good documentaries streaming on netflix (part 2)

I’m much less busy than I have been in recent months, so I want to get back in the habit of blogging regularly. I’ve been researching some new topics to blog about, but for now I’ll take the unoriginal approach of doing a new version of one of my older posts. A while ago, I wrote about five good documentaries that you can stream on Netflix. Since then, I have seen four more documentaries on Netflix that I would describe as “good.” I could inflate the goodness of another pretty good documentary, say Mitt, to make my list have a solid five films, but the only reason to do that would be because we use a base ten counting system and five is half of ten. Besides, I’m considering doing a post comparing Mitt to the superior 1993 film The War Room, which followed Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign (unfortunately, The War Room is unstreamable). Anyway, without further ado, here is my list:

the house I live in

Photo from BBC News.

I first learned about this film from an episode of This American Life (one of my favorite podcasts). The episode discussed how the director, Eugene Jarecki, had been showing the film, which is about the war on drugs and the criminal justice system, in prisons around the country. Both prisoners and staff members would watch the movie, and the folks at This American Life decided to use the film as a catalyst for a discussion between prisoners and guards. The film depicts stories from individuals affected by the drug war and how it has devastated poor communities. The film’s website says, “Over forty years, the War on Drugs has accounted for more than 45 million arrests, made America the world’s largest jailer, and damaged poor communities at home and abroad. Yet for all that, drugs are cheaper, purer, and more available today than ever before.” My favorite line in the movie is when David Simon, a former journalist and creator of HBO’s The Wire, explains, “It’d be one thing if it was draconian and it worked; it’s draconian and it doesn’t work…” Some of the most eye-opening parts of the film are when it explains how the history anti-drug laws has had a lot to do with race, the absurdly large difference between the minimum sentences for crack and powder cocaine, and the financial incentives for cops and police departments to put most of their efforts into drug offences.

Overall, The House I Live In is fantastic and I strongly encourage you to see it. You can click here to view the trailer.

dirty wars

Dirty Wars is an Oscar-nominated documentary that has won numerous awards. Even comedian Louis C.K. tweeted that all Americans should see it. The film is based on a book by investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, who previously authored a best-selling book on the private military group Blackwater. The film follows Scahill as he embarks on a journey that takes him to countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen. He starts by examining a NATO and US military cover-up of the deaths of five Afghan civilians with no terrorist connections, leading him to learn about the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), a highly covert military unit and the only one that reports directly to the White House. JSOC conducts night raids in Afghanistan, some of which are successful, while others result in the deaths of innocent people. Scahill discovers that in a three month period, about 1,700 night raids occurred. Later in the movie, Scahill explores the ideological transformation of American citizen Anwar al-Awlaki, a Muslim cleric who was originally against terrorism but then became a radical who called for violence against Americans. Both al-Awlaki and his son were subjects of targeted killings by the US. His son may have been killed for no reason other than because he had the potential to follow in his father’s footsteps, which Scahill calls, “A twisted logic; a logic without end.” Dirty Wars is a powerful film that makes the viewer question if America’s actions in the Middle East are doing more harm than good.

Not only is Dirty Wars an extremely important film, it lacks any dull moments and is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat as Scahill uncovers secrets of American covert operations. Click here to view the film’s trailer or here to watch the first few minutes of it.

we steal secrets: the story of wikileaks

WikiLeaks’ Logo

This is a good film for anyone wanting to learn about WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange. Prior to viewing the documentary, I knew little about Assange, WikiLeaks, or Chelsea Manning (formerly Bradley Manning), a soldier who leaked documents to the website. Director Alex Gibney chronicles the rise of WikiLeaks and how it published revealing documents on subjects ranging from an Icelandic banking collapse to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. What amazed me the most about WikiLeaks was how small of an organization it is. In an interview, WikiLeaks supporter Gavin MacFadyen described it as “a corner gas station with some extremely bright attendants.” Journalist Mark Davis said, “I see this story entirely as one man against the world. One man against the world.” He also stated, “It was Julian Assange, his $300 laptop, ten SIM cards and a very, you know, cheap jacket that he’d put on to get through the interview.”

