How the Telecommunications Act of 1996 Brought Us Donald Trump

Over two years ago I started writing a treatise on the effects of the Internet on music, attempting to debunk the popular theory held among technologists like myself that the Internet is an inherently democratizing force that empowers individuals. I collected charts and graphs, pulled industry data, and created a very compelling storyline.

I even began to compile a global database and build a visualization tool to present all the hundreds (thousands) of “independent” record labels that are actually branches of Sony, Warner, or Universal by tying together the hierarchical structures that are employed to disguise the fact that your favorite cuddly “indie” band is actually just a product squeezed out of a tube or a guy who “sold out to buy in.”

Unfortunately, the deeper down the rabbit hole I fell, the more depressed I became about the situation. I actually became so depressed about it that I abandoned the article, picked it back up a year later, got even more angry and depressed, and put it down again. My research not only caused me to despair and not finish my article, but also made me almost give up on both technology and music as well. It was that bad.

Maybe the truest statement ever made is: “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”

I’ve tried to get it finished several times, but at this point it’s become the Third Rail of Depression and Futility and I can’t bear to look at it. Also, the data collected in 2014 are starting to age, and I have absolutely no desire to re-mine the data again.

This article, therefore, will perforce need to be written at a sprint, because the longer I steep in this reality, the more I despair. I will attempt to annotate as I can, but I’m not here to prove anything, merely to lay out a line of reasoning that others can follow and bolster (or tear down) with facts, and instead of drilling into source data, spreadsheets, and databases, I’ll probably just quote Wikipedia and leave enough links at the bottom that you know I’m not spinning this yarn out of whole cloth.

Instead of laying out irrefutable proofs, I intend merely to connect some dots with a reasonably thick line. Sorry about that, but I got a life too.

In 1990 I graduated from Texas A&M University, aptly described by one of my dearest friends as “a hotbed of conservatism,” from the Lowry Mays School of Business. After graduating, I attended the Red McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin where I received an MBA in Information Systems Management. As it turns out, those two individuals – Lowry Mays and Red McCombs – will become instrumental in this story.

I was a big fan of Milton Friedman (still am, generally speaking) and a True Believer in capitalism as the engine of enriching the masses (this view has since become more nuanced). I called myself a small-L libertarian, wanting little to do with the quacky Lyndon Larouche party, but finding value in small-L libertarian principles: fiscally limited government, small defensive military, an absolute defense of civil liberty, generally open borders and free trade, and the use of progressive taxation (Friedman’s “negative income tax”) to provide a minimum guaranteed income instead of highly invasive and inefficient government services like public housing and food stamps.

I bring all of this up to share that I am not by birth a radical anti-capitalist, but actually someone who came into this situation with views far different than I have now been beaten by reality into accepting. I am still no radical anti-capitalist, but my eyes are a lot more open than they once were.

First I must dispel a notion:

“The Internet is inherently decentralizing and democratizing.”

As one of the very earliest Internet developers (I started building complex database back-ended web sites in 1995) and a small-L libertarian, I gulped this Kool-aid the moment it was offered. It fit exactly into my ethos. As a technologist, I could see that the Internet had the potential to decentralize everything. And as a musician, I was sure that a New Era of Music was upon us, one where a musician could simply create and distribute music directly to fans without middlemen, and that this empowerment would destabilize and destroy the record label business which had done such terrible disservices to the artists it supposedly represented.

Without getting into the charts, data, spreadsheets, and suicidal ideations from my abandoned article, let me just cut to the chase: this view was balderdash, at least over a two-plus-decade timeframe. In a nutshell, the top 1% artists now 77% of all music revenue, the top 3 labels control roughly 90% of the music you hear, access to the key new music discovery media (radio, satellite, and curated playlists) has narrowed tremendously, and more money than ever before is required to build and maintain an audience. If you doubt all this, write your own article, because I couldn’t finish mine without wanting to drink Drano.

In 1994 nobody as far as I knew was using the term “disruption,” but what I have learned from my work in tech, and from my research, is that disruption is really mostly analogous to a game of 52-pickup: a change comes along that suddenly seems to throw all the playing cards in the air. For a brief moment in time, the former holder of all the cards is destabilized, and everyone in the room has a narrow window in which to grab a few cards while they’re still in the air. Some individuals get lucky, and grab enough cards to empower themselves before the cards are grabbed back up by their original holders. These lucky individuals can then serve as useful anecdotes to the world about how the “disruption” has “empowered people.” Everyone knows the story of the musician that got famous by building a fanbase on MySpace and never signed to a record label. Sadly, far too many of us thought that was a trend not an anecdote.

Even sadder, at least some of these anecdotes were simply propaganda stunts by massive Internet businesses to market their brand. For example a particular Internet giant tried for years to spin the story of how their social network was helping to make a particular “artist” quite famous (3+M social followers!), when really all they did was push this person onto everyone’s social feed and hope for the best while nothing actually happened in that artist’s musical career. Heck, the “artist” never even completed a full album of music. Still, millions of people saw the story and got hope, including me.

Silly, silly me.

I’m not here to bash disruption per se. My view is that disruption, like the technology that enables it, is value-neutral. The point is that it is not inherently value-positive, as so many of us technologists cling to as if it were religion.

So the Internet did not tear down the evil record labels as predicted. In fact the overall market for commercial radio increased 13% in the decade 1998-2008. The Internet also did not destroy radio as predicted. The power of radio has surely diminished somewhat since 1994, but the current and continuing influence of radio on music is almost impossible to overstate. At least as of 2014 (when I collected data for my aborted article), terrestrial radio was still the #1 source of new music discovery.

Let me repeat that: 20+ years after the invention of the modern Internet, FM radio is still the #1 way that people discover music. And the #2 way people discovered music is through word of mouth — in other words from a friend who probably discovered the music where? On radio.

So I will say it again: it is almost impossible to overestimate the influence of terrestrial radio on new music discovery.

Radio is not dead. Not even close.

When researching my previous article, this was where the rabbit hole opened up and swallowed me whole. Because something else had changed in the intervening years since Marc Andressen brought us the Mosaic browser – in fact, this giant change was largely because of that browser.

