I've been across the water now so many times
Back in April, Ira Marlowe, proprietor of the Monkey House in Berkeley, decided to announce, as an April Fool’s joke, that his speakeasy performance venue was shutting down. The reveal was “below the fold,” as they say, so of course many people missed the obvious clue as to his intent and there were many genuinely irate and despondent comments.
For those of us who perform in the Bay Area, the prospect of losing a place to perform is no laughing matter. I took the Marker Hotel to task in this blog a few months ago for nearly shutting down Local Vocals at their hotel and am happy to report it’s back and better than ever (even if you do still get thrown down in the dungeon from time to time). We also had reprieve from losing Bazaar Cafe, it's even had it’s first anniversary under new ownership (it turns out we share the same birthday, BTW).
But there’ll be no escape for the princess this time.
We’re losing the Octopus Literary Salon in downtown Oakland.
The location of the Octopus always struck me as a bit odd — as close to the 19th Street BART as it is and as near to the through-fares Broadway and Telegraph as it is, its location feels a bit off the beaten path. Amid incomplete high rises its surroundings exude a sense of desolation — it’s hard to imagine it getting much foot traffic.
For those of you unfamiliar with this little institution, it was first and foremost a bookstore. With a selection of new and used tomes nestled in bookshelves lining the walls and hand-painted signs indicating their eclectic contents, it had a distinctly Bohemian feel, accentuated evermore so by the numerous namesake cephalopods of varying forms and materials strewn about. There was also the cafe in the back with its avocado toast and Vietnamese style sandwiches in addition to the typical lattes and pastries. But most important to musicians and performers of all stripes was the corner to one side of the ramp and railings bisecting the venue. Pressed up next to the window there, with a piano and stereo system, was a little space to act as a make shift stage. An increasing rarity these days.
I had the pleasure of performing a show there about a year and half ago with Matt Jaffe and Rob Jamner, and before that as part of Hurricane Harvey benefit show, but alas, was not able to book anything in the lead up to my album release show this past June. Despite the ample slots, it was also competitive to get a show booked there and you had to book well in advance. I kind of felt they had ideas above their station in terms of their actual capacity (let alone target draw) and that splitting the night between two bills, one starting way too early for Bay Area folk, and one probably too late for most week nights, didn’t do artists any favors when it came to rounding up the requisite crowd. And being in that desolate little wedge of downtown Oakland certainly didn’t help.
But it was a great space, and I always made a point of getting across the Bay, even if it meant squeezing onto a BART train during rush hour with a guitar, to promote an East Bay show at the open mic on Mondays (even if it felt a bit futile in terms of getting folks out to said show). On a particularly ambitious night, I’d play a set at the Carlton or the Marker, hurry across the bay to the Octopus and then back to the Utah in San Francisco for the open mic there.
I liked the vibe they curated and met some wonderful creative-types there — or at least saw some familiar faces. The allowance of half the sign ups to be in advance through Facebook felt like a reasonable compromise for those who couldn’t necessarily be there at the start, even if the exact timing of the advance sign ups was a bit inconsistent (sign up policies for open mics vary and each has its pros and cons in terms of who they tend to favor — I've seen some positively Byzantine sign up processes). I’m sure the comedians weren’t happy when the powers that be put the kibosh on their pre-signups and then participation all together, but I take that as a sign that someone was concerned about the overall feel of the night (there’s a bit of tension at times as to whether an open mic is for comedians or songwriters — it can be a delicate balance where the ecosystem can tip too much one way or the other).
I was hoping the place could hold out until that retail space across the street got filled in and maybe some life would spring up to that otherwise obscure little street. But after what I surmise was a bit of a Hail Mary of “Octopus Days” over the summer and despite a few packed open mics of late, the management has decided to pack it in.
I happened to be up late in Austin Sunday night when I noticed there were still some open slots for the open mic this past Monday (unexpected, and almost unheard of, actually). So despite the fact I was flying into Oakland early, early in the morning — and would have to make the trek back and forth across the bay to my place in San Francisco, I decided to make a go of it, just to make sure I got there one last time. It did, after all, inspire a song of mine — The Octopus Song — which I wrote to promote that show with Matt and Rob (it was also heavily based on the book “The Soul of an Octopus” by Sy Montgomery). I figured having a song about an Octopus might be a useful marketing device. I’m actually quite fond of the end result and was pleased as punch that Vica Hernandez chose to cover the song for the most recent edition of EGPhest. So the Octopus got a final rendition of the Octopus Song (which you’d be forgiven for thinking was entitled “Alien from an Alternate Earth”).
Losing a place like this is tough. There was a lot of eulogizing this past Monday and a lot of people paying their respects, saying it had been the first place they'd ever played in front of an audience. Its absence will be felt. The only remedy I can suggest at this point is that if there is a place like it in your neck of the woods, make a point to support it by at least popping in now and then to buy a beverage, maybe even take in a show.
There’s one more regular open mic left at the Octopus, this Monday plus two more bonus rounds Wednesday and Thursday. The address is 2101 Webster St #170, Oakland, CA.
P.S. give my rough demo of "The Octopus Song" a listen below
I guess I just wasn't made for these times
I would now like to expound upon a theory that I have held for quite some time, which is that social media is antithetical to the listening to and experiencing of music.
