Category Archives: Activism

Why Van Jones Matters

First, thanks to everybody who have been sending me consolation notes – but the deal here is not that Van is a friend, it’s that he’s a giant amongst us who is being taken down by buffoons. When I first saw Obama at the Democratic ’04 convention I thought “Oh, I get it: it’s Van-lite.” (I should also say that I hold out faint hope that my dour post of yesterday is wrong in its assumption that Van’s days are numbered at the WH – it would be nice if the Obama WH had an iota of the good-job-Brownie-over-the-top loyalty.)

I can’t remember exactly when, at least five years ago, Van told me, flat out, “I’m a communist.”

“Do me a favor,” I quickly replied, “just don’t say that in front of my Mom.”

I went on to explain to him that the reason I supported his efforts in taking the Oakland and San Francisco police depart to task (and court), the reason I would do anything to help him close the institutionalized torture chambers of the California Youth Authority was precisely because of the life my Mother described to me in post-war Stalinist Hungary. The detailed description of a life where oppression is policy and the police are enforcers of that oppression was eye-opening. (She escaped [on foot!] in October 1956 after the US stiffed the rebellion and left the counter-revolutionaries literally twisting in the wind from lamp-posts in downtown Budapest – but that’s another story.) It never occurred to me, a white, middle-class American suburban kid, that police were anything but the people’s friends and protectors. Yes, it was hippie-chic to call them “pigs” but when it came down it – if I needed help, I wouldn’t think twice about dialing ‘0’ and asking for the police dept. (Yes, I pre-date 911.) So to learn there were neighborhoods of poor, mainly minority, everyday Americans who are made less secure, not more, by police actions rang a familiar bell in my head. (Look, I’m not making a moral equivalency between driving-while-black and the Gulag, but I sympathize with those who do – oppression is oppression, using cops to keep the poor down and away from the gentrified because it’s bad for business is enough for me to take action.)

I understand that in the context leading up to the ’60’s civil rights movement, many in and out of SNCC, including Ella Baker, proclaimed themselves as “communists” for lots of reasons – some valid, some merely reactionary. I never got that far with Van, but considering he named his activist non-profit after Baker, I assume he took some inspiration there. But that word is loaded and it can no longer be, if it ever was, contained to an egalitarian doctrine — it has come to represent the very tyrannical day-to-day life he was trying to prevent. (We were driving to a political function when a third person in the car asked Van what he did for a living – “I sue cops.”)

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be poor and black in Oakland, but thanks to my Mother’s stories,” I told him, “I have a way to relate to their plight. I’ve heard what it’s like to live in fear of the very force that is supposed to ‘serve and protect’ you.”

And you know what? He got it.

After that conversation I never heard him use the “c” word again, publicly or privately. Now, I don’t begin to assume the hubris that I had anything to do with his evolution. Van Jones is smarter and more worldly than me and everybody reading this put together – I am 100% sure I told him nothing he didn’t know before. I doubt I am the first Eastern European immigrant or descendant he’s had a conversation with – Oakland is next to Berkeley after all. But what reaches Van, what makes him break down and cry during speeches are the individual, personal stories of struggle, the uphill battles with the weight of society holding you down. Van is a recipient of the Kennedy Honors Speak Truth to Power award and deservedly so – he feels that struggle in his bones.

All of this before you even get to the genius in connecting the issues of the environment and at-risk communities.

The environment, jobs, health care, racial equality and yes, justice, are moral issues. If the Obama retreats on health care or Van or justice for perceived political expedience then that should tell you something about Obama. Emphasis on perceived expedience because it’s clear, the shrill opposition is not interested in anything, anything at all, except personal, gotcha take-downs having no moral center as a guide. So it’s not an argument that Van’s past rhetoric gives them ammunition. Where did “death panels” come from? Where did “birther” come from? Attacking Van is equally vacuous.

Again, while I appreciate the gesture, don’t bother sending me consoling notes because a friend is having a rough time – in fact, I don’t fret over Van, the person, or his future or career. Fuck that – we’ll both be fine. This is an attempted take-down of a very important figure who was recognized by this administration as having a clue – someone with actual, financially practical and humanitarian solutions that leaves no one out. Sounds too good to be true? When you discover Van Jones you get used to that feeling.

