RiP: A Review

Last night I went to a screening of “RiP” at UnionDocs, a kind of film makers’ urban commune in Williamsburg, a neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. This was the first time I’d seen the film and I had mixed feelings going into it.

I’ve seen a lot of documentaries about free culture, many of them featuring the usual suspects, Doctorow, Lessig, GirlTalk, etc. and I was worried this would just be another diatribe. But “RIP: A Remix Manifesto” is a very special piece of work. Folks at ccMixter are familiar with the project and I’ve known the director, Brett Gaylor, for several years. (Disclosure: for some reason Brett mentions me in the credits but I’m pretty sure I’d be psyched about the film even if he hadn’t done that.)

Brett is a fantastic story teller and his choice of Girl Talk as a centerpiece for the movie gives the whole thing a big energy pump-up. It’s no wonder this thing lights up every festival that screens it. The good news is that the documentary is very focused and never strays off message. The bad news is that it is very focused and never strays off message. For example, Lessig is featured prominently but if you’ve ever seen him talk you know that there’s always two parts of his message: one is that the current system is “fucked” and the other is that there is an alternative pool of art being created that ignores all that (e.g. 100,000,000 CC licensed pictures on flickr can’t be insignificant.) Brett ignores all of the second part and cuts all that stuff out of Lessig’s talks. I totally understand why he did that, I agree, artistically, with the decision — it’s a better doc for it. I guess it just means someone has to go out there to make the super-high-energy go-gettem doc about what’s happening in the free culture movement besides civil disobedience.

The film was followed by a talk session hosted by Steve Holmgren of UnionDocs and featured Aram Sinnreich, professor of copyright at NYU, Fred a.k.a. the hip dude at CC and Brett via Skype video.

Aram is a Big Brain guy, the kind you’re happy is working on your side and not for the other guys. You may remember him as the Napster-is-good-for-business-you-idiots guy. While the rest of us are running around fueled by emotion and the injustice of it all, he’s actually crunched the numbers and gives the whole free culture movement the academic cred we suspect is there, but then are too dim to recognize it in the data without his help.

I have no idea why, as of this writing, RiP is not available for download from Brett’s sites. Whatever, here’s a divx torrent from The Pirate Bay (there are several others in case that one isn’t alive when you try it.)

[UPDATE] Here is a pick-your-price download page.

From left to right, Steve, Aram, Brett (on screen) and Fred.

Radio, Fees and Old Flames

CDM has got yet another discussion going about the proposed bill to pay performing musicians for radio play (currently only composers are supposed to get paid for radio plays.)

That discussion is focused on what’s “fair” between the different contributors to a music recording. It seems the bill may die regardless because as it turns out, surprise, the system used for composers’ compensation is already broken and unfair so adding performing musicians into the current system would only make it equally unfair for everybody. (So in that sense it would be “fair.”)

But it’s difficult to have any discussion about what is fair in the music business when the foundation is so shaky. To me the whole thing is colored dark grey by what commenter Music Fan calls the RIAA checklist.

Billy Corgon and Don Henley are not “artists.” They are barely “people.” They are icons, brand names, in a word: celebrities. That is significant because it is as celebrities, not musicians, that they have broken through the norm and re-re-re-negotiated their enslavement deals with the big labels and actually have a shot at seeing a penny or two if a law like this is passed. Having these guys testify in Congress on behalf of “musicians” is like assuming Coca-cola represents liquid. Mere mortals who are signed to record deals have given away 100% of their rights already just by signing up with the loan-shark big labels so they would never, ever see a penny of radio performance royalty. The only reason session musicians don’t sign away 100% of those rights on the records they play on is because there’s nothing to sign away. If this law was to pass, signing away those rights would be the cost of doing business – i.e. getting to play on the record in the first place. The business practice of big-labels follows the money, not the principled or “fair” or right thing to do.

By way of analogy: unions make sense to me. Workers rights is a gravely important issue. But when unions were 90% mobbed up then the whole discussion was tainted by that. Ignoring those kinds of underpinnings are not doing the workers any good because you want to focus on what’s “fair” for them in one, small technical sliver of a contract negotiation.

