Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

I recently finished a fascinating and provocative book by Jonathan Taplin called Move Fast and Break Things.  Taplin cast the storied tensions between creatives and technologists in a new light and changed my perspective on some contemporary issues such as safe harbor and the so-called YouTube value gap.

Although spiritually I might identify more with creatives, intellectually and professionally I am unquestionably a technologist.  In truth, I fancy myself something of an intermediary, and in this blog, I have often tried to reconcile the disparate interests of the two group.  So after reading Taplin’s book, it seemed only appropriate, once again, to update the views I have expressed here in light of some of the points that he made.


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The recorded music industry has entered a new era.  Paid streaming recently passed a symbolic threshold of 100 million listeners, and with ad supported listening included, streaming now accounts for approximately half of all recorded music revenues in the US. Inflection points are opportune times to revisit old assumptions and update hypotheses for what the future still holds. So with all that in mind, I wanted to look back at some of my older posts, now with the benefit of hindsight, and consider some of the latest tech trends influencing where the music industry is headed in this new era. (more…)

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SXSW is in full gear right now in Austin.  As both a Texan and a music fan, SXSW holds a special place for me (and I’m sad to be missing out on the magic).  Jazz Fest in New Orleans is the only thing I’ve experienced that seems to come close to the same magic, and I say that as someone who has been to around 20 different music festivals.

What makes SXSW so unique and great isn’t the headliners.  In many ways, those have been an unwelcome recent addition to the affair.  SXSW is about the undiscovered talent – undiscovered by you, undiscovered by me, and undiscovered by the major labels.


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Patronage for the Arts

Someone asked me earlier this year to finish the sentence, “2013: The Year of _____.”  My response, “2013: The Year of Video.”  Of course, with most of the year  behind us now, some may disagree with my a priori assessment, but I had three trends in mind that still seem to be signaling something:

  • Facebook is no longer cool.  It suffers from the same problem as your mother’s  jeans.  Instagram has become the new platform for youth culture.  A whole generation is learning to communicate as much in images as words.  Proof point #2: Snapchat.
  • The launch of Instagram Video sent a shockwave through social networks.  Poor Vine.  Now that some of the initial buzz has worn off, Instagram Video seems more incremental than revolutionary, but regardless, the short-form video continues to hold allure and encourage experimentation among both consumers and businesses.
  • Product placements aren’t just for Hollywood anymore.  Talenthouse has built a platform for promotional campaigns that can tap the long tail of digital media creatives.  Multi-channel YouTube networks have launched services like Fullscreen’s Gorilla and Maker Studios’ MakerMADE, and new tools, such as Fuisz, are emerging to enable more monetization options from video interactivity.

At a time when marketers are throwing around buzzwords like “authenticity” and “engagement,” online video has become one of the most attractive channels for reaching consumers (and I don’t mean YouTube channels).  Could video also hold the promise of a fair shake in the Internet age for artists?

The music video for Hood Party by Fat Tony provides an excellent illustration for what I have in mind.  What if Fat Tony had been able to connect with Google before making that video?  This is a company already paying to promote products like Google+, Google Hangout, and Google Music at music festivals and other events.  It’s a safe bet the company would also have been willing to pay something see their product appear in that video (along with H-town’s Bun B) instead the fictitious “Froogal.”

Fat Tony may not be the biggest name in hip hop, but he has a unique voice and a persona to which his fans can relate to better than some mega-Hova-superstar.  That’s authentic, and for the audience he reaches, it drives more substantive engagement than anything Kanye West can offer.

Nonetheless, Tony’s audience remains relatively small.  It’s too costly for Google to seek out, identify and negotiate deals with enough artists like Tony to reach a compellingly large audience.  What if someone else could aggregate those audiences instead and facilitate the transaction like a clearing house at a stock exchange?

