Category - commentary

Acerbic observations on the state of the world, art, politics, and culture.

McLuhan Redux

“Societies have always been shaped more by the nature of the media by which men communicate than by the content of the communication.”

— Marshall McLuhan, The Medium is the Massage (1964)

Chuck Raasch, Gannett National Writer

Though he has probably never heard of Marshall McLuhan, Gannett political commentator Chuck Raasch has found evidence that the medium is indeed the message.

It seems Mr. Raasch has suddenly discovered that politics is undergoing the same sort of transformation that the music biz started to experience ten or fifteen years ago; in both cases, the dislocation is the direct result of new technologies:

“This is not normal in our lifetimes,” Martin said of the volatility. “This was not possible in the television era. You are seeing massive volatility because of the technology. … And you are going to see that just increase and increase, almost exponentially, over the next several (election) cycles.”

The volatility comes from tectonic, technology-driven power migration away from big organizing institutions, like corporations and political parties, to a dispersed universe of what conservative blogger and author Glenn Reynolds calls “an army of Davids.”

As in David vs. Goliath.

I’m not really sure why this suddenly qualifies as a space-and-ink-justifying revelation, but it’s nonetheless true, and it’s always comforting to see some well-paid pundit reiterate what McLuhan first expressed 40+ years ago.

The point is, the people who are showing up for these “Tea Party” rallies and other fringe forms of expression are not only expressing their fear of an unfamiliar political landscape: the entire media environment that they’re familiar with is disintegrating.

It’s not just that the information they’re receiving is unfamiliar or unfriendly (you know, that ‘hopey-changey stuff…), but the fact that they way the information is reaching then is totally unfamiliar.  That’s what’s causing the reactions we’re seeing — the fact that the whole foundation of peoples information environment is crumbling.  They just don’t know how to process the information in a sane or rational way because the processes themselves are so new and unfamiliar.

Remember, there would have been no Reformation had Gutenberg’s printing press not made possible the rapid dissemination of Martin Luther’s heresies. That was like five hundred years ago, and we’re still living with the consequences of that disruption….

Mental Health Break

This latest send-up of the “Downfall” parody that has been in circulation on the Interwebs for a couple of years now neatly sums up a lot of the issues around new media -v- old, social media and audience participation, and the copyright issues around satire and parody:

It also performs the neat trick — if you’re any kind of  McLuhanist, new-media, please-let-the-fucking-dinosaurs-DIE already advocate —  of actually making you feel empathy for “Hitler.”

Marshall McLuhan Lives!

Is it Saturday yet?

I thought Marshall McLuhan had been dead for nearly 30 years, but apparently the geniuses at WIRED have stashed his brain on a shelf somewhere and retrieve his observations about the potential impact of the iPad:

The iPad is the beginning of this end. The thin, single pane of glass that comprises the interface is just a window onto the world, an edgeless frame. Essentially, there is no interface, any more than a person’s fingertips are an interface. The long story of humanism — by which I mean the emergence of individual consciousness as a byproduct of our language and literature — comes to an end when we return, futuristically, to doing everything by hand.

We no longer hear the voices of the past, because we have our fingers in our ears.

I suspect the iPad edition of WIRED will be one of the first apps I add to mine come Saturday.  And if there’s a “Mashall McLuhan” app, you can bet I’ll be scoring that one, too.

iPad: T-Minus 48 And Counting – New Uses for a New Gizmo

Open the iPad-bay door, Hal.

Anybody who knows me knows that I’ve been quite looking forward to the arrival of my Apple iPad when a UPS truck pulls up in front of the house sometime this coming Saturday.

I’ve been really frustrated with most of the pre-arrival analysis — those tech pundocrats who dismiss the new gizmo as “just an over sized iTouch or iPhone.” (In case you’ve missed it, Dave Pogue in the NYTimes does a nice job this morning of critiquing all the reasons why the iPad is/is not an iTouch.)

My own expectation is that this is one case where the new gizmo will eventually prove to be anything but “just another….” something that already exists.  No, this is new, and it’s going to change things in ways we can hardly imagine.

Maybe the best example to look back on is the iPod itself.  No, not because the iPad is “just a big iPod,” but because of the way the arrival of the iPod heralded the arrival of new ways of doing things.  Think “podcasting” – a form of expression that did not exist, nor was hardly imagined, when the iPod was first introduced.

"The past went that-a-way."

When the iPod first showed up, it could easily have been dismissed as “just another MP3 player,” the Diamond Rio with a hard drive, a few thousand tunes in your pocket instead of a a few dozen.  Big whoop.  But humans too often see the future through a rear-view mirror (“rump-bumping into the future,” McLuhan called it…) and new technologies are always perceived at first as a variation of an existing technology – until new uses are found for the new technologies.  Podcasting is a perfect and recent example of how that works.  Before the iPod, there was no such thing as podcasting.  Now it is entire communications system, a part of operations far and wide, covering an infinite number of topics, and an indispensable way of accessing all kinds of information.  I use my podcasts now to listen to everything from American history to music business tips.

