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Spotify: The new/old musical counter-revolution

I got two packages in the mail - a vinyl record and a compact disc. All on the day that Australian music lovers would point their fingers and laugh at my stubborn luddism. Hadn't I heard? Spotify had finally launched Down Under! I could now stream any song I wanted from a pool of over sixteen million tracks filled by virtually all the major labels and independents, sailing across it with a totally "new" musical model.

As many pundits would have you believe the Spotify "revolution" isn't one at all - it's not the Red Army storming the Winter Palace and declaring peace, bread and land for the people. It's akin to a bound and gagged family Romanov inexplicably sprouting laser turrets from their heads. Envigorated, they'd command the ghosts of Cossacks to rise from their graves and mercilessly hound Trotsky and his troops back toward the Ukraine. Spotify is a musical counter-revolution aiming to quash the orgiastic "free" producer/consumer-led music rebellion once and for all.

It’s so deliciously evil it beats life back into Monty Burns’ desiccated heart and has him whistling Dixie and calling Mater. (Ahoy-hoy?) Here’s why.

The digital arms race
Ever since the dawn of recorded music, the industry at large kept its eye on one prize. That is, controlling the content, the media and its distribution.[1] When gramophone records first appeared it wasn’t uncommon to see music on vinyl sold via totally vertical integration: ownership from top to bottom from producer of the content to the point of purchase by the consumer. (Case and point: HMV or “His Master’s Voice.”) The Compact Disc was a shift toward higher-fidelity media and lower overall manufacturing costs per unit.

The CD was jointly developed by Sony and Philips in the late-70s. CDs as a format gained consumer acceptance in the late-80s when an economy of scale was established. Together, Sony and Philips paid for the research & development, marketing and manufacturing of both Compact Discs and the machines that would play them. Like all good R&D, they could on-license the technology to other companies. It’s a no brainer – Sony and Philips were (and still are, to some extent!) multinational music labels possessing vast back catalogues and new talent primed for polymer pressing, proving positively pilfer-proof (until the late 1990s, as we all know.)

But what to do! In the yawning sunrise of 2000 AD, the medium of playback and distribution went spectacularly rogue. A stylized cat harvested innards of beige boxes, enabled by squeaky telephone wires. The pirates, once thought of as guerillas with nothing better to do than trade tapes around and occasionally burn a CD for a few bucks a pop were now legion, moving torrents (oh I love this water analogy) of (almost!) intangible data across networks without proper authorization from intellectual property holders. The content was there, like it had been since Tin Pan Alley and even centuries before 'round the campfire. Yet the stranglehold on media and distribution methods slipped the grasp of the industry virtually overnight. It felt like no amount of speech impeded Danes with expensive lawyers could ever halt their revolutionary advance.

Commodification ala mode and a cup of tea
So what now? Do record companies under the aegis of RIAA and their cronies hunt down pirates and strong-arm them back toward their sanctioned tripartite model of music consumption? Or do they spend more money than they’re prepared to on R&D creating a new medium and a new distribution method?

The iTunes model seemed “revolutionary” at the time – you know, telling people to pay for something they could get illegally for free – lest the counter-revolutionary martinets bound in and lay down the(ir) law. It was a step forward from CDs, sure. Slapping all DRM in the world on to files still meant people "got" something.  “Our content was never yours to begin with and now we’re keeping it,” they bellowed.

And lo, Spotify and its ilk emerged.

Record companies own the content. That's a given. The clever rub lies thus: remove the medium and utilize an established distribution network, which in its present broadband form has existed about fifteen years. Spotify etc. seek to change the concept or perception of content ownership back to an near pre-technological state much like in the age of travelling band shows of yore. Yes, you may hear the music but you can no longer hold it in your hands.

By removing the physical or even the illusion of physicality (files on a hard drive), the medium and the distribution is in a state of simultaneous allness and nothingness; it’s always “on” yet you can never “have” the music. It's "your" song when you choose it - like out of a jukebox - but once the last note decays, so is your claim over it (not that you really had one in the first place). You can “search” the (not your) collection but it’s never “yours” – they’re the gatekeepers and you pay for them to lower the drawbridge. Once inside their opaque vaults, they're able track your playing habits to sell you more of what you already want. Then you're their billboard as they publish every guilty play of Pat Benatar to your friends on Facebook. It’s like the IKEA of promotion – IKEA keep their prices low because they outsource the construction of the product to you. Now Spotify have got you to do their marketing for them, too.

