Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The 3rd wave of podcasting, and how we got here

It is “raucous and…conversationally rich…and stupidly comforting”, wrote Nicholas Quah in HotPod, his newsletter on the dramatic changes taking place in the world of podcasting. 

The 'it' is podcasting, now into its third wave, according to people who got their feet wet during wave one. We'll hear from a group of these early waders shortly, but first a quick surf through the chronology of the audio format that broke free from the confines of broadcasting formats and the devices we came to know in our homes, cars, and workplaces.

2003- 2008
Wave 1.0

The pioneers doing the homesteading, without much in the way of commercial intentions or aspirations. Apple incorporates a podcasting platform into iTunes midway through 2005, making it a built in feature for the at first tens of millions, then later hundreds of millions, of iPods in circulation. During this period the first iPhone was released (June 2007), creating another ‘baked in’ environment for podcast distribution and consumption.

2008 - 2014
Wave 2.0

Apple launches app store (2008), the superstars-to-be of podcasting start podcasting, e.g. Marc MaronAdam CarollaJoe Rogan (2009), the number of podcasts produced doubles during this period, and mobile phone penetration triples.

2014 –  ? 
Wave 3.0

Serial – the most listened to podcast in history, breaks the record for fastest time to five million downloads and leads to the public perception that 2014 is the year podcasting broke. The ecosystem of devices, creators, listeners, apps, distribution platforms, discovery via recommendation, sharing, and/or reviews reaches a point of maturity. 

It should come as no surprise then, that podcasting was recently given a forensic, this-is-your-life, treatment at an event called State ofthe Podcast 2015hosted by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in Cambridge, MA.

A panel comprised of esteemed podcasting pioneers and practitioners, and moderated by Harvard Law School clinical professor Chris Bavitz went back in time to recall the early days of the technology and the form and went on to share their views on where things are likely to go from here.

The panelists: Broadcaster and Podcaster Christopher LydonKerri Hoffman and Jake Shapiro of PRX, and Benjamen Walker host of Theory of Everything PodcastThe discussion went kind of like this:

Christopher Lydon:

In 2003 blogging was the first run of the podcast world; it had all the  “crackle & pop of media” but with added enthusiasm and openness. Dave Winer, credited with inventing bloggingthought what the world needs is an MP3 that can be syndicated, and the result was the first podcast, that I hosted in 2003.

It coincided with the beginning of the war on Iraq, when 70% of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was behind 9/1. The New York Times should have been running banner headlines, but it was bloggers and podcasters saying things no one else was. It was the restoring of public conversation that had become dilapidated, and this became a place to have a reasonable conversation

Benjamen Walker:

Between around 2004 and 2006 there was a lot of excitement in the field --  and lots of gigs as ‘podcast consultant'. Then came the dead time, and now it’s the time of hype, with the money trucks dumping money everywhere, but I think we should be thinking about what comes next.

Jake Shapiro:

PRX  http://www.prx.org (the Public Radio Exchange, an online distribution platform for digital audio and radio programs) was launched in Fall 2003. RSS for audio seemed like a silly, trivial thing at that time.

Odeo, founded in 2005  was the first interesting startup in the area (started by ex Google employee Evan Williams) and that same year Apple caught on to the surge of interest in podcasting and incorporated a podcasting platform into iTunes, and built into the hundreds of millions of iPods in circulation.

(Ed. Note: And from the ashes of Odeo came a messaging app, first called Twttr. You probably know it by its more fully voweled name.)

The second wave of podcasting was accidentally triggered by Apple, with the launch of the app store and the iPhone. People realized ‘these aren’t just smartphones…these are radios!’Audio had been a bad fit for the web, but mobile could fix this, and mobile has become the way for billions of devices to become a listening platform for audio.

Kerri Hoffman:

In 2003 we had a tagline we used for PRX: "Making public radio more public". It was a moment of having direct to consumer consumption of media, news, stories, investigations – it’s what podcasts have enabled

In 2014 we launched the Radiotopia network, to build a platform for talent, people like Ben (Walker), and to consolidate the back office, things like marketing, cross-promotion, and sales. Within 2 years we’ve increased our growth by tenfold. This tells us a lot about the public’s interest in consuming this kind of content, about the ubiquity of the technology, and that the shows can survive. For a long time shows would get to a certain size and then plateau. That’s why this is an exciting time for what comes next.

Benjamen Walker:

Thinking about the waves of podcasting --  I see it more as a Rashomon narrative – all 3 happening at the same time: The technology story, with Dave Winer and RSS, the money story, in which Roman Mars hijacks public radio model with his Kickstarter for 99% Invisible, and now the art form story.            