Who Controls Music?

teru from a comment on Lucas Gonze blog:

“I do however find it slightly hypocritical that on one hand old model record labels are condemned for taking away musicians rights but on the other forgoing their rights completely for the good of the Commons is admirable. To me, it seems to sends out a conflicting and confusing message. Especially when trying to explain to those who are not yet familiar with CC.”

This is exactly the type of perspective us “experts” could stand to hear a lot more often.

Perhaps it would help to spell out the range of goals that liberal licensing, the free culture movements and Creative Commons specifically are trying to address:

1. The creative process itself is hindered when artificial rules and manufactured scarcity are in the way. Because art builds on the past, it suffers under these conditions. The art is better and culture flourishes when there is free access.

2. Restricting access to artistic and cultural material and tools spills into even more fundamental issues of free speech. Freedom of expression is hindered when you are forced to restrict yourself to state (or corporate) sanctioned methods. Many of us in the free culture movement can’t tell the difference between a society in which the state owns 100% of expression and four corporations own 95%.

3. Most artists are interested in getting the product of their work out there in the most efficient way possible. Those exact same artists are also pretty keen on keeping control of their work, even once it’s out there. Finding this balance seems daunting and contradictory, but some kind of combination of these forces is what artists are saying they want.

Note how #3 sticks out from the first two. When it’s laid out like this you have to wonder how in the hell we ever tied these issues together.

Boyle and Lessig have spent a lot of energy recently making the case for how the no-controls-gift economy and the whole capitalist thing feed each other and the organization they founded, Creative Commons, is bent on providing a philosophical backbone (not to mention real tools) to tie it all up.

I don’t want to over-emphasize the tension between these issues because there really is a huge overlap between them once you dive in. For example, you could make a similar list out of enviromental issues:

1. Scientists are convinced the world is dying. 25 years left, max.
2. Oil is the root of all evil, causes war, etc.
3. People love cars, will never give them up and want really, really cheap fuel. In fact, free would be great.

I suspect that if I was running site called ccHybrixter where people came together over ways of spending less on fuel and using their car battery to power monster speakers in the back seat, many regulars would get upset if I blurted out the idea that they should consider leaving the car in garage on Saturdays and walking 10 miles for the sake of balance.

Creative Commons is a hybrid solution. ccMixter’s simplistic facade on the issues notwithstanding, it’s a complicated, conflicting and contradictory affair that requires a multi-faceted approach. Guilty. If the issue was only about who has control over music then things would get simpler, because artists controlling their work would be the prime directive. Dios mio it would be a whole lot easier to recruit musicians to CC if everything revolved around control.

The solutions for all three issues, however, don’t always overlap neatly and cleanly. The case for CC0 is a clear case where it does not overlap at all. In that light: giving up control to an entity, like a record company, that is fighting you on all three issues is an act worthy of condemnation. On the other hand, giving up that control in a way that benefits the first two issues, even if it runs counter to the third, is worthy of praise.

The stakes are high. Charge the confusion to my expense account.

Consider: Zero

An open letter to musicians:

Earlier this year Creative Commons formally introduced a license waiver called CC0 (CC Zero). I urge musicians, as strongly as I can, to consider using this license waiver for the audio samples they put into the Commons.

Audio samples licensed with CC0 with a CC0 waiver are the most flexible and least restrictive. Put another way, they carry the most freedom. Isn’t it hard enough to be creative? Isn’t there is enough to worry about at the times we summon the muse and create something that expresses who we truly are, the sum of our individual and collective experiences? If you’ve ever been stopped in the midst of a creative project by non-creative issues then you already know what non-freedom looks like.

James Boyle, in his brilliant book “Public Domain“:

“The vast majority of [the material at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.], perhaps as much as 95 percent in the case of books, is commercially unavailable. The process happens comparatively quickly. Estimates suggest that a mere twenty-eight years after publication 85 percent of the works are no longer being commercially produced…Yet because the copyright term is now so long, in many cases extending well over a century, most of twentieth-century culture is still under copyright—copyrighted but unavailable. Much of this, in other words, is lost culture.”

