DIGITAL MUSIC NEWS

Pandora Finalizes Publishing Deal With BMG

 

Handshake      Not content to wait for the greater music industry to enact significant changes, Pandora last week announced it has signed a direct deal for music rights with BMG, the world’s fourth-largest music publisher. The arrangement includes the portions of its catalog represented by ASCAP and BMI, the two major licensing groups that have long handled the rights for millions of songs in the U.S. As reported by The New York Times, BMG’s large roster includes songwriters who have written major hits for such performers as Adele, One Direction, Beyoncé, and Frank Sinatra; the company is part of German media conglomerate Bertelsmann.

Even though BMG remains a member of ASCAP and BMI, Pandora bypassed them by making the direct deal for what analysts believe is a higher royalty rate than those two organizations – which are governed by decades-old federal regulation – are able to obtain on their own. In exchange, the deal gives BMG and its songwriters unspecified “marketing and business benefits,” according to a statement issued by Pandora.

Last month Pandora struck a similar deal with Merlin, which represents thousands of independent record companies in digital licensing negotiations. That agreement is expoected to pay the record labels slightly better royalty rates than would be available through the compulsory licensing terms available to Pandora under United States copyright law, and also give the labels access to valuable marketing insights from Pandora’s vast collection of user data. “We believe direct deals with labels offer better content cost visibility in the longer term, and we think they improve relations between Pandora and the artists,” Nomura analyst Anthony DiClemente wrote in a research note following the BMG announcement. 

Liberty CEO: Sirius XM Is Eyeing Streaming

Expansion To Drive Competitive Growth

 

Sirius XM      It appears Sirius XM finally may be realizing digital streaming technology is leap-frogging right past satellite radio distribution. While the Liberty Media-backed company entered the streaming audio space several years ago, recent comments made by President/CEO Greg Maffei indicate the satcaster is studying the growth curves of other streaming music services and determining how to compete on a major scale.

“We are watching what happens in streaming,” Maffei said at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia conference in New York last week. “Taking Sirius XM’s unique content beyond the car in the home and in the office, it’s an opportunity we’ve not yet attacked.”

His comments make it clear that Sirius XM, which depends heavily on subscribers getting satellite-radio receivers in their cars, is interested in becoming a bigger player in the internet-based streaming space. According to the New York Post, subscribers who prefer to listen to the service on their mobile devices can get a stand-alone online radio package for $14.99 a month, less than the current “all-access” package, which costs $18.99. 

No Big Surprise, Really: Clear Channel

Changes Its Name To iHeartMedia

 

     Yesterday’s announcement that Clear Channel Media & Entertainment was changing its name to iHeartMedia seemed to cause a heart attack throughout the broadcasting industry, but a few analysts actually saw the change coming months ago. The company increasingly was using the “iHeartRadio” line to brand its stations on the local level, and the Clear Channel name – associated with billions of dollars of debt – was considered clunky by many folks inside the radio business and on Wall Street. While the “heart” part of iHeartMedia itself may seem a decade out of date, the name change re-brands the company among younger listeners (and ostensibly, media buyers) who associate it with the iHeartMusic Festival which, not coincidentally, begins Friday (Sept. 19) in Las Vegas.

The name-change is “a reflection of  the fact that the company has changed radically over last several years,” Clear Channel Chief Executive Robert Pittman said in a statement. “We have massive consumer reach and influence across our platforms because we know how to program the live content people want to hear. Right now we are the largest mobile media company in existence, and we deliver more live programming than any other media company today.”

Indeed, the aforementioned iHeartRadio Festival attracts tens of thousands of fans each year, and the TV broadcasts last year drew millions of viewers. Also televised are the iHeartRadio Jingle Ball, iHeartRadio Pool Party, and several iHeartRadio concerts a year. Additionally, Clear Channel’s inaugural iHeartRadio Music Awards on NBC in May attracted 5.5 million viewers.

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, much of the public has come to equate the Clear Channel name with corporate consolidation of the radio and concert industries. However, according to a recent study released by Edison Research, iHeartRadio’s brand is second in recognition in audio streaming, behind Pandora’s 31% share with 9%, and ahead of iTunes Radio’s 8% share. While the name change affects all former Clear Channel radio stations and its digital audio platform, the company’s outdoor business will retain the name Clear Channel Outdoor. 

Apple’s U2 Music Giveaway Breaks Bad

 

     It all began with U2’s appearance with Apple Inc. CEO Tim Cook last week. As the company made its predicted announcement of the new iPhone 6 and a new wearable wrist device, the company blundered into what Upstart Business Journal called an “unforced error” with its decision to automatically add the band’s new album “Songs of Innocence” to 500 million iTunes accounts. This meant that, if a user’s device was set to automatically download newly-purchased music, the brand-new U2 album would be sitting on the iPhone, iPad, etc.

One week later, in the midst of a massive backlash from angry iTunes customers, Apple has been forced to put up a special page for users who want to erase “Songs of Innocence” from their libraries with a removal tool that indicates how wrong a seemingly good idea can go. “Nothing pisses off the audience more than pushing something they don’t want and didn’t ask for,” media analyst Bob Lefsetz said in a newsletter. “They’d have been better off releasing it on YouTube; that’s where the digital generation goes for music. iTunes is a backwater. It may be the number one sales outlet, but it’s not the number one music platform… not even close.”

The stunt did little to help U2’s chart prospects, either. Billboard last week announced its refusal to count the album release on its charts, even though Apple paid $100 million to get it there. “While U2 surprised the music world by releasing its new album, ‘Songs of Innocence,’ as a free download to iTunes Store account holders and for streaming on Beats Music, you won’t see it on the Billboard 200 albums chart for another month and a half,” the industry magazine said in a statement.

“Free or giveaway albums are not eligible for inclusion on Billboard’s album charts and do not count toward sales tracked by Nielsen SoundScan. “Once ‘Songs of Innocence’ goes on sale beginning Oct. 14, it will then set its sights on Billboard’s sales charts. On that date, the album will be available in both standard and deluxe editions to physical and digital retailers, as well as on streaming services other than Beats. Until then, only current or new iTunes or Beats account holders will have access to the album.”

 

Deezer Launches High-End Audio Service

To Compete With Spotify And Beats

 

     French music streaming company Deezer has launched an elite service with what it calls higher sound quality for audiophiles as it tries to differentiate itself from rivals Spotify, Pandora, and Beats Music. According to the Financial Times, the company said it plans to launch the service in the U.S. through a partnership with Sonos, the speaker manufacturer that specializes in wireless audio.

Deezer ostensibly is betting that high-fidelity audio will enhance its appeal in an increasingly crowded and competitive market. The new service, to be called Deezer Elite, will stream “lossless” audio files at a standard of 1,411 kilobits per second. The higher the bitrate of a file, the more detailed the sounds, and Deezer’s high rate is more than four times the top bitrate of Spotify. The service will cost up to $19.99 a month, twice the $9.99 a month Spotify charges.

In a statement, Deezer North America chief executive Tyler Goldman said the company was “focused on super-serving the needs of underserved market segments” such as audio enthusiasts. Many audiophiles have shunned streaming services because their sound quality is usually inferior to that of high-quality downloads, vinyl albums, or CDs, he said.

Still, the market for high-end audio streaming may be limited, because of higher subscription and bandwidth charges costs, and the fact that most people stream music through smartphones and computers, which do not have the capability for high-end audio.

 

Warner Music Consolidates Biz-Dev Unit

 

     Warner Music Group this week consolidated its global business development functions under a single leadership team, with COO Rob Wiesenthal overseeing the company’s digital business development efforts while continuing to report to CEO Steve Cooper. At the same time, the label promoted Jonathan Dworkin to EVP of digital strategy and business development. Dworkin will report to Wiesenthal and continue working on “building global-minded partnerships that expand WMG’s success with artist development.”

As reported by Billboard, Cooper said the new unified structure will give artists a portfolio of “unmatched” innovative services and opportunities. “This move recognizes that digital technology is a driving force across all aspects of our business, and that the pace of change – both globally and locally – requires nimble experimentation,” he said in a statement.

Wiesenthal joined WMG in early 2013 to oversee the company’s partnership with Shazam, and also spearheaded the deal with Clear Channel to become the first U.S. major label to receive artist performance royalty payments when their master recordings are played on the radio. This new role at the label creates an opportunity to “establish new business approaches for artists, and build on WMG’s reputation as the most ambitious and progressive music company in the world,” he said in a statement.

