Monthly Archives: October 2011

Discovering new music: TheSixtyOne and Mixest review

60 gigabytes, 28 days, 10,000 songs. My iTunes library is daunting, and yet all too often there is nothing that I want to listen to. Where can you turn to discover new music?

Mixest

Mixest is a cleanly designed, beautifully simple, single page music player offering a selection of tracks culled from indie music blogs and curated by Connie Huang. The interface is pared back to the absolute basics: Play/Pause, Skip, Favourite, and the hipster-baiting “More Obscure” are presented as simple text links (all in the lovely and free font Museo Slab 500) and the additional in-site navigation is revealed within the same window to avoid interrupting the music. An obligatory Twitter link allows you to share tracks with your followers, and aside from a track timer and progress bar that’s your lot.

Screenshot of Mixest interface

Create an account and login to track what you’re listening to, although as far as I can tell that will only let you return to previously Favourite’d tracks; there is no suggestion of any algorithm at play here. Not that one is necessarily needed – the selection is interesting and mostly obscure (although some occasional mainstream acts do crop up; I heard Supergrass last week) and judicious use of the “More Obscure” link can ensure you never get bored.

The whole site has a friendly, playful tone of voice (one example from the Q&A: “Are there hotkeys? Yes, see if you can figure them out”) and the overall feel is of a discerning fanzine – perfect if you share the editor’s taste, but if the New American Indie isn’t to your taste you might find it all a bit too repetitive.

TheSixtyOne

“On TheSixtyOne,” the homepage blurb declares, “new artists make music and listeners decide what’s good.”

You certainly cannot argue with the second part of that statement. The developers of the site have been drinking deeply from the social network Kool-Aid, laced with a generous shot of gamification. Account activity, avatars, Friends to follow, Loved tracks, comments, shares, popular tunes and more, all rub shoulders with the latest in game theory: quests, levelling up, and daily rewards foster regular participation, aided by a limited number of ‘hearts’ that you can award each day. Completing quests or reaching higher levels unlocks more hearts, as well as encouraging use of some of the more hidden pieces of site functionality.

Screenshot of TheSixtyOne

The idiosyncractic design of TheSixtyOne has as many critics as fans, and in fact their 2010 redesign drove many of their most active users away. (You can still see the rather tired-looking interface at old.thesixtyone.com.) It’s bold and beautiful, with most of the navigation hidden away in pulldown menus or slide-out blocks. Full-bleed, high resolution photos fill the screen, overlaid with artist information that is variously factual (lyrics, tour dates, and release information) or whimsical, depending presumably on the uploader’s mood. The site’s user messaging is quirky – “speculating,” “dreaming” and “contemplating” are just some of the status messages displayed while waiting for the site to do its thing – and there are some lovely touches like an “adventure meter” on a scale from college professor to Indiana Jones in the “Open Mic” section.

How you consume the enormous catalogue available on TheSixtyOne is up to you. Apart from the default playlist that begins on the homepage, a “popular” menu reveals options including various “moods” ranging from mellow to rocky; and a “for you” selection drawn from your friends’ playlists. Alternatively, explore the “open mic” area for more avant-garde entries, search the site by song or artist, or find recently popular “revives.” Some tracks can even be downloaded directly from the site, at the discretion of the artist, and many are available for free. Of course, hearts and comments don’t pay the bills. The site allows you to purchase credits in blocks of 1,000 for $12.50, which can then be distributed among your chosen artists in the form of a “tip” or used to purchase non-free track or entire album downloads.

The only glaring omission on TheSixtyOne is a user guide. Even an FAQ would be something. The sheer number of ways to interact with the site is intimidating even to an internet veteran like me, and you have to wonder how many potential listeners will be scared away before they discover everything the site has to offer. There is also rather a strange mix of true indie and legitimate international stars like MGMT and Florence + The Machine; one wonders how involved some of the established artists can actually be in what is, after all, just another PR channel.

The John Peel Lectures

As I finished writing this piece, I caught an advert for a timely and related event. The first ever John Peel Lecture will be broadcast on BBC 6 Music this Monday at 7pm. The inaugural event features windmilling guitar-smasher and sometime paedophile-researcher, Pete Townshend, discussing the future of music discovery in the age of the internet. The BBC blurb poses the question:

“…how can the ‘unpolished’ music that John Peel championed find an audience?”

