Our metrics are failing

The most amazing thing about Leonard Cohen being number three on Billboard is that it only took 41,000 records to get there.

Adele’s been at the top end of the charts for 19 weeks now, but number one – Lana Del Rey – got there with 76,000 copies of her ‘Born To Die.’

Twenty years ago, record labels could buy truckloads of singles from key record shops to build momentum and heave records into the charts.

With no suggestion that Right Said Fred played the system, they topped the charts 20 years ago with ‘I’m Too Sexy.’ The song went platinum in the US, signifying over two million copies sold. I know that’s comparing albums with singles, but even the album (‘Up’) went gold, selling half a million copies.

The numbers are so much smaller now, but the cultural stakes are just as high. Are we in a time when it’s easier than ever to game the system?

In the last magazine circulation figures, FHM’s numbers halved. It’s now lower than The Monthly. But across the board, from Masterchef to Big League, magazine circulation was down in the final six months of last year compared to the same period a year before.

Australian Geographic, which dropped from 121 to 95 thousand in the same period, had more than 200,000 subscribers when it was sold to Fairfax in 1995.

There’s a lot of criticism around of social metrics like Klout, PeerIndex and Alexa. But clearly many old metrics are failing.

There are so many datasets: Spotify, last.fm or Rhapsody listens; pinterest, Facebook or Digg shares; views, downloads, tweets. Aggregating measures is a fraught process, at best, but in our splintered world don’t we need a way to make sense of it all?

[Reading #8] Discounting, data stories and long journalism

1. Discounting

So discounting is what retailers do – at Christmas, to seize the momentum of buying ahead of Christmas, and, in June, to get cash rather than debts on the books ahead of the end of financial year.

But it’s something we all do. Think about the choice between watching TV or doing exercise. We know going for a run is better for us. Thinking for next month, maybe even next week, you probably imagine tying your laces and doing it. But faced by the decision today, we tend to choose the TV. It’s easier. We know it’s better to do exercise, but the immediate satisfaction of sitting on the couch is more attractive.

Gareth Hutchens explains, in an SMH op-ed, that’s why we use credit cards – the hit from buying something with our credit card now trumps the cost of the interest we’ll pay down the track.

We “discount” future consumption in favour of present consumption. The question is by how much, and that depends on our “discount rate”.

To find the discount rate, economists ask: How should we compare the welfare of future generations to the welfare of the current generation?

There are two ways to answer it. We can base our calculations on market interest rates (the positive approach), or we can base them on ethical judgments about the relative values of people’s lives (the normative approach).

Seems simple, but this simple idea of discounting underpins everything we think about the future, from building infrastructure to dealing with climate change.

2. The climate debate is a failure of data visualisation – can we tell data stories better?

Anyone who’s sat through a climate science talk intuitively knows this. It’s serious. Talk to climate researchers offline and they’re compelling. Go to a talk and – with notable exceptions – it’ll be a glacial drift of excel graphs.

Illustrators and other artists used to be crucial parts of research laboratories, though in most labs they’ve long since been let go. Watching Ben Hosken (from Melbourne data visualisation powerhouse Flink Labs) talk last week at #media140 in Brisbane, I couldn’t help but see it as a renaissance of the artist’s role in research.

Flink Labs did this project for #apps4nsw using real time Sydney Buses travel data (it’s not real time now though – the RTA removed public access to the data within hours of the program finishing). I love the potential of these kinds of projects for real time city governance – the sort of projects MIT’s Media Lab and Stamen have specialised in.

The #media140 talk was fairly introductory, not much new. But what I found interesting was Hosken’s broad principles had little to do with the technical side of data crunching, writing algorithms and doing graphics. Here’s a series of my tweets from the session:

Expressing data’s story in a way that doesn’t obscure the truth… also need to tell a really good story.

Data viz is telling a story you can interact with and explore, not broadcast

Tell the story, don’t just show data

& any storytelling RT @allinthemind: “not about the average”.. biggest & smallest sometimes reveal most enriching data viz stories

It’s finding the story in the data – not just processing the data unvarnished. Though as Natasha Mitchell (Radio National’s All In The Mind) said, using outliers to tell the story is ripe for misrepresentation. Take care.

Stanford’s Edward Segel and Jeffrey Heer wrote a great paper on telling stories through interactive visualisation. German visual analytics researcher Enrico Bertini (from Fell In Love With Data) blogged the key points in a guest post on Andrew Vande Moere’s Infosthetics blog:

1. The table with the design space can help you during the design phase to understand what components you can use in your solution. Choose a genre, a visual narrative tactic, and a narrative structure. You can also think creatively and see if there are useful combinations of these elements that have never appeared before. Alternatively, you can think out-of-the-box, and come up with new solution altogether.

2. Be careful with the level of interactivity and messaging you provide. This is probably a choice that you have to take early in your visualization project: do you want to give lots of freedom and risk that the message is not conveyed clearly or you prefer to guide the reader but remove the thrill of exploration?

3. The hybrid models are ready-cooked solutions that you can use right away. Again, these can both serve as a way to find a model that suits your message, or just as a starting point to create new hybrid models.

