Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘music’

27 APRIL, 2008

Down With The Man | Part 7

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How to do peer-to-peer sharing without entering Jesse James territory. Welcome to the Down With The Man issue: Part 7.

LEGAL AND WILLING

Speaking of things shaking the music industry, we couldn’t gloss over the huge and highly polarized issue of piracy. Worst part: it’s a vicious cycle. In a nutshell: a handful of big music retailers (a.k.a. “The Man”) dominate 90% of music sales; they exert pricing pressure on everyone else, asking consumers to shell out too much for music, most of which doesn’t even go to the artist due to brutal licensing deals; in turn, many music fans flip the bird and just download music illegally through P2P file-sharing.

But there’s actually a way to get free music through “file-sharing” that doesn’t make you an outlaw.

You may recall from pickings of yore services like Paperback Swap and SwapaCD — networks of everyday people who exchange books and CD’s they own via the mail. Now there’s a better execution to the same idea: swaptree, officially launched last July, is a similar concept, but has a broader media catalog — books, CD’s, DVD’s, even video games — and a massive member base of hundreds of thousands of users, with an astounding 30% monthly growth rate.

Seems like the newest media-shaker comes from the oldest medium of all: snail-mail, regarded today as barely a step up from pigeon post.

swaptree is free, simple, and here’s how it works: first say what you’ve got (build a “have” list of all the read books and old CD’s you’re willing to bid adieu), then say what you want (build a “want” list of stuff you’ve always been dying to read/hear/play). Then just sit back as the swaptree algorithms find you a trade and get the ball rolling. (We’re currently awaiting The Omnivore’s Dilemma, the brilliant book by one of our heroes, Michael Pollan.)

So how could all this be legal? Flashbacks of copyright class remind us about something known as the “first book doctrine,” a loophole in copyright law that allows you to transfer (for payment or not) a lawful copy of copyrighted work (like a book or CD) once you’ve obtained it. Everyday translation: whenever you buy, find, receive as a gift or get your hands on a book in other ways, it’s yours to do whatever you like with. Including swapping. And now it’s being applied to other media.

Sure, the big media dictators may not be happy. But in this power- to-the-people age, getting the latest from Postal Service through the postal service is an in-your-face constitutional right “the people” are learning to exercise…and lovin’ it.

17 APRIL, 2008

7 Ways To Free Yourself

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Mad about folding, the new Radiohead, global ‘zines, the U.K. vs. France, why the next MoMA piece may be found in your closet, how to be even lazier than you already are, and what 1’s and 0’s have to do with art. Welcome to the 7 Ways To Free Yourself issue.

BEND IT LIKE JAFFEE

The one, the only: Mad Magazine. What greater icon of American humor, political satire and pop culture commentary? The cult pub has been making waves since 1952, but some of its most recognized cultural contributions remain Al Jaffee’s infamous fold-ins.

Now, thanks to The New York Times, they’re available in interactive form, from 1960 to the present. And if there ever was a question of whether history repeats itself, this makes the answer loud and clear: most of the fold-ins are just as relevant today as they were decades ago, liberating history from its own confines.

Take the 1968 election year, when Nixon and Humphrey threw it down like there was no tomorrow, in the midst of a highly politicized war. Forty years later, the atrocities of another war are “turning our stomachs,” and a new generation is just as conflicted about a new war in an equally politically charged climate.

The entertainment business doesn’t seem to have changed for the better, either. In the year of the $2.7 million 30-second Super Bowl commercial, Jaffee’s snark resonates all the more powerfully.

See the full collection for a hefty slurp of history’s irony cocktail.

SIBERIAN COOL

Say what you will of the music industry’s demise, but all this commotion has actually propelled the evolution and diversification of the “indie” music scene. No longer is it all garage bands and acoustic pop and stale teen angst.

Case in point: indie up-and-comer Ghost Away. Their unique brand of alternative sound blends brilliantly sombre vocals with electrically charged instrumentals, fusing in beats that will both hypnotize you and make you wanna move. The getup is part Radiohead, part Junior Boys, part Battles, part something else entirely.

