Tuesday, May 28, 2013


There's a classic mistake. Ageless, impervious to learning and knowledge. How indeed do classic mistakes even exist?

A finemost example might be the Monty Hall problem. Try it out, I bet you like me, will make a classic mistake.

I think classic mistakes are generally able to exist because they are hard wired into our brains. They are something quick and dirty that work most of the time (eg. counting our options and dividing 1/n to figure our chances of success) but under certain circumstances lead us astray.

Now there's a rule of thumb in the business world that says 'if you are standing still you are shrinking' that is you have to constantly react and respond to the market just to maintain the status quo. It is generally speaking a very good idea to always be innovating.

The thing is, that I think a classic mistake is that a lot of industries, yes, whole industries attempt to innovate when they should be consolidating.

And for that I dredge up an old argument I'd just about put to bed. My ongoing struggle to say music is objectively worse than it used to be.

Why have I suddenly become plucky again? Well consider the closure of Ford Automotive's manufacturing, clearly industries can get worse, can end. The times change such that companies once axiomatically dominant  can look at the books and decide even with handouts they are better off not operating.

The automotive monoliths made their products better in every objective sense as well, and nobody could download their products for free via the interwebs either (although that may change with 3d printing). Cars got lighter, stronger, safer, faster, more responsive, more efficient, more powerful, shorter stopping distances, more comfortable... and the companies still failed.

What then of music? The music industry deals in a product much older than automobiles, one that has been exposed to technological innovation throughout it's entire existence. The great organists of the mighty cathedrals were buried by the more portable harpsichords, the harpsichord manufacturers slaughtered in turn by the more versatile piano forte, the pianola was a technological misfire, then the gramophone really shook things up, along came the wireless which created the teenager demographic, guitars got pickups, amps drowned out classical, synths expanded horizons, as did computers... a lot changed before the advent of internet piracy in an ongoing story of innovation. (Movie posters used to be commissioned paintings for visual artists back in the day, until printing resolutions made photographs and stills the norm.)

Nevertheless, you had these monoliths, two in particular that reached their peak influence in the early 90's. Radio Stations and Record Labels. These two industries were effectively the gatekeepers, they got to decide what we the plebs listened to. These two monoliths are seldom described as 'despotic' even though really that's just what they are. The reason being, that just about every company everywhere is despotic in nature.

It was the despots occupying these lofty perches in the 90's that saw the emergence of the mp3, the digitisation of information that paved the way for a bunch of industry shaking innovations - napster, bittorrent, youtube the providers of 'free' content the new Caribbean of internet piracy, you saw the ipod, iphone, itunes, spotify etc. that allowed people to collect and collate more music than they are ever going to listen to in their lifetime and thus dispense with the radio. You saw garageband, protools, autotune, fruityloops and any number of software platforms that allowed anybody to DIY their own music studio into a laptop, you saw myspace, soundcloud, bandcamp etc. that allowed anybody with a laptop to distribute and promote their own sound. You saw facebook pave a way for bands to promote their gigs with 0 agent fees or promotion budget.

Now virtually all these emergent industries are hailed as 'democratic' that is, by implication that they threatened the despots stranglehold, their gatekeeper status as to what we listen to, when we listen to it, who gets to make it. etc.

And if you are a despot, and watch the water sucked from between your toes on your private beach and see all that water of yours dissappear out towards the horizon, your natural impulse is to decide you need to move, and fast. The thing is, is that if you don't actually try and understand what is happening, then you are going to run with the tide and try and grab up all the fat succulent fish left exposed by the receding waters. 

The correct thing to do is retreat to the higher ground. Consolidate. This is what the monoliths did wrong. Not that they didn't move, as monoliths are almost always criticized for, but rather that they do move, instead of digging in, hunkering down. 

hopefully if you've read this far, you don't really need a recap of what all the democratizing forces in music have done to radio stations and record companies. I offer just one example - in the mid 90's through to the early 2000's triple j ran the 'unearthed' program, if you don't know what I'm talking about, click the link. 

Now that program used to go to regional areas, and solicit demo tapes from bands that couldn't feasibly get to the big smoke, play enough gigs to get heard and followed and attract the attention of a record company to promote and distribute them. From the 2000's though this program was made virtually redundant by myspace, facebook, bandcamp etc. 

picture if you will, a king riding in a carriage meandering around the land creating a scant few opportunities for a luckier few than normal. It's slow, it's inefficient, but it IS something.

