Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Seek the source, confirm the context

I viewed and thoroughly enjoyed Fritz Lang's 1928 silent film "Spies" this weekend. But this post isn't about my viewing habits –- it's about what happened next.

Long-time readers know that I greatly admire Lang's "Metropolis," although it's something of a narrative mess.

I'd read reviews about how "Metropolis" fit into Lang's ouvre, but I wanted to see his work for myself, rather than rely on the judgement of others. And seeking the source came with rewards. I found "Woman in the Moon" and "Spies" compelling viewing, and well worth the time investment.

And after watching "Spies," I could begin to appreciate Lang's story-telling ability. All three movies mentioned above shared many similarities. Although all had an original running time of over two hours, the narratives seldom flagged and the subplots had time to fully develop and help support the main story.

I now have a context in which to place "Metropolis," and can see how the ruthlessly edited version that survives only hints at the power of the original.

And that's the point. Regardless of what the subject is, going back to the source materials can bring additional insights. And only by placing something in context can it be fully appreciated.

Yesterday the DVD was mailed back to Netflix, but I'm still processing what I saw and reevaluating what I know about Lang's work.

Friday, March 23, 2007

After the Bum Rush

Well, the big event is over, and the dust settles over the Bum Rush the Charts initiative. So how did it fair? Better than some thought.

Let's look at the three things I mentioned yesterday I wanted to focus on:

1) Coverage of any kind -- even a mention -- in the mainstream media
- This actually happened, albeit in a limited form. The Washington Post ran the story on Wednesday, as did the Mercury News Wire Service.
2) Coverage of any kind in the online editions of any mainstream media outlet
- The Washington Post article was online, and the Mercury piece showed up on several newspaper websites. I could find no mention of the story on CNN.com, MSNBC.com, or the BBC's website.
3) Coverage of any kind in blogs and other online media sites not directly involved with music - There were some, but not many. And of the blogs and comments posted, there was a variety of opinion, even some suspicion that it was all a clever marketing ploy.

And some people had problems with the artwork, which featured a drawing of a nekked lady, and declined to participate (an expurgiated version of the cover appears above).

Nevertheless, the song did get up to #67 on the iTunes rock charts, even if it didn't crack the overall top 100.

But this story isn't quite over, yet. In Europe, "Mine Again" ranked even higher (due, in part, to the smaller market). This give it a real chance of showing up on things like the BBC Radio One official chart, which includes download sales in its tabulation.

Potentially, the Bum Rush may have given Black Lab enough of a boost to attract the attention of a more mainstream audience, and thereby showing the indirect -- yet substantial -- power of a concerted Internet initiative.

- Ralph

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The RIAA and the bum's rush

Today we see how powerful the web actually is. Today, everyone participating in the "Bum Rush the Charts" initiative will sign on to iTunes and purchase "Mine Again" by Black Lab. The goal is to show the music industry how much clout podcasters and bloggers really have, and how much purchasing power the RIAA risks losing by its continued whack-a-mole lawsuit strategies. If the plan is successful, "Mine Again" will rocket to the top of the iTunes chart for one day.

I invite you to pay close attention to the effects of this initiative. I'm curious to see how "Bum Rush the Charts" plays out across the digital divide -- and the digital subdivisions. Here's some things to look for over the next few days:

1) Coverage of any kind -- even a mention -- in the mainstream media
2) Coverage of any kind in the online editions of any mainstream media outlet
3) Coverage of any kind in blogs and other online media sites not directly involved with music

Ask others if they've even heard of the initiative. Most of the people I know haven't -- they're on the Internet but not really on the Internet. I hope the Bum's Rush succeeds (I've already purchased my copy). I wonder if it will succeed in crossing the digital subdivisions.

- Ralph

Monday, March 19, 2007

The RIAA and the singular song

There’s much talk about the recording industry finding new models (nad their steadfast resistance to do so). One of the most successful ways might actually be quite old.

Industry types are decrying the prominence of singles. Most legal downloads are individual songs – not albums. But this a la cart purchasing is nothing new. From the late 1950’s until the early 1970’s the 45 rpm single was king. For the teens and preteens who made up the bulk of the record-buying market, the 45 rpm was an affordable, and convenient way to purchase music.

After all, you got the song you wanted (and if the B side was any good, a bonus song as well). You could put a stack of them on your record player and hear the songs you liked in the order you wanted to. You could even repeat the same song over and over. Sound familiar?

The majors are still stuck in the business model they developed when they killed off the CD single in the late 1990’s. That is, if you like the hit song, purchase the album. The labels moved away from singles not because of demand, but because the profit margins were higher for albums (I’ll be glad to break down costs sometime if anyone’s interested).

