Thursday, May 31, 2007

Correcting an Icon

This past weekend we attended our niece's graduation from Patrick Henry High School in Emory, VA. I'd attended several for daughters and children of family friends at Orange County High School, and naturally there were many differences between the ceremonies of the two schools.

One thing was the same, though -- a sonic icon was mangled yet again.

Orange always listed the "Pomp and Circumstance March" by Alger. Patrick Henry listed the "Processional March" by Edgar. And in neither case did the school band play anything but the middle part of the piece -- although Patrick Henry's had an arrangement which tacked on a brief intro!

Because of the nature of the event, I don't expect to see the full title of the work in the program (Pomp and Circumstance March, Op. 39, No. 1 in D major), but I do expect an institute of learning to get the name right.

Edward Elgar is one of the most famous composer's people don't know. His "Enigma" Variations was the first British score to achieve international success since the days of Henry Purcell, reestablishing the UK as a major musical center. His cello concerto and violin concertos are repertoire standards, and some of his shorter works, such as his Serenade for Strings are frequently performed.

Personally, I think his symphonies are underperformed, and there are several other Elgar compositions I revisit on a regular basis.

It's a shame most graduation ceremonies only opt for the slow portion of the Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1 (he wrote five, all about equal in quality). The bustling opening section maintains the same tempo, yet provides some interesting contrasts. And it gives the middle section more weight when heard in context.

Consider this an example of an icon that misrepresents what it stands for. The "Graduation March" does a disservice to Elgar's ouvre -- not to mention the work its excerpted from. Maybe misidentifying the composer is a plus.

Which leads me to wonder what other icons are distortions -- rather than representations -- of their sources?

- Ralph

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Investigating an Icon

At left is a very famous image -- a still from the Harold Lloyd movie, "Safety Last." In fact, it's become an icon. It's often used as a visual shorthand for Lloyd's career, and for silent movie comedians as a group.

When I investigated this icon, I discovered a world of entertainment hidden behind this frozen image.

I received the first three discs of the Harold Lloyd collection from Netflix, and started off with "Safety Last."

First discovery -- the tower-climbing sequence is hysterical, but there's another scene where Lloyd's desperately trying to get to work on time, hopping from one vehicle to another that's equally funny. And there are a number of smaller stunts and bits of physical humor that are almost as brilliant. This is an incredibly funny film, and it's a crime that so few people have seen it, compared to Keaton's "The General," or Chaplin's "Gold Rush."

Second discovery -- "Safety Last" wasn't a fluke. While Lloyd tends to play the same basic character, the stories and situations varied greatly from film to film, and I was amazed that sheer invention of the physical humor. "Girl Shy" and "Hot Water" might not be as great as "Safety Last," but they'll deliver an evening's worth of chuckles for sure.

Third discovery -- Lloyd comedic genius wasn't limited to physical comedy. Also included in the set were some of his movies from the 1930's. Lloyd's deadpan delivery is somewhat reminicent of Bob Hope and while physical humor is still present, its been supplemented by breezy, witty dialog and word play.

Fourth discovery -- Una Merkel. She co-starred with Lloyd in "Cat's Paw." I had seen her before in "42nd Street," but here she really gets to carry the picture. If you can imagine Eve Arden delivery and timing with a thick Kentucky accent, you'll have a good idea of what Merkel brings to the screen. I'll be looking for more films by her.

Is the point of this post to encourage you to start watching Harold Lloyd? No, but if you did, you wouldn't be sorry. The point is this -- none of these four discoveries were apparent just from looking at the icon. I had to get behind the image.

For the curious, there are many rewards for investigating icons -- this is just a post about one of them.

- Ralph

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Bose Art

Talking with a UVa marketing major recently, I was surprised to discover that Bose® isn't used as a case study. Bose has carefully built their brand equity by delivering what their customers want -- better than average sound, discretely elegant styling, simplest possible setup and operation.

