Wikipedia editors' cool new toy

Slate.com has instructed me to be jealous, and I am.  The top 100 editors at Wikipedia are being granted access to JSTOR, for free.  Normally, only universities are allowed this privilege. This cooperation is going to do even more to bolster Wikipedia's credibility -- as Fruzsina Eördögh at Slate puts it,

The online encyclopedia gets a bad rap for being at times inaccurate and easily prank-able; the joke goes that the sources listed are usually the top Google searches, not actual scholarly material. If Wikipedia articles become more well-known for citing scholarly journals, however, these criticisms have a real chance of becoming moot.

I have to admit, it's really fun to watch the academic community slowly torpedo the popular prejudice against crowd sourcing.  After all, the highest possible degree of public cooperation has always been the method that allowed academia to advance.  It's just been a very long time since the amount of cooperation that entailed changed much.

The Oatmeal's "The State of the Music Industry"

The Oatmeal, one  of the better social commentary comics on the internet, posted a comic today about the past, present, and future of the music industry.  It's funny, pithy, and broadly accurate.  And because I love sucking the humor out of things with analysis[1. For the record, I don't actually think that analyzing a joke or drawing serious conclusions from it actually damages the humor of the joke -- unless it was a bad joke, in which case it might have depended upon the biases or false beliefs of the audience, and deserves to be punctured.], I want to talk about it. Make sure you actually read the comic.  Analysis below the fold.

Panel 1:

This is definitely an accurate view of the record industry around the time of CDs.  I'm not sure it was a long enough time to justify calling it "A very long time," but that's a very long semantic argument and prior to Napster the record industry was a highly stratified, artistically stifling system.

Panel 2:

I have no objections to this one.

Panel 3:

This "Now" is very accurate, and highlights all of the major ways distributors make a profit on their platforms via artists' content.  The big institutions may make a lot less -- YouTube is popularly rumored to run at a loss[2. I hear it all the time, but I'm having a surprising amount of trouble finding any firsthand sources.  The closest I get is that Google is very tight-lipped about how their profit breaks down, so YouTube might actually be profitable now.] -- and the artists are still making almost nothing.

Panel 4:

This is the one that made me want to pick it apart.  Because this panel is a dramatic oversimplification -- and I want to unpick why, because I agree with the comic's message in almost every respect.

In this excellent Tumblr post, Mike Doughty unpacks the important role that labels play in making bands happen, using Radiohead as an example.  John Green follows it up with the same argument, for publishers.  And a lot of the people in the music economy argument want to avoid acknowledging the fact that labels add real value to the artists' work -- connecting them with producers, putting them in expensive recording studios, and giving them massive loans that allow them to build their careers through touring.

Broadly speaking, the labels aren't using these powers for good.  They control the kinds of music that the artists can make, and they use the cost of touring to create a sort of indentured servitude -- the band may be getting paid ridiculous amounts of money, but they're technically the ones paying for all the tours.  (I read an article years ago explaining all this in some detail, but am finding it very difficult to find.)

Like any other kind of work, artistic work is not an endeavor one embarks upon alone.  Extraordinary acts of musicianship require extraordinary resources, and if those resources are distributed solely on an individual artist's ability to sell themselves we're not going to get the best possible music.

It's good that the labels are dying, and it's good that individual musicians can now empower themselves on the internet.  But we need some kind of institution system, possibly collective artist-owned groups, that can give individual artists resources that have an initial cost greater than the potential profitability of their work.

Penny Arcade Sells Out

I had thought I blogged about this when it first came out, but it appears I didn't.  Anyone who follows comics on the internet has by now probably heard of Penny Arcade's Kickstarter campaign, "Penny Arcade sells out," in which they're trying to raise $1 million so that they can take down advertising on their site, entirely. The campaign's basic goal was $250 thousand, and they made that very quickly.  For that, the leaderboard ad on the home page will be removed.  I checked back today, and it's currently at $364,461, which is enough to unlock the first stretch goal at $325 thousand, a 6 page comic strip.  I don't know why that one's in there, but it's nice that they put a bunch of other cool stuff around all the goals for ad removal.

I checked back today honestly expecting for them to be at or close to the $1 million goal.  I figured if anyone was going to raise that much on Kickstarter in the first week or so, it would be Penny Arcade.  They're not even close yet, but there are still 22 days to go.

Lacking money, I won't be contributing, but I do think this is a good idea.  For a long time now, the model for financing online content has been "We can't think of anything better than ads," and I'm happy to see people who have the power to overcome that issue reaching out to try and change things.

If this works, I can honestly imagine an artistic future in which the culture of art is that people voluntarily contribute to the art they love.  Eventually we might even be able to finance the kind of blockbusters that Hollywood pumps out -- though I expect we'd only get the Nolan style films, and lose out on the Transformers franchise.  But I'm not complaining.