Notes On A Revolution

Tech, culture, and whatever takes my fancy.

Whatever gets you true

Truths, not truth

I’m reading Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc. at the moment, all about Pixar, what he has learned in running it over the course of the last 20-plus years. He is incredibly candid, funny and humble, even after all he has achieved, and I could not recommend the book more.

Last night the chapter I was reading saw him talking about reading a slew of management books as he grappled with trying to figure out how to run Pixar in its first incarnation as a high-end computer hardware company. Loaded with advice and aphorisms that were lauded by the business world, the fell flat for him when he tried to apply them to his own business. Focus, focus, focus? ON WHAT?!

Similarly, advice he sought from friends who ran other similar companies steered him down dead-ends, which continued to happen until he started to trust his own instincts.

You see where I’m going with this.

We’ve no shortage of advice on hand these days, from the hubris of Silicon Valley where dictums rain down from kids still closer to their 20th birthdays than their 30th, to MBAs, to all the books that have rolled along since Ed was first trying to figure things out for himself. And it’s all great, but so many people (myself included at times) fall into thinking our own experience is universal, our own point of view can be applied anywhere. And the older I get, the less true that is.

I was talking to an aspiring planner a couple weeks back, and she asked what she could do to be a better planner. I’m short on advice as I feel like I’m figuring it out every day, but I told her not to worry about being the smartest, just the most curious. I quoted the Manic Street Preachers as I am want to do, this is my truth, tell me yours.

Truths, not truth. These things were true for a moment in time for a given person or group of people. My friend Nick published a great piece called “30 things I’ve learned” which you should go and read. It’s great, but they are 30 things that work for him. They may work for you too. They may not work at all. They are truths, they are not truth (save for his opening one – sadly we will all die).

Having said all of that, remember: all of the above is just my truth.

You need to find your own.

Do do do

We tend to celebrate first loves. In memories, in films, in music. Our first love carries with it an almost mythical status, like once upon a time we managed to bottle lightning for what seemed like an eternity in the moment. We lionize heartache, the grieving process. It leads us into stupid arguments with friends over how King of Wishful Thinking is the greatest one-hit-wonder song of all time. Cultural significance for its placement in Pretty Woman aside, I know people who weren’t alive when the movie came out that can sing it word for word. It is infinitely relatable.

I think first loves are a crock.

Rather, I think the celebrating thereof is just nonsense. What we’re celebrating is the naivety. We didn’t know any better. We didn’t know there was something to lose, and even if we did, we were sure it would never be lost.

I don’t think there’s anything particularly romantic about first loves. I think it’s important for everyone to get their heart broken. It is an experience that ages and hardens and weakens and puts chinks in your armor that you are better served for having, that makes you better at life. I’m fine with celebrating the misery that comes with it.

I think falling in love for the second time (or third, or however many laps you’ve done around your heart’s own sun) is far more romantic. When you go in knowing what the stakes are, knowing how bad it could be, and you still do it anyway. You sign up for the potential of loss, of tears, of wearing all your friends out. To be only too aware of all that, and to still be able to look at somebody and figure they’re worth the chance? How do you even articulate that? Perhaps that’s why we don’t often write songs about it, first loves are too easily qualified, the second time around a socially-acceptable form of emotional suicide.

To quote the Boss, how much of that was I thinking about at the time? None of it. How much was I feeling at the time? All of it. In hindsight I figured there was something interesting in writing about the first throes of romantic bliss, and then pairing it with the anxiety, the fear of rejection, that secret surety we all have at times that once someone really knows us they couldn’t still possibly love us. To work through all that, and to grit your teeth and say “Ok” to that anyway. That takes guts – and I think it is wildly romantic.

Anyway, happy Valentine’s Day.

Lyrics

Do do do goes the beat of my heart
No longer falling apart
no more seasons for rain’
No more secrets, no more pain
Why are you so surprised?
Did you never see the look in my eyes?
That’s your smile sinking in
That’s your touch on my skin
Are my feet on the ground?
Are you coming around?
And all that I am now
I am lost, yeah I am found

Do do do says the sign on my door
Do not disturb this heart no more
Do not reach for the stairs
Do not look you won’t find me there
Got my feet on the ground
Oh and I’m running now
Don’t know where but I’m heading out
I am lost, I don’t like it how

(CHORUS)
All of my life I’ve been taking it down
Just afraid what I’d find And afraid that I’m out
Of my mind and then some, Hell I can’t get enough
So get me the bottle, Got a hit of that bitter stuff
All of my life I’ve been making it up
And I don’t know how I could ever get enough
So I’m taking it down To the here and now
And I’ll let you in If you let me out

With you
Oh with you
Oh with you
Oh with you
With you

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Everything is a remix

Well, I don’t seem to show up here much these days do I? I’m going to see if 2014 can make good on 2013 threats to write more.

