Negativland

Sonic Outlaws is an amazing documentary on Negativland and other artists who sample/deconstruct music. Ironically, I picked up this film at I Luv Video on Airport Blvd. a couple of years back, but it’s fittingly available for streaming on Youtube. SST ended up suing Negativland. Getting sued by your own label? Man, that blows. 

The $64,000 question—is transformative use of recorded music theft or art? The answer: It sure isn’t theft. Sample away. What bands like Negativland were doing was the musical equivalent of Hannah Hoch’s photo collages. What they created was often funny as hell. (Casey Kasem losing his shit over a U2 track he’s badmouthing? Sign me up!) Their creations are totally different from what the original artists intended—it’s fair game to record and sell this music. There needs to be a commonsense element to all of this. Negativland, like a lot of SST’s roster at that point, was not a moneymaker. Let’s be clear: BEFORE the lawsuit, Negativland LOST SST money. The idea that they should pay out money to Island is absurd. Again, they didn’t make any because at the core of it they weren’t creating a commercial product. The idea that they somehow hurt U2’s sales or used their music in any commercial sense/plagiarist manner is asinine. However, that’s different than, say, Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock” whose main hook was lifted verbatim from Kraftwerk’s “Trans Europe Express.” “Planet Rock” did make a lot of money for Tommy Boy, and seeing as they lifted the main hook from Kraftwerk (without changing the music whatsoever), including Kraftwerk in on a small cut of royalties—like an unknowing collaborator—is fair. (Had “Planet Rock” been a dud, no royalties should be owed.) The problem is music industry lawyers and the industry itself. They make money bringing suits against others and they couldn’t care less about music or musicians, art or the future of the business. There is no commonsense approach to any of this stuff, so a whole genre of music is pushed to the margins because of bogus intellectual property right claims. (If you ever attempt to get a vinyl record pressed, pressing plants make you sign a waiver claiming there are no sampled tracks on the sent-in songs. My friend forgot to get a mechanical license for a deconstructed CCR cover. They actually CAUGHT that and he had to pay the $75 to Harry Fox on a single he was sure to lose $300 on. It’s doubtful John Fogerty ever saw a dime, but artists always get ripped off. The record biz blows. I’m told Spotify is now the record biz and they blow too.)

Fun Fact: Negativland got their name from a Neu! track. Neu!’s Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother were early members of Kraftwerk whose music gave Afrika Bambaataa his biggest hit.

So do I have any real world experience with this stuff? Yes, I do. About a year ago, I was interested in rereleasing a Gibson Bros. LP from 1991. I knew Jeff Evans and Don Howland from the Gibson Bros. and I thought the record was long overdue for a repress. However, I knew there was a problem going back to 1991. Homestead, former label to Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr., released the album and had to pull it. Jeff and Don had sampled a few seconds of another band’s song that they had some beef with—and yell over the sample, “Piece of shit!” The other band (who also owned the record label the track appeared on) didn’t think the sample was funny. Amazingly, this supposedly grassroots band/label pulled a cliché industry move and sued the Gibson Bros.’ label Homestead! The album was pulled from distributors and copies now sell for over $40. I was told by a friend (who years earlier was interested in rereleasing the same record) that to license the record I’d also have to pay off the legal expenses Homestead incurred. Point being, the lawsuit was frivolous and petty—used simply as a cheap shot to derail the Gibson Bros. (The band who sued the Gibson Bros.’ label was taken to task in the underground fanzines, some of whom refused to run ads for their label or review their material.) Like I said, most of these suits are bullshit—just cash grabs for bands/musicians/labels who feel they’ve been scorned. If you’re employing transformative use of a song, do it. You’re creating something original. If you’re just straight lifting backing tracks and make a lot of money in the process, a small royalty should be allocated to the original artist. It’s not rocket science. Anything made commercially available should be fair game for culture jamming. Lawyers should be banned from the industry.

Fun Fact: Any time a contract is presented to me by an artist, I tell them they have the wrong record label. I don’t sign contracts and I don’t have the bands on my label sign them. They retain all the rights to their music and if they want to handle their own digital distribution that’s their right. I’ve worked with approximately twenty artists/bands. To my knowledge, all of them would gladly work with me again. If another artist sampled any of the music on my label, I couldn’t care less. Thanks. Hopefully they do a good job with it. They can’t lose any more money than I did on it. After all, people don’t pay for music nowadays.     

There’s some BS in this documentary. For instance, Radiohead is championed as a band who gives fans the opportunity to compensate them whatever they think is a fair price for their music. Think about that for a second. When did Radiohead achieve widespread recognition? Early/mid-’90s. And how did they end up on MTV and on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine? Through CAPITOL RECORDS’ PR/MARKETING DEPARTMENT! They’re a HUGE band whose rise is heavily indebted to the industry they’re supposedly giving the middle finger to. It’s a luxury a band like Radiohead can afford when they’re charging over $100 a head for tickets. Get the hell out of here. It’s sort of ridiculous that a band like Negativland and Radiohead are in the same documentary. They have absolutely nothing in common.