A point of interest in the article at CDM was that the key spokesperson they used in favor of the law, is an old buddy of mine, Celia Hirschman, late of KCRW. Celia and I first met in the record industry about 25 years ago. At the time I was very impressed with her and we spent a fair amount of time hanging out. At one point, I was very close to asking her to marry me, or at least move in with me. We hadn’t had any contact with each other in over 20 years when our paths crossed last year and we got together for lunch. The meeting was tenuous, a little awkward (and chaperoned) because, as it happens, she still, as I write this, has no fucking clue who I am — basically, zero recollection of me whatsoever. (fwiw, this is no slight on her — this is all about what an unmemorable, geek I was/am.) But, I digress…

Celia did, and still does, represents the best of the “old” business. She still thinks about artists as people, even if only temporarily on their way to being celebrities. She’s worked (a lot) with second tier recording artists who are big enough to get on the radio, but not big enough to earn any money for themselves while paying the label’s vig on their deal. It’s a lotto culture where she’s at and unfortunately, the system really is corrupt, pretty much, all along the way. This kind of “performance royalty” is supported by the loan sharks in the RIAA because it’s nothing but a win-win – it’s another stream of pure revenue (having to actually pass some of that money on to celebrities like Corgan, Henley and Jay-Z is a small tax) from the radio syndicates they control through barely-legal means of payola and gives them an opportunity to squeeze out the pesky independent radio stations they don’t have control over. Bankrupting those indie stations would be a blessing for the big labels. “Exposure” is only worth it if you control it.

We can talk about “exposure” or “fairness,” but let’s not pretend we’re in a vacuum where musicians, you know, artists, would make a living if only it weren’t for those free-riding radio stations that balk at shelling out.

Why Van Won’t Return My Calls

Amazing news: the founder of Ella Baker Center and Green for All, Van Jones, just landed a gig at the White House as Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality. White House press release here.

Van’s vision for the future of the world and the people in it is perhaps best summed up in his book “The Green Color Economy : How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems“:

When commentators evoke the “future green economy” or the “green jobs of the future,” our minds sometimes start conjuring up images at the fare edge of our imaginations. Perhaps we envision a top-secret California laboratory, where strange and mysterious geniuses are designing space-age technologies to save the world… Let’s be clear, the main piece of technology in the green economy is a caulk gun.

If there’s a better book on a more important subject (or, for that matter, two more important subjects) then I don’t know of it. If there is a voice in America that reaches each out more and compromises less than Van then I’ve haven’t heard it. (The book is available for $9.99 for Amazon’s iPhone Kindle app, and if you can’t afford I’ll send you my hard copy.)

This is extremely good news indeed and I forgive Van, in advance, for not getting back to me.

Van starts talking about 13:00min in.

“Paranoia runs deep…”

One of my all-time favorite hippie lyrics is by Buffalo Springfield as sung by Stephen Stills “Paranoia runs deep, into your life it will creep…”

So my Dad’s been in the hospital for over three weeks and it looks like he will finally be released tomorrow. It’s pretty obvious that when he comes home his life will be very different from the 93 years that came before. His mind is as clear as ever, but his body has taken a real beating. Emotionally it’s been a crazy time – ups and downs, tension, drama, a lot of “what next?” and fox-hole-religion-soul-searching.

He’d been in the same two-bed hospital room for so long that we got to see quite the parade of broken, sick old men as his room mates. Many tried to make the best of it, cracking wise with the staff and dealing with the pain. Just as many were bitter, angry and belligerent, making it nearly impossible for the nurses to help them.

Yesterday:

From the behind the drawn curtain in the other half of the room I heard the patient yelling, at the top of his lungs “Don’t touch me or I’ll sue you! I’ll sue you and everybody here! You don’t have jurisdiction over me, you can’t touch me if I don’t say it’s OK! … and if you kill me with that murder weapon you’ll go to jail! Call the police! I’ll sue, I’ll sue!”

“Did he used to be a lawyer?” one the nurses asked the personal care-giver who was called in to be a buffer between the patient and the staff.

“You have to understand,” the care giver replied, “he used to be the chief council for 20th Century Fox.”

“It starts when you’re always afraid, You step out of line, the man come and take you away…”

Eat, Pray and Inductive Categorical Inference

I’m very jealous of Elizabeth Gilbert, which of course, makes her very annoying. My wife got the audio book version of “Eat, Pray, Love” and drove around with it for weeks. Every time it was her time to drive, there was that dripping-with-compassion-you-can-only-get-at-an-ashram voice of hers talking about “Rome this” and “India that.” I would like to get paid to live in Rome for a few months and gorge out. I’d love to hang out at an ashram (seriously) but, so far, Creative Commons won’t expense that. (I only got as far as “Eat” and “Prey” before my wife took off to Costco on her own, so I can’t make any petty snarky remarks about her take on “Love.”)

