The Quality of Smallness

This isn't addressed to you. It's addressed to a group of people like you. Or rather, it's addressed to the unconscious style they are encased in, and chase.

On the morning cable financial news channel, the hosts go on endlessly about how there's a change in consumer tastes. The reason that fast-food hamburger chains and soda pop companies are feeling a pain in their share price is that consumers are thinking “natural and organic.” Consumers are also starting to think about the supply chain. Where does this food come from? Under what regime of regulation and inspection was it produced? Did you say the fish I'm eating was imported from China?

It's a generational change, younger people weren't hooked by the “I'd like to buy the world a Coke” advertising blitz. They see fast food and soft drinks for what they are, and they have convenient alternatives. We should acknowledge that healthy alternatives have only recently achieved mass distribution. It's much easier to make this choice today. Or rather, it's easier to maintain the “fast-food mindset” and choose somewhat healthier foods.

The fast food companies are starting to abandon the use of antibiotics in the production of the chicken they serve. They're making other minor changes, as they chase the style that enchants the consumer these days. They're asking themselves how little the industrial food complex can change to take advantage of some of that “natural and organic” glow. What will take to get some of that appearance to rub off?

While there are a myriad of problems with the way the news media, companies and the regulators think about “natural and organic,” it's still a positive change of direction. More hopeful is that this change was initiated by consumers, not by companies. A change in consumer style is wrecking havoc on the business plans of the soft drink and casual/fast dining industries. It's a rare thing, so it's worth taking note.

I don't want to jinx it, but I'd like to make a request to that amorphous cloud of desire out there, that “style we chase.” I'd like you (I'm talking to you, amorphous cloud) to start associating “smaller” with better quality and more concentration. This would include things ranging from apples to onions, boneless skinless chicken breasts to movie theater popcorn sizes, McMansion houses to pizzas.

There's a natural large size that occurs rarely in the course of things. We should be surprised by this kind of largeness. Well, would you look at that. Look how big that thing is. Don't see that too often. Instead, large, extra-large and jumbo are the “normal” sizes. The way we produce this standard large size is by diluting and inflating whatever it is. While it appears to be more, it's actually less. It's vast quantities of weak tea.

So, here's the deal. Occasionally something changes in the way we perceive things. Suddenly we can plainly see that the product we're buying is pumped up with some diluting agent to make it look bigger. What was previously an attractive quality–bigger, no matter how it is achieved, is now a little repulsive.

The ultimate performance of taste is identifying the things you want to spit out. I want to make the case to your unconscious sense of style that “fake bigness” that attempts to appeal to your impulse toward gluttony, should be eschewed. Suddenly you have the sense that certain things are grotesquely big.

That is all.


The Stream: Music Without a Container

A common complaint among collectors of recorded music is that they've had to buy the same music over and over again in different formats. First the vinyl, then the cassette, then the CD, and now the digital files. Somehow the consumer believes he is buying the “music” and not the mechanical means to play the recording.

The cost of producing and distributing physical containers for music recordings has played a large part in what consumers have paid for recorded music. As the cost of producing these containers goes down, the price of recorded music remains the same. The theory is that these expanded margins allow the record labels to invest in new and undiscovered musical talent. That rarely happens anymore, the capital is deployed into other kinds of investments. It's no longer considered a good investment to develop talent.

The cut-of-the-pie taken by non-musicians is enormous, even as the risk taken by the record companies gets less and less over time. All of the risk has been shifted to the musicians. If they show up with a built-in audience ready to buy product, then there's a contract waiting for them to sign. This is true in the publishing world as well.

The issue lost in all these calculations over the cost of producing and distributing various containers for recorded music is: what is the value of the music itself? Since, for the most part, all CDs are the same price, can we assume that all music has identical value? In this model, the differential in artist compensation is based on the number of units sold. Sell a lot of records, make a lot of money. Or as it sometimes plays out: take an advance on future units sold; don't sell enough units; end up owing money to the record company; work without compensation to pay off the debt.

If you want to understand how power and morality works in business arrangements, simply ask who is taking risk and who is being compensated for it. Imagine a business where an artist is asked to take most of the risk, but isn't compensated when the risk pays off. Reducing risk and increasing profit is business as usual for corporations.

