Category Archives: music

dark horse

I’ve tried all of the major music streaming services, and am currently subscribed to several – Pandora, Spotify, SiriusXM, (part of my car subscription), Jazz/ClassicalRadio. I’m on the free tier of Slacker, though I’ve paid for it in the past, and have a six month deal for Microsoft’s Groove Music.

I think I missed an obvious winner.

It’s early days, but I’ve been using a service that’s been around longer than any of the above, that is absolutely free, but somehow doesn’t get much attention. It’s AccuRadio.

What’s AccuRadio?

It’s the brainchild of Kurt Hanson, who publishes the must-read RAIN: Radio and Internet Newsletter. If I understand the history of the thing correctly, Hanson created AccuRadio as proof of concept for the things being talked about in the newsletter.

In any event, AccuRadio is not on-demand – you can’t pick out songs or albums to play.  It is a whole lot of (the number that gets tossed around is more than a thousand) channels of just about any kind of music you’d want. So it’s on the Pandora/Slacker/SiriusXM/JazzRadio/ClassicalRadio end of the spectrum.

How does AccuRadio stack up? As a jazz/classical music listener, my initial answer is “very well.” As in, if I had to use nothing but AccuRadio, it would be more than ok.

Compare JazzRadio and AccuRadio: JazzRadio offers 40 channels, divided by era, style, instrument, mood. It throws in a couple of blues channels and some Brazilian/bossa nova. You can listen for free, but you have to pay to use the apps or to get the higher quality streaming. When I bought it, it was $60 a year, which also gave me ClassicalRadio and a couple of streaming services I don’t  care about.  I paid because I wanted the higher sound quality, up to 320 kbps for mp3s.

AccuRadio’s jazz section offers an astounding 76 channels, divided by era, style, instrument, mood, but also offering channels devoted to single composers (an all-Ellington channel!), a “top 50 jazz albums of all time” channel, even a channel for Chicago’s legendary AACM (Association For The Advancement of Creative Musicians). That’s deep.  And AccuRadio is free, as are its apps. Even if you wanted to, you can’t pay for it.

I’m guessing the sound quality isn’t as good as the paid-for services, but listening on my Sonos Play:1s, I’m hard pressed to hear much difference. In theory, there are commercials, but over a couple of days of listening, I have yet to hear one.

Oh, and if the jazz section’s Brazilian channel doesn’t do it for you, you can find another four Brazilian channels in their own section.

The classical section is equally good; I especially like the channel devoted to the conductor Herbert von Karajan – you could spend weeks sampling what he put on record – and the channels set aside just for European and American orchestras. Like ClassicalRadio, AccuRadio gives you channels for composers, instruments, types of composition (symphonies, string quartets), eras, moods.

Did I mention it’s free?

Hanson and company apparently regard Pandora’s “build your own” model as a bug, not a feature, because even though there’s an interesting way for you to hear your favorite songs more often, in general AccuRadio has already done all the selecting work for you. That said, you do have a degree of control: you can skip songs and ban an artist or song from a channel.

There’s a dedication to craft and detail that pervades the whole operation – even though it appears AccuRadio runs very lean. You want Broadway on Pandora? You’ve got a handful of choices. SiriusXM? Just one. AccuRadio? Try 45 channels. Reggae? There are separate, specialist channels for both dub and instrumentals.

AccuRadio has branded itself a few different ways. The current slogan is “Better radio for your workday,” and Hanson has said he’s not chasing young listeners. The service is aimed squarely at people from their mid-30s to their mid-60s, sitting at a desk with a browser tab open, quietly playing something while they work. AccuRadio supposedly doesn’t quite hit the top 10 of streaming services, but the strategy they’re using strikes me as smart, going at a demographic the other services seemingly aren’t all that interested in.

I’ve struggled a little to describe exactly how good I think AccuRadio is, so here’s my best shot: it’s the Linux of streaming services. In almost all respects, it beats the ones you pay for. You can’t get much better than that.

 

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weekend radio

I had dinner with a couple hundred fellow journalists this weekend; the best part was  conversation about radio, and then some radio I heard on my long trip home.

First, I got an answer to something which vaguely bothered me for the last few months. For decades, the Associated Press offered a very solid, reliable radio service. If you owned a radio station and didn’t have an affiliation with CBS/NBC/ABC you could buy AP radio and get a respectable five minute report at the top of every hour, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

One of my little pleasures as a SiriusXM subscriber has been that the channel I listen to most, POTUS (the all-politics channel), ran AP radio news. So when I was driving to work, or especially on the weekend, I got to catch a newscast or two. But sometime in the last few months, AP went away, replaced by an unbranded newscast that uses some CNN talent. It’s ok, but I miss the AP.

