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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There is only one thing that you can learn from The Muppets social media strategy

ImageI’ve read about 5 or 6 blog posts in the past month or so about the popular social media campaign surrounding the latest Muppet movie. In the past few weeks, they’ve been everywhere: YouTube, Google +, Facebook, etc, and of course all the big social media marketing blogs are weighing in on what other social media marketing people can learn from it.

Personally, I think there’s only one important thing to take away from The Muppets social media campaign: Be awesome like the Muppets. I personally don’t know anyone who dislikes the Muppets and if I did, I would probably judge their lack of humanity. The Muppets are the best. They are hilarious and fun and full of cheer and for many of us who grew up with them, they are like beloved friends. And of course, since it’s been proven (at least by Pew Research)  that most people are active on social media to connect with their friends, it’s a perfect venue for the Muppets to reintroduce themselves to the public.

So, if you are thinking that it may be great for your product/brand/company to have a cool Google + Hangout or mobile app like the Muppets did, I beg you to ask this question of yourself: “Is my product/brand/company awesome like The Muppets?” if that answer is no, you may wish to reconsider your strategy. Or more importantly, consider how you can channel a little bit of the awesomeness of the Muppets in what you do. Whether that’s a musical routine, or costumes, or movie parodies or wakka wakka jokes  do something that will make your company more fun and approachable (like actual fun, not marketing fun). THEN you can do that Google + Hangout and people will be more likely to join in, because you are awesome. Now if you will excuse me,. I’m going to go put on makeup and dress up right.

Are music startups killing online music fandom?

Turntable.fm dubstep room

It’s the end of the year and time for one of my favorite annual book purchases, the DeCapo Best Music Writing series. It’s a great time to catch up with all the music writing I have generally ignored for the past year. (Not on purpose!)  It’s also an excellent opportunity to go back in time and discover some of the releases that may have slipped under my radar in the past 10 or so months.

But I haven’t been ignoring music, it’s just that my attention has been more focused on music streaming platforms like Spotify and Rdio to get my music, or (very) occasionally poking my head into Turntable.fm. The popularity of music discovery startups has been one of the hotter tech stories of the past year , with Spotify’s celebrated arrival in the U.S. and controversial integration with Facebook, not to mention this summer’s love affair with Turntable.fm among music bloggers and social media folks.

But even with the popularity of these services, I can’t honestly say that I discovered more new music this year, or made more informed music buying choices because of them. Honestly, I think I discovered more new music when MySpace was the only game in town for burgeoning bands to share tunes. Thanks to Facebook, I know how little most of my social circle and I have in common when it comes to music preference. More broadly, I think the music startup explosion hasn’t really done much to promote new music discovery at all, but mostly encourages an echo chamber of musical tastes where friends and acquaintances share the same small pool of artists, bands, and songs with each other.

My other big problem with algorithmic-based music discovery platforms like Pandora is that musical taste (like food, and romance/dating) is often too complicated for an algorithm. Music communities are a huge arbiter of  musical tastes; the shared, collective sense of identity, emotion and memory that comes from music fandom is just as important as musical, style, production, and genre when determining listening preferences.

A couple of music startups do address this. Turntable.fm opens up that closed network of music sharing a bit more, with its real time, chat-room like element that allows for moments of serendipity, and more importantly, real time conversation and opinion sharing. One of the elements that stands out about Soundcloud’s approach (I SWEAR I don’t work for Soundcloud, even though I talk about it all the time) is the company’s use of community managers to act as music/sound curators while also encouraging in-person and local community building in the form of meetups.

And of course, music blogs remain a major player in online music fandom. I’ve written about my take on the future of music criticism before.  Music blogs like Pitchfork and Brooklyn Vegan don’t appear to have the same level of  cultural authority  as tastemakers that they did several years ago but still remain well-read. And it seems odd in the age of social everything, that Pitchfork still doesn’t allow reader comments. But do blogs compare with the ability to sample, rate and share music almost instantly? Will music blogging and long-form writing be disrupted by music startups the way food/restaurant criticism was disrupted by Yelp?

