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Arts & Letters

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Paul Newman, 1925-2008

A class act. Really, what more is there to say?

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Taps: A Vision Of Military Honour

Continuing with the theme of Hollywood and the post-Vietnam rehabilitation of American militarism, it occurred to me that no discussion of the subject would be complete without mentioning what is to my mind the most intelligent, complex and poignant cinematic treatment of military honour ever made: Taps.

Released in the first year of Ronald Reagan's presidency, the movie is perhaps best known for introducing America to both Tom Cruise and Sean Penn. But in addition to providing an early heads up that Tom Cruise is a psychopath, the movie also captured, to an extraordinarily subtle degree, the challenges faced not just by America's military, but by the military ethos in general, in the post-Vietnam era.

George C. Scott, who plays the commanding officer of the fictional military academy, Bunker Hill, sets up the movie's theme when he explains to Timothy Hutton's Cadet Major Moreland that the 150 year-old academy will be closed:

There's a feeling on the outside that schools like this are anachronistic and leaders of men like you and me are dinosaurs... [Y]ou go to the movies, you read books. A military leader is always portrayed as slightly insane. Very often more than slightly. That's because it is insane to cling to honour in a world where honour is held in contempt.

To be sure, the film's pivot plays on the widespread popular animosity towards the military and its institutions that was de rigeur in America at the time: A group of locals harasses the cadets attending the academy's commencement ball. In the ensuing scuffle, one of the locals grabs Scott's pistol and is accidentally killed when it discharges.

But if the death seals Bunker Hill's fate, it is only because it accelerates the decision to close it that has already been reached by the academy's trustees, who are eager to cash in on the campus' real estate value by selling it to a group of condominium developers. That the film situates military honour as under attack from the twin menace of popular anti-militarism and market liberalism loosed from its ethical moorings illustrates the internal contradictions of the Reagan Revolution. Again, George C. Scott:

Their field of honour was a desk top. They didn't consult me. Never hinted at what their plans were. They just papered it and pencilled it and went ahead and did it because that's what the numbers said.

Six years later, the same profit motive -- boosted by credit-fueled prosperity and now sporting silk shirts, suspenders and greased hair -- would be celebrated by Michael Douglas in Oliver Stone's Wall Street. But at the time in 1981, the way forward still left many naturally inclined members of the Reagan coalition doubtful.

When Scott suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma following the local's death, Hutton feels honour-bound to keep the academy from closing. He and the other cadets occupy the grounds, only to find themselves besieged, first by the local police and later by the National Guard. From here on out, the film becomes an Oedipal struggle for the Cadet Major's soul, with Hutton (and post-Vietnam America) offered the choice between three visions of military honour.

The first, already introduced through George C. Scott's character, presents honour as the pre-requisite for glory. But as his address announcing the academy's closing that sets the drama in motion demonstrates, it is a vision of glory inextricably tied to death:

I stand here today with you and look out over these young men and of course I am reminded of other commencement days and other young men, men of courage and conviction, men who have given everything... How, then, can others say this land is for sale? It has been purchased and paid for with the blood of our graduates.

The second, more critical view of honour, comes in the person of Hutton's father, a drill sergeant who is the first envoy sent by the local authorities to convince his son to stand down. The character epitomizes the hard-nosed, leatherneck ethic of the enlisted soldier. For him, honour is a fool's errand that distracts people from the more essential duty of advancing in the face of incoming fire, both literal and symbolic, without getting hit:

Look, Brian, all the men in our family have been soldiers... Plain dogfaces with a knack for surviving. I hoped somebody would break into brass.

More concerned with the nuts-and-bolts operational logistics that decide an army's fate than Hutton's embrace of Scott's vision of honour, the father punctuates their conversation by slapping his son in the face. But if the gesture seems to say, "You'll never be the soldier I was", Hutton seems to embrace the rebuke. As he explains later to the national guard commander played by character actor Ronny Cox:

They want us to be good little boys now so we can fight some war for them in the future. Some war they'll decide on. We'd rather fight our own war right now.

Finally there's Cox, the war-weary and decent officer nonetheless obligated to carry out his orders. In his patient attempts to coax Hutton into calling off the students' rebellion, he offers the movie's moral foil, representing eros to Scott's thanatos. His response when Hutton claims the mantle of soldier offers the movie's corrective to the dangers of couching death in the robes of honour:

A soldier? No, goddammit, I'm a soldier, with the career goal of all soldiers. I wanna stay alive in situations where it ain't easy, but you, my friend, you're a death lover. I know the species. Eighteen years old and some son of a bitch has put you in love with death. Somebody sold you on the idea that dying for a cause is romantic. Well, that is the worst kind of all the kinds of bullshit there is! Dying is only one thing. Bad. Don't find that out. Please.

