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UNEVEN TERRAIN: LONDON PIRATE RADIO

This was my day:

Red Sands

photo by xtinalamb

I developed an unhealthy obsession with the Maunsell Forts when I started researching the book. Built as gun towers in WW2 (by the guy who would go on to design first the oil rig), the forts were later taken over by the first generation of radio pirates in the 1960s. I never thought I’d get the chance to climb around on them (they are now completely off limits to the public), but today, as Ice Cube once noted, was a good day.

I’m back in the UK for the weekend with VICE, hosting a show on the history of pirate radio for VBS.TV. Early Saturday morning we drove down to the east coast to explore Red Sands, probably the world’s most impressive sea fort that’s still standing.

We spent the day with Tony and Robin, two first generation pirate DJs who used to broadcast from the forts in 1960s. Back then Red Sands was considered to be in international waters, being more than three miles off the coast, so pirates could play music from there without having to worry about things like getting caught. There were other risks, like falling in the sea and dying, but as Tony explained to me, he ‘never really thought about it.’

It was a weird feeling climbing aboard Red Sands. There’s rusting pieces of history everywhere you look, both from the forts’ original use as artillery platforms and from their re-purposing as pirate radio stations. They are much roomier inside than you’d think – sort of like the Tardis (Dr Who even paid a visit to Red Sands back in the day). They’re bleak, dark, industrial and dank, but something about them is hypnotizing.

I knew I was going to bug out when I got on board, being a huge fort nerd and all, but the rest of the crew were just as stoked as I was. The whole experience is like nothing else. The way the forts come at you through the fog on the approach like the AT-AT walkers in Empire Strikes Back, the sounds of creaking metal and sea gulls and chiming buoys, the second set of forts at Shivering Sands sitting like dots on the horizon five miles away (which I visited a few years back, but didn’t get to climb on). All the other stuff out there; shipwrecks, wind turbines, ruined piers, container ships zipping by in the background – nothing about Red Sands or the surrounding waters seems real.

Inside there were twelve rooms in all; bathrooms, bedrooms, a kitchen, all battered by the elements, but still in good enough condition that Tony, who lived out here for four years in his twenties (and is now 62) still comes and sleeps on the fort sometimes. It was cool talking to first generation British pirate DJs, swapping anecdotes standing on the roof of the fort, although Tony and Robin made all my pirate stories from the garage/grime scenes look super lame. The conversation went something like:

Me: “Once at Ice FM there was some beef and a guy pulled a knife!”

Them: “Oh. Once seventeen thugs invaded the fort and we chased them away with grenades and flame throwers.”

Me: “Um… At Ice FM, we used to get tons of girls texting the studio and sometimes we’d go meet some up at McDonalds after the show!”

Them: “Awesome. We had boatloads of nubile female fans coming to the forts to sleep with us. Literally. Boats. Full of women. All the time.”

Me: “Ummm… We had a 30 foot antenna and sometimes we’d get our signal out as far as Essex! Plus I used to get like 100 texts per show!”

Them: “We put a 200 foot antenna up with a crane and had eight million listeners, junior.”

Everything about the way the first generation of pirates operated makes the rest of us who followed look a little weak. But Robin and Tony were really cool and very aware of the legacy they left and the culture they help create. Talking to them I realized the thing all pirate DJs seem to have in common is the sense of contributing something positive. The pull of pirate radio isn’t the buzz of not getting caught – it’s the buzz you get from doing community service. To play some records which are being ignored. To support a scene, help it grow and live in the world. I’ve never met a pirate DJ that considered themselves criminal and wasn’t proud of what they did.

Tony and Robin are still out on the forts today, as part of Project Redsand, a non-profit trying to restore the forts to their former glory. They’re doing what they’ve always done: a community service. Same thing they did more than forty years ago when they risked life and limb to bring rock and roll to the UK.

The show will be up on VBS sometime in March.

User Generated

Rob Jewitt, blogger at Remedial Thoughts and lecturer in Media & Cultural Studies at University of Sunderland, created this great slidecast summarizing the main points of The Pirate’s Dilemma. It’s closer to the material in the book than the presentations I’ve been doing of late, which have started to include a lot of new ideas too (I’ll be posting my new presentation The Pirate Solution up here shortly). There’s few things more useful to the creator of an idea than seeing someone else re-present that idea in a new way. Which brings me to the slidecast below by People’s Playground on the remix:

Is Avatar Pirate Proof?

Avatar Pirate Copy

After a strong opening weekend at the box office, Fox are hailing Dances With Thunder-Smurfs as Hollywood’s first pirate-proof movie. TorrentFreak points to a Fox press release quoting studio rep Eden Wright who says “piracy will play a much smaller role in stealing profits from [Avatar] due to the technological hurdles it imposes”.

