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An experiment in music created on mobile

I had an idea the other day. I wondered what it might be like to have a collaborative Spotify playlist made up of just music made with mobile devices.

Now of course this presupposes that there is any music on Spotify that's made with mobile devices. I'm not particularly aware of any, so I thought I'd post a link to this playlist to see if anyone could add tracks to it.

I've no real idea of where this will go, but I thought it would be an interesting experiment. If you're a Spotify user then please add any tracks you think are even remotely related to mobile music. If you're not a Spotify user and know of tracks, please leave details in the comments if you can.

Here's the link for the playlist.

Mobile Music, Community and Social Media

Let's face it. Communities are difficult at the best of times. But since the very beginning of mobile music users and developers have formed and grown their own communities. Now with  social media community gets easier in many ways, but also it becomes more difficult.

You might be wondering why I'm posting about mobile music and community. It's a fair question. Now more than ever I think that community and social sharing is important for music, not just mobile music either.

Plenty has been done in communities and social media within the mobile music community, but I'd like to spend a little time exploring what it means and where it might go next.

It seems like these days every developer has a forum and a Facebook page and at least one twitter account. Many have multiple twitter accounts each one dealing with its own app and often a Facebook page per app and that's ignoring the explosion of soundcloud groups that are available either per app or for numerous other groups too. So with this proliferation of information sources what do we get? Confused possibly?

There are so many ways to share and post sounds, music and what you're doing with it. It has become confusing. So what kind of connections between mobile music and social media make sense and what doesn't.

I can understand sharing options like the ones in SoundCloud on uploading tracks, but I can think of a whole load more and I don't really understand why these aren't in more apps.

We seem to share virtually everything these days, from pictures with apps like instagram to our own location through foursquare. So why don't we extend the social sharing in music making apps in more ways? Location is something that I think is wholly underused in music making app, although I'm pleased to see RJDJ's Project Now app is on the way through the Apple review process now.

Location would make sense in mobile music in a big way. I'd personally find it very useful to be able to collect projects by location and see a map of where I'd worked on a track. It would be really interesting to see the locations that made more creative sense for me, and to take it a step further it would be interesting to see where other people found their best inspiration.

But as we share so much of what we do on a constant basis, from where we've bought coffee to what we're eating for lunch, why can't we do this with music making as well? Why don't apps let you tweet or post what you're doing in them as you're doing it? Making a patch, mixing a track, etc. Apart from being good ongoing PR for the developer it could also be a good way to share tips and knowledge as you go through working with your music.

So, there are a few thoughts on community and social media. I'd like to see more sharing and better ways to interact, although that veers into collaboration and that's a topic for another day entirely.

Let me know what you think.

Platforms, Subscriptions, Models

Mobile music has come along way in the last 5 years, and it is only fair to say that a great deal of the change has been facilitated by Apple and their iOS operating system and iTunes. Without a doubt the global ecosystem that they’ve created has enabled the immense simplicity that users now enjoy.
I can still remember when you had to manually install applications on portable devices. It was complex. It was time consuming. The more expensive applications always had lengthy registration processes and codes to deal with, and if you accidentally deleted an application from a device you had to go through the process all over again. Not so now.

The app store simplifies so much of the buying and installation process that you hardly ever even think about it. That is of course how it should be. But there is another side to the elegance of the app store platform solution. It has people locked in.

I find it interesting to see the different direction that the business of music consumption has migrated from a model of ownership to something more akin to rental with services like Spotify and a number of others. However, we don’t see anything like that appearing for music creation. Why is that, what would it look like, and most importantly, what would it mean?

Would it be possible to rent applications in a music creation platform, or down to a more granular level of renting functionality. There are all sorts of possibilities when you start to think about the idea of transposing concepts employed in subscription music services to music creation.

In March of 2012 I went to a conference about mobile music run by the app side. Someone from Spotify was there and one thing they said was that Spotify’s aim was to be the OS of music. This was a bold statement, and an interesting idea as well. It made me think, and in fact it kept me thinking, not just about what the person from Spotify had said, in fact not at all about Spotify’s claim, but about what the OS of music would be.

A long time ago I read a lot about a replacement for the Palm OS called Capers. The intention was to use Capers instead of the Palm device’s own operating system. Capers was to be a mobile OS for music. Sadly, it never came to anything. However, the claim from Spotify made we go over my own thinking about this again. I think that Spotify’s statement was more about marketing than actually being an operating system for music. But, it makes me think about what an operating system for music creation would be and what it would mean.

Ten years ago this might have been something like a conventional operating system, but now it might be something very different indeed. It makes me wonder what part should an operating system play in music creation? To what degree is the software just a plug in to the creative process rather than central to it? To answer these questions you need to think carefully about what an operating system is and what it gives you. My view is that essentially the operating system is just a base for functionality. Something to build on top of. A platform (for want of a better word) for applications that do the things to actually want.

