Wednesday, January 27, 2010


This article originally appeared in the 2.28.10 issue of Metroland

Playing Monopoly

This week the federal Department of Justice’s anti-trust division filed what it termed restrictions on the proposed merger between music industry giants Ticketmaster and Live Nation. These two companies already dominate primary ticket selling, the management of many superstar artists, and own or have exclusive rights to present concerts at many major concert venues. And now they want to merge, arguing that by combining forces, they’ll be more efficient in delivering entertainment to the masses.

The DOJ and a bunch of states sued to stop the merger going ahead as-is and quickly moved to reach some kind of common ground, conditions by which the merger could go forward. These “restrictions” are apparently part of that process. To bless the merger DoJ wants Ticketmaster to license its main ticketing program to AEG, another behemoth multi-headed music and sports company, to spin off some of its operations to Comcast, and to promise not to retaliate against any venues that decide to use a competitor’s services.

There’s plenty of head-scratching going on about this, and it’s fair to say that nobody has any idea what these measures, if accepted by Ticketmaster and the court, will really mean to the consumer.

But I have a hard time believing that things will be better. Over the last several years the “service charges” we have to pay for increasingly expensive concert tickets have skyrocketed to levels that are multiples of what we used to pay for the tickets alone. And in this age of automation, point-and-click buying, the reason for this is? Could it be lack of competition? Ya think?

And allowing the two biggest players in the game to merge will make it better? When these two companies have both been busily snapping up other assets, like superstar management contracts, partnerships with record companies, and concert venues, all of which position them to be what economists call vertically integrated companies? So we can buy tickets from Ticketmaster to go see Ticketmaster acts on Ticketmaster labels at Ticketmaster venues?

I’m no anti-trust lawyer, but it seems to me that allowing this merger of giants to go through, even with the DoJ’s “conditions”, isn’t good for anybody but the stockholders of the companies. I’d rather see Ticketmaster and Live Nation dismantled and disbursed, so we can have a real marketplace with real competition. Of course Wall Street and the neocons call this forced break-up of companies “government intervention” and even “socialism” (a term that has lost all meaning recently) but this whole laissez-faire approach to big businesses has given us things like a predatory Wal-Mart, three and a half major record companies that collude to keep prices high, and banks and insurance companies that are too big to fail. Along with a ticket-selling concert-presenting near-duopsony that’s about to get worse.

OK. So Apple’s announcing the release of the tablet, basically a simple interactive screen. Steve Jobs reportedly said that this is the most important product he’s ever introduced, and folks are saying the tablet will revolutionize, well, like everything.

I dunno. Maybe it will come clear to me down the road. I mean, I love my iPhone but I sure don’t use it up to its capability. The only app I have is “Flashlight”, probably the stupidest and most useless app out of the gazillion they’re selling at the app store.

But one thing lots of pundits are saying is that the Apple tablet is going to save the newspaper industry. Somehow, people are going to buy their Apple tablets, and morph into mindless zombies who will automatically subscribe to online versions of newspapers! Woot woot! This coming hot on the heels of the New York Times’ announcement that it was going to stop putting the newspapers online for free sometime, maybe by the end of the year.

As Mike Masnick at Techdirt points out, there’s not a lot of logic behind the “newspapers will be saved” argument, and plenty of reasons why online newspaper subscriptions shouldn’t happen. Maybe I’ll get into this deeper in a future column, but I fail to see how trying to bottle up the news is good for anybody. Putting the news up for free online isn’t killing newspapers so much as other things like Craigslist, competing media, and imprudent parent company consolidations which have left most newspaper companies wallowing in debt. Recently the Times Union started to withhold selected news stories from its Sunday online edition. No, that’s not going to incent me to get in my car and go out and buy the paper, unless the article’s about me. Rather, it’s going to incent me to find the news somewhere else. Several months ago the Long Island paper Newsday put its content behind a firewall. It was just announced that so far, Newsday has sold 56 online subscriptions. 56.


Wednesday, January 13, 2010


This article originally appeared in the 1.14.10 issue of Metroland.

