Sandhill Trek Interview:  Ryan Irelan…

Sandhill Trek Interview:  Ryan Irelan… Becoming

A few weeks ago, Ryan Irelan wondered when there would be another Sandhill Trek interview. I asked him if he’d like to be the subject. “Only if I can write it off as a business expense,” he said.

“That would be between you, your conscience and the Internal Revenue Circus. We are, after all, professionals,”

I replied.

“Alright, Frank. I’m only doing it as a major publicity stunt (that and because you linked to my cat)… I’m unemployed, so I have nothing but time.”

And we were off and running.

Sandhill Trek:

On April 28th Steve Jobs quoted Hunter S. Thompson as follows, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.”

I understand people are lining up to trade little green pictures of George Washington for bits that when properly rendered sound a lot like music. Was Jobs trying to be funny do you think, or was he just telling it like it is?

Ryan Irelan:

There’s nothing funny about the music business. But I am sure I do not have to convince anyone of this. DRM and the alienation of customers by the RIAA is enough. The “war on piracy” and the other doings of the RIAA only scratch the surface of a severely corrupt and wretched industry.

I have had some very good friends get baited, hooked and clubbed by the music biz. They worked hard to make it and eventually signed a record deal with Elektra Records. A bundle of money was thrown at them and they lived the hard, edgy rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. While they were never really required to repay the money the record company advanced them, it wasn’t for free. They, much like hookers, gave up a bit of their freedom to the record company, the pimps, with great hope of making it “big time.”

I’ve been pimped out myself. In between my first stint at college and my time in Germany I worked as a sound engineer for a few local bands, some of which were signed to an indie label. The label folks always stalled on paying me for my work, holding the metaphorical carrot in front of my face, wanting me to sacrifice for the good of the band, which would ultimately “benefit” me (Side note: it never did). I cannot even count how many times I worked for free; sometimes it even cost me money. I often traveled at my cost, many times not even receiving a per diem to cover my meals. One trip to SXSW cost me hundreds of dollars. Sure, I was dumb. But I was also young and willing to take a risk. That’s where they get you, in your youth.

(But a few of those risks also brought some unique opportunities. Most notably the time I met D.J. Fontana and Scotty Moore, the original drummer and guitarist for Elvis. I will never forget sitting in the dark, plush control room of a Nashville studio watching Scotty Moore play the historical guitar lick from Heartbreak Hotel. Only earlier to have listened to D.J Fontana, during an interview with a reporter from Drummer Magazine, tell hilarious stories about Elvis. It was amazing.)

In short, the music biz isn’t just corrupt at the upper levels in LA or NYC. It’s clearly infected all the way down to the roots, because everyone will do anything to move up, make more money and get better coke. It’s really all about coke.

There’s only one thing worse than the music industry, the Christian music industry. Just take my word.

(For an interesting, though somewhat predictable, take on the music biz pick up Tom Petty’s latest album “The Last DJ.”)

But back to Apple and their music store.

I think the interesting question is why did the record execs work so willingly with Apple in setting up the music store? Why does it appear that the labels have had a seemingly sudden change of heart? It’s simple. Mac users aren’t “pirates.” They figure that anyone who will pay so much money for a computer and then for the software has to either a) be an idiot or b) be a honest hard working person who is willing to fully participate in the capitalistic wet dream of big corps.

You pick the answer.

Mac users are the perfect audience for this type of service and its no surprise that is has been so successful. They are willing to spend gobs of money on anything that Steve Jobs personally promotes, citing it as “the next best thing.” Sure, the Mac community is very cultist-like but I’m sure any user group that is only 5% of the overall pie would also seem cultist. Look at the Southern Baptists, for example (ooops, did I say that?). So, the success of the Apple Music Store (over 1 million downloads in the first week) seems a no-brainer.

ST:

I understand that school’s out and the job market is a little bleak… what did you study? What degree did you take? Any plans to leave North Carolina? When did you marry? Any children?

RI:

Let’s start with the basics, shall we? I was born on April 26, 1975 in Newton, New Jersey to a large family (I have 4 sisters and one brother). Yes, I am the youngest. I had the exhilarating experience of growing up in Freehold, NJ, the hometown of Bruce Springsteen, living what I like to call a Leave it to Beaver (or maybe even Brady Bunch) life. I have a fine family and some very tolerant parents. I would conjecture that I was not the easiest kid to bring up, what being the youngest and all.

I was very different than the rest of my siblings and always took the “path less traveled,” which more times not was also the most difficult. All of my siblings have at least a bachelor’s degree; the youngest sister has a master’s of divinity and is an ordained pastor.

