Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Netiquette In the Age of Facebook

I haven't heard the term "netiquette" used in decades, so I figured I'd just date myself with the title.  I've been actively using the internet for 20 years now.  What has become known as social media for about 13 years.  I was very impressed with the organizing potential involved with all kinds of things that came along -- email lists, file-sharing, web-based media.  Social media -- particularly MySpace and then Facebook -- always seemed fraught with problems.  Largely related to the tight and ever-evolving corporate control of these completely corporate-controlled platforms of communication.

As these platforms of communication -- ultimately, really, just Facebook -- came to become dominant, I was always hoping that it would be a phase that would be replaced by something at least slightly more useful and less oriented towards endless displays of "mommy, look at me" in one form or another.  But, unfortunately, Facebook is the new way that most of us seem to do most of our communicating -- because everybody else is on there, and if you're not, you're basically in the dark.

Of course if you are on Facebook, you're also in the dark, for the most part.  You can try various techniques at communicating with your base, or at finding out what's happening that you actually want to know about, but for me it's a lot like finding a needle in a haystack.  A haystack where the needles you're looking for seem to be buried in the algorithms -- where the most useless bits of hay get systematically pushed to the top.

I have been told repeatedly by people in their twenties that Facebook is a generational problem.  That they know how to navigate it better, and find what they're looking for, than older people do, generally.  If this might actually be the case, I'd appreciate any enlightenment on the subject anyone might be able to provide, especially those of you who grew up online, which people my age obviously did not.

In any case, as this very imperfect medium has become the dominant one, I have only recently realized that I have to stop treating it like a necessary nuisance, and start really engaging with people out there using the platform, as best I can under the circumstances.  To that end, I have finally realized that what some of my younger friends have been telling me is true -- that is, Facebook and various other places online where interactions between humans take place are not best seen as forums for some amorphous notion of "free speech."  Which always seemed to be a default position for me.  Which in retrospect seems very strange.

Facebook and other interactive places online, such as comments beneath YouTube videos and blog posts, I have decided, are best treated as forums for friendly discussion between basically like-minded people -- far from a place where anything goes as long as it's protected by the First Amendment.

It took me years to even figure out how to get notified (in places that I would notice) when there was a new comment on a Facebook post or YouTube video.  Once I got that figured out, my initial orientation towards these comments was that I should read them, and acknowledge them, perhaps react to them in some way.  After much urging from various young, more web-savvy friends, I started policing these spaces to some extent, by deleting comments that were obviously racist, sexist, transphobic, etc.

Much more recently I came to the conclusion that this wasn't enough.  That these forums for discussion needed to be treated more seriously and respectfully than that.  I started trying to think in terms of what if this were a discussion happening after one of my shows or in some other social environment in the physical world.  How would I want to treat people, or try to guide the conversation in that space?  Not that I have the power to do that, necessarily, as one person.  But as the administrator for my own Facebook pages, YouTube channel, etc., I decided on certain courses of action.  It's too early for me to tell if this will have a positive impact, after all the damage that has been done by my laissez faire attitude up til, well, last month.

It was the way Facebook essentially caught fire during the first half of November that finally prompted these realizations, around the 2016 US elections.  Since then, on an average of every other day or so, I have been blocking people from commenting on my YouTube channel and blocking people from seeing me on Facebook (which also blocks them from commenting on my otherwise public posts).

Not just for saying things that are obviously offensive anymore, but for slightly more subtle reasons.  Such as anyone who comments with what is clearly a snide or insulting tone, regardless of what they are saying otherwise.  If it's not in the spirit of friendly, respectful discussion, they get blocked.  This has applied to both people who agree with me and people who don't, though probably more often for those who don't.  My goal is not to squelch a diversity of perspectives, but to promote a friendly, nontoxic atmosphere for discussion, for making friends, for solidarity.

I think it's extremely rare for anyone to benefit or learn anything or change their position because of an argument, whether the argument takes place in a bar, a living room, or a social media post.  It's just not the way people work.  If it were, then the toxic atmosphere and the microaggressions involved might be worth putting up with.  But they're not.