Nowadays the unearthed program is a website, and that's all I'll say about that.

Here's what I want to say. If you are GOOD at BEING a DESPOT, stick to what you are good at. The thing is that while programs like triple j unearthed, request fest and even the hottest 100 have had their value eroded, it wasn't the core value radio stations provided. And while distributing and promoting physical records had value back in the day that was virtually erased if illegally over night. But in neither case was this the core value of these monoliths.

The core value, was and is, that they have people filter through a whole heap of potential music and decide what was worth listening to. And that might sound unappealing, despotic and tyrannical, an usurpation of our rights to determine what we listen to.

But you are wrong, and I'm going to take this in two diections and I don't know which way is the easiest to go with first.

So arbitrarily first, here's the thing. How many hours do you spend trawling through bandcamp, soundcloud or myspace to avail yourself of the explosion of musical options to determine finally, purely and truly what music you want to hear. I'm going to hazard a guess and say in your case 0. And you are somebody who has read my blog post thus far. 

How many reality tv show contestants did you vote for in the past decade? how many of their albums do you own (digitally or physically)? how many of those albums would you rate in your top 10 of the last decade? or of all time? Have these democratizing technologies actually produced better results? The best that can be said, is that if you remove any subjective bias (if you youtube the Carpenters 'Georgie Girl' you will find 'I remember when music was real, not like the crap they listen to these days' comments that are identical to the one's left on every other video from every other decade) the best you could say is that the new technologies have produced the same results.

And even that's worse, because those that succeed today can't live off the fat of album royalties, or even advances. They get the fame but not necessarily the fortune. Unless they tour.

Consider on this first side by analogy, the stock market. In the late 90's brokerage got democratised by the same technologies that democratized music. The market went digital, and you could buy and sell shares on the internet. And for all the lauding of this simply improving the markets efficiency and the theoretical framework behind it, what it did was give a lot of autonomy to people who didn't know how to determine the value of the shares they were buying and selling. They gave autonomy to moron's and the effect this had was to hand instituational investment from the artists, the people that looked thoroughly at the companies they were buying and selling, to the quants who studied the mathematical fluctuationality of the market in what, as of 2007, has been practically proven a pseudoscience, less effective than the intuitions of the old school analysts.

And just as an old school investor, or thoughtful philosopher can outperform the most tech-savy investment fund with noble recipient risk-experts, and can certainly outperform a mom-and-pop investor on their laptop, and old school record exec I imagine is going to be much better at picking and finding talent I like, than I am as the autonomous head of my own record label, and autonomous station manager of my own radio station.

And that's the second angle. Just because music appreciation isn't understood in say nueroscience, or evolutionary theory, or philosophy, and is a domain generally regarded as subjective, it doesn't mean expertise doesn't exist around picking talent.

I hand you a card that says '780' and ask you to come up with a large number, you will probably come up with a 3-4 digit number. If I hand you a card that says '7,820,465' and ask you to come up with a large number you will at least come up with a seven digit figure. That's called priming. 

If a person's job entails listening to music all day, talking about music, talking to musicians, seeing bands perform, even trawling the social media wastelands for bands, they are going to be primed to pick much better, more interesting bands than I am listening to music while commuting on bicycle.

And that isn't to say they will gear towards the alienating avaunt guard shit on the fringes of the cutting edge. What I mean to say is that somebody who has listened to 1000 female solo folk guitarist acts is going to probably come up with somebody better than the 7 I hear a year. And if they don't, in my case that's luck, not in the exec's case who listened to 1000 to come to the same conclusion.

When people talk about the bleak future of record companies, and even radio stations, I feel they disregard the thriving industries of interior design. Because that still exists despite people having always had the complete freedom to decorate their homes any which way they see fit. Despite the knowledge that each customer has the exact same access to stores and materials as the interior designer. But they pay somebody with taste and expertise to pick out interiors that they like more than if they picked it out themselves.

Yes! This is actually the kind of despotism that saves us from ourselves. An investor with little more than a newspaper and a telephone can still outperform many of the most subscribed to managed funds. I believe a radio station dj or record exec can still outperform the most subscribed to social media.

But what have they done instead? The classic mistake, of imitating the attention grabbing style of the new industry that has yet to produce any substance. The result: the monoliths lost a lot of substance.

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