Thursday, January 25, 2024

Back to Reality

After 3.5 years, I am leaving Osso VR. Times are tough all over. I've been through this before, and while I am sad to be leaving, I am genuinely excited about the future.

The Osso VR team did amazing work, and I am grateful for the opportunity to assist in blazing a trail on such a necessary and revolutionary product. I believe that virtual reality surgical training is as much a foregone conclusion as streaming music was. However, like streaming music, the early days are difficult -- you have to do everything yourself, from scratch, the hard way. It will likely take a few more years to catch on and become practical. Streaming was slow going until the widespread adoption of the modern smartphone. I think VR still needs that kind of transformative change on the device side and in the public's mindset.

I started working at Osso about 6 months into the pandemic, in August of 2020. The first year there was unusual and at times felt unreal, perhaps appropriate for a company working in virtual reality. Those early pandemic days were weird for everyone. I did a series of 20th century music lectures on Wednesday mornings that first year for team-building, and watching the attendance grow week to week was satisfying.

I remember working through The Day San Francisco Went Orange, with the ash-choked air from the wildfires mixing with an unseasonable heatwave. Nothing says "work from home" like sitting inside an 82-degree house. Hey, if I'd wanted that, I'd have kept working in Tokyo in the summertime!

During my first 2 years, the company grew tenfold, and that was an experience and challenge in itself. It was exciting to be back in start-up land, seeing the rocket start to take off.

My product team -- Sanju, Cameron, Maritza, and Jakoby -- were some of the best people I ever got to manage (and I got to hire most of them, too). I will miss them and the rest of the staff. They are mission-driven, passionate, and young. This was perhaps the first time in my career that I found myself being the oldest person at the company by far. I was impressed with my colleagues at every turn. It makes me feel better about the future.

Osso VR's leader, Justin Barad, is an exceptional person. I remain grateful to him for the opportunity. We did not always see eye-to-eye, but I respect his vision and persistence. I wish him and the rest of the Osso team the very best of luck. 

I am looking for another gig, and have some other exciting plans for the end of 2024. But for now, I'm going to take care of myself for a bit, work on some music, and do some more writing. 

I hope your 2024 is going well. Drop me a note -- I'd love to hear from you!

Sunday, December 31, 2023

2023 In Review

2023 was difficult. At times, I called it "The Year Everything Broke".

Towards the end of January, the podcast I have been co-hosting went on hiatus. Each of the 3 hosts has had their own issues to deal with this year, and some of those issues escalated to a point where continuing is not possible right now. I miss talking with Michael and Dee, and I hope to get something else going soon. We are all doing the best we can.

This Old Fashioned may have been the best thing about 2023. 
It was certainly the best drink of 2023.

The torrential rains in January showed me that the front of my house was leaking, and likely had been for a while. I had to spend a shockingly large sum replacing all the windows on the front of the house, rebuilding my front steps, and getting the façade refinished. It was messy, noisy work that seemed like it would never end. I still need to get the place repainted, but the crew finally wrapped up in October. I am glad I was able to write the many large checks required to cover the repairs.

I caught COVID for the first time in March. It was not serious enough that I had to be hospitalized, but it was scary and painful. It was also disappointing, particularly given how diligent I had been masking, avoiding groups, getting vaccinated, and taking care of myself. 

On July 2, my friend David Meyers passed away after a long struggle with a brain tumor. I had known David since I was a teenager. He was the very best of what humanity has to offer. If you want to understand something about him as a person, and have a good cry, listen to this podcast

One of my aunts died in September from metastatic breast cancer. She was in her late 70s, had lived a good life, and leaves behind a grieving daughter and two grandchildren. 

Towards the end of this year, I found I needed gum surgery. It was less painful and scary than I expected, but still unpleasant and not recommended. This also triggered a few other health scares that have all resolved positively for now. 

I had to make more minor but expensive repairs to the car, as well. 

The biggest difficulty was dealing with my aging father. For the last decade or so, he has been involved with a partner only a few years older than me. This partner was someone with a drinking problem, substance issues, and an abrasive personality. The combination put me in a state of heightened anxiety any time I was around my father and his partner, waiting for something bad to happen. 

My father consistently chose this person over his friends and family, and they moved from Nevada to Hawaii to Thailand. At least my father was happy and secure, or so I thought. About two years ago, my father had a small stroke in Thailand. He and his partner said everything was fine, but my father then had two car accidents, one serious. When I saw them in late 2021, it was clear everything was not fine. My father was stuttering when he spoke, could now no longer walk without a cane, shuffled his feet, could not navigate steps or curbs without assistance, and fatigued easily. He was also quite obviously depressed.

I encouraged them to return to the USA, and in September of 2022, they did. 

In mid-April of this year, my father called me early in the morning. He said his partner had pushed him down several times, said they weren't going to take care of him anymore, and had told my father to kill himself. I could hear the partner in the background, drunk and screaming. I told my father to call the police and go stay with a friend. 

My father can no longer reliably read, write, or operate a computer. I purchased him a plane ticket and he flew down to Los Angeles to stay with my brother. I joined them a few days later to evaluate what we needed to do. 

My father was practically catatonic from stress, cognitive impairment, and antidepressants. He mostly stared into space when he wasn't struggling to answer our questions or sobbing uncontrollably. We had him sign powers of attorney for medical and legal purposes.

We looked into his finances. My father was once a multi-millionaire, and considered a business wizard by many. He was now quite clearly broke, with his credit card debt exceeding his meager cash sums. His major assets are two properties, jointly owned with the toxic partner. Also, by this time, my father had borrowed tens of thousands of dollars from me and my brother. We canceled jointly-held credit cards and cut off the partner's access to my father's accounts.

The three of us agreed it was time for my father to go into assisted living, and he would stay with my brother until a place could be found, probably in Southern California, not too far from my brother.

During this week, his partner had been calling and texting my father, my brother, and me, leaving vile, drunken, barely coherent rants. These calls and texts were happening almost non-stop, so we all blocked the partner.

Plans in place, I flew back to San Francisco. The next morning, I was told the partner had gone on a drunken rampage, smashing up the rental home they had been sharing with my father. Doors had been ripped off hinges, holes punched in walls, artwork, vehicles, and property attacked with golf clubs. The partner was found unresponsive on the floor, covered in blood. They had attempted suicide, and were hospitalized. The partner had not been paying their health insurance bills, however, and once stable, the hospital ejected them.

My brother and I found an assisted living facility for my father in June. My father moved in. The partner eventually stabilized enough that I was able to have the occasional coherent conversation about selling property and untangling lives. In July, I was able to visit the rental house and move some of my father's belongings into storage. At that time, the partner told me they were going to Thailand to check up on the property, set up a bank account, and contemplate moving to Thailand.

On the morning of August 9, 2023. I received a phone call from Thailand. The partner had been found dead in their hotel room. The empty whiskey bottles suggested a drinking binge. It is unclear whether this was another suicide attempt or an accident. Regardless, I had to call the partner's adult children and let them know.

My father was distraught. Despite my uncovering evidence of physical and mental abuse from the partner, my father kept telling me he didn't want to live anymore. After all of the effort put in to getting him safe and taken care of, this was hard to hear. 

The partner's will ultimately named me the executor of the partner's estate and will. Throughout this year, I have been dealing with attorneys in Nevada, Hawaii, and Thailand, trying to make sense of and get control of bank accounts and other assets. It has been like having a second job navigating phone trees, listening to hold music, talking to customer service agents, and sending documents to various addresses. 

There is more to the story, much of it sordid and sad. It is hard for me not to be angry about all of it as well. 

All of these events combined with challenges at work to make this an unsatisfying year at my job. I am not sure how much longer that will go on, but I have some plans for what's next.

