Tag Archives: uninvited opinion

The Future of Pop Stars Probably Aren’t AI

I read an article on Pitchfork the other day where it was another puff piece about whether or not future pop stars will actually be human or not. One thing I definitely appreciated about the piece was how it went into the history of AI pop stars leading all the way up to well-known programs like Vocaloids. Otherwise I felt it was another “future of” puff piece, but I want in on the puff piece pretension. It lets me pretend my opinion matters to the occasional person who actually reads my blog. Moreover I feel the topic presented was rather short sighted.

Does the future of pop music lie in something like Vocaloids? The short of my long-winded opinion is not yet and not necessarily with an AI image as the pop star. There. You now have debate fodder.

Now for the long answer…

Even though technology is moving at incredible rates not much is geared towards creating vocal synthesizers musically. I’ll use Vocaloids as my example since they are currently the most well known for singing synthesizers. Vocaloids were developed by Yamaha, which also isn’t the best when it comes to any sound synthesized. There’s a reason it’s one of the “go-to” brands for beginners of something like piano. They’re relatively inexpensive, and it’s reflected in the quality. The timbre is tinny, the clarity is lacking, the synthesizer sounds nothing like the instrument in question, and the sound variety tends to be – in my opinion – poor. This is especially reflected in the older generations of their Vocaloid line. In addition to the typical Yamaha sound quality older generation Vocaloids also lacked enunciation necessary for singing. Based on other opinions of Vocaloids in the West I’m not alone in this sentiment. There were some modulations, updates, and newer versions where these issues were somewhat addressed.

One of the ways the synthesizer shortcomings are addressed is the newer Vocaloid editions use actual samples of singing and speech instead of analytics. Combined with the updates the quality results in less tinny, less muffled, and more importantly more organic sounds. The technology still has a ways to go, but Yamaha made some strides. The only issue I see is whether or not Yamaha will continue to keep improving the technology and updating the language library to improve the overall quality.

Vocaloids, however, aren’t known just for being software. Many know them for their mascots like Miku Hatsune. While I surmise this is the direction Pitchfork was heading with the “future of pop stars” remark I still disagree. One part of the reason is despite internet popularity it hasn’t translated to widespread popularity outside of Japan. Another part of the reason is with software like Vocaloids the mascots are copyrighted to where if one uses the image for fan-made work it’s fine, but for commercial use it needs clearance with the copyright owner—which if I recall is Crypton Future Media with Vocaloids. Conversely the software is free to use without the same restraints. People are free to use it in conjunction with other instruments while recording their own music. It’s no different than using other similar licensed software for creating music. This disconnect of the image of the pop star from the “voice” creates not a future icon in the way the Pitchfork article insinuates. Rather than creating a platform for holographic stars to appear on a world tour it creates an opportunity for the future of pop stars to be the music creators themselves. There exists a few examples with Livetune being one of the more prominent ones. While it’s fair to assume we wouldn’t necessarily see the artist featured in any music video, people familiar with a particular artist’s work still would clamor to attend a concert of said artist. Various artists in electronic music come to mind as established examples. If anything I see a trend of focusing more on the music thanks to increasingly available technology to artists not otherwise accessible in earlier periods.

More easily accessible technology has and will contribute to changing how we consume music. Music synthesizers, while full of potential, are not up to snuff just yet for serious consideration when associated with a particular image for replacing human pop stars. This opinion may change if said technology improves, but even then I think the future pop stars will not morph into some image of a particular character, but the image of the artist behind the song. The voice synthesizer will become another instrument with its own malleable characteristics suitable for the artist’s desired outcome. Rather than what will the future pop star be artificial we should as will future pop stars be the ones behind the mixer.

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In Music, Only Credentials Matter

I wasn’t sure I wanted to blog about this topic as it was sparked by Gene Simmons’ latest stunt to trademark the devil horn gesture, as I feel my response somehow dignifies his actions.  At the same time I feel his actions, intentional or not, are something of a reflection of the current state of music.  We saw this with the burning of millions of dollars worth of punk memorabilia with much of the same response from me.  The publicity stunts provoke some thoughts as whether we’re placing our value in the right aspects of music.

