Tuesday, March 22, 2005

NIN with teeth 

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Sunday, February 27, 2005

On Plagiarism 

So here's a little story. An off the record deposition if you will

I'm building a season postcard for this theater company and the whole concept - go ahead, look for yourself - is little boxes of images that evoke each show. For the currently running monologue festival "When Women Wore Wings," which will be running in rep with Salome, I find late at night on google this great tiny graphic in some random site online:

wings.jpg - Except for the text, absolutely unedited.

Great. So that project is done.

Several months later, it comes time to design a postcard for both Salome and Women/Wings. Now Salome demands the attention, but they both have the same deadline. Salome goes through several revisions, but turns out great. Women/Wings needs to be done in a hurry. I go to the library and spend about five hours looking for a good image, a spark of a concept. Nothing beats the idea of a woman with wings tattooed on her back. I give up.

Now I don't want to just copy the damn thing - nor am I so stupid as to just blow up the image and use it. I want to rework it, touch it up, stylize it a bit. Make it artful. The time is spent drawing in Illustrator, working and reworking - spending time creating skin tone - artistic techniques I've never even come close to doing before. When the time comes for it to be done, I'm happy with the result, and I'm happy with the fact that it is stylistically similar to the Salome poster, since they'll be marketed together.

The deadline comes, and it's time to turn it in.

Now every artistic process is like this - first, you listen or look for source material - you create a morgue of images, angles, sounds, rhythms, whatever. Art (and no, I don't consider my graphics work art, but that is what I'm working towards) isn't created in a vacuum. Then you take those ingredients and your head and your heart chew 'em up, and spit 'em out, arrange 'em real pretty like. No work of art has been created without ingredients. Andy Warhol would agree most vehemently, no?

Tonight, my producer received this link, and this note from 'a fan.'

no doubt you've recieved similar messages: the image being used for the women with wings (a great monologue show) promo is noticably close to a copywright ablum cover by a brit band. I have included the link. its the cover for the 'this picture' single. maybe worth considering to not use an image... well... bordering on plagarism? though in fact it has been changed, its pretty much the same thing. I am speaking for a few friends who are fans, and of course, being a fan, we're a little defensive. But I'm also a graphic designer who got in some deep shit once over using someone else's stuff.

Suddenly, the whole process is put into contrast for me. Now I'm clearly in the legal wrong, so I send a letter apologizing to the fan and I'm in the process of taking the image of their website. In terms of her suggestion of 'not using the image' just isn't practical on a $100 budget when the postcards are already distributed. I feel like crap, to be short.

So I think, where did I go wrong? I'm thankful it isn't lawyers sending me e-mails, but it's still scary that I'm being accused of plagiarism.

And then I think, why did I do it, and how could I have avoided it?

Well the problem is, I'm new at this. I spent so much time working out the technique for creating skin tone layers over the tattoo - and was so proud of the results of the skin tone - that I never thought to push the concept further and so I didn't rework something as basic as the shape of the woman and the tatoo. And clearly from the fan's letter, using the work of others is a common problem with developing graphic designers. It's also a common problem with developing sound designers. Why the heck does this always happen?

When you're learning technique, you often copy things that work until you learn how they're put together. This happens a lot when you're learning to play an instrument - you learn by playing songs written by other people. Each image, sound, or song you practice on creates worlds of knowledge and greatly increases your skills as an artist.

Plagiarism in graphics and sound design is similar in character, but far more common than in media like writing. Writing requires very little money, so a writer can refine, learn, copy and integrate other styles in private. What's difficult is that the sheer cost of obtaining graphics and sound design equipment and software means that you need to START OUT by selling your services, and go through that process publicly - or risk being a shallow artist. There's plenty of those. There is active pressure on people like me to bend the rules to learn the trade, or the process of learning is utterly stunted. If I were to stop using source material for my graphic designs, my creativity would eventually run dry. Of course, it's impossible to stop using source material - you see it on the bus every day. I guess it's a question of scale.

The question of intellectual property is being decided and reworked this decade because previous decades have created new art forms - like pop art, and hip-hop that features samples of other songs - that are clearly works of art in their own right. Thankfully, that question is being answered by lawyers and politicians, who have little stake in developing the quality of new artists. I don't mean to be tooting my own horn here - As a green graphic designer, I've committed a grave error, and I've learned I need to push myself even harder to really own my own work. But I did it in the spirit of learning at the pace I can afford to take, not in the spirit of co-opting the work of others. Am I just misguided? Am I making excuses?

I can't tell you the amount of stress I endure and energy I put into developing my own talent. And it's frustrating, because graphics and sound have typically been dominated by the big businesses and, sorry friends, the rich kids, who could afford to spend the capital in buying equipment or four years of school. And I guess I feel that's also wrong - I feel like our society doesn't focus on developing new kinds of art, and punishes people who creatively rethink the way things are - as if the society can't distinguish between the enemies of society and the innovators of society.

