Five years ago, I wrote about how I transcribe audio with Amazon's Mechanical Turk, splitting interviews into small segments and distributing the work among dozens of anonymous people. It ended up as one of my most popular posts ever, continuing to draw traffic and comments every day.
Lately, I've been toying with a free, fast way to generate machine transcriptions: repurposing YouTube's automatic captions feature.
How It Works
Every time you upload a video, YouTube tries to generate a caption file. If there's audible text, you can grab a subtitle file within a few minutes of uploading the video.
But how's the quality? Pretty mediocre! It's about as good as you'd expect from a free machine-generated transcript. The caption files have no punctuation between sentences, speakers aren't broken out separately, and errors are very common.
But if you're transcribing interviews, it's often easier to edit a flawed transcript than starting from scratch. And YouTube provides a solid interface for editing your transcript audio and getting the results in plaintext.
It took about 30 seconds for TunesToTube to generate the 15-minute-long video, three seconds to upload it, and about a minute for the video to be viewable on my account.
It takes a bit more time for YouTube to generate the audio transcriptions. Testing in the middle of a weekday, it took about six minutes to transcribe a two-minute video, and around 30 minutes for the 15-minute video. Fortunately, there's nothing you need to do while it processes. Just upload and wait.
I ran a number of familiar film monologues through the YouTube's transcription engine, and the results vary from solid to laughably bad. I've posted the videos below with the automatic transcription and their actual text.
As you'd expect, it works best with clear enunciation and spoken word. Soft words over background music, like in the Breakfast Club clip, falls apart pretty quick. But some, like Independence Day, aren't terrible.Continue reading...
It's Oscar piracy season, that time of the year where screeners of newly-released critical darlings are leaked online as DVD and Blu-Ray screeners are sent out around the world to Academy voters and secretly loaned to their friends and relatives.
Today, I got a tip that there was a very unusual watermark in the screener of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty that leaked online today. I dug it up, and sure enough, a very familiar name pops up in the first scene of the screener. I made a GIF of it:
Oh, Ellen! If the watermark's accurate, this screener belonged to Ellen DeGeneres. But was it actually an Oscar screener? Probably not.
The watermark shows that the screener was created on November 26, 2013. According to Ken Rudolph's Academy screener list, he received the Walter Mitty DVD screener via UPS on December 19.
That's a pretty huge gap, indicating that Ellen's screener wasn't for Oscar consideration, but instead given to her for review in advance of Ben Stiller's December 4 appearance on her show.
Of course, there's a chance, albeit small, that this watermark was added by someone besides 20th Century Fox — by someone trying to hide the identity of the actual source, maybe.
More likely, the watermark is accurate and Ellen's screener simply ended up in the wrong hands. A postal worker, one of her employees, friend, family member, or countless others in the production and distribution chain could be responsible for ripping the DVD and putting it online.
It's very common for screeners to leak, but rare for a celebrity's name to be identified as the source. In 2011, a screener copy of Super 8 leaked online with Howard Stern's name clearly watermarked on it. Stern vehemently denied leaking the film on air.
Curious to see if Ellen responds the same way.
As usual, I'll update my spreadsheet of Oscar screener piracy statistics as soon as the nominees are announced on the morning of January 16.
Update: GoldieBlox removed the original video and posted a public apology. See below for updates.
Everyone thinks they know how copyright works, and everyone's usually wrong. Who can blame them? It's often counterintuitive, inconsistent, and riddled with grey areas and edge cases.
And no area of copyright law is more confusing than fair use, deliberately designed to be judged in court on a case-by-case basis without any "bright line" tests to guide the way.
The test for fair use is a balancing act of four factors, but how they're weighed is often subjective, determined by a judge. Different judges rule differently on similar fair use cases, and circuit courts commonly reverse fair use rulings from district courts on appeal.
If even judges can't agree on fair use, what chance do the rest of us have of understanding it?
In fair use, there's no silver bullet and exceptions are the norm. Some parodies are fair use, others aren't. Commercial use can weigh against a fair use ruling, but there are many notable commercial exceptions. Using a substantial amount of the original artwork can hurt your case, other times it doesn't matter. Damaging the market value of an original artwork can hurt your claim or, as with parodies, it may not matter at all.
So, how does that play out in GoldieBlox v. Beastie Boys?
It's entirely possible that the GoldieBlox video is simultaneously:
- A parody
- An advertisement
- A derivative of the Beastie Boys' copyrighted work
- A violation of MCA's dying wishes
- And, yet, perfectly legal under the fair use doctrine.
Only a judge can decide whether GoldieBlox's parody is fair use. And, until they do and all the appeals are closed, none of us will know.
In the meantime, let's bust some myths!
Disclaimer: Hey, I'm not a lawyer either. But I've been writing about copyright here for over ten years and dealt with several copyright disputes myself, including my tangle with fair use from Kind of Bloop. I'm going to try to avoid any conjecture here, and stick to actual case law. If I miss something, please let me know.
Myth: The Beastie Boys sued GoldieBlox.
The Beastie Boys were quick to debunk this one themselves in their open letter. "When we tried to simply ask how and why our song 'Girls' had been used in your ad without our permission," they wrote, "YOU sued US."
But GoldieBlox filed a very particular type of lawsuit, a declaratory judgement. Unlike typical lawsuits, GoldieBlox isn't seeking damages. They're asking the court to issue an opinion without ordering Beastie Boys to do anything in particular or pay damages, beyond possibly their own legal expenses.
This appears confusingly aggressive, but it's a common tactic when threatened with a copyright lawsuit. If it works, the court's clarification can save the time and money spent fighting an expensive trial. You may remember Robin Thicke reluctantly suing Marvin Gaye's family, when they threatened to take him to court over "Blurred Lines." Same deal.
Update: Yesterday, on December 10, the Beastie Boys filed a countersuit. So now they actually are suing GoldieBlox.
Myth: It's an advertisement, so it's not fair use.
More than any other, I've seen this myth repeated everywhere. Can a company parody a famous artist's work and use it, against their will, to advertise an unrelated product? Actually, yes, as long as the use is transformative enough.
The most famous case is the Naked Gun advertisement below, a parody of photographer Annie Leibovitz's famous portrait of Demi Moore for Vanity Fair.
If you care about this sort of thing, the District Court's decision is a fantastic, and surprisingly readable, breakdown of the history of parody and fair use.
In her decision, Judge Preska noted that the landmark 2 Live Crew case, settled by the Supreme Court only two years earlier, set a new precedent for deciding fair use cases.
In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that commercial use does not preclude a finding of fair use, so long as the work is "transformative" — does it add value to the original material and use it for a different purpose, such as criticism or parody?
Delivering the opinion of the Supreme Court, Justice Souter wrote, "The goal of copyright, to promote science and the arts, is generally furthered by the creation of transformative works... The more transformative the new work, the less will be the significance of other factors, like commercialism, that may weigh against a finding of fair use."
Later in the ruling, Justice Souter specifically addressed parodies in advertising. He wrote, "The use, for example, of a copyrighted work to advertise a product, even in a parody, will be entitled to less indulgence under the first factor of the fair use enquiry, than the sale of a parody for its own sake."
In the Naked Gun case, armed with this new precedent, the District Court decided in Paramount Pictures' favor:
"I can only reconcile these disparate elements by returning to the core purpose of copyright: to foster the creation and dissemination of the greatest number of creative works. The end result of the Nielsen ad parodying the Moore photograph is that the public now has before it two works, vastly different in appeal and nature, where before there was only one."
