Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Extinction level events in digital music

When there's billions of dollars on the line, large media corporations will stop at nothing to eliminate threats to their business models, no matter what the cost to our culture. Modern media thrives on technological innovation, and yet the past few years have seen an increasingly large effort to stifle innovation by trade organizations (RIAA, MPAA) and the media conglomerates they represent. These bureaucracies are unable to adapt to the new digital business landscape, so they use lawsuits and legislation in a desperate attempt to prevent their own obsolescence. The result of this corporate meddling is that consumers are denied access to life-enhancing media technology, and artists are shut out from having a hand in deciding the fate of their own work.

Thankfully, there are powerful organizations to protect the rights of consumers and artists. Perhaps the most active and effective in this regard is the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). Besides providing exhaustive coverage of the issues surrounding the media industry's difficult transition into the Information Age, the EFF actually initiates court cases in a fight to protect our online rights. Though there are several other excellent organizations

As part of their campaign to educate the public by distilling complex digital issues into easy-to-digest messages, the EFF released the Endangered Gizmos list earlier this year. The list documents technological breakthroughs that are being threatened with extinction by profit-hungry lawsuits and legislation. Most of these threats use copyright infringement as an excuse to persecute companies who are merely extending the functionality of cutting-edge media technology. Even though the law on the books states that a technology may exist if it has "substantial non-infringing uses" (which all the items on the list have), these innovations could go the way of the dodo unless organizations like EFF can rally public awareness and support for online rights.

It's telling that four out of the five endangered technologies are music-related. The television and movie industries are certainly shaking in their boots, but the music industry is at the forefront of the digital copyright conflict. The simple explanation is that video is more difficult than music to compress into files small enough for easy transfer between devices. The MP3, introduced in 1990 and made widely popular by Napster, completely undermined all of the music industry's digital initiatives by proving the value of media unrestricted by digital rights management. Despite virtually unanimous support from artists and consumers, the industry elite chose not to build a business model around free access to music. Instead, they used high-powered lawyers and lobbyists to modify the law so they could maintain a complete stranglehold on access to digital music.

Some items on the list will come as no surprise: the file sharing program Morpheus (which bought some time last year when a Federal court judge ruled the service had substantial non-infringing uses) and the digital audio recording program TotalRecorder (which allows users to record any audio played on their computer). However, many people will be surprised that the iPod and Sony CD/RW are grouped together on the list, threatened by scary proposed legislation like the Induce Act, which makes technological innovators liable for "inducing" copyright infringement.

If large corporations continue to call the shots in the digital world, we may be staring at our most innovative technology through museum glass. What's worse, we'll be looking at our media through prison bars.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Is classical music punk?

This observant Orlando Sentinel article concerns a recurring topic which has always piqued my interest: the use of classical music in public spaces to deter loiterers and reduce the presence of criminals, hooligans and punks.

Piped-in classical music can be found everywhere from parking lots to the London Underground, put there as a low-cost solution to deterring shady characters from hanging around public spaces. The crazy thing is that it works. The theory is that punk and criminal types have such strong associations with classical music being 'uncool' and feel uncomfortable being immersed in a cultural expression so antithetical to their own.

This practice has raised the ire of high society types who see the use of classical music to deter public congregation as vulgar and disrespectful. However, the aforementioned article keenly points out that it wasn't until the turn of the 20th century, when recording technology began to gain in popularity, that classical music was considered as anything more than a mere "perfume or drug" to be applied to affect emotional states. In the words of University of California music historian Robert Fink:

You pick classical music because it's better than other kinds of music... But the pieces you use for doing that predate classical music as a concept and come from an era when music was the lowest of the arts.

Exalting any kind of music to the point of elite snobbery is certainly anti-punk in that it creates an esoteric inner circle that discourages public interest as genres become private clubs. This has certainly happened to classical music, but this phenomenon can be observed in many genres, including punk. Often times, this isolation occurs when a genre becomes accepted by the masses. As a defensive reaction to the 'uncoolness' of a genre that has grown too popular, dedicated fans build a barrier of hyper-criticism and hermetic thinking. In the process, the genre's biggest fans are alienated from the masses, and vice versa.