In other words, according to these estimates, if a book was published in 1981, there is an 85% chance that the publisher is no longer interested in making any more copies of the book because they can’t make any money with it. But because the copyright could extend out to 2081, doing anything with that work, artistically or otherwise, even in an “amateur” settings, is a federal crime. That work is lost.

No matter how highly I consider my musical work on my best days, I would like to think there is balance between my personal desires and choking off my great granchildren’s freedoms to speak creatively.

If you, as a musician, feel the need to make a separation between the work aimed at furthering your career from the work you wish to put into the public sphere in order to further our collective culture, then I can understand how you came to that conclusion. Of course, I don’t agree with you because there is plenty of evidence that if a fan or fellow musicians wants to share your work or wants to remix it, they’ve already done it, “legal” or not. There is plenty of evidence that by making your sources available for unfettered re-use and derivation, by making your works available for the widest (free-est) possible sharing and by establishing a relationship of trust with your audience, you are doing your career far more good than by hoarding your work under restrictive, criminalizing and unrealistic protections.

Most of us remember a time when our samples came from the likes of the pre-Sony Sonic Foundry ACID libraries. This would give us access to vast amounts of sound beds to our compositions in exchange for a relatively small fee. The popularity of those libraries sprung from the fact that they required no commercial royalties and no attribution. The library vendor retains ownership of the source material, but the consuming musician owns the resulting, derivative work. This is, rougly, the audio version of “Free Beer: $2.00 each” — once you give us $2.00, you are free to do whatever you want.

The rationale I’ve heard for putting audio samples into the Commons under Attribution-NonCommercial is that it maps a new world order of sharing to this old world business model. A similar rationale is used for putting audio samples into the Commons using an Attribution license with the twist, as I pointed out in my ccMixter memoirs, that many musicians consider attribution, itself, a form of currency. All of this assumes there is a long-term, viable business model (a fancy way of saying “a way to make a few bucks”) by exchanging either money or attribution for copies of audio samples. Somehow, you, sitting in your garage, will find a way to convince people there is value in manufacturing scarcity through restrictions in a post-scarity world.

Even if you are unswayed, in the face of these arguments, that clinging to unrealistic restrictions only damages your career, I still appeal to your sense of the Bigger Picture. Yes, attribution is an important part of building an old world resume and certainly, critical when real money is being distributed through a royalty system. But the stakes are very high and the larger cost, to the currency we call freedoms of expression, seem overly steep compared to the potential, and I claim often misguided, short-term wishful hopes of one person.

ABOUT CC0: http://creativecommons.org/about/cc0

CC0 FAQ: http://wiki.creativecommons.org/CC0

CHOOSE CC0: http://creativecommons.org/license/zero

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.

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.

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.

Hey ASCAP: Your Shit Stinks Too

OPEN LETTER TO ASCAP:
—————————————

You know, I love music. I just saw Neil Young perform tonight and I realized just how much music stirs me up. Some folks have video games, some live for fishing, some dig cars and while I don’t begrudge anybody their passions, for me, it’s music. And it’s why for the last five years, I’ve devoted my time to trying to make musicians’ lives a little easier, a little more productive and even, a little more profitable.

It’s all the more reason why it stings to read that you see those of us in the free culture movement as something to demon-ize. Something that needs to be addressed in order to “counter the growing prevalence of the ‘copy left/free culture’ pontificators in the public discourse about creators rights.” [via].

Now, Creative Commons is not a perfect organization (trust me) and Professor Lessig is hardly an infallible god, but these folks, and I as a supporter and contract worker for them, think they are doing musicians a valid service — providing an alternative, not a replacement, for other avenues. You’ve expressed concerns and I think Lessig has addressed them rather reasonably. The fact of the matter is that CC and Lessig are as an agreeable bunch as you’re going to get in this world that advocates reforms. (His positions are certainly more “reasonable” that I, personally, would be.)

I can’t figure out what’s in it for you to characterize the free culture movement, as expressed by Lessig, as so dangerous.

I don’t want to construct any straw men here, but maybe it’s that by licensing a piece of music under CC, a musician might be passing up collection opportunities?