That change was the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Before we fall down that rabbit hole together, I want to sidestep for a moment, because something else happened in 1996: my rock band from college got its first single played on a top radio station in a top-ten market by one of the nation’s best-known DJs, a man we all call Redbeard. How this happened wasn’t luck or payola: we made a demo, took a CD to the radio station, met Redbeard (cool guy), he listened to the song, liked it, and agreed to give it some spins.

That song didn’t make us famous. But Redbeard and his peers at the competing station broke a lot of influential North Texas bands during this period of the 1990s: the Nixons, the Toadies, Tripping Daisy, Edie Brickell and New Bohemians, and many others got their start on the radio exactly this way – by taking a demo to a local station and getting spins – in drive-time rotation in a Top 10 music market. That’s a Big Fucking Deal. It’s also a feat that is practically impossible for an unsigned local artist to pull off today, for reasons we shall soon learn.

Spins on radio means fans at shows. More fans at shows means more requests for the song on radio. More requests means more spins, more spins means more fans — then better shows at better venues, etc.. Eventually the effect is spillover onto other stations and into other neighboring markets. It’s an easy to understand, meritocritous, “bottom-up” virtuous cycle that Made Music Great from 1970-1996, the Golden Age of FM Radio for anyone old enough to remember it. It’s a process that played out for years on hundreds of stations across the country, surfacing local talent and exposing it to the wider world.

This Golden Age was made possible only because of the existence of largely independent local radio stations employing independent DJs to curate a playlist for the local demographic and to develop the local market. This was the formula that had served music listeners since the advent of radio, and that, for all intents and purposes, ended after 1996 and has yet to be replaced with anything.

Particularly on the Internet, where “local” goes to die.

As a young technologist in 1996, I was on the front line of Internet hype. A few years prior, the “Internet” was still something for nerds wearing propellor hats like me. Suddenly, the light bulb came on, seemingly for everyone at once. ISPs like UUnet previously thought to serve a tiny potential market of only hackers started doubling in valuation every few months as people realized “everyone’s going to want to get online!” Startups like Amazon and eBay and Google – and Pets.com – achieved insane levels of hype. The Internet, it was thought, would eat everything. And it probably will, eventually.

It became relatively obvious early on that the Internet as well as other recent disruptive technologies of the time like cellular and cable would radically change telecommunications. In the wake of this sudden disruption, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed. This landmark piece of legislation was the most important piece of legislation affecting telecommunication of all kinds since the 1934 Communications Act which created the FCC.

The purpose of the 1996 Act was stated as:

to provide for a pro-competitive, de-regulatory national policy framework designed to accelerate rapidly private sector deployment of advanced information technologies and services to all Americans by opening all telecommunications markets to competition

which, in 1996, sounded like a good idea to a young, small-L libertarian. And in fact I’d guess that there are many aspects of the Act that have been good for the country and its inhabitants. Probably. Maybe.

The Act did many things, mostly oriented around de-regulating the boring communications infrastructure maintained at the time by AT&T and the Baby Bells to try to re-orient it around serving the needs of the coming Internet market. That was the part of the bill that everyone was discussing and arguing about at the time. However, unbeknownst to most, it also significantly de-regulated radio, television, and print media for the first time since 1934.

Under the 1934 Communications Act, radio was held to be a (at least quasi) public good – like clean air, street lighting, or libraries. 1934 was a time where most of the print news in the country was controlled by a small number of political machines, like that of William Randolph Hearst, which used sensationalism and “yellow journalism” to promote political agendas. The goal of the 1934 legislation was to prevent such monopolization from taking hold in the nascent radio market with its limited space on the dial for competition. The mechanism was straightforward: limit the number of stations any entity can hold in any market, and the overall number of stations that any entity can hold. It also limited the ability for media channels to “forward integrate” into radio – to prevent a company like RCA from controlling the distribution channels for its competitors’s music, and to prevent a company like Hearst’s from commandeering the airwaves for political purposes. (Hearst, originally a Roosevelt supporter, would turn strongly against FDR after the passage of this bill).

In other words, radio was kept decentralized with the goal of maximizing local and independent access.

It is important to understand that at the time, it was not unusual for most people to have access to a small number of radio stations. The great 20th century urban migration was not complete, and radio was nascent and capital-intensive. It is for this reason that the FCC was created to ensure that the fledgling technology was deployed in a way that prevented monopolization.

It is from this philosophy – radio as a public good – that later notions like the “Fairness Doctrine” and “Payola” sprang. In the 1940s, the FCC held that radio programming must present opposing views on controversial material instead of only presenting one side. This was the so-called “Fairness Doctrine.” Likewise, rigor was applied to keep record labels from buying access to stations (and crowding out competitors) by rigorously enforcing laws regarding Payola – a law still (theoretically) enforced today. Under Payola laws, a radio station can play a song in exchange for money, but must disclose the song as “sponsored content,” and cannot count the spin in the song’s ratings.

The Fairness Doctrine was struck down in 1987, but the anti-monopoly laws stood until the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which relaxed or removed the restrictions against the number of stations any one entity could own (both in one market and overall), and removed or relaxed restrictions against forward integration, allowing media creators to own networks, and vice versa.

The effect was that the 1996 Act, which was supposed

to provide for a pro-competitive, de-regulatory national policy framework designed to accelerate rapidly private sector deployment of advanced information technologies and services to all Americans by opening all telecommunications markets to competition

actually did no such thing at all, at least not in radio and media. The centralization in media has been dramatic: in 1983, 50 companies controlled 90% of US media – that number is now 5 (Comcast, Walt Disney, News Corp, Time Warner, and National Amusements) with almost all of the consolidation occurring since the passage of the 1996 Act. In 1995, companies were forbidden to hold more than 40 radio stations, total – by 2003, only eight years later, one company owned over 1200 stations, including having outright monopolies in many markets where they own and program every station on the dial. Where once FM radio was a unique place to discover new, unusual, and local music, today 80% of playlists match.