It was the introduction of recording technology that brought classical music into the zeitgeist, and popular appeal quickly quarantined a cult culture of art snobbery. Pop music made things worse for classical music fans, who scoffed at the reduction of music to the low-art, "perfume or drug" mentality of centuries past. No wonder that Mozart makes the coke pushers run away.

The use of classical music as a disinfectant for punks in public gathering spaces is ironic because it is analogous to how punk rockers have used confrontational methods in an attempt to rid their environment of unwanted elements. 7-11s and bus terminals everywhere are essentially using classical music in the context of punk, to confront unwanted guests and hasten their departure.

But punk is more about change than confrontation, and classical music lacks the former. Most of the genre's stars have long decomposed and those who preach the genre's virtues are few and far between. The genre is essentially a revered corpse. Very not punk.

Or is it? How many times have you heard, "rock and roll is dead"? Genres are very much like organic life forms of their own. They are born, and then they die. As recording technology advances and postmodern culture becomes more chaotic, these genre life cycles become increasingly short. No wonder classical music fans were so incensed at the perversion of their treasured art form -- they had the better part of a century to watch it die a slow, painful death.

Punk rock is as dead as classical music. Both genres live on as influences to myriad subgenres, but most of the bands that created the punk genre have disbanded or have died outright. With a few exceptions, those that survived are merely tributes to an earlier incarnation of the band. Genres are all about style, and style is a transient, intangible element. As much as music fans try to deny it, music never stays cool forever. As the opening line of Refused's landmark album, The Shape of Punk to Come states:

They say the classics never go out of style but they do, they do. Somehow baby, I never thought that we do too.

Accepting that genres are essentially dead on arrival to the mainstream, why do fans bother spending the rest of their lives mourning the death of a loved style of music? Music, after all, is infinitely enjoyable: compositions can be always be brought back to life through performance. The music fans that sit around and complain about genres other than their favorite are arguing about which corpse is most decomposed.

There has been a recent resurgence in the popularity of classical music due to ease of digital access and enthusiastic bloggers such as those found at artsjournal.com. These online efforts breathe new life into a genre that has been all but ignored by mainstream critics and media. A renewed discussion and introduction of classical music is necessary if the genre is to shake the stodgy stereotypes that follow it into the 21st century. With an underground, independent attitude, classical music could once again be appreciated with modesty and integrity -- key ingredients for punk.

It is just as unlikely that there will be another Mozart as there will be another Ramones. Fortunately, we will always have their music, and their integrity can never be marginalized, whether by snooty culture elitists or punk poseurs. Music is about community, not confinement. If classical music can once again develop an enthusiastic and open-minded community, perhaps eventually we'll have hooligans being chased away to the tune of "I Wanna Be Sedated". For the time being, classical music remains an antonym of 'cool' in our culture. Then again, punk is not about being cool either, even if the mainstream has perverted the genre into being concerned with maximum coolness.

At least classical music fans now seem to be proud that they're not cool. If you ask me, that's pretty punk.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

MTV's 'two-headed dog' chases its tail and bites youth culture

Kids these days: all the sex and drugs and illegal downloading of music! The 14-24 demographic is full of jobless student slackers with no financial reponsibilities past cable bills and maybe a college loan. They spend all their money on CDs, video games, DVDs -- superfluous entertainment products manufactured by the culture industry. They only pay attention to what they think is 'cool', but it's impossible to know what's 'cool' at any given moment because 'cool' is constantly changing and seems to have a mind of its own.

The kids have all the power! Isn't this what we've always wanted, to realize the "Another Brick in the Wall" vision of a world where kids (we're talking about the 14-24 demo here) build their life experiences in their culture rather than our classrooms? As the demographic with the most money to burn, one can imagine a vision of all the Cool Kids stading at the top of Cool Mountain waving $20 bills at a climbling, clawing mass of youth cutlure marketing executives.

