Friday, March 15, 2002

The music industry is an interesting study in the free market at work. The major companies have been credibly accused of price-fixing on CDs, and seriously exploiting the artists whose product they sell.

As for promotion, as I mentioned a few days ago, almost every song you hear on the radio is bought and paid for --- pay for play. It seems that the record companies are finally starting to figure out that this is poor value for money. And what entrepreneurial solution do the hard-charging businessmen of this major industry propose? Government regulation --- they want the FCC to step in to regulate the independant promoters who serve as middlemen in modern-day payola.

Which brings me to the company which nearly has a stranglehold on rock music radio, Clear Channel. They own hundreds of radio stations, coast to coast. The benefit of this to the listeners? Synergy.

What does synergy mean in the radio business? A national brand, of almost fifty different radio stations all calling themselves KISS-FM, like KSAS-FM in Des Moines. Even though the station is owned by a huge conglomerate, they're still involved in the community. On President's Day, the station's intern, "Smooch" is doing a live appearance, joshing with the DJ, "Cabana Boy Geoff" Alan, who's telling the crowd how bad Smooch's dance moves looked last Saturday night at the Big Easy, a hot Des Moines night spot.

The sound of that banter is the sound of synergy. Smooch is actually acting out his half of the conversation; "Cabana Boy Geoff" doesn't work holidays. He recorded his half of the conversation ahead of time.

In fact, "Cabana Boy Geoff" has never been to the Big Easy. He's never been to Des Moines; he works out of San Diego, and improvises scripts based on bits of local color mailed in by the Des Moines station manager. The phone calls from listeners played by the station are actually San Diego phone calls with the local color edited out; people who dial the real Des Moines radio station get a busy signal unless, for some strange reason, a member of its skeleton staff is in the office. Nor does the station have its own playlist --- that's done out of a central office. The Des Moines station manager mails in suggestions, which are rarely heeded.

This arrangement is justified by everyone in the company as providing "a higher-quality product at lower cost". Which is to say, homogenized crud, with no variety, and no opportunity for interesting new music to break out in local markets.

Incidentally, you, as a radio listener could be receiving this kind of wonderful service without even being aware of it. Clear Channel runs stations in numerous markets through shell companies to disguise their ownership. And if you're an advertiser, who relies on ratings to set rates, you might want to know they're holding a knife to arbitron.

But Clear Channel isn't just radio. They also do concerts. A couple of years ago, they bought out SFX entertainment, which was already one of the major concert promoters in the country, with bookings at venues all over. Which, of course, has lead to more synergy. The radio promotes concerts, which in turn, provide a venue to promote the radio stations.

Bands would surely accept a discount on their fees for this kind of service. If they don't, they don't get airplay. There have been numerous complaints that Clear Channel retaliates against bands who take better offers from other promoters, or even play concerts with other companies' radio stations, by denying the bands airplay throughout their network. In one case in Cincinnati, another radio station got sponsorship for a concert at a Clear Channel venue, and the upshot was retaliation against both the radio station and the band.

And it isn't even just music. Clear Channel recently got dumped as promoter for motocross, and is retaliating by trying to start its own league.

The astonishing thing is that all of this clawing and scraping doesn't even make for a profitable business. Clear Channel's immense reach is the result of a buying spree that has lasted for years and left them $9 billion in debt. But even if they don't survive, that doesn't necessarily mean a return to competition; they could just be swallowed whole, at a discount, by an even bigger fish. As can be seen, in a survey of entertainment monopolies through history...

Thursday, March 14, 2002

During the Clinton Administration, Republican complaints about Democratic fundraising teases were legion, particularly when it came to informal "teas" with officials and overnight stays in the White House. With Democrats in power, campaign contributors just couldn't get value for money.

Consider the agenda for a two-day workshop offered by the National Republican Campaign Committee. The workshop kicks off with a highlight, for members of the exclusive "Speaker's Circle" --- a closed-door briefing on defense issues from the head of the House Intelligence Committee. After that, you can talk taxes with Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the head of the Ways and Means committee, and discuss economic and energy issues with a variety of White House and Congressional staffers.

Or, if you prefer a more informal setting, a mere $5,000 gets you four days of sun, fun, and face time at Lake Tahoe. Compare that to tea and a hotel room.

Republicans --- they can't seem to maintain a budget surplus, but they sure know the value of a buck.

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

A belated "six months later" post: like a lot of folks, I saw it from a kind of emotional distance; a couple of friends of not-quite-friends were on the planes, and by great good luck and the fortunate travels of my New York relatives, that was as close as it got to me personally. Still, we were attacked, and it's worth picking through some of the threads of recent events to see by what.

