Music Beyond the Digital Age

I was in Stockholm today presenting at a course run by SOM – the Swedish association for independent music. A group of record label owners had been assigned my book to read, and I was invited to come and talk to them for a couple of hours. By all accounts, not only had they read it, they seem to have enjoyed it – and one or two made a point of saying it had been helpful to them, which was lovely to hear.

Of course, it feels like I wrote Music in the Digital Age a lifetime ago. My presentation to the label owners was called Music Beyond the Digital Age – partly because so much of my thinking has moved on and developed since then – but also because so has the media environment we live in.

When I first started writing and speaking about music online, the world was very different. It was around the year 2001, give or take, and I had recently given up researching and writing about VR on the grounds it was so terribly old fashioned. I was more interested in developments for music and radio in the digital domain. This was before iTunes, before Facebook, before iPhones, before YouTube, Twitter, Sonos, Spotify, Soundcloud, Bandcamp – even before MySpace…

Google was only a few years old and most of us were still using Alta Vista. Hell, most of us were still using fax machines.

It was, of course, a good couple of years after Napster had revealed a fundamental problem in the model for music industries in the digital age. It triggered a catastrophic knee-jerk reaction in the recording industry that labelled everyone who likes music a criminal, attempted to break everyone’s music players (and computers in the process) and not only completely sucked all of the money out of the sector but also paved the way for the worst industry PR decision since the Ford Motor Company advocated running over pedestrians for not driving cars (that never actually happened of course, but it would kind of be in the same ball park if it had).

A decade or so year later, at the time I started writing Music in the Digital Age, it was actually still the digital age.

I’d say we’re at the point of transitioning into a new period.

For the record, the Digital Age – at least for music – started almost 35 years ago when CDs were released onto the market (remember that CDs are a digital format – despite the nonsense you hear about ‘digital vs physical’ as if CDs are one and not the other). Now there’s some pretty compelling evidence to suggest that it’s drawing to an end. Not that digital technologies are going away. We also still have books, writing, spoken word and television sets – so I wouldn’t unnecessarily worry about the ‘death of’ anything here if I were you.

All the same, this is hugely significant. We’re at the beginning of a 6th Media Age – after the Oral, Scribal, Print, Electric and Digital eras. That process of development is speeding up, for sure – though the idea that we’re approaching a ‘singularity’ is an over-simplistic and unimaginative reading of what’s really going on. A longer conversation for another time, perhaps…

I have some theories about what it means that we now live in what you might call a ‘post-digital’ world. It took me a couple of hours to explain what I meant by that earlier today, so I won’t try to condense it into a single blog post. I wrote an essay you can download when I was first exploring the concept if you’re interested in the idea – and there’s certainly a book in it if I ever get the time to sit down and write it.

But it was a really nice way to spend an afternoon, sharing these ideas that come out of my work with the Music Tech Fest (which has been hugely influential on my thinking and has provided me with endless case studies) as well as my encounters with everything from neuroscience to literary criticism, cryptography, art history and cultural theory.

I got to spend a very nice time with a really engaged and interested bunch of independent record label owners from across a whole range of genres, and we talked about things they probably don’t often get an occasion to talk about – from William Blake to Star Wars, Lego Bricks to Artificial Intelligence.

And it was so refreshing to hear a question I hadn’t heard asked in a very long time: ‘So… should I delete my MySpace page?’

Putting events online

I’m currently working on a project that brings together musicians from areas of conflict around the world and has them collaborating, rehearsing and performing across the UK over a number of weeks. I’m working remotely on this project, in an advisory capacity, since I’m also currently in Brazil making a documentary film about independent music.

We have a small group of enthusiastic young people on the ground who are capturing the event using digital media – for posterity, for the blog and to communicate the project to the outside world. I’ve been asked to give some advice so that they know what to capture and how.

So I wrote them an email – and it occurs to me that this advice could be deployed in all sorts of situations – so I include it here for anyone who might find it useful…


There are a few things to remember when you do this – some of them contradictory, so you’ll need to strike a balance. I’m assuming you have digital video cameras, audio recorders, still cameras, and something to type with. Those are your four media types: text, audio, photo and video.

Here are some tips:


– Text is harder to generate than the others – because you have to actually write it – but much easier to store and share, and more likely to be consumed than almost anything else – especially if it’s presented with an image that draws you in.

– 200-300 words is a good target. Much less than that and you’re not really saying anything. Much more than that and people probably won’t bother reading it (unless it’s a list of helpful instructions – like this).