Annie Leibovitz appealed, but the 2nd Circuit Court affirmed the decision, saying, "On balance, the strong parodic nature of the ad tips the first factor significantly toward fair use, even after making some discount for the fact that it promotes a commercial product."
So, in the GoldieBlox case, the court will decide whether the parody's criticism of "Girls" sexist lyrics outweigh its commercial nature. The EFF believes they will, and given the existing precedent, they may be right.
Myth: GoldieBlox stole from the Beastie Boys.
First off, infringement is not theft. These are two completely different terms with different meanings. If GoldieBlox stole something, the Beastie Boys wouldn't have it anymore.
Second, it's worth noting that GoldieBlox didn't sample from the original song. (If they had, this would be a very different lawsuit.) Their parody was recorded with new instrumentation, vocals, and lyrics.
GoldieBlox used the composition to create a derivative work. Because it was unlicensed and created without permission, that new work may infringe the Beastie Boys' copyright. This lawsuit will determine whether it's infringement or fair use.
But however you look at it, it's not stealing.
Myth: The Beastie Boys always have a right to decide how their music is used.
Usually, but not always! The Copyright Act grants broad exclusive rights to musicians to control the reproduction, performance, and distribution of their work for an absurdly long time—70 years after their death.
But there are a number of exceptions. Musicians can't, for example, stop the secondhand sale of their albums or stop people from covering their songs.
Similarly, fair use is an exception to those exclusive rights. If someone can defend their use of a song in court, and the court rules it a fair use, then that use is legal and outside the artist's control.
Myth: Adam Yauch's will forbids using his songs in advertising, so it's illegal.
In his last will, MCA stated that "in no event may my image or name or any music or any artistic property created by me be used for advertising purposes."
By ignoring the last wishes of one of hip-hop's greatest musicians, less than two years after his death, there's a strong argument to be made that what GoldieBlox is doing is unethical. To me, it feels crass and insensitive.
But is it illegal? Not if the court finds the parody to be fair use.
This isn't a moral judgement, and this isn't copyright activism. This is the law, as it exists right now.
Myth: If this is legal, then any company can parody songs in ads for free.
The crux of this case is whether the GoldieBlox parody is transformative. The parody video's new lyrics criticize the misogynistic lyrics of the original Beastie Boys song. If it didn't, there wouldn't be a case.
Any other parody in advertising that doesn't transform the original will still need permission and pay licensing fees. Snuggie will still have to pay for their version of the Macarena because it doesn't comment or criticize the original in any way.
It's worth noting that this isn't the first time GoldieBlox used a song in an ad. This earlier ad from July rewrote some of the chorus to Queen's "We Are the Champions", but left most of it intact. I'd wager they never licensed this music either, and wouldn't really have a defense if EMI came knocking.
Undetermined: The Beastie Boys were just asking questions and GoldieBlox sued them.
Neither party has released the initial complaint letter from the Beastie Boys, so we don't know who sent the letters, the tone of the questions or what, if anything, they were demanding.
We do know that GoldieBlox claims in their lawsuit that they were contacted by "lawyers for the Beastie Boys" and the letter claimed that the video is "a copyright infringement, is not a fair use, and that GoldieBlox's unauthorized use of the Beastie Boys intellectual property is a 'big problem' that has a 'very significant impact.'"
It's possible that GoldieBlox's legal team is lying in a court filing, but it seems unlikely. More likely, the truth is somewhere in the middle. The law firm representing the Beastie Boys contacted GoldieBlox, asking for details and pushing them to delete the video. GoldieBlox felt they were in the right, and filed the request for declaratory judgment to find out.
I hope either party releases the original correspondence, it should be interesting.
Undetermined: This is all a publicity stunt.
It could be. GoldieBlox founder and CEO Debra Sterling, despite her Stanford engineering background, spent seven years as a brand strategist and marketing director before starting GoldieBlox. She definitely knows how to get publicity for her projects.
But there are certainly more affordable, less risky ways to gain publicity than filing a lawsuit. If they felt it wasn't a serious threat, they could have simply gone public with the legal threat, posting the correspondence and writing a blog post.
But there's no question this lawsuit has raised the profile of GoldieBlox, for better or worse.
The More You Know
So, who knows? This could go either way, and should be a fascinating case to watch. I'm in favor of more case law in either direction, helping draw the lines for what artists can or can't do. It can be agonizing to make something that skirts the grey areas of copyright law without knowing whether you're going to end up bankrupt.
Want to learn more?
On the Media's PJ Vogt published a great interview with Julie Ahrens, the director of Copyright & Fair Use at Stanford's Center for Internet & Society. The EFF's legal analysis is interesting, but I think they downplay the advertising issue too much. Rachel Sklar does her own fair use analysis.
Update: Last night, on November 26, GoldieBlox marked the original video private and uploaded a new version with modified music and all Beastie Boys references removed. This morning, founder and CEO Debbie Sterling posted this public letter to the Beastie Boys.
December 11: Yesterday, the Beastie Boys filed a countersuit for copyright and trademark infringement. We may see a ruling after all.
Ever wanted to hear me blather on about different subjects for hours? You're in luck! I've been invited on a number of podcasts recently, and for some reason, never mentioned it here.
This is just as much for my own records, but hey, here are all the podcasts I've spoken on lately. I just fixed your boring commute for a week!
The Crapshoot, November 14, 2013
Jesse Holden and Metafilter's Josh Millard invited me to come shoot the crap in his basement. On the ride there, I tried to pick up some Four Loko, but found something so much better—Joose, 22 ounces of 12% ABV sickly-sweet malt beverage that tastes like Jolly Rogers soaked in turpentine. We ended up chatting for nearly two hours about Kind of Bloop, XOXO, my crazy Sunset Strip childhood, and weird experiments I've run on my son. A good time was had by all.
Let's Make Mistakes, October 23, 2013
After Mule Radio's Let's Make Mistakes spent three consecutive episodes discussing this year's XOXO, cofounder Mike Monteiro asked me to come on the show. I talked about what we learned from mistakes made during our registration process, the challenges of running an inclusive event, and the value of criticism.
The New Disruptors, June 19, 2013
Leading up to XOXO, Glenn Fleishman asked Andy McMillan and me to come on the podcast that we inspired him to start the year before. We talked about the previous year and what we were planning to follow it up.
Quit!, June 19, 2013
Andy McMillan and I went on Dan Benjamin's show about quitting your day job and working on things you love, and had a great conversation about XOXO and our respective projects.
Here's three more that I've enjoyed lately:
The New Disruptors is basically XOXO: The Podcast, a weekly interview by Glenn Fleishman with indie artists and makers using the network to make a living.
Welcome to Night Vale is like NPR in the Twilight Zone, the community radio station for a fictional desert town. I'm kind of surprised how many people I talk to that still have never heard of this.
How to Do Everything, in which listeners send Mike Danforth and Ian Chillag their questions about life and they find experts to answer them.
After running XOXO for two years, and doing a bunch of talks myself at various conferences, I've seen my share of presentation slides from non-designers.
Way too often, they look something like this:
Inevitably, they use one of the two basic Keynote templates — black on white, or white on black.
I get it! You're not a designer. You're a writer, filmmaker, musician, whatever, and even learning how to make these slides was kind of a big deal for you. So you stick with the default templates.
The problem with any defaults is that they're boring and overused, which distracts from your message. They suck any life out of your story, and fixing it is so easy.
