The crowds are so thick in Austin, Texas, that locals are using an Avoid Humans app to find some peace and quiet, and the warning at the convention center of South By Southwest Interactive goes something like this: "Only one person per escalator step OR YOU WILL BREAK IT!"
So it goes at this sprawling showcase of startups and big ideas. Naturally, the broadcast television disruptor, Aereo, timed the launch of its Austin service to South By Southwest just as the Supreme Court decided to take up a dispute between the startup and big broadcasters.
At issue is whether Aereo, under U.S. copyright law, can continue to avoid paying license fees to rebroadcast content as it brings live, broadcast television through its tiny antennas. The service allows users in 13 cities to watch broadcast TV online, for $8 a month.
Broadcasters call it theft, the Justice Department backed them up, and soon, the high court will hear the case.
"We urged the court to take the case as well, which is unusual," said Aereo's founder and CEO, Chet Kanojia, during an interview in Austin. "But we did it simply because it was very obvious that the strategy for the other side was to kill us by suing us in every possible jurisdiction. It's better strategically for us to force the issue now."
It could have serious ramifications for the way we watch TV, and more immediately, what kinds of sports and programming we can get on TV, as The New Yorker lays out:
"Whatever the reason for the Court's interest, the broadcast networks and their partners have warned that they are not above holding their programming hostage if Aereo prevails. In an amicus brief supporting the networks, the National Football League and Major League Baseball argue that Aereo's business model jeopardizes billions of dollars in license fees. The leagues say that they will have to consider removing their games from the public airwaves and placing them exclusively on cable to keep them away from Aereo's antennae."
Kanojia argues he's on the side of the progress. "This is not a company started just to we could milk a situation," he says. "We firmly believe in the idea that change and progress should be made. There is no logic in me paying for 500 channels that I don't watch. There is no incentive on the incumbents to change, so it takes somebody like us, or the Dish guys are great, too, to come in and say, this is the trend, life is changing. The Internet is happening to us whether we like it or not."
When asked whether he has a contingency plan if the Supreme Court rules against his company, Kanojia simply said, "No."
In 2009, a major corruption scandal dubbed "Kids for Cash" hit the juvenile justice system of northeast Pennsylvania.
Two local judges had been enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for bad behavior by kids. Even minor offenses, like fighting in school or underage drinking, could mean hard time in a juvenile detention facility.
Federal prosecutors alleged the judges were actually getting kickbacks from those private detention facilities. They said the judges kept the juvenile detention centers full, and received cash in return.
Both judges are now serving time in federal prison, but a new documentary called Kids for Cash is re-examining the case.
"I wanted these kids to think that I was the biggest SOB that ever lived," says former Judge Mark Ciavarella in the film. "I wanted them to be scared out of their minds when they had to deal with me. Because I was hoping, because of that, they would never put themselves again where they would have to come and deal with me."
Robert May directed the film, which features interviews with some of the kids involved — and both of the judges.
"We weren't even going to make the movie unless we could really tell the story from the villain and the victims' side," May tells NPR's Arun Rath.
On working with the "villains" of the film
When I first met with Mark Ciavarella and approached him on the idea of doing this film ... I had to make sure that he understood that he was the villain, and he said that he was. He ultimately agreed to do the film, but he did not want to tell his attorneys that he was actually participating in the film. That was the same with Judge Conahan. And I think that was the first peering into how important they thought it was, perhaps, to tell their side of the story.
On Judge Ciavarella's zero-tolerance policy
He ran on a platform in 1995 of being tough on juvenile crime and ... was elected in 1996 for his zero-tolerance position. And he was re-elected again for a second 10-year term.
The community applauded him. Schools applauded him. Police applauded him. He would go into schools and he would warn kids, "If you come before me, I will send you away." And so schools invited him year after year to come in and talk to them.
So when a kid came before him and there was a "school crime" — this could be a kid getting into a fight, [or] in our case we had a girl who did a fake MySpace page ... he would say, "Do you remember me being in your school?" ... And he would say, "I said I would send you away. Get 'em out of here." And that's pretty much what would happen.
On the judges' perspective of the scandal
Judge Ciavarella in particular said: "Look, this was a finder's fee. We needed this center built. I was always yelling at kids because that's what they needed because parents didn't know how to be parents and so forth. So what's the big deal now? I mean, everybody was celebrating me all these years and now they're not happy with me anymore just because I took this money?"
I don't think he quite grasps the connection that people are making.
On community reactions to the film
We have screened the film all around the country ... to both movie-goers and also folks that are very familiar with the juvenile system. ...
