Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011's Music of Merit

Without much preamble, here are albums I found particularly notable in 2011.

Album of the Year
PJ Harvey "Let England Shake"
(alternative rock)

Without a doubt the best record of the year. A strong (but not strident) anti-war record. Beautiful songs and great production. Perhaps the only artist who articulated anything truly compelling and powerful this year.

Lots of people don't like this record because it doesn't sound like "Dry" or Harvey's other earlier work. Me, I respect her more for being willing to stretch, reach, and change, and for trying not to repeat herself.

It's also a record that holds up to repeated listening. It is not necessarily a record I want to put on every day, but I expect I'll be listening to it for many years. It avoids sounding contemporary in favor of sounding timeless.


Gavin Friday "Catholic"
(pop/adult contemporary)

This is what pop for grown-ups should probably sound like. Many of the hipsters and "cool" listeners I know may point and laugh, but I thought this record was great.

Friday has a rich, lovely voice and writes songs that are unabashedly "pop" with big choruses, clear sections, and strong beats, but they're also adult, complex and ambiguous in their meaning and emotion.

You can hear the first single "Able" on Gavin Friday's website.


Chancha Via Circuito "Rio Arriba"
(electronic/cumbia)

Sort of DJ Shadow for Argentinian music. Loops and electronics working with samples and/or acoustic instruments. One of the more unique things I've heard over the last few years.

Not necessarily life-changing, but far cooler, more interesting, and more fun than many of the records you'll hear about on everyone else's lists.

You can hear the whole album on SoundCloud.


Little Dragon "Ritual Union"
(electronic pop)

When I first heard this record, I assumed it was a debut record from a few talented kids. It has a combination of hooks and weirdness that is usually lost in older artists as they learn how songs are "supposed" to go and records are "supposed" to sound.

This record is just polished enough to be palatable, and is plenty catchy to boot. I probably won't be listening to this in a year or two, but I really enjoyed it this year.

You can hear the whole album on SoundCloud.

80s Revival
John Foxx and The Maths "Interplay"
(electronic)

John Foxx was the original singer for Ultravox (He wrote "Hiroshima Mon Amour"), and his legendary solo album "Metamatic"inspired Gary Numan's early work. This year Foxx partnered up with Benge and his famous studio full of vintage synths.

"Interplay" was the result, an album simultaneously futuristic and retro. The songs are strong, tight, and catchy, and the production is vintage electronica, all flanged chirping Roland drum boxes and buzzing, thrumming, swooping, and grinding synthesizers.

Ultimately the record shows that it is possible to make something fresh, solid, and real with what most people would consider a dated palette.

You can hear single "Evergreen" on SoundCloud.


Ford and Lopatin "Channel Pressure"
(electronic/indie)

There were several albums by new or young groups this year that tried to either capitalize on "the 80s" or falsetto-based synth-funk from the 80s. Artists like John Maus and The Weeknd made watery, cargo cult records which failed to make any positive impression with me.

Ford and Lopatin's "Channel Pressure", on the other hand, takes those elements and signifiers (parts were recorded at Jan Hammer's studio!) and does something great with them. Memorable songs and modern, glitchy production are interleaved with instrumental bits to create a Floydian whole.

It took a few listens for me to understand it, but I appreciated the challenge and depth.

You can hear single "Emergency Room" on their label's website.



Old Sounds
The Cars "Move Like This"
(rock)

It sounds just like old Cars albums. Many bands struggle to achieve a return to form and fail. Many more achieve it only to find it's an empty exercise.

Given that, hearing The Cars (minus the late Ben Orr) do this so well was quite satisfying. Songs like the wistful "Soon" are easily as good as anything they've ever done.



Thievery Corporation "Culture of Fear"
(90s revival/downtempo)

Remember the Golden Age of Trip-Hop, back in the late 90s? Thievery Corporation do. Their new album, "Culture of Fear", is a clear throwback to those days of yore. For better or for worse, this album would mix seamlessly with Morcheeba's "Who Can You Trust?", Massive Attack's "Protection", and Air's "Moon Safari".

This record is an easy listen and is nothing new for Thievery Corporation, who were a part of the Golden Age of Trip-Hop and have been more or less doing the same thing for a dozen-plus years. It's still enjoyable, as long as you skip the title track, soured by Mr. Lif's tedious rapping.




Mastodon "The Hunter"
(metal)

My appetite for metal continues to wane, aside from the occasional unimpeachable classic. This album fulfilled my quota this year.

Mastodon is a great band, not just a great metal band. Their music is arty and powerful. This year, Mastodon made a U-turn from increasingly elaborate concept albums to make their version of a "concise pop" album.

Despite the p-word, this record still growls, punches, and kicks like a bar fight. It sounds great and doesn't wear out its welcome. I will be listening to it again and again!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Jen Fitzgerald

My friend and teaching partner Adam Tober told me that Jen Fitzgerald had passed away. 4 years ago today. She wasn't even 30.

I'd fallen out of touch with her after teaching at TIP in 2006.

You can read some details here and here, and you can hear some of her music on MySpace.

What you really need to know is this: She was a sweet, funny woman who did a better job of teaching in the few hours she "guested" in my class than I did in the whole week. She was a talented and passionate composer. She kept me excited about teaching and music, and inspired me to keep writing and practicing.

Miss you, Jen.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Echoes, echoes

I'm on a Virgin America flight to Seattle. Self-upgraded to first class.
Just like old times.
I look out the window. I see a sprawling cloud landscape in blue and pink-yellow, stretching off to infinity. It's a whole different planet out there.

I put my hand to the window and feel the cold seeping through the hull as we rocket over the cloud cover.

As the plane turns and descends, the sun sets. Colors blossom. I see the moon appear suddenly over the pastel bands of the horizon. The cloud layers are translucent, and I marvel at the complex beauty that results from them sliding across each other. Seattle's lights gleam below.

As we start our descent and drop through the white-out, I think of my good fortune at having seen such a thing. Truly wondrous and beautiful, a special moment.

A woman calls my name. I turn to look at her and it is several seconds before I'm able to recognize a friend. We used to work together. Kindred spirits in many ways. She's got different hair now and new glasses. We are separated only by a few miles back in the Bay Area, but it's still been two years since we've seen each other. She's also on her way up to Seattle for the Rhapsody party. We share a cab and catch up on the way in.

Of course, I'm staying at The Edgewater, as I did many times when working for Rhapsody. Many of our peers wonder why, preferring newer, flashier places. I'm still taken with its slightly faded Kubrick/David Lynch/Twin Peaks.com vibe. In the last 2 years, they've tarted it up a bit, but it's still funky and unique. Hanging on, literally and metaphorically. And so many memories.

The old RealNetworks building is on the other side of the train tracks. Rhapsody's offices aren't there anymore, having moved to a hipper part of Seattle some time ago. But the party is walkable from here.

I ride up in an elevator with 3 middle-aged professionals, talking to each other about their alcohol intake the night before and how it impaired their ability to participate in their management offsite meetings today.

I find my room, change into gym clothes and hit the fitness center. I'm alone in there for most of my workout.
Just like old times.
A great remix I did of a friend's song comes up on my MP3 player. Their album never came out, but the track and the remix are good. It's a shame. They really could have been something if they got their act together.

I clean up, eat some dinner, and roll out into the cold Seattle winter night.

The last time I recall walking this way - in this kind of cold and dark - was many, many years ago, with a woman whose life has changed even more than mine has. Our paths crossed briefly but profoundly. I remember seagulls over the bay, their cries echoing off the buildings and water in the sun. She's not here in Seattle anymore.

