Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Oh Those Poor, Poor Rockstars

Yesterday I read this old article on Ars Technica about the UK government's decision to cap copyright protection at 50 years:

The music industry had lobbied the government hard for a copyright extension, saying that it was necessary to protect the rights of musicians, especially groundbreaking acts whose older songs were about to hit the 50-year limit.
Here's where I have a problem:
Criticism from the music industry has come fast and furious in the wake of the government's decision. "Thousands of musicians have no pensions and rely on royalties to support themselves," said Roger Daltry, lead singer of The Who. "These people helped to create one of Britain's most successful industries, poured money into the British economy and enriched people's lives. They are not asking for a handout, just a fair reward for their creative endeavors."
With all due respect, fuck you Roger Daltry. There are a lot of professions, many of them non-creative, that provide no pension. Daltry made tons of money as the lead singer of The Who, and it's not the younger generations' fault that he couldn't think ahead and plan for his own future through investments like the rest of us. Yet, this fucking rockstar has the gall to complain about his copyright expiring. As far as I am concerned, Daltry has already received his just reward of exclusive copyright as an incentive to create further works; however, he'd rather keep culture off-limits to the people for his own monetary gain.

How more simply can I put this... "Hey Daltry, you'll have fifty-fucking-years of royalty payments from your creative endeavors, and that's more than most other people in most other professions can say. You are asking for a handout -- you've had your turn, now let someone else run with the culture. It's not our fault you were fucking irresponsible with your earnings."

So, fuck you Daltry.

This is what Daltry doesn't quite understand:
Critics of extended copyright protection point out that musicians already enjoy 50 years of royalties and that copyright laws attempt to balance the rights of artists with a desire to encourage new works and ensure a rich public domain for new artists to build on.
Copyright was designed to be an incentive to creative further works, not an economic safety net. At some point we have to allow creative works into the public domain, otherwise it will become increasingly difficult for new artists to create new works. If we want a rich and diverse culture, a healthy public domain is necessary for people to comment and improve upon the creative works that influence them. Moreover, we cannot expect people to sit on the sidelines and only passively interact with their culture, nor should we strive for such conditions.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Another Reason the RIAA Doesn't Get It

I just discovered that Nothing Nice to Say came back a number of years ago (I had stopped reading the comic after I thought it had ended), and I came across this gem:

Bush Out of Touch on Gas Prices

As if we needed another reason to demonstrate that George Bush is out of touch with real Americans, The Chicago Tribune reports today that gas prices have broken the $4 barrier:

Chicagoans are paying an average $4.07 a gallon for gasoline, good enough for topping the notorious list of the highest gas prices in the country. Long Island residents are also paying about $4 a gallon—making it the only other large metropolitan area to hit the $4-a-gallon mark for regular gas.
Remember this?
Peter Maer of CBS News Radio asked: "What's your advice to the average American who is hurting now, facing the prospect of $4-a-gallon gasoline, a lot of people facing ... "

"Wait, what did you just say?" the president interrupted. "You're predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline?"

Maer responded: "A number of analysts are predicting $4-a-gallon gasoline."

Bush's rejoinder: "Oh, yeah? That's interesting. I hadn't heard that."

Monday, May 19, 2008

Preakness: A Highlight of Economic and Racial Inequality

I went to Preakness in Baltimore this weekend with my wife and her cousin, but we didn't go to enjoy the festivities. We went to join the PETA protest against the inhumane practices allowed within the sport of horse racing. While this is a noble cause, the real story during Preakness was on display on the streets of Baltimore. Horse racing, a traditionally white, upper class activity (dubbed "The Sport of Kings"), attracted a cadre of white, upper class people to one of the poorest, African-American areas of Baltimore.

The whole experience was quite surreal. African-American people of all ages and genders were on the streets offering to shuttle the belongings of white people to and fro the arena. I even witnessed one white kid having paid to have himself carted into the arena. The African-American residents of the neighborhood were offering their lawns, streets, and driveways for people to park their cars. African-American residents were out in their front yards cooking food for the mostly white attendees of Preakness.

Even as I walked down the street to raise awareness about the realities of horse racing, African-Americans had already assumed I was there to take part in the drinking and partying of Preakness. And why wouldn't they? On any other day, there's unlikely to be that many white people in that area of Baltimore.

