Monday, May 4, 2009

Case Study: "God & Worshipper: A Rock-and-Roll Love Story, of Sorts" by Stephen Rodrick, "New York" Magazine

Check out the original article here. Read about its creation below.

Biographical Information: Stephen Rodrick, 42, currently works as a contributing editor at New York magazine, in addition to contributing to the New York Times Magazine. Known for his celebrity and politician profiles, Rodrick has written about the likes of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani (included in 2007's "The Best American Political Writing"), director Judd Apatow, actor Christopher Walken and more. He holds a BA and MA in political science from Loyola University of Chicago and a Masters in journalism from Northwestern.

The Inception and Research: The original idea for "God & Worshipper: A Rock-and-Roll Love Story, of Sorts" came from Adam Moss, the editor of New York, back in August of 2008. "He knew I was looking for a good music story to do and he'd seen the Mountain Goats live and mentioned he thought their fans might make an interesting story," said Rodrick. Having already been a casual fan of the band, the writer was excited for the story and set in on some research.

"I spent a good few weeks just listening to the MG stuff that I wasn't familiar with which was fairly daunting as they've released 600-700 songs," he said. "I'm not saying I knew it all after the two weeks, but I was better prepared to then start my reporting."

Eventually, the story would follow two voices: Mountain Goats obsessive Stephen Wesley and Mountain Goats singer/lyricist John Darnielle. In an attempt to reconcile uber-fandom from both the fan and artist perspective, "God & Worshipper" thoughtfully explores the connection between a boy and his favorite band and simultaneously, between a musician and his fans. The dramatic edge of the story was in the fact that despite his borderline obsession, Wesley was constantly thwarted in his attempts to see Darnielle perform live. The story ran about six month after the idea was originally floated.

The News Hook: According to Rodrick, without a new Mountain Goats record slated for release "a piece on the [Mountain Goats] didn't really have a natural hook, so the piece sat in the magazine's queue for a month or two."

Reporting: Rodrick began by setting up time with Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle after explaining to him the thrust of the story. "He was good enough to post on the MG forum what the story was about and my email," Rodrick explained. "I received a half dozen or so responses and met with three or four of the more interesting fans including Stephen." Rodrick thought he was a smart and interesting kid and the fact he had been thwarted in his efforts to see the band just made him all the more intriguing. Rodrick spent parts of four days with Darnielle in Durham, NC and then spent five or six sessions with Stephen, "over lunch, at his school, or at my place listening to MG songs."

The writer believed the story wouldn't really work without a payoff of some sort, so he attempted to set up a meeting between the two. Both were reluctant to do it -- Darnielle because "he's really shy and doesn't like to make small talk" and Wesley because "he thought he'd come across as an idiot and would be crushed if John didn't like him." To Rodrick, this just made the emotional payoff all the more powerful. "Even if the meeting had gone badly, that would have been fine, I just wanted to observe their natural reaction to meeting whatever that might be."

Editing: The piece was significantly edited with Rodrick's original piece twice as long. "We struggled with making it a shorter piece as the magazine dealt with few edit pages because of the recession, while maintaining the voice of the two main characters."

"I won't say the cuts weren't painful, but i think we reached a fairly good middle ground at 4,600 words," he said. "I did three drafts: they liked the first one, thought I lost my way on the second one, and then we reached a compromise on the third go-around. This is fairly standard magazine process."

The second draft, according to Rodrick, was too focused on trying to put the Mountain Goats and cult bands into some kind of cultural context and strayed too far from the essence of the piece which Rodrick believed was neatly summed up in an early headline: "A Boy And His Band."

"Once we re-focused on that, the piece turned out really well," said Rodrick.

Post-Publication: After the story ran, Rodrick spoke with both Darnielle and Wesley and there was a spirited discussion of the story on the forum pages of the Mountain Goats' website. "I also had lunch with Stephen after the piece came out to make sure he was ok and that the piece hadn't impacted his life too much," said Rodrick.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Record Store Days Plays Only on Generational Nostalgia

Megan Seling wrote an interesting piece in The Stranger last week titled, "Damn the Man, Save Your Local Record Store: Why You Should Care About Record Store Day." Though I liked it, I didn't buy it (pun intended). Consider this column my response:

by Joseph Coscarelli
April 23, 2009

It was at a rooftop party in lower Manhattan that I encountered a unicorn. Well, not exactly a unicorn, but a creature equally elusive. I had been told these mythic creatures existed; promised that their purity surrounded me, even if I couldn't see them with my disbelieving eyes.

