Saturday, April 30, 2011

Comment America

A few days ago, when I opened my morning newspaper (or executed the digital equivalent thereof), the first thing I saw was the face of a guy (Bob Murray) I went to high school with. I haven't talked to him in person in over 15 years, but I friended him on Facebook a few years back. I've enjoyed reading his humorous status updates since then, and so when a year ago he posted "I'm thinking of making a movie called Date America where I would take a cab across America and go on dates with women that I meet on-line" (or something to that effect) I thought it was another joke. It turns out he was serious. And now as he embarks on the journey this week, the local media is paying attention....and so is the local peanut gallery.

It would be too easy to write a blog post every week taking issue with the comments section of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, or any other newspaper for that matter. But the comments that accompanied this article were different than the standard, in that rather than directing venom and vitriol against public figures or the news media, the target was a guy who simply decided to do something harmless but a little bit out of the ordinary (okay, a lot out of the ordinary). A sample of some of the backlash:

This method will result in an ex-wife. This is not how you find a spouse. What happened to meeting someone in college, or introduced by friends, or through work, at the library or the grocery store? Now it's either the Internet or some type of reality show, apparently. Weird.

this guy is a d-bag. How about meeting someone through friends like normal people?

Ugly dude is hurting for attention. Look at me, I'm taking a taxi looking for dates! Yippee, I hope I get on TV! Instead of doing this, please go see a DENTIST or go over to the UK, you'll be a big hit

Now, I can see why some people would turned off from the idea of dating a guy who wants to make a movie out of the experience. But nobody is asking these commentators to be a part of it. Why do they feel the need to express such contempt? Part of it may be the inevitable reaction to living in a changing world. Any time you start a sentence with "What happened to..." I see that as code for "I'm not comfortable that things aren't like they used to be." If only the Internet had been around, I'm guessing that an ancestor of the above commentator may have written: "This method will result in an ex-wife. This is not how you find a spouse. What happened to having your spouse picked out for you by your parents? Now it's either furtive notes and glances or some elaborate courtship. Weird."

And in fairness, there is something to be said about the potential problems of living in a world where everybody is clamoring for a media spotlight. But is that really what is going on here? Bob's lead quotation in the article is "I love adventure." I suppose you don't need to take him at face value, but this would indicate to me that if he finds love, gets media attention, or makes money from the project he's not going to be unhappy, but what this is really about is shaking things up and doing something different for the sake of doing something different (perhaps this theory can be further confirmed by the opening lines of the promotional video he's made).

And gas prices and recent economic conditions notwithstanding, we live in a time when it is perhaps easier than ever before in history to get out on the road and seek adventure (especially if you are single). The Internet has permitted us to strike a balance between the potential spontaneity of the classic American road trip (or going further back, the romanticism of a knight errant) and the safety and structure of being able to plan ahead and communicate with others. And rather than Kerouac having to spill his memoirs onto a 120-foot-long scroll, you can now easily document your adventures in real time for anyone who might be interested. So it seems that Bob is tapping into the archetypal and the contemporary all at once.

But why does that make people angry? Actually, I think another on-line commentator is onto something:

"All of the negativity speaks volumes about how people have difficulty seeing others get attention for their efforts. Taking potshots in the comments section is a cheap way to "get into the paper," as opposed to Bob, who has apparently spent a great deal of time and effort on this idea."

Even as we live in a time when it is easier than ever to embrace adventure, it is now also equally easy to recoil from it, to retreat to our screens and shy away from real contact with others. But when we see that someone else has become invigorated rather than enervated by technology, it may awaken a stirring within us. It's too bad that for so many the stirrings take the form of jealousy and anger rather than inspiration.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

How to Dress Up Empty Seats

A road trip the Milwaukee Brewers recently completed is causing me to re-evaluate a blog post I wrote last fall. At the time, I commented that there had been a generational shift, that at one time even the most popular entertainers couldn't sell out venues, but television united millions, whereas now television ratings are in decline and the live experience is at a premium.

