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by Jason Gross

19 Jan 2009

On June 1, 1999, a then-recent college drop-out, who didn’t even finish the first term of his first year, unleashed a seismic force which rewrote all of the rules for the entire entertainment industry—that was when Shawn Fanning released Napster to the online world. 

Even though the original company/software would be shut down one year later, things were never the same after that.  Suddenly, the old model of power and control resting in the bosom of the major labels was gone—why bother paying for music, especially if you don’t like every song on an album, when you could download it for free?  In the worst kind of short-sightedness, the majors ganged up to sue Fanning out of existence without thinking about how to tap into the millions of users who were already on the service, and didn’t even come up with a plausible alternative for music downloads.  It’s only been in the last few years that these companies finally caught up and found more reasonable ways to reach consumers but by then, it was too late for most of the music fans out there.  Even with all of the faulty and disgraceful lawsuits that the RIAA perpetrated to try to stop unauthorized music downloads, many studies say that it’s continued unabated.

The end result reverberated throughout the music industry.  Not only were majors forced to cut back and lay off but soon, retailers and chains were on the ropes too.  The big players in the game were getting cut down to size (desperately trying to merge or sell off) and were scrambling for answers.

Artists starting looking for other ways to keep afloat and slowly began making deals with commercial sponsors, software companies, video games.  To some fans, it sounded like heresy but it soon became so widespread that it turned into the norm.  After all, why stay on a sinking ship like the majors when there were plenty of other more promising and lucrative opportunities out there? 

This power shift also meant that many artists, including multi-platinum ones, also had incentive to leave the major labels and set up shop elsewhere, getting their albums distributed and promoted outside of the majors.  As these cash cows drift away, the labels are left scrambling, trying to figure out how to stay alive.

That’s been the story of the music biz in the new millennium so far and it promises to keep getting interesting.  With the majors on the wane now, it’s a good time to look back (and look forward) at the new kingpins of the music biz who are exerting more and more influence there, taking over the roles that the big labels once filled.  This is going to be an on-going series, looking at these brash companies that are now the important players in the industry.  Because the biz is changing so rapidly, everything chronicled here could (and will) change quickly and some of the players will sink or rise but that’s the nature of things now…

For the moment, they’re still the king of legal downloads though with their tiny profit margins for song sales, they’re really selling iPods to make their profits (and doing damn well at it). But it’s no secret that the major labels hate Apple even as they continue to do business with Jobs and friends. 

The main contention had been Apple’s inflexible pricing—99 cents for all songs.  The labels had been saying that the price should be lower for old items and higher for newer, hotter items.  Up until recently, Jobs had the upper hand but the labels made deals with other companies, hoping to find more revenue elsewhere and to chip away at Apple’s lead. 

Since the introduction of the iPod in 2001, Apple has had rock star status not just in the music world but also the tech world as evidenced by the frenzy over the iPhone and the drooling anticipation that comes with each of Apple’s new announcements.  Since they captured most of the digital-player market, they’ll be a force for years and how long they stay there may depend less on a real iPod killer coming along than a slip-up in Apple’s next generation of players/phones (i.e. something that works as badly as Microsoft Vista). 

Apple’s usually been too smart and careful for the later to happen but the notion of real competition probably isn’t going to come from another music player (i.e. the ill-fated Zune) but another type of media industry that’s honing in on the territory, like Verizon and Rock Star Games. Another obstacle that they may face is their reluctance to offer Ala Carte service as Napster and Rhapsody do- so far, it hasn’t proven to be a huge money maker but as they’re squeezed more and more by labels, they might have to offer this option also.

The big shift for Apple and iTunes happened at the beginning of this month when they announced that not only would they finally offer their music files up without any DRM (digital rights management) attached to it but they would finally implement tiered pricing plans, staring in April.  That represented a huge sea charge as Apple not only finally caved in to the wishes of the big labels but also likely recognized that the same plans were being used by competitors like Amazon so effectively, that it would be only a matter of time before they fell behind if they kept being stubborn about pricing.

As for a post-Jobs Apple Corps, they’ll need someone brash to push whatever their latest product is but as long as they retain designer Jonathan Ive (responsible for the sleek, stylish look of the the iPod and iPhone), they’ll continue to have a leg up on the biz.  But Jobs’ recent admission about his health problems (which seemed to be obvious to anyone looking at recent photos of him) sent the company’s stock downward, not only prompting possible lawsuits but also ramping up the question of whether Apple could thrive without him.  As such, they’ll need not just another good planner like Ive but also a good showman like Jobs to keep the momentum going.


