Monday, December 17, 2012

Patent trolls of indie rock

Long ago, the patent system was set up to encourage innovation by protecting intellectual property rights. The process of awarding a patent was typically straightforward, since every invention was some kind of physical contraption that performed some obviously useful function. So you either invented something or you didn't, and a roomful of engineers was all that the patent office needed to make a sound judgment on that.

A few decades ago, the nature of innovation began to change. As new concepts and methods were being devised that were every bit as groundbreaking as the telegraph a century prior, patents started to be filed for algorithms and software that only a handful of specialists in newly established fields could understand. Overwhelmed, the patent office awarded quite a few of them, including some so broadly and vaguely worded that their holders could conceivably claim ownership of the entire Internet.

And some now do. They're called patent trolls, and they make their living by buying up old patents and filing frivolous lawsuits. These patent trolls produce nothing of value themselves, which makes them impervious to countersuit, so most companies decide to settle rather than risk lengthy injunctions. Cautionary tales abound of scrappy startups that chose to fight instead, spent years in legal limbo, and eventually won their case, but then had to file for bankruptcy because of expensive lawyer fees.

By exploiting a loophole in a system designed to encourage innovation, patent trolls end up stifling it instead. But here's the thing: they're not breaking any laws. Nothing is underhanded, and everything is transparent. In fact, they operate completely within the system, which means that the system guarantees--and is synonymous with--their well-being, much as walking barefoot on the beach guarantees and is synonymous with getting sand between your toes.

So this is when we step back and ask ourselves, do we value the patent system as it presently stands, or do we value its original intent? Pretty much everyone agrees that we should be rewarding innovators, not patent trolls. Ultimately, we care about the spirit underlying the patent system, not the patent system itself. And so changes will have to be made.

In my lifetime, I've seen two similar situations happen in the world of rock music. The first has been resolved; the second, I think, is still being decided.

The first situation is the glam metal phenomenon that reached its peak in the late 80s. It's easy to forget now, but glam actually made sense when it first began in the early 70s. While its androgyny questioned gender roles, the theatrical nature of it helped keep the subversion lighthearted. But a generation later, long-haired men wearing lipstick and tight leather pants were singing about picking fights and sleeping with groupies. And earnestly living that lifestyle, or trying to. Glam, in other words, was overrun by trolls, who no longer reflected its original intent.

There were some who were comfortable with this, but the ones whose opinions actually mattered--the next generation seeking new aesthetics and ideals to call their own--were not. These kids wanted rebellion and progressive values, not teased perms and lipstick. And so glam metal died, not because grunge killed it, but because it had lost sight of its underlying spirit, alienating those entrusted with keeping it alive.

The second situation is indie rock today. Like glam, indie rock made sense when it first began in the 80s, as a reaction against lifeless, watered-down radio tunes catering to the lowest common denominator. Everyday kids, unburdened by corporate concerns, were forming bands with their friends, playing at parties and local shows, and defying artistic boundaries without pretense. Through mixtapes and word-of-mouth, they promoted and distributed their own music, and this independence is what came to define the genre.

A generation later, though, things look very different, with self-promotion now being the primary focus. While not totally devalued, daringness and originality--indie rock's original intent--are simply taken as self-evident virtues possessed by those with the conviction to promote themselves. But this creates an obvious loophole: an artist focused solely on self-promotion suffers no damage, and therefore enjoys a huge advantage over those diverting at least some effort towards making music of value. And once a loophole is known, a patent troll will come along to exploit it. Some now have.

I'll mention only the most extreme and obvious one: Andrew W.K. I don't feel good calling anyone a troll, except that his biggest fans already do so. No one, these fans included, credits his music with being daring or original--rather, he's respected for the conviction and passion with which he promotes himself. And even when begrudgingly given by his critics, that respect is always genuine. Why is this? It should be obvious: once you've embraced the system for what it now is--a scene that celebrates and rewards self-promotion--then you have to stay at least somewhat charitable to those who take this ideal to its logical conclusion by only self-promoting.

Because, like it or not, these trolls operate completely within the system. Nothing is underhanded, and everything is transparent. And certainly very little is at stake, in a genre where innovation not only hasn't been seen for some time, it hasn't been missed. Which means it's perfectly okay to admire Andrew W.K. for his sincerity, and possibly even mean-spirited not to. So while Pitchfork initially gave I Get Wet a scathing 0.6 ten years ago, this year they gave its reissue a glowing 8.6 review.