GHOST AWAY – SLOWDRIFT

Siberia, their debut album, is out this week. And as if to claim their place in the music business revolution going on these days, they’re launching the album as a free download. Talk about the ultimate self-publishing empowerment of today’s new media freeconomy — it cost the band close to nothing to record, produce and distribute the album (except, of course, hours of sweat and blood in the studio), and now it’s costing you nothing to experience it.

Get it now and get ready to dance the toldja so dance when Ghost Away make that Rolling Stone cover.

POWER TO THE PEOPLE

Speaking of self-publishing empowerment, we love Scribd: the document-sharing online library that takes information exchange and collaboration to a whole new level. It’s simple: you can upload any docs you like — Microsoft Office stuff, PDF’s, PostScript, OpenOffice, and more — and make them available to the world.

Similarly, you can search and access millions of documents other people uploaded.

Besides offering free unlimited storage (seriously?!), Scribd is the ultimate tool for self-publishing and reaching a wide audience. People use it for anything from backing up office documents, to storing and sharing photo albums, to publishing e-books and indie ‘zines, to collaborating on music chords and more.

And just when you think they couldn’t possibly give you more, there’s Scribd iPaper — a platform that lets you quickly integrate files from Scribt into a website, and you don’t even have to know code. Think of it as embeds on steroids.

In our humble opinion, Scribt is just the tip of the collaborative future iceberg, where information becomes the new social currency and the digitization of data builds a tremendously powerful communal pool of knowledge.

So go ahead, free yourself from the confines of static and introverted desktop software.

ALONG FOR THE RIDE

After last week’s French fusion of documentary and raw indie music, the empire strikes back: we’ve got a British sequel.

The Black Cab Sessions, a Just So Films initiative, shares a similar point of view, namely that venues strip music of its essence. So the project employs a simple concept: for each “session,” an indie band or artist hops in the back of a black cab and plays a song filmed in a single shot, which is then uploaded — completely unedited — for the world to see.


Currently on chapter thirty-five, The Black Cab Sessions have sported some of the best of the The’s, and then some — The Ravonettes, The Kooks, The New Pornographers, Cold War Kids, Spoon, and much, much more.

Our only question: where does the cab actually go?

NO HANGUPS

What is art if not the talent of looking at the mundane and seeing the extraordinary? Sculptor David Mach has just this sort of rare gift. He takes everyday objects like coat hangers, matchsticks and Scrabble pieces, turning them into sculptures, collages and installations that speak artistically, socially and politically.

Mach as been crafting his exquisite matchstick head sculptures and signature wire coat-hanger statues since the early 80’s. But, like a true artist, he spends more time concepting and crafting than tinkering with his new website and uploading visuals. Luckily, you can see the full breadth of his work on the archived old website.

We also dig the passion with which he stands behind his creative vision: Mach speaks freely of the great projects that never happened, which you can find in his Proposals section.

A particularly regrettable non-realization: Sound Wave, a gigantic tidal wave sculptured out of 250 upright pianos, which he conceived for the 25th anniversary of London’s Albert Hall. We feel your pain, Dave, we feel your pain.

WORD MEETS IMAGE, THEY MATE

You may recall the super nifty PicLens from a couple of months ago. Now, we bring you the next big thing in image search: the Flickr Related Tag Browser. The ridiculously sleek app does just what the name implies: lets you search Flickr images by tag, but does it visually in a way that halves the process and doubles the joy of it.

When you do a search, you get a collage of images tagged with that word, but you also get a tag cloud of contextually relevant images. It’s like the app thinks one step ahead for you and generating your next related keyword. You can click each tag in the cloud to sample the resulting images with another collage that pops up in the center.

You can keep scrolling through image results right there in the center collage, or you blow up a specific image thumbnail for a closer look. From there, you can either keep browsing the thumbnails if the image is no good, or click straight through to its Flickrs page to snag it.

