Category Archives: Culture

The Visionary vs. the Randomizer

A fine article on over reliance on the super-fan [via lucas] by Jeremy Schlosberg is a good read.

It seems Jeremy attended a Future of Music event in Washington last month where the consensus was that in order to make a living out of music on the web you need 1,000 true fans who are willing to buy your toe-nail clippings. Jeremy’s article rebuts that idea to the point of claiming it hurts music culture more than helps.

Look, my biggest problem with Jeremy is not the ideas in the article (about 80% of which I agree with), it’s that he attended a conference called the “Future of Music” and expected something other than a chilly October weekend in Washington D.C.

With the recent transfer of operations of ccMixter to ArtistTech Media I find myself in the world outside of pundits and conferences and blogospheristry. Not that building and maintaining a non-profit music community is a theoretical exercise, but for 5 years I’ve been gleefully deflecting (and yes, pundicizing) on the business of music. Now, however, I find myself, as a consultant to ATM, in the real world of having to make decisions, of putting stakes in the ground and expecting folks to come into the tent.

I’ve been the balloon-popper, dream crusher, project killer guy. It’s a good and necessary sport but it is, in the end, just talking – some of it based on useful ideas (his warning about echo-chamber sophistry of a tightly knit group of super-fans seems very valuable) and some of it over-reaching bullshitterification (like the concerns about the effect to the creative process.) Taking all of it into consideration, I could never advise ATM to ignore super-fans because the word-of-the-mouth advocacy and multiplier affect seems to outweigh the potential downside.

Here’s just two more cases:

If you get enough of a groundswell for an artist and can prove a degree of emotional connection to a segment of population, you are that much more attractive to game designers looking for music.

I don’t think a digital copy of music is worth money, I don’t care who makes it. But if a rich trust fund dude wants to patronize an artist with $1,000 for the artist’s time then, my god, yes, that’s an important component to a career in music.

Time for work.

Where Does Innovation Come From?

Van Jones resigns his post in the White House.

Does innovation come from those of us who go with the grain – or against it? From going with the status quo – or standing up and asking the fundamental questions about who we are?

Yes, the brilliant (if fatally flawed) people that gave us the wonderful Constitution fell on many grand compromises to implement the final version – after they led a revolution.

In our society, it seems there is no room for the best ideas on the environment, the economy and social harmony to come along in 100 years because the man putting forth those ideas is a former radical revolutionary. You can’t handle an actual revolutionary, fine – but we just threw away a reformed reactionary activist because a paranoid, hysterical, petty part of our society wants, at any cost, to have their way – not for any moral purpose or calling – just, simply, to have their way.

The reasoning here is wrong and we all suffer for many reasons, on many levels. I reject this reasoning and tonight I made a donation to Green For All in honor of Van Jones.

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.

OT: The Assault on Van Jones

I thought I have become inured to the debasement of dialog in American politics. In a brilliant analysis of these times , a Metafilter user said “the point is to flood the political discourse with stupidity” and indeed, there can be no doubt that American really is in the midst of a decades long culture war with itself where one side is continuously appealing to worst in us.

I’ve been working really hard and not sleeping well for the last few weeks so it’s possible I’m a little more vulnerable then when I’m taking better care of myself, but I’m surprised by how upset and disheartened I am today at the groundswell of attacks and calls for resignation of Van Jones – here’s a nicer article indicating the White House seems to be backing away from Van.

I consider it a huge privilege to be a friend of Van. He has been an invaluable inspiration to me and both my kids. We were honored when he mentored my younger son during the school application process. I don’t think I know a better person and it crushes me to think what’s about to happen to him – vilification, embarrassment, scape-goating – a media tar and feather circus. Fuck.

The White House is going to, if not already, pull him aside and point out that he is, or soon will be, a “political liability” – making it difficult to run smaller campaigns for House seats and governorships because the all-stupid-all-the-time side will wave some bullshit around about he thinks 911 was a Bush plot and Stalin is his hero and therefore Obama is going to ____ (fill the blank with stupid “evil” shit).

What a waste. This guy is so brilliant, his solutions for saving the Earth and inner cities at the same are so simple, so holistic, so correct and we’re going to throw him away because Glenn Beck has a bug up his butt. Yes, this is a Glenn Beck hack job. Why? Because a group Van founded, ColorOfChange has been calling for a Beck boycott.

So Beck wins, Jones and everybody you know loses. Congratulations everybody. Proud to be an American today.

Game Dev as Auteur

Last November, waxy pointed to an Esquire piece about Jason Rohrer and my mind has been buzzing ever since. (This is the article which uses the phrase I have since adopted to describe most video games out there: “murder simulators.”)

Roger Ebert, in a toss-away response to a write-in Q&A five years ago (in)famously decried video gaming’s potential to be emotionally evocative, and therefore lacks, even the chance, to have the same cultural impact as film and literature. (arstechnica response). I was very surprised by this because I’ve been assuming that it took many decades, at the beginning of the 20th century, for film to be acknowledged as a valid art form. I have to assume that Victorian purveyors of literature looked at movies and saw the End of Days. He must be old enough to remember the same reaction from the film industry to television in the 1950’s. And yet, he has no problem repeating the same pattern for gaming.

Of course video gaming has every potential to be as important as “your favorite artsy-fartsy film goes here.” Duchamp made art out of a urinal – I’m pretty sure, in the right hands, the video gaming platform is at least as expressive as molded porcelain.

I’m not saying today’s games have a lot (any?) artistic merit, I’m saying the potential is there. I’m saying that when you take someone who has zero cultural baggage associated with music, movies, television and print media, who has been gaming since emerging from the womb, full-time, they will look at gaming as their platform for expression. By the law of numbers, somewhere out there is the gamer dev version of Eno, Picasso, Scorsese, etc. who knows what to do with the platform besides make billions of dollars.

Of course, I have no idea how to achieve artistic merit in gaming, or what it even looks like. I can’t conceive of it because I’m too old. It’s not for me to come up with what it looks like because my time has passed and there are new generations of kids who are ready to define their own culture with their own tools (if we let them). I pray they don’t care about Hendrix or Sgt. Pepper or Monty Python or Vonnegut except as historical artifacts.

While the rest of us are wringing our hands over how to “save” music and newspapers and make the world safe from Pirate Bay, (see Gladwell blows a gasket over “free as in beer”) this kid is out there conceiving art through the medium she knows best: gaming. Nothing else even makes sense to me.

For over a decade I’ve had a running conversation with my older son about the artistic viability of video gaming and Rohrer is the first glimpse of what I’ve been trying to say all this time. Here’s a guy coming at it from a completely, purist perspective. And of course, I think it’s all free-as-in-sexy that all his games are licensed under GPL. Personally, I don’t care if he’s “selling out” by accepting pay for work. What has me gaga is the idea of Rohrer as the early manifestation of what the next 100 years looks like. By simply trying to be emotionally evocative, he is breaking ground on a new world, because once artists can control the medium to express a range of human emotion, the door is open to a world where gaming, not movies, not TV, not music is the completely dominant cultural force – for entertainment, for education, for info-tainment (“Frontline: The Game” !!) and yes, for artistic expression.

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.




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.