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October 04, 2002
Amateur Era

"[Weblogs] are such an efficient tool for distributing the written word that they make publishing a financially worthless activity. It's intuitively appealing to believe that by making the connection between writer and reader more direct, weblogs will improve the environment for direct payments as well, but the opposite is true. By removing the barriers to publishing, weblogs ensure that the few people who earn anything from their weblogs will make their money indirectly," writes Clay Shirky in a perceptive essay about weblogging.

And it's not just weblogs, of course. If you take Shirky's essay and replace the word "weblog" with the phrase "digital music distribution," the essay remains just as true. Indeed, I wrote something similar three years ago: "But when enough passable bands start giving away their content on a regular basis, will fans keep paying for what they can just as easily get for free? If you're not sure of the answer, just ask Slate lead singer Michael Kinsley...."

Which is why I've never really bought the argument that people really do want to pay for digital music, as soon as Big Media makes it available to them in the format they want, along with the related argument that digital distribution heralds a great future for musicians. If there were more than a handful of web-loggers and other self-publishers making over $25,000 a year, then I might at least entertain, for a moment, the notion that digital music distribution will actually improve the lot of downtrodden, exploited musicians.

Of course, it is a seductive dream, the idea of eliminating publishers and producers and editors, connecting directly with an audience, and making a living in the bargain. I've succumbed to it once, and am basically succumbing to it again, here, except for the making-a-living part. But I'll worry about that next month.

Posted by Greg Beato at 10:51 AM
October 03, 2002

Something good has finally come out of the travesty -- in order to read Janelle Brown's article on the site and the site's creator, I finally subscribed to Salon -- which is still probably closer to financial ruin than Karyn is, but what the hell, I did my part...

Brown's story contained many depressing quotes and anecdotes, including Karyn's contention that "her donors think [her site is] funny, and original...and view it less as a charity than as an entertainment site." Karyn also says: "It's a lot of work to upkeep the's a funny Web site, and I'm proud of it."

A lot of work to upkeep a site that consists mostly of email? If she just stopped using exclamation points in her correspondence, she could cut her workload in half...

On the other hand, plenty of would-be entrepreneurs have created entertainment sites and asked for your money -- but the people have spoken, and the people chose Karyn. So now she's also "selling the rights to her life story to a major motion picture studio, she says, and is also in the process of selling a book about her experiences to a publishing company."

Last inevitable anecdote: while walking with Brown after their interview is over, a beggar approaches, asking for a buck for the subway. Karyn declines, then says: "That's going in the story, isn't it." Brown asks her why she refused to give the man a dollar, and Karyn replies: "He was crusty, and smoking a cigarette. That dollar wasn't going to go toward the subway."

Posted by Greg Beato at 08:52 AM
October 02, 2002
Kazaa: Good or Evil?

Evan Williams and Meg Hourihan debate the intent of Kazaa: to file-steal or not to file-steal? Williams says that "Kazaa was designed for the creators to profit from people illegally sharing material." Hourihan employs the guns-don't-kill-people-people-kill people line of defense. Kottke steps back and asks an interesting question: "How would applications like Kazaa, Limewire, or Napster be designed if they were deliberately built for stealing?"

He then says goes on to say, in part, "My feeling is that if Kazaa is designed to steal software, music, movies, and pornographic images, the people behind it are doing a crappy job...I should be able to d/l the top 20 Billboard singles as a collection or separately without having to search for each one manually."

Alas, like 99.999999% of the world, Kottke is clearly not a Soundbitten reader: as I mentioned last week, the latest version of Kazaa does provide the functionality for customizable one-click downloading.

Of course, that's just one of the many very good ideas Kottke suggests a good music-stealing service should offer. The reason Kazaa only offers one of them, in my opinion, is because Kazaa isn't really interested in developing a good service: it simply wants to exploit the music industry's failure to do so, in the cheapest way possible. But the developers at Rhapsody, PressPlay, and MusicNet should certainly be looking at Kottke's list of ideas: when content is ubiquitous, service is what people pay for, so what Kottke has really outlined here is the functionality of a good music subscription service, not a good file-stealing app.

As for the was-Kazaa-designed-to-steal? debate, I agree with Williams. Peer-to-peer file-sharing technology may be inherently neutral, as Hourihan argues, but Kazaa, as a business proposition, as a tangible product, was definitely designed to facilitate the unauthorized exchange of copyright-protected material. Why do I say this? Well, it's similar to the Aimster paradox: why build a business model that makes it harder to get easy-to-get content, which no one wants anyway?

If you're interested in this debate, be sure to read the comments section at Kottke's site too.

