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Shelving the record labels (or, “Where Death Is Most Alive”)

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Categories: musings, Tags: , , , ,

The music industry is on the rack, growing up the hard way. Their former pets are working the levers. There are people in the world—myself included, of course—who view this process as long overdue, who are pleased to see the turn of the tables, the despot stretched across his own rack.

Check out this particular former pet, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, exhorting his fans to download his new album illegally.

I transcribe his words here for posterity.

Has anyone seen the price come down? OK, well, you know what that means: Steal it! Steal away. Steal and steal and steal some more and give it to all your friends and keep on stealing. Because one way or another these motherfuckers will get it through their head that they’re ripping people off and that’s not right.

Powerful words from such a well established musician. But it gets better.

Very recently 50 Cent gave an interview and offered a very sensible, realist perspective on the current situation of digital piracy.

“The advances in technology impacts everyone, and we all must adapt. Most of all hip-hop, a style of music dependent upon a youthful audience. This market consists of individuals embracing innovations faster than the fans of classical and jazz music.”“What is important for the music industry to understand is that this really doesn’t hurt the artists.”

[…]

“A young fan may be just as devout and dedicated no matter if he bought it or stole it.”

[…]

“The concerts are crowded and the industry must understand that they have to manage all the 360 degrees around an artist. They, (the industry), have to maximize their income from concerts and merchandise. It is the only way they can get their marketing money back.”

This guy gets it. Now, before I go too crazy, I should mention that the interview was originally conducted in Norwegian, and was then translated for the write-up on TorrentFreak. The validity of the translation should be questioned, as a site like TorrentFreak would have a lot of reason for putting words in 50 Cent’s mouth. Although I’ve seen the TF article linked all over Technorati, I haven’t yet seen a separate translation done.

I have two stories about my experience with such sentiments by artists, if you’ll bear with me.

Anecdote The First

In March of 2007, I saw Dark Tranquillity live in Philadelphia. It was a damn good show, and they were touring for their newest album, Fiction. They came out on stage and the keyboardist opened up with a slick synth riff that has characterized the latter half of the band’s discography. The crowd erupted in cheers even before the heavy guitars came in. We all knew the song, Terminus (Where Death Is Most Alive), even though the CD hadn’t been released yet.

After the band finished the song, the vocalist, Mike Stanne asked, “Seems like you guys have heard that one before. How many of you knew it?” The whole venue went nuts. “Ahhhh, you damn pirates!” Stanne said, then laughed and introduced the next track.

When Stanne started to sing Terminus, and the crowd was with him on every word, he honestly looked surprised on stage. But there was not a hint of anger or resentment. I honestly believe that amazement gave way to feeling flattered, although I unfortunately didn’t have a chance to meet the band and ask him personally whether I understood his reaction correctly. But the obvious fact is that the majority of the fans there that night had downloaded illegal advanced copies of the album from torrent sites, in anticipation of the band playing new material at the show.

Like 80% of the fans there that night, I bought a Dark Tranquillity t-shirt for $20 to prove I’d seen them live. I wear it way more often than is healthy.

Now, Dark Tranquillity are in a somewhat unique position in the industry, given that their rhythm guitarist (and former lyricist for both Dark Tranquillity and early In Flames) Niklas Sundin is a graphic artist, and thus designs the band’s merchandise himself. This means the label doesn’t appropriate money from the band’s revenue to pay for merch. It’s self-funded and the profit margin for them is huge. Sundin has designed almost 150 album covers for various metal bands, and has released a book of his sketches that sound incredibly well among fans of Dark Tranquillity.

It’s entirely possible that onstage, Stanne was just biting the bullet and smiling at his executioners. Maybe he hates his fans for downloading that album early. But maybe, just maybe, he loves them for it. And Dark Tranquillity seems to be doing just fine, seeing as they’re still on tour for the Fiction album.

Anecdote The Second

At that same show in Philadelphia, March 24, 2007, I also had the chance to see Into Eternity live for the third time. Fortunately, I was even able to catch some of the band up in the venue’s bar later that night, and I tried my best not to giggle with joy.

I told the band’s lead guitarist and songwriter, Tim Roth, how awesome I thought it was that he was posting step-by-step instruction videos on YouTube for how to play his songs. His riffs are extremely intricate, and most of the time blazing fast, so slowing them down and piecing them together is really necessary for most people trying to learn the play along with the CD. Here’s an example of what I mean.

