Category - personal

Celebrating 20 Years Part 2: “What’s The Internet?”

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I Was A “Start up” Before “Start ups” Were Cool.

(cont’d from Part I)

I took my sweet time driving across the southern states (it was winter, after all, a concept largely foreign to my experience over the previous 20 years…).  I did spend two nights in Dallas, where I made a pilgrimage to Dealey Plaza and visited the recently opened “6th Floor Museum” in the old Texas School Book Depository building where Lee Harvey Oswald supposedly lay in wait for the Kennedy motorcade.  After that there wasn’t a whole lot I wanted to do in Dallas* so I headed east, and, finally, north.

It's not I-40, but you get the idea...

It’s not I-40, but you get the idea.

Speaking of winter: I arrived in Tennessee just as the state was recovering from a devastating ice storm.  I spent a night with my new step-family in Memphis; they had been without power for two days, but conveniently their electricity came back on while I was there.

The next morning I made a pilgrimage to Graceland, where I discovered that there isn’t any amount of money that can buy good taste.

Then I headed up I-40 from Memphis to Nashville, making note along the way of all the trees that were bent over the edge of the roadway under the weight of the ice that had frozen onto their limbs and branches just a couple of days earlier.

Jerome – my friend from GIT in LA –  had offered me a place to stay when I arrived.  I found his apartment complex off Edmondson Pike, south of the center of the city, and took up residence there for about a week, living literally out of a closet where Jerome had stored a roll-out bed.  A week later (or was it two?) Jerome and the woman he’d been dating (and eventually married, last I heard…) helped me find a room in a lovely house in Brentwood with a kindly lady whose husband had recently pass away.  For a very nominal rent, she gave me the master bedroom, and the use of another room at the end of the hall where I could finally set up my computer.

* * * *

My computer at the time was a “state of the art” PC (manufacturer’s name long since forgotten) with an “80386” processor – one of the first machines that was capable of any kind of multi-tasking – running the revolutionary-at-the-time Windows 3.1.

The "state of the art" ca. 1995

The “state of the art” ca. 1995

By the time I got to Nashville, I’d been using computers and for 15 years;  I’d started using a a computer for word processing way back in 1979, and while I had the boat business in Hawaii I’d used it for accounting and payroll. When things started getting all “graphical” in the mid-80s, I did a little bit of design with one of the first desktop publishing programs, something called Aldus Pagemaker.

And I’d been online almost as long as I’d had a computer, starting at 300 baud with an online service called The Source, which was later acquired by a service called Compuserve, which I used  mostly for e-mail and computer-related support.  Back in LA I had spent a fair amount of time on something called a “BBS” (Bulletin Board Service) that got me into all kinds of trouble (see Part I: Marriage: Destruction Of…).

Conveniently, my arrival in Nashville  also coincided with the time when the Internet as we now know it was just bubbling into public consciousness.  It had been around for at least a decade before that, but until then had been the exclusive province of the military and educational institutions. I had first discovered this “network of networks” late in 1993, about the time I started thinking about the move to Nashville.  At the time, the Internet was mostly text-based listerves and user groups.  With the advent of Mosaic – the first web browser – in 1993, the  Internet began its metamorphosis into the hyper-linked, graphical universe we are now immersed in.

So I got my computer set up in Nashville and started “surfing” the Internet – which put in place the first of two elements that would converge a year later into what would turn out to be the reason I’d come to Nashville.

* * * *

The second element evolved over the course of my first year in The Music City, in the form of a growing awareness of the vast pool of unrecognized talent that subsists just beneath the thin crust of the mainstream commercial music industry.

I started spending a fair amount of time at clubs like The Bluebird, the Commodore Lounge, and a place on Nolensville Road I can’t remember the name of that is now a Mexican restaurant.  In Nashville, it seemed, every coffee house, restaurant and Mapco Express store hosted a “writer’s night.”

Alan Rowoth, the Godfather of all that is "Folk" on the web...