And – even though Payola is purportedly still a crime, these media empires enter into profit sharing agreements with the major record labels (who control 90%+ of the music you will ever hear). Folks, this is Payola writ large. Good luck if you’re actually indie.

The degree of consolidation has been breathtaking. I think this infographic sums it up best.

That the Telecommunications Act of 1996 increased efficiency in radio is undeniable. It is estimated that as many as 10,000 people have lost their jobs in radio broadcasting since the Act was passed – even as the total number of stations broadcasting in the USA has increased. This has happened because there is often absolutely no local “station” at your “local” station, but just a transmitter, broadcasting a program that sounds completely local, but which is programmed by Who Knows from an office in Who Knows Where. This has allowed for massive efficiencies of scale: it now takes approximately 0.5 people to run a “local” radio station.

As a small-L libertarian, the notion of efficiency has a certain nice ring to it, until you ask, “what, really, is the product, and how have we saved and benefitted as a society?” The answer to that question is complex, but in a nutshell, the product is simply advertising: advertising for products, sure, but also advertising for big-time-record-label music through these profit-sharing agreements, and – thanks to the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine – advertising for a specific political point of view. The notion of radio as a public good is long gone.

This was basically where my previous attempt to write a similar article about the music business broke down. Because once you, the small-L libertarian technologist-musician, understand that:

  1. Even though the Internet supposedly “changed everything” you still need good old radio to build local markets but
  2. You’re basically cut out of local radio altogether
  3. By the major record labels we said we “disrupted”

you want to just give up and make that nice big Drano cocktail. It’s hopeless.

I remember some of the discussion when the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was passed. As a technologist caught up in the pre-bubble phase of Major Internet Hype, it was “clear” that the future of radio was dead. “Soon” we would be streaming an infinite number of stations digitally. The use of AM and FM waves would “soon” be a dinosaur. With digital, an infinite number of “channels” would be possible, so the idea that radio was a limited “public good” in need of strong mandated decentralization seemed instantly obsolete. So the idea that we should deregulate radio and allow it to blend with media companies had a certain air of logic to it, since radio itself was going away to be replaced by the Internet. And after all, “less regulation equals more competition,” right?

This all might, in fact, happen one day. But satellite radio and streaming have not displaced terrestrial AM and FM radio. Most people still listen to radio in their car – and 25 years in, the Internet still really hasn’t penetrated the vehicle to eliminate broadcast radio. It is displacing it, somewhat – but the number of radio stations in the USA since the 1996 Act was passed has not shrunk – it’s grown. And, since the Act allows conglomerates to own and operate virtually without limit, they’re chewing up space on you satellite dial, too – and have excellent control over the Spotify playlist you’re probably listening to.

And, I’ll add, in much of what we call “flyover country,” far removed from urban culture, AM radio is still the only thing you can reliably find on the dial due to its superior reach.

In the early 1970s, Lowry Mays and Red McCombs formed Clear Channel Communications when they began to acquire failing radio stations and return them to profitability, typically by changing their formats to less operationally-expensive formats like religious programming or talk radio. By the mid-1990s Clear Channel owned 40 radio stations and over a dozen TV stations.

Conversion to religious and talk-only formats was not profitable because they were products with greater demand – they were profitable because they were products with lower cost. As researcher Jackson R. Witherill writes:

Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj of Tufts University interviewed a number of radio executives in 2011 and they found common ground on the sentiment that “the surge in talk radio programming was supply driven, not demand driven” (Berry and Sobieraj 2011). This means that as individual stations within national corporations became unprofitable, switching to talk radio programming was an attempt to stay in business through producing inexpensive and nationally broadcast programs.

The rise in the number of talk radio stations has meant that syndicated programs, which have become increasingly common, have gained a higher level of exposure through the creation of more stations airing the same material in new locations. This increased exposure results in higher ratings for the show.

(emphasis mine)

In short, the conversion of radio to talk formats was less about listeners demanding that material, and more about the low costs of production and economy of scale of delivery. In short, they’re saying what we musicians have known for a long time: generally speaking, people like whatever they’re fed by the radio. Therefore the curator – or program director – or talk show host – has a powerful shaping role.

Enter the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which removed the restrictions on station ownership, and suddenly Clear Channel’s acquisition + talk-format conversion strategy can be done at scale. Along with other hungry conglomerates, Clear Channel started gobbling up independent radio stations en masse. In three years the company had grown 10X – to over 400 stations. In five more years, Clear Channel would triple its radio reach again, growing to over 1200 stations – as well as 41 television stations and over 750,000 outdoor advertising displays. Clear Channel is now known as iHeartMedia, which is still the nation’s largest holder of radio stations and, through it’s subsidiary (Premiere Networks) is the largest producer of syndicated talk radio.

Suddenly, giant radio conglomerates like Clear Channel / iHeartMedia were able to push syndicated talk radio formats completely across the country, coast-to-coast. Gone were the local DJs and commentators, in were the preprogrammed music stations and religious and celebrity radio talk show hosts. Premiere even created “Premiere on Call” – a service that offers fake callers to call in shows that fit the story or agenda of the show.

As a by-product of this change to religious and talk radio, this period in history saw the rise of a new kind of syndicated radio personality: the shock jock. As Wikipedia defines it, there are two overlapping species of shock jock:

  1. The radio announcer who deliberately does something outrageous and shocking (to improve ratings).
  2. The political radio announcer who has an emotional outburst in response to a controversial government policy decision.

And who are Premiere’s (iHeartMedia’s) top earning syndicated talk show hosts?

  1. The Rush Limbaugh Show
  2. The Sean Hannity Show
  3. The Glenn Beck Program

Premiere’s top competitor is Westwood One. Who are Westwood One’s top syndicated hosts?

  1. The Mark Levin Show
  2. The Savage Nation

These top 5 syndicated talk shows represent the lion’s share of syndicated commercial talk radio. Of the five, only Limbaugh had a significant following prior to the 1996 Telecommunications Act. The other four are creations of the post-1996 radio consolidation phenomenon.

