29 January 2008

My dog ate my brain

Dear Blog Readers, I'm not dead. I still love you. I am just too sick to think with a bug that won't go away. Watch this space!

22 January 2008

My Roy Orbison Shame

When I was in college, before I got the tedious but interesting job doing breadboard layout and wire-wrapping at a chip design company, I had a tedious and dirty job as a dogsbody in a ceramics craft shop. This was a shop where you could buy slip-cast (low-fire) ceramic shapes, clean them up, paint and glaze them, get them fired, etc. My main job was cleaning unfired ceramic dust from surfaces. Lots of dust, lots of surfaces, shelves and shelves of easily-destroyed unfired ceramics.

The guy who owned the shop believed that in a place where people would be working, there must be music. He didn't trust people to choose their own music, of course. He had a beat-up tape player and a stack of tapes, and one of his important jobs was to change the tapes. No one else was allowed to touch his precious player or tapes.

What he played was 80% Roy Orbison and 20% miscellaneous psychedelic leftovers. Unless he was having a day of getting grief from his wife for being a bad shop manager or for wandering over to the lounge next door or for going down to the laundromat to flirt with the slut (yes, really, I knew her, she'd do anything with a knob) who ran that. Then he played all Orbison for a long as he was grounded.

This was the worst music I had ever heard up to that time. Oh great gods above and below, it was torment day after day. I could never describe to anyone how dreadful it was, because the music was so bad in so many ways. I put Roy Orbison down in my book under "To Be Avoided At All Costs".

Years later, the Traveling Wilburys appeared on the scene. Of course, I loved their music and of course, me being me, I read up on who they were and all. Well, damn--Lefty Wilbury, Roy Orbison, wow.

So then I found someone who had some Orbison albums and listened to them. Hey, that was him? Damn, wow. And what a songwriter. So did he get better or did I get smarter?

It only occurred to me a couple of years after that--that stupid tape player and the tapes were the only surfaces that didn't get dusted. They all must have been full of that stuff. It's no wonder that the music was wobbling, screeching, and gargling. ::headdesk::

So, Roy, whereve you are--I'm sorry I thought that you sucked a mighty suck. I am ashamed I blamed you instead of that idiot Odie.

21 January 2008

My Day Of Music

This morning, I listened to Collective Soul's Collective Soul

Then I went to Chick-Fil-A for lunch.  They always have a fairly loud corporate soundtrack playing.  Mostly, nothing jumped to my attention.  They did play "Mmm Bop" (I actually had to look up the spelling of that), which I now know I still like.

I walked around doing errands to Disciplined Breakdown

In Plaza Art Supplies, I had to turn Ratatask off to transact.  They had a very nice cover of "I Ain't Missing You At All" playing.  The people behind the counter and I had a nice talk about how much we liked it and who might have done it and covers in general and all.  I popped out my Blackberry to look it up and was dismayed to see how many of the top Google hits credited it to Tyler Hilton without any reference to John Waite or even Tina Turner.  Damn kids, mutter mutter.

When I got home, I decided to watch some streaming movies from Netflix.

The first was a documentary about Tom Dowd, who has been a very important recording engineer.  (Could I be any more understated?)  He got the second 8-track recording setup ever made for Atlantic.  (The first was in Les Paul's kitchen or basement or something.)  He was the one who thought of using sliders instead of knobs.  He had Atlantic recording in stereo before it was possible to use it, just because it seemed like a good idea.  He has worked with pretty much everyone, it looked like.  (I mean, think of the Atlantic catalog.) Very cool story about a cool guy.  There was one amazing bit with him messing around with the tracks of "Layla" that he hadn't had his hands on since it was released.  (He introduced Clapton and Allman.)  You really have to hear the guitar parts isolated to fully appreciate that.

