Post Music

Content layer infrastructure

Saturday, July 25th, 2009

Last Sunday I appeared (mp4 download) on a tech interview program called Press: Here. It went ok. Most of the questions were softball and somewhat repetitive. Lots more could have been said about any of them, but I think I did a pretty good job of hitting a major point on each and not meandering. However, one thing I said (emphasized below) sounds like pure bs:

this has been done in the open source software world for a couple decades now and now that people are more concerned about the content layer that’s really part of the infrastructure having a way to clear those permissions without the lawyer-to-lawyer conversation happen every single time is necessary

I could’ve omitted the bolded words above and retained the respect of any viewer with a brain. What the heck did I mean? I was referring to an argument, primarily made by Joi Ito over the last year or so, using a stylized version of the layers of a protocol stack. David Weinberger’s live-blogging of Ito provides a good summary:

Way back when, it was difficult to connect computers. Then we got Ethernet, then TCP/IP, and then HTTP (the Web). These new layers allow participation without permission. The cost of sending information and the cost of innovation have gone down (because the cost of failure has gone down). Now we’re getting another layer: Creative Commons. “By standardizing and simplifying the legal layer … I think we will lower the costs and create another explosion of innovation.”

Protocol geeks may object, but I think it’s a fairly compelling argument, at least for explaining why what Creative Commons does is “big”. The problems of not having a top layer (I called it “content”, the slide photographed above says “knowledge” — what it calls “content” is usually called “application”, and the note above says “legal”, referring to one required mechanism for opening up permissions around content, knowledge, or whatever one wishs to call it) in which a commons can be taken for granted (ie like infrastructure) is evident, for example in the failure by lawsuit of most interesting online music services, or the inaccessibility of much of the scientific literature to most humans and machines (eg for data mining), as are powerful hints as to what is possible where it exists, for example the vast ecology enabled by Wikipedia’s openness such as DBpedia.

I didn’t make that argument on-screen. Probably a good thing, given the previous paragraph’s tortured language. I shall practice. Critique welcome.

Press: Here is broadcast from its SF bay area home station (NBC) and I’ve heard is syndicated to many other stations. However, its website says nothing about how to view the program on TV, even on its home station. I even had a hard time finding any TV schedule on the NBC Bay Area website — a tiny link in the footer takes one to subpages for the station with lame schedule information syndicated from TV Guide. I found this near total disconnect between TV and the web a very odd, but then again, I don’t really care where the weird segment of the population that watches TV obtains schedule information. Press: Here ought to release its programs under a liberal CC license as soon as the show airs. Its own website gets very little traffic, many of the interviews would be relevant for uploading to Wikimedia Commons, and the ones that got used in Wikipedia would drive significant traffic back to the program website.

Hifi Soundmuseum

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Last night I saw in conversation with , a birthday present from my wife, who has been trying to get us to a Laurie Anderson concert for a couple years, but scheduling didn’t work out. This was probably better than a concert, both because I haven’t paid much attention to Anderson’s recent work and what clips of it I’ve seen I haven’t been thrilled with (though I’ll always be a fan because her music is the second that grabbed me as not only enjoyable but somehow special) and because she’s a very engaging story teller without any help from music.

It was fun to hear of her interactions with (as his “straight woman”), (received advice and flowers when she ran for class president during his temporary dictator campaign), and (via his bible, lent from a friend who bought it at auction), among others.

There was of course lots of discussion about music and technology, thankfully 100% actually about music and technology, not the mislabeled and tired conversation that goes by the same name (Anderson did make a passing reference to the imploding music recording industry, but only to say that it is great that the focus has shifted back to live music — on that note Anderson said she likes seeing noise and improv music, which means she has great taste — it’s always disappointing to learn that a fine artist is into dreck, and heartening to learn the opposite).