I can’t see Rdio or Soundcloud ever replacing the experience of music fandom or reading writing music criticism for me personally, but I have seen it impact how I consume music on a daily basis. I’m curious to hear from other music junkies:  has Spotify/Pandora/Rdio/Soundcloud replaced music blogging or personal recs for you in finding new music?

Why I think Awkward Black Girl is the future of television

I don’t watch a whole lot of television these days. I get most of my entertainment online, and when I do watch television programming, it’s on Hulu or Netflix. My favorite TV show of 2011 isn’t a traditional television show at all, however. It’s a web series called the Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. The best way I can describe this show is “Black Grownup Daria” ABG chronicles the daily life of J, a socially inept black woman in her 20’s as she navigates work and dating in Los Angeles.

For obvious reasons, this show resonates with me. For all that I enjoy shows like Community and Parks and Recreation, ABG is the first time I’ve seen anything even remotely reflecting my life presented in such a format. So naturally, I’m a bit protective of the show. (The last web series I loved this much was “McCourt’s in Session” and there was only three episodes of those, so ABG is a vast improvement on a number of levels.)

In the past few months, the show’s popularity has soared. Issa Rae, the show’s creator/star has been on dozens of magazines and blogs and even CNN recently.  It’s like Issa Rae has become the black Felicia Day, and I love it. When the show took to Kickstarter to raise funds to complete additional episodes, ABG fans stepped up to the plate and raised more than the projected goal of $30,000 to complete ABG’s season. Once again, Kevin Kelly’s 1000 True Fans model proves itself replicable:

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

I don’t know if Issa Rae is yet making a living from ABG, but she is able to continue her work, improve the show and gain new fans. She’s really stepped up her game when it came to marketing and fan engagement, the college tour is a great idea, the t-shirts/merch are awesome and I love their approach of giving all the ABG characters their own fan pages. Issa Rae knows what she’s doing and understands what the fans want.

As the show’s popularity and buzz increases, there’s been talk of ABG moving to television. When the show first started, I was rooting for Issa Rae to be discovered by a network and picked up for TV, so maybe, for the first the first time in my TV watching life, I can see TV show that reflects my life in some way (what a concept) but with the success of the Kickstarter campaign, and the continuing grassroots support of ABG, I’ve begun to wonder if ABG (or other web series) needs traditional TV at all. TV execs like to pat themselves on the back for having a show with two black leads, but then only keep that show on for three weeks (though, to be honest “Undercovers” did suck) If fans continue to support Issa and ABG (i.e. if supporters become subscribers) who needs traditional TV?

My thoughts have echoed this blogger, who breaks down some of the math:

“…set up a website where fans can pay $5/mo for unlimited viewing. That’s a reasonable $60/year for each of us, and since a show like ABG has at least 25000 fans, that’s a generous $125,000/mo for them. ABG and Ktown Cowboys have shown us that we don’t need to see special effects or massive explosions, or ridiculous, over-the-top wardrobes. We just need to see us. We just need to see people who look like us, sound like us, and behave the way we do in real life, without someone else’s agenda coloring the script. I watch a 10-minute episode of ABG and it sends me straight to Cloud Nine. I end each episode feening for the next one. I see a dark chocolate, natural-haired black woman being witty and holding it down on her own show and I am catapulted into heaven.”

I think “K” is onto something, I love the idea of fan supported online series becoming the rule rather than the exception. And regardless , I think TV execs could takes notes on how popular web series like ABG are marketed to fans. However, I still want to see Issa Rae get the opportunity to create for mainstream television. Mainstream television needs this, more than ever.

Why? I saw “The Help” last month. I was on the fence about seeing it for the entire summer, I had conflicting feelings about the film from the time I heard of its release (I’ve not read the book) Once again we have a Civil Rights era film about Black people but written and directed by white people, and I was bracing myself for some painful stereotypes.

As I watched and enjoyed the film, I was still settled with a growing sense of unease. It’s 2011, Viola Davis and/or Octavia Spencer will likely get Oscar nominations for playing the same type of role that Hattie McDaniel played when she won in 1940. To be fair, Abileen and Minny are certainly no Mammy stereotypes; they’re well-acted and three dimensional characters.