The second was an old feature called Orchestra Wives, from 1942.  It is about a sweet thing who marries a trumpeter and goes on the road with the band.  The band is played by Glenn Miller and his orchestra, mostly.  The music was interesting because it was not the usual Miller greatest hits.  Oh, and it had two versions of "I Got a Gal In Kalamazoo", one done straight by the orchestra and one by the Nicholas Brothers.  The whole movie is yet another reminder that music "videos" go way back, but the Nicholas Brothers number might as well have had a paleolithic MTV logo in the corner. I was amused to see a scene at the beginning with the orchestra cutting a record that illustrated some of the stuff about the early tech in the Dowd documentary.  The movie is also a reminder that the trials of life on the road were not invented in the rock era.  All it was missing from the modern template were drugs and breasts. In this movie, the band was even broken up by a wife! 

I am about to watch Rock My World, which promises to be a romp with Alicia Silverstone as a bass player who just happens to be at a British mansion when a big famous important band that needs a bass player shows up.  With some mischievious British aristocrats running around as well.   Hijinks ensue.

20 January 2008

Music to be snowed in with

I'm not dead!  I finally gave in to the series of viruses and collapsed into the arms of a binge-athon of the first five seasons of Law and Order:  Criminal Intent.  Vincent D'Onofrio's character is interesting, but what I kept thinking about was how seriously I'd be screwed if I were ever interrogated that way.  So many of the things they assume are just alternate-reality to me.

Although I wasn't doing much blogging, I was also thinking about music.  I was propped up in bed with my laptop with WiFi and my iPod with my whole music library and a stack of books next to me, and I started laughing about the whole idea of Desert Island Music, or Movies, or Books, or whatever.  You know, the old standard interview question:  If you were going to be stranded on a desert island, what album/movie/book/whatever would you take with you?"

I would like to say that if I were going to be dumped in the middle of anywhere remote and dangerous, I would be thinking about Bowie knife, metal buckets, rope, cord, wire, heavy contractor-grade garbage bags, sharpening stone, big hat, warm socks, and whatever else seemed likely to help me stay alive.  I would be worried about my Leatherman and not a solar charger for the iPod.  So I would reframe this as "If you were going to be snowed in a nice comfortable place with power and supplies and all for a couple of months, what albums would you take?"

I would also like to say that I have actually done this.  I mean, the "what music would you take?" and not being dropped into the Gobi desert in my sneakers.  I had to run away from home to escape from an abusive relationship, with just what I could fit into my car with two kids.  I thought I would probably be able to get most of my stuff later, but I knew I couldn't count on it.  So I had to give a lot of though to what books, clothes, etc. I would grab on my way out the door.

Here is the sad truth:  I was so concerned about getting my essential reference books and out of print books and papers for projects I was working on and a working set of kitchen gear and toys and figuring out how to get the kids out without a scene and realizing I had no place to go and all, that I completely forgot to think about music.  So what I had when I drove away and for the next 5 months was just the discs I happened to have in my car leftover from a recent long drive.

This stack of albums was not what I would have made my canonical Snowed-In Music list.  I was pretty low, and so I was overstocked on "I am blue but I reckon I will survive somehow" songs.  There was also albums that I just like to listen to for the particular mood I was in when I was picking the music for the trip.  I wasn't in the mood for anything loud or hard at all that day, so I put in a lot of twangy ballads.  And I smacked myself on the back of the wrist and made myself drop the Queen and Collective Soul, so that was completely missing, because I always listen to them over and over and wanted to give them a rest for a few days.

When I started thinking about it this week, I realized how remarkable that I still like the music in that stack at all.  I listened to it all over and over, because it was all I had.  And yet I still listen to it and enjoy it without having flashbacks to those difficult days.  It passed the field test for repeat listening.

So, here is my official field-tested list of 48 Albums to Take to a Snowing In--the ones I actually took, other essentials that I listen to frequently, and some new ones I think are worth a try.  To make the game more interesting, I made myself choose just one album from each artist, and only albums I actually own right now.  (Why 48?  That's how many disks my biggest carrier holds.)

