Stealing Music, Again

I’m pretty sure anyone who’s tangentially related to the music industry is contractually obligated to weigh in on the Great NPR Stealing Music Fiasco of Ought-Twelve

So here are my thoughts, in response to Jonathan Coulton’s very interesting ruminations. This was originally left as a comment on his post, but it’s pretty much guaranteed to be buried, so…

Thought experiment for the Free-Culture and anti-copyright folks out here: Let’s say you make something. You distribute it digitally. And because you believe in Free Culture, you insist that it be distributed for free.

Then someone starts charging for it.

How does that make you feel? Do you feel that you, as the creator, have the right to determine how your creation is distributed?

I think even more than a practical issue — which, let me be clear, is certainly a big issue — this is an issue of principle. How would you feel if the foo was on the other shoot? Not great, I suspect.

But there’s also a practical element that doesn’t seem to be talked much about. There are a lot of Free-As-In-Beer flag-wavers outraged that the gub’mint might step in and knock out file-sharing centers. “What right,” they demand, “does the government have to determine how culture should be shared?”

But here’s what confuses me: What right do the flag-wavers have to determine how an artist’s work should be shared? Do you presume to know better than the creators of the works how their work benefits them, or benefits society?

We talk about “the music industry” as though it’s this faceless monolith. But the facts are (as usual) a lot messier. Yes, some artists can make a living on the road, and giving away their music (or allowing it to be given away) benefits them. But there are musicians for whom this is exactly reversed: Live performance earns nothing; music sales and licensing are everything. Most are probably in the middle. But are we going to insist that all musicians take it on the road, or give it up? Seems kind of counter-productive to the goal of diversifying art and encouraging experimentation. Do we really want a world where only the one percent (if you’ll pardon the allusion) of musicians can make a decent living?

People, think this through to its logical conclusion. We live in a world where money is necessary. The less money that can be made by making music, the fewer musicians we’ll have. Yes, there will be the super-successful, there will be the ones who do it for love alone, and there will be those — like our esteemed host — who find their own niche and make it work. But I don’t see how it can be denied that fewer rewards for making music will ultimately result in fewer musicians. Is that really what we want? Is that the price we’re willing to pay for “free” music?

Personally, I’d rather pay Mr. Coulton than get Rebecca Black for free.

Am I alone in thinking this way?

For more of my thoughts on the matter, you may be interested in this post from a few years back.

Scandal in Game Reviewing!

Behold the return of the moneyhat!

The esteemed and always awesome Mr. Wil Wheaton put up a post recently about the influence game publishers and PR reps appear to have on the games media. He cites a post from another site, which in turn cites yet another site, both seeming to indicate that videogame reviewers are pimping scores out to the highest bidder and totally misleading you about games because You Can’t Trust The Man.

I spent some time responding in Wil’s comment thread, but it’s way down at the bottom and it’s also quite long, so I figured I’d repost here. I’d love to hear what you think.

Wil, there’s an element to this dialogue that a lot of people don’t seem to be considering, based on the sources quoted and many of the comments here.

Let me preface this by pointing out that in exactly two months I will have been reviewing games professionally for 15 years. Ten and a half of those years were spent at Ziff Davis Media, home of EGM, and later, 1UP. Most of that time was spent at the Official U.S. PlayStation Magazine (yes! a magazine! made of paper!), and most of that time was spent in charge of the Reviews section. Since OPM went kaput in late ’06 I’ve been a freelance writer, primarily doing reviews for many of the big gaming publications: EGM, 1UP, GamePro, GameSpy, PlayStation: The Official Magazine, OXM…er, I’m sure I’m forgetting someone, but you get the idea. During this time I’ve reviewed well over five hundred games, all for publication in major outlets.

What I’m saying is that I know how reviewing games works.

Over the past decade and a half, I can think of exactly one — one — occasion in which a PR person attempted to directly influence the score of a game before the review was written. It was the type mentioned in this articles: “you can get review code early if you agree the game will be at least a certain score.” We of course turned them down.