I wonder how she is doing, and I think of another woman I know who's moving to Seattle with her boyfriend in the next month.

I pass many homeless people on First Avenue. I am reminded of my long walks through DC after high school winter evenings volunteering for The Jamestown Foundation. It must be hard to be homeless in Seattle.

There's a line around the block to get in to the party, but I'm on the VIP list, so my line is shorter. I shuffle in next to a few former colleagues and watch as more arrive. There are lots of people here, most of whom I don't know. It's very crowded and loud.
"So, what are you up to these days?" 
I chat up the people I recognize. I'm surprised at who is there, and who isn't. Everybody seems very happy - there are new children and new relationships and new jobs. All the trouble and hassles of the past are forgotten, forgiven, set aside, or buried under very convincing smiles.
"Are you still at MOG?" "How's MOG doing?"
Bands play. Drinks get drunk. The food is demolished. Hours slip by.

Look, there's the CEO, next to the billionaire. Look, there's my old boss. Hey, there's the guy who laid me off. There's the guy who replaced me. There's that guy I always passed in the hall.

There's Peter Buck, guitar player for recently-disbanded REM. I tell him "Thanks for the music!" He smiles and nods and thanks me back.

I look around. I am reminded of my high school reunions. It's time to go. Aches and pains and fatigue are creeping up on me. There's a lot going on in my life right now, a lot of things in motion. I push my way through the doors, out into the winter cold again. I say my last goodbyes to the smokers and stragglers out front.

As I walk past all the closed storefronts, I think of doors opening and doors closing, separating inside from outside. People walk in, people walk out. You were here. Now you are there. This used to be the future. Now it is the past.

A train rumbles past, horn blowing. The moon shines down, and its reflection shimmers in the bay.

The seagulls' cries echo across the water.

Monday, December 05, 2011

Rhapsody, 10 years later

The original Rhapsody 1.0 interface
It's rare in life to have a good idea, the means to execute it, and actually manage to bring it to fruition.

About 10 years ago, Listen.com launched Rhapsody 1.0.

I was the product manager. One part of a team of talented, hard working people who brought it into being.

The thing I remember best was the feeling of excitement - we were building something nobody had ever seen, and we were going to beat the competition, and we were going to beat the major labels and companies 10 times our size.

And it was going to be amazing. And it was.

Rhapsody created a new way to think about media consumption, more or less. For better or for worse, it's spawned a legion of imitators, copycats, and followers. So far, they all copy the Rhapsody template, and nearly every "new" feature they've brought out or added was something we had already thought of and had to put in the "do later" pile. Unfortunately, the other guys copied most of Rhapsody's mistakes, too.

It's become fashionable recently to bash subscription services for "not paying enough" or something like that. Most are still struggling to get by. It's still a far cry from just a few years ago, when people were wondering whether or not it was a dumb idea.

I've become a much better product manager and designer in the years since. I've worked at other companies, with other people. On bigger projects, smaller projects...you name it. I even worked at Rhapsody a second time as the General Manager of Product Management and made their first iPhone app.

But nothing I've ever worked on felt as good as shipping Rhapsody 1.0.

In retrospect, the best part has been the people - all the amazing people I've worked with and learned from over the last 10 years. Too many to name individually, but you all know who you are!

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Protest

The alarm goes off at 4:30 am. Today's going to be a long one.

I silently slip into my gym clothes, grab my bag, and head off for my morning workout. The sky is black and the autumn chill makes me shiver.

As I finish my workout with 30 minutes of cardio, the news is showing the Oakland Police forcibly removing the "Occupy Oakland" protestors. The news calls them "squatters".

The scene is Orwellian: helmeted, armored, and gas-masked police in dark uniforms and jackboots kick down tents, drag people away, and eventually, start firing rubber bullets, "bean bag" shotgun rounds, tear gas cannisters, and flashbang grenades into the crowd.


If the police were American soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, using these tactics and this behavior  towards other soldiers, much less civilians, would result in courts-martial.

The sounds, images, and storyline could be straight out of any number of video games.  It is surreal and disturbing.

I watch the senseless violence and will later listen to the mayor talk about "protecting public safety". I wonder how protected the hospitalized protesters feel.

Pop music from the Reagan era plays over the gym loudspeakers, plastic, oblivious, and upbeat. Everyone silently sweats, running on treadmills, watching the footage.

I drive home in the dark, try to get cleaned up, and wolf down a quick breakfast before climbing back in the car. I have an early meeting with a very large tech company down south.

I ease onto the freeway, past the traffic chokepoints, and am soon cruising down 280. I watch the sun slowly creep into the sky. A new baby blue Tesla roadster whips in and out of traffic, dodging the furry bags of roadkill littering the otherwise clean freeway.

280 is a beautiful drive once you're past Serramonte, and as long as you don't have to do it every day. All you see are trees and fog and the sun and canyons. The wide, fast road seems to embody the California mythos. The morning's nightmarish science fiction dystopia seems far away.

A few days later Oakland's mayor will deliver a statement, no doubt carefully crafted by Luntz-style language manipulators. I marvel at its clever, diabolical brilliance. She says all the real and peaceful protestors left a long time ago, and all that's left is the criminal element for Oakland to clean up.

Shortly it will be revealed that 18 mayors of "occupied" cities had a conference call, planned, compared notes, and agreed to disperse the protestors (conveniently, while the President is out of the country). The mayors get their story straight. They lock out the media and other observers. They send in the riot cops, who mace women and kids in the face. Who beat people with truncheons. Who harass and assault bystanders.

When this kind of crackdown happens in a single city overseas, there is government outrage and media support for the protestors. Think of the "Arab Spring". Now it's here in the USA, and it's happening nationwide. The crackdown is fierce and harsh, and the media is largely silent about the parallels, focusing on the sensational surface rather than the deeper drives.


The mayors complain about how these protestors are costing the city money. The bitter irony is that we are all literally paying for this.

There have been reports of horrific things (including beatings, robbery, and rape) happening in some of the camps. The police provide little investigation or help. They are implying (and sometimes stating outright) that it's what happens when you protest, while simultaneously using these incidents as justifications for the crackdown.


This all sounds implausible, and yet every bit of it is true.


I have mixed feelings about the "Occupy" movement. I have yet to discuss it with most of my friends.

But it is easy to see why people would be upset. (If you read nothing else about the "Occupy" movement, take the time to page through that article. Maybe this, too.)

And a few things seem very clear to me as I drive back home, the sky darkening fast at day's end:

Whatever Occupy stands for and may have done, the reaction from the establishment - from the local mayors, from the banks, from the cops - is extremely telling. Occupy isn't setting cars on fire and smashing windows en masse (yet). They're marching and chanting and drumming and holding signs and...sitting there. But they've been subjected to a fierce crackdown. It's not clear exactly what Occupy's goals or demands are, but their existence is obviously terrifying the existing power structure.

Scott Olsen, Iraq War veteran, shot in the head by OPD.
Thus far, the Occupy people have been largely peaceful and non-violent, especially given the shockingly excessive police response. That won't last much longer. Young people with nothing to lose (and little grasp of consequences) won't take much more beating, spraying, and tasing before they start fighting back. Hard. First defensively, then pre-emptively.

This will not end well. We all think of Kent State.

When I look at the news footage, I see a small number of old, fat, clean people in suits behind the microphones defending the status quo, and many young, hungry, dirty people on the other side. Historically, in these types of conflicts, with those sides, the young, hungry, and dirty win. And when they do, there are lasting, violent, and painful repercussions for the old, fat, and clean.

