December 20, 2006
The loony Zune
As everyone gears up for Christmas, expensive gadgets and gizmos are on parade and making demands that you buy them for loved ones. Among these is the new Zune mp3 player, Microsoft's answer to the iPod and apparently quite a rubbish piece of technology:
Chicago Sun-Times: "Yes, Microsoft's new Zune digital music player is just plain dreadful. I've spent a week setting this thing up and using it, and the overall experience is about as pleasant as having an airbag deploy in your face. "Avoid," is my general message. The Zune is a square wheel, a product that's so absurd and so obviously immune to success that it evokes something akin to a sense of pity.
The setup process stands among the very worst experiences I've ever had with digital music players. The installer app failed, and an hour into the ordeal, I found myself asking my office goldfish, "Has it really come to this? Am I really about to manually create and install a .dll file?" But there it was, right on the Zune's tech support page. Is this really what parents want to be doing at 4 a.m. on Christmas morning?"
Posted by matt at 11:10 PM
October 25, 2004
The ethics of music downloading
Ever wondered whether you were committing a moral injustice when illegally downloading or burning off a copy of a song? Well, worry no longer, thanks to the ridiculously complicated flow chart above. I haven't decided whether it helps me with my downloading quandaries or confuses me even further. To try it out, click here.
Posted by matt at 03:53 PM
July 20, 2004
Mergers and Mercurys
The EU has given the go-ahead to let Sony and BMG, two of the world's "Big Five" record labels, to merge. That means that 80% of the world's music sales will be controlled by four companies: Universal, Sony-BMG, EMI, and Warner. Scary? I haven't decided yet. Check out the details here.
Also, the Mercury Music Prize, which judges outstanding albums made by UK or Irish artists in the past year, has just released its nominee list. Click here to find out who's hot.
Posted by matt at 03:17 PM
June 01, 2004
The way the music died
Frontline, the flagship documentary program for the PBS televsion channel, took a critical look at the music industry last week in a program called "The Way the Music Died." You can watch the program on their website if you missed it.
I thought the documentary had a lot of problems (myths, innacuracies, and an unjustifiably pessimistic take on the contemporary music scene), but the website is great and I fully recommend exploring it. It's got loads of links to some of the most interesting music industry journalism over the last few years.
Posted by matt at 05:07 PM
May 10, 2004
Canada: Downloading music is legal
Although this is actually an old piece of news (I first read about it in January), several people have told me they've never heard about it, leading me to wonder whether it might still be news to some of you folks.
Anyway, downloading music in Canada via P2P file-sharing services like Kazaa, Morpheus, and the rest, was deemed perfectly legal as of December 2003. Uploading music through the same services, however, is not. And as I mentioned in an earlier post to this website, some pundits predict that regardless of where governments stand on the issue, music-lovers worldwide will end up losing some of their current rights to use music due to computer manufacturers' new ties to the music industry.
Posted by matt at 03:17 PM
April 30, 2004
Good Riddance To the Music Industry
Gawker.com posted a depressingly classic story about V2, an "indy" record label which is actually owned by Virgin. As background to the story, you need to know that the label signed a band called Pre) Thing, but their album never sold any records. Check out the story below, and then, just when you think you've heard it all, check out the plot twist to Bob Rubenstein's tale here.
Gawker: V2, Virgin's independent record label which puts out The Datsuns, Mercury Rev, and Tom Jones, apparently lost an employee today. Fortunately, Bob Rubenstein, the disgruntled employee in question, fired off one of the best "take this job and shove it" emails we've ever been privileged to see. [We've done some checking around (you know, like "journalists" would) and the word is its all true -- even the part about the seances.]
- - - - - - - - - -
> From: [Bob Rubenstein]
> Sent: Thursday, April 22, 2004 3:44 PM
> Subject: Good Riddance
> Dear everyone,
> I just wanted to drop you a line to let you know that today is my last day at V2. I was let go this morning. All I can say is this is messed up-I was brought into V2 to specifically work on the Pre) Thing record a few months ago. Everything was setting up nicely on the record, radio was reacting, the single "Faded Love" was kicking in at Active Rock, we created this super cool video game that was going to be on the commercial cd, etc. Then, out of the blue, the main guy from Pre) Thing, Rust Epique dies of a massive heart attack and everything goes haywire. Radio started to back off the single and the CD came out 2 weeks ago and got virtually no press. So, today, they let me go! How messed up is that? Wait, before you think this is nuts, let me leave you with this. So, before i got let go, we had our weekly marketing meeting yesterday. They brought in a psychic person and everyone joined hands and did a seance to talk to Rust! I'm not kidding, even if I wasn't fired I wanted to quit on the spot. They were like "how do we get radio to continue to play this song?" and "Rust please talk to press and tell them to write about your record." I mean come on, that's just rock bottom!
