I Want To Scan Your Brain

I recently read a great book by Daniel Levitin called “This Is Your Brain On Music”. Levitin was a session musician, sound engineer and record producer before becoming a neuroscientist.

The book’s full of fascinating insights but for me, there was one key takeaway: it is only in very recent times that music has changed from being participatory to being a spectator sport for the majority of our civilisation. Some of the oldest artefacts discovered are musical instruments (such as bone flutes and drums). On almost every single occasion that humans come together for a purpose, music is just – there.

Of course, only a very small minority of the human population can classify as expert musicians. But we need to remember something else. The evidence shows that we are all expert listeners: we’re all able to decide on what we like, and dislike, when it comes to music, even if we can’t articulate the reasons why.

Amazing when you actually think about it: after all, pretty much all the songs that we’ve ever heard – or ever will hear – are made up of just twelve musical notes (ignoring octaves).

If you have any interest in music whatsoever (spoiler: unless you’re some kind of AI reading this blog, you do…) it’s well worth a read. But I’ll leave you with my favourite piece of trivia from the book:-

” Because the haemoglobin of the blood is slightly magnetic, changes in the flow of blood can be traced with a machine that can track changes in magnetic properties. This is what a magnetic resonance imagine machine (MRI) is, a giant electromagnet that produces a report showing differences in magnetic properties, which in turn can tell us where, at any given point in time, the blood is flowing in the body.”

“The research on the development of the first MRI scanners was performed by the British company EMI, financed in large part from their profits on Beatles records. ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ might well have been titled, ‘I Want To Scan Your Brain’.”

Running and Listening (Or Thinking?)

There was a clear winner for the biggest consumer tech news over the past couple of weeks (sorry new MacBook Air) – at least in my eyes. It was the announcement that some Garmin watches were now supporting Spotify.

In other words: running evolves into simply checking your bluetooth earphones are charged and away you go. No mobile required. It’s just like the good old days of running. Except, er, you’re probably still carting somewhere north of £600-worth of equipment about on you (not to mention all that essential highly performant runner-specific clothing and shoes of course).

Few things can match the original impact of that first iPod I bought back back in 2003 (freeing up as it did the passenger seat of my car from its only use until that point which was to store my CD’s). But this one comes pretty close. Or at least would do if my particular Garmin model was supported.

But I was reading this article today and it’s making me think again. Peter Sagal makes a strong case for leaving the headphones at home all together. As he puts it:

“Your brain is like a duvet cover. Every once in a while, it needs to be aired out”

I’ve been running for 20 years now. That’s a somewhat sobering thought when I realise that the fastest marathon time I had my first, back in the third of those years. But during that time, I’ve pretty much done everything when it goes to listening. From being an earphone-free beginner, to being heavily music-dependent, I now tend to enjoy those long meandering runs with book and podcast runs. I save the running playlists mostly for races and bribery when it’s most required

Running brings its own particular kind of focus. It’s one that you can find in very few other places. And now I’m starting to remember all those times that I ended up running without any auditory crutch (generally as a result of bad forward-planning when it came to that curse of modern 21st-century life – i.e. failing to remember to charge your gear). On those occasions, I inevitably ended the run with more positive ideas in my head than I left with – and with any more destructive ones drowned once again under the swell of endorphins. Or as Sagal says:

“Our sport seems mindless only to people who never run long enough for any thought other than, ‘When can I stop running?'”.

Maybe it’s time to step away from the headphones after all. I’ll end up ‘reading’ far fewer audiobooks. But at least it’ll save me all that money from not having to buy a new Garmin.

Why Art Is Just As Important As Science

“Science makes the world easier to live in. But it’s art that makes the world worth living in.”

I’ve heard this comment (or a variation of it) a number of times over the past few years and it’s one I find myself returning to more frequently these days. Art and science have historically been viewed, for the most part, as distinct subjects. Yet when you start to look into it more closely, the reality is that incredible things tend to happen when the fields of science and art merge.

