Since it seems to be my most popular topic right now, I moved all of my musicology/entrepreneurship posts into its own “music entrepreneurship” category. You can check out the full list in the Archives by Category page.

Hollywood vs Silicon Valley

Online Piracy: Since hearing that incubators and accelerators were coming into Los Angeles with the intention of getting into the media and entertainment industries, I’ve been keeping a close eye out for startup companies that had founders who had backgrounds in music or art who were looking into taking advantage of these upcoming trends.  Never say never, but it seems unlikely that anyone is going to be able to upstage the big players in content distribution any time soon (YouTube, SoundCloud, Pandora, Grooveshark, etc.) so I’ve focused most of my research in the areas of content creation. People who are interested in this angle are largely in the minority right now, but I expect these numbers will grow in upcoming years because it plays into the strengths and talents that the city has to offer.

Los Angeles
Los Angeles at Night

Startup companies that combines the technical skills of the engineer with the creativity of an artist will have a very high likelihood of producing something groundbreaking or revolutionary — at least, that’s what investors seem to be banking on when they look at LA as the next possible “Silicon Valley”. In a lot of ways this city is the ideal place to do this because of its highly creative and educated population base.  There’s a lot of talent to choose from, and a lot of them are currently looking for work. LA also houses Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Jet Propulsion Lab, as well as being the home of the entertainment capital of the world, Hollywood, which are monuments of the ingenuity and perseverance of its people.

During the next few years there will be literally hundreds of startup companies forming as a result of millions of dollars currently being poured into the LA ecosystem, which will create a lot of opportunities, as well as challenges, for both artists and engineers alike. Some people jokingly characterize the recent SOPA/PIPA protests as a “nerds vs. hippies” issue — maybe there’s some truth behind that to a certain extent, but it would be a mistake to think that these turn of events happened by accident or came about as a result of one isolated incident. The tensions between Silicon Valley and Hollywood have been brewing for years, and now that they’re starting to encroach on each other’s turf things are likely to heat up even further.

The two industries need each other more than ever now, but if animosities between them continue to rise, this could impede progress in areas related to media/entertainment related entrepreneurial practices.  Being a former-engineer-turned-musician, I have some experiences traversing between the two fields, as well as some experience working with programmers in my previous positions of employment.  So I’d like to dedicate the next couple of entries to the means and methods of arriving at fruitful middle-grounds between each discipline: consider it a pre-emptive diplomacy in regards to issues that are likely to surface in the upcoming years ahead.

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Nerds vs Hippies: Don’t Tread On Me — Issues of Online Piracy

The most pressing topic between the two camps right now is regarding online piracy issues, which has become highly public as of the late.  The issue has now been framed as a “Hollywood vs Silicon Valley” thing in many media sources at this point.

National Public Radio (NPR) recently did a radio broadcast on the differences that Silicon Valley and Hollywood have regarding online piracy, which unfortunately came to highlight how wide the gaps between the two cultures have become in recent years.  On one hand, you have tech people like Tim O’Reilly arguing the point that piracy has been a good thing for him and that people who “stole” his product were more likely to pay for it in the long run. On the other side, you had a testimonial by Harvard law-school-graduate-turned-indie-filmmaker Tim Chey, who said that the people at The Pirate Bay “made him cry” when they wouldn’t take his movie off of their site.  (Even though he asked nicely!) As is, putting these two people in the same room and telling them to come up with something innovative would inevitably lead to a disastrous outcome.

Piracy, It's a Crime
Slogan from a recent anti-piracy campaign put out by the media industry, which can be found on most modern DVDs. (Click on picture to jump to the video.)

In NPR’s portrayal of the issue, it would seem that everyone has already resigned to the idea that piracy is something that’s beyond our control and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.  In reality, however, you won’t find too many people in either sector who think backing down is the answer — in recent years both sides have escalated their attempts at dealing with the problem, using the tactics they know best: technology and culture.