The image was glaring -- poor, unprivileged African-Americans were catering to the needs of affluent, privileged whites to watch a sport that has its roots in Nobility.

Baltimore is largely African-American, has the highest proportion of impoverished residents and the lowest median household income of any other area in Maryland. Baltimore City also has the highest proportion of residents without any health insurance in Maryland.

I found it striking that such an event as Preakness would happen in Baltimore, and how the socio-economic climate created through this clash of cultures, economically and racially segregated, would be so ignored.

Friday, May 16, 2008

O'Reilly Comedy Gold

By now, I'm sure you've read about Bill O'Reilly's meltdown during a taping of Inside Edition. Now, through the power of the internet, we have the dance remix:

Monday, May 12, 2008

X-COM Rumors Buzz Again

Strategycore reported last week that IGN has unofficially-officially confirmed old rumors that a new X-COM game is being made and that 2K Boston (the team that developed BioShock) is working on the title. IGN's new Warplay column has a piece on the prospects of a new X-COM and what the author, Steve Butts, would like to see in the game. Here's a summary of game mechanics that Butts would like to be maintained:

  1. Realistically modeled tactical strategy game.
  2. The overall atmosphere of an alien invasion as an imminent global threat has to be maintained.
  3. The game really has to offer a sense of attachment and vulnerability for the members of your squad.
  4. We'd love to see the new game emphasize the element of time.
And a couple of improvements suggested by the author:
  1. A much better system for equipping and organizing your soldiers.
  2. The game design from the original redone with the concepts and technologies that have developed since.
The author also seems to suggest that we could be seeing a revival of the failed X-COM: Alliance, because the RPG-based, story driven tactical squad FPS is an industry favorite at the moment (BioShock, Crysis, Gears of War), and it would make sense if the team that brought us BioShock is indeed developing the game. While an X-COM: Alliance game would be alright, I'd much rather see a re-imagined X-COM: UFO Defense, much like what X-COM: Genesis was supposed to be before it was canceled.

In this space, I'd like to offer some game mechanics that I think are necessary for any X-COM sequel to have the same kind of impact that made the first game legend.

First, I think I need to discuss the different kinds of game engines that could be used for a squad-based tactical strategy game. While there are many squad-based tactical strategy games I could discuss and cite here, I'm going to stick only to games that are within the X-COM universe or are inspired by the X-COM series.

X-COM: UFO Defense, and it's sequel X-COM: Terror from the Deep, used a turn-based system, which I believe has worked the best out of all the engines used. In UFO Defense, the player could move one soldier at a time, which I think helped players focus solely on that soldier as s/he executed commands. This kind of focus would help players write their own stories about these characters because everything that happened to each soldier would be right there on the screen. Players would be able to focus on every detail as private Otter Zander successfully guns down several aliens only to have his mind controlled and later turn on his own comrades. Those are the kinds of gaming moments people remember most, not the ones told to them, but the ones players can write themselves.

Additionally, this turn-based system gave the player time to tactically position soldiers around the map, plan ahead, and form mission goals. The most interesting part of any tactical mission was breaching a UFO's front door and watching a carefully planned storm go to shit as aliens inside gun down soldiers or as the plan executes perfectly. No matter how experienced the soldiers either scenario was always possible, and it's that kind of tension that made the game.

Moreover, the pacing is perfect. There's no long planning stage of just setting up moves, which I find to be incredibly boring, or too much happening at once that the player becomes overwhelmed.

X-COM: Apocalypse used a combination of a turn-based engine and a real-time engine, which I believe hampered both gameplay modes in the final release. Turn-based in Apocalypse felt uneven with poor pacing in mission, while the real-time mode was heavily overpowered in favor of fast firing weapons (the machine gun and the chemical handgun). This removed much of the need to play strategically. In real-time, it was much easier to load up on those weapons and run around the map mowing down anything in sight. These aspects of the real-time game bleed into the turn-based game as well, though not the same extent.

