When Outlaws are Innovators: An Interview with Jonathan Taplin (Part Two)

There’s a recurring focus here on the influence of technology on the creative process, though the picture we get seems somewhat inconsistent — sometimes limited means and low tech generate creative strategies, while other times artists embrace the emergent properties of new media. How would you describe the relationship between artistic experimentation and technological innovation?

Well you know sometimes I’m a skeptic about the promise of technological innovation leading to artistic breakthroughs. We used to talk about the 80-20 rule in movies and music. 80% of the business would be done by 20% of the content. Professor Christian Sandvig showed me some data last week that on You Tube maybe 3% of the content gets 90% of the views. And most of that content is music videos from major artists. Now I realize that You Tube allows any filmmaker to get their work seen and I’m not interested in going back to the days of the early 1970’s. If I had been unable to sell Mean Streets to one of the majors in 1974, it would have literally disappeared. There were no “indie” distributors of any consequence.

The other side of this relates to some work we have been doing with T Bone Burnett on the future of the music business. Bone makes the point that the digital revolution has actually taken us backwards in the quality of the sound we listen to. In other words, that vinyl album of Jimi Hendrix–Are You Experienced, was much fuller and warmer than listening to the MP3 with a pair of ear buds.

The other part of the work is figuring out how the musicians get paid as well as the songwriters do. When you go into a Gap store, you are paying for the music they stream in the store. The same with restaurants or bars or elevators. But that money only goes to the music publishers, so all my friends who were songwriters in the 1960’s are doing quite well and all who were just drummers or singers are poor as church mice.

So while the digital revolution is certainly democratizing the distribution of media, we need to understand that there are winners and losers. Just look at the relative fortunes of Google and The New York Times. Has Google built a $30 billion ad business on the back of other company’s content? Maybe?

A central concern here is the ways that these artists have dealt with issues of democracy and racial equality. What roles do you think the arts have played in shaping the public’s perception of and acceptance of an increasingly multicultural society?

I think the “modern arts” have done more to shape a multicultural society than almost any other force. I say “modern”, in the sense that in 19th Century America, the most popular kind of public entertainment was the minstrel show.

So the modern art of jazz changes that completely. Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong bring this incredibly original music to a white audience that had entertained itself by watching white men do blackface routines of the most grotesque caricatures. When Benny Goodman played at Carnegie Hall with a black piano player, Teddy Wilson, in the early forties it was considered incredibly daring. So we have come a long way and the artists have been the ones to push the edge of the envelope. Even as late as 1957, right wing writers were railing against rock and roll because they thought that if a young white kid loved Chuck Berry, it would inevitably lead to “race mixing”. And of course that was true.

You describe throughout how crisis in capitalism provoke great art. What does this suggest about our current moment? Will the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements be equally generative? Why or why not?

I think the jury is out on this question. Certainly the artist’s role in the “Great Refusal” that Marcuse describes, does not seem to be present right now. There is no Woody Guthrie or Joan Baez singing to either OWS or the Tea Party. The crisis of capitalism that was the great depression certainly generated a lot of art because the government thought it was just as important to keep artists off the unemployment line as auto workers. So the WPA in the 1930’s funded cats like Jackson Pollack and Orson Welles. They sent Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange out into the deepest pockets of rural poverty to take photographs that inspire us still today. I think if Obama proposed a Federal Arts program like that of the 1930’s he would be probably decried as an chardonnay drinking elitist and denounced by both the radio talk show hosts and the House Republicans. Certainly you see the meager amounts of money provided to the NEA and NEH being cut back each year. The City of Paris spends more money supporting artists than our Federal government.

The second part of the current disconnect stems from the weird balance between the current anger and the utopian optimism of many of the Vanguard movements I wrote about in Outlaw Blues. As someone pointed out Martin Luther King’s most famous speech was “I have a dream”, not “I have a nightmare”. It’s very hard to sustain a social movement just on anger, which is why the Tea Party movement has probably already peaked. As for Occupy Wall Street, my sense is they really believe in direct democracy. When I visited the New York encampment, it was organized like a late 1960’s commune. Now the history of communes in America, which I talk about in the book, has been a real struggle to demonstrate (in Martin Duberman’s words) “that individual development and group membership are complimentary not contradictory goals”. That is really hard if you are living and working with the same people 24/7 like at OWS or in a commune in the wilds of New Mexico. But it’s not so hard to reconcile these two forces, as you and I know, around the groups we support in our academic lives like Project New Media Literacy or the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

Near the end of the book, you shared some insights into the impact of Steve Jobs on American culture. Is Jobs a friend or a foe to the tradition you are describing across this book?

