Vinyl Makes a Comeback

I used to be the owner of about 2,000 vinyl, long playing (LP) albums. Also known as records. As the 5″ optical disc (CD) grew in popularity, my CD collection followed suit and I began to pass along my albums to friends or sell them at garage sales. Slowly my music collection went from 12″ discs to 5″ discs. They were easier store and move, but required new playing hardware. I didn’t have a CD player in my car which meant I continued to make mix cassette tapes from CD’s so my music could travel. Soon a portable CD player was added to my travel bag, expending the possibilities even further.

Then Steve Jobs invented the iPod which signaled another shift for music; the conversion to digital and streaming. Yes, we had Napster and other music sharing sites, but use of them was limited to a sub-section of the music consuming public.

First iPod

We began to feed CD’s into our computer and transfer music into iTunes which was installed on the hard drive. From there we could load playlists onto the iPod. Just like that, the death of the Walkman. It was a time-consuming process to transform one’s collection to digital, but we did it anyway.

Music labels stopped placing orders for vinyl, which ended a generation’s cultural icon for the packaging of music and expression. CD’s filled stores and we bought them. Lots of them. But technology was not finished with music. Pandora and Spotify, along with dozens of other sites / apps  cropped up to curate and stream music for free or without embarrassing ads, for a small monthly fee. Streaming is how we listen, discover and share music. There are millions of Millennials that have never been in a record store and most no longer browse CD bins. Music comes across the Internet directly to the glass of their smartphones and into their ears via bluetooth.

But something has been slowing happening lately and I’ve seen evidence in my local Barnes and Noble store. B&N has replaced racks of CD’s and DVD’s and began stocking vinyl LP’s. Hundreds of them.

BN Vinyl 2

The industry has done away with the terms album, LP and record, and are describing this format of music as vinyl. We all knew it was vinyl when we were listening decades ago, but we didn’t much care about the material, only about the meaning of the music. Vinyl is a nice pithy term. A way to distinguish this format from digital or streaming. Seeing vinyl’s comeback makes me smile.

There are two headwinds facing vinyl and they may be too strong for it to be more than a passing fad. First, the factories who manufactured vinyl have been idle for years. Getting them back on line will take investment and time. The second is the hardware needed. To listen to vinyl properly you need a turntable, an amplifier and quality speakers. There are turntables with USB ports that can be hooked up to digital speakers or one’s computer, but this is not at all an acceptable or respectful way to listen.


I’m going to spend the rest of this weekend dusting off my Hitachi diamond stylus turntable, cable it to my Pioneer amplifier and set it to Phono. The diamond stylus will slowly descend onto the grooves of the thin vinyl disc and sound will flow from my Boston Acoustics speakers. I wonder what my ears will think. I also wonder if I will be purchasing many of those albums a second time on vinyl.

Spotify + Sonos = Music Bliss

I’ve been using Spotify Premium for a few months now and am finding it to be a very good experience. For those not familiar, Spotify is a music streaming service with 13+ million songs (according to their web site) in its database. It was founded in Sweden and headquartered in the United Kingdom. Streaming music services are not new, and of course I was skeptical (always am) of newcomers. Similar to Pandora, unless you upgrade to a monthly fee, you are bombarded by ads, both visual and vocal. But one must choose their pay music service wisely or you will find yourself spending hundreds of dollars a year. If you don’t upgrade, use caution when entertaining. You don’t want your playlist interrupted by a car insurance ad. Everyone will know you’re one of those “basic service” guys. How tacky.

Music has always played a major role in my life. Growing up I would peruse record stores regularly and built quite a vinyl collection. Making the switch to CD’s was easy, but moving all the way to digital was a much bigger jump. I liked roaming the stacks for finds and holding the physical record or CD while listening. Vinyl gave the artist the opportunity to make the packaging another part of their expression. Even with the 5″ optical disk there was a lot of creativity going into packaging. In the digital era that artifact is gone and I don’t see a comparable substitute. Read David Deal’s Superhype blog entry on the Pink Floyd Immersion Box Sets for more.

One doesn’t collect digital music, one downloads it, backs it up, synchs it and make playlists. It’s essentially file management. When I look at my iTunes library (it’s not a library by the way) I don’t see music, I see file names. All of that is rational, and misses the chance to further engage with the music and the artists who make it. But enough lamenting. Back to the topic.