The year rounded out with me catching COVID a second time in December. On the plus side, it was a much milder case than March. On the minus side, it meant that I had to spend half of my precious holiday vacation locked in my office, trying not to infect my wife. 

I could go on about current events. I tried not to pay too much attention to the desperation, horror, and ongoing tragedies around the world. It helps keep my own problems in perspective at times, but reading and watching too much just made everything seem worse. American politics, the Middle East, the environment, Russia and Ukraine -- it was a daily barrage of bad news and failure. At times, it seemed the whole world was coming apart.

Despite all of the breaking, there were a few bright spots in 2023.

One is that Emily Hobson and I released an album (Cold Comfort) and a covers EP (You Got All Sad) as Snow Westerns, a slowcore/shoegaze/cowboy alternative rock band. Working on these records was fun and satisfying, and I am proud of the result.

In May of this year, my wife and I went to Spain for two weeks. Attending a friend's daughter's wedding was our pretext, but we added on plenty of extra days in Madrid and Barcelona. The food was fantastic, the weather was gorgeous. I made some good permanent memories. Most notable was that we walked everywhere, not using public transit or cars except for getting to and from our arrival and departure areas. I hope to go back some day.

I had a great birthday break up at Sea Ranch. I wish I could go there more frequently. It is truly my happy place. 

Sid Luscious and The Pants are slowly reactivating. We are training up some new members and starting to sound pretty good. I hope we will be performing in early 2024, but regardless, it feels great to be playing music with a band again.

Part of that is my voice. Post-cancer, I have struggled to sing the way I used to. The treatments left my voice and throat somewhat compromised. I had been doing online voice lessons for a few years, but in 2023, my voice coach stopped doing lessons to return to graduate school. The work we did together seems to have paid off, however, and my singing is better than it has been in a long time.

I was able to use this for some online performances, notably UCSF's Art for Recovery group. I have been a part of this crew for 3 years now, and playing for them occasionally brought me satisfaction throughout the year.

I found solace and joy in seeing friends. I was able to reconnect with several people visiting from out of town, and had many great dinners and meet-ups with my Bay Area gang. No matter how dark, frustrated, or broken I was feeling, these people and shared moments always left me feeling energized and alive. 

And the best thing about the year was my spouse Iran. She took care of me on many levels, and her love and support made everything bearable. 

Thank you all for being here, for being present, for reading and listening. Here's hoping 2024 is better for each and all of us.

2023 Books

I joined a book club this year, which has "forced" me to read at least one book a month. That has prodded me into reading more in general. Here are most of the books I have read in 2023, more or less in order, with a few notes:

I Have Some Questions For You - Rebecca Makkai. Literary fiction mystery about a death at a prep school, but also about society's treatment of women. Great writing. Furious, incendiary, nuanced, thought-provoking. Highly recommended, and one of the best books I have read in a long time. My choice for Book of the Year, 2023.

The Vixen - Francine Prose. Literary fiction about a writer in the post-WW2 era. Great writing. Recommended.

Slouching Towards BethlehemJoan Didion. Didion's classic collection of essays about California and America in the 60s. It's Joan Didion. That makes you say YES! or NO!

No One Left To Come Looking For You - Sam Lipsyte. A noir-ish mystery set in New York's underground music scene in the 90s. Kinda funny, scarily accurate. Breezy. Recommended. I have read a few of Lipsyte's other books (The Ask, Hark) which I also liked.

The Terraformers - Annalee Newitz. Science fiction about some terraformers. Not recommended.

The Shards - Bret Easton Ellis. Literary fiction-alized account of Ellis' eventful senior year of high school in the early 80s. Shades of Stephen King. If you have never read any of his other books, this is a good place to start, as it effectively covers all the things he does. If you don't like his work, this will not change your mind about him. I am close to his age, and I was overwhelmed with nostalgia for my own lost youth.

Liberation Day - George Saunders. A collection of sci-fi-ish short stories, many of which ran in The New Yorker. If you read The New Yorker, you know this means they are likely depressing, heavy, powerful. Also great writing. Recommended, but it may bum you out. 

The Marvel Universe - Bruce Wagner. Literary fiction. Another of Wagner's scathing, scabrous, acidic takes on Hollywood and contemporary society. I liked it, but I also liked (or at least appreciated) several of his previous books. Definitely not for everyone. I also read Wagner's Dead Stars (2012), which covered similar territory.

The Candy House - Jennifer Egan. Literary fiction about a group of individuals in the near future. A kind of sequel to Egan's breakthrough "A Visit from the Goon Squad". Not as good as "Goon Squad". It was fine. Recommended with reservations.

A Sport and a Pastime - James Salter. Literary fiction from 1967. Full of food, sex, travel, and ennui. Evocative and beautiful. It seems like someone should have made this into a movie.

The Devil’s Playground - Craig Russell. Cinematic mystery set in Golden Age Hollywood. Fun, suspenseful. The sort of book where you want a whole series featuring the protagonist. Recommended. 

Deliver Me From Nowhere - Warren Zanes. Nonfiction about the making of Bruce Springsteen's best album, "Nebraska". A little breathless at times, but if you like the album, worth a read. 

Birnam Wood - Eleanor Catton. Literary fiction about an idealistic environmental group colliding with a billionaire in New Zealand. Starts very slow, ends abruptly. Powerful but also flawed. Recommended with reservations.

Gone to the Wolves - John Wray. Literary fiction/mystery about metalheads in 90s Florida. Recommended (if that sounds good to you).

Sure, I'll Join Your Cult! - Maria Bamford. Bamford's memoir. Funny and sad. If you like her, well worth a read (though you will know much of this already). If you are unfamiliar with her, check out her one of her specials, such as "Weakness is the brand" (Amazon) or "Old Baby" (Netflix).

The Possibilities - Yael Goldstein-Love. Science fiction. A novel about a mother whose child suddenly vanishes, and her journey and discoveries about herself and the world. 

Comedy Sex God - Pete Holmes. Another memoir by another stand-up comedian. Holmes has a somewhat goofy stage persona, but reveals himself to be a deeply spiritual person who has been seeking enlightenment and understanding for much of his life. Like many personal spiritual journey stories, it is by turns inspiring, profound, silly, and sometimes cloying or unrelatable. But his writing made me think about my own life and has led me to revisit some of his favorites, notably the work of Joseph Campbell.

There Is No Antimemetics Division - qntm. Science fiction/horror, set in the SCP Foundation universe. Imaginative and strange. I have been reading some of the SCP stuff for years, and this was an excellent take on some of those ideas.

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store - James McBride. An evocative landscape painting of a novel, like looking at one of those big works by Pieter Bruegel The Elder, where you see all these characters in a town with their own stories, lightly connected. Sets a mood and captures a moment rather than focusing on a main character and a story.

Lone Women - Victor LaValle. Historical fiction, set largely in early 20th century Montana. I thought this book was going to be similar to McBride's novel -- an accurate but fictionalized story of personal experience. It was that, but LaValle takes some unexpected and thrilling detours. A bit cartoony at times, but surprising and inventive.

Today Will Be Different - Maria Semple. Comedic literary fiction. Semple has a perspective, style, and attitude that suggests late 20th century New York City. She writes about what people today would call "rich white people problems" with a kind of snark and mostly self-deprecation. While the book initially felt like similar works from "New York-y" authors, Semple pulls it in some interesting and surprising directions.

Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning - Tom Vanderbilt. A non-fiction book that weaves Vanderbilt's efforts and experiences learning new things (music, surfing, jewelry-making, juggling, foreign languages, chess, etc.) with some science and research into human brains and education. Breezy, easy, and a reminder that we should all be learning new things, all the time. 