 

A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2014

 

 

Leading tech investors warn of bubble risk ‘unprecedented since 1999′

Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel
Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, whose company was valued at $10bn despite having never turned a profit. Photograph: Jae C. Hong/AP

Two of the world’s leading tech investors have warned the new wave of tech companies and their backers are taking on risk and burning through cash at rates unseen since 1999 when the “dotcom bubble” burst.

Bill Gurley, partner at Silicon Valley-based investor Benchmark, sounded the horn of doom on Monday warning that “Silicon Valley as a whole or that the venture-capital community or startup community is taking on an excessive amount of risk right now.”

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal Gurley, whose investments include OpenTable, Uber and Zillow, said startups were taking on risks in a way “unprecedented since ‘99”.

Gurley said that “more humans in Silicon Valley are working for money-losing companies than have been in 15 years”, and they’re burning through huge piles of cash.

“In 01 or 09, you just wouldn’t go take a job at a company that’s burning $4m a month. Today everyone does it without thinking,” he said.

His comments were backed up Tuesday by Fred Wilson, the New York-based co-founder of Union Square Ventures who has backed companies including Twitter, Tumblr and Zynga.

Burn rates – the amount of money a startup is spending – are “sky high all over the US startup sector right now”, he wrote in a blog post.

“We have multiple portfolio companies burning multiple millions of dollars a month. Thankfully its not our entire portfolio. But it is more than I’d like and more than I’m personally comfortable with,” he wrote.

“I’ve been grumpy for months, possibly for longer than that, about this. I’ve pushed back on long term leases that I thought were outrageous, I’ve pushed back on spending plans that I thought were too aggressive and too risky, I’ve made myself a pain in the ass to more than a few CEOs.”’

The comments come after a new generation of tech companies have attracted record levels of investments at levels that give the profitless businesses eye-watering valuations.

In August Snapchat, the social messaging service, was valued at $10bn after a new round of funding. The free service’s fans send 500m self-deleting messages a day, but Snapchat has yet to declare how it intends to make money. Among the other big tech valuations in recent months are Uber, the taxi app service, which was valued at $18bn after its last round of funding in June, and Airbnb, the short term rentals service, which was valued at $10bn in April.

But the valuations are not the immediate issue, according to the sceptical tech investors. “Valuations can be fixed. You can do a down round (investing at a lower valuation), or three or four flat ones, until you get the price right,” writes Wilson. “But burn rates are exactly that. Burning cash. Losing money. Emphasis on the losing.”

Asked if investors, and the people working for the companies, were distracted by the potential for reward, Gurley said: “Yeah, it’s a whole bunch of things. But you just slowly forget, and half of the entrepreneurs today, or maybe more – 60% or 70% – weren’t around in ‘99, so they have no muscle memory whatsoever.”

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/sep/16/tech-bubble-warning-investors-dotcom-losing-money

Uber may be a bum deal for drivers and cabbies alike, threatening the future of full-time work

How Uber’s Efforts to Squeeze Drivers Have Compelled Them to Fight Back

Last week in Long Island City, a waterfront neighborhood in western Queens, over 1,000 Uber drivers went on strike, protesting against several recent policy changes that directly cut into their wages. LIC is cab country, home to countless car service companies, and it can sometimes feel like every passing vehicle is a taxi of some sort: a classic yellow cab, a town car, a green taxi or, more likely than not, a ridesharing car. So it came as no surprise that drivers who work for Uber—a smartphone app that connects drivers with people looking for a ride—chose the company’s Long Island City headquarters to protest their labor practices.

One driver grievance was the decision to extend a summer discount, where the base price for standard rides was slashed from $12 to $8, into the fall, requiring drivers to work more hours to make the same money. The other is slightly more complex, but just as damaging to workers’ earning potential. There are several distinct tiers of Uber service (UberX and Uber XL, the cheapest services offered in New York City, and UberBlack and UberSUV, the higher-end black car services), and drivers for the higher-end versions earn more, in part to compensate for the higher costs of their vehicles, which they must supply themselves. Without any advance warning, the company told drivers for “Black” and “SUV” that they would now be sent cheaper fares as well, and that declining those fares could lead to their deactivation from the service.

The coordinated outcry from their workers got Uber’s attention, and, in an abrupt turnaround late on Friday morning, the company sent a mass email to their New York drivers giving them permission to decide if and when to receive UberX requests. Though this conflict may seem like a minor technical issue, it speaks to the increasingly fraught dynamic between the San Francisco-based company and its international network of independently contracted drivers.

Uber has built its reputation on providing reliable, safe rides at any time and at any location in the urban centers where it operates. In 205 cities in 45 countries across the world, it is now possible to take out your phone, select a car from a map showing nearby Uber vehicles, and have a cab waiting at your doorstep in under five minutes. Because customers’ accounts are linked to their debit or credit cards, payment is seamless. The convenience and usability of the app have inspired devoted fans, and few would argue against the practicality of Uber and its ever-expanding list of peers, including Sidecar, Lyft, SheTaxis and Halo. But in their focus on customer service, ridesharing companies have pushed the concerns of their workers aside.

* * * * *

Since it’s founding in 2009, Uber has become the poster child for the sharing economy, a nebulous concept that basically boils down to companies taking on the role of middlemen. Companies like Uber, Airbnb and Snapgoods use technology to connect people to various goods and services (apartments, cars, ball gowns, bikes) that they can rent temporarily. The sharing economy has been heralded as a resource-saving, efficient, collaborative system that allows people to make a profit from items they wouldn’t otherwise be using. In another light, it can be seen as a sign of our economically insecure times. People who don’t make enough at their day jobs can try to cover expenses by renting out an extra room of their apartments, or driving strangers around a few afternoons per week. It is evidence of the fragile finances of people who are underpaid for minimum wage work or cobbling together full-time schedules from an assortment of temporary and seasonal gigs.

Investors love this economic model, for obvious reasons. Because these service providers are tech companies first and foremost and do not own the products being rented, much of the business risk, from upkeep to scheduling, is shifted to the workers. Companies like Uber—which received a valuation of $18.2 billion back in June—can make enormous profits while washing their hands of any responsibility to their employees.

Uber has exploited their position as middleman in two principal ways, both of which have a serious impact on people who drive cabs for a living. One, they claim that they are “disrupting” the overly regulated, outmoded taxi industry in the name of competition and the free market. What goes unmentioned are the thousands of full-time taxi drivers, many of whom belong to associations that help them fight for decent wages and other benefits, being put out of work by the rise of ridesharing companies. Furthermore, for a company that so values competition, Uber has systematically worked to quash their rivals in cities across the country, engaging in underhanded tactics to poach drivers from other car services.

The other way Uber takes advantage of their middleman status is in their treatment of workers. Uber drivers are not technically considered employees. Instead, they are “independent contractors,” meaning that they don’t receive any of the benefits or protections employers are typically expected to provide. The company tries to play this both ways. On the one hand, they claim that Uber drivers—or “partners,” as they’re known—typically work part-time, and drive as a way to make some extra cash. Yet the company also markets itself as a job creator and promises drivers the opportunity to make up to $90,000 a year in places like New York—no one’s idea of pocket change, if it is in fact true.

The contractor model has been tested by a number of corporations that want to do away with the inconvenience of having to be accountable to their labor force. In one recent example, FedEx Ground lost a landmark court case for misclassifying their drivers as “contractors,” saddling them with the burden of providing their own healthcare, FedEx-brand equipment, gas, insurance and much more. FedEx may now have to pay hundreds of millions in backpay. By shifting much of the risk and cost of operations onto the workers, companies like FedEx and Uber are relieved of the responsibility of dealing with the day-to-day hazards of running a business. In a blog post about the downsides of the sharing economy, Maureen Conway of the Aspen Institute, a centrist think tank, writes:

“If someone gets sick in the car and that driver has to spend the rest of the day cleaning the car, that’s not Uber’s problem….The risks associated with illness, injury or just the ups and downs of customer demand are largely borne by workers.”

Uber drivers use their own vehicles, pay for their own gas, parking and repairs, receive no benefits or worker’s compensation, and, once they are hired, have hardly any interaction with the company for which they work. Taken together, these additional costs make a significant dent in what workers bring home at the end of the day. Yet the company and its acolytes promote Uber as a source of well-compensated, stable employment. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick announced last week that they are adding 50,000 new “driver jobs” each month, and they have hundreds of thousands of drivers in their network. In promotional materials, Uber brags that their drivers can make salaries in the upper five figures in particularly busy markets like New York and San Francisco, and that they earn far more on average than taxi drivers. This would all seem to imply that the company acknowledges that drivers operate vehicles for Uber as their primary source of income. As the recent protests in New York City (and Los Angeles, and Santa Monica) suggest, many of the people who work for Uber consider driving their full-time job and are struggling to make ends meet.