So I made a little guide with six simple tips for XOXO speakers to improve their slides in a couple minutes. I thought you might find it useful.
1. Use the right resolution.
At XOXO, we project slides on a widescreen movie-like display (a 16:9 aspect ratio, if you want to get geeky about it). But many projectors only support the standard 4:3 ratio, the default for most presentation software like Keynote and Powerpoint and your old TV.
Ask your event organizer if slides will be projected in widescreen. If so, be sure to use the 1280x720 resolution when you start your presentation. Otherwise, you'll end up with black bars on both sides of your slides.
If it's not widescreen, stick with the default 1024x768 resolution.
2. Fill the screen.
One of the most agonizing, fixable things is seeing a photo that someone placed unresized in the middle of a slide, surrounded by a sea of whitespace. Take that photo and scale it to fill every edge of the slide, even if it cuts off the edges. It'll look better, and easier to see from the back rows.
3. Move it up.
Don't put anything important in the bottom third area of your slide. Depending on your venue, there's a good chance the people in the back won't be able to see it, blocked by the heads of everyone in front of them. But this shouldn't be an issue, as long as you...
4. Make it big.
Never have more than four or five words on a single slide. Any more than that, and people will start reading them instead of listening to you. If it's a longer passage or quote, you're going to have to read it out loud anyway for the back rows, so you might as well leave it off the screen.
Oh, and make them huge. I don't think I've used anything smaller than 96 point type in years. Best slides I've ever seen? Cabel Sasser's at XOXO.
The full-bleed photos and big, bold centered type on colorful backgrounds frame him throughout the talk, and create a wash of color and imagery for him to talk over that you can see from the back of the room. And it photographs beautifully. Follow his lead.
Photo by Ian Linkletter
5. Add some color.
The Keynote default is white text on black, or black text on white. As a deliberate design choice, this can sometimes work. But most of the time, it's pretty generic.
Consider using a wash of color behind your giant type. Not sure where to start? Go to Colourlovers and pick out a scheme you like, and stick to it.
Or put the type over a relevant, full-screen photo, as long as it's not distracting from readability. Even subtle full-screen video can work, if done well. All you're trying to do is provide some texture to your talk. The focus should be on you.
6. Change the type.
Gill Sans is a great typeface, but because it's the Keynote default, it shows up everywhere and feels deadly boring. Avenir, Seravek, and Helvetica Neue Condensed Bold are safe bets and ship with current versions of OS X. If you know what you're doing, drop some money on a good commercial typeface.
Hope that helps!
It seems like everybody that went to XOXO wrote about it except for me. I've started and stopped this blog post several times over the past six weeks. Why is it so hard for me to spit something out about it?
Partly, I think, because it takes about that long for me to fully recover from it. I put a lot of myself into it, maybe too much, leaving me pretty creatively spent for a good chunk of time.
But the main reason, I think, is that it's hard for me to capture in words alone. It's the physical manifestation of so many things I care about, with so many people I love and admire interacting in so many different ways, that it's hard to summarize cleanly. I keep flitting from memory to memory, trying to sum up six months of non-stop work culminating in a four-day bender.
Fortunately, we get great people to document a lot of it so I don't have to. Like last year, we asked Maxine Denver to capture the feeling of XOXO on film, distilled into this two-minute video.
Like last year, we hired Brytcast to record and release every talk on YouTube. We asked them for a number of changes this year, and Mike and his team knocked it out of the park. The difference in quality between the two years is stark, and I'm thrilled with the results.
I know I'm totally biased, but the talks this year were kind of ridiculously great. Several rank among the best talks I've ever seen, and we want as many people to see them as possible. We know that not everybody can go to XOXO, so we put every talk online as soon as we can.
All 19 speakers from this year are on our YouTube channel, uploaded more or less in the order that they happened.
Each speaker brought something unique to the event, and I think every single one is worth watching. But three in particular moved me deeply, and I've watched each of these several times.
Cabel Sasser, cofounder of Portland's own Panic, gave a very personal talk about coping with the stress that comes from staying independent. This had me, and most of the audience, in tears.
Jack Conte, one-half of the band Pomplamoose, talked about fear, performance anxiety, and his descent into robot-making madness, and how it inspired him to build Patreon. "I'm going to try to give you the story we don't usually give people, because I think that's right for this space."
Pinboard's Maciej Cegłowski strip-mined Walden for Tim Ferriss-style lifehacks in his funny, thoughtful talk about "living a life outside the margins of the ordinary." Eat the donuts.
That's a great start, but it's really just scratching the surface.
Cards Against Humanity's Max Temkin introduced a recurring theme of impostor syndrome, capped by a surprise performance by the Doubleclicks. Chris Anderson talked about how weaponizing Lego led to running a drone factory in Tijuana, before walking attendees outside and flying one over the urban goat field across the street (yes, really). Vi Hart spontaneously performed a fractal song on-stage with a human capo pulled from the audience, and Adrian Holovaty played the song that built his YouTube career. So good.
Back to back, in one block, we had Ill Doctrine's Jay Smooth sharing stories of how inclusivity pays long-term dividends, Breadpig's Christina Xu talking about building support structures for indies, and a whirlwind animated GIF-filled talk from Idea Channel's Mike Rugnetta about how online communities form self-identity that connected furries to Nightvale. Yep.
We brought together all four founding editors of Boing Boing for the first time ever on a single stage. Molly Crabapple gave a starkly cautionary talk about how the network and platforms we rely on can oppress us, contrasted immediately afterwards with a talk by the creator of several of those platforms, Evan Williams, who gave his first solo talk in years, telling his own origin story and where he thinks the Internet is going. Marco Arment used XOXO as a therapy session, talked about his fears, and revealed his newest project. Ouya's Julie Uhrman gave an emotional talk about making mistakes and moving on.
We had pioneers in their respective genres talking about how they stayed independent—Tim Schafer on videogames, Erika Moen on comics, Jonathan Coulton on music, Jack Cheng on self-publishing his first novel.
So, yeah. I thought the talks last year were great, but this was just another level. Something about the environment and the crowd caused speakers to open themselves up a bit more than usual, talk about their own personal struggles, make themselves vulnerable. It all just worked.
Several attendees artfully captured their own moments from the festival:
Instagram designer Maykel Loomans shot gorgeous portraits of XOXO attendees using a Hasselblad 503CX.
I don't normally love sketchnotes, but Jason Alderman's illustrations are some of the best I've seen, capturing every speaker from XOXO with concise notes and clean lines.
Eddie Codel shot incredible footage around the festival and high above Portland with a GoPro Hero3 camera hanging from his DJI Phantom quadcopter drone.
One of my favorite projects to come out of XOXO was led by the Kickstarter team, who ran a lab in the garage of the YU with workshops and talks over the three days. They launched a project to design, print, bind, and distribute a book in three days, compiled entirely from attendee contributions. Each backer designed a single page in the book, and received a finished copy at the closing party. The result was a wonderful memento of the festival, including a letter from Andy McMillan's mom that I read on-stage during the closing. You can read the PDF here.
There were so many great moments, and reading the reactions, it seems like everybody had their own favorites. I'd love to hear yours, and always, what we can do better.
For an event of our size, it feels like XOXO generates a disproportionate amount of coverage. We only had 700 attendees, including all speakers and volunteers, but it feels like everyone has something to add to the event.
Of course, there's a ton of real-time activity on Twitter and Instagram during the festival. (Seen.co did a great job of capturing most of it.) But the best part, for me, was reading everyone long-form reactions on podcasts and blog posts that came afterwards, as people digested what they experienced.
