18 June 2011

Triple the Fun

I've rebooted Wrist Watcher and have also just thrown up a third sort-of arts blog, hypnogaze. My stab at purposive blogging. And I'll keep TLP ticking along with miscellanea.

But I really don't post all that much. I just started in a challenging new position at work, which is slowing me down on all fronts, and anyway, blogging is no serious hobby for me. All three blogs will only amount to a trickle. I hate to crosspost, but I'm wondering: syndicate them to Tumblr?

07 June 2011

Boredom Defended

NY Times film critics Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott recently published an apology for slow and thoughtful film: "In Defense of the Slow and the Boring." The disappointing thing is that they are not having to defend thoughtful cinema from viewers, who of course express their opinions with their dollars, but from other cultural and film critics. But this is less a catty fight than a discussion of whether film should even be permitted serious aspirations beyond popular entertainment. Unsurprisingly, they think it should.

On the other hand, says Scott, "I certainly don’t think fun should be banished from the screen, or that popular entertainment is essentially antithetical to art. And while I derive great pleasure from some movies that might be described as slow or tedious, I also find food for thought in fast, slick, whimsical entertainments." But the makers of films themselves seems to promote a kind of anti-art bias which at heart is, he suggests, "a defense of the corporate status quo." That is, even film makers are slow to argue that film is, or even should be, an art form rather than commercial entertainment.

I'm a little sad at the fact that I personally am loosing my capacity to experience films purely as entertainment. Art cinema may indeed be "cultural vegetables," but dang it, I like culture, and vegetables, too. I don't think thoughtful films are necessarily enculturating, but they are by definition thoughtful. And "thinking is boring, of course (all that silence), which is why so many industrially made movies work so hard to entertain you."

26 May 2011

Invisible Art

Cooper-Hewitt just awarded type designer Matthew Carter a National Design Award for lifetime achievement in the typographic arts. You know his work very well. You've seen it countless times. You're looking at it right now. He is the designer of the ubiquitous Microsoft system fonts Georgia, Tahoma and Verdana. I usually prefer Trebuchet for TLP, but in honor of Mr. Carter, today we're sporting Georgia.

Georgia and Verdana (Tahoma is very similar to the latter) are notable as being designed specifically for high-legibility on computer screens. Both are very extensively hand-hinted, meaning that the characters are carefully encoded with rasterization data for screen display. They are easy on the eyes and legible at very small point sizes. That's why countless Web pages have Georgia or Verdana set as their default fonts. You and I unknowingly drink in Carter's invisible art every day.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Carter's landmark fonts is that they have achieved a ubiquity and acceptance that very few fonts do, but are seen by designers as appropriate for screen-only use. Ikea caused a big dustup in 2009 when they adopted Verdana as their print catalog typeface, wanting to unify their Web and print look. Critics dubbed it Verdanagate, both miffed and bemused that so savvy a design company would willfully disregard good design, in some attempt to appeal to pedestrian comfort. It's like a worldclass print design firm decorating their offices in American Colonial because that's what most Americans have in their living rooms.

Ikea blew it off. Said a spokesflunky, "I think it’s mainly experts who have expressed their views, people who are interested in fonts. I don’t think the broad public is that interested. . . . [Verdana is] a simple, cost-effective font." Lame, Ikea. You did a Gap. Just own it. You know very well that good design isn't some when-convenient option. It's a way of life. You live the aesthetic life or you don't.

25 May 2011

Form and Content

I'm off next week to the national AAUP conference, at which Paper Age oldsters stagger around like Jack Nicholson in "About Schmidt," trying to work through the life-negating death of print publishing that (inexplicably) they never saw coming. Last year everyone suffered through session after session of bad news, then went looking for a bar to get proper drunk in. Academic publishing is suffering more than trade, in some respects, because its main customers, academic libraries, are defecting from paper books at an even faster rate than retail consumers.

Five years ago academic libraries were willing to pay $120 each for your arcane little monographs. Sell even 1000 copies at that price and you are still making money. Now libraries only want your publications if they come in huge, discounted ebook packages from vendors like Elsevier, where you may earn as little as a few dollars a title. No wonder the publishers' long faces.

The iPad is not helping things. It provides such a great reading experience that, not only do libraries not want to buy paper, soon nobody will want to read it. Publishing is just starting to reinvent its content for tablets, and already the results are astonishing. Obviously graphic-rich publications (glossy mags) benefit hugely, but more surprising is that even longform, text-heavy publications can, too.

John Biggs just discussed this with respect to the New Yorker. Talk about graphically spare. It's the anti-Wired. But even so, the iPad version is a substantial improvement over the paper.