The Dog of the North - Elizabeth McKenzie. Literary fiction. This book is a story of someone stuck taking care of everyone around them (including older relatives with dementia) while neglecting themselves. Some strange turns, veering close to absurdity. I found it timely, sad, and amusing.

Monica - Daniel Clowes. A graphic novel, in Clowes' distinctive style. Haunting, dark, and disturbing.


Wednesday, November 22, 2023

The Major Labels, Major Artists, and Major Streaming Services Plan to Steal from Indie Artists

After 25 years of flailing, the record companies have finally gotten back to their core competency: screwing small artists.

Spotify (which is partially owned by the major labels) has indicated it plans to roll out a new system in which the rich and successful blatantly steal from the poor and emerging. If your music generates fewer than 1000 plays from 500 unique listeners in a given year, you will no longer accrue royalties or get paid for that time period. The same is true if Spotify decides what you are offering is "not real music".

That money will go to the major labels. To Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran and David Byrne and Thom Yorke and the estates of Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye.

It's a kind of reverse Robin Hood, or a perverse re-imagining of Superman 3/Office Space financial trickery. The amount of money for any individual indie artist is tiny, fractions of dollars. But collectively, it adds up to an estimated additional billion dollars over five years for people who don't need it and didn't earn it.

To be clear, it is not about the cash in and of itself -- the money for each indie artist is too small to have any real financial impact. But it is very much about the principle.

I wish I could say that all the old, successful artists who have been so vocal about streaming service economics in the past were standing up to fight against this, but they are all silent on this issue so far. I wonder why.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Spotify and other streaming services are about to start taking money from struggling independent artists and put it in their own pockets and those of their biggest and most-successful acts. This new policy is disgusting, grotesque, and exactly the kind of thing streaming services were created to fight.

The hubris and cluelessness of the major labels is again on full display, with them arguing that "someone just putting up white noise" should be worth less than "an artist that had spent a year in the studio...with all kinds of instruments and people involved."

Uh, no. That's not how art works, and it is not how copyright law for sound recordings works, either. Effort and expense don't count, or make a work more or less valid. Records have been priced more or less "the same" at record stores since time immemorial, whether it was a bloated pop creation that cost millions and took years, Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" (recorded in a bedroom on a 4-track), Nirvana's "Bleach" ($800!), or nature sounds.

Ed Sheeran, celebrating being able to steal from
Marvin Gaye AND indie artists
[Timothy A. Clary / AFP/Getty Images]
The major labels continue: "It can't be that an Ed Sheeran stream is worth exactly the same as a stream of rain falling on the roof." Well, some might argue the rain has more value, and is more pleasant than whatever Ed Sheeran is bleating this week. 

But the bigger issue is that the label or owner of one piece of content doesn't get to decide the value of other people's content. (And Ed Sheeran is doing just fine, by the way.) 

"Obviously white noise is very different from 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' but paid the same." Yes, it is. Because the listener doesn't care, and the service charges them the same. Subscription services and hosting companies will charge you the same amount of money to put your audio content up, whether it is famous, unknown, or "noise" (and I would note there are plenty of records that cover 2 or more of those categories). 

Even the idea that the major labels get to draw a line between "functional noise" and "music"...Have none of these people ever read an (art) history book? "Functional noise" is how a lot of now-popular music genres would have been described years ago. 

It is also worth noting this is a problem wholly of Spotify (and other services') making. They wring their hands about "bad actors" gaming the system. Who lets those "bad actors" upload whatever they want, without any editorial control or review? Oh yeah, it's Spotify. 

Services like Spotify could simply stop taking anything and everything they are offered. They could exercise the barest minimum of curation or editorial discretion. For years, they have largely gone the opposite direction, desperately hoovering up whatever audio files they can find, without bothering to listen to them or screen them for merit or offensiveness or anything. 

Except for that brief period when they were thinking about kicking "bad people" off the platform. Well, not kicking them off, but maybe just not promoting them. Or something. Hmm. Why not take their money and give it to indie artists?

Let's call this what it is: Major label (and big artist) greed. 


Prior to the 21st century, being a small, independent artist was extremely difficult. Recording studios were expensive, and making even a cheap record could cost quite a bit. CD, vinyl, and cassette duplication cost thousands of dollars and took months. Once you finally had your records, actually getting record stores to take them, sell them, and pay you was nigh-impossible.

The digital music revolution of the late 1990s and early 2000s promised to give up and comers a chance. Computer-based recording dramatically reduced costs of making a record while simultaneously making recording easier -- you no longer had to spend a year in the studio making an album with all kinds of instruments and people involved. You could do it yourself in your bedroom or garage. 

Digital distribution meant that not only was a costly investment in physical media not required, but musicians could sell globally, with transparent accounting, effortlessly.

When my colleagues and I started building what became Rhapsody, the world's first music streaming service, we had a utopian vision: all music would be treated equally. It didn't matter if you were The Beatles or Lady Gaga or Sid Luscious and The Pants. 

We did it, and that model of equality became the standard, which every other service adopted (or copied) more or less without question. Partially because they had no ideas of their own, and partially because they were too lazy to innovate and were content to catch a ride on the work we had done. 

And as we had thought, people started listening to more music and audio from a wide range of sources. The major label's "share" of people's listening began to decline.

One could also reasonably hypothesize that the major label's share of listening also declined because the labels weren't developing long-lasting, quality artists, and because there was a massive influx of independent musicians which provided many real alternatives and allowed people to hear things other than the few dozen songs the majors jammed into people's ears by methods legal and illegal.

It also turns out people want to listen to all kinds of things, not just major label albums. They wanted to hear weather sounds, white noise, and podcasts. And the music services were eager to provide this alternative content. Ironically a big driver here was the major labels' own insistence on eye-watering terms for streaming the music they control -- the major labels incentivized streaming services to look for other things for people to enjoy. And another driver was the music services responding to customer requests.

Ultimately, this is another re-statement of the content cartel's position: Only their music is real art, and the rest of us amateurs should just shut up and pay them and be grateful for their amazing artistry.

This kind of thing is another reason I left the business in the first place.

I Will Follow

Spotify can't help it -- they're beholden to the majors, and too craven to take a real stand. And given the way the industry works, I will not be surprised to see every other music service fall in line and do the same thing. Their precious major label deals will probably require it, either explicitly, or by careful legal construction that ensures the services can't survive unless they do something effectively the same. This is how the biz works.

I am not sure if I will leave my music up on these services or not. These services are still good for listeners, even if like so much else in our 21st century world, the rich get richer by stealing from the poor. And we don't have too many alternatives left. 

But I don't have to like it, even if Spotify cravenly tries to spin this as a "pro-artist" endeavor.

One reason we started these services was to build something more equitable, fair, just, and accessible for all artists. Even back in 2000, Queen and other established artists didn't need more money. The biggest artists didn't even want to be on the services. We had to bribe them all, with fat cash payments for the privilege of paying them more royalties later. And now, for the privilege of looting the pockets of the next Yo La Tengo. I guess in that respect, we won for a while, but eventually, Big Content came roaring back, and we lost.

But another reason I was motivated to do all that work was because Napster -- an illegal, unlicensed service predicated on blatant infringement and violation of the rights of artists and labels -- was decimating the music industry. I, we, all wanted to help save the music business from Napster (and from the music businesses' own cluelessness and ineptitude).  Ironically, Rhapsody bought the Napster brand some years ago and re-branded. I used to think that was a kind of loss or victory in and of itself. But now?

We should have let Napster destroy the music business.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Latest album: Snow Westerns "Cold Comfort"

I have new music available. Working with Emily Hobson under the name Snow Westerns, we have released our debut album Cold Comfort.