Steve Jobs was a hero to me because he somehow was able to bring Art and Science together in a way that I strive for. He was versed in the humanities and was curious about technology. Its clear to me that Wozniak was the coder and Jobs was the marketer at the beginning of Apple. When I hear educators talking about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), it drives me crazy. Our schools are art and humanities starved as it is and they think the solution is teaching MORE STEM.

As Steve Jobs pointed out to Walter Isaccson in the new biography, if he had never taken calligraphy at Reed College, the attention to font, which distinguished the early Mac, would have never happened. We are good in the country at building objects of desire—I Pads, Scorsese movies, Springsteen songs, Harley motorcycles. I’m not sure our comparative advantage over India and China is STEM. Its what Steve Jobs did, which was STEAM—Art plus technology. I think that is the vision that shapes almost everything we are doing at the Annenberg Innovation Lab. If somehow we can blend the humanities and engineering in one lab, we will have succeeded. We certainly feel our early efforts to team communications scholars from Annenberg with engineers from Viterbi have been rather successful.

What are you able to accomplish by publishing this book electronically, which would be hard if not impossible to achieve through print?

When I first got the I Pad, I instantly knew it would make a new kind of book possible. Outlaw Blues has over 100 embedded videos that are an integral part of the text. I don’t think the story would have been half as interesting if I had not had the videos. I could describe the scene at the Newport Folk Festival when Dylan first went electric, but you would never understand it as well as being able to see the video of that moment.

What is so cool is that this circles back to this relationship between art and technology. In doing the film research, I realized an explosion of video source material right after World War II. So the 16 MM optical sound film was really perfected by Kodak in 1935, but it was World War II that the war cameramen embraced it because the cameras were so much lighter to carry around while dodging bullets in battle. After the war, a whole new documentary style using light weight cameras begins, and with it the ability to record on film almost everything. So Cartier Bresson’s “decisive moment” gets extended to the “decisive 5 minutes”—the length of an early reel of 16 MM film.

You have been working with T. Bone Burnett on a project concerning the Future of Music. What can you tell us about this project?

T-Bone and I are both concerned about two problems in the contemporary music business. The first is sound. The current MP3 track, heard through ear buds on your I Phone is a pale approximation of what the musician heard when he finished the mix in the recording studio. The basis for the MP3 was invented in the Bell Labs in 1979! Remember the early modems in the 1980’s were 24 KBPS, so you needed to strip out a huge number of frequencies to compress a music file to travel over a 24 K modem. But today we have 10 MBPS wireless bandwidth with 4 G. Why should we be confined to this shitty audio codec?

The second part is to figure out how to get musicians paid for recordings. As I said before, the songwriters get paid for every stream:in a bar, restaurant, clothing store, elevator, internet radio station, etc. But the musicians don’t get a cent and must rely only on CD sales and I Tunes downloads. As long as most of the world thinks its cool to listen to pirated content, then the musicians don’t earn a dime. Some of my students say, “well the musicians make their money from touring, the records are just a portion for their concerts.” So you are telling me that Aretha Franklin, having made some of the great music of the 60’s and 70’s has to continue to tour, just to survive? That doesn’t seem fair when millions of people are listening to “Respect” this year.

The best solution we’ve come up with is a broadband access license of a couple of dollars on top of your broadband bill which goes into a general copyright fund and is paid out to artists based on how many of their songs were listened to illegally per month around the world. A company called Big Champagne already has the data by crawling the web. It wouldn’t be hard and it would generate about $2 billion per month for content creators.

Jonathan Taplin is a Professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. Taplin is Director of the USC Annenberg Innovation Lab . Taplin’s areas of specialization are in international communication management and the field of digital media entertainment. Taplin began his entertainment career in 1969 as Tour Manager for Bob Dylan and The Band. In 1973 he produced Martin Scorsese’s first feature film, Mean Streets which was selected for the Cannes Film Festival. Between 1974 and 1996, Taplin produced 26 hours of television documentaries (including The Prize and Cadillac Desert for PBS) and 12 feature films including The Last Waltz, Until The End of the World, Under Fire and To Die For. His films were nominated for Oscar and Golden Globe awards and chosen for The Cannes Film Festival seven times.

In 1984 Taplin acted as the investment advisor to the Bass Brothers in their successful attempt to save Walt Disney Studios from a corporate raid. This experience brought him to Merrill Lynch, where he served as vice president of media mergers and acquisitions. In this role, he helped re-engineer the media landscape on transactions such as the leveraged buyout of Viacom. Taplin was a founder of Intertainer and has served as its Chairman and CEO since June 1996. Intertainer was the pioneer video-on-demand company for both cable and broadband Internet markets. Taplin holds two patents for video on demand technologies. Professor Taplin has provided consulting services on Broadband technology to the President of Portugal and the Parliament of the Spanish state of Catalonia. In May of 2010 he was appointed Managing Director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab.

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