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How to Start a Record Label, with New Amsterdam Records

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Ed. note: We love New Amsterdam records, so we're thrilled to be teaming up with them. This Thursday night from 6-8 pm, mental_floss is co-hosting a party at the Galapagos Arts Space called Pollinate with a whole bunch of exciting arts groups. The Wassaic Project will feature stunning sculptures from new artists, Hotel St. George press will dazzle audiences with a few short readings, and New Amsterdam is going to be spinning fresh, new sounds the whole time. We'll be there handing out FREE magazines (and enjoying the beers on tap as we do!). If you're in the Brooklyn area, drop by. (For more info on this launch party and New Amsterdam's month long Undiscovered Islands festival, be sure to visit here). Now back to the interview.

A New Type of Label

When the bubble burst in 2001, many sites that survived—and even prospered—had something in common: equal weight given to the brand/url/business, on the one hand, and the User on the other. A perfect example can be found by looking at the difference between Britannica Online (launched in 1994) and Wikipedia (launched in 2001). The former is Web 1.0, the latter, Web 2.0.

Picture 5.pngYoung entrepreneurs who've come of age in the Web 2.0 world don't even consciously think about this division. They just create sites and organizations that give the user a lot of freedom, a lot of space to play, to help shape the organization itself. (Just think about all the young folks who got involved with Obama in the digital space to create their own fundraising and rally events, dinners, and blogs on or via his site.) So, it makes sense that when classically trained composers Judd Greenstein, Sarah Kirkland Snider and William Britelle teamed up to form their own record label, they made a point of creating a 2.0 Web site.

Formed in 2008, New Amsterdam calls itself "a haven for trained musicians whose work slips through the cracks" between genres. New York Magazine critic Justin Davidson says New Amsterdam is a "virtual coffeehouse" "at the center" of the indie classical scene in New York. They've already released 11 albums by artists such as big band leader Darcy James Argue and violist Nadia Sirota. But just as importantly, their Web site doubles as a social networking space, allowing musicians to create a profile, upload music, video, pics, even blog, all for free! And if you're now thinking MySpace, think again. has an aesthetic and a style that perfectly represents and presents the community it serves, a trillion miles away from the eyesore and chaos of MySpace.Today we had the privilege of interviewing New Amsterdam co-founders Judd Greenstein and William Brittelle, so if you're interested in new music, or the record business, read on, read on...

DI: What motivated you guys to start the label?

JG: It's simple: there weren't any other labels for our scene! All these artists were doing incredible work, as performers and composers, individuals and bands, but they were still using live concert recordings as their calling card. When people did make studio recordings, they were doing so in a way that did not take advantage of the basic techniques that everyone outside of the classical world considers standard. That's fine for some kinds of music, but there was a clear need for a label that would aggregate the scene, and eventually allow people to take their art in new directions. This has actually happened much sooner than I personally expected, as people are starting to write works for albums, directly, instead of for the live performance. That's very exciting to us.

DI: But what's the philosophy, or guiding principal behind your choices?

JG: I'd point to three things. First, we're looking for artists whose work is a reflection of truly integrated musical influences. In other words, we don't want classical-goes-rock or electronic-music-with-some-violins - we want music where people are being as personal and honest as they can be, while opening themselves up fully to all the music that they love. That is the road to making music that's genuinely new, in a lasting and non-superficial way. Second, the music has to be great, or "awesome", as Bill likes to say. Fortunately, when people go in those personal and honest directions, they're more likely to make work in which they are deeply invested. If you look back at great artists from any era, they were almost all like snowballs, pulling in the world around them as they went, musically and otherwise, in the service of their own art. Those people are all over the place, today, but the most famous examples are people who happen to be working in non-classical fields. That's going to change, and it's already happening. Third, we're looking for albums that are meant to be artistic products, in and of themselves, and not a reflection of some live ideal. Almost all music is supposed to be heard live, of course, but we think that if you're going to make an album, you should think of it as a project that is distinct from the live experience.

DI: I understand that you don't give your artists advances against sales. Presumably, you're giving them a big chunk of each CD/download sold, then. So what's left for you guys? What's the business model here?

WB: Basically, our business model is that of a traditional non-profit. We are providing a much needed service to the community (the commercial release, promotion, and live presentation of sophisticated, engaging, unrepresented music) and, in exchange, we ask donors who believe in our cause to provide us with funding. Right now, the label's percentage from CD sales, live performances, and licensing helps cover costs while we continue to fundraise. Part of our business model from the outset was "lean and mean". We never want to become a big clunky organization that can't react quickly to new technologies and artistic movements. Therefore, we try to keep costs down as much as possible and keep our infrastructure to an absolute minimum. The kind of music we represent comes out of a very small and somewhat isolated (commercially speaking) community, so we don't need crazy amounts of overhead to represent our "scene". From that angle, I guess you could say we're a community oriented boutique label.

DI: What's involved with getting a new label like New Amsterdam off the ground?

WB: I feel like, in some ways, we're still getting it off the ground- and we'll probably always feel that way. Right now we're dealing with distribution and booking, trying to either find companies to partner with that truly understand our brand, or (far more likely) building programs on our own. Until the indie classical community has booking agents, publicists, publishers, and licensing houses that are willing to invest in our scene - and a means to have records in stores across the world - we're still not really competing with the big boys. We've been lucky to find a few like-minded folks that have begun to specialize in our kind of music - steven swartz and dot dot dot music and lawson white and good child music publishing are two - but there are still HUGE gaps in our infrastructure when it comes to competing in the global music marketplace. However, I have no doubt that as we continue to develop a clearer and clearer brand identity, opportunities will continue to present themselves. After all, it's only been a year!

