October 6, 2022

Humble Pie Charter

The five most useless words of advice I’ve ever come across were inscribed a couple of thousand years ago over the temple of Apollo at Delphi. (Well, four in Greek.) The people who came here to consult the oracle – the sibyl squatting on her tripod over the cleft in the sacred rock – and to try and make sense of her famously cryptic messages were first greeted by the more universal – and probably more useful – motto: Gnothi Seauton – Meden Agan (Gnwqi Seauton – Mhden Agan )*

*Know Thyself – Nothing In Excess.

What constitutes the pith in this pithy apothegm is not its inscrutability – quite the opposite – but that it’s impossible, and totally begs the question – how? Take the second part first – so obvious, so hopelessly unachievable. I eat too many profiteroles, I die – I know, but guess what – I don’t care! And as for the first – well, point me out a person who claims to know themselves and I’ll show you a self-deluding moron. Someone like – oh, stick a pin at random in any copy of Kindred Spirit. I suppose the point about this and any similarly koan-like philosophical axiom is to throw us into a double-bind prison of self-examination whereby we are obliged to discover for ourselves that the only means of release is through that moment of satori when we know that ‘know’ means nothing and ‘thyself’ not much more, but that, together, they mean everything – or something like that (I swapped that class for batik – I still have the t-shirt).

Self-knowledge apart, most of us muddle through with a rag-bag of bluff and bullshit that attempts, more or less successfully, to conceal our huddled core of shivering insecurities, and even manage to convince ourselves, from time to time, that we’re making progress – or that progress is being made despite us. Such doomed, vainglorious hubris manifests in various guises, but nowhere more sensitively than in the matter of musical taste. Taste – the thing that differentiates you from that person who’s cruising past in his white Vauxhall Nova with the windows down and the bass up so loud that it makes pensioners teeth drop out. Just as he’s using his music to declare “Look at me – a total arsehole and proud of it”, we (I’ll assume you’re with me on this) use our own musical taste as a social filter, both as a ticket of admission into our tribal gatherings of choice and as a way of scrutinising applicants to our own inner circle. It’s highly unlikely that boombox boy and indie grrl are ever going to get it together – as plumage to warble, so fashion to playlist – it’s an evolved mating ritual thang. Except that, since very few of us have the ability to make our own warbles any more, we’ve developed a way of doing it by proxy. So you see me sashaying down the street in my Globe hoodie with Pyramid Song lit up on my iPod and you know I’m The One – isn’t that how it works? But – hello! – there’s such a thing as maturing taste, you know, and those of us who look back on the pre-kids and -mortgage days of footloose and fancy-freeness with the eyes of an exile on a forgotten continent still listen to music – and some of us even enjoy (*gasp*) new music. So the gravitas of maturity must enhance the discriminative buds and lend to our sad geriatric playlists an authority, an authenticity uniquely proportionate to our years-in-the-making super-refined musical sensibility, mustn’t it?

Briefly, no.

Enter Audioscrobbler.

As with most of the defining moments in life, Audioscrobbler entered mine by accident: I’d been following a thread in a music forum and happened to click on a link to what turned out to be the poster’s Audioscrobbler profile. Intrigued, I stayed. I lurked awhile. Finally, I signed up, and can now report on my first three months as a member of one of the fastest-growing music communities on the internets.

The code was written by a couple of computer science undergraduates, Russ Garrett and Richard Jones, who developed the programme as a final year project at Southampton Uni. Assisted by a development team of a dozen or so fellow enthusiasts and coders, they launched Audioscrobbler during their Christmas vacation in 2002. By March 2003 there were already 2,000 users. The current stats speak for themselves: with 121,877 registered users in 25 countries (of which 32,766 in the US and 11,679 in the UK), and new users registering at the rate of nearly two thousand a day, the Audioscrobbler servers are now processing submissions at the rate of 44 per second – ie over three and a half million per day.