  1. Maura O'Connell, Blue is the Colour of Hope
  2. Rodney Crowell, Houston Kid
  3. Paul Thorn, Mission Temple Fireworks Stand
  4. Hedningarna, Kaksi
  5. Gordon Lightfoot, Summertime Dream
  6. Deep Forest, Boheme
  7. Santana, Best of Santana
  8. Audioslave, Audioslave (the one harder ringer in the stack)
  9. Buckwheat Zydeco, Buckwheat Zydeco Story
  10. Flaco Jimenez, Partners
  11. Birmingham Symphony, Beethoven's Seventh
  12. O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack
  13. Cold Mountain soundtrack
  14. Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
  15. Collective Soul, Disciplined Breakdown
  16. Soundgarden, Superunknown
  17. k.d. lang, Shadowland
  18. Songcatcher soundtrack
  19. Mark Knopfler, Cal soundtrack
  20. Beethoven's Ninth
  21. Michael Tolcher, I Am
  22. ACRES, 3 Minute Movies
  23. Alice in Chains, Dirt
  24. Booker T. and the MGs, Soul Men
  25. Concrete Blonde, Bloodletting
  26. Daniel Lanois, Acadie
  27. Ryan Adams, Heartbreaker
  28. The White Stripes, Elephant
  29. Drowning Pool, Full Circle
  30. Hoobastank, The Reason
  31. Don Williams, Twentieth Century Masters
  32. Mr. Whirly, Mr. Whirly
  33. Various Artists, Essential Gershwin
  34. Various Artists, De Lovely soundtrack
  35. John Hiatt, Perfectly Good Guitar
  36. Lee Mellor, Ghost Town Heart
  37. Texas Tornados, A Zone of our Own
  38. Foo Fighters, In Your Honor
  39. Matthew Sweet, Altered Beast
  40. Muse, Black Holes and Revelations
  41. Robbie Robertson, Storyville
  42. Screaming Trees, Sweet Oblivion
  43. Mudvayne, Lost and Found
  44. Gin Blossoms, New Miserable Experience
  45. Broken Sunday, Identity
  46. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Time - The Revelator
  47. Plusminus X, State of Mind
  48. Sly & The Family Stone, Anthology
It hurt to be cut down to a dozen or so albums as I was. It even hurts to cut down to 48. The best part about the 160 gig iPod is that I am a few years away from needing to choose like this. I can always just take it ALL.

15 January 2008

Knocked down by a song

Last night, I set the mighty iPod Ratatask to playing random tracks from a "not played in iTunes yet" playlist. That was interesting. I still have to figure out how to avoid having it play one movement of a symphony, but that is a gnat.

I'm not sure I'm up to Random anymore, though. When it hit Lucinda Williams's "Something About What Happens When We Talk" without warning, I was overcome. I just buckled right down to the floor sobbing.

In my gut, that song is tied tightly into a bad end to an intense relationship. I thought I had gone through all the stages of grief on that, have done my period of listening to the song over and over while moping, all the usual pity party stuff. I was completely unprepared to be hit so hard by it after all this time. Then I thought about how many songs in there could blindside me the same way.

Some songs are like old shoes that you have worn out and don't fit anymore. (Or that period with the flattop and shiny shirts that you wish no one had pictures of.) But some music is part of your fiber down to the bone.

It's no wonder people get so obsessed with musicians. Until we develop smell artists, they are the artists whose work touches our feelings and memories most directly. Is there anyone who can hear that doesn't have a gooshy-in-love song and a plumb-pitiful-breakup song woven into his emotions?

And it's not all just timing, what happened to be playing when something important happened. Is there anyone who hasn't felt that some musician is singing a story from your life?

This is where my thoughts wander off to Sir Philip Sidney's Defense of Poesy and Blake's "all the world in a grain of sand." How can musicians so often come up with music that is more emotionally true than mere truth? Most music is not at that peak, but there is always plenty of the True stuff coming out.

What is the cost to musicians themselves to channel that kind of emotional truth? How can they keep giving that part of themselves under the pressure of producing music that will bring a living? That makes my thoughts wander on to Achilles's choice to take fame over a long happy life and Emily Dickinson's candle, burning at both ends.

What a strange relationship we have with the people who make our music.

14 January 2008

TOP SECRET! Google Music Search

So, I was mucking about trying to get information about the band Confidence Man without getting a lot of hits on the movie Confidence Man or the Steinman soundtrack album Confidence Man or the Elliott Smith song" Confidence Man" and any of its covers.  This required a considerable string of Google parameters:
"confidence man" album -steinman -soundtrack -"elliott smith"
but I finally got lucky.  In fact, I got double lucky.

