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  • feedwordpress 17:33:44 on 2017/03/01 Permalink
    Tags: , Most Popular,   

    Tech and the Fake Market tactic 


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    In one generation, the Internet went from opening up new free markets to creating a series of Fake Markets that exploit society, without most media or politicians even noticing.

    1. The open internet markets

    American culture loves to use the ideal of competitive free markets as the solution to all kinds of social problems. Though the vaunted Free Market has no incentives to, say, take care of babies with cancer, a well-functioning market can definitely be a great way to see which provider offers the cheapest price for a roll of toilet paper or a bushel of apples.

    Given that cultural predilection, some of the first things people made in the early days of the web were new markets. Perhaps the canonical example was eBay; anybody (well, almost anybody) could list their ceramic figurines for sale on eBay and participate in a relatively fair market. On one side, a gaggle of figurine aficionados, enthusiastically searching for the best deals. On the other, a bunch of figurine vendors, competing on price, quality and service. In the middle, a neutral market that just helps connect buyers and sellers through instantly updated information. Everybody’s happy!

    Fake Markets: Open

    Later, a seller could buy preferred positioning for their products in eBay’s search results, and some product categories started to be dominated by wholesale suppliers, but it still remained a relatively open system. Everybody’s mostly happy!

    Not long after eBay started, Google launched, as a sort of market of content, with its PageRank system choosing which pages show up in our search results, ranked by the number of inbound links. On one side were readers, and on the other side we had publishers, and in between was Google using a mysterious but still kind of comprehensible algorithm to create a market where almost everybody felt like they could participate.

    But before long, those rankings started to be tainted by spammers, due to the fact that higher ranking in those listings suddenly had monetary value, and making spam links was cheaper than paying for Google’s advertising products. What was an open market to do?

    2. The rise of rigged markets

    The inevitable automated gaming of the early open digital markets inadvertently catalyzed the start of the next era: rigged markets. Google got concerned about nefarious search engine optimization tricks, and kept changing their algorithm, meaning that pretty soon the only web publishers that could thrive were those who could afford to keep tweaking their technology to keep up in this new arms race. After just a few years, this became a rich-get-richer economy, and incentivized every smaller publisher to standardize on one of a few publishing tools in order to keep up with Google’s demands. Only the biggest content providers could afford to build their own tools while simultaneously following the demands of Google’s ever-changing algorithm.

    The problem inevitably became most pronounced in the most valuable markets. Eventually, in lucrative vertical markets like travel, Google started showing its own flight booking tools ahead of the third-party results from travel booking sites, based on the idea that their experience was better for consumers than the confusing and inconsistent results from third parties. This was true, but it was also pretty damn convenient for Google, which now started to make more money on those links.

    Fake Markets: Skewed

    This was the start of a subtle but critically important pattern on the web: A short-term improvement in user experience helped a single dominant tech company to take over a legacy market in the long term.

    Amazon went through a similar process, when it started putting its thumb on the scale, showing its own products first when doing a product search, even if they weren’t the cheapest. We saw a rapid shift where the companies hosting formerly-open markets started to give themselves unfair advantages that couldn’t be countered by the other sellers in the market.

    We saw a rapid shift where the companies hosting formerly-open markets started to give themselves unfair advantages that couldn’t be countered by the other sellers in the market.

    This shift to rigged markets was perfected in the app stores, where the major players like Apple and Google choose which apps get featured and promoted, and prevent the creation of any apps that would displace or threaten their market dominance. Even if an app does succeed, the app stores promote an ad-supported model that makes app creators dependent on the tech company’s platform for distribution, instead of an app deriving revenues directly from its users.

    But even today’s rigged markets have some ways that new players can compete. You could release a new photo-sharing app and theoretically try to compete with Instagram or Snapchat on Apple’s app store. An ordinary shopper could search for “bedsheets” on Amazon’s website and expect to get a list of linens to purchase, both from independent manufacturers and from Amazon’s own Pinzon brand. Even if these markets are skewed, they’re still markets, and that leaves some opportunity.

    That’s not to say these systems are fair: the big companies can pick which players in the market get to compete, and issues of network inequality mean people or companies that are privileged enough to be early adopters get unfair advantages. But even with these inequities, we could muddle through and new products or competitors could sometimes emerge.

    This has been the status quo for most of the last decade. But the next rising wave of tech innovators twist the definition of “market” even further, to a point where they aren’t actually markets at all.

    3. Now: The Fake Markets

    Uber‘s promise is simple: you use their app to hail a car, and one driver from a pool of independent drivers agrees to pick you up, and everybody’s happy. In their formulation, they’re a neutral marketplace connecting customers and service providers — kinda like eBay!

    But unlike competitive sellers on eBay, Uber drivers can’t set their prices. In fact, prices can be (and regularly have been) changed unilaterally by Uber. And passengers can’t make informed choices about selecting a driver: The algorithm by which a passenger and driver are matched is opaque—to both the passenger and driver. In fact, as Data & Society’s research has shown, Uber has at times deliberately misrepresented the market of available cars by showing “ghost” cars to users in the Uber app.

    Fake Markets: Fake

    It seems this “market” has some awfully weird traits.

    1. Consumers can’t trust the information they’re being provided to make a purchasing decision.
    2. A single opaque algorithm defines which buyers are matched with which sellers.
    3. Sellers have no control over their own pricing or profit margins.
    4. Regulators see the genuine short-term consumer benefit but don’t realize the long-term harms that can arise.

    This is, by any reasonable definition, no market at all. One might even call Uber a “Fake Market”. Yet, by carefully describing drivers in their system as “entrepreneurs” and appropriating the language of true markets, Uber has been welcomed by communities and policymakers as if they were creating a new marketplace. That has serious implications for policy, regulation and even civil rights. For example, we can sincerely laud Uber for making it easier for African American passengers to reliably hail a car when they need a ride, but if persistent patterns of bias from drivers arise again in the Uber era, we’ll have a harder time regulating those abuses because Uber doesn’t usually follow the same policies as licensed taxis.

    These pseudo-market patterns also mask patterns of subsidy, like the fact that Uber’s current operations are subsidized by investors to the tune of $2 billion per year. That’s a cost that will be immediately passed along to consumers as soon as Uber succeeds in displacing conventional taxis.

    Uber subsidy

    The Financial Times states the implications of this economic arrangement very clearly:

    [A]ll this equates to is an economic transfer from the working class over to urban metropolitan elites, which benefits one particular corporation over others. This is plainly crazy.

    These new False Markets only resemble true markets just enough to pull the wool over the eyes of regulators and media, whose enthusiasm for high tech solutions is boundless, and whose understanding of markets on the Internet is still stuck in the early eBay era of 20 years ago.

    Fake markets don’t just happen in traditional products and services — they’re coming to the world of content and publishing, too. Publishers are increasingly being incentivized to use platforms like Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s AMP format. Like Uber’s temporarily-subsidized cheaper prices and broader access to ride hailing, these new publishing formats do offer some short-term consumer benefits, in the form of faster loading times and a cleaner reading experience.

    But the technical mechanism by which Facebook and Google provide that faster reading experience happens to incidentally displace most of the third-party advertising platforms — the ones that aren’t provided by Facebook and Google themselves. Facebook publishers who use these new distribution channels are incentivized to use Facebook’s advertising platform, where payment rates and profit margins can be unilaterally changed at any time. Just as Uber subsidizes fares during the phase when they’re displacing regulated taxis, Facebook subsidizes publishers’ ad rates during the phase when they’re displacing third-party advertising networks.

    In addition to making publishers even more dependent on the two tech titans for revenues, there’s the issue of the algorithms used to discover content. Almost everyone who uses Facebook has become aware that its algorithm for showing content is opaque, to both publishers and readers. As a result, there are fewer understandable tricks that publishers can use to ensure that readers will see their content — and publishing in the Instant Articles format is one of the few that’s known to work. It also happens to require a publisher to invest scarce resources in supporting the Facebook format, with the result of that publisher becoming even more dependent on Facebook for distribution.

    So: Neither readers nor publishers know why Facebook shows a particular story in a feed. And media regulators and policymakers can’t see past the short-term benefit of faster-loading stories.

    The Fake Market for content looks like this:

    1. Readers can’t trust the information they’re being provided to make a content decision.
    2. A single opaque algorithm defines which readers are matched with which publishers.
    3. Publishers have no control over their own ad rates or profit margins.
    4. Regulators see the genuine short-term reader benefit but don’t realize the long-term harms that can arise.

    4. After Markets: Self-Driving News

    But wait, it gets worse. Next we replace the sellers in the market.

    What we have in ride sharing or content publishing is a rapid move to locked-down systems controlled by one, or at most two, privately-held corporate players. But even in these fake markets, there are currently multiple providers offering their services within the ecosystem. The providers are those Uber drivers or Facebook publishers being lauded as independent entrepreneurs thriving on the platform.

