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Music + Technology + Random Nonsense from the Music Industry by Ethan Kaplan, VP Product, Live Nation

R.E.M. – R.I.P. – Some final thoughts

Bertis Downs, Mike Mills

 

Note: this was published in the last ever R.E.M. Fanclub Newsletter. I wrote it after I went down to Athens, GA for their final (I hate that word) release party for Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage.

I am an R.E.M. fan. For me, driving into Athens, GA is synesthetic. Heading up from the Loop on Oconee you hear songs fade in and out as you pass by landmarks. At every corner you see something or hear something that is tied to a piece of music. A Church Steeple to Gardening at Night. The train in the distance to Driver 8. Dudley Park to the entirety of Murmur.

The town is the living embodiment of the collective works of a band that, on September 21st, 2011, announced they would cease being R.E.M. and return to being John Michael Stipe, Mike Mills and Peter Buck. They were preceded in this by Bill Berry.

I came into town to celebrate the band that was. I’ve been going down to Athens for over a decade now, sometimes every year, sometimes a few years in between. In the last five years my visits were under the guises of a label executive. This time, it was purely as a fan and friend.

The news of R.E.M.’s disbandment wasn’t a shock to me, but it still struck a blow. It’s a band I dedicated more time out of my life to than I did any other pursuit. I started a fan site for them when I was 16, worked at their label. I even met my wife because of one of them. The closure of the chapter of R.E.M. was thus a closure of a part of my life, a part that I’m immensely proud of and grateful to have had, but still nostalgic for. Yet we all move on, and while I got married, got a great job, had a kid and left that job, this band has managed to consistently deliver the joyful noise that surrounded every one of my life ocassions.

As with every record since Automatic for the People, the band and the town of Athens, GA (through various charities) was holding a release party. Given that this would be the final one, I thought it as good an ocassion as any to head down south and pay my respects.

The parties were awesome. The tribute concert a joyous ramshackle affair full of friends and family (and staff) who put pretence asside to show a genuine appreciation and love for an amazing body of work. The fact that Mike Mills (“always the ham” as he said) couldn’t help but run on stage at various turns was icing. The fact that a tanned and fit Bill Berry watched from the balcony with his family was sweet.

The next days two parties had a feeling of a joyous wake. It was the last time to celebrate new material from a band that had given so much for so long. Cine held the Taste of Athens charity event, while the 40 Watt Club, yet again held a listening party full of auctions, videos and fans.

But overshadowing the events was something more.

This was more than a band. While the work they produced was in the form of music, video and art: the entity of “R.E.M.” transcended far beyond that.

It was family, in the way the band members parents and siblings were present, in some cases to continuously snap photos to send to them via text messages. The pride expressed not only in words, but in the obvious emotion and pride from seeing their sons and brothers on screen, on record and on stage.

It was friends, in the countless neighbors, office staff and spouses, children and towns people who came out many nights in a row to show their love.

And more than anything, it was fans. People from Europe. People with tatoos of lyrics (and band members!). Fans who knew all the words, all the demos, all the videos and all the history.

This mix of family, friends and fans was there to not just celebrate R.E.M. In a way, they were R.E.M. The band that was so much more than a band. They were a band made whole by the friends, families, fans and town that supported them.

R.E.M. is no more. The demos on my hard drive will never become songs (although I’m happy Instrumental 4 from Dublin became “A Month of Saturdays”). I will never again see them live nor feel the anticipation of the first listen to a new record or song. But we have not lost them.

R.E.M. is alive in the friends I’ve met. It’s alive in the fans I’ve met. It’s alive in the friendships with the staff, the band and others that I’ll hold dear for the rest of my life.

The only time I became a bit choked up the entire time I was in Athens was while watching the retrospective video in Ciné. During the part that chronicled the Georgia Music Hall of Fame ceremony, there was a moment when myself and my wife Amy were on screen, smiling ear to ear and singing along. Thinking back on how fun that moment was, and all that preceeded it including how I met her made me realize that while a band can be finite, their impact never will be.

