Life in the Metaverse

This article on the efforts of Big  Tech, specifically META, to corner the market in VR exposes some of the myths of  Web3.0. Zuckerberg’s concept of VR is Web2.0 on steroids, as Jaron Lanier makes clear.

From Tablet:
Life in the Metaverse

Excerpt:

“What’s going on today with a company like Google or Meta is that they’re getting all this data for free from people who don’t understand the meaning or the value of the data and then turning it into these algorithms that are mostly used to manipulate the same people,” Lanier told Kara Swisher on “The Metaverse: Expectations vs. Reality,” a New York Times podcast. For Lanier, the ultimate point of the Quest Pro is not to provide users with a valuable experience but to popularize a tool that can collect their data at the source.

 

The Future Will Soon Be Here

I repost Ted Gioia’s Substack post here because I couldn’t have said it all better myself. As he outlines it,  this has been tuka‘s approach all along. The one thing he doesn’t address is the winner-take-all aspect of creative markets –  why all these YT revenues end up going to a few mass influencers or curators. Blockchain and tokenization are necessary tools to decentralize and distribute rewards for value created.

A Creator-Driven Culture is Coming—and Nobody Can Stop It

By Ted Gioia

“Victory is assured!”

I’m talking about victory for creative professionals—musicians, writers, visual artists, and others who have been squeezed by the digital economy.

You’re probably surprised. Some people think I’m the Dr. Doom of the music scene. And it’s true, I’ve made a lot of depressing predictions over the last few years, Even more depressing, many of these predictions have already come true.

I’ve told horror stories about musicians who lost their gigs during the pandemic, and also saw their music royalties collapse as the audience shifted to streaming. I’ve talked about journalists fired from downsizing newspapers. And filmmakers who can’t get funded to make a movie unless a Marvel superhero is named in the title .

But now I want to tell you the rest of the story. Because the next phase in the cycle is filled with good news.

Victory is assured.

Let’s start by looking at the music business, where the squeeze has been the worst.

Whenever I do a forecast, my first step is to follow the money. And the adage that money talks has never been truer than right now. Those dollars are telling an amazing and unexpected story. Word on the street is that record labels are offering far more attractive terms to musicians than ever before.

“Here’s my craziest prediction. In the future, single individuals will have more impact in launching new artists than major record labels or streaming platforms.”

In the old days, musicians were lucky to get 15% of revenues, but I’m now hearing increasingly about deals that give artists a 50% cut, and in some instances allow them to regain ownership of their master recordings at a future date. The music moguls are positively generous—and (as we shall see) for structural reasons in the business that aren’t going away.

And it’s not just major labels giving more money to musicians. Take a look at Bandcamp, which lets musicians collect almost 90% of revenues from vinyl sales. And I’m hearing constantly from techies and entrepreneurs who are working on similar artist-centric business models. We are only in the early innings of this new game, but the shift is already enough to force huge concessions from legacy music companies.

Artist-friendly platforms are the future of music. And other creative pursuits as well—my own platform, Substack, is also allowing creators to keep close to 90% of revenues. This has spurred a huge talent migration from old media, and not merely for writers—you can find almost every kind of creative professional on Substack, from cartoonists to photographers.

For 25 long, hard years, creative professionals have been told that you must give things away for free on the Internet. But not anymore. Alternative economic models are not only emerging, but are propelling the fastest-growing platforms in arts and entertainment.

This is not only shaking up highbrow and popular culture, but capturing the attention of the next generation of tech visionaries—which is why, in the last year or so, I’ve been constantly approached by startups asking me to evaluate their business plans. This is unprecedented. It simply didn’t happen before the pandemic. But not only are these entrepreneurs trying to figure out what artists want, but they’re actually relying on creator wealth maximization as the focal point for their businesses.

In general, these young techies are smarter than the folks running the music business right now. (That’s a subject I want to discuss at a later date—I call it my ‘idiot nephew theory’ of the music business. But it has to wait.) Of course, many of these entrepreneurs are dreamers who will never go anywhere. That’s always the case with entrepreneurs. But some will succeed, and in a meaningful way.

In fact, it’s inevitable—and for the simple reason that the old institutions have stopped investing in the future. The new guard will take over because the old guard got weak and lazy.

Why is all this happening? Let’s go back to look at the music situation, because this helps us understand the larger picture.

Record labels are getting more generous because they don’t have a choice. They destroyed their own power base and source of influence. They stopped investing in R&D and new consumer technologies back in the 1980s. Twenty years later, they stopped manufacturing and distributing physical albums—and even when vinyl took off, they were asleep at the wheel. Over the same time period, they lost their marketing skills, trusting more in payola and influence peddling of various sorts.

But that’s just a start. Over a fifty-year period, record labels relentlessly dumbed-down their A&R departments. They shut down their recording studios, and let musicians handle that themselves—often even encouraging artists to record entire albums at home. Then they let huge streaming platforms control the relationship with consumers. At every juncture, they opted to do less and less, until they were left doing almost nothing at all.

The music industry’s unstated dream was to exit every part of the business, except cashing the checks. But reality doesn’t work that way. If you don’t add value, those checks eventually start shrinking.

The simple fact is that the legacy music business is living off the past—and will continue to do so until the copyrights expire. For a few more years, they will collect royalties on old songs, and make money on reissues and archival material. They know themselves that they have lost control of the future of music. That’s why, if they have spare cash, they use it to buy up catalogs and publishing rights of music from back in the day. Their favorite artists are dead artists.

But this is not a long-term game. It’s a death wish.

The major labels would like to own the music stars of the future, but they won’t. They would like to act greedy and put the squeeze on the next generation, but they can’t. They simply don’t have the leverage. And never will again.

And who will win if record labels lose? You think it might be the streaming platforms? Think again—because that’s not going to happen. Spotify and Apple Music are even less interested than the major labels in nurturing talent and building the careers of young artists.

Here’s my craziest prediction. In the future, single individuals will have more impact in launching new artists than major record labels or streaming platforms.

Just consider this: There are now 36 different YouTube channels with 50 million or more subscribers—and they’re often run by a single ambitious person, maybe with a little bit of support help. In fact, there are now seven YouTube channels with more than 100 million subscribers. By comparison, the New York Times only has nine million subscribers.

“How could a Substack column outbid major media outlets for new talent? But not only can it happen, it will inevitably happen.”

Most people don’t stop and think about the implications of this. But just ponder what it means when some dude sitting in a basement has ten times as much reach and influence as the New York Times.

If you run one of these channels and have any skill in identifying talent, you can launch the next generation of stars.

And not just in music. This works for everything—comedy, dance, animation, you name it.

Consider the case of MrBeast. Many of you have no idea what I’m talking about, but you need to find out—because MrBeast (or people like him) are going to change popular culture, whether we like it or not. MrBeast, for a start, runs 18 YouTube channels with more than 200 million total subscribers. He now has his videos translated into four languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, and Russian.

What does he do? I’m no expert on MrBeast, but I’m told he’s a good dude, and gives away a lot of money—huge sums, to be blunt. And he can afford to do it, because YouTube channels are low-overhead operations with enormous cash generation potential.

Oh, I forgot to mention that MrBeast is looking to raise capital from financial investors. He claims that his business is worth $1.5 billion, and may sell 10% to get $150 million to fund his future plans.

I’m not even beginning to pretend that MrBeast will use this money to get into the music business. But he might. And if he doesn’t, someone else like him will.

MrBeast has got the cash to shake up the music business—and if he doesn’t, someone like him will
I note that MrBeast only ranks number five in YouTube channel subscriptions. There are other people like him, or will be soon, and they are much better equipped to launch a new music act than any of the major labels.

That’s why musicians can make more money when the distribution model shifts from bloated record labels with huge overhead to alternative web-based platforms. I expect that deals for artists on these web channels will be more like 50/50. MrBeast is known for his generosity, but even if he wasn’t, his business model is much more flexible than anything Sony or Universal Music could ever dream of. These new platforms can afford to offer better terms to creators, and almost certainly will—because if they don’t someone else will.


This didn’t take place during the first wave of YouTube channels, because these influencers (I hate the term, but it’s appropriate in this setting) were focused on making themselves into money-making stars. But the next phase of growth for these people is brand extension, and that’s going to turn them into talent scouts.