I play guitar, and I freaking loved those videos. They were so low-budget that it felt like you were sitting down with him in his house, and he was just showing you some licks he came up with. Stellar, stellar stuff—and posted on YouTube by the band’s label, Century Media, I should note. But I was interested in hearing his motivation to do this because I’d at the time been quite pissed at the attempts of labels to take down guitar tab sites, a move they claimed was to protect their intellectual property rights.Here I convey Roth’s reaction as best I can. I’m going to put quotes around what he said, because I’m a dialog fiend, but please understand it’s not a verbatim transcription of the words that came out of his mouth. I promise the message is true to his, though.

“That’s just stupid. Why would you go after your best fans? The last people I would want to alienate are the guys listening to my songs again and again, trying to piece together how I played a riff. Those are the guys that love the music, you know? Everybody wishes they could play this stuff, and you see them at the shows, hypnotized by the fretboard, they don’t even headbang most of the time.

“People writing out tabs to our music doesn’t hurt the band. It sure as hell isn’t stealing. It helps everybody, like the labels should support it, because it keeps the music alive.”

That resonated with me. More than anything, I came away from my conversation with Roth believing that was a passionate musician. He didn’t seem to care too much about the legal issues or want to talk about band income. He just wanted to get up on stage and shred, then cross state lines, hop an ocean or two, and do it some more. Yes, Into Eternity are a young band.

The Point

Now we come to the point of this whole post. Amazon has recently partnered with a new and wonderfully bizarre record label called Sellaband. Sellaband is different in that it tries to eschew a lot of the presence of a middleman and empowers the fans of the music to more directly influence the fate of the band.

Unsigned bands upload their music, and if fans like it, they can buy a stake in the profits of any future album sales for $10 (£4.90).

Once a $50,000 (£24,500) threshold is reached, Sellaband helps the band produce an album. A fan can buy any number of $10 investments, each of which equates to a one five thousandth stake.

When the album is made, the backers each receive a copy, which they can either keep or sell at a 10 per cent profit on their personal Sellaband page. They also receive a cut of future sales on the Sellaband or other sites, as well as of any advertising revenue when the song is streamed.

This is quite a novel idea, but I have concerns with how well it’ll manage quality. I think there will be a lot of people who don’t give a damn about the artists, and just invest in those they think will sell well. That doesn’t sound like it’s going to solve the problem of most pop music in the country being utter dreck.

Also, the focus on “making a profit” seems a bit inappropriate, especially for fans of music that can only be considered marginally popular. It’s thoroughly unrealistic that many people will ever see income from this plan. What I do like about this is that the system permits and even encourages fans to pay more money than the standard cost of a CD. This is appropriate, especially for niche music. If the band Arsis would put a PayPal link on their site, I would give them $100 easily. I’ve already bought every CD they’ve made and attended several concerts just to see them. I’ll probably rebuy their discography, because I can’t help it. They’re that good.

I think it’s time this industry stopped focusing on forcing people to pay and started concentrating on making them want to pay. I think this Amazon and Sellaband deal is a step in that direction.

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Oh frabjous day!

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Categories: musings, Tags: , , ,

I’ve been talking a lot, both on this blog and off (mostly off, believe it or not), about issues of piracy and how the RIAA and MPAA deserve the horrible, slow death they’re both dying. One of my most recent examples of the utter evil these organizations emanate was the creepy traffic analysis toolkit the MPAA just distributed to 25 major universities in the U.S.

The toolkit sets up an Apache Web server on the user’s machine. It also automatically configures all of the data and graphs gathered about activity on the local network to be displayed on a Web page, complete with ntop-generated graphics showing not only bandwidth usage generated by each user on the network, but also the Internet address of every Web site each user has visited.

Unless a school using the tool has firewalls on the borders of its network designed to block unsolicited Internet traffic — and a great many universities do not — that Web server is going to be visible and accessible by anyone with a Web browser. But wait, you say: Wouldn’t someone need to know the domain name or Internet address of the Web server that’s running the toolkit? Yes. However, anyone familiar enough with the file-naming convention used by the toolkit could use Google to search for the server.

Frightening, no? Well here’s the clincher, the way to resolving this whole mess:

The University Toolkit is essentially an operating system (xubuntu) that you can boot up from a CD-ROM. The package bundles some powerful, open-source network monitoring tools, including “Snort,” which captures detailed information about all traffic flowing across a network; as well as “ntop,” a tool used to take data feeds from tools like Snort and display the data in more user-friendly graphics and charts.