The app is the work of freelance interactive designer Felix Turner, a Flash whiz who helped build the now-ubiquitous Brightcove video players.

BINARY FREEDOM

This week’s Untrivia is a different take on data, inspired by a new branch of the “found objects” art genre. We like to call these new digital artists “binary sculptors” — because the found “objects” are sets and patterns of mined data that they use much in the way traditional sculptors use mined ore, transforming the raw material into compelling visual art.

One such remarkable binary sculptor is artist and real-time visual performer Paul Prudence, who uses a software called Daub to project the digital data of a video stream onto a “brush” moving in 3D space, creating a neo-surrealist morphing mesh.

And speaking of video streams and data, it seems like Prudence won’t be out of raw material anytime soon. In February alone, Americans viewed 10.1 billion online videos, up 66% from last year. The average time spent watching web video that month? 204 minutes.

That’s a whole lotta cats falling down toilets.

11 APRIL, 2008

B-Sides and Breakaways

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Dancing in the streets, digital Dickens, time retold, LEGO on Times Square, 34841003122 reasons we’re devolving, what Etruscan vases have to do with skin rashes, and how to out-BlackBerry the BlackBerry.

SING IT LIKE IT IS

Independent music is an art all its own, but when you add phenomenal cinematography to it, it becomes a cultural masterpiece. And that’s what French filmmaker Vincent Moon is doing in La Blogotheque: “take-away” impromptu live shows by some of the most iconic indie artists, shot beautifully in some of the world’s most breathtaking cities.

No crowds. No stages. No equipment. Just the musicians and their talent, in the raw.

The project’s About page has nothing but Greek copy — we suspect because the films speak so strongly for themselves, no explanation is necessary. And if you parlez français, you can indulge in even richer content by way of articles, exclusive interviews and other artist- centric digressions. Still, the films themselves are the real indulgence.

Some of our favorites: The Shins on a street corner in Paris, José González outside a torn-down house in Marfa, TX, and Dappled Cities on a San Francisco sidewalk.

But, really, they’re all absolutely brilliant — so do indulge.

UNMAPPED TERRITORY

Down with the old book smell. Penguin, in a brilliant bout of innovation, is fully embracing new media and social collaboration.

As part of the “We Tell Stories” mantra, Penguin is collaborating with 6 authors who tell 6 stories in 6 days, each inspired by a timeless classic.The first one, The 21 Steps (inspired by The 39 Steps), is told entirely on Google Maps, following the main character around the world.

In week 2, Slice (inspired by The Haunted Dolls’ House) was told via tweets. (That’s Twitter messages, for the media geezers.) Next we have the mad-libs-like custom Fairy Tales, a take on the classic genre where readers fill in parts of the story. This week, a married couple of authors live-blogs the story of a relationship: Your Place and Mine, inspired by Émile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin.

Weeks 5 and 6 are yet to happen, but we know the upcoming stories, authored by a DJ-ing media whiz and a Pakistan-born London-based Harvard Law grad, will be inspired by Dickens’ Hard Times and 1001 Nights.

So what’s it gonna be? A Facebook group? Flickr? A YouTube channel? Time shall tell.

NEXT TIME AROUND

Time-keepers. While their price tags can be exorbitant enough to push any budget, there’s an overwhelmingly underwhelming cross-industry sameness that hardly ever pushes the design envelope. Well, no more.

A finalist in the Signity Watch Design Competition 2008, the Orb bracelet watch is the work of young Serbian designer Djordje “Djo:Djo” Zivanovic. It displays time on the ends of three lines of different thickness representing time-size: hours, minutes and seconds.

Watch-averse? The Verbarius clock tells time like no other — literally. It tells it the way people do: with words. It comes pre-loaded with five languages (English, German, Spanish, French and Russian) and has a USB port, which you can use to upload additional languages from your computer.

Available June 15, but you can pre-order now for the ironically down-to-the-digits amount of $184.92.

