Grey Days

Rapper Jay-Z released his final album, The Black Album, in 2003. Or it was supposed to be his final album, he has since released five more solo studio albums. As part of his grand exit from the music industry, amongst other types of extravagant promotions, he released an a capella version of his album to encourage people to remix the music. Artists and DJs complied, producing a profusion of mash-up albums, using music from numerous artists and genres to create new backing tracks to Jay-Z’s vocals.[1]

The most popular of these mash-ups, by far, was Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album, which took music from The Beatle’s White Album to back the vocals. The music label which owned The Beatle’s recordings took exception to the use and widespread sharing of the music, and EMI Group moved to protect their copyrighted material, though they were ultimately unsuccessful in suppressing the album after a campaign to download and share the music in defiance of the law.

The Grey Album’s release and popularity was a victory for freedom of artistry over restrictive corporate copyright laws, it caused a boom in mash-ups, and it was another tremor in the earthquake of technological changes to culture and commerce. Mash-ups became a fad, as many people thought it was at the time, though they have maintained some persistence, but rarely as pop-music again. Music labels were not going to give up their control over their music, however.

In a war, any front made too formidable with fortifications and forces will be bypassed in favor of a weaker point of attack, the fortification of irrepressible artist independence was too popular for it to be attacked and repressed head-on, so it was bypassed. The battle over The Grey Album is a look into the past and reveals how early responses to the revolutions of the internet economy preceded more sophisticated tactics by corporations to maintain their profits – it reveals the incredible success of their shifts in tactics as well. Rap music, because of how the tracks are produced, is a prescient example of the struggle between entrenched corporate interests and innovators.

Hip-hop music was born from the process of sampling – of taking portions of other songs to create new music – and grew from a small niche to a mainstay of pop music. Though there are still artists innovating in that medium, rap music was abducted into corporate processes for income and content-generation long ago. This happens in almost every modern entertainment and content-based subculture now. As explained in this article: innovators are followed by fans, who are followed by “sociopaths” who exploit the creations of innovators for monetary or other types of gain. A corporation is a good example of these sociopaths (a comparison others have made before) and the “geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths” pattern holds true for any potentially lucrative activity.

So when a corporation, like EMI Group, wants to protect their business model against future innovation, what do they do? They use the laws and regulations designed to protect property ownership. EMI’s particular legal tool against The Grey Album was copyright law, which is (philosophically) designed to encourage innovation by allowing creators to make money from their original productions, though the laws are sometimes used to create moats protecting corporations’ profitable domains.

Of course, copyright laws are hard to enforce if you’re confronting large portions of the population breaking the law as happened in the aftermath of the release of The Grey Album. The great victory for the common people was won in an act of civil disobedience dubbed “Grey Tuesday,” after the dissemination of the cease-and-desist letters by EMI. Here, there was a clear hero (the artists, the people!) and a clear villain.

Corporations are the enemy, the villain, for almost every public grouping in some way. In vulgar political terms, the left hates corporations because of their exploitation of labor and the environment while the right hates corporations for their faux-woke sensibilities and support for liberals. In the more fluid political terms of the moment, populists hate corporations because they own all the political power, while libertarians hate corporations because they are rentiers swelling their margins from government largesse. Corporations and our reactions toward them are close to the core of our political divisiveness.

I used to worry about the politicization of everything, but now I think the transformation has happened to society, not politics. Everything is gamified and sorted by algorithms. It is this dominance, over our dopamine and over our attention, that are driving social changes. We look at – no, we consume – content which produces strong emotions and induces chemical rewards to flood our neurons. The corporations which we hate when viewed through the lenses of our political polarization are, at the least, enabling those very processes of polarization and atomization by driving our engagement and influencing our behavior. This convoluted, self-consuming process is important for more than one reason, and the difference between corporate responses to threatening innovation in 2004 and 2021 display these reasons quite clearly.

So what happened to EMI’s strategy in 2004? They pursued no legal action after the cease-and-desist letters and after they lost the Battle of Grey Tuesday. The likely explanations are that they did not want to suffer any public backlash, or they realized that the exposure was good for them. Since the currency of consumer products is attention, it makes sense that more of it, even if in violation of copyright laws, is a good thing – now even more true because of the network effects of social media.

Control of digital assets is best pursued by other means, by shifting strategy to more favorable ground. Convenience and ease are more effective at controlling the behavior of the masses than lawsuits. Making it difficult to rip tracks from an album, or download them off the internet, compiling a giant database of music and making it searchable, making individuals safe from potential legal action and downloading viruses – all are more impactful than suing people to make them stop sharing something on the internet. Spotify has done more to protect copyright for music labels than the destruction of Napster (while gathering-up income as a mediator between customers and their music libraries).