As the means of production have become more accessible, creative stars have proliferated.  Even though their individual luminosity may be modest at best, as constellations they could be brighter than any other one star alone.  Surely there is a viable business for anyone who can broker the relationships and lower the transaction costs from connecting brands and all those creatives.  Corporate sponsorship, however unappealing that may sound, could be the new patronage for the digital era.

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Like many others, last week I waded into the emotionally charged debate set off by the blog post from NPR intern Emily White and the subsequent response from David Lowery.

I found myself conflicted. As a music fan, I was somewhat alarmed and really disappointed by Emily’s admission to piracy, but as a self-professed member of the Free Culture movement and fan of the Creative Commons, I despised the way David developed his argument, manipulating the truth and using scare tactics.

In both cases, I found the authors distracted from their central points with ancillary comments that set off the fire storm. I won’t get into the problems I have with David’s arguments, but I agree with his conclusions – artists are due some compensation for their creative works; piracy is wrong and illegal, and music fans should feel a moral obligation to pay for music, not pirate it.

As a reflection of the attitudes of her generation, Emily’s lack of attachment to the the physical mediums of music (e.g. CD’s) and preference for a limitless stream of digital content a-la Spotify was telling. The music industry should be listening; this is the markets telling you its demands. Her point was lost, however, because she admitted to piracy while remaining fully unaware of her actions and their implications. Ripping a CD you didn’t pay for is as much piracy as downloading from Pirate Bay. It’s just another form of P2P.

It would seem Emily has rationalized her actions as something other than piracy; I don’t think she or anyone else (reasonable) is saying piracy is ok. The real debate, as I understand it, centers on enforcement, not unlike the illegal immigration debate in thew news of late. Does it make sense to go after individual fans for file sharing or might everyone be better off spending less on lawyers and more on developing legitimate paid alternatives to piracy?

The music industry is in disruption; it’s not the only industry that has been disrupted by digital distribution. Unfortunately, sometimes “creative destruction” destroys more than it creates. At the macro level, this is how the free market works. At the micro level, real people are hurt in the process. As Keynes said, in the long term, we’re all dead.

Everyone affected by the music industry disruption would be better served to invest resources in the productive pursuit of new sources of value rather than expend resources on unproductive attempts to hold onto the past. I feel for the artist that has to work a second job or give up entirely on a career in music because he or she can’t make money, but none of us are simply entitled to make money from following our passions. It’s a lucky privilege for a very few.

Lots of people toil away at jobs they dislike, and this notion of career mobility, that is a modern phenomenon. It used to be that you became a farmer because your father was a farmer. Choice (too much of it anyway) has contributed to the general ethos of complacency and entitlement that is now catching up with generations of Americans (mine included). (Of course, people still aren’t taking responsibility; it’s the economy.)

Finding the new business models for making money from music requires first acknowledging that there simply may not be as much money in recorded music as there once was. I don’t know that this merits any great alarm or mourning; digital distribution changed the value chain, and other value added services are now in demand instead. The same thing has happened across countless industries throughout economic history.

Keep in mind that the recorded music industry is also a modern phenomenon. Musicians have been making music for thousands of years without worrying whether someone was buying or pirating their CD’s. Music will survive even this industry disruption. (Come to think of it, shouldn’t the purists be welcoming this change as expunging some of the corrupting influence of commercial interests on art?)

I still believe musicians have a right to control their works and realize a return on their investment of creativity. No one, however, is in a position to say how much compensation they are owed (at least not in a free market), and one cannot just expect recorded music to contribute the same returns as before.

The quickest and surest way to combat piracy at the individual level is to offer legitimate alternatives at an attractive price point given the consumer’s “job-to-be-done.” (Of course this still means using the legal system to prosecute large scale piracy where the cost/benefit makes more sense.)  Although I only have anecdotal evidence to prove it, I believe the majority of piracy happens at the edges of nonconsumption – individuals that otherwise would never have bought a particular CD at the regular price but might be willing to pay a price closer to the actual marginal cost of distributing another digital copy, which is to say something near zero.

