I Read A Book: Robert Levine’s Free Ride: How Digital Parasites are Destroying the Culture Business, and How the Culture Business Can Fight Back

Creative Commons licensed photo of a parasite

The best thing about this book is the title. Seriously, who wouldn’t want to learn about how to stop parasites? Especially when they are digital! But the book offers little more than the simplistic model of payment is good for copyrighted materials – and pirating is bad.

One of the ways that I judge books that talk about culture and copyright is based on how fans and fandom are written about. And this book doesn’t disappoint, by carefully discussing elements of fan culture and their importance to the continued economic success of multiple media properties. I joke. There is no mention of fandom at all, beyond a page-long dismissive mention of the concept of 1,000 true fans, no mention of consumer buy-in, nothing beyond “you parasite.” In a book about digital culture, this is an EPIC fail.

I also judge books in this oeuvre by their description of Nine Inch Nails’ effort to release music via Creative Commons and other more open means, including the Creative Commons-licensed albums The Slip and Ghosts I-IV, and the label-delayed therefore placed online for the free remix album, Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D (AKA Year Zero Remixed). And lest we forget, Trent Reznor decried his labels at every opportunity, including praising fans for … wait for it, engaging in illegal downloading, Levine’s “parasitic” behavior, extorting them to “steal and steal and steal some more and give it to all your friends and keep on stealing.”

But Levine’s description of T. Rez is:

“the acts that have most successfully used free music to promote major tours –Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails—have benefited from millions of dollars’ worth of marketing from their respective major labels.”

What ho, Jeeves.

If you think I’m playing the detail game, Levine calls out William Patry, one of the pre-eminent copyright scholars for getting the sales of Grand Theft Auto wrong, and then intimates that he would not have the viewpoints he does, but for being Google’s attack dog. Correlation does not imply causation – and Patry held the same views before starting his present job. Levine’s anti-scholar bent is not just directed at Patry. One of the most detrimental aspects of this book is the implication throughout that academics (and academic institutions, like Harvard and Stanford; and non-profits, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons) that are not copyright extremists are activists and in the pocket of big companies (read: Google and its ilk). He directly calls Pamela Samuelson an “activist [,] who wanted to weaken copyright in other ways” (26), calls Jessica Litman someone who ignores the law (46), but saves the majority of his directed fury towards academia towards Lawrence Lessig.

There are actual well-reasoned critiques of Lessig’s work – but this isn’t one of them.  And to publish a book in 2011, critiquing Lessig with nary a mention of Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, where in 2008 Lessig spends a whole book discussing the ways that remix culture can work with traditional media so everyone makes money, is just intellectually lazy. Or deliberate.

Because I am *that* sort of reader, I checked the acknowledgements, which include mentions of Fred von Lohman, Jane Ginsburg, and Marybeth Peters – all huge figures in the area of digital culture and copyright. Highly surprisingly, there are no quotes in the book from them –  except for a brief snippet of Peters’ congressional testimony in her role as the Register of Copyrights, but nothing from the interviews Levine conducted.

In an odd way, I actually prefer Mark Helprin’s “alone in my room, I reign supreme” copyright-should-last-forever-because-I-am-a-brilliant-author diatribe because he was straightforward about what he wanted. And if you want to read about the dangers of Google, read Siva Vaidhyanathan’s The Googlization of Everything. If you want to read about how the music industry took things in the wrong direction, read Greg Kot’s Ripped: How the Wired Generation Revolutionized Music.

Summary: Not recommended. Save the entertainment and publishing industry through paywalls! Google bad!

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Radiohead releases new album online, music industry keeps dying

Radiohead just released its latest album, The King Of Limbs, today online. It’s a day earlier than expected, and unlike their last release, In Rainbows, where they band offered a “name your price” model for the record, The King of Limbs has a firm price: $9 for an MP3 and $14 for a WAV (CD quality) format. Not a big surprise, the “name your price” experiment was a worthy one, but a model that is impossible for a band that’s not Radiohead to replicate and remain solvant.

Physical copies of The King Of Limbs will be made available in stores later in March, but it’s quite telling that Radiohead is prioritizing online distribution for the second release in a row.