The dialog and trajectory of employment in America in 2011 feels like a return to feudalism. You have a very small number of extremely rich "job creators" (the lords) who claim they need to stay rich and privileged so they can "create jobs" for everyone else (the serfs). Nobody wants to admit they're a serf, and in America we believe we can rise up (through hard work or luck) to be a lord and have our own serfs, so why rock the boat?

Since Occupy doesn't have simple, clear objectives, it's difficult for any negotiating to happen, especially at the municipal level. The Mayors have no power to force banks or Wall Street to change. It's difficult to see how Occupy itself can actually accomplish anything, other than serve as a very potent symbol of public unrest and increasing injustice. Because Occupy lacks a specific agenda, it risks losing control over its own narrative. Or worse, simply turning to violence and property destruction.

I don't know that I understand or agree with everything Occupy stands for and does. I don't think they understand or agree, either. It's something of a Rorschach test for everyone.

But when I see ordinary Americans harassed and physically assaulted by the police for exercising their right to free speech, or even for merely attempting to observe what is going on between the protestors and the police, it makes me angry and fearful for the future of our democracy. And if America can't make democracy work, what then? For us, and for the world?

Somehow we ended up in a country where "corporations are people", "money is speech" and income inequality is quickly increasing. The result of combining those elements is as chilling as it is clear. If that is what our own government, police, and employers are protecting, it's time we all head down to the barricades.


Monday, November 07, 2011

Waits and Coldplay vs. Music Services

Recently Tom Waits and Coldplay both released new albums.

Tom Waits' "Bad As Me" is basically more of what you buy Tom Waits for. It's a great record if you like what he does. It's been getting stellar reviews.

Coldplay's "Mylo Xyloto" is also basically more of what you buy Coldplay for. It's a great record if you like what they do. Arguably, it's been getting stellar reviews as well.

Neither album was made available on the major streaming services (MOG, Rhapsody, RDIO, Spotify) in the United States.

Both albums sold very well in their first week.

Coldplay, of course, cleaned up. Their album "Mylo Xyloto" debuted at #1, with sales of 447,000. Coldplay is one of the most popular rock bands in the world. It's not surprising they debut at #1. What's surprising is how small the sales figures are, for what is one of the world's biggest bands, releasing a new album with a big promo push.

Waits sold 63,000 copies and his album landed at #6. Yeah, it's only 1/7th of Coldplay's numbers. But look: Tom Waits, Top 10 artist. Something that would have been unthinkable back in the 20th century. "Bone Machine" (my favorite Waits record) was released in 1992 and peaked at 176 on the charts, and it even had a "single" with a great video.

Make no mistake - Tom Waits hasn't gotten more commercial or watered down his sound, although "Bad As Me" is a more conventional record than some of his other work. His record is great. It's also not substantially better or worse than the last 5 he's released. I don't mean to diminish the genuine talent or artistry of Mr. Waits. I believe he's the real deal. He writes beautiful, perfect songs. I hear him coughing all night long, 100 floors above me in the tower of song.

So why did he crack the top 10 this time, and not with "Bone Machine"?

To paraphrase Norma Desmond, Waits didn't get big, the charts got small. It only takes 63,000 albums to debut at #6 now.

A movie that only sold 63,000 tickets on opening weekend is considered a dismal failure, and at this point, that movie theater ticket costs more and provides less entertainment. Let's not even talk about what 63,000 viewers gets you on TV. 63,000 puts you in the realm of books.

Some industry pundits are pointing to the Tom Waits and Coldplay sales numbers and are trying (incorrectly) to correlate those “strong” sales to Waits and Coldplay choosing not to make their new albums available on streaming services.

This is not clear thinking. Both of these records were going to log strong sales no matter what.

In Waits’ case, he’s got a very loyal group of fans and this is his first album of “new” music since 2004  (2006 if you count the b-ssortment "Orphans"). It got excellent advance reviews, not that it matters, since Waits' albums are more or less predictable, consistent, and critic-proof for his fans now.

That said, Tom Waits has been hitting his audience-appropriate promo circuit hard. I heard him with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. I read an article about him in the New Yorker. I'm sure he'll turn up in a few other places, despite being somewhat reclusive by nature.

As for Coldplay, they’re one of the most popular rock bands in the world. Of course their new album is going to sell well. It has been accompanied by the promo equivalent of a full-court press as well, including what is becoming the de rigeur appearance on the Colbert Report.

Streaming, or lack thereof, had nothing to do with it. If "lack of streaming" played a part, it was only in the blogosphere lift that comes from people like me burning additional electrons on covering that part of the story.

Put another way, there are 8 other albums in the top 10, all of which are available in streaming services and doing just fine.

One could argue the story should be "Waits and Coldplay sell well despite absence from streaming services", but again, the same logic would apply.

One wonders what kinds of sales these artists would have generated if they had made their music available on streaming services. Personally, I'm not buying either album until I've heard it first!

Music and Musicians in the 21st Century, a brief summary


Here's what I think about music and musicians in the 21st century:

If you are an artist or hobbyist (defined as someone who cares more about the specifics of what you're creating than getting paid), it is a better time to be alive than in all human history. You can make great recordings for cheap and distribute them globally with minimal effort. People are more interested in live performance than any time in the last few years, and willing to try new things. So there's a big potential audience and lower friction than any time I can recall.

If you are someone who expects to earn a living from music, (and thus fundamentally cares more about getting paid than the specifics of what you're creating)
...the good news is it is easier to get started because there are all kinds of tools for creation, distribution, and feedback you can use that didn't exist even 5-10 years ago. 

...the bad news is that making a lot of money is probably more difficult than it has ever been, and you must think like a business person first and foremost. You are going to have to work. Being a great musician isn't enough - it's just table stakes, just like being a good chef is not enough to have a successful restaurant. 

You have to either be a businessperson or surrender a portion of your revenue to one. (If you are not prepared to do that, I'd argue you're a hobbyist/artist.)

Artist/Hobbyist or Careerist, in either case, there's far more music out there now than the audience can take in

You'll be competing against not just the 200,000+ albums that will be released this year, you'll be competing against the 200,000 that came out last year. And against Lady Gaga's album. And Britney and Nirvana and Duran Duran and Led Zeppelin and The Beatles and Eddy Cochran and...people who think whatever they did with the "T-Pain" app is a "real song".

And when I say "compete", I mean that you are highly unlikely to even make minimum wage as a full-time musician:
  • In 2009, there were 98,000 new albums released (Soundscan, does not include Tunecore-style digital only releases)
  • Only 2% of those 98,000 releases sold more than 5,000 copies over the entire year.
  • Only 1% of those 98,000 releases sold more than 10,000 copies over the entire year.
In the late 90s, the average band on a major label, with a national promotional push, sold about 1,000 copies of their album.

This is the price of democracy - everyone can contribute, everyone has a voice, everyone is competing. 

Musicians shouldn't expect an audience to find them, and shouldn't expect any individual or company to wave a magic wand and solve their problems for them.

This is good advice for anyone in any industry, and is certainly how my own career (in every part of the music business) has been.

Really, musicians are like any other person in the 21st century:


You can't coast along doing whatever worked last year or last decade or last generation and expect success or even survival. It is a cutthroat, competitive world out there. 

If you run a business (say, a restaurant or a digital music service) and it fails, mostly people will say "You probably did it wrong. You probably weren't good enough. You made mistakes." Complaints about how rough the industry is and how people won't pay for quality will fall on deaf ears.

Is the music business any different?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

In the Rolling Stone

I have achieved a lifelong goal: I'm finally in Rolling Stone magazine.