I would contend the reason that Facebook never has really been a platform for music the way, say MySpace famously was, is because music simply requires time in a way that does not suit Facebook’s business model. Facebook is, after all, most succinctly described as an ad engine with social features. And as an ad engine, one can surmise their primary goal is to maximize the number of ads they show to a given set of eyeballs. More impressions, clicks, what have you, translates into more dollars they can charge whoever bought the ads (and in their ideal world we are all advertisers). So the less time a person spends with any given piece of content, the better.
Yes, they want the viewers of these ads to "engage" — that after all can be yet another measure that they can show their customers, the ad buyers, to prove the effectiveness of the ads, and thus the need to buy more, but to maximize the number of ads they are showing, they need to make that engagement as minimal and instantaneous as possible. They're not going to be looking for long, insightful and thought provoking essays. It needs to be much quicker. They're looking for an emotional response. Does it make you laugh? Does it make you cry? Does it make you angry? The brain’s emotional circuitry is much faster than anything the pre-frontal cortex can hope to muster. It can be done in seconds or less. Make no mistake, this is psychological manipulation, if not warfare, and Facebook has evolved to be the best of breed in that respect.
So even a relatively brisk two and half minute song is just of no interest to the people architecting the social media landscape. You can almost sense the guffaws at the notion of listening through an entire verse, let along multiple choruses. Such an entity might as well be on another plane of existence, a dimension that simply can’t be seen by the algorithms of Facebook. To them, it's a creature of the Upside Down, an artifact from a pocket universe where time runs at a completely different speed. The most they can imagine is it's some sort of background noise to whatever should be really occupying your attention at any given moment.
Evidence for this theory can be seen in the lack of support Facebook has for the musician. The so-called "Musician" pages that Facebook allows you to create have a noticeable deficit of features that allow Facebook users to actually listen to your music. The primary feature of such pages seems to be creating opportunities for Facebook to pester you to boost posts so the people who have already expressed interest in seeing your posts will in fact be given the opportunity to see them. There are third party plug-ins such as Reverb Nation that allow you to play music on Facebook, but they have a tendency to break at Facebook's whims. They tend to be a bit buried in the page layout and don't expect them to even be visible on the mobile apps. A Google search suggests there was once a thing called the Facebook Music Player App but that's gone to the great 404 page in the sky. The platform has become downright hostile to displaying any content not hosted by Facebook itself. Music player embeds for sites like bandcamp and Soundcloud have long since ceased to function within Facebook's walled and increasingly sterile garden.
There's a lot more emphasis on video — but even then its only comparatively recently that Facebook introduced a measure for “ThruPlays” — the emphasis has always been on 3 and 10 second views as far as metrics go … or even just 2 second continuous views. Nothing is more disheartening than looking at your drop off rate for video views (which counts as viewers people just scrolling past and taking a momentary glimpse at whatever is moving on screen before breezing on). The platform has at least made an attempt with videos to allow them to continue to play as you scroll through other content. The experts at Google will tell you that when it comes to YouTube advertising you have just 5 seconds to get people’s attention (made even more compulsory as that’s the point after which the skip button becomes active on YouTube).
As far as Instagram goes (pretty much indistinguishable from FB these days as far as I'm concerned) — well, a 15 second clip is the best you can hope to share of a track in a story and unless you’ve got a sub-minute song, you’re not going to be able to post a full one as a video. And if the video is no longer on screen, playback stops — so no playing the background as the viewer looks at other content. IG is primarily a visual medium anyway — and, along with Facebook, I doubt people are engaging with sound on to the extent a musician would hope. If people have headphones on at all, they’ve probably got something else like a music player app or a conference call to pay attention to through that sort of sensory input. If anything, video on these platforms will break people out of their current music experience like some child who impatiently and insistently demands their parent look up from the newspaper to watch them perform some new trick.
The theory du jour with the 'gram for musicians is that you should use it to build a brand and establish a relationship with your followers — give them insight into your life and your process and the behind the scenes. You know, everything and anything but the music itself. It is more or less meant to be constant guerrilla marketing, a space where all interactions are really just a front for a hidden agenda — you are cultivating assets to prime them for a future operation — a sort of sleeper cell you'll be able to activate with a trigger word when the time is right.
For my part, I do feel it is probably the most fun social media to use because you can enjoy exercising a different part of your brain creatively, to be a bit of a visual artist. But don't think for a moment the whole thing isn't just one massive marketing machine — and I think I've already made my thoughts on hashtag based bots clear. Alas, at best, the music you're creating is just tangental to the whole thing.
If you've ever tried to use these platforms to do advertising, you'll quickly learn they don’t want you using text in your ads or subtitles on your video (unless they’re the ones generating them) so you can’t rely on those either to try and convey anything more substantive. You will even be penalized if not outright prevented from using images with too much text in them from being shown. The powers that be will claim pictures with words get less engagement as people see it as advertising, but my suspicion is this is sort of a self fulfilling prophecy — one might surmise they don’t want you putting up anything that would cause people to spend the processing time it would require anyone to read anything. It's hard to give their own rationales the full credence they expect when memes, which nearly always have text, are one of the most commonly shared artifacts on the web. There are mediums like comics that have always married the picture with the word. And it completely dismisses the notion of "word art" — that text itself can be beautiful and powerful in its own right. I am in part grousing because I've now got some lovely pull quotes for the new album that I payed a princely sum for and would like an effective way to use them, but I think it would be foolish to assume these platforms were necessarily honest about their intentions when they're underlying motivations can be reversed engineered to an extent.