For over a decade now, Hollywood has framed online piracy as a moral issue, attempting to appeal to people’s sense of duty and personal responsibility in order to get them to willingly stop.  In recent years the effectiveness of this campaign has come into question, as DVD and record sales continue to shrink despite their best efforts at reaching out to the public.  Having lost its patience, Hollywood now wants to do it “old world” style — find the perpetrators who wronged filmmakers like Chey and bring them to justice through the rule of law.  SOPA and PIPA were in many ways this mentality turned into legislation.

Though its efforts tend to be less publicized, Silicon Valley is no stranger to dealing with pirates either.  Almost every day, high profile websites are under attack by hackers who’re looking to take advantage of loop-holes and vulnerabilities that exist on their security systems.  The Valley takes a fundamentally different approach from Hollywood, however — their work tends to focus on structural changes that lead to “permanent” solutions.  If hackers manage to figure out a way how to break something on someone’s computer, for example, programmers will simply write that possibility out of the code.  In a similar vein, their solution to content piracy tends to be a systematic one: if you make it considerably easier for people to acquire content legally, the incentive to download illegal content will greatly diminish.  Having acquired a lot of experience dealing with online threats, programmers had come to see themselves as experts in dealing with computer-related security, and was more than a little miffed when Hollywood tried to pass legislation in those areas without their input.

Wikipedia's "SOPA Blackout" page
Wikipedia’s “SOPA Blackout” page, which was launched on Jan 24, 2012.

If online piracy was something that happened in real life, Hollywood would be the cop investigating the crime scene, while Silicon Valley would be the person that installed the security system in your house.  The former wants to bring justice into the world, while the latter wants to ensure that the crime never happens to begin with. Which makes you feel safer? More importantly, which is more effective?

The two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but they do appeal to different sides of people’s minds.  And Hollywood and Silicon Valley right now are vying for your support, trying to convince you of their point of view. The fact that TV stations have been cranking out season after season of detective shows is not a coincidence, and neither is the fact that the most popular video games out there tend to emphasize strategy and adaptation as important values for the player to have in order to “win” the game. There is a cultural war going on between the two industries at this point, and we’re all caught in the middle of it.

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Stealing is Just a Word: Age is Not the Issue

As with many emotionally-charged issues, there is often a tendency to vilify opposing viewpoints through one-dimensional caricatures — on one hand, the media industry is currently run by corrupt/incompetent fat-cats who’re desperately trying to hold onto power, while Silicon Valley are the enablers of the amoral and self-centered youth culture whose entitlement complex leads them to believe that everything should be immediate and free. The media tends to focus on these cultural differences, often painting the divergences between the two as a generational problem. (Makes for a good story: Gen X, Gen Y, Millennials, etc.) When the internet first came to life during the 90s, many people in Hollywood thought it would just be a passing fad — it was something that kids would do when they’re young, but eventually abandon it after they got older.

Downloading Movies Is like Downloading Communism

Equal Access = Communism

Given that the tech industry was still a fairly new thing at the time, this type of speculation might have, at one point, made a lot of sense. But things obviously didn’t turn out that way — even as people in the tech industry start to earn a grey hair or two, the two sectors still continue to remain polarized in regard to political and economic issues. Why? It’s because the issue of online piracy never had anything to do with age or maturity to begin with. The disagreements are philosophical and ideological, rather than something that fixes itself over time. Efforts at reconciliation will have to focus primarily on these subjects, because if the problem is framed as a generational one there’s not much chance that anyone would be able to find any common ground.

In a nutshell, the disagreement between Hollywood and Silicon Valley arose out of two different takes on one simple question: In digital space, what does “stealing” really mean?

In NPR’s coverage of the issue, Gavin Polone argues that “a movie or a television show or a song or a book is actually someone’s property.”  This assertion echos the rhetoric that anti-piracy campaigns (like the video above) have traditionally used in order to make it’s point: that downloading music and movies online is akin to stealing a car, a purse, or TV from someone else.  Thus Hollywood feels that people should be subject to the same types of criminal prosecutions that would normally be applied in other areas of life.

