Music

The Power of Music

Last weekend, my family and I went to a little wine bar in town. It was open mic night, and a couple of my daughter’s friends were going to perform. We went and watched as the girls each performed, and then continued to hang out to see several different sets of people take the stage and do their own thing.

Some of the people did original songs, some did covers, there were even some really good instrumental guitar from a couple of the guests. The music ranged from pop, to punk, to flamenco, to classic rock, but the cool thing was that everyone was supportive, and really had a good time listening to all of the different types of music.

My eldest daughter has been taking guitar lessons for around the last six months. She has never wanted to play AND sing before. But after hanging out and seeing the live music, she immediately started learning some songs at home and singing along. It inspired her to want to perform. It helped her get past that feeling that she couldn’t do it. She was excited about the music, and excited to practice and get better.

My youngest has been teaching herself to play some piano (with a little help from my wife) and has also been taking some voice lessons. Well she immediately asked the wife to get her sheet music to “Lean On Me” so she could learn to play it and sing along as well. Seems she really liked what she saw too.

Hell, even I got the itch to perform again. A couple of the other Dad’s play guitar, so I might try to con them into playing something I could sing along to. Watching everyone perform really made me want to be creative again. I’ve started looking at old song lyrics and poetry, and wondering what I could do with it nowadays. That joy and adrenaline rush you can get from performing is like no other, and who knows, maybe I’ll experience it again soon.

No matter what though, I’m really thankful to have a great local venue that is welcoming to musicians. Good live music is something that inspires everyone, and it’s so cool to have something like that in my hometown. It makes me want to be creative again, and that includes coming back here to write. Let’s hope it becomes a trend.

R.I.P. Napster

Today the Napster service was absorbed by Rhapsody in the United States.  I’ve been a long time user of Napster, and am really sad to see it go.

For those of you unaware, the original Napster program was basically a way to get free music.  You would connect to others and share MP3′s.  The MP3 format basically made it easy for anyone to rip a CD and make it available to the world.  So you could try any music you liked, but it also lead to rampant piracy.

Now instead of trying to embrace and extend the MP3 concept, record companies sued Napster into oblivion. It took a long time for music companies to come around.  And a lot of it had to do with Steve Jobs and Apple requesting that copy protection be removed from songs.  Once that happened, many services started to emerge.

Napster itself rose from the dead as a pay service for music subscriptions.  It had a better library than others as well as higher quality music files.  It also had the ability to download tracks for offline listening.  So I jumped back in, and got a subscription and have been a happy customer ever since.

But, alas, Napster sold its US assets to Rhapsody, so now as of today, I’m a Rhapsody customer whether I like it or not.  I’ll give it a fair shake as it’s been a couple years, but Napster has historically been a much better service.  We’ll see if Rhapsody has finally caught up.

If not, many other services have emerged.  Spotify, MOG, Rdio, Slacker and others are just waiting to fill my ear hole with tunes.  We’ll see which way I go.

Music in the Internet Age and OK Go

What I just read has to be one of the best explanations of the music business currently out there, and why some things are the way they have to be. I really like OK Go, and I thank ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic for sharing the above forum thread via his Twitter account (@alyankovic). Al basically said “Ditto.”

Be sure to check out OK Go, here’s their latest video for This Too Shall Pass

OK Go – This Too Shall Pass from OK Go on Vimeo.

You can buy their latest album here.

Greyhawks Digital Music Class – 5 – Ratings and Smart Playlists

In the last installment, I discussed what I think is one of the most important aspects of really managing your music library, and that is making sure the genres are correct and actually mean something to you as a listener. That lays the foundation to the next topic, and that is rating your music.

Most all music jukeboxes allow you to rate your music from one to five stars. This can help you manage your library in some automatic ways, and I’ll show you how. What I like to do is listen to a new album and then rate each song as I go through, here’s how I think about it.

***** Absolute awesome song – A top hit in my opinion that I could listen to any time
**** One of the best songs by this artist on the album, could be on the artists greatest hits album
*** Decent song that is listenable once in awhile
** An okay song that I might not skip while listening to an album
* I don’t use a 1 star rating at all, just the top 4

Now rating these this way affords me some luxuries when I create playlists. Lets say I only want to hear the most awesome Punk songs in my library? Well I can create a smart playlists that only includes songs in the Punk genre that I’ve rated at 5 stars. If I wanted the greatest hits of an artist, I could create a smart playlist for that artist that included all songs 4 stars and above. If I wanted to go deeper into the music catalog I could go lower on the star ratings.

