Stuck in the Middle

100bannertransIt might not mean much to people who don’t buy paint to create artwork, or ink to make prints, but Dan Smith’s company went ahead with a big decision this month. They stopped selling art supplies. That is, they stopped selling art supplies made by others, and decided to bet the farm on the paints, inks and other supplies that they make and sell under their own name.

Leisel Lund PrimTek Paintouts by LiesalPutting this another way, Daniel Smith Art Supply decided to leave the business of being a middleman. The company didn’t have much to say about the change, apart from the warehouse clearance notices that now arrive in my email box every day. On their website, one statement clearly expresses the company’s purpose: “Daniel Smith is a leading manufacturer of superior-quality lines of watercolor paints, sticks & grounds, acrylic paints & gesso, oil & water-soluble oil paints. Our products are available worldwide.” This is not a new idea: when Brooks Brothers has been selling its own clothing, in its own stores, Zachary Taylor was our 12th President.Brooks-Brothers-History-600x270

And that made me start wondering about Ken Burns, and a guy who worked for me twenty years ago who just showed up with his own documentary. If the connections are not immediately clear, please bear with me.

UnknownThis week, millions of Americans are spending their evenings with the Roosevelts. That is, they are watching a series of documentaries made by Ken Burns and his Florentine Films staff, a series that tells the story of Theodore, Franklin, Eleanor, their families, and their political careers. Burns is closely aligned with WETA, a public television station in Washington, DC, but neither Burns nor WETA is the distributor. Instead, that job first falls to PBS, and then, to nearly 200 local television stations. That’s the way it has worked since The Civil War, or, at least, since around 1990. I didn’t think much about that until someone I know ranted about missing the first half hour of one of the episodes. I figured the episode was available online, did a bit of exploring, and found that all of the episodes were available online, even before they were released on television. And that made me wonder about the chain of distribution. Quite reasonably, there is a website devoted entirely to The Roosevelts. The site’s logo is the show’s logo. The top menu items seem to be focused on the project, not on the distribution. Scroll down to the bottom and the site is copyrighted by WETA and Florentine Films. In fact, there is a modest PBS presence, and in fact, there is no real need for a middleman here at all. Ken Burns has made a fine series of films, and now, with the miracle of web distribution, he can distribute those films directly to his (admiring) public. Something feels right about PBS’s relationship with Ken Burns and his work, but look closely, and it’s clear that PBS, Burns, Florentine, WETA, and PBS’s member stations are taking this new digital distribution idea one step at a time.

And that made me think about the guy who used to work for me who produced an independent documentary. It’s a lovely documentary about the nasty behavior of a big company, and, of all things, a public passion for a particular soda pop. The produce and I were exploring how this documentary gain some exposure. In essence, the producer was seeking a middleman, a Netflix, an exhibitor to bring the film to the public. Old habits die hard. New thinking would probably involve, somehow, contacting every person passionate about the soft drink, and encouraging them to (a) watch the film, and (b) tell their friends. This is a new kind of magic, and it only works sometimes.

And that made me think about a friend who is wondering about the future of the music business. In times past, record labels signed and marketed artists. Now, artists communicate directly with fans, and many record labels are struggling to find their way. At the same time, authors are publishing their own books while dreaming of the money and marketing clout that a large publisher could provide (no more crates of books in the garage, no more handling every detail).

neon051-580x326UnknownSo here we are, caught between two ideas, two eras. In the former, large fortunes were made by the middleman. In the latter, there is no middleman. Make what you sell—the old American way (and, in fact, the way that many people in undeveloped nations continue to operate, with no clear path to a digital future). And then I think about Macy’s, Wal-Mart, and going back a bit, the much-criticized market domination of A&P and Rexall Drug. All of them hawking their self-branded merchandise, all of them making a fortune by selling other companies’ stuff.