When consumers could only purchase physical product, this model worked. Within three years after the death of the CD single though, the original Napster sprang up, letting fans get the individual songs they wanted digitally. And the damage was done.

People became used to getting music for free, greatly reducing the perceived value of the CD. Record companies began looking at their core customer base as the enemy.

iTunes demonstrated that customers will pay for music, when they can get what they want at a reasonable price. $0.99 is a short step from free. But few pony up $9.99 for the full album. Why pay for filler?

Rather than decrying the consumer’s buying habits, the record labels should embrace it the way the did back in the 1960’s. When the 45 rpm was the standard, labels regularly released singles by a plethora of groups that only recorded a handful of songs.

And it’s a model that could work today. Fans have already voted with their dollars – they’d rather have one solid song than several mediocre ones.

It’s less expensive to record one song than it is to record an album’s worth. It’s also quicker. True, it’s a smaller margin, but less cost. The public’s telling the labels what they want. The labels that provide it will reap the benefit. The ones that don’t will continue to unsuccessfully try to turn back the clock to the 1990’s. The irony is that they don’t want to turn it back far enough.

- Ralph

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The RIAA and the treeless forest

The oft-cited observation that one can't see the forest for the trees works in reverse as well. Sometimes you can't see the trees for the forest. That is, thinking of something as a unit sometimes blinds you to its constituent parts.

The RIAA is often referred to as if it were a single entity acting independently, but that's not quite the case. Its a trade organization that represents the interests of its members -- primarily the major record labels. And the major labels (Warner, Sony/BMG, EMI, Universal) are themselves conglomerates of several smaller labels that were either purchased or created along the way.

This layering has, in my opinion, helped insulate the labels from the consequences of their actions. The RIAA does what it does because that's what it's members want it to do. If you're upset about the RIAA's tactics and want to send a message by boycotting, go ahead. But there's no RIAA label for you not to buy.

Some savvy folks understand that its the member labels that drive the RIAA's actions, and take appropriate action. You may choose not to buy any record from the Universal Music Group, for example, but do you know enough to also pass on releases by Lost Highway Records, Geffen and Verve?

To help sort things out, there's the RIAA Radar. Simply enter an album, artist or label and it will tell you if the release(s) are by an RIAA member. The purpose of this post isn't a call to action, just a call to informed decision-making. Check the radar out and enter a few things. You might be surprised at what you find.

If the RIAA is the forest, then the majors are groves made up of stands of individual trees. So what are you seeing -- forest, grove, or tree?

- Ralph

Monday, March 12, 2007

The RIAA and the polyphonic pirate

Doug Morris, CEO of Universal Music (a key member of the RIAA), there's only one way to think of MP3 players.
"These devices are just repositories for stolen music, and they [the users] all know it."
I took a look at what's on my iPod to see how much truth there was in Mr. Morris' allegation on a personal level. I currently store about 3,800 tracks on my 20GB iPod (have to save some room for podcasts, you know). Of those tracks, I have approximately 450 tracks legally downloaded directly from independent artist and label websites. None of these are RIAA members.

I have 411 classical selections, pulled from 263 different CDs in my possession. Only 60 of those CDs are from RIAA members, or about 22%..

Of the remaining songs (about 2,900), I've pulled selections from 425 albums, of which 260 are from RIAA member labels. So approximately 120 classical tracks and 1,450 songs are from RIAA member labels, or roughly 41% of my iPod's content.

And where did those albums come from? My own collection. Some I purchased new, some used, some I picked up at trade shows.

So one might conclude that Mr. Morris is wrong and my iPod is hardly "a repository of stolen music." And the RIAA position in testimony before the Supreme Court in 2005 would agree.
"The record companies, my clients, have said, for some time now, and it's been on their website for some time now, that it's perfectly lawful to take a CD that you've purchased, upload it onto your computer, put it onto your iPod."

Fast forward to 2006, though, and the RIAA sings a different DRM-protected tune:

"Nor does the fact that permission to make a copy in particular circumstances is often or even routinely granted, necessarily establish that the copying is a fair use when the copyright owner withholds that authorization.

Translation: Unless you get permission from the record companies, ripping CDs to a computer is not considered fair use, and is therefore unauthorized copying.

A simple shift of semantics has turned me from good citizen to desperate criminal. Shiver me timbers! But to confuse the issue even further, according to the RIAA's own website:
"If you choose to take your own CDs and make copies for yourself on your computer or portable music player, that's great. It's your music and we want you to enjoy it at home, at work, in the car and on the jogging trail."
So perhaps I'm not such a blackguard after all -- for the moment.