In other words, the lesson Pitchfork managed to learn sometime within the last decade is that you can love the trolls at best or tolerate them at worst, but the one thing you simply cannot do--at least not without looking downright silly--is denounce them while still trying to embrace the system. Because the one is guaranteed by--and therefore synonymous with--the other. You might as well flip out because there's sand between your toes after walking barefoot on the beach.

So Pitchfork has grown comfortable with what indie rock has become: a system that now exists for its own sake, rather than that of its underlying spirit. But what about those whose opinions will matter most in the future--the next generation seeking new aesthetics and ideals to call their own? I suppose that depends on whether it's even possible for any new subculture to be attractive enough to replace indie rock. So here's a thought experiment. If indie rock is the new glam metal, then what will the new grunge look and sound like?

I can think of one possible suggestion, but that will have to wait for another blog post.

Addendum, December 17, 2012: A thought came to me as I was finishing this up. In Robert Cialdini's book Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, he mentions a curious phenomenon related to mother turkeys, who feed and coddle their young in response to hearing them chirp. This instinct evolved, of course, as an efficient way for the mother to reserve time and resources for only her healthiest babies.

What some scientists discovered is that if they placed a stuffed polecat nearby, the mother turkey would try to defend her chicks by attacking it. When they placed a tape recorder playing chirps inside the stuffed polecat, however, she would coddle and feed it instead. Then once the tape stopped, she would go back to attacking it.

It's strange behaviour, but of course nature knows what it's doing. Brainpower is very expensive in terms of the energy it consumes, so the turkey's mothering instinct is optimised to get the best results using the least brainpower. It's a perfectly efficient system overall, and a few trolls exploiting its loopholes--in this case, scientists wielding stuffed polecats that chirp--can never come close to undermining it.

All of this is to say that I'm probably not being fair in my brief assessment of the current situation in indie rock. Obviously, people in this scene didn't suddenly decide to kick daringness and originality to the curb. Rather, they're overworked and underpaid, which means that time and energy are precious resources that can't be spent on finding new bands that aren't readily visible. And since the best bands have the most to gain by promoting themselves and staying visible, then a system that equates self-promotion with being good is probably the optimal one for giving us the best results for the least effort.

The alternative would be to search under every rock to find those few bands that are good but for some weird reason don't promote themselves. That would be painfully tedious and time-consuming. Like giving more brainpower to a turkey, the slight improvement in results wouldn't justify the extreme costs required to close the system's loopholes. Besides, how hard is it to self-promote, really? So if indie rock is a perfectly efficient system overall, then we can afford to embrace those few trolls who manage to exploit its loopholes. After all, they keep things interesting and fun.

The problem, of course, lies in the assumption that it actually is an efficient system. Is it really? After all, time and energy are limited resources, so the more a band invests in self-promotion, the less it's able to invest in making music. And then there's the Dunning-Kruger effect, which shows that the least competent people are oftentimes the most self-confident, precisely because their incompetence prevents them from recognising that they're incompetent. And self-confident people are the ones most willing to promote themselves.

So I guess we'll never know for sure, until some new music label comes along that's willing to do things fundamentally differently. Or until enough people actually bother to consider how the history of music has played out for the last five hundred years. Either one.

Anyway, I don't think any of this contradicts what I was saying earlier. It just clarifies and refines my original point.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Waiting out "sitcom good"

As everyone in the startup world knows by now, the most successful ideas challenge our basic assumptions about how things might be done. Because they don't fit any existing standards for what counts as good when we first hear about them, by default we judge them as bad. For instance, Hewlett-Packard famously turned down Steve Wozniak's idea of an affordable computer to be kept at home for personal use. So if you're looking to invest in startups, or to find co-founders interested in starting one, it helps to keep in mind that startup ideas that sound plausible usually fail, while one that sounds awful might actually change history for the better.

In his latest essay, Paul Graham illustrates this point by imagining the kind of startup a sitcom character might start. If the underlying idea of the startup were truly daring and original, then the audience wouldn't understand it, or worse, they would mistake it for one intended to sound laughably bad. So instead, the sitcom writers would probably choose to piece together elements of familiar successes from the recent past--for example, a social network for pet owners--to convey the impression of a daring and original idea. But of course, this is exactly the kind of startup that is least likely to succeed in real life. "Sitcom good," in other words, doesn't mean "real-life good."

