There was this charming quality to a lot of ambient music in the ’90s — optimistic and melodic, far off from today’s dominating dark drones. It was a different era, and perhaps the sound reflected a rosy view of what awaited in the new millennium. But what we find in the 2010s are the hushed rushes of disconcerting noise and queasy clashing of synth lines, an ambiance of tension and uncertainty befitting our times. It makes sense — the world is an increasingly scary and debilitating place, and sometimes our music sounds like it. But optimism is resistance — it really is — and that’s what makes Jogging House’s latest album Lure so welcome, special, and quietly radical.
Jogging House — whose name is apparently a letter added to ‘jogging hose,’ AKA sweat pants — states the album is “about accepting the things we cannot change and finding comfort in uncertainty.” This philosophy is the pragmatism of the stoic, and it’s also not being paralyzed with helplessness when the world is out of control. Staying in motion and hopeful as an artist and creator rather than blocked and immobile in the face of hourly ‘breaking news’ and topical turmoil. That’s resistance.
I want to connect Jogging House to Brian Eno, but not to compare him to another composer working in the ‘ambient’ realm. Instead, I think Lure‘s songs closely reflect something Eno said in an interview: “One of the reasons one makes music or any kind of art is to create the world that you’d like to be in or the world that you would like to try. You would like to find out what that world is like.” That’s how I feel when I listen to “Tulip,” Lure‘s opening track. It’s transportive — light and playful, melodies as aspiration and reassurance that’s calm and kind. And it’s gorgeous, on the verge of sadness but not quite getting there. This is a world I’d like to try.
The album’s eight tracks share this gentle atmosphere, evoking a separate era. It’s the optimism of the past looking forward, like the mentioned-above ’90s electronic acts but also not too far from those pioneering the form in the ’70s. I’ll give in and sonically connect Eno anyway, as the beautiful “Weavings” wouldn’t be out of place on a Cluster album.
But I emphasize this isn’t merely a throwback — it’s music fit for our times. These sounds are an encouragement to persevere rather than wallow; to foster hope and the imagination of something better for us all. You may ask, how can something so serene inspire action? It can, I respond. It really can.
The documentary Conny Plank: The Potential Of Noise was more touching than I expected. The film is a collaboration of director Reto Caduff and Stephan Plank, Conny’s son. Stephan drives the documentary as conversations with musicians who worked with Conny Plank help him understand and rediscover his father.
Conny Plank died of cancer at 47 when Stephan was just 13. A lot of Stephan’s memories of his father revolve around these odd musicians who stayed and worked at the farmhouse studio. Often the musicians would join the family for dinner (indulgently prepared by Stephan’s mother Christa), and they would become Stephan’s temporary playmates in between sessions. So, in this documentary, Stephan is meeting people who not only have perspectives on his father but are also part of shadowy childhood memories. The musicians are also taken aback — the last time they saw Stephan he was a child and an oblivious studio mascot.
The highlight of the documentary is Stephan’s meeting with the classic rap duo Whodini. Did you remember that Conny Plank produced part of Whodini’s first album? I forgot, too, until this film pleasantly reminded me. Whodini was an upstart act in their late teens, suddenly flown to a farmhouse in rural Germany in a bold choice by their label. The duo grew to love the eccentric but brilliant Conny Plank, and this love and respect pour out of their interview segment. Stephan is visibly emotional as he hears another warm story of the universal impact and guiding influence of his father. Even I choked up a little.
There’s so much more in this film, including interviews with Michael Rother (Neu! and — early on — Kraftwerk guitarist), Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart (who may have been the last to work with Plank), and Holger Czukay (Can). Czukay comes off as kind of a jerk in his honesty about how Conny cared more about his studio than his relationship with his young son. It seems that Stephan has come to terms with this.
Noticeably absent is Brian Eno who stepped into Plank’s studio on more than one occasion. A section on the recording of Devo’s first album allows Eno most of his screen time, and that’s given to Gerald Casale talking about how he didn’t like Eno’s attempt to add his ‘pretty’ vocals and synth lines throughout the record.
