Category Archives: Interviews

Interview: Jill Hennessy

To celebrate the release of her new album I Do, Jill Hennessy talked to After The Show about the lyrics in her new songs, the music on Crossing Jordan, playing Springsteen songs, and her LA show next week at The Mint.

After The Show Jill Hennessy Interview

After The Show: For the set list for your LA show next Thursday, can you share what you’ll be playing in terms of newer songs vs older songs from Ghost In My Head vs covers ?

Jill Hennessy: Good question – I’m going to be focusing mainly on the newer songs but as far as the older songs, a little bit of “4 Small Hands” probably, maybe “Oh Mother.” You know, some of the bigger songs, possibly “Erin” just because I love the story of “Erin” and I love revisiting those stories.

On your new song “Real,” I like the lyric “Sing and don’t be afraid – angels talk in music anyway.” What does that mean…what was the inspiration for that line?

Okay, first of all I’m really touched that #1 you listened to the lyrics, and #2 that’s a really meaningful song for me because it’s about the tragedy of so many people whose voices were never heard…because of the color of their skin or their gender or their religion or just their circumstances in life, and how sometimes all we have is our voice to make change, to express ourselves, to send our love, and help other people to get out of their difficult circumstances.

“Sing and don’t be afraid” is something I try to follow myself – you can live in fear and be inactive, or you can just let go and create.

I know “Something’s Comin’” is the first single…did you consider filming a music video for any of the songs on I Do?

I’m thinking about it, man. That’ll be the next phase because right now we’re kind of focused on touring and promoting the album. We actually shot some guerrilla-style footage in our red ’66 Cadillac convertible all around the Jersey shore. My nephew (a screenwriter/producer in his 30s) was doing the camera work and my little 7 year old son was hiding in the back with me on the floor of the car.

We drove all over Monmouth County just getting all these iconic landmarks like The Stone Pony…it was an homage to Springsteen land which I find very inspirational. My 7 year old is in the video strumming his little ukulele, but my 12 year old was like “no way.” But it ended up being really cool, so that’ll probably be on the website at some point. Finding time in the schedule is kind of difficult at this point, but probably in 2 months there’ll be some time to breathe, and we’ll look into doing more videos that are story driven.

I think “I Do” is the best, catchiest song you’ve ever written; I really like how you traced a journey about marriage specifically, from meeting to “pretty words and roses” to “pain and joy” to getting married to having kids. I like how that song is a more comprehensive journey/story rather than just a snapshot or moment in time.

Yeah that totally is it, and it’s also about how relationships change or perceptions change – what you perceive “this is what marriage is gonna be” – it’s always evolving and shifting, from the time you’re a kid to when you get older…it ain’t black and white. Those are very specific images in my mind that to me are very tangible and representative. Sonically I tried to write something more uptempo, and it’s got that Buddy Holly influence.

Crossing Jordan was so strong in music: from Wendy and Lisa, to you playing guitar and singing, to the T-Bone soundtrack with your two cover songs, and the original opening credits showed you carrying your guitar. Did you have any input into song selection or was that mostly done in post-production?

It was my suggestion to have her carrying the guitar and the creator, Tim Kring, is a music lover himself…He and I always bonded over artists like Springsteen and Patty Griffin, so we’d talk about music all the time. He had the final call as to what music was put in, but music was very much a character in the show, and that’s how we both felt.

YouTube has some great videos of you singing “Galileo” and the solo verse on “Closer To Fine” with the Indigo Girls at concerts. How did those opportunities come about, because I know you love that band (and on Crossing Jordan, Jordan’s apartment even had an Indigo Girls poster on the wall!)?

[Laughs] yes. I met the Indigo Girls when we did Mountain Stage – that was I guess 4 years ago – and it’s a great festival presentation radio show out in Virginia. They were playing that night and I was playing before them, and at soundcheck I got to meet Amy and Emily and I was just blown away. I was afraid I would be rendered completely speechless. I was very kindly introduced and we just kind of hit it off and luckily I didn’t get down on bended knee and bow before them.

So then they started to tour around New Jersey and New York, and I opened for them a couple times and sang with them. We even cooked them vegetarian pasta, because they’re vegetarians – it was delicious, man. Peas with red sauce.

You’ve covered a bunch of Bruce Springsteen songs like “No Surrender,” “The River,” “Thunder Road,” “Atlantic City,” and “New York City Serenade.” What song of yours do you feel would be best suited for Bruce to cover?

That’s probably the best question that anyone’s ever asked me. Oh my God, girl, that’s a tough one. “I Do” sounds like it could be kind of a Bruce style. “Something’s Comin'” would be cool. “Save Me” would also be really be cool…though I can’t see him singing the line about makeup.

