original date of publication
THE INTERNET DEBACLE - AN ALTERNATIVE VIEW
Originally written for Performing Songwriter Magazine, May 2002, by Janis Ian
"The Internet, and downloading, are here to stay... Anyone who thinks otherwise should prepare themselves to end up on the slagheap of history." (Janis Ian during a live European radio interview, 9-1-98) *Please see author's note at end!
When I research an article, I normally send 30 or so emails to friends and acquaintances asking for opinions and anecdotes. I usually receive 10-20 in reply. But not so on this subject!
I sent 36 emails requesting opinions and facts on free music downloading from the Net. I stated that I planned to adopt the viewpoint of devil's advocate: free Internet downloads are good for the music industry and its artists.
I've received, to date, over 300 replies, every single one from someone legitimately "in the music business."
What's more interesting than the emails are the phone calls. I don't know anyone at NARAS (home of the Grammy Awards), and I know Hilary Rosen (head of the Recording Industry Association of America, or RIAA) only vaguely. Yet within 24 hours of sending my original email, I'd received two messages from Rosen and four from NARAS requesting that I call to "discuss the article."
Huh. Didn't know I was that widely read.
Ms. Rosen, to be fair, stressed that she was only interested in presenting RIAA's side of the issue, and was kind enough to send me a fair amount of statistics and documentation, including a number of focus group studies RIAA had run on the matter.
However, the problem with focus groups is the same problem anthropologists have when studying peoples in the field - the moment the anthropologist's presence is known, everything changes. Hundreds of scientific studies have shown that any experimental group wants to please the examiner. For focus groups, this is particularly true. Coffee and donuts are the least of the pay-offs.
The NARAS people were a bit more pushy. They told me downloads were "destroying sales", "ruining the music industry", and "costing you money".
Costing me money? I don't pretend to be an expert on intellectual property law, but I do know one thing. If a music industry executive claims I should agree with their agenda because it will make me more money, I put my hand on my wallet…and check it after they leave, just to make sure nothing's missing.
Am I suspicious of all this hysteria? You bet. Do I think the issue has been badly handled? Absolutely. Am I concerned about losing friends, opportunities, my 10th Grammy nomination by publishing this article? Yeah. I am. But sometimes things are just wrong, and when they're that wrong, they have to be addressed.
The premise of all this ballyhoo is that the industry (and its artists) are being harmed by free downloading.
Nonsense. Let's take it from my personal experience. My site (www.janisian.com ) gets an average of 75,000 hits a year. Not bad for someone whose last hit record was in 1975. When Napster was running full-tilt, we received about 100 hits a month from people who'd downloaded Society's Child or At Seventeen for free, then decided they wanted more information. Of those 100 people (and these are only the ones who let us know how they'd found the site), 15 bought CDs. Not huge sales, right? No record company is interested in 180 extra sales a year. But… that translates into $2700, which is a lot of money in my book. And that doesn't include the ones who bought the CDs in stores, or who came to my shows.
Or take author Mercedes Lackey, who occupies entire shelves in stores and libraries. As she said herself: "For the past ten years, my three "Arrows" books, which were published by DAW about 15 years ago, have been generating a nice, steady royalty check per pay-period each. A reasonable amount, for fifteen-year-old books. However... I just got the first half of my DAW royalties...And suddenly, out of nowhere, each Arrows book has paid me three times the normal amount!...And the only change during that pay-period was that I had Eric put the first of my books on the Free Library. There's an increase in all of the books on that statement, actually, and what it looks like is what I'd expect to happen if a steady line of people who'd never read my stuff encountered it on the Free Library - a certain percentage of them liked it, and started to work through my backlist, beginning with the earliest books published. The really interesting thing is, of course, that these aren't Baen books, they're DAW---another publisher---so it's 'name loyalty' rather than 'brand loyalty.' I'll tell you what, I'm sold. Free works." I've found that to be true myself; every time we make a few songs available on my website, sales of all the CDs go up. A lot.
And I don't know about you, but as an artist with an in-print record catalogue that dates back to 1965, I'd be thrilled to see sales on my old catalogue rise.
Now, RIAA and NARAS, as well as most of the entrenched music industry, are arguing that free downloads hurt sales. (More than hurt - they're saying it's destroying the industry.)
Alas, the music industry needs no outside help to destroy itself. We're doing a very adequate job of that on our own, thank you.
Here are a few statements from the RIAA's website:
Let's take these points one by one, but before that, let me remind you of something: the music industry had exactly the same response to the advent of reel-to-reel home tape recorders, cassettes, DATs, minidiscs, VHS, BETA, music videos ("Why buy the record when you can tape it?"), MTV, and a host of other technological advances designed to make the consumer's life easier and better. I know because I was there.
The only reason they didn't react that way publicly to the advent of CDs was because they believed CD's were uncopyable. I was told this personally by a former head of Sony marketing, when they asked me to license Between the Lines in CD format at a reduced royalty rate. ("Because it's a brand new technology.")
Realistically, why do most people download music? To hear new music, or records that have been deleted and are no longer available for purchase. Not to avoid paying $5 at the local used CD store, or taping it off the radio, but to hear music they can't find anywhere else. Face it - most people can't afford to spend $15.99 to experiment. That's why listening booths (which labels fought against, too) are such a success.
You can't hear new music on radio these days; I live in Nashville, "Music City USA", and we have exactly one station willing to play a non-top-40 format. On a clear day, I can even tune it in. The situation's not much better in Los Angeles or New York. College stations are sometimes bolder, but their wattage is so low that most of us can't get them.
One other major point: in the hysteria of the moment, everyone is forgetting the main way an artist becomes successful - exposure. Without exposure, no one comes to shows, no one buys CDs, no one enables you to earn a living doing what you love. Again, from personal experience: in 37 years as a recording artist, I've created 25+ albums for major labels, and I've never once received a royalty check that didn't show I owed them money. So I make the bulk of my living from live touring, playing for 80-1500 people a night, doing my own show. I spend hours each week doing press, writing articles, making sure my website tour information is up to date. Why? Because all of that gives me exposure to an audience that might not come otherwise. So when someone writes and tells me they came to my show because they'd downloaded a song and gotten curious, I am thrilled!