It's obvious when people are approaching a discussion with an open mind.  In such cases, differences of opinion can be useful.  But if people just seem to be venting, that's not helpful to anyone, in my newly-adopted view.  That includes me.  I stopped.  I no longer respond negatively to the negative comments -- I just block those people now.  I don't know why I ever thought I should engage with them in the first place.

I haven't decided yet, but I might even start blocking those people who habitually respond to my posts before they take the time to actually read or listen to them.  If I post a song, I'm very interested in what people think of it, who have taken the time to listen to it.  I don't want to know what you think of the title of the song, when it's obvious from your comment that you didn't take the time to listen to the actual song in question.  I think that kind of stuff is just useless noise, and very disrespectful in its own way.  What I feel like we need on Facebook -- as in society as a whole -- are more people who capable of truly listening, giving honest feedback, and engaging in respectful discussion.  Anyone not into that sort of thing can find somewhere else to yell at each other.

I feel like I've come to these conclusions very late.  I'd be very interested in anyone else's thoughts on these matters.  How do you deal with these things, and why do you do it that way?

Sunday, December 11, 2016

2016 Year In Review

It's nearing the end of the year, and it's that time of year when individuals, families, nonprofit organizations and the media often tend to reflect on and summarize what has happened in the past 12 months or so.  

It seems like a good thing to me that this tradition exists, since if it didn't, it would probably rarely happen, given how much of a rush society generally seems to be in all of the time.  And of course in the age of Too Much Information, a review of the past year is just one more pile of infodung to slog through.  Plus, lots of people I know would rather just move on and not think much about 2016.

But I sort of cover several of those roles -- as an individual, a member of a family, and in some sense as an organization and media outlet, too.  And 2016 has been an eventful year for me in many ways

I'm loosely dividing my review of the year into three categories -- Songs, Essays and Everything Else.


The first song I wrote in 2016 was at the beginning of January, a song about the racist history of Oregon called "Sunset Laws."

Mid-January, as news was spreading about the ongoing disaster in Flint, Michigan, I wrote the poem, "Arrest Governor Snyder."

That month I also heard from a woman in England who is a friend of a guy named Mohamed Abu Sakha.  Mohamed had been arrested the previous month, on no stated charges -- as usual for Palestinians being arrested by Israelis.  "Free Abu Sakha."

With the constant pressure of endlessly rising rents in the city of Portland, Oregon, I have written many songs about the situation -- partly for therapeutic purposes.  In late January I wrote "Letter to My Landlord."

Throughout the year I wrote more songs on the subject of gentrification, and the gentrifiers -- "Good-bye, Portland," "Yuppie Scum," "So You Wanna Flip A House," and "Just A Renter."  I also wrote "Someday (On Burnside)," about the burgeoning homeless population in my adopted, divided city.

In February, while on tour in Europe with a mighty flu and listening to presidential campaign news around Hillary Clinton claiming to be more progressive than her opponent at the time, Bernie Sanders, I wrote "If Clinton's A Progressive."

A couple weeks after the March terrorist attack at the Brussels airport I wrote "If You Bomb Somebody" (they just might bomb you back).

In the spring and summer the peace boat, the Golden Rule, was sailing around the west coast of the US.  I sang at a couple events along the way and wrote "The Golden Rule" -- a little history of this infamous boat.

In preparation for my participation in the World Social Forum in Montreal last summer, I wrote a poem about the history of the WSF -- "Come to Montreal (World Social Forum 2016)."

Of the many massacres that took place throughout the USA in 2016, I wrote songs about two of them.  "Orlando" is about the massacre at the Pulse Nightclub.   "If This Were A War" is about the killing of the five police officers in Dallas, Texas.

At the point when the presidential campaign was reaching its most ridiculous, and it was clear that the main two candidates would be an incorrigible couple of elitists, I musically threw my lot in with the Green Party with a campaign song -- "Jill Stein."  (Which the Jill Stein campaign even tweeted about once.)

In September I wrote my first song for cello accompaniment, "Song for a Refugee."  (One of many songs on the subject of refugees I've written over the past few years, but the only one for 2016, it seems.)