Other games, such as the UFO: After... series, used only a real-time game mode. I played the Aftermath game (first in the series) and was really disappointed with the real-time engine. Moving strategically was a chore, mostly because instead of giving a command and watching that command executed immediately (as would happen in UFO Defense), I would have to pause the game, queue commands on multiple soldiers, and then hit play, hoping that I would have the ability to watch several independent teams across a large map react to changing circumstances on the battlefield. If that sounds like a mouthful, that's because it is -- the real-time engine put too many things happening at once in front of the players' eyes. No longer could the player focus of the actions of one soldiers because something else could be happening to another soldier across the map. The game became a pause-fest, which destroyed the pacing in mission. In the end, I would end up just grouping all my soldiers in one clump, running them around the map and focusing fire on one enemy at a time.

Finally, we have the turn-based/real-time hybrid mode of Laser Squad Nemesis. The game is turn-based but the turns are split into ten second intervals. Both players queue up all actions during the same turn and then hit the play button to see what happens. It's a sort of simultaneous turn-based engine, which addresses the issues that some have raised about a purely turn-based game favoring the player who goes first. While the idea works well, I don't think it is as much fun as a purely turn-based game. There's too much focus on planning instead of acting. A lot of time is spent planning moves for a turn, and the only reward is a ten second animation of simultaneous actions across the entire map. I found keeping track of everything that happens to be difficult. Furthermore, the focus on each individual solider that I mentioned above is removed from the gameplay.

Overall, I do hope to see a purely turn-based game because I think the focus on individual soldiers is very important to the X-COM experience. Furthermore, immediate responses to commands are important to keep the pacing smooth, and the turn-based game will give players plenty of time to plan and execute tactical maneuvers across the entire map without feeling overwhelmed.

First, any X-COM game should include the basics of the series -- base management, research, manufacturing, personnel management, geopolitical relations, UFO interception, and squad-based ground investigation of UFO activity.

The game also has to be dark. No cartoony bullshit, please. I want a sense of dread every time I send a squad into a mission. That tension made X-COM the kind of game that the Civilization series is known for being; "just one more turn." A dark motif fits the genre well and gives players a sense of purpose for each mission. I think that prevents missions from becoming like chores for the player to perform in-between building bases and researching alien technology.

That leads me to my next point -- an expansive tech tree is a must. Part of the joy that was X-COM was building a rag-tag organization of rookie soldiers from the pits of human technology into an elite squad packing the superior firepower of the alien menace. I would hope that the game provides a more interesting tech tree that lends itself to re-playability. I want a tech tree that allows for different paths but not enough time to explore all branches in one play through. The player would be given choices like, "should I continue exploring this laser technology, or scrap it for the alien plasma technology?" Either tree could lead to powerful weaponry, albeit with different tactical focuses and usefulness, but the player would have to make a choice between the two because the looming alien invasion will only allow so much time before the earth is overrun.

Re-playability is key to any X-COM game, which is why my next point is about X-COM's randomization. Maps need to be randomized. Players are going to expect to play hundreds of missions in an X-COM game; therefore, it is imperative that each map is different. One of the major failings of the X-COM inspired UFO: Extraterrestrials was the fact that maps were pre-rendered. With only 200 maps, missions quickly began to look the same. Randomization was a big part of X-COM and it created an unpredictability about the game that kept it fresh year after year. In that spirit, randomization shouldn't only be limited to map generation but should be applied to almost everything within the game. Damage, healing, stat increases, etc. should all have a slight random element to keep the game a bit unpredictable. No one likes playing a predictable game for very long.

Mission variety would be a welcomed improvement. Terror from the Deep expanded on the classic mission types from UFO Defense (UFO crash sites, landed UFO sites, alien base raids, and terror missions), but did so clumsily. The sequel added some mission types but also extended missions to make them longer. Terror missions aboard a cruise ship became the equivalent of two terror missions from UFO Defense. More does not always equal better. Rather, I'd like to see more types of missions that have importance for the larger game. For example, raids on supply ships going to an alien base could open a window of opportunity to attack the base when it's supplies are low, thus making the attack a little easier than when raiding when the base is fully supplied. More mission types, not longer missions.