Posted by Greg Beato at 03:43 PM

I live near Golden Gate Park, which means I live near people who live in Golden Gate Park. At least half of these people, who don't own much, own a sleeping bag. And yet, do sleeping bag manufacturers ever target this market? You can get a Marksmen 6 bag designed for hunters, an Arctic Star 5 bag designed for polar explorers, and even a Country Women bag with "styling and sizing for women" -- but where are the sleeping bags with names like "Cold Hungry Homeless Guy" or "Drunken Deadhead"?

They don't exist, presumably because sleeping bag manufacturers figure that while such people may own sleeping bags, they don't necessarily buy sleeping bags, at least not at the local mall's sporting goods store.

Alas, the music industry isn't quite as sharp as the sleeping bag industry: right now, with campaigns like, they're spending big money targeting people who've basically identified themselves as their least likely customers.

It wasn't always this way, of course. In the glory days of 1998, teenage purchasing power was such a force of nature that all it took to produce a platinum album was a great wardrobe stylist, a competent choreographer, and a video director with a gift for figuring out new ways to show young people having fun, like singing or dancing.

But that was back in the days of mandatory payment. Now, those days are gone forever, and litigation, legislation, and copy-protection will never bring them back.

So the music industry (and the movie industry) should really just let go of the past and embrace the future: old people.

Of course, old people aren't that much more honest than young people, but at least they have credit cards. Thirty million of them pay AOL at least $23.95 every month. Millions more regularly buy online porn. And as far as I know, no one over the age of 30 has ever developed a major file-sharing program.

Kids, on the other hand, don't have credit cards. At least, this is what they say when topics like actually paying for digitally distributed music are addressed. In the case of college kids, I don't really buy this argument -- United College Marketing Services, the "premier young adult financial services marketer in America," boasts that it has "credit educated over 25 million young adults" since 1989, for example.

And while most high school kids may not have their own credit cards, where do they get the Internet access to download MP3s? Lots of high-schools have Internet access, of course, and maybe even CD burners. Conceivably, then, there are some high school kids who, instead of using their school-provided, taxpayer-funded Internet access to learn about Eastern European porn and bomb-making techniques, like they're supposed to, use it for music piracy instead.

But my guess is that most high-school kids who download unauthorized MP3s do it from the comfort of home, using accounts paid for by their parents. So if the parents can pay for the access, why can't they pay for a music-subscription too?

But you get my point: kids could pay if they wanted to. But they insist they can't. So when push comes to shove, who's more likely to cough up some money for digital music: a 14-year-old Eminem fan, or a 40-year-old Enya fan?

Obviously, the Enya fan. But how many A&R guys are currently looking for the next Enya? Probably zero. And how many are looking for the next Eminem? Hundreds.

This is the exact opposite of what the industry should be doing, because it's not just Enya: look at all the other surprise hit albums of the last few years. The O Brother soundtrack. Carlos Santana. Barry Manilow. There are people who claim they've downloaded Barry Manilow songs, but there are also people who claim they've seen Bigfoot. As great a tunesmith as he is (Manilow, not Bigfoot), I simply refuse to believe he has ever lost a sale to Kazaa, Morpheus, or Napster.

So what does it all mean? Someone at Interscope needs to put in a few calls and see if Pat Boone is still alive. And how about Huey Lewis -- he's still got his hair, his voice remains as smooth as an elephant's nutsack, and who better to provide healing, adult/contemporary balm to these war-torn times than the big-hearted bard who wrote: "You won't feel nothin' till you feel/you feel the power, just the power of love/That's the power, that's the power of love/You feel the power of love/you feel the power of love/feel the power of love."

Wake up and see the light, music industry! It's time to stop selling sleeping bags to homeless people.

Posted by Greg Beato at 09:47 AM
October 01, 2002
Snoop Dogg follow-up

An organization called Project Islamic Hope has succeeded in getting NBC to remove Snoop Dogg's scenes from the upcoming, "It's A Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie."

The movie will still star former heroin abuser David Arquette.

Project Islamic Hope is led by Najee Ali, who commented: "I'm not hating on Snoop, but as a Muslim, as a religious leader and activist, we can't support anyone who is involved in those types of sexually explicit projects and materials."

In the past, Ali has also not hated on Snoop Dogg by getting his "radio show on Los Angeles's KKBT taken off the air in 2001 when the rapper released his first pornographic video, Doggystyle."

In addition to banning radio shows and movie appearances, Ali also enjoys protesting books and records. Given that he is himself an ex-con who gleefully participated in the LA riots, it seems odd that he's cracking down on Snoop Dogg's efforts to mainstream himself -- but I guess he finds Snoop Dogg's straight-forward interest in sex offensive. No word on how he feels about kite-flying.

As for Bill O'Reilly, who also protested the idea of Snoop Dogg fraternizing with puppets, it turns out that his outrage wasn't really necessary: he knew before doing his September 27th segment that Snoop Dogg's scenes were scheduled to be cut. ( has not made this transcript available online: if you happen to subscribe to, however, you can find it there.)

