MasPira 09-12-176

The Pirate’s Dilemma

How Youth Culture is Reinventing Capitalism


Matt Mason

Free Press, 2008, 243 pp.  ISBN 978-1-4165-3218-7


Mason is a writer, consultant, and entrepreneur in New York City.  He is an insider to the underground youth movement and the founding editor of RWD, the U.K.’s number one urban music magazine and website.  He sorts through the changes brought about by the interface of pop culture and innovation.  He charts the rise of various youth movements beginning with pirate radio to remix culture.  Each chapter crystallizes an idea behind one of the fringe movements. 


This is not a book I enjoyed.  Mason, who is an enthusiastic insider, lauds the aspects of the underground urban youth culture that I find most disturbing: foul language, free sex, drugs, violence, and indiscriminate rebellion against all norms and forms of authority. The names they take for themselves, their music, their magazines, and their companies show a complete disregard for civility.  To me it represents much of what is wrong with our world.  For examining how piracy is changing our economic system, I prefer the book Free by Chris Anderson. dlm


“On our airwaves, in our public spaces, and through the new layers of digital information that envelop us, pirates are changing the way we use information, and in fact, the very nature of our economic system.  From radio pirates to graffiti artists to open-source culture to the remix, the ideas behind youth cultures have evolved into powerful forces that are changing the world.”  “Private owned property, ideas, and privileges are leaking out into the public domain beyond anyone’s control.” (3) 


If digitized property can be infinitely reproduced and distributed without cost, how can it be protected?  This book suggests the pirates might save the ship.  And the answers are in the youth culture.  Youth movements are a way of communicating alternatives without inciting bloody revolutions.  (4,5) 


Punk Capitalism is the new set of market conditions where piracy is the business model.  “Youth cultures often embody some previously invisible, unacknowledged feeling in society and give it an identity.” (13) 


“At punk shows, the band and the fans occupy the same space, as equals.  There is no hierarchy.  Everyone is part of the performance.” (18)  Punk fostered the D.I.Y. (Do it yourself) movement. Everyone could be a producer.  Form your own band.  [No talent required. dlm]  “Despite their ideals, many old punks are kept in business by corporate advertisers, doing the very thing they once rebelled against.” (21)  “Punk amplified the idea that nothing else mattered apart from the will to do it yourself. … Technology is helping the D.I.Y. mentality realize its full potential.” (26)  “The creative individual…is the new mainstream.” (27) 


Current ideas from the philosophy of punk rock:

  1.  Do It Yourself.  Don’t take your cues from the mass market.  Set up your own business.  Be creative.
  2. Resist Authority.  Anarchy is the path to a brighter future.
  3. Combine Altruism with Self-Interest.  Start out putting purpose before profit.  It’s cool. 


“A pirate is essentially anyone who broadcasts or copies someone else’s creative property without paying for it or obtaining permission.” (36) “Piracy transforms the markets it operates in, changing the way distribution works and forcing companies to be more competitive and innovative.  Pirates don’t just defend the public domain from corporate control; they also force big business and government to deliver what we want, when we want it.” (38)  Pirates produce 95% of all DVDs sold in China. 


The 150 pirate stations on the FM dial in the United Kingdom have spawned new genres and cultures for decades.  Initially the new strains of music are seen as too risqué for the mainstream but once it reaches a critical mass, pirate DJs become celebrities and their products are exported worldwide.  (44)  “Pirates highlight areas where choice doesn’t exist and demand that it does…. It is a powerful tool that…can be applied anywhere.” (46)  “Once these new ideas are broadcast, they unavoidably create a Pirate’s Dilemma for others in that market.  Should they fight these pirates, or accept that there is some value in what they are doing, and compete with them?”  When pirates do something society finds useful, it leads to changes in the law that results in progress. 


A good idea is powerful only if people get behind it.  The pirates win in two ways.  Either the laws change or the pirates become so popular the laws are ignored.  All you need today is a web connection to broadcast to the entire world.  Perhaps one day the media may be totally conquered by pirates. 


“A new generation of media consumers has risen demanding content delivered when they want it, how they want it, and very much as they want it.” (49)


“As bloggers dig deeper and wider, the mainstream news networks are becoming increasingly shallow.” (50)  “In fact, they now have so much power around the world, they are deciding who gets to run the place.” [a la political campaigns. dlm]


What happens when corporations charge so much for drugs that poor companies can’t afford them?  “When the market fails and democracy is ignored, pirates should step into the breach.  In this case, it was governments [India, Brazil, Argentina, Thailand, Egypt, and China] in the developing world who became pill pirates, providing better health care precisely by stealing ideas.” (63) 


Three habits of highly effective pirates:

  1.  Look outside of the market.  Where are the opportunities that the market has ignored?
  2. Create a vehicle.  Think blogs for an example.
  3. Harness your audience.  It is the support that pirates get that enable them to go legitimate. 


