Archive for the 'pop culture' Category

Oh my God, it’s full of stars!

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

I was saddened to learn of the passing of one of my childhood inspirations, science-fiction writer extraordinaire Arthur C. Clarke, who died today at the age of 90 at his home in Sri Lanka from breathing problems associated with post-polio syndrome, which he had battled for years. Known for such classic novels as “Earthlight”, “Islands in the Sky”, and “The Hammer of God” among many others, he will no doubt best be remembered for “2001: A Space Odyssey”, and his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick to produce the movie of the same name. Those of a particular age and proclivity will recall “2001″ as one of those rite-of-passage films best experienced under the influence of certain, shall we say, “attitude-enhancements”, which had a tendency to cause the viewer to exclaim “Oh, wow!” during various pivotal scenes. Nevertheless, even if one didn’t indulge, it was still a mind-bending flick on many levels.

Like the scientist/author Sir Fred Hoyle before him, Clarke often wrote about a technologically advanced but prejudiced mankind being confronted by a superior alien intelligence. Not only a brilliant and creative writer, he was also a futurist; in 1945 he predicted the idea of communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit, and advanced the idea of space travel long before rockets were even test-fired.

He wrote his shortest-ever story in 2006 as an entry to Wired magazine’s “Very Short Story” contest. The entire text (“God said, ‘Cancel Program GENESIS.’ The universe ceased to exist.”) was four words longer than the contest rules allowed, but he refused to trim it.

Last year at his 90th birthday celebration, he was asked how he would like to be remembered. “I have had a diverse career as a writer, underwater explorer and space promoter,” he replied. “Of all these I would like to be remembered as a writer.”

And that he shall. Open the pod bay doors, Hal.

The Hooker and the Governor

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

Hi there, friends! I’m ashamed to say that it’s been nearly two weeks since I last posted, which means I have entirely missed out on blogging about the Eliot Spitzer affair — an event custom-made for snarky wise cracks if ever there was one. But better late than never, as they say, so let me make a couple of observations:

• I’ve read many comments along the lines of “Is anyone/anything really worth $3,000 an hour?” Obviously The Gov thought so, however to put this in perspective, that rate comes to an annual salary of roughly $6.2 million (assuming a 40 hour week and paid vacations). So, to see who else might be getting that sort of money, I consulted Forbes Magazines’ 2007 survey of the highest-paid CEO’s in the corporate world and found that their average annual compensation was $15.2 million — or about the cost of two 7-diamond escorts and one somewhat skankier 3-diamond model. The top dog on the list was Apple CEO Steve Jobs at $646.6 million, followed by Ray Irani of Occidental Petroleum at $321.6 million, and one could make the argument that they’ve been screwing the public for years. Of course, whether the Chief Escort Officers on the Forbes list are actually worth that amount is another question. Ashley Alexandra Dupre earned outstanding performance reviews from her clients, probably higher than Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott Jr., for example, who brought home $9 million in ’06 while his company’s stock tanked.

• The high cost of “Kristin’s” er, “professional services” naturally lends itself to all sorts of jokes. This blog is of course way too classy to print such things (hah!), however anyone so inclined can go here for some suitably ribald humor. (Caution: not only unsafe for work, but tasteless too; don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

• Ms. Dupre may have made the understatement of the year when she called her father the day after Emperor’s Club VIP was busted to say that she “was in a little bit of trouble.” However, she’s also shown herself to be a resourceful girl, turning lemons into lemonade by using her 15 minutes of fame to promote her MySpace site and singing career. She better get on the ball fast though, for as Bloomberg.com points out, “Sadly, you’ve already used up six and a half minutes of it with two underwhelming songs.” Like many others, I downloaded “What We Want” and “Move Ya Body”, thinking they might make an interesting addition to my radio show next week. However, I quickly discarded that idea after listening to them, because to be perfectly honest, they suck.

Which, when you think about it, is highly appropriate.

Rumblings in the vast wasteland

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

Remember that big dusty box in the living room you used to sit and stare at for hours back in the good old days of 2007? I think it’s called a “television set”, and it’s slowly coming back to life after months of reruns and reality shows. First to return with new material since the Hollywood writers strike was settled last week will be The CW’s sitcom Aliens in America, which kicks off with eight original episodes beginning March 2. By April, most programs that are coming back this season will be on the air. Since sitcoms are produced with a shorter lead time, they’ll initially make up the bulk of returning shows; dramas will begin showing up in late March.

Here’s a list of announced returns, courtesy of The Miami Herald:

March 2: Aliens in America (The CW).

March 3: Everybody Hates Chris (The CW).

March 17: How I Met Your Mother (CBS); The Big Bang Theory (CBS); Two and a Half Men (CBS).

March 23: The Game (The CW)

March 24: CSI: Miami (CBS)

March 30: Cold Case (CBS)

April 2: Criminal Minds (CBS); CSI: New York (CBS)

April 3: My Name Is Earl (NBC); CSI (CBS); Without a Trace (CBS)

April 4: Ghost Whisperer (CBS); Numb3rs (CBS)

April 8: NCIS (CBS)

April 10: The Office (NBC); 30 Rock (NBC); Scrubs (NBC)

April 11: Moonlight (CBS)

April 14: One Tree Hill (The CW); Rules of Engagement (CBS)

April 15: Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (NBC)

April 21: Gossip Girl (The CW)

April 22: Reaper (The CW); Law & Order (NBC)

April 24: Supernatural (The CW)

Fox and ABC still haven’t issued comprehensive lists of post-strike programming, although ABC will present new episodes of Desperate Housewives and Lost this spring. Some shows won’t be back; for example, the CW has canceled entertainment-news program CW Now and sitcom Girlfriends. And the network hasn’t ordered new episodes of family-on-safari drama Life Is Wild, an ominous sign. On the other hand, NBC has announced that its first-year dramas Chuck and Life won’t be back this spring but have been renewed for the fall. Same goes for Fox’s 24.

Other shows renewed for next season: ABC’s Brothers & Sisters, Lost, Dirty Sexy Money, Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Ugly Betty, Private Practice, Samantha Who? and Pushing Daisies; CBS’ The Big Bang Theory, Cold Case, Criminal Minds, Ghost Whisperer, NCIS, Two and a Half Men, Numb3rs, Without a Trace, and all 200 versions of CSI.

As for me, I can’t say the writer’s strike affected my viewing habits at all — which mainly consist of The Daily Show, (endless!) reruns of Law and Order, and DVD movie rentals. Still, I’m glad the strike is over and scribes can go back to work earning their measly $50,000 per episode. It ain’t easy, you know. To quote the late Hunter S. Thompson, “The TV business is uglier than most things. It is normally perceived as some kind of cruel and shallow money trench through the heart of the journalism industry, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs, for no good reason. There’s also a negative side.”

Love, and other forms of temporary insanity

Thursday, February 14th, 2008

Today is the day many people have been waiting for all year: the day to tell their dearly beloved sweethearts how much they mean to them and how important they are, and buy them presents, candy and/or flowers. They might also get a cheap card for their husband or wife from Walgreens while they’re at it.

Yes, today is the favorite holiday of cynics (who nearly always refer to Valentine’s Day as “V.D.”), those who believe in their hearts that the significance of the day is way overblown, hyped beyond all common-sense reality by a greedy floral and greeting-card industry who are trying to turn every calendar event (St. Patrick’s day? Arbor Day, anyone? Bueller? Anyone?) into in excuse to purchase cards and gifts. These skeptics are quick to point out that Valentine’s Day is the only holiday that features a weapon-wielding angel as a mascot, and will make comments such as:

“Valentines day is just another stupid holiday created by the manufacturing companies in compliance with jewelry, candy, and cards. They make you feel obliged to get something for the ones you love. PUH LEZZE! It’s just another corrupt system using guilt on the people.”

or

“I hate Valentine’s Day with a passion. I would even go so far as to say that we should dig up Saint Valentine and martyr him all over again just for the fun of it.”

Of course, it could be argued that these are simply the bitter words of sad, lonely, twisted souls who have failed in their relationships due to their own selfishness, and want to ruin the holiday for everyone else. Or, they might possibly have been subjected to this example of romance run amok, which cannot be watched for more than thirty seconds without one wanting to claw out their own eyeballs.

Another possibility could be that they have seen any of numerous recent items in the news which would tend to discourage even the most optimistic of romantics. For example, consider this story from Germany involving a woman who is suing a web site at which she auctioned herself off to the highest bidder for sex. Six men were “winners” of the contest, and one got her pregnant. Unfortunately, she didn’t bother to get any of their names, so she’s suing the site’s operator for their identities so she can force the men to take paternity tests.

Meanwhile, in Seoul, South Korea, mobile phone provider KTF is offering their customers a service called the “Love Detector” which analyzes the voice patterns of the person you’re speaking to, and displays a “love meter” bar on the screen of your handset during the call. “We created this service because we thought people would want to know what others were feeling about them,” said Ahn Hee-jung, a KTF official. After the call is finished, the user receives an analysis of the conversation that breaks down the amount of affection, surprise, concentration and honesty of the other speaker.