– Don’t just write about what happens. Interpret. If somebody does something, the statement you should be completing in your head is “And what’s interesting about that is…”

– See the universal in the particular, and lead readers towards it. You can write about very small things that reveal very large things. You can’t write about very large things. For instance, the way somebody behaves in a certain circumstance might be a very small thing, but which speaks volumes about the difficulty of living through conflict and being creative in the face of devastation. You can’t say anything interesting about war, poverty or economics in 300 words.

– Tell a story – don’t just relay facts. A story has a beginning, a middle, an end and a point. A story is always about a person who does something. Normally, they face a challenge (however small), they overcome that challenge, and they learn and grow. Look for stories like that. They happen all around us all the time – and people are hard wired to appreciate them.


– Sound is really evocative. You can make podcasts, do interviews, capture the sound of something happening.

– Again, sound works really well with a still image. You can even build a slideshow featuring a series of still images and sound.

– The sound of stuff happening is every bit as interesting (often more so) as the sound of somebody talking.

– You can easily embed audio on a blog, or link to it on Twitter and Facebook.

– Levels are really important. Get the microphone (or your phone, if that’s what you’re using) close to the subject or the person talking. Closer than you might feel comfortable doing. About 6 inches from the mouth is ideal. People will deal with it.

– The mouth of the person talking SHOULD NOT be pointing directly at the microphone. However, the microphone SHOULD be pointing directly at the mouth of the person talking.

– If you’re interviewing someone, ask them a question they can’t answer with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. You want to say “why…” or “how…” or “tell me about…” rather than “do you…” or “is it true that…”

– When you’ve asked a question, shut up. Let the person answer. When they finish answering, keep smiling and nodding and don’t talk. They will be uncomfortable with the silence and keep talking. People need to fill the gap – and that’s where they’ll tell you the most interesting and revealing stuff.


– Take lots of photos and only publish the best ones.

– Think about composition and light to the extent that you can – even with cameraphones.

– Try not to take a photo towards the sun. It should be behind or above you as much as possible.

– The ‘rule of thirds’ is handy to know. Don’t put everything in the middle of the picture. If you’re taking a photo of a person, imagine the frame in three vertical parts. Put them in the left or right hand one, not the middle one (it’s often good if they’re looking into the other 2 thirds). For scenes, imagine two equally spaced horizontal lines (making three equal sections) – and place the horizon on one of those lines.

– The straighter you can make a photo, the better it looks. Check your horizon and make sure it’s flat.


– Video is dead easy to capture, but requires work after the fact – so don’t shoot hours of footage. Allow 10 minutes work for every 1 min of footage you collect.

– People will only watch a video for a short time – especially if it’s in a collection of a whole bunch of stuff that’s going on. Aim for 90 seconds.

– You are not there to film a performance, but rather capture ‘what it’s like to be there’. Don’t worry about hitting the stop button during a song.

– Focus on interesting details. Don’t try to capture a whole scene. Rather, notice small things that other people might not.

– Use the same ‘rule of thirds’ that you use with photos.

– Video is always landscape mode (wide) rather than portrait (tall)

– Think about the background.

– If you’re doing a video interview, don’t just go for talking heads on the screen. The best interview question is “What are you doing now?” With a video camera, you have the opportunity to show people things.

– Don’t be afraid to play around with video. Capture unusual stuff and go close for detail. If two people are walking, then you might want to shoot their feet rather than their faces. If somebody is playing guitar, point the camera at their hands sometimes.


– There are no right tools. Whatever you have to hand is great. If you can better tools, then great. But not having a Canon 5D is not a reason to not take photos.

– If you have a smartphone, you have the tools to do text, photo, audio and video. No excuse.

– Everyone should be involved. Encourage the participants to film, interview and record as much as possible. It’s a really good idea if you can spend an hour with them getting them to make something (interview each other on video using their phone, perhaps) and uploading it. They’ll see how easy it is and want to get involved, they’ll be doing it together, and so it will feel more normal – and you’ll get some fantastic material that way.

– Use ‘normal’ everyday platforms. Post pictures on Flickr or Picasa. Videos on YouTube or Vimeo. Audio on Soundcloud or AudioBoo.

– Let those hosting services do the heavy lifting for media data. Then you can embed onto your blog.

– You could use Tumblr for convenience, but I would recommend instead having your own hosted space with your own URL. Nobody can change the terms and conditions, you get to keep whatever you make, and you have much more control over how it looks and feels. Buy a domain name and some hosting, install WordPress, pick a theme that works for you, and post everything there.

– Back everything up. Don’t rely on the cloud. Have two copies of all of your material – unedited and in full quality – on more than one hard drive in more than one location. Offsite backup is the best way to ensure you don’t lose anything.

