May 2008

My First Brush with the Music Industry

by Joey deVilla on May 27, 2008

This article also appears in Global Nerdy.

Clay Shirky: Gin, Television, and Social Surplus

Gin and television

If you’re a reader of the usual sites with links that nerds like, you’ve probably seen the video or read the writeup of Clay Shirky’s presentation at Web 2.0 on “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus”.

In his presentation, he describes a conversation with a TV producer, in which he talked about the effort that people put into the “Pluto” entry in Wikipedia. The producer, hearing this story, rolled her eyes and asked “Where do they find the time?”

Clay suggests that the producer believed that “free time”, which he refers to as “cognitive surplus” or “social surplus”, was TV’s by divine right. He posits that the mental energy once devoted to television watching and other equally passive ways of filling one’s spare time is being better spent — on the internet.

(I’ve always found that saying someone has “too much time on their hands” is an intellectually dishonest way of dismissing someone: see my entry Too Much Spare Time? and Cory Doctorow’s essay, Too Much Time on His Hands.)

If you haven’t seen the video of Clay’s presentation, here it is — it’s 16 minutes of your free time well spent:

The TV producer reminded me of a record executive whom I encountered at my first job out of school. It’s an interesting story about programming work and technology in the mid-90’s, the music industry and how predictions about technology can be way, way off.

My First Job Out of School

Main screen of the 1991 \"Mackerel Stack\"
A screenshot from the 1991 version of the Mackerel Stack, a HyperCard stack the promoted Mackerel’s design work.

My first job fresh from getting my computer science degree at Crazy Go Nuts University was developing multimedia applications in Director at a little company called Mackerel Interactive Multimedia.

The year was 1995, when Myst still defined the cutting edge of multimedia, CD-ROMs and sound cards were still fairly novel peripherals and the only other opportunities for a wet-behind-the ears developer seemed to be at a bank or insurance company, neither of which seemed to be appealing. While the pay wasn’t great — I used to call us the “hos of technology” and did a Full Metal Jacket-esque routine that ended with me shouting “Me so geeky! Clicky-clicky! Me hack for long time!” — the place wasn’t soul-killing like a bank or insurance company might have been. I could wear whatever I wanted, I could dress up my office space however I pleased, the hours were flexible and the co-workers were great: a hip and cool set of young people, with a near 50:50 gender balance. It seemed like Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs, which had just been published at that time, right down to the ill-advised office romances (one of which was mine).

While the dream at the company was to write the next Myst, we paid the bills by writing multimedia apps for clients — typically interactive advertising or educational pieces that would eventually be distributed on CDs or even multiple floppies.

The company went under after a disastrous merger in 1997. Its story was covered by Cory Doctorow wrote an article for Wired about the Mackerel’s demise; unfortunately, it never got published in the magazine. The Mackerel story is told from a different angle by co-founders Dave Groff and Kevin Steele at the Smackerel site, which is subtitled A Biased History of Interactive Media.

Enter the Record Exec

All-female band
One of the bands represented by the record exec’s company. You can try to guess who they are, and you should be able to figure out the record company as well.

One day during the summer of 1996, one of the founders came into the area where the developers hung out and told us that we’d landed a contract with an independent record label belonging to a major record company.

“Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” I asked.

Apparently it wasn’t. The indy label turned out to be merely a new branch of the major record company. It would sign up-and-coming underground and alternative acts and use the major label for distribution. If the major label was pin-striped and buttoned-down, the indy label was its edgier nephew, clad in faux Hot Topic-esque cred. In spite of their trying-too-hard-to-be-cool aspects, we thought they’d make an interesting client.

The record company exec was a woman who was about five years past their twenty-something demographic. She gave off more of a business school vibe than a rock vibe. She peppered her speech with business-school-isms like “target audience” and “units sold”. She used the word “product” several times and didn’t use the word “music” or even “album” once. Everything she knew about music didn’t come from being a fan; it came from what she’d read in her market research reports.

