This week: Just blew your paycheck on a shiny new toy? What did dad always tell you? No, the other thing. Always read the instructions! Whether you’re building a desk or activating an interstellar planetary defense interface unit, spend a few moments reading the manual or else all is lost.
Latest Blog Posts
Chuck Klosterman’s Esquire piece, ”Anyone Seen My $4.2 Billion?” is refreshingly free of intellectual artifice. Stealing music has been one of those causes that, because of its ubiquity, hasn’t really had to intelligently defend its practice. Klosterman’s bar fight prose handily cuts through the bullshit about stealing as a critique of capitalism or somehow an act of anti-corporate defiance. This is no small feat when the prevailing internet culture is to mob anyone who might suggest that using an artist’s intellectual property requires that you find some way to financially compensate them for its use. When Matthew Perpetua of Fluxblog fame ridiculed album-sharing OiNK users for their perceived “right” to steal, his comment board became the wailing wall for self-righteous fulminating about business models and technologies, theories built entirely as moral veils.
Even if Klosterman is brave for cutting to the chase of “you steal because you can”, he doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of theorizing why exactly people do on the internet what they would abhor in a more obviously physical context. (i.e. people download who would probably not shoplift) He claims that people steal because of credit card debt, but seems at a loss to explain why DVD and video game sales have skyrocketed while CD sales drop through the floor. The most obvious answer seems to be that the opportunity cost of stealing movies and video games is still much higher than pilfering music files. It’s more time consuming and requires more technological saavy to steal a film. But it’s easy to perceive a world where all entertainment forms are merely stolen because of an internet culture that promotes the idea that everything technologically possible and personally beneficial is, by default, moral.
I’m more interested in how the very narrowly targeted decimation of intellectual property for a single set of producers (musicians) has affected music culture. Has downloading’s allegedly anti-corporate justification actually contributed to a far broader and deeper commercialization of formerly “indie” music. Judging by the omnipresence of the indie single in selling everything from steak to blood diamonds, it’s hard not to see some kind of connection. But there are subtler, more aesthetic effects that involve people erasing the resistance offered by something as passé as the album format. I find it unsettling that Idolator can mock the act of listening to an album and still pretend to be taken seriously as critics. I’m no stranger to downloading, though unlike Klosterman’s test case I still spend plenty of disposable income on music (mostly vinyl), but I have noticed that my exclusively downloading friends seem to have nothing but the most ephemeral and passing connection to the music they listen to. They seem frequently unable to remember tracks put on a mix that’s less than a week old. I fully support some of the positive developments brought about by MP3 bloggers, but the fever-dreamed utopianism seems to have nothing at its core but mob-rule assertions.
PBS’s MediaShift site has an interesting critique of Gawker’s system of paying bloggers based on page views. They don’t like the idea mainly because it emphasizes sensationalism (make a splashy, eye-grabbing post) over view loyalty that a site can build up and maintain: they quote the Gawker memo that set up this system where even they themselves realize that this model ” can overstate the value of cheap items with superficial appeal, but which damage a site’s reputation.” Fair enough but as Tom Foremsk of Silicon Valley Watcher comments on the PBS site, “It’s nice to make up new types of fantasy business models but the reality is that online publishers get paid by advertisers based on page views. Find me a media buyer that is going to buy a loyalty index or any other fantasy measure..” So what’s the right answer to the problem of getting web traffic and maintaining an audience without looking too hungry or eager for web eyeballs? The PBS article has some good ideas about this but Foremsk’s point is well-taken. In the end, the model for this isn’t out there yet, which isn’t surprising since newspapers haven’t figured out a viable long-term model to their problem of maintaining or even increasing readership.
But… Folio Magazine has a story about how Hearst Publications are going to distribute their content among Facebook, MySpace and other Web 2.0 biggies. Will this help to increase readership and spread their brand? It remains to be seem but odds are that this is a smart strategy to get the word out about their publications and their work. Stay tuned…
Megan McArdle recently had a post about the music business, attempting to debunk the idea that concert revenue can supplant that of CD sales as labels turn into promoter/marketers a la Live Nation. She points out that there’s a limit to the number of concerts a person can see, whereas there are few limits to how many CDs one can own (as my own experience among the record-collecting subculture has amply demonstrated for me). Also, concerts are generally out for most people with families, limiting the demographic for pop music by and large to those under 30. But it has been true since the “invention of the teenager” in the 1950s that pop music has been for the under-30 set; record companies targeted the discretionary spending of kids, who had nothing better really to spend it on and could invest a lot of energy into the identity politics pop music serves as a proxy for—they care about projecting an identity through the music they listen to.