    There are no graphical tricks, not too many multimedia events, and when there are, they’re great (one poetry reading by Sherman Alexie in the latest issue was amazing). And even the ads are unobtrusive and, dare I say it, beautiful in full living color. Everything about the iPad version is the same, yet strikingly different. This isn’t some rush-job given to a bunch of magazine designers who slap a little video in the corner of a horribly laid-out page. This is a full rethinking of the title and changes entirely how we consume long-form writing.

This leap to tablets is not just a design issue for publishers. It demands new forms of writing from authors. We'll start seeing more and more books like Al Gore's Our Choice, that simply "does things that no paper book ever could" (gushes Gizmodo). Designers like Craig Mod are completely rethinking what books without pages, designed for the "infinite content plane" of the iPad, should look like. On a multimedia device without any fixed content plane, or even the necessity of static content, do the monomedia codices of the Paper Age even make sense?

Reading habits change over time, always have, but the shift we are experiencing right now may be without parallel in its abruptness and rapidity. While the evidence is not unambiguous, I think longform has been in decline for some time, in part because the internet makes longform reading less necessary, or in many cases unnecessary, for informational purposes. (Thanks for that, Google.)  Certainly monographs are dying a slow death in academic publishing.

But writers have a bigger problem to worry about. They will increasingly, by themselves or collaboratively, be forced to become more than monomedia writers of words. The supplantation of books by multimedia tablets is already creating a new demand for rich content, even beyond the current demands of the internet. If hoary old standards like the New Yorker get that fact, this reality will very soon impose itself on even the most fusty Paper Age relics.

As print publishing dies, print writing will die with it. Words will still be words, and sentences sentences, but content will necessarily follow form. And the form of tablet publication is already so fantastic that even the internet looks dull and quaint beside it. Tablets must be recognized as new medium, and they are utterly irresistible.

23 May 2011

Why I Hate the Silver Screen

I don't know why it's taken me so long to come to this conclusion, but I don't like going to movies. Not at all. Now, I love movies, really, really love 'em. Or maybe, better said, I love "film." I love compelling visual narratives that make more sense of life than really exists in live. Great film has shaped my worldview much more than books have. That's how I'm wired. I'm a sensualist.

But movie theaters are a terrible place to see films, or movies. First, I don't know how to have a thoughtful and meditative encounter with a film when I'm sharing it with a couple hundred strangers. It's like reading a book with someone looking over my shoulder. But more basically, I just find theater speakers too loud and the screens too big. I have terrible, fussy eyes. I visually cannot take the whole movie screen in, and I find frenetic action on-screen, especially, to be visually and physically fatiguing. I've never wanted a 50" TV with 200w of surround sound at home. My little computer monitor and headphones are optimal, for me.

Worst of all are 3D movies. They are dim, the colors cold, the contrast low, the glasses uncomfortable, and they give me a headache. And 3D adds nothing to a movie's immersiveness. It's a gimmick to which you, in any case, quickly become habituated. I could go on, but Ebert has already given 3D a good and proper thrashing.

Now, as if I needed another reason to give up on movie theaters, I read today that many theaters are not bothering to change from their 3D to 2D lenses when showing the latter. The result is all the downsides of 3D (up to 85% darker, flat colors, plain ugly) even with 2D. The problem, apparently, is that the Sony 4k digital projectors that many theaters use are extremely tamper-resistant, making the lenses a pain to change. A small misstep and the projector can lock you out, causing logistical nightmares. Since the 3D lenses are of course absolutely necessary for 3D movies, some managers are saying, just leave 'em on.

So if you go to a 2D movie and it seems maddeningly dim, complain and ask for your money back. Hopefully a lot of other people will do the same. Customer contempt really should not be tolerated.

19 May 2011

Radically Purposive Blogging

I have not been blogging much lately, and it really has not been for lack of time. After a dissertation-imposed hiatus, I'm ready to get back to it. But the only blogging that really holds my sustained attention is blogging my hobbies and interests, and I find a general personal blog like Lithium Press to be a very poor vehicle for that. Fweem's project blogs have inspired me to rethink all this.