Yet the company also markets itself as a form of part-time employment, a stopgap measure between full-time jobs or a way for grad students or stay-at-home moms to make a few extra bucks. This is certainly the case for some drivers, who enjoy the ability to create their own schedules and serve as their own employers. Nina Beck, a sunny 26-year-old from the Bay Area, told me in a phone interview that she started working for Uber because she was getting married and needed a job with flexible hours. Maria Vargas, an Uber driver who lives in Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood, began working for the company when her kids moved out and she no longer needed to work at her full time job sewing for a garment factory.

“I love it,” she said. “You can go on vacations. They don’t care if you’re working or not. The money is never enough, but for me, it is.”

For many others, it is not. Haroon, a Pakistani immigrant who has been working for Uber for two years, told me that he works 12-hour shifts six days per week in order to support his wife and two young sons. Most of the drivers who he knows from Uber, and from a previous stint working for Lyft, work full-time, often clocking far more than 40 hours per week. Anyone hoping to earn a decent income as a ridesharing driver should expect to treat it as a full-time job, whether or not the company admits it. Though Uber is surely aware that casual part-time workers aren’t the reason the company has been able to move into scores of new markets at a blistering pace. No corporation would function with a labor force of individuals who only worked for an hour or two a day. Uber’s popularity is based on its reliability and availability, and the company needs knowledgeable, friendly drivers working on a steady basis to ensure that they maintain it.

Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, NYC’s union for yellow taxicab drivers, put it to me this way: “Ridesharing companies like Uber are informalizing driver labor. Throughout the world, whenever workers’ labor is deprofessionalized, they lose protections and rights…As much as Uber supporters talk about their model being something modern, I really think it seems quite backwards as far as workers’ rights are concerned.”

* * * * *

The ability to make “enough” as a ridesharing driver depends largely on where Uber drivers are located geographically. They can earn much more in cities with high customer demand, like San Francisco and DC, but the issue has become more complicated by Uber’s recent fare cuts. As a means of boosting ridership and offering customers the cheapest possible rates, Uber has drastically cut fares in many states, including New York and New Jersey. Customers are understandably thrilled by the cheaper prices, but a lower fare translates to a pay cut for drivers, who earn 80% of the cost of each Uber ride. The company says that drivers will benefit from this system since they will get many more trips as a result of the spike in rider interest. Drivers don’t seem so sure.

“You can’t keep cutting people’s rates in half and telling them, ‘Oh, you’re going to get twice as many customers!’” Jonathan Cousar, a part-time Uber driver who runs the website Uber Driver Diaries, told me in a phone interview. “There are only so many people that you can physically drive around in one hour. It basically translates to drivers doing more work for more time while making a smaller profit.”

Another barrier to earning a decent wage is the surplus of drivers. Because Uber is desperate to prevent other ridesharing services from hiring new drivers, and because their business model relies on providing people with cab rides anywhere and at any time, the company has far more drivers than Uber workers say they actually need. This cuts into business both for traditional cab drivers and for ridesharing drivers. The Uber driver thread on Reddit is flooded with posts by drivers upset about their lack of trips. “I haven’t had a single fare this weekend (sixteen hours online),” user ImagineFreedom, who is based in San Antonio, fumed in a posting. “All of a sudden it seems like driver numbers have quadrupled and ads are still being posted for drivers.” On a recent afternoon, my Uber app showed six available cars in a two-block vicinity on a quiet corner in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights.

Cousar, who operates in northern New Jersey, told me that when he first joined the company, he easily made his goal of $500 per week to supplement the income he made from his web hosting business. But now it’s impossible to make that much thanks to the combination of fare cuts and the surplus of drivers on the road.

“It makes me wonder how reliable this is as a future full-time or even part-time income. They’ve already brought in far more drivers than the market can support, and they’re still recruiting so aggressively.”

This is where the lack of accountability comes in. Uber doesn’t care if drivers are only getting one fare an hour, as long as all of their customers are getting picked up on time. It’s not their problem if drivers have to work longer hours to make the same money, or to waste hours waiting around for a trip that never comes. Uber’s concerns are customer satisfaction and profit, and in those regards, they’re doing as well as any company could hope to.

* * * * *

If Uber drivers are fed up with this lack of consideration, traditional taxi drivers are in despair. The highly regulated industry has strict requirements that determine standards for licensing, rates and training. Uber isn’t subject to these regulations, meaning its drivers have a significant advantage over taxi drivers who have to comply with county and state regulations that specify when and how a for-hire car can be booked. Kalanick, the CEO, has scoffed at the taxi industry as a “protectionist scheme,” and blames excessive regulation for strangling competition in the field.

There is certainly some merit to his claims, and customers have plenty of legitimate complaints about the traditional cab industry (the difficulty of finding a ride at odd hours, high prices, a lack of options). Ask why people use Uber and they’ll respond with complaints about cabbies talking on the phone while driving, taking unnecessarily long routes to jack up the fare, or subjecting them to unwanted flirtations.

Beck, the San Francisco-based Uber driver, told me, “Personally I’m not really concerned about taxi drivers losing their jobs. I can’t tell you how many creepy cab drivers I’ve had in my life; it’s just like ‘good riddance.’ They never innovate. I guess that’s not the fault of individual cab drivers but the industry itself.”

This last line is key. Why are we blaming individual taxi drivers for the effects of strict regulations they had no part in creating? And isn’t it a bit unfair for people to write off an entire industry based on a few negative experiences? Imagine passing judgment on the food service industry based on the one time a waiter happened to be rude to you. Moreover, most of the regulations that “encumber” the taxi industry are designed to protect consumers. Taxi commissions exist to control fares, enforce training, licensing and safety standards for drivers, and to provide a platform for customers to file complaints or report lost property. Most of the negative press about Uber has involved customer complaints: female riders being sexually harassed by drivers or passengers being charged exorbitant rates under the surge pricing system, where fares go up, sometimes dramatically, during times of increased demand. In August, Uber riders in San Francisco took to social media to rail against the $400-plus fees they were being charged to get to and from a popular local music festival. Clearly, consumers expect some degree of liability and oversight from the companies with which they do business.

So who are the people who are so vigorously applauding Uber’s fight against industry requirements? A March Daily Beast article, which recounts a visit from Republican Senator Marco Rubio to Uber’s DC office, gives us some indication.

“Regulation,” Rubio told the gathered group of Uber employees, “should never be a weapon used by connected and established industry to crowd out innovation and competition, and this is a real world example.”

* * * * *

Uber’s cutthroat tactics are not restricted to the taxi industry. In a remarkable scoop at The Verge, Casey Newton details the underhanded methods the company uses to hurt the business of other ridesharing services. The anecdotes read like the pages of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, except instead of sending spies to steal recipes from rival candy manufacturers, Uber sends undercover “brand ambassadors” to convince drivers from Lyft and Sidecar to switch companies. Their campaign against Lyft, their main competitor, is particularly underhanded and systematic. CNN reported in August that the company had employees around the country order and then cancel 5,560 Lyft rides, disrupting the company’s operations and causing Lyft drivers to lose business.

Cousar, the Jersey-based driver and blogger, expressed his discomfort with these aggressive tactics. “I think they’ve done some terrible things. From a moral standpoint they make me cringe, and they make me less proud and more leery about working with them.”

For now, at least, the legality of Uber’s tactics hasn’t been seriously questioned. As any defender of the company will tell you, all competing companies try to hire each other’s workers and undercut each other’s business. But Uber is already the colossus of the ridesharing industry, with a budget and international presence that far surpass any of its rivals. Though Kalanick and other Uber reps constantly preach the gospel of competition to reporters, their methods are as anti-competitive as they come. As Andrew Leonard at Salon puts it, “There’s little doubt that Uber is the closest thing we’ve got today to the living, breathing essence of unrestrained capitalism….This is how robber barons play.”

After all, wasn’t the whole reason that Uber came into being to shake up the taxi industry monopoly and open it up to new ideas and innovations? Basic economics tells us that competition is essential to provide companies with an incentive to keep prices reasonable, ensure quality and moderate supply. So do we really want Uber to be our only option?

