Thursday, April 05, 2007

What's (really) Killing Music

As with most things, I'm a little overdue on this, but I'd like to spotlight Austin filmmakers Andrew Shapter and Joel Rasmussen, whose film Before the Music Dies goes beyond facile demonization of downloaders to explore the real sources of malaise in the music industry, which include radio consolidation, mass popstar production, the death-by-Wal-Mart of the traditional record store and more. Today, courtesy of online social network and music store indie911 and B-Side Entertainment, the film's distributor, the full movie is available for download, blessedly sans DRM for $9.99 in hi-res or $3.99 in lo-res. Thanks to the viral marketing efforts of B-Side and indie911, I'm hosting it right here on Apropos de Nada and if you're interested in doing something similar on your site, go here.

Edit: I had to move the player here, as I have no way of keeping it from automatically launching every time you load this page.

Courtesy of some clips that the filmmakers have shared on YouTube, here's a taste of their excellent work:

First, the teaser:

Second, the Clear Channel effect:

Third, how to create a sexy popstar:

There are a few more clips here, but film is well worth seeing in its entirety.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

News and Notes

150 days until football season. Basically, we have the spring games and then things get really bleak. To tide us over in advance of some final football thoughts, here's a few random thoughts on the week's events so far:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says Iran will release the 15 detained British sailors and marines "as a gift to the British people." In other news, I'm off to rob Goodwill, but rest assured I'll return the loot in a few weeks as a gift and, yes, I will be seeking a deduction next April 15. While the U.S. is not yet at war with Iran, apparently the race is on between our leaders to who can be the smuggest SOB alive not named Trump. Ahmadeinejad jumped out to a big lead this week, magnanimously asking British PM Tony Blair not to "punish" the crew for confessing they had been in Iranian waters when they were seized by Iranian coast guard. To make sure its stick landed squarely in Britain's eye, Iran broadcast videotaped confessions by crew members. (Image at right: Ahmadinejad, apparently in his hostage-taking salad days during the 1979 seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran.)

Keith Richards may or may not have snorted his dad's ashes. If it's true, the only thing surprising about this is that it wasn't Ozzy Osbourne. But Keef has gotta make anyone's short list of people who would do this kind of thing. That list would also include Lemmy Kilmister.

The NCAAs are over, but Billy Packer won't go quietly. Appearing on the Charlie Rose Show, CBS men's hoops color man/lightning rod for scorn, ridicule and hate! hate! hate!, Billy Packer, whose name is Packer, tells Rose, "you always fag out," in response to Rose's mock offer to help him out during the tournament. Consensus is that Packer was not using British slang for cigarettes, because a) Packer is not British and b) "you always cigarette out" makes absolutely no sense. Really, I thought the "Henderson was not looking for a cheap shot" call of the Tyler Hansbrough mugging was going to be Packer's nadir this season, although his insistence on mispronouncing Florida coach Billy Donovan's name ("Dunnavan") during the entire NCAA championship game has to make the season's top 10. Damn you, Packer, the whole point of this post was to see if I could make it through the day without mentioning the Gators.

EMI will be selling high-bitrate, DRM-free downloads through iTunes for $1.30 apiece. The chorus of DRM haters ought to include anyone with more than a two-digit IQ, which apparently excludes most major label executives. EMI Group CEO Eric Nicoli, whom I took to task over a year ago, has finally acknowledged a least a small portion of the insanity that is Digital Rights Management. To recap, the lack of interoperability has inhibited digital music sales growth while CD sales continue to falter and placed content owners (the labels) squarely under the thumb of Apple's near-monopoly. Moreover, DRM means limiting consumer options, as in the number of devices on which a consumer can play a track and how many times he/she can copy it. Options have value, which is why we have the Black-Scholes Model. Apparently, EMI and Apple think options in the digital music realm are worth 30 cents a track, as the DRM-free tracks will be priced at $1.30. Lifting DRM restrictions eases some of the pains I mentioned, although these tracks, which are encoded at 256 kbps, will be initially available exclusively though … iTunes. EMI stressed that DRM would remain on music bought under monthly flat-fee-based services such as Rhapsody, Napster and Yahoo Music Unlimited. Oh, well. Baby steps.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Morning After

