Beauty of Gray

Wednesday, July 03, 2002

Image Records

I saw this very interesting discussion of the current state of the music business from Courtney Love. (Link found via the Happy Fun Pundit.) Basically, she outlines current conditions in the recording industry which is set up so that almost all of the (large) profits made go to the record companies rather than the artists, where artists are forced into contracts which work to the advantage of the record companies, and where the record companies retain the copywright to all the output produced by the artists. Musicians are forced to accept this situation since they need the distribution and marketing leverage of the big record companies to get their product out.

This situation reminds me a lot of that faced by artists in the comic book industry in the late 80’s and early 90’s. They were the ones producing the work that drove the industry, yet they retained no intellectual rights to their creations, and the lion’s share of the profits was taken by the two large comic companies, DC and Marvel. They controlled the marketing and distribution networks which made self-publishing a comic very difficult, or at least difficult to do at a profit or with any substantial circulation.

In the comics industry, the move which broke the stranglehold of DC and Marvel was an insurrection by a large number of the most popular artists and writers. They left those companies and went and formed their own, Image Comics. At Image, creators retained rights to the characters they created, and artists and writers were paid more, since they got their own share and a large part of the share which used to be skimmed off by the publishers. And, to many people’s surprise, the readers followed them, and Image was a huge success. (Since then, the entire industry has tanked, but that was for unrelated reasons.)

It seems to me that the same move could succeed in the music business, as well. The musicians are in a much stronger position than the comic artists were, since people are fans of the bands and singers first and last, and don’t care about the parent record companies. While in the comics, there was a substantial “brand loyalty” to the characters, like Batman and Spider Man. But even there, there was enough of a following for individual artists and writers to draw readers with them. In the music industry, Pearl Jam will sell the same number of albums no matter what company releases the CD, since 100% of the value purchased by consumers is provided by the artists.

Now, in the initial phases, the record companies would likely play hardball with any such company and would try to prevent it from succeeding by leaning on radio stations to not play the songs of renegade artists. There is also a big capital investment required to set up the marketing and distribution systems. I don’t know exactly what it would take, but it seems to me if eight or ten high profile bands and singers struck out on their own, their prestige and fan base would force radio stations to open the door to their company, and the new, artist-centered company could succeed. And if, in fact, it was providing a better deal to artists than the existing record companies, it would draw all the best bands to the new label, forcing the existing companies to reform if they wanted to keep any of their talent.

I don’t know if such a thing will happen, and maybe there are problems with this that I’m missing, but it seems to me that if the record companies really are exploiting musicians as badly as the linked article implies, there is a definite opening for a new “creator centered label,” an Image Records corresponding to Image Comics.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 11:42 AM

The Crooked Timber of Humanity

I found it peculiarly appropriate that this story about the US apparently mistakenly attacking an Afghan wedding celebration was placed on the front page right next to this story about the midair collision of two jet planes. The connection, it seems to me, is obvious. Nothing in this world is perfect, despite the best efforts of mankind. In both of these cases, systems were in place to prevent such mistakes from occurring, but systems suffer breakdowns, and human error is always a possibility.

In both cases, these sorts of tragic accidents are the necessary corollary to taking action. In each case, there are tradeoffs to be made. If you want to have air travel, it raises the possibility of plane crashes. And if you want to take military action, there is always the potential of civilian deaths. You do what you can to avoid them, but mistakes can and will happen. The message is not to halt all military action, just as it is not to halt all air travel.

Horrible mistakes like these can sometimes show up flaws in regulations and control methods, but no system will ever be mistake free. The question is not one of absolutes, but of degrees. In the case of the attack in Afghanistan, the question is rules of engagement—when is a pilot allowed to take action against forces on the ground. In this case, it appears that celebratory shots fired in the air were misinterpreted as AAA fire. But you need to give pilots enough freedom to defend themselves. You could eliminate the possibility of such accidents by requiring direct “eyes on” confirmation of hostile forces before allowing a counter strike, but such a decision would have costs as well. It would lower the chance of civilian deaths, but it would result in a much greater likelihood of US planes being shot down, and would also make it much more difficult to find and kill enemy soldiers.

Similarly, you could easily lower the chance of a midair collision happening, by decreasing the number of planes in the air, and increasing the minimum safe distance for planes in the same airspace. But doing so would also have a cost—it would reduce the number of passengers and the amount of cargo which could be carried by airplanes. It would make air travel and shipping both much more expensive, would cripple airlines, and would have a ripple effect throughout the whole economy.

