25 July 2007

ccMixter.org - First Impressions

I've finally just started to experience both sides of ccMixter.org for the first time - once as content provider and once as as remixer. And the first impressions are very positive. If you want to hop right over and skip reading my notes below, I would recommend starting with the ccMixter about page.

So you are still reading this? Ok here we go:

General Impressions
Being sponsored by the Creative Commons organization, ccMixter is not littered with advertising and assorted visual madness so commonly seen at social networking sites these days. While I consider that as an overwhelmingly good thing, some aspects of the user interface take a bit of getting used to, because it is so refreshingly clean, different and not yet another clone of so many other over-hyped so called web 2.0 sites. It's a bit like using Google for the first time, after having used Yahoo for a long time. ccMixter packs plenty of web 2.0 punch, many things implemented much cleaner than on other sites. How many sites have we all visited with more than one "play" button for various snippets of music, but when you already have one piece playing, and press on another play button, the first piece continues to play? ccMixter gets this right. A newly pressed play button switches off the previous piece and starts playing your newly selected one. And the site handles changing browser window sizes and/or font sizes about as elegantly as can be done these days. Just those two things - done better than so many high profile sites - are a couple of immediate tip-offs about the thought, craftsmanship and caring that is going into this site. Victor Stone is the gentleman behind most of the programming code and he goes by the handle of "fourstones" on the site. And being a very good music maker and remixer in his own right, he is an active participant in remixing as well as uploading samples in addition to hovering around the forums to answer questions and give guidance. I wonder, if he ever eats or sleeps. :-)

ccMixter (so far) doesn't have a "friends" mechanism. I don't know, if that is a philosophical choice or a question of maybe adding it later. Personally I hate the inflated friends thing (and on many bigger sites it quickly gets to be that way) - it becomes quite useless, once there are too many friends for each person. But on the positive side a friends mechanism is one interesting way to link-hop and can be a fast way to find people one already knows, because a friend may have already marked them as friend. So a friends mechanism has worked for me at times, but only while the numbers of friend linkages is reasonably small - maybe up to 30-50? However ccMixter offers fabulous RSS feeds for following the exploits of the people one wants to stay in touch with. In addition it's easy to see what comments (called "reviews") a site participant has made, so that is one way to to link hop, although those lists end up quite lengthy as well. Maybe the system could be programmed to derive a "friends" type of list from multiple comments having been sent back and forth between individuals? In any case, it's a fascinating problem to solve for social networking sites, regardless of topic.

Generally speaking, ccMixter doesn't try to re-invent all kinds of wheels or make itself the hub of your entire life on the Internet. So while it clearly is a social networking site around musical collaboration (remixing being "sequential collaboration"), it's not there to handle your entire online life, promote your band or other stuff so common amongst the social networking clones out there. It's a place where reasonably serious music makers meet for the purpose of remixing. Overall ccMixter doesn't try to suck you into visiting the site all the time for ad revenue or to drive the hit counters up for a future takeover by one of the dot com giants. How refreshing!

The licensing of source materials is straightforward creative commons based - this means content at ccMixter can be freely remixed, sampled, mashed up and re-published non-commercially (some content even allows commercial re-publishing). This type of licensing allows the music to flourish and is becoming recognized by more and more visionaries in the arts as well as in business.

Maintaining an Identity
Signing up to the site was straightforward and fast. One can create a profile page with a single small image (remember ccMixter doesn't try to be a promotional site for bands or general hangout for buddies), a link to one's home page, some "about" text and a couple of other informational items. A great feature is the ability to send emails to other users without knowing each other's email address. I much prefer that over the PM (private messaging) systems, which force me to log on to the hosting site to see what the message was. The PM madness out there is like a return to the stone age of multiple disconnected email systems. ccMixter scores big points in my book for its approach to messaging. (Even the software we're currently using for the a minor theory site gets this wrong - Note to self: fix that!)

Uploading content
This worked straightforward as well, but this is where I spent some wasted time and bandwidth, because I didn't read the upload page properly. While the initial distinction between acapella tracks and other loops is sensible, it would have saved me some time and ccMixter some bandwidth to be able to switch my uploaded files from "sample" to "a capella" after the first erroneous upload. To get the tracks into the right category I ended up deleting them and re-adding them through the right link. Similarly, it might be nice to switch a regular remix upload into a contest entry later on, or vice versa.

A ccMixter limitation, which I have a lot of sympathy for is the 10MB limit on uploads. I have sympathy for it, since in my own experience with our "a minor theory" site, uploads of more than 10MB's often fail. Combinations of web host limits, slow Internet connections and browser timeouts can make uploading larger files a difficult proposition. However, this limitation makes it quite a bit of extra work to upload entire remix packs. For example the remix packs for our a minor theory songs even in FLAC format are between 36 MB and 64MB. So I ended up just uploading a capella tracks and creating a link to the full remix packs hosted at our own site. Maybe it's just fine that way, too.