Turns out the AP discontinued its “live” newscasts when it comes to overnights and weekends, so SiriusXM switched providers.

My impression is that doing overnights and weekends was expensive, and a lot of radio stations – as we all know – don’t do any news at all. I’m sure it wasn’t a money maker, the last few years haven’t been easy for the AP, so this was probably the practical thing to do.

Still, there’s not a lot left in the commercial space when it comes to reputable, trustworthy radio news, and not having the AP, or as much of the AP, is a loss.

One of my dinner companions got stuck dealing with TV professionally, but is a radio guy at heart, and we fell to talking about the merits of streaming versus tuning it in the old fashioned way. He said it sounds better, even when it sounds worse, when you tune in the AM or FM band. I agree, and I don’t think this is just old guy nostalgia – the new book The New Analog makes a  persuasive case that the absence of “noise” in digital sound is a loss. I don’t fully understand it, but somehow not having noise – the background hiss you get with even the best radio signal, the inherent rumble and pops and clicks you get with a record – diminishes the “signal,” the part you came to listen to.

Another TV guy who likes radio a lot was sitting across our big table from me, and because it was noisy and crowded, we ended up shouting our conversation at each other. He told me about his plan to corral an AM radio station on the fringe of New York City. If he pulls it off, it’ll be an education for high school students and a real, honest to goodness emergency station for the area.

We talked about how radio stations used to be owned by local guys who wanted to be somebody in their town, and how that impulse meant that they spent some money, usually in the service of making a lot more, but also to make the station stand out with its news, its DJs. Sure, they liked the money, but it was just as important that they got to sit at the head table at the Chamber of Commerce dinner, got invited to sit on the hospital board.  The vastly more efficient mega-radio chains have no interest in any of that.

I worked for an AM station back in the 70s, and we ran local news up until noon on Saturday and were local with our disc jockeys all weekend. Sunday morning was reserved for local church services, as I recall. That’s changed: many (most?) commercial radio stations, especially AM stations, abandon any pretense of being anything other than a money machine on the weekends. They sell time by the hour, running pitches from lawyers, money guys, assorted bottom feeders. It brings money in, but to my ear ruins any identity the station has.

My dinner companion told me that’s pretty much the state of play in New York City, which surprised me. I would have thought there was a big enough audience there to sustain regular operations all weekend long. He told me the two commercial all-news stations, WCBS and WINS, don’t do that. He admires them for that. So do I.

I had a three hour drive home Sunday morning, and – speaking of weekend radio – lucked out.  The first thing I hit, randomly twisting the dial on the Passat’s FM, was a guy saying ‘You wouldn’t want to start your Sunday morning without polka, would you?” Now there’s a pitch. Turns out it was Siena College’s station. College-affiliated stations – unless they’re NPR operations – are always rock or rap or something else youthful, in my experience, as are the DJs. This was different, and pretty wonderful. I don’t know from polka, nor care much, but there were a couple of community guys behind the mics, they knew their stuff – this show has apparently been around for a while – and they were taking requests from an audience whose names all ended in complicated combinations of vowels and consonants, and who – it appeared – were all longtime listeners. My impression was the show has a following that extends through the middle of New York state, from Syracuse to Albany.  I listened until the signal went away.

Then, in honor of Sunday morning, I got religion. A station was running EWTN programming, (the Catholic channel), which I’ve heard a little on SiriusXM. I caught most of a half hour show dedicated to being pro-life; usually when I hear someone talk about being anti-abortion, it’s in the context of a debate with someone on the other side, and it’s usually more noise than anything else. This show featured interviews with the woman who heads the anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List and with anti-abortion U.S. Senator Mike Lee. None of it was all that probing or incisive, but I got to hear what pro-life folks talk like when they’re among friends, which was valuable in and of itself.

Finally, for the last leg of the trip going north from Utica, I found a preacher. He was going on about spiritually mature and immature people, about the difference between what is commanded or forbidden in the Bible and what’s merely stuff to argue over, about selfishness, about not throwing obstacles in peoples’ paths – and yes, it was, for an unenlightened heathen, as confusing as described. But the guy was a good talker, knew when to take breaks, and I can see how people have been drawn in for decades by the voice coming from the speaker. As weekend radio goes, not horrible.