But still, in 2011, this is one of the few times in Hollywood where African-American women are central within a story. That or Tyler Perry movies, and please let’s not go there today. That’s a whole other post. I can count on one hand the times I can walk into a movie theater or turn on TV and see black women’s lives portrayed where they’re not someone’s afterthought. And even then, it’s too often rooted in the past, or the convenient Hollywood narrative of the Strong Black Woman: challenged but unbowed, tough but maternal, drawing from superhuman reserves of emotional tenacity to face hatred and violence. With her sass.

Awkward Black Girl is the present. It’s the future. It’s the story of a black women as she lives and loves now. Awkward, funny, smart, wacky, romantic, vulnerable. And it’s only one story that can possibly be told from the many diverse stories of black women. Stories that have more “universal” resonance that Hollywood seems to think.

So yeah, do I want to see that on TV? In the movies? Hell yeah I do. I wish Issa Rae the very best of luck with ABG and her future endeavors. I think she can make a splash on TV while still keeping ABG real for the web.

The Dark Side of Hallyu (Korean Wave)?

Today, the BBC posted an article entitled The Dark Side of Korean Pop Music. Interestingly, this is only a couple of months after the Guardian had an article on K-pop: how South Korea turned round its music scene (subtitled: Strict anti-piracy laws, pop production houses and clever marketing have helped this struggling market thrive once more).

So what is one of the most important negative (or positive, depending on the article!) aspects of Korean pop music? The highly manufactured aspect of K-pop. Aspiring performers are taken on by labels, as trainees, where over time, they hope to be added to a group.

K-Pop is expensive to produce. The groups are highly manufactured, and can require a team of managers, choreographers and wardrobe assistants, as well as years of singing lessons, dance training, accommodation and living expenses.

Companies such as SM Entertainment and Play Cube Entertainment tapped into the 360 degree model way before the major labels – being independent record labels, talent agencies and publishers with their own academies where they groom young teenagers to be pop stars.

Or as Mark Russell, the author of Pop Goes Korea, puts it:

A big company like SM Entertainment (or JYP or whoever) will likely have 50 or 70 kids in training at any one time. That’s a lot of ramyeon noodles and dance instructors and real estate to pay for. The big companies especially need a steady revenue stream to pay for all of that. So it is no surprise the kids are treated like commodities, like links in the supply chain. After all, the supply of young hopefuls is endless. The number of successes available is very small.

But how is this really different than the manufactured pop anywhere else — with the exception that the timeframe for training before performance is extended? And this is pop taken to its most pop-py — as shown in these videos from SNSD/Girls Generation, Super Junior (yes, there were thirteen members of the group), SHINee, 2ne1, and 4 Minute (mentioned in the BBC article performing in malls).

One of the major differences between Kpop and music elsewhere is how much sales are dependent on appearances on music shows, similar to Top of the Pops and the former MTV live performance shows. The general lifespan for Kpop groups is not long, and there have even been stories about former Kpop singers going to law school in the states. Oddly enough, even in this highly manufactured world, there are more groups that have recognition than are found in U.S. music that seems to be only focused on A-list music. Can anyone honestly say that groups like Baroness, Converge, Dillinger Escape Plan, and Genghis Tron have even the chances for mainstream success that, bleh, nu metal had?

On the other hand, even within the music factory town of Korean pop, there are those that can find success. Most notably, in rap/hiphop, such as Drunken Tiger (and … his crew):

Hip hop is good example, as groups and performers like Epik High, Tasha (Yoon Mi-rye), and Drunken Tiger have escaped the management system and had great success on their own while (most importantly) making better music. With iTunes, Soundcloud and other online music portals, no band needs to be controlled by managers/labels anymore, like they were in the age of terrestrial TV dominance and record stores.

That isn’t to say there aren’t potential issues with Kpop, such as the pay for performers. Or how hard they are pushed by their labels to perform (as was recently questioned by many fans of Girls Generation during the recent Japanese tour and Paris concert). But many of the problems with the Korean music industry are true for the worldwide music industry, where audiences want new music, but not too different, and don’t want to pay (too much) to purchase it. But that is something that Korean pop — with its strong fanclubs — has an advantage, by supporting both live performances and tons and tons of merch.

