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Jim Griffin on the Future of Music
posted by mpawlo
on Friday November 28, @07:17AM
from the interesting-people dept.
Jim Griffin is one of the leading thinkers when it comes to the future of digital music. Griffin once held a key position at Geffen after which he started his own company with Cherry
Lane's Milt Okun. Jim Griffin is also co-founder of the most important forum for debating the future of music, Pho. Greplaw has picked Jim Griffin's brain.
# Who is Jim Griffin?
This is the very toughest question, as I am loathe to substitute my judgment for others. It's still tougher to measure the field from within the field. I will simply say that I am fascinated by the digital delivery of art, knowledge and creativity; that I believe it to be the most important issue our generation could possibly face (Gutenberg being the most important before our generation, a friction-free Gutenberg is ours to implement); and that its monetization is a special challenge that I relish.
# Okay, but provide me with five keywords that I should use at
Google to learn more about Jim.
I will go a bit further than that, as I was feeling a bit playful this
morning when I first addressed your questions.
I am 46 years old, my family a mix of central European and Irish. I
grew up in the Chicago area, and was lucky to attend a very good high
school (Rich East in Park Forest, Illinois) that has contributed much
to the music and entertainment (the Zutaut brothers, Dawn Upshaw, Barry
Oakley, Kim Thayil, Tom Berenger and many others). I went to college at
the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Kentucky. After
school I went to work at a newspaper, and after three years left to
represent media workers around the world from my office in the
Washington, D.C., area. Twelve years of that and I moved to Los Angeles
to work with Geffen, after which I started my own company with Cherry
Lane's Milt Okun. I am happily married to Stacie Seifrit Griffin,
ex-head of special marketing at KROQ and marketing head at Paramount
television network. We have one child, Hazen Eugene Griffin, now about
a month old. My father was a union leader in the mold of Chavez or
Debs, my mother the head of training for Illinois Bell telephone. I am
good friends with my two siblings, Michael Griffin (he works at the
Getty Museum in Los Angeles) and Ellen Griffin-Stolbach (a psychologist
in the Chicago area).
# That's more like it, no need to fire away at Google now. What is Pho?
Pho is Vietnamese beef noodle soup. Pho the community arose from the simple notion of sharing a bowl of soup and great conversation related to the digital delivery of art. Before I worked at Geffen I represented media workers and lived in Washington, D.C., where there many good Pho kitchens, but I couldn't find one in Los Angeles. About the time I departed Geffen to start a company, I found a nearby pho kitchen in LA's Chinatown, and invited people to join me there for lunch, and then decided it would a regular Sunday occurrence, which soon blossomed into literally hundreds of people every Sunday. An e-mail mailing list evolved from the discussion. More than five years later, we now have dozens of regular worldwide gatherings in cities as diverse as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, London, and so on, not to mention ephemeral gatherings whenever and where ever digital media people assemble. And the mailing list has thousands of readers, lurkers and participants representing the leadership of companies and organizations, students, music lovers -- really any one who wants to join the debate.
# Can anyone join Pho?
# How can Greplawers join in practice?
Register at Pholist.org. If you've an aversion to database
participation write me at griffin-a-t-cherrylane.com and tell me who you
are and why you want to join the list.
# What is Cherrylane Digital?
Cherry Lane Digital is part of the Cherry Lane Music Group of companies. Cherry Lane was founded by Milt Okun, a renowned musicologist and music publisher. Milt and I founded Cherry Lane Digital together after I left Geffen, although for its first year or two of operation it was known as OneHouse. Cherry Lane Digital is focused on absorbing uncertainty over the transition to the digital delivery of art, especially music. We primarily consult to the technology and entertainment industries.
# You were once the driving force behind the online release of a full-length song by Aerosmith. In 1994! How did you convince the folks at Geffen in doing it?
They convinced me. Shortly after arriving at Geffen and becoming its chief technology officer, I was asked when we could enable the company to digitally deliver a full-length song to the public. I replied that we could do it now if they could clear the legal rights to a song. The key marketing, legal and artists relations people secured the right to many songs quite quickly, and we chose the one that had the best balance of length and dynamic quality from a popular artist, and that turned out to be Aerosmith. There were other choices, but the songs were either too long or not suitable for the nascent medium. I recall digitizing the songs hundreds if not thousands of times, seeking the best codec and format to balance file size and therefore transmission time. Every second mattered. For the record, it took 22 minutes to download over a 28.8 modem, and was a 22 kHz WAV file. We chose the format because it was the only one that would automatically bring up a sound player in Windows; this predated media players, and at the time relatively few computers had sound cards or even speakers. It is also important to acknowledge the role of both Luke Wood and Robert von Goeben in this historic first. Luke was the driving force behind the rights clearance -- he is a great music executive in the grand tradition of Mo Ostin and other industry leaders. Robert is now a venture capitalist, and from a graphics and media perspective is a brilliant contributor. My role was to build the digital environment at Geffen and enabling the tools and technologies that made this happen.