I’m focusing on YouTube channels here, but the same story could be told about podcasters—or any other individual with a lock on an audience in the tens of millions. Consider them as the equivalent of the Ed Sullivan Show in the old days. The host of this long-running TV show didn’t have much talent himself, but it hardly mattered—Ed Sullivan was the curator who introduced America to Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and other rising stars. That kind of thing will happen again, but via a web channel or alternative platform.

These individuals can do absolutely everything a record label currently does, and do it better—they can launch new stars, get them instant visibility and gigs, generate millions of views for new songs, attract endorsement deals, etc. The few things they can’t do in-house (for example, press vinyl records) can be easily outsourced.

The same thing will happen in publishing. I’m already seeing a few of the more popular Substack writers using their huge subscriber base to launch the careers of other writers. By my calculations, this can be even more profitable and impactful than a book contract with a New York publisher—benefiting both the sponsoring writer and the new talent.

In fact, I might move in this direction myself. It’s too early, but 2-3 years from now I might start scouting out talented young writers or podcasters and feature them here in The Honest Broker. Everything depends on subscription numbers, but it’s possible that I could pay better than the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal.

At first blush, this seems impossible. How could a Substack column outbid major media outlets for new talent? But not only can it happen, it will inevitably happen. It’s the same story as in music. The old guard has stopped defending its base business, and everything is either up for grabs now—or will be very soon.

Newspapers have lost enormous power over the last twenty years. They have lost subscribers. They have lost ad revenues. They have even, in many instances, lost credibility and respect. Up until now, this has hurt writers—who depended on the newspapers for assignments and pay checks. But we are now arriving at the point where the trend reverses.

And this reversal opens up huge opportunities and income potential for smarter, nimbler operators.

I could give many other examples. What I’m describing is also true for Hollywood movie studios, book publishing, and every other field where the old guard has become arteriosclerotic and inflexible.

Okay, let me summarize the whole thing in a diagram.

[Note: tuka is in the blue circle here.]

There’s an elegant irony here. The very same forces putting the squeeze on creators actually serve to accelerate the happy next phase.

This is one reason why I believe karma is at work in the universe. If you run a business that depends on creativity, you can’t punish the creators without consequences. Sometimes it takes a while for the cycle to play out, but it always plays out the same way.

There are many aspects of this story I haven’t covered here. There are all sorts of Web3 angles, and there’s also a story to be told about how platforms such as Spotify will pay a price for squeezing musicians to subsidize their entry into podcasting and other ancillary businesses. But we can look at those on another occasion.

For the time being, I just want you to keep your eyes on the prize. And remember—Victory is Assured!

Creativity and Community

This is the whole purpose [of art], to bring people that don’t agree into the same place where they can agree on their own shared humanity.

This Matt Taibbi interview with Tim Robbins is interesting for Robbins’s views on art and creativity. Emphases in BOLD.

Tim Robbins and the Lost Art of Finding Common Ground

The star of films like The Producer and Bull Durham opens up about two tough years of pandemic politics, and worries society is purposefully phasing out the common meeting space
Matt Taibbi
3 hr ago

After the Covid-19 crisis began, actor Tim Robbins was like everyone else in suddenly having both more time to think, and more unpleasant things to think about. Among other things, as a leader of The Actors’ Gang theater company, Robbins had to work through what living in a world of mandated long-term isolation might mean. What if people were no longer forced into contact with one another?

“I wondered,” he recalls now, “‘What happens when you eliminate the water cooler conversation?’”

Would we miss that “difficult conversation with someone who’s not one of your friends, but a coworker and a human being,” who’s “saying something that is not the way you see the world, but he’s right there and you have to hear it”? Robbins felt we might, because confronting a live human being forces people to use parts of their brain the Internet encourages them to bypass.

“When you eliminate that conversation, and everyone goes into isolation, and has their own little silos of thought, that’s incredibly dangerous for society. Because now you’re isolated to the point where you’ll no longer have any kind of discussion,” he says. Instead, he worries, “You’ll just have that little room you go into where everyone agrees with you, and we all say, ‘Fuck those other people.’”

Years later, the Oscar-winning actor known for left-liberal advocacy finds his thinking has shifted in significant ways. In part this is because the entertainment business remains mired in high-vigilance mode when it comes to pandemic restrictions, with an omerta still hovering over vaccine-related questions. Robbins himself was with the program early, which he now seems to regret. “I was guilty of everything that I came to understand was not healthy,” he says now. “I demonized people.”

However, he soon began to wonder why certain rules were being kept long after they lost real-world utility. For instance, deals struck in 2021 between studios and powerful unions like SAG-AFTRA, the Directors’ Guild of America, and Actors’ Equity barred the unvaccinated not just from working, but auditioning. This maybe, possibly made sense when the vaccines were thought to prevent transmission. But now?

“I get it. I understand the fear. I was there,” Robbins says. “But we’ve restricted people from working for too long.”

For decades Robbins occupied a unique role in American popular culture as a writer, director, and polarizing counterculture figure, like a taller, cheerier cross of Orson Welles and Peter Fonda. His acting reputation for a long time was inextricably (and unfairly, I always thought) tied to his status as a bugbear of the Gingrich/Bush Republican right. I knew without looking that Robbins had to be a central figure in Fox host Laura Ingraham’s 2006 best-selling insta-book about heathen lib entertainers who don’t know their place, Shut Up and Sing. Ingraham in fact described Robbins and former partner Susan Sarandon as “the leading stars of today’s Hollywood elite,” a compliment on the order of being called Mr. and Mrs. Satan. Ironically, Ingraham was mad at Robbins for talking about a “chill wind” of intellectual conformity that began blowing after 9/11, the same phenomenon she herself began railing against when it started to affect conservatives in recent years, and which Robbins is still criticizing now.

Though he’s won acclaim for serious films like Shawshank Redemption and Dead Man Walking, the Robbins filmography is also packed with performances where he goofs on himself by pitching in a garter belt (Bull Durham) or wearing absurd hair extensions (in Erik the Viking — I hope those were extensions)or by giving America maybe its best-ever a portrait of a Hollywood douchebag, a performance that almost had to be career-imperiling in its accuracy (The Player). Robbins always had strong views and was especially vocal during the Iraq period, but his politics never got in the way of helping deliver some of the generation’s most enjoyable films. He even had fun with his own lefty reputation when he played a PBS newscaster taking a break between pledge drives to throw down in the Anchorman brawl.

Nonetheless, he now finds himself mixed up in controversies that place him at least somewhat on the outs with the same Hollywood political culture where he was once a leading figure. Areas of contention include the mandates and the passage of AB 5, a piece of California legislation originally aimed at gig-worker corporations like Lyft and Uber that ultimately forced hundreds of businesses, including theater companies, to offer minimum wages and benefits many claim they can’t afford. It’s a repeat of a controversy from the mid-2010s, when the Actors’ Equity union beat back a lawsuit filed by the likes of Ed Harris and Ed Asner and overrode a 2-1 vote by thousands of its members, who wanted to retain the ability to play for peanuts in a city where exposure is worth more than a few extra bucks on a paycheck.

Robbins worries that in this slew of new shibboleths about everything from vaccines to regulation of cake decorators, music arrangers and theater companies, society is revealing troubling changes in its ideas about what art and creativity are for. He sees hostility to the idea of bringing people together both in the physical sense, as in opening the doors to a theater, but also in the figurative sense of making sure art and entertainment are for everyone, not just for people with correct opinions. With bookstores, museums, theaters, and even water coolers disappearing all over the country, America seems to have it in for common spaces, as if keeping people from talking to one another is someone’s intentional political goal.

“I almost feel like there are forces within our society that just want art to die,” Robbins says.

The interview you’re about to read isn’t a red-pilling story, since Robbins isn’t and won’t ever be anyone’s idea of a conservative. It is however a warning from someone with an extensive enough track record as a progressive activist that he ought at least to have earned a hearing if he now feels he has to say a few uncomfortable things. Mostly, he’s warning about a didactic meanness he senses creeping into both politics and art. This he felt especially during the Covid-19 period, when we drifted from mere health policy into a bizarre Freaks-style collective shaming reflex, stressing the moral and mental unworthiness of people who for whatever reason — there were many — refused official advice.

“I heard people saying, ‘If you didn’t take the vaccine and you get sick, you don’t have a right to a hospital bed,” he says. “It made me think about returning to a society where we care about each other. Your neighbor would be sick, and you’d bring over some soup. It didn’t matter what their politics were, you’re their fucking neighbor,” he says, shaking his head.