> Whatever! Good riddance to the label and the industry. I'm done with all of this.
> Bob Rubenstein
Posted by matt at 02:42 PM
April 01, 2004
Fightback or death-rattle?
The Economist recently published an article about the music industry's recent practice of launching lawsuits against folks who download music illegally, titled "Fightback or death-rattle?" (31 March 2004). I've posted the interesting bits below for your convenience.
The Economist: The recording industry has launched a wave of lawsuits outside America in a bid to curb illegal file-sharing on the internet, which has contributed to a steep decline in music sales. The industry is cutting costs, consolidating and—finally—getting to grips with legal online distribution.
DESPITE a wave of hostile publicity, the 1,500-plus lawsuits launched by the music industry in America since last September seem to have had some success. Final figures for 2003 have yet to be released, but preliminary estimates suggest that the decline that has seen worldwide music sales fall by more than a fifth in the past four years (see chart) was arrested in the second half of last year in America. Heartened by this, the industry’s lawyers launched a second wave of lawsuits—this time in Canada, Denmark, Germany and Italy—on Tuesday March 30th.
None of these actions has done anything to change the public's view of the music industry as one that gouges its customers. One reason that the illegal sharing of music files online is still so widespread is that music-lovers know how little of the price of a compact disc goes on its manufacture, or to the artist. Musicians, too, are becoming fed up. In an interview with BBC radio at the weekend, Simply Red’s Mick Hucknall described recording contracts as an “absolute disgrace” which belonged to “a Dickensian era”. He was particularly annoyed that musicians pay for recordings, but the music companies retain the rights to these. He suggested that this “immoral” system be replaced by a leasing type of arrangement, in which the artist gets control of the music once his relationship with the record label ends. Mr Hucknall has set up his own company and plans to re-record old output and release it in competition with existing recordings. Another pop star, George Michael, has said he will release his songs free on the internet, to remove himself from “all that negativity” surrounding the pressure to produce new records that comes from major labels.
When it comes to the internet, the music companies have, after years of burying their heads in the sand, finally got the message. The industry has at last given its backing to online music stores, such as Apple Computer’s iTunes and Roxio’s Napster 2.0 (not to be confused with the company killed off by the music industry for aiding illegal downloads). Even so, the number of 99-cent tracks sold by these companies remains dwarfed by the free downloads still available using the likes of KaZaA and Grokster. The industry has failed to shut down file-sharing companies whose peer-to-peer software has legitimate applications. However, behind the scenes the big labels are understood to be in talks with these pirates, to see if they can agree on a way to extract payments for songs.
Despite the industry’s official optimism about its legal strategy, it has limitations. Even after lowering the bar to go after those who have shared hundreds of songs—rather than thousands—the big labels have still sued less than 0.1% of illegal file-sharers; the lawsuits have made many of the others think twice before downloading illegal music, but plenty have continued regardless. Moreover, the strategy has created public-relations problems, exacerbating the public view of the industry as rapacious.
Meanwhile, there are signs that the industry is looking at more imaginative ways to arrest the decline in music sales. Universal Music and Sony Music are both working with their stars to remix songs into shorter versions, up to two minutes long, that can be sold through mobile phones. A.T. Kearney, a consultancy, reckons this market could account for almost a third of all music sales by 2006 if it is priced attractively. There’s the rub: songs on handsets are currently being sold for a pricey $4.50 a time in Britain and $3 in Germany. Anyone for illegal ringtones?
Posted by matt at 01:48 PM
January 27, 2004
Revolutionzing the economics of popular culture?
Here's a little excerpt from a column by music critic Barry Ulanov:
"It’s extraordinary that year after year, decade after decade, the beautifully polished machinery of manufactured spontaneous combustion can be set in motion in our popular culture without any protest, or with no more than the most timid and tentative sort of objection. One cannot help wondering about the broader implications of this procedure. If a whole country can be such a pushover for a song and a dance, what does that suggest about that same nation’s political susceptibilities?"
This succintly describes an aspect of the climate of popular music on the radio these days. It also makes what I feel is a solid connection between our apathy about what we're fed on the radio and the apathy of most people to engage in political participation.
Thing is, Ulanov wrote that in 1957. The voice of protest has always been around in popular culture, and it's scary to see how little the arguments have changed over the decades. Makes you wonder whether activists like downhillbattle.org and the groups who preceded them (Ulanov was a big advocate for the economic independence of musicians in the 1950s) have studied the history of previous (failed) attempts to transform the economics of popular culture.