By defining a miltary credo that marries duty with vigilance and a respect for life, Cox provides the country with the rules of engagement it can feel comfortable embracing in the aftermath of Vietnam's confidence-shaking trauma. Safely in between Scott's glorification of death and the father's trivialization of duty, Cox offers a middle way of resolve without self-delusion.

When one of the children under Hutton's command finally dies, he, too, sees the hollowness of an idealized version of honour bound up in death:

When I knelt next to Charlie, I tried to find some justification. But honour doesn't count for shit when you're looking at a dead little boy. You don't think of the book of remembrance or bugles or flags or 21-gun salutes. All you think about is what a neat little kid he was... and how you're gonna miss him.

In many ways, Taps reflects the jaundiced view of the military ethos common at the time. It very clearly rejects Scott's lofty vision of honour as some ultimate value more urgent than life itself. Similarly, it condemns both the calloused professionalism of the father character as well as the hotheaded bloodlust of Tom Cruise's praetorian guard leader. Besides Cox, the most sympathetic supporting character, Sean Penn, represents loyalty more than duty, but a loyalty that does not exclude clear-sighted criticism and dissent.

But in the end it is Cox's resolute fatalism, accepting the tragedy of a soldier's calling without ever embracing it, that the film presents as a way forward in the moment of national self-examination that followed Vietnam.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   International Relations   

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Friday, February 22, 2008

An Officer And A Gentleman: The Return Of American Militarism

I'd been meaning to write a piece yesterday about what I thought was my very insightful observation that this week's events in Kosovo serve as a sort of bookend for the "liberal hawk" movement that began with the bloody dissolution of Yugoslavia and later passed through Afghanistan and Iraq, with less than stellar results. But Matthew Yglesias already got there in this American Prospect piece.

So instead I'm going to put the "liberal hawk" dynamic into the broader context of the rehabilitation of war as a foreign policy tool in the post-Viet Nam era, a theme which will allow me to trot out for the first time my "An Officer and a Gentleman" theory of American military renewal.

Of course, liberals were the last to sign on to the idea that America could use its military as a positive force in the world, and it took the crisis of conscience of the Yugoslavian tragedy to push them over the edge. The rest of the country had been seduced by the precision missiles and video game graphics of Operation Desert Storm. But it's easy to forget that before American triumphalism (reborn) could reach the sands of Kuwait, it had to pass through the moral vacuum of El Salvador and Nicaragua, the slapstick shores of Granada, and the cocaine-fueled police action in Panama.

The halting and tenuous progression from covert operation to training exercise to limited ground assault over the course of a decade illustrates the degree to which it would have been inconceivable in 1980 -- the year that Ronald Reagan proclaimed Morning in America* -- to deploy the American military (upon which any American resurgence depended) in a grand campaign. Not just because the nation would not have stood for it. The kids just weren't having it. Running against Sex, Drugs & Rock 'n Roll for possession of the cannon fodder generation's soul, the old military virtues of discipline and self-sacrifice weren't polling so high.

Enter Richard Gere, tattooed and shaggy haired, on a motorcycle. Like the bastard child of Easy Rider, he's an outcast and a misfit, only instead of heading out to the counter-cultural frontier with its now-discredited promise of freedom and transcendence, he has turned back for one last chance to come in from the cold: OCS, Officer Candidate School. Upon his arrival, Gere's nemesis, Louis Gossett Jr., summarizes the moral calculus that has brought the candidates and the country to where they now find themselves: while he, Gossett Jr., was serving his country in Vietnam, they were off getting high. Now it's time for penance.

The rest of the movie, down to the theme song performed by a newly rehabbed Joe Cocker (Joe Cocker, for crine out loud), is a brutal rejection of the excesses of the wayward left during the Sixties. Love no longer ushers in the Age of Aquarious. It lifts us up to where eagles -- and not doves -- fly. David Keith's repressed perversion immediately signals him as the film's "hidden threat". And sure enough, it's his ultimate awakening to his "real self" (that Holy Grail of the self-actualized generation) that gives the movie its tragic turn, since it turns out that his "real self" is nowhere near as compelling for the town girl he's been romancing as his officer's bars.

Richard Gere, on the other hand, knows better than to let anything as insignificant as his authentic self (a seething cocktail of self-absorption and inferiority complex) get in the way of accomplishing the task at hand. And the task at hand is to restore the image of the military's patriarchal values, in this case by kicking Louis Gossett Jr.'s ass (actually his balls) in an Oedipal coming-of-age ritual, and by making military dress uniforms look sexy again. By the time he returns to the factory to sweep Debra Winger off her feet and onto the back of his motorcycle, he has embraced the value of the Army's tough love. Whereas the previous generation had let it all hang out, Gere rides off with the girl because he has learned how to suck it up.