Her latest annoyance is her TED talk about genius. I think I agree with her 100% and that possibility drives me nuts. (My buddies Brad Sucks and spinmeister are enamored and that just makes it worse.)

Gilbert draws a link between the image of the tortured artist and society’s expectations on genius that, she claims, is especially high on artists. Her proof that expectations are higher on artists than say, chemical engineers, are all the depressed artists over the last 500 years that have been destroyed by their careers, especially successful ones. (She didn’t mention him, but I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking of David Foster Wallace when she used the very dramatic “some, by their own hand.”) This kind of torturous pressure is especially hard after the “freakish” success of a memoir, like say, one that takes place in Italy and India and one other place I didn’t get to hear about. So Gilbert figures, enough is enough — after 500 years of the renaissance individual supremacy, now, right now, right before the release of her follow-up to “Eat, Pray, Love” would be a really opportune time to let that whole sophomore jinx pass into the night. Despite her blatantly self-auspicious timing, and that she would personally benefit the most if we were to change the course of human history right now — she is, of course, completely justified for asking for this. But it’s an uphill battle on all fronts.

When it comes to expectation levels, I wish her well with that one. I don’t see ridiculous sophomoric anticipation as exclusive to artists, tortured or otherwise. If you have amazing sex the first time you are intimate with someone, you’re going to be dialed pretty high the next time the two of you get together. There’s plenty of one-hit-wonder pressure in that situation to go around. This repeat performance anxiety is not even driven by good times. After the attacks in the U.S. on September 11, 2001, the entire country (certainly our political system) went through wrenching change all in breathless anticipation of 9-11 Version 2.0, which any decent scientist from 1930’s would recognize as inductive categorical inference — you can’t draw conclusions based on your personal observations.

In Gilbert’s defense, Hollywood, is particularly fucked up in this regard. I was working at Epic Records in Los Angeles when Thriller was released in 1982. The album sold 40 million copies, doubling the output of all the other artists combined on Epic and all other CBS affiliate sales. A year later the stock holders of CBS were aghast to find total record sales had been halved again to pre-Thriller levels. The expectation level had been set that Epic would produce a Thriller every year. Why not? You did it in 1982, why not again in 1983? (Thus was born the phrase: Epic FAIL.) Jackson’s follow up record five years later, sold 8 million in that year and still holds the record for most number one singles (five). The pathetic part is that every single person I talked to in the industry at the time considered Bad a flop. Every. Single. Person. Heads rolled, careers were ruined, stock prices plummeted.

It could also be argued that Jackson, himself, never recovered from the crushing defeat of Bad. It certainly goes to Gilbert’s main concern: herself. Er, sorry, I mean: the artists whose lives and careers were cut short over the last 500 years from this crippling, unrealistic expectation level. She starts this section of the talk with a plea to the TED audience, a decidedly clinical, secularist, scientific group, to allow for the possibility of a muse that sprinkles “fairy dust” on the creative process. “Come along with me,” she implores. But the thing that got her a rousing standing ovation and (literally) hugs and kisses from the audience was the big flourish finale in which she rejected the idea of the muse, renouncing its power over her. “I showed up for my part of the job,” she scolds the belligerent agent of genius who sits unhelpfully silent in the corner of her work studio.

In other words, there is no muse. It all, in fact, comes from the artist. I guess artists need to hear that “it” comes from “some unimaginable source” other than themselves and that, somehow, will ease their anguish. What peaks my envy is that her message is relayed with an unswerving compassion for the artist, plus she’s a great story teller and knows the art of writing and I wish I was that accomplished in my art. Her message is totally righteous: just “do your job.” Ignore the pain of others as expressed as fear and anxiety aimed at you. Give yourself a break by not giving yourself a break from the work. Your “job” is to toil along, get over that. Read Norvig’s “Teach Yourself Programming in 10 Years” and get used to the idea that you’re in it for the long haul, some results are to be expected, others are out of your control.

And that’s part that annoys me the most: that because we don’t have a definitive, rational basis for where the “a-ha” moment comes from, we have to invent a fairy-tale around it. In my darker moments, I think the entire human history can be summed up: “I don’t get it, it must be magic.” But there is rational thought in the world. If you want to know where “inspiration” comes from trying reading “Creativity, Psychology and the History of Science” or another of the thousands of studies out there on the creative process. If you don’t want to go to the trouble (I don’t) then, you know, take it faith that you don’t understand it. Here’s all you have to know: all the science is pointing to one source of inspiration fairy dust: work. Gilbert got it right even though she, oddly, never makes the direct connection between her plea and her advice. Inspiration is on the other side of discipline.