In each case, these episodes might show up problems with existing methods, ways to fine tune command and control techniques. But in both cases, the issue is not black-and-white; the challenge of decision makers is to balance costs and benefits and determine the tactics and procedures that will produce the best overall result. Minimizing civilian deaths is only factor in the equation, as cold as it may be to recognize that fact.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 7:22 AM

Tuesday, July 02, 2002
Taking effective action
Clausewitz and the War on Terror, Part III

In the previous two installments, I argued that the center of gravity of the terrorist movement was the ideology behind it, but that even if that ideology was an important part of Islam, strongly supported by the Koran, it did not mean that we must be at war with all of Islam. In fact, as I’ll argue here, taking such a line would be the exact wrong approach to the problem.

Another way of looking at the problem (also taken from Clausewitz) is that each enemy can be battled on both an external and an internal front. In the fight against terrorism, the external front is battling the terrorists themselves. It is on this front that military action can be effective, and can prevent terrorist attacks by killing the terrorists themselves and disrupting their operations. But ultimately, attacking on this front is defensive—it can prevent attacks from happening but will not, in itself, result in victory. As long as the underlying ideology is still in place, it will continue to produce terrorists. Military action can make their success much less likely, but eventually one would get through. As with any defensive, reactionary strategy, it has it’s purpose, but is not itself a complete approach.

So direct military action is important mainly as a stop-gap measure, disrupting the terrorists while action is taken on the second, interior front. Only by defeating the ideology that gives rise to terrorists will the threat ever be eliminated. So, how can this underlying ideology be fought? There are three main approaches I see to doing this.

First, oppressive regimes, such as that in Egypt, have denied their people democratic options for dissent, which channels all opposition to the regime into more radical lines. And in the Islamic world, this often means (as it does in Egypt), extremist Islamicist movements. Thus, the dictatorial regimes radicalize the population, forcing them into either the extreme of supporting the oppressive, secular regime, or opposing it through the Islamicist movement. Just as was the case with Fascism and Communism in 30’s Europe, these violent extremes feed off one another.

Just as then, the United States needs to stand back and advocate the third way of a true democracy. Many of the American leaders fear this approach, worry that it might lead to the takeover of countries by radical Islamic parties. However, the immediate damage would be lessened if the US is seen as a third party rather than an active participant in the previous regime’s tyranny. It’s notable that the US’s popularity around the regime is inversely proportional to our friendliness with the local dictators. We are popular in Iraq, Iran, and were in Afghanistan, and are widely disliked by the Saudis and Egyptians. This is not a panacea, but I think an important step. Bush’s policy towards the Palestinians seems to be a good start towards this sort of a pro-democracy policy in the region.

Second, the Islamicist, pro-jihad approach that bin Laden advocates is opposed by a sizable fraction of all Moslems. To the extent possible, the West should aid the moderate Muslims who oppose the Islamicist ideology. This may not really be possible, for as Salman Rushdie noted, there doesn’t seem to be any organized opposition to the religious ideas of the Islamicists. However, at the very least, our policy here must be to “do no harm.” If there is no general religious organization corresponding to the Northern Alliance, we can still avoid alienating this mute middle. Making the fight into one of the West versus Islam is letting bin Laden and his ilk dictate the terms of engagement and making the struggle a much more difficult one. Many sects have been destroyed and discredited throughout history, but very few complete religions.

On the flip side, while we may not be able to directly confront the Islamicist ideology, it is possible to limit its spread by cutting off its taproot of support. Which, as anyone who’s been paying attention knows, is the evangelical Wahhabist regime in Saudi Arabia. While we may not be able to pull up the weed by the roots, at least we can cut off its supply of fertilizer.

But ultimately, I think the war will be won through the simple, steady erosion of enemy sentiment by the encroachment of our economic power, which brings with it our values. Simply put, people like having stuff. They don’t like living in misery, with not enough to eat, under oppressive rule. It’s impossible to miss the benefits which are provided by adopting a more western way of life. Just as the Christian Church in the west moved away from asceticism and made a compromise with usury and other capitalist methods, I think in the long run Islam will make its peace with the modern world.

It will involve a great upheaval in the traditional Islamic society, just as the transition to modern capitalism brought upheavals around the world, in Civil Wars in England, France, Russia, and China (and some would lump the Civil Wear in there as well.) To a degree, the Islamicist revolt against the West can be seen as the latest in this long line of backlashes from traditional societies breaking up under the influence of capitalism.

Regardless, every experiment with Islamic government has been a failure. In Afghanistan the people wanted out in 10 years. In Iran it’s lasted 20 but now everyone’s had enough. It’s lasted longest in Saudi Arabia, propped up by billions in petrodollars, but their end is hopefully near as well, with a little help from their American friends. Hopefully this UN report is the first in many which will steadily hammer home the point that prosperity can only be enjoyed by making peace with western values and allowing freedom throughout the Arab world.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 2:22 PM

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