# While running the technology department at Geffen, did you see the future as it is today?
Surprisingly so, though the speed of friction-free delivery and its marketplace arrival and morphing has surprised even me.
# Would you have done anything different at Geffen with today's knowledge of peer-to-peer and high-speed Internet access?
Not at all. The world today mirrors what we built within the walls of Geffen. All internal information was even then delivered via Intranet (we didn't know it would be called that, but we were either the first or amongst the first to use http clients inside the company), and all external information was delivered via public web server or private FTP. This was at the time revolutionary, even heretical. I distinctly recall one conversation with our parent company, Universal, where they threatened to fire me and even sue me for employing these technologies for the movement of proprietary company information. Indeed, Universal were furious we chose to deploy Ethernet over Token Ring.
# What advice would you give the technology manager at Geffen?
There is no Geffen anymore. It is simply a marketing label Universal slaps on some employee business cards and some of the product they release. I left Geffen as this end became inevitable; David had left the company and for the rest of us it was just a matter of time before assimilation was complete. David Geffen was the ideal owner, and the executives chosen by him the ideal colleagues. It was an honor to work for him.
# So, with Geffen gone, what advice would you give the technology manager at
Internal use of technology ought mirror the customer environment. Run
your network as would a college. Avoid proprietary solutions; embrace
open standards, redundant arrays of inexpensive devices and follow the
market without trying to lead it. It is especially important that you
use inside the company all those technologies that customers are using.
As an example, every desktop in an entertainment company should run at
the very minimum an internal or external P2P client that lets the
employees use media as do customers.
# DVD-Jon, Jon Johansen, has written a program called QTFairUse, which will intercept files purchased from the iTunes Store while the file is streaming and before the Digital Rights Management system gets locked onto the file. On one hand, the program may provide fair-use, on the other hand, this may in practice be the silver-bullet to the first functioning commercial alternative to more or less illegal downloading through for example Kazaa. What is your take on QTFairUse?
I have no particular take on QTFairUse. I simply acknowledge, accept and find delight in digits -- especially those carrying art, knowledge and creativity -- bionomically finding the shortest, most efficient and effective path from source to destination.
# Wow, it sounds like you are a true John Perry Barlow devotee - should copyright owners forget about
wrapping up their material in bottles?
I am more a devotee of John Perry Barlow the man than I am the Barlow
School of Thought. John Perry is a splendid person, the conscience of
our industry and cause. If my son grew up to be the future Barlow in
every way I'd be delighted and proud. That having been said, Barlow
often says ideas and art want and need to be free, but I disagree,
thinking that if they are truly free (meaning without cost) then there
won't be much more of them. I think his heart is in the right place,
though, and think instead that to the degree possible it is our
responsibility, our opportunity, our challenge to make them feel free,
especially at the moment of deciding to use them. This makes me an
advocate of flat-fee buffets of art, of bundled price with unbundled
choice, with many hands making light work of the fees. Ultimately, this
is a path for growing the business of artistic endeavor. Granularity
and control have traditionally proven themselves the enemies of
creative monetization. We've typically found growth and progress in
bundles: One fee to enter the amusement park instead of taking tickets
for the rides; a book of 40 poems by Poe instead of buying just The
Raven or The Telltale Heart; tiers of cable channels; subscriptions to
the opera; the sports section with the news section and the rest of the
paper, and so on.
# Are digital rights management systems the answer? Then what was the question?
Sure, if you seek to limit the audience for the content, but it is rare that there is any sense in treating mass media with digital rights management techniques. DRM, for most people, means "Did you get paid?" Essentially, you manage your digital rights best if you get paid for the digits. Are we managing our digits well if we condition their delivery on locks and keys? Of course not. Cable television has essentially no DRM. Virtually every cable recipient has a video cassette or other recorder to capture the content. Are we managing our digital rights well if we fail to sell our content into this environment on account of its obvious lack of control? Of course not. If we failed to sell it to cable, we wouldn't get paid. Are we practicing good DRM if deny our content to analog or digital radio? Of course not. If we fail to deliver content, we will not be paid. So it seems quite obvious that conditioning access on locks and keys doesn't work today, and is purely a theoretical, hypothetical suggestion that has never proven value in the marketplace.