Side note: I was given grief recently by some wag about one of my video ads created from a Facebook template for not having a sample of my music — as if that was even an option given to me.
At first I viewed "stories" as a cynical ploy to avoid dealing with storage of so much useless dreck (yay, more pictures of meals I cannot myself enjoy) but now I understand it's actually a far more devious and insidious plot to turn the whole Internet into a passive experience where you simply watch it as a feed as you would television. All the better to slip some advertising in there, once you've been trained to simply watch what comes up in front of you. Sure it may be rather transparently an advertisement, but if you've been conditioned to just let things float past you, would you bother to proactively skip it? I rather hate the whole mechanism. It feels a bit like watching someone with ADD channel surf. I'll see something pop up and before I feel like I've full digested it, it gets replaced by something else. It gets a bit frustrating — "hey, I was looking at that!" I will exclaim to my phone. The end result is likely we're training young minds to digest information this way, but the consequence of priming our thought process this way will probably lead to a deficit of critical or even contemplative and reflective thought on visual mediums (sorry, art museums). So I guess it's not just music that will suffer, in the end.
So what of Twitter? Twitter is like Facebook, but on speed. It exists in its own hyper dimensional plane where the cycles of relevance are so short, they are microwaves to Facebook’s plodding infrared. Trends crest and crash with such unpredictability sometimes you get trends that are simply unfathomable. Recently actor Michale Cerra was trending and no one seemed to know why — there were as many posts asking why his name was trending as anything else, if not more.
And Twitter feels like a blackhole to anyone who doesn’t already have a following. Unless you post something controversial (or erroneously perceived as such) it’s hard for any given post to get notice (insulting someone seems to be good currency... sorry Maggie Haberman). So many people I know who are also musicians are only making use of the platform peripherally — usually through a third party rather obviously doing reposts from FB and IG in a way that looks rather hopeless (no, I am not going click through to see your IG picture, sorry, it just looks so lazy and I doubt any of my engagement registers with you). I’d say half the conversations on Twitter revolve around people who simply reacted to a headline without reading the details of the actual article just to put their 2 cents in, which if anything, is highly overvaluing their contribution.
It's hard to imagine all this ceaseless chatter making room for a melody.
I often worry that I’m listening to less music these days because I’m getting older and it’s just less appealing, less stimulating, and I’ve gotten set in my ways as far as tastes go. It does happen. But I also think that we are now in a hyper stimulated culture as far as options coming at us to occupy the current moment. The problem of the information age is that there’s simply too much of it and most of it is junk. It's no wonder that provocative "click bait" headlines and easy to digest listicles are the norm — from an evolutionary arms race perspective, these were the creatures most likely to survive in the current environment. While binge watching Netflix is at the polar opposite of the spectrum, the space in between that perhaps was once occupied by music has been eviscerated (hopefully that word's popularity as an attention grabber may have at last mercifully waned) by forces which doesn’t want you to spend any more time with anything than you absolutely have to.
I readily admit this could all be the musings of a curmudgeon who is looking to explain why his music isn’t getting any plays (somewhat ironic as the only reason I set up a Facebook account in the first place was to invite people to live music events — a discussion for another time). Clearly the streaming industry is booming and people do listen to music. But how much of this is simply through playlists and algorithms running largely as a background process while the ongoing drumbeat of their social media feed demands the focus their ever divided attentions? Is the time where one put on an album and simply sat down and listened an activity of a bygone age — as much a cultural anachronism as the walkman or the postage stamp?
One can only hope not. Or maybe we’ll luck out and future generations will rebel against all this nonsense and Facebook and its ilk will join MySpace on the ash heap of social computing history. Apparently Facebook is already regarded as for "old people" — so I guess there's hope.
If, after hearing my songs, just one human being is inspired to say something nasty to a friend or, perhaps to strike a loved one, it will all have been worth the while.
On Friday I posted to the blog to try and solicit some feedback about the album from its listeners on the occasion of the first monthiversary of its release. Little did I realize that I’d already gotten the first “negative" review of my career — a fact to which the PR firm I’d been working with alerted me to later that day (or as they put it "wasn't the most flattering" while trying to salvage a decent pull quote).
I should have keyed into the fact that something was up as I was getting a bunch of listens on SoundCloud for “You Will Sail With Me” — the album’s penultimate track and one that hadn’t been featured anywhere to date save my own attempt to push it a bit post release. I assumed that this was some random SoundCloud noise — you tend to get that sometimes from what seems to be bots or some such. It didn’t help that most of the listens weren’t providing any location data (I suspect SoundCloud was having issues because midweek the system went down). So it didn’t even occur to me to look at the source URI report, which otherwise would have been a big clue. A personal nitpick — since the album has been released, it’s a bit weird that someone would be linking to SoundCloud. It’s all well and good to be paid in exposure bucks prior to release in exchange for getting someone to “write” (I use the term loosely in some cases) an exclusive preview article, but if you have any sympathies for an artist, I think you’d at least link to YouTube or maybe bandcamp when the option is available, which will result in a few cents of royalties or maybe a purchase.
