Japanese HOLOGRAPH Plays Sold Out Concerts;
Science Fiction Comes To Life
The caps are theirs. Needless to say, once again this is not a holograph. Or a hologram either. In its typical air-headed style, the HuffPo goes on to delineate the fizz of the story while entirely missing the interesting bits:
In what is surely a terrible omen not only for musicians but also the continued existence of the world as we know it, holographs are now playing sold out concerts in, where else, Japan.
Firstly, I’ll reiterate (because stupid journalists just can’t seem to understand this) – the Hatsune Miku performances are NOT HOLOGRAMS. As I’ve said before on The Cow, we currently have no technology to allow anything like this as a holographic projection(i) The giant avatars are simply projections on a screen. There is nothing three dimensional about them, as would be the case for a genuine hologram. Here’s a still frame from Hatsune Miku’s video Romeo and Cinderella, in which you can plainly see the flatness of the character, and the screen on which it’s projected:
It’s an impressive technical display, for sure, but it’s just a very bright projector and a piece of clever animation. You could, if you were motivated, achieve the same thing in your lounge room.
Of course, the Huffington Post, could have carried a story about what is actually happening here, which is far more interesting than their stupid and inaccurate ‘Look at those wacky Japanese and their holographs’ fluff piece.
The ‘live’ Hatsune Miku concerts are in fact the culmination of what was originally a promotional concept for the Vocaloid 2 speech synthesis engine. Vocaloid 2 is software developed at Pompeu Fabra University in Spain with funding by the Yamaha Corporation. The application takes snippets of real human voice and arranges them in such a way that the many complex parts of human speech can be controlled, via simple programming, to make coherent speech and song. In 2006, Vocaloid 2 was acquired from Yamaha by a the Japanese company Crypton Future Media, who, with exceptional insight, packaged it for sale to consumers as a ‘personality’: Hatsune Miku, ‘an android diva in the near-future world where songs are lost.’ The name Hatsune Miku is literally translated as ‘future sound’. Miku’s voice is generated from recordings of voice actress Saki Fujita. Using Vocaloid, musicians are able to program the Miku voice to sing whatever lyrics they choose along with their music.
When CFM released the software, they had the idea of creating several ‘mascots’ to anthropomorphize the Miku personality, and it wasn’t long before a programmer named Yu Higuchi released a freeware application, MikuMikuDance (MMD), which allowed users to easily create 2D and 3D animations based on the these mascots. A huge fanbase rapidly grew around this concept, with thousands of users interacting on Nico Nico Douga (a kind of Japanese YouTube) to produce videos of Hatsune Miku performances. The phenomenal success of Miku has spawned a family of new Vocaloids, such as Rin and Len Kagamine, Megurine Luka, Gackpoid, Megpoid and numerous ‘fan-created Vocaloids like Neru Akita and Teto Kasane.
Here is a video of Miku’s more sophisticated sister Megurine Luka,(ii) singing ‘Just Be Friends’:
The live Miku concerts with the 12 foot tall all-singing all-dancing projections of the character avatars are a natural result of the extraordinary popularity of the Vocaloid characters and their music.
Now isn’t that a lot more interesting than the Huffington Post’s (and others, I might add) flippant dissing of this story as an oh-my-god-singers-are-going-to-be-replaced-by-holograms-bring-back-the-good-old-days piece of sensationalism? Their silly take on it does nothing more than expose their white-bread middle-American sensibilities, and make them look like the insular conservatives they really are. The Hatsune Miku phenomenon might be slightly oblique to Western sensibilities, but one thing is very clear – here are large groups of passionate music fans having a genuinely good time. What the hell is wrong with that?
And besides, the music was made by musicians, not robots, people. And it’s damn catchy.
The Guardian reports today the shock horror story of the decade – if you’re a dedicated ‘horrorcore’ hip-hop fan, anyway.
It turns out that the Insane Clown Posse – those rapper doyens of the crass, the violent and the sexist – known for such moving lyrics as:
I stab people, 4, 5 people everyday
I tried to see a shrink to stop that shit but it ain’t no FUCKing way
I grabbed her by her neck
And I bounced her off the walls
She said it was an accident and then apologized
But I still took my elbow and blackened both her eyes
If I was a king all bitches would blow me
Big bag piles of jewels for my homies
We would go to war and take everybody’s land
No clothes allowed for female citizens
…have, all this time, been Evangelical Christians.
My mind flip-flops between being flabbergasted and entirely unsurprised. Flabbergasted because I find it hard to believe that people who call themselves Christians can write these kinds of things, and then unsurprised because I guess I can. And it’s not that the Juggalo ringleaders have suddenly had a Road to Damascus moment, either – they say that they’ve been Christians all along.
