Breaking the Brokers

garbageAs a harbinger of the turmoil to come in the music publishing industry, a ragtag service called Napster caught the imaginations of musicians and their fans, the record industry and not a few lawyers. A friend who was both a lawyer and an indie-label record producer tried to explain to me that Napster was a rank copyright infringer because the service facilitated the unlawful copying and distribution of protected content. My argument to the contrary was based on the notion that Napster itself neither copied nor distributed content – instead the company supplied peer-to-peer software that allowed users to share content with each other without communicating through an intermediary. Although Napster was deployed almost exclusively to share music (mostly illegally), it could also allow users to share personal photos, documents and any other digital file. Clearly, the people sharing copyrighted music were violating copyright, but in my mind Napster wasn’t. (I likened the situation to head shops that sold water pipes and bongs for smoking dope – they facilitated an illegal activity, but the products themselves were not illegal.)

To be sure, record companies litigated individuals who had egregiously violated copyrights, but the fallout from attacking its customers cost the record companies even more ill will. Remember, Napster came about at least in part as a response to the piss-poor way the record companies delivered music: as expensive bundled albums containing one or two decent songs accompanied by uninspired filler.

Nevertheless, under tremendous pressure from the music industry Napster was shut down. The Recording Industry Association of America sued for copyright infringement in 1999 under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and the courts forced Napster to put processes in place to thwart illegal sharing – a requiement that was impossible to comply with given the design of the software. Napster went away, but not before dramatically altering the music industry forever.

Similarly, a company called Aereo filed for bankruptcy just a few months ago after losing an intellectual property suit in a U.S. District Court in California. Aereo sought to disrupt the cable television industry by allowing subscribers to rent an antenna which picked up freely-available, live TV broadcast signals. Aereo then delivered the captured signals over the internet to individuals’ devices. Again, Aereo did not copy content – it merely picked up signals available to any American with an antenna on his roof. Aereo offered to house the antenna for a fee to its customers. Still, under intense pressure from the cable companies – a group broadly despised by its customer base, by the way, for its crappy business practices – the courts intervened. Its business model shattered, Aereo suspended operations.

Which brings me to the newest collection of upstarts seeking to disrupt other necrotic industries like taxi service and vacation lodging: Uber, Lyft, AirBnb, and countless others. Are these “brokers” vulnerable to fates similar to those of Napster and Aereo?
Uber and Lyft provide mobile software that connects people seeking rides with drivers willing to provide them. Both companies use GPS technology and route optimization algorithms to match riders and drivers. They also offer variable rates based on instantaneous demand and other factors, and complete the transaction automatically so no money changes hands. In cities where the taxi and limousine industry hasn’t changed much in a century, Uber and Lyft seem like transformative agents. AirBnB operates to match people looking for temporary lodging with individuals (not hotels) in possession of accommodations they are willing to rent temporarily. In all cases, the companies continually point out they do not own or operate taxis and hotel properties, nor do they employ drivers and hoteliers – and therefore should not be constricted by the laws and regulations that apply to their old-world competition.

Others see it differently, particularly those who have suffered from the way Uber and AirBnB sometimes deliver dicey service: riders subjected to the dangerous moves of unskilled drivers, neighbors of people who rent out their apartments to inconsiderate strangers who traipse about the common hallways in drunken stupors. AirBnB came in for some serious derision in a recent New York City Council hearing in which irate tenants blasted the company for facilitating deterioration in their communities. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman reported that fully three-fourths of all AirBnB transaction in the state are illegal. Uh oh.

Uber is under even greater attack, especially from the taxi industry and its friends in politics. Although banned from operating in several cities and countries (Spain, India, Thailand, Germany), Uber has been anything but contrite or circumspect. Uber executives have been vilified for suggesting a plan to smear prying reporters, and many riders have come to loathe the surge pricing algorithm that can drive the cost of a short trip into the stratosphere when conditions constrain supply. And Uber had to apologize after gouging panicked citizens of Sydney, Australia who were trying to get away from the location of a terrorist hostage situation (but fundamentally, if you don’t like the idea of surge pricing, you shouldn’t complain when you can’t get a taxi in the rain.)