In Charleston SC, WKLC-FM, also known as “Rock 105″, is observing the holiday with a special Valentine’s Day contest (as radio stations often do). The prize? A free divorce. The winner’s name will be drawn at random from all entries, and Charleston lawyer Rusty Webb will handle the actual filing. “Sure we can give away concert tickets, and we do,” said station Program Director Jay Nunley. “That’s going to make you happy for a little while. This is the chance to make someone happy for the rest of their life.”

Finally, if you happen to be one of those jaded, cynical, Anti-Valentine type of folks, I’ve got just the perfect job for you: UK Honey Traps, a private detective service based in Worcestershire in the heart of England, is looking for new recruits. Your work will take you to nightclubs and bars, where you’ll be looking to strike up conversations, flirt, give out your phone number, and try to make future dates. The hitch is, you’ll be targeting the husbands or wives of clients who pay you to test the loyalty of their partners, and will document the entire shameful affair for the client with hidden cameras and audio recorders. According to the web site, the agency is looking for “confident, bubbly, outgoing men and women with an ability to think on their feet.” Becoming a honey trapper demands reliability, honesty and accuracy, it says, and because most of the trapping takes place outside office hours, it can offer “an ideal second career.”

Happy Valentine’s Day!

End could be in sight for TV writer’s strike

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2008

Encouraging news for TV fans over the weekend: the Director’s Guild of America (DGA) has reached a tentative agreement with the studio conglomerates (AMPTP). The new terms set residuals on so-called “new media” which almost double the previous rates. While the striking Writers Guild (WGA) is a separate entity from the director’s association, it has been widely speculated that any deal with the studios achieved by the DGA would serve as a template for the writers to reach a similar settlement.

The leadership of the Writer’s Guild is closely examining the DGA deal, but issued a public statement today that I thought was a bit provocative, containing this less-than-conciliatory remark: “For over a month, we have been urging the conglomerates to return to the table and bargain in good faith. They have chosen to negotiate with the DGA instead.”

Nevertheless, most rank-and-file members are optimistic about the terms of the DGA’s contract. Noted director Oliver Stone said, “I’ve read the bullet points, and it is a step in the right direction, it shows that agreement is possible, and it brings a spirit of hope that hopefully will extend to the WGA and the AMPTP. If it is not taken in that spirit, that would be most unfortunate.” Many Hollywood notables attending this week’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, UT, are also eager to go back to work. “I’m very pleased with the new [DGA] agreement and I hope it helps speed up the negotiations with the WGA,” actor George Clooney said in a statement.

Talks between the writers and the studios, which have been at an impasse for weeks, could resume as early as tomorrow, according to Variety magazine. However, don’t look for your favorite shows from before the strike to reappear any time soon. There has been much bad blood generated on both sides by the walkout, so it’s likely that several more weeks of negotiations could pass before any agreement is hammered out. Also, the delay involved in ramping up the studios to begin production (even assuming that the writers already have scripts in their laptops that they’ve been withholding due to the strike) could be lengthy. Still, it looks like progress is finally being made.

Sofa-spud’s Lament

Thursday, January 17th, 2008

As the Hollywood screenwriter’s strike drones into its 11th week, the Writer’s Guild (WGA) seems to be losing public support in its struggle with the studios. Initially, audiences expressed the most concern about missing the political satire they’ve come to love on late-night talk shows, but now that Letterman, Leno, Conan O’Brien, Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert have returned to the airwaves after negotiating independent agreements to continue their shows without their striking writers, public sentiment has largely turned to apathy. A recent survey of 1,000 adults conducted online by market research firm Synovate found that 75 percent are not very concerned or not concerned at all about the TV-viewing implications of the writers strike. Indeed, many people are openly hostile to the writers, feeling that their demands are unreasonable. For example, here’s a sample of comments from the online edition of today’s Miami Herald:

The real “damage” is what these writers generally do to standards of taste, imagination and experimentation by churning out week after week after week of recycled, formulaic, mindless crap. If this strike has driven even one shitcom couch potato or brain-dead housewife addicted to slop operas to read a book or go for a nice walk in the sunshine, it will be a net gain for audiences all over America.

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It is good for the industry. Like a wildfire that clears the brush for new ground. Hopefully it forces most of the garbage shows and executives out of Hollywood and we get something better. How many serial killer shows can you watch. Stupid.

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The shows can’t get any more stupid or worse in their banality. The network bigwigs are already addleheaded coke fans (not the diet variety). Quick: name three tv shows that are made for people with an IQ above 100.

I guess as a blog writer, I should theoretically be in solidarity with the WGA but I’m having a hard time seeing their demands as realistic. The issues are complicated, and I don’t pretend to understand them fully, but the crux of the disagreement deals with how writers will be compensated for programs appearing in “new media” such as Internet downloads, streaming, smart phones, etc. The studios want to continue to pay the same percentage of residuals that they negotiated for home video (VHS/DVD) content back in the mid-1980′s, but the writers are in essence demanding a “do-over”. They feel like they got short-changed 20 years ago; bitter and resentful ever since, they’re now unwilling to make what they see as similar concessions for “new media” distribution. Plus, the writers are asking to be paid even for non-scripted programs such as reality shows (e.g., American Idol) where there is no pre-written dialogue, which doesn’t seem right to me.

As is usual with most disagreements involving compensation, it comes down to how you define the word “fair”. AMPTP president Nick Counter says: “We are ready to meet at any time and remain committed to reaching a fair and reasonable deal that keeps the industry working.” Meanwhile, the WGA says: “Writers want to go back to work and will do so as soon as the AMPTP returns to the negotiating table and bargains a fair deal.”

In the meantime, everyone loses — the studios, the writers, the viewers, and most of all those people who support the television and film production industry such as cast and crew members, caterers, prop and costume rental companies, and the like. Recent estimates by ABC News put the loss to the industry at over a billion dollars so far. There is some hope that contract negotiations currently underway between the studios and the Director’s Guild (DGA) will lead to a deal that will serve as a model to coax the writers and studios back to the table. “I hope it sets a good template for everybody,” writer Leonard Dick said of the DGA talks, as he and about 200 others picketed outside Warner Brothers. “We want to put everybody back to work. My kids are sick of seeing me around the house.”

How has the strike affected you? Are you watching less TV, or channel-surfing more instead of tuning in specific programs? Are you spending more time on the Internet or (gasp!) reading? Please comment.

The Cornhole Song

Saturday, December 29th, 2007

Discovered this today while surfing the web, and it seems fitting to wrap up the year with. I swear this will be my last Cornhole post.

Happy New Year, everybody! Here’s to a great 2008!

Christmas Eve

Monday, December 24th, 2007

At last, it’s here: that one magical night each year when kids of all ages go to sleep listening for the sound of sleigh bells on the roof and dream of dancing sugar plums. In keeping with that thought, it should not come as much of a surprise to learn that Clement C. Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, more popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas”, is perhaps the most parodied poem in the English language. Its sing-song meter and old-fashioned imagery make it ripe for satire. Here are links to a few of the many spoofs of Moore’s famous work:

A Lawyer’s Christmas

A Nascar Christmas

An Intellectual Christmas

A Florida Christmas

A Texas Christmas

However, of all the adaptations of this classic holiday chestnut, the following, entitled “A Visit from St. Nicholas In The Ernest Hemingway Manner” is my favorite. It was written by the estimable James Thurber and originally appeared in The New Yorker exactly eighty years ago tonight, on December 24, 1927. Enjoy.

It was the night before Christmas. The house was very quiet. No creatures were stirring in the house. There weren’t even any mice stirring. The stockings had been hung carefully by the chimney. The children hoped that Saint Nicholas would come and fill them.

The children were in their beds. Their beds were in the room next to ours. Mama and I were in our beds. Mama wore a kerchief. I had my cap on. I could hear the children moving. We didn’t move. We wanted the children to think we were asleep.

“Father,” the children said.

There was no answer. He’s there, all right, they thought.

“Father,” they said, and banged on their beds.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“We have visions of sugarplums,” the children said.

“Go to sleep,” said Mama.

“We can’t sleep,” said the children. They stopped talking, but I could hear them moving. They made sounds.

“Can you sleep?” asked the children.

“No,” I said.

“You ought to sleep.”

“I know. I ought to sleep.”

“Can we have some sugarplums?”

“You can’t have any sugarplums,” said Mama.

“We just asked you.”

There was a long silence. I could hear the children moving again.

“Is Saint Nicholas asleep?” asked the children.

“No,” Mama said. “Be quiet.”

“What the hell would he be asleep tonight for?” I asked.

“He might be,” the children said.

“He isn’t,” I said.

“Let’s try to sleep,” said Mama.

The house became quiet once more. I could hear the rustling noises the children made when they moved in their beds.

