Worth Reading

The moment we found a Bosavi woolly rat (with thanks to Leon Wild).

The New Yorker‘s Sasha Frere-Jones on Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails’ final tour.

My 2008 presentation on Reznor and Radiohead’s strategies during ‘label shopping’ negotiations.

What Reznor possibly wished he had produced and why it leaked to BitTorrent.

Sears Holdings chairman Edward Lampert responds to Barron’s.

TNR‘s Peter Boone and Simon Johnson on the next financial crisis.

Johnny Rotten revives Public Image Ltd.

Richard Metzger’s new site Dangerous Minds.

Global Metal

York University anthropologist Sam Dunn has found a communication strategy to reach a broader audience than many academics and scholars.  Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey (2005) combined Dunn’s fandom of heavy metal music, a taxonomy of subgenres, interviews with influential musicians and a field trip to the Wacken Open Air festival in Germany.  Dunn’s follow-up documentary Global Metal (2008) travels from Wacken to three BRIC members (Brazil, India and China), China, Israel, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates.  Global Metal has rich insights on the coevolution of nation-states in the world system, the challenges of market design, indigenous and hybrid responses to globalisation, and new voices on old debates in heavy metal subcultures.

Anthropologists need an entry point into a new culture.  Dunn achieves this by interviewing Max Cavalera the cofounder of Brazil’s Sepultura and frontman for Soulfly and Cavalera Conspiracy.  Cavalera explains that Sepultura emerged in the mid-1980s as Brazil evolved from a military dictatorship to a neoliberal market society.  For many heavy metal fans Sepultura’s album Roots (1996) was their first encounter with an indigenous worldview as the band included field recordings with the Xavante Indians and Brazilian percussion.  Dunn’s interview with Cavalera uses Roots to tacitly bring the anthropological models and theories of Clifford Geertz, David Horowitz, Stanley Tambiah and others to fans who are unfamiliar with these influential scholars.  In contrast to this immersive approach Global Metal ends with a more familiar event: Iron Maiden‘s concert on 1st February 2008 the first time that a major Western heavy metal band has played Mumbia, India.

A second entry point for fans is when Dunn revisits past controversies and debates in heavy metal media to include new voices and perspectives.  Does Slayer‘s song ‘Angel of Death’ about the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele promote Holocaust denial and racism?  Dunn turns to the Israeli band Orphaned Land who note that although the song was written for shock value it has been used by politicians to inform Israeli youth about the Holocaust.  Orphaned Land then talk about Jerusalem as a global city and the past religious conflicts between Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  Far scarier than Middle Ages imagery and occult demons is Orphaned Land’s reality of having to live daily with potential suicide bombers in crowded urban areas.

Dunn returns to this debate throughout Global Metal to show how different individuals and groups reinterpret a meme or symbol and how this can have unforseeable outcomes.  Orphaned Land recount how after playing ‘Angel of Death’ live for Israeli audiences they were sent a mail bomb by Varg Vikernes a notorious Norwegian black metal musician and Holocaust denier.  Iranian fans who are photographed next to Slayer graffiti face possible arrest and torture by religious police – which provokes Slayer’s frontman Tom Araya to comment that the fans seek a death sentence.

More disturbingly, Dunn interviews the Indonesian band Tengkorak whose song ‘Jihad Soldiers’ embraces a militant Islamist worldview.  When Tengorak’s lead singer quotes conspiracy theories from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Dunn observes his jacket has a crossed out Nazi swastika.  “We’re not against Jews,” the singer explains, “just the Jewish system.”  Dunn then visits a Muslim mosque with another Indonesian musician.  Tengorak’s context is the 1997 Asian currency crisis which sparked a wave of conspiracy theories within Indonesia due to macroeconomic destabilisation.