While the case of the punk memorabilia was mostly about the commercialization of a counter culture that ironically stands against such ideas metal has veered more towards one of the other issues, namely with social stratification.  Where in punk there’s need to be more punk than everyone else in metal there’s a need to be more metal than others.  The ordinary metalhead manifests this with various elitism, but it ultimately boils down to being the first one to do it.  Whether it’s the first to become a Children of Bodom fan or the first to hate Dragonforce being a “true” metalhead is about setting the trend or being part of the right trend.  These comments aren’t new and can be found in any culture.

So what does this have to do with trademarking the devil horn gesture?  One of the toughest things about art is making it relevant.  When the art can’t be relevant I’ve noticed an artist will try to be relevant in other ways.  The best ways to do this are through shock value or appealing to nostalgia.  Gene Simmons is notorious for trying to be “the first” of things, and in this aspect tries to appeal to nostalgia.  I suspect in this way he wants to ensure his music was / is relevant.  Trying to trademark something closely tied to a community not only appeals to the shock value aspect but also to the sense of nostalgia by trying to cement his place in metal history.

While Gene Simmons did withdraw his trademark application (like we knew he would) the implications will live on.  I’d say it has damaged his career, but this stunt will be forgotten until the next one occurs.  The stunts will keep happening as long as the focus will be more on the image of music and less about creating music that meaningfully contributes.  How to determine what is meaningful to a community, however, is another matter.

Cassettes and Vinyl: Who Benefits?

It’s Record Store Day, and like others I feel a need to share my thoughts on one particular matter. I will probably repeat what others have said on the topic, but I don’t really express my opinion on these issues. I think we’re all aware of the intention of the day: to support local record stores and the last bastions of purchasing physical copies of music. I don’t think anyone will deny the good intentions behind this. For some indie and local musicians this one of few ways to get their music out there. In an effort to continue to support music stores it feels noble, but I also feel it’s somewhat misguided, namely in supporting local artists by purchasing outmoded forms of music.

One of the arguments I hear is how something like vinyl has overall a better sound quality when compared to something like an mp4 format. I don’t understand the demonizing of newer formats when the evidence is not strong for the comparison. What’s more is these same people will buy an album that was recorded digitally for people to buy as mp4’s. I feel like the chances of the album being of the sound quality those blessed with golden ears ramble about is compromised by the recording process. I also love to point out that when they purchase a re-release of an older album it was most likely digitally restored to bring back that crisp sound they love to describe. Moreover record formats, even for retro formats, isn’t the best way to listen to music. It only beat out hard plastic cylinders –a format which is equal and possible superior to record sound quality –due to better marketing and storage capabilities. I don’t think I’ll see a revival in hard plastic cylinders anytime soon, though, even if it would benefit possibly digitally archiving music from the earlier part of the 20th century.

Then again, the revival of older formats has surprised me and demonstrated how it’s not about the actual sound quality, but the perceived quality. I’m talking about the revival of cassette tapes. When I was younger I did prefer them over CD’s. Now that I’m older and had the pleasure of experiencing different formats I understand why its obsolescence was imminent since its inception. Like wax cylinders it was difficult to store without compromising the quality of the sound, it was easily destroyed, you could record over it without too much difficulty, the listening experience was limited to the quality of the player and quality of the musical product itself. Anyone who dealt with trying to listen to a cassette with a damaged tape knows what I mean. Nonetheless indie artists are selling cassettes of their music. Even some of my former bandmates sell their music on cassette. The fact it’s seeing a revival indicates it’s met with some welcome reception.

In some ways having a hard copy of an independent artist’s work is still helping. For some it’s still a viable way of getting their music out to world and fund their tour or future work. I often see out of town musicians selling CD’s and the occasional cassette. People do buy them at the shows. They’re selling, even if I don’t know to what extent. It’s supporting indie artists in some way.

I believe this is the pivotal issue of stuff like Record Store Day. When I started off in the mid 00’s reviewing music there was a revival in vinyl records. At the time it was hard to find a record player, especially one that worked and was affordable. Folks still purchased the albums with the same dubious arguments of sound quality were made. Those who purchased were supporting indie artists. As the revival continued mainstream labels re-released albums previously on vinyl or they converted previously CD-only formats to vinyl. There was a resurgence is producing record players, but I saw where folks were purchasing more vinyl by mainstream artists than indie ones. Now I’m more likely to see vinyl albums by mainstream artists than indie ones. I’m sure there are other reasons, especially with the cost of producing a hard copy of an album involved. I think, though, if we are buying records to support local record stores we need to also consider buying vinyl of local and indie music. If we’re so willing to support a physical format to create a day for it, we need to also remember the artists who support them.