“I think we lost a lot of ourselves during this time.”

More below (interview edited for length and clarity):

Matt Taibbi: When Covid-19 arrived, what happened with The Actors’ Gang?

Tim Robbins: We had to shut down, obviously. We went on to a Zoom workshop kind of mode. As an organization, we decided that we weren’t going to lay anyone off or furlough anyone. A lot of arts organizations did. We kept everyone on staff and on health insurance. We found other ways to do our work online with our education programs. Then for our prison project, we started communicating by mail. We would send them packets every month with outlines of exercises they could do on their own. A lot of them would write, and send it back to us, because we wanted to keep the relationship going with the people that we were working with before the pandemic.

So that was great. It provided us an opportunity to hire more returning citizens, the ones that had done their time and were being paroled, which was another bizarre thing — you had guys that were in jail for 30 years that got out right during Covid, and went right back into isolation. Isn’t that insane? But overall, it was a difficult two years.

Matt Taibbi: As re-opening approached, what happened?

Tim Robbins: We were capable of opening last September, but there were still all of these restrictions. I had a problem with this idea of having a litmus test at the door for entry. I understood the health concerns, but I also understand that theater is a forum and it has to be open to everybody. If you start specifying reasons why people can’t be in a theater, I don’t think it’s a theater anymore. Not in the tradition of what it has always been historically, which is a forum where stories are told and disparate elements come together and figure it out.

That’s what it’s been for. People figure out their relationship with the gods, with society, with each other. But at the door, you don’t say you can’t come in, because you haven’t done this or that. I had a problem with that. So I waited until everyone could be allowed in the theater. We opened up with a show called Can’t Pay Don’t Pay in April last year.

I think a lot of theaters had a problem rebounding, because the audiences are either skittish about being in rooms with other people, or (laughs) they just don’t like theater that much anyway. The pandemic was a good excuse to not go!

But the most challenging thing has been dealing with the actors themselves, because there is this skittishness and fear, and it’s still in people. Unlike England — I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time last year in London, and they got back a lot sooner than we did. There was an attitude there, it’s that “keep calm and carry on” thing. You know, we got bombed last night, but we’re getting up today. When they reopened their theaters, they reopened them for everybody. They never excluded anybody. And when they got back to it, their West End was thriving, and continues to thrive today.

Maybe the reason we have problems is that some people are still skittish about being in a crowd with other people, but it could also be that maybe 30 to 40% of theater audiences were told they weren’t welcome. And maybe there’s something in that: when you’re told you’re not welcome, you might not necessarily want to go back.

Matt Taibbi: When you started to question these things, what was the reaction?

Tim Robbins: I totally understood it in the first year. I was compliant with everything. I locked down, I isolated, I was away from people for seven months. I bought into it. I demonized people. I was guilty of everything that I came to understand was not healthy. I was angry at people that weren’t wearing masks, and protesting about it in Orange County. Yet, a month later I was protesting for BLM in the streets with a mask on. A week after that, I kind of had to do a self-check on that. I knew there was a little bit of hypocrisy going on there.

I had a really good friend that died from it early on. I was angry. I was fearful, and I did everything I could to help stop the spread, but also I kept my eyes open and at my age, I think one of the most important things that I’ve been able to do is understand that I’m not right all the time, and I have to check myself and see where the hypocrisy lay. So I started having more questions.

Soon it’s a year on, and two years on, and people are still stuck with these restrictions despite the fact that we now know that the vaccine didn’t stop transmission and didn’t stop people from getting it. Once the CDC changes policy and says basically that both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated are capable of getting Covid, the restrictions don’t make sense anymore, particularly regarding employment.

And there were a lot of people in SAG-AFTRA and Actors’ Equity that were kept from auditioning for the past two and a half years, and really still are today. Their livelihoods are threatened. They can’t participate yet. There’s no rhyme or reason with it. I think people are holding on because there’s still a fear, but it’s too long now.

I’m not against the vaccine, I’m just of the belief that your health is determined by your relationship with your body and your mind. And if you believe that the vaccines have helped you, then all power to you. If for some reason you didn’t vaccinate and you made it through this, all power to you too. You shouldn’t be excluded from society for doing that. I am a hundred percent sure of that. I think that was a mistake. I think it was done out of fear. I forgive it, but to continue it at this point is irrational, in my opinion.

No one has stood up for people who might be immuno-compromised or couldn’t take the vaccine, or people that are just holistic and don’t take any kind of medicine at all. Or people — this is the most important one — people that have had Covid and have natural immunity.

The other thing is, where does this end? How many boosters do you have to get to remain eligible for work? How long do we extend this?

Matt Taibbi: You feel something important has been lost in the last few years. Can you elaborate?

Tim Robbins: These last few years, they’ve taught me so much, about what is right, what is wrong. There’s so much empowerment of people that feel that they are being incredibly virtuous and generous, yet are doing things that are not very kind to other people. I think we’ve lost ourselves during this time. Just a brief stroll through social media and you’ll find that out. (laughs) The internet has become like a bar that you go to, and you open the door, and everyone yells, “Fuck you! Get out!”

Matt Taibbi: (laughs) I’m vaguely familiar…

Tim Robbins: It’s amazing. It’s taught me a lot about human nature, about how easy it is for people to turn on other people, and that when people do things that are destructive to other people, they often think they’re being virtuous. It’s been that way throughout history.

That’s something I already knew as a writer. When you’re making a character, you try not to make it all black and white, good and evil. I really understood much more profoundly what happens with the turn, how people turn. You go from someone that is inclusive, altruistic, generous, empathetic, to a monster. Where you want to freeze people’s bank accounts because they disagree with you. That’s a dangerous thing. That’s a dangerous world that we’ve created. And I say ‘we,’ because I was part of that. I bought into that whole idea early on.

Matt Taibbi: There’s also been a phenomenon of bureaucratic mission creep. Could you talk about how that’s affected your industry?

Tim Robbins: Our union out here, Actors Equity, decided about five years ago to end an agreement that the union had with local theaters here that were under 99 seats. We had a thriving small theater scene in Los Angeles, and Actors Equity decided that they wanted to end that 99-seat agreement. Then they had a vote, and two-thirds of their membership voted to keep the agreement, but the AEA ended it regardless. Producers couldn’t make money off of productions. I think Actors’ Equity has a fantasy that if they close all the small theaters in Los Angeles, a bunch of mid-level theaters will rise up, and there will be more contracts…

On top of that, we had a bill pass called AB 5, which was intended to target gig workers like Uber and Lyft drivers. And Uber and Lyft were wealthy enough to lobby in Sacramento to get a carve-out from that legislation. What was left were small theaters and musicians. They said, “Listen, are you going to try to keep us from rehearsing, or just jamming?”

I almost feel like there are forces within our society that just want art to die. It’s now not only just the scolds from the right, like in the old days when the Moral Majority wanted art to die. Now it’s unions and people that are, again, claiming virtuous reasons for all of this. The truth is a lot of local theater has failed, and the pandemic helped put the nail in the coffin.

Small theater companies of people who just want a way in, in a business that’s so devoid of content. If you’re lucky, you get an audition for a walk-on in a sitcom, and how’s that feeding your artistic soul? So you had a huge amount of actors in Los Angeles that just wanted to do quality work, be in a play where they could get to say real lines by real authors. It was something they were volunteering for, that would keep their instrument sharp. And now they were being told they can’t do that.

Matt Taibbi: To what end, do you think?

Tim Robbins: Listen, Matt, if you told me 20 years ago that there would be no video stores where you could talk to a clerk and see what that person might be recommending, or no record stores where you could go see what’s new in music, or no bookstores in most towns, I would’ve told you you were crazy. But we’re here. This is part of a larger movement away from the gathering place.

Theaters are failing, and movie theaters are not doing so well. Any form of gathering place other than a bar has pretty much been hurting. You know, it’s no surprise to me how well sports have been doing during this whole period. Stadiums are packed because people need community.

I’ve always thought of baseball as a place where I can go and get away from the politics and just sit and high-five some dude that might have voted for someone I don’t like. That’s important.

Matt Taibbi: Art and movies used to play that role, too, but are they being discouraged in that function?

Tim Robbins: Yes. This is the whole purpose of theater, to bring people that don’t agree into the same place where they can agree on their own shared humanity.