Some day my son will ask me about R.E.M. and why they meant so much to me for so long.

I won’t have an answer.

They were R.E.M., and that is what they did.

The Problem with “Like” and the Loss of Love

The ending of R.E.M. made me reflective about music and the feeling of love it can bring.

Here is an exercise:

Think back on the last time you felt an in your core love for something. Not someone, but something. Now, when was that turned toward music? When was the last time something you heard stirred something inside you?

That feeling: it is indescribable. It’s a hot feeling in your eyes, like you might cry. A lump in your throat. It’s hard to talk. Something that goes beyond just what you are hearing and makes you feel something. You can’t describe it to anyone, nor explain why something made you feel this way. Others might deem you a “fan boy” or crazy. The song might have only resonance to you and you alone. The band may even disown it. But it is there, something that goes to the core of emotional response.

Tell me: was this feeling able to be quantified in something as pedestrian as a “Like” or a “Follow” or an activity in a stream?

Think of that moment. Really hard. Go into the least social place to listen to music (right now, iTunes) and listen to that song. Don’t talk about it with anyone, don’t socialize it. Let it consume you for a moment.

Did that feeling return? If not, what would you pay for it to? How much is your emotional response worth? How do you want it expressed?

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Music is undergoing somewhat of a renaissance at the moment brought on by a few things: desperation, pervasive connectivity and ubiquitous computing.

Or rather, the access to music is undergoing a transformation, if not renaissance. The actual weight of collective creativity and passion behind an individual artist however is not. If anything, the ascendancy of access as a means of enjoyment (rather than implicit curation through purchase) is devaluing what it means to be a “fan,” or to “like” something into nothing more than edges on a graph.

Is this a bad thing? Not hardly. It is a fundamental shift, and it presents an interesting predicament in terms of how to address this as an artist.

Music is a weird thing. At a fundamental level, it is emotion expressed through orderly and pleasing assembly of frequencies. This enjoyment is predicated on the use of technology to amplify and extend those frequencies (from the amphitheater to the iPod, this has been consistent). It is emotion through sound, and should strive to bring those two cores closer together.

But what is lost in the discussion right now of how to monetize music is what exactly it is we’re monetizing. Is it access to music? Is it the value exchange between access and emotional response? Do we even care about emotional response anymore?

Or is it that we are paying for the ability to go from disordered frequencies into representations that are up to us to quantify as either background or emotionally resonant works? Where does the onus lie?

If the actual value transaction is more about that which represents rather than that which is being represented: what is the role of the artist?

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I took a lot of heat somehow for advocating that in the discussion of the value of content we revert everything back into a fundamental discussion on the value of art in a society, and the place of the artist. I don’t care about the heat so much as I care about the point.

The value of art can’t be fixed through the panacea of new technology and the fetishizing of the ability to access content over the ability to make Art.

No. True value can only come from those that seek to create it. The Artist.

Right now, those that create the true emotional response of Art are the craftsman constructing our ability to access it. Spotify is more emotionally resonant to people than the content contained within. Apple makes products that serve as emotional extensions through technology, but the content on it, and the art contained within as digital bytes strengthens not the connection to the Art, but the connection to the tools enabling it.

I think back on the emotional response I had to music. I think the last time that hit me was hearing Überlin for the first time.

It wasn’t predicated on the latest social network, open graph, streaming service or “access model.” I wasn’t cognizant of breakages, licensing, catalog size, investors, valuations or charismatic CEO’s. There were no keynotes. There was no Like button, oAuth, Connect or graph. No marketing plans, promotions, exclusives or partners.

There wasn’t any filter between me and the music.

It was me, two speakers, an amp and a piece of music, and for a moment the breath was caught in my throat and I couldn’t speak afterwards.

I want nothing more than to get this feeling again.

It is up to the artists to do this.

On Steve

When I heard about Steve Jobs leaving yesterday, it was expected news but still sad.

In September of last year I was home sick for two days when I got an email stating that my former boss at Warners was leaving. I, like many were devastated by this news. It set in motion a series of other events which resulted in my decision to leave the company in January.

