Tuesday, May 31, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: Part 2

A Beer to Send us Off

It's our last night in L.A. I'm drinking orange juice straight from the carton, sitting indian-style on the floor of an empty apartment with a belly full of sushi and sake. Our two days here have been spent living like rock stars, which is fitting considering the next two weeks will be spent living out of a Miata.

L.A. is like a mistress to me. She's enchanting to spend a night with - maybe even a few - but I could never imagine living with her. Those few nights, however, are off the charts. Scattered amidst all the packing and last-minute cleaning were some truly unforgettable moments: savoring local IPA's and fried risotto cakes at The Darkroom, drinking New Belgium Flat Tire on an outdoor patio in Santa Monica, and soaking our feet in the warm Pacific waters during sunset.

But for every tricked-out Range Rover and gated mansion, there are about a million waiters and bartenders who just barely missed the cut. It's a city of dreamers, divided into those who made it and those who dreamed just a little too big. And that dividing line is nowhere near the middle. Still, the mania of this town is infectious. Listening to a few jaw-dropping tales from even the most unassuming of locals makes you realize that, regardless of what side of the monogrammed gate you're standing on, everyone feels a part of that dream.

And now, the slideshow:

As a close friend and wise man once said, "double-double fries and coke."

The silhouette you see is actually Sean Penn. So much smaller in person than in the movies.

Enjoying a beer at some enormous sports bar.  The photographer: Also Sean Penn.  The dude was everywhere.

Monday, May 30, 2011

America, Fuck Yea: A Tale of Mania and Misconduct across the Greatest Country in America


Alright ladies and gentlemen, buckle your seatbelts. We're about to go on a journey to de-mystify the far reaches of this great land of ours. At 5:30 yesterday morning, with naught but a duffle bag and a backpack, I left my cozy apartment in Somerville to board a Virgin America flight to the savage, untamed land of Los Angeles. Not for gold, nor celebrity-endorsed Botox specialists, but for adventure. For the next two weeks this will be a travel blog chronicling two woefully underprepared suckers as they brave the American southland.

My partner in crime throughout this debacle is Lauren, the comely young lass you see below.

Mr. Froggy is our resident survival expert. We'll be drinking our own pee in no time.
Poor Lauren has been a bit out of sorts lately, so we're getting her out of this cesspool of fake tans and poorly-written screenplays and back to the gleaming cesspool of misogynistic "yah-dudes" and brown-colored snow that we like to call Boston. And we're doing it in this:

That's a speed dent. It makes the car go faster.
We haven't even started yet and already a snag: because of the ducktail spoiler, we had to jury-rig the luggage rack with bungee cords.
So stay tuned, because on Tuesday morning Lauren and I will begin piloting our comically undersized chariot East toward the rising sun. I hope you'll join us for the ride.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A Most Beautiful Widget: The Commercialization of Art and Music

Nothing is sacred in this country. Anything and everything that can possibly be commercialized, has. Not that there's anything wrong with that; after all, innovation is simply learning how to capitalize on things in new ways. But one of the most fascinating modern innovations is the convergence of commerce and art, in all of its many forms - the pinnacle of human expression and creativity turned profitable. The forces of industrialization and individual uniqueness could not be more polar opposite, and the efforts of many to resist have created a wondrous dichotomy. On one hand you have the stereotypical starving artist, the passionate idealist who sacrifices all hope of financial stability for the sake of creating beauty. On the other hand you have the brand, the person whose mass appeal to all but the most discerning of consumers makes them a goldmine waiting to be tapped. The difference between these two, simple aesthetic and true meaning, can be blurry. One demands to be seen, heard, or experienced by all while the other seeks only to exist. But there is one area in particular where the clash between culture and counter-culture has become game-changing - the music industry.

The thing about music is its scope. The popularity and accessibility of the medium has given rise to a staggeringly lucrative industry, while at the same time fueling an "indie" resistance so passionate that it almost singlehandedly influenced the revival the hipster subculture. Behind it all are the five major corporate labels - Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, EMI, and Live Nation - whose attempts at mass production have resulted in billboard charts literally full of indistinguishable cookie-cutters. Theirs is a system that works for some. Artists can make a killing cashing in on their tight bodies and carefully crafted images, all without having to learn a single chord. Consumers are rewarded with a sound that is catchy and familiar to them. But the forces that built Justin Bieber's bank account are not harmless. The subtle tricks used by these kings of commerce have degraded the art form as a whole, both for artists and listeners alike.

The defining element of a "major" record label (as opposed to an indie one) is the fact that it owns the means of distribution. As a result, it can be difficult for aspiring musicians to have their art heard or bought without making a deal with the devil. This applies to both live and recorded music. The former is overwhelmingly dominated by Live Nation. They are not only the largest promoter of live music, but they also own Ticketmaster and most of the large venues in the U.S. This gives them unprecedented power to influence ticket prices and tack on extra fees, something that some artists have fought against with limited success. According to the Chicago Tribune: "Since Ticketmaster and Live Nation came to dominate their respective industries over the last decade, concert prices have more than doubled and service fees for processing tickets have climbed to as high as 50 percent per order. In 1995, Pearl Jam tried to boycott Ticketmaster because the agency was charging more than $2 for an $18 ticket. The band found it nearly impossible to tour outside that system because Ticketmaster was locked into long-term deals with most major concert venues nationwide."

In the recording studio things are no better. In a typical deal, the record label will provide the artist with an advance in exchange for recording a pre-determined amount of songs or albums. The label will oversee the process and pay all costs including recording fees, marketing and promotion, and manufacturing and distribution of physical media (CD's, vinyl, etc.) if necessary. The artist will also receive royalties based on online or in-store sales, merchandising, and so forth. But the catch is that the artist must give up ownership to their own music, something that often comes with additional layers of control over varying other aspects of their likeness - everything down to what they wear to how they walk, talk, and act. They become walking endorsements of themselves, where their very image is a marketing ploy meant to appeal to a targeted demographic.