After a less than stellar high school career, I enrolled in the local community college with a major in music theory. I learned my theory and clapped by rhythms and then, after two semesters, transferred to Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) in Murfreesboro, TN, which is about 30 miles outside of Nashville. At MTSU I studied (in this order):  Recording Industry, Photography and German.

Recording Industry was, much to your surprise, I’m sure, a complete farce of a major. Recording engineers are smart, skilled folks. However, the university attempted to train students how to be a perfect ear, while at the same time holding them to many traditional college requirements. The mix didn’t work for me at all. So I ditched it and moved to photography, where I could actually get hands-on quickly and hassled less. As a photography major I spent countless hours in the darkroom breathing in chemicals and the like, going through expensive print paper by the boxful. It was fun and I was pretty good at it.

This was an incredibly impressionable time for me and I, like many, defined my life with the lyrics and musical genius of Springsteen, Dylan, Petty, et al. One of my mottos was the Springsteen lyric that went thus: “We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school.”

After two semesters of photography I quit school (but not photographing) and became a full time pizza delivery engineer. I survived the hot and humid Tennessee summers in my ’85 Nissan pickup truck, with no A/C and sticky vinyl seats. Oh the goodle days. In the evenings I would “run sound” for local bands in any number of smoke-filled, beer-spilled bars in Murfreesboro and Nashville. I had a few opportunities to travel with the bands; once to CMJ in NYC and to SXSW in Austin. Despite the lack of funding and a real over-anxious prick for a road manager, both trips were great times. In NYC the label actually put us up in a nice hotel off of Times Square. We thought we were living the high life. Ha!

So the life of a pizza boy and music moonlighter went on until December of 1997, however my focus changed in February of the same year. That’s when I met a girl.

I always told my friends that the last place they should seek a mate is in a bar. I won’t get into the intricacies of my theory on bar chicks, but suffice it to say that what goes around comes around; again and again and again. I bring this up because I, the preacher of the anti-bar girl gospel, met my wife, Alexandra, in a bar. But wait! This was different.

She was in the country (she’s from Germany) visiting a friend who attended the same college I did (although at this time I was well into my dropout phase). Consequently we also shared some common friends, so we were introduced during the show. The first thing she said to me was “what are you doing?”; referring to the large mixing board in front of me. I fell for her immediately and we started dating about a month later.

Alexandra stayed for three months, but returned a month later to visit again. I then visited her in Germany and a few months after that we met in Miami Beach. Exhausted from the long distance relationship, I sucked in my gut, packed up my stuff and moved to Germany. Best damn thing I ever did.

Ah, but there was a slight problem. The only thing I knew how to say in German was that I like to bite my fingernails. That, I told myself, would not get me very far.

I enrolled in an intensive four-day a week German class at the local adult learning school (Volkshochschule) and less than a year later I was fluent. Yeah, it shocked me as well.

While living in Germany I also worked a few odd jobs. I worked at an American Sports Bar, a popular fast-food establishment and, my favorite, as part-time freelance photographer at a regional newspaper.

A little more than a year and a half after I moved to Germany, on July 16, 1999, Alexandra and I were married in a small, stone, 400 year-old chapel across the street from the house that her grandfather built after returning from WWII. A few weeks after the wedding I returned to the U.S. to reenroll in school, majoring in German, and Alex joined me in October after her paperwork with the INS cleared.

I took two years to finish up my bachelor’s degree and applied and was accepted into three graduate programs in German literature (UNC Chapel Hill, UW Madison and UT Austin). For various reasons I chose Carolina for my graduate studies and began in the Fall 2001.

I just completed my M.A. in German Literature at UNC and, as you correctly write, am looking for a job. We will be staying in North Carolina for at least a year, as Alex has only been at her job for a year and would like to stay for the time being (not to mention she has great health insurance).

Alexandra and I are avid travelers and with her working for an airline with all the perks and privileges, we’ve been enjoying visiting different cities, one of most favorite being Chicago. Because of hellish schedule during grad school, she’s taken much more advantage of the flying privileges.

So, you want to know if we have kids? Last August we adopted a kitten from the shelter, named Marley, and he’s been our only venture into parenting as of yet. Marley has had some fairly serious medical problems this year which has been difficult, to say the least, but eased somewhat by the kindness and generosity of webloggers, with many of whom I had never previously corresponded. It was a truly awesome outpouring of generosity.

ST:

Analysts suggest that for many years a religious war has been fought on the frontiers of information technology — Apple advocates versus IBM fanatics. If you had to pick sides, I imagine you’d be posted out in the orchard somewhere. My question is, does one have to pick sides, and if so, why did you pick Apple? (This is a trick question… see the Book of Genesis for historical context).