And in fact, I have started two other blogs in the past, but never did anything with them. One was on music, but I posted once and abandoned it entirely for TLP. The other was on wristwatches, which I seriously blogged for a month and then forsook. I went through a bit of a horological obsession in 2008, and like most of my obsessions, it cooled and I moved on. I remind myself too much of John Laroche, of Susan Orlean's "Orchid Fever"/Kaufman's Adaptation:

    Laroche grew up in Miami. He says he was a weird kid. This is not hard to believe. When he wanted a pet, he bought a little turtle, then bought ten little turtles, then tried to breed them, then started selling turtles to other kids, then decided his life wasn't worth living unless he acquired one of every species of rare turtle, including a three-hundred-pound exotic tortoise from the Galapagos Islands. Suddenly, another passion seized him. He became immersed in late-Ice Age fossils. Then he dropped turtles and Ice Age fossils and became obsessed with lapidary, and then after a while he dropped lapidary and got into collecting and resilvering old mirrors. His passions boil up quickly and end abruptly, like tornadoes. Usually, the end is accompanied by a dramatic pronouncement. When he was in his teens, he went through a tropical-fish phase, and he had sixty fishtanks in his house. He even went skin-diving for the fish himself. Then the end came. He didn't merely lose interest in collecting fish: he renounced it, as if he had kicked a habit. He declared that he would stop collecting fish forever. He also declared that he would never set foot in the ocean again. That was fifteen years ago. He lives a few miles from the Atlantic, but he has not gone near it since.

This may drive the people around me a bit crazy, and it's not easy for me either. I'd be more than happy to find that One True Thing that captivates me endlessly and forever. But that's not how I'm wired. At least my interests are somewhat cyclic. I'll take that.

So, wristwatches. I'll save how I got started into horology for a post on Wrist Watcher. Definitely one of my more hot-and-cold interests. But just eight posts on that blog, in November of 2008, has drawn 482 page views. Most of those (almost 300) have come since February of this year. I have no explanation. I have half a mind to start blogging horology again, for a change of pace, and because finding some consistent readers might be nice for a change.

The fact is, I follow a number of good topical blogs that are mostly dormant, but when updated, are of really great quality and always interesting. Like Muse-ings, Ed's Corner, and even a commercial blog, Small House Style. I actually like that the post count for all three is low, but the quality is high. And the posts are always on the blog's designated topic. No filtering required.

I think Lithium Press needs to be either shuttered or repurposed, and one or more topical blogs need to grow in its place. Ed Brandwein of Ed's Corner has even just turned a big chunk of his blog into an ebook that I'm going buy. (Need it in pdf, Ed!) I want a piece of that action—a blog or two (or why not dozen?) that would make sense as a book. Radically purposive blogging.

28 April 2011

First Thoughts on iPad + Ebooks

Work bought me a new 64gb iPad 2 (wi-fi only). Not really a bonus for finishing my dissertation, but it feels that way. Impressions? Like everyone says, it's just a big iPhone. If you are used to the iPhone/iTouch, it won't wow you. But it will still fill you with a slow, fizzy elation, if only from the undeniable fact that you are holding the future of reading in your hands.

This fact really hit me when I downloaded a copy of Wired magazine for the iPad. It incorporates innovative navigation and formatting, audio, video, and other rich content in a seamless and compelling way. You read a book review and then just hit a button to download a chapter from the book. A film review will have a stills gallery and trailer, etc. It sounds (duh) like the Web, but the tablet format and touch navigation make it much more compelling experience. It really is comparable to reading a book, but a super-book.

It's way beyond the Kindle. When Tani the Kindle User first saw my iPad, she had zero interest. Ten seconds into browsing Wired, she said, "Oh, I have to get one of these." The future of glossies, clearly, will be on color tablets.

The future of ebooks more generally will be on both color and e-ink tablets, it seems. E-ink readers will soon be cheap as chips, though already, even the Nook Color is just $250. And now that I am actually using a tablet, I confess that my love of analog books is a bit diminished. The ergonomics of tablet reading are great, I'm used to reading on screen (anymore, who isn't?), and the convenience is surprisingly compelling. It's increasing the amount of discretionary reading I do, which I would never have expected. (That may just be Shiny New Toy Syndrome. Time will tell.)

Yet another surprise: I'm seriously reconsidering the future of my physical book collection. I have a whole wall of my large study taken up with books I never read. Many I have never read once. I have hundreds more at work, in boxes, on other bookshelves, etc. A certain subset I own as a collector, and that segment I expect both to keep and to grow. But all those crumbling Baen and Del Rey paperbacks? As physical objects they give me little pleasure, and space is at a premium. Why keep them? Nostalgic commitment to print, even among print lovers, is evaporating before our eyes.

This is why we are using a very, very precious empty staff position
at my institute to hire a digital publishing specialist. We're rapidly
reaching the tipping point where if your publications are not pushed to
portable devices, you are severely limiting your readership. I've been asked to take a point position on the hire. This should be interesting.

27 April 2011

Out with a Whimper

Somehow I thought the completion of my PhD program would end with more fanfare. Meh. So it ends.

