Music To My Peers

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Courtesy - A rather amusing take on the RIAA
When I close my eyes and think of the RIAA (as we all do), I don't see the customary blood-sucking vampire. I see a digital chicken little, hit in the head with a new idea and running around screaming to anyone that can hear, "The sales are falling!" The RIAA, for those not following the last few years in ridiculousness, is the US organization responsible for harassing grannies and children in their hunt to shakedown change purses and piggy banks the world over. Not to say that the CRIA here in Canada is any better or different, just less well known. The problem, they say, is file sharing means nobody is buying the CDs of the people they purport to represent. Nevermind that online music is now a billion dollar industry and growing. Nevermind that the growth is hampered by excessive restrictions they place on those doing it legally. Nevermind that their problems would be much less if they had, as I suggested years ago, found a way to work with Napster when it was the only kid on the block instead of shutting it down and scattering all those eggs from the one digital basket.

Sluts are apparently good role models for 12-year old girls
Yes, the problems with the music industry are many (so now, again, I'm going to tell them what they should do), starting with the fact that the emphasis has moved in the last 15 years from "music" to "industry". These days, in the world of radio and mass-media, it's all about soulless pretty boys/dirty girls having someone else write songs mathematically designed to capitalize on success from previous hits (by sounding exactly like them), having other people still to play them, and then a studio magic button to tweak what little talent may exist into something more 'listenable'. Rinse, repeat, 3:30 sec, 11-13 times, and you have a CD. That's not art, that's a product. And not a very good one, at that.

Chances are one of those songs is all that anyone wants to hear, perhaps because that's all they heard on the radio - radio being even more afraid of seeing its own shadow move than the record labels. So when THESE people are buying music online, rest assured they're not buying the CD - they haven't been conditioned to listen to whole CDs. They're buying that hit single and listening to it on repeat for a few days until they wonder what they were thinking. Right there, you're losing revenue, because people have an alternative to spending $15 on a CD - $1 on the one song they liked. That's nobody's fault except for the corporate machine that has put an emphasis on album filler and glitz and glamour and not on quality, artistic expression, or, generally, people with anything at all to recommend them except a good plastic surgeon.

The Coachella movie poster
New Medium, Smaller Price
Of course there are lots of people ACTUALLY making music out there - some of it is even popular. For those artists, online music downloads have been a huge boon because they get the exposure that the radio has been too frightened to deliver and store access like any of the big players. For these people and even for the corporate sellout acts, nothing could be better than a lower price. Right now, tracks are priced at 99 cents on average, which puts an average 12-track album at about $12. But. You don't get a physical CD; you don't get the artwork/liner notes; you can't make copies for yourself or do whatever you want with it privately. All because of three counterproductive letters, D, R, and M. Yes, DRM, Digital Rights Management, isn't about your rights. It's about your lack of rights. Kind of misleading. If anything, they should change the acronym to TRABSVAGSSFLOP, which, you'll have to take my word for it, is a rather acerbic acronym for the RIAA and its ilk. Anyway, for example say you buy a song in iTunes. You can't copy it to ANY media player except an iPod. Which would be totally unacceptable except they rule so much of the portable player market. And you pay roughly the same price - yet their cost is almost nothing. No shipping, storage, distribution, production, printing, or anything on a digital copy except the bandwidth it's coming in on.

If they want people to just download music, it should be at least half that price. 25 cents seems an appropriate amount but even 50 cents makes the average downloaded album $5, which is a LOT more likely to be downloaded on impulse than $10. But that's perceived as a loss of revenue, and indeed it is - assuming you don't have more people doing it. Which is obviously a fallacy only the music industry could dream up. The cheaper it is, the more people will eschew trying to find someone to download it from for free just to have the convenience of a legal copy. Furthermore, the more people can be weened from sharing, the harder it is to find someone sharing what you want, and making the convenience of downloading legally all that much more potent.