The only other element I have found that plays a major role is luck. Again, unexplainable, maybe unknowable. If you want to know more, go study chaos theory (I guess). For all we know the best musician who ever lived was born in Pompeii in the year 59 AD. On his 20th birthday – volcano. Unlucky. Sometime in the early 1970’s, Rick Astley had random unprotected sex with some lowly, appreciative agent who got him signed and didn’t give him a disease. Lucky. Tiger Woods – good golf genes, born post-civil rights cultural revolution. Lucky. Brad’s point about “genius” being contextual is right on the money. When it comes to be called a genius, context is a fancy word for Anton Chigurh coin-flip luck.

Make believe things and imaginary friends bring us a lot of comfort and distraction from things like death and the randomness of life. Both Gilbert and I find comfort is accepting the things we can’t control and I can see where it’s kind of fun to couch things in happy-fairy talk (even when, in the end, her entire point is to ignore it all and learn your craft.)

But if your life is decimated because you only sold 8 million albums of a record that only got five number one singles then I would advice against looking to explanations from the Easter bunny. The answer is, in fact, inside you. If you succumb to the pressure, I understand, I relate, I still love you, but it’s you doing the succumbing, not society. Gilbert is right again, this tortured artists fantasy myth is bullshit. Perhaps the missing thing is therapy. Sometime that can be expensive but most major cities have mental health clinics where the counselors are not necessarily the best at what they do, but they will treat you with respect and help guide you to a rational way out. In my experience the two most dangerous things in these situations are sycophants and family so tread carefully.

Yes, your genius does come from you – now ignore all that.

ccMixter: A Memoir

I wish I was better writer because the story of ccMixter is very cool. If you can overlook the atomic level hair-splitting, churlish, defensive, chatty exaltations then I hope you’ll enjoy a document that tries to capture the history and lessons from the first four years of ccMixter. I’m releasing 33 pages in a PDF document called: “ccMixter: A Memoir OR How I Learned to Stop Worrying about the RIAA and Love the Unexpected Collaborations of Distributed Creativity During the First Four Years of Running ccMixter”

DOWNLOAD PAGE for “ccMixter: A Memoir”

I don’t have a research assistant or literary editor and it shows. Still I had several volunteer reviewers and I can’t thank them enough because this document was a real mess before they helped clean it up.

Leave your comments and typo finds on this thread.

Thanks everyone for a killer four years. What happens next is what happens next….

Peace.

The Indaba Parlay

Congrats to Dan Zaccagnino and Indaba for parlaying the Lessig/Colbert interview remix non-challenge challenge into an appearance of Colbert last night and possibly more. Nobody stretches a meme about Colbert like Colbert so a win-win for everybody.

Colbert’s faux-persona is so strong it’s hard to tell if there’s any message about remixing, sharing, Creative Commons or the sharing economy coming across at all other than: get it out there! and, it seems, Yoko has a lot of fans in New York.

Green Jobs – If You Want It


The stimulus plan includes $500 million for green jobs training thanks to the work of Van Jones and others. “It’s time to bailout both the people and the planet,” says Van. For U.S. citizens: you have a chance to tell your senator that you expect them to vote for it.

Solving two problems, like jobs for under-privileged youth and saving the planet, with one program is exactly the kind of thinking that’s been missing.

Wheels of Civilization

There was a crooked man...If you ever want to see Western civilization with all the lights on and wheels cranked up full throttle then here are the steps to make that happen:

1. Be white.
2. Be middle aged. (Thin hair, lots of white helps.)
3. Have health insurance.
4. Walk into a hospital emergency room.
5. Point to the middle of your chest and say “This hurts.”

Wow, things happen at that point. All kinds of technology and expertise gets thrown at you. Note the JPEG x-rays (those are EKG pads, not my nipples and that crooked line running down the middle is my scoliosis-ridden spine.) My family has all kinds of history of heart problems (as in: every single male) so this day was bound to come, it was 100% expected.

Only, it was a false alarm. Turns out to be inflammation on the rib cage; two Advils with a glass of milk and that was that. Ah well, that particular drama will have to wait — for now it’s back to virtual flame wars with adolescently-arrested bullies and evil record companies.