I have never worked for Apple, but I have worked with a lot of people at Apple. Jobs’ influence on the company was not something I ever saw directly, but you could feel if you talked to any of the 40,000+ people who work at the company. Good leadership is a positive virus, something which is a part of every individual who works underneath it. With everyone I worked with at Apple, there was always the undercurrent of Jobs: a focus on quality, perfection, disruption and the additive effects of technology on humanity.

On my former boss’ last day, I was not in the office. I was not there to give him a send off on the front stairs, and I left a few months later. But his vision remains with those who worked for him. A positive viral remnant.

The same will be applied to Apple. Steve Jobs is an outsized person, and someone who’s influence on society in the last 30 years will rank up there with Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, William Randolph Hearst and others. You can’t contain outsized influence in the frailty that is our human selves. Influence lives on and spreads so long as the virus remains intact.

I think the greatest thing that comes out of the legacy of Apple in the Jobs era is that he has put forth the notion in society that taste, design, aesthetics, simplicity and joy matter much more than technology.

Somewhere there is a kid thinking they can change the world. That “good enough” isn’t good enough. And that perfection is something to aspire to and exceed rather than relegate to an impossibility. Somewhere is a kid like I was at 5, realizing that I can make the turtle move, that these machines can respond to me.

And rather than thinking that building a life around this has to be relegated to the gray world of impersonal distance, thinks that technology is something that can be felt, touched, manipulated and make our lives better.

Thanks Steve. You’ve made this world a better place.

Why You Must Code

A few days ago, a great site called Code Academy launched. I saw it via HackerNews. It applies a very intuitive socractic approach to teaching programming (using Javascript) that reminded me of my old Logo books.

It also got me thinking about programming in general, and what it entails. What the ability to manipulate the logic of the machine does to the brain and why I think it is important.

First, let me state my opinion up front: if you are making a living using computers, and in your area consider yourself an “expert,” you should know how to program.

Simple. If you are a “social media” expert, a “product person,” and especially anything tied to the Internet, you should be able to program. It doesn’t mean that you will do it for a living, but you should know how, and do so regularly, if only to keep skills up.

I learned to program when I was about six years old using Apple Logo, like most kids of my age. The reason it appealed to me was primarily because it served as a method to let me wield control of the machine rather than the other way around. There was something profound in the ability to make the turtle move. Later when I went into BASIC on the Apple IIe, the power of even something as simple as a control structure or GOTO felt really nice.

I’m 32 now, and by no means would I identify myself as an engineer. I’ve taken exactly one computer science class in my life. However I do consider myself a programmer. I’m not a great one, I admit, but I try to keep my curiosity high and my abilities at a reasonable level. I haven’t made a living as a programmer in six years, but I still, given the challenge, sit and make something. Lately, because of my pseudo-unemployment, I’ve been doing this a lot.

If you work with Internet technology right now, you are working primarily on distilling the complexities of human thought, expression and society into systems and representations that can be manipulated algorithmically. Now, you might say “I connect brands with their consumers using social media tools,” but what you are really saying is “I manipulate consumer desire into text and use semantic filtering to re-represent that text to those for whom it is necessary and beneficial.” And if you are a programmer, you are really saying “I setup an API call to Twitter called by cron, store the results in a database and display it using a simple SELECT statement.”

No matter how abstract our usage of technology, in the end we are subservient to the methods that computers use to understand what we are needing them for: code. Having an understanding of this should cause a degree of influence on both sides: you will think more abstractly about the possibilities of technology, but always be influenced by knowledge of how to make those abstractions a reality.

The understanding and knowledge of how your tools work will make you a better product manager, social media expert, or what not. It’ll make you more tolerable to those who are 100% head down programming, and those like me who are 50-25% head down.

The Microlithic Revolution

There has been a trend in online products as of late that I have had a hard time articulating, but seems to be growing in a spectacular fashion. The focus on small, narrowly tailored and feature-sparse tools which fill defined needs rather than a spectrum of needs. Products which put the focus on getting a small set of things “perfect” rather than compete on a spread of features.

