Deciphering Culture

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It’s a new game — the music industry’s process of re-invention (part 1)

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The changing face(s) of the music industry

The recording industry has always been dragged kicking and screaming to adopt new technologies and business models (see ). Often the big boys were educated to what was possible by the appearance of new competitors on the margins who responded to new opportunities provided by new technologies or new music markets the majors ignore (and sometimes both). Typically, the big boys eventually swallowed up their upstart competitors and the same thing may happen this time but it seems less likely. And some of the upstarts are convinced the solution must come from somewhere different this time. The memorable quote below comes from an August 22, 2010 edition of “Broken Record: Music in the Download Era”, the LA Times occasional column on the current state of the music industry.

“I don’t want to hear some guy chomping on a cigar in Beverly Hills telling me it’s all gone pear-shaped. The people who invented the paradigm and were trusted to run it let it run afoul. We have to fix it.”Jeff Castelaz, co-owner of LA’s Dangerbird Records quoted in L.A.’s string of indie labels succeeds with a jack-of-all-trades approach.

Castelaz’s Dangerbird Records is one of a new crop of independent record companies that have sprung up and are giving the majors (or what is left of them) a run for their money. And this time it is different — there are new big boys providing low-cost distribution: Amazon, I-Tune… — and new free or low-cost marketing outlets: Twitter, Facebook… It’s no longer simply the independents vs. the majors.

A little historical perspective from Mark Mothersbaugh (from Verbicide Magazine)

I’m in the music industry, so I’ve had to listen to people moaning, lazy record executives who are saying, “Oh no, people aren’t buying our records anymore.” And I want to say, you know what, that is not how people historically have disseminated and listened to music in the history of mankind. It has only been a really short window since Thomas Edison invented the wax disc and then the record companies could start selling platters and then tapes and then digital discs. It has only been a short time. Record companies could control the process of what kids could listen to, which influenced what artists were able or allowed to create. I think the internet… is the most amazing thing that has happened. As far as being an artist, I think now is the greatest time to be an artist…  Now, kids can wake up in the morning and say I want to hear some “cowboy Chinese computer death-metal.” You put those four terms into a search engine,something is going to come up. Some band is playing that kind of music. That is so amazing to me. That is so exciting. It is so inclusive… And now kids who are 16 have cell phones that have more powerful recording systems inside their telephone than the Beatles had to do their first album. The technology is amazing. And who needs a record company? You start a website and people from every corner of the planet now have access to your music.

& New routes to success

Inspiration (local TV news) to Pop Song (“Bed Intruder Song”) to Viral Video (YouTube) to Internet Sales (I-Tunes) to Hot Single (Billboard Top 100)

New York Times coverage

More to follow — the game ain’t over yet

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Written by Jeffrey Callen

September 13, 2010 at 1:12 pm

Thinking about Research — Short Takes (4)

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(1) Insights often come from (or are repeated by) unlikely sources. This is the case today with a blog post from Dan T. Cathy of fast food chain Chik-A-Flik based on a point made by author Stephen Covey, author of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (a self-help/business book I admit to checking out years ago). The insight is on the importance of knowing where you’re going when embarking on any project, whether it’s a new spicy chicken sandwich or a research project — the projected outcomes of the latter may be more open-ended but the basic principle still applies. Below is  a short excerpt from Why the End Matters at the Beginning

… no journey should start without a clear destination in mind. No adventure should begin without a tangible definition of what the point is. You need to know your true north before you even take your first step..

(2) And then there are the likely sources — a recent study by the Cambridge Group delineates the strategic role of internet and mobile in developed and emerging economies. It’s a changing world (read the study report on nielsenwire).

