Wednesday, August 26, 2009

8.27.09 POOF

This article originally appeared in the 8.27.09 issue of Metroland

With the Amazon’s introduction of the Kindle e-book reader last year, the stalled movement towards digitized literature got a little bump. Previous e-book hardware had never gained any real traction, as the older devices were too bulky or just generally unsatisfying.

E-literature has always been a tough sell. Unlike music or photography, where the migration to digital was natural and seemingly inevitable, there’s just something about a book that people don’t want to let go of. Part tactile, part romantic, and part practical, the physical book’s appeal has stood down several generations of plastic-shelled devices.

Is that changing now? I haven’t used a Kindle, but I’ve read a number of glowing reports that the consumer experience is a significant improvement over previous e-book readers. And Sony just announced it’s rolling out its new Daily Reader in December, which looks like it might be a contender. And then there’s the rumored Apple tablet, maybe coming very soon, which may or may not have e-book reader capabilities. Considering Apple’s success with everything else it touches, and the synergies with the ever-popular iTunes store, the tablet could be the game-changer.

Obviously, one benefit of these things is the fact that you can put 1000 books into one little book-sized thingy. Another is that all of these devices are now hooked into wireless networks, which means you can download books on-the-fly, and also opens the door for subscription newspaper and magazine delivery, and integration with the web and social networks.

Right now, cost is a serious factor. The Kindle is around $300, the Sony reader is reportedly gonna be around $400, and the Apple table won’t come cheap. These devices all come with free connectivity to wireless networks, but still, that’s a chunk of change to commit to a technology with a history of failing to deliver enduring customer satisfaction.

And then you have to buy the “books.” Amazon’s got best-sellers going for $10 each, and one has to wonder if this price-point makes sense. Like with music MP3s, there’s no cost of production of anything physical, no shipping, no warehouses. But to be sure, charging $10 for an ebook where the hard-cover version is $25 makes more sense than charging $10 to download an album when you can buy the CD for $12.

And finally, there’s what you get and what you own when you “buy” a book. Last month, Amazon found out that it had been selling George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm pursuant to a license from a publisher that apparently didn’t have the rights to the books to begin with. In other words, it was in effect selling pirated copies of the books. So Amazon invoked its “rights” in the fine print of its user agreements, and utilized its “digital rights management” technology, which basically tethers the “books” it sells, and removed all of the copies of the books it had sold consumers from the consumers’ Kindles. Anybody who had bought these books suddenly didn’t have them any more. At least one kid reported that his copy of 1984 disappeared while he was reading it. Amazon did credit everyone’s account, but that really didn’t address the main point.

Which was “whaddya mean I don’t ‘own’ the book I just bought”? And even more frightening was the fact that Amazon had hooks into your reader. If Amazon could simply remove a book you “bought” at will, what else could it do? Does it know what you’re reading, and when? Can it hear you, too? Does it know where you are right now?

Obviously, the delicious irony that this happened with Orwell’s 1984 puts the episode into the “you just can’t make this stuff up” category.

After a long week of public outcry, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos issued a statement that this was a horrible mistake on Amazon’s part, that he was outraged, and that it would never happen again. It was the right response, but it doesn’t really fix the problem.

The debacle is grounded in the idea that publishers are demanding that when you “buy” an ebook, you’re not really buying an ebook; rather you’re licensing the right to look at the ebook. And that license comes with conditions: you can’t, for instance, edit the ebook, you can’t give the file to a friend to read on their Kindle; you can’t transfer the file to another device that you own. And, if you do the wrong thing, or if the publisher just decides, your ebook can get removed off of your Kindle. Just like that.

I don’t know how Bezos cranked the publishers to let him promise he’d never allow the erasure of an ebook again; maybe Bezos agreed, as a business decision, to be financially responsible for whatever perceived financial fall-out the publishers “suffer” now that they can’t recall their books.

But it’s a cautionary tale, and another example of the train wrecks that occur when digital reality comes face to face with the fictions of old imperial copyrights.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

8.13.09 The Next Mini-Disk

This article originally appeared in the 8.12.09 issue of Metroland

Word has it the big record companies are working on some sort of “bundled package” so they can sell you complete albums via digital download. Of course, they already can do this, except most people, acting rationally, only buy single songs online. The labels want to change this. The “system”, reportedly named “CMX” will include digitized copies of the album covers, liner notes, lyrics, and videos. It’s also reported that the “system” may not be compatible with the iTunes store, so that Apple is also working on it’s own bundled album package.

Ever since the late 60’s, when albums rather quickly replaced singles as the music format of choice, there’s been an uncomfortable market and practical balance between the album and its component parts. Great bands can fill an album with great songs that in sequence tell a narrative or just plain sound great together. Most artists, though, can’t match the transcendence of those one or two hit songs, and wind up loading albums with banal, second-rate filler. In the days of milk and vinyl, we all bought the albums anyway.

