Archive for February, 2011

2010: The Year the Old Music Industry Died

A few days ago this article made the rounds: music execs are stressed over free streaming (e.g. online radios, pandora), and streaming in general (e.g. the for-pay spotify, rdio, mog etc). They fear that this freeness or cheapness will generate even less profit for them. But isn’t this normal?

Funny thing is, until last year they put the blame for their failing business to piracy. Now, they blame streaming. But the truth lies elsewhere, a truth they’d prefer hidden.

The real headache for the big music business is not just piracy, streaming, lack of talent/innovation, or even the financial crisis. Yes, these factors had their toll, no doubt, but they are not the only catalysts for the decrease in revenue. The “problem” is also the fast emergence of the independent scene.

Independent musicians were around since forever, but the Internet, and the cheaper hardware & software in this past decade, brought them into the limelight, little by little. Now it’s possible to find thousands of legally free promo mp3s from these indie artists, get accustomed to their eclectic sound, and eventually get to a state of mind where you never want to have anything to do with the mainstream music ever again. Also, these decreased revenue numbers we get from RIAA are from a few labels only, while customers have moved over to true indie labels instead (e.g. even SubPop is not exactly indie anymore, being owned by Warner Bros, and being part of RIAA), and they often buy or freely download music from artists that are label-less.

To showcase how the indie scene took paying customers away from RIAA, let’s have a look at the Rolling Stone magazine’s reviews over the years. Magazines have their interest in reporting about music acts that people care about, so they’re a good benchmark in this research. Rolling Stone has posted online their music reviews from 1967 to date. The first album reviews for an indie band was just in the ’90s, for Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Pavement. They were pretty much the only indie bands that were reviewed on a timely basis, and the first two eventually went major anyway. The second true indie band reviewed later was Yo La Tengo, in 1998. The next ones were Shins and Neco Case in 2001. Interpol and Death Cab for Cutie in 2002. Cat Power and The Postal Service in 2003. Basically, acts from mostly Matador, or Subpop, and only far and between.

From that point on though numbers of indie reviews were going up every year, and around 2009, about 40% of all the reviews on Rolling Stone was for indie bands. Fast forward in early 2010, and that number is at around 60%. Fast forward at the end of 2010, and the beginning of 2011, and that number is close to 80%. It seems that the indie bands are taking over major-signed artists in the press at a logarithmic speed, and the curve of this surge feels more natural than just a pre-calculated editorial policy shift. Not to mention the explosion of indie mp3 blogs in the recent years too.

Sure, news gossiping is still about major pop stars, but that’s because nobody cares, or should care, about the personal lives of indie bands. Album review articles on the other hand, are targeted directly to serious consumers, people whose purchases are supposed to show up in these RIAA revenue spreadsheets. But they won’t, not anymore. The press is now directing new consumers towards indie acts — after the previous generation of consumers forced the press itself towards indie.

As for Arcade Fire winning “album of the year” at the Grammy’s, a first for an indie band? That was just the cherry on top of the cake.

Music does not die. The music industry does not die. It just has moved shift from the majors, to the indies. New, more broad spreadsheets are required to measure the success or failure of the music industry. Unfortunately, RIAA is using the same old methods to measure its revenue, presents it as the only truth, and speaks via its lobbyists to the Government still with authority — while it should have none anymore. The result from this head-on collision will be more terrible laws, trying to save an industry that should not exist anymore. Major record labels are not needed anymore. Recording and mixing is cheap nowadays, and advertisement can just be offloaded to third party PR companies.

These music execs who now complain are in the wrong business. Nothing would have saved them. There is not money to be made anymore in the same fashion they were working in the past. Some people say that if majors had embraced the Napster model things would have worked for them, but that’s not true. Big companies need lots of money to sustain themselves, and cheap products can’t sustain that lifestyle. Instead, full scale-back was needed, and for those companies this didn’t make sense, they should have dissolve, or sell, no later than 2008. The ones who remain, throw ash in our eyes with this “streaming is hurting us” bullshit, while from the other side they try to kill their true competition, the indie scene and Creative Commons.

