Discover New Artists with the Power of Randomness

According to my last.fm profile, I’ve listened to over 360,000 songs and 18,000 artists since February 2006. However, I’ve listened to 15,000 of those artists fewer than 20 times each. That’s 20 times each over the course of nearly ten years, yet these artists make up many of my tracks listened to. These artists could have come from anywhere: Pandora, Spotify, online radio based on a niche, Stereomood, Last.fm’s Discover radio,… just about anywhere.

Yet I still find myself complaining about how hard it is to discover new music. This isn’t entirely true–there’s a world of music out there, after all. But sometimes I want a specific sound, so I put on a radio station and discover that I already know 90% of what’s playing. (This happened a few days ago, in fact. I played Spotify’s Grizzly Bear station and recognized almost everything that played.)

There’s no way my brain can hold on to 18,000 artists, much less get to know the discographies of 18,000 artists. Heck, I’ve listened to most of these artists in the range of two or three tracks a year. Somewhere buried in those many artists are musical gems that I haven’t truly discovered yet, and I’ve figured out a way to discover more of these artists, along with artists like them.

Step 1: Use random.org to choose a number between 1 and the total number of artists in my last.fm library (18,191 as of this writing).

Step 2: If the number generated is less than the number of pages in my last.fm artist library (364 as of now), go to that page number. Then choose a number between 1 and 50 and start a radio station for the nth artist on that page.

Step 2.5: Otherwise, if the first number generated is greater than the number of pages in my last.fm library, start a radio station for that numbered artist. To find out which artist is attached to that number, divide that number by 50. Ignore any decimal, and add 1 to the number. Then go to http://www.last.fm/user/YOURLASTFMNAME/library/artists?page=x, where x is equal to the random number, divided by 50, plus one, rounded down to the next lowest whole number. Find the artist and start discovering!

These steps ensure that I’ll rarely run into an artist I’m already very familiar with but instead am forced to discover the new things. Case in point: the second time I took these steps to discover someone new, random.org chose 21. I’m already familiar with artist number 21 in my library (of Montreal as of this writing), and I’m pretty familiar with my top 400 or so artists.

Off to discover more things I go!

Music and Its Strange Associations

Music is a powerful thing, and its effect on the brain has been studied extensively. It’s easy to associate some songs with life experiences, connecting romantic songs to a romantic partner, singalong-worthy songs to road trips, and even songs with a location to that location. But music is powerful enough to transcend these associations, making some music-life connections stranger than ever. Here are a few of those associations.

“I Try” by Macy Gray: When I was a kid, I used my tape player to record my favorite songs on the radio, then carry the tape and my tape player everywhere to listen to those songs. By March 2000, “I Try” was constantly playing on the radio and I had adopted the song as a favorite. It was also spelling bee season, and March meant competing at the regional bee for a chance to go to the national bee in Washington, DC. Despite all my best efforts, I placed fifth and left very upset because of the easy word I missed. Back in the car, I drowned myself in the music instead of talking to my parents. The first song to play? “I Try”. And I did try, even tried my hardest. And that’s all I can do.

The Dresden Dolls’ self-titled album: This one always gets an interesting reaction when I explain the association with number theory, a field of math that’s about special numbers like primes and perfect numbers. But toward the end of that semester, I was struggling. We were moving quickly to complete the course material and I didn’t understand a lot of the material that was on the third and final test before the final exam. Elliptic curves, cryptography, all fascinating materials, all reviewed so quickly that I didn’t understand it the first time or the second time or even the third time. Number theory was the last of my exams that semester, and I put all my extra energy into studying for that exam, usually with some kind of music in the background. One album that stands out was the Dresden Dolls’ self-titled album. Think dark cabaret with some rock mixed in–lots of loud music designed to strike you right in the heart and brain. And strike me in the heart and brain it did–every time I cracked open my number theory notes, “Coin-Operated Boy” played in my head even when I was listening to something more soothing that I don’t remember now. When I opened the envelope containing the number theory final exam, “Girl Anachronism” played in my head, It stayed there through the exam, making my effort at concentrating a difficult one. I still made an A- in the class. Thank you, past self.

