Is the Music TV Show Dead?

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Fox began airing American Idol in June of 2002 and for eight straight years it was the number one rated TV show in America. It so outdrew the competition that the other networks pretty much gave up trying to counter program it. But now it is fading fast and even it’s newer rival The Voice is having a hard time drawing the younger audience advertisers crave. Bill Carter suggests that this is just one more example of too much of a good thing.

It is hardly the first time television has burned out a genre through mass imitation and overexposure. Networks rode westerns into the ground. They exhausted the audience with singers trying variety shows. At one point, almost every night had a newsmagazine. And, most famously, ABC ran the sprockets off its game show hit “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” with four episodes a week at its height, leading to a plunge in ratings and its relegation into syndication.

But I think there is something more to it than that. Idol arrived at that particular moment in American culture when our feelings were still raw from 9/11. The country needed a little old-fashioned simple entertainment in which multiple generations could share an experience. Simon Cowell, the Svengali behind Idol was smart enough to choose singers in the early days like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson and Taylor Hicks that could appeal to a broad demographic. And so for a while Idol could actually manufacture stars. But by 2011, that stopped happening. The fans grew tired of the highly produced pop and all of the me too shows like X Factor and even The Voice have failed to produce the kind of platinum selling artists that Idol turned out.

Cultures go through periods of manufactured pop followed by periods of more authentic and rougher artistry. Think about the transition from the wildness of Elvis and Little Richard in the mid 1950′s to the totally manufactured pop of Frankie Avalon and Fabian in 1960 and then back to rough reality of Bob Dylan in 1964. My guess is that we are in one of those periods where the rough authentic music is what is popular and the idea that Simon Cowell or Blake Shelton can “make a star” is fading into the sunset.

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Digital Monopoly Capitalism

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This week it was revealed that Amazon has been bullying the publishing house of Hachette to give it better terms.

Among Amazon’s tactics against Hachette, some of which it has been employing for months, are charging more for its books and suggesting that readers might enjoy instead a book from another author. If customers for some reason persist and buy a Hachette book anyway, Amazon is saying it will take weeks to deliver it.

The scorched-earth tactics arose out of failed contract negotiations. Amazon was seeking better terms, Hachette was balking, so Amazon began cutting it off. Writers from Malcolm Gladwell to J. D. Salinger are affected, although some Hachette authors were unscathed.

Amazon has a near monopoly position in the distribution of books. The supreme irony is that government regulators are so clueless to the effects of monopoly that they brought an anti-trust case against Apple, a relatively minor player in the books business instead of Amazon.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Web’s supposed low barriers to entry would allow a very competitive landscape, but it hasn’t turned out that way. In search we have a monopolist in Google. In smartphone operating systems we have a duopoly in Apple and Google. And we soon might have a near monopolist in Broadband in Comcast and certainly a duopoly in mobile phone service in AT&T and Verizon. It turns out the Internet is very good a creating “winner takes all” scenarios. Continue reading

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WT-Friday

Johnny Manziel

Johnny Manziel

Johnny Humble

There was a point about two hours into last night’s NFL Draft where the supremely arrogant Johnny Manziel seemed like the kid that no one wanted to pick for their kickball team. After the 20th pick had gone by and Johnny was still in the corner drinking his water bottle I wondered if he was going be like Christine Lahti who was on a bathroom break when it was announced she won the Golden Globe. He was eventually picked by the Cleveland Browns and he came on stage with his usual “show me the money” bravado, but I doubt the money will be quite as much as if he had been picked number one instead of number 22.

Dr. Dre

Dr. Dre

Apple-Beats

For the life of me, I can’t figure out why Apple would spend $3 Billion to buy Beats. Obviously I’m happy for Dre and Jimmy Iovine and I hope they continue to be so generous to USC. But Apple could easily make a much better headphone, as almost any real audio engineer will tell you that there are 20 headphones on the market with much better sound. What Beats does have is marketing, but after all that is something that Apple does better than almost anyone else. The folks over at Re-Code suggest the reason is for Beats streaming music service. But I Tunes Radio is already just as good as Beats and probably has more listeners. All this does is muddy the I Tunes brand message.Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO has been under a lot of pressure to spend his $150 Billion cash hoard, but this just seems like a panic move.