I know you performed the Harmonium cover “Pour Un Instant,” but have you ever considered writing and releasing a song in French (or Italian or Spanish)?

Definitely. On the Canadian release of Ghost In My Head there was a verse in Italian. I actually wrote a song in French for a Canadian TV movie called Sunshine Sketches Of A Little Town. It’s scary to write a song period, but it’s even scarier to write a song in another language. There’s always that fear of ‘Maybe I don’t know what the colloquialisms are, or maybe there’s a double meaning I’m not aware of.’ But yeah, I’d love to write a song in either French or Italian.

Thanks for sharing Jill! People in Los Angeles, catch Jill play at The Mint on Thursday 10/22 and watch her website for the latest news.

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Interview: Bo Boddie

Bo Boddie is a music composer, mixer, producer, recording engineer, and instrumentalist.

Bo Boddie Music Interview

After The Show: What’s your schedule like lately? Do you spend more time composing vs mixing vs producing?

Bo: Busy. These days, almost all of the work I’m doing is for film and television projects. I’ve been doing a lot of work for Craig Wedren for the past few years, and that involves wearing a lot of different hats depending on the project. We’ve just finished two shows, Wet, Hot, American Summer (Netflix), and Blunt Talk (Starz). With Blunt Talk I was the score mixer, and with WHAS I mixed all the score and songs (about 25-30 of them). I also produced and co-wrote a song (“All Time”) as well as a bunch of miscellaneous music production and guitar playing…[I] will soon start working on the 2nd season of Fresh off the Boat (ABC), which involves a lot more cue writing. It looks like I’ll also be mixing a rock record that James Iha is producing as well.

What software and hardware programs do you use on a daily basis for composing and score mixing work?

At this point it’s about 95% Pro Tools, which I’ve been using pretty much daily since 1998. However, I also love using Logic and Reason, although, since time and compatibility with others are such a huge part of my job it’s hard to go out on a limb and use something other than Pro Tools.

What personality traits would you say make someone a great recording engineer?

Other than having great technical skills and know-how I think it’s really about being prepared for any request and staying in the service of the artist/project that you’re working on. It’s about staying humble, making everything seem smooth and easy, and of course making sure everything sounds great. An engineer’s role can be very small or large, you just have to know how much you need to put in to grease the wheels and when to just get out of the way.

When you’re working with artists from different genres (Santana vs Korn vs indie pop), how do you adapt between such stylistically dissimilar sounds? Do you approach each project with the same general mindset or is there a mental switch you have to make?

With such stylistically divergent projects there’s definitely a mental shift that has to happen. However, it doesn’t usually take long to establish a style of working that people are happy with, and from there it’s just about continuing in that vein. Obviously, to some degree you have to be a fan of what you’re working on as well. In my case, there aren’t that many kinds of music that I’m not interested in, so I look forward to working in different styles. There’s so much to learn about the subtleties of different genres, and when you walk away from each project you take something away that will help you bring insight to the next one.

You recorded, mixed, produced, and played bass and guitar on My Rocks Are Dreams by Psychic Friend — what was your favorite part of that process? How do you feel about the licenses/placements those songs got?

That was one of the first projects I worked on when I got to Los Angeles. Patty and I are friends and one day she mentioned she was working on a band with Will as a duo. They came over one day and we recorded some stuff. The songs were great, and I was really excited about working on the material. From that point on we got together whenever time allowed and filled everything out. I think the first song we did was “We Do Not Belong” and that established the overall tone of everything that came after it. Patty and I worked on 8 songs, and then Will and Tripp did the last three together at Dangerbird, although I did end up mixing “Quality Control.”

It was a great experience and I’m really proud of what came out of it; especially given that it was almost entirely recorded in a converted bedroom. All the song licenses were an added bonus. Of course I thought that the songs were great and lent themselves to that kind of use. However, once you start submitting songs to different music supervisors you start to realize how difficult it can be to get placements. I think it’s quite a testament to the quality of the songs!

You contributed articles and interviews to Sonic Scoop. How did that opportunity come about, and did you like that writing experience?

That came from my dear friend Janice Brown, who co-founded Sonic Scoop. We first met at Chung King Studios in Manhattan in the very early aughts. I was an intern and she was working a few nights a week as the receptionist; we became good friends and have always kept up with each other. When I moved to L.A. about five years ago she called me up one day and asked if I’d be interested in doing some gear reviews and interviews for the site and I took her up on it. I haven’t had as much time for it lately, but it’s a lot of fun to get out there and meet different people and play with new gear. I actually just wrote a review for them which should show up one of these days.

