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Archive for October, 2004

Halloween fun from freeculture.org

Friday, October 29th, 2004

The Freeculture.org folks launched Undead Art this week, just in time for Halloween. The movie Night of the Living Dead is public domain, so they’re running a zombie remix contest to celebrate everything that’s awesome and spooky about the public domain. Check it out:


First prize for the contest includes a candy-filled zombie pinata, and a DVD. If you’ve never seen Night of the Living Dead, you owe it to yourself to download it this weekend.

Speaking of the weekend, the Downhill Battle team might be trick or treating for votes in a far-away swing state, so we’re gonna miss Lightening Bolt play a Halloween warehouse show in Providence, RI. If any of you like rock and live within 200 miles of there, you should go. Email or call us for directions.

John Peel (1939-2004)

Tuesday, October 26th, 2004

British Radio DJ John Peel died today, at age 65, but the future belongs to him. Read the BBC story, or the Wikipedia biography for more on this remarkable man.

From the BBC: “Radio One’s Andy Parfitt said Peel’s contribution to modern music and culture was ‘immeasurable'”. Music is something intensely personal, so when a beloved musician or musical luminary dies it’s common to hear such effusive praise, and it’s often overstatement. Not here. John Peel’s contribution to modern music culture is exactly that: immeasurable. For longer than we’ve been alive he’s been intimately involved with cultivating pop music, giving amazing young musicians the leg-up of their lives and articulating scary new sounds to a mass audience.

Another thing that happens when a music great dies is that pundits and critics bemoan the end of an era. In this case, they couldn’t be more wrong; the future belongs to John Peel. A quick show of hands: who here thinks that the precipitous decentralization of media and music on the internet means more people will discover new music from limited, faceless Clear Channel playlists? That’s right, I didn’t think so. Of course it’s true that nothing on the web right now– no mp3 blog (sorry, Tofu Hut), no music magazine (sorry, Pitchfork) and no collaborative filtering system (not even close, Gnomoradio)– is as good a vehicle for music discovery as Peel. But trust us, it’s coming. The blog phenomenon that created 10,000 grassroots pundits is just a few exponential steps ahead of the one creating a 10,000 grassroots critics, editors, and DJs. Within a few years there will be a deluge of music blogs, and Peel’s successors will rise to the top, like cream.

The most loved political bloggers on the right and left are loved for almost the same reason as John Peel. His program, Peel Sessions, was a perfect way to listen to new strange music because he made the case to you why you should take a song seriously. The rare depth of his capacity to appreciate new music–just from listening to him–deepened our own. Anyone who reads political blogs knows the feeling. You don’t read Talking Points Memo or Instapundit to get the latest dirt or the party line. What’s exciting and valuable is that proximity with a very deep understanding of politics. It starts to feel like that their depth is rubbing off and deepening your own understanding. Reading the paper with Josh Marshall = listening to records with John Peel.

So the turbulence of 9/11 and the Bush presidency gave political blogs a jump ahead. And in many ways musicians and music lovers have been slower to pick up on the collaborative, social features of the web than politics folks (opting instead for pretty Flash and ugly PHPBB). But it’s coming. If internet decentralization can give us Josh Marshall and Glenn Reynolds then it can bring us the next you, John Peel. Although we’ll still miss you terribly.

Spitzer subpoenas majors

Friday, October 22nd, 2004

The NY Times is reporting that Eliot Spitzer has set his sights on payola in the music industry. A brief excerpt: “The new scrutiny comes at an inconvenient time for the major record companies, which have been pressing federal and state law enforcement officials to shut pirate CD manufacturers and the unimpeded flow of copyrighted music online… Mr. Spitzer might proceed on the ground that broadcasters’ dealings with middlemen severely limit the opportunities available to those artists who cannot afford to hire them.”


Interview With DJ Z-Trip

Tuesday, October 19th, 2004

This is the best interview we’ve done. Don’t even think of not reading it:

Interview with Z-Trip.

Z-Trip has a fascinating story of trying to relase a sample-based album on a major label and finding it completely impossible. I’ll let him tell it.

“filesharing is the way of the future”

Sunday, October 17th, 2004

Our friend Robin in Providence, RI told me this story today and I asked her to write it up so I could post it for y’all. It’s funny and very telling:

i went to go see the mountain goats play in boston last week. this band is
one guy, john darnielle, and sometimes a backing band. near the end of the
show someone from the audience requested “two headed boy,” a song by the
band neutral milk hotel. the request made sense to me cause i had heard an
mp3 of darnielle playing that song live on some crazy Dutch radio show
about four years ago, so i knew it was a song he had at least covered
before. well, the guy in the audience was really persistant and kept
yelling, “two headed boy! two headed boy!” and finally john darnielle
laughed and looked at the audience and said, “wow. this just proves that
file sharing is the way of the future, cause i only played that song ONCE
and i fucked up the lyrics royally!” at that point i turned to the people
i was with and asked, “do you have that mp3? cause i have that mp3.” and
of course we all had it. and then he played the song! it was cool.

Got a similar tale of filesharing connectivity? Let’s hear it– post a comment….

“The Regular” – New Spin-off Project

Thursday, October 14th, 2004

This is a big day for us. And if you think it has to do with music activism, you’re kind of right and kind of wrong. We’re launching the first part of a really long task we term Participatory Politics. If you like reading slashdot, need a central spot for interesting news, or find politics really important but only visit a few webpages for it (I’m guilty of this), you can go to The Regular now. The Regular will point you to articles, projects, blogs and the like that add an extra dimension to daily political life. You can find a new top political story every hour reported by readers, and that means you. If you know of something good, please submit the story to us.

We were wondering why there wasn’t slashdot for politics. Could it because there are already really good political blogs? Well, we think it’s about time to use Slashdot’s really good format where the efforts of a whole community go to make really good news stories. Thanks, Slashdot, for blazing this trail.

We have good reason to think that filesharing is participatory culture in the making. And that’s what Downhill Battle is really about. Our next step is to hit the politics industry and we hope we can hit it big. We’re working on getting something out the door that’s participatory culture for politics; the same way that the current music industry isn’t what music is about, participatory politics is not just about electoral politics. Our bread and butter will be housed at ParticipatoryPolitics.org in the future.

INDUCE dead for rest of year

Friday, October 8th, 2004

Today was wonderful all-around. After the Joan of Arc / Q and not U show last night, I slept over in Allston at the Jay-Z Construction Set kids’ house, met with IPac mover/shaker David Alpert today in Cambridge, got to check out the new Frank Gehry building at MIT (verdict: awesome!), met with the new Boston interns Josh and Mary, caught the train back to Worcester, watched Jon Stewart host Bill O’Reilly, threw around a Free Culture frisbee, and on a pre-bed email check, I see this email from 11:20 PM:

“Judicary staff now say Induce is dead for the year.  Thanks for all your work–you guys rock”

A great day.

INDUCE Stopped Again

Thursday, October 7th, 2004

Great news today that the INDUCE Act has been stopped again: Wired News report.

Last Chance for 3 Notes

Thursday, October 7th, 2004

We’re up to 147 songs on 3 Notes and Runnin’ and they are all really solid. On Tuesday we posted a selection of 6 particularly good tracks that show some of the different directions people went it– definitely check them out when you can. We’ve decided that this coming Tuesday will be the last day that we’ll accept entries, and we’ll probably add a few more selections to our pickson Tuesday as well. Big props to everyone who’s participated, we’ve been so impressed with what you’ve all been sending in.

Will the major labels adopt VCL?

Tuesday, October 5th, 2004

Fred Von Lohmann is an EFF lawyer extraordinaire, and recently won the Grokster case (which reaffirmed the legality of filesharing software). Last week he published a compelling and accesible article at law.com about why the record industry should adopt collective licensing (or maybe more accurately, why they’ll have to). Take a look: Is Suing Your Customers a Good Idea?

As usual, we agree with almost everything Fred has to say, and we definitely supportive collective licensing as the best way out of the filesharing war. But we are still rather skeptical that the major record labels will decide to adopt such a system any time soon, since what’s best for artists and fans has nothing to do with what’s best for major label executives.

Tens of thousands of the most successful musicians in the world are currently locked into the major label marketing and distribution monopoly. Within the current system, their music gets out, but they barely get paid. If they jump ship from the major labels, they might make a larger share from CD sales, but they will be excluded from the marketing machine and they won’t reach nearly as many people. This bind is what keeps musicians coming back to the major labels, and if it breaks, so does the entire corporate music model. Collective licensing would break the bind, freeing musicians and fans while erasing the middlemen. And the middlemen know it.