As I’ve been working on things for my next move, I’ve been even putting myself in this place as I do product planning: remove 50% of what I think is necessary and focus on making the other 50%, 100% perfect.

Then it occurred to me: this is building not the opposite of monolithic entities, but a subset which I call microlithic products.

Microliths, like monoliths are terms out of archeology used to describe both the form and function of artifacts. To me they define methods of product creation and how they reside in situ.

Monolithic products are focused on holistically defining all possibilities of affordances. If a user wants to do something, and the company wants that behavior to transpire within the application, features and affordances are added to enable it. Think of Facebook: in no way can you describe Facebook as a tightly focused, narrowly tailored product. It gives affordances for more possibilities of behavior than is ever going to be necessary for any individual. While their Platform has tried to enable fragmentation for the sake of focused utility by the core product, I argue the core product is still too convoluted.

Other monolithic products: Google, Flickr, Twitter and iTunes.

They subjugate focused perfection beneath macro-scale mediocrity.

And it shows: the Facebook iPhone app is a terrible mess. Google’s identity management systems are so horrible that its nearly comical. Twitter was a microlithic product which is no longer such. Try to explain how to configure the iPhone app to a lay-person. Also try to use their new photo service on the desktop or mobile client.

Even given these examples however, the trend seems to be steering toward Microlithic products, even within these companies.

This is no doubt helped along by the iPhone and mobile. The iPhone and devices like it have forced a focusing of attention toward simple and focused user experience, if only because the screen size, usage context and speed of the network and devices demanded it. No place is this better exemplified than by Square for instance. So radically focused that they curbed growth early on in favor of product perfection and simplicity.

The principles of Microlithic Products (especially when developed by monolithic entities)

  • Focus on doing one thing really well with joyful results – what is shocking about the new Messenger app from Facebook is not that they did an app with a discrete set of functions (after all, it is basically Beluga), but how much better it “feels” than the native Facebook app. Why? It puts focus on doing one thing really well, and constrains its feature set based on that. It has the arrogance of simplicity and sets expectations for the user accordingly, down to the app name.
  • When you find your product getting too monolithic, break it up – We all know the feeling when a product becomes too big. It’s a latent anxiety when you find a bug, a feeling of dread when it comes to add a new feature. And as a user, you know when the product you use is too monolithic: it doesn’t “feel” great. It crashes, it’s slow. Every release introduces more bugs rather than fixes them.

    For a product manager, if you find yourself with a stack of features in Pivotal, and you know you’ll never get them all to 100%, circle a batch of four that are contextually similar and make it a discrete product. Similarly, if you have a part of your product that is functionally discrete, but inadequate when part of a monolithic product, refactor it out into its own microlith.

  • Disruption, not destruction – Zappos has an office in San Francisco to create “off roadmap” products. They are not destructive in any way to the core product of Zappos.com, but are rather disruptive enough to create a tension that improves both on and off-roadmap products. Microlithic products should be focused on disrupting their monolithic counterparts and competitors. However, when done as a compliment to a monolith, they should focus on disruption as a means to progress rather than destruction. The reasons why are self explanatory from the political standpoint (and boy do I have experience with this).
  • Use microlithic products to hone and refactor your process – big products, codebases and entrenched methods of maintaining them lead toward an inertia problem when it comes to process. It’s hard to adopt new tools for SCRUM, continuous integration, version control, agile development, etc the larger the product becomes. Microlithic projects can be discrete enough to use as a method for implementing and honing new methods of development without upsetting the main trajectory. Rather than try to implement the new strategies upon the old, establish good baselines with the new product and migrate the old into it.
  • Focus on utility rather than retention - back to Facebook’s new app, one of the telling things about it is that it embraces a “quick in and out” mentality rather than driving toward the vanity metric of “time on site” (or in app). Microlithic applications are not focused on monopolizing attention, rather they divert it for a as short a time as possible while adding the most amount of value to the transaction. Think about Square, Instagram, etc. They have a defined in/out point, and don’t rely on deep engagement for powerful experiences.
The microlithic revolution, if it continues will be a huge boon for users. It should result in focused applications (both web and mobile), more agile team structures within companies, more dogfooding of API’s by bigger entities (like what Zappos is doing) and hopefully more attention on discrete value additions through products than on boarding and retention strategies.
Here’s hoping Facebook breaks Photos out into its own app next.

Marketing

Better“, “More“, “HD”,”Flash”,”Multitasking”, “Performance”, “Conference Calls”, “Thinner” and “Lighter”

Marketing defined by comparatives.

“Sharing memories,” “good book,” “cook”, “cheer”, “meetings”, “home movies”, “learn” and “how we…”

Marketing defined.

Lesson over.

Experiential Rights

A lot of the punditry in the music business press these days is obsessed with “rights.” And this extends down into things like contract negotiations between artists and labels, labels and companies, VC’s and companies, etc. Who has master rights? Streaming rights? Sync rights? Publishing? Are rights-holders being compensated fairly?

All good questions. All worth discussing.

But something that artists and creators are missing is: Experiential Rights

Who owns your experience?

An artist in 1970 did. It was hand crafted, from studio to wax and beyond. They knew that given all possible modes of experience, in the end it came down to a needle on the record.

An artist today loses control as soon as they print out of ProTools or Logic and go to mastering. From then on, what was once the experience they created gets down sampled, hybridized and subjected to all manner of devaluing. It becomes a negotiation tool for some, just a file for others, a URL for others, a “package deal” for others. A notch on the business development or marketing belt for others.

All of this ends up creating experiences that in some cases are amazing (think what Apple does) and in some cases is not (think of what Nokia did with Comes With Music, or Sony’s digital offerings).

Here is my message to artists: your fans do not give two shits about your lawyers ability to negotiate control of your content and legal rights. They only care about the experience through which they participate in what you create.

If I was an artist, or I advised artists, I’d tell them to leverage the control of their master rights to participate and be an influencer of the experiential rights around their content. In the end, the onus of representation of what you create isn’t going to be on you, but on who you allow to turn the bits into audio. There are great actors in the space, and there are bad actors in the space.

Who do I consider good actors? The hot one for the moment is turntable.fm. And why are they hot? They turned the bits of music into audio with a social element. They take the content and add value to it through a social participatory model that feeds into the emotional aspects of what makes music powerful: an ambient identity transference. You become your music and get validation from other people confirming and validating what you love. It’s visceral and powerful to see the meter creep toward “Rock Out!”

Value in the music business though is an odd thing: the more value added to the music by the fan directly, the less influence the rights holders have over it, and the more influence the creators of representational systems (i.e., turntable.fm) and rights creators have (i.e., artists going directly on turntable.fm with stuff that their labels don’t own). And rights holders do not like being taken out of the value equation.

Call it Kaplan’s Law: the more value a non-music company adds to the fan/artist relationship, the bigger the threat to those who’s business depends on being between the two.

Its of little surprise that it took two guys in New York to add something of value on top of something that RealNetworks, AOL Time Warner, Bertelsmann, and EMI created in 2001 (Musicnet, later Medianet, which turntable is built upon). It took 10 years to take MediaNet and make it a transformative and compelling user experience, by a startup that formerly made QR code stickers.

When the media companies participate in the value chain, the products motivation is oriented toward creation of shareholder rather than user value. You can not create a compelling product dictated by 18 month hockey stick projections. They dilute good products into bad, force companies to cut their nose to spite their face, and make not doing deals more profitable than even the legal process to get one done. When riding litigation toward an exit exceeds the value of doing a deal, something is wrong.

To artists: own your experiential rights. Participate in technology and hold your representatives (lawyers, labels and management companies) to the standards you want your content held to once you lose control of it.

To turntable.fm: keep doing what you are doing.

To already wealthy artists (Lars Ulrich, Bono, etc): invest in turntable.fm

 

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