“Runaway,” “No Matter What You Say,” “Don’t Know How You Do It,” and “It’s You” are such great Imperial Teen songs. What was your experience like working on Feel The Sound?

It was a lot of fun. I love everyone in the band and it was easy to hang out with them and get things done. With that record they had done some of the basic tracking before I started working with them and they needed a place to do overdubs and record all the vocals. My family and I had just moved to L.A. from Brooklyn and I had a little studio in the back of the house we were renting, which I was thrilled about since, coming from New York, we weren’t used to having so much space. At any rate, the band would all come into town once or twice a month and we’d spend a day or two tracking vocals and other instruments. I’m not sure how long that went on for, maybe four or five months. Midway through we actually did end up going to another studio for a day to re-record drums as well as a couple of the newer songs…it’s a little fuzzy at this point which ones, but we did a lot of tracking that day! The album really came out amazing, I just listened to it the other day and it’s even better than I remembered.

That’s cool that you worked on the Reni Lane album — probably not many people have heard it though. How did that opportunity come about?

I actually only worked on one track on that record: “Ready.” That came about through my friend Sam Bisbee. He’s a great songwriter and performer and at that time I think he had just landed a publishing deal so he was working with all kinds of different artists, writing tons of songs. I had recorded and mixed a lot of his records so he was always hiring me to work on different projects with him. Reni had just landed a deal with Custard and Sam had a bunch of tunes on the album. “Ready” was actually one of Sam’s personal songs; Reni really liked it and wanted to do her own version. Between Sam and I we put together what’s on the record‚ and I programmed drums/percussion on it, played bass, and some keyboards as well.

Thanks for sharing Bo! Keep up with Bo’s work at BoBoddie.com

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Interview: The Mynabirds

Check out our Q&A with Laura Burhenn of The Mynabirds — she talks all about songs from the upcoming album Lovers Know (which comes out this Friday)!

The Mynabirds Interview

After The Show: Lovers Know has songs with really rich textures and sonic layers – how are you planning to reproduce that sound (especially the backing vocals) on tour?

Laura: Well, I’ll be touring with a full band and we’ll attempt to fuzz it out as much as we can altogether live. I recently bought this amazing magical box that I use to process my voice live. It creates loops and harmonies, and I like to joke that I’ve replaced my backup singer with a robot…

Bradley (Hanan Carter, who produced the record and whose vocals are all over it) is touring live with me as well, so we’ll be doing the female-male vocals live together.

What did you learn on your tour as a member of the Postal Service?

I learned so much on that tour! Above all, I learned that being good people should always come before making good art. Ben, Jenny and Jimmy are some of the most creative and talented minds I know and that I’ve worked with. But above that, they’ve all got hearts of gold. Seriously. If you’re going to ask a crew of people to leave their homes and help you give your vision to the world, it helps when everyone is feeling loved and appreciated and is enjoying themselves. It was a real joy, that tour.

And the light show!!…Although it was pretty hilarious that I never even saw it until I saw videos of us playing. Yeah — you’ve got to have a great team of people who can help you see the big picture. That’s another important lesson to take home.

In “Semantics,” the juxtaposition between water (half empty, ice, rain, the water’s edge, fog, storm, cooling down) and heat (a thousand suns, dry up, Roman candle, lightening up, fire) is brilliant. Were you consciously making a connection between how half empty/half full is sometimes just a matter of perspective and “you can move mountains with your point of view”?

I was thinking in really elemental terms when I was writing Lovers Know. I had been watching a lot of Carl Sagan’s The Cosmos and actually started out writing an album about string theory, and the ties that bind us together. And then my relationship fell apart and I found myself writing about love and heartbreak, but the elemental pieces (fire, water, wind and earth) — those remained, as well as the hope that still leads you on. I think “Semantics” perfectly illustrates that — how you hope against everything being prone to destructing and fading away in the natural world.

But yes, it IS all about perspective — that’s the joy of semantics, in general. Words create our reality, and we can use them to make it better. Energy can neither be created or destroyed, right? So it’s all about turning it into something good and useful.

What did you envision thematically with “Orion”? I like how the name “Orion” simultaneously evokes the constellation, the Greek myth, but how it also sounds like you’re singing “Oh Ryan.”

I have always loved the constellation of Orion best of all. He’s the most recognizable in the night sky, and one of the few you can find all year long. So I was thinking about that — about the constant of “him” in my whole life, and about the mythologies we build up around our perfect match and mate, the one who has got to be out there — if only we could just find them. And so I wanted to sing about that — about how the dreams we build up can both kind of mess up our ability to love someone in a real, earthly and intimate way, and also how the hope for that one true love can help lift us back up after we’ve had a deep heartbreak.

