Blair's Blog

Sep 20, 2004 8:00 AM, By Blair Jackson

Web Warriors and Microsoft Mischief

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Maybe it’s because I’m an admitted left-wing pinko, but I seem to be on an awful lot of friends’ e-mail lists who regularly send out political screeds of one type or another. If there’s a 5,000-word analysis of where the Bush administration went wrong in Iraq that was published in some obscure journal (or online blog!), chances are, it’s arrived in my e-mailbox in triplicate already. That’s okay—I read the ones that look interesting; I trash the rest. I’ve forwarded my share to friends and work associates, too.

Of course, the best ones are the funny, creative ones. Just yesterday, I got one from a Mix writer called “The Bush Campaign’s TV Commercial If He Was Running Against Jesus.” Close-up on Jesus’ face, with a quote across it: “Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other.” Below the quote: “Can we trust Jesus to fight the war on terror?” And so on, distorting several of Jesus’ other teachings for political gain. More disturbing (but even funnier) was one I received from another friend over the weekend that depicted Bush, Kerry, Cheney and Edwards as nattily dressed women—their faces had been expertly transplanted onto some existing photographs. The results were not pretty. Dick Cheney looked vaguely like Billie Jean King, for better or worse. Most of you have probably seen “This Land” on jibjab.com: It’s an extremely clever photo-animated song that skewers Bush and Kerry to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s classic song.

Then there’s the case of my old friend, Mix editor George Petersen. Now, George is not a guy who regularly sends around jokes and such to an e-mail list of hundreds…unless, of course, he does, and I’m not included! But recently, he sent me a link to a clever anti-Bush ditty called “Wartime President Song,” which he and his long-time musical partner in crime—the infamous J.J. Jenkins—had written and recorded in a day and then put up on the Web. I immediately sent the link to a bunch of people, and obviously so did some other friends of George’s and J.J.’s, because now the song has caused a mini-sensation. Admittedly, it doesn’t take much to make waves on the Web…but that’s what’s so interesting about it. The Web is so thoroughly democratic in the sense that so many people have access to it and can make their voices heard—in this case, literally. Whether you’re a hate-filled neo-Nazi, a geeky intellectual who wants to share his scholarship with the world or just a smart-ass with too much free time, like George, there may be an audience for you! The cool stuff can literally make it around the world in a heartbeat; the really cool stuff becomes legendary!

I asked George to tell me how and he and J.J. put their song together and got it on the Web. Here’s what he told me: “About three weeks ago—August 29th to be exact—my songwriting/band partner J.J. Jenkins and I decided to record a fun little song that poked fun at our current chief executive. So in one day, we wrote a song based on the familiar tune of ‘This Old Man’ with new words to become the ‘Wartime President Song.’ We sketched out the words and laid down a snare/kick rhythm, followed by acoustic bass, banjo and guitar rhythm. It's a repetitive lick, so to keep it from becoming boring, we added banjo fills that echo other familiar tunes that make a musical comment on each verse and an ‘I'm a Lumberjack’-style refrain that repeats the last line of each chorus as a hook. Then we tracked the lead and background vocals and added a flute sample that doubled the banjo licks—nine tracks in all.

“At this point, it was almost midnight, so we cut a rough reference mix and figured we'd mix the next day when our ears were clear. But listening back to the ref mix, we figured it was good enough, even though we hadn't tweaked or EQ'd any of the tracks and there was no reverb or processing at all, except the flute sample, which was very wet.

“We were anxious to get the song out to the world, as the Republican Convention was beginning the next morning. So we figured for a novelty song the mix was good enough as is. We dumped the tracks into BIAS Peak, did some compression and then cut two MP3s (at 128 and 256 kbps) so listeners had low- and high-res download options. The next morning, I got up early and knocked out a simple Web page with the lyrics and links.

"From our zero-budget promotion, I had some friends send link requests and brief press releases out to the media, radio stations (conventional and Internet), Democrat-friendly sites, blogs and newsgroups. With a little word-of-mouth, I hoped we'd get a lot of downloads, so rather than overload the bandwidth of our little ISP, I used a friend's large server to host the song files—a good thing, as we're downloading about 2,000 files a day! We've also picked up a fair amount of airplay, especially with college stations.

"So far, the whole project is just two weeks old, and it's picking up steam. We're also doing a JibJab-type animation clip to go with it, due out in October, but meanwhile, you can hear it at www.jenpet.com/warprez.html. I'm always surprised when people say they have no power to make statements about their political beliefs, because having a musical mindset and access to recording gear is power!”

Thank you George. And by the way, John Ashcroft is on Line 2 for you!

It’s so fashionable to hate Microsoft these days I wouldn’t want to be accused of being a bandwagon jumper. It’s not their sleazy, predatory business practices and their well-documented arrogance that’s got me cheesed-off. It’s not even the fact that problems with Microsoft Outlook nearly destroyed my life, by obliterating years of emails I’d saved and forcing me to spend days at a time on the phone with Microsoft technicians in Bangalore and Calcutta. (All hail Eudora, for providing problem-free email service to me for nearly one full year—unheard of in my lifetime!)

No, what’s got me steamed is one aspect of Microsoft’s new MSN Music service for the Internet. After obtaining the radio playlists of 900 different stations from Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems (an Evil Empire itself), Microsoft has created its own sound-alike versions of these large and small radio stations—using the playlists, but eliminating the DJs and commercials—and made them accessible through their Web service. What’s outrageous is not that they are blatantly copying existing stations—an ignoble practice that dates back to the earliest days of radio—but that they have the gall to actually use the names of the stations they’re ripping off! Of course Microsoft has some cagey lawyer-ese mumbo-jumbo at the ready to defend this. As they told the San Francisco Chronicle recently, “The use of station names is applied only to indicate the top artists on a station, and we believe it’s simply a factual statement about the radio station, similar to many other public radio charts on the web.”

How pathetic is that? Here we have this wonderful medium—the Internet—that offers us the opportunity to do really inventive things outside the usual constraints of the dominant commercial paradigm. Bop around the Web long enough and you can find exciting, commercial-free music programming to suit your every desire. Microsoft, with its infinite resources, could have tapped the best brain-power out there to invent dozens of new, progressive Internet music “stations.” Instead, they are simply stealing the ideas and hard work of others—creating a successful radio format is not easy—and then passing it off as their own product. That, my friends, is plain sad. And not just because it’s morally offensive. It’s creatively bankrupt, too.

Let’s face it: Most radio stations are completely lame because they have invariably had to make concessions for commercial reasons. They are so beholden to their corporate masters to produce strong ratings, they are pathologically afraid to take any chances with the music they play, and they’re constantly looking over their shoulders at the competition. The thinking DJ was long ago replaced by the fear-filled PD with computer print-outs and focus group results. The fact that Microsoft has chosen to steal the programming ideas of hundreds of stations that are already creatively compromised by commercial considerations shows how intellectually stunted that company is. I can get better original, commercial-free programming through my cable TV. Or from XM or another satellite service. Or a “pirate” station on the Net.

Give me Bill Gates tied to a chair and 24 hours: I’ll play him some of the stations he’s ripping off until he begs for mercy!

But enough about me. What are you ticked off about? E-mail me: blair@blairjackson.com.






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