Previously known for promoting shows and owning venues across the country (i.e. House of Blues), LN started in 2005, working hand in hand with Ticketmaster up until last summer, when they announced that they would be handling ticketing on their own, thus becoming a rival to TM.  Though they promised to be more transparent about the much-hated added-on ‘handling’ fees, LN didn’t lower the price for tickets (they just tacked on the fees to the regular ticket price).

But LN wanted more than just to sell tickets- seeing that the future bucks in the music biz wasn’t necessarily going to come from album sales, they rushed in to secure everything else from a group of top-selling acts, creating ‘360 Deals.’  Major labels should be very nervous about this because as music sales become less and less central to the biz, this promotion monolith is making important strides in one of the few areas that hasn’t been hurting, even in a bad economy.  With Jay-Z, Madonna, Nickleback, Shakira and U2 signing on to LN for huge touring and merchandise deals, there’s obviously an enormous change happening in the concert industry—look for more big acts to sign on with them too.

Don’t that that LN is totally giving up on album sales as a way to mint cash though.  The deals signed with Madonna, Shakira and Jay-Z include not just mersh but also new albums that they put out once their label contracts expire.  But as of last summer, there were reports that LN might actually go back to the majors for help with putting out future albums for acts (i.e. Madge).  LN is also reported plowing forward by selling non-DRM MP3’s from their own site, thus putting them into competition with iTunes/Apple, also figuring that once they hook into fans with tickets and mersh, they might be able to sell some tunes off to them also. 

Still, LN’s had some recent set-backs, which raise big question marks about their future.  Their Instant Live service, where they offer burned CD’s of the show you’ve just seen, ran into trouble when they tried to press the issue of copyright for the service, eventually letting it lapse in 2007.  Also, while they sold off some divisions to concentrate more on music and LN have recently reported good ticket sales, there’s questions about whether the withering economy might put a damper on ticket sales, aka LN’s bottom line.  And while Irish entrepeneurs U2 bought up a bunch of LN share last October, the superstars then sold off their stock recently, swearing that they still had full confidence in the company.

But what are LN’S future prospects and how will this big deals pan out?  Unknown.  Taking big financial risks like these that might pay off handsomely but it remains to be seen if the initial investments they’re making in artists will be easily recouped.  The end result might be that they reap huge rewards, leaving everyone else in the music biz in the dust. Or… The deals might not pan out as LN finds that the huge investments they’ve made in artists aren’t getting balanced out by the money that LN gets back from mersch and promos.  And though a good case can be made for LN’s all-encompassing monopolistic grip over numerous facets to the music biz, the incoming prez and his staff haven’t given any indication that they’re troubled by this.

UPDATE:  As this Reuters story details, LN is looking to merge with their competitor Ticketmaster, only weeks after trying to beat them at their own game.  Not a good sign for them…


Rest assured that as you’re reading this right now, there’s some computer geek tapping away at their laptop, churning out code for whatever’s gonna be the next hot piece of software in the realm of the music biz.  It will be a faster, easier (and fun) way for music fans to communicate and trade tunes.  It’ll get written up in blogs, tweeted and eventually noted by tech-savvy publications.  The kid will start selling adds and making good money. Initial investors will timidly rush in.  Majors will waffle between cutting deals with the kid or getting out the lawyers to sue, likely going the later route and only realizing how stupid they were when it’s too late.

We’ll delve into the video games that look to swallow up the attention and bucks of music fans but which also face their own problems and limitations…

by Joseph Kugelmass

19 Jan 2009

Lil’ Wayne’s success has reached such a phenomenal peak that at one point, as I was about to turn the radio to a hip-hop station coming out of Boston, my friend could say “How about some Lil’ Wayne?” and be absolutely right. I can’t remember if the station was playing one of his songs or if it was a guest spot, and it doesn’t matter. Between guesting for everyone who makes anything even related to hip-hop or R&B and making a huge score with Tha Carter III, Wayne’s voice is everywhere, and it’s so distinctively hoarse that it seizes for itself—and also flattens—whatever sound is behind it.

That flattening effect is part of the reason Wayne has so completely overshadowed every other rapper around him. He doesn’t sing on top of beats. He eats them, makes them irrelevant. On Tha Carter II, his previous non-mixtape album, the production by T-Mix was focused on distorted soul samples. T-Mix gave soul choruses the rough, dissonant sound of music played too loud on cheap speakers. Wayne took it too easy on the vocals, particularly during the verses, but he still sounded great. On this new album, the soul samples are mostly gone in favor of crunked-up electro, but when they do make an appearance (like on the Jay-Z duet “Mr. Carter”), the switch is barely noticeable.

