I’ve been a long-term paying subscriber to Last.fm. Paying, mind. I include a link to my profile in any list of social media addresses. If you look down and to the right, you’ll find a widget showing what I have most recently listened to, a service provided by a Last.fm app.
Music is important to me for my writing. As a neuro-atypical synaesthete, for whom background noise can occasionally be physically distressing, music is an obligatory defence against the outside world when I’m trying to lose myself in a story, whether writing or reading. I listen to music when I’m training. I can’t imagine life without it. I spend more than I should on music – for the shapes, for the soundscapes, for the inspiration, for the motivation, for the rhythm, sometimes for the distraction – and I love discovering new artists. I used to be a heavy Pandora user. When that ceased being available in the UK, I switched to Last.fm, which offered a similar service.
Two days ago I received an email that said the service was changing.
From 28th April, our subscription radio streaming service will come to an end. This means subscriber radio will no longer work on any platform or device. We’re making this change to focus on improving scrobbling and recommendations, while continuing our goal of being your #onemusichome. Of course you’ll still be able to listen to all of your favourite stations on the new Last.fm Player, as well as listen to your favourite tracks with our recently launched on demand playback feature via Spotify.
If, like me, you’re not sure what that means, allow me to simplify.
The last.fm streaming service ceases to be from the 28th April. You will no longer be able to open the desktop app, turn on your favourite radio channel, and have it play for as long as you like with no ads. Instead, you will have to go to the website, where you can start your radio station, but it will stream videos from YouTube, complete with the adverts.
Even if you subscribe.
As a subscriber, you can get 30% discount in the forthcoming merchandise store (woot, I’m sure) and use tags to exert some illusion of control over your ad-filled youtube stream. And your avatar will say “subscriber”, so everyone knows you’re a sucker prepared to pay for a 30% discount on a lousy t-shirt.
Needless to say, I am cancelling my subscription.
I don’t know if there’s anything out there offering Last.fm’s comprehensive level of curation and discovery. They had one of the largest catalogues on the internet for streaming music and cross-platform availability. They had a range encompassing obscure industrial ambient and popular classical. I had prog rock, opera, trance, dance, electronica, baroque… I have yet to find a genre Last.fm has excluded, whether by act or omission.
Last.fm claim that they are going to focus on scrobbling, but I have no idea where they get the idea that anyone is going to pay for a service that merely records what one has been listening to recently. Don’t get me wrong: it’s fun knowing how my musical habits are changing, but my musical habits are constantly changing. I don’t really need something to tell me that.
There are plenty of artists who have earned royalties because I discovered them on a streaming service. Artists I didn’t know, like Roly Porter (I now own his two most recent studio albums on CD); artists I knew and loved but whose catalogue included songs I hadn’t heard before, or hadn’t heard in a very long time. Streaming radio is a way for people who love music to discover new things to love, and people are willing to pay for things they love.
Yes, there will always be those who say why pay for something if it’s available for free, but they’re the hawks of Game Theory, and they’re outnumbered by those who want to reward the creator of something good. If we don’t reward our artists, they will stop making art. Most people with half a brain cell can comprehend that.
I have spent 6 years teaching Last.fm what I like, which is a considerable investment, and now starts the difficult quest for another streaming service, and the painful process of teaching it what I like.
I have a Ford Mondeo Estate. He’s called Claude, in line with the Frood Standard Naming Convention*. I do love my car. He’s big and red and swallows two bicycles without thinking about it. When I race, I can lay Thokk or Peregrine nicely in the back and don’t have to worry about them being damaged.
The one problem is the stereo.
Back in the day, this thing had a 6 CD multichanger, but it ate my CDs. It just swallowed them, much like Claude swallows bikes. I ended up with 8 CDs in there, all trapped, while the CD player insisted it was empty.
Feed me, it said, whenever I pressed the eject button. I’M HUNGRY.
Needless to say, it wouldn’t play.
So we had to use the radio. Which was fine, until the radio started cutting out. Initially we thought it had got damp in the car wash, but no. It was merely possessed. After a while, whatever demon was infesting it and eating the tunes gave up and went away, presumably sated, and I have spent the last couple of years listening contentedly to Classic FM while driving around in my big red Claude (not a euphemism).