The truth is, the kids influence the culture industry as much as the culture industry influences the kids. It's a feedback loop in which both parties participate to create a combined culture, except the kids spend all the money and the industry takes it. Not so fair for the kids, seeing as they're doing at least half the work.

Arguably, no single entity in the history of the culture industry has been as deeply involved in this feedback loop as MTV. Before the PC revolution and the Internet, MTV redefined our visual and musical culture with a new style of programming that changed television and marketing entirely. As writer Douglas Rushkoff observed:

Like the drips of water coming out of a faucet at an increasing rate, once the speed of edits reached a critical frequency, the linear story just broke apart as the programs reached turbulance. The media chaos this turbulance generated was called MTV... This style of rough, disjointed media was precicesly the landscape preferred by the channel surfer. It made coercion through traditional, narrative programming techniques impossible, and required that a new language -- a language of chaos -- be developed. The kids watching MTV learned to speak it like natives." (from the excellent book Playing the Future: What We Can Learn from Digital Kids)

The kids' new chaotic culture pulled the rug out from under the marketing industry, who subsequently assembeled a counter-chaos of new marketing techniques intented to acknlowledge the youth's self-awareness that they are being marketed to. Of course, kids eventually grew hip to the marketers' ingenuous attepts to 'get on their level' and tuned them out in turn. Failing the subtle approach, the marketers decided the only way to get noticed was to be invisible. Thus was born viral marketing. Marketers would appeal to the top 1% of so-called Cool Kids who influence other kids wanting to be cool and so on -- a butterfly effect, a pyramid scheme. The best part was, marketers could exert influence on an entire demographic by interacting with only a choice few trendsetters.

A full history of how MTV became the center of youth culture will have to wait for another post. MTV basically became the best at what they do: understanding youth culture microcosms and macrocosms. They used this understanding to generate influence, and they used this influence to generate profit. There were ups and downs, moments when even the master marketers at MTV couldn't keep up with the kids. But MTV always found a way to shepherd the sheep back to the flock.

In the course of things, maintaining youth culture influence meant MTV had to move away from music as content and relegate it to a supporting role beneath celebrity. This music-critic.com article describes how "Video Created the Revenue Star." MTV drastically reduced the number of music videos it played in order to concentrate its marketing power on a few key acts. Shows were created in which the sole intent was cross-promoting the music celebrities that were in heavy rotation. This is most evident in the repurposing of popular show themes such as Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Candid Camera into celebrity showcases -- Cribs and Punk'd, respectively.

MTV received no real consumer or corporate challenege to its removal of music videos from its programming. Though many complained that, "there's no more music on music television", the kids kept watching anyway. MTV even assuaged their greif over the loss of music content with a sister station, MTV2, dedicated towards broadcasting more music videos (though you'll still catch a Beavis and Butthead marathon if you turn it on at the wrong time). Viewers were content until one company got the crazy idea that they could compete with MTV's music video monopoly -- and it worked.

That company was Fuse, which launched in 2003 with a marketing campaign that tore MTV to pieces. Though Fuse is, in essence, much like MTV2 (this article argues that the two are almost identical brands), savvy marketing gained them access to over 30 million households in the US. That's impressive when stacked up against MTV2's household penetration, approaching 50 million, though it pales in comparison to MTV's worldiwde viewership, which hovers around 300 million.

Fuse's slogan of, "more music, less crappy television" resonated with viewers and created a healthy niche market. As Fuse's ratings climbed, MTV felt compelled to react to the competition by setting MTV2 as a top-line business priorty. The company was done licking the wounds that Fuse's marketing had inflicted. It was time to chase Fuse out of MTV's monopoly. The new campaign was called "the two-headed dog."