Harkening back to the Pew study, Bose successfully markets to those who either use technology grudgingly, or those who prefer not to use it at all. And by serving that large demographic well, they've become a very successful company. Here's how:

  1. Bose knows technical specs are intimidating to the average person -- Bose doesn't use them.
  2. Bose knows their customers don't read Stereo Review audiophile magazines. Bose places ads in the publications their customers do read -- upscale and general interest publications, like Architectural Digest and Parade Magazine.
  3. Bose knows hooking up electronics is scary for most people. Bose uses propiatary color-coded connectors. Everything hooks up just one way, and connectors are kept to a minimum, well within the comfort level of non-technical folks.
  4. Bose knows mixing and matching A/V gear is off-putting. Bose designs their products so that Bose gear always works with Bose gear. As long as you buy Bose, compatiblity is never an issue, and its always easy to hook up.
  5. Bose knows their customers don't think A/V gear is the most important part of their life. Bose equipment is styled to unobtrusively blend in to the decor -- not call attention to itself.

Finally, consider the Bose's uMusic® intellegent playback system. Feed CDs into the media center of a Bose Lifestyle® system (or similar Bose home theater system), and all the tracks are automatically copied. The system's loaded with a database of albums and titles, so it automatically fills in that info. Call the menu up on your TV, and delete out the tracks you don't want. Voila -- you've got a digital music library.

While this may seem awkward compared to the iTunes or Windows Media experiecne, consider this: Umusic lets you build a digital music library without using a computer or the Internet.

And that's appealing to a significant part of the population -- perhaps as much as 49%.

So why aren't marketing majors studying Bose? It's a mystery to me.

- Ralph

Saturday, May 26, 2007

And then there were three.

EMI was bought by Terra Firma, an investment firm. Surprisingly, the story was buried in the business sections of most papers. One would think that when the number of companies that control an industry are reduced from four to three it would be major news.

Look for consolidation in the near future with Warner Music, which may use the "back door" approach to purchase EMI. When it was one record company buying another, anti-trust regulations kicked in. But a record label purchasing from an unrelated business is something else again.

The real story here, though, is the loss of even more music. Warner, EMI, Universal and Sony/BMG got to where they are by buying up smaller independent labels. And the same scenario was played out time and again. The major label bought the indie primarily for their top artists. Once the deal was done, most of the roster was dropped, and the bottom two-thirds of the catalog was allowed to go out of print.

As the majors continued to gobble up labels, this trash compacter effect grew. There are many albums and artists that were on Columbia, Asylum, Angel and Bluenote that have never been reissued.

The reason has to do with the economies of scale. An independent label's reissue can turn a profit even if it only sells 1,000 units if its marketed properly. Indie labels usually have close connections with their specialty markets, and can effectively get the word out.

For a major label, reissue of less than 10,000 units is simply not cost-effective. Majors are happy for third-party reissue labels to license their material for re-release, as long as they pony up the cash for that minimum run of 10,000 units (I'm speaking from personal experience here).

Every buyout prompts a round of artists being dropped and titles disappearing. Should Warner buy EMI, expect not only some EMI artists to get the ax, but some Warner artists as well. And even more music from both giants will disappear. And the sad thing is, nothing about this has to do with the music itself -- its all economics.

- Ralph

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Virtual Reality Check

The Pew Internet and American Life Project recently completed a survey on technology use -- with some very interesting results. 49% of those surveyed had no use for technology. Some don't because they can't afford to, some because they're too old to adapt. But then there are some that actually uses cellphones, Internet connections, etc., but only gudgingly.

Let's ponder that for a second. The knowledge available on the Internet, the discussions in blogs and forums, podcasts, streaming videos, late-breaking news, citizen-journalism -- almost half the population doesn't know about it, and/or doesn't care.

According to the survey, there aren't two monolithic blocks of haves and have-nots glaring at each other across the digital divide (I've talked about this before). There are subgroups who accept or reject technology in varying degrees.

Check out the report, and take the survey's quiz to see where you fall in the spectrum (I'm a Connector). And as we continue to read, and explore and converse over the Internet, it will be helpful to remember those who don't -- by choice.

- Ralph

E-citizenry and the open Congress

As part of the Save Internet Radio initiative, I e-mailed my representative, Eric Cantor (R-Va). Like many campaigns these days, I had the option of cutting and pasting a prewritten message, but I chose to write a personal note. After all, it was important to me, so I felt I should invest some time in the message rather than just sending an e-mail that said "ditto."

