by: David Jennings

Here's a short story — the fifth in my series of future scenarios from the first draft of my book, which got edited out of the published version — about a casual music listener trying to find some music to go with a home video, and being led through the minefield of finding music that you can use legally on your soundtracks. [I found the picture on the left on Flickr: it's by quasimime, and used under a Creative Commons licence.]

There were several things I was trying to combine in this scenario, aside from the licensing question.

  • I wanted to describe the experience of someone who doesn't care a lot about music, and just sees it as a means to an end. Most of us who write about music discovery are pretty fanatical about it ('savants' in the classification I use), and have to remind ourselves that not everyone behaves like us.
  • The idea of building up a collection of digital music almost by accident: the download-era equivalent of acquiring lots of promotional CDs and the ones they stick on the covers of magazines.
  • Having a search tool that sorts through this slurry of inconsistently tagged music files and returns something reasonably coherent from this Everything is Miscellaneous mess. Of course, the tool could equally well have been searching the miscellaneous grab-bag of music files online, as SeeqPod does, but for this story you perhaps have to imagine that the Englobulators have won and closed down SeeqPod and its siblings.
  • Finally I wanted to show search and recommendations for using music instrumentally as an accompaniment for other activities. My hunch is that recommending music for specific purposes — whether as a video soundtrack or for a gym workout — is going to be more effective and more widely used than for the general, and more ambitious, purpose of finding your next favourite band. This doesn't apply only to music: I wish Flickr and iStockPhoto had better search and recommendations to help me find images to accompany presentation ideas.

End of introduction. Continue reading for the story.

Angela shot some video at a family get-together last weekend. Everyone was in good spirits, and the weather was unseasonably pleasant, apart from a thunderstorm late in the afternoon. Angela got some great footage of her three young nieces playing in the garden and swimming. Several family members said they'd like to see some of the video, and Angela promised to edit it down and share it via the web.

Back at home, she has done a rough cut of the material, which comes in at about eight minutes. There's not a lot in the way of dialogue, and there's no need for a voice-over since most of the people who are going to see the video were there when it was shot, but it could do with some music to capture and reflect the halcyon mood of the day. The trouble is that Angela, who will admit to anyone who asks that her musical knowledge is far from encyclopaedic and her taste far from adventurous, isn't quite sure what would fit, or how to find it.

She doesn't really have anything she thinks of as a music collection any more, apart from about 40 or 50 of her favourite old CDs packed away in a cupboard, which she hangs on to for sentimental reasons and as back-up if anything goes wrong with her file copies. So, yes, the digital music files on her computer and iPod could be seen as a collection, but they're more fluid than collections used to be, with a slowly changing core of favourites, and much more rapidly changing periphery of tracks that Angela may have listened to only once, if at all.

How did this come about? Over the years, she subscribed to several 'feeds' to find out about new music. Some of them came from music and lifestyle magazines, some came direct from artists and labels, and some came from bloggers. Many came with free 'sample' tracks designed to promote new releases — the digital equivalent of the cover-mounted CDs that used to come with magazines. In keeping with her casual and slightly fickle approach to music, Angela would read each feed for a while, but then would fall behind when she found an interesting new one. She never cancelled the feeds, though, just in case she ever found time to come back to them. Sometimes she listened to the free tracks, to see if she liked them, but after a while there were too many of them, too. It all became like the bad old days of email, when you would subscribe to an email list and then not be able to unsubscribe, so the messages just piled up in folders, unread, like authorised 'spam'.

Then Angela's brother installed a new application on her computer. It 'scrapes' (as he put it) the free tracks out of the feeds without her even having to open them, and then it puts the tracks in a folder on the computer. At first, Angela feels it's slightly cheeky to scrape the feeds in this way — like tearing the free sample off the cover of a magazine and throwing away the magazine — but the clever bit is what the application does next with the tracks in the folder. Angela can tell the application to provide her with a playlist of a certain length (to accompany her on a long train or bus journey, say), whether she wants it mostly up-tempo or downbeat, what range of moods she wants, and what proportions of familiar and unfamiliar tracks she wants to hear. The application will then search through the folder of scraped tracks, and compile a playlist that combines new and familiar songs in a sequence with just the right transitions of tempo and mood between them. As Angela listens to the playlist on her iPod, she can tag those new tracks she'd like to hear again, which may become the familiar favourites of tomorrow, and those she's unconvinced by. Thus her music 'collection' is forever morphing. Angela still buys music occasionally (as much as she ever has done, which isn't a lot), but she feels this 'free' auditioning process is often a better way for her to discover what to buy than just listening to the radio.

However, when Angela tries using the application to fish for some appropriate music for the video soundtrack, the results are disappointing. She specifies a playlist with ten tracks, all new, with the characteristics 'peaceful', 'bright' and 'energetic', and medium or medium-fast tempo. Two or maybe three of the tracks in the playlist sound OK, but the lyrics don't fit with the images.

So Angela decides to take her challenge to the office, to see if some of her work colleagues can help. When she first got this job, she was intimidated by the way these new co-workers paraded their musical knowledge and wore their favourites like scaffolding for their personalities. She corners Kris at lunchtime, and asks if she could ask his advice on a musical matter. She can tell he feels flattered. She shows him a couple of scenes from the video, and plays him clips from the two tracks she found the previous evening.

"I'm looking for something that feels like these pieces, but has more appropriate lyrics — or no lyrics at all," Angela explains.

"I know a search site that might be able to help us," Kris responds, clicking on one of his bookmarks. "There are several criteria we can use. First let's see if we can find something that's acoustically similar to one of those tracks." He types in the title of the track. "Now, do you want to restrict the search to music that is almost identical, or just pretty similar?"

"Just pretty similar. The mood of that track is in the right ballpark for what I wanted, but it's not necessarily 100% perfect."

"Fine." Kris adjusts a slider very slightly on the screen. "Now, you said the mood you wanted as bright, peaceful and energetic. I'm not sure whether those last two might be in conflict sometimes, but I'll put them all in as tags, and we'll see what tracks other people have described using those terms. I can also put in the same terms for the lyrics: the search engine analyses the mood of the lyrics automatically. Are you bothered about rights?"

"Should I be?" Angela fires back, slightly nonplussed.

"Probably not, but I thought I'd ask. There are some composers and labels that don't like anyone using their material for anything without their permission, whereas others are fine with you using it for free as long as you're not going to go out and make a million bucks with your video and their music. But you're just showing this to family and friends, right? So it's very unlikely anyone would take action against you, though if your family is viewing over the web on one of the main video sharing sites, it's just possible that someone could get wind of it."

"Hell, if that's their attitude, they can keep their precious music! So you can search just for music that I can use for free without risking a 'cease and desist' letter?"

"Sure. You should still put an artist credit in your video titles somewhere, though: that's the deal for not having to pay a licence fee." Having completed all the criteria, Kris runs the search. "OK, now the results are ranked just like any other search — shall we sample them from the top?"

By the time they've heard clips of four of the tracks, Angela thinks she has found what she needs.

"But you may need another track if the video clip is eight minutes, right?" Kris asks. "And you said the final scenes were inside, during the thunderstorm."

"That's right."

"What we can do is take that first track as the 'seed' for a second search, and this time take out 'bright' from the search terms and replace it with 'mellow' or 'cosy'. And I'll make sure it's an instrumental track to be sure it's not out of sync with the first one... Here, now you can hear how your first track would segue into each of these new ones."

After Angela has provided her payment details, she can download the two tracks and incorporate them in her video edit.

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