politics, sports

Gen X news, Feb. 1: Cynicism, the Olympics and Spotify

No podcast this week, and no, it’s not a Spotify boycott. The Olympics start tomorrow (yes, Wednesday, because the Games now kick off a couple of days before the Opening Ceremony), and even though I’m not giving NBC 10 hours a day, I’m still down for about 40 hours of live blogging and countless hours of prep work and previews. See my viewing guide.

I’ve also spent a lot of time changing my news diet. That involved a reworking of my 683 Gmail filters. Google could really make that easier, but as we’ll discuss in a bit, they’re the least problematic of the Big Tech companies in this post.

Also, I listened to last week’s podcast and decided that it sums up the state of American politics as well as anything I can produce right now. And in terms of great albums, it’s tough to top the Fishbone album discussed there. So if you haven’t listened to it yet or read the post (and I have the stats to prove that you haven’t), check it out.

Moving on …

It’s easy to say we should be skipping these Olympics because of China and COVID. But the moral calculus here depends on who’s being harmed. The 1980 Olympic boycott may have seemed justified at the time because the Soviet Union had stormed into the eternal quagmire of Afghanistan. It’s not fondly remembered. It didn’t change anything politically. It just cost athletes a chance to do something they’ve been trying to do for most of their lives.

Boycotts also rob us of inspiration that can affect things on a geopolitical level. Imagine if Jesse Owens hadn’t been in Berlin to stick it to Hitler.

And generally, cultural exchanges are positive. Paul Simon received plenty of criticism for Graceland, but who benefited from that? The South African government or South African musicians? F.W. de Klerk, who died late last year, spent the rest of his life grappling with a complex legacy he couldn’t quite face in full. Ladysmith Black Mombazo is still winning Grammys. You can draw the line, of course, at directly supporting a corrupt state and/or business with no side benefits, which is why Sun City is the best of the 1980s group protest songs. (Everyone rap along: “Bo-phu-that-swana is far away / But we know it’s in South Africa, no matter what they say.” And it’s hard to top Joey Ramone singing about Ronald Reagan and “constructive engagement.”)

Musicians can play elsewhere. Olympic athletes compete elsewhere, but there’s nothing like the Olympics, especially in the winter and especially now that NHL players aren’t going. Boycotting the Olympics would irreparably harm them. Not China’s government.

Gen Xers’ worst trait is cynicism. It’s too easy to pass a simple judgment and move on. It’s also easy to dismiss the IOC as a money-mad organization or dismiss Olympic broadcasts as too treacly. But at their heart, the Games are about people from around the world challenging themselves and coming together. And hanging out with Australian journalists and Icelandic handball players.

So when mixed doubles curling starts tomorrow, my biggest reservation in watching will be that I find mixed doubles a bit gimmicky for my taste.

In other moral dilemmas …

Spotify: Neil Young et al vs. Joe Rogan

By way of disclaimer: Yes, X Marks the Pod is primarily a Spotify podcast, leveraging the massive music library on offer. Also, I’m a NewsRadio fan and an erstwhile MMA writer.

(Actually, I consider Joe Rogan’s podcast the fourth-best thing he does or has done, behind NewsRadio, UFC commentary and his standup act.)

But with his podcast, Rogan is following Dilbert’s Scott Adams into the a state of delusion in which he thinks his whims outweigh expertise. He used to save his conspiracy lunacy for (pardon the obscure pun on “lunacy”) the moon landing, UFOs and other relatively harmless things. When he rants about vaccines and alternative COVID treatment, that’s a little more difficult to swallow.

That’s why Neil Young decided to withdraw his music from the service. Joni Mitchell followed suit.

The best-case scenario here is that Spotify, whose share price has plummeted, has to have a talk with Rogan or decide to post disclaimers. The controversy may also force more scrutiny of Spotify’s longer-standing issue of how much (little) it pays musicians. Nils Lofgren’s wife tied together the two issues with one clever tweet:

And the issues are tied together by Rogan’s contract. Musicians need a couple hundred streams just to make a buck (literally), but Spotify came up with $100m to pay Rogan.

So do we all follow Neil Young and ditch Spotify?

Well, you could do what Young did and make a deal with Amazon Music.

Which pays its musicians even less, at least by one accounting. And then you’re supporting Amazon and some unsavory business practices.

Besides, some musicians are making money through Spotify, and one of them is (was) Neil Young. Billboard calculated that Young could lose $754,000 a year by pulling his music.

And I found that story published verbatim on Joni Mitchell’s site with an laughable declaration at the end that posting an entire story from a paywalled site constitutes fair use. So if you buy Joni Mitchell’s music, you’re supporting copyright infringement and taking money away from journalists.