What’s the future of music/culture in the digital realm? Not good. Y’know, the record industry (correctly) gets lambasted in a lot of these readings. But what the hell is Spotify?! That’s one of the biggest damn cons going right now. Very reputable labels DO NOT work with them (Drag City held out for years; I still refuse to listen to Spotify or place my tracks on there. A few artists I’ve worked with do the same). They pay damn near nothing and impact downloads/sales–they’re taking money away from musicians. Artists are entitled to own their work and do whatever the hell they want with it. It’s nice when you HAVE a job with SECURITY that you can advocate for a race to the bottom with music. HOWEVER, when you’re actually making it/releasing it, it’s a hell of a position to be in. The problem isn’t “digital”–lots of potential good there–the problem is funding. (I’d argue that capitalism was never really a good fit for music. The best music typically doesn’t sell. How many records did the Velvet Underground sell in the ’60s and ’70s? How many did Debby Boone sell? Captain and Tennille?) There needs to be new revenue streams for artists. It costs roughly $2,500 to press up 500 LPs. It costs anywhere from $2,000 to $6,000 to run a PR campaign (if you decide to go down that route). Touring is hell. A reliable van is $6,000. Cost on a 45 is roughly $4 per record; distributors expect you to wholesale them at $4, meaning ZERO markup. It’s no coincidence that most record labels are run by very moneyed individuals. And there are a few folks like me–burning it at both ends, handling all of my own promotion, working out three different distribution channels, pressing plant delays and all the other bullshit. Again, all of this stuff takes on a whole different light if you’re ACTUALLY DOING IT!

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Born in the Wrong Time

I have some trouble taking Chris Anderson seriously. Anyone who labels Wal-Mart “elitist” probably considers Neiman Marcus low rent.  (My friend Jeff lives in Como, MS, where the only game in town for supplies is Wal-Mart. He’s always got great stories…) His notion of the “long tail” has some merits (although I’m unsure if Anderson has ever entered a brick-and-mortar store, let alone a Wal-Mart). Roughly, Anderson believes internet businesses will succeed (where brick and mortars fail) by supplying an abundance of products, and that by carrying a vast amount of supplies they’re not beholden to old business models (i.e. limited stock and a heavy reliance on popular titles to make up for sluggish sellers). Where he connects like Dave Kingman is on Amazon’s ability to carry a range of out-of-print and peripheral mainstream books. I’m a heavy reader, and while I find BookPeople usually has the NEW titles I’m looking for, books like Greil Marcus’ Lipstick Traces and Sadie Plant’s The Most Radical Gesture can’t easily be found anywhere else. (I can’t comment on Amazon’s labor practices at their warehouses which appear to be little slices of Soviet gulag heaven right here in America.) There is merit in Anderson’s ideas. However, what’s truly underground? Can you really log all the music produced in the world on “long tail” streaming service sites? (A quick look on Spotify’s site turned up nothing for the amazing and enigmatic French cold-wave band Coldreams. Why? Because the label who released the record is long out of business, the single was released in a quantity of probably 500, and good luck finding the members of the band for licensing, pending they didn’t sign a perpetuity contract, which gets us right back to where we started…) There are thousands of bands like Coldreams out there. I can talk for hours and hours about releases that are NOT available and likely NEVER WILL BE due to contractual holdups or a level of obscurity so deep it shreds a lot of Anderson’s thesis up.

I realize this article is from 2004, but he picks easy targets. Blockbuster was a horrible chain that had no interest in movies. Through sheer size and underhanded maneuvering, they decimated vibrant independent video stores by the mid-’90s. GOOD RIDDANCE, BLOCKBUSTER! I’d argue that the independent video stores Blockbuster bankrupted were far preferable to any movie streaming service. They were culturally important. People met there and the woman behind the counter likely had an encyclopedic knowledge of film. And did I mention that people met there? That you actually interacted with people at these stores? That ideas were exchanged and that projects were kicked off there? The record industry, another one of Anderson’s targets, was lined with guys who make Peter Thiel look good. (A really great clip with Roulette Records’ Morris Levy is here if you want to see a real mobster at work.) The majors could all go to hell. A lot of independents, who implemented similar business practices, could join them. But what’s left? What does Chris Anderson advocate? A $.00003 royalty payment per stream to a band? A now non-existent quarter for every downloaded track (seeing as streaming is on the rise)? Approximately seventeen years into file sharing/digital music and the financial situation for underground bands and labels just gets worse. The way I see it, the guy who posted the Coldreams Youtube track above is the closest thing we’ve got to the gal behind the counter at the brick-and-mortar record store. And it’s cantankerous, washed-up fools like myself, losing two to four thousand bucks per year releasing records that are keeping the underground lit. (It’d be much more profitable if I just hoarded a lot of my titles and sold them clandestinely. This long-obscure Memphis punk EP from 1978 I released for the first time–featuring Alex Chilton and Sam the Sham behind the board–has sold for $50. After selling my 400 copies, before scarcity kicked in, I broke even. (WHAT A DUM DUM!)

Hey, look, it’s Big Alex Chilton, the guy who produced one of my releases, singing his best-known hit with the Box Tops! Chilton’s another guy who got screwed by the record industry, both in the pre-digital and digital era! The more things change, the more they stay the same! 

Additionally, you can’t replace a human with an algorithm. I live a life lined with regrets, but an algorithm can’t compete with the conversations I’ve had with fellow record collectors. The interactions I’ve had with my hometown’s record store owners. We know this stuff inside and out. Again, a lot of regrets, but I’ve done things with music I never thought possible ten years ago.

Anderson lost me on the notion of “free” when he reveled in the fact that you can buy a T-shirt for less than a cup of coffee. All that says to me is that a highly exploited, very young girl slaving away in a sweat shop in Latin America or India is something to be celebrated. Right on, bro. He also mentions obesity being a problem in America. Of course, that’s true. But so is food insecurity (but living in a tech, Nor Cal bubble I doubt he’s privy to this).

