RWCG


How iTunes Might Prevent Me From Giving Money To Josh Homme That I Probably Wouldn’t Have Considered Giving Him Anyway, Because Without iTunes I Wouldn’t Have Known Who He Was, Not That iTunes Was All That Much Of A Help In That Regard, Cuz I Really Did Most Of The Work Anyway Now That I Think About It

I have several complaints about iTunes. For one thing, just about every time I start it up (or it starts up because I plug in my iPod to charge it up), a popup steals my screen (and the task lights up on my taskbar annoyingly) saying there’s a new version of iTunes and would I like to download it? I have tried the download-it option a few times, which takes a while, prevents me from doing other stuff, maybe forces me to reboot (can’t remember), and then when it’s done iTunes looks and feels…no different whatsoever. Memo to Apple: No more fricking ‘new versions’. I finally had to check Don’t ask me this again (which for me, is a drastic measure I rarely bother taking). So if Apple ever comes out with a ‘new version’ of iTunes that is truly important (I have yet to see evidence of this), do let me know.

But the larger complaint is that its ‘Genius’ system for recommending music seems to be dumb as hell, as if it’s built off perhaps 1994-vintage AOL-era ‘recommendation’ technology. It’s hard to quantify or put into words just how horrible and dumb its recommendations seem so I’ll just run through a few current examples:

  • I think I said ‘like’ to a Jeff Buckley album, so it recommends…Van Morrison?
  • I ‘like’ Echo & the Bunnymen, so it recommends…an early Depeche Mode?
  • I ‘like’ Quadrophenia, so it recommends…Fragile by Yes?
  • I have music by the Mr. T Experience, so it recommends…Achtung Baby?
  • Liking Born to Run gets me a Moondance suggestion (more Van Morrison! They got a quota or something?)…
  • Owning Green Day gets me a Weird Al (not that I don’t appreciate me some Weird Al, but huh?)
  • Squeeze gets me Roxy Music, Sublime gets me Led Zeppelin, etc. etc. etc.

With Netflix, the list of suggested movies I might like always tended to make some sense (it’s useless to me now but that’s only because I’ve pretty much whittled down all the good unseen movies off it to the point where there really aren’t any movies out there I’d like, period). With Netflix, even if I didn’t like or knew/suspected I wouldn’t like a movie, I could usually at least see why it might think someone with my movie history would like it.

With examples like the above, I’m just left scratching my head. It’s not that I necessarily don’t or wouldn’t like the suggestion (in most cases I do, as it happens), it’s that I don’t understand how it follows from the ‘you liked…’ part so the suggestion may as well be out of the clear blue sky. And it’s not that the ‘you liked…’ and ‘you might like…’ bands are often worlds apart as such – I mean, usually, you could imagine them both being part of the play cycle of the same radio station – it’s just that (unless we’re talking about obvious cases like [Band] -> Lead Singer of [Band]‘s First Solo Album, or [Band] -> Later Supergroup With Former Members of [Band]) they’re so seldom in anything that I would think of as the same niche that the suggestion becomes useless. Because the only reason I can think of for anyone even wanting suggestions like this is if they were looking to explore a very specific niche!

Another way to say this is that iTunes’s implicit database of ‘niches’ is very clunky and sophomoric. It’s as if they farmed out a one-time data entry job to an Indian consulting firm, to grossly and haphazardly categorize all music into, like, one of about 12 Types Of Music: ‘classic rock’, ‘alternative rock’, ‘metal’, ‘soundtracks’…you know, the various sections of a Tower Records store. Then they built their Genius software around the results (cross-referenced by decade and country, which seems to be why Who=Yes, Squeeze=Roxy, etc). End result: I liked Echo & the Bunnymen so I might like Depeche Mode. Why, because they’re both ‘alternative rock from the 1980s’? So what? The experience is like being a bright-eyed 13 year old walking into a Tower Records store, asking interestedly about Echo & the Bunnymen having just gotten into them, and what their band name means and where they’re from and who is Ian McCulloch, and having the bored/snooty purple-haired college dropout employee randomly fish something out of the same basic section and shove it in your face. “Here kid, Some Great Reward by Depeche Mode, try that.” “Why, are they similar?” “Well they’re both Alternative aren’t they? I think they’re also both, like, from England or whatever. Plus ‘D’ is next to ‘E’ and I didn’t wanna walk very far, it’s not like I care about any of this middle of the road stuff anyway…”

Sigh.

So I’ve given up on Genius and figured I’d try to bypass/short-circuit it by using what seems like it could be a more useful feature, ‘listeners also bought’. You’re looking at one band or album and iTunes shows you a short list of bands that other users bought along with this one. This kinda makes more sense and for most medium-popular (or less) artists the results seem like they should be pretty robust. (If it’s a mega-popular artist – who didn’t buy Thriller? – the results should by definition almost be white noise.) So I’ve spent some time starting from a few core bands I like and clicking through their ‘Listeners Also Bought’ orbits. Inevitably the orbit peters out into a hazy hinterland of like five obscure singer-songwriters from Canada I’ve never heard of until I can’t be bothered to keep clicking, but for the first few orbits anyway, the results do seem to make more sense.

