On Passing

Browsing podcasts via iTunes
Browsing podcasts via iTunes

I listen to a lot of podcasts.  A lot of podcasts.  I’m subscribed to over 20 different ones currently and am far, far behind on listening to many of them.  Though I tend to listen to NPR through this “time-shifted” mechanism, it’s also how I keep up on video games.  Incidentally, long before the concept of a “podcast” entered our collective consciousness, those involved in the tech industry saw these recordings as a great way to engage with their communities in a way that writing articles simply didn’t: put all of your authors in a room to talk about stuff that happened in that week, so if people want to listen to your content instead of read it, then they can.  As gamers tend to be technologically oriented, it makes sense that podcasts centered on video games sprung up like weeds long before any others did.

When I was first jumping back into video games, circa 2004-2005, Drunken Gamers Radio was one of the first ones I gravitated toward.  It was great listening to three best friends up in Minneapolis talking about games in a very “real” sense.  They weren’t people in the industry: they just had a hobby and wanted to record the stuff they talked about.  And it was hilarious.  Over the years as the three grew older, had families, and had less time to devote to gaming, the show branched out talking about cooking, brewing, movies, music, and more.  But it was always fun just listening to three friends talk about whatever they wanted to talk about.  You felt as if you had known them for years.  That you went to high school together and were just hanging out on their back patio.  They’ve been recording these podcasts for over 7 years now.

Another favorite is the Giant Bombcast, hosted by Giant Bomb.com.  This one is more of a “traditional video game podcast” in that 5 video game journalists talk about what they played that week, recent news items, and answer e-mails from fans.  Their cast of characters changed from time to time, but the core group has stayed the same for over 380 episodes.  Again, similarly to DGR, listening to them for weeks (and years) on end makes it seem like you know them.  They aren’t just “putting on a show” for people to listen to, or playing a role for the microphone: this is them talking about their favorite hobbies.  The listener feels like they could be friends with any member of the cast.

2013 brought profound loss to both institutions.  In July, about a week after his wedding, Giant Bomb’s Ryan Davis died.  Though the cause of death was never officially explained to the fans, it is thought he lost his long-term battle with sleep apnea.  He was 34.  Then, in last October, Aaron Hilden from DGR died after complications from diabetes.  He was also in his mid-30s.  Both of them died suddenly and it was a great shock to both communities.

In the intervening months, Giant Bomb bounced back.  Though Ryan was very much the “soul” of that podcast, the other members held strong and moved forward.  It took them a few weeks to find their footing, and it still isn’t the same as it used to be, but the podcast lives and is still great.  DGR, on the other hand, just recently posted its most recent (and likely final) podcast.  This was a trio that began in college.  It wasn’t a work relationship: these guys were best friends.  The podcast always worked best when firing on all three cylinders, and the loss of one is crippling.  This is further complicated by the fact that Hilden ran the show, including audio recording, production and editing.  The other two can only do so much to replicate what Hilden did for them.

Hearing their most recent podcast has reminded me of my feelings after hearing the news.  Sure, both of these guys were “just podcasters” for a hobby that many don’t partake in (though many do…).  But you can’t help but share in their loss.  I could compare it to when Cory Monteith from “Glee” died suddenly earlier this year and how millions took his loss, but I view it differently.  Monteith played a character on television and that character is all I knew of him.  That is to say, it’s easier to mourn “Finn Hudson” than it is Cory Monteith.  I’m personally just too separated from the real person.

But Ryan Davis and Aaron Hilden?  That was them.  They were real people.  And I “knew” their friends and colleagues.  I read the outpouring of e-mails, posts and tweets after they passed and it was clear just how much they affected the lives of those around them.  I may as well have been at the funeral of someone I actually knew.

These are two gentlemen I will (and already do) miss.  I never met them and likely never would have.  But they touched a lot of lives in a way that I don’t think either of them fully appreciated.

Rest in peace, guys.