When Frood achieved New Job recently, we had to acquire another car, as he needs one for work. We now have a small, greenish-grey Ford Fiesta, called Bill for short (we’re still working on pronunciation of his full name). Claude took against Bill – not in any specific, spiteful way. He’s a big boy, he’s above that sort of thing. He knows Bill can’t take two bikes and all our plush camping gear. He knows he’s more comfortable for long journeys and is one of my most important pieces of triathlon gear. He knows he’s loved.
Nevertheless, he has decided to host a radio demon again, and my FM radio is now cutting out after a couple of minutes. I don’t know if he felt sorry for the one living in Bill’s radio when we first got him (as Bill’s radio was doing the same thing but works fine, now), or what, but Classic FM is lost.
I’ve been listening to Absolute Radio on Medium Wave, instead. They have a no-repeat guarantee, and that means they play a lot of old favourites, including songs I haven’t heard in years.
I listen to music when writing, and need to match the shape of the music to what I’m writing. Thus, I necessarily have a wide range of music in my collection. I acquire music usually by hearing something I really like, or which matches a specific shape in a work in progress, or gives me an idea for a brand new story. My most recent purchases have included Verdi’s Macbeth (they used Patria Oppressa as the music in the Hannibal episode Sorbet and I fell in love), Sky (a prog group with John Williams, ermagerd – one day someone will buy me a copy of the now highly-collectible Cadmium and I’ll have a wibbly-wobbly flashback to being 11 years old and reading Ursula Le Guin in bed), and Aion (I love The Serpent’s Egg).
Then along came Absolute Radio, and I’ve had too many moments of “Oh gods, I love this!” over the past couple of weeks. I’ve had to add two R.E.M. albums (WHY did we not have any already?) and today I gave in to the impulse to grab some Kula Shaker.
I need to stop. I know this stuff is cheap, mostly – certainly cheaper than a night out, which we don’t do – but, seriously, I have books and bike parts looking at me reproachfully from my “to get” list, and I’m at serious risk of falling out with Fingal permanently.
I should persuade that radio demon to depart from Claude so I can have Classic FM back. Or switch to the Gaelic language radio station, which is largely unintelligble.
*Names must use the final three letters of the number plate in order, although they may occur any place in the word. Claude’s number plate ends AUE. I’ve also had cars named Rasputin and Voltaire.
No one would have believed, in the last years of the 19th century, that human affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space. No one could have dreamed that we were being scrutinized as someone with a microscope studies creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. Few men even considered the possibility of life on other planets. And yet, across the gulf of space, minds immeasurably superior to ours regarded this Earth with envious eyes, and slowly, and surely, they drew their plans against us.
Thus speaks Richard Burton’s inimitable, mellifluous voice at the start of the 1978 Musical War of the Worlds, Jeff Wayne’s most famous creation. My mother has eclectic musical traits (a trait I am endlessly grateful to have either inherited or had inculcated) and a copy of this has been in her music collection for as long as I can remember. It may be a dreadful thing to confess, but this was my introduction to H G Wells and was one of my formative speculative fiction experiences. As a girl of primary school age, my initial reaction was one of awe: never would I consider bacteria the in the same way as I had. My mum has been known to tell family friends that my first comment was, “I’ll never put bleach down the toilet again.”
That’s what good speculative fiction should do. Change the way you think.
The sound effects, chilling in isolation and fed through the score until the guitars became gibbering Martian voices while the synthesisers spat blistering heat rays and spread shivering fronds of red weed across the soundscape, remain as effective now as they ever were. The actors and musicians, used to working live in front of theatre audiences and minus the visual extravaganzas now employed, conveyed their roles with conviction and feeling. The depiction of the Thunderchild crew sacrificing themselves and their ship to save the passenger liner is something I can clearly visualise to this day, despite never having physically seen more than an artist’s impression in the album’s accompanying booklet.
I can see an Ironclad warship going down under the irresistible assault of a Martian heatray, because Jeff Wayne’s composition utterly nails it.
Many years later I picked up an album called Ulludubulla Volume 2, which I reviewed at the time. There I said I didn’t see any reason not to update a musical, but overall the album didn’t really work for me. It was not, however, a remake of the original, but a series of tracks inspired by it.