On maybe, oh, ten or fifteen other occasions, a PR person called me (in my capacity as reviews editor) to debate one of my reviewer’s scores after publication. And in every one of those occasions save one (in which a memorably loony PR dude pretty much went off his meds) they went away satisfied that their game was given a fair chance. Disappointed it didn’t do better, sure, but satisfied that we were evaluating the game thoroughly and fairly.

And that is, of course, a rightful part of the PR person’s job: to ensure the game is being treated fairly. And in my experience, the vast majority of PR people, and the publishers they represent, are ethical, sensible people who are as appalled by sleazy back-room dealing as journalists and consumers are. Because they know what every publication should know:

If a reviewer isn’t honest about the bad games, no one trusts them about the good ones, either.

Trying to artificially inflate a score is an incredibly shortsighted maneuver; it may bump up the Metacritic rating of the current game, but it kills the credibility of both the publication and the game company. If consumers buy a game that’s been artificially praised, they don’t just resent the outlet that did the praising, they resent the game company, too! And they’ll be that much more hesitant to buy the next game.

This is what I would tell the vocal minority of PR people: If we’re not honest about your crappy game, no one’s going to believe us if we praise one of yours that’s legitimately good. And most folks recognize this. That’s why these kinds of sleazy deals are the exception, not the norm.

But here’s the thing that I find particularly amusing about all this. So many people involved in this discussion (including many commenters here) use this news as justification for not trusting the big enthusiast sites or magazines. You even mention in your post not being able to trust 1UP.

But it’s the big media outlets that are most immune to these kinds of deals! The big media outlets know that the game companies need them more than they need the game companies; they’re big enough that they get their clicks or their subscribers whether one particular game is reviewed early or late; they have the budget and manpower to generate tons of non-review content; and perhaps most importantly, they know that if one particular company is going to withhold review code, they have plenty of other companies willing to fill those spots.

Furthermore, the big media outlets have ad-sales teams completely separate from the editorial teams. I know at Ziff there was an impenetrable barrier between ad and edit; we referred to it as the separation of church and state, and it was inviolable. Oh, we might hear that publisher X was threatening to pull ads — I mean, stuff gets around, you know? — but there was never — ever — any pressure from that side, or from our managers, to change our editorial content in any way as a result.

Now, I do know that hasn’t always been the case everywhere. The Gerstmann/GameSpot debacle is the most offensive example of ad influencing edit, but I can think of a few other stories (or at least rumors) I’ve heard over the years.

And it’s been a bit over four years since I worked full-time at a gaming publication, so I suppose things may have changed a bit. But if they have, it sure hasn’t trickled down to me; none of the publications I mentioned above has ever attempted to influence the score of a review I’ve submitted. Not once. Not even a little bit.

And of course this makes sense when you think about the power these bigger publications hold. If we really need to be concerned about someone falling prey to publisher and/or PR pressure, I think it’s the smaller sites we need to beware of, the ones who have limited access to begin with, limited resources to devote to non-review content, and limited staff to serve as buffers between pushy PR and writers. To be clear, I strongly doubt many of those succumb to that pressure, either. But wouldn’t you agree that they have more incentive to?

One final note before I release my choke-hold on an entire page of your comments section: If we want to point fingers here, we should consider pointing them at aggregator sites like Metacritic. The section you quote mentions that “sites which use letter grades don’t get advanced copies” because of how Metacritic translates them. And if you think of this from a PR person’s perspective, it makes perfect sense: Metacritic calls a “C” a 50 out of 100. If that same reviewer reviewed the same game on another site, it would likely get a score around 75, because most game publications use a number-based rating system that roughly translates to percentage grades in school: e.g., 60 or lower tends to be “failing.”

To combat this, either all publications could adopt the same rating system (ah, no) — or Metacritic could get their heads out of their asses and use some sense when standardizing scores: If a C is 50, fine — but make sure that for sites that only rate 60-100, an 80 is also 50. It’s pretty simple math, you know? Calculate the mean (or is it median?) score for each source, and make that the middle of the scale.