Who gets hurt by free downloads? Save a handful of super-successes like Celine Dion, none of us. We only get helped.
But not to hear Congress tell it. Senator Fritz Hollings, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee studying this, said "When Congress sits idly by in the face of these [file-sharing] activities, we essentially sanction the Internet as a haven for thievery", then went on to charge "over 10 million people" with stealing. [Steven Levy, Newsweek 3/11/02]. That's what we think of consumers - they're thieves, out to get something for nothing.
Baloney. Most consumers have no problem paying for entertainment. One has only to look at the success of Fictionwise.com and the few other websites offering books and music at reasonable prices to understand that. If the music industry had a shred of sense, they'd have addressed this problem seven years ago, when people like Michael Camp were trying to obtain legitimate licenses for music online. Instead, the industry-wide attitude was "It'll go away". That's the same attitude CBS Records had about rock 'n' roll when Mitch Miller was head of A&R. (And you wondered why they passed on The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.)
I don't blame the RIAA for Holling's attitude. They are, after all, the Recording Industry Association of America, formed so the labels would have a lobbying group in Washington. (In other words, they're permitted to make contributions to politicians and their parties.) But given that our industry's success is based on communication, the industry response to the Internet has been abysmal. Statements like the one above do nothing to help the cause.
Of course, communication has always been the artist's job, not the executives. That's why it's so scary when people like current NARAS president Michael Greene begin using shows like the Grammy Awards to drive their point home.
Grammy viewership hit a six-year low in 2002. Personally, I found the program so scintillating that it made me long for Rob Lowe dancing with Snow White, which at least was so bad that it was entertaining. Moves like the ridiculous Elton John-Eminem duet did little to make people want to watch again the next year. And we're not going to go into the Los Angeles Times' Pulitzer Prize-winning series on Greene and NARAS, where they pointed out that MusiCares has spent less than 10% of its revenue on disbursing emergency funds for people in the music industry (its primary purpose), or that Greene recorded his own album, pitched it to record executives while discussing Grammy business, then negotiated a $250,000 contract with Mercury Records for it (later withdrawn after the public flap). Or that NARAS quietly paid out at least $650,000 to settle a sexual harassment suit against him, a portion of which the non-profit Academy paid. Or that he's paid two million dollars a year, along with "perks" like his million-dollar country club membership and Mercedes. (Though it does make one wonder when he last entered a record store and bought something with his own hard-earned money.)
Let's just note that in his speech he told the viewing audience that NARAS and RIAA were, in large part, taking their stance to protect artists. He hired three teenagers to spend a couple of days doing nothing but downloading, and they managed to download "6,000 songs". Come on. For free "front-row seats" at the Grammys and an appearance on national TV, I'd download twice that amount! But…who's got time to download that many songs? Does Greene really think people out there are spending twelve hours a day downloading our music? If they are, they must be starving to death, because they're not making a living or going to school.
This sort of thing is indicative of the way statistics and information are being tossed around. It's dreadful to think that consumers are being asked to take responsibility for the industry's problems, which have been around far longer than the Internet. It's even worse to think that the consumer is being told they are charged with protecting us, the artists, when our own industry squanders the dollars we earn on waste and personal vendettas.
Greene went on to say that "Many of the nominees here tonight, especially the new, less-established artists, are in immediate danger of being marginalized out of our business." Right. Any "new" artist who manages to make the Grammys has millions of dollars in record company money behind them. The "real" new artists aren't people you're going to see on national TV, or hear on most radio. They're people you'll hear because someone gave you a disc, or they opened at a show you attended, or were lucky enough to be featured on NPR or another program still open to playing records that aren't already hits.
As to artists being "marginalized out of our business," the only people being marginalized out are the employees of our Enron-minded record companies, who are being fired in droves because the higher-ups are incompetent.
And it's difficult to convince an educated audience that artists and record labels are about to go down the drain because they, the consumer, are downloading music. Particularly when they're paying $50-$125 apiece for concert tickets, and $15.99 for a new CD they know costs less than a dollar to manufacture and distribute.
I suspect Greene thinks of downloaders as the equivalent of an old-style television drug dealer, lurking next to playgrounds, wearing big coats and whipping them open for wide-eyed children who then purchase black market CD's at generous prices.
What's the new industry byword? Encryption. They're going to make sure no one can copy CDs, even for themselves, or download them for free. Brilliant, except that it flouts previous court decisions about blank cassettes, blank videotapes, etc. And it pisses people off.
How many of you know that many car makers are now manufacturing all their CD players to also play DVD's? or that part of the encryption record companies are using doesn't allow your store-bought CD to be played on a DVD player, because that's the same technology as your computer? And if you've had trouble playing your own self-recorded copy of O Brother Where Art Thou in the car, it's because of this lunacy.
The industry's answer is to put on the label: "This audio CD is protected against unauthorized copying. It is designed to play in standard audio CD players and computers running Windows O/S; however, playback problems may be experienced. If you experience such problems, return this disc for a refund."
Now I ask you. After three or four experiences like that, shlepping to the store to buy it, then shlepping back to return it (and you still don't have your music), who's going to bother buying CD's?
The industry has been complaining for years about the stranglehold the middle-man has on their dollars, yet they wish to do nothing to offend those middle-men. (BMG has a strict policy for artists buying their own CDs to sell at concerts - $11 per CD. They know very well that most of us lose money if we have to pay that much; the point is to keep the big record stores happy by ensuring sales go to them. What actually happens is no sales to us or the stores.) NARAS and RIAA are moaning about the little mom & pop stores being shoved out of business; no one worked harder to shove them out than our own industry, which greeted every new Tower or mega-music store with glee, and offered steep discounts to Target and WalMart et al for stocking CDs. The Internet has zero to do with store closings and lowered sales.
And for those of us with major label contracts who want some of our music available for free downloading… well, the record companies own our masters, our outtakes, even our demos, and they won't allow it. Furthermore, they own our voices for the duration of the contract, so we can't even post a live track for downloading!