Wayne demolishes these beats by singing so hoarsely that the noise of his voice, like a blue shirt on a blue-eyed person, pushes forward whatever noise is latent in the music, making it sound dirty and messy. Then he sings all around the beats, basically ignoring where the stresses ought to go, in such a random way that the song’s meter melts down. Sympathetic producers on Tha Carter III build this into the very structure of the songs, so that when Wayne suddenly announces “Bitch I’m the bomb like tick…tick” on “Got Money,” Play-n-Skillz stops the music. Wayne is singing in his own post-detonation vacuum. The point here is that Wayne doesn’t care what he sings over, because he’s just plain hungry to rap. In his and our world, a radio station like Power 105.9 in Los Angeles will reduce everything to equivalent “hip-hop” anyway.

by Mike Schiller

18 Jan 2009

I missed a week!  Ack!  OK, here’s last week in a nutshell: Moon.  If anyone can do a first-person shooter on the DS, it’s Renegade Kid, who put together the actually-pretty-excellent Dementium: The Ward last year.  It’s been pretty well-reviewed so far, and DS gamers don’t have a ton of options for when they want to shoot things.  You can shoot things in Moon.  Have at it!

EA\'s Skate 2

EA\‘s Skate 2

As for this week, there are plenty of sneaky picks that look awfully interesting.  Skate 2 follows the very well-received inaugural edition of EA’s big new Tony Hawk-killer, which so far has lived up to such a title by actually making video game skating feel like something worth doing again.  SimAnimals is a new Wii “Sim” experience that ditches the humans, which might actually be the smartest thing that EA’s done on the franchise for the Wii…human simulation is a little too much for the little console that could, so why not coerce the veterinarian in all of us out for a while?  I have no idea what The Maw is, really, but the stills I’ve seen from the Xbox Live Arcade title look pretty interesting, and the PS2 continues its JRPG renaissance with Ar Tonelico: Melody of Metafalica, a title that’s probably pretty profound in context, but looks kind of meaningless right now.

Even so, it’s a different Japanese import that’s got my eye this week, one that may not sell many copies, and may not turn many heads at all.  It’s a little something being put out by budget publisher UFO Interactive, with a truly nondescript title: the Wii-exclusive Ultimate Shooting Collection.



Ultimate Shooting Collection is actually, as you may have guessed, a collection of three games, two of which have never been released in the United States.  The one that has been released in the states is Chaos Field, which sounds like the space-shooter equivalent of Shadow of the Colossus, basically a collection of space shooter boss fights one after the other.  Radio Allergy was almost released in the states—it was supposed to be one of the last GameCube games, if not the last, but it was cancelled before it could see the light of day.  Finally, there’s Karous, a game whose art style has fascinated me since I first caught wind of it back when it was a brand new Dreamcast game being released in the very un-Dreamcasty year of 2008.  Yes, I’m going to go ahead an pretend that un-Dreamcasty can be used as an adjective.  It’s actually the reason I bought a Dreamcast in the first place.  Of course, once I did, I could no longer track down a copy of the game.

Now’s my chance…and yours as well.

Is anyone else out there as excited for the Ultimate Shooting Collection as I am?  Going Skate-ing this week?  Perhaps the PSP Star Ocean remake is more your speed?  Check the full release list after the jump, followed by a trailer for, yes, Ultimate Shooting Collection.

by Bill Gibron

18 Jan 2009

It’s all the nudists’ fault. When sun worshipers challenged the illegality of baring it all back in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, the resulting court decisions gave exploitation purveyors, and smut peddlers in general, an opportunity to use (and in some cases, abuse) the naked female form. You see, those in love with nature argued that the medical benefits and curative properties of nudism blunted any consideration of carnal knowledge. As a result, considering it illegal was actually denying practitioners their individual right to health. The family-oriented elements within the lifestyle proved successful within the Puritan US legal system. Still, it took entrepreneurs like Kroger Babb and David F. Friedman to hold down the prosecutorial fort, while businessmen like Harry Novak and Bob Cresse tried to keep the motion picture pulchritude flowing.

And helping them was genre maverick R. L. “Lee” Frost. Born in Arizona and raised in both California and Hawaii, the future exploitation expert got his start in television. After a string of successful commercials, he went on to make the nudie spoofs Surftide 77 and the infamous House on Bare Mountain. It was during the later where he first worked with a man who would change his career forever. Bob Cresse was an equally energetic idealist, bouncing around within the medium to make as much money - and monkey business - as possible. Together, the duo would create sleazoid classics such as Hollywood’s World of Flesh, Hot Spur, and the notorious Love Camp 7. One of their earliest collaborations was Love is a Four Letter Word. Retitled The Love Girls during its roadshow run, it stands as an excellent illustration of how the men perfectly complemented each other.