Apparently, their music is all just an act, cunningly crafted to sneak up on all those unsuspecting fans of theirs and deliver the message of God under the cover of necrophilia, dismemberment, rape and murder. Not since the Spanish Inquisition has morality been so deeply confused.(i)
This is how Violent J (Joseph Bruce), one of the two figureheads of ICP, puts it:
To get attention, you have to speak their language. You have to interest them, gain their trust, talk to them and show you’re one of them. You’re a person from the street and speak of your experiences. Then at the end you can tell them God has helped me out like this and it might transfer over instead of just come straight out and just speak straight out of religion.
This was the same Violent J who was arrested on an aggravated battery charge after allegedly striking an audience member thirty times with his microphone at a concert in New Mexico. Apparently you need to physically show ‘them’ that you’re ‘one of them’ as well. That’s a slippery slope for which I wouldn’t want to attempt to mount a moral defense.
Recently, as part of their overt ‘coming out’ the Clowns released this video of their song Miracles, in which they apparently find everything miraculous, including UFOs, fog, and the Pyramids:(ii)
It appears that they use the term miraculous here in a religious sense, rather than as hyperbole. In other words, they are rapping about all these ‘miracles’ as literal Works of God. The clue is the part of the lyric that says:
Fucking magnets, how do they work?
And I don’t wanna talk to a scientist
Y’all motherfuckers lying, and getting me pissed
Yep, it’s those evil scientists at it again. As one science blogger has put it, the video
…is not only dumb, but enthusiastically dumb, endorsing a ferocious breed of ignorance that can only be described as militant. The entire song is practically a tribute to not knowing things.
Indeed, in 1998 Spin magazine said that ICP were offensive “not for their obscenity, but for their stupidity” and after reading the Guardian interview I linked above, I am inclined to agree (there are some real clangers, but I’ll leave them for you to discover). In a manner that is the modus operandi of all the most blinkered fundamentalists, the ICP eschews any level of intellectuality or reason or knowledge in favour of simplistic, slack-jawed religious naiveté. What’s more, they seem baffled by the torrents of criticism they have received from the science community over their silly song. Violent J:
I figured most people would say, ‘Wow, I didn’t know Insane Clown Posse could be deep like that.’ But instead it’s, ‘ICP said a giraffe is a miracle. Ha ha ha! What a bunch of idiots.’
Yeah, see, the problem is, Violent J, that your observations aren’t so much deep as breathtakingly banal…
Plant a little seed and nature grows
Niagara falls and the pyramids
Everything you believed in as kids
Fucking rainbows after it rains
there’s enough miracles here to blow your brains
… and, to be frank, it’s terrible music to boot – the rap in this song is possibly the worst I’ve ever heard. Take away the trademark in-your-face offensiveness and Insane Clown Posse just have nothing at all to offer.
As it stands, for all their ghetto posturing and murderous carnival grotesquerie, I say that the Insane Clown Posse are nothing more than Insipid Clown Pussies. It takes guts to look the universe squarely in the face and endure all the uncomfortable consequences of the realization of the measure of your insignificance.(iii) Religion, especially the brains-on-the-floor flavour of religion offered by Evangelical Christianity, is the ultimate avoidance of facing up to reality. It says, in no uncertain terms, that if you trust everything to God, all will be hunky dory. It’s the easiest of cop-outs for a difficult challenge. In this respect,(iv) then, it is less confronting to discover that the members of the Insane Clown Posse are Christians, than it would have been to have heard they were philosophers, atheists or scientists.
My observation here is that if this is true, then they are treating the people that buy their music with the utmost disrespect – firstly, they are trading on being something that they are not in order to disseminate some dubious moral agenda, and secondly they think their audience is stupid. Which may be true, but doesn’t that just smack of cynical exploitation?! [↩]
How magnets, the Pyramids, UFOs and ghosts fall into the category of Miracles Wrought By God is kinda hard to fathom… [↩]
Conversely, it takes no guts at all to beat up a woman, and it follows that to write a ‘song’ about doing so is the work of a very tiny soul indeed. Don’t spin me your ‘whatever it takes to get the Lord’s message through’ bullshit, you hypocrites. [↩]
…and possibly others, it has to be said – pardon my cynicism. [↩]
Yes, dear friends, you are all living in denial. According to the artist formerly known as the artist formerly known as Prince, and now known as Prince once more, the internet is just ‘a hip fad like MTV’ and is now outdated.
And running with his new-found insight, Prince is breaking all the boundaries and taking the extraordinary steps of releasing his new music album only as a CD! Genius. He’s chosen to do this through the innovative new distribution conduit of the newspaper! What a visionary!!
The Forever White™ Teeth Whitening Headset promises to get your teeth white and let you listen to music at the same time! Incredible! Because, gosh, who’da thought of getting a non-hifi teeth whitening kit and just firing up your iPod with the headphones you already have?!
What you do, evidently, is slather some goop on your teeth, activate it with the blue LEDs in the unit, pop on the headset and sit back for an hour with a little musical inspiration as your dazzlers become even more dazzling.
So now all we need to do is come up with a suitable ‘motivational’ playlist for prospective customers to enjoy while their pearlies are getting whiter. How about A Whiter Shade of Pale?When You’re Smiling (the Whole World Smiles With You)? Almost Blue?I’m All White Now?