A year after the film's release, American forces were braving the dangerous shores of Grenada. The long march that would culminate in the rise of the liberal hawks had begun.

*Thanks to Justin, I stand corrected. (Morning in America was actually Reagan's campaign theme in 1984.) See comments for why I left it in the post.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Foreign Policy   

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Saturday, December 29, 2007

Oscar Peterson

I just learned that Oscar Peterson, the man Duke Ellington called "the Maharaja of the keyboard", died over the holiday. Barry Ritholz has got an informative Friday Evening Jazz obituary, with links, discography and some video embeds. Peterson's playing was unequalled for the sheer volume of its melodic substance, which he achieved with swoops, dives, and cascading falls of note after glistening note. But he also had touch, range, and depth to back up the virtuosity. It's hard to think that Oscar Peterson has run out of notes. There always seemed to be one more ready to splash across the ivories.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Reading In Traffic

My first reaction to the Kindle was the thought that it would eliminate the need for lighting in order to read. Since then I've been struck by how the various pro and con arguments about it really boil down to the difference between an artifact and a text delivery system. Of course, in time, the Kindle might very well become its own artifact in the same way the iPod has. Obviously, it will change the way people relate to the text that's being "delivered". But it will never replace a book, in the same way that an iPod can't replace a CD, and a CD can't replace vinyl, and vinyl couldn't replace live musicians.

The basic progression common to all these phenomena is the increasing independence of place and time, and a reduction in physical interaction with objects. Think of the movement and tactile interaction that went into putting a particular track from a particular record on the turntable, compared to cuing up some music in an mp3 player.

I'm almost certain to never use a Kindle, in the same way that I couldn't imagine listening to music through earphones on an mp3 player. A professional musician I just met put into words what I'd been thinking, namely that he preferred listening to the music of everyday life on the street, to say nothing of the safety issues of cutting oneself off from one's sonic surroundings.

But I still don't think it's valid to argue that the Kindle cheapens the text it displays or diminishes one's experience of it. It just changes both. Here in Paris, for instance, people actually read books while walking down the street. So what's a cheaper reading experience, reading a Kindle in a library, or the book version while navigating rush-hour traffic on a busy street?

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Easy As MP One, Two, Three

Another French internet service provider, Alice, has come out with a free music download formula. For the price of the basic service package, new subscribers will have unlimited access to EMI's catalogue, for their computer and up to three mp3 players. The one wrinkle is that the files come embedded with Microsoft's DRM system, so they're not compatible with either iTunes or iPod. A spokesman for the company added that come 2008, for an extra 10 Euros, subscribers will have access to Sony, Warner and Universal. The offer comes in response to Neuf's recent formula of different levels of access to Universal's catalogue. That deal, which guaranteed Universal exclusivity for six months, will soon open up to other labels.

I'm a bit out of the loop with what's going on in the States, so I don't know if this kind of deal is already standard fare for American ISP's. What's becoming increasingly clear is that the entire landscape of music delivery is changing so rapidly that the early adapter companies will in some ways suffer from their innovative ways, on both ends. Those paying licensing fees to bundle music in their products or services can get locked in to limiting deals. And the majors have to be careful about not giving away the farm to any single licenser. If everyone can download free with an internet account, they have no incentive to pay slightly extra for an mp3 player that comes with pre-licensed catalogue downloads.

The music industry has been suffering (from self-inflicted wounds, in my opinion) for so long that they're in a rush to recoup some cash. But if it doesn't think through how this is all going to play out in the next five years, it will end up with end consumers saturated with offers, and little demand.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Markets & Finance   

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I Can't Hear You, David

Is American music really more segmented that it was twenty years ago, as David Brooks maintains? And is that a reflection of the increasing segmentation of society in general? If that's so, then the segmentation he describes allows for an enormous amount of cross-pollenization. Most of the music I hear these days is the outcome of such a complicated ancestry that it would take ten or twelve hyphens to accurately describe it. That it might have its own name and audience is more a reflection of sophisticated marketing techniques than the music itself, whose audience overlaps the marketing frontiers anyway.

Brooks seems overly concerned by the fact that it's increasingly rare to see any single group develop the kind of overwhelming popularity of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, U2 or Bruce Springsteen. But that's a result of the enormously increased offer, and the evolution in music and pop culture's influence on society. Songs and books no longer change us, like "Hound Dog" and "On The Road" did fifty years ago. They accompany us.

It's also unrealistic to expect music to have the same impact on our lives at the age of forty, fifty and sixty years old as it did when we were teenagers. There are still songs changing kids' lives the way The Beatles changed Steven Van Zandt's forty-odd years ago. We just can't hear them anymore.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Friday, November 2, 2007

Music As Amenity

Ann Althouse calls the Ritz-Carlton's complimentary iPod with 1,000 classic and contemporary music selections a "strange hotel amenity", and wonders:

Who doesn't have their own iPod? Who wants 1,000 songs loaded by the hotel? Maybe if you lost your iPod...

