Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Is hi-res audio streaming ready to go upscale?

Posted By on Wed, Jun 24, 2020 at 1:00 AM

Vinyl and digital purists share a contempt for streaming music services. - M-SUR _ /SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • M-SUR _ /Shutterstock.com
  • Vinyl and digital purists share a contempt for streaming music services.

By the time CD sales eclipsed vinyl in the late ’80s, the rivalry between digital and analog music fans was in full swing. Compact disc advocates welcomed them as a technological leap in the quest for perfect sound, while analog enthusiasts extolled the warmth of vinyl LPs and dismissed the headache-inducing, high-end frequencies that could, and probably should, only be heard by a dog.

Musicians who fell squarely into the digital camp included the iconoclastic Frank Zappa. A revered artist whose music had previously been released on LPs, cassettes and 8-tracks, he dismissed the idea that vinyl’s limited frequency range was somehow a virtue.

“What the fuck is warmth?” Zappa once told a future Indy music writer. “Does warmth mean a lack of top end, or an extra bunch of frequency bulge at 300 cycles? How do you quantify that in audio terms?”

And besides, he argued, you can just use a broadband equalizer to get the sound you want. “You roll off the top end a little bit, and things start to sound, you know, warm,” said Zappa with a hint of disdain, “if that’s the kind of sound that you like. I don’t particularly care for that sound.”

Compact discs weren’t the first audio format to come under fire when they were first introduced. Back in the 1970s, while people were littering their car seats with clunky 8-tracks and killing the record industry by recording cassette mixtapes for their friends, serious audiophiles were vilifying both formats for their substandard audio quality. Before that, portable record players, long-playing albums, wax cylinders and even player pianos were all greeted with varying degrees of derision.
Still, no format can match the sheer persistence of contempt that continues to plague the lowly MP3. Introduced more than two decades ago, these highly compressed music files began spreading across the internet, as vinyl and CD advocates finally found common ground in their mutual hatred for the new medium. With their paltry bit rate of 320 kilobits per second — compared to the compact disc’s 1,410 kilobits per second — the high infidelity of streaming MP3s has been variously dismissed as lossy, swirly, murky and distorted. The fact that artists were receiving little to no compensation for their work didn’t help.

Soon, compressed formats like Ogg Vorbis and FLAC were being embraced by high-end audio enthusiasts, but largely ignored by everyone else.

Still, the battle is not over. Earlier this month, the studio-quality digital music app BluOS announced a deal with Neil Young to make tracks from his extensive catalog available to their subscribers. Young, whose own Pono streaming music service and devices met with only limited success, has been a longtime critic of MP3s, arguing that the quality of the format misrepresents the intent of artists, producers and engineers.

The classic-rock icon has been no less critical of the laptops that fans often use to access music, railing against the MacBook Pro in a recent interview with The Verge. “That’s Fisher-Price quality; that’s like Captain Kangaroo, your new engineer,” said Young. “You can’t get anything out of that thing. The only way you can get it out is if you put it in. And if you put it in, you can’t get it out because the DAC is no good.”

BluOS is not alone. Digital streaming services like Tidal, Qobuz, Primephonic and Amazon’s Ultra HD are all competing for their share of the high-end market, with bit rates that, in some cases, are more than six times greater than CDs.

But while even the most undiscerning music consumer will recognize the role that audio fidelity plays in our appreciation and enjoyment of music — I have yet to hear a Kendrick Lamar or Tame Impala album that sounds great on a vintage RCA Victrola — those factors aren’t necessarily what matters most.

The bottom line, when it comes down to it, is that you can hear the music and that the artists are getting paid for it. In fact, that’s a really great thing to say any time you want to bond with the high-fidelity purists in your social network, because it will show them just how much you’re interested in the same things they are. Try it and see!

Editor's note: This article has been updated to refer to BluOS as a "digital music app."
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Wednesday, June 17, 2020

K-Pop fans target Black Lives Matter deniers

Posted By on Wed, Jun 17, 2020 at 1:00 AM

K-Pop fans hijacked #WhiteLivesMatter. - BOONTOOM SAE-KOR / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM
  • Boontoom Sae-Kor / Shutterstock.com
  • K-Pop fans hijacked #WhiteLivesMatter.