If budding content producers are paid a pitiful commission, more so the better in the eyes of the industry. By melding (or abnegating) the medium, they’ve lowered the price of music and also its value. If Spotify spends the same amount of money paying for the rights to the new Gotye record (quelle horreur) and the entire back catalogue of Darkthrone, per se, then what is the differential of worth between the two? There is none. The only savvy trick the labels can pull is restricting the “supply” of Gotye (or someone just as horrible and popular) but that would distort the market and their profit margins (in this new medium-lite model). Make everything on offer the same (pre-paid) price per click, throw in some ads and the money rolls in regardless. Not much for those who wish to furnish Spotify with music, but big payoffs for those who control mammoth oceans - not paper cups full - of content.

But what really fucking burns my potatoes is that Spotify is the closest thing we have to the real pop music experience. Richard Meltzer in his inquiry/parody of the Aesthetics of Rock posited that rock and pop music is the act of making the mundane interesting and exciting. Shit, if you can make money off it, more so the better.

Spotify is accessible on a desktop computer which you more than likely stare into each day to earn those dollars to pay for, well, Spotify. For the fraction of a second your consciousness wanders toward the sublime tongue of rock and pop in all its tinned ferocity on your shitty laptop speakers, the music industry suits have not only breathed a sigh of relief, their tar-stained cackles can be heard from a blue million miles...

Like I said, it’s pure evil fucking genius.

1: Jones, S. Rock Formation: Music, Technology and Mass Communication, Sage Publications: Newbury Park, CA, 1992 p. 185.


The three hour layover on the way to digital journalism

Attending the A.N. Smith lecture in Journalism at Melbourne University last night, Fairfax Media Chief executive and General Manager Greg Hywood outlined the digital media strategy for Fairfax in a "post-classified ad" revenue present and of course, future. Apart from the oh-so humble reminders that the Age and Sydney Morning Herald embraced the internet long before their competitors, his subtle investor pitch demonstrating the media convergence that Fairfax employs to derive its revenue was finally indicative of a media ecological approach to journalism and content communication across a mass yet still fragmented (in terms of point of access) audience. Print in the morning, smartphones on the go and accessing the web during the day, etc.

Mr. Hywood made a salient point in terms of devising a business model to ensure not only survival, but growth in quality journalism and content creation. Leaving the privileged curatorship vs. citizen engagement debate aside; he struck at the core of the problem for lumbering giants resistant to changes in their once robust classified ad "rivers of gold." The journalism, he said, was a solution to the fundamental problem of people trying to "make sense of the world around them." The media can no longer sit idle and react to changes in the consumption of their products, they must now find "solutions" in the skein of Postman and the Media Ecologists.

For example, Neil Postman only months prior to his passing remarked in a lecture that an airline wished to spend a substantial sum to improve the speed of their aeroplanes. Researchers found that they could cut at least three hours from the Los Angeles to New York trip utilizing new engine technologies. But then engineers wondered; what did passengers do with their three hour surplus of time?

Go back to their hotels and watch television.

Thus money was saved by installing televisions into the backs of their seats - the solution was much more ingenious than attempting to appeal to the abstraction of "progress." Just like News Ltd. recognizing that the medium in the afternoon was in fact the train platform and bus and tailored its message accordingly in the form of free, portable and "light" newspapers that can be read while waiting to arrive at one's destination.

Just because journalism can be uploaded and broadcast to smartphones and tablets doesn't mean it always, in every case should; if the problem is not knowing when or where rock gigs are and the solution is a weekly street press to guide you, why force change when it isn't required? Perhaps pondering this question will write the next chapter of journalism; whether in print or online or something unheard of.


Where's Our Google, Too?

