Thursday, September 28, 2006

9.28.06 Actually, There Might Be Free

[This article originally ran in the 9.28.06 issue of Metroland Magazine]

A bunch of stuff has been announced over the past month which might, just might, change forever the messy dynamics of music and video on the net. Sometimes these things are announced and never happen; all of these things, however, have at least the smell of really happening, and happening before the end of the year:

1. Musical artists selling music directly on MySpace: This one is happening now. Wildly popular MySpace, partnering up with SnoCap, the latest venture from Napster inventor Shawn Fanning, is allowing bands to sell straight MP3s, unencumbered by any restrictions, off of their MySpace sites. MySpace will take a set fee per download and the band can set the price anywhere above that. Previously, bands could post recordings only for free download or for streaming. So, what does this mean? This means that the estimated three million bands on Myspace now have distribution, easy distribution, from the one place most of their fans go to visit them. Because the music is available as straight MP3’s, the tracks for sale have much more versatility and value than those for sale on mainstream sites like ITunes, where files come all gooed up with copy and format restrictions. Major labels, for now, won’t let their artists sell on MySpace, because of the lack of restrictions on the downloads. The competition from indy bands will force them to rethink this.

The importance of this development cannot be overstated. ITunes finally has a real competitor, and bands without a label finally have a real horse to ride. And MySpace has given bands yet another reason to turn their backs on major labels and go it alone.

2. Major labels giving away music! Trying to compete with free by suing customers and packing CDs with computer viruses doesn’t seem to be working out so well, so the major labels, years too late, are going to start “giving away” their music, too. So far, EMI, Universal, and indy giant Koch have agreed to allow a company called SpiralFrog to offer free downloads of their music catalogs. Of course there’s a hitch. SpiralFrog will attach advertising to the music files. While I haven’t seen official details, what I’ve read indicates that listeners will have to sit through a 90 second commercial before listening to a song, and that downloaded songfiles will self destruct after you’ve had them for six months. And you can bet that these files won’t be playable on IPods. SpiralFrog is going to launch this in beta version in December, but I think it’s already DOA. Interesting in concept, but ultimately self-defeating. It’s gonna be free, but it’s not gonna feel like free, not while you suffer through the advertisements, not when you can’t load the song into your IPod, and especially not when your catalog disappears.

3. Fully licensed P2P free site! QTrax has announced agreements with several major labels for an advertising-supported free P2P site. The site will apparently run just like the old Napster, or Limewire, or Morpheus, except you don’t risk getting your ass sued for using it, because the site will be littered with advertisements, and the labels will get a piece of that revenue. This is the business model, in fact, that the original Napster proposed to the labels seven years ago, and the labels rejected it and instead sued Napster out of existence. What a difference seven years and declining market share makes! QTrax’s website only says that the service is “Coming Soon.” Again, expect tons of restrictions on the files, and compatibility problems with IPods.

4. A few days after industry dinosaur and Universal president Doug Morris made snarling comments about suing YouTube because it’s an evil pirates’ cove of infringement, Warners announced a deal with YouTube whereby Warners would supply all of its music videos to YouTube and, most significantly, will grant a blanket license for individuals to post their own videos using Warners music on the site. Like the QTrax deal, money would come from advertising on YouTube pages where Warner content is posted. This is the first large-scale embrace that I know of by a Big Media company of amateur creators tinkering with its stuff. Of course, Warners will, at least hypothetically, make some money off of these amateur creations, but what else did you expect? “Remix culture”, at long last, has been legitimized, if only a little bit, by Big Media. Amazing.

If you’re feeling a little dazed by all this, join the club. And it’s going to get weirder, I’m sure, before it settles down to some sort of universally embraced stasis. Then again, it may never settle down. The world of internet music and video may just continue to get more diverse and entropic, and it will be up to you to figure out what paradigm suits you best. Which is far from the worst result I can think of.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

9.13.06 Tale of Two Television Shows

[This article originally ran in the 9.14.06 issue of Metroland Magazine]

The increasingly bizarre culture wars we’re living through hit a new low on Sunday night with the airing of two television programs about 9/11.

