A tale of global stupid

I like The Strokes, so when I saw that I could pre-purchase the band’s new album for just $US7.99 I jumped at the chance.

The official Sony Music download site offering this service is US based and has made the album available on March 22nd.

So fancy my surprise when I learn that the album has already been released here in Australia. I can even buy it on iTunes.

Without waiting for the 22nd.

I’ve argued before that territorial copyright just ain’t working no more. Giving away distribution fiefdoms to subsidiaries or rights-holders in different nations makes little or no sense in an age when no matter where you disseminate information it can reach the whole planet.

But this incident takes the whole thing to  new dimension of stupid. We’re all used to the USA being the “master market” where stuff gets released first. Now territorial copyright is making even that assumption unreliable.

I just wanna buy the entertainment I wanna buy, when I wanna buy it?

Can someone get rid of all these arsehats who decide on the dates it suits THEM to release something ?

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Ten reasons this journalist is not banking on anyPad to save my career

I wrote a few weeks ago about my newspaper holiday.

I haven’t been enjoying it. The Australian feels like an endless stream of admonishments from a schoolmistress. I’m always reading that something is badly handled or could be the harbinger of bad times, or that vested interests are somehow being unreasonable in pursuing their vested interests. And I am more offended by a headline attributing personal responsibility for the arrival of refugee boats to the Prime Minister than I am by the illogical, biased and ridiculously-swayed-by-movies opinions of Miranda Devine.

The thing that really grates is News Ltd’s deification of itself and its values. Of late that has meant endless gushing coverage about the iPad, along with generous hints about the publisher’s commitment to the device.

For the record I am yet to behold the device, although I do not doubt reports that it is lovely to use. Apple products tend to be that way. Apple products also tend to sell in the multi-millions, which means there’ll be an audience for content on the iPad. Everyone expects there’ll be competitors, so there’ll be a decent market for content in this form factor.

I cannot see it “saving” journalism – not for years and years, anyway.

Here’s why.

Firstly, the initial audience will be small. You don’t save anything with early adopters. You make something new, so I expect whatever media these devices spawn will not flourish in the ways people now hope or expect. The street, as William Gibson put it, finds its own uses for things.

Secondly, the price is high. I know – d’uh! – it will come down, but exactly why I need to spend $500 on a device so that I can then subscribe to a newspaper is beyond me. My newspaper sub costs $29 a month and I’m cool with the blend of broadsheet accessibility and the lesser iPhone experience when I’m on the move. When News Ltd is willing to give me a tablet/slate – like it happily doles out set-top boxes – I may become more interested.

Third, the idea that dead tree distribution is broken is wrong. It actually works quite well – as Alan Kohler observed, it take a well-oiled machine to get my newspaper onto my front step every morning. Its non-trivial to arrange that distribution system, and if you want proof is there still a milko or bread delivery person in your neighbourhood? More importantly, the business of spreading pigment on sheaves of cellulose, then delivering it to retailer and/or consumers is something publishers invented, so it formed in ways that suit publishers and was even quite vertically integrated until relatively recently. Sure, publishers eventually outsourced lots of the process, but they had invented it to start with and innovation came in specialist areas like logistics.

The iTunes distribution system was not designed by a publisher. It was designed by Apple to make money for Apple. As Apple constantly enforces conditions that crimp its rivals’ activities to preserve its own preferred modus operandi (think Adobe on iPhone), I expect its distribution system will eventually prove to be less-than-ideal for publishers. Just look at its intransigence on music pricing and the small-but-significant number of artists who get on just fine without iTunes – this system is not for everyone!

Fourth, slates do represent convergence of media, but not convergence of devices just yet. Think about it – do you still wear a watch or has your mobile taken over that function? Do you play music or movies through your PC? When we can get it, we want a swiss army knife of a computing device and the iPad and its immediate, 1st-generation competitors aren’t there because they force us to have one device for media consumption and another for other tasks. This will restrict adoption as many people persist with good-enough laptops and PCs for the stuff that slates do exceptionally well.