And what happened to innovation in music will happen to innovation in other areas. Legal crudeness, the use of a blunt weapon to bludgeon opponents, is ineffective against mass disobedience, but providing a service to people can pay dividends. Besides new(ish) formats for dissemination of music, territory unoptimized for corporate profit includes cryptocurrencies and NFT’s. Innovation is alive and well, side by side with risk and complexity.

Music can now go viral on TikTok, or still through Youtube or SoundCloud – with a song or artist’s popularity generated through social media engagement. Artists were able to promote themselves with the advent of social media in a way that was unfiltered and genuine, and many still are. One method from music labels to control this cyberspace is to snatch and sign artists as they’re becoming popular, gaining part of their future cash flows by providing them with the operations and convenience of huge capital-backing. Another way corporations co-opt this process of social media virality is through astroturfing (a play on the idea of “grassroots” engagement – it is buzz made to look like genuine popular engagement, but that is seeded by corporations). Astroturfing is being laundered through social media influencers for a variety of reasons now, to protect corporations or to protect corrupt governments. When someone expresses wonderment that conspiracy theories spread so easily online, someone should remind them that the viral posts from their favorite influencer, or the trending hashtags and topics, may be indistinguishable from organic narratives. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

DeFi (decentralized finance), operated through blockchains and cryptocurrencies like Ethereum, offer a bevy of financial products that were, just recently, only available through large (and hated) financial institutions. Products like loans with no credit checks, high-yield instruments, and financial rewards for supporting exchanges and programs are all at the fingertips of anyone with an internet connection. Cryptocurrencies and the (apparently) wild speculation associated with them will eventually get regulated and co-opted. Here again, regulation is a powerful tool, but even more powerful is the centralized convenience provided by the simplification and aggregation offered by exchanges and other centralized middlemen. DeFi profits and control of investor behavior will belong to a Spotify of cryptocurrencies.

A boon to photographers, painters, and musicians is the invention and blooming popularity of NFT’s (derivatives of blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and DeFi) – another method whereby artists and creators and innovators can get paid directly for their work, bypassing centralized organizations and other corporate middlemen. NFT’s will be fully incorporated into any corporate content-producer’s digital strategies, truly independent artists will only exist on the margins while benefits from this medium will accrue to mostly large corporations. Even now, music labels all have NFT-teams to try and capitalize off of the nascent movement.

One thing to notice here: the cycle is speeding-up – the turnaround from independent art-forms and innovation to commoditization and monetization is rapid. Of course, this is offset by the pace of innovation enabled by interconnectivity. But in the war of the people vs. the corporations, the people are fighting on both sides.

The only way the corporations win is from the common assent of the masses. Maybe corporations are the villains, but they are aided and abetted by citizens in their villainy. Every examination of mass, internet-enabled phenomena must account for the fact that people are more easily herded than they are extorted – especially by entities unable to use the direct force of violence, only its subsidiaries. The State has a monopoly on violence, and the mechanism governing that use of violence is the law. Corporations can only borrow the tools of government, not wield the powers themselves, therefore corporate persuasion is much more effective than trying to use government tools without government force.

Whether it is rap music, the stock market, or novel types of computer coding, there are always innovators who create and teach but are then pushed out by entrepreneurs and those seeking profit. Corporations exist to make money. Their goal is not the betterment of society, it’s to act in their own interests, and if that happens in service to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, then great. If not? Too bad. There is a tension between art and problem-solving and profit which plagues our vision more than ever, giving society the veneer of falsity. Why do people flock to meme stocks, or Dogecoin, or Youtube mumble-rappers? Because they are pure expressions of something untouched by the sterile, robotic hands of big business. Novelty and authenticity are rightly prized, but too often we get the form and not the substance. There is a crisis of credibility for corporations – but they will continue to pursue profit through controlling their landscape. So next time you read about a short squeeze in the market and someone says, “it’s the 99% against the 1%,” remember that it’s true, just not in the way people think it is.

Control through co-option. Control through convenience. Bundling as a strategy of centralization. These are the weapons of corporate control. Everyone as the vindicator of their own rights is a burdensome philosophy and independence is hard. Fixing the problems of legal and technical difficulties and the diffusion and irregularity of sources in music, is a recurring-revenue business model that is popular with consumers. Fixing these difficulties is the future for much of our entertainment options, and no civil disobedience will stop it, because people will protest in one tab and stream their content from a tech giant in another.[2]


[1] My personal favorite, The Argyle Album, can be downloaded here: http://www.100dbs.com/production/argyle/

[2] This post (and most of my posts, honestly) was heavily influenced by the writing at Epsilon Theory, particularly this post: https://www.epsilontheory.com/in-praise-of-bitcoin/

Asymmetry Between Trump and the Media

Lies and Truth

Modern political history is replete with an interesting oddity. One politician is accused of inappropriate conduct in a salacious sex scandal and their career is ruined. Another is accused and nothing happens.

