Books, Music, Disruption and Distribution

Having watched this short film by The Economist on disruption in the music business, I find the parallels between the books and the music businesses uncanny.

Both industries have been traditionally controlled by the middlemen – labels in the case of music, and publishers in the case of books. Both sets of middlemen are oligopolies – there are three big music labels and four (?) major publishers. This is primarily a result of production costs – traditionally, professional recording equipment has been both expensive and hard to get. Similarly, typesetting and printing a book was expensive business.

However, both industries have been massively disrupted in the last couple of decades, primarily thanks to new distribution models – streaming in the case of music, and online vendors and e-books in the case of books. Simultaneously, the cost of production have also plummeted – I can get studio quality recording and mixing software on my Macbook Pro, and I already have a version of my book that looks good on the Kindle.

Yet, in both industries, the incumbents strongly believe that they continue to add value despite the disruption, and staunchly defend the value of the marketing and distribution they bring. In the above video, for example, a record studio executive talks about how established artistes may do well going “indie”, but new artistes require support in production, marketing and distribution.

If you see blogs and news articles on publishing and self-publishing, on the other hand, most of the talk is about how little value publishers themselves bring into the marketing and distribution process. While publishers continue to have a broad monopoly on the traditional distribution chain (bookstores, primarily), they have no particular competitive advantage in the new channels.

One of the successful indie artistes interviewed in the above video talks about how he was successful thanks to the brand and following he built up on social media, which ensured that his album had several takers as soon as it was released. It is again similar to advice that authors who want to self-publish get!

As someone who has completed a book manuscript and is looking for production and distribution options, I find the developments in the indie space (across products) rather interesting. Going by all this, maybe I should just give up on the “stamp of approval” I’m looking for from a traditional publisher, and go indie myself!

I leave you with a few lines from one of my favourite poems, which I believe is a commentary about the music record label industry!

Now the frog puffed up with rage.
“Brainless bird – you’re on the stage –
Use your wits and follow fashion.
Puff your lungs out with your passion.”
Trembling, terrified to fail,
Blind with tears, the nightingale
Heard him out in silence, tried,
Puffed up, burst a vein, and died.

 

Offshoring and the daNDapiNDagaLu moment

Sometime in the early 2000s (2000 or 2001, if I’m not mistaken), there came a sitcom on Kannada television (Udaya TV, if I remember correctly) called “daNDapiNDagaLu” (no direct translation to English available, but it translates to something like “waste bodies”).

The sitcom was about the travails of five boys who had studied one of {B.A., B.Sc., B.Com. } and were subsequently unemployed. Directed by Phani Ramachandra, of the Ganeshana Madhuve and Gowri Ganesha fame, it was rather funny and mostly well received. The most memorable part of the sitcom, however, was the iconic title song (the version on Youtube is audio-only, but that will suffice for our purposes).

For non-Kannada speakers here, the song is about people who study B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. and subsequently fail to find a job, and then roam the streets with little to do. The song also talks about the unwillingness of these people to do menial jobs, of not being of the “right caste” to avail reservations, and not having the ability to get good marks which can get them a job.

Thinking about it, the song was extremely appropriate for its times, and the release of the serial coincided with the low point of the value of a B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. degrees in India (I remember feeling rather proud when the sitcom came out that I was studying engineering, and hence wasn’t one of “them”).

Until the 1980s or so, the possession of a bachelor’s degree qualified you for a large gamut of opportunities, mostly in the government. So it didn’t matter that much what you studied, and if you weren’t particularly useless, you’d find a job to get by on.

To take an example, my mother had a bachelor’s in biology, but spent most of her career in an accounting job (she entered the workforce in the 1970s). In other words, it didn’t matter what degree you had, as long as you had one. So people gladly did whatever degree they could get into.

In the 1990s, however, with the government sector on the decline and liberalisation not having had enough of an impact to massively expand the job market, there was trouble for these graduates. Government was no longer recruiting as it used to, and the private sector wasn’t picking up the slack either. It was at this time that most such graduates started going jobless, and the value of these degrees diminished like crazy.

