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Downloading Sneakers : How Youth Culture Reinvented Capitalism and Renewed Innovation

Free Press

Downloading Sneakers : How Youth Culture Reinvented Capitalism and Renewed Innovation Overview

How do you start a movement with a marker pen? How did a male model spinning disco records in the 1970s influence the way Boeing designs airplanes? Can hip-hop really bring about world peace? And what's going to happen to Nike when it's possible for kids to download sneakers? The Pirate's Dilemma tells the story of how youth culture drives innovation and is changing the way the world works. With great wit and insight Matt Mason [voted Best Pirate of 2008 by BusinessWeek] offers understanding for a time when piracy is just another business model. The remix is our most powerful marketing tool and anyone with a computer is capable of reaching more people than a multinational corporation. With a cast of characters that includes such icons as the Ramones, Andy Warhol, Madonna, Russell Simmons, and 50 Cent, The Pirate's Dilemma uncovers the moments in pop culture that the birthed global industries and movements, changing life as we know it and unraveling some of our most basic assumptions about business, society, and our collective future.

Downloading Sneakers : How Youth Culture Reinvented Capitalism and Renewed Innovation Table Of Content

Intro: Enter the Lollipop 1

1 Punk Capitalism From D.I.Y. to Downloading Sneakers 9

2 The Tao of Pirates Sea Forts, Patent Trolls, and Why We Need Piracy 33

3 We Invented the Remix Cut-'n'-Paste Culture Creates Some New Common Ground 68

4 The Art of War Street Art, Branding, and the Battle for Public Space 103

5 Boundaries Disco Nuns, the Death of the Record Industry, and Our Open-Source Future 134

6 Real Talk How Hip-Hop Makes Billions and Could Bring About World Peace 172

7 Ethernomics Pillow Fights, Happy Slaps, and Other Memes That Leave a Mark 202

Outro: The Pirate's Dilemma: Changing the Game Theory 231

Acknowledgments 241

Notes 245

Index 269

Downloading Sneakers : How Youth Culture Reinvented Capitalism and Renewed Innovation Excerpt


Enter the Lollipop

Imagine you're in your car, rolling down Independence Avenue in Washington, D.C. It's a cold, crisp January morning. You flick on the radio and rotate through the FM crackle until a song you like hacks its way through the static. You twist the tuner until you're locked in and the track floats from the speakers in clear stereo, filling the vehicle.

But not for long. Moments later, at the light, an SUV lurches to a stop beside you, blasting bass-heavy hip-hop beats. Your music instantly splinters as the low-end frequencies of the superior neighboring system rattle your windows. You glare at the guy reclining in the driver's seat, but his cap is pulled too low over his face to catch his eye, and the sunlight is catching on the expensive-looking watch on his left arm, stretched across the steering wheel. As the bass reverberates through the traffic, he nods in time with a stuttering snare drum. Gravelly lyrics make their way out into the winter air.

This guy, it strikes you, could be hip-hop's modern-day poster child. He exudes swagger, confidence, and aspiration. The penchant for heavyweight cars and luxury jewelry is obvious, yet the sound track suggests a deep-seated connection to the street and the perceived realities of poverty. He looks like an extra from a P. Diddy video, but he could be a college student, crack dealer, or quantum physicist. There is no way of telling.

He could be from any number of social or ethnic backgrounds. This guy is one of a hundred million people in the United States alone under hip-hop's influence, enchanted by one of the largest cultural movements on our planet today. To many, he represents the sum total of youth culture's progress.

But you're too busy admiring his watch and glaring at his obnoxious speakers to check your mirrors. If you had, you might have noticed that the future of youth culture is actually pulling up behind you.

What you did notice is your radio, which has just cut out. You lean forward and adjust the tuner. Nothing. In the SUV next to you, the radio has gone silent, too. You look across to see hip-hop's poster child banging his dashboard; he looks as frustrated as you are. You check the sunroof — the skies are clear, no aliens jamming your signal. Nothing in your rearview mirror either, except some kid in a Prius with a blank expression.

Of course, you can't see the iPod connected to a modified iTrip on his passenger seat. It's even less likely that you'd guess he's using these devices to broadcast silence across the entire FM band, transmitting tranquillity pirate-style in the thirty-foot radius around his car.

The unassuming face in the Prius is the latest in a long line of youth culture revolutionaries, a band of radio pirates who have manipulated media for decades. They founded Hollywood, reinvented many forms of broadcasting, and helped win the Cold War. While changing the face of media around the world, the guy in the Prius, like his many predecessors, has gone almost completely unnoticed by mainstream society.