She's right and wrong. It's actually just a clumsy prototype of how recording companies will squeeze some revenue out of their catalogues in the age of free recorded music for the end consumer. Eventually the "one size fits all" complimentary iPod will become a progressive menu. For an imperceptible fee hidden in the basic cost of the room, you'll get the iPod (or equivalent database) loaded with a generic music library. For an extra fee, kind of like the charge for using room service or the wet bar, you'll get a library selected by cutting edge artists and a&r insiders who can no longer find work in the downsized industry. And for a little bit more, you'll get every song ever recorded since Edison.

The hotels (and airlines, car manufacturers, etc.) will pay global licensing fees. The record companies will divide them among artists based on how often the files have been accessed. And the end user will pay nothing. Or at least, that's what it will feel like, because the cost will be included in the price of the service.

Eventually, the same system will be expanded to include heavily branded consumer products (like sneakers, and certain clothing lines), whose price will also include access to corresponding mp3 libraries. The major challenge facing the industry is that in its rush to solve the revenue question, it doesn't create licensing agreements that undercut one another. If you've already got a universal song library included (for a fee) in your mp3 player, you're not going to be interested in paying extra for one in a hotel room. It will probably be trial and error -- like the Ritz-Carlton's complimentary iPod -- for a while. But the industry will ultimately find a standard it's comfortable with.

Oh, and for what it's worth, I don't own an iPod, and couldn't for the life of me imagine being aurally isolated from what's going on around me.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Markets & Finance   

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Hidden Costs

It's become increasingly clear ever since iTunes cornered the market for paid digital music files that, while the arrangement has been a goldmine for Apple, it's done little to change the declining fortunes of the recording industry. There are a few reasons for this, not least of which is the revenue split negotiated by Steve Jobs ("indecent" according to one record company executive). But the fundamental explanation is structural. The iTunes model is simply a digital age version of the traditional method of selling recorded music, where digital files replace mechanical copies. The problem, of course, is that the competition faced by the recording industry isn't more efficient distribution of music, it's free distribution of music.

Which is why the deals they'll be seeking with music distributors will increasingly give the appearance of offering free music by rolling the licensing cost into a service or product. In the case of this arrangement concocted by Universal Music head Doug Morris, access to three major label catalogs representing 75% of the American recorded music market would be included in the price of an mp3 player. In the case of French internet service provider Neuf Telecom, Universal's catalog was bundled into the monthly subscription fee. Airplane entertainment libraries and luxury car mp3 players offer similar opportunities to hide licensing costs in the purchase price, and others will be developed.

So as you read about the advent of free recorded music, keep in mind that you're still paying for what you listen to. You're just not being shown the price tag.

Update: Of course, just after I posted this, I ran across a WaPo article discussing whether and how much an artist is "selling out" if they license their music for commercials. This is a 1990's approach that will soon be obsolete. I wouldn't be surprised if in the not too near future, at least a certain amount of licensing rights will be retained by the record company in the standard recording contract. In other words, the record company itself will have product endorsement deals, and by agreeing to that first contract, newly signed artists will be licensing their music to the label's brand roster. Of course, once an artist becomes successful, they can always re-negotiate. But for the length of that first contract, selling will mean selling out.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Markets & Finance   

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Bait & Switch

That Radiohead record that was going to revolutionize the music industry by allowing fans to download it for whatever they felt like paying? I don't think so. Looks like round one in the Battle Over the Future of Recorded Music goes to Madonna®.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Markets & Finance   

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Friday, October 12, 2007

Memorex Redux

A quick footnote to yesterday's post about Live Nation, the company buying the rights to Madonna®:

Although it is the largest concert promotion company in the world, it lost $161 million in 2005 and 2006, and barely managed to make $10 million profit from $1 billion revenues in the most recent quarter of this year.

Meanwhile, according to leaks about the deal, Madonna's cut of the concert tour take will be 90% of the gross. Frankly, I don't see where the upside is coming from for the folks distributing the music, whether it's record companies or concert promoters. Teenage boys will form rock 'n roll bands for as long as there are groupies crowding the stage (and the dressing room after the show). The $64,000 question is, who's going to record their music?

Update: To answer my own question, they'll record it themselves using the ridiculously inexpensive home recording technology now available. And they'll distribute it themselves using file sharing over the internet. And then when they've gotten enough exposure and buzz (precisely measured by clicks and downloads), they'll sign a deal with a tour promoter, who will expand their distribution capacity. In fact, it looks to me like there's some room there for a savvy online middleman to connect the talent to the re-invented "distribution" outlet. A cross between an online record company and an agent.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Markets & Finance   

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Is It Live Or Is It Memorex?