Gee, last time I checked, Xubuntu is an open source operating system distributed under the terms of the General Public License (GPL). That means that if the party utilizing the GPL’d code redistributes it without providing access to the source code, they’re in violation of license.

Do you get it? The MPAA is infringing on intellectual property rights. This is pure gold. After years of stamping their feet petulantly, demanding that consumers pay them tons of money, many times over (did you know it’s illegal to play DVDs in Linux?), they go and steal someone else’s work, completely ignoring the written license under which it was offered.

Interested parties were of course notified, and have successfully had access to the toolkit stricken from the MPAA’s website. (That’s a Slashdot summary of the event. Make sure to check out the comment threads for a few laughs.) Evidently, the MPAA was less than cooperative, so the individual—Ubuntu developer Matthew Garrett—notified the MPAA’s ISP and forced it to be removed that way.

MPAA don’t fuck with my shit.

(And yes, I did attempt to contact them by email and phone before resorting to the more obnoxious behaviour of contacting the ISP. No reply to my email, and the series of friendly receptionists I got bounced between had no idea who would be responsible but promised me someone would call back. No joy there, either.)

This is a common tactic of the MPAA and the RIAA, to serve ISPs subpoenas demanding IP addresses for individuals allegedly pirating.

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Oops.

Multiplication kopimi

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W2 4tw!

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Categories: musings, Tags: ,

OK, forget that last post. I don’t care what anyone says, Web 2.0 is the shit and it’s not going away anytime soon.

The Pirate Bay has recently hopped on the 2.0 bandwagon, adding spiffy Last.fm integration to retrieve similar artists, as well as discography information.

Prince sucks

As TorrentFreak so delicately put it:

Here’s a screenshot of the artist details from Prince. I’m sure he will love this feature, since he’s one of the biggest Pirate Bay fans.

Burn. Anyway, this is an interesting utilization of open APIs of Web 2.0 sites. As several commenters on TF mentioned, Last.fm might object to this usage, and block TPB’s servers. I definitely don’t see that happening, though, as Last.fm, while now commercially owned, hasn’t proved itself to be completely stupid yet. Exposure is exposure, and they have to stay to some degree neck and neck with those at the forefront of internet music culture.

Let’s see how this trend spreads.

 

 

 

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One of the dumbest things I’ve ever read

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Speaking of toolbags, I just read a post by Jermaine Dupri called A Good Album is More than Just a Collection of Singles. It is so wrong, backwards, and stupid, I don’t even know where to begin.

The man does not argue coherently. Fortunately the post was at least copy-edited, because the punctuation is by and large orderly, but sadly it doesn’t look like a logician was brought in for consultation, which would have been a fantastic idea. This rant shows so very clearly why the record company empires are crumbling. He’s absolutely clueless.

These days people just assume that you need a number one single to have a number one album. But look at what’s really happening. Soulja Boy sold almost 4 million singles and only 300,000 albums! We let the consumer have too much of what they want, too soon, and we hurt ourselves. [emphasis added]

That’s right, instead of delivering a better product now that consumers are empowered enough to shop for what they want, the chosen course of action is to try to bully them into buying second- and third-rate complements along with the desired item. You call that smart business? Remember, we’re not talking CostCo bulk rates here, because an album varies notoriously in the quality of its tracks, not its quantity. It doesn’t become cheaper for the consumer to buy lots of music (although perhaps it should). The ability to buy singles just means that people are only paying for what they wanted all along: one track, because the rest of your CD sucked.

Yeah, it’s about the money, but it’s also about quality. Creating each album as a body of work that means something gives the consumer something better to listen to, It’s that simple. [sic]

OK, so much for the decent copy-editing. Here Jermaine seems to be saying that he knows what I want to hear better than I do, and that pisses me off.

Asking us to let other people mess with all our hard work like that is disrespectful. It’s like when you go an art auction, and an Andy Warhol painting is up for sale at $5 million, but a buyer is allowed to just by off the top right hand corner of the canvas for a hundred thou’

Apple, why are you helping the consumer destroy our canvas? We don’t tell you to break up your computers into bits and pieces and sell off each thing. When you go to the Apple store you may only need one thing, but you have to buy all their plug ins and stuff. You have to buy their whole package, even if you don’t necessarily want it, or your equipment won’t work.

This one really blew me out of the water. It’s really a horrible way to make a point. I understand that he’s saying the producers should be able to make the product anyway they want, and also simultaneously control the delivery of that product as well. Good for him. But using Apple as an example? They are practically the only computer business on the planet that isn’t friendly to customization according to customer specifications. Go to Dell, you pick and choose components. Better yet, go to Newegg, where you can buy just a hard drive, or a graphics card, or a mouse, or a monitor. That’s what I do!

So maybe a better analogy would be that the iTunes Music Store is to Newegg as Wal-Mart’s music section is to computer sales at Apple retail locations.

Additionally, the claim that an album experienced track by track “won’t work” is nonsense. In the article he compares CDs to books, saying book publishers don’t allow bookstores to break up books and sell them by the chapter. Well, that sure is the Old Media way of looking at these things, isn’t it? Last time I checked this century, the rules of New Media do indeed allow such discrete consumption. Take a look at this blog post, and even at his, for example of that delivery style. And when’s the last time you heard an entire CD on the radio? Probably around the same time you heard an entire book read there.

Sadly I haven’t been able to find much mainstream coverage of this article (it’s all over Technorati, of course), but Mashable has an excellent write-up.

Aside from a shocking lack of understanding when it comes to how an actual iPod works, it is also clear he missed the entire point as to why iTunes came into existence in the first place: piracy. Jermaine appears to think that if you simply stop selling music by way of iTunes, everyone will run back to the CD format with open arms, and never make an ‘illegal copy’ ever again. It is as if he missed most of the ’90s and never heard of Napster.

Thank you for saying it so well.

I must say, though, that I do agree with the fundamental claim of the original post: that a good album is more than just a collection of singles. It’s just too bad Jermaine’s in the business of quantity assurance.

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Personal piracy OK in Canada

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Categories: musings, Tags: , , ,

Just read an article that says Canadian police are now officially looking the other way on copyright infringement for personal use. That’s right, you can download all you want, and the cops won’t come a-knockin’. Turns out that ensuring the cash flow of major corporations just doesn’t contribute to the welfare of society as a whole, they think. How progressive!

Major piracy operations will still be targeted, but tracking individuals simply isn’t worthwhile. A big reason for this, which the official interviewed admits, is that it’s just too damn hard to track individuals on the internet. Of course, this guy obviously isn’t a government official in the U.S. or UK.

Torrent Freak has coverage of the news, and if you speak French, take a crack at the original interview.

I guess this is just one more reason for me to study in Canada, hm?

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New York Times on Students for Free Culture

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Categories: musings, Tags: , ,

I don’t have enough time to make a post about the concert last night before my next class. My bandwidth also hasn’t been sufficient to get pictures up yet, so that’ll have to wait.

In the meantime, I wanted to throw out an article in the New York Times about students at Brown University getting hit with filesharing lawsuits by the RIAA. It has two great quotes in it. The first is by a Brown student accused of infringing copyright by filesharing:

“People wonder why college students aren’t rallying more around the Iraq war,” Mr. McCune said. “If there were a draft, we probably would be. Students are so quick to fight for this cause because we’re the ones bearing the burden.”

That’s sociologically pretty important, I should think. It’s a very functional thing: hurt students, piss off students. If you piss off the ones from well-educated, wealthy families, you’re going to have to put up with whatever resistance comes of it. I assume the RIAA was thinking that filing suit against rich kids would lead to faster and higher settlements, improving their bottom line on this whole litigation scare tactic they’ve been running for the past 5 or 10 years. It might not be as simple as that, though, as the next quote illustrates:

Cory Doctorow, co-editor of the popular technology blog Boing Boing, said the recording industry lawsuits were not “scaring students away from file-sharing, but scaring them into political consciousness.” Last year, Mr. Doctorow was an adviser to the Students for Free Culture chapter at the University of Southern California while teaching a course on the history of copyright law.

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This is fact.

I must further point out that this article in itself is rather detrimental to the movement of Free Culture as popularized by Lessig, as have been many posts I’ve made myself. The FreeCulture.org community recently voted to change its tagline to “Students for Free Culture,” and I can’t say that I support this decision. My objections are best summed up by Crosbie Fitch’s post on FreeCulture.org’s listserv last week:

I would have thought “Artists for Free Culture” would have been better.

Or even “Free Citizens for Free Culture”

I would suspect that the popular conception of a student is a passive
receptacles for knowledge, only expected to start doing anything
significantly productive/creative until after they’ve ceased being a
student.

The last thing a passive receptacle needs is the freedom to publish copies
or derivatives. People will assume students are just after broader
educational exemptions for using the library photocopier.

So ‘Students for Free Culture’ comes across as if it was “Couch Potatoes for
Free Culture”.