Anyway, I got a review for the full album in Americana UK, which had previously previewed one of my tracks and the take aways were 1) the reviewer doesn’t like my voice 2) the reviewer doesn’t like I use a lot of words 3) something about the production not serving the songs... but this is left vague and sort of isn't my department. He liked some of the songs, but apparently not enough to resist the temptation to write a pithy and, if we're frank, kind of churlish summary.
I honestly don’t know what to say about the voice thing — other than it’s flattering to be lumped in with Tom Waits, Neil Young and… Tiny Tim? Noticeably absent from his list is Dylan (“You know they refused Jesus too” “You’re not him”). I mean, what can you do? There are some singers I’d rather not listen to either. And there is a method to my madness of getting other people to cover my songs for my birthday show. That he thinks I “over-pronounce” is the most actionable note in the whole piece… too bad it didn’t help him when it came to citing lyrics correctly (they’re in the SoundCloud descriptions of the songs… I’m just say’n).
That he’s not into using unusual or multi-syllabic words in songs is his loss. Most people get a kick out of “Your Inexorable Pull” and I see absolutely nothing wrong with titles like “A Finnish Midsummer Midnight” and “The Comet and the Wandering Moon” which he also cites as evidence of my wordiness. I myself can think of a couple of occasions where I fought for an intentionally semi-awkward phrasing — the “glass of water” line from Ephemera — and I’ve thought a lot about that second use of the word “yellow” in Finnish, but even when the lines are syllabically packed (as is often the case in the 3rd verse of Albatross) I’m quite deliberate in what I’m doing. Given that he featured the most lyrically sparse song tells me that we’re just not going to see eye to eye on this point.
That this writer dismissed “The Albatross Song” as a novelty song to be "gotten past" is enough to tell me that he wasn’t paying particularly close attention to the content and maybe lacks the requisite appreciation for iconoclasm and silliness it takes to truly enjoy what I do... which is weird because he's British. I always suspected the genre traipsing wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea (I think genre is particularly irrelevant in a playlist obsessed world) and I honestly don't see some of the comparisons he makes with other artists (I'll take the one with "They Might Be Giants" though — even if I see shades of the press release in it). The real journalistic malpractice, however, was the assiduous avoidance of even mentioning “Lighthouse at the Edge of the World.”
In the end, someone took time to write an album review and apparently took the time to actually listen as it wasn’t just a regurgitation of the PR agency’s summary (with maybe a few extra bobs, usually with their own special typos, thrown in). I’ve indulged myself a bit in writing a bit of a response, not so much because I care so much about what this person said, but as a sort of celebration of a milestone. Being dismissed as totally ignorable and not important enough to listen to is dismaying — provoking someone to actually write something critical means I must be doing something right.
What a wonderful gift.
Read the full review in all it's glory:
Or form your own damn opinion:
YouTube • Spotify • Apple Music • Amazon • Bandcamp
P.S. The t-shirts gonna be a real thing and I'm going to wear it proudly at the next CDBaby DIY Conference in Austin. Let me know if you want one of your own.
They would not listen, they're not listening still
It’s been a month now since the release of my new album "At Home At Sea" — which in Internet time is a dog’s age. I meant to write this post just week after it’s release, but was deep down in the milieu of promotion of the latest EGPhest so it’s even more ancient now than when I first wrote that line. I recently saw a rather depressing tweet saying that the press cycle for a newly released album is 11 days. Such is our attention span and the constant churn of a hungry, hungry content mill we call "The Internet."
The activity streaming wise has not been nothing, but it’s not been overwhelming either. Since I was pretty quiet about my first album and this is the first time I’ve done an all out PR campaign, I don’t have a lot to compare it to. I did try running my own social media campaign with associated music videos back in September and November of last year for some singles without the benefit of a third party and even though the number of streams is still small, it’s clear that I’ve gotten many more times the streams than previously. Alas, CDBaby cuts off your data at 90 days (why so stingy with your storage/reporting metrics, my friends?) which makes it hard to compare campaign to campaign unless your diligently saving this data on a regular basis. Spotify is a little more generous, but won’t let you narrow the scope of your request to anything but “since 2015.” Still, in terms of number of streams, there’s a distinct spike around the album release that is discernibly larger than previous peaks.
In terms of absolute numbers though it's still rather disheartening — the upper limit of the graph for streams is 100 and a mere 16 for the graph of listeners. Clearly the overall publicity effort had its effect — the impact of my previous home brew campaigns are barely distinguishable from the occasional random spike. But, even keeping in mind this is just one platform among many (way, way too many), the totals do feel a bit paltry in comparison to what went into the campaign in terms of time and resources.
