buy the piano player a drink

Have you heard the new Bill Charlap album, “Notes From New York”? You should. Charlap is my favorite jazz piano player working today – and the new album is very, very good.

My guess is a lot of people come to Charlap expecting this generation’s Oscar Peterson or Erroll Garner, someone whose music is easy going down, but is, well, a little trapped in amber.  He’s so much more than that. For example, the opener, “I’ll Remember April,” bolts from the theme into something that manages to be skittering, Monk-like  before finding its way home.  His is a fine and joyous musical intelligence.

All that for $10.76 from Amazon, shipped to my doorstep, with the mp3 version thrown in as part of the deal. Truth is, I would rather have skipped the CD entirely if I could have spent the same $10 or $11 and been able to download the album in FLAC or ALAC, the two lossless formats used by people like me, who care about such things. But I couldn’r, so buying the CD and ripping it will be the next best thing. Mean time, the mp3 will tide me over.

Of course, I could have simply streamed the album from Apple Music, of which I have a three month trial. My guess is Spotify and Google Play and whatever Microsoft calls their music service now have it as well. And I’d further guess that Bill Charlap, who is among the more successful jazz artists, probably can’t buy a new suit with what he makes off streaming. I could be wrong, but I doubt it, because I have a child in the music business, one whose band’s album was a more than modest success a year or so back. My child told me about what streaming paid, and as I recall, the word “paid” is only used because no one has come up with a good substitute that more accurately describes the relationship between the streaming services and the artist.

Bandcamp, the online clearinghouse for musicians who want to sell their own music as downloads or CDs or vinyl, puts it this way in an excellent new blog post:

Subscription-based music streaming,* on the other hand, has yet to prove itself to be a viable model, even after hundreds of millions of investment dollars raised and spent.

I agree with that, excepting the possibility that it’s a “viable model” if you’re Apple and being big in streaming is vital to the larger business of the company, selling hardware. One thing’s for sure: it’s not viable for anyone trying to make a living playing music. The internet was supposed to be the great equalizer, in which the cocaine-fueled excesses of the 70s and 80s couldn’t happen again, but in which more people would be able to put their music out and get paid. There was talk of a new middle class of independent musicians.

Instead, a relative handful of people – and, emphatically, the corporations close to the servers, the Googles, The Amazons – do very well. Everyone else, not so much.

Which is why I take Bandcamp’s governing philosophy so seriously:

As long as there are fans who care about the welfare of their favorite artists and want to help them keep making music, we will continue to provide that direct connection. And as long as there are fans who want to own, not rent, their music, that is a service we will continue to provide, and that is a model whose benefits we will continue to champion.

(Read the whole thing here.)

So when my Apple Music tryout expires, I won’t be renewing. Have barely used it anyway. I will keep two streaming services that are fundamentally different from what the Amazons, the Apples, the Googles have to offer – Pandora and ClassicalRadio. Both services are more radio-like than they are “on demand,” meaning I can hear lots of music, but I can’t pick exactly what I want to hear. For that I need to invest in an artist, which is pretty much exactly the deal radio had with the music industry pre-internet. I’m ok with that, though I do think regular AM and FM stations should have to pay something, no matter how modest, for the performance of the songs they play, as opposed to just paying the songwriters.

Recordings are now generally regarded as a loss leader for touring, where an artist has more control over expenses and pay.  But for many artists all that does is put more weight on touring than it can support. The current model is broken, but good folks like Bandcamp aside, there doesn’t seem to be much interest in changing it. So look at it like this – buying the CD or the download isn’t making the artist rich, but it might put a buck or two in his or her pocket. Little enough, for what we get.

 

 

moto e, round 2

So despite my antipathy towards Verizon for a.) instituting an utterly made-up, just another reason to extract money from your pocket “activation” fee and b.) not turning on the FM chip in virtually any of its Android phones and c.) not letting you just buy a pre-paid phone and add it to your regular post-paid account (what you have when you get a bill each month), despite all that, I got another Moto E.

It is a shockingly good phone for a low end device. No, scratch that; for an ordinary person – and when it comes to cell phone use, I am one – it’s a good phone, period.

The thing was on sale through walmart.com for $27, tax included. Not as good as the $9.99 deals Best Buy has offered in the past, but given that the phone has a fictitious full price of $199 and Verizon sells it every day for $79, not bad.

However, in order to use it on your regular account, you have to buy a month of pre-paid service. I bought the absolute lowest end plan for $30, activated the phone, waited a few hours and swapped the SIM card from my hand-me-down Galaxy Note II. Worked like a charm.