    Dear __________, Congratulations. Your submission, 10195 has cleared all of the necessary checks and will soon be delivered to ProQuest/UMI for publishing. Regards, Mary Elwood

26 April 2011

Penguin Group Starts New "Writing Community"

Just saw this in a NYTimes article.* Writers have been forming collectives themselves for ages, but now a major press is doing it for them. For Penguin, clearly it is intended to be a low-cost bush league. Why spend the money to work through slush piles and coach developing writers when you can get others to do it for you?

*Tip of the day: If you run of out monthly free views for the New York Times, just start up an anonymous session on your Web browser. An anonymous session clears your cookie cache and resets your view counter.

25 April 2011

To Reality Check or Not?

I know Fweem is looking at a PhD program. I also speak at least a few times a year with undergrads looking that direction. Employment prospects for humanities PhDs are dismal, and graduate professors brazenly spout lies about the academic vocation.

But do aspiring grad students really want to know the ugly truth?

Yes, just doing a little more post-PhD reflection . . .

04 April 2011


I passed the oral defense of my dissertation today. That means I'm all but done with my PhD. Afterward, they called me "doctor." They even gave me a little card that says so. Cake was cut, champagne served. It felt surreal. I was exhausted. I just wanted to leave, call my family, and then crash in my hotel. Which is what I did.

I'm forty-three. I've been in school almost my whole life. I've spent about nine years just working (or, ahem, not working) on my dissertation, in some form or another. I don't mind the time so much, but the stress? There are no words. There have been times where I literally felt like I was slipping into cardiac arrest. Today, waiting to go into my orals, was one of them. Really, there are no words.

It took too long, the cost was too high, the grief too great, to celebrate this as an accomplishment. At least right now. I don't want to walk at graduation, and won't. I don't care about the diploma. I'm not happy, or relieved. I'm numb. Numb. I just want to be with my family, and really, really relax, and start to discover what life looks like post-PhD.

28 March 2011

Publisher Pays $2 Million to Remain Relevent

After Amanda Hocking sold one million copies of her ebooks, on her own, she decided to open up her work to traditional publishers, who fought a bidding war. St. Martin's Press "won," with a $2 million contract. NYT reports, "Publishers, weary of hearing about their disposability in an age when writers can self-publish their work on the Internet and sell it on Amazon.com, said they were vindicated by the news."

Vindicated? Er, right. A writer who doesn't need you is willing to let you pay her to work for her. Sure, you're both making money on this, but who works for whom?

25 March 2011

The Trivial and the Ephemeral

While 2000 bands and uncounted hoards have descended on Austin for SXSW 2011, I've had a couple weeks of less exciting but entirely satisfying musical exploration and reflection myself. It started with Loretta Lynn and ended with death metal, so I've covered a bit of ground. There's a lot of great music I haven't heard, and a lot I've heard that I just don't appreciate yet. Seems self-evident, and goes for everyone, but sometimes I just get bored or jaded. Aggressive and open experimentation makes all things new again.

SXSW is about bands, beer, BBQ, and less appealingly, intense navelgazing about the future of music. In a curious keynote, well-spoken has-been Bob Geldof decried the flood of Web music and dished on contemporary American musicians, calling them "smug" and "exhausted," no longer revolutionary or relevant. Critic Greg Kot rightly says Geldof is just not plugged into socially-conscious music, which is of course being made. "Perhaps the deeper issue is not that no one is making that type of music, but that much of it is being lost amid what SXSW executive Roland Swenson called 'the trivial and the ephemeral' culture that is clogging media. The great life-affirming and potentially life-changing revolutionary music that Geldof seeks is being made. But without discerning voices to champion it, who will hear it? Certainly Geldof could use a little help in finding it."

Precisely. Democratization of means of production and broken filters. That's really what bedevils Geldof. He can almost see it, but not quite. He says of social and economic inequality, "What’s music got to say about it? I don’t hear it. Maybe I can’t hear it. Maybe this hyper democracy of the Web simply gives an illusion of talent. You can download a studio. Download any instrument. You can pick up any instrument for nothing. You can make, cut and paste to create fab artwork to make your CD. Everybody has got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say. We need to talk about it."

"Nobody has anything to say"? Does he only listen to Top 40? So it seems, and top pop is indisputably formulaic and vapid. Jay Frank of futurehit.dna documents at morbid length how totally one-dimensional pop music is. Summed up in numbers, the top 100 songs "account for approximately 36% of all new music track sales. . . . The #1 subject matter in the Top 100 selling songs were variations of 'I want to take you back to my place so we can have sex' songs, accounting for 21% of the top titles. . . . The more traditional subject matter along the same line is the 'I love you' song, which was the 2nd most popular at 17%. These songs just edged out the 'Out Of Love' songs, which accounted for 16% of the titles."