    But Uber has already plainly announced its roadmap: Self-driving cars. The much-lauded independent driver-entrepreneurs will be replaced by completely automated service providers as quickly as possible, and not only will those new self-driving cars not have drivers who need to be paid, they will all be owned by Uber itself. When this transition happens over the next decade, we’ll have entire markets of independent contractors displaced by the transition, precisely at the point when the social safety net is being dismantled. In the meantime, politicians across the political spectrum have been presenting these “gig economy” non-jobs as the future of work.

    Fake Markets: Closed

    Self-driving cars are hard, though. Making a robot that can navigate through a city and deliver a passenger safely and reliably to their destination is an incredibly hard problem that will take a long time to get exactly right.

    By contrast, what are the barriers to self-driving news? We’ve already seen that a lot of news consumers aren’t interested in being safely and reliably delivered to accurate news. Success in this case will be much easier: A robotic publisher only has to deliver content that’s emotionally engaging enough to earn a person’s readership for a few moments. That’s even easier to do if the publisher or distributor of the content doesn’t care if the story is true or not. Peter Thiel is on Facebook’s board of directors.

    And remember, Facebook tends to subsidize publishers taking advantage of its new platform features just until the point at which those publishers become dependent on them. Publishers are already struggling with overall media industry economics; Facebook’s promised payouts may be an offer they don’t feel like they can refuse.

    So what do we do?

    Most of the people building these features at these companies don’t mean to undermine markets. The coders and designers at companies like Uber and Facebook and all the others are usually well-intentioned and genuinely see their work as benefiting users. In the immediate term, they’re not even wrong; being able to easily hail a cab or quickly read a story is a real benefit. But most tech workers, including at the biggest tech companies, are blind to the radical political and social agendas of their companies’ owners and investors.

    Worse, we’ve lost the ability to discern that a short-term benefit for some users that’s subsidized by an unsustainable investment model will lead to terrible long-term consequences for society. We’re hooked on the temporary infusion of venture capital dollars into vulnerable markets that we know are about to be remade by technological transformation and automation. The only social force empowered to anticipate or prevent these disruptions are policymakers who are often too illiterate to understand how these technologies work, and who too desperately want the halo of appearing to be associated with “high tech”, the secular religion of America.


    It’s essential we develop a vocabulary for talking about these issues, and perhaps the single most effective action we can take is to educate our elected officials about the changes that are happening. This stuff is complex, and it’s going to take time to teach all our representatives about why all the changes wrought by these new high-tech apps aren’t necessarily the best thing for our communities in the long term.

    But there’s still time to get it right. It’s not inevitable that we have to give over our open markets to new Fake Markets dominated by one or two giant tech companies. And perhaps the single biggest thing we can do is both the hardest and the easiest: We can change our own behaviors. Look at the apps on your phone right now. Are you sure you are comfortable with what’s going to happen when everyone’s running the same apps that you are?

    Fake Markets: End

     
  • feedwordpress 12:33:44 on 2017/03/01 Permalink
    Tags: , Most Popular,   

    Tech and the Fake Market tactic 


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    Tech and the Fake Market tactic

    In one generation, the Internet went from opening up new free markets to creating a series of Fake Markets that exploit society, without most media or politicians even noticing.

    1. The open internet markets

    American culture loves to use the ideal of competitive free markets as the solution to all kinds of social problems. Though the vaunted Free Market has no incentives to, say, take care of babies with cancer, a well-functioning market can definitely be a great way to see which provider offers the cheapest price for a roll of toilet paper or a bushel of apples.

    Given that cultural predilection, some of the first things people made in the early days of the web were new markets. Perhaps the canonical example was eBay; anybody (well, almost anybody) could list their ceramic figurines for sale on eBay and participate in a relatively fair market. On one side, a gaggle of figurine aficionados, enthusiastically searching for the best deals. On the other, a bunch of figurine vendors, competing on price, quality and service. In the middle, a neutral market that just helps connect buyers and sellers through instantly updated information. Everybody’s happy!

    Tech and the Fake Market tactic

    Later, a seller could buy preferred positioning for their products in eBay’s search results, and some product categories started to be dominated by wholesale suppliers, but it still remained a relatively open system. Everybody’s mostly happy!

    Not long after eBay started, Google launched, as a sort of market of content, with its PageRank system choosing which pages show up in our search results, ranked by the number of inbound links. On one side were readers, and on the other side we had publishers, and in between was Google using a mysterious but still kind of comprehensible algorithm to create a market where almost everybody felt like they could participate.

    But before long, those rankings started to be tainted by spammers, due to the fact that higher ranking in those listings suddenly had monetary value, and making spam links was cheaper than paying for Google’s advertising products. What was an open market to do?

    2. The rise of rigged markets

    The inevitable automated gaming of the early open digital markets inadvertently catalyzed the start of the next era: rigged markets. Google got concerned about nefarious search engine optimization tricks, and kept changing their algorithm, meaning that pretty soon the only web publishers that could thrive were those who could afford to keep tweaking their technology to keep up in this new arms race. After just a few years, this became a rich-get-richer economy, and incentivized every smaller publisher to standardize on one of a few publishing tools in order to keep up with Google’s demands. Only the biggest content providers could afford to build their own tools while simultaneously following the demands of Google’s ever-changing algorithm.

    The problem inevitably became most pronounced in the most valuable markets. Eventually, in lucrative vertical markets like travel, Google started showing its own flight booking tools ahead of the third-party results from travel booking sites, based on the idea that their experience was better for consumers than the confusing and inconsistent results from third parties. This was true, but it was also pretty damn convenient for Google, which now started to make more money on those links.

    Tech and the Fake Market tactic

    This was the start of a subtle but critically important pattern on the web: A short-term improvement in user experience helped a single dominant tech company to take over a legacy market in the long term.

    Amazon went through a similar process, when it started putting its thumb on the scale, showing its own products first when doing a product search, even if they weren’t the cheapest. We saw a rapid shift where the companies hosting formerly-open markets started to give themselves unfair advantages that couldn’t be countered by the other sellers in the market.

    We saw a rapid shift where the companies hosting formerly-open markets started to give themselves unfair advantages that couldn’t be countered by the other sellers in the market.

    This shift to rigged markets was perfected in the app stores, where the major players like Apple and Google choose which apps get featured and promoted, and prevent the creation of any apps that would displace or threaten their market dominance. Even if an app does succeed, the app stores promote an ad-supported model that makes app creators dependent on the tech company’s platform for distribution, instead of an app deriving revenues directly from its users.

    But even today’s rigged markets have some ways that new players can compete. You could release a new photo-sharing app and theoretically try to compete with Instagram or Snapchat on Apple’s app store. An ordinary shopper could search for “bedsheets” on Amazon’s website and expect to get a list of linens to purchase, both from independent manufacturers and from Amazon’s own Pinzon brand. Even if these markets are skewed, they’re still markets, and that leaves some opportunity.

    That’s not to say these systems are fair: the big companies can pick which players in the market get to compete, and issues of network inequality mean people or companies that are privileged enough to be early adopters get unfair advantages. But even with these inequities, we could muddle through and new products or competitors could sometimes emerge.

    This has been the status quo for most of the last decade. But the next rising wave of tech innovators twist the definition of “market” even further, to a point where they aren’t actually markets at all.

    3. Now: The Fake Markets

    Uber‘s promise is simple: you use their app to hail a car, and one driver from a pool of independent drivers agrees to pick you up, and everybody’s happy. In their formulation, they’re a neutral marketplace connecting customers and service providers — kinda like eBay!

    But unlike competitive sellers on eBay, Uber drivers can’t set their prices. In fact, prices can be (and regularly have been) changed unilaterally by Uber. And passengers can’t make informed choices about selecting a driver: The algorithm by which a passenger and driver are matched is opaque—to both the passenger and driver. In fact, as Data & Society’s research has shown, Uber has at times deliberately misrepresented the market of available cars by showing “ghost” cars to users in the Uber app.

    Tech and the Fake Market tactic

    It seems this “market” has some awfully weird traits.

    1. Consumers can’t trust the information they’re being provided to make a purchasing decision.
    2. A single opaque algorithm defines which buyers are matched with which sellers.
    3. Sellers have no control over their own pricing or profit margins.
    4. Regulators see the genuine short-term consumer benefit but don’t realize the long-term harms that can arise.

    This is, by any reasonable definition, no market at all. One might even call Uber a “Fake Market”. Yet, by carefully describing drivers in their system as “entrepreneurs” and appropriating the language of true markets, Uber has been welcomed by communities and policymakers as if they were creating a new marketplace. That has serious implications for policy, regulation and even civil rights. For example, we can sincerely laud Uber for making it easier for African American passengers to reliably hail a car when they need a ride, but if persistent patterns of bias from drivers arise again in the Uber era, we’ll have a harder time regulating those abuses because Uber doesn’t usually follow the same policies as licensed taxis.

    These pseudo-market patterns also mask patterns of subsidy, like the fact that Uber’s current operations are subsidized by investors to the tune of $2 billion per year. That’s a cost that will be immediately passed along to consumers as soon as Uber succeeds in displacing conventional taxis.