I suspect the same thing is going to happen when the iPad shows up.  Its resemblance to and roots in existing technologies aside, there is an aspect of this gizmo that is entirely new, and people are going to find new ways of using it that have yet to be imagined.

Well, OK, not entirely yet to be imagined.  For example, Jackson Miller of Nashville imagines the iPad as a personal “dashboard” that gives him access to the many facets of his life from a single device:

Jaxn ponders the iPad

Over the past few weeks something interesting has happened. Most of my daily routine for checking data has moved to my iPhone. Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but much of it takes place before I even get out of bed in the morning. The main problem with this method is that the screen is a little too small.

If only I could have something like my phone with a bigger screen.

You know, like the iPad.

I know exactly what Jackson means.  In the past couple of months, the iPhone has also become the center of my media use, too.  Particularly since I found the Google Reader app and started “aggregating” all my sources of text-based content into that single interface.

I also have a Kindle, and shortly after I started using it last year I discontinued my subscription to the paper editions of the Wall Street Journal and the Tennessean. I rarely read actual newspapers any more. But the Kindle is a very limited device — you really can’t do anything with but read stuff, and these days, information use is as much about sharing as it is about absorbing.  You can’t really do that with the Kindle.    So, like Jackson says, the day starts now with the iPhone.  But it’s a little confining to start my day with a cup of coffee and staring into a screen the size of an index card.  Enter the iPad.

Jackson’s notion of a portable dashboard is promising, and gives me some idea how I’ll be setting up my iPad when it comes out of the box. But perhaps the most intriguing anticipation of “new uses” that I’ve encountered so far comes from Nicholas Negroponte, in a side bar to this month’s iPad feature in WIRED. Instead of a rear-view mirror, Negroponte is looking through the windshield when he observes of tablet devices in general:

The unsung advantage of current ebooks is being able to use them in bed. Paper books have pages that can neither disappear nor reappear. Instead, we have to turn them, which is pretty stupid and not at all easy when you’re lying on your side.

So why tablets? A short answer: one-handedness.

And it’s not just for bed. Would you have ever imagined how many people walk around looking at one hand? Texting is replacing talking, and thumbs are replacing lips. Laptops, meanwhile, are not mobile. They are nomadic. You have to sit down to use one and do battle for a connection. Standing with a laptop is entirely unsatisfactory.

Tablets are therefore the new frontier. They are the new book, the new newspaper, the new magazine, the new TV screen, and potentially the new laptop.

That’s the sort of assessment that can only come from somebody who recognizes new technology when it arrives understands fundamentally that new technologies portend new and unforeseen uses.

So I’m quite looking forward to the arrival of my iPad on Saturday.  I fully expect to be greeted my a mortally flawed device, a “first iteration” filled with “can’t wait for the next version” shortcomings.  I wonder how many times I will exclaim “well, that’s stupid…” when I encounter some ill-envisioned function (like the absence of Flash).

But what I’m really looking forward to is the discovery of something new, something as yet unimagined, in the way information finds its way into my cerebral cortex. I also think it’s gonna be fun.

So who wants to meet me at Fido and play with The New Gizmo on Saturday?

Another Crack in the “Product” Wall

I remember the first time I heard somebody — the manager of a band called “Goose Creek Symphony — refer to a box of CDs as “product.”  The use of the terms struck me as oddly discordant.  Cereal is a “product.”  Soap is a “product.”  Toilet paper is a “product.”  I never thought — and still can’t think — of music as a “product.

The promise of the digital era is that music can no longer be thought of in those terms.  It’s not entirely clear yet what in terms it can be thought of; maybe it’s “process,” as in “the process of engagement between performer and audience.” And here’s Techdirt reporting on one emerging scenario re: how that process sustains a creative enterprise:

More And More Musicians Embracing Free Music With Subscriptions For Support

mrharrysan sends over the news of musician John Wood who is experimenting with giving away free music, while setting up a subscription to support him, as he creates a new album every month. It’s not just a new album, but a pretty cool website called Learning Music Monthly which includes some cool artwork as well (and, hey, the music’s pretty good too).

Wood isn’t yet making a living from this effort (though, I imagine an Associated Press article won’t hurt), but it’s cool to see another artist build on some of the ideas we’ve seen from others — like Jonathan Coulton’s song-a-week project, or Olafur Arnalds song-a-day for a week project — and then build a subscription offer on top of it, similar to what Matthew Ebel has done with his subscription offering. Basically, what we’re seeing is a lot of very creative people experimenting — not by all doing the same thing, but by trying different things, sometimes inspired by others, sometimes arrived at independently, but all doing something cool.

In many ways, all of this business model experimentation is similar to the kind of experimentation these musicians do in the music itself. That is, they take ideas they have themselves, combine it with ideas inspired from others, and come out with something wholly unique and creative, which best matches with their own community. It’s improvisational business modeling.

Improvisational business modeling.  Sounds like a model to me.

