Posts tagged: Music

Building an Awesome Sound System

One of the reasons I’ve not been writing here much lately has been us buying and moving to a new house (that and the crunch time to get BFBC2 shipped, in which I’ve ended up in a crucial role).

As we are finally getting a bit settled in (at least the living room is free of boxes now), I’ve started thinking about a new audio and video setup for the entire house.

One thing I’m missing about the apartment we moved out of is my sound system that covered the entire place — living room, bed room, kitchen, even bathroom. The whole thing was a DIY thing involving two amps, a partially broken speaker selector, lots of wiring and speakers everywhere. I could select what rooms I wanted music in, which was awesome, but it had its issues. One thing was that there was only one input, so if one of us watched a movie there was no way to listen to music in another room, another that… well, there was lots of wiring.

I love my music!The house is a much larger space, and with it far longer wires to put up all over the place. I’m going to install a wired network that covers the place, but I’d rather not install any more wiring. Still, I’m going to want to send video signals from the digital TV box to the new TV in the bed room, which I might solve with a Slingbox PRO-HD and SlingCatcher, which seems like a cool combo with a bonus of access to my TV anywhere — if I can only figure out if it’ll work to remote control my box or not (my cable TV provider is probably Sweden’s most hated company not involved in public transport – com hem).

The audio setup is a different problem — I want a system which can play music from my media server in any room I’m in, can sync music in several rooms at once and which can also play audio from a separate input (like have the audio from a live music DVD on the PS3 on in several rooms at once). That last one seems to be tricky to pull off…

I’ve looked at several network media players, but most seem content at simply streaming media from a computer to a home entertainment system. Sonos S5 ZonePlayer seems like a popular geek choice, but sadly doesn’t do an external input (like my PS3).

The Logitech Squeezebox series seems to do (almost) what I want, but the component I’d need for the living room, a Squeezebox Transporter has some drawbacks. First of all, I can’t seem to figure out if it can stream its digital input out to other squeezeboxes — a make or break feature for me, but hardly mentioned out there on the ‘net. Second, the price tag! Holy crap, $1999? I’ll be upgrading my audio equipment, but I’m not really an audiophile of a class that needs that kind of equipment. It’d easily be the most expensive piece of equipment in the set.

I could even consider building my own system from scratch. It’d be kind of cool with a compact computer hidden away in each room, and a touch screen display system to interface with the thing. It’d probably end up cheaper than the Squeezebox option, but with a lot more work involved. Fun work, but frustrating at the moment as I don’t really have the time needed. If there’s a cheaper product out there which satisfies my three demands above, I’m a sale waiting to happen.

Do you know of any good network media player systems that fit the bill? Or do you have any experience with systems like that, good or bad? Please share any knowledge you have in the comments. I would also be happy to hear from anyone with experience of the Slingbox products.

Standing in the Way of Culture

The reasoning behind the introduction of copyright was the establishment of a law which would make sure there were incentives for creating culture. There was a fear that if there wasn’t some form of exclusivity, middlemen with a large capacity for distribution would easily be able to grab all works of art, produce and distribute them more effectively than the creators themselves and thus getting the lion’s share of the profits. This was a time when the printing press was the hot new thing, and writers feared publishers would easily steal all their hard work.

The fear was that if this kept happening, the people creating works of art would tire of creating culture and seeing others profit while getting nothing for themselves (a reasonable assumption), so copyright was introduced, giving authors an unlimited right to association with their works and a limited economical exclusivity with regards to production and distribution. This would make sure middlemen would not be a problem in the production of culture.

Sadly, in this exclusivity now appears an effect that goes in the direct opposite direction related to the original intent. To explain what I mean, let’s discuss something of high cultural value — commercials. Leading up to the fifth season of The Deadliest Catch, Discovery Channel created a trailer. A music and sound design studio called Musikvergnuegen were hired to create a soundtrack for the trailer.

The trailer aired, and something somewhat unusual happened: People heard the music and rushed to the TV in order to see what it was about. On Musikvergnuegen’s blog, under a fairly short and simple post about the trailer, people started gathering in the comment fields with fantastic stories about how they reacted to the music.

Let me tell you my story of this song. I wasnt even in my house but i heard this music come through the surround sound so i darted inside to find out it was a commercial for my favorite show. But wut really mattered was this music. The celtic sailor feel and sorrow filled sound makes this one of the best pieces of music ive ever heard.

The blog post has more than 40 comments, with people asking that the song be released somewhere so they can buy it and listen to it. Several other blogs have called attention to the music and linked to the post on Musikvergnuegen’s blog.