The film received much criticism from WikiLeaks, which made an annotated version of the script, aiming to correct inaccuracies. However, the annotated script WikiLeaks originally published the day before the film’s release did not contain crucial on-screen internet conversations between Chelsea Manning and hacker Adrian Lamo, probably because WikiLeaks may have been using an audio recording instead of the actual screenplay. Gibney made his own annotations in response to the WikiLeaks annotations. While I did not read every annotation, the ones I reviewed seemed to generally show that many of the facts presented in the film which WikiLeaks perceived as inaccurate were not, in fact, inaccuracies. In my opinion, Assange was portrayed favorably, at least until the section of the film that deals with the sexual abuse allegations against him. I thought Manning was portrayed in an extremely positive light. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir writes,

Many people in Assange’s orbit appear to have convinced themselves that Gibney is in favor of prosecuting Manning and Assange, overtly or covertly supports the mainstream media campaign to demonize WikiLeaks and is a defender of government spying and secret-keeping. That either means that they haven’t listened to anything Gibney actually says or that they think he’s lying. While the film has received overwhelmingly positive reviews, it has only 4.3 stars out of 10 from IMDB users, a highly unusual split that may reflect an organized campaign by Assange supporters (whether or not they’ve actually seen the film).

Discussing WikiLeaks’ criticism of the film, Gibney said, “Instead of saying, ‘Go see this film and then read my commentary,’ it was, ‘Don’t see this film.’ Not exactly the transparency agenda.”

Click here to see the trailer.

the revisionaries

Abraham Lincoln once said, “The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”

The Revisionaries is a film about how some Religious Right members of the Texas school board, led by former chairman Don McLeroy, have attempted to bring intelligent design into science textbooks and alter history textbooks to express their own political beliefs. For example, they tried to remove the idea that the constitution supports the separation of church and state from history textbooks. The standards the Texas school board sets affect the entire nation, because as the film’s website explains,

Texas is one of the nation’s largest textbook markets because it is one of the few where the state decides what books schools can buy rather than leaving it up to local districts, which means publishers that get their books approved can count on millions of dollars in sales. Further, publishers craft their standard textbooks based on the requirements of the biggest buyers. As a result, the Texas board has the power to shape the textbooks that children around the country read for years to come. Varying estimates claim that between 45% and 85% of American classrooms use Texas state textbooks.

The film follows the conflict between board members and different groups trying to influence their decisions. It also tracks McLeroy’s reelection campaign.

Click here to view the trailer, which gives a very good idea of what the film is like.


how much money do artists make from itunes or streaming services

I decided to write this post after stumbling across an article in The Atlantic titled “How Musicians Really Make Money in One Long Graph.” It showed how many monthly sales or streams an artist would have to achieve in order to earn monthly minimum wage. The information, which came from was unbelievable. But not unbelievable as in really surprising or shocking–literally unbelievable. For example, the article said that an artist would need over 4,000,000 streams per month on Spotify to make monthly minimum wage. After doing more research, I found that this claim is untrue, at least in many situations. This post will focus on how money is made from music downloading and streaming because I doubt physical music has much of a future. Although physical music was more popular than purchasing downloads in 2012, physical sales declined a whopping 12.8%, according to The Huffington Post. This post will use information about Spotify, Pandora, and iTunes because they are the most popular online music services, even though using Pandora when Spotify exists is like using a typewriter when you have a computer. I didn’t actually bother to check the claim that those three are the most popular, but how many people do you know that use Napster or Amazon? (Yes, Napster is still a thing and it does streaming now.)

spotify’s royalties

Spotify is a music streaming service that offers users three options: listening for free on a computer with ads, paying $5 a month to listen without ads, or paying $10 for being able to also listen on mobile devices and download music. The actual formula for calculating royalty payments for Spotify is very complicated, but Rolling Stone gave the royalty arrangement of one band manager. In that situation, if a song is streamed 60 times, the songwriter receives 9 cents and the artist receives 38 cents, which is then split with the label depending on the contract. Using the Rolling Stone rates, I calculated that an artist would make over $25,000, which would be split with a label, if people streamed their songs 4,053,110 times, the amount the Atlantic article says would be needed to make monthly minimum wage. I also calculated the combined amount that an artist and label would make using the Atlantic rates, which was over $7,500, less than a third of the money Rolling Stone reported would be made. Since the actual Spotify royalty formula is extremely complicated and is different for different artists, I checked a couple other sources to get an idea of which figure was generally more accurate. According to NPR, Erin McKeown, who doesn’t have a label, gets $0.004 per play, which means she would make over $16,000 if her music was streamed 4,053,110 times. A second Atlantic article, which came out after the unbelievable one, talks about how cellist Zoë Keating’s songs had been streamed 72,800 times and she only made $281.87, meaning she makes around $0.0039 per play, almost identical to the amount McKeown is payed (note that Keating’s figures are after CD Baby’s 9% commission). In a 2011 blog post titled “Spot the Spotify Payment,” independent artist David Harrell writes,

Without any promotion in the regions where Spotify is currently available, our total number of plays is relatively small, though our Spotify activity seems to be increasing each month. The per-spin payouts we receive via CD Baby are quite variable, ranging from around two hundredths of cent to more than one cent for each stream. (We also had a few spins that rounded out to ‘$0.00000000’ after CD Baby’s commission.) I’m assuming the payout amount depends on free vs. premium listens, as well the subscription prices in each region and currency exchange rates.