Alan Rowoth, the Godfather of all that is “Folk” on the web…

At the same time I had started subscribing to a listserve called simply “Folk Music” – hosted by a New Yorker named Alan Rowoth – that exchanged dozens of messages every day from all over the world about otherwise largely undiscovered talents.

In these small venues, and through the Folk Music list, I started to discover brilliant, entertaining, heart-touching performing singer/songwriters like Tom Kimmel (Angels), Michael Lille (Life On the Run), Jana Stanfield (I’m Not Lost, I’m Exploring), Buddy Mondlock (The Kid) and countless others who lived not only in Nashville, but all over the country… and the world. I discovered people like  Don Conoscenti, Pierce Pettis and Tom Prasada-Rao, Barbara Kessler and Cheryl Wheeler – all of whom worked a nationwide circuit of small clubs and coffee houses.

“This life as a modern folk musician…” I remember Barbara Kessler saying in the midst of a round at The Bluebird, “…it’s mostly driving…”

But I truly hit the motherlode when I learned about a weekly event called “The 6 Chair Pickin’ Party.”  Almost every Wednesday night, a fuzzy bear of a man named Mike Williams and his wife Kathy would welcome five songwriters to sit in a circle in their living room.  Atop a hill in West Meade Mike with his baritone 12-string guitar and these unheralded talents would swap songs and tall tales for several hours.  It was truly “the church of the Holy Song Circle” – where some of the finest songwriters on the planet would “gather and pray… for cuts” (as I described it myself in one of the few songs I’ve ever written myself…)

In these intimate confines I began to make the acquaintance of some of these people.

This was a community of touring modern day troubadours whose lives were empowered in no small part by the relative affordability of CD manufacturing and the wide availability of home recording. By the mid 1990s, the music business was undergoing an epochal transformation – and didn’t even know it yet.

By the winter of 1995, I had these two things bubbling around in my brain:  The first was the advent of the World Wide Web; the second was this seething cauldron of under-discovered talent that I was listening to in quiet venues all over Nashville.

On some gut level, I began to suspect that there was a business opportunity in there somewhere.

  * * * *

Those nights I wast not hanging out at the clubs, I was up until the wee hours “surfing” around on this new world wide web thing.

One night – probably in February of 1995 – I stumbled across a website for a company called “Rainy Day Records.”   The site described itself as the online home of a mom & pop record store based in Atlanta, adding “we use our record store and this website to help promote independent recording artists from the Atlanta area….”

That’s when the light went on: If it made any sense to operate a website like that out of Atlanta, then it made a world of sense to start one in Nashville.

A few nights later, I’d written a one-page prospectus describing the ‘National Online Music Alliance” and took it with me to my regular Wednesday night songwriter circle.  During the break, I asked a few of the acquaintances I’d made, “What would you think if I tried to sell some of your CDs on the Internet?

Several of the people I asked replied blankly, “What’s ‘the Internet’?”

Tom Kimmel

Tom Kimmel

But Tom Kimmel knew what the Internet was.  I’d met Tom at the Bluebird several months earlier.  After hearing him play a song about being lifted up by “Angels,” I introduced myself and asked how I could get a recording of that particular song.  It was not available yet on CD,  but Tom offered to send me a cassette of the demo, from which I taught myself to play the song.  Tom also turned out to be computer savvy enough that we struck up a correspondence via Compuserve.

Tom knew what the Internet was in part because he’d just come of a circuit on the east coast called “Internet Quartets” – in-the-round presentations that were organized by  Alan Rowoth, the host of the aforementioned Folk Music listserv.

So when I asked Tom, “what would you think if I tried to sell some of your CDs on the Internet,” Tom’s reply wasn’t “What’s the Internet?”  Tom’s reply was “I’ve been thinking I need a Home Page…” and in that moment a partnership was born.