Radio found dead under suspicious circumstances. Foul play suspected.
Radio Killed The Radio Star
Secondly, they should realize that people downloading music legally are not pirates and shouldn't be treated as such. They're paying customers who have chosen to pay and shouldn't be considered criminals. It's offensive and alienating to the people you have converted or are trying to convert to legal downloads. I also think that reserving DRM for previews and making the previews full length (but limited play) would remove a reason that many still share - to try new music before they buy. Remember when people used to listen to the radio? That was a great tool because it was essentially marketing for new music. People have always been free and able to copy these broadcasts and make mix tapes, do we really believe that sharing is so different? Just because the quality's better? I'm not talking blanket sharing even (though this is what radio essentially is, albeit targetted slightly by genre), but people exchanging music that they think the other will like. Think about it. You and your friend just point your iPods at each other and suddenly you have some new music he's just gotten into on your iPod that you can play through, say three times. You like it and after your three times have run through you buy it, or else you don't and delete it. This is what we call a win-win situation.

I see a model where people can purchase tracks at a much more discounted price from the CD, where people can pop their CD into their computer without having Sony's Anti-Theft Spies stealing your personal information, where people can share music with friends in a way that promotes music and also purchasing if they like it. Where we don't pay levies on CD-Rs that we MIGHT use for backing up our own music or one of the many billions of just as likely on-audio uses and then still get accused of theft. As we move to media-on-demand, the music industry needs a new way of promoting new music. Radio won't work, nor 30 second previews. Podcasting is another great tool in the transition, as it combines the programming convenience ("let someone else find the music") with on demand skipability. Ultimately, sharing is this new marketing scheme, and the best thing is, it costs nothing but a shift in outlook. The question is, can we turn the heads of those monolithic beasts? Based on past experience, the answer is a resounding, screamed NO!.

Believe it or not, I'm not affiliated or even a member of eMusic... yet.
Signs of Progress
But I'd like to leave things on a slightly higher note than that last "no". There are, for example, more music services than iTunes. One of the best out there right now is eMusic, which delivers music in un-DRMed MP3 format. You can copy it to ANY portable device, be it iPod, Zen, iRiver, or... miscellaneous, which, aside from DRM, is the biggest drawback of a similar service from Yahoo. Not only can you use any device, but you can subscribe and get up to 40 tracks for $10/month, which works out to 25 cents/download, which is VERY reasonable indeed. Better still, you're not supporting the old industry diehards by locking into their scheme, you're supporting bands, labels, and an online service that believe in music and in people who support it legally. AND you get to start with 50 downloads free just to try and see if you like it. As for what to download with your 50 free credits, well, of course you can email me or browse through my blog for recommendations, or you can go to sites reviewing music like Tiny Mix Tapes and Pitchfork for the latest and greatest. Or you can hear it for yourself through some podcasts. There are tonnes of options for people who want to see the situation improve, so please, take a look and make a difference. It's a start.

Never See A Bad Movie Again

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Gigli is universally accepted to be just plain awful, even by the actors in it
It used to be that all you could judge a movie by was its title, trailer and how many thumbs Siskel & Ebert were holding up. And that worked pretty well. If the directors can't put together a good thirty second preview for the movie then what hope do they have on a full length production? But these days, they're getting tricky with those trailers, handing them to outsiders and showing all the good stuff up front. And of course we lost Siskel, though Ebert and I still agree more often than not, but it's close. Of course, these are still good ways to decide whether you want to see a movie, and certain arts to see through these latest tricks. Luckily, dear reader, movie prejudging is a skill I have worked into an art, and with the lineup of remakes and unoriginal stuff facing us in 2006, you're going to need all the help you can get...

The Trailer
What a way to preview a movie
Whatever the critics may say, the fact is that nobody has quite the same tastes as you do. And the only way to prejudge for yourself is to see the trailer, the most important part of the judging process. Luckily, thanks to high speed internet, you don't have to go see one bad movie to see the trailer for another potentially bad one. Sites like Apple and ComingSoon.Net have lots of trailers. But the question remains, how do you know if a movie is going to be good - or more importantly, bad - from the trailer? Obviously there's no definitive guide since taste is subjective, but let me offer my top five show stoppers - I can't tell you what you'll like, but I know what bad is.

