In Case You Missed It
Boulderganic Fall 2009
Student Guide 2009
Boulder Weekly Sweet 16 Anniversary
Summer Scene 2009
Best of Boulder 2009
Annual Manual 2009
Newspaper of the Future
Kids Camp Guide 2009
Wedding Marketplace 09
Student Guide 2008
Best of Boulder 2008
Annual Manual 2008
Join Our Mailing List
|January 1-7, 2009
The Burning Question
What do an invisible gorilla and the death of the music industry have in common?
by Dale Bridges
In 1999, two psychologists named Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris conducted a Harvard University study to test the limits of human perception. They created a video that showed six young men and women standing in a small circle passing a basketball back and forth between them. Three of the players wore white T-shirts and three wore black T-shirts. The activity lasted for approximately 75 seconds. At a certain point in the video, a person dressed in a gorilla costume walked slowly into the middle of the scene, turned to face the camera, pounded their chest, and then walked slowly off screen. In total, the faux gorilla was on camera for about 9 seconds. Simons and Chabris then brought in groups of random test subjects. They instructed the subjects to watch the video carefully and try to count the number of passes made by the players in white T-shirts. They did not mention the gorilla. Shockingly, more than 50 percent of the test subjects were so focused on counting the passes that they failed to see the person in the gorilla costume. Later, when they replayed the video for the test subjects, some of them gasped out loud when the large, hairy primate appeared on the screen — others accused the researchers of somehow switching the videos.
Of course, Simons and Chabris did not tamper with the equipment. The video was the same; it was the viewers’ focus that had changed.
Similar experiences have been recorded in places far away from Ivy League laboratories. Somewhere in Kansas, a teenager hits a deer with an S.U.V. while driving down a flat, country road on a clear day. Later, the teenager swears to the police that he was concentrating intensely on his driving, and yet, he never saw the large, four-legged animal in front of him. Is he lying? No, he was simply focusing so hard on the road that he couldn’t see the deer. Pilots have described comparable incidents while attempting to land airplanes. Magicians make their living by purposefully constructing these types of visual misdirections.
The phenomenon is called “inattentional blindness,” and it has created quite a stir in the academic community.*
(See: Gorillas in Our Midst) Experts don’t know if it represents a failure in perception or limitations in memory (more like inattentional amnesia), but the effects are undeniable. “At some level, I think every serious person in psychology has always believed that we don’t consciously perceive everything that happens to us,” said Chabris in an interview with Monitor on Psychology magazine. “The shocking thing was that you could show that so little is being perceived.”
* * *
Coincidentally, in the same year, just down the road from where Simons and Chabris were conducting their experiments, a 19-year-old college student named Shawn Fanning was bored to tears. He didn’t feel challenged by the classes he was taking at Northeastern University in Boston and preferred to spend his time at home, chatting with friends on the Internet and listening to heavy metal music. Fanning was an audiophile and a computer whiz, and he dreamed of combining his love of music with his knowledge of circuit boards. He teamed up with a gregarious, young geek named Sean Parker and together they perfected a software program that allowed Internet users to share compressed music files called MP3s. Fanning’s uncle happened to be a somewhat-incompetent but ambitious entrepreneur, and he helped his nephew launch an online business. They called it Napster, which was Fanning’s childhood nickname because of his unkempt, nappy hair. As their logo, they chose a sassy, blue cartoon cat wearing a large pair of headphones.
What happened next has become pop-culture legend. When the music industry discovered what Napster was doing, they completely freaked out. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world were suddenly file sharing songs — for free. It was a nightmare for record labels and distributors. Attorneys soon came knocking on Fanning’s door. A nasty legal battle ensued, which eventually ended with Napster being closed down by the courts in 2001.
But it was too late. The sassy, blue cat was out of the bag. Music lovers across the country had already begun to share their favorite songs, and new websites were spreading across cyberspace like herpes on a Guns N’ Roses tour. Law-enforcement officers and lawyers tried to put a stop to the problem by shutting down hackers and confiscating computers, but they were always about five steps behind the action. Musicians like Lars Ulrich of Metallica even began suing their own fans in an effort to protect their artistic property. But that was like using a Band-Aid to repair a crack in the Hoover Dam. The crack just kept getting bigger.
The music industry had a problem. A large, hairy gorilla had just walked into their basketball game and started pounding its chest. Would they be able to see it as the opportunity it was, or would they be blinded by inattention?