Proposition Hate

While the mainstream media ranted incoherently about irrelevancies like Harry Reid, Jay Leno, and Sarah Palin, something truly remarkable has been taking place in California. On Monday, in a San Francisco federal courtroom, a trial began in the case Perry v. Schwarzenegger, about the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, which bans gay marriage. This may be the Scopes Monkey Trial of our generation.

The case is fascinating and important on so many levels, it’s hard to know where to begin. But two things are jumping out at me right now. The first is the lawyers involved. The plaintiffs, two San Francisco couples who were denied marriage licenses shortly after Proposition 8 became law, are represented by David Boies and Ted Olson.

Olson’s participation is simply mind-boggling. He would appear as solidly Republican as anyone on earth. He was an Assistant Attorney General under Reagan, led the charge against Bill Clinton in the Paula Jones case, represented the Republicans in the “hanging chad” case that decided the 2000 presidential election (Boies, incidentally, represented the Democrats) and was Solicitor General under George W. Bush from 2001-2004. (A prominent footnote to Olson’s life is that his wife, uber-conservative political commentator Barbara Olson, who was a passenger on the plane to crashed into the Pentagon on 9/11.)

So what’s he doing arguing for gay marriage? He explains it in an essay appearing in the current issue of Newsweek entitled The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage. I could stick quotes in here, but I won’t. Instead, just go to and read it. It’s fantastic, rational, and impassioned.

This of course has caused all sorts of consternation amongst the prevailing knuckle-dragging Republicans—the neocons, the Christianistas, Sarah Palin’s “real America.” Gay marriage certainly doesn’t fit into their worldview, in which gays are hedonistic predators, in which being gay is either a satanic choice or a sickness that can be cured, in which hate and fear are the most cherished and most clearly expressed values.

Andrew Sullivan, the massively read blogger, who is both gay and conservative and who has been hyper-critical of the Republican party while bemoaning the decline of pure conservatism, noted that the right-wing blogosphere is virtually silent about Olson’s breach of what has been, up to now, fundamental right-wing doctrine.

Of course the longer term impact of Olson’s manifesto won’t be known for a while, but it does represent a massive shift in the gay rights debate, and a further and serious fracturing of factions within the Republican party.

Another interesting development in this case was the judge’s decision to allow cameras in the court room, with closed circuit broadcasts in other courtrooms around California and posts on YouTube. Cameras are generally barred from federal courtrooms, although several courts around the country are experimenting with their use.

The defenders of Proposition 8 (interestingly, the State of California refused to defend its own law, so the “defendants” in the case are represented by one of those well-funded “conservative” groups that runs around the country opposing gay-marriage initiatives) filed an emergency motion to keep the cameras out of the courtroom, arguing that it would imperil the safety of some of their anti-gay witnesses. Surprisingly, the Supreme Court issued a ruling, less than 30 minutes before the trial was to begin on Monday, temporarily barring the transmission of any video of the trial except to other rooms in the San Francisco courthouse. The stay only lasted through Wednesday, and by the time you read this, the Court will likely have issued a more elaborate ruling. And it could go either way.

The whole cameras in the courtroom thing has always bugged me. Courtroom proceedings are, with a very few exceptions, public events as a matter of constitutional right. None of the arguments supporting keeping cameras out of the courtroom make much sense or stand up under even a little scrutiny. Spare me the “dignity of the courtroom” stuff. Why is that compromised when the cameras are on?

Many states allow filming and broadcasting of state court proceedings, and with laudible results. Back when there was a Court TV, before it turned into whatever lowest-common-denominator dreck channel it is now, Court TV regularly aired court proceedings, and some of them were among the most compelling things ever on TV. As circus-y as it was, the live broadcast of the OJ Simpson trial was compelling, brilliant and educational. All of a sudden the entire nation was engaged in discourse on the nature of things like probable cause and the admission of evidence.

So, it’ll be interesting to see where the Supreme Court goes with this, and why. Meantime, keep your eyes on California.