Appropriately enough, it's in an article about technology, music, and economics - my life in 3 words I guess.

This quote refers to the talk I gave a few weeks ago, and the number in question refers to the "PurePlay" rates. These are what most large "radio-only" webcasters play. Pandora may be paying out something slightly different given their size, but for the purposes of the presentation I gave, it was close enough!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Reaction to "Making Cents"

Last Friday, I was in Los Angeles to participate in Digital Music Forum West. I gave a presentation adapted from some of my writings about subscription service payments to artists called "Making Cents".

I wanted to get people thinking, and I accomplished my goal. I've been to too many of these conferences (including this past one) stuffed with uninformative, shilly, boring presentations from dull speakers, or discussions that meandered from stock topic to stock topic, or worse, were empty of any controversy ("Music is great! Who agrees?").

This morning, Dave Allen made a nice, inflammatory tweet:
At least @Mog 's @AnuKirk is honest about paying musicians pennies but spreads the blame. #BadDefense bit.ly/px9poK
...derived from his reading of this article about my talk.

Well, actually, I was talking about fractions of pennies! I'm not happy about Dave characterizing my talk as a "bad defense". That's not at all what my talk was about or intended to be. I didn't see Dave at the show, but maybe he saw the talk on the web.

The Fast Company article isn't exactly accurate either. I wasn't interviewed for it, and didn't have a chance to talk to writer Austin Carr. It also leaves out some very important points I made.

You can guess what buttons the author wants to push - there's a big photo of a nice hip band (upright bass! banjo! washboard!...it's even called "610-working-band.jpg") with all the right signifiers (bike in the background! recycling bins!)

Photo of anonymous "working band" by Flickr user jonathanpercy
Recently a number of articles have come criticizing subscription services for how little they pay artists for plays. (This is after years of articles questioning when or if subscription services will ever be viable).

As I said repeatedly in my talk, these small amounts don't seem fair. So what is fair?

I could summarize my rather brief talk as follows:

  • Determining "what's fair" to pay artists for a single play is complex. It involves the artist, the service provider, and the audience. Presumably "fair" means all of these folks get something out of the transaction: the artist gets some cash or other benefit, the service provider is able to survive, and the audience/fan/listener has a service they're willing to pay for.
  • Artists traditionally have accepted a wide range of payments for their music, including very small amounts, zero, and even negative dollars (artists have paid FM radio or other outlets to play their music). Hell, the band in the photo is effectively playing for free, and the author didn't even tell us who they were!...though he did tell you who took the photo: Flickr user Jonathan Percy (who doesn't identify them either)
  • If rates are too high, businesses cannot survive.
  • The audience's willingness to pay for a single play is highly variable. Pro tip: They don't want to pay a lot.
  • There's often a mismatch between what artists think their music is worth and what business and the audience think it is worth
  • The "real problem" is how we get more people to listen to more music, and value it more.
Take a good look at that photo again. You see the band playing. You don't see an audience. If you look to the right, you'll see a bunch of people. With their backs to the band, looking elsewhere. This is what I'm talking about. This is the problem.

Now, addressing some specific points in the Fast Company article:

  • I did not create the estimate of "$0.04 per album play" - I specifically attributed that to its original source, Uniform Motion's article on HypeBot. (The SiriusXM and Pandora numbers are approximations from publicly available data).
  • I did not imply that payments to artists could get worse. I noted that many of the businesses paying higher rates had folded or were struggling. It's certainly possible. They could also get better.
  • I know services pay labels, not artists. I started with a disclaimer that I would be simplifying terminology and models due to the limited time, but that the gist and magnitude were accurate.
  • There is no "per-play rate" for many subscription services. They operate like performing rights organizations, collecting a pool of money and disbursing it to "members". The amount paid "per play" varies depending on factors like the number of subscribers, the number of plays, and the number of participating labels


I strive to create compelling presentations. I am not a bomb-thrower, however. It's easy to shock and provoke, harder to really talk about issues in a serious way. So note some other points I made:

  • Most subscription services pay labels/artists even if users play nothing in a given month
  • Performers get paid nothing for plays on FM radio
  • Selling CDs is hard - it's far more difficult to convince people to pay $10 for a CD than it is to get them to click a play button on a service they've already paid for
  • According to Soundscan, in 2009, there were 98,000 CDs released (double or triple that if you include digital-only releases)

    Of those 98,000, only 2.1% sold more than 5,000 copies for the entire year. 1% sold more than 10,000.

    According to the "Information Is Beautiful" chart I referenced, a solo performer on a label needs to sell 1,161 CDs per month to earn the equivalent of minimum wage. 13,932 CDs for the year.

    So by that math, even in the "selling CDs" world, very few artists on labels are earning minimum wage
  • Being totally independent makes it a little easier: 1,716 CDs per year. But that means the independent artist is doing all the work.


Ultimately I said the same things I've been saying for years: The music business is tough for everyone. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Wreck of Hewlett-Packard

An early Hewlett-Packard Oscillator
Hewlett-Packard is sort of The Rolling Stones of Silicon Valley.

The early HP was a groundbreaking, innovative company that didn't just kick out great products, they helped create and validate a whole new way of doing business.

They were the original "garage-based start-up", a scrappy pair of guys who had some incredible hits in the early days. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard had impeccable tech cred. They were also smart people who studied under Frederick Terman (whose father, Louis Terman, is a pioneer in gifted education).

They espoused The "HP Way", a noble and empowering mindset which many successful Silicon Valley companies still emulate.

But much like the Stones, middle- and old-age haven't been kind to HP, and they've never been the same since the founding members left.

The company went from cranking out its own innovative products to slapping a brand on mediocre-at-best Windows boxes. It has made some incredibly bad decisions over the last few years, and despite (or perhaps due to) being enormously large and recognized, HP seems locked into a long-term death spiral.

I heard today from one analyst "the company is just too big for any one person to comprehend". Yet there are other big companies that are more successful and still comprehensible.

HP used to be awesome. What happened?

Partying in 1999
HP was founded in 1935. It went public in 1957, after a long slow climb. Its early decades were somewhat unfocused, but the company managed to bang out enough success to keep going.

It missed a few great opportunities (Steve Wozniak designed the Apple I while at HP, offered it to them, and they passed), but by the mid-80s was going strong. They did manage to get on the internet very early (1986!).

The 1990s marked a big shift for HP, as they moved into consumer markets, instead of just professional tools and devices. This culminated in 1999.

1999 was a big year for HP. They spun off all of their tech businesses not directly related to computers, storage, and imaging. That spin-off (Agilent) was the largest IPO in Silicon Valley history.

They also appointed Carly Fiorina as CEO. Carly Fiorina was the first woman to lead a Fortune 20 company. Her most notable achievement at HP was the acquisition of Compaq, which helped establish HP as the largest shipper of personal computers - most of them being middling Windows boxes.

She was quite controversial and not very popular at HP, and eventually shoved out the door with a $20 million severance package. The stock price dropped 50% during her tenure, though much of that was arguably due to overall market conditions and not her leadership. Regardless, she's been called one of the worst CEOs of all time by Conde Nast Portfolio (whoever they are).

Making a Small Fortune on WebOS (out of a large one)
Once upon a time, there was a company called Palm Computing. They created something called the Palm Pilot, which was a pretty kick-ass little "personal digital assistant", or PDA. It was stylus-based and an excellent combination of (then) state-of-the-art technology and solid product design. It did what it was supposed to, reliably, and quickly displaced the paper Fil-o-fax as the weapon of choice for biz people.