I hear a little bit of “Fallen Doves” in “Omaha.” What inspired you to write “Fallen Doves” – did you really see a bird on the side of the road in Arkansas, or is it entirely metaphorical?

When I was on tour with Bright Eyes, my friend Scotty McPherson who was playing drums told me this story his mom used to tell him when he was little — that if you found a dead bird on the side of the road, if you said a prayer to it, it would fly it up to heaven. I thought that was such a beautiful way to transform this sad image of death that all kids encounter and can’t quite make sense of. And after he told me that, there had been this story in the news about all of these birds mysteriously just dropping out of the sky over Arkansas. I just thought it was so beautifully poetic, that imagery…

I like the imagery of contrasts (all vs nothing, a believer vs no faith) you created in “All My Heart” and “Believer.” What feelings and moods did you hope to evoke with those songs?

To be honest, I still have no idea exactly what I’m singing about in “Believer” but it strikes a certain chord of truth in me (and other people), and so I know it’s right. And so singing it is kind of an act of faith. I think I felt utterly lost when I was writing Lovers Know. I felt like I was doing okay in life, but in a lot of ways failing. And finally I had to face the fact that I didn’t believe in myself. It had nothing to do with other people.

And admitting that aloud — how depressed and dark you’ve become — can be so hard to do. So I did it. I don’t think I had written a song ever about how wrong things were in my life. I’ve always been such a hopeful, positive person — always wanting to see the bright side. But sometimes you just have to admit that you’re not okay. And as you can tell in “Believer,” I wasn’t.

Thanks Laura! For more info on The Mynabirds (including tour dates), head to the band’s website.

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Interview: Neely of Tilly And The Wall

Neely Tanner (nee Jenkins) answers questions about Tilly And The Wall tours & song lyrics, recording with Rilo Kiley, and the connection between music & yoga.

Neely Jenkins After The Show Interview

Photo Credit: Dawn Belik

After The Show: Playing bass, teaching yoga, and focusing on the rhythmic flow of the breath seem similar in a lot of ways. What are the connections for you between music and movement?

Neely: I find them as a way to escape the loudness of the world. It is time for focus, concentration, and calm. The “being here” moments are so important.

You’ve played so many shows and festivals (like Coachella and Iceland’s Airwaves festival) with Tilly And The Wall. Do you have a favorite tour that you look back on and smile?

We did a European tour with the band CSS. We shared a bus and traveled around Europe and the UK with them and their crew. We had originally met them in an artist tent briefly in Scotland previously, but the connection was quick and amazing. Next, CSS and Tilly ended up in the line up and playing The Leffingeleuren Festival in Belgium in 2006…

They asked if we had any Tilly T-shirts they could have. We gave them all a shirt. We ran off to lunch, then came back to watch their set. When they walked onto stage, they were all wearing our shirts! It was adorable and I was so moved. I think we all were. We stayed in the same hotel that night and ate french fries. We fell in love. They asked us to open for them on that 2007 European tour with them, starting in Lisbon and going for a couple of weeks, traveling, sight seeing, being young and crazy all with the music behind our backs. There were eight girls amongst our two bands. I don’t think I have ever laughed so hard in my life. What a fun band to dance the night away to, and then slumber party with after the show. It was a truly magical time.

Anything you want to share about what inspired “Pictures Of Houses”? The ending line “it will be beautiful to watch them [the ships sailing away] leave” makes the song so complex – it seems to suggest that there’s a hope in letting go of nostalgic sadness.

That is a song that Jamie wrote. So I guess I will be speaking for her here, but yes. I think it is about letting go of the things that you don’t need. Leaving you still, and peaceful again. It’s funny because I use this same sort of imagery, letting go of what is holding you back, in my yoga classes. It is truly the only way to move ahead. I don’t think I knew the importance of this as I sang this song so long ago, but it is one of the best life lessons.

I read that each of the 5 Tilly members would write alone and then bring an idea to the group where everyone would put their print on it. What Tilly songs that you initially brought to the table are you most proud of?

That is true. Hmmm… not sure of the one I am most “proud” of… but I enjoyed writing and performing “Dust Me Off.” My boyfriend, now husband, and I worked on it together one afternoon. I brought it to Tilly and the song was born. I have always loved pop music. Even the most simple of pop songs, which I think this one is.

Your music has been featured on TV shows like 90210 and Sesame Street, movies like Whip It, and commercials for Vicks Nyquil and T-Mobile. What’s your view on licensing your music?