Usually, I finish an article with a sense of direction. This time, it’s more complicated. Kudos to Dan Smith for doing something that makes sense instead of doing too many things that don’t. Kudos to the musicians and the authors and the documentary producers who have figured it out, and to Ken Burns and WETA for working within and beside and around the system as they invent a future that sustains everyone in their food chain. Let’s not pretend that this is easy, and let’s accept our era as the mass of contradictions that our world has become. In fact, some of our greatest internet success stories have been stories of middlemen with eBay and Amazon leading the way, and plenty of successful companies including Pinterest, Etsy, and Netflix populating a very long list of middleman enterprises.

At first, I thought I’d be writing an article entitled “Death of the Middleman,” but as I wrote, I realized that my initial approach was naive. Now, I suspect there will always be a role for the middleman. That’s the reason why the altogether excellent Brattleboro Food Co-op exists, to create a marketplace for local farmers and small time operators who make, but cannot directly market, their local cheeses (imagine visiting every creamery for every block of cheese, every week). And thank goodness for the local artisinal ice cream makers who have opened small shops nearby, more than compensating for the closing of the century-old country dairy that closed before its time (and sold only its own ice cream).

Has the digital revolution washed over the middleman? Nope. Not yet. He’s still traveling from town to town, still making the same sales calls he did a century or so ago. Looks a bit different now, made and lost a few fortunes along the way, but he’s still a part of the landscape, not about to give it up any time soon, near as I can see.

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Attack of the Three-Foot Robin

You may recall that I’m a relative newbie when it comes to really big  TV. Our family room’s western wall is now dominated by a 60-inch Samsung plasma  screen is dominated by a stunning picture of a red robin who must be at least three feet tall. There’s a common yellow throat, also larger than my dog. A bufflehead. An olive-sided flycatcher. These are among 118 birds that receive full screen credits, alongside author Jonathan Franzen, legendary Central Park birdwatcher and tour guide Starr Saphir, and other humans who, particularly during the migration months of late spring, watch birds in Central Park. You can watch them, too.

I watched Birders: The Central Park Effect on Netflix, mostly because I was too tired last night to make any sort of meaningful viewing selection. My wife found Birders, enjoys bird watching, and so, we both spent an hour stunned by the images, a pleasant story, and the depths of, well, dweeb behavior (the word used by Franzen to describe his feeling when peering through binoculars and shutting out the rough-and-tumble big city).

Birder-GirlWhen the day winds down, my wife and I try to catch at least an hour’s worth of television viewing. Apart from two or three network series, we mostly forget that CBS, ABC, FOX, and NBC exist. We watch HBO, but never when the network schedules programs. Just about all viewing is on-demand, and nowadays, most of that viewing is done on Netflix.

When we first subscribed to Netflix’s online service, it was just awful. That’s no longer true. Not with every episode of Mission: Impossible (some tedious, some superb), a wide range of foreign and independent films, and lots and lots of interesting documentaries. Recent viewing includes a doc about 1960s-1970s singer Harry Nilsson (whose life story causes every ‘and then I found myself howling at the moon’ episode of Behind the Music seem like child’s play), another about the strident, talented, and fatally flawed 1960s protest singer Phil Ochs, and, the list goes on. It’s all available any time, any where, on any device, so the idea of tuning into anything that’s scheduled for somebody else’s convenience on a plain old TV seems, well, kinda silly.

Originally, we re-subscribed to Netflix to watch Kevin Spacey pretend to be a powerful congressman on House of Cards. We’ve now watched three or four episodes. We’re done. Spacey is consistently terrific, but the it’s difficult to justify watching smarmy Washingtonians sluggishly gumming up the works of government when there are three three foot tall American Coots and Dark-Eyed Juncos in the room (no, I never tire of ridiculous bird names). I’m told the British series is excellent, and it’s likely that watching somebody’s else’s screwed-up government will be more entertaining than watching our own dysfunction. But it’s not high on the list.

Much higher, and now just completed after six one-hour viewing sessions, is Stephen Fry in America. Fry is a popular, literate Brit who travels through the lower forty-eight in his black London Cab (which made its way across the Atlantic by boat). Below, he is enjoying life in a hot tub on a houseboat on a man-made lake with nearly 2,000 miles of shoreline–“quite extraordinary” in his words.