In fact, despite assumptions that the two are almost polar opposites, neither field has strictly defined boundaries in practice. However, within our education systems, we tend to view the pursuit of scientific learning as having greater value. I remember being told once by a friend that in school, science is taught – but art is (merely) allowed.

The reality is that at the intersection of both fields, science and art are able to influence and shape each other in incredible and valuable ways. Many people are well aware of the continual push to encourage students to take STEM subjects. But even whilst the issue of getting students involved in such areas is being addressed, another group are pushing further still, looking for such support to be expanded to the wider STEAM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Maths).

The argument goes that in teaching  STEM subjects, students are working towards solutions that are already known. In many ways, science seeks to provide answers to question. Yet it is art that asks such questions in the first place. And it is precisely this innovative and creativity that is so crucial.

Interestingly, the evidence shows that some of the greatest thinkers have embraced creative disciplines – think of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. By bringing together knowledge from a variety of areas, advances are made. Evidence shows that Nobel laureates from the Sciences are 17 times more likely than the average scientist to be a painter, 12 times as likely to be a poet and 4 x as likely to be a musician.

And in today’s environment, this becomes even more important. As quick examples, think about how data is increasingly being visualised by talented information designers, the growth of 3D printing in art and the reinvention of music with technology. And there’s an argument that with each of us now having access to a vast network of shared knowledge online, we are all gradually becoming polymaths of a sort.

There’s a big reason Jonny Ive’s Apple was so massively successful and it wasn’t down to Steve Jobs alone. But of course it goes both ways. It would be impossible to deny that the art of photography, for example, has developed significantly with the impact of technology. And speak to any programmer and they will hold up the finest code as exhibiting similar levels of creativity as some of the finest classical works.

Specialisation within a closed ecosystem cannot possibly provide such valuable results as an open, inclusive network that actively promotes input from all directions. For this reason alone, it’s vital that we continue to support the development of those within the creative/arts sector as we move forwards into a world that is becoming increasingly dependent on technology.

I’ll wrap up with a TED talk from Mae Jemison back in 2002.

Satoshi’s Songs: Can Bitcoin Save The Music Industry?

The prospect of a decentralised, definitive record of ownership as introduced by Bitcoin (the technology) is something that I find hugely exciting. Does that make me a nerd? Maybe. But if you’re anything like me, on the same day that it dawns on you that this new system gives us the power to exchange value online with someone (human or machine) that we’ve not previously met without being forced to rely on a middleman, the realisation of just how disruptive such a system is likely to be across all industries starts to take hold.

I have a few personal favourites when it comes to targets for disruption but,  without doubt, one is the music industry. To me there’s a particular poetry about blockchain solutions in that industry given the fact that the vast majority of the online world’s first brush with P2P technologies came from Napster or one of its descendants.

I came across a fantastic essay by Spotify’s artist-in-residence DA Wallach in which he sets out a few thoughts for how crypto-currency could revolutionise the music industry. What’s really interesting is that he doesn’t focus on the obvious advantages of the artist-to-fan internet direct distribution model that everyone knows so well. Instead he applies the power of Bitcoin (or more accurately crypto technologies in general, including Ripple) to explain precisely how this new way of thinking could immediately improve the status quo.

The music industry has its own set of problems, exacerbated by a legacy of confusing IP laws, historical land grabs by competing parties and entrenched resistance to technological innovation, as Apple proved when it decided to sneak up on the big labels and eat their pie just over 10 years ago.

In our collective rush to replace those halcyon days of album cover art with the convenience of digital music, we’re left with a confusing mismatch of precisely who contributed to each track. This has happened because the details of those that worked on each song (whether musician, songwriter or studio engineer) are kept on systems (e.g. ROVI and MusicBrainz) that (much like the banking sector) are closed, proprietary and therefore time-consuming for others to interrogate. This fragmentation of information forces digital music companies to spend time cleaning up this data before using it – and use it they must. It also makes it more difficult for musician’s unions to carry out the essential work in tracking their members’ performances.

On top of such opaque systems, the industry has layered the far more complex world of rights. Any single song can generate revenue that needs to be split and transferred to sometimes more than 20 different parties – whether these are the original songwriters, performers, publishing companies, record companies or performing rights organisations or anyone else that someone has chosen to sell their rights on to.