You see, they’ve lost control. In the past, they would dictate to consumers to whom to listen to, by creating stars, and paying TV and radios to play their songs every hour. Without having a contract with them, you could never make it in the business. Now, they’ve lost that control. People are finding new bands on Pandora, music blogs, or Bandcamp, often downloading bedroom-made music for free. You can’t beat free. Plus, technology has helped putting an end to the read-only culture the majors nurtured in the last century.

The point is, indie is here to stay. Lady Gaga is the last major pop star of the old world.

POLL: Who or what would you save?

I asked the question on Twitter a few days ago, and none of my 860 followers replied. I won’t let off that easily.

So, let’s assume that our galaxy is imminently dying for some reason. From all intelligent species out there, only one has the capability of traveling beyond this galaxy. Before they leave this galaxy for good, they go from intelligently habitable planet to planet to ask the life forms there about what would they send along to save. They have limited cargo space, and they aren’t terribly good in biology (so frozen eggs and human gestation is out of the question). So, if you were some kind of World President, who or what would you sent along to save humanity, and why:

Pitchfork, shame on you

As my ancestors ancient Greeks used to say: “a lot of people hated wealth, but no one hated glory”. If money was not the ulterior motive for that review, then power surely was.

Pitchfork used their review for Millionyoung’s new album, “Replicants”, to kill chillwave. The same genre that Pitchfork itself popularized in 2009. This was not a review of Millionyoung’s music, but a death sentence for the whole genre. The only criticism they had for the music was that the singer can’t sing well. But you know, they gave a 7.6/10 on Millionyoung’s first EP, how did they not notice the singer back then? And besides, Diaz sings no better and no worse than your average hipster singer. Singing abilities were never a reason for Pitchfork to give an album just 3.8/10.

Pitchfork, which thrives as a business by calling the shots in the hipster underground music industry, gives thumbs up and down to whole genres now, not just bands. The more influence they have, the more money they make, the more self-important they feel. So much for “underground”. Even that is at the mercy of a corporation.

UPDATE: Reader Mike D asked for a list of my favorite chillwave songs, here they are. Linked downloads are legal, from Pitchfork and StereoGum.

1. Washed Out – “New Theory”
2. Memory Tapes – “Green Knight (Visions of Trees Remix)” (free download)
3. Wild Nothing – “Confirmation” (only this song from his whole repertoir is chillwave)
4. FiveNG – “Skin” (Bandcamp download)
5. Kisses – “Midnight Lover”
6. Washed Out – “Belong”
7. Beat Connection – “In the Water” (free download)
8. Washed Out – “Good Luck”
9. Teen Daze – “For Paulina” (free download)
10. Washed Out – “Feel it all Around”
11 Washed Out – “Hold Out”
12 BlackBird Blackbird – “Happy High”
13. Washed Out – “Lately”
14. Washed Out – “You and I (feat. Caroline Polachek)”
15. Memory Tapes – “Bicycle” (free download)
16. Washed Out – “Luck”
17. Neon Indian – “Deadbeat Summer” (free download)
18. BlackBird Blackbird – “Hawaii”
19. Neon Indian – “Terminally Chill”
20. Millionyoung – “Cynthia”

Runner Up: Brothertiger – “Wind at My Back” (Bandcamp download)

Toro y Moi is overrated IMO. I can’t find any hook in his music.

Update 2: More of this crap!

Apple’s in-app subscription rules are anti-competitive

And now Apple wants 30% cut of every subscription carried out through an iOS app. And apps are not allowed anymore to include a simple link to load a web browser page and let a new user subscribe through it either. In other words, if you need to sign-up new users, and your service is not free, you either have to have existing customers that don’t need to sign up, or pay Apple a 30% cut.

At first, this doesn’t sound that bad. I mean, apps can increase their prices so they can afford to pay up Apple. But there is a specific kind of app that it’s simply impractical to do that. See, there are some companies that serve their own content, and these can compensate. But there are other companies, who license the serving content, that can’t.

I’m talking about the music streaming subscription services, like MOG, RDIO, Rhapsody, Napster 2.0, Thumbplay, Spotify etc. And then there’s Netflix, Kindle too. These apps already pay a heavy price to RIAA or studios, so their margins are very small, in the already competitive market of entertainment. It’s very possible that these companies don’t make more than 10% per song streamed, maybe much less! And now Apple wants 30% off of a $10 subscription? How could these companies survive?