It all comes down to philosophy. I don’t buy what Anderson is selling. He’s erudite and his ideas can’t be completely discarded. There are some real fruits to the availability of commodities online. There have been some undeniable liberating effects. But at his core, he strikes me as a libertarian or neoliberal technophile. As a fan of critical theory and folks like Neil Postman, we have absolutely nothing in common. I also produce and create the things he only seems to write about.

Tech hits carpentry — and I’m loving it.

Minnesota Public Radio ran a story recently on the continuing fight to mandate table saw safety. If you’ve never entered a wood shop before, it can be a dangerous place, and table saws are likely the most dangerous tool you’re going to encounter. (However, I have to disagree with the article. Circular saws, commonly used in rough framing outside of a shop, are the most dangerous woodworking tool, with table saws coming in second place.)

SawStop works. It’s a table saw company that debuted in the early ’00s. The table saws themselves are excellent. I’ve used them extensively; they have a great fence and the motors are powerful to cut through hardwoods like bubinga and purple heart. However, there are several fine table saw manufacturers out there and that’s not what sets SawStop apart. SawStop has a brake mechanism that will immediately drop and stop the saw’s blade the moment it senses your finger. Inventor Steve Gass (a physicist and hobbyist woodworker) created a device that sends a weak electrical current through the saw’s blade. Wood is not conductive. Your body, mostly water and salt, is very conductive. That’s what triggers the electrical current/braking device in the hot dog demo shown above.

Have I seen a table saw accident? Yes. They’re gruesome. I’ve taken one coworker to the ER. Another coworker, Jesse, lost three fingers at the knuckle. It was such a nasty cut that surgeons were unable to reattach his fingers. The physical injury was bad enough, but Jesse imploded psychologically after the accident. Within a year, he got divorced, drove his ’68 Mercury Cougar into a ditch, and just stopped showing up to work.

So, you’re naturally thinking, “This technology’s great. I’m sure all table saw manufacturers are utilizing it.” And that’s where you’re wrong. Gass initially tried to sell the device to manufacturers; he wasn’t looking to get into business beyond the copyright of the device. They all rebuffed him; they felt it wouldn’t be profitable enough. (SawStop table saws do sell for two to three times the amount of an entry-level saw. But guess what? THEY’RE WORTH IT!) SawStop’s mechanism has since been tied up in litigation (in regards to its universal adoption) and the Consumer Product Safety Commission has essentially been made toothless. Lobbyists for other saw manufacturers, the latter fearful the new technology will hurt their bottom lines, have fought against it. And you see yet again how money talks, BS walks.

As someone who uses table saws, I greatly prefer using a SawStop. I respect the machine, but accidents happen. The cabinet shop has three table saws, two of them are now SawStops. I only use SawStops now. And all of the accidents at the shop could have been prevented with SawStop table saws. Automation will decimate jobs in the future. That’s through no fault of technology itself, but mostly has to do with political decisions — what does society owe to displaced workers? I selected this article because tech can really benefit workers; SawStop has shown that. To me, it’s about political and economic decision making — tech has the power to enrich our lives so long as we can all benefit from its development and employment. On a much smaller note, I don’t have a table saw at my house due to space limitations. But if I did, it’d be a SawStop all the way. Great job, Steve Gass!

Programming and Product Management

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What do I think of programming and product management’s place in media industries? I think programming will have a very real place. Product management–sure. But I find those folks less valuable than coders. If I can build a blue-collar parallel: I’ve helped run a cabinet shop. We were doing two million per year, working for Hollywood celebrities and hedge-fund managers. We were doing top-of-the-line work and the accompanying stress and demands were onerous. We had seventeen employees. We’d take anyone who could actually do the work over someone who could manage it (this was likely attributable to the fact that my dad ran the show and I assisted/drafted). Can you fabricate cabinet boxes quickly and accurately? Can you make cut sheets without mistakes? The people who could were were highly valued. I see coders as their white-collar equivalents. They make sites happen. They create the necessary algorithms. My dad was a former cabinet builder and he could design. I’m a draftsman. We’d meet clients. My dad had the charisma and professionalism most (all?) of the assemblers (coders) lacked. My point is, you’re gonna need both–but it’s always harder to find assemblers (coders) than leaders/managers (product management). You’re always going to need more programmers than product managers. We made money off the workers in the shop; startups will make their money off coders.

My future career is uncertain. I’ve done what I’ve needed to do to survive, and I’ve worked harder than most. I’ve drafted every day for two months straight (it’s how I was able to buy a house), developing nasty canker sores in the process. When the shop closed down, I started wrenching on hot rods to make ends meet. I saw my friends shipped off to Iraq and Afghanistan, a massive recession (should’ve been called a depression) hit our industry (construction) particularly hard, and student loans mount up to the cost of a new, fully-loaded BMW. Like I said, it’s about survival now–wealth inequality is so egregious we’re entering a second Gilded Age–and I’ve always felt more comfortable around blue-collar men and women than the corporate sector. It’s my background. Unfortunately, my main interests are in rapid decline: journalism and the record industry (music). I can take it or leave it most days.

What challenges exist in integrating these skills and mindsets into media companies? Well, if we’re talking journalism I think the major problem is funding–not how to integrate these skills. To his credit, Pilhofer in the New School lecture mentioned that The Guardian was set to lose 80 million British pounds in 2016, and that you couldn’t “cut your way to profitability.” Simply finding people who can wear all the tech/journalism hats won’t solve this problem. Money is hemorrhaging too fast out of journalism. Additionally, the premium pay-service/subscriber model Pilhofer mentions is a pipe dream. There needs to be new revenue streams. The for-profit legacy news outlets have continuously sought to find solutions to this funding problem; they’ll likely never find them. As I’ve mentioned before, Dean Baker has come up with the best solution I’ve come across so far. If we’re talking solely about programming as a career–well, now you’re really talking. Manufacturing has been in decline since the rapid rise of neoliberalism (roughly, the late Jimmy Carter years here in the United States), and in this post-industrial/increasingly precarious work environment, being able to program/create algorithms appears to be a potential way out. I even see this in blue-collar industries that are evolving with 3D printers, CAD/CAM and the increasing complexity of new cars that demand very evolved (and costly) diagnostic tools.