The basic premise of the film focuses on the then novel fetish of voyeurism. It was standard operating procedure for producers to review medical publications, scouring the burgeoning science of psychology to come up with unusual twists on the old naked lady routine. Sun worshipping and nudism had provided an ample commercial proving ground, while the Mondo movies of Europe would soon take over the framework. In the meantime, Cresse and Frost concocted a live action men’s magazine out of the story of Jerry, his lady love Shelia, his uncontrollable urges, and the various women more than happy to indulge his desire to peep.

Over the course of 61 meandering minutes, our hero spends inordinately large quantities of time giving gals the big eye. He sits back and studies their bra wearing routines, their daily showers, their after school frolicking, and the general desire to be nubile, nude, and natural. Without much of a narrative to hang onto, we watch as Jerry tries to conquer his abnormal cravings. All throughout the film, we follow the character through a series of psychological lectures and doctor visits, each one cementing his status as a first rate perv. It’s only at the end, when Jerry discovers his icy gal pal’s secret, do things go from nutty to numbing. With suicide implied and a weird last minute suggestion of redemption, the Love Girls loses little of its decades old potency.

Unlike your standard grindhouse chauvinist, Jerry is constantly chastised for his urges. It’s this seedy subtext which accents The Love Girls’ taboo busting conceits. This is a film that proposes to show us what goes on behind the walls of your typical college town, and what we see initially seems innocent enough - gals undressing, babes taking bare-ass excursions from one room to another. Frost’s camerawork is excellent, amplifying the surveillance-like sliminess of Jerry’s actions. One memorable sequence in particular has our hopped up hero hanging out during a sorority ritual. While the ladies look a little too old for rush week, their lewd lingerie party is worth the price of admission alone.

And it’s important to remember why these movies were made in the first place. Cresse and Frost knew that the burgeoning sexual revolution was peaking the interest of suppressed males everywhere. They also recognized the undeniable dollar value in such forbidden pleasures. So in order to satisfy both concepts, while hoping to keep the censors at bay, they introduced a small amount of ethics into their narratives.

Of course, Cresse had to satisfy his own fetishes a bit. He was notorious for putting his own peculiar passions up on the screen for everyone to see. During the opening credits (imaginatively scrawled across some vertical blinds) we get basic bondage action. On a trip down to Tijuana, Jerry and his pals experience a lewd lesbian floorshow. During the aforementioned all girl initiation, there is spanking and some implied torture. But it’s not just the honeys that experience humiliation. Jerry is always the laughing stock of someone in roundabout knowledge of his needs. He’s never celebrated for being a voyeur. Instead, the story moralizes his quirk into something akin to criminality. Obviously, Cresse and Frost were hoping such a message would mean less time spent defending their film in court.

In retrospect, one of the most memorable things about The Love Girls is how it demonizes men for their uncontrollable, crotch-driven lusts. Most exploitation is unapologetic in how degrading and piglike its leads can be. Women are seen as body-pleasing properties traded like salacious stock on a sin-strew exchange. But in the case of Jerry, we have someone so strung out on femininity and his raging need to peep that he can barely exist. While the audience gets the vicarious thrill of witnessing his “torment”, the character is all but doomed.

It’s an interesting angle in a film that follows many of the genre’s more recognizable attributes. Sure, the voice over opening narration sounds like a poet gone potty, and the ending makes little or no sense, but thanks to the provocative input of Bob Cresse and Lee Frost, what could have been your standard issue softcore becomes something distinctly disturbed and consistently crude. Under either name, The Love Girls/Love is a Four Letter Word succeeds in showing why R. L. Lee Frost remains one of the genre’s giants.

by Bill Gibron

18 Jan 2009

2008 was an interesting year for fans of the comedy classic Mystery Science Theater 3000. Not only did Mike Nelson and his creative collective - Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett - keep their take on the type - Rifftrax - alive and thriving, but original series creator Joel Hodgson jumped back into the in-theater commentary biz with his latest enterprise, Cinematic Titanic. Bringing along former cast mates Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein, he set up a vague, very familiar premise utilizing silhouetted figures making fun of really bad films. Unlike his previous cable TV hit, there were no robots or outer space set-ups to be found.