It got worse in the 80’s with the transition to CDs. Now, instead of the 40 minutes of sound on an LP, artists had 75 minutes to fill up, leading to the release of mountains of filler tracks that would have been righteously scrapped in the age of vinyl. And the record companies colluded to keep the price of these mysterious, shiny little disks way too high, but we bought them anyway, often buying a CD with 12 songs we didn’t want to replace the vinyl record with 7 songs we didn’t want. And the record companies made a fortune selling us, sometimes twice, music we didn’t want.

[Obviously I’m making some broad generalizations here. Sure there have been wonderfully remastered CDs, CDs with previously unreleased bonus tracks, all sorts of things that have come out that are great. And of course, what’s filler and what’s not is subjective: stuff I might like you might find vile, and I’ll hold my opinion on that crap you listen to. Moving on.]

The market pushed back the best it could in this CD-based world, with the chart dominance of the “Now! That’s What I call Music” singles compilation series, greatest hit packages, and hit-centric movie soundtracks. But it wasn’t nearly enough.

And then along came MP3s, Napster, iTunes, and the rest, and suddenly singles were back. It became a singles world again. Consumers demanded it. And got it, legally or otherwise.

The genie got out, and now they’re trying to put it back in again with these “bundled systems.” And it won’t work. The “packages,” the “systems,” whatever these things are that purport to repackage full digital albums, will make a little money for a handful of artists, but will work on the same principle that the old CDs did: people will pay for a few songs they want, and a bunch more they don’t. Most people will likely ignore the “bundle” and grab the song they want. And if the song isn’t extractable from the “bundle”? Then the whole shebang is DOA. People won’t be told what they can and can’t do with their music any longer. New rules, babe.

As for the graphics, the lyrics, etc.? All those great “extras”? Maybe good for the 15-20 year-old demo, but that’s about it. Dunno about you, but I stopped looking at liner notes when CDs hit. There’s such little pleasure to be had from looking at those dinky little booklets, and there’s even less from looking at something on my computer screen, or god forbid, my telephone.

Who knows what the CMX and Apple’s digital albums are going to look like or be compatible with, or if or how they’ll restrict consumers’ ability to consume music. The thing is, there’s already a fine workable bundling “system” out there. It’s the ubiquitous zip file, and it’s used by the exploding number of music bloggers out there who are posting full albums online for download for free. The best of them post super high-quality MP3s of the best versions of an album available (new remastered versions, rips of Japanese vinyl audiophile versions, etc.), along with hi-rez scans of all the album art, all in one downloadable file.

I guess the problem with zip files is that the consumer can easily cherry pick favorite songs (oh, mercy!) and even rearrange the sequence of the songs (utter sacrilege!).

And the graphics? Well your preferences may vary, but I haven’t looked at, much less saved, a single liner note or album cover on my computer. Why waste the space? If I wanna know something about an artist or see what he/she looks like, I hit the Web.

So, expect the CMX, whatever the hell it is, to go the way of the mini-disk. Nice try folks, but the train left the station a long, long time ago.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

8.6.09 BANG GANG

This review originally appeared in the 8.6.09 issue of Metroland
Everything, All at Once

Bang on a Can Marathon

MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass., Aug. 1

I don’t have many traditions, but this is now officially one of them: the annual Bang on a Can contemporary music extravaganza that wraps up the New York City group’s forward-looking, open-ended, and open-hearted summer residency at MASS MoCA. I went last year and liked it; this year I loved it. If BOAC did this every month, I’d go watch it every month.

Arriving about an hour and a half in, I learned I’d already missed a Meredith Monk, a David Zorn and a Thom Yorke piece. D’oh! As the next four hours flew by in a flash and left me wanting more, you can bet I won’t make the same mistake again. I’m getting there early next year. Maybe I'll camp out.

The day was an utter mélange of styles and instruments. The first couple of pieces I saw, part of an Eastern European suite of works, featured an ensemble of violin, bass flute, several bass clarinets, heavily treated electric guitar, drum kit, and the extraordinary young Kyrgyzstani musicians Kambar Kalendarov and Kutmanaaly Sultanbekov, who played various wind and string instruments with names like chopo choor, sybyzgy and temir ooz komyz. The pieces were deeply funky, melodic, and most of all they were fun, with band members chanting and clapping when they weren’t playing.

Space won’t allow me to go long on any of this, but my highest points were Julia Wolfe’s piece for four drummers; John Adams’ hypnotic string-ensemble piece “Shaker Loops”; Todd Reynolds’ heroic solo violin performance, “Light Is Calling,” before a three-screen Bill Morrison projection; George Antheil’s four-piano, mondo-percussion-and-electronic-sound masterpiece “Ballet Mecanique”; and the return of the Kyrgyzstan guys, playing traditional music in traditional garb, and just plain rocking the house. But there wasn’t a single thing all day I didn’t like. A lot.

The day was split into three two-hour sessions, each with a half-dozen or so works, and the audience is allowed to drift in and out of the theater and the concert was blasted to the outdoor courtyard so you didn’t miss anything. What a terrific, relaxed vibe. The Bang on a Can Marathon is summertime.