“That’s why they don’t call it show art,” one of us quipped.

The Brainstorming Session

CD player app from Apple System 7
The CD player application from System 7, the version of Mac OS from 1996.

One of the goals of this initial meeting was to brainstorm some ideas for interactive apps that we could build for them. I had been working on an idea that I was rather proud of: CD player apps customized for specific albums. For any CD other than the one for it was customized, it would show a mostly plain interface, plus some promos for the album. However, if you used the player to play the album for which it was customized, it would “come alive” with lyrics, liner notes, album art and so on. It was an attempt to bring back what was lost in the move from LPs to CDs.

“Nice try, kid,” said the exec with great disdain. “We did some market research and we’ve determined that no one will ever listen to music on their computer. People see them as machines for getting work done. We’re aiming for the rec room, the den, the living room and the bedroom, not the home office. You computer guys are aiming for home office.”

“You sure about that?” our production manager asked. “We all use the CD players on our machines. For some of us, our computers are in our bedrooms and living rooms, and they’re also our primary stereos now.”

“That may be true for you,” she replied, “but you guys are the exception. Computers are great, but they’re office equipment. You don’t keep a typewriter or photocopier in your living room, so why would you have a computer there? And that’s where people listen to their music. Office equipment and entertainment: apples and oranges. Trust me – I’ve been in the music industry for a while – no one’s going to listen to music on their computer.

I listened as a few other people had their ideas shot down in similar fashion. It was a matter of her knowing the music industry better than we did.

The Hail Mary MP3 Play

At some point during the increasingly futile brainstorming session, I remembered something that I’d brought back from the Macromedia User Conference. I reached into my laptop bag and fished out a floppy disc.

Set of three 3.5\" floppy disks

“Here, check this out,” I said, slotting the diskette into my laptop. “It’s something called Shockwave, which lets you embed multimedia applications inside web pages.”

We don’t think there will be much interest in the world wide web outside of technical people. The pictures are tiny, you’re stuck with default fonts, and your customers have to go buy a modem. Too much tech hassle, too little payoff.”

“You should give this a look,” I insisted. “The company that makes the tool we use to write multimedia software is using MPEG layer 3 [the term “MP3″ hadn’t made common parlance yet] compression to squeeze music files into less space. There’s a small multimedia program on this floppy, and a whole three-minute song. It would normally take about 8 floppies to hold this song.”

I put the disk in my laptop and launched the Shockwave application, which started a tune playing.

“Sounds like crap,” she said. “And who’s the band? The Spin Doctors? They’re so over.”

“Ignore the band,” I said, trying to remain patient. “Just think of the possibilities. This three-minute single is only a megabyte in size. It fits on a floppy, which you can hand out, or you’d be able to download it in a reasonable amount of time. The download will be even faster on the new 56K modems.”

“Blah, blah, blah,” she said, making that opening-and-closing hand gesture signifying pointless chatter. “It only means something to you because you’re a techie. I’ve seen the market research, and I will tell you now: people are not going to be getting their entertainment from computers or the internet. It’s going to come from set-top boxes and MiniDisc recharging stations at their record stores.

At this point, I decided that discretion was the better part of valour. “Well, you seem to have all the market research, so maybe the best thing would be for you to come up with ideas for an interactive application, and then we can hammer out the details with you in a later meeting.”

“I think that would be a good idea,” she said. She rose from her seat to leave the room, shaking her head.

“I don’t know about you,” I said to the others after confirming that she was out of earshot, “but I think the music industry needs to be destroyed.”

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[This article also appears in Global Nerdy.]

Darren Rowse in Texas, March 2008.
I took this shot of Darren Rowse at the b5 Ranch outside Austin, Texas in March 2008.
The photo is from this entry in my personal blog, The Adventures of Accordion Guy in the 21st Century.

My fellow b5er Darren Rowse, of ProBlogger and Digital Photography School fame, was featured in a Chicago Tribune article titled Blogging Paying off for a Few, which takes a look at how some people have been making a living through blogging.