I’ve sampled over a dozen music services; Pandora. Spotify, iTunes internet radio, Tune in Radio, Rhapsody, iHeartRadio, rdio. SiriusXM, mog,, RadioIO, Aupeo!, Wolfgang’s Vault, , Stitcher and Slacker. I know there are probably a dozen more with others on the drawing board. Most of them didn’t make it a week before I opted out of the trial period. Top reasons are; lack of music choices, bad user interface, polluted with content other than music and a cluttered design (trying to do too much).

For now, I’ve settled on Spotify. It is pure music. No podcasts, news reports or videos. When you’re pure, things can go much deeper and be more interesting. When you log in you see an elegant dark gray background that defaults to What’s New. They show you 8 album covers vs. the sensory overload you get in the iTunes music store. It feels hand picked, even if it’s not.

In addition to What’s New there are only two more tabs; Top Lists and Feed. Top Lists is divided into two columns, Tracks and Albums. Each one lists out what’s popular now and with a simple drop down you can change the list to reflect popularity in other countries, your own list or everywhere (I assume they mean earth) for both tracks and albums. It’s a great way to find possibly compelling new music instantly. The Feed tab opens up a list of news from Spotify (not so interesting) and a list of what your Facebook friends are listening to (hopefully more interesting, after all they’re your friends).

The fun begins. Type in an artist, album or track and in a second you get matches. I typed in Peter Gabriel and not only did it return all his recorded music, but also the soundtracks where he contributed one or two songs. It also brings back artist covers of Gabriel’s songs, which then launches you off on another musical branch. Thumbnails are displayed at the top of the search that show artists and albums connected to your search. You can star tracks and they are added to a folder for listening later. The offline mode allows you to mark specific playlists as favorites and Spotify will save them to your phone or computer for listening without an internet connection. You can import your iTunes music library into Spotify with one click, which means you don’t have to leave the Spotify experience to access the music you have on iTunes.

The Spotify radio experience is the weakest link. It’s like they just gave up. You select different genres by clicking ugly oval buttons. Navigating through the stations is not at all clear. Not such a big deal for me, because I believe music programming on radio is becoming less relevant and is in dire need of a new idea.

You need to upgrade to premium to vanquish all ads and allow you to stream to your mobile devices. It’s a seamless experience all around. If you add a Sonos sound system to Spotify it’s like money from home. Sonos is an awesome home music system. It allows you to play music from your computer or stream from the web or services through your wifi network to wherever you have a Sonos receiver. I can listen to music through Sonos in four places in my home plus the patio. Each location can play the same or it’s own music, all controlled from my iPhone or iPad. I recently added a Sonos Play 3 speaker to a room in my basement (man cave). Two clicks and it’s online with my iTunes library or Spotify. It’s small but but is 3 driver loud.

Sonos provides a great user interface all around. In the past I would use Sonos to play my iTunes catalog, but if I stay there I’m not getting access to new music. Adding Spotify to the mix allows me to explore the world of music much more easily, and at no risk. I’m more adventurous on Spotify vs. the iTunes store.

As for Pandora, it has getting kind of, well, a little dull. The songs repeat and I have to work at training it. The monetization of the site and app are a bit of a turn off as well. I still click over to Pandora, but less and less these days. Spotify allows me to experience the music I love and discover new favorites without the friction. It’s the way to go, for now.

Sonos: Rockin’ Good Time

I have written about Sonos in this space from time to time. Sonos is a wireless music system that can connect with the digital files on your computer and broadcasts them wherever you want in your home. You can play different tracks in different locations and effortlessly shift from your collection to Internet radio. The software is solid, the user experience elegant and the sound divine. Every few months or so they come out with another great feature. Today it was a version 3.2 of their  software. When one hears “upgrade” it properly elicits a grimace. “Am I going to have to carve out my Friday night to get this done?” Not with Sonos. This upgrade is a cinch. They have a one button process that takes care of everything, one step at a time. Imagine no interruptions to “accept the terms.” No “are you sure you want to do this?” It just does it. They add the new controls onto the touchscreen and update your music files so the new features can be used immediately. It all happened in less than five minutes for me and  I have over 12,000 songs in my Sonos library.

The newest cool feature is the ability to enable song crossfading. Essentially it eliminates the dead air between songs by fading one song out and fading in another song at the same time, as if it was being controlled by your favorite DJ. It works whether you are in you in your own iTunes library or on your favorite Pandora station. This will be great for parties because we all hate “radio silence” don’t we. That’s the awkward space when we actually have to talk to each other :). If you’ve got a big room and you use their S5 music player (built in speakers)  you can set-up two and pair them. One as the right channel and the other the left, for a bigger sonic experience. Kind of like Phil Spector’s wall of sound, but without the murder conviction.