Critics of this approach argue that this methodology would effectively label millions and millions of Americans as being a “criminal”, giving the industry free-reign to prosecute almost anyone and everyone they see fit.  The industry claims that they’ll only be persecuting “obviously guilty” parties, but given the relatively unfavorable opinion that people tend to have of the media in general, many seem unwilling to give them this benefit of the doubt.

Even if (the now very unpopular) organizations such as Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) could somehow re-establish their credibility, many have questioned whether or not anti-piracy laws would have any lasting effect to begin with.  Opponents cite historical trends and examples pointing in the direction that these types of legislations tend to do more harm than good because banning an every-day activity (like jaywalking) is impossible to enforce, which raises people’s sense of paranoia without solving the actual problem.

These points/counter-points are, however, usually done from a political standpoint.  The real crux of the issue lies in the content itself, where the act of “stealing” actually takes place.  In the real world, taking someone’s car without their permission would deprive them of the opportunity to use their property any further, thus the act gets labelled as a crime.  In the digital world, however, downloading a movie or a song simply results in an additional copy for the end-user, and nothing is technically “lost” by either parties.  From the tech industry’s point of view, this constitutes a win-win scenario for both the producer and the consumer, so many of them are left wondering why would anybody go out of their way to criminalize such a “wonderful” thing.

Seed your Torrents Shirt

If you know what this means, you're probably guilty.

There is a good reason for this, however.  Consciously or sub-consciously, Hollywood has known about esteem dilution, i.e. the more popular something becomes, the quicker it loses its value due to its widespread abundance.

This is a phenomenon that has existed since the beginning of the mass produced market, dating all the way back to the printing press.  Unlike the food, commodities, and manufacturing industries, businesses that rely on intellectual property tend to be less bounded by limitations of physical resources.  The price of duplicating a book or CD/DVD is very cheap — digital downloads on the internet even cheaper, to the point where the costs of doing so have now become almost negligible.

This process might seem like a positive thing on the surface, but it has a fatal flaw: when a product’s supply has the potential to overwhelmingly exceed its demand, it devalues itself through its own abundance.  In the world of classical economics, the theoretical possibility that a film/song could be duplicated endlessly (i.e. infinite supply) automatically creates the implication that any given idea-based product is, or at least eventually will be, worth almost nothing. And the idea that anything and everything the industry creates from this point on will be pirated into oblivion has a tendency to keep many producers and artists awake at night as they think about their future in the long term.

Hollywood has traditionally dealt with the problem by releasing its content gradually and in stages — films get released in theaters first, then onto records after it loses its hype, then eventually onto TV and other types of free broadcasts when sales from the previous efforts start to dwindle.  This ritual is one that most of us are familiar with, and at one point was the norm because the model had been proven to work for the industry for a very long time. The internet, however, crippled Hollywood’s ability to control their supply chain in these ways, since customers now have the power to duplicate content from the comfort of their own homes. In the new world, the “artificial scarcity” model can no longer said to be a viable one.

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Online Piracy Solutions

Google has recently been hiring people from Hollywood in order to learn from their expertise working in the content production business — something that Silicon Valley has largely steered away from until fairly recently. Tech companies have historically been very good at creating platforms for people to share their content (social media, networking systems, databases) but currently lack the experience and methodologies of how art is actually made. Hollywood, on the other hand, could probably stand to benefit from the expertise that the Valley has developed around online security and web-based business practices in order to stay competitive in the upcoming years.

IBM Cloud Computing
IBM Cloud Computing Picture

I think that in the long run, the two sides are probably going to find that they have more in common than they’d like to admit — both work in highly competitive markets, require constant innovation in order to stay ahead of the curve, and as recent happenings have shown, are both heavily invested in issues of intellectual property rights. Their efforts are currently directed at different types of products which leads to different types of mentalities, but from a pragmatic standpoint there’s actually no reason why these two forces can’t be made to work together.