# Should copyright proprietors be afraid of their digital future?
The financial value of art is found in its ability to draw a crowd. If you own a copyright the draws a crowd you have nothing to fear save for your own ineptitude in managing your financial affairs, and in general we manage best when we manage the least.
# I read somewhere that you would like to see laws that make authors and creators eligible for payment and at the same time warrants open access to consumers. Which are the cornerstones of such law?
I don't think government and art intersect well, so I generally oppose legal intervention, though I think we get the legal intervention we deserve when we fail to reach voluntary blanket licensing agreements. In general, the historic principles and lessons applied during the transition from acoustic to electric apply to the transition from electric to digital: It's all about a pool of money, and a fair way to divvy it up. Electricity effectively removed control from much art. The result, for public address operators, radio and television broadcasters, cable and satellite owners, webcasters, and so on, has been flat-fee payments aggregated into huge pools that are divvied on sampling methodology or other means. So the cornerstones are simple, and they apply equally to monetizing most any intersection of technology and freedom: A pool of money, and a fair way to allocate it.
# But why should anyone contribute to the pool of money, if the
bits can be obtained for free through Kazaa and Bittorrent without
telling the pool owner?
Actuarial economics will replace actual control, but that is difficult
if not impossible to achieve without some degree of compulsion. Like
automobile insurance or health insurance or similar actuarial concepts,
they work best when spread across as wide a group as possible and fail
when they tend to adverse, voluntary groups. I favor imposing
involuntary fees across network users such that the fees become so low
they are hardly worth complaining about. Worldwide, the average per
capita spending on music is well under a dollar per month, likely under
a quarter. The United States leads the world at somewhere between two
or three dollars a month. We can replace the entire music business
worldwide for less than it costs to complain about the fee, and all
media can be compensated for at a fee that integrates well with monthly
wireless or wired fees. This is hardly revolutionary: Europeans are
accustomed to paying a mandatory annual television fee, and Americans
pay still more voluntarily for cable on a monthly basis.
Copyright is actually copy risk, and the way we deal with risk
generally avoids actual control in favor of actuarial, insurance-like
concepts. For example, vehicles kill and maim perhaps a million people
worldwide, but we do not truly control vehicles or require absolute
safety. Indeed, our idea of road safety is five feet and a white line,
and in fact we market vehicles by showing them soaring down the highway
at high speeds, displaying their power and freedom with tiny letters at
the bottom of the television screen warning us not to actually try this
ourselves. How can we tolerate the marketing of such risky behavior? A
pool of insurance money and relatively fair way of allocating the
payments. Indeed, we don't even require you to have the money to buy
the car; we accept that loaning money means some people don't pay, and
we tolerate that, too, with an actuarial pool of credit absorbing the
risk of loss. Against this backdrop, copyright is hardly a problem. Bob
Marley said about music that "when it hits you feel no pain."
Digital networks and their attached devices, like roads and their
vehicles, bring risk to rights holders. These new paths offer both good
and bad consequences. Shall we predicate access on eliminating risk? If
so, there would be no roads, little transportation, and no broadcast
radio and television, no cable, no satellite, and certainly no digital
networks. Our path to progress is clear: Tolerate risk, but anticipate
its consequences and address them through actuarial means, by pooling
fees and allocating their rewards to risk takers such as artists and
rights holders. Paying into actuarial network funds should be no more
voluntary than ought be automobile insurance.
# What drives creativity? Are intellectual property rights really important to creators?
Sure. Money drives economies, and artists need roofs, meals, cars and the means to raise families as much if not more so than any member of society. I recall hearing that Cole Porter was asked what comes first for him, the lyric or the melody? Neither, he replied. What comes first is the phone call, and by that he meant someone calling with a need to buy music.
# You are spending a lot of time in Helsinki, Finland. What are you doing for Nokia?
I respectfully decline to offer specifics, but suffice it to say that if you've read this far in the interview you understand very well what Cherry Lane Digital does for Nokia. I am definitely not here to help the Finns redress their loss to Sweden in the hockey championships, though I do enjoy sauna and jumping into the hole in the ice. And my Finnish friends are the best of friends.
# Since you are giving the Swedish hockey team credit, I guess I should wrap this up with a less provocative question. Which is the best record - ever?
There is no best record ever, just as there is no truth, no right, no wrong, at least not that I can apply to anyone else. I will say simply that for all of us there is only what we know to be true, what we believe to be right, what we think wrong, and that the trouble starts when we try to apply this to the person next to us, to substitute our judgment for theirs. As for me, the best record ever is Brian Eno's Music for Airports, but that is simply my choice for the moment and perhaps the past decade. Pure, simple tones, conducive to all manner of dialogue and thought.
Jim Griffin was interviewed by Mikael Pawlo.
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