It is now available on Spotify for streaming (with Apple Music and other major streaming services to follow) and Bandcamp for purchase.  

Emily and I started working on this project just a little over a year ago. A single songwriting session brought us several ideas (all of which developed into songs on this album) and an idea for a sound, image, and style: slowcore shoegaze cowboy music.

Over the last year, we wrote and recorded over a dozen original compositions which became our first album, and a handful of cover songs which will be released next month. 

I may write a bit about some of the individual songs and process in the future. For now, please enjoy our work. Thank you for listening!


This is the third collaboration I have done in the last few years, following 2022's Cure For Loneliness (with Christy Phoenix as Rêvenir) and 2019's End.Game. (with Brian Ward as Luscious-235).

Sunday, July 16, 2023


I wake to greetings and birthday wishes from friends and family. I log on to a memorial service for a dear friend. I drink some coffee, and stare at the ocean, thinking about the water, living as waves for a while.

It has been a hard year so far. But I have learned there is help when you ask for it.

I recently had to put my father in assisted living, and I am still sifting through the wreckage of his life. Those of you who have been through something like this know how wrenching it can be under the best of circumstances. This is almost the worst of circumstances, but I will save the details for another post. Suffice it to say if you are lucky enough to have both of your parents alive and lucid, go talk to them about their finances and make plans for their futures.

This challenge seemed nearly overwhelming on my own. But when I allowed myself to ask for help, friends stepped up in every way, from taking on tasks to sharing advice and experience, and even helping load a box truck in 110-degree Nevada heat. 

I have also found myself struggling to stay motivated at times. I am still trying to understand how much of that is the pandemic or old age or stress or fatigue or just "time for a change". And then wondering what to change, or what to change it to. 

But I know I am making progress, because those questions -- what to change, and what to change it to -- bring feelings of possibility and excitement, rather than dread and anxiety. 

My friends provided guidance and support, and when I asked for it, concrete help. It is still difficult for me to do that asking. But like all things, it gets easier with practice. I am practicing. Learning to show a little more of my self, to be more vulnerable and human. 

There is light, too. I am writing this in one of my favorite places, gazing out at the beautiful blue Pacific. I have been reading some good books this year. Listening to music. Going out for some good dinners. Spending time with friends, always my favorite. 

I have a new record coming out soon - another collaboration. This project (Snow Westerns) has been one of the more enjoyable things I have done in a while, and it is sounding pretty good. Lauren took some great photos. Another instance of asking for help of a kind, letting people in, releasing a little of that white-knuckle grip I often have on everything. 

And it looks like Sid Luscious and The Pants might return in one form or another with a little help from friends old and new. 

The waves crash outside. They are all connected to each other, reinforcing and pushing each other. All made of the same water, all part of the same ocean.

Thank you for your help, everyone. Happy birthday to me.

The author, a few weeks before his 54th birthday.
Photograph by Lauren Tabak.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

The Content Future: By Bots, For Bots

The latest noise is Spotify is taking down "fake songs" generating "fake streams". This was all predicted by people both smart and not-so-smart.

So what's going on here? There are sites and apps that make it easy for anyone to generate "original music" and then upload it to Spotify and other streaming services. There are also sites and apps that make it easy for anyone to hire bots to "listen" to those streams on Spotify and other services and attempt to monetize their music. 

This isn't new. This is utterly predictable given the business model and larger trends. And it is easy to stop.

How It Started

When you start negotiating content contracts for a streaming service, you find yourself having to come up with definitions for many things:

What's a user? Uh, I guess a unique email address and password? If it's a paying user, they need some kind of payment method. Do we need any other identification? Proof they're a human? Nope.

Ok. What's a "play"? Hmm. Full song, all the way through? What if someone skips right before the end, though? That doesn't seem fair to the song owners. OK, what about 3-5 seconds? No, because that might mean they just couldn't get to the skip button fast enough and did not want to hear that song. So you end up saying something like "OK, maybe something in the 30-60 second range counts as a play" as a compromise.

A couple years into getting Rhapsody off the ground, we came to work one day to find a totally unknown "artist" was #3 on the hip-hop charts, appearing overnight. Nobody on the huge team of knowledgeable music editors had heard of them. No articles anywhere on the internet. For the sake of argument, we'll call them DJ Billy and the Boingers. 

I asked the team to see what user accounts all the plays had come from. As I expected, the #1 account was "", with something like 2800 plays a day. I did some quick math and realized the only way that was possible is if they were skipping tracks every 31 seconds: Playing just enough to trigger a play count, then doing that over and over. 

We had our first incident of gaming the system. It wasn't clever -- they had likely just found a script that clicked the mouse every 31 seconds, and parked it over a looped playlist on the desktop PC app. But they had ruined the automated charts and generated a substantial sum in fees. And there were multiple accounts doing this. It only cost them $10 per month to set up a valid account, and if they ran it 24/7 on their content, they'd get more than enough money back to cover their subscription fee and they'd place on the charts.

We deactivated the accounts and sent them nasty letters. We updated the charts. We took down the content. We updated our terms of service.

But it was clear to me this was the future: bands (or other bad actors) trying to squeeze money out of these services by exploiting the sheer size of the content, and the fact that nobody was really minding the store at most of them.

This sort of thing infected all of the streaming platforms. A band called Vulfpeck recorded a silent track and asked all of their listeners to loop it endlessly. Internet news covered all of these acts of "artistic resistance" as though it were some kind of righteous cause instead of fraud.

To this day, you can easily find places to buy listeners or fans for any service, whether it is Spotify or YouTube or Twitter. Everyone knows this is going on, but nobody wants to do anything about it. The services want inflated user and playback numbers. So do the artists, as long as they can benefit. 

The labels and publishers are starting to complain because they're seeing it eat into their shares of the money.

Easy Diffusion: "a photograph of a robot playing synthesizer, beautiful lighting"

...comes now the mechanical device to sing for us a song

Complaints about machine-generated music are old. People griped about the phonograph and the pianola and the radio and the synthesizer and drum machines, saying it wasn't real music. Some people still feel music made with electronic tools is somehow less real, authentic, or expressive than humans playing acoustic instruments.

AI is now generating songs, both compositions and audio, or providing tools that make it easy for people to create something that sounds like music and then upload it to the streaming services. (In the case of Boomy, it turns out their terms of service states they own whatever you "create" forever!)

Supposedly this is "flooding" streaming services with "fake" content. And we are in early, early days here. These tools are still somewhat unfriendly and the results not great. "Real" artists and labels are starting to demand this stuff not be allowed on art sites, music streaming services, and video content systems.

I think they are somewhat misguided. Who's to say the "fake" content isn't good, or any less real than the "real" songs? If you have listened to anything popular in the last few years, you might swear it is all AI generated anyhow, given how derivative, focus-grouped, and unimaginative it all is.

Music has been assisted (if not driven) by technology for a long, long time. You might think singers today are providing authentic, heartfelt performances. The reality is that even without the computer tuning slathered over the top (which makes everyone sound the same), even "good" singers are doing dozens of passes which are digitally edited together to provide a single "performance". Computers make this easier, but people did this back in the tape days, too, either splicing tape or punching in.

If you're manually assembling an artificial, Frankenstein's monster take from 87 separate tracks, why not just ask a computer to simulate the vocal for you? Is there a difference?

Go a step further. What if Bjork made a record of her singing over AI-generated music? Does that still count as "real music"? Should that be allowed on a service which bans AI music? What if the record is a hit, and Bjork releases a follow-up that is the instrumental version (i.e. the same record with no vocal)? Should that be allowed on the service?

One could imagine all kinds of variations on this scenario. The dividing line between AI music and human music gets blurry quickly. Artists should have access to tools. Some will use it well, some will use it for selfish purposes. Most of what comes out won't be particularly interesting. But there will be a lot of it.