The studio appreciate all the attention, but answer that sadly Discovery owns the rights to the soundtrack, and that  because of that they can’t sell it. Instead, they’ve mailed Discovery, and urge others to do the same. The only problem is that Discovery doesn’t reply.

So, here’s a middleman blocking the flow of culture between the author and the consumers, stopping the people from getting the culture they desire. Recognize this problem? This saga ends on a slightly upwards note, as Musikvergnuegen takes matters into their own hands and add the music to their demo reel, which means it’s now possible to stream it from their web site.

Another example of the same kind of cultural blockage is how music giant Universal let its lawyers loose a few weeks ago to prevent the performance of a theater play at the City Theater in Stockholm. Not, as you may have thought, because they hadn’t paid for it, but because Universal wanted even more money for it, claiming the music was a central theme in the play. However, it turns out the author of the songs in question, Paul Simon, doesn’t agree with the middleman that the play should not be performed.

Abandoned Goods

A similar development has been in effect when it comes to computer games for a long time (and here it’s even more clear). The whole concept “Abandonware” exists to denote older games which are no longer on the market. There are websites that specialize in catering to people feeling nostalgic about games. As with many other kinds of culture, there are a whole lot of people who long for the good old days — the older games have a higher level of quality, they claim. Others still just want the ability to play “the classics” — just like there are classic books and movies there are classic games… the difference is that you can’t get the classic games anymore.

The fact that games can’t be bought doesn’t mean the copyright on them has expired, however. The rights to various games and game intellectual properties are bought and sold between different companies and often you’ll find the rights to games far away from the people who originally created the games after a studio closed its doors.

The fact that they’re no longer selling the games doesn’t prevent companies from having a go at web sites providing Abandonware. Sometimes, whole web sites are the targets of attempted shutdowns by lawyer, at other times, only certain games are targeted and removed. But the games themselves are not sold, so the people who wanted to play them are left empty-handed.

Sometimes, people get so desperate for their old, lost games that they even gather up the people needed to form a team and go through the enormous effort of creating a remake of their classic game of choice, only to be shut down by the rights holder.

There has been a long debate about this in gaming circles, sometimes with thunderous accusations from big games companies. People who download abandonware are called pirates, and blamed for some form of loss of income, even more absurd than the normal kind of calculations.

The Upper Hand of the Middle Man

In addition to all the problems outlined above, the cost for both creation and distribution has brought back something a situation which is very similar to the world before the introduction of copyright: middlemen dictate the conditions they like and grab large parts of the pie, since the authors are so completely dependent on the chain of distribution. In these negotiations, one side has sharp lawyers with years of experience of writing contracts, fine print and cost vs revenue calculations. On the other side are inexperienced, often young talented authors with no experience of writing or even reading contracts.

The imbalance becomes extremely obvious in the average record contract. In normal venture capital business, investors come in with capital, taking a risk with that money in exchange for a slice of profit if the gamble plays out (highly simplified). This state of affairs is a quite reasonable starting point. Looking at the music industry, their standard contract is very different from this — it is more like a loan than an investment… but a loan that turns into an investment once repaid.

Let me explain. The musician or band gets money for recording an album, creating a video and other needed things. The album is released, and all the profits go directly into the record label’s pockets until the entire loan has been repaid. Only then does the artist get a first dollar for his or her hard work. At a glance, this seems incredibly skewed, and it’s just as skewed as it seems. If things had ended there, it would have been outrageous but somewhat real, but that’s not where it ends. In addition to these expenses, there needs to be marketing for the artist. Reasonable proposition if you want to sell the album, but the marketing money also comes out of the “loan” to the artist. Only it’s the label that controls the marketing spend.

So the standard contract is a shared partnership where all the risk is held by one part. In a normal start-up business, this situation would be interpreted as the artist talent and work having no value  at all (and thus should have no part of the income). Add to that the fact that the labels have binding contracts for the artists, but are free to pick and choose how they want to act themselves, and we’ve ended up incredibly far from the original intention of copyright. Let me explain further with two examples:

The New York-based band October Project created some beautiful (but hard to classify) songs during the 90s. They released two albums that were quite successful. Then, without a warning or official explanation, the record label terminated the contract, which killed the band. Two of the band’s founding members went on to start the “November Project”, a band which collected all the money they needed for their recordings themselves, directly from the fans on the Internet. On the homepage for the band, founder Emil Adler urged the fans not to buy the October Project records — “Not a single penny goes to the band”, he wrote. Not a penny, even though one of the albums had hit top-50 in the US.