So what does $57 get you? In my case, it got a phone running Android 5.x, which is mildly useful for my work, since I need to look at my company’s app and mobile web site, and this gives me a proper, modern verson of Android for the job. Motorola puts no junk on the phone, though I’m not using its Moto Assist functions – which are said to be genuinely useful. For that matter, I’m also not using Google’s “Ok Google” spoke word interface. Tried it this afternoon and even on this modest phone, it runs well. But I’m old and stubborn so I disabled it and then waded into the thicket of Google permissions to shut down whatever Google does to make voice recognition work. I have no idea if I got it all.

The interface is almost stock Android, but I can’t stand having the search bar at the top of the page, so I installed Nova Launcher, got rid of the bar, got rid of animations, tried to make the phone as plain as possible. I also downloaded some solid color backgrounds and went from a colorful picture of a bright yellow record on a turntable with a black tone arm to…gray.

(Aside: whether it’s Apple or Google or Amazon, why don’t companies ever include simple, solid color backgrounds? Zebras, butterflies in extreme close-up and piano keys in late afternoon sun I can live without; a nice deep blue or gray, I can’t.)

The phone itself is a little small. I would be happier if the display was maybe three-tenths of an inch or so bigger; mind you, I’m not a fan of the phablet-sized displays that dominate the market now. Even though I have bigger hands than 99 percent of the human race, I don’t want to haul around what amounts to a small tablet. A lot of people are now skipping tablets entirely and relying solely on their phones. I get it, but I’m not interested, at least not so far. But the E is small like iPhones (before the 6) were small, minus the resolution.

In fairness, when I put it up next to an iPhone 5s, I can see the Moto E is bigger, but…it still feels small. Not crowded, not cramped – which is how iPhones make me feel, pre-6 – but small. I feel it most reading a book; my Note II is a pleasure to read on. This feels like I’m reading each page a few paragraphs at a time. But I’m getting used to it, as I do, and my guess is in another week or so, I won’t notice.

I do notice other things, all good: call quality is loud and clear, something you can’t say about many cell phones. The Moto is as responsive, in most ways, as the Note II. Doing a virus scan is slower, but that may be because I switched my scanner of choice to Malware Bytes. Android 5.x, in the context of a phone (I’ve only ever used it on tablets) is really good. I think material design – or whatever it’s called – is a huge improvement over everything that came before it on Android, looks-wise. And even though it’s smaller, using the keyboard is as easy as it was on the Note II. The battery isn’t removable – which I hate – but the one in the phone gives somewhere between 14 and 20 hours of up time, it appears. I haven’t stressed it yet, but I wouldn’t expect battery life to get much worse in normal use.

And of course, it has FM. Far as I can tell, it’s the one and only Verizon Android phone that does, and I have no idea how it slipped past Verizon’s net. I can compare it to four Windows phones I’ve owned that had FM, and early on this is significantly better. NCPR comes through stronger, with less background noise, than any of my Winphones. I haven’t checked WRVO or WCNY, my other two regular haunts, but I suspect I’ll get the same result with them. And it is such a pleasure to have FM; the weather has finally turned in my little town and I started walking this week. I had The World and Snap Judgment for company on two of my evening walks, Morning Edition early in the day. Yes, I could use TuneIn or NPR One or something, but FM is free – which is weirdly valuable this month since we accidentally went over our data cap. Anyway, it’s silly – this is the cheapest phone I’ve ever owned, but for my purposes, it may also be the best.

wins where you can get ’em

Work’s been busy and I’ve been preoccupied with other things, so instead of my rigid “one week on an Android phone, one week an iPhone, one week a Windows phone” routine, I just used the Galaxy Note II for a few weeks. I’m getting comfortable with Android.

Anyway, as noted here a while ago, the app that broke when I moved my Windows phone from 8/8.1 to 10 was one I hated to lose – TuneIn Radio. Even though I stick with Windows phones partly because the FM tuner is activated, which allows me to receive “real” radio, sometimes I want to stream a station.

I use TuneIn on my laptops, desktops, tablets and most of all my phones because it’s the best streamer I’ve found when it comes to depth and breadth of radio station listings, and also in keeping the streams working. It’s not perfect – especially the current interface, which attempts to be “social” but which I find confusing – but is better than anything else.

And it runs on everything, which is a big deal for me. Most developers can’t be bothered with Windows phones, so I’m loyal to the ones who do, like the makers of the excellent Pocket Casts and, of course, TuneIn. I was greatly disappointed when TuneIn wouldn’t work natively on Windows 10 Mobile. None of the mooted substitutes in the Windows store were anywhere close to adequate.

