september 04, 2010.
The intrepid SoundBlog Twitter birdie called out for your highly esteemed attention no less than 61 times in August, though in this digest we mainly will discuss the ins and outs of last month's rise to massive popularity of a slowdown of a Justin Bieber song.
I guess that, like for me, the slowdown of Justin Bieber for most viewers of the SoundBlog will be of relatively little interest from a purely musical/artistic point of view (and later on I also will indicate why I think that is). It nevertheless is a highly remarkable case, and extremely interesting for a number of reasons.
I became vaguely aware of something unusual going on when around August 18th I noticed a sudden surge in the SoundBlog's stats. This was not merely a steep rise in the number of hits: what happened was, that all of a sudden four out of five visitors of the site landed on the 9 Beet Stretch page, an entry published more than five years ago (May 14th, 2005) on the occasion of the launch of Raudio's no-end/no-beginning webcast of Leif Inge's 24 hour stretch of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which has been running ever since. (9 Beet Stretch is one of the 20 fine sound art streams that together make up the RAUDIO IIIII iPhone app, which, by the way, pending its upcoming 2.0 update is currently free! So if you do not run it already, this is the moment to grab it in your app store!)
Occasional more-than-average attention for a specific subject on the site in itself is not that unusual. Such an increase in traffic is mostly due to a write-up on some high profile site or blog which includes a link to some specific SoundBlog article. It then is almost always evident from the site's stats that most of the additional hits come bundled from that one referrer, and over a period of two to four days the number of visits will exponentially swoop back to the usual average. This of course simply mirrors the clickthrough rate, and thus the hit graph, of the referring page.
But this was not the case this time. In fact, almost all of the new visitors landed on the 9 Beet Stretch SB-page via a Google search, after having typed in a search term like 'Beethoven slowed down'. This sudden increase in the worldwide search for 'slowing down Beethoven' proved to be far more persistent than a mono-source referral. Indeed, even at the time of this writing, still on the average one out of two viewers of the SoundBlog is landing on Beethoven, via Google. Apparently something out there arouses a globally spreading interest in time-stretched audio.
I eventually found out what was going on when a couple of day later in my stats I came upon a number of referrals from a music forum where members were discussing the slowdown of a song of Justin Bieber's that recently had surfaced on the web. Looking through the messages in the forum I found that someone had pointed out that several years ago there had already been a slowdown of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. As evidence he linked to the corresponding article in the SoundBlog.
I then remembered that £PcM already on August 17th, in a message with subject "800%", had emailed me a link to a blog entry entitled "How to Make Justin Bieber Sound Incredible: Slow Him Down 800 Percent". As I had not the slightest idea who Justin Bieber was and over the past couple of years had heard quite enough time-stretched audio, at the time I paid little attention. But now, putting one and one together, it dawned upon me that the sudden sharp increase of interest for Leif's 9 Beet Stretch had to be due to this Bieber slowdown...
"So then, who is Justin Bieber?" I wondered.
I asked my kids, who are both old & young enough to know about these things. They assured me that it would be a waste of my time to check the guy out. "He's horrible," my daughter (age 13) added with a grimace that spoke volumes. Although I have an unconditional trust in my kids' taste in all things pop, I of course had to check him out anyway: duty asserted itself and I made the plunge...
[ ... if u think u should 2, u might, like me, just glance through the Justin Bieber Wikipedia article ... and find out about a (very) young Canadian boy/teen pop 'wonder' that only recently got launched into megastardom. ]
Of course a baby-faced teen pop prodigy like Justin, who makes teen girls all over the world fall into a swoon by the mere wiggle of his little finger, is an easy target for pranks and ridicules. And the web is the place to spread these.