2012 saw a brand new version of this iconic album hit musical theatres and CD/MP3. Richard Burton’s part is now played by Liam Neeson and David Essex’s artilleryman has been given to Ricky Wilson of the Kaiser Chiefs. Justin Hayward’s part is sung by Gary Barlow, who manages to sound like he’s mostly asleep and only doing it for the paycheque. Phil Lynott’s throaty, gargly Parson Nathaniel is now Maverick Sabre with some weird mishmash accent and the beautiful, emotive voice of Julie Covington has been replaced by that of Joss Stone, which is more operatic JCB than concerned but fatally optimistic angel.
The original score has been “updated” with some odd little riffs of electronica and bass, which serve no purpose other than to indicate that this is New! Improved! Hip! and On Trend!
“Hey kids! We know you like dubstep and psytrance these days, so we put in some tweaks just for you!”
Then there’s the script, which has also been altered. There’s an entire additional passage of exposition-heavy dialogue, in which the Journalist explains how the Martians gave up sex and got rid of bacteria. This is, obviously, based on the original work, but part of the joy of the original is that it stands on its own — there is no need to have read the book. When I heard this, I stopped what I was doing and stared at my player. “How in the hell did he find that out? He’s been trudging round a red-weed infested London trying to survive, not conducting scientific research into the mating habits and pathology of the alien invaders!”
I haven’t seen this in the theatre, where they have introduced whizzy special effects. I don’t especially want to now that I’ve heard it. The original didn’t need them, as it was carefully crafted to do without. The 2012 version has suffered from revision and, possibly, part of that is because there are whizzy special effects in the show.
Only one thing stood out as remarkable. Remember I was talking about Ulludubulla Vol. 2? That album starts with an interesting spoken word piece by Papa Ootzie, looking at the Eve of the War from the point of view of the Martians.
“The problem is, of course, the humans,” are the last words spoken in the epilogue, and they sounds suspiciously like a straight lift from the above track.
Unless you are the sort of person who buys things just to have them in the collection, I wouldn’t recommend this version. The original is by far superior in every way, from score to script to performance. Get a copy of that, instead.
Every so often I take a random punt on some obscure album, most frequently these days as a result of hearing something on a computer game.
It was Last.fm that spurred my most recent gamble.
I’m a big fan of the original musical War of the Worlds. When I was about 5 I couldn’t choose between that, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells or Vangelis’s Spiral as my favouritest things ever (which might say a lot about me). I’m considerably older now, and have a bad trance/dance habit, because it makes the endless hours on the turbo more bearable. When last.fm pitched up the Dario G remix of Brave New World I thought “Hello!”
My take-a-punt limit is around 4 quid, and it works like this: I hear a track I like. I find the album on MP3 download (if it’s not downloadable all bets are off). If the number of tracks on the album I like sufficiently to buy individually is large enough that it would cost more than the album, I’ll take a punt, up to the limit of 4 quid.
In other words, when Ln > A ≤ 4, where L = liked track, n is an integer smaller the number of tracks on the album and A is album cost.
Ulladubulla sneaked in on the boundary at £3.89, with 4 tracks I was sure I liked, one I thought I liked, and 17 tracks on the album.
I tweeted my initial review in realtime, and it went like this:
• Took the 4 quid punt. Papa Ootzie’s opener is creepy in a Stranglers, Men In Black gone really dark kind of way.
• Zube’s Horsell Common & the Heat Ray is Will Smith meets Ghost Dog. Initially I flinched but it might be a grower.
• Oooh. Tom Middleton’s Cosmos re-edit of the Eve of the War has some fat reverb reminiscent of Pendulum’s grabbier stuff. Like.
• N-Trance turns Forever Autumn into a dance track. Not as bad as I feared. Wouldn’t be out of place on a chillout mix.
• Onto Max Mondo’s The Artilleryman and the Fighting Machine. Unconvinced. Needs more effort 2/5.
• There are weird noises in the background that make me think Shaggy is going Bombastic on a Martian. Um. Niche.
• Stephen Murphy’s light-handed approach to the Red Weed is interesting. Layers whimsy over the creeping horror.
• Todd Terry vs David Essex. Wangst turns chirpy cockney. Who’d’ve thunk?
