I never thought I would become a member of the Taylor Swift Fan Club, but I am.
The pop diva took on Apple, the world’s biggest corporation, and won.
For a quick recap, Apple decided it would not compensate artists for a three-month trial of its new streaming music service. Apple didn’t say it would eat the cost. It passed the burden on to the people supplying the content.
Any freelance writer or other creative person should know what this feel like, even if they’re not in a band or a pop star. Content so often is supposed to be free.
I’ve seen social events that paid DJs nice sums for standing in front of a laptop and clicking buttons but expects schooled musicians playing live music to work for free. And the event planners don’t see anything wrong with that.
Taylor had another opinion, and she voiced it in an open letter to Apple. She withdrew a new album from the service—not because she can’t shoulder the financial burden of no royalties but because it disproportionately impacts new artists who really do need every dollar. “We don’t ask you for free iPhones,” she said. “Please don’t ask us to provide you with our music for no compensation.”
It worked. In less than a day, Apple reversed itself. Well, what it actually said was it hadn’t really planned on stiffing artists after all, it was just going to pay them more later and that would make up any difference. Right.
This is hardly unique to Apple. A while ago McDonalds was the recipient of ire when it refused to pay for music at a major event. As is typical in situations like these, they say the “exposure” is worth more than hard cash. Try that one on your landlord.
While I’m indifferent to her teeny-bop music, I’m glad someone of Swift’s magnitude is calling attention to what’s becoming a very common assumption: that creative people—unless they’re megastars—should give away their efforts for nothing or very little. From Amazon’s unfair deals for authors to various publishing house ebook controversies, the much-ballyhooed “creative class” is largely getting the short end of the deal, while people who bring little to the table but control the pipes make rules that benefit only them. Taylor Swift brought that to the national consciousness yesterday, and despite petty carping from a few quarters most people are praising her actions. Keep shaking, baby.
According to Wired magazine, back in 2009 the typewriter belonging to Cormac McCarthy, an Olivetti Lettera 32, was put up for auction at Christie’s. The machine had been in his care for 46 years. He bought it used for fifty bucks from a pawn shop in Knoxville, Tennessee. He estimates he has typed five million words on it. Maintenance, he says, consisted of blowing dust out of the keys with an air hose.
I thought of this the other day while I was waiting for one of my computers to download the latest “system updates.” Sixteen of them. Two-thirds of an hour later, it was done. For now.
Sure the operating system says you can work while it’s doing its tasks. But the updates slow the machine down, especially if you’re in a public place that doesn’t have the swiftest wifi. And after you finish, it pesters you to restart, meaning you have to save and close everything. If you opt to restart “later”…well, let’s just say those programmers at Microsoft have a strange definition of the word later. Every few minutes it asks you again, interrupting whatever task you’re trying to complete, over and over, until finally you say, “$%!@#^?&!!,” give in, save everything, shut down, reboot, and stare into space for the next five minutes while all the new updates, which will be out of date in exactly one week, apply themselves…
…Only to be told that the anti-viral software now needs updating.
So now that chugs away in the background, slowing things down again. Meanwhile there’s a word processor fix that’s waiting for me. And RealPlayer or some other video app needs attention as well—I don’t know what they change on those things exactly, except that each time there’s always some video that used to play fine but which no longer does, without any increase in functionality that I can see. I grab a coffee while all this is happening, but the deluge of new stuff causes the computer to freeze, requiring another reboot. That interrupted the security update, which must now begin over…
An hour later, the machine has been rebooted twice, all sorts of new code is installed, and I’m staring at a blank screen that should be filled with words by now.
Mission not accomplished!
This is what I think about when I sit there watching my computer’s maintenance: I wonder how long it takes to blow dust out of keys?
Sure computers have made the writing process fast and easier. I can now make corrections on the fly, and White Out and ribbons with chalky correction strips are a thing of the distant past. (Good riddance.)
Still, we have not made as much progress as we think. We’ve given back a lot too. Autonomy, for example. Today, our machines tell us when they’re ready. We don’t tell them when to work.
Granted, if you have a Mac—and I actually do most of my writing on an iMac—it’s not as bad. Their updates are far less frequent, they aren’t always scaring you with “security breaches,” and when their machines do update, they tend to do it more unobtrusively. Microsoft is brilliant at flooding your screen with reminders of how hard it’s working. Apple figured out a long time ago that that stuff should be in the background, because the end-user doesn’t care.
