The market for personality (down with rock stars)
May 28, 2009, 6:18 pm
Filed under: Media | Tags: , ,

Well, as it sometimes does, life (actually homework) got in the way of posting this past week. But now that my layout assignment is finished, let’s pick it up again.

The last posting on TheNew20 was (partly) about distributing music free over the internet with the expressed intent of making it easy to download, redistribute, reuse and remix. In the comments section, Ian (who writes some pretty interesting stuff on Facebook if you can get ahold of it) posited that the such distribution would result in the anonymization of the artist, and that this would homogenize music and generally lower the quality of the musical experience for the average consumer.

To this I say “Nay, my friend! Your point is well taken, but consider this:”

The identity or character of the artist is, of course, extremely relevant in a music culture that has become inseparably linked with celebrity culture. A big part of the way that the average person consumes music right now is by reading or hearing about the life and personality of the artist in magazines or on television.

I would argue that it is actually this that leads to the homogenization of music and that by anonymizing music, we might actually improve it.

When the focus is put on the artist rather than the work, the work stops being the element of the performance that differentiates that performance from others. In pop music, being different usually doesn’t sell records, following formulae – i.e., meeting the exact expectations of an audience – does. This is, of course, why everything on the radio starts to sound the same after a while.

What provides differentiation – and hence, the competitive leverage that an artist needs to sustain a career – is the character that the artist plays in their videos and in their interviews and their magazine covers (and, even more recently, on their MySpace pages and Twitter feeds). Even if an artist’s music is essentially indistinguishable from others’, the personality they project makes them a distinct product and, hence, a valid and salient choice in a sea of other  consumables.

So a system where everyone sounds the same as everyone else – a system that should be doomed to collapse – becomes sustainable because it is propped up by the market for personality.

On the other hand, movements that have not embraced this system have tended to foster more innovation. Jazz and blues, for example, tend to rely on standards and commonly-used chord progressions that are shared and passed around with little regard for who the original composer was – if anyone even knows. Likewise, early hip-hop was all about the common pool of verse.

These genres arguably represent the greatest leaps forward in musical evolution in modern history, a jump that hasn’t yet been equaled (in fact, you could easily argue that most developments in contemporary music are just examples of people finding different ways to adapt these early forms).

So what was different between then and now?

Well, rather than being isolated by legal copyrights and the assumption that an artist – rather than an audience or community – own a given work, early examples of pop music were free to be passed around and tinkered with. Under this model, music is a shared experience that allows for many different people to contribute to a work, not just the person who “owns” it. Collaboration, not isolation, is the recipe for innovation – you know what they say about two heads being better than one.

That means that, somewhat contrary to common perception, anonymizing the artist and dismantling the personality market might actually be a good thing, a move that will foster musical innovation and improve, rather than diminish, the musical experience.

So Down with Rock Stars!! Bring on the mash-ups and remixes. And stop telling me who Fergie spends her weekends with.

BTW, if you’re interested in good (and often hilarious) mash-ups and remixes, I recommend the podcast Radio Free Hipster. Good stuff all around.


The Interesting Case of The Slip
May 19, 2009, 4:41 pm
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A couple of weeks ago, I went on a Nine Inch Nails bender and listened to nothing but NIN for about 10 days straight (it was largely thanks to this trailer for Terminator: Salvation, which is one of the better movie trailers I’ve seen in quite some time). Invariably, I wound up returning to NIN’s 2008 album The Slip. And I got to thinking how brilliant it is.

It’s not brilliant in terms of the music – personally, I much prefer The Fragile. But it is brilliant in terms of how well it embraces digital music distribution.

For one, it is distributed for free online under a creative commons license, which means that not only can anyone interested get a copy at no cost, they can do whatever they want with it – copy it, redistribute, use it in a podcast, remix it, sample it, WHATEVER.*

One problem I think some content producers have with internet distribution is that once you release something in the ether of the interwebs, you pretty much give up all control over it. You can’t stop someone from messing around with it and you can never, ever delete it. For people who still think that their content belongs to them once it’s been released to an audience, this is scary. NIN obviously has no trouble with it, which is nice to see.

Another neat thing about The Slip is how well it incorporates visual media into the digital release. If you’re listening to it on an iPod Touch, for example, each song is displayed with its own cover art and if you tap to click over to the alternate screen, you get an alternate piece of artwork with the lyrics superimposed over-top.

I think this was the first time I’d seen an album that so cohesively incorporates visual elements into the album experience and does so with such a sharp eye to the way that the album will be experienced through hand-held digital players (if anyone has examples of others, I’m interested to hear about them).

To me, this album represents a moment analagous to when learners of new languages go from composing in their maternal language and translating to the acquired one to thinking and composing entirely in the new language.

Up to now (or, I guess, May 2008 when The Slip came out), the approach to media on the internet seemed to be to put stuff online, but to continue to try to apply and enforce the old rules of distribution (e.g., by controlling redistribution based on copyright). As the RIAA can probably tell you, that wasn’t a huge success. The Slip is an example of someone fully embracing new media – or, if you will, finally thinking in the new language of digital distribution.

It’s a pretty neat development and I hope it continues.