The digital file download was the last remnant of the music container. The file was downloaded and actually existed on some device. Cloud-based services parked your files in a location where network-connected devices could access the full library without specific files being physically present.

The music streaming services have done away with the container altogether. You don't even get the files. The consumer only gets access to the stream. Since the cost of the container is no longer and issue, the price of the service is lower. If you look at it from the pure consumer perspective, it's a bargain. Let's say you're big music fan and you buy two or three CDs, or album downloads, a month. For the cost of one download, you have access to a huge library of recorded music streams. For the cost of 12 album downloads a year, you get access to all popular recorded music all year long. It's pretty obvious that the economics favor a mass migration to the streaming services, and that movement is backed up by industry stats.

We're familiar with the old story about musicians who were paid a flat fee to record a set of songs. Some of those songs were turned into vinyl records that became hits. The record company took in all the profits for record sales, and the musicians had signed away their right to a piece of the action. Over time that model was adjusted to give artists some compensation for record sales. But what happens when nothing is actually sold anymore? No music is sold, streaming service revenue is based on monthly subscriber payments. Turns out the value of an individual stream of a song is a tiny fraction of a penny. That's what the artist receives each time the consumer streams a song.

For the consumer, the risk of buying an unknown album becomes zero with a music streaming service. Since nothing is bought or sold, the consumer can take a bite and if it doesn't taste good, it can just be put back on the shelf. This lack of real investment changes the whole dynamics of new music discovery. (And by the way, streaming is NOT a discovery method prior to purchase. It replaces purchase.)

Ask any investor whether it makes sense to take uncompensated risk. This is the question musicians need to ask themselves. By releasing their new music to the streaming services, they've effectively eliminated any possibility of selling physical CDs or downloads. If sales of recordings is a significant part of a musician's annual income, streaming will quickly eliminate that income category.

Working outside the music industry system used to be considered big risk. It was a risk that limited the upside of sales and popularity because big distribution only existed through the system. Even the “independent” and “alternative” categories have ended up inside the thing they're supposed to be independent of, and alternative to. Since the streaming services take sales out of the picture, all that's left is the promise of the possibility of popularity. But like the risk, it's uncompensated popularity.

Musicians are already taking risks. A risk is an investment, and musicians need to figure out where they can be fairly compensated for the risks they're taking. Music consumers need to understand that they're part of a whole ecosystem. The idea that the world owes consumers free music forever is childish and self-centered. If you don't value music enough to pay for it, then you really don't value music much at all. Do you think fair-trade coffee is a good idea? How about clothes that aren't made in a sweatshop? How about seafood that isn't the product of slave labor? How about fair-trade music? Does that sound good to you?


The Unit of Content Consumed

We've yet to come to terms with how musicians are paid, on a per stream basis, by the big streaming platforms. Suddenly news comes from Amazon that they are set to pay self-published authors as little as $0.006 per page read. Longer books may receive a slightly higher payment rate.

If one had the goal of stopping writers from writing for e-book publication, or stopping musicians from creating music for the recorded music format, this would be a good strategy. It's hard to imagine another industry that would tolerate this kind of economic contract. If I only eat half of my meal in a restaurant, I expect to pay half price. If I drive my car less than other drivers, I should pay a lower price. If I buy something from Amazon and grow bored with it after a week, I shouldn't have to pay full freight.

Following in the steps of the band Vulfpeck and their album “Sleepify.” I shall self-publish an Amazon e-book with only twelve blank pages. “Sleepify” consisted of ten 30 second tracks of silence. The band encouraged its fans to play the album on a loop while they slept. Funds raised through this method were used to finance a free concert tour by the band. Spotify owed the band $20,000 in royalty payments and eventually paid up. They then pulled the album citing violations of various policies.

Readers, set your library of self-published e-books to auto-advance and loop. After all I have machines that read all my books for me these days. All I need to know is whether I liked it or not, and a few bon mot for cocktail party conversation.

This is what passes for innovation these days.