Here are some of my favorites.
Frank Chimero, "The Inferno of Independence"
"Once the work is done, it's not yours anymore. You draw the comic, write the book, make the app, and then it makes its way out into the world. And it starts to talk back to you. It's the weirdest thing—if the thing you make goes anywhere, it's because other people carried it. Your thing becomes our thing. This is deeply unsettling, but it is also a beautiful situation that binds us to one another. So much for independence. It's a false dream. What we really have is co-dependence, and what we desire when we speak of independence is equity and autonomy. Those are our goals."
Glenn Fleishman, "In a Time of Hugs and Kisses"
"XOXO is a way to take our heart out of our body for a few days, share it, and know it will be cared for before we return it to its cage."
David Wertheimer, "Xoxo, XOXO"
"Few events provide so many diverse activities in one location, from morning past midnight. And fewer still create an environment of friendship and openness like XOXO. Everything was participatory,from sitting in a random seat for the talks to pulling up a chair for a game or a meal. Strangers—many of them introverts—readily introduced themselves to one another.Old relationships were rekindled, new friendships were made. Impromptu invitations to meals and drinks abounded, both in person and on Twitter. XOXO's openness made it hard to feel left out, and harder still to not have fun."
Nick Sweeney, "The Making of Makers"
"It celebrated the creativity and dedication of its speakers, and served as a glorious advertisement for Portland's idiosyncratic urban vision. It connected and reconnected me with people who have been touchstones throughout my (long) time messing around with the web, educated me with every impromptu conversation, and mainlined hope and wonder and energy and engagement. A glow emanated across the web from everyone who attended, and the after-party discussions focused around two questions: 'what's next?' and 'how can I contribute to it?' — not because there's a pot of gold to be found, but because those contributions will build better things for everyone."
Gordon Luk, "Thoughts about XOXO Fest"
XOXO Fest is perhaps a slow and fragile antidote to the damage that subordinating creativity to commercialism has wreaked on the people who make stuff. The worst damage isn't the stuff you can see - the giant corporate-sponsored party tents and club rentals, the talks full of startup product pitches, the constant Q&A; sessions full of self-promotional grandstanding. It's the prejudices built up against introducing ourselves to strangers, as we've gotten into a default mode that we can't trust anyone that we meet at these gatherings to actually be kindred spirits.
Jon Bell, "XOXO is Reproducible"
"XOXO without creative people boldly talking to each other about their passion would be Just Another Industry Conference. The fact that it wasn't can be traced largely to Andy's pep talk, and to each and everyone, myself included, that found the nerve to talk to their fellow attendees."
Dan Hon, "Hugs and Kisses"
"Outside the context of the conference, it feels a bit trite or, well, Californian-west-coast-Group-Hug-let's-all-cry-it-out, but what started to emerge was the recognition that it's not easy to stand up for what you believe in. And that it's OK to not be strong enough, certainly not all the time. Which is why, I think, what felt powerful about XOXO was a whole bunch of people, whether they were speakers or attendees who could look at each other and say: I've been through something like that."
Many more: Jacob Kaplan-Moss, Simon Carless, Ben Werdmuller, Jon Hrach, Chase Reeves, Ariel Meadow-Stallings, Alli Dryer, Simon Batistoni, Winston Hearn, Kristin Wille, David Stewart, Patrick Berry, Whit Scott, David McCreath, Rob Pegoraro, Jon Lax, Rachael Schafer, John Biehler, Cooper McHatton, David Wheeler, Dan Bruno, Lance Arthur, Craig Winslow, Liza Daly.
Thanks to all of you, we loved reading every one of these. Let me know if there were any I missed in the comments.
I'm not a fan of cynicism, snark, or knee-jerk contrarianism, and I think XOXO is proving to be a safe haven away from that. But thoughtful criticism is vitally important and always, always welcome, so I was happy to see several in-depth pieces that talked at length about ways XOXO could be better.
Leah Reich, "The Uncanny Valley of Earnestness"
"The Uncanny Valley of Earnestness is a place in between blindly shoring each other up and tearing each other down. This is the place where you give yourself the chance to be weirdly human and you try, with all your might, to give that chance to someone else. You will fail, on both an individual level and in big groups, and so will everyone else, but you will try again."
Anil Dash, "XOXO and Reckoning with Nice"
"XOXO matters, for being a place that can bring such great minds together. Now it needs to open up, to a more truly diverse (not just race and class and gender, but self-criticism) audience, in order to achieve the truly profound and great social goals that it could enable. It's the highest praise I can offer that I think XOXO may be able to do so."
Greg Knauss, "Talking About Failure"
"We cannot be whole unless we acknowledge, discuss and internalize the sometimes shattering consequences of taking a leap and plummeting straight into the ground. We've got the conversation about success down pretty well — probably too well, in fact, to where the topic almost automatically evokes the standard storyline of passion, struggle, victory. But until we can talk just as freely about failure, the story of indie culture remains a Disneyfied fairy tale — based on reality, but without the occasionally ugly ending."
No matter how well you prepare, things will go wrong. On Saturday, the wind and rain flares up, whipping tarps off the windows, spilling raindrops onto attendees, and knocking a window out inches from an attendee below. An attendee loses balance playing JS Joust and shatters a window. A homeless dude is creeping out attendees while they eat lunch at the carts.
Those are easy problems. Climb up on the roof and tear the tarps down. Clean up the glass and replace the windows. Buy the guy lunch, walk him down the street.
And then there are hard problems.
On Friday afternoon, at a party downtown, one of our volunteers was sexually harassed by a drunken attendee. He made deeply offensive comments to her, in front of others, and she was shaken.
Andy and I had talked about this possibility, and what we might do if it ever happened. I'm glad we did.
As soon as we heard about it, we asked our volunteer for full details in a private place. We immediately contacted the attendee, confronted him privately, and immediately took his badge when he confirmed the details. We told our volunteer what happened, and thanked her for bringing it to us.
The next morning, we talked on-stage about what happened and reiterated again how important it was to us that XOXO remains a safe and comfortable environment.
To us, this felt as natural as fixing a broken window. There was a clear, obvious problem with only one reasonable solution. Was it fun? No, it sucked. But it's amazing how many events seem to get this very simple thing wrong, and it gave us a good opportunity to show how we're different.
The volunteer that was harassed, Kelly Kend, wrote about her experience in detail. I'm more proud of this post-XOXO writeup than any other.
"I have heard many of attendees of XOXO talk about how thankful they were to be there, and I am too. I never thought I would be the asshole who walks away from being sexually harassed thinking it was a net positive, but experiencing that resolution was an amazing gift for my creativity. The Andys didn't just send me the message that it's ok for me to be at their event, they sent the message that it's ok for me to be on the internet. As I keep talking and making, I'm sure to find people who are going to want to tear me down, but now I also have that moment of glorious confusion when I realized that without knowing anything about me, these two guys had my back. It was perhaps a dark serendipity that brought me to that place, but a profound one nonetheless. I can't really explain it, but am extremely grateful for it. Hugs and kisses."
Before you ask—we don't know if there will be another XOXO. Andy is finishing the fifth and final Build in Belfast as I write this, and when things have settled, we'll talk.
Like we said at the closing, it all hinges on whether we can keep things interesting, and if it's actually making an impact. If it led you to make new things, build new friendships, and do something you love independently, awesome. Tell us about it and maybe we'll do it again.
