Tag Archives: zeitgeist

Age of Excessions, Part 2

The First Time You Ever Heard of the RIAA

The Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group of the music industry, has been around for 58 years, founded in part to create open standards for vinyl playback so that everyone’s records would play on everyone’s record player. In general, it has come to manage the part of the music industry where the industry needs to cooperate. Here’s it’s mission in a nutshell, from the website:

…the RIAA works to protect the intellectual property and First Amendment rights of artists and music labels; conduct consumer, industry and technical research; and monitor and review state and federal laws, regulations and policies.

Like many trade groups, you’d almost certainly never heard of it. Heard of the Metal Roofing Alliance, or the Professional Liability Underwriting Society? Probably not, and there’s so many more. To know all of these groups you’d either have to be a professional conference organizer or a lobbyist, and that knowledge isn’t the sort of thing you’d drop at cocktail parties to look impressive. No one knows about trade groups because no one cares about trade groups.

What turned the RIAA into a household name was an internet application named Napster. Napster was many people’s first exposure to file sharing, especially of the peer to peer variety. It was that peer to peer aspect that made the difference. Napster was the first great collection of music (on or off the net) that was completely uncurated and open to all. Music was free, easy, and didn’t require putting on clothes to get. Discovering new music was easier than anyone could have imagined. Type in a favorite- in my case, for instance, Ani Difranco, and browse through other Ani fans’ libraries. This led me to a decade long love of Utah Philips, and the strange pride of making the discovery myself. I hadn’t relied on anyone to tell me about new music, and I hadn’t had to go out and spend (much) time and money discovering a jewel in the rough. I never even had to leave the house to develop my musical taste. With Napster, I happily reported to friends, it wasn’t so much that I could get tons of popular music for free, it was that my musical taste itself improved.

Some new bands and musicians began to see how this could help them from the other end. Get into a few libraries and get discovered, not by an A&R man but by a fanbase, one fan at a time. It wasn’t going to look like getting signed and turned into megastars, but it also didn’t look like having to win the lottery to do what you loved for a living. Most bands were still playing the label lottery, but it was only a matter of time before they figured out that music could have a middle class, and that a smaller fanbase with a more sincere love of their music was something they could live with.

Helping these musicians along was advances in software and plummeting hardware costs for music recording. Absolute top of the line music editing was still expensive, but a $1000-2000 amateur recording studio was getting better all the time. In fact, with the increasing role of sampling in music, by the late 90s or early 00s many fans couldn’t tell the difference between a professional studio produced track and a carefully and competently produced track from someone’s spare bedroom. It was amazingly fun, and people loved it. Whole genres were invented on a weekly basis. Name a segment of the society, and someone probably invented a -core for it. Nerdcore, Breakcore, Doomcore, Horrorcore, Jewcore, -core was like -gate, but for music. There was a growing sense that anyone who loved music could make music. Maybe it would suck, but it would suck because you sucked, not because your production values sucked. But even if you sucked, your friends could love you. A major label was never going to produce a song about your Everquest guild, and nothing could take the place of the pleasure of rocking out with 15 people to the soundtrack of your own tiny homophily.

And so it wasn’t the copies of Enter the Sandman that made Napster interesting. It was that Napster built the largest library of music in the history of the world, accidentally, over the course of 9 months. Everyone downloaded a few of the usual hits, but those tracks began suffering an attrition of time and interest to those parts of other people’s libraries that segmented the market by consumers’ extreme homophily. This wasn’t much, but it completed a list of threats to the way things had been.

Everything Right is Wrong Again

After about 1999, there was no function of the ‘industry’ part of the music industrial that was not under immediate existential threat. Whatever your opinion of the music industry, it had found itself in a dangerous position, through no particular action of its own, good or bad. The labels, whom the RIAA represented, had handled selecting, recording, distributing, and marketing nearly all the music anyone ever heard. It was good at it- the proverbial hit machine. As an institution the music industry studied and catered to nearly every market niche it could identify for a hundred years. Whether it was serving the greater purpose of music or music artists is immaterial. The music industry wasn’t so much the only game in town as the town itself. But the technology of the 90s took away, piece by piece, recording, distributing, marketing, and even selecting, and put it into the nebulous and ill-defined hands of ‘the people,’ who were eroding the need for ‘the industry’ altogether.

