Stars compose new ways to use music

By Hamish Mackintosh for The Guardian on March 29, 2007

Do you want to write music, or remix a band's tunes and then find similar stuff? Three top rock stars are eager to help

As well as making an impassioned plea for more live music over the net at the recent SXSW music festival in Texas, The Who guitarist Pete Townshend announced his first foray into the world of software with the launch of Lifehouse Method. The music-creation software realises an idea from his long-running Lifehouse project.

According to Townshend, it "takes data you input and turns that into music. I began thinking it might be possible to use software to do this about 20 years ago when I first got a Mac and software like M, Jam Factory and Music Mouse. These were programs that produced random music from limited data you put in."

Townshend's excursion into software creation followed on from a conversation with the mathematician and composer Lawrence Ball and the software engineer Dave Snowdon, who made him aware that harmonic maths could facilitate the Lifehouse Method software he'd envisaged previously. Fine - but to what end?

"There are a lot of possibilities," muses Townshend. "However, widely shared software tends to evolve through its use (or abuse) by the end user. Google transformed the entire web by creating a search engine that simply grades the listings to those most chosen by browsers.

"Wikipedia was an experiment in which end users could add lie after lie to a topic until someone came along and battled with them to establish the truth - or at least a compromise. The public define the way the software evolves and works. I hope the Method system will evolve. I like the idea of gathering data in new ways, of merging compositions with one another, but all guided by the Method community."

Shuffle generation

Such evangelism for the digital realm is shared by other luminaries from the music world. Peter Gabriel's involvement in digitised music content is well documented, with his early dabblings in game-like CD-Roms such as Xplora (1994) and Eve (1997), and then the OD2 online musical distribution service he helped establish.

Now Gabriel is taking further steps into software with his involvement in The Filter, an intelligent playlist generator for the shuffle generation.

It currently works with Apple's iTunes and Nokia mobile phones - it's a free download that claims it will get us to hear more of the often neglected music files that lie dormant in our ever-expanding digital archives.

"About five years ago I registered the name thefilter.com," says Gabriel, "because it seemed inevitable that as people had more access to information, data and media, the way they found stuff they wanted or needed would become increasingly sophisticated and important. So I encouraged some experiments with filtering within OD2, and the team who were designing it for us began a business of their own based around recommendation engines into which I was invited to participate.

"The current incarnation is the beginning of something which I think is really exciting. I can see today's 'disc jockey' evolving into tomorrow's 'life jockey', and of all the different approaches to recommendation engines, The Filter has the most human response."

As a recording artist and head of a record label, Gabriel seems excited by the idea that developments such as The Filter can serve both equally well. "It enables people to find material that can surprise, inspire and excite," he says.

"The filtering process is not dictated by marketing dollars. Paid-for content has been the rock on which both the music and the film industries have been built. This rock is rapidly turning into quicksand and it seems to me that the future income streams are probably going to come as much from filtering and advertising, as from direct sale of content. I am hoping in our internet projects to make sure that musicians are not at the bottom of the pecking order."

Trent Reznor, of Nine Inch Nails, is another champion of digital music and software advances that offer artists the chance to engage with audiences in new ways. During the band's current European tour, fans have been "finding" unprotected versions of tracks from the band's forthcoming album, Year Zero, on USB Flash drives left dotted around the stadium.

The drives - and even the clothes the band wear - also contain images and links to cryptic websites. Reznor remains an unrepentant advocate of music files that are free from Digital Rights Management, seeing the USB drives as a convenient promotional vehicle.

"The USB drive was simply a mechanism of leaking the music and data we wanted out there," he explained. "The medium of the CD is outdated and irrelevant. It's really painfully obvious what people want - DRM-free music they can do what they want with. If the greedy record industry would embrace that concept I truly think people would pay for music and consume more of it."

Remix down

An arguably more radical move was Reznor's release of individual tracks from the forthcoming album in files that anyone can edit and remix in music software such as Apple's GarageBand and Sony's ACID.

To date, the tracks The Hand That Feeds, Only and Survivalism have been made available, but he intends to make the rest available on his website (nin.com/downloads) over the coming months. Reznor is philosophical about the influx of remixed versions of his new songs that get uploaded in return.

"I've always been open to the idea of letting people 'behind the scenes' with my music. What I love about GarageBand is the simplicity, elegance and price [free on Apple Macs].

"When you boot up our file and hit the space bar, the track plays and it sounds like you know it. A few clicks later it's effortlessly transformed into whatever you dream up. It feels like a toy, but the results are as professional as you'd like.

"Any time a new technology becomes available to the masses it's a good thing. Recording studios used to be the domain of only the privileged or professional - now many have access to these tools allowing anyone to try their hand at it. As to what I'm looking to gain from doing this, I'm not really sure ... it just seemed like something I'd want as a fan. Of the many remixes and reconstructions that get made, some end up being truly great."

Only time will tell if such disparate ideas about music - one for creating it, one for rediscovering it, one for making new versions of it - will become ensconced in our daily lives.

But as Pete Townshend replied when asked what music software he uses: "Everything that is available. I try everything. As an old-fashioned musician who also loves technology I feel I have the best of both worlds - the most important thing is to keep an open mind, to inspiration and new ideas."

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