People lover Uber because it’s reasonably priced, it’s reliable and it’s easy to use. But we love plenty of products and services that depend upon the exploitation of workers: disposable fashion from H&M and Forever 21, fast food from Wendy’s, discount furniture ordered on Amazon. The traditional taxi industry may suffer from an excess of regulation, but regulations exist for a reason. If we want workers to be protected from exploitation, have stable, full-time jobs, and benefit from decent working conditions, we need to treat them like the employees that they are. If Uber turns out to be the industry-transforming technology it claims to be and becomes the new universal model for hiring taxis, we need to seriously consider some of these questions. Because if the sharing economy is the way of the future, the future of full-time, permanent work is at stake.

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet’s associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Inc., Daily Serving and the Nation.

http://www.alternet.org/corporate-accountability-and-workplace/how-ubers-efforts-squeeze-drivers-have-compelled-them-fight?akid=12245.265072.efeL2-&rd=1&src=newsletter1019485&t=5&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

Is it possible to go untracked in this new digital dystopia? It’s gotten harder — but here’s how I’ve done it

John Twelve Hawks: “New surveillance states have placed us in an invisible prison”

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John Twelve Hawks: "New surveillance states have placed us in an invisible prison"
(Credit: Richard Susanto via Shutterstock/phbaer via iStock/Salon)

 

Surveillance

The continuing revelations by Edward Snowden have convinced many of us that we are living in a modern surveillance state. And the problem isn’t just the activities of the National Security Agency and Great Britain’s GCHQ. “Trickle Down Surveillance” has provided spy technology to small town police officers and developing world dictators. In addition, our activities are monitored for commercial reasons by a wide variety of international corporations (Amazon isn’t the “Everything Store,” it’s the “Find Out Everything About You” store).

Anyone who steps back for a minute and observes our modern digital world might conclude that we have destroyed our privacy in exchange for convenience and false security. That private world within our thoughts has been monitored, tabulated and quantified. Our tastes, our opinions, our needs and our desires have been packaged and sold as commodities. Those in power have pushed their need for control one step too far. They turned unique individuals into data files, and our most intimate actions have become algorithmic probabilities.

The destruction of personal privacy is not an ideological issue. Thoughtful women and men on every point of the political spectrum are beginning to realize that surveillance technology has shifted the balance of power between institutions and individuals. Without private thoughts and actions we can never truly be free.

Ten years ago, I believed that individuals could live off the grid, but because of “trickle-down surveillance,” it’s becoming impossible to escape surveillance in a rural area or in a developing country. Most of the people reading this essay have jobs that involve computers. We have cellphones, and we use the Internet. Like it or not, we’re living in a digital infrastructure.

Although I write dystopian fiction, I don’t believe in dystopian fantasies. Unless some future hacker genius creates a virus that wipes every database clean, it’s clear that destroying one small part of this Virtual Panopticon is not going to bring the walls down.

So what are we supposed to do? How can we avoid becoming just another bar-coded object tracked within a World of Things?

A place of refuge

A good first step is to find or create an occasional place of refuge where you can escape the electronic grid that surrounds us. It’s a place without phones or computers — without monitoring of any kind. Stepping back from the grid is especially important if you have small children. They need to discover the possibilities created by their own imaginations.



I realize that switching off one’s Twitter feed is highly difficult for some people. But walking alone down a forest path, smelling the wet earth, and watching branches sway in the wind is actually the first step in your act of resistance.

You can’t truly hear your own voice until the shouting around you disappears. New ideas and possibilities — our own ideas, our own possibilities — will occur only when we step away from the Virtual Panopticon.             

At various times of my life I have turned away from our high-tech society. When I was younger I simply camped or explored the wilderness on my own. During the last few years, I’ve experienced more extreme periods of isolation in Nepal and Tibet (in both of these countries, people are more accepting of these kinds of actions).

The last time I stepped off the grid, I took photographs of myself before and after the experience. On the first day, my face showed the conventional “mask” we all create to protect our private Self. Thirty-one days later, I had grown a beard, but that was an insignificant change. I was smiling. My eyes were wide open and ready to see the beauty of our world.

One consequence of living — even for a short time — in a place of refuge is that when you return to your daily routine, you’ll be more aware of the ways that the Panopticon is watching you and predicting your behavior. This awareness gives you the motivation to gradually create a parallel life.

Parallel Lives

My Public Self uses a credit card to buy an airline ticket, walks through an airport and boards a plane. This Self pays income taxes, uses a smartphone, and doesn’t hide his face from the CCTV cameras that have appeared throughout New York and London.

Then there is my Private Self that gives a fake phone number to an inquisitive clerk, doesn’t post a photograph on Facebook, and uses a search engine that won’t remember searches. I’ve used a gift card (paid for with cash) to purchase Apple apps and my identity is not on the Apple Corp.’s database.

Finally there is a Secret Self that owns a throwaway cellphone purchased with cash and uses Internet software like Tor that enables online anonymity.

In the beginning, these actions to defend your privacy feel like a game. But deliberately concealing yourself from the Panopticon makes you feel less passive and more aware. There’s nothing flashy going on here, just small daily actions that continually undercut the constant attempt by governments and corporations to know who you are and what you’re doing.

The Shark Cage

The Internet is not a cyber-utopia offering freedom to anyone with a blog. It’s part of the world economy (other than Wikipedia, the vast majority of the top 100 websites are owned by large corporations).

We exist in a marketplace where our personal information is collected and sold. But the marketplace can protect our privacy if we make conscious choices. Companies selling computers and phones design their product first, then add firewalls and security software later. The growing awareness of the attack on privacy has prompted a small group of cryptographers to design communications devices that assume that both the Internet and the cellular network have been compromised.

Recently, a company has introduced the Blackphone — an Android-based smartphone that provides easy-to-use encryption for phone calls and text messaging (the same company is developing “a private and secure” email system called Dark Mail). By the time you read this, there may be better-designed phones and more secure email systems. The real news is that the market is beginning to respond to the public’s growing realization of how the surveillance state destroys freedom. More pro-privacy computers and communications devices will be created, and they will gradually become less expensive and easier to use.

Wealthy people and celebrities routinely hire specialists to create an electronic “shark cage” that protects their phone and online privacy. But privacy is no longer a rich man’s luxury. In the last few years, small companies like the Boston-based Abine Corp. are selling software that can control the personal information that companies and other people can see about consumers online.

In democratic countries with a digital infrastructure, the market will eventually offer us cheap and easy-to-use ways to step away from certain aspects of the Panopticon. All you need is enough cash to buy a prepaid debit card — and the desire to live an unmonitored life.

Parallel Systems

I own two smartphones (one purchased with cash), an iPad, two regular computers, and a “clean” notebook computer that’s unattached to any identity. There’s nothing wrong with technology itself. A license plate scanner attached to a computer has no ideology. The real issue is control. Who gives instructions to these new machines, and what are they used for? Who makes the rules for our society and our lives?

One positive aspect of the new technology is that it gives us the means to create parallel systems that exist alongside the dominant social and economic system. Examples can be found everywhere: organic farming, home solar power, and the do-it-yourself movement (DIY), which encourages people to “life hack” common problems and use open-source designs to make machines.

Using a parallel system allows us to makes a distinction between the surveillance state and those transactions that are not instantly part of a database. When we buy a locally grown tomato at the farmer’s market, use a peer-to-peer payment system that involves cryptocurrency, or rent a room in someone’s apartment while traveling, we’re engaged in a transaction that will not be tracked or quantified.

Participating in these parallel systems and creating a parallel life are both choices. And most people living in democratic countries still have these choices. But what should we do if the new surveillance states extend their power into every aspect of our lives?

When do you decide that you have had enough?

Resistance

For several years I worked for an organization that sent its employees out to work in war zones all over the world. On a number of occasions, I walked through villages where everyone had been killed and the bodies were left to swell up and rot in the sun. Time disappeared during these moments, and I was conscious only of the stench and the buzzing sound that came from swarms of flies. Eventually, my Sikh driver would honk the horn of the truck filled with relief supplies. I would get back into the truck cab and continue up the road. But these experiences stayed in my memory. I wanted to know why humans acted with such deliberate cruelty. When should we turn away from evil? And when should we resist?

When I returned to America, I began to read books about the Holocaust that described how ordinary people were transformed into executioners while a smaller group risked their lives trying to save others. There’s a long shelf of books about individual rescuers like Oskar Schindler, but it was difficult to come up with a general theory as to why they stepped forward.