On the plane home from my second tour of Europe in 2016, I wrote "Gather Round," in an effort to write a modern labor song.

I had been hearing about the developments in North Dakota for some time, but it was after I got back home to Oregon in November that I wrote "Standing Rock."

In early November, the rhetoric in the presidential campaigns was heating up exponentially.  I was being regularly attacked by HRC supporters for my position that we have to stop with the lesser evilism already -- not next election, but yesterday already.  "Lesser Evil" was my musical response to this debate.

When Trump won, "The Biggest Landlord" was my musical effort to understand the motivations behind many of the people who voted for him.

When Fidel died, I wrote a song about the man and his revolution -- "Commandante Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz."

Reflecting on how my Community-Supported Art scheme has done such a good job of allowing me and my family to survive over the course of these past three years, I wrote a poem -- "In Praise of the CSA."

In a bout of loneliness, home alone in mid-December, I wrote "Five Thousand Friends on Facebook, But."

After hearing an interview with one of her sons, I wrote "The Ghost of Ethel Rosenberg" for the campaign to #ExonerateEthel.


I wrote a lot of essays, all of which appeared in my blog, many of them also in Counterpunch.

In January I wrote Rejected By America, about how I had (and still have) given up on doing major tours of the United States because it is not financially viable.

I spent much of March working on setting up the Song News Network, which I announced in a blog post in April -- Where Are All the Protest Songs?

In June I wrote Senseless Acts of Killing, a brief, musically-annotated exploration of why these things happen so much.

Feeling exasperated by all the people and organizations out there spreading false hope by encouraging us to write letters to politicians, I wrote Don't Write Your Congressperson.

When Bernie Sanders told everybody to support Hillary Clinton and many people I know were feeling lost and betrayed, I tried to help out with my WTF 2016 Q&A.

Reflecting on last summer's Democratic National Convention, I wrote Thoughts on the Conventions: The Republicans and Democrats Have Now Switched Places.

I put out a mobile app for the first time last summer.  I wrote Why An App? in explanation for doing this.

A friend of mine contacted me during the summer, telling me about how he knew Mohammed Atta, the most well-known of the 19 men who hijacked the planes used in the 9/11 attacks.  My friend doesn't want to be publicly identified, so I published his account on my blog -- Mohammed Atta, Israeli moving companies, Psychic Friends and a dead handyman.

In the midst of my second tour of Europe in 2016 I wrote A Portlander in Europe, mostly reflecting on the still-vast differences between life in places like Germany and Scandinavia compared with life in the United States.

In defense of my rejection of lesser-evilism, just before the November election I wrote what would be by far my most-read blog entry of the year (over 7k views) -- For All the Women, Men and Children She's Killed -- the Rantings of a Privileged White Male.

Having thought a Trump win quite likely, I already had a lot of ideas about why lots of people would vote for him.  After the election, I wrote my second-most-read blog entry of the year -- What Just Happened -- National Socialism Wins When Socialism is Abandoned.

In defense of the relevance of culture in light of the election and the way forward, I next wrote What's Next?

My most recent essay for Counterpunch was "Good Cop, Bad Cop" -- Democratic Mayors, Republican Governors, and Us, about how the Democrats and Republicans play ping pong with the people of this country.

Reflecting on the way Facebook essentially caught fire during the first half of November, I wrote Netiquette in the Age of Facebook.

Everything Else

On January 28th, my daughter, Leila, turned 10.  On April 14th, four days after my 49th birthday, my son, Yutaka, was born.  If you weren't aware of these developments, you probably don't follow me on Instagram.  (And maybe you don't want to!)

In between tours, during the first four months or so of Yutaka's life in the spring and summer, in my spare time I wrote a novel -- A Busker's Adventures.  Not my first novel, but the first that I've written under my own name...  Hardly anybody has read it, which is a bit discouraging.  The few who have read it tell me it's really good.  (Mostly my relatives.)

In the midst of changing a lot of diapers and writing a novel, I also got into a car accident, crowdfunded the car repairs, and crowdfunded my new electric cello.  And got physical therapy for whiplash.  (Which never seems to quite go away entirely.)