Licensing music helps a band to live. I think everyone knows and understands that it is hard to survive as an indie band monetarily when you are not out on the road. It is also fun to receive texts and messages from friends and family from all over saying, “I just heard you guys on T.V!”

I think “All Kinds Of Guns” was the best song of 2012. Musically it’s catchy, and lyrically, it’s a brilliant play on words about how having integrity/convictions is as powerful as having an arsenal of weapons. Is that what you guys intended it to be about?

Aw, thanks! Kianna wrote this song. I love it so much, too. I will be speaking for her but I do feel it’s about being in love and how great it is to have someone stand by your side with strong convictions and how powerful that can be. But I think my fav song off of Heavy Mood is “Thicker Than Thieves.” It is one of my favorites to perform, too.

So you contributed backing vocals to “The Absence Of God” by Rilo Kiley for More Adventurous! What do you remember about that experience?

We were in the Presto studio, in Lincoln. I remember being so stoked to be asked to sing with a band that I loved so much and laughing a lot. Everyone in Rilo is rad and hilarious. It is always fun to get to hear a new song in process. You are getting a sneak peak into a little world that you just know will be big. It is always so fun get to hear the behind the scenes of a record in the making.

“Pictures Of Houses” (“I still believe in purity”), “Love Song” (“Oh it’s strange how the world becomes pure”), and “The Freest Man” (“pure of soul”) all reference the concept of purity. Is that something you were aware of while writing? Is there any connection between those three songs?

All three of those songs were written by different people. I don’t think the idea was to have the songs match in purity. I contribute it to us being good friends on a wild adventure. And when you spend so much time together, practicing, touring, creating, and hanging out on the side, you find these true similarities amongst your loved ones. Then a Tilly song is made.

“All Boy Band” by Park Ave. is such an amazing song with meta references to being in a band and loving music. It was so long ago, but what does that record mean to you?

Conor wrote the lyrics to that song. I think it speaks to what he was feeling and going through being in an all boy band and touring, but performed by us. Most bands in Omaha at that time were all dude city. Park Ave. was different having three girls in the band. We had NO IDEA what we were doing and looking back, that was the best part. The whole idea behind us even getting together was to learn something we didn’t know before. Conor wanted to learn the drums, Clark wanted to learn how to play guitar. Jamie said, I can tap dance. Jen agreed to play keyboards. And when Conor asked me to play bass, I was like, “Um, I don’t know how.” He said that was the point. I said ok.

We practiced in Clark’s parent’s basement in Omaha (as he was still in high school) and Todd, his older brother, was usually around. Todd had to tune all of our instruments for a while until we learned how to on our own. Jenn, Jamie and I were in college in Lincoln at the time. We would often laugh at the fact that we would go pick up the boys from high school to practice. Practice involved writing, all of us taking naps in one bed, playing music, or going to the mall. We were very serious.

I definitely hear the joy/happy energy/exuberance in Tilly And The Wall’s music. What things do you do on a daily or weekly basis to cultivate gratitude and joy in your life?

I meditate, exercise, spend time with good friends, and do yoga. It’s like my church. Moving here to Los Angeles really brought a lot more loudness into my life. I feel like it is so important to find those healthy ways to escape the chaos.

Thanks for sharing Neely! Check out Tilly And The Wall on Facebook.

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Music Tech Interview: Kevin Nelson

Kevin Nelson is a web and mobile software engineer based in Berlin. His current clients include the music streaming service Rdio and the music licensing and distribution company Loudr.

Kevin Nelson Interview

Kevin shares his thoughts on music tech scenes, choice paralysis, and the future of digital music. Note: Because he works as a contractor for music companies including Rdio, his opinions below are his own & don’t reflect Rdio’s or any other company’s opinions.

After The Show: How does Berlin compare to San Francisco in terms of each city’s music tech scenes?

Kevin Nelson: Interesting question. Music Tech is an interesting space concept to me, because lately it seems to have two main branches, music consumption tech and music creation tech, and I’m not so convinced that they intermingle very well. I also think it’s important to recognize the importance of the music scene in general when thinking about the music tech scene. If you’re trying to bootstrap a music tech scene in a city that doesn’t have a vibrant music scene, you’ll either flounder, or wind up creating a vibrant music scene in the process.

Historically, music consumption tech has been borne of commercialism and economics. Investors, producers, label executives, and the rest of the money people all want to innovate on technology so that they can sell more sound waves. First it was the phonograph record, then the variety of tape recordings, the compact disc, and the implosion of file sharing.