Harry Potter and the Digital Copy

This week saw the announcement and launch of the Harry Potter franchise on e-book formats, though the details of this particular deal are remarkably different from previous, “traditional” book launches on Amazon’s Kindle or B&N’s Nook.  Through the Pottermore website, you can buy the first three books for $8 each and the final four books for $10 each.  Once you buy a book through Pottermore, you can choose up to 8 different formats to get that book, so if you want it through Amazon, B&N, Sony, Kobo, Google Books, etc., you can do it.  Buy it once, read it where you like.  Once you assign it to a format (e.g. Amazon), you can download it as many times as you want through that carrier.

For the uninitiated, this is not how it usually goes, and this is a problem that the “Power of Potter” is helping solve.  It used to be that you could go to any bookstore you want and buy that book.  You could sell it, you could move it, you could loan it to a friend, and you could pass it down to your kids someday.  With e-readers, it doesn’t work like that.  If you buy a book from Amazon for your Kindle, but then you decide to switch to the Nook, you don’t get to take that book with you: you have to buy it again.  Furthermore, while you can loan said book to friends, you can only do it if they have the same e-reader format (i.e. Kindle can lend to Kindle and Nook can lend to Nook, but not to each other…though there are ways around it…), and you can only do it for something like 2 weeks at a time.

Then there was another thing I recently read about what J.K. Rowling did with the “Potter” books, specifically with regards to libraries:

Among the other innovations Rowling offers is the ability to download up to eight digital copies of each book, either for use on another device or for lending. Again, this seems like an obvious feature that e-book publishers could provide — since digital copies effectively have no cost — but very few do. And at a time when publishers either don’t allow their books to be loaned through libraries at all (as most of the Big Six do not) or have jacked up the prices they charge libraries (as Random House recently did), the Potter books can be loaned an unlimited number of times, and the lending license lasts for five years.

This is a big deal.  Publishers have complained since e-readers first took hold that they lose revenue when libraries lend out e-reader copies of books.  With physical books, libraries would buy books for a flat fee and then lend them out, but the understanding was that libraries would have to buy new books to replace others that had undergone too much wear and tear.  This doesn’t happen with digital copies of books, however, so the publishers created licenses that granted libraries a limited number of “slots” for each book (i.e. the number of people that can have a copy of the book at a given time) and a limited number of “lends” (i.e. the number of times each “slot” can be sent out).  Libraries have found e-books to be very useful to their patrons, so they’re getting popular, but the book publishers still aren’t reaping the revenues they think they should.  Thus, as mentioned above, publishers like Random House are trying to either reduce the number of “lends” for each license, or increase the cost of the license.

Because of the power behind the “Harry Potter” brand, Rowling is able to buck this trend.  She holds the rights, she dictates the terms.  And for once, the individual in control realizes they have enough money, so they do what’s fair.  You get that license for a Harry Potter book and it can be loaned out to as many people that want it and the license needs to be renewed every 5 years.  Spectacular.

The article quoted above also quoted the new CEO of Pottermore, Charlie Redmayne, who used to work at HarperCollins.  He was talking about what book publishers could learn from the music industry as they went through similar “growing pains” a decade ago:

My view is that the one thing we should learn from the music industry, is that one of the best ways of fighting back against piracy is making content available to consumers at a platform they want to purchase it on, and at a price they are willing to pay, and if you do that most people will instinctively want to buy it.

I’ve said this before, so I won’t go over it again.  Suffice to say, I agree completely.

Regardless, I’m glad that J.K. Rowling is shifting her considerable weight in the industry to move the ball a bit closer to where it should be.  It’s great to see some progress on this front.

Pirates on the High Seas (of the Internet)

I read a pretty spectacular article from Forbes.com today about how the MPAA and RIAA are fighting a losing battle against piracy.  The article echoes statements I’ve made in the past, though not on this blog (…that I can find, anyway…).