Submitting my remix to the Salman Ahmad remix contest was overall a very straightforward and pleasant process, but it did ask for a bit too much private data for my liking. Why does one have to part with that data just for entering the contest? I understand that some additional data may be needed for the winners of contest, but that would only be a small subset of the contestants and could be collected only from the winners at the time that it becomes necessary. Fortunately that additional private data isn't shown publicly on the site, but in the age of identity theft, I am a bit hesitant to submit private data to a website, because even the best designed, programmed, managed and well meaning website can suffer from a programming bug or an attack. In ccMixter's defense, one doesn't actually have to enter that data at the time of uploading the contest entry, but can fill it in later - could that be after one is notified of being a winner?

Finding things and staying informed
There's a useful general search function, although one needs to keep in mind that the underscore _ character is used instead of a space in most name and keyword fields. There are lots of links - you are always only one click away from any provider of content. There's a useful forum for more public group dialog and to get help. All content is tagged with system selected as well as uploader definable tags, so for example, one can quickly find content with tempo 125 to 130 bpm. Or a female melody a capella track. As mentioned before, there are RSS feeds all over the place. Maybe one nice addition might be to be able to get separate feeds for just one forum area rather than only a combined feed for all forum traffic. I find RSS indispensable to keep in touch with a lot of stuff, and can only highly recommend learning how to take advantage of subscribing to such feeds.

Listening (New paragraph added 2007-07-26 GMT)
In addition to having a really nicely implemented ccMixter Radio, editor's choices, and user ratings, ccMixter's playlist feature is a great way to remember, organize and track favorite remixes, or the worst of the worst, if you are so inclined!. You can have many playlists and listen to or subscribe to other user's playlists, including the omnipresent RSS feeds, so you can stay informed of other user's updates to their playlists.

So even for pure music listeners ccMixter offers a superior experience to most social networking music sites. As the quantity and quality of the content grows, there is little doubt in my mind, that ccMixter will become one of the legendary music destinations on the web. And because of the creative commons licensing, it is immune to a lot of the nonsense affecting internet radio and online music in general. As the corporate players in the traditional music business are becoming ever more aggressive in locking up music, sites like ccMixter will continue to bring music makers and audiences together. There is already quite a bit of quality music there - and even some of the less refined stuff has a raw charm to it, which reminds me of the magic of experiencing music more personally. intimately. The web version of musical performances in a small coffee-shop or club. Instead of leaving a tip, you can leave a review for the online performer. A nice comment makes any performer's day whether it be after a live or after an online performance. On a site like ccMixter it's much easier to avoid listening to crap than on most commercial radio stations with it's corporate rock bands, mickey mouse club alumni and television contest winners. And ccMixter doesn't have advertising blemishing the music experience.

Bottom Line (for now)
These are just my first impressions, and so far there is a lot to like about ccMixter - and in my opinion it's the overall best remixing site I've found so far. I hope that most of my remixing friends will start joining ccMixter. The site has the potential to become the best remixing treasure on the web - in many technical ways it already is, but a continuing influx of talented music makers will really fulfill it's potential. I recommend starting with the ccMixter about page

In addition, I've seen talk about additional collaboration features being added. That would be a great addition indeed, since remixing and collaboration are highly related and many remixers end up collaborating (heck, that's how a minor theory started!)

I'll try to actively participate at ccMixter by providing more samples from a minor theory and some of my own as well as remixing some other content from there outside a contest. It will be interesting to compare the experience of a site without a "friend" mechanism to other sites with friend mechanisms.

After having given ccMixter a first good spin (pardon the pun!) , I have a little bit of the same feeling, when I first bumped into Wikipedia or the Internet Archive. This has the makings of becoming one of the very special destinations on the web.

Any errors, omissions, or other thoughts, please leave a comment. - Thanks!

22 July 2007

12 Things to Like and Dislike about Remix Sites

Love it when remix sites feature:

  1. creative commons licensed (e.g. attribution, non-commercial) remixed packs, which allow remixers to post their remixes to other places
  2. real singing (decent singing a capella vocal tracks are rare, rapping is more easily found)
  3. users can upload sample packs and tracks as well as remixes (peer to peer remixing)
  4. listeners being able to comment on submitted remixes (compliments and constructive critiques are the real reward for publishing one's remixes, otherwise why bother?)
  5. remix packs being made available using FLAC compressed audio files (smaller file sizes without loss in quality)
  6. remix contests (a bit of friendly competition can be fun and educational)
Hate it when remix sites:
  1. take remixers for granted (yes it's a privilege to remix someone else's creation, but it is also a great privilege to be remixed)
  2. demand full commercial rights to remixes without compensation (I still can't believe that some are actually trying that!)
  3. disallow publishing of remixes anywhere else but on their site (it essentially buries the remixer's work on one site)
  4. have remix contests where you can't listen to all contest submissions (listening to other remixers work is inspirational as well as educational)
  5. disqualify remixes from being posted because of some unpublished selection criteria (that is wasting the time and emotional energy of the remixer)
  6. feature ratings systems, which can be too easily subverted or hijacked (if it's too easy to subvert the system, might as well not have it)
In the end, there is only one way to make remix sites "behave well": Remixers have to vote with their feet - I mean vote with their browsers. That means abandoning sites with bad policies and congregating at sites with good policies - even when the musical quality might suggest otherwise. If good remixers congregate at sites with good policies, good original content producers will follow.