I think people that are making a lot of the great podcasts are people who left public radio because they could do more on the outside than the inside; so I feel like public radio isn’t taking the risks they once did

Kerri Hoffman:

The risk point is a good one. Part of the future will be a lot more experimentation, a lot more fails – and that’s not something that public radio is accustomed to. By the the time they launch a show they’ve done a million polls and pilots. In podcasting, where it’s digital only, a network effect of like-minded shows and talent is what’s going to get the lift

Moderator Chris Bavitz

Are podcasters now playing more to advertisers? Is it becoming a more commercial medium?

Kerri Hoffman:

The producers we work with can always say no to advertisers. What advertisers are waking up to is that listeners are selecting, they’re subscribing…they’re a more dedicated fan base, and the advertisers are waking up to that reality. Since we work in both broadcast and podcast we’ve seen a shift of some of the dollars from the B to the P side…and that wasn’t happening even 2 to 3 years ago

Benjamen Walker:

Advertisers jumping on the hype train can benefit us all. The discovery piece is so hard, with so many podcasts out there – some people hear an ad, according to research, and think ‘oh, ok, this is a good podcast

Kerri Hoffman:

The power of the micro donation (associated with podcasts) is a new thing, compared to the public radio philanthropist, who you want to mature with you. With podcasts people give 5 dollars or 10 dollars just because they’re in a moment…all of that has really changed; that’s against standard fundraising practices.

Jake Shapiro: 

Podcasting can transcend its public radio origins…the content, the technology, everything – the dominant white male techie crowd. We can now move beyond the constraints of the world of broadcasting. PRX was born out of public radio institutions but to bridge the gap to something new. We don’t have a tower, we’re built digital, for the web, but we still distribute broadcast shows (e.g. The Moth).

We offer a platform, a back office, and it’s an opportunity to incubate new shows. For example Radiolab started as something that was done after hours at WNYC. 

Part of the joy of the Internet is to match passions to people. You don’t need to reach a million people. You can do things that are really good and that are designed for small audience.

Benjamen Walker:

I teach a podcasting course at a university in NYC and it’s interesting…none of the students want a job in public radio – they want to be the next Roman Mars. They want to do their own podcasts.

Friday, September 11, 2015

What Aerosmith's Steven Tyler can teach us about Digital Marketing

If there’s a more old school rock star than Steven Tyler of Aerosmith then please, bring him or her to my attention. Tyler & co. were the quintessential rock stars of the 70s...who are now themselves pushing 70. But even though we live in a time when things couldn't be less like the 70s -- with the stars of YouTube and Vine and Instagram stealing airtime from the usual suspects of years gone by -- Steven Tyler is more than keeping up. And that is today's mystery we're going to solve.

But first, a little history. Over 40 years ago the Bad Boys from Boston made their ascent to the rock and roll pantheon, and they were typical of the dissolute rock stars of the day. Along with the likes of Queen, Elton John, and Thin Lizzy, they lived in an alternate universe, one in which the usual laws of consequences, blood alcohol levels, or ratio of scarves to microphone stands did not apply. Until one day they did, then the band crashed, burned, and disappeared for most of the 80s, a narrative perfect for the Behind The Music treatment. You know the one, where the key of the background music changes from major to minor as band members go through battles with drugs, bandmates, wives, managers, the IRS, etc. But then at the end of the 80s everything changed, leaving skeptics slackjawed as the original band lineup engineered one of the unlikeliest and long lasting comebacks in bombastic rock history. 25 years later they’re one of the best selling bands of all time.

How did they do it? It’s a combination of many things, like their music appearing on mega-selling, demographic-spanning, movie soundtrack power ballads...

Their stalwart classic rock songs getting licensed to the game Guitar Hero, which reportedly brought in more cash for the band than recent album sales...

And in a move that cemented Steven Tyler as the outlandish rock star that every toddler, accountant, and grandparent in America could identify in a crowd, the demon of screamin’ took his place on judges row on American Idol.

Those are all the mass media plays for attention, and Steven Tyler has spent decades mastering those. What’s more interesting is how he has also mastered the micro-moments, the little bursts of promotional activity that require no journalists or publicists. 

This past week, for example, he has netted millions of views across dozens of iPhone-captured videos during a band visit to Moscow. Tyler was hardly inconspicuous as he made his way through the city streets, but it was this impromptu duet with a busker that caught the world’s attention, with this video -- one of dozens of the event that were posted on YouTube -- clocking over 2 million views.

Earlier this summer Tyler did a brief walk on with an outdoor piano, delighting the townsfolk of Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada by tickling the ivories for a few moments as onlookers with their smartphones rushed to grab pictures and video.

...and last year he plinked out one of the band’s biggest hits, “Dream On”, on tuned glass bottles in the middle of Helsinki.

