Is This It

I spent the past four days at a conference in Helsinki called Is This It. 150-odd music industry people charged with coming up with 100 or more new ideas to invigorate and reinterpret the business. A conference that put music back into the music industry. A place for learning, creativity, networking and genuine reinvention.

I decided to live-blog it via Twitter – and as soon as I started doing so, a pattern began to emerge and I started to have one of the most important, meaningful and eye-opening experiences of my music industry analysis and consultancy career.

Before very long, (and without a shred of sarcasm or cynicism on my part meant here at all) Is This It turned into my best conference ever – and I’m so genuinely grateful to the organisers for holding it. Not just because it was inspirational (and in truth, going back over my notes, quite a lot of it was) – but also because so much of it was just so utterly and unbelievably horrifying.

There were, for me, three main positive messages from three of the key speakers. And these were interspersed with such unmitigated bollocks, the people following me on Twitter thought I must have been making it up for comic effect.

Interesting, thought-provoking and practical

The first person to make good sense was Saku Tuominen, a creativity consultant and television producer (yes, you can do both). Here are some of his choice quotes as reported on my Twitter stream:

“Whatever you think the future will be, it will always be something different.”- Buddha

10 years ago – Google beta. No Facebook, no YouTube, no Spotify, no MySpace. How on earth can we predict 10 years from now?

“The best way to get a good idea is to get a lot of ideas and throw the bad ones away.” – Linus Pauling

Off to a fantastic start. Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan for the second time on this journey, and some of these themes connected really well. Good advice and all very promising.

Worrying, but forgivable…
Next up, veteran Australian promoter, Michael Chugg endeared himself to the crowd with a hilarious “Morning, wankers!” start to his speech, before dispensing the advice that the internet might be worth paying some attention to.

You see, once, whilst sitting on the toilet, he had encountered a magazine ad for a Sigur Ros tour that only had a URL on it – and not dates or venues.

His response at the time was, and I quote “Who fucked this up?!”

And despite the fact that he managed to shoehorn a disparaging remark about Invercargill in within 3 minutes of starting his speech, the moral of the story was internet = good, and we should seek to tame it, even if it frightens us a little bit.

A little wide of the mark – but he was certainly heading in the right direction there for a bit.

Surely not serious…
Chugg was followed by renowned music industry expert, Korda Marshall late of Warner Records and the man to blame for bringing James Blunt to the attention of the world. Not much I can add here, so I’m just going to lay out some of his gems for your edification:

“What would a record company look like if it was in Blade Runner? Or Logan’s Run?”

“Listen to everything. Make a decision. If you can’t, just toss a coin.”

“In the future, you won’t just be watching one TV, you’ll be watching 15 TVs at a time.”

To be honest, I’d have been appalled at the inane and pointless witterings that this clearly successful and otherwise (I’m assured) intelligent man had tried to pass off as wisdom – had his comments not been utterly eclipsed and rendered mere distracting frivolities by what was to follow.

Hand me a brick
Charts and graphs

It was the turn of Peter Ruppert from Entertainment Media Research. After inexplicably showing us a still from that scene in Blade where the unsuspecting underground clubbers dance under a shower of blood (I think it was meant to be illustrative of a different message than the more sinister one I took from it), he then went on to explain how music business is a matter of sophisticated Excel spreadsheets, colourful graphs, hit prediction, and metrics.

The graph above, for instance, represents Britney Spears’ music career mapped against some tabloid-worthy events in her life. From this, it seems we can forecast the success (and value) of her subsequent records based on forecasted emotional responses of audiences.

Apologies for the language here – but fuck off.

Words cannot express how much contempt I have for this man’s profession. It’s bad enough that these monsters have screwed radio playlists so completely and utterly. Now they’ve infiltrated A&R.

Attention record labels: this is NOT progress. Anyone who tells you this stuff and shows you these kinds of charts is a liar and charlatan, whether they’re aware of it or not.

Especially when they round it all off with a ham-fisted misquote from the bible.

This is not science. It’s outright bullshit and you should completely ignore it – or if you must listen, then at the very least do completely the opposite of whatever they suggest to you. Most importantly, you must never give them money. It only encourages them.

You’ll note, incidentally, that this particular presentation attempts to completely contradict all of the basic tenets of the first one. You know – creativity, the unpredictability of the real world, genuine surprise and the value of ingenuity.

It all reminds me of the story from The Black Swan, in which, for 1000 days, a turkey’s general well-being and all-round satisfaction with life is mapped on a graph – and on Christmas Eve, he looks at the chart, admires the upward curve and thinks about how wonderful the next day will surely be.

Coffee and a chat
From the keynote presentations, we went on to the round-table discussions. These were a highlight of the conference, and although they were just as rich a vein of blinkered nonsense, old-school protectionism and plain old ignorance of the workings of the new media environment, there were also some real gems, fascinating people and engaging conversations to be had.

The idea was that we’d talk for close to an hour around a theme, prompted by a few questions along the way, and then the group would be tasked with coming up with a bunch of ideas that could then be fed back to the room.

Our first theme was “finding talent”. Here’s a sample of some of the suggestions:

“As soon as you find that a subgenre brand is trending upwards, you should sign an artist in that subgenre…”

“Sign a band whose name is as insulting as possible in as many languages as possible”.

“Hire the kids of A&R people – they’re the best A&R people.”

“Consult a psychic for your next A&R tips.”

And yet – there was some sense amongst all of this. Mike McNally came up with this little gem:

“Hindsight is not research.”

And he’s right. There is actually good research you can do that would help you understand all sorts of things about what’s going on (well, I would say that – I’m a researcher) – but using the past as a measure for predicting the future is not going to work quite the way you might hope.

Falling into the trap
A break, and then a talk from Scott Cohen, Manager of both the Orchard (a digital distribution firm) and The Raveonettes (a band) – who is far more forward thinking than you might expect from the man whose business for the past 10 years has been mostly about selling music downloads as if they were intangible CDs.

Keen at spotting trends, and with all of the big behind-the-scenes insight you might expect from a man in his position, Cohen is a smart guy who can see what’s going on around him. Unfortunately, he falls into the common trap of describing the present, exaggerating an aspect of it, and presenting it as if he’s predicting the future.

His key message was that technology drives history (yes, he’s a determinist). The physical properties of 45rpm records made us like 3-minute pop songs; the storage capacity of a CD expanded albums to 70 minutes in duration, and so on.

But in the future, he predicts, the album will be dead, we’ll only consume individual songs, we won’t download them – they’ll all be in ‘the cloud’ and it’ll all happen on our smartphone.

I’m sorry – but refer previous:

“Whatever you think the future will be, it will always be something different.”- Buddha

10 years ago – Google beta. No Facebook, no YouTube, no Spotify, no MySpace. How on earth can we predict 10 years from now?

Sorry, Scott – love you, man – but you’re wrong. Absolutely, categorically and in every important respect.

I don’t know what ‘right’ is – but the simple fact that you’re calling it like it’s done makes you wrong. Innovation is not linear and we just can’t guess because the right answer isn’t one of the options available to us.

We don’t know what it is we don’t yet know.

The only thing we can absolutely count on is the unknowable, disruptive element and its unexpected consequence.

Part 2 soon. Yep – there’s more. It gets better – and much, much worse. Bur hopefully, you’ll also see why it was so valuable, and also why I enjoyed it so much.