phiffer.org

Dan Phiffer Dan Phiffer is an Internet enthusiast based in Troy, NY

The cultural heritage of the music video

I posted earlier about OK Go’s fantastic Rube Goldberg music video. I had assumed that because that video is embeddable the band had made inroads in convincing EMI to reverse their prohibition on video embeds. It turns out that OK Go decided to drop their label and form their own. From Fast Company:

OK Go rocketed up through the indie rock world in large measure due to the band’s brilliant, lo-fi music videos, which have spread like wildfire on YouTube. But EMI, in a misguided attempt to wring every penny out of the band’s success, decided to block embedding on the YouTube videos — meaning the videos were unable to disseminate out through music and pop culture blogs, news sites, and personal blogs the way they did before the restriction. And that’s not a minor detail: the band saw a 90% drop in views when that restriction went into effect. As in, 100,000 views one day, 10,000 views the next.

It’s obvious what the bands have at stake in this situation: more people watching their music videos translate into more exposure. Which means more income for the band. One would assume that what’s good for the band is also good for the record labels. Why would they undermine their own success?

In trying to understand EMI’s seemingly counter-intuitive position on this, it’s important to point out that a music video is both a promotional tool and a copyrightable property on its own. Many old media companies are built around a central idea that being a gatekeeper/distributor is inherently valuable. These guys are scrambling to protect their central role within a rapidly changing media environment, contorting themselves to remain in control. Because they own the rights to the videos, they seem to think they know best how the videos should be presented. Not you, you dirty blogger.

TANSTAAFMV

Sharing is a wonderful thing but somebody has to pay, right? Setting aside production costs it’s Google (or some other video hosting service) who are paying the bills on our behalf. When a page on phiffer.org loads up, the visitor’s browser is making a series of extra requests off-site for each video embed I put up. Each of those requests cost real money — YouTube requires costly bandwidth, engineering, support — money that neither me, my visitor, nor the video’s uploader has paid.

Each video embed imposes incremental costs to Google, but none to the record label. What do the labels have to lose? Presumably they are biding their time, hoping they can figure out some ingenious way to “monetize” these libraries on their own terms. They likely get more revenue for each page view on youtube.com and are hoping that restricting video embeds will change the behavior of people (like me) who might otherwise link off-site instead of embedding a video. I’m skeptical that approach will work and I trust OK Go when they say it’s not working for them.

The long run

I’ll keep watching music videos, on YouTube and — probably more often — embedded on other websites. I’m not personally concerned with the political battle over where and how this material is available. What worries me is how precarious all this is culturally. The music video form isn’t “high art,” but it is a part of our culture that should be conserved. Right now we’re all free riders to services like YouTube which leaves these videos prone to a special kind of link rot. After something gets uploaded (legally or otherwise), widely disseminated through embeds, a rights holder can come along and decide this violates some aspect of their claim to the content. So what you get is this:

The screenshot above is taken from Junior Senior’s defunct MySpace page where they’ve written about the band’s dismantling:

We have decided in much peace and prosperity to put Junior Senior to rest and focus 100% on making music on our own, as we have been doing for the last year. We know it would have been a much juicier story if we hated each other and we split over big egos or something. We even thought of making a fake youtube video of us getting into a fight at a late night party over whether we should call the next album “Jumping Jack Junior” or “Senior Says.” But we don’t promote violence, kids. Just peace and good vibes alright.

The video in question was created by the excellent Shynola, who are hosting their own higher quality version. I will embed a YouTube version here for comparison, but who knows how long this iteration will avoid copyright claim oblivion.

Preservation

The video ends with a plug for the band’s website, juniorsenior.dk, whose domain seems to have expired and subsequently bought up by an enterprising pornography outfit. MySpace’s free service, controlled by a different media tycoon, has served Junior Senior better in the long run than their labels (who include EMI). One might argue the recent history of the recording industry is the tragic story of an old timer trying to recall the good old days. But we should still ask what their responsibility is in maintaining this slice of culture.

In the long run they will adapt, or new labels with new business models will replace them. Or perhaps that gatekeeper role will become obsolete altogether. I’d love to talk to somebody, who’s followed the arc of this story since the rise and fall of Napster, who’d be willing to argue that the big players of the RIAA have the competence and vision to stay afloat. I’m pretty doubtful. When they inevitably close, what happens to their tightly held media holdings? It’s uncontroversial to say they’ve done a fantastic job alienating their customers by suing them while utterly failing to see the possibilities inherent to the internet.

My take home message is this: let’s try some new stuff and see what sticks. I hope that whatever replaces the lumbering dinosaurs will have more consideration for cultural posterity.

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