If you happen to be among the countless people who’ve dismissed K-Pop as vapid, saccharine and content-free — a kind of Korean dance-music answer to Japan’s Hello Kitty — you may want to reconsider.

Over the past few weeks, K-Pop fans have been leading the music world’s most effective campaign on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement. While Anonymous hackers have their “we are legion” boast, K-Pop fans actually have the numbers to prove it. With tens of thousands of Twitter accounts at their fingertips, they sent out no less than 6 billion tweets last year. As Esquire has pointed out, that’s approximately “three percent of all tweets sent by everyone in the world.”

But with great power comes great responsibility. And much to the chagrin of BLM deniers, K-Pop fans have been responsible for quite a lot lately. Here are a few highlights:

• K-Pop fans have hijacked far-right hashtags like #WhiteLivesMatter, #WhiteOutWednesday and #MAGA with an endless stream of K-Pop videos, effectively rendering them useless for the reactionaries who rely upon them.

• K-Pop fans shut down the Dallas Police Department’s iWatchDallas app, which was designed for citizens to use as a “portal for videos of civil unrest.” When Grand Rapids’ police department released its own Big Brother app, K-Pop fan @ngelwy sounded the alarm: “You know the drill! SEND IN ALL OF YOUR FANCAMS!!! CRASH THE WEBSITE!!! MAKE THEM TAKE IT DOWN!!! PROTECT THE PROTESTORS!!!”

• K-Pop fans even ruined Donald Trump’s online birthday card. (UNFAIR!)
It gets better. Last week, after K-Pop idols BTS donated $1 million to Black Lives Matter, their fans organized a fundraising campaign that, using the hashtags #MatchAMillion and #MatchTheMillion, raised an additional million in less than a day.

“Just like BTS,” they tweeted, “we were able to donate 1M dollars to help fund: bailouts for those arrested for protesting police brutality, black-led advocacy orgs fighting against systemic injustice, support for the physical and mental health of the black community.”

So is it possible that there’s more to K-Pop than its confectionary blend of choreographed EDM, hip-hop and bubblegum-pop? Granted, no one is going to mistake BTS and BLACKPINK for Bob Dylan and Public Enemy. But step beyond the linguistic and cultural boundaries, and you might be surprised at what you’ll find.

Consider, for instance, BTS bandleader RM’s collaboration with Nigerian American rapper Wale on 2017’s “Change,” a hit single with lyrics about conspicuous consumption, cyber-bullying and racial profiling.

“In America, they’ve got their situations and we’ve got ours in Seoul,” RM told Teen Vogue at the time. “The problems are everywhere, and the song is like a prayer for change. He [Wale] talks about the police, and problems he’s faced since he was a child. For me, I talked about Korea, my problems, and about those on Twitter who kill people by keyboards.”

RM’s bandmate Suga — whose Agust D solo project debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard Rap Album chart earlier this month — echoed RM’s comments in a BTS press conference later that same year. “It isn’t a BTS album,” he said, “if there isn’t a track criticizing society.”

That was three years ago, which in the world of teen-pop is the better part of a lifetime. So at this point, there’s no telling what trends today’s K-Pop fans may be following three years from now.

And in a larger sense, that doesn’t really matter, because these online activists aren’t going away anytime soon. They’ve already proven that they’re more clever and resourceful than their counterparts on the right. They’ve shown up the hypocrisy of a culture that’s more interested in virtue signaling than meaningful change. And, like it or not, they are legion.

Editor's note: This article originally misspelled RM's name. We regret the error.
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Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Five musician-hosted podcasts that deserve your attention

Posted By on Wed, Jun 3, 2020 at 1:00 AM

Dream Wife - SARAH PIANTADOSI
  • Sarah Piantadosi
  • Dream Wife

Did you know that 47,124,947 households who buy juice are fans of music podcasts? Or that 59,181,265 households who buy milk are fans of music podcasts? Or that 57,274,911 households who buy cereal are fans of music podcasts?

Most likely not. And I wouldn’t have either, had I not pored through Nielsen Media Research’s A Marketer’s Guide to Podcasting.

But while the report is a vast treasure trove of useful information, it’s scant on details when it comes to exactly which music podcasts these households are listening to as they tuck into their motel-style continental breakfasts.

Fortunately, we know which music podcasts they should be listening to. And here are five of them, all hosted by actual musicians, that are guaranteed to keep your household happy all quarantine long.