So why is the one of the world's biggest rock stars taking to the streets to perform as a busker version of himself? Couldn't he be in the hotel spa, enjoying an exquisite meal, or just do one or two interviews with the major media outlets in the city he's visiting and call it a day? Of course he could, but it turns out Tyler intuitively understands the new logics of distributed media well, and these logics are the among the key guiding principles of Internet economics.

As we move from a world of perfect, crafted media moments to imperfect, spontaneous ones Steven Tyler has figured out how to not only go with the flow, but also feed it, and to do so in the most efficient way possible. He deploys his legions of fans, not the press, as his marketers and multipliers and in so doing succeeds on two levels: He satisfies the fans on the street by being an accessible 'man of the people', and he satisfies the mediasphere with content -- amateur smartphone video, selfies with fans -- that come across as authentic and organic, because, well, they are. They are the product of everyday people, not the industry. As hundreds of camera phones do the job that was once the exclusive domain of publicists and the press, Tyler demonstrates that today's unique power is in the thousands of small sparks that make up the always on, anyone-can-post, sharing-is-the-new-broadcasting world of media.

Related Posts: 
Spotify: What White Squirrels Have To Do With Hyperlocal Marketing
Social Media's Positive Effects On Negative Charisma

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Infomercials in a time of YouTube

"Here in my garage...."
In these financially volatile times it's hard not to be tempted by this guy. Yes, he’s the one who incessantly edges in between you and that YouTube video you’re trying to watch, insisting he has the secret to wealth. And A Lamborghini. Plus a Ferrari. And don't forget the house in the Hollywood Hills.

So uniquely annoying is this finger pointing garage guy that we’ve all watched at least 10 seconds of his video, and if you were being totally honest you'd admit to having watched more. By the way, he has a name. It’s Tai Lopez

I must confess: At first I thought Tai Lopez was some kind of David Cross or Fred Armisen-like character, promoting an upcoming show on Netflix. Or maybe it was some sort of branded content play, sponsored by a company or product, that would reveal itself in subsequent pre-roll videos as I made my around YouTube. But no, it turns out we must take him at face value. This king of the not-at-all-humble-brag is this decade's version of the informercial pitchman.

Ah, yes, informercials, those magical faux-shows that are too long to be commercials and too pushy or biased to be actual TV shows. Their formula: to present a problem/solution combo, generally overstating the gravity of the problem, and then providing a miraculous fix, for 2 or 3 easy payments of a price that ended in .99.

It's a drill we all became familiar with starting in the mid 1980s, when the problem of 'dead air' on television was solved with a new entry in the TV Guide schedule grid: 'paid programming'. 

And so a new genre of advertising was born -- DRTV, or direct response television. The air time between 1 and 6 a.m, while less than optimal for reruns of sitcoms, movies, and talk shows, made for a great home for the marketers of  Snuggies, Chia Pets, and the like. Perfect purchases to consider when you've become one with your couch, your lids are becoming heavier, and dialing a 1-800 number seems like a not bad idea.
As Seen On TV:
Infomercial offerings brought into physical world malls

The radical idea of DRTV was that there was no middleman or retailer involved. Goods would flow directly from the manufacturer to the consumer, first via 1-800 numbers and then via websites. And then in a kind of negation of the initial concept of DRTV, physical retail was introduced with the "As Seen on TV" stores in malls.

But what does all of this have to do with that 'here in my garage' guy? 

Well, once again, the Internet completely shakes things up, and we can use the example of Tai Lopez to illustrate precisely how.

Whereas previously tens to hundreds of thousands were spent making infomercials that sang the praises of the blender to end all blenders, or dramatizations that illustrated how one's life would be improved by a blanket with sleeves, all a pitchman needs to do nowadays is rig his iPhone to a selfie stick. Production can be that basic. And on the Internet, less slick or formatted often beats polished and professional.

Additionally, there's no media buy involved this time around. That middle of the night time slot on your local television station in which you would broadcast your DRTV program cost thousands. Today, Tai Lopez just uploads his multiple hour path to riches videos directly to YouTube, and the cost to him? Nothing.

But how do people find these videos, in a world where hundreds of hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube every minute? The answer to this question is also why most of us know the guy in the garage pointing to his Lamborghini. It's the targeted pre-roll ad. Every time you watch something on YouTube, or use Google, or Gmail, or any of the other Google services, the system gets to know you better. It learns about things like your click history, your likes and dislikes, and your demographic profile -- and from a fusion of this data, specific ads are served to you. Based on the number of people who know his videos, and the number of times per day I see them, my hunch is that Tai Lopez has cast his net wide, not just at, e.g, 18-34 year old men, or urban-dwelling women who buy a lot of shoes online. Let's just say his media buy with Google/YouTube is substantial.

