Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The ABCs of music sales

A few months ago I decided to buy a certain album. It never happened. Either the CD skipped my mind when I was within range of a place to obtain it, or I didn't have time to stop in.

But I've been jonesing for new music after a long stretch of listening to the same tunes on the iPod. So this evening, as I walked past a hip little independent CD store on my way to grocery shopping, I decided to take the plunge.

I made my way to the Ms. Started scanning. And scanning. And scanning.

Ah yes. I'd forgotten.

The hip little independent CD store, like so many other CD stores, doesn't alphabetize its CDs. Or, rather, it does only to a point. All the Ma bands and artists are together, but within Ma it's a total free-for-all.

The result: It took much longer than it should have to discover that this store does not, in fact, carry anything by Barry Manilow.

* * *

I have a theory about why filing is so sloppy in these places. The longer customers have to flip through CDs to find what they're looking for, the more likely they'll be to stumble across something else they wanted, but hadn't been thinking about. While looking for Manilow, for instance, I saw the Dave Matthews Band and combed through their stuff for a song I liked.

It's a clever strategy, but one that ought to be retired. Music retailers, please take note ...

#1: There has been a tremendous drop in CD sales over the past 10 years. I don't need to tell you this. If you're managing to survive now, it's largely because so much of your competition has died.

#2: Gen-Xers (and people older than Gen-Xers) like CDs. We like digital downloads too, but we're more likely than Millennials to crave a product we can hold in our hands.

#3: One of the draws of digital music is that it takes no time at all to find what we're looking for. Enter your search term, hit return, and there it is.

#4: Traveling to a brick-and-mortar store, poking around to locate our selections, and then walking back to checkout is already a greater time commitment than we absolutely have to invest. It annoys customers to spend many minutes on top of that, attempting to dig through your inventory, simply because no one could bother to shelve it properly.

#5: Gen-Xers are grown-ups. Have been for quite a while. We've got obligations, responsibilities, places to be. We're going to be even more annoyed than your average high school student (who probably doesn't want your CDs anyway) if we're delayed for no good reason.

* * *

The above rant is mostly pointless. In 10 or 20 years, I'll reread this and get all nostalgic about how people were still actually buying CDs. But just for grins and giggles, give my words some thought. Maybe with enhanced alphabetization, you'll be one of the few retailers that survive long enough to occupy the coveted collector's-item niche.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fight for Your Right (to Satire)

A few years ago, we made it to the second round of Tucson's Acoustic Battle of the Bands. To make things interesting, everybody participating was tasked with learning a new cover song ...

... from the Beastie Boys.

Beastie Boys tunes performed by sensitive folk singers are about as hilarious as you'd expect them to be. We had fun with it. Our pick was "Fight for Your Right (to Party)." We added a vocal melody (so nobody had to suffer the trauma of hearing me rap) and inserted a piano riff that kinda sorta echoed the original guitar riff but didn't sound anything like it. To make the goof complete, we played it totally straight.

What we didn't realize was that the Beastie Boys themselves didn't take the song any more seriously than we did.
... the Beasties hated the whole rocker scene, feeling it was populated by obnoxious, testosterone-laden douchebags. They wanted to poke fun at mindless party anthems like "Smoking in the Boys Room," so they cut the lyrics to "Fight for Your Right" as an in-joke before going on tour ... Thinking the song's success was hilarious, the Beasties made what they assumed was an equally ridiculous video to go along with it.

Slowly, they began to realize that the whole "parody" part was lost on most of the listening public, and the majority of their newfound fan base was now made up of the same toolbags they were making fun of.
Beastie Boys: That is awesome. I would have liked your song a whole lot more—or, you know, at all—if I'd realized it was satire.

In case you were curious, here's our heartfelt version, live from Ron the Drummer's living room.

Friday, October 7, 2011

By what definition?

Exciting development for people who have myalgic encephalomyelitis, known to most of the world as "chronic fatigue syndrome." The Journal of Internal Medicine has published Myalgic Encephalomyelitis: International Consensus Criteria, which lays out a new case definition for the disease ...

Wait ... where are you going?

* * *

If you are not an ME sufferer, caregiver, or advocate, you're probably about to bail. The topic sounds dry and boring. It doesn't affect you directly. There are other things you'd rather do with your time.

Please bear with me. There's a reason you should know about this, and I'll try to make it as un-boring as possible.

Here goes ...

* * *

What's the International Consensus Criteria?

A set of criteria that physicians can use to diagnose myalgic encephalomyelitis.

I'm already bored.

It gets better. Humor me, OK?

Oh, all right. But what's the big deal? They couldn't diagnose ME before?

Not very well. Over the past few decades, several case definitions have proliferated. The worst ones are little more than a wastebasket diagnosis. Essentially, "If you're really really fatigued for at least six months and you've ruled out every other disease we can think of that might cause this, then maybe you have it."

The ICC is much more specific. For instance, to be diagnosed, you must have post-exertional neuroimmune exhaustion, which is a fancy way of saying that you can't exert yourself without causing yourself even more pain and making your symptoms worse. Other diseases that cause fatigue (there are many) don't have that feature.

If you feel like learning about the details, go here. If not, just know that the ICC is much better at distinguishing ME from conditions that are not ME.

No offense, but explain to me again why I'm supposed to care about this? I don't have ME.

Do you like being manipulated? Lied to?

Eh? No ...

OK. If you read the news, you may occasionally encounter a story about how a particular kind of talk therapy (cognitive behavioral therapy) and a particular exercise program (graded exercise therapy) can help people with "chronic fatigue syndrome." Some brand new study proves it! Yay!

What's the problem with that? And what does it have to do with the ICC?

The case definition used in the study makes or breaks the study's validity. The bad ones, as mentioned above, are too broad. Subjects who meet the criteria for a bogus definition may not have ME at all. Maybe they have a different disease. Or maybe they have depression, which can be helped by talk therapy and exercise.

To complicate matters further, subjects who actually have ME are more likely to drop out of the study or not participate at all. Remember the bit about post-exertional neuroimmune exhaustion? Exercise is dangerous for people who have it. If they push too hard, they can hurt themselves—sometimes permanently.

So with the ICC in place, these psychological researchers will realize they've been studying the wrong people? They'll start studying the right people?

Eh, probably not. Other ME scientists have been bringing up the sampling bias problem for years, and the psychological researchers have soundly ignored them.

Oh. What about the media, then? Will journalists call bad scientists on bad science because of the ICC?

Based on what's happened before, also doubtful. Most reporters won't know the ICC exists.

I can see why you'd find that annoying. But to be honest with you, I have my own problems right now. Bigger problems than exposure to shoddy journalism. How does any of this affect me?

Do you consider yourself a good person? A fair person?

See, the issue with these stories is that they imply something about the disease and the people who have it. If sufferers get better with a little talk therapy and exercise, then ME can't be that big of a deal, right? And when you hear about people who go on disability because of "chronic fatigue syndrome," you think they must be getting away with something. How dare they take taxpayer money when all they need to do is see a shrink and do some sit-ups?

When these news stories convince you that ME isn't a big deal, they turn you against your fellow human beings. They succeed in stealing your compassion.

That kind of sucks, when you put it that way.

It does. But now that you know ME means a lot more than "tired all the time"—and that it responds badly to exercise—you can't be played by a press release.

At some point, another story will be published about how talk therapy and exercise help people with ME. When you see it, you can ask, "By what definition of ME?"