But even my relationship with Apple hasn’t been friction-free. My current iMac is on its second hard disk, second fan, second graphics card, and third RAM card. The machine is four years old.
It’s informative to note that so many authors—particularly our most prolific ones—still use typewriters, and darned rickety ones at that. Woody Allen bangs out all his scripts on his very first machine, which is missing only the top that covers the spools. He says he’s never had a down day. Some pawn shop and antique store dealers claim the old manuals are making a comeback. Perhaps from writers who’ve gotten a few maintenance bills from the Apple store.
By the way, McCarthy wasn’t getting rid of the ol’ Olivetti to move up to a computer. No, a friend had just bought him another used Olivetti—for eleven bucks.
Two seemingly unrelated things caught my attention this week.
The first: a couple of old commercials from Apple. Younger folk may not remember these ads from 20 or so years ago, which emphasized doing creative things and making the world a better place. The Power To Be Your Best was their tag line then. Yeah, I know it’s just a slogan created by advertisers—those cynical, martini-guzzling lizards—but there was a time, not long ago, when computers were seen—especially by Apple—as devices to unleash your creativity and nourish your better angels:
…Even if sometimes Apple’s approach was a bit good-naturedly tongue-in-cheek:
Now our electronic devices are being sold as extensions of our egos, toys to take pictures of our feet and our lunches and our vacations, and post updates about what inane things we’re doing every 30 seconds.
Basically, there’s been a seismic shift in the last decade or so in the way we see computers and what we see ourselves doing with them, a change from idealism to narcissism. And I haven’t seen anyone comment on or even acknowledge it.
The second thing was a speech this past weekend at the Edinburgh Writers Conference delivered by Dr. Ma Thida, Burmese writer imprisoned for more than five years by strict censorship rules. She spoke about the need for literature if society is to remain free. “Publishing is not always related to freedom,” she says:
In my own country, we had the Press Scrutiny Board for nearly five decades. This censorshipboard prohibited the publication of some literature. In the early 1980s, it took from one to two years to get permission to publish a novel. Even with permission, there would be much editing. Sometimes writers decided not to publish because of immense and nonsensical editing by the censorship board.
The vital link between literature and freedom may have once been self-evident, back in the days of those Apple ads. Today the thinking is more that our life’s avocations are merely self-gratifications and literature and other “liberal arts” pursuits are masturbatory activities. The words of David Coleman, president of the U.S. College Board (those people who bring you the SATs) rang through my ears: “Forgive me for saying this so bluntly. The only problem with a [personal narrative] writing is, as you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give [expletive] about what you feel or what you think.” If he thinks this is what one does in a humanities class, I wonder if he’s ever taken one.
Mr. Coleman wants to see the study of literature and other mamby-pamby liberal arts pursuits diluted (to use a polite word) from the newfangled Core College Curriculum. Students, he says with a straight face, should be learning “practical” skills, reading programming manuals instead of silly Steinbeck. All the better to generate those nifty apps we can buy for 99 cents from Apple—today’s Apple, which seems more concerned with giving you the ability to check when your favorite multiplex is playing a movie than empowering you to be your best.
Investors and owners didn’t want editors who were willing to test tolerance or censorship, or take the costly and time-consuming risk of reprinting manuscripts. Some editors refrained from accepting any work which might be censored heavily. As no definitive rules were set out by the censorship board, it was sometimes hard to predict what might be censored or not.
My overall point is that not only are freedom and literature intertwined, but that not long ago the new wave of computers (personal computers) were at least partly tools in the pursuit of the humanities. Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, was the ultimate sixties beatnik, who cited calligraphy as the most influential class he took in college and who read Dylan Thomas and listened to Bob Dylan and studied art and trekked to India. He spoke highly of those liberal arts “weirdos.” Remember the opening line to Apple’s famous comeback commercial that kicked off its “Think Different” campaign: Here’s to the crazy ones… Whatever happened to that kind of talk?
Parting thought: something I’d love to ask Dr. Coleman, if I ever met him: if literature is so useless, why is it the first people imprisoned when dictators take power are writers and artists?