* * *
Of course, there is no direct provable connection between the biological/psychological phenomenon of inattentional blindness and the cultural/financial collapse of the music industry, but the metaphor is clear: When people focus too intently on one thing, they often overlook something else — something big.
As we all know, the industry missed its chance to capture the gorilla. They shut down Napster, but they couldn’t hold back the floodgates of file sharing and CD burning that followed. Album sales plummeted. In the media, Shawn Fanning was portrayed as a modern-day Robin Hood, while label executives and even musicians were seen as greedy Sheriffs of Nottingham. It was a surreal juxtaposition for an industry that built its reputation on sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Suddenly, rock stars were on the side of the establishment and the counterculture was being manufactured by teenage nerds who were fluent in binary code.
How could the music industry fail to see the obvious benefits of a revolutionary business model like Napster? This might be the most important question for the American entertainment industry so far in the 21st century. Currently, television networks, radio stations, newspapers, movie studios, advertising agencies and book publishers are struggling to keep up with new technology that gives artists and customers unprecedented control over how they consume their products. Why watch commercials when you can record your favorite programs with TiVo and skip over the advertisements? Why give your money to a record label or a publicity agency when you can market your album for free on MySpace and sell it on CD Baby? Many corporations are simply too large and bloated to change quickly enough in this fast-paced environment. Instead of trying to stay ahead of the technology and use it to their advantage, they are attempting to slow everything down. This is a tactic that’s doomed to failure.
At the moment, the music industry is in a state of confusion. Mainstream radio stations don’t know how to reach the market, corporate record labels don’t know how to promote musicians, and retailers don’t know how to sell music. The entire process of how we create and consume art is being reinvented. If you are the type of person who cares passionately about the future of music in America, this is one of the most exciting and frightening decades in modern history.
* * *
In some ways, this all goes back to that old adage: Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” said Denver music writer Steve Knopper, while sitting in his office surrounded by approximately two bajillion records, cassettes and compact discs. “This isn’t the first time the music industry has gotten itself into big trouble, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.”
Knopper is a good-humored, energetic man in his late thirties who looks exactly like a successful pop-culture journalist in this day and age is supposed to look: normal. He’s not a blustering, mustachioed blowhard like Lester Bangs or a cranky eccentric like Robert Christgau. He’s just a guy who likes music. A lot. Knopper dresses casually and writes casually, and when I dropped by his house for an interview, we had a very casual conversation about the last four decades of music.
Knopper is a Rolling Stone contributing editor and a regular freelance writer for Esquire, Wired and Entertainment Weekly. (He’s also the keyboard player in a local band called Propane Daises, which he describes as “alt-garagicana,” whatever the hell that means.) Knopper started his career as a music journalist at Boulder’s own Daily Camera, and then worked his way up the ladder, until eventually he was slinging semantics for some of the most respected magazines in the world.** (See: Hulk Hands) In his new book, Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age (Free Press, $26.00), he gives one of the most comprehensive and in-depth accounts to date of the catastrophic failure of the music industry.
The story starts in 1979 with the sudden death of disco at the hands of an over-zealous disc jockey in Chicago named Steve Dahl. As a publicity stunt, Dahl announced on air that baseball fans would be allowed into Comiskey Park for just 98 cents to watch a White Sox/Tigers double-header if they brought a disco record with them. The plan was to burn the records. Dahl and his radio station expected maybe a few thousand anti-disco listeners to respond. Instead, more than 60,000 people showed up wearing Zeppelin T-shirts and carrying Bee Gees albums. They stormed the gates and created a giant, ahem, disco inferno in center field. The national media got a hold of the event, and suddenly, disco suffered a Pee-Wee-Herman-caught-masturbating-in-public type of humiliation that it never recovered from.
At the time, disco was the bread and butter of the music industry. It was a crippling financial blow even for media giants like CBS Records and Epic Records, and investors began to panic.
According to Knopper, two iconographic entities emerged at this time to save the industry: Michael Jackson and compact discs.
With Thriller, Knopper writes, “Michael Jackson effectively replaced disco by absorbing the dying genre into his own brand of dance music. Steve Dahl’s Chicago demolition-turned-riot may have killed disco commercially, but the fans were still alive — and Jackson was a master of providing the slinky rhythms to warm their hearts.”