DI: Lots of people start their own labels all the time—Madonna, Ice T, even Elijah Wood. But they've all got distribution companies, parent companies (Elijah Wood's label is called Simian Records, but it's distributed by Yep Roc Records, for example). As you guys hopefully become more and more successful, and the larger, for-profit outfits come-a-calling, do you think you'll take the plunge and change your OS?

WB: Definitely not. I like Ice-T but I feel like our career paths differ slightly.

JG:Let's just say we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.

DI: Talk a little bit about the technology behind the social networking part of your Web site. Obviously a lot of planning and programming went into it. Who designed the back end and what's so cool about it?

JG: Tristan Perich and Kunal Gupta are these crazy geniuses who I imagine have their mitts in about a thousand different musical scenes. These guys are designing their own programming language, which you'll have to ask them about, and they have used New Amsterdam as a guinea pig for its development. They could probably tell you many more things that are cooler than I even know, but from our perspective, it's amazing to have everyone be able to link up to one another so organically. If you post a track that's your composition, which I performed, and you list me as a performer, then the mp3 appears on my page as well as on yours. If you have a show, and you're playing my piece, and list me, then it appears on my page. This is an exact analog to the real relationships that we have, in real life - remember real life?

DI: Maybe you can do a little bragging here and tell our readers why it's different/better than MySpace.

WB: Not being overrun by sexual predators and horrible bands named "Atomic Death Ray" that send you 12 messages a week is a big notch in our column.

JG: That's true. Also, like I was saying, we have a network that specifically shows how different artists are related to one another, musically - not through some meaningless "friend" system that has now become a total joke to everyone. We're still developing the nuances of how this will work, but for me, the idea is to recreate something close to my experience when I first got into jazz, years ago. Like, you're 18, and having your first epiphany with the classic Coltrane quartet, so you look for anything with McCoy Tyner in it, and you somehow wind up with Hank Mobley's "A Slice of the Top". And then you're like, wait, who's this Lee Morgan character? So you get Tom Cat, and you're like, Art Blakey is obscene! So you've learned about all these great players through their genuine musical connections, which can take much less time these days, because of the Internet. Here we've made it even easier, by letting listeners explore the scene on one site. But the artists themselves have tremendous control and flexibility about how they want to represent themselves, which is important.

DI: Have any of the users who've uploaded their material caught your attention? Is that part of the construct here? Is the site, in a sense, a talent scout?

WB: There have been a couple things, but, to be honest, the site is really meant to reflect the living, breathing, real world community, so we're aware of most of the composers and performers on our site before they actually create user pages.

DI: How do you and your colleagues divvy up the work? Who decides who gets what jobs on any given day?

WB: We've tried to divvy up tasks in an official way in the past, but we always end up basically working on everything together. We have a very healthy work environment and we basically all just do what ever we can to move things forward.

JG: We're also all working composers, so sometimes one or more of us is really busy. The fact that we're all in the same boat makes it easy for us to pick up the slack when someone's in that position. For example, Sarah's in the midst of a big project right now, so that's why Bill and I are answering these questions for now. Next week, maybe I'll be unable to do so, and you'd be talking to Sarah.

DI: I remember making a demo tape in 1992 of some of my music for Michael Tilson Thomas, who I was assisting at the time. He looked at me and said, "You know, most composers are putting everything on CD now." Of course, today, we can all send out linkage, or even mail our demos on cheap mp3 players. How's the composer going to send out his demo in 2020? What's your crystal ball telling you?

WB: I want to come up with some crazy device out of a Philip K Dick novel, but my gut tells me that there won't be any huge changes in format over the next ten years - though hopefully the age of listening to myspace pages on crappy computer speakers will give way to another golden age of home audio equipment. It seems all the developments in music technology in the last 15 years have had to do with convenience. I for one don't like to have too many choices. I don't have an ipod and I still listen to cd's. The idea of having a contraption with all my music on it is terrifying to me - I had an ipod for a year or so and I don't think I ever listened to something for more than 15 seconds.

JG: The step that I'd like to see is to make the digital experience less cold. Everyone complains about the loss of cover art and other "warm" features from the record to the CD and now to mp3s. But people have to interact with a computer in order to get digital files, and a computer has the possibility of being much more dynamic, in some ways, than those basic forms of music transmission. Very few people have really explored this - there was that weird Neon Bible site, and a few sites along those lines, and of course some electronic music gurus like Brad Garton have really done some interesting things, but it's not a widespread phenomenon. As people get better at using the internet, and as file transmission becomes even faster, I hope that we'll see some cool stuff. And I hope that New Amsterdam is a leader in that, of course.

DI: Speaking of CDs, will they ever go out of style? Everyone said downloads would kill it, yet here you guys are releasing eight new ones every year.

WB: A lot of people still like CD's. Especially people that identify themselves as "serious" listeners. About half of our sales are physical cd's - and we're a web-based company!

JG: I think we should bring back those really tall CD boxes from the old days. Those were kind of amazing.

Be sure to tune in tomorrow for Part 2! And check out past On Music posts here.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.