Fifth: Artefacts matter. I have a room lined with books and 15 years worth of magazines. They look great. People are packrats by nature and artefact hoarding won’t go away in a hurry. Don’t forget the social function of artefact display, either. Your collections say a lot about you and it’s not like someone can come into your house and appreciate your values by seeing your iPad!

Sixth: People are subscription-averse. All the magazines I have ever been associated with get perhaps 20% of their readers from subscribers. Newspapers do better. Quite why we’ll all decide to buy more subs just because they get pumped into a tablet/slate is beyond me.

Seventh: How much value does extra images and video add to news? For me, not much. I’ve almost never opted in for an extended interview online, because for me the news is about getting a concise dump of pre-edited material. I TRUST journalists to bring me the best bits (I know, such naivety!) because I am time-poor and want a quick, digestible content nugget.. Extras slow me down and will need to be bloody good to add value. It takes expensive, collaborative processes to make rich media. Are newspapers really going to invest in the stuff that makes for a satisfying 3-minute video to enhance printed coverage? The small amount of newspaper-created video I’ve seen to date generally does not betray massive mastery of other media – journalists speaking to camera are dull – and I have no information that suggests iPad inspired investments are in the pipeline to change this.

Eighth – The iPad model is terrible for trade publishers, who often rely on “controlled circulation” strategies of sending unsolicited magazines to a desirable audience. How many CIOs are going to give out their iPad Ids to let this happen digitally? SFA, IMHO, ergo the iPad is very unlikely to save trade media, a segment of media that is very large but generally excluded from discussions about the wider media!

Ninth – I just don’t see journalism as having the same susceptibility to iPodisation as music. I’ve long felt that the iPod thrives at the intersection of instant gratification and freedom of choice. Not too long ago, if you wanted to listen to that obscure b-side you last heard sometime last millennium, it was painful to find it and more painful to re-acquire. Now it’s either in your iTunes file or for sale on the iTunes store. Either way, you can access it in less than a minute. Now … name the written product you crave in the same way. I’m betting it takes longer to think up that great article you’d like to experience again than it takes to do the same for a song. I think this is important because the impulse buys and impulse listens that make the iPod so great won’t happen for other media.

Tenth: One of the reasons the mainstream media is in strife is that there are now more outlets in the market. Quite how the iPad or any similar device will stop leakage from MSM to new media is utterly beyond me. As the eyeballs go, the ad rates drop … I see no way out via. an iPad.

All of these reasons mean I am not banking on the iPad to save my career. I’m sure there will be some lovely innovations that emerge, and I hope to be able to participate in some. But I do not expect an immediate – or even short term – uptick in the media’s fortunes as a result of these devices.

Oh and I’m also going to go back to the SMH, even though it means more Miranda …

Post 33:08 A long incoherent ramble about Rock and Roll

Warning: This post is long, illogical, self-indulgent and lacks narrative.

I cannot remember where I heard this piece of dialog, but it haunts me. It went a little something like this:

(Sounds of ‘Hotel California’ in the background)

Dad: I grew up with The Eagles.

Son: So I grew up with The Eagles too.

Dad: So when The Eagles came to Sydney, it was great that we could share it together.

Son: We both knew all the words!

To me, this sounds like hell. So far as I am concerned, it is necessary for kids to hate the culture their parents grew up with. Frankly, if my kids want to listen to the music I listen to, they can get stuffed. I want them to grow up with the most offensive music imaginable and I want them to think I completely fail to understand it, which I almost certainly will.

Why? Well … I think most contemporary music is disposable and that is its beauty. It’s still part of the overall and fast-evolving popular music narrative. It’s just that kids get in on the narrative later than their parents did and therefore understand the newer chapters (and their relationship to older chapters) better than those of us who stopped caring (or no longer have the time to spend enough time surfing the narrative and sort crap from quality) when we hit our thirties.

So I think that imposing your own musical narrative on your kids is, I reckon, a deadly crimp on their personal development because it coagulates their values around the art that formed yours.

That’s why we try to play our kids classic rock as an example, rather than a sample. So we’ll play them some Zeppelin so they get a grounding in music that underpins so much later music, rather than because we want them to listen to Zeppelin with us.