If you go to the RESULTS PAGE you will see something a bit different from the usual Google results.  On the top of the screen is a special result marked by a couple of lovely blue notes that gives the band's name with a link, the name of the album that I couldn't remember, some track names, and a link to get more music results from that search string.  "What's this?" I thought, so of course I started clicking.

This transported me into a whole alternate Googleverse of music searches. The page for Confidence Man shows information about their album and the tracks on it and offers to fling me over to some shopping partners to buy it.  The cool part is a little column on the left that offers to fling me over to searches on the artist name in the main Google, Google Images, Google News, and Google Groups--all restricted to their music database. (That feature is broken this week, however.)

Think about the implications for searching on band names like "Queen" or "ACRES".

"Damn!" I thought, "Why didn't I see this search engine before?"  That turns out to be a very simple question with an answer that seems simple on the surface, but which turns out to be complex.  The simple answer is that the Google Music search does not appear in their official list of search engines off their main page.  It was not there to notice and for some reason no previous music-based search of mine had activated the hidden search engine.

This made me wonder what was up with Google Music.  A couple of simple Google searches later, I had learned that Google Music search had been released in December 2005, with a limited number of sales partners and a limited set of identified music acts.  Around 6 months later, Google took the link down, prompting speculation that they were about to launch GoogleTunes or whatever they would call it.  Now 2 years later, we have no GoogleTunes and Google Music search is still not open for business--except when it pops up from one of your regular searches. 

I tried typing in "music" or "musicsearch" in the usual places that kick over to the specialized engines--no joy.  I hack at web site parameters to make them do what I want better all the time.  "Surely," I thought, "I can chop up that results page string to figure out which part of it is turning on the music search."  After some trial and error on that I have learned that

will get you into the top page of the music search engine.  If you are bold, you can plug in a search string after the "q" to go to that results page directly, but I'll leave that to the propeller-hats who already know how to type in Google search parameters directly into a URL.

I have to wonder what the status is of the underlying database at Google.  When I tested this last week, the linked-in restricted image and news searches worked, but today they don't.  It looks like many musical acts have been added since 2006, but far from all.  I noticed that the album cover images are hosted at the Google Products site, so I did parallel searches over there and found a lot of musical acts that haven't found their way into the Music database.  That means that there is no automatic updating from the active Products database into the semi-dormant Music database.

So this is still an unresolved mystery.  While I am waiting for the ultimate answer, I can play with that sekrit Google Music search, though.  It's a cool toy and I love new toys.

11 January 2008

Defending Against The Barbarian Invasion

In the part of my life when I'm not Amber, I hang a lot with other writers. They talk a lot about the problem of getting published. You can't get an agent unless you have an offer. You can't get an MS taken seriously if you don't have an agent. There are so many companies that pretend to be publishers and agents that are really scammers set up to take advantage of people who are desperate to be Published and have no idea how the industry works. And the time to get a response (almost always a rejection) is measured in years.

On the other hand, the publishers talk about the mountains of slush (unsolicited MSs) that they have to deal with. Slush that is so bad it is painful to read. Slush that is not even intelligible. I mean, unimaginably bad. You have to take my word for this--I was the fiction editor at a small literary magazine--as bad as you can imagine, and then raise it to the whole next circle of Badness Hell.

And every single one of those really dreadful submissions was sent by someone whose friends and family tell him how great his work is, who has labored for years on the piece, who has a great emotional investment in it, who wants to be taken seriously. A surprising number of whom will send an "I reject your rejection!" note back. (Yeah, that will make the editors move your next MS to the top of the stack.) These people believe that the publishers are just bad obstacles blocking the recognition they deserve, that they need so much.

The exact hoops are different for music, but they are there. The big obstacle there is the record company, who seems to exist just to keep the same old crap streaming out while blocking your music from getting to the people. And when they do sign you, they make you take contracts that confiscate all your money! Rip off!

Yeah, right. Okay, now I know musicians as well as writers. I feel your pain. But ...

The new world of music distribution has given us a chance to see what happens when the record label is removed as intermediary. Online track sales from indy outlets like CDBaby and PayPlay has made the music industry's slush available to the public. And that has also prompted the record labels to let established artists go when their contracts are up.