But more baffling to me is McArdle’s concern that “file-sharing culture will kill the music business, making us all worse off.” People in the music business will surely be worse off, but I wonder how much the rest of us will be affected if their ceased to be new mass-marketed music. Inundated with music as it is, I can’t imagine worrying about not having enough of it. I feel like I already have too much to deal with now, more than I could ever need, and I haven’t even started trying to appreciate classical music yet. And it is not like the pop-music business has prompted the creation of innovative and interesting new music; for the most part it has capitalized on innovations made by artists who likely never expected much success.
Major labels have generally served up the same musical styles and simply changed the names and faces attached to them. It works best when dealing with known commodities, because it is essentially a marketing business, and it is easier to sell something you have sold effectively before. The music business’s heyday, after all, came when it got to re-release the music of the past few decades on CD. If anything, the absence of a national music business would spur local innovations and the cultivation of local styles suiting the needs of specific populations and fomenting a stronger sense of community among them—the revival perhaps of local scenes that record collecting types tend to sentimentalize, if not fetishize. (I’m heavily into the Amsterdam scene circa 1966.) There would be less opportunity for participating in a mass phenomenon in the musical realm, but then, that’s what American Idol is for.
Apologists for the national music industry think its investment in talent in necessary to make good music, but pop music is not like pharmaceuticals. It doesn’t take a whole lot of R&D and isn’t necessarily the high-fixed-cost industry McArdle argues that it is. Give four average teenagers a few weeks of studio time and somebody who has a rudimentary understanding of sound engineering, and they could make pop music. What the national industry is good for is promotion and marketing, for making national brands of bands, and unless you believe that that stuff is all pop music essentially is (and I have flirted with the idea myself), the music business is superfluous to music itself. The high costs come in in trying to promote and distribute music on a large scale, but locally, the product sells itself. Hence anonymous, marginally talented bar bands can make a steady living in towns like Tucson and Las Vegas. The idea that major labels “discover” and “nurture” talent is almost entirely A&R propaganda.
Also questionable is the idea that musicians need the promise of big-time success to prompt them to create at the highest artistic level. McArdle puts it this way:
Music is basically a tournament business: a few people get rich, encouraging many others to toil in poverty. This almost certainly generates more new music than paying everyone $18,000 a year for the rest of their lives. If the tournament runs out of prizes, what will happen to those of us who like having a lot of new albums to listen to every month?
Maybe the musicians who toil in poverty are sustained by the fantasy of mega-fame and big bucks. But I suspect that some just do it because playing music for people is intrinsically rewarding when done on a human scale. Whereas when it’s done on the mega-stadium scale, it tends to turn artists into egomaniacs, disoriented drug casualties or misanthropes. (Just watch The Wall.) It seems that musicians start putting money first only when it’s already on the table, when they have already had a taste. (And money incentives may not even motivate the creation of better products: This PsyBlog post details studies that show cash incentives decreased performance.) It’s fashionable to pretend that musicians don’t “sell out,” but let’s face it, they do, unless they have been making product from the get-go. But again, viewing music as a culture industry, and looking at its production from an economy-of-scale, profit-maximization perspective, the conclusion is that the industry needs to manufacture new superstars capable of filling stadiums, the point made in the American article by Jillian Cohan that prompted McArdle’s post.
The assumption is that success can only be measured in terms of moving millions of units, and anything short of that is failure. From a business perspective, this is the case; from the perspective of individual musicians and fans, not necessarily, especially as the environment for selling music changes and the possibility of disintermediating the media conglomerates becomes more realistic. The music business is generally terrible for musicians (exploitative—read Steve Albini’s classic Baffler article if you don’t think so), and not particularly good for music fans, even the ones who want new albums to listen to every month (a strange goal, by the way—as if the point were to consume novelty itself).
It could be that music isn’t meant to be stadium sized. It may have been an oddity prompted by the advent of mass culture, a flowering of the novelty of that social configuration that has now revealed its limitations and exhausted its novelties. The dearth of stadium-size acts, the death of the megaconcert will likely be a good thing, returning music to human scale—why would anyone (other than those drawn to the mass nature of the spectacle, the Nuremburg rally aspects) lament its loss? As Cohan notes, “Historically, the era of the megatour is an anomaly. Baby boomers have come to expect that their rock heroes will put on massive concert events, yet ten or 20 years from now, few heritage acts may have the stamina to stay on the road.”
Middle-aged people may prefer stadium-size events because these are essentially safe spectacles; they require no imagination or aesthetic effort to participate in, and the size of the audience supplies a soothing conformity, reinforcing that the whole thing was worth the trouble—after all, all these other people bothered. But the preferences of the current middle-age cohort may (we hope) be anomalous. When I’m old(er), I hope I won’t give up altogether on the intimate, risky experience of seeing bands in clubs and start going to see “heritage acts” for the mere opportunity to say I saw the legends in person. I feel like I have done too much of this already.