Well, when I do a search of the word ‘music’ on Google and filter by “free to use or share” I get 41.8 million results – and that’s just for NonCommercial licenses. (Yes, that’s ccMixter, the music site I admin for CC, at the top of the results.) Yet, in five years I’ve never heard of a single musician complain that licensing a piece of music under CC has cost them money. Now, it’s possible that I live in some kind of sycophantic bubble where bad news never reaches me, in which case, I ask you to educate me. Of the tens of millions of CC licensed music out there, do you have documented cases where musicians were hurt in any way?

I recently heard John Buckman say that the people at collection agencies are “good people stuck in a bad system.” I’d love to have you prove him right on the first part and wrong on the second part. But I keep reading about cafes and clubs closing because they can’t afford or don’t see why they have to pay your very high rates for songs they may or may not have performed. As clubs and other venues are no longer available to new artists, how does that help any musicians earn a living? It seems heavy handed and counter productive to me. Most musicians I know would love to make money, but when circumstances don’t live up to that goal, getting their music out there is a valid next best case scenario.

Our goals are the same, it doesn’t make sense to me why we can’t work together to them happen. Are you sure the best way to go is to continue pissing on this community? You know, we’re not just Princeton law professors and “pontificators” [sic] – we’re musicians too. That “growing prevalence” you’re seeing gaining in your rear view mirror is not just a bunch of blowhards – it’s that plus tens of millions of musicians.

We’re not perfect. Are you? We think we have a few things to teach you and we think, together we could do a lot of good for musicians on the Internet and beyond. You can deal with us now, or take a chance on being overrun by musicians who see something that you don’t seem willing to even discuss.

It’s not too late and February 3rd sounds like a great time to have some mutual education.

Otherwise, keep holding your nose when you take a crap over musicians who would otherwise embrace your service, keep using Yakuza-style intimidation on restaurant, bar and cafe owners and forbidding them to play any music at all, keep charging too much for any Internet music service to consider paying you anything at all — basically don’t change a thing in your attitude and tactics and you’ll be making our case all that easier that maybe, there was a time when you represented the needs of musicians, but that day has passed.

Peace,
VS

Digital Tipping Point: The Raw Footage

Over four years ago now I got a call, out of the blue, from a guy called Christian Einfeldt. He says he’s making a documentary called Digital Tipping Point about free culture and thought I may be a good interview. He was most intrigued because I recently crossed the line from corporate culture (Microsoft, et. al.) into free cluture (Creative Commons) – really I think he was looking for dirt on Bill Gates lol.

The interesting thing to me was the way he was making the movie: completely open. He said he was shooting billions of tapes and was going to post them all online at archive.org and create this vast pool of footage and have the community pick up the work pieces and put it all together communally.

That’s cool (and pretty unheard of four years ago).

I hadn’t been in Berkeley for very long at that point so I was especially open to meeting new folks to see where things would lead. We had a few long and fun phone conversations, we met a few times, had a great meal or two and then got down to taping. I met him downtown San Francisco in an office building where his production partner setup a camera opposite me and Christian started firing questions. He kept asking questions (especially about Microsoft) and I kept telling my stories and tried to be amusing. Sure enough we burned through every tape they had on them, in the building, in the truck, probably in the city.

Fast forward four years and all of a sudden last week I get email from Christian saying he’s about to post the raw footage of my interview and to check out DTP’s page on the archive. They have about 80 hours of footage up there (out of 350 shot) and still it’s rolling in. He said “Watching our film will be like reading a Wikipedia page. Our video will be taggable and searchable. The library you see there will provide some of the links for expanded viewing of our documentary. ” Pretty wild. Just the fact that this guy is still at it (at such a furious pace) five years into it – I think this guy may be the most tenacious guy I’ve ever met.

For my part: there are 29 segments, about 4 minutes each up on the archive now. They are a pain the ass to watch at the archive so I embedded them in one page:

See my raw interview footage here

Again, this is raw, basically un-edited stuff. The segments are rendered from the tapes and often stop abruptly mid-sentence so that’s ok, just click the ‘next’ button to load the next segment.

I will say this: this is the least embarrassing public recording of me yet. I think it gives people a fairly good idea of what happens when you let me pontificate (it doesn’t take much) for a few hours. I had fun doing and it shows.

