Category Archives: Culture

“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.

Jason Scott (2): You’re Dead

On the flight back to Sydney from having spent a great evening with CC Australia folks, it occurred to me that Jason Scott did me a grand favor with his churlish hostility yesterday:

…how’s it feel to be dead?…Respect for the dead…Where do I send the flowers? I miss you already.

and continues on his own blog “dead dead dead.”

In the post he was commenting on I explained how my family came to a financial crossroad: either hang on to all our “stuff,” or travel the world indefinitely. By choosing the latter, to Jason, I have shuffled off the mortal coil. I am “dead.” (Of course, I didn’t realize this at the time – had I known the choice to experience life to its fullest, amongst the world, would kill me, I probably would have chosen to hang on to my records and books a little longer. I mean, I liked Stockholm a lot but I wouldn’t have died for it.)

Still, the last four years at ccMixter has taught me something pretty spectacular about the act of gifting. Personally, I was in it because I thought musicians could benefit from an alternative to the music industry, because I having was fun, because it dove-tailed a lot my disparate careers and interests and many other reasons. What I was not prepared for was the connection between gifting, the act of giving music into the Commons, and the creative process itself. And the same awakening happens all the time with musicians participating in the project. Last week colab commented on the fact that, since moving to ccMixter from the Peter Gabriel remix site, several producers he thought he knew well, were producing completely unexpected pieces of music. The exact same musicians, simply by changing from an All Rights Reserved environment to ccM were now making more innovative, creative works.

I’m working on a long winded explanation of how I think this continues to happen on ccM but Lewis Hyde, a scholar who inspired Lessig and many others at CC and who’s work is foundational to Creative Commons, put it this way in the “The Gift” from 1979:

…the primary commerce of art is a gift exchange, that unless the work is the realization of the artist’s gift and unless we, the audience, can feel the gift it carries, there is no art.

When my family and I ran the finances it was obvious to me that we’ve been given such a gift through this opportunity, that after we cleared the amount we needed to travel, we would gift the rest back and we ended up giving away a lot of stuff — in the artistic spirit taught me by ccMixter. Through a crazy, lucky (stupidly so) set of circumstances, my life had philosophically merged with my art and career.

Too bad I’m dead and can’t enjoy it.

That Jason chooses to misinterpret my post and lump me in with others, who I don’t know or have contact with, is his own way of doing things. Hell, I don’t even know this Jason guy. I have no idea who he is. In my few contacts with him I have been nothing but civil and humble and very enthusiastically carried water for him and his documentary and endeavors. In response he’s been nothing but uncivil, unpleasant and insulting. Personally insulting — did I run over this guy’s cat or something?

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised since that kind a narrow, pugilistic conversation style has re-emerged in the last 10 years. (Many of us are old enough to remember millions of “America, Love It or Leave It” bumper stickers as something other than a compassionate outreach to the counter-culture.) We live in a time where a satire of this bully-style insulting in the form of Stephen Colbert gets higher ratings than the explicit pleading for civil discourse by his lead-in, Jon Stewart.

One of the things I’m most proud of at ccM is that for about 50,000 forum posting, reviews and interactions between musicians, the discourse has been genuinely cool. I don’t think I’ve had to nuke 10 postings in four years due to ad hominem attacks. People get the gifting relationship they have between each other and insulting somebody as you present them with a gift is not socially accepted.

Jason’s original post was framed as a general argument against “cloud computing” which he later narrowed to people who thought the cloud would be there forever. The tone of the piece then narrows that down even further to people who are willing to be in an abusive relationship with him while he calls them names. In my line of work I can’t afford to narrow the field that much even if I had a Tourette’s tick that disallowed me to have a decent exchange of ideas with someone.

All this hatred, all this venom, all this hostile machismo because I dared to present a different point of view.

Jason: As far as I’m concerned, I’m willing to have a discussion about the merits of the cloud, about my feelings on the Franklin Street Statement, I’ll even take a shot at the existential meaning of being and having, as I understand it.

But talk to me without couching it insults because, since you really have no idea who I am, the insults can’t possibly apply to me and are only a reflection on you.

Jason Scott: “You’re a Sucker”

I am a lazy parent. Yelling at my sons, making them feel bad and calling them names is a lot of energy, so I only did so when it was absolutely necessary. I learned early that nothing teaches a lesson like screwing up. So, as long as the consequences of their actions didn’t affect others, as a rule, I let them screw up. Less effort than yammering away at them. And sure beat making them feel bad about something, especially when it was something I do all the time.

We’re talking about losing stuff. I lose stuff all the time. Annually losing my wallet is how I reassure myself that I’m still alive. I’m on a first name basis with operator 45 at the credit card comany. Yelling at my kids for losing stuff seemed like a grand waste of energy. If the thing they lost mattered to them then the “lesson is learned.” My job wasn’t to rub their noses on it. Even I’m not THAT big a dick. If the thing didn’t matter to them then what was the point of making a big deal?

But Jason finds it necessary to yell at you and call you names because you’re setting yourself up to lose your email inbox by using gmail. Would you give a stranger on the street $5 to hold for you and walk away with the hope he’ll be at the same corner tomorrow? I kind of feel like that most of my life. Regret’s a bitch, but it ain’t the worst thing I can think of.

I hesitate to state his case for fear of misrepresentation, but I think Jason can’t imagine a sentient being deciding to use gmail. The big danger? Losing your inbox. (The privacy issues used to freak me out but I don’t believe privacy exists anyway so that’s that.) Well, I’ve lost lots of inboxes along the way in the dozens of laptops and external drives and monster towers and raid arrays and mirrored backups that I’ve used including once where I “confirmed” deleting it when asked “are you sure?” — I’m still here, poking the bear. If I was an archivist, like Jason, the cloud would probably freak me out too. But I’m not. It’s a very, very convenient place to hold my shit. Oh, regarding my shit…

True story: some months ago my wife and I sold our house. Let the lease expire on the car. Gave away our 500 books. Gave away 2,000 albums. Let go of all the furniture. Berkeley restricts trash pickups to just one can so there were lots of trips to the dump, including all the music I’ve recorded for the last 35 years. I figured I was saving my kids a trip to the dump after I’m dead.

