Friday, June 07, 2002

HOMELAND INSECURITY - PART ONE: Faced with the challenge of making our security agencies more accountable, George W. Bush has proposed to revise the organization chart. Is this supposed to make me feel more secure?

On the contrary -- I now have a pretty good idea why Bush failed as a businessman in the private sector. This is pure Pointy Haired Boss territory. This is not merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic -- it's rearranging the seat assignments on Flight 93.

Let's put it this way: When the Commandant of the Coast Guard reports to Tom Ridge instead of Norman Minetta, will he be any better equipped to stop the suicidal lunatic with the suitcase nuke from steering his skiff under the Brooklyn Bridge?

The problem isn't with the lines of responsibility on the organization chart. The problem is with the names pasted in the boxes. The self-righteous career bureaucrats -- whose indifference, incompetence and criminal negligence caused the problem in the first place -- have got to go.

When I hear that John Ashcroft has decided to "spend more time with his family," I'll start to feel a little bit more secure again.

Thursday, June 06, 2002

Dee Dee, you idiot.

Wednesday, June 05, 2002

ROCK IS DEAD - PART ONE: The recording industry is in the toilet. USA Today reports that "in 2001, album sales dropped 2.8% compared with 2000, the first dip since SoundScan began tracking sales in 1991. The gap widened in this year's first quarter, when sales fell 8.3% from the same period in 2001, far steeper than the 1.2% drop from 2000 to 2001.

Happy Fun Pundit adds this observation:

The problem today is that groups with real talent aren't being allowed to grow. Many classic artists started out slowly in record sales, and some never had big hits at all when they were making records. It took a large body of work to establish a fan base.

Consider The Grateful Dead. Their only top-10 hit, "A Touch of Grey", charted 22 years and several liver operations after the band's first album. Despite the lack of individual hits, they became immensely popular and turned into an enormous cash cow on tour. Today, their albums sell better than they did when they were first released.

Had The Grateful Dead started up last year, they would have been cancelled by the record company after one or two albums, and faded into obscurity. And of course, if a record company signed The Grateful Dead today, they would have forced Jerry Garcia to change his name to 'P. Doopy Doo' or dropped him from the band because he wasn't trending well with the 12 year-old female demographic.

But Happy Fun's observation is hardly unique where the recording industry is concerned. Talent is no longer "allowed to grow" in any media! Take television. For every marginal show like Once and Again or Family Guy -- which live out their entire fragile existences "on the bubble," surviving only because it's a personal favorite of the CEO's mistress, or somesuch pretext -- there are a dozen more gems in the rough, discarded prematurely, without so much as a sigh of regret, because the desired demographic simply didn't materialize overnight.

It wasn't always thus. Critics often recall that Cheers finished dead last in the ratings at the end of its first season, and that Seinfeld wasn't a certifiable hit until its fifth year. Whereas, most shows now have 2-6 weeks to either make a splash or hang it up. The Tick may have been too outré to find a large audience, but we'll never know -- it was snuffed out with half a dozen episodes yet to air. Undeclared was written off after 17 episodes; the producers were told not even to bother filming five more that had already been bought and paid for. And if you're enjoying your weekly fix of Andy Richter Controls the Universe? Sorry -- I blinked and missed it.

I haven't followed the day-to-day goings-on in the comics industry as closely as I once did, so I can't name the names off the top of my head -- but with circulations of all the major titles dropping to levels comparable to well-financed fanzines, it's a given that no publishers are thinking in terms of building new, long-term multimedia franchises like Spider-Man anymore. It's all they can do to prop up the old ones with one relaunch after another.

And magazines? Never mind all the industry standards that grew and burst along with the dot-com bubble. If a well-financed general interest magazine like Talk couldn't be allowed five years it needed to grow to profitability, what chance does anything have?

What's the problem? Why isn't talent allowed to grow?

Well -- actually -- in at least one media, it is. Right here. For the moment, the one thing that's going like gangbusters looks to be -- blogs! For what are they, if not incubators for growing talent?

Of course, for this phenomenon to survive and flourish, idjits like me have to keep putting their energies into these things for virtually zero compensation, while we let our unfinished spec screenplays and other professional pursuits languish. But then, neither do I have a million-dollar investment riding on the success or failure of Mind Over What Matters, nor am I in direct competition for "hits" with all those people whose links appear at right. My career won't suffer if I skip a week of blogging, or if this guy's blog starts getting more traffic than mine.

And we'll see -- if I stick with this thing long enough, it'll pay off in sufficiently improved skills and name recognition, so that I have a prayer of getting an agent to read my screenplay one day.

Which brings us back to the music business -- and it seems so obvious!. What they need to allow the talent to grow is the audio equivalent of blogs. In other words, MP3 file sharing systems -- entities like Napster -- through which young talent can circulate their gems in the rough, for free.

And wouldn't you know? The RIAA simply won't have it! Go figure.

Short-sighted? Try hard-wired for extinction.

It's as though DC Comics had used legal threats and intimidation to snuff out a Batman fanzine with a circultion of barely 1,000. As though Disney was determined to prevent anyone from painting unauthorized pictures of Uncle Scrooge. As though 20th Century Fox was bent on crushing the spirit of its fan base by shutting down amateur websites devoted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Oh -- that's right -- all those things actually happened, too. Yet the other media giants have not lately been extremists in the defense of their properties. For all the bluster heard lately about the evils of selling used books on Amazon, no public libraries have been shut down by fanatical book publishers in the name of protecting authors' royalties. DC and Marvel Comics have never colluded, behind the veneer of a "trade organization," to lobby Congress for the authority to shut down all fanzines for all time. Meanwhile, Paramount is well aware of all the "slash" fan fiction websites in which various Star Trek characters are often depicted boldly going where no manhood has gone before -- and yet these Mary Sues have been pretty much left alone.

Only the recording industry is determined to prevent its fans from having any fun whatsoever. Only the recording industry demands that its fans queue up in rigid, single-file formations in front of Wal-mart to buy their CDs, take them home to enjoy them privately -- on one sole sanctioned device -- never to share their experience with someone else. Only the recording industry seems determined to reinvent popular culture altogther, no longer to be a collective experience, but one of solitude.

It's not going very far out on a limb to predict that these efforts are doomed to failure in the long run. After all, the whole point of popular culture is sharing -- being part of a community. Everyone needs to belong; and popular culture is the fiber that binds us together. Desperate though they may be to protect their empires now, sooner or later Big Music must acknowlege reality -- that they're fighting the bad fight, against a million years of genetically hard-wired evolution. Genes want to propigate. Information wants to be shared.

The recording industry cannot survive in any recognizable form if it is no longer willing or able to incubate new talent -- not unless some other entity is allowed to do it for them. And when they finally concede that Napster was the best culture-sharing, talent-growing tool they've every suffocated in its crib -- when they allow new Napsters to live and breathe freely -- more new artists will again develop large followings, and sales will rise accordingly.

Of course the RIAA will continue to resist. Every outfit on this list may see their offices paved over for parlking lots before any sea change takes place. But it will only take a few more years of 10% declines for that to happen. And few will weep when no one remembers what WEA stood for.