Thursday, April 16, 2020

What's holding back Taiwan entertainment media on the global stage?

Why does most Taiwanese film and media struggle outside of East and Southeast Asia, while Korean pop culture takes the world by storm?

I've been thinking a lot about this in recent years, but especially since the Korean film Parasite did so well at the Oscars. Not long after, I saw the K-pop supergroup BTS appear live on the Today show in front of thousands of young people, some of whom had camped out for two days to get a prime viewing spot in midtown Manhattan.

Why aren't Taiwanese films and musicians enjoying the types of success? After all, both countries have had very similar economic and socio-cultural periods of development, not to mention strong cultural foundations and healthy domestic media markets.

It's not a foreign language issue. After all, Parasite, Gangnam Style, and many K-pop artists have succeeded in global media markets where Korean is not spoken. Clearly, if you make great media that has cross-cultural appeal, the role of language decreases. Great media can even be quite alien and still make a big impression in foreign markets. Examples: Studio Ghibli, and foreign film telling "local" stories from Spain, Brazil, etc.  

I think one thing that holds back Taiwanese film & mainstream pop is a tendency to play it safe, and go heavy on sentimental themes, which don't play as well in the U.S., Europe, and other global markets.  

Example: "A Sun" (陽光普照, now on Netflix). The story is pretty deep, touching on coming of age themes, family strife, crime, and tragedy. It won a bunch of local and international film awards.

But the soundtrack goes heavy on the schmaltz. It's quite beautiful, but it's overpowering and I thought inappropriate at times, such as the violent scene that opens the film. 

The sentimental ballad is ubiquitous in Taiwanese pop, too. I think it's fair to say it's all too often very formulaic, in terms of the chord structure and vocal melody.

Why do this?  

It's not just because sentimental themes sell well in Taiwan, and audiences there have come to expect it. It's also a popular trope in other Chinese markets, especially the People's Republic of China, where many Taiwanese actors and musicians have found great success. 

Of course there are exceptions. Taiwanese underground music really punches above its weight, and has built a global fan base. It's not huge, but it's big enough to be known and respected in Japan, Europe, and North America. Bands like Mayday can sell out large venues when they tour here, and have found mainstream success. I am so impressed, as these guys played at the same venues as us back when both 五月天 and 廢物樂隊 were part of the underground scene in Taiwan.

Roxy Vibe Poster Taipei 1998
Taipei club poster from the late 1990s including Mayday (五月天)
But Mayday's international success is not on the same level as K-pop stars. When it comes to film, the only Taiwanese director who has made a global splash beyond the indie film circuit, I can think of is Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain among others).

I would love to see Taiwan's talented media creators take a bigger role on the global stage, but in my opinion it will require toning down the sentimental approach that plays well in Taiwan, China, and Southeast Asia.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

How dance music was made circa 1991

There is a great video about late 80s/early 90s studio tech, specifically the budget Amiga sampler ecosystem that drove a lot of experimentation with dance and hip-hop at that time:

I laughed out loud at the moment where the host runs out of memory after sampling just a few seconds of a 45. It points to the reality of working with digital media in an era where memory was expensive. The result: Samples tended to be really short.

But not for everyone. Some artists (and their labels) opted to make investments in studio time & professionals who knew how to take sampling tech to the next level.

I know this because I worked at Lillie Yard Studios, a 24-track professional recording studio in London in the early 90s where dance music was recorded, mixed, and remixed by The KLF and Nomad, among others.  There was a small army of people who not only knew the studio hardware (the board, Moog, compressors, gates, etc.) but also Cubase and other software, which was quite expensive but utterly necessary to crank out the hits played on the radio and the remixes that were preferred in the clubs.

Working at Lillie Yard in 1991, I must have heard remixes of The KLF's "Last Train to Trancentral," "What Time is Love," and "3 am Eternal" as well Nomad's "I Want to Give You Devotion" several hundred times as the crew worked through the tracks and tried different beats, sounds, and speeds using the software.

The results The KLF was able to achieve were quite amazing. I was never a big dance music fan, but I respected what Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond were doing. I mean, what other pop act would have thought to meld 70s country music with the club sounds of London, and not only make it work, but turn it into a global pop sensation?