If you think about it, the music industry should be rejoicing at this new technological advance! Here's a fool-proof way to deliver music to millions who might otherwise never purchase a CD in a store. The cross-marketing opportunities are unbelievable. It's instantaneous, costs are minimal, shipping non-existent…a staggering vehicle for higher earnings and lower costs. Instead, they're running around like chickens with their heads cut off, bleeding on everyone and making no sense. As an alternative to encrypting everything, and tying up money for years (potentially decades) fighting consumer suits demanding their first amendment rights be protected (which have always gone to the consumer, as witness the availability of blank and unencrypted VHS tapes and cassettes), why not take a tip from book publishers and writers?
Baen Free Library is one success story. SFWA is another. The SFWA site is one of the best out there for hands-on advice to writers, featuring in depth articles about everything from agent and publisher scams, to a continuously updated series of reports on various intellectual property issues. More important, many of the science fiction writers it represents have been heavily involved in the Internet since its inception. Each year, when the science fiction community votes for the Hugo and Nebula Awards (their equivalent of the Grammys), most of the works nominated are put on the site in their entirety, allowing voters and non-voters the opportunity to peruse them. Free. If you are a member or associate (at a nominal fee), you have access to even more works. The site is also full of links to members' own web pages and on-line stories, even when they aren't nominated for anything. Reading this material, again for free, allows browsers to figure out which writers they want to find more of - and buy their books. Wouldn't it be nice if all the records nominated for awards each year were available for free downloading, even if it were only the winners? People who hadn't bought the albums might actually listen to the singles, then go out and purchase the records.
I have no objection to Greene et al trying to protect the record labels, who are the ones fomenting this hysteria. RIAA is funded by them. NARAS is supported by them. However, I object violently to the pretense that they are in any way doing this for our benefit. If they really wanted to do something for the great majority of artists, who eke out a living against all odds, they could tackle some of the real issues facing us:
Additionally, we should be speaking up, and Congress should be listening. At this point they're only hearing from multi-platinum acts. What about someone like Ani Difranco, one of the most trusted voices in college entertainment today? What about those of us who live most of our lives outside the big corporate system, and who might have very different views on the subject?
There is zero evidence that material available for free online downloading is financially harming anyone. In fact, most of the hard evidence is to the contrary.
Greene and the RIAA are correct in one thing - these are times of great change in our industry. But at a time when there are arguably only four record labels left in America (Sony, AOL/Time/Warner, Universal, BMG - and where is the RICO act when we need it?)… when entire genres are glorifying the gangster mentality and losing their biggest voices to violence…when executives change positions as often as Zsa Zsa Gabor changed clothes, and "A&R" has become a euphemism for "Absent & Redundant"… well, we have other things to worry about.
It's absurd for us, as artists, to sanction - or countenance - the shutting down of something like this. It's sheer stupidity to rejoice at the Napster decision. Short-sighted, and ignorant.
Free exposure is practically a thing of the past for entertainers. Getting your record played at radio costs more money than most of us dream of ever earning. Free downloading gives a chance to every do-it-yourselfer out there. Every act that can't get signed to a major, for whatever reason, can reach literally millions of new listeners, enticing them to buy the CD and come to the concerts. Where else can a new act, or one that doesn't have a label deal, get that kind of exposure?
Please note that I am not advocating indiscriminate downloading without the artist's permission. I am not saying copyrights are meaningless. I am objecting to the RIAA spin that they are doing this to protect "the artists", and make us more money. I am annoyed that so many records I once owned are out of print, and the only place I could find them was Napster. Most of all, I'd like to see an end to the hysteria that causes a group like RIAA to spend over 45 million dollars in 2001 lobbying "on our behalf", when every record company out there is complaining that they have no money.
We'll turn into Microsoft if we're not careful, folks, insisting that any household wanting an extra copy for the car, the kids, or the portable CD player, has to go out and "license" multiple copies.
As artists, we have the ear of the masses. We have the trust of the masses. By speaking out in our concerts and in the press, we can do a great deal to damp this hysteria, and put the blame for the sad state of our industry right back where it belongs - in the laps of record companies, radio programmers, and our own apparent inability to organize ourselves in order to better our own lives - and those of our fans. If we don't take the reins, no one will.
Shortly after this article was turned in, Michael Greene resigned as president of NARAS.
Baenbooks.com, BMG Records, Chicago Tribune, CNN.com, Congressional Record, Eonline.com, Grammy.com, LATimes.com, Newsweek, Radiocrow.com, RIAA.org, personal communications
Author's note: You are welcome to post this article on any cooperating website, or in any print magazine, although we request that you include a link directed to http://www.janisian.com and writer's credit!
Man or Myth
As everybody will know Pim Fortuyn was shot on Monday May 6 last (who doesn't know isn't from planet Earth). A deed that cannot be condoned; you can and may completely disagree with Pim's ideas, but to kill him for that is overreacting just a little.
But what happens now, and I will disgracefully call this Pim-revering, is really overreacting out of proportions. If you look at it objectively, what has this man meant up till now: nothing at all. The enfant terrible he was he stepped on some toes and started some discussions, but that was all. And now everybody acts as if he was the new Messiah and well he obviously was not. Hear me good, I don't want to speak ill of the dead, but is is unhealthy to make Pim far better than he actually was.
Also now is being said that Pim's remarks about the ever growing unsafety were correct, but that is a load of bullshit too. It wasn't unsafe and it still isn't unsafe in Holland. That people can be shot by an isolated idiot can happen anywhere and under all circumstances, because think about it, how would you ever be able to prevent this?
I am pleased (although that isn't the right word) that Pim was killed by a white guy and not by a foreigner. That would have really created an unsafe situation, because I am pretty sure that there would have been a witch hunt for foreigners then. Pim would have been right then ...
I know for sure that he thinks what is happening now is amusing: crying people at his wake, demonstrations against the ruling order, the List Pim Fortuyn on top of the election polls and his name on everybody's lips. Alas and with all respect, I don't think that's appropriate. The murder of Pim deserves attention, but to pretend like we Dutch people have our equivalent to the JFK assassination is ridiculous.