The key here is the Smart Playlist. Basically a smart playlist lets you set some criteria and then it automatically makes playlists based on that criteria. So in my 5 Star Punk example, it plays all the best punk songs. If tomorrow I get a new Punk album and mark some songs as 5 stars, they automatically become part of the playlist. So once you set your system in place, and get your Smart Playlists set up, the only maintenance going forward is making sure that when you add new music to your library that you get the genre and star ratings correct. Everything else falls into place.

All of these things take awhile to set up initially, but once they are all ready, your library updates itself every time you add and rate a new album. It makes it much easier to find your favorite music, and that’s really what it’s all about.

Greyhawks Digital Music Class – 4 – Genres

If you take nothing else away from my little music classes, at least pay attention to this one, as for me it makes all the difference. I truly believe that YOU need to decide how you classify your music in genres, and not let something like iTunes or the CDDB database decide. Let me explain…

When you rip a CD, the software goes to the internet and pulls the title of the songs, the artist, and the genre of the music. Sometimes those genres are spot on, sometimes they are laughably wrong and sometimes they don’t quite jive with how you think the music should be classified. So what you need to do is come up with all the ways that YOU classify music. Maybe you only think in Rock, Pop, Country and that’s all you listen to, and that’s fine. Maybe you are a big metalhead and want to divide things into Progressive, Thrash, Death etc. That’s the thing, you should classify music the way YOU think about music, and the way you’ll search for music in your library.

So here’s what I do. I have decided what I want my genres to be, and any time I rip a CD or buy some MP3s from Amazon, I change the genre on those files to match MY list of genres. I have quite a few different genres, but you can have however many or however few you want. Just do what makes sense to you. But stick with it, and make sure that every bit of music in your library falls into the buckets you’ve created.

For me, I sort into the following Genres:

  • Alternative: Depeche Mode, Radiohead, Gnarls Barkley, The Kooks
  • Alternative – Adult: John Mayer, Colbie Caillat, Gavin DeGraw, Jason Mraz
  • Alternative – Heavy: Korn, The White Stripes, Breaking Benjamin, Saigon Kick
  • Classic Rock: Beatles, Aerosmith, The Eagles, The Doors
  • Comedy: George Carlin, Jim Gaffigan, Patton Oswalt, Eddie Izzard
  • Country: Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood, Alabama
  • Cover Song: Any song covered by a different artist
  • Hair Metal: Poison, Warrant, Great White, Faster Pussycat, Scorpions
  • Hip Hop/Rap: Beastie Boys, Kanye West, Akon, Lil’ Wayne, N.E.R.D.
  • Holiday: Any Christmas or other holiday tunes
  • Industrial: Nine Inch Nails, KMFDM, Nitzer Ebb, Ministry
  • Jazz & Blues: Buddy Guy, Louis Armstrong, Harry Connick Jr., Dave Grusin
  • Metal: Pantera, Slayer, Slipknot, Therapy?, Type O Negative
  • New Age & Classical: David Lanz, David Arkenstone, Kenny G., Kitaro
  • Pop: Britney Spears, Gwen Stefani, Katy Perry, Natasha Bedingfield
  • Punk: Bad Religion, Bad Brains, Descendents, Black Flag, Ramones
  • R&B: Alicia Keys, John Legend, Barry White, Robin Thicke
  • Reggae: Bob Marley, Jimmy Cliff, Burning Spear, UB40
  • Rock: Cowboy Mouth, Sammy Hagar, The Hives, The Cult
  • Soundtracks: Self Explanatory

So if you look, I have three variations on Alternative. So I can separate it out by which type of alternative I like, or I can create a playlist that includes anything that contains Alternative in the genre. I also have what’s not really a Genre per se in “Cover Songs” I collect a lot of cover songs, and they are mixed in pretty much all genres, so I wanted a quick way to find them. So, one of my genres is labelled Cover Songs. You could do the same for live tracks or accoustic songs or duets. It’s really up to you. You use your music library, so you should be the one that classifies what the music is to YOU.

