Viva Las Vegas with Keith Urban at the Cosmopolitan, iPhone Style

This past weekend I shot my first iPhone only concert ever — Keith Urban at The Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas with Brett Eldredge and Jerrod Neimann.

I was there with my wife mrsth for our 18th wedding anniversary. We’re both big Keith Urban and country music fans, so when I saw he was playing at the swanky Cosmopolitan (which is absolutely the best place to stay in Vegas these days), I booked us a room there for the weekend and we celebrated 18 years in style.

A great show was made even better thanks to Jessica Northey who put us in touch with Keith’s management (thank you so much Rachel!) who were able to arrange a special meet and greet ahead of the show. There’s nothing like impressing your woman on her special day!

I’ve shot a lot of live music over the years and always with a DSLR, but this time I went sans DSLR and shot only with my iPhone. You can check out what I was able to get with only an iPhone only here. iPhone shooting in low light can be tricky. I felt like I got some good shots though.

At Coachella earlier this year my friend Sam Levin gave me an olloclip. That really came in handy for this show. If you like shooting concert photography with your iPhone, you absolutely *HAVE* to get one of these. It’s basically a telephoto lens for your iPhone and makes a huge difference in terms of getting closer than you could otherwise.

Most shows I see I’m pretty much focused 100% on just shooting the show — so much that I don’t even really have the best time. This show though it was much more laid back without my DSLR and just hanging out as a normal fan with an iPhone. One of these days I would love to shoot Keith Urban with a DSLR, but the Vegas show was perfect just like it was with the iPhone.

And about that show — WOW! if you haven’t seen Keith Urban play live yet you really should. In fact he’s in the Bay Area Saturday night in Mountain View if you want to check him out for yourself. He puts on a really rocking show digging deep into his repertoire with so many of his greatest hits. Keith has a ton of energy and he and his whole band really put on a super fun and kick ass live show — that man can play guitar!

Both Brett Eldredge and Jerrod Niemann are great opening acts. My wife especially enjoyed the fact that in Vegas Brett played a bit of Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon, which was coincidently the first song that we danced to at our wedding 18 years ago.

Keith’s got other dates coming up in Oregon and Washington if you live there. You can check out the remaining dates of his Raise ‘Em Up tour here.

You can check out all of my live music concert photography here.

Take Your Music With You on the Go With the JBL Charge

JBL Charge-1

Recently I was given a JBL Charge to check out. I’m a fan. The JBL Charge is a small speaker system, about the size of a can of Tecate, that wirelessly hooks up via blue tooth to your tablet, computer or smart phone. Setting the speaker up is easy — you just turn bluetooth on on your phone and push a button on the speaker, and smooth, rich sound comes pouring out.

Last weekend I drove from San Francisco to Los Angeles and back for the Father’s Day weekend and used the Charge driving both ways to listen to music from my phone rather than the car radio. The speaker is louder than the stereo system in my car and the lithium battery built into the Charge lasted for the 10 hour ride down (highway 101) and the 6 hour ride back (highway I5). According to the specs, the battery can last about 12 hours, which is usually going to be enough for an outing. You can also charge your cell phone via USB or other devices using the Charge as a back up battery.

It was nice to be able to listen to my own tunes on my phone rather than the radio while driving. I could adjust the volume of the charge either on the charge itself or on my phone. I just kept the Charge in the center console of the car in one of the cup holders while I drove.

I also used the Charge to play my wife’s favorite playlist while hanging out down at my parent’s pool on Saturday night (that’s her in the photo above). It was great having such a portable music system for us to listen to while we watched the kids swim.

JBL Charge Portable Wireless Bluetooth Speaker (Blue). You can get the charge at Amazon for about $150. It comes in different colors, but I like the light sort of neon blue the best. The charge is small enough that it’s easy to take around with you and it fits conveniently right into one of the lens spots in my camera bag — a great product that will spend many years on the road with me as a travelling companion going forward.

Sunset on Coachella, Coachella 2013 — Indio, CA

Sunset on Coachella, Coachella 2013 -- Indio, CA

Check out all my Coachella 2013 Photos here.

Just finished up a fantastic weekend shooting the first weekend down here at the Coachella music festival. I got to photograph so many new and interesting bands. Mostly I spent the entire time shooting with my good pal Robert Scoble. Check out Scoble’s photos on his Google+ stream. Ron Sheridan has a Pixt wall up on Coachella as well here.