The author is blunt and to the point: the movie industry is being dragged kicking and screaming to a future that practically all their customers want, and they’re losing revenue in doing so.  They could make their money back on volume by making their movies a). easier to access, and b). cheaper.

The primary problem movie studios have to realize is that everything they charge for is massively overpriced. The fact that movie ticket prices keep going up is astonishing. How can they possibly think charging $10-15 per ticket for a new feature is going to increase the amount of people coming to theaters rather than renting the movie later or downloading it online for free? Rather than lower prices, they double down, saying that gimmicks like 3D and IMAX are worth adding another $5 to your ticket.

They have failed to realize that people want things to be easy. Physically going to the movies is hard enough without paying way too much for the privilege. Going to a store and buying a DVD instead of renting or downloading is generally an impractical thing to do unless you A) really love a particular movie or B) are an avid film buff or collector.

Here’s the part I’ve been most concerned by: rising ticket prices.  Why go to a movie theater to spend $10-$15 on a ticket, plus an additional $10+ on “food?”  Granted, I have a toddler so my movie viewing in theaters has decreased tremendously in the past few years anyway, but with the advent of Netflix, I have all kinds of things to watch, and now I have the will to wait until a movie comes out on DVD.  Especially when the summer blockbusters are looking more and more like that “Battleship” ad you saw during the Super Bowl.  Now, if I could see a non-IMAX, non-DTS movie in the theater and get a medium-sized non-refillable soda for $10?  I’d do that.  No question.

Finally, the author suggests a solution to this problem: the movie industry needs their equivalent of the gaming industry’s digital distribution platforms (e.g. Steam). Heck, they need Apple’s iTunes.  Make buying the product so stupid simple that it takes less effort to buy it than it does to steal it.  As he points out, it takes 7 steps to download a movie illegally, and depending on your internet connection, you could have an HD-quality movie in a half hour.  If the movie industry would just get behind an Apple or Amazon model of 1). find movie, and 2). click “buy” (for a reasonable price).

Let us recall music piracy of the late-90s/early-2000s for a moment.  Back then, you could go on Napster or Kazaa and search to find music you wanted, but you’d easily find tens or hundreds of the same track, each one with different sound qualities.  You could easily download a track you thought was good, but after downloading, you’d find actually had multiple “hiccups” in the file.  iTunes streamlined the process.  Search to download one song that you knew was of relatively high quality and was consistent with the rest of your iTunes library.  Moreover, you’d see that you could get a song for $1, but the entire album for $10, undercutting what was easily $15 at most brick-and-mortar retailers.  So in many respects, at least with iTunes, there was a chance you’d “up sell” your customer on getting the whole album, rather than just a single song.

iTunes made it easy and people flocked to it.  Does music piracy still happen?  Absolutely, but now, people have a reasonable, viable alternative that I’d argue most people consider before pirating albums.

Steam did the same thing for the gaming industry, making it stupid simple to download a digital copy of a computer game without having to search through seedy sectors of the internet looking for a pirated copy (that could include viruses or other malware).  They can even upgrade your graphics drivers and more for you when you install the game, streamlining the process further to make life for the consumer that much better.  Many PC games are released day and date with their “physical media” counterparts.  In many cases, you can actually have the game downloaded and then get it “unlocked” at midnight on its release day.  For PC games, you can’t get much more convenient.  You don’t even have to get out of your pajamas…

If piracy has taught us anything it’s that the movie industry thinks that an audience watching their movies on a computer or TV screen, while that same movie is still out in theaters, is important.  If this is really the case, the movie industry should do the smart thing and release movies online day and date with their release in theaters.  Charge $10 to rent it, making the cost comparable with a ticket to the theater (though that $10 is then divided up among the number of people watching the movie in your living room).