The two-headed dog concept can be thought to represent many things including the channel's bisection of rap and rock or its approach at reaching viewers on both TV and the Web. It could also represent the two-headed corporate monster MTV is attempting to create by prioritizing MTV2. In any case, a silhouette of the animal was prominent in a special Super Bowl half-time launch promotion which saw the dog gracing the Jumbovision at Times Square and plastered on walls and magazines everywhere.

Like Fuse, the new MTV2 television identity operates in unison with a rich media website which ties programming to the Web, and vice versa. Comparing the sites side-by-side, Fuse seems to have a better understanding of interactivity and giving broadband site users what they want. MTV2.com will likely adapt with similar functionality as the idendity develops. As it stands, the MTV2 site falls flat with redundant content.

This great article at Business 2.0 summarizes the two-headed dog campaign's attempts at invisible influence on youth culture. In particular, the article releates the story of a message board poster calling out an MTV-sanctioned marketing agent disguised as a peer, effectively quarantining a media virus before it spread. (An example of the offending post can be found here and all over the Web.) Another part of the strategy included free two-headed dog clothing giveaways at NYC shows performed by bands who were to be featured on the new channel -- classic viral marketing.

Fuse's campaign was successful because the media virus it exploited had already infected the youth culture. Millions of viewers bemoaned the loss of music videos on MTV, and Fuse responed by eploiting that attitude. The only option at MTV2's disposal is to create a new media virus, an abstract concept centered on the image of a two-headed dog. The campaign was centered around a sort of "What is the Matrix?" appeal to curiosity, in hopes that the answer to the question, "What is the two-headed dog?" would be a revelation to cool kids everywhere. Unfortunately for MTV2, the revelation was just more of the same -- the same music, the same aesthetic and the same exploitation of both artist and audience for financial gain.

Does the dog have legs? Judging from consumer reaction to the re-launch, viewers are already seeing through the marketing ploy. After all, MTV2 is essentially a rip-off of Fuse, which is essentially a rip-off of MTV. Both companies are competing for the same position in the feedback loop between the kids and the culture industry. It's just that Fuse seems to like music a bit more, while MTV prefers money. The kids see through it all, and continue to dismantle parts of the culture industry and use them as tools to create their own culture. From the Web to decentralized file-sharing networks, the kids are struggling to overtake control of their own expression. This demand for an authentic cultural experience will eventually neuter the two-headed dog.

A deeper insight into the effect of MTV on youth culture and youth culture as a whole can be found at PBS's The Way the Music Died

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Cell phones: the iPod killer

Yesterday I pointed out the massive holes in Napster to Go's approach at digital music distribution. One of these flaws is the awkward selection of portable devices available to use with the service. These Windows-only machines, protected by Microsoft's Janus technology, are designed to ensure digital rights integrity. Even the iPod, popular though it may be, it is far from a standard technology.

The power of digital music was first fully realized when the open-standard MP3 transformed a modem into a distribution center. Yes, proprietary formats increased sound quality and compression ratios, and the MP3 may be an inferior technology in these respects, but its ubiquity and status as the only truly freely portable file format secures its current dominance. Digital rights management attached to proprietary formats restricts free access to music. Apple, Microsoft and Napster are stubbornly rejecting community development of technology in favor of controlling the marketplace.

This confusing array of devices will ultimately be irrelevant to the consumer as wireless technology advances. In terms of ubiquity and market share, the cellular phone makes the iPod look like an 8-track. Mobile phone technology is finally at a point where phones can double as music devices. Developments in the mobile phone industry this week signal the first step towards the cell phone's impending dominance of the digital device market. This Red Herring article reveals that this year's 3GSM mobile industry trade conference had the air of a coup:

Handset makers... are emphasizing strategies to turn mobile phones into digital music players, technology one analyst predicts could be an “iPod killer.”

Some of the highlights: Motorola caused a stir when it exhibited a cell phone equipped with iTunes at the show. Microsoft is courting Nokia to release a combination digital music device/cell phone. Sony recently announced plans for a Walkman-branded mobile phone.

