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Thursday, January 7, 2010

Cory Doctorow: Close Enough for Rock 'n' Roll

I once gave a (now-notorious) talk at Microsoft Research about Digital Rights Management ( where I said, in part, "New media don't succeed because they're like the old media, only better: they succeed because they're worse than the old media at the stuff the old media is good at, and better at the stuff the old media are bad at."

I'd like to take that subject up with you today. Specifically, I'd like to examine it in light of the ancient principle of "Close enough for rock 'n' roll," and all that that entails.

What, exactly, does "close enough for rock 'n' roll" mean? Does it mean that rock 'n' roll isn't very good, so it doesn't matter if the details are a little fuzzy? I say no. I say that "close enough for rock 'n' roll" means: "Rock 'n' roll's virtue is in its exuberance and its accessibility to would-be performers. If you want to play rock 'n' roll, you don't need to gather up a full orchestra and teach them all to read sheet music, drill them with a conductor and set them loose in a vaulted hall. Instead, you can gather two or three friends, teach them to play a I-IV-V progression in 4/4 time, and make some fantastic noise."

Rock 'n' roll has two important virtues relative to orchestral music:

1. It costs a lot less to make, and so it costs less to make experimental mistakes

2. More people can participate in it, and can bring more experimental ideas to the field (see 1)

On the other hand, it lacks a lot of the important virtues of orchestral music: the sheer majesty of all that tightly coordinated virtuosity, the subtleties and possibilities opened up by having so many instruments in one place and available to be combined in so many ways.

In other words, rock 'n' roll is cheap, experimental and fluid, and devotes most of its energy into the production of music. Orchestral music is expensive, formal and majestic, but tithes a large portion of its effort to coordination and overheads and maintenance.

If the Internet has a motif, it is rock 'n' roll's Protestant Reformation thrashing against the orchestral One Church. Rock 'n' roll gets lots of wee kirks built in every hill and dale in which parishioners can find religion in their own ways; choral music erects majestic cathedrals that humble and amaze, but take three generations of laborers to build.

The interesting bit isn't what it costs to replicate some big, pre-Internet business or project.

The interesting bit is what it costs to do something half as well as some big, pre-Internet business or project.

Take Newsweek. If you wanted to launch Newsweek today, you'd probably have to spend as much as Newsweek did. Maybe more, since you'd not only have to do what Newsweek does, you'd have to somehow outspend or outmaneuver Newsweek to get there.

But what does it cost to publish something half as good as Newsweek, say, the Huffington Post? Sure, HuffPo has brought in about $20MM in venture capital, but ignore that sum — that's how much they can sweet talk out of the world of finance. I'm talking about how much capital it cost to build and operate HuffPo. A tiny, unmeasurable fraction of what it cost to build and run Newsweek.

But HuffPo is at least half as good as Newsweek — in audience reach, in influence, in news quality, in return-on-investment (though not in absolute profitability — that is, a dollar put into HuffPo will generate more income than a dollar put into Newsweek, but HuffPo uses a lot fewer dollars than Newsweek does, and returns fewer dollars in total than Newsweek, too).

What's more, as time goes by, we can expect it to get cheaper to get more Newsweek-like. Cheaper and better ad-sales markets. Larger pools of interested people with the time and skill and tools to follow breaking news. Even cheaper printing and logistics, should HuffPo go hardcover, thanks to the spread of cheap printer-binders around the world.

This is the pattern: doing something x percent as well with less-than-x percent of the resources. A blog may be 10 percent as good at covering the local news as the old, local paper was, but it costs less than 1 percent of what that old local paper cost to put out. A home recording studio and self-promotion may get your album into 30 percent as many hands, but it does so at five percent of what it costs a record label to put out the same recording.

What does this mean? Cheaper experimentation, cheaper failure, broader participation. Which means more diversity, more discovery, more good stuff that could never surface when the startup costs were so high that no one wanted to take any risks.

What's driving this cost-reduction? Part of it is the free ride on general technological development. Everyone — even the big, lumbering, expensive companies — needs cheaper hard drives, cheaper networks, cheaper computers. Every society is trying to increase the general technical literacy of its population, because every employer benefits from technical literacy in its workforce.

Partly, it's a free ride on overinvestment bubbles. When the dotcoms came along, they were — canonically — founded by two hackers in a garage working on doors balanced on sawhorses. They were so humble in origin that it was easy to believe that they'd grow to three or four hundred times their present size. Even three or four thousand times their present size. So they attracted capital — who doesn't like a crack at a 4,000X payout? More capital than they could absorb — because buying more sawhorses and doors and garages and commodity servers just doesn't cost that much. With all that money came a burden to spend, to try to grow a business large enough to pay off all that investment, which meant luring great numbers of bright people into the startup world, training them as you went on technical matters, turning them into Internet people.