I still don't foresee a time when a Super Bowl will ever fail to sell out, the NCAA Final Four will continue to be played in domes with tens of thousands of attendees, and the most popular music acts (which today would be the likes of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga) will continue to sell out venues within minutes. And, yes, Charlie Sheen's tour continues to fill houses. But beyond the very top level, the demand for the live experience seems to be declining.

In back-to-back series that the Brewers played in Pittsburgh and Washington, a viewer couldn't help but notice the gaping sections of empty seats. In one game in Washington it was surreal seeing a grand total of two people in the section behind home plate. And neither Pittsburgh or Washington is mentioned in this article, which details eight teams setting record lows or near-record lows in attendance at their stadiums in the last couple of weeks. Also not mentioned is Baltimore; I watched a half inning of an Oriole game (with sparse attendance) this week and the announcers spent the entire time not talking about the game, but about how great of a baseball city Baltimore used to be. Meanwhile, concert attendance over the last decade has plummeted, particularly among the youngest demographic. And then there is the NBA, which in contrast to the NFL, has opened their books to the players' union, indicating that many franchises are not financially healthy, in large part because of empty seats.

There are probably a number of factors at work here: the economy obviously hasn't been robust lately, and this year's baseball attendance in particular may already be affected by gas prices. Television ratings for any one program or event may not be what they used to be, but the experience of staying home and watching TV, now in hi-def and on-demand, is perhaps more popular than it ever was. (And some argue that baseball teams don't even care that much about attendance anymore, since cable TV revenue streams are where the real money is at). And there are just flat out more distractions than there used to be. A lot of people would apparently rather stare at their phone than sit and watch a baseball game unfolding in front of them. Meanwhile, ticket prices still reflect a time when there were limited sources of entertainment, when demand was higher for diversionary events.

So what can or should promoters do? If they were smart, they would follow innovative ideas coming out of Milwaukee. Several years ago, when the Brewers were terrible, there was a section in Miller Park that was almost always completely empty. One of the TV announcers at the time, Daron Sutton, with a flair of theatricality, confronted the Brewers president on the air, suggesting that they should designate the section once a week as the "Buckethead Brigade" (both Sutton and partner Bill Schroeder had above average hat sizes), selling the tickets at a greatly reduced price, including free T-shirts, and making it a community. The plan was implemented, and every week the section was full of cheering fans in yellow shirts, making as much noise as the rest of the stadium combined.

And this scenario has played out similarly at Milwaukee Bucks games the last couple years. Bucks center Andrew Bogut has bought out an entire section of the Bradley Center, and given tickets away for free to fans who promise to come and act crazy. The result is that even as last year the team's lack of success led to a decline in attendance, there was always a little bit of a home court advantage, with a rabid section (known as "Squad 6" after Bogut's jersey number) of standing, cheering, flag-waving, chanting fans.

But why stop at one section? If you can get good revenues from premium seats, suites, concessions, souveniers, and possibly parking, do you have to try to squeeze additional revenue from every seat in a venue? In an era where creating buzz and generating excitement is at the top of most marketer's agendas, isn't it more advantageous to cultivate a frantic fanbase rather than an affluent but staid fanbase? And if television is the all-important revenue stream, wouldn't you want to project for the TV cameras an air of excitement rather than empty seats?

As for the music industry, I do think it shares something in common with sports. Just as teams benefit from instilling loyalty in their customers, musicians benefit from building brand loyalty. But rather than view concerts as an attempt to exploit the loyalty, perhaps they can be used to build it. Concerts were originally conceived of as promotional vehicles for a band rather than money-making endeavors themselves, and maybe now we have come full circle. Promoters can still sell premium tickets (maybe even lucrative VIP backstage tickets), but perhaps by dropping some prices to bargain basement levels, they will stand to increase in the long run. And they also may want to look into this invention called television. With 3D and surround-sound technology, a concert experience in the home can rival the in-person experience. Charging a five dollar pay-per-view and getting an audience of one million would seem to be more lucrative than charging eighty dollars per ticket and getting an audience of ten thousand, both in the short and the long term.

And who knows? Maybe if live events once again become all the rage, people will turn off their TVs, promoters can begin to slowly raise prices, and we can start this cycle all over again.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Free Passes

Details are fuzzy after a couple of decades, but at one point in my childhood I remember a family friend telling a joke. I responded as I had been trained to do by my elementary school peers: "That's so funny I forgot to laugh." Later, I was reprimanded by my parents for this comment. And this made me feel terrible--I was not at all trying to be disrespectful. I thought that this was legitimately how one responded to an attempt at humor. Young children have a hard time being disingenuous, so the concept of a fake laugh was not in my arsenal, and I knew enough that to stare back in a mute pose was not acceptable, so I responded with what I thought was an acceptable attempt at continuing the repartee. To have this rug pulled out from under me, to find that I had violated a social convention and was now guilty of causing offense, was defeating. And that was one of many instances in my childhood in which I felt remorse for how I handled a social contact with an adult.

But in hindsight, I feel no remorse at all. I was a kid! As an adult, I now know that you shouldn't have any expectations for a sociable response from a kid. If the guy who told me that joke a couple decades ago actually was offended, it was his own fault. He should have told a better joke. But should I have also gotten a free pass from my parents? Should they have reprimanded me?

I thought about the concept of a "free pass" while reading an article about the oldest man in the world, who just passed away (and I hope I am not violating any social conventions by noting that this is probably a fairly regular occurrence). A reporter apparently had the opportunity to conduct an interview with this man, Walter Breauning (who died at the age of 114) fairly recently, and Breauning was lucid enough to give an account of his entire life, as well as his reactions to world events that covered over a century. The article starts with Breauning expressing dismay that his grandfather told stories of killing Southerners in the Civil War, and it ends with Breauning complaining about American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But in between that tidy narrative of the life of a peace-loving old man, we get this doozy of a paragraph about World War II: "The man who otherwise preached kindness and service to others acknowledged that he had mixed feelings about the war and the Nazis. He expressed some sympathy toward Hitler."

Although the article is heavy with direct quotations, there are notably none here. The author quickly moves on to getting Breauning's thoughts about Truman and the decision to bomb Japan (he was in favor). Now, for literally almost anybody else in the world, an admission of "sympathy toward Hitler" would become the central focus of a news profile. And for almost anybody else in the world it would result in judgment and condemnation. The late Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott was suspended from ownership for two years mostly for her comment that Hitler "was good at the beginning."

But obviously, this incident illustrates that if we advance far enough in age, at some point the standards are again lowered, and we once again allow a certain degree of transgression against "acceptable" beliefs and behavior. But I wonder if we extend this license beyond the young and the old. Obviously, the comments and actions of people with developmental disabilities are viewed more permissively than fully functioning adults. And I've got to think that class is a factor as well: there are likely instances where those of a privileged status are reluctant to "call out" those who, because of an underprivileged background, may not have learned the same manners and propriety standards as the more privileged.

But this does raise some troubling implications. At what point does the lack of condemnation become oppressive in its own right? If I had never had a parent tell me that it is unacceptable to say "That's so funny I forgot to laugh?" in certain social situations, and I was still doing it as an adult, would there be anyone to tell me I was violating social conventions? Is it right to just let people figure these things out for themselves, or should there be some mechanism whereby violators can be at least informed of society's folkways and expectations? It's one thing to give people free passes, but it's quite another to pretend to give free passes and still administer a hidden charge.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

A Crash, Crash, Crash

Last month, Foo Fighters released a video for their new single "Rope." In less than 30 days, it has amassed 1.2 million views on Youtube. That is almost exactly one million more views than Stone Temple Pilots' "Big Bang Baby" video, released 15 years ago (but to be fair, uploaded to Youtube 18 months ago). Set side-by-side, the similarity between these two videos is striking. They both feature numerous close ups of the band playing in front of an all-white background. But upon closer inspection, it is not just time that separates these two productions--they indicate fundamental differences in the eras that spawned them.