The music industry began to fight for its life. Napster was the obvious weak point- a company that could be attacked on legal grounds. Napster was destroyed in 2001, and it was in the course of its destruction that the RIAA became for the first time something people had heard of. We were aware of the blackbox in the middle of the institution of music only at the point where it became threatened with extinction. People don’t go down easy, and the RIAA was made of people, most of whom couldn’t see where they’d done anything wrong or different than they’d ever done. When shuttering Napster didn’t make the problems go away they started attacking anyone they could, and hitting them as hard as they could. One group of four college students was sued for roughly the GDP of Peru. What seemed insane made sense when you realized how entirely they were threatened.

But what were they fighting? From inside the offices of music executives this trend must have looked like the Borg, or the Blob, or even the zombie apocalypse. Everything the net touched turned against the way things had been. Artists and fans were bypassing the conduits that had been connecting them for the length of living memory. The only thing the industry could do was get between them and force them apart in an effort to remain relevant. The conduit had become the barrier, not because it had changed, but because everything around it had changed, quietly, quickly, and with no warning. The industry wanted to live.

But before the internet threatened to destroy the RIAA with digital piracy, it had already destroyed digital piracy.

Next: Part Three, The brief and illegal life of the Scene.

Signs of a living religion and an addicted culture

I was very impressed with Bill Moyers’ recent interview with three progressive theologians, Cornel West, Serene Jones, and Gary Dorrien, about the state of the world, capitalism, even metaphysics, and the state of Christianity. I had somewhat despaired of seeing much from the corners of my former faith to indicate that it was still evolving and adapting while remaining true to itself as a religion. Where I had seen this the churches seemed in terrible decline, but these people had a vibrancy and a relevancy that expresses the best qualities of the faith without abandoning its precepts:

BILL MOYERS: What do you think is the story of America right now? If you had to write that story, very briefly, what is the story that’s unfolding, as we talk?

SERENE JONES: It’s a story about sin and grace, and it’s about the brokenness of human beings and our capacity to delude ourselves, all the way into the international collapse of all that we stand for. To get caught up in fictions that we write about the ways in which we should structure our lives together. We are seeing, played out before us, that classic Protestant claim that we can be caught up in sin and not even know we are in sin.

When Christianity is at its shining best it isn’t afraid to overturn the tables of the moneylenders in front of the temple, as well as looking after the poor and sick. Christianity, like any other faith, structure of thought, or pursuit of mind and spirit, needs to embrace the truth and tell it to the world to remain legitimate. And it’s in a rare position to point out certain behaviors that are ‘of this world’ because the cultural conditions of the New Testament map to our own cultural conditions so well. We live in a very Imperial Roman age, and a religion born of that age should have a lot to say to us- the Christian community has been tragically slack about this. Much of modern Christianity yoked to a dead theology that often seemed to require profound intellectual dishonesty, and falls into the same sick traps as the rest of the society.

But Serene Jones tells the story of what has made us sick beautifully:

SERENE JONES: But I think we can never underestimate the crisis of desire. That it wasn’t just that there was – it didn’t have enough social strength, or a good enough analysis. That what turbo capitalism does, is it – the biggest, sort of, war zone is interior to us – where it takes over your desire. It makes you into a creature who wants to buy the commodities. So you could have a great political analysis. But what you’re doing, on the ground every day, is you’re fueling this turbo capitalism. And it’s in the churches that another kind of desire should have been being crafted. That’s where you can get people in their bones and really begin to force the question of, what is it that you want? What makes you happy? What makes your life mean? What, you know, it’s those deep questions of want.