These sort of political talk shows would have been very difficult if not impossible to justify under the Fairness Doctrine that existed from the late 1940s until 1987. However, it’s important to note that it was not the removal of the Fairness Doctrine that led to the overnight explosion of right-wing shock commentators. The reason for the explosion is clear: these shows are products of vertical integration and economies of scale enabled by the 1996 Telecom Act. The typical pre-1996 local radio station in Average, USA would never be able to afford even one hour of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, but a giant conglomerate can actually save money by owning both the program and the distribution network and subsequently firing all the local employees of “Average 1310AM.”

And that is exactly what happened, in thousands of stations and communities all around the USA.

In a matter of a few years, this trend pushed high-volume shock-jock national-level syndicated radio right down into Average, USA. Gone were the local farming programs, the state politics talk shows, and Redbeard playing my demo. In came the right-wing talk radio movement, and the rest is history.

And that, my friends, is the direct line from the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to President Donald Trump.

Epilogue

This article would be remiss without its own version of the Fairness Doctrine. Because I think there’s another radio phenomenon that must be mentioned, and that is National Public Radio.

I’ll state here that NPR is overall a left-leaning organization, and has (had) a number of left / center-left talk shows such as Fresh Air, The Diane Rehm Show, The Takeaway, and Latino USA. However, only Fresh Air makes it onto the Top 20 syndicated talk show list.

NPR’s most successful programs are news programs: All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Marketplace. These shows are also left /center left in focus, but as a rule do not offer editorial commentary.

In fact, only two progressive talk radio programs makes it to the Top 20 – Fresh Air (NPR), and the Thom Hartmann Program broadcast from the (commercial) Westwood One radio network.

As a result, the counterbalance of progressive, left-wing talk radio is dominated by an 800-lb gorilla called NPR, which crowds out other stations with its high-quality, listener-supported, and at least partially federally-subsidized broadcasting.

Now, while Terry Gross and Diane Rehm are surely left-of-center, there can be no comparison between the political slant of these sober NPR commentators and Michael Savage screaming “liberalism is a mental disorder” at the top of his lungs. There are no hyperpolarizing “shock jocks” on NPR stoking anger among their listeners with outbursts of rage. Nobody on NPR is “connecting the dots” Glenn Beck style to hypothesize various absurd yet certainly entertaining conspiracy theories. You will never hear an NPR personality refer to the Republican Party as a “terrorist network operating within our own borders.” And its most popular programs by far are the news shows – again, with next to zero commentary, and less-than-zero raving and pulling of hair.

So consider the polarizing effect of the top 5 syndicated radio programs:

  1. All Things Considered (NPR) – news
  2. Rush Limbaugh (Premiere) – conservative talk
  3. Morning Edition (NPR) – news
  4. Sean Hannity (Premiere) – conservative talk
  5. Marketplace (APM) – news

So NPR pulls the left towards the center, while commercial right-wing talk radio pulls the right to the right. Meanwhile, NPR’s large budget and high-quality commercial-free program sucks much of the air out of the room for any potential left-wing audience to support a more vitriolic, aggressive left-wing talk format (as though that would somehow help the country find balance).

More Reading:

Understanding the Rise of Talk Radio, Cambridge Core

The year that changed radio forever: 1996, Medialife Magazine

Why All The Talk-Radio Stars Are Conservative, Fortune

War of the Words: Political Talk Radio, the Fairness Doctrine, and Political Polarization in America, University of Maine

In Response to Seth Godin “The erosion in the paid media pyramid”

I cannot recommend more highly Seth Godin’s recent blog post, “The erosion in the paid media pyramid“.  If you haven’t read it already, please follow the link, and come back.  It’s short, excellent, and we’ll wait for you.  The TL;DR is: digital distribution is putting the squeeze on the previously-cash-cow “Mass” media segment, which is largely being replaced by the “Free” segment at the bottom of the pyramid.

He makes many important points I agree with, however I think Seth makes two statements in his article that need to be addressed:

First, he writes:

The marginal cost of one more copy in the digital world is precisely zero.

This is a common misconception.  The marginal cost of one more copy in the digital world is very, very, very low – a ridiculously low number, a number so low, that if you weren’t careful, you might just decide to round down to zero.  But reading bits off a hard drive and sending them over fiber and copper wires – the process of making a digital copy – as inexpensive as it is, is not actually free.

“So what,” you say.  What’s the difference between “free” and “practically free?”

The problem is that the digital world has to scale, and very, very, very small numbers can still become very, very, very large numbers at scale.

I want to encourage everyone to please, stop using this trope.  TANSTAAFL still holds true even in the digital world.  Saying that digital copies are actually zero-cost leads to terribly erroneous conclusions at the scale of the Internet.

Secondly, he writes:

Media projects of the future will be cheaper to build, faster to market, less staffed with expensive marketers and more focused on creating free media that earns enough attention to pay for itself with limited patronage.

This is true for those mass-media projects that move “down the pyramid.”  But what about those mass-media projects that move up instead?

Moving down the pyramid is the easy move: creators keep doing what they’ve always done and get by through “doing more with less” (and also by just “doing less”).  Skip the art director, and freelance on DeviantArt.  Skip the editor / producer altogether.  Skip the marketing, and outsource through a service provider.  Etc.

It seems that the real opportunity for media / content creators is not to simply the product, but actually to complicate it.  Add enough complexity that it becomes attractively desirable, but hard to produce.  An example of this would be the ways that Lucasfilm differentiated the theater experience with 7-channel sound (hard to reproduce at home) or how Broadway differentiates with expensive special effects (hard to pull off in community theater).

Obviously it’s much harder to “move up the pyramid” to a more differentiated product than it is to simply something you’re already doing.  But that’s where the profit will be.

Dr. Chromelove (or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Goog)

In Which We Pit the Lowly Chromebook Versus the Exalted Macbook Air

Let me get something out of the way: I am a straight-up Macintosh fanboi. After owning a couple of Macs in the early 1990s, I switched to PCs around 1997, largely because my software-development-centric job compelled me to live in a pro-PC world.