It was a musician from Tampa, USA, named Nick Pittsinger (who under the moniker Shamantis produces ambient music that makes extensive use of time-stretching) and just a bit older than Bieber himself, who opened a copy of Justin Bieber's song U Smile in the audio stretching software Paul Stretch (I tweeted a link to the MacOS version of Paul Stretch) and then stretched the three and something minutes track to last for over half an hour. I doubt that Nick is a Justin Bieber fan, so probably there was something prankish about his act. But I guess that he himself was surprised by the outcome, the better parts of which sound like one might imagine Homeric Sirens singing in the midst of a slow-motion sea-breeze to sound like.
As he liked it a lot, Nick put his Bieb Stretch on Soundcloud. Like several other 'celebrity pranks', it almost instantly became an Internet-meme: the link spread like wildfire over the web. At the moment of this writing, in the 17 days that it was out there, the track has been played a massive 2.037.028 times. That is a huge hit for a slowdown. ( * )
Many profit, either directly or indirectly.
For starters Justin Bieber profits. Before all of this I had not the slightest idea who the guy was. Now I do. I even sat through one or two uTubes of his songs. And even though I personally am unlikely to ever spend a single eurocent on Justin, he and (more likely) his management and/or record company know but too well the inestimable value of massive free and worldwide publicity. They therefore took the one single right action. Which is not the issue of a cease and desist order, but - au contraire - to start promoting the thing themselves. Early on Justin (or staff acting on his behalf, who do a great job, as Justin Bieber's twitter channel does have a pretty authentic feel) tweeted about the Bieb Stretch to his (4.967.519 and counting) followers and so no little contributed to the ongoing spread of the meme.
Then obviously Nick Pittsinger profits. On the Soundcloud page he already mentioned the 'amazing music opportunities' that he suddenly is being offered and of course many will now start to listen to (and buy) his other time-stretch based ambient music.
Leif Inge, Raudio and the SoundBlog profit, because (a small, but still) part of all the internet chatter points to 9 Beet Stretch as the very first example of a 'celebrity's music' slow down.
Also, Paul Nasca, the author of the (free) PaulStretch software that Nick Pittsinger used is an obvious winner. He mentioned that on his site hits jumped from about 40 to some 2500 a day, all grabbing a copy of the tool to try their own hand at slowing down (or speeding up) their musical likes or dis-likes.
And so on, and so further.
It means that eight years after Leif Inge used time-stretching to make his first 24 hour version of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, the slowdown technique has become part of the musical mainstream. That, mind you, is not because of the slowdown of U Smile. It is rather the other way round: Nick Pittsinger was able to come up with his Bieb Stretch because over the past couple of years time-stretch has sneaked its way into the consciousness and tool kit of an ever larger group of practicing musicians of very different persuasion.
In On the sudden popularity of glacial sound, the August 20th entry on his disquiet blog, also Mark Weidenbaum reflects upon this, seemingly sudden, rise to "mass consciousness of [...] what, generally speaking, is a matter of sonic composition relegated deep in left field, in the outer margins of music-posting hubs [...]". In this context Mark also points to Hans Zimmer's soundtrack for this summer's blockbuster Inception, which makes great effective thematic & semantic use of the slowdown of Edith Piaf's 'Non, je ne regrette rien'.
But then slowdown has been rising to the surface of mainstream musical productions in much the same way as did other tools and techniques that were originally introduced in the context of fringe and avantgarde experiments. Evident examples are the use of electronics, of field recordings, of cut-ups, glitches, looping, of sampling, mixing and mashing, which currently all are part of the standard tools applied in the production of popular music. Now some may cringe at what they see as a vulgarization, but it is living proof that the original experiments were successful in introducing means that truly expand our musical language & landscape.
Time-stretching is a particularly easy technique to apply. Given the currently available digital tools like PaulStretch, the slowdown of an audio file is almost as trivial as running it backwards. What makes slowdown different is that the result of its application in a majority of cases will lead to a sounding result that is surprisingly pleasing to almost everyone's ears. As I wrote before: slowdown is like a magic wand that, with just a little bit of tweaking, instantly transforms almost anything into 'cool, slow ambient music'.
