August 13, 2012 at 12:56 pm

Voice Is Not Content: WTFPod, Jams, and the New Music Revolution

marc maron voice context wtfpod

Marc Maron has made a career of providing voice and context around people you can also hear in other places, using a medium many of us had written off. What is going in here?

There’s something happening here.

All of a sudden, a song isn’t just a song. It’s a statement about people’s emotions at specific places and times, and it’s not from the people who recorded the song.

As Sean Adams of the excellent music reviews site Drowned In Sound explained to in an exclusive interview, we’re witnessing a mass movement towards random shmoes exerting influence with their taste in ways only “pro” music bloggers used to do. This really is just starting to happen now — like, in the past year or so — and it seems to be accelerating. Songs used to be discrete products from artists to fans; now they’re becoming more like temporary tattoos.

Music is finally everywhere. Anyone with half a brain and an internet connection can play anything in seconds via YouTube, Spotify, or countless other services. As a result, it’s not just the song that matters; it’s the context. Who wants you to hear the song? What words and images did they attach to it? Where were they when they heard it? Do they specifically want you to hear it, or are you spying on them? If the first streaming music revolution was about access, the second one is about context.

This is a bit of a digression, but take podcasting, if you will – ancient technology that should be lame by now, given the quick turnover of internet things. Instead, everyone seems to be talking about it, in particular, WTFPod with Marc Maron. Luminaries ranging from Louie CK to Tony Clifton, and musicians from Jack White to Nick Lowe have appeared on this biweekly show, which has drawn a rabid following as well as several knock-offs, some successful in their own right.

WTFPod is a phenomenon with over 57 million downloads to date at a rate of 2.5 to 3 million per month, according to what the show’s spokespeople told us; live episodes in actual venues; a two-disc box set; and a half-hour scripted series that will air next year on IFC. Maron’s podcast is so important that we think his decision to launch his own app in addition to distributing shows through iTunes may have led to Apple’s decision to release its own podcast app; otherwise, it could have lost control of podcast distribution.

Listening to Louis CK on WTFPod is different from watching Louie. It’s Louie brought to you by Marc Maron. The host’s voice is paramount in creating a context that makes us fans tune in — or even pay for the app, which has all the old episodes. Wait, people are paying for podcasts? WTF indeed! And the reason they pay for it and not for, say, straight-up Louie CK clips on YouTube is the voice of the host — an actual person.

The phenomenon of people attaching their own spin to otherwise undifferentiated “content” (for lack of a less annoying word) is perhaps nowhere so pronounced as in the realm of music. Let’s start with some of the more interesting examples, and then move to the mainstream, which will likely annex the interesting stuff sooner or later.

One of our favorite examples is Myxer’s “Song Stories.” The Myxer apps let you set up listening rooms where you and your friends can play music together, which is neat, but it’s been done. These Song Stories are new though. Basically, they let you record a little snippet of audio about the song, about the first time you heard it, why you love it or hate it, etc.

When other users come across the same song on the service, they might hear your Song Story introduce the song, as if one big crowdsourced radio DJ were lurking in the service. And the brand new (private alpha) actually lets people insert their own voice in between songs in stations their friends are listening to in real time. Whether this version takes off or not, the concept is very much in tune with the zeitgeist.

Then there’s Super Music LLC’s This Is My Jam (which launched a Spotify app last week and was incubated by publisher The Echo Nest). You’ve almost certainly heard the Beatles’ “Sun King” before, or even the kickass remastered version. But the context of me posting it in the wee hours of Sunday morning, with an image of the sun blazing away, it takes on newfound relevance. My friends could imagine me sitting there after a (rare these days) Saturday night out, being repeatedly floored by this beautiful song as I really should have been in bed. As for that Spotify app, it lets me know that these collections of songs were not sporadically assembled by someone I know into a playlist; these were their favorite songs on specific days. That means something else.

Meanwhile, SoundTracking – Apple’s “best iPhone music app of 2011 — lets people tag the music around them and share it with their friends along with their location and a photo. It’s not just the song. It’s the song someone heard here, while that was happening. Plenty of similar apps exist. One of them, SoundTracker lets you peg entire internet radio stations to specific places, marking your path as you go through life (and it promises to get more exciting in the next, unreleased version, which we’ve seen).

this is my jam likes context curation

Any of Spotify's 15-million-plus users can now see everything I've liked or posted to This Is My Jam.

In other news, kids all over the world are singing and sharing their own karaoke versions of pop songs in apps including Sing and Starmaker. Every pop music fan probably knows Carly Rae Jensen’s “Call Me Maybe” by now, but have they heard their best friend sing it? Their worst gradeschool enemy? This phenomenon of average people putting their own spin on stuff sometimes means that in an actual, literal sense — and then sharing it on Facebook, Twitter (and eventually

This brings us to Facebook and Twitter, the big kahunas of contextualized curation (hey, look, it’s buzzword bingo!). Billions if not trillions of links are zinging around the globe each week, but they’re not naked links — they’re cloaked in a one-liner or more, stuff like “I’ve always loved this album,” or “Some people think this dog is cute but I think he’s an idiot.”

The genius of Google was to follow links, so that the stuff people link to surfaces higher in search results. The genius of social networks was to attach meaning to those links. Now, that phenomenon is filtering out into music apps, our favorite.

It’s about time. Every music service has, more or less, the same 15 million or so songs. It’s up to us humans to make sense of them to each other on an ongoing basis, and we’re starting to do just that.

(Image courtesy of Flickr/DonkeyHotey)