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Is there any value left in music?

Whether the rot set in with the arrival of iTunes, or the earlier availability of music through illegal file-sharing sites, isn’t clear, but it seems that a whole generation now has the belief that music is essentially a free commodity, rather than something for which one should pay.

Part of the problem is that the very forces held up to be the saviours of the music industry sometimes do themselves no favours, for example by treating music as nothing more than a promotional tool.

Andrew Everard makes some good points here, though I disagree that iTunes is to blame. Quiet the contrary; the iTunes Store is what got people to buy digital music. But the commodification of music, and its overabundance, have certainly made it seem that music has little or no value any more. But even more than that: most people just don’t care about music; it’s just wallpaper for them.

via Is there any value left in music? | WORDS AND MUSIC.

iTunes 12 Brings More Power to the Column Browser

If you’re familiar with the Column Browser in iTunes, it’s a great way to be able to navigate content in your media library. To display it – in most list views – press Command-B. It displays several columns above your content:

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In iTunes 12, the Column Browser have been given new powers; there are new columns that you can display. To see them, click the View menu, then hover your cursor over Column Browser.

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Previously, you could display Genres, Artists, Albums, Composers and Groupings. In iTunes 12, you can also display Kinds (the kind of file: AAC audio file, Apple Lossless audio file, MPEG audio file, PDF document, etc.), Categories (the same as genres for certain types of content such as movies), Shows and Seasons (both for TV shows).

But there are a few problems with its implementation. You can’t display all the above options when you’ve selected your Music library; the new ones are only available when you select a playlist. And, in some media libraries, there are obvious errors: Movies doesn’t let you select Categories, but does let you display a column for Albums. And why it allows you to display Shows and Seasons in a Music library is curious.

If you use the Column Browser, have a look at its new possibilities, but make sure you switch from libraries to playlists, and try the different libraries, to see which types of information you can display.

Essential Music: Franz Schubert’s Complete Songs

034571142012Franz Schubert Complete Songs
Hyperion Records
40 CDs plus book containing song texts, 2005. List price £150.

Buy from: Amazon.com, Amazon UK. Buy directly from Hyperion Records, on CD or by download.

In 1987, Hyperion Records began a colossal project: the recording of all of Franz Schubert’s songs (or lieder), a total of 729 songs performed by over 60 soloists. Some of these songs are for male voice, others for female voice, and others for several singers together. (In comparison, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s of all the lieder for solo male voice includes 463 songs on 21 CDs; now available at a bargain price. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)) Originally released on 37 CDs, over a period of 18 years (the amount of time it took Schubert to compose all these songs, before his early death), and grouped by theme or year, this new set presents the songs in chronological order. It is hard to understate the monumental scope of this set. Never before have all of these songs been available together, and never before have listeners been able to appreciate the broad range of Schubert’s compositions.

Beginning with an idea by accompanist Graham Johnson, and continued as a labor of love (and a relative commercial success), Hyperion Records managed to bring together many of the great lieder singers of the time, even providing showcases for young singers who would go on to become essential performers in this genre. From “classic” singers such as Ann Murray, Janet Baker and Peter Schreier, to new finds like Ian Bostridge and Matthias Goerne, this set is full of great voices. Even the grandfather of Schubert lieder, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, makes a cameo appearance, reading some poems that are part of the cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, by Wilhelm Müller, which Schubert did not set to music.

Added to this set (and released separately in 2006) are three discs of songs by Schubert’s friends and contemporaries, including Beethoven, Haydn, Mendelssohn, and others, giving the listener an overview of the type of lieder that influenced him. But it is the 37 discs of Schubert’s songs that are important here; the “extras” are interesting to become familiar with what other composers were writing at the time, and to compare styles with Schubert.

Listening to this set in chronological order is enlightening, as one can grasp the evolution in the subtlety and depth of Schubert’s compositions. Starting with his earliest songs, written in his teens, and progressing through his final year, when he was 31, the journey is long, yet rewarding. Schubert’s music is the most accomplished of the genre, and the excellent choice of soloists – along with the brilliant accompaniment by Graham Johnson – imbues a great deal of variety and a rich palette of vocal colors. Unlike the Fischer-Dieskau set (which, I must confess, is one of my absolute favorite sets of classical music), where one listens to the range and expanse of a single, masterful voice, the Hyperion set gives the listener a chance to discover the music in more variety. For those who do not like Fischer-Dieskau, this set can be an eye-opener. However, it will never, for me, replace the Fischer-Dieskau set…

While I do not like all the singers on this set, most of them are excellent. Many of the singers lack the immersion that Fischer-Dieskau had in this music, but others are revelations. The recordings by Brigitte Faessbender are excellent, as are those by Stephen Varcoe, a singer I was not familiar with before. Thomas Hampson’s recordings here show him in his youth, and many of the other male singers – such as Philip Langridge, John Mark Ainsley and Anthony Rolfe Johnson – rise to the occasion, providing many delightful performances. (You’ll notice my preference for male voices for this music, but this doesn’t mean that there are not many excellent female voices in this set; Edith Mathis’ performance of An die Musik is one of the highlights of the set, and Arleen Auger is excellent.)