What moreover adds quite a bit to its attraction when applied to well-known existing music is (the idea, really, more than) the fact that one seems to be quite directly manipulating and interfering with the passing of time, which - consciously and subconsciously - remains one of man's major preoccupations.
On the other hand, it is likely that once they sat through a couple of slowdowns, be it of symphonies or of more or less well-known pop songs, for the majority of listeners the initial surprise will rather quickly wane and make place for an 'if you heard one you heard them all' sort of reaction. Which indeed is why in the opening of this entry I supposed that for most SoundBlog viewers the Bieb Stretch will be of relatively little interest, as many of you will have had your dose of slowdowns before. (Its use as a conceptual and compositional tool, like for example in Zimmer's soundtrack for Inception, is of course a different story.)
Whether we need evermore slowdowns of evermore un-slow originals or not, we are definitely are going to get them. Though few of them will ever reach a notoriety like the one Nick Pittsinger managed to achieve with his U Smile Stretch, they're all over the web already. Which in turn will eventually bring up the lurking question of author's and recording rights.
That, though, is a 'problem' for which I have one single definite, simple and elegant technological solution®, which, as a matter of fact, I already proposed five years ago while thinking and writing about 9 Beet Stretch.
[ This one's for Steve, so I hope he will listen carefully. And don't you dare to steal it, you Cupertino geeks! There's an email-link somewhere on this page... ]
Here is what you do: you take a time-stretch algorithm like the one used in PaulStretch. You let a couple of your developers improve it in true Apple-style. Then you add it to a next version of iTunes and make it part of the coming generations of the iPod: every single track will get an iStretch® option, allowing its slowdown-ed play back (tweakable - within certain limits, say - by the user). Thus slowdown of whatever artist's track will no longer be someone's modification of the audio file into a subsequently released derived work, but just one among several different ways that one may pick to listen to the original.
It is that simple, really... (Now you say: am I a genius or ain't I ... ...?)
... then seems pretty clear, really. The ubiquity of digital formats and of powerful digital signal processing algorithms that allow for their real time manipulation and modification will continue to lead to evermore possibilities for reactivity and interactivity on the part of the consumer. Other than merely allowing control over where, when and in what order one listens to a collection of fixed tracks, makers of digital music players in the near future will surely start to open up their products ever further to what at this moment for music makers worldwide, be it professionals or amateurs, already is a clear-cut fact: that all music at heart is mere material that may be manipulated, modified and re-combined into other musics, in a sheer infinite number of ways...
,  Taking this but one small step further (which, as this entry's epilogue, leads us all the way from Justin Bieber to the interesting Darwintunes project and to Susan Blackmore's theory of temes and the Third Replicator, both also tweeted about by the SB Twitter birdie last month): I am deeply convinced that some future iTunes will come along with a Genius that not just generates playlists of tracks that fit your taste or mood, but will also be able to mix and mash up tracks, slow them down, invert them, cut them up and many things more; and to the results of its actions it will apply intelligent evolutionary algorithms that via your indication of 'likes' and 'dislikes' over time will continue to transform your original collection of files into an evolving, new and fully personalized kind of music that is ... well ... that may be just like you.
Though many will deem it utterly frightening and suffocating I actually find this prospect invigorating and extensively liberating.
Next SB Tweet Digest in October.
notes __ ::
(*) To wit: from my ongoing regular sampling of the amount of traffic I can safely estimate that the total number of visitors that listened for a relatively extended continuous period of time (more than 40 minutes) to Raudio's 9 Beet Stretch stream in the almost five-and-a-half years that it is running lies somewhere around the 50.000. It is also true, by the way, that about half of these stayed connected to the stream for more than 10 hours in a stretch and that the majority of those listening do so somewhere along the American Westcoast. (Which, again, is pretty remarkable, and I am convinced that there is some deep sociocultural insight to be gained from this curious demographic fact.) [ ^ ]
tags: twitter, digest, time-stretch, Internet-meme, Justin Bieber
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