It was a big hit. But like many companies (and bands), after the first big flush of success, Palm sort of lost their way and became complacent. They stopped worrying, even as other devices came after them aggressively.

In a few short years, Palm was the worst-performing PDA manufacturer on NASDAQ, despite having revitalized the category. Their stock lost 90% of its value in a single year. Many corporate shenanigans ensued, but the end result was a "new" Palm dedicated to building a new OS and new devices to compete with the now-dominant Blackberry and iPhone in the smartphone market.

The new thing would be called WebOS. The OS was highly thought-of, even if the hardware it was initially presented in was lacking.

But good reviews alone don't matter. A little over a year after WebOS launched, the struggling Palm sold to HP for over a billion dollars.

And then, in a single phone call, HP destroyed much of the value of the ecosystem. Once then-CEO Mark Hurd said HP "didn't buy Palm to be in the smartphone business", pretty much every independent developer working on the platform threw in the towel.

Without 3rd-party apps, platforms don't make sense for users, especially as Apple developers kept cranking out hit after hit.

Less than a year after the sale, HP backed out of offering OS updates to devices in the field and then turned around and announced a bunch of new devices.

6 months later, HP would announce they'd be selling their consumer devices group, and not shipping any new devices for users.

The Unstoppable TouchPad Crash-and-Burn
Despite having irreparably damaged tech faith in WebOS, HP announced the TouchPad: their "tablet" computer based around the now-irrelevant and unsupported WebOS. You may have heard how that turned out: The company launched it on July 1, 2011 and 7 weeks later, on August 18, 2011, announced they were going to discontinue it and all WebOS devices.

This was only 5 weeks after launching in the UK and other Euro countries, and only 3 days after launching in Australia.

They started blowing the inventory out at $100 (for a device that had been priced at $500 and which, by most estimates, cost over $300 to build, not including the costs of developing and designing).

Even after the company canceled the product, I kept seeing lavish TV ads appearing everywhere I went. Apparently the marketing juggernaut was unstoppable, even after the head had been cut off.

But it gets better.

Not even 2 weeks after announcing they were killing all WebOS products, HP announced it would do another production run of the TouchPad. This might be a way for HP to mend relationships with component vendors, but it sure looks like a poor business move.

Rotten at the Top
Mark Hurd was CEO for 5 years. He resigned in 2010, not because he had totally blown up WebOS or mismanaged the company. He resigned because "expense account irregularities" were uncovered and sexual harassment alleged.

Of course, a company's culture comes from the top. That doesn't just mean senior management - that also means the board of directors. If the board is wise, they choose good management and provide appropriate feedback, controls and guidelines. If the board is foolish, they let management run unsupervised, or micro-manage product details based on their own preferences and whims.

The behavior of HP's board of late is appalling. Not that long ago, HP's board engaged in activity that was not just immoral and unethical, but illegal. That should have been enough to clean house.

But the culture was set. A new HP way, I suppose. That culture is ultimately responsible for the wreck that HP's become. To give you an idea of how that negligent culture manifests, HP's board didn't even bother to interview the CEO they hired a year ago and then dismissed.

Now, the board is supposedly considering Meg Whitman as the new CEO. One hopes they'll actually talk to her this time.

Bad Products
My own experience with HP shows what happens when marketing passes innovation:

In the late 90s, I needed a fax machine, scanner, and laser printer for my recording studio and record label businesses. I went to my local Fry's electronics and purchased a multi-function HP device. It did everything I needed, it was compact, and it carried the HP brand. And it was the right price - about $400 if I remember correctly. A tiny bit more than I wanted to pay, but it seemed like a substantial investment.

Took it home, installed it. Worked great.

For about a year.

Then it stopped properly feeding paper through, either to scan or print. The roller just slid over the paper. I started trying to track down issues on HP's disaster of a website. It became clear many other users were having the same problem. HP's response was to shrug and say it wasn't built to last.

There was a class-action lawsuit. HP agreed to ship out a "fix kit" to all users who jumped through hurdles. I jumped through the hurdles. I got my fix kit. I carefully, properly installed it. It sort of worked, though not reliably. Still better than junking the thing.

About 2 years after that, Microsoft released Windows XP, a big step up from Windows 95, 98, and 2000. I upgraded. My HP device no longer worked. Back to the website.

Turns out you had to BUY a driver disc from them for about $20 in order to get XP drivers. So I bought it (since I couldn't find the drivers online anywhere). I used that device for a few more months until the toner cartridge ran out. HP charges a lot for toner and doesn't want any competition in that market.

I was happy to be rid of the device, and I vowed I'd never again purchase anything from HP.

Conclusion?
What can you say? HP is huge and profitable, for now. Companies that big achieve a kind of failure-proof critical mass. They'll be around for a long time barring complete catastrophe, but it's hard to see them ever innovating again, or ever having hits again. They're just another big, dumb, slow company.

There's worse things for a garage start-up to end up as. There's better, too.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Uniform Motion, Subscriptions, and Lady Gaga

The band Uniform Motion has attracted some attention in digital media circles over the last couple of days by posting a list of how much they're getting paid by various digital sources.

The message seems to be "Spotify is bad for artists"...and by extension, so are other subscription services like Rhapsody and MOG.

But like the last time this argument was made, this is an unfair comparison, presented with an incomplete analysis.

So let's look at a few points:

1. It's far easier to get someone on a subscription service to listen to your album than it is to convince someone not on a service to buy your album.

Subscribing fans have already paid their subscription fee, so trying something new costs them nothing but their time and attention.

On the other hand, getting people to buy music without having heard it first is extremely difficult. This difference in effort/risk is partially why the pricing or payment structures are different between downloads, CDs, and streams. (It also has to do with "just listening" as opposed to "getting a copy").

2. Subscribers still buy music, and they buy more than non-subscribers!

Subscription listening and purchasing aren't mutually exclusive. Research shows that subscription users tend to buy more music than non-subscribers. Individual subscribers frequently talk about how they use services to decide what to buy.

3. What's a "fair" per play rate?

Let's assume the quoted "Spotify rate" is too low. So what should it be? What's a fair price to play a song once? The 25 to 50 cents a jukebox charges? A penny? What's fair to the artist and to the fan?

One of the bits of data that guided my thinking when developing Rhapsody was a NARM statistic:
The average CD is listened to fewer than 10 times after purchase.

So taking that, let's look at a single track. You can buy it on iTunes for $1. So let's say you'll play it 10 times. How about 10 cents for a single play?

Well, Lala.com had that model, charging users 10 cents to "buy a stream" (which actually gave you infinite plays for 10 cents), and they went out of business and sold themselves to Apple for peanuts because they couldn't make a profitable business at those rates. So charging the fans 10 cents (and paying the artist less than that) wasn't workable, at least for Lala.

Sirius XM satellite radio pays about $0.002 (1/5th of a cent!) per play. Pandora pays about $0.001 (a tenth of a cent). Other Internet radio stations pay similar, or even lower rates. Both Sirius XM and Pandora had to spend substantial sums and took a long time (nearly a decade) to get to massive scale, and even now they're both just scraping by. So it would seem either all those radio stations are badly managed businesses, or those rates are still on the high side.

If you get played on terrestrial/broadcast radio, you get nothing unless you wrote the song, and then it depends on whether or not your PRO was sampling that particular station, and how the arcane math of the PROs happens to shake out that distribution period. Broadcast radio has been a strong business for a long time, but its listenership has eroded and now the sound recording owners (artists and labels) are starting to think they should get paid.