An Endless River of Junk Content

Once communications of any sort become mechanized one sees a few patterns repeat. One is that costs of that communication plummet. Another is those kinds of communications become quickly devalued as the volume ramps up and bad actors unleash a torrent of bad content.

In our lifetimes, we have seen this happen with:

Mail. Junk mailers bought addresses in volume and used early computers and printers to turn the daily mail into a pile of instantly recycled ads, scams, and noise. Look at how much you get physically sent every day, all year long. It is part of the reason nobody writes letters anymore. You think physical mail, you think "garbage".

Email, too. This struggle is ongoing, but email has become something between a nuisance and a threat thanks to spam, phishing, and other mechanized messages. This is one of the reasons people hate email, and move towards other platforms like texting, Slack, and social media.

Telephones. Telemarketers and then Robocallers deluged the phone system. Believe it or not, there was a time you were excited to answer the phone and talk to someone. That quickly turned into the telephone version of junk mail -- your answering machine would be full of sales pitches, with the rare message from a friend. This is part of what drove people to abandon landlines in favor of mobile phones. But mobile phones have become just as overwhelmed with robot callers, and nobody answers anymore.

Social Media. Between advertisers and bots, social media is also now full of garbage. It can be hard to tell where the social media companies feed algorithms stop and bad bots start, but the end result is your feed is no longer reliable. We all have those friends who seem to be constantly sharing Ray-Ban or luxury goods "discount codes", weight loss videos, and more.

Art is next, whether you are talking about visual art, music, videos, anything. The bots are here. Go look at YouTube, or listen to Spotify. People are already using them generate unending torrents of machine-generated "content", and steering that flood towards any platform that will take it, with the hopes of making a buck. The result will be the same as other platforms: Real people will see the platform ruined, and will leave, looking for alternatives or abandoning the activity entirely.

Now the AI and bots aren't just going to be creating the content. Increasingly they will be consuming it as well. People hire bots to listen to their music on streaming services, driving views, posting "comments", trying to fool the algorithms on the services for more promotion or to extract a few dollars. We face a future where most "plays" are content that was made by bots being "consumed" by bots. 

It represents a massive waste of resources and a diminishing of actual human creativity. It is probably as inevitable as it is stupid.

Easy Diffusion: "a photograph of a robot playing synthesizer, beautiful lighting"

Turn It Off!

One of the original sins and fundamental problems for streaming services (as well as user-generated content sites) is they take anything and everything. There's no quality control, no barrier to entry, no review, no gatekeeping. Not that long ago, removing all that stuff was considered a great innovation and a positive disruption. No more preventing great music from finding an audience.

But it turns out that, for the most part, anything worth hearing did find an audience, with just a few outliers that were missed or overlooked, and many great talents that were cultivated. Along with some commercial, disposable stuff. The old gatekeepers were doing a pretty good job. 

Not only that, there are still gatekeepers and people deciding what you get to hear and watch, but now they are doing a worse job, and one that is driven by private business decisions, marketing initiatives, or their own personal networks and preferences..

The easiest fix for "fake content" is simple: Stop letting anyone and everyone upload their garbage to your services

Do what every store does: Evaluate the merchandise for yourself and decide if you want to use your valuable store space to carry it. Don't carry the bad stuff.

This saves the services lots of money. There are real costs for music (and other) services to ingest and host content. And most of what they do ingest and host never gets played, or gets played so infrequently that it is not worth the cost. These services are paying middlemen like Tunecore and Distrokid for this useless content, and TuneCore, Distrokid, etc. are charging people to upload it. So Tunecore and Distrokid do fine, charging both parties in the transaction for garbage.

At a minimum, services like Spotify should be charging Tunecore, not the other way around.

Removing content from the services also means that there's (slightly) more money for all the content that remains, which should make the artists less unhappy. 

It also means that "real" artists wouldn't have to see their content next to AI-generated nonsense or Spotify's "Kirkland"-quality music-for-hire.

That doesn't mean one cannot enjoy any of this content, anymore than one might enjoy Kirkland products from Costco. If it gives you an "art experience", it is art. 

Just remember there is better stuff out there. Entertainers pander to you, ask "what do you want?" and then give it to you. Real artists give you something you didn't know you wanted until you experience it. 

Much like we are encouraged to be mindful of the products we buy and how that affects the workers, the environment, and our culture, we should be mindful of the content we consume and the systems we use to generate and appreciate it. 

There will almost certainly be some interesting, perhaps even beautiful, examples of machine "art", which people will find moving and "life-changing." It may very well become what most people want -- McDonald's sells a lot of burgers, people flock to Disney/Marvel/Lucas products -- but it doesn't necessarily mean it is "good" for you, the culture, or the world. 

I look forward to experiencing it, but I am also pretty sure I will prefer human-created work, in all its weird, obsessive imperfection.

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

A Story of Scars

Our bodies replace about 1% of our cells every day. Some say all of your cells are replaced every seven years. While this isn’t really true, it suggests that our bodies are constantly dying and regrowing. We become someone new a little bit at a time, every day.

What is a scar? From my perspective, it is the body recovering from damage. Something happens, cells die, and are replaced, sometimes different than they were before. Some trauma is significant enough that it leaves a mark. A place where you might be tougher, skin thicker, as the result of an accident. You might be more or less sensitive.

These marks, this change, isn't always external. We've got these in our brains, in our spirits, in our hearts.

I might argue that as we age, we become nothing but scars. We accumulate so much damage, from accidents, pain, catastrophe -- what else is there to us? Every cell in my body has died and been replaced more than once, with each new generation perhaps learning from, responding to what came before. 

My life comes from these scars, and my life is marked by them. 

I have one on my left elbow, barely visible now, the remainder and reminder of being hit by a car twenty years ago. Traumatic, and at the time, one of the worst things that had happened to me. In hindsight, I got off pretty easy.

I have some scarring on my neck, both external and internal, a reminder of the radiation that saved my life even as it destroyed parts of me, changing me forever. I look at that part of my neck every day. No beard grows there. I can recall how long it was just a wet, infected wound, and how worried the doctors were. I feel how the internal scarring continues to change my voice. Every time I turn my head to the left, I feel the damaged muscles strain and tighten.  

I treat it as a series of prompts and reminders: Life is precious. You are still here. Make the most of it. Do something. Be happy.

That’s not all. Like many people my age, I have tattoos. I was the first person I knew to get one, back in 1990. At the time, it seemed transgressive, and "rock and roll". A tattoo is just a self-inflicted, ink-filled scar. I have three now, each one marking different times in my life, when I was different person or with different priorities. They don’t hurt on their own, but I can remember getting each one, the person I was then, and how that person was hurting in different ways.

I am not sure if I will get another tattoo, but I am sure I will end up with more scars. Because I plan to live more, to have more lessons learned, more things to remember.

The author, recovering from being hit by a car, circa 2002.

Friday, March 24, 2023

Are you living or just surviving?

A few weeks ago, my voice teacher told me she was not going to be teaching anymore, focusing on her advanced degree instead. She loved teaching voice -- her passion and interest for it led her to a graduate program -- but she needed her time and energy for her studies. It is what she really wants, so she is stopping teaching.

It had been nearly 3 years that we had been working together. I had to check twice. How can that be? It felt more like 6 months, but also like forever.

I have spent those last 3 years mostly at home. I created and taught a songwriting class. Made a couple records. Started a new job. Started attending an "art for recovery" online group. And have continued my therapy. 

These days were a kind of smeary blur. Wake up. Drink coffee. Listen to some music. Sit in front of the computer. Stare out the window. Try to work. Get some exercise or not. Play some music or not. Maybe talk to someone on Zoom. Have dinner. Look at the internet. Try to sleep. 