From what I’ve seen, Berlin doesn’t have a huge community of these sorts of people. Obviously there are some labels and business folks here, but the word “producer” in Berlin means more the conceptual artist or director rather than the executive responsible for footing the bill.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, amidst the gold rush of TCP/IP venture capital, it’s sales, eyeballs, and advertisements that drive the train, so you have business- and growth-minded people building tools and media that they think will propel Los Angeles, Nashville, and New York into the next generation of music monetization.

The other branch of the tree, music creation tech, is the extended evolution of recording studio innovations. Transducers, signal mixers, magnetic tape. This is where all of the excitement of new music lives, the branch of the tree where you see a couple of out Philadelphia invent a new kind of music controller that sparks a slew of imitations from bigger companies. Or where you see recording artists release the iPhone app they’ve developed to record and use live. To me, this is where the excitement and joy is…

Berlin is definitely much more focused on the creative branch, which you can see in the companies that thrive here. Ableton and Native Instruments are both music creation companies, and even though it’s changed a lot over the years, Soundcloud was also primarily focused on creation when it launched. Of course, the companies don’t define the scene, but they’re a manifestation of its vibrance.

Berlin’s also a less expensive place to live than San Francisco, so I finally have time to actually make music again, which might also color my perspective a bit.

Sometimes when I open Spotify, the nearly unlimited listening options are too overwhelming, so I close it and open my more manageable iTunes library. Besides offering playlists and recommended/similar songs (“You listened to Alvvays so you might like TOPS”), how can music tech companies combat choice paralysis?

I think this is actually the hardest problem that music streaming services are facing right now, and I don’t think anyone has come anywhere close to being successful. Choice paralysis is a huge issue when you can listen to (almost) anything in the world. This is why you see services like Pandora and Slacker take off — most people don’t want to think that hard about putting on music. They just want to push play.

Ultimately, I think this is actually the service that companies like Rdio and Spotify are selling, and I think that if it’s done correctly, it could be really remarkably great. I used to have a collection of hundreds of CDs in high school, and I found myself falling into a similar problem. The choice paralysis isn’t as strong, but it’s still there. Picking from the 300 CDs on the shelf is a lot harder than picking from the 3 in your disc changer.

That said, I don’t think anyone’s doing a good job of it right now — actually, I think everyone is doing a pretty terrible job of it (Sorry, friends at the Echo Nest and at Rdio, but it’s true). This is, of course, in the context of a range. What the Echonest does is much better than pure randomness, and it’s certainly passable, but it’s not something I would call “good” by radio DJ standards. It’s also an incredibly difficult problem to solve, with way more complexities and nuances than you might expect, so I don’t mean to say that the folks working on these problems are slacking off or not talented — just that the systems aren’t there yet.

If I may step off of that soapbox for a moment, and onto another one, the iTunes-style Library feature is something that Rdio has had forever, and when I started working there it was one of the biggest features that drew me into the product. You can create a virtual music collection (now called “Favorites”) without having to stuff albums into playlists in the way that Spotify forced you to do. Of course, Spotify eventually caught up and introduced their Library feature within the last year, but it still does completely idiotic things like preventing you from organizing the old iTunes style list of songs by “Artist-then-Album-then-Track Number”. Instead, it sorts alphabetically as the second tier by default, which is not how anyone ever thinks about looking at their music collection. It’s super dumb.

Rdio has also been working on their Home feature for a while, which presents a Facebook News Feed style list of activity from your Rdio social network: comments on playlists, trending albums, songs, and stations, more music by artists you’ve been listening to, etc. It’s a huge first step, but there’s also a lot of noise if you don’t follow the right people.

At the end of the day though, I don’t think an algorithm will ever make as pointed of a recommendation as a good friend who knows your tastes. Someone saying “Hey, I think you’ll like this because it meets my standards, and it sounds like these other things that I know that you’ll like” is a much stronger signal than an algorithm saying “Hey, you should listen to this 2 AMG star album by the same artist that released that 4.5 star album that you were listening to yesterday”, and you’re much more likely to enjoy the recommendation.

How do you like being an independent contractor vs a full-time/on-location employee?

This is my second big round of independent contracting, and each option has its ups and downs. The first time around, I struggled a lot to find clients and work, and struggled a lot with trying to charge what I thought was a reasonable rate. I feel really lucky that I found the clients that I did, and got to work on the projects that I did.

In general, the work of finding clients, and making sure they actually pay you is really challenging, and not usually something you have to think about when you’re working as a full time employee. I’m lucky right now, though, since I’m still doing regular contract work for a couple of clients that are great to work with.

