That’s the way you do it: Copy for nothin’ and critics for free.

February 2, 2009

Over at Popmatters (for whom I’ve written concert reviews, artist interviews and CD reviews), Rob Horning has written a thoughtful column about the very 21st century transactional phenomenon that Popmatters thrives on: writers who’ll give away their work for free in the interest of personal brand-building. Horning cites a recent business week article by Stephen Baker that describes the efforts of entrepreneurs to harness the power of people willing to work for little more than a byline and whatever status comes with a good-sized Google footprint. Baker writes:

“Beyond brand-hungry strivers, masses of free laborers continue to toil without ever seeing a payday, or even angling for one. Many find compensation in currencies that predate the market economy. These include winning praise from peers, earning an exalted place within a community, scoring thrills from winning, and finding satisfaction in helping others. But how to monetize all that energy? From universities to the computer labs of Internet giants, researchers are working to decode motivations, and to perfect the art of enlisting volunteers”

Maybe even more interesting is Horning’s commentary on an article by David Hadju in the Columbian Journalism Review, in which Hadju laments the “weird and totally unwarranted authority” earned by amateur criticism in the Internet age, calling it “one of the baleful consequences of the democratization of expression by the Web.”

Sounds like sour grapes on the part of an old media stalwart, and Horning argues as much. It would behoove him to do so, seeing how he represents a web site that doesn’t pay its writers. As for me, I quit writing for Popmatters shortly after I got my first paying journalism job, but went back to it about six months ago — not for status or any shifty self-branding agenda, but simply because I really  like writing about music, and figure I might as well publish it in a place where it’ll find a wider audience than here at my low-traffic blog. But when a review of mine does run at Popmatters, you can bet I link to it here. And this makes me think that I — and probably a lot of other Gen X (and Y) writers — have self-branding and self-promotion hardwired into our writerly DNA. We do it not so much because we have designs on success, but because it’s just what one does in the 21st century if he wants to make a living as a media professional. It’s hard out there for a copy hustler. But if Horning’s future-looking final paragragh is at all prescient, that might change as consumers of online copy start shying away from amateur content:

“[A]s more outlets for uncompensated content creation proliferate on the Web— and social networks being the most conspicuous ones right now—the perception that it’s all hobby writing and/or self-branding online will become even more entrenched. Sites may have to go more explicitly capitalist—pay writers, collect subscriptions, feature advertising, etc.—to ensure that they are regarded as “professional” and worthy of being read by people who otherwise limit their consumption of amateur copy to those they have friended.”

Anyone who writes for a living would be lying if he said he didn’t hope this was true. And he would be being equally mendacious (or just plain delusional) if he didn’t admit that he doesn’t think things’ll go down like that.

Change you can click on.

January 20, 2009

Fast Company notes that the Obama Administration didn’t even wait until the body was cold (reptilian, only-technically-alive ex-Vice President Dick Cheney being an exception) to replace the old White House web site (traditional, austere, boring) with a new one (multimedia-driven, color-rich and even includes a blog). See screen-caps of the two sites below:





Of course a president’s merit isn’t be measured by the quality of his online presence. But the tone the Obama administration has set with the new site is a welcome change from the beaurocratic, distant and officious feeling of Bush’s site. If nothing else, it’s a hell of a good start.

[Update: Slate just published a nice little tour/analysis of the site that’s worth checking out.]

Cover your cyber-tracks.

January 14, 2009

I recently started writing a weekly Work & Money column for the Indianapolis newsweekly/social networking web site The most recent installment includes a conversation with the bright folks over at Firebelly Digital. This week’s topic: Why job-seekers need to monitor their online presence.

Masters of the web site.

January 13, 2009

No, they’re not joking.

(Thanks to bnferguson for the tweet.)

Marketing folks jizz in their pants over Whopper Sacrifice.