That’s the other problem. It got incredibly politicized here. It wasn’t that way in London. What I felt there wasn’t the divide that there was here. I attended a couple of the marches that were happening in [early] 2021, which was when they were under their lockdown. There was a street presence of people who were coming out already, against mandates and passports. I went down and I talked to some of those people and I realized: it’s not a left-right thing there. These weren’t a bunch of National Front-type people. These were old hippies and homeopaths. I tweeted about it and I got this hellish response. I realized that we have been programmed in a different way in this country, to think that if someone doesn’t get the vaccine, they must be a Nazi.

Tim Robbins: I’m trying to understand why we’re in the situation we’re in, socially, with each other. That’s what concerns me the most. I believe that if the vaccine helps you, that’s great. But, I have kind of a hard line on freedom. You can’t over-regulate people’s lives. I don’t know what that makes me, what label that puts on me, but I am an absolutist on freedom.

I’ve done a lot of work in organizing and in protest movements and in building coalitions. Community building is always about an organizer walking into the room and knowing that the people in this room do not agree on everything. But I, as an organizer, have to find the linchpin, find the common thread. And when I find that, I’m going to build the movement around that.

What I’ve been seeing over the past few years has been the opposite of that. It’s going into a room and saying, “You don’t have the right to speak because you don’t agree with our way of thinking.” Or it’s, “You’re an idiot for thinking this or that. Shut up. Get your vaccination.”

You’re not going to build any movement that way. All you’ll do is alienate people. And whether it’s organizing around social justice or criminal justice reform or creating more equity — all legitimate important things that need to be done — organizers who know how to do it don’t create division. They don’t cancel people. Because once you’ve done that, you’ve lost those people forever. You’re not getting them back.

Matt Taibbi: Don’t art and movies try to do the same thing? You’re looking for the unifying theme, the thing everyone thinks is funny, or everybody enjoys? The linchpin that holds an audience together?

Tim Robbins: Trying to find the thing that unites us. Exactly. Right. You’re trying to find something that we all can laugh at or a shared feeling that we can all have.

Dead Man Walking was a real challenge because it was a dance we had to do. I didn’t want to make the movie just for people that were against the death penalty. I wanted to make it for everybody, and I wanted people to have a discussion about it. So we had to give dignity and screen time and respect to the people that had lost their family members, and were for the death penalty. And I thought we did it in a way that was respectful enough so that people, if they did not agree with getting rid of the death penalty, could still watch that film and see their shared humanity in the pain of the mother, of the pain of Sister Helen, in the pain of the killer himself.

That’s the difficult thing to do. But when you do that, then you create dialogue. Helen will tell you that that movie changed the picture for her. Beforehand, everywhere she went, 10 or 15 people showed up. Now she’s got a thousand people coming out, and they have a discussion about the death penalty. You know, we did a play version of it, and we were in 140 universities over the course of 10 years. There would be 30 young people getting together to do a play. And when the play would open, there would be symposiums from the law department, from the divinity school, from sociology departments. They would have discussions and meetings and debates, and the actors themselves would have to play parts that they didn’t necessarily agree with, and have to go into that mindset. And it created a fertile ground for discussion and for growth. People could respect each other and both sides of the opinion.

Throwing your doors open for the public means you throw them open to everybody. And once, no one even thought twice about that. It’s the decent thing to do. Then during the pandemic, I heard people saying, “If you didn’t take the vaccine and you get sick, you don’t have a right to a hospital bed.”

And I just started thinking, “What about all the junkies?” That’s the choice they made, too. It’s their own fucking vein. Are we kicking them out? No. You take care of them.

Matt Taibbi: Smokers, obese people who have diabetes…

Tim Robbins: You save their lives. Because they’re part of us. They may be troubled and they may be having to take these drugs for whatever emotional reasons they are, but what the hell man, you gotta take care of them.

And like you say, it could be that you apply that to obesity, you could apply that to any physical malady that has anything to do with something you put in your body. Well, that’s a choice that you made. Maybe a bad choice, but don’t worry about it. We got you. And then you have the choice as to whether you want to change your life or not.

That, for me, is a functioning society.

The Price of Free

The changes we are seeing with social media platforms reflect the economics of the push-ad-driven model to monetize data networks. If we want free content, we pay for it in other ways; just like with broadcast tv. (And who watches broadcast tv anymore?)

The truth is that the conversion rates for digital ads on social network sites are abysmal, so neither advertisers nor consumers are very happy with push ads. Will I sit through 10 unwanted ads? No. Now I will merely click to different applications until the ads run out = more ad money wasted.

The issue is that with social networks, creators creating content and users sharing it produces much of the value of the data network. “Free” is actually not adequate compensation for social network value, much less worth paying for. But the platforms don’t want users to realize that and hope they have turned their free members into addicts who will now pay with subscription-based models. Perhaps. But there are better ways to create and realize the value of creative content. Word of mouth and trust among like-minded friends is the best advertisement that money can’t buy.

Below we reprint a blog post by Ted Gioia that explains the progressive intrusion of push ads and the Internet “tax.”

The important takeaway is this: The result of all this is that the Internet is turning into the epicenter of crap.”

YouTube May Force You to Watch 10 (or More) Unskippable Ads in a Row
The biggest trick the Devil ever played was convincing people that online stuff is free

Ted Gioia

The biggest trick the Devil ever played was convincing people that online stuff is free. But the Devil always collects, sooner or later—and we are starting to learn the actual terms of this cursed deal.

Consider some recent news stories:

YouTube has been testing users’ willingness to watch 10 unskippable ads on a video. And the ads aren’t spaced out. They come at you, one right after the other, at the outset—because Google wants to be paid first, even if the video sucks.

Nobody wants ads on iPhone, but they’re coming. Executives at Apple are allegedly planning to triple the ad revenue from phones.

“For some Google searches literally the whole screen on Google is ads.”

TikTok can track a user’s every keystroke, and Beijing has “access to everything.”

“Scams are showing up at the top of online searches.”

Snapchat has been forced to pay $35 million for storing and selling users’ biometric information without permission.

Even if you pay for ad-free streaming, Spotify inserts ads in podcasts.

Ads are coming to Netflix too.

Etc. etc. etc.

This is what happens when ‘free’ really isn’t free—but consumers prefer to stay in denial. Go ahead and rob me, just make sure I’m not looking when it happens.

It’s even worse than that. Web users are now hooked on free—and like all addictions, this one is far costlier than you realize at the outset.

You have more leverage when you negotiate an actual price. When I cancel a paid subscription, the corporate provider always comes back with a special offer to get me to reconsider. But how much bargaining power do I have if I refuse to click on those “terms and conditions” that always come with the free stuff?

I’ll answer that for you—none at all.

How bad will it get? YouTube described its ten unskippable ads as a “test”—but this wasn’t done in a laboratory or with volunteers. They just forced it on users, and watched them squirm. And squirm they did.

In fact, one person reported a 12-ad blitz.

This wouldn’t be so bad if it was just one business or sector of the economy that played these games. But this is the de facto business model for the entire digital economy. To maintain the illusion of free, all our online activities are sinking into spam, scam, and sham. Everything from sending an email to sharing a photo gets monitored and monetized by big tech companies—and often you’re the last person to find out what the real price is.

I’ve written elsewhere of how much we would have suffered if AT&T had run the phone network with a Google strategy. You wouldn’t be able to talk on the phone until you first heard a bunch of advertisements first. The restaurant you call for a dinner reservation would have to kickback a share of your meal tab to the phone company. Everything you did on your phone would be more cumbersome and less efficient.

Guess what? That still may happen. The only reason Apple hasn’t already started force-feeding ads on your iPhone is a fear that competitors may not do the same—and they might lose a few market share points. But all it takes is one backroom meeting of dubious legality between smartphone providers, and you will soon start hearing a pitch from the GEICO gecko before you even say hello.

Let me add some comments about advertising—which is one of the most poorly understood phenomena in modern society.

I know more about this than I care to—if only because I spent a lot of time with advertising and marketing people during my lost years, and I learned how they view the world. I even was hired, many years ago, to analyze the financial payback of an expensive TV advertising campaign—a project that took months to complete. I’m probably still tied up in some non-disclosure agreement on that, so all I will say is that I’m not surprised that some of the more powerful brands of the last 30 years (Starbucks, Amazon, etc.) managed to rise to dominance while spending almost nothing on TV commercials.

