Proper Memorial for the Music Business: A Trilogy

Recently, I read the last sad story about the demise of the music business I care to read. This latest covered how once proud metal guitarists have been reduced to singing 80s pop to make ends meet, tragically left to decompose in ignominy at the bar mitzvahs of the greater Jersey metroplex. Not a week before, I read about this guy trying to Kickstarter yet another movie project about how the music industry is broken and the music will all die and everything will be sad forever, waah.

I have had enough of all the doom and gloom about the music industry in the past fifteen years. There is something indeed very wrong, but the current analysis misses what is really going on in music, culture, America, and the world. I am fed up with the same entitled whinging and would like to get onto a more productive discussion about where music is heading.

What, you ask, are my credentials to prognosticate on the future of the music industry? For one thing I am a life-long, committed, sick-in-the-head musician, a veteran of 1500 gigs, several records, too many basses and guitars, thousands of dollars in string purchases alone. I am also a strategic analyst for corporations and governments, and occasionally I manage to predict things like the financial crisis of 2008 and that Iraq will suck and that solar energy will come around. Also, I’m that guy who kicked the Guitar Center in the nuts a few months back, so there’s that. But nothing is especially authoritative about my platform on the music industry, so take it with a grain of salt.

I recently managed to get my kids into Star Wars, another successful 20th century thing that began to suck in the new millennium, so my thoughts on this matter shall be organized into a trilogy. [Continue reading]

Book Review: “The Thunder That Roars” by Imran Garda

thunder-that-roars-imran-gardaLet the world become a brotherhood before it becomes a neighborhood,” is a 20th century expression that implores us to improve the quality of our relationships before technology increases their number and complexity. The bad news is that it’s too late for this sentiment. The world is connected and interdependent, yet we know little about our neighbors, little about that interconnection, and perhaps disturbingly little about ourselves on top of it all. Into this whirling backdrop steps global journalist Imran Garda, best known as a television host on Al Jazeera English, with The Thunder That Roars, a breathtakingly strong debut novel about the self-discovery and strained relationships of human beings in an era that defies understanding.

The central character of the story is Yusuf Carrim, a South African journalist of Indian Muslim extraction who is a precocious rising star in the world of global journalism, having made a major reputation for his contributions to coverage of the Arab Spring. (Any comparisons to Garda, a young journalist of Indian Muslim extraction from Johannesburg, are probably not coincidental.) Carrim splits his time between coverage of global events in the Middle East and gritting his teeth through shallow house parties in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His success is not enough to salve a growing emptiness draining him from an unknown source. When he receives word from home that Sam, his family’s long-time gardener, has disappeared, Yusuf instantly boards a plane to South Africa to express concern, seek atonement, or perhaps force a reckoning.

Yusuf returns to his family’s home to find a tense, roiling discontent in the wake of Sam’s disappearance. His step-mother and father express are opinionated and appear generally devoid of compassion. Sam’s wife and children are stoic, fearing the worst. Only Yusuf’s favorite university professor explains the situation in its gravity – that Sam may have gone to be a gunman during the Libyan uprising. Yusuf takes it upon himself to apply his ability to investigate stories as a measure of devotion to his family friend, or, tacitly, as a way to use his worldly success as a journalist to heal divisions in his family he scarcely understands. He departs on an adventure that will take him on a dangerous path from Zimbabwe to North Africa to the dungeons of Europe’s illegal immigration centers.

What is in principle supposed to be a search for Sam the gardener becomes, through a series of increasingly dangerous events, an exploration of the darkest sides of Yusuf’s own personality. Though the near-death experiences and dank prison cells hold the most obvious peril, what threatens to break the young man is a series of revelations of vital details about his life that have been complete untruths. By the end of the story, the international media has been brought in to the adventure, using its camcorders and blog posts to paint a thin veneer of rational narrative on a journey that offers little but mystery, confusion and pain for Yusuf and the rest of his family.

While the descriptions of darkness and lack of a happy ending sound for depressing reading, the novel is challenging and satisfying from cover to cover. Garda’s author photo looks about twenty years short of the age normally associated with this much depth of insight into cultures, political events, and the human condition. His prose is at once richly detailed and economical. He has a sharp eye for the contradictions of globalization: the women with $10,000 handbags in “developing” economies; international journalists whose greatest fascination is in the mirror; popular revolutions that seem to end back up at the same old economic inequality and ethnic social hierarchies with only superficial changes. None of Garda’s characters are caricatures or plot devices to advance Yusuf’s odyssey, but seem to exhibit the same multi-layered and contradictory motivations of the world they inhabit.

His treatment of Islam is especially remarkable, exploring how many people throughout Africa relate to the religion and its spirituality. It may be the only writing I have experienced since The Yacoubian Building that depicts Muslims who are at turns lapsed, moderate or devout, and which also deals frankly with the role of fundamentalism and terrorism. Once again, there is nothing shallow or caricatural about Garda’s writing.

The story comes to a finish as Yusuf tracks Sam from the Cape of Good Hope to Sicily and back. There is no victory parade. Everybody seems to go on as before, altered but not transformed. Just as in real life, you expect that adventures will conclude through a defined ending, happy or not. But instead, the world continues inexorably. How you interpret it, what you learn and what you do differently is up to the individual.