SERENE JONES: I think one of the reasons that it happens is that we are living in a very overwhelming time. And it’s always going to be the case that a conservative familiar neo liberal agenda sounds safer.

Because it’s what we know. But the truth of the matter is what we know is what got us in trouble in the first place. So it’s one of those moments that everybody faces in their own life. We happen to be facing it structurally right now. Is everything collapses, what do we do? In the midst of that fear, do we grasp for what’s most familiar? That’s what’s happening. But the very thing you’re grasping for is the thing that got you there in the first place.

That last line- “But the very thing you’re grasping for is the thing that got you there in the first place.” is an unmistakable description of addiction, and what’s more, addiction heading for its bottom. The signs and trappings of a culture surrendering itself to addiction, to the co-opting of want, are the water we swim in these days. They are our whole context, and the substance of choice we return to in our hours of need.

It always impresses me when the things I am thinking about come together, because I believe Infinite Jest is about the same thing, a culture heading for a bottom.

To paraphrase from AA and Infinite Jest, our best thinking got us here. I find myself agreeing emphatically with these people whose faith I do not share- it’s going to take a revival of love to get us out.

How to take advantage of #Amazonfail

I’ve been watching the story of (probably) accidental censorship on Amazon with interest, and I think there’s a valuable sociological lesson in it. In short: Amazon de-ranked books with GLBT themes as adult over Easter weekend. People were outraged by the apparent moral prescribing censorship, a Bantown prole called Weev claimed he did it with a cross site reference forgery, and then Amazon said it was a cataloging error.

What’s interesting is that all these answers are pretty much equally possible. That’s just weird though- because it suggests that there’s not so much of an entry barrier anymore to the kind of book burning mind controlling corporate/state master propaganda stuff that the ruling class can use to dictate our punch clock existences. Is technology democratizing the tools of fascism? Why not? What’s so different about them? Here comes everybody indeed, whether they like it or not. We’re all going to be shooting mind control rays at each other, obeying Markov chain commands issued by our zombie army computers, living in an anarchist/fascist quasi state of cultural strange attractors, capable of free will only in topics of obscurity and total market failure.

Good times.

Then, just when I thought I’d mentally explored/perverted the scenario to its fullest, I received this ad: #powellswin: a 20% off book sale capitalizing on Powell’s not having (accidently) censored their search results. I like Powell’s, if I wasn’t in debt to my eyeballs (hey….) I’d be tempted to buy something. In the mean time, I’ll just have to let my phished cc do my opinion expressing for me.

Looking back to Obama’s night

I have recently returned from the inauguration, but this was written the night he was elected. I am running behind, but more on understanding implications than just writing.

Nov. 5/6

Mccain conceded before the polls closed in Alaska or Hawaii; Obama gave his acceptance speech, and the honking and shouting in Cambridge, Massachusetts began. By 1am something frenetic was beginning to sizzle in the air. I walk down Mass Ave to Harvard Square. Encountering a jubilant group of well muscled students, my first (clearly compulsory) high five feels like it’s going to take off my right shoulder.

Cars go by honking, each with their own tattoo, a couple with a kind of car alarm like regularity. Then a Cambridge night bus goes by, driver pounding out his own song oblivious to any political sanctity of municipal on-the-clock time. Something is starting, and no one is starting it. My own footsteps take on a kind of involuntary musicality. I am happy, an infectious almost involuntary kind of happy, coming on like getting damp in a growing rainstorm. Everything around me is getting more musical.

Harvard Square is packed. Whoo hoo! woah! honk! Then the Yes we Cans begin, mixed with some yes we dids. (I thought it was the earliest concession speech of my life; my mom confirmed she was pretty sure it was the earliest of hers too.) People are feeling powerful, filling the streets and climbing the street furniture, dripping from the fences and climbing over each other, still waving campaign signs. Yes we did.

Pretty soon they are chanting Obama! Obama! But no cry lasts for long against the general exuberance. There is no rally here, no event, not even a party.

This is a riot of happy.