But at a payment rate of "nearly nothing", not only was FM radio a successful business, artists and labels would literally break federal law repeatedly to pay radio to play their songs. (I will note here briefly that "payola" laws do not apply to internet businesses, and I have speculated in the past that it is possible artists and labels would pay Pandora or other services to slip their music into programming it wouldn't otherwise be in. This may already be going on!)

So my takeaway is a realistic rate for businesses to pay today is somewhere between zero and $0.002 per play, and potentially the artist should be paying the business for exposure. In that light, Spotify's rates don't seem unreasonable.

Of course, it also goes without saying that piracy - what people will turn to if there are either no alternatives or only alternatives they think are unreasonable - pays the artist nothing.

4. Music has different values to different people, or even the same people at different times.

If you're a fan of Coldplay, you might pay $50 to be the first person to hear their new song.

If you're not a fan of Coldplay, you might have to BE paid $50 to listen to it. And Coldplay might be willing to pay you to try it to see if you like it.

If you've heard the song hundreds of times, you might want to value it less than the first time you've heard it.

Or maybe you didn't care for it the first time you heard it, but now, after 10 plays, it's started to click with you.

Or it reminds you of college, and the added nostalgia makes it valuable.

The song remains the same. Should the pricing? Plenty of other businesses charge different prices for the same product to maximize profits (it's called price discrimination).

It's Up To The Artist To Decide

Ultimately, every artist looking to distribute their art has to decide if what they're getting paid for it makes sense to them.

Some bands will play night after night for little more than 2 cheap beer, $20, 4 guest list slots, and the hope they'll make a few fans. Some don't tour at all. Some only do it if there are minimum guarantees.

Some, like the aforementioned Uniform Motion, even let people set their own prices to own the band's music, including ZERO DOLLARS. If Uniform Motion is willing to give their own music away for nothing, does it seem reasonable for them to complain about how "bad" Spotify is for paying them so little? At least Spotify is paying them something, and providing accounting.

Uniform Motion admits they produced more physical product (250 units) than they believe they can sell. They don't expect to break even, but so far, they're also not planning on dropping the price to move the inventory. This is their third album, so they've manage to get this far somehow.

Even looking at how Uniform Motion values their own music, one walks away confused. The band themselves seems to think their music is worth something between zero and 15 Euros. The pricing seems to be largely determined by the packaging it comes in, rather than any intrinsic value in the product itself. (I will also note I haven't purchased or heard any of their music, so I can't comment on the quality of the packaging or the art).

Ultimately, the pricing isn't the issue. The issue is a disconnect between what the artist thinks their work is worth and what the audience thinks it is worth.

Lady Gaga "sold" her new album on Amazon for $1. What does that say?

Sunday, September 11, 2011

9/11/01-11

I'm a bit uncomfortable joining the ranks of people and organizations "looking back over the 9/11 decade", because it's an extremely depressing exercise. As practiced by most, it's also excessively sweetened and adulterated with an insincere and shallow analysis of how the USA has reacted, and what it's all meant.

Where Was I?
I had been working late. Very late. Rhapsody was racing towards its initial launch. My small team (myself, another product manager, a developer, and a designer) were working hard to complete an HTML-powered demo of Rhapsody for a presentation to the Listen.com board of directors. We'd been working late all week, and on September 10, 2001, we worked until about 3 AM.

As I rode my motorcycle home, I thought about how long it had been since I'd stayed up that late working, and I wondered how I would function the next day. I got home, slept until 7 am, and then stumbled into the shower. As I was getting dressed, I checked my e-mail. This was before RSS feeds, so I had set up CNN to e-mail me about any notable events.

One email headline said a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. I figured it had to be a hack, a joke, or spam. Then, scrolling up, I saw a message about another plane. And another about the Pentagon. I turned on the TV as I finished getting dressed. I watched the news for about 20 minutes, seeing the footage of the crashes and the shock of the anchors.

I left for work.

At the office, people were mostly standing around in shock. One of my coworkers came in the front door, saw everyone milling around, and asked me what was going on. I said "someone has crashed jets into both towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon." He laughed. I said "no, really. I'm serious. This is bad." He took off for the TV room.

I sat down at my desk and started working.

Around 10 or 11 am, the CEO gathered the company together and told everyone to go home and be with their families. Except me and my team. We were supposed to keep working to finish our demo.

At lunchtime I walked several blocks, trying to find a place open to get food, watching the empty skies for planes. I was listening to the quieter pieces on "Drukqs" by Aphex Twin, and that album continues to summon a kind of desolate, fatigued, melancholy when I hear it.

We kept working. Around 7 or 8 pm my girlfriend called me. She was upset and wanted me to come home. I told her I had to finish up and I would be a few more hours. I'll never forget how scared and alone she sounded, and how bad I felt when I hung up the phone. I left about 3 hours later, told the team to knock off for the day.

We finished the demo the next day, and of course found out the board meeting had been cancelled since no planes were flying.

While at work during those next few months, however, I'd spend a lot of time thinking about what had happened. I was moved to tears several times - watching the footage, looking at photos of the reactions from around the world, and hearing various stories of the survivors, the people around the world. I was fortunate in that I did not have any direct connection with anyone killed in the attacks - surprising given how many people I know in both DC and New York.

History and The Gulf War
My family has a strong connection to the United States military and government. My paternal grandfather fought in many wars for the USA and devoted his life to advanced military technology for its benefit. My father worked for intelligence agencies, helped stabilize the nation's faltering economy in the 70s, and worked to clean up many of the USA's most toxic sites in the 80s. My maternal grandfather worked to supply military bases around Europe.

I remember turning 18 and driving myself to the post office to register for the draft. . The woman behind the counter accepted my card, checked it over, and said "Hey, happy birthday!" I understood that part of the price of living in the USA was being prepared for military service.

I wasn't happy about it, but I naively felt the world (at least the USA) existed in a time beyond full-on war. But when I was attending college in 1990, President Bush attacked Iraq in response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. Operation Desert Storm, or The (Persian) Gulf War (I).

My fellow students and I were worried. We understood that "this aggression cannot stand", but there was a lot of debate about whether the USA (as opposed to the UN) was obligated to do something, or whether or not it was even worth doing anything. The USA was not in direct jeopardy, and Kuwait was hardly a top-tier ally.

The liberal professors were aghast. I was taking a video class at the time and the instructor was really upset about the US invasion, and the possibility of war. He had us write essays about it, and the possibility of us going off to Iraq to fight.

I remember this well because I felt it was somewhat inappropriate (this was a class on "creative video", after all), but I found myself moved by thinking through everything this meant. I wrote something to the effect of "I don't want to go to war, I don't want to kill people, especially under circumstances where our country is not in direct jeopardy...but it's part of the price of being a citizen. If I don't like it, I need to stand up and tell our 'leaders' and end the war. Not because I'm afraid of killing or dying, but because war is irresponsible and stupid."

I recall my peers saying "it's going to be Vietnam in the desert - the resistance will be dug in, and we'll be there for years. We won't win. "Victory" is impossible in those conditions."

Miraculously, though, the Gulf War was short and contained, and none of that happened. My peers and I figuratively and literally dodged a bullet.

After 9/11
The USA's societal and political responses to 9/11 have been depressing and frightening.

When I was in grade school, I read "The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg" by Mark Twain. I thought of that story repeatedly over the next few years as the USA, which had long prided itself on being tough, stoic, and fair, became frightened, emotional, and paranoid.

The passing of the PATRIOT act was unreal. The ensuing curtailing of civil liberties was made worse by the general attitude of "if you don't go along with this, you're supporting 'them'". What little we do know of what the government and private industry have done is positively Orwellian and chilling.