“Remix” is…a conscious process used to innovate and create by “cutting and pasting.”  This technique has revolutionized the world.  “Remixing is about taking something that already exists and redefining it in your own personal creative space, reinterpreting someone else’s work your way.” (71)  Remix “require you to think of chunks of the past as building blocks for the future.”  Here is a recipe for remix creativity:

· A big idea (a borrowed one is as good as your own)

· An idea of who is on your dance floor

· A handful of other people’s ideas (chopped up)

· A pinch of originality.

Note:  Remixing doesn’t necessarily make something better.  [Of course, it doesn’t have to be better to become popular: it might be much worse. dlm] 


“Like music, fashion is an industry perpetuated by ideas that come up from youth cultures and are shared and remixed.” (94)   “The way to apply the remix effectively and fairly for producers and remixers alike is a Pirate’s Dilemma.” “As many artists and companies embrace this new culture, others are fighting its rise to protect their intellectual property rights.”  (97)  “It’s too late to protest.  The remix has already been here for decades, and those not yet using it soon will be. …The remix is gradually winning the war….” (101) 


“Graffiti is the blowback from centuries of advertising and the privatization of common spaces….  Some call it vandalism, but at its heart there is art….” (106)  Graffiti artists think they have the same right to use public space as politicians and private companies.  Is graffiti any worse than a big brand poster? 


“And graffiti, like punk, is riddled with contradictions because it is a product of two opposing forces, freely lending itself to both.  For some it is just a way to be heard, the voice of the invisible….  Some art critics see it as the most important art form of the twentieth century….  But other people regard it as a scourge on the landscape….” (110)  “…leaving our mark in public is an urge that people from all walks of life have been unable to resist.” (111) 


When New York City cleaned up the subway, the graffiti artists found new territory everywhere above ground, including the steel shutters of shop fronts, freight trains that went across the country, highway signs, and many others.  Artists snap pictures of their work and share them on graffiti websites.  Graffiti and advertising are the same thing, only ads are tolerated and graffiti is not. Some corporations have taken to doing graffiti themselves. “Culture jamming is the act of subverting any kind of corporate control, especially advertising.” (127) 


“Each story in this book is about boundaries coming down.  Punk democratized the means of production.  Pirates ignored old restrictions on new ideas.  We have seen how useful the remix can be, and how graffiti artists reclaim public spaces from private interests.  All of these ideas are about sharing and using information in new ways.”  “This new system being created from the ground up is a new kind of open society.  As new economic systems underpinned by sharing begin to outcompete markets, understanding the Pirate’s Dilemma will become a priority for nations, organizations, and individuals alike.” (141-42)


“Youth culture built the personal computer.” (143) “The idea behind open-source software is to let others copy, share, change, and redistribute your software, as long as they agree to do the same with the new software they create in the process.” (147)  “Wikipedia is built entirely by amateurs.  Instead of authority, Wikipedia embraces a new, decentralized way of working.”  “It’s a place where people can edit and share information.”  (148, 49)  Many businesses give content away for free and are making money.  [This is the focus of the book Free by Chris Anderson.] “Systems based on sharing expand the way information is used, and in doing so expand the market for that information.” (151) 


Napster allowed “users to share and exchange vast quantities of music online—illegally.  Together with MP3 players, which allowed consumers to carry around the vast amounts of music they had downloaded onto their computers, Napster changed music history.” (154)  “The internet has given music back to the people….” (155)  “As MP3 players converge with other products, music is becoming a feature of everything we do.” (159) 


“Movies, video games, magazines, and newspapers have all suffered losses as they make the transition to business models based on electronic distribution.  The music industry found out the hard way that resistance is futile.  The best way to stop piracy, as Steve Jobs said, is to compete with it. … The trick is not to fight, but to be the first to market.” (161)  “…it is possible to manage what you share so it’s a win-win situation for you and others.” (167) 