They call themselves Islamic. Something of their character can be seen in the murder of Danny Pearl:

Nobody knows when Mr Pearl was finally murdered. But the timing of the delivery of the brief, horrific video has a ghastly resonance. The principal event of Eid in the Islamic world is the sacrifice of goats and sheep - a ritual commemorating the rescue of Isaac from the blade of Abraham who sent a sheep to take the child's place. In backyards from Casablanca to Mindanao, the legs of billy goats and rams are bound, a pit is dug in the ground to receive the blood, then the head of the house presses the animal's neck towards the pit and slits it.

And the video, too, showed a swift, ceremonial killing - the killing in captivity of Danny Pearl. According to one who has seen it, the tape shows Mr Pearl speaking directly into the video camera, and saying: "I am a Jew, my mother is a Jew." Then the hand of his killer - only his hands are shown - comes into the frame and slits his throat. Like the ram and the billy goat at Eid, he is then decapitated.

The religious overtones appear to be deliberate. As Iraqi dissidents Hassan Mneimneh and Kanan Makiya note in their chilling analysis of the highjackers' manual for the Sept. 11th raids, killing passengers was explicitly described as a religious, ritual slaughter, exactly like the slaughter of the goats at Eid:

The killings that the hijackers are about to undertake are no longer real but part of a sacred drama. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the following chilling instructions about what to do should the hijackers encounter unexpected resistance, as we know happened on United Airlines Flight 93: "If God grants any one of you a slaughter, you should perform it as an offering on behalf of your father and mother, for they are owed by you. Do not disagree amongst yourselves, but listen and obey."

Here we find an explanation of what it means to kill a passenger who is attempting to resist. The Arabic word used for "grant" is manna, as in the biblical manna; it connotes the idea of a bounty or an act of grace conferred by God upon a person who has not asked for it. The Arabic for "slaughter" is dhabaha. The author has pointedly chosen it over the more common qatala, which means, simply, to kill. The classical dictionaries tell us the primary meaning of dhabaha is to cleave, slit, or rip something open. This is the word used for slitting the two external jugular veins in the throat of an animal. It is quick, direct, and always physically intimate; one does not slaughter with a gun, or a bomb, from afar.

The intimacy associated with dhabaha explains the vulgar usages of the word in street or colloquial Arabic, which are designed to shock the listener, to impress upon him or her how strongly the speaker feels toward the object of dhabh (more often than not a personal enemy, a tyrant, or a criminal). But it seems clear that this vulgar usage is not why dhabaha was preferred over qatala by the author of the document. Dhabaha is also what Abraham was prepared to do to his son on God's instructions?until Isaac in Jewish and early Muslim tradition, or Isma'il, Ishmael, in later Muslim tradition was replaced with a sheep at the last minute.

And, in fact, going back to the Independent, we see that this style of human sacrifice has featured in "Islamist" terrorism over and over:

It was impossible, hearing how Danny Pearl died, not to recall that this, the swiftest and yet most primitive method of execution, has over and over been the method of choice for these terrorists. In 1995, Islamic militants in Kashmir - probably members of Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, kidnapped six western trekkers. All but two vanished without trace. Of the others, one escaped, the other was decapitated.

On IC-914, the Indian Airlines Kathmandu-Delhi flight hijacked in December 1999, a business class passenger had his throat slit and the rest of the passengers had to watch him die. Identical executions, using box cutters, appear to have occurred on at least one of the hijacked planes crashed in the US on 11 September.

In the wake of the attacks, there was a lot of commentary on various sides as to how much Islam is really a peaceful religion. But not perhaps since the Assassins, if then, has it been explicitly transmuted into so much of a death cult.

But they aren't so religious that they can't be pragmatic in who they deal with; one of bin Laden's manifestoes defends collaboration with secular dictators from Islamic cultures:

To repel the greatest of the two dangers at the expense of the lesser one is an Islamic principle which should be observed. It was the tradition of the people of the Sunnah to join and invade and fight with the righteous and non-righteous men. Allah may support this religion by righteous and non-righteous people as told by the Prophet ... If it is not possible to fight except with the help of non-righteous military personnel and commanders, then there are two possibilities: either fighting will be ignored and the others [the infidels], who are the great danger to this life and religion, will take control; or [we will have] to fight with the help of non-righteous rulers, thereby repelling the greatest of the two dangers and implementing most, though not all, of the Islamic laws. The latter option is the right duty to be carried out in these circumstances and in many other similar situations.