Another band, Splashdown from Massachusetts, looked to have a bright future. They signed a contract with a child label for Capitol records and released an EP, which quickly sold out. The band made a song on the soundtrack for the movie Titan AE, and expectations were high. They recorded a new album, “Blueshift”. Once done, the label decides not to release the album. After a long fight with the label and because of the fear that Capitol would own any future songs, the band chose to call it quits.

Authors giving up on creating new culture because of middleman behavior was exactly what copyright laws was supposed to prevent in the first place! Something is wrong here. Instead of acting as a guarantee for the flow of culture into society, the effect is a draining of culture.

It’s Broken, Fix It!

There are already political forces in parts of the world that are growing stronger campaigning for a reformed copyright. In Europe, the Swedish Pirate Party has won a seat in the European Parliament. The German counterpart looks to be going strong in the coming elections for the national parliament. Support for both parties is extremely high among young voters.

Taken to its edge, you really could wonder about why the rights to works of art should be something that can be bought and sold at all. There seem to be plenty of problems that would go away if an author could never sell the actual right to their works.

There seems to be some very simple things to do though. Digital distribution has brought down costs of distribution by several orders of magnitude. This somewhat breaks the hold the middlemen have over the market, but there is still something of a monopolized market. Things are starting to change, but what is needed is a much more direct approach, fans meeting artists, players meeting developers directly. This has already started happening more and more in the computer games industry, and I believe we’ll see much more of it from musicians in the future.

Another thing with the Internet is that there is never any really good reason to stop selling something. Put all vintage titles you own the rights to online for a small fee. Even a fee of $5 or even $1 per game means a horde of people would buy them, and it would make you a whole lot of more money than any amount of lawyers sent hunting abandonware sites. Oh, and while you’re at it, skip the DRM. The new market is on the consumers’ terms, and with a direct connection to fans comes the responsibility of treating them like customers, rather than potential thieves.

Scarcity of Content in Games

There’s an interesting difference, if you compare games to other art forms like movies, in how they get consumed across different groups of people. With movies, there’s pretty much two categories of viewers: the big screen people and the DVD people. With minor differences within those groups, everyone has pretty much the same potential experience. Very few people turn the movie off before its end.

That is very different with games. A sizable portion of everyone who plays a game, especially multiplayer-enabled games, will put a huge amount of time into that game. That’s awesome, but those people are not in a majority. The majority of people who buy a game wont even finish the singleplayer campaign. For these people, the game was too long. This is something like the dark secret of game design, and its a reason that makes constructing games a bit sad — no matter how much love you put into your story, it’s unlikely that most people will see its conclusion.

You would never guess that this was the case, looking at game reviews. Reviews regularly complain about games being too short. This has happened to a range of great games lately — from Portal to Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune and Mirror’s Edge — all games that I enjoyed a lot. What conclusions can we draw from this?

Well, first of all, if you are the kind of person who rarely completes games (like the average gamer out there apparently), game reviews aren’t taking your interests into account. I’m assuming here that being able to finish a game is more enjoyable than abandoning it along the way.

Second, we’re creating ever-longer games that cater to a portion of the gamer community who will not buy games that are too short, which means that at the same time we’re making sure that a majority of players will play even smaller part of the game. That’s quite a problem from where I see it — a small part of players are allowed to dictate how games are made, which actually lowers quality for the majority.

In addition to this problem, more time in games tends to mean more repetition. Content creation for modern games is incredibly expensive, which means that longer play means more play time made from the same content. Maybe that means more of the same kind of objectives (ever play Assassin’s Creed?). My own experience is that I’d much rather play through Uncharted on its Hard difficulty setting than play through a longer, but more repetitive game.

The result of this is a kind of scarcity of actual content in games. The longer we make any given game, the more diluted the experience becomes. We get more of the same enemies in the same locations, and more locations made up out of the same building blocks.

You can see this quite easily if you compare the soundtracks of different media. Movie music is a movie-length musical score which has changing music to the events in the movie, usually with common themes for parts of movies but with the music still shifting to each individual moment.

How much variation is there in game music? Sometimes, game music is a movie-length (yes) musical score, played straight or randomly to a game (usually 4 times longer than a movie). Sometimes it’s a song-length musical score played to each level. Sometimes it’s “dynamic music” which usually means tying musical start/fade triggers to action. I commented on game music before in Give Me Some Emotion, Maestro, where I suggested a more involved form of dynamic music for games with composers as first-class game developers, but that doesn’t go all the way — we also simply need an appropriate amount of music to cover the length of a game.

More enemies to kill in the same way, more of the same concrete blocks to make up new parts of levels, more of the same music and sounds, more of the same experience. These things all lead to the current playing experience you get from games, which tends to be a repetitive flat-emotion slaughter even if you look at non-shooter games. Yet making more content for the games would make them more expensive.