Moral decisions are complicated. Few people are completely virtuous or completely evil. Jeff Bezos, after all, propped up The Washington Post, which surely wasn’t the most profit-minded move he could’ve made with his money. Facebook is far too important as a communication tool for everyone to leave it now, and there are plenty of people who have the resources to make something comparable if they were so inclined.

Rogan himself is complex. He has plenty of enablers who think every question he asks or statement he makes is the unimpeachable truth. But he doesn’t even believe that. He’s not Alex Jones. He listens to people. Maybe at some point, he’ll listen to people who tell him it’s time to quit treating self-serving idiots as experts.

I’m also cautiously optimistic about Spotify’s practices moving forward, though a little private chat with Rogan would also help.

And elsewhere …

Wordle and your wallet: Want yet another Big Tech dilemma? How about the NYT buying Wordle and giving a tepid “well, it’s free for now” comment? Even if it’s free, that means the NYT is monetizing your data because it has to sell ads.

One roundup of the Twitter reaction captures the complicated ways of framing this move. Do you start using the many knockoffs instead of the one the NYT just bought? Do you have the right to criticize Wordle’s inventor for deciding he’s not going to spend the rest of his life creating content for millions of people — for free? Do you have the right to criticize the NYT for trying to make money that subsidizes its occasionally worthwhile journalism?

Generations after us have been brought up to expect everything for free — music, news, puzzles, etc. But someone pays, either through money or unpaid effort. At least, in this case, the guy who did the work is reaping the reward.

The vaccination that I get: The Mighty Mighty Bosstones broke up abruptly. Lead singer Dicky Barrett abruptly left his job as Jimmy Kimmel’s announcer. So is it a coincidence that someone named Dicky Barrett was credited as the producer of a song promoting an anti-vaccine rally? We can only hope.

Face off: Are you tired of taking off your mask so your phone or computer will recognize your face? Good news. Maybe.

Ms. Jackson if you’re nasty: Kudos to Janet Jackson, whose career was derailed by what should’ve been a harmless accident but refuses to bear a grudge.

So we’ll head into the Olympics on a nice note to go with all the encouraging COVID news. Let’s end a long winter with some warmth, and I don’t just mean the workouts you get shoveling all that snow.

And here’s the schedule to help you plan, assuming that you generally don’t want to stay up all night and that you really like curling (Google Sheet).

Featured image is me in front of the ski jumps in Whistler, getting ready to cover the 2010 Olympics.

creativity, music

Vulfpeck 1, Spotify 0

I love Spotify as a consumer. But frankly, I’d be willing to chip in a few more bucks.

Given the current system, I have to admire the creativity here:

A Scrappy Young Band Just Outsmarted Spotify for $20,000 to Give Their Fans Free Concerts – PolicyMic.

They uploaded several tracks of silence and urged fans to listen on repeat while they slept.

Seems to me the simplest solution would be to start charging listeners the 10th time they play a particular song. That gives you all the serendipity and browsing you want, but it makes you pay to make a song a permanent part of your “record” collection. Still much cheaper than CDs.


How many subscriptions can I afford?

The news that Andrew Sullivan — in many senses the pre-eminent political blogger of the format’s brief history — is going to a pay model has forced me to do some thinking.

I like Andrew’s blog. He’s one of those truly gifted analysts and writers who is often able to express common-sense thinking better than the rest of us, helping us put words to our thoughts. At the same time, I don’t spend hours on the blog every day. He branches out beyond politics, which I appreciate, but I still have plenty of days in which I’d like to have no politics on my mind. Sanity preservation and so forth. (Same reason I don’t watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report every day, brilliant as they are.)

It’s not just about one blog, of course. It’s about the number of subscriptions you can keep. 

My current list, though I’m probably forgetting something:

Sports Illustrated. I can justify it as a work expense.

– ESPN, magazine and Insider web. Ditto. I work for them from time to time — you’d think I’d get it free or at least be able to barter it for some work.

Soccer America. Mostly for the e-newsletters.

Wired. Comes with my mediabistro.com account. Might reconsider this one. It used to be a fascinating look at technology’s progress. Now it’s getting a little drearier and argumentative.

– Spotify. Gotta have music. 

– Amazon Prime. Probably. I have a free month, and I’m likely to keep it. Like Wired/mediabistro, this is more complicated than a simple subscription — it also includes shipping discounts.

Then one more for the household: Weekend Washington Post delivery. And my wife gets a couple more magazines I occasionally peruse.