The way it works is that, once you’ve signed up, you customise your profile page with a username and as much or as little information about yourself as you wish to divulge, and download a plugin appropriate to your operating system and media player of choice. This plugin automatically connects you to the Audioscrobbler server whenever you’re online and playing music, and the server starts remembering what you’ve been listening to. Then, after a while (it happens quite quickly if you listen to a lot of music), your individual profile appears in the form of a list of the stuff you’ve played and how often. This list gradually flattens out into a kind of statistical breakdown displayed as a set of charts – top 5 weekly artists, top ten weekly tracks, top 50 overall artists, top 50 overall tracks, and so on. Also, Audioscrobbler starts comparing what you’re listening to with what everyone else is listening to, displays a list of those who are closest to you in taste, and even makes recommendations about stuff that’s in their profiles that you’ve missed. (And, thanks to the affiliated site – Last.fm – it even enables you to listen to this stuff as well!) It seems to work on the same principle and by similar algorithms as the Amazon recommendations and supermarket loyalty cards, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Audioscrobbler starts suggesting variations on snacks and beverages as well before long – and probably arranging delivery before the year’s out. Oh, and there’s a load of forums and IMS and search engines and suchlike cool stuff as well, but as the forums (apart from the utterly impenetrable inter-geek conversations) seem not to lift much above the Kylie – hot or not? level, I guess they’ve been snuck in there as an afterthought for the kids, really, like the IKEA play area.

Obviously, any sensible person’s first concern would be about the security of this plugin thingie. It’s all very well having a remote computer compiling a database of your listening habits by automatically registering everything you play on the computer, but what’s to stop some Texan fourteen-year-old hacking it and accessing your computer by the back door while you’re blissed-out on Marillion? Or some nogood malingering record industry toad installing spyware that will hoover up all your personal information and flog it to the spammers? Or worse? Well, it can’t happen, apparently – the traffic’s one way. There’s no ports left vulnerable to incoming data other than the one you use for internet access anyway, so, given the usual provisos, you’re no more compromised by the plugin than by anything else you use. Plus – the site is committed to Open Source, and webby evildoers tend to avoid Open Source because it’s too – well, open.

So how was it for me, my first quarter as an Audioscrobbler?

Interesting. Very interesting.

I should explain that the plugin won’t support the Mac OS 9.1 on the five-year-old iBook I mostly work on, so I had to install it onto Windows 98 on an eccentric custom-built PC that I use for downloading music because it’s faster. My Audioscrobbler profile, therefore, has developed only on the basis of the music I play on the PC, and is again limited to just the mp3’s on the hard drive (because it turns out that, for some reason I can’t get to the bottom of, playing CD’s with the plugin enabled causes total head-banging freeze-up every fuggin time, so I have to enable and disable the plugin from within the bloody awful Windows Media Player manually each time), so that’s a quite partial snapshot of what I’ve been listening to, but still no less reasonably representative than, say, judging me by the books on my shelves rather than the ones I get from the library.

I had no idea how obsessed I was with both the Lost in Translation and the Solaris (Cliff Martinez) soundtracks: both rank embarassingly high in my listening profile, along with the artists I’d expect to be there such as Radiohead, Hood, Max Richter, etc (scroll down for more), although I’m a little surprised to find Sigur Rós so far down (maybe – shock! horror! – I’m going off them – watch this space when the new album’s released). But what has proved utterly fascinating has been the gradual emergence, as the database grew and the all-hearing ear of the great High Audioscrobbler was able to compare what I listened to with what those other 121,876 scrobblers were listening to, of my own little circle of ‘neighbours’ – a group of fifty or so people whose taste appears to be very similar to my own. The way this works is that Audioscrobbler calculates the match on a percentage basis, so that ‘Surface’, for example – a nineteen-year-old guy from Canada, turns out to be my most immediate neighbour, with a 72% match, and ‘Caterina’ – also, strangely, a Canadian – my furthest, with a 58% match (thankfully, my delicate sensibilities are defended against the riff raff outside this range by totally ignoring them). In between, a random collection of people – I envisage them all collected together in a nice bar before a particularly tasty gig – who, on musical taste alone, would pass muster as fellow-travellers. It’s a little uncanny to click on one of those funky avatars and check out their profiles and see what they’ve been listening to lately – very tempting, I’d imagine, if one were in the dating market, to assume (fatally, in my experience) that compatibility of music taste meant the door was open to everlasting love, but, aside from such reservations, I have to confess to feeling all tingly and glowy at the knowledge that there really are people out there who do actually like the same stuff as me, and are not just saying so because either they fancy me (in my dreams) or just want me to shut up and move my pawn so they can checkmate me. Plus it turns out that ‘Caterina’ is a cool sci-fi writer and web-developer and high-profile blogger whose site I’ve been used to visiting quite frequently. Which is nice. Except – there’s always a downside, isn’t there? (And Canada jokes are sooo last year, you know, America!)