Conny Plank: The Potential Of Noise is inspiring and a stirring tribute to a person who lived the creative life. But most of all it’s the story of a son finding his talented but distant father. With Father’s Day approaching, I can’t think of a better movie to watch, especially for those of us missing our dads.
Conny Plank: The Potential Of Noise currently streaming on Amazon Prime and available as a ‘rental’ on other services. And here’s a fine interview with Stephan Plank about the documentary. For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure the no-show Stephan refers in that piece is Eno, not Bono.
The idea of Focusmate is odd, a little uncomfortable. A stranger appears on your screen, and you have a quick conversation — the expected “how do you do,” but followed by plans. What are you working on for the hour? What’s your goal? You show me yours; I’ll show you mine. My plan, that is.
It’s natural to have reservations toward Focusmate before you use it. I was suspicious when I first heard about this online productivity community. Do I want someone watching me while I work? What kind of people use this thing?
But Focusmate is brilliant. And as someone who is continually trying out new productivity apps and systems — ironically, often to the point of distraction — I can tell you that Focusmate is the most effective one I’ve used. When it comes to a list of things we’d like productivity tools to accomplish, most apps check off two or three boxes at most. Focusmate has so many layers intuitively built in — I imagine even the creator was surprised how many boxes ended up simultaneously checked.
Here’s the deal: after signing up with Focusmate you are presented with a calendar of the week. Each day gets split into hours and each hour into 15-minute increments. You will see the names of users (usually first name, last initial) claiming some of these increments. Now, you think about the time — or times — you want to get to work. If there’s a name at that time, then click on the name — that’s your work partner for the session. If there isn’t a name listed, go ahead and claim the time. Someone will match up with you. Either way, once you schedule a time, it gets added to your Google calendar.
When the time comes, log o
Each session is 50 minutes long. Sometimes your partner will keep her microphone on — if she’s in a quiet spot or isn’t listening to music — and you can hear fingers tapping the keyboard and other ambient noises. You can do the same. I found this helpful — the sound of my partner working spurs me on. And, often your partner will keep a running log of what she is working on in the text chat box. “Now I’m working on clearing my email inbox” and minutes later followed by “Completed” and a short description of the next task.
I usually don’t list what I’m working on because I’m often deep in the flow state. Your experience might be different, but Focusmate gets me in a mental flow like nothing else. I find myself working straight through the 50 minutes without stopping, without distraction, and then amazed at how much I accomplished once the
When you finish a session, you check in with your work partner. How did you do? Briefly, let your partner know if you got through your agenda, or if you hit roadblocks or distractions. Regardless, getting anything done is a win, and your partner will probably congratulate you. You’ll do the same in return.
This tool is powerful — I can’t emphasize that enough. Remember how I said Focusmate checks off many productivity boxes? Here are the ones I’ve found so far:
• Scheduling your day. Scheduling these sessions puts you in the habit of thinking ahead about your work. Though you can schedule a Focusmate session right up to the last minute, the tool is most potent when you plan out your sessions well in advance, whether it’s first thing in the morning or a day or two before. This practice adds intention and purpose to your day.
• You have to show up. I’ve tried scheduling my day on a calendar on my own, to plan my day in advance. It never worked. Though I’d have a specific task planned for, say, 10 AM, I’d usually find myself continuing to work on whatever I started at 9:45, blowing apart my agenda. Or, even worse, I wouldn’t show up at 10 — I’d keep reading through my email newsletters or continuing a long breakfast. With Focusmate, you’ve got to show up at the designated time and be ready to do your task. Someone is counting on you to be there. And, if you don’t show up, your rating suffers — your profile displays your ‘attendance score.’
• There’s accountability. Naming your task(s) for the session and then reporting progress at the finish works. Psychologically, this adds determination — especially as your goal is stated out loud and to someone — and positive reinforcement when your partner congratulates you at the end.
• Parkinson’s Law comes into play. Parkinson’s Law states that a task will often fill the time allotted to it. For example, if you think a task will take three hours to complete but your hard deadline is in one hour, sometimes — miraculously — you’ll finish that task within that hour.1However, most often the law is applied in reverse. I’ve found Focusmate to work the same. With a clock counting down and knowing that I’m checking in with my partner at the end, I find myself finishing projects that I didn’t think I’d get done in a single session.