What might artists and musicians learn from TED, where so much of the content is given away for free? Instead of fighting fans on piracy, how might artists take control over their creative works back from labels and record companies as OK Go and Louis C.K. did?  Opportunities to make money are still out there, if you don’t let yourself be distracted by the ones that have already passed us by.

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Festival season is in full swing again so I’m back to thinking about music and the music industry.

In March I made my annual haj back to Austin for SXSW.  Contrary to the commonly held belief in San Francisco, South By is a music festival, not a tech conference.  Well, it’s that too, but the music came first, and the music is still the best part.  Unfortunately, some of the best music is now actually to be heard during the tech conference, at after parties hosted by tech companies, before the throngs of hipsters arrive for the final 5 days of the music festival.

SXSW used to be about music discovery (here is my favorite discovery), hundreds of venues hosting showcases all around downtown.  Even the popular food trucks would set up speakers and amps.  Over time, it has grown into something else (just like the tech conference which has enjoyed a halo effect from Twitter’s successful promo there in 2007).

For years, purists and Austinites have decried the coruption of what made SXSW great, as commercial interests set up shop in hopes some of the cool factor would rub off on their brands.  This year it seemed to hit a tipping point (and not the kind to which Gladwell was referring).

Yes, there were still over 2,000 bands playing over a mere 5 days.  Yes, the hot dog stands and food trucks were still hosting showcases.  Yes, the hipster watching did not disappoint.

But everything was much more headliner driven.  The lines were outrageous, and surviving without a wristband or badge, as I did the first time I went to SXSW, was almost unthinkable. The RSVP list to Fader Fort filled up in mere hours (just like Coachella, even after doubling capacity this year with two weekends of the same music).

I found myself with lots of downtime during the day and conflicting showcases at night that I wanted to see because lineups had been stacked to draw crowds, not actually showcase new talent.  I discovered more new music listening to Earbits this year than I did going to shows at the actual festival.

SXSW was bound to change and evolve so no lamenting what has been lost (although I do hope next year they get back a bit more of the South By mojo).  I use the SXSW festival to illustrate a point about the health of the music industry.

Music festivals are a booming business right now, and that should be instructive to the rest of the music industry.  The industry is worried about album sales, but people are spending $200 to $400 for general admission tickets for each of the music festivals being held this year all around the US (maybe the festival numbers are in the hundreds by now).  That doesn’t include travel, lodging, food, alcohol, and merchandise. Why?

Everyone in the music industry to read The Experience Economy by Joseph Pine.  I read it some years back, and the book itself was published in 1999, perhaps a little before it’s time.  The future of music is in creating shared emotional experiences.  Records, 8-tracks, tapes, CD’s – those were all part of a products centered business model.  The logical evolution is music as a services (e.g. soundtracks) and then experiences.

That’s why Amon Tobin’s show is so impressive, even if I find the actual music mediocre (I’ve seen his set twice now but would never buy the album) and why Girl Talk can play the same mash-ups of other people’s music but the crowd still goes wild when the stage crew throws out some balloons and confetti.  The experience is why people argue that vinyl is better even if the science says otherwise.  I suspect it’s also why mind altering substances and music have been so highly correlated since even before Woodstock (correlation not being equal to causation, I won’t speculate whether people seek to enhance the music with drugs or drugs with the music).

When people go to a music festival, they are seeking out an emotional, shared experience through sensory stimulation.  The experiencing self is looking to create fond memories with others – friends, the artists, the audience.  Why else would they suffer so many of discomforts that go along with the typical festival?

The value of the festival is in the combination of three key elements: emotion (a happy one), experience (musical performances), and sociality (with other people).  For some, the music is actually secondary.

Learning from the contemporary success of festivals, how else might the music experience be enhanced to deliver more value to the consumer (fans) and more willingness to pay (for whatever)?  Lights and visuals have been done.  What about smell for an even more profound emotional association?  What could technology offer to share the experience with others asynchronously?

