Thursday, December 25, 2008

End of piracy lawsuits an early gift to music lovers

For many Americans, it was an early Christmas present.

Friday, the Recording Industry Association of America announced it is ending its five-year campaign of suing people who share music via the Internet.

The RIAA declared victory, but to anyone reading between the lines, the triumphant bluster seemed a lot more like an admission of defeat. Although the RIAA claimed its lawsuits were necessary to save the music industry, no data indicates the suits had any impact on people’s behavior.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the RIAA initiated legal proceedings against 35,000 people — ranging from college students to grandmothers — during its war on music piracy. That number, however, was a just small fraction of the 19 percent of Internet users estimated to have shared music via peer-to-peer networks. So, unsurprisingly, fear of being sued wasn’t much of a deterrent. You might as well worry about being struck by lightning. From 2003 to 2007, that 19 percent figure remained virtually constant, and the number of songs downloaded actually increased.

Most of the RIAA’s targets settled out of court, and, ultimately, the RIAA spent more on legal fees than it recovered from shaking down defendants.

Yet, the RIAA’s president, Cary Sherman, claims the suits were a success. In an interview with, he points to the spectacular growth of authorized downloads from for-profit sites like iTunes. But all that proves is that a lot of consumers are willing to pay for digital music — if, of course, the big music companies are willing to offer it.

During most of the past decade, the music industry hurt itself by not selling music downloads. Instead, the RIAA sued Web sites like Napster to prevent people from sharing songs. Then, when peer-to-peer software made it possible for computer users to share music with each other directly, without needing centralized hubs like Napster, the RIAA went after individuals.

When that didn’t work, the music companies finally, grudgingly, started entering into agreements to sell music downloads online, first through iTunes and, later, through sites like and MySpace. But by then, many of that pesky 19 percent were already used to not paying for music. And the music industry had only itself to blame.

Still, selling music downloads has become big business, even as sales of compact discs continue to fall. Who wants a bunch of CDs littering the house when you can store thousands of songs on a computer or iPod?

According to NPD Group, paid music downloads rose 29 percent in the third quarter of 2008 compared to the same period in 2007, with iTunes and Amazon gaining 2.8 million music buyers, or about 15 percent of Internet users, CNET reported. Two major music labels, Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group, reported strong gains in digital sales, with Warner posting a 27 percent increase in the third quarter. Universal reported that its digital sales more than made up for the continued decline in CD sales.

Not coincidentally, as the music industry finally began offering legal downloads, the number of people illegally downloading music finally started to creep lower in 2008, falling to 14 percent, according to NPD.

Does that look like the result of the RIAA’s lawsuits, or the result of the RIAA’s members finally getting around to offering a legal alternative? Consumers aren’t greedy, and they want their favorite music artists to make money, even if that also means giving money to the music labels that wanted to sue them.

Nevertheless, the RIAA says it still plans to send warning letters to Internet service providers when it discovers computer users who are major copyright violators. The RIAA wants ISPs to limit or block Internet access for repeat offenders. But I have to wonder, is an ISP more likely to heed the RIAA or its own paying customers?

Somehow, I doubt the RIAA’s new strategy will be any more successful than its old one. And with legal downloads becoming easier to get, I also doubt it will matter much either way.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Childhood holds memories of the best Christmas gift ever

I suspect most people can recall one special Christmas — the Christmas when they received a present so cool, so amazing that it could only be the Best. Christmas. Present. Ever.

For Ralphie Parker, the hero of “A Christmas Story,” it was a Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot Range Model air rifle BB gun with a compass in the stock and a thing that tells time. I’m still not sure about the “thing.” A clock? A sundial?

For me, it was the Christmas of 1982, when I received my Atari 2600 game console. OK, yeah, what I’d really wanted was a state-of-the-art ColecoVision game system. But it was more expensive than the Atari, and money was tight. Besides, it wasn’t as if any of my friends had a ColecoVision, anyway. 

They all had 2600s, too. Except for the ones who had Mattel’s Intelevision system or Magnavox’s Odyssey2.

Actually, I don’t know anyone who owned an Odyssey2. But I do remember the floor model that mostly gathered dust at the local Otasco store.

Before the Christmas of the Atari, my best present ever had been a Mego brand Batmobile with Batman and Robin action figures. That must have been about 1975. Obviously, in just seven years, my requirements for a satisfactory Christmas present had gotten a lot more stringent.

Christmas ’77 would have been a great Christmas if the first batch of “Star Wars” toys had arrived on time. George Lucas was smart enough to keep all of the licensing rights to his movies, but not smart enough to get the toys into stories in time for the holidays. But maybe some children actually had fun playing with their Early Bird Gift Certificates, which were basically IOUs for action figures.

