Essays on Technology and Culture

Review: Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents

There are certain bands and artists which risk becoming a shibboleth among a certain type of Serious Music Nerd: names like Jandek, The Shaggs, Pere Ubu, and—probably the biggest of them all—The Residents. I’m no fan of cultural shibboleths. The more you love an obscure artist, the more you should preach their name from the mountaintops, in the hopes that others will be compelled to listen. Most might only listen once, but the ones who come back will become fans for live. Though this, those artists gain longevity.

Fortunately, The Residents have that. They’ve been making music for over forty years. In that time they’ve evolved from a group of bizarre San Francisco hippie transplants from Louisiana with no musical ability—but a ton of creativity—to a highly respected artistic enterprise that has created some of the most beautiful and haunting music put to disc, while never losing their idiosyncrasies. And after all this time, nobody knows who they are—except for their handlers and collaborators. They’re not going to give up the secret, even for a documentary crew. Even if you don’t know them and their music, you might know their most iconic look: a giant eyeball mask, worn with a top hat and tuxedo. It looks a little something like this:

A Resident

In the film, Homer Flynn, who is one of the band’s handlers via The Cryptic Corporation, and their graphic designer notes that the band may not have any hit albums, but they do have a hit T-shirt—with the image above.

Theory of Obscurity: A Film About The Residents dwells very little on the mystery of the band, to its benefit. Fundamentally, it doesn’t matter who the people are behind the eyeballs. What matters is their body of work: musical, visual, and performance. _ It takes the band’s forty year-plus evolution and puts it center stage. Drawing from the band’s extensive archives, going back to their first audio tape experiments from 1969, it explores the development of the band and their impact on art and culture. There’s interviews with figures you expect from the music world: Les Claypool (Primus), Gerald Casale (DEVO), Michael Melchiondo (aka Dean Ween of Ween) and Jerry Harrison (Talking Heads), and interviews with folks you might not: like Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller, and Simpsons creator Matt Groening.

Theory of Obscurity_ gives the audience a peek into the remarkable artistic world of The Residents, and a sense of the exploration and process they have cultivated over their multiple decades of work. Theory of Obscurity should be a source of inspiration for anyone who creates art. To paraphrase Penn Jillette (since I didn’t write down anything in the dark theater), the important thing isn’t knowing how to do something, it’s knowing how to finish something. It’s a mantra that runs through the film. When you take away the masks, the theories, the lore, what stands is a four decade run of creative work, because The Residents finish things. If four weirdos from Shreveport can, so can you. That is advice for life.

For newcomers to The Residents, I helped collaborate on a guide to Residents albums for my friend’s website Kittysneezes called The Residents Project. It gives you a good overview of their major discography. If you want just a quick introduction to their music, here’s a few songs to get started with:

I’m Not Signing Up for Apple Music, and Neither Should You

My Apple Music trial ends today, and—to the surprise of nobody who reads my work regularly—I will not be signing up as a paid customer. Why? Well, aside from the one feature of Apple Music I wanted most, iCloud Music Library, eating my library for lunch, and demanding seconds, streaming music is antithetical to the way I relate to music.

Maybe I’m just preternaturally old. I’m approaching 32 years old, after all, and for most of my life, music has been a physical thing. I owned an LP, Pac-Man Fever (don’t judge me) when I was barely old enough to know what a record was. I would listen to CDs on my parents sound system as a kid, typically movie soundtracks. Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II were favorites, but I also had thing as a child for the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. Go figure. As a teenager, I would buy CDs, when I could, but I also embraced the world of Napster and piracy. I’m not proud of it, but so much of the music I know and love, I discovered because I downloaded it illegally.

I buy most of the music I listen to now. I prefer to buy direct from the artist, when available, typically on physical media. So far this year, I’ve bought albums from Holly Herndon, Eskimeaux, DEVO, Dweezil Zappa, Listening Center, and CHVRCHES on a variety of formats: vinyl LP, CD, and even a cassette tape. I don’t even own a cassette player! I wanted a physical artifact of the music, and cassette was the only way to get it. But even the music I buy digitally has a certain physicality to it. There is an external hard drive on my desk that holds my 200GB-plus iTunes library. I sync a portion to my iPhone. Back when I started downloading music, I would burn albums and custom mixes to audio CD, and even burned MP3 CDs to play in a pre-iPod MP3 CD Player. The music may exist as zeros and ones, but they have a physical container.