The most popular software being used by designers and others who aren’t code natives is Processing, but there’s a stack of others. Computer World reviews 22 free packages including Data Wrangler, Google Refine, R Project, Google Fusion Tables, Impure, Tableau Public, IBM’s Many Eyes, VIDI, ZOHO Reports, Choosel, Exhibit, Google Chart Tools, JavaScript InfoVis Toolkit, Protovis, Quantum GIS (QGIS), OpenHeatMap, OpenLayers, OpenStreetMap, TimeFlow, Gephi and NodeXL. Get visualising.

3. Long form journalism

A big trend’s just about always complemented by its almost opposite. So while Twitter’s firing, there’s a balanced explosion in long form writing. You can see it in the thriving New Yorker magazine. Yes, Twitter is limited to 140 characters, but it’s driven by the deeper content of features, books, documentaries, conferences, movies and a hundred other things.

Annabel Crabb wrote a typically great piece for ABC’s Drum on the topic.

And the truth is, even though reading long articles on screens can be fiendish, especially when you are – as so often social media users do – breaking off every 30 seconds to check Twitter or let your intimates know that you’re up to page six and you feel a bit like a burrito, the internet is also coughing up new ways to recover, locate and enjoy longer pieces.

She mentions Aaron Lammer and Max Linsky’s site longform.org and Instapaper – both fast friends with iPad owners. There’s also The Paris Review and, one of my favourites, Longreads.

I was a music writer for ages, though I seem to be having a break. Editing Cyclic Defrost magazine, we shifted short reviews to the web and focussed the magazine around long feature length profiles and essays. With in depth music writing all but gone from the papers – most dailies get syndicated copy, and the magazines get more and more concise – we wanted to give more context, looking at creative communities and the broader culture. And that’s something you can’t approach in the usual 15-30 minute, 500 word feature.

Doesn’t need to be in print, either. Dan Hill’s great blog City of Sound is a case in point. He’s leaving Australia with this piece on planning in his wake. There are a stack of other writers doing much more interesting critical writing on blogs than anywhere – Alison Croggon, Anwyn Crawford, Linda Carroli – mostly because there isn’t the space in print publications for that depth.

4. Other good stuff

Greplin is a personal search engine that allows you to search all your online data in one easy place.

Scribble notes while you surf the web with Markup.

Fascinating Cindy Frewen Wuellner series on future cities at her Urban Verse blog.

Kate Carruthers asks if innovation actually helps.

And N+1 magazine on elites.

Think you can make a phone app one weekend and storm the appstore the next?

In June last year, Steve Jobs walked out onto the stage at Apple’s annual developer conference, and the response bordered on rapturous. Actually, it was rapturous. He was launching the ipad, and people were seriously excited. A big part of that excitement was the huge portfolio of apps already available, carried over from the iphone. A few new apps, too. But all those apps started somewhere. And as Steve Jobs reeled off the best apps on the new tablet, the only music application was from three friends who met at Katoomba High School.

That’s Eddie Dolan, Luke Dubber and Gordon Childs on their first day in the one place in at least two years – at Luke’s place in Sydney’s inner west. Luke’s often touring with one of a handful of bands, including Hermitude. Gordon’s based in Italy. And Eddie’s in the Blue Mountains. So they’re rarely in the one place, instead collaborating on Skype and online messaging. But having traded some emails with Luke for this blog post, I caught up with them on their first day in the one place in at least two years – for ABC Radio National’s By Design.

They now have three DJ scratch apps for the iphone and ipad on Apple’s app-store, and at least two of them have quit their day jobs. But what I found really interesting was that rather than being some kind of overnight, or even over the course of a year success, it was something that started brewing long before. They’re a bunch of high school mates whose friendship has twisted into something that’s now paying their rent.

The world according to Andrew Ramadge, or how he made that online novella about Gareth Liddiard from The Drones

In October, 2010, a news post went up on Mess + Noise about a different kind of music interview. I’m a music fan and a writer, but most writing about music follows a pretty straight format. And with the changes in the music industry, and the media, the music media has been hit hardest.

With last.fm, SoundCloud and Hype Machine, Pitchfork and a suite of music blogs, the role of local magazines as arbiters of global music and their knock-on benefits as champions of local music has just about disappeared. Actually M+N grew out of the online message board Mono to counter just that trend, as a defiantly ‘Local Music Magazine’ – and while it was a truly great magazine, it couldn’t hold back the tide.

Anyway, when a writer gets an interview with a band, it’s usually 15-30 minutes on a carousel of phone card numbers. The guy in the band is bored because he’s had the same bunch of questions so many times. The writer is jaded because she’s not paid enough, doesn’t have enough time to prepare or to build up a rapport. The end result is nothing special over and over. When the story plays differently, it’s usually because the writer is doing it for the love.

Andrew Ramadge was one of the original writers at M+N, and he stuck with it when the magazine folded and again when the website was sold to Sound Alliance. He’s a tech reporter at news.com.au, he’s written for Overland, and he also did the great weekly Pop In Print review for The Brag.

He visited Gareth in Yass where The Drones front man was recording his debut solo record Strange Tourist.  Andrew’s interview – The World According To Gaz – is a gripping read that suits its subject. And when I got an email from the Da Capo people in New York for suggestions for their annual best music writing tome, it was the story that immediately sprung to mind. But I found myself wondering how the story came together. So I dashed off an email to Andy, and this week he replied.

What came first – the interview opportunity or the idea for publishing it as a stand-alone website?