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Tyranny of Choice

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Brian Roberts, who runs Comcast, should take a look at this chart. In the last seven years our cable bill has almost doubled and part of the rationale for this is that we have so many more channels to choose from. But as the Nielsen report released today shows, even though cable providers now offer almost 200 channels to the average home, we watch only 17 channels, just like we did eight years ago.

In every other part of the media business the same expansion of choices is leading consumers to follow the crowd towards the hits.

 However many niches there are, in other words, film-goers or TV viewers still want to watch what everybody else is watching, and musicians still manage to release mega-hits. Indeed, in a world that celebrates individualism and freedom, many people decide to watch, wear or listen to exactly the same things as everybody else.

Where this all becomes relevant to the current Net Neutrality debate is a technical barrier that none of Copyleft activists who are protesting in front of the FCC have bothered to acquaint themselves with. Comcast and every other cable company has 750 MHz to deploy their service. It is currently allocated like this.

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Only 200 MHz is allocated to downstream broadband data. This 200 MHz is shared with everyone else in your neighborhood on a “node”. That’s why on a Thursday night when you are trying to watch Netflix you get the buffering instead of the video. As the number of Over the Top (OTT) players increase (Amazon, Yahoo, AOL, You Tube, Hulu, Netflix, Crackle, Flixster, etc) this is going to be even more of a problem for the cable companies, especially when they start serving up 4 K streams. It won’t a problem for any one like Google Fiber, Verizon FIOS or EPB that is running fiber to the home, but for cable it is a real issue. At some point Comcast is going to have to cut the number of video channels it is carrying. They will go to Viacom and say “we don’t want the third, fourth and fifth MTV channel”. They will go to Discovery and say, “get rid of the Discovery Military Channel”.

My guess is that in five years we will be back to 100 broadcast channels and everything else will be delivered on demand OTT. Needless to say, Viacom, Scripps, Discovery, Turner are not going to like this outcome, but in the end it will be a much better consumer experience. The irony is that the folks at the FCC actually understand what the problem is and are trying to solve it, while the “Free the Internet” crowd and the cable companies have their heads in the sand.

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The Internet and Art

Monkeys-typing-Shakespeare

Every year the New York Times movie critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis write a series of memos directed to the media barons whose financial choices affect the creative output the two critics review for a living. Buried among longer memos about hiring more female directors and making fewer super hero sequels was this pithy memo from Scott.

To: The Internet

Cc: Everyone who writes about “the Internet”

From: A.O.S.

Subject: Stop confusing quantity with quality. Stop hyping the revolutionary potential of “data,” “innovation” and other empty abstractions. Stop trying to fix things that weren’t broken and breaking things that you can’t fix. Just stop.

[This message has no content.]

For someone like myself, running the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab, the recognition of the basic truth of Scott’s critique is painful. But technologists need to confront the reality that putting the value of “disruption” above all others, they are currently destroying the artistic soul of modern culture with no real plan on how to rebuild what they have broken.

Consider the music business. Revenues to artists worldwide have fallen by over 50% since Napster was introduced in 2000. Even though it is now possible to access any song on any device anywhere in the world, as I wrote last week,

Spotify had gross revenues of over $600 million last year, but an artist would have to have more than 4 million plays per month to make the minimum wage of $1,160 per month.

The response of the tech community to this crisis is to suggest to musicians that they “get a real job”, by which I assume they mean writing code for some me too social sharing app that further destroys the music business.

As broadband speeds increase around the world this creative destruction tsunami is about to wreak havoc on the film and TV business. There are already far too many TV channels pouring out a torrent of junky reality shows and now we have Yahoo, AOL, You Tube, Amazon, Netflix, Crackle and probably hundreds of other OTT players throwing more crap against the virtual wall to see what sticks. As Scott says, “stop confusing quantity with quality.” In the course of human history, a limited number of people in any given generation could be considered real artists. Walk through the Prado and count the number of Spanish artists working in 1620 that stood the test of time. Valazquez, El Greco and maybe a couple of others. That’s it. You can count the number of great Rhythm and Blues artists of the 1940′s and 1950′s on two hands. By the Infinite Monkey Theory, that their typing would eventually yield Shakespeare, one would imagine that the 100 hours of video uploaded to You Tube per hour (876,000 hours per year!) over the last 9 years would have yielded us a Kubrick, Scorsese or Welles. If it has, no one has brought that filmmaker to my attention.