Dead Fox: Breaking Glass


We do a lot of our thinking through glass and mirrors. We want our words to properly reflect the world. We insist that as we observe the world, our glasses should be free from any rose-colored tint. And when a glass knowingly distorts the world, we ask that it be properly labeled.


Philosopher, Tim Morton, uses the passenger-side wing mirror of the America car to talk about the rift between an object and its aesthetic appearance. This is how he describes it in the introduction to his book, “Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality.”

Objects In Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear

An ontological insight is engraved onto the passenger side wing mirrors of every American car: Objects in Mirror are Closer than They Appear. What we take to be the object “behind” its appearance is really a kind of perspective trick caused by habitual normalization of the object in question. It is my habitual casual relation with it that makes it seem to sink into the background. This background is nothing other than an aesthetic effect—it’s produced by the interaction of 1+n objects. The aesthetic dimension implies the existence of at least one withdrawn object.

Another way of talking about this “habitual normalization of the object” is to reverse the surface/depth binary. Traditionally, the real is deep underneath and the surface is the accident of a temporary condition. Objects behave normally when they occupy a clear place in one’s performance of habit. Weird distortions of appearance are surface phenomena that will clear out given enough time. Morton reverses these observations. Objects undergo a distorting normalization in our everyday lives. It’s when objects become unfamiliar and weird that their deeper reality clearly begins to show itself not as deeper, but as closer than their appearance.


While traveling for his many speaking engagements, Morton finds himself in unfamiliar cities, displaced time zones and strange hotel rooms. The real intrudes, not as a comforting solidity, but rather as a “hallucinatory clown.”

Objects in mirror are closer than they appear. This is the real trouble. The real trouble is that my familiar light switches and plug sockets—or rather my familiar relations to these objects—is only an ontic prejudice, an illusion. The REALITY is what I see as the illusion-like, hallucinatory clowns that lurch towards me, gesturing and beckoning (but what are they saying?).

The incident that brought me back to glass and mirrors was listening to a song by Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett called “Dead Fox.” It has a chorus with the lyrics,

If you can’t see me, I can’t see you.

The lyric refers to the sign you’ll see on commercial trucks warning other drivers in the proximity that if you can’t see the truck driver’s wing mirror, then he can’t see you. And therefore, he will behave as though you don’t exist, after all, you’ve had fair warning.


We imagine the possibility of a cyborg future and think of some strange grafting of machine to flesh. But perhaps it’s much simpler than that. Our first instantiation as a cyborg was with the broad distribution and ownership of the automobile. We’re never more human than when our access to the world is limited to the view through glass and mirrors. The car gives us all that and the ability to move much faster than an ordinary human.

Courtney Barnett’s “Dead Fox” presents a cartoon of the reality of our cyborg existence. We head down the highway splattering roadkill across the blacktop. Pollen floats into the car causing a sneeze resulting in a dangerous swerve. A truck driver checks his mirrors and then passes on the wrong side without signaling. Because if “you can’t see me, I can’t see you.” Esse est percipi.

Heading down the Highway Hume

Somewhere at the end of June

Taxidermied kangaroos are lifted on the shoulders

A possum Jackson Pollock is painted in the tar

Sometimes I think a single sneeze could be the end of us

My hay-fever is turning up, just swerved into a passing truck

Big business overtaking

Without indicating

He passes on the right, been driving through the night

To bring us the best price

Morton’s passenger wing mirror tells us something about objects outside of our habitual day-to-day life. We normalize objects into a background upon which a weird reality floats. Barnett’s mirror gives us a sense of the absurd tunnel vision we’ve forced upon ourselves—we barely even see the roadkill we’ve “jackson pollocked” across the tar. Big business tells us that unless we can see their mirror, we’re standing in the wrong place. And if we’re standing in the wrong place, we’d better give them a wide berth.

The temptation is to go around breaking glass as though it were to blame for the use we make of it. But Morton and Barnett show us that we only need to let the weirdness of glass come to the surface. Somehow we’ll need to forge a new alliance with glass – perhaps moving beyond perfect transparency and reflection to imperfection and distortion. If we turn this thought and look at it from a slightly different angle, we can talk about developing an appreciation for the beauty of translation.

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