Obviously, some people don’t care if the movie is in IMAX or has super-duper Dolby Digital Sound or smell-o-vision: they just want to watch the damned movie.  They don’t want to deal with crappy popcorn prices.  They don’t want to deal with screaming kids or people talking through the whole thing.  They don’t want to fight for a decent seat in a packed theater.  They don’t want to drive their car and park in a lot.  They don’t want to pay upwards of $30 to see a movie on a Saturday afternoon.  There are any number of reasons folks don’t want to go to a movie theater, while others still like going.  There’s no reason the movie industry can’t cater to both demographics and make money doing it.

So, take heed, Movie and TV Industry. You’re being surpassed by other content purveyors.  Make it easy to access your content and I assure you, people will return to you and buy more of your stuff.

And stop taking your anger out on Netflix…that isn’t helping anything…

Internet Bi-Partisanship

By now, surely you have read and/or heard plenty about the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). These two bills were heading through the U.S. House and Senate (respectively) and seemed destined for passage as recently as last week, with the first votes coming up next week.

Also, as you probably know, a shutdown of Wikipedia, Reddit, and other popular websites (as well as a host of other “In Solidarity” messages on homepages across the web) managed to galvanize support against the bills that has never been seen before.  In a single day, Google.com collected over 7 million signatures on an online petition.  Rather than the English-version of the website, Wikipedia redirected you to a list of your Congressional representatives and senators so you could either phone or e-mail them (I sent e-mails to all of mine; heard back from two of them, so far).

I don’t want to belabor how bad the bills are (or now were).  They were pretty bad.  They were so vague as to allow for entire websites to be brought down, or at least to make it so cost-ineffective to host any interaction with users and consumers (for fear of copyrighted material being posted) that an entire industry of user-generated content would die.  I highly suggest you watch the video above if you want to understand the issue fully.  If you’re an internet user in any capacity, it’s an important 13 minutes for you to spend.

Mostly, I wanted to address how ridiculously cool it was to see the entire internet united, even if for only one day.  For that 24 hr period, this is all anyone was talking about across social networking.  For that 24 hr period, people were engaged in the politics of what was going on with an issue that applied to them directly.  For that 24 hr period, it didn’t matter if you were a Democrat or a Republican posting on some message board: both political parties supported the bills, and both party’s voters were against it.

For that 24 hr period, the internet and its users had more political power than the lobbyists from the motion picture industry and the music industry.  And that’s saying something.

We’ve seen something like this before, in the form of the Arab Spring nearly a year ago, where social networking and the internet helped spawn a revolution across the Arab world, in multiple countries, casting down dictators long thought to be invincible by their people.  Their citizens got organized, coalesced behind a belief that they could make a difference in their lives, and decided to take action.  And in some small way, the internet did the same thing for the people of the United States this week.

And I just think that’s kinda cool.

The Value of Content

I watched “Page One: Inside The New York Times” on Netflix Sunday.  It’s a documentary that focuses on the NYT as an institution in news reporting in the United States and the world, but also discusses the changing face of media (e.g. blogs, Twitter, etc.) and the ability of just about anyone to put out “unfiltered” news directly to the general public, as in the case of the WikiLeaks debacle from last year.  The documentary is pretty interesting, though I think they “bounced around” a bit more than I would prefer without any good transitions.

One of the recurring themes in the documentary was the battle currently being waged between “Old Media” and “New Media.”  For example, you can go to practically any news blog now for your news as many people do, but practically all of them just re-word and re-post the same information that was originally presented in the NYT.  Thus, the regular consumer of news gets their information for free without every having to visit the NYT website or pick up a paper, and therefore, the NYT never gets any ad revenue or subscriber fees from the reader.

Which leads to the central question of the documentary: how long will this be sustainable?  Or, re-worded, how long can the New York Times, and institutions like it, survive in a “digital world” using their traditional economic models?

I heard a related story on NPR last week talking about Amazon and Apple (but mostly Amazon) and how the European Union is investigating them for antitrust violations with regards to e-book prices on their respective stores.  These two companies essentially dictate to the publisher how much money they will sell their books (typically around $10), while the publishing companies used to be able to charge quite a bit more than that for a hardcover new release (let alone the fact that they set the price, not the distributor).