    Tech and the Fake Market tactic
    The Financial Times states the implications of this economic arrangement very clearly:

    [A]ll this equates to is an economic transfer from the working class over to urban metropolitan elites, which benefits one particular corporation over others. This is plainly crazy.

    These new False Markets only resemble true markets just enough to pull the wool over the eyes of regulators and media, whose enthusiasm for high tech solutions is boundless, and whose understanding of markets on the Internet is still stuck in the early eBay era of 20 years ago.

    Fake markets don’t just happen in traditional products and services — they’re coming to the world of content and publishing, too. Publishers are increasingly being incentivized to use platforms like Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s AMP format. Like Uber’s temporarily-subsidized cheaper prices and broader access to ride hailing, these new publishing formats do offer some short-term consumer benefits, in the form of faster loading times and a cleaner reading experience.

    But the technical mechanism by which Facebook and Google provide that faster reading experience happens to incidentally displace most of the third-party advertising platforms — the ones that aren’t provided by Facebook and Google themselves. Facebook publishers who use these new distribution channels are incentivized to use Facebook’s advertising platform, where payment rates and profit margins can be unilaterally changed at any time. Just as Uber subsidizes fares during the phase when they’re displacing regulated taxis, Facebook subsidizes publishers’ ad rates during the phase when they’re displacing third-party advertising networks.

    In addition to making publishers even more dependent on the two tech titans for revenues, there’s the issue of the algorithms used to discover content. Almost everyone who uses Facebook has become aware that its algorithm for showing content is opaque, to both publishers and readers. As a result, there are fewer understandable tricks that publishers can use to ensure that readers will see their content — and publishing in the Instant Articles format is one of the few that’s known to work. It also happens to require a publisher to invest scarce resources in supporting the Facebook format, with the result of that publisher becoming even more dependent on Facebook for distribution.

    So: Neither readers nor publishers know why Facebook shows a particular story in a feed. And media regulators and policymakers can’t see past the short-term benefit of faster-loading stories.
    The Fake Market for content looks like this:

    1. Readers can’t trust the information they’re being provided to make a content decision.
    2. A single opaque algorithm defines which readers are matched with which publishers.
    3. Publishers have no control over their own ad rates or profit margins.
    4. Regulators see the genuine short-term reader benefit but don’t realize the long-term harms that can arise.

    4. After Markets: Self-Driving News

    But wait, it gets worse. Next we replace the sellers in the market.

    What we have in ride sharing or content publishing is a rapid move to locked-down systems controlled by one, or at most two, privately-held corporate players. But even in these fake markets, there are currently multiple providers offering their services within the ecosystem. The providers are those Uber drivers or Facebook publishers being lauded as independent entrepreneurs thriving on the platform.

    But Uber has already plainly announced its roadmap: Self-driving cars. The much-lauded independent driver-entrepreneurs will be replaced by completely automated service providers as quickly as possible, and not only will those new self-driving cars not have drivers who need to be paid, they will all be owned by Uber itself. When this transition happens over the next decade, we’ll have entire markets of independent contractors displaced by the transition, precisely at the point when the social safety net is being dismantled. In the meantime, politicians across the political spectrum have been presenting these “gig economy” non-jobs as the future of work.

    Tech and the Fake Market tactic

    Self-driving cars are hard, though. Making a robot that can navigate through a city and deliver a passenger safely and reliably to their destination is an incredibly hard problem that will take a long time to get exactly right.

    By contrast, what are the barriers to self-driving news? We’ve already seen that a lot of news consumers aren’t interested in being safely and reliably delivered to accurate news. Success in this case will be much easier: A robotic publisher only has to deliver content that’s emotionally engaging enough to earn a person’s readership for a few moments. That’s even easier to do if the publisher or distributor of the content doesn’t care if the story is true or not. Peter Thiel is on Facebook’s board of directors.

    And remember, Facebook tends to subsidize publishers taking advantage of its new platform features just until the point at which those publishers become dependent on them. Publishers are already struggling with overall media industry economics; Facebook’s promised payouts may be an offer they don’t feel like they can refuse.

    So what do we do?

    Most of the people building these features at these companies don’t mean to undermine markets. The coders and designers at companies like Uber and Facebook and all the others are usually well-intentioned and genuinely see their work as benefiting users. In the immediate term, they’re not even wrong; being able to easily hail a cab or quickly read a story is a real benefit. But most tech workers, including at the biggest tech companies, are blind to the radical political and social agendas of their companies’ owners and investors.

    Worse, we’ve lost the ability to discern that a short-term benefit for some users that’s subsidized by an unsustainable investment model will lead to terrible long-term consequences for society. We’re hooked on the temporary infusion of venture capital dollars into vulnerable markets that we know are about to be remade by technological transformation and automation. The only social force empowered to anticipate or prevent these disruptions are policymakers who are often too illiterate to understand how these technologies work, and who too desperately want the halo of appearing to be associated with “high tech”, the secular religion of America.


    It’s essential we develop a vocabulary for talking about these issues, and perhaps the single most effective action we can take is to educate our elected officials about the changes that are happening. This stuff is complex, and it’s going to take time to teach all our representatives about why all the changes wrought by these new high-tech apps aren’t necessarily the best thing for our communities in the long term.

    But there’s still time to get it right. It’s not inevitable that we have to give over our open markets to new Fake Markets dominated by one or two giant tech companies. And perhaps the single biggest thing we can do is both the hardest and the easiest: We can change our own behaviors. Look at the apps on your phone right now. Are you sure you are comfortable with what’s going to happen when everyone’s running the same apps that you are?

    Tech and the Fake Market tactic

     
  • feedwordpress 16:53:20 on 2017/02/12 Permalink
    Tags: Most Popular, ,   

    It’s time to discover Prince 


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    With the return of Prince’s classic 80s and 90s catalog to the most popular streaming services, now’s a great time to (re?)discover the breadth of Prince’s incredible body of work.

    Prince circa 1991, by Herb Ritts

    The full scale of Prince’s music is probably too much for any unfamiliar listener to just dive into; he released nearly 40 albums under his own name(s), regularly enhanced his single releases with extended versions, remixes that could sometimes comprise an entire EP on their own, and legendary B-sides that were often as strong as the single being released to radio. That’s not even counting the literally hundreds of songs he wrote (and often performed on) for others.

    So, here’s an easier way to dive into his catalog, broken down by the type of listener you are, and what genres of music you prefer. I’m assuming little to no familiarity with Prince’s catalog here, beyond staples like the song Purple Rain. The nice thing about Prince’s work is that there are no bad starting points; if you don’t like what you hear at first, he almost certainly made a song in the complete opposite style as well.

    The basics

    If you’ve never really listened to Prince’s work, there’s a reason his 80s albums are revered. They hold up favorably against the very best albums in pop music.

    • Purple Rain (1984)

      Spotify | Apple Music | Amazon | Tidal

      It really is that good. Half the songs on the album became hit singles, and the other half would have except they were too sexy.

    • 1999 (1982)

      Spotify | Apple Music | Amazon | Tidal

      This one will surprise you. Though Purple Rain has more, bigger hits, this is the album that shaped the sound of 80s radio. And, well, a lot of the Top 40 to this day. The songs really stretch out, and this is the album that turned a lot of casual Prince fans into diehards.

    • Sign O’ The Times (1987)

      Spotify | Apple Music | Amazon | Tidal

      If you want to hear Prince at his experimental best, this is almost every hardcore Prince fan’s favorite album.

    The greatest hits

    There are a number of Greatest Hits collections for Prince’s work. None of them are terrible, but all of them ignore the second half of his career which, while uneven, still had dozens of truly great songs.

    • Ultimate (2006)

      Spotify | Apple Music | Amazon | Tidal

      The best overall collection of Prince’s work, this includes a number of his best b-sides and extended versions, amply demonstrating why those non-album tracks were essential to understanding his range. And if you like big hits like Little Red Corvette, it shows up here in the full 8-and-a-half-minute glory of its 12" Dance Mix.

    • The Hits/The B-Sides (1993)

      Spotify | Apple Music | Amazon | Tidal

      The first compilation of Prince’s work is still the only one to collect a large number of his b-side recordings. Even if you’ve heard most of his 80s albums, there are almost certainly songs here that you missed.

    Specially-crafted starting points

    I made a number of playlists that are specifically aimed at people who feel like they’ve never really gotten Prince. I often hear people say, “I know he’s supposed to be super talented, but I never saw him live, and I don’t know what song of his I would love.” This is especially poignant for those of us who were fans because his live shows were amazing, often radically recasting his recorded material, and because his hit pop singles, while brilliant and unique, often didn’t resemble the more obscure works that won us over.

    These playlists are necessarily incomplete, because of the inconsistent way Prince’s catalog is made available. Tidal comes closest to including all of these songs, though even at its peak Tidal still omitted hundreds of Prince’s songs from its service. I’ve included Spotify versions of the playlists if most of the songs are available from the service.