Which brings me to last week, when my wife and I saw The Jesus and Mary Chain. For those of you who do not know the Mary Chain, they are a Scottish Band most famous for matching classic rock melodies with the kind of noise associated with dissonant punk.

The Chain are most recently famous for:

The band broke up after an on-stage dispute between the two brothers in the band, way back in 1998. Which was at least five years after their last album of any note.

Last year, all of a sudden, after both brothers had experienced very indifferent solo careers, they reformed.

I saw them in Vienna (of all places, while backpacking) in 1992. They’re on all my favorite playlists – I love their guitar sound, which is quite beautiful to me – so there was no question about me going.

Now … for some back story.

For the longest time I have felt that Rock and Roll, as a live entertainment, is a terrible rip-off.

A few years ago I was lucky enough to hear Jazz played in New Orleans at the famous Preservation Hall. What struck me about that performance was that when the singer stood up to do his thing, the rest of the band played more quietly so he could be heard.

This is, of course, impossible with live Rock and Roll. I have long felt that there is a weird amplification arms race going on with rock. Because guitars are quiet things they need amplification (also because, of course, rock is a small ensemble thing. Classical copes with amplification issues by simply having LOTS of violins all playing the same thing). Pretty soon the guitars drown out the drums, which must then be amplified.

The eventual result of all this escalation is a live experience that is an aural assault and in which nuanced musicianship becomes bloody hard to detect or appreciate. It’s Mutually Assured Destruction.

The live rock experience is also barbarous in its Spartan comforts. I’ve been going to live rock for nearly 25 years now and the basics have not changed: you stand on a hard floor and hope no-one nearby is:

  • Much taller than you
  • Dancing aggressively enough to hurt you

At the end of the night your ears are ringing, your feet are sore and you are sweaty/bruised/wondering if your toes are broken (I used to wear steel-capped boots acquired when working in a warehouse to gigs). This is in a small venue, of course. Stadia have their own complications, offering the weird chance to be in the presence of an artist but being forced to watch a large TV to have a chance to get a richer experience than is available on DVD.

The big innovation in live music I have perceived over the years is air conditioning. 15 years ago, venues were unbearably hot. One venue, the Coogee Bay Hotel, was infamous for its internal rain as sweat condensed on the ceiling and then returned to sender in the grossest way imaginable.

These days venues have passable aircon and you can avoid showering in the collective sweat of your fellow concert-goers.

Aside from that, no change. It is still oddly loud and physically uncomfortable in other ways.

Thus endeth the back story.

So … if I hate Rock and Roll so much, why do I still (occasionally) go? And at that, why go to a concert of has-beens?

For affirmation.

The Mary Chain have a very particular guitar sound. Hearing it reproduced live somehow confirms, to me, the authenticity of their art. By making it possible for me to behold, in person, the same experience I have had through recordings I feel like I am closer to understanding the things that made me care about their work to begin with (even if they patently do not care about their audience: their stage show was pitiful).

It’s worth braving the various exigencies of live rock to have that experience.

But it is not worth forcing my kids to appreciate why I appreciate that experience. There may come a day when I hear the kids playing some precedent or antecedent to the Mary Chain. At that point, I’ll send them a song or three. If they dig it, good. If not, good.

By then, however, at least the idea of going to see the Mary Chain will be laughable. The band’s principals will be in their 60s, their significance hopefully dissipated by more worthy art I don’t understand.

Post 31:08 Feeling apprehensive about my first ever greatest hits show

For ages I have resisted the idea of going to concerts at which (often reformed) bands I grew up with play their greatest hits on their Superannuation Tours, to audiences comprised largely of forty-somethings trying to remember what it was like to be a teenager. I generally try to look forward, so have shunned this kind of exercise in the past.

This week, I’m breaking the duck to see The Jesus and Mary Chain.

I’ve listened to this band non stop for the better part of 20 years. Something about their sound (pop sung husky and quiet over a haze of feedback and power chords) has always struck me as deeply remarkable and an in some small way important part of the evolution of modern music.  I’m not alone. The band was the precursor of the shortlived “shoegazer” movement of the early 90s, which is a direct ancestor of much “emo” music, and is considered “influential.”