Similarly, check out the following chart, swiped from businessinsider.com which maps out the “Death of the Music Industry”

Not sure if the chart is documenting the death of the industry per se, but the certain death of physical music formats for mass consumption, and perhaps the concept of mass -market music in general.

Nine Inch Nails fan video project rebrands as pan-fandom collective

Interesting news for both fans of NIN and followers of fan culture, fan-works and ownership. The grassroots fan organized video production collective This One is On Us made some waves for their organization and dedication to documenting Nine Inch Nails last tour with high-quality video and audio recording. As mentioned in a TLF post from last year, this was done with the  approval of Trent Reznor, who loosened venue taping policies so that fans could participate. And as we presented at MIT, Nine Inch Nails has been highly supportive of fan remix/reuse.

With NIN on an indefinite hiatus, the TOIOU  fan community has announced a “rebranding” of the collective, now with  a broader, pan-fandom focus. The organization will no longer be NIN specific, based on the collective’s early draft of a mission statement, that states:

We aim to restore live music as a shared, passionate entity, and work with those who embrace new media and the realities of the Internet to build on their relationship with fans through collaboration and to create unique documents of their live events. Providing organizational, technical and financial support, we encourage fan communities to plan and execute first-rate film and audio recordings, and turn the resulting content into professional quality releases.

In addition, the organizers intend to formally establish TOIOU as a non-profit organization.

Interesting news, and worth watching. TOIOU was able to exist and succeed based in part because of the unusually collaborative and open relationship between Reznor and his fans. If TOIOU is to take this model and attempt to replicate it in other music fandoms, particularly for mainstream, big-ticket musical artists with particularly devoted live fanbases,  but a more restrictive approach to fan relations. I expect challenges for the group in future.

Metallica and their historically tight rein on fan-produced live recordings comes to mind because the band has been charging members for high-quality recordings of live performances for years now (yet they have also previously made money from fan recordings). Will TOIOU become a sort of fan advocacy organization? One that assists  fan-producers with the infrastructure support to pull of what the NIN fandom did? The current draft of the mission statement seems to imply this, but it is, admittedly, a work in progress.

YouTube has become a sort of live music library where fans (including myself) may share and upload videos of their favorite musician’s latest performances. For live music junkies there’s opportunity in this.  For record labels and big-ticket live music  promoters, there is a perceived threat. TOIOU has a lot of work cut our for it, but I am excited to see where it goes next.

I read a book: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Until recently, Clay Shirky was best known as the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The book  was widely praised (seriously, Boing Boing calls it a “masterpiece”) and is still referenced  by social media strategist/expert/guru types as a must-read for anyone looking to explore the social dynamics that drive the use of technology, which at the time (and even now, to a certain extent) is not what drives most conversation about the internet and social media in particular.

Rather than focusing the catalyst of online social behavior on specific technologies  (i.e. what makes Facebook so popular?) Shirky argued that social tools facilitates common group behavior, conversation and social interaction. At the time, the beginning of Facebook’s online dominance and in the midst of growing fascination and panic about social media from the mainstream press. Shirky presented a reasoned, articulate and well-researched argument that the idea of “crowdsourcing” was not a new idea, but actually rooted in common, even traditional social interaction. The Internet just made that interaction happen more widely and more rapidly.

If you talk to any social media/internet  “expert” or “enthusiast” these days, this perspective is seen as common knowledge, but without Shirky’s well-presented theory and research to bolster this theory it wouldn’t have taken root.

In 2010, you’d think that this argument wouldn’t need repeating or clarification, but as traditional media continues to evolve and digital use continues to grow and become more ubiquitous, the panic of social theorists and mainstream media commentators continues unabated. The continuing debate of whether the Internet makes you smarter or more stupid seems to have a new chapter each day, but in Cognitive Surplus, Shirky’s latest book, he does add fuel to that fire, but also offers a modified version of his Here Comes Everybody thesis: The Internet has given us the tools to create, publish and share media  faster, cheaper and with more people than ever before

Shirky’s revised thesis is the reason that I think Cognitive Surplus is a must-read (there’s that term again) for media professionals in every field.

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