RI:

Regarding my choice in computing devices, you should know that I purchased my first Mac only last February and I still own a rather bulky, ugly, beige, loud Dell desktop computer. So, you can attempt to paint me into the corner of avid Mac fan (which I no doubt am), however I am no Mac groupie, hanging on Jobs’s every word. First of all, I ain’t got the freakin’ cash and secondly, I refuse to turn into whiney old bastards like the mid-lifer’s at my local Mac User Group meeting. They’re totally pathetic at times.

But if I had to really choose? I would pick my iBook. I’ve never been much of saint, so why start now?

ST:

Ryan, the new Dells are black and they run fast and silent. I have a Dimension 4550 looking at me from the corner, waiting for me to get the monitor sharing switch hooked up. The old monitor I’ll be sharing remains quite beige.

RI:

A good friend of mine also has a slick new Dell. They are pretty nice. Thanks to Apple for leading the way. I have to say, I’ve had my Dell for almost three years and it has only had one issue with the power supply. It has been a reliable machine.

ST:

SXSW… did you go down there for the music and possibly stay for the tech? Or not. I’ve wanted to look into that event for years, but I either have the time and no money or vice versa.

RI:

I went to SXSW purely for the music. This was in 1997, so I don’t know if the tech portion was already underway. From what I’ve heard the tech portion of SXSW is very cliquey and high schoolish. If you do go, hang around the music scene. The people are most likely much cooler and who could pass up some great music?

ST:

I’m thinking that now must be the worst possible time to be job hunting in the pop music/German/photography fields. Have you thought about abandoning the job hunt and plowing on for a “terminal” degree?

RI:

Yes, it is a horrible time to look for a job. I originally planned on getting my PhD but for a variety of reasons decided not to continue. I’m somewhat worn out from the rigors of graduate school and was not completely happy at the university. Perhaps one day I will continue and earn my doctorate, however first I will take a break and explore some other options.

I don’t plan on working as a photographer or in music. I also have no plans to continue teaching German.

To be honest I have a pile of other things I’d rather do right now than continue on into a PhD program. I have not ruled it out completely, but it’s no longer a priority.

My experience in grad school has really cut me off from many other things and people I enjoy, and it has narrowed my viewpoint or angle, especially when reflecting back upon my own accomplishments and myself. The whole nature of graduate work (I can only speak from personal experience) has squelched my creativity, strained relationships and just made me simply less happy than I was before.

For me grad school was all consuming. I lived in a very tiny world and everything I said, wrote and did was judged only within the context of the graduate program. It is a suffocating life.

But I’m glad I did it.

ST:

I’ll be in Chicago for the Digital Genres thing. I hope I get to meet you there. You might want to sell this to your accountant and CEO as a job search opportunity with some get-away time for the two of you!

RI:

I hope to return to Chicago at the end of this month. The only two things that might prevent me from attending Alex Golub’s Digital Genres conference are a possible job and not having a job. I can fly there for free, but the costs of staying the weekend may be more than what my accountant (read: wife) deems acceptable for my unemployed arse. So, we’ll see. It would be splendid to be in Chicago again and meet some of the interesting people that are attending the conference.

ST: I see you blogged recently about the purpose of academia being higher, nobler, than the commonly held vision that a University exists to improve markets… train the engineers, the product specialists, the businesspeople. A University you think exists also to cultivate some higher understanding. Would you care to elaborate on this… to put into your words instead of mine? I generally agree with the idea, but there has been a real and growing polarization for decades.

RI:

I almost pulled my post about the role of the university because I think it’s, well, crap. I have a very naive view of the university. I’m an educational idealist, if that makes sense. Basically what I wrote in that post was very unfocused (which is probably why you are asking me about it) and I still have no idea how to express my thoughts on it except to say that no matter what people say or do to pervert the university system, higher education will always serve a greater purpose, almost as if it is inherent in its nature to do so. It happens automatically, almost by default. Oy, I’m treading on some dangerous philosophical ground here.

ST:

What do you want to do when you grow up?

RI:

Retire.

ST:

I read on a bumper sticker on the way home tonight: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” How do you, a freshly minted scholar, feel about that? Or rather perhaps, what do you think about it?

RI:

I think it’s complete crap. That statement is also saying that knowledge and imagination do not coexist, which is a something of a logical fallacy, don’t you think?

ST:

Yup. I think knowledge fuels imagination which is why I am very glad that I know everything! I’m wondering about the prospects for sushi in Chapel Hill? Seems like the weather may be a little warm for raw fish, but do you find it so?

RI:

Ahhh…Sushi. Off the top of my head I can count about six different places to get sushi (none chain restaurants) within 3 miles from my apartment. My favorite place to eat sushi is Kurama Sushi and Noodle Express, which boasts a rotating sushi bar and is packed full during lunch hours. I’m not sure how it is elsewhere, but here you can buy fresh sushi at almost any quality grocery store or market. I routinely pick up a mixed box of sushi when in the grocery store. I’ve even converted the traditional German palette of my wife to sushi, although she doesn’t venture into the raw fish area.