•The comment on the photo refers to the fact that it is ‘Everybody Draw Mohammed Day‘. Now there are those who have protested that this concept is racist and that by adopting it all those who partake are necessarily making a racist statement. I just want to make it clear that I don’t think for a second that it’s about race. It’s about religion. It’s a silly religious notion, and we treat all silly religious notions equally here on The Cow.
My current fixation with soap bubbles came about as a side-effect of some research I’ve been doing for my new animation project. To be specific, I was looking at how transparency and refraction work, and although I can easily see it in glass, I wanted something more organic and also less refractive. Hence bubbles. The animation, though, is more of a watery affair – mysterious and slightly eerie. Here are some stills. I’m in early stages just yet, but I thought you might like a sneak peak.
I also have some exciting news to tell you about one of my other works, but more of that in a bit.
A Long Post About Art, Music and Philosophy, and Why We Shouldn’t Just All Stick Our Heads in the Oven.
It has been said by one of my regular readers that Tetherd Cow Ahead is her ‘morning espresso of blogs’; a quick and amusing, or sometimes (I like to think) thought-provoking rumination on some matter or other that she can quickly imbibe before rolling up her sleeves and getting into the nitty gritty of the day’s work. This is not that kind of post. This is a seven course meal of a post, with three kinds of wine, food you’re not familiar with and then brandy and cigars late into the night. This is a post that will take several days to digest and leave at least some of you with heartburn. I don’t do it often, so I ask you to stick with it. I’m really keen to hear what you have to say.
(If you care to read footnotes in this post, you only need click on the footnote signifier – you will be jumped to the footnote where you can click on a ‘return’ icon to get you back to where you were. Try it now.(i) There you go. Happy reading!)
None of my Australian readers can have failed to have missed the recent musical debacle featuring two of the country’s most iconic institutions: Men At Work and Larrikin Music.(ii)
For the foreigners, this is the lowdown: Larrikin Music has successfully sued Sony BMG and EMI for plagiarism, claiming that songwriters Colin Hay and Ron Strykert used a phrase from another song as part of the Men At Work mega-hit ‘Down Under’. Here, listen to it now so you can follow me:
OK. So not the most cerebral music clip ever made, nor the most illuminating lyrics ever penned,(iii) but most of the world agrees that the song has a catchy enthusiasm as a satirical paean to Australiana – enough to make it a considerable success both in locally and abroad. And it continues to earn substantial amounts of money.(iv)
The issue is the flute riff that is played near the intro and again by the chap sitting in the tree at about the 53 second mark. It includes a note sequence from a very well-known Australian kid’s song called ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’ written by a woman named Marion Sinclair in the 1930s (the rights of the song are held by Larrikin – Ms Sinclair is now dead). I’m using my words here carefully – I say ‘note sequence’ because, unlike the judge who ruled the case, I’m not at all sure that the small snippet is recognizeable to many, perhaps most, people as as a tune in its own right, hanging as it does on the end of another few notes and making a whole phrase that sounds (to my ears) considerably different to the phrase as played in ‘Kookaburra’. Indeed, in the court case, this is what the musicologist called by Men At Work‘s defence argued also. Now, I’ve heard ‘Down Under’ innumerable times in the almost 30 years since its release, and although I know ‘Kookaburra’ as well as any Australian schoolkid, I never once recognized it in the Men At Work song. More pertinent, perhaps, is that no-one else seems to have recognized it either, including Marion Sinclair herself.(v) The reason for this is a simple one of musical context: ‘Kookaburra’ is written and performed in strict time in a major key(vi) and the ‘Down Under’ has a lollopping reggae beat and is in a minor key.
Oh, of course I can hear it now – because it’s been the subject of scrutiny – and I accept as any reasonable person must, that it’s pretty likely that Greg Ham, the band member who improvised the part on the recording, was ‘quoting’ the ‘Kookaburra’ melody in his performance. Even so my musical brain needs to do a quirky mental transposition to make it ‘feel’ like the tune I’m familiar with from the children’s ditty.
But truly, this is not the point. The crux of this whole matter is, as you obviously guessed, money. And, despite anything else you might hear or read, about nothing but money; Larrikin Music claims that the addition of this phrase to the song entitles them to between 40 and 60 percent of the song’s earnings. Since the judge ruled in their favour, we have to assume that he doesn’t find that notion quite as ridiculous as everybody else does.(vii)
As I write (I swear) kookaburras are sitting in an old gum tree right near my studio, laughing maniacally. Here’s the rather wonderful Colin Hay(viii) performing Down Under in recent times (well before any of this madness was even hinted at). It’s a sombre and rather more poignant version of the song, but I don’t think anyone would dispute that it’s a fine piece of work on its own, and it certainly doesn’t depend on the ‘Kookaburra’ riff to make it any better. Definitely not 40 to 60 percent better that’s for sure.