And I think what we see from people who sort of know the system and people who don't, we have the same reaction: They're emotional. They're emotional and they're outraged. And in so many places around the country we have people saying, "That's happening here!" It's just that maybe there aren't millions of dollars involved. Maybe that's the difference.
In February, the streaming service Spotify announced a milestone: "Wake Me Up," by the dance artist Avicii, was now its most streamed song ever at more than 200 million plays. The track, an unlikely union of country guitar and stomping electronic beats, has been a barnstorming hit for the Swedish DJ whose name appears on it. But the other star of the song, the singer who carries its tremendous hook, has stayed mostly in the shadows.
Aloe Blacc didn't just perform the vocals of "Wake Me Up" — he also wrote the lyrics, well before the collaboration with Avicii began. The California singer-songwriter says the concept came to him in a moment of disbelief: sitting in first class on a flight home from Geneva, where he'd been invited to perform at a conference - all expenses paid.
"It was just a moment where I felt like my life could get no better," Blacc says. "You know, from indie-label struggling artist to first-class flights? I thought, "Wake me up when it's all over.'"
Blacc wasn't listed as a featured artist for "Wake Me Up." His new album, Lift Your Spirit, includes a stripped-down, acoustic version of the song — but it's another track, "The Man," that is making its own dent in the charts and finding its way into major commercials. Blacc spoke with NPR's Arun Rath about licensing deals as a road to music stardom, writing lyrics to impress Dr. Dre and why it's sometimes better to keep side projects a secret. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read more of their conversation below.
"Wake Me Up" has become an incredibly popular and successful song, but a lot of people don't know that that was your voice and your lyrics. How have people found their way to you?
I think online. There have been a lot of fans that have posted the song and added my name as the featured artist, and many radio stations that put the song in their programming. And if you have digital radio, they added my name to the credit, which was quite helpful.
Why was it not there initially?
I think the true answer would lie, I guess, in Avicii's camp. But from what I understand it was just an agreement his management had with the record label, that no artist would be featured.
Your voice is so distinctive; for those who know your music, it's pretty easy to tell right away that it's you.
Well, that's what I've heard from some folks who were familiar with my other music. They recognize the voice, thought it was familiar — they just didn't know who until their hunch got the best of them and they went to the internet to find out.
How did you work with Avicii on the song? He came to you, right?
Right. He was putting together his album and looking for a soul artist to sing some songs, so he contacted me and we met in the studio. We recorded an acoustic version with Mike Einziger [of Incubus] on guitar, and I drove home that night listening to the acoustic version over and over again, to become familiar with the song. A couple days later, Avicii made his dance remix, and that's ultimately what made it to the marketplace. But I'd always had an affinity for the acoustic version and wanted my fans to hear the song for its songwriting, not the steroids of dance music around it.
Your other big hit right now, "The Man," has been climbing up the Billboard charts, at the same time that "Wake Me Up" has sort of turned into a popular anthem. What is it about these songs that's worked?
Well, my goal, of course, is to make songs that are evergreen and that evoke a strong enough emotion to be memorable. "The Man" was a theme that I wrote based on an Elton John interpolation: I took one line from an Elton John song, and part of the melody as well, and made a loop of it. I come from a hip-hop background, and that's what we do quite often - however, hip-hop songs often the actual recording. In this case I decided I would sing the interpolation and write lyrics around it. The music underneath it is inspired by Russian folk song that I learned when I was in middle school, playing the trumpet in the school orchestra. And the lyrics I wrote were to try to impress Dr. Dre.
And did that work?
Well, the song ended up in a Beats by Dre commercial. So, I think it worked.
You've always had a pretty enthusiastic, but select, audience. It seems like recently you're finding bigger success in a way that's very reflective of the present: It wasn't radio that got behind you, it wasn't record stores. It's been this sort of third way.
It seems to me like the third way is sync licensing: It comes down to television shows and television commercials. It's been extremely helpful in my career. "I Need a Dollar" was the first, with the licensing for the theme of How to Make It in America, the HBO special. Since then, I've had a few songs that have been synched to television commercials and sporting events, and that's been extremely helpful in magnifying my voice, getting the music out there for people to hear, and decide whether they like it enough to go find it and buy it.
I think my favorite track on this new album might be "Love Is The Answer," which is a collaboration with Pharrell Williams. What was it like working with him?
I never thought I'd have the chance, but he happened to be in L.A. and Larry Jackson, who is the A&R at Interscope working with me, introduced us. I'd finished my album — at least, I thought I had. Pharrell was eager to challenge that notion by creating a new song, which we did within four to five hours, and I loved it.