“Don’t Stop Believing” by Journey: My last semester of college had finally arrived. Despite my possibly-poor life choice of taking a course overload and finishing a second major, the world economy crashing left and right with no end in sight, and a breakup with a guy I had been dating for almost a year, I was still determined to end college on a high note. The course load meant a lot of time at my library study carrel. Stack two, next to the literature and humanities books I was using for my French thesis. Books and piles of papers everywhere around the carrel, making me thank any gods out there that this was my reserved carrel. And of course wifi. Thanks to the wifi, I spent a lot of time listening to various Pandora stations while studying, often shuffling all my Pandora stations for maximum shuffle effect. “Don’t Stop Believing” was one of those songs that came up regularly. And if there was one thing I was determined to do, it was to never stop believing in what I could do. Sure, I was practically living in the library, trying not to cry at the drop of a hat. (I did nearly cry in front of my math advisor once a few weeks after that breakup, but that’s neither here nor there.) And sure, I was honestly not sure how to make it through the end of the semester without some voodoo and a few more hours in a day. Because when “Don’t Stop Believing” came on, none of that mattered. I was going to get through somehow. Streetlights, people. This song also led to my longest NaNo novel to date–my third 2010 NaNo novel, which pushed my total word count over 300k. (Semirelated: Another song that came up regularly was A Fine Frenzy’s “Almost Lover”, which was definitely appropriate for the time.)

“The Boys of Summer” by Don Henley: I visited San Francisco for the first time in November 2011. It was the trip of a lifetime: visiting NaNoWriMo HQ, meeting Wrimos from all over the world… oh yeah, and exploring this brand new city, even if I only had the money to stay for a weekend. I stayed in a hostel near Union Square and spent Sunday morning wandering around the area near Union Square. The ice skating rink had been set up. If I had the money to spare, I might have gone ice skating. I didn’t have the money, so I leaned on a railing outside the skating rink and lost myself in thought for awhile while “The Boys of Summer” played. Did I have to go back to Georgia? Couldn’t I just stay in San Francisco forever, stay with my new Night of Writing Dangerously friends and NaNoWriMo people, stay in this part of the world where tech ads were normal and the weather was perfect, if a little drizzly later in the afternoon? All those years of noveling and getting to know other writers and helping out newbies and feeling like I was part of something that mattered, all that was building up to a trip home. And by that point, nothing was stopping the tears. My seat on the flight back to Atlanta included a radio station. I plugged in my headphones and chose an 80s station. The song was nearly over, but the next song started up immediately. As “The Boys of Summer” played and the plane prepared for takeoff, I looked out the window and sobbed my eyes out. Sometimes music leaves a trail to your heart, and sometimes it helps you find the heart you left behind. This time it did both.

Camp NaNoWriMo: Success!

I wrote word number 50,132 at around 8:30 tonight to finish Camp NaNoWriMo, and you know what that means.

Camp NaNoWriMo winner icon

That’s right. I’m a Camp NaNoWriMo winner. It was a real push to the end, but I finished with several hours to spare, and even a bug in the Camp NaNo website didn’t keep me from verifying on time thanks to Dan and Jezra fixing it before midnight in my time zone. For those who still haven’t verified yet, the bug should be fixed, so you should be able to verify if you haven’t already.

The story is finished. This is something I thought might happen before hitting 50,000 words based on the brief outline I made with 10,000 words to go, but luckily enough ideas flowed out of the brain to keep my six inches of post office receipt outline going for 10,000 more words.

The thing I’m most proud of during Camp NaNo is my 5,000 word hour. I didn’t think this would happen, but I had to try after missing the mark by roughly 200 words. So I set the timer for one hour and went to town, sliding in at 5,002 words an hour later. That one was close. It’s not something I want to do too often, though. It may seem like just a little faster than my typical word war speed, but those few extra words a minute every minute make a huge difference in my coherency.

A couple of other notes before I call Camp NaNo a wrap:

Daft Punk’s Human After All and Discovery are great magical writing albums. I wrote my first near-miss 5k hour to Discovery, which is almost exactly an hour long. Human After All is right around 45 minutes long, making it great for 45-minute writing sessions. I haven’t tested Homework because I don’t own it and because it’s almost 74 minutes long, not a very nice round writing session.

