I promised a radical change for New Music Strategies in 2008.
Here you go: it’s not a blog any more.
In 2006, I started a blog called New Music Strategies. I started writing about the rapidly changing media landscape, and how that was affecting independent artists and small music businesses. More importantly, it was about ways of understanding and navigating these changes, rather than being subject to them.
Along the way, I engaged with a good many people from the music business, many of whom shaped my thinking and gave me interesting case studies from around the world that challenged my preconceptions about what the online media environment offered, and what difficulties it raised. I gathered some of my ideas together and put out a little e-book that some people found helpful and interesting.
Over time, the readership of the blog grew. It seemed that this was a topic a lot of people were interested in. These are, after all, pressing issues for pretty much any band, independent label, promoter, venue owner, professional musician, publisher, broadcaster, music educator, retailer, equipment manufacturer, ticket outlet, performer, events organiser, studio owner, sound recordist and music consumer.
And the more people read the blog, the more feedback I received — and the more that feedback contributed to my thinking about the online music environment. I’ve had the opportunity to work through these things in a consultancy capacity, and the people I’ve worked with or presented to in that time have led me to believe that it’s been worth their while. And, of course, I’ve learned from all of these people — and it all goes into the pot.
I kind of feel like I have something of value to contribute as a result of all that. Something more than an occasional blog post could communicate effectively.
My credentials for writing the blog in the first place were simply that it was a topic I was interested in, and I’m lucky enough to be passionate about something I can have as both a job and a hobby. My job, for the record (at least at the time of writing — who can predict the future?), is as Senior Lecturer and Degree Leader in the Music Industries at Birmingham