Here’s the part of the article featuring Darren:

In Melbourne, Australia, Darren Rowse has been generating a six-figure income since 2005 from ProBlogger.net and several photography blogs. His blogging career started as a hobby four years ago, when, as a minister, he blogged about starting a new church, he said. That blog led to another; soon Rowse had 20 different blogs, but most didn’t generate enough interest so he shut them down.

When Rowse launched ProBlogger.net to offer advice to other bloggers in 2004, he hit on a need in the marketplace, he said. ProBlogger’s revenue comes from advertising, affiliate marketing, sponsorships and job boards, he said.

“In the early days, I had to be quite proactive,” he said. “As it grew, I found advertising agencies would come to me.”

His experience spurred him to co-found b5media, a Toronto-based network of more than 350 blogs in 15 areas of interest that draws more than 10 million visitors a month. The collective power of b5media attracts advertisers, and the company pays writers to produce blogs for the network, Rowse said.

To be successful, the blogger must be knowledgeable about the topic. It also helps if you’re passionate about it, he said. “Can you see yourself blogging about this topic every day? Quite often, people do it only for the money and can’t sustain it,” Rowse said.

Links

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Recipe of the Day: Wiener Water Soup

by Joey deVilla on May 26, 2008

Boiling wieners

That’s right, Wiener Water Soup. Here’s the recipe, in its glorious entirety:

  • 1 pkg. wieners
  • 3 c. water

Combine wieners and water in a two quart saucepan. Bring to a boil until wieners are cooked. Throw the wieners in the garbage. Serve soup. Serves 3.

Jason Kottke summed it up nicely: “Cooks.com lets anyone submit recipes.” He found it via Serious Eats, who in turn found it via Dancing at Gunpoint and Copyranter.

I think the recipe meets Gordon Ramsay’s criteria for good food, being both simple and rustic.

Hot dogs in boiling water
Click the photo to see it on its Flickr page.

(This recipe reminds me of Limp Bizkit’s third album, whose title suggested that they knew their fans very, very well: Chocolate Starfish and the Hot Dog Flavored Water.)

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Gas Pains

by Joey deVilla on May 26, 2008

Fuel-wallet gauge with needle pointing to \"F\" for fuel and \"E\" for wallet.
Image from BrianKaneOnline.

In July 2000, the city average retail price across the United States for unleaded regular gasoline was US$1.59 per gallon.

Around that time, George W. Bush was the Governor of Texas and the presumptive Republican candidate for that year’s presidential election. Here’s an excerpt from an article in the New York Times:

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas said today that if he was president, he would bring down gasoline prices through sheer force of personality, by creating enough political good will with oil-producing nations that they would increase their supply of crude.

Implicit in his comments was a criticism of the Clinton administration as failing to take advantage of the good will that the United States built with Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf war in 1991. Also implicit was that as the son of the president who built the coalition that drove the Iraqis out of Kuwait, Mr. Bush would be able to establish ties on a personal level that would persuade oil-producing nations that they owed the United States something in return.

Asked why the Clinton administration had not been able to use the power of personal persuasion, Mr. Bush said: ”The fundamental question is, ‘Will I be a successful president when it comes to foreign policy?’ ”

(You should read the rest of the article, as it’s quite funny/sad in retrospect.)

What’s the average price for a gallon of regular unleaded in America today? $3.80.

2008 Ford Explorer

I felt that pain a couple of weekends ago in Boston. The Ginger Ninja and I had all sorts of commitments that required us to travel all over Massachusetts, so we rented an intermediate-sized car. When we arrived, all cars in that size class were taken, so the rental company gave us a Ford Explorer (the 2008 model is pictured above) at the same rate. As per standard procedure, we filled the gas tank before returning it; being a gas-guzzling beast, it cost a whopping US$75…for a weekend’s worth of driving. That’s my typical gasoline spending over 6 to 8 weeks!