One of the revelations in this set, for me, is the many songs for several singers, including those with chorus. These songs are a little-known and rarely recorded facet of Schubert’s work, and this set allows listeners to discover just how many such songs there are, and the general tone of joviality they express.

In addition to the 40 CDs in this set, Hyperion includes a book (258,096 words, as Hyperion specifies on the box) containing an introduction by Graham Johnson and the complete texts of all the songs. While this is laudable, there are a few negatives to this book. The type is relatively small (fine for teenaged eyes, perhaps, but that is clearly not the target audience for this set), and the English translations of the songs, in a column next to the German originals, are in italics, making them even harder to read. (For a different take, and easier readability, John Reed’s (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) is a good investment.) Broken down by year, with an introduction for each year talking about Schubert’s activities, the texts appear chronologically, as they do on the discs. The back of the book contains an index by title and by poet, composer or translator, but, alas, not by singer.

71QMqKSpqgLPurchasers of the original CDs in this series will be familiar with the copious notes by Graham Johnson that accompanies these discs; unfortunately, these notes are not included in the set. For in-depth information about the songs, Graham Johnson has expanded these liner notes to the original releases into a 3-volume, 3,000 page set, which is finally due for publication very soon.

All in all, this set is essential for any serious fan of Schubert’s lieder, or lieder in general. It’s also a relative bargain; congratulations are in order to Hyperion for having released the set at such an affordable price. While other recordings of Schubert’s lieder will be made, this set will clearly remain the benchmark for his music; with the exception, of course, of the Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau recordings. If you like this music, you should own this set.

iTunes 12: Shuffle All Your Music

While it’s easy to shuffle an album, a playlist, or all the music by a given artist in iTunes 12, shuffling your entire music library isn’t available from the usual controls. But there are two ways you can do this.

The first method involves using iTunes’ menu controls to turn on shuffle: choose Controls > Shuffle > On. Then display your music in any view, making sure to not select anything; click the Play button at the top-left of the iTunes window, and iTunes will start shuffling all your music. If you have selected something, such as an album or artist, iTunes will only play the selected item in shuffle mode.

The second method is accessible from the Playlists sidebar; to display this, go to your Music library, then click Playlists in the navigation bar. Right-click on Music in the sidebar, then choose Shuffle. If you click on a playlist in the sidebar, only that playlist will be shuffled.

Shuffle all

Note that if you start playing your music in shuffle mode when your are in, say, a specific genre, you’ll see in the Up Next menu (the three-line icon in the iTunes LCD) the upcoming songs from that genre. Select a different genre, and don’t change anything else, and check the Up Next menu again: the upcoming songs will be from the genre you have just selected. This has repercussions if you are starting shuffle play while viewing music one way, but want to browse your library; the shuffled tracks won’t be the same as what you may have expected. I’m seeing this when in Songs view, selecting a genre using the Column Browser; if I’m in Genres or Artists view, this change doesn’t occur. (So I assume it’s a bug.)

Personally, I usually only shuffle playlists, or, sometimes, artists. But if you want to shuffle your entire library, you can use one of these two methods.

How Newsstand failed The Magazine, and what Apple should do

When iOS 8 went into developer betas, and so many interesting features began to be discussed, as well as a more developer-friendly approach, I had hopes. Perhaps Apple would “solve” Newsstand, and rescue it from neglect. Maybe it would break us out of Newsstand jail and let publication apps coexist, even if we had to give up showing a changing cover as the app’s icon. (It seemed unlikely Jony Ive would allow this, but he’s a clever man, and I thought he might have a solution to meld static app icons with changing covers.)

But iOS 8 went into release with nary a change. The Newsstand abides, a wasteland for publications that only use it as an adjunct—and us. The failure to improve iTunes and the App Store for discovery also remains problematic. It’s really impossible for people to find a publication that matches their interest when all they find are top-ten lists and a field to search for something they already know they want.

Glenn Fleishman writes, for Macworld, about the history of The Magazine, the publication that he has been editing, and which is retiring on December 18. I contributed an article to issue #5, Tour de Front Row.

A few months ago, I wrote a Macworld article explaining why I’ve stopped reading magazines with Newsstand. The Magazine, and Jim Dalrymple’s The Loop Magazine, are the only two exceptions. And then there was one…

via How Newsstand failed The Magazine, and what Apple should do | Macworld.

A Week with the Retina 5K iMac

ImacIt’s been just about a week since I got my 5K iMac (whose official name is iMac (Retina 5K, 27-inch, Late 2014)). I wrote about my first impressions, and it’s time to give a one-week report.

From time to time, a computing device comes along that changes everything. The 5K iMac does just that. Granted, Apple started with other retina devices: first the iPhone, then the iPad, then the MacBook Pro. But bringing a retina display to the desktop is a paradigm shift.

I’d been spoiled working with a retina MacBook Pro for a couple of years, and had been longing for a desktop display of the same quality. I’m not a photographer, I don’t work with video, but I do work with text, and look at my display most of the day. While a retina display is excellent for those working with visuals, I think it’s just as important for those working with text. I find it more comfortable to work with this display, and the crispness of the text has actually allowed me to move it a bit further away from my eyes than before, and still see it very clearly.

Apple promotes the 5K iMac on its website. It is in a category of its own; not lumped in the general iMac category:


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This won’t last, I’m sure; in a couple of years, they’ll all be retina, but for now, they do make it stand out, and rightly so.

Compared to the Mac Pro, which I bought in June (and which I’m selling; hey, want to buy a Mac Pro?), the iMac is, for my use, very similar. The only noticeable difference is an audible fan when the processors are working hard. With the Mac Pro, the sound is just a whisper; this is because of the way that computer is designed. It is essentially a heat sink with an exhaust column around it. The iMac has an exhaust vent on the back-center of the computer, so when the fan gets going, it’s more audible. However, in normal usage, it runs at 1200 rpm, and I don’t hear it, any more than I heard the Mac Pro.

Compared to my 27″ Thunderbolt display, the iMac is very cool. The Thunderbolt display gave off a lot of heat – though this may be because of a power supply problem; this was just repaired, and I haven’t unboxed it yet to check – but the iMac is cool, unless, of course, it’s working hard, something it doesn’t do often. Even then, it’s only warm on the back, in the area near the CPU.

But the Thunderbolt display’s exhaust is at the bottom-left of the device, meaning that the heat blows out onto your desk; with the iMac, any heat blows out the back, so you don’t notice it. And I could feel a bit of warmth radiating from the front of the Thunderbolt display, if I put the back of my hand near it. Apple has mentioned how much less power this new iMac users, and much of that power difference may be in the display part of the computer.

The 5K iMac is a premium computer. It’s not for everyone. But if you work with a computer all day, you’ll appreciate how much better the display is. I’m very satisfied with this Mac, and I hope to keep it for several years. If you get a chance, go see this new display in an Apple Store; you’ll probably want to buy one too.

Is the Music Industry Suffering Because There is Too Much Music?

Recent reports show that iTunes Store music sales have dropped around 13%. Overall album sales dropped 8% in 2013. Fewer people are buying music, and more are streaming it. Yet most people using streaming services aren’t paying for their music; only 28 million people worldwide were paying a subscription fee for their music in 2013. The rest are happy to put up with ads in between the hits to get music for nothing.

At the same time, rumors suggest that Apple is trying to get record labels to sign on for $5 monthly subscriptions. It’s true that, if the price were lower, more people might be willing pay to stream music; but are there enough people who care about music that much to be willing to pay anything at all?

Are There Enough Songs?

In 1991, Bob Dylan said:

"The world don’t need any more songs. […] They’ve got enough. They’ve got way too many. As a matter of fact, if nobody wrote any songs from this day on, the world ain’t gonna suffer for it. Nobody cares. There’s enough songs for people to listen to, if they want to listen to songs. For every man, woman and child on earth, they could be sent, probably, each of them, a hundred records, and never be repeated. There’s enough songs. Unless someone’s gonna come along with a pure heart and has something to say. That’s a different story. But as far as songwriting, any idiot could do it. If you see me do it, any idiot could do it.

Perhaps the problem isn’t about owning vs. streaming music, or piracy vs. paying; perhaps it’s simply that there’s too much music, and most people simply don’t care enough about music.

I’ve been a music fan since the 1970s. I had lots of albums back in the day, and spent a lot of time with friends, going to concerts, discovering new music, playing my finds for others, and going to used record stores to look for obscure bands. When I discovered classical music, I found a genre with a rich history, and thousands of works to discover, and have spent a few decades doing just that.

But I’m an exception. I don’t know many people (other than on internet forums and newsgroups) who care enough about music to do more than buy a couple of CDs a year (or, now, downloads). Most people simply want a soundtrack to their lives. They don’t care very much which songs they hear. Sure, they get pulled in by the latest hits, and may even buy some songs to listen to, for a while, on their mobile phones. But the half-life of a pop song is no more than a month or two, and those songs get forgotten as new earworms work their way up the pecking order.

I sent a draft of this article to my friend Doug Adams, who, I know, has similar musical discovery experience. He said something very fitting.

"Most people will never crave a new musical experience. They just want to hear songs that don’t suck while they work, drive, and do other activities. Music is just wallpaper. It brightens their day. Discovering new music is fine as long as it sounds like the stuff they already like. Radio, and streaming, survives on that premise.

He’s right: most people want music that’s familiar. That’s why genres such as smooth jazz exist: because the music isn’t demanding, and it all sounds alike. That’s why bands like Mumford & Sons exist: every one of their songs sounds the same.[1]

A Golden Age of Music

We’re living in a golden age of music. Back in the day, we didn’t have so many ways of listening to music. There was radio, and, well, other than your collection or that of your friends, there was nothing else. You chose between AM and FM. AM played nothing but the top 40 hits, and FM, at least for a while, played “album rock,” non-hit cuts from albums, and even entire sides or albums late at night.

Then came MTV; a bit later, the internet came, with digital music and the ability to store thousands of songs on a single device. Digital downloads – and piracy – meant that the amount of music we could access at any time increased by several orders of magnitude. Now, with streaming services, we can choose from tens of millions of tracks, picking the exact music we want to hear when we want to hear it.

Of course, that assumes that we know what music we want to hear. As we have more music available, a few clicks away,, people are spending less time building up collections and becoming familiar with music; they’re spending more time shuffling through pre-packaged playlists that are little better than what the radio offers. Sure, any subscriber to a streaming service can check out the latest Taylor Swift album, but also music by Miles Davis, John Cage, or some old Delta blues. But most people still go for the hits, and the streaming services promote that music, because they know it gets played a lot. It’s familiar; it’s not surprising.[2]

And music is more fragmented than ever. There are hundreds of genres and sub-genres of music; tens of thousands of artists. It’s harder and harder to find anything new. The iTunes Store currently has more than 43 million “songs;” if you assume an average of four minutes a song [3], it would take more than 7,853 years to listen to each of these songs once. As more and more music is released, there’s less of a chance of anyone discovering more than those few songs that float to the top.

As Dylan said, any idiot can write songs; now, any idiot can record them too, and that contributes to the glut. All an artist needs is a laptop and a microphone.

Maybe there is just too much music. Maybe the music industry needs to stop trying to peddle everything and get back to the way it worked a few decades ago, nurturing artists, helping them grow, and developing labels with unique character. I’m not naive; I know it’s too late, but as the music industry laments its decline, it’s time to consider that the reason might not be piracy or freeloading, but simply the fact that it’s too easy to hear music, and that most people simply don’t care about what they hear.


  1. I crave new musical experiences. And this thought brought back a memory. It was July 27, 1977, just two weeks after the huge blackout in New York City. With some friends, I was hanging out by Cunningham Park in Queens. One guy had a boombox, and we tuned into WNEW, the wonderful radio station that played album rock. DJ Alison Steele was playing the new Grateful Dead album Terrapin Station. On side two, the title track, we heard the Grateful Dead with an orchestra; strings and flutes and oboes! (I just put it on as I was writing this, and I can, somewhere in my reptilian brain, recall that first feeling of surprise hearing that song.)  ↩

  2. I don’t currently subscribe to any streaming services, but if I did, I would definitely use it to discover unfamiliar music, new genres, like old blues, Indian classical music and classic country; all genres that have a small presence in my music library, but that I would like to know more about. I’d like to expand my knowledge of jazz, too; I have a lot of music by a few artists, and I’d like to learn more about the complex history of that genre.  ↩

  3. This is a guesstimate, but it balances a higher number of short songs with longer tracks, such as those found on classical recordings. But it doesn’t matter that much what estimated duration one uses; the resulting number is suitably ridiculous no matter how you slice it.  ↩

Go Back to iTunes 11

If you don’t like iTunes 12, it’s possible to revert back to iTunes 11. Chris Breen explains how over at Macworld.

Personally, I don’t recommend this except to those people who are well-seasoned working with their Macs and messing around with things that aren’t designed to be messed with. It’s a complex process, and things can go wrong. Also, it’s very possible that iTunes 11 won’t work with Yosemite after a future upgrade – or won’t work with iOS devices – so I think it’s best to just stick with iTunes 12. Or not upgrade to Yosemite…

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