She was barely over five feet tall with loose brown curls, a ratty sweatshirt and black tights. She gushed about early '90s independent rock, lauding Stephen Malkmus while dismissing The Boss as "factory music." She was reverent, but just barely. I'd heard these vaguely derisive party lines before. Then she said it.

"I don't believe in downloading music," she said. "I go to record stores and I buy it."

I nearly stumbled off of the six story building. "Shady Lane" probably would have played in my head as my stunned body rushed toward the, uh, pavement. Regaining my composure, I pushed the issue. "Wait, so you buy. every. album?!" I stammered. "What was the last one you bought?"

Silence. I could practically hear the bum below shaking his change cup.

I knew it. My generation -- teens to early twentysomethings -- does not care about record stores. They love music, songwriters, bands, concerts, mp3s and the idea of record stores. But the racks of plastic, the bearded, bespectacled know-it-alls, and the prices that often match our age? Good riddance. And that's why Record Store Day -- the "holiday" created last April in which "independently owned record stores come together with artists to celebrate the art of music" -- will not and does not resonate with us.

When I picture a tiny record shop, I imagine it as a haven for the college student of yesteryear: the Berkeley, California activist or the Athens, Georgia scenester. It was a pit-stop on the way to the protest or the bonfire. An archaic place -- a speakeasy for conversation about Black Flag or Billy Corgan, forced to the margins and deemed unworthy by talk of Reagan's reelection or the WTO. These young mavens in the making found guidance in the gravelly voices of aging failed musicians -- another demographic that populated these temples of sound. It is for these types that Record Store Day exists, playing on their nostalgia as a sort of Veteran's Day for the Miles Davis set.

By the time my peers and I decided that Kurt Cobain's estate deserved our allowance money, mega-chains were dominating the market; Target and Wal-Mart cashed in before we even realized that they left out the dirty words. If we were lucky, a Tower Records or a Virgin Megastore was within driving distance, but they sell music with the intimacy that Steve Jobs sells iPods. Tower filed for bankruptcy in 2006; Virgin will close its remaining six locations this spring.

For those of us fortunate enough to live in an urban setting or vaguely alternative area, independent record stores may have been like candy shops, but more often than not there was a grizzled and jaded curmudgeon behind the counter -- not exactly welcoming to a wide-eyed tyke who has never heard Trout Mask Replica. So when advocates for this particular endangered species stress the importance of an erudite staff eager to recommend, I only feel the condescension and alienation of my youth.

In my experience, we prefer the comfort of our own bedrooms, but that hardly means we're sacrificing the knowledge of those older than us or with tastes more eclectic. From the days of Napster and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) to SoulSeek and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), the filesharing community has been exactly that: a community. Popular pirate blogs like Bolachas Grátis and seminal message boards like Radiohead's Atease Web and Hipinion play host to critical conversations that feature more voices than could ever squeeze into an Amoeba, let alone Other Music.

Instant reviews flow as heavily as pre-release album leaks and recommendations are often a poster's currency -- forum personalities can live and die by the music they push, and with no monetary incentive for their promotion, trust is not an issue. After all, one could download it, give it a try and trash it before you had the plastic off of your Bob Dylan remaster.

If we're mourning for business -- for capitalistic decline and a faulty profit model -- that's one issue, and worth exploring. But let's not dress it up as the death of some higher level socialization, because a change of venue may even breathe new life into the world of critical thoughts on music and its fandom.

For the veteran of the record store, own it as a relic of your musical experience, but don't fault the youngster for making the journey their own. As the generational changeover moves irreversibly forward, likely eclipsing the record store as an abundant entity, embrace the shift and sure, while it lasts, keep your holiday. But don't lose what you love about the process -- let go of the tactile fixation and remember that it's about the community.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Pirate Bay Captains Found Guilty

The founders of oft-discussed torrent website, The Pirate Bay were found guilty of "contributory copyright infringement" in Swedish court on Friday and sentenced to one year in prison and ordered to pay over $3 million in damages. And just like that, justice is served and filesharing is no more! Free of evildoers once again, the world can go on as it was before -- pristine and payed for.