I’m also trying out Medium as a platform. I say “trying out” – I mean I’ve written two things and published one of them. It’s as much an experiment with the platform and audience as anything.

Anyway.

I was thinking about a recent interaction with a well-known museum here in New York, and oh-so-elegantly segue into talking about the new Beats Music app.

As Richard Nash has said, those in-between the artist and the audience need to be in the business of fostering a connection between the two. All any artist wants to do is to connect with their audience, but those who would play the role of publisher or curator must start from an understanding that the audience arrives and engages on its own terms. As the title of the Manic Street Preacher’s 1998 album goes “This is my truth, tell me yours”.

By all means, have a read. Or don’t. That is also a thing you can do.

Either way, see you soon.

New years and new experiences

Happy new year, and my how those last 6 months flew by.

Short post to see in the new year which serves only to link you to writing elsewhere. It’s still mine however. I wrote a piece for Imagination’s Labs blog about the Instagram terms of service debacle and thought a bit about why everything went so badly and what it points to for services like it in future:

So what got the Instagram users so riled up in the first place, aside from of course the darkest of all readings of the new Terms of Service? We’re already being sold by the parent company, along with whatever meager amounts of content our presence produces where it suits a particular brand’s purpose. There seems to be something far more personal in the image, these low-fi pictures still purporting to be worth a thousand words, even when that word is intrinsically “Yolo” copied and pasted ad infinitum.

Hope you enjoy, and I hope to be here more often in 2013.

The Open Man

We used to run ourselves ragged every day. On an asphalt playground with no shade in sight, one water fountain to cater for two hundred kids who ran in and around the courts each lunchtime and recess, running fast breaks and spotting up not in a pair of Nike Air, but in heavy black leather school shoes; in place of a basketball singlet, our plain white button-up school shirts soaked through with sweat as the sun would carry the air around us well beyond any temperature that would have someone who knew what they were doing out of the daylight until the air cooled enough for extended physical exertion. We would run for at least an hour every day; we would run and we would run and we would run.

I don’t remember really imagining my basketball game would ever take me beyond the school yard, most days it barely carried me there. I was not a gifted athlete, we had enough of those around for me to know what one looked like, and it didn’t look like me. When I practiced I would dribble, I would try to favour my far weaker left hand, the irony inherent in it being the hand I wrote with and the way I played guitar; that was not lost on me. Spider dribbles where, as fast as you could, you would dribble left to right in front of you, and then left to right behind your legs before passing it back through and going again. How well could I dribble the ball? Could I be good enough to get around the kids who were taller? Faster? Could jump higher? Was there anyone left who was shorter, slower, would stay even further from the rim, no matter how high they jumped? Perhaps. Perhaps.

I could pass the ball though, I could pass the ball like nobody’s business. When in the space of what seemed to be 15 short years my age had doubled, I would find myself running a fast break like a hundred I had run before. 3 on 1. Easy. One man to my left, one to my right, a lone defender to beat. Easy. I clocked Andy on my right, looked to my left, and flicked the ball without looking back at him, sending him in for a layup like I had a hundred times a day half a life time ago. I didn’t even bother to watch him at first, and then glanced back with a smile on my face when I heard Johny call out “Dizzy Showtime!” “Dizzy” is what this group of friends had taken to calling me, and it seemed fitting as I watched the ball sail past Andy and out of bounds. Actually that’s not entirely true; to say it sailed right past Andy and out of bounds is to imply it went anywhere near Andy to begin with. It was no sooner bound for a lunar orbit than it was for Andy’s out-stretched hands, less a ball than a palpable bouncing time warp between my 15 year old self who harboured no grand dreams of playing above the rim and my 31 year old self who now it seemed harboured dreams of simply playing like I used to.

So began a year of pick-ups, of evening leagues for professionals not of the sporting variety, but of the office-worker variety. Finance, legal, advertising, start-ups. We would convene in high school gyms in the evenings after work across Manhattan, from the Lower East Side to Lower Harlem. We would convene for displays of athleticism that would have the teenagers who occupied those halls during the day in hysterics, teenagers who had replaced my burning Queensland sun with inner-city dreams, teenagers aspiring to play for a local college, maybe even a good college; teenagers whose only shot might be connected to a basket 10 feet off the floor the way my future never was.