- Ralph

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The RIAA and the low-price spread

I find an interesting parallel between the struggles of the RIAA to completely lock down sound recordings digitally, and the history of margarine.

Margarine was developed as a substitute for butter back in the 1870's, and proved so popular that the dairy industry began a protracted struggle to deny people what they wanted and force them to return to purchasing only butter.

Laws were passed practically banning its use. Since margarine isn't naturally yellow, the industry pushed laws through that required the consumer add the coloring in an attempt to make it less appealing. Special taxes were created to keep the price of margarine artificially high, and help make butter more competitive.

But all the laws and taxes and restrictions couldn't change the fact that consumers liked margarine -- sometimes because of avalablity during dairy shortages, sometimes because of price.

Now in a free market system, when a competing product comes out, one can either
a) adapt it to your own uses, or
b) come out with something better.

The dairy industry chose
c) use your money and influence to kill off the competition.

It didn't work. The consumer had already chosen, and margarine wasn't going away.

In time, the industry went with (a). Despite all the lobbying, all the laws and all the taxes and restrictions, the public never returned to buying only butter. They had developed new eating habits and new buying habits, and it wasn't until the industry recognized that fact and started providing customers with what they wanted that it stopped leaving money on the table and began to enjoy the benefits of this new market.

And that's the lesson for the recording industry. People use music differently now, and their buying patterns have changed. The model of selling a physical product (be it CD, cassette, 8-track tape, LP or 78rpm record) is fading. The major labels, through the RIAA, are spending an obscene amount of money lobbying Congress, launching lawsuits and trying every way imaginable to put the genie back in the bottle -- while crying about declining revenue.

It may be painful, but it's past time to change. No one's going to abandon the convenience of digital music once they've tried it. Listening habits have changed; buying habits have changed. I think the music industry could be revitalized virtually overnight if only they embraced the lessons of margarine.

- Ralph

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The RIAA and the digital divide

There's a maelstrom of activity on the Internet, with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) at the center. Relax, this isn't a rant against the RIAA. A simple Google search will give you plenty of those, written with more insight and eloquence than I could muster.

Instead, I'd like to offer up the RIAA as a litmus test for which side of the digital divide someone's on. Gizmodo has launched an initiative to boycott the RIAA, urging everyone to not buy anything from the major labels. Others have taken up the call -- Podcasting News is spotlighting indie music podcasts throughout the month of March. There's a grassroots initiative to "bum rush the charts" -- on March 22nd everyone is to purchase a certain song on iTunes, causing a spike in sales and hopefully making a point. Online, the reaction against the RIAA seems to be everywhere -- online.

Those on the other side of the digital divide remain unaware of any of this. So here's the test. Ask someone if they've heard of the RIAA. Their response will be most illuminating. I've tried it with some of our friends who spend a great deal of time online forwarding e-mail jokes and recipes. Although they're on the Internet, they're not really on the Internet. They have no idea what I'm talking about.

As I've pointed out before, there's a digital divide not just between the on-liners and off-liners, but within the on-line community as well. Asking "What have you heard about the RIAA?" can be a way to illuminate that digital subdivision.

- Ralph

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Pulling cable

Cable service here in Charlottesville, VA hasn't been much to write about. Most recently we've been served(?) by Adelphia Cable, who were much more adapt at losing money than providing quality service or maintaining their infrastructure. The result? Poor reception on many of my favorite channels and a lack of digital and HD broadcasting

The only thing stopping me from moving over to DirecTV was the lack of local channels in our market's packages. That, and the expense of setting up the system I really wanted -- an HD package with built-in Tivo PVR. I'm stingy enough to wait for prices to come down a bit.

So, it was a relief to me to see Comcast take over local operations recently. Now I could hope to see my snowy picture improve, at the very least. Some consolation whilst I await my dream system. Several months in, the news isn't too good yet -- my picture looks the same, and I'm paying more money. At least Comcast is good at sending out glossy brochures enticing me to sign up for digital cable.

However, hope remains. Through the local A/V grapevine I've been able to track down occasional SDTV and HDTV broadcasts on unused subchannels. This has been erratic at best. On some evenings I'll pick up beautiful HD signals on my Sony 34" TV, but more often than not, my explorations have come up empty, with "No signal" showing on channels I was watching the night before.

The other positive development has been the regular appearance of work gangs pulling new cable through the system. Nothing's hooked up yet, but the appearance of bundles of cable springing daffodil-like out of the ground is like a sign of spring after a hard winter.

I can only hope.