Jawajarlal Nehru University Students Union Activists Protest Against The Rape
Some less-than-favorble press for Uber.

Perhaps the biggest threat imposed by Uber and its ilk is its ability to collect, analyze and even release personal information about its clientele. They know every place a client has been and where they went, and when, and how often. They can easily establish patterns of behavior, and in doing so could determine who has cancer, who is cheating on their spouse, who is an alcoholic. Once people start getting outed by Uber – either purposefully or as the result of a hack on Uber’s servers – will the enthusiasm for the service remain high?

Still, the broker business model seems to have captured the delight of investors. AirBnB and Uber imitators are cropping up like weeds, and companies like Angie’s List, Match.com, eBay have long thrived on doing nothing more than pairing buyers and sellers efficiently.

The looming question is whether a force strong enough to snuff out or seriously alter Uber and AirBnB will prevail, like they did with Napster and Aereo. I predict an existential showdown is coming.

And now – Breaking the Balls

Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady on the subject of his balls. (All quotes guaranteed verbatim.)

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“Our equipment guys do a great job of breaking the balls in. they have a process that they go through. When I pick those balls out, at that point to me they’re perfect. I don’t want anyone touching the balls after that. I don’t want anyone rubbing them , putting any air in them, taking any air out. To me those balls are perfect and that’s what I expect when I show up on the field.”

“You go through that process of breaking the balls in and getting comfortable with them. Of course I choose the balls that I want to use for the game and that’s what I expect to go out on the playing field with.”

“I’m not squeezing the balls. That’s not part of my process. I grab it, I feel the lace, I feel the leather.”

“Everybody has a preference. Some guys like them round and some guys like them thin. Some guys like them tacky. Some guys like them brand new. Some guys like old balls. They’re all different. And it’s leather.”

RIP Kim Fowley

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I first discovered the skanky works of Kim Fowley in the mid-1970s through my nascent interest in the seminal chick punk band, The Runaways. A local band I hung around with at that time occasionally opened for The Runaways. I went to a couple shows before the band became (in)famous in places like Fredonia, NY, and bought the eponymous first album – an energetic disk produced by Fowley. Hearing about Fowley and his off-the-wall antics compelled me to seek out and collect his earlier obscure albums – which in a pre-Internet, pre-eBay world was not an easy task.

I managed to acquire several Fowley albums over the years, none of which were particularly endearing. But I loved to pull them out once in a while just to ogle the covers. My favorite was 1968’s “Outrageous” featuring a chained and leathered Fowley lying in cesspool about to be whipped by a naked woman standing calf-deep in murky effluence.

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If you’ve never heard of Kim Fowley, you may still know of such acts as Paul Revere and the Raiders, Gene Vincent, Blue Cheer, The Seeds, Alice Cooper, and (yes) Helen Reddy. Fowley produced works for these and many others, dating from 1959 to 2014. In 2012 he wrote a memoir/poetry collection titled “Lord of Garbage” which sums things up nicely. Here is an excerpt describing what happened after his grandmother decided to send him back to his mother alone on a train at the age of three.

“I rode from Oregon, alone, to Los Angeles, roped into a seat, pissing and shitting the whole way. On the way to the train station I saw a truck full of turkeys on their way to being slaughtered. It was raining and the turkeys knew they were about to get murdered, and they were crying and whimpering in this open truck. And they all looked at me, and I looked at them, and I knew I was doomed for life. I was deformed. I was being sent back alone, a thousand miles away, alone in the middle of a fucking war. And it was at that moment as the age of three, that I formulated the idea for a song I would one day write, a song that Jimi Hendrix recorded in 1967 called Fluffy Turkeys.

Is any of that true? Who really knows.

Kim Fowley passed away January 15 leaving behind a legacy of debauchery and, perhaps, genius. Such assessments are in the eye and ear of the beholder. But it’s for certain he exercised an influence on rock n roll that is probably under-appreciated.

RIP Kim Fowley.

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