The Paradox of South by Southwest

A band called "Frightened Rabbit" came all the way from Scotland to showcase at SXSW in Austin

Jon Pareles offers up this assessment of the paradigm twists that underscore a big music showcase/festival like the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, TX:

The 24th annual SXSW filled every available space in downtown Austin with musicians clamoring for attention. Where that attention might lead — a live booking, a recording, a license for a song, an advertising tie-in — is less certain than ever in a music business that’s struggling to sell recordings.

But the corporate sponsors that swarm SXSW know that music draws a crowd, one that’s treated as a market for just about anything except, paradoxically, recorded music.

Pareles points out that the line-up for this year’s SXSW was different than previous years, less “underground” and more, well “mainstream” — if you can still call anything in music short of Lady Gaga or Beyonce “mainstream” any more.  He mentions appearances by

Muse, Smokey Robinson, Jakob Dylan and two bands making a new start, Stone Temple Pilots and Hole. Two-thirds of the Dixie Chicks, the sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, introduced their new group, Court Yard Hounds, with multiple shows.

… hardly your typical “underground” indie-rock fare.  I mean, if two of the Dixie Chicks are showcasing at SXSW, what does that tell us about how difficult it is to find an audience these days — let alone “sell” them plastic disks with recordings that are just as easily delivered as a stream of digits and electrons.  So Pareles makes this observation:

This year catchiness was king, with few misgivings about being too accessible. Bands weren’t counting on a second glance.

Well, “catchiness” is nice.  Hell, I can’t get the Lady Antebellum track “Need You Now” out of my head, but I’ve listened to the entire record via Lala.com and that’s the only track I’d consider listening to again.  So catchiness only goes so far.

“Catchiness” might get somebody to listen more than once, but that’s not going to assure the kind of long-term connectedness that will sustain a creative enterprise.  That takes more than “catchiness.”  That takes “authenticity,” — and, of course, as soon as you’ve figured out how to fake that, the rest is easy…

$10 Is Still Considerably More Than $0

Somewhere amid all the verbiage on this site (which has recently been imported from another site) you will find the supposition that digital delivery is rapidly reducing “the remunerative value of recorded music to something approaching zero.”  The notion is based on basic economics:  the “law of supply and demand” suggests that if the supply is infinite, then eventually the price is going to zero, regardless of the demand.  We already see that with the nascent emergence of streaming delivery services like Lala.com, Mog, and Spotify, where CDs that once cost $15 can be streamed as many times as a user wants for as little as $1.00.

Universal Music GroupNow, apparently, Universal Music Group (UMG), one of the four (hard to keep track with all the mergers… is it still four?) “major label” conglomerates, announced that it will be reducing the retail price of CDs (which assumes they can still find “retail” outlets for their products…):

NEW YORK (Billboard) – Universal Music Group (UMG) is embarking on one of the most ambitious efforts yet to boost U.S. CD sales, with the test of a new pricing structure designed to sell most new releases by current artists at $10 or less at retail.

Apparently, they’re getting the message, if slowly.  What was $15 or $20 is now $10.  Soon it will be $1.  Then it’s just another small step to…. $0.

The question for the Cohesion Arts constituency is, what does this price reduction mean for the CDs sold at shows?  The typical price has been $15, though some are experimenting with $10 and others are experimenting with the “just pay us whatever you think it’s worth” model (often with better results than a fixed price).

My contention is that the music advocated around here is worth a lot more than most of what “the majors” force on the witless masses.  I doubt most of what passes for “commercial” music these days is worth even $10 for a disk.

Lessons from the Road

Tom Kimmel

My old (in both senses of the word) friend Tom Kimmel spends a fair amount of every year wandering around the world, singing his songs wherever two or more are gathered.  In a recent e-newsletter he shares some of the invaluable lessons he has learned from those many days on the road:

10. Winter is a good time to play in Florida.

9. The Kansas City airport is a hundred miles from Kansas City, and the Denver airport is actually in Nebraska.

8. Fly Southwest: book ahead, pay for early check-in, carry on your guitar, and bring your own sandwich.

7. Avoid the rooms by the indoor pool, the ice machine and the elevator.

6. “Urinal farthest from the door… has the least pee on the floor.”

5. Unless you’re a masochist, avoid your GPS’s “dominatrix” voice setting.

4. The Highway Patrol officer is not interested in your story.

3. Check in, put a towel over the television and go to sleep.

2. Truck stops have the best gizmos, but never take a shower at one.

1. There are good people everywhere, and they’ll help you out if you give them a chance.

Standby

Someday soon, the answers to all your questions will be found here. In the meantime…

Many thanks to Mitch Canter for his effortless importing of all the pertinent data from CelestialJukebox.org to this new site.  That was really amazing.

I will be using this site to continue my observations re: the evolution of the digital delivery of our various amusements.  I will also be posting stories that illuminate how one succeeds in the endlessly evolving digital environment (second time I’ve used that phrase today, I should get a trademark…).

Hopefully it all fits together into something… coherent… cohesive.  Hence the name, “Cohesion Arts.”

And don’t worry about that generic theme, that too will change, along with lord knows what else.  I’m starting to like this WordPress platform.  The possibilities are also… endless.