Harrell says that he made an average of approximately $0.0029 per play from August 2009 to March 2011 before CD Baby’s 9% commission, meaning he would make about $10,500 if his music was streamed the amount of times the first Atlantic article claimed was required to make monthly minimum wage (Harrell later made an updated post where he said the average payment for stream in June, 2012 was around $0.008). Just to clarify, McKeown, Keating, and Harrell are all independent artists. According to Keating:

Spotify does not pay the same per play to Indie rights holders as it does to Major labels. Majors are shareholders in Spotify and their deals are confidential. That matters to me, but doesn’t seem to matter to others.

Therefore, I can’t disprove the original Atlantic article, but the fact that information from three indie artists and Rolling Stone provide much higher royalty situations at least demonstrates that the Atlantic article greatly oversimplified Spotify’s royalty agreements. Also, it is important to mention that a 2013 New York Times article said the following about Spotify’s rates, further explaining how complicated the company’s payment methods are:

Spotify declined to comment on its rates, but according to a number of music executives who have negotiated with the company, it generally pays 0.5 to 0.7 cent a stream (or $5,000 to $7,000 per million plays) for its paid tier, and as much as 90 percent less for its free tier.

is spotify bad for artists?

Keating says she made over $45,000 dollars on iTunes from October 2011 to March 2012, the same time period when she made less than $300 on Spotify. Does this mean artists shouldn’t use the service? Not necessarily. Keating also explains:

I think Spotify is awesome as a listening platform. In my opinion artists should be view it as a discovery service, rather than a source of income. […] I wish Spotify would do more to facilitate the connection between listeners and artists — i.e show that the artist is playing nearby, or add links to buy music. It’s early days, so maybe this will happen eventually. [sic]

I know Spotify currently provides concert notifications because I can see them on my own account. There are other arguments to why Spotify is good for artists as well. For example, it could decrease the amount of piracy because people can stream as much music as they want on their computer for free, although there are ads. Also, it can lead people to listen to more obscure tracks that they otherwise wouldn’t download. I know this from my personal experience. Before I used Spotify, I would rarely buy music from iTunes, opting instead for using Pandora. When I did buy music from iTunes, I usually only purchased my favorite tracks from my favorite artists. With Spotify, I listen to many of my favorite artists’ less popular songs that I would not have purchased on iTunes and likely wouldn’t have shown up on Pandora. In general, I listen to much more music now that I have Spotify than when I used Pandora and iTunes. People being exposed to a greater amount and variety of music means that they are probably more likely to attend live shows.


Rolling Stone explains how iTunes works in this simple image:

The data is based on if an artist receives 16% of sales. Rolling Stone says that artists generally get 12-20% of sales, depending on their popularity. It is also important to note that an artist would get $0.89 if they were not on a label. iTunes does not only use $1.29 downloads, though. The aforementioned New York Times article says that “[o]n a 99-cent download, a typical artist may earn 7 to 10 cents after deductions for the retailer, the record company and the songwriter, music executives say.” However, that download is not specified to be from iTunes.


Rolling Stone explains how Pandora pays royalties:

The rates go up every year, but the broad formula is that big ‘pure play’ companies, such as Pandora and Slacker, pay either 25 percent of their total revenue per year, or a little more than $.001 per song — whichever is greater. These payments go to a music-business collection agency known as SoundExchange, which then pays 50 percent of it to the copyright owner (usually a record label like Warner or Sony), 45 percent to the artist and 5 percent to non-featured performers. Smaller Internet radio companies pay slightly lower rates.

They also provide a graphic to illustrate this concept.

If you want to learn more about how artists make money in today’s complicated music industry, I recommend checking out David Harrell’s blog and The latter site provides very in-depth information on how musicians make money.

