Sunday, February 6, 2011

Week 2

This is a summary of my thoughts for the readings assigned during week 2, including Downie’s article, the websites posted this week, and Chapters 3 and 4 of The Future of the Music Business.

Music Information Retrieval

When beginning Stephen Downie’s article on Music Information Retrieval (MIR), he immediately acknowledged my skepticism about obstacles in music searching. Reading Dr. Simon’s definitions of MIR, I could only think: how useful could a music search engine be if it couldn’t “listen” to and identify songs? I mean, it’s great if the potential user already knows the name of that obscure Austrian composer, but nine times out of ten it seems that the user needs to make the search engine work for him or her rather than the other way around. Certainly, if or when this technology becomes available, it will truly be an evolution in information retrieval.

Unfortunately, from Downie’s description of all of the complex facets of MIR, it seems that this evolution is a long way off. Many of Downie’s descriptions of elements such as timber and harmony makes me think that perhaps music is too varied and multifaceted to ever truly be searchable. Even with documents made only of text, library of congress tags and descriptors can be insubstantial for a proper search, so what hope is there of properly categorizing something that means so many different things to so many people like music? Downie describes this effect in the multiexperiential challenge, saying that music can be anything from background noise to traditional hand clapping to a soundtrack to a film.

Chapter 3

Much of Gordon’s chapter on webcasting rang true for me. He spoke of ClearChannel, a conglomerate who owns the vast majority of major commercial radio stations. Having webcasting available helps lessen ClearChannel’s impact, allowing smaller artists to be represented on internet stations. Major radio station playlists have always been shrouded in mystery, some arguing that the “payola” scheme is still in place, which dictates that record companies or other private businesses pay radio stations to play songs by certain artists. Hopefully internet radio can remain open to more niche audiences and/or have more diverse playlists. Gordon also ventures that these internet radio stations are more likely to take a chance on riskier artists, those who may not catch on with a wider audience immediately.

One other note I wanted to make about the webcasting chapter was the way artists get paid. Hearing about record deals and now hearing about radio plays, it’s amazing to think how 2/100 of a cent per listener could ever add up to any type of profit. I’m sure there are details and ideas that I’m leaving out, but it’s difficult to imagine that these fractions of cents could ever add up to anything significant.

Streaming and selling music online digitally has certainly taken off, probably more since The Future of the Music Business was written. I think iTunes has become one of the most popular ways to legally acquire music. As Gordon mentions, this also changes the dynamic in how singles work. Since iTunes allows a user to purchase any track from an album for a dollar, it seems singles could be more important than ever. Perhaps there’s less pressure from an artist to produce a solid, cohesive album and more to produce a few single-worthy songs.

Chapter 4

I found it interesting that record labels will register fake downloads of popular music on illegal free music websites such as LimeWire and formerly Napster. I think this shows users the risk of downloading from such sites, that files could be infected or fake, but it seems like an odd practice to me. On the other hand, it will likely encourage the use of authorized music download providers such as iTunes and Amazon MP3.

Gordon included an article on “double dipping” by artists who are arguing that downloading a song should include royalties for a public performance much like streaming music online or playing in a club would earn. Gordon’s argument that the user downloads a song then later decides to play it makes sense. It should not be considered a public performance unless the user hits a button and instantly hears music, much like webcasting and streaming works.


I found the SEMLA website interesting, as it chronicles the strengths of various music collections in the Southeastern United States. In Tennessee, for example, I now know that Belmont University has a strong emphasis on vocal music and has many additional music research resources. Professor Simon was right about the various agendas of each organization. It seems that the Music Library Association is more interested in spreading awareness of music in libraries while the International Computer Music Association is geared more towards integrating technology and music. Judging from Downie’s assessment of the state of MIR, I would put more stock into the ICMA, hoping that they would help move MIR research forward.

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