ST:

I’m curious regarding your sense of the commercial value of your photography. Have you made any large prints of the Luebeck architecture and peddled them in art houses and art fairs and such?

RI:

The only time that I have ever earned money for my photography was as a freelancer in Germany. I have naturally toyed with the idea of peddling my work but have never really put the effort into it. Perhaps this is the time to do such a thing. I’m assuming you’ll want to place the first order?

ST:

I was just over at Turner’s voice mail and I heard your telemarketing message for the “Blog Wonder” product. I wonder if you can tell me a little more about how this product has helped bloggers world-wide to reach out to dozens of like minded people with the skill of actual multi-media professionals? Also, are there any multi-level marketing opportunities here? I might want to get in near the ground floor.

RI:

BlogWonder is an all-in-one, all-in-wonder, weblogging tool that can turn your weblog into a international hit. There is no technical expertise needed because BlogWonder comes ready to roll and you’ll be online and publishing the next Scripting News in less than 30 seconds. Can you believe that?

In the interest of moving product I have to remain vague regarding the details. If not you will catch on that the package only contains pigeon poop, an AOL CD and assorted Jolly Ranchers from 1985.

I never thought about making the BlogWonder phenomenon a multi-level marketing scam opportunity. If I do initiate such a deal, you’ll be the first to know. However if you would like to help out BlogWonder Inc. is searching for financial backers. I envision a first round of funding to consist of a twelve pack of Dos Equis, an extra large veggie pizza and two boxes of honey butter microwave popcorn. Oh and 4 lbs of Peet’s Major Dickason Blend.

ST:

Tonight there’s a total eclipse of a full moon, David Weinberger is waxing virtually epistemological at AKMA’s school, and the Matrix sequel is opening. Three splendid entertainment opportunities and yet Beth and I are going upstairs to read in bed. (We’ll go look at the moon from the balcony from time to time though).

Do you plan to see “The Matrix – Reloaded?”

RI:

Eventually I will go see The Matrix – Reloaded, although the initial reports from the Blogosphere are far from glowing. I very rarely go see films on opening night. I like to see them on a Monday matinee when the theater is empty. As a kid I waited in line to see Karate Kid 2. In hindsight I realize what a terrible decision that was.

Last year I was in LA and I went to Universal City Walk and saw Austin Powers 3 on opening night. It was crazy. The theater had about twenty theaters and 15 were playing Austin Powers and you still had to go a couple of hours ahead to get a ticket. We got there a bit late and had to sit close to the front. Then about 20 minutes into the movie this guy and girl in the row in front of us began to argue (they didn’t know each other). I later find out that she told him to stop laughing so loud and that set him off. It was quite a scene. It was a good movie. I bought it on DVD and watch it when I need a good laugh. Have you seen it?

It’s raining and cloudy here tonight, so I don’t think I’ll be able to see the eclipse. Damn shame too.

ST:

If you had to pick a movie or two that provide references for your real life, what would they be?

RI:

That’s simple. Easy Rider, The Big Lebowski and High Fidelity. This is subject to change.

ST:

I’ve heard it said that the Chicago Cubs can’t have a website because they can’t put three W’s together. Have you heard that?  maybe it wasn’t the Cubs… maybe it was UNC.

RI:

Huh? But I’m laughing only because I think it is supposed to be funny.

ST:

I’ve been stewing over the post-Modernism complexity that so many of the heavy thinkers whose opinions I value are stirring into our soup. What do you have to say about this topic that will make it easy for me to understand?

RI:

I’m still on the exit ramp from a rough and tough semester writing a master’s thesis on eighteenth-century German theater, so at the moment I am not in the position to enlighten anyone on the finer points of Post-Modernism. However, I do have a book on my desk on the very subject matter. I plan to read it this summer. It’s called “After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism” by Andreas Huyssen. It was given to me by a professor. We had plans to work together on technology and German literature. It is still a project I’m interested, but I will now do it on my own. I’ll always have library privileges.

ST:

How did you and Alex celebrate your most recent anniversary?

RI:

I surprised her and took her to the North Carolina Zoological Gardens. She always wanted to go, even in Tennessee, and for some reason we never made it. This year is our fourth anniversary and I’ve yet to figure something out.

ST:

And if the earth really rests on the back of a turtle and that turtle stands on a turtle is it safe to assume that it’s turtles all the way down?

RI:

No. I would have to see a pattern of at least 6 turtles.

ST:

That’s pretty definitive. I hope you’ve enjoyed this exchange as much as I have!

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