*As noted in this review

Protesting is making it worse
May 14, 2009, 9:39 pm
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I’ve never been a fan of the public demonstration as a medium. Very few people who organize them seem to really know how to use them effectively. There are rare examples of public demonstrations that have resulted in real social change – most, though, tend to be more alienating than inspiring.

The recent protests by members of Toronto’s Tamil community are seriously running the risk of falling into the former category. Despite the evidence suggesting that these protests may be accomplishing their short-term goals (Canadian politicians are finally starting to discuss the situation in public forums), you have to wonder if they’re going to make any contribution to the peaceful, long-term resolution of the conflict in Sri Lanka or if they’re simply going to cause frustration and resentment among the people of Toronto and Canadians generally.

Here’s why.

The prevailing concern in a protest such as the ones in Toronto is getting attention. Their purpose is to get as many people as possible to hear a particular message, thus giving the message maximum impact.

The problem is that for all protesters’ skill in getting people to pay attention to them, a huge number seem completely clueless when it comes to the articulation of their actual position.

There seems to be a common assumption among protesters – including the ones in Toronto – that the truth of one’s position will speak for itself, if only you can shout it loudly enough. But the truth never speaks for itself, no matter how loud it is. “Truth” has to be sold, and there are ways to sell an audience on a position that are effective and there are ways that are not. The most effective ways involve making clear, cogent statements, taking into account the particular qualities of an audience that would likely lead them to accept or reject a given position.

Far from being clear or cogent, however, protests tend to boil down sophisticated positions about murky political situations into catchy slogans and hand-scrawled signs, both typically fewer than 10 words long (see slide #6 on this page for examples of the kinds of slogans being used in the Toronto protests). Without the application of considerable amounts of care and skill, protests almost inherently reduce complex messages to absurd oversimplifications, which are rarely all that convincing.

Many demonstrators attempt to compensate for this deficiency in their medium by using powerful, attention-grabbing language and imagery. The Toronto Tamil protests, for example, have thrown about willy-nilly comparisons to the Holocaust and the Rwandan disaster of the mid-90s, as well as that international button word, Genocide.

Unfortunately, concrete information to justify these analogies is not easy to come by at a protest (or, as I’ve found, even if someone does a bit of independant research at home). It may be that the comparisons are reasonable but without essential, contextualizing information, phrases such as “Canada aid pays for genocide” come off as meaningless hyperbole.

The result of all of these rhetorical missteps is that the protest’s message becomes reduced to a series of trite and easily ignorable sound bites that leave its audience more annoyed by the inconvenience the protest has caused than moved by its message. If a message isn’t compelling, people just don’t listen, no matter how loudly you are shouting it at them. Then they tend to get annoyed that you are shouting at them. And your communication strategy falls flat.

It’s likely, then, that the Toronto protests have done nothing to advance the Tamil cause in the long run. Even where official acknowledgment of the disaster suggests that the protest’s message is getting across, reception of the message remains mixed. Dalton McGuinty provides an example of this when he reminds us of the world’s responsibility to end violence and strife, but adds that “there’s a right way and a wrong way to protest” .

A very unscientific study of the interwebs* suggests that this mixed opinion is shared by many other Canadians, who are still very concerned about the tactics used by the protesters and the importing of Sri Lankan politics to Canada, even if some are starting to acknowledge that the violence in Sri Lanka has got to stop.

So have the protests contributed to an imminent ceasefire in Sri Lanka? It’s possible. And let us all hope so.
But have they garnered support for an independant Tamil state or changed the perception of the LTTE? Not likely.

In the end, it looks like these protests have been more successful in alienating Torontonians than in gaining large amounts of sustained sympathy and support. And these are two things that Sri Lankan Tamils desperately need if they are going to be party to a peaceful resolution of the conflict and not just the losing side in a bloody civil war.

*i.e., a quick survey of newspaper comment boards and Facebook groups which reveals very little support in Canada for the LTTE – the idea that the ethnic tensions should be left out of Canada is still a very prominent theme on message boards, and Facebook groups in support of the LTTE are few and sparsely populated. In fact, as I write this, I’ve just been invited to join one called “STOP THE TAMIL PROTEST IN TORONTO” –

May 14, 2009, 2:04 am
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This blog is about exactly what the subtitle says it’s about – life and the media. Every aspect of life – your career, your values, your political views, your free time, even your circle of friends – are all constructed by various communications media from TV to movies to the internet. By understanding these things we understand ourselves.

Now of course, trying to fully understand the nature of life and society is a little ambitious for a blog. But talking about language, comics, film, music, writing, and the interwebz is endlessly entertaining, and even occasionally enlightening. So that’s what we’re going to do.

My name is Ian and I’m a twenty-something living in Toronto. I have a day job in marketing and I’m slowly working on building a freelance writing career and getting published as a fiction writer. I’ve been a cartoonist (and read comics incessantly) and a musician/song writer and I think way too much about movies and the media. All of these experiences are where I’ll be getting the source material for this blog. That and living in Toronto. Toronto’s an interesting place, I don’t mind telling you.

So there you go – consider yourself oriented. Welcome aboard, it should be a good ride – either way, off we go.