Many of the interviewees give examples of how heavy metal music is reinterpreted differently to Western narratives.  Japanese fans reject Western alienation as an existential motivation and instead create a more emotional and direct identity that is an alternative to their conformist work identity.  KISS had an immediate impact in Japan as the band’s makeup is comparable to Kabuki theatre.  The live improvisation which closed Deep Purple‘s first concert at Tokyo’s Nippon Budokan in 1972 has sparked a subculture of ageing salarymen who reform their teenage bands to play ‘Highway Star’.  Former Megadeth guitarist Marty Friedman explains how X-Japan and Death Panda have fused heavy metal with Japanese game shows like Rock Fujiyama and pop music to create rifts within and between subcultures.  In China heavy metal music is used as part of a Confucian state policy to give youth an outlet for aggression, even though the music is officially frowned upon.  Whilst visiting Mumbai, Dunn intercuts scenes of Indian bands playing a local bar with the Hindu wedding playing Bollywood music next door: two alternative cultures coexist.

The heavy metal subcultures that Dunn visits serve as barometers for nation-state development; freedom for religious and political views; and in a nod to Ulrich Beck, P.R. Sarkar and Amy Chua, the relationship of subcultural groups to mainstream society and sociopolitical power.  Japan has a Janus-faced subculture which has Western and indigenous elements.  India and the United Arab Emirates’ subcultures are at an infancy stage which Dunn links explicitly to democratic political institutions and modernisation: UAE hosts a festival with bands and fans who cannot perform in their home countries due to restrictions.  China, Iran and Turkey have subcultures that are underground due to religious authorities who perceive them as antinomian youth subcultures.  Beck’s concept of subpolitics from below and Sarkar’s Law of the Social Cycle provide theoretical insights here: if the fans are shudra (workers) they have coopted insights from vaeshya (entrepreneurs, merchants) and vipra (intellectuals) to create soft power which counteracts the influence of ksatriya (military).

Brazil and Indonesia are two test cases of this hypothesis.  Cavalera’s narrative of Brazil’s transition to democracy st
ands in contrast to Samuel P. Huntington’s Political Order in Changing Societies (1968) which warned of the gap between rapid sociopolitical change and lagging political institutions.  Instead, Cavalera argues that Sepultura’s music signified a subpolitics response by the shudra underclass to poverty and the lack of macroeconomic and sociopolitical reforms by social elites.  The flashpoint is Metallica’s concert on 11th April 1993 at Lebak Bulus Stadiam in Jakarta, Indonesia.  Metallica’s drummer Lars Ulrich explains that in order to protect a middle class area Indonesian police prevent fans from entering the stadium.  Fans retaliate by setting fire to the surrounding buildings; the smoke is visible on a bootleg concert tape.  Indonesian authorites then banned all heavy metal bands and live tours until the Suharto regime ended in 1998.  Indonesia’s heavy metal subculture have since gained greater visibility although Tengorak gives voice to subcultural fears of Western geoeconomic, cultural and religious domination.

The consensus of most fans in Global Metal is that heavy metal’s ‘identity politics’ is evolving into a transnational network with a cosmopolitan worldview.  Almost everyone in the documentary wars an Iron Maiden t-shirt – the power of Chinese sweatshops, marketing and passionbrands.  The major facilitator is the heavy metal entrepreneur, such as the cofounder of China’s Tang Dynasty who imported Western heavy metal in the late 1980s and then evolved into an indigenous worldview.  The major barrier to this cosmopolitan ideal and diffusion process is when subcultural identities are caught in Muzafer Sherif‘s assimilation-contrast effect of social judgment: Japanese purist fans who decry the fusion of pop-metal or Indian fans who are caught in a power struggle with authority figures and family traditions.

Failures in market design are one source of these infra-subcultural battles.  In order to change their financial account reporting Western conglomerates dumped their excess back catalogue such as Extreme‘s 1989 debut album as cheap CDs into India and other countries.  Third World countries were the beneficiaries of bootlegs, MP3s and illegal downloads.  Dunn coaxs an admission from Ulrich that this is a positive trend, a reversal of Metallica’s lawsuit against Napster in 2000.  Black markets emerge where demand exists yet there are no official agents and major price differentials exist.  Ironically,  Global Metal is a victim of this trend: the documentary and a soundtrack of featured bands now circulates on illegal BitTorrent networks.  Turn up the distortion to 11.