Then there were the experimental tracks The KLF did for The White Room and other projects. My favorite was "It's Grim Up North." The concept seems weird (Bill Drummond reciting the names of northern English towns over a dark synth riff) but it worked:

Finally, it's worth mentioning that the co-founder of Lillie Yard studio was Hans Zimmer, the German electronic music composer whose film career really started to take off around that time.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Yet another post about the future of liberal arts education

For at least 15 years, there has been a lot of hand-wringing in higher education about the impact of new technologies on education. I've written about it myself many times (see "For-profit schools take a hit from Frontline"). As online models disrupt traditional college education, there is another debate taking place about the value of a liberal arts education itself. That students, parents, and the business sector are questioning this shouldn't come as a surprise, considering the $50,-$75,000 "all-in" annual costs at many American colleges. What is surprising is the denial that proponents -- many of them academics -- continue to display. The January 2019 Seattle Times article titled "As STEM majors soar at UW, interest in humanities shrinks — a potentially costly loss" is a case in point:
"The swing to STEM is having unexpected consequences. With fewer students studying the humanities — history, philosophy, foreign languages and English — those departments are shrinking. Retiring professors aren’t replaced. Academics worry that the nation would be impoverished — both culturally and intellectually — if only an elite few understand the arc of American history, know how to find meaning in poetry, or can discuss the ideas of the great philosophers."

This type of thinking seems to harken back to the 1800s, when the only people who could afford a traditional liberal arts education were the elite. That changed with the introduction of public schools, state universities, and low-cost college programs that could be paid for with part-time work. Now the pendulum is swinging back to a high-cost model, and lots of students and parents are saying that a $200,000 - $300,000 undergraduate sociology degree is simply not worth it.

There's another problem with the argument put forth in the Seattle Times article, which seems to be trotted out in many articles about the future of liberal arts education. For decades many colleges have created core curriculums that require even the most hard-core STEM major to take a range of liberal arts classes. I experienced this myself 30 years ago at Boston University, and know that it's the same situation elsewhere. It's a good idea, and one that gives young students a truly well-rounded education.

That's not good enough to some academics, though. Quoting from the Seattle Times:
“The broad general education we want for all of our students is increasingly done at the high-school level,” said Robert Stacey, dean of the UW’s College of Arts & Sciences. “And with all due respect to a high-school history course, it’s not the same as a college history course.”
Is getting a broad general education in high school a bad thing? I think it's preferable to getting the basics covered in high school, not only because it frees up students to pursue professional and other interests in college, but also because it serves those students who will never attend college. Isn't that better for our society as a whole?

Here's another quote from the article:
Those introductory classes — refined over the years by some of the university’s best professors, and taught to several hundred students at a time in big lecture halls — are designed to inspire and delight, sparking an interest in literature, or history, or politics, that could lead a student to major in those fields.

The impacts of encouraging students to major in those fields has led to a vast skills imbalance in our workforce, and the sad situation of people with lit and history BAs taking unskilled jobs or jobs that are a poor fit for their skills (see "Fear of a College-Educated Barista").

Moreover, for those who graduate with PhDs in these fields, it's nearly impossible to get hired as a professor or researcher. There just aren't as many academic jobs available, and yet, amazingly, there are now more English and History PhDs awarded every year than 30 years ago:
Humanities programs awarded 5,891 doctoral degrees in 2015. That is the largest number recorded back to the start of collection of such information in 1987. The figure was 3,110 in 1988, then rose steadily to 4,994 in 2000, dipped to about 4,700 from 2002 to 2007, and then started going up again, year after year.

As that article notes, jobs in those fields "are increasingly hard to come by." Yet the universities keep churning out PhDs in these fields, to keep the tuition rolling in and as a source of cheap labor for undergraduate instruction.

I appreciate the value of including liberal arts in higher education, but only a cost that students can truly afford.




Monday, April 9, 2018

What do Amazon Music family subscriptions and cat trees have in common?