Take John Mayer for example. Some would consider him Adult Alternative, some might say Soft Rock, some might say Pop, some might say Top 40. Which is right FOR YOU? That’s all that matters, and if you take control of your Genres, a lot of other things start to fall into place.

So, make that change now. Change the genres to what YOU think they should be. You’ll thank me later.

Apple's Genius is pretty genius

Apple unveiled iTunes 8 yesterday and they were highly touting a feature named Genius. There are really two components to the feature. One is a new sidebar you open in iTunes. Whenever you click on a song, the sidebar shows albums and songs by the artist you don’t already own, and gives you suggestions of music by other artists that are similar.

Each entry in the sidebar has the BUY button next to it, so you can purchase music from Apple immediately. It’s all about selling extra music to the customer. Since I don’t buy music from iTunes (I use Amazon’s DRM-free MP3 store instead) the sidebar won’t prompt me to buy anything from Apple. If I open it, it’s to see what I might be missing that I can buy elsewhere. Most times, I imagine that sidebar will be closed however.

The REAL genius of Genius comes in the automatic playlists. Basically you pick any song, and then click the Genius button and iTunes creates a playlist of similar music. This is great when you are in the mood for a particular type of song and just want to hear stuff that’s similar.

I personally have 123 GB of MP3′s. I turned Genius on and it took nearly two hours to complete its analysis, but once it was done, the playlists it created were really cool. When I want a quick fix of a particular type of music, Genius fits the bill perfectly. It’s absolutely perfect for my wife too. She loves music, but never remembers names of artists or songs. So now, all she has to do is remember one song, and then click the Genius button to get a list of similar tunes.

I’ve read online that many people’s experience seems way off with weird combinations of music coming together, but I have to say that our experience is exactly the opposite. Maybe it’s because our library has more data to work with, I dunno. Anyway, we clicked the Genius button probably a dozen times and each playlist was pretty good. Every once in awhile a song or two didn’t seem to quite fit, but listening to it probably wouldn’t seem too jarring.

So for me, this is a very welcome addition, and for my wife this vastly expands the amount of music she’ll be exposed to. It’s in a word, Genius.

Greyhawks Digital Music Class – 2 – Digitizing your Music

Okay, so you have a large collection of music, and we’ll assume that it’s on CD at this point. You want to get your music into a format you can play on your computer and other digital devices. You do this by converting (or ripping) the songs on the CD to your hard drive in some computer format. There are tons out there: Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, AAC, WAV, MP3 etc.

Each format has strengths and weaknesses. I myself am going to recommend MP3. For me the choice to do so is pretty simple. MP3 can pretty much play on anything. Computers, home media streamers, all music players including iPods, Xbox, Playstation, many new car stereos etc. MP3 is simply the most supported format for music in the world. It will give you the most flexibility to play pretty much wherever you want because it has no Digital Rights Management (DRM) tacked on.

Now MP3 is a lossy format, which means that when you convert a song from your CD to MP3, it’s going to lose some quality due to the compression. If the best quality is all you are after, then you will want to look at lossless music formats. Just be aware that many of those will NOT play everywhere, have much larger file sizes and will probably limit you quite a bit.

Okay, so if you trust Uncle Greyhawk, you’ll choose MP3. Now you have to get music off of the CD and into the MP3 format in a process commonly called “ripping” the songs. If you look it up online, there are TONS of rippers and jukeboxes you can use. You can do the research and find the program that works the best for you, or you can even use the program that came with your computer. On Windows it’s Windows Media Player and on the Mac it’s iTunes. These programs generally want to rip to their own formats, but if you look in the preferences, you can change them to choose MP3 as your format of choice. Here’s what the changes look like in iTunes.

Now, when you choose MP3, there is also a thing called bit-rate. Without getting into particulars, just know that the higher the number, the better the sound quality. It also makes the file size larger as well, so you’ll want to find a quality/size balance. My recommendation is 192 kps. But, you can try for yourself. Try ripping one of your favorite songs at 128 kps, 160 kps, 192 kps and 256 kps. Listen to them all and see where the quality is acceptable for you. When you find the quality you like you can set it and forget it.