In the end, music is performance art.  In fact, for most of human history, music was likely participatory art, taking on the character of performance only much later.  (Maybe we should actually get back to that participatory format.)   Audio recording and playback is a modern concept, but regardless of the state of technology, the purpose of music has not changed.

Music still has an important part to play in life.  The technology and our capabilities have changed, dramatically in recent years.  The old business models won’t work anymore, but the demand hasn’t gone anywhere.  There is still value in music.  Someone will figure out how to capture it, and it will be those who appreciate its connection to emotion, experience, and sociality.

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Just yesterday I had a very brief Twitter exchange with Grant McCracken that centered on an HBR article he had written.  Grant was gracious to even acknowledge and reply to my tweet since I don’t really have the credentials to criticize a published author, respected academic and experienced consultant.  (Please excuse the use of the more familiar first name; it represents no claim to true familiarity.)  I suppose all is fair in love, war, and the pursuit of knowledge.

Today I felt compelled to develop my argument at bit further than 160 140 characters and hence this post.  Keep in mind there may only be a distinction without a difference between Grant and I; I am coming at this issue as a music fan only, not with a more circumspect ethnographic/anthropological perspective or the years of experience as a music writer that Simon Reynolds has (the latter of which might actually be more of a burden in the context of a paradigm shift).

The question I think Grant and I are exploring is, “Is innovation in pop music really on the decline?”  I feel the answer is no, as I suspect Grant does too, but my reasoning is different.

The Long Tail

Pop music is being displaced by indie music to such effect that my indie music snob friends have a name for it: mindie (mainstream + indie).  The Big 4 are losing their grip on power.  Some of the brightest stars in the recent music firmament have come from a comparably small label.  Top 40 has become formulaic.  Sure, club bangers will still sell because they still have their place, but now much more other music has its place as well.  In terms of innovation and what music does for culture and society, the long tail is the new pop.

By now most people are familiar enough with the concept of the long tail first introduced by Chris Anderson that is has entered popular lexicon.  While Anderson explored the economic implications, the long tail is a social phenomenon as well.  Small, spatially or temporally separate communities are able to form around interests and connect in way that before were prohibitively costly or difficult.  This is as true of furries as it is of eclectic tastes in music.

What music does for culture and society (credit Grant McCracken)

The means of music production and distribution have become accessible to the masses enabling much more experimentation.  Not everything is going to be good but that’s how innovation works.  You try something, fail, learn, try again, fail, try again . . . hence the Silicon Valley adage, “Hurry up and fail so that you can succeed sooner.”  With more experimentation comes more variety and more choice for the music consumers, the fans.

When I was in high school and college, big time music fans and festival goers wore hemp necklaces and traded bootleg tapes in the tradition of The Dead, and punk rockers and rude boys copied song lyrics on the school photocopier.  It was all too much effort for most people so radio ruled.

Now, discovering and sharing music is so much easier everyone is participating in ways they never did before.  People aren’t dependent on terrestrial radio to get turned on to new music.  There has been a boom in the festival scene, and Bonnaroo is booking acts far removed from Phish and Widespread Panic (although Widespread brought the festival to a beautiful close this year if I don’t say so myself).  As Perry Farrell noted at the recent Spotify party, reaching 1 million people with your music is doable in ways it never was before.

I have to admit, I haven’t listened to terrestrial radio in a long time so I’m not sure what really does or does not get a lot of play, but I’m pretty sure Skrillex isn’t getting  play time on your average pop radio station.  Has his music been any less influential? Is it any less innovative?  Are the crowds any smaller for it?  He’s still on the cover of SPIN.  Popular is being redefined, not by payola and the “powers that be” but by the fans who are connecting with the music and one another in totally new ways.

Take the  juggalos as another example.  Scary perhaps but no less an American subculture created from music.  I can’t say I really understand it or if I think it is really a good or bad thing that it exists.  It seems as though being a juggalo has given them a way to overcome the intense social isolation and resentment that inspired the tragedy at Columbine years ago, without having to act out the violent imagery of the scare-core rap they all enjoy.  The point here is that trends are still finding expression in sound, style and sensibility, however alarming they may be.