SUMMARY: Consumers around the world are hungry for access to information and communication, especially in countries with a growing middle class. Defying classic economic models, the demand for communication (cell phones) leads traditional media growth, signifying a global, disruptive phenomenon. The demand for information via the Internet follows slower, more predictable growth patterns. The implications for marketers: lead with mobile advertising in high-growth, emerging economies. (

Written by Jeffrey Callen

August 18, 2010 at 9:38 pm

Social Media & Social Capital (an applied approach)

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As an ethnomusicologist applying my training as a researcher and scholar to work outside of academia, I am looking for ideas of how others are approaching putting humanities and social science research and analysis to work in cultural projects (commercial or non-profit or public). Although, undoubtedly shaped by a different cultural and political setting, the efforts of the InteractiveCultures group of the Birmingham School of Media recently caught my attention. The description of their work presents an engaging model for the much-needed creation of effective interfaces between arts & culture research and arts & culture practice and policy:

Our work is part of a wider strategy by the Birmingham School of Media to make arts and humanities research useful in commercial and cultural projects, and to ensure academics engage with commerce and culture. Our partners have improved their business models, developed new insights, or instigated new cultural strategies as a result of their work with us….   We provide a consultancy service for partners from businesses and organisations in the cultural sector, developing new modes of working and informing public policy.  We demonstrate creative online techniques, assist our partners in developing new strategies, and work on online prototypes.

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My interest was especially captured by a recent blog post on InteractiveCultures by Jon Hickman (Social Capital & Social Media) that resonated with my prior work on the social capital created by a nightclub district in North Richmond, California and research on online musical communities. Hickman expands upon an earlier conference paper to make a simple, yet important, point: a community created by social media is not simply a network but a culture dependent on the availability of social capital to its members. The social capital created by social media is not equivalent to that described by Robert Putman in his landmark Bowling Alone (which built on the work of earlier sociologists, such as M.S. Granovelter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties”) but firmly in line with the earlaier use of the term by Pierre Bourdieu as:

…aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to the possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition (Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital” in Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. 1986, p.248)

Eschewing the theoretical frameworks and formulas placed on the analysis of social capital by Putnam (and others that came before and after him), this approach simply acknowledges “that social capability can confer power upon individuals and groups.” As Hickman states, “… that is the key issue at the basis of much that is interesting about social media.” Further, this approach opens up many interesting questions. The one Hickman addresses is how social media communities use social capital to work together for a particular benefit to the community. Community members utilize the potential social capital “resource” that existed and “was activated by a set of social media practices, delivering benefit to its collective owners. Without the social capital, the clever social media tools would be useless.” The last sentence is crucial to remember when examining social media practices — it’s not the technology but the members that have agency.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 24, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Music Industry Reading List from Dave Haynes of SoundCloud

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An installment of the series of summer music industry readings lists being published by Hypebot (for me essential music biz reading). This list if from Dave Haynes of SoundCloud.

Dave Haynes’s Summer Reading List (for the entire text). Below is an abbreviated version with my added keywords before each one:

(1) virtual reality, creativity, web 2.0

You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier – … best known as a pioneer of virtual reality, (Lanier) argues against many of the web 2.0 theories and … makes the case that these trends could stifle creativity, individualism and expression in the human race.

(2) art, creativity, self-expression, success

Linchpin by Seth Godin – Linchpin… argues that we must become indispensable, setting about our ‘true art’ rather than being content with being just another cog in the wheel. And that in today’s environment that’s not just desirable but actually vital, if we’re to succeed.

(3) web 2.0, technology, gin, sit-coms, creativity, media, social network

Cognitive Surplus by Clay Shirky – argues that the critical technology that got everyone through the early phase of the Industrial Revolution was actually gin! People had to drink themselves into a stupor just to get through it. In the Post-Industrial Age the gin-equivalent has been the sitcom. The compelling argument here is that times are now changing. We’re no longer happy to sit back and simply consume. A new generation has started to watch less and less TV and use this spare time, this cognitive surplus, to participate and create. Whether it’s posting to Wikipedia, leaving comments on blogs, uploading videos to Youtube or creating lolcats, the fact is that things are getting more participatory and it’s easy to create and publish. Media is no longer a one-way street.

(4) inspiration

What Matters Now by Seth Godin – Godin… has compiled a really inspiring e-book with wise words from all manner of different people on ‘What Matters Now’. Contributions come from the likes of Fred Wilson, Joi Ito, Kevin Kelly, Hugh MacLeod, Chris Anderson, Tim O’Reilly, Gary Vaynercuk, Jason Fried etc. It’s a very simple idea, get a bunch of smart people, ask them to write one short page on what they thing matters now, compile it into an e-book, then ask people to go and share it for free.