At worst “Students can’t afford much, so we should get the world’s culture
free of charge. Thanks.”

The best light it can be put in is “Typically militant students having the
luxury of being able to agitate against cultural oppression of the masses”

What’s so special about a student?

Emphasis mine, of course. So was the RIAA wise to pick Brown students for lawsuits, or not? They might get settlements, sure, but will that pay off in the end? I honestly think that pissing off well-educated rich kids–and their families–isn’t the best way to maintain a solid revenue stream, but what do I know about business?

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Archiving music, cont.

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In the last post, I focused more on the possible benefits of the site Anywhere.FM than on the legal implications of digital music storage. This needs to be discussed separate from the streaming issues I touched on last time.

There are certainly lots (103,000,00 hits on Google) of digital music storage websites out there. From my cursory research, it seems that most of these sites do offer streaming as a lure to users, but that this feature is almost always provided solely to the owner of the account. This means that the storage service is advertised as a way for the user to have constant access to his or her digital music collection; it does not ostensibly facilitate filesharing, as granting someone access to the files would mean turning over the login and password to the account, essentially giving full control of the data to another party. This of course is not the case with Anywhere.FM, where only read permissions are granted to “guests” who stream from a user’s page. Under no circumstances could such a guest delete, rename, or add files to a user’s account.

It’s often been the mere act of uploading which has incriminated otherwise promising music storage services in the past. The famous MP3.com tried to offer such a service, but was quickly shut down by the major labels, who cried foul at that augury of their failure and frailty. The same man responsible for MP3.com has since bounced back with a new project called MP3Tunes, which offers storage, streaming, syncing with a desktop collection, and even DRM-free tracks for 88 cents a piece.

But even keeping the service confined to one user doesn’t at all make it legal in the eyes of the major labels. Very recently, the head of litigation for Sony BMG was quoted as saying that even ripping a CD to your computer constituted copyright infringement:

Gabriel [lead counsel for the record labels] asked if it was wrong for consumers to make copies of music which they have purchased, even just one copy. Pariser replied, “When an individual makes a copy of a song for himself, I suppose we can say he stole a song.” Making “a copy” of a purchased song is just “a nice way of saying ‘steals just one copy’,” she said.

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This is of course madness, as there’s already a legal precedent delineating a user’s rights to fair use under copyright law. Included among these rights is the right of the user to make unlimited copies of purchased media, provided that the copies are for personal use only. To quote the a statement by the Electronic Frontier Foundation on what is thought to qualify as legal under fair use:

  • Space-shifting or format-shifting – that is, taking content you own in one format and putting it into another format, for personal, non-commercial use. For instance, “ripping” an audio CD (that is, making an MP3-format version of an audio CD that you already own) is considered fair use by many lawyers, based on the 1984 Betamax decision and the 1999 Rio MP3 player decision (RIAA v. Diamond Multimedia, 180 F. 3d 1072, 1079, 9th Circ. 1999.)
  • Making a personal back-up copy of content you own – for instance, burning a copy of an audio CD you own.

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I’ve referenced EFF before the the original wording of the law, because the text of the law was codified on April 15, 1976, I believe, and so is obviously a little outdated. All the same, here’s the fair use clause as it stands within the text of the law:

§ 107. Limitations on exclusive rights: Fair use

Notwithstanding the provisions of sections 106 and 106A, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include —

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.

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Thus it seems pretty freaking clear that digital copies for personal use is legal under present copyright law. Nonetheless, MP3.com’s locker feature never made it. The CEO of MP3.com, Michael Robertson, eventually sold the company and website to Vivendi Universal for around $400 million, netting a cool $100 million for himself. Of course, he practically had to abandoned the site under legal pressure. But as stated above, he’s launched a new project with the same goals, and by this point, he must have the friends to make it happen. I can’t imagine this character could ever again fly under the radar of the major labels.

Poking around on Robertson’s site, I came across a very recent article on his failure to launch another commercial-oriented MP3 distribution site. The name? AnywhereCD. Robertson admits he had misread the industry, and provided a service that no one really wanted–especially considering Apple had just announced DRM-free tracks from EMI. So it failed, but I can’t help but suspect that the Anywhere.FM team had been watching very closely, maybe even learning more from Robertson’s past experiences than he himself had.

I think the most valuable thing they’ve learned is that if you want to change a law, break it. That’s always the first step.

Find out more about The Faceless on MySpace, Last.fm, or Sumerian Records. Tour dates are listed on all three pages.