Avatar’s weekend take at the box office seems to support this theory. According to Variety, it took $77 million domestically and $242.5 million worldwide, the fifth best film opening of all time. 3D accounted for 58% of the gross.

Having been blown away by Avatar in 3-D, it’s hard to imagine watching it in 2-D, let alone trying to get the same experience from a crappy pirate copy filmed on a camera phone. This didn’t stop 500,000 downloads of Avatar from p2p sites over the weekend as well, but as is the situation with music, it’s not clear whether downloads are helping or hindering the box office. Hollywood went bat-shit back in April when Wolverine was leaked online a month before release, only to see it top the box office and beat the tally of the next nine best performing films combined. In recent weeks the independent film Ink also saw illegal downloads help rather than hinder the film, with its creators even thanking pirates for their help. “We don’t know exactly where this will all lead” they wrote, “but the exposure is unquestionably a positive thing.”

If 3-D continues to up box office revenues despite the pirates, it’s good news for film makers everywhere, and there’s more. While the web is disrupting the movie business, it’s also allowing filmmakers to much create deeper connections with fans. As we’ve discussed here before, stretching the narrative of a film across the web using transmedia storytelling is creating all kinds of new revenue streams for franchises large and small, while creating experiences impossible for fans to only interact with via pirate copies.

Encouraging and incorporating user-generated content into a story is another pirate-beating strategy – one we haven’t seen widely used by the big studios yet, but one that has serious potential. If you create a universe fans feel comfortable playing in, they’ll defend it. J.K Rowling discovered this when she sued the author of The Harry Potter Lexicon in 2007. Many (myself included) initially thought the legions of fan creating Potter content of their own would revolt against her for going after one of their own – as the lexicon had been put together by one of the most prominent members of the HP fan community. But they didn’t. The fans chose to defend Rowling. As a general rule she’d been extremely supportive of fan-sites and fan-fiction, and the community recognized that. She ended up winning the legal battle and keeping her fans.

The triple-threat of new tech, transmedia and new forms of collaboration is good news for creative endeavors of all kinds. It’s never been simpler to create a copy of a movie, song or almost anything else. But it’s also easier than it’s ever been to build an experience that makes piracy a moot point. Great stories are as important as ever. But now the way we put those stories out there has to be just as creative as the story we’re telling.

Punk Yankees

Steal me

Chicago based choreographer Julia Rhoads has a new show inspired by The Pirate’s Dilemma. The show, Punk Yankees, focuses on how sampling and fair use questions apply to the world of dance. As Rhoads tells it:

“I had the good fortune of receiving a choreographic fellowship from the Maggie Alessee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) to support the research and initial development of Punk Yankees, which is the title of our anniversary concert. While at MANCC, I began working with the ensemble to address my research questions: What defines “fair use” in dance? Is it permissible to “borrow” choreographic devices if the movement is reinvented? If the dancers can’t execute the movement in the way it was originally intended, is there something interesting about that failure? If someone “stylistically” references a choreographer, should it be acknowledged as a derivative work, or is it what naturally occurs through dance education and lineage? Ultimately what we created was a work-in-progress that experimented with meta-theatrical devices and formal conventions to elucidate these provocative questions with transparency and humor.

“The title Punk Yankees came from some research I was doing online about piracy and art. Matt Mason, author of the book The Pirate’s Dilemma, talks about the fact that piracy and appropriation (in the sense of intellectual property) has historically been linked to the creation of new markets, which he calls a form of “punk” capitalism. He also traces the word “Yankee” to an old Dutch slang word “Janke,” meaning pirate. Ironically, Matt Mason was recently a keynote speaker at Dance/USA’s Annual Conference in Houston, TX (June 3-6), in the session “Fair Use and Piracy: How They Each Support a Sustainable Dance Field.”

Thanks for the reminder Cory!

Lawrence Lessig on the possibility of “i-9/11″

Some chilling thoughts from Lessig on one way the copyright wars might end. Pirates, and to a greater extent, ad-hoc networks of all kinds, are a necessary part of the free market system – they (try to) keep governments and corporations honest. If something like Lessig describes ever happens, the idea of the pirate as freedom-fighter will be widely embraced. An i-9/11 would be devastating for the short term future of not just the internet, but liberty and democracy. On the other hand, this is the battlefield where citizens should want to have this fight, because this is the battlefield where we can win.

GFC Vision: The Future of Music

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at the first meeting of the Miller Global Fresh Collective, a group of creatives from the worlds of music, design, art, and fashion who met to discuss the future of collaboration and other issues affecting music. I led the first session of the day, entitled “After the Revolution, is Free the Future?”, which you can see above. The thing that’s always missing from discussions about the future of music, is musicians, so it was great to hear from so many from so many corners of the world. Brooklyn Vegan has more details.