Music fans speak wistfully about a time when MTV showed music videos. But I think this lament has actually been going on longer than the total time MTV actually showed videos. By the time "Big Bang Baby" came out, MTV had already moved on. It was a moot point for me, though. Growing up without cable (and certainly without Youtube), my exposure to this video came, weirdly, through an NBC program that aired videos on late Friday nights. My brother Tim had enough foresight to capture the "Big Bang Baby" episode on VHS videotape, which we proceeded to watch regularly in the spring of 1996. Neither one of us could clearly articulate the appeal of it, but Tim came up with the description that the performers "looked like humans." What he was recognizing, of course, was that the highly stylized, big budget entertainment that we were used to had been replaced by an intentionally lo-fi production resembling the "home movies" that were produced on VHS camcorders of the 1990s. But being teen-agers in 1996, we didn't have the term "lo-fi" in our vocabulary. That would be added to our consciousness around five years later, when it became a trend in the re-emergence of "garage rock." So were STP proto-neo-garage rockers?

(Embedding of the video has been disabled, but here is the link)

Insomuch as the garage bands were rehashing what came before, STP was way ahead of the curve. Watching this video in the context of today, a narrative of nostalgia is much more apparent to me then it was then. Even before the video starts, the SMPTE color bars suggest a pre-cable milieu. Scott Weiland's neon pants suggest the 1980s, but his posturing is reminiscent of David Bowie in the 1970s (while his interplay with guitarist Dean DeLeo brings to mind Steven Tyler and Joe Perry). Going farther back, when Robert DeLeo steps up and shares the mic with Weiland, we have a Beatles on Ed Sullivan moment. Meanwhile, drummer Eric Kretz is wearing a shirt that he may have borrowed from the Beach Boys:

And then there are the special effects in the video: the over-the-top lips at :20 somewhat characteristic of 1970s camp, the spinning spiral at :59 that looks like it came out of a Scooby Doo cartoon, the psychedelic stars at 1:47, and of course the Brady Bunch sequence at 2:42--all are evocative in their own right, but taken together they form layers of association. Toss in moments of Led Zeppelin TV smashing, gorillas in Hawaiian shirts, and money being thrown around, and you end up having all the imagistic elements associated with music videos of that era--but they stand out all the more for the white background. And we haven't even discussed the song itself--riffs borrowed from punk and glam rock along with a chorus overtly ripped off from the Rolling Stones, the total package is just packed with historical signifiers. (Addendum: Wikipedia has an unsourced claim that the band was influenced by Tony Basil's "Hey Mickey," another white-background music video).

But when a production is packed with history, what does that portend for the future? Foo Fighters were around and making videos at the same time as "Big Bang Baby" came out, and have proven to be one of the most resilient bands of their era. Perhaps it can be speculated that Dave Grohl has steadfastly attempted to make his band ahistorical. I once saw an interview in which he had insightfully compared Foo Fighters to Wings. Once you have already been in a band that has not only made history but has been enshrined in the pantheon of rock innovators, all you can do from there is just put your head down and record straight-forward, unpretentious, melodic songs that sound good live.

And that's pretty much what they've done for nearly twenty years now. They consistently churn out catchy, radio friendly hit songs. But if someone has never heard a Foo Fighters song before, you could play them five hits from five different years and they would have very little chance of identifying what song came from what year. And that brings us up to today, with the song and video for "Rope":

But whereas the white background of "Big Bang Baby" proved to be symbolic of the concept of "presence", in which multiple images and ideas could be mapped, Foo Fighters background is one of absence. There are no signifiers. We are now several years removed from the rise of retrograde garage rock, and we've reached a predictable epoch. Once nostalgia has run its course, what comes next isn't a renaissance, it's simply a blank canvas upon which nothing is projected.

But a curious thing does happen at 2:51 of the Foo Fighters video. We get a fake fadeout (a bit of a rock cliche), and then the rest of the video is the background superimposed with flashes of every color of the spectrum. The band becomes shadows, and the strobe effect dominates, before a final shot establishing that the band was in a box the whole time. Fifteen years ago, Scott Weiland sang "We used to see in color/but now it's only black and white/because the world is colorblind." Of course, television progressed from black and white to color, but the implication is that as the medium advanced, our ability to filter our reality regressed. (The opening line "I've got a picture of a photograph" also establishes that we layer one representation on another). But in the end, the Stone Temple Pilots are content in letting the viewers fill in their own color, whereas Foo Fighters try on one after another, frantically pleading for some color to enliven their reality (even as it obscures them in the process). Unfortunately, the strobe flickers and they are left with a little bang, baby.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Charlie Sheen, CEOs, and Gigli