I would urge you to consider the especially revealing case of the company that sells the most ads (Google). This marketing behemoth waited more than a decade before launching even a single TV ad campaign for its own services.

The bosses at Google are no fools—they understand the value of advertising better than anyone. That’s why they prefer to sell it than buy it.

And then ask yourself: When was the last time you saw an ad agency buy a TV ad for its own business? They have the money to do it, but won’t. Maybe they know something we don’t.

You probably have heard all the familiar critiques and ‘debunkings’ of advertising. I just read another one yesterday by a famous French public intellectual, who almost wept over how marketing deceives and manipulates us. It hypnotizes people with bright colors and broken promises. It enflames our desires for things we don’t need, which we chase after like zombies pursuing a sorority sister in a slasher film—mindlessly grasping for products and services we barely understand.

You’ve probably heard criticisms like this too. But it’s total bunk.

Advertising in the year 2022 doesn’t hypnotize us. It doesn’t stir up our desires. What it actually does is. . . . bore us.

Endlessly. Shamelessly. It annoys us. It irritates us. We would skip it if we could.

That’s why advertisers have to force-feed us these ads—by making me watch the same insurance commercial over and over on YouTube, or clogging up the screen of a webpage with annoying pitches, or (worst of all) spamming my email box with garbage until I’m swimming in spam.

If advertising was really hypnotic and controlling, they wouldn’t need to resort to these tedious tricks.

(By the way, what really enflames our consumer libido isn’t an advertisement, it’s our mimetic desire for what friends and neighbors already own. My buddy at the office has more influence on me than any advertising campaign, and vice versa. This is, once again, a mark of René Girard’s brilliance—he wrote the book on mimetic desire. It’s amazing that some ad agency on Madison Avenue didn’t hire him. He would have risen to name partner faster than Don Draper in a tailored suit, and have earned a lot more than Stanford ever paid him.)

The result of all this is that the Internet is turning into the epicenter of crap. It’s the detention center where force-feeding of marketing messages takes place daily. And when we build up a degree of immunity—learning how to control our irritation while sitting through two or three idiotic YouTube ads—they increase it to five or ten ads before the video even begins.

Here’s another thing the Devil—or the leading web platforms, in this instance—won’t tell you. They want you to be annoyed. That’s right—even if they could make those ads hypnotic, they wouldn’t. Google would love to sell you a premium YouTube subscription in order to avoid all those irritating ads. Spotify wants you to be a paid member. The more boring the ads, the more those technocrats smile.

This brings us to the next misconception about advertising. You are told that rich people with high status pay attention to the advertisements—and run out to buy all that stuff. But the real scoop here is that rich people pay for the premium subscription so they don’t have to watch all that garbage.

That’s real status nowadays—when you don’t watch the ads anymore. Advertising is for the masses, not the elites.

Finally, this explains why so much advertising is for things you’re going to buy anyway—auto insurance, prescription medicine, a beer. This is because even the companies themselves realize they have lost the ability to stir up new demand. All they can really do with ads is reinforce existing behavior patterns.

So if I drank a Budweiser while watching the NFL game last Sunday, maybe I’ll do the same this Sunday. But they could advertise V8 juice at every time out, and I’m still not bringing home a six-pack of that swill to my Super Bowl party.

The bottom line: Advertising in the year 2022 is more Pavlovian than utopian. More a punishment for the masses than a guide to the elites. More an annoyance than a compass for our desires.

This, my friends, is the web we asked for. We wanted everything for free—but what we really got was a swamp where all the costs are still there, just hidden. And the experience we have gained from other industries where prices are mostly hidden from view—healthcare is the most obvious example, but of course, there are others—is that this usually turns out to be the most expensive transaction of them all.

The Degeneration of Culture

I reprint below an excellent substack post by Ted Gioia – a keen cultural observer, especially of music.

He explicates many of the obvious trends in our cultural degeneration. As one who has studied the entertainment industries from the inside and out, I have shown that these trends are primarily driven by technology and economics. Digital tech has minimized the return to risk for publishers and distributors, leading to the depletion of risk capital. Without risk capital on unproven art, there is no investment in the new and innovative. Thus, we get the most risk averse business models that basically regurgitate what worked last time. We see this is movies, music, visual arts, and books.

14 Warning Signs That You Are Living in a Society Without a Counterculture

by Ted Gioia

I’ve occasionally mentioned, in interviews and other settings, that we are living in a society without a counterculture. People ask me what I mean by this.

That’s a a reasonable question, but the new normal defies simple explanation. At some point, I hope to write in-depth on this subject. But today I will simply offer a quick definition, and then share 14 tweets.

These capture the flavor of what I’m trying to express better than any long-winded analysis.

First, here’s a quick definition. These are the key indicators that you might be living in a society without a counterculture:

    • A sense of sameness pervades the creative world
    • The dominant themes feel static and repetitive, not dynamic and impactful
    • Imitation of the conventional is rewarded
    • Movies, music, and other creative pursuits are increasingly evaluated on financial and corporate metrics, with all other considerations having little influence
    • Alternative voices exist—in fact, they are everywhere—but are rarely heard, and their cultural impact is negligible
    • Every year the same stories are retold, and this sameness is considered a plus
    • Creative work is increasingly embedded in genres that feel rigid, not flexible
    • Even avant-garde work often feels like a rehash of 50-60 years ago
    • Etc. etc. etc.

This is a deep matter, and I won’t try to unlock all the nuances here. I will now simply share 14 tweets that capture the stale taste of life without a counterculture. Some of these tweets are my own, others from total strangers—but they all paint the same overall picture.


The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, and culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.


You might be living in a society without a counterculture if. . . .

(A story told in 14 tweets)


1. Every screen shows the same movie.

Twitter avatar for @tedgioiaTed Gioia @tedgioia

Shared without comment.

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2. Alt Weeklies disappear in every city—along with everything else that’s alternative or outside the norm.


3. The most popular song doesn’t change for three years in a row.

Twitter avatar for @rps_prRock Paper Scissors PR @rps_pr

Are we stuck in a loop? bit.ly/39awdlpvia: @tedgioia

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4. The banal word ‘content’ is used to describe every type of creative work, implying that artistry is generic and interchangeable.


5. There are lots of journalists, but they all seem to be working for the same corporations.


6. The dominant company in the creative culture views everything as a brand extension.


7. Indie music and alt music are marginalized.


8. Telling jokes becomes a dangerous profession.


9. The experts who ‘explain’ the culture to us all seem to be insiders with identical backgrounds.


10. This year’s movies look a lot like last year’s movies.

Twitter avatar for @RPK_NEWS1RPK @RPK_NEWS1

Biggest films/shows of 2022. What are you looking forward to the most?

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11. Even elite awards for creativity are dominated by reboots and remakes.


12. Five companies have almost complete control over the book business—where, in an earlier day, dozens of indie publishers thrived.


13. Everybody is encouraged to watch the same TV shows and movies—with niche options gradually removed from the dominant platforms.


14. All those nasty, rebellious songs that defy authorities are now owned by hedge funds.

Anonymity Online: A Two-Edged Sword

The real risk is that we go on getting lost in stupid arguments, over shiny but trivial talking-points, and never get the hang of parsing what actually matters in the torrent of information overload. 

 

This essay, published in UnHerd examines the downside of anonymity and the pathologies of social media. And also the dangers of censorship. This is why we have no anonymity on tuka so reputational capital can be valued and rewarded. Some excerpts and comments below.

Why Twitter is So Awful

“…the term “attention economy” was coined… by Nobel Prize-winning economist Herbert Simon, in a 1971 article. Simon explored how to build organizations in a world saturated by information, arguing that attention is a key bottleneck in human culture. That is, the more abundant information is, the scarcer attention becomes as a resource.”

Yes, the time and energy consumed by attention are the resource constraints we face with too much information.

In the resulting bare-knuckle war for attention, it’s not reason that wins. Nor is everyone saying that the best, sanest, or most constructive ideas will prevail. Rather, it’s the most lurid (or aggressively state-sponsored) ideas that make it to the surface…

Yes, but nature has empowered us to adapt to a changing environment, and this applies to technological change that shapes our social interactions. We are learning how to cope with global social media that has distorted local human interaction. But one might have made a similar case against the introduction of the automobile. Motor vehicles made life more treacherous, where pedestrians were now subject to new risks. But we learned to regulate car traffic on roads and provide guidelines and behaviors for pedestrians. We learned how, when walking through town, to look both ways. We need to learn similar survival skills for navigating the online, virtual world. One must take control of one’s social engagement. Many have chosen to completely unplug.