When the overinvestment bubbles (dotcom, finance) crashed, you were left with a lot of skilled smart people, a lot of equipment that had gotten cheap fast thanks to enormous consumption by overfinanced companies. This, too, made it cheaper to start something new.

But even without overinvestment, the gap between rock 'n' roll and the orchestra is narrowing. Technology is giving us the organizational equivalent of a really kick-ass synthesizer, one that can allow a one-man band to sound like a whole firm. It may be that we'll never get to a point where you could build Disneyland today for one tenth of what Disney has spent since 1955. But I'm pretty sure that in my lifetime, you'll be able to build an 80 percent Disneyland (you could call it "Disneyla") for maybe 30 percent of the capital sunk into the Magic Kingdom.

This is one of the great conundra of our era: the spectre that haunts every executive, every government, every powerful person who owes her stature to her command of an empire that enjoys its pride of place thanks to the prohibitive cost of replicating it.

But lurking in those 80 percent replacements are an infinitude of ideas too weird and too funky and implausible to try at full price. Lurking there are ideas as weird and dumb as a company called (I kid you not) Google, an encyclopedia that everyone can write, a wireless network standard based on open spectrum that anyone is allowed to use, without central planning.

It's rock 'n' roll, and if it's too loud, you're too old.

From the January 2010 issue of Locus Magazine



Blogger Otto said...

"Close enough for Rock'n'Roll" refers to tuning your guitar sufficiently for that style of music IMHO. So don't elaborate too far.
Martin from Stuttgart

January 9, 2010 5:27 PM  
Blogger Evan Wade said...

As a filmmaker, I know this is true of film as well, and am afraid/excited about the prospect. Thanks for the article. It's a calming notion that such power lies at our fingertips when the prospect of Hollywood lingers over you.

January 11, 2010 11:34 PM  
Blogger kurt said...


I don't think I've ever heard someone self-describe a piece of their own work as "notorious" - this bit of grandstanding put me off of your essay from the get-go

Other than that, using Rock N Roll as a stepping stone for your peculiar ideas about "pre- and post-internet" workaday worlds seems archaic. Does Rock N Roll even exist anymore, Cory? Why didn't you use the old "horse and buggy VS airplanes" analogy instead? It would have flown better

Bringing Disneyland into your one-sided debate was just plain silly.

Leave the voodoo economics to people who know something about them
and do what you do best...derivative science fiction


January 12, 2010 12:14 AM  
Blogger Tristan said...

It doesn't matter if Rock 'n' Roll exists anymore - its used to illustrate his point (and FWIW whilst the original rock 'n' roll of the 50s doesn't exist so much, its descendants do - and even more so with the advent of cheap computers and music software).

As for the 'voodoo economics' - his analysis is far better than those apparently advising the politicians and big media bosses. Perhaps its not an attractive analysis according to those in power, but that doesn't detract from its accuracy.

January 12, 2010 1:15 AM  
Blogger Natanael said...

There are music apps for the iPhone, and when really great FLOSS music apps start appearing for the Android, laptops and the OPLC's XO3 it will be awesome!
Seriously, imagine using it as a "really kick-ass synthesizer"!
And then you can start a band in your garage and use any instrument you can imagine using only keyboards and touch screens!

January 12, 2010 9:53 AM  
OpenID said...

... for example the free, open source, wireless, multitouch, OSC music interface I built with an iphone taped to my guitar, which I use to perform rock/electronic songs about twitter, the Iranian election, the surveillance state and gene therapy cures for aids...

(sorry for the self promotion, I don't have a record company budget ;-) )

January 12, 2010 2:19 PM  
OpenID Dave said...

Rock and roll has always been a one-way, top down sort of communication. Sure, the business of it can be a grass roots, ground up sort of thing, but at it's heart, rock and roll is throngs of fans directing their focus in unison at some rock god up on a stage... sounds pretty old media to me.

Hip hop, house, techno (at least in their infancy) were far more interactive and focused on participation than rock and roll could ever hope to be.

January 12, 2010 3:27 PM  
OpenID asphalteden said...

I find it interesting that, without question, all of the most groundbreaking and experimental musicians in the rock world were deeply inspired by stuffy old guys like Stockhausen, Cage, Riley, Reich and others, who had to do things the old fashioned way, you know, with orchestras and classical education.

I'll take the subtleties and possibilities suggested by pompous wacko composers -- who at least have the courtesy to grow old and die -- rather than a half-baked future of endlessly iterating pompous amateur punks recreating old "rock" records that got boring in the 80s, thanks.

February 1, 2010 1:48 PM  

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