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Michael Camp

A week later Tom was telling me about another fellow he wanted me to meet. Michael Camp knew his way around computers, too, Tom told me, and was also a songwriter and performer, and was perhaps interested in joining forces in whatever it was we were starting to do.  So we arranged a three-way conference call – still an exotic thing to do in the mid 1990s – and I remember Michael introducing himself…. and suddenly it dawned on me I’d heard him play a song as a “pilgrim” at one of Mike William’s pickin’ parties.

“I know you!” I said over the phone. “You’re the clown In the middle!”  – a reference to Michael’s song Brothers –  about being a middle child, an accident of birth that we have in common.  He laughed, and just like that the third leg of the stool was in place.

Later that week, Tom and Michael each wrote me a check for $250  so that we could open a bank account.  And I remember thinking, “wow, these guys really believe in this idea…”  Nobody had ever offered me real money for an idea before…

* * * *

It’s interesting to look back on all this from the perspective of almost 20 years later. We didn’t think of it in such terms at the time, but it’s arguable now that Tom, Michael and I were digging one of the first plowshares into a fertile new field.

In the decades since, the Internet has become a fundamental pillar of the global economy, and Nashville in particular has done an exemplary job of fostering an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” that has drawn an exciting array of talent to Middle Tennessee.

But there was no support system in Nashville – or anywhere, really – for a “music-tech start up” in 1995.  There was no pool of ‘mentors’  offering sage advice and counsel like there are today.  We didn’t put together a Powerpoint ‘deck’ outlining a set of prescribed highlights to pitch investors.  There was no “investable story.” The only thing we pitched in was a few hundred of our own dollars and an intriguing idea.  We rolled up our sleeves and went to work.  We didn’t go looking for investors. We started right out selling our service to vendors and customers.

At the time this is beginning to unfold, I had a temp job running computer charts for HCA, the big hospital chain based in Nashville.  And I remember thinking to myself, “I don’t have time for a job now… I have work to do…”

The first order of business was figuring out how to create a website.  Michael and I found a book  called Teach Yourself Web Publishing In A Week with HTML (Amazon) and started teaching ourselves how to cobble web pages together. It’s almost laughable now to look back on what was “state of the art” in 1995.  Blinking graphics that seem hideous now were still cool…

We were all comfortable with the name “National Online Music Alliance” for the business. Being left-leaning, quasi-socialist types we were probably drawn toward the idea of an “alliance” – a notion that was probably planted in my head by (stolen from?)  the organization called “Folk Alliance” which convenes an annual gathering of the community we were drawing on and hoping to contribute to.

As we learned how the web works, we knew that we would need a domain – a “dot-com” – on which to build the website.

One night in May of 1995, I visited the website for Network Solutions, which at the time was the primary source for securing domain names.  I did a search for the acronym based on the name – “NOMA-dot-com” – and waited for the search results.

Remember "Bubble Lights"

Remember “Bubble Lights”

You can perhaps imagine my dismay when the search results returned with the news that the domain “NOMA-dot-com” was already registered.  It belonged to an ornamental lighting company in Canada that made mostly Christmas tree lights – most notably the “bubble lights” that I remember so well from the Christmas trees of my childhood in the 1950s and 60s (yes, we were Jewish, it’s a long story, don’t ask…I”m trying to stay focused here!).

“Oh jeez,” I thought, “what on earth will we do since that domain is taken?”

And then, I swear, the heavens opened and a chorus of angels sang, “try ‘SONGS-dot-com.”

Ooh.  I really liked that idea. Fingers shaking, I typed that domain into a search field, and then waited nervously as the result trickled back at the blisteringly slow pace of 2400-baud.

The name was available.  What would eventually become one of the most enviable five-letter domains on the whole Internet was available – in the spring of 1995 – for a whole $35.

I grabbed it.

Shortly therafter Michael and I started building web pages.  But neither of us had enough computer skills to create a secure shopping cart, so we had to hire a programmer from Vanderbilt to create a script so that we actually could sell CDs from the website.  I don’t remember his name now but I do remember that that’s where most of our $750 seed money went.