When asked to predict what music would be like in 2021 (I think the significance of the date was that she had supposedly last been “here” 12 years ago, which sounds really unlikely if “here” meant San Francisco — I saw her twice around then, at SFMOMA and the Other Minds festival, but surely she has been back since), given technology changes, Anderson mentioned “Hi Fi” and sound museums, both of which seemed really curious because they seemed like throwbacks and also not mass market. Of course why should they be? Effectively she meant the same thing by both — taking advantage of technology and space to do much more with sound than is possible with mp3s and earbuds (or an audiophile stereo system for that matter). As an example, she’s currently working on a “sound forest” installation in Basel.

Despite being known as a multimedia artist, Anderson is clearly not enamored with technology per se. On the other hand, the solution is more technology — she is sick of being a “protools serf” (referring to the program’s workings, not its non-freedom), so she’s supposedly working with programmers on something simpler, and looks forward to something the size of a mobile device replacing all of her performance gear.

One question concerned why NYC had an especially fertile arts scene in the 1970s (her bio in the program mentioned that she wrote an article for Britannica on — how quaint) — she said that it was supported by a culture that celebrated poverty (or rather prioritized making art or just about anything else over career) coming out of the 1960s. Doesn’t explain why NYC, but curious nonetheless. What if were as plentiful today as hippies were back then?

Speaking some of the truth to power suits

Saturday, February 7th, 2009

Mike Masnick posted video of a pretty good lecture on successful “music” business models based on the success of Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts I-IV and other efforts. Earlier today I praised the lecture on the Creative Commons blog.

At the end of the video Masnick says that copyright isn’t even necessary for the model he describes (capture above), and that hearing this upsets people.

But this begs the question of whether any “business model” is necessary for music at all.

My other complaint (and I’m almost as guilty as anyone) is a near total failure to look at obvious examples slightly outside the contemporary first world milieu (i.e., the past, future, and much of the present world). This is a general unrelenting complaint, not directed at Masnick’s 15 minutes in front of an industry conference!

No more oversupply of crappy sellout music

Saturday, January 17th, 2009

Megan McArdle, supposed econoblogger, dashes off a lame bit of producerist claptrap, ludicrously titled The end of property:

I will be more convinced when I see an actual increase in the number of quality musicians who don’t have to supplement their art with a job delivering pizza.

Commenter Chris O. delivers the right correction:

The measure of success is not how many people are delivering pizza, but if the music listener is getting good music.

So this is one of the correct metrics, and there’s plenty of reason to think there’s zero problem with supply. Commenter Nathan provides the obvious reason:

Because the reality is, if there are enough people who fit that description, and if even 1 out of 1000, or 1 out of 10000 makes stuff that is at least interesting – and if there are appropriate communities for sorting and rating the stuff – then there really isn’t a natural market for buying recordings of many kinds of music. Right? This is the reality of the market, the thing that blogs have made perfectly clear – there are a lot more people talented and skilled at certain tasks than your instincts would tell you, and it’s always a bad idea to try to make lots of money in a space where people love what they do and are willing to work for nearly nothing

Read subsequent comments for more in that vein.

A little less obviously, see Tom W. Bell’s Outgrowing Copyright: The Effect of Market Size on Copyright Policy.

Somewhat oddly (to me), Keith Kahn-Harris, a “sociologist and the convener of New Jewish Thought” makes a whole lot more sense, and takes the argument further, writing In praise of part-time musicians in the Guardian:

Yet my argument is not that participation in capitalist society compromises musical excellence, but that participation in capitalist society can support musical excellence provided that musicians earn a living away from music. Yes, I am writing in praise of the “day job”.

Via Bodó Balázs.

Regarding the title of this post, no I am not optimistic, regardless of policy.

Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth

Sunday, January 4th, 2009

begins Goodbye 20th Century: A Biography of Sonic Youth very inauspiciously. On page 1 he relates not knowing noise was an “iTunes category” and never having seen the designation unclassifiable before researching the book. I almost had to put the book down without turning to page 2 — was Browne a liar or a total ignoramus?

After mercifully brief attempted introductions (the genre discovery story above is the first of seven) to the book, Browne spends about 390 pages relating the nuts and bolts of Sonic Youth’s prehistory and history through about 2006. If you aren’t a big Sonic Youth fan, just skim instead of reading this book.