A friend recommended that I read about Stanley Milgram’s famous “obedience studies” in the early 1960s. The Yale University psychologist was trying to understand how authority could push individuals into performing cruel or unethical actions, so he conducted a series of experiments on the Yale campus.

Imagine that you were one of the people who answered a newspaper ad looking for paid participants in a “scientific experiment.” When you arrive at the basement laboratory, a man wearing a white lab coat tells you that you’re going to participate in a study of how memory is influenced by punishment. You fill out a questionnaire, then pick a piece of paper that gives you the role of  “teacher” while the other participant is “the learner” (actually an actor hired by Milgram). The learner is taken to another room and an electrode is strapped to his wrist. Then the experimenter asks you to give the learner a set of word pairings to memorize.

If the learner in the next room answers correctly over an intercom, you’re supposed to praise him. But if the learner gives the wrong answer, you’re told to press a switch that gives a shock to the other person. At first, the learner answers correctly, and then he begins to make mistakes. Each time that happens, you’re told to press a switch with a higher voltage indicated on the control panel. You’re ordered to keep going even when the learner begins to scream.

After 19 different experiments with more than a thousand participants, Milgram described the obedience study to a group of 40 psychiatrists and asked them to estimate what percentage of teachers would reach the 450-volt level marked with an ominous XXX on the control panel. The psychiatrists decided that only 1 percent of the test group would go all the way. They were astonished to learn that two out of three “ordinary” men and women gave the maximum shock even when the learner in the other room had stopped responding.

Humans can be manipulated to obey. As information and communications technology creates a surveillance state, I’m worried that fear of terrorism will create a system where police officers and soldiers will obey the computer-generated decisions that appear on their optical head-mounted displays.

So what can stop this from happening? In 2006, a professor at Santa Clara University named Jerry Burger duplicated Milgram’s experiment using an experimental procedure where the “teachers” were pushed only toward a maximum 150-volt level. When he interviewed the participants afterward, Burger discovered that those who had stopped participating felt that they were responsible for giving the shocks, while those participants who obeyed had decided that the experimenter was responsible.

Milgram’s research shows us that anyone who identifies with authority can be manipulated to defend institutional goals. This sort of mindless obedience can be defeated only by one’s sense of identity.

Identity is not taste or fashion; it has nothing to do with what we’ve purchased in the past or want to buy in the future. Identity comes from making real choices that force you to decide what is true, fair and just.

One Man Standing in the Middle of a Street

The key image of our era is not an astronaut on the moon or a smirking billionaire holding a new smartphone. I’m continually inspired by the 1989 video of a man standing in front of a column of tanks one day after the Chinese military massacred the pro-democracy protesters who had gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

When the lead tank tries to drive around this protester, he repeatedly steps into its path. The driver of the lead tank shouts at him. The column starts to move, but the lone protester stops them once again. I don’t know this hero’s name and I don’t know what happened to him, but I’m still inspired by his bravery. The Tank Man was acting like a free human being — making a conscious choice to resist authority.

Even if you spent most of your day using some kind of electronic device, you’re not a light-emitting diode or a computer chip. We should never consider ourselves a functional component of any new technological system. We are physical beings that have been given the privilege and the power to say no.

When your own moment arrives, it probably won’t involve a column of tanks, but you’ll know that there is no other alternative. You must confront authority or your true Self would no longer exist.

The new surveillance states have placed us in an invisible prison. If we wish to break free, we need only to step forward and open the door.

data about how people behave on online dating sites paints a bleak picture about our true attitudes

OkCupid founder: “I wish people exercised more humanity” on OkCupid

OkCupid founder: "I wish people exercised more humanity" on OkCupid
(Credit: Ollyy via Shutterstock/Salon)

In late July, Christian Rudder, a co-founder of the online dating site OkCupid, plunged himself into the middle of an Internet maelstrom when he published a post with a classic poke-the-anthill headline: “We Experiment on Human Beings!”

The provocation came in the middle of a storm of commentary sparked by the revelations that Facebook had been purposefully manipulating its users’ emotions by tinkering with its news feed. Rudder contended that such tweaking was commonplace and normal. In OkCupid’s case, the company had temporarily adjusted its matching algorithm so that some people ended up with recommendations that the algorithm would normally have considered bad matches — and vice versa, some people whom the algorithm should have concluded were good matches were told they were a bad fit. There was no ill will involved; from Rudder’s perspective, it was just an experiment designed to serve the larger goal of improving the overall OkCupid user experience.

The Internet reacted harshly. But in an unplanned twist, the post turned out to be good publicity for Rudder’s new book, “Dataclysm: Who We Are When We Think No One’s Looking.” Case in point: I had an advance review copy of the book sitting on my desk, but it was only after the hoopla over Rudder’s blog post that I took a closer look and decided it was a must-read.

And indeed it is. “Dataclysm” is a well-written and funny look at what the numbers reveal about human behavior in the age of social media. It’s both profound and a bit disturbing, because, sad to say, we’re generally not the kind of people we like to think — or say — we are.

Rudder begins his book with a distressing opening salvo: two charts that reveal what age groups men and women generally find attractive. From age 20 to 50, women are consistent — they’re drawn to men who are in roughly the same age cohort. Men are equally consistent: From age 20-50, they are attracted to 20-year-olds. The discussion is over: Men are dogs.



Rudder’s data on race leads to similar implications — prejudice is alive and well on online dating states, and what we say — and don’t say — in our profiles offers impressive support for cultural stereotyping. Rudder does the math on what different groups are most or least likely to say in their profiles: Black men, for example, hardly ever mention Belle and Sebastian, snorkeling or “Dr Horrible’s Sing Along Blog.” White women don’t talk about slow jams, j-pop or Malcolm X. White guys, however, are really into mentioning their “blue eyes,” brewing beer, and Robert Heinlein. Asian men frequently say “tall for an Asian,” “gangnam style” and “noodle soup.”)

Rudder treats these insights into the human condition with bemused — and very useful — intelligence. We’re only just beginning to understand how much we can learn about ourselves and others from the data that is constantly being harvested from us. The more we know, the better armed we are to navigate the future.

Rudder spoke by phone to Salon from OkCupid’s offices in New York.

So men are sexists, and we’re all racist?

The more you look at the data, the more it does confirm the cynics’ intuition about humanity. People online are free to act out their worst impulses with very little incentive to act out their best. I guess it just goes to show how politeness or propriety keeps us decent human beings. Offline, society actually has a very good effect on behavior in a very large sense.

That raises an uncomfortable question: Does our wholesale move online undermine how society traditionally keeps us in line?

I’m not qualified to give a real opinion on where society as a whole is headed, but I think when you look at stuff like rage storms on Twitter, or even the thing that happened yesterday — the celebrity nude photos being leaked — you see that there are definitely some disgusting impulses that the Internet can gratify instantaneously. In the same way Cool Ranch Doritos gratify certain taste receptors that are probably not very good for my digestive tract, things like Twitter or Reddit or even OkCupid gratify our tastes in ways that should probably best be left unsated.

How does that make you feel as a researcher? Have you become more cynical as a result of what you’ve learned by watching how people behave on OkCupid?

I definitely have a certain amount of ambivalence about the Internet generally and what we do at OkCupid. OkCupid does a lot of great things. We do find people love, we do create marriage and children and happiness in a pure sense, in a way that, say, Amazon does not. But there is a downside: In the process of finding that love or sex or whatever they’re looking for, people are able to be more judgmental. It’s a fraught thing. I can see the good and the bad in all this, but where it all comes out in the end, I’m not sure. I think the existence of the Internet is a good thing, but I do wish people exercised more humanity in using these tools.

I’d like to break the format of the typical Q&A a bit, and just read some lines from your book that jumped out at me, and see if I can prompt you to elaborate on them. For example, you wrote that “the Internet will democratize our fundamental narrative.” What does that mean?

What I meant was that the Internet will enable, on a mass scale, something like what Howard Zinn was doing in his “People’s History of the United States.” Zinn’s trying to reach for what the common person thought about World War I or the Civil War, or go back and find out what a housewife in 1970 was thinking about her life. But by and large he had to put it all together from a few diaries and a ton of leg work and obviously there’s a lot of selection bias involved.

But in the future, as people continue to live out their lives through these technologies, all of our lives are almost by definition going to be captured. The computer that is crunching all that stuff pulls us all together. In a very real sense, we are all given the same weight in any of these calculations.