• OMG. WTF has Max Mondo done to Julie Covington? KILL IT WITH FIRE!
• That was the first track I was forced to skip because it was just too awful.
• Hybrid’s remix of The Eve of the War is the sort of track you’d find on WipeOut HD. Before you replaced the soundtrack.
• Stephen Murphy’s Dead London is what happened when Jamie took his magic torch into the 28 Days Later universe.
• Sticking an Alan Parsons-esque piano/drum riff on a track doesn’t make it a remix. The Spirit of Man (Spirit of Dub) gets 1/5.
• Dario G’s Brave New World. Am liking it already. Take THAT traffic queue! I am fixie ninja! Choke on my l33t filtering skillz!
• Ben Liebrand’s remix of the Eve of the War is making me giggle. I don’t think that was the intended reaction.
• OK. Max Mondo’s Horsell Common and the Heat Ray is what got me started on this, so it can’t be that bad.
• And oddly, it’s just meh. Of all the tracks so far it doesn’t really stand out in anyway, good or bad.
• DJ Keltech’s take on same song reminiscent of the final levels of Rez. Multiple layers of implied architecture
• Zube assaults the Spirit of Man and leaves it beaten, broken, bleeding, humiliated and suffering from PTSD in a corner.
• Ulladubulla vol 2: worth the 4 quid, but only because it would have cost 40p less to buy the 4 best tracks (out of 17) individually.
Having listened to the album a few times since then, I’d largely stick with the above (particularly the kill it with fire comment), with a couple of additions.
Although Zube’s take on Horsell Common isn’t as bad as it first sounds, when you are stuck on the turbo in desperate need of distraction you start listening to lyrics. Maybe the effort was doing something weird to my brain but the lyrics to that particular track seem to be particularly offensive, advocating a degree of cultural and xenophobic paranoia so intense I am amazed the Jeff Wayne estate was willing to allow his name to be associated with it. I could be convinced I were imagining it were it not for the fact that (a) I’m not; and (b) the lyrics of Zube’s Spirit of Man remix convey some equally dubious sentiments.
On the other hand, I am more enamoured of Papa Ootzie’s opener, the Eve of the War, which takes a look at the situation from the Martian POV and would make a nice little flash piece:
The problem is, of course, the humans.
Mars is incapable of sustaining life: our efforts to sustain the biosphere are exhausted. The water table and temperature decrease annually, as does our population. The only consequential course of action is the conquest and occupation of Earth, our young Sun-neighbour. The means and methods for this attack are already being realised. A large scale hydrogen accelerator will be constructed. This will launch suspension pods carrying the assault forces…
Unlike some other reviewers, I’m not certain that it is fundamentally wrong to update the original musical with rap and dance tracks. Taking stories and transposing them to a contemporary setting is done frequently enough: why not musicals? I’m less convinced (to put it mildly) by Zube’s attempt to shoehorn an attack by Martians into a rant about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, and his take on the Spirit of Man, which seems to be a Daily Wail-inspired rant about peedoes and immigrunts rather than a celebration of human perseverance and determination.
I’m not disappointed in the album, particularly, but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you have a taste for mash-ups that shouldn’t work but sort of do and four quid burning a hole in your pocket. If I were a sackperson with her very own poppit and a retry button, I would not buy it again.
Ever since BMX XXX I have paid particular attention to the music used in video games. I’ve got a lot of material in my collection that wouldn’t be there without a combination of video games and the likes of Pandora (I’m currently using Last.fm for the same purpose because UK users have been blocked from Pandora).
As you’ll have noticed, recently I’ve been spending a lot of time on Little Big Planet, and the playlist for LBP2 is excellent. My favourite, by far, is Ladytron’s Ghosts, to be found in the Death By Shockolate level:
Every so often a track has a shape that does something for me that I really need, for whatever reason, at that particular point in time. In the past I’ve developed obsessions over Massive Attack’s Angel, Pass the Hatchet by Yo La Tengo, Yeasayer’s Ambling Alp and many others, from Vivaldi to the Dandy Warhols via Murray Gold. Right now the track that’s doing it for me is Ladytron’s Ghosts.
So much did I like this track that I bought one of their albums, Witching Hour. I was blown away. It is rare that I buy an album and have to comment to Frood that it is just brilliant.