Let’s set aside for a second the argument that some parties will be excluded from this basket of rights in the future as the music industry evolves. Even if they remain, it’s clear that this complexity is a big issue. Look at Spotify’s model. Taking a total royalty pool, it then distributes this according to each song’s popularity on the platform. But as we’ve seen, one song does not equal only one payment.

This system is inefficient. The result is that both artists and industry members are being paid irregularly because of one simple fact: the system is not fit for purpose.

The answer? Let’s look at the blockchain. But instead of thinking about the value that is transferred upon this technology as being simply bitcoins, let’s think about transferring another type of data that’s clearly valuable. And what do we end up with?

A single global record of music data that is decentralised, open-source, global and controlled by no single entity.

On the face of it, this should be the goal for everyone unless their financial return is directly tied to the inefficiency of the existing system. Whilst previous attempts to unify records have failed, this solution is far more valuable for one reason in particular – this technology enables the automatic and guaranteed distribution of funds directly and immediately to the relevant rights holders with the minimum of human intervention (using smart contracts).

For example, one solution would be for every single song to have its own address. Spotify (in this case) would then transfer the sum directly to the address. In turn, the money (bitcoin, XRP, whatever) would then be automatically distributed according to the conditions set in the smart contracts agreed between the rights holders before the music was released.

No more artists waiting to be paid, unsure of their income. No more confusion (or misappropriation) of funds by any other party in the chain. And transparency driving bad actors out of an industry in which there has been a tradition of unfair and one-sided commercial agreements.

There does remain a question around incentivisation. How do you convince closed platforms to open up and release such data? DA suggests that, much in the same way that Bitcoin miners are incentivised to secure the network by competing for the block reward, this global record of music data could work on a model which charges for access. Those charges could then directly reward those that contributed that data in the first place. My instinct is that this model may have certain issues. But it’s beyond doubt that there’s significant value for all once the participants free this information.

DA’s view is that Bitcoin isn’t best suited for this, suggesting that Codius (Ripple’s smart contracts implementation) would be a better choice. But irrespective of the technology chosen, there’s a huge opportunity here. I know of a few crypto-focused music solutions starting to make waves (like Bittunes) and it’s definitely an area to watch in my view.

Take a blank sheet of paper. Would you choose the industry structure that we have today? Or would you instead look to technology that we now have access to? Combine a permanent, transparent public ledger that credits everyone who deserves it, a system that can automate the contractual payments that already been agreed, powered by micro transactions that can occur in real-time and – at the very least – you have a system in which artists have the potential to earn more money by doing exactly the same thing.

Now that, to me, sounds like progress.

Create For The Fans, Not For The Mainstream

In many walks of life, for those engaged in traditionally ‘creative’ pursuits or more formulaic fare that continues to be served up during the course of a ‘standard’ working day (whatever ‘standard’ might mean), there’s usually a choice that has to be made. It’s one of focus. Should you aim to produce something that the masses will flock to? Or focus on pursuing the niche, a much smaller group yet one for whom your work has the potential to be viewed as truly significant?

Counterintuitively, there’s a strong argument that the greatest potential lies with the latter group if you’re looking to scale. Of course, no-one is saying you should be designing bespoke products that can only ever be used by ten men in, say, the Outer Hebrides alone. But in modern digital business, it’s almost impossible to somehow produce mainstream success unless you first build a small group of passionate and engaged customers, users or fans who like what you’ve done so  much that they’re desperate to go out and tell others on your behalf.

I’ve always been a fan of Kevin Kelly’s classic ‘1,000 True Fans’ which remains, for me, one of the most important articles for anyone looking to build success across a digital platform. And Seth Godin has today written something with very similar sentiments which is well worth a read.

Godin points out that mainstream success only occurs when those people who are infrequent purchasers of your type of product – the majority – finally pluck up the courage to buy what you’re selling. For such people, making this type of purchase is rare and they therefore have far fewer spaces to buy what you’re offering. So they rely (consciously or not) on the noise of the informed super-fans to guide their decisions. And this is precisely why mainstream success is so difficult. If you usually only buy one book a year, which one will you choose – do you opt for an unknown niche literary work or simply plump for the next Harry Potter?

