m at work, in the car, at the gym, or moseying around the house. At the gym, I like to shuffle by song while at work I like to shuffle by album. When listening to ear buds, I like to use the bass booster EQ, but the bass response in my car is a little heavy, so I like to turn on the bass reducer.

It would be convenient to save different settings configurations for easy switching.

Grouping behavior that makes sense

“Grouping” is the red-headed stepchild of ID3 fields. No one *really* knows what it’s for or how to use it. Ostensibly, it’s for creating “groups” or subsets of related songs within an album. But it wasn’t until iTunes 7 that you could do anything with it (you can shuffle by Grouping).

It seems to me that an effective behavior for songs with the same Grouping to be “always keep these songs together.” For example, Mouse on Mars’ Varcharz has one song, One Day Not Today, that is broken into 12 tracks. Give all 12 tracks the same Grouping, “One Day Not Today” and the iPod would know to start at the first track and play through all of them sequentially, even when shuffling.

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Hopefully, one day, these wishes will come true. I still love my iPod, but I’m looking for reasons to love it more.

Yeah, What They Said 5/06

Seis de Mayo edition. Yeah, What They Said, pointers to interesting stories. Some people call it “link sharing.”

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Debunking the Myths of Peer to Peer in Regards to CD sales
From the horse’s mouth, the effect of file-sharing, peer to peer, downloading, and copying on a small indie label unaffiliated with any of the majors.

Kurt Cobain: the man, not the myth
Very nice write up of Kurt Cobain: About a Son, a new documentary about Cobain the person. “He was a caring person, he was a punk, he was a rock star, he was a charismatic asshole, he was a friend, a son, a husband and a father. Sadly, Cobain’s human traits got lost in the limelight.”

The New Music Industry
A prescription for music industry survival in this digital era? Four concepts every band should understand: People will share your music with one another; Music is not a product anymore, it is Content; Be the provider of your own content; Content is no longer limited by the product itself.

That last one is probably the most interesting.

The Sound of Young America: This is Your Brain on Music
Podcast interview with Daniel Levitin, a cognitive psychologist at McGill University in Montreal and author of This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of Human Obsession. Fascinating stuff.

Why we’re so good at recognizing music
International Herald Tribune article about the same Daniel Levitin. He spent years working in the music industry before deciding to study the science behind it.

Link-back
On Classical Music Tagging (ID3 tags) for iTunes and iPod
This is one of my own. I wrote it nearly a year ago and in light of recent my remix album tagging tips, I thought I’d offer it again.

Also from tunequest, click this link to read a random post from the past. There’s no telling what you’ll get.

And here, because I’m listening to it while writing this, Sonic Youth: The Diamond Sea. Float away with it.

Japanophilia: Four Japanese albums you should have in your collection

This article is also a guest post for Webomatica, who asked me to fill in for a day while he’s in Japan. Appropriately, I think, I dove through my library and pulled out some of my favorite Japanese albums. Enjoy…

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sumum yokota - symbol

Susumu Yokota – Symbol (2005)

Yokota is a musician of the sonic contortionist variety, meticulously sculpting sounds and bending them to his will. Symbol features some delicately constructed mashups of classical music, with passages that are both instantly recognizable and relatively obscure. Lightweight and easy on the ears, this album is sonic bliss that samples predominantly from the western musical heritage. It’s an engagingly mellow aural experience. Read my full review.

Listen to Traveller In The Wonderland:

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Get it on iTunes Get it at Amazon

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cornelius - point

Cornelius – Point (2002)

Similarly, I would also describe Cornelius, who takes his pseudonym from Roddy McDowell’s character in Planet of the Apes, as a meticulous creator of sounds. But high art isn’t his game; his level is clearly that of catchy pop numbers and urban culture. In the early 90s, he came to fame in Japan as part of a mostly straight-ahead pop outfit called Flippers Guitar. Since then, he’s embraced a kind of whiz-bash indie electronic eclecticism, which comes to a head on his magnum opus. This record is the reason I’ve called him Japan’s greatest natural resource.