I felt compelled to add my opinion to the billion-strong chorus of ill-baked and half-formed critiques and hagiographies of Google+ on the basis none of them seemed to catch on to some fundamental facets of media ecology. Media ecology put simply is the study of media as an environment and was pioneered by Marshall McLuhan, Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul and many others. In honor of ABC Radio National's week-long celebration of the life and work of Marshall McLuhan, I present my simple media ecological analysis of Google+ and why I don't feel it'll take off to Facebook proportions.

1. Because it's Google+, not Google 2: Electric Googleoo

The mantra of media ecology, especially that of the late great Neil Postman is that new media is not additive but transformative. You don't get a culture plus television, you get a completely new way of disseminating and interpreting information. 20 years ago, not everyone needed a computer. But in 2011 you go into someone's home, chances are you'll see a computer in residence with a connection to the internet. Computers hooked up to the internet are a material change to our culture that results in a behavioral change. Go to any restaurant and see the new table adornments: black rectangles that go "ping" when your date is talking about new boots or football or whatever.

Google+ only works on the premise that it will make a material or behavioral change to your life somehow. If you intend to own a Chromebook, then yes - Google+ makes total sense. Using Chromium OS, Google+ fits right in to the entire purpose of the operating system and the computer; making it a purely web-based machine and experience.

If you don't own one nor do you intend to own one, it has to offer something drastically new and something substantially more cooler than Facebook to kick the Facebook habit.

2. The people who give a shit about it give a shit already

I've noticed no one is pestering me for invites any more - partly because they don't like me and mostly because those who already want it, have it and those who don't give a shit...well, don't give a shit. Google+ has almost already hit a critical mass of people who give a shit about it and now that anyone can send an invite the give a shit factor has taken a nosedive. Those who do give a shit evangelize about it as the Facebook killer but inevitably hit the obvious roadblock:

"So what's it like?" asks the incredulous bystander. "It's like bringing all your friends together, but you can follow other people you think are cool and you put them into circles and it's AWESOME," replies the Google+ zealot.

"So it's like Facebook."

"Yes, but better."

But is it better? Faster? Harder? Stronger? In what way? Pick any one of the preceding and it's especially difficult to evaluate if that's even true or not. But there is one way, which I'll explain later.

3. Pitching something to everyone means you need to make a habit out of it

Facebook was revered by university students because it couched them in a sort of electronic elitism - don't go to uni? Well fuck you, you can't use Facebook. Before long it was available to high school students, technical colleges and eventually everyone. Then it opened itself up to the internet and segued into the background of the web experience, not as the go-to site of the minute. It became a habit.

G+ seems to work on the premise that it's ridiculously simple enough for the web-only Chromium set but also powerful and malleable enough for the media "gurus" and code monkeys. Where does it leave the people in the middle? Killing e-cows with their mafia goons on Facebook. It's difficult to change a habitual behavior and the reason has to be compelling for those to change. Facebook wasn't built on a new premise, but its advantage over MySpace? It successfully broke down an ingrained habit (for some) and facilitated other people to form new ones.

Your friend posts a photo of what they're eating, every day? It's the online equivalent of twirling one's hair or tapping one's foot, mostly unconsciously. (How can you spend 2 hours on that fucking thing without realizing, I mean, seriously.) Perhaps we all need an e-Gestalt therapist to ask us "Vat is the sik-niff-ee-kunss of zat what you are doing zere?"

Can Google+ achieve the same thing? I doubt it - at this stage. To get to Facebook or even Twitter status, it has to be come a lasting and integral part of our everyday experience. Right now it's like "Oh yeah, shit, I have Google+. I should post this blog post about Google+ on it, right now!"

Even those who signed up for Facebook and didn't make a habit out of it would probably log in and find their notifications area awash with red. If there's no sustained buzz, I suppose we can wave it away.


Your Own Private Wikileaks

In October 2010, Facebook made available a downloadable zipped archive of your "sensitive information" to any user that wishes to access it. You make a query to the server to prepare your folder and it's available for download within hours. When I finally opened it, I was shocked at what I found.