I received a thoughtful response from representative Cantor that I much appreciated. And I'll be responding shortly with a clarifying e-mail.

While the only difference between this exchange happening in 1957 and 1997 is snail mail vs. e-mail, what happens next will be very different, indeed.

Thanks to, I will be able to track the bills I am interested in, and also monitor the votes of my elected representatives either for or against them. And, potentially, I'll know what happens within minutes of those votes being cast. represents the power of the web harnessed for good. This one site aggregates data from congressional sources, as well as news sites and blog entries related to issues before the Senate and the House -- and it's politically neutral. The aggregater pulls together all the facts, I make my own conclusions.

I find it invaluable, and check it daily to monitor the issues I'm care about (and find out about others I hadn't been aware of). A democracy is best served by an informed citizenry. -- and resources like it --can get us closer to that ideal, if we choose to use it.

- Ralph

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Tuning in the Amazon

Ken's dead on about the new music store. It's a good example of the free marketplace at work -- and it may very well be a market indicator.

We sometimes forget that there were many online music stores before iTunes -- only a few of which are still with us. iTunes brought uniform pricing ($0.99 a track) and the least onerous DRM -- the limits were loose enough that most people could pretty much do what they wanted to with the music. That magic combination brought on legal download music boom.

But there were some downsides -- there was still some DRM which meant (among other things), that iTunes purchases could only be played on iPods (we won't go into the work-arounds with this post). And all the downloaded tracks were 128Kbps files -- pretty much the minimal exceptable rate for sound quality.

When EMI and iTunes announced their deal to offer DRM-free tracks, they sweeted the pot a little. The new tracks will cost $1.29, and will be 256Kbps files. Not only can you do what you want to with the tracks, but the sound quality will be significantly better.

And there's some speculation that Amazon may take a similar tack and offer tracks at 192Kbps.

Which may give consumers a choice -- get the cheap version that's a little clunky to use and sounds OK, or spend a little more and get a better sounding version that you can use any way you want. I don't think we'll see a complete blowout for either choice.

There are some songs that I'm marginally interested in -- I wouldn't mind having a copy for 0.99. Songs I really like, though, I would want to own at the best possible sound quality, and would be willing to pay accordingly. Will the buying public agree? We may soon find out.

- Ralph

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Stepping outside the teapot

As Ralph so eloquently described in his last post, many of the issues revolving around digital music and how it's sold and distributed can totally escape the notice of otherwise well-informed people. But it's a sign of how much the business of selling music has changed that the news that Amazon would soon start selling non-DRM music files made headlines.

If you'd like a good layman's analysis of the story, check out NPR's story from today's Morning Edition.

How successful will Amazon be in their new undertaking? Hard to predict. The vast majority of legally downloaded music flows through Apple's iTunes Store. They've pioneered the process and have built an attractive web presence that gets the job done pretty easily, even for the non-tech savvy (I'll testify to that after watching my wife happily buy songs for her new iPod last night).

I use Amazon a lot -- it's a convenient way to find books and music online, and they've earned my trust. I imagine I'll give their new music store a chance, but it's a free marketplace -- if it has what I want and it's easy to use, I'll come back. If it doesn't -- well that's the free market.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Traversing the Teapot Tempests

The other day a colleague sent me an MSNBC article about the RIAA's shakedown of college students. He sent it because it was the first he had heard about it. My friend sent the article to several other people, which prompted some discussion. During the conversation I discovered that another colleague, though very knowledgable about the RIAA and MPAA's ongoing like/hate relationship with their customers confessed to have completely missed the Digg revolt.

This made me realise that the universality of the Internet is something of an illusion. The RIAA/College story has been the subject of fierce debate for months -- but my colleague was completely unaware of it, as he doesn't regularly visit the same news sites I do.

As of today, the HD-DVD code shows postings, spurred by the Digg revolt, on over 8 million sites (according to Google) -- yet it completely escaped the attention of someone interested in the subject.

A poor reflection on my colleagues? Hardly. Within every community there are epic battles being fought for the hearts and minds of the members -- struggles that are all-consuming to the participants, yet go completely unremarked by those on the outside.