I had the idea for how to publish it first. I’d wanted to publish a long piece as a standalone website for a year or two before the interview opportunity with Gareth came along. When it did, I knew straight away it was the perfect story.

An online novella inspired by ’90s gonzo journalism and grunge lit – were you reading those things?

Yes I was – however that line was actually just something I came up with at the last minute because I was nervous about what people would think. I knew it was an unusual way of writing a story like that and I felt as if I had to offer some sort of explanation. I was particularly worried I’d cop a lot of flak for writing from such a personal point of view, so I thought: “Why not say it’s a homage?”

Probably a stupid idea in hindsight – but there is some truth to it.

Another story I’ve been working on is about Louise Dickinson, the author of an old music zine from the ’90s called Lemon. One of the things I love most about Lemon is how subjective and over-the-top and unapologetic it is. I looked to that style of writing, and that “fuck what anyone thinks” attitude, as an inspiration to write “Gaz” however I wanted. Also, Praise is my favourite novel.

It’s interesting for the means of publishing as much as the writing. You’re a tech journalist, how would you describe it?

“The World According to Gaz” is an online novella with three chapters and 46 pages. It can be read with any popular web browser – IE, Firefox , Safari, Chrome – on any computer and most mobile devices. You can also bookmark individual pages or chapters using your browser’s bookmark functionality. Because it doesn’t use Flash, it looks and works just the same on an iPhone and iPad as on your computer.

I’m pretty sure “Gaz” is the first of its kind in terms of how many devices you can read it on.

I called it a “novella” because that word suggests a physical book – which is what it’s meant to feel like – but the story isn’t fiction. I’m not sure if you’d call it journalism or creative non-fiction. One of the two.

Had you seen anything similar?

I’ve seen other web-based books, but they all seem to use plug-ins like Flash, so they don’t work across devices. You can’t use Flash on an iPhone, for example. I’m pretty sure “Gaz” is the first of its kind in terms of how many devices you can read it on. It looks the same on a Mac, a PC, an iPhone, an Android tablet or whatever.

How did you think people would respond?

As I said, I was pretty nervous about what people would think of the story. I thought a lot of people would hate it. Making yourself the main character of a story like that is pretty risky business. It’s hard to pull off without sounding like a wanker, for one. And secondly, it leaves you wide open to criticism – not least that you’re self-indulgent. I showed a few drafts to some journo friends of mine before it was published and one or two were a bit taken aback. I really had to tell myself I didn’t care what anyone thought to write it the way I did.

Thankfully, lots of people liked it. Lately I’ve been getting emails from people all over the world saying that they really enjoyed reading it.

Does being a tech journo mean you’re thinking about different ways of doing what you do as a journo?

Yes, all the time – but as “Gaz” shows, it’s got nothing to do with being a tech journalist. You can write about any topic in different ways and be creative. I’ve always been interested in creating new things on the web and I used to work as a web developer so thankfully I’ve got some of the know-how as well. I’m pretty lucky to work at news.com.au during the day because I’m in a team of other journalists who want to try new things as well.

Outside of work I love pop music and do-it-yourself culture and stuff, so it’s all kind of perfect for me. I have lots of opportunities to be creative.

Everyone’s looking for different ways of doing media and, I guess, making money from it. Do you think this is part of that? Or is it more like a crafty, zine kind of project?

The technical side of “Gaz” was an experiment in finding new ways to publish long stories on the web. It was a love project for me, but some parts of it may be useful to commercial outlets as well.

When I got back from Yass and started writing, I started having ideas for how the site would look as well. I sat down and scribbled some designs on a piece of paper.

As for the story, well… it’s not really the sort of story you’d ever have expected to make money from. I don’t think any major magazine or newspaper in Australia would ever have published “Gaz” the way I wrote it. Not in 2010, not in 1990, not in 1970. So in that sense, it’s definitely more of a zine.

I certainly didn’t make any money from it.

After “Gaz” was published, I did have a young journalist email me to say that perhaps it should have been behind a paywall or have a PayPal button for donations. Maybe she was right.

Do you think we’ll see more spot.us/kickstarter type funded projects in music writing – and is this the kind of stand-alone project that could work?

It’s funny you ask that. One of the people in the story, who was staying at the mansion while Gaz recorded, was in the middle of using Fundbreak to fund her next project. I should get in touch and ask how it went. I haven’t used it myself. If I do, I’ll get back to you and tell you how it went.

Was the interview offered to M+N or was it a personal connection?

The opportunity to send someone to Yass to interview Gareth was offered to Mess+Noise. I’d been working with Mess+Noise for years and I’m a big fan of The Drones, so the editor Darren Levin asked if I’d like to do it. After that I kind of took it off in my own direction.

As I said, I already knew I wanted to do something special with a standalone website. When I got back from Yass and started writing, I started having ideas for how the site would look as well. I sat down and scribbled some designs on a piece of paper and asked a good friend of mine, Danny Bos, to build it. I sent him the designs in an express envelope, which he thought was quaint. I wanted him to have something to hold in his hands, not just a digital image. Anyway, from there, Danny started building the site while I finished writing the story and then we put it all together.

Kristy Milliken, a painter and illustrator, made the book cover and the chapter titles. The finished website is hosted independently and presented by Mess+Noise.

Was it a creative process thinking about how you could do this, or did the pages idea come fully formed?

I’d been thinking about different ways to do it for years, but in the end the final design for “Gaz” came to me all of a sudden while I was writing. It’s hardly that original, though. It just looks like a book.

Rock journalism here is usually about 30 min interviews on a carousel, how different was this one?

The other journos in Sydney got half an hour or so with Gareth at a pub down the road from my house. I got a weekend away with him – though if you’ve read the story you’ll know it was only meant to be one night. The results speak for themselves. A half-page article in a newspaper, or a 46-page novella.

I actually think it was really brave of Gareth and Fiona to invite us down there. Not many bands do that nowadays. Everything is so stage managed. Sometimes I think interviews are so short nowadays not only so publicists can fit in a lot of journalists, but so that no-one sees anything embarrassing. You can’t get anything too scandalous out of a 15-minute phone call, which is what the norm is nowadays. When you’re hanging out with someone in person, it’s much more revealing. That’s why I think it was a brave invitation.

I have no idea if Gareth and Fiona like what I wrote. I haven’t spoken to them since it was published.

I realise this is the story itself, but in brief how did the interview play out?

Exactly the way it does in the story. I’m not sure Gareth was expecting some of those questions, and at times he was a bit taken aback – but you can figure that out from the transcript.

Did you approach this interview knowing you’d be presenting it in this different way?


All I knew was I was going to get drunk with Gareth and ask him the meaning of life. That’s all I had planned.

You’ve taken such a literary approach to the writing – again, pretty foreign in music writing – how did that affect the way you took notes and made observations?

Actually, it’s the other way around. I didn’t mean to take a literary approach to writing. It was the experience, and the notes I took while drunk, that dictated how the story was written. I certainly didn’t sit down and think “I want to write something literary”. I just sat down and the only way I could get it from inside me to the keyboard was to write it the way it happened. That’s why, more than any other reason, it’s in the first-person and I’m such a big character in it. I couldn’t have done it any other way. As for the fragmentation, how it’s written in lots of little scenes strung together, that’s probably to do with my notes.

I had a small notebook, enough for about 40 words per page. I was drinking a fair bit, so I took notes as I went, just writing down everything that happened every hour or so. I’ve attached a scan of two of the pages. As you can see, they appear almost exactly the same way in the finished story. I can’t remember writing them.

Would you do something like this again?

Definitely. I’m already planning my next few projects.

Three great things I came across this year

It’s almost the end of December, best of lists are everywhere. And I love lists. But… I find them a bit arbitrary – it’s all so dependent on what you saw, where you were, how you felt. Still, there’s something to them: a look back, before leaping into a new year.

I’m a science writer and researcher, an arts broadcaster and music obsessive, and a compulsive reader, so there is a  lot to draw on. Too much. So I decided to focus on three great things I came across this year and haven’t been able to stop talking about.

Tipping Point, Performance Space

It’s seems right to start here, considering I started this blog a week later. The idea had been kicking around a while, of doing a radio show, online thing, whatever, about ideas and where they come from and how they’re made. But talking to people at Tipping Point convinced me to get this ball rolling.

I didn’t know what to expect of #tpoz10 (as it went on Twitter). Several events this year promised fascinating ideas, brilliant minds, but delivered typical programs of good and/or dull. Tipping Point stemmed from a UK event of the same name – it was even sponsored by the British Council and Royal Institution, alongside the Australia Council for the Arts – and ran over two days in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Producer Angharad Wynne-Jones and her team assembled a stellar group to talk about how artists and scientists could work together on climate change.

On the first night, I met a sound designer, a theatre director and an urban wastewater consultant. Over the course of the following couple of days, I chatted with IPCC lead authors, a design activist, a narrative specialist and a huge range of other creative people. There were artists, scientists and others – not sure which camp I fitted in, though with the low count of scientists, I found myself explaining that part of the game most often – but at any point in the weekend it felt as though the organisers could have arbitrarily picked speaking talent from the audience, it was really pretty special.

There was a lot of electricity. The British Council announced a round of Climate Commissions for new work. People talked about doing art/science job swaps, coming up with ‘Carbon Dating’ or ‘Me & We’ websites to connect artists and scientists who want to collaborate, a new online database of climate change knowledge, documentary ideas, and stacks of other stuff. It’s been pretty quiet since then, so I’m not sure how much real stuff came out of the weekend.

But for me, the most important thing was realising my eclectic mix of experiences make sense together. Science, technology, art, music, ideas – that intersection was the centre of a lot of discussions over the weekend, and that was a fascinating place to be.

Other Film, Sydney Opera House

Video art may have come of age, but its half sibling film art still languishes. The captivating scribbles, daubs of paint, images, bursts of colour, text and found footage aren’t quite film, they’re not a linear, or often even two-dimensional narrative, and they haven’t made complete sense to the art world either.

Len Lye’s show at ACMI last year showed just how difficult this work is to place – much of his work was made as advertising. But Lye’s show was part of a growing reevaluation of film art – I interviewed Mark Titmarsh early this year about his experimental film in Sydney in the 1980s and his magazine at the time, On The Beach, as well as a retrospective on the Canadian film maker Norman McLaren.

It can be as simple as projecting an (albeit wildly inventive) film on a standard screen, or something closer to a ’60s ‘happening’ with sculptures in front of the projector scattering the film, shapes protruding from the screen, and even performances with the film or screen being scratched and painted as the film rolls.

It is a very 1960s vibe, actually. Heavily psychedelic, with a lot of music. That’s how a couple of Brisbane locals came to film art. Joel Stern and Danni Zuvela were more involved with the fiercely independent and experimental music scenes, and regulars at events like This Is Not Art, Newcastle, and Straight Out Of Brisbane, when they came across some of the experimental film being shown alongside the music. It quickly spiralled out, and Zuvela’s academic work on the topic is attracting increasing attention.

In Brisbane, Other Film runs regular expanded film happenings. But I saw a rare Sydney show that paired a spectacular Robin Fox with Melbourne’s difficult but hugely influential Cantrills, an intense Joel Stern performance with Sydney film maker Paul Winkler, and Holy Balm playing a stop start set of psychedelic clunk funk through a film from George Gittoes. Captivating.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot

When I first mentioned to my former obstetrician father-in-law that I was reading a book about ‘HeLa’ cells, he asked: “Helen Lane?” That’s who the textbooks say she was, a white woman called Helen Lane or Helen Larson. She was actually a poor Southern farmer called Henrietta Lacks, and this book tells the whole, fascinating story.

Rebecca Skloot writes for the New York Times, New York, Oprah Magazine, Discover and she’s a contributor to WNYC’s Radiolab, so she has form. But the kernel that became The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks appeared when Skloot caught a stray remark about the HeLa cells in high school biology. She was 16. She kept that kernel of an idea in her head for a decade, until at 27 she finally started working on a book.

It took her another decade to write it, and that time and dedication is so crucial to the book’s rhythm and flow. It’s an adventure to dig out information, to find Henrietta Lacks’s family and to get them to talk, and that’s why Skloot is a key part of the story. She talked to everyone, and in a stellar piece of literary journalism, wove the story from Henrietta, whose cancer cells were taken to form the cell line, through to her descendents (human and cellular). Insightful and intensely readable.

Scratch flair with Async’s Luke Dubber

Last year, Luke Dubber got a call. He was on tour with his band Hermitude, and a programmer friend Gordon Childs had an idea for a scratch DJ iPhone app. With illustrator Eddie Dolan, they quickly sketched out their first app Flare Scratch.

It’s been a meteoric rise – and one that’s stepped up since Apple’s iOS 4 gave direct access to the iPod library, meaning scratch software like this can avoid clunky imports, and play directly with the music files.

When Steve Jobs launched the iPad in San Francisco this year, the only music app he mentioned was from this same three man development firm based out of Sydney: Async Games. They’ve been used by Z-Trip and DJ Craze and A-Trak, and even featured in an all-iPad instruments take on Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger. There’s a string of tutorials and demonstrations on YouTube.

Luke also performs with Gauche, The Tango Saloon and The Bird, as well as Hermitude, and he took time out from recording in Melbourne to reply to some of my questions (on his iPad, of course).

So what does everyone do?

I compile all the sounds to scratch (battle records) and write all the music within the apps, Eddie makes it look beautiful and Gordon makes it feel and sound like a real turntable.

When did you start thinking about making a scratch game?

Well it’s not actually a game. We get a lot of mail from people all the time saying they don’t actually like the game, but it was never intended to be a game.

With our first app Flare Scratch, we set out to make the most realistic sounding and feeling scratch DJ emulation app in the app store. Baby Scratch was more about offering a light version of Flare Scratch with a couple of different features, like a sampler and different themed artwork. Then Baby Decks DJ on the iPad is like a combination of the two utilising the extra screen real estate to offer two turntables on the one screen.

The idea to do DJ scratch apps in the first place came from Gordon, actually. I was in the middle of doing a gig in Sydney one night in February, 2009, and my phone rang. It was Gordon calling from his house in Arezzo, Italy. He called to tell me he’d figured out a way to scratch sounds on his iPod Touch and that he planned to make an app with Eddie. He asked if I was interested in contributing. I, of course, said, ‘Yes.’ So i went out, bought an iPod Touch, because I couldn’t afford an iPhone, and Gordon sent me the beta version. The interface was already drawn up and roughly in place by the time I got a copy, so it looked similar to how it does today, with a few minor differences. None of us live in the same town so everything is done by millions of emails to develop the ideas. Then three or four months after I came on board, we submitted Flare Scratch to Apple.

What were the key steps from deciding to do it through to having a product in the iTunes store?

Since I’ve been involved, it’s always been about having a product on iTunes. It’s funny though, because Gordon, who programmed the app, isn’t really familiar with DJing or scratching. So once I joined up, being the DJ in the team, I told the guys what kind of features it needed to have, and where these features need to live within the app. That’s pretty much how it works today, too, although through the whole experience, Gordon and Eddie have learnt a lot about DJing, so we all have equal input when it comes to developing new ideas.

How did it change as you went along?

The ideas constantly change. Developing these products over many emails means that things can take time to finish, compared to all being in an office together and being able discuss ideas as soon as they arise. We often find ourselves designing interfaces, and then a few months down the track wanting to change it all up because we found a new feature that we wanted to introduce but had nowhere to put it. So as time has gone on, we’ve learnt to start thinking about the future of our apps, and what functionality they should have as early on as possible to avoid that kind of thing happening anymore.

It took us a long time to find any type of marketing that did anything for us at all. We tried online advertising, magazines, YouTube videos, but none of them really gave us any real headway.

Do you sketch things out in the development process?

There are some really dodgy blueprints drawn on tissues, etc, lying around somewhere I’m sure. I’ll see if I can dig them out. It’s a really fun part of the process actually, because we pool our ideas and then each of us draw what we think it should look like. Obviously, Eddie’s are the best, but Gordon and myself come up with some alright attempts. It’s definitely a necessary part of the process, especially since we never see each other face to face. The odd Skype conference call is another good one for when it’s just too difficult or time consuming to explain.

Where did you work?

My workspace has varied a fair bit for this project as I have been living in different countries during its development. The first six months was in my bedroom. The following six months was in various apartments, hotels, cabins, planes, trains and buses throughout Europe and Asia while I was on tour with another band. The last three months has been back in my bedroom.

What sort of technical challenges?

When we first started on Flare Scratch, the average size of an app was 10 MB, I think. They’re bigger now, but this always limits you as you have to conserve CPU power and size, so little animations that may have looked nice don’t always make the cut. Also catering for all the different audio file types that are available these days, and decoding them so they can be scratched smoothly has been challenging. Especially since you can upload your own music into Flare Scratch and Baby Decks via wifi or iTunes. There are a lot of crusty audio files floating around the internet, that’s for sure. Luckily we have a lot of testers so not much falls through the cracks.

As for getting into the iTunes Store, I think we have been quite lucky. There are a lot of horror stories online of people working on apps for months or even years only to be rejected by Apple. I think there was a gap that needed filling when we came along. There were a couple of scratch apps on the market but they were all rubbish so that definitely worked in our favor.

How did this differ from other apps on the market?

There are a lot of fantastic DJ apps available on the App Store and there are more on the way. I guess ours has always been focused on scratching, so that separated us from the rest of the competition a bit, as all the other apps are more for mixing. Baby Decks for the iPad is the first app where we have started to focus on mixing as well as scratching.

But I think what’s really separated us from the rest is the sound of our apps. The audio engine is really quite amazing, thanks to the whiz programming skills of Gordon. Also the feel. It really does feel and sound like a real turntable, except of course for the fact it is a touchscreen and not a record. But the latency is ridiculously low and the quality of the scratching sound is so close to the real thing that I think that has ultimately been the secret to our success. I mean we definitely couldn’t have done it without all three of us, but the backbone of all our apps is the sound and feel and in all honesty, I don’t think any other DJ apps on the App Store have come as close as us to the real thing. There are amazing DJ apps that look incredible and have a million features and are developed by reputable companies, but none of them scratch quite like ours.

What marketing issues did you think about?

We obviously research marketing and pricing strategies, but it’s been a massive learning curb for all of us. We always tried not to underprice our products for the sake of more sales. It’s better to start your price a little higher and then at least you have room to move. Marketing has also been a learning curb. It’s been a slow climb through the ranks, and in the beginning it was especially slow.

It took us a long time to find any type of marketing that did anything for us at all. We tried online advertising, magazines, YouTube videos, but none of them really gave us any real headway. We had two apps on the store at this stage, Flare and Baby Scratch. Flare was doing OK, we were lucky to score a “new and noteworthy” spot on the front page of iTunes in the US, but Baby Scratch, which was only one dollar, wasn’t selling at all. We really thought that for such a cheap price we’d sell heaps of them. But it wasn’t the case.

We then came up with the idea that was our biggest turning point with sales and that was to make Baby Scratch free and put an ad within the app allowing people to upgrade straight to Flare if they so desired. This was the best thing we could have done, I guess you’ve got to give a little to get a little. Baby scratch soared up the free app charts reaching number one in 64 countries! In one week, we had around 700,000 downloads and then Flare Scratch started selling nicely from upgrades. That simple move really put us on the map, and it cost us nothing.

The second turning point was our decision to release Baby Decks DJ with the US release of the iPad. We slaved away on it for months to get it ready for the release date, even though we weren’t sure whether the ipad was even going to sell or if people would pass it off as a gimmick. It turns out that they sold like hotcakes and because we’d created the worlds first dual turntable app for a touchscreen device, and got in early, we scooped up a lot of sales.

Steve Jobs also featured us at his keynote address shortly after, the only music app he mentioned, which no doubt helped a lot. We have definitely had our fair share of luck over the last 18 months, but these small decisions we’ve made have made a huge difference.

Were you surprised at its success?

We were completely blown away with our success! We never dreamt that our apps would be reaching so many people. Now when I look on YouTube, there’s pages and pages of people doing their own little routines and it’s really satisfying to know that you’ve helped create that platform for people to release their inner DJ. But it’s a fast market and if you sleep on your success, five new apps pop up on the market that give you a run for your money.

So you gotta stay working, check out what other people are doing and keep the ideas coming. We are constantly upgrading and releasing new builds. We never let our apps sit there and collect dust like some other companies do.  Developers are creating more powerful apps everyday so you have to stay relevant to keep people scratching those virtual records!

Find out more about Async.

The screwed down genius of DJ Screw

The narcotic slide of chopped and screwed hip hop is an acquired taste, once got it’s hard to shake. But when you look at how it started, and developed, what could have been a curious, but strictly local anomaly starts to look like a textbook case study for open innovation.

The sound is slow, most of all, layered with lazy scratches and subtle effects, edits and cuts. It’s a heavy, sleepy groove setting the sensual languor of Philly soul and R&B crooners against the menace of slowed down rap verses.