The light turns green and you pull away, still puzzled about what just happened. You head straight on. As the SUV and the Prius hang a right onto Ninth Street toward the Southwest Freeway, your radio suddenly comes back to life. A few minutes later, you've almost forgotten the incident as you park farther down the avenue. But as you fumble for change for the meter, you are about to have an even stranger encounter with youth culture.

Instead of the parking meter you use every day, a four-foot-high lemon-yellow lollipop is sticking out of the ground, basking unapologetically in the morning sunshine. Did you accidentally park on the set of Hansel & Gretel?

On closer inspection, it becomes clear you didn't. The parking meter has been remixed into a piece of countercultural candy, its sugary facade made entirely of bright yellow Scotch tape. It is the calling card of another group of society's unsung heroes — a group of pirates who manipulate public space rather than the public airwaves. The lollipop is one of the many hallmarks of an invisible army who started a revolution with pens and spray cans. They have affected advertising, fashion, film, and design, among other industries. They have established billion-dollar brands, focused the media spotlight on controversial political issues, and changed the way we think about the world around us.

On our airwaves, in our public spaces, and through the new layers of digital information that envelop us, pirates are changing the way we use information, and in fact, the very nature of our economic system. From radio pirates to graffiti artists to open-source culture to the remix, the ideas behind youth cultures have evolved into powerful forces that are changing the world.

For the last sixty years, capitalism has run a pretty tight ship in the West. But in increasing numbers, pirates are hacking into the hull and holes are starting to appear. Privately owned property, ideas, and privileges are leaking out into the public domain beyond anyone's control.

Pirates are rocking the boat. As a result people, corporations, and governments across the planet are facing a new dilemma — the Pirate's Dilemma: How should we react to the changing conditions on our ship? Are pirates here to scupper us, or save us? Are they a threat to be battled, or innovators we should compete with and learn from? To compete or not to compete — that is the question — perhaps the most important economic and cultural question of the twenty-first century.

A man at the intersection between youth culture and innovation named John Perry Barlow, the cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and former lyricist for the Grateful Dead, summarized the problem in 2003:

Throughout the time I've been groping around cyberspace, an immense, unsolved conundrum has remained at the root of nearly every legal, ethical, governmental, and social vexation to be found in the Virtual World. I refer to the problem of digitized property. The enigma is this: If our property can be infinitely reproduced and instantaneously distributed all over the planet without cost, without our knowledge, without its even leaving our possession, how can we protect it? How are we going to get paid for the work we do with our minds? And, if we can't get paid, what will assure the continued creation and distribution of such work?

Since we don't have a solution to what is a profoundly new kind of challenge, and are apparently unable to delay the galloping digitization of everything not obstinately physical, we are sailing into the future on a sinking ship.

This is the story of how pirates might save this sinking ship. Often pirates are the first to feel the winds of change blowing. The answer to the Pirate's Dilemma lies in the stories of pirates sailing into waters uncharted by society and the markets, spaces where traditional rules don't apply. The answers lie in the history of youth culture.

For more than sixty years, teenage rebels have been doing things differently and working out new ways to share information, intellectual property, and public space. Behind youth movements familiar to us are radical ideas about how we can compete, collaborate, and coexist in an environment where old assumptions about how we treat information do not hold.

The Pirate's Dilemma will chart the rise of these radical ideas — ideas that started with individual mavericks conducting crazy social experiments which eventually enter everything, influencing business, politics, and many other areas.

For the first time, the dots between our collective future and youth culture's checkered past will be connected, illustrating how a handful of seemingly random absurdities inspired some of our most important innovations. Right under our noses, the ripple effects of youth culture have been changing the way we live and work. But much of the time these effects have gone unnoticed.

Soon enough, though, everyone will notice. The Pirate's Dilemma is not just facing those who deal in digital information — it's escaping into the real world, too. As we shall see, new technologies could make it just as easy for us all to download physical products the way we download music, and we can already jam information being broadcast with a narrowcast signal of our own, signals that collectively have the power to overthrow presidents.

The Information Age has hit puberty and is experiencing growing pains. By remembering our own teenage years we can piece together the best way to ease this transition, searching out and understanding successful business models that entered society from the edges, many directly from youth cultures.