Now I know that no one in Silicon Valley is going to yield to Scott’s injunction to “just stop”, but I do think it is incumbent on Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg and the other Tech billionaires to consider how they are destroying the artistic patrimony of our country. Last weekend I got a freebie to see Avicii, the Swedish DJ who makes more money off the live music business than almost any musician living, by remixing the work of other artists and knowing how to bring a room full of buzzed kids to a fever pitch through the largest bass speakers in the world. Was it art? Will we care about it in 20 years? Will anyone even know it existed in 200 years? The answer to all of the above is no.

But I believe that in 200 years some young guitar player will still be listening to Robert Johnson’s 1936 recording of “Crossroad Blues” and marveling at the raw power of both his voice and his guitar playing in the same way that a 15 year old Eric Clapton was moved to take up the blues life. We are currently in a state of cultural amnesia because the trivial firehose of the now that pours out of our smartphones leaves neither time nor guidance to consider the cultural banquet our forefathers have created. When was the last time you looked at one of Chaplin’s silent films or even Casablanca or Singin’ in the Rain? Writing about Gabriel Garcia Marquez a few weeks ago, I quoted this line, “I cannot imagine how anyone could even think of writing a novel without having at least a vague of idea of the 10,000 years of literature that have gone before.” 

It may be that in twenty years, if the folks at Oxford are right, and fifty percent of the current jobs have been computerized, everyone will have the time to be an artist because there won’t be any other meaningful employment for anyone but bankers and teachers (Irony alert). I assume by then there will have to be some sort of guaranteed income to keep folks from attacking the gated communities of the 1%. But I still doubt that anymore than a few folks in any generation will pass the historical “who cares” test. I can hear now the accusations of elitism. Who am I to say what is good and what is bad? You don’t have to take my word for it, because time always sorts the great from the merely popular. Remember Milli Vanilli?

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EDM Tribes

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Last September The New Yorker ran a long piece on the Electronic Dance Music (EDM) scene in Las Vegas and noted that the top DJ’s were earning $300,000 a night at the biggest nightclub at The Encore called XS. They noted that perhaps there was an EDM bubble that might soon burst, so on Friday I took a plane to Vegas to check it out. The DJ Avicii was playing and by midnight the joint was jumping. I was the oldest cat in the room by about 30 years, but since I was on an anthropological field trip, I enjoyed my roll as observer of this new tribe. Of course we have always had dance music. I used to go to Studio 54 in the 70′s, but this is different. First off is that everyone is dressed in a uniform. The girls are all dressed in skin tight micro mini skirts, mostly in black or blue. The guys are all some version of the Hangover cast, with most opting for the Bradley Cooper shirt outside the pants look, but with a fair number of slightly schlubby Zach Galifanakis types scattered in the mix. By midnight it seemed like a high school mixer that wasn’t going well. The girls were all together dancing with each other, while the guys stood around the periphery of the dance floor, drinks in hand.

Where the real money is made is at the 100 reserved booths, each holding maybe 12 people with bottle service that starts at $2000. Grey Goose Vodka and Red Bull seemed to be the drink of choice and by 1:30 AM I understood why. Avicii doesn’t even go on until 1 AM and he was proceeded by a DJ who keeps everything moving. What surprised me was that the basic “four on the floor” beat was consistent for over 6 hours. There are what you might call songs, but they are more like chorus hooks–a short catchy phrase–that everyone seems to know and sing along with. An example might be “The Bad Touch” by DJ Gollum and Empyre One which has only one line for it’s 18 minute length–”You and me baby ain’t nothing but mammals , so lets do it like they do on the Discovery Channel”. “Like a Rolling Stone” it is not. But that of course is not the point. All three thousand revelers in XS seemed to sing it in unison, because they were fighting for their right to party. Whether there is some sort of generational lesson here is not clear. Having participated in some fairly psychedelic evenings at the Fillmore in San Francisco in 1967, I believe that Dionysus, rather than Apollo is the god of youth. But in 1967 there was a certain spirit of utopian optimism in the air. The belief in the power of the young to change the world. We had already marched in the streets for civil rights and were currently in the streets against the war in Vietnam. The kids in XS had no such idealism. It was more like lets get wasted and have a good time before the next bubble bursts. Continue reading

