Sunday, November 28, 2010

How To Be A Rock Star

Ever had dreams of becoming a famous rock star, up there on the stage, guitar in hand, idolized by millions? Many of us have.

It takes a convergence of many important talents including musicianship, showmanship, music composition, poetry (lyrics) and, yes, even a certain amount of business sense (rock and roll is a business, after all). All of the most famous rock stars since rock and roll's early days have demonstrated the above talents in varying degrees but there is one secret that seems essential to success. One characteristic seems indispensable if you're going to make it in the "vicious game" that is rock and roll, as April Wine's Myles Goodwin so aptly put it. All of the rock legends that you see below had it. Can you guess what it is?

Billy Joel

Bob Dylan

George Thorogood

Jimi Hendrix

Mark Knopfler

Mick Jagger

Ringo Starr

Steve Tyler

That's right, it's a full set of large, meaty lips. I'm not completely sure why this is, but it probably has to do with the proper enunciation of the word "Baby".

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Sour Limes

On October 26th, Lime Group was slapped with a court injunction to disable the file sharing and peer-to-peer networking functionality in its popular LimeWire file sharing software. The upshot of this, of course, is that the LimeWire software can no longer illegally download files (especially music and videos).

Horrors! You mean the free ride is over? The gravy train has left? No more free music? This is an outrage! The public has rights! It's undemocratic! It's unconstitutional!

The court injunction was, of course, driven primarily by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) who have seen file sharing services like LimeWire as a stone in their corporate shoe for several years now. Let's face it, if everybody downloads music without paying for it, the music industry must eventually collapse. If the music publishers and distributors make no money, they can't afford to pay the artists and performers, who then also make no money and can't afford to continue exercising their creativity (except, perhaps, in their spare time, outside of their day jobs and, even then, it would have to be strictly a labor of love).

The RIAA's web site claims that illegal downloading of music globally has caused economic losses of about $12.5 billion per year in lost earnings, lost jobs and lost tax revenues. I tend to look at this type of argument with some skepticism. What they're really saying is that, if every single song that was downloaded illegally in the past year had been paid for, the music industry, its artists and performers and the tax man would now be about $12.5 billion richer.

First of all, let's remember that this is just an estimate. Nobody can realistically say exactly how much music was illegally downloaded last year. Even granting that the estimate is reasonably accurate, those making the estimate appear to assume that those who downloaded music illegally would have downloaded that music even if they had to pay for it. This fails to consider that there is still the third option of simply not downloading at all. I suspect that the majority of the music that was illegally downloaded would not have been downloaded if there was no choice but to pay for it. Just because I'm willing to take something for free doesn't necessarily mean that I'm also willing to pay for it. That's a logical argument, not a legal or a moral one. It does, however, challenge the premise that the music industry should, by all rights, be $12.5 billion richer today than it was at this time last year.

I think that one of the main reasons why people download music illegally is because there's a perception that the music industry is full of mega-rich stars who don't need the money anyway, and so illegal downloading is seen as a victimless crime. Michael Jackson's estate alone is said to have made more that $275 million last year. Not bad, for a dead guy! This in spite of the fact that many people surely downloaded Jackson's music illegally. It's hard to sympathize with someone who cries that they only made $275 million when they really should have made, say, $500 million. In that context, it becomes understandable that many don't feel a great deal of guilt about not tossing another ten bucks into the huge money pot for their copy of "Thriller".

Of course, for every Michael Jackson out there, there are hundreds of lesser-known, struggling artists who can't yet afford to quit their day jobs. On the other hand, not many people download their music, because they're not as well-known. Ironically, this poorer class of artist is often happy to allow people to download and distribute their work for free in the interest of getting increased exposure.

Another rationalization that's sometimes used to defend music piracy is the argument that the music industry has already reaped the profits from the music that it offers and shouldn't be paid for it again. The music industry is notorious for re-releasing the same work multiple times under different packaging. Aside from "Greatest Hits" compilations, there are the "Extended" or "Deluxe" editions of albums, which are often simply the original albums re-packaged with an extra track or two included.

I'll pick on one of my personal favorite musicians in this regard. I've been a huge fan of Mike Oldfield's music since my college years. I've legally purchased most of his albums twice, first on vinyl and then again on CD. Of course, the digital CD format is of a higher quality than the old vinyl. It's reasonable to pay for the upgrade, although one could make the argument I shouldn't necessarily have had to pay full price the second time around. Why not offer me a discount for proof of purchase of the older vinyl pressing? Unfortunately, music industry marketers have never been known for this sort of forward thinking, which is largely why the digital revolution caught them so unawares. But I digress, as usual.

Even allowing that I was willing to pay a second time for CD versions of Oldfield's music, he has re-released and re-re-released his seminal work, "Tubular Bells" so many times now that it even makes me groan "Enough already Mike!" "Tubular Bells" was originally released on vinyl, both in stereo and quadraphonic formats. A re-mixed version with an out-take that had been dropped from the original release was included as part of a boxed set (appropriately entitled "Boxed") along with re-mixes of several of Oldfield's other previously-released albums. Of course, all of the above were eventually released on CD as well, and some even on DVD.