President Trump lies incessantly. No one truly disputes this, even supporters. At this point, Trump’s lies present an exclamation point on his out-sized personality and don’t have any truly negative consequences. On the other hand, if CNN makes a slight error in its reporting on Trump, there is outrage and disaster.

Since Trump’s swearing-in there have been dozens of stories that were negative of the Trump administration that have been retracted or corrected. Every time this happens it provides ammunition for Trump and those who maintain his cult to fire broadsides against the “fake news media.”

Every time Trump lies nothing happens, every time a news outlet “lies” there is serious harm to their credibility, especially in the eyes of Trump supporters. This asymmetry in consequences for mistakes and untruth is devastating to news organizations.

Since the philosophy and public function of news organizations is centered around truthfulness they have more to lose by being seen as “untruthful” than someone who has no credibility in terms of honesty. Failure to be accurate and honest in covering the Trump administration may only happen a very small number of times in any particular “news room” but that happening undermines honest, incisive reporting of abuses by the government.

The Ethics of Journalism and Bias

At the founding of the nation, there were not “journalistic” ethics like we currently have. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, in particular, ran newspapers that reported unverified, scandalous and insulting stories and opinion pieces attacking one another’s political parties. There was no pretension to high ethics and impartiality: newspapers were on the parapets of an ideological battlefield between differing visions for the government and country. People were deeply divided and the interest of party often predominated over the interests of the nation, there were unsettled legal questions as to what powers belonged to which segments of government, and there were abuses of the peoples’ constitutionally guaranteed rights. In spite of all this venom and difficulty, the nation continued to grow and prosper.

What now?

It is foolish to directly compare any two historical time periods, narratives and anecdotes make two eras appear more similar than they actually were. But what we can take from journalism at the founding of our nation is the idea that perhaps the secret to dealing with a lying President and a media with no credibility is to ignore them both. Time will reveal the successes or failures of the current President (and I believe time will not be kind to him) and it will smooth the breathless, semi-hysterical coverage proffered by news organizations.

When there are severe abuses and corruption, they should be checked, vigorously inspected, and the information used for opposition, but the reports should truly be scandalous. In the recent past a major headline may have presented itself to a reader twice a day, or once on the evening news. That gave both journalists and the public time to ingest important information and for journalists to check the accuracy of their reporting. Speed in reporting and the constant inundation of news has made the signal indistinct from the noise. Ironically, news outlets not interested in placing themselves on the pedestal of journalistic ethics lose their asymmetry in regards to their coverage of government, and this President and need not worry about this danger of speed in reporting.

Media companies on the right, with no pretension of pure and absolute integrity, have a tremendous advantage over the media organizations which claim they are journalistic watchdogs. Breitbart, for instance, can propagandize without losing legitimacy for inaccuracies. Once again, it all comes down to the people who read the news, and ignorance is bliss.

Individuals who are less plugged-in to the news, who are less concerned about both the stream of lies from the President and catching the President in a lie, are more likely to eventually receive truly accurate news about the state of the country and the government. On the other hand, this present state of affairs is probably not going to be “solved.” It is naive to think that news organizations who only propagandize can produce critical reporting, just as it is naive to think that “traditional” news organizations will stop rushing to produce headlines (and thereby suffer the reverses that erode the public’s faith in them). It is also totally naive to believe that people will suddenly become more careful and cautious consumers of media, people will remain as they have throughout history. They may be periodically influenced by journalism, advertising, and propaganda, but they will certainly not suddenly become aware of all their own biases and shortcomings and correct themselves.

Our country and government survived the vicious “journalistic” atmosphere at the founding of the nation by simply persevering until new standards and technologies and beliefs changed the cultural and social landscape. Disasters will force action, otherwise people and nations will continue to plug along. In short, there is nothing much the public, or journalism, can do to confront the issues made plain by the asymmetry between Trump and the media outlets which report on him. We may all be a little healthier by trying to unplug a little more, however.

The Megyn Kelly Mistake

In a television interview of Alex Jones, the radio broadcasting conspiracy theorist and founder of Infowars.com, NBC News anchor Megyn Kelly tore into him over his support for the idea that the Sandy Hook massacre was a government-backed conspiracy. By all accounts she acquitted herself well and made Alex Jones look bad. But none of that matters. She was broadcasting to the wrong audience, and in turn, received no viewership for her new flagship program.

In a stinging stab of irony, the same people who listen to Alex Jones are probably the people she was most effective in appealing to in her previous career at Fox News.