But the true artists aren't the only ones that suffer. Competition among corporate labels has led to some pretty cheap tricks in the recording booth that affect the sound of the music itself. The two big culprits are auto-tune and something a bit less familiar known as dynamic range compression. Auto-tune, first popularized by Cher as a gimmicky voice effect, has turned into pandemic of synthesized talent among performers that have none. It is a means of pitch correction that can substitute a poorly sung note for one that is exactly perfect. The abuse of this technology has allowed for the birth of a new breed of performer that relies solely on aesthetic, neither writing nor correctly singing their own songs - giving record labels a broader selection of marketable candidates to represent. And it has become particularly rampant in the pop genre, making it uniformly flawless to the extent that it completely removes from the equation one of the finer aspects of any art form - imperfection.

The other trick commonly used in the studio is quite a bit more subtle. Dynamic range compression (DRC) is a technology that has been applied to music, TV commercials, and a number of other mediums allowing engineers to increase the relative loudness of audio content. It is a response to a psychological study by Harvey Fletcher and Wilden A. Munson demonstrating that human listeners, when presented with two recordings at different levels, are subconsciously drawn to the louder one. The technique compresses the amplitude range of a recording so that the loudness can be increased without exceeding the clearly defined maximum peak amplitude limits placed on all digital media formats. It is the same thing that makes television commercials so much louder than the actual show. The "loudness war," a term used to decry the use of DRC in music recording, has been addressed by many notable artists and audiophiles who resent the fact that some musicians have been forced to take part against their will. As Bob Dylan put it: "You listen to these modern records, they're atrocious, they have sound all over them. There's no definition of nothing, no vocal, no nothing, just like—static."

Amidst this assembly line of mechanized voice-overs, generic major chords, and scantily clad bodies lies the indie movement. Having roots all the way back to the post-war era in the United States, it has gathered enough steam to represent a legitimate alternative market. But indie music is not immune to exploitation, and now it too is at risk of becoming commercialized. Unlike their larger counterparts, indie labels do not own the means of production. Instead, they subsist through partnerships, licensing deals, and agreements with those that do. Today, indies represent just over 18% of U.S. music market share. But while many of these were started by purists looking to clean up the industry, others are "vanity" or "boutique" spinoffs from major labels looking to cash in on an audience that thinks they know better. It is a brilliant play to the susceptibility of young consumers to anything that is perceived to be outside the mainstream.

Fortunately, there will always be an underground. Musicians looking to avoid the quagmire of unsavory agreements and engineering hocus pocus now have easy, cheap access to home recording equipment that can produce truly professional results. And there is no shortage of outrage from artists and luminaries that have the clout to fight back. More and more DRC-free albums are sprouting up, and non-profits such as Turn Me Up! have emerged with the mission of giving artists the power to preserve the dynamic range of their music. As consumers, our responsibility is to stay informed. Commercialized music absolutely has its place, but the choice of whether or not we wish to enjoy it should be deliberate. Until we remove the wool from over our eyes, we will never have that power.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Now that Osama bin Laden is Dead, Where's Our World Peace?

This morning I awoke to the kind of raucous celebration only ever demonstrated during World Series or Superbowl victories.  The Afghan Assassin, the Jester of Jihad, the Turbaned Terror himself - Osama bin Laden - is finally dead.  Now that that's over with, we can pronounce terrorism done for and world peace successfully achieved, right?  Wrong.

Nobody likes being a buzzkill.  I appreciate the historic nature of this event because of the harm that he has caused many innocent people around the world, the power of his voice and propaganda to incite violence, and because he turned out to be so damn hard to get.  But this was revenge, and revenge doesn't end wars.  I don't doubt that killing him was the necessary thing to do, but in a few years we will not be looking back on this as the pivot point that finally allowed us to take our men and women in uniform out of Afghanistan.  Rather than celebrate in the streets as many in America are doing, I grudgingly accept the grim reality that this needed to be done, regret the price in terms of lives and dollars that we paid along the way, and lament the long road we still have ahead of us.

Some have argued with me that we desperately need a victory right now and should take this opportunity to celebrate.  I can certainly understand that, but my biggest fear is that the media is creating unrealistic expectations for what this means for America and the world.  Just a few Google searches brings up ample parallels between Osama bin Laden's death and that of Hitler.  I know that they share the same May 1st anniversary, but there are a number of reasons why yesterday's events will be anti-climactic in comparison.  Hitler rose to power by capitalizing on the suffocating sense of defeat, desperation, and betrayal among his countrymen following the first World War.  He was a prominent and outgoing leader who built a military machine from his own charisma, and the sense of nationalism that he cultivated allowed him to get away with some pretty heinous acts... for a while.  By the time of his death, many in Germany had come to learn of the terrible crimes that he committed and were just as horrified as we were here in America.  They were ready to shake off that dark part of their history and join the Western world once again.  On the other hand, bin Laden headed an organization built upon decades of international misconduct and religious extremism.  Theirs is a holy conflict that goes beyond mere hatred.  There will be no peace treaty, no end in sight for al Qaeda, and definitely no end to terrorism.  Worse yet, we will continue to see the loss of American and Afghani lives as the war rages on.

So what does this mean for us, should we sit quietly and refuse to enjoy this satisfying accomplishment?  Of course not.  What we should do is avoid unrealistic expectations for what this means going forward, understand that in all likelihood the euphoria that we feel is bound to be short-lived, and behave knowing that our reaction to this has the potential to endear us or antagonize us further in the eyes of the Muslim world.