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

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.

Join the Club – Beck's Classic Records Project

Beck - reaching for new things

Beck - reaching for new things

Beck is one of the coolest artists in the last 20 years. Constantly evolving and trying new things, and charming til the end, it’s easy to love the guy even if you don’t warm to his music. He’s now wrapped up his contract with Geffen records and a free agent, and has announced a new project that is just as ambitious, clever and whack as you expect. Every so often, Beck (and select friends) will cover a classic album in it’s entirety, and put it on his website. The first track is up at Beck.com now, as part of a new thing he’s calling Record Club.

The first album to get the Beck-ord Club (sorry) treatment is The Velvet Underground‘s 1967 debut – The Velvet Underground & Nico. It’s one of the greatest albums of all time, and we’ve heard too many terrible cover versions of the songs to not by a bit scared walking into the Beck version. But he pulls it off on the one track that’s on the site – the elegant opener Sunday Morning. It has a modern wooziness to it, with a deeper, darker, more dramatic overtones.

So OK Beck. We’re listening.

Best part of this experiment is the entire record is recorded in a day. Nothing is rehearsed or arranged before hand. Beck’s list of collaborators include the likes of Devendra Banhart, MGMT, producer extraordinaire Nigel Godrich and Icelandic singer Thorunn Magnusdottir. Apparently Digital Underground’s rap classic Sex Packets was apparently on the cards, but maybe later. Beck has some extraordinarily great and obscure tastes. We personally would love to hear him tackle Odessey And Oracle, an album that he’s said to love.

An interesting experiment. We’re not sure if you’re going to have to one day pay for the downloads. But you can find an mp3 of Sunday Morning on the web if you know where to look. We’ll be checking back in next week to hear their take on I’m Waiting For the Man, and see if it improves on the 700 other versions we’ve heard.

That number again – http://www.beck.com

Vinyl Saturdays At Indie Retail

Green Day - Know Your Enemy 7

Green Day - Know Your Enemy 7"

2009’s Record Store Day was the most successful yet. A huge list of exclusive releases was given to Indie retail all around the world (although, mainly in America). It showed that, for at least one day a year, people can still walk into a record shop. Now let’s see if people will do it on the third Saturday of every month.

Again starting in the US but hopefully spreading further, the Record Store Day people have organised Vinyl Saturday on, as stated, the third Saturday of every month. Vinyl made up a bulk of RSD‘s exclusives this year. It’s a format that is experiencing another of it’s occasional booms. It certainly has a lot of good will at the moment.

Vinyl Saturday, a great idea that we support even if our wallets don’t, is starting off with a bang. No less than Green Day, still hot from their 800 billion selling album 21st Century Breakdown, is opening proceedings with a very limited 7″ of their latest single Know Your Enemy backed with Hearts Collide, an unreleased track. Wilco offer a 7″ of You Never Know, from their upcoming album, backed with Unlikely Japan (a demo of Impossible Germany from their last album). Modest Mouse and Scarlett Johansson/Pete Yorn offer tracks on 7″ from upcoming albums as well. All of them are limited to around 5000 copies.

Oh how we love 7″ singles and their unique artwork and 5 minutes promise of bliss. We love the unreleased b-side, the hidden treasure of a 7″. Hopefully there is a flood of cool 7″s coming out because of this initiative. And hopefully it gets out of the US. And looking at the repertoire – someone other than Warner Music Group participates.

Interestingly – what was considered the hottest exclusive of Record store Day was Beck and Sonic Youth‘s split 7″. It’s currently going for almost $50 US on eBay. So get in quick!

More info at the Record Store Day website – http://www.recordstoreday.com

Neil Young Archives: was it worth it?

Archives Guy with a prototype of Archives, holding the book

Archives Guy with a prototype of Archives, holding the book

Neil Young: Archives Vol 1 (1963-1972). 20-odd years in the making. 9 blu-ray discs. 125 tracks (plus 12 hidden tracks). What seems like a small hatchback’s worth of photos, lyrics, clippings and more. It makes that bonus CD with a few remixes seem like a kick in the teeth. Now THIS is for the fans.

Young managed to put out this £200+ package at a time when such things are in vogue. Well timed, old man. In the late 80s he might not have been able to pull this off. If you don’t normally pay that much for a single artist release, this is a good place to start (if you’re a fan).

There’s plenty of reviews out there that can tell you all about the music inside. But we want to talk about the package as a whole.

It’s insane. Even in the heady days of extravagant box sets from labels like Rhino and Bear Factory, this takes the cake. The box is huge, a little bigger than it needs to be, and it comes with 10 discs, a fantastic book, a poster and a little notepad. It’s sturdy too. We only cut the plastic wrapping at the top so it’s now nicely protected as well. Not sure where the hell we are going to store this. And really, the box could have been 50% smaller. Does no one remember the Longbox?

What kills is the book. A leather bound wonder full of memorabilia. Clippings, old photos we’ve never seen before. Drafts and drafts of old lyrics. Annoyingly, some of the lyrics in the booklet are for songs that are not on the box set. Wasn’t this supposed to be complete? That fact it’s not is one of our biggest gripes with Archives. Where is the Losing End? Wasn’t Winterlong from this era? 3 versions of Tell Me Why, yet the exclusion of one of Young’s best tracks – Out On the Weekend – the opening track to Harvest – is almost unforgivable. We could have done with a few more annotations about what the photos and clipping are, and when they were taken etc. But the whole thing is so darn pretty we can forgive. The cover alone – a leather print of a sunrise, knocks out LA hippie sandals right off.

Oddly, our blu-ray box came with a separately packaged copy of Sugar Mountain. Which is part of the Archives story, and it baffled us why it was not to be included. It baffles us now why it was included but not advertised. It really bugs us that we already owned this and two other live discs on the set. But not in blu-ray, so that’s something.

The poster and the notebook are nice. We took them out. Looked at them one. Put them away. don’t see ourselves doing that again for some time – if ever. Not to say we don’t appreciate this kind of stuff, but we don’t love it, and it’s a bonus, not a feature.

The discs are all packaged in it’s own sleeve with fantastic different covers. We love that. So many box sets don’t do that. A bit hard to get out but with so many discs, it will always be the case. And thank you for the free mp3s, redeemable with a code that comes with a credit card sized card, included in the package. It took a few days after release to became available, but it’s great for a casual listen.

But we didn’t just get Archives. We joined the Archives club. On the day of release, Young himself wrote the first of many notes about the box, under the title Archives Post Informer – on the official Archives site – http://www.neilyoungarchives.com. The site also has a handy interactive tutorial on how to use the menus on the discs and a nifty Q&A. You can also send Young your own memorabilia from the era for him to send to others and include in future releases.

If that wasn’t enough, there is always Archives Guy. Over at Thrasher’s Wheat, (THE Neil Young website), a man called Archives Guy has popped up and will occasionally answer question for the fans about this package. It’s amazing support for a release of any sort. And it makes you feel better about forking out the big bucks. (We assume Archives Guy is the guy written about in Shakey, but we can’t remember his name right now).

All in all – great job. The music that is on there is fantastic. A new, expensive bar has been set. We are still getting to know this mammoth collection and we look froward to doing it for a while longer. 20 years in the making and it was worth the wait. The next period in Young‘s career is our favourite. We hope it doesn’t take 20 years for Volume 2. Please give us more sporadic live albums til then.

We first wrote about Archives here – The gold rush: Neil Young’s Archives