I realise that in many ways this is somewhat obvious, but stay with me. Does this make sense in the context of musical creativity or any other type of creativity for that matter? When you want to make music with a real world instrument you don't need this intermediary layer in the same way as you do with a computer operating systems, there isn't anything in the real world that allows the instrument to work in the same was an OS.

So, in computing terms the operating system makes sense but in a creative sense it doesn't. Although in practical terms it really is an absolute necessity. Now, don't worry that I'm advocating a move away from using operating systems be they mobile or otherwise. I'm not. I'm just pointing out the limitations that are superimposed on the creative process by the structure of the technology itself. But when you start to realise these things it makes you wonder how it is that an operating system for a mobile phone enables so much creativity.

In an ideal world I'd love to see a wholly music orientated operating system. In fact I'd probably argue that it shouldn't even be referred to as an operating system but as a creative system. I'm sure someone else could come up with a better title though. But we are in the real world an that means dealing the operating systems we have and with the limitations and models that are forced on us by them.

I think that the next few years will see increased experimentation in models and platforms. This could be a good thing. Or at least in models. I expect that at least in the short term iOS will remain the dominant mobile OS for music creation, which in a sense is a shame, not just because it means that there are fewer choices around devices, but also because I think there will be less impetus for Apple to move the OS further in the direction of music creation. I could be wrong though.

But I think that the most interesting idea is that of a subscription based mobile music platform (or OS for that matter), something that does for musical creation what Spotify has done for listening. Now that would be worth investigating.

The journey from music consumption, to creation (and beyond)

I’ve been saying this for a long time now. But increasingly I think that we will a more pronounced movement of users from listener consumer through a series  of steps or paths to content creator and beyond.

If you look back just a couple of decades it was not an easy thing to start making electronic music or even to have any kind of home studio. Over the years this has become progressively easier to the point now where you can start making music at a relatively minimal cost including the hardware. As a result of this you can go from listener to creator with incredible ease.

So what does this mean? So what takes some from the consumer / curator to creator? Well my guess is that lots of people would like to make music but the transition is too hard and often very daunting. Mobile tools can place plenty of stepping stones on the way though. Lots of these are cheap and easy to use and can help a user make that journey to musical creativity, whatever that might mean for an individual.

So what are these stepping stones? Well, one path through starts with the kind of curation tools that allow users to share tracks and play lists. Moving on to remix tools like those from liine. Letting a user remix tracks in a familiar environment on their mobile device gives them a taste of what they could do next. Of course, not everyone wants to move through all of these phases.

That's fine, but giving people the tools and entry points is what's important. I'm a firm believer that people need creative outlets and that music is an excellent way of satisfying that need. But it isn't the easiest way to satisfy it. Not by a long way. So in order to encourage users down this path they need simple cheap and engaging tools to make small steps into musical creativity rather than have to take what is often a very large perceptual leap that can end up putting them off for a long time.

There are already plenty of apps that do this and do it well, but as with everything in the mobile music world discovering them can be difficult and the search in itself can be off putting. Wherever you go these days discovery is talked about as some kind of Holy Grail. I'm still not entirely sure why. From my own perspective discovery is not the answer. Discovery relies on a user making an active decision to search for something in an area that they're unfamiliar with (at least in terms of moving along a path toward musical creativity). What we need is guidance for users. A way of understanding their behaviour and being able to suggest possible paths for them to take next. Music discovery is already getting better at this and is better understood by users in general whereas getting a suggestion that a user might want to try out a wholly different kind of application is less familiar. But that doesn't mean that it is necessarily unwelcome.

I've often wondered why it is the so many discovery systems only work in a single category. Why is it that when Apple emails me to tell me what I've bought it recommend apps to me? If I buy a synth app why doesn't it recommend ebooks on synth programming? Or even synth music?

If I buy music by an electronic artist why doesn't it recommend a handful of synth apps to me based on previous purchases? Now you could argue that this would require a lot of work on Apple's part and that they're unlikely to change overnight. I'd agree. But it isn't just about Apple. There are plenty of developers who have in app stores inside their apps. Why don't those recommend books and music too? Surely that wouldn't be so difficult? If we don't grow the market for music apps it will eventually stagnate and I firmly believe that there is a much bigger market available if we can only define simple and non-threatening paths for users to try out. Encouraging people to make the jump from listener to creator is a big key to the app economy in my view. But how do we make that happen?