Now we can see for ourselves what record labels are good for.

What do they bring the artist? Well, capital for a start. Making a well-produced record can be expensive: studio time, producer, side men, snacks, everything. It adds up. Touring is killah expensive, too. Video production can bankrupt small countries. That money all has to be spent before you have any income. You could finance it yourself, but who has the big bank account already? And how do you get lined up for the good producers and good tour venues? You can do it yourself with effort that makes your eyes bleed, but who has the magic Rolodex that makes it easy? Think about it: Natalie Merchant has no contract and so not enough money to tour outside of the immediate NYC area or to publish an album, according to a recent NYTimes article. (Please note, I'm not saying that record companies are not evil. That is another question.) On top of that, they have people who know how to promote albums well: artwork, press releases, photo ops, everything.

And what do the record companies bring to me, the consumer? First of all, they relieve me of the burden of screening the slush for myself if I don't want to. I spend a lot of time combing through PayPlay.fm, and I can tell you that there is some truly, deeply, horrible stuff there. Bad songs, performed badly, recorded badly, with promotional blurbs that keep tempting me to put together a "mock them with me" blog entry. Cranked up to 11 bad. Second of all, they distribute the music into outlets that are easy to use, like Amazon/Target and iTunes. I know that if I hear a band's name, I will probably be able to get their music from iTunes. It makes getting music easy and predictable and relatively stress-free.

I know I would give up a lot of possible great material by sticking with Name Brand Label product. Any feasible filter against the vast flowing stream of crap is going to be throwing out a lot of false negatives. The taste of the record labels could not match up with mine exactly. The price of music includes a markup to cover their services. I personally choose to don waders and jump in for myself, into an assortment of polluted streams. But PayPlay.com has 1,731,000 tracks today--who has the time and stomach to go through all of it?

I have no big conclusions here. I just want people to think about this. Middlemen persist because they do add some value to the product as delivered. More music is getting out where it could be heard, but is it completely a victory? Is it working? Or will the market bring a return to some kind of mediation? Because I'm me, I also wonder what the social effects of new ways of screening and distributing music will be.

Meanwhile, I am standing next to one of the many new holes in the old wall against the music horde, trying to decide who gets to come in and who gets the pointy end of my pike.

09 January 2008

It is inconceivable that Sony BMG’s new marketing scheme won’t work.

Just when I was ready to post a fascinating rant about filing Iggy Pop under "P", Sony BMG has come up with a cunning plan that I can't overlook.  Music Pass! 

Let me summarize this system as I understand it: 

  1. You decide you need a music fix, because you are jonesin' for some DRM-free MP3s. 
  2. You get up from your computer, gear up, and leave the house. 
  3. You go to a Fred's, FYE, Winn-Dixie, Target, or Best Buy. 
  4. You buy a lovely Music Pass card for one of the 39-ish available albums (including Barry Manilow, Celine Dion, and JLo!), with the picture of the artist right there on that card.  For only $12.99! 
  5. You return home to your computer. 
  6. You scratch to reveal a code. 
  7. You navigate to the Music Pass web site. 
  8. You enter your code. 
  9. You download the album.
Yeah, that's going to take the music world by storm.  It's so much easier and cheaper than using Amazon or burning and re-ripping iTunes tracks.  ::eyeroll::

As-yet-unanswered questions:  Do these expire?  When do the artists get paid:  at card sale or at music download?  What would happen if they had to withdraw an album from the program?  How long will it take before they discover that people who want to download MP3s don't want to go the store to do it?  When people run run run from this program, will Sony BMG declare that they have proved that people don't want DRM-free MP3s?

Here's my proposal for Fred's, FYE, Winn-Dixie, Target, and Best Buy:  Put some music kiosks right next to your "stick your flash card in here and get pictures printed out" kiosks. It would be simple enough to burn a CD or CD-MP3 on the spot, scribe a label, and spit out a little cover-art sheet, envelopes in a dispenser. With empty jewel cases available for a small price on a nearby shelf.  Browsing, sampling, logging on to your "Target partners with CBS/Last.fm" account to get your recommendations on the spot, whatever. They could even integrate with Sony BMG gift cards! Stick the card in and presto-spitto, the album appears.