It's increasingly looking like the future of recorded music is as a marketing tool for selling concert tickets and developing brand identities. The deal reportedly in the works between Madonna and Live Nation is just another step in that direction:

The story was first reported on the Wall Street Journal's Web site, which said Madonna would receive a mix of cash and stock in exchange for allowing Live Nation to distribute three studio albums, promote concert tours, sell merchandise and license her name...

The paper, quoting people briefed on the Live Nation deal, said the package includes a general advance of $17.5 million and advance payments for three albums of $50 to $60 million. (Album advances are generally recouped from sales income.

Live Nation also is expected to pay $50 million in cash and stock for the right to promote Madonna's concert tours.

To give you an idea of how lucrative the concert circuit is, in 2005 the industry totalled $3.1 billion in revenue, and that's not counting the ways in which technology will allow promoters to develop new revenue streams from live performances. Madonna's last three world tours grossed $400 million combined. Add to that merchandising, image endorsements and music licensing (which I'm surprised isn't part of the deal), and you've got a pretty lucrative market, even if the actual sales of mechanical copies will continue to decline.

It's ironic that at the dawn of the recording era, musicians felt threatened by technological advances that allowed mechanical copies to achieve better sound quality. Rightly so, since at the time, any activity that depended on music -- dance classes, theatre performances, nightclubs and private parties -- required live musicians, hence guaranteeing their livelihood. They became enthusiastic only after it became clear that recorded music sales could not only provide a revenue stream (although never a very reliable one due to shady industry practices), it could also serve to spread an artist's reputation. In the intervening years, recording became both an art and an industry in and of itself, distinct if not separate from the artistry of performance.

It would seem as though the industry has come full circle. Recorded music will once again serve primarily to publicize an artist's work, with live performance (complimented by licensing revenue from advertising) providing the livelihood. For artists with an already established stature, it won't really change much other than their accounting methods. What remains to be seen is how it will impact the way in which new artists are discovered and popularized.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Markets & Finance   

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Saturday, October 6, 2007

iTune Rates

Call it one of the unexpected consequences of blogging, but in writing down one's spontaneous thoughts on a wide variety of subjects, one is inevitably confronted from time to time with one's minor inconsistencies that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. (In case it's not immediately obvious, 'one' in this case refers to me.)

How else to explain that a day after recording for posterity the fact that I'm a penny-pinching cheapskate when it comes to buying recorded music, I splurged and dropped five euros for the CD of the gypsy guitarist I mentioned in the same post. It only occurred to me once I'd gotten back home to check out the playlist, at which point I discovered that there were only five songs. Meaning I'd paid a whopping one euro per song, far more than the ten cents I try to stick to.

To make matters worse, the CD was on the whole not only bad, but very bad in a way that is usually only achieved by people who have no business with an instrument in their hands. And this guy is, as I noted, one of the most emotive guitar players I've ever heard. Unfortunately, instead of the gypsy/flamenco ballads he plays in the Metro, four of the five songs on the CD are cheesy Spanish-influenced numbers accompanied by a Casio orchestra. There is one solo guitar track which is good, but hardly reflects the power of his playing.

There's a category of band that can blow the roof off of every place they play but can never quite capture their sound or energy in the studio. Urban Blight, a NYC band from when I was growing up, was one. Soul Asylum, one of the Minneapolis post-punk pioneer outfits, was another. I'm going to file this guy in the same category. I'll keep tossing some change in his jar when I pass by. But I'll be a harder sell for the next CD.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Markets & Finance   

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Friday, October 5, 2007

Paying The Fiddler

I was just reflecting the other day in the Metro how my rule of thumb when buying music is to never pay more than 10¢ per song, which generally limits me to those four CD, hundred song compilations that you find in the supermarket here for about 10 euros. Usually it's a generic, The 100 Greatest Salsa Hits-type number (although as I recall, David Bowie's greatest hits came in under-budget as well), and truth be told, I've never really been disappointed. There's almost always a solid amount of familiar classics, with a bunch of b-side surprises to keep things interesting.

And yet, despite this red line when it comes to price per song of recorded music, I'm perfectly willing to toss a Euro or two into the basket of a subway musician for the pleasure of listening to about 40 seconds worth of live music. (Especially this gypsy guitarist who I pass nearly every day here, whose playing is among the most soulfully emotive I've ever heard.)

Be all that as it may, I'd certainly never pay $9,250 per song, as Jammie Thomas was just ordered to do by a federal jury for engaging in illegal file-sharing. That amounts to $220,000 in total, all in order to set an example of what can happen if you try to dance without paying the fiddler. Thomas, who according to her lawyer lives paycheck to paycheck, faces the possibility of seeing her meager earnings garnished by the recording industry for the rest of her life.