We rebel through youth movements because we recognize that things don't always work the way they should. They are a way of communicating alternatives without inciting bloody revolutions, a way to reorganize systems from the inside, which isn't easy to do. As rebel economist E. F. Schumacher observed of the damaging effects of the systems that govern us: "to deny them would be too obviously absurd, and to acknowledge them would condemn the central preoccupation of modern society as a crime against humanity." But as teenagers most of us aren't reading Schumacher. Instead we protest with youth culture, social experiments — informal studies in the art of doing things differently that have given us good music, bad haircuts, and new ways to operate.

The little-known eureka moments in youth culture documented in this book are rare and priceless. The big bang happens when a strange new idea suddenly makes sense to a handful of people, who then transmit it to others. Experiencing one is like a revelation, a glimpse into the future.

When we see superstars and brands emerge from these scenes years later, it becomes clear to us all what these radical ideas that start small can mushroom into. The story of youth culture's commercial success has been reenacted many times, performed by a variety of players against the backdrop of different genres across the globe. Rappers such as 50 Cent can make $50 million a year without even releasing a record; a graffiti artist such as Marc Ecko can develop his tag into a multinational brand worth more than $1 billion. "Today the most disruptive voices are no longer the artists' voices being piped over the corporate airwaves," Ecko told Royal magazine in 2006. "It's the voice of the pirate, the pirate has become the producer. The indy-punk 'f the man' message is no longer a hook in a song. It's scary. It's hungry. It's Godzilla. He's knocking on the door uninvited, ready for dessert."

And these new Godzillas aren't just graffiti artists or multimillion-dollar MCs. The face under Godzilla's rubbery mask could be yours. I call this problem the "Pirate's Dilemma" and not the "Pirate Dilemma," because there is no difference between us and them. Illegal pirates, legitimate companies, and law-abiding citizens are now all in the same space, working out how to share and control information in new ways. The Pirate's Dilemma is not just about how we compete against pirates, and how we treat them, it's also about how we can become better by recognizing the pirate within ourselves.

How did we get here? What do the new conditions shaping our ship mean, and what do they tell us about where we are going next? To answer these questions, I've pulled together the work of leading academics, historians, innovators, and visionaries from a wide variety of disciplines, whose ideas and insights are illustrated with a cast of characters that includes such icons as Andy Warhol, the Ramones, Madonna, Pharrell, and 50 Cent. I've drawn on my own experiences growing up as a pirate DJ in London, at the flash point of emerging scenes, and my professional life immersed in the mainstream music, media, and advertising industries.

I've met with and interviewed legendary musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, and DJs who have changed things for the rest of us, often without us knowing. From hip-hop moguls such as Russell Simmons to media mavericks such as Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, I'll tell the story of a world ruled by the Pirate's Dilemma with the assistance of some of our best-known change agents.

But I'll also be introducing you to some extraordinary people who are telling their stories for the first time. You'll meet the nun who helped invent dance music, and learn how the ideas she promoted in a children's home in the 1940s are transforming the free market as we know it. You'll meet the three high school kids who remixed Nazis into Smurfs in the 1980s, and changed the future of the video game industry as a result.

We'll meet the professor who can tell us what will happen to Nike when it becomes possible for kids to download sneakers. We'll see how the hippie movement was responsible for the birth of the personal computer. We'll find out what graffiti artists, fashion designers, and French chefs can teach us about the future of copyright, and uncover how a male model, messing around with disco records in New York in the 1970s, changed the way Boeing designs airplanes. But before we do, we need to understand the thinking behind the business model that gave rise to the Pirate's Dilemma. This is a new version of the old system I refer to as "Punk Capitalism."

"This is Punk Capitalism," Bono proudly announced to the world, as a torrent of camera flashes ricocheted off his trademark tinted glasses at an October 2006 press conference. The rock star philanthropist was in Los Angeles to launch the Product Red campaign, backed by a phalanx of CEOs from companies such as Nike, American Express, Gap, Apple, Armani, and Motorola, all of whom had signed on to create a range of products whose profits are used to help fight AIDS in Africa.

But ten years before Bono's press conference, three Canadian punk rockers, who we'll hear from shortly, had been using the term to sum up their philosophy long before Product Red — a philosophy they used to grow a fanzine into a multimillion-dollar media empire.