Furthermore, missions should have fully destructible terrain and multi-level buildings for players to explore. Another part of the tension was sending a team into a building and checking each room for any hiding aliens -- the player never knew what might be behind the door. Fully destructible terrain keeps the tactical game realistic while also providing a nice, satisfying feeling when sending a blaster-bomb to level a building holding an entrenched enemy. Destructible terrain opens up more tactical choices.

RPG elements for soldiers are also a requirement. Soldiers should have stats that increase with experience, although, nothing should make soldiers omnipotent. One of the great things about X-COM was the fragility of the player's soldiers, which helped shape that all important tension. Even if you were sending your best soldier with a heavy plasma rifle and power armor into a UFO, you'd still be worried that s/he could die from one well placed shot from the enemy. Stats shouldn't be directly user-directed, either, as that can lead to power-gaming. Stats should increase based on actions performed by the soldiers (i.e., firing a weapon in mission will increase accuracy). Since the actions are commanded by the player, this in an indirect way for the user to influence stat increases. The RPG elements also have the effect of creating a sense of progress, which gives the player a feeling of having created something special and unique. No two soldiers will ever be quite alike, which also has the effect of the player becoming attached to his/her soldiers.

In addition to the RPG elements, soldiers need to have morale effect their ability to perform. Some of the most terrifying moments happen when a soldier panics, drops his/her weapons and walks straight into danger. Even more terrifying were the moments when a soldier went berserk and shot in all directions, sometimes accidentally killing fellow soldiers. Morale keeps that tension going -- the player never knows what may happen.

I think that it goes without saying that any X-COM game should have two interconnected games within itself -- a turn-based, squad-based tactical game as well as a real-time, strategy management game. X-COM split this into the "battlescape" and the "geoscape," and I hope that any further X-COM game would capture this game mechanic in some way. A lot of the fun was building bases, researching technology, and managing relations between X-COM and the sponsoring countries of the earth. A really sophisticated geopolitical model should be a part of any new X-COM; something like a refined political model from the Apocalypse game would be a great starting point.

Base building and management is also key. Extraterrestrials also failed here by automating a lot of the management aspects of the geoscape. Taking control out of the players hands leads to the player feeling less attached to the organization as a whole. With the kind of control given to the player in UFO Defense, the player really feels like s/he is a part of something that s/he has built from the ground up -- a mechanic that taps into the sandbox genre.

Finally, a compelling story needs to be a part of the game. The story should unfold through research, which puts the pace of the game's progress into the players hands. The "UFOpaedia" entries were short and concise, but detailed enough to keep the story interesting. As you may have noticed, many of my X-COM requirements put control of the game into the player's hands. This is on purpose, and I believe this is what makes X-COM so captivating; in a sense, the game is about allowing the player to create a story about saving the entire planet from an alien invasion.

Of course, many small things should be updated (like soldier equipping and the user interface, as IGN mentioned) to the standards that gamers have come to expect in top-tier games today. What I'm most concerned about are the game mechanics I've outlined above.

One last note -- I'd hope that if the rumors of a new X-COM being under development are true that 2K Boston would have enough sense to contact Julian and Nick Gollop!

Here's to hoping that this will indeed happen, and that the developers take care to listen to a fan base that has been aching for a true sequel to UFO Defense for nearly 15 years.

Friday, May 9, 2008

You May Not Share Your Culture

During the first week of April, I discovered the website The site allows people to create free accounts to put together online “mix tapes” to share with others. Muxtapes are limited to 12 songs, and users are not allowed to upload more than one song from a single release or artist or have multiple muxtapes. Muxtapes are not available for download and all submitted songs are accompanied with a link to’s mp3 downloads section. I thought that this website was a great compromise between music fans who want to share music via the internet and a music industry that is increasingly hostile to such sharing. I also just wanted the chance to make my own virtual mix tape to share with other people!

One of the songs that I selected for my first muxtape was from the mostly unknown Philadelphian band FNU Ronnies, titled, “Silver Bullet.” I had only first heard about the band a week prior from a close friend, but was nonetheless impressed with the song. I recorded the streaming audio on my computer as the song played on the band’s Myspace page, much the same way I used to make cassette tapes from songs recorded from radio. Up went the song onto my muxtape.

