While those of us who think about ‘the experience of listening’ for a living tend to be in a world of multiple hard drives across which vast music collections are littered, attempting to wrestle with all the possible metadata one might need, often in terms of specialist music, and then ways of shifting and displaying said data across different spaces. All that complexity comes with the territory. Or so we tell ourselves.
Apple’s particular strategy has been to build upon simplicity. While iTunes+iPod integration is as messy as ever with the iTunes music library on an external hard drive connected to a Powerbook, say – and an external hard drive soon gets to be a certainty for big music fans – their market has undoubtedly been those with smaller music collections, a simpler view of a musical life.
This guiding principle of simplicity has been elevated to a new level today with the introduction of the iPod Shuffle, a well-priced, flash-memory-based iPod with no screen and minimal controls, essentially designed to have c.250 tracks played in shuffle mode. You submit utterly to the random listening experience, barely worrying about all that metadata – apart from when connected to your computer.
The iPod Shuffle’s marketing slogans across the Apple site make it clear: “Enjoy uncertainty” … “Life is random” … “Choose to lose control” … And in the explanatory text: “(F)or the ultimate exercise in uncertainty, let iTunes randomly Autofill your iPod shuffle”.
We usually worry about enabling control. Here, control is reduced to the absolute minimum. Stick your iPod Shuffle in the side of your Mac for a slurp of music and power, then walk away with a randomly selected music mix drifting across your ears … It’s important to remember how new this way of listening is (OK, we had a shuffle button on CD players, but that was no bloody use at all. And OK, before recorded phonography, the music experience was completely different again.) Shuffling across thousands of songs suddenly becomes an utterly compelling experience. Here’s a device built principally for shuffle mode first, with sequential listening second. Again, a shift from the ‘grown-up’ iPod, where shuffle is a preference tucked behind a menu.
The other key factor about the iPod Shuffle is how it could extend the potential market (like its new companion, the Mac Mini) for digital music experiences. For most people, in the markets unaffected by the iPod thus far – and remember, for all the hegemonic power of those lil’ white headphones, the iPod is still a massively minority pursuit – it could well be many, many people have less than the 25 CDs worth of music capable of fitting on an iPod Shuffle. Perhaps the majority have fewer than 25 CDs total? [I’d be very interested if anyone has any kind of data on that] So for a hundred notes, a whole new swathe of people can get a piece of that iPod action.
Yet, despite being able to take an album-based music collection in its stride, the iPod shuffle actually destabilises the album. It can sideline this 50-year-old mode of music organisation at the flick of a switch. 250 tracks – or fewer, with the smaller model – combined with the shuffle mode, is actually a jolly good size for a playlist, which in turn reinforces the importance of the collage, the mix, or iMix – rather than the album. Again, the mix is now “the basic unit of music consumption”, in the words of the New York Times.
And so, given this new device’s ability to reinforce the mix, what follows is a fairly rambling collage of thoughts about, er, collage, largely pivoting around music experience. I’ve had it simmering in a text file for a while and thought now’s a good a time as any to just let it go rather than attempted to tidy up and reduce. Apologies, concision fans …
In a sense, shuffle mode is akin to radio i.e. I don’t know the track coming next (although I understand the brand associations and could possibly infer the likely genres). However, shuffle mode on your iPod Shuffle is different to radio in the sense that it’s specifically from a set of tracks which I’ve added to my collection. In some way, therefore, it is from a probability set of tracks that I stand a chance of being interested in. In this way, it’s closer to radio listening as defined by the late, lamented Echo.com v1, or by the mighty Last.fm i.e. playing me things I haven’t selected, but certainly aware of my personal preferences.
I love the white-knuckle ride of random listening. I’m currently enjoying the odd effect of chancing across spoken word excerpts from Invisible Cities in the original italian, which I don’t understand but do love the sound of (ah, will I ever be allowed to leave Pseud’s Corner?!) Sometimes the random effect delivers a sequence of music so perfectly thematically ‘in tune’ that the sense that iTunes just knows is quite unsettling. As m’learned colleague Matt Patterson noted:
“I find myself thinking that iTunes/iPod has just made a ‘good choice’. Obviously, I’m assigning a high degree of agency to my iPod here, and it’s not really making subjective choices, but whatever algorithim it’s using is well-enough crafted to have me fooled.”