Listen to Another View Point:

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Another View Point on iTunes point at Amazon

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yoshinori sunahara - sound of the 70s

Yoshinori Sunahara – PAN AM: Sound of the 70s (1999)

This album may have been released in 1999, but as the title suggests, it might as well have been set much earlier. As for the particular sound of the 70s, this isn’t disco, or funk, or classic rock. It’s smooth and jazzy with a retro lounge feel. Sunahara, who is positively obsessed with TWA-era airline travel, pulls out a soulful downtempo groove that will make you feel like you’re waiting to jet off to London from the terminal at JFK.

Listen to Theme from Take-off (Magic Sunset):

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Theme from Take-off on iTunes sound of the 70s at Amazon

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pizzicato 5 - Happy End of the World

Pizzicato 5 – Happy End of the World (1997)

Released at the peak of Tokyo’s so-called Shibuya-kei scene (the emergence of which had parallels with that of American grunge–but that’s another story), P5’s Happy End of the World is filled to the brim with the ultra cute, ultra stylish and ultra smooth vibe with a little tongue-in-cheek mixed in that makes the world created by this music so inviting for American hipsters and hipster wannabes. It also doesn’t hurt that the album is expertly crafted, with wide-ranging musical influences layered on top of some very infectious beats. However, for all the sophistication this album exudes, there’s a certain childlike giddiness to the whole affair. This album ranks among my all-time favorites.

Listen to Love’s Theme:

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Love's Theme on iTunes happy end of the world at Amazon

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Extra credit. Japan for the past 15 years or so has been cranking out some excellent music. Check out the stylings of: Yoko Kanno/Cowboy Bebop, Nobukazu Takemura, Cibo Matto, Fantastic Plastic Machine. Explore them at your leisure.

Susumu Yokota – Symbol: Classical Mashups

Ah, it’s been a while since we actually talked about music here at tunequest, so let’s pick up where we left off: Susumu Yokota. I recently posted about my discovery of his music via an Amazon recommendation for his 2001 exploration of ambient minimalism, Grinning Cat (perhaps a reference to Alice in Wonderland?). Having piqued my interest to the extreme, I started researching the man and his work.

His style is as varied as he is prolific. Indeed, one recurring thread in my reading was that Yokota cannot claim a definitive fan following because, despite his obvious talents and aptitudes, he never sticks around in any particular musical form long enough to create an authoritative body of work, becoming more an admired dabbler than a respected icon.

Yet, from everything I’ve heard, Yokota’s abilities transcend form, appealing to a more fundamental level of music appreciation. No matter what he’s doing, there’s a layer of genius to it that overrides the superficiality of style. It doesn’t matter that each record varies stylistically because the underlying music is simply wonderful. Of course, I say that having listened to only two of his records, but it is an opinion that will inform my reactions as I delve further into his repertoire.

Having previously covered Grinning Cat, I turn my attention to Yokota’s 2005 record, Symbol. Of all the choices in Yokota’s catalogue, I was drawn to this one solely by its album cover: a tightly cropped portion of John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, which happens to be a favorite painting in my house.

I can’t help but wonder how the myth of Hylas relates to these recordings. Perhaps the closely cropped image is itself a symbol. Like the nymphs of lore, these songs are lush, alluring, temptuous; and if one is not careful, one could easily become lost with them. I’ll buy that; this album is nearly bliss.

Artwork aside, like Grinning Cat, this record could hardly get more beautiful, but where the previous record exists to slowly percolate its sound, Symbol fills the air with atmosphere and a subtle aura of exuberance. Each of the thirteen songs on the album is teeming with compositional splendor.

That splendor is due in no small part to Yokota’s generous sampling of classical music, which forms an orchestral underpinning of the entire experience. It is one of the most intriguing things I’ve ever heard. Classical music tends to be in its own world, distinct from the “lowly” place of popular music, so it’s fascinating to hear what are essentially classical music mash ups.