“Hip-hop has dominated youth culture for decades, and has bred brilliant entrepreneurs who are now among the richest people in America.  It is also increasingly informing thinkers, politicians, and decision makers as the hip-hop generation come of age.  Keeping it real and striking a chord with a huge audience is how hip-hop took over, but keeping it real is a trend bigger than hip-hop….  Today consumers crave reality….  …we thirst for authenticity as never before.  With mass personalization has come the need for everything to feel more personal.”  (174-75)


Hip-hop is not a sound, culture, or movement but an open source system.  It evolves constantly.  It is a decentralized network with self-sufficient hubs on every continent, a model of how globalization should work.  (176) 


“Rappers don’t just talk about getting money, they’ve become some of the most versatile businesspeople in America.”  “Hip-hop is a game of braggadocio, and conspicuous consumption is no longer enough to impress.  The more you can successfully build and extend your brand and still manage to keep it real, the more you can exaggerate your swagger.”  “The business acumen behind hip-hop and the fact that it made entrepreneurship cool is one of its strongest attributes.”  “Successful rappers have become multinational corporations.”  (187-89)  [I’m not sure how the author sees authenticity in these hip-hop idols that have capitalized on their fame and become insanely rich promoting products.  Seems to me they are scamming their fans big time. dlm]


“Commercial hip-hop is often perceived as nothing but an empty, misogynistic, violent culture obsessed with hos, bling, and little else.”  But the hip-hop generation is capable of organizing large protests and has growing political and social clout, a la Obama campaign. 


“Hip-hop mastered the art of the sustainable sellout through the notion of keeping it real.” (193) [Ah, yes.  Just as I said. dlm]


Hip hop megastars are starting charities and nonprofits just like other multimillionaires.” (193)  “Hip-hop power brokers have started to jump on the world stage.”  “The hip-hop generation may soon be the most powerful constituency since the religious right in America.” The United Nations included hip-hop in its Millennium Development Goals.  (194)  The world has a youth movement everyone can relate to.  It represents rebellion and a sense of self.  (196)  At the same time the majority of young people in North America think rap has too many violent images.  “The way many artists evangelize drug dealing, violence, and the pursuit of money, no matter what the cost, is a message critics perceive to be damaging.” (197) [duh.  dlm]


Youth culture … is evolving into a moving target…  New ideas are transmitted virally.  New movements are ephemeral; most are never more than a blip on the mainstream radar.” Flash mobs are just one new phenomenon.  Nanocultures rise and fall in months. (206)  Memes are “units of cultural information transferable from one mind to another.”  “Whether it’s an idea, MP3 file, or 3-D printer design, anything can pass through the network, infect us, and take on a life of its own.” (207)      


“Youth cultures today are small and loose-knit, floating on the electronic ether….” (208)  “There isn’t even time to pigeonhole new trends before they disappear. … Now there is just an infinite tangle of new music arriving daily, available to us all without leaving the house. … How can anyone make a mark when everything is eternally lost in the clutter?” (214-15) 


“Your idea is your currency; what you’re buying is a few seconds of the viewer’s time, in which you must gain their trust, entertain or inform them, convince them of your message, and possibly get them to act on it.  But it also has to be currency for the user; it has to be funny, informative, or somehow valuable for them to pass on to someone else.”  (217)


Viral marketing is one of the few efficient ways through the clutter of advertising.  Customers are now replacing the R&D and marketing departments!  How to create and feed a virus:

  1.  Let the audience make the rules.  Remix allowed instrumentals to be turned into a different project by the DJs. 
  2. Avoid the limelight; talk only to your audience.  Build up your core and let them tell everyone else.
  3. Feed the virus according to its size.  Don’t get into the commercial world until the virus is at its peak.
  4. Let it die.  Nanocultures are temporary. 


The generation gap has become obsolete!  Parents have the same songs on their iPods as their kids.  “Younger generations will always find a way of rebelling; now it’s being done with media and technology rather than clothing and music.  The whole shock factor isn’t there.  Rebellion now is about being a bit cleverer.”  “Culture and society have become so much more permissive, that there is a lot less to rebel against.”  “Society has embraced the rules of youth cultures….”  “Kids are angry.  But I don’t think they know what they are angry against.”  (226)


“Everyone now has access to the same spaces and is jostling for their fifteen minutes of fame.  The trouble is these days it last only fifteen nanoseconds.” (229)  “Now we are all capable of acting like pirates, or being devoured by them.” (232)  “Whenever pirates are adding value to society, society will always demand that the players compete with them in the long term.  In this case, the player who competes first will stand a better chance of gaining the advantage.”  “Pirates are taking over the good ship capitalism…. …they will be the ones that keep it afloat and propel it forward.”  (239)   



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