1) Floored or Bored? - Most people won't bother to see a movie that they find the trailer boring for, that's just common sense. But I say, don't go see a movie unless the trailer really engages you. If a two minute clip doesn't leave you wanting more, then you probably don't. Also, if you can, try to watch the trailer the same day you go to the movie (unless you've already decided in advance you want to see it, in which case, you probably do) - that way your mood will dictate what you like and you will have a better chance of seeing something you want to.

2) Bare Skin, Bare Bones - If you're going to see a movie because the trailer looks hot - ESPECIALLY if that hotness is the focus - be assured that under no conditions will the movie itself be anything of the sort. Any steamy scene that cuts too soon in the trailer probably does so because the movie itself cuts there as well, and then the great selling point for the movie is gone leaving it an empty husk and you wondering why you went to see it in the first place. This also applies to movies where the whole trailer is the lead character wandering around scantily clad. This can save you from debacles like Tomcats or Catwoman.

3) Bad Titlature - Not as related to point two as it sounds. Face it, if the creative mind that produced a plot can't even string together a couple words into a compelling title, they probably can't string together a whole bunch into a compelling story. Be wary of movies titled "The Something" where something is a boring everyday object - You could be saved from such travesties as Dark Water or The Avengers. Well, OK, so "Avengers" is not a boring everyday word, but I just want to have it known just how awful that movie really is. I should've known. What non-Tarantino movie with Uma Thurman has been any good? She's in three of my top 10 worst movies of all time.

4) No Flow? Go - If the trailer is a bunch of disjointed scenes and you're never quite sure what the movie will be about, it's probably because the movie isn't about anything and the director can't even venture a guess. This is a tough one to find examples for, but check out Nine Lives for an example of a movie I'd NEVER go see.

5) The Sign Of The Devil - If you see the sign - MTV Films - at ANY point in the movie, run! You could be saved from such crimes against mankind as Aeon Flux or Napoleon Dynamite.

Two thumbs up, started by Siskel and Ebert and continued by geeks the world over
Life sure would be easier if we could believe everything we heard, but liars and people with bad taste abound in this world - after all, who do you think is making these awful movies we're trying to avoid? Even Ebert and I disagree sometimes (though he usually calls and apologizes afterwards). So why take one source when you can sample a bunch? And fast. If you're using Google to search for movie times (like I told you about, then you've probably already seen that it also gives you the average rating with a link and the number of reviews accumulated. That's one way to get a bunch of opinions fast. You can also use a site I really like called Rotten Tomatoes, which gives a bunch of nice one-liners on the movie in question. Here's how it saved me from seeing Aeon Flux. After all, if two heads are better than one, surely a bunch of rotten tomatoes are better than... one... too?

You may need to resort to this in order to afford the cinema
Motive Operandi
The final and sometimes first nail in the for any movie is its raison d'etre, the reason it's being made. There are plenty of movies out there that are quite entertaining and serve no purpose other than that (the James Bond series comes to mind) and there are some with an agenda or opinion to express (usually the movies you'll either love or hate and also the movies the critics will love at any expense, especially if its a controversial opinion). And there are some, plain and simple, out there to make money. Many. More and more every year. Hollywood rivals the music industry for its sheer buck-lust. If a movie strikes you as 'cashing in' or looks somehow like it was made solely to get you to spend half your life savings on popcorn at the local cinema, it's a safe bet that the people involved in making it from actors all the way up aren't going to be staking any of their soul in it. The results are rarely pretty. Look at what they did to Batman, taking away Tim Burton years ago to make it sell better and be more 'kid friendly'. Batman & Robin is number two on my list of worst all time movies. Of course the series has been redeemed by starting at the beginning again with spectacular Batman Begins.

I'm no Andy Rooney, but I know what I hate
Final Rant
And speaking of greed, you know what gets me fuming? Paying $11 to go see a movie, while a little on the steep side, I don't mind for big event shows where atmosphere and a massive screen with great sound are important. And while popcorn prices could be halved and still be unreasonable, I will even fork over the cash for that once in awhile (though it would be nice if they'd at least give you remotely fresh stuff when you're paying that much). But what bothers me like nothing else, is that even AFTER I've paid all that money, they force me to sit through commercials. This is old news, I know, but lately there seem to be more and more - the other day I counted 20 MINUTES (!!!!) of commericals. I'm not talking about movie trailers, we need those (see above). I'm talking about car ads, Five Alive ads, Insurance ads, whatever. What the 5^@%@#$%(* am I paying for if you're making money on me sitting and watching this garbage? Nevermind that I vow with each viewing never to purchase any of the products displayed.

