The soundtrack for today’s column is provided by the Dex Romweber Duo and their new CD, “Ruins of Berlin.” It’s a choice slice of rockabilly heaven with several tunes that would fit right in streaming from a jukebox in some blood-soaked Quentin Tarantino epic. Yet for all the retro goodness in the sound, my vision was filled with newfangled digital technology the night I saw the band in a smoky East Atlanta bar.
That’s because Dex and Sara Romweber weren’t 10 seconds into their first song when several people in the audience, including a good friend of mine who we’ll call the Rev. Al, had whipped out their smartphones and handheld digital camcorders to capture the action on stage. At that point, Dex’s wailing guitar, Sara’s energetic drumming and all that smoke had to compete with two other elements wafting through the air; digital bits of information wirelessly heading to other smartphones, personal Web sites and YouTube, as well as the potential Digital Millenium Copyright Act violations that flew along for the ride.
Obviously, it wasn’t the first time somebody in a crowded nightclub, or a crowded concert hall or sports arena, decided to share an artist and record label’s property with the world thanks to the fairly recent advent of handheld digital video recording and 3G networks. YouTube is full of such moments in all their raw, shakycam glory. Yet several technological and social waves are breaking at just the right time to take things like unauthorized music marketing — and DIY journalism — to another level.
Just days after the Romwebers rocked the house in Atlanta, Apple executives rocked the worlds of the Mac faithful attending the annual Worldwide Developer Conference in San Francisco with the announcement of a new iPhone 3G S. The best-marketed smartphone with what many consider the easiest-to-use software interface now has video recording capabilities, an “upload to YouTube” button and in-phone video editing for scubbing a little of that rawness off. A few news-oriented blogs and Web sites, including the New York Times’ Media Decoder blog, argue all this sets the table for a new feast of citizen journalism (despite comments from anti-Apple snarkarellas that other phones have long had video capabilities.)
It’s hard to argue against the supposition that more cameras shooting better-quality video in the untrained hands of more people will mean more opportunities to capture breaking news — but what about trained hands? Shouldn’t traditional journalists be lining up at their neighborhood Apple Store or AT&T outlet on June 19 when the 3G S hits retail?
Another question that encompasses both breaking news and broken guitar strings: Are we training a new generation of news junkies and music lovers to consume less-than-professional video?
Sweet Technology, Sour Notes
The Rev. Al, an unrepentant rockabilly fanatic who knows a good cease-and-desist order when he’s sent one, was using a Creative Vado HD digital camcorder to record the Romwebers and the Detroit Cobras. Like the popular Flip MinoHD, the images look good and the audio is better than expected, in my opinion. Al thinks so too. “One plus is that when you post these 720p HD videos on YouTube, you get the option of watching it in a much bigger frame. Of course your PC (or Mac) has to have a really good video card,” he tells me in a Facebook posting.
His Facebook and MySpace pages get the brunt of his video postings, along with YouTube, but he will take down anything when notified by copyright holders. Most of his past violations have involved postings of professionally made videos of classic rockabilly/country/pop artists. However, the Rev. Al believes he’s doing the Lord’s work when he posts DIY video of the proverbial up-and-coming band in the hopes that somebody who sees it will plug the name into Google and buy a ticket to a show or purchase their music. Citizen marketing, meet the Dex Romweber Duo.
“You hope that’s the way that works. At least that’s the lovely little ‘long tail’ theory,” laughs Rob Miller, cofounder/owner of Bloodshot Records, the independent record label based in Chicago that lists the Romwebers and Detroit Cobras among their artists. Miller is, of course, referring to Wired magazine Editor-in-Chief Chris Anderson’s “long tail” theory (from the 2006 book of the same name) that puts niche-loving consumers and more economical, grassroots distribution methods at the heart of a Web-enabled economy. You can’t get more niche than rockabillly, but Miller still has his reservations.
