Saturday, May 24, 2008

5.22.08 WICKED WEB

After previous attempts were bounced by courts for twelve years, a law “protecting” us from child porn has been blessed by the Supreme Court. After laws that tried to force internet filters on us and another that outlawed computer generated fake porn were declared unconstitutional, the Supreme Court this week OK’d a law that makes it a crime for one that “knowingly advertises, promotes, presents, distributes, or solicits” material that is presented as involving a minor engaged in sexually-explicit conduct.

Commentators, even some free speech advocates, have noted that the Court’s opinion instructed that the statute should be interpreted sufficiently narrowly, and that it doesn’t threaten free expression a great deal. While it could have been worse, there are issues. Even given the Supreme Court’s “narrow view,” the law will give overzealous prosecutors ammunition to go after parents who take bathtub snapshots of their kids or artists who use kids in their work. And you just know that’s gonna happen. Could somebody go after Annie Liebovitz and Vanity Fair for those Miley Cyrus pictures? Were those “sexually explicit” enough that a prosecutor, looking for votes and a few more notches on the belt might make a play for the cheap seats with an indictment and a press conference? How about the art student who decides to riff on the Renaissance erotica of Botticelli or Correggio and decides to throw a few kids in the mix like the old masters did?

Another problem highlighted in the dissenting opinion is that the law criminalizes the mere offering of child porn, even if there is no actual child porn. Someone would be guilty of this law for putting up a scam site offering to sell stuff that didn’t exist, or maybe by misrepresenting a bunch of pictures that were completely innocuous. This person would already be guilty of fraud (and perhaps performing a public service by ripping off the scumbags who really want to own child porn), so does it make sense to knock them over the head with a federal felony?

In other sort of related news, a federal appeals court dismissed another lawsuit against MySpace brought by the parents of a teenage girl who allegedly hooked up with an older boy on the site and got sexually abused. Simply put, MySpace is protected by the law because it’s a neutral portal. Despite the anti-web hysteria the media likes to perpetuate every time some hideous crime is committed with the help of the internet, MySpace shouldn’t, and so far hasn’t been, held accountable for what happens to people using the site. If this girl had met the boy at her school, would we consider, even for a minute, holding the school responsible? To put it in perspective, here’s a quote from the trial transcript of this most recent case:
THE COURT: I want to get this straight. You have a 13-year-old girl who lies, disobeys all of the instructions, later on disobeys the warning not to give personal information, obviously, [and] does not communicate with the parent. More important, the parent does not exercise the parental control over the minor. The minor gets sexually abused, and you want somebody else to pay for it? This is the lawsuit that you filed?

MR. ITKIN [Counsel for the Plaintiff]: Yes, your Honor.

The world can be a mean, vicious, and unforgiving place. And the internet is part of the world.

Finally, I’ve mentioned before about the ubiquity of surveillance cameras, and how it’s gotten to the point where if you are outside in the city there’s every reason to believe that your movements are being tracked by somebody. This is nowhere more true than in England, where there are millions of cameras that have been put up in public spaces by public authorities. British band Get Out Clause, combining the sensibilities of OK Go! and The Yesmen, decided to put the system to work for them: they set up and performed in front of some 80 surveillance cameras around London, in the middle of streets, on buses, on sidewalks. Then, using the UK equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act, they got the footage of their performances for free from the government, and spliced everything together to make an incredibly entertaining, even compelling, music video that’s burning up the internet as we speak. Google “Get Out Clause” and it’s everywhere.

Friday, May 09, 2008


A couple of months ago Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails confounded the music industry by dropping the thirty-six track work Ghosts on the world. Nine tracks could be downloaded for free, all of the tracks could be downloaded for $5, and there was a menu of other offerings, including CDs and raw tracks for remixing, that could be had for a variety of prices.

While the major labels are busy suing college kids and watching their businesses go into the tank, Reznor, now completely independent of any labels, provided a tutorial on how the new web economy can work, how free and scarcity can work together. He even made money, reportedly netting $1.5 million in the first couple of days of the music’s release.

There was a little grumbling that what he released wasn’t a real NIN record, it was atmospheric instrumental music; I think it’s great, but people do like to complain about stuff...

Well, two months later he’s at it again, this time releasing a full album of “real” NIN music, entitled The Slip, and this time totally for free. You can download The Slip at in a variety of formats, including in better-than-CD quality 24-bit 96k format, and raw tracks are available for remixing under a Creative Commons license. For free. And every download is accompanied by a PDF file containing full graphics and lyric sheets.

How does Reznor make money on this one, you ask? Good question, the answer to which is yet to be seen. CD and vinyl versions of The Slip will reportedly be available this summer. These freebies will no doubt attract new NIN listeners (like me, for example, and maybe you, too) many of whom will now go buy some of the back catalog and whatever Reznor releases in the future.