Graham's point reminds me of the time I watched High Fidelity a while back. In the movie, Jack Black's character is always asking his friends to come to his shows, but each time they politely decline because his band has a terrible name. Towards the end of the movie, however, they finally go see him play, and he wows them all with a faithful rendition of a Marvin Gaye song. As it turns out--to no one's surprise in the audience, of course--his band is actually really, really good.

Except I was disappointed, because I was expecting "real-life good," not just "movie good." In other words, good enough to impress in real life the kind of music snob played by John Cusack in the movie. But then I realized I was being unfair. Had the screenwriters actually called for Jack Black's band to be "real-life good"--as in daring and original for its time--the audience wouldn't have understood it, or worse, they would have mistaken it for something intended to sound laughably bad. So instead, they had to call for something familiar to convey the impression of a band good enough to wow everyone present. "Movie good," in other words, doesn't mean "real-life good."

In the past decade or so, file sharing and streaming media have changed the nature of how we hear about and listen to new music. There is now a palpable feeling in the air that not only are we watching history being written in real time, but we are all helping to write it. So as history's screenwriters, we need to advance the plot every now and then with the discovery of new bands making daring and original music. What might such music sound like?

For starters, it can't sound like anything anyone would mistake for laughably bad. Black youth from the Bronx delivering spoken rhymes over scratched turntables and sampled beats, for instance, wouldn't have flown thirty years ago. Instead, the most plausible candidates would probably piece together elements of familiar successes from the recent past. So the key to finding them would be to stay alert and informed enough to know in advance what the next big thing will be, and then once we spot them, to single them out with surgical precision.

A perfect example might be this description of Bon Iver from a Pitchfork review: "There's something irresistible about the thought of a bearded dude from small-town Wisconsin retreating heartbroken to a cabin to write some songs." But of course it's irresistible--it would be instantly recognisable in any sitcom or movie as the backstory for some mysterious, misunderstood character whom we all wish to be, or be with, in real life. And of course the music itself doesn't disappoint, hitting all the right tropes that convey beautiful and heartfelt to us. So Bon Iver is "sitcom good." Heck, he might even be "sitcom best."

This is not to argue that it's cynical in its emotional appeal. Of course listening to Bon Iver is a genuinely moving experience, just like Jack Black's channeling of Marvin Gaye was a truly masterful performance. But we're being asked to take on faith that the bands we've chosen for our times aren't just good enough to be written into History (the script), but actually daring and original enough to be remembered by history (the actual thing). And that's where it gets problematic.

Because, as with startups, lowercase history recognises bands as good not because we say so and then root for them to succeed, but because market forces demand that they be reckoned with. These markets don't need to be financial, mind you; they can be cultural, intellectual, and social as well. After all, Reddit and Wikipedia don't make much profit, just like the Velvet Underground still doesn't sell many records. But people use Reddit and Wikipedia because their services are extremely useful, and people still talk about the Velvet Underground because there's so much to say about them. These are things we actually want, sometimes in spite of ourselves; we don't just want to want them.

And the startup world now knows this. It recognises that history can't be written in real time. History is simply made, by people and events that no one expects, and to believe that greater awareness and more experience can help one get better at predicting the future is to completely misunderstand how innovation and progress work. By definition, we can't expect the unexpected. Instead, the key to preparing for the daring and original ideas of the future is to stay open-minded, dismiss nothing by default, and always diversify, taking enough smart risks so that many small failures can be offset by a few large successes. Much like how the major labels operated in their heyday, come to think of it--minus the heartless part, of course.

But here's the depressing thing. It took the startup world decades to learn this lesson, and only after seeing numerous instances of smart, influential people not initially getting the point of personal computers, web-based email, micropayments, camera phones, and so on. Indie rock, by contrast, not only hasn't even taken a first step towards understanding this yet, but for the past few decades has been teaching itself the completely opposite lesson that tomorrow's pioneers can be anticipated and chosen in advance. So Bon Iver's entry into the mainstream, which wowed few outside this scene, has been tallied a roaring success, while Pitchfork's recent People's List--in which indie rock kids overwhelmingly favoured a major-label band whose rise to critical acclaim could never have been anticipated or guided along by the indie labels--doesn't seem to have inspired any real soul-searching here.

But even once indie rock finally does experience its definitive "Hewlett-Packard turning down Steve Wozniak" moment, most likely it will still be decades before people in this scene start to figure out how innovation and progress actually work, and that history just can't be written in real time. Until then, they will continue to insist that the key to discovering daring and original music is simply to stay alert and informed enough to call it before it happens. Good in indie rock, in other words, is going to mean "sitcom good" for a long, long time to come.