 

 

 

 

audience participation

These days, my favorite music is old music. A few recent listens:

  • Music of Morocco, the anthology the writer Paul Bowles compiled and which was re-released in much expanded form last year by the wonderful Dust to Digital label.
  • Singles, a new collection of 45s spanning 30 years, from the late Sun Ra. Again, an expansion, this time of a two CD set from a decade ago on the Evidence label. This adds a third CD, much new material.
  • The Asch Recordings, Mary Lou Williams. 35 sides, most of them originally 78s, recorded for Moses Asch’s Folkways label between 1944 and 1947. The great pianist in a variety of contexts – solo, trio, small group, big band.
  • Why The Mountains Are Black, Greek village music recorded between 1907 and 1960. As has been noted frequently elsewhere, this stuff is abidingly strange to western ears. At times, it sounds like avant jazz from the 60s.
  • Complete Warner Recordings, the Busch Quartet. Bach, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, from the late 20s to the late 40s.

In general, I find myself much more drawn to old music than new, though I listen to a fair amount of new music as well. But the old recordings sound better to me, which is interesting.

I’m not listening out of nostalgia. While you can argue that jazz was more vital 50 years ago, I don’t long to go back there, don’t waste time comparing then to now. The Busch Quartet is wonderful, but there are lots of equally or more wonderful quartets in much more modern recordings. As for Morocco and Mountains, yes I’m smitten with how the music sounds, but I’m not especially interested (other than to understand context) in the time and place of the recordings – I don’t think of them as artifacts.

So what’s the appeal? Physics and physiology are a big part of it: I’m 60, have moderate tinnitus, some hearing loss. Paradoxically,  new, crisply recorded music is less satisfying. All the notes are there,  the sound reaches cleanly from the upper to the lower limits of audibility, the music is pretty much complete, but at the same time I know I’m not  hearing all of it. It’s a little like having a phantom limb; I’m painfully aware of what I’m missing, what’s just out of range.

Old music, on the other hand, sounds expansive to me. It’s all gaps and openings, missing frequencies, to which I get to add my memory, my imagination, my listening to complete the experience. In a weird way, there’s more fidelity in an older recording for me than a new one. Because there are things missing, there’s room for me in it. I’m drawn in.

One question: all music gets old, so will I feel the same way about, say, a Dave Douglas album recorded in the mid-2000s 30 years from now, in the unlikely event I’m around to make such a comparison? Doubtful. Some kind of fidelity threshold was crossed in the 1960s, I’d guess, after which time everything – absent the lo-fi movement – is pretty well recorded. I’ve been listening to some Arthur Blythe recordings from the mid-70s, and while I thoroughly enjoy them, they don’t have the same “old music” vibe I get from music recorded up through the early 60s.

It may be that my hearing gets worse and I turn more and more to the past as compensation – if so, it’ll be ok. There’s a lot of music from the 30s, 40s, 50s, both classical and jazz, I haven’t heard yet. More than enough to last.

when the music’s over

In 2016, what does it mean to really love music? I’m thinking about that question a lot these days, because the answers I always had no longer work, and what’s replaced them is…interesting.

One of the forums I frequent is dedicated to the no-longer-manufactured-but-much-loved “Squeezebox” line of media streamers. Squeezeboxes were wirelessly sending music files to your stereo well before the modern era of streaming kicked in, in earnest. The Squeezebox software is open source, which has allowed the platform to survive – and be ported to new hardware – years after the last Squeezebox rolled off the assembly line.

But Squeezeboxes really aren’t a business anymore, which means most popular streaming services are only partially supported, or not supported at all, or supported only by means of community ingenuity.

So I was struck by a post from a user announcing he’s leaving the forums because after 10 years, he’s switching to Sonos. Sonos is sort of the anti-Squeezebox; as a platform, it’s a black box, not amenable at all to hacking. As hardware and software for the average user, it just works, and works well with all the major streaming services. I know, because I’ve had three of the company’s Play:1 speakers for the last half year – two paired as a stereo in my family room, and one as a radio at the office.

But here’s what caught me in the post from the forum member;  he wrote he was switching to Sonos full time because “I no longer need to listen to my own music.” He noted that Spotify, with its millions and millions of tracks, “pretty much satisfies all my listening needs.”

(I assume a “he.” Most people, though obviously not all, who obsess about hardware and tech are male.)

I get it. I ordered a CD the other day, a Japan-only mono CD of John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” album, and it was the first CD I’d bought in, well, six months. (Oddly, the last CD before this was the Coltrane in Mono box set.) After I did it, I wasn’t quite sure why. I dug out a CD to play yesterday and the whole process struck me as cumbersome, strange, limiting – and not in the “it’s cool to not have unlimited choices because it focuses your attention” kind of way.