08 January 2008

Cleaning out my music attic

Oysh, it's been a hell of a week in Amberland. We had a bad hacking gurgly cold running through the household while I was in a migraine cluster. Some fun here, I can tell you.

I resolved to use my days in bed (hacking and gurgling) to listen to music that I haven't played in iTunes yet. The plan was to listen to things I haven't heard in a long time. In practice, I was feeling sorry for myself and mostly listened to things that I have listened to a lot recently, but just not since I started using the iPod and iTunes. Comfort music.

So today, I went down the list of things that have a big blank in the iTunes play count field to see what exactly is in there that I really haven't listened to in a long time. It's a real mixed bag.

Some of it really has me scratching my head. Wynonna Judd? I like country. And western. But full-on Nashville big-hair CW? That is so not my taste. I have a vague memory of getting this, but I can't dig up the dust of a shadow of a memory of why.

I do remember that someone gave me Arrested Development. And then, in a flash of brilliance, concluded that since I had Arrested Development, that meant I would like Dionne Farris. I must have listened to them at least once each, but I can't remember anything on them. That means at least I didn't outright hate them, but I'm not even clear exactly what kind of music they are. Or why I have carried them with me through so many moves.

I do remember the Clannad / Enya phase. I still like the music, but I can't sit through a whole album of it straight through anymore. I also remember buying Andy Summer albums, although the ones I like the best are the ones that I lost in my bad breakup.

I remember buying Johnny Clegg & Savuka. I even remember the store I bought it in. I listened to it again a few months ago and I can't imagine that I was ever moved to buy it. I don't hate it. There is nothing wrong with it. I just does not speak to me at all. It's the same with Live. I have several of their albums, because I knew I ought to like them and kept trying, but they never clicked for me.

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band was the victim of my irk at someone else who told me that I would love it but completely mischaracterized the music. I actually special-ordered this one and then put it away in a fit of pique. I should probably listen to it again with fresh ears.

Buggles was a gift. So was Stone Temple Pilots and Soul Asylum. I like them all okay, but I probably wouldn't have bought the albums for myself. I know I have listened to them each more than once, but I can't remember the last times

Some of the albums are particular old favorites that somehow fell off my radar: Bonnie Raitt, David Allen Coe, Robbie Robertson, Lou Reed, Jerry Harrison. I definitely have to put those back into my soundtrack. Maybe Michael Penn, too.

I simply have no idea where the Murmurs or Zap Mama came from. Likewise the Texana Dames and King's X. Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians. I guess it's better to find strange CDs in your rack than to wake up with a stranger, but it's harder to explain. Dropped into my place by sylvan elves who had to clear space in their bowers for all I could say.

Perhaps I should have a yard sale.

02 January 2008

Tyranny of the Scrobble

I spent too much of my holiday weekend thrashing around trying to find a hack to get KPIG playlist extracts into my Last.fm scrobble data. Because I have been avoiding listening to KPIG, because streaming radio doesn't scrobble. And not-scrobbling is bad bad bad ... . headdesk

[Scrobbling is a proprietary technology owned by Last.fm that sucks up your iTunes, WMPLayer, and Last.fm playlists in real time and matches them up with track metadata, and stores everything permanently in your listening profile on their server. Uh, it's a big list of everything you listen to. Except it's not really everything ... ]

In a spasm of clarity, I asked myself just why this was so important.

Last.fm presents itself as a music-specialized social-networking site, and it has those features, but that is not what it brings to the table. The heart of the system is a music-recommending system tied to artist and music info. It looks at your playlist, matches you up with "neighbors" (people who have generally similar listening habits), then recommends artists who are similar to artists you like or who are liked by your neighbors. It also lets you play "radio stations" with tracks from artists similar to one you name, or from your historic playlist, or from your recommendations, or from the playlist of one of your neighbors, and so on. And then it scrobbles those tracks into your profile. (And all this is free--we get back to that point later.)