At 33MB long, it contained all my profile information - past and present - likes, dislikes, comments, posts, photos and videos. Everything I had ever typed into a white field with a blue button marked "Comment" underneath. Interestingly, one can mark the dates of occasions, when significant people entered (and departed) one's life and retrace the origin and evolution of shitty internet memes.

That's all great, but what happens when it gets into the wrong hands?

The package is so convenient, any user that can at least "use" Facebook is able to navigate through it. It's akin to IRC or MSN Messenger chatlogs in that everything written is timestamped and all the links are clickable right from within the (very very) long homepage. If some kind of savvy private investigator or kid with a keylogger nabs your password they can access your complete Facebook record. They'd also need access to your email; but to be honest what kind of stretch is that from getting one's Facebook password? As great the trip down memory lane is, the more chilling it gets as you realize who else might be looking at this information - those we have "authorized" to or not.

Of course, all of this is used to aggregate "targeted ads" with parts of it sold to private corporations. I can't exactly criticize them for their advertising function since I have used it myself. But then again, I've never been privy to the exact information it uses.

Like the tagline of the Social Network suggests, you don't make 500 million friends without making a few enemies and your company most certainly doesn't get a market valuation of $50 billion without selling something. Of course, information is as much of an asset as an abstract financial instrument (like a derivative security - it is essentially ephemeral and may become worthless over time as the market shifts); Facebook will need to figure out new ways of goading new information out of you to keep its targeted advertising relevant. Newspapers and other marketers had to "guess" where trends were heading and who their target demographic was - now the verisimilitude of information that marketers possess to attract potential buyers is phenomenally heightened by Facebook.

So what can people theoretically do with your entire "wall" page, photos and videos? Well, who knows? Assuming you posted whatever you posted for a decent enough reason, you ought to have nothing to fear. Take some comfort if you plan to run for public office; perhaps in the future a "semi-nude Facebook photo" will become the new "I smoked pot but didn't inhale."


Returning to a Fold

Last week, I pledged to take a break from Facebook and Twitter. I've mentioned previously that Facebook was almost "unavoidable" due to my running of advertising on behalf of a company I work for. But overall, I feel that my social media "embargo" was a liberating experience.

I saw The Social Network with Steph last week and we discussed whether Facebook is popular because it has a purpose or rather, people discover uses for it ex post facto. We couldn't come up with an answer. Social media, like most media, is created by loathsome people with loose morals for egotistical reasons. Well, it holds true for Mark Zuckerberg, anyway.

So, what the hell have I been doing?

Reading More
I have been reading more. News articles, blogs, magazines, books; you name it, I'm reading it...more. All the while not having any desire for electronic pats on the back, distracting me from actually reading what is written.

Getting Fit
As part of my ongoing personal challenge, I've been going to the gym more. I would usually struggle to go once per week, but this week I have gone there three times and plan to go once more before the week is over. My girlfriend says she notices the difference; I sure as hell don't!

Relying on social media to get critical messages (as in, ones that initiate action) is like telling a dog to pick you up from the train station. Social media, as a process has different meanings to everyone. Some see it as frivolous, others see it as a marketing tool, more as "agenda" or "trend" setting. (If they did, they certainly require the audience to be as passive as possible.) Using the phone, communicating clearly and concisely without losing the "fidelity" of the message has been a byproduct of this embargo.

Of course, my favorite part of the entire experiment is that people ask me how I'm doing. They no longer have a repository of personal information to make those judgments themselves. They become interested; they listen. I can talk with them instead of at them. Friends are genuinely surprised to know what is happening in my life and how these events effect me.

Social media had for the most part, made me feel I had reduced my life to a rolling headline. But it doesn't and shouldn't; social media attempts merely to make Princess Adelaide's whooping cough front page news all day, every day.

So what now?
I suppose I will use Twitter and Facebook again; albeit not to the inanely rapid frequency that I once did. If I ever "lapse," I can always go back into my personal social media rehab and have a great time there. I have missed talking to some people on there since we also talk outside of Twitter but not to the extent we do "on."

I do feel that Twitter and Facebook are good tools for people to have. However, like every good tool - a spoon, for example - they aren't meant to be used all the time, for every possible application. They have limitations and so do we.