Off the top of my head, there’s Boccherini’s Celebrated Minuet, Debussy’s Clair de Lune (multiple times), Holst’s Jupiter (from The Planets), Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain and several brief samples of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumble Bee.

Even though I do appreciate the crashing of the classical gate, I also find it interesting that Yokota chose relatively popular works from which to sample. I suppose that with a concept such as this, recognizable pieces lower the barrier of entry for the casual listener, one who’s probably not very familiar with all that classical has to offer. At least there’s no Ode to Joy or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik.

In the end, Symbol is masterpiece and it excites me even further as I look forward to my next Susumu Yokota record.

For your listening pleasure, the third song from Symbol, Traveller In The Wonderland:

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Bonus points to anyone who can identify all the classical pieces used in it. I’ll get you started: the song opens with Celebrated Minuet.

KickAssClassical.com

Staff and Bar

I can assure you that you know every single piece of music featured at KickAssClassical.com, but you’d probably strain a muscle trying to figure out when and where you’ve heard them. Hopefully it won’t come to that, because Mike Nelson no, not of mst3k fame has compiled 100 of the most popular pieces in the “serious music,” aka classical music repertoire, pieces made famous by their use (or perhaps over-use) in film, television, cartoons and commercials.

Divided by composer (52 of them), each entry gives a brief bio and pronunciation guide for all the non-anglo names and lists where each piece has been used in modern culture.

The site also includes mp3 snippets of each composition, featuring the most well-known measures of music. I promise you’ll probably be able to hum along to every one. The real trick will be if you know what comes next. I found that on a handful of them, I was at a loss to continue the song after the sample had stopped, even though I completely recognized tune.

Still, you’ll be surprised by where a lot of familiar songs come from. Myself, I nearly had a fit when I heard the sample of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King:

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Because about five years ago I decided to use one of my Mac’s speech voices to record my cell phone voicemail message. After playing with all the various options, I settled on one of the “singing” voices, a voice that sounded a lot like the speech from Stephen Hawking’s talking computer, but to a melody.

That was with OS 9 and I’ve since lost the sound file. Mac OS X maintains that melody but has changed the tone with the speech voice “Cellos,” which I used to recreate part of the message i don’t remember all the lyrics.

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Trust me, it was funny. But since then, I’ve always been curious about what piece of music it was based on, because I recognized it, but couldn’t place it. As you can hear, it’s clearly In the Hall of the Mountain King. Now that I’m armed with that information, I think I’ll have to track down a good recording of it.

“Cellos” isn’t the only Mac voice to take its inspiration from a classical tune however. “Good News” is modeled on Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, a piece known to graduates world-wide, while “Bad News” is Chopin’s “Funeral March” aka Piano Sonata No. 2 In B Flat Minor.

Speaking of Chopin’s “Funeral March,” KickAssClassical makes the observation that John Williams’ Imperial March “sounds like an amped-up version” of it.” He might be onto something there, especially it you take that march, speed up the tempo, and overlay it with The Ride Of The Valkyries.. Then you might have a case.

Anyway, go check out KickAssClassical.com.

h/t Centripetal Notion


ArkivMusic, The Source for Classical Recordings

Clean up your Composer tags already!

Update: The revised sorting feature/problem in iTunes 7.3 and later renders portions of this advice useless. Some of it still applies for Smart Playlist building, but the segregated sorting no longer works. If you’re using a version prior to 7.3, go nuts. If you’re using 7.3 or later, be warned.

In striving for zen-like simplicity while maintaining and extending the usability of iTunes, please follow me as I introduce you to the technique I use to keep my Composer tags orderly and navigable particularly when using an iPod. The idea is to streamline the presentation of the tags while adding meaning to them.