Update: Since I wrote this post well over a year ago, there have been many more interesting articles written on this subject. Also, many celebrity musicians have weighed in on whether Spotify and other streaming services are good for the industry. Here are a few of the most notable celebrity opinions about Spotify, Pandora, etc.:

  • Taylor Swift pulled her entire catalog from Spotify. Her label claims that she earned less than $500,000 for US streams from the service in the 12 months prior to her music’s removal, less than she would make by selling 50,000 albums. Spotify says that she was paid $2 million for worldwide streams and would have been able to make $6 million a year if she stayed with the service.
  • Bette Midler made an anti-streaming tweet that got a lot of attention. However, her royalties do not seem typical; if you use the Pandora royalty rates from the Rolling Stone article, Midler should have made around $1,880. A Pandora spokesperson said that the company paid over $6,400 for Midler’s streams (I assume the spokesperson is referring to the total payment before it was divided between Midler and the label). I don’t know why Midler reports that her royalties were so low. Maybe she is in a bad situation with her label.

  • Comedian Joe Mande criticized Spotify’s low royalties on Twitter.

  • Nigel Godrich and Thom Yorke of Atoms for Peace made a series of tweets explaining why they’re pulling music off of Spotify. In an interview, Yorke called Spotify the “last desperate fart of a dying corpse.” Yorke’s other band, Radiohead, self-released their 2007 album online and let fans pay any price for it.
  • Laura Sheeran, Ed Sheeran’s cousin, removed her music from Spotify after she made only £10.84 (about $16) for 40,000 streams.
  • Bono defended Spotify by saying, “I see streaming services as quite exciting ways to get to people. In the end, that’s what we want for U2 songs.”
  • Ed Sheeran said he supports streaming services because they give exposure to his work, which makes it more likely that people will go to his shows.
  • David Lowery of the band Cracker says that he was paid only $16.89 for over a million streams on Pandora of the song “Low,” which he owns 40% of. Using the Rolling Stone rates, he would have been paid a little over $200, so either Rolling Stone‘s or Lowery’s rates are inaccurate.
  • Aloe Blacc, who co-wrote and sang Avicii’s hit song “Wake Me Up,” wrote a piece in Wired calling for streaming services to “pay songwriters fairly.” He says that he was paid less than $4,000 by Pandora for co-writing the song, which was streamed over 168 million times in America. However, Pandora says it paid $250,000 to rights holders for “Wake Me Up,” so Blacc’s low royalties must be due to the way the money is split between the rights holders.
  • Jay-Z will likely acquire Aspiro, which owns both WiMP, a Scandinavian streaming service, and Tidal, the US and UK version of WiMP. Jay-Z’s company will pay $56 million if the deal goes through.

more interesting articles on streaming services

  • Streaming is credited with dramatically reducing the amount of music piracy in Norway. An International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) study showed that in 2009, 80% of Norwegians under 30 downloaded music illegally; in 2014, the rate had decreased to 4%. In the first half of 2013, total music sales in Norway increased by 17%, thanks to streaming.
  • Spotify now has a website called Spotify Artists, which explains the company’s royalty policy in detail. Spotify says that, on average, artists earn around $0.006 to $0.0084 per stream. (These rates mean that Laura Sheeran should have made around $240-$336 for 40,000 streams, instead of merely $16.) However, the company stresses that it does not pay a fixed royalty for every stream a song gets. The image below shows Spotify’s formula for paying out royalties. Since the label or publisher is paid royalties from Spotify and it then distributes them to the artist, the amount of money an artist makes from streaming varies depending on the artist’s contract.
  • Time calculated the Spotify royalties for the most popular songs of 2014.
  • Cuepoint, a music blog, published an article with suggestions on how to improve Spotify’s royalty system. The author suggests that profits from users with paid subscriptions should be divided between only the artists that those users listened to. For example, if a user with a paid subscription listens to an obscure death metal band one time and then never uses the service again, that band should get all of the money from that user, instead of it being divided among all of the artists on Spotify, including ones that the user never played. Another blogger, Brendan Moore, made a post explaining what the new payout to artists would be from his subscription to Rdio, a streaming service similar to Spotify, if the company adopted the proposed royalty model.

If you’re interested in this subject and have a lot of time on your hands, you can read some of The Guardian‘s ten recommended articles about Spotify. If you really have a lot of time on your hands, you can read a 25-page essay by Aram Sinnreich, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, called “Slicing the Pie: The Search for an Equitable Recorded Music Economy.”