Three years. That's almost as long as all of high school or college. Yet when I go back over this time, the resolution of my memories, the real new experiences, the living of the last 3 years feels like it amounts to perhaps 3 months (if I am being generous) of what I might have experienced in high school, or college, or almost any period of time in my life up until about the last 7 years.

I realize I have been focused on safety and surviving, rather than living. 

That is somewhat understandable. I had a serious illness 5 years ago, and that has taken me a long time to recover from, both physically and psychologically. It changed me physically and psychologically, as well. There was Trump. Job disruption. The ongoing slow-motion apocalypses of the environment and perhaps American democracy and civility. World War 3.

And of course, the pandemic, with losses of friends, dramatic changes in society and the world, and fear and uncertainty. So perhaps a defensive crouch was warranted for a time. 

But the truth is I am going to die anyway. So are you. So is everyone. Probably not tomorrow, and in my case, hopefully not for a good 25 or 30 years. But it is absolutely going to happen, and probably sooner than anyone likes.

Knowing that, I think the question becomes not "how can I get more time?" It is "how can I live more with the time I have?"

I don't mean "live more" in the sense of dreaded and beloved achievement, the empty satisfaction of running a marathon or climbing a mountain or writing a book or any other kind of finish-line, bucket-list checkbox-ticking. I don't mean acquisition of trophies or material goods. I don't mean the obliteration of extreme hedonism.

I mean "live more" in the sense of finding a life that has more personal meaning and that feels more authentic. Getting back in touch with what I want, rather than what I "should" do, or what is "safe". 

By the time one gets to middle age, one has enough actual life experience to temper dreams with reality. But one should also make sure reality leaves room for dreams, and I think this is where I have made errors. Too much reality, not enough dreams.

It gets easy let inertia take over. To keep doing today what you did yesterday, and hope it will be enough to carry you through to some kind of finish line. But that is not living.

The times in my life I felt the most alive were when I did not know what tomorrow would hold, but that I was moving towards something I was excited about. Music. A new project. People. 

The outcome was uncertain, but the process was exhilarating. That is risk. 

The fun part of rolling dice isn't knowing how they'll fall. It isn't even when they fall your way. It is the clacking of them in your hand, feeling all of the possible universes bouncing off of each other, and the exciting moment when you throw them, waiting to see how they actually turn out. 

Quite literally, it is not whether you win or lose, it is how you play the game. It is that you play.

Perhaps that is what I have been missing. I became focused on the certainty of outcome, even if it was gray, unsatisfying, and predictable. Or perhaps precisely because it was those things. 

I am looking to get back to a life where I have some of that good uncertainty. I have been thinking about my work, my projects, my relationships. What I want. If I even know any of that anymore.

It is becoming clear that some things need to change, and that sitting in this comfortable room, day after day, is surviving. But it is not living.

Some of you are lucky or smart enough that you figured this out a long time ago. Some of you have inspired me over the last few years through your actions or words or both. Thank you.

I have watched some of you as you made big career changes, leaving your own sure, certain paths for something else, something perhaps more satisfying, but definitely something new. 

An old friend embarked on a big art project. By their own admission something that was both a long shot and out of their comfort zone. But they are going for it, and have been for over a year now. I found myself in awe of their confidence and courage.

I also found myself surprised that I felt ashamed and embarrassed for my own lack of same. That is the kind of thing I had done in the past. That I used to do. What happened? Where and when did I lose that fire? I know it was before the pandemic, and before the illness.


I left the house. I walked 2 miles from my house to the city. I went out to a gathering with friends. I was indoors around people for about 2 hours. The first time I have done that, really, in more than 3 years. I neglected to wear a mask. 

A little more than three years into the pandemic, I finally got COVID-19. 

I do not regret my decision to go out, though of course, having COVID is inconvenient, debilitating, and somewhat scary.  Perhaps it was a little foolish. I could have stayed home. I could have worn a mask (and in hindsight, that is absolutely what I should have done). 

But I had fun for a couple hours. I was alive. 


To be clear, COVID-19 is serious. None of what I have written above should be construed as making light of the pandemic or the potentially life-destroying consequences of getting COVID-19 even once. 

The pandemic is still happening. We should all avoid getting sick, and take reasonable precautions to avoid getting sick and transmitting the virus. Mask up when around other people if indoors. Get your shots. 

However, you could also get cancer. Or have a heart attack. Or take some bad drugs. Or have a tree fall on your car or house. Something is going to get you eventually. 

Life has risk. Survival is reducing risk by reducing life to the bare minimum.

It is never too late to change the rest of your life. It is never too late to stop surviving and start living.

Thursday, January 19, 2023

AI: Art, Images, and Artificial Intelligence

A particular kind of artificial intelligence has been appearing in the news and commentary for several months. Stable Diffusion (released in 2022) allows the user to input a text prompt ("robot artist holding paintbrush") and a deep-learning artificial intelligence (AI), trained on an enormous database of images and styles, will respond with a computer-generated image. 

Artists and commentators are wringing their hands about this development, concerned that human expression, the jobs of artists, and creativity will all be terminated.

Stable Diffusion isn't even the first thing like this. It had predecessors in things like DALL-E, but Stable Diffusion marked a step up -- it works better, and almost anyone can run it on their home computer with minimal technical skill. 

Other related AI systems like ChatGPT (itself an evolution of GPT-3) have people worried and excited that soon we won't know whether we are talking to a computer or a person and that writers will be replaced by machines as well.

I think this is a bit overblown. I also think some artists' jobs will be replaced, but I also believe this is inevitable and perhaps not that bad.

John Henry and the Steam Hammer

Prompt: "robot artist holding paintbrush"
This all sounds like John Henry and the steam hammer again. The relentless, soulless corporate machine against the honest blood and sweat of a human. John Henry won (in some tellings), but he died doing it. And the steam hammer (and its descendants) are what we use for drilling tunnels, chopping down trees, and doing other difficult work. 

We don't give the steam hammer or most replacement of humans with machines a second thought. One reason is because we assume this kind of technological replacement is vastly safer and more efficient solution than having individual, unaided humans doing dangerous, tedious, back-breaking labor. It usually is, and society benefits in many ways. 

Another reason is a kind of societal and behavioral inertia -- if we can create a machine that can replace human labor (with something perceived as cheaper, faster, safer, or "better"), we not only should, but we must. In fact, we feel as though we cannot stop it. There is a kind of inevitability built in. Someone will do it eventually. So we end up with billions sunk into self-driving cars, robot tree-fellers, and robot vacuum cleaners. 

Perhaps a better question would be if these things need doing at all, or doing at faster and greater scale. 

The New York Times ran a piece where human artists more or less griped about Stable Diffusion and other AI-powered image generators. It was what you would expect for this kind of thing. Heartfelt handwriting, cutesy artwork, emotional, warm, sentimental, and conservative. If it had been on NPR, you would have heard acoustic guitar and downtempo beats playing as the narrator talked. You can imagine the images on your friends' social media feeds (without attribution of course, and swiped from the NYT site). 

The artists made a number of points which are, from my perspective, rather flimsy.

They start off by noting the illustrations "were made by hand using paint and ink. Many hours of work went into them. And in the humble opinion of the people doing that work, it shows.[emphasis added]" 

One would hope the people who spent all that time would feel it showed, but they're hardly impartial judges. And "I spent a lot of time and worked real hard on this" has little or no bearing as to how most other people perceive the quality or value of work. 

Many of these artists blur the distinction between making what they want and commercial work (which is what someone else wants, but will pay you for). They are also raising the issue that illustrators and freelance artists don't get paid enough. There are very few workers I can think of who believe they are paid enough for the work they do. 