It wasn't the end of the world and while I don't feel fine, God knows I've felt worse (see Auburn in Athens, 1999). Such is fandom that the arbitrary outcome of a ballgame can serve as empirical evidence that God is still very much the wrathful Jehovah of the Old Testament with a specific mad-on for your team and its followers. Sometimes, I swear that I peaked emotionally at age 12.

Obviously, last night has little to nothing to do with my team, so best to let the Gators have their day. In an era in which the NBA scoops up so many freshmen and high school seniors, it's a pretty special moment in college hoops when that the same starting five can repeat as champs. Pity that it was the Gators who delivered this piece of history, but a begrudging "congratulations" to them all the same.

Anyway, given the generous attention given to yesterday's post by Kyle at Dawgsports and Blutarsky at Get the Picture, and in the comments from Paul Westerdawg of the Georgia Sports Blog, I probably should clarify my stance on the Gators.

I don't think the Gators are the USC of the SEC or its "undisputed alpha." At least, not yet. Given the momentum and resources they've amassed and their investment going forward, I think they're a threat to take that mantle. That's why I used terms like "menace" and "danger," as in, the Germans were a "threat," "menace" and "danger" to placing Europe under their collective boot heel, although history records a different outcome. I hope that those who made it to the bottom of yesterday's admittedly long-winded fretting found evidence that Georgia (and several other SEC teams, for that matter) are eminently capable of blunting Florida's advance.

Also, I should probably clarify the comparison with USC. In terms of athletic tradition, USC towers over Florida like a skyscraper over an ant. I don't mean this as a dig at Florida, but as an only slightly hyperbolic statement of what even many Florida fans would concede. That said, I think tradition is grossly overrated. It helps up to a point, and then, as fan expectations become a program's albatross, it hurts. Tradition is why Alabama is paying $4M a year for a football coach and why Kentucky will probably pay something similar for a basketball coach.

Rather, my comparison has to do with the here and now. There is an undeniable aura of success around USC and Florida, although as Kyle notes, "the Big Lizards' multi-sport dominance over division rival Georgia generally has been by the slimmest of margins, coming in extra innings, by decimal places, and on fortuitous fumbles." Regarding football specifically, I share Blutarsky's belief that too much is being made of Florida's offensive scheme, which scored an average of 22.25 points a game against an SEC slate and which needed a defensive touchdown and a dubious facemask penalty to hold off the worst Georgia squad in perhaps a decade. Yet winning ugly is still winning.

Kyle also notes how the pendulum swings in any competitive rivalry and how, in sports, today's genius is tomorrow's knuckle-dragger and vice-versa. Prior to running roughshod over the SEC in 2004, Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville was an illicit plane ride away from being dumped for then-Louisville coach (and former Tuberville assistant) Bobby Petrino. When Ron Zook was the Gators' football coach, the second least popular person in Gainesville was the man who hired him, UF AD Jeremy Foley, whom ESPN's Pat Forde anointed on Sunday "the hottest athletic director in history." In Oklahoma, Bob Stoops regularly crossed the Red River to hang as much as 65 points on Texas in Dallas. In the past three Red River Shootouts, the Sooners' combined offensive output is slightly more than half 2003's grim total.

Personally, I don't think either Tuberville or Foley are idiots or savants. They're smart guys who survived some bad decisions. Foley's athletic department has won 16 of 19 SEC All-Sports trophies and has finished in the top 10 nationally every year since 1984. Lucky, he is not. If he ever leaves Gainesville, I will be shocked if it is on anything but his own accord. But as long as Bobby Lowder draws breath, I'll make no predictions for Tuberville.