The thing about files from the iTunes Music Store, about LPs, ripped CDs, and downloaded music—legal and otherwise—is that they are mine. I can do what I choose with them, maybe not legally, but there’s no easily enforceable restrictions on what I do with the copies of the music I own, regardless of format. [1] They won’t go away (assuming I back the files up, which I do. Religiously.) Streaming is ephemeral, and that worries me. If an artist or a label decides it doesn’t like the deal Apple is playing, what’s to stop them from pulling their music? Remember Taylor Swift and Spotify? Prince pulled his music from everything but TIDAL. They won’t be the last ones. Anyone who grumbles about needing membership to a bunch of different video streaming services to watch the shows they want, yet is happy to sign up for a streaming music service, is just asking for the same pain down the line.

I would pay to keep all the music I own in a place where I could be sure I can listen from anywhere I have connectivity. This seems fair, but unless Apple raises the limit on iTunes Match (or, for that matter iCloud Music Library), and ensures that I when I listen to the live concert recording of DEVO from 1977 that I bought on CD, legally, [2] and ripped to my iTunes Library, I won’t get studio tracks instead, I’ll suffer with having to sync the files to my iPhone. The cost of ownership is a small amount of inconvenience and a huge degree of freedom. It’s worth the price. If you value music, don’t won’t stream it—buy it.

  1. Remember, iTunes dropped DRM for music purchases back in 2009.  ↩
  2. Said live recording is not available as a digital release, only on vinyl and CD.  ↩

The Music DRM Dark Age Isn’t Coming Back

So, with the coming new Apple Streaming service, Nilay Patel at The Verge has realized that streaming music means a return to the Dark Days of DRM:

[N]ext week Apple is probably going to launch another streaming service, and if history is any guide, it’s only going to work with Apple products. That means I’ll have yet a fourth music service in my life (Spotify, Google Play Music, Prime, and Apple Music) and a fourth set of content exclusives and pricing windows to think about instead of just listening to music.

Apple Music and the terrible return of DRM | The Verge

It’s hard for me to feel any sympathy for this argument, especially since I dropped about $100 on new vinyl in the last few months. There are very few advantages to vinyl in a digital age, but one of them is that I don’t have to worry about whether the music is exclusive to any particular streaming provider. And, hey, most new vinyl these days includes a card to download the music in DRM-unencumbered MP3 format.

The problem of streaming lock-in isn’t even new. Just look at the frustration every time something falls off of Netflix, or when Taylor Swift pulled her music off Spotify. Why is Apple (re-)entering the streaming fray any different? Is it because the fiery Anti-DRM sentiment of Steve Jobs’s “Thoughts on Music” is now off the Apple website? Oh noes! An eight year old missive about the state of buying music is no longer being hosted by Apple! Clearly this means we’re entering a New Dark Age of DRM-based streaming horrors.

I’m going to make a wild prediction: the iTunes Music Store, with its gobs and gobs of DRM-free M4A files isn’t going to go away on Monday, or any time for the foreseeable future. [1] Neither is the Amazon MP3 store, or Google Play’s Music store. If you’re so worried about not being able to have access to the music you want without having to switch between four various streaming services, and paying $40 a month for the privilege, you can take that $40 and buy four albums worth of music from the online music storefront of your choice. Or, you can take that $40 to a local, independent music store and buy it that way. The iTunes Music Store will still be open after Monday. Your local record store might not.

Steve Jobs’s “Thoughts on Music” essay accomplished what it intended to do. There are no digital music stores on the Internet that sell music with DRM. Not even Pono. There’s plenty of options for those of us who want to have control over the music we’re paying for. Streaming isn’t going to take that away. Nilay moans: “Am I really despairing for the days when I maintained a huge collection of legal and not-so-legal MP3 files that could play on any device I owned without any hassle?” Maybe you are, Nilay. There’s no despair from this streaming holdout.

