Ideas Graveyard #1: The Walkman

Sony Walkman

Sony Walkman - 30 this year

A new, irregular column where we remember ideas in music and technology whose time has come…and passed.

We’ve been wanting to do this column for quite some time. Some brilliant journalist at the BBC just gave us the excuse we needed – they asked a 13 year old to compare a Walkman with an iPod. The article is great (“It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape”) and well worth checking out. We wont repeat it here.

But how about the Walkman then? It does share one very important similarity with the iPod – it became so ubiquitous that the brand name became the product name. Just as people call most mp3 players ‘iPods‘, most portable cassette players are “Walkmans“, despite it being the name of Sony’s version of the ‘Personal Stereo’. The one from our youth was an Aiwa.

That BBC article uses a very old version of the Walkman. By the time it was in it’s last years, the Walkman looked pretty cool – and still does today. Check out the WM-EX170 as an example. And there were plenty of pretty colours as well, and lots of great designs.

A cool, later era Walkman

A cool, later era Walkman

The most groundbreaking thing about the Walkman was not the Walkman itself. Sony also pioneered the headphone buds, getting rid of the big ear enclosures. We have a pair of those things in our ears right now. These new lightweight, portable headphones were sold with the Walkmans (seems so obvious now), making them instantly accessible. So in 1979, Sony Japan released it’s masterpiece. Although it wasn’t an immediate hit, it caught on and 50 million were sold by Sony alone in ten years.

(The iPod has sold almost 200 million. Crazy.)

Suitcase record players and boom boxes aside, the Walkman was a truly portable music player. Later versions easily fit in a pocket, or at least a school bag. It opened up new possibilities for this format called the cassette. It was also sturdy – people could and did jog with Walkmans. Sure, it doesn’t fit the same number of songs, and other silly points. But how we used the Walkman is pretty similar to how we use the iPod today. Casual portable listening. And hey, our (Aiwa) Walkman could record. That durability didn’t last into the iteration – the Discman. That spinning CD just couldn’t handle bumps.

The Walkman continues as a brand. It’s Sony’s line of mp3 players. It’s one of the most popular mp3 players in the world after the iPod, iPhones, Zunes, Creative ZEN, Sandisk and about 10 others. It’s a good idea to reuse the name, but a Walkman will always be about cassettes for us.

A great history and museum of Walkmans can be found at Pocket Calculator – http://www.pocketcalculatorshow.com/walkman/history.html. Well worth a read, if only to see how tough it was to sell the name ‘Walkman’ outside of Japan.

Walkmans at Wikipedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walkman

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A Question of Fidelity: Spotify Goes CD Quality?

Spotify - as good as a CD

Spotify - as good as a CD

We adore the Spotify service. It still has a way to go, but it’s getting there. For those in the dark – it’s a streaming service. There’s a free version with ads scattered across your listening experience. Then there’s a paid version with no ads, exclusive albums, pre-release stuff and, just announced, CD quality streaming.

The word is Spotify are finding it tough getting people to upgrade to their premium service. Offering albums before release date and exclusives will help. It’s already at a good price. But will CD quality streaming convince anyone to make the switch?

There’s a bigger question of sound quality here – if it matters – over convenience. It’s been a dog fight from the beginning. Vinyl sounded great, but it got damaged easily and was hardly portable. The cassette brought great portability but the sound quality was terrible, and cassettes snapped easily. The CD had a nice middle ground, and the war stopped for a while. Until DVDA and SACD came in, beating it’s chest about it’s 5.1 surround sound. It was around that time that the mp3 took over as the main way people listen to music.

So, are people going to care about CD quality streaming? With today’s headphones and computer speakers, it hardly seems worth it. But there is a niche consumer who can hook up their computer with a nice home stereo. But that person will no doubt have surround sound and high definition – something Spotify isn’t offering. It’s the CD all over again, a bit of each without being much of either.

Spotify are growing. They will hit mobile phones this year. Their catalogue continues to grow. We have faith. And we like the risks they are taking. We’re just not sure how many people are taking a risk on them right now.