The Internet is a vast jumble of information that we must each sort out for ourselves. The difference between a political fight in the Orange County Garden Club and several million people revolting against HD-DVD DRM is just matter of scale. As long as the fight remains in the closed system of the community, it's just a tempest in a teapot.

What to do? For those on the inside, spread the word to other communities. When the full fury of Interet radio supporters descended on Congress, a bill to remedy the ruinous new royalty rates was written and sponsored within days. The Internet radio community invaded the congressional community and got results.

And for those on the outside, make it a point to check those rattling teapots and see what's going on. Many things are happening in there that need to be addressed soon -- because by the time the general public finds out about them, it may be too late.

- Ralph

Monday, May 14, 2007

The RIAA and a Polk in the i-Sonic

I attended a demonstration of the new i-Sonic digital entertainment center from Polk Audio this past Friday. The i-Sonic is the result of some very forward-thinking on Polk's part. Recognising that today's customers want simplicity and compactness, they've created sort of a Swiss Army knife tabletop radio.

The i-Sonic plays both CDs and DVDs, so you can hook it up to a small TV and have a self-contained entertainment system. It also has an AM and FM radio with an HD Radio tuner. It comes XM Satellite Radio Ready, so once you plug in an XM tuner, you'll see the info displayed on the i-Sonic. It also has auxiliary input so you can, according to their literature, plug in a SIRIUS Satellite Radio unit, or connect an iPod or other portable digital music player.

The system also has four speakers, one at each corner that project overlapping soundfields so that even if you're listening off-center, you'll hear both channels. And the thing has a bass port in it to reenforce the lows. It's a pretty remarkable device, but that's not the true purpose of this post.

The purpose is to reflect on something the Polk representative said. He said the i-Sonic represented Polk Audio's shift from a high-end stereo speaker company to a digital entertainment company.

Let's look at that again. Polk Audio, who have been building audiophile-grade speakers since 1972, is moving to a different aspect of the home audio market. With the onslaught of the iPod, stereo component sales have gone into decline. Polk is taking their audio expertise and using it to serve their customers where they've moved to -- not where they've been.

And here's another lesson for the RIAA.

Polk didn't lobby Congress to create laws to force customers to buy component audio again.
They didn't sue Apple or Creative for making devices that killed their business.
They didn't blindly go on as before, building beautiful speaker cabinets that sold fewer and fewer units each year.

No. Polk looked at shift in the buying patterns of the public and decided move with the market. And rather than scold their customers for no longer buying stereo components, Polk's decided to deliver the compact digital systems the customer wants -- and to make those the best-sounding systems they possibly can.

The RIAA isn't just not listening to their customers -- they're steadfastly clinging to an outmoded business model when other companies around them are changing and thriving as a result. Polk Audio is doing what's necessary to ensure its survival. The RIAA has chosen a different course.

- Ralph

Friday, May 11, 2007

Sipping the Corporate Kool-Aid

Yesterday I gained some new insight into the workings of corporate culture. I attended a presentation by a major electronics manufacturer, showcasing their new line of receivers. The trainer was talking about their new capabilities, including a USB port that let them play music from thumb drives.

He then pointed out that since his company was also in the music business, he was duty-bound to remind everyone that copying music was illegal -- you should only use these devices to play songs you've purchased. The caution was delivered with a bit of a wink, suggesting to the audience that he knew full well the realities of music usage.

Later in the presentation he demonstrated the capabilities of these receivers to stream Internet radio stations and subscribe to podcasts. He gave us a brief overview about all the wonderful topics podcasts covered, and then said "but of course there's no music podcasts."

After the presentation we had a chance to talk, and we used the receiver to "tune in" to a music podcast. He was well aware of the many music podcasts listed in the menus, but had assumed they were all discussions about music -- because it was illegal to use music in a podcast.

Now that's partially true. RIAA members refuse to let their music be used for podcasting. The logic goes like this:
  • A podcast is distributed as an MP3 file.
  • If it's used in a podcast, our music will be put on that distributed MP3 file.
  • People steal music by distributing it on MP3 files.
  • Therefore, allowing podcasters to use our music is the same as letting people steal our music.