I use the term Punk Capitalism to describe the new set of market conditions governing society. It's a society where piracy, as the cochair at Disney recently put it, is "just another business model." A society where the remix is changing the way production and consumption are structured, rendering the nineteenth-century copyright laws we use obsolete. A world where advertising no longer works quite the way it did. It's a place where open-source ways of working are generating a wealth of new public goods, niche markets, knowledge, and resources — free tools for the rest of us to build both commercial and noncommercial ventures. It's a place where creativity is our most valuable resource. It's a marketplace where things we used to pay for are free, and things that used to be free have to be paid for. It's a world where altruism is as powerful as competition, inhabited by a new breed of social entrepreneurs, a creative resistance who make money by putting as much emphasis on truly making a difference as they do on turning a profit.

The philosophies that underpin Punk Capitalism took shape in the roots of punk rock. But as we shall now see, the story of Punk Capitalism actually begins in the roots of a hairstyle, created in the 1960s by a runaway teenager from Kentucky — a hairstyle that would change the world. Copyright © 2008 by Matt Mason

Downloading Sneakers : How Youth Culture Reinvented Capitalism and Renewed Innovation Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Music journalist Mason, a former pirate radio and club DJ in London, explores how open source culture is changing the distribution and control of information and harnessing the "old" system of "punk capitalism" to new market conditions governing society. According to Mason, this movement's creators operate according to piratical tactics and are changing the very nature of our economy. He charts the rise of the ideas and social experiments behind these latter-day pirates, citing the work of academics, historians and innovators across a multitude of fields. He also explores contributions by visionaries like Andy Warhol, 50 Cent and Dr. Yuref Hamied, who was called a "pirate and a thief" after producing anti-HIV drugs for Third World countries that cost as little as $1 a day to produce. Pirates, Mason states, sail uncharted waters where traditional rules don't apply. As a result, they offer great ways to service the public's best interests. According to Mason, how people, corporations and governments react to these changes is one of the most important economic and cultural questions of the 21st century. Well-written, entertaining and highly original, Mason offers a fascinating view of the revolutionary forces shaping the world as we know it. (Jan. 8)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

From the Publisher

"Pirates bring choice and cause change. In this stunning book,Matt Mason forgets the parrots and the eye patches, but manages to teach us all a great deal. I learned a lot." — Seth Godin, author of The Dip: A Little Book That Teaches You When to Quit (and When to Stick)

"Through a tornado of hip-hop beats and remarkable stories, Matt Mason takes us on a riveting journey to the heart of innovation. In this explosive book, he shows us that companies face a stark choice: Will you allow yourself to be gutted by a pirate or will you actually become one?" — Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Eeffect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts, and Cultures

"Matt Mason free runs over a half century of global popular culture to describe the shape of our possible future. The Pirate's Ddilemma is a series of leaps of imagination, and it always lands with style." — Jeff Chang, author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Ggeneration and editor of Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop

"This entertaining survey introduces us [to] today's copyright scofflaws, who may be tomorrow's bold entrepreneurs. 9 out of 10 stars." —Wired

"Reading The Pirate's Dilemma is like stepping into a parallel universe [that is] vast and deep...Mason nimbly guides us through decades of the underground youth scene [in a] tour [that] is diverting and written in a pleasing patter...Something more...than a business book [and] more satisfying — more authentic, as he might put it — than most books that rave about the Web 2.0." -James Pressley, Newsday

"An attractive argument...A theory that's pro-technology, pro-money and pro-youth all at once [and Mason] does a good job of proving it...For once, someone is telling young people that we have power, and that we're not selfish and apathetic but demanding 'a more democratic strain of capitalism' while still looking out for our enlightened self-interest." —Nona Willis Aronowitz, The New York Observer

"Well-written, entertaining and highly original, Mason offers a fascinating view of the revolutionary forces shaping the world as we know it." —Publishers Weekly

"Smart and thought-provoking...Mason has crafted a fascinating primer on the intersection of piracy, youth culture, and business." --The Phoenix

"Mason, a writer for uber-hip magazine-cum-branding-effort VICE, offers up an entertaining thesis...For the executive's nightstand." —U.S. News and World Report

"Wacky and intriguing stories." —Fast Company, "Smart Books 2008"

The Barnes & Noble Review

Some authors lovingly refer to their books as their children. Matt Mason calls his book "static words printed on thin slices of dead tree brought to you by a large media company."

It's a wonder that Mason bothered to write a book at all. In The Pirate's Dilemma: How Youth Culture Is Reinventing Capitalism, the founding editor of British music magazine RWD and former pirate radio DJ in London declares that the old way of doing things is dying: corporations are in decline, local markets are thriving, and an evolved capitalism is driven as much by altruism as by the bottom line. The book is spirited and provocative, and reading it is a little like sitting next to your smart punk-rock nephew at Thanksgiving. He talks fast and doesn't always back up his points, but he's fun to hang out with and might even get you thinking.