Party songs do well, too, says Frank. Even really bad ones, if they follow the basic pop formula faithfully and can get lucky and go viral. You don't need talent or a label, though ambitious middle-class parents are a big plus. 14-year old Rebecca Black's parents paid $2000 to ARK Music Factory to make a video of her DIY single, "Friday." They posted it on YouTube February 10th, and to date it's attracted over 44 million hits. They quickly put the single out on iTunes, where it's selling 40,000 copies or so a week. The video is bad, it's being parodied, but the Blacks are printing money from it, and Rebecca's bigger than all of SXSW combined. Says Frank, "If you combined every view of 'Friday' and its parody videos, approximately 62 Million minutes were spent on this song [to date!]. . . . In the meantime, if the approximately 15,000 SxSW attendees watched 12 hours of music a day for all 5 days, that would only add up to 54 Million minutes spent watching music."

Rebecca Black - Friday (OFFICIAL VIDEO)

Feel free to cry, as the labels surely are. They've completely lost control of the system. Or if you're Bob Geldof, go ahead and feel validated, because this is future of pop music. Democratic production is here to stay, and it will mostly produce music like this, because this, and Gaga, and Britney, are at the top of the popular taste bell-curve. But at the same time, it permits an expansion of genres that has me buzzing with adrenaline and anticipation.

But if there will be no more Harper Lees, we may likewise see no more Pink Floyds, green and thoroughly non-commercial artists nurtured by generous and patient label A&R into astonishingly vernacular and catalytic talents. Even money-grubbing tastemakers occasionally have good taste, but the labels are losing all power to promote it. Great books only have great power if everybody reads them. Same with music. Revolutionary music proliferates, but out of the vernacular spotlight, buried under the ephemeral, starved of social power. Geldof's assessment is askew, but sadly, only by a quarter turn.

24 March 2011

18 March 2011

No More Harper Lees

I was going to comment on Fweem's post on the dismal economics of book publishing, but then it led me to Nathan Bransford's blog, and to this post on self-publishing ebooks, based on this post by author Amanda Hocking. Read at least the Bransford post and comments. This is the future happening before our eyes.

The music industry had no idea that the iPod and iTunes signaled an apocalypse for their business, even if at the same time it was making them money. Publishers probably are not as naive, and would surely kill ebook readers if they could. But they can't, and while publishers are already reeling, they are barely beginning to feel the mighty contraction and redistribution that ebooks will cause to their industry.

Ebook readers turn every work of literature into a blog post, the perceived value of which is zero. Anyone can publish a blog post, and anyone can publish an ebook. Publishers can still provide editing and marketing for the author, and more invaluably, filters for readers. Readers will be willing to pay a certain amount for the benefit of these services. But when publishers are puzzled as to why readers undervalue the very costly business of publishing (my own business), which they love to explain, they need to look at Hocking, shut up, and get to work reinventing themselves around new paradigms.

When one hardworking, mid-grade author like Hocking can sell 450,000 copies of her ebook in one month, without a publisher, the publishers' business paradigm and grasp on the market has just been smashed. It shows that an author can do it all herself and succeed in a big way. Are they scared? Terrified. Hocking says modestly, "[N]o publisher is afraid of me. That's just silly. I'm one girl who wrote a couple books that are selling well. That doesn't scare them - they just want to be a part of it, the same way they want to be a part of any best seller."

If I were a for-profit publisher, I would only be publishing work by authors with established online/ebook audiences. An audience is an audience, and it is the only thing a book needs to succeed. While some authors still believe self-publishing is debasing, that's old thinking, and irrational. I can foresee a day when publishers will be loath to publish anyone who does not already have a digital reader base. Building that base clearly requires quantity, at least moderate quality, and relentless self-promotion. Any shy author with just one great book in them will probably never be heard above the din. I hate the fact that there will be no more Harper Lees, but you read it here first: There will be no more Harper Lees.

15 March 2011

On Writing and Suicide Pacts

I listened to a great episode of Radiolab the other day on the lengths we may go in our quest for motivation. Addicts, creatives, and the mentally ill (mental illness defines all three equally well, probably) seem by far the most likely to go to radical extremes in search of willpower. In one segment, author Elizabeth Gilbert reflects on the fickleness of muses and whether it is possible to "live a creative life without cutting your ear off." In this same Radiolab segment, host Robert Krulwich speaks with the neurologist Oliver Sacks, of "Awakenings" fame. Sacks relates the story of writing his first book. He couldn't push past block, even to start it, and finally, in abject desperation, made a pact with himself to commit suicide if he did not have the book done in ten days. He finished it in nine.