Now, in the case of the Times, I’m not really sure what the solution is.  They have already taken steps to increase revenue by charging for their website, and I think that’s helping.  At the very least, they’re making an attempt to survive the transition into digital media.  Likely, as tablets broaden their reach to consumers, they will be able to charge for their app, or access to stories, effectively turning tablets into digital NYT readers.  There is certainly money to be had if you produce a good app, and the NYT has a pretty decent one.  It’s unfortunate that a lot of people out there don’t understand where news comes from and that most of these blogs a). don’t actually investigate their own news (they just re-post it from other sources), and b). frequently have some kind of agenda, so it may not be as objective as it should be to be considered capital-J “Journalism.”  There is a value in actual news and people are willing to pay for it: the NYT just needs to figure out how to sustain the same standard of Journalism while operating under realistic expectations of what the public will pay for it.

In the case of book, movie, and music publishers, though, I think they need to adjust their model quickly.  For example, if one considers a new-release book at Barnes and Noble, it’s likely it would cost you $20 or more.  It simply doesn’t make sense to charge $20 for a digital copy (as publishers would love to do).  The same thing goes for movies: I’m not going to spend the Bluray price of a movie for the digital version.

Now, those full prices don’t typically occur for movies and books because of the digital systems that have grown up to deliver the content for you.  For a new movie like Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you’ll spend $22.99 for the Bluray and you’ll spend $14.99 for the digital version, so there’s some premium for the physical copy and some discount for the digital copy.  In video games, this typically isn’t the case, however.  When the newest Call of Duty game came out on PC, it was $60, regardless of whether you got a physical disc in a box or if you downloaded it.  With games, though, there has been something of a “relationship” developed between the publishers of games and the retailers (e.g. Gamestop, Wal-Mart, etc), where the publisher could offer a discount on a digital version, but in order to appease the brick-and-mortar retailer, they keep it the same price so you still may go into their store.

Ultimately, “Old Media” needs to realize that they can’t support the distribution systems that they used for the past few decades.  This is starting to happen with books, where locations like Borders went bankrupt because they couldn’t make the transition to a digital age.  Companies like Gamestop are starting to make the transition, offering a digital streaming service not unlike Netflix Instant.  Companies like Wal-Mart will probably just stop offering games and movies, eventually, but they’ll survive because they sell other things (among other reasons).

But the publishers still have much to worry about.  Their teams of editors, binders, layout people, and so on and so forth.  Teams of people that were needed in order to lay out print for publication or to set up distribution chains for each product.  Or that were needed to design the inside of game manuals.  Or to design the cases that your DVD or Bluray came in.  These are all things that just aren’t (as) necessary in a fully digital world.  You don’t need to worry about distribution when you can just sell it on the internet to everyone.  However, publishers are still trying to charge additional money on the digital side in order to support these folks on the physical side of their product.

Now, my solution to this problem is to increase the cost of the physical media and further decrease the cost of the digital one.  If there’s anything apps on the iPhone or Android have shown developers, it’s that selling your product for $1 means that you’ll sell to additional people, and you’ll make your money back on volume.  I mean, if you could just buy a new release movie for $5, would you do it? Would you even think about the purchase?  Would you care if you only watched it one time?  That’s cheaper than a single ticket to go see the movie in theaters.  If new movies, digitally distributed, without any special features were $5, I think they’d sell more.

But again, publishers should still hang on to their “physical media” production scheme, as there will still be people that want an actual Bluray disc.  And I definitely know that there will be people that want a physical book, rather than an e-reader form.  But wouldn’t more people buy books if they were $5 for a new one, rather than $20?  Sure, pay the premium if you want a nice, hardcover, bound, indestructible copy of a book for your collection, but don’t make people that just want to read the book help finance other people’s need for a physical copy.