Thanks so much to Sam Levin and JBL Audio for getting us down here and for getting us media credentialed. Thanks to BorrowLenses for equipping us with some heavy duty gear. Scoble brought down a 600mm and a 400mm that we used to shoot the bands. Mostly I shot with a Canon 70-200 f/2.8, but those big guns came in handy a lot of time too. They were *tough* to lug around all weekend long, but worth it!

Thanks also to Seagate for the great storage for holding thousands of photo files for us. I’m testing out one of their new wireless hard drives (more on that later!).

I’ll write more about what shooting the weekend was like soon, but am going to work on getting a lot of photos processed first. I made some great new friends and got to hang out with some pretty cool people. Sam Levin, Chris Voss, Jen Friel, Daniel Brusilovsky, Ron Sheridan, you guys rock! Getting to hear Greg Kihn play Beatles and Stones songs for us in the RV on the way down was a definite highlight — man that guy can sing. Greg’s also got some of the best stories you’ve ever heard about rock and roll. Great getting to know you on the trip down Greg!

Check out all my Coachella 2013 Photos here.

Does Anyone Know How Windows Media Player Writes Your Star Ratings to Your Files?

How Does Windows Media Player Write Your Star Ratings

One of the things that I’ve been worrying about lately is all of the time that I spend rating music and how portable these ratings are. I’ve got over 100,000 mp3s at this point, most all of which I’ve ripped personally myself from CDs over the years, and for the past several years I’ve been using Microsoft’s Windows Media Player to rate these songs on a one to five star scale. Windows Media Player has an option that you can check under the library tab titled “maintain my star ratings as global ratings in files.” I have that option checked and have always assumed that as I rate songs in Windows Media Player that it is in fact actually doing what it is supposed to and actually writing these ratings to my mp3 files. And many of my songs in my music library do in fact have ratings associated with the files.

But lately I’ve been noticing that after I rate a song in Windows Media Player that if I actually go the the mp3 file itself it is not showing that same rating (see screenshot above which compares a song that I just rated in Windows Media Player with the rating shown vs. the same song in Windows explorer where it is showing no rating).

Now there could be a couple of reasons why this is happening. My first thought is that Windows Media Player does not in fact write a rating to a song file immediately. Maybe in order to improve performance it adds these ratings in batches later or when it updates your library. With my very large library maybe I just need to be patient and the rating will in fact show up in a day or two. But then again maybe my Windows Media Player library is corrupt (this actually has happened to me quite a bit and usually I know that it’s corrupted when Windows Media Player will no longer pull down meta data when I’m trying to rip new CDs).

My question is does anyone know exactly how Windows Media Player writes star ratings to your files? I actually like Windows Media Player enough to continue using it as my primary music player, but I’m worried that all of the time that I’m spending rating songs is in fact wasted time and it’s important to me that my song ratings are actually stored in my song files and not just in my windows media player library (especially since that library seems to frequently corrupt and I also want to be able to filter out my just my 5 star rated songs using Windows Explorer to copy them over to the smaller hard drive on my laptop).

Appreciate any insight from anyone who might understand how this actually works.

Update: Ok, I think I may have figured out how this works. Under the tools command is a menu item “Apply Media Information Changes.” I just ran this. The first time it hung at 0% processing giving me a server error for a long time so I googled around some more and saw that you can select to take WMP offline under the file command. After I did this and ran the “apply media information” command again, after about two hours it updated my ratings (or at least the rating on the test file I referenced above). So it seems that when you apply ratings to songs in WMP that they are just applied in the library until you apply the changes with the command to your files. Thanks by the way to Dave, who referenced this in the first comment as well.

Pandora Rocks the Casbah

Songs Over Oakland
One of Pandora’s musicologists listens and evaluates a song at their Oakland, CA offices.

Back in 1981 I put on a record on for the first time that fundamentally changed my musical taste forever. The record was a compilation. Rodney on the Roq Volume 2. It was the first time in my life that I heard the band Social Distortion. It was my introduction to punk rock.

Over the course of the next few years I devoured every punk record I could find. Never Mind the Bullocks Here’s the Sex Pistols. Not So Quiet on the Western Front. Black Flag. The Circle Jerks. Bad Religion. Minor Threat. The Ramones. The Adolescents. X.