There simply is too much money and too much competition in the cell phone industry not to subjugate the music device industry over the next decade. The harbinger of this trend was seen in with the explosive popularity of ring tones in recent years. Even as early as 2003, ring tones accounted for $3.5 billion in sales, equivalent to 10 percent of the global music market.

A new type of record business has already started to form, with some new companies already providing original music for ring tones. Cutting-edge culture observer Douglas Rushkoff takes future of mobile music further in this excellent article at The Feature, suggesting that ring tones are a new medium for personal expression:

A ringtone is about the most basic way of expressing oneself musically. Users who purchase ringtones may have no aspirations to compose or even mix themselves, but the urge to customize a ring has as much to do with what a person wants to tell everyone around her as it does what she likes to hear. A ringtone isn't a way of listening to a tune -- it's a way of playing a tune for others, of publicly declaring one's musical taste and cultural allegiance.... That's why the next stage in wireless music appreciation is not downloading longer bits of music, but learning how to broadcast ringtones to others.

It's an enticing thought: each cell phone user broadcasting their own personal ring tone to all of their friends. More poignantly, it's this fusion of communication device and jukebox that dooms the proprietary music device hardware market. It won't be long before the iPod is a quaint reminder of early 2000 pop culture.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Napster to Go goes nowhere

Much ado over the recently introduced Napster To Go service, the first large-scale roll out of a subscription-based business model for the music industry. After the spectacle of a multi-million dollar marketing campaign focused on exuding a sense of superiority to Apple's iTunes and iPod, the dust has settled and we are beginning to see this service for what it really is.

First came this press release from Parks Associates which states the obvious: the average consumer doesn't understand the value in the music subscription model. Consumers have owned music for over a century and can't identify a tangible value in an intangible product such as digital music. This is too bad because the subscription model will eventually take over the music industry. This could be at least ten years away, maybe more if the corporations running the industry keep screwing up digital music.

Why, you might ask, can't a multi-billion dollar media conglomerate pull off a great subscription service while the technology to do so is freely available? The answer: great technology requires open access to be effective. Napster to Go, like all corporate digital music services before it, is based on restricting the listener's access to music. Their subscription service is essentially an illusion of free access to music. This Washington Post article points out that the service is wrought with restrictions, and these restrictions will deter most consumers from adopting Napster to Go. These restrictions include:

  • You only have access to your music library if you continue to pay the $15/mo. subscription fee. You essentially lose ownership of all the music you purchased access to when you miss your first bill.
  • Napster only works on Windows with Media Player 10. Though the same could be said of Apple's exclusivity, they have a positive brand identity and creative interface design while the average consumer is mystified and frustrated by the Windows OS.
  • You can only access digital music files on up to three computers or devices.

    Most importantly, the $15/month subscription fee works out to $180 a year, roughly 14-18 CDs. The average music consumer spends half this amount on CDs per year. These consumers would much rather own a tangible product than pay for temporary access to an intangible product. Though this attitude will change as more listeners understand digital music, Napter's subscription model is unsustainable and too restricted to appeal to a wide user base.

    As if these restrictions were bad enough for Napster's business, news broke yesterday that 'hackers' had already found a way to bootleg music from Napster to Go. Of course, this is the same 'stream ripping' we've seen since the advent of digital music. It's not a major threat to corporations because the ripping process takes more technical know-how than the average music consumer.

    So what's my verdict on Napster to Go? It's just another case of the corporate elite using technological innovation to restrict access to music rather than provide greater access. But Napster is wasting time they don't have and losing ridiculous amounts of money. Napster's $2.4M Super Bowl ad drew five times as much traffic to rival Apple's website than their own. Whatever 'buzzworthy' quality was held in the Napster brand is quickly draining back into the underground software development community. It won't be long before this community develops the next 'Napster' and turns the industry upside down once more.