All this brings me to the actual purpose of this post, so if you’re still with me, crack open the whisky and settle back. We’re not even half done.
Recently while I was spending my time over at Bearskin Rug, one of my favourite haunts, I read an article by the redoubtable Mr Kevin Cornell (proprietor of said haunt) called Why the Monkey Dances. Kevin was pondering the wisdom of monetizing such efforts as Bearskin Rug. Or, to be more accurate, he was wondering how the hell, or even if, he might be able to make some cash out of a pursuit which is undeniably of quite some worth, and on which he expends a large amount of time and effort. After all, isn’t it worth something? And, since it is indisputably better than most of the crap on the net, isn’t it worth a decent something?
That post catalyzed a lot of my ongoing thoughts on this topic and it lead me to think seriously about discarding many of my preconceptions about how we artists (especially musical artists because that’s my field) work, and our value in this modern world.
So now I am going to propose some ideas that are likely to be heretical to mostly every composer or songwriter who reads this.
The ‘Down Under’ affair is an example of what I see as just another pneumatic staple in the cheap pine coffin of the modern music industry. The reason that record companies, publishers, distributors and their smug legal divisions even exist – the music – seems to have completely lost its value. “Ho hum,” I hear you say, “I’ve heard that a million times from would-be rock stars and struggling songwriters. When does it get heretical?”
It gets heretical now, when I ask you to consider the value of the music in the first place. This is an expanded version of how I put it to Kevin:
Once upon a time there were no CDs or vinyl records or pianos. If you wanted to hear a song, you had to go find someone who was good at making music and pay them something and sit and listen(ix) – you weren’t paying for the ‘song’ per se, because it wasn’t actually something you could ever possess. You were paying for an experience. And then you went home. If you wanted to take the experience with you, then you had to learn the song, or the tune, and perhaps even learn an instrument to play it – the song itself didn’t cost you anything. At this time, there was no other way of having music. Today we call this ‘folk music’ and now, just as it was when it was written, no-one owns it.
After many millennia of this kind of thing, a way of printing notated music came along and you could more easily and directly bring the music into your home, admittedly with some effort (you had to learn how to read the sheet music). Also, suddenly, the song itself accrued a value – you were required to pay for the sheet music. Some of what you paid found its way, in theory, back to the person who came up with the ‘original’ song. This notion of monetary reward for ‘originality’ had not existed in any formal way prior to this time – until now music had been one great swooshing sea of influence and re-influence, as any folk musicologist will tell you.
The next big event to affect the course of music was the ability to record and ‘keep’ it; the wax cylinder came along, followed by the vinyl record. All you needed now to bring the music into your home was some more money to spend (but relatively little effort on your own part). Now you were paying for the song, a mechanical device on which to play it and also for the rights to play it on that device. But because these things were still fairly rare, the experience was special, and it felt appropriate to fork out some dollars. Note well that the margin of profit on early recordings was very small – you paid mostly for the cost of the technology, and a little to the artist, a little to the publisher of the music and perhaps a small amount to the manufacturer and distributor of the recording itself. This makes sense.
Also understand that because it now had a money value, the music acquired a legal value, and the listener acquired some legal obligations (no-one ever asked whether anyone wanted this – it just became so). At the same time opportunistic intermediaries discovered that, due to the desirability of this ‘music’ stuff, they could insert themselves into the process (which had now become quite complicated) and make a tidy sum wrangling this ephemeral blend of musical art and fashion on which everyone had become so keen. Music was becoming a business. A whole superstructure of people who had nothing to do with the creation of the music itself, needed to earn money from it. The Recording Industry was born.(x)
Pretty rapidly, the vinyl records became less rare and very popular, and then cassettes and CDs came along, and you could have music everywhere you went – even driving along in your car! It was amazing, and people happily paid for this wonderful experience. Behind the scenes, though, a very important set of changing circumstances wasn’t being revealed to you: the cost of manufacturing the recordings was diminishing at roughly the same rate as the profits of the companies who now owned them was increasing. CDs started to cost only a few cents to manufacture, but were being sold for twenty dollars or more! Most of the money you were paying to hear a recording of your favourite band was not for the CD object itself, nor indeed for the music on it, but to support a lumbering Frankenstein’s monster stitched out of studio executives and A&R people, distributors and advertisers, lawyers and lackeys. The advent of CDs also brought with it another unparalleled phenomenon: with this new digital technology, the corporations discovered that audiences were prepared to re-purchase, for a premium, music that they already possessed. This was music that was already ‘owned’ by the record companies and for which the legwork and marketing had been done years ago. It was a goldmine. Music that had mostly already paid for itself was being sold again. Instead of recognizing this as the bonus it was, the recording industry began to see this enormous incoming flood of money as the status quo.
All this while, the experience of listening to music was slowly becoming less special. The amount of music available to any individual was staggering. Music was now everywhere – in your lounge room, in your bedroom, in airports, in elevators, in buses, on planes. It played in the background of films and tv shows, and had so many ancillary uses that you didn’t even listen to it. I bet that you have music playing right now, as you read this, and you haven’t even been aware of it. Music had became so portable you could even take it with you while you were jogging. Most people in, in fact, didn’t know what a world without music was like.
