How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Playlist

When Music 2.0 first arrived on the scene, it treated users like data entry clerks. Sure, everyone dressed it up as “user-generated content,” but it all hinged on some motivated individual updating a database for a service that wasn’t paying them. Those services mostly died out, either because people lost interest or something newer and shinier replaced them. In any case, they asked way too much of users.

The music services that survived from that era understood fundamentally that their users chose their service because they wanted to listen to music. Beats Music takes that a step further; rather than focus doggedly on “discovery,” Beats recontextualizes the music you love. For me, that means Beats recommends artists whose albums languished for too long at the bottom of a box in a closet. Now I can fall in love with them all over again.

But that on it’s own isn’t enough to distinguish a music service from the rest of the pack. Curated playlists and push notifications do. Plenty of services offer the same library, give or take, but none were especially good at anticipating what I wanted to hear. You could go searching for things, but that’s overwhelming. Beats Music makes it simple and offers suggestions. Instead of searching endlessly for a particular album, I just dive into an introductory playlist of an artist I’ve overlooked.

Best of all? They hired really outstanding critics to pull together fantastic playlists. Beats didn’t just hire them to create playlists willy nilly; there’s real strategy at work. Try as I might to listen to everything, I still sought critical shortcuts or a point of entry into an artist’s body of work. If you’re a recovering completist, you can familiarize yourself with Luke Vibert one moment and Waylon Jennings the next. It doesn’t hurt that most playlists were curated by the same critics I came up with in the Aughties.

Mostly, I’m just jealous of kids who get to experience music like this. For more, here’s Eric Harvey’s essay on the development of streaming music over at Pitchfork.


The Art of January Releases

Malkmus and Jicks

It’s March and SXSW is wrapping up in Austin, which is the kickoff to the spring push in the music industry. What am I still paying attention, too? The latest Jicks record, Wig Out at Jagbags. What else? The Against Me! album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues.

Why? The answer is simple. Both are January releases. January is a great month for media Moneyball. The owned the media cycle for a quiet month and nothing really rose to dethrone them in February, at least from a coverage perspective in the social streams I follow. Will these albums be overlooked or given short shrift come year end? Sure, but who cares? How much are year end lists worth in 2014 anyhow? (Could be a lot; tell me if I’m wrong.)

January is the perfect month to release an album. Ever since LCD Soundsystem released their debut in January 2005, I’ve asked why more bands don’t do this. Break away from the March and October cycle, make as much noise as possible and then tour if you can. This is especially genius with a “legacy” artist like Malkmus, who has a pretty well-defined fan base. Maybe this bought him some additional exposure. January offers more “runway” for an artist than the commercial claustrophobia of March.

But why is it so smart to push an album before March rolls around?

A few reasons:

  • Critics are just like us! They make resolutions! Things like “I will listen to more music this year.” Put out an album in January and you’re the sole beneficiary.
  • There is no other news. I must’ve read 4 or more fantastic, generous interviews with Malkmus and probably twice as many with Against Me!’s Laura Jane Grace.
  • Release an album in January and you get expansive “narrative space.” Malkmus’s story is nowhere near as gripping as Laura Jane Grace’s, yet the narrative that he’s been with the Jicks longer than Pavement shone through and the coverage humanized him unlike ever before. The interplay with his kids’ listening habits was fantastic and the image of him singing to Avicii in a minivan amazed me.

If you still think release dates are meaningful inasmuch as it allows you to prepare for a news cycle, break free of the old methods. To apply some business speak from Havard Business Review, adopt a blue ocean strategy and get your client out there in the open. To bring it back to Billy Beane, find the market inefficiency and take advantage.


How to Use Twitter Like a Human Being

I love Twitter. It’s my favorite social network. I started using it in 2008 when I went to SXSW Music. I immediately saw its value for covering live events. That fall, I used it extensively during the Phillies’ postseason campaign. Twitter is a great platform for your passions. Except when it isn’t.

Somewhere along the way, Twitter changed. My friend Mark captured one key difference in his tweet below.

For all the talk about being authentic and engaging on social, you’ll often find that the most followed accounts are nothing more than linkbots with a human face. It’s a head-scratcher. At a time when people complain of information overload, hundreds of thousands of people will follow accounts that recycle memes and other online flotsam.

If that doesn’t depress you, A Tale of Two Twitter Personas will. MG Siegler writes:

For me, given my background and line of work, that’s obviously technology. But I too have other interests — shocking, I know. Film is definitely one. Beer is definitely another. And sports is way up there. Yes, some people in the tech industry are as obsessed with sports as anyone else in the world. Blasphemy!

What does personal branding mean when the most popular social media accounts lack personality?


Anil Dash on Streams and Pages

I forgot that the stream versus page debate started over a year ago. Here’s Anil Dash’s roundup.

As Choire notes, this really only works if you ditch owning your content. There was an interesting debate on that last summer. Marco Arment argued against Medium, while Scoble more or less stopped blogging.

I think this takes us back to Madrigal on the stream. We’re living in a media environment where liveblogging is the norm. We want to follow breaking news in real time and we want to watch heated debates unfold on Twitter from the social sidelines. But if we care enough, we want to read analysis, too.

Madrigal’s point on FOMO is critical here. There are communities on the web that want to be in on everything as it happens. That doesn’t work because understanding doesn’t scale. This may explain why journalists TL;DR their own stuff in social. The challenge isn’t a question of format but relevance and the latter is challenged by the former.

We need to be better editors in every sense. We need to identify what’s important and necessary. We can’t dip our toe into the stream and learn by osmosis.


The Golden Age of Content Strategy

A few notes and links on the death of the blog, peak stream and the golden age of content strategy. Please join the conversation and share links in the comments.

  • First, Kottke at Nieman Journalism Lab. I don’t think the stream killed the blog. I don’t even think firsties killed the blog. What killed blogs for me was that once they matured as a medium, they were indistinguishable from the media they purportedly replaced. I observed this among my fellow music critics, many of whom advanced from writing about music on their personal blogs to jobs at media outlets where they took over digital responsibilities at those media properties. I wrote about that phenomenon here. I don’t think it means the medium died; it’s that the pageview-driven business model and the editorial aspirations are out of sync.
  • This brings me to Alexis Madrigal’s piece on the importance of “nowness” to the stream. We’re racing faster down the information superhighway than ever before and we’re tossing all of our souvenirs into Pocket, Instapaper and Evernote as we go. What Madrigal gets absolutely right is how a fear of missing out powers the ambition to read everything exhaustively. This is certainly true among certain discursive circles on the web. When I hit eject on music criticism, it was mere cultural moments before Odd Future hit. To this day, I have not heard Odd Future. This is not me saying, “I don’t even own a TV;” this is me saying that my life continued without this information. What Madrigal longs for is the Internet of the past. He’s underestimating the Internet of the present.
  • Readers still crave destinations. Maybe the fetishization of the longread goes too far, since we’re probably just squirreling those articles away for a day that never comes, but people still want to land somewhere, at least for now. What Kottke and Madrigal’s pieces suggest to me is ushering in a golden age of content strategy. Content strategy was invented to improve business websites, but I’ve seen it applied for editorial, too. Deadspin, among other places, does a great job republishing stories and giving them new life, often decades later. I think that’s what Madrigal wants from the web. That Internet is there if you want it.

Attention still matters most. The best way to overcome FOMO online is letting your friends tell you about stories. You don’t need to have a “take” holstered for every topic out there. Your time and attention are still very valuable possessions. Cherish them.