Because it was four years ago a few things worth noting has changed:

– I can no longer go a minute without glasses. I am blind without them.
– This was done before the emergence of WikiPedia, Ubuntu and Firefox all of which proved my point (I am a visionary) about the need for “grandma” apps in the open source world.
– I ramble on and on about the best way to sell an “album” (I am idiot)
– I have, ironically, become more “theological” about the abstract issues involved in free culture.
– This interview takes place about a minute and a half (relatively speaking) before I was introduced to the “mixlog” prototype at the CC offices (‘mixlog’ was the working title of what was to become ccMixter). For the people that care, this was exactly the head of philosophical steam I had going in to the project. I don’t know, I think it’s kind of neat seeing that moment captured.

Anyway, like I said, I had fun and I’m really, really grateful to Christian for convincing me this would be a good idea but more important: I’m awestruck by how important and cool a project this is and honored to be a part of it.

[update: corrected figures per Christian]

[update 2: Pieces of the my interview are starting to show up captioned in English and Romanian ;) thanks to Andrei Baciu]

Is Jamendo a Good Fan-Funded Example?

Getting money per “copy” of a piece of music is over. Per album, per song, download, stream, blah blah. Wasted energy. I am totally convinced per-copy distribution of music will be a tiny 100 year blip in the history of man. The thing that puts it over the top are the predictions that within 10-15 years (or sooner) personal storage devices (like your phone) will be able to hold all music ever recorded with or without the use of molecular switches (pdf). So a younger brother leans over the top bunk and says “Hey bro, can I get a copy of all music ever recorded?” and the older brother says “Yea, but it’ll take 15 minutes to copy” and the younger brother says “Really? Oh, OK, well, do it any way.”

Without listing out all the ways musicians can get paid, my favorite, as romantic as it is, is fan funded. Maybe it’s cyber busking at its lowest form but for all the sites that allow a musician to post music with a ‘donate’ button (hello Sound Cloud, Band Camp, join the party…) it strikes me that all of these have exactly the same model: the “free for all” – and by that I mean both “free as in beer” and “feel free to upload any piece of crap music.”

How many times can we prove that shit music does not inspire music appreciators to donate money?

The meme for the last week has been the number crunching on Jamendo done at torrentfreakand commented on by wilkox.

So in Jamendo’s case we confirm that great music, buried along side mountains of shit music also doesn’t yield decent donations.

Quite a while ago Brad commented on a PBS model. That post already seems dated to me as the “reward” he mentions for large donors includes a physical CD. I don’t know about you but at this point I would pay $30 for anybody to take the last few remaining CDs I have off my hands. But that’s besides the point: The thing missing from the discussion is how important the programming is at PBS. People don’t give them money because they air everything that’s ever been submitted. Somebody is seriously curating the air time.

They have to curate and parcel out the air time because it is a sliver thin resource. It’s just possible that all these sites have a serious flaw in that they assume that just because you can host every piece of crap that you must host every piece of crap.

I won’t link to all the discussions of the importance of a layer of taste-making required in ‘net music. Maybe podcasters or social playlist sites like the old WebJay are/were a step in that direction but I still don’t see a full court press on trying to make it work on a large scale, with real money which, again, I believe is there.

Extending the PBS analogy, don’t forget that PBS takes corporate donations (oh, how they take it) and spend concentrated air time periods begging for money (not-so-affectionately called “squirm week”). I would not exclude this kind of “extended under-writing” or concentrated fund raisers from a musician’s collective.

Maybe it exists, maybe 100 times and failed but I haven’t heard of a site like this:

– A collective ‘net label which is heavily curated by a small committee that has proven taste for picking music. No it is not democratic. Is anybody sorry the Tate Modern is not a popularity contest?

– An active corporate fund raising department that knows how to write a grant or otherwise suck money out of the corporates. I would propose zero advertising inside any of the “products.” Ads are bumpers, not interrupters. If getting noticed for supporting and funding public arts isn’t enough for the company being pitched then keep moving.

– An active public fund raising department that also focuses on donations as a public service with probably two all-out fund raisers per year.

– The money is distributed to operations, musicians and curators in that order.

Or something like that.