Not Writing and Writing

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It has been a very quiet few months here at the blog.  Part of this has been due to the natural ebbs and flows of work/life busy-ness that has led to prior lapses of authorship.  But another part of this absence is that I have been writing; I’ve just been doing it elsewhere.

Many of you know that I have been doing more and more writing and speaking over the past year or so, giving talks to various companies and classrooms who have been kind enough to invite me.  The discipline instilled by these speeches (i.e., I’m getting on stage and need to have something to say) has spurred me to distill and refine a lot of my thoughts on how the future of marketing innovation can be inspired by the re-invention of the music industry.

Since many of the ideas in these speeches started as posts on this blog, I thought it was a good time to re-unite these two worlds.  Here are the slides for a speech that I’m giving this Friday at the Kellogg School of Management.  Though you won’t be able to view the videos and whatnot, you’ll still get a sense of things.

I hope you enjoy it.  As I’ll still be fine tuning things for the next few days, shoot me a note with any thoughts you might have.

And more to come soon on the pages of this blog.  Stay tuned.

 

Bringing My A Game for the Algorithm

securedownloadEveryone wants to look good in front of a mirror, even if it’s a virtual one.

My experience with Beats Music yesterday triggered an unexpected pang of performance anxiety.  I began, as I always do, by looking through the list of recommendations served up “just for me” by the Beats Music algorithm.  But as I made my way through this tour, I found myself surrounded by mile markers of all too obvious influences.  

Front and center was far more hip hop than I would self-describe.  Thankfully, the usual suspects were comfortably couched by a fair amount of old school credibility.  While I couldn’t begin to guess when I last listened to Eric B & Rakim (or will again), my inner music snob found it nice to have them around.

On either side of this rap heap were towering totems of (recent) life phases.

On one side there was a lineup that I’ve carried with me from my collegiate years, along with each and every other person who went off to school in the mid-90’s.  As I scrolled past Pearl Jam and Smashing Pumpkins and Jane’s Addiction, I began to quicken the pace as I searched for the recommendations that would validate the peerless music knowledge that I (thought I) had during those years.  Where was the Mary Lou Lord b side?  How about the rare Pearl Jam bootleg that would prove that even though I liked the biggest band on the planet at the time I did so in a clever way?  Alas, the only faint nod that Beats gave to my collegiate self-estimation was an Air album.

Flanking these juggernauts of college rock was the soundtrack from nights of my twenties.  Browsing lounge dwellers such as Portishead and Basement Jaxx and DJ Shadow, I could almost feel myself staying up past midnight once again.

This walk down my musical memory lane was impressive in its accuracy and unnerving in its honesty.

Nowhere to be found was the rare jazz cut, the emerging artist, or the instrumentalist from a country’s whose name I can’t quite spell.  While I’d like to explain this away by blaming the inherent logic of every recommendation engine (built to please, not surprise), I knew I couldn’t let myself off this easy.  Because behavior doesn’t lie.  Algorithms serve up what you have demonstrated that you will enjoy: not necessarily what you’d like to tell others that you enjoy.

The unexpected wrinkle within the algorithms that are working their way into more and more facets of our everyday lives is the fact that we’re going to care about how we look like in all of these virtual mirrors.  We may even find our decisions swayed by the desire to shape the recommendations that will get played back to us.  Will your next Netflix viewing be a decision made for you, or a decision made for what will get reflected back to you?

Here’s a track that I’d like to see the next time I glance in the Beats Music mirror.   I think you’ll enjoy it as well.

Two, Antlers

Remembify

UnknownI found the early days of Netflix to be incredibly frustrating.  Despite my earnest attempts to allow their servers to get to know me, I kept finding myself being unwillingly shoved to the far edge of the long tail.  Even when I tried to convince them that I did indeed appreciate my fair share of mindless entertainment, I got volley after volley of French documentaries and forgotten TV series foisted upon me.  Although there was (is?) a part of me that wouldn’t mind being thought of as someone who appreciates French documentaries, forgotten in the entire process was the fact that I was there to be entertained.