It also appears that the current theory about albums vs. singles is likely true as there’s a noticeable drop off from the 1st album track to the 2nd and even more by track 3. Now I could be a negative nellie and assume people just don’t like the sound of my voice (that feels like the "go to" excuse for bloggers when rejecting songs I submit through SubmitHub), but I’d suspect part of it is just the difficulty of carving out time to listen to a full album in this day and age. Especially one that requires some actual engagement by the listener and not what passes for engagement in the world of so called “social computing” — I have more thoughts on this as well as the whole process of going through a PR campaign. Suffice to say you can spend your whole life worrying what other people will think about what you're creating when the fact of the matter is, you'll be lucky if they think anything about what you're doing at all.
But for the moment, rather than dwell on that and impersonal things such as numbers of streams and listeners, I’d like instead to encourage you, if you have not already, to give the album a listen.
More importantly for those of you that already have, first, thank you — and second, I’d like you to share your thoughts on the album in the comments section of this blog, or on Facebook, or even on iTunes or Amazon.
Here are some relevant links:
EGPhest IV has come and gone and I'll post more on that in the days to come. TL;DR: It was a blast.
In the meantime, I just send out my latest newsletter in which I talk a bit about that, my latest film festival success and upcoming gigs for this month and September.
Check it out and maybe even subscribe.
The visual restlessly swirls between reality and fantasy, a thorny and psychedelic mind trip that mercilessly swallows the senses.
"The Albatross Song" got is premiere yesterday on a music blog called B-Sides and Badlands that's run by journalist Jason Scott. It's a wonderful read and I appreciate the extra effort Scott put into the review, doing some research on Noah Stryker's "The Thing With Feathers" that I had mentioned in my own comments and writing some very kind words about the song, its production, and the video. Please stop by and give it a read.
As is my want, I'll do a more extensive write up on the history of this song — it's origins and how its been performed over the years and realized as a recording. For now, I'm happy that it got it's moment to shine a bit ahead of the full album release, which is, now mere hours away.
In another (yet to be officially recorded and released) song, that like The Albatross Song, is derived from a book on natural history, this one being about an Octopus as its source material is The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery, I have a line "this infinite division of our attentions is not something which I'll adjust." This is me lamenting a bit about how balkanized our attention spans have become in the busy social media era where the true precious and rare commodities are our eyeballs and the chance to be what is immediately in front of them at the current moment. We're bombarded constantly by new sensory input, and the cynical algorithms of our age exacerbate this phenomenon by commodifying the reaction — hijacking our limbic systems and impulses with hot takes and click bait and whatever it takes to rise just for a second above the noise to be noticed. They say to live in the moment, but the moment is increasingly minute, shaved ever more razor thin.
So it feels like a fool's errand to create anything that's meant to have lasting value — that is designed to be repeatedly engaged with and revisited for new meaning and rediscovery. If it's not new, it's not interesting. If it's not already popular, it's not worth looking at. Fifteen minutes ago might as well be yesterday which might as well have been a previous millennium. And yet, here I am being a fool — the boy who clapped the hardest when Tinker Bell was dying — hoping that if I try, I'll be noticed.
Maybe the only way to win is to not play. But you're in the game no matter what you do — whether you like it or not. I can't say I've always put my best foot forward, but I have tried to create something. And I've hit the streets putting up flyers, chatted up strangers at live music events, and in general put way more effort than it ever feels like it's worth posting stuff on Facebook and the like (not to mention feeding the beast with ad money...ugh). If you ever want to feel insignificant, don't contemplate the universe, just post something on Twitter when you have less than 200 followers.
But I figure it's my one shot with this thing to make a splash and these songs are important to me.
So "At Home At Sea" drops tonight — for some perhaps past your bedtime. But if you're on the West Coast, it's a mere 9 PM. Perhaps you'd consider giving it all a listen when the time comes:
Check it out on Spotify or Apple Music or YouTube
A Closer Look at the Geographical and Other Data Coming Out of SoundCloud and Other Music Services
I recently indulged my need for storage space on SoundCloud and upgraded to their “Pro-Unlimited” package. It could be argued that I’ve got a fair amount of cruft on my account, or at least recordings that could stand to be redone, but for the sake of simplicity, I went ahead got the unlimited storage. This comes with the additional feature of more detailed reporting data, such as information about listeners on the city level. So I thought I’d take closer look at what I’m getting.
As someone who does in fact have a degree in Geography and still has a great love for the subject, the city data is particularly intriguing — if nothing else because I like to look at maps. My curiosity was particularly piqued by the fact that for some reason France was showing as one of the top countries. It’d be fun to have an excuse to visit of course, but mostly it was just interesting. On a semi-related note I came across the latest edition of what is probably my favorite board game "Ticket to Ride" this past weekend which is combination France / the Old West — this of course got me dreaming of trains and riding the rails in Europe again.
I do however have some issues with how SoundCloud presents this data. As is often the case with these sorts of applications, the data is marred by poor presentation and is made unnecessarily opaque. To make things worse, there seems to be pretty much no API available to get reporting data (and apparently no dedicated API support) — once again this is not untypical in my own experience developing such applications. The use cases for the APIs tend to focus on things like upload and playback.