The trainer was surprised to discover that many of the music podcasts listed were chock-full of music. And it was all legal, as these podcasts used songs from independent artists and labels who either granted permission for usage on an individual basis, or granted blanket permission by either designating their tracks "podsafe" and/or posting them with a Creative Commons license.

Why did someone who used podcasts regularly not know about music podcasts? Because the corporate culture he worked in shared the premise that major label music couldn't be used, therefore no music was used. The culture created a blindspot.

And that's the takeaway from this story. Many of the people who work at the major record labels and the RIAA aren't evil -- they're simply so steeped in the assumptions of the corporate culture that they see things differently than those on the outside, which is where the conflict comes in. They've all taken a sip of the corporate kool-aid. It's the ones who drain the glass and ask for a refill that one needs to be concerned about.....

- Ralph

Friday, May 04, 2007

The Revolution Will Be Dugg

Did you miss it? Many people on the wrong side of the digital subdivision did – and even some who weren’t.

If you need to get up to speed, here’s the short version (find a long version here). Part of the reason the entertainment industry is pushing HD-DVD and/or Blu-ray discs to replace standard DVDs is that these new formats have encryption keys that severely restrict what the consumer can do with them – even more so than with DVDs. This “unbreakable” encryption was promptly hacked – as virtually every form of DRM is.

The Shot Heard Round the World came Tuesday, when the numeric code was posted to, and promptly voted to the top of the lists. The AACS, which administered the code issued a cease and desist order. Digg complied, and the code was immediately reposted. As fast as posts were removed, new posts were added – sometimes faster. Eventually Digg bowed to the will of its subscribers and gave up trying to stop the tidal wave with a teaspoon.

Within a day the encryption code was all over the Internet. It was in subject lines of posts, Photoshopped into pictures, set to music, inserted in blogs and available just about everywhere.

While much virtual ink has already been spilled over what this means for DRM, I’d like to focus on the biggest picture.

The HD-DVD revolt was the greatest act of civil disobedience the world has seen.

There were so many posts – and not just at Digg – that it was simply impossible for the AAC to remove that hexadecimal code from the Internet.

Not everyone’s been paying attention, but we’ve been building towards this point for a while. The Bum Rush the Charts initiative did affect the iTunes music chart. The campaign to save Internet radio has spurred Congressional action. There’s been nothing like this before – but there will again.

When the online community vented their anger and frustration at the AACS, though, they displayed a magnitude of power not seen before – but I suspect one we’ll see again.

This time the spotlight was on something an industry wanted to remain hidden. What if next time it’s something a government wants to remain buried?

When the smoke cleared at Concord in 1775, things hadn’t changed that much. The map still showed 13 English colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America. Many living there still thought of themselves as English subjects, and a majority weren’t even aware of what had happened in Massachusetts. But the battle of Concord started a chain of events that changed everything in only six years.

Where will this act of international civil disobedience take us six years hence?

- Ralph

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The RIAA and Wimpy WiFi - Part 2

Let's review: what most people want in a WiFi-enabled MP3 player is pretty straightforward. They want a player with similar capabilities to a cellphone, or a laptop. It should be able to access the Internet through hotspots. It should be able to send files back and forth to other WiFi-enabled devices, and perhaps sync wirelessly with a PC.

Here's the thing -- whoever delivers such a device will make a fortune. In the meantime, however, the RIAA relentlessly continues to stop, or at least slow down, the market's move to the digital domain.

The Sansa CONNECT is a step closer, but its still not there. Developed in conjuction with Yahoo!, the CONNECT has some wireless capability. It's limited, but certainly more open than the Zune.

The CONNECT can access any open WiFi hotspot (one step forward), but can only access Yahoo! (one step back), and only if you subscribe to Yahoo!'s music service (another step back).

You can listen to Internet radio with the player (one step forward), but only those associated with Yahoo! Music (one step back). You can't wirelessly sync the CONNECT (one step back), but it does have an SD memory card slot so you can actually expand the player's memory (one step forward).

If you subscribe to Yahoo!'s music service, then the CONNECT is a great player. Of course, you can't share music with other WiFi devices (one step back), but at least you have access to a lot of music. It's a start, and it will probably do well. But if Sansa were to deliver the WiFi-enabled MP3 player everyone wants, how much more successful could it be?

- Ralph