Domestically, the biggest news stories of 2011 have a common link. Whether you are talking about the Wisconsin budget bill, the NFL work stoppage, or even the Charlie Sheen meltdown, there is a core issue of labor-- how much workers are worth. I somehow have managed to avoid having an economics class post-high school, and other than a few "Dismal Science" columns on-line and the Freakonomics books, I haven't done much to educate myself. But since I have a self-imposed mandate to write about something every week, I'll venture into a realm of unfamiliarity.

I assume that the only two categories that people are compensated for producing are goods or services. And I would guess that the former category is simpler in assigning value. Markets will determine how much value your good has, and the more people that buy your good, the more money you will get.

But of course, the production, distribution, and promotion of goods usually involve an added labor cost, and services are necessary to be rendered. And services are harder to gauge. I'm sure economists would argue that markets are also created to determine the value of services, but it seems that these markets are more easily influenced by artificial and often arbitrary value judgments.

And I'm sure many would argue that the compensation of professional athletes fits this description. Fans would be ill-advised to sit in the bleachers of a Major League Baseball game and play a drinking game based on how many comments they hear made about player salaries (in no small part because the price of that particular good in ballparks is artificially inflated, but that's the topic of another blog). And I have actually heard people cite player salaries as a reason that they don't follow professional sports. But it seems to me that the market for athletes is much fairer than those for other highly compensated professions.

There is a good number of adult males in the state of Wisconsin who can play the game of baseball with some degree of skill. And when many people say, "I would play Major League Baseball for free," I don't think they are lying. If the Milwaukee Brewers wanted to save a lot of money in the short term, they could raid the rosters of the Rock River League and I have no doubt they would find a full complement of players who would sign for the Major League minimum...and if every other team kept their payroll and roster in-tact, the Brewers would finish with a historically bad record. And eventually people would quit paying money to come to games (even if ticket prices were slashed to bargain basement levels). So I think there is a case to be made that professional athletes comprise a cohort of legitimately elite performers, and as long as there is a demand for elite performances, the market seems fair.

On the other hand, I'm not so certain about Charlie Sheen and his cohort. We all can agree that just like there are bad professional baseball players (who tend not to last long as baseball players), there is such a thing as bad actors. And there must be good actors, of which Charlie Sheen is apparently one of them. But we just don't have the empirical measuring sticks for actors that we do with athletes. The closest we have is box office performance or TV ratings. But I'm not convinced that we couldn't pull the best couple of actors out of any small town community theater in America, put them in the lead roles of a sitcom like Two and a Half Men, and have the show fare any worse than it does with known name actors. As Chuck Klosterman asked recently on Bill Simmons' podcast: "Is Two and a Half Men a hit because Charlie Sheen is popular, or is Two and a Half Men a hit because TV is popular?" And even with the advantage of name recognition, is there any actor or actress that can guarantee a positive financial delivery for a film? In 2003, the name "Bennifer" dominated popular culture, but Gigli delivered about $7 million on a $54 million budget. You could have plucked out the worst actors out of a community theater presentation and they could have matched that performance.

Entertainers tend to get attention for their salaries, but it's possible to make an eight-figure income without being a household name. Michael White sounds like the guy who sat next to you in social studies class, and he very well might have--before becoming CEO of DirecTV, which paid him almost $33 million in total compensation last year. I doubt he's related to Miles White, CEO of drug company Abbott Laboratories, who took home a modest by comparison $20 million. But they both pale in comparison to Viacom's Philippe Dauman, who pocketed a cool $84.5 million.

Just like there are baseball players and actors in every hamlet and burg in America, there are CEOs everywhere. Of course, most of them operate businesses substantially less complex than Fortune 500 companies. I would surmise that most corporate decision makers would argue that the market for CEOs is like that of baseball players, that to just give the job to any old Joe would be a competitive disaster. But then again the corporate world has seen its share of Giglis over the last few years.