Hearing government officials actually say "watch what you say" was creepy. Hearing them suggest people be rounded up pre-emptively or put into internment camps was infuriating. But watching the rest of the country go along with all of it (either reluctantly or worse, with chest-thumping vigor) was heartbreaking.

I didn't want to go to war. I don't know anyone who did. People marched in the streets, wrote angry letters. Blogged. Called. I became more politically active than I have ever been in my life. It didn't do any good. Our leaders threw us into not one, but two wars. Changing Presidents and parties hasn't helped. The wars continue. Gitmo is still open.

I could write extensively about the minor inconveniences and idiocies we've imposed upon ourselves in airports, but they're ultimately insignificant. They're annoying and ineffective, but the net result has been making sure I have an extra hour at the airport instead of an extra 15-30 minutes.

What I've really noticed at all those airports is the soldiers. They're everywhere I go. And so very many of them are kids. 18 year-olds. They're not in a fancy college. They're going to, or coming from, the countries we're occupying. They will probably endure longer service and more tours of duty than any prior generation of soldiers.

I look at these...children, and my heart breaks. I want to approach them and say many things. I want to thank them for their service, and apologize for not being able to prevent them from having to endure it.

In the past, the hardship of war was shared and helped create a bond and common cause. That's no longer true in the USA of the 21st century. The Selective Service System hasn't been used to draft people. The country has chosen to deploy the National Guard. Instead of sharing the burden, we've extended the obligations of our "volunteer army" while denying them equipment, decent care, and benefits.

In the 21st century, the press is locked down and co-opted. The news media barely even reports on the wars, and the public is barely interested. If I were a reporter covering the White House, I'd ask every damn day "when will the USA leave Iraq and/or Afghanistan?" Instead, the reporters ask dozens of questions about the President rescheduling a speech on jobs. Neither party will take a stand.

There's no "TV war", like Vietnam, on the news every night. It would hurt ratings. There's some great reporting going on outside of the evening news, but nobody's watching it. If it is put in front of you, it's so outrageous and sad, it's hard to not just shove it out of your mind. People compile their own news sources, and are able to choose those that reinforce, rather than challenge, their own assumptions and beliefs.

When knowledge, debate, and truth are no longer respected, learning anything becomes difficult.

Conclusion
As a nation, we're still reeling. I hope we will continue to learn and grow, to respond with the things that make us good and strong, rather than reacting with fear and anger. Like Hadleyburg, our values and virtue have been tested. How will we answer?

Personally, my relationship with work changed. I have a better understanding of appropriate priorities now in both my day-to-day life and in a bigger picture. I am grateful to be alive.

I am also more cynical about and disappointed with our government. It's difficult for me to envision a future in which things get markedly better. The current state of the 2012 campaign does not leave me particularly optimistic.

As bad as I feel about government, my feelings toward the electorate are worse. We cheer governors who execute people, even innocent ones. We focus on trivial issues around our candidates rather than focusing on their ideas and plans. We don't hold our leaders, and by extension, ourselves, accountable for anything.

At these debates, these town halls, these meet-ups, why are we not asking "when will the wars end?" I guess we're all too worried about when we're going to get paid.

I'd like to end on a happy note, somehow. Wouldn't we all? I'm just at a loss. How do you hang a happy face on an ugly event that bred more ugliness?

I still love my country, and I'd rather be here than anywhere else. As I look back over the last 10 years, I wish we all had more to be proud of.

I think of my grandfather. He was at Pearl Harbor on a destroyer when the Japanese attacked. I wonder what he would say about all this.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

TIP reunion, part 3: Precocious to Post-cocious

It's been over a month since the 30-year TIP reunion. I've had some time to reflect on my experiences and synthesize a bit of what I learned. I've managed to keep a few of the friendships I renewed at the reunion going and keep in touch with some of the people I saw there.

The reunion had a bit of a dark side, as most reunions do. In some sense, reunions are like going back to your childhood home - you are put into the mindset of being a kid again, or in this case, an adolescent. And that's not always pleasant, as there are parts of childhood best left behind. And of course, you're reminded of exactly how far from childhood you are...

One of the things I remember about being a gifted kid was a near-constant sense of inadequacy. No matter how smart or talented or bright or witty I was, there was always someone who exceeded my abilities, while making it look easy.

In a band? Some kids were in a better band. Putting out albums. Got a great score on the PSAT and SAT? Guess what? Only 2nd best, stud - that congressman's daughter scored 50 points higher and got the best score in the school. And so on.

TIP was the same way. I scored decently on the SATs as a 7th grader. But I met more than one kid there who got perfect scores on the SAT as a 7th grader. I was distracted, I goofed off, I didn't always do my best work. Other kids managed to focus and did. Even when I did do my best work, there were kids who just seemed to leave me in the dust. I taught myself geometry in about 2 weeks, passed the standardized test and got credit for it. But I did it while sitting next to kids who, in the same 2 week period, taught themselves algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus.

Part of me wanted to try harder, to excel, to be not just "the best I could be", but "the best", or at least "better than that kid over there". Part of me knew it wasn't going to happen, because of ability or will or both.

Over the years I learned to deal with that longing and frustration. Perhaps I simply got better at justifying why I wasn't the best at everything, or even best at anything.

And yet, there I was, at the reunion, and suddenly it all comes rushing back.

I'm in the hospitality suite. I'm talking to a former classmate. She's got a Ph. D., and a lovely daughter who is not even 8 years old and is already asking her mom questions like "does an electron have mass?" Her life is dialed in.

Another of my former classmates is an economist contributing to a famous economics blog. Another is teaching economics at the Ivy League school where I majored in economics. Nearly everyone at the reunion had an advanced degree. They just seemed so damn smart and accomplished. Maybe I need to go back to school, do something meaningful. I ruminated and compared my own meager achievements to these people and found myself lacking.

But I start talking to them, and it begins to dawn on me: we all feel that way.

A guy who has started 2 successful businesses on his own feels like he needs to get a Ph. D in physics just so he can have one. And some of the people with one Ph. D feel they need to get a second one, because they don't feel like they've done enough. The people in academia wish they were out doing stuff in "the real world" and the people in the working world all think they should be teaching or researching.

When you're identified as having great potential, people tell you outrageous things. They say "you'll rule the world" or "you'll change everything" or "you'll be rich". You don't have to hear that too many times to start buying it when you're a kid. You want to believe it. You want to be the hero of the story, just like in all the books you've read.

But those expectations are unrealistic, if not misleading, for many reasons.

The presentation by the TIP researchers unintentionally referenced and reinforced those unrealistic expectations and dredged up all this stuff for everyone. After talking about gifted kids and how we grew up and what we were like, the researchers showed us photos of some other notable "gifted" people: Sergey Brin. Lady Gaga. A lady who'd won a big-deal physics prize.

I could feel all of the formerly precocious around me wincing in their seats as they thought "how come I'm not up there? Where did I miss my chance? Is it too late? What's wrong with me?" I saw the parade of faces and research as a kind of indictment: "How come you're not running the world yet?"

It was something of a surprise to find I wasn't the only one who felt that way. It was also a relief. And it was sort of funny, too, in how predictably everyone continued to want to (over-)achieve. It was a subject that came up repeatedly over the next day.

Of course there's something to be learned here. If I can look at these other high achievers and say "Hey, look, a second Ph. D? Dude, you really need to recalibrate your expectations"...well, maybe I need to look in the mirror and take some of my own advice.

"Diminished expectations" was a phrase kicked around a lot from age 18-22. That was when I and some of my more cynical classmates began to realize that hard work and raw talent were insufficient to guarantee success.