Then, around five years ago, I fatigued of maintaining Windows and the generally crappy hardware that runs it, and switched back to Mac. I bought a beast of a notebook: a 15″ MBP quad-core i7 with 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD. I wanted something strong enough to run Pro Tools natively, and to virtualize Windows and Linux machines without a stutter. And, five years later, that Macbook Pro is still a very current machine. It was expensive, but it was worth every penny, especially when amortized over five years.

The only trouble is: it’s big and heavy. As a machine to travel to and from the office, it’s fine, but these days I find myself increasingly traipsing all over the world, usually with everything I can carry in one backpack. Space and weight have become a premium, and I have a bad back to boot.

So I wanted to find a machine that would solve every computing need I have while I’m out on the road – basically, everything I use my Mac for except Pro Tools:

  • Must be small enough to fit in a day-bag and light as possible, definitely < 4 lbs
  • Must handle all my basic productivity & social needs (mail, docs, spreadsheets, twitter, dropbox, etc.)
  • Must be capable of running a development LAMP stack and typical development apps like git, ssh, etc.
  • Must be capable of light-duty audio editing (just editing, not a multitrack studio)
  • Must have good battery life (all-day unplugged usage)
  • Must have a good screen and keyboard
  • Must be inexpensive in case it’s lost, stolen, or damaged while travelling
  • Strong cloud support a big plus (see above)
  • Easy connectivity to phone a big plus

I admit that I came very close to knee-jerking and purchasing a Macbook Air.  The MBA would definitely meet all these needs but one: it’s awfully expensive to be a “beater” notebook.  After pricing them out and deciding that a new MBA would definitely not fit in my budget, I considered buying a used MBA.  But even a used MBA in decent shape and well-appointed costs around $600, which I still felt was more than I really wanted to spend.

Then I decided I should do some research on Chromebooks.  Like most people, I had fallen victim to the “Chromebooks are useless unless you’re always on the Internet” trope.  I think this might have been true at one time, but after doing some reading, I learned that the ChromeOS world had advanced considerably since I last learned about it.  In particular I learned that Google has made great strides in developing “disconnected” versions of its key apps – specifically docs and spreadsheets, the key things that one wants to edit while disconnected.

The other thing that really piqued my interest (yes, it’s piqued, not peaked) was the stunning realization that someone had figured out how to install Ubuntu on a Chromebook.  And folks, this isn’t Ubuntu running in a virtual machine, but Ubuntu running on bare metal – simultaneously side-by-side along with ChromeOS.  I was skeptical but intrigued: with Ubuntu as a fall-back, I could rest assured that anything that ChromeOS couldn’t handle, Ubuntu could.

“But Chromebooks are basically cheap pieces of crap,” was my next intuition.  Compared with Apple hardware, it’s true that most devices pale in comparison.  There’s no question that generally speaking, Apple makes the best hardware going, bar none.  But I don’t need perfect, I need good-enough and inexpensive.  And after a bit of research, I discovered an excellent machine for my needs, at least on paper: the Toshiba 13″ Chromebook 2 FHD.

Toshiba Chromebook 2 13" FHD

Toshiba Chromebook 2 13″ FHD

After living with this machine for a little over a week, I think I’m ready to start drawing some comparisons versus the 13″ Macbook Air.  Here’s how the two stack up.

Price

Let’s get the 800-lb gorilla out of the room.  No question who wins the first round.  At $330, the 13″ Toshiba is roughly 1/4 the price of a new 13″ MBA and 1/2 the price of a used MBA.  For the price of one new Macbook Air, you can buy a Chromebook for every member of the family.  ‘Nuff said.

Winner: Chromebook, by a country mile

Storage

The MBA comes with 128 GB of storage (256 GB is also available, but costs more) while the Chromebook comes with only 32 GB of local storage.  This is offset considerably by the fact that Google gave me 1TB of free Drive storage (100 GB is standard, but I already had that – your mileage may vary) and by adding a 128GB SDHC card as extra storage ($65 on Amazon) to bring total storage up to 160 GB.  Another mitigating factor is that ChromeOS minimizes use of local storage, while MacOS depends on it for everything, so ChromeOS presents a smaller footprint than MacOS in real-world use.

In the end I believe a 128GB Mac is no less limiting than a 32GB Chromebook for the applications I intend to use and it’s easy enough to bump up the Chromebook to 128GB if you need it.

Winner: tie

Keyboard & Touchpad

Here Apple is the clear winner, with a perfect-feeling backlit keyboard and a wonderful-to-use touchpad.  The Toshiba’s keyboard is perfectly usable and unproblematic but lacks the elegant feel of the MBA and is not backlit.   The touchpad is usable and sufficient but smaller and more plastic-feeling than the MBA.  It’s not a bad experience at all, but it’s hard to beat the best, and I think Apple offers the best keyboard / trackpad available.

Winner: MBA

Display

I hope you’re sitting comfortably, because the Toshiba’s display is absolutely spectacular.  How Toshiba managed to deliver a 13″ full-HD (1920×1080) display in a $330 machine is baffling, but they did, and it’s lovely.  Viewing angles are very good, colors are not perfect but whites are white, blacks are deep black, colors are bright and nicely saturated, and the resolution is astonishingly crisp.  The screen does not attract fingerprints and doesn’t have any coatings that cause pixellation or moire effects, though glare can be a problem if you’re backlit.

Winner: Chromebook

Sound

The Macbook Air has arguably the best speakers in an ultraportable notebook, so the competition is awfully stiff.  However Toshiba has partnered with Skullcandy to deliver a similar listening experience.  I still prefer the MBA because it’s a littler warmer, but I have to say that the audio from the Toshiba is very, very good for an ultraportable.

Winner: MBA, but just barely

Size and Weight

The Macbook looks smaller, but it isn’t – it’s just a design illusion.  In actuality the two machines are close enough in size and weight to be considered identical.  The MBA is a few hundredths of an inch wider and longer, the Toshiba is .06″ thicker.  The Toshiba weighs .01 lb less.

Winner: tie

Battery

The Macbook Air delivers better than 10 hours of real-world use, while the Toshiba falls short at roughly 8 hours.  8 hours meets my needs for “all-day unplugged use” but the winner is clearly Apple.