I later learned that Netflix’s behavior was largely financially motivated (as they paid less for the obscure), but they are far from alone in romanticizing the distant end of the long tail.  The most recent service that promises to enrich your life by serving you up the incredibly obscure is Forgotify.   Inspired by recent statistics released from Spotify that evidence that 20% of the songs in their catalogue (a full four million) have never been played once, Forgotify will serve you up a song that has never been heard.

While it’s a cute premise, Forgotify’s promise is tantamount by helping you decide what to cook for dinner by suggesting a list of foods that nobody has ever eaten.  Even putting aside the fact that the reason why these songs/foods haven’t been consumed is the simple fact that they’re not worthy of consumption, Forgotify is trying to solve the wrong problem.

The real issue isn’t that forgettable music is being forgotten by the world; it’s that we don’t remember much of what we have already discovered to be awesome.  If Forgotify wanted to help me, it would tap into that track that made my week two years ago, but quickly found its way to the recesses of my hard drive.

I’ve written about this topic before, but it’s worth a quick re-hit.  Take the track below, “Play Your Part (Pt. 2) by Girl Talk (remember him?).  I’ve played this song over 20 times since downloading it (a non-trivial amount), but the last time I played this song was nearly a year ago.  Had I not made a point to look at what I was listening to a year ago, who knows if and when I’d ever enjoy this again.

Play Your Part (Pt. 2), Girl Talk

I always want to be exposed to the best of the new music in the world, and I’ll always want help with that.  But, equally, I want help remembering what I already love.  Both are equally important to any music lover.

Radio’s Suffocating Security Blanket

It can be tempting to shrug off terrestrial radio as a quaint reminder of years’ past, nostalgically nestled between the cassette and the CD on history’s shelf.  But despite the tech transformation of the past decade, old school FM radio remains by far our most popular source of music.

The real surprise is what has happened within radio during this same decade.  Beset by competitive threats, radio has responded by becoming dramatically narrower in their focus on what’s most familiar.  As evidenced in the chart below from the Wall Street Journal, radio played the biggest hits of 2013 nearly twice as much as the top songs of 2003.

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As evidenced by the endless stream of superheroes in our cineplexes, a greater reliance on fewer blockbusters is an increasingly popular strategy for entertainment companies.  When a handful of smash hits account for the lion’s share of your profits for the entire year, it can be good business to big on a select few (if you would like for a HBS professor to repeat this sentence over and over again, there is a book that you might like).

Seeing themselves in an escalating fight for listener attention, radio has placed their bets on the belief that their consumers are likely to continue listening when they hear something familiar and turn the channel (or turn the radio off altogether) when they hear something they don’t know.  From this, radio surmised that they should just shut up and play the hit. Continue reading

The Scarcity and Power of Surprise

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In our on demand world, so little truly surprises us.  Every iota of new music is previewed, leaked, retracted, seeded, announced, featured, live streamed, and retweeted with a predictable cadence that numbs the effect of the publicity it’s meant to ignite.  But, because it has become so scarce, this elusive surprise that is the most powerful publicity tool in our hyper-social world.

Until a year or two ago, suggesting that a superstar drop their entirely-unnancounced album in the middle of the night would ensure your swift departure from the music industry.  But now, such surprise breaks the internet and sales records alike.  In the first three hours of its sudden availability (the hours of 12am-3am, not traditionally associated with peak sales), Beyonce had sold 80,000 albums.  12 hours into the album’s existence, it had generated 1.2 million tweets– 5,300 tweets per minute at the height of its fervor.  In their attempt not to be forgotten, Facebook said that mentions of Beyonce spiked more than 1,300% in the hours after the album dropped.