The other musical discovery is Dragonforce. A couple of people told me about them, one of them in passing. Today I was looking for good writing music and the name came up again. Grooveshark came to the rescue, queued some of Dragonforce’s music, and I wrote my 5k hour. Their music is ridiculously fast; the person who mentioned them in passing described it as speed metal. This is the kind of stuff I want to write to all the time. I’ll have to start exploring similar artists before Three-Day Novel weekend so I can have a nice big playlist of similarly fast music.

Congratulations to everyone to completed July’s Camp NaNo, and good luck to everyone doing the August session of Camp Nano! You have a fun month of writing ahead of you.

A new magical writing album?

Remember how I was going to write and write and write today? Well, a bit of back pain put a damper in that plan, so I wound up writing on my laptop in bed for a good bit of the day. If you’ve ever written in bed, you probably know that writing in bed isn’t conducive to writing at breakneck speeds, but by golly, I tried anyway. It didn’t work too well. I could write at close to my typical rate but only for a few minutes at a time. This was unacceptable, but I still managed three thousand words while lying in bed, mostly on my back with my laptop on my thighs.

Then the back pain subsided for awhile, meaning it was time to write for real. I put on the magical writing album, Shake the Sheets by Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, and went to town. The result? 3200 words in 40 minutes. Repeating this timing resulted in similar results but with different albums in my testing of potential magical writing albums. Now I have just over 20,000 words to write tomorrow. This is manageable. I think I can do this.

But instead of writing, let’s talk music. The two test albums were The Rural Alberta Advantage’s Hometowns and Andrew Jackson Jihad’s Can’t Maintain. Neither of these albums is very long, making them ideal for magical writing to happen; I can time word wars around the length of the album. The latter album turned out to be much better than the former for magical writing goodness. While there are some good fast songs with strong beats from Hometowns that are great for writing, it’s like Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga in that about half the songs are great for magical writing and the other half, while good songs, don’t have the magical writing vibe to them.

Can’t Maintain, on the other hand, has a lot of potential. I’ll have to give it another listen while writing tomorrow, but it may become my second magical writing album. The loud fast beats and folk punk influences make it great for my fast-paced word wars, especially since my writing tends to go more quickly if I write to faster music. The length is just right, too. At just under half an hour, I can queue the whole album, hit play, and time a half hour writing session that way. Shake the Sheets also has this advantage for a 40-minute writing session at 39:52. I can write for eight more seconds to a different song.

I’ll definitely be testing out some more candidates for magical writing albums and expanding the overall magical writing playlist before NaNo. It’ll be key for getting me through those days where I don’t want to write at all. Any candidate suggestions are welcome.

My not-so-new favorite Pandora station

It’s no secret that I love Pandora’s online radio. I’ve created around twenty stations and ported in three of Pandora’s stations from Valoween. Three of them are crowdsourced from Twitter. You can view all of my stations here. Some of my stations are more exciting than others, and even though I Quickmix most of my stations, I can still sense the quality variation.

Until now. I’ve created a station that hasn’t left my Pandora dial for at least a month. It has an overall consistent vibe, but not so consistent that the station gets boring. The overall vibe is chill and soft with some upbeat tunes, but not so upbeat that you’d hear it in a dance club. The seeds are Chris Bathgate, Breathe Owl Breathe, and The American Dollar, and the result is nothing short of musical beauty. Here’s the station. Enjoy.

Bonus: If for some reason this station gets boring, I can Quickmix it with my station containing Chris Garneau, The Coral Sea, and The Album Leaf for even more chill goodness. The Coral Sea may bring the chill factor down a bit, though.

Billy Joel, Last.fm, and Grooveshark

Two quick things in the music world today:

1. Billy Joel’s radio station on Last.fm. The artist stations play music that’s similar to the artists, and the Last.fm stations do a great job at this. Sometimes they do the job too well to the point where you get tired of the artists after awhile. Not the case with the Billy Joel station. I’ve been listening to the station for most of the day, and I’ve been surprised with the variety. All of the music is upbeat and catchy, which I like, but the artists do it in different ways. Looking at some recently played artists, I see Neil Diamond, James Taylor, Elton John, Styx, Bruce Springsteen, the Eagles, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Paul McCartney, Fleetwood Mac, Toto, and Journey. Quite a few of these do repeat, of course, but it’s the variety of artists. No, they’re not that far off, but the artists are different enough that listening won’t bore you for a few hours. You may hear a few familiar songs. I know I did, thanks to my dad’s musical tastes.