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Fry travels to visit one of the few remaining residents of a Kansas ghost town (who remains optimistic about the tourist potential of his tumble-down main street), the man who runs Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, to paddle the Mississippi River with a man who truly loves his river, to hang out with Morgan Freeman in his blues club near the crossroads where Robert Johnson traded his soul for some superior guitar licks, spends a leisurely afternoon with a Western family that’s okay with the many nearby bears but not so much with the increasing number of aggressive wolves who have lost six of their dogs and an eleven-day-old coat to their hunger, and on from there.  We watched the series on Netflix. You can watch every minute of his adventures, for free, in high definition, on YouTube.

YouTube is becoming one my favorite “channels” (I don’t know the correct term, but video library seems clunky). This past weekend, I watched Paul Newman and Jane Curtin in an extraordinary big-screen production of Our Town, which was done on Broadway for Showtime and PBS. It’s here, and I’ve now recommended it to a lot of people because it is just terrific–a very different experience from our English class read aloud experience of the play in, what, tenth grade.

So what’s the point? Well, I’m pretty sure the point now goes well beyond binging on House of Cards (oy!), or Breaking Bad (not for me, either), or more than 250 original episodes of Mission: Impossible or Mary Tyler Moore or any number of other old TV series. There is a spectacular range of interesting programs now available, for free or at very reasonable prices, programs and films that you can watch on any device, on your own time. The only problem: it’s tough to know what’s available because (sorry to hammer this) House of Cards and its kinfolk get too much of the press. So here’s my attempt to shift the course of that river, one TV set at a time.

Snow Fall: Two Ways to Tell a Story

Several weeks ago, in the midst of a busy holiday season, The New York Times attempted to understand its future by telling the story of an avalanche. The story requires about a half hour of your time, and it is best experienced in a quiet room with a reasonably large screen.

Snow Fall

The place to begin is with the text-ish story, the one that requires a lot of on-screen reading, the one that includes various animated maps that show just where, how, and why the avalanche happened. Short videos (each one about a minute long) illustrate the story, and bring the people in the story to life. There are audio files of the emergency calls to Ski Patrol. There are slide shows that help us to understand the life of each skier. The writing is strong and skillful. The whole presentation is an impressive demonstration of how we might experience news and features in the rapidly-advancing future.

It feels like an experiment. The writing is long, more like a NY Times Magazine story than a web story. I felt myself drawn into the story and its environment, and found myself pressing the “volume up” buttons on my keyboard in expectation of some sort of soundtrack to accompany the reading of the text.  Short videos satisfied some of the craving for additional stimulation; they were nicely integrated into the flow of the story and the text presentation. The slide shows that introduce each character are a more awkward fit because they require the reader to leave the chronology of the intense storyline–which is told, mostly, in shades of grey–and to consider each character’s past life–which is told, mostly, in vivid digital color. The visual shift is jarring, made worse by the inclusion of completely irrelevant advertisements that are large enough to disrupt the entire experience (for this type of storytelling, I think I’d prefer a micropayment or subscription model, but I wouldn’t mind seeing an opening, mid-break and closing sponsorship presentation).

After I read, looked at the pictures, followed the maps, watched the short videos, and so on, I felt that I understood what happened at Tunnel Creek.

And then, I watched the 11-minute video documentary that told the whole story. I was struck by how much more effectively the documentary told the same story. The story was tight, the characters were crisply defined, the maps and visuals made more sense because they were narrated, the pace was brisk, the emotions were sharp and devastating. Less was a whole lot more. The documentary made the print-pictures-video-maps presentation feel like a bunch of reporters’ notes and script drafts. I felt certain that the doc had been produced by another team, but no, it had been made by the same New York Times staff.

And all of that confused me. I love to read (less so on the screen, moreso from paper), and I was very impressed by the quality of storytelling in the multimedia format. But after watching the documentary, I found myself wondering whether we’re making too much of this transmedia idea, and whether a well-produced audio-video presentation might provide a more reasonable multimedia future.

Sure, this is just one example, and an early one at that. I’m anxious to see what Atavist has online, and will write about their multimedia storytelling in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, do take the take to explore the NY Times presentations. They’re well worth your time and attention.