HISTORICALLY ENLIGHTENED

What are the great classics for if not for great reinterpretations? British photographer Mike Stimson does just that: he takes on the classics…in LEGO.

Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Behind the Gare Saint Lazare”? He’s got it. Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “V.J. Day Times Square”? Done. And he doesn’t stop at classic photography. Hollywood’s fair game, too — Indiana Jones, Dart Vader, Stormtrooper. Even Rembrandt portraits.

And while we dig the sheer novelty of this concept, we must also admit Stimson’s mastery of lighting is a whole separate art form.

UNTRIVIA

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Plastic. What a love-hate relationship we have with it. And while the recent badmouthing of plastic bottles has done a bit to raise awareness, it hasn’t done nearly enough. How many bottles have been landfilled in the US so far this year?

34,841,003,122.

Only a fifth of those get recycled, down from a third in 1996. Progress? Not so much. Watching the real-time counter is even more chilling.

And while other materials are doing a bit better, recycling is still declining: 54% of aluminum cans get recycled, down from 59% in 1996. Glass is at 20%, down from 30% in ’96. Let’s hope the new (pseudo) green mass movement results in some face-saving numbers at the next data collection.

The point here? Get with it, son: go ahead and buy that Sigg already.

ITCHING FOR ART

Here’s to taking life’s lemons and making lemonade. Artist Ariana Page Russell has done that, and then some: she has a rare skin condition called dermatographia that causes red, raised lines to appear on skin whenever it’s lightly scratched. Basically, hyper-hypersensitivity with bells and whistles.

So Page Russell is using this unusual condition as a tool in her body-as-canvas art: she draws on her body and takes pictures of the patterns once her skin’s hypersensitivity embosses the artwork. Thirty minutes later, it’s all gone — the body has “[become] an index of passing time.” Her patterns are inspired by anything from Greek and Etruscan vases, to Medieval wall coverings, to Renaissance pottery, to contemporary clothing and wallpaper.

And although the rest of the artist’s body of work is also quite stunning, we can’t deny the sheer category-creating brilliance of her skin art.

SPEAK TO THE HAND

You’re curt. Brusque. Terse. Hell, you’re even rude. At least if you have a BlackBerry. At least that’s how people perceive your one- liner emails. And now there’s a fix.

Remember Jott? The nifty speech transcriber service now has a BlackBerry platform that lets you reply to emails with your voice. The download is seamlessly integrated with the email app you use on your BB. Best of all, it ups the ultimate BlackBerry ante: using your voice is 3-5 times more time-saving than thumbing your way through that Re:. And it’s still free.

So go ahead and be a better person.

14 MARCH, 2008

Context vs. Controversy

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You’re a clichè, lots of skin, stuff that killed people, stuff that will kill you, policing the police, what Hitler is finding painfully unfunny, which European is holding suburban America hostage, how to get $80,782 from people who like you, and why the paparazzi are finally out of business.

BEYOND NASCAR

Making waves with a new website launch is so hard these days, what with taken domain names and beaten been-done-before concepts. Alas, newcomer Stuff White People Like, having dodged both 2.0 kisses of death, is off to a critically acclaimed start — and we think it has sprouted a new trend we like to call “affectionate stereotyping.”

whitepeople.png

But sensationalist title aside, the witty blog doesn’t actually talk about race at all — it’s more about a certain economic subset united by the common gene for Christopher Guest movies, “The” bands, Whole Foods, Nordic furniture, and Obama. And, somehow, it manages to capture those tastes surprisingly well, indulging the shared disdain for certain mainstream pastimes (say, television) to nail the exceptions (say, The Wire.) In fact, it does it so well you should consider yourself warned: you may end up feeling like a far too common, albeit culturally elitist, walking clichè. Do you have bad memories of high school? Listen to public radio? Got a lot of t-shirts? Hate “The Man”? Recycle? Then you’re a figurative “white person.” They even got us on the Michel Gondry front. Shame. See the full list, then join us in a disillusioned head-down retreat to the “white person” factory. But, in all seriousness, this is easily the smartest blog we’ve come across in a long time. Between all the “affectionate stereotyping” and the captivating, witty voice, it somehow manages to ask all the big questions of identity, society, culture, politics and life. Plato couldn’t have done it better himself — despite his quintessential ancient white personness.