I finished writing my dissertation under a similar cloud, facing professional annihilation. I thought years ago that writing it would be the fun bit of my program. After all, isn't thinking and writing precisely why I was becoming a scholar? As it turns out, there is a grand difference for me between the experience of writing what you want to write, and writing what you have to write. There is more to it than that (I tire of most topics quickly, I don't like my work to be judged, etc.), but this whole experience has has taught me much about myself. It's not only exploded ideas I've long held about myself, but also recast my entire thinking about the nature of both academic and creative activity.

I haven't encountered many truly creative people who are consistently so without great effort, many misfires, and too often, a lot of personal carnage. Most great scholars, the creative community I know best (as far as it is creative), are great because they are compulsive workers with fixed and narrow obsessions. They still have their ears, true, but often amputate from them life beyond work. Up close, it's not all that profound or romantic. Many great scholars are surprisingly dull people, hoarders of arcana more than Renaissance men.

I lack the requisite academic neurosis. I'm a compulsive loafer with obsessions both fickle and many. Unlike many colleagues, I do not have an absolute conviction of the value of my work upon which to draw for motivation, or failing that, at least a bottomless ego to feed or a desire for public praise or a compulsive need to be speak and be heard. Anonymity suits me just fine, and I rarely have something that I just have to say. In fact, I have a half-dozen blog posts written that I have not put up. I write them, I read them over, and then think to myself, "Honestly, why bother shouting into the void?"

So how does one develop a proper writer's ego? I don't know, but I have determined, at the very least, to begin to approach writing as a serious craft. I will always have to write, in my current occupation, and I would rather fall back upon great writing chops than suicide pacts to push me through block. And as an editor, I am constantly working with authors who cannot write well, looking to me for assistance. So, somebody pass me the Strunk and White.

23 February 2011

24-bit Audio on iTunes?

This is so unexpected and implausible that I have a hard time knowing how to parse it. Music industry heavyweight Jimmy Iovine just dropped at an HP news conference that his label (UMG) is working with Apple to introduce 24-bit audio music downloads to iTunes. Standard (Redbook) CD audio and compressed audio formats (mp3, AAC, etc.) are all 16-bit. Heretofore only advanced audio formats like SACD, DVD-Audio, and HD FLAC have supported 24-bit, all of which require special stand-alone players or (usually) upgraded computer hardware and software to play. Current Apple portable players do not even support 24-bit playback, and that limitation is a hardware issue. You'll need a new iPhone. Iovine recognizes this: "we have a long road ahead of us."

Iovine has a twofold interest in this. He's both an industry exec on the content side and a partner with Dr. Dre on the hardware side (Beats Audio), which licenses its branded technology to companies like HP. Selling 24-bit files lets the labels charge more, or a second time, for the advanced format, plus you have to upgrade your hardware to hear it. And you'll want better headphones like, you know, Iovine's own outrageously overpriced Beats by Dr. Dre.

This is clearly just a marketing move, and I can't see how it will get very far, very fast. The biggest practical problem, apart from hardware requirements, is that 24-bit files are huge, on the order of 100mb for a 4.5 minute song. On typical crappy DSL, during peak traffic, you could be a couple hours downloading an album. And your average listener on average equipment won't be able to tell a 24-bit track from an iTunes 256k AAC track, especially with non-acoustic music. If HDtracks pricing holds, 24-bit will cost you $2.50/tr over iTune's current $.99/tr pricing. Not sure there will be many takers. HDtracks is surviving but clearly not thriving, and it is aimed directly at audiophiles who care deeply about audio quality.

At least one recording engineer has already done a takedown of Iovine's idea, saying flatly, "A consumer will never need 24-bit. Ever." I agree. It takes great equipment and ears to hear the difference. This is not a consumer format. And the bigger issue, as he notes, is in the mastering. Iovine and Co. have sucked every bit of dynamic range out of modern pop recordings during mastering to make them "louder," and the main advantage of 24-bit is, yes, more dynamic range that would certainly not be used. I've blogged in the past that good mastering is almost everything, and CD-quality audio is plenty good, even for my picky ears.

    The Beats Audio team have taken the 24-bit concept to the other major labels and retailers, perhaps suggesting they can claw back traditional sales revenue from the growing subscription market, where the likes of Spotify will be unable to compete because the new file sizes will push up streaming time and costs.

As much as I hope this really does take off, it's just marketing. Mp3s are plenty good enough for mobile listening, even if not for critical listening. CD-quality lossless, which can already play on any player, would be entirely adequate for almost any purpose, but that would hardly be what all marketers are looking for—the Next New Hot Thing.