I hope all this craziness blows away quickly, but I fear that a lot of people will cast a sympathy vote for Pim or the LPF on Wednesday May 15. It's a good thing that the elections are held as planned because postponing wasn't a real solution: no matter how you look at it, real impartial elections can not be held now. Only the next elections, in 4 years from now, will be like they are supposed to be. Maybe that in the meantime the established parties will have set things right or that another strong and charismatic figure has stepped up to the plate to be part of the opposition.
Until that time we will miss Pim, even though he was just a man.
On Wednesday May 15, 2002, there are the elections for the Dutch Lower House. Because of the (up)coming of two new political parties, Leefbaar Nederland (Livable Holland) and the List Pim Fortuijn, there is potential for an interesting election time. In the last 10 years there has been an increasing diminishing of differences between the several, old political parties: everybody shifted towards the center.
However, the political agendas that LN and the LPF present are not an alternative, and this especially goes for Pim Fortuijn's points of view. He will be the cause that the Dutch will protestvote en masse, which will make it almost impossible to constitute a coalition government, because it is unthinkable that the LPF, and to a lesser extent LN, will be part of the coalition.
And that is a good thing, for especially Professor Pim is really good in exposing problems without having suitable, workable and budgetary sound solutions for them. It is a fact that even I can easily and quickly sum up what is wrong in Holland. But, initiating a sound argument is something else altogether!
Unfortunately a lot of civilians buy into little Pim's mediagenic, populistic rhetoric and that is a shame, because instead of voting out of spite it would be better to work on the future through the established political order. Of course those parties are rigid and unwieldy, but at least they try to come up with real solutions that work for the entire Dutch population. They will not always succeed, but it is not possible to satisfy 16 million people.
And it is even harder at the present, because economically it has never been better in and with Holland. People expect that the country is being run like a profitable company, but I have strong doubts that that is the way to go. It isn't for nothing that the anti global movement is booming, because it more and more looks like the world is not run by political leaders, but by the large multinational corporations, with all its consequences.
LN and the LPF try to take advantage of the civil distrust, what I feel to be a dangerous phenomenon historically speaking, because this will only enhance the negative image politics have. I sincerely hope that the constituent sees that there is no alternative for the ruling class, otherwise the outlook will be gloomy.
And what will I vote? I don't think I will.
The Palestinian Situation
Is there, at this very moment, still an open road to peace?
I am afraid that there is just one solution left and I will be the first to admit that this is not a correct solution. Israel has to, just as in 1967 and 1982, occupy and control Palestinian territories; the independent Palestinian government headed by Yasser Arafat needs to be dissolved; the leaders and fighters of the Hamas and other militant organizations that commit suicide attacks, need to be apprehended and put in jail.
This may sound radical, but I do not see a future in mutual agreements, because no matter what is agreed on, it will be violated almost immediately. And, Arafat has no control whatsoever over the fanatical Hamas freedom fighters. He can say that his police are doing everything they can to arrest the persons responsible for suicide bombings, but in reality basically nothing will come of it.
It is almost (with the emphasis on almost) possible to approve of Israeli army retaliation. Unfortunately it is impossible not to make civilian casualties, in spite of the army command's strict orders not to put civilians at risk. It is in a way inevitable because the Hamas hides itself in the crowds. It goes without saying that cannot be approved what army units do in prisoner camps, namely clearing them of terrorist cells.
I can understand, though. It must be hard for Israelis to deal with suicidal terrorist actions that are almost impossible to prevent and that always kill innocent civilians. I think that the religious Shi'ite and muslim leaders must clearly oppose of making innocent victims during a holy war. Now such a Jihad warrior becomes a martyr and hero, setting the wrong example for the people.
After Israel, with strict supervision by the UN, have restored peace and stability in the Palestinian territories, it will have to hand over the government to the Palestinians step by step. It is imperative that the PLO will have to come with a strong leader who is respected and accepted by both the people and the Hamas movement. Israel will have to dare to admit the autonomy of Palestine and only then there will be a possibility of real peace in this explosive part of the world.
The baseball match between Israel and Palestine
You could view the struggle that's been going on the last few years between Israel and the Palestinians fighting for their own country as a decisive baseball match. When the last ball has been pitched the score will determine the further outcome. I will bring you up to date to what's happening at this moment.
Israel is defending a 5-4 lead with two Palestinians out, but with all bases loaded. Also the man at bat is 3 for 2.
Is synonymous for the observing world. The people behind and on the sides of the catcher are from the Western world, who seemingly sympathize with the Israelis, but who are forced by the current situation to also look at the other team. The people in the bleachers are shouting and scoffing and they symbolize the neighboring countries of Israel, who by their Arab identity are rooting for the Palestinians, but not too obvious, because 1967 is not a faded memory.
Should be impartial, but as always the policeman of the world, the USA, is mostly looking out for its self-interest, which in this case is preserving a friendly nation in the oil-rich Arab world. However, he cannot influence the course of events of the last pitch, not with the ever more critical world looking over his shoulder.
Is not in an easy spot. Yet, he feels strangely comfortable: defensive; at point of losing, but capable of using all means necessary to secure his victory. And he will go to great lengths to do so. Of course the pitcher stands for the Israeli government.
The man at bat:
The most important man of this story, so it can only be Yasser Arafat. He has the opportunity to achieve a small, but for Palestine glorious victory. All he has to do is step up to the plate and bring two men in. The whole world watches breathlessly ... the weight of the world is placed on his shoulders.
Arafat avoids his responsibility and buckles under the pressure and pleads the fanatics in the bleachers to support him. They let him know he's not talking to deaf ears and they invade the field, threatening the Israeli players and the referee, who cannot do anything but suspend the game. In his defense Arafat says it is not an easy task controlling his grassroots supporters.
In short, the game is not yet over. Both parties withdrew themselves in their locker rooms and are planning their strategy. The referee goes back and forth to stay updated. The crowd gets agitated.
Is Douglas Coupland the new Messiah?
No. But he is someone who is far ahead of his and our time and through his publications he keeps our finger on the pulse of current affairs. He possesses an almost supernatural ability to have his readers face the facts in a clear and simple and humorful manner. And I don't know of anybody else who can do that.