But the transition from records to CDs wasn’t so smooth. “Almost everyone in the music industry fought against compact discs when they first came out,” said Knopper. “Producers, executives, distributors… even a lot of musicians. They hated it.”
And with good reason. Adopting the CD format meant changing the way everything was done in the industry, from recording to manufacturing to packaging the damn things. Visionary Arista Records founder Clive Davis wasn’t keen on CDs; artists such as Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac and the Cars wanted nothing to do with the new technology; and there was even an organization called MAD (Musicians Against Digital, not to be confused with the angry maternal prohibitionists Mothers Against Drunk Driving).
But in the end, the industry came around for one very good reason: money. There was so much more cash to be made in CDs that it was foolish not to jump ship. Compact discs were relatively easy to produce, and they took up almost no shelf space. Records and cassette tapes sold for a mere $8.98 apiece, but customers were willing to pay almost twice that amount for a CD.
Furthermore, since the record labels only paid the artists 6 cents more per album (yes, you heard correctly — 6 cents!), that meant the music moguls were pocketing almost 8 bucks more for every CD sold than they had with records and cassettes. Further-furthermore, people were so excited about the quality of digital sound that not only were they buying new music, they were also repurchasing all the albums they already owned.
In the 1980s and ’90s, music revenues increased by billions of dollars, and the industry got hooked on CDs the same way a junkie gets hooked on smack. They just couldn’t imagine life without those shiny, lucrative little discs.
But there was one problem.
“They started neglecting their customers,” said Knoppler. “CD prices rose to about seventeen dollars, and they never came back down. They weren’t producing any singles, so if you heard a song you liked on the radio, you had to buy the whole CD just to own that one song… and half the time it was the only good song on the album.”
By the time Napster finally arrived on the scene, it was viewed as a godsend by young, music-loving college students who couldn’t afford to throw away their tuition money on the Tag Team album just to play “Whoomp! (There It Is)” at frat parties. But the industry was so focused on counting its CD money that it failed to see the gorilla pounding its chest right in front of them.
* * *
Over the past five years, the music industry has gotten used to the idea that MP3s and file-sharing technology is here to stay, but during that time, the rest of the world has moved on without them. Independent artists have figured out how to market and sell their music on their own through the Internet; established groups like the Eagles have cut out the middle man and signed exclusive distribution deals with Wal-Mart; international cult phenomenon Radiohead made a big splash by inviting fans to log onto their website and pay whatever they wanted to download their latest album; and Steve Jobs cornered a huge chunk of the digital music market with his iPod.
On the local level, independent artists are experiencing something of a renaissance akin to the wild and crazy music explosion that occurred in the 1950s and ’60s. Sit down and listen to the rough, scratchy recordings of Robert Johnson sometime, or the early, raw music of bands like the Ramones and Joy Division. That’s the kind of authenticity and enthusiasm that we might see again in the next decade. Unknown musicians can now record songs with ProTools, build a fan base on Facebook, and start selling music without ever talking to an agent or signing a contract.
The Front Range has been a hot bed of musical talent for half a century, but local artists have always struggled to make a living from their craft, especially if they don’t conform to the Top-10 radio formula (i.e. catchy instrumental rifts, over-dramatic vocals, a chorus that compares love to something idiotic, such as stars that are yellow).
Big Head Todd and the Monsters is a perfect example of a Boulder group that has experienced success on both local and national levels over the years. The band members started playing together as teenagers at Columbine High School in the early ’80s, and then continued on through college, becoming a popular live act and drawing interest from major record labels. In the ’90s, Giant Records signed them to a contract, and they scored an international hit with the song “Bitter Sweet” off of their platinum album, Sister Sweetly.
But the band soon ran into problems with their label. Giant wanted to sugarcoat the music and turn their lead singer, Todd Park Mohr, into a cheesy glamour boy. The band resisted. Eventually Giant closed, releasing Big Head Todd from their contract, and the band settled down with a smaller record label called Sanctuary.*** (See: Localize It)
According to drummer Brian Nevin, Big Head Todd couldn’t be happier about the current state of the music industry. “We’re really lucky,” said Nevin in a phone interview. “We just happen to be at the perfect point in our career right now. We have a big enough name to draw attention from the general public, but we have enough independence to make the music we want and be very creative with it.”