Everyone who has mistakenly played a 45rpm single at 33 knows the effect, but by dedicating himself to this process Screw turned what could have been a joke into a rap subgenre, an oft-copied process (countless Southern rap records have ‘chopped & screwed’ versions), based on a technique so simple that it has philosophical heft.

That’s Jace Clayton in this month’s Frieze (it’s a typically great piece).

Robert Earl Davis Jr, aka DJ Screw, slowed things down in Houston sometime in the mid-late ’80s. It was hot. People took things slow. In this Rap Pages interview, he said it was all about mix tapes with songs people could relax to.

Slower tempos, to feel the music and so you can hear what the rapper is saying.

So where did the idea for this music come from?

I mean people had experimented with slowing down and speeding up records – that’s one of the basic tools of the club DJ, being able to modify the pitch to beatmix records together – but this slowed down hip hop was something different.

Was it the cough syrup everyone was drinking? That’s what this MTV feature says.

Of course, it wasn’t just the slower pace of Southern life that was simpatico with chopped and screwed music. It was also the drug culture springing up in Houston at the time — specifically, the one centering on the consumption of the prescription cough syrup Promethazine, which includes codeine. The elixir goes by a number of names — syrup, drank, Texas tea — and its depressant qualities were the catalyst to an illicit subculture built around its abuse and the lethargic beats of chopped and screwed.

Ultimately, that’s where most people say the sound came from. Three Six Mafia’s ‘Sippin on Some Syrup’ came out in 2000, months after Screw died. People had been drinking ‘drank’ since the ’60s, but it had a resurgence in 91-92, and that was definitely part of it. Before that, most southern hip hop was fast. But the cough syrup got people in the mood for something slower.

Toward the end of the ’80s, Screw was messing with his turntables, slowing his records down, just hearing how it sounded. His cousin, Big Bub, says that’s when he came up with the new sound.

One day he picked up a Mantronix album — that’s the first thing I heard [slowed down]. He played it at a slow pitch and really liked the way it sounded. He kept messing with it, messing with it, and about a year later, he made a [whole] tape all slowed down.

The mood was closer to West Coast rappers like Dr Dre and DJ Quik – although sonically very different. As Clayton says in his Frieze piece, this could easily be a joke genre. There’s more to it, but on first listen it really just does sound like a 45 on 33, and that’s a pretty basic premise for a new sound. For some reason, it works.

It must have been just ahead of the birth of (the less menacing, but still similar) trip hop sounds in the UK . I was listening to the Anglo sounds more; in retrospect, I’m surprised there wasn’t a more explicit connection. There were plenty of similarities, and even closer ties, like Portishead remixing Gravediggaz, but not much. Was it just convergent evolution?

Jace Clayton, aka DJ/Rupture, credits another big influence.

Monterrey Mexicans had been talking over and slowing down cumbia records for years before Screw came along – something he would have been likely to hear in Houston.

It grew quickly, to the point where people weren’t worrying too much about where the sound appeared. Instead of the usual music industry thing, where a sound is quickly formalised – in Houston, this was all happening on mixtapes. Bun B, half of Texas group UGK, says it didn’t even have a name for quite a while.

When you say, ‘screwed music,’ you have to realise that for years, it was what it was without getting labeled. It wasn’t called ‘screwed and chopped’ when he was doing it, it was just a ‘Screw Tape’ — and you always wanted to get that Screw Tape.

Also called ‘gray tapes’ – the cassettes Screw bought in bulk were grey – they moved fast around Houston. Copied ’til they bled, shared, with little thought for legal issues, it was perfect for creativity. Others started playing with their own screw mixes – across town, Michael Watts was doing it, and when he started cutting between records making a double time beat, that added another stab of rhythm to the sound.  That’s when people started calling it ‘chopped and screwed’. Watts’ Swishahouse record label is probably most associated with the sound.

10 years after Screw died, the sound’s seeping out in a bunch of unexpected areas.

His fingerprints are all over a new wave of slow music, from artists like White Ring, Balam Acab and oOoOO of the Internet-centric microgenre called witch house, or drag, to experimental electronic musicians like Daniel Lopatin, who records as Oneohtrix Point Never, and Tom Krell, who, performing as How to Dress Well, makes spacey post-R&B. There is chopped and screwed cumbia and reggaetón, and one of this year’s strangest viral hits was the low-concept Shamantis remix of Justin Bieber’s “U Smile,” slowed down into a ghostly, oceanic 35-minute epic.

That’s from a New York Times piece on the reemergence of screw.

So it could have been nothing more than a quirky local phenomenon. It started off slow, for quite a while it didn’t even have a name, but slowly through a process of mixtape experimentation it coalesced into a sound, and as those mixtapes moved through Houston’s hip hop community, that sound developed as particular DJs added their tweaks to the aesthetic.

The result seems like a case study for how open networks can catalyse new things. And what that NYT story shows is the process continuing, picking up steam as it moves out.

Want to hear classic DJ Screw mixes? You really do. So read Government Names and get them  from Bottom of the Map.

Need to hear

It’s weird blogging while all hell breaks loose in Victoria, but I’m totally caught up in the response to the horrific fires at work, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who needs to escape.

Over a month after 2009 expired, I’m checking my diary and of the list of records I need to spend a bit of time with, these are left.