I did two two-month tours of Europe in 2016.  In spite of the currency markets (strong dollar, weak pound) I made a living in 2016 mostly from touring in Europe.  (And from the ongoing support of my CSA members, and all those who contributed to the crowdfunding campaigns for the car repair, albums, cello, etc.)  I did around 90 gigs, including having the privilege of singing for thousands of folks at the opening ceremony of the World Social Forum in Montreal in August, and getting to sing quite extensively for 65,000 people at a TTIP protest in Hamburg, Germany in September.

I put out three professional-quality recordings in 2016:

In January I did a sort of house concert at Big Red Studio, featuring my latest songs (mostly written in the latter half of 2015) which became the Bandcamp album, 1939.

In March I had a show in Boston which was recorded professionally, in spite of my best efforts to sabotage the process.  This became another Bandcamp album, Letter to My Landlord.

In October I concluded a tour with Scottish singer, Lorna McKinnon accompanying me, by having one of our shows in Ireland professionally recorded.  This became the online full-length concert video, Live in Rostrevor.

In Conclusion

If I impress anyone with any of this, that's great, but my intent here is mainly to summarize 2016 from my vantage point, for whatever that's worth.

And also to give thanks.  For the fact that I have the time and the resources to do all of these things is due mostly to the support of all of you who contributed towards these various aforementioned crowdfunding efforts.  And all of you who have organized gigs for me throughout the year.  And all of you who continue to be members of my CSA.  To all of these folks especially -- and to anyone else who likes what I'm doing enough to have gotten this far in this blog post -- from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

I hope to see you on the road in 2017!

Friday, December 9, 2016

In Praise of the CSA

The CSA is becoming a popular method for both DIY artists as well as family farmers to get by. I wrote a poem for the CSA concept, and for mine in particular...

In Praise of the CSA 

Before the concert's over, allow me if I may
To subject you to a message about my CSA
That's Community-Supported Art, in case you didn't know
Since folks stopped buying records, it's the way to go
If you got a few bucks extra, there are few nicer ways to say
"Keep on doing what you're doing" than to join a CSA

You'll find mine on my website, it's a link up near the top
Just click on there and sign up so each month you can drop
A few bucks in the hat out in cyberspace
If we're busking online then we need a virtual guitar case
Because unfortunately Spotify really doesn't pay
So for some solid solidarity, join a CSA

 Of course there are many ways to support the arts
Many people have to play many different parts
From organizing gigs to finding a palette for the shed
Where a traveler such as I can lay their weary head
But what many of us are hoping for is to see the day
When we have a lot of people join the CSA

 Other folks are doing it, and I think it's pretty cool
At least given the options, it's a useful tool
If state sponsorship of art is too much to expect
Then at least we can set it up so the support can be direct
In return we'll give you all the music we can play
Thanks for your consideration of my CSA

P.S.  You'll also find this rhyming missive pinned to the top of my Facebook page.  Shares, likes, and comments tend to make it more likely that more people see it, so please feel free!

Monday, December 5, 2016

My Year-Long Study on Democracy Now! and Culture

This was originally published in March of 2015.

I'm a topical musician by trade. To rephrase that, I'm an expert on how to tell stories about the world around us in a way that is effective and particular to the form of communication that is music. By effective, I mean telling stories in a way that reaches people emotionally in a way that most other forms of communication don't do as well. On March 4th's edition of one of my favorite radio shows, Democracy Now, Amy Goodman said, in reference to John Legend's musical contribution to the film, Selma, that “culture is so important in getting out information.” I completely agree, and I agree that Legend's song, “Glory,” achieves this end brilliantly.

I love Democracy Now, Amy Goodman, and John Legend – and I speak now in all sincerity, in case you're wondering if you should be reading in an edge of sarcasm here, there is none. Nonetheless, I've had a conflicted relationship with the music breaks on this wonderful, extremely popular radio show. There are two of them on each show. They do them for station identification, but of course so many of the show's listeners are online, and not hearing any local radio programmers cut in and identify their stations. Together, we're talking about two 30-second clips of music in each show, sometimes longer if they're having trouble reaching someone they're about to interview, or some other glitch of the sort that happens often in live broadcasts.