(5) fiction, music industry

Kill Your Friends: A Novel by John Niven – an extremely dark tale set in the late 90’s, at the height of Britpop, about an A&R guy working at a major label. It’s loosely based on the author’s own experience of working in the music biz and a murderous plotline is wrapped around tales of ridiculous A&R meetings, demands from artists and trips to music conferences such as SXSW and Midem.

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 22, 2010 at 12:13 pm

How WordPress is changing publishing

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Interesting article on the effects of blogging (good & bad) on the way we publish (and the way we write, read…) and the questionable value of “democratizing” the role of the writer.

Reposted from Slate‘s Big Money blog:

The Son of Gutenberg. How WordPress changed the way we publish.

By Marion Maneker  — Posted Wednesday, June 16, 2010 – 7:47am

A year ago, Justin Halpern was an underemployed comedy writer who had to move back into his parents’ home in San Diego. Today, he’s got 1.4 million Twitter followers, the No. 1 book on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list, and a CBS sitcom starring William Shatner. All it took was writing down quotes from his father that he tweets out as “Shit My Dad Says.”

Technology and social media are redrawing the roadmap to authorial success. And for every Justin Halpern, there are 10,000 professional writers wondering how to turn blogs, microblogs, and Twitterfeeds into media empires, especially now that their magazines, newspapers, and media organizations are contracting at an alarming rate. Blogs, of course, are the first refuge for professional writers fleeing the withering establishment media, and for hordes of would-be scribes finding their own voice. For these multitudes, WordPress.com has become the 21st-century equivalent of Gutenberg’s printing press. (to read the rest, click here)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

July 2, 2010 at 10:20 am

“KEYS FOR INNOVATION: FORCE IDEAS, BE CREATIVE AND FEEL GOOD AT WORK”

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Reposting a reposting from OWNI of a great, short article on the sine qua non for fostering creative work by Mathilde Berchon on L’Atelier. The bottom line lessson: “what makes innovative ideas happen is mainly interaction and personal development.”

Keys for Innovation: Force Ideas, Be Creative and Feel Good at Work

The best companies leverage their  employees’ creativity and capacity to generate development strategies. Google, Pixar, Ideo: three California giants that strongly encourage and listen to the ideas that come from the trenches. And technology plays a large role in that process.

As Jeff Lawson, CEO of Twilio, explained at the last TEDxSoMa conference: “Don’t wait for the big idea!” Process, workshops and analysis grids help to find new and consistent ideas. His 3-step program (1. brainstorm, 2. map/reduce, 3. matrix) is an efficient way to generate a lot of ideas and determine better ones.

Jonathan Mann, musician and troubadour who writes a song a day – a fresh and funny look at technology (listen to “Cloud Computing for Beginners” or “Bing goes the Internet“) – since January 1st, 2009, shares this point of view: inspiration is rare, even for the most creative people. You have to force it to make ideas happen.

Mindmapping tools, to-do lists and note-sharing utilities like Evernote are useful but what makes innovative ideas happen is mainly interaction and personal development. (To read the rest, click here…)

Written by Jeffrey Callen

June 30, 2010 at 10:59 am

A “REMIXhibition” experiment — online media as social objects

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Andrew Dubber of the Interactive Cultures research centre at the Birmingham School of Media at Birmingham City University in the U.K. is inviting bloggers and creative artists to take an image, slogan or sign and respond to it. Based on the idea that people use online media as “social objects” upon which to base online conversation, Dubber is posting photos and video online to spur dialogue. Dubber’s article Fight the Power: The Art of Protest and the Theory of Social Objects is well worth reading for its access to this “remix” experiment, its theoretical exposition and its discussion of the Fight The Power REMIXhibition of Punch Records at the Custard Factory in Birmingham (in the heart of that city’s new arts & media quarter).

The internet is not a broadcast medium – and nor is it a ‘revolutionized’ older medium. It is instead a conversational space – and there are two main categories of object within that space: the conversation, and the things about which the conversation is taking place. By repositioning exhibited works and media artefacts that spring from that exhibition as individual and decontextualised social objects, the aim is to provoke conversation within that space. (to read the rest).

Written by Jeffrey Callen

June 3, 2010 at 8:29 am

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