Arcade Fire, QOTSA and Bob Dylan: The rise of the interactive music video

An interesting trend has sprung up in the cash-drenched and often-pretentious world of music videos, one that has huge potential.

More and more bands (well-funded bands, I might add) are seeing the potential to make videos that their fans can interact with in one way or another, so that no two people experience the same video.

It all started back in the summer of 2010, when Arcade Fire teased the launch of the third album ‘The Suburbs’ with an “experiment” with the then novel technology of HTML5, as supported by Google Chrome.

The result was ‘The Wilderness Downtown’, a half-constructed music video for ‘We Used To Wait’ by Chris Milk, which fans could customise by putting in the name of their hometown.

Tapping into Google’s burgeoning Street View image library allowed the video to superimpose imagery from the viewer’s hometown into the scenes, reflecting the themes of the song in an intelligent and, to my knowledge at least, completely innovative way.

If you haven’t already, I urge you to try it. It’s quite an eye-opening and rather personal experience, as you see places you remember from your childhood overlayed with a music video.

arcade fire the wilderness downtown we used to wait interactive music video

After that it all went quiet for a few years, but Arcade Fire brought back the idea this summer in anticipation of their fourth album, ‘Reflektor’.

The new project, called ‘Just A Reflektor‘, goes one step further by asking you to turn on your webcam so that you can star in the video, as well as tracking the movement of your mouse so that different sections of the screen come into focus.

In truth, the effect created was pretty cheesy and seeing my gormless face staring back at me during the climax of the song was hardly gratifying and a bit of an anti-climax.

Thankfully the torch has now been picked up by two more acts, who have refined the idea into something simpler, more easy to adapt, but no less impressive.

Queens of the Stone Age’s new single ‘The Vampyre of Time and Memory‘ is played out across several rooms of a haunted house, with the band playing in one room and some actors creating a cryptic scene in another.

In the areas between, you can click through a book of lyrics, click through to iTunes to buy the accompanying album ‘…Like Clockwork’ and plenty more besides.

This is a huge improvement on ‘Just A Reflektor’ as you feel in control and curiousity compels you to explore and even start again in case you missed something.

For what it’s worth, the band have published their own Director’s Cut on YouTube to draw people into this eerie world:



Not to be outdone, even dear old Bobby is getting in on the act, and with quite a fitting choice of song.

This is partly because ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ was released in the days before music videos, but also because it was part of Dylan’s controversial electric period, where he departed from his bluegrass acoustic protest music roots.

In the video, which was posted online this week, you are given 15 TV channels to flip through, and on all of them the actors are lip-synching along.

This allows for brilliant, often comic, juxtaposition. When I watched it through, I laughed at a street reporter asking a random member of the public: “How does it feel to be on your own, like a complete unknown?”

In the end, I settled on an East Coast rap rendition for its sheer unlikeliness.

Give it a try for yourself and you’ll find that making up your own music video as you go along is a very addictive and empowered experience.

I can only hope more bands take this idea and run with it. My money’s on Muse going one better than their live videos that allow you to simply switch camera angles, but the possibilities are literally endless…

RIP The Floppy Disk: 1971-2011

Just when you thought 2010 was filled with enough completely useless things (the iPad, the Northern Line, Gordon Brown), Sony has decided enough is enough and decided to scrap producing floppy disks.

Darth Vader chops a floppy disk in half
Darth doesn't go for retro storage solutions (flickr user: nhussein)

According to the BBC, Sony still manufacture them and ship them by their millions. The rest of the market has long since gone off the floppy, with Apple abandoning them in 1998 and Dell following suit in 2003. Despite this, Sony’s decision will not come into effect until March next year.

But who is it that’s still using them? My laptop can’t read one, and I can’t remember the last scenario in which I needed less than 1.44MB of storage space.

I can remember my first use of a floppy disk though, with much fondness. My brother returned from university for the summer in 1995, with a pirated copy of Championship Manager 1994/95 (Italia edition), which was spread over four separate disks. So retro is this game that I can’t even find it on eBay!

Disks have long since passed into retro chic; these earrings would hardly look out of place in Hoxton, or on the set of Nathan Barley. However, it’s hard to imagine floppies garnering the same kind of fond nostalgia as music geeks reserve for vinyl. Perhaps it’s because techie geeks are so innately addicted to the new, whereas musos tend to live in the past. Nonetheless, I’d be interested to hear your recollections – when is the last/first time you used a floppy disk? Will you be at all sad to see them go?

Branson Takes One Giant Leap

Richard Branson
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group (Photo: Flickr user riz94107)


Business maverick Richard Branson hopes to boldly go where others wouldn’t even dream with the launch of his latest venture, Virgin Galactic. Forget what you thought about the cost and carbon footprint of space tourism: by launching their craft, SpaceShipTwo, from a mother-ship cruising at 50,000 ft, Virgin Galactic say they can cut out 90% of the CO2 emissions of a traditional rocket launch and the price per passenger is reduced by a staggering 99%. The result –
space tourism is no longer just for millionaires.

This project is green to the core. Virgin Galactic claims that its two-hour flights, which reach heights of 110km above the earth, will burn just 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per passenger – 40% less than the carbon footprint of a London to New York return flight on a commercial jet. Branson has also stated that his New Mexico spaceport will take all its energy requirements from natural, renewable  resources. It has been designed, by Lord Foster of Gherkin fame, to draw on wind, solar and geothermal energy.

James Lovelock, environmentalist doomsayer and author of the Revenge of Gaia, will be one of the first passengers to get a taste of this $200,000 zero-gravity experience and Branson believes a VG flight could change the way the rich and powerful think about the world. “Seeing the planet from out there, surrounded by the incredibly thin protective layer of atmosphere, helps one wake up to the fragility of the small portion of the planet’s mass that we inhabit,” says the bearded one.

The $200,000 price tag may seem prohibitively steep, but it is significantly cheaper than the $20m that the first space tourist Dennis Tito spent on his trip in 2001. Since then, five self-funded space tourists have followed in his footsteps, with Hungarian-American Charles Simonyi currently on his second orbital jaunt.

Virgin Galactic's mother-ship EVE, during a test-flight (Photo: Freddie Weston-Smith)
Virgin Galactic's mothership EVE, during a test-flight (Photo: Freddie Weston-Smith)

But the age of exclusivity characterised by Tito et al is coming to an end. Virgin Galactic is not a far-flung fantasy of the distant future. Work on SpaceShipTwo is well advanced and last month its mother-ship EVE  completed its longest and fastest test flight. All being well, the company should begin commercial operations within the next two years.

Will Whitehorn from Virgin Galactic insists that this project is more than just a millionaire’s plaything: “We have radically changed the economics of getting to space and built the most advanced aviation system the world has ever seen,” he says. “Training only takes three days – within years you could go to space for a week’s holiday.”

Given the state of the environment and the economy, this does all seem a bit frivolous, regardless of the massive savings in cash and carbon. But Whitehorn insists on the importance of investing in such innovation: “Over the past 15 years we have become so reliant on space technology. We could not even feed the population of the earth anymore without satellites to predict weather forecasts for farmers and GPS systems to guide food deliveries  to the stores.”

But can they really be immune to the global recession? Surely VG must be feeling the pinch? Nothing of the sort, according to Whitehorn: “We have seen a massive surge in interest lately. Over 300 reservations have already been made, totalling more than $40 million in deposits.” One thing seems clear, this project certainly has momentum.

Despite Branson’s many successes, or perhaps because of them, Britain has never really warmed to him. Maybe its got something to do with how self-satisfied he always looks, but then again, if you were worth $2.4 billion, you’d be pretty smug too. For those of you who would be glad to see the London-born entrepreneur shot into space and never return, here’s Babylon Zoo’s 1995 electro-rock hit (I couldn’t resist).

UK Aware 09: The great, the good and the green

This weekend saw the UK’s only green and ethical living expo come to the Kensington Olympia 2. What better opportunity to try out my new found multimedia skills? Please let me know what you think of my first attempt at video blogging.
(I categorically refuse to say vlogging. Ever.)

The atmosphere in the exhibition hall was buzzing. Around 100 stalls promoted ethical banking, fair-trade foods and clothes swapping, to name but three good causes. You could almost feel the self-satisfaction of punters and stall holders alike.

However, I was very disappointed to find out that the Tesla Roadster, the star attraction, was not on show. The organisers declined to name the motoring journalist responsible for its absence.

Later when I approached The Ecologist magazine, they were very cagey and refused to go on the record about the recent choice to go on-line only, although they did confirm that the new site will have a subscription area to ensure future revenue. Seems like some troubled and uncertain months lie ahead for this invaluable publication.

Overall, the event was exciting, inspiring and packed with innovation. Many thanks to Ed Franklin, James Lloyd and Ptolemy Elrington for their contributions. Please visit their sites and support their fantastic green products.

Spot(ify) The Difference

Take a quick look at this picture:

spotify2

Has iTunes had a gothic makeover?

itunes-invert2

No, iTunes has just met it’s worst nightmare. This month Spotify has arrived in the UK and will change the way we listen to music online forever.

For those not familiar with this free and legal service, I will briefly explain. Spotify is a free-to-download program which allows you to stream music live. A lot of music in fact. Its database currently comprises four million tracks and it is growing by 10,000 a day. Not everything is on there, but I’ve been trawling around for a while and it is yet to disappoint.

The whole thing is not only legal, but is endorsed by several major record labels who see this as less of a threat to their interests than pirated music, because Spotify pay them a small premium to host their entire back catalogue. It’s sort of like America siding with the Russians in WWII because, despite their differences, they were more worried about Germany. In this tenuous analogy, America is the music industry, pirated music is Germany and Spotify is Russia. Revolutionary, power to the people etc. etc.

Yesterday, I downloaded Spotify and listened to the new Morrissey album, Years of Refusal. Hot off the press, came out that day. I listened to the whole thing without any loading time and although it’s quite good I probably won’t buy it.

That sort of decision making could be crucial for the music industry. Now listeners worldwide have the right to listen to (almost) any album in its entirety and then decide if they want to buy it or not. If people still decide they want to own a physical CD to show their loyalty and support to the band, then they will surely head to HMV or Amazon and order a physical copy, complete with artwork, lyrics and other such bonuses.

I cannot see how iTunes fits into this new landscape, though. Ditto, MySpace Music. If you just want to listen to music on your computer, then fire up Spotify and listen to full albums as many times as you want.

At this point, I should pay lip service to the few small drawbacks. Every half hour you are forced to listen to a 15-second advert, thus securing Spotify’s revenue which they use to placate the record labels. Alternatively you can pay a tenner a month to cut this out, but that hardly seems worth it.

Secondly, you don’t actually own the tracks and so can’t upload them to an MP3 player. It hardly takes a genius to record streaming tracks, but of course no-one would be that immoral…

Since downloading Spotify, I have been catching up with bands who I have been too busy or too stingy to follow over the past few years and it is simply brilliant. Some I will buy, most I wont, but one thing’s for sure: I’m never spending money on downloading MP3s again.

Stop Googling To Save The Planet – Has It Come To This?!

Happy New Year! I’ll drink to that. Milk, please. Two sugars.

Don't overfill the kettle, don't fly if you can help it, and oh, stop using Google...
Don't overfill the kettle, don't fly if you can help it, and oh, stop using Google

2009 – It’s the year to save the world, right?

Not if you’re reading this. Chances are you got here via Google, or you’ve at least used it once today, correct? The monopoly Google holds over the search engine niche is comparable only to Tesco and supermarkets, but until now no-one has raised major concerns about the Californian giant’s near total dominance.

Stop press!

In an infuriating article in this week’s Sunday Times, we are told that performing two Google searches produces as much CO2 as boiling a cup of tea and, more frighteningly, that the technological industry gives off more CO2 annually than the aviation industry. The reason for this, according to new research from Harvard, is that Google operates several huge data centres across the world which are all consulted each time you search, resulting in more comprehensive results, but more CO2 emitted on net.

The choice of comparison here is particularly cutting. Not boiling a full kettle of water and cutting down on flying are two simple steps to reducing your Carbon Footprint, and by placing Google emissions above them makes personal small steps seem all the more pointless. It makes me feel like it’s too late to reverse all the bad we have done, and that my petty efforts are insignificant.

I wrote last month of how hard it is to cut back on air travel because of personal inconvenience, but we cannot hope for people to cut back on their internet usage. I shudder to think of the millions of times I have Googled something out of sheer curiosity or laziness. Google is a key research tool for journalists everywhere, and is usually the first port of call. Furthermore, many people, my parents included, set Google as their homepage and search for “hotmail” instead of bothering to type the URL into the address bar.

In both cases it’s just like Pandora’s Box – once we have developed this technology and have seen the amazing things we can do with it, we cannot simply close the box and go backwards. In this case, the onus lies with Google to clean up their act and make their search engine more energy efficient. But is there anything we can do to help? Is it realistic to ask people to use the internet less for environmental reasons? Or is this just needless scaremongering?