Wednesday, August 30, 2006

8.31.06 Barlow Was Right

[This article originally ran in the 8.31.06 issue of Metroland Magazine]

An interesting lil’ unit came whizzing through the ether a few months ago. The Cato Institute, the extreme right-wing conservative-to-the-point-of-libertarian think tank issued a policy report entitled Amateur-to-Amateur, The Rise of a New Creative Culture
( In the piece, a couple of Cato scholars make the case that copyright law, as presently configured, exists primarily for the preservation of the entrenched “copyright industries,” and that the arrival of the internet and digital media have made these “copyright industries” less important. The conclusion is maybe the time has come, as it has come before, to take a hard look at our current regime of copyright laws.

The study looked at what’s been happening on the internet, and discussed the theories of John Perry Barlow, the ex-Grateful Dead lyricist who in the early ‘90’s began publishing tomes about digital media, the web, and the end of copyright as we know it. Barlow has been mocked, ridiculed, and marginalized relentlessly by Big Media for years. One copyright newsletter I get constantly refers to him as a leader of the “anti-creator crusade.” The Cato study concludes that Barlow was pretty much right.

The Cato folks describe traditional copyright as centralized and “imperial,” which was fine when the production of the creative works was largely the work of big movie studios, record companies, etc., when these entities controlled the major facets of creation, selection, promotion and distribution of creative works.

But the internet has changed all of that. Anybody with a laptop and half a brain can now do everything these industries used to do. And most of these folks don’t give a good goddamn about copyright law. They just want to be heard.

Look at creation. My laptop came with a recording studio in it. I haven’t had time to figure out how to use it, but it’s there. Lots of people are making their own recordings at home, and the cost of going to a studio has even dropped precipitously. Last year a student of mine, armed with a digital camera, shot two original feature films on a budget of exactly zero dollars. He’s gotten a distribution deal for both of them. Look at the homemade stuff on YouTube. Cruise the bands on MySpace, giving away music. Look at all of the blogs, where people are posting essays and commentaries about everything.

The mantra from the RIAA and the MPAA, their justification for suing their own customers, is that if people don’t pay for music and films, no more music and films will be made. Think again. A study released earlier this week found that there is actually more original music being created in the United States today than ever before. I suspect that goes double for films.

If what they mean is that no more “You, Me and Dupree” movies and no more Paris Hilton CDs will be made, well, I, for one, am down with that.

Look at selection. Used to be that the major copyright industries were the filter, and, by releasing only few works, decided what it was we would listen to, watch, and read. No more. Everything is publishable by anyone. Everything is out there, and the public can decide what’s good. And it does.

Promotion? I no longer advise music clients to advertise in traditional media. Working the blogs and MySpace is infinitely more effective. And you get feedback, good or bad, immediately.

Distribution? Step one: point. Step two: click.

What’s going to be the result of this? Is copyright dead? Are the studios going to crumble?

No. Copyright will always be around, but our relationship with it is changing. Copyright should continue on as an important weapon against piracy and stealing, but those terms need to be realistically defined (no, Junior, downloading a movie is NOT the same as stealing a car). Copyright’s application will be more limited than it is now, and it should be applied to truly encourage creativity, not be used as a tool for stifling competition.

The Big Media companies will get a whole lot smaller as their relevance fades. It’s really just a matter of market share. The music industry will probably take the biggest hit, as people have been listening to digital music for 20 years now, and the industry has been repeatedly hoisted on its own petard by an astonishing series of tactical blunders, like refusing to sell music online and suing its own customers. The film industry will get smaller, but should hang in there. People like movie stars, big movies, and critically, the shared experience of watching movies in big rooms full of strangers. But the importance of the big studios, the number of “stars”, and the dominance of big films will shrink. The jury’s still out on publishing. The world of book publishing is easily as intolerably corrupt as the music and film industries, but people like their books. I do. I don’t wanna read a book off my computer. Magazines will take the biggest hit, and one would hope that desktop publishing and internet-based and independent booksellers will to some degree at least dent the banal hegemony of the major publishing houses.

Things are changing fast, and soon they will be very different. And better.