Hi Jeff,

Check out the attached message I got from Amazon over the weekend! My mom purchased a cat tree using my "shared payment method" for my Amazon Music Unlimited family plan.

What does a cat tree have to with Amazon music? Absolutely nothing. But somehow, starting this weekend, Amazon has decided that anyone on my family music subscription can start ordering stuff on my credit card. As explained to me by one of your helpful associates, my mom, my sister, my kids can start loading up their carts with cat trees, Fire tablets, power tools, SpongeBob T-shirts, and even that MacBook that my teenaged daughter has always wanted, using this shared payment method. Great!

But actually, it's not so great. When I signed up my family for Amazon Music Family subscription more than a year ago, the intention was to allow my mom to listen to her favorite operas, my dad to listen to jazz, my kids to listen to Drake, and my sister to listen to Hootie and the Blowfish. There was no intention to let them order whatever they wanted on my credit card, and indeed, up until this past weekend there were no purchases billed to my account. The only person that can "share" my payment method to order stuff is my lovely wife, who I explicitly granted permission to make purchases on my shared Amazon Prime Visa through "Amazon Households."

Let me tell you, it was interesting contacting your support people about this issue. One agent said one of my mother's purchases could be refunded, but "you'll need to send us an email from your mother's account only as per the company's policy." In other words, I have to go to her house to compose an email, or try to explain to her over the phone how to do this? Let me tell you, she'll have no idea what I'm talking about.

When I asked another support person why this was happening all of a sudden after more than one year in the subscription plan, he claimed it was because it was because she had ordered a digital item. When I pointed out that cat trees aren't very digital, he said he would refund that, but going forward to prevent unauthorized purchases the only option would be to remove her from the account. In other words, the support burden is now being dumped on me to not only clean up the mess but explain to my mom that the Amazon Echo I got her for Christmas a few years ago will no longer be able to play Pavarotti or Miles Davis on command.

Don't get me wrong. I love my mom, and want her to be able to buy things for kitty. But she already has an Amazon account, and her own credit card. She doesn't need to have access to my Amazon Prime visa to buy a cat tree or waffle maker or whatever.

In conclusion: I've been an Amazon customer for 20 years and have bought tens of thousands of dollars worth of stuff from Amazon. I let your devices into my home, subscribe to Prime and Amazon Video, and use Amazon Business for my own small business. I like these services and want to continue using them. But when it comes to sharing important personal data or payment methods, control needs to reside with me, the account owner. As far as I'm concerned, the only person who should have the right to use my payment information is my wife, who I explicitly granted permission via Amazon Household.

So please: Figure out a way to make Amazon Music family subscription to work as a simple way for me to share my love of music with my family members ... and let me my mom order cat trees on her own dime.

Sincerely,

Ian

Amazon Music Unlimited family plan subscription
The advertisement for Amazon Music Unlimited. Nowhere does it mention sharing credit card information.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

A late review of Blade Runner 2049

Friends have asked me about Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to the ground-breaking 1982 film by Director Ridley Scott and a very talented cast, crew, and composer. I was 13 when the first film came out and it made a huge impact -- it was a dystopian future, to be sure, but one that was fascinating and different than the "clean" utopias depicted in Star Trek or the alien-infused space opera of Star Wars.

Back to Blade Runner 2049. I saw it on IMAX and went on an afternoon when I knew there wouldn't be many other people in the theater to disturb my experience. The film was beautifully shot, and had some incredible scenes, including the climactic, desperate fight scene outside the city's sea wall. I really liked the score by Hans Zimmer, too. He had a tough job, not only being brought in to replace the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, but also living up to the incredible soundtrack from the first film by Vangelis (which has perhaps the most dedicated cult following of any film soundtrack, judging by the mods and remixes created by fans, such as the Esper Edition. I've included one of them below).

Nevertheless, there were some serious flaws in BR49. Ryan Gosling had the lead role, and was an obvious pick (Hollywood always goes for leading men with strong "brands," which it had done when Harrison Ford in the first film). But I believe Gosling was the wrong person for the role -- he was too emotionless and almost mechanical in the fight scenes. Yes, he's a synthetic human, but considering they were designed to be "More Human than Human," I expected more humanity in Gosling's character in the 2049 generation.