I guess that connects directly to another sentence that caught my eye: “With data, history can become deeper, it can become more.”

That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

How about, “It’s when people don’t understand their own hearts I get interested”?

I like it when you are able to look at a behavior in two ways. One: what people think they are doing or wish they were doing, and two: what they actually do. At OkCupid we have a great mechanism for looking at that: We have all these match questions where we ask people what they believe or what they think, and then we can go in and measure exactly what they are actually doing. I just think that the space between self-image and action is very interesting.

What data points jumped out at you the most?

Well, the most obvious thing is racial messaging patterns. We asked people about race and everybody is like, yeah, interracial marriage is totally great. Something like 96 percent are totally fine with it, or support it. We also asked people questions like “would you ever date someone who told a racist joke” and the answers are very strongly liberal in the way you would expect. Everybody is fine with it, blah blah blah. But then you go out and look at what people do or who they choose for themselves, and you see that this is just not the case. Race is a huge factor and certain types of interracial relationships — I wouldn’t say are taboo, but certainly in the aggregate they are less desirable.

Again this gets back to what we were talking about at the very beginning. If that’s what I want why don’t I just put that into the form? It would work better, if I was just honest with OkCupid and myself about what I wanted.

You mention Naomi Wolf’s “The Beauty Myth” and you wrote, “for the beauty myth, social media signifies judgment day.” Is this just a reflection of the fact that women who are considered highly attractive get by far the most messages from men?

I was having a little bit of fun. There’s just so much judgment that goes on in social media. If most myths are built around some kind of cataclysm or apocalypse, then for the beauty myth, Ragnarok is social media. Men who are free to judge photos without conforming to social norms go crazy clicking girls in bikinis.

Maybe the most discomfiting point you make in your book is your acknowledgment that the kind of people who work for the NSA crunching our data are much smarter than you are and have access to far more information. Eventually, the sophistication of the algorithms will become so great that pretty much everything important about us will be inferred from just a few data points. That’s scarily determinist. Do we even have free will when our data trail tells employers or the government or prospective mates exactly who we are?

That is a great question, and I don’t think I can give an answer that is both hopeful and honest. The tech industry side of me wants to say that this isn’t just a problem of social media — the same thing happens with your credit score, for example. But you are right. It is scary. There will always be highly motivated, powerful entities using this data for their own good, which often implies an adversarial relationship against you. I will say one thing: If we consider Facebook as stand-in for all this stuff, I think people have generally approached these social media networks with a level of naiveté that is changing. We’re beginning to understand the pitfalls of volunteering all this data about ourselves.

That’s why a book like “Dataclysm” is important. The more we know about what you guys are finding out, the easier it will be to set societal guidelines for how this information can be used, and to become masters of our information.

Exactly right. It’s a strange time for me and I’m sure for you too and anybody else working in this milieu. The technologies are pervasive but comprehension of them is not.

Which leads me to my final question. Let’s revisit that experiment in which you tweaked the matching algorithm. I think for a lot of people that smacked of manipulation that crossed over the line. It seemed different than just changing the layout of a page to see what works better. It seemed like you were messing with people’s minds. Why did you do it?

Let me just step back and add a little more context. So, we tweaked an algorithm. Now, some algorithms can be considered as a sort of fact. If you are trying to pull a record out of a database there is a canonical or fastest way or best way to do it and to deviate from that would be silly or would be wrong in a real sense. But when we describe people as good or bad matches — the truth is for any two people on OkCupid, we just don’t know. We’re making a guess; our algorithm is a version of a guess. It’s not a fact.

There are tons of different ways to bring people together. We often use common interests, like how well you and I satisfy each other. But there are other potentially workable heuristics, like, for example, “opposites attract.” The test I wrote about in that blog post was on a continuum of those kinds of tests: We were really genuinely trying to figure out what works best, how to improve the user experience.

What we were doing was different, to me, than “lying.” Lying would be distorting matters of fact, rather than opinion. I have no idea what your sexual orientation is, but just imagine if you were gay, and I go and tell people that you are straight. That’s very clearly false, and possibly harmful. We would never do that because that is altering a fact about people … But with any algorithm that is about how to recommend something — there is no canonical perfect way to do it. So we treat it sort of like an opinion.

But doesn’t that enter a fuzzy area? A selling point of OkCupid is supposed to be that it actually works, which implies that your “opinions” as to who is a good match are actually facts …

For sure. For sure. But part of what makes us sure that we can give people the best match, and that we can make good guesses about what two people are going to get along, is that we are constantly working on refining our methods.

Look, I definitely understand the feelings about what we did. Especially given the way that I first laid it out, and then later, in the way I reacted to the media. Both my presentation and reaction were flawed. But we did not do it to mess with people. Everything we do at OkCupid is done with discretion, and, I hope, some level of emotional intelligence.

 

DIGITAL MUSIC NEWS

Spotify Launches Online Video Ads

For Mobile And Desktop Apps

 

     Spotify this week launched two new marketing platforms – one for desktops and one for mobile devices – that will stream video advertising to listeners of its free digital music service. Video Takeover ads appear in the desktop app during regular ad breaks and are only played if the client is in view, while Sponsored Sessions lets marketers play 15- and 30-second spots within 30-minute ad-free mobile sessions. Spotify video-ad launch partners in the U.S. include Kraft Foods, Target, and Wells Fargo, while worldwide launch partners are Universal Pictures, Coca-Cola, Ford, and McDonald’s.

As reported by Variety, Spotify says its users spend an average of 84 minutes per user per day on the service streaming. Among those who use the service across multiple devices, the average is 146 minutes daily. “Our audience is incredibly engaged, so we are delivering an advertising experience that enhances their time spent on Spotify and connects them to the music and brands they love,” Spotify chief business offer Jeff Levick said in a statement. “We think about video as one of the most dynamic forms of content that advertisers have, and that brings great relevance to Spotify. “Brands have clearly stated it’s of interest to them.”

Spotify actually pitched the new video ads to Cannes attendees in June. As a result of those discussions, Spotify added a post-roll element to the Sponsored Sessions that reminds a user of the brand that paid for the ad-free music. “That’s a direct result of the conversations in Cannes,” Levick said, noting there’s a possibility Spotify could use that message to lead someone into a second ad-free session sponsored by that brand.

For years radio broadcasters have lamented the fact that they can’t display a product in their advertising, but digital platforms have broken down that barrier. Any AM/FM station that streams programming should take note. 

Judge Rules ReDigi Founders Could Be

Responsible For Significant Royalty Fees

 

Lawsuit      Remember ReDigi? That was the company that was founded on the theory that what works for selling coins and old cell phones on Craigslist would work for selling “used” digital music online. Not so fast, as Judge Richard Sullivan ruled in 2013, when he declared that – unlike actually handing someone a copy of a CD or book – computers enable a person to copy a digital file and sell one, keeping the other for him/herself. Sullivan ruled this practice violates the Audio Home Recording Act, which states royalties must be paid every time an audio recording is copied, and Capitol Records claimed they weren’t being paid for ReDigi’s sales.

Since that ruling was handed down, ReDigi has kept its site running, as founders John Ossenmacher and Larry Rudolph said they were improving their technology so it only accepted “used” music that can be verified to have been  purchased legally. That effort apparently wasn’t enough to satisfy either plaintiff Capitol Records or Judge Sullivan, who last week accepted a motion to hold the two responsible for all unpaid royalties. He explained that the pair “personally conceived of the infringing business model and technology at issue in this case, were the ultimate decision makers concerning the development and implementation of [the] infringing activity, and directed and approved all key aspects of ReDigi’s activities found to infringe Capitol’s copyrights.”

This development means that not only is the company in digital limbo, but Ossenmacher and Rudolph could be held liable for a significant amount in royalties to the record label. The lawsuit almost certainly will drag on for many moons, but things aren’t looking good for the company or its founders. As reported by Forbes, this case is of special importance because it will help shape the direction of the digital marketplace, and it affects much more than the music industry. 

Rdio Launches “Freemium” Service In

Move To Become Spotify-Pandora Hybrid

 

     In what has been called a Spotify-Pandora hybrid, San Francisco-based Rdio has launched a new “freemium” version of its subscription-based platform that allows users to listen to an ad-supported version of the service. The change to a free model is designed to help the company compete against the above-mentioned services, as well as Beats Music and Google’s Play Music All Access. “What we’ve learned collectively over the last few years is that the most successful models are freemium models,” Anthony Bay, Rdio’s chief executive, told the New York Times.