While coding/tech has been introduced into different programs at the college level, where it needs to start is at the elementary school level. Real talk here: working-class people have essentially been forgotten throughout large regions of this country. As mentioned earlier, neoliberal policies have left the Midwest and parts of the South, some formerly manufacturing economic powerhouses, facing terminal decay with residents encountering third-world living conditions. Be it parts of coal country or the largely African-American populations left behind in cities by white flight and a declining tax base/city services. (By the way, the good people in Flint, Michigan, won’t be able to drink tap water until 2020.) We need to switch to something likely resembling a Keynesian economic model, where we prepare young children for the future–and that includes tech. Like Erika Toney at the Women Who Code Panel, I taught kids who were living on the margins. And I absolutely agree with her: access to quality education is not a reality for a lot of youngsters in this nation. We need to change that. I don’t think it’s politically feasible, but sometimes you have to be reasonable and demand the impossible.

The Future of Journalism

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The future of journalism is getting the crankshaft out of this 1963 Studebaker and into the machine shop (the connecting rod bearings were heavily pitted on pistons three and six). As far as I know, I’m the only person who’s partially disassembled a Studebaker engine and interviewed Noam Chomsky — a process that took eighteen months, about a dozen emails and some real coordination. It was a lot harder than a Google search.

I started out in journalism while still an undergraduate, writing for Cal Lutheran University’s paper, The Echo. The impetus came from a deep interest in music and a desire not to attend classes. Back in the early/mid-’00s, there were still a few left-of-the-dial national music publications. I started freelancing for them and made some money. I also contributed to Southern California weeklies. However, I found penning one hundred-word previews on gigs I wasn’t interested in attending, as well as the pieces my editors sold me on — like chatting with former MTV VJs — to be unfulfilling. At the same time, the magazines I was writing for (Punk Planet, Status, etc.) were shutting down. In retrospect, I ended up catching the tail end of their run. I had to do some soul searching. Journalism was in collapse — UT’s Robert Jensen (who I really should be working with) hits it out of the park here — yet I wanted to continue writing. In fact, I wanted to take it all further — to interview scholars and musicians on the periphery of the periphery. And I wanted 5,000 damn words if I felt that an article needed it. And I found my home, working for non-profits like Razorcake, Maximumrocknroll and Terminal Boredom. The pay was non-existent. But two of the three were running my stuff regularly in their print editions, and I was able to cover whomever I wanted! So long as I was willing to pull crankshafts out of Studebakers to make the mortgage payment, I could interview leading scholars, Vietnam Veterans, and David Thomas of Pere Ubu. Nevertheless, I was curious about what was happening to journalism LONG before this class showed up in the course catalog. And the answers provided in the readings don’t compare to what Robert McChesney — one of America’s top media critics/Mass Comm professors — told me in a 2010 interview (it’s worth quoting at length):

“The other issue that you referred to concerning tax credits is something that I’m a big fan of. It was developed by a wonderful economist named Dean Baker. Brilliantly, Dean over a decade ago said that as people move over to the digital system the entire logic of commercial media systems becomes undermined and increasingly counterproductive. Previously, people would produce a product, sell it to advertisers, and then sell it to the public. In a digital world, that’s not going to work. You’re not going to be able to put barbed wire everywhere and you’re not going to make enough money to make it work. So, Dean said the rational way to set up our media system is to pay people in advance for their work and have them distribute it for free on the Internet. This would enable a vibrant, open public sector, with large amounts of material in the public domain. People would have access to this information for free in the digital world. You need to pay your musicians and journalists so there’s good content online. That’s a social problem we have to solve. Dean’s recommendation was that every American be given the right to allocate a certain amount of money—I put it at $200—to support a non-profit, non-commercial medium of their choice. The only condition put on the medium is that whatever they produce is made instantly available for free online. There are a lot different ways to spin this. Say you’re a musician with a band. You might get 10,000 people to give you their $200 voucher if you’re formally a non-profit and whatever you produce you can put online for free with that money. But you can support yourself. Or you could try it with a radio station. However, we’ve thought about it primarily in terms of news media and supporting journalism.”

The future of journalism is online, and the neoliberal approaches advocated in the New York Times article are neither appealing nor viable. Their revenues are way down and the vain hope that paying subscribers will bring the pre-internet gravy days back comes off as wishful thinking. And that’s a shame. While I’m not a huge fan of the NYT, they’ve done good work. If mainstream journalism were metals, the New York Times would be gold, the The New York Post (or any News Corp. outfit for that matter — think Fox News) would be pot metal. The NYT will continue to exist, but in a much feebler form.

