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The Playlist as a Literary Genre

Before it recedes too far into my memory, a quick note about a panel discussion I attended last month. On December 11, 2007, at the San Francisco offices of the software development company behind Songbird (songbirdnest.com), a quartet of seasoned technologists involved in media web development talked about “portable playlists.” The four were Tantek Çelik (tantek.com; former Chief Technologist of technorati.com), Tom Conrad (tomconrad.net; CTO of pandora.com), Lucas Gonze (gonze.com; a director at music.yahoo.com and co-creator of ccmixter.org), and Scott Kveton (kveton.com; Open Technology Lead at mystrands.com). The moderator was Chris Messina (factoryjoe.com).

Gonze (pictured above) gave a pre-panel talk during which he provided an overview of portable playlists, which is to say — in my own super-uninformed, less than syntactically rigorous language — groupings of songs in list form that can be shared. Back in 2003, Gonze produced a detailed survey of existing playlist formats, from the ubiquitous M3U to the iTunes Library’s proprietary system, some 16 in all (it’s still online at gonze.com). Gonze joined Yahoo! when that company absorbed his webjay.com service, a pioneering playlist-sharing website that has since closed down; the XSPF playlist format was developed hand-in-hand with webjay.com.

The field of playlist formats has expanded further since 2003. Among them is hAudio, Çelik’s explanation of which was a highlight of the evening (more on hAudio at microformats.org) — as was his impassioned critique of Flash-intensive websites; subsequent to the panel he created a webpage summarizing his notes from the evening (at microformats.org). Kveton also blogged after the panel, following up on some thoughts he felt he hadn’t explored fully during the discussion (kveton.com).

There was a lot of talk about web standards, about non-musical data that can be associated with music files (such as year of release, genre, author, performer, etc.), and about how the growth of the playlist as a “literary genre,” so to speak, is dependent on the general public taking more interest in sharing playlists.

What I came away with most was thinking about music in context. Much of what I write about is music as a standalone object, a song or album or performance as some independent node of critical, aesthetic scrutiny. What context or perspective I try to provide is generally restricted to the given musician’s previous work, and to work associated with the music in question, whether related by genre, geography, record label, era, instrumentation, what have you. That’s all helpful, certainly, but it doesn’t allow for how musical context can itself provide a kind of commentary — the sort of gloss, for example, that a DJ provides.

Along those lines, I’ve been thinking for some time about supplementing the Disquiet Downstream MP3 recommendations with something along the lines of a playlist, a kind of listening station or set of listening stations of grouped musical content — for example, the five most recent Downstreams, or a set of atmospheric Downstreams, or beat-oriented Downstreams, or Downstreams that have in common some particular source material (acoustic guitar, piano, voice, field recordings) or time period (WWII, 1960s). Anyhow, we’ll see what comes of that, but the panel discussion strengthened my interest in this idea.

More on the December 11 discussion at songbirdnest.com. The event was filmed, so perhaps it will appear online in the future. A separate interview that was done with Gonze coincident with the panel discussion has been posted, in video form, at the website openmediaweb.org, which co-sponsored the event with Songbird. The image of Gonze above is a still from that interview, in which he talks about the nature of “open” media, the importance of having a URL for any media posted to the web (something closely related to Çelik’s critique of Flash), and other related subjects.

By the way, the credits to that video introduced me to something I wasn’t aware of previously. The theme music is credited to Moby, and below his name is listed the URL mobygratis.com. True to the “open media” model, Moby apparently provides a variety of backing tracks for, as his site states, “independent and non-profit filmmakers, film students, and anyone in need of free music for their independent, non-profit film, video, or short.”

By Marc Weidenbaum

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website Disquiet.com in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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