Increase prices from $10 to $15, you say? How are they gonna stay competitive when iTunes Streaming is coming this year for possibly no more than $10? Yes, it IS coming, it’s the natural evolution of the music market and gadgetry/networks. This is clearly anti-competitive, because Apple will be able to offer the same service for less, by squeezing the other guys out with mafia tricks. There are anti-trust issues, as WSJ noted.

AAPL, just like RIAA and MPAA (all the AAs, it seems), are dictators. And they all take decisions that only benefit their shareholders in the very short term. Because, I can tell you right here right now, that developers will be forced to give Apple the finger, and move to Android — even if they might not like Android as much as iOS.

Talk about Apple shooting its own foot. I think this great documentary, on Netflix Instant, asks the right question to corporations: “how much is enough money, where would you stop?” A highly recommended documentary.

Sometimes I keep thinking of Apple, particularly of Steve Jobs, and how he keeps making the same mistakes over and over. Mistake in the ’80s with the Mac clones and an open ecosystem, and exact same mistakes now. Some people never learn. Either that, or he finds the eventual minuscule market share, “cozy”.

How to shoot video with Canon HD digicams

Sometimes it feels lonely for myself and “Avene” Glenn being amongst the very few who suggest small Canon digicams over dSLRs or full camcorders. These small HD digicams, usually priced from $100 to $350, are more capable than most people think of them. But cheaper/smaller usually mean hardware and software compromises, and as such, they require more filmmaking skill than camcorders. But if price and mobility are important to you, there is a way to get a professional-enough look out of them for use with artistic videos (for family/travel/sports/random videos, get a camcorder). Here’s how:

1. Acquire the hardware mentioned here. At the very least you should buy an SDHC Class 6 card, a second battery, and a tripod. Also a filter tube (lens adapter), and a 37mm 0.9 ND filter if your camera is NOT the Canon S100. The filter tube I suggest on the link works with most Canon digicams, but not the SX-series (their big super-zoom lenses don’t fit in it). As for more camera suggestions, check here.

2. When you get the camera, press FUNC, and go to “Custom Colors” and then press the DISPLAY button. There, bring all the way down (towards the left) contrast, saturation, and sharpness (essentially achieving “flat colors”). Shooting flat helps with color grading in post processing, and achieves more dynamic range and detail. Leave the rest of the color settings as-is. In the main video menu, disable “digital zoom”, and enable the “Grid Lines” that will help you shoot straight.

3. Strap the camera to the filter/lens adapter/tube. If shooting outdoors during the day, or under very strong lights, use the ND filter. If shooting indoors, don’t use the ND filter. These small-sensor digicams usually shoot in unnaturally high shutter speeds outdoors, resulting in the footage feeling “choppy”, so the ND filter helps us control this effect. Alternatively to buying the suggested above 0.9 strength ND filter, you can buy a “variable strength” 37mm ND filter, that has many different strengths all-in-one, which will help you control the shutter speed easier (it’s more expensive though). The Canon S100 (2011 model) has its own built-in ND filter, so use that instead of a third party adapter/filter.

4. Set the camera on a tripod, and make sure the tripod is “leveled”. Don’t shoot handheld, it never comes out great, since the Canon digicams only have “dynamic IS” in video mode, not true image stabilization. Plus, the newest models use CMOS, so there’s gonna be rolling shutter artifacts if you don’t use any stabilization method. Here’s a nice tip on how to pan smoothly, as long as your tripod head is sold as “fluid”.

Canon SD780 IS with the Zeikos filter addon, the ND 0.9 filter, and a GorillaPod
Canon SD780 IS with the Zeikos filter addon, Tiffen ND 0.9 filter, and GorillaPod

5. Zoom-in all the way for digicams that have up to 5x zoom, or as much as your movie set allows you to. Don’t zoom fully with super-zoom cameras. The zooming will create some background blur, to make your picture more pleasing. With the help of the ND filter, which will force the aperture open, you might be able to achieve some nice shallow DoF, even with such small cams. Finally, setup the lighting (if outdoors, make sure the sun is on your back), and frame your subject at its final position.