That’s not to say those functions aren’t valuable, but to an independent artist, like any entrepreneur, data and trends about your listeners are invaluable. Location data is particularly important if you’re considering touring and trying to target locations that make sense to visit based on the potential audience that’s there. One must of course be mindful of the fact that this geographic data is likely to be imperfect because it assumes the client (i.e. the end user) is being “honest” about the location data they’re providing. My own personal data is not even terribly useful for that as it’s (sadly) a pretty small data set.
I’ll compare and contrast what SoundCloud provides with what I see on CD Baby (which I use for distribution) and Spotify, which likewise give breakdowns of the data based on listener location, albeit with a less interesting visual display. Basically the Spotify and CDBaby data is the same set, but it’s a little more “raw” in Spotify. I’m looking that those two because I have some actual data points to compare and they seem to be the most rich data wise. I know Bandcamp offers mapping info for a premium (which I'm not paying) and I haven’t even begun to look at other platforms like ReverbNation beyond a cursory look that suggests it’s pretty limited (only showing state level stats with no obvious promises of more if I pony up some cash). That this data is so balkanized across various platforms is itself problematic and worthy of its own discussion.
My primary complaint about SoundCloud’s presentation is that the data gets artificially and arbitrarily limited to the top 50 in various categories without a way of usefully breaking down data into regions — stepping from the country level to the city level goes from far too opaque a level to far too fine grained. It’s not terribly useful to know the total number of users at the country level when dealing with the U.S. But as soon as you step down to the city level, unless you really know a particular area, it’s just a flurry of names. Furthermore, when you are looking at the country level you can’t drill down into that country and see the cities therein. In the listing below you should be able to click on say, France, and see all the French cities. But you can’t. This seems like pretty simple change request given what’s already there.
Now, since I don’t know France well enough to get a sense where all the individual cities that were coming up in the city level data were relative to each other in case there was any pattern. Contrast this to what CDBaby does with the data it gets from Spotify and Apple Music by at least giving you a map — unfortunately I have very listeners in France on those platforms, so I’ll show my U.S. data instead. Since I’m from San Francisco, it’s clear there’s a bias to that location in my data (once again my number of spins is embarrassingly low, but this is the curse of the indie artist).
If you look at the “raw” data on Spotify on the artist’s page, you can see a list of top cities. As near as I can tell, CDBaby is aggregating on the metro level so some of the more granular detail is lost. I would say they are being rather aggressive as San Jose and Fremont seem to be getting lumped into San Francisco — even San Mateo is kinda a stretch (anyone who knows the Bay Area knows knows that traffic and bridges divide the region up into some pretty distinct and arguably isolated areas). That or certain data points get dropped from the mapping software CDBaby uses. I reached out and asked their support about this but I’ve not yet gotten a concrete answer from CDBaby as to how this works beyond their general disclaimer that “counts and location names may vary slightly between views due to variances in available geographic data" (that is the number you see at the country level tends to be larger than the totals for city data you see plotted as above). I'd of course love to have the raw Spotify data, but from what I can tell there's no public API for Spotify to do reporting (beyond downloading total listeners, streams and followers as a CSV)
So I took a little time to go into Google Maps and plot out the individual cities (done by brute force). Now realistically, this data set is tiny and not really particularly predictive. Better than raw listens would be to look a set of individuals who had liked or commented on tracks — which in fairness, SoundCloud does give you but there so few of those in my data it’s practically non existent so I’m just looking at plays — keeping in mind in SoundCloud a play just means the play button was clicked — you’re not getting any retention or drop off rate data as you would with say Facebook videos or tracks on Bandcamp.
In either case, the fact that the list gets cut off at given (arbitrary) number (50) and there’s no filtering at a country or regional level available means data points are potentially getting lost. This wouldn’t be so bad if you were looking at data on a country or regional level, but when we get to individual cities, it’s a bit problematic given the sheer number of municipalities in a given area that could realistically be considered to be part of the same “market." Now you can look at the data from a individual song standpoint, and that can get you more detail at the country level but it’s a bit cumbersome to navigate in that way and still likely to lead to some truncation of the data.
Ideally SoundCloud would actually map the data as I have done in this example so one is better able to get a sense of the geographical distribution of your listeners. Better would be to give a sense the way CDBaby does of proportional number of listeners at a given location (I did some rough color coding in my map). Short of actually presenting a map, providing the data for export such that it could be imported into a Google Maps or some of the 3rd parties that CDBaby uses would be much more helpful. This would be useful for stripping out locations where you have no particular interest in touring. For instance I had a random spike of listeners in Ho Chi Minh City and Saigon, which is kinda interesting, but if I was wanting to make sure I had the full set of French listeners, those data points are just noise when all I can see is the top 50.
I ended up doing the British and other European counties as well as the U.S. and France because I’m a sucker for these sorts of things. So you see a cluster around London, smaller cluster around Paris — just sheer population numbers alone would cause that. No big surprises — though kind of a little cluster in Pays de Loire, with more than one play in Angers for what it’s worth.
Predictably lots of data points around the Bay Area (made more clear when you zoom in) and then further south around L.A. which I've visited a few times (And I have "The L.A. Song" but that was released earlier than the time period that this data comes from). That I have some more listens from around Austin and Nashville (marked with ever so slightly greener pinpoints for the multiple listens) also makes sense given recent (and upcoming) visits to those places for music conferences and and SxSW.