It is no surprise that around the time I finished high school (2000), everyone wanted to study engineering – opportunities for most other degrees were very few. With liberalisation in the education sector having kicked in, supply in engineering college seats expanded to meet the demand (in some states at least). It was a popular meme in those days that anyone who studied for a B.A. or a B.Sc. did so only because they couldn’t get an engineering seat.

It was around this time, the absolute low point for B.A., B.Sc. and B.Com. that daNDapiNDagaLu came out. The sitcom lost its relevance rather soon, though.

With liberalisation in full swing in India,development in communications technology, and slowing growth in developed markets, “offshoring” became a thing. Companies in developed western markets figured out that they could get routine stuff done for a lot cheaper by “offshoring” them to emerging markets, where labour was a lot cheaper.

And some of those jobs came to India, which had a large pool of (hitherto unemployed) graduates, most of whom spoke English. It started with call centre jobs (where Indians were trained to get Western or “neutral” accents, and Janardhans became Johns). Then came slightly higher value adding jobs, like accounting, secretarial services, etc. Business Process Outsourcing was soon a thing, and it didn’t take Thomas Friedman too long to write The World is Flat.

With the coming of these jobs, the market for people with B.A., B.Sc. and B.Com. was suddenly opened up, and there was a range of jobs these people could do. Today, someone with one of these degrees, as long as they are reasonably capable, can expect to find a job after graduation.

Society hasn’t kept up, though. A lot of people are still in the daNDapiNDagaLu mode, and consider those studying B.A., B.Sc. or B.Com. as potential “waste bodies”, not realising that the time now is different!

Movie plots and low probability events

First of all I don’t watch too many movies. And nowadays, watching movies has become even harder as I try to double-guess the plot.

Fundamentally, commercial movies like to tell stories that are spectacular, which means they should consist of low-probability events. Think of defusing bombs when there is 1 second left on the timer, for example, or the heroine’s flight getting delayed just so that the hero can catch her at the airport.

Now, the entire plot of the movie cannot consist of such low-probability events, for that will make the movie extremely incredulous, and people won’t like it. Moreover, a few minutes into such a movie, the happenings won’t be low probability any more.

So the key is to intersperse high-probability events with low-probability events so that the viewer’s attention is maintained. There are many ways to do this, but as Kurt Vonnegut once wrote (in his masters thesis, no less), there are a few basic shapes that stories take. These shapes are popular methods in which high and low-probability events get interspersed so that the movie will be interesting.

 

Kurt Vonnegut’s Masters Thesis on the shapes of stories

So once you understand that there are certain “shapes” that stories take, you can try and guess how a movie’s plot will unfold. You make a mental note of the possible low-probability events that could happen, and with some practice, you will know how the movie will play out.

In an action movie, for example, there is a good chance that one (or more) of the “good guys” dies at the end. Usually (but not always), it is not the hero. Analysing the other characters in his entourage, it shouldn’t be normally hard to guess who will bite the dust. And when the event inevitably happens, it’s not surprising to you any more!

Similarly, in a romantic movie, unless you know that the movie belongs to a particular “type”, you know that the guy will get the girl at the end of the movie. And once you can guess that, it is not hard to guess what improbable events the movie will comprise of.

Finally, based on some of the action movies I’ve watched recently (not many, mind you, so there is a clear small samples bias here), most of their plots can be explained by one simple concept. Rather than spelling it in words, I’ll let you watch this scene from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

Censoring the death ceremony

So we finally watched Raam Reddy’s much-acclaimed Thithi today. Ever since we’d watched the trailer, we’d wanted to see the movie, and though reviews from relatives and friends were mixed, they helped set our expectations and we had a good time at the movie.

This post, however, is not about the movie, but about censorship. We watched at PVR Forum, and immediately after the U/A certificate (and before the movie) came a certificate with the cuts that the censor board had recommended. Even before the movie began, we knew that four instances of thika (arse) and one instance of bOLi (bitch) had been muted.