Thanks to the speakers and musicians and game designers and filmmakers who made it interesting, the patrons who helped make it happen, and to every one of you who showed up, wrote, wondered, played, laughed, cried, kept us guessing, and made us proud.
Photo by @mayli
Recently, a site started making the rounds called Kit FUI — a new IMDB-like database of FUIs, fantasy or fictional UIs from TV and film. You know the ones: the virtual-reality Unix filesystem from Jurassic Park, the Terminator 2 HUD, the Esper photo analyzer from Blade Runner, and countless others.
Of course, Kit FUI wasn't the first site to track fake UIs. In 2007, Starring the Computer began indexing computers in film, many with fictional displays. Access Main Computer File started on Tumblr in 2010, and Fake UI followed in 2012.
I've linked to every one of these sites in the past, because each reminded me of an incomplete project I started in 2004, but always wished I'd finished.
In August 2004, I posted a question on Ask Metafilter asking, "Is there a website compiling framegrabs of computer screens in feature films?" The consensus was no, so I decided to do it myself.
One Metafilter member, Mike Lietz, responded that he was willing to capture some screenshots from his own DVD collection. We connected by email and got to work.
For lack of a better name, I called it "Screens on Screen" and set up the database and a simple viewer, while Mike started sending me screenshots. I built a tool for categorizing the UIs by period (past, present, or future), the platform, and what type of application they depicted. But the data entry was tedious, and Upcoming.org was starting to take off, so I put it aside. But not before Mike had captured over 1,200 screenshots from 47 films, dumped into an open directory on my server, where it stayed undiscovered for nine years.
Yesterday, on a whim, I mentioned my secret stash of screenshots on Twitter.
What's that? Oh, just my secret stash of 1,200 screenshots of computer interfaces from old movies. http://t.co/Acy1mkEQVS— Andy Baio (@waxpancake) July 10, 2013
It immediately exploded. Even with its extremely simple directory listing, it captured people's imaginations.
Within a couple hours, three awesome geeks immediately built new ways to browse the collection.
- Peter Hellberg made GUI, a simple, but beautiful, fullscreen photo viewer on NeoCities, that supports touch events and spacebar to advance.
- Dan Phiffer made a simple wiki to add metadata to the images.
- Jim Nielsen made a scrolling, lazy-loading interface to view them all at once.
And me? I'm absolutely giddy that people are finding new uses for a project that sat on my server ignored for nearly a decade.
Any creative person builds up a cache of unfinished projects. They usually stay hidden forever, buried and unexplored, taken to the grave.
Photographer David Friedman constantly came up with ideas he didn't have the time to pursue, so finally decided to start doing idea dumps, posting his work in its incomplete state. To his delight, several of his ideas were picked up by his readers, who went on to make them real. I shouldn't have been surprised the same thing would happen with Screens on Screen.
I'm going to take this as a personal lesson: stop hiding your imperfect and incomplete ideas for years. Stop collecting them in your head, like dying butterflies in a glass jar. It's always better to let them fly.
A week ago, we launched XOXO 2013 and the response was ridiculous. We finally closed signups yesterday, with nearly 1,500 people signing up to grab a pass. As of an hour ago, the conference is officially sold out and festival passes are going quickly.
More than anything, there were questions about how the registration process works and how passes were distributed. This led to a lot of anxiety and speculation, fueled by a lack of communication on our part, and I wanted to clear up the confusion.
Andy McMillan talked about this last week in his Medium post, but I wanted to go into a bit more detail.
The XOXO Aftermath
After the first festival last year, we received a crazy amount of mainstream press. The New York Times wrote four articles about it, along with features in The Verge, Wired, and Boing Boing, along with a torrent of over-the-top blog posts and tweets from the attendees. (You can see my favorites at the end of this Kickstarter update.)
All the coverage was wonderful, but it brought some unwanted attention. From the moment the event ended, I've been emailed nearly every day by a new class of person desperate to go to XOXO — marketers, brand managers, advertising agencies, and social media gurus.
These people are well-funded, have expense accounts, and were ready to throw money at us the moment doors opened. Several said specifically they were excited to bring the whole team!
When we started the first XOXO, it spread entirely by word-of-mouth and sold out within two days. All of those people never had a chance to hear about it until long after passes sold out, so the open registration on Kickstarter wasn't a problem.
This year, we knew that if we opened it wide, there was a risk that this new audience would change the vibe of the event for the worse.
And, frankly, I'm not going to spend half my year planning something that I wouldn't want to go to myself. Andy McMillan felt the same way, so something had to change.
How It Worked
When we launched the site, people looking to buy passes were surprised to find a short survey instead. We asked three questions:
- What do you do?
- What are you working on right now?
- What's something you made that you're proud of?
These questions were never intended to judge people on their work, but simply to determine whether they're the type of person that makes stuff for a living or not. (Each one is hard to bluff if you're not a maker type.)
Before and after the survey process, we added this disclaimer:
XOXO is a small event, and we can only accommodate a fraction of the demand. To ensure a diverse and amazing group of attendees, we're giving priority access to the people that embody what XOXO's about — artists, makers, hackers, coders and founders.
But we didn't go into details, largely because we were still working them out ourselves. This led to a lot of speculation, and a feeling of exclusivity that we never wanted. People assumed that they were applying, instead of just joining a queue, and that we were ranking them based on their accomplishments. Neither was true.
In the end, it was very simple.
First, about 20% of the total passes went to people we plucked out of the queue, regardless of when they signed up. These were a mix of new and established faces that we knew other attendees would want to meet, usually people behind abnormally interesting projects and websites.
The rest, about 80% of the passes, were given out in the order that people signed up. For those passes, we asked a simple question: is this someone who makes something or not? If they were primarily an artist, coder, writer, hacker, designer or maker, then they were in. We never judged the quality or merit of their work.
While some people assumed we were trying to keep people out, the truth is that we want to include more people than ever. This year, we offered Festival Only passes to allow far more people to come to Portland and be part of the event, even after the conference is sold out.
We don't want XOXO to be an invite-only event like Foo Camp or TED because we know that many of the most creative people in the world are still undiscovered, and we don't know who they are. If they're drawn to XOXO, we don't want to leave them out.
We don't want XOXO to be a summer camp for the same group of people every year, which is why we didn't give preferential treatment to past attendees. Diversity is incredibly important to us.
And we don't want it to be a free-for-all like SXSW, because the shift in focus lowers the signal-to-noise ratio to unacceptable levels. There's nothing wrong with advertising, marketing, or PR — it's just not something that we care about, and it's outside of XOXO's focus on independent art and tech.
Andy and I spent six months debating the best way to maintain the incredibly high caliber of audience we had last year, and this system is the best we came up with. The biggest failing was communication, which we can solve, but I think people will be floored when we post the attendee directory. It's a ridiculously creative group of people.
If we do decide to do XOXO again, we'll see what worked and what sucked, and make changes accordingly. Maybe we'll scrap it entirely and try something else. Like we've said, XOXO is an experimental event, and we're treating it that way.
I'm a little obsessed with the story that broke yesterday about PRISM, the NSA/FBI project to gather information from popular Internet services, including Facebook, Google, and Apple.
So, naturally, I've been doing a lot of digging about the story on *.gov websites. In the process, I realized that the U.S. government loves the "PRISM" acronym. There are literally dozens of projects and applications named PRISM at the state and federal level, many with delightfully goofy logos. Here are some of my favorites.