Mason argues that today's pirates are building on the do-it-yourself ethos of punk and other youth cultures to usher in a new world order. His pirates include the guy selling bootleg DVDs of first-run films on New York's Canal Street, teenage music fans illegally downloading the latest Madonna single, and Yusuf Hamied, the doctor who stood up to the giant pharmaceutical companies by manufacturing generic AIDS drugs to sell on the cheap in developing nations. The dilemma cited in the title is whether business and government ought to fight pirates with lawsuits and regulation, or whether they ought to shift their tactics and learn from them instead.

Not surprisingly, Mason contends that embracing piracy, rather than policing it, is the smart decision, one that invigorates markets and leads to competition and innovation. "When pirates start to appear in a market, it's usually an indication that it isn't working properly," he writes. Take the case of pirate radio in the U.K. Mason calls Britain's 150 or so pirate radio stations "musical petri dishes" that have "spawned new genres and cultures for decades." Because pirate DJs cater to small niche audiences without any of the commercial pressures facing the corporate-sponsored radio stations, they are more open to experimenting and showcasing new talent; acid house, drum 'n' bass, and U.K. garage are just a few of the vibrant music scenes that started out on pirate frequencies before crossing over to the mainstream dial. Rather than engage in a losing battle with the pirate stations (new ones would pop up, whack-a-mole style, just as quickly as old ones were squashed), England's radio industry tolerates them: as Mason says, they understand that "pirate stations make our music better."

Compare the British example to the American music industry's response to file sharing. At a time when overall CD sales are down, the major labels and the Recording Industry Association of America have confronted the problem by litigating to shut down illegal downloading sites like Napster and, in an ill-conceived move (from a public relations standpoint at least), suing individual kids for pirating music. "If suing customers...becomes central to a company or industry's business model, then the truth is that that company or industry no longer has a competitive business model," Mason notes drily. Indeed, the tactic looks like the last gasp of a wheezing dinosaur; as Mason argues, "The CD market went into decline because it became an obsolete format, peddled by an out-of-touch industry too stubborn to change."

While the author acknowledges that "some acts of piracy are quite simply theft," he believes there's a better way to tackle the issue. He writes admiringly of Apple, which legitimized downloading by selling music online via iTunes; unlike CD sales, the legal download market is on the rise. Mason quotes Steve Jobs, Apple's co-founder and CEO, who told Newsweek, "If you want to stop piracy, the way to stop it is by competing with it." Indeed, there is ample evidence that new technology, properly harnessed, can be a boon for business. It didn't make it into the book, but in October the British band Radiohead released its seventh album, In Rainbows, as a digital download, allowing customers to pay whatever they wished to download a copy. When the CD had its physical release in stores this month, it claimed the No. 1 spot on the Billboard albums chart. In addition to pirate radio and file sharing, Mason offers many other examples of what he calls "punk capitalist" movements: open-source software developers who create free, user-generated content for the public good (think Linux and Wikipedia); bloggers, especially those who beat the mainstream news outlets to the major stories; remixers who mash up cultural products, creating new music, video games, and movies in defiance of copyright law.

One of the punk capitalist cultures the author treasures most is hip-hop. While critics have for years condemned rap for violent and misogynistic lyrics, Mason, ever the optimist, says (tongue only partially in cheek) that hip-hop has the potential to "bring about world peace." He observes that hip-hop culture has, since its inception, evolved constantly and stayed true to itself, selling realism and escapism at the same time. In its decentralization and ability to thrive in many localized versions around the world, Mason calls it "a model of how globalization should work." And with some of its biggest names, like Jay-Z, Diddy, and Russell Simmons, making both entrepreneurship and social activism cool, he sees an unprecedented opportunity. "Hip-hop has always been a radical disrupter, incredible entrepreneur, and social organizer," he writes. "But as it increasingly uses these three skills together for social purposes, we may see changes as radical and as exciting as hip-hop's commercial success stories."

He may not be so specific about these changes, but you can't fault him for lack of enthusiasm. Sometimes Mason makes broad, unsupported pronouncements whose opposite could just as easily be argued. (Is mass culture really "beginning to falter"?) Other times he seems to want to have it both ways, for example praising youth culture's revolutionary potential only to later express regret that it has "lost some of its value." Mason doesn't always have the answers, but his intriguing and entertaining book certainly raises timely, compelling questions. --Barbara Spindel

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York,, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

Readers' Reviews