There’s a somewhat longstanding psychological “principle” in gaming related to the $100 price point.  Once any gaming console hits $100, then many consumers won’t even think about the price.  It’ll become an impulse buy.  A similar phenomenon happened with the Wii when it released, and it cost $250.  But at that price, it was cheap enough as an impulse buy for many people just to play Wii Sports.

“Old Media” publishers need to find the “impulse buy” price for their products.  In the case of movies and books, I think $10 is a fair price to charge, but $5 is the “impulse buy” price.  Once publishers start selling their wares down there for a digital form, I think they’ll make their money back on volume, and only then will they survive.

Edit: I read this article from Slate today, discussing Amazon and its tactics that end up hurting brick and mortar bookstores.  I particularly liked this line:

But say you don’t care about local cultural experiences. Say you just care about books. Well, then it’s easy: The lower the price, the more books people will buy, and the more books people buy, the more they’ll read.


Who Needs Another Music Player?

Spotify just launched in the United States this week, yet another music player entering the digital ecosystem. This time, however, we get one that has been around for awhile in Europe, and quite popular.  In short, it’s an audio program that lets you stream millions of songs to your device, and has other functional features including Facebook integration to check out your friend’s playlists.  One of the key features is that it functions much like Apple’s iCloud will, scanning your personal MP3 library and “mirroring” it on their servers, allowing you to stream that same library to any computer without needing to carry the physical media around with you.  It will do the same thing with your mobile phone.  Spotify’s library is substantially larger than many of the others (Pandora has maybe 800,000 songs, while Spotify has 13 million available), and most reviewers simply think it provides the better service for the money.  You get about 20 hrs of listening time per month for free, $5/mo gets you no ads, and $10/mo gets you other features, including the ability to use the service on your mobile phone.

Digitaltrends has a good summary of the pros and cons of a few of the popular options.

Spotify is not alone in this venture, though it’s new to the U.S.  Grooveshark is another, alternative, web-based application with a mobile version, though I question its legality.  Like Spotify, it has a massive library, but it works a bit more like YouTube in that other users have uploaded music that you then stream to your computer or to your mobile device.  While Spotify has high-quality, licensed music, your experience is more “hit or miss” with Grooveshark, as some people may have uploaded high bitrate versions of music (i.e. good sounding) while others uploaded lower bitrate versions (i.e. very, very bad sounding).  Of course, Grooveshark is free, so most people don’t complain when the song selection is that good.  They also charge various amounts for their services above and beyond the base service, but it doesn’t sound like many people do.

Pandora is the main competitor that folks in the United States have at least heard of, if not used.  It’s much more of a radio system in that you select a station and then music will come up almost at random that you can then skip or “Thumbs Up” so that more music like it ends up in your station.  You have no real choice in what the next song played is, though, while you can make your own playlists in Spotify and Grooveshark.  Pandora also has a very nice mobile app and has been integrated into a wealth of home devices, including Bluray players.  Their only paid plan is $36/yr, removes all ads, and grants you higher sound quality.

For now, I’ll give Spotify a quick go-round, though I doubt I’ll get much use out of it.  The only computer in the house with good speakers attached is a Linux box, and as there is no native Linux client available, I can’t use it.  I will probably try their “preview release” for Linux – thankfully, Linux is more popular in Europe, so this company actually has an incentive to make a client.  Obviously, this is where its competitors, Grooveshark, Pandora, Google Music and Amazon MP3 shine, as they are almost completely multi-platform.

That said, the Spotify client under Windows is silky smooth, unlike iTunes.  It’s nice to see iTunes finally getting some viable competition (and no, Windows Media Player is not “competition”…).  It navigates similarly to iTunes, so if you’re familiar with its style of getting around your library and making playlists, you should feel right at home.

In the end, I’m glad there are plenty of options out there for your digital music needs.  Gone are the days where you would walk down to the record store and thumb through various discs until you found something interesting, then bought it for $20.  Now you can get your music in the comfort of your own home, or on-the-go, and it’s great that there are countless ways to do it effectively.

And legally.