Instead of reporting this fact, however, he decided to first engage in the following speculation: "Can we presume that Kermit will call Miss Piggy a 'ho? Or will the frog urge the kids to cook coke proper?"

Well, no, Bill, because as you already knew, the scenes weren't going to be included in the movie.

Plus, remember, the movie is going to appear on NBC. If it were scheduled to appear on Fox, maybe Kermit would have called Miss Piggy a ho. On NBC, no.

A minute or so into his broadcast, after engaging in the aforementioned speculation, O'Reilly shared the following information with his audience. "NBC told us that the scene may be cut from the movie, but that's not the point."

I'm not completely fluent in O'Reillese, but I believe the basic translation for that statement is: "Damn, you mean we got to this story too late, and NBC's already cutting the scene? But I want to slander a rapper! Can't we just say something about how NBC *may* be cutting the scenes, and how it's the principle of the thing that matters? We can? Great!"

According to O'Reilly, "the reason Snoopy is even doing the movie is that his career is down the drain."

Translated into English, that sentence means: "Snoop Dogg sold two million copies of his last CD, 2000's 'The Last Meal.' In the last two years, he's appeared in four Hollywood feature films (Baby Boy, Training Day, The Wash, and Bones). He's also appeared in independent films, documentaries, TV specials, and hosted a porn video. Finally, he has his own record label with over a dozen acts signed to it. Oh, and there was the radio show he had too, until Najeeb Ali got that cancelled."

After lying about the state of Snoop Dogg's career, O'Reilly decided to come clean with the truth about Snoop Dogg's scenes in the Muppet movie. It would cover his ass, plus it would give him the opportunity to engage in a little Ludacris-style ultra-violence: "Late today, word out of Hollywood was that Snoopy would indeed wind up on the cutting room floor. I smashed them on 'The Radio Factor.' All of a sudden, he's gone."

Later, in a conversation with a guest, O'Reilly repeated his lie about the state of Snoop Dogg's career: "This guy's career is on the skids, his last album released in 2000 was a bomb."

He followed that with: "This guy is a true criminal. He doesn't just play a criminal, he is a criminal...this a hard-core criminal, this is a guy who's done bad things for decades."

Again, a translation from O'Reillese: "This is a guy who's 30 years old, so it's completely irresponsible and misleading for me to say he's done 'bad things for decades.' I mean, he probably couldn't have done too much harm up until the age of 10. And the last major incident on his record, which he was acquitted for, happened in 1993. But he's a young black entrepreneur who's been pretty successful transitioning to the mainstream from a ghetto life of poverty, crime, and gang involvement, so what the hell? Let's say he's been a hard-core criminal for decades.'"

Now that O'Reilly has "slammed" Snoop Dogg and Ludacris, who will he hammer next?

How about George W. Bush? Like Snoop Dogg, Bush has had repeated brushes with authority, with arrests in 1968 and 1976 and an SEC investigation in 1991. Like Snoop Dogg, Bush has reportedly given up drugs. Like Snoop Dogg, he is on familiar terms with violent death: Snoop Dogg watched his bodyguard kill a man in what a jury decided was self-defense; Bush ordered the execution of over 100 prisoners while serving as the Governor of Texas.

Of course, I'm not saying that any of this disqualifies Bush from serving our nation as President. But do you really think we should allow him to hang around kids so often?

Posted by Greg Beato at 12:02 PM
September 30, 2002
The Fearful Battle the Disingenuous

Last week, in the interest of "fairness," SJ Mercury columnist Dan Gillmor devoted a column to MPAA scapegoat Jack Valenti's perspective on the Copyright Wars. To ensure that the atmosphere of fairness was as bias-free as possible, Gillmor issued disclaimers like: "You may even suspect the Hollywood studios are lumbering dinosaurs that deserve to disappear."

Hey, Dan, thanks for reminding me that I may even believe that!

After presenting Valenti's side of the argument with all the fairness, comprehensiveness, and nuance one can pack into 585 words while still devoting many of those words to phrases like "In the end, he said without fully answering the question..." and "This stance has angered many users of technology and worried some in the industry as well," Gillmor promised a follow-up column in which he would respond (a second time, with presumably less furtive disingenuousness) to Valenti's arguments.

Aren't the Copyright Wars depressing? Aren't there any better choices than clueless, fearful preservationists like Valenti, or hypocritical populists like Gillmor?

In Gillmor's follow-up column, he explains why Valenti's ideas for addressing the downside of digital distribution (aka copyright infringment) are bad ones, but he also never honestly acknowledges that content creators (including Big Media devils like the movie industry) have a legitimate right to try and control how the content they create is distributed.