Honesty this would all be a lot more interesting if the numbers were an order of magnitude bigger, but that’s also just me pining for a bigger audience. I will say, this is potentially a lot more detailed than what you will get out of Spotify, which doesn’t even make data past a timeframe available.
On a completely different note, the URL data suffers from not having anyway trim off irrelevant query string info in such a way that you can look at domains in a useful way. Any URLs coming via Facebook tend to have a unique identifier stitched onto them that artificially explodes the number of sources from which end users are coming (the FaceBook Click ID, or fbclid, paramater). This makes it quite difficult to ascertain the actual breakdown of where traffic is coming from.
As you can see, the data from Americana UK and Americana Highways is getting distorted by the fbclid URL parameter. Breaking down the traffic by that which came directly from a given source vs. that came through Facebook is actually an interesting datapoint (and there’s actually a whole other discussion to be had on that subject). But without something to correlate fbclid with, it’s useless noise that’s preventing me from seeing the full story. Ideally you’d be able to strip out query parameters when it makes sense — or just get the raw data.
An entirely separate problem is data that may be junk data. I’m not sure why an obscure live recording from years ago suddenly spiked one day, and I can’t seem to get any data as to where those plays came from. It could be it was featured somewhere, but I also worry that there are more nefarious happenings with bots (which do tend to descend upon new tracks in order to offer you more plays). Then there’s the possibility of people (or rather bots) using VPNs to spoof an IP Address from another country.
One notable bit of data that’s missing is any sort of demographic data. SoundCloud gives you top listeners, which could be useful for finding “superfans” but tells you nothing about broader trends such as age or gender. This is obviously because that data isn’t even in the user profile of SoundCloud account and would clearly not be available for anonymous users. In fairness, CDBaby only gives age (no gender info) which clearly is available Spotify.
Another useful thing to know would be where fans are who listen the most are located. Obviously now we’re getting into some potential privacy issues, but there’s a quite a difference between a lot of one off listens vs. individuals who listen repeatedly and having a sense where your tracks are getting repeated listens would indicate where the richer veins of audience lie. You could of course go off likes and reposts, being wary once again of the bots that tend to descend on new tracks to offer promotional services. You can at least reach out to listeners that are repeatedly listening to your tracks (though in my case, its often other musicians learning the song).
Anyway, that’s what I’ve learned and explored to date with SoundCloud. There’s a whole other realm of geographic data to be obtained a discussed when it comes to other Social Media platforms, Facebook in particular, who’s bread and butter comes from knowing everything about its users. YouTube would also be worth exploring, though an initial first glance suggests to me you won’t get deeper than state level data.
If I were to offer SoundCloud some unsolicited advice, as the title of this piece promises, I feel like at a minimum, SoundCloud could make a few modest changes that will make the data more navigable. Allow users to drill down or filter by country — and ideally add regional filtering. In addition or alternatively, allow the data to be exported so users can analyze it in other 3rd party applications to make better use of it.
I’m curious as to what other people’s experiences are looking at geographic data on different platforms.
And if you want to give me some more data to play with as I explore these things, or just listen to my music, there are some links below.
It's like pulling away from the maze. While you're in the maze, you go through willy nilly, turning where you think you have to turn; banging into the dead ends. One thing after another. But you get some distance on it, and all those twists and turns, why, they're the shape of your life. It's hard to explain.
An oft remarked historical fact about Cleopatra is that she lived at time that is closer to our time than when the Pyramids were built. This little tidbit is often used to emphasize the vast expanse of the history of civilization, which is of course still nothing compared to humanity’s existence as a species — a mere dusting of thin topsoil on top of a deep geological strata. But within the popular imagination, Egyptian history often gets compressed and conflated with the Hollywood imagery of Elizabeth Taylor and our sense of what happened when — be it King Tut or the fire that destroyed the great library of Alexandria — it all gets a bit muddled (if you are able to speak of Ramses II at any length or discuss the distinctions between Old, Middle and New Kingdoms, you are a more dedicated aficionado than most).
But time and memory can be like that within our own lives as well. Having worked at one employer for a particularly long stint, I’d occasionally get confused as to how certain people didn’t know each other, because after all they’d all worked for this same company. Then it’d be like, oh yeah — he left three years before you got here. It takes photo albums, or perhaps these days, Facebook timelines, to help give us some context our own eras.
The current moment is subject to distortion as well. The ebbs and flows of the clock, whether time seems to drag or be racing at a break neck speed is relative to the observer. Waiting for the day to end at the office when nothing is happening moves at a different rate versus being so inundated with tasks that you completely miss lunch and are a bit surprised when you see how late it is. And if you’ve fallen in love, the duration between rendezvous with your new significant other can feel like a lifetime.
But what is a lifetime? Well, if you’re Time Lord, like the good Doctor, you’ve got a baker’s dozen (or more, as it happens). He (or she, as it happens) has taken on many a new face and new clothes and entirely different personality over the course of his/her existence. But that can be a good metaphor for humans as well. We’re not the same person though the course of our existence — we lead different lives within our time on earth. Sometimes concurrently. With distance it’s easier to see the epochs, the transitions.