It all started for him with Generation X, the book that created a generation that at that time was not even discovered yet. The book came out in 1991 at the apex of the grunge/slacker period and it shows the meaningless life of the main characters. They have an attitude that is exactly the opposite of the mentality of those of the late 80s, who, edged on by the economic boom, strove for as much gain as possible and mainly a material one.
With Microserfs, from 1995, he continues that thread. Now the main characters are go-getters from the early 90s that live an ambiguous life: they are sort of Generation X-ers who are after a strictly professional career. It is also a satire on the Microsoft culture that makes its employees rich fast but at the same time makes them socially poor. The main figures break away from this culture and try to start their own, more normal enterprise, which produces the same result pretty fast. At the same time he lets Lego make a comeback, for which the Danish should worship him.
In the book Polaroids From The Dead Coupland parts from the Generation X-ers. This is the starting point of the return to nature, to sprituality. A trend that was also noticed in worldwide society at the time of publication, in 1996. It is also the start of him turning away from globalization and he shows his audience truths that are easily overlooked. Coupland was the first to expose the severe regulations of the Disney Corporation that is propagated both inward and outward and called it Mauschwitz. That shows courage. And insight.
With Girlfriend In A Coma, published in 1998, he is the first one to exaggerate the craving for the spiritual, thus in fact criticizing the turn he took with his previous book. With the impending turn of the millennium he sketches an image both apocalyptic and promising of the state mankind is in at the end of the 20th century.
In Miss Wyoming Coupland interweaves the mysterious with reality and shows us the harshness in all layers of society. This book that was published in 2000 again is a current affairs indicator. It shows that people with star status are just people like anyone else. People who, once out of the spotlights, prove to be fragile, but have not lost their sense of humanity. Also the relentless globalization is taken on, but in a more stealth manner.
Coupland's most recent work, All Families Are Psychotic, from 2001 shows almost the opposite: unknown people, not craving for fame, achieve something that other people can only dream of ... however it does not change them. On the contrary, it makes the main characters long for a return to anonymity. This is an indictment of the ever more obtrusive reality madness: everybody's famous.
In the meantime Coupland also (co)worked on two books of photographs, City Of Glass by himself and States by Christopher Griffith. In the latter he gives America a "history" in an essay of just 5 pages!
The recurring theme in all of his work, of which you will find an overview below, is the extreme now-ness. Coupland seems to be ahead of all trends and gives us readers a glimpse of the absurdity and normality, the tragic and the humor, but most of all the here and now of life.
Commerce and media hype
Commerce and media hypes have been reigning the music world for a while too long now. Bands like Incognito who, without any form of marketing, have to sell cd's to raise funds for their tours are becoming rarer and rarer. Nowadays it looks like record companies only see if there is a profit to be made in the end, before they invest in a new act.
Take something like Jordy Bernal ("Que si, que no"). While hundreds of music groups passionately and maybe even desperately are trying to make a single, record a cd and eventually hope to become world famous in Holland, the foster son of Mr. Vanessa (the owner of a chain of record stores who is married to this voluptious "singer" called Vanessa) gets it thrown into his lap, with the only thing he got working for him is his daddy ... This is so sad that I can hardly find the words.
(Enrique Iglesias of course is a similar sad case. Do you really believe that he can make the charts over and over because he is so enormously talented? And then Enrique has the heart to say that he has a perfect command of the English language ... well, at least better than his daddy.)
I'll try to find some words anyway. First I want to mention that I have nothing against the person Jody Bernal. However, as a product it is the zenith of selling hot air. It is a cliché of a cliché: a meaningless, repetitive refrain on a much too simple melody, a video clip with scantily clad ladies around a swimming pool in nice weather and lo and behold, the ingredients for a hit. It is all a little too cheap and too easy.
And the record companies are screaming blue murder when music afficianados are pulling mp3s off the internet. They themselves are no different, they copy/steal/borrow each other's ideas. Why can they do what the consumer may not? Why in the world would I want to buy a Jody Bernal cd at Free Record Shop for 44 guilders and 95 cents? I won't do it not because I can probably download it almost for free, but because it has major quality shortcomings.
The market is already saturated with this kind of uniformity. The record industry is afraid of running risks and is obviously only interested in profit. Quality is a dirty word for companies such as Sony and Phonogram. For quality you have to go to independents like PIAS and Talkin Loud, who are succeeding in putting out good products regular as clockwork, sometimes even at lower retail prizes. How can a small label do what a major, rich and powerful label can't?
I am under the impression that quality will always sell itself, thus taking away part of the risk. Why would you spend millions on the marketing and hyping of, for example, another boy band? Of course, if it catches on you can make a nice profit. But this trick won't last long. The hype will quickly fade away and the audience will quickly forget what they were hooked on for a short period of time. In other words, back to square one.
The music lover should have an opportunity to re-educate the record companies. They could do this to, amongst others, use the internet more extensively and supporting the independent labels. Maybe then the industry will readjust their goals. Start investing in quality. Long term planning is always more profitable than short term planning. With that acts like Hips (a Dutch band with purely top class musicians) and Simply Red (no intrudction needed) would have a record contract deal now.
More than ever it became clear that religion is the root cause of evil.
Again it is the religious fanatics that think they have found the solution to a better, righteous world. Wrong. Allah isn't better than God; christianity isn't better than the islam. Both are equally wrong because both faiths leave too much room for interpretation. This is why religious leaders on both sides are busy promulgating more stringent dogmas to regain as much power as possible.
In the western world that power is fortunately limited due to the seperation of Church and State, but in the Arab world the religious leaders are typically the political leaders and that can lead to detrimental situations like in Afghanistan. Because the mullah thinks that his interpretation of the Koran is the only right one, and far preferable to the dictate of the Bible, he rules the nation with a rod of iron.
Unfortunately that is not restricted to Afghanistan, because he can count on the support of lots and lots of fanatic followers in the entire Islamic world. They have yet to learn what the catholic church has learnt the hard way: holy crusades and inquisitions don't make the world a better place. Now the power of the Pope is merely symbolical. However, there are and always will be small factions that want to show, violently if need be, that their moral and religious views are the only right ones.