There was another element that bothered me. Los Angeles 2049 has clear Asian influences, including Chinese and Japanese signage everywhere, and a cafeteria that has Asian dishes and themes. Yet there were hardly any Asian people in any roles, even extras.

Taking things one step further: Assuming demographic trends persist, in the far future society "minorities" will be white and the population will be mostly black, brown, yellow, and multiracial. Yet every major and most minor roles in Blade Runner 2049 are white, except for Olmos (reprised from the first film for about a minute), the east African shopkeeper (another short scene), and the junkyard orphanage owner.

The 1982 film was far better in this respect, imagining a future where society did include lots of people from different backgrounds and cultural influences from across the Pacific -- and even a street language based on Japanese, German, and English! 

Blade Runner 2049 isn't the only science fiction film that gets the future humanity wrong. In my long experience watching science fiction movies, only Luc Besson's 1997 film The Fifth Element tried to get humanity right, at least with secondary characters and extras who were black, mixed race, and Asian.

Despite all of this, I would like to see Blade Runner 2049 once more. I had trouble following some of the plot threads and details, and would like to see it at least once more to wrap my head around them and help me fathom the meaning of the story.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Facebook sells out to China, and what it means for critics abroad

The New York Times published an article this week titled China is trying to police what people are saying about it around the world. I've written about China and its paranoid information-control efforts for years, but the activities to tamp down voices of dissent abroad are extreme. What I'd like to point out here are the reasons why Facebook and others are actually following China's Orwellian wishes. Take this example from the article: 
Facebook suspended Mr. Guo’s account. In a statement, the company said the account published the personal information of others without their consent, which violated the platform’s policies.
This is not just a case of China citing "hurt feelings" or some supposed rule-breaking on Facebook.
Zuckerberg is desperate to be in China. He's learned Mandarin, plays up his family connections (via his wife's family), and puts on the charm when visiting China. He's created relationships with officials at every level. His representatives have talked with companies which may be partners or acquired at some point.

Mark Zuckerbook in China
Mark Zuckerberg speaking in Mandarin during a 2015 visit
So it does not surprise me one bit that Facebook will bend over backwards to accommodate officials on censorship demands. This is the cost of doing business in China for a tech company. Media companies learned this decades ago -- read up on how Rupert Murdoch tried to operate in China. It's quite fascinating, worthy of a soap opera-style biopic.

Now it's Silicon Valley's turn, especially companies that specialize in communication -- social networks, mobile phone manufacturers, companies that sell networking hardware or cloud services, etc. The Chinese government's survival depends on information control, and if they can't do it themselves, then they force local and foreign companies to do it for them.

Don't think that this issue will be limited to human rights activists. It doesn't matter who you are -- your social media comments, family relationships, WeChat and Facebook messages, work connections on LinkedIn, and other digital footprints that reflect your attitude or influence will be used to build a social media score that determines your level of access to the country and ability to do business in China.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Facebook's failed march to video

Facebook has a lot of problems on its plate right now, but one of the worst trends has been the poorly thought out march to video. It came from Zuckerberg and was repeated by various senior Facebook  executives, and then became a mantra for publishers. Many publishers made large investments in video programming for Facebook, only to find the money isn't there and Facebook has decided to demote publisher content.

This is not just large media companies that got burned, I know some smaller producers who believed the "five years the feed will be all video" baloney and shifted their efforts accordingly. Some were doing really important work, too, around causes or local news. What a waste.

Meanwhile, overall video consumption in Facebook is declining, and it's the one percent that get the most engagement, regardless of who the publisher is.

I personally would not mind if Facebook turned back the clock 10 years, when most conversations seemed to be personal and text-based, and the truckloads of memes, ads, gaming achievements, real and fake news, and videos of cats playing the piano had yet to be shoved down Facebook's maw. Old-school text discussions seem to work for Hacker News and large swathes of Reddit; why can't it work for Facebook?


My Facebook feed: Ads, viral videos, and other crap I would rather not see:



Facebook feed video and ads