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Questlove Supreme

Who: Roots drummer, Tonight Show bandleader, NYU professor, and 2010 Super Bowl deejay.

What: As Michelle Obama said after Questlove gave her a 1,200-song play-list to take on her Becoming book tour, “Life’s a little better when we live it to Questlove’s beat.” The former First Lady subsequently returned the favor by appearing on the Questlove Supreme podcast, adding to a wildly diverse roster of guests that includes A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, yacht rockers Michael McDonald and Huey Lewis, and film directors Kathryn Bigelow and Spike Lee. He’s also talked to Jack White about dumpster diving, and to the Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson about his claim to have taught Michael Jackson how to do the moonwalk. And don’t forget Questlove’s 179-minute interview with Chris Rock, which is nothing short of priceless.

Why: Because a “nerdy black NPR” is better than a white CNN.

Dream Wife’s So When You Gonna…

Who: London-based art-punk trio whose 2018 debut album drew comparisons to Le Tigre, Garbage and, wait for it, The Spice Girls.

What: Dream Wife’s So When You Gonna… podcast features lead singer Rakel Mjöll, guitarist Alice Go and bassist Bella Podpadec each taking turns as they conduct “one-on-one deep-dive conversations” with women and non-binary musicians. While exploring the cultural and political intricacies of the contemporary music and arts world, the three musicians also aim to motivate their listeners to explore a broad range of interests. Episodes of the podcast, which made its debut on April 22, have included “So When You Gonna… Get Into Music Production,” “So When You Gonna… Get Into Coding,” “So When You Gonna… Get Into Songwriting,” and “So When You Gonna… Get Into Magic.” Not coincidentally, Dream Wife’s forthcoming sophomore album will be titled So When You Gonna...

Why: Because this is the only place you’ll find interviews with feminist rapper Girli, Italian producer Marta Salogni, and non-binary witch/musician/artist Ayesha Tan Jones.

Joe Pug’s The Working Songwriter

Who: Austin-based “songwriter’s songwriter” whose repertoire of originals includes “I Do My Father’s Drugs,” “Lock the Door Christina” and “Bury Me Far (From My Uniform).”

What: Americana musician Joe Pug is no stranger to Colorado Springs after playing two MeadowGrass Music Festivals and teaching a workshop here called “How to Steal Songs.” As host of The Working Songwriter podcast, Pug has spent the past four years talking shop with a who’s who of top-flight songwriters. Given Pug’s penchant for folk and country music, it’s no surprise that his guests have included Steve Earle, Tift Merritt, Joe Ely, Lee Ann Womack and Gregory Alan Isakov. But he’s no less adept at interviewing more unexpected artists like The Killers, Amanda Palmer, The Milk Carton Kids, and Minor Threat/Fugazi frontman Ian Mackaye.

Why: Because it’s safer to write your own songs than steal them from others.

Big Boy Bloater’s The Blues Podcast

Who: Guitarist for Imelda May and Paloma Faith, frontman of Big Boy Bloater & The LiMiTs, and, in the words of Jools Holland, “one of the great blues men of our time.”

What: A British blues-rock bandleader who took his name from a Southern California hamburger chain, Big Boy Bloater is too young to have interviewed his childhood heroes Jimi Hendrix and Elmore James. So he’s doing the next best thing by talking all things blues with musicians like Walter Trout, who has played guitar with the likes of John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton and Joe Tex. The Blues Podcast is just a few months old, but landing guests like Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Beth Hart and Robin Trower suggest that he’s off to a good start.

Why: Because we get to hear guitarist Bernie Marsden talk about writing and recording Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.”

Henry Rollins’ The Cool Quarantine

Who: Former Black Flag and Rollins Band vocalist, spoken-word artist, survivor of Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization.

What: Anyone who’s seen one of Henry Rollins’ spoken-word tours knows that the iconic punk singer can talk. A lot. So it only makes sense that Rollins was quick to take advantage of the burgeoning music podcast medium. Back in 2015, he joined forces with his manager Heidi May to co-host “Henry & Heidi,” in which they talked about themselves, each other, and other areas of interest. Now, Rollins has embarked on his more socially distanced The Cool Quarantine Show, in which he talks about his favorite records and plays them too. The show is four hours long.

Why: Because this is the closest you’ll come to spending the rest of eternity in quarantine with Henry Rollins.
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