  1. It better not go away on Monday. I have the new album by FFS, the Franz Ferdinand and Sparks supergroup on pre-order, and it comes out on Tuesday.  ↩

Choosing Music to Stream is Deeper than Love or Hate

For the past few days, I’ve been trying to use a music streaming service—specifically Beats Music—as my primary way of listening to music. I have a number of thoughts that I’m still working through, but there is a design pattern I’ve noticed, common to all the major streaming services, that deserves some scrutiny. On Beats music, it looks like this:


Other services use the Siskel and Ebert “Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down” approach, but the idea is the same. It asks: “Do you like this song, or do you dislike it?” Your selection is tied to whatever algorithmic method the service uses to determine what else it should play for you, though it’s not terribly explicit how it works. I think it’s safe to assume that a Heart or Thumbs Up means “Give me more of this,” and the X’d Out Heart or Thumbs Down is “Give me less of this.” Opting not to choose, I imagine, is interpreted as apathy.

The problem is that I don’t relate to a music on the binary level (or trinary, if you want to count the “meh” option of not tapping either) that these services use. My feelings about music run along a fairly wide scale that, at the extremes, could be described as “I want to hear this song over and over again until I drive everyone around me insane” to “If I hear this song again, I will punch someone.” This is probably too wide, and personal, of a gamut of values to expect a streaming music to implement, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be more nuance involved.

It’s possible there already is. If the folks handling these algorithms are as smart as they think they are, they’ll probably assume that a Thumbs Down, followed by skipping to the next song would weigh heavier against a track than a simple Thumbs Down, or that a Heart followed by a skip would indicate “I like this song, but I don’t want to hear it now… maybe play this artist less often.” These algorithms are so opaque, however, that there’s no way of knowing for sure. That’s what really throws me. How many times do I need to tap the X’d Out Heart and then skip the song in Beats for it to know that I really do not want to ever have to hear INXS again, ever? [1] It would be better if I could be just a little more explicit in how I feel about a song or an artist, so that I don’t need to rely 100% on the algorithm’s learning process.

After all, if algorithms are going to play such a massive role in what media we’re exposed to, it benefits us to have some insight into how they decide, even if it’s to correct the inevitable mistakes it’ll make during the learning process—and, occasionally, after. I want to see what my streaming service thinks about me, something like Google’s Demographics page meets I’d like to see things broken down by genre, by artists, possibly even by song, if I’ve made any specific decisions on any. That’s one of the biggest issues I have with streaming music—i’m wary of giving up control of the music I listen to purely to some black box of an algorithm. Probably because so many of them are both opaque and inaccurate all at once.

  1. One point in Beats favor is that it’s onboarding process includes a step where you explicitly exclude some genres and artists, but it’s hardly comprehensive. I’m just glad it gave me a chance to banish The Smiths before I heard note one of Morrissey’s atonal warbling.  ↩

I Sing the Music Electric

There’s a joke I see bandied about online that amounts to: “How do you perform live electronic music? You push ‘play.’”

Having friends who make and perform various forms of electronic music for a living, this joke always rubs me the wrong way. Sure, you have people who whose live set is based around taking a laptop on stage, pressing play, and then either dancing around, singing karaoke, or both. I think these acts are both the exception, and utterly boring. I’ve seen live electronic music shows that are some of the most compelling, exciting, and visual shows of my life. [1]

The joke also plays up a dismissive attitude towards electronic music that has plagued it since its rise in the 1970s as not being “real” music, and—simultaneously—putting “real musicians” out of work. The act of creating electronic music is as much composition as playing: the artist must create the sounds, arrange them, or at least establish the parameters for the machines to generate them. Even 100% generative electronic music has a human element, in that someone must create the algorhithms that generate the music.

For me, it’s the sounds that make all the difference. I’ve been fascinated by electronic sound, probably from the first time I heard “Lucky Man” by Emerson, Lake, and Palmer on classic rock radio, and it’s epic Moog solo. Sure, you can use a synth to recreate the sound of real instruments, but I feel like that’s a waste. It’s the strange, alien sounds of synthesizers that attract me more than their ability to recreate something else. With a single instrument, you can create stunning beauty or harsh noise in a single note—or both at the same time.

The best electronic music to my ear is the the sort that straddles the human/mechanical divide, with rich melodies and voices contrasted against rigid, mechanical rhythms. Something about the juxtaposition speaks to me. It’s a metaphor, in a way, for the symbiotic human relationship to technology. The music is stronger with both human and technological aspects, much as so many of our other creative endeavors are.

And, of course, a lot of it you can shake your butt to. That’s never a bad thing.

  1. The nature of Kraftwerk shows is such that I can forgive their video tech for checking email while performing, though.  ↩