Then a new revolution began: the computer came along, and with it the invention of the mp3 and the iPod and the capacity to store more songs than anyone could listen to in several years… The music was now ubiquitous and completely unencumbered. It had transcended physical form, and existed only as bits of data – intangible, tiny, transportable and eminently copiable. And, horrifyingly for the recording business, utterly uncontrollable.
And suddenly, because the specialness of the music and the mechanical difficulty of rendering it were almost non-existent, the pecuniary value of the songs per se was revealed to be way higher than listeners actually thought they were worth when it really came down to it. And these insubstantial creations were now encumbered by a host of legal obligations that we had never agreed to in any real sense, and to which we had never really expected to adhere.(xi) In quite surreal extremes, people now found themselves being sued for millions of dollars over the possession of a few tiny pieces of music! Others were forced into bankruptcy because they made it possible for audiences to swap and listen to the music for nothing – in a profound sense doing nothing technically wrong themselves. It seemed, to rational people, a system out of kilter. To the recording industry, it was the death of the goose that laid the golden eggs.
Now here’s the heresy.
I propose that the problem we are now contemplating is that the music itself is worth, in monetary terms, exactly what it was always worth – nothing. Or, to be more exact, it is worth as much as anybody in particular is willing to pay for it. I submit that we have contrived to give music a value of zillions of dollars in an arbitrary fashion and we are now reaping the costs of our greed; complicated legal problems, a dearth of spontaneity, constipated creation and yet another (as if we need it) huge cartel of lawyers and go-betweens. And MOST of the money that is feeding this bloated lumbering beast does not go to music creators. The music itself is, and has always been, both valueless and beyond value. It can’t, and shouldn’t be, labelled with a price tag.
Let me rotate it through another angle for you, so that the shock might be eased a little. Consider this: if you are a stickler for being ‘legal’ about your music and still want it without paying any money for it, it is entirely possible for you to do so. You can play Greensleeves and Blow the Man Down, Chopin and Schubert, Brahms and Bach, Beethoven and Debussy, on your piano or violin, on your synthesizer or your theremin, on your harmonica or steel guitar for absolutely nothing. We are talking about some of the most awe-inspiring music ever written and it is entirely free. And here’s the thing: you can quite legally record that music, and sell the recording to your friends. You can perform it in front of thousands and charge them $90 apiece for the privilege of hearing you play it. You can score a film with it, use it as a tv theme and play it as music-on-hold on your phone system, without incurring any cost to yourself or anyone else. Does any of that seem like a bad thing? Not at all, in my opinion. And yet you cannot do any of that with the latest song from Lady Gaga!(xii) How absurd is that? In a fundamental way, we’ve decided that the music of Lady Gaga is more valuable than the music of Beethoven. We have taken music and made it into an expensive and gaudy fashion item. It is, I say, time that we restored it to its true value.
I also ask you to think about this fact: we don’t need to have music in our lives to survive.(xiii) It cannot be equated with food, or shelter, medicine or running water, warmth or companionship. It is a privilege that, because of its sheer ubiquity, we have begun to take entirely for granted. My feeling is that these days it might even improve our lives to have a little less of it around.
The Men at Work ruling that I talked about above seems, to most people I’ve talked to, intrinsically flawed. I think that’s because we naturally feel that this idea that music can have a value that is determined in money and in ownership, is deeply and fundamentally wrong. Australians don’t like the notion that ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’belongs to anyone, because it is part of our national psyche. Just as we really don’t believe ‘Down Under’ belongs to anyone and will happily make an mp3 of it to send to our friend in Brussels, even though that is entirely ‘illegal’.(xiv)
Songwriters and composers who are reading will be champing at the bit by now, and I can feel the indignation and fury fairly fuming out of my screen. Surely it’s our right to make a living from the sweat of our labours? Well, yes and no. Not our right, by any means, any more than it is our right to make money out of motivational speaking, or balloon folding, or portraiture, or photography, or stand-up comedy. But, if we do something people find enjoyable, or moving, or profound, then certainly we should expect that they might pay us something to do it. But I don’t think the correct way to go about that is by imposing what must necessarily be an arbitrary value on the music itself.(xv)
I believe we need to revise the idea that if we pull some notes out of the air, and arrange them in some order, that they belong to us. I propose that the music itself, like information, should be free.(xvi) Aspiring songwriters are crying “But surely my new masterpiece is worth something???! Surely all the time and emotional outpouring I’ve put into this song is valuable in some way?” I say no it isn’t. It’s absolutely worthless until such times as someone decides to pay you money for it. And then it’s worth exactly what they’re willing to pay. Sure – go ahead and concoct a value for it if you like, but don’t complain when the audience doesn’t see it like you do. Where is their obligation to do that?
What’s more, I predict that we are now in an age where the outcome of all I’ve suggested above will be determined to be so no matter what we decide to do!