The way we learned about new punk rock back then was largely from two radio stations. Sunday nights on KROQ with Rodney Bingenheimer and every so often you could also catch the right late night DJ on KCSN (Cal State Northridge’s college radio). As far as radio in the San Fernando Valley went back then, that was pretty much it for punk rock. Discovering new punk rock back then was not the easiest thing in the world.

Fast forward to 2009. Right now I’m playing Thomas Hawk’s Social Distortion Rocks Station on Pandora Radio. My own custom station started out playing the Social Distortion song “Cold Feelings,” and from there has gone on to play a live version of “Finnegan’s Wake” by the Dropkick Murphys, “London Dungeon” by the Misfits, “Give you Nothing,” by Bad Religion and then back to “So Far Away,” another Social D track.

The best thing about Thomas Hawk’s Social Distortion Radio version 2009 on Pandora? No commercials and it’s free. There are ads on the site that play in the background as I’m writing this of course (Pandora does offer a paid subscription version without these ads) and Pandora makes a few bucks whenever someone likes a song enough to buy it using their link to iTunes or Amazon, but for the most part it’s pretty awesome commercial free radio tailored just right to my musical taste.

Thomas Hawk’s Social Distortion Radio is just one of my many stations on Pandora. Each user can have up to 100 different customizable stations. The one that I listen to the most is titled simply Thomas Hawk’s Tunes. It’s a compilation of 100 or so bands that I’ve submitted to Pandora and about three years of rating songs by thumbs up or thumbs down on the service. It’s where I first heard the Bright Eyes. It’s where I first heard the Shins. It’s where I first heard the White Stripes. It’s where I first heard the most recent artist that I’ve been enjoying Andrew Bird.

To put it most simply, there is no other music site on the internet that I rely on more than Pandora for discovering new music on the web. It’s uncanny how well the site seems to know me and my tastes. I’m not alone — as one of the web’s most popular services, Pandora reports over 23 million listeners on the web and another four million on the iPhone.

Last week I had an opportunity to stop by Pandora’s offices in Oakland and spend some time with their employees and photograph their operations first hand. Pandora’s CTO Tom Conrad’s been a friend for a few years now and it was great catching up with him and his team live at their offices.

You wouldn’t know that you were about to head into one of the internet’s most popular music services by the sign on the outside of the door. A simple plastic plaque reads “Pandora Media, Inc.” But once you get inside you find an atmosphere that’s like a lot of other Silicon Valley start ups, complete with the company ping pong table, beautiful hand painted music themed paintings on the columns in the office space (by local artist Jon Weiss) and even guitars, bass, and in house drums. Bands regularly stop by their Oakland offices to perform live there.

Lucia and TomRipping CDs at PandoraPandora Town Hall MeetingsThe Daily Mail at Pandora
Photos (clockwise from upper left). 1. Pandora Community Manager Lucia Willow and CTO Tom Conrad. 2. A music ripping station at Pandora ripping new songs from CDs for the service. 3. The daily mail of new CD submissions to Pandora. 4. A map that hangs outside Founder Tim Westergren’s office documenting the various Pandora meetups across the United States.

Pandora was started as an offshoot of the Music Genome Project which was started back in 2000. Pandora describes the Music Genome Project as “the most sophisticated taxonomy of musical information ever collected. It represents over eight years of analysis by our trained team of musicologists, and spans everything from this past Tuesday’s new releases all the way back to the Renaissance and Classical music.”

As part of my visit to Pandora I got to watch their musicologists working first hand. Basically it was a room full of super smart music people listening on headphones and spending 20 minutes or so per song categorizing each tune by up to 400 different characteristics (talk about a pretty cool way to earn a living). The result is that if you tell Pandora you like certain types of songs they are then able to present you with more songs that are similar characteristically according to their musicologists. If you like a song you give it a thumbs up. This way Pandora knows to play more songs like that for you in the future. If you don’t like a song you give it a thumbs down and it skips forward to the next song for you.

Tom Conrad joined Pandora back in 2004. I first met him back then at a Robert Scoble Geek Dinner. Back then Pandora was much smaller. There were eight full time employees and 15 music analysts. Now the company has over 130 employees with offices in five cities. “It’s been an incredibly gratifying five years, not the least of which has been due to the opportunity to work with so many talented, passionate people,” said Conrad. “It’s the best job in the world.”