I had a specific bit of Doctor Who lore in mind when I was writing “Lifetimes Without You” — a bit obscure, a novelization of an adventure that never ended up being televised called “Lungbarrow” where the Doctor revisits his ancestral home. A lot of thankfully non-canonical lore got introduced like his people being birthed by being woven in “looms.” At some point someone is looking at the Doctor’s DNA, and being a Time Lord with multiple incarnations he had multiple DNA strands — one for each of his regenerations to date (just go with it). The person who’s looking at this remarks that he’s been “burning through lives quickly” or something to that effect. Which for those you know follow the program and try and think about the actual duration and durability of a given body that the Doctor has gone through… well… maybe don’t try and think about it so hard.
So that “burning through lives” — that stuck with me and I felt like there was something there. I just wasn’t sure it would work as a line in the song — would people get it it? This is one of those times where it’s a good thing that songwriting circles exist. I played it at one and someone pointed to that as their favorite line in the song, making it a bit of a "Hey Jude" moment for me (Mac said he felt like the “movement you need is on your shoulder” was filler but Lennon insisted he keep it as it was the best line in the song).
This same person also said that an extended verse about Prometheus and his torture via vulture pecking out his liver was a bit too visceral. So that ended up getting excised in favor of watching water drip, which someone else had remarked they said the song reminded them about. This actually is a lovely contrast to deluge of Igauzu falls as well as the Bosporous and Rubicon — the former waterway between the dividing line between two continents, the other a crossing of historic significance. Prometheus still makes an appearance of course, along with Napoleon, which feels very Dylan.
I’ve mentioned before the association this piece has with “Tea for Two” — the bulk of the piece being a fairly typical (for jazz, at least) ii-V-I chord progression with a bit of 6th and Major 7th goodness thrown in for contrast. It’s really the key changes that are particularly different, and here they become compressed into a short little turn around. It was the turn around that caused the song to really come to life in my opinion. That bit about the pyramids just sort of came out while muttering about through the chords progression trying to figure out what the heck to do with this bit that I liked harmonically but otherwise was a bit at a loss as to what to do with (sometimes an interesting way of developing lyrics is to just let yourself say random stuff as you play through something). I’m guessing the thought process can be traced back to “You Belong to Me” by Patsy Cline (which I know of through a Dylan cover) — “see the pyramids along the Nile” — but at the time it was a bit of a surprise to me. It certainly gave me a direction to go after that.
I have a soft spot for this song, but I guess it's not mainstream enough for songwriting competitions and the like. Fortunately singer-songwriter and classical guitarist Eugene Josephs was a fan of this one and he volunteered to cover it at the very first EGPhest — in his own musings he asked something along the lines “are they Gods?” in references to the protagonist and the object of his desire. Fittingly in that in the revival of Doctor Who, the protagonist has been labeled as “a lonely God.”
It’s also a favorite of Greg Yee of the Complements, and they've covered it as a soulful ballad. Alicia's into my tune “Girls Who Don’t Get the City” (off "Fish from the Sky") but I’d asked Greg to sit in at Doc’s Lab one night on Lifetimes and he became a bit enamored with it so they ended up doing both songs at EGPhest II (overachievers that they are).
Having this sort of vote of confidence from those artists is what in part led to me to decide that “Lifetimes Without You” should really be part of “At Home At Sea.” All songs have a history, and this one is no exception. I saw it as being part of a different set of songs in my catalogue and there was another song I’d originally thought would be in its place on the album, but with each album maybe being your last, one feels one has to choose the songs you really want to be out there and given a chance to be heard.
The ukuleles on the track were producer Ben Osheroff’s brain child. Originally some of those piano lines were done on a uke, but to get them to stand out, Ben switched up the instrumentation. Bringing in Eve Fleishman to do backing vocals, who like me is a fan of Blossom Dearie (who’s version of Tea for Two I had in mind) was a bit of a stroke of luck.
I’ve performed the song a bit more a slow burn, with a bit more emphasis on the heartache, but the album version brings out some of the sweetness and Americana Highways correctly noted that it is ultimately about falling in love and its grandeur as much as it is about longing. There’s, as usual, some personal history in the mix — some big dreams and expectations never got fulfilled from a particular life I led at one point. I did make it to the bazaars of Istanbul eventually, but I’ve yet to get to Igauzu falls, let alone make some grand romantic gesture there.
All that does feel like a longtime ago these days.
Anyway, you can find my name on the wall of the SF Jazz Center, those you enterprising to go hunt for it. The jazz center itself is no longer so new, of course, and I don't get there as often as I'd like these days but it’s well worth a visit if you get a chance.
In the meantime, maybe give this song a spin.
"At Home At Sea" gets it's fourth song premiere today with Glide Magazine featuring the track "An Alternate Route (To Your Heart)" on its website. This is the biggest publication to date to feature one of my songs. Of the track Glide says:
"...hear Phillips’ love of jazz music come through in the quietly whimsical piano and simple, emotive brush stick drumming and standup bass. Phillips has a quiet, loping vocal delivery that feels relaxed and confessional, playing the role of lounge crooner meets street busker. "
Read the full text and a listen!
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