Jack DeJohnette: One of The Best


Jack DeJohnette is one of those extraordinary jazz musicians whose career is largely unknown to those who do not follow jazz. Too bad. (Let’s do what we can to remedy the situation.)

Background: He came up through Chicago’s avant-garde scene, working as part of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians); played with John Coltrane’s quintet in 1966; then worked with a young Keith Jarrett in Charles Lloyd’s group; then made some history as a drummer on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew sessions (and on eight other albums from the early 1970s); soon, his circle included John McLaughlin, Chick Corea and Dave Holland. In fact, for 25 years, he has been a part of a trio with Keith Jarrett on piano, and Gary Peacock on bass–their series of Standards albums are extraordinary (watch them here). The complete list of DeJohnette albums and collaborations is a long one; fortunately, Wikipedia maintains a good list. As both a leader and a co-conspirator, DeJohnette’s portfolio includes so many albums, so much excellent work, that it may be difficult to know where to begin.

For starters, I’d suggest a 1984 CD called Album Album because it offers both an avant-garde sensibility and easy access for anyone willing to take the time to listen. The interplay between saxophones–the formidable David Murray on tenor,  the lesser known John Purcell on alto and soprano, and a young Howard Johnson on tuba and baritone sax–is consistently inventive, with a relentless flow of interesting ideas, varied textures, and explorations of old ideas made new. DeJohnette is the controlling influence, ever present, often leading the way. Plus, there’s this sense of style, short bursts in lavish settings, that provide the basis for an album released in 2009–that’s 25 years later–called Music We Are.

For DeJohnette, the melodica is an old friend: he played melodica on his first significant solo album, excerpted here on YouTube. On the 2009 release, the melodica provides a winning c

ombination of tango sensibility, bits of remaining avant-garde (sounding more mainstream here, perhaps due to the passage of time), and the kind of atmospheric soundscape that was central to Weather Report’s earliest work. The creative collaboration here is with pianist Danilo Perez, who explains, in the album’s liner notes, that he has been playing with DeJohnette since 1992, and that his first encounter with the famous drummer was listening to DeJohnette playing “some beautiful piano.” John Patitucci plays electric and upright bass. They work together beautifully. That is to say: this is a very special album, one that pulls together so many different jazz styles, so successfully, that it defies categorization. It swings, it makes you think, it makes you dance, it does a whole lot of stuff really well.

In fact, they explain how it all comes together on a 25-minute DVD that comes, free, with the Music We Are CD. This is a solid documentary, explaining the creative process from composition and performance through recording and editing. After watching it, you will wonder why every CD doesn’t include an accompanying “how we did it” DVD.

Hey, I was going to write about the newest DeJohnette CD, Sound Travels, but this article is probably long enough. I will write about Sound Travels soon, I promise.

The Inadequacy of TV

Last night, I watched a PBS documentary about an extension of 19th century learning at Chautauqua and another about 21st century learning in several advanced schools.

People living in the 20th century may have been amused, engaged and enthralled by the miracle of television’s ability to deliver Chautauqua or in Science Leadership Academy into their living rooms, but living here in the 21st century, both television experiences left me cold.

Helen Gayle, C.A.R.E.

I had questions. I wanted to get in touch with Helene Gayle, the C.A.R.E. CEO whose family had been vacationing at Chautauqua for generations. Every morning, Chautauqua features a speaker at 10:45 a.m., and I wanted to access Gayle’s speech–and the ones by David McCullough and Daniel Pink, too. I wanted to take a walk with McCullough, or do the virtual equivalent. Sound bites in a documentary? That’s all we get from television? It’s not enough. Not any more. Not in the era of the iPad and YouTube and TEDTalks.

I wanted to see a full class at Science Leadership. I wanted a full-scale Q&A with some students, some teachers, some parents. Cutesy camera angles don’t make television a modern medium. Neither does HDTV. It’s the connection that makes my “post PC device” magical. And that’s not TV. Not now, not at this 21st century moment.

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