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    Wednesday, March 01, 2006

    Child of the Mix Tape

    Washington Post on iMixes and playlists:

    IMixes -- as well as playlists on other services such as Rhapsody, Musicstrands and Soundflavor -- are the online cousins of amateur cassette-tape and CD mixes created over the years by countless music collectors as soundtracks for parties and road trips. Many of the playlists focus on a theme -- and many of those on a personal one, whether the subject is a lost love, a class reunion, a nasty breakup, duty in Iraq or a new romance.

    Even late, lamented radio stations merit personal tributes. The old WHFS, an alternative-rock pioneer for decades on Baltimore-Washington area airwaves before changing to a Spanish-language format in early 2005, is the theme of more than a dozen current iTunes playlists.

    But as personal and private as they can be, such playlists are expected to have a significant impact on online music distribution and sales, according to one recent study by market research firm Gartner Inc. and Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. By the year 2010, the study predicts, 25 percent of online music-store transactions will be driven by people like Saylors.

    Not that Saylors and others like her go into it thinking about driving transactions for Apple, said Harvard researcher Derek Slater, co-author of the study "Consumer Taste Sharing Is Driving the Online Music Business and Democratizing Culture." And not that driving transactions is the only benefit the researchers see.

    "Even if we're wrong in our prediction by however many percentage points, there is something important going on culturally here," said Slater, who also frequently writes on the subject in his blog, "A Copyfighter's Musings." Saylors and others like her may constitute a new breed of music "tastemakers," he argues.

    "Instead of primarily disc jockeys and music videos shaping how we view music, we have a greater opportunity to hear from each other," he and Gartner researcher Mike McGuire wrote in their December study. "These [playlist] tools allow people to play a greater role in shaping culture, which, in turn, shapes themselves. In this way, recommendation tools encourage music fans to engage in expressive acts, becoming creators."

    Rebecca Tushnet, a professor with Georgetown University Law Center, has studied and written about playlists and mix CDs from an intellectual-property perspective. Her conclusion: The creation of a playlist or mix CD of music composed by others is a creative act in itself, a form of free speech.

    "It is an important means of self-expression," she says. "The motivation is an urge to say, 'This is who I am, and you can find out who I am by knowing what I love.'"...

    The current percentage of sales driven by playlists is hard to pin down, according to McGuire. But with some 10 million credit cards reported on account with iTunes last quarter and the number of individual playlists approaching 400,000, McGuire said, "it is still a relatively small amount." ITunes does not have information about iMixes' effect on sales, according to spokeswoman Amy Gardner.

    What is clear though, McGuire said, is that personal playlists are having an impact. "I don't think they'd keep it up if they weren't," said McGuire, citing as further evidence Yahoo's purchase in recent weeks of the music playlist service Webjay and the hiring of its creator, Lucas Gonze.

    Enabling users to essentially recommend music purchases to others underscores that music is something worth paying for online, according to McGuire. "Over the long haul, these kinds of tools continue to place value on the music for consumers."

    Besides encouraging purchases rather than piracy, playlists also serve to surface obscure or forgotten songs. "We now have access to music far beyond what the typical Wal-Mart would carry," said Slater. "How do you navigate that range of music? By exploring playlists created by people who share your tastes."

    I am a recent convert to the iMix. (I'm not one of those people who's in the know on music, so I have to rely on folks that are.) My approach is to go through iMixes and listen a song at a time, then, if I like something, I go to the album it's on and listen to more of the artist or band. I have never actually bought an iMix, but listening to bits and pieces of them has been very influential in forming my recent musical acquisitions. It takes quite a bit of effort to find decent iMixes, actually.

    What I'm loving about iMixes is just what they point out above: unlike the old-school mixtape or, more recently, burned CD, iMixes encourage you to support the artist directly. The other thing is that it expands your circle of music- your friends are one thing, but having access to the listening-history of people all over can really open doors.

    But let me register a complaint. It seems to me that the vast majority of iMix makers do not put in the same effort as your friend would have in making you a mixtape. There are great ones, but the quality level is, generally, lower. I am always mystified by these playlists that are actually the top 8 most popular songs of the week, with a title like "Cool Stuff". You didn't get away with that in mixtape world. Mixtapes really were, as the article argues for them, about communicating something or turning people onto the stuff that meant something to you. I don't know what some of these iMixes are.

    There's also the supremely irritating way that iTunes is filled with iMixes the purpose of which is to basically place a vote for a band or artist to be introduced into iTunes. These are generally titled things like, "Rate this a 5 to bring Linkin Park to iTunes!" But rating that iMix a 5 is no way no how going to all of a sudden solve whatever dispute is keeping a huge act like Linkin Park from hawking songs on iTunes. Get a clue, people.


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