To step sideways into another realm of other intellectual property for a moment, that of online journalism, we see corporate media giants struggling to understand the profound change that confronts them. Rupert Murdoch has said that he wants to charge people to view his online newspapers. I predict he will fail if he tries to do that. Murdoch is “striving to fix a ”malfunctioning” business model” and says that “The current days of the internet will soon be over.”(xvii) Murdoch can’t understand why he’s lost more than a hundred million bucks on MySpace when the rest of us can see it as plain as day – the value that he and his old-world cronies are putting on these enormous social clubs is completely arbitrary. It’s as fickle as any fashion. The MySpace party got uncool and everybody left. Now they’re dancing over at FaceBook, but that will, in time, go out of fashion too. These big corporate heavy-hitters just can’t bear the thought that there are tens of millions of people out there doing stuff, and they can’t be relied on to generate any money!
So their solution is completely laughable – throttle the pipe! Dominate the net! Dam the stream! Stop the fun!
Such a solution will fail.
And now the rhetoric is becoming unsettling. Even people who should know better are clinging to a model that is fairly cracking under the weight of its own inability to cope. A few days ago on The Guardian I watched a video of Jaron Lanier telling us that Web 2.0 was a dismal failure.(xviii) Well, of course it is you nitwit. Web 2.0 is a stupid and meaningless conceptual term dreamed up by people who think they can predict the future and make money from it.(xix) In the interview Lanier looks like a deer in the headlights when he says:
Some friends and I had this thought that perhaps that the internet would be such a fountain of wealth and opportunity that it could be entirely open, that people could give away the fruits of their brains and hearts and the opportunities they would get in return would be huge.
He goes on to be amazed and appalled that a great number of people who inhabit the open prairies of the net can’t communicate sensibly, are argumentative and petty, prone to theft, operate in packs, and are conservative. He bemoans what he sees as the demise of ‘culture’ and starts to sound unpleasantly just like Rupert Murdoch when he says that people need to be corralled in their internet habits for their own good.(xx) He says categorically that nothing good has come from the open source movement, which is one of the most daft things I’ve heard anyone say about the net in a long time.(xxi)
His main criticism seems to be that the web has turned into one big mediocre mush – again, I think it’s peculiar that he finds this at all surprising. It is just mirroring how people really are. Jaron Lanier has plainly never been to a town council meeting. He seems to have, for a while at least, entertained the naive idea that enabling everyone to have a voice would somehow change the fundamental structure of the human condition. How quaint! He sees the web turning into a big, noisy, chaotic, sprawling, stinking, confusing, confronting bazaar when he wanted something more akin to a nice polite knitting circle. Ha!
OK. Given all that stuff, where do we go from here? Why shouldn’t we, as I’ve suggested in my sub-heading, all just stick our heads in the oven and be done with it? Well, first of all let me say that I’m not going to suggest ‘solutions’. A need for a solution infers that there is a problem in the first place, and I think the main problem we’re seeing here is that a whole lot of people are unhappy that they used to make money under a system with which they were comfortable, and now they’re not. To take on that complaint is then a lot like sympathising with people who used to make their living out of harpooning whales, or shoeing horses, or sweeping chimneys. Things change, and it’s tough. And also, as I’ve said above, it’s not a God-given right that we should be compensated for something that has no pressing utility, and we need to accept that as a baseline.(xxii)
However, despite everything I’ve written above, and despite how gloomy this might all appear, I’m very optimistic about the future of creativity; about the future of music; about the future of news dissemination and journalism; about the future of fine art, digital art, poetry, movies and comedy. My optimism stems from one single fact: human beings, by their nature, are prolifically creative. This is not to say that everybody is as creative as everybody else, nor indeed that we will care for much of what gets created. But I contend that a deep desire to ‘make stuff’ runs through us, and will continue to do so no matter what.
Whether we like it or not, people will create stuff for nothing, and some of that stuff will actually be good. Despite what Lanier and Murdoch and others might believe, we don’t need their guidance to amuse and entertain ourselves. And, I suggest, we don’t need to be taught ‘culture’, nor to be taught the value of it.
Jaron Lanier made one tiny glimmer of sense in his Guardian article: he mentioned the idea of micropayments. I think this might just provide an angle on how creative people can get some small kind of monetary reward for their efforts (I say small, but in fact I don’t see any a priori reason why this would necessarily be so. It’s probably helpful for most artists to think of it like that, though). Once you abandon the idea that your music, or your art or your journalism has any inherent value, this starts to look pretty interesting.
