Weird science inside your head

Ever wake up with horrible music running through your brain?

For months now, a heinous smooth-jazz earworm titled “Hillary 4 U and Me” has been kicking in on the cranial radio at sunup. I’d gotten weirdly fascinated with a hilariously bad YouTube video built around the tune, a rip-off of the Jackson 5 hit “ABC” that a Hewlett-Packard engineer and flute player named Gene Wang wrote and put together to tout Sen. Clinton’s candidacy. The earworm’s persistence, though, seems like good reason to pay attention to what you let inside your head, lest it return to bite your gray matter back. Hard.

Not to sound paranoid, but there are people out there who quite actively are plotting how to get inside your head. And that’s outside the nefarious realm of Karl Rove and the advertising industry. I spent last Thursday at the SanFran MusicTech Summit in, well, San Fran, where a series of panel discussions illuminated just how far the conversation has moved beyond simple digital music distribution or getting your music up on Apple’s iTunes store.

While there was some talk regarding intellectual property rights or how a musician can get paid for his or her work, much of what I heard seemed to use a frame of reference that automatically assumed that music should be free, unencumbered by “digital rights management” copy protection code—there merely to promote an act’s live show, where said act can get paid to play and make money on the side selling branded swag—or as shareware, which gives listeners the free-will opportunity to send money to the music’s creator at their conscience’s prompting.

Assuming that music should be free on the Internet, then networks that facilitate those transactions become important. While existing sites like MySpace, Facebook, YouTube and Imeem provided context, a few of the pundits on the dais were envisioning a “none of the above/something in the future” solution. One area of activity that becomes crucial to developing successful networks lies in refining the now-alchemical science of “recommendation engines,” which are software codes, currently assisted or entirely supplanted by human input, that tell you at, say,, if you like the Ramones, Green Day and Jawbreaker, you’ll absolutely love the Helper Monkeys.

As one panelist put it: “I think it’s so important to do what places like [an Internet radio site that uses recommendation-engine technology] are doing. How do you connect those new bands—the things you haven’t heard of, the things that the [current search technology] can’t possibly point to because those songs haven’t been out there long enough—with the audience that will love them? That’s the key question going forward.”

If, as this columnist and others have posited, the old strategy of getting signed to a paternalistic major label that will provide a springboard to wider acceptance or even stardom is dead, then it becomes important for ambitious local musicians to become conversant with these emerging technologies. More on this subject later.

Speaking of local acts with a knack for earworms, the new Kevin Seconds and His Ghetto Moments album Rise Up, Insomniacs! (Asian Man Records) is a total candy store of musical confections. Now, Seconds may be about as Asian as he is “ghetto,” but that works to his advantage when it comes to making sunny, acoustic guitar- and vocal harmony-drenched pop music. Most of these 13 songs will be familiar to anyone who’s caught Seconds performing at his own True Love Coffeehouse or elsewhere for the past year; they include such toaster-ready pop tarts as “Backaches & Bad Dreams” and “Disarm Your Bomb.”

For someone like me, with a real weakness for hummable pop, this album is pretty close to as good as it gets.