Data journalism has its place, but it’s overused and over-hyped. Nate Silver did an outstanding job predicting primary and general election winners in the 2016 elections. I’m sure it brought FiveThirtyEight some easy money. Unfortunately, the rest of the country would have been better off ignoring Silver and having journalists stop by the cabinet shop I work at (as well as the Rust Belt) to figure out why working-class Americans were preparing to vote against their best interests. WAIT! Journalist Joe Bageant did just that NINE YEARS AGO! Or check out how prophetic Noam Chomsky was in 2010 when I asked him about the mood of the country and where we were headed (also worth quoting at length):

“People are very atomized right now. They’re also very angry. There’s tremendous anger in the country right now. Worse than anything I can remember or know about in history. About half the population thinks every member of congress should be thrown out—including their own representatives. Distrust in institutions has probably reached historic heights. And that’s not just governmental institutions, but also corporations, courts, and just about anything. There’s tremendous anger and good reasons for it. Take a look at the economy. In the early post-War years, there was a period of very rapid and successful economic growth. This happened in the 1950s and ‘60s. It was very unique. Historically, there was nothing like it over such a period of time. It was also egalitarian. If you take look at the lowest quintile it did about as well as the highest quintile. That changed in the 1970s. In the 1970s the economy shifted considerably. There was a move towards the financialization of the economy and a corresponding hollowing out of productive enterprise. If you go back to, say, the 1970s, probably only a few percent of corporate profits were derived from financial institutions. Now it’s close to a third. And productive industry was shifted abroad—Mexico, China, and so on. Neoliberal policies were also introduced, primarily by Reagan and Clinton; it continues. There are effects to all of this. For the majority of the population, incomes have stagnated over the past 30 years. And that’s in the midst of plenty of wealth accumulation that’s going into very few pockets. So, inequality is maybe at its highest level since the end of slavery. If you look at social indicators—measures of the health of a society—they have declined severely since the mid-‘70s. All of this affects people’s lives. They might not understand all of the factors involved but they react. They react with anger. They want an explanation. They want some way to deal with it. There are a lot of left activists everywhere. But they’re atomized. Very scattered. The kinds of organization that is taking place, that is very real, is incredibly self destructive and ominous. There are shades of late Weimar Republic. I’m not going to say history is going to repeat, but you can’t miss some similarities. People who are organizing now—say to attack government programs—they’re harming themselves. The government programs are the only things that preserve them from unaccountable private tyrannies.”

The said, I don’t think the divide between traditional journalism and data journalism needs to exist. Used properly, the ability to analyze data quickly is incredibly helpful. The articles didn’t mention it, but I’m willing to wager data journalism is incredibly cheap (vis-a-vis traditional journalism). Data journalism will never be a substitute for traditional reporting, but it could be a wonderful aid. Also, artificial intelligence has been used well in cleaning up the cesspool that is the New York Times comments section. In regards to programming/coding, by god don’t get into journalism if you have those skills. As several of the readings mentioned, you can make two to three times more money working for Facebook or a startup. (Journalism is dying. It’s lined by Rupert Murdoch’s underlings, socialists like me and thousands of corpses.) Holly Gibson at the Women Who Code Panel mentioned seasoned freelance coders commanding 50-to-100 dollars per hour! YOU WILL NEVER MAKE THAT MONEY IN JOURNALISM! And one would be foolish to turn it down. If you can code and are still crazy enough to get into journalism, it’d behoove you to keep coding as your main job, journalism as a side gig. Don’t struggle. Take care of yourself. And if you’re unfamiliar with Amy Goodman, she’s America’s greatest journalist and a national treasure. maxresdefault

Mass Communication Week at Texas State

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The Women Who Code Panel was held on October 18, 2017, in Old Main. The panel was part of Texas State University’s 2017 Mass Communication Week. The moderator was Dr. Cindy Royal and the panelists were Kimberly Cook (Zenoss), Rebecca Larson (USAA), Ashley Hebler (FANS 1st Media), Erika Toney (Rainman Creative) and Holly Gibson (Praxent, Women Who Code). Sans Holly Gibson, all of the panelists were alumnae of Texas State; Erika Toney is currently enrolled in Texas State’s Mass Communication MA program.

The start of the panel had participants discuss how they got into the tech sector. Most panelists entered into the field by happenstance. Rebecca Larson’s experience was typical: “I came from a totally different background. My undergrad degree was in Japanese studies. But I wanted to get into computer science and coding because I  knew people who were in it and I was impressed by their skills. I said, ‘That sounds awesome. I want to do whatever it is that you’re doing.'” Erika Toney of Rainman Creative is an ex-school teacher who found inspiration from one of her former students: “He told me he coded (a design project in virtual reality). I thought that was pretty cool. He showed me some basics in coding, so I started to learn on my own. I downloaded some stuff from Codecademy….I knew I didn’t want to hang out with twelve-year-olds for the rest of my life.”

Of course, finding work after college is the real challenge. Some panelists mentioned networking via former teachers at Texas State as being a key factor in landing their current jobs. Rebecca Larson took time off after college. When she began looking for employment, she had trouble finding work that she was “really passionate about.” USAA had its appeal, but it was a difficult place to get into. However, Larson “knew a few people who worked there. (Through them) I was able to get an interview. The thing that set me apart was that they were looking for designers who had coding experience. I was kind of out of the ordinary (having both skills).” Networking was crucial in getting panelists jobs. Job search websites and Meetups were also helpful.

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The tech industry is notoriously sexist. Susan Fowler’s blog post on the rampant sexism at Uber was discussed. While panelists stated that sexism was widespread, some felt it shouldn’t be generalized; that it was mostly “individuals who felt that way for the most part.” While recognizing sexism as an ugly reality in the tech sector, Toney recommended not giving potential sexists “any sort of reason to say anything negative.” Holly Gibson felt Silicon Valley was particularly sexist, being lined with privileged males from the top schools, enrolled in the top computer science programs. “These guys have grown up in a bubble. They’re used to working with highly intelligent men. They’re not used to working with women. Sometime they have unconscious biases. Other times, they have very conscious biases.”  While Gibson has never encountered any harassment in Austin, her coworkers have been victims and Gibson has had to kick men out of events for inappropriate behavior. “It’s the 1%. 99% (of men) are there to support you.”