19 February 2011

Six Degrees of Alt Country

I went out to dinner with Tani last night and ended up dissecting for her my conflicted and selective love of country music. It's complicated. There is country music I simply don't like (most of it), and that's not a problem. There is country music I simply love (mostly alt country), and that's no problem either. Then there is country music I like, but am embarrassed to like. That's a post all its own.

Lady Antebellum won the record of the year Grammy for their latest album, which is a perfect example a country music I simply don't like. It's just power pop with fiddle and fictionalized southern sentiment. But I'm also sympathetic to the Philadelphia Weekly's Caralyn Green (um, minus the bit about Ryan Adams), speaking of Lady A's first album:

    I love country music. Neko Case is my goddess. Gillian Welch is my savior. Ryan Adams is my lust-object for life, and Uncle Tupelo is second only to Wilco.
    But Billboard Hot Country chart-toppers/crossover poppers Lady Antebellum? I dunno. It's possible they border a little too country even for me.
    'Cause when I say I love country, I mean I love alt-country. The thing is, even though I adore alt-country, I recognize its hypocrisy. Most alt-country fans, if not artists, are all like, "I dig country, but not, y'know, country."
    That statement's begging for a kick in the head. What we mean is we're down with banjos and fiddles and yearning hearts and vowels that twang, but not with Lady Antebellum's brand of CMT, all-American, Wal-Mart country, and all the Jesus-speak, Old South nostalgia and professed sincerity that accompany the genre. We're distancing ourselves from the folks who drive pickup trucks without irony. And on many levels, that's just elitist bullshit (though I certainly question Lady Antebellum's Civil War allusions and sentiment that "home is where the heart is, just south of the Mason-Dixon Line"). . . .

True enough. If Neko Case is country, I'm a country fan. But if Lady A is country, I'm really, definitely not. Is this a question of elitism? Well, a little. Lady A is radio music for casual listeners, and I rarely like that kind of music regardless of genre. But I enjoy Brad Paisley and Justin Moore and can't wait for Aaron Lewis's new album to come out. That's all country-country, of a certain stripe, but it's also for me a guilty pleasure. Not because I feel some sort of antipathy to rural or heartland culture—I'm a country boy myself, after all—but because it's so overtly sentimental. I shouldn't enjoy having country-country flip my sappy switch, but I do. So there.

Oh yeah, the six degrees. I've posted before about my fascination with the small world phenomenon, that we are all linked together in social networks that are shockingly small. I was just going to post about my very short list of non-mainstream musicians whom I think are truly unique talents. It's not a formal list, but five immediately pop to the top.

Neko Case is number one, and it turns out that she is closely linked to two other of the anointed, Nick Cave (toured with him) and Andrew Bird (recorded with him). And Cave and Bird are definitely not alt country. Six degrees, clearly. Any connection between Neko and Fleet Foxes? Meh, shared a ticket at the Newport Folk Festival. And with Devendra Banhart? Not that I can find. Ah well, my faith in both six degrees and the cosmic connectedness of alt country is nevertheless unshaken.

17 February 2011

Looking Back from the Future of Music (Zune edition)

We've had a Microsoft Zune Pass subscription for over a year. Zune Marketplace is one of the biggest subscription services out there, with about 11 million songs. For $15/mo. you get unlimited "rented" downloads on up to three Zune-compatible devices, and streaming on any PC, plus 10 free tracks/mo. to keep forever. The file quality is great, with 192 kbit/s WMA for streaming and 320 kbit/s MP3s for purchase. The selection is basically comprehensive for the major labels and decent-to-good for indies.

The Zune Marketplace collection is big enough to scratch most itches, and allows you to dig pretty deep with even narrower interests. Here is a selection test I did a while back: There are thirty-five recordings known to me of Rachmaninoff's Vespers, my favorite choral work. Many have been issued on tiny, obscure labels and/or are out of print as CDs. But at least twenty-one of these are available on Zune Marketplace. If you like Gaga or Cee-Lo Green, Zune of course easily has you covered. But even if your tastes are more esoteric, like mine, you are well served. It goes a long way towards putting a universal library of music in your pocket.

The Zune software is great, much better than iTunes. Tani has had a Zune HD for quite a while and has loved it. I just got myself one, finally, and it is the bomb. Best Player Ever, especially at current prices. Great build, great sound, and the best interface on any player. The only thing slightly lacking is its wi-fi performance, but if this were the last music player I ever owned, I'd be just fine. I'd been waiting for the rumored Zune HD2 to come out, but am skeptical now that it ever will. The Zune brand, I just read today, is probably on its way out, at least under that name. The Zune staff has already been reassigned. Future Zune players will either disappear entirely or live on in a different form (as phones or, maybe, portable gaming devices).