This, of course, is akin to getting sentenced to life in prison for stealing a horse in 1912 (ie. the dawn of the automotive era). Because long before Thomas is through paying, the idea of actually buying recorded music will be obsolete.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Markets & Finance   

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Brush With Greatness

If you're wondering why posting and linking has been light this week, it's because I dropped back down to the little village in Provence where I've lived for the past six years to clear out my apartment and tie up loose ends. It's actually a pretty emotional exercise for me, as it involves combing through mementoes and drifting through memories of a very intense passage in my life: the birth of my son, his early childhood, and the challenge of carving out a place for myself in a village where the only way to make a living is by putting up walls or tearing them down, and where the folks from the village 10 km away "aren't from here". After tomorrow, it's back up to Paris for the next leg of this adventure.

But that's not why I'm writing tonight. Tonight I'm writing because of what I learned over a farewell dinner with a retired English couple here in the village, who I met when I built some custom-made bookcases for them (up the side of a staircase), but who have since become good friends. It turns out she grew up in Liverpool and saw The Quarrymen play The Cavern in 1957. You might have heard of the group's singer and lead guitarist: A couple guys by the name of Lennon and McCartney. Needless to say, I was impressed.

Update: My friend just called to clarify that when she had gone to The Cavern, it was actually to see local Liverpool celebrities, The Merseysippi Jazz Band. The Quarrymen, at that time a "skiffle" group, were just a bunch of kids whose set was included in the price of admission.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Tin Pan Alley

For those of you interested in the rapid evolution of recorded music sales, there's some news out of France that will probably be a harbinger of things to come worldwide. Neuf Telecom, a telephone/internet service provider, has just inked a deal with Universal Music that will essentially include music downloads in the price of internet access.

The deal is based on a multi-layered access model. For twice the price of an ordinary internet account (30 Euros vs. 15 Euros), the user can download an unlimited amount of any single category of Universal's music catalogue (ie. Pop, Rock, Disco/Funk, etc). For another 5 Euros more per month, they get unlimited access to the entire Universal catalogue.

The mp3 files are inscribed with a Digital Rights Management license that needs to be renewed each month. So they're only readable for as long as you keep your Neuf subscription active.

While it's an interesting proposed solution to the problem of how to make money selling recorded music, there are already a number of problems I can identify right off the bat. The mp3 files come in Windows format, making the deal useless for iPod users. Then there's the question of accessing music catalogues besides Universal's. Obviously, no one's going to duplicate internet subscriptions just to download music. Finally, there's the problem of how to make this kind of deal compatible with some of the licensing deals already struck between the music companies and sites like iTunes.

But I'm not sure any of those are anything more than temporary roadblocks. After all, there was a time when Mac and PC word processing files were incompatible. Even the access being limited to a single company's catalogue can easily be turned into a way to "brand" the ISP.

So this seems like a pretty clever approach. It'll be interesting to see how soon before any American ISP's follow suit.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Markets & Finance   

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Max Roach, Immortal

This is truly a great loss, not just for the jazz world, but for music and the arts in general. I try to avoid obituaries, because it gets hard to distinguish who deserves special mention for their lifetime. But Max Roach was such a giant of creativity and achievement that it's hard to let his passing go unnoticed. Just read through the guys he was playing with as a teenager -- Bird and Duke, among others -- and you get a sense of what kind of contribution he made to American music and the arts. The man's career reads like a Who's Who of 20th century music and art.

I was introduced to his music through an album I bought as a teenager of his Quintet with Clifford Brown, and to this day, I don't think I've ever heard anyone else equal the combination of technical virtuosity and musicality that I discovered on that record. Later I had the privilege to hear him perform "Survivors" live with The Alvin Ailey dance company at City Center. His passion was so expansive that it filled the hall.

A giant has passed. 

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

300 Bridges Too Far

The in-flight movies I saw going to and coming from New York: "A Bridge Too Far", which deals concretely with the Second World War, and "300", which deals metaphorically with the Bush administration's effort to re-shape the Middle East by military means. Between them, they demonstrated how Hollywood in particular, and popular culture in general, usually serves a propaganda function during a war, while providing a more critical perspective once the war is actually over.

"A Bridge Too Far", which I saw coming to New York, fits neatly alongside other post-War fictional treatments of WWII, like "Catch-22" or "The Naked and the Dead". While the individual soldiers are portrayed heroically, the military command is rife with politics, careerism and ego. As a result, good soldiers are needlessly sacrificed to carry out a plan doomed to failure. Those who foresee the plan's flaws are either shunted aside or urged not to "rock the boat".