LARGER THAN LIFE

Campaign for Real BeautySpeaking of social trends, could fat be the new phat? We’re not talking about the acclaimed but oh-so-over- discussed Real Women of Dove, who are actually quite the hot stuff. We’re talking way, um, realer.

Like the “models” British celeb megaboober Katie Pierce, who goes by the alter ego Jordan, used in the launch of her eponymous lingerie line. The 29-year-old Anna-Nicolesque Brit tapped girls from her fan club to do the job — we’re resisting a joke about her “biggest admirers.” Unsuccessfully.

bigballet.png Then there’s the Big Ballet — another U.K. phenomenon that, Turkey Lake jokes aside, has been said to put good ol’ skinny ballet acts to shame. In fact, the tour has gotten so big the ensemble is extremely hard to book.

But, really, there’s a King Pin in fat town. Big Fat Deal has been around since 2004, dissecting with snark and irreverence the pop culture portrayals of weight and “hottyness.”

But the blog, written by the mysterious duo of Weetabix and mo pie, has enjoyed a recent spike in popularity. It’s even got a Facebook group. We’re pretty ambivalent about the premise here — BFD works under the “fat acceptance” mantra — given our tax dollars are paying for the costs of obesity. But we must admit good questions are being asked and good points are being made. Like how come fat women feel betrayed when a fat celebrity gets back into shape? And why are fat people expected to slim down, but get mocked when they exercise?

Trans-fat-loaded food for thought, have a bite.

MEMOIRS OF NOSTRADAMUS

We like the present. Mostly because it’s a lot like us: egocentric. So we’ve always dug indulgences like Today In Music History. But because we’re all about making people uncomfortable this week, we turn to times when the present was less of a gift: a “today in disaster history” dose of morbidity brought to you by The Living Almanac of Disasters.

Earthquakes. Fires. Floods. Crashes. Eruptions. Collisions. Bombings. It’s got it all. Twenty-eight years ago today, for example, 22 members of the US boxing team died in a crash in Poland. Or on our birthday, when in 1945 the Empire State Building took its first hit by an airplane.

So check your birthday. Your anniversary. (Like you need another disaster on that date.) The day you lost your virginity. Hey, let’s go crazy: the day you had your first prostate exam. Superstition stopping you? Phsh.

UNTRIVIA

brainiac.gif If all the disaster talk got you paranoid, here’s a refreshing reality check about what could actually kill you and with what likelihood. Because common availability bias (our tendency to overestimate the statistical prevalence of things we’re bombarded with in the media or have experienced ourselves) can really do a number on your objectivity. So here are your chances of dying from select non-health-related causes in the U.S.:

  • Motor vehicle accident: 1 in 100
  • Homicide: 1 in 300
  • Fire: 1 in 800
  • Firearms accident: 1 in 2,500
  • Electrocution: 1 in 5,000
  • Asteroid/comet impact: 1 in 20,000
  • Passenger in aircraft accident: 1 in 20,000
  • Flood: 1 in 30,000
  • Tornado: 1 in 60,000
POLICE POLICE

And now for some real controversy — how much transparency should there be in government? According to Rate My Cop, an online forum where people voice raves and rants about police officers, a lot.

Under the tagline “You have the right to remain informed,” the privately-held website aims to do just that — keep citizens informed about the positives and negatives of the police force serving them. Because, after all, the police is a public service — so giving the public a say is only natural. Especially in light of the infamous Cop vs. Skater video of uncalled for police brutality that garnered over 4 million views in under a month.