The real risk is that we go on getting lost in stupid arguments, over shiny but trivial talking-points, and never get the hang of parsing what actually matters in the torrent of information overload. 

Yes, so one must exert judgment over how to spend one’s precious time. Not everyone will get it, but on a societal level it becomes a reflection of cultural values. Cultural values swing and tend toward the mean of humanity. When engaging online makes us feel less human, we will disengage in favor of human interaction. This is why so many people choose not to engage on Twitter and Facebook. And this is how we control the inhuman evolution of technology. Teach your children well.

Is Old Music Killing New Music?

No. But that doesn’t mean new music isn’t withering on the vine. This article in The Atlantic addresses many of the problems, which can be reduced down to the drying up of investment risk capital in the industry. This has been a function of digital technology and the explosion of new content across all creative industries.  In the age of physical media, content sales were king, but in the digital information age data is king. The industry must pivot around that reality and it probably means the disintermediation of many industry functions that served the sale of physical media. Article and comments are reprinted in full because we need to understand this new world.

Is Old Music Killing New Music?

Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market. Even worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking.

By Ted Gioia

The Atlantic January 23, 2022.

Old songs now represent 70 percent of the U.S. music market, according to the latest numbers from MRC Data, a music-analytics firm. Those who make a living from new music—especially that endangered species known as the working musician—should look at these figures with fear and trembling. But the news gets worse: The new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs. [Well, the problem is lack of growth, since these revenues are coming from existing catalogs. Record companies are churning their catalogs because it’s costless and risk free.]

Source: MRC Data

The 200 most popular new tracks now regularly account for less than 5 percent of total streams. That rate was twice as high just three years ago. The mix of songs actually purchased by consumers is even more tilted toward older music. The current list of most-downloaded tracks on iTunes is filled with the names of bands from the previous century, such as Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Police.

I encountered this phenomenon myself recently at a retail store, where the youngster at the cash register was singing along with Sting on “Message in a Bottle” (a hit from 1979) as it blasted on the radio. A few days earlier, I had a similar experience at a local diner, where the entire staff was under 30 but every song was more than 40 years old. I asked my server: “Why are you playing this old music?” She looked at me in surprise before answering: “Oh, I like these songs.”

Never before in history have new tracks attained hit status while generating so little cultural impact. [This is likely because the music culture today is so diffused. Diversity of musical tastes and the sheer volume of new music means the audiences are fractured into thousands of pieces.] In fact, the audience seems to be embracing the hits of decades past instead. Success was always short-lived in the music business, but now even new songs that become bona fide hits can pass unnoticed by much of the population.

Only songs released in the past 18 months get classified as “new” in the MRC database, so people could conceivably be listening to a lot of two-year-old songs, rather than 60-year-old ones. But I doubt these old playlists consist of songs from the year before last. Even if they did, that fact would still represent a repudiation of the pop-culture industry, which is almost entirely focused on what’s happening right now.

Every week I hear from hundreds of publicists, record labels, band managers, and other professionals who want to hype the newest new thing. Their livelihoods depend on it. The entire business model of the music industry is built on promoting new songs. [Yes, but this business model is dead. It was built on physical product. The new model is built on data network monetization.] As a music writer, I’m expected to do the same, as are radio stations, retailers, DJs, nightclub owners, editors, playlist curators, and everyone else with skin in the game. Yet all the evidence indicates that few listeners are paying attention. [Digital media and communications have disrupted these professions dedicated to promoting and distributing physical product.]

Consider the recent reaction when the Grammy Awards were postponed. Perhaps I should say the lack of reaction, because the cultural response was little more than a yawn. I follow thousands of music professionals on social media, and I didn’t encounter a single expression of annoyance or regret that the biggest annual event in new music had been put on hold. That’s ominous.

Can you imagine how angry fans would be if the Super Bowl or NBA Finals were delayed? People would riot in the streets. But the Grammy Awards go missing in action, and hardly anyone notices. [Award shows are based on mass markets – those markets have disintegrated.]

The declining TV audience for the Grammy show underscores this shift. In 2021, viewership for the ceremony collapsed 53 percent from the previous year—from 18.7 million to 8.8 million. It was the least-watched Grammy broadcast of all time. Even the core audience for new music couldn’t be bothered—about 98 percent of people ages 18 to 49 had something better to do than watch the biggest music celebration of the year.

A decade ago, 40 million people watched the Grammy Awards. That’s a meaningful audience, but now the devoted fans of this event are starting to resemble a tiny subculture. More people pay attention to streams of video games on Twitch (which now gets 30 million daily visitors) or the latest reality-TV show. In fact, musicians would probably do better getting placement in Fortnite than signing a record deal in 2022. At least they would have access to a growing demographic.

Source: Nielsen/Media Reports

Some would like to believe that this trend is just a short-term blip, perhaps caused by the pandemic. When clubs open up again, and DJs start spinning new records at parties, the world will return to normal, or so we’re told. The hottest songs will again be the newest songs. I’m not so optimistic.

A series of unfortunate events are conspiring to marginalize new music. The pandemic is one of these ugly facts, but hardly the only contributor to the growing crisis.

Consider these other trends:

  • The leading area of investment in the music business is old songs. Investment firms are getting into bidding wars to buy publishing catalogs from aging rock and pop stars. [Yeah, because it’s low risk/high return. Financiers and music companies can’t afford to lose money.]
  • The song catalogs in most demand are by musicians who are in their 70s or 80s (Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen) or already dead (David Bowie, James Brown). [All you have to pay are royalties, and you don’t have to pay those unless you’re selling.] 
  • Even major record labels are participating in the rush to old music: Universal Music, Sony Music, Warner Music, and others are buying up publishing catalogs and investing huge sums in old tunes. In a previous time, that money would have been used to launch new artists. [It’s where the low risk money is.]
  • The best-selling physical format in music is the vinyl LP, which is more than 70 years old. I’ve seen no signs that the record labels are investing in a newer, better alternative—because, here too, old is viewed as superior to new. [Physical media cannot compete with digital media because digital media builds networks without llimit. Those networks get monetized by the digital distributors.]
  • In fact, record labels—once a source of innovation in consumer products—don’t spend any money on research and development to revitalize their business, although every other industry looks to innovation for growth and consumer excitement. [It’s about risk capital – and the collapse in revenues means the evaporation of risk capital.]
  • Record stores are caught up in the same time warp. In an earlier era, they aggressively marketed new music, but now they make more money from vinyl reissues and used LPs.
  • Radio stations are contributing to the stagnation, putting fewer new songs into their rotation, or—judging by the offerings on my satellite-radio lineup—completely ignoring new music in favor of old hits.
  • When a new song overcomes these obstacles and actually becomes a hit, the risk of copyright lawsuits is greater than ever before. The risks have increased enormously since the “Blurred Lines” jury decision of 2015, and the result is that additional cash gets transferred from today’s musicians to old (or deceased) artists. [Copyright is fairly meaningless in the digital world – as most software makers discovered long ago. The record cos. made the mistake of suing their best customers.]
  • Adding to the nightmare, dead musicians are now coming back to life in virtual form—via holograms and “deepfake” music—making it all the harder for young, living artists to compete in the marketplace. [Haha – Night of the Living Dead. Maybe they’re Grateful?]

As record labels lose interest in new music, emerging performers desperately search for other ways to get exposure. They hope to place their self-produced tracks on a curated streaming playlist, or license their songs for use in advertising or the closing credits of a TV show. Those options might generate some royalty income, but they do little to build name recognition. You might hear a cool song on a TV commercial, but do you even know the name of the artist? You love your workout playlist at the health club, but how many song titles and band names do you remember? You stream a Spotify new-music playlist in the background while you work, but did you bother to learn who’s singing the songs?

Decades ago, the composer Erik Satie warned of the arrival of “furniture music,” a kind of song that would blend seamlessly into the background of our lives. His vision seems closer to reality than ever.