Tai Lopez energetically takes to YouTube
And people seem to be responding to this Tony Robbins of 2015. As of early September 2015 Tai Lopez  has 258,000 subscribers and 13 million views for the portfolio of videos he's posted to YouTube. You can watch those for free. Just like you can go to the iTunes store and download 100 of his podcasts for free. Big deal, you might say...he's good at giving things away for free.  But what he's really good at doing is saturating multiple platforms with content, and doing so at little cost to himself, for all those reasons described above. In the process Tai Lopez establishes his brand and -- are you sitting down -- basically creates infomercials for his informercials, and presumably makes some sales of his 'millionaire mentor' and 'mini MBA' programs along the way.

In parallel to the media horn of plenty for which the man himself is responsible, there's a world of Tai Lopez-themed content to be found online. He's discussed in detail on Reddit, where one commenter has given him the sobriquet of 'douchecanoe', and he's paid tribute to with memes and parodies, some of which merely poke fun at Lopez, some of which are in pretty bad taste, and others that reference other memes.

Though most of us are probably not going to end up as customers of Tai Lopez' make-a-million tutorials, if we take a few steps back there's much to be learned about the unique ability of the Internet to create value by way of the targeted, the interruptive, and even the off-putting.

The guys who would be Tai

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Platform Capitalism, or why your parents can't understand the Internet

Picking up on the previous post that looked at some of the debates surrounding digital disintermediation, today on the blog we delve a bit deeper into the tensions that have emerged between the radical openness of Internet technologies and what can only be called the unlikely economic structures enabled by online platforms, or marketplaces.

There was a time, and it was not all that long ago, when the principles of business went more or less like this: a manufacturer made something at a cost of X, a distributor or wholesaler bought the item in bulk and then made it available to retailers for X + Y, who in turn marked up the item to X+Y+Z and sold it to customers. If the goods produced filled a market need in ways superior to competitors then the manufacturer could end up reasonably well-heeled. If the anyone in the chain misjudged the market they got saddled with a bunch of inventory they couldn’t sell. There was pretty much no way of knowing what was going to resonate with customers and what wasn’t. This was a world based on best guesses. It was also a world based on things, put into boxes, then wheeled onto trucks, then stored in warehouses, then shot out to retail outlets, where the customer, at long last, came face to face with the good and decided whether or not s/he would buy it.

Contrast this with:

- A business based on individuals renting out their car on an hourly basis

- A business based on deploying civilian drivers to deliver groceries to your door

- And in one of the better known examples, a business based on individuals renting their home, or a room within their home, while they themselves are in the home, to strangers, on a night-by-night basis

There are a million reasons why a rational person, in the pre-Internet sense of the term, would be inclined to think that none of these businesses would work. For starters, these are marketplaces of people unknown to each other, they are often transacting at a relatively low dollar level, the consumer is not incented to adequately care for the property being used, etc. etc.

All this brings to mind discussions I’ve had over the years with an old friend, who is an Ivy league MBA and who was living in the Bay Area during the first dot com boom of the mid 1990s. At that time she got called into several ‘litmus test’ meetings for these new things called eCommerce businesses, one of which was a company called eBay that was proposing to do the world’s biggest yard sale, but transacted online. She was the person in the room who argued vociferously that it would never work. Why? Because what systems are in place to ensure that the person in Wisconsin who wants to buy the toaster I put on this website will pay me? And how will they pay me? By check? And how do they know I”ll actually send the toaster? How does any of this make sense? And she wasn’t wrong….except in the perfect hindsight sense of the term. (We have since joked, many times, that she should make herself a t-shirt that reads “I said eBay wouldn’t work”).

So what’s changed?

The best explanation I’ve heard for why these businesses work is the ability of the Internet to couple anonymity with trust, and commodify the latter.

Some have dubbed this phenomenon platform capitalism, a reference to the wildly successful slew of platform-based companies, or enterprises that build facilitating marketplaces as opposed to physical products or conventional services. These are the co’s that have figured out that facilitating access and communication, as opposed to owning real estate, or fleets of vehicles, or warehouses stocked with inventory, or even bearing the expenses of creating editorial content, is how the road to 21st century riches is paved.

So counterintuitive is this phenomenon to many that is has also been referred to as the WTF economy.

The WTF economy at a glance:

“WTF?! In San Francisco, Uber has 3x the revenue of the entire prior taxi and limousine industry.

WTF?! Without owning a single room, Airbnb has more rooms on offer than some of the largest hotel groups in the world. Airbnb has 800 employees, while Hilton has 152,000.

WTF?! Top Kickstarters raise tens of millions of dollars from tens of thousands of individual backers, amounts of capital that once required top-tier investment firms.”