This is now happening on a slightly larger scale in the Arab world and it is something to worry about. Most of the Arab countries have no political or economical influence, so the only open road for them is the religious path. More and more fatwas are decreed and increasingly faster jihads are called for. As far as I can judge this serves two goals: keep their own population satisfied with simplistic rethorics and at the same time force the Western world to listen to what 1.2 billion people have to say.
It is time that the West stops being deaf to the voices, literally, crying in the wilderness to fend off the fanatics, again literally. Nobody really has a need for an islamic crusade and/or inquisition.
For a different viewpoint on religion, rent the movie Dogma by Kevin Smith or visit his website.
America strikes back
Is it right to enforce the right to self defense through military actions?
It was obvious that something had to be done, because nobody can and may practice terrorist acts, wherever in the world they are and in whoever's name they may be. The perpetrators and masterminds of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington D.C. and the crashed aircraft in Pennsylvania must be brought to justice. That much is clear.
I also understand that the first, natural reaction is one of blind anger and revenge. Rightly so, especially if you are directly involved. This doesn't alter the fact that revenge is seldom a good alternative, certainly not in this case, where thousands, millions of muslims are ready for a holy war, the jihad. In this case revenge is a game that the West will lose, no matter how sophisticated our weaponry is. We only have to look at the results of the attacks of September 11th: low budget, high impact!
I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when the news was announced that the first plane had flown into the WTC and I too was shocked when I saw the videocaptures and my initial reaction was that the ones responsible for this should be nailed to the wall by their balls. However, I quickly realized that a war, and definitely a ground war in Afghanistan won't do any good. (Go rent the movie The Beast Of War, about the Russion invasion of Afghanistan.)
It is better to come to a solution to the current situation in the Middle East through a dialogue with the Arab world and as a result America will have to stop her politics of divide-and-rule in that region. It is a thorn in the flesh of Usama bin Laden that the Americans are the real boss in Saudi Arabia, purely and solely to guarantee the supply of crude oil.
The pursuit of profit of the Western world prevails more and more over the human rights of those outside of the Western world. It proves to be helpful to a lesser degree for us having a weak, divided, but very angry Third World. There soon comes a time that the cup will runneth over. The acts of terror of last month are the forerunner of the real crisis. I absolutely don't want to justify what's happened, but the fact remains that to a certain extent we are guilty ourselves.
This is something that the Western world has to seriously consider. Now we all assume that when the battle against terrorism has been won by the Allied Coalition everything will be back to normal. Alas to say that this is ostrich policy, something that was to be expected from the guy drunk with power in the White House, Baby Bush. He only wants to show how good and powerful and rich America is and that is exactly why people like Usama bin Laden become the thorn in the flesh of the Western world.
A good solution would be, certainly after the outcome of the Islamic summit in Qatar, to track down Usama bin Laden, arrest him and then put him on trial in, for example, Saudi Arabia or Egypt. This way the West can show trust in the Arab world and in return they can show us they can handle that responsibility. It sure as hell doesn't make sense to start a war in the powder keg of the world.
A war in this region will only know losers. Afghans have nothing to lose at all so they are prepared to do basically anything. We also must not forget that Pakistan is a nuclear power, where a lot of supporters of the Taliban live. India is also a nuclear power and there is the possibility that they will take advantage of the situation to "settle once and for all" the dispute of Kashmir. And then there are the former Russian states that are all involved in their own struggle for freedom and to top it all off there is Iraq.
No, in this explosive snake pit it is probably better to charm than to savagely wave torches; mind over muscles. But then again, George W. Bush is busy lighting as much torches as possible.
Do read the articles of Michael Moore and see how a pain in the ass of a lot of (conservative) Americans feels about the current state of the world, and the US in particular. Very funny, but also very true.
My reading list
Arthur van Schendel - The Frigate Johanna Maria
This is highly probable one of the first books I read, on the recommendation of my dad. I think I must have read it at least three times. The book is written in a very expressive capacity which makes it seem that you yourself are the helmsman of this commercial vessel, experiencing everything from up close. Normally I don't have much affection with things that happened in the past, but this book is clearly the exception to the rule. The plot is fairly simple, but it is written in such a compelling style that you soon forget anything around you and rush to the end of the book and there come the conclusion that it all went by too fast.
Multatuli - Max Havelaar
A classic. It is hard to get started, because of the rather archaic use of language. However, you get used to it quickly and it really goes well with the story. It is about the adventures of a Dutch governor on the tea plantations of Dutch India. Most of the students won't come close to this book. Wrongly it is considered to be difficult, and it most likely will help if you view the movie once. The book also contains a couple of picturesque parables, of which I personally think the one about the Japanese stone cutter is phenomenal: it reduces life to its essence. The book also makes you think about how Holland acted during its foreign rule (or oppression) of Indonesia. Truly this is required reading.
Jan Wolkers - Turkish Delight
What Ronald Giphart now does for literature Jan Wolkers did before him: on the face of it it looks like easy to read work with a profusion, or maybe even benefaction, of sex. But this is not all Turkish Delight has to offer. The story tells about a love that is doomed to fail between Jan and Olga and it is to a great extent autobiographical, like almost all of Wolkers' work. The book reads like a movie script on account of the simple structure and the spoken language it's written in. Because it is so artless lots of people think that the work of Wolkers doesn't have any depth, but nothing is less true. The psychological aftermath of World War II and his strict religious upbringing obviously leave their traces. In this context he resembles the work of Maarten 't Hart.
Harry Mulisch - The Assault
The magnum opus of Mulisch. All the anger, frustration, sorrow and gained hope caused by the traumatic events during the Second World War are strongly united in this beautiful chronicle about how a boy experienced and processed all this. Nowhere is the pretention to be found that is so present in the rest of Mulisch' work. It is not a coincidence that this is the most accessible of books Harry Mulisch has written. The images he evokes are easily to project in front of your mind's eye and everything is written in an honest and pure language. The film that was made after this book is absolutely worth seeing.