    • Discover Prince

      Spotify | Apple Music | Tidal 
      This is a playlist of the most “Prince-sounding” tracks in his catalog, a great way to hear work that a lot of serious fans would say could only have come from Prince.

    • Prince: Guitar Pop

      Spotify | Tidal
      Prince’s most riff-driven rock tracks, showing off both his pop songcraft and his predilection for shredding. This list shows off how his work became more conventionally guitar heavy in this century.

    • Prince: Electronic

      Spotify | Tidal
      The signature sound Prince was known for was his extraordinary and cutting-edge adoption of the latest electronic technologies like drum machines, synthesizers, samplers and sequencers. By bringing all these tools to bear, he changed the sound of popular music. These are some of the songs that caused that change, and some showing off how he kept evolving.

    • Prince: Piano

      Spotify | Tidal
      In his final tour, Prince performed solo at the piano, reaffirming his raw showmanship and the strength of his songwriting. But throughout his career, he showed off his skills on the keys, as these songs amply demonstrate.

    More to come

    There are, of course, a nearly infinite number of ways to slice and dice a catalog that comprises over a thousand songs. None of these playlists even includes the work that Prince created for other artists. And it’s easy to imagine playlists like “Here are the Prince songs you’ll like if you love Hendrix” or “These are the Prince tracks that Justin Timberlake clearly loved the most”.

    But what’s most exciting is the idea that a new wave of listeners can find their own gems in a body of work that offers enough surprises and delights to last for decades to come. If you’re just getting into Prince, I hope these lists form a good starting point, and don’t hesitate to reply to me at @anildash if you’ve got questions or want suggestions of how to get started.

     
  • feedwordpress 11:53:20 on 2017/02/12 Permalink
    Tags: , Most Popular,   

    It’s time to discover Prince 


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    It's time to discover Prince

    With the return of Prince’s classic 80s and 90s catalog to the most popular streaming services, now’s a great time to (re?)discover the breadth of Prince’s incredible body of work.

    The full scale of Prince’s music is probably too much for any unfamiliar listener to just dive into; he released nearly 40 albums under his own name(s), regularly enhanced his single releases with extended versions, remixes that could sometimes comprise an entire EP on their own, and legendary B-sides that were often as strong as the single being released to radio. That’s not even counting the literally hundreds of songs he wrote (and often performed on) for others.

    So, here’s an easier way to dive into his catalog, broken down by the type of listener you are, and what genres of music you prefer. I’m assuming little to no familiarity with Prince’s catalog here, beyond staples like the song Purple Rain. The nice thing about Prince’s work is that there are no bad starting points; if you don’t like what you hear at first, he almost certainly made a song in the complete opposite style as well.


    The basics

    If you’ve never really listened to Prince’s work, there’s a reason his 80s albums are revered. They hold up favorably against the very best albums in pop music.

    Purple Rain (1984)

    Spotify | Apple Music | Amazon | Tidal

    It really is that good. Half the songs on the album became hit singles, and the other half would have except they were too sexy.

    1999 (1982)

    Spotify | Apple Music | Amazon | Tidal

    This one will surprise you. Though Purple Rain has more, bigger hits, this is the album that shaped the sound of 80s radio. And, well, a lot of the Top 40 to this day. The songs really stretch out, and this is the album that turned a lot of casual Prince fans into diehards.

    Sign O’ The Times (1987)

    Spotify | Apple Music | Amazon | Tidal

    If you want to hear Prince at his experimental best, this is almost every hardcore Prince fan’s favorite album.

    The greatest hits

    There are a number of Greatest Hits collections for Prince’s work. None of them are terrible, but all of them ignore the second half of his career which, while uneven, still had dozens of truly great songs.

    Ultimate (2006)

    Spotify | Apple Music | Amazon | Tidal

    The best overall collection of Prince’s work, this includes a number of his best b-sides and extended versions, amply demonstrating why those non-album tracks were essential to understanding his range. And if you like big hits like Little Red Corvette, it shows up here in the full 8-and-a-half-minute glory of its 12″ Dance Mix.

    The Hits/The B-Sides (1993)

    Spotify | Apple Music | Amazon | Tidal

    The first compilation of Prince’s work is still the only one to collect a large number of his b-side recordings. Even if you’ve heard most of his 80s albums, there are almost certainly songs here that you missed.


    Specially-crafted starting points

    I made a number of playlists that are specifically aimed at people who feel like they’ve never really gotten Prince. I often hear people say, “I know he’s supposed to be super talented, but I never saw him live, and I don’t know what song of his I would love.” This is especially poignant for those of us who were fans because his live shows were amazing, often radically recasting his recorded material, and because his hit pop singles, while brilliant and unique, often didn’t resemble the more obscure works that won us over.

    These playlists are necessarily incomplete, because of the inconsistent way Prince’s catalog is made available. Tidal comes closest to including all of these songs, though even at its peak Tidal still omitted hundreds of Prince’s songs from its service. I’ve included Spotify versions of the playlists if most of the songs are available from the service.

    Discover Prince

    Spotify | Apple Music | Tidal 
    This is a playlist of the most “Prince-sounding” tracks in his catalog, a great way to hear work that a lot of serious fans would say could only have come from Prince.

    Prince: Guitar Pop

    Spotify | Tidal
    Prince’s most riff-driven rock tracks, showing off both his pop songcraft and his predilection for shredding. This list shows off how his work became more conventionally guitar heavy in this century.

    Prince: Electronic

    Spotify | Tidal
    The signature sound Prince was known for was his extraordinary and cutting-edge adoption of the latest electronic technologies like drum machines, synthesizers, samplers and sequencers. By bringing all these tools to bear, he changed the sound of popular music. These are some of the songs that caused that change, and some showing off how he kept evolving.

    Prince: Piano

    Spotify | Tidal
    In his final tour, Prince performed solo at the piano, reaffirming his raw showmanship and the strength of his songwriting. But throughout his career, he showed off his skills on the keys, as these songs amply demonstrate.


    More to come

    There are, of course, a nearly infinite number of ways to slice and dice a catalog that comprises over a thousand songs. None of these playlists even includes the work that Prince created for other artists. And it’s easy to imagine playlists like “Here are the Prince songs you’ll like if you love Hendrix” or “These are the Prince tracks that Justin Timberlake clearly loved the most”.

    But what’s most exciting is the idea that a new wave of listeners can find their own gems in a body of work that offers enough surprises and delights to last for decades to come. If you’re just getting into Prince, I hope these lists form a good starting point, and don’t hesitate to reply to me at @anildash if you’ve got questions or want suggestions of how to get started.

     
  • feedwordpress 20:11:28 on 2017/01/15 Permalink
    Tags: , , kristatippett, Most Popular, onbeing,   

    On Being and Tech’s Moral Reckoning 


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    Back in November, I got to sit down with the amazing Krista Tippett for a lengthy interview in front of an incredibly warm crowd in Easton, MD. Now, that interview has been edited down and is available as the latest episode of Krista's hugely popular show, On Being.
    I hope you'll take a listen — we cover the contemporary tech industry, the social impact of the major social networks, and even the bigger reckoning with how tech is changing our families and or kids and our relationships. I'm really proud of how this came out, and can't wait to hear what you think. And, of course, if you're interested in more on the topic, you can check out my Humane Tech series on Medium.

    If you are interested, there's also a full, 90-minute unedited version of the conversation. With Krista and her team coming from Minneapolis, the Prince mentions you might expect from me are in the uncut version.

     
  • feedwordpress 19:25:22 on 2015/05/24 Permalink
    Tags: , celebrity, fame, followers, Most Popular,   

    Nobody Famous 


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    What it’s like to have the social network of a celebrity, without actually being famous

    I’ve got more Twitter followers than you. I’ve got more Twitter followers than Ted Cruz, and I’m only a little bit behind Björk. If my followers were a state, we’d be creeping up on Wyoming in terms of population. Having half a million followers on Twitter is a genuinely bizarre experience, especially considering I’m just a random tech nerd on the Internet and not an actual famous person.

    For celebrities, maintaining a large social network is just part of the job. For a regular person, things get pretty weird pretty quickly once a couple hundred thousand new friends show up.

    Becoming fake-famous

    Some background is necessary here. I didn’t actually earn my giant Twitter network. Sure, a lot of my followers are people who wanted to keep up with my updates (I write for outlets like The Message on Medium where this piece first appeared, and talk about things like technology and pop culture and politics, which always drive conversation on Twitter). But somewhere around half of my followers are only there because I was included on the “Suggested User List”, a now-retired feature that used to recommend people to follow when you joined the service.