As noted by the Times, Rdio’s move is a result of an arrangement with Cumulus Media. The radio broadcasting company last year was granted an equity stake of at least 15% in Pulser Media, Rdio’s parent company, in exchange for providing content and promotional services that Cumulus says are worth $75 million over five years. “This is the most exciting internet radio product we’ve seen and provides a compelling complement to our nationwide broadcast radio platform,” Cumulus CEO Lew Dickey said.

Users of the new free service will see the web and mobile apps place near-total emphasis on Rdio’s ad-supported radio stations, including more than 60 programmed by human curators, while seeing fewer promos to upgrade to the premium version. All users will have access to the service’s useful new “Home” feed, which offers Facebook-like stories about trending and notable artists, songs, and albums. Users scroll through their feed to find songs their friends are listening to in real time, albums that are trending in the user’s network, and albums from artists that the listener has not yet listened to. 

TuneCore Opens Nashville Office; Hires Music

Veteran Shelby Kennedy As VP To Run It

 

     Independent digital music distribution and publishing company TuneCore announced this week it will open a Nashville office and has hired Shelby Kennedy to serve as VP/ entertainment relations. Kennedy reportedly will work closely with musicians and songwriters to “create career-building opportunities” outside the perceived confines of the major record labels. “Nashville is one of the most creative cities in the world, and Shelby Kennedy has deep relationships and broad expertise in the music industry,” TuneCore CEO Scott Ackerman said in a statement. “As TuneCore expands our support for the increasing number of musicians and songwriters who choose independence to take control of their careers, both are a natural fit.”

According to Billboard, Kennedy is a well-known figure in Nashville, having previously held roles at ASCAP, BMI, Lyric Street Records, and Wide Open Music Group. For the past 18 years he’s operated his own company, Porch-Pickin’ Publishing, and he’s the son of legendary guitarist Jerry Kennedy and brother of songwriter Gordon Kennedy. “I hope to tap my experience spanning the spectrum of roles across the business – from songwriter to performer to business executive – to act as a catalyst in driving opportunities for artists, songwriters, and other key partners,” he said in the same statement

TuneCore is a digital distributor and music publishing administrator for independent artists. It distributes recordings to such digital music services as iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and Rhapsody. Its music publishing administration division collects publishing royalties from digital services and also handles requests for synchronization licenses.
 

AccuRadio Raises $2.5 Million In Funding

 

     Kudos to Kurt Hanson and the rest of the AccuRadio team for securing $2.5 million in a Series A round of funding that comes from NantWorks LLC, a company headed by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong. AccuRadio is an online digital music platform similar in delivery to Pandora, but it’s demographically different in that it targets upscale, educated, at-work 35-64 year-olds. The funding reportedly will be used to expand the streaming service to a broader audience via a new PR and marketing campaign.

“We’re delighted to finally be able to bring marketing support to our product,” says CEO Hanson, who also publishes Radio And Internet Newsletter (RAIN). “AccuRadio has industry-leading measures of customer satisfaction, including Average Time Spent Listening in Webcast Metrics and its iOS and Android app.” The platform also is a two-time winner of the Webby Awards’ “People’s Voice” award for Best Radio.

AccuRadio was founded in 2000 and, while weathering tumultuous industry change, has remained profitable for several years.  [Full story: Digital Music News

Sony Unveils Hi-Res Walkman, Headphones

To “Wrap You In A Sumptuous Experience”

 

     While Apple Inc. was making its usual global tech splash this week, Sony rolled out several new devices designed to bring high-fidelity sound to audiophiles who care about those things. Specifically, the company launched its new Walkman NWZ-A17 hi-res audio digital music player and MDR-1A hi-res headphones, both of which a hype-infused company statement claimed “brings you closer to the spirit and soul of the artist’s original performance – just as you’d hear it on stage or in the recording studio…setting an exciting new benchmark in sound and style…to wrap you in a sumptuous, unparalleled listening experience.”

“As digital audio emerged and allowed consumers to more easily and accessibly enjoy music, audio quality was inadvertently sacrificed,” Sony VP/Sound Division Michael Woulfe explained in the statement. “Sony’s commitment to hi-res audio continues with the new Walkman and MDR-1A headphones. Music lovers no longer have to choose between audio quality and portability – they can finally listen to their music library on-the-go, with the quality that the artist intended.”

The Walkman A17 will be available in November for a suggested retail price of $299.99 at Sony stores and other authorized dealers nationwide. The MDR-1A Hi-Res headphones will be available at the end of September for the same suggested retail price of $299.99. [To read the full statement and product specs, click here]

 

A publication of Bunzel Media Resources © 2014

 

Inside the culture war raging in the video gaming world

“I want a straight white male gaming convention”

As a gamer myself, I’ve seen tensions simmering in the community for years. So #gamergate doesn’t shock me at all

"I want a straight white male gaming convention": Inside the culture war raging in the video gaming world
Princess Zelda, Lara Croft, Princess Peach (Credit: Wikimedia/Square Enix Ltd./Nintendo)

Over the past few weeks, the video game community has erupted into a full-blown culture war. On one side are the gaming journalists and developers, circling the wagons around feminist activist Anita Sarkeesian and feminist game developer Zoe Quinn, and on the other side are legions of self-proclaimed “gamers,” outraged that the games they love are being criticized. The “#gamergate” conflict has taken many outside of the video gaming bubble by surprise. But as a longtime gamer, I’ve long expected such a fight to break out. It was pretty much inevitable.  And necessary. Here’s why.

The current brouhaha started with Sarkeesian, who has a YouTube series called Feminist Frequency. Feminist Frequency has long tackled what Sarkeesian feels are negative tropes against women in a variety of pop cultural representations – ranging from the LEGO “Boys Club” to the “manic pixie dream girl” in films.

Around a year ago, Sarkeesian released her first series of videos looking at sexist tropes against women in video games. The videos, the result of a Kickstarter fundraising effort, covered territory that should be familiar to just about anyone who has played the most common video games. Anita criticizes, for example, Princess Peach, the perennial Mario Bros. character that in almost every game is kidnapped and then rescued by Mario, Luigi and other male characters. She also offers the same criticism of Princess Zelda in the Zelda series, and many other female characters from Nintendo games. “The Damsel in Distress,” she explains about this trope, “is not just a synonym for weak; instead it works by ripping away the power from female characters, even helpful or seemingly capable ones. No matter what we’re told about their magical abilities, skills or strengths, they’re still ultimately captured or otherwise incapacitated and then must wait for rescue.”



In her most recent set of videos, released at the end of August, Sarkeesian looks at “Women As Background Decoration,” citing, for example, a “Grand Theft Auto IV” section where  you can slap a bound woman, a level in “God of War III” where you drag along a half-naked woman, and a portion of the recently released game “Watch Dogs,” in which you visit a sex slave ring.

To much of the world, these sorts of critiques are common – these days we’re taught to be introspective about diversity, inclusion, privilege and power in our workplaces, our homes, our politics. But in video gaming, such discussion is rare. Perhaps that explains why, when faced with Sarkeesian’s critique, a loud and angry subset of gamers chose not to put out well-reasoned responses showing where they agreed or disagreed with her, but react in the same manner you might expect a crowd of Tea Partyers, eager to defend themselves against what they view as an attack on their way of life.

So Sarkeesian has been deluged with sexist hate of all stripes, from virtually every gaming community on the Internet. It reached a peak when she actually had to leave her home following particularly detailed threats made on her by a Twitter user who knew her address and parents’ names.

For years, I’ve been a member of the GameFAQS video gaming community. The website holds web boards for thousands of different video gaming titles, as well as walkthroughs, reviews and other gaming content. The boards are the place where all the discussion about Sarkeesian over the years has taken place. Here’s a small but representative sample of some of the arguments I’ve witnessed about Sarkessian and the feminist critiques of video games or sexist gamers:

-     “She honestly kinda brings this **** on herself.”

-     “Normally I would be disgusted by something like this, but she was essentially the Westboro church of the internet. You paint a target on your head and dare people to shoot it…someone’s gonna.”

-     “These people actually went and taunted the whole goddamn Internet, they got what they deserved.”

-     “’Victim’? Please…She’s going to milk this for all it’s worth. She’s gotta keep herself in the spotlight, by any means possible.”

-     “Honestly she should have expected this, I’m not saying it’s right but it is 100% expected, there was no way this wouldn’t happen. She’s attacking something that millions of people care about and are passionate about and enjoy just the way they are.