In addition they’ve added lots of new, free radio stations, Pandora has been integrated for a while now, including news, sports, talk and of course traffic. They have an iPhone application which allows me to sit on my patio and program what’s playing without having another device with me (new software version is awaiting Apple approval). They have also given their alarms more power, with day by day customization. Now you can wake up to your favorite music at a different time each day. And just in case you need it, Sonos is now available in 9 languages.

I do have some suggestions. They haven’t worked as hard on categorizing the thousands of radio stations. It seems they rely on the provider to do that. For instance, RadioIO on the Sonos screen is the same as is used on the RadioIO site. But the site has more context and content surrounding the station to aid choices. Certainly this can’t be done on this small a device, but some more thought here could help. They have a search, but it requires typing, and it’s slow. I want my music now! The weather channel is choice after choice of NOAA weather stations without any geographic cues in the titles. Tough. Wonder if you guys could turn the Sonos into a SAME early warning weather device. That would be very cool.

All in all, if you are considering a music system for your home or apartment that works with your digital music library, look seriously at Sonos. I’m closing in on four years now and have never looked back. Yes, Sonos is premium priced, but in my opinion it’s worth it. From the products, to the service, to the seamless upgrades. They work hard at making it all come together.

Rock on.

One Fine Album – Latest David Byrne Brian Eno Collaboration

Album Cover Art
Album Cover Art

I don’t often write directly about music in this space. I love it almost as much as the cinema, but you can’t write about everything intelligently, so I leave it to others. However, there are always exceptions, and this one hones in on the latest release from Brian Eno and David Byrne called Everything That Happens Will Happen Today. I was immediately drawn in by the title. It sparked a concept in my mind as follows; all things that have ever been and will ever be, throughout time without beginning or end, are compressed into the microcosm of a single moment. Therefore everyone has access to everything all the time and every day. It could explain a lot.

My history with David Byrne stretches back to Talking Heads 77, the groundbreaking first album from that band. I have followed the Heads and then Byrne in his solo career as musician, artist, filmmaker and author. He is truly a renaissance man in every sense of the word.

Brian Eno has been another favorite. As a producer alone he has had an impressive career, but I can always count on his ambient music to calm any agitation I may have swirling around in my mind. Music for Airports and Music for Films in particular. When I want more electronic I switch to Nerve Net. Convergences such as this are rare, that is to say the two artists’ strengths combine seamlessly. This new release doesn’t disappoint.

The liner notes tell the story of Eno and Byrne having dinner one night a couple of years ago and Eno was thinking out loud about what he was going to do with all those instrumentals he has collected over the years. Byrne offered to listen and write lyrics. An artistic partnership was rekindled after almost 30 years. Mr. Byrne sums up his part in this quote from the album.

These songs have elements of our previous work—no surprise there—but somethign new has emerged here as well. Where does the sanguine and heartening tone come from, particularly in these troubled times? …Some of my lyrics and melodies were a resonse to what I sensed lay buried in the music. My task was to bring forth into language what was originally non-verbal. In the end, we have made something together that neither of us could have made on our own.

Photo from Everything That Happens Web Site
Photo from Everything That Happens Web Site

My favorite cuts are I Feel Stuff, Everything that Happens, Strange Overtones and One Fine Day. The music challenges the ear and is performed with some interesting instruments; kaoss pad, steinberg virtual guitar, inhuman piano and a stylophone. The lyrics are an arrangement of words that sound familiar, but could easily belong to another language. The cover art is weaved throughout the experience, sonically as well as visually, a nice surprise. You can download a free track at

Pandora on iPhone 2.0 Applications

Like millions of others, I was browsing the iPhone 2.0 applications on iTunes last Friday. I got my iPhone on June 30th, 2007, the first day it was available. I have been giddy over it ever since, but am comfortably encased in my talk and data plan, and don’t see enough of a benefit to switch to the 3G, at least not at this time. I spend more time on SMS, talking to people (yes you can do that on a phone), managing my calendar and contacts and using the applications than surfing the web. The extra speed would be nice, but not the additional expense.

While on the iTunes applications site I came across the Pandora application. I’m a big fan of Pandora as you can read in a previous post here. I have spent some time setting up stations so I can listen to them through my G5 Mac as well as on my Sonos music system. The Pandora iTunes application is seamlessly integrated with your web settings, and allows you to log in and gain access to all the stations you have set up through your computer. So now I can access the Music Genome Project where ever I go. Love it. The Pandora application is free. Get it, use it. It rules.