Out on the lawn a clatter arose. I got out of bed and went to the window. I opened the shutters; then I threw up the sash. The moon shone on the snow. The moon gave the lustre of mid-day to objects in the snow. There was a miniature sleigh in the snow, and eight tiny reindeer. A little man was driving them. He was lively and quick. He whistled and shouted at the reindeer and called them by their names. Their names were Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder, and Blitzen.

He told them to dash away to the top of the porch, and then he told them to dash away to the top of the wall. They did. The sleigh was full of toys.

“Who is it?” Mama asked.

“Some guy,” I said. “A little guy.”

I pulled my head in out of the window and listened. I heard the reindeer on the roof. I could hear their hoofs pawing and prancing on the roof.

“Shut the window,” said Mama.

I stood still and listened.

“What do you hear?”

“Reindeer,” I said. I shut the window and walked about. It was cold. Mama sat up in the bed and looked at me.

“How would they get on the roof?” Mama asked.

“They fly.”

“Get into bed. You’ll catch cold.”

Mama lay down in bed. I didn’t get into bed. I kept walking around.

“What do you mean, they fly?” asked Mama.

“Just fly is all.”

Mama turned away toward the wall. She didn’t say anything.

I went out into the room where the chimney was. The little man came down the chimney and stepped into the room. He was dressed all in fur. His clothes were covered with ashes and soot from the chimney. On his back was a pack like a peddler’s pack. There were toys in it. His cheeks and nose were red and he had dimples. His eyes twinkled. His mouth was little, like a bow, and his beard was very white. Between his teeth was a stumpy pipe. The smoke from the pipe encircled his head in a wreath. He laughed and his belly shook. It shook like a bowl of red jelly. I laughed. He winked his eye, then he gave a twist to his head. He didn’t say anything.

He turned to the chimney and filled the stockings and turned away from the chimney. Laying his finger aside his nose, he gave a nod. Then he went up the chimney. I went to the chimney and looked up. I saw him get into his sleigh. He whistled at his team and the team flew away. The team flew as lightly as thistledown. The driver called out, “Merry Christmas and good night.” I went back to bed.

“What was it?” asked Mama. “Saint Nicholas?” She smiled.

“Yeah,” I said.

She sighed and turned in the bed.

“I saw him,” I said.

“Sure.”

“I did see him.”

“Sure you saw him.” She turned farther toward the wall.

“Father,” said the children.

“There you go,” Mama said. “You and your goddam flying reindeer.”

“Go to sleep,” I said.

“Can we see Saint Nicholas when he comes?” the children asked.

“You got to be asleep,” I said. “You got to be asleep when he comes. You can’t see him unless you’re unconscious.”

“Father knows,” Mama said.

I pulled the covers over my mouth. It was warm under the covers. As I went to sleep I wondered if Mama was right.


Even our cat Tiger barely opens one eye from his holiday slumber to say…

Merry Christmas to all!

The future of music

Wednesday, December 5th, 2007

Foreword: I’ve written extensively in this space in the past about the sea change taking place in the music business from my perspective as a radio broadcaster. We are living in historic times, as business paradigms that have existed for most of the last century are changing right before our eyes. Recently I read a very well-written article by Skip Pizzi in Radio World magazine, which deserves to be reprinted here for anyone who might be interested in this topic. It opens with a provocative question: has it become optional to pay for music? In my opinion, if this is not yet 100% the case, it will be in the not-so-distant future. I believe nothing less than a full-scale revolution is taking place among consumers of music, and taken to its extreme conclusion, it seems altogether possible that the concept of “making music for money” will eventually become as outmoded as the buggy whip, to use Skip’s comparison. Whether or not this will be a good thing is certainly debatable: shouldn’t any artist deserve to be paid for their work, no matter if their medium is painting, sculpture, photography, or music? Will artists cease to write, record, and perform music if they can’t get rich from doing so? Or will it weed out the hacks who are in the business just for the “rock star lifestyle”, leaving only those who genuinely love music to continue to create songs we enjoy listening to? Here’s the article; what do you think?

Singing The Buggy Whip Blues

At a recent conference presentation on the future of the music industry, a fellow panelist asked the audience if they agreed with his contention that it had now “become voluntary to pay for music.” This provocative statement brought into clear focus the magnitude of change that the music industry has undergone in recent years — and by the way, no one disagreed with him.

The music industry faces a unique challenge, in which external forces have conspired to eviscerate its traditional business model, while everything else around it remained largely the same. Neither supply nor demand for music has abated — if anything, they have both grown — but through a strange set of combinational circumstances, the context within which the industry monetizes this process has shifted, and revenue thereby produced has dwindled substantially. Although some in the industry like to point fingers in blame for this predicament, no one element is wholly responsible. Meanwhile, musicians continue to create music, and consumers continue to listen to it via a growing number of venues and platforms, but the traditional marketplace has almost disappeared. It’s as if people suddenly sprouted wings and began flying themselves to distant destinations. They are still traveling just as much or more, but the airlines can’t fill their seats.

Certainly this is not the first time that new technology has caused an established business to suffer losses. The classic case of the automobile’s impact on the buggy whip is fairly apt to the music industry’s woes here. But the music industry’s revenue flow is far more arcane and complex than the simple sale of a tangible product. It is a complicated arrangement that includes musicians, composers, producers, studios, talent scouts, licensing agents (at multiple levels), concert promoters, broadcasters, manufacturers and lawyers — lots of lawyers. So some deconstruction is in order.

First, consider that when we talk about “the music industry,” we usually think of the labels, but clearly the industry’s scope extends well beyond this. Thus any attempt to re-engineer the industry must be holistic and fully inclusive. The labels do play a key enabling role, however, adding value to the whole industry primarily through their processes of aggregation. But now the very need for this “middleman role” is being questioned, as both artists and consumers seek their respective individual paths for access and commerce with one another. Therefore the labels are at ground zero of this transition’s impact, and are shouting the loudest about it.

Yet they are not alone. Radio has also played an important part in the traditional music marketplace, so as the current disaggregation trend continues, radio’s value as a collective promoter of content may also diminish.

The key to survival of this ecosystem is how sustainable the replacement business model will be. Or perhaps a better way to phrase this is whether such sustainability will flow from the entire range of new models as a whole, because it already seems evident that there may be myriad new approaches in concurrent use, and that no single replacement approach will prevail.

Recent months have provided much to examine in this respect. One notable foray is Radiohead’s label-free, self-release of its much anticipated album “In Rainbows” as an unprotected download or a premium-packaged CD. Even more groundbreaking was the band’s pricing of the download at whatever the downloader wants to pay, from free on up. This first overt application of true voluntary payment occurred a few weeks after the discussion at the conference noted above, and to date, the average “In Rainbows” downloader is paying about $8. Meanwhile, other artists from Madonna to Trent Reznor have announced they will forego their traditional label arrangements and seek some method of independent access to customers. (None have yet gone so far as Radiohead to allow the consumer to choose what they’re willing to pay, however.)

Yet another approach is the flat-rate subscription model, whereby a consumer has access to a selection of music content for a fixed monthly fee. This is more of a rental than a purchase model, however, since most of today’s subscription services do not allow unfettered copying of content (i.e., no burning to CD). A variation on this scheme allows blanket licenses to be purchased for music usage (including fair-use copying) by large, contained groups of users, such as college campuses. Some have suggested that this approach be applied to ISPs for all their respective customers, and the costs recovered in the fees that the service providers’ charge to customers — like a tax or surcharge.

Still other options include traditional paid music downloads but without digital rights management, so once purchased, no restrictions are placed on the music’s usage by the customer. This more consumer-friendly approach seems to be gaining traction, and it is no less secure a digital format than the CDs the industry has been distributing for a quarter of a century.

At perhaps the extreme end of the spectrum is the idea that music downloads should be universally available for free, and revenue to the music industry would come from concerts and collateral sales.

Again, the most likely outcome is some assortment of the above, including a bit of the old model and several coexisting variations of the new. There’s plenty of room for variety, especially when you consider that some models will apply best to well-established artists, while others will be preferred by emerging talent.

Another useful analogy is the residential real estate market, where some homeowners prefer the FSBO (For Sale By Owner) approach, but many still go with a traditional Realtor. And there are agencies somewhere in between, helping FSBOs via aggregated listings and other services. A few “lightweight” indie labels or Web sites are analogous to the latter, such as Magnatune.com.

From a loftier perspective, one could observe that the value of aggregation is now simply moving downstream. Time was that artists needed a recording contract to even get their songs recorded, let alone promoted and played on the radio, then pressed and shipped to stores. The enormity of the entire industrial process made it impractical for individual artists to consider doing any of it themselves. Not so today, where about the only place even an emerging artist really benefits from reliance on an aggregator is in the “last mile” to consumer — i.e., the music stores, either physical or online. Established acts don’t need even that aggregation, as Radiohead’s sales of millions of copies of “In Rainbows” as an end-to-end independent effort has shown.