Some people—especially Baby Boomers—tell me that this decline in the popularity of new music is simply the result of lousy new songs. Music used to be better, or so they say. The old songs had better melodies, more interesting harmonies, and demonstrated genuine musicianship, not just software loops, Auto-Tuned vocals, and regurgitated samples. [No, the problem is search and discovery. Recommendations from streaming servers are self-interested and worthless, so baby boomers just drop out. The market has become so large and diverse that audiences can’t find music and artists can’t find their audiences.]

There will never be another Sondheim, they tell me. Or Joni Mitchell. Or Bob Dylan. Or Cole Porter. Or Brian Wilson. I almost expect these doomsayers to break out in a stirring rendition of “Old Time Rock and Roll,” much like Tom Cruise in his underpants.

Just take those old records off the shelf

I’ll sit and listen to ’em by myself …

I can understand the frustrations of music lovers who get no satisfaction from current mainstream songs, though they try and they try. I also lament the lack of imagination on many modern hits. But I disagree with my Boomer friends’ larger verdict. I listen to two to three hours of new music every day, and I know that plenty of exceptional young musicians are out there trying to make it. They exist. But the music industry has lost its ability to discover and nurture their talents. [Exactly. There’s no way to pay A&R people anymore. The record cos. depend on social media and streaming services.]

Music-industry bigwigs have plenty of excuses for their inability to discover and adequately promote great new artists. The fear of copyright lawsuits has made many in the industry deathly afraid of listening to unsolicited demo recordings. If you hear a demo today, you might get sued for stealing its melody—or maybe just its rhythmic groove—five years from now. Try mailing a demo to a label or producer, and watch it return unopened. [Probably a function of ‘beats’ and sampling regurgitating proven music.]

The people whose livelihood depends on discovering new musical talent face legal risks if they take their job seriously. That’s only one of the deleterious results of the music industry’s overreliance on lawyers and litigation, a hard-ass approach they once hoped would cure all their problems, but now does more harm than good. Everybody suffers in this litigious environment except for the partners at the entertainment-law firms, who enjoy the abundant fruits of all these lawsuits and legal threats.

The problem goes deeper than just copyright concerns. The people running the music industry have lost confidence in new music. They won’t admit it publicly—that would be like the priests of Jupiter and Apollo in ancient Rome admitting that their gods are dead. Even if they know it’s true, their job titles won’t allow such a humble and abject confession. Yet that is exactly what’s happening. The moguls have lost their faith in the redemptive and life-changing power of new music. How sad is that? Of course, the decision makers need to pretend that they still believe in the future of their business, and want to discover the next revolutionary talent. But that’s not what they really think. Their actions speak much louder than their empty words. [Most existing music co. execs are playing an end game. They been bleeding everything they can from the industry since the advent of the mp3.]

In fact, nothing is less interesting to music executives than a completely radical new kind of music. Who can blame them for feeling this way? The radio stations will play only songs that fit the dominant formulas, which haven’t changed much in decades. [Regurgitate what worked in the recent past.] The algorithms curating so much of our new music are even worse. Music algorithms are designed to be feedback loops, ensuring that the promoted new songs are virtually identical to your favorite old songs. Anything that genuinely breaks the mold is excluded from consideration almost as a rule. That’s actually how the current system has been designed to work. [Recommendation engines running machine algorithms are worthless for subjective art. We need to get humans back in the loop, like tuka.]

Even the music genres famous for shaking up the world—rock or jazz or hip-hop—face this same deadening industry mindset. I love jazz, but many of the radio stations focused on that genre play songs that sound almost the same as what they featured 10 or 20 years ago. In many instances, they actually are the same songs.

This state of affairs is not inevitable. A lot of musicians around the world—especially in Los Angeles and London—are conducting a bold dialogue between jazz and other contemporary styles. They are even bringing jazz back as dance music. But the songs they release sound dangerously different from older jazz, and are thus excluded from many radio stations for that same reason. The very boldness with which they embrace the future becomes the reason they get rejected by the gatekeepers. [The gatekeepers will soon be gone. It’s a failed business model.]

A country record needs to sound a certain way to get played on most country radio stations or playlists, and the sound those DJs and algorithms are looking for dates back to the prior century. And don’t even get me started on the classical-music industry, which works hard to avoid showcasing the creativity of the current generation. We are living in an amazing era of classical composition, with one tiny problem: The institutions controlling the genre don’t want you to hear it. [The only two genres that make money are…you guessed it: Country and Hip-Hop/Rap. So that’s all we hear.]

The problem isn’t a lack of good new music. It’s an institutional failure to discover and nurture it. [This is one of the two major problems that result from digitization. A low cost structure that creates too much supply with an inability to monetize. Streaming doesn’t solve either of these problems.]

I learned the danger of excessive caution long ago, when I consulted for huge Fortune 500 companies. The single biggest problem I encountered—shared by virtually every large company I analyzed—was investing too much of their time and money into defending old ways of doing business, rather than building new ones. [This is what suits and lawyers do.] We even had a proprietary tool for quantifying this misallocation of resources that spelled out the mistakes in precise dollars and cents.

Senior management hated hearing this, and always insisted that defending the old business units was their safest bet. [Of course.] After I encountered this embedded mindset again and again and saw its consequences, I reached the painful conclusion that the safest path is usually the most dangerous. If you pursue a strategy—whether in business or your personal life—that avoids all risk, you might flourish in the short run, but you flounder over the long term. That’s what is now happening in the music business. [Yes, coporate businesses are short-sighted.]

Even so, I refuse to accept that we are in some grim endgame, witnessing the death throes of new music. And I say that because I know how much people crave something that sounds fresh and exciting and different. If they don’t find it from a major record label or algorithm-driven playlist, they will find it somewhere else. Songs can go viral nowadays without the entertainment industry even noticing until it has already happened. That will be how this story ends: not with the marginalization of new music, but with something radical emerging from an unexpected place. [Yup – try www.tukaglobal.com.]

The apparent dead ends of the past were circumvented the same way. Music-company execs in 1955 had no idea that rock and roll would soon sweep away everything in its path. When Elvis took over the culture—coming from the poorest state in America, lowly Mississippi—they were more shocked than anybody. It happened again the following decade, with the arrival of the British Invasion from lowly Liverpool (again, a working-class place, unnoticed by the entertainment industry). And it happened again when hip-hop, a true grassroots movement that didn’t give a damn how the close-minded CEOs of Sony or Universal viewed the marketplace, emerged from the Bronx and South Central and other impoverished neighborhoods.

If we had the time, I would tell you more about how the same thing has always happened. The troubadours of the 11th century, Sappho, the lyric singers of ancient Greece, and the artisan performers of the Middle Kingdom in ancient Egypt transformed their own cultures in a similar way. Musical revolutions come from the bottom up, not the top down. The CEOs are the last to know. That’s what gives me solace. New music always arises in the least expected place, and when the power brokers aren’t even paying attention. It will happen again. It certainly needs to. The decision makers controlling our music institutions have lost the thread. We’re lucky that the music is too powerful for them to kill.

[Yes, but we’re not talking about human createivity here (which will never die), we’re talking about the business of human creativity. That has changed and maybe broought us back to a digital form of busking. We need to think outside this box.]


This story was adapted from a post on Ted Gioia’s Substack, The Honest Broker

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The tuka Platform

NFTs?

NFTs (Non-fungible tokens) are the newest rage in blockchain development. These tokens are issued by the creators of digital assets and then registered on the Ethereum blockchain. The smart contracts associated with the tokens can award ownership rights to the asset with the rights to royalty payments for the marketing or sale of the asset. NFTs seem particularly suited to collectors’ items and can also be applied to physical assets. The sale of the tokens prepays the creator for the value created through his creation. Preselling NFTs for songs could deliver a revenue flow to musicians before the music became a commercial hit. Think of having a digital right of ownership to Happy Birthday or Yesterday or The Mona Lisa. The problem, of course, is that predicting the future value of a creative piece of art today is almost impossible. Remember, Van Gogh couldn’t sell any of his paintings!

This makes NFTs a very speculative asset play.

Click below to view the idea of an NFT art gallery:

The Gallery NFT

How To Fix Social Media (Facebook!)

How to Fix Social Media.

The Wall Street Journal has published a series of articles they call The Facebook Files. One article recently queried a dozen “experts” to discuss their ideas of how to fix social media. We at tuka have been focused on this challenge from the beginning, several years ago, and what these commentators reveal is a converging consensus that the problem with social media is scale and emotional triggering based on the speed of information flow. As Winston Churchill was said to quip, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Social media connections have just made this pathology worse.