The panel concluded with Holly Gibson discussing her leadership role in the Austin branch of Women Who Code. It’s an incredibly supportive group for women in the tech field. The organization seeks to empower women, creating an environment for them to hone and develop new skills.

 

 

 

 

User Experience — Something I rarely think about

The speaker whose work is of some interest to me (kudos to all those who are presenting) is Rebecca Larson who’s a UX designer for USAA. There’s literally no further information on Larson, but I’m interested in her thoughts on user-engagement and learning more on what she does for the USAA — a bank for veterans of the US armed services. Surprisingly, I run a record label with my wife and at our level — roughly somewhere between “micro label” and “small independent label” — website design/interaction with customers is generally basic and unrefined. Some of the bigger mail orders around have sites that look like they’re from 2003 (I’m not joking). A lot of smaller labels are fronted by men and women wearing many hats, coming up with solutions on the spot. Someone with Larson’s expertise is of value to anyone interacting with customers, especially predominately online, who can’t afford to hire freelance help in that area. Questions would be: 1.) What do you do at the USAA? 2.) In your field of work, how do you create user-friendly content that increases user engagement? 3.) What software programs do you use? 4.) What methods/surveys (focus groups?) do you use to check for effectiveness of design and products?  5.) What are some of the challenges of making content appealing to users on mobile devices?

Ngv_design,_ludwig_mies_van_der_rohe_&_co,_barcelona_chair

The fact of the matter is when I think of design, I think of industrial designers — Mies van der Rohe and his Barcelona Chair; Harley Earl and his use of tail fins in 1950s automobiles. I think of the design team who created the “toothy” grill seen here on my 1951 Ford truck (If you’re curious: CSB, Turbo 350, Doug’s ceramic-coated headers with 2 1/4″ X-pipe exhaust, Mustang II front end, ’78 C-10 12-bolt read end, 4-row brass/copper radiator. Not a street sweeper but it moves).

Sears Outside

But much of what I do is online nowadays, and any help made available to bring in sales to our site, that’s a blessing! It’s rough out there!

Netscape and Commodore Amigas: Two Things that Need to Comeback

netscape

Google makes most of its money from AdWords. AdWords is a silent auction that allows companies to place their bids for key advertising space; the auctions likely happen billions of times per day. If the bid is selected, the advertiser’s link is featured in the “sponsored links” section of a Google browser search. (I just tried this right now. “SK Ratchet” brought the Harry J. Epstein Store in Kansas City, Missouri, up in the prime number-one spot. “SK 3/8″ Ratchet” somehow dropped Harry J. Epstein down to the number three spot. Regardless, Harry J. Epstein is the greatest tool store in America. I highly recommend them if you’re in need of old-stock Bonney line wrenches or SK breaker bars.) Advertisers do not pay Google unless the link is clicked by a user. Interestingly, Google used to sell ads the “old fashioned” way with AdWords Premium. AdWords Premium involved selling ad space at the top of the browser’s page to corporations who paid hefty, prearranged amounts in the six figures. They dropped AdWords Premium and fully adopted their other model for bid payments where the highest bidder pays the next highest price, plus a penny (incidentally, it was a stroke of genius: ad prices went up when implemented).

Google has its own way of figuring out who gets top slot in the ranking. And it isn’t based solely on bidding price. If a landing site is poorly designed and maintained, it will likely loose out to a lower-priced bidder with a more aesthetically pleasing webpage. Google has been sued for this and it’s easy to understand why: Google has the power to make or break a retail business. It’s a publicly traded corporation (or its parent company Alphabet Inc. is), so it does as it pleases.

Google’s competitors are Mozilla Firefox, Microsoft Edge (the re-branded Internet Explorer) and Opera. It appears to me that Google is basically at where Sears and Roebuck was in 1925 or where General Motors was by 1950. They’re totally dominating their field. Speaking of which, I vaguely recall Netscape and I feel that Firefox’s (then Google’s) trumping of Internet Explorer was sweet revenge. I really wish I could use Netscape to browse the internet on a Commodore Amiga (I mean, did Andy Warhol use an IBM? Nah, Amiga all the way.)

If I understand the question correctly: In regards to other media organizations implementing something similar, I’m unsure. While I’m at best ambivalent about Silicon Valley and tech in general, I do have a lot of respect for the programmers and statisticians who make Google work. (My wife’s father works in Silicon Valley, creating algorithms. He’s a bright guy.) These folks are highly sought after and they don’t come cheaply. It’d take a lot of that venture capital to build the infrastructure necessary for a media company to implement something similar. (It seems to me that startups mostly belly flop. And if they do succeed, well, hopefully they’re headed by someone slightly more ethical than Travis Kalanick.) Additionally, what’s the incentive to bid? What’s the value on an AdWords-inspired auction for an online ad in the New York Times? The reason Google is able to pull in the kind of money that it does is because they’re so damn popular and see so much traffic. If Google were a television event, it’d be the Superbowl–only aired every single day. What Google does with AdWords works for Google. There was a blurb near the end where Eric Schmidt (a deity in the tech world) believe auctions could be used to sell “entire car lots” and “homes.” That sounds like a horrible idea. Unlike data and bids used to link Google users with products, people need homes. They’re tactile objects and we’re facing a huge homelessness problem in America. Look at San Francisco. This formerly artistically rich city has priced out a number of its artists, and Google has been one of their targets. Who are you going to sell these homes to at auction? Certainly not to me or any of the hundreds of musicians, record label owners, DJs or journalists I know. I feel we need to do the opposite of what Schmidt is proposing: get HUD more involved and keep housing available to EVERYONE!