Panelist and Reviewer Information System
Database of prospective reviewers for The National Endowment for the Humanities
Parallel Research on Invariant Subspace Methods
Argonne National Laboratory project to develop infrastructure and algorithms for the parallel solution of eigenvalue problems
Pliocene Research, Interpretation and Synoptic Mapping
USGS project to understand global climate change
PRoject Information SysteM
Apply for grants from the Washington State's Recreation and Conservation Office
Parameter-elevation Regressions on Independent Slopes Model
Climate analysis tool from the National Water and Climate Center
Pesticide Registration Information SysteM
The Environmental Protection Agency's database on all registered pesticide products.
Portable Remote Imaging Spectrometer
NASA JPL's airborne instrument for monitoring the ocean from UAVs
Performance and Registration Information Systems Management
U.S. Dept. of Transportation program to register commercial vehicles
Performance Reporting Information System
The State of Oregon's workforce reporting system
Partnerships for Regional Invasive Species Management
The State of New York's environmental effort to manage invasive species
Patient Reporting Investigation Surveillance Manager
Communicable disease data system for the State of Wyoming's STD program
Performance Related Information for Staff and Managers
Dept. of Mental Health's reports on hospital trends
Proactive Recruitment in Introductory Science and Mathematics
National Science Foundation's effort to fund STEM programs for undergrad students
Proteomics Research Information System and Management
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory's system for managing large-scale protein data
Procurement Information System for Management
Procurement software used across the federal government
First, I tweeted this to Cards Against Humanity co-creator Max Temkin.
@maxtemkin Still waiting for a Dance project I care about. Someone needs to do an interpretive dance based on Spelunky or something.— Andy Baio (@waxpancake) May 1, 2013
Not long afterwards, this appeared.
$1 goal with a 24 hour limit, and a single $1 reward limited to one backer: me. So great. I can't wait to see the finished dance.
It even got the attention of Spelunky creator Derek Yu:
With absolutely no prompting, and with no real incentive to back the project, it's up to 71 backers and $132. (Like me, it looks like more than a few people are using this project as an opportunity to fill their Kickstarter pie... The Dance category is almost always the last slice filled.)
Beyond our circle of friends, the reaction from the Internet to Max's project was ridiculous. One indie comics artist called it "Kickstarter Abuse," and people on /r/games said the project was "mocking current industry trends" and "a waste of time, and a shallow effort to hold a mirror up to society."
The early days of Kickstarter were filled with crazy, tiny experimental projects like these. After all, Kickstarter CEO Perry Chen's only successful project was six backers giving him $19 to videochat with him on a flight and buy drinks for random passengers. These are the roots of Kickstarter's international success.
Playful experimentation is never abuse. It's the best thing for a healthy, creative community.
May 6: The performance was released exclusively to me last night, and I was deep in the middle of plans to sell DVDs, when some jerks named tUNNELcREW leaked it online. First, as a camcorder leak and then the screener copy.
Since I clearly won't be making a dime off this project, I decided to release the high-quality performance on YouTube. Enjoy.
This morning, I woke to the news that Archive Team is working to save Upcoming. This is the Internet equivalent of hearing that Marsellus Wallace is sending The Wolf.
For those unfamiliar, Archive Team is a band of rogue archivists and programmers working to rescue dead and dying websites from destruction. To put it mildly, they are very good at what they do.
Led by computer historian/documentary filmmaker Jason Scott, they've saved massive sites like GeoCities, Friendster, MobileMe, Fortune City and many others from deletion, and collaborate with the Internet Archive to inject their backups into the Wayback Machine for permanent preservation.
The importance of their work can't be overstated. While companies like Yahoo work to destroy as much Internet history as possible, Archive Team is the only group actively trying to save it.
To assist their efforts, they've developed ArchiveTeam Warrior, a virtual appliance that makes it easy for anyone to help archive dying websites and upload the backups to their server.
Want to help? Install Warrior right now.
It's dead simple to get up and running, and works on Windows, Mac, and Linux. And because it all runs in a virtual machine, it can't possibly hurt your system. It will only use your bandwidth and disk space.
After it's installed, you can choose the "Upcoming" project to start backing up Upcoming.org specifically, or pick "ArchiveTeam's Choice" to let the team decide. Posterous and Formspring are also dying soon, and that will allow the team to prioritize your work.
I made a little video showing how easy it is to start saving Internet history.
You can track the status of the Upcoming archiving effort in real-time, currently at around 6% of the complete site.
And again, thanks to all the dedicated volunteers of Archive Team for their effort.
Update (April 23): Three days later, the Upcoming archive is complete. Every event, venue, group, and user page is currently being compressed and uploaded in batches to the Internet Archive. Truly amazing.
My next step: to parse the HTML and extract structured data, distributed that database, and build something off it to make the community-contributed material accessible after Yahoo shuts it down.
So, Yahoo's finally decided to close Upcoming.org, the events community I started nearly ten years ago. And, in Yahoo's typical fuck-off-and-die style, they're doing it with 11 days notice, no on-site announcement, and no way to back up past events.
I knew its closure was inevitable after the infamous sunset slide, but never knew when it would happen. Like a newspaper prepping for a sick celebrity, this obituary's been sitting in my drafts folder for months, waiting for its sad publication day.
The last five years were hard on Upcoming. After Gordon Luk, Leonard Lin, and I left at the end of 2007, the site quickly started to fall apart. The social features that made Upcoming unique were minimized, or removed entirely, by a series of redesigns. Spam, like creeping kudzu, was left unchecked and spread across the site. Fortunately, the final catastrophic redesign never made its way out of beta.
By 2009, the only people using Upcoming were event promoters and spammers. (Especially depressing considering self-promotion was banned entirely for its first two years.)
Frustratingly, nothing's come to take its place. Potential competitors like Plancast and Going closed their doors, while others never grew an organic community. Some sites carved off a piece of Upcoming: Facebook's private events, Songkick's concerts, and Lanyrd's fantastic conference coverage.
But, for me, finding events I care about feels like 2002 again. I'm missing geeky events I'd love, and when I travel to a new city, I'm back to digging through the calendar listings of my local weekly newspapers. It blows my mind that the problem Upcoming solved — surfacing interesting events in a city, driven by public social activity — is an unsolved problem again.
And now, Yahoo will quietly take Upcoming off life support, an opportunity squandered.
It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when Yahoo was actually pretty cool, in its own dorky Silicon Valley way.
By 2005, when we started talking to Yahoo, they'd made a series of thoughtful hires, including PHP creator Rasmus Lerdorf, Jeremy Zawodny, Tom Coates, Simon Willison, and future Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson. Cameron Marlow, Jeffery Bennett, and Mor Namaan were doing pioneering work at Yahoo Research. They acquired Flickr, bringing some of the most talented and creative people in technology to help change the company from the inside, including Cal Henderson, Heather Champ, and founders Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield. A month after we came in, they acquired Del.icio.us.
Clueful people were making their way up to the executive level, too. Future Bandcamp founder Ethan Diamond led the redesign of Yahoo Mail, future Topspin CEO Ian Rogers was managing Yahoo Music, and and Bradley Horowitz, now VP of Product at Google, was taking over big pieces of the company. Yahoo was an exciting place to be.
Upcoming was a side project, created during my day job at a financial company. After my son was born, I had no time to work on Upcoming at all, even as the community grew. Spammers started to discover the site, as bug reports and support requests piled up unanswered. The opportunity to work on my own project full-time was a dream come true.