Critical mass and the concept of a tipping point remain the source of plenty of debate. But Godin warns us away from blindly trusting those any business that is focused on seeking out mainstream, blockbuster hits alone. Look closely and you can see examples from across all forms of culture – just think about the glut of movie reboots, formulaic music productions and even suspiciously similar novel artwork that floods the market following the success of an outlier.

As an artist – and Godin has long argued that anyone who does their best work is an artist, no matter the field – your goal must be to delight those who you can inspire to spread your work. Because you can’t do it alone. And in today’s world,  it’s even more clear that copying a blockbuster success rarely leads to something as valuable.

Look for the niche and own it.

The Streaming Music Dilemma

Taylor Swift made headlines earlier this week when she made the decision to pull her back catalogue off Spotify. Her label had previously used the windowing model to protect revenues – basically holding back the release date of new material on streaming services until after the physical CD release.

That approach is well-known in the film industry where demand for new blockbusters will encourage people to pay premium prices to see the movies in the cinema before they finally arrive on Netflix some months later or wherever.

In this case, it appears that the label would have been happy if Spotify restricted new material to  those with a paid subscription. But that runs counter to Spotify’s business model in which non-subscribers have equal access to the (ad-supported) tracks across the service these days. So “Swift Hates Freeloaders” may actually have been a more accurate headline in this case.

It makes zero difference to me as a consumer but I think that she’s got it wrong.

I should set out my stall at this stage. I’ve had a paid subscription to Spotify (and before that, the legal reincarnation of Napster) for a number of years. Personally, I’m more than happy to pay for the service because it’s one that I brings me a huge amount of value. But it’s true that every consumer has to ask hard questions about whether supporting a distribution platform that is leaving its competitors behind is actually taking advantage of artists in some way.

My answer? No. As much as I agree with her argument that good art justifies payment, the industry model has changed – for good. The industry cannot continue to rail against the fact that scarcity is a fiction when it comes to recordings that are predominantly digital.

This isn’t to say that the current solution can’t be improved of course. But for those that find the current lie of the land unpalatable, I still don’t see a happy outcome on the horizon. Not in terms of income derived directly from recorded output. Indeed, looking at Mark Mulligan’s analysis, the existing subscription price for streaming music services will have to fall still further from the existing £9.99 monthly subscription charge to remain viable, thereby cutting further into musician’s revenue.

I’m convinced that over the medium term, we’ll move to a far more decentralised model that will, on balance, prove to be more equitable for artists who will distribute even more directly to their fans. But even if you’re judging art by financial rewards, the game remains the same. You need to build a fanbase. In the modern attention economy, the worst result of all is that you get ignored.

As Mark Mulligan wrote in another excellent post about the Tyranny of Choice, “Choice is fantastic but too much choice begets paralysis”. And Nilay Patel had an interesting analysis earlier in the year on Vox when he argued that

“Taylor Swift does not understand that the internet killed scarcity”

She, Thom Yorke and a number of other established artists are of course in a privileged position in many ways as outliers within the industry, with engaged and passionate followings. No-one likes to see a pricing abuse caused by monopoly. But the reality is that Spotify really isn’t the enemy here. If you want to listen to music for free, you simply go to YouTube. Research shows that that is where the younger listeners are spending most of their time in any event. Streaming services are still earning money for the acts.

As a consumer, I want choice. I may be in a minority but I’m happy to pay for it. Although there is a part of me that suspects that the publicity around this story during the same window as the release of a new album into a saturated market, couldn’t have damaged Ms Swift’s cause.


Creativity And The Growth Of The Remix Culture

Remix - Larry Lessig

As a huge music fan, it’s been fascinating to watch the music industry try to figure out how to preserve the rights of its creators (and, by extension, its own revenues) whilst harnessing the efficiencies of digital distribution. We live in a very different world to pre-1999 and it’s been clear for a long time that a new approach is required. Yet the industry has collectively shown itself time and again to be either incapable or unwilling to turn that particular oil tanker around to take advantage of new possibilities.

