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olaf&tak
Olaf & Tak at Lappi Restaurant. Cool people.

Of course, one of the conflicting things about conferences like Is This It is the fact that while cognitively you may be at odds with a lot of the information and opinions being spread around by some of the more conservative and old-school thinkers that seem to dominate the proceedings during the day – you do get to meet some amazing and very cool people.

One of the reasons that Is This It was so great for me was exactly that intersection between people, around half of whom were not too familiar with Helsinki – and so the whole thing had an air of discovery and adventure about it as well.

Forced to sit in groups of 10 and discuss things at length, you make some great connections with people you may not have considered approaching and talking to. And yet, precisely as a result of being a bit chatty and conspicuous, I’ve been asked to guest lecture at one or two Finnish universities, including the Sibelius Academy – and present at a couple of conferences. Just as a result of just a few conversations at Is This It.

Given that travelling and giving talks is my equivalent of going on tour and doing concerts, this is a brilliant result. And if there’s any lesson to be learned here – it’s about serendipity.

So I’m not going to dwell and go on and on about the stuff that infuriated me at Is This It. There really doesn’t seem much point. But since you ask…

My top five moments of idiocy

1) It was seriously suggested that a way to sell records and concert tickets might be to get an attractive woman to take an item of clothing off after every song (announced triumphantly as if the genius had invented striptease).

2) Careful consideration was given to the notion that bands should change themselves and what they do in order to adapt to the brands they get to represent (can just see it now: “dump your rainforest ethics and kick all that health nonsense – we just signed to a fast food chain and a cigarette brand!”).

3) It was declared that the answer to everyone’s problems might be a computer that told us who the most popular bands on MySpace were (seriously).

4) A woman complained bitterly that while the band she managed sold a great many records and were always able to sell out their stadium concerts, they were also the most illegally downloaded act in Finland, which “is a real problem” (one I’m sure you wish you have). Not only that – but when I suggested they could actually capitalise on that brilliant opportunity, she replied, “No – we tried and it didn’t work.”

5) And in response to my provocation that if music was treated a bit more like sport, schools might be able to provide students with decent equipment and a place to play – the next logical leap was “Yeah – and we could have cheerleaders at concerts…”

The list is long – but it’s not endless.

My litany of complaints
If you’re interested, most of it was documented in my twitter stream – and given the fact that I was actually moved to get up on stage and make a pointed comment about the recurring misogyny and homophobia, as well as the worrying desire to learn lessons in psychology from the gambling industry and seek to replace fandom and enjoyment with addiction and surveillance – you get the idea that there were some pretty outrageous stuff being pushed forward in the interests of perpetuating the industry.

The central message of some of the best keynote speeches were entirely misunderstood: Mika Sarimo’s (Bob Helsinki) brilliant ‘art supermarket’ project was presented as a fabulously creative response to a brief, but was interpreted as an instruction to ‘dumb it down where possible’.

But there were also fascinating discussions to be had and interesting points of view to be heard.

Because that’s not what you focus on
And even if nobody around me had heard the good messages, I learned an awful lot at Is This It – and I guess that’s the point of these things.

I discovered new music that I love (as well as some that didn’t do anything for me at all).

I met people I’m convinced (and delighted) will be friends and colleagues for years to come, and strengthened some existing friendships. I’m already working on a major project with some of the people I spoke to there, I’ll be brainstorming new ideas with some others – and I’ll be visiting distilleries in the Scottish Highlands with yet more…

Ruth, Mike, Olaf, Tak, Martin, Laura, Sami, John, Jutta, Samuel, Michael, Scott, Cecilia and everyone else whose company I thoroughly enjoyed – including Mika, the driver who brought me to the hotel from the airport, helped me with my few Finnish words, talked about travel and family, and subsequently surprised me by tracking me down and adding me as a friend on Facebook (so honoured – thanks!) – you made Is This It for me, and I really appreciate it.

But most of all, I just took as many opportunities as I could to do the interesting things, meet the interesting people and open myself up to unexpected possibilities. That’s what made this the best conference ever. And it would be my take-away point from all this.

Not – ‘Man, the record industry is stupid’, or ‘My God, we’re all screwed’ – but ‘What’s happening here that I can be a part of?’

When the local custom is to talk shop in the office sauna, there’s no place for English reserve. Get your kit off and whip yourself with a bunch of birch twigs in the scorching heat.

When offered reindeer or elk on a platter – give it a try (vegetarianism notwithstanding) – it’s delicious.

Get lost in a strange city. Visit the local markets. Drink vodka shots in the Leningrad Cowboys’ bar.

When presented with an opportunity – just say kiitos, jump in with both feet – and be bloody grateful.

If there’s one thing that was hammered home to me in what must be one of the most culturally ‘foreign’ places I’ve yet been to (which isn’t saying much, I’ll admit) – it’s that ‘what the hell’ is usually the right answer.

You may not be able to predict the future, but you can certainly give luck a helping hand by making sure you make yourself available to go after any and every opportunity that might come your way.