Is Radio Dead? WXRT Says No

In an earlier post I wrote about my bliss over having discovered Pandora, an online radio station service. A big attraction is not having to listen to annoying commercials and even more annoying DJ’s. The goal of today’s digital music formats is to eliminate the business of music and get right to the music itself. Hard to argue with.

But when done right, radio can be a great experience, and dare I say it, even an art form. I have been listening to WXRT Chicago’s Finest Rock since I moved to Chicago in 1985. They are by far the best radio station I’ve ever heard. They give you an engaging, enriching experience. What makes it stand out are the personalities. Some have come and gone, but the staples at XRT are, Lin Brehmer, Terri Hemmert, Marty Lennartz, Frank E. Lee, Tom Marker and Johnny Mars.


They know music. Not just the songs, the music. The lyrics, the riffs, the roots, the meaning. They lived it, having grown up during the time when rock music exploded onto the American scene. Most importantly they are friends and neighbors. Here are two real life, first hand examples to illustrate my point.

One of my favorites is Lin Brehmer who anchors the morning show. So smart and funny. Such a great way to start the day. Lin sprinkles in movie and TV dialog clips into his show to punctuate a news story, or heap yet more misery on another Chicago Cubs losing year. He also has a bit of a twisted sense of humor. When Oliver Stone’s film, Natural Born Killers was released on Laser Disk, it included some scenes that didn’t make the final cut. Yes I had a Laser Disk player. It still works and I have over 300 films on the LD format. One of the deleted scenes was of Denis Leary ranting to the camera about who is to blame for anything and everything. Classic. Oliver Stone said that he left it out because it slowed down the film (oh really). I recorded the clip and sent it in to Lin along with this letter.


Although I never got a direct response from Lin, he occasionally plays this same audio clip on air when it fits. I think I’ve heard it 4 or 5 times. I attribute that to me, even if it’s not true. Want to know more about Lin, and who doesn’t? Here’s a slice of a day in the life of Lin Brehmer.

Here’s another. XRT has a twice weekly segment called Going to the show with A Regular Guy. I won’t reveal the radio personality who plays A Regular Guy. But the character is all Chicago, right down the the accent. “Bak it up and leev the kez in da carrr.” He also has a good working knowledge of film that can deliver a hilarious and at times insightful movie review. I was really obsessed with archiving the segments, so I set-up an audio cassette player and recorded them for years. One time I was out of town, traveling for work just as he was going to review JFK, oddly enough another Oliver Stone film. I missed it and was distraught. Upon my return home I left him a voice mail and asked if he would be so kind as to send me an audio copy of that review. This was before Internet streaming, or podcasting, etc. Essentially the stone age. A few days later a package arrived and in it was an audio cassette with his review, along with a nice note.


At the time I was in the video distribution business, so I would send him screeners of films before they were out. One day my assistant let me know that The Regular Guy was on the phone. He thanked me and we had a great conversation about film and music. You can hear A Regular Guy’s reviews via the web here.

So don’t give up on radio. The good ones have embraced the web and are taking advantage of the ongoing technology convergence. As a result many have expanded their audience. Used to be if you moved away from a city you had to leave your radio station behind. No longer. Give XRT a try by clicking here.


TMBG – They Might Be Geniuses

As a parent of a 3 year old I am in constant need of having a wide array of exciting media experiences on hand to entertain him. The trick is to find things that will captivate him, be educational, can hold up over time, and perhaps most important, not drive his parents crazy. If it can be portable, even better. Over the last 3 years I have chosen or been subjected to numerous videos/TV shows and listened to dozens of music CDs. As you would expect (or know) there is no shortage of content, but the production value and approach vary widely.

The musical team of John Flansburgh and John Linnell, who are They Might Be Giants, produce music for adults that is intelligent, quirky, somewhat punkish and always entertaining. They were childhood friends and have amassed an impressive song catalog over the last two decades. You may know some of their more popular songs; Birdhouse in Your Soul, Istanbul (Not Constantinople) and I Palindrome I. If you watch Disney Playhouse you have already been exposed to them through the theme songs for Higgleytown Heros and the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse as well as the closing song Hot Dog.