Our take has always been summed up with one line: A global gossip network makes no sense. So large, centralized networks of 3 billion users make no sense (i.e, FB). Social networking is person-to-person sharing based on mutual trust. So smaller newworks focused on shared interests make sense. This is what tuka is. Technology can then be harnessed to coordinate these networks in ways that reduce the siloing effect so we can all end up sharing more information based on our trusted networks. So what is needed are policies that break down the network effects of scale to open up the social media space to thousands of competitors, all focused on different community interests. Then the interactions across networks help bring us together willingly.

The other problem we at tuka have cited is the centralization and control of information networks and the immense value they create. Data is gold, and we cannot have a handful of private companies own and control the personal data users create. This is akin to giving your labor away, or slavery. The required changes are to decentralize the network using blockchain technologies so that value created can be measured and distributed accordingly to users.

Several of the experts have accurately recognized the problem and what to do about it. The better ideas have been cut and pasted below.

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Clay Shirky: Slow It Down and Make It Smaller

We know how to fix social media. We’ve always known. We were complaining about it when it got worse, so we remember what it was like when it was better. We need to make it smaller and slow it down.

The spread of social media vastly increased how many people any of us can reach with a single photo, video or bit of writing. When we look at who people connect to on social networks—mostly friends, unsurprisingly—the scale of immediate connections seems manageable. But the imperative to turn individual offerings, mostly shared with friends, into viral sensations creates an incentive for social media platforms, and especially Facebook, to amplify bits of content well beyond any friend group.

We’re all potential celebrities now, where anything we say could spread well beyond the group we said it to, an effect that the social media scholar Danah Boyd has called “context collapse.” And once we’re all potential celebrities, some people will respond to the incentives to reach that audience—hot takes, dangerous stunts, fake news, miracle cures, the whole panoply of lies and grift we now behold.

The faster content moves, the likelier it is to be borne on the winds of emotional reaction.

The inhuman scale at which the internet assembles audiences for casually produced material is made worse by the rising speed of viral content. As the behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman observed, human thinking comes in two flavors: fast and slow. Emotions are fast, and deliberation is slow.

The obvious corollary is that the faster content moves, the likelier it is to be borne on the winds of emotional reaction, with any deliberation coming after it has spread, if at all. The spread of smartphones and push notifications has created a whole ecosystem of URGENT! messages, things we are exhorted to amplify by passing them along: Like if you agree, share if you very much agree.

Social media is better, for individuals and for the social fabric, if the groups it assembles are smaller, and if the speed at which content moves through it is slower. Some of this is already happening, as people vote with their feet (well, fingers) to join various group chats, whether via SMS, Slack or Discord.

We know that scale and speed make people crazy. We’ve known this since before the web was invented. Users are increasingly aware that our largest social media platforms are harmful and that their addictive nature makes some sort of coordinated action imperative.

It’s just not clear where that action might come from. Self-regulation is ineffective, and the political arena is too polarized to agree on any such restrictions. There are only two remaining scenarios: regulation from the executive branch or a continuation of the status quo, with only minor changes. Neither of those responses is ideal, but given that even a global pandemic does not seem to have galvanized bipartisanship, it’s hard to see any other set of practical options.

Mr. Shirky is Vice Provost for Educational Technologies at New York University and the author of “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.”

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Jaron Lanier: Topple the New Gods of Data

When we speak of social media, what are we talking about? Is it the broad idea of people connecting over the internet, keeping track of old friends, or sharing funny videos? Or is it the business model that has come to dominate those activities, as implemented by Facebook and a few other companies?

Tech companies have dominated the definition because of the phenomenon known as network effects: The more connected a system is, the more likely it is to produce winner-take-all outcomes. Facebook took all.

The domination is so great that we forget alternatives are possible. There is a wonderful new generation of researchers and critics concerned with problems like damage to teen girls and incitement of racist violence, and their work is indispensable. If all we had to talk about was the more general idea of possible forms of social media, then their work would be what’s needed to improve things.

Unfortunately, what we need to talk about is the dominant business model. This model spews out horrible incentives to make people meaner and crazier. Incentives run the world more than laws, regulations, critiques, or the ideas of researchers.

The current incentives are to “engage” people as much as possible, which means triggering the “lizard brain” and fight-or-flight responses. People have always been a little paranoid, xenophobic, racist, neurotically vain, irritable, selfish, and afraid. And yet putting people under the influence of engagement algorithms has managed to bring out even more of the worst of us.

The current incentives are to ‘engage’ people as much as possible, which means triggering the ‘lizard brain.’

Can we survive being under the ambient influence of behavior modification algorithms that make us stupider?

The business model that makes life worse is based on a particular ideology. This ideology holds that humans as we know ourselves are being replaced by something better that will be brought about by tech companies. Either we’ll become part of a giant collective organism run through algorithms, or artificial intelligence will soon be able to do most jobs, including running society, better than people. The overwhelming imperative is to create something like a universally Facebook-connected society or a giant artificial intelligence.

These “new gods” run on data, so as much data as possible must be gathered, and getting in the middle of human interactions is how you gather that data. If the process makes people crazy, that’s an acceptable price to pay.

The business model, not the algorithms, is also why people have to fear being put out of work by technology. If people were paid fairly for their contributions to algorithms and robots, then more tech would mean more jobs, but the ideology demands that people accept a creeping feeling of human obsolescence. After all, if data coming from people were valued, then it might seem like the big computation gods, like AI, were really just collaborations of people instead of new life forms. That would be a devastating blow to the tech ideology.

Facebook now proposes to change its name and to primarily pursue the “metaverse” instead of “social media,” but the only changes that fundamentally matter are in the business model, ideology, and resulting incentives.

Mr. Lanier is a computer scientist and the author, most recently, of “Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.”

Clive Thompson: Online Communities That Actually Work

Are there any digital communities that aren’t plagued by trolling, posturing and terrible behavior? Sure there are. In fact, there are quite a lot of online hubs where strangers talk all day long in a very civil fashion. But these aren’t the sites that we typically think of as social media, like Twitter, Facebook or YouTube. No, I’m thinking of the countless discussion boards and Discord servers devoted to hobbies or passions like fly fishing, cuisine, art, long-distance cycling or niche videogames.

I visit places like this pretty often in reporting on how people use digital tools, and whenever I check one out, I’m often struck by how un-toxic they are. These days, we wonder a lot about why social networks go bad. But it’s equally illuminating to ask about the ones that work well. These communities share one characteristic: They’re small. Generally they have only a few hundred members, or maybe a couple thousand if they’re really popular.

And smallness makes all the difference. First, these groups have a sense of cohesion. The members have joined specifically to talk to people with whom they share an enthusiasm. That creates a type of social glue, a context and a mutual respect that can’t exist on a highly public site like Twitter, where anyone can crash any public conversation.

Smallness makes all the difference. These groups have a sense of cohesion.

Even more important, small groups typically have people who work to keep interactions civil. Sometimes this will be the forum organizer or an active, long-term participant. They’ll greet newcomers to make them feel welcome, draw out quiet people and defuse conflict when they see it emerge. Sometimes they’ll ban serious trolls. But what’s crucial is that these key members model good behavior, illustrating by example the community’s best standards. The internet thinkers Heather Gold, Kevin Marks and Deb Schultz put a name to this: “tummeling,” after the Yiddish “tummeler,” who keeps a party going.

None of these positive elements can exist in a massive, public social network, where millions of people can barge into each other’s spaces—as they do on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. The single biggest problem facing social media is that our dominant networks are obsessed with scale. They want to utterly dominate their fields, so they can kill or absorb rivals and have the ad dollars to themselves. But scale breaks social relations.

Is there any way to mitigate this problem? I’ve never heard of any simple solution. Strong antitrust enforcement for the big networks would be useful, to encourage a greater array of rivals that truly compete with one another. But this likely wouldn’t fully solve the problem of scale, since many users crave scale too. Lusting after massive, global audiences, they will flock to whichever site offers the hugest. Many of the proposed remedies for social media, like increased moderation or modifications to legal liability, might help, but all leave intact the biggest problem of all: Bigness itself.

Mr. Thompson is a journalist who covers science and technology. He is the author, most recently, of “Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World.”