The quality of music recommendations depends on a lot of things. They have to have useful and accurate information about all the artists. They have to have a good system for matching up similar artists and similar listeners. They have to have a way to distinguish an artist who is played by a few people constantly from an artist who is played by a lot of different people. To work well in general, it has to have a VERY BIG database of scrobbled play data. The more data they have, the better they can build neighborhoods, make recommendations, etc. (Also, the more users they have scrobbling, the more they can persuade artists to give permission for them to stream out their tracks.)

I have no control over any of that. I can only vote with my feet based on how good their recommendations are. But my recommendations also depend a lot on my own play history: more play data, accurately spread across my music preferences will get me better recommendations.

And that is what has been bothering me. Usually at work I listen to RealRadio for hard stuff; KPIG for country, western, and other old-timey stuff; and Batanga.com for Latin stuff. I also do a lot of clicking around to other streaming stations to see what is around. I have been so satisfied with that, I haven't been buying music in those categories, mostly. But if I stream that way, the playlists don't scrobble.

I have found the Last.fm "stations" too narrowly and mechanically programmed for me so far (although I may yet find the magic entry point that will lead to a broader range of artists in one "station"). It is missing the personality and serendipity you get with even corporate radio programming that can lead you into new threads of music. It is good for helping you focus in on one kind of music, but not so much for broadening.

I don't own nearly the range of music that I listen to, so I can't play that range in iTunes, so I can't scrobble that way. And if I stop listening to music from a variety of sources, how will I find the new stuff to scrobble in to my Last.fm profile so I can get good recommendations there so I can find good new stuff? Last.fm will only recommend music of the same general kind(s) as music it has in my profile, so if whole genres never get in there, Last.fm will never recommend any of it.

This is most important for the country, western, old-timey patch of the musical landscape, because it has been a lot harder for me to find new stuff there than in other flavors of music. KPIG has been a godsend for that, so that is how I came to spend the weekend trying to figure out how to trick Last.fm into scrobbling KPIG playlists that I had listened to. No joy, of course.

This is a place where open standards would save us. If there was a standard format for sending and capturing playlist data, then Last.fm could scrobble off of anything. Radio streaming services could deliver play data to my local client, and Last.fm could scrobble away merrily.

There are a lot of reasons why this doesn't happen, and what would get us from here to there is interesting to think about.

But what I was thinking about today was business relationships. Apple has pretty much committed to open iTunes standards, as far as I can tell. Real has pretty much committed to being poopyheads about datasharing, again as far as I can see from my chair. PayPlay.fm apparently has some kind of business relationship with Last.fm, because their recommender can read your Last.fm profile.

It's in the interest of any company like Last.fm to keep the important data flowing only inward, because because all that data is extremely valuable. Their service is not ad-free, but it looks pretty ad-lite, so how are they compensating the artists whose music they stream? What incentives can they give artists to sign on? That has to come out of the value of the data, somehow. How exactly, I don't know, although I could make some good guesses what record labels could mine out of that data. (There is also the specter of shilling--tilting the recommendations to favor artists or labels who pay for that.)

This is not just idle speculation. CBS just bought Last.fm for $280 million. Although the autoscrobbling system is pretty slick and they could well set up their CBS streaming radio stations to support scrobbling, it's not worth that much. CBS was pretty frank that they bought it for the reasons that indusry watchers figured--to get their hands on that mountain of play data.

Music isn't the only kind of data. Think of Google Maps. That's a ginormous database with an nice open interface that Google maintains for free so that they can have the intelligence to put the little ads on the side of my screen. Any one can lay their own application on top of the Google Maps database--Google makes it as easy as possible. Google Maps on my handheld will use real-time GPS data to let me track myself and anyone can make and share Google Earth overlays using GPS data. People are willing to keep putting data into the various ginormous Google databases because Google gives good value back without a lot of arm-twisting. Google can serve up the raw data and sweet clients generously, because they have smart ways behind the scenes of grabbing and using METAdata on how people use that subject data.

So will CBS try to be the Google of music data? Or will they try to make a quick obvious buck and drive everyone away? I am really interested to see how it goes.

In the meantime, I will keep pumping in data and using the Last.fm service as well as I can. If anyone knows how to import a table of play data from a delimited text file into a Last.fm profile, please let me know.