So if you're interested in hearing the daring and original bands of our times, you might want to dust off some old vinyl records for now. Maybe take up knitting.

Because you're in for quite a wait...

Addendum, December 17, 2012: Yes, Bon Iver certainly has a market, but markets can be artificially inflated. When an indie band is granted exposure to the mainstream and wins a Grammy, only to then suffer an immediate backlash while failing to gain widespread support or recognition, it can probably be said to have had its cultural worth inflated somewhat by various insiders and press.

By contrast, the latest teen pop stars are not an artificially inflated market, because no major label signs them believing in their longevity to begin with. Releasing a few singles that sell millions before fading into obscurity is exactly what they were meant to do all along.

I'm not saying that Bon Iver can't eventually make history. The market for his music will now correct itself by deflating somewhat, yes, but he'll have the spotlight for a long time, along with multiple chances to get it right. And to be clear, I do agree that his music is beautiful. It's just that it isn't capable of maintaining cultural relevance on its own without the crutch of indie rock's hopes and values to prop it up.

Doing without such crutches, though, is exactly what needs to happen for any artist to be historically memorable. Today's mainstream and tomorrow's history might share few similar priorities, but the one thing they definitely do have in common is a complete disregard for what indie rock wants them to want.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Of future Joyces and judiciaries

If you're reasonably intelligent and come from a stable, middle-class upbringing, it's probably not all that hard to make your mark as an individual by creating or inventing something truly unprecedented and meaningful. As long as you're willing to forsake a life of security, comfort, and enjoyment, my hunch is that it's actually fairly easy.

But that's just the thing. You only get one life to live. And if you're already guaranteed one that's secure, comfortable, and enjoyable, why on earth would you gamble it away for some vague and foolhardy ambition, the full implications of which nobody in this world, including yourself, will recognize for a long time to come, even if--and that's a big "if"--you actually do succeed?

After all, if you're doing something truly unprecedented, then there's no metric that yet exists to value what you've just done, no established system to reward you or give you full credit. If you're lucky, you might see your achievements acknowledged within your lifetime. But to a degree that correlates with all your time and effort spent, and relative to what they'll be worth for all humanity to come? Definitely not.

Here's a thought experiment. It took James Joyce fourteen years to write Ulysses. What if you could be guaranteed the same impact on the world that Joyce had, and all it would cost you is fourteen years of your life spent working full-time on your project?

There are caveats, of course. You wouldn't be paid while you're doing it, so you'd either have to hold down a real job as well, or else have others willing to support you. You'd miss out on opportunities that only come once in life, when you're young and spry. You wouldn't have many relationships to fondly look back upon, if any. And you might be very, very unhappy for long, long stretches of time.

So would you sacrifice fourteen years of your life for the guarantee of being the next James Joyce in your chosen craft or field? Quite honestly? Probably not, if there's an easier and more fulfilling path to take. You only get one life to live, and fourteen years makes up a huge chunk of it. Once those years are gone, they're really, really gone. And so, paradoxically, if you've been blessed with the resources to be the next Joyce, you're probably also smart enough and privileged enough to choose the much better option of not being the next Joyce.

Which is why history is disproportionately shaped by misfits straddling the borders of respectable society. Music of the last century, for example, is overrepresented by Jews, gays, and blacks, and it's not hard to see why. Given just enough opportunity to know what the good life can be, but denied the opportunity to actually live it for themselves, they had to direct their skills and resources elsewhere. In other words, history is disproportionately made by those who weren't really wanted in their own time.

The celebrated theme of our time, however--which many are counting on to be its defining legacy--is that the Internet is making the world increasingly democratic by putting everything up for popular vote, allowing us to surround ourselves further in the things and people that we really, really do want--in place of those we simply don't.

This is problematic, because it's not how history works. But what's most absurd is that this isn't even how democracy works! Every truly democratic government on this planet includes an unelected judicial branch that is accountable solely to justice, reason, and sanity, not to popular sentiment. Any system without such a check in place is not only not a democracy, it is indistinguishable from mob rule.

So until the Internet systematically allows for an unelected judiciary--in the guise of individuals we trust to act as informed curators and gatekeepers--then it isn't actually democratizing anything. And this is such a huge problem that, quite frankly, how we end up tackling it will be remembered as the true defining legacy of the 21st century.

I honestly believe this. Who's with me?