NME covered the story quite nicely as well – http://www.nme.com/news/spotify/45507

Tuesday Tunes: Son Volt – Down To the Wire

Son Volt - American Central Dust - Out July 7th

Son Volt - American Central Dust - Out July 7th

Son Volt were one of the kings of the mid 90s alternative country scene. Son Volt frontman Jay farrar formed Uncle Tupelo in his teens with old friend Jeff Tweedy (later of Wilco). When Tupelo fell apart, Farrar recorded under the name Son Volt and released the masterpiece Trace. Trace is still considered by many to be one of greatest alt-country, modern country, No Depression, roots rock or whatever tag you want to put to it – it’s still one of the best albums of that type.

A few solo album asides, Son Volt are set to release their 6th studio album. They’ve lost none of their Everyman style when they called the album American Central Dust, and the record hits July 7th on Rounder records.

The track is good, solid Son Volt. Their last album was experimental, with soul and jazz creeping in. This track seems to be back to straight up heartland rock.

You can find a free, legal download for Down To the Wire on RCRD LBL, an amazing free mp3 site – http://rcrdlbl.com/2009/06/18/download_son_volt_down_to_the_wire

We Follow: Finally making sense of Twitter

Wefollow.com

Wefollow.com

Wefollow.com finally does what Twitter itself should do – make sense of all the information it’s holding. It’s essentially a Twitter directory – neatly tagged and easy to use.

Almost two months ago, we crawled through Twitter to see who the biggest music stars on Twitter were. We pretty much had to guess and check. With Wefollow, we can just jump to the music section and see who the stars are. Sadly, it’s up to Twitter‘s users to register themselves. So the number one music star, Britney, is not listed. Taylor Swift is also missing from the top 20. But looks like we forgot 50 Cent and MC Hammer.

It’s a start, but really, Twitter should be doing this. We like Twitter – but it’s too niche. It’s too cumbersome as well. Even to see the twitter updates of peole we know we follow, we would rather use Google than the Twitter search engine (let alone browsing).

That’s not the least of Twitter‘s problems. The growth is slow, and the numbers are not there. Having a large number of followers crowds your page. And there is far too many spammers and porn.

Yet, micro-blogging (as this is called) seems to clearly be the future. With the lines between phones and computers being blurred, and short burts of information being the way we digest news, micro-blogging seems a natural. But Twitter could well go down as the MySpace of the scene. Facebook has already switched itself to be more micro-blogging focused. Google have been cooking up a grand plan in the meantime.

So, Wefollow can definitely help you enjoy your Twitter experience. Because Twitter isn’t going to help you.

Check out Wefollow – http://wefollow.com

Wednesday Web: Sound Opinions Podcast

Greg Kot (left) and Jim DeRogatis (right) with Booker T Jones

Greg Kot (left) and Jim DeRogatis (right) with Booker T Jones

Ok, not really a website. Sound Opinions is a podcast to most of the world and a radio show in America. They call themselves “the world’s only rock ‘n’ roll talk show”, and for us, it’s a mandatory weekly listen. Based in Chicago and hosted by music writers Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis, they comment and review an amazing amount of material, interview some huge names, fascinating characters, and seem to have a lot of fun the whole time.

Both Kot and DeRogatis are music critics at Chicago papers. Both are published authors on music, whether it be band biographies or anthologies (like the wonderful Kill Your Idols). They are rock nerds and a league of new music writers. They have a great knowledge of music history, yet a passion for new music. They have also been friends for years and fight a lot on air.

Now that we checked the CV, why we like this show is because it’s needed. They don’t play full songs – it’s talk. But it’s talk that covers the changing trends in music (the ground we hope to cover in our blog), playful reviews, studies of classic albums and genres, and exclusive live performances. Highlights from the show’s history for us are many:

– live sets from Wilco and Neko Case
– studies on Disco and the relationship between music and food (including a fascinating conversation with cooks about the music they listen to)
– classic album dissections, especially Johnny Cash‘s At Folsom Prison
– interview with a reformed Feelies!
– roundtable with America’s top indie retailers.
– desert island songs
– and more…

The show is powered by American Public Radio, and is a community supported radio network. No big corporate radio dollars here. You can download the podcasts anywhere in the world for free, and you can donate to support the show and the health of US radio.