“Given our fan base, given what we do, I understand where it comes from. It’s generally a good place, and they do want to spread [the music] around,” Miller tellls me in a telephone interview. “But the fact of the matter is, from the quality standpoint, it sometimes scares me when I do go on YouTube and type in, ‘Detroit Cobras,’ and I see 9,000 videos, and 8,796 are absolute sh*t. Do you want somebody to judge this band based on a really enthusiastic but probably intoxicated guy, where the center of the (video) frame is the mike stand and the sound is terrible?
“The great, horrendous thing about the Internet it that is has put the power into the hands of everyone, be it music, putting up your band on MySpace, or video or photography or writing. That quality filter has been removed and there’s good things about that and bad things.”
Yet Miller believes Bloodshot isn’t in a position to really do anything about the user-generated Scorseses in their audiences, other than try to use the label’s Web site to steer fans towards the better-quality DIY videos. The label’s artists, meanwhile, run the gamut of reactions; some don’t care and welcome the viral marketing; others complain on a fairly regular basis, Miller says. Not so long ago, the talk within Bloodshot focused on what to do about it. “Now that seems like such an arcane discussion. It’s like talking about, ‘Jeez, look at all these cars, where are we going to park all the horses?'”
Handheld News Gathering
If the new iPhone 3G S does set off a stampede of new customers eager to try out the new video features, I hope that traditional journalists are among those standing in line. Organizations like the Online News Association (ONA) are already planning on helping them seize the day when they grab their smartphones.
Multimedia news consultant Janine Warner and David LaFontaine have submitted a proposal for a seminar at the October ONA Conference titled “Mobile Reporting: How to File From Where You Are With What You’ve Got.” Janine shared the seminar description with me in an email: “In this session, we’ll explore some of the best practices in reporting being done with high-end mobile devices, such as the Nokia N95, Blackberry, and (of course) the iPhone. We’ll also offer a few tips for how to get the most out of simpler phones, such the Motorola RZR, when you need to at least file a text message and a photo. Bring the phone you’ve got (or play with the demo models we’ll have on hand).” This was submitted before Monday’s Apple announcement at its Worldwide Developers Conference, so Janine and David will no doubt be quickly familiarizing themselves with the editing capabilities in the 3G S.
What’s being overlooked, I think, in all of the usual Mac hullaballoo is the new iPhone’s still camera. Many other smartphones have long featured 3 megapixel-plus power, so Apple upping its device to that range isn’t all that groundbreaking. However, it might still be a better phone for capturing blink-of-an-eye news photos, for which there remains a market even in the 24/7 mediaverse. Apple says it’s added focusing features and better low-light performance.
“They talked about auto white balance, which isn’t something unusual. It’s something we’ve come to expect on phones,” says Kevin Burden, research director for ABI Research. “How well they implement it is going to be the interesting part. We’re all familiar with the fact that most camera phones don’t take very good pictures. The issue tends to be around the white balance of the phone. If you can improve white balance, where the shutter stays open for a fraction of the time that it does now, you get better-quality shots. That’s why shots tend to blur right now. This is Apple’s first try at it. We’ll see how they do it. Will they raise the bar?”
Where’s that bar heading now with more webcam/Skype interviews, Flip video and cell phone still-shots taking up more room on cable and local news rundowns? There are already hard-drives full of videotaped discussion, I’m sure, at recent news confabs about a younger generation that’s used to watching less-than-stellar video and doesn’t really have a problem with it. That’s okay with me, I guess. It’s just that after spending years scratching and clawing to reach a certain level in the broadcast news business so I could finally get the opportunity to work with experienced, top-notch photographers and editors armed with expensive cameras and Avid technologies to make me and my stories look great, it’s a tad weird to be checking out US$129 HD cameras the size of iPods at the nearest Best Buy and thinking, “How can I use this to get a story on the air?”
Weird, I tell you — but that’s probably just the last gasp of the retro journalist in me, perched on a stool at a dark bar somewhere, nursing a beer, enjoying second-hand smoke and trying to find a little hope in the Dex Romweber Duo’s version of Billy Sherrill’s “Still Around.”
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.