    Basically, somebody who worked at Twitter back in 2009 added me to that list, and all of a sudden my online network got upgraded to the kind of numbers that are usually only reserved for rock stars. It doesn’t bother me that I didn’t end up with a ton of followers online because of any merit of my own; these things are always arbitrary. But in addition to getting onto that one weird list, I picked up a lot of my real followers simply by being early to Twitter. That’s a tactic that definitely helps you get more followers, and I’d strongly recommend joining Twitter in 2006 if you have the option. #helpfuladvice

    The strangeness doesn’t end on Twitter. Once you get popular on one social network, it sort of bleeds over into other networks, since lots of apps let you import a list of friends from other services when you sign up. As a result, I have an absurdly large network on almost every popular service:

    • About half a million followers on Twitter
    • About 150,000 followers on Facebook
    • Thousands of followers on Instagram, Vine, and most of the other common social networks
    • I’ve got that insipid little blue checkmark on Twitter that indicates I’m verified. I even have a blue checkmark on Facebook! (Did you know Facebook has verified users? True story.)

    So there must be some kind of awesome payoff for all this, right? Like I can just flash my Twitter profile at the door to the club and I get escorted back directly to Jay & Bey’s booth?

    Ehh, not really.

    Champagne Wishes, Caviar Dreams

    A few times some misguided publicists have sent me advance copies of books, I guess in the hope that I might promote them on my Twitter account. (If I had the attention span to read a book, would I be spending all my time on Twitter? C’mon now.) If I ask for cooking tips or technical support, I tend to get pretty good answers from my network. And of course my friends like to mock me for being a pseudo-celebrity, though the novelty of that has worn off after a few years.

    But I’ve never gotten a better seat at a restaurant because of it. The few times I’ve been added to the guest list for an event has typically been because I’ve written for some old-fashioned print magazines; Those invites became a lot more scarce after I stopped, even though my social network is a lot bigger today.

    At a technological level, most of the tools and apps for using social networks completely fall apart once your network becomes huge. A lot of Twitter-related apps just crash as soon as I log in to them, and of course I have to turn off email notifications on any service I use in order to avoid being buried in a tsunami of alerts. The “notifications” area of Twitter typically sends me about 1,500 updates in a day, though there have been days when I get more than 5,000 notifications. I know there are people who have followed me who have wondered why I never followed them back, and it’s because at a certain point it can become impossible to identify particular individuals within the giant mass of incoming messages.

    Web-Scale Weirdness

    In all, aside from making people roll their eyes at me, the biggest impact of having this absurdly distended online network is that it makes my online life really weird. The weirdness is probably best demonstrated by a few of the recurring conversations that arise as a result:

    • “Yo, can you listen to my mixtape?” This is perhaps the most frequent side effect of having a lot of followers: People think there must be a reason people follow me, and assume I can do something for them as a result. In my case (and I don’t know if this is because I like hip hop, or is just random), I regularly get messages from people asking me to listen to their mixtapes or watch their YouTube videos. If this seems like an absurd request to you, then perhaps the next time you talk to Drake you should ask him how much my cosign on his mixtape meant to him.
    • “Hey, can you get me verified?” A variation on wanting attention or amplification for one’s work are the young folks (and they’re invariably under 25 years old) who very insistently plead for me to help them get a verified checkmark. Of course, I have no say in who gets verified, and I don’t even really understand the criteria by which the networks choose whom to bestow their blessing upon. But more importantly the checkmark doesn’t do anything! It’s the most clear case of star-bellied sneetches I’ve yet been able to find in adulthood, but this fact does nothing to temper the deep conviction of some that getting a blue checkmark on their Twitter or Facebook account would change their lives. Sometimes I want to email these people and ask how they think a few blue pixels on their Twitter account could have this kind of impact, but I haven’t yet figured out a way to do that without revealing what a complete asshole I am.
    • “Please RT!” And then, of course, there are the incessant requests to promote or retweet or amplify people’s work. “I wrote a thing!” or “Your followers will love this!” or “Can you just share this real quick?” The politeness of these requests is typically in inverse relation to their merit. Sure, some of these are cool things I’m thrilled to get to share with a (theoretically) larger audience. But the overwhelming majority is just crap, or things that nobody would believe I was sincerely sharing. Worst of all: Nobody clicks. Well, not nobody, but out of about 550,000 followers on Twitter, it’s very common for fewer than 400 of them to click on a link I share. (That’s .07%!) And yet dudes (yes, it’s always dudes) feel like they’re doing me a favor by asking. I cofounded a company that helps people understand their behavior on social networks, and looking at some of my most popular content that I’ve shared shows about 1700 people clicking on a link, in total.
    • “Kill yourself!” If you have a lot of followers online, and especially if you have the temerity to do so while being a woman and/or a minority of some sort , you’ll often just face waves of harassment and abuse, regardless of how innocuous your statements are. I’d talk more about this, and what the social networks could do to fix things, but then the GamerGate hordes will just show up and start sending threats again, and ughhhhh who has the time? Anyway, this isn’t unique to having a big network, but having one may paint a larger target on one’s back.
    • “Help?” In an era where everybody’s got a Kickstarter or an IndieGoGo to promote, it’s no surprise that people looking for crowdfunding success beg for links from the loudest voices online. Some of these are laughable (shout out to the 20-year-old guy who desperately wanted us to help him buy his first dirt bike), but there are a substantial number of people in real need. Almost every day, I hear a story of someone who needs help with their medical bills, or who went through an ugly divorce, or who lost their job, and they’re hoping that just getting in front of the right person online will change their luck. These are the conversations that I struggle with the most; I try to help as many as I can personally, but I generally don’t share their messages because so many turn out to be either misleading or sketchy and I don’t have the time to verify each one that I would share with my followers.

    Be my soapbox

    Some typical statistics on my Twitter activity, as reported by Twitter’s analytics features

    What becomes clear after a few years of having a large social network is that people are desperate to be heard. Some of this is related to the fundamental question of conversation online, “Why wasn’t I consulted?” But much of it ties back to people feeling powerless, of flailing toward any person who seems like they could provide opportunity or a way forward.

    I sometimes respond to people with facts and figures, showing how the raw number of connections in one’s network doesn’t matter as much as who those connections are, and how engaged they are. But the truth is, our technological leaders have built these tools in a way that explicitly promotes the idea that one’s follower count is the score we keep, the metric that matters. After more than a decade of having that lesson amplified across the Internet, the billion or so people who rely on online social networks have taken the message to heart. It’s no wonder so many people want to believe that the only thing that’s kept them from all the promised benefits of the World Wide Web is that they haven’t had access to the kind of giant network that I was arbitrarily gifted.


    In some ways, the people who ascribe almost-magical powers to a big social network are right. My network confers a wide range of privileges upon me. Having a few hundred people read something you want to promote is meaningful, and it’s a power that I have in my hands, at least some of the time. Getting that kind of attention by buying an ad on Twitter or Facebook probably costs a couple hundred dollars, so there’s a clear incentive to try spamming popular accounts in the off chance that it will eventually succeed.

    But more broadly, people have been sold a bill of goods. They want to believe that celebrity of any form, even fake online celebrity, has some kind of value, despite the evidence to the contrary. Signifiers like a blue verification checkmark or a number of followers are given an enormously prominent display on our social profiles. Yet despite their visibility, their capricious nature is never explained, and so people tend to wrongly see these as indicators of the quality a person’s social media presence.

    The thing that’s forgotten is, people don’t have huge social networks because they’re good at using the Internet. Beyonce got to having millions of Twitter followers before she ever even wrote her first tweet.

    The fact is, online celebrity is just a simple reflection of the existing networks of privilege that confer benefits on people in every other realm of life.

    In my particular case, being picked as a suggested user on Twitter changed the trajectory of my online life, but how is having a friend who was an early Twitter employee any different from the Old Boys’ Club? It ain’t.

    My First Million

    Once we realize that, a few unusual accidents aside, our social networks have the same foibles and biases as the rest of our culture, that leaves a basic question: Is there any value to any of this?

    Yes. First, there is the privilege of getting to connect to an extraordinarily large group of people, and get a small window into their thoughts and desires. Hearing an unfiltered stream of people shouting their wishes into the vast expanses of the Internet has permanently made me more aware of the humanity of the strangers who tweet at me every day.

    My outsized online footprint has also made me more keenly aware of the effects of the things I do share. If I’ve been given a preposterously large platform through no intrinsic merit of my own, how can I be worthy of it? Can I be mindful of whose voices I amplify? Can I challenge myself to raise issues that could benefit by greater visibility? Can I be more generous with the subtle gestures of social networks like favoriting or liking things, and convey a bit more kindness to those around me?

    I’m still not good at it. I get self-conscious thinking that my words might be watched by some kid I went to high school with, or some random person in my neighborhood, or my father-in-law, or an ex-flame, or an unknown enemy. Even though I know most tweets that I send out just flow by are ignored by the vast majority of people on the network, every once in a while I wonder what would happen if half a million people did see what I wrote?

    I once took the time to ask my network what they would do in my position. I got 120 real replies. The first set of replies to the question were jokes (mostly fairly gentle ones at my expense). Another small but significant set of replies were self-promotion, saying that they’d get the word out about the projects they’re working on, or just that they’d ask everyone for a dollar. A handful had darker responses about how they’d quit the network or steadfast replies about how they wouldn’t change a thing.