At least they could list the time the TRAILERS start instead of the commercials so I can choose to miss them. Really, think about it. I ask you, what kind of business charges its customers more than most people think is fair, gives them a product that really isn't any good (yes, I dislike old, cold popcorn), bases all of its income on said inferior product, and then goes out of their way to ensure an unpleasant experience? A business that probably isn't going to do so well, right? And go figure, they aren't. Most of the cinemas are struggling to stay alive. It's easy to blame Hollywood's greed in raking the profits out of the cinemas (we've all seen the DVDs with commercials, don't get me started), but this is a clear case of the cinemas themselves being excessively greedy.

Sadly, I can't change that. But I hope that I've helped give you what you need to at least enjoy the movie once you've spent your retirement fund for admission. If not, you can always go vent at sites like The Stinkers or Tom Cruise Is Nuts. Happy movie-going.

New Year: New Look: Old News

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Samsung's New 102 Inch Plasma TV
Yes, I know, I'm guilty of not keeping this site as up to date as I'd like, so I hope that with a new look (featuring one of my favourite photos from 2005) that will change. Better still, the site's never looked this good in Firefox. New look aside, a new year doesn't necessarily mean much new to report, so here's a look at some of 2005's new treats, from podcasts to 102" Plasmas, audio books to MacBooks, and just some other stuff I think you might enjoy. Please let me know what you think of the redesign by leaving a comment.

The new way to read books
Books, Books, Everywhere
There hasn't been a "Year of the book" since they finished the library in Alexandria, but 2005 might as well be one as far as I'm concerned. Thanks largely to Dan and a free offer at Audible, I really was surprised at how much I enjoyed listening to these. Ender's Game and A Confederacy of Dunces were particular standouts, the former passing the time en route to Europe and the latter en route from Greece to the UK. Not all the books I read were audio, however. I also went through all of Dan Brown's books, particularly enjoying the illustrated Robert Langdon novels, several Micheal Crichton books (which were equally delightful) starting with Air Frame, and a few others like Star of the Sea. And many, many, more - I probably could have filled my backpack with all the books I read last year. Which is what makes an invention like Sony's new eBook so appealing. The only drawback to all these new digital media gadgets is that the companies expect to sell digital media at the same price as their non-digital predecessors. You can't expect consumers to pay the same price (or more!) when we know that, in the case of books, there is no printing cost, paper cost, shipping cost, etc involved. This goes for music and video too (ahem, Apple). Speaking of Apple, and books for that matter, I've decided my next computer/laptop purchase will be Apple's MacBook Pro- it runs on an Intel dual-core processor (I expect multi-processor chips will finally win). I imagine I'll be able to boot it with Windows and OS X for whatever I may want to run.

Creative's Zen Vision:M
And Then There Were Gadgets
While I was away for a good part of last year, gadget makers didn't seem as phased as I imagined they might be without me personally financing them. Take a look at this "Fly" pen-puter for kids, for example. Draw a piano on a piece of paper and then tap the notes and play/record/multitrack a song, just as an example. I bought Mariah one for Christmas, but I'm not sure who's been playing with it more. Or if you were one of the 14 million people that got a new iPod over the holidays, you may want to swing by this site of cool things to do with it. Or if you'd prefer to avoid the bandwagons, maybe check out the new Creative Zen Vision:M. I'm probably not the only one unimpressed with the iPod's lack of support for other video formats and iTunes' lack of conversion ability, after all. Then again, who wants to watch video on a little screen like that anyway - especially when you can watch on this ridiculously awesome 102" Samsung Plasma. Though I think I'd sooner spend the $100,000 on a projector and theatre seating - and lots of popcorn.