Google Analytics Score

I infiltrated Google Analytics beginner’s course and received an 87% on their assessment. I needed my wife’s help on pasting my score. I’m now a big fan of the Snipping Tool. 

In regards to Google Analytics, there’s no denying they’ve done a great job helping online merchants reach their clients. The filtering process allows for intense marketing campaigns where they’re most effective–be it seasonal or a geographic region. Again, there’s a reason Google is the new Sears Catalog. They’re in a league of their own.

Who Cares About Music?

Lost Sounds

These pieces about the liberating impacts of technology always amuse me. Clay Shirky is an intelligent person, and his insight into the social character of humans is engaging. However, the sort of “creative destruction” these new modes of communication have unleashed–the ones he waxes poetically about–well, they’re occasionally off the mark. For instance, he mentions the demise of the music industry as being inevitable because now customers can handle distribution and reproduction of music for themselves. That’s great. Here’s the problem: being a recording artist now is worse than it was twenty years ago. And I’m not talking about acts on major labels–the sort of grassroots startups he idealizes–we’ve got an incredibly hard row to hoe. I’d argue (and I’m sure I’m not alone), that it’s harder to run a successful independent label in 2017 than in was in 1991; that these changes in the way people consume music has hurt bands, especially those on the margins. Why? People don’t buy music like they used to; revenue on all levels of the industry are way down. Specifically, they don’t buy CDs which, unlike vinyl records, had generous markups on wholesale and were much easier to get manufactured (vinyl pressing is fraught with delays and it’s a slow process); that the hopeful projections on streaming revenues aren’t there. I’m guessing Shirky’s contention is that getting a song out to the public is easier than ever. Of course, he’s right. Buy how many times have I heard from an artist, “Will you put my record out? I don’t want to be another band lost on Bandcamp.” Being on a record label is much more than just getting music out. It meant someone handling distribution of physical/digital product, assisting with touring, getting product out to college radio stations, helping bands with coverage/interviews and (hopefully) paying royalties promptly. It gave hardworking bands a profile, an association with other artists they considered their peers. Music isn’t created in a vacuum. Yes, you can release songs to the public at no cost. But playing music takes time and energy; it requires money. Before the collapse of  the record business in the early ’00s, there were a whole host of distribution networks for independent labels, some owned by enterprising bands who released their own LPs/CDs and helped out their friends. These labels ran on shoestring budgets, some firmly in the red, but they loved music and put out amazing albums. They’re still around–my label is luckily picked up by arguably the best independent distributor in the United States–but many distros went out of business around the ’04 mark (and in the process took labels/underground rock mags down with them who were never able to collect on money owed). I’m convinced that the only people who relish the demise of the record business are people who have no idea what a record label does, and really have no clue as to how music is produced or the economics of it; what a band needs to function. And I loathe the record industry. (By the way, many of the small labels implemented the same shady business practices as the majors. Helpful tip: Never sign a contract that has the word “perpetuity” in it.) I don’t like running a small independent label. I lose money every year. I only put out vinyl. I have no contracts and I allow the bands to retain all of the rights to their music. I do it because I genuinely like music and I know people making vital music don’t have the resources or the time to both play music and release it (although some do). There’s no “creative destruction” there. It’s solidarity and camaraderie with musicians and fellow music fans.

Boyd and Ellison’s history on social network sites, although dated, was surprisingly a really great read. I had never heard of SixDegrees.com. I misread one of their statements; Boyd and Ellison mention that SNS organize around people and not interests (unlike message boards). At first, I thought they meant there was a change in SNS with the launch of Myspace and Facebook (mainstreaming effect). This got me thinking about a defunct social media site that they didn’t list; it was one of the first of its kind, launched in 1999. It was called makeoutclub.com. I’d actually argue that SNS site was about shared interests, as it was started by an individual who was part of an underground music scene. (On second thought, hooking up with different partners seemed to take priority. Perhaps interests came in a distant second.) I was never a member of the site–my musical interests were slightly different–but there was at least a peripheral overlap with some of the older groups that were hallmarks of the site (think Rites of Spring) and a few of my friends were on the site. Looking back, it was important. I’m sure there were a lot of ideas being spread and a much tighter community. I recall Calvin Johnson of K Records was on the site and I really liked his label. It was the first time you could interact with someone like Calvin in this manner. Undoubtedly, it wasn’t all good and I’m sure the pettiness of today’s interactions on the internet were ubiquitous there as well. Nevertheless, when I talk with older musicians, they often mention the novelty of early internet chat groups as being incredibly exciting (granted, not a SNS). It’s possible the early days of SNS shared that feeling of excitement and greater common interests. Possibly it was my loss that I wasn’t on them. A lot of this stuff was happening when I was young and I didn’t own a computer until college.

Husbands

Boyd and Ellison’s article mentioned the rise of bands on Myspace, and its music-friendly interface. This was one of Myspace’s great features. There were a slew of amazing record labels coming out in the mid-’00s who picked up a ton of bands on Myspace. A lot of them were labels out of Europe, releasing mostly 45s on limited runs of 300: Yakisakana (France), SSLD (Italy), Goodbye Boozy (Italy), Zaxxon (Canada), and Perpetrator Records (New Zealand). Most of them are defunct; I doubt they made money on any of their releases (45s are a guaranteed money loser). Being hooked into that scene, I know that Myspace played a major part in the rise of these labels; it became easy to contact bands; there were likely no contracts; it was all built on trust. Amazingly, it worked out for several years. (My speculation is that the further gutting of the record industry and fatigue caused many of these labels to quit; ditto the artists. It’s rough out there.)