I Read A Book: Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law

Cutting Across Media: Appropriation Art, Interventionist Collage, and Copyright Law, edited by Kembrew McLeod & Rudolph Kuenzli, is a variety of essays (including photo essays) collected from the conference, Collage as Cultural Practice. Unlike many of the other books regarding copyright’s influence on art, these essays focus on the experience of artists, including rappers, musicians, visual artists, and filmmakers.

Negativland explains the role law has played for many artists:

“For artists, copyright means that other art is emphatically not allowed to be seen as part of their landscape, not part of their usable environment, not allowed to be part of something that influences their creative minds, unless they are rich enough to “buy” whatever they want to use. … This withdrawal of all copyrighted art from any future recycling goes directly against the universal and historical prerogative of artists (and consumers) to see the entire world around them as grist for their mill.”

This book is highly recommended for artists and those who want to understand collage/appropriative techniques in art, but that isn’t to say there isn’t anything for academics. This book includes some entertaining footnotes, similar to Erik Jensen’s Shortest Law Review in History (Considering it is only one sentence, would quoting the article be acceptable under the proposed Georgia State copyright settlement) and my all-time favorite footnote regarding H.R. from Copyrights and Copywrongs. One essay is basically a series of footnotes, questioning the concepts of copyright, appropriation, and citation:

Citation buries the truth that we all borrow ideas behind the lie that somewhere there is an individual point of origin, of authorship, of ownership. Steal creatively, and profligately, and stand with chutzpah on the intellectual booty of our collective history! …Let this note be the last note, ever. [It isn’t even the last footnote in this non-essay!]

This book also reminded me of the far reaching influence of the alternative press magazine, Stay Free! The book includes two interviews — of Siva Vaidhyanathan and Chuck D — reprinted from Stay Free, but also the Illegal Art exhibit. Carrie McLaren’s work in creating a space for these issues to be discussed and displayed by creatives is sorely missed, but bills need to be paid!

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In a somewhat related note: Duke University Press, what is with your copyright statements about books on your website? This is at least the third book with a Creative Commons license within the physical copy of the book, but there is nary a mention on the official page of the book (click on rights). Instead, there are directions to contact the Copyright Clearance Center (!) and your permissions department.

What is the point of Creative Commons licensure if you don’t even mention it? And you (Duke University Press) do not own the copyright for either the compilation as a whole (the editors) or the individual chapters (mostly the chapter authors), so your misdirection doesn’t have a clear intent. Or is this copyright statement page the default for all Duke University Press books? If so, then please add in the possibility that either entire works or sections could have Creative Commons licenses!

Guide for the Perplexed: The Baddest Female Seoul City Ever Had: The Rise of Korean Rappers

Here in the U.S., it seems like there can only be one highly successful female rapper at a time — now Nicki Minaj (and hence the “Eve wants Lil Kim to settle her beef with Nicki”). But in Korea, mostly as part of pop groups, but also as individual artists, there are several popular female MCs.

For example, CL from 2ne1 (rapping above — self-proclaimed “baddest female”), HyunA from 4Minute (formerly from Wonder Girls), Yubin from Wonder Girls, Miryo from Brown Eyed Girls, and Amber from f(x) all are known as rappers within their girl groups. In addition, Tasha (AKA T, Yoon MiRae) has been a very successful rap solo artist. And as shown in the video below from an awards show, including a performance of Tasha’s Pay Day, they can share the stage.

And what is the reason for the lack of Highlander-ish “there can only be one” female rapper at the top of her game in Korea? Perhaps a large thanks goes to the highly manufactured aspect of most Korean pop. Because groups are put together by labels, usually after years of training, as long as having rappers in groups sells, then they will continue to be added to groups. And considering present Korean pop music seems to be very international pop with a light R&B twist plus rap, this likely won’t change.

But it is also because their styles vary — ranging from the gritty underground sound of Tasha, to the very pop-friendly raps from Yubin and HyunA, to the barely recognizable as rap from …, well, I’m just not going to name them. Another major influence is the U.S., where many Korean musical artists have lived for a while, and brought back these influences.

So if you haven’t already started listening to Kpop and Korean rap, you should consider it.

In this post, I’ve decided to mostly include live performance videos to show this isn’t studio-crafted perfection — these are all excellent live performers.