6. Go to the camera’s “P” mode. This is important: press the RIGHT button and turn the camera’s flash OFF. Then press the UP button to go to the exposure compensation screen. IF outdoors or under strong lighting, move the exposure compensation one or two notches to the left, until you feel the camera stops over-exposing. If indoors, leave it as is (Canon digicams tend to over-expose only under strong lighting, their algorithm is better indoors). Half-press the shutter button. The shutter speed information will be on screen momentarily. If you’re shooting at 24p, make sure the shutter speed shows as 1/48th or 1/50th. If you’re shooting 30p, make sure the shutter speed is at 1/60th. Adjust ND filter strengths (you can buy strengths that measure 0.3, 0.6, and 0.9 etc and then stack them, or you can buy a single one that has variable strengths all-in-one), or adjust lighting conditions, until you get the desired shutter speed. If these values are not possible, a bit higher shutter speed is acceptable, but less is not (video will look like a soap opera at lower values). Please note that the above trick approximating shutter speed works ok-enough under a lot of light, but under low light the P mode and video mode are not in agreement.

7. Now go to movie mode. Half-press the shutter button, keep it half-pressed, and then with your other hand press the LEFT button until you get the AFL indication on your screen. Now your focus is locked, you can take your fingers away from the various buttons. If the camera focused on the wrong subject, unlock focus, then slightly turn your camera so that it frames the subject in the middle of the screen, and then attempt to lock focus again. When this is done, and with the focus locked, turn the camera again to re-frame the exact same way you did at the end of step #5.

8. Then press UP and set exposure compensation the same way as above. Make sure you leave the exposure compensation screen ON while shooting, because that’s how you “lock” exposure (if you press the UP button a second time it unlocks exposure, and it goes back to AUTO). For the SX-, S- or any other series that features a “wheel”, you can lock focus and exposure compensation independently from each other by going to “manual focus” mode.

9. Now press the shutter button to record your video! Don’t move or pan too fast. Make sure you don’t zoom-in and -out while recording. Not only this would screw up your exposure and focusing, but it will make your video look amateurish — or at best it would look like a ’70s B-movie.

10. When you’re done shooting all your clips, bring the footage on your video editor, set the right project properties (your project properties must match the properties of the source footage), edit (remember, as a rule of thumb, only 1/10 of what’s shot is good-enough to be used, so don’t be afraid to throw away lots of your footage), color grade (so the “flat” colors are not as flat anymore, but don’t over-do it with contrast), and export like this (at the right frame rate). FYI, Vimeo has better quality than YouTube in HD.

What to expect

Here’s a sample from Canon SX200 IS: 720/30p slow’ed down to 24p. Color graded.

And here’s a short clip, directly out of the small SD780 IS camera (no color grading, or re-encoding of the video). Best watched on TV, using a PS3, XBoX360 or a Roku XD|S. Right click to download it, 14 MB.

Finally, for comparison’s sake, here’s what you get instead when you’re shooting in full AUTO, handheld, with these small cams: Sample one, and sample two.

Notes:
- If you’re shooting music videos, you can either shoot in 24p, or shoot in 30p and then slow them down to 24p like this.
- If shooting art videos, like these ones, then you can get by with higher shutter speeds than the ones suggested above, if desired.
- Because of the small sensors in these cams, tell your actors to not wear all-white or all-black clothes. Dark/light gray, and all other colors are fine. Use the same logic for your background imagery too, unless specifically you’re after the “burned” look.
- Only shoot videos in full AUTO mode if you’re shooting a concert/gig, since lights change rapidly in such a set.
- More info: How to achieve the movie look, and general filmmaking tutorials.

Troglodytes

Since it became available on Netflix Instant, a lot of people ask on Twitter, “is Dogtooth how most Greek movies look like?”. The Oscar-nominated Greek movie “Dogtooth” has lots of fans, but also many haters — it’s a controversial movie. I personally love it.

So here’s another Greek movie, to clear the muddy water. It’s a short film, shot with a Canon HV40 and a 35mm adapter. One of the best Canon HV films in my opinion.

Which 24p camera to buy?

Disclaimer: Nobody is sponsoring this article in any way. I suggest Canons just because they offer the most control and features in terms of video than any other manufacturer.

These are my suggestions about artistic videos (experimental video art, music videos, short films). Not about random family/travel/sports videos.