And so, the Internet has morphed from being the communal, we the people, cybertopia of the early 90s, to one which has become dominated by what can be understood as privately owned public spaces.

By inviting the public in for free, or more accurately for “free” (meaning strings are attached, and you trade things such as your online history and personal data for services and products delivered digitally), platform-based businesses are able to move large portions of the public away from an ownership-based economy or a subscription-based economy to one in which we can access as little or as much as we need, whenever and wherever we are, usually using an app on our phone as our control panel.

Disincentives for participation are removed and large-scale, global user bases in the millions to hundreds of millions (and beyond) can be built relatively quickly.

So powerful are some platforms that, for example, august news organizations such as the New York Times are entering into agreements with Facebook that encourage the Times to publish directly to the Facebook platform. Why does this matter? Because it’s evidence of where the power lies when fewer visit specific publisher/news sites, such as nytimes.com, and a billion plus people around the world spending 20% of their online time on Facebook, a single site/app.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the platform that pulls in the audience has the power.

If you’re a merchant of any sort, yes you have the ability to use your own website to sell directly to consumers, but it’s hard to avoid Amazon, which has become the Walmart of the Internet. Actually that’s not true. As of last week Amazon is bigger than Walmart.

We also have YouTube as the Walmart of video. It has 63% market share for total videos watched per month, it closest competitor, Vimeo, has less than a quarter of that amount, and just 1/10th of the unique monthly viewers.

So let’s not make any mistakes. These 'privately owned public spaces' are not co-ops, nor are they the common property of government; they are enterprises, with investors and shareholders to whom they are obliged to create value and a return on capital. Furthermore, they are built upon a principle in which value to the enterprise accrues as we all participate by joining, uploading, commenting, and sharing. Whereas publishers once had a monopoly on the creation and distribution of content, platforms increasingly have a monopoly on the creation of audiences.

This is one of the realities of the new bypass the middleman and/or gatekeeper of today’s online economy: For better or worse much of it is predicated upon this thing called platform capitalism. In the world of platform capitalism there is little or no cost to get into the game, the game being the ability to make whatever you have created, or are trying to sell, or rent, available to a global audience. One of the ways this game is evolving is through consolidation, as dozens of the smaller players get acquired by larger ones. And many of these larger players were not even in the particular game to begin with. The easiest way to understand this shift is to look at the example of the YouTube multi-channel networks, or MCNs.

They started out as small networks, bringing together individual YouTube channels into what are essentially taste networks – of game enthusiasts, or music fans, or foodies, or whatever the case may be – and then selling ads against the audience corralled. And who’s doing the acquiring of these MCNs? Among the buyers are well-known companies such as AT&T and Disney, who early on weren’t interested in what was likely looked upon as nothing more serious than noise emanating from YouTube.   

And yet....

What starts out as nothing more than desire and drive on the part of individual creators, usually without aspirations or expectations or any sort of industry structure propping it up, has the potential to get multiplied by fans and followers, and turn into something with broader market appeal. And this thing, that begins life outside of the walls of industry has become a new form of currency that traditional media companies, operating very much within the walls of industry. want to leverage.

One of the outcomes of this phenomenon is that over time the democratization of communication, the initial impetus for this blog, gets sideswiped, to varying degrees, by new re-massifying forces. The niche offerings that made the online environment so refreshingly unlike the mass market world of hierarchical decision-making, capital-intensive production and distribution, and limited shelf space, are still there of course, but what we’re seeing is a privileging of those who sign up for more industrial muscle with the new middleman companies such who aggregate the work of podcastersYouTubers, InstagrammersVine creators, etc. and optimize it for an advertising-supported world of content. 

You thought all this stuff was free? Nope, it’s only “free”.

But is it meet the new boss, same as the old boss, though? I believe only the cynical would go that far. Are there trade-offs? Sure there are. But before crying ‘sell out’, you may want to bear the following in mind:

This could be a good thing for both creators and audiences, as it means fewer conventional ads and more entertainment and information products in their place. If we’re not paying for content online – whether it’s music or video or audio or image or text-based -- that means creators aren’t getting paid, unless a third party enters the picture and sponsors/underwrites it. In this model, there are no advances from music labels, publishers, studios – whatever the case may be -- that need to be earned back via a multi-year deal, that in the majority of cases handcuffs the creator.

Also, the risk is reduced for the financial backer of the content (whether it’s the label, studio, publisher, or brand) because online, audience uptake now observable and measurable in real time. Yes, creative destruction is undeniably present, but so are new processes that redefine the landscape for creators and audiences, as well as for the funders of the creative products and experiences who benefit from the affinity created between the creative product and the audience/consumer.

Things are far from being figured out but these are some of the reconfigurations of markets that we can now point to in an environment in which scarcity and closed systems have been replaced by access and (over)abundance.

