All posts by Brian

RINOs, Grand Rights, and Blankets, Oh My!

By now you’re probably familiar with the brouhaha brewing over the Republican National Convention’s usage of Queen’s “We Are The Champions” to highlight Donald Trump’s entrance onto the convention stage. Both Queen and Sony/ATV Music Publishing say that they never licensed the song for use by Mr. Trump, his campaign, any of his organizations, or anyone involved with the RNC. The GOP countered by saying that they had the rights to use the song because they had paid for a blanket license with one of the performing rights organizations (PROs) that keep track of performances of licensed material to compensate performers, publishers, and songwriters. Who’s right?

I’m not going to dive deep into PROs, the various and sundry types of licenses, or delve into the controversy of the proposed new ruling from the Department of Justice Antitrust Division and former Google lawyer Renata Hesse. David Lowery does a much better job of skewering that bit of inanity than I could ever do.

What I will do is talk briefly about the type of usage permitted under a blanket license, and about whether the RNC’s usage of the song fell within those parameters. So what is a blanket license? It’s a broad license that allows the licensee to use all of the music that is represented by that licensing organization.

Who purchases a blanket license? Radio stations, for one. It’s much easier to pay a single fee and have access to an entire library of music licensed by one of the PROs than negotiate with every artist, copyright holder, or label. Broadcast (and likely cable) TV negotiate their own network licenses to enable them to use licensed music in their original programming. Adult entertainment businesses may decide to license a PRO’s entire library rather than try to manually keep track and license songs that accompany the entertainers. Conventions can choose to purchase a blanket license for songs that are broadcast as background music or performed by cover bands hired to provide entertainment.

Blanket licenses cover “small rights”, which includes using a snippet of a song as a ringtone or an entire work in a live performance. They do not cover so-called “grand rights” or “dramatic rights”, which interestingly enough aren’t clearly defined in copyright law. BMI, ASCAP, and other PROs in America do not license grand rights in America.

What are grand rights? You can read the examples in the ASCAP FAQs, but musician and composer Jack Vees (who also serves as the Director and an instructor in the Center of Studies in Music Technology at Yale School of Music) has the most concise definition I’ve found:

Once you create something in which music is only one component, it doesn’t matter whether the music constitutes as much as 85 percent or as little as 5 percent of the content. If the other components are not subsumed within the structure of the music, blanket agreements like the “small rights” ones that ASCAP, BMI, and SECAC maintain with venues all over the country, are no longer applicable. Therefore, fees must be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Like Professor Vees, I’ll caution you that I am not a music industry lawyer, I’ve never played one on TV, and I’ll add that I don’t remember the last time I slept at a Holiday Inn Express. What I do know is that the spectacle of introducing Donald Trump to the local and televised audiences of the RNC, set to the tune of “We Are The Champions”, sounds like a scenario where the music is part of a larger whole, and would fall well outside the parameters of a blanket license.

I fully expect one or more of the parties involved (the RNC, the GOP, one or more of the Trump campaign and/or organizations) will be cutting a hefty check to Sony/ATV at some point in the not-too-distant future as a settlement in a lawsuit filed on behalf of the members of Queen.

 

Brief Interviews with Hideous Archetypes, or the Thing of Internets

Not to belabor a point, nor to turn this into some pretentious David Foster Wallace fan blog, but CBC’s Q featured a thoughtful and, at times, touching piece on the film adaptation (and cult of) the author. If, like me, you care little about the news that One Direction is disappearing up its own collective bottom, you can skip ahead to just after the minute mark in the segment.

‘Cause the technology is just gonna get better and better and it’s gonna get easier and easier and more and more convenient and more and more pleasurable to sit alone with images on a screen given to us by people who do not love us but want our money.

Did Wallace just describe every person with his or her nose buried in a social media app on the Metro, or while walking a dog, or while blithely pushing a baby stroller, virtually oblivious to its passenger? While that exchance with Lipsky referred to the rise of virtual reality porn, here’s another quote from the book about the despotization of the Internet,

If you go back to Hobbes, and why we ended up begging, why people in a state of nature end up begging for a ruler who has the power of life and death over them? We absolutely have to give our power away. The Internet is going to be exactly the same way.

Does anyone still believe in the democratizing power of media, given this (perhaps unintentional) nod to the McLuhanesque concept of the blurring of medium and message.

The discussion turns to Wallace’s attempt to rationalize the dissonance between how he lived his life with others’ perception of him, and of the mindfulness of that realization with respect to the commercialization of consumer culture. It also seques into the romanticization of the author’s image, and of his family’s opposition to his characterization in the movie.