Ebook Textbooks & The Market for Lemons

The software consultant Ed Yourdon once warned US programmers in his book Decline and Fall of the American Programmer (1992) that they faced global hypercompetition.  This was a fashionable message in the turbulent early 1990s of industry deregulation, export tariffs, mega-mergers, downsizing and reengineering.  Spenglerian pessimism made Decline and Fall an IT bestseller as Eastern European and Russian computer programmers emerged as low cost competition with their US counterparts.  Now in Thomas Friedman‘s vision of a flatter world the Eastern European and Russian computer programmers have help from an unlikely source: electronic copies of IT textbooks.

Several barriers mean that US textbook publishers are cautious about embracing ebook versions.  Publishers fear the Napsterisation of ebooks on peer-to-peer networks.  There’s no standard ebook device although Amazon’s Kindle is the latest candidate.  There’s no standard ebook format: most use Adobe PDF, however when Acrobat 8 was released Adobe shifted its ebook functionality to a new Digital Reader that did not necessarily read a user’s existing ebook collection.  Potential customers do not have a utility function to necessarily favour ebooks over printed copies: publishers charge high prices for ebook versions that may contribute a higher contribution margin to profits but that give the customer little price differential compared with print counterparts.

The implementation of digital rights management (DRM) also leaves much to be desired: McGraw-Hill’s Primis uses a digital fingerprint on a hard-drive that voids an ebook even if reinstalled on a reformatted drive due to a virus, whilst Thomson’s Cengage Learning uses a time-sensitive model which gives the user access for one semester to an ebook with the full price of its exact print version.  Publishers are also slow to adjust cross-currency rates: Australian textbooks still cost $A120-$200 despite near parity between the Australian and US dollars.

Thus, it’s no surprise that ebook divisions remain small in multinational publishing conglomerates.  One exception is Harvard Business School Press which appears to have ditched Sealed Media’s DRM plugin for Adobe Acrobat after Oracle acquired SM in August 2006 and then had integration problems with information rights management.

These barriers suggest a failure in market design with analogies to George Akerlof‘s study of the used car market in his influential paper The Market for Lemons (1970).  Publishers counter that although there is a lack of ebook standards similar to Akerlof’s paper the economics of publishing provide a disincentive to lower prices.  They claim high fixed costs in printing, photography rights and licensing fees for the case studies taken from Businessweek, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal.  Author fees and promotional budgets to professional associations add variable costs -  however, Australian academics have a disincentive to publish textbooks compared with their US colleagues, as Australia’s Department of Education, Employment & Workplace Relations does not provide recognition points.

To survive US textbook publishers have turned to global market models with regional editions of popular texts (such as Asia-Pacific editions with local coauthors), and adopted the music industry’s business model of electronic and online content (similar to how record labels have released Dualdisc, DVD and collectors editions of albums).  However as Yourdon warned US programmers this may not be a business model with longterm sustainability.  MIT’s OpenCourseWare, Apple’s iTunesU and Scribd all provide free content that mirrors the generic content in most textbooks, although some differentiate via a problem-based approach.

Yourdon’s ‘challenger’ computer programmers now also have illegal BitTorrent sites such as The Pirate Bay, filehosting networks such as Rapidshare, and ebook sites including Avaxsphere.com and PDFCHM to choose from.  The last two provide solutions to Akerlof’s challenge in market design: they have an easier user interface, a broader (illegal) catalogue of ebook titles, and DRM-free files compared to Cengage Learning or McGraw-Hill.  Even business strategists are getting in on the act, as Clayton Christensen, Curtis Johnson & Michael Horn explore in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns (McGraw-Hill, New York, 2008).

There’s one textbook coauthor who came up with a unique solution to Akerlof’s dilemma in market design.  His Macroeconomics book coauthors Andrew Abel and Dean Croushore opted for the mod-cons from publisher Addison-Wesley: an online site and a one-semester ebook version as a bundle deal.  The textbook coauthor?

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.