One of the first "NOMA" logos, ca. 1996.

The first “NOMA” logo. The site offered “Local Music for a Global Audience.”

In June of 1995, The National Online Music Alliance went online with four independent recording artists:  Tanya Savory (the very first to say “yes”), Joni Bishop, Jana Stanfield, and Buddy Mondlock – all singer/songwriters I’d met at Mike Williams’ house.

We’d no sooner launched the site than we had our first sale for one of Buddy’s CDs.

And until somebody tells me otherwise, I’m pretty sure that was the first time music from Nashville was sold directly over the Internet.

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Coming next: Part 3: (Update March 28 2016: Part 3? Hasn’t been posted yet.  Maybe one of these days…)

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*Ironically, a few years later I met and married a woman whose family lived in Dallas, so I wound up returning there countless times.  I never did find anything to do in Dallas.  One time I complained, “there’s nothing to do in Dallas!” to which my new wife replied, “sure there is.”  “Like what?” I asked.  “Well… you can go to Fort Worth….”

Celebrating Twenty Years in Nashville

My office from 1980 - 1988

Part 1: How I Got Here

The ground was first tilled in October, 1991.

That’s when my-then-future-ex-wife and I did a vacation exchange – our house on Maui for a home outside of Atlanta, GA.  The occasion was our annual ‘Fall Tour’, something we tried to do almost every year by spending a couple of weeks in a deciduous climate, some place where the leaves changed color – which is not something we ever saw when we lived in Los Angeles or Hawaii,  the two places where I had been living since graduating from college and leaving the east coast in 1973.

Screen Shot 2014-02-14 at 6.10.53 AMThere were a couple of influences already starting to work on me: I’d been listening incessantly to a new Kenny Loggins CD, Leap of Faith (Spotify link), and reading a book by Harry Browne about How I Found Freedom in An Unfree World (Amazon). Those two things already had me thinking a Big Change was coming down the pike.

Read More

50 Years Since “The Aliens” Invaded

Like everybody else in the country, I’m thinking this morning about The Beatles.

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Washington Coliseum – Feb 11, 1964

I’m posting because I want to pass along a piece I heard on NPR’s Weekend Edition/Saturday about the first live concert The Beatles performed after their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on Feb 9, 1964 – fifty years ago today.

Their first concert was two days later in Washington DC.

The centerpiece of this NPR report is an interview with Mike Mitchell, at the time an 18-year-old photographer who somehow landed the plum gig of shooting this Beatles first U.S. concert.  The report revisits the venue, now a derelict building used mostly for a parking lot.

What struck me was the part where Scott Simon asks, “So what did they look like close up?”

And Mike Mitchell answers,

I’ve said before that they kind of were an alien species to us… At that point they looked incredibly fresh, you know, like a fresh iteration of the human race. Read More

We Have Found Hell

And people wonder why I am leery of winter travel:

It might not be "hell," but you can sure see it from here...

It might not be “hell,” but you can sure see it from here…

A columnist for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution describes her 18 hour! journey from office to home:

The third gas station does have gas, but there’s no getting near it. Cars jam the driveways and side roads from every direction, inches away from hitting each other. I watch from afar as desperate motorists carry empty water jugs and two-liter Coke bottles to the pumps and fill them with fuel. I never knew gas had a yellow tint.

I turn into Publix, which is serving as another makeshift shelter, and buy water jugs. There, even more people are asleep in the aisles. One man opts to sleep on a shelf. He just moves those Duralogs right out of the way and stretches out like he’s in a bunk bed on a tour bus. Some people huddle around a small TV at a check-out line and watch a movie with Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum.

When I was a sailor in Hawaii back in the 1980s, I came to the conclusion that “the most important thing a sailor ever learns is when not to.”

I think the same could be said for leaving the house in the winter.