Some children this year will get MP3 players that have more processing power than my first game system did. It’s easy to forget, especially when the economy is in the dumps, but we’re a lot wealthier as a nation now than we were just 30 years ago.

In the early ’80s, William Shatner appeared in ads extolling the Commodore Vic-20 — “the wonder computer of the 1980s” — which cost “under $300.” The wristwatch I’m wearing now is smarter than a Vic-20, and for about $300 I can buy a decent desktop PC.

Each new Christmas brings rising expectations. I was once happy to get this thing called a “turntable” on which I placed a large, wax disk called a “record album.” When spun on the turntable, the album would play music, along with assorted hisses, pops and crackles.

Today, I’d insist that Santa Claus bring me an iPod that could hold thousands of songs. And, no, a Zune would not be a reasonable substitute.

But even with rising expectations, you reach a point when nostalgia trumps all else. I’ve received better, more advanced Christmas gifts since that Atari 2600, but none that can top it as my best gift ever. After a certain age, Christmas loses something, and not just because children stop believing in Santa. I suspect it’s when puberty hits, and suddenly you have more important things on your mind — like girls or boys or whatever — than what’s under the tree.

That’s when Christmas goes into a time capsule, waiting to be opened only when you have children of your own. And the memories in that capsule can’t be surpassed.

Lexus is running a TV advertisement in which a young child talks excitedly about how his new Big Wheel is the greatest Christmas present ever — at least until the ad shifts to the same child, now an adult, staring starry-eyed at a new Lexus in his driveway.

No one has ever given me a car for Christmas, so I’m not exactly certain how I would react. But, somehow, I think it wouldn’t top a Big Wheel. Or an Atari.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Uncle Forry inspired Hollywood with his love of sci-fi, horror

The world’s greatest fan has died.

But Forrest J  Ackerman was more than just a fan. With his boundless enthusiasm for horror and science fiction, he inspired a generation of Hollywood filmmakers.

Ackerman, 92, died Dec. 4 of heart failure at his home in Los Angeles. His death elicited tributes from the many who knew him and the many more who only knew of him.

How different might the world have been without the man everyone called Uncle Forry? 

“Many of the technicians, special effects masters and filmmakers that work in the realms that Forry loved … do so in no small part based on the childhood passion that Forry gave them,” wrote Harry Knowles at his Web site, Ain’t It Cool News.

Knowles is often guilty of overstatement — just read some of his movie reviews — but not this time. For many young, would-be storytellers, Uncle Forry was the center of the universe.

Imagine a world without “Star Wars” or “Jaws.” George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are two of the many directors, writers and producers who were captivated by Ackerman’s magazine, Famous Monsters of Filmland. Imagine a world without “The Martian Chronicles” and “Fahrenheit 451.” Ray Bradbury credits Ackerman with helping him get his start as a writer.

“Forry changed my life,” Bradbury said in 2000, when both he and Ackerman visited Florence. “He paid attention when no one else cared.”

As Bradbury later told The Associated Press, Ackerman paid Bradbury’s way to New York for an authors meeting that launched Bradbury’s career.

“I hadn’t published yet, and I met a lot of these people who encouraged me and helped me get my career started, and that was all because of Forry Ackerman,” Bradbury said.

It started in the 1920s, when Ackerman, then 9 years old, discovered Amazing Stories. That magazine, which inaugurated the Golden Age of science fiction, gave the young Ackerman his lifelong love of the genre. He would keep that first issue his entire life, and it would become the cornerstone of his private museum of SF and horror memorabilia.

But at that point, Forry was still just a fan. In his teens, he and several other teenage SF fans — including future DC Comics editors Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger — founded the first science fiction fanzine, The Time Traveller(two Ls). It was a start, but Forry’s big breakthrough came in February 1958. That was when Warren Publishing unveiled the first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, with Ackerman as its editor.

Aimed at adolescents and young teenagers, Famous Monsters featured stories about the greatest horror, fantasy and sci-fi filmmakers of the day. It capitalized on the newfound popularity of classic monster movies from the 1930s and ’40s, which were beginning to air on TV stations throughout America.

Note that I’m now using the term “sci-fi” instead of “science fiction” or “SF.” That’s because Uncle Forry coined it. Without Ackerman, the Sci-Fi Channel would have to call itself something else.

Famous Monsters let its readers in on the inner workings of sci-fi and horror movies. Some of those readers got the idea that they could make movies, too.