This is not to say that the traditional powerhouses of the music industry will go quietly into that good night. The RIAA continues to plow every field that appears remotely fertile, from suing users of unauthorized distribution sites to pushing for legislation and regulation that would mandate new royalties (including new performance royalties from local radio broadcasters). Meanwhile the labels themselves are pursuing a range of new revenue opportunities, as Chris (“The Long Tail”) Anderson recently noted in his blog.

He points out that while CD sales are indeed off, many other monetized industry elements are experiencing strong growth, such as concert tickets, promotional merchandise, digital music downloads, ringtones, licensing of music for commercials, TV shows, movies and video games, revenue from hardware (sales of some satellite radio receivers and MP3 players generate royalties to labels), and even vinyl singles — lots of club DJs out there, apparently.

A new reality is settling in for the music business, and there is certainly no shortage of differing reactions to it. Whether the old players adapt or a new industry emerges remains to be seen. In any case, the status quo is no more, and there will likely be no return to it.

© 2007 by Skip Pizzi, Radio World magazine

Battle of the bands?

Monday, November 12th, 2007

I’ve been listening to a couple of new albums recently, and it’s been an interesting contrast. I’m going to include samples of each in this post so you can judge for yourself.

First out of the gate, we have the woman known (for better or worse) as the World’s Most Famous Pop Tart, Ms. Britney Spears, with her new CD “Blackout”. For reasons which I fail to comprehend, this album shot to the #1 position on the pop charts from the moment of its release two weeks ago. Of course, interest in the album was no doubt piqued by Brit’s extremely bizarre public behavior over the last year or so, and many people perhaps bought it out of curiosity. However, some folks actually kind of like it, and since this blog faithfully follows social and pop culture trends (hah!), I decided to listen to the album for myself to see what the hoopla was all about. It’s a fact that early in her career Britney was something of a legitimate sensation; so has she still “got it”, musically speaking?

The answer, at least according to my ears, is not just “no”, but “hell no”.

Her music (and I use the term loosely) consists of white trash wannabe hip-hop/rap/crunk that, according to one reviewer, sounds like “what you would expect to hear if a plastic blow-up sex doll could sing.” Says another:

“Britney’s had a lot of drama, so naturally, it’s time to make a new album, right? And what better title than, say, “Blackout,” which doesn’t evoke her substance-fueled club binges at all? At any rate, “Blackout” (Jive) is her fifth and most hilarious record, thanks largely to the contrast between the often-brilliant musical production and Spears’ steadfast insistence on taking herself seriously and expecting you will, too on songs called “Get Naked (I Got a Plan),” “Freakshow” and “Why Should I Be Sad?” Oh, no reason. It’s as if a beautiful Vaudevillian theater is collapsing around her and she refuses to leave the stage.”

In virtually every track she expresses a minor variation of the following theme: “I am Britney, bitch, the hottest, most sexy-licious woman ever to walk the planet. Girls all wish they could be like me. Guys all want to make it with me, and if you’re lucky I might choose one of you to donate your bodily fluids so I can make yet another baby, which some asshat judge will most likely take away from me. Whatever.”

If only I were making this up.

Mind you, Britney does not so much sing these lyrics as she coos, moans, groans, and giggles them. In fact, the 12 tracks on “Blackout” are so mind-numbingly similar that I decided to dust off my old radio production skills and edit them together for your listening pleasure. That’s right folks, there’s no need to go out and spend your hard-earned cash: you can hear the entire album condensed down to a mere four minutes right here! Plus, as an extra added bonus I even threw in a couple of “oldies but goodies” in places where they seemed especially appropriate in the mash-up. Note: you might want to listen with a good set of headphones, in order to pick up the subtle nuances of Ms. Spear’s delicate vocal stylings. Seriously. It’s pretty hard to figure out what the hell she’s saying otherwise. Check it out:

And then on the other hand, we have probably the greatest American rock band ever, The Eagles. To be fair, their new album has also received mixed reviews since its release last week, but nevertheless, compared to Britney this is not unlike being offered two glasses: one containing a 2003 Château Léoville St.-Julien Bordeaux and the other containing liquefied industrial waste, and being asked to choose which you’d rather drink. The eagerly-anticipated “Long Road Out of Eden” — a two-disk CD set, no less — is their first studio album since 1979′s “The Long Run”, yet listening to the tracks, it’s hard to believe that nearly thirty years has elapsed; to me, the music sounds as fresh, intense, and enjoyable as ever. It’s filled with their trademark soaring harmonies and guitar-fueled rockers, and many of the lyrics crackle with resident cynic Don Henley’s environmental sensitivity. Consider, for example, the first cut on CD1 entitled “No More Walks In The Woods”:

Makes you want to just go out and hug a tree, don’t it? The album gets even better from there on out; the first disk features more of their goosebump-inducing harmonies, while the second disk cuts loose with kick-ass country rockers that invoke memories of songs like “Life In The Fast Lane”, “Already Gone”, and “Heartache Tonight”.

Admittedly, there’s a few misfires. Henly’s preachiness, while of noble intent, begins to wears thin when you consider that the album is being sold in an exclusive marketing deal with Wal-Mart — which makes the line “we worship at the marketplace while common sense is going out of style” in “Business As Usual” ring a bit hollow. I would be way more impressed if the band had bypassed the record company/retailer conglomerate and sold the disk solely from their web site, but I guess it must be pretty difficult to be that eglatarian (pun intended) when mega-corporations are throwing huge bags of cash at you. Also, in dishing up two CD’s worth of material the band included a few songs (the too-long “Waiting In The Weeds” and the vaguely creepy “I Love To Watch A Woman Dance”, for example) that might not have made the cut had they been going for a really excellent single disk.

But The Eagles vs. Britney? The musical styles are so different that it’s really impossible to compare them; Henley, Frey, & Co. are pretty damn good even if they don’t quite reach the level of brilliance I’d hoped for, and Brit’s well-produced album might not be so bad if only she didn’t sing on it. Unfortunately, she does.

I’d rather have the Bordeaux, thank you.

Three degrees of separation

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

This may be as close to fame as I get in this stage of my life: I am excited to say that I am related to someone who knows someone who knows George Clooney.

Not only that, but the person I am related to — my nephew Jeff — actually has a screen credit in the new George Clooney movie “Michael Clayton“, which just opened in theaters a few days ago. To say I’m proud of my nephew is an understatement. Last March, I wrote this post about his photography work in New York City, and he’s been keeping quite busy since then. He recently emailed me to let me know that fifteen pieces of his artwork were selected to appear in several locations in the new Clooney film, and he also gets a mention in the end credits. Jeff has not actually met Sir George in person, but has dealt regularly with the film’s production director who no doubt has. Ergo, I am removed from His Handsomeness by only two people, and if I should ever happen to run into him while on a cruise ship in New Hampshire, we will have something in common that I can chat him up about. Don’t laugh, it could happen; I never expected to meet this guy either.

Let’s get cornholed!

Tuesday, October 16th, 2007

Considering my typical state of being behind-the-curve on social and cultural trends, it should come as no surprise that I am just now learning about a phenomenon that is sweeping the nation even as I type these words. It is, of course, the great sport of Cornhole.

If Beavis and Butthead happen to be reading this post, please withhold your titters (“Huh huh, he said ‘cornhole’. He said ‘titters’, huh huh.”) as I am referring not to a certain puckered body part but to the game of Cornhole, which involves tossing a one-pound bag of, er, corn into a … well, a hole … from a distance of 30 or so feet. Hence the name. The more easily offended may refer to it by any of several other names including “corn toss”, “the bean bag game”, and the ultra-family-friendly “Baggo”. However, most aficionados of the sport simply call it “Cornhole”, and refer to themselves and other players as “Cornholers”. Perhaps the scatological reference accounts in some part for its popularity, but this sucker has become a huge pastime, especially in the Midwest. (Stephen Colbert recently featured a segment on the game during his show, in which he jokingly referred to it as “a cross between horseshoes and sodomy.”) It is known as somewhat of a redneck sport, possibly due to the fact that it only requires one hand to play, leaving the other hand free to hold a beer. It is very popular at tailgate parties and among college students.

Of course, “beanbag toss” has been around for a very long time, but The Official Cornhole Game — with it’s attendant rules of play, equipment specifications, leagues, etc., is said to have originated on the west side of Cincinnati. From there, it spread to the Chicagoland area and has probably taken over the entire country by now. There are large-scale tournaments, and even an organization called The American Cornhole Association which promotes the game.

For anyone who, like me, has never heard of this before, the basics of the game (although the rules can vary) are as follows: you play either with teams of multiple players per side or simply one-on-one. Each “inning” consists of four bag tosses by each side at a slanted 2 by 4 foot target with a six-inch hole near the top. The two targets are placed 30 feet apart. For each bag that goes into (or hangs over) the hole, the player scores three points. A bag that lands on the board but not in the hole gets one point. Each inning, the team (or player) with the most points subtracts the points scored by the opposing side to determine the inning score. For example; suppose you get six points and your opponent gets four … your net score for the inning is two points. The first team to reach 21 points wins (more specifics here).