In my library there are three types of songs that require use of the composer tag:

  1. Classical and other so-called “serious music”
    Principally includes all works by traditionally-recognized composers and performed by orchestras, quartets, etc. Also includes film and television recordings that are not the originals, such as when the Royal Philharmonic plays Star Trek or Trotter Trio’s jazz CD Sketches on Star Wars.
  2. Cover songs
    Whether live or in studio, remakes or performances of songs that were originally recorded and released by another artist or group.
  3. Remix Albums
    Collections of remixes of other artists’ songs released under the marquee of the remixer. For example: Fila Brazillia’s Brazilification.

If a song in my library doesn’t belong to one of those categories, the composer tag is left empty, completely blank. There’s no need to use the tag in the pop/rock idiom; all the relevant info is contained in the song-artist-album structure.

The same goes for movie scores and other “Original Motion Picture Soundtracks.” It’s redundant to put “John Williams” in both the artist and composer when it’s his recording of the original release of the album that you’re tagging.

Some people are tempted to put the songwriter in the Composer space and CDDB/Gracenote often includes it when retrieving a CD.

Well, don’t. And if you already have, delete it.

How likely are you to go to the Composer field and select “Cobain, Kurt” when you want to hear Heart-shaped Box? Not very, I’m sure. You are much more likely to select “Nirvana” from the Artist field. If you must obsessively keep that info, put it in the Comments field. That way you can still find it in your Encyclopedia iTunica if you need it, but it won’t get in the way of using your iPod.

So how do we keep these styles from intermingling, so that you don’t end up with Guns n’ Roses next to Gustav Mahler?

It’s rather easy; just add leading character to the beginning of your composer text based on the type of file it is, particularly if a song does not fall into the Classical category.

In my scheme, classical music takes priority, as it is the format that best benefits from using the field. In these cases, the composer is, well, the composer. Syntax is up to you: Mahler; Gustav Mahler; Mahler, Gustav; however you see fit to do it.

Likewise for film and tv music that’s not from the original release. I treat those recordings the same as classical. The Artist tag goes to the ensemble performing the work while the original composer gets credit in the Composer tag.

ipod plays composer tags with brackets for cover tunes

Cover Tunes

With cover tunes, the original performer’s name is surrounded by brackets [ ]. So when The Cardigans play a Black Sabbath song Iron Man, the Composer tag looks like this [Black Sabbath]. Now all the cover songs are sorted alphabetically together on the iPod. Plus, I can create a Smart Playlist with condition Composer starts with [ and have all of them gathered in a single spot. If new cover tunes get added in the future, they’re automatically included in the Smart Playlist.


Cover tunes smart playlist. Click to see larger version.

Finally, there’s remix albums. There’s a long discussion to be had about how to treat those with iTunes.

Hopefully, these suggestions are helpful and will assist in taking full advantage of iTunes’/iPod’s power.

On Classical Music Tagging (ID3 tags) for iTunes and iPod

When it comes to organizing for iTunes and iPod, classical music is an entirely different animal than the “pop” formula the program is primarily designed for. Why tie yourself to an inefficient and illogical "album" model when classical works were never meant to be treated that way? iTunes allows you to appreciate individual works as they were conceived and executed: as individual, stand-alone works.

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Example of my tagging structure (click to see full size).

I recently ran across Musicbrainz’s classical music tagging structure. Musicbrainz provides a database from which to retrieve the proper ID3 tags for artists, album, song title, etc. It’s like the CDDB (gracenote), but rather than using the CD song data, Musicbrainz-compatible programs generate an ‘audio footprint’ to compare against. This helps ensure that the tag result you are given is specifically matched to a particular song.

The system works pretty well and is useful when CDDB gives you a load of garbage. It is also useful for making sure your song tags are consistent with those of other people. Sites like Last.fm, which tracks your listening habits and connects you to similar fans and artists, are made possible only when everyone is submitting the same data.

That works great for pop/rock/jazz, where the music was created by and for one particular artist. The system becomes more difficult when dealing with classical music. I’m not the first person to discuss how to shoehorn the vastly different nature of classical tags into a scheme that is very much designed for popular music (as evidenced by many many discussion threads and, of course, the existence of the Musicbrainz guidelines itself). But, I take issue with the Musicbrainz solution because it is unfriendly to iPod users.