For instance, I work only for not-for-profit theater companies that can't afford to pay me much. They can't even afford to treat me as a pay-rolled employee, so my income is as an independent contractor. That means when tax time comes around, I'm hit with a self-employment tax that is designed for severely well-paid consultants that I am grouped together with. I know I get to do what I love to do, but I am earning $17,000 a year, which is near poverty level, and I'm routinely hit with $500 - $1000 tax bills at the end of the year, and I live in fear of prosecution from people who recognize the chunks of art I haven't chewed enough to be recognizable.

I guess I'm just nostalgic for the dog-eat-and-respect-dog culture of the renaissance, when everyone just freely stole and built off the work of others, without fear of being destroyed by prosecution. There's some serious protectionism going on the creative industries, and I wonder who's benefiting. Some day I will be able to paint beautiful pictures and compose wonderful melodies and harmonies. Then I will have a socially valid career, and I'll probably feel differently. Until then, I fall under the classification of "unoriginal hack."
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Wednesday, February 16, 2005


Finally Microsoft is updating IE to version 7. Microsoft has been picking its nose for what... two years? three years? since releasing Windows 95?

Now if only the US would jump on board with Kyoto-Protocol-style emission mandates, which - Finally - go into effect in Europe today. TODAY. Europe may have an issue since I think the only big emissions country on board is Russia - which doesn't compare with US, India, or China by any stretch of the imagination. It does show, however, that China has somehow taken on more diplomatic flexibility than the U.S. since Bush took office (they've signed the Kyoto protocol but aren't bound by the mandates since they apparently don't have the ability to do so yet)... That worry anyone else?

And in a final finally, I've just completed the last of a string of graphic design projects, which means they're nearly over. It's been fun, but who knew that graphics took up more CPU than sound editing. My computer, it's becoming clear, is barely getting by on the schedule I've given it. Oy.
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Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Money Where the Mouth Is 

I've been meaning to post this particular playlist for a while, and I've finally made it an iMix (requires iTunes, snarky!) It's an uber-playlist I've been developing for a while called "Pep" and it's just that. It's my first mix tape that's limited only by theme and not by the 80- minute format. Enjoy! Marni's probably working out to it right now...
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The Rut and the Democratization of Music 

I'm begging to hate that word... Democratization. I like what it means, of course, just... DAMN YOU TOM FRIEDMAN! Buzzwords be damned, you know?

In case you couldn't tell, I'm a bit snarky today. You see, I've scheduled myself into a three-week rut. I'm busy - busy with a ton of favor projects that I'm being paid peanuts or not paid for. What this amounts to is a lot of stuff I need to get done, with little hope of keeping to my budget this month. It happens every February. What makes it more difficult is that I'm relatively busy throughout March and April - but I'm still not going to be doing well financially. The good news is Cherubs - always good news - and next season, where it looks like a really good working relationship will be paying off.

But blah-dee-blah. My graphics portfolio is building considerably in the meantime. All would be well if a nice $400 gig came my way through those channels. Or even two $200 ones, you know?

Finding it difficult to get out of bed in the morning... Sleeping an average of 12 hours a day. Life is good, but the honeymoon is over with the sound career, I suppose.

Anyway, regarding the Democratization of Music - There's a new radio station in Chicago, NineFM, and the concept is one a lot of folks I know have been waiting for a long long time - "We Play Anything." And they pretty much do - though they're quick to point out that "Anything" does not mean "Everything." My New Leaf pal B has been raving about it, and has been enjoying a sort of musical renaissance - right to the point where he'll be buying an iPod and iTrip, just to fit as much rediscovered music as he can into his brain. I applaud, of course.

What I couldn't figure out was, um, why has this taken so long? I've been jonesing for a radio station with an actual mix of you know, genres, ever since all those top 40 stations renamed themselves "The Mix" by which they mean "The Best Mix of Overplayed Songs from ALL your favorite decades!... okay, the last three, but mostly two." What suddenly created the desire for radio investors and programmers to let go of their iron grip on programming, letting the DJs play um,... good music, that doesn't fit into a prescribed mold? Is it that DJs haven't wanted the flexibility until now? Ha. Is it that record companies have consolidated their radio influence - read "stranglehold" - on what radio stations - like ClearChannel, say - play? Sure, but that wouldn't prevent maverick radio stations with a mission and/or deathwish from attempting this before 2005.

Then it hit me with a promo ad I heard on 9FM the other day "It's like an iPod that you don't pay for." It's the market, stupid. The iPod (and by association, Napster, WinAmp, iTunes, and the whole theory of "Playlists") have actually impacted society to the point where the democratization of music has become marketable. The market finally wants it. It's that simple.

