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Interview with Stephen Thomas Erlewine at Outside Lands Festival 2011

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Stephen Thomas Erlewine, or just Tom, is the kind of musicologist who has encyclopedic knowledge of practically every musician, band, or genre. He is a senior editor at All Music Guide and helps keep the Rovi database (which currently stores information on over 3.5 million television programs, 2.9 million album releases and 28 million song tracks, and a ½ million movie titles) up-to-date.

Erlewine will be at this year’s Outside Lands Festival to host a few events, including tests of music trivia (Are You Smarter than a Musicologist?) and demonstrations of the software and technology behind iTunes, Shazam, and Spotify. While in-between listening to The Rolling Stones and Weezer, Erlewine was kind enough to offer some music industry insights via email.

What is a musicologist, and how does one become a musicologist?

Broadly speaking, a musicologist is somebody who studies music. Traditionally, these are scholars, but in modern times the term also covers music experts of any sort–the kinds of passionate, obsessive fans that rose up through record retail, college radio, music press and blogs, the kind of passionate music fan that are the musicologists at Rovi. To become a musicologist, you can study at a university or immerse yourself in the present and past of record music. What’s required is passion and an open mind because you can always be surprised by what you discover.

What impact, if any, has the tastemaker movement had on music?

There have always been tastemakers and gatekeepers in popular music, whether it’s DJs or music critics or bloggers. Tastemakers can’t dictate the terms of the music. Maybe there’s an artist or two that are hyper-aware of criticism (Billy Joel, Lou Reed and Kanye West all jump to mind), but usually musicians don’t craft their music based on what critics say. The purpose of tastemakers is to expose listeners to music they may not have heard or even have been aware existed. This is as true and as necessary today as it was at any other point in history.

On music criticism, is music criticism still relevant in a digital world of algorithms that predict which songs someone like or not like?

Music criticism is certainly still relevant today, but it serves a different purpose than recommendation algorithms. Both are important tools of discovery: the algorithm can suggest and criticism can provoke. Both are different ways of exposing listeners to music that they may love and that exposure is the key thing. But one thing criticism can do that recommendation algorithms cannot is help a listener make sense of what they’ve heard, to help place it in context, to point out music that influenced this music or artists that work a similar aesthetic even if they’re in a different genre. Any lover of music is bound to find both criticism and digital recommendations immensely useful, even necessary.

Streaming music services have exploded in popularity within the last few years. Why have some succeeded and others failed? What is more important to listeners to such services: music recommendation or social networking? Why?

There are a multitude of reasons why certain streaming services succeeded and others didn’t–it can [come] down to a user interface or problems with licensing. It seems like the conditions are now aligning where we can have robust, viable streaming services, [and that’s] terrific for anybody that loves music. What is always important is a diverse library because without that there is no incentive for a listener to return to the service.

Inevitably, heavy-hitters like the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin will opt out, so this can’t be held against a service. But within that service, it all depends on a listener’s taste if recommendation or [a social] network is more important. There are many listeners who do not want to go through the steps of sharing playlists, while others will trust the recommendations of their friends over an automatically generated suggestion. Ideally, those digital recommendations would carry some personalization so they don’t seem like they were coldly spit out by a machine and they can sit alongside user-generated playlists and recommendations. There are so many different kinds of music and so many different kinds of music fans that the ideal service would cater to each of these fans.

Why is cloud music important? And does it actually fill a need for the music listener?

Cloud music serves a huge need for any music listener. Theoretically, a cloud service could contain all of music history in an easily accessible library and the ramifications can make the mind reel. You can sample and explore for your heart’s content. But even if it’s just a service that mirrors what a listener has and then can be accessible from any device, then that’s hugely important because you can then access whatever music you want wherever you are. For any music lover that’s pretty much a dream come true.

Internet radio almost ceased to exist during the last royalty fee negotiations with the music industry in 2009. Can Internet radio survive another negotiation when the current agreement expires in 2015?

I am no expert on royalties so I can’t speak to the details of the negotiations, but my assumption is that there will be another tough round of negotiations and Internet radio will survive mainly because there is a need for it. We may love creating our own playlists and following recommendations, but there’s something special about radio, about stumbling upon the unexpected so that will never go away, and Internet radio will only continue to flourish because it can allow for specialty channels–plus it will be increasingly easier to access on smartphones and future devices (not that it is by any means hard to access it from these devices now).

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