Regardless, Foley's achievement did not occur overnight. He began as an intern in the UF AD in 1976 and took over as director exactly 15 years ago, when current Georgia AD Damon Evans, now 36, was still getting his bachelor's in finance. Foley had the incredibly good fortune of taking the reigns after Steve Spurrier lead the Gators to their first SEC championship, which revived a long-dormant program and presumably made Foley's job as a fund-raiser considerably easier. And, after losing Spurrier to the NFL in 2001, Foley nearly squandered all of that momentum with the near-disastrous hiring of Ron Zook and his failure to bring Spurrier back to Gainesville when The Visor came calling. Ok, so maybe he's a little lucky.

Evans, on the other hand, all he's done since taking over in 2004 is preside over a dozen SEC championships and seven national championships. He has also brought Georgia athletics into the modern age of sports business, setting fund-raising and logo licensing revenue records, doubling sponsorship revenue and breaking ground on a $30M gymnastics practice facility and a $30M basketball practice facility. And, yes, it helped that Mark Richt had revived Georgia football, whose profits fund half of Evans' budget. Still, if someone is going to take Foley's mantle, my money's on Evans.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

The Gathering Gator Storm

Largely on the strength of his six-volume account of World War II, Winston Churchill won the 1953 Nobel Prize for Literature. The first volume of his account, The Gathering Storm, is a day-to-day account of Hitler's unfolding menace and the failures of appeasement attempts by European leaders. In no way do I liken the University of Florida or athletic teams to the Nazis (but to the Taliban? Sure, why not.). Nevertheless, as a fan of a rival program, I am alarmed at the Gators' sudden dominance of the major revenue and non-revenue varsity sports and I consider their sweep of the SEC landscape analogous to Germany's steamrolling of Europe in the 1930s.

Some will argue that Florida's emergence will benefit the entire SEC, as the national exposure and television and bowl riches will trickle down to the rest of us. It's true that, over the past two decades of Gator dominance, the SEC has run circles around the rest of the country in the race for bowl and television revenue. Roughly half of the conference finished in the AP final top 25 football rankings. Competition breeds competition and the Gators' rising tide has lifted the rest of the SEC's boats. But, rest assured, that wealth will hardly be spread evenly.

I contend that the SEC is in danger of becoming the Pac-10, with Florida playing the role of USC as the conference's undisputed alpha. If you're an SEC fan (or, heaven forbid, an SEC athletics administrator) untroubled by Florida's rise, you're not paying attention. More troubling to me is that Georgia, which is well-equipped to turn back this tide, has instead allowed it to gather volume. For evidence, look no further than this season, when the Gators completed a sweep of Georgia in football, men's basketball, baseball and freaking gymnastics, which, during my time as a student during the Ray Goff era, was the only source of consolation for Bulldogs sports fans.

Today, the Florida men's basketball team stands on the cusp of repeating as NCAA champs. If they do so, they will become the first team to do so since Duke did it in 1991 and 1992. This marks a major change in the landscape. If we were talking about UCLA, Kentucky, Indiana, UNC or any other traditional basketball heavyweight, we could remain content that the status quo remains unchecked. But this Florida. Prior to losing in the second round of the 1987 NCAAs, Florida had never been to the Big Dance. Of Florida's 10 NCAA tournament appearances and two final four appearances, half occurred under current coach Bill Donovan, who is in his 10th season in Gainesville. Florida's emergence as a basketball power is as sudden and out-of-nowhere as was Miami's arrival as a football power in 1983.

While we're on the subject of football, consider that prior to Steve Spurrier's arrival in 1990, Florida went some six decades without a football title of any kind – conference or national. Since then, they've amassed seven SEC titles and two national championships.