Ackerman left Famous Monsters in the late 1970s, and the magazine’s original incarnation ceased publication a few years later. But Ackerman still found ways to inspire the next generation of fans.

Every weekend, Ackerman opened his home to visitors, who traveled from just about everywhere to see the artifacts he had spent decades assembling. When I met Uncle Forry eight years ago, he had a few mementos with him: the cape Bela Lugosi wore in the stage production of “Dracula,” the ring Boris Karloff wore in “The Mummy” and face paint that had belonged to Lon Chaney Sr. And each item had a story.

Uncle Forry’s gift for storytelling is what set him apart. He seemed to know everything and everyone, and he counted people like Bradbury, Karloff and Vincent Price among his closest friends.

Sure, he edited a magazine and several books. And he had small roles in numerous films made by the people he helped lure into moviemaking. But he remained, first and foremost, a fan. And his infectious love of sci-fi helped change the world.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Rickroll is dead; long live the Rickroll

I hereby declare the end of the Rickroll.

The Internet prank, which involves a seemingly cool Web link that goes instead to a video of ’80s pop star Rick Astley singing “Never Gonna Give You Up,” is passé now that the ultimate Rickroll has been pulled.

During NBC’s annual broadcast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade last week, Astley got the last laugh. He appeared unexpectedly on the Cartoon Network float and lip-synced his most infamous hit single.

In an instant, Astley had Rickrolled more people than any online prankster could ever dream of. No one can top that, so it’s time to stop trying.

The Rickroll is over. Now we need a replacement.

Fortunately, the 1980s is a treasure trove of ghastly songs that soared to the top of the pop charts. I blame cocaine abuse.

“The Girl Is Mine.” Before they tangled over the rights to the Beatles catalog, Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney recorded two duets. The first, and worst, was 1982’s “The Girl Is Mine” from Jackson’s “Thriller.” As the first single off the most popular album of all time, “The Girl Is Mine” was everywhere. Now that the drugs have worn off, however, we can recognize what an unbearably hokey song it is.

“Ebony and Ivory.” Earlier that year, McCartney teamed up with Stevie Wonder for another duet, “Ebony and Ivory.” The song reached No. 1 on both the U.S. and British pop charts, proving that bad taste doesn’t respect geographic boundaries. As trite as it is awful, “Ebony and Ivory” uses the black and ivory keys of a piano as a metaphor for racial harmony. And in case you don’t get the message, McCartney and Wonder’s harmonizing is also a metaphor for racial harmony. Listening to the song today is like having a piano dropped on your head.

Let this be a lesson to everyone: If McCartney wants to record a duet with you, just say no.

“Ice Ice Baby.” This song was Vanilla Ice’s contribution to bad music, giving the world insightful lyrics like “Will it ever stop? Yo, I don't know/Turn off the lights, and I'll glow.” Vanilla Ice, aka Robert Matthew Van Winkle, almost won a Grammy for this atrocity. However, he lost to ...

“U Can’t Touch This.” Yes, there was a time when people thought MC Hammer was cool. He was so cool, in fact, that you couldn’t touch him — presumably because you’d get frostbite if you did. So, he penned the song “U Can’t Touch This.”

Most recently, the man otherwise known as Stanley Kirk Burrell was getting in touch with his spiritual side as the host of a show on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. But whether or not his soul is immortal, his song is — like a vampire sucking the life out of anyone it encounters.

“Who Can It Be Now?” I will admit a nostalgic fondness for Men at Work’s other hit, “Down Under,” a reggae-tinged anthem to the manly virtues and poor dietary habits of Australians. But “Who Can It Be Now?” hasn’t aged well. Neither has …

“Somebody’s Watching Me.” This is the only hit by Rockwell, son of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy. Both “Who Can It Be Now?” and “Somebody’s Watching Me” deal with paranoia and have lyrics such as “Is it the man come to take me away?/Why do they follow me?” and “When I’m in the shower/I’m afraid to wash my hair/’Cause I might open my eyes/And find someone standing there.”

Why were these songs so popular in the ’80s? Again, I fault cocaine, which is said to cause paranoid delusions. These were songs cokeheads could relate to.

But probably the best potential successor to “Never Gonna Give You Up” is …

“Girl You Know It’s True.” Milli Vanilli won a Grammy for Best New Artist after releasing this earnestly lame single in 1989. But the duo had to give back their award because someone else actually recorded the vocals. The truth, however, is this song is bad no matter who sings it.

The ’80s gave us so much terrible music that I could go on for hours. But it takes a truly heartfelt, unironic and irredeemably shallow song to replace “Never Gonna Give You Up.” It set the standard.