If you liked this post, you may want to check out my post on how movie theaters make money and if they should change their pricing system.

five documentaries streaming on netflix that are actually good

If you’re ever in the mood for some enjoyable, yet intellectually-stimulating entertainment, I recommend taking a look at any of the following five documentaries, all of which can be streamed on Netflix. Also, if you think watching documentaries is a tiresome activity, these films will likely convert you.

banksy’s exit through the gift shop

Before I watched this film, I remember skimming its plot summary on Wikipedia and being greatly confused as to what it was actually about. Simply put, Exit Through The Gift Shop is a film so genius and unconventional that I feel that a brief summary will not be able to encompass the gist of the film, but I’ll try anyway. Thierry Guetta, a French emigrant residing in Los Angeles, videotapes everything he can and starts videotaping street artists at work after being introduced to street art by his cousin, an artist known as Space Invader. He starts filming artists like Shepard Fairey and eventually meets the renowned graffiti artist who goes by the name of Banksy. He constantly films Banksy’s work, which he claims is part of a documentary he is making. Although Guetta didn’t initially plan to make the film, he attempts to do so after Bansky tells him to. The outcome of Guetta’s project is horrendous, and Banksy takes over the daunting task of completing the movie. During this time, Guetta reinvents himself as the artist Mr. Brainwash, and holds an extremely successful art exhibition. The film is very informative about the world of street art and also explores ideas about what makes art great and what it takes to be a successful artist. The film does not try to push a certain perspective on the viewer, but instead lets him or her make up their own mind as to what the message of the film is. Toward the documentary’s end, Banksy, whose face is not shown and speaks with a distorted voice explains:

I don’t know what it means; Thierry’s huge success and arrival in the art world. I mean, maybe Thierry was a genius all along. Maybe he got a bit lucky. Maybe it means art is a bit of a joke…I don’t think Thierry played by the rules, in some ways. But then, there aren’t supposed to be any rules, so I don’t really know what the moral is. I mean, I always used to encourage everyone I met to make art. I used to think everyone should do it. I don’t really do that so much anymore.

Click here to view the trailer, which is hilarious and one of the best trailers I’ve ever seen.

the imposter

theimposterNicholas Barclay, a Texan boy who went missing at age 13, was found in Spain three and a half years later. His family took him into their home and believed with certainty that he was who he said he was. However, the boy, or rather man, who claimed to be Nicholas was actually Frédéric Bourdin, a 23 year old man from France who did not actually look very much like Nicholas and spoke with an accent. How did Bourdin, who was found to be an imposter by a private investigator, successfully deceive the American Embassy, the FBI, and Nicholas’ family? You’ll just have to watch the film, which includes interviews with Bourdin and Nicholas’ relatives, to learn more. Click here to watch the trailer.

the thin blue line

thinbluelineThe Thin Blue Line is “the first movie mystery to actually solve a murder.” The film led to the release of Randall Adams, a man who had been sentenced to life in prison and previously sentenced to death for the murder of a police officer. Director Errol Morris’ research points to the conclusion that the real murderer was David Harris, who committed many crimes after the murder including another murder. One of the main causes of Adams’ conviction was that three witnesses committed perjury. The documentary’s style of using reenactments and interviews was very innovative for the time. Click here and here to read more about the film and murder case.

hoop dreams

Hoop_DreamsRoger Ebert considered Hoop Dreams to be the best film of the 1990s. For six years, the film follows two inner-city boys, William Gates and Arthur Agee, who both have ambitions to play professional basketball. The boys and their families experience many unexpected twists and turns in their journey, most of them being for the worse. For example, Arthur gets a scholarship to a private school and is then loses it, resulting in his family having to pay a debt in order for him to receive his transcripts; William struggles with injuries throughout the film; and Arthur’s mother deals with losing a job, her husband leaving the family and then returning, and chronic back pain. In addition, both boys try to get college scholarships. The many themes the film explores include family, poverty, and race. In his excellent review of the film, Robert Ebert writes:

No screenwriter would dare write this story; it is drama and melodrama, packaged with outrage and moments that make you want to cry. “Hoop Dreams” (1994) has the form of a sports documentary, but along the way it becomes a revealing and heartbreaking story about life in America. When the filmmakers began, they planned to make a 30-minute film about eighth-graders being recruited from inner-city playgrounds to play for suburban schools. Their film eventually encompassed six years, involved 250 hours of footage, and found a reversal of fortunes they could not possibly have anticipated.


kumareKumare is “the true story of a false prophet.” Vikram Gandhi, a first-generation American, was frustrated with people posing as spiritual leaders and wanted to understand why these fake gurus were becoming popular in the West. To answer this question, he reinvented himself as the guru Sri Kumare. To make himself look like a guru he grew out his hair, made up fake yoga poses and chants, spoke in an accent, and dressed in simple clothing. Gandhi’s results are very impressive–he gains many dedicated followers who greatly value his made-up teachings. Throughout the film, his followers, who often are seeking Kumare’s help to deal with personal problems, seem to actually benefit from the false prophet’s guidance. At the end of the film, Gandhi reveals to his followers that he had been deceiving them, and their reactions may surprise you. Click here to read an article on the film and here to view the film’s trailer.