2. Grooveshark. It’s a website that lets you listen on demand. I tried it out this afternoon to listen to a few albums I hadn’t heard yet when Last.fm’s scrobbling was down, and after figuring out how to navigate a new site, I was very impressed. The only thing I found difficult at first was making sure not to add a song or album to my queue more than once or in the wrong order. Grooveshark doesn’t have a checklist or an easy way (that I’ve found, anyway) to add an entire album instead of the artist’s entire discography. As soon as I figure out how to scrobble from Grooveshark to Last.fm, I’ll be set.

Will Justin Bieber tour North Korea?

You may have heard that there’s a plot to send a certain Canadian musician to North Korea. I don’t say his name on Twitter for fear of activating the Trend Machine, but there’s a contest going on where fans and anti-fans alike are voting to see which country wants him the most. Voting probably will have ended by the time you read this, but it’s very likely that North Korea will take first place, followed by Israel and Poland.

Let’s back up for a minute. North Korea? Is Kim Jong-Il a fan?

Neither he nor Bieber could be reached for comments, but a caption in this BBC article sums it up best: “It is not known if Kim Jong-il is a fan of Justin Bieber’s music.” Kim does love the Internet, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he has stumbled upon Bieber at some point.

Granted, this poll probably isn’t even official, though some sources have been touting it as such. If Bieber does tour the country, it’ll probably be for the select few government officials, though. The regular people wouldn’t know what to do when he starts singing, and for once that’s a good thing.

Hotel NaNoWriMo

The idea of writing a parody to “Hotel California” for NaNoWriMo has been stuck in my head since October. Now that my current NaNo novel is about a writer doing NaNo, and I had some spare time today, this came out easily in that time between morning and afternoon. The best part is that it’s actually relevant.

“Hotel NaNoWriMo” by Sushi (sushimustwrite)
Original: “Hotel California” by the Eagles

On the Internet highway, surfing links to links
Discovering new things, getting sucked in time sinks
Up ahead in the distance, I saw the Wrimonia sign
My head then perked up, and I looked ahead
I’d heard this through the grapevine
There were writers all over
Trebuchets and pell mell
And I was thinking to myself
“This could be heaven or this could be hell”
Then I noticed Wrimo Hall, and I walked on that way
There were voices all around the square
I thought I heard them say

Welcome to the Hotel NaNoWriMo
Such a lovely place (such a lovely place)
Such a lovely pace
Plenty of plots at the Hotel NaNoWriMo
Muses near and dear
You can find them here

But there were no plots to be found, at least none that would play nice
All I had come November first was some bad advice
Wrimos write on their laptops, tales to beget
Some write to remember, some write to forget

So I called up the forums
“Can I please resign?”
They said, “We haven’t had such quitting here since 1999”
And still the editor’s calling from far away
Poking me in the middle of a war
Just to hear me say

Welcome to the Hotel NaNoWriMo
Such a lovely place (such a lovely place)
Such a lovely pace
You give up your soul at the Hotel NaNoWriMo
Kiss your time goodbye (kiss your time goodbye)
Kiss your life goodbye

Staring at a blank screen
Two more K would suffice
The mod said, “Take some dares, Mr. Ian Woon, and a plot device”
And in the steel cage of doom
They tried to get ahead
They stab it with their steely sporks
But the editor’s not dead

Last time I tried to write, I was
Untangling my plot
I pondered quitting once again
Just like all those years not fought
“Don’t quit,” said Chris Baty
It might be a reprieve
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave.

Old essays and Beatles

There is a report on the Guardian that one of Paul McCartney’s old essays was found. In itself, this is just something a hardcore McCartney fan would bid on at eBay. When historians examine the handwriting, compare the B’s in his essay to the B’s in the band’s drum skin, and release the news to the media, the whole world notices and begins examining handwriting a little more carefully.