The “Ultimate Music Awareness App”

Close friends will know that I’m a bit of a walker. In fact, a few years ago I did start to put down tentative plans for a walk across the African continent, but a Fellowship at Stanford put pay to that. I rarely use public transport when I’m on the road, preferring to remain above-ground and on-foot to get a better sense of where I’m staying. And although I’ll sometimes carry my camera with me, I almost always carry my iPod.

Most of my thinking is done while I walk, and most of my blog posts take shape that way, too. I carry a note pad a lot of the time, stopping often to jot down ideas. This post came together while I was listening to music, walking through Cambridge earlier this year. That walk witnessed the birth of the “Ultimate Music Awareness App”, and Apple’s announcement of iCloud this week prompted me to dig it out again.

So, what would my app do? Well, it’s quite simple really.

  • It would have an option to plays songs written on that day’s date, or which reference that day’s date
  • It would be location-aware, and create an auto-playlist of songs written about the place I’m walking through, or with name-connections
  • It would play songs by artists who were either born, or lived, in the area
  • There would be an option to play songs based on that day’s news headlines (for example, if a study found annual rents were increasing – or decreasing – then it would play “Rent” by the Pet Shop Boys). A summary of the news story in question would also be displayed on-screen for context
  • All of the playlists would be compiled in real-time, and streamed/buffered from the web
  • Playlists could be uploaded and shared on-line (and mapped) for other music lovers/walkers

If anyone ever developed this, I know I’d buy it. After all, it would be my ultimate music awareness app.

The Sodom & Gamorrah Show

We all have our favourite bands. Most come and go, replaced by others as musical trends – and our tastes – change over time. I’ve lost count of the number I’ve stumbled across, only for them to break up or vanish from the face of the planet after a second or, if lucky, third album. It’s rare to be able to say that you’ve grown up with a band. Maybe I’m one of the lucky ones who can say I have…

Those who know me might be surprised that it’s taken this long to give a mention to the Pet Shop Boys on my Blog, a pop duo who emerged in the mid-80’s who, in the words of one of their own songs, have “both made such a little go a very long way”.

There’s a Pet Shop Boys song representing almost every phase of my teenage life (well, late teens, anyway) up to the present. I’ve played them on every one of my numerous Sony Walkman’s, portable CD players and more recently iPod in every African country I’ve had the fortune to visit. The recent release of their highly acclaimed ‘Fundamental‘ album has thrust them back into the public eye, and the BBC’s use of their ‘Numb’ track to summarise the disappointment of England’s recent exit from the football World Cup gave the track a surprising iTunes chart hit.

The recent revamp of their website (pictured) has been long overdue. Best of all, however, has to be the ‘Jukebox’ where you get a random stream of classic PSB tunes, and the ‘Product’ section where tracks from all twenty-eight albums can be played online, in full. This includes the fantastic Battleship Potemkin, a soundtrack to the 1925 silent Russian revolutionary film of the same name. Give the site a visit, and check out ‘Fundamental’.

Like an old friend, it’s hard to imagine the musical world without our Neil and Chris. For now, I’ll try not to.

“I want to to be numb…”

Standing up for the small guy (part 1)

Picture this: The writer of a zulu tune written in 1939 dies in poverty 20 years later. His song goes on to become one of the most popular tunes in Africa, and is recognised the world over. Ownership of the copyright ends up in American hands, and finds its way into a film which becomes a worldwide hit. The film makes tens of millions of dollars, and is then turned into a successful stage musical – a few more million in the bank and counting. The song reportedly makes $15 million but the family of the writer get $15,000. As Rolf Harris would say, can you guess what it is yet?

Now, I’m no expert in copyright law, although apparently it should have reverted back to the family of the deceased 25 years after his death, so that would be 1987. Something somewhere seems to have been overlooked, but the family eventually sued and won an ‘undisclosed’ out-of-court settlement. Another case of the multinational/big corporate beating the small guy with a stick?

Ethics are a wonderful thing, and many people don’t argue against them particularly. Unless they get in the way of making a few quid, that is. Ask a hundred people on the street what they think and I bet most would side with the small guy, but they don’t have their finger in this particular financial pie. Ask a hundred shareholders – of Disney in this case, if you were wondering – and I suspect you’ll get slightly different results. The trouble is that exploitation of this kind is probably taking place all the time, but we never get to hear about it. I bet there are a lot of really pissed-off people out there…

But what happens when one of the stars of a film, or book, or song can’t speak for itself? I’m thinking wildlife – whales, dolphins, gorillas, lions and all manner of worldly creatures. There’s also a very compelling ethical/financial issue here. It’s ironic that most of the ‘wildlife stars’ in these productions happen to either sit on, or uncomfortably near, the ‘critically endangered’ or ‘critically threatened’ list. How much of the hundreds of millions (even billions?) of dollars made from films such as The Lion King, King Kong and Free Willy been donated to the conservation of these very species? I’d like to do a little more research on that one.

Musically speaking, Michael Jackson’s epic ‘Earth Song’ from 1996 – “What have we done to the world, Look what we’ve done” – takes us through almost everyone’s top 10 favourite animals (“What about elephants, What about crying whales” and so on) and drives home their destruction and death. Not knowing how much money was made globally by this massive hit, again it would be a very interesting exercise to find out how much was donated to causes trying to save those very elephants and whales. I’ll happily stand corrected, but again would be very surprised if it were much, if anything at all.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a law which made it compulsory to donate a certain percentage of income (and not just a token amount, either) to the preservation of any species which take a central role in your song, film, photograph or book? After all if lions, gorillas, whales, ants and so on didn’t exist then we wouldn’t be able to enjoy watching films about them, whether they’re turned into rampaging 30 foot monsters with attitude, changed into cartoon figures or kept in their natural form.

Unless something gives the only place future generations will be able to see these magnificent creatures will be in dusty film archives – or at best a zoo – and that would not only be a real shame but an ecological and environmental disaster.