Winner: MBA

Inputs & Outputs

The two machines are very comparable.  Both offer 2 USB ports, audio out, power in, an SDHC slot, and a video output port.  In the case of Apple, the video is a potent Thunderbolt output, while the Toshiba offers a more basic – but more standard – HDMI output.  Unless you already use a Thunderbolt monitor, this means you’ll have to use a dongle adapter on the Macbook.  Both machines offer an HD webcam.  Both offer stereo mics, but the Toshiba’s are placed intelligently on the top of the display border (where the stereo image will actually correlate to the webcam), while Apple placed the mics in a poor location both on the left side of the machine.  Toshiba’s power supply is smaller, has a longer power cord, and is cheaper to replace; but the Mac offers the MagSafe connector.

Winner: tie

Horsepower

The Mac easily trounces the Chromebook in terms of sheer processing power.  However the only instance I have discovered where the Chromebook’s processing power is insufficient is multitasking while streaming HD video – which if you think about it, isn’t much of a shortcoming, as most people will pause the video when they leave it to perform other tasks.  It’s safe to say that if video editing ever becomes possible on a Chromebook, it will pale in comparison to the Macbook Air.  But for all other day to day tasks the Chromebook is more than sufficient for my usage.

Winner: MBA

Apps

Here, the Macbook trounces the Chromebook in terms of choice – at least on paper.  The Mac ecosystem offers a wide variety of apps to choose from, while the ChromeOS ecosystem is still a work in progress and definitely lacking in the multimedia department.

However, for my day-to-day use, I’m quickly realizing that I am missing very, very little.  I already live in the Google ecosystem (Chrome browser, Gmail, Drive, Docs, etc) which function as good or better on ChromeOS.  The key thing I lack is a top-notch image editor, but Google has promised to deliver a ChromeOS version of Photoshop in the near future, and in the meantime there’s Pixlr.  For text editing and software development, there’s Caret, an outstanding replacement for SublimeText on Mac. For light-duty music editing, I have to switch to Ubuntu (more on that later) but this gives me access to Audacity, which is a very full-featured editor.  I have yet to find a good video editor for Chromebook or Ubuntu, but this wasn’t part of my original requirements.

In short it’s pretty amazing to me that the ChromeOS ecosystem can even begin to compete with the Mac ecosystem with all of its advantages, particularly its 20+ year headstart.

Winner: MBA

LAMP-based Development

On the Mac, I use MAMP Pro as a turnkey LAMP server for web development.  It’s pretty hard to beat turnkey, and MAMP Pro is really easy to use and set up.  There does not currently exist a MAMP-like turnkey server solution for ChromeOS.

However, I was very surprised to discover how well Ubuntu runs alongside the ChromeOS.  It isn’t turnkey – you’re going to have to get your hands dirty – but the process is deceptively simple: you enable “developer mode” on your Chromebook, you install a script called crouton, you execute a few shell commands, and voila! Ubuntu is running right alongside ChromeOS – you literally switch back and forth between the two OSes by hitting CTRL-ALT-BACKARROW and CTRL-ALT-FORWARDARROW.  It’s super-slick, and opens up your Chromebook to the entire world of Linux.  I encountered zero issues with the process – no driver issues, no battery issues, nothing – though as usual I had to noodle around with Apache settings to get the environment working to my satisfaction.

While it’s true that turnkey beats DIY, if you’re a developer, you’re already accustomed to getting your hands dirty, and you’ll find nothing onerous about the process of installing Ubuntu alongside ChromeOS.  It’s weirdly easy and took me roughly 45 minutes, soup-to-nuts, which included the 20 minutes to download and install Ubuntu.

The cool part (for me) is that once you have a local development server set up and running, you can resume your development workflow entirely in ChromeOS, and forget completely that there is a Ubuntu server running alongside.  You can edit files on the local filesystem directly using the Caret editor.  SSH is provided inside ChromeOS using an extension called SecureShell so it’s quite easy to work with remote servers right inside the Chrome browser.  It all works a lot better than I would have ever guessed.

Winner: MBA + MAMP Pro

Backup / Restore

The idea behind an ultraportable is that if you lose or break it, it should be of minimal impact.  Here the Chromebook kicks serious ass.  Unlike the Mac, which relies on “old-school” backup & restore solutions like Time Machine, the Chromebook is literally a “throw it away and buy another” type machine.  All of your data is already backed up on Drive.  And all of your apps live as Chrome extensions.  So if you get a new Chromebook, you log in to your Google account for the first time, and magically, your device restores to exactly how your old device looked, without installing a single application.  Technically you can restore a MBA with a Time Machine backup, but seriously, it’s an entirely different and more perilous process.

Winner: Chromebook

Etc.

Apple has a good track record of keeping OS updates to a minimum, but this is starting to change as Apple keeps pushing Mac more and more into an iOS-like App Store model.  Increasingly there are more and more updates and downloads that require restarts, etc.  ChromeOS, by contrast, is more or less always up-to-date.  I really like how minimal the OS footprint is on the Chromebook and think that this bodes well for the device’s long-term usability.  I really admire how painless the install and update process is for apps.

The Mac is a metal-body machine, and while the metal can dent or bend, it’s undeniably more premium grade than the almost-identical-looking plastic used in the Toshiba.  Apple manages to brand its computers with an actually-cool illuminated logo, while the lid of the Toshiba sports ugly “Toshiba” and “Chromebook” branding.  Like all non-Apple computers, the Toshiba ships with a plethora of stupid, ugly stickers that have to be removed.

If you have an Android phone or a Chromecast dongle, you’ll love the seamless integration with ChromeOS.  Likewise, Apple offers similar integration with an iPhone and Apple TV, but those devices can cost considerably more than their Android counterparts.

Summary

Let’s face it: a $330 ChromeOS portable shouldn’t be able to beat a $1200 Macbook Air.  It’s a terribly unfair comparison.  The Mac has a superior processor, more storage, more memory, a better keyboard and trackpad, and of course a “full” OS and the 30-year-old Mac app ecosystem.  It’s like a bantamweight getting in the ring with Tyson.  Not a fair fight at all.