A little more than two weeks later I got an email inquiring about the song. The author of the email wanted to know how to get a copy -- I only mentioned that I had recorded the song from Myspace, as I was still waiting for my copy of FNU Ronnie’s debut 7” from Parts Unknown Records. About a week after responding to the email, I received a strange comment on my blog. The post was about Yoko Ono’s lawsuit against the producers of the anti-science film Expelled for their use of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” In the post, I discussed the copyright issues involved. The comment on this post asked me how I felt about individuals “illegally trying to sell” music “ripped on the internet”; a strange comment, considering its lack of relevance to the post. That tipped me off to search around for information about the commenter.

After a short Google search, strong circumstantial evidence led me to believe that the comment came from FNU Ronnies, as did the email I had received a week prior. This turn of events puzzled me. My experiences with music subcultures, specifically those rooted in punk rock, have given me an anti-copyright impression. Many of the bands I have known and have been involved with never considered actually copyrighting music. Labels I have known and have been involved with were never concerned with file-sharing or lost sales. Furthermore, my close friend who introduced me to FNU Ronnies informed me that the debut 7” is nearly sold out. Clearly, my inclusion of “Silver Bullet” cannot be cutting into sales, right?

I must admit, though, that this all is likely to have been in jest. FNU Ronnies is a part of a new musical movement -- Skull music -- which combines early ‘80s American hardcore (YDI, Black Flag) with the strange-yet-hard-sought-after punk classics (Mentally Ill, The Eat, Remo Voor) released on the Killed by Death (fan music blog link) record label. Self-described Skull bands, such as Clockcleaner and Homostupids, engage in a sort of confrontational performance art along with their music. Clockcleaner’s Nevermind album (a re-appropriation of Nirvana's second album title) was named as such to enrage listeners -- guitarist and vocalist John Sharkey stated in an interview with Dusted Magazine, “I kind of wanted people to react like, ‘What balls! Who the fuck are these assholes?’” The fun doesn’t stop there, either: legend has it that Sharkey pissed all over the merch of rival band Bad Wizard at one show and intentionally knocked over a kid with cerebral palsy at another performance (I know; I was there). So my confrontation with FNU Ronnies is likely to be a part of the Philadelphian humor; however, the incident did get me thinking further about copyright issues.

Sites like Muxtape allow people to share music (hopefully) without the fear of a “Cease and Desist” letter from their ISP or a lawsuit from the RIAA. I was a bit shocked that an artist would take offense from a fan putting one of his/her songs on a muxtape for other people to hear. My intentions had been to share the music that really resonates with me. That’s how I’ve almost always discovered new sounds -- someone I knew made me a copy of some new music and gave it to me for listening. This is classic mouth-to-mouth advertising, arguably the best advertising one can get.

There is one critical difference, in the eyes of the industry, between mix tapes/CD-Rs and digital file-sharing -- scale. Sharing music online is easier and faster than sharing has ever been. But how different is a site like Muxtape from a radio broadcast? What about a Myspace music page? Why are these digital streams viewed as different from their analog counterparts?

What are Muxtape and a Myspace music page, ultimately? They are both platforms for distributing music digitally. Instead of a corporate, computer generated play list that is simulcast throughout tens -- even hundreds -- of radio stations, fans and artists are put in the DJ seat. Those who enjoy the culture of their music are participating in that culture by sharing it with others. In other words, they are in a position of control at the individual level of the culture they enjoy.

And that is the difference -- control. Radio broadcasts happen on federally licensed airwaves. Only a select few have access to these avenues of distribution. The content providers have a vested interest in their distribution model succeeding because of the vast amount of resources spent. The internet appears to be the great equalizer in this equation -- it provides a democratic distribution model. Anyone, anywhere, can share music with anyone, anywhere. The music industry is used to being in control of their distribution model and now the industry is trying to apply that system of control to a distributed network based upon protocols. The end result of this is technological quick fixes that have no way to enforce a control model -- DRM (Digital Rights Management) and copy-protection is easily hacked, bypassed, and subverted.