One thing that fascinates me about this sport — other than being able to use the word “cornhole” repeatedly in a blog post — is what a grassroots phenomenon it has been. The bags and play boards are by and large home-made, ranging from simple “naked” plywood targets all the way up to elaborately painted, stained, shellacked, and otherwise decorated works of art. Folks apparently take a lot of pride in the quality and appearance of their Cornhole set construction, and drag them around to show them off to other Cornholers. There are not yet, as far as I can tell, any big-name sporting goods manufacturers making Cornhole sets for purchase in stores, (and when they do you can bet they’ll be called something else) but for those lacking even the modest carpentry skills needed to make their own set of targets, plenty of home craftsmen are selling them from their back yards, on eBay, and at web sites like this one.

I think it looks like fun, so I’ll have to try it out and file a report for y’all. And in case Beavis and Butthead are still following along, one of the optional rules provides that the winner of the game is entitled to be referred to as “The Great Cornholio” for the next 24 hours after the match, huh huh.

Serio-comic tragedy

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

It’s not often that events in a newspaper comic strip are reported in the “real” news, but there’s considerable buzz in the media this week about the death of a character in the “Funky Winkerbean” strip. Creator Tom Batiuk has never shied away from tackling “serious” issues such as teen pregnancy, alcoholism and censorship, but the recent storyline concerning Lisa Moore and her battle with breast cancer since 1999 is certainly one of the most ambitious subjects to appear in the “funny pages”. As the end has grown ominously closer in the last month or so (and despite a mountain of letters and emails from readers pleading with Batiuk to spare her), Lisa finally succumbed to the disease in the strip published last Thursday, crossing over the veil of tears hand-in-hand with Masky McDeath (looking strangely like The Phantom of the Opera). An archive of the last month of the series can be found here.

The storyline has generated a surprising amount of controversy; some readers have sent angry letters of complaint to their newspapers, feeling that weighty matters such as disease and death are inappropriate alongside the likes of Garfield, Dagwood, Hagar the Horrible, et. al. Others feel anything that increases cancer awareness is a Good Thing, and anyone who has had to deal with the grief of losing a loved one to the green monster couldn’t help but be touched by the delicate way Batiuk has handled it with his characters. As one commenter on The Comics Curmudgeon put it:

At least FW puts a more human, imperfect face on death and dying, and one that includes struggle, regret, suffering and attempts at closure. It sucks to lose someone from cancer; it’s not easy and it’s not pretty. But there is a certain grace in surviving the struggle, getting through the deep dark emotional stuff, and moving on … not stuff I really want to read in the “funny” papers, but I give FW snaps for dealing with all the imperfect, unfunny aspects of illness and death.

Batiuk has stated that his reasoning for pursuing the plotline was inspired by his own personal battle against prostate cancer, and he has also released a book entitled “Lisa’s Story: The Other Shoe” which contains all the strips from her initial diagnosis up to her passing, along with source material on breast cancer including early detection, information sources, support systems, and health care. Proceeds will be donated to cancer research.

Following this traumatic event, Batiuk will kick off an all-new story line for the strip with the launch of Funky Winkerbean: Generation Next. The flash-forward storyline follows the lives of the characters 10 years into the future, focusing on the sons and daughters of the strip’s original core group. Les Moore, who was an awkward teen when the series began in 1972, will be nearly 50; at the end of this week, his newly-elder character was previewed talking to a psychologist about the events following Lisa’s death.

FW is not the only strip to face “non-funny” issues; For Better Or For Worse is dealing with one of it’s central characters suffering a stroke, and “B.C.” frequently takes on religion. Perhaps we’re seeing the start of a trend; since so many of the funnies are now taking a serious bent, allow me to suggest a few plot lines that the other strips might like to explore:

Dilbert: Fed up with years of abuse by his pointy-headed boss, Dilbert finally “snaps” one day, and brings a semi-automatic rifle to the office where he shoots The Boss, Dogbert, and several other co-workers to death.

Blondie: Dagwood, Blondie, Herb and Tootsie become swingers. They’re engaged in a serious wife-swapping orgy one night when Alexander and Cookie return unexpectedly and catch their parents en flagrante delicto. Years of therapy and marriage counseling follow.

Garfield: Garfield and Odie slip out of the house unnoticed by Jon, who is busily trying to woo his latest girlfriend. The dog and cat are picked up by animal control officers and euthanized after three days of efforts to determine their owner are unsuccessful. (Look carefully at the image on the right: do you see either of them wearing a collar, ID, or rabies tag? I didn’t think so.)

Dennis The Menace: Up until now, Dennis has been frozen in time as a mischievous five-year old. Announcing a “new direction” for the strip, the creators begin aging Dennis in real time; he becomes a juvenile delinquent, starts smoking crack, joins a teen street gang, and is finally shot by police while holding up a liquor store. However, he recovers from his wounds, finds religion, and goes on a mission to show his former gang-mates the Healing Power of Jesus.

Marvin: The cute, rascally, lovable, sagacious babe is unexpectedly and tragically taken by SIDS.

The Lockhorns: This one is almost too obvious. Leroy divorces Loretta so that he can carouse with the shapely young women he is frequently portrayed as flirting with in the strip. Unfortunately however, his new-found freedom doesn’t last long: he has a heart attack and dies while having sex with a 22-year old on a cruise ship, and since he was always too dim-witted to keep up with paperwork, he never bothered to update his will after divorcing Loretta and she gets everything. (At least he doesn’t have to eat her cooking any more.)

Beetle Bailey: Beetle and Sarge are sent to combat duty in Iraq where they are seriously maimed by an improvised explosive device.

Peanuts: Charlie Brown is arrested for illegally downloading mp3′s. The rest of the Peanuts gang attempt to organize a musical show to raise funds for his defense, but in an ironic plot twist, the kids are foiled when they realize they don’t have performance rights for the tunes they want to sing. Chuck is released from the slammer only after paying a $220,000 fine to the RIAA.

The Family Circus (man, you can see this one coming, can’t you?): Since a recurring theme of the series is that seven-year-old Billy often substitutes as cartoonist and draws the Sunday strip in a childish scrawl, authorities decide to investigate the family for possible violation of nepotism and child labor laws. They discover that, not only is little Billy drawing the strip that appears in US papers because Big Bill is frequently too drunk to hold a pen, the child has also been forced by his father to crank out a full-time knock-off comic called (loosely translated) “Carnival of Relatives” in Chinese that appears daily in Peking, Hong Kong, and a variety of other Asian markets. Obtaining a subpoena for the cartoonist’s hard drive, investigators are subsequently shocked to find obscene photographs of 3-year old Jeffy and 5-year old Dolly, and realize that Bill is a major player in the kiddie porn market. Bill claims that the real culprit is an invisible gremlin named “Not Me”, but police arrest him anyway. In the final strip, as he is led off in handcuffs, he tells the audience to “bite me”, and kicks Barfy on his way out the door for good measure while the ghost of Dead Grandpa Al hovers in the background, hanging his head in shame.

This has got to be only the tip of the iceberg, and there must be a ton of other possibilities. Readers?

Spicy!

Monday, October 1st, 2007

Lucky me — I have been randomly selected to be allowed to purchase up to six tickets to see the Spice Girls in concert this coming December 5th and/or 7th at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Wowie zowie!

I’m not certain how I was chosen for this honor, other than I vaguely remember submitting my email address at some website in the chance of winning free tickets to something or other. It might have been the Spice Girls, I don’t know. I get bored sometimes and sign up for a lot of strange crap.

But in any case, according to the message I received:

CONGRATULATIONS!!!

We are so excited to be able to tell you that your registration for a chance to buy tickets to see us live in LOS ANGELES has been SUCCESSFUL!

There have been millions of applications for tickets from ALL over the world, but you can use the special details below to try to buy your tickets!

Use the link below, and you can buy up to 6 tickets to see us live!

But hurry, ticket numbers are very limited indeed!

The message was signed, “Lots of love, Emma, Geri, Mel B, Melanie C and Victoria xxxxx” and contained an exclusive code allowing me to access the Ticketmaster site selling tickets for their worldwide reunion tour.

Just for fun, I checked out how much this rare privilege would cost me: at $119.50 plus a $13.50 “convenience charge” per ticket, plus $14.50 delivery and $25.00 parking, it comes to a total of $305.50 for Mrs. Toast and I to enjoy an evening of spicy entertainment. Throw in airfare to L.A., ground transportation, meals and hotel and we’re easily looking at close to a grand. I’m not sure I’d be willing to spend a thousand bucks to see a returned-from-the-dead Elvis in concert.

Apparently however, for reasons which I fail to understand, demand for these tickets is very high; more than one million people registered for their December 15th London show, which sold out in just 38 seconds today after tickets became available, and Girl Power fans are snapping up tickets for the U.S. dates like hotcakes as well. Since the chances that we will be attending this event are somewhere between slim and none (and being the magnanimous sort of fellow I am), I will be more than happy to send my authorization code to purchase tickets to whomever requests it first. I won’t even charge you a convenience fee.