With our professional league season over, we would reconvene in the East Village playing pick-up games on Saturday mornings. At Houston & Chrystie the hoop would remain as far away as ever. But as the days wore on, my 15 year old self would occasionally rear his acne-ravaged face, and sweat, and find the open man.  The open man, as it turns out, inhabits little more than an older, wiser, stronger body that still bears some resemblance to my timid 15 year old self. The open man is, if anything, slower than the already decidedly not-sprightly 15 year old. The open man probably doesn’t even jump quite as high. He’s stronger though, and he has enough scars to know that if he hits the ground, he invariably gets back up, so he worries about it less. The open man, channeling that 15 year old at times, can still get the ball where it needs to be. More than that though, the open man is willing to shoot. He is willing to shoot and shoot and shoot, and unlike that 15 year old, he believes each time he releases it, the ball isn’t going to do anything other than find the bottom of the net.

The open man wouldn’t be capable of even this decidedly limited game were it not for the hours spent running and running and running under that scorching summer sun, returning to class with a ragged white shirt stained with blood and soaked see-through with sweat. We must have been a sight to see.

Some days, I believe, we still are.

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Can you please remind me?

Cover of "Fortune's Fool: Edgar Bronfman,...

I just finished reading Fortune’s Fool. The book by Fred Goodman purports to be the story of Edgar Bronfman, Jr., one-time heir to the Seagrams liquor throne and would-be white knight for the music business. Having guided Universal into a disastrous relationship with French media house Vivendi, Bronfman exited that deal only to come back into the entertainment world a few years later when he and a group of investors acquired the Warner Music Group, installing him as chairman and CEO.

I say purports to be about Bronfman as while the first half of the book tells his story and that of his family, the rest of the book is really more about the people that lead WMG through the end of the last decade, the decisions they were faced with, and how they not only survived but thrived despite the odds. Goodman’s previous book on the business, The Mansion On The Hill, tells the story of the birth of the music industry itself, and is highly recommended for anyone with a passing interest in how the modern label was formed, how music management came to be, and how people like David Geffen came to hold the positions they do.

Fortune’s Fool is a great behind the scenes look at the Warner Music Group, but it closes with an epilogue where Goodman allows himself up on a high horse to berate the modern music consumer for not valuing music, for downloading being the scourge of the Earth, for not understanding the music label to be not a necessary evil, simply necessary.

Goodman rightly calls to attention the people who have experimented most successfully with alternate forms of financing recorded music (from Prince giving away CDs on the cover of the Daily Mail to promote a string of shows to Radiohead’s In Rainbows where fans paid what they wanted) as having already benefitted from a major label relationship. Even the most recent darling of the movement Amanda Palmer who raised over a million dollars for her next record via Kickstarter had previously had benefitted from a label and famous pal Ben Folds. These associations, Goodman rightly contends, expose up and coming artists to audiences they are unlikely to have reached otherwise. They have their labels to thank, for better or for worse.

Where Goodman goes awry however is when he belabours a well-meaning point around the value of recorded music. Copyright exists, he says, to ensure people are incentivised to continue to create works that are in the public good. And he is correct yet still misguided; we’ve all enjoyed music that was created by some talented soul, and we all know the record label has reaped the bulk of the revenue from a hit. Music remains a hit-driven business, and the hits pay for all the chances the record companies take on the unknowns.

Unfortunately for Goodman, he is making the wrong argument: nobody needs convincing that recorded music has value. His lament is also identical to the music industry he has spent his life chronicling: this all worked fine before that pesky Internet came along and ruined everything.

In bemoaning downloading as an encroachment on copyright owners, he also glosses over the systemic extension of copyright laws that the large corporations have sought to keep works in copyright when they should have expired. The poster child for this in the film industry is Disney, a company whose defining works were created by using stories that had themselves entered the public domain (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Sleeping Beauty. Alice in Wonderland. The Little Mermaid. Beauty and the Beast. Pinocchio. Robin Hood. Peter Pan. Winnie the Pooh. The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Tarzan. The Prince and the Pauper. Cinderella. Mulan. The Jungle Book. Aladdin. See this fantastic overview for more, this piece also worth reading.). Most of those works now enjoy copyright protection at least until 2047, with many staring down a much longer period of time.

Record companies are generally adept at exploiting a back catalogue, as we have seen with the various re-issues, re-mastered recordings, deluxe box sets and so forth over the past few years, each of those editions enjoying new batches of copyright protection. The changes in laws, again, brought on by large conglomerates defending the right of the creators big and small also have odd ramifications, such as work by Robert Johnson that had not been released under copyright to begin with now enjoying protection. This for work released in 1937. It is hard to argue (though bless them, they do try) that these sorts of copyright provisions encourage and support the growth of new artists creating new works.

