March 25, 2007

A Business in Transition? Or Lacking In Product? Imagination? [10:57 pm]

The Album, a Commodity in Disfavor

Now that the three young women in Candy Hill, a glossy rap and R&B trio, have signed a record contract, they are hoping for stardom. On the schedule: shooting a music video and visiting radio stations to talk up their music.

But the women do not have a CD to promote. Universal/Republic Records, their label, signed Candy Hill to record two songs, not a complete album.

“If we get two songs out, we get a shot,” said Vatana Shaw, 20, who formed the trio four years ago, “Only true fans are buying full albums. Most people don’t really do that anymore.”

To the regret of music labels everywhere, she is right: fans are buying fewer and fewer full albums. In the shift from CDs to digital music, buyers can now pick the individual songs they like without having to pay upward of $10 for an album.

[...] One of the biggest reasons for the shift, analysts say, is that consumers — empowered to cherry-pick — are forgoing album purchases after years of paying for complete CD’s with too few songs they like. There are still cases where full albums succeed — the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ double-CD “Stadium Arcadium,” with a weighty 28 tracks, has sold almost two million copies. But the overall pie is shrinking.

In some ways, the current climate recalls the 1950s and to some extent, the 60s, when many popular acts sold more singles than albums. It took greatly influential works like The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” to turn the album into pop music’s medium of choice.

But the music industry’s cost structure is far higher than it was when Bob Dylan picked up an electric guitar. Today’s costs — from television ads and music videos to hefty executive salaries — are still built on blockbuster albums.

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Bezos’ Mechanical Turk [1:01 pm]

Artificial Intelligence, With Help From the Humans

COMPUTERS still do some things very poorly. Even when they pool their memory and processors in powerful networks, they remain unevenly intelligent. Things that humans do with little conscious thought, such as recognizing patterns or meanings in images, language or concepts, only baffle the machines.

[...] The problem has prompted a spooky, but elegant, business idea: why not use the Web to create marketplaces of willing human beings who will perform the tasks that computers cannot? Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon.com, has created Amazon Mechanical Turk, an online service involving human workers, and he has also personally invested in a human-assisted search company called ChaCha. Mr. Bezos describes the phenomenon very prettily, calling it “artificial artificial intelligence.”

“Normally, a human makes a request of a computer, and the computer does the computation of the task,” he said. “But artificial artificial intelligences like Mechanical Turk invert all that. The computer has a task that is easy for a human but extraordinarily hard for the computer. So instead of calling a computer service to perform the function, it calls a human.”

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Interview with Jonathan Lethem [10:19 am]

The author of the Ecstasy of Influence: Writing in the free world

“You Don’t Love Me Yet” is about low-rent indie musicians with day jobs. Musicians like that often have little or no label support behind them and find themselves on a perpetual tour wagon, earning most of their cash through selling T-shirts — that is, selling the byproducts of their lovely songs. When I jump on my pro-copyright horse, I have to say these musicians may be wrecking their personal relationships by touring all the time, and then when they enter their elderly years, which for an indie band may be their 30s…

Yes, yes, they have no intellectual property to help them out in the old age home. The first thing I want to say is that it’s entirely a fiction of what I’ll call, for the sake of this argument, the opposition — corporate, copyright absolutists — that to question the present privatization craze in any way is to vote for some anarchic abolition of copyright.

I make my living by licensing my copyright. Everything I’ve tried to say, in the Harper’s essay and elsewhere, is that there is an enormous middle ground. It becomes one of those issues like, “If you don’t favor wiretapping in the U.S., you must be for the terrorists.” What I’m seeking to explore is that incredibly fertile middle ground where people control some rights and gain meaningful benefits from those controls, and yet contribute to a healthy public domain and systematically relinquish, or have relinquished for them, meaningless controls on culture that impoverish the public domain.

Having said that, there’s no simple description. There’s an enormously intricate series of judgments, given technological variations and the differences between different mediums. There’s no simple standard to apply. It’s a matter of understanding the needs of a healthy public domain and a healthy creative incentive in every field in deep and intricate specifics.

But I will say this: Problems of artists, musicians, writers, anyone getting paid for doing their most free and creative and independent kind of work, are not new ones. The present realm of corporate-instigated maximization of the intellectual property concept doesn’t seem to have kept indie bands from touring.

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