All kidding aside, it's hard not to see the guilty verdict as fair, although jail time seems quite excessive. Maybe the RIAA should have just thrown us all in the slammer to teach us the lesson that their lawsuits obviously couldn't.

As for specifics, the above Wired blog writes, "Pirate Bay administrators Fredrik Neij, Gottfrid Svartholm Warg and Peter Sunde were found guilty in the case, along with Carl Lundström, who was accused of funding the five-year-old operation."

TPB's spokesman remained level-headed: "Stay calm — Nothing will happen to TPB, us personally or file sharing whatsoever. This is just a theater for the media."

I'm inclined to agree. This victory is purely symbolic, as I've said about this trial numerous times on this blog. If anyone could even begin to explain to me how this could translate into any tangible obstacles for filesharing, I would be more than happy to hear it, but the fact is that nothing will change. If anything, all of this press could even add to the burgeoning torrent userbase.

There's a very informative podcast on the subject at CNET, which documents the joy felt by "copyright holders" but acknowledges the uphill battle still left to fight. The battle? The culture industry. The war? TBA.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

What Exactly Is A Pirate, Anyhow?

As we await a verdict in Sweden's Pirate Bay trial, another group of "pirates" has been dominating the news. I'm talking, of course, about the Somali pirates, who last week attacked an American ship and upon fleeing, took the captain hostage. He was eventually freed and the three remaining Somali pirates were shot dead. But with the term "pirate" now strong in the public consciousness -- and we're not talking Johnny Depp -- you have to wonder who the publicist for these scruffy Swedes are.

Sure, they're fighting for free use and against "the man" but the word has recently taken on a far more sinister connotation -- something that doesn't bode well in a trial being played mostly in the media.

Frank Luntz, author of Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear, is known for his reliance on language in political campaigns and is credited with coining phrases like "deep sea energy exploration" (aka drilling). Maybe they should consider hiring him.

And I only bring up politics because these men on trial actually have a political party and call it none other than... the Pirate Party! But the implications of a negative connotation can go a long way and if TPB are in this for the long, gamechanging haul, they should consider a language-based makeover. There's already a call for papers in a journal equating pirates and piracy. Not a good sign for things to come...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

This Is The First Song For Your Muxtape [An Interview With Muxtape Founder Justin Ouellette]

Muxtape CEO Justin Ouellette was kind enough to sit down with me and answer a few questions a few months back. I ended up profiling him as a media entrepreneur, but this little Q&A is a nice introduction to his mindset, his past and his pet project.

So, as I've read, the idea for Muxtape came to you when you were DJing in college?

It's not like it came to me fully formed but it got me thinking about music on the internet in general. The technology moves so fast, even in the last five years. So much more is possible. I couldn't not do it, basically. There was just too much potential.

What brought you to New York City?

I always dreamed of opportunity, fame and fortune. I moved here without a job, just the general idea of doing something in the visual arts. I was working as a photographer for a while and transitioned from that into being a web developer and eventually got hooked up with Vimeo.

From there, how was Muxtape developed?

I was definitely doing a lot of creating on the side. When I started working there, there were so many way more talented programmers than me and I got a lot more interested in it. It was one of many side projects, but there was definitely a sense that it was special and kind of cool and different. There was a hunger -- I think there was a need that was just waiting to be filled. A lot of people were waiting for something a lot like that and just didn't know it.

How important is the minimalist aspect of Muxtape's design?

It flew in the face of a lot of the other designs at the time. Also being limited to twelve tracks and not being able to search for the site. These are things we take for granted but are actually throwaway features.

But Muxtape had no marketing when it first launched, is that correct?

I definitely had people watching me already because of the stuff I had already done. Creative Ventures has a reputation of its own for being interesting. A lot of the right people were interested and I had the ear of all the right people. We didn't do any marketing, but it was something a lot of people had been waiting for.

When you created Muxtape, did you have a larger vision for it as the future for bands and labels alike or was it more of a fun project?
We were definitely thinking about the larger picture and so were bands. Musicians started using it that way right away without us saying anything or recommending anything. Anything related to audio was up on the site.