- Price scale 1, $110: Canon A1200. 720/24p, 21 mbps, AA battery-powered. Get this if you can’t afford another camera. Video sample.

- Price scale 2, $200: Canon ELPH 100 HS. 1080/24p, 720/30p, 38 mbps, small cam. Get this if you’re after a tiny camera. Update 3: Avoid the 100 HS or 300 HS, they apparently don’t have lock exposure in video mode! Get the SX220 or SX230 instead for $300.

- Price scale 3, $300: Canon ELPH 500 HS. 1080/24p, 720/30p, 38 mbps, large display, fast lens. While its sensor is not as big as the S95′s, overall it’s a better camera for video. Update 4: Avoid the 500 HS, it apparently doesn’t lock exposure in video mode! Get the S100 instead for $400.

- Price scale 4, $800: Canon T3i dSLR. 1080/24p/30p, 720/60p, 48 mbps, swivel display, audio levels. If you can, get this one. But don’t forget the cost of lenses too.

I did not include any camcorder between scale 3 and 4 because none of them at that price range shoots in true 24p, but in PF24, which is a hassle to deal with. If you don’t mind spending hours removing pulldown, then there are plenty of camcorders to choose from, but personally I wouldn’t mess with PF24 again even if my life was dependent on it.

Update: Here’s a video off of the ELPH 300 HS (beware, it’s without any exposure compensation/locking, or “flat” colors taken into account, so most of it is over-exposed). If you pay close attention, you will see the rolling shutter on these new CMOS Canon sensors. Still, if you’re careful how you shoot, you can get great results out of these small cams.

Update 2: This and this are the best Canon S95 videos I’ve seen so far. Too bad that more people don’t use their small HD digicams in the same way — vast majority of digicam videos out there are just handheld crap.

New Canon HD cameras — an analysis

Today Canon announced 6 new HD cameras: four P&S digicams, and two dSLRs. These are the dSLR T3i (upgrade from the popular T2i), a new low-end dSLR called T3, the ELPH 500 HS, the SX230 HS (upgrade from the SX210 IS), the ELPH 100 HS (upgrade from the SD1400 IS), and the ELPH 300 HS (upgrade for the much-reported in this blog, SD780 IS).

The digicams

Canon shows more initiative on their new digicam lines than they do on their dSLR ones regarding video. All four new digicams now support 1080/24p, and 720/30p. And the bitrates are great for a digicam, compared to any other digicam or digirecorder manufacturer: 38 mbps for 1080p, and 26 mbps for 720p (all VBR it seems). Only major hardware change compared to the previous lineup of these Canon models is that they now use CMOS instead of CCD (same 1/2.3″ sensor size though). Lens-wise, the ELPH 500 HS is the most interesting, with a fast f2.0 lens, which will probably offer the most background blur from the bunch. The ELPH SX230 HS has the most zoom, at 14x.

All four models come with a miniature mode in 720p (a popular look on Vimeo these days), and ultra-slow motion up to 240 fps at VGA/QVGA low resolutions. The SX230 HS and the ELPH 500 HS come with an additional mode, the Apple-mandated iFrame, which is 720/30p at 40 mbps. While the iFrame bitrate is higher than the 26 mbps found on the “standard” mode of 720p, the encoder is not as well tuned, so overall expect the same quality as in the standard 720p mode. The iFrame h.264 format is easier to decode, so it helps out with Quicktime-based video editors (e.g. iMovie, FCE), but it consumes more storage. It’s a give and take thing.

All the other features expected in these Canon digicams (exposure compensation and lock, film-like custom flat color settings, focus lock, custom white balance) are there. Only feature really missing is 25p support for our PAL friends. [Update: Avoid the 500 HS, it doesn't lock exposure in video mode!] Also, one thing I would have liked to see is slow-motion 480p support. Right now they offer 120 fps at 640×480. These cameras are capable of 848×480 at 60 fps without a problem though (1280*720px * 30fps = 27648000, which needs more computation than 848*480px * 60fps = 24422400). It would be nice to have that, it feels kind of unnaturally left out.