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re someone who considers themself – well, let’s not beat around the bush – as someone who is generally thought of, by his critical peers as well as by himself, his friends, and family, as a person whose taste in music reflects his character – mature, well-rounded, eclectic, a little eccentric even, at once connected with and slightly aloof from the Zeitgeist, modestly urbane and at the same time amusingly self-deprecating, whose taste, in other words, suggests the inner depths beneath the cool surface, redolent of the sort of insight that can only be achieved through years of discriminative sifting through the shifting currents of fashion and opinion, the sort of modest self-confidence that bespeaks hard-won self-knowledge, hinting at but never making a vulgar display of the callouses and inner scars acquired from the emotional and psychic battles that went towards winning that self-knowledge. (And if I’ve just described you in uncanny detail – well, what can I say? We’re wonderful, aren’t we?) And imagine, then, how it might feel to discover that your musical taste – one of the principle outer façades of this characterisation – is almost exactly duplicated by at least twenty teenagers, the majority female, half of those apparently gay, the youngest being a fifteen-year-old. From Coventry.

Does the word ‘bathos’ have any resonance for you?

I’m not kidding. Compare that young woman’s profile with mine and they’re practically interchangeable. An odd experience, to say the least, and one to which I’m not yet fully adjusted, but from which I’m honour-bound to conclude that, in this respect at least, all of the above is just so much undiluted bollocks, and that, clearly, I have as much to learn from her and her peers as I thought they might have from me. So it goes. And, once I’d recovered from that blow to my pride, true enough, I’ve discovered some fine new recommendations by trawling the profiles of these, my nearest neighbours – music that, somehow, seems to speak to all of us – boy, girl, man, woman, straight, gay, black, blue – in equal measure. I don’t pretend to understand, but I bow to the indisputable evidence of those profiles. It’s easy to imagine, though, how someone less rounded, less mature, less easy with his self-image, ahem, might be tempted to go on a binge of listening to Queens of the Stone Age and The Fucking Champs in order to macho-ify such a profile.

So – truth or dare. What are we really listening to, we special little tribe of ultra-cool Canadians and Midlands-based adolescent girls?

Behold – your humble servant’s current audioscrobbled top fifty :

1 Hood
1 Radiohead
3 Lost in Translation
4 Max Richter
5 Efterklang
6 Cliff Martinez
7 Goldmund
8 The Notwist
8 The Arcade Fire
10 Lali Puna
11 The Album Leaf
12 Pan-American
13 Broken Social Scene
14 M83
14 Ms John Soda
14 Joanna Newsom
17 Lullatone
17 Rachel’s
17 múm
20 Broadcast
21 Sigur Rós
21 Death Cab for Cutie
23 The Books
23 Khonnor
23 Grandaddy
26 Björk
26 Fly Pan Am
26 Fennesz
29 Elbow
29 berg sans nipple
31 Doves
31 Kevin Shields
31 Set Fire To Flames
34 Dntel
35 gustav
36 Do Make Say Think
37 Counting Crows
37 The High Llamas
37 Aarktica
37 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
37 Stereolab
37 DJ Shadow
37 Dosh
44 Air
44 Styrofoam
44 My Bloody Valentine
44 Mazzy Star
44 Clue To Kalo
49 Interpol
50 Ulrich Schnauss

That’s mine. Wanna show me yours?

Get Audioscrobbler now.

(Disclaimer: this site accepts no responsibility for the humiliating consequences of whatever self-discoveries might be made by clicking on external links.)