Sonic Youth was my last singular favorite band. I’ve probably listened to their music for thousands of hours, mostly during 1988-1998 (and mostly their music released from 1982-1995). I still try to see them when I can, most recently performing all of Daydream Nation live in Berkeley (a review on what looks like a nice blog) and Thurston Moore’s solo rock project at Amoeba Records and Great American Music Hall, all in 2007, and by far the best, Kim Gordon with Ikue Mori, Zeena Parkins, Trevor Dunn, and Yoshimi at Montalvo Arts last year. So that’s why I stuck with the book.

I learned a few things from the book — I knew the names and sequence of all of the group’s drummers, but didn’t realize how chaotic that sequencing was; I didn’t realize that Moore played with Glenn Branca’s ensembles after Sonic Youth started, not before; nor that Lee Ranaldo came close to leaving the group at one point. I already knew that some members of the group have a pop culture fascination, though it is always sad to see that confirmed in anyone.

Browne writes a fair amount about the band’s business, the success of which is pretty marginal, with one distantly related exception — Gordon received close to $500,000 for her half of X-Girl, a fashion company she co-founded that became popular in Asia (page 319). Sonic Youth’s first three major label albums (released in 1990, 1992, and 1994) first year sales were under 200k, nearly 300k, and nearly 250k respectively (pages 259 and 277). Subsequent (and previous) albums all sold under 100k copies, though I’d have to guess Daydream Nation (1988) has racked up considerably more than that over the past 20 years given its classic status.

I’ll guesstimate that the band has sold 2 million albums over its 26 year history. Given the approximation that artists make $1.60 on each album, Sonic Youth has made only $3.2 million on album sales, or about $120k/year, or $30k/year/band member — in New York City for almost their entire history.

Unsurprisingly live shows have remained their leading source of income (page 386), and through most of their artistically most interesting period (the beginning through 1988, in my opinion) they worked day jobs (pages 151 and 179).

Browne mentions many times the band’s frugality and nearly complete lack of stereotypical rock and roll lifestyles. Presumably this has been important in keeping them together for so long and keeping them creative — although I said above that I consider their early work their most interesting, their subsequent work as a band is still very good, and many of their individual projects continue to be amazing.

Mostly because I love Sonic Youth, I’ve long daydreamed about them doing something with Creative Commons. In 2005 Moore published a column in WIRED that concluded with this:

Once again, we’re being told that home taping (in the form of ripping and burning) is killing music. But it’s not: It simply exists as a nod to the true love and ego involved in sharing music with friends and lovers. Trying to control music sharing – by shutting down P2P sites or MP3 blogs or BitTorrent or whatever other technology comes along – is like trying to control an affair of the heart. Nothing will stop it.

Does copyright incentivize creativity?

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

Andrew Dubber has a much linked-to post recently in which he declares that music copyright should last for five years, renewable on the condition of commercial availability. That would make a gigantic improvement over the current effectively perpetual (50-70 years depending on jurisdiction, retroactively extended as necessary). Not as gigantic, but much more tenable than the one year usufruct proposal I noted a few years ago.

It’s great to see someone who appears to be well respected in the recorded music industry providing such a radical and rational (in today’s context) proposal, but the key insight has nothing to do with the specifics of his proposal. Dubber writes (emphasis added):

Current blanket copyright terms ‘protect’ (I use that term in the sense of ‘racket’) copyright owners so that they can continue to be paid over and over again for work they did years ago. It prevents anyone else from making money out of works that have been shelved.

It does not, in any real sense, ‘incentivise creativity’.

So obvious, so completely ignored by policy.

Via Techdirt.

Table selection, HSA, LugRadio, Music, Photographers, New Media

Monday, April 21st, 2008

A few observations and things learned from the last eight days.