What does this mean for the future of music and file-sharing? The music industry is already of the opinion that file-sharing is the equivalent of lost sales. The data on this varies by who you ask -- in 2004, a study conducted by Felix Oberholzer-Gee of Harvard University and Koleman Strumpf of the University of North Carolina concluded that file-sharing increased CD sales for top selling albums. The RIAA will point to research by Edison Media Research which claims that file-sharing has decreased CD sales; however, Jupiter Research conducted two studies (in 1999 and 2002) which concluded that music fans who shared music files for six months were 75 percent more likely than average online music fans to purchase more music. If file-sharers are the industry’s best costumers, how can they be the cause of a loss of sales?

Instead of attempting to circumvent possibly the best form of advertising being offered on a silver platter by fans, the music industry should embrace these technologies which can bring music to people’s ears faster than ever before. Music fans are so rabid about their favorite artists that the industry wouldn’t have to do much to promote those artists. But this is a risky new democratic model, as it could lead to super-smash hits being relegated to a lesser role and will remove the control the industry has relied upon to make low-risk investments in new artists. But couldn’t such risk stimulate an environment that feeds off of creativity and innovation, rather than following a tried-and-true model?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Police Abuse Authority Yet Again

MSNBC reports that police officers in Philadelphia severely beat three suspects during an arrest:

A police sergeant and five officers were pulled from street duty Wednesday as city officials investigated television footage showing a group of officers kicking and punching three shooting suspects.


Officers gathered around the vehicle and pulled three men out. About a half-dozen officers held two men on the ground on the driver's side. Both were kicked repeatedly, while one was punched; one also appeared to be struck with a baton.

On the other side of the car, the video showed, more officers kicking a third man who ends up on the ground.


[Dwayne] Dyches had a welt on his head the size of a baseball and one of his legs was seriously injured.
Video of the assault by police officers:

There's no excuse for this. Police officers are granted significant authority to perform their duties, and this is a prime example of abusing that authority. Whatever the individuals arrested are suspected for is besides the point -- if we value the ideals of freedom then police officers cannot be allowed to act like thugs. The MSNBC report mentions that officers have been on edge because of the recent fatal shooting of Officer Stephen Liczbinski; however, as I have mentioned, and as the police commissioner suggested, this is no excuse for their behavior.
The mother of one of the suspects said she was outraged.

"I'm horrified to see that our city cops would beat some human being like they did, like a gang-style fight," Leomia Dyches said. She added, "I'd like to see them tried for what they did."
Who wants to bet that the officers won't get off with only a suspension with pay and no criminal charges?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The Gas Tax Holiday Scam

Yesterday, I read this post over at Stranger Fruit on Scienceblogs, which got me thinking about Hillary Clinton's comments over this issue:

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But economists say that's not going to happen. They say this is going to go straight into the profits of the oil companies, they're not going to actually lower their prices. And the top two leaders in the House are against it. Nearly every editorial board and economists in the country has come out against it. Even a supporter of yours, Paul Krugaman of 'The New York Times" calls it pointless and disappointing. Can name one economist, a credible economist who supports this suspension?

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, you know, George, I think we've been, for the last seven years, seeing a tremendous amount of government power and elite opinion basically behind policies that haven't worked well for the middle class and hard-working Americans. From the moment I started this campaign, I've said that I am absolutely determined that we are going to reverse the trends that have been going on in our government and in our political system. Because what I have seen is that the rich have gotten richer. A vast majority, I think something like 90% of the wealth gains over the last seven years have gone to the top 10% of wage earners.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But can you name an economist who thinks this makes sense?

CLINTON: Well, I'll tell you what, I'm not going to put my lot in with economists. Because I know if we did it right, if we actually did it right, if we had a president who used all the tools of the presidency, we would design it in such a way that it would be implemented effectively. [emphasis mine]
What's this "elite" opinion Clinton is talking about, you say? More than 200 economists who have publicly denounced Clinton's proposed gas tax holiday. This isn't "elite" opinion either, this is what we call expert opinion, and the two are not synonymous. Elite opinion is when an individual thinks that s/he knows more about a topic than those who actually do know quite a lot about the subject of that topic. This is exactly what Clinton is espousing -- she is guilty of her own criticism. Furthermore, this is indicative of the Republican playbook, i.e., "attack the intellectuals." She's fanning the flames of anti-intellectualism for her own political gain at the peril of an educated America.