– Name your audio & video files something sensible. I recommend date (year, month day – in that order), title of the file and initials of person who made the piece – all lowercase (except for the initials) – and use underscores instead of spaces (not every service likes spaces in filenames). Seems long and arduous, but you’ll get into the habit quickly and you’ll thank me later. Seriously. An example of a video I made today would be: 130723-beautiful_sunset_in_sao_paulo-AD.mpg

– You should think about uploading stuff to as well. That way it’s preserved for future generations too.


– The best advice I can give you is “capture whatever’s interesting”. That will be different to you than it is to anyone else. Give that same advice to the musicians. Once they work out that they have video cameras in their pockets, tell them “point that at whatever you think is interesting”. They will surprise you.

– Don’t try to capture performances as if you’re filming a concert for TV. Nobody wants that, and nobody will sit through it.

– The question the media you make should answer is “what’s it like to be there?”

– Look for dynamics between human beings. Tension, romance, friendship, creative sparks – anything like that. That stuff is magic – in any format: text, video, audio or photography.

– Be imaginative. You’re not there as a reporter, to collect facts or document history, but rather as someone telling a story about something that is happening in your presence. Treat it like a story. Treat the people as characters in a narrative.

– Feel free to interact with that story. Ask questions. Make suggestions. Get the musicians interviewing each other. Be playful.

– What happens around the event is as interesting as the event. Capture the road trips, lunch breaks, play time, down time and the human side of things as much as possible.

– Have fun with it.

The Broken Record series

Broken Record

Goldsmith University MA students Nicolle Smith and Stefan Peters have just finished work on a short web-documentary series called Broken Record.

They interviewed me for the series, and there’s a lot of stuff in here that is pertains to my Music As Culture interests and the Deleting Music book as much as it does to the general tone of what I research and discuss as part of the Interactive Cultures team at BCU, and what I usually write about on New Music Strategies.

The series is definitely worth watching, and features some good insight from some interesting people from different parts of the British digital music world – and it’s presented for your entertainment below.

Share and enjoy.


Lies Like These

I’m in Manchester at a music industry conference called Un-Convention. It’s one of those events where you know quite a few of the people involved, and the ones you don’t, you get to know quite quickly.

After the last band played last night, a bunch of us went across to the pizzeria / chip shop across the road for a bite to eat. My Belfast cousin Tracy, and Brad from Bolton band Merchandise were talking about Brad’s album and how that was coming along.

‘Nearly done – just have some mastering to do. Finished a video for the first single, but we’re not going to do any more. Don’t have the budget for it.’

‘Let’s make one right now,’ I said.

So, armed with my digital camera (a still camera, actually, but with a video setting) and with the song on Brad’s ipod, we just did a one-take shot. No rehearsal. Not even any discussion about what the two of them would do.

The only real shame was that it’s hard to see what Tracy wrote on the base of the pizza box at the end of the video. It reads ‘You suck.’

An hour later, I went to bed while this was uploading to Vimeo.

Music video budget? We don’t need no music video budget…

Find Merchandise on iTunes.

Sola Rosa

<a href="">The Ace Of Space by Sola Rosa</a>

I thought I’d try the Bandcamp ‘share’ widget right here on my New Music Strategies page for a few reasons.

First, I’m doing some advisory work for Bandcamp (Disclaimer!), and I feel like I need to push this thing to its limits – and tell you all how insanely great it really is (and I’d genuinely say that even if I wasn’t helping them out).

Second, I really love the new Sola Rosa record and thought you might like to hear it.

And third, I wanted to actually get a bit of music onto New Music Strategies for a change. Hope that’s not too competitive or too much of a change of gear for you. I figured you probably like music just as much as I do.

Enjoy. And go get your own music up on Bandcamp too.

By the way – let me know how you get on listening to a whole album from within a blog page. Does it work for you?

When should I put my music online?

There are so many musicians putting their music on the internet these days. Some of them are consummate professionals who have high production values and years of experience and practice behind them. Some are posting YouTube Videos entitled Me, Learning to Play the Guitar – Day 2.

Prior to the internet, the finished recording was the minimum standard for releasing material to the general public via media platforms. You could always take your guitar into the street and play it at passers-by, but if you wanted people to hear your music in their living rooms, there was an automatic selection process and fairly stringent entry criteria.

Punk taught us that you don’t need to be a virtuoso to play music to other people. But with no real barriers to access to a lot of musicians getting their stuff out there (and, let’s be honest, some truly awful stuff out there) – how do you know when to start letting people hear what you’re working on?