Mmmm, consume you I will!
Let's All Go To The Lobby
Speaking of movies, there were a few exceptional movies last year, but I think that next year is more exciting. I don't need to tell you I loved the final chapter of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. And both King Kong and The Chronicles of Narnia held up under scrutiny, if you can overlook exceedingly long movie runtimes and spotty child acting. But the highlight for me, aside from Star Wars, was the release of some of my favourite shows on to DVD. The Simpsons Season 6 is inside-outside (of the disc) classics, and Season 7 is not far behind. These are the two best seasons the show has had to date. And of course we're up to season 6 in Seinfeld as well, though season 5 has my all time favourite episode - The Marine Biologist. Not to mention Family Guy Season 4 and others. The girls in Greece somehow (hypnosis?) got me hooked on Desperate Housewives, too, which isn't relevant, but I feel I need to confess.

Canada's Most Intiguing Band Indeed
Music, Sweet Music
There were some excellent new bands last year that I really got into, but the latest development for me is podcasts. I've finally gotten around to it and I have a few podcasts to recommend. Wait, what's a podcast, you ask? Well, it's basically a show that someone puts together (like a radio show broadcast) that you can skip past boring parts, songs you don't like, and still get to experience some new music or audio. And you don't need an iPod to do it, contrary to popular belief, you can actually tune in with just a PC or any portable MP3 player. My favourite two, for the moment are CBC Radio 3, chock full of new Candian music, and the Ricky Gervais Show, Ricky being a hilarious British guy (creator/star of The Office and Extras) and the show being a talkshow. I must be getting old. But of course, you know I'm going to list some music I've just gotten into last year, so without further hoopla: Andrew Bird (mellow rocker), The Decemberists (mariner-sounding rock folk), Kaiser Chiefs (tasty as Franz Ferdinand, only half the popularity), Beulah (listen to Yoko first), Sigur Ros (Radiohead play Iceland), Arcade Fire (OK, so that was 2004, still... Canada plays rock), and a bunch of others (Dean gets lazy).

And so there you have 2005. Now I'm off to start working on the 2006 collection. Wish me luck!

Everything: Coming Soon To An Internet Near You

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Mariah's photo outside our house
It's been awhile, and if I wait much longer, I'll miss my chance to wish anyone still coming by the blog occasionally a happy new year, so... Happy New Year. Now that I'm back home, my blog will probably not be about anything relating to me, at least not very often, but probably more about things that cross my mind and my radar that I'd like to pass on. But before I do that, I should say that Christmas was great, very glad I made it back home to be with the family, though what a busy time to come back! Still, it made catching up a little with everyone quite easy. New Year's was good too, I worked as usual, we had a nice dinner, and then had a good time in the 'ol lounge with some family and friends that came by. I'm back at work now and enjoying that too, and that's about all I have to report at the moment.

But before I finish with the holidays for another year, you absolutely must see this. It's a house with Christmas lights set to music and much more amusing than it sounds, hosted on Google's new Google video service. It also helps form a nice segue for me, so enjoy!

Christmas House of Awesomeness

So, with that out of the way, I had started this post some time ago as a preview of some of the 'unknown' features Google has. You know, things like if you type in "2^2+4*(6+5)" you'll get the answer, or "5 fathoms in metres" it'll do the converstion, or "465.66 USD in CAD" will tell you Google's share price is in Canadian dollars as of market close today (yeah, I bought some earlier this week), or "define perspicacity" brings up the definition, just as a few examples. What other ways has Google made itself the best search engine? Well, they keep making it smarter. Try a search for "Athena Restaurant Saskatoon" and look what's at the top of the list. Tried googling a movie lately? Go ahead. Google "King Kong". At least for me, it comes up with a list of showtimes in the city, with the averaged rating from different sources before it puts all the other links I might want to read. Same for music. Google "Frank Black" and you'll see that you get a link to the discography, reviews, and all sorts of goodies right there at the top. And the list goes on: stock quotes, quick facts, books, maps, weather, and one thing I also like is the wildcard: "Saskatoon best * in the world" and it will fill in words for the * and return everything that Saskatoon is best at (according to the web).