Something to think about on this day of freedom in the U.S.A.
You can read Dr. Thida’s entire Edinburgh speech here.
Two articles this morning came together for me in an interesting way. It shows how in the age of diminished awareness of what we call for want of a better word “The Humanities” coupled with a tech obsession, we are very filled with wisdom in some areas and not so much in others. (For an example how little the Humanities are respected today, just read this recent Forbes story calling for the abolition of its teaching.)
The first article was sent by my friend Susan Gabriel. It’s about how today’s readers—and writers!—are basically ignoring literature of the past. They don’t look to what we call “the classics” for guidance, but rather read today’s pot-boilers. So many readers—and writers!—seem to think novels without tight plots and lots of action and snappy dialogue, what used to be called novels of ideas, are boring, wordy, irrelevant for our fast-paced society. No one wants to slog through The Scarlet Letter anymore. So yesterday.
It’s hardly a new argument. Give the people what they want. When George Lucas screened a first cut of Return of the Jedi, Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams, died in the end, as the Millennium Falcon didn’t make it out of the Death Star before the explosion. That’s the reason for all that foreshadowing talk earlier involving Han Solo—Bring ‘er back without a scratch and I have a funny feeling I’m never gonna see ‘er again.
The ended didn’t test well, so Lucas redid it, having Lando make it out in the nick of time with a big Yeeeehah!
Okay, on to the second article I read this morning.
It’s about the man at left, Steve Jobs. It calls him one of the greatest entrepreneurs of our time.
It would be hard to argue with that assessment. Jobs seemed to be able to anticipate our tastes. Under his guidance, Apple created products that flew off the shelves and changed the way we live. But what really struck me about that article was this statement:
Perhaps the most astonishing fact about Jobs was his view that market research and focus groups only limited your ability to innovate. Asked how much research was done to guide Apple when he introduced the iPad, Jobs famously quipped, “None. It isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want. It’s hard for [consumers] to tell you what they want when they’ve never seen anything remotely like it.”
This struck me hard because for so long (forever?) the assumption has always been reversed. In the arts and literature, people didn’t know what was good for them. You didn’t tailor art to order. The character Frederick in Woody Allen’s Hannah And Her Sisters, played by Max von Sydow, barked, “I don’t sell my work by the yard!” when a young rock star asked for a custom creation for his cool new loft. Commerce got tailored to people’s expectations. Art didn’t. And that was considered The Way It Should Be. Now, from Facebook to Apple, companies are coming forth with innovations that people have no idea they want until they get them.
There’s a lesson to be learned there. People don’t always know themselves best. In fact, quite often they know themselves least. They should keep an open mind.
Which is great, except it’s not being applied to “the Humanities” (There’s that term again!) as it used to be. Here, in the hustle for bucks, everyone is more than happy to create “art” to order, fan fiction being just the latest incarnation.
There’s nothing wrong with this to an extent. But know what you’re getting—artistic fast food, Mickey Dee’s for the soul. No one knew the world needed Roman Polanski’s brutal and shocking noir classic Chinatown—until he made it. The film that’s now usually ranked as No. 3 or No. 4 on movie lists sent people angrily out of the theater at the premiere, where they hated hated hated the ending! (This includes the film’s screenwriter, Robert Towne, though he later admitted he had been wrong to diss Polanski’s switcheroo.) When director Matthew Vaughn made another noir thriller, Layer Cake, the suits forced him to film a conventional happy ending, certain it’s what the audience wanted. For the premiere, Vaughn slipped in the scene he really wanted, and it polled off the charts, forcing the studio to change its mind.
Yes, sometimes people don’t know what they want. Steve Jobs is so right. We should remember his words the next time we’re considering that commercial, easy book vs. the more unconventional, possibly thorny one. I didn’t know I liked raw fish either, until I bit into my first piece.
By the way, I don’t take the study from the chair of the Dartmouth’s Mathematics Department all that seriously on its own, and I’d have liked to hear from some contemporary authors themselves on this argument (and I don’t mean James Patterson and E.L. James), but I still think there’s truth in what they’re getting about. Whether it’s music or art or literature or comedy or TV programs, we are surprisingly ignorant about the past, even the recent past. Everything that’s old is new again. And vice-versa.
For another take on the Dartmouth study, read this.