I think this is a fantastic idea – while the censor board is happy to use its scissors liberally, showing how they’ve used their scissors beforehand helps set viewers’ expectations, so that they know exactly what they’ve missed out. My only contention is that that slide should be shown for longer than it was, so that viewers get a better idea.

Anyway, once the movie started, it was clear that the censors had done a shoddy job. As a friend (who watched the movie yesterday) pointed out, the word “tuNNe” (dick) wasn’t muted out. I noticed during the movie that there is a dialogue that is translated (and subtitled) as “screw your mother” remained.

(while I initially wondered why a Kannada movie was being shown in Bangalore with English subtitles, I realised once the movie started that it was a good thing. The language used in the movie was quite different from what we normally speak in Bangalore.)

What the censorship of words in this movie goes to illustrate is that the censor board is thoroughly incompetent. Whether censorship is necessary is a philosophical question, and the government has appointed a committee to look into that. What is more important is that the people at the censor board are thoroughly incompetent, and hopefully that will be taken into account when the censorship policy is finally revised!

thika is something every Kannadiga kid uses liberally (though bOLi is something we graduate to only in teens), while tuNNe and nin-amman (translated as “screw your mother”) are normally not used in polite conversation. The censor board is absolutely clueless!

Censor Board as a preserver of the Bollywood cartel

The Indian Censor Board (Central board for film certification or something, to take its full name) has come under flak for the last year or so, for imposing excess cuts on movies, and more recently for some hilarious videos that its chairperson has made and uploaded (in the interest of taste I’ll not link to the video here).

The latest instalment is its decision to make over 45 edits to Quentin Tarantino’s latest movie “The Hateful Eight”. The common reaction on Twitter has been that it’s useless to watch a Tarantino movie with so many cuts in the theatre, and it’s better to illegally download and watch the movie. Here is the document listing the cuts:

While the popular narrative remains that the Censor Board has been acting the way it has been because we have a “right wing conservative” Union Government, it doesn’t stand that test that the Censor Board has become especially kooky after the current government came to power (barring the hilarious videos and comments that is). The fact of the matter is that the Censor Board has been kooky with its edits much before the current government came to power.

There is a simpler explanation to why the Censor Board censors as much as it does – it seeks to protect the interests of the “Bollywood cartel”. By Bollywood, I refer to the mainstream Hindi cinema industry based in Mumbai which churns out “family movies” which don’t contain too much sex or violence, all of which seek a “U” (universal) certificate from the board.

The idea is this – Bollywood mostly makes “mainstream” movies, without much scope for the censor board to cut anything, so they’re largely insulated. Foreign language (including English) and offbeat movies, however, are more experimental, and are likely to have much more sex and violence.

Cutting parts of a movie and muting further portions (refer to above document) drastically diminishes the experience of watching the movie. Scenes cut in a non-intuitive fashion, and you are forever guessing what word was muted out.

Given such an inferior experience of watching, the value you gain from watching drops, and you might decide it is not worth watching at all. Those that have the means might instead choose to download the movie via illegal torrents, or watch it online using VPNs (effectively watching another country’s “edition”).

To summarise, competitors of mainstream Bollywood movies suffer due to censorship, by declining viewership, and viewership that moves to illegal media. Bollywood, on the other hand, by not having much that can be censored, is not similarly affected, and is thus relatively better off!

The union government has instituted a panel to review the activities of the Censor Board. The panel is headed by Shyam Benegal, who is an “alternative filmmaker” who doesn’t belong to the Bollywood clique. Hopefully some good will come out of that!

Mythology, writing and evolution: Exodus edition

I watched half of Exodus: Gods and Kings last night (I’d DVRd it a few days back seeing it’s by Ridley Scott). The movie started alright, and the story was well told. Of Moses’s fight with Rameses, of Moses being found out, of his exile and struggle and love story and finding god on a mountain. All very nice and well within the realms of good mythology.