Classical music tags have to keep track of a more diverse set of data for music that has been created by and for many people. Whereas a Pearl Jam record contains songs written, performed and released by Pearl Jam, a recording of The Planets might contain music written by Holst, performed by the Montreal Symphony and conducted by Charles Dutoit. This recording, or portions of it, might be released on any number of albums or bundled with works of another composer (usually elgar). Indeed, the concept of an album was unknown to the vast majority to classical music composers. Each composition they created was intended to be a stand-alone work.

Classical music is an entirely different beast.

In addition to the standard artist, album and song name tags, iTunes’ composer, genre and comments tags are of equal importance to classical music tagging.

The Composer Tag

Let’s take a look at the Musicbrainz Classical Music Style Guide

  • Artist:

    • Ludwig van Beethoven

    Album title:

    • Symphony No. 9 in D minor (Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra feat. conductor: Herbert von Karajan)

    Track titles:

    • Symphony No. 9 in D minor: I. Allegro ma non troppo

    • Symphony No. 9 in D minor: II. Molto vivace

Immediately, I see a problem for iPod users. Musicbrainz advocates that the composer be listed under the artist tag. That might work fine if you’re only a casual classical listener and you’ve only got one Beethoven CD mixed in with your Beck records. To that type of listener, the fact the music might be performed by the Berlin Philharmonic is secondary to the fact that it has Ode To Joy on it.

But for the devotee, who may have several recordings of the same piece by different orchestras or performers, that’s not going to cut it. Besides, after receiving complaints and requests, Apple deliberately added the composer tag to iTunes specifically to hold the composer info. Thus, it makes sense to put the composer in the composer field, leaving the artist field open for other, more appropriate, uses.

With the composer listed in the correct field, it’s a simple matter of browsing by composer on my iPod to find a particular composer’s work. Likewise, in iTunes, I can easily create a Smart Playlist with all of Mahler’s music by setting the conditions to:

Composer contains Mahler

Or if I want all my classical music on a single playlist:

Composer is not "blank"

It’s simple and it works. Unfortunately, Musicbrainz does not support the composer tag, so there’s no way to reconcile that aspect of the two schemes.

The Artist Tag

With the composer assigned, what goes in the Artist field? The two likely choices are the conductor and the performer (soloist or ensemble) of the work. I prefer to list the performer as the artist, with orchestras listed by their organizational names, omitting the conductor or featured soloists. the reason I prefer it this way is simplicity of display.

The iPod’s screen only displays so many lines of listings and only so many characters per line. If I were to customize each performing ensemble with the conductor and/or soloist (as in the Musicbrainz album model), not only would my artist tags be overly long, but I’d run the potential of my iPod displaying:

Berlin Philharmon...
Berlin Philharmon...
Berlin Philharmon...
Berlin Philharmon...
Berlin Philharmon...
Berlin Philharmon...

And I wouldn’t have a clue which listing refers to which specific combination of orchestra, conductor or soloist. Plus those multiple listings would just clutter up everything else in the artist list. I certainly don’t want to have to scroll past six different "Berlin Philharmon…"s and five different "Chicago Symphony…"s while browsing my iPod.

So, the Artist tag in my scheme becomes simply Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra.

Besides, when navigating my iPod, I rarely search for classical music by performer; if I want to hear Holmboe’s 9th, I’ll browse the composer listing first.

so, composer = composer.
artist = performer (simplified).

The Album Tag

What of the Album tag, then? It makes no sense to maintain the compact disc paradigm when dealing with the flexibility of the iTunes model and the nature of classical music. Just because Deutsche Grammophon decides to put both Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Symphony No 5 on the same disc doesn’t mean I should maintain that structure. As I mentioned above, classical works were created distinctly and separately. Thus, I keep my classical music separated by work title.