January 13, 2009

burger_king_whopperBurger King won the enthusiastic admiration of countless creative directors when it launched Whopper Sacrifice last week. Already widely acknowledged as the king (if you don’t mind) of irreverent marketing and advertising (e.g. the Subservient Chicken and the Creepy King), BK hit the jackpot with this clever little Facebook app.

Like most smart interactive marketing gambits, Whopper Sacrifice is simple in its elegance. Users just install it, choose 10 of their Facebook friends to de-friend (or “sacrifice”) and sit back and wait for a free Whopper coupon to arrive in the mail (unless they’re Canadian, in which case they’re screwed.)

It’s a deliciously prankish little game. And it further contributes to Burger King’s status as the rule-breaking smart-ass in the fast food market — an enviable position when your target audience is largely young and male.

Whopper Sacrifice hasn’t come without a price, though. First off, no matter how “cool” the whole shebang might seem to most people, nobody hates a slick, successful online marketing campaign more than young computer hacks. Attempts to hack Whopper Sacrifice have so far been unsucessful. But don’t count ’em out yet. Also, users are finding creative ways to cheat the system. In a particularly pathetic case, this young woman posted a Craigslist ad to recruit new “friends” for the express purpose of de-friending them so she can get her free Whopper without actually offending any of her real online friends.

Really, though, all this attention is exactly what BK wanted. And now matter what you think about them, it’s refreshing to see a big company willing to do the daring stuff their marketing agency (the It boys at Crispin Porter + Bogusky) designs for them. As for me, I won’t be deleting any friends. But that’s because Whoppers are like Boone’s Farm and clove cigarettes. If you’re over 30, you probably know better.

Emusic > iTunes.

January 7, 2009

Remember Napster? Weren’t those the days?

Oh to be young, innocent and free to download MP3s with guilt-free abandon. It seems strange now that we once tolerated such slow download times, but goddamn, it felt good when that status bar hit 100 percent. I introduced myself to an incredible amount of new music thanks to that free, easy and magical service. And when it no longer availed itself to me, I moved on to the next best thing. Audio Galaxy was no slouch, and beyond the spyware it installed on my PC, I had few complaints about Kazaa.

Isn’t it strange that each of these services still exist?

I was thinking about this today as I read about Apple’s upcoming new pricing system for iTunes MP3s. Instead of 99 cents across the board, they’ll be available for 69 cents (older, not so popular songs), $1.29 (the latest big hits) and 99 cents (everything else).

That’s all well and good — but who even buys music from iTunes? I don’t know anyone. Scratch that — my friend Brad does, and the reason I just remembered that is because he loaded a bunch of his iTunes acquisitions onto my hard drive, which (annoyingly) I couldn’t upload to my system due to anti-copy restrictions set by Apple. But that’s something else the company is doing away with in a move the New York Times says will “help shape the future of the online music business.”

Anyway, my friend Brad uses iTunes. But by and large, my friends who download music from the Internet either get it for free or buy it from Emusic.

Personally, I prefer the latter. Oh, I justified the free downloading thing for awhile — “We live in a post-modern consumer society” “The musician hardly sees any of the profits from sales anyway” “If I like it, I’ll buy the album and spread popularity of the artist by word-of-mouth” — but then I started writing about music as part of my day job and learned that nearly every musician would far prefer you pay for his music than steal it. In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So I buy music from Emusic. And I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a new way to legally acquire music online. The price is very reasonable — with a starter plan of $11.99 for 30 downloads a month, it sure beats iTunes — and it has an incredibly interesting and eclectic selection. While you’ll often have trouble finding some of the more commercially successful stuff (I’ve most recently been disappointed to find no Thin Lizzy or ELO), Emusic more than makes up for it with a lot of genuinely obscure, awesome albums. Every month, I use at least half of my downloads on artists entirely new to me, and over time I’ve added a number of truly bizarre and beautiful songs to my collection. Like, for example, this Christian garage rocker by ’60s oddities The New Creation: