The long plastic hallway

I've been reading a lot about DRM lately, and it has made me think about the music business more than I would like.

Here are some places where I'm getting hung up.

1. I am a drummer, and I've been in and out of bands since I was 17. One of the guys I play with, a bassist I've known since middle school, is really gung-ho about being a musician. He wants to be able to quit his job, pack up his kids, move to a town with a lot of studios, and play music for a living. He asked the rest of the band once if we wanted to be rock stars, and everybody else said something to the effect of "oh hell yes." I said no. I don't want to be a rock star. Rock stars are boring, predictable anachronisms, a sweaty amalgamation of strippers, substance abuse, and bullshit so thick it squishes when they walk. They are dissected, poked, prodded, glossed over and dumbed down; their sound, their look, and their identity tweaked by market analysis, as if they were tennis shoes or blue jeans. They are an artifact from the times where it took the machinery of a large corporation to make compelling records. Now all you need is music worth listening to and a MySpace account. Pro Tools will do the rest.

2. Emusic is a shining example of that trend. Why even bother with albums from enormous, faceless conglomerates, whose catalogs are picked by the marketing department, whose music is locked down by DRM in order to ensure the broadest possible revenue streams, when you can just get MP3 files that work on everything imaginable? Sure, they may not have that new Justin Timberlake CD, but you can get that anywhere. Which leads to . . .

3. Today, I read "Courtney Love Does The Math" for the first time. Yes, I know I live under a rock. Yes, I know it's 7 years old. It's still relevant, as long as you replace "Napster" with "BitTorrent." Anyway, she said something that go me thinking.

Record companies don't understand the intimacy between artists and their fans. They put records on the radio and buy some advertising and hope for the best. Digital distribution gives everyone worldwide, instant access to music.

And filters are replacing gatekeepers. In a world where we can get anything we want, whenever we want it, how does a company create value? By filtering. In a world without friction, the only friction people value is editing. A filter is valuable when it understands the needs of both artists and the public. New companies should be conduits between musicians and their fans.

The Nashville market has over 40 FM stations, and I listen to only one of them: WRVU. Why do I listen to WRVU? Well, WRVU is a college station run by Vanderbilt University, so right away it has the dual advantages of being non-commercial and having to serve a diverse, discerning community. That's not why I listen, though. Hell, NPR has the same advantages. I listen because every song that goes on the air was handpicked by a DJ who happens to be playing the song because he or she likes it and wants to share it with other people. Couple this with the elitism and pretense eclectic taste of your usual college DJ and the fact that the people making the radio are the same type of people that I hang out with, and the experience becomes a powerful filter in which all kinds of music is dug out of obscurity by its devoted fans and shared in a way that make me feel like we're digging through MP3s over beers on Saturday night.

Commercial radio could be like this. It should be like this. But, alas, Clear Channel and its ilk have so homogenized the airwaves in their scramble to maximize profit that people are paying monthly fees and buying expensive equipment just to get radio that doesn't suck. If you had said in 1992 that in fifteen years people would be paying for satellite radio just so they didn't have to listen to their hometown stations, you would have been laughed out of the room. The problem is compounded by payola, in which record companies get the same things played over and over again, which leads to those songs getting higher chart position, which leads to them getting played more, which leads to more song that sound similar, etc. until it becomes an narrowly incestuous loop. The marketing tail is wagging the music dog at the exact same moment technologies emerge to offer choices so broad even those of us who grew up with them are baffled.

So, what happens when your business plan narrows at the exact same time your audience becomes accustomed to unimagined width? I can't imagine it bodes well.

posted by John @ 6:10 PM, ,

Humble beginnings

All my life, I've noticed that I was a little bit different.

I used to shrug my shoulders at it. Most of us have at least seen an episode of Freaks and Geeks, and some of us got hit over the head with enough peer pressure to think they were members of one of those two groups (he raised his hand cringingly) or at least enough to feel a bit odd and out of place.

Luckily, as a child of the 90's, I had a pretty good coping mechanism. In third grade, my father brought home a 386 PC. In fifth grade, my teacher made me finish assignments in record time by promising I could play with the first Power Mac. (With video-in and video-out, so I could make movies. Movies! Imagine a ten year old being given something that can make a movie. I was enthralled.)

I discovered the Internet in 7th grade with an AOL account my mother had gotten. Being a 7th grade boy it took about 30 minutes until I was flirting with a girl in Long Beach. From a farm in Tennessee no less, keeping in mind that before this I had asked one girl out ever, and the rejection was soul-crushing in its vehemence.