The music business has taken a different tack in recent times, starting a campaign called Why Music Matters. The wildly flawed premise of this site is that music consumers only need to be convinced that recorded music is important, then they will start paying for it again. This at a time where there have never been more consumers of music, nor a more diverse selection of music available. It is Chris Anderson’s Long Tail with a twist: you can only profit from the tail if you have a microscopic commercial scale to match. Needless to say, this does not apply to the major label.

As I say above, music is a hit-driven business. In fact the entire entertainment industry, through movies, video games, books, what have you, is hit-driven. This is fine when the supply-side can be as carefully controlled as it once was. The issue for the entertainment industry is they can no longer control the supply-side. Conversely, while the demand-side has never been stronger, it has also never been more fragmented. The net result is the amount of attention needed in aggregate on a single act in order to return the music business back to its glory days (something every executive in the industry prays for daily) is so expensive and convoluted that it is rendered basically impossible. That, coupled with the access consumers have to an ever increasing number of sources for their music, means the genie is out of the bottle forever.

Brian Eno got, I believe, closer to the reality of the situation. In a 2010 interview with The Guardian he said:

“I think records were just a little bubble through time and those who made a living from them for a while were lucky. There is no reason why anyone should have made so much money from selling records except that everything was right for this period of time. I always knew it would run out sooner or later. It couldn’t last, and now it’s running out. I don’t particularly care that it is and like the way things are going. The record age was just a blip. It was a bit like if you had a source of whale blubber in the 1840s and it could be used as fuel. Before gas came along, if you traded in whale blubber, you were the richest man on Earth. Then gas came along and you’d be stuck with your whale blubber. Sorry mate – history’s moving along. Recorded music equals whale blubber. Eventually, something else will replace it.”

While we have seen a significant decrease in the revenue derived expressly from recorded music, we have not seen a diminishing of its importance, either to music fans or to the role of recorded music in the careers of artists. Fortune’s Fool chronicles the birth of the 360 record deal, and laments the position it leaves artists in, with record labels taking pieces of other income streams that were previously the domain of the artist to do with as they will. This argument is fundamentally flawed. It suggests there is value inherently in the music business not needing to evolve with the times, as if changes in legislation as opposed to the way a company functions is the way to keep an industry alive. While the rest of the business world marches on, so important is the music business that it should be spared the ravages of time? Please, spare me.

For better or worse, cutting a deal with a major label has always been, and perhaps always will be, an artist agreeing to dance with the devil. The reality is there are a thousand Rihanna’s waiting in line to take her place as soon as she decides she is unhappy with the terms. It is the standard rich and famous contract, updated for a new millenium. That is agreeing to be part of the major label machine, to join in the collective record industry lament for the way things used to be, and to abide by new rules that will require your name put everywhere your business manager can stick it, from movies to perfume to clothing and so on, if you want to have a place in the zeitgeist the way music alone used to afford.

The flip-side to that is to wonder what it actually even means anymore to “sell out”. Keep in mind artists have always been at the mercy of their patrons when it came to their liberty to be artists (at least in starting out) as opposed to working the family farm. We will always need patrons, big and small, and while Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign may be as niche an example as Rihanna in terms of how available it is to the average musician, I have a hunch it is an avenue most of the recording artists of our time would take given the choice.

What Goodman argues against is not the demise of recorded music, but the demise of the record business as he knows it. The rest of the book is well worth a read, but skip the indulgent epilogue where the author sheds the weight of biography for pure fantasy.

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Just what I needed

I must be feeling nostalgic at the moment. On Thursday I wrote about my friend David Howell who is one of the giants I’ve had the pleasure of working with (figuratively and literally, the man is huge), and in so many chats I’ve had recently with agencies, I’ve been talking about the importance of having a strong media thinker at the table.

While I was with Profero Sydney, I had the pleasure of working day in, day out with Phil Ely. When I first met Phil, I didn’t like him, and I don’t think he liked me. I think he thought I was some obnoxious money-grubbing suit and I thought he was just playing the role of media director at the agency. As it turns out, I am not and hopefully never will be money grubbing (the verdict is still out on obnoxious) and Phil had more knowledge of media strategy in his pinky finger than most media professionals have not just in their entire bodies, but their entire agencies.

More than the way he thought about media however, the thing he taught me most was how to think about behaviour. More to the point, he taught me to ask “Why?”. Why do you say that? Why would someone do that? Why would they care? It was Phil’s gracious way of saying “What you’re talking about nobody is going to do, it is going to fail, and we will all look like idiots”, but he gave you the chance to arrive at the painfully obvious on your own.