Maybe Reynolds feels that there’s no value, no meaning, cultural significance or social purpose to these new forms of music; it’s all vapid at best or deranged at worst.  I haven’t had a chance to read his book.  If so, he’s just as out of touch with youth culture as MTV.  I wasn’t around to hear it, but I would venture to speculate the older generation were as dismissive of Woodstock hippies as Fox News has been of the Occupy Wall Street movement and others were of PLUR and the rave scene.  This is a paradigm shift none of us are likely to really understand except in retrospect.

This post wouldn’t be complete without also defining the terms we’ve been using: pop and innovation.  (I suppose if I was a better debater I would have defined my terms upfront but copying and pasting it all to rearrange this post is so much effort.)

The Cool Kids Lunch Table

In some sense, this entire conversation  makes no sense because we’re mixing concepts of pop and subculture.  By definition, a subculture is something other than popular culture – pop – so it might be argued that innovation in pop music isn’t on the decline since there’s never been all that much innovation in pop music to begin with.  The innovation happens on the edges of what’s popular, only later to be assumed into pop culture.  Grant makes reference to punk culture but with the exceptions of Rancid and Green Day, was punk ever really pop?

That might be where the greatest divide between Grant and I lies.  I deny that popular music is or ever really was, “great lab bench for our culture.”  I think the dissemination of cultural innovation happens in a way more similar to Malcolm Gladwell’s description in The Tipping Point.  If we accept this premise, then my argument above can be synthesized and made more simply: music and subcultures are still doing what they always have for society only now the effects are being amplified by social technologies.

Real Innovation

We also must be careful not to confuse innovation and originality.  Innovation is a new way of thinking that creates value.  Innovation does not require originality however. It can simply be a new perspective on something old and familiar that makes it fresh, more relevant or simply more accessible.  To quote Barbara Grizzuti Harrison, “There are no original ideas.”  (The irony is I remembered first hearing a quote to that effect somewhere else, from someone much further back in history. I thought it was Descartes but with a quick internet search could find nothing attributable to him so went with what was more accessible.  Great quotes can be like that.)

After the recent, tragic loss of probably the greatest innovator in my lifetime (and perhaps many lifetimes to come), I am reminded of the context in which the iPod was launched.  It wasn’t the first MP3 player on the market, and it didn’t introduce a revolutionary new technology per se.  Apple and Steve Jobs took what was already out there and combined in a novel way that was very compelling for consumers.  They created a simple, elegant, and revolutionary whole product.

Isn’t that what a mash-up essentially is?  Does anyone deny Greg Gillis‘s talent as a musician and innovator?  Watch Morgan Spurlock’s profile of him if you are a doubter.  Better yet, experience the electricity of one of his performances.  That  sort of visceral, emotional experience is what binds people together into subcultures.  It offers people the kind of social identity they crave, especially young people still trying to define who they are.

To be sure, I think this assessment of innovation is fairly consistent with the argument that Grant makes.  Where we might part ways is the notion that innovation in music has been crowded out by other forms of innovative media.  There is enough cognitive surplus to go around.  If anything, music is more important than ever.  In an always on, always connect world, with so much competing for our attention (read my blog!), the 24 hour news cycle and fretting about a generation that has lost its the ability to focus, fostering an emotional connection is essential, and emotionality is at the core of great music.

Rock On

Music will always play an important role in culture and society.  It has an expressive quality that is almost mysterious.  It inspires and imparts meaning.  We aren’t seeing a decline in innovation in music.  We are seeing a proliferation.  It’s a very exciting time in the music industry, full of disruption and opportunity.  I have no doubt that artists around the world are working on the anthems to which we will all march (or dance) together into the future.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. -Steve Jobs, 1955-2011

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