Over the last 12 months, this new enterprise has self-released five hilarious installments - The Oozing Skull, The Doomsday Machine, The Wasp Woman, Legacy of Blood, and a revamp of the MST masterwork Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. They’ve also toured around the country offering a “live” version of their experiments. Now 2009 starts off right where the group began. Its latest offering, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, is yet another rotten attempt at entertainment exposed and upended by our loveable band of comics. The narrative centers around the current Count Frankenstein (a thoroughly embarrassed Rossano Brazzi), his staff of bumbling bit players (including Wild Wild West‘s Michael Dunn as the requisite dwarf) and a countryside inhabited by not one, but two ancient cavemen (Loren Ewing, and the oddly named “Boris Lugosi”). 

When the Count’s fetching daughter Maria and her best buddy Valda show up at the castle, they are just in time to indulge in the madman’s latest act of playing God. When the villagers discovered the primitive people, they did what every rational backwater burg would do - they bludgeoned one of them to death with a rock. Using his lightning collection device, the Count has transplanted a girl’s brain into his ‘Goliath’s’ head, and has brought ‘it’ back to life. When Valda learns of the evil experiments she immediately throws herself at the aging scientist. In the meantime, the servants play hide the superstition behind each others back, our little person is banished to a nearby cave, and remaining Neanderthal Ook gets his revenge on all who sought to make his species extinct.

As an example of mid ‘70s ersatz exploitation, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks is rather anemic. While there is some minor nudity (Maria and Valda swim topless in one scene) and a tiny bit of grue thanks to implied brain surgery, this is clearly a last gasp attempt at getting wayward teens to take a trip to the local drive-in. The sensationalized title, along with the promise of something even more promiscuous (the trailer apparently emphasized the bare bodkins on display) must have been pretty potent back in the day. Even with its lackluster thrills and total lack of chills, there are still those who think kindly on this poorly dubbed import from Italy. The presence of Dick Randall (Pieces) behind the scenes as producer and director probably helps.

Yet this is clearly a hunk of hackneyed horse apple, a laborious attempt at creating macabre out of a moldy, middling molehill. Period authenticity goes immediately out the window when the villagers are shown. Some are dressed like extras from any number of Hammer horror efforts. Others apparently walked onset in jeans and t-shirts. There are lapses in logic, incomplete subplots, a total lack of suspense, and a weird sort of halting homoeroticism between Dunn’s dwarf and Lugosi’s incomprehensible Ook - which means, of course, it’s the perfect fodder for Hodgson and his co-workers in wit. Like the best episodes of MST (and now CT), we are treated to laugh out loud moments of sublime cinematic slamming.

Before things get going, we are warned about a new piece of technology about to be employed. Alternatively known as the “Boob” or “Breast Blimp”, this zeppelin shaped shadow is used whenever our lead actresses decide to get randy and drop blou. Immediately upon being utilized, several male members of the cast dismiss its necessity outright. While it only appears twice, it is a refreshing and funny device. Elsewhere, the by now familiar ‘frame stop’ skit sequence is attempted, this time giving Trace an opportunity to complain about the treatment of the Frankenstein name in the film. Unfortunately, everyone else seems to think he’s picking on Frank Conniff, and a big misunderstanding begins.

All throughout the running time of this spastic spooky vision, the collective tears into the film, finding fault with just about everything. They especially hate the rather short loin clothes worn by Ook, the completely ineffectual work of the village police, the very creepy May/December dalliance between the Count and Valda, and anything to do with Dunn, Lugosi, and Ewing’s Goliath. Oddly enough, a couple of four letter words litter some of the later comments. While nothing as pronounced as the F-bomb, it’s unusual for a self-marketed series to censor one type of material - female nudity - and yet allow the cast to use a more blue style of satire. As with many installments in the Cinematic Titanic series, there is definitely a more adult tone toward the funny business. But apparently, the mammary is verboten.

Still, as a starter for the year to come, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks proves that 2008 was no fluke. As Nelson, Murphy and Corbett continue to make fun of every current blockbuster that hits the Cineplex (Rifftrax are audio only, remember), Hodgson and the rest of the ex-Mystery Science staff keep plugging away at a true performance paradigm. Sure, both efforts are exceptional, providing the kind of well-placed ridicule that gives film purists palpitations. But even the most die hard lover of cinema can’t truly defend this erratic Euro-trash. Pondering, plodding, and preposterous, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks is truly terrible. But when placed in the talented hands of the geniuses at Cinematic Titanic, it turns into a cracking comedy gem.

//Mixed media

'Who' Will Be the Next Doctor?

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