As Pat Forde notes, we have entered the mega-program era, in which the demarcation between "football school" and "basketball school" is being replaced by the simple distinction of "haves" and "have-nots." Per the Indianapolis Star's NCAA Financial Reports Database, the University of Florida's athletic department operates on a $77.7M budget and spends all but $3.8M of that. Ohio State's AD budget is $89.7M (Forde says it's $102M, but he doesn't cite a source), with but $120,674 unallocated. Georgia's AD budget is comparable, sporting $68.8M in revenues and, much to my consternation, leading the country with nearly $24 million in unallocated funds. So while Georgia's budget is comparable to Florida's, our spending is not.

"Advertising and sponsorships," which includes merchandise royalties, brings in $6.7M to UF's AD, which is a little over 60% of what a season's worth of ticket sales at 88,548-seat Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Given the glut of Gator gear that presumably would fly off the racks with another Gator championship, we can safely assume that Florida, which leads the SEC in royalties, will extend its lead significantly.

As Forde notes, "Six members of this year's Sweet 16 traditionally have been football-first schools: Florida, Ohio State, USC, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Oregon. Thirteen schools that advanced to the round of 32 in this tournament have played in at least one BCS bowl game this century."

Florida and Ohio State, as you will recall, just finished competing for a BCS championship in football. The cash flow that leads to this kind of preeminence is not hard to diagram. Football produced over $26M in profits for Ohio State and $27.1M for Florida. Men's basketball delivered $7.4M for Ohio State and nearly $1.9M for Florida. If football profits are driving the bus – and it appears abundantly clear that they do – then this is clearly a game Georgia can play. Football profits at Georgia totaled $38.4M, nearly $10M more than the SEC's second-most profitable team, Alabama.

Most Profitable Football Programs - SEC

Most Profitable Football Programs - National

1. University of Georgia


1. University of Texas


2. University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa


2. University of Georgia


3. Louisiana State University


3. University of Michigan


4. University of Florida


4. University of Alabama-Tuscaloosa


5. Auburn University


5. Louisiana State University


6. University of Arkansas


6. University of Florida


7. University of Tennessee


7. Ohio State University


8. University of Kentucky


8. Texas A&M University


9. University of Mississippi


9. Auburn University


10. University of South Carolina


10. University of Arkansas


11. Mississippi State University


11. University of Tennessee


As I have said before it is time for Georgia's athletic director Damon Evans to spend. Spend wisely, but spend. When it comes to total facilities and maintenance spending, Georgia ranks 48th nationally and last in the SEC. Aside from the nation's loveliest football setting, an excellent baseball park and a new basketball practice facility, Georgia has very little to show in facilities spending. Nowhere is this negligence more glaring than at Georgia's basketball facility, Stegeman Coliseum, dubbed "the Stegasaurus," for its Jurassic-era design. (EDIT: Per Paul Westerdawg's comments below, the Georgia AD carries roughly $100M in debt related to facilities upgrades. It's an accounting issue, but apparently, the Indy Star's database doesn't count debt service towards facilities and maintenance spending.)

We've held our own in salaries, ranking 13th nationally and 4th in the SEC. And I'm on board with the recent decision to extend men's basketball coach Dennis Felton's contract. As Paul Westerdawg notes, there's been noticeable progress from the crater in which the Harricks left Georgia men's hoops and we need stability in the program for recruiting reasons and for a host of other reasons as well. The loss of Tubby Smith to Kentucky, coupled with the subsequent Harrick era, set Georgia men's hoops back well over a decade. A decade ago, Georgia men were in the Sweet 16. This year, we were routed in the second round of the NIT. I strongly encourage Evans to not allow the new practice facility to be the end of Georgia's hoops commitment.

If there's a positive in all of this, it's that Florida has proven conclusively that, with the right funding and management, a Johnny-come-lately can come in and dominate any sport in this new era of mega-programs. But soon, as the rich continue to get richer, that won't always be the case. Right now, Florida may resemble USC. Left unchecked for another couple of years, they'll resemble a better-managed version of the New York Yankees. Regardless of whether Florida wins or loses tonight – but particularly if they win – I hope someone in the Butts-Mehre building responds with a Churchillian sense of urgency.

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