Nevin believes the market is ripe for smart, hard-working bands who are more interested in the music than the money. “That’s the key right there. I think it’s probably more difficult to become a superstar the way the market is right now, but a lot of smaller bands are going to be able to make a living in this environment. You just have to be creative and a little adventurous.”
Knopper agrees. “When I covered local bands for the Daily Camera, pretty much the only thing they could do for exposure (other than flyers on posts, etc.) was call people like me and beg for press. Obviously now they can use MySpace, YouTube, lots of other DIY techniques. It’s more important than ever for them to be aggressive and creative with marketing.”
However, while the options are wide open for indie musicians, local businesses are not in such a proactive position. Less than a decade ago, there were nearly a dozen independent retailers in Boulder County that specialized in music. Wax Trax, Cheapo Discs, Second Spin and Disc Jockey are just a few of the stores that have closed down because they couldn’t make ends meet. These were places where you could smell the vinyl when you walked in the door, and the sales clerks would take a swing at anyone who mentioned Britney Spears.
Today, aside from corporate necrophiliacs like Borders, Target and Wal-Mart, there are only two sizeable record stores still in business: Albums on the Hill and Bart’s CD Cellar. Both establishments are run by innovative, hard-working businessmen who are incredibly knowledgeable about music, but they’re stuck in financial limbo. No one is purchasing physical music right now, and since the industry has failed to deliver a system for selling downloads in a retail setting, revenues are in freefall.
In the end, the collapse of the music industry will probably be a blessing for a majority of musicians who are willing to work hard and try new things, but independent music salons are in trouble. We can’t wait for the industry to pull a rabbit it out of its hat this time. If we want to keep these small sanctuaries where music fanatics can gather together outside of the banal Internet chat rooms, we need to help our local retailers stay afloat until this whole mess blows over. Otherwise, we’re going to lose the physical human connection behind the music. And if that’s gone, what’s the goddamn point of it all?
The gorilla is pounding its chest once again. Let’s make sure we all pay attention this time.
Gorillas in Our Midst
*The term “inattentional blindness” was coined in 1992 by psychologists Arien Mack and Irvin Rock and was the title of a book published by Rock in 1998. In one of their early experiments, Mack and Rock showed test subjects a picture of a small cross on a computer screen and asked them to judge which arm of the cross was longer. While the test subjects were concentrating on the cross, an object such as a triangle or a circle would appear on the screen. Many of the test subjects didn’t see the new shape even though it was large and in plain view.
Simons and Chabris picked up on the experiment and took it to a new level with the dude in the gorilla suit. Some psychologists are now testing to see if inattentional blindness is consistent or if it varies from person to person. Currently, Mack and her colleagues are studying the role of attention on hearing and touch. According to Monitor on Psychology, the evidence suggests that inattentional blindness is “part of a more general sensory phenomenon,” which is really creepy when you think about it.
To view an example of the “Gorillas in Our Midst” video, go to viscog.beckman.uiuc.edu/flashmovie/15.php.
**While I was interviewing Knopper, my eyes kept drifting to the top of a nearby bookshelf, where there were two giant, green fists just sitting there for no apparent reason. They were a pair of those Incredible Hulk hands that you sometimes see at toy stores. When you put them on and punch them together, they say things like, “Hulk smash!” Knopper has a 6-year-old daughter named Rose (possibly named after the iconoclastic lead singer of GNR, but that’s only conjecture), but the Hulk hands were not hers. In fact, they seemed to be purposefully placed in a spot that was too high for Rose to reach. Toward the end of the interview, I asked Knopper if he would be willing to write a retrospective about the time he spent covering the Boulder music scene. He complied. I also asked if I could take a photo of him wearing the Hulk hands. I didn’t have to ask twice. To read the retrospective titled "No Regrets," go to "Overtones."
***Big Head Todd and the Monsters will perform on Jan. 2 and 3 at the Belly Up, 50 S. Galena St., Aspen, 970-544-9800. Purchase their music at your local, indie music store.
Albums on the Hill, 1128 13th St., Boulder, 303-447-0159.
Bart’s CD Cellar, 1015 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-447-8150.
On the Bill:
Steve Knopper will discuss his book, Appetite for Self-Destruction, at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 6 at the Tattered Cover, 2526 E. Colfax, Denver, 303-322-7727, and at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 8, at the Boulder Book Store, 1107 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-447-2074.
back to top