Right now there’s a sense of incongruity that can be felt between the content that we view and the devices that we use to get them, because neither sides are taking full advantage of the potential that each medium has to offer. We can theoretically get “everything” now because of the internet and its distribution channels, but judging by what you might see on comment sections on any given website, people still don’t seem to be happy with what’s available to them. Many still harbor respect for Hollywood’s ability to produce high-quality content, but a lot of them share the tech industry’s frustrations when it comes to how it’s being distributed. Los Angeles-based startups now have the greatest opportunity to dive into these gaps that are currently waiting to be filled. (With awesomeness.)

While the concepts presented above might sound very abstract, these issues are guaranteed to surface when decisions have to made regarding a project’s overall goal. In order to avoid getting caught off guard, all angles must be considered — distribution, marketing, technical — and last but not least, your plan on how you’ll be interacting with your customer base. Regardless which approach you decide to take, being aware of these philosophical vantage points should allow you to better understand where you are, where people are “coming from”, and where things need to go.

Currently there is a trend in both industries for people to move towards a more “service” oriented approach, since these methodologies tend to be more resistant to piracy and unauthorized duplication. For musicians this simply means putting a greater emphasis on “live performance” experiences, since that’s something that can be said to be irreplaceable. Sure, someone might sneak in their phone and upload it on YouTube the next day, but it’s never going to be quite the same as actually being there.

Software companies, on the other hand, have been moving towards “cloud-based” software and subscription-based revenue streams in order to stay afloat. Google is the prime example of this done well — they offer most of their services for free, then acquire their income through advertising revenues. In many respects, this is no different than how income is earned on TV and radio. Whether on the TV or online, it’s all about giving people a pleasurable “experience” (for free) while earning their paycheck through business sponsorships. It’s no wonder that a lot of programmers consider themselves to be performance artists, when asked about in private.

TV Graph by Year 1988-2008

Graph: Time Spent Watching TV

Like many performance artworks, service-based approaches have no definite end-points, and run on the idea that the process is continual and evolving. The upside to this development is that it places a greater emphasis on the person creating the product, rather than the product itself. So artists and programmers who manage to prove themselves in their fields (or online) are more likely to gain recognition for future and upcoming projects. I once had a conversation with my brother (who’s a programmer) about whether or not he was worried about people stealing his code when he releases it into the public. Without hesitation, he said no — since there’s no way that any one software can serve everyone’s needs, there will always be a demand for programmers who can tailor their software toward specific ends. Even while working on his current projects, he’s already thinking about what to do next.

Likewise, there will always be a need and demand for new music, no matter how far things progress. In a world where things are constantly changing, music helps us acquire meaning, purpose, and sense of calm that comes out of having an explanation of what’s happening around us. As change becomes faster, the public will demand more music in order to keep up with society’s pace. Recent studies seem to reflect that this is in fact true. The entertainment industry may currently be in turmoil, but the possibilities for the future are now greater than it has ever been before. And the focus will be on the people making the product, rather than on the object itself.

Some might say that if you don’t “do it yourself” there’s no way for these groups to understand each other, but personally I don’t think there’s a necessity for artists to learn how to program or for programmers to become “artists” in the traditional sense of the word. Many software companies were founded by people whos primary work was not to write lines of code. But they knew enough about the subject — or at least spent enough time listening to the needs of their partners — in order to make decisions that worked from both vantage points. This is a skill that’s likely to come in handy in a lot of different areas of work, especially if you’re living in the LA area.

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Hopefully this article was somewhat helpful for people interested in artist/engineer collaborations or looking to put together teams of said people together. The next couple of posts will focus more on the creative process itself — stuff that happens behind the scenes, before a product goes live.

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