Imran Garda, journalist and authorImran Garda’s first novel offers much to the reader. If you are from any one of Africa’s nations, you might revel in the depiction of the continent and its people free from red sunsets, tribal drums and animal reserves. If you enjoy travel and hunger for new insights about the world, Garda’s perceptive descriptions will give you a three-dimensional view on nations and people which normally only appear to Westerners as sensational jpegs. Otherwise, this is simply excellent, character-driven fiction provided on an original backdrop. One can only imagine what Garda will offer us next.

Rich guy sees pitchforks ahead

nick-hanauerIn Politico Magazine, a publication whose quality is pleasantly surprising me, there is a rather astonishing OpEd from one of Amazon’s original investors, Nick Hanauer. It seems that he is being briefed on some of the same economic indicators as I, and is drawing similar conclusions.

Realizing that, seeing over the horizon a little faster than the next guy, was the strategic part of my success. The lucky part was that I had two friends, both immensely talented, who also saw a lot of potential in the web. One was a guy you’ve probably never heard of named Jeff Tauber, and the other was a fellow named Jeff Bezos. I was so excited by the potential of the web that I told both Jeffs that I wanted to invest in whatever they launched, big time. It just happened that the second Jeff—Bezos—called me back first to take up my investment offer. So I helped underwrite his tiny start-up bookseller. The other Jeff started a web department store called Cybershop, but at a time when trust in Internet sales was still low, it was too early for his high-end online idea; people just weren’t yet ready to buy expensive goods without personally checking them out (unlike a basic commodity like books, which don’t vary in quality—Bezos’ great insight). Cybershop didn’t make it, just another dot-com bust.

Amazon did somewhat better. Now I own a very large yacht.

But let’s speak frankly to each other. I’m not the smartest guy you’ve ever met, or the hardest-working. I was a mediocre student. I’m not technical at all—I can’t write a word of code. What sets me apart, I think, is a tolerance for risk and an intuition about what will happen in the future. Seeing where things are headed is the essence of entrepreneurship. And what do I see in our future now?

I see pitchforks.

Actual pitchforks? Heavens no, Abigail May, we’ve sold the American People AR-15s for far too long for those tired farm implement to see any use. But the agrarian-revolt metaphor shall hold. There is a wave of new and disappointing indicators just starting to crest, the basic theme of which is, “Oops, sorry, there was no recovery.” Instead of cauterizing the wounds of the first decade of this century, we refused to let any nominal asset values fall, lest the zillionaires with less vision and integrity as Mr. Hanauer feel uncomfortable about having made a bad bet. We let suburbanites think their starter castle think it held its value rather than figure out a serious economic strategy for our nation.

And when people realize that the hard work still remains on the horizon, I doubt, like Mr. Hanauer, that they will maintain their faith in existing hierarchy and authority.

My remarks at the Ibramerc Market Intelligence Forum

The following is a transcript of my remarks before the Ibramerc Forum de Inteligência de Mercado in São Paulo, Brazil last week entitled, “The coming golden age of analysis.” In this speech I discuss how the profession of intelligence has gone through a very dark period, and why the coming disruptions in the global economy will make sophisticated intelligence methodologies essential to success in the years to come. [Continue reading]

An urgent dispatch from the seat of white privilege

I have absolutely no business reason to write about the hierarchical privilege of race, gender and class. But I do have an urgent reason, since learning that people have been apparently threatening to rape my friend, neighbor and colleague Dr. Sarah Kendzior based on her writing about economic justice. This makes me deeply angry.

You see, Dr. Kendzior and I both write things that are critical of entire systems. We have both written about media companies trying to get their work for free, both written about how American journalists mangle their coverage of foreign countries, that sort of thing. Kendzior has also written about the hustle of adjunct professors providing labor to universities for poverty wages, along with our friend, neighbor and colleague, Dr. Rebecca Schuman, the education columnist for Slate. We take positions that are not aimed at any one individual, but expose how our institutions themselves pick winners and losers in the economy – opinions that often make some people quite uncomfortable. They are two of my favorite writers anywhere. I have complete admiration for Kendzior’s logic, ferocious prose and prolific output, and Schuman’s ability to interweave slashing wit into systemic analysis makes for tremendous reading. If they consider me a peer, it’s an honor.

There is one thing I find to be unequal between the three of us: the volume of personal, vindictive intellectual attacks that follow when our writing goes viral. The three of us have all been known to move some page views by getting into important topics that provoke considerable emotion. As we have done so, I have noticed a trend that has become undeniable: I simply do not receive the kinds of hateful, condescending reactions as my female colleagues. In fact, I have written on topics that are probably more hot-button: partisan US politics, firearms in America, and billion-dollar private equity deals currently up in the air; their topics include how tenure is allocated in academia, whether university students should write essays for intro-level courses, and the impact of the minimum wage on fast food workers. I am not dismissing the importance of their topics whatsoever, but I believe that my writing has, at times, been on subjects that are more likely to start fights at Thanksgiving than discussing whether university profs should use Powerpoint. I mean, I’m messing with the NRA. But we get vastly different amounts and types of hatemail. [Continue reading]