So now all you have to do is put your CD in the computer, the ripper will try to figure out the names of the artist and the tracks, and then you rip the songs to the MP3 format somewhere on your hard drive and we’re ready for the next step. Starting your library. Until Next time, play it loud…

NOTE: I know that people will want to know how to get cassettes and vinyl and mini-disc and the like into MP3 files. I’ll get to that later.

Greyhawks Digital Music Class – 1 – Introduction

Welcome to Greyhawk’s Digital Music Class. I decided to start writing some posts after several people (in the blogosphere and real life) asked me how I manage my (hedonistically large) music library. I’ll try to put these posts out there once in awhile, and I hope you get something out of them.

I’ll give you a little background on myself and on my music collection. First off, I’ve been a music fan since my first 8-track at 5 years old. I’ve always loved music, and have been a collector since I started saving money. In college I became a disc jockey at both the college radio station and the local 100,000 watt classic rock station. Through my (five) years of college, I did every job they had at the college station including two stints as the station manager. I also worked nearly 40 hours a week at the classic rock station. Sometimes it was commercial copy writing and production, but mostly it was on-air jocking.

During this whole time, I continued to amass titles in my collection. I would snag freebies any time I could, and at the college station, I worked with record company reps that liked me enough to send me multiple copies of every new release. That allowed me to have one and another could go to the station. During that time I also got on the guest list of hundreds of live concerts. The point it, music is a lot of what makes me, well… me.

I’ve tried a lot of things to manage the collection. In the past I’ve done things like have three 400-disc CD changers tethered together and to a computer to be able to manage it all. Besides the cost and the sheer size of that solution, it just became too cumbersome to find the music I wanted at any given moment. In recent years I’ve taken the majority of my music library and digitized it into MP3 format so I could catalog it and use it anywhere. This has freed my musical spirit considerably. I can listen to whatever I want whenever I want, and I can even transport almost my whole collection on a single 160GB ipod. It’s liberating. I’ll help you get to where I am, and avoid the pitfalls along the way.

In the next installment we’ll talk about how to get your current library into the digital realm, without DRM.

Us Old People Prevail – David Cook Wins!

Last night, David Cook was crowned this season’s new American Idol. This was despite the fact that the judges had all but given the title to David Archuleta the night before. In fact pretty much all the pundits really thought that the younger David would walk away with the title. I couldn’t be happier that David Cook won instead.

Now it’s not that I don’t think Archie is deserving, far from it. He has the beautiful voice of a young prodigy. But to me, he was more of a Josh Groban-type operatic singer rather than a pop/rock star. His vocals are impeccable, but he really had no stage presence and sometimes I didn’t believe the emotion in the songs. I think the main reason for this is his age (17). The world hasn’t “happened” to him yet. He’s been sheltered in his Dad’s little Stage Dad competition world where he couldn’t be a kid.

This is where I feel bad for young David. His Dad appears to be every bit as bad and pushy as the worst stage parents. He was bad enough that the Idol folks banned him from going backstage and to rehearsals for the last couple weeks. I think his Dad is damaging him, and we’ll see problems with young David in the future. Stage parents suck. Despite all of this, I think losing might actually do little David some good. He finally has some pain to tuck away and grow upon. It’s not a young-love heartbreak-type of pain that shapes the rest of us, but at least it’s something.

Anyway, I’m thrilled that Cook won for the simple fact that he can already walk on stage as a rockstar. When he sings in a controlled manner, his vocals can be every bit as tender and melodic as the best of them. When he straps on the guitar and rocks out you rock along. When he puts emotion into the music, you believe every damn world. You can tell he has the pain to grow upon. He was a musician and an entertainer rather than just a singer. He didn’t do any R&B tinged sappy ballads, in fact he even made a Mariah Carey song one of his own. He deserves this, much to the chagrin of all the 12 year olds that melt every time Archie says “gosh.”

So to me, I think this was a win for those of us in the older demographic that wanted a really good rocker type rather than a doe-eyed balladeer. And it wasn’t just a minor win, Cook won by 12 million votes. There were a total of 97 million cast. Now I could go into a whole diatribe about how I wish people would vote in our general election as fervently as they do for Idol, but I’ll save that for another time. The point is, us old folks won damnit. Now all you whippersnappers can get the hell off my lawn.

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