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Obama and Pop Culture

Trevor Paglen Limit Telephotography

Trevor Paglen
Limit Telephotography

About a year ago I quit blogging. I had mostly been writing about politics and my frustration with the political culture–what Mike Judge called the Idiocracy–led to James Joyce’s prescription–”Silence, Exile, Cunning”. So when I decided to resume a week ago it was because I felt that the world of culture was in such an amazing transition phase–what I call the Digital Interregnum–that I could confine my self to writing about music, film, TV, art, video games, social networks, sports and never have to get frustrated in print about oligarchy and the death of democracy.

And then this morning the front page of my New York Times featured a story, The Rise of the Drone Master:Pop Culture Recasts Obama and I felt the urge to comment. The thesis of the piece is simple.

Five and a half years into his presidency, Mr. Obama has had a powerful impact on the nation’s popular culture. But what many screenwriters, novelists and visual artists have seized on is not an inspirational story of the first black president. Instead they have found more compelling story lines in the bleaker, morally fraught parts of Mr. Obama’s legacy.

As the article points out most of the artistic themes are around surveillance, privacy and drone wars and I would be less than honest if I didn’t admit that my own disapointment with a man I supported from the day he announced in February of 2007, didn’t stem from his unwillingness to bring the National Security State to heel. Obama was, like every President who preceded him into the oval office since 1953, a prisoner of the establishment.

So what do I mean by The Establishment? Since 1953 when two senior partners of a Wall Street law firm, the brothers John Foster and Allen Dulles began running American foreign (and often domestic) policy, an establishment view, through Democratic and Republican presidencies alike, has been the norm. As Stephen Kinzer, in his book, Brothers, has written about the Dulles brothers, “Their life’s work was turning American money and power into global money and power. They deeply believed, or made themselves believe, that what benefited them and their clients would benefit everyone.” They created a world in which the Wall Street elites at first set our foreign policy and eventually (under Ronald Reagan) came to dominate domestic and tax policy—all to the benefit of themselves and their clients.

Clearly when Obama appointed Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton to the top posts in his administration it should have been clear that the Wall Street-Military Industrial Complex was still firmly in charge. But I refused to believe that Barack was just a front man for the oligarchs, and to his credit I believe that he genuinely believes that our 60 year post World War II belief in playing the global cop is a fool’s mission. But the Snowden revelations have shown how afraid he is to really challenge the conventional wisdom when it comes to the surveillance state. So the artists do what artists always have done, they take part in what Marcuse called the Great Refusal:”In its refusal to accept as final the limitations imposed upon freedom and happiness by society, in its refusal to forget what can be, lies the critical function of the artist.”

I don’t think there is any way for Obama to prevent the artists from defining his legacy in such dystopian colors. Unless of course he decides to go all Bulworth on the country after the November elections and use the last two years of his Presidency to really use the Bully Pulpit to reform our sadly broken politics.

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Donald Sterling:Egomaniac

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Anyone who has lived in LA for the past 15 years knows that Donald Sterling suffers from an acute case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder that perhaps has no equal in the U.S. with the possible exception of Donald Trump. Symptoms include:

  • Expects to be recognized as superior and special, without superior accomplishments
  • Expects constant attention, admiration and positive reinforcement from others
  • Envies others and believes others envy him/her
  • Is preoccupied with thoughts and fantasies of great success, enormous attractiveness, power, intelligence
  • Lacks the ability to empathize with the feelings or desires of others
  • Is arrogant in attitudes and behavior
  • Has expectations of special treatment that are unrealistic

Both Donalds excel at putting their name on tall ugly apartment buildings and then taking out full page advertisements showing off their phallic towers. Sterling was worse in that not a month would go by when he didn’t buy a full page ad in the LA Times noting an award he had purchased from some poor broke charity. That a doddering old racist could be regularly honored as the “Humanitarian of the Year” only demonstrates how corrupt the charity banquet business is. That the local chapter of the NAACP would close its eyes and ears to twenty years of Sterling’s mistreatment of minorities in return for a fat check, is especially sad.