Depending on who your clients are, or where you work, there are other pros and cons. It’s nice to work from home, for example, but living with a partner who also works from home can be stressful. The flip side of that coin is that it can also be lonely and isolating. If your client doesn’t force you to be onsite, you’re not going to have any water cooler (or coffee robot) conversations unless you get creative with where you work. It can also feel aimless and unfulfilling to constantly be doing hired-gun work, but you might also have a similar existential issue if you find yourself in a full time job that you don’t particularly enjoy.

The positive sides are really nice though: Since I work remotely and in a far-away timezone anyways, I also have the luxury of taking long lunches when I please. Usually that means I have to work later into the evening, but that also works well with the timezone thing, since my clients are awake and at work during my evenings.

The biggest two perks, though, are 1) that I was able to move to Berlin, and 2) that I’m able to schedule personal work time to focus on things like actually making music again, or working on my own app projects. I’m sure it’s possible to find a full time job that accommodates those things somewhere in the world, but those negotiations and discussions are easier when you get to be in charge of yourself.

I’ve also discovered that billing 8 hours in a day is a lot more work than showing up at a full time job and working in the office for 8 or 9 hours. I’m now pretty convinced that the average 8 hour work day only really consists of 4 or 5 hours of actual work.

How do software engineers communicate effectively with non-tech people at a music tech company? Is there a department that serves as the bridge/translator between the technical and non-technical sides?

I don’t think there’s anything particularly special about music tech here. Any company with an engineering department is going to have these kinds of stereotypical “engineering vs other department” issues. With music streaming, you have a content licensing department, but with music creation, you just have the normal company set of things. Product design, marketing, sales, analytics.

Maybe music tech companies attract engineers who are more interdisciplinary, but I think other companies can attract these kinds of people as well. It also depends on company size. If you’re big enough to have middle management, then you need to make sure that the people you put into those management roles can bridge any communication gaps between their team and other teams.

How do you envision the future of digital music, particularly music discovery and streaming? What frontiers do you think we’ll push past?

This is a hard question for me to answer for a couple of reasons, but let’s just say I’m not incredibly optimistic. To start with, streaming is not currently an exhaustive listening experience, and I don’t think it will ever be one. You can’t stream Queen Crescent on Spotify. You also can’t stream the Beatles, but the point of using a band that you (hopefully?) haven’t heard of is that unless a service aggregates literally everything, the scope of discoveries that it can provide will be limited.

Today, for instance, I discovered Breaking Circus for the first time, but it was because I was reading about related bands on Wikipedia and clicked on some links, not because of some algorithmically curated radio station. Their music isn’t on any streaming service because the label it was released on is now defunct, and no one’s tried to recover the rights to redistribute the content. It’s also not for sale in iTunes. Will Spotify or Rdio (or Beats/Apple, or Tidal) ever be able to solve that problem? Probably not, unless the major labels and copyright restrictions magically disappear…

At the end of the day, though, streaming definitely has changed the way we think about obtaining music in the same way that downloading did at the turn of the century. We didn’t have pocket computers back then, so it makes sense that with this new technology we have a new distribution mentality. The commercial services, locked into unfavorable deals for eternity, will do their best to stay afloat, so they’ll try to encourage lock-in: only listen to music in Spotify. This works for everyone who listened to terrestrial radio. For the music nerds, the best place for music discovery is the same place that it’s been all along: small (online) communities of friends and people with similar tastes.

Thanks Kevin! Keep up with Kevin’s projects at his website + Linkedin.

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Interview: Isaac Jaffe

Isaac Jaffe is a composer, performer, and Head of Research at TuneSat, a company that uses audio fingerprint technology to monitor TV channels and websites for unlicensed music.

Isaac Jaffe Music Interview

After The Show: You juggle so many projects – composing music for film and TV, performing with SugarBad, playing upright bass in jazz bands around NY, teaching piano/guitar/bass, and running TuneSat’s Research Department!  What’s your schedule/time breakdown like?

Isaac: My schedule tends to move around based on what’s going on, and fortunately all of the people I work with give me flexibility which is key.  Most weeks I do 4 or 5 days in the office at TuneSat, leaving around 5 pm each day to teach a few music lessons.  After teaching, I usually do one rehearsal and 1-3 NYC performances a week.  Those are long days…

SugarBad also plays out of town every few months. This is either a long weekend or a 10 day stretch, which means I have to put my students on hold and work remotely.  That can get a bit crazy, but being on tour is so much fun so I don’t mind. Working while traveling definitely wouldn’t have been an option in the days before free wifi.

Fortunately, composing music is relaxing for me so it isn’t too hard to fit this into the free time I find here and there.  I live with an upright piano and two other musicians, which helps a lot!  While juggling everything is a challenge, the nice thing about shifting my focus is that when I feel burnt out at the office or on the road I’m never too far from shifting gears.