So, you may be thinking to yourself, this guy is getting himself all worked up about a couple of 30-second music breaks on a news and information show? Well, yes. And if you keep reading, I think you'll understand why.

I thought I'd start by laying out the facts that I've gathered. I'm not a statistician, but I went to a good high school and understand the rudiments of the scientific method, which I did my best to apply to my experiment. DN's music breaks had been grating on me for years, and, after first trying occasionally over the course of years to plead with Amy and several of her producers personally to pay more attention to how they're doing their music breaks, In December, 2013, I started up a blog, A Musical Review of Democracy Now, in which I have been keeping track of musical selections (and, in some of the posts, making observations about them). I listen to the show religiously anyway, like many people reading this right now. So jotting down what was in the music breaks wasn't hard, once I got into the habit of doing that.

There were certain pieces of information I wanted to gather together. After listening to a total of 105 shows over the course of 15 months on a completely random basis – approximately 1/3 of the shows they've done in that time period – a total of 210 music breaks, the breakdown of the musical selections I've heard works out as follows.

First of all, about one-third of DN's music breaks fall into the category of “unnamed instrumental,” usually classical Arabic oud music, electronic music, or classic jazz tunes. The unnamed instrumentals are not part of the statistics that follow. For the sake of simplicity I'm focused on the most relevant sample of the music, to my thinking, which is songs with lyrics in English, the common language of listeners to this show. Songs in English represent approximately half of the music breaks.  (Incidentally, I am not criticizing here whether music breaks are instrumental or with lyrics, or whether they're in English or not, I'm just explaining my methodology here.)

So, of the 106 songs in English played, out of the 210 music breaks I kept track of, 88 of them were written by famous people. 18 of them were written by independent artists. I'm not good at math, but I believe that breaks down to 17% of the songs played are songs of indy artists, leaving 83% to be from famous artists.

Of the 128 music breaks with songwriters or composers who were identified (basically not counting unnamed oud music and some other instrumental stuff), at least 69 of them, or 53%, were from the 20th century, most of those from the 1960's or 1970's. At least 40 of the authors, or 31% of the total, are dead.

Why are these statistics relevant? Amy Goodman said “culture is so important in getting out information.” So one question is, what information are we mainly talking about here? Stuff that happened 60 years ago is certainly information, but is that mainly what a current events show like DN is focusing on? And what kind of information is communicated about the relevance of culture, when the overwhelming majority of music is derived from famous people from the early part of the latter half of the 20th century? John Legend of course is not part of that statistic, though he very much is part of the “famous” part of the equation.

Of course, maybe you had never heard of John Legend until you heard his song on DN – the left is a pretty insular bunch, so I'm sure for some of you that's the case. (Insert smiley emoticon here.) But many millions of people have already heard of John Legend. He's on commercial radio and TV a lot. I'm not saying that's bad in itself, but it's a fact. And 83% of other songs played on DN fall into that kind of category.

There are degrees of “famous,” of course. Bruce Springsteen is one one end of the spectrum. Pete Seeger isn't as famous as Bruce Springsteen, but he's still famous. So what is my definition of famous here? I just kept it simple. If my investigation turns up that the author had at least one top 40 hit in the charts in the US and/or the UK, and/or that they won one or more Grammy awards, and/or were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, they're famous.

I guess I've made the basic statistical point. From here I could wax philosophical, for better or for worse, but I've done plenty of that already in previous essays you can read if you want to (such as the Cultural 1%). What I hadn't done was collected and collated the actual facts to back up what I'm saying, which I have now done.

Basically, I guess it's all very subjective. But I'm completely convinced that a 30-second music break between segments on a news show can change people's lives. The show is too popular to ignore it when they consistently miss the opportunity to use those breaks to really support their stories with powerful, contemporary, independent music, of which there is so much to choose from.

But you have to look for the independent stuff. You have to know how important it is to do that. Otherwise you default to what you know, and if you grew up in the US, what you knew is what is or has been popular. The other stuff is harder to find, so it needs to be an actual priority to find it, otherwise it doesn't happen. The elitism inherent in 83% of music played being derived from the cultural 1% probably happens by accident. It's just the default to do that. But it's still damaging. It still communicates the wrong message. It says that contemporary independent music and culture is irrelevant, quite simply. What you don't play communicates as much as what you do play.