    But by far, the most animated, most considered responses were the group that eventually became the single largest set of replies. Dozens of people each suggested that the one thing they would do with a celebrity-sized social network was directly address the issues and causes that they care most about.

    Maybe we don’t have to wait until we’re famous to do that.

     
  • feedwordpress 03:54:18 on 2014/07/26 Permalink
    Tags: , bobbyz, bobseger, jamesbrown, jgeils, lisacoleman, mattfink, , Most Popular, , , purplerain, stevienicks, wendymelvoin   

    I Know Times Are Changing 


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    Prince performing on August 3, 1983

    0:00 — 0:10

    In the summer of 1983, Wendy Melvoin was just 19 years old. She’d flown halfway across the country from Los Angeles for her first professional gig as a guitar player, joining her girlfriend Lisa Coleman in the band where Lisa had been playing keyboards. Almost from the moment she landed, Wendy was thrown into the grueling rehearsals that were taking place in a warehouse in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, right where West Lake Street meets Highway 7.

    Rehearsals in the warehouse involved learning dozens of songs, with many of them being created or rearranged on the spot; it was weeks and months of rigorous practice before Wendy was deemed ready to play with the band.

    Her debut gig was a fundraiser for a local dance troupe, the Minnesota Dance Theater Company. The temperature on the night of the show was as sweltering as one might expect in early August. The six members of the band made their way over to First Avenue, the evening’s venue, to charge their way through a dozen songs over the course of 70 minutes.

    The band challenged the audience with a setlist where half the songs were brand-new, premiering more than 45 minutes of material that no one had ever heard. After almost an hour, Wendy began the penultimate song of the set. A few slow chords, heavily chorused, served to introduce the audience to a new, unfamiliar ballad. For the first ten seconds of the song, the only sound heard was Wendy’s guitar ringing out.

    Ten months later, on June 25th 1984, the world got its first listen to those broad, mournful chords as the title track of a brand new album: Purple Rain.

    0:50—1:00

    A few weeks later, Wendy and Lisa were back in their home state of California, joining their boss Prince, who was having a very auspicious visit to Los Angeles. On August 20, less than three weeks after the charity gig, Prince had been asked to come onstage at a James Brown concert, at the behest of Michael Jackson, who had been singing with Brown onstage. It was the only time the three men would occupy a stage together, and seemed an almost-explicit anointing of Prince by both the funk legend and the man who was then enjoying the height of Thriller’s success.

    But despite the recognition, Prince and the Revolution were focused on their work. A few days after the James Brown show, Wendy and Lisa conducted a string section to record a string and piano accompaniment for Purple Rain that Lisa and Prince had arranged. In addition to Lisa adding a much more expressive piano part, there was a three-piece string section which included Lisa’s brother David Coleman on cello. It’s this string part that we can hear rising so dramatically behind the first chorus in the song.

    The full version of this orchestral accompaniment track is over ten minutes, matching the original length of the song and then continuing into a more complex coda. But by the time these sessions in Hollywood were done, both the new orchestration and Purple Rain itself would be shorter, to better focus on the purpose for which they were created.

    1:50—2:00

    Though the idea of “blue states” and “red states” wouldn’t catch on for another two decades, it’s an appropriate framework for Purple Rain’s goals; The song was designed as a perfect amalgamation of red and blue tastes. Much has been made of Prince’s pioneering role in bridging white and black music, of bringing together funk and soul audiences with more conventional rock fans. But little has been said about exactly how he achieved this effect.

    Prince simply made use of one of the most potent and consistent techniques of his career: careful appropriation of popular trends in pop music, filtered through his unique sound.

    Traditional evaluations of Purple Rain’s songs have tended to describe it as a particularly original creation, given that it includes such distinctively Prince-ly works as When Doves Cry and Darling Nikki (both of which he wrote and performed entirely by himself). But Prince was always watching closely to see what was popular around him, and he put those observations to use in creating the album.

    J. Geils Band’s Freeze-Frame, the title track from their 1981 hit album, and likely in the set of the shows on October 9 and 11, 1981, where they shared the bill with Prince.

    For example, Prince had shared the stage with the J. Geils Band in 1981, as part of a legendarily ill-fated opening gig for the Rolling Stones where Prince and his band were pelted with objects by the crowd while being booed offstage. A scarring incident, to be sure, but Prince must certainly have noticed that Geils did not get booed offstage. And with good reason — the band’s single Centerfold had just been released two weeks before the Stones show, and would top the charts not long after in February 1982. On the heels of this hit, the band would release Freeze Frame, which was nearly as successful and got to #4 on the Billboard Top 100. Even more striking, the song’s b-side, Flamethrower, went top 20 on the soul charts. The band had an unlikely appeal to both black and white audiences, crossing over in a mirror image of what Prince was striving for.

    The “Special Dance Mix” of Let’s Go Crazy, originally available in 1984 on the 12" release of the single.

    Little wonder then that Let’s Go Crazy, written just a year later, would incorporate the same staccato organ stabs and driving beat as Freeze Frame (heard quite clearly in the full-length version of Let’s Go Crazy), substituting Prince’s trademark Linn drums for the more conventional sounds of the Geils song, and replacing the “freeze frame!” shout with a similarly percussive “oh no, let’s go!” refrain.

    Similarly, in rehearsals from the summer of 1983, we hear Prince referencing what he heard at Paradise Garage, the legendary NYC nightclub. In 1983, that would certainly have included Laid Back’s White Horse, which topped the dance charts that year. Prince‘s creation myth for his song Erotic City was that it was recorded after he and Sheila E. attended a P-Funk concert together and were inspired to stay up all night making the song. And while there may be elements of truth to that story, it’s obvious that he also wanted to create a pastiche of a hit song that was doing well in the clubs.

    Erotic City remained a staple of black radio for years after its 1983 release, despite being a b-side and ambiguously containing the word fuck/funk in its chorus.

    Laid Back was, of course, a white group (they were from Denmark, a homeland as white as Prince’s) succeeding in a very black genre, synth-driven dance music. It’s little wonder that Erotic City would try to mirror that success, and perhaps inevitable that the song ended up as the b-side to Let’s Go Crazy. Both of Prince’s songs ended up being bigger hits than the earlier works that informed their creation.

    But though it’s established that Prince would seek out references as inspiration for his concerted effort at crossing over, who could provide sufficient inspiration for the anthemic title track that his upcoming movie required?

    For this, we can again look both to the acts Prince was seeing on the road and what was hitting on the charts in the summer of 1983. During the tour for the 1999 album, which had only ended a few months prior, Prince had been playing in many of the same venues as Bob Seger. Revolution keyboardist Matt Fink explained the appeal to a circumspect Prince: “It’s like country-rock, it’s white music. You should write a ballad like Bob Seger writes and you’ll cross right over.” In perhaps his least Prince-sounding quote ever, Prince mentioned Seger when both were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2004, “We are both midwesterners and Seger had a lot of influence on me at the start of my career; he certainly influenced my writing.”

    It’s not just Seger that was influencing Prince to move into rock balladry. Chick Huntsberry (the giant Santa Claus seen at the James Brown concert above) who was then Prince’s bodyguard and was becoming close to Prince, had been encouraging him to move in the direction of the country-inflected pop ballads that were then all over the charts. Tour manager Alan Leeds recalls Huntsberry’s reaction after first hearing Purple Rain, “He said, ‘Wait until you hear the song he did last night. It’s gonna be bigger than Willie Nelson.’.” Indeed, the guitar solos and even Prince’s vocal inflections of rehearsal versions of Purple Rain show far more of a country-rock influence than the final version.

    Stevie Nicks, no stranger to country-informed rock ballads, has also attested that Prince sent her a demo of Purple Rain while he was still in the early stages of creating the song, either for her to write lyrics for or to use as her own song. They certainly knew each other at the time (Prince had contributed synths to “Stand Back” earlier in 1983), but it seems likely that he was refining the song for his own use rather than offering it to her.

    Then there is perhaps the clearest antecedent to Purple Rain. Just four months before that August concert where Purple Rain was debuted, Journey released Faithfully, which despite only peaking at #12 on the Billboard charts was recognized as a signature anthem for the band right from its debut. It was reaching its peak airplay in the summer of 1983, just as Prince was creating Purple Rain in the warehouse rehearsals with the Revolution. Though Faithfully is anchored by its opening piano riffs rather than a guitar, it’s not difficult at all to hear echoes of the structure and progression Jonathan Cain wrote for Journey in the final version Purple Rain.

    The debt owed to Cain may even have been acknowledged by Prince. In a hard to find Swedish interview in early 2012, Cain claims that Prince asked if it was okay that Purple Rain makes use of the same chords as Faithfully, with Cain demurring that the songs were sufficiently different.

    All of this evidence makes it clear that Prince was deliberately scouring as many different sources and influences as possible to design a rocking guitar anthem with maximum mainstream appeal. That goal is never more obvious than in the two key events that happen at 1:50 into Purple Rain.