I listen to them cos I like them, tho, not because they demand listening to in the way that one needs to pull out some Hendrix or Led Zep from time to time, just to get back to ground zero and remind oneself of what others have built on those foundations.

Yet here J&MC  are now, towed along behind the V Festival and doing some solo shows that have utterly failed to score even a paragraph in the mainstream entertainment media, thanks to Duran Duran’s presence on the same festival bill being deemed far more important (Which, okay, it probably is). Those of us who go to see them this week know their last album of any worth came out more than a decade ago. So this is pure nostalgia.

A mate saw them at the festival, tells me they played all their Greatest Hits and, frankly, has be boyishly a-quiver with anticipation at seeing the band.

This now makes me just the kind of backward-looking, overly nostalgiac and/or sentimental oldster I rail against.

At least I am doing it before I turn forty (just).

Post 14:08 Web 2.0’s (unrecognised?) debt to punk

The effects of Punk have never gone away. Punk acts like the Sex Pistols now considered important artists, in their own way.

And the punk ideology has never gone away. In fact even a band like The Go-Betweens, whose sweet pop music could never be described as having any punk aesthetic, openly admitted that they owe a huge debt to punk.

That’s because they couldn’t really play, couldn’t really sing, didn’t have the equipment to allow high production values or the expertise to seem professional …  but just went ahead and made music anyway. Punk had shown them that it was possible to do so and that liberating oneself from the perceived learnedness and expertise was no barrier to making art or media.

Now let’s fast forward to the Noughties and Web 2.0. All over the world, people are starting podcasts, making videos, writing blogs … even if they have no idea how to do it, little technology, poor production values … you can see what I mean.

I wonder if in all the frenzy about Web 2.0, the fact that only 30 years ago, pre-punk, individuals did not often think about making their own media has been overlooked. I find that my own content creation efforts (those beyond my writing, anyway) are increasingly infused by the punk idea that it’s better to try as an amateur than be silent as an expert.

Post 08:08 Another reason to despise the music industry

In this Wired interview with David Byrne, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke says something startling:

“EMI wasn’t giving us any money for digital sales. All the contracts signed in a certain era have none of that stuff.”

I’m pretty sure that what he is saying is that because Radiohead signed to EMI before any of this digital craziness started, their contract made no explicit mention of selling music online. EMI seems to have decided that meant it did not have to pay the band for online sales.

That’s pretty offensive as it is, but even worse when you consider the music industry’s stand agains allofmp3.com, the Russian music website that existed in a similar loophole. Russia used to have an arrangement a bit like Australia’s Copyright Agency, which scoops up fees from folks like Universities to cover lost book sales caused by photocopying chapters for distribution. But Russia’s laws made no mention of digital downloads, so allofmp3.com (allegedly) made payments into the Russian equivalent of the copyright fund even though there was no mechanism for their distribution.

The music industry kicked the living cr*p out of allofmp3.com, arguing that artists would never see any of the cash. All the while, it seems, they were employing exactly the same argument to keep cash from flowing to their own artists.

Pathetic.

Post Forty Seven: Dumb and dumberer when bits meet atoms

The saga of imported music is getting dumber and dumberer. Dumbererererererer even, if such a thing is possible.

In the USA, They Might Be Giants released their album, The Else, about two months back on iTunes only.

On July 10th (Tuesday, my time) it gets a CD release.

The online music store I bought it from here (Australia) will post me a copy tomorrow (July 9th) on CD before the US CD release by a token handful of hours for reasons I cannot explain.

Presumably it will go up on iTunes Australia too.

Even odder is the fact the local release will include a limited bonus CD that, from what I have seen of the track listing,  includes a whole bunch of stuff the band has already given away in its podcasts.

At least Australia will see The Simpsons Movie a whole day before the USA.

Why these discrepancies exist when Harry Potter VII will be released  everywhere in the world at the same instant is beyond me.

Surely it is easier to co-ordinate the digital release of music than it is to organise the schlepping through meatspace required to get books onto shelves.

Makes you wonder if anyone smart works in music! (Okay, that’s harsh but I said it and taking it back would be false.)