Monday, July 13, 2015

When disintermediation gets dissed

Today’s post comes courtesy of a student’s proclamation of displeasure in a course I’ve been teaching for the past few months. I’m happy to report that said student became noticeably less dissatisfied as the class progressed, and that we followed up with a series of emails on the topic. It’s no coincidence that the topic on the table was digital disintermediation in the creative industries, the same theme that has concerned this blog for the past 2 1/2 years.

With the student’s permission I’m sharing those emails in today’s post and will follow up in future blog posts with additional thoughts on the topic of the impact of the Internet on the creative industries.

But first, some context.

Last week’s class was our second to final session in the course, one in which we’ve been studying the shifts in media, marketing, and communications as systems move from being dominated by top down, broadcast environments to ones in which that space is shared with individuals who have been able to amass audiences from the ground up, using technologies and platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Vine, Soundcloud, blogs, and podcasts to speak directly to consumers/fans/users and construct mini media companies for themselves, out of themselves.

This, in a nutshell, is digital disintermediation; a removal of the middleman – e.g. the publishing house, the record label, the newspaper, the radio station – that once brokered the traffic between creator and audience.


Fairly early into my Powerpoint I could see that Michael Martyn (he says we can call him Mike), one of the older MBAs in the class with over 20 years of experience in the arts, on both the performer and administrative sides, was not happy. I was only a few slides in to a deck of 50 or so slides when an “I’m not buying it” came from the third row of the classroom. The instructor cannot ignore such comments, of course. By this point I had already stated that I was going to address issues such as the ‘myth of digital democracy’ and related concepts that paint overly optimistic pictures of Internet economics, but Mike’s comment sped things up a bit.

His objection was that the middlemen are still very much there, pointing to YouTube a prime example. And while there are certainly forces of reintermediation at work that tug at the DIY-ness of disintermediation, I pointed out that there is a big difference between a platform and a middleman.

A middleman plays the role of gatekeeper, acting as a combination of filter and waystation between the creator and the marketplace. Put plainly, the likes of book publishers, record companies, and broadcasters are all in the business of making decisions that stem this flow of creative outputs, with the belief that their choices are better suited to the desires and tastes of the audience. That would be the opposite game of what universal upload platforms such as YouTube and Souncloud make possible. They do not discriminate. At least not in terms of allowing anyone, anywhere, to make their work accessible to a global audience.

In this environment of platforms and digital media that is networked at the peer-to-peer level, we have the extraordinary ‘trickle up culture’ tales of:
  • Podcaster Marc Maron, who was a veteran comedian on the brink of bankruptcy (financial and emotional) that started podcasting in his garage in 2009 and then hit 1 million downloads per month (January 2011), and then 3 million downloads per month (January 2012), and now gets over 5 million downloads per month and is approaching 200 million cumulative downloads. And yes, President Obama did recently visit his garage and do an episode of the podcast – a request that came not from Maron, but from Obama’s people.
  • Rappers like Tyler the Creator, who started out on Tumblr, tell Larry King “the suits are idiots”, and pride themselves on navigating their own way through the entertainment industry.

  • And there's the less well known, but ridiculously prolific Lil B, who released 676 songs in 26 months – offering them all for free online – and used 125 different MySpace pages early on to reach fans directly. Oh, and he's also given talks at NYU  and MIT.

But back to our class.

Mike was more satisfied with the snapshots of the creative industries I went on to discuss, but we still went on to start up an email correspondence to further hash things out. With his blessing, I’m sharing those emails here, and of course welcome your thoughts, comments, or experiences on the topic, as it is one in which things are constantly evolving.

MM wrote:

Thanks for the follow up. My experience is that people unfamiliar with the sector paint that rosy picture themselves unless it is explicitly laid out for them what the conditions are.

It was a good class. The business issue closest to my heart, and one of the reasons I'm doing my MBA, is that of creating the possibility for sustaining incomes in the cultural sector, and to have this issue be taken seriously by authorizers.

While the DIY ethos is great it is often highly dependent on a level of privilege that makes it exclusive.

I always try to make sure that the reality of the wage situation in the sector be front and centre. I know you know this: I just feel an obligation to the sector to make it central to any discussion because - hey - it's business.

You touched on most of the things that I wanted to say over the course of the class, so I'm sorry if I jumped the gun: I'm very passionate about this issue in particular. For example: one debate that never gets old is how Economic Development Strategies that rely explicitly on VOLUNTEER RUN festivals and events to anchor their tourism plans are supposed to develop a local economy? This is the level of thinking that I'm accustomed to dealing with on these things.

LK wrote:

I'm happy to hear that you agree that overall the information presented was balanced -- neither painting a rosy picture of the industry, nor one of doom & gloom. I will likely teach it again, so the feedback is very valuable.