"300", on the other hand, is among the most shockingly militarist American movies I've ever seen. In no uncertain terms, it equates honor with discipline, glory with dying in battle, and leadership with physical dominance and brutality. Freedom (which apparently means the right to serve as cannon-fodder) must be paid for in blood. The danger from without comes at the hands of an androgenous enemy who uses pleasure to first seduce and then enslave his minions. Submitting to him is represented in a not-so-veiled way to sodomy. Those who recognize the "threat" are idealists. Those working to undermine them from within are the "realists". The takeaway from the film is that with time, deaths that seem needless and wasted will come to be seen as heroic and visionary. In other words, whether or not the "Persians" represent Iran and the next war or Iraq and this one, Sparta certainly represents what the neocons would like America to look like.

Supporters of Bush's folly in Iraq often point to the sacrifices this country made to win WWII. And during the war, Hollywood certainly churned out a ton of propaganda films that functioned -- like "300" -- to support the war effort. But even the universal acceptance of that war's noble aims didn't blind people to the shortcomings of the military command, all of which were vigorously lampooned and scathingly attacked once the war was over.

The turnaround was even shorter for the Vietnam War, which is part of what accounts for the common refrain of "Support the troops". But that's only half the equation of what the past sixty-odd years have taught us. Support the troops, yes. But question the generals. And hold the Commander-in-Chief accountable.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Iraq   

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Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Even More Reflections On New York

To follow up on some earlier thoughts, New York has always been a city where new arrivals, lured by the cultural roil of the City, managed to add some new element to it that created something new and unique. Throughout the 20th century, the results have gone on to have a global cultural impact. Whether it was Southern and Mid-Western jazzmen during the Harlem Rennaissance, or the returning GI's and bohemian avante-garde turning post-War Greenwhich Village into a beat paradise, what shook New York went on to shake the World: Swing, Be-Bop, Post-Bop, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art.

While I was busy developing the proposition that my generation represented a break with that tradition, I realized that in fact we are perfectly consistant with it. Because if on first glance hip hop, rap, graffiti and breakdancing all seem like indigenous New York art forms, they actually represent the demographic shift in immigration to New York during the Seventies and Eighties. 

So while professionals and the middle class might have been fleeing to the suburbs during New York's dark days, a steady tide of Caribbean immigrants began to arrive. Anyone familiar with hip hop's roots will know about Kool Herc, a Jamican sound system DJ, and his formative influence on the early DJ culture. Likewise, many of the early graffiti writers and breakdancers were Puerto Rican or Dominican.

I'm not sure if the tension I recall from the mid-Eighties between "native" New Yorkers and the newly arrived existed during the previous immigration waves. And by that, I don't mean the kind of racism that greeted 19th century immigrants. In the Eighties, there was a palpable resentment towards the new wave of Reagan-era Yuppies that had less to do with race (unless it was reverse racism against their extreme "whiteness"), and more to do with class.

More significantly from the point of view of culture, the demographics had again shifted. Instead of attracting the starving artists and desperate refugees who create culture, New York began attracting an affluent class that consumes culture. And that trend has only accelerated in the post-Giuliani era, where New York has for all intents and purposes adopted a third-world colonial profile: wealthy non-native elites who inhabit the center, with an indigenous servant class (cashiers, drivers, cleaners, etc.) that commutes from the periphery. And while the elites might be multi-ethnic in appearance, they share an identical "dominant" mainstream culture of globalized consumerism.

The result is a stifling sense of conformity, which in the New York I grew up in was the mark of insignificance. It's no coincidence that the worst of all possible transgressions among early rappers was to "bite" someone else's style. Uniqueness was valued above all else, and even if rap quickly became brand-conscious, the emphasis was still on appropriating elements into an individual statement, not copying a style.

There are still individuals who stand out for one reason or another, but I've yet to see anyone who struck me as representing a distinctly "New York" style. Which makes me wonder what cultural innovation will result from the blend of New York's current indigenous generation and its new arrivals. What will the next New York School send out into the world? Or has the globalized consumer economy and YouTube rendered that model of distinct poles of culture obsolete?

Questions that only time can answer. 

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Planet Prince

I mentioned yesterday that I spent a good part of this past weekend discussing the current state of the music and recording industry with a friend who's been responsible for signing and producing many of the last decade's most prominent French recording artists. When talking about the changes taking place, he referred to Prince as someone who "got it" very early on.

While many people had written him off because his album sales had suffered badly over the past decade, my friend explained that in fact Prince was busy figuring out exactly how to adapt to the new ways music would be diffused and consumed. As an example, he mentioned that in advance of a two-month stint of London performances, Prince would be including free copies of his new CD, Planet Earth, in the British tabloid, The Mail On Sunday. Here's how Prince responded to the outcry from music retailers:

"It's direct marketing and I don't have to be in the speculation business of the record industry which is going through a lot of tumultuous times right now," he said when asked why he was giving his music away.