Remco Campert - Life Is Deliteful
This book was groundbreaking for a lot of words were written fonetically. This also appeared in some poems by the Belgian poet Paul van Ostaijen, but what Campert did was unique in prose. In the fifties, when Remco Campert was coming on he, and his colleague quinquagenarians, were looked at with suspicion, but it now looks like he is finally getting the acknowledgment he rightfully deserves. Life Is Deliteful is full with Carmiggelt-like pieces of the daily life of the main character, told in a humorous and cynical fashion, of which he seems to have the patent. Campert is also responsible for the only successful book week present book that was ever published and at the same introduced a new word to the Dutch language: Gloomyman.
J.D. Salinger - The Catcher In The Rye
This book, written by the notorious hermit Salinger, tells of the usual problems that occur during maturing, as seen through the eyes of Holden Caulfield. When he goes to prep school he is confronted with fears that are new to him and clearly do not belong to a child, but belong to an adult. Because these feelings are so overpowering he feels that he has to protect his little sister and all other kids from the dangers of growing up; he feels like he is someone in a field with rye on the edge of an abyss who has to catch all the children who are in danger of falling in. The book also caused a sensation due to the language that was used, which was a reflection of the language of the streets at that time, but in the (certainly then) puritan United States it caused a wave of indignation. If you hold it against what is possible nowadays, you can't do anything else but smile about so much irony.
George Orwell - Animal Farm
If there is one book you should be careful about choosing it is this one. What first meets the eye is a simple story about how power corrupts. In reality it is a roman à clef and during your oral exam you should be able to explain the "true identities" of the different animals. You better hope you are one of the first to be cross examined ... For the rest this book is a strong indictment against totalitarian leaders, no matter how social they appear at first. This work took example from the assumptions of power in Russia in the beginning of the 20th century and the one in Germany a couple of years before World War II. Don't tell that you not have been warned!
George W. Bush
What is he doing to the USA and the rest of the world?
Since he seized power it has been more than clear that he did and will do the complete opposite of what he propagated at the time of his presidential election campaign. Of course this is not anything new if you look at the history of election campaigns over the last decades, but where others before him just deviated slightly on some issues, he simply chooses to do everything different to what he promised.
I did not expect this, and no-one with me I suspect (except for some cynical ones), especially since he has an army of people-in-the-knowing beside him. To be honest I expected a better and more honest policy with the team George formed around him. But apparently the lobby of energy companies and military manufacturers have a impressive influence on this man, because he is endangering the planet not only by vigorously rejecting green energy but also by reinstating the race of arms with his space shield.
And these are decisions that will have its effects globally. What the man is doing domestically is not made very public, but I am afraid that it is not much better. Instead of taking the more liberal path he returns to repression. All to accommodate his beliefs in the values of "those good old days." Probably he refers to those comfy years under Reagan and Bush Sr., when it was economically unsound and there was always the danger of nuclear war.
Artists are usually the first who pick up on this and start reacting. As is the case with Michael Franti, who, inspired by the rioting during the G7 meeting in Seattle, issued a CD with some serious criticism on the social structure. Themes are the legalizing of medicinal marihuana (which is about to become illegal in the state of California and following the outcome in a couple of other states), the abolishing of capital punishment (too much risk of executing an innocent human being), racism (never since the abolation of segregation has racism been more obvious and open) and the dissappearance of free media (in favor of controlled media).
A lot of this is a result of the fact that the government in Washinton tries to keep its citizens divided and weak (as opposed to united and strong) because they know that their position is weak. Most certainly this became true after it was announced that Al Gore would have won the election if all the Pat Buchanan votes were assigned to him. I am interested to see what this junta will establish in the coming four years. Fortunately one of the Conservative senators has come to the insight that a Conservative majority in the Senate is not necessarily a good thing.
And now we can only hope that more people will see the light ... I am scared ...
The US presidential elections
I am a teensy bit prejudiced concerning this subject: I am not an ardent fan of the son of.
After weeks of judicial tug-of-war America finally has lost a president. And not only that, but also their integrity and values. It is incomprehensible that in a civilized country illegible vote ballots are used, where you have to punch a hole next to the candidate of your choice.
Moreover the system of electorates proves to be incredibly undemocratic, because Bush eventually became president with a vast minority of the votes, all by winning a couple of big states.
And then there is the matter of political expertise. In this area nobody can claim that Gore is inferior to Bush, unless of course you are a rich, right-winged, illiterate, gun-toting idiot. Without a doubt Bush has his positive aspects, but unfortunately those are exceptions to the rule.
I hope that Dubya takes the advise of Bill Clinton to his heart and that he forms a good team around him, because if it all has to come from him ...
This phenomenon just has got to stop. As far as I am concerned police may intervene hard and judges may hand out hard sentences for these kind of offences. I know that by doing time nobody becomes a better man, but doing 40 hours of community service isn't really an alternative, because that looks more like an encouragement.
Wisen up, and think before you act stupid!
The Arena or the Kuip
Of course there's only one right answer to this one: The Kuip!
Injuries in modern day football
It just has to stop, that childish tumbling of the well-paid professional soccer players. It is a known fact that physical contact is almost completely prohibited, but nowadays these moneyed sporters plummet to earth screaming when a player from the opposite side even comes close.
The game needs to be interrupted; the medicin man needs to hurry himself with the wonderspray; the stretcher foursome need to carry the heavily wounded player off the playing field. Then to their amazement everybody sees the player, who just indicated that he met his final hour, jump off the stretcher and be miraculously ready again to participate in the game.
To stop this extremely annoying joke the FIFA, the UEFA and the national football associations should instruct their referees to give players who do this a yellow card. Or introduce a white Fair Play card: three times white equals two games on the bench.
Or perhaps a crosstraining into, for example, a thespian ... I'm just saying.
I can be brief on this: Russia is well on its way to ridicule itself Titanic-wise. Denial seems to be the prominent sign of a totalitarian regime.
I try to stay as far away as possible from everything that generates TV shows like "Prickly Heat" and such. There is nothing worse than a large group of Dutch tourists vacationing abroad, except maybe for a group of Germans. I honestly don't understand why Holland and the Dutch are considered to be civilized.
As soon as we cross the border with our caravans or in a column of buses, civilization falls off as if it was glued to us with a crumbled piece of tape. Shame is suddenly a word that does no longer exist in our language and amazement strikes all around us if we notice that others are not like us. I still don't get why hotel owners are so stupid to accept busloads of drunken and stoned characters time and again.