And then Moses decides to hear god’s word and goes to Memphis to free his fellow Hebrews. There’s a conspiracy hatched. Sabotage begins. Standard guerrilla stuff that slaves ought to do to revolt against their masters. Up to that point in time I’d classified Exodus as a good movie.

And then things started getting bad. God told Moses that the latter wasn’t “doing enough” and god would do things his way. And so the Nile got polluted. Plants died. Animals died. Insects attacked. Birds attacked (like in that Hitchcock movie).  What had been shaping up to be a good slave-revolt story suddenly went awry. The entire movie could be described by this one scene in Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark:

When you see the guy twirling the sword, you set yourself up for a good fight. And then Indiana just pulls out a gun and shoots him! As a subplot in that movie, it was rather funny. But if the entire plot of a movie centres around one such incident (god sending the plague to Egypt, in this case), it’s hard to continue watching.

Checking out the movie on IMDB, I realised that it has a pretty low rating and didn’t recover its investment. While this is surprising given the reputation of Scott, and how the first part of the movie is set up and made, looking at the overall plot it isn’t that surprising. The problem with the movie is that it builds on an inherently weak plot, so the failure is not unexpected.

It did not help that I was reading mythology, or a realistic mythological interpretation, earlier in the day – the English translation of SL Bhyrappa’s Parva. In that, Bhyrappa has taken an already complex epic, and added his own degrees of complexity to it by seeking to remove all divinity and humanise the characters. Each major character has a long monologue (I’m about a third into the book), which explores deep philosophical matters such as “what is Dharma”, etc.

While moving directly from humanised philosophical myth to unabashedly religious story might have prevented me from appreciating the latter, it still doesn’t absolve the rather simplistic nature of the latter myth. I admit I’m generalising based on one data point, not having read any Christian myth, but from this one data point, it seems Christian myth seems rather weak compared to Hindu or Greek or Roman myth.

My explanation for this is that unlike other myths, Christian myth didn’t have enough time to evolve before it was written down. While the oral tradition meant that much valuable human memory was wasted in mugging up stories and songs, and that transmission was never exact, it also meant that there was room for the stories to evolve. Having been transmitted through oral tradition for several centuries, Hindu, Greek and Roman stories were able to evolve and become stronger. Ultimately when they got written down, it was in much evolved “best of” form. In fact, some of these myths got written down in multiple forms which allowed them to evolve even after writing came by.

While writing saves human memory space and prevents distortions, it leaves no room for variations or improvisation. Since there is now an “original book”, and such books are determined to be “words of God”, there is no room for improvisation or reinterpretation. So we are left with the same simplistic story that we started of with. I hope this explains why Exodus, despite a stud director, is a weak movie.

The Chamrajpet model of leadership

When you are doing a group assignment (assuming you’re in college) and you get assigned your share of the work, the assumption is that the allocation of work across team members has been fair. Good group leaders try to ensure this, and also to split work according to the relative interests and strengths of different team members.

Except that there are times when team members get the sneaking suspicion that the group leader is pulling a fast one on them, by following the “Chamrajpet model” of leadership. To understand what the Chamrajpet model is, watch this video, from the beginning of the Kannada movie Gowri Ganesha (the video below has the full movie. Watch it if you can. It’s fantastic).

For those who couldn’t understand, Lambodar (played by Anant Nag) needs to get to Chamrajpet but doesn’t have the money. He befriends two guys (who also want to get to Chamrajpet) and convinces them to share an auto rickshaw with him. He convinces each of them that the “other” guy is his (Lambodar’s) friend, and that they should split the fare equally. This way, he collects the full fare (and a bit more ) from them put together.

It is a fairly common occurrence in group assignments for one of your teammates to tell you “you do part 1. This guy and I will do part 2”. There are times when this is a fair allocation (when part 2 requires twice the effort as part 1). If the teammate is a Lambodar, however, he might have pulled a similar allocation with the third teammate (telling him “you do part 1. I’ll do part 1 with this guy”).

In a way, these are the perks that sometimes come with leadership.

The only way you can deal with it is to follow the advice at the end of the movie – “Beware of Lambodars”.