Well, I believe that there are a number of routes. One very obvious route is through games. Now, before I go further with this I have to admit that I am firstly not a gamer and secondly not entirely convinced that gamification of music is completely workable. However, having said that, just because I don't think that I've seen it done successfully so far doesn't mean that it can't be done. In fact, my own doubts about the concept could just be because I'm not a gamer. The only think that's come close in my book is the work that RJDJ have done with the app they produced for the film Inception and also their Dimensions game. Both of which are very much worth a look at if you don't know them.

So, on to the gamification of music creation. My biggest problem with this is how to turn something fundamentally competitive into something creative. I think that there is a problem at a very conceptual level with the whole application of gamification to the process of music creation. I think if you can design a process that gets you around that it could have a real chance of success. There are ways of gamifying music though, outside of making the actual process of creation a game itself. For instance, applying the concept of leader boards to music creation is something that you rarely see and in fact only a handful of music apps on ios connect to apples game centre. To be fair game centre isn't really an ideal place for music creation and others would be best place to take this on, like SoundCloud for example. Allowing users to rate and comment on tracks is already something that SoundCloud do well so why not extend to a leader board model that can exist commonly to apps?

So what else can be gamified? Patches and samples in the same way as tracks themselves? Why not? That of course leads nicely into collaborative approaches to music, but that's for another day.

Are there alternatives to gamification as a route to bring users in? Of course there are. One other example would be locative services. Ideas around sound walks have been explored for some time now, but why not mainstream this by allowing users to collect tracks or sounds fromtheir favourite artists based on location? Check ins don't just have to give you points but sounds and tracks too.

Taking it one step further a user, once they've collected stems and made their mix, could drop it to a specific location as well. For others to find and also remix. Again this leads back to ideas around collaboration. There are many possibilities and I've only mentioned a very limited number here. Others will have better ideas than I do I'm sure, that is if anyone reads or decides to take any of this further.

But what comes after that? Sure only a percentage of people will make the move to starting to create their own music but of those who do a percentage will continue further and become more technical users. Others will make the move from mobile to desktop for more powerful tools and a different experience. Their needs to be continuity from one platform to another and a consistency of experience as well. This is especially important to desktop tool manufacturers and we've begun to see this with vendors like Propellerheads and their iOS app Figure. On its own it is a great app for making a beat and playing with it. But as a potential hook to the desktop it is a very useful stepping stone. These kind of experiments are important. Not just in terms of learning, but also in showing that the big established players on the music tools business also see the benefit in taking this route.

Anyway, I think that this is as good a place as any to wrap things up here. I hope you found this useful or thought provoking.

Hold on, have we just replicated the desktop on mobile devices?

I promised some thinking about mobile music, so here's the first installment. I started thinking about the how mobile music applications are designed and work together when I was putting together a set of slides for the Music 4.5 conference on mobile music (in March this year). I was trying to decided what to talk about, what I wanted to say about mobile music.

I realised that this thought had been going through my head for quite a while and needed more exploring. It isn't a complex idea at all, in fact it is really just a simple question. Has mobile music creation simply replicated the tools and workflows available for the desktop, and if it has, have we missed something significant? It isn't that I think that having mobile apps like synths and drum machines etc is a bad thing. Not at all. In fact if I look back over the brief history of mobile music these are common themes and they often work very well indeed. It's more that I couldn't see a straightforward line or direction that mobile music was taking that was in anyway different from desktop music creation and recording tools. But you could argue that there's nothing wrong with that. That's a fair argument. I'd agree.

However, mobile is not desktop. It never will be and it is fundamentally different. You might argue that we are seeing signs of a slow convergence between mobile and desktop. I agree to a degree, but that in no way negates the fact that there are some very significant differences between desktop and mobile and even if we had an equal amount of processing power in both camps, how we use applications and functionality on mobile devices is very different to how we use desktop functionality.

So, going back to my question. Why is mobile music application development going in such a similar direction to desktop? Because it's easy? Because it makes sense? Because it's what users want? Maybe all of them. My issue with this is that I don't think we're seeing apps take real advantage of the fact that the device is mobile and I think that there are a lot of missed opportunities as a result. I'm not saying that there aren't apps that make good use of the full facilities of a mobile device but they're aren't many.

It almost feels as if no one has quite worked out what it is to be a real mobile music application and so we stay in the relative safety of replicating the desktop rather than moving out of the comfort zone into what mobile music could be.

So is it wrong to follow the desktop? No it isn't. But it does miss something rather fundamental I believe. The actual fact of being mobile itself. But what does that mean? Essentially I think that by being mobile there are a lot more possibilities available to a musician in the creation of their music. More dimensions to it than when you are just sat in front of a desk.