It must be the money, that ultimate universal lubricant and thickener.
Napster holds the emotions in the music biz captive. All things considered we have been through a mess like this before, namely when musicassettes were introduced to the public and the people started recording LPs to these tapes to share them with other music lovers. For everyone who thinks that this all happened a long time ago, a visit to the movie theatre is in order: go see High Fidelity. Presently, in this multimedia world the exact same thing is happening, it's only the tools that have changed. On our personal computer we rip our CDs to mp3 format and burn a CDR. On top of that we can also play mp3s on a specially designed apparatus, the mp3-player.
Now the big music corporations claim that this illegal copying leads to a decrease in income, because less CDs are being sold. In its turn that will lead to a decrease in the pay to the recording artist. I say: bullshit! Just as the making of mixtapes for friends and acquaintances never led to stagnating sales in LPs, the sales of CDs will not decrease because of the mp3 phenomenon. On the contrary, sales will only increase. And because there are record companies who also put out CDRs their revenues will only get larger. How can this be explained?
Simple. Napster has a base of users which consists of music afficionados, who scour the Net searching for new music. Usually these people are also subscribed to email newsletters which keep them updated on the latest trends. The new music they find are downloaded through a service as Napster and if it appeals to the mind, body & soul this user will most certainly purchase the CD. Or, as is more and more "in" at the moment, buy the LP. This behavior is backed up by hard figures: in the United States CD sales figures increased with 10% in 1999 (and it is the country where Napster is the most popular) and worldwide the sales figures increased with 1.5%.
It's not like artists will earn less due to the use of Napster, like those losers of Metallica allege (although in their case it could actually be true). It's just the big, well-known artists who will "suffer" a decrease in income, but ask yourself this question: do you really think that those Metallica geezers will be living in the gutter a couple of years from now, because their music is spread through Napster? Of course not. With artists like that it's the defect of the rich: how do I get even more money! And yes, Napster is preventing that from happening. Pathetic, that's what they are.
The record companies would do good by changing their entire way of doing business. They should offer single tracks on the Net against reasonable prices, which enables the user to compile a CD of music that he or she likes, instead of buying a CD with just a couple of good tracks and the rest filled with garbage, like most of the compilation-CDs nowadays. I can guarantee you that in that case just a small, negligible percentage goes to the artists.
It is a fact that music companies use distribution-, marketing-, and packaging costs as an excuse to keep the CD-price artificially high. These companies have been convicted in the US for this, because they broke the anti-trust laws. Finally, we as a consumer, have leverage to break through this deadlock. For years and years there has been talk of lowering the prices for CDs, but the only thing that the CD-price did so far was increase! So, support Napster and yourself and download your ass off. The fact that some artists and record companies feel that this is a crime is just too bad for them. The ball's in their court.
Harry Mulisch and the Nobel prize
Undoubtedly I would not dedicate a page on literature if I did not have the ambition to become a published writer. From this I derive the right to openly criticize what is going wrong in the literary scene in the Dutch language region. In short I think there are too many Harry Mulischs: the quality of the body of work is inversely proportional to the ego.
Of course I will be the first to admit that my scriblings have no value at all, although without a doubt there will be people who will disagree with me. However, I do not shout from the rooftops that I am the greatest writer in the world and that I rightfully deserve the Nobel prize for Literature. Besides, if I get granted this prize, I will refuse to collect it, because to me it seems that the Nobel prize is more of an incentive prize. The incentive to stop writing to be more precise. Some writers should take up that hint after having circulated in the grapevine as THE likely candidate for years.
It must be hard to realize that when you're not good enough to receive the Nobel prize, you have failed as a writer altogether, since you never made a secret of considering yourself that likely candidate. When you don't get nominated for the umpteenth time now it's a big dent in your ego and then it is easier to understand that lobbying for the nomination takes in a more prominent place in your life than what it is really all about: writing literature. It is much simpler to say that you are forgotten, or outrageously overlooked, than to take this form of criticism like a man and just continue with your writing career. You can assume that if your work is Nobel-prize-worthy the Commitee will get in touch with you.
Until that time you just got to do what you used to do and what the lesser novelist gods among us always have done. I, for one, am not banking on getting even 1 prize. Actually, it is not a goal to start with. Wasn't it George Bernard Shaw who said: "If you do not write for publication, there is little point in writing at all." That's right, you write books to be published and read by your audience. That in itself should be enough to quench your ego's thirst.
Ever since the Great Three are in power, which has been so for like 40 years too long now, the reader seems of no importance anymore. Reve, Mulisch and Hermans have been busy stealing marches on each other and apart from the occasional masterpiece they did not publish anything of any relevance. Since the literary incrowd, commonly known as the "grachtengordel", nearly faints when any of the three publishes his grocery list, they do not notice anything other than that. They justify this behavior by saying that it can never be as good as the masters' work. Arrogance is paramount.
In the United States there at least is a group of novelists who distance themselves clearly and openly from the established order. Authors such as Bret Easton Ellis and Jay McInerney indicate that they won't have anything to do with the Americal literary scene. In view of the harsh criticism they must endure it is clear that not every one in that circle is thrilled with that attitude. Unfortunately for the critics of their work that doesn't harm damage of the enormous sales figures of their books. And they don't write dime novels; each one of them are very relevant books. Sometime soon their oeuvre will be appreciated accordingly.
We're not that far in Holland yet. Of course there are the notorious obstructionists of our region, like Herman Brusselmans, Joost Zwagerman and Ronald Giphart under the leadership of Tom Lanoye, who I dare to call the most inspired and enthousiastic one. Apart from the yet to be finished trilogy by Lanoye about the "sorrow of Belgium" none of their published works is of the same socio-political relevance as the worl of their American counterparts. Don't get me wrong; books by aformentioned writers are very well digestable and they are a welcome change from the hopelessly archaic work of the rest of writing Holland.
It is high time that the literary establishment gets a kick in the nuts and make way for young, refreshing and innovating talent. I know that there is plenty of that around.
© René Wirtz 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003