Go to a page with a table, for example this one (sorry, semi-nsfw). Hold down the control key and select cells. How could I not have known about this!? Unfortunately, copy & paste seems to produce tab separated values in a single row even when pasting from mutliple rows in the HTML table (tried with Firefox and Epiphany). Still really useful when you only want to copy one column of a table, but if you want all of the columns, don’t hold down the control key and row boundaries get newlines as they should rather than tabs. (Thanks Asheesh.)

I feel really stupid about this one. I’ve assumed that a (US) was a spend within the year or lose your contributions arrangement, but that’s what a Flexible Spending Account is (I have no predictable medical expenses, so such an account makes no sense for me). A HSA is an investment account much like an IRA, except you can spend from it without penalty upon incurring medical expenses rather than old age. You can only contribute to a HSA while enrolled in a high deductible health insurance plan, which I’ll try to switch to next year. (Thanks Ahrash.)

I saw a few presentations at LugRadio Live USA, in addition to giving one. Miguel de Icaza’s on (content roughly corresponding to this post) and Ian Murdock’s on were both in part about software packaging. Taken together, they make a good case for open source facilitating cross polination of ideas and code across operating system platforms.

Aaron Bockover and Gabriel Burt did a presentation/demo on , showing off some cool track selection/playlist features and talking about more coming. I may have to try switching back to Banshee as my main audio player (from Rhythmbox, with occasional use of Songbird for web-heavy listening or checking on how the program is coming along). Banshee runs on Mono, and both are funded by Novell, which also (though I don’t know how their overall investment compares) has an .

John Buckman gave an entertaining talk on open source and open content (including the slide at right). My talk probably was not entertaining at all, but used the question ‘how far behind [free/open source software] is free/open culture?’ to string together selected observations about the field.

Benjamin Mako Hill did a presentation on Revealing Errors (meant both ways). I found myself wanting to be skeptical of the power of technical errors to expose political/power relationships, but I imagine the concept could use a little hype — there’s definitely something there. The talk made me more sensitive to errors in any case. For example, when I transferred funds from a money market account to checking to pay taxes, an email notice included this (emphasis in original):

Your confirmation number is 0.

Zero? Really? The transaction did go through.

Tuesday I attended the Media Web Meetup V: The Gulf Between NorCal and SoCal, is it so big?, the idea being (in this context pushed by Songbird founder Rob Lord; I presented at the first Media Web Meetup and have attended a few others) that in Northern California entrepreneurs are trying to build new services around music, nearly all stymied by protectionist copyright holders in Southern California. I really did not need to listen to yet another panel asking how the heck is the music recording distribution industry going to use technology to make money, but this was a pretty good one as those go. One of the panelists kept urging technologists to “fix [music] metadata” as if doing so were the key to enabling profit from digital music. I suppressed the urge to sound a skeptical note, as investing more in metadata is one of the least harmful things the industry might do. Not that I don’t think metadata is great or anything.

Thursday evening I was on a ‘Copyright 2.0’ panel put on by the American Society of Media Photographers Northern California. I thought my photo selection for my first slide was pretty clever. No, copyright expansion is not always good for the interests of professional photographers. The other panelists and the audience were actually more open minded (both meanings) than I expected, and certainly realistic. The photographer on the panel even stated the obvious (my paraphrase from memory): new technology has allowed lots of people to explore their photographry talents who would otherwise have been unable to, and maybe some professional photographers just aren’t that good and should find other work. My main takeway from the panel is that it is very difficult for an independent photographer to successfully pursue unauthorized users in court. With the sometime exception of one, the other panelists all strongly advised photographers to avoid going to court except as a last resort, and even then, first doing a rational calculation of what the effort is likely to cost and gain. The best advice was probably to try to turn unauthorized users into clients.

Friday evening I went to San Jose to be on a panel about New Media Artists and the Law. Unlike Thursday’s panel, this one was mostly about how to use and re-use rather than how to prevent use. This (and some nostalgia) made me miss living in Silicon Valley — I lived in Sunnyvale two years (2003-2005) and San Jose (2005-2006) before moving back to San Francisco. Nothing really new came up, but I did enjoy the enthusiasm of the other panelists and the audience (as I did the previous day).