I think that to help to define this we need to define some principles for mobile music. I've tried to do this before, so here's what I've come up with.
  1. Immediacy and access Inspiration doesn’t appear on a schedule, and doesn’t recognise when you have time to set up your gear or access the right equipment. We’ve all had times when you we have a great idea for a track but by the time you get to a computer, or whatever else you use to make music, the idea has gone, possibly never to return. It might have been an incredible idea for a track or song, or it might not, but you’ll never know, so what can you do? Being able to capture your inspiration and ideas wherever you are and with just the tiny device that sits in your pocket can go a long way to solving that problem. Sure, it’s not going to replace an entire professional studio, at least not yet anyway, but there are now so many different applications that you can use. From synths to multitrack recorders to drum machines to sequencers to guitars and esoteric instruments and every combination in between. If you have a killer guitar riff in your head while you’re on the bus you can try it out with one of many superb guitar apps. If you’re thinking of a great beat but have nowhere to lay it down then there’s an app for that (as the saying goes). In fact, there are apps that let you take whole projects on the go with you and move them back and forth between the device and the desktop. Now you can have the option of turning your dull bus journey into something more productive. If that’s what you want of course.
  2. Democratization and inclusion A lot of desktop music making applications require some level of musical or technical knowledge which can discourage someone who’s new to making music, and many are priced too high for the casual user to dip their toe in and try out . Whilst there’s clearly a place for Pro applications, there exists a whole untapped market of people for whom making music may be just an unrealised aspiration. Users in this market are using their smartphones to play games, receive email and for doing other smartphone stuff, but often haven’t considered that the device could be used to make music, or to explore other creative pursuits, such as art and photography. There are quite a number of applications that have started to tap into this market to a greater or lesser degree and with varying success. One of the key developments that is being utilised in capturing the imagination of previously non-musical users is music based games, or the gamification of musical applications. Game mechanics are being employed to bridge the gap between a users expectations of a gamebased application whilst simultaneously moving them along the creative line. Applications like Smule’s Magic Piano are democratizing musical creation for a potentially huge number of users. By making the act of making music into a game. By making creativity fun, portable devices give access to the start point of a potential journey for a user into a world of creative applications that they had not perhaps envisaged.
  3. Interface and instrument innovation A mobile device introduces both interesting limitations and possibilities to developers. Mobile application are limited in some ways due to the capability of the device and also by the screen size available for the interface But, on the flip side are the possibilities of using multi-touch and gestural interfaces which leverage accelerometer and gyroscopic control. These possibilities have lead to an explosion of innovation in terms of both new instruments and also innovation in user interfaces that work with limited screen real estate. Instead of controlling an instrument by interacting solely with the screen, you can play it by using gestures. Instead of adjusting mixing levels one at a time on a computer screen you can touch the virtual sliders on an iPad and manipulate several simultaneously. Developers have created new instruments and interfaces that push the boundaries of musical experience using these devices.
Now, you may argue that on the 3rd and final point there are apps that have significantly innovated in the mobile music space, and I would agree entirely, but to stop there and accept the current state is still missing something.

Increasingly I see mobile applications that are incredibly complex but also very geared to the workflow of the desktop and the concepts that go alongside it.

Mobile music creation is still in it's relative infancy, and now I think is a great time to start thinking about what mobile music really is, and how different it can be from the desktop.

Now we are 6 ... and some thoughts on mobile music

It has been almost five months since I last posted at Palm Sounds. At that point I said that the site would not be restarted for the foreseeable future. I don't know what the foreseeable future is on the Internet or on the blogosphere but five months is a long time in either.
So why post now?

Well I just couldn't let Palm Sounds 6th birthday go unnoticed. Especially as 6 years is a long time to run for a blog, and also because I wanted to post some thoughts on what's been happening in the mobile music world, where it's going and what that direction might mean.

So what have I been doing over the last 5 months?

Well quite a lot actually. Not as much fun stuff as I'd have hopes but a lot of catching up and regaining some personal balance. Having said that I've still kept an eye on what's been happening in the mobile music world and it's been really quite interesting.

I've both attended and spoken at events on the subject of mobile music and those events have given me a different view of what's happening in the mobile music world. It also gave me the opportunity to talk to some really interesting people and those conversations have developed my thinking even further.

In many ways having some time to sit back from the day to day happenings in mobile music has allowed me to develop these thoughts or themes that had been knocking around my head for some time. It's these themes that I decided that I would share, and what better way than as a little celebration of Palm Sounds being 6.

So what are these themes?

Well they're quite diverse and cover topics from the mobile music economy to the nature of mobile music itself. The ideas or themes may not be ground breaking in of themselves and you may not agree with them but I wanted to share them with the mobile music community to see if they encouraged debate.

So over the next few days I plan to post these a day at a time and if anyone is still reading this blog then I hope you find them interesting, thought provoking and of some use.