They have been furthering their foray in the children’s area for some time, releasing Here Come the A,B,C’s in 2005. It’s a two disc set (one audio CD and one DVD) that combines the John’s voices and music with other first rate musicians, sprinkled with children’s voices. All of it is brought to life using “motion graphs,” computer generated cartoons created by small independent shops across the world. This format is a perfect fit to the sensibility and free-wheeling-style of TMBG. Just this week they released the follow-up CD titled, can you guess? Here Come the 1,2,3’s. This one surpasses the first in my opinion. So smart, so interesting, and my son becomes fully engrossed when it’s playing. The audio CD and DVD combination is such a good idea, as the art is as easily accessible whether you are watching or simply listening in the car.

It’s obvious that they put the same effort and orchestration energy into the songs for kids as they do their rock albums. I find myself listening to the kids songs myself, when I need a quick pick-me-up. Killer tracks are Zeros and High Five.

So if you’re looking for great children’s entertainment, and I know you are, choose They Might Be Giants. They also podcast a weekly family program every Friday. To subscribe as well as learn more go to their page on the Disney site here, or the official TMBG site here. Don’t forget to check out the music for adults. Highly recommended.


Pandora – Radio From Music’s DNA

For the last four months or so I have been exploring the Pandora music service from my computer (via the Internet) as well as my Sonos music system. Pandora uses the phenomenal work done by the Music Genome Project to serve up individual songs in a radio station format.

In case you are unfamiliar, the Music Genome Project is an attempt to organize music into over 400 attributes via a complex mathematical algorithm. They have developed musical genes, each corresponding to a specific musical characteristic, then applied the math to tens of thousands of songs. What you are left with is a genetic map of the “body” of music. It ignores lyrical content, band members, lifestyles, etc., which one could argue drains the passion. Kind of the opposite of what music stirs in us. But the idea is so intriguing I had to check it out.

Pandora has developed code to allow consumers to select a favorite artist, composer or song and set up radio stations on their web site. Pandora then plays music, one song at at time (like radio) that matches what you selected; all driven by the Genome Project. If you hear a song you don’t have but want, a simple click will allow you to buy it from iTunes or on CD from Amazon (as available).

The User Interface is very clean and simple. As songs are played, the album cover art, song title, album and artist glide into view. You can get around the site easily within minutes.


I must say I was a bit skeptical about what would would be played, but I was quickly hooked. The gene thing works amazingly well. All throughout my stations they mange to play songs that are familiar as well as some things I have never heard. Great way to learn about new artists. You guide them as you go along by voting on each song (not mandatory) like this.


This helps the Pandora engine refine the playlist so it delivers more of what you want to hear. There are a number of controls that allows you to customize by bookmarking songs and artists, launching other music, or opening windows that give details about the artists album and song. When you add a station Pandora politely provides a brief summary of the attributes established by the Genome Project for the artist you selected, like this.


Lately they have been spending a significant amount of time building community. Within the main interface you can click on Fans and see other Pandora users who also like what’s playing, as well the stations they have created. You can click into their stations, add them to your list, learn where they live, drill down to other Pandora listeners in that city, even an individual company. Nicely done.


You can take Pandora with you on your mobile phone if you have AT&T or Sprint as your provider. For the home, it’s available for Sonos, and Slim Devices (Squeezebox and Transporter). There are some frustrations. When you hear a song you can’t go back to listen again. You can only skip a set number of songs within any given hour. Pandora claims this is do to music licensing limitations. You get it all free as long as you are willing to put up with annoying ads. The ads go away when you subscribe. Sonos users must pay once the trial period ends; no free option.

There are so many ways to experience music in this highly converging world, that it’s hard to believe there will be a clear winner. But the Music Genome Project makes this one unique and worth checking out.

Sonos Solves Leopard Issues and Delivers a Great Customer Experience

I’m a huge fan of the Sonos music system. As posted a few weeks ago I was unable to get it to work with Mac OS Leopard. In that post I called for Sonos to develop a new version of their desktop controller software that would be compatible with Leopard. They actually did that in short order, posting a new download on November 20th.

I installed that download but still couldn’t get it to work, so I called their tech support. The customer experience was excellent. First their IVR phone system told me where I was in the cue and gave me a choice of what I could do next. I could either wait, or elect to have them call me back when it was my turn. This is really great. When I selected that option it read my phone number back to me to ensure it was correct. This made me, the customer, feel as if they know who I am.

In less than 5 minutes a call came in. They were not able to fix it in that session, but kept the ticket open. Two days later they sent me an e-mail asking me to call back to speak to a tier 3 support person. That guy was busy, but Matt, a tier 1, wanted to try something, so I let him. In less than 15 minutes he fixed the problem.

Thanks Sonos. I am enjoying music throughout my house again.