Ladytron’s sound is somewhere on a spectrum that includes Goldfrapp, the Sisters of Mercy, Gary Numan, Depeche Mode, Cibo Matto, the Cult, Jefferson Airplane and Shakespears Sister. The band comprises Liverpool producer and DJ Daniel Hunt, Reuben Wu and singers Glaswegian Helen Marnie and Bulgarian-born Israeli Mira Aroyo.
The two women have vocal styles that both complement and counterpoint one another, with Marnie’s soft but assertive lead underpinned by Aroyo’s more spoken style. The soft-rock electronica ranges from harsh, dark reverb (Soft Power) to the sort of gothic effervescence that belongs running across rooftops with a heavily made-up Brandon Lee (High Rise), with a couple of whimsical diversions (eg Cymk) for light relief. This is certainly not an album you could describe as homogenous. High Rise is a stonking opener while Fighting In Built Up Areas stands out for its relentless pounding and Aroyo taking the lead in Bulgarian, lending interesting architecture from the vocalised sibilants. One of my favourite tracks is Last Man Standing, which has the same shape as bluebells in a sudden downpour on an otherwise sunny day.
It is very rare for me to come across a band I like this much instantly. I expect I shall be acquiring the rest of their discography in due course.
And thank you, Media Molecule, for introducing me. Take note, music moguls: rather than charging a fortune for the rights to use tracks in video games, you should be considering just how many sales will result from people wanting to buy the music.
I love music. I listen to a lot of music. My tastes are eclectic, running from Baroque through onomatopoaeic, quirky, more quirky and utterly bonkers, by way of some psytrance, big beat, a bit of metal and stuff I find hard to classify. And everything in between. New Age ambient, prog rock… I’m synaesthetic, and my synaesthesia affects my proprioception. I don’t like any specific sort of music. I like music that does things to me. Check out my Last.fm profile and you’ll get the idea.
My MP3 player is probably the one gadget I have that would cause withdrawal symptoms if I lost it. I’ve had some form of personal stereo ever since the first Sony Walkman, back in the days of audio tape. (I find it scary that there are people alive today who might not know about audio tape.) I went from tape to minidisc to flash drive, and for the past few years have received sterling service from my Sony NW-S205F. It did everything I wanted it to do, despite the clunky and incompatible-with-everything-else SonicStage software, was small and light and easy to use while working out or on the bike, and it was showerproof.
Before any cycling chums start getting their knickers in a twist: yes, I listen to music while on the bike if I’m riding alone. No, it doesn’t affect my ability to hear traffic. As far as I am concerned if you are relying on your hearing to save you from being hit by a car then you’re doing it wrong anyway. If you wish to argue about this, please go and contribute to one of the many, many threads on CC and I will proceed to ignore you there, too. I am a big girl who has tried with and without and I have performed my own risk assessment, thank you very much. You are free to disagree but not to impose.
In the past couple of months it became apparent that my very much loved MP3 player, which was bloody expensive when I got it, was suffering from terminal battery failure. Desperate, I searched the internet thinking that maybe there was a DIY method of changing the battery, because Sony support said it was uneconomical to change the battery and it was better to replace the unit, thereby missing the point entirely because they don’t do anything similar any more. The internet said no: the design is so compact and the insides so tightly packed together that battery replacement is likely to destroy the player.
So that left me needing a new one. I looked at the various Sony products because I’ve always had Sony players. Sadly, as I said, they don’t make anything resembling the NW-S205F any more. Their sports player is this weird combination headphone/headband thing, and I don’t want my ears taking the weight, thank you very much. I find it hard to believe that can possibly be comfortable when running. The alternative is the B series, which diligent research revealed to be allergic to moisture. No good for a gym bunny/recidivist cyclist like me.
After hunting around a bit more I settled on the Samsung YP-U6AB (the QP is the 2GB version) on the basis that it seemed to be exactly the same in terms of function as the lamented Sony NW-S205F, but it was rectangular and didn’t have a fast charge. I could live without fast charge.
First there was the issue with the shop losing my order, then replacing my order with one for the multimedia version (yeah, that’ll do well in the rain), then, once all that had been sorted out, sending it using an ancient, asthmatic camel that took a route via Klatchistan. I can only imagine that’s why it took so damn long to arrive.