It's not that Bob Dylan or Bob Marley should be ignored – they shouldn't. But if you're doing stories about contemporary issues, struggles, etc., inevitably, the music that will be powerfully on topic is going to be equally contemporary. And independent. Can you imagine if DN only interviewed best-selling authors? There would be an uproar. Their listeners would abandon them and call them bad names. Because everybody knows that the people we want to listen to and interview and read, etc., are primarily not authors, thinkers and activists who manage to get on the bestseller lists, or who have first been featured on CNN before you get around to having them on your show. Everybody knows that CNN's judgment of who is important is not ours.

So then why should a music break have to be a song that's been in the charts, in order for it to be played on DN? It's not that bestselling authors or hit-producing artists have nothing important to say – some of them do. But the much larger number of artists out there who have never been in the charts are the ones producing the much larger number of great songs. Even if you're not a professional indy musician like I am, even if you haven't observed what I'm talking about firsthand, you know what I'm saying must be likely to be true, statistically. Of the millions of songwriters in the world, it stands to reason, statistically, that most of the good ones can't possibly be the very few that come pre-approved by Clearchannel or even by the BBC or the Motown Records label, and yet that's exactly 83% of what DN plays in their music breaks that involve songs, according to my study.

On a personal note, it feels relevant to add that criticizing any aspect of Democracy Now is a really terrible way to make friends. Understandably enough for various reasons that I won't bother going into, people worship that show, and its wonderful host, who I am privileged to have met on many occasions. I used to be one of the few indy musicians played fairly regularly on the show, usually several times a year. A significant amount of my audience in the US is derived from having been played on DN, particularly around 2001. The last time I was played on the show was the same week I started the blog analyzing their music breaks. The response from many of the people who wrote me after I first started writing analyses of DN's music breaks was basically, “wow, you've got a lot of sour grapes, why don't you quit whining and start your own radio show,” or something along those lines.

Nonetheless, what I'm saying is relevant and important, so I'm saying it. Whether or not it influences DN or anyone else is not up to me. What's up to me is speaking my mind. And what I'm talking about is much bigger than this one radio show, of course. It's about our culture much more broadly than that. The same patterns DN engages in can be found in independent radio shows at community stations throughout the country and the world. In our collective subconscious, whether we ever listen to commercial radio or not, Clearchannel calls the shots in our minds, and will continue to do so as long as leaders of independent media such as Democracy Now rely primarily on popular artists from the 20th century for most of their music breaks.

One of the first times I met Amy Goodman, I asked her for a quote, as aspiring artists do when they meet famous or influential people. She floored me, in a very positive sense, by saying, off the cuff, “how about 'he's the musical version of Democracy Now?'” I've been proudly identifying myself with this quote ever since (changing the “he” to “David Rovics,” since that's who she was referring to there in the Firehouse studio in lower Manhattan 15 years ago).

If you change the “the” to “a,” the quote is true. I, and many other musicians who write songs about the news of the day – topical music, a longstanding tradition in many genres of music – are indeed musical versions of Democracy Now. And oddly enough, the host of the show herself made this observation. But in actual practice, the musical versions of Democracy Now are almost completely ignored by Democracy Now, and the impact that this oversight has on how DN's listeners experience and understand the relevance of culture and its ability to communicate is very negative, whether or not many of them are aware of this, since music breaks can have a sort of subliminal quality, and people who aren't musicians or serious music aficionados wouldn't generally give them much conscious thought.

But it does matter, it does have an impact, and if you don't know this from your own experience, then take it from someone whose musical career was partially launched by being played regularly on the most popular radio show on the left in the US – it matters, and it has an impact, what you do with your music breaks when you have that many listeners.

What goes on between the music breaks, that's for another essay. Mostly I think it's fantastic, and praise-worthy, and I'd miss it terribly if the podcast weren't around to download to accompany me on the road. But there's room for improvement, and I'm just trying to put a little more of the demos in democracy.