Baby boomers need to believe in the relevance of their megastars, and so does Rolling Stone, which is in the curious position of carrying water for the music industry; they have a vested interest in there being mass culture so that they can promote and comment on it in their mass-culture publication. So they are in the business of propping up the acts that allow for stadium shows,as this post demonstrates with the example of R.E.M.—every album is the redemptive comeback, in Rolling Stone reviewers’ view.
But as this LA Times article points out, no one cares much anymore about what Rolling Stone says. The internet has brought on the democratization of criticism, assuring that “no one is respected simply because of the authority of the institution they write for.” That’s a bit dramatic, but there is truth to it; aggregate opinions matter more than any lone voice, unless maybe it’s a friend’s voice. Many recognize that “criticism” is often marketing copy, especially in consumer magazines. And perhaps they see how arbitrary it all is in the case of pop music. The pleasures of pop can be very personal, very dependent on context. The zeitgeist carries many objectively sucky songs to reputations of greatness, like “Hey Ya” for instance. Often it seems the best critics can do is say give these 20 albums out of the thousands released a careful listen, and their criteria may be nothing more profound than “your friends or people who you imagine you want to be your friends are likely to be talking about them.”
At times when I used to write about music, it seemed to me that caring enough about pop music to write criticism of it was tantamount to caring about the music industry as a whole and wanting to prop it up. I was speaking with the same disembodied authority that is manifest in the A&R decisions that shaped radio playlists.
The democratization of criticism seems related to the destruction of the music business—no longer are either controlled in top-down fashion by culture-industry conglomerates—instead both serve niches and may be sustained in the future by meeting localized needs.
This is actually the third season for the current generation of video baseball games, given the Xbox 360’s head start with Major League Baseball 2K6 way back in ‘06. It’s the second season for Sony’s PlayStation 3 versions of their own baseball game. As such, it would be plenty understandable for Sony to choose to put all of their effort into the PlayStation 3 version of the game, leaving the PlayStation 2 version behind. They could have gone the EA route, putting out almost exactly the same game as last year with updated rosters, put it out at a budget price, and been done with it.
Of course, given the number of late adopters who still haven’t hopped onto the PS3 bandwagon, it’s also plenty understandable that they didn’t quite go that route.
Major League Baseball 2K8, as you might have read via today’s review from Jason Cook, has chosen to take the path of innovation, completely overhauling pretty much every aspect of baseball gameplay that we have come to know. The hitting, pitching, and even the fielding in 2K8 features a heavy reliance of the capabilities that modern controllers wield, capabilities that the classic baseball sims never truly even tried to take advantage of. MLB 08: The Show for the PlayStation 3 features highly developed online modes, hard drive-utilizing features, and all kinds of the extra features one would expect from a PlayStation 3 baseball sim. The PlayStation 2 version of the same game, however, might just be perfect for the players weaned on Bases Loaded and R.B.I. Baseball, a classic experience with updated graphics and just enough game modes to keep you happy if you’re in the mood for something new.
The reason MLB 08 works for the classic players is that its primary game mechanics will be extremely familiar to just about anyone. Sure, it’s a little bit more advanced than “press ‘A’ to pitch”, but not all that much. You’re still swinging the bat with one button. Fielding feels as natural as it ever has, because you’re doing it in ways that you recognize. There’s no new paradigm, no new control ideal that must be learned; even without a look at the instruction book or an ounce of experience, you’ll be able to step right in to MLB 08 for the PlayStation 2 and be able to play. You’ll probably lose, yes, but you’ll be able to play.
Where Sony chose to improve the game is in ways that help the digitized men in the game to perform better. A pitcher can study a hitter’s tendencies, and a hitter can study a pitcher’s. A fielder can use the wall to his advantage to jump up and rob a home run. These are things that improve the experience without necessarily taking away from the pick up ‘n play scheme. It eases you in to the new features, as once you’re used to the basics, you can slowl y introduce the more advanced play styles to your arsenal of moves. The fantastic “Road to the Show” play style has been updated as well, as the success/fail dynamic of the tasks your manager gives you aren’t quite so cut and dried as they were before, which makes the play experience less discouraging.
As such, it’s obvious that Sony didn’t put the full-on effort into the PlayStation 2 version of MLB 08: The Show, not like they did the PS3 version, anyway. What they came up with is entirely the polar opposite of the Major League Baseball 2K8 approach to baseball, subtle tweaks that improve the game rather than overhauling.
In short: it’s the perfect baseball experience for the ex-core PlayStation 2 owner who just isn’t quite ready to move to “next-gen”.