Kot and DeRogatis are building quite a profile for themselves. They even appeared once on Conan. Of course, you cannot agree with everything they say, but at least they are throwing informed opinions out there, and there’s plenty of listener interactions to get a wide range of views. Yes, it’s occasionally indie and swarmy, but it’s the most informative and entertaining music podcast out there. In a sea of blogged judgements, it’s great to hear good music journalism on the iPod.

Sound Opinion website with all the links you need – http://soundopinions.org

Tuesday Tunes: Magnolia Electric Co. – Josephine

Magnolia Electric Co. - Josephine - out 20th Jul.

Magnolia Electric Co. - Josephine - out 20th Jul.

Magnolia Electric Co., is the working name for Jason Molina. Molina battles it out with Dinosaur Jr‘s J Mascis on our heads as which musician today loves Neil Young more. We think Molina does most days – and that’s no bad thing or cheap shot. Molina is blessed with one of the great voices – too brittle for radio, but too passionate to be ignored. He also knows how to work an electric guitar.

Molina once went under the name Songs:Ohia, and it was at that time we first discovered him, and we have followed his brand of indie folk ever since. The new Magnolia Electric Co. record is called Jospehine on July 20th through Secretly Canadian, his long time label.

Most excellently, you can now download the title track from the MEC site. It’s a great little track – it doesn’t give away much if you’re an old fan – but it sounds like another solid outing.

BUT, more excitingly is Molina offers some mp3s from his older albums as well. Imagine that! We love when bands do this. And we love it even more when they put up one of our favourite tracks ever, and we can now recommend that track to you.

The song is called Farewell Transmission, and when we first heard it, we knew we would be following Molina around for a few more albums. We call him Molina because this was in his Songs: Ohia phase – and to make it more confusing, it’s taken from an album called The Magnolia Electric Co. Don’t think about it too much. (Yes it’s over 7 minutes long but very much worth it).

And surprise, we downloaded a couple of other tracks from the MEC site and are loving them too. What a great way to get into a band – by listening to their music.

Get both ‘Josephine’ and ‘Farewell Transmission’ from Magnolia Electric Co.’s media page – http://www.magnoliaelectricco.com/media

The official site is of course at – http://www.magnoliaelectricco.com

Mos Def's Free Album (with every T-shirt)

Mos Def - passion is a fashion

Mos Def - passion is a fashion

It wasn’t that long ago when you could buy an album and get a free t-shirt. (In the UK, U2 did it last year with their last batch of reissues). With the falling value of music, it seems the tables are turning in favour of the t-shirt. Rapper, and lately, fantastic actor, Mos Def is taking this one step further with his latest album, ‘The Ecstatic‘. When you buy the t-shirt, you get the code to download the album for free.

It’s not the only way to get the album – it’s already out on regular mp3 and CD. But it is a new way. It’s also not completely new – it’s in fact the second in a series by the Music Tee people, but the first to feature a major artist.

The shirt features the album artwork complete with tracklisting. There is a download code on the tag, and you can go online and collect your mp3 album from there. Pretty amazingly, the US music charts people, Soundscan, have agreed to count the sales of the t-shirt as an album sale.

We can’t seem to find out where you can buy this t-shirt. You can checkout http://www.downtownmusic.com, but Mos Def‘s own website is down at the time of writing. There’s also some retail locations on the LNA site. Come on Mos, take a break from the movies and get it together.

It’s a fun idea, but it’s a gimmick. The shirts are actually quite tough to get. It costs $40 US, far more than an album or a t-shirt, so anyeither one being ‘free’ is up in the air. It’s not going to boost Mos Def‘s album sales into the charts. But interesting to think what artists like Dave Matthews Band, whose merch sales exceed their album sales.

Apparently more Music Tee are on the way this year. It will be interesting to see what artists they get, and what impact they make. For now, it seems like people are willing to try just about anything.

LnA – home of Music Tee – right here – http://www.lnaclothing.com
Oh yeah, Mos Def‘s website is still down.