Which reveals how much has changed about the music industry (and how backwards most of the big record labels really are) since Napster and the iPod. The playlist is beginning to replace the album as the basic model of music marketing - See how popular the iMix is, for example. An artist/label can still put out an album of poo with one good song, but more often than not they'll now be selling that album in units of $.99 rather than $15.99.

The record labels have responded like toddlers, obviously, suing the teenage practitioners of the democratization as if it was a crime - which, sure, it is - and not a larger social movement - which it also is. And their shareholders are about to feel it. Apple and iTunes have gotten a second life based solely on understanding the paradigm shift and creating a marketable system off it.

And if you compare the music the major labels and iTunes are marketing, you can still see how backwards the labels still are. Labels have shifted focus from developing new artists to the artists that still do sell units in the $15.99 bracket - albums where every song sounds the same, like Nickelback (that link is hilarious, by the way), and albums by established artists like U2, where anyone buying anything by them will be buying everything by them (And iTunes MS is still beating the pants off that strategy in the case of U2) iTunes, on the other hand, markets a much higher percentage of unknown artists - if you buy even one song from the online store, you get a weekly update of new albums, including a free download of one song by an emerging artist. It's a rich e-mail blast, and it's so convenient that I've taken to relying on it to know what's going on in the world of music.

In other words, Apple and iTunes have recognized that the internet is now the primary medium for music dissemination, rather than the radio, and so they're now in a position to dictate the agenda for new music development. The kind of music that this system focuses on is more exotic than the Top 40 formula - it allows the user to find hits and personal favorites that have been locked in vaults for decades - and obtain them cheaply, allows deep exploration of genres, and allows for total user control of what they hear.

So what's next? Well, at some point Microsoft will get off its ass and come up with a workable alternative for the iTunes Music Store (though not one based on the irredeemably crappy WMA format or as I will refer to it from now on, "Digital Shackles, thank you sir may I have another") Surely we can all agree they should fix Internet Explorer first. I doubt iTunes will ever get a majority of market share, though they do have a head start and a good head for strategy. The record labels have had market share for so long, and they have an advantage in that they own the souls of most of the top producers, studios, and established artists. That's cold comfort - as a sound engineer who can purchase a solid home studio for $10,000, I can tell you that won't help them past the next ten - or five - years. Independent labels have already started approaching iTunes and similar items directly and building large audience bases. If the floodgates open on that sort of behavior, the record labels may find themselves in the somewhat bitter position of having to litigate to survive as their artists jump ship faster than they already are. Oh wait, that was three years ago. Naw, they're smart. They'll start force feeding their own artists through the iTunes machine. Though I think it's clear that they won't be setting the musical agenda for the forseeable future.
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Saturday, February 05, 2005

Much Anticipated Music 

Well it's a banner time for new releases from some of my personal favorite artists - some of them so personally favorite I had to actually go out and buy the albums rather than wait for it to cross my desk, so to speak.

Tori's new album, not yet released, is not yet one of these, but it's exciting nonetheless.

VAST - Nude
Yes! VAST is still alive and kicking, which is a huge relief. Nude is essentially a reworking of the sound of the first album (think: Touched, with its sampled ululations and multi-layered mixes), this time around adding the more refined lyrics and pop sensibility of Music for People, as well as somewhat more rhythmic approach to (gasp) the Rap/Rock format. I have to stress: Crosby does not Rap on this album. He's just speaking to the poor deluded souls, and trying to pry them into his expansive and layered sound. Turquoise is the one song where the whole mix seems to work well, but it's also where Crosby sticks most closely to his radio-friendly verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus-chorus formula, which weighs down the driving beat and rolling synths.

The net result? Like any stew with lots of seasoning, the whole thing is fun, but doesn't have the impact that either of the first two albums had. Like Nine Inch Nails, it's still great music to EQ to, with so many layers that you hear an entirely new mix on every pair of speakers you play it through. For fans of the baseline, there's Be With Me, which is sort of a Mission Impossible Theme for people who can't find someone to go to the prom with. Winter In My Heart is another high point, with a rolling if simple piano melody and a shimmering mix.

Final Analysis: Blows Biskit out of the water, but that ain't saying much.

Bjork - Medulla
If you know - and love - the vocal energy contained within the Balinese Exorcism ritual of Ketjak, this is the album for you. If you have no idea what I just said, listen to this album, and - know the quickest path to the bathroom, especially if you listen with headphones. It is a beautiful album, but the vocal acrobatics on songs like Ancestors can literally turn your stomach inside out.