-     “The only victims here are the people/hobby she’s riding on (so, everyone) with this, yet another, “victim” claim that people like you are actually enabling by defending her and then she can cozily keep her position despite being entirely 100% incompetent

-     “If the entire internet hates you maybe you should rethink your life.”

This isn’t to say that the GameFAQS or the Internet gaming community is pro-death threat. There were only a handful of such comments that I saw. And there were eloquent comments from some gamers denouncing the threats or stating that we should be willing to deal with Sarkeesian’s critique. But the fact is that the sexist gamers are the ones who feel most strongly about the issue, and are so loud about it you’d think Anita Sarkeesian had personally gone around to every male gamer’s home and smashed up their “Call of Duty” discs.

The kind of backlash Sarkeesian has received is also heaped on just about anyone who dares to say that games should have more realistic and diverse representations –for instance, of LGBT, and minorities:

For example, here are some posts from a topic in 2012 about a gay gamer convention:

-     “Because obviously gay gamers can’t coexist with straight gamers therefore they need their own convention.”

-     “The thing is that no one can tell if you’re gay… so like why don’t they just go to regular conventions?

-     “l want a straight white male gaming convention.”

-     “You don’t have to acknowledge that racism exists. It’s obvious that it does. Bringing it up all the time isn’t gonna change anything and will just remind people to continue to be racist. Same thing with this gay business.

So it was hardly surprising that a subset of the online gaming community took aim at another target: Zoe Quinn. Quinn is a relatively small-time indie game developer who recently released a free game, “Depression Quest,” which attempts to simulate what living with depression is like. One of her ex-boyfriends posted a long rant alleging, among other things, that she had slept with someone from Kotaku (a popular gaming website) to secure positive coverage of her game. Quinn, and Kotaku, were both deluged with hate mail from gamers convinced that they had uncovered corruption in the gaming industry. Thus, #gamergate was born.

This backlash itself provoked its own backlash  — articles and commentary from the gaming press and game developers criticizing the sexist and intolerant “gamer” culture that would drive Anita Sarkeesian out of her home with threats and make thinly sourced insinuations about female game developers like Zoe Quinn. One article that raised particularly wild howls of protest was a Tumblr post by Dan Golding, the director of an indie game festival in Australia. Titled “The End of Gamers,” the post criticizes the sexist smears and threats against Quinn and Sarkeesian, and concludes:

“Today, videogames are for everyone. I mean this in an almost destructive way. Videogames, to read the other side of the same statement, are not for you. You do not get to own videogames. No one gets to own videogames when they are for everyone. They add up to more than any one group.

On some level, the grim individuals who are self-centred and myopic enough to be upset at the prospect of having their medium taken away from them are absolutely right. They have astutely, and correctly identified what is going on here. Their toys are being taken away, and their treehouses are being boarded up. Videogames now live in the world and there is no going back.

I am convinced that this marks the end. We are finished here. From now on, there are no more gamers—only players.”

Change a few words here and there, and you could almost have an essay by an immigration activist instructing Tea Partyers to get over the fact that America will no longer be a white nation, or a gay rights icon proclaiming that the United States will one day soon have full marriage equality and Pat Robertson needs to learn to deal.

But there’s another element at play here that doesn’t exist in the great culture wars over immigration, gay rights or other leading social wedge issues. Video gamers as a group are not a powerful elite the same way other “threatened” groups in the country are. In fact, their hobby is itself often viewed as a refuge of loners.

My feeling is that the bunker mentality that gamers have adopted in response to the critiques from Golding and others is, at least partly, understandable. Gamers have spent their lives being told their lifestyle is marginal, the refuge of nerds who couldn’t get a date to prom. Now, gamers feel that the one space where they could say they were on top – in the online worlds of “Call of Duty,” conventions like DragonCon and  ComicCon, and  LAN parties the world over – is being flooded with opinions from people who previously wanted little to do with them.

In light of the attacks on Quinn and Sarkeesian, developers and journalists alike have been vociferously critical of “gamers,” not doing too much to distinguish between the majority of gamers and the loud, angry, sexist members of the community. Virtually every established gaming and tech website, from ArsTechnica to Gamasutra (which wrote that “gamers are over”), to the Verge to the Escapist, has published lengthy critiques of gaming. One of the writers of the upcoming “Far Cry 4″ tweeted: “If you are against social justice, you are going to hate some of the things we wrote for Far Cry 4.” One of the creative directors of the Saints Row series admitted that Sarkeesian’s critique of his games was accurate and called for change. This has provoked the #gamergate crowd to create a boycott list, which includes virtually every single well-established gaming news website and the developers speaking up against sexism and intolerance. The Reddit community r/KotakuInAction is one of the organizing points.

The sad thing is that even if you don’t believe that there is serious sexism in the gaming community, gamers do actually have serious reasons to be skeptical of their gaming press and developers. Game companies are nickel-and-diming consumers like never before, cutting out large sections of their games and selling them for full price while selling those add-ons for exorbitant fees. Meanwhile, Zoe Quinn may not be a real scandal, but game publishers and journalists who review games have gotten far too cozy – witness how Ubisoft gave an entire audience of journalists free tablets as they prepared to review its (in my opinion) fairly average game “Watch Dogs.”

As if there wasn’t enough hostility between gamer culture, feminists and the industry, one additional group joined the fracas: traditional right-wing activists. Christina Hoff Sommers, an American Enterprise Institute fellow who has made a name for herself as a professional anti-feminist, writing a book about the “War Against Boys,” and denying the gender pay gap, joined in the debate with tweets such as: “Term ‘rape culture’ is sexist. Implicates average guy in a horrible crime. Call people out who use it. It’s a form of gender profiling” and “Most gamers seem to support equality feminism. What they reject is today’s male-bashing, propaganda-driven, female chauvinism. #GamerGate.” Breitbart London’s Milo Yiannopoulos, fresh from blaming Jennifer Lawrence for her own photographs being stolen, tweeted with #GamerGate that advocates for tolerance are “often the most spiteful, hateful, intolerant people around.”

With the entry of Breitbart and AEI, the pseudo-culture war was complete – with a massive civil war between “gamer” culture and traditional conservatives on one side and virtually the entire industry itself and feminist activists on the other.

But what’s been lost in all this is that there actually has been a movement in video games to tell more dynamic and positive stories featuring women, LGBT characters, racial minorities and other nontraditional demographics. And these games aren’t just the fringe. “The Last of Us,” for example, has numerous prominent realistic female characters, including a lesbian teenage character who as a lead (SPOILERS) at one point has to save her much older male compatriot from ruthless gangsters; it has won more “game of the year” titles than any other game ever released, and sold over 7 million copies.

After the series “Tomb Raider” decided to downsize its heroine’s ridiculous bosom and created a less sexist and more realistic portrayal, in a game where she heroically saves her colleagues from vicious and violent men, the game sold around 6 million copies and has a sequel greenlighted.

Indie games like “Papers, Please,” which include social justice-related themes such as combating authoritarianism and creating a fair immigration system, sold more than half a million copies; following the #GamerGate civil war, developers from across the industry have signed a sort of peace letter calling on all sides to agree that “everyone, no matter what gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or religion has the right to play games, criticize games and make games without getting harassed or threatened. It is the diversity of our community that allows games to flourish.”

What all this shows is that gaming is far from the male-dominated sausage-fest that some of its critics and proponents claim it to be. It is diversifying and drawing in a wider pool of both developer talent and player base. However, we still live in a world where stellar developer Naughty Dog has to boast that 14 percent of its staff aren’t men, and where the gaming industry sees fit to use women as props at its largest annual trade show. And it’s a world where gamers are often marginalized and mocked by those who don’t regularly play video games, where the late Roger Ebert once wrote a long essay proclaiming that video games “can never be art,” and that they are instead “pathetic” when compared to the works of great poets, novelists and filmmakers.

As someone who’s spent his life gaming, and who cares deeply about social justice, I believe that the two can coexist – that we can have games that portray women and minorities in inoffensive ways, and those games can still be incredibly fun, and that all gamers won’t be tarred with a broad brush because of the brash actions of a few. But it starts by recognizing that there are problems in parts of gamer culture, that games are improving, that we do deserve a better gaming press. If we can come to terms with all that, then we can all game on, in a way that respects everyone involved.

Zaid Jilani is a Syracuse University graduate student and freelance writer. Follow him @zaidjilani.