What’s surprising is just how well the Chromebook actually stands up in real-world use.  The display is better, the size and weight are identical, and for typical day-to-day chores, the Chromebook is just as usable as a Macbook Air.  Battery life isn’t quite as good but is still very good.  It meets my needs for a development machine just as well as a Macbook Air.  Software updates are easier.  There is essentially no need for backups, as all the data is backed up to Drive automagically, and the OS is practically disposable.  The only place I care about where I think the Chromebook falls short is multimedia editing.

So the verdict: if, like me, you’re a power user, you will probably not be happy with only a Chromebook as your sole device.  There are still areas like multimedia where the low-power processor and / or lack of robust applications will prevent you from ditching that Mac or PC.

But if you’re a “consumer grade” user who doesn’t edit music or video, or if you’re a power user who needs a cheap, lightweight, travel-ready portable, then you owe it to yourself to take a good hard look at Chromebook.  Especially if you’re already using the Google application suite.

Take a Greyhound to Fredericksburg

A Story in Three Parts

Pt. 1: December 1994

1994 was a good year to be in the Dallas music scene.  Bands like the Nixons and Tripping Daisy and the Toadies were breaking out with national hits.  Record labels were eyeing Dallas bands with eagerness.  A local-national DJ named Redbeard had the drive-time rock show on the rock station (Q102) and was aggressively spinning local music during drivetime.  It was just a great time to be in a rock band in Dallas.

That winter, my band was tracking some demos at Crystal Clear Studios with owner Keith Rust.  Over a lunch break one day, I casually asked Keith if any interesting bands had been in the studio recently.

Keith replied that they had just worked on a CD for an art-rock band called the Moon Festival that was pretty good.  And, he added, there was a killer sort-of-punk-country band called the Old 97s who had just finished up a CD.

So I checked out the Moon Festival, and met front man Salim Nourallah, and needless to say, that turned out great for both me and Salim.  We’ve worked on lifetimes of wonderful music together and have learned greatly from each other.  Salim’s influence on my tastes – the entire way way I think about music – cannot be underestimated.

And I checked out the Old 97s.  They had a great draw at Dada where they played regularly – a club where we also drew well – so we conspired to get on their bill as openers for a series of shows.  And that’s how I finally got to see the band live, and I was floored.  The kinetic energy onstage was electrifying.  The band thundered through its set and the sweating crowd ate it up. And the songs – this collection of unpretentious but infectious tunes – were a kind of music I’d never heard before.

In 1994 “rock” was grunge.  If you had a twang in your guitar or a twang in your voice, you were country – and the Old 97s had both.  But in those days, “country” meant sterile Nashville pop-masters like Randy Travis and Garth Brooks.  The Old 97s played more like the Clash or the Replacements.  And the twang was more Wichita Falls than Nashville.

I bought the record when it came out, and I was instantly charmed.  After that run of shows, I didn’t see the band again for many years, but I kept up with the records.  The band has made a number of killer records and for sure, records like “Wreck Your Life” and “Fight Songs” and the latest “Most Messed Up” are maybe the band’s best efforts, from a sense of musicality or artistry.

Old_97S_-_Hitchhike_To_Rhome

Hitchhike to Rhome

But over the years, for me, nothing had the staying power – nothing “took me back to the club scene days” – like Hitchhike.  Overlong, minimally produced, sometimes cacophonous / sometimes playful – this record had a sort of naive charm that is impossible to maintain the moment record labels start waving contracts in front of you.

“Getting noticed” changes a band.  Where before you were just kids with dreams and hopes having a good time with no expectations, suddenly you have a responsibility to create something marvelous.  And you have to do it naked, under a microscope, with everyone watching.  The act of observing something changes the thing observed.  It’s the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in action.

The band never made a record like “Hitchhike” again – and really, they couldn’t even if they wanted to.  You can’t re-have your first kiss. You can’t see Star Wars again for the first time.  You just can’t get back to those places once they’re gone.  And in this way, records are like time capsules – and Hitchhike to Rhome is truly that: a time capsule of the undiscovered, youthful band playing their first full “set” and just having a grand old time.

Meanwhile, Salim went on to work and tour with Old 97s frontman Rhett Miller for his solo work.  Later, Salim and the Old 97s and I would go on to make several records together.

Over the years I quit listening to the Toadies, and the Nixons, and Tripping Daisy, and Buck Jones, and Ten Hands, and Hagfish, and 66, and Fletcher, and Pop Poppins, and all the rest of the local bands from that time.  But Hitchhike to Rhome wormed its way into my heart and soul.

It’s karmic, somehow… I grew up with Rhome in my blood, literally, because half of my family is from there.  My great grandparents even founded the tiny, adjacent community of New Fairview.  So when Rhett sings,

Hitchhike to Rhome
take a Greyhound to Fredericksburg

it always evokes a palpable image of dusty, poor North Texas in my mind.  Rusty metal windmills.  Grain silos.  Dirt.

Over the decades I’m sure I’ve listened to that silly romp of a record over 1000 times.  I know every word, every guitar lick, every bass groove, every drum fill by rote memory.  I shit you not: its in my desert island collection, right alongside Please Please Me and London Calling.  There’s not another “local release” in my Top 20.

Pt. 2: January 2014

Early this year I received a message from God.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, God used His child, “Diamond” David Lee Roth, to deliver His divine message to me.

rothreview4

David Lee Roth, Agent of God

The issue was almost existential: I was trying to figure out if I wanted to take up residency in a studio somewhere, build a new studio of my own, or just quit music altogether.  All musicians struggle with the decision to keep making art in the face of an increasingly hostile musical environment – and this was one of my moments of doubt and pain.  This decision lasted literally months, and culminated one day in a trip to Essalunga, the Italian version of Kroger.