This is also why Barack Obama is a breath of fresh air. He's publicly denounced Clinton's proposal as a typical "Washington gimmick" to win votes, which it is and which Clinton's own campaign staff have admitted to, and in this way he has stayed committed to his promise of a different kind of Presidency. Not only is Clinton is on the wrong side of the issue, but I feel that her implicit attacks on intellectualism do far greater damage to our country.

Lo-Fi On MTV

Thursday, May 1, 2008

A Return to Payola?

That's what this post, by Alex Tabarrok (associate professor of economics at George Mason University), seems to be implying. I came across this today while doing some research on music and copyright issues. Tabarrok's argument seems to be that payola is nothing more than payment for advertising (since playing a song from an album is just the same as a 30-second TV ad for that album), so there's no reason for it to be illegal.

Tabarrok seems to have missed the point entirely, and a quick Rock 'n' Roll history lesson would do him well. When this was an issue back in the '50s, radio DJs were very influential people. The were also very individualistic, bringing their own tastes and opinions about what they considered good music to the airwaves. DJs called the shots about what would be played and what wouldn't, and a DJ sunk or swam based on the kind of buzz s/he could generate with his/her play lists. In this context, it is quite scandalous to find out that record labels had been paying DJs to play certain songs.

Furthermore, radio stations were the method of distribution for new music back then. There was virtually no other way to hear about new music except on the radio. To allow labels to pay for their songs to be played would give monopolistic control to the highest bidder.

Yes, payment to a radio station to play a certain song isn't necessarily illegal, but the reason this is so is because stations must disclose such transactions to listeners. That's what makes all the difference -- listeners aren't being duped into believing that the DJ really digs the song s/he is playing and wants other people to hear it too.

But this really is a non-issue today, considering that radio stations employ computer generated play lists simulcast throughout all the parent company's radio stations. People don't really look to DJs anymore for what's new, interesting, or different in music. Moreover, the radio is no longer a leading medium in which music is distributed but is instead a competitor among many different mediums; therefore, it's influence is somewhat diminished.

More importantly, though, Tabarrok glosses over the other key criticism that still stings quite well in today's climate of ultra-consolidated media conglomerates. He characterizes the argument as, "big record companies would use their wealth to promote music that listeners would prefer less to what they would have heard without advertising." Not quite. The fear is not that big record companies would promote "music that listeners would prefer less," but that big record companies would have more power to promote their own catalog over those of smaller, independent labels who don't have quite as much capital to spend on this kind of "advertising." Payola, in this sense, would be rigging the playing field in favor of established labels with established money-making artists.

A further side-effect would be a chill in creativity and innovation. The major record labels don't like to take risks and will continually invest in the tried-and-true models. Major labels will let the independents take all the risks, and then sweep up the break-out bands that create new music trends. What we would have is a system in which the entrenched styles are promoted the most because the majors are antsy about taking risks, and the independents' abilities to produce and promote break-out bands would become diminished.

Brutalism Tape

The time has come for the next edition in my series of themed muxtapes. For the second installment, I decided to create a theme based on sound rather than lyrics. This edition's theme will be one of brutality -- I've put together the most brutal, uncompromising, and relentless sonic waves of destruction that I've heard recently. Click the cassette to the right and enjoy the Brutalism tape!

  1. The Nuns - Decadent Jew (S/T 7" EP)
  2. DrunkDriver - Women (Born Pregnant LP)
  3. The New Flesh - Hopeless (Parasite CD)
  4. Clancy Six - Steps to the Body (S/T 7" EP)
  5. Black Dice - Narcissus & Echo (Lamb 7" EP)
  6. TV Ghost - The Mold (The Mold Demo)
  7. Homostupids - Finger (Brutal Birthday 7" EP)
  8. No Fucker - Conquer the Innocent (Conquer the Innocent 7" EP)
  9. Clockcleaner - Missing Dick (Missing Dick 7" EP)
  10. Jazkamer - Friends of Satan (Metal Music Machine LP)
  11. Pissed Jeans - Fantasy World (Hope for Men LP)
  12. Wolf Eyes - Noise Not Music (Human Animal LP)
[UPDATE]: I fixed the files that wouldn't upload, so the tape is complete. Notice removed.