I think the preference for randomness may also be about something else though – the increased preference for collage. Much of the 20th century’s art and culture could be seen as tending towards collage in form (e.g. photomontage, cubism, pop art, tape loops, multitrack recording, hip-hop culture, sampling, mixtapes, Ocean of Sound, filters, quotations, hyperlinking, blogging, Photoshop, layering, aggregators, adaptation, recombination, reappropriation etc.). I think Brian Eno (him again!) said that being a curator was a key late-20thC pursuit:
“An artist is now a curator. An artist is now much more seen as a connector of things, a person who scans the enormous field of possible places for artistic attention, and says, What I am going to do is draw your attention to this sequence of things. If you read art history up until 25 or 30 years ago, you’d find there was this supposition of succession: from Verrocchio, through Giotto, Primaticcio, Titian, and so on, as if a crown passes down through the generations. But in the 20th century, instead of that straight kingly line, there’s suddenly a broad field of things that get called art, including vernacular things, things from other cultures, things using new technologies like photo and film. It’s difficult to make any simple linear connection through them. Now, the response of early modern art history was to say, Oh, OK. All we do is broaden the line to include more of the things we now find ourselves regarding as art. So there’s still a line, but it’s much broader. But what postmodernist thinking is suggesting is that there isn’t one line, there’s just a field, a field through which different people negotiate differently. Thus there is no longer such a thing as “art history” but there are multiple “art stories.” Your story might involve foot-binding, Indonesian medicine rituals, and late Haydn string quartets, something like that. You have made what seems to you a meaningful pattern in this field of possibilities. You’ve drawn your own line. This is why the curator, the editor, the compiler, and the anthologist have become such big figures. They are all people whose job it is to digest things, and to connect them together.”[Wired]
This curatorial collage culture is deep, deep, deep. If speed was the defining motif of art in the early 20thC, perhaps collage is the defining form of art, or cultural organisation for the latter half and beyond. Certainly musically it has both a history, present, and future cf. Strictly Kev’s statement Raiding the 20th Century. Even this is destabilised further by shuffle mode’s ability to, well, shuffle a playlist. So a curator can’t even necessarily guarantee a linear narrative for their non-linear referencing.
Steven Johnson has written about this curatorial culture, with specific reference to playlists. Anil Dash’s comment there (amidst the horrendous comment spam – another collage-like intrusion) makes one issue crystal clear though. An equally important figure at this point is the policy-maker. The culture of curating is entirely disruptive, from a policy point-of-view – in a world where intellectual property is a battleground, it’s somehow appropriate, and not exactly coincidental, that collage is preeminent. That it’s the middle word in ‘rip, mix, burn’ which is important.
In music, the obviously difficult thing is clearing the rights. M’colleague Simon Hopkins used to work for Virgin Records UK, putting together some of the finest compilations any record label has put out (as well as some lesser works for ‘commercial balance’, as I’m sure he won’t mind me pointing out!). Creating the compilations took the skill and experience of a particularly good curator for sure (Simon, plus the likes of David Toop, Paul Schütze, Kevin Martin et al), but then the challenge was clearing the rights. Simon mentioned the other day that it would sometimes take three years to clear the rights for some of the compilations. I don’t think any of Simon’s comps were in the following category (I add, for legal reasons), but it could be that a comp got released before the all the rights were cleared, or that in some cases, the rights could simply never be cleared, despite almost Holmesian feats of detective work on behalf of the record label.
So as Anil’s point makes clear, it isn’t necessarily tricky to imagine a technological product to enable playlists, and it isn’t necessarily tricky to create fabulous mixes or playlists … What’s difficult is getting doing them in our legal and commercial framework, given proprietorial approaches to format (AAC and WM; iTMS and Napster etc.), copyright and record release and reissue models. Whilst it’s important not to forget the experience of music in all of this, and without being demeaning to my fellow designers and builders and the extraordinarily difficult job of really making something good, the really difficult part now is policy. Policy is a key frontier now, not necessarily technology:
“The last twenty years were about technology. The next twenty years are about policy. It’s about realizing that all the really hard problems — free expression, copyright, due process, social networking — may have technical dimensions, but they aren’t technical problems. The next twenty years are about using our technology to affirm, deny and rewrite our social contracts: all the grandiose visions of e-democracy, universal access to human knowledge and (God help us all) the Semantic Web, are dependent on changes in the law, in the policy, in the sticky, non-quantifiable elements of the world. We can’t solve them with technology: the best we can hope for is to use technology to enable the human interaction that will solve them.” [Cory Doctorow, originally at Die Puny Humans]
Jason Kottke noted, after reading Cory’s statement, that “policy often plays catch-up with technology”. Again, this excellent interview with Larry Lessig over at Massive Change notes that copyright in particular always follows technological innovation. A techno-determinist point-of-view would suggest that cultural production in general always follows technological innovation (whether that’s technology in the sense of the pianoforte, the printing press, shellac, radio or CGI – or in the sense of the original Greek root tekhnologia, meaning “systematic treatment of an art or craft” – Matt Webb often reminds me that a book club is a form of technology). But technological determinism is overly, well, deterministic perhaps, and doesn’t allow for forms of resistance, division and so on. And yet this technology is changing the way many of us listen to and consume music – but is in turn based on a symbiotic dance with cultures acquisitive of new ways of listening.
The iPod Shuffle is the latest entrant in a field of devices which are tending towards a beautiful simplicity, as culture seems to be careering towards a beautiful complexity. The tech is getting better and better and Apple’s latest offerings provide guiding tenets for those of us building – think simple, personal, malleable, recombinable, cheap to the point of disposable, portable. Microsoft, Nokia et al won’t be far behind. Users always supply the complexity. Policy and commerce are playing catch-up.
I’ve rambled enough. Actually I’d rambled enough a few paragraphs back. Thanks for meandering with me. Key points: mixing and collage is culturally deeper than peer-to-peer; simplicity is the watch-word in technology, which is doing just fine; The Grey Album was one of the most important music events of last year; and that policy making is the new frontier.
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