    It is at this point we hear Prince’s guitar enter the song for the first time. Until that point, he had only been contributing vocals. From that point on, Prince’s guitar only increases in importance and centrality to the song, cementing its place as a rock song architected explicitly to appeal across racial boundaries.

    Just as important is what we don’t hear. Elided in this transition is an entire minute of the original recording, removed during the same sessions when the string accompaniment was added. This editing serves to erase an entire original verse from the song.

    All summer long, Prince had been toying with the lyrics to this lost verse, never quite resolving them into a coherent form, but consistently including them as part of the song. The night of the definitive performance, they were vague, if passionately delivered:

    Honey I don’t want your money, no no no.
    I don’t even think I want your love.

    If I wanted either one, baby, I would take me some money and buy it.

    I want the heavy stuff. I want the purple rain. I want the purple rain.

    In rehearsals to that point, Prince would often sharpen the final line into “I want the heavy stuff... I want to see what you’re made of.” But, in addition to the contradiction contained in the lyrics (“I don’t want your money… I would take me some money and buy it.”), the message of this verse contradicted the song’s role in the narrative of the film.

    And so, the verse was cut, affirming that Prince was doing whatever he could to construct a song which could serve as a signature song not just for an album, or for a film, but for a career. While the Purple Rain album was full of abbreviated edits of songs that he would later perform in their full versions during live performances, that wasn't the case with this missing stanza. After the Hollywood sessions where these edits were made, Prince would never again perform these lyrics as part of Purple Rain.

    Purple Rain lyrics

    Prince’s original hand-written lyrics for Purple Rain, including the deleted third verse.

    2:45—2:55

    During the weeks of rehearsal of the Purple Rain material, the band’s sound had been captured almost every day on a simple 24-track recorder that served as the destination for the many cables snaking around the warehouse. The mix for those recordings was managed on a console that was balanced on a few road cases. These machines were usually staffed by David Leonard and David Rivkin. Rivkin was brother to Robert Rivkin, better known as Bobby Z in his role as drummer for the Revolution.

    There were new combinations of gear being rigged up for the band on an ongoing basis. Prince’s signature sound to that point had been due in no small part to his use of many of the earliest drum machines, and the show relied on drum machines that didn’t yet allow for the advanced digital controls that bands rely on today. So Prince’s tech Don Batts was forced to hack those primitive drum machines to allow Bobby Z to control a wider range of instruments live on stage.

    Linn LM-1 Drum Computer.jpg

    A Linn LM-1 Drum Computer, the same model Prince used in his early 80s work. (Wikipedia<)

    That same kind of seat-of-the-pants recording technology was used to capture the First Avenue show. The charity show was being recorded thanks to the last-minute addition of a mobile recording truck, brought in from the Record Plant in New York at Prince’s behest. (The Time’s performances of Jungle Love and The Bird earlier that evening, recorded under the same conditions, would be used as the basis for their hit singles and album in 1984 as well. Five major pop hits were recorded in one truck in less than three hours.)

    When Prince created When Doves Cry for the album seven months later, he was famously able to remove the bass line from the song in the studio because he had cleanly recorded all the tracks at Sunset Sound’s studios in Hollywood. By contrast, recording conditions for the tracks used on Purple Rain were rife with all the imperfections of a live show.

    At 2:45 into Purple Rain, the precarious recording conditions become particularly obvious, when feedback from Prince’s guitar starts to seep into the track. Obviously, given the screeching solo that is to follow, some amount of feedback was necessary and desirable. But nothing attests to the truly electric nature of the song’s creation better than the unexpected feedback that pops up throughout the second half of the song.

    4:40—4:50

    While Prince and the Revolution had been carefully rehearsing Purple Rain all summer, adjusting each detail of how the song was structured and played, Prince’s nearly-unequalled ability to spontaneously take a live performance to the next level was certainly on display that August night.

    Exemplifying this ability is the repeated lilting motif that Prince begins playing on his guitar at 4:40 in the song. For all the countless times they’d practiced the song, even earlier on the same day as the First Avenue performance, Prince had never played this riff during Purple Rain before. In the original live show, it’s clear that Prince realizes he’s found something magical, returning again and again to this brief riff, not just on guitar but even singing it himself during the final fade of the song.

    Just as striking is how this little riff shows the care and self-criticism that went into making the song Purple Rain. Like any brilliant 25-year-old guy who’s thought of something clever, Prince’s tendency when he thought of this little gem was to overdo it. In the unedited version of the song, Prince keeps playing the riff for almost another minute, pacing around the stage trying to will the audience into responding to it.

    But during those same sessions where the strings were added to the song, Prince ruthlessly chopped down a riff he clearly loves, keeping just enough to serve as a stirring melodic hook for his guitar solo, and leading the song to its soaring vocal climax.

    5:15—5:25

    At any Prince concert of the last 30 years, the highlight is typically the audience’s singalong to the descending falsetto line that crowns Prince’s guitar solo. But the origins of that signature line are a little more obscure.

    Matt Fink, famously rechristened “Dr. Fink” in his role in the Revolution after the surgical scrubs that became his sartorial signature, had been in Prince’s bands from the earliest days. Indeed, Fink’s place in the band was deeply rooted in many ways—the warehouse where the band was rehearsing that summer was just half a mile from the high school he had attended only a few years prior.

    It was during the sessions in that warehouse that Fink had first added a descending piano line to the coda of the song. Even as late as a few days before the First Avenue performance, this was merely a striking countermelody adding drama to the end of the guitar solo in the song.

    Prince and the Revolution - Warehouse rehearsals

    Still from video footage of rehearsals at the St. Louis Park warehouse. Robert (Bobby Z.) Rivkin on drums, Matt Fink on keyboards, Prince on guitar, Wendy Melvoin on guitar.

    But by the day of August 3rd, when the band was performing its final rehearsal preparation, Prince had realized the power of Fink’s melody. In practice just hours before the public show, the melody became a soaring vocal hook, evolving in the final performance into perhaps the most affecting part of the song, expressing all of the emotions too powerful for Prince to capture in a lyric. Like Journey’s earlier Faithfully, or U2's later 80s anthems, it also provided a perfect stadium-ready sing-along line, again telegraphing Prince’s ambitions for the song while remaining true to the artistic intent of the piece.

    6:40—6:50

    Purple Rain is a particularly unusual song for the length of its instrumental coda. Before it fades to a series of striking and unexpected chords performed by the string ensemble, it has one last great hook, a simple piano motif performed by Lisa Coleman.

    Given Prince’s legendarily controlling tendencies over his intellectual property, it is perhaps no surprise that the song Purple Rain has almost never been substantially sampled by other pop artists.

    But clearly some songwriters consider the tinkling piano at the end of the song to be up for grabs, perhaps because it’s not one of the more obviously recognizable parts of the song. As a result, that piano melody has unexpectedly become the part of the song which lives on in pop radio. Alicia Keys made it the very first thing we hear in her 2007 single, Like You’ll Never See Me Again.

    Similarly, Mariah Carey’s first single in 2014, You’re Mine (Eternal) opens with those same notes. Both songs have a pleading, even regretful tone that leaves no doubt their songwriters were making use of the motif to explicitly evoke the emotional context created by Coleman’s work in 1983. Both artists have also covered Prince’s songs from this era, with Keys covering the 1982 b-side How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore early in her career and Carey including her version of Purple Rain’s The Beautiful Ones on a 1997 release.

    8:30—8:40

    As Purple Rain fades to an end, the last thing we hear is the audience’s applause. While parts of the track had additional applause dubbed in to cover for the original audience’s subdued reaction to the then-new song, it seems clear this final applause is the actual response that Purple Rain inspired at its debut.

    Just over a month after the Purple Rain album was released, the film Purple Rain debuted on July 27, 1984. Later that summer, Prince would simultaneously have the number one film, album, and single in the United States. On September 26, 1984, the song Purple Rain itself was released as a single, reaching number two on the pop charts, kept from the top spot by Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go, and going gold with over 500,000 copies of the single sold. The Purple Rain soundtrack album has sold over 20 million copies in the last 30 years.

    Though Prince has half a dozen singles that did better on the charts than Purple Rain, the song has obviously become Prince’s signature work. It has taken different forms over the years; At an intimate show at his Paisley Park studio in 2002, he did a one-off piano rendition that omitted the famous guitar solo. In recent years he’s even let guitarist Donna Grantis solo on the song. Prince has trotted out Purple Rain to open the Grammy awards with Beyonce, and to shut the Super Bowl down with its best halftime performance ever, complete with a marching band.

    Prince - Superbowl

    Like the album it completes, Purple Rain has remained provocative and affecting. The song has aged over the last 30 years, especially extraordinary given that Prince was only 25 when he composed it.

    During the filming of Purple Rain, a few months after the song was recorded, a love scene between Prince and the movie’s female lead Apollonia was filmed, taking place in a barn. The literal climax of the scene featured a rainstorm, with the sunlight filtering through the storm to provide an image of purple rain.