And Yahoo seemed like a perfect home for Upcoming — they'd promised resources to grow the community, we'd get to work at a promising tech giant with some of our favorite people, and the acquisition price was small but seemed fair. Coming into Yahoo, we were hopeful.
It wasn't clear how dysfunctional the rest of Yahoo was until we'd settled in, and there was no indication how horrible they'd soon become in the years to follow. This was long before they gave up dissidents to the Chinese government, closed Geocities, weaponized their patents, "sunsetted" Delicious, and a number of other awful decisions.
In hindsight, selling Upcoming to Yahoo was a horrible mistake. Selling your company always means sacrificing control and risking its fate, and as we now know, online communities almost always fail after acquisition. (YouTube is the rare exception, albeit one with billion-dollar momentum.) But Yahoo was a particularly horrible steward for the community.
I built Upcoming because it scratched a personal itch, and I was delighted when so many others found it useful. For the small group of old-schoolers that remember it in its prime, Upcoming made their lives better. I've heard stories of people finding friends and spouses through Upcoming, people lonely in a new city tapping into new communities, impromptu parties gaining momentum.
I'm going to miss it.
Upcoming stopped being relevant long ago, and part of me is happy that Yahoo's putting this bastardized version of the site out of its misery. (In case your memory's foggy, compare how it looked when we left to its current state.)
What really upsets me is that the archived events will soon be taken offline, and with no way to back it up. Ten years of history will be gone in 11 days. Good URLs never die, and I'm frustrated that every link to Upcoming will soon 404.
I've reached out to Yahoo multiple times over the last few months about re-acquiring the Upcoming.org domain and event database, but they were less than receptive.
I would love to create a permanent archive of Upcoming, with a clean responsive layout and some month-by-month analysis and visualization of the site's history, but getting the metadata's proving much more difficult than I thought.
All of Upcoming's events and venues use autoincremented ids, making it dead simple to generate a list of URLs to scrape. But Yahoo's security makes scraping a challenge. Every time I've tried to back up pages, I can only grab a few files with curl or httrack before Yahoo starts serving blank responses.
If you have any idea how to scrape Upcoming's events, or can get me a dump in any form, please get in touch ASAP. Anonymity guaranteed.
Update: Archive Team is working to save Upcoming, and they need your help in the rescue efforts.
Last month, I spoke at Creative Mornings/Portland about copyright, fair use, and remix culture. It started as a riff on my No Copyright Intended post, and ended up something much bigger. I really like how it came out, I hope you do too.
Watch it full-screen HD on Vimeo.
Pizza Hut To Hold 140-Second Interviews For Social Media Manager Position at SXSW
Meet Nyan Cat's Creator at Mashable House
Tweets Will Power Doritos' 62-Foot SXSW Vending Machine Concert Stage
Top the Kred SXSW 2013 Leaderboard and Become a Kred Star
Klout Offers 'Cirque du Soleil' VIP Perk at SXSW
Quiznos to Present at OMMA Mobile at SXSW on Mobile Advertising Campaign Success Powered by Sense Networks!
The line to try Mailbox, the new iPhone app for managing your inbox, is long. Really, really long.
I signed up the day it went live in the App Store, on February 7, and finally made it to the front of the line this morning after two weeks of patient line-waiting.
While I was waiting, I'd occasionally open the app to see my place in the queue, and think — what if the line was real?
Imagine an ever-growing line of weary people fiddling with their phones, sprawling off into the distance. How long would the line be?
If you signed up right now, you'd find yourself at the end of a line with 807,896 people ahead of you.
They're letting people in at a near-constant rate of 800 per hour, or just over 13 people per minute.
Let's assume that people standing in line take up an average of two feet of space, from back to back with room for personal space.
The line stretches over 300 miles into the distance. To put it in perspective, that's further than London to the outskirts of Paris. It's 30 miles longer than Hollywood to Las Vegas. It spans from the Bronx to Portland, Maine.
But it's moving! Slowly. At about 0.3 miles per hour. You're shuffling along at just over five inches per second.
At the current rate, you'll make it to the front of the line in about 42 days.
I hope you brought a charger.
After four weeks topping the Billboard Hot 100, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's "Thrift Shop" was replaced this week by Baauer's "Harlem Shake," the song that inspired the Internet meme.
As I wrote last month, Macklemore is only the second unsigned artist in Billboard history to reach the #1 slot, the first in two decades.
And now, with a new #1, another record's broken: Baauer's "Harlem Shake" is the first song from a largely unknown artist to debut at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Since 1958, only 21 songs have ever debuted at #1. Of those 21 songs, only four were from artists appearing on the Hot 100 for the first time, all from artists with extensive mainstream media exposure — three American Idol contestants (Clay Aiken, Fantasia and Carrie Underwood) and a popular artist going solo (Lauryn Hill). Source: Billboard.
I'd wager this is another first: "Harlem Shake" is the only song to ever debut at #1 on the Hot 100 without significant radio or TV airplay. This is solely an Internet phenomenon, gone deeply mainstream.
This is in no small part because of major changes incorporating YouTube views into the Billboard Hot 100 formula, introduced this week in response to the viral success of "Gangnam Style."
This week, a report surfaced that Nielsen will start tracking YouTube and other digital plays too.
Billboard and Nielsen are just acknowledging a long-overdue reality. Radio and cable aren't the future, and if you're focused on tracking them, you're looking at an ever-shrinking window of behavior.
But seriously, who cares what Billboard and Nielsen think anyway? Aren't the charts irrelevant? For most purposes, probably.
But like winning an award, chart success is a symbol of reputation. Recognition from a reputable source tracking sales or viewership opens doors for artists, especially important if you're independent.
It's one thing for Amanda Palmer to raise a million dollars from Kickstarter, but having her album debut in the Billboard top ten shows that there's demand beyond her most hardcore early supporters. This gives her team the power to negotiate everything from distributors to concert venue contracts.
And when other artists see that indie artists can find legitimate mainstream success on their own, others will follow. This is already happening on a small scale, but it's only going to get accelerate.
A couple weeks ago, I went to see Ben Folds Five's reunion tour here in Portland:
Just saw an unsigned indie trio from North Carolina that crowdfunded their new album. These boys are going places! twitter.com/waxpancake/sta...— Andy Baio (@waxpancake) February 6, 2013
I joked about it on Twitter, but I'm not sure many knew I was serious. The reformed Ben Folds Five is unsigned.
After releasing their first three albums on Sony, Ben Folds Five decided to fund their album on Pledge Music and release it independently.
They easily could've released it through a label — Ben Folds is still signed to Sony/Epic for his solo work and Darren Jesse through Bar/None. Why do it all on their own?
But I was starting to feel guilty about ignoring it, so I added some new tools for exploring the archive of 650+ games, sketches, and silly experiments.
This surfaced a whole bunch of interesting games I hadn't seen, so I freshened up the featured section with some new picks.
Playfic was always intended to be an experiment, yet another tool of creative expression and a quick way for people to experiment with Inform 7. I really wasn't expecting much out of it, but I've been happy to see people slowly discover the community and find new uses for it.
Update: Releasing any platform for creative expression often comes with unintended consequences. For Playfic, one of the biggest surprises was seeing it used by educators, something I never intended.
Most recently, I just discovered this high school teacher using Playfic to teach interactive fiction in the classroom. I was a little stunned to see a room full of high school students playing interactive fiction for the first time on iPads, starting with Cooper's first game:
Games being created by high-school students and played by high-school students. How awesome is that?
The undiscovered young talent gets their big break and a record deal, and soon realizes they were swindled by corrupt management and a major label.