What was the back and forth? How did he challenge you?
The challenge for him was to make something worthy of adding to an album I thought was complete. The challenge for me was working in a way that honored the art I had already created, and not necessarily being relegated to Pharrell's world — because of course he can do any kind of music, I just wasn't sure what he would deliver in this instance. But he did his homework, and he studied who I was and what I was about, and created something that I think fit perfectly. The concept I'm trying to portray is that no matter what happens in your life, if you're starving, if you're homeless, human compassion is the answer to these problems. We were able to do something that was, I think, analogous to my heroes — Michael Jackson, Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder — where you create a wonderful pop production and put an awesome message in the middle of it.
I read somewhere that you said you have thousands of songs on your hard drive that are never going to see the light of day?
I may have embellished the number a bit — my relationship with DJ Exile, in a hip-hop group called Emanon, has yielded hundreds of songs. Right now we're sitting on about 40 songs that we have yet to release, and we're just figuring out what the best timing is. I'm not trying to compete in a hip-hop market; my goal is to write songs and be a singer, and make hip-hop music for fun. Besides that, I've got a bossa nova project, a country music project, a neo-soul project, and all of these are pretty much full albums. Who knows if they'll ever see the light of day — just part of my 10,000 hours, I guess.
So with all these different styles in your head, how do you decide what to do next? Or will you go in a bunch of directions at once?
I've learned that too many directions at once kind of leaves me nowhere. What really worked well for me, in terms of my career, was focusing on soul music, for the Good Things album, and creating a singular character that my audience could recognize. It helped me to find the voice that I could use for singing. I've tried everything from dancehall to rock to contemporary R&B, and really what feels good is this folk-soul vocal. I will probably release songs that show my diversity as guest appearances on other people's projects, rather than on my own.
You say folk-soul, but even on this album you hit a lot of genres. Is there one you really want to do more with?
What would be really nice is to get into country music production and songwriting. I spend a lot of time crafting my words so that I can at least sit next to the best of the best songwriters, and I look at traditional country as some of the strongest songwriting that we've ever been able to deliver from the United States to the world of music. So hopefully one day I'll get to Nashville — work with some songwriters, work with some artists.
People use to make fun of Charlie Parker for listening to country music. He said, "Those cats know how to tell a story."
That's my goal. I feel, whenever a song becomes popular, that I've done a good job telling a story.
Toga parties and keg stands have become stereotypes of college fraternities. But Ali Mahmoud had something else in mind when he founded Alpha Lambda Mu, the first social Muslim fraternity in the country.
"I realized that there was this void for Muslims on campus," says Mahmoud, a junior at the University of Texas at Dallas.
"A lot of us come from immigrant families and so, growing up in America, a lot of us have to live a double life ... where we try to please our family, in terms of our Islamic upbringing, and then we go to school ... and we're just trying to fit in. We're just trying to be cool."
So in 2013, Mahmoud founded the first chapter of Alpha Lambda Mu — named for three letters of significance in the Quran: Alif Laam Meem. The fraternity now has two additional chapters at Cornell University and the University of California, San Diego, and Mahmoud hopes to expand to more universities in the coming year.
Mahmoud tells NPR's Arun Rath that he didn't intend to start a movement; he just wanted to provide Muslim American men with a place to have fun and be themselves.
On the image of the alcohol-obsessed fraternity
For the most part, because there is that stereotype, many Muslims who ... observe their religion kind of turn off the fraternity scene. They're not into the drinking, they're not into the hookup culture. And so providing this alternative, it allows us to engage in what we want to and embrace what we want to. ...
We're pretty crazy on our own. I'd be afraid if you tried to hang around us if we were intoxicated.
On whether having a Muslim frat is isolating
I don't really see how this could be [keeping] us from assimilating into American culture because we have nothing to assimilate to. We are American. We are American Muslims. Those two don't contradict each other at all. And so we're not hiding away ourselves, we're just living with people who have the same beliefs that we do.
On bridging different beliefs within the organization
We have this group of guys who are on both sides of the spectrum and everywhere in between of what it means to be a "good Muslim." And it forces the people who are less practicing, or less externally practicing of their religion — it kind of puts them in an environment more conducive to reaching the goals that they want to.
And then it takes the kids who have been fostered their entire life and been isolated from "lesser Muslims" and it puts them in a position where they have to tolerate them and they have to understand them. So really, everybody's benefiting and we meet at this middle ground we call brotherhood.