Why is buying a fake handbag more exciting than buying a real one?

Rachel Nasvik

Picutre from www.wherethenighttakesyou.blogspot.com

Buying fake handbags is a contact sport in Chinatown. On a daily basis, groups of (mostly) women from all over the country bob and weave through the Canal Street crowds, many snapping up garbage sacks full of counterfeit products to take back home and sell on at ‘purse parties’. Just as it was with music piracy, handbag piracy has birthed an underground subculture, and Canal Street is the nerve center.

So nothing seemed out of the ordinary about the cluster of women descending on a handbag vendor at the corner of Broadway and Canal one Saturday back in June. But something strange was going on. These particular women were running faster than everyone else, desperate to get to this particular vendor before anyone else, and the first five in line were elated when they discovered the particular purses they were looking for were there. Because not only were these designer handbags real, they had been put there by the designer herself.

The handbags were made by internationally renowned designer Rachel Nasvik, whose totes and clutches typically retail anywhere from $150 – $700 at high end boutiques. She is the last person you’d expect to be hawking her wares in knock-off friendly stores, but this summer she did exactly that. Nasvik created a scavenger hunt that sent women chasing handbags across the city. She made 96 limited edition neon-pink purses, and hid them all over town. She set up a blog and used a twitter feed to drop clues as to their whereabouts. The hunt caused a fashion media stampede, and a more literal one as women flocked to the locations where the bags had been hidden. Some were simply left in public to be found, while others were given to pirate vendors (each vendor was given five, and asked to sell them at $10 a piece, which they did). It was a fantastic marketing campaign which created a large uptick in brand awareness for Nasvik, not to mention orders. But what really struck me about this was the truth highlighted by the bag hunt, a truth the hunt was designed in part to point out: Getting a handbag from a pirate vendor can be much more fun than buying the real thing.

Fake Louis

This has been true on Canal Street for a good few years now. As counterfeiting has become more of a problem, the city has stepped up the fight, forcing the pirate bag sellers underground. But as the stakes have gotten higher for the vendors, so too has the thrill for consumers. The experience of buying a fake bag is exhilarating: Someone approaches you on the street, usually saying something along the lines of “Handbag? Handbag? Gucci? Prada? Handbag?” in hushed tones. If you say yes, a call is made to someone at a secret location, not far away. You are then led there, via false doors, secret staircases and rooms hidden in false walls in other shops. You are led down dark alleys or secret passages in subway stations. All of this can be scary for first timers, but it is one of the coolest and most authentic New York experiences you can have – one reason so many tourists flock to these secret pirate handbag stores in droves. Piracy is a huge problem for luxury goods companies, one that is growing every year. But the fact that the experience of buying a fake is so much fun could be an opportunity, one that more designers should be exploiting they way Nasvik did.

It all comes down to some pretty simple economics. With luxury goods like designer handbags, you get most of the satisfaction from them in the moments before you actually buy the good. The thought of wearing the new handbag at the party is more satisfying than actually doing it. This is why we are shopaholics. We all crave that first pure hit of customer satisfaction we don’t get from the 200th time we lug the designer handbag to work on a Monday morning. So creating an amazing purchase experience should be the main focus of the luxury goods business. But down on Canal Street the pirates (and Rachel Nasvik) are doing it better.

A few blocks up from Chinatown in SoHo, you can buy a real bag in an impeccably turned-out glass and steel store, an experience which pales in comparison to the thrills and spills of the secret passages a few streets away. If the real and fake products look the same (or in some cases, are the same), then providing consumers with an authentic experience is the only way to compete. If you’re selling a luxury good, or any good that can be easily copied, you better make sure the experience of buying it is great. If they’re just copying your stuff, you can sue them. But if the pirates are providing a better experience than you are, you’re in trouble.

Pirates at Trendtag

14. Deutscher Trendtag: Social Wealth / Matt Mason: The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism from Trendbuero on Vimeo.

Two weeks ago I was invited to speak at Trendtag, an incredible event that takes place every year in Hamburg. Here’s the speech I gave. If you’ve seen me speak before you know all this already. There’s some new stuff here on The Pirate Bay Trial, Wolverine and creating virtuous circles, but the core argument of the talk remains the same. Check out the full Trendtag line up of speeches here.

Korean Edition!

Pirate’s Dilemma Korean Edition

It was a good Cinco De Mayo this year. Not only did the book come out in paperback here in the US, I just received copies of the forthcoming Korean edition. I like the confused orange pirate. It’s hard out here for a ginger.

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