For all that the “real” music cognoscenti love to bemoan the existence of bland pop-factories like X-Factor and Pop Idol, the underground fan-driven music movement has never gone away. Websites like Mixest and TheSixtyOne have replaced bedroom-produced badly photocopied fanzies, and the internet has provided independent artists with a vastly greater potential audience than they ever had in the past. And recent history continues to prove that fans are still a force to be reckoned with; just look at Radiohead’s ground-breaking “pay what you want” release of In Rainbows, ‘selling’ 1.2 million copies by the day of release according to Gigwise; or the record-breaking donations made via the PledgeMusic site towards Wildhearts’ mainman Ginger’s next album.

It seems that in the modern era, exposure – finding an audience – is actually easier than it has ever been. The challenge of “making it,” however, still remains.

Further reading

Here are a few more music discovery sites:

And some fan-funding music projects:

Comparing traffic to your old and new redesigns with Google Analytics

As part of moving the various parts of this site around this afternoon, I took the opportunity to also tidy up the Google Analytics setup I had in place, both here and on the previous incarnations.

I think last time I relaunched the site I must have just created a new GA account, but in retrospect that was a bad idea. GA allows you to maintain several of what they refer to as Profiles under a single Property, which means you can aggregate all the traffic to your various versions in one report:

Screenshot of Google Analytics profile settings tab

The only change that you need to make to the tracking code is to make sure you select the “One domain with multiple subdomains” option in the Tracking Code section – this adds an extra line that allows GA to recognise that you want to track the traffic with a single property:

Screenshot of Google Analytics tracking code tab

Copy and paste the tracking code into all previous versions of your site, and all traffic will now be tracked in a single report. Now you can do things like compare behaviour across subdomains: go to Content > Site Content > Pages, change Viewing from “Page” to “Other” and select Content > Hostname to generate reports like this:

Screenshot of Google Analytics content report showing comparative traffic across subdomains

This is just a few hours’ traffic, but you can start to build up a picture of comparative time on page, bounce rates, exits, and other aspects of user behaviour across your ‘same-but-different’ sites.

11:15, restate my assumptions

In his first resurrectory post, Rob Weychert references an old (almost pre-historic) Zeldman tweet from late 2007:

Blogging. And blogging again. Writing is fun. Writing is fundamental. If you don’t write, you don’t know what you think.

Back when I started this site, chipping into other people’s conversations way back in 2004, the act of writing seemed to come much more easily than it does today. What was effectively a hand-rolled social network of blogrolls and reciprocal linking facilitated discussion and development of new techniques and approaches to design and development, and anyone active during those years shared a feeling of actually playing an active part in the conversations playing out across the internet.

It’s not like that any more.

Building a reputation online is simply not possible in the same way that it was back then. Instead of individual bloggers creating valuable content, we’ve moved into the era of Smashing Magazine and Mashable; multi-author, revenue-driven sites aggregating content and churning out “Top 100″ lists on a near-daily basis. A single author can’t compete with those content farms, and nor should he. For, luckily, as the web has grown up, so have we.

I’m not the same person I was in the early part of the last decade. Influence or reputation, which seemed so important in the nascent days of blogging, are now not high on my list of objectives for any online activity; I mostly aim to share what I’m doing, occasionally educate other designers and developers, and record my thoughts and feelings as life unwinds. And it’s that last point that is tied most closely with what Zeldman and Weychert were talking about. Writing, and writing regularly, is an activity with two clear outcomes. Firstly, and in common with almost every other activity you might care to name, it makes you better at that activity. The best way to become a better writer is to write, and write often. And secondly, it’s a way to order your thoughts and present a singularly coherent summary of your own views and opinions at a given point in time.

In recent years I suffered from a combination of having published a handful of popular articles, and increasingly scarce free time. This combination – the pressure to produce something worthwhile, while simultaneously having no time in which to do so – meant that I never wrote anything of merit. But now, one of those roadblocks is gone… and the other was never really there to begin with.

I’d also like to give credit where it’s due, and hat-tip a pair of colleagues who reminded me what blogging is supposed to be about. Stuart Frisby and Deepak Gulati both write with clarity and focus, sharing their impressions and experiences in a way I’d like to get back to. And that’s the motivating factor in today’s virtual house-clearance.

The previous version of this site has been packed up and delivered to its new home at v4.thewatchmakerproject.com. This new theme was chosen to free me from the artificial restrictions under which I had placed myself with the previous redesign; now I can post content of any length or images without layouts breaking or needing to fiddle with specific CSS rules. And switching to WordPress means I can also post from my phone, which is pretty cool, right?

12:50, press Return…