If you haven't heard about it yet, this album was created using only samples of human voices and unsampled vocal performances by artists who make Bjork's vocal gymnastics sound like an unrehearsed church choir in Dubuque. It is without a doubt the most technically accomplished a capella record ever made.

Bjork even returns to her Debut roots with an a capella dance track, Triumph of the Heart, a bouncy hit sure to make the rounds at any College a capella groups that can manage to pull it off. Bjork also turns up the comfy cocoa by singing in her native Icelandic (finally!)- which sounds vaguely Celtic - on Vokuro and several other songs.

Final Analysis: As big a gut reaction you're ever likely to have with an album. Yes, even more than KMFDM. Also manages to be beautiful at the same time. Sort of like walking to the North Pole with Headphones on.
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Wednesday, February 02, 2005

The Measure of Failure 

So I've had a lot of time and opportunity to reflect on Moraulf's comment about "Teachable Moments" recently. For one thing, it's February, and that means down-time for theater professionals. Lots and lots of down time. I'm seeing a lot of people, not just myself, grapple with big, hard-to-swallow changes lately. Moraulf with his rough semester, and a theater company I work with that may need to postpone a show due to financial issues.

I've been in a different place recently. I guess I could sum it up by saying that my Work Ethic has been taking a much deserved sabbatical. The job thing sort of put me in a place where I needed to reevaluate what I wanted to be doing... and as that was happening, I did a little show out in the burbs which has been treating me very well. It's sorta cushy - It's the Odd Couple, and the crew is really supportive, so it's as close to a paid vacation as I get. I decided to have a lot of fun with the design, let it all hang out so to speak, and I think it's paid off.

It's always been sort of assumed whenever I or anyone else I know - parents, friends, teachers, co-workers, that success is not financial, but tied to self-realization. What's been nagging me to be thought about lately is... well, then how do you know when you've failed?

Failure is heavy stuff. It's a big disappointment in yourself. I spend a ton of time on goal-setting and measuring those goals, possibly more than most people, but I never really let those goals get stale, if you know what I mean. I reevaluate the goals and measures of success before I get to the point of failure.

I don't think failure ever has to happen unless you give up on what you're working towards. I think, actually, that the giving up is what triggers the failure. That is to say, success can be measured, but failure needs to be labeled. So the challenge of success in an endeavor is not always "Can I do it?" but sometimes is "Can I break it down, put parts of it off, and accomplish the things I want to in the timeframe I'm comfortable with, and can I safely put off the rest until it becomes necessary to reevaluate?"

My whole thrust here is that people should really just give themselves a break. The problem with that is money, which sheds light on why success has always been linked to wealth.

it's not that possession of money indicates success, but that inability to accomplish one's goals because of a lack of it, resources, and innovation so clearly indicates failure.

Ouch. After writing that down, I fear that it may be really harsh. I mean, I feel pretty burned by it. But then again, it's all about setting the right goals. My (real) goals have never been, you know, own the world, or influence politics behind the scenes. My goals have been simple, firmly within the realm of possibility, and closely within my grasp, so I've met the challenge of financial failure with a consistent ability to achieve what I set out to do. They've also been mostly short-term. I've never truly developed long-term goals, and that's why I think I'm starting to have this dialogue with myself. Because with long-term stuff, there's many more opportunities for failure along the way... but the real failure would be to not set out to accomplish them in the first place.

Hmm... This is the point of this blog entry where I'd like a margarita to sip upon. Not having one of those, I will settle for sleep. Nighty Night, Intrepid Reader.
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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

I'm Intrigued 

Anybody read much on William James? I'm intrigued by this paragraph - and I understand that his philosophies may have been turned sour by 19th century American Capitalism...

"Pioneer of pragmatism, our first indigenous school of thought. Attempted to make philosophy relevant by abandoning the search for absolutes in favor of a will-it-cut-down-trees approach to ideas. Theorized that:

1) reality is whatever we make it,
2) that truth is tantamount to effectiveness,
3) ditto goodness (thus, if believing in God makes you a better person, then God exists), and that
4) philosophy should stick to answering questions that have a "cash-value", i.e. that will make a significant difference in people's lives."

So, I love and I hate this.

1) Sure.
2) Urgh. Somewhat Macchiavellian, no?
3) This is probably what drew me to him - the God example. Very good God example, but otherwise not sold.
4) This feels like his downfall - it's clear that the ideas that had the most cash-value in the last half of the twentieth century did appear to have cash value at the beginning of the inquiry. Like Einstein's Theory of Relativity. A dinky little thing about energy and/or the speed of light, but Bang! It ended WWII. Who is the philosopher to determine what does or does not have cash-value?

So I guess I already have mixed feelings about Mr. James, but I am intrigued by the whole concept of pragmatism. It just fits with me, I guess.
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