I think games as a medium need to focus better. Yes, shorter games would probably be good in the long run. There are some people who would wish that movies be 10 hours long as well — but those aren’t the main segment of customers for movies. In the end, bringing quality of games up needs more variation — in environments, in challenges, and in emotions. Then maybe the average consumer would actually have the pleasure of finishing the games they buy.

I don’t mean there can’t be long games here either. People obviously liked the The Lord of the Rings movies, despite their long run time. But those movies are still beautifully crafted all the way through, and do not lack the focus you would get from doing the same thing to other movies. It also has something to do with an insanely large budget.

For singleplayer games, the question then becomes how to satisfy the people who want longer play times? I sure don’t have that answer, and any comments are definitely appreciated.

How It All Went Wrong

A man unexpectedly entered the office. Afterwards, no one could tell how he got there or how he left — he wasn’t supposed to be there, no one was supposed to get in without an appointment. The walls were lined with framed CDs and behind a large mahogany desk sat the label CEO in his luxury leather armchair. Surprised, he listened to the mysterious man begin,

Dear Mr. Record Label Executive, let me tell you something. You should listen to me, because I can tell you why it’s all wrong now. I can tell you how it all went wrong, when it went wrong and what effect it has on the world today. I am the messenger of the future.

Who are you?” said Mr. Record Label Executive, clearly not used to being in this position. “And how did you get into my office?

That is of no importance,” the man answered. “You can call me Lime, if you need something in the way of a name. What is important is my message. Your problem is that the youth refuse to buy your records. They download them, file share them, and refuse to pay. Correct?

Confused, Mr. Record Label Executive nodded.

People have been asking for paid download services for a decade, yet you were too afraid to let them have it — afraid they would just file share the downloaded music — so you gave them nothing.

Ah, but we created…“, Mr. R. L. E. started.

Nothing of sufficient quality“, the enigmatic Lime cut him off. “You gave them nothing that could match what they sought. So they kept downloading, they kept file sharing. For free, because that was the only available way.

It went on for a long time like this. Kids grew up, who’d never bought a CD in their life. They too started file sharing. For free, illegally.”

By now, the man in the luxury leather armchair was leaning forwards over his large mahogany desk, nodding.

Lime impatiently paced the room. “You see, there’s a new generation out there, who’s always downloaded music for free, because there were never any legal paid download services out there to download from. Don’t you see what you’ve created? A whole generation who’s never paid a dime for music, who has been taught that music is free, without value. You taught them.

Now wait a minute! How can they think they can just steal the music artists have put so much effort into?” Mr R L E protested.

They’re not stealing anything. You never gave them options, so they all learned that music was free. You taught a whole generation that music and other entertainment had no value. That is when it all went wrong!” He paused to look at the stricken man before continuing, “as you hunt them now for what they feel is natural and right, all they feel towards you is disgust, fear and anger for your greed. Imagine, all those millions of potential customers out there who are now lost to you because you didn’t take the chance of selling them what they wanted, out of the fear of what might happen if you did.

Now they’re a million very angry people instead, who want only to see your empire crumble.

Mr R. L. E stared at him aghast as the realization dawned. They looked at each others in silence for a while.

I see that you understand,” the mysterious man finally said and headed for the door. “Millions of angry people,” he repeated. As he closed it behind him, he added, “and now you’ve given them martyrs.

The Economics of Making Your Customers Hate You

The spectacular trial and marketing disaster against the Pirate Bay continued today, with the verdict of the first court (no doubt this will be appealed a few times around).

The three guys from the pirate bay, and their internet co-location and bandwidth provider were sentenced to one year in prison and a total of 30 million SEK of damages today. Whatever you think about the pirate bay, the sentencing of their internet provider is nothing short of incompetency from the Swedish court.

But let’s put that aside for a moment.

Let’s just look at the costs and benefits. These guys now have to pay 30M SEK for their sins of building a search engine. Let’s put that into perspective, shall we? 30M SEK is (with today’s exchange rate) €2,680,246. Contrast this with the spendings of the industry: 75M Pounds is what the record industry spends each year hunting pirates, apparently (only the record industry… who knows what the international movie associations’ and games associations’ and writers’ associations are spending…). With today’s exchange rate, that’s €81,466,099.

That means it’d require 30 such spectacularly unpopular court cases against major file sharing sites won just to win back the costs spent on hunting pirates. Really, who is it that thinks this is a good idea?

In other news, if you’re going to pirate a game, please do it off the ‘net and where it wont hurt the companies that tries to support it for the people who buy games. If you pirate a game and then try to get support for it, you’re a real asshole.

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