Surf’s Up (and so is the camera)

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Do you remember the last verse of the last song on the Eagles’ album, “Hotel California”?  It’s called The Last Resort, and the verse begins with:

We can leave it all behind
And sail to Lahaina
Like the missionaries did
So many years ago
They even brought a neon sign
Jesus is coming
Brought the white man’s burden down
Brought the white man’s reign

That’s the song that ends with the line “…call some place paradise, kiss it goodbye…  Click here to refresh your memory…

I lived on the island of Maui for more than a dozen years, through the 1980s and part of the 1990s.  I drove past that neon “Jesus is Coming” sign on Front Street in Lahaina a thousand times.

All of which came rushing to mind when I watched this video of surfers on the North Shore of Oahu catching the big waves. The footage is notable in part for the fact that it was shot with a drone, which provides a really breathtaking angle on Hawaii’s National Sport (FYI, the islands were a sovereign nation before the missionaries and pineapple and sugar growers decided to put an end to that…)

I enjoyed the few minutes it took to watch the whole thing – something I rarely do with online videos.  Some of the footage in the first few minutes of the ‘barrel riding’ is spectacular: first the mist blasts out of the curl, then the surfer.

Dystopia Now Redux: Opportunistic Indignation and the Rush to Judgment

“…what if we all behaved as if we were being watched? It would lead to a more moral way of life. Who would do something unethical or illegal or immoral if they were being watched?” — David Eggers, The Circle

“Who am I to judge?” —Pope Francis I*

Our media effect us in unseen ways…

Who will watch the watchers?

Who will watch the watchers?

I think I liked the Internet more back when it was an unexplored wilderness of untapped potential.  Now that it’s a fully domesticated homeland, umm… maybe not so much.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still love ordering merchandise from my lap instead of going to the mall. I do think that having instantaneous access to most of the world’s recorded music is a worthy marvel (even as the “content providers” continue to rail against the emerging business model).  And I love having all of my documents synchronized so that I can open them anywhere, on any device – even if I know that means that the Corporate Intelligence Complex can also open and read them at will.

But I do try to tune my antennae to sub-surface effects and tendencies, and some of the things I think I’m detecting now are, well, a tad disturbing – even for an old guy who likes to humor himself that he is readily adaptable to new technologies.

So what follows is said, hopefully, with all the deference that a self-ware  junkie should have for his own needle.  These are the observations of somebody who has been “online” in one form or another more than thirty years.  I have personally seen the digital universe evolve from 300 baud dial-up and a prehistoric service called “The Source” (that was before Compuserve, which was before AOL…), to the global network of networks at 25Mbps. So maybe I have some idea whereof I speak.

Now this network has woven itself inextricably into almost every facet of our modern lives.  Indeed, at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show the dominant theme was “The Internet of Things,” which apparently means having the your computers connected to everything from your automobile to your shoes and socks.

But before our self-driven vehicles ferry us off to the Internet of Things, this is what seems to be happening:  We are becoming insufferably judgmental. Amid all the LOL cats, cute kids doing funny things, “holy shit it’s winter!” apocalyptic weather commentary and everybody-is-a-political-pundit, etc., social media have given us all a medium by which we can mount our chariots of righteousness and hurl our flaming spears of judgment.

I started thinking about this a few weeks ago when I picked up on the reaction to an unfortunate pre-holiday incident at the Morton’s steakhouse here in Nashville.

What perplexed me about that whole scenario was the rush to pile-on — the branding of an entire institution with the inexplicable actions of a single individual.   As I said at the time, somebody fucked up, and the infinite troll parade used that as an opportunity to chase the whole company off the bridge.

All kinds of people – most of whom, I’d wager, have never been to a Morton’s, would probably not think about going to a Morton’s, or give Morton’s a second thought – chimed in with their insistence  that they would never go to a Morton’s.

You’re going to #boycottmortons? That was, literally, a hashtag meme.  Well excuse me…do you even know the meaning of the word?  Not feasting on an overpriced steak at Morton’s is not an act of civil disobedience.