Anyone interested? Just email me at mrtoast(at)suddenlink(dot)net if you really really really wanna zigazig ha.

I pick, therefore I grin

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

Nashville Cats, play clean as country water
Nashville Cats, play wild as mountain dew
Nashville Cats, been playin’ since they’s babies
Nashville Cats, get work before they’re two

Well, there’s thirteen hundred and fifty two
guitar pickers in Nashville
And they can pick more notes than the number of ants
on a Tennessee anthill

There’s thirteen hundred and fifty-two
guitar cases in Nashville
And anyone that unpacks his guitar
can play twice as better than I will

-”Nashville Cats”, by John Sebastian

We’re about to leave home to visit my brother-in-law for an extra-long 4-day weekend, and while we’re there I’ll be helping him set up some new computer equipment in his practice studio. Did I mention that my B-I-L is in a singing group? He and his buddies get together almost every weekend and sing up a storm, and about once a year they record a CD and sell copies out of the trunks of their cars. The first few years they did this, they sought out small producers around the Houston area where studio time was cheap (about fifty bucks an hour), and if they were reasonably well-prepared they could nail a dozen or so tracks in just a few hours. Add in mastering and duplication, and the total cost to make a couple of hundred CD’s came out to a pretty reasonable price. It didn’t matter to them that the result wasn’t as perfect as it might have been if they’d spent more time and/or money on it; they did it mostly just for fun.

As the years rolled by, though, they developed something of a fan base, and had a need for higher-quality production values as well as for more quantity; thus began their annual trek to Nashville. The town is called “Music City” for a very good reason; everything in the area revolves around the business of making and selling music. The best players from all over the world flock to Nashville in droves to get work, and because of the intense competition, you can get high-quality talent at a very fair cost. The life of a session player has always fascinated me; I think it’s amazing that some people go to work nine-to-five and pick guitar for a living just like some other folks might flip burgers or work a desk job. But while it might sound glamorous, in reality it’s not so much. These guys aren’t big stars with their names up in lights; they’re just average working stiffs who practice their craft with tools that just happen to be guitars, horns, and keyboards instead of hammers and saws. They’re professionals, and do their job very well.

Ray (my B-I-L) and the rest of his group are getting ready for this fall’s trip to Music City, and their producer just recently sent them first-draft demos of the music they plan to record this year. Nashville musicians and producers are extremely versatile; you can send them elaborately-annotated charts of exactly what you want, or you can just say “give me something in a 8-bar E-A progression with a couple hooks in the middle and a bucket of fish at the end.” (“Bucket of fish”, BTW, is slang lingo for that little drum hook at the end of a song; if you say “bucketafish” sort of fast, with the emphasis on the last syllable, it’s a rough approximation of a drum lick that goes “ba-ba-da-boom”. This is one of many things my BIL has taught me about recording in Nashville.) In any case, they’ll perform your composition however you want it, all you then have to do is add your vocals and your own backing musicians, if any, and voil – a complete album ready to be mastered, pressed, and released to the world.

Technology has changed many of the ways that music is produced. Not only can the average person now afford to have a computer loaded with a “virtual” studio full of recording gear and instruments that sound just like their physical counterparts (and might have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars) just a few years ago, it’s also possible to have session players located physically anywhere in the world who play together like they’re sitting in the same room. You can easily tweak mixes to your liking, which is why Ray’s producer sent him these demos. That way, any changes he might want to make can be accommodated in advance, which saves valuable studio time when they get in town next month to sing their vocals.

Ray forwarded a copy of the tracks to me to get my opinion, and I first have to confess that although Ray’s music has been getting better and better each year, I wasn’t all that into his particular style and may have been somewhat blasé about it. But this stuff blew me away, and because you, dear Wind In The Wire readers, are such an exclusive, sophisticated and fortunate bunch, I wanted to share two of these tracks with you to see what you think. Keep in mind that these are first draft demo mixes, not meant to be representative of the finished product, but rather something to convey the general “feel” of the song — no melodies, just the basic structure. But listen to these first, then I’ll hit you with a surprise.

The first track is the album opener, an uptempo number:




Whoa! This next one is my favorite, a mellow, bluesy song that sounds like it might easily be sung by someone like Bonnie Raitt. I find myself getting really drawn into the headphones when I listen to this one.



Not too shabby, eh? Now the kicker: Ray’s singing group is a gospel quartet. Surprised? These two tracks are not exactly what comes to mind when I think “southern gospel”, but Ray and his band are trying to appeal to a broader audience. When two of the members of the group retired a couple of years ago, they were replaced by singers in their early 20′s. That hasn’t made the quartet into a “boy band” by a long shot, but the new guys (in addition to being immensely talented) are not bad to look at either, which has increased their appeal with younger listeners, particularly females. I told him all they need to add is some N-Sync style choreography and flash pots and they’ll be ready for an HBO special.I might just tag along when they go to Music City next month. Even though I got to see the place about this time last year, it still would be fun, and I’d really enjoy being in the middle of all that recording technology. Who knows? They might even ask me to play a few licks. (Yeah, right.)Hope everyone has a great weekend!

Note: These tunes are © 2007 Gospel Express. All rights reserved.

Arrrrr!

Wednesday, September 19th, 2007

Avast, ye scurvy dogs! Today is “National Talk Like A Pirate Day“, a day scalliwags o’ all stripes ha’bn celebratin’ for many a’year now. So fly yer Jolly Roger, hoist a pint o’grog and talk like a Pirate today, matey!

Courtesy o’ them fine swashbucklers over at The Unclyclopedia, herrrrrrrrre’s some facts n’ historrrrrrry about this here special holiday:

• The Beginning – The Great FSM creates all that is, including his chosen people, the Pirates.

• 1756 – The Dread Pirate Wesley single handedly defeated the entire Spanish Armada in single combat.

• 1778 – The Continental Congress passes the first budget of the United States, budgeting 10,000 doubloons for defense, 5000 pieces of eight for social programs, and additional booty to highways.

• 1796 – George Washington makes his farewell address, saying “Aye me mateys, it were good being captain of this fine ship of state.”

• 1957 – First U.S. underground nuclear bomb test is conducted, shivering timbers as far as 500 km. away.

• 1959 – After Nikita Khrushchev is barred from visiting Disneyland, he threatens to “keel haul” a man dressed in a Goofy suit.

• 1970 – Pirates the world over rejoice at Oldsmobile’s launch of the Cutlass Supreme.

• 1982 – Feared corsair Patch-Eyed Pete posts first recorded instance of an emoticon, P-) to an online bulletin board.

• 1985 – First pirate movie released. It is rated ARRRRRRRRRRR!!!!

• 1989 – “Pirate radio” goes on the air and is fined for gratuitous use of the words “scalliwag” and “booty.”

• 1995 – First Talk Like a Pirate Day. It rapidly replaces Talk Like a Ninja Day, which involved people saying nothing so as to conceal their presence.

Now if you’ve been a landlubber fer too long to remember how t’ talk like a pirate, you might want t’ look at this Pirate Speak Translator website. And finally, ‘ere’s a little Pirate Joke t’ get ya in the mood:

A pirate walked into a bar and the bartender said, “Hey, I haven’t seen you in a while. What happened? You look terrible.”

“What do you mean?” said the pirate, “I feel fine.”

“What about the wooden leg? You didn’t have that before.”

“Well, we was in a battle and I got ‘it with a cannon ball, but I’m fine now.”

“Well, okay, but what about that hook? “What happened to your hand?”

“We was in another battle. I boarded a ship and got into a sword fight. Me ‘and was cut off. I got fitted with a ‘ook. I’m fine, really.”

“What about that eye patch?”

“One day we was out a-ridin’ the waves and a flock o’ sea gulls flew over. I looked up and one of ‘em shit in me eye.”

“You’re kidding,” said the bartender, “you couldn’t lose an eye just from some bird shit.”

“It was me first day with the ‘ook.”

Arrrrrrgh!

Podcasts

Sunday, September 16th, 2007

I’ve had a couple of requests to make my weekly radio show available in podcast format, so I decided to start recording them and putting them up on Odeo. If you like Electronic Dance Music (aka “techno” or “trance“) and/or are curious to hear what I sound like as a DJ, just click here or on the button at the bottom of this post to go to my podcast site. Each program runs about an hour and 40 minutes or so, and kicking off the mix is my annual “Burning Man” show from Labor Day weekend, which features songs about fire and a few sound clips from festival participants. As I do new shows each week, I’ll try to add them to the podcast.