But now that the NBA has banned Sterling for life, we can appreciate some lessons from the last four days. The first is that the players really have the power in the NBA. That they spoke with one voice calling for the maximum penalty closed off any lighter sanctions that the other owners (having tolerated Sterling for years), might have preferred. The second lesson is that there is still a generational divide on race in this country. Crackers like Cliveden Bundy and Donald Sterling grew up in the 1940′s and 1950′s when the easy prejudice of their cohorts was tolerated. Listening to the tape of Sterling, I kept thinking, “Elgin Baylor was right. Sterling sounds like a plantation owner not wanting the slaves to come up on the porch.”

Hopefully. this will all be over soon. Sterling will realize that he is persona non grata in LA, will sell the team and move to Florida, next door to Donald Trump where they will live out their days complaining about the “girlfriends from hell.”

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Who Benefits from Silicon Valley?

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I got into the music business in 1967, at the height of a creative and economic boom. Technology had almost nothing to do with the business, as the LP that had been introduced in 1948 was still in use. The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album had been recorded on a 4 track Studer recorder (above) and that was the “state of the art”.But today, the business is dominated by technology companies. Just as much music is consumed as in 1967 (probably more), but most of the value flows to Silicon Valley and not to the musicians. Spotify had gross revenues of over $600 million last year, but an artist would have to have more than 4 million plays per month to make the minimum wage of $1,160 per month.

So if the massive reallocation of value has flowed from musicians to geeks, what exactly have we gained except “convenience”? This thought came to mind as I read Annie Lowery’s story “If A Bubble Bursts in Palo Alto, Does It Make A Sound?” Lowery makes the point that both the gains and the losses in Silicon Valley have relatively little effect on the rest of the economy. Tech firms hire relatively small numbers of people and pay them astronomic sums of money. So even if the bubble burst, not that many people would get hurt.

The truth is that most Americans have little interaction with the big-money, small-jobs technology boom, so they might be sheltered from the worst of the technology bust, at least as it looks today, if not years from now. But that might be cold comfort: It is a sad state of affairs if one of the most vibrant, explosive and creative parts of the economy — and one of the few that is minting millionaires — seems more like a walled garden than a public park.

If you think about the technology boom at the beginning of the 20th Century–electricity, automobiles, airplanes—the benefits were widely dispersed throughout the society. Millions of jobs were created and everyone’s life improved. It seems to me the tech community today has been very good at the “creative destruction” part of the innovation equation, but has been far less creative in imagining how to rebuild the businesses they destroyed. From my own personal experience, neither the music not the journalism business has recovered from tech’s wholesale disruption. When people point out to Google what a huge part they play in this destruction, they hide behind libertarian tropes to excuse the fact that they are constantly linking to pirate sites.

The artists themselves as well as the editors of news sites are pushed into the role of “branded content”, which is a nice way of saying “selling out.” You can make a nice parlor game of counting the amount of product placement in a music video or which piece of news you are reading is “sponsored content”. I assume the guilt of destroying once vital businesses eventually comes home to roost in the guts of the tech billionaires. They buy a newspaper, sponsor a film festival or build a museum to honor Jimi Hendrix. But it’s just guilt money. It’s not helping the average guitar picker or beat reporter trying to make a living.

When you live in a walled garden, everything seems perfect.

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Culture of Distraction

 

Honey Boo Boo

Honey Boo Boo

The last few days have brought forth a number of studies that would make most conscious citizens of a republic take to the barricades (or, more productively, the ballot box) in anger. We start with a report from professors Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page at Princeton and Northwestern that concludes that the United States is an Oligarchy.

The report, entitled Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, used extensive policy data collected from between the years of 1981 and 2002 to empirically determine the state of the US political system.

After sifting through nearly 1,800 US policies enacted in that period and comparing them to the expressed preferences of average Americans (50th percentile of income), affluent Americans (90th percentile) and large special interests groups, researchers concluded that the United States is dominated by its economic elite.

The peer-reviewed study, which will be taught at these universities in September, says: “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

This was followed by a report in the New York Times new Upshot column on the shrinking American middle and lower class incomes.

The American middle class, long the most affluent in the world, has lost that distinction.

Continue reading

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