What was left were two Stratocasters and 15 boxes of stuff sitting in a storage locker in Oakland – 10 of which are her clothes. After three months of living on the road it occurred to me that if it all burned down I still wouldn’t throw myself into the Danube. I’d miss my Strats for a few minutes, then look forward to Hawaiian sunsets with my wife and sharing a laugh with my son over iChat about how the dorm ate his Wii controller.

I’ve got boogeymen in my life but gmail ain’t among them. And neither are you.

The Downside of Rational

I came of age in an irrational environment. My parents were not superstitious or even religious (“Where was God in the camps?” my mother would ask, referring to my parents’ all-expense-paid visit with the Nazis) but there was plenty of guilt and fear, a smattering of racism and lots and lots of tribalism floating in and around the house.

Outside and in the media there was the counterculture which prized idealized naivete (“I have a dream…”, “…but I’m not the only one,”) packaged all so romantically. It would never, in a million years, occur to me there was a connection between these worlds, so I used the romantic one to fight off the other. Everybody I knew or looked up to were musicians. All of them were likely, if not proven, habitual, if not chronic, controlled-substance users. Keith Richards was an envied role model. Sure, life was foggy, yet, somehow, meaning was everywhere.

It wasn’t until later, as I started to inhabit the geeky programming culture, one of a more scientific, mathematical background, that I came into close contact with the “rational” side of the world. By the time the Web kicked in and I participated in (as I saw it) no-bullshit communities like MetaFilter it started really kicking in: the fog is, you know, fog. Clear thinking is not a bad thing. Who knew? I wasn’t practiced at it but I was drawn to it because it felt like the grown up thing to do. Christ, I was raising children, it was certainly the responsible thing — otherwise it all seemed so risky to do that by the seat of your hippie-torn jeans. I embraced my non-believing, angry atheism. (I’m not actually angry, but that’s the meme-label the media puts on it; apparently “angry” is the only kind of atheist there is in the world.) I gained a certain level of precision in my speech (although I slip, er, often) and had a quickly waning tolerance for those that spoke with less. I read a lot. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, etc. I watched a lot of BookTV on the weekends.

Tonight I saw Kristin Hersh’s one-woman show “Paradoxical Undressing” in the beautifully intimate setting of a tent in Hyde Park in the middle of Sydney. She read from the diary she wrote as a teenage underground rock star with Throwing Muses and sang songs that related to the passages she read from. She portrayed herself as the prototypical anti-analysis “artist.” She wasn’t obsessed with music, she was possessed by it. The songs were in her — denying that would be akin to denying a breath. So she got out a razor and “tried to cut them out of [her].” The show itself was a brilliant display of artistry, flawless. In my earlier foggy days I would have been Blown Away, enraptured by her story, her gifts and, my god, her.

But as I sat there, ten feet from this wonder, I caught myself analyzing the anti-analyzer. It was as if I was back at Microsoft, where I had been categorically scolded to put aside childish things, sitting in on some project review — I was “finding the holes.” I mean, seriously, how could you have “songs” inside you?? Puh-leaze. Music is the function of the brain and fingers. Get a grip. It’s neurons plus kinesiology. Oh, she, tried to kill herself? OK, fine, damaged neurons and kinesiology.

In my rush to reason, I had habitualized a way of thinking that was obscuring the fog. The fanciful, sexy, romantically meaningful fog. Even if I check these feelings in the future, its not like I can walk into the next situation and think “Now, remember: be naive.” I’m pretty sure naivete doesn’t work that way.

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

Warning: Sanli Collection Rip-off

One of the pitfalls of allowing sharing of content freely on the Web is that there will always be a crook that takes advantage of your generosity.

One of our a-list producers over on ccMixter, who goes by loveshadow is now reporting that a remix he licensed properly (for money) to a fashion web site has been lifted improperly by another web site which is using the sounds and images from the original video without permission.

This kind of thievery is particularly ridiculous considering how much fantastic music and images are out there that is perfectly legal to use for this kind of thing.

Loveshadow has made several attempts at contacting the offending site (Sanli Collection) without any response. He is perfectly within his rights to start legal proceeding but we can only imagine what a hassle that is. This kind of case is below the radar for the EFF but if anyone out there knows a lawyer who’d be willing to send a C&D on his behalf that might be all it takes to do the trick – just check with loveshadow first as I have no idea if he even wants to take it in that direction.

Brad Sucks: Curator

If you ever needed to manufacture an excuse to get on Brad’s good side, here comes Brad’s new podcast called Sellout Central. Genre is a funny thing. While I like good music across any boundary my tolerance for mediocre music in some genres is much lower than others so I need some one like Brad to pick through the mess and just pull out the best. In other words I would never dream of digging up the kind of music Brad has in the first podcast episode but through his curating I’m able to save myself a few 100 whinces to get to the good stuff.

I’ve been making a lot of noise about curating as the next step both privately and publicly possibly with a patron/sponsor angle. I certainly appreciate a CC by a huge artist getting all the attention that NIN is getting but I don’t think open music has a shot at making an impact until some unknown artist actually breaks and curating/podcasting has still not fulfilled all of it’s promises.

Brad’s nerd explanation seems a whole lot simpler than John’s Magnatune version. Maybe someone can apply that MC Jack’s amazing Cool Radio show?