Which of course, gets the terrorists mixed up with people whose morals are even more screwed up than their own. Peter Landesman recently reported a talk with a former Pakistani intelligence official --- a veteran of the same service that helped, in another branch, to create the Taliban --- saying, apropos of Pakistan's nuclear capability:

"We should fire at them and take out a few of their cities --- Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta," he said. "They should fire back and take Karachi and Lahore. Kill off a hundred or two hundred million people. They should fire at us and it would all be over. They have acted so badly toward us; they have been so mean. We should teach them a lesson. It would teach all of us a lesson. There is no future here, and we need to start over. So many people think this. Have you been to the villages of Pakistan, the interior? There is nothing but dire poverty and pain. The children have no education; there is nothing to look forward to. Go into the villages, see the poverty. There is no drinking water. Small children without shoes walk miles for a drink of water. I go to the villages and I want to cry. My children have no future. None of the children of Pakistan have a future. We are surrounded by nothing but war and suffering. Millions should die away."

"Pakistan should fire pre-emptively?" I asked.

Aman nodded.

"And you are willing to see your children die?"

"Tens of thousands of people are dying in Kashmir, and the only superpower says nothing," Aman said. "America has sided with India because it has interests there." He told me he was willing to see his children be killed. He repeated that they didn't have any future?his children or any other children.

I asked him if he thought he was alone in his thoughts, and Aman made it clear to me that he was not.

"Believe me," he went on, "If I were in charge, I would have already done it."

We don't see here devotion to God, in any form; but the constant is devotion to death.

Diane E. notes, in her superb Letter from Gotham:

The American middle class lives in a lovely world. Its characterized by material ease, high culture, tolerance, politeness, generosity, and fairness. But its fortunate inhabitants lack a crucial piece of wisdom, which is that that their world is as artificial as a moon landing.

Their world is not the rest of the world. It certainly isnt the violent, tribal, patriarchal Middle East. Nor is it the world that Middle Eastern immigrants are importing to the societies they are emigrating to, as Omar Sheikh proves.

So, that's what we're up against. There is no prospect of a rational exchange of views with the religious zealotry that speaks of human sacrifice, or any of its more secular variants: their view is, simply, that we ought to die. And so we fight. It's a crap job, but someone's got to do it.

Monday, March 11, 2002

This morning's entertainment: an interview of Massachusetts Senator Kerry by the news department of one of our local NPR outlets. Aside from a pro forma question about the war, and another about the rumors of a presidential run (which he belittled without, so far as I could tell, denying), it was mostly about energy policy.

Kerry is working with John McCain to get more reasonable gas mileage standards into upcoming legislation, and he was scathing in describing some of the lobbying that he's up against --- arguments that, for instance, "you can't farm with a subcompact". Never mind that tractors and heavy trucks are both already exempted from all requirements in the bill he's trying to push. But more than that, he regards this lobbying as symptomatic of the pathology of American campaign finance, which lets lobbyists connected to donors get a hearing for any argument or proposal, no matter how ridiculous.

Kerry has been broadly supportive of initiatives such as the SSSCA, Fritz Hollings' bill which would give the entertainment industry the power to dictate standards to the consumer and electronics industries. The entertainment megacorps say that they need that kind of power to save themselves from the danger of Napster-style internet file sharing. How bad is it? When Napster was in its heyday, record sales boomed; when it was shut down, record industry revenues went with it. Perhaps Napster was actually promoting their wares better than the monopolized, homogenized radio industry, of which more anon. But the record industry has a large say in what gets played on the increasingly payola-ridden airwaves --- it's what they bought time for. So, it could just reflect the extent to which the endless parade of teen groups they're serving up is not what the customers want. Perhaps the record execs simply need to find a business more suited to their talents --- like farming with subcompacts.

More news from Boston: How slippery do you have to be to have Bill Clinton questioning your veracity?

That's the question supporters of Bob Reich have to be asking, after Clinton has disclaimed reports that he encouraged Reich to enter the Massachusetts governor's race:

"Insofar as the article stated that I encouraged Bob Reich to run or supported his candidacy, it is not correct," said Clinton in a prepared statement...

This comes from a guy who knows Reich well --- they met on the ship that was taking them both to Oxford for their stints as Rhodes scholars. Reich served in Clinton's cabinet for some years as secretary of labor, exiting with a memoir that was full of wish fulfilment, describing triumphs for Reich in public forums, and boorish behavior on the part of his opponents, both of which were mysteriously absent from tapes and transcripts of the events. Even a revised version of the memoir wasn't entirely straight with the facts.

In terms of his professed ideology, Reich is probably the closest guy to me in the race. If you can believe what he says about it. But a man who can't face up to the reality of a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and who deals with his enemies by making up victories which demonstrably never happened, is not ready for the Massachusetts State House. If you ever see a picture of House Speaker Finneran, take a look at his teeth. It's not his physical stature that would make Reich a bite-sized morsel in the Beacon Hill shark tank.