There were other factors at play that were just as much or more important than aptitude and effort, and often those other factors are the ones that really matter. Things like "who you know" and "how you look" and "being in the right place at the right time".

That was also around the time we began to realize there was also more to life than just work. I think of "Real Genius", a movie that affected my outlook in many ways. There's a scene where the two main characters are discussing a mysterious third person:
Chris: So, I talked to him.
Mitch: You did?
Chris: Yeah, and he used to be the number one stud around here in the 70’s. (whispers) Smarter than you and me put together.
Mitch: So what happened? Did he crack?
Chris: Yes, Mitch. He cracked. Severely.
Mitch: Why?
Chris: He loved his work.
Mitch: Well what’s wrong with that?
Chris: There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s all he did. He loved solving problems, he loved coming up with the answers. But, he thought that the answers were the answer for everything. Wrong. All science, no philosophy. So then one day someone tells him that the stuff he’s making was killing people.
Mitch: So what’s your point? Are you saying I’m going to end up in a steam tunnel?
Chris: Yeah.
Mitch: What?
Chris: You are, if you keep up like this. Mitch, you don’t need to run away from here. When you’re smart, people need you. Use your mind creatively.
Mitch: (smiles) I noticed you don’t study too hard.
Chris: (smiles) Bingo.
You shouldn't compare your life, your self, or your achievements to anyone else. They are coming from a different situation, with different priorities. They make different sacrifices and are driven by different demons.

I will never forget the dark circles under the eyes of the girl who scored higher than me on the PSAT. She did very well in high school, but it was obvious she paid a substantial price for that success.

I think of my fellow TIP students, all of us considered precocious at one time, and now clearly "post-cocious". Potential is not a guarantee of anything. Achievements do not bring more than fleeting happiness. Aspire to being happy with who you are, not just what you do.

Use your mind creatively. Don't study too hard.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Steve Jobs, Inconsequential Details, and Bass Players

In the wake of Steve Jobs' resignation from Apple this past week, hagiographic posts churned and bubbled. One of the most popular was a story by Vic Gundotra, about how Jobs called him to discuss the Google logo on the iPhone, specifically the gradient in the yellow "o". It wasn't right, and he wanted it fixed.

People have been citing this as an example of how great Jobs was/is, noting his miraculous attention to detail.

I completely disagree. Jobs had many fine moments. This was not one of them.

This was a completely inconsequential detail. I doubt most people, seeing the two images side by side, could even tell the difference. And yet this top executive felt the need to spend time with another top executive to discuss and resolve the situation. On a Sunday morning.

Jobs has an army of some of the best visual design folks on the planet. They've not only gone to school for precisely this thing, they've executed design in the field. Google's design team isn't as good, but they're no slouches (and they're getting better).

Steve Jobs, on the other hand, is a guy who tucks his turtlenecks into his rather unflattering jeans, and wears running shoes with them (and not cool running shoes, either). His personal clothing aesthetic could perhaps be described as "successful sysadmin who once went shopping with a girlfriend". 

So Jobs or professional designers: who's going to make the better design choice?

One makes many aesthetic decisions designing products or making art. Most of them are arbitrary, and collectively they create the overall feel of the thing. If you believe the reporting and hype, Apple's products are basically the result of Steve Jobs' personal aesthetic. There's nothing wrong with that.

Even if you think Jobs made the better choice and had the right to, imagine how his designers felt. Why are they even there? (And yes, I understand it's entirely possible one of them noted this issue and passed it up to The Steve so he could pass it over to Vic and get approval - you can't just arbitrarily change a logo asset for a company like Google, but I'm assuming the story went down as people are choosing to interpret it).

In the big picture, this detail was inconsequential. CEOs are supposed to stay focused on the big picture, and leave the details to the folks passionate and expert in implementing the details.

 Far more important were the many other design decisions made - the size of the device, the weight, the screen resolution, how the system looks in general. Jobs (and more importantly, his toiling, faceless legions of workers) should be lauded for their attention to detail and understanding how important some of those things can be. If one has any doubts, go look at an Android phone or a (shudder) BlackBerry and see what lack of attention to detail looks like.

When you add someone to your band, you want them to bring their aesthetic and contribute. As I like to say, if I want you to play bass in my band, I want you to play what you think are good bass parts. If I'm standing in front of you constantly saying "no, not that note, play it exactly like this", I'm not looking for a collaborator. I'm looking for a robot (and should have a robot playing the part).

Looking at Jobs' take on this, he's got designers and he's not using them. He either hired the wrong people (they couldn't do the work to the level of satisfaction required) or he didn't empower them (he didn't let them do the work they were hired for). Neither of those speaks well of his decisions!

It's important to call out when design overrides are worthwhile or not. Looking back to this post, I'd cite Vic's story not as an example of Jobs' brilliance, but rather an example of how most CXO-level executives focus on the wrong things and take away the wrong lessons from Jobs' leadership.

Over the last few days, I expect many designers have received emails from their CEOs critiquing their visual design. Sorry to hear that, guys. Maybe you can call Vic Gundotra and get his advice on what to do.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Who Uses Your Tools?

Two of the most important records in my life I heard when I was very young. Tomita's "Kosmos" and Jean-Michel Jarre's "Oxygene". They both had extensive lists of the gear used to make the album, which to a young man, seemed mysterious and futuristic.

Tomita's list was huge, and featured things like:
  • AKG BX20E Echo Unit
  • Binson Echorec "2"
  • Roland Space Echo RE-201
  • Eventide Clockworks "Instant Phaser"
  • Eventide Clockworks "Instant Flanger"
  • Eventide Clockworks "Harmonizer"
  • Fender "Dimention IV"
  • Fender Electronic Piano
  • Hohner Clavinet C
  • Mellotron
  • Leslie Speaker Model 147
  • Roland Rhythm Arranger TR66
Jarre's included:
  • ARP 2600
  • Eko Computerhythm
  • Eminent 310
  • EMS AKS
  • EMS VCS3
  • Farfisa Organ
  • Mellotron
  • RMI Harmonic Synthesizer
At the time, these might as well have been spaceship components (hell, Tomita had an actual phaser!) -  incomprehensible and beyond expensive. Over 30 years later, I am familiar enough with gear to know what nearly every single one of the devices on both lists did and sounded like. If I wasn't, the Internet provides endless photos, samples, and emulations.

More importantly, even if I didn't know what exact gear was used, I can now listen to those old records and know how to make those sounds using other gear.

I enjoy learning about the creative process other people use. Studying how others work inspires me to try new methods. I read a lot of blogs and books about how painters paint, musicians write and record, and writers write. I also read a lot about tools.

One of the more commonly-asked questions on these blogs are things like:
"What synths did [artist name] use?"
"Which famous artists used [instrument]?"

People ask these questions to help determine what gear to buy, or if the gear they have is any good.

I think using the exact same tools to make the exact same kind of work is a recipe for uninteresting art - you'll inevitably make bad copies of the things you love.

Using the same paints and brushes as Magritte won't make you a good painter, and it won't make your painting better. Using the same typewriter as William Gibson won't make you a better writer. So why should using the same equipment and sounds as [your favorite band] make you a better musician?

A better approach is to try to emulate feel, vibe, or style with radically different gear. Or if you love the gear, use it to make very different music. The differences are what make it interesting.

There's nothing wrong with copying as a form of study - Arshile Gorky famously copied paintings by his colleagues as part of his art self-education. But when you're ready to express yourself, pay less attention to who else uses your tools and more attention to how you're using your tools!