• You get to interact with people. I work at home and can go all day (and sometimes days) without encountering another human besides my significant other. This situation isn’t healthy — at least it isn’t for me — and leads to monotony and isolation. With Focusmate, I’m meeting and speaking with multiple people daily. My days alone in the home office don’t drag on as they used to, and I look forward to each work session to find out who I’ll meet. And Focusmate’s users are interesting people from around the world — last hour I was in a session with someone working out of a library in Kolkata, and, as I write this, I’m working alongside an author in Chicago. Yesterday I worked with an ex-pat starting a business out of her new apartment in Morocco. These encounters are fascinating. And there are strict rules users must abide — no pitching, selling, or flirting, for example — and you’re encouraged to report any violations. But I have yet to meet anyone who was a hassle and wasn’t laser-focused on their task at hand.
I was super-excited about Focusmate from the first day I used it. But I’ll often be excited about a new tool and then lose my enthusiasm and stop using it a couple of weeks later. So I decided to try Focusmate for six weeks before posting about it, to make sure it stuck. I’m pleased to report that I have five sessions booked for today and am already planning out sessions for the rest of the week. I’m still an enthusiastic user, and Focusmate has become an integral part of my work day. I don’t like throwing around the phrase ‘game-changer,’ but I think I finally found a tool that qualifies.
Here’s where you expect me to recommend that you try Focusmate — which I do — and give a referral code or affiliate link. But here’s the buried lede: it’s free. There’s no fee to use Focusmate. The creator has hinted that he may look into a way to monetize it soon, perhaps by limiting how many sessions one can schedule in a week on the free plan (my guess). I actually hope he does monetize Focusmate in some way as I want to see it persist and develop. This tool has dramatically improved my workflow and given value to my work days, and I’d happily pay for that.
I write a lot about how internet companies are up to no good, commoditizing our time and attention. It’s reassuring to find an online platform that is selflessly adding true value to my day. Perhaps I’ll meet you for a work session?
P.S. Here’s the article that convinced me to give Focusmate a try:
🔗→ I Let a Stranger Watch Me Work for a Day — And I’ve Never Been More Productive
Apple loves it when people talk about Apple. Conjecture and buzz about leaks leading up to an Apple event is free press coverage, free promotion, and creates attention just before something as inside-baseball as the WWDC. And the leaks are often vague and loose, allowing pundits — both professional and armchair — to argue and guess and give tons of thought-space to one of the world’s biggest corporations.
That’s what makes the aftermath of the iTunes leak so bizarre. The news wasn’t vague at all — in fact, it was refreshingly specific and unsurprising. Apple would strip iTunes of its video/TV, eBooks (why were those still in there anyway?), and podcast features to create a dedicated Music app. Just like on iOS. Even without the leak, we could see this coming.
Bloomberg was the first to report the leak. Admittedly, the expected clickbait headline reads ‘End of iTunes,’ but the piece’s content is specific:
The company is launching a trio of new apps for the Mac – Music, TV, and Podcasts – to replace iTunes. That matches Apple’s media app strategy on iPhones and iPads.
Twitter panic naturally ensued, with users thinking this meant the deletion of their years-in-progress curated playlists, the ability to rip the occasional CD, and even incompatibility with existing music file collections. Granted, Apple hasn’t exactly made iTunes better with each iteration, but it’s still not the type of company to throw its fans under the bus like that. But it’s fun to rant and worry for a minute.
And then, just as the flames needed fanning, the Los Angeles Times inexplicably publishes a news item with the headline ‘Apple will shut down iTunes, ending the download era, report says.’ The article (but not that headline) is now changed, but the original version made it clear the author was referring to the closing of the iTunes store and thus ‘the download era:’
The iTunes store is a dead service walking.
On Friday afternoon, social media erupted after Bloomberg News reported that Apple was set to announce the end of its iTunes store, which transformed the music business when it was launched in 2003.
Keep in mind, the Bloomberg article referenced doesn’t mention the download store at all.