Let’s say you visit a website – maybe The Guardian, since we’ve bandied them around a bit – and you read an article by Jaron Lanier. If you thought that article was valuable – that it informed your day, or amused you, or enlightened you – would you chip in a cent or two if you knew that money was going to the person who wrote it? I would certainly do that. If you went to a music site and you heard something that lifted your spirits, or made your heart flip, would you chip in a few cents for that experience? I would do that too. And (perhaps it’s me being naive now) I think a lot of people would do that. Technically, I don’t see there’s much of an impediment to doing this kind of thing anymore, and it will only be a short time before someone implements a viable scheme.(xxiv) It would be straightforward: you set up an account much like a bank account and deposit some money into it – maybe a baseline $100 or so. Then as you tour around the web, you’d see little icons that said, maybe, ’1c’ or ’5c’ attached to creative enterprises. You click that icon and the appropriate amount is donated to that person from your account. When your account is depleted to a certain minumum threshold, you’re informed by email that you need to top it up. The system can’t be anymore complicated than that or it won’t work.(xxv)
The more astute of you will see that this is what the Cow Collection Plate experiment is all about. It’s obviously not quite the same as what I’ve just outlined, in that it currently costs nothing at all to ‘donate’, but my feeling is that if it was, say, 5c, then it wouldn’t make that much difference if all you had to do was click. Is this article worth 5c? Yes? OK, then click the button. If not, don’t. I think this kind of idea would rapidly start to reward people who were doing great stuff.(xxvi) OK, it doesn’t take much brains to see that this is a tiny trickle of income – a few cents here, a few cents there, how is anyone going to make a living out of that? Well, my speculation is that not many will. To be more accurate, I think that a large number of people will make some pocket money, and a very small number of people, proportionately, will make a living. But here’s the thing – that’s really no different at all to the way things are now. If you are an artist of any kind you know exactly what I mean. Artists, musicians, journalists, writers – all spend the vast part of their lives scraping a living. It is only a very very small number who garner any great success out of their craft. And, if you do happen to get successful, you stand to make some reasonable money – not stupid insane money, which is what I suggest happened under the old model, but decent money.(xxvii) Let’s go back full circle and look at the Men at Work song I talked about at the beginning of all this. Now, I don’t have a clue what kind of sales that record made, but let’s say for the sake of argument it’s been played, here or there, legally or illegally, 10 million times (I don’t think that’s an unreasonable figure – probably on the low side, in fact). If that song had been awarded 5c for every play, that’s a tidy $500,000 for a song! And $500k that goes straight to the song’s makers, to boot.(xxviii) If you write ten successful songs in your career, you’re making a fair living – better than most. Plus, I’m going to suggest something else that is entirely new to the model – I propose that you don’t rely solely on your music to make you money. As well as being a songwriter, you now need to take on all the other attributes of a successful artist and be the total entrepreneur(xxix) – sell the t-shirts, sell the lyrics, sell photos of the band, sell your outtakes and your improvisations and your blog posts all for a few cents! In short, think laterally and exploit novelty. Rely on the idea that people will throw you a coin even if they won’t buy you champagne.(xxx)
So to this end, I propose that we all stop calling ourselves ‘artists’ and start thinking of ourselves as pragmartists. Because you can be sure of two things:
•Trying to impose control on the system will fail spectacularly, detrimentally and miserably. It’s already starting.
•If you think what you do is of a value $X, there will always be someone who is creating something just as good or better for $0. Those people are your competition. And they won’t go away.
Phew. There you have it – the longest post in Cow history. Who’d have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him? How many of you stuck with me, I wonder?
I say iconic because of Larrikin’s awesome status in our music history, but that hides a multitude of omissions. Larrikin Records, formerly the brainchild of the inimitable Warren Fahey, is not the company it once was, having been split and sold many years back. The publishing arm and the label are now controlled by big companies. No surprise there. [↩]
I’m still not entirely sure what the song is supposed to be about, but over the years I’ve inferred that it’s a caricature of the way Australians present themselves overseas, and a burlesque of the Crocodile Dundee-like aura that the country seems to have acquired in the minds of foreigners [↩]
Of course. If it had disappeared into obscurity, I think we can agree that Larrikin would not have been remotely interested in correcting a ‘point of order’. [↩]
The similarity was pointed out on a popular tv music programme late last year, and Larrikin Music immediately started seeing dollar signs. In a rather disingenuous attempt at justifying his position, director of Larrikin Music Publishing, Norm Lurie (and some of members of the media, it has to be said), tried to evoke a miserable picture of the aged Marion Sinclair sitting penniless and alone in a nursing home while the Men At Work songwriters lived high on the hog. This is a fairly pathetic tactic. [↩]
The actual monetary award has yet to be decided. We shall see how that goes. [↩]
In the interests of full disclosure I will say that I have worked with Colin in the past and found him to be a masterful performer and excellent songwriter. He is also that most rare of beings – a scholarly and gentlemanly musician. [↩]
Or perhaps, someone else was paying them to perform for you, in which case it cost you nothing [↩]