Staturday I went to Ubuntu Restaurant in Napa, which apparently does vegetable cuisine but does not market itself as vegetarian. I think that’s a good idea. The food was pretty good.

I’ve been listening to Hazard Records 59 and 60: Calida Construccio by various and Unhazardous Songs by Xmarx. Lovely Hell (mp3) from the latter is rather poppy.

MIN US$750k for NIN

Tuesday, March 4th, 2008

The $300 “ultra deluxe edition” of , limited to 2500 copies, sold out in a couple days (I believe released Sunday, no longer available this morning). There are some manufacturing costs, but they don’t appear to be using any precious materials. So if an artist typically makes $1.60 on a $15.99 CD sale, profit from sales of the limited edition already matches profit from a CD selling hundreds of thousands of copies.

Then there are non-limited sales of a $75 merely “deluxe edition”, $10 CD, and $5 download, and whatever other products NIN comes up with around Ghosts.

The ultra deluxe success seems to me to validate the encouragement by some to pursue large revenue from rabid fans and collectors willing and able to pay for personalization, authenticity, embodiment, etc., rather than attempting to suppress zero cost distribution to the masses.

Speaking of distribution, click on the magnet to search for a fully legal P2P download of Ghosts, assuming you have the right filesharing software installed. (283.7 MB)

SanFran MusicTech Summit

Monday, February 25th, 2008

At today’s very well produced SanFran MusicTech Summit on a panel called “The Paradise of Infinite Storage” said that the existence of a recording industry protected by copyright is a very recent phenomenon and conjectured that one could take the position that all of the music created to this point is enough. I don’t recall whether he spelled it out, but the implication being that all music should be available for free and we shouldn’t worry about the creation of more music.

This really upset someone in the audience who identified themselves as representing songwriters for decades. This person righteously stipulated that music has value, musicians must be paid, and that if recording copyright is recent, so was the abolition of slavery. It is really he didn’t make reference to Nazis instead of slavery. Hmm, they did use slave labor.

Unfortunately Godwin said he did not agree with the conjecture and agreed with the vacuous statement that music has value (duh, consumers spend valuable time listening to music). But if the conjecture is not plainly correct, it is at least extremely weighty. Given that a vast amount of music exists and much more will be created regardless of protection, any harms done (e.g. to free speech and innovation) in the name of incentivizing marginal additions to this vast supply must be viewed with extreme skepticism.

There are basically two perspectives in the ‘Music and Technology‘ conversation. One’s priority is to ensure copyright holders are paid, with a strong preference for protecting existing revenue streams, and the other’s priority is to build cool stuff with new technology. Both were present in every part of this conference that I saw.

Probably the most significant example of the latter present was Lucas Gonze demoing the Yahoo! Media Player, which does a great job of playing media linked on a web page, with nice affordances for that environment.


Saturday, February 23rd, 2008

Three times I’ve linked to the 2005 column If pirating grows, it may not be the end of music world about the music industry in China.

1: Witness massive production of art where expected profit from sales of copies and licensing is nil, both outside the content industry and where restrictions on copying are not enforced.

2: There is some very imperfect evidence from China that without copyright mass culture will still be star-driven and repulsive.

3: But we can also look to markets that started from a very different place, e.g., China.

A new BBC story, ‘Chaos’ of China’s music industry also says that pop stars earn through sponsorship:

The singer made about $2000 (£1,000) a month from music royalties and live shows with her band Mika Bomb when she lived in London.

But in China, her band Long Kuan Jiu Duan can almost double that by singing just one song at a commercial gig.

At these gigs, artists get paid a set amount by companies or promoters regardless of how many tickets they sell.

I assume a “commercial gig” is some kind of promotional event, but I’d like to read a more in depth look at the economics of pop music in China. (I have little doubt that the economics of music worth listening to is little different than in the U.S. — made for love at a financial loss or sometimes subsidized by grants or academic employment.)

This post is also an excuse to link to Let’s Do Like Them, which expresses one of my top peeves.