According to Conrad, Pandora now has about 600,000 different songs cataloged in their system. They buy 90% of their CDs themselves and rip them there at the offices on a bank of PCs dedicated to ripping. They then scan the bar codes on the CDs to organize the tracks and pull the album information and album art down from sites like Amazon. Once the CDs are ripped they go back into a storage room with aisles and aisles of boxed up CDs. It certainly was the largest CD collection I’ve ever seen.

Boxes and Boxes and Boxes of CDs
One of the many aisles of boxed CDs from Pandora’s giant music library.

These days Pandora is going all over the world to find new music. They recently added a number of Celtic songs to their collection. On the day that I visited they were busy ripping a number of new CDs that one of their employees brought back as part of a musical buying trip to India. A lot of these were interesting but obscure Indian titles that you’d probably be unlikely to ever find here in the U.S. They also receive baskets full of CD submissions via US mail every day. These submissions come both from major record labels as well as small independent artists, each looking to get more exposure for their music through Pandora’s ever growing number of listeners. Their music library gets larger and larger every day.

For many of us who are big fans of Pandora the service is a web mainstay. I’ve got the site permanently at the top of my browser as a bookmark. But as much as Pandora is growing by leaps and bounds on the web, there are still lots of other ways that people are listening to Pandora as well. Conrad spent some time showing me one their rooms devoted to an ever growing numer of Pandora enabled consumer devices. On a wall of hardware he turned a few of them on showing me one of the latest offerings, a Pandora and Netflix enabled Blu Ray DVD player. More and more in the future you’ll begin to see Pandora’s service moving beyond just the web and integrating into more and more consumer devices.

One consumer device to date does stand out head and shoulders above the rest. Presently Pandora’s iPhone app is one of their fastest growing services and accounts for about 10% of their playbacks. According to Apple, Pandora’s iPhone app was the most downloaded application for the iPhone in 2008. Not just the most downloaded free app, or the most downloaded music app, the most downloaded app period. And I can definitely say having used this app that it pretty much rocks. It was the first app I added to my iPhone and the one that I use the most. If you want to download the Pandora app for your iPhone you can do that here.

Pandora also is continuously working to find new ways to engage their users. During my visit I was able to spend time with both Founder Tim Westergren as well as their Community Manager Lucia Willow.

Outside Westergren’s office he has a great map of the United States with dozens of little pieces of papers pinned to cities across the U.S., one of his pet projects. Each city documents town hall type road show meetings that have taken place there. It’s interesting to watch small meetups in 2006 of 10 or so users turn into meetups with 200 users in the same city a year later. Pandora continues setting up user meetup events in cities across the U.S. to promote their service and engage their loyal listeners. If you want to see see Tim’s diary/map of places he’s visited so far (and places he still wants to visit) you can check out their map online here.

As their community manager, Willow has one of the best customer support and evangelism jobs on the web. It’s nice to be a community manager when so many people love your service. It’s been said that your most passionate users oftentimes end up becoming the best community managers. In the summer of 2005 Willow was working full time at the public library and finishing her Masters degree in library and information science. She loved the service though and offered to intern/volunteer for free. Pandora went ahead and hired her for a one day a week job and then ended up offering her a full time listener advocate job in 2005. In March of last year they created the Community Manger position for her.

Willow monitors Pandora’s brand across the internet and also maintains an active presence on other social networking and micro blogging sites on the internet like Twitter and Friendfeed. On Twitter Willow tweets about new musical offerings by Pandora and also offers interesting suggestions for new Pandora custom music stations.

Music on the web is a constantly evolving frontier. It wasn’t that long ago when they shut down our dearly beloved Napster. And being on the forefront of the frontier Pandora is trailblazing both new ideas and new concepts about how we find and consume music. When you open a Pandora’s Box you never know what might come out of it. But at least according to the Greek myth the last thing to come out of Pandora’s Box is hope. Already Pandora has had to fight several well publicized political fights. At present they pay a fraction of a cent for every tune played on their service as a webcaster. Some out there would like to see them pay a lot more. Here’s hoping that the hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box keeps the service around for a long time into the future and keeps it economically viable and largely a free type of service like it is today.

If you’d like to see my complete photoset of images that I took at Pandora’s office you can do that here. If you’d like to see some of what I’ve been listening to on Pandora and some of my favorite bookmarked artists you can check out my Pandora profile here.