And then, The Guardian picked up on the story with the headline ‘Apple expected to close iTunes after 18 years:’
It was once heralded as a possible saviour of the music industry in the digital age, famously annoyed fans by forcing a U2 album on them, and its 20,699-word terms and conditions have even inspired a graphic novel, but now Apple is to replace its iTunes download service.
Technically, true. The download store will likely lose its iTunes branding. However, the article (which remains unchanged at the time of this post) goes into great detail about the history of the iTunes store and paid music downloads. Also citing Bloomberg, The Guardian only mentions the actual news — the introduction of the Music app — in one sentence of the whole article.
People started losing their shit. Debates on
We’ve been down this road before. It seems like Digital Music News has an ‘unnamed source’ announcing the shuttering of iTunes once a year. And many people are openly hostile towards iTunes — usually the app, not the store — so it’s a polarizing brand name. When the news arrived, it was emotionally spread far and wide by haters and defenders.
Apple had no comment which fueled things further. But, remember — Apple loves it when people talk about Apple. Why extinguish the fire?
There’s a deeper story about the commodification of our attention. I’m not saying The Guardian and the Los Angeles Times purposefully twisted the news of the leak. My estimation is that in a rush for new content and tweet-able breaking news the original Bloomberg piece became a Rorschach test — quickly interpreted and summarized, the writers spun the leak to their wishes. And those wishes were for something dramatic like the death of paid downloads.
I don’t mean to pick on the writers. This rapid environment is the news culture we live in. It’s instant and impermanent. I can’t even imagine the constant pressure from publishers and editors. There’s nothing sexy in a story about how the only thing Apple is killing in iTunes is the name. On a similar note, I’m surprised there weren’t big stories last week on how Warner Bros. Records was killed off.
We have the power here. Chill on the up-to-the-minute hot takes and think before you retweet. Read — really read — the sources. If you’re writing about these things (and there’s not minute-by-minute pressure from a publisher or editor), follow M.G. Siegler’s lead. And maybe wait until after WWDC to comment on how everything is awful now that Apple is going to turn your MP3 collection into dust.
As for iTunes, Bloomberg was correct. Here’s Pitchfork:
A press release issued after the live announcement said that “users will have access to their entire music library, whether they downloaded the songs, purchased them, or ripped them from a CD.” So again, take a deep breath—contrary to speculation, no one’s iTunes collections were “killed” today. Further questions about keeping personal playlists and play counts intact haven’t been answered as of press time.
The press release [also] said, “For those who like to own their music, the iTunes Music Store is just a click away.” In other words, the iTunes store—which was launched two years after its namesake app and transformed the music industry by allowing the purchase of individual songs—is still very much alive.
And, in fact, iTunes lives on. Pitchfork again:
Outside of the Mac ecosystem, it’s still an iTunes world after all. “Windows users will see no changes in their experience,” an Apple rep confirmed to Pitchfork.
The Ballad of the Blog
Writer Alan Jacobs has some strong words for those of us still using social media:
The decision to be on Twitter (or Facebook, etc.) is not simply a personal choice. It has run-on effects for you but also for others. When you use the big social media platforms you contribute to their power and influence, and you deplete the energy and value of the open web. You make things worse for everyone. I truly believe that. Which is why I’m so obnoxiously repetitive on this point.
Jacobs’ attitude is in line with my previous thoughts on intention and the depersonalization of ‘newsfeed culture.’ The reality of supporting a corporate behemoth that’s up to no good is also something I struggle with. I’ve picked up my Twitter usage over the past few months, not decreased it, telling myself it’s a useful tool for networking. And I’m still paying for Facebook ads on my label releases. I feel like a little part of me dies every time I send a dollar to Facebook.
It’s remarkable that — though admittedly part of a tiny minority — we’re all asking these questions at the same time. And this is a conversation we need to have, whether supporting artists outside of Spotify or finding promotional and networking avenues that don’t involve Facebook. I’m not the only one to plant a flag in these issues. But I’d like the blog to talk more about how we wrestle with the tension between the independent creative community and the corporate interests propped up as gatekeepers. Music’s place in the 21st century, indeed.
Kraftwerk Sky Dancer
My longtime friend David and his equally creative wife Jennifer strike again. There’s information on the genesis of this impressive feat of Kraftwerk kunstwerk on his blog.