It doesn’t look as though Dubya’s “sheer force of personality” is going to help lower gas prices, judging by this recent Associated Press story:

Saudi Arabia’s leaders made clear Friday they see no reason to increase oil production until customers demand it, apparently rebuffing President Bush amid soaring U.S. gasoline prices.

It was Bush’s second personal appeal this year to King Abdullah, head of the monarchy that rules this desert kingdom that is a longtime prime U.S. ally and home to the world’s largest oil reserves. But Saudi officials stuck to their position that they will only pump more oil into the system when asked to by buyers, something they say is not happening now, the president’s national security adviser told reporters.

I’ll close this article with a comic about personal appeals to King Abdullah (and a subtle Obama reference, to boot):

George Bush: \"Talking to countries that support terror is bad...begging is OK.\"

[Thanks to BrianKaneOnline.]

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Continuing on the idea mentioned in my previous post, here’s another promo for “Toronto the Naughty”:

Two cats on a bed, one photographing the other\'s rear end: \"Toronto: Even our cats are kinky.\"
Original photo courtesy of Miss Fipi Lele.

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Further Thoughts on “Toronto the Naughty”

by Joey deVilla on May 26, 2008

While we might disagree on specifics, I think that Kevin Bracken is on the right track about promoting Toronto’s naughtier side, something which he proposed in the Torontoist article titled Toronto the Naughty and to which I quickly linked in an article titled Kevin Bracken: “You say ‘ecstasy-fueled sex tourist hellhole’ like it’s a bad thing.”.

Naturally, we’re going to have different perspectives, but that’s to be expected: Kevin’s a twenty-something single guy who seems to go clubbing every week, while I’m a married 40-year-old whose regular clubbing days are behind him (although I had a pretty good run; plus, I was a paid go-go dancer, something which I’ll bet Kevin never was). But I think we’d both agree that any good tourist burg can — actually, make that should — have a “fast and loose” side peacefully co-existing with a prim and proper one. New York, London, Paris, Prague, Tokyo and many other must-go places have mastered this yin-yang balance quite well, and there’s no reason that Accordion City couldn’t do the same.

The real problem is that the promotion of Toronto’s naughty side is something that can’t be done by the folks at City Hall or the people they commission to promote tourism. Anything they’d produce would simply be a reflection of themselves: a melange of Mayor David Miller’s Doris Day-esque leadership (by the bye, Mr. Mayor, that’s not a compliment) and councillor Rob Ford’s special brand of dickishness (which I must admit does have the silver lining of his reputed frugality with public funds). The sort of promotion is better done by the people who actually go out and enjoy Toronto’s nightlife: people like Kevin, and to a lesser extent, me.

With that said, here’s my first attempt at contributing to the promotion of Toronto the Naughty:

Toronto pregnancy etiquette tips

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The Honour System at High Park Station

by Joey deVilla on May 26, 2008

To the north of High Park station, it’s practically all houses, apartments and condos, while to the south, there’s its namesake, Accordion City’s largest park. On weekday mornings, it’s only really busy between 7:30 and 8:45, after which it receives a trickle of passengers (relative to the downtown or major suburban stations) until the evening rush.

As a result, High Park station doesn’t seem as heavily staffed, which means that the ticket collector is often alone, with no one to relieve him or her when it’s time for a bathroom run (or to use the increasing popular office culture term, a “bio break”). When nature calls, the collector answers, and this sign goes up:

Sign at the ticket collector booth at High Park Station: \"Please pay fare and enter! Collector will return shortly. Please don\'t wait, just go through.\"
Photo taken by Yours Truly this morning at 9:03 a.m.

While it would’ve been as easy as pie to glide through the turnstile without paying, I and four other people who showed up at the same time dutifully deposited our fares into the collection box. I’m pretty pleased that the honour system still works in my little corner of the city, and seeing this little example of civilization in action made my morning.

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