A Lawsuit Waiting To Happen

One area that it has always struggled with in particular is how to deal with the remix. I came across a great article earlier last week on Girl Talk. Greg Gillis is a guy who plays live in big venues in front of a passionate fanbase ‘simply’ using uncleared samples of well-known tunes mashed together via a laptop. Of course, the record industry don’t usually take too kindly to this kind of thing and his mashups have been described as ‘a lawsuit waiting to happen’. And yet Greg Gillis doesn’t simply play live – he also releases albums with the material and, to the best of my knowledge, the record industry has yet to act.

Why Sampling Is A Creative Act

Here’s a question that divides some: do you think sampling is merely the theft of another’s content and has no individual artistic merit of its own? If so, how about a fairly innocuous six-second drum break from a funk track by The Winstons back in 1969. That one piece of drumming was sampled and “spawned several entire subcultures“. If you’re not familiar with it, just take a listen to some of the tracks that have used the ‘Amen Break’ (as it became known) over the years.

Look closely and we are increasingly surrounded by examples of existing content having been spliced together to create something that, for better or worse, didn’t exist previously. The past few years have seen an explosion in Remix Culture, across all forms of creative content, driven by the collapse in the cost of technology required (no longer do you need a film studio to edit footage), the increasing availability of digital content to be manipulated and the simultaneous growth of file-sharing and platforms such as YouTube which facilitate the frictionless distribution of the end-product.

Yet more fantastic examples of the way in which modern popular culture stands in many cases on the foundations of past creativity can be seen in filmmaker Kirby Ferguson’s series of ‘Everything Is A Remix’ videos (see Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4).

You might also have seen another great talk on the subject recently that was given by Andy Baio (@waxpancake), the former CTO of Kickstarter. Andy was on the receiving end of a high-profile copyright action when he co-ordinated the creation of ‘A Kind Of Bloop’, a chiptune remake of Miles Davis’ classic LP ‘ A Kind Of Blue’. Somewhat surprisingly, the case arose not as a result of the music itself (he diligently secured all the necessary clearances before the release) but when the owner of the rights in the original LP photograph took objection to the pixellated cover art image on the final CD. A thought-provoking talk, I recommend you watch it and check out his blog post also which he fought to be allowed to publish as part of the settlement which ultimately cost him a serious chunk of his savings.

As Andy points out in his talk, exactly how should we be dealing with so many youngsters who are growing up believing that they are fully protected from any legal liability when uploading protected content to YouTube simply by adding the words ‘No Copyright Intended’? Let’s not forget that this is no small issue when the total numbers of individual uploads are north of 500,000 and continue to rise daily and the current system acts to classify each of those members of society as criminals.

Something isn’t working.

How The Law Isn’t Helping

It’s a big debate, with many engaged interests and it’s prompted me to dip back into ‘Remix: Making Art & Commerce Thrive In The Hybrid Economy’ by Larry Lessig, a guy I have a huge amount of respect for. Often described as the net’s most celebrated lawyer, he’s certainly the only lawyer I’d invite to one of those fictional dinner parties you get asked about from time to time. I’ll not go into the details about the book here as I intend to revisit it in the future but if you want a quick summary of the issues surrounding remixing in a modern world within 18 minutes or so, check out his TED talk from a few years ago.

For those that fancy getting into the issue in more depth, here’s the book in full (published, as you’d expect, under a Creative Commons licence from Bloomsbury Academic).

It Shouldn’t Be A Zero-Sum Game

I suspect that we’ll see a significant change over the next few years but to get there, society will need the input of as diverse a selection of interests as possible. Not simply the established music industry stalwarts nor the copyright abolitionists, but everyone in between those two extremes. Only then can we protect ourselves against the risk of the very real benefits arising from the creative process (financial and artistic, for individuals, organisations and society itself) being damaged to the extent that no-one wins.


(Photo of Lessig: photo credit: evmaiden via cc)