If the names Van Buuren, Van Dyk, Tiesto, Oakenfold, Above & Beyond, Blank & Jones, or Solarstone are familiar to you then you’ll probably enjoy the mostly progressive mix. However, electronic dance music (which has been derisively referred to as “21st century disco”) is an acquired taste that not everyone cares for, and I certainly will understand if it’s not your cup of tea. The worst of the genre can be repetitive, boring, artificial tripe. But on the other hand, the best of it can be melodic, uplifting and euphoric — and if you’re truly able to “let go” into the rhythm, you’ll see why it’s called “trance”; under the right circumstances, the unrelenting beats topped by soaring melody lines can be hypnotic, creating what some call “mental synthscapes”. Another describes it as “a magical incantation, a journey which breaks free of all physical and spiritual bounds, diving deep into the midst of imagination where no laws apply. It is a means to a higher state of consciousness.”

Trance music is much more popular in Europe (where it originated) than here in this country, and indeed it was during my travels around the continent in 2002 that I was first exposed to it. I distinctly recall one night in Zurich, Switzerland, when I quite accidentally stumbled upon a rave being held in a huge warehouse near my hotel as I was returning for the evening. I decided to check it out, and was awestruck by the sight of thousands of people dancing wildly to flashing strobe lights and throbbing beats which you could quite literally feel in your gut; I’ve been fascinated with the music ever since.

“Trance music in Morocco is magical in origin and purpose, concerned with the evocation and control of spiritual forces. In Morocco musicians are magicians. Gnauoa music is used to drive out evil spirits. The music of Jajouka evokes the God Pan, God of Panic, representing the real magical forces that sweep away the spurious. It is to be remembered that the origin of all arts — music, painting, and writing — is magical and evocative, and that magic is always used to obtain some definite result.”
~ W. S. Burroughs
My Odeo Podcast

Re-Burning Man

Friday, August 31st, 2007

The big news so far from the annual Burning Man festival taking place this week in the Nevada desert is that the Man was a bit early at his own party. During the height of Tuesday night’s lunar eclipse, someone managed to set the iconic 40-foot tall wooden and neon figure ablaze, an event that had been scheduled for the dramatic conclusion of the festival tomorrow night. Remarkably, however, the giant effigy was rebuilt and raised Phoenix-like from the ashes in only two days, and will burn (again) as scheduled.

The perpetrator of this deed was 35-year old Paul Addis, a playwright, artist, and self-described “prankster” from San Francisco. He was arrested on charges of arson and destruction of property, among other things, and before lawyering up in preparation to face the charges against him, called the action a form of protest — a justified “reality check” for the event which Addis and many others say has become too commercialized over its 21-year history.

The legalities of his actions aside, he’s got a point, and talk of the premature burn and what it says about the nature of the festival has dominated conversation among this year’s participants as well as outside observers. Many debate whether increased public awareness of the event over the years is a positive thing, spreading the principles on which the festival is based — self expression and self-reliance mixed with community, social, and environmental responsibility — to a wider audience, or whether Burning Man has become a sort of “Alterna-Disney”, where poseurs, frat boys, cyber-geeks, hippie-wanna-be’s and other spectators come to the playa for a week expressly to get high and get laid.

Indeed, the very fact that I — someone who has never actually attended the event — am writing about it on this blog is evidence that Burning Man has grown far beyond its subversive, anarchistic beginnings. But is this a Good Thing or not?

This debate has been going on for years, and “The Man”, as Burning Man’s namesake, has been targeted as a symbol of protest before. In 1997, a group of pranksters attached a set of giant testicles to the figure, suggesting that the festival needed to “grow some balls” and return to its roots. Every year there has been talk of torching The Man prematurely, but this is the first time anyone has actually managed to do it.

For his part, Addis, who is out on bond awaiting arraignment on September 25th, is defiant. In an interview with Wired Magazine, he says:

“Burning Man has become just as nefarious a cultural programmer as General Electric or Disney … you only need to look as far as Burning Man’s media team to see it’s like the Bush media team except with a different purpose. They exercise the same tactics to achieve the same results: to portray themselves in the best lights and to avoid negative media attention. To people who would say they are pissed off because the Man got torched, I say, “Why are you really out there?” If the burning of the Man means something, if it brings them some sort of cathartic connection, then build your own thing and burn it down. Don’t be a passive audience member. Cross the line.”

Meanwhile, back on the Playa, the unexpected early burn did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the participants, who are taking the whole thing in stride. Some say the annual ritual — always held on Saturday — is an event for everyone to interpret in his or her own way, and that it took place several days of ahead of schedule hardly changes its nature. Others note that this year’s theme of environmental awareness, dubbed “The Green Man”, was not foreign to the premature burn, as the man was destroyed and then rebuilt. Yet this notion seems disingenuous when you consider the thousands of gallons of gasoline being burned by attendees in their RV’s, who run generators to power their refrigerators and air conditioners while in the middle of the hot, barren desert.

Mankind has always had a fascination with fire from our primeval days, and it comes as no surprise that this has much to do with the appeal of Burning Man. When The Man goes up on Saturday night in an orgy of pyrotechnics, surrounded by 40,000 or more singing, chanting, dancing Burners, it will have its own meaning to each one of them. Religious experience? Pagan ritual? Or just a really great party, man? Take your pick.

For myself, I will light a candle around midnight Saturday night and stare intently into the flame, while imagining myself dancing in the desert. If I’m really lucky, I might be able to meditate outside of my physical self — and if in doing so I happen to determine any Secrets Of The Universe, I’ll be sure and blog about it here.

To be honest, I expect I’m more likely to singe my hair on the damn candle.

More news from the Playa can be found here. In any case, I hope everyone has a great Labor Day weekend.

Hunka Hunka Burnin’ Toast

Tuesday, August 14th, 2007

Recently I lamented in this spot how I had been unable to find a suitable fever thermometer audible to my rock-and-roll dulled ears. Fortunately, a solution has been sent in by alert reader April, who obviously has had much experience taking the temperature of her baby boy, Aiden, as he has valiantly fought back a variety of childhood illnesses. Way to go, guys!

Thanks to April for suggesting a product made by Vicks called the “Fever InSight” thermometer, which not only takes a reading in under ten seconds, it then lights up green, amber, or red depending on the results. As you can see from the photo, I am definitely an “amber” sort of guy, confirming the fact that I seem to have a relatively constant low-grade fever. I’m not exactly sure what this means, but I intend to ask my doctor about it when I see him next week.

Yes, I am just now about to learn the results of my bronchoscopy from almost two months ago. Due to confidentiality issues, he does not wish to discuss the matter over the phone with me (who knows, Dick Cheney might be listening in) so he’s insisted that I make the 300 mile round trip to Houston to hear the latest news about the state of my lungs. However, we’ve managed to schedule a couple of other activities around this visit as well, and have also planned a festive dinner with friends at the venerable Joe’s Crab Shack, so the trip should be productive.

Perhaps the weather has something to do with my feverishness. After months of rain and outdoor temperatures that have been lower than normal, we have finally slipped into our typical Texas summertime pattern; it’s been over 100 for the last couple of weeks, with no letup in sight for perhaps another month. This is the price we pay down here for not having to deal with snow and ice in the winter, although I’m not sure which is worse.

But in case my slightly elevated temperature requires medical attention, I will have no shortage of resources to call on. Just today, in fact, I received the following lousy spam helpful advice via anonymous email:

“Benefit from the Shelter, Effectiveness Not Expensive Prices and Eminence Advantage the majority trusted Web-Based Canadian Medical Supplies. We contain over 2000 Trademark and Standard remedy. We are the prevalent internet medical store, we are able obtain at the minimum workable prices. We then send our funds onto you.No need to have a medical instruction to purchase from our organization. We can even set you up on instant re-purchase so you don’t have to uneasy about running out of you medical drugs.”

Who knew the Internet was home to such friendly, helpful people? With my remarkable powers of insight, I have determined that English was probably not the primary language of whoever wrote this message, however I must say I am looking forward to them sending their funds onto me as soon as possible.

While we’re on the subject of burning, it looks like I will not be heading to the Nevada desert for Burning Man again this year after all. As I write this, some 25,000+ people are making their final preparations for a trek to the playa during the week leading up to Labor Day, where they will construct a city out of nothing, enjoy a week-long celebration of art and community, and depart leaving behind no trace whatsoever of their experience there. (You can see a remarkably detailed bird’s-eye view of last year’s event in Google Earth by clicking here.) Huge interactive art installations are constructed on the desert floor, groups of people gather in elaborate theme camps, and everyone dresses outlandishly (if at all). The festival started in 1986 as an impromptu annual gathering on a San Francisco beach, and has turned into an highly-organized if not exactly mainstream event. Although not quite the debauchery of sex and drugs that marked its early years, Burning Man still maintains an air of spirituality and counterculturalism, and in this respect is somewhat like the Glastonbury Festival in the UK — only without the music. The other big difference is that Burning Man is held in the middle of a harsh, barren desert with no shade, water, electricity, or other “creature comforts” for miles around. Temperatures range from near freezing at night to over 100 degrees in the daytime, and freak windstorms can whip up out of nowhere, driving the alkaline playa dust into every crack and crevice of your body. But the very act of not just surviving but thriving under the harsh conditions creates a camaraderie among the participants that is hard to describe, and I have wanted to experience this event for years. However, considering my need for supplemental oxygen and the generally fragile state of my health, this difficult environment would not be ideal for me — let alone the fact that it’s a 2,000 mile drive to get there.