I think an important question would be to ask how Myspace assisted bands. The industry was in collapse at all levels, but that SNS really did help get some amazing music released and aided touring bands with promotion. As someone covering music (I had only released a couple 45s back in ’05), it also made contacting bands easier. And here perhaps Shirky’s argument holds up: you could speak to artists directly and make connections (be it to release records or conduct interviews for fanzines) without any middleman. We were all losing money and getting screwed. But we had a good time doing it.

Husbands inner

Silicon Valley, I’ll Pass

“The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” – Hunter S. Thompson

It’s rare that an industry can make the dying music business appear almost reputable. The lack of diversity in the tech sector shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone with a passing knowledge of the industry. The rampant sexism is deplorable. However, I’d argue that these characteristics are reflective of an industry that has (at best) a barely functioning moral compass. The need to restructure and reevaluate ethics/business practices appears long overdue.

In the short term, the need to diversify employment is a must. Current hiring trends are not reflective of our society’s makeup with coveted jobs going to the privileged — disproportionately white, male and upper class. However, I don’t think simply changing the demographics of the tech industry to more accurately reflect our pluralistic society is enough. There needs to be a massive restructuring — a place where women can go to work and the all-consuming dollar doesn’t supersede their right to be treated fairly; to a place where workers aren’t 1099 contractors but employees with benefits and rights. I don’t think it’ll happen. The sort of cutthroat capitalism Silicon Valley prides itself on — the “creative destruction” of capitalism — appears to be a smokescreen for the atomizing effects it instills in workers and the acceptance of profits over people, to the point where sexual harassment is condoned because it wouldn’t make any economic sense to stop it. (I’d further argue that from a business standpoint, empowering workers into a more cooperative unit would improve productivity and morale. In addition to the rampant sexism at Uber, Susan Fowler mentions the lack of group cohesion and self-promotion at all costs to be a real productivity killer.)

Furthermore, women need better role models in the tech world. Two articles mention former HP CEO Carly Fiorina  and Meg Whitman (ex-CEO of eBay). While their ascents to the top of the tech industry are admirable, Fiorina’s attacks on Planned Parenthood are inexcusable; ditto Meg Whitman’s support of Prop 8 in California which sought to overturn gay marriage in the state. (While I understand these articles were written before these events took place, it nevertheless underscores the fact that women are just as capable of setting social progress back forty years, as well as internalizing the regressive values of the hegemonic culture they’re supposedly subverting.)

The article on Tristan Walker was enjoyable to read. It was also (as far as I can tell) the only one that made any sort of nebulous mention of economic class. Walker came from the wrong side of the tracks. But he was lifted out of his inferred hopeless milieu and was enrolled in the prestigious Hotchkiss prep school. There, he was exposed to all the privileges the white economic elite took for granted. But I can’t help but wonder — what happened to all of those he left behind in Queens? Shamefully, once he did make himself known in the tech world, Walker found himself without any support from his Caucasian counterparts. Again, a restructuring seems long overdue…

It may surprise some readers to find out that my mother dropped out of high school. Like most kids from broken homes, I only have a loose idea on where she’s currently living. My father was the first person in his family to finish high school, although the PTSD he picked up lugging an M60 machine gun around Vietnam didn’t really improve his job prospects. Being a cabinetmaker, tech meant nothing to him. And it wasn’t until I was eighteen in 2000 that I obtained a computer, many year after most of my classmates. I was the first person in my family to step foot inside a college classroom. Don’t believe me? Here’s a random 1998 autobiography I had to do for tenth-grade English that’s amazingly survived. Half of it was composed on a typewriter, the other half written in pen. The reason? The ink ribbon ran out. Computers were still exotic instruments for folks from poor stock in the late ’90s. 

typewriter

Does a young, female teenager in Gary, Indiana,  or Flint, Michigan, have the same chances at getting a good job in tech as her counterparts in San Francisco or Austin? This question, of course, is much larger than tech, but I feel it’s a missing piece of the puzzle. Tech is the future. It’s where the money is at. People like me — who, in retrospect, should have never even been allowed into college — with a family lined with GM auto plant workers (Van Nuys plant that was shutdown in ’92), truck drivers (grandfather drove truck for Consolidated Freightways, proud member of the Teamsters) and cabinet makers/sometimes mechanics (me and my father) — we’re the past. We’re the maligned members of society. However, what’s happening in tech — specifically, job outsourcing — is what happened to my people back in the 1980s. Optimistically, the recent rush to make bodegas obsolete by a tech startup — to put another group of vulnerable business owners out of work — was greeted with derision. (Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the closing of the American Axle plant in Hamtramck, represented by the UAW, one of the most progressive unions around. Watch this meeting and note the diversity of the union leadership and the workers they represent. Tech has a lot to learn…)

There’s a storm coming, and parts of it have already hit shore. Being in touch with roughnecks, it’s getting ugly out there in manual labor land, where, as one of the articles noted, there’s been a switch from manufacturing to service industry work. Tech needs to incorporate a greater cross section of our society, employing people from different ethnic, racial, gender and class backgrounds. People know they’ve been left behind due to the simple lottery of birth. They’re confused and angry; they know something isn’t right. To paraphrase Joe Bageant, ignorance is the worst prison of all. If tech wants to be the future, it has to act like it. It needs to be responsible and accountable to people.