And maybe we’ll go see NIN live, which brings me to Reznor’s other brilliant coup, which was also announced on Monday but got buried by the news of the free download. Registered users of the NIN website can order the best seats on this summer’s tour online, from Reznor directly. The tickets will arrive with the buyer’s name printed on them, and the buyer will have to show a photo ID to get into the show. Adios, scalpers! With an eminently simple internet solution, Reznor eliminates the madness that surrounds big shows (can you say Miley Cyrus? Sure you can...) and rewards his fans with the best seats to his shows.

This is how you build a fan base. This is how you build loyalty. This is how you build a career in the music business today.

In other news, I read that the House Judiciary Committee is pushing the creation of a cabinet-level intellectual property “czar” to police “piracy” in the information industries. What this appears to represent is a massive subsidy to the entertainment industry in the form of providing federal cops to enforce what the industry currently does itself. In other words, now the Feds will be suing college kids for downloading Brittney Spears songs and Chucky movies.

It’s all so ridiculous. Congress, propped up with millions in campaign contributions and phony statistics about the losses to US companies due to IP theft (i.e. one “illegal” download does not equate to one lost sale; I’m mean, think about it for half a second....the MPAA even admitted a few months ago that its propaganda numbers were wrong) is all too happy to oblige Big Media...with it’s very own czar! Even the federal Department of Justice is unhappy about it, although not for any reasons related to the public well-being. No, it’s more of a turf war, as DoJ has been trying to build up its own IP enforcement efforts under the guise of –get this – homeland security! That’s right. It only appears that little Julie is up in her room innocently downloading that new Gnarls Barkley track off of Limewire; but in reality she’s...she’s....she’s helping Al Qaeda! So, it’s DoJ’s position that we don’t need no stinking Czar.

Piracy can be a problem, and that’s what copyright laws are for. If it’s bad enough it can become a criminal matter and law enforcement is needed to put the bad guys away. But piracy’s not terrorism, it’s stealing. And downloading a song off the web isn’t piracy, it’s doing what technology suggests and allows. And we don’t need an intellectual property czar. Not unless it’s Trent Reznor.


Nick Lowe
Eli Paperboy Reid

Linda Norris Auditorium

April 30, 2008

Talk about aging gracefully. Nick Lowe, alone with an acoustic guitar, put on a simply beautiful and uncommonly dignified show to a packed house of devotees at the Linda, his first Albany appearance in (I think) 23 years, when he played the second JB Scotts with his rock-a-billy band The Cowboy Outfit.

Dressed in grey slacks and a white shirt, Lowe touched on all facets of his rough-and-tumble career, from the pure pop of “Heart” and “When I Write the Book” to the more pensive Americana-styled songs from his recent albums. He avoided the wackier tunes that so endeared him to late-70’s rock nerds—we didn’t hear anything about breaking glass, castrating Castro, or winners who became doggies’ dinners—but got a load of his incredible staring-into-the-void masterpieces, like “The Beast in Me” and “I’ve Let Things Slide,” songs that translate powerfully when sung solo in an intimate atmosphere. The clever word-play and the improbable rhyme schemes have always been there in spades, but Lowe has replaced the more manic imagery of his songs with a sturdy gravitas and cock-sure delivery. Not for nothing they call him The Jesus of Cool.

But this wasn’t a mope-fest, either; a brand new song, the super-quiet “I Read A Lot,” got an hysterical intro, and after, as the applause was peaking, Lowe yells “and the cavalcade of hits keeps coming!” and charges into pop-nugget “Cruel to Be Kind.” And he played, as a rejoinder to a couple of songs that could (wrongly) be interpreted as misogynistic, the absurdist “All Men Are Liars,” with its out-of-nowhere takedown of ‘80’s pop curiosity Rick Astley.

The biggest revelation of the night was the quality of Lowe’s voice, and how he wrapped it around the brilliantly-wrought songs. This was never more apparent than with the set closing “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding,” delivered down-tempo with Lowe squeezing meaning and warmth out of every single word, reclaiming and rebranding his best known song, for so long an angry Elvis Costello vehicle, as one of hope, and, yes, peace, love, and understanding.

Young Boston soul-shouter Eli “Paperboy” Reid should probably not venture out with out his band. Reid, who looks like a cross between Tony Dow and Ron Zeigler, sure has his bad-ass schtick down cold, right down to the pinky rings on each hand, but his retro-soul thing doesn’t fly while he’s struggling to keep up with himself on electric guitar. That being said, his new record sizzles, the cat can flat-out sing and I’m dying to see the full Paperboy treatment. Somebody bring ‘em all over here for a gig. Quick.