Now I don’t know how I ever got by without him, without that voice to sit there and be willing, day in and day out, to be the bad guy, to point at the elephant in the room and ask “Do you guys see what I see?” Now that I know to look for it, I’ve seen people shy away from it time and time again in the interests of keeping the peace, and it just doesn’t work. Maybe you have your own way of going about doing it, and maybe you just have your own Phil Ely.

I had mine, and I’m eternally thankful I did.

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I want to be with you everywhere

Given the multitude of ways we have to discover content these days, if you’re like me you occasionally (read: all the time) forget where you might have bookmarked one thing or another to watch later. Most of the time it happens in the awesome and highly recommended iOS/OSX app Reeder which, if you use RSS on a regular basis, makes for the best reading experience I’ve come across.

I found a talk by Google’s Eric Schmidt  stored away in this app that I hadn’t managed to get back to. I’ve just watched it and for a company so many people feel is being out-innovated by everyone around it, Eric’s address to the Mobile World Congress earlier this year is a compelling and well-articulated vision of the future mobile experience.

The talk is an hour including Q&A, but you can skip the first 10 minutes which is interesting, but largely just a demo of the latest features in Android, Google’s mobile operating system. Fo the bulk of Eric’s keynote he holds court on everything from driverless cars to getting Africa online at scale. He could likely have spent an hour on any of these topics alone, but as a package of where we’re going it is not only coherent, it is wildly exciting.

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Standing on the shoulders

A regular lament I find falling out of my mouth these days is never having learned to code, and I’m not alone. Never the less, I’ve spent big chunks of my career in technically-oriented roles where I needed to have some level of understanding of what was going on.

I’ve been able to do this thanks to a wonderful man named David Howell. David, as my best friend Andrew says, is “probably the most erudite individual I will ever meet.” He was Technical Director at Auran, a game studio I worked for with a keen sense of user-experience (before we ever knew that was a thing) and his hobbies included researching ancient Mayan and Roman civilisations. To top it all off, he was (and is) a devoted husband and father, and one of the nicest people you could ever hope to spend time with. Did I mention he was a nuclear physicist before teaching himself how to program? No? I must have skipped that.

The product we were working on was called MyVirtualHome (MVH). At the time (and largely still), when it came to architecture and interior design, most professionals used difficult and expensive software called AutoCAD. The idea with MVH was to make it so your average mum and dad could drag and drop rooms, furniture, bathroom fixtures and so on into a fairly realistic environment. If you knew, you could even put in the longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates and angle your house the way it was in real life so you could see where the sun was coming in and out. It was quite something.

David knew that, as nice as the team we had on it were, if I couldn’t at least talk conceptually about development, I would struggle to rein them in when we really needed to. So in place of giving me C++ For Dummies and wishing me luck, he took the time to explain what object-oriented programming meant, how different pieces of code related to other pieces of code, and within a short period of time I knew when I looked around the room what each person was doing, how they were doing it, and who they needed to be talking to on the team to ensure they were meeting in the middle.

To say it was empowering is an understatement, but more than that, it provided a seat at a table I’ve seen so many smart people be denied for no reason other than they didn’t have a 6’4″ chain-smoking pony-tailed vegan who consumed pizza and coffee like it was a dictatorial mandate take them aside and say “These are the pieces, and this is how they fit together.”

I could say as much about almost anyone on that team, it was a special group. I may have been the Product Manager, but David was the leader. And we were all happy to follow.

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Public success & private failure

#failcon - 16

I write on a somewhat regular basis for my friends at Uncluttered White Spaces.

Their consulting arm, 6.2 is about to host FailCon as part of Vivid Sydney. FailCon first launched in San Francisco in 2009 and has since added events in Brazil and France; this will be the first in Australia. It is sure to be a fun event, it has a great lineup and Vivid Sydney itself is a fantastic few weeks of entertainment in one of the world’s great cities.

On the theme of failure though, I wrote recently about my experience launching Shitter. Based on the press coverage at the time, it could only have been seen as an unbridled success. The reality behind the scenes however was rather different:

We had, without quite meaning to, found ourselves having to develop understandings of logistics, run customer service, pay suppliers, and do a bunch of things you don’t really think about but that any business that sells physical products online has to do. None of us had put our hands up for that business, yet that was, whether we liked it or not, the business we were in. Not in working on the next idea, but trying to get a straight answer out of an indifferent supplier as to when an order might arrive in Mexico.

You can read the rest over at Uncluttered White Spaces.

 

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