What it is is a new  form of public shaming that I’m calling “opportunistic indignation.”  And it’s starting to show up a lot.

Shortly after the Morton’s incident, the whole “Duck Dynasty” thing erupted.  I tried to avert my eyes from that one, it seemed so absurdly familiar, but it was hard to avoid; everybody had an opinion one way or another.  Either Bill Robertson was a jerk for expressing his opinion, or his network acted capriciously for ‘suspending’ him from his show.

But there it was again, the opportunistic indignation: “I’ve never watched an episode of Duck Dynasty, I was never gonna watch an episode of Duck Dynasty, but now that this furry serial mallard assassin has said something I don’t agree with, I’m really never gonna watch his stupid show….”

For a week or so, we all got to express our outrage one way or another.  And then we moved on to the next social atrocity.

That would be poor Justine Sacco – a PR operative from England who tweeted something ostensibly racist before leaving on a business trip to South Africa.  When she arrived at her destination she discovered she’d set the world afire with her remark; her plane was greeted by virtual torches and pitchforks.

That’s how the world works now:  You publicly reveal some half-formed thought, and then you get off an airplane and discover that the greeting party is a lynch mob.

Has anybody thought for a fleeting moment, “boy I’m glad I didn’t say that”?  Whatever happened to “There but for the grace of God….”

By now my antennae are tuned in, and I’m starting to see it all over the place.  And then just before Christmas I found myself in the middle of a scene that could have come straight out of The Circle:

The Friday before Christmas — in a rare instance of poor planning — I decided that was the day to venture off to the Green Hills Mall.  Apparently everybody in Nashville had the same idea.  There was no place to park at the mall.  There may have been no place to park in all of Nashville.

After driving around the parking lot for about 20 minutes I finally decided to park in a space that was big enough for my car but not really a parking space.  I went inside, bought the gift I came for, and left.  Total time in the mall: roughly equal to the 20 minutes I’d spent looking for a parking space.

When I returned to my — admittedly, inappropriately parked — vehicle, I saw that the car in the — yes, actual —  parking space next my mine was occupied by its driver, who was doing something with his cell phone.  When he started his engine, I presumed he was about to leave.

I needed into get to the back seat of my car, and didn’t want to trigger an unwanted encounter between my car’s door and his moving vehicle.  So I waited a minute or so while he sat in the car, still fiddling with his phone, the engine running.  Finally I gestured to him to get his attention. He rolled down the window and I asked,

“Are you about to pull out?”

To which he replied, “You know that’s not a parking space, right?”

“Yes, I know. So I’m leaving.”  What else could I do at that point but vacate the space?

“Well, I’m in a parking space, so I’m not in any hurry…”

OK, fine.  Whatever.  So I wrestled my parcel onto the floor in the back seat, and got in the driver’s seat.

That’s when things got really bizarre:  I looked up and noticed that Mr. Parking Lot Vigilante was pointing his cell phone at me.  He was video recording me as I settled into my car and got ready to leave the garage.   And then he continued to film me as he followed me out of the garage.

Suddenly I was a character in a scene in “The Circle” and I’m wondering if the guy is going to use my license plate to track me down and post a video of my egregious holiday parking transgression on the Internet for all to see and condemn.  I wondered what the hashtag would be… #parkingviolator? #evildriver? #holidaymiscreant? I don’t think any of those are trending…

So that’s what I’m starting to see: opportunistic indignation and judgment in every comment.  Does it look like that to you? See if you can tune your own antennae.  Let me know if you think we’re becoming a culture of socially-mediated judgement, constantly watching others with the expectation that the watching will produce a more “acceptable” form of behavior like “The Circle” imagines.

Just please, don’t judge me for being so  judgmental.

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*I never thought I’d live to see the day that I’d be quoting a pope in one of these missives, but…. there it is.  We live in interesting times.

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This post is a sequel to an earlier post entitled “Dystopia Now.”