Hey, maybe they have. In fact, I wish them the best of luck. But while the prospect of revolution is always exciting, I'm skeptical about whether it's realistic, or more importantly, whether their vision of completely evading the need for an industry middle man has any possibility of longevity.
Most of all, I'd rather not be reading the same recycled arguments for cultural revolution years down the road.
Posted by matt at 04:15 PM
January 23, 2004
Autotuners: "punk" bands use them all the time
Most of us have heard by now that pop stars like Britney Spears use computers in the recording studio to digitally alter their voices, and hence even if they aren't great singers, every note that escapes their mouths is processed to perfect pitch. But did you know that "autotuners" are also used in live concerts, and not just by the likes of Spears? Everyone from country-rockers like Reba McIntyre to pop-punkers Sum 41 and Good Charlotte use this technology, and it's been around for awhile. Check out this story for the scoop:
Globe and Mail: "Pop stars and punk bands alike are piping their voices through the hardware, which corrects and improves their vocal pitch during concerts and on records. 'It's actually been used on stage for quite a while,' said Marco Alpert, vice-president of marketing at Antares Audio Technologies, a major supplier of autotuners. With musicians on the road touring for weeks on end, the autotuner has become a safety net that catches the occasional clinker on days when their voices may be off. (In a nutshell, the autotuner is told what key the vocal is in and analyzes the wave form in real time. If the singer is off-key, it will adjust the pitch to the closest note in that key.)"
Posted by matt at 05:05 PM
January 20, 2004
Will downloading digital music help or hurt artists and consumers?
The landscape of the digital music world is currently undergoing great changes. And guess what? Things aren't necessarily swinging in the favour of artists or consumers. Only a year ago journalists were making exciting statements like the following:
Neumu: "I know indie bands that now make a living touring — not from record sales. I also know artists who can live modestly releasing albums on their own labels, selling them off the Web, at shows and at record stores. This is the real "present." And in it, artists are proving to be smart and innovative. We are watching as the Big 5 run out into the ocean, chasing the elusive million-plus seller, and soon they'll be dragged to their deaths by the undertow."
But while it onced seemed like the advent of digital downloading technology would eliminate the need for major label middle men, the Big 5 (record labels: Sony, BMG, Warner, Universal, EMI) have smartened up. They're currently in bed with the likes of Microsoft, Hewlett Packard and Apple to usher in legal music downloading. That would be great, but instead of increasing access to music for consumers and royalties for artists, the opposite is occuring. Check out downhillbattle.org for an explanation of why legal downloading isn't really helping artists:
downhillbattle.org: "Apple says iTunes is "better than free" because it's "fair to the artists and record labels." That's simply not true. First of all, Apple gets 3 times as much money as musicians from each sale. Apple takes a 35% cut from every song and every album sold, a huge amount considering how little they have to do. Record labels receive the other 65% of each sale. Of this, major label artists will end up with only 8 to 14 cents per song, depending on their contract. Many of them will never even see this paltry share because they have to pay for producers and recording costs, both of which can be enormous. Until the musician "recoups" these costs, when you buy an iTunes song, the label gives them nothing."
And to see how the new trends in legal downloading (i.e. computer manufacturers' new commitment to digital rights management) will affect consumers, check out Bill Thompson's excellent and frighteningly revealing opinion piece:
BBC: "[Hewlett Packard is] putting digital rights management software in every one of its consumer devices, encrypting any recorded content stored on HP systems so that it can't be transferred to other computers or players. [...] I used to think that our fears over the ways that the entertainment industry were cracking down on file sharing and other copyright violations were unfounded, because the computing companies would refuse to see their products crippled by the need to keep the Recording Industry Association of America happy. I was wrong."
The issues surrounding music downloading are pretty complicated, and I don't necessarily agree with all of the content on the sites mentioned above. I'd welcome any comments you have on the matter.
Posted by matt at 03:44 PM
January 15, 2004
Is the music industry really suffering?
From record labels to retailers, the music industry has complained for years now about how much illegal downloading of songs is hurting their profits. In a report today, however, HMV seems to be doing fine:
"Music and book seller HMV Group has posted a 70% surge in interim profits and says it is on track to meet profit targets for the full-year."
HMV Group has the biggest market share of CD retailers in the UK and Canada, and is steadily gaining ground on the Japanese market. But for some insight into how this affects everday musicians, check out the new article I just posted, entitled "The Rough Guide to Critics". Discussions pertaining to HMV start on page 13 of the article, under the heading.
Posted by matt at 06:10 PM