I hear what you're saying about economic sustainability and, e.g, volunteer labour as an assumed line item in budgets. As I noted last night, one of the realities of industries such as film, radio, TV, music, fashion, etc. is that the market does not balance supply & demand the way it does for, say, plumbers and accountants. For better or worse it seems like there will always be a greater supply of labour than demand in the creative industries.

To this end, you may want to look at the work of Angela McRobbie (you may already have) on the creative industries as economic sector (she was actually one of my profs at grad school). She's based in the UK so her perspective is UK-inflected, and grounded in cultural studies, but there's a lot there that you may find interesting/helpful.

MM wrote:

I have some familiarity with McRobbie, and my own 20 years lived experience working towards economic development of the sector reflects anecdotally much of what she presents. In the late 80s-early 90s the largely not for profit cultural sectors began to move en masse from models of employment to contracts. This developed against the backdrop of a less embattled public sector and more lucrative private sector than we have now: there was a market beyond the worker's immediate network for their work, and not all work came through the network.

This trend towards contracted labour has spread throughout the labour market into public and private spheres. I think McRobbie agrees the cultural sector is the canary in the coalmine for the economy as a whole.

We're not just talking about supply of labour, of course, but the supply of creative capital, which is markedly different. As you indicated, the sheer volume of creative capital flooding the market is pertinent to this discussion.

I make the allusion of what is happening to a democratization of the vanity press of the 19th century: where once only the rich terrible poets had access to the presses now all the terrible poets have access. I will hypothesize that closer examination of the still-emerging long tails of the exposure bell curve will reveal not a sustained, gradual rise but a series of steps and plateaus. Moreover, in the context of the digital distribution space I see an emergence of 'pre-popularity' steps, distinguished by three sequential determining factors:

1) Taste / Access to taste makers
2) Geography
3) Resources of the creator

The only thing that I find more remarkable than the volume of bad poetry on Twitter is the vast, truly supportive, audience for it. While the social network enables exposure it is only an enabler; perhaps that's our McLuhanism here. While I lack enthusiasm for further consolidation of wealth and power among fewer and fewer 'printing houses', I acknowledge we are not even beginning to see how the enabling effects of mass distribution will affect tastes on a global scale.

And now a few concluding thoughts from this blogger....

The reality is that the floodgates are now wide open, with the price of entry reduced to almost nil.

Creation, marketing, distribution, and publishing are all possible at the individual, direct-to-fan level, using tools such as these. 

Click to enlarge

                                  We’re also seeing marketplaces that look like this:

Click to enlarge

Source: http://www.platformgiant.com/rob-walch-interview/

And consolidation that looks like the chart below, which on the left shows companies that aggregated YouTube channels for specific markets or demographic segments, and on the right shows the the media, entertainment, telco, and technology companies that have been acquiring them over the past few years.

For example, some companies specialize in aggregating makeup and fashion bloggers, while others specialize in aggregating video game commentators, and others specialize in content that appeals to 18-24 year old males. What the larger companies – in this case firms ranging from AT&T to Disney -- missed from the world of trickle up culture the first time around, they are now vigorously scooping up in the form of acquisitions of the smaller companies that rolled up groups of YouTube channels into a single entity, branded them, and sold targeted ads against the content.

What started out with webcams in garages, backyards, and bathrooms has become a corporate concern in multi-billion dollar companies. Whether or not this is any sort of ‘win’ for individual creators of content that lives and grows online remains to be seen. What is known is that the path from zero to tens and hundreds of millions of views, downloads, and clicks, has never been more rapid, and that in the process new forms of currency have been minted. It’s also worth noting that as this consolidation occurs new barriers are erected between creators and consumers. There are those creators who have either been pursued by or who pursued the aggregator networks. And in a number of cases those networks have in turn been acquired by larger corporate interests. Each one of these steps adds layers (and percentage payments) between the creator and the media platform, and alas we have re-intermediation on our hands.

Thanks for reading and stay tuned for Part 2 of this post and a closer look at Platform Capitalism: Democratic enablers, or monopolists in everyman’s clothing?

Related Reading
Steven Johnson, New York Times, "The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn't": http://nyti.ms/1FtB8YY

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Dropping the needle on the record with Kid Koala

We’re breaking away from theory and practice today on the blog for an artistic injection. This one is via virtuoso turntablist Kid Koala, perhaps best known for his Drunk Trumpet, in which he uses breaks, beats, and sounds from various recordings to simulate a horn section that’s had one or two too many. I can only imagine how this would have gone over in Fletcher’s band in Whiplash

Last night there were no tipsy trumpets, however. Instead, 60 tiny turntables, situated at tables of 4, in a temporary building known as the Festival Shed located near the intersection of Wellington & John streets in downtown Toronto as part of the annual Luminato Festival. (Extra trivia points for those who may not already know that the festival’s artistic director is Rufus Wainwright’s partner, Jorn Weisbrodt.)