A bit of an epilogue: in case anyone was wondering I now own a record player. It also has a cassette deck and an 8-track player. You know, just in case.

When Musical Festivals Get Canceled It’s Probably Not Mainstream Enough

If you live around the Kansas City area or in nearby Lawrence I’m sure you got some word of the Kanrocksas music festival.  Well, if you haven’t it’s fine too because they announced its cancellation a month before the festival.   There are currently no plans to reschedule.  To be incredibly honest I’m more shocked about the lack of ticket sales, but I guess I vastly underestimated the hipster population in the area.   I only got to see how things were going from twitter, so I don’t have a complete idea of any other perspective of what went wrong.  Based on what I saw on twitter, and how I view things as a concert goer, here’s what I think went wrong.

1.  The lineup outright sucked.  I know this is a matter of opinion, but I consider my music tastes eclectic and substandard as it is.  While I give the people behind the lineup kudos for trying to have a mixture of locals and some more established acts it was terrible.  Like I said I know it’s a matter of opinion, but I’ll let you be the judge by showing the lineup…

kanrocksas2013lineupSource

See?  Of the acts I recognize I’d only want to see two of them and they probably weren’t on the same night, let alone the same stage.  There isn’t even a strong headliner.  If the cancellation was due to poor sales, I’m probably not the only one who thought the same thing.

Personal tastes aside the lineup was too eclectic and not enough recognizable names for those into more mainstream music.  One could argue that the Wakarusa Music Festival, a festival which originated in Lawrence, is equally eclectic.  The difference is Wakarusa kept it fairly eclectic with mainstream acts as the headliners rather than filling the line up with  lesser-known acts equally eclectic as the mainstream ones.  Wakarusa also had more time to develop a greater following.

2.  Kanrocksas is not going to pull the same crowds as Wakarusa.  This was billed mostly with the appeal of local bands.  It’s also relatively new with a few cards stacked against it, given that it started in 2011 and didn’t hold a festival in 2012 due to construction in the Speedway area.  Wakarusa also had much more to offer with more popular and well known musical acts.  It was at least outside of town near a more friendly campsite.  Which is another point…

3.  The location.  Those who aren’t familiar with Kanrocksas it would have been held at the Kansas Speedway.  This is what the latest Google Maps image looks like.  I’ve been out there for sporting goods and furniture, and even with some understanding of the area I have a hard time conceptualizing a music festival in that area.  People aren’t likely to associate that area with music as much as shopping and NASCAR.

4.  The price.  Even though I encourage people to support music, especially local ones, it gets harder for people to do when it’s on a scale like a music festival.  Festivals are expensive not only to run but for attendees because it’s not just the cost of the music alone.  Even though this festival is a bargain price compared to other festivals it didn’t feel like a bargain for me.  That’s without figuring the costs of food, lodging, and transportation into it.  Like I mentioned before I was only interested in a couple of acts and didn’t really want to see the others.  I can’t justify breaking open my piggy bank for that.  Again, if ticket sales were that low I’m not the only one who felt this way.

5.  Was there even exposure for this?  It’s not so much a point as a question, but it can quickly turn into a point.  I only knew about this because of some remark on twitter back when Kanrocksas was announced.  After the cancellation I learned about the facebook page.  It was only then I saw any news about the festival as well because a few news sources reported on the cancellation and not so much the return of the festival.

I understand wanting to cut costs where possible, but it can hurt if not properly managed. I speak from personal experience without a decent budget for advertising people won’t know about anything you want to sell.  No knowledge of a festival means fewer ticket sales, if any.  I’m not the type who can calculate potential losses from these scenarios.  I’m not sure if it’s possible.  I do, however, know there is a loss.

What all of these points sum up is I suspect those coordinating this festival tried to appeal to as much of the non-mainstream crowd as possible, were underfunded, and thought they could pull it off anyway.   Admittedly I’m amazed to learn how small the purchasing power of the hipster population is for this area.  At the same time I also feel the lack of focus and vast underestimation of certain aspects damaged the festival.  I’m sure there were lots of other issues behind closed doors, doors that lead to boardrooms.  That’s probably why they waited when they did to announce the cancellation: it was the deadline for cancellation notices for some contracts.  It was still a cancellation during the eleventh hour for ticket purchasers.  It also came with a death knell for the festival.