Friday, August 18, 2006

8.17.2006: Vinyl Uber Alles

[This originally appeared in the 8.17.06 issue of METROLAND MAGAZINE.]

OK, OK, allright, down boy, etc. I’ve taken a little bit of heat for my last column in which I referred people my own age as geezers, and who maybe are a little slow to embrace the inevitable conversion of music from CDs to MP3s and other digital-file media.

Sorry, but we are geezers. Even AARP thinks so. Really, though, it could be so much worse. You could be 20 and stupid, right?

The whole MP3 thing has changed how I listen to music, and for the better. I’ve got something like 15 days worth of recordings here on my laptop, and I stick my music player on shuffle play, and viola, I’ve got a radio station of my own creation. (I’ve got the death of radio, actually, but that’s a story for another day.) While the songs go by, I grab the ones I really like and stick them in playlists, burn ‘em up into CDs, and I’ve got custom, personalized listening.

There’s only one drawback, one that goes back a ways, and one that might make us geezers, in a weird sort of way, feel a little better about ourselves.

While MP3s might sound almost as good as CDs (especially if you crank the bit-rate up north of 192 bps), they don’t sound as good as vinyl records. Nothing, short of being there watching a performance live (and maybe not even that) sounds as good as vinyl records.

Many of you probably know this already, and still have your turntable set up, and your records lined up on some shelves (or in crates) and alphabetized. Maybe you’ve got an old tube amplifier, and those big-ass speakers they don’t make anymore. You know what I’m talking about. Weirdo.

Simply, digital technology, based on 0’s and 1’s, mere instructions, will never duplicate the smooth and continuous flow of sound that comes from an analog reproduction on a vinyl record. I remember hearing my first CD, probably in 1984 or so. It was crisp, clean, precise, and almost completely devoid of life. I was a-scared of the damn thing. I recall Neil Young saying at the time that listening to digital recordings was like looking outside through a screen door, except the screen would only allow one primary color at a time through each little screen-hole. He got that right.

Yeah, things have gotten a little better since then, there’s no doubt about that. But still today, when I buy a CD (or an MP3) of one of the great recordings of my youth, it just fails me every time. The warmth, the spaciousness, the humanity of the recordings that I remember just aren’t there. These things are suggested, but absent.

Of course, I suck it up and move on. I pruned my vinyl collection a few years ago, reduced it from thousands to a hundred or so, which I realized almost immediately was a mistake. But it has made moving easier. My turntable collects dust in the basement, as do my remaining albums. The stuff just takes up too much room, and despite how beautiful I think my collection of vintage albums may be, they’re all pretty damn ratty. I have to admit, in moments of weakness and reflection, that the observation that they “don’t go” in the living room (or anywhere else in the house except the basement) is probably dead-nuts right. And my hearing is probably shot so bad at this point that it really doesn’t matter anyway.

But at least I’ve got my memories.

And that’s not the only reason vinyl’s better. There’s also the graphics. Remember Jethro Tull’s great pop-up package, Stand Up? King Biscuit Boy’s Gooduns in a burlap bag? No? The 12x12 format lent itself to works of art, something the dinky little books in the crappy plastic boxes can never approximate. And those flimsy cardboard “enviro-pacs” aren’t any better. Think anybody’s ever gonna publish a book about great album cover art 1995-2005? It doesn’t really matter anymore.

And in buying an MP3 off the web, well, you don’t get anything except some tiny little invisible electric numbers delivered to your computer. I suppose you can go the band’s website and bask in the glow of their web designer’s brilliance. How touching and real.

And then there’s the whole tactile thing. It’s never been described better than by Lester Bangs in Creem magazine, in 1971:

The real story is rushing home to hear the apocalyptic event, falling through the front door and slashing open the plastic sealing “for your protection,” taking the black record out – ah, lookit them grooves, all jet black without a smudge yet, shiny and new and so fucking pristine, then the color of the label, does it glow with auras that’ll make some subtle comment on the sounds coming out....? And finally you get to put the record on the turntable, it spins in limbo a perfect second, followed by the moment of truth, needle into groove, and finally sound.

Tell this to kids today and they won’t believe ya. They hardly have time to think about it, anyway. Too busy pointing and clicking and staring deeply into the screen.