With the Kindle, it’s tempting to add so many more. Rolling Stone online? Possibly. I used to get The Economist as a gift, and I felt guilty that the unfinished magazines would pile up — as an online subscriber, I’d feel free to check in on my own time and not waste so much paper.

Then there’s the New York Times site, whose model is brilliant: 10 free articles a month (more if you’re following links from somewhere), then a subscription. Don’t you hate getting the “this is your final article this month” notice on the 15th of a given month?

So in terms of adding another subscription, I have a lot of competition. The New York Times. Andrew Sullivan. The Economist. Rolling Stone. I’m even getting blocked when I try to read Philip Hersh’s Olympic-sports column at the Chicago Tribune.

But wait, there’s more. We have cable. We don’t get any of the full-fledged pay channels (HBO, Showtime), but we get a couple of tiers for sports and variety. Gotta have Fox Soccer. Still waiting on beIN Sport and Universal Sports. Any day now, local cable provider.

Last but not least, in the past year, we’ve seen the launch of two extravagant soccer magazines. XI Quarterly did a Kickstarter campaign and produced a brilliant first issue. But it’s Howler magazine that seems to have all the hip media connections, getting mentioned in the New Yorker (or at least on its site) and in SI’s best-of-2012 media roundup.

Their price tags? $15 per issue. But you can subscribe annually for $45 or $50.

Being a magnanimous person — or at least a guilt-ridden writer who knows he sometimes has to ask people to pay up for his work as well (Long-Range Goals is now available on Kindle for just $10.33, you cheapskates!) — I’d like to subscribe to all of this great stuff. I’m not one of these people who surfs the Web with ad blockers and complains about Facebook ads as if we’re entitled to consume limitless content while someone else pays for the servers and occasionally the writers and editors.

But should I pay $20 a year for Andrew Sullivan’s blog? Or $15 per issue of a glossy soccer mag (Howler) or a literary soccer mag (XI Quarterly)? What’s a cost-conscious reader to do? Can I just look at your ads?

journalism, music

Washington Post “contemporary classical” piece makes clever use of Spotify

As a music major who didn’t pursue a career in music partially because I finally realized I just didn’t care that deeply for “classical” music, I thought this was a terrific guide.

Most notable: This is a creative use of Spotify. The Post set up a playlist of music that fits the story — basically a sampler of contemporary classical styles.

I’m a little annoyed with myself because I actually had this idea a couple of weeks ago, intending to do something that’s sort of the opposite of this piece — introducing classical fans to quality 21st century rock and pop. But I’m happy to see someone else thinks it’s a good idea.

Contemporary classical: A primer – The Washington Post.

music, web

Can Spotify finally fill Launch void?

While social networks get more sophisticated and online video (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, streaming sports) gets better and better and better, online music is an area that has frankly gone backward.

No one will ever convince me that Pandora and Last.fm are better than Launch, the old service Yahoo ran.

Launch was simple but sophisticated. You could listen to a genre radio station and rate songs — 100, 90, 80 on down to “X.” An “X” meant you wouldn’t hear that song again. (If you changed your mind, it wasn’t hard to undo.) The more you listened, the more Launch understood your preferences and played songs (and comedy routines) that fit. I discovered so much new music that way.

And you could still vary things by mood or occasion. I could tell it I wanted quieter fare for background or stuff that really rocked.

Pandora isn’t bad. You can pick genre stations and mix them up a little bit. Yet it’s a little erratic. Add too much variety, and it doesn’t know what to pick. You can’t rate by number — just “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” — and your preferences are only recorded on that particular “station.” In other words, I can tell it I really don’t want to hear Matt Nathanson on the alt-pop “station,” but then I have to tell it again on the “Metric” station.

I finally made peace with it when I compiled most of my “thumbs up” songs onto one station and used them as “seed” songs, but even so, it tends to play five songs reflecting one “seed” and then five from “another.” Not quite the same sense of serendipity that I got from Launch, and I had to remove a Fall Out Boy song so I wouldn’t hear a five-pack of Fall Out Boy clones. Now I’m hearing five straight flamenco songs based on one or two of my “seeds,” and that’s actually kind of cool.

Last.fm? Please. I could never get much control over what I heard, and then I could see all these charts telling me what was popular.

Spotify addresses at least one vital purpose. You can pick out a new release and listen to the whole thing. It’s safe to say my buying decisions will be better informed from here on out.

And as they keep adding features, I’m finding other impressive aspects. For one thing, their genre list is staggering. “Celtic Rock”? Sure, I’ll give that a try. This page teaches you how to do advanced searches.

So that’s promising, at least. Now can we get videos for these people on MTV? MTV2? VH1?