Eat More Shorts

     |    Wednesday, der 14. November 2012

In which, there having been no huge developments brought to our attention in the past seven days, we recap on some stuff and make some short comments on other stuff. In short, it’s about stuff.

(Personal note to Matt Groening: if this use offends you, let me know. You know folks who know how to reach me.)



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One of the odd things about blogging is its neither-fish-nor-fowl aspect. It’s one of the reasons people don’t take bloggers seriously, and a lot of the time they’re right. I’ll even say that about some of my own stuff: last week’s piece on the proposed merger of Random House and Penguin was fairly general in aspect because I had neither the time nor the connections (nor, I must admit, the financial incentive, because this kind of thing takes a lot of time) to report the story as a conscientious reporter would have. My purpose in even bringing it up was that I figured very few of my readers knew about this, or, if they did, had made the connection to the disaster that’s sunk the record business. Now, one of the most obnoxious things about blogging is that there are morons who love to post „First!“ on a popular blog. Still, I felt kind of happy to see that it took Salon almost a week to catch up to mine. Their piece, though, was written by someone who had the connections, the time, and (I hope, although Salon has been very explicit with me in the past about my own writing not being worth paying for, so I don’t write for them and urge others not to) the financial incentive to chase the story further than I could. It’s a well-written, well-reported piece by an industry insider, so there’s no need for me to holler „First!“ Just read it and weep. And, moments after I wrote the above and had finished the first draft of this blog, I found another analysis of the situation in the New York Times that is also worth your time. It’s an ongoing story, and it’s also one where there’s a lot of speculation going on and not a whole lot of expertise at play, because, well, predicting the future is a mug’s game. And this is the future.

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The above is not too unlike the machine I grew up listening to rock and roll on (there’s an actual photo of the exact model — early radio enthusiasts are as crazy as other collectors — here), a hefty machine given me by my grandmother, with a phonograph hidden away behind the speaker panel, which folded out. Growing up with this behemoth may explain why I’ve been so fanatical about what I do and do not consider „radio“ as a medium. Today, of course, my prejudices are well and truly as antique as this mahogany box, but I also have to admit that I’ve pretty much stopped listening to the radio — in whatever form — almost totally. The death-knell came when I rented a car with a USB output and realized I could plug my iPhone, with who knows how many gigabytes of music arranged as playlists in it, set it to „random“ within the playlist, and cruise down the road. Before that, though, there were „podcasts,“ which always baffled me (partially because of my almost decades-long resistance to iPods), especially when someone told me they listened to mine. Of course! Turns out you can subscribe to my Fresh Air pieces that way.

Now, of course, we have streaming services, and I’ve read that the majority of teenagers are getting nearly all their music from them these days, so that owning physical objects, let alone digital files, is just Not Done. There’s a huge problem with all of this new musical media, though, and it’s that the laws governing how people who create the content for them get paid move much, much slower than the technology. Thus, the streaming services seem to work backwards from their own bottom lines, assuring their own profits first and scattering the rest among the music publishers, record companies (if any) and artists. So we’ve all seen the infographic about how Lady GaGa made enough off of several million plays of one of her singles to maybe buy dinner for one at her parents‘ restaurant if she didn’t go too far up the wine list. (You might want to google reviews of the place before you hail a cab there, incidentally).

These streaming media (which aren’t the same as Internet radio stations, by the way: you probably knew this already, but I don’t have access to most of these services because I don’t live in the U.S., not to mention I have very little interest in listening to them) are now threatening to make enough money — someday — that old-time publishing rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI are using their lobbying power to try to effect some legislation regulating this new industry’s royalty structure. I recently read an extraordinarily badly-written (even by Billboard’s standards) article about the Internet Radio Fairness Act before Congress that, if you can hack the prose, will give you the lay of the land, the bottom line being that when you see a piece of legislation with a name like that and you’re a songwriter or a guitar player, you should probably run screaming in the other direction.

Of course, the bedrock on which these streaming services are built is the same reason I don’t have any interest in listening to them: they’re not about „listening“ as much as they are about casual background noise. While I don’t deny that for those just discovering new kinds of music, the services which allow you to build a „channel“ which serves up music by your chosen artist as well as others it deems related are a good thing and I’d be a proud parent indeed if I sneaked into my kid’s computer and discovered an Ornette Coleman or Bill Monroe channel on their Spotify account, ultimately, and for the vast majority of their customers they’re simply delivering Muzak.

All of which ties in to one of the stupider pieces I’ve run across this week, a bit of promo by one Ian Sansom for his new book, Paper: An Elegy, which ran in the Guardian recently. His point seems to be the same one I’ve been making, though: that the survival of the physical object on which words and graphics can be stored is a non-issue, the existence of digital media notwithstanding. (At least, I think that’s what he’s on about: I couldn’t finish the article because it’s so haphazardly written). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but while disposing of a lot of the clutter that physical objects create is indeed a laudable goal, their continued existence is assured because the people who need them most use them in ways that are inconvenient or impossible for digital media to reproduce. Even the CD, which is a digital format itself, has virtues no streaming service can offer, from a continuity of content in many cases right down to its liner notes and album art. As for paper, it has a very low entry fee, as opposed to digital devices, and when it comes to graphics, it’s still unsurpassed.

Okay, enough ranting and raving for this week. There are still plenty of dark clouds on the horizon to write about later. And who knows? Perhaps some blue skies, too.