The Kid Koala show was billed as a Satellite Concert, which made me think it may have been going out live via webcast, when in fact I believe it was being recorded. It was hard to tell as the evening was one of large scale media experimentation. So much so that there were those of us in the audience who were never entirely certain we were doing our parts ‘correctly’. 

Yes, we all had parts. The idea was that each mini turntable would constitute part of the audience orchestra. We had a miniature DJ crate stationed in front us, containing a handful of colour-coded records – the labels were red, blue, green, purple, and orange, along with a miniature mixing unit, and a light that would flash a particular hue which was our cue to drop the needle on the accompanying disc.

Koala's custom pressed, colour-coded vinyl
The Interstellar Orbiter mixer
The light flashed and we were to drop the needle
on the record of corresponding hue. If I continue
with this behaviour, consult a physician.

The discs were custom-pressed vinyl, and, we were told, were designed to harmonize with the larger composition, whether played at 33 or 45, whether spun backwards or forwards, and wherever the stylus met the vinyl.  It wasn’t entirely clear if things were functioning as planned, but dammit we all wanted this thing to work, so though there were numerous table-to-table exchanges about whether or not things were actually ‘working’, we dutifully did our jobs as audience disc jockeys, following the commands of the coloured lights that flashed before us. 

Or perhaps the whole thing was a psychology experiment, designed to see if people would believe their little discs were having an impact on the show in progress if they were told this was the case. While we participants were – or weren’t, who knows? – spinning and switching records and twiddling knobs on our table mixer -- Kid Koala was filling the room with a kind of dreamy, spacey wash of sound with some live instrumentation and occasional vocals that sounded like half-speed Bjork, which of course added to the galactic feel. Oh, and there were ‘chemical puppeteers’ as well. They stood by a tray full of plastic squeeze bottles, resembling a futuristic condiment stand. From this perch, globules of what appeared to be water, oil, soap, and various coloured liquids were artfully dribbled onto a surface that was projected onto the giant screens behind Mr. Koala.

Chemical puppeteering in action at Kid Koala's Satellite Concert
June 19th, 2015, Luminato Festival, Toronto

In these days of the heroizing of the DJ in the world of EDM/electronic dance music I say kudos to Koala and crew for trying something so ambitious, visually arresting, and highly interactive (in theory? in practice?). I still don't know. And to me, at least, it doesn't really matter.

A few more atmospheric shots from last night's show.
Good to see some trees in outer space.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The hyperlocal: On white squirrels and related playlists

In the personal stock market of my life, I announce today that blogging output has been significantly down in Q2 2015. This is owing largely to the fact I’m currently teaching and, and, as adult life dictates from time to time, work must come first.

But today that all changes...for a brief moment at least. And it’s all because of a white squirrel, featured prominently in an ad for Spotify that I saw recently outside of Toronto’s Trinity Bellwoods Park. Shortly after relocating to city I learned of this strange species of white squirrel when the local papers reported that one of these rare rodents was found “alarmingly stiff” and “dangling over a footpath” in the area.

That was last summer and since then I’ve come to learn that there are only a handful of these pale little creatures in the city and that they are so beloved, if not mythologized, that a coffee shop in the area bears their name. After all, not many have actually seen a white squirrel in the park, so the next best thing is the tribute coffee shop I guess.

Bonus Points: For those who want to regale co-workers with the depth of their white squirrel knowledge I recommend this video:

But back to the Spotify squirrel ad.

Upon seeing it, and then snapping a picture with my phone, it struck me that this thing referred to as 'mixed reality', the blending of the digital and the physical, is now, in its most basic form, just a taken for granted, everyday occurrence. Armed with phones that have more computing power than all of NASA had in 1969 we’re all participating in media consumption, pretty much all the time, and as a default setting. It is both opt-in and built in. There if you want it, and capable of being ignored if you don’t. 

And this is the genius of the Spotify poster. It combines the hyperlocal message of the legend of the Trinity Bellwoods white squirrel with a soundtrack especially crafted for squirrel spotting. Is the soundtrack squirrel-themed? Or walk in the park themed? Not at all.

But what Spotify is saying is that wherever you go, they’re there too. And they’re also letting you know that they’re hip to the local lore. This isn’t the local radio station running an ad reminding you to tune in for that wacky morning crew on weekday mornings from 6 a.m. or for ‘no repeat workdays’. This is a global brand demonstrating not only its knowledge of the community but also giving you the whimsical gift of a playlist, especially created for your day in the park.