It was, said one bemused cop who was vaguely stopping anyone from heading even deeper into Harvard Square, like when the Red Socks won the World Series. “Did you expect this?” He snorted. “We probably should have.” What we didn’t know at the time was that this involved a lot more of the world than the World Series generally does. Pictures and videos were rolling in of spontaneous happy riots breaking out all over the US, all over the world. They were dancing in the streets in Canada, Jubilant in Europe, singing in Brazil. Everyone owned this election, even if just a little bit. A lot of the world was exhaling in relief. It’s more than relief here, something has broken free, and is riding the crowd every bit as much as the crowd is riding it.

They are happy when they block traffic. They are thrilled when they let it through. The price of getting through: you have to high five everyone beside your car. Another nightbus comes by, empty, to outrageous applause. All this goes for the police as well. An old grizzled black Cambridge policeman missing his front teeth demonstrates an almost magical power to move the crowd around by high fiving people and shouting “Yes we can!” with an honest if dual-purposed glee. He waves people back and frees up the road, while they stumble over each other to come high five him.

Yes we did! Yes we did!

As I walked into Harvard square a middle aged black man in a tatty suit jacket stopped me. He stopped me in particular because I had to know, he had to make me know something.

“I’m going to be a better man from today,” he explained in a thick accent, “I’m not going to cheat on my wife anymore.”

I laughed. I always laugh when a) surprised and b) buying time to make out people’s accents. He didn’t give up on me. “I’m telling you!”

“Yeah? Can I take your picture?”

In fact he wants the moment recorded for posterity, the birth of the new man. He wants the big glowing clock in the background to record the moment. He grabs a random stranger to be part of the picture, pressing him into his story rebirth from cynicism and lying into loyalty, but not actually telling him. They grin, I snap.

He’d cried three times that night, he’d told me. He hadn’t cried since his father died. Unsure what one says when the election of the first black president of the United States of America and a man so eloquent and inspiring as to put to shame two generations worth to come before him, who is overturning perhaps one of the most terrible and hated regimes of the post WWII western world reduces a middle aged black immigrant not only to sobbing but to a kind of religious remaking of character, I settle for “Wow.”

I cried when my father died too, but I also cry at particularly well produced 30 second ad spots. I didn’t cry Obama Night.

“I’ll be a better man,” he tells me again, clearly on his way to cry number four. We melted into the crowd and don’t see each other again.

Why didn’t I cry? I was still ineptly hiding my blubbering on my 4th viewing of the More Perfect Union speech. I care about race, I care about history. All the things that were moving people that night to hug and cry and whoop and honk were things that matter to me a lot, but not a tear. Nothing I can say about what happened in Harvard Square on Obama Night doesn’t sound like the Obama campaign, and that bothers me. I can say it was the kind of hope that hearing about the cure for a disease brings. Hope! Ew! I can say it wasn’t about Obama it was about the people making something different happen by their force of will, but Obama says that! No fair! If the Obama campaign detected what was out on the street and cynically used it to get elected, well, bugger.

But I’m not sure if what I saw out there will let him. There’s an old story about a group of people getting in to see FDR and laying out a proposal. It impressed him, and he advised them “Now go out there and force me to do it.” Politicians are subject to the occult forces of societies. The demons of our collective moods possess them, and the best can mold their possession into something history judges kindly, but they certainly don’t defy it. Whatever strange spirit was traveling around Harvard square wasn’t summoned by the people, it was riding them, it is riding America, not the other way around. I wonder how much the next administration can resist, and how much it would be at their peril.

By late in the evening, people have worked out how to play the car horn. Someone is honking with their own unique stuttering song. Da a a aa da da. Da a a aa da da. Da a a aa da da.

An Iraqi man grabs me from the crowd to take his picture, pointing at a button on his chest that says “Iraqis for Obama”, he asks me to not put his face in the picture. I pause. “I don’t think it matters anymore.” We both hesitate, realizing that really, something has changed. I take the picture, button, hands, and face.