Here’s how we think it would go down. First, if a collective licensing system was adopted, CD sales would drop dramatically as the transition to digital distribution ramps up. The monthly cost of all-you-can-eat music would just be too low to pass up ($5 or $10). If you’re watching your friend fill an iPod with 10,000 songs and you know that musicians are getting paid and that she can’t get sued for it, it’ll be hard to convince yourself to keep buying $15 CDs–even if you’re an old-timer or a real music romantic (especially since the sound quality will quickly rise above what iTunes and other services offer). And even though not everyone will ditch CDs, just losing another big chunk of sales will drive a lot of the record store chains out of business and stores like Walmart will keep reducing the size and variety in their CD section. (The irony in all this is that even as fans get way more music for way less money, the incredible efficiency of the system means that musicians will actually get paid more than they do now– gives you a hint about how much is wasted in the current industry, doesn’t it?)

So anyway, CD sales spiral down and online music shoots up; lready the major label monopoly on distribution disappears. They still have marketing domination, which is their trump card and the big reason that independent labels can’t compete (how many indy labels can put up $200,000 in bribes to radio stations when they release an album?). But soon this monopoly disappears too. Already satellite radio and iPods are chipping away at the audiences of regular payola-fueled radio stations. Websites like Pitchfork Media are making music magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin (print payola) less necessary. When people start getting all their music online, they start finding out about all their music online, and the viral, word-of-mouth nature of online promotion is impossible for the major labels to control. When people get up from their computers they need something to carry their music in: iPod sales rise even faster and radios get switched off even faster. All of a sudden, payola stops working and the marketing monopoly is gone.

When marketing goes, major label sales drop. And even worse for the major labels, the superstars who stay on top even without the payola dollars will just abandon the major label system and cut out the middleman. They can make five times as much money getting music directly to fans; there’s just no reason for them to stay in a major label contract once collective licensing takes off.

So if I was a major label executive (which I’m not), I would try to hold on to CD sales as long as I could, while scaring fans with thousands of lawsuits and new criminal laws against filesharing, trying to outlaw filesharing technology completely (or at least cast a cloud over it), and trying to force electronics makers into locking down their mp3 players. Not much of a long term plan, but at least it lets me ride the gravy train for a few more years while I wait for a miracle (will it be ring tones or DVD singles??) or better yet, just plot my personal exit strategy (my multi-platinum parachute).

Of course, what I’m describing here is exactly what the major labels are doing and from their personal financial perspective, I think it’s makes a lot of sense. Probably the biggest intellectual fallacy that occurs when analysts consider the music industry is to assume that it’s a reasonably normal market with normal flows of supply and demand, production and consumption. In fact, not only does music by it’s very nature have several unusual economic features, but even more importantly, the major labels have so radically distorted the playing field that the current music business bears very little resemblance to what would exist in a truly competitive “free market”. Without this understanding, it’s logical to assume that a system which dramatically increases both the number of people paying for music and the total economic scale of the industry would naturally benefit the largest players in the industry. But that’s just not the case–right now the music business is run by monopolists. Collective licensing would level the playing field and slay the monopolists.

So if I was someone who cared about a better deal for musicians and fans and a healthier music industry (which I am), I wouldn’t rest too much on the hope that the current industry will voluntarily adopt a collective licensing plan. This conclusion is hardly surprising: we shouldn’t be waiting for the people who have consistently screwed musicians and fans to turn around and save them. A much more realistic strategy for a fairer music industry– and by “fairer” I mean a level playing field for independent labels and a musician-centered approach– is to take advantage of the incredible decentralizing forces that the internet creates.

We have the tools to take music into our own hands and that’s exactly what we should be doing. For the first time ever, fans can realistically break the major label stranglehold simply by refusing to buy their products (before filesharing networks, boycotting major labels went nowhere). And for the first time ever, people are creating thousands of serious alternatives to the major music press: blogs, review sites, recommendation lists. Sometimes you need to step back a little, and think about pre-internet music life, to see how amazing these new developments are. And once the music monopoly falls, it will be much, much easier to either create a voluntary industry standard, as Fred Von Lohmann (and many others) supports, or to create a broad tax-funded system, as proposed Terry Fischer (and many others). From our perspective, either system would be wonderful for music culture, and we could look a little more closely at the pros and cons once the political landscape is more hospitable to both. Meanwhile, we’ll continue to do everything we can to promote the idea of collective licensing (legalized filesharing) and try to work towards making it happen. (We’d love to see a good indy music pilot project happen somewhere…)