The HDSLRs

Hmm…

Well, I’m not as happy with the dSLRs… The T3i only has a single “honest” new video feature compared to the T2i: the swivel screen. The “video burst” thingie and the digital zoom are a joke for any serious videographer. Insulting if I may say so. Still no full HDMI-out while recording, and still no audio levels (Update: it seems there are audio levels in T3i, and a 3.5mm input mini-jack). Instead of adding serious features they added toys. Basically, if you already own a T2i, don’t consider an upgrade. It doesn’t worth it. The T3i is only worth it for people who don’t have an HDSLR yet, and were on the edge of buying a T2i but they were still not sure if their wife would approve. For these people the T3i is the extra push they needed to buy an HDSLR. But for the rest of us, existing costumers, it should be seen more like a marketing ploy rather than a solid evolutionary step in the video dSLR universe.

I have even fewer good things to say about the T3 model, which is the bare bones version of the T3i. It only does 720 at 30p and 25p (no 24p), and it has NO manual control whatsoever (I hope it supports exposure compensation and locking though). I mean, look. You wouldn’t want them to give away all the video features to a low-end model either, so it doesn’t eat up their higher range of products. I understand that. But not offering some shutter speed control at least, not offering 24p, AND only go up to 720p (when even a $180 Canon point & shoot digicam now does 1080p), makes it a BIG, FAT, JOKE.

Stay the hell away from the T3. It doesn’t worth it even if you’re shooting video “just a little”. Unless Canon offers a firmware upgrade with 1080/24p support (or at the very least 720/24p), and maybe shutter speed control, don’t touch it.

A second look at Babylon 5

The first time I watched Babylon 5 was in the ’90s. I didn’t particularly like it back then. The first season was so bad, that I didn’t really bother myself seriously with most of its episodes. This last month I decided to actually re-watch it on streaming Netflix, and this time to actually pay attention, to try and figure out what the hype is all about.

So, the first season is as terrible as I remember it. Even more terrible than I remember it, I’d say. It has aged really bad tech-wise, the dialog is horrendous (its creator, JMS, was its only writer too, he wouldn’t let anyone else help with dialog), the audio feels like it was recorded by a kid on its karaoke machine, and the episodic premise is boring. There are a few “setup” scenes, but overall, the first season and part of the second season are without salvation. The fans usually blame the show’s low budget, but for me it’s the horrendous monologues & dialog.

The show only picks up at the end of the second season. It has a mostly tremendous third season, and an “good enough” fourth season. It’s fifth season was completely unnecessary, since all the major plots are resolved at the end of the 4th season. Make no mistake, the dialog, audio, and technology remain pretty bad throughout the series. But the CGI get better with each season, and the plot becomes highly serialized, with the highest point in the series being exactly in the middle: Season 3, Episode 10.

What makes Babylon 5 great is its serialized plotting and themes: the coming of age of entire species, the political games played, how media and public opinion is manipulated, how information is king, citizen privacy, how dictatorships rise, etc. These themes appear throughout the series, and shine in some episodes so much that make Babylon 5 one of the best sci-fi TV shows of all time. It’s social commentary at its best. The show is definitely better than its nemesis, Deep Space 9, but in my opinion the technical/filmmaking details stop the show short from making it timeless. Unfortunately, they matter too.

Personally I would like to see a remake/re-imagining of Babylon 5. Just three seasons, 18 episodes each (Feb-May). Make the aliens more alien, rather than humans in weird costumes. Inter-weave the various plots: Shadows, alliance, dictatorship, telepaths, Mars, plus new ones, like the military angle, and the role of corporations. Get to the point: first season starts with the various conspiracies and setup, second season sees the first battles, dictatorship rising and taking hold, declaration of independence, Centauri occupying Narn, and third season sees the Shadow war won in the first 1/3 of the season, with the rest of the items resolving by the end of that season. No episodes about Babylon 5 twenty years in the future, no humans 1 million years in the future bullshit, no Lorien and “coming back from the dead” crap, not so much religion and excellency on Minbari. Instead, make the alien worlds more believable, more brutal, and don’t make everyone so hard-cut good or bad. Make technology more believable too: we see people in Babylon 5 reading normal newspapers, while even today we know this isn’t going to be for much longer. Bring in some robots and paper/implant/holo displays too. I mean, that’s 2261 we’re talking about, make it look like it.

And for God’s sake, let someone else read the script before you give it out to your actors.