A spokesman for the singer told The Mail on Sunday: "Prince's only aim is to get music direct to those who want to hear it."

That's only half true, though. Yes, actual mechanical copies of recorded music will soon serve only as promotional devices. But the publicity they generate will be used to generate income through publishing rights and licensing fees. Companies willing to pay to use a song to create a brand or product identity will eventually subsidize the bulk of the cost of recording and diffusing recorded music.

In other words, selling out will simply become selling. And we will pay for recorded music through the products it inspires us to buy.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   Markets & Finance   

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Everything Goes Black

I don't really have a dog in this fight, since the last time I saw an episode of the Sopranos was back in 2000, before I left the States. But according to this post at The New York Nerd, whether you liked it as a concept or not, the whole "nothing got resolved" angle doesn't stand up to obsessive fan scrutiny. Apparently, Tony got whacked.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Saturday, March 31, 2007

The American Pastime

The LA Times has got an op-ed piece on a book coming out tomorrow called Baseball Haiku. Which seems so obvious, once you think about it. I mean, most guys calling a ballgame actually speak in haikus. ("Two out, one man on,/Ninth inning, one-run ballgame./The stretch, the pitch, it's...") It's an artform that's tailor made for the sport, kind of like rap and basketball.

Anyway, they give a bunch of excerpts, including the first baseball haiku ever written, by the inventor of modern Japanese haiku (and "mad-for-the-game left-handed prep school catcher"), Masaoka Shiki, back in 1890. (That's eighteen-ninety.):

spring breeze
this grassy field makes me
want to play catch

Here's one I came up with on the fly:

lazy beads of sweat
the autumn sun hanging low
time for one more cut

Any amateur poets and baseball fans who want to take a stab at one, leave it in the comments. I'll send a copy of the book to the best one. (Wackipedia definition of a haiku here.)

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Lil Jon Has Not Left The Building

I'm not sure if there's anything new here. A rapper enjoys some success, and quickly branches out into endorsements and product placement to maximize "auxiliary income". The massive deflation of what qualifies as famous, coupled with the expansion of blanket marketing in general, makes for ubiquitous semi-celebrities hawking everything from perfume to video games to ring tones (a $5 billion market).

Still, it seems like a leap to claim, as does Lil Jon the King of Crunk (wtf?), that, "Once you get popular, you have a brand... You have to market that brand." Not that there wouldn't be something ironic about contemporary rap artists actually becoming brands, given how much the music's early iconography owed to brand consciousness. I'm just not so sure how much that's actually happening.

Certainly in rap as in basketball, the balance of power has shifted between the star and the product manufacturer. Whereas before Adidas or Nike or Converse had a lineup of NBA stars who got a shoe designed and named after them, now certain players or rappers have a lineup of products that represent different facets of their salable image.

But the difference between a brand and a fad, or even a brand and a businessman, is kind of like the famous Potter Stewart definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. Shaq is a brand. 'Melo? Please. Sean Coombs? Arguable, but I'll give it to you. Jay-Z? Sorry.

But it still begs the question, What's new here? Long before there was MTV Cribs, people were lining up to tour Graceland. Twenty years after his death, Elvis the King of Rock 'n Roll is still a brand. Lil Jon the King of Crunk? Nah, I don't think so.

Posted by Judah in:  Markets & Finance   Arts & Letters   

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Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard, philosopher and sociologist, pillar of the deconstructionist movement, has died at the age of 77. From Le Monde:

A product of the events of May 1968, this internationally renowned thinker elaborated, over the course of forty years, a radical critique of the media, bathed in humour and irony.

His philosophy, based on a critique of traditional scientific thought, rested on the concept of the visible world as virtual construct. (Translated from the French.)

I suppose what makes death so real is that it's not visible.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Virtuosity, Yes. But Whose?

I'm a little late catching up to this one, I know, but it's a pretty fascinating story of musical plagiarism and fraud. Unlike some of the more comical examples of critics being conned by artists or their own pretensions (award-winning paintings discovered hanging upside down, for instance), the recordings in this case apparently deserved all the praise they got. They just weren't recorded by the person who took credit for them. Give it a read. It's worth it.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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Friday, February 23, 2007

Chauncey Photographer

Modern art, or perhaps more precisely, modern artists, make a pretty easy target. Especially in the post-Warhol era, when so much of what seems to make an artist important is the degree of unabashed self-promotion that goes into their work. So I'm willing to take it with a grain of salt, but still, it was satisfying to see the New Statesman give Gilbert & George, whose work always made me think of the Peter Sellers character from "Being There", a serious smackdown.

If you really have to build a career out of photographing yourself, at least make it entertaining, like Cindy Sherman, or even annoying, like Nan Goldin. But just plain old boring? Blech.

Posted by Judah in:  Arts & Letters   

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