And that's the future of portable music players, it seems. Convergence. Nobody wants to own two or three devices (phone, mp3 player, portable gaming device, whatever) when one will do. And everybody already has a phone. Sadly, premium music players are on their way out, as greater segmentation and adoption in the multifunction phone market effectively replaces them. I totally buy the rumors of an iPhone mini.

But subscription music services, and their fantastic value, will keep growing. And what a value. The three of us in our family have played 31,469 tracks on Zune in the past 14 months. If my math is right, that means each play has cost us $0.015, a penny and a half. Even my most-played CD has cost me many times that per play. At retail cost ($15), that means a 1000 tracks would have to be played from a CD to equal the value. Only free would be better. Like Pandora. And in fact, I think the girls would be pretty happy if all they had was Pandora. You can see where this is going . . .

And book publishers still want to charge me $15 to read one of their ebooks once?

15 February 2011


It's 3:00AM. I've been burning it long and low for weeks trying to finish my dissertation before my program ejects me, which it has threatened, nay, promised to do in April. But tomorrow, after years of work, I submit.

But that's not what has me excited today. More that two years ago I posted on Esperanza Spalding, a very talented bassist and a jazz prodigy. She's on my short list of genius ├╝berartists who will always inspire me, but will never be popular. Past a certain point, creativity usually becomes prohibitive of popularity. It's transgressive and challenging, and that's not the stuff of entertainment.

But if any of my ├╝berartists is going to win hearts and fans, it would be Esperanza. She really works hard to cross over to non-jazz people, and has kilowatt charisma. And tonight she really broke out big, winning the Grammy for Best New Artist (NYT). (New? After three albums?) Apparently this was a bit of a surprise, "the first jazz musician to receive the award in decades, if not ever." She beat out Justin Bieber and was not riding the wave of a hit album.

People just love her, as a person and as a musician. And sometimes the great, banal beast of the Recording Academy just rolls over and gives a great artist her due. Esperanza, congrats.

10 February 2011

Looking Back from the Future of Music (I)

Several months ago I clicked on a featured YouTube video because the screenie showed the headstock of an electric bass. I play (a very little bit) the electric bass and I'm always looking for cool bass videos. This wasn't a bass video, really, but it turned out to be a music video I really liked.

I have no idea who Stephanie Strand is, but looking at her other videos, I'd says she's a 20-something just out of college, in no way a professional musician, but a very talented amateur. She also won the genetic lottery and has a contralto voice that is sweet enough for pop but smokey enough for blues. Her music is just hooky and angular enough to sound fresh while being utterly familiar. She recorded this with GarageTunes, which she admits she's just figuring out (hence the funky drums), and did everything herself with a couple hundred bucks of amateur gear. And it sounds better than a great many studio (over-)produced tracks.

216,534 views of Strand's video to date, and strong comments. I liked one in particular: "You are extremely talented. In another era, recording companies would be rushing to exploit your talent and appeal. You may not be a well schooled musician, but nothing about your performance seems amateurish. To my ears your voice is a striking blend of Karen Carpenter, Billie Holiday, and the French actress/singer Jeanne Moreau."

"In another era . . ." Well, perhaps. But more likely she would never have been discovered by a label. No one but friends and family, or some locals at open mic night, would ever have heard her. She'd never have recorded and been heard by over 200,000 people in just one year. She'd probably never have made a cent on this song or any other. Now she gets Google ad revenue, and she's put Gutters & Drains out as a single on iTunes and Zune. I liked the song enough that originally I ripped the audio stream into an mp3. But now I've bought it off Zune, and I've clicked on her ads to support her. Maybe she's only made a quarter from me at the end of the day, but that's 100% more than she would have made from me just a decade ago.

And that's the future of music. Talented, anonymous people recording songs in their bedrooms, and finding hundreds of thousands of fans. Tell me again why we need the record labels?

As it turns out, even online music stores are tipping into a steep decline. Read this. People aren't even bothering to steal music any more. Now read this. DashGo is an indie music label. A year ago they were getting $25 from iTunes sales for every $1 from YouTube ad revenue. In twelve months that gap has closed to just 2:1. "Every day a few thousand people buy our content on iTunes. Every day on YouTube a few million people stream our songs."

If the music labels thought the death of overpriced CDs sucked, they ain't seen nothin' yet. The paradigms of music distribution are being totally smashed. "It appears if something’s not free, it gets no traction," says Lefsetz. "Used to be it was free on the radio. Then it was free on TV. Now it’s free online. And so ubiquitous that there’s no incentive to buy. . . . YouTube is free. Monetization is being figured out along the way. Maybe we need to admit music is free and work from there."