How did you plan on making money?

We didn't really have any ideas except slamming it with advertising and that's what would have had to happened eventually.

And then what happened with the RIAA?

As it was going on, people just assumed that the record labels didn't know about it or something. That wasn't the case at all. They knew within a couple of days. The heartbreaking part about it was that I had engaged in these really intense licensing talk with all of the big labels and then all of a sudden there was a takedown.

The day before it was shut up down I had no idea it would be gone the next morning. There had been a handful of takedown notices that I had complied with - randomly, people focusing on leaks. But it's pretty standard and then I started working with the labels and then they just stopped calling.

But I didn't think it would be shut down, even myself. I was looking into some really expensive changes. It would have been really easy to let that machine keep running but I was looking forward.

What was your mindset after the takedown? Were you really crushed?

Yeah. Well, yes and no. I was relieved more than anything else because I could see it heading a space where I had less control over it. The more you play into the status quo -- the labels wanted ad revenue, they wanted editorial say, and marketing promises. And it was just more and more disappointing. So, when it came time to walk away I was relieved because whatever I made afterward, even if it didn't make as much of an initial splash, there would still be my vision and my control.

Will Muxtape be one of many tools or do you see yourself as competing with sites like MySpace?

Well, certainly. MySpace is the one that I feel the most. Muxtape is a lot different than everything else but MySpace is just such a behemoth and nobody even likes it. It just fills a need. People feel the need to be on there because there are no alternatives. People tell us it's foolish to go against something so big but my position is, if it's ever going to get better we have to make something that is better.

What is better about what you're doing?

I can make a list. A mile long. A lot of things. I think that MySpace is too huge of a context. Bands are so concerned with their image as they should be as artists. But we're offering for you to truly control your presence. Every other site that does this is focused on advertising or features that don't really mean anything but my main focus is putting music in a context that is best to hear it.

From a more practical standpoint, we can do a lot of things you can't do on MySpace. It's a social site that has had music shoehorned into it. With us, it'll be much easier to sell downloads and merchandise all in one place. Also, to manage how that music is heard.

Our position to bands is that we can't promise to make you famous, but no one can. That seems to be the million dollar question. Bands say, "Okay, we can be on the internet but how are we going to make any money?" And our answer is, well, there are a lot of answers to that question but step one in that process is exposing your music to as many people as possible. We'll get your music out there and systematically have control over where it goes.

What do you say to a band that asks where is the money going to come from?

You're no worse off than you were before. Instead of being screwed by a record company taking 95% of your royalties, you're still not making very much money on sales but you can cut out the middle man. In spite of having a hard time making money, you have a lot more potential to make money. Being able to expose yourself as wide as possible and reach a lot of ears just wasn't possible before.

I don't think buying music is going anywhere. At one point I thought it was just be untenable to have a system where you pay for music. But I don't think that's the case. Lots of people are comfortable with the idea of paying for music. It's not an issue of saving money, it's just a convenience thing. People will pay if the convenience comes along with it.

People are much more likely to buy things if it's presented to them in a context that shows there is some work and some effort going into it. With MySpace, it really cheapens it. It's a poor step toward trying to finance anything if it just looks like selling through MySpace.

Is a record store no longer the right context for people to buy from?

It's just not the first point of entry. You used to go into a record store and find a lot just by flipping through records. There was a lot of discovery happening. But it's not a good model for that for obvious reasons. But having music right there and presented with photo, videos, art, a background story and seeing other people into it, to have that right next to it...

Do you buy music?

Oh yeah, I buy lots of music. I love packaging. Another side effect of this is that people are really appreciating physical packaging more. The things that are out there are really special.
You were once a photographer. Could see yourself going back to just shooting?

I like that I don't have to live and die by it. That's a good thing.

Where does your income come from without ads?

A mutual investment in the site funds my salary and Luke's salary.

How would you react to a large-scale Google-sized buy out?

I wouldn't do it. I'm really not in it for the money. I really enjoy pursuing my own vision more than anything and it's important to me.

Even down the line?

I'm not depending on it at all. The more I can resist that, the better. I want to prove that you can do something like this without taking on millions of dollars that you don't even know what to do with. If I had millions now, I wouldn't even know what to do.