This is all a long-winded way of explaining how I discovered the Queens of the Stone Age. (The Raconteurs -> The Dead Weather -> Them Crooked Vultures -> Queens of the Stone Age, for those keeping score at home.) Finally, some positive results, as based on what I can tell from the 30-second iTunes clips anyway, I feel like I could really get into them. And (having explored their orbit a little), their side/other projects like The Dead Weather and Eagles of Death Metal, as well.

So, it hasn’t all been a lost cause. The problem I have now is, QOTSA and all these weird side projects each seem to have like 2-6 albums to them, and from sampling them, I can’t really differentiate them in quality or enjoyability. There’s no one standout obvious choice to buy. So I either end up buying up all of the 10-15 albums we’re talking about here, or I don’t bother because at the end of the day, it’s not worth the trouble. I’m leaning toward the latter option (and certainly don’t want to enrich/reward iTunes any more than I have to), but do let me know if this is a mistake.

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6 Comments so far
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I don’t think it’s worth the trouble, considering the hoops through which you must jump to get a proper 30-second preview out of the iTunes Store.

Most of my QOTSA stuff (eight or nine tracks) has come via recommendations by friends who knew the band better than I did, which was hardly at all.

Comment by CGHill

[...] The recommendations, on the other hand, have been, um, somewhat less useful, or, as Sonic Charmer sa… I’m just left scratching my head. It’s not that I necessarily don’t or wouldn’t like the suggestion (in most cases I do, as it happens), it’s that I don’t understand how it follows from the ‘you liked…’ part so the suggestion may as well be out of the clear blue sky. And it’s not that the ‘you liked…’ and ‘you might like…’ bands are often worlds apart as such — I mean, usually, you could imagine them both being part of the play cycle of the same radio station — it’s just that (unless we’re talking about obvious cases like [Band] -> Lead Singer of [Band]‘s First Solo Album, or [Band] -> Later Supergroup With Former Members of [Band]) they’re so seldom in anything that I would think of as the same niche that the suggestion becomes useless. [...]

Pingback by dustbury.com » Genius at work (a counterexample)

who didn’t buy Thriller?

Me. Why should I buy something that was on 24/7 rotation on the radio and MTV, and that I felt lukewarm about in the first place? (Michael Jackson hadn’t been a favorite since he stopped singing with his brothers’ band whose records I used to cut out of the back of cereal boxes. Yes I’m old.)

Comment by Andrea Harris

Great post.

I agree, iTunes suggestions are useless, and seem to be based on Radio Station Formatting.

Jeff Buckley to Van Morrison is actually a pretty smart reference in my opinion, though I have a feeling many Buckley fans would not like Morrison, and vice versa, but that only points out the ignorance of the lamer fans of each.

The People who bought… reference is much better, though,as you point out, it does not work for obscure music that few people have bought, and for anything modern and popular, seems to refer back to Beyonce or Gnarls Barkeley depending upon the genre.

Finding Queens of the Stone Age through the Raconteurs is actually an example of Recommendation at it’s finest. Queens is a bit older, maybe eight, ten years back, and many Raconteurs fans may not be aware of the Queens.

iTunes updates do, from what I have observed, have one practical application; THEY SLOW YOUR COMPUTER WAY THE FUCK DOWN!

Comment by Pastorius

There may be a logic according to which Jeff Buckley -> Van Morrison is smart. I doubt iTunes was using it. I’m pretty sure its logic wasn’t any more sophisticated than: Jeff Buckley -> Tim Buckley = 60s/70s singer/songwriter guy = Van Morrison!

Also, like I said the recommendations seem to converge around a few hubs. I got more than one Van Morrison reference from many starting points, Bruce Springsteen also showed up a lot…such recommendations can’t possibly be that tailored to one’s actual taste. Almost feels like they have quotas & try to push certain artists. Or just that ‘popularity’ plays a large role.

It just doesn’t have the ‘feel’ of a good recommendation system; it doesn’t ‘ring true’. I guess I’m used to Netflix- and Google-based searching now, where what comes back isn’t the top entries from a static database, it’s based on what others like you have bought/searched for. iTunes doesn’t seem to have embraced that approach, but it’s what I’m used to, which is why I did the poor man’s version of clicking through ‘listeners also bought’.

Anyway, I haven’t bought any QOTSA. It all sounds ‘pretty good’ but nothing sounds ‘great’. So just not sure it’s worth it. I feel like I’m getting old….

Comment by Sonic Charmer

I think the logical link between Jeff Buckley and Van Morrison is “jazz-oriented vocal style put to use in non-jazz music.” Others who would fit in this category would be Ricky Lee Jones, Phoebe Snow and Jason Mraz,

Comment by Pastorius




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