"AI will strip artists of their livelihood". This came right after an artist talking about "this never-ending loop of getting paid $500 for a visual that you spend three days killing yourself over". Uh, why would you want that job? Is that really a livelihood? It's a smidge over $20 per hour, so better than California minimum wage, but...this is what it was like before AI. It seems to me by-hand-illustration ain't a great way to make a living as currently framed. How much more can this human labor be devalued?

We also must clarify the difference between a capital-A "Artist" -- someone who creates what they want, for themselves, as a kind of gift to the world -- and a commercial artist, who is hired to create something specific for a set fee. 

Capital-A "Artists" are in no danger here. They aren't choosing art as a "livelihood." It is a vocation (and perhaps a curse). Artists create because they must, or because they simply want to. The money, if there is any, is a secondary concern. 

Commercial artists may be in trouble, but the truth of the industrial age is that if your job can be done by a machine, sooner or later it will. None of us is guaranteed a living doing exactly what we want to do for the amount of money we want.

"This will devalue art"

Prompt: "robot performer playing electric guitar singing"
Join the club, pal. Look at the music business. On the one hand, anyone and everyone can now make music inexpensively and distribute it globally for free (or close to it). On the other hand, everyone does now, and nobody cares. The music business is a faint echo of its former self financially and otherwise. Apparently it's all about social media now.

Or photography. When the internet started to go big, print magazines began to decline in relevance and then budget. Professional commercial photographers used to have big budgets and abundant time for shooting covers, spreads, etc. Technology chipped away at that. And when smartphone cameras began to proliferate, professional commercial photography took a bigger hit. Anyone could take a pretty good photo for cheap, and digital tools made basic clean-up faster and easier. More competition resulting in price drops. I know several professional photographers who walked away from careers because they could no longer do it the way they wanted -- no more time, no more money. 

This also hit the stock photography business in a big way, and the same thing happened. The internet was flooded with cheap stock photography sites. Maybe they aren't as objectively "good" as what was there before, but there are now oceans of stock photography, all dirt cheap. People who used to make a living doing high quality stock photography are having to find other ways to make a living. 

Before AI, people were just grabbing stuff off of Google Image Search, or Getty Images and not bothering to provide any attribution, much less pay for a license. These aren't just rinky-dink mom-and-pop shops. They're major video game companies. The Republican Party

This sort of cavalier and thoughtless use of artwork undermines the livelihoods of artists, of course, but more profoundly, the action belies an underlying belief: These people clearly don't value art in the first place. Digital images, photography as art, visual art itself have all already been devalued.

If people really cared about the "art" they're generating through these AI tools, they wouldn't be using the AI tools. They'd be paying an artist to do it and be heavily involved in the process. And they people "hiring" the AI would choose a human option if they thought it mattered to the audience purchasing and viewing the work. 

This cheapening has been going on for a long time. Commercial artists or professional graphic artists will tell you budgets have been falling for years, and that nobody cares about quality illustrations anymore. 

Most of the high-profile cases of paid work going to AI is because AI-generated art is a gimmick -- it is "new!". But most people don't want to play creative AI image roulette unless they had no intention of trying to find an artist, negotiate a rate, set a creative brief, and go through the process of creation

"Intellectual property issue because A.I. programs scrape human artists' work to Frankenstein them into a new creation." 

"Scraping other artist's work" and "Frankensteining" it into a new creation is also known as "having influences" and "learning from the masters." It is not "copying", and it is precisely the kind of fair use all artists benefit from and should continue to defend. I have seen plenty of work -- both fine art and commercial art -- that was clearly derived from, inspired by, and/or referencing the work of other people. Sketch artists do this sort of thing all the time. 

Any first-year art student can expound at length about how there is no such thing as "originality." If AI has looked at every image it possibly can and is able to draw on what it has seen to make something that is "like" something else, how is it any different than a commercial artist being asked to draw something similar to X or in the style of Y?

What AI is doing by analyzing big databases of images is no different from what artists do when painting "in the style of..." someone else. We could, should, and do allow that kind of derivative work.

"The job of the artist will change"

Prompt: "robot using typewriter by Gustave Klimt"
The implication here is the job will be different, and perhaps degraded. This is the nature of technology, whether applied to work, craft, or art. When the first crude drum machines came out, there was a lot of hand-wringing about how drummers would be out of work. Here's what happened: 

  • People realized drum machines were poor replacements for human drummers, and that if you wanted a human drummer, that's what you should use
  • There was a period where some people found jobs as "drum machine programmers", both because they knew how to work the machines and they knew how to make "good" drum beats
  • People realized drum machines could do things humans could not, and if you wanted a machine, that's what you should use -- machines felt different and were for different creative purposes
  • There are artists who manage to make machines sound remarkably human, but it is a lot of work using a skill set not everyone has
  • There are artists who manage to play live drums and sound remarkably like a machine, but it is a lot of work using a skill set not everyone has
  • The palette of sounds available to musicians radically expanded
  • More musicians had and have more options for drums and drum sounds
  • The cost of getting good or interesting drum sounds dropped to zero
  • New music and new music genres blossomed and flourished
  • The technology continues to develop and most records involve a hybrid of human work and machine work
  • Most people listening to music neither know nor care whether the beats were created by a human, a machine, or interaction between the two

People responded to the technology with fear of loss. Loss of human drumming as a job, of human "feel", of the value of humans playing drums, of creativity. But what actually happened is nearly the opposite of all of those things. Drum machines created new and different kinds of music, new and different jobs, helped people who otherwise would not have made music at all create something, and helped everyone -- musicians and listeners -- better understand the value of human drumming and "real" drums.

The job of the artist is always changing. Maybe part of your job is designing the seed image for the AI, part of your job is knowing how to work with the AI, and part of your job is sifting through a bunch of terrible images looking for the good ones. 

If nothing else, these new AI tools will inevitably produce artists who focus on AI interaction and output as their primary medium and make it the foundation of their career. Someone will eventually do some striking and creative things. Today, we are still in the early stages of “I asked this AI to generate something, look at how weird/bad/funny/adequate it is.” Tomorrow, “collaborations” between AI and human artists will be in modern art museums. 

Good Enough

Current AI art is like a well-read but uninspired artist. AI is good at cranking out consistent, mediocre, derivative work that occasionally surprises or delights when it brings you what it thought you asked for. It will never be brilliant. It will never "change your life." It will never make you think or cause a strong, polarizing reaction. 

Perhaps I am wrong. Art’s perceived value comes from the audience. There is plenty of mediocre work by human artists — movies, music, books, paintings — that matters to people. I imagine there will be people who find some AI works to be great, life-changing, powerful things, even if critics or the larger public consensus do not.

But AI art will absolutely be "good enough." Particularly for cheap commercial endeavors. If you are a commercial artist, you are best off leaning into this technology in a big way, and thinking about how you can leverage it to make your work better, faster, and easier.

Many of these points are similar or identical to things I have said about being a professional musician for many years. You can do what you want, but you can't decide how people will value that work. From an economics perspective, you're willing to get paid less (probably) because you are doing what you love (in theory). That's the choice you made. If you really cared about making money, you wouldn't be an artist. You'd be a banker or a lawyer or whatever. We can pick our jobs, but we usually don't get to also decide how much we get paid to do it, or how much society values it.

The real problem is that most people just do not care about art that much, whether it is painting or music or live theater or whatever. 

Artists and Tools

Prompt: "robot artist holding paintbrush"
We often use the word "artist" to mean two overlapping but distinctly different things. 