So I was delighted tonight when I got out my WinPhone after a few weeks of not touching it, updated the OS, updated the programs, and happened to check the store. Sure enough, TuneIn has now built a version for Windows 10. It downloaded and installed/opened fine. I’ll test it with a walk this weekend, and maybe a long, satisfying listen to KCRW or WFMT. Thank you, TuneIn – with WinPhones, little victories mean a lot.

the workaround that wasn’t

As much as I complain about Verizon not activating the FM chip inside the cell phones it sells, the company does have one Android phone with working FM. It’s the Moto E, the lowliest member of the E-G-X family, which is available for under $40 at your neighborhood walmart.com.

The Moto E is about as cheap as you can go and still get a recognizably modern Android phone. It has a modest processor, one gig of ram and out of the box, eight gigs of storage. The screen is not much to look at; the resolution is circa 2011. But, hey, what do you expect for $36? And yep, right there in the middle of the first apps screen, “FM radio.”

I know all this because I went to the trouble of acquiring one, briefly, and with it a surprising amount of trouble.

Verizon’s pre-paid phones fall into two categories – expensive popular phones (think iPhone) a generation or two back from the current iteration, and cheap phones designed specifically for the pre-paid market. Historically, Verizon has drawn a line between “pre-paid” and “contract” phones and did not want the two to mingle, but from what I found on the subject – including Verizon’s own customer forums – I could put a Moto E on my account, as long as the SIM was inserted into the phone before it was turned on and activated. I already swap my SIM among three phones on a regular basis, so I figured one more was no big deal.

I fished the SIM out of the phone I was using, moved it into the Moto E, powered it up. At first it looked like it worked – the phone found the network – but after I skipped through the activation screens I did get a “The SIM you’re using is not compatible with this device.” Well, rats. That didn’t work. I powered down the Moto E, extracted the SIM and cursed not having figured out a workaround that would give me FM radio on Android.

After I packed up the Moto E to return it, I slipped the SIM back into the phone I had been using, powered it up and all seemed normal. But when I tried to make a call, I was redirected to Verizon. Take the SIM out, reseat it, make sure I’m not overlooking something obvious. Same result.

I thought maybe what I was seeing was the result of using the SIM with an adaptor. Because two phones I use have “nano” SIMs, but one has a “micro” SIM, I have to put the nano SIM into a little cardboard tray every time I want to use the phone that takes the micro size. It’s a little touchy, but has worked so far. Last night though, I figured the cardboard tray might be damaged. So I took the SIM out of the tray and put it into one of the phones that uses a nano SIM. Same result – the phone powered up fine, found the network, but no calls would complete. This being a Sunday night, Verizon was closed so I went online and used the activation tool to try and set things right. The phone activated fine; there were no messages, warnings, whatever. But I still couldn’t make a call.

12 hours later, I was at my local Verizon mall store, talking to a helpful young lady. She grabbed a new SIM, flashed it for me and popped it into my phone after typing some Verizon authorization magic onto her tablet. Handed it back to me, said make a test call. I did, and…Verizon answered.

Hmmm.

More typing, checking of various settings that I don’t have access to. Finally, she says ‘Because you tried to use the Moto E, your number was hotlined.’ I’m not exactly sure what hotlined means in this context, but it can’t be good. Some more typing, the phone powered down one last time and then back up, and whatever part of Verizon that was holding onto my account had been persuaded to loosen its grip. I could again use my phone.

Now, the young woman who helped me was very nice, didn’t charge me for the fix or the SIM card. Couldn’t be happier with the service. But it’s worth considering the underlying facts for just a minute: I tried to activate a phone that I couldn’t activate. The Moto E accurately relayed to me what the problem was. But rather than leaving matters there, Verizon went on to fry the SIM and leave me without cell service for half a day. And remember, it wasn’t clear or obvious from the start that I couldn’t use the Moto E; in fact, the helpful person at Verizon told me you can use your pre-paid phone on your contract – if you buy a month of pre-paid service up front. That’s right, $45 for the privilege of using a cheap phone to consume more of their service. Still, I suppose it beats the company’s old policy, which she informed me was to make you buy pre-paid for six months.

And none of it, none of it, would have happened if Verizon would just take the simple, decent step of activating the FM radio chip which is in most cell phones. Verizon: rather than treating me like a potential criminal, how ’bout you lighten up, turn on your radios, and let us all move on to more important things? I’ll send you just shy of $230 this month. Expressed over a year, I give you close to $3,000. What I want in return doesn’t seem like much to ask for.

 

tuned out

Dead though the platform may be, I still like Windows phones. (This is probably the same impulse that led me to buy an Amiga 1200, long after it was obvious the company wasn’t coming back.)

And because I like Windows phones, I did a modest upgrade this weekend, from my ancient-in-phone-years Lumia 822 to the Lumia 735, the Microsoft-branded version of the 735 which debuted on Verizon, my carrier, last year. The 735 is bigger, has a much better screen, is somewhat faster. Given how long I keep my cell phones, this one will see me until either a.) there’s a major upgrade in the WinPhone platform or b.) the platform dies. I’m not taking bets.

Anyway, the experience out of the box was uniformly positive, with one weird exception that is almost a deal-breaker. First, the good news: it took me under a hour to kill all the apps I didn’t want, update what was left, then update the phone to the latest version of 8.1.

Better still, moving to Win 10 was easy, unlike some of my experiences with the 822. From download to reboot and upgrade of various pieces of software, maybe an hour, probably less. If you’re used to iPhone or Android upgrades that may seem like a long time, but believe me, for a WinPhone it’s the Indy 500.

And Win 10 mobile just works. Like a lot of WinPhone fans, I mourn the loss of some of the things that made Windows phones unique, but the big thing, the tile-based interface, is still there, as are live tiles, though they don’t get used enough.

Once I had a working Windows 10 phone, and all the built-in apps were updated (and I deleted Facebook and a few others again – die, dammit) I began downloading the handful of apps I use. One of the things that makes me an ideal Windows phone user is the fact that I just don’t need a lot of apps – in fact, I’m always looking for an excuse to delete what I have. And as it turns out, WinPhones have most of what I need – Kindle, Audible, Amazon shopping, NY Times, PocketCasts (a fine company, not least because its podcast app runs on iOS and Android and Windows phone), a few others.

And importantly, very importantly, the 735 supports FM radio. This is a huge deal for me, since I walk when the weather is nice, and if I’m not listening to a podcast or a book, I’m listening to radio. Having an actual, real honest-to-god radio inside my phone is enormously comforting to me. I wouldn’t have gotten the 735 without it.

But…there are times when I need radio by other means, and for years my go-to application has been TuneIn Radio. Of late, TuneIn has branched into streaming books, language lessons and major league sports, but the core has always been the radio stations you can listen to through the app. TuneIn isn’t perfect – sometimes streams refuse to play for no good reason – but it’s the best of its kind. I’ve kept a list of favorite stations – like WFMT in Chicago – in TuneIn for years.

And it’s cross platform, always has been. I’ve used TuneIn since WinPhones were on version 7.5, and I had an HTC Trophy. It’s one of my most called on apps, and it ran just fine on the 822, which is a four year old phone.

But it doesn’t run – excuse me, “isn’t compatible with” – the 735. This makes no sense. According to the Windows store, the 735 is missing some piece of hardware TuneIn needs in order to run well, which doesn’t seem likely, given that the phone is in all ways newer, faster, better than the 822. Granted, it’s a mid-line phone, but as far as I know, it’s not missing some common component that used to be in cell phones, but isn’t now. And TuneIn supposedly runs on other mid-level Windows phones.

My guess is this has something to do with Windows 10. TuneIn ran on the 822, but then it was on the phone when it running 8.1 and just came along for the ride when I upgraded to 10. Doesn’t make sense, but that’s all I can think of. In the meantime, I’m looking at other “radio” programs, all of which seem to promise a lot, but aren’t likely to be as good as what I’ve lost. Here’s hoping it’s temporary.

(Yes, I know Microsoft talks about universal apps and Windows 10 Mobile. I know the lingo. For the purpose of talking about Windows phones, I use WinPhone as shorthand for all of that.)

 

rethinking hd radio

I’ve been skeptical of HD radio for a long time. It strikes me as a solution in search of a problem; the technology is completely controlled by one company and has been a black box that no one could hack or otherwise improve on; what I heard of it sounded thin and…not good.

But I never heard HD in a car until we got our new Passat. Surprisingly, it’s not bad. Driving around today, I listened to WCNY-FM out of Syracuse, a well-engineered station that primarily plays classical music, and when the signal slipped from HD to regular FM, I didn’t hear much difference. That’s good, because HD is almost universally regarded as worse than FM. Bonus: the signal didn’t slip from HD often; WCNY has an FM translator in my little town, (a small ‘repeater’ station which takes the signal from the mothership and rebroadcasts it over a more distant territory) and it apparently is passing HD as well.

If problems didn’t show up on the main channel, I would certainly expect to hear HD’s weakness on the sub-channels (WCNY operates two – an oldies channel and a jazz channel) under the theory that bandwidth starts to run out, but listening to the jazz channel, it sounded decent. Caught Michael Feinstein’s public radio show, and I was struck by how the thing HD proponents have pushed – more channels, and sometimes those channels represent niche interests – is an actual, real advantage.  In my little town, you can now get classical music and jazz, sounding pretty good, for free.

By way of comparison, everything I heard today sounded far better than the SiriusXM service in my wife’s car, including Symphony Hall, which is the best sounding satellite channel.

I still have objections to HD: I really don’t like how closed the system is (one of radio’s greatest values lies in how well understood the technology is) and I’m still not sure why most people should care. I’m going to bring the little SONY (the semi-legendary XDR-F1) out of retirement to see if I can get the same channels in my family room. My guess is the sound will disappoint me; still, most people listen to radio in their cars, and now that I’ve heard HD that way – and enjoyed having extra channels – I’m willing to admit there may be a point to it after all.

a cold friday night

It was cold in my little town Friday night, and trucks and cars poured in and out of the municipal parking lot downtown. Technically, the lot is there for city hall, but on weekends people park and walk to the bars half a block away. City hall doesn’t get a lot of business at 10 PM on a Friday.

Except I was standing there, waiting for the police to show up with three people – two of them charged with murder, one with robbery. The accused killers were 19 years old.

I used to do this a lot – stand some place, wait for something to happen. I don’t do it any more, except for rare one-offs like Friday night.

A car pulled up. The window rolled down, a woman looked at me and said “Is there an arraignment here tonight?”

Yes, I said.

“Are you the judge?”

No, I said, press.

Much earlier Friday, a young man had been stabbed to death inside his apartment on a city street four or five blocks from where I live. The street’s been going downhill for 30 years, but if you drive just a block or so, cross over one of the main streets in my town, you’re on an old money street, where you can still find doctors and such maintaining large houses built for the era when a family of six was small.

Back in the 90s I ended up in New York City one afternoon, looking for the family of a notorious murder suspect. I was working with a freelance crew that specialized in getting footage of crimes and fires, most often in rough neighborhoods. But as we got close to the address, the neighborhood didn’t seem to be getting worse – in fact, it was a little better. Two blocks, one block, one of the guys remarked how nice everything was, we turned a corner and…everything went to hell. It was like rounding the back of a Hollywood set. What was propping up the nice neighborhood we saw on the way in was not nice at all. The guy not driving turned around, looked at me and said, Get in, get out.

You could get something of the same effect here Friday. You’re on a decent, ordinary street and all of a sudden there’s police tape and flashing red lights blocking your way. And the neighbors a block over are no doubt wondering why they haven’t gotten out before now.

The woman looking at me out the car window was the dead guy’s mother. I didn’t say I was sorry – one of the things that grates on me most is the  way reporters tell the families of victims how sorry they are, right before grilling them – not that I haven’t done it myself. So I just answered her questions – Yes, you can be here for the arraignment. Yes, this is a parking lot and you can use it.

The newspaper’s reporter dug in with her for a bit. It sounded like a tough life all the way around. Then it was time to go in. The D.A. and the detectives made weary, professional small talk with each other. It had been a long day, but from their point of view a good one – three people in custody and in court at 11 PM for a killing at 5 AM.

The court appearances were almost over before they started; no one had lawyers yet, so there wasn’t much for the judge to do besides say, You’re charged, you’re in jail, come back Monday.

The suspects were smaller than I expected – they looked like three-quarter size scale models of themselves. They were younger looking in person than their mug shots, and you could imagine them each in their last year of high school. When the lead suspect, the guy who allegedly did the stabbing, came out, the victim’s mother said loudly “Go to hell.” The cops and the D.A. kept trying to quiet her, like a teacher quiets a recalcitrant child. They looked like they knew it was a losing proposition; when the last of the three had appeared, the mother stood up and announced “See you Monday.”

As for whether any of the three gets what they (allegedly) did, or how thoroughly they’ve wasted their lives, I have no idea. They didn’t look especially one way or the other – not visibly afraid, but not making a show of bravado either. If, as seems likely, drugs were involved, then this killing may be no more complicated than business dealings gone bad,  unremarkable except that it ended in a death in a town where such things are still rare. What days like Friday do is add a small increment of doubt: is this the way we’re headed? (To the extent there’s a ‘we’ at all, or that there’s one direction.) It hasn’t happened so far, and it’s hard to see there being enough potential business here for things to get really bad. But they have elsewhere – an even smaller mill town a hundred miles from here has struggled with foreclosures and drug dealers from out of the area. The word that comes to mind is tenuous – we can’t fully put into words how broken things are, our tools for fixing it don’t seem up to the task, and we’re stepping very carefully, hoping the 19 year olds with knives and guns don’t get too close.