Thanks to the instant availability of any song in the iTunes/iPod equation, I don’t need to load the physical disc of Atlanta Symphony’s Rainbow Body in order to listen to Copland’s Appalachian Spring. I can just browse for

Music > Composer > Copland > Appalachian Spring [ASO:Spano]

Ta da! Instant music.

This method works quite well, but I’ve discovered that for this scheme to function properly, I have to use a specific syntax for album names/work titles.

Back when my classical collection was small enough that I only had a single recording of a piece, my album tag for Mahler’s 6th Symphony would look like this:

Symphony No 6 "Tragic"

If I browse

Composer > Mahler >

I’ll see a list of works

Symphony No 1...
Symphony No 3...
Symphony No 6...

I discovered a problem with this method when Mahler’s No 6 became one of my favorite orchestral pieces and I obtained a second recording of it. Using the same album tag for both the Philharmonia’s version and the Berlin Philharmonic’s version made iTunes/iPod confuse them for the same album. My solution was to add an abbreviation of the performer at the end of the title.

The Berlin Philharmonic’s entry looks like this:

Symphony No 6 "Tragic" [BPO]

While the Philharmonia’s is this

Symphony No 6 "Tragic" [PO]

Now I have separate entries for each performance. Hooray! Problem solved… Unless I have more than one recording of the same piece by the same ensemble but with a different conductor. Once again, this problem popped up with Mahler’s 6th. I have 2 recordings of it by the Chicago Symphony, one conducted by Abbado and another conducted by Solti. The solution, however, is quite simple: add the conductor after the ensemble name.

Symphony No 6 "Tragic" [PO: Zander]

Now each performance has a unique identifier that iTunes displays separately and is easy to navigate via iPod.

Drawbacks (3rd-generation iPods and earlier)

This system works, but it isn’t perfect. For one thing, the specific details at the end of work titles gets cut off on older iPod screens, resulting in:

Symphony No 6...
Symphony No 6...
Symphony No 6...
Symphony No 6...

In addition to a screen size that shows more characters of a selection, 4th-generation iPods (iPod photo) and later scroll long file names when they are highlighted, eliminating this problem. However, iPhones and iPod Touch do not scroll long names when viewing by Artist or Composer.

Categories, Styles and Genres

Ok, we’ve covered composer, work title, performer and conductor. What’s left? Categories. Organizing classical music is no easy task. There are numerous types of works of various eras and styles and opinions vary what counts as what. How ever you choose to organize you classical music is a matter of individual preference. I’m not too particular, choosing to keep things relatively simple. Generally, I take information from AllMusic’s classical music database to create the Genre tag using the era and format of the music.

Romantic Symphony
Modern Ballet
Contemporary Suite for Orchestra

I do this primarily to take advantage of iTunes’ smart playlists. If I feel like listening to some Romantic-era concertos, all I have to have to do is set up a playlist with these conditions:

Genre contains romantic
Genre contains concerto

Likewise, if I’m in a symphonic mood but not in a particularly romantic mood, I can set it as follows:

Genre contains symphony
Genre does not contain romantic

Track Titles, Comments and Year

Track titles are straightforward enough. Unlike the Musicbrainz model that would create yet another list of seemlingly identical track names, I simply put the movement number and title. I also put the movement number in the track number.

I use the comments field to include notes about the performance, including a featured soloist if necessary.

And lastly, I use the year tag for the year of the performance, not the year the piece was first published or composed. This helps me keep the context of the recording in mind when selecting and listening to a piece. I’ve found ArkivMusic’s catalog to be quite useful for tracking down dates.

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That tagging structure again (click to see full size).

Well, there’s my take on it. If you made it this far, then I hope this was helpful. My goal here is to keep track of essential data, while leaving my library simple enough to find and navigate efficiently in an iTunes/iPod environment. I think I’ve succeeded in that regard. It certainly works for me. However, if you’d like some other perspectives, try these links:

playlistmag.com
oakroadsystems.com
kirkville