My Google Startpage
And I guess since I'm at it, here's something else that's very cool and I've just set up (and you can too). Google is my search engine, email, and news collector. It grabs news headlines from sites I select (like CBC, Slashdot, and others) but there's a feature they've had for some time that I bet many of you haven't used. If you have a google account/email - and if you don't you can sign up in 30 seconds - you can easily create a personalized homepage like the one I've pasted below. REALLY easily. You just select from a list the content you want and bam, there it is. You can even move it around the way you want it. If you look at the screenshot on the left, you'll see I have my Gmail inbox, global news, CBC news, Slashdot (news for nerds), yet more news for nerds, and then on the right, up to date weather, quote/word of the day, and, yes, for the purpose of this example, the site feed from my blog.

But enough on features. Here's how I see Google becoming ever more prevalent, incited by some insight from the past week's CES show. First of all, they have a brand that you can't buy, a reputation for being the best at what they do, and also innovative thanks to the massive quantities of brain power they've amassed. Let us not forget that, so far, they've mostly lived up to their "don't be evil" slogan, which certainly helps. Now, with all the features I've outlined above, they're positioned to essentially be the web portal of choice. Because even with all those features beneath the surface, their website still retains a clean, quick interface. Their search engine sticks to text ads (which I'm going to try on this site just for my own curiosity) and the breakthrough there is that the ads are relevant to what you're looking for. Imagine if you watched television and there were no ads for things that didn't relate to things you were interested in.

Internet Video on Demand
Enter Google Video, and lest we forget, the inevitable convergence of internet, television, movies, etc into the all-in-one media centre, which is already (finally) happening and has been predicted for YEARS. And there's one other phenomena that I think a lot of people haven't considered, and that's the amount of movie/tv show downloading that goes on today. We'll ignore the movie piracy for the moment, and I'm not even talking about the shows with available DVDs, but TV shows - why are they so popular that people take the time to encode them, distribute them, and then download them? Well, no commercials is one feature, but I don't think the driving force. The fact that it's available ON DEMAND, that you watch it when YOU want it, not when some executive in Toronto or California or wherever has scheduled you to be home and watch it. Look at Tivo? Why do you think it's so popular? On demand is the future.

Bundle video on demand with the internet, and you suddenly have the capability to deliver that content. And who better to index and provide that content than the site already being used more than any other: Google. Now, at first, what I think we'll see is a lot of pay-per-view type downloading, and covered in all sorts of ugly DRM (copy protection). $1.99 episodes of many popular shows are already available in the US a day after they air. Google is taking that route, too, for now, which will put them head-to-head with Apple's iTunes and many other up-and-comers. I don't think this strategy will win the day for Google, though. Here's what will, it's the same thing that television networks already use today to generate the massive revenues they do: advertising. The best part is, Google is already placed to deliver the goods in that better than anyone else in the world.

The world's largest Sudoku puzzle
So, picture this. If you have an account with Google, they already know a lot more about you than any of us is comfortable thinking about. Searches, ads you've clicked on in the past, sites you've visited, or pretty much anything you've ever done on the web - even if it's just playing hours of Web Sudoku (see my new link on the left). You take that knowledge, combine it with ads indexed (by Google) with information that helps determine target audience, and suddenly, you have television with targeted ads. And best of all, you are able to provide all these shows that others are charging $2 (US) a download for absolutely free. You make money on a percentage of the ads, with the rest going to the network that supplied the show in you're watching. What's more, suddenly DRM isn't an issue, because the content is free anyway, so users can take it and put it on any player you want. As far as I'm concerned, everybody wins.

Goodbye, television
And, with a stroke, television as we know it ceases to exist. Now you watch video when you have time, and, if you are an avid fan, perhaps the day it's "released" not "aired". Nielsen ratings are a thing of the past, because you now know EXACTLY how many people are watching, and all sorts of demographic information you never thought possible before. The recent format wars for DVD's replacement (HD-DVD or Bluray) will not matter 10 years from now when everything is on the internet anyway. We like to think of all the ways the internet has changed our life, but the reality is we've only just begun to realize the enormous potential of a converged internet. Which, inevitably, will have Google at the helm.