Uncle Tupelo
Phillippe Grancher
Focus Group and the Ghost Box catalogue
Arthur Russell
United States of America

I mean I’ve heard one or more songs by all these people/groups – but I haven’t spent enough time, don’t have their albums. Need to.

Leonard Cohen triggers wave of spontaneous ovations

I don’t think I ever expected to see Leonard Cohen on a stage. So I can understand when the crowd spontaneously stands, cheering, as the 75 year old leaps onto the stage at Sydney’s Entertainment Centre.

Cohen was the first musician I obsessed over. I bought most of his records at the second hand shop between my high school cafe job at The Three Sisters and Katoomba train station. I borrowed his novels and books of poetry from a friend (still have them).

We make a bit of an effort to get him on the radio show. But apparently he’s not giving interviews this time – Radio National plays an interview from his last tour in ’83 or ’84. I’m glad we didn’t get him, to be honest, I can imagine sitting across in the studio, starstruck.

Anyway, at the Ent Cent. The band isn’t too far from Brian Wilson’s Weekend At Bernie’s/Late Show troupe of session musicians, and includes long time collaborator Sharon Robertson and back up vocals from the Webb Sisters. Cohen, dressed in pin-stripe suit, collared shirt, cowboy string tie and bull-tie clip, couldn’t be more different from Wilson though, he alludes to drugs but isn’t damaged, he’s sharp, articulate. He’s 75!

Still you can’t miss the age, as Cohen introduces the band, twice, right down to the wording: “prince of precision” (the drummer), “architect of arpeggio” (keys), etc – still, as someone else says, if I’m awake for 3 hours straight (and leaping about on stage) when I’m his age I’ll consider it an accomplishment.

He jaunts through hotel lobby band versions of ‘Ain’t No Cure For Love,’ ‘The Future,’ and ‘Everybody Knows.’ ‘Chelsea Hotel No.2’ kicks off unaccompanied:

I remember you well, in the Chelsea Hotel,
you were talking so brave and so sweet,
giving me head on the unmade bed

There is a gasp of recognition as the audience picks up the line. Then laughs as it sinks in. There are so many punchlines in Cohen’s songs. I know them so well.

I find myself wishing there was less sax, less keys and less electric guitar. No solos. Love the flamenco guitar though. Having said that, most of his records (’70s onward) have kitsch accompaniments. But especially on the early songs, at the Ent Cent it really swamps the simple lyrics.

Five per cent of the audience sport fedora hats. I feel like one of the youngest in the audience. The guy next to me keeps yelling out “Bravo.” Cohen doesn’t talk much between songs, and when he does it’s lines I’ve read about him saying at other shows:

Last time I was on a stage, I was 15 years younger. Just a crazy kid with a dream.

Boom, boom.

I’ve never seen a show quite like this. The sax solos, the band, the soft pastel lights – the Ent Cent for god’s sake – it feels like 1987. Every time someone solos the crowd jumps up. The spontaneous ovations are driving me crazy, especially on a truly awful ‘Bird On The Wire.’

‘Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye’ was great.

The crowd evacuates at interval for ice creams and coffee. They return, and there’s another ovation as Cohen skips onto the stage like a spritely leprechaun.

He plays a rinky dink melody on his Technics keyboard. Another spontaneous cheer. He laughs self consciously, lifts his hand and says: “One hand.” It’s actually one of the highlights, a great version of ‘Tower of Song.’

Recent songs ‘Where Is My Gypsy Wife,’ ‘My Secret Life,’ and especially ‘Boogie Street’ are diabolically bad. Terrible. We tune out. Another solo. Another cheer.

‘A Partisan’ is actually a relief. The band’s pared back to a driving drum beat. It’s strident, terrific. ‘Hallelujah’ is nothing like John Cale’s version, it’s just like the original. It’s obviously why most of the audience is in the Entertainment Centre, and starting without fanfare it takes a verse for the audience to work out what’s happening. Still, another ovation.

He plays a sultry ‘I’m Your Man,’ leaving us wondering how he’ll encore. “If you want to take me for a ride, you know you can… I’m your man.” The tone’s resigned rather than defiant. It’s almost three hours into the show.

‘1000 Kisses Deep’ starts off suddenly. It’s a poem, but most of the audience cheers after a couple of lines, I guess assuming it’s an aside. Another cheer at the end of the verse, but after that most people realise it’s a poem.

Back for an encore, ‘So Long Marianne’ is seriously disappointing. Kinda wish he didn’t play that. ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ gets a run too. The Webb Sisters do ‘If It Be Your Will,’ which brings back memories of Antony’s swirling maelstrom of a version at the Cohen tribute Come So Far For Beauty at the Sydney Opera House several years ago. The show finishes with ‘Democracy,’ which gets a cheer with its line about “democracy coming, to the USA.”

Overcooked, these songs aren’t. Whether it’s Choir of Hard Knocks or John Cale doing ‘Hallelujah’ (both amazing) or Nick Cave doing ‘Tower of Song,’ Cohen’s songs have been perfect cover material for a long time. Perhaps most because (at least since the ’70s) his records are so kitsch. Live, he’s witty and self-deprecating, touching, a bit sleazy at times and at others a funny old man. There’s a fervour to his songs, a transcendent quality. Most of all, it’s funny.

A show quite unlike any other.