An "artist" is someone who makes creative work, driven by their own desire, "the muse", and/or some kind of inspiration. Artists make what they want and/or what they are compelled to create, as opposed to "entertainers" (who make what people want) or those doing "work for hire" (making things they are paid to make, but would not otherwise). In this context, the word can apply to anyone who "makes stuff": musicians, filmmakers, actors, poets, writers, and painters. We also use "artist" as a kind of catch-all for those who operate in visual media: painters, drawers, sculptors, illustrators, and so forth. 

I think it is important to remember the word has this dual meaning, as it can make things both blurrier and clearer.

I consider myself an artist: I am a former professional musician (I did it for the money) turned diligent amateur (I do it for the love). I create more work more frequently than many professionals, but I put little effort into "monetizing" my art, because I know the cold, hard truth: Most people just don't care that much about music anymore.

Computer-based tools and computer assistance are available for all artistic endeavors. If you are a creative person writing, painting, drawing, making music -- any of the traditional "fine arts", there are few places where machines aren't providing some kind of critical support. Even the work in that New York Times article was digitally photographed, cleaned up, and edited. 

AI has already won. It is here to stay, like steam hammers and drum machines. Like steam hammers, AI art generators will replace some human drudgery at the cost of the jobs of those humans. Like drum machines, AI art will help clarify the value and difference that humans making things with their hands provides and simultaneously open paths to new and different kinds of art. 

We can bemoan the loss of some kind of special human quality, or the value of art, or even just the cash being paid to artists. But the existence of AI art does not preclude any of that. You can have both. 

The reason we're afraid of AI art isn't the machine. We're afraid of AI art because we already know what we'll do with it, and what it says about what we really think about artists and creativity.

Saturday, December 31, 2022

2022 in Review

2022 was another year in the strange, warped time of the pandemic. Perhaps less bent or blurry than the previous two years, but passed quickly (I can’t believe it’s over already!) and yet at times seemed to drag on forever.

I did not write much on this blog, but I did also start a Substack where I have duplicated a few pieces and hope to add more in the future. I did manage a decent amount of journaling, a few essays, and a pile of songs.

Throughout the year, therapies mental and physical made my weeks easier and are continuing to help me deal with old injuries. I kept up my fitness and general health. I also appreciated the many great conversations I had with friends, mostly over Zoom, and occasionally, rarely, in person. I also continued to co-host the Music, Mindfulness, and Madness podcast, which provided forum and focus for many of the things I have been thinking about.

My singing has continued to improve, with help from May Oskan. I can't sing like I used to, but in some ways, I can sing better now. 

This year, like the last few, has been tough for many people. I had my own losses and problems, but I try not to dwell on them, particularly when I think about the state of the world. The environment is still in trouble. Ukraine is still under attack from Russia. American politics continues its toxic swirl, even if there are signs Trump might actually be somewhere between irrelevant and in trouble. The economy is wobbling as well, and that doesn't bode well for any of us, either.

On the plus side, I managed to not get COVID this year (knock wood), though it seems I did manage to pick up a cold in the last few days. I was creative, made some progress on projects and issues, and had a few moments of genuine bliss and relaxation amidst everything else. 

January ended with the passing of Jon Appleton, one of my musical mentors, and the pandemic continuing to grind on, with Omicron cresting. Lauren Tabak took some nice, spooky photos of me. 

February saw the release of Rêvenir’s Cure For Loneliness, my goth-rock collaboration with Christy Novack. This is one of the finest things I have released to date.

I also bought some new clothes, which may seem like a strange thing to do at a time when many of us aren't even wearing real pants on a daily basis. Dressing for me during the pandemic has often involved picking up whatever I was wearing yesterday off the floor and putting it on again. But I wanted to have some decent threads for whenever I was heading back out into the world.

But February's highlight was a trip to visit my dear friend Liz in Colorado. This was my first time on a plane since the pandemic started. It definitely caused some anxiety, but the trip was great, despite bitter cold. Nothing beats seeing old friends in person.

March saw me going on my first business trip since leaving PlayStation: Chicago, for the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons conference. This was also the first time I got to meet my co-workers in person, and was one of the reasons I bought some new business clothes. I loved every minute of it, except for the part where my feet had forgotten how to wear anything other than my house sneakers, and were blistered and sore by the end of the first of the 5 days of the trip!

I also spent some of my evenings in 2022 staying up late watching old TV shows on streaming services, some comforting nostalgia in dark times. Night Court. Daria. News Radio. Even a few bits of Knight Rider and Hart to Hart. Relics from a distant age, reminding me of how things used to be, for better or worse.

April, I flew to Utah for a company offsite. It was a thrilling experience, made perhaps more dizzying by both the headache-inducing altitude (7000 feet above sea level!) and the fear of COVID. I managed not to get it this trip! On the minus side, I also had some painful dental work done. Boo. Still better than not doing it, I suppose.

May kicked off with another COVID booster shot, which helped Iran and I prepare for a trip to Vancouver to celebrate our anniversary. We saw some friends, ate some tasty food, hiked through a beautiful Canadian park, and managed to find a last-minute testing site so we could be allowed to return to our home country.

If that wasn't enough excitement, we also saw Bauhaus live in San Francisco, where they put on a killer show. I feel fortunate to have seen them yet again.

June brought outdoor meals with friends, in San Francisco restaurants, enjoying the temperate weather, and some repairs to the car. This time, the person who hit it left a note, and paid the full costs of repairs, somewhat restoring my faith in humanity.

I turned 53 in July of this year. I celebrated by getting out of town, up to a favorite spot on the Northern California coast. I closed the month out with a trip back east to visit some old friends and see some family. I was happy to see everyone, and drove past some old haunts. The sweltering and muggy weather reminded me why I moved to California in the first place.

July also saw the sudden passing of Dean Williams, a friend of mine. His tragic death haunted me throughout the rest of 2022, causing me to tear up whenever I saw a photo of him, or heard some of his music. I am still learning how to grieve, and spent a lot of time thinking about him and the many other friends I have lost in years distant and recent.

I have not played live with Sid Luscious and The Pants since the pandemic started, but I have been doing the occasional Zoom performance. In August, one of my friends (and songwriting students) threw a party, and we threw a mini-set together to perform for people. It reminded me how thrilling and terrifying it is to play in front of real people, particularly when you are under-rehearsed!

I also bought a resonator guitar, adding some swampy strum to my arsenal.

September was notable for the passing of Iran's uncle David Sawyer. He had lived a long and full life, with his work making him a titan in the woodworking world. He was deeply and dearly loved by his family and friends.

October had a few highlights as well. I did a guest presentation for Mark Delong's technology seminar at Duke University, and wrote a nice essay about "Technological Rubble" to tee it up. We flew to Vermont for a memorial for Uncle Dave, and I also managed to see two old friends, one expected, one a pleasant surprise.

November had Thanksgiving, and more work on a new music project I will be revealing soon.

And here I am, at the end of December. Aside from the usual end of year appliance failures (this year: garbage disposal!) and medical appointments (everything's...fine?), I have been enjoying some time off from work, reflecting on the year, listening to music, and writing things like this essay.

I also joined a gym, and returned to lifting weights for the first time in almost 3 years. I'm in a very different environment than the old dingy place I used to lift in. It's a lot smaller, but for now, that's just fine. It feels good to use those muscles again, and I treasure the soreness.

Today has been a microcosm of the year. A rush of anxiety (Is this COVID or a cold? Time is running out!), problems (leaks in windows and other places), peace (as I sit in a comfortable chair, listening to quiet music, writing thank-you notes and essays), tasty food (coffee in the morning, bespoke pizza soon for dinner!), the company of my beloved, and some fun and music. I only wish there were more time to enjoy it all. 

But in 4 hours the day, the month, the year will be over. I have some intentions and plans for 2023, but those can wait for now.

Thank you for being here with me.