However, on the Internet I wasn't a bespectacled geek. I wasn't dressed in button down shirts, shirts that earned me constant derision from the guys wearing faux skater T's. (Until I got a few T's of my own, at which point they made fun of me for wearing them. 7th grade sucks.) Online I was the guy who wondered how he was going to afford Weezer tickets. I was the guy whose ska band couldn't find a drummer until he gave up and tried to learn drums. I was the guy who liked Shakespeare but hated English class because of my teacher's hideous neckbeard. I kicked ass on the Internet. Of course, my mother had to come home and find me talking to (gasp!) strangers, and a huge bucket of cold water got dumped on all that enthusiasm.

If I had to put my finger on where all this enthusiasm came from, I'd put it like this.

On the Internet, I wasn't so weird.

Not because I was any different, but rather because on the Internet I could connect with people who were like me. Who hadn't been homogenized by brow-beating or shame or fear or any of the other myriad reasons kids tend to hide who they are in a desperate quest for acceptance, but rather had found a place where being who they were was a bonus. Instead of fitting in, putting ourselves in a mold shaped by others, we were fitting out, pushing out to find those we clicked with.

My mother, on the other hand, saw how I was different than the kids I went to school with and came to a more metaphysical conclusion. She said that I am an "indigo child," a New Age concept describing young people with special traits. Some of the more loopy ones include such things as telepathy, clairvoyance, and other such paranormal abilities, but the meat and potato descriptions are intriguing.

Take this description from a Wikipedia article on indigo children:

* They come into the world with a feeling of royalty (and often act like it).
* They have a feeling of "deserving to be here," and are surprised when others do not share that.
* Self-worth is not a big issue; they often tell the parents "who they are."
* They have difficulty with absolute authority (authority without explanation or choice).
* They simply will not do certain things; for example, waiting in line is difficult for them.
* They get frustrated with systems that are ritually oriented and do not require creative thought.
* They often see better ways of doing things, both at home and in school, which makes them seem like "system busters" (non-conforming to any system).
* They seem antisocial unless they are with their own kind. If there are no others of like consciousness around them, they often turn inward, feeling like no other human understands them. School is often extremely difficult for them socially.
* They will not respond to "guilt" discipline ("Wait till your father gets home and finds out what you did").
* They are not shy in letting it be known what they need.

Now do any of those seem familiar? The Cluetrain Manefesto talks about how hyperlinking, the structural component that the World Wide Web is based upon, subverts hierarchy in favor of merit. It talks about how the Internet takes the ossified and the pompous and instantly deconstructs and deflates them. It talks about how people are broadcasting their hopes and desires to entire networks, and how it's as easy as typing them out. It talks about how speaking in a human voice, having confidence in that voice and being true to it, will be the differentiator between success and failure. Those are trends seen almost ten years ago, and such developments as blogging and wikis are making them more and more obvious.

I think the reason that the New Age spirit guide om-shanti type folk are seeing these kids, in numbers that support publishing books and taking at least financial risks on identifying them, is that these people don't have a lot of friction when it comes to new ideas. They're willing to accept anything that they find plausible, and some of them don't find much that's implausible.

But I don't think metaphysics is behind this one.

From the same Wikipedia article:
Some critics feel that it is possible to use the traits assigned to Indigo children as an observation of social trends, rather than as a signifier of a new race or form of consciousness.

I think what they're finding is the first hyperlinked, Web-enabled, standards-compliant crop of Internet kids. Impatient, raised in a world where anything is possible, constantly connected to the like-minded, and I was part of the first wave. I have yet to see my 25th birthday, and the bunch behind me? Well, if what I'm seeing is any indication the change is exponential. The curve shoots off the charts into territory unknown. If you're having trouble now, with people who are just now discovering what can happen after ten years with an infinite toolbox, you're going to have your hands full with kids who have never lived in a world without the Internet.
Indigo (or spectral indigo) is the color on the spectrum between 440 and 420 nanometres in wavelength, placing it between blue and violet.

So, this is my new blog. 425 nanometers, or 425nm for short, in which I finally can articulate and describe what has been happening and, hopefully, what is to come. I have a lot of people to thank for giving me the tools I needed to understand what is so powerful about the thing I have used since childhood, but two stand out. First mention goes to GapingVoid, where Hugh threw out a career in advertising for the "Global Microbrand" powered by the Internet. Not in a showy, Flash-animated, bread and circus sort of way, but rather by leveraging the relationships and transparency that the Internet makes possible to do business in new, interesting, and compelling ways. The second is The Cluetrain Manefesto, which will probably go down in history as the most future-proof book on the Internet ever written. Seven years is enough time for entire companies to rise and fall in the Internet era, but this book is just as relevant as it was in 2000.

Stick around. Things will get interesting.

posted by John @ 12:45 PM, ,