14 July 2007

FLAC - the file format for audio collaboration

This is a very useful technology for musical collaborators and remixers: Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) is a popular file format for audio data compression. Being a lossless compression format, FLAC does not remove information from the audio stream, as lossy compression formats such as MP3, OGG and AAC do.

This makes it ideal for Internet based audio collaborations and audio source files for remixes, where numerous audio files need to be up and downloaded between participants.

Standalone FLAC conversion software is free to download and not encumbered by patents as well as multi-platform, so Mac, Windows and Linux users can all benefit from this. In the future, Digital Audio Workstation makers will hopefully incorporate the ability to import from and export to FLAC directly into their software, like some of them have started to do with the OGG Vorbis lossy compression format (a non patent encumbered and free alternative to mp3).

So while using FLAC will introduce one extra conversion step for most people in the short term, it is really worthwhile for those, who want to shorten up and download times dramatically without loss of audio quality. For a typical project I've seen compression rates of better than 50%. Impressive stuff for audio.

One more thing: FLAC compression does not suffer from the few milliseconds of silent audio at the beginning and end of mp3 files, which is a pain in the neck to manually fix.

10 July 2007

The 20 things you MUST know about music online

Andrew Dubber's New Music Strategies is an interesting blog for people interested in new business models for music. The article The 20 things you MUST know about music online is a pretty good read.

I very much like his first point: "Don’t believe the hype: Sandi Thom, the Arctic Monkeys and Lily Allen are not super famous, rich and successful because of MySpace, and nor because they miraculously drew a crowd of thousands to their homegrown webcast. PR, traditional media, record labels and money were all involved."

And while you're over at Andrew's blog, you may want to have a look at his insightful Manifesto as well.

05 July 2007

Hometracked - Our process for online musical collaboration

Regular readers of this blog will know, that I'm involved in Internet musical collaboration as well. So this very nicely and detailed description (complete with audio samples) of someone else's collaborative process caught my eye.

From the (very interesting and useful) blog hometracked.com comes the article Our process for online musical collaboration: "I’m a member of the band Gert. Until we played together in person this summer, our year-long collaboration was entirely virtual. 6 song writers, a continent apart, connected by musical tastes and the Internet. We’re still a band in the general sense, but in place of schedule conflicts, angry neighbours, and ego clashes, we deal with time zones, bit rates, and ego clashes."

04 July 2007

SellaBand - What is it really?

On first glance, SellaBand looks like a very interesting and rather charming concept in crowdsourcing the financing of a band's/artist's recording.

The main How it works page looks promising: "No Strings Attached. At all times during the SellaBand program, you are free to leave".

However after reading through some additional details on other pages, one finds out a significant publishing rights component: "for the songs you will record with SellaBand you must sign a Publishing Agreement with SellaBand." And the publishing agreement (pdf) contains "The Artist shall exclusively transfer the music publishing rights in relation to the Works to SellaBand."

So it looks like as an artist, you can leave, but the rights to your songs are signed over in a publishing deal.

And the way I understand the materials on the web site, the "believers" / investors do NOT get any cut of the publishing revenues, while SellaBand gets a good chunk and the producers of the CD get some as well.

Am I the only one, who feels like someone is trying to sneak something by artists as well as "believers"/investors?

Some of the founders have considerable roots in the traditional recording industry.

Let me put it very mildly: Given the observations outlined above, I do not find SellaBand an attractive proposition as an artist or "believer".

02 July 2007

Music licensing made easier - Pump Audio

Pump Audio provides online music licensing. They've just been acquired by Getty Images, a big player in the digital stock photography licensing business. From their about page: "Founded in 2001, Pump Audio is a new kind of agent for independent musicians, digitally connecting them with buyers in the mainstream media. With Pump Audio, artists can license their music into productions without giving up any ownership, while TV and advertising producers can discover new music ready for use."

While the ability to make money with music sales to the listening public may very well be shrinking rapidly, the possibility to make money through music licensing for television advertising may continue to exist for a while longer. However, it will be interesting to observe, if good music will soon be licensed even for such purposes for free. Will music makers in the ever increasing competition for exposure start giving away their work for free even for commercial purposes? If most of the money is being made through live performances, then arguably everything else becomes valuable advertising for one's live performance.