The site encourages people to rate — anonymously but responsibly — each encounter they have with a police officer. And while we dig the concept of citizen empowerment through information and conversation, we wonder whether in this day and age of American Idol text voting and mass bandwagoning just for the sake of it, rating something as serious as the national police force may become a petty game of saying anything just to avoid saying nothing.

URGE TO PURGE

120 Funny Swastika Cartoons Our product pick this week is the latest book by famed New Yorker cartoonist S. Gross. We Have Ways of Making You Laugh: 120 Funny Swastika Cartoons is, from the paradoxically comic title to the very last page of stellar artwork, an exercise in purging some of history’s heaviest burdens through humor.

In the publisher’s own words: “These witty, beautifully rendered images gleefully stomp through the darkest moments in history and remind us that humor can diffuse our unspoken fears and deflate an overwrought icon.”

Which resonates nicely with one of our favorite quotes by author and humorist Mary Hirsch. “Humor is a rubber sword — ” she says, “it allows you to make a point without drawing blood.” That, and it’s funnier than watching other people’s cats fall in toilets on YouTube.

LITTLE CHOP OF HORRORS

Found Saw disturbing? Thought No Country For Old Men was gratuitously violent? Then don’t go anywhere near what’s already being dubbed this year’s most disturbing film: Funny Games. It’s the latest work in English by acclaimed Austrian director Michael Haneke of Caché fame, starring (of course) the supreme Naomi Watts.

It’s about a well-off all-American family forced to make excruciating decisions about each other’s fates as they are all taken hostage by a ruthless duo of psychotic young misanthropes. And it’s already making waves in the critics circles.

Now, we’ve done a few brief stints in the psychology of violence and its effects on human thought, especially children. So we’re often thrown off by the gratuitous violence of today’s entertainment. But it’s interesting to see something that puts violence in the context of moral choice, making people extremely uncomfortable not by virtue of the violence itself but by posing the big, uncomfortable human questions.

Get uncomfortable starting March 14 at a theater near you.

OUTMANNING THE MAN

As if there isn’t enough controversy in today’s music industry already, one artist is doing the unthinkable: Jill Sobule is asking fans to fund her next record. That’s all the clearly talented singer-songwriter could do after she got dumped by two major record labels and two indie ones went bankrupt on her tenure. (Her ego must be on life support.)

She’s offering 12 levels of “pledges” fans can donate to: for $10, you get a digital download of the album once it’s made; at the $200 “silver level,” you get free admission to all her shows this year; then there’s the $500 “gold level” wherein Jill gets to mention your name in a song — you can upgrade that to the $750 “gold doubloons level,” which Jill says is “exactly like the gold level, but you give [her] more money.” (Gotta love it.) Or, you can go all-out with the $10,000 “weapons-grade plutonium level” in which you get to actually sing on her CD.

 width= We give her points for extreme inventiveness. But points don’t get you published — she set a $75,000 goal. Well, guess what — in a little over a month, she more than met it and capped out at $80,782. How’s that for proving Kevin Kelly’s brilliant 1000 True Fans theory right?

And we must say this ultimate power-to-the-people thing is pretty awesome — traditionally, fans have always played a huge role in the music industry because their buying power ultimately decides what succeeds. But why not empower them even further back in the music production process, letting them decide not just what sells but also what gets made in the first place? Smart, we say, smart.

IMAGE AND LIKENESS

Alison Jackson has been on our radar for quite some time. We weren’t sure what to make of her work — she shoots celebrity lookalikes in classic paparazzi scenarios to a strikingly realistic effect, indulging us with what we secretly hope to see our favorite celebs doing. But then we heard her rather thought-provoking TED talk (aren’t they all?) and had a thought:

Her work is being criticized for glorifying the cheap business of tabloid and celebrity even more, but it actually does the very opposite: it makes us really think about why we’re drawn to celebrity culture in the first place. It makes all those pop culture idols seem like nothing more than packageable images. And it’s those superficial images we consume, not the real values of the people behind them — otherwise, why would lookalikes elicit the same emotional responses from us that real celebrity snapshots do?

Take a peek.