Montgomery: Music consumption changed by the digital age

Chris Montgomery

Chris MontgomeryIt seems like this semester has gone by quicker than any other semester I can remember. February seems like it happened in March; March seems like it’s happening in April; and April seems like it’s happening in May. Yes, that’s right. We’re already done the semester and my last column has already written itself.

If you have a better memory than I do, and you read my first column, you may remember I said: “Without my exposure to cyberspace…I would have no culture.”

I still stand by that statement. It’s a bold statement. It may even be an exaggerated statement. But I don’t even know if it’s possible to overstate the influence the Web has had on me – and you.

The topic of computer network-assisted cultural development has been on my mind since the inception of this column. I’ve played with the idea of putting my thoughts to the screen; however, I was never sure of the proper scope of this amniotic article. I do think it’s safe to say one of the most important aspects of this cultural explosion is digital music and the tools we use to enjoy that music. It’s fitting that this is the Music Issue.

How do you like your music? I’m not concerned with what genres you consider good or bad, or what you consider music or non-music (wait, isn’t music just organized sound?). You could listen to Nickelback or Merzbow. I don’t care. Not right now in this column, anyway. I’m no Kevin Stairiker.

What I want to know is how you listen to music. Do you store music on a portable device, like a smartphone or iPod, listen to it on your way to the Apple Store and then a quick stop at American Apparel, using your buds as protection against the solicitations of the homeless? (“Maybe she’ll just think I don’t hear her over my metal machine music?”) Do you shuffle through hundreds or thousands of songs on your computer’s media library, awaiting the surreal thrill of the chance meeting on a dissecting table of U2 and Nurse With Wound playing one after the other while watching “The Walking Dead,” while complaining to your droogs on Facebook about how you don’t understand the statistics homework you’re trying to do at the same time? Or do you sit in the opium den you call your room, carefully place the 180-gram vinyl re-release of “DSotM” atop your Technics SL–1200MK2 turntable and don your finest pair of Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones and space out – not to the music you know like the back of your hand, but to those cherished analogue clicks and pops?

Your methods of music listening don’t need to be complex. You don’t need to think about them. There are probably better things to do than spend months trying to develop the perfect method for enjoying digital music. But, if you are that sort of audacious traveler, the sheer quantity of artists and albums and the fascinating links across genres, personnel, time period and other metadata make for a journey of endless musical discovery.

One method of listening to and discovering new music is Pandora Radio. It’s easy to use – just enter the name of an artist, song, genre or composer and Pandora will provide you with a seemingly infinite stream of similar musical compositions. I can’t say I’m always satisfied with the creatures unleashed by opening Pandora’s music box, since it doesn’t know my taste in music like I do. But the technology and ingenuity put into the Music Genome Project – the self-described “most sophisticated taxonomy of musical information ever collected” that powers Pandora’s suggestions – is inspiring, to say the least.

For example, if I create a Talking Heads station on Pandora, the first track it plays is “Burning Down The House.” Go figure. If I skip to the next track, I’m given “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” by Tears For Fears. If I select the “Why was this track selected?” option, Pandora tells me, “We’re playing this track because it features punk influences, a subtle use of vocal harmony, extensive vamping, major key tonality and melodic songwriting.”

Pandora is smart. The Music Genome Project, like I, is not satisfied with using genres alone to guide listeners. Its team of musicologists identifies objective qualities to a vast base of compositions, as if each composition was a living organism and its qualities are determined by a set of genes of static classification, but with variable values.

Sadly, the Music Genome Project is closed-source. Its complex taxonomy, while identifiable on a surface level in Pandora, is not available for public consumption. I don’t think I’m interested in its information in itself – after all, if I was interested in that, I would just pay for a Pandora subscription. I am, however, interested in – here we go again with the how’s – how the Project developed its taxonomy and how I can add new genes – aka new taxonomy terms and customized values, building off of its project to better understand my own collection of music.

I have enough digital audio files to continuously listen to music (and non-music) for 73 days, 10 hours, 40 minutes, and 54 seconds. Needless to say, it’s easy to get lost in there. I would guess that around 80 percent of that is instrumental music, and maybe around 10 percent of that is dub music. Of course I have the artist, album, genre, year and other such metadata fields to guide my listening. But none of that metadata can describe the difference between King Tubby and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s styles.

iTunes and most other music library software does not offer options for multiple genres. Technically, I don’t think the ID3 tags attached to MP3 files support this, but the free Windows program foobar2000 does apparently understand the use of multiple genres in one field as long as they are separated by a delimiter – “;” or “\”. For example, a string of genres may look like this: “Ambient;Dark Ambient;electroacoustic;tribal drums;spiritual.”

But the options seem limited for Mac and Linux. I have put some time into searching for a solution, but the only one I’ve found so far, called Quod Libet, can only be installed on Mac via a time-consuming process of terminal commands. I’d say “No thanks,” but, well, I’m that obsessive.

So, it is my time to go. Maybe I will write again next semester. Maybe not. We’ll see. Until then, I’ll be spending way too much time indoors staring at screens during perfect summer weather. I will emerge, at times, as a dragon, spitting flames in the North Philadelphia air.

Chris Montgomery can be reached at chris.montgomery@temple.edu.

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