It's an old story, and a common theme that pops up in rock songs, often from well-established bands. (Though it seems especially common the '70s.)
After writing about Macklemore's "Jimmy Iovine" for my Indiepocalypse post yesterday, I stumbled on several more great angry songs about record labels. They didn't fit into the post, but I still wanted to share them.
Graham Parker and the Rumour - Mercury Poisoning (1979)
I got a dinosaur for a representative,
It's got a small brain and refuses to learn
Their promotion's so lame,
They could never ever take me to the real ball game
Listen, I ain't a pet, I ain't a token hipster in your Monopoly set.
I've got Mercury poisoning.
It's fatal and it don't get better!
The Clash - Complete Control (1977)
They said we'd be artistically free when we signed that bit of paper
They meant let's make a lotsa money and worry about it later
I'll never understand
Complete control, lemme see your other hand
I don't trust you, so why should you trust me?
Nick Lowe - I Love My Label (1977)
Deeply sarcastic, Lowe tossed off this track to get out of his major label deal with United Artists.
Oh I'm so proud of them up here, we're one big happy family
I guess you could say I'm the poor relation of the parent company
They always ask for lots of songs,
but no more than 2:50 long so I write 'em some
They never talk behind my back,
and they're always playing my new tracks when I come along
Lynyrd Skynyrd - Workin' For MCA (1974)
MCA signed the young band for a seven year deal for $9,000.
Oh, nine thousand dollars just to sow to the wind.
Come to smile at the yankee slicker with a big old southern grin.
They're gonna take me out to California, gonna make me a superstar.
Just pay me all my money, maybe you won't get a scar.
Want you to sign the contract,
want you to sign the date.
Gonna give you lots of money
Workin' for MCA.
Sex Pistols - E.M.I. (1977)
In October 1978, EMI signed the Sex Pistols to a two-year contract, but dropped them only three months later. They were quickly picked up by A&M;, and dropped less than a week later. Virgin finally released their debut in May 1977, their third label in six months.
Don't judge a book just by the cover
Unless you cover just another
And blind acceptance is a sign
Of stupid fools who stand in line
The Smiths - Paint A Vulgar Picture (1987)
World tour, media whore,
please the press in Belgium.
This was your life.
And when it fails to recoup?
Well, maybe you just haven't earned it yet, baby.
In one sense, this is the ultimate first-world problem — successful musicians complaining about bad business deals. Then again, for decades, signing with a major label was the only game in town if you wanted to find success in the music industry, and the labels exploited that monopoly.
But overall, I tend to agree with Trent Reznor, who said, "I don't set out to write songs about record labels. Nothing could be more boring—with the possible exception of writing about tour buses."
For the first time in two decades, an indie artist is topping the Billboard charts. For the last three weeks, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's "Thrift Shop" has remained at the #1 position on the Billboard Hot 100, beating the likes of Taylor Swift and Bruno Mars.
The only other unsigned artist to ever hit #1 was Lisa Loeb's "Stay (I Missed You)" in 1994, when her friend Ethan Hawke gave the track to Ben Stiller to include on the Reality Bites soundtrack. She quickly signed to a major label, releasing her debut album the following year with Geffen Records.
Lisa Loeb switched to a label as soon as she could because, in 1994, it was the only way to finance a full album, nationwide tour, market an album, get radio/TV airplay, and get distribution to record stores.
That prized record deal didn't work out the way she'd hoped. Four years before Lisa Loeb joined Geffen, the label was acquired by MCA, later renamed to Universal Music Group. She ended up on Interscope/A&M;, one of Universal's many subsidiaries, where she received less-than-stellar treatment.
"They became a really big label and I felt they weren't focusing a lot on music," Loeb said in 2003. "They had executives telling you one thing one day and then telling you something different the next. They couldn't deliver on their promises." A planned music video was rejected by the label because they disagreed with the concept.
In the end, she had to negotiate to buy the rights to her own master recordings from Interscope.
Lisa Loeb wanted her work to be heard and she wanted to make a living doing what she loved, so she sacrificed her creative and financial control to get there.
For hundreds of years, publishers across every industry — book publishers, record labels, film studios, videogame publishers — solved problems for artists in four major ways:
- Funding. The cost of creating a new work, paying the artist's expenses during the creation process, often with an advance.
- Production. Design, manufacturing, and printing of the finished product.
- Marketing. Going on tour, making a video, promotion in various media outlets.
- Distribution. Getting the product into people's hands.
And how does this play out now?
Digital distribution subverted the monopolies held by physical distribution, bypassing distribution deals with record stores entirely, allowing artists to sell directly to fans. Social media and online music services changed the way people discover music, making the payola systems of MTV and radio airplay feel quaint. Production costs dropped dramatically as computers became more powerful and audio editing software got dirt cheap, along with new services for printing on demand. And, finally, Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms offset the financial risk to artists.
Most importantly, each new platform let artists find, communicate, and sell directly to their fans.
Music is hardly alone here. Videogames, film, comics, books, product design, hardware, software, board games, whatever. Hackers and makers across every form of art are finding their fan bases, interacting with them, and selling to them.
We're at the beginning of an indiepocalypse — a global shift in how culture is made, from a traditional publisher model to independently produced and distributed works.
Artists that were royally screwed over in the past now have an alternative.
As high-profile artists keep popping up across every industry, other artists will inevitably follow. For every Louis CK or Amanda Palmer, there are 10,000 other artists ready to wake up and try something new. It will be the default state for new artists, and a rising trend among artists with existing fanbases.
Publishers will have to evolve just to stay alive. Labels, studios, and other publishers can provide huge value — they can take care of the bullshit that artists don't want to do. And they can apply knowledge and existing relationships to help artists, rather than asking artists to learn everything from scratch.
Artists of all kinds want to focus on making art, but not if it means giving up a large financial stake in their work, exclusive rights to their work, or a loss of creative control.
It would take much more work, but Macklemore and Ryan Lewis could do it all themselves. Why sign with a label, if it meant giving up so much?
If you have any doubt over whether Macklemore and Ryan Lewis will sign to a major label any time soon, check out the lyrics to "Jimmy Iovine," a track off their debut album, named after the head of Interscope, Lisa Loeb's former label. In the song, he sneaks into Jimmy Iovine's office to try to get a record deal.
Finally see an office with a mounted sign, heaven sent
Big block silver letters, read it out loud: President (nice!)
This was my chance to grab that contract and turn and jet
Right then felt a cold hand grab on the back of my neck
He said, "We've been watching you, so glad you could make it
Your music gets so impressive in this whole brand you created
You're one hell of a band, we here think you're destined for greatness
And with that right song we all know that you're next to be famous
Now I'm sorry, I've had a long day remind me, now what your name is?
That's right, Macklemore, of course, today has been crazy
Anyway, you ready? We'll give you a hundred thousand dollars
After your album comes out we'll need back that money that you borrowed."
"So it's really like a loan?"
"A loan? Come on, no, we're a team, 360 degrees, we will reach your goals!
We'll get a third of the merch that you sell out on the road
Along with a third of the money you make when you're out doing your shows
Manager gets 20%, booking agent gets 10%
So shit, after taxes you and Ryan have 7% to split
That's not bad, I've seen a lot worse, No one will give you a better offer than us."
I replied, "I appreciate the offer, thought that this is what I wanted
Rather be a starving artist than succeed at getting fucked."
It took two decades for a second unsigned artist to top the Billboard charts. I'm guessing it won't be long before we see another.