So as not to dampen the early days of its allure, I’m not going to post any tracks from the Beyonce album.  Instead, I’ll once again share a track that I’ve been brought back to as it makes a well-earned appearance on most “best of” lists for the year.  I never would have guessed that a haunting, six minute, semi-hippie track would have lingered amongst my favorites for so long.  As both Beyonce and Phosphorescent demonstrate, sometimes what you remember most is what you least expected.  

Song for Zula, Phosphorescent

The Demise of Turntable.fm and the Difficulty of Leaning Forward

Screen Shot 2013-12-08 at 1.08.15 PMI fondly recall spending the better part of the summer of 2011 on Turntable.fm.

Oblivious to sunshine or sleep or other such distractions, I spent hours hunched over my laptop plotting how to get a roomful of avatars to bob their heads back and forth.  I looked up only long enough to breathlessly blog about the phenomenon.

I was far from alone in my fandom.  Soon dubbed “the most exciting social service of the year,” Turntable.fm had everyone from Zuckerberg to Diplo at the decks and was reportedly drawing money from the likes of Lady Gaga and The Roots.

But then, a mere matter of months after being dubbed the next big thing, the wind began to seep from Turntable’s sails.  And now, a year or so after most people presumed Turntable dead, this week the axe finally fell on yet another music service.

Why did Turntable fail?

The obvious but incomplete reason is that it’s a major pain in the ass to run a music service that is both legal and profitable.  Labels, still persistently pursuing immediate pennies over dollars of the future, insist on licensing deals that make the economics of music services virtually impossible (because, you know, why would the music industry want to incentivize consumers to discover new music?).  Having decided to be legal (and global) from the early days, Turntable set a profit hurdle that was nearly certain never to be met.

But the bigger reason for the demise of Turntable and other such services is that it is wickedly difficult to get consumers to lean forward for music.

Interactive music discovery services remain like those foreign documentaries in your Netflix queue: you’re proud to have found them, you have every intention of leaning forward into them someday, but you keep finding yourself slumping into the couch and watching House Hunters.

Likewise, when you put the time into it, Turntable was unquestionably more rewarding than the Pandoras of the world.  Trouble is, generally speaking, we don’t end up putting the time into it.  Effortless okay almost always wins out over time-consuming awesome.  This trade-off of ease for awesome remains the Gordian knot of music services.

It’s hard to substantiate sadness for the end of a service that I had left long ago.  But yet here I am, reaching for my wallet to buy the t-shirt that they’re printing to commemorate what was… just like the nostalgic concert t-shirt for a band that you always knew was going to break up.

Ironically, this unfinished demo from J. Cole is the song that I posted when I first wrote about Turntable.  As I re-post the track, I do so hoping that Turntable served as an unfinished demo for what music can become: something for which we don’t have to give up awesome for easy.  I’ve got high hopes for Ian and my friends at Beats Music as they make their debut next month: if they can crack this dilemma, we’ll all be the better for it.

Cheer Up, J.Cole (unfinished demo)

Remember When?

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As more and more of our music streams, what is this going to do to our memories?

Music’s role in memories is one of those universal truths that is so ubiquitous that it feels redundant to even bring it up (See also: pictures and memories.  Another spectacularly obvious observation, but an intertwined one.  More on that later).  First loves, first jobs, first dances: all of us have songs that we attribute to these capital B Big Moments.  And technology isn’t going to change any of this.

But do you have any idea what you were listening to a year ago today?  Could you even begin to guess?  Without the assistance of my admittedly obsessive iTunes play listing, I’m just as likely to remember what I was listening to last November 2 as I would what I had for lunch that same day.

Recently, I typically attribute any memory hiccups to the haze of semi-amnesia that accompanies new parents (Yes, I realize this excuse is reaching its shelf life.  But it’s awfully convenient, so I’m holding on as long as I can.)  But in the case of music and memories, I think more is at play here than (not so) new parenting.

First of all, it’s kind of hard to have a memory without a moment. Continue reading