That day my indecisive brainstorming reached near-seizure levels.  So wrapped up in decisionmaking that I could barely see straight, I went with my wife Vanessa to the grocery store. On the way I laid it all out for her.  The costs, the risks, the rewards, the probabilities.  I wanted to build a new studio, but the costs are high and the probability of payback is low.  Conversely, I could shack up in someone else’s studio and grind out an income, but that can quickly become soul-crushing work that makes you want to gouge out your eardrums.

I was really wrapped around the axle, as we say in Rhome.  As we walked up to the gleaming automatic sliding doors of the Essalunga, I desperately asked Vanessa, “how can I ever decide?!”

The doors parted, and from inside, accompanied by the swell of fuzzy synthesizers, David Lee Roth loudly proclaimed the answer to my question:

Might as well JUMP!
Go ahead and JUMP!!

There was a certain logic to the illogic, and Diamond Dave’s was the exact answer I needed. I heeded the call. I started seriously and methodically planning the design.  I started assembling a new audio recorder – 48 channels of the latest Pro Tools HD, a lovely vintage “big iron” mixer from the 70s, and a pile of my favorite vintage gear.  There’s old vacuum tube gear and cables piled all over the house now, while the building is currently under construction.

I fully expect to have Diamond Dave over to cut some hot tracks.

Pt. 3: Spring 2014

By now you should be asking where all this is leading.

So, Constant Reader, it was with coronary-inducing excitement that I received a call from the band this spring, asking for some help.  “We’re putting out a 20th anniversary re-release of Hitchhike,” explained guitarist Ken Bethea, “but we were never really happy with the mix of that record.  Would you be willing to remix some tracks?”

Wut?

Remix Hitchhike to Rhome?!?  One of my favorite records of all time?

Are you fucking kidding me?!?

I stammered agreement over the phone, hung up, and immediately started wondering, “where the hell am I going to mix this thing?”  I had the gear, but the building wouldn’t be ready until long after the album’s release date.

I considered a number of alternatives, including mixing it at Treefort (where the last few records were mixed) or even going back to Crystal Clear and mixing it at the original studio.

But I work best when I Do My Own Thing. So finally I decided to wing it: I set up an entire studio’s worth of equipment in my bedroom – not a spare bedroom, mind you, but my bedroom, wife and all – and got to work.

It was a very mad-science endeavor – but in a way – mixing Hitchhike on a bunch of old vintage gear piled into in a bedroom is kinda perfect.  And I couldn’t be more happy with the way the record came out: raw, punchy, and rowdy.  I kept it real – no digital editing or “fixing” was used – and it’s an all-analog mix with all-analog gear for a big fat analog sound.  When I crank it up on a good stereo, I can close my eyes and I’m standing in front of those old JBLs at Dada.

Mixing this record was a complete blast and I’m super grateful to have been a part of it.  I hope everyone enjoys listening to it even half as much as I enjoyed mixing it!

Stay tuned to the Old 97s to find out about the re-release later this year.

Quick Review: Logitech Tablet Keyboard for Android

As I mentioned in my last post, perhaps the secret to phone blogging is to carry a keyboard.

Today I’m writing this blog post using my Logitech Tablet Keyboard for Android and the WordPress Android app, and it’s definitely a completely different experience.

The keyboard itself is about as small as it can be and still be considered “ergonomic.”  The keys and spacing are almost exactly the same proportions as my Macbook keyboard, and though the keypress travel is a little shallower, the overall typing experience is very good.

The keyboard travels in a case that doubles as a stand for your phone / tablet.  This makes it very easy to convert your device into something with a form factor very similar to a computer.

I have never gotten used to touching a screen instead of moving a mouse / trackball / touchpad, and I wonder if I ever will.  I find the experience of taking my hand from the keyboard and lifting it to the screen disruptive to data-entry (as well as leaving the inevitable fingerprints)  – but it works.

The keyboard works very well with the Android app.  I haven’t taken the time to learn the various shortcuts available with the keyboard, but the usual hotkeys like CTRL-C work as expected.

Of course, carrying a keyboard is not much better than just carrying another device, like a Macbook Air or Chromebook.  The keyboard is only a little smaller and lighter than a small computer.  One advantage comes to mind though: with the phone + keyboard solution, I always have the option of jotting down a quick blog post just using the phone sans keyboard, or jotting down some ideas in the app and fleshing the post out later with the keyboard.

Of course you can achieve a similar result using a phone + computer but this option saves a step.  And of course it’s easier to post photos taken on the phone directly from the phone itself, instead of having to transfer the content first to the computer.

Maybe the smartphone didn’t kill the blog after all.

Did the Smartphone Kill the Blog?

Used to be, I consumed all of my internet content on my computer. Any time I wanted to read an article, check my friends’ statuses, send an email, check the weather… it always meant a trip to the computer.

In that world, blogging came naturally. Here I was already at the computer, with its spacious and ergonomic keyboard inviting me to type my thoughts. It was almost irresistible.

I created a lot of content back in those days. I created the original prorec.com, participated in a group blog with my friends on cuzwesaidso.com, started and killed a humor site called skeptician.com, and of course blogged here on my personal blog.

But these days I no longer head to the computer when I want to interact with the internet. Now I reach for my phone.

The phone is a lovely way to consume internet content. It’s always with me. It’s 4G wireless. The form factor is convenient. I read novels on my phone.

But as a data entry device, it’s horrible. The keyboard is no match that of my Macbook and the screen is just too small for editing hundreds or thousands of words. And no phone app can compete with the page-layout power of a real computer.

And so I rarely blog anymore. It’s become inconvenient. When I want to say something I’m likely to jot down an email to my buddies (email being a forgiving text medium that does not mandate perfect grammar and page layout, where incomplete sentences and clumsy writing aren’t a showstopper). Or I’ll tweet or post a photo.

But blogging? This is my first blog post in years. I suspect it could well be my last. I’m actually writing this entry on my phone. And, I gotta tell you, it’s a royal pain in the ass, even though the WordPress app is mature and powerful and I’m hard-pressed to see how it could be improved.

Perhaps a Bluetooth keyboard could work. But then I’m practically carrying a computer again.

Time will tell if the phone has killed the blog. But from where I sit, things are looking gloomy in the blogosphere.