I don’t want to imply that nothing good came out of this system – it obviously did. But in the last decade or so the landscape has become embarrassingly barren, and the record companies increasingly desperate to justify their existences. [↩]
How quickly we forget about the compilation tapes we used to make on cassettes, and swap with our friends. It was entirely inevitable that, once music was freed from technical bondage, it would be swapped and reinvented prolifically and carelessly. It’s the nature of music! [↩]
Aside, obviously, from playing it for your personal enjoyment in private. [↩]
Clearly, music, like art, is an important part of what it is to be human, so it fulfils an essential purpose in respect to our wellbeing, just as art and literature do. My point here is that if you take music away, you can still live a good life, if a much less profound one. [↩]
I hope you can see my point here – we may or may not decide to award the song some monetary worth according to any number of criteria, but we quite arbitrarily decide its value. I could give many examples of this: for example let’s say I own the song on a CD, but I feel it is OK to make a copy for my Dad, because he’d never buy it anyway. Or, I don’t own it, but I want to send it someone so they can hear the ‘Kookaburra’ riff that I’m talking about. Or, I own an audio-only version of it, but I think it’s OK to disseminate a couple of YouTube clips through my blog even though I don’t know where the legality of this stands. I submit that everyone reading this has done something of this nature. In other words, the value you have determined the song is worth has nothing at all to do with the record company’s, or the band’s, estimation of it. [↩]
How much is a song worth? Some years ago I was involved in a commercial where the advertising agency wanted to buy the rights to use 60 seconds of a Pet Shop Boys track for their ad. The Boys’ publisher wouldn’t sign away the rights for anything less than $400k Australian dollars. I hold two opposing thoughts in my mind regarding this: $400k is a fucking HUGE amount of money for a song. And yet, really, it’s the Pet Shop Boys’ total right to value it how they like, especially if it’s being used to give cachet to dog food or something. My point is that in some kind of bizarre Shrodinger’s Cat-like parody of quantum simultaneity, the song is at once worth precisely nothing (if they don’t sell it) and $400k (if they do). And really, they didn’t care either way. In the end, the advertisers wouldn’t fork out, so in this case it was worth nothing. The Pet Shop Boys probably didn’t even notice. This seems entirely wrong to me. [↩]
In both senses of the word: ‘free’ as in costing nothing, and ‘free’ as in unfettered to go where it will. [↩]
The business model is only malfunctioning according to his rules, ie, that he’s not raking in the billions he used to. He doesn’t understand that his time has passed – his infallible business sense has come up against an inexorable assault on the zeitgeist. [↩]
Lanier, in the article accompanying the interview clip, also says of the web in general: “Oh, I think the web has been a massive success. The web gave us the first empirical evidence that vast numbers of people really are creative, really do have things to offer, and really will do it – really will get their acts together.” He seems to be able to split the web experience into pieces in his head, somehow labelling things he doesn’t like as ‘Web 2.0′. He really is confusing for someone who is supposed to be some kind of digital guru. [↩]
The inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners Lee, quite rightly called the term ‘Web 2.0′ ‘a piece of jargon’, since his original concept of the web already embodied the ideas it hijacked. [↩]
I’m paraphrasing here, but that’s definitely the gist of the Guardian interview [↩]
Just in case it needs to be clarified, Lanier is saying that there is no ‘good’ in things like Wikipedia, Facebook, blogging, open source software such as Firefox or WordPress, contributive open concepts like YouTube, Flickr and Make, and what I would call ‘Capitalist’ open-market concepts like Etsy and Zazzle. And they are just a few of a host of marvellous working ideas. Now, this makes one really wonder about his meaning of the word ‘good’… [↩]
Believe me, this is difficult concept for an artist to swallow. It’s taken me an awful long time to get to this point, but now I’m here, everything seems a darn sight clearer. Once you cross this Rubicon, the view is spectacular! [↩]
I’m not claiming this as an original idea, by the way, but it is rather novel and strange if you’re accustomed to seeing your income from CD sales, or song royalties. [↩]
One such pending scheme is Flattr, which, although interesting, has a fatal flaw in my view. Perhaps I’ll go into that another time… [↩]
This is exactly the way that my electronic road toll account works, so this kind of system is nothing new. [↩]
Of course there is going to be the explosion of exploitation that comes with this idea – it’s entirely inevitable. You can’t stop human nature, and unlike Jaron Lanier, I’m not going to kid myself or anyone else that we won’t get huge troughs of pig swill. [↩]
I predict that the people who complain the longest and the loudest about my ideas will be those who were the most successful under the old paradigm. Those of us for whom that paradigm really didn’t work that well are likely to be more receptive to change. [↩]
Yes, yes, I can hear someone saying that Colin Hay and Ron Strykert probably made much more out of ‘Down Under’ than that, but they’re not listening – that model IS DEAD! FORGET IT! NOT HAPPENING ANY MORE! [↩]
You could, of course, pay someone else to do this – no reason not to, except that you dilute your earning capacity. The great thing you have going for you with the web is that your potential audience is vast and the legwork required to reach that audience is comparatively small. [↩]
Of course, none of this is really new to anyone who has been paying attention in recent years. It’s pretty much where a great number of people are headed in the music world, at least. Like I said before – I believe that these solutions will impose themselves upon us, no matter what we think or do. [↩]