Instead, he parrots the same old platitudes about how Big Media is "a highly centralized and grossly inefficient business that rips off the artists, overcharges the public and limits the market." Then, as if such lazy thinking is not sin enough for one column, he throws in whoppers like "the media giants want to keep information flow centralized, to control the new medium as if it's nothing but a jazzed-up television" and "the companies that wail about 'stealing' have themselves hijacked billions of dollars worth of literature, music and film from you and me. The public domain hasn't grown lately, and that's a betrayal of everyone but the tiny group of mega-companies that owns copyrights to old classics."

The public domain hasn't grown lately? Hasn't Gillmor heard about open source software? Hasn't he heard about this thing called the web, where millions of people around the world create content freely available to all? Sure, much of this freely available content isn't officially in the public domain -- but a fair amount of it is. And a lot more could be, if in fact that's what its creators wanted. In other words, if the public is worried about the future of the public domain, the public is certainly free to ensure that future -- why put the burden on Big Media?

As for Big Media's purported desire to "keep information flow centralized, to control the new medium," what would happen if Jack Valenti got everything he wanted? Indeed, say Big Media succeeded in extending copyright terms forever. Content creators who wanted to put their work in the public domain could still do that. Say every new electronic device came with built-in copy protection that prevented users from sharing files that weren't authorized to be shared: they could still share files that were authorized to be shared.

I don't know -- maybe Gillmor isn't being deeply dishonest here. Maybe because the non-digital arm of the Big Media corporation that Gillmor blogs for still generates enough revenue to pay him a salary, he doesn't quite get why Valenti and others are worried about the impact digital distribution will have on their business models. And maybe because he is paid to blog by a Big Media corporation, he only sees content as a Big Media product -- and thus truly believes that greater copyright protection "would ultimately wipe out the public domain."

Pssst, Dan, guess what? It's easy to put information the public domain. In fact, since I really want to make sure that the public domain isn't wiped out completely, I hereby declare that this particular post is in the public domain! (Everything else is copyrighted, of course.)

While Gillmor's flim-flammery almost makes Valenti look good in comparison, it doesn't make him (or the interests he represents) look any smarter. While it's true that Big Media has every right to charge whatever it wants for the products and services it produces, as long as it doesn't break the law, strategies embodied by the Hollings bill (which would make copy-protection mandatory in all digital devices) and the Berman bill (which would give copyright holders the legal right to "thwart" P2P networks), are PR disasters, technologically suspect, difficult to enforce, susceptible to abuse, and overly punitive.

Now, these bills aren't completely designed to screw users and empower content creators -- as this analysis of the Berman bill suggests, it limits the power of copyright owners and protects the rights of users in various important ways. (And as the recent announcement regarding the recording industry anti-trust settlement suggests, the government is certainly capable of ruling against Big Media.) But why leverage the future of digital distribution on technologies and legislation that users hate, especially when there's little evidence that these things will actually eliminate, or even substantially retard, unauthorized file-sharing?

It's time to embrace (or at least accept) the fact that users want control over the content they buy. They want to shift it, share it, and incorporate it into their own creative efforts. So why try to prevent users from doing the things they value most -- it's hard enough to get people to pay for digital content without deliberately making the value proposition less attractive. Make it more attractive by offering users exactly what they want, and maybe they'll start paying for digital content.

Or maybe not. If they don't, then content creation will suffer, good content will grow scarcer, and users will finally learn they ultimately get what they pay for. And then maybe they'll start paying. In the meantime, Big Media's alienating users and missing out on the opportunity to help pioneer sustainable digital content business models. And piracy-to-the-people apologists like Gillmor, in their efforts to suggest this is a one-sided battle between poor-little-virtuous-us and big-greedy-manipulative-Them, are irresponsibly reporting only part of a complex story whose players can't be reduced so easily to good guys and bad guys.

Posted by Greg Beato at 10:33 AM
Misleading Headlines Surge!

The headline of this Ad Age story: "Tabloid Publisher Celebrates Surge In Circulation."

What the story actually says: "While the magazine industry slumped last year, ad pages for the Enquirer and Star were up by more than 20% in 2001, according to Publishers Information Bureau. The trend has continued into 2002, with Enquirer ad pages up 20.5% through August vs. a year ago, and Star pages up 29.58%. Circulation also has risen incrementally."

I guess since Ad Age is a magazine about advertising, its editors get tired of talking about advertising.

In any case, it's interesting to read that circulation is rising even incrementally in the tabs, since it had been in rapid, steady decline for so long. But you know how the tabs could really strengthen their readership? Blogs. After all, gossip is timely and collaborative at heart -- the Enquirer has message-boards and other interactive features, but it still feels like one of the most static news sites on the web. There's no sense of timeliness on the front page, and no synergy between staff and audience on the message-boards. Currently I visit the site maybe once every couple of weeks, but imagine National Enquirer as a Slashdot or a Fucked Company for gossip: I'd be there every day.

Posted by Greg Beato at 09:38 AM