But get here it did. Yesterday.
As the Sony had sickened to the point of me taking my old minidisc to work yesterday, you can imagine that I was impatient to get going with it. So impatient, in fact, that the lack of any form of carrying case (the Sony had come with a special armband that I have worn so much in the intervening years it has practically left a groove on my arm) only made me a little bit ranty. The software that shipped with the device wouldn’t work on the machine on which we keep most of the music. This did not fill me with joy and happiness. However, the product information indicated that it was compatible with Windows Media Player 11 and that transferring music was an easy drag and drop affair.
Now, say what you like about Sony’s compatibility and their godsawful ATRAC format, the SonicStage software did one thing very, very well: it managed music and playlists and transferred them to the player without me having to think about it. Create playlist, save playlist, drag it to player, done.
First of all I spent more time that I’d intended creating a new playlist in WMP. I meant to chuck a few songs on and get going but there were some I needed to have and then I had to make sure that they had compatible songs around them and appropriate spacing… You know how it is. Well. You probably don’t. So I was as impatient as an unruly sackperson waiting for an even more unruly sackperson to catch up by the time the device was charged, I had swapped across to the other machine and bullied Vista into network sharing properly so I had access to our whole catalogue and then constructed the aforementioned playlist.
I did the drag and drop thing, safely removed hardware as directed in the user manual, then fired up the new toy. I boggled at the small wiggly thing that appeared on the display along with the demand I choose one. What was this? An adoption centre for imps? I picked the one that looked most aggravated and fumbled giving it a name. DID NOT MATTER. NEED MUSIC. NEED PORTABLE MUSIC. GIVE ME MY PORTABLE MUSIC.
Noes!!!! The playlist hadn’t worked! All the songs were there, but they were arranged ALPHABETICALLY. What noxious effluvium of a mastitic ungulate from the nether regions of Beelzebub’s bowels was this? This is 2011! MP3 players are no longer the stupid, simple mass storage devices of old. I wanted a portable soundscape generator, not a flash drive!
I tried installing the software that came with it. It crashed my machine, leaving me with the horrible decision to switch everything off manually to get it unfrozen, even though the U6 had the “Do not disconnect while transferring” warning on it (which was a lie, because I wasn’t transferring anything).
My wrath was mighty.
With a grim determination that could only end up in the MP3 player doing what I wanted it to or someone dying a vicious and brutal death, I rebooted my computer and hit the internet. A seven stage iteration of search terms later I had learned about MSC and MTP and also that the Samsung U6 is one of the very few players on the market that’s still MSC. I spat the dummy at that point and was about to go into full-on berserker mode, but then I found this thread on anythingbutipod. Only the Korean release is purely MSC. In Europe the U6 can be switched to MTP. Once I’d found that I hunted down the instructions to do so because, guess what, it’s not in the user manual.
Success! With MTP enabled the U6 accepts drag and drop playlists from WMP with barely a shrug of the shoulder.
Sound quality seems good enough, although I’m using the Phillips headphones that I had already rather than the nasty-looking things that came with it. It’s not as user-friendly as the old Sony and I doubt I’ll ever use the sports function (I didn’t use it on the Sony, after all) — I only wanted a sports model because they tend to be more robust. The decision tree is more along the lines of Frood‘s creative than the play-all/play-album/play-playlist options on my old Sony. I’m not fussed about playing by genre, artist or whatever. The only option I’d ever want other than album or playlist is bpm. There’s a user-assignable button on it, although I have no idea what I might use it for. I’m sure I’ll think of something.
It’s a subtle, understated little thing in the black option, about half again as long as my thumb. The metal finish gives it a reassuringly robust feel. Now that it’s doing what I want I’m pleased with my purchase, especially as I got a 4GB player for less than half the price I paid for my previous 2GB one. Around forty of your Earth pounds is a pretty good deal, I’d say.
But, really, I shouldn’t have to spend an evening becoming even more of a geek than I am already in order to do something as simple as transfer a playlist. The device should come in MTP mode from the factory, but, failing that, at the bare minimum this should be discussed in the supplied user manual. Samsung, I like your hardware but you need to do some serious work on ease of use.