Then followed several sequels to the work including "Tubular Bells II", "Tubular Bells III" and even "The Orchestral Tubular Bells" but these, although variations on the original theme, were new recordings and therefore qualify as new material, rather than a simple re-packaging of previously released work. There was also "Tubular Bells 2003" which was a complete re-recording of the original work but at least it was a re-recording rather than just another re-mix or remastering.

In contrast, the 25th Anniversary Collector's Edition CD release, was the merely the original Tubular Bells, cleaned up and re-mastered and re-packaged yet again. Segments of the work have appeared on compilation albums such as "The Complete Mike Oldfield". In 2009, four physical variations and two digital variations were re-released in the U.K. and Ireland, and five physical variations were released in the U.S. and elsewhere. These include a new stereo mix, a 5.1 surround mix (entitled "The Deluxe Edition") and an "Ultimate Edition" which basically contains all of the previous editions plus extras. All of these are nothing more than re-mixed and remastered versions of the same work that Oldfield first recorded in 1973. I'd say he's milked his Tubular cow for all it's worth, and then some!

Incidentally, I was dismayed to discover that some of the CD releases of Oldfield's albums were missing material that had been included with their vinyl brethren. The CD version of "Crises" lacked the song "Mistake", which appeared on the vinyl album, and the CD version of "Incantations" seriously abridged one of the tracks, fading it up a good two or three minutes into the piece as compared to the vinyl version. Given that a compact disc is capable of storing more music than a 12-inch vinyl disc, I see no excuse for these omissions. In this regard, it might be argued that Oldfield or his publishers stole from me, and from all of his other fans that purchased the CD versions of those albums. So I put this question to you; if I were to find those missing tracks on LimeWire or some similar file sharing network (and, make no mistake, there are others), would I be justified in downloading them for free?

I'm not arguing in favor of illegal downloading of music. As I said, if everybody did so, the music industry would collapse. The RIAA is well within its rights in fighting music piracy. I'm merely pointing out why it's understandable that some people do illegally download music without feeling that they are committing any great wrong, and I question whether music piracy has really hurt the industry as badly as the RIAA would have us believe.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Great Programmer

In his blog, Scott Adams (the creator of Dilbert, for those of you who have been holed up in a cave) has, on occasion, mused that we may be nothing more than an elaborate hologram or computer program created and run by some higher being. In one example he cites having had a vision, earlier in life, about becoming famous which, in a very real sense, he did. He postulates that he may, in fact, be nothing more than a holographic self-portrait of the higher being that actually created him.

I like Adams, but many of his theories evoke a decided "yeah, right!" from me. This one certainly did. Until I started watching nature shows.

Ever since I got a wide-screen, high-definition TV, I've really gotten into the BBC Earth documentaries such as "Planet Earth" and, most recently, "Life" (the version narrated by David Attenborough, not Opra Winfrey, thank-you-very-much!)

If you'll bear with my going off on a tangent for a moment, I can't resist noting that my dad, who enjoyed all kinds of nature shows, would have loved these documentaries, especially on high-definition display technology. It's a shame he didn't live to enjoy them.

Getting back on topic, these nature documentaries have reminded me of something for which I have no rational explanation, nor has anybody else as far as I know. More incredibly, extending Adams' theory that humans are nothing more than computer programs to include the animal world as well would provide as credible an explanation for this phenomenon as any other. The phenomenon? In a word, instinct.

"The Pocket Oxford Dictionary" (which happens to be the only dictionary that I have handy while writing this) defines instinct as the "Innate propensity, esp. in lower animals, to seemingly rational acts; innate impulse or behaviour; intuition". In other words, it's that "magical" gift that animals have for knowing what to do and how to do it, without actually having to learn it. All cats wash themselves regularly. Momma cat doesn't have to teach them this. It's an instinct.

That was a simple example. The Monarch butterfly provides us with a much more incredible one. Each fall, great swarms of Monarch butterflies fly from southern Canada, across the North American continent, over 3,100 miles, to converge in a small town in Michoagan, Mexico, where they mate. In the spring, their offspring migrates northward, back to Canada. Since the lifespan of a Monarch butterfly is only a few months, none of them ever make the trip more than once. Each makes a one-way trip, then spawns and dies. So how does each new generation know exactly where to go, or how to get there?

The male garibaldi (no relation to Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian political activist), an orange, tropical fish that looks like a goldfish, prepares a nest, entices the female to lay her eggs in it, and then fertilizes them and chases her off, since she's likely to eat the eggs if given the chance. How does the male know this? And why isn't he tempted to eat the eggs?

We call it instinct, but I can't help noticing that instinctive behavior of this sort is very similar to the behavior of a computer program that's been hard-coded to perform a given function. The computer isn't taught by other computers. It doesn't take it upon itself to search Google for instructions on how to open a window or play a video or send and receive e-mails. Some programmer has given it those instructions and, as a result, it simply knows. Electronic instinct.

Maybe Scott Adams' idea isn't so far-fetched after all. Maybe there is a Great Programmer, and the reality that we perceive is just His program, executing its routines. On a darker note, as I observe the world and I witness the on-going unrest in the middle east, the increasing economic disparity between the wealthy few and the proletariat masses, and man-made ecological disasters such as last summer's BP oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, I can't help but muse as to whether we share more in common with software bugs and computer viruses than we do with useful programs.