Megyn Kelly was successful on Fox News as an anchor – she is intelligent, dogged, beautiful, and persuasive. Her profile continued to rise as an anchor and fill-in on Fox News and she received her own program, The Kelly File, on October, 7th, 2013. She did very well on the program being tough and probing (she was formally a prosecutor) and had excellent ratings, occasionally edging Bill O’Reilly. But when her contract ended with Fox News she chose to go to NBC and was elevated to the position of a lead anchor for three separate broadcast efforts.

NBC and Megyn Kelly failed to understand the new political-media landscape. There are no more trusted, non-partisan figures who can draw audiences. Its all about the audience, and bending your performance to suit their beliefs. The people who surrounded Megyn Kelly on Fox News were indicative of this media terrain. Tucker Carlson (who took Kelly’s time slot) and Sean Hannity have abandoned any pretense of moderation or fairness and appeal directly to the Trump/conservative political base.

Many on the right of the political spectrum understand the new realities of finely divided demographics. There are a host of provocateurs who have targeted Trump supporters and right-wingers as if they were a business targeting their products toward a certain demographic. These people are engaging in a scheme to make money, not to uphold their political beliefs.

Jack Posobiec, Mike Cernovich, Alex Jones, Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Milo Yiannopoulos, and Paul Joseph Watson are the foremost examples of people who have taken advantage of the internet and the media of political affirmation to benefit financially from targeting the “alt-right.” They spread lies, disinformation, and back Trump unreservedly in an attempt to attract an audience.

Megyn Kelly will probably fail as a news anchor for NBC in drawing audiences because liberals will not watch her because of her association with Fox News, and conservatives and Trump supporters will not watch her because she is not unabashedly backing their view points.

Fame, Alexander Pope, and Kim Kardashian

Alexander Pope is considered by many critics and scholars to be the greatest British poet of the classical era (specifically referred to as the era of Augustan literature). His subjects seem to not have lasted the test of time, as he is little known today outside of academia. Besides a few famous lines the vast majority of people have no connection whatsoever to Alexander Pope. But in his era he was famous.

He was concerned with fame, and who was famous, and why they were famous – and he even wrote a poem, The Temple of Fame, criticizing those who had earned fame through less than reputable means. The Temple of Fame is a re-imagining of Chaucer’s House of Fame. An early poem of Chaucer that finds him being guided through a personifications and allegorical representations of rumors and famous chroniclers and poets. In Pope’s poem the author receives a revelation in reverie of the “Temple” of the Goddess Fame and its inhabitants. He condemns tyrants and warriors who earned their fame through violence and enmity and those who engage in court gossip and idle lives but become famous through their positions.

Kim Kardashian (a metonymy for any people receiving unearned fame) is famous because she’s beautiful, rich, and leveraged an incident of public exposure (her sex tape). Being famous now requires that one be on television or the internet enough to be seen by enough people. Mass media has changed the nature of fame. Generally in the past, people had to be truly terrible or truly extraordinary in order to be known by a majority of people who had never seen or met them. Part of our mass and consumerist culture has degraded the honor of fame and made it a common thing. Andy Warhol spoke truly when he said that everyone would receive their “15 minutes.” In turn, the ordinariness of fame has dulled peoples’ aspirations and changed the value of role models indelibly.

Our modern culture would benefit from remembering Pope’s closing plea in The Temple of Fame: “Oh, grant an honest fame, or grant me none!”

Homelessness and Nazi Rallies

In my previous post I discussed how extremist groups have managed to elevate themselves to a semblance of respectability and find common cause with regular conservatives, in this one I will discuss how to best counter their propaganda.

We should all just stay away. That is the obvious solution to preventing the rise and spread of extremist groups in the United States. It is unlikely in this country that popular support for Neo-Nazis or the Ku Klux Klan could reach a proportion where they could take over the country, a la Nazi Germany. So with that in mind, the best way to prevent them from gaining any sort of mainstream foothold is to do what experts have recommended for years: ignore them. Without the massive counter-protest, which exacerbated and enflamed the violence, the extremist protestors would have gotten little press.

People want to resist, they want to do something to show their disapproval of neo-Nazis, but by doing that they’re playing directly in to their marketing strategy. For years advocates for homeless people have told citizens that the best way to prevent the scourge of panhandling in cities is to stop giving homeless people money. Without the incentive to panhandle the homeless are more likely to seek help and to leave commuters alone. Honest, good people contribute to the social problems of homelessness because of their impulses to help people, or to be seen as virtuous and moral. It is that same twinge of self-interested moralism that leads people to protest a Nazi rally.

I can’t help but think that if people weren’t going to post things on social media, they wouldn’t attend such rallies in such large numbers. Our society is obsessed with displaying each individual’s personal morality and virtue over communications technology, and because we are obsessed we can’t starve the beasts of extremism of what they crave most: exposure.