I’m not as bullish on The End of the Tour as Stephen Marche, although like him I recognize the authenticity of the affection for the author in the movie and in Jason Segel’s portrayal. I can appreciate that the artifice of the central conceit of the movie might produce a characterization of Wallace that his family don’t care to or want to recognize. I also appreciate the fact that the script is largely comprised of dialogue taken from the recordings of the interviews taken over the course of the trip. What I am, how I portray myself, how I talk, act, and react around friends and loved ones can be a very different persona than how people perceive me at work or on social media. This gets to the fundamental question of how to define authenticity in a social order built around contrivance, and which of Baudrillard’s stages in his theory of simulacra we (and the screen version of DFW) inhabit.

 

From which there is no return…reflections on “The End of the Tour”

 

James Ponsoldt’s “The End of the Tour” is a biopic about David Lipsky accompanying author David Foster Wallace on the final leg of his “Infinite Jest” book tour. It is also among the smartest road movies I’ve seen, as well as a fine if unintentional entrant into the buddy movie/bromance genre. While I had every expectation of liking the film, as it was my pick for this week’s film club, I was very pleasantly surprised by its subtlety and warmth in the face of challenging personalities and often uncomfortable material.

The movie begins with Lipsky, played by the perpetually jittery Jesse Eisenberg, receiving a call relaying an unconfirmed rumor of Wallace’s death. Lipsky does what anyone would do upon hearing this kind of scuttlebutt – he searches the web for confirmation. This leads to a segment where he digs in a closet for the interview recordings from his (unpublished) piece, cannibalizing the batteries from his electric toothbrush to power the tape recorder. The scene then transitions to 1996 and Lipsky lobbying his unnamed editor for the opportunity to interview Wallace. Lipsky begins his full-frontal assault on the unspecified editor, played by Ron Livingston, asking if he knows how many author interviews have appeared in Rolling Stone in the 10 years prior. The answer? None. Despite his reservations and protestations that author interviews aren’t a focus of Rolling Stone, the editor gives Lipsky the go-ahead to make arrangements for the interview.

Lipsky’s first encounter with Wallace is telling, if a misdirectional. Lipsky phones Wallace, played by Jason Segel, to report that he’s gotten lost on the way to Foster’s home near Normal, Illinois. Wallace asks Lipsky how he managed to obtain his unlisted number, and promptly suggests that Lipsky do him a favor and lose it. Lipsky eventually finds his way to Wallace’s house, where the author claims that he was “95% joking”.

Eisenberg and Segel share a friendly if often uneasy rapport, their conversations winding through the topics of fame, the expectations surrounding it, and the transactional and often impersonal relationship the author shares with fans. Segel captures the mammalian charm of the author on unsure footing with regard to his suddenly higher profile, saying in one breath that he’s enjoy having a female fan tell him that she’s coming to his hotel room, and then lamenting the loneliness that would ensue from such an assignation. He’s umistakably masculine without seeming predatory. Lipsky shares details of his own romantic dilemma, being involved in a long-distance relationship with one woman while living with another.

Eisenberg nails the insecurity of a less successful author trying to manage both disbelief and jealousy over the laissez faire response Wallace exhibits to his sudden commercial viability. The two parry over whether Wallace’s “regular guy” persona is false modesty or a legitimate belief by Wallace that he isn’t as smart as others believe him to be.  The pair also spars over Wallace’s perception of the more social Lipsky and his interactions with Betsy, a former flame and classmate of Wallace’s who attends his book reading in the Twin Cities. Wallace believes that Lipsky is flirting with Betsy, while Lipsky maintains that he’s gathering background information for the article. This comes across as only partially believable given Lipsky’s complicated domestic arrangement.

The movie is not without its flaws. At a brisk 106 minutes the film gives short shrift to Lipsky’s on-screen girlfriend, played by the always delightful Anna Chlumsky, as well as to any deep characterization of the supporting roles. The decision not to publish the interview, as well as the rationale behind killing the piece, are completely glossed over. Other than a charming anecdote where Wallace mails a shoe Lipsky left in Illinois back to him in New York, the relationship between the two in the 12 years between the trip and Wallace’s death is a mystery.

Segel mostly shines as the famously introverted and perpetually vexed Wallace. He doesn’t quite embody the intellect, or nail down the soft yet rapid-fire cadence of Wallace’s speech. At times he appears to be channeling a less bro-ey version of HIMYM’s Marshall Eriksen in the role, but his passion for embodying the late author without resorting to imitation is undeniable.

Ponsoldt continues to capture lightning in a bottle by making films that shouldn’t succeed but do, eschewing Hollywood tropes with a naturalistic approach to platonic and romantic intimacy between his characters. The script, by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Donald Margulies (and Ponsoldt’s playwriting professor at Yale), is sharp yet understated, the dialogue smart without sounding Sorkinesque and artificial.