First, CBS aired the 2002 Emmy award winning “9/11,” a brilliant documentary made by two French brothers who just happened to be filming a documentary about the life of a rookie firefighter in lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. While filming the fire crew’s routine inspection of a street gas leak, the camera caught the first plane hitting the World Trade Center. The fire crew, with documentarian in tow, was the first responder at the scene. What transpires next is a raw, first person, you-are-there account of the terrible and tragic day. It is riveting, and it is real.

The week before the scheduled broadcast, dozens of CBS affiliates, mainly in the Midwest and the South, announced that they weren’t going to show “9/11.” Why? The stated reason was that the stations were afraid of being fined by the newly pumped-up and Jesused-up FCC because the film contained several profane words.

Think about this. I watched the part where the first plane hit. Several firefighters proclaimed “Oh shit!” Would any living, breathing person, standing on the street that day, no matter how pious, have had an appreciably different reaction? This is indecent?

The stations that pulled the show are not only cowards; they are liars. What the stations were reacting to was an email and letter writing campaign by extreme religious fundamentalists, so-called Christians who have been battering the FCC and media outlets with absurd complaints about “dirty words” for years. With their discovery of the internet, their campaigns have intensified. In 2000 and 2001, the FCC received less than 350 indecency complaints from the public. In 2004, there were more than a million, and 99.8% of them were filed through religious fundamentalist action groups.

Yes, the FCC, packed with Bush-Rove acolytes, has started reacting to a few of these spurious complaints. Yes, Congress, reacting to Janet Jackson’s breast, has increased indecency penalties ten-fold. And yes, the FCC’s regulations on indecency are so indistinct as to be virtually meaningless, leaving the FCC with almost Star Chamber-like powers to do whatever it wants.

But even in this climate, nobody’s gonna be busting anybody for showing “9/11.” We went through this nonsense last year with the network broadcast of “Saving Private Ryan,” with all the swearing going on among the soldiers. A bunch of stations pulled out of that one, too, and thousands of indignant form-letter emails poured in to television stations and the FCC. Nothing happened. Even more remarkably, “9/11” has already aired on network TV twice before without incident.

At the same time, ABC/Disney, the same corporation that refused to release Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 two years ago, was airing a two-part miniseries entitled “The Path to 9/11.” This film was made by a group neoconservative writers and producers, and featured fictionalized scenes of many things that didn’t happen. The miniseries’ main thrust was that the terrorist attacks would have been avoided if the Clinton Administration (and by extension Democrats in general) weren’t so spineless, and if Bill Clinton wasn’t so busy in the oval office getting diddled by interns. To make this point, the ABC/Disney film included several specific misdeeds by the Clinton Administration in failing to kill Osama Bin Laden that have long been definitively disproved, but have been perpetuated by dishonest neocon bloggers and talk-show hosts. In other words, “The Path to 9/11” was something straight out of the Karl Rove playbook of creative disinformation.

Various Democrats, including Bill Clinton, cried foul, and loudly. Many conservatives, as well, complained vociferously at the fictionalizing and politicizing of 9/11. Conservative humorist P.J. O’Rourke, appearing on Bill Mahar’s show, asked why on earth would somebody fictionalize a current event, when you can just go ask the participants what happened?

ABC/Disney apparently did some last-hour edits prior to airing the show. It also retracted the previous marketing claim that “The Path to 9/11” was “based on the 9/11 Commission Report,” which was a lie; Disney subsidiary Scholastic, Inc. dropped plans to supply tens of thousands of copies of the mini-series to high schools. But “The Path to 9/11” aired, carrying its propagandist message, albeit now slightly muted, to millions of viewers.

For those of you keeping score, we have a true and brilliant documentary of the actual events of 9/11 being censored because of a coordinated effort of religious fundamentalists, while we have a politically slanted piece of trash showing on Disney/ABC, making false political statements in an election year, and using one of the greatest tragedies our nation has ever experienced as its vehicle. How utterly shameful.

Thank God most right-thinking Americans were watching the Manning brothers battling out on the football field over on NBC’s Sunday Night Football. Go Peyton. Go Eli.