That’s so cool that you were a music librarian for the 2010 Winter Olympics…What do you remember about that experience?

This was a really interesting job for me right after college.  I was in charge of checking and formatting all of the cue sheets for much of the network and cable programming (cue sheets are submitted to Performing Rights Organizations like ASCAP and BMI in order to distribute royalties to composers and publishers).  This entailed spending 2 or 3 months working 10 hours a day, 7 days a week in a windowless room at 30 Rock watching every hour of curling and figure skating and ensuring that the fingerprint technology was picking up all of the music…

Usually it was a matter of checking each of the instrumental underscores coming in and out of commercial or during replays, making sure that the durations and use counts were accurate.  Sometimes, we would have to figure out what was being used by ear.  I remember winning an argument with another librarian over whether one track was sung by Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday.  Occasionally, your jazz degree pays off!

You’re in charge of TuneSat’s team of music investigators – what kind of research goes into determining if a client’s music is fingerprinted and properly catalogued?

The acquisition and cataloguing process for our clients’ music is pretty straightforward – we have a fingerprinting and metadata system that keeps things pretty well organized.  What is really challenging is sorting through different uses of music on the internet and find commercial uses that are likely unlicensed.

There’s just so much media online being used in advertising and being monetized on its own, through Youtube and elsewhere. It used to be that music was only transmitted on terrestrial radio and television, which only leaves a handful of frequencies that are being broadcast at once.  Now, there is new media being uploaded and consumed constantly from a virtually infinite number of sources.

This is the main challenge for TuneSat – finding ways to determine the signal within the noise, the media that is really generating revenue living alongside user-generated content.  Now that consumers aren’t paying for CDs and are moving away from buying downloads, sync licenses and performance revenue are becoming a more and more important part of the music industry.  It’s shocking how much music is incorporated into commercial uses on the internet without a proper license.  Our technology has found music that I’ve written being on jewelry advertisements and pornographic videos without my permission, and without any compensation for my work.  It’s really exciting being challenged every day to build solutions that become an essential part of how musicians are paid.

Thinking about music data management, what technical skills and programs besides Excel and Salesforce are really important to know?  What do you use on a daily basis?

Excel and SalesForce are where I do most of the heavy lifting at work.  I will say that while I have no formal training in computer science or programming, the skills I learned designing websites as a teenager have come in very very handy.  A lot of what we do involves web-crawling and data mining on the internet, and being able to modify API calls and sort through the source code of websites looking for media files is a huge help.  Long story short, if you understand how HTML works and know how to ask Google for help, there’s an awful lot you can get done!

How much technical/coding knowledge do you need to work with developers and administrate the backend and client side of a website?

Just enough to communicate!  Fortunately, I work with a really smart and talented team, and the programmers are really patient when they have to bring me up to speed on why something may or may not work.

Do you have a favorite age student to teach music to?  Have you noticed any similarities between students who stick with learning an instrument vs. students who give up?

It really has to do with attitude, some of my favorite students are in their 50s, some are younger than 10.  Regardless of talent or passion, if a student is willing to show up to a lesson ready to learn and have a good time, we tend to make a lot of progress and stick with it long term.  I’ve had very talented students who want to be professional musicians but get frustrated and lose focus when they hit a plateau.

What I’ve found is that progress happens in two stages: first the ears get better, and then the hands get better.  As soon as the ears get better, the student hears what [he] has been doing wrong for the first time.  Often, this can be frustrating and even make it seem as though things are getting worse.  Instead, hearing what is going wrong is the first step to addressing it; once the ears find the problem, we can work on fixing it by building technique.  This is how the hands get better. Of course, this is a cycle, and one reason why musicians always seem to fluctuate between feeling great about our playing and feeling terrible.  I find that if you can recognize this process and stay on top of where you are it makes the journey less frustrating and intimidating, so I always try to help my students see their progress in context.

What advice do you have for people who work with music data?

When I was a teenager, everyone told me that becoming a musician was a bad idea.  The record industry had just started its rapid and historic decline, and the prevailing opinion was that there wouldn’t be any feasible way for musicians to make a living anymore.  Fortunately, I’m very very stubborn, and just couldn’t see myself being anything other than a musician.  Instead of the dust-bowl of a music industry that we were promised, what we’re faced with now is a blank slate for the new digital economy.  Those of us working making music and technology have an opportunity to build this new system, which is fun, and if we do it right, a chance to ensure that musicians are paid more fairly than they were in the 20th century.

Thanks Isaac! To keep up with his projects, check out his website + LinkedIn + SugarBad.

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