    By the final cut of the film, that scene had been edited from the film. It had been deemed unnecessary.

     
  • feedwordpress 16:40:10 on 2014/01/27 Permalink
    Tags: cnn, handwringing, headlines, Most Popular, , upworthy   

    One Simple Trick Worked to Improve Headlines, and You Won’t Believe What Happened Next 


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    Upworthy is barely over two years old, and it's among the top 50 most visited sites in the United States. But its perception among the self-involved media discussion class is entirely defined by its headlines.

    Those headlines typically reference a provocative issue, tease an unexpected revelation about the topic, and are oriented toward encouraging people to click through to the Upworthy site more than to understand the story without having clicked. And those headlines work

    Interestingly, though, the media industry's reaction to a site having found a formula that actually breaks through the clutter online and makes aggregated content seem distinct hasn't been enthusiasm, but open disdain.

    Horrible CNN Tweet

    This trend reached its apotheosis recently when a misguided social media manager at CNN used (what they thought was) the Upworthy formula in a completely inappropriate way. There was almost as much opprobrium for Upworthy in the wake of the incident as for CNN itself. Having been the source of the format, Upworthy got some of the blame when it got misused.

    It seems the folks over at Upworthy are aware of the perception issue here; They've shared statistics about how infrequently they've actually used the most-parodied tropes, and how their use of these tactics has changed in recent months.

    Obviously, if you broaden the terms a bit, you get a few more headlines which evoke this trope, though they still comprise a fairly small percentage of all their stories:

    The reaction has built to the point where people are responding in interesting and creative ways. Alison Gianotto (of noise) created Downworthy as a programmatic way of modifying "hyperbolic viral headlines" and it's been greeted with delight by people frustrated with the pervasiveness of this style of writing.

    I'm not so sure this argument is as clear as the anti-hyped-headlines narrative would presume, though. Writing evocative headlines is a good thing if it gets people to see content of substance. Sure, it can be manipulative if misused, and frustrating if key information is omitted for no good reason. But part of what makes this style of headline so remarkable is that it is a distinctive voice. There are media outlets that are a century old which don't have a personality that's distinctive enough to be parodied without context to a large audience; Upworthy (and the lesser sites aping its style) have gotten there in two years.

    Ultimately, many of the objections to this style of content are from people who feel like good stories should be able to find an audience without such "tricks". And of course, they're right — stories should be able to find an audience. But they don't. So good narratives have to be marketed, and innovations that discover new ways to be effective in attracting audiences are a useful, and necessary, part of making media succeed online. It was only a few decades ago that USA Today adding color to its newspaper was seen as somehow "undignified", or beneath the level of seriousness appropriate for a journalistic endeavor. Certainly we don't have to be quite so puritanical about the ways content aggregators market their content. Great headlines are a wonderful art; I maintained a link blog for years primarily because of how much fun it was to write "better" (to my mind) headlines for existing articles or stories. The fundamental identity of many tabloids is about the way they construct their headlines. There's no reason that can't be true online as well.

    And while I'm always loath to extend the biological metaphors over "virality" in content, there is obviously a precedent in the realm of biology of viruses which are overly aggressive and have extreme short-term success at the expense of their long-term success. In those cases, we see evolutions that lead to much more sustainable behaviors. I have no doubt we'll see that happen in the media ecosystem.

    [Disclosurebrag: Upworthy is a customer of ThinkUp. I felt Upworthy's headlines were interesting and useful as a strategy before that was true.]

     
  • feedwordpress 23:48:38 on 2013/11/08 Permalink
    Tags: , leadership, Most Popular, ,   

    What I Learned From Twitter’s Leaders 


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    [This piece was originally written for CNN on the occasion of Twitter's IPO.]

    The Internet is buzzing with news of Twitter's initial public offering on Thursday, inspiring enough enthusiasm from investors to push the company to a $23 billion valuation in its first day. It has been quite a ride for a company started just seven years ago, attracting just a few geeky users at first, and then accelerating to eventually reach more than 232 million active users each month.

    The company has been through an extraordinary set of triumphs and tribulations along the way. I've watched much of this happen—I work in the tech industry and count many of the leaders and founders of Twitter, since its earliest days, as friends—and I think I can identify some of the more human lessons we might take away from Twitter's milestone. The rest of us aren't going to get rich from Twitter's IPO, but the people who are embody some basic truths about what it takes to take a small company big.

    Their work informs the work I do each day, both in my own new startup ThinkUp and in my life overall.

    Dick Costolo, CEO: Costolo is widely acknowledged as one of the most innovative executives in the tech industry, creating a series of companies focused on delivering real-time information. But while he famously has a background in stand-up comedy (he shared the stage in Chicago years ago with folks like Steve Carell), there's a bigger lesson to be had here: That serious business can be informed by a sense of improvisation. Improv is based around the idea of saying "Yes, and..." rather than "No, we can't," and that's a fundamental philosophy for building a business that can adapt to the real world.

    Katie Stanton, head of international strategy: In between her stints building products at Yahoo and Google and her current role heading international efforts at Twitter, Stanton worked both at the White House and the State Department. That she did this showed an awareness of the importance not just of having a global perspective, but of serving—and interacting with--one's community, one's city, or country. More of the tech industry, and every industry, would benefit from being more civic-minded.

    Jason Goldman, former vice president of product: One of the least-heralded leaders of Twitter during its early days, Goldman was a quiet but forceful voice for improving the process of running Twitter as a company. Much of the hardest work in building anything big and ambitious gets done in roles that aren't glamorous, that focus on just trying to get a little bit better each day.

    Chloe Sladden, head of media: Sladden was one of the first people at Twitter to think systematically about how the company would connect to more traditional media, like television. Inside the tech industry, people are used to making big distinctions between technology and media, or between "new media" and "old media," but it's a huge insight to realize that those boundaries are increasingly arbitrary. That kind of thinking is how opportunities are created.

    Alex Macgillivray, former general counsel: At several points in its history, Twitter made choices to do the right thing when it didn't have to, choices that a lot of companies have backed away from. From its stand on free speech to its efforts to be more transparent about the ways it utilizes users' data, many of Twitter's initiatives happened because the company and its lawyers were willing to do extra work on behalf of what was right. One of the most consistent advocates for fighting the good fight was Alex Macgiillivray, who left the company last summer. His advocacy has hopefully influenced all kinds of companies to stand up for people's rights.

    Biz Stone, co-founder: In the many stories and books that have already been written about Twitter's history, the role of Christopher "Biz" Stone is one of the least understood; reporters have often left it as, essentially, "He seems like a nice guy." His contribution to Twitter, and to the many projects he has worked on before and since, has been so much more than that. He has displayed a consistent ability to articulate—in human language, understandable to all-- what's valuable about a piece of technology. This is perhaps best exemplified by his early description of Twitter itself: "The messaging system we didn't know we needed until we had it." In a tech industry that often seems disconnected from regular people, this is one of the most crucial skills to have.

    Jack Dorsey, co-founder: Though he's become one of the most famous names in technology, the most striking thing about Dorsey's career is his focus on every small detail of how things are presented, whether that's a product or a company or a process. That kind of sweating the small stuff is what propels a company's ambitions, and it's a trait Dorsey has carried into his mobile payments company, Square.

    Michael Sippey, vice president of product: Sippey was among the earliest people to create a blog on the Internet, and more than a decade and a half later, he's working on building more features like photos and video into Twitter, based on the fundamental ideas of multimedia sharing that were pioneered during the early days of the blogosphere. That kind of fixation on a big, meaningful problem like finding better, richer ways to communicate with friends and communities, is a tough thing to stay focused on in the short-attention-span tech world, let alone on which to build a long career.

    Evan Willams, co-founder: Perhaps no one person is more responsible for Twitter's existence than Evan Williams, who bankrolled the company out of his pocket in its early days, and serves on its board today. The headlines from the financial press will be about how Williams became a multibillionaire after Thursday's IPO, but the bigger story is one of his sheer persistence. Williams was co-founder of Blogger, where the company went through a near-death experience before being acquired by Google, and just a dozen years ago, he was tapped out. But he kept with it, and brought that same persistence to the ups and downs of Twitter--and is putting the same ethos to work in his new company, Medium. There's an important lesson in that example of never giving up.

    The strengths and stories of the people who built the company to its success—and there are many more--are instructive for any company. At the same time, of course, they are just people—smart ones, but imperfect, and lucky, too. Certainly it helps that all these smart people grew up in America, where they never had to worry about clean water or good public schools or political instability.

    The privileges we enjoy in the United States allow us to succeed on this level, and it's why I challenge Twitter to extend these kinds of opportunities more broadly by expanding the diversity of its board, and in the process better reflecting its increasingly international and diverse user base.

    On a day when many are celebrating Twitter for its financial success, and lauding the value of its stock price, we can find a deeper value in the personal stories of this handful of people who helped build Twitter. Hopefully the positive values that helped Twitter get to this point are what this newly public company can use as its definition of "success" going forward.

     
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