In closing, I’ll say this: It’s fun to bash on The Man; it just doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense. Also, this sort of thing is news because it’s the exception, not the norm. Also, I’m rather hungry.

Your fan,
-joe rybicki

My Lawn, Get Off Of It

My wife is working nights at the moment. She’s a nurse, which means that working nights for her entails leaving the house at 6:00 pm, arriving at the hospital at 7, working until 7:30 am, and getting home around 8:30ish.

This schedule flips 12 hours every three weeks. On top of that, she’s a new nurse, which means that her schedule is periodically interspersed with eight hours of classes — in the daytime. Even when she’s working nights.

This messes with the rest of her schedule, such that every so often she ends up working one night, having a day off, then working another night.

This is not conducive to normal human behavior.

As a show of solidarity during this last round of nights, I’ve been doing my best to try to match her schedule, and so last Thursday found her with a night off, and us looking for something to do around Cleveland in the middle of the night. As it turned out, a sushi restaurant I’d been meaning to try is open late on Thursdays. (Sushi Rock, for you Clevelanders; there’s one downtown but we went to the one in Beachwood.)

This excited us, as we’d not been out for sushi in ages. So we got dressed all pretty-like, hopped in the car and drove the 20 minutes or so to Sushi Rock.

Now, I’d known this was considered kind of a hip place, which is normally so not my thing. But it was late and we were feeling saucy, so when we walked in and saw the dim lights, noted the Spartan decor, and heard the thumping dance music, we sort of grinned at each other and followed the hostess to our table.

It was about that time that we realized how loud the music was. The conversation went something like this:

“____ ____ __ ___”



We were sitting about two feet from one another and literally had to shout to be heard.

Now, look: I’m 36 and married. I know I’m not the target demo for a swank sushi restaurant for singles. But here’s what I genuinely don’t understand: Assuming your venue does not have a dance floor (as this one did not), what is the benefit of playing music so loud that your patrons literally cannot speak to one another? What am I missing here? Is it so that we antisocial Americans need not feel pressure to interact in anything but exaggerated facial expressions and suggestive gestures?

I say “Americans” because this is something that immediately struck me on my first visit to the U.K.: here you have a society practically founded on pub culture. There as common there as Starbucks are here. (I know that’s hard to believe, but trust me.) And the one thing nearly every pub I’ve been to in the U.K. — and there have been many — has in common is that even when they’re playing music, it’s never too loud for conversation. The result?

People converse.

Shocking, I know. But there, pubs are community hubs, centers for socialization, for making new friends and enjoying the company of old ones. (The one exception I found? The “Chicago Rock Bar,” an American-themed joint in Norwich, East Anglia.)

It drives me crazy, and constantly perplexes me, that so many bars I’ve been to around here seem designed not for interaction, but for shared solitude. It’s sad, but it’s more puzzling.

Can anyone help shed some light on this, one of the great mysteries of our time?

Oh, and if you’re wondering, we of course left Sushi Rock immediately, and headed down the street to my friend Fish’s place, Melt. Tonight we finally got our sushi fix, at the outstanding Pacific East, where I had literally some of the best sushi I’ve ever had — and I lived in San Francisco for five years. So this story has a happy ending.

But I just can’t stop thinking about that crazy-loud music, and what purpose it serves. Maybe I’m just getting old and crotchety, but I just don’t get it. I wish I did.

Quick Note re: E-mail

So, apparently Gmail has been having issues for the last four hours or so. And most of my various e-mail accounts rely on Gmail. So if you’ve been trying to reach me with anything urgent, please be patient — I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks.

And Now, a Two-Word Review

…of Nicolas Cage disaster flick Knowing:

“Rapture porn.”

knowing-nick-cageI’m glad I’m not alone in thinking this way; Ty Burr at the Boston Globe positively nails it. Though his score of 1.5 stars is, I believe, too generous.

I am often disappointed by movies, but I am rarely disgusted, and almost never actually offended. Knowing pulled off a hat trick with its impressively bad writing, acting, and heavy-handed allegory. After that it’s hard to care how technologically impressive a film may be.

Avoid at all costs.