Oh well, maybe next year. If I do go, I’ll be sure to bring my new thermometer.

Day of reckoning arrives for Internet Radio

Monday, July 16th, 2007

Today is the day that crippling new fees for Internet Radio broadcasters mandated by the record industry and the Copyright Royalty Board go into effect, and I have a mixed bag of news to report on this subject. On the one hand, there’s reason for webcasters and their listeners to breathe a sigh of relief; SoundExchange, the arm of the RIAA responsible for collecting the fees, has announced that at least for the time being they will not “enforce” the new rates that are retroactive to January 2006, which would have caused many stations to be silent today. These outlets can continue to stream tunes while Soundexhange and representatives of the Internet Radio industry try to hammer out a compromise rate structure under the watchful eye of Congress.

But make no mistake, it is only due to the threat of legislative action that Soundexchange is being even remotely accommodating, and if you’re one of the millions of web radio fans who have contacted their elected representatives in the last several months, you can pat yourself on the back as your efforts really have made a difference. The public outcry has been phenomenal, and so far over 125 members of the House and Senate have co-sponsored the Internet Radio Equality Act in direct response to your concerns. This bill would cap royalty fees paid by webcasters to a reasonable 7.5% of revenue, the same rate paid by satellite radio broadcasters, and would address the outrageous “per-channel” fees which would bankrupt even commercial providers. But while many legislators are on board, the bill is not yet law — so please continue to contact your local officials and ask them to support H.R.2060 and S.1353.

The bad news is that as things stand at the moment, the March decision by the CRB remains in place; even though Soundexchange has announced it will not “enforce” collection of the fees, it still expects webcasters to pay them voluntarily. In a press release last Friday, the organization claimed that the “new rates and fees are in effect, and royalties are accruing”. This follows a ruling the previous day (July 12) by a federal appeals panel who dealt webcasters a setback by refusing to grant an emergency stay of the new rate structure. Therefore, lacking any legal remedy by webcasters, Soundexchange is simply saying, “the law is on our side and you owe us the money, we’re just not going to go after you … yet.” Of course, their benevolence could expire any time they damn well feel like it.

In any case, an uneasy status quo exists today while negotiations continue to try and reach a compromise to provide artists with fair payments yet allow a still-developing medium to thrive. But what does it all mean to you?

It means that there is a Battle Royale taking place for control over what music and other entertainment you are allowed to hear and see. Right now, this power is concentrated in a handful of media corporations known as “The Big Four”: Sony BMG, EMI, Universal, and Warner. For many years, the music industry has been mass-marketing whatever lowest-common-denominator product they can sell, making tons of money for themselves and for a very select few “star” artists. Smaller and independent artists who make music in what is known as the long tail of the popularity curve are effectively shut out. But suddenly, along came mp3′s, iPods, and the Internet — and the traditional methods of music production and distribution have been forever changed. To say that the music industry has not handled this well is the understatement of the century, and they are desperately trying to return to a business model that is evaporating right before their eyes.

In the last few days, I’ve searched the web looking for reaction and commentary from “plain folks” about this issue, and the results have been eye-opening. I think it’s fair to say that the music industry in general and the RIAA in particular is one of the most reviled organizations on the planet, in no small part due to their strong-arm tactics like this move to silence web radio as well as efforts to curb downloading. Here’s a sample of comments left on various web sites like this one that I’ve visited recently:

What the record industry is trying to control here is the ability of small, independent musicians to gain any audience at all – the kind of musicians the commercial radio stations and even satellite radio will never play. They’re trying to assure that real art doesn’t distract from their marketing of sex and violence dressed up as music. Any politician concerned with the state of our mass culture should recognize that the degeneracy is largely a corporate product. So anything that decreases the power of these corporations by allowing more real art to flourish in spaces they can’t control is key to restoring health to popular (and less-popular) culture.

-0-

The RIAA hates what it can’t control. It hates P2P (despite all the free promotion), barely tolerates iTunes (even though they’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars from ITMS sales), and has even sought to stop public libraries from lending out music (communists!) This move isn’t about revenue, it’s about killing net radio. The RIAA knows that it’s impractical (if not outright impossible) to strongarm every net radio station out there like they do with terrestrial or satellite radio, so they destroy what they can’t control.

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Look, the goose is already cooked. Let’s face it, the RIAA has all but completely destroyed the recording industry rather than give up control. Putting all the internet radio stations out of business is a scorched earth move, merely a spiteful parting gesture from a walking corpse.

Let them do it.

Let them use their sweaty, mean spirited little pencil pushing lawyers to take their ball and go home.

Nothing short of this will precipitate the revolution that is needed in the media, and it starts with the smallest independent broadcasters.

You think these businesses will roll over and disappear without a fight? No way, they will merely adapt to circumstance.

The RIAA works by creating a false scarcity of content. In reality there is a glut of high quality Free content out there, millions of musicians and podcasters who have had a decade to become highly skilled content producers are just waiting for the death of Big Media so that their work can become valuable. The myth of “artists need to be paid” has been so completely destroyed only fools cling to it. Everybody knows how crooked the game is, that artists never get paid properly anyway, and that all the ones who have any merit produce because they want to and would do so even without an audience. Once they skulk off home to mommy taking their hyped manufactured rubbish with them there’s gonna be an explosion of new talent, new voices, fresh political commentators and documentary, new celebrity…. It’s ripe to happen, simple supply and demand. There is a vast reservoir of supply, and now the demand is about to kick in. I hope to God they pass this law, because it will be the death of the bastards. Once mainstream radio and TV get a sniff of how internet stations are surviving by bypassing corporate controlled material they will want a piece too. And thus the whole filthy mess begins to unwind….

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Yeah well, every third person I meet claims that they’re a “musician.” So some slackers might have to get actual jobs and actually work for a living. I do not care. I look forward to the day Avril Lavigne takes my order for a cheeseburger. Musicians and artists tend to have an extremely high self-opinion in terms of what they think they contribute to “culture.” John Coltrane contributed to culture. The world would not be significantly different, however, if the last ten years in top 40 music had never happened.

Where’s the rock style life for the people who build bridges and clean up bathrooms? Where’s the rock star life for teachers who contribute something directly measurable to our civilization? Where’s the free booze and blowjobs for activists, community organizers, and people manning the soup kitchens tonight?

And for that matter, where’s the rock star life for the countless musicians in less lucrative genres like jazz or folk music? Some of the most mindblowing music I’ve ever heard was hardcore jazz played furiously with wild abandon on snowy nights in hole-in-the-wall bars in towns and cities you haven’t heard of by amateurs who had no chance in hell of ever making a living at it even in an ideal intellectual property/copyright environment.

What this all may portend is the end of the corporate-generated rock star and frankly, I couldn’t welcome it more.

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This new technology has been sacrificed on the alter of old-technology profit-taking. What else do you expect from the US government with the jerks we have in power?

Are you sensing a theme here?

I predict that if webcasters and the RIAA are unable to reach a compromise and these new rates stand, several things will happen: (1) The largest internet radio services like Pandora, Last.fm and Live365 will begin charging subscription fees to cover the cost of the huge payments to Soundexchange; (2) The majority of stations who wish to remain law-abiding citizens of their communities will simply shut down, taking their independent voices and music with them; (3) A certain number of smaller broadcasters will thumb their nose at the new rates and continue to stream music until they are sued off the air by the RIAA; and (4) Most remaining stations will be located offshore, out of reach of the US legal system.

There’s been a temporary lull in the action today, but this battle ain’t over yet by a long shot. Please keep up the pressure on your Senators and Congressmen until we have a permanent solution.

LATE BREAKING UPDATE!

SoundExchange is already beginning to backpedal, with director John Simson saying late today that his organization never “promised” to not enforce fee collection (whether they do or not), and that barring any intervention by Congress, webcasters will still owe payments retroactively. Not only that, but Simson is adamant that any negotiations concerning fee reductions must be contingent on Internet radio stations adopting DRM technology — a.k.a. “copy protection” — to prevent listeners from ripping and recording broadcast streams. No matter that for decades it’s been considered “fair use” for people to employ conventional taping methods to record over-the-air radio stations; no, somehow this is different.

Internet broadcaster DJ Profusion quite accurately points out in this excellent article posted on the Daily Koz that Simson is “an unethical weasel who will say anything to further his own evil plans”, and SoundExchange is a corporate cartel which “has no interest in a negotiated settlement, they want to destroy Internet radio.”

We must keep this issue in the news – you can help by contacting your local Congress person to thank them for their support (or ask them to support Internet radio if they haven’t decided whether or not to support it), or your local reporter to bring the story to your news outlets.

Keep the pressure on!