I use my Sonos for 90+ percent of my listening. To an extent, I’ve replaced my album  buying habit with a music subscription habit, but the two aren’t really equivalent. Buying is a lot more expensive than renting. And even though I have a lifetime of music available on Spotify, I’m less likely to listen to complete albums. What happens instead? Some of the time I do the nervous “flipping from one song to the next” thing, starting an album and then killing it 45 seconds later, but much more often now I find a radio station – or a radio-like service such as Pandora or Slacker – and let someone else do the driving. This is what’s changed most profoundly for me; I’m gradually losing the idea of the album as the default container for music. I know, I know; I’ve just discovered playlists, 10 years after the fact. But not really; what I’ve discovered is radio. Playlists are too closed off, too predictable; what I need is something that can range wide, go deep. The new world of listening is well suited to that.

As a result, I no longer feel the tug of specific albums the way I once did; I may read about a musician and some music he or she has recorded, go looking for it on Spotify or Apple Music, but if it’s not there, I’ll listen to something else the musician did. And if the musician isn’t there, I’ll just listen to something else. The itch isn’t that strong.

This doesn’t mean music has become mere background listening for me, any more than it was when I’d put a CD on. I still pay a lot of attention to what’s being played, and by who; but I often let it go when it’s over. In a way, that’s more satisfying; it gets back to the evanescent quality at the heart of music. You can’t hold onto it.

So I was in the basement today, boxing up books to take to the library for its annual sale, and looking around at the few thousand CDs I own. I’m not quite ready to get rid of them, still, but maybe soon.

(Of course, there are a couple of reasons to keep them: maybe my finances will be diminished, or the economics of internet access will change, and there will come a point when I can’t afford to rent what I listen to. More broadly, maybe something like climate change has deep effects on connectivity over the next 20 years and the internet goes away or is severely curtailed or something. Presumably at that point I’ll be concerned with things other than the relative merits of Coltrane in mono and stereo.)

radio to the rescue

The studios must bank on it – if you’re a fan of a franchise, you forgive…a lot.

So I’ll forgive the shortcomings of “Star Trek: Beyond” for two, maybe three reasons.

Reason one, I’m a fan of Star Trek. Not a serious fan, not an obsessive fan, not even a want to talk about it much fan, but I grew up in the heroic era of space travel, which coincided with the original series. I know better, but have never fully outgrown the awe and optimism of the time.

Reason two, it’s not that bad. You can read the reviews, and they’re right. The movie is not very coherent; plot points are left unpointed, things don’t make sense even within the context of the movie. And as always, CGI makes everything too big, too impossible, even allowing for healthy suspension of disbelief. But sometimes it works, as in the latest destruction of the Enterprise, and there is heart to the movie, in the same way there is heart running through all the franchise. Star Trek is thick in its own mythology; at one point, Zachary Quinto’s Spock is looking through the belongings of the original Leonard Nimoy Spock and finds a photo of Spock with Kirk, McCoy, Mr. Scott, the rest. It’s a still from one of the late movies featuring the original cast and it’s unexpectedly poignant – I had a catch in my throat for the passage of time, for the characters and for the actors who played them.

Reason 3, they use radio to beat the bad guys. No, it makes no sense, but when they have to disrupt the swarm of bad guy ships from destroying the Federation space station, they do it by broadcasting the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” It’s as sensible a call as the guy strapped to the top of the truck, shredding, in the last Mad Max movie. It’s apparently what you do when making a blockbuster, and you can’t ladle on any more CGI. You rock out. I think they’re trying to summon the release, the rush that’s part of the mythology of rock music. It strikes me as a cheat, as a way too obvious way out, but whatever. It’s radio. Just go with it.

getting an earful

I have tinnitus, and am in the middle of an especially annoying bout of it right now. Not that it ever goes away, but there are fairly long periods when I don’t notice it so much.

Right now, I notice it.

Also, my hearing seems to be getting a bit worse. I lost the top 25 percent of frequencies over the last decade – I’m talking the hypothetical top 25, including the range most people don’t hear well – but now the loss seems to be creeping down into the area where it counts.

Coincidentally, I just got stereo equipment that has changed my listening life.

Our daughter bought me a set of Sonos Play:1 speakers for my 60th birthday. The Play:1 is every bit as good as people say it is; the sound is superb (a reviewer who measured them concluded the output was ‘extremely flat’; he said it’s what you might find in a $3,000 pair of tower speakers), connectivity is great (they don’t struggle to find and keep a wifi connection, unlike every other streaming audio device I’ve owned) and the app does a seamless job of integrating various music sources.

I spend my time in Pandora, various radio stations found through Tune-In, and, yes, Spotify. I have a problem with on-demand streaming services; they don’t pay enough to sustain the music industry, and especially the interesting, low sales artists I spend most of my time listening to. (By definition, that takes in all of jazz and classical.) But I have bought and bought and bought over the years, and to an extent I feel like I’ve done my part.

Plus, a fair and increasing amount of my listening is to old music, as in music recorded decades ago and reissued now. I’m mildly less conflicted about getting that from Spotify or one of the other streaming services, because it feels less like I’m taking something away from a living artist.

Also, the quality of the stream, 320 kbps mp3, sounds fine to me. I have been firmly in the CD/lossless file camp, and if I’m buying, that’s still what I’ll purchase but…I’m not sure it really matters to my ears at this point. Right now, for instance, I’m listening to some early 50s mono recordings of Haydn string quartets at less than 320 k, (I’m streaming WFMT out of Chicago, and the weekly “Collector’s Corner” show) and I don’t feel like I’m missing anything.

(Aside: I bought a box of all the Haydn quartets a few years back, the ones by the Angeles String Quartet, but don’t play them much. The performances are fine, but the sound doesn’t move me – and if you read the reviews on Amazon, you’ll see others noting the same thing. It’s like I’m too far away from the musicians or something. The recordings I’m hearing tonight were mic’d much “closer,”  and the music comes alive, despite their age and being in mono.)

One other thing about Sonos; while there is a generous selection of music services, a few things I like (ClassicalRadio, SomaFM) were missing. No problem; I was able to very easily add channels from both through Tune In. It’s maybe a hair less convenient than each having its own app, but it works and works well.

So how much do I like the Play:1s? Well, in the last 10 days, I’ve played exactly one CD at home. I’m not trying to prove a point; it’s just that I haven’t felt the want, or that I needed to hear something I couldn’t. I’ve added one more Play:1 on my own dime at my office, where it’s set on low murmur for pubic radio/news/talk all day. My office is a giant Faraday cage so regular radio is a non-starter. I love radio in its old-fashioned thing-you-get-with-an-antenna form, but this is radio as well, and quite wonderful, I think.

 

 

lost in space

Saw “Independence Day: Resurgence” on its opening weekend. It’s not very good, but then neither was the original, and I’ve watched it at least a dozen times over the years. This was more of the same, and I think the critics are maybe being too hard on the new movie – yes, if it’s possible for an already ridiculous movie to get even more CGI-ed ridiculous (an alien ship 3000 miles wide?) this certainly qualifies. But it’s basically the original movie told all over again, and that’s fine.

One thing: the real science fiction of “Resurgence” isn’t the weapons or the alien ships or the giant alien queen. The real science fiction is that in the 2016 of “Resurgence,” the world is at peace. There are, the President says early on, no more wars and the planet is united. Back in this world, it feels very much like an old and faded dream.

Reading and listening:

Finished “Eccentric Orbits,” a captivating new book on a topic I knew nothing about – the strange history of the Iridium satellite phone.  (I think a couple of Iridiums make cameo appearances in “Resurgence.”) Because I cared nothing about cell phones for the longest time, I missed some big stories. This is one of them.

Cued up: “The Network.” A book about David Sarnoff and Edwin Armstrong and the early crushing of FM by Sarnoff’s RCA. I’ve known for a long time that Sarnoff tried to kill FM, which he saw as a risk to his AM radio business. This new book is a deep dive on the subject.

Also, Bob Woodward’s “State of Denial.” I’m belatedly reading some history of the Iraq War. Even though Woodward gets criticized for being a captive of the insider accounts he writes, he still gets an enormous amount on the record that might otherwise stay submerged. 10 years down the road, it’s easier to see just how good a piece of reporting this book was.

Cued up: George Packer’s “The Assassin’s Gate.” I got to both the Woodward and the Packer by way of John Gray’s “Black Mass.” Gray pretty much defines the idea of a sobering read.

Listening: I traded in a bunch of box sets I never listen to and ended up with a few hundred dollars credit at the record store in Syracuse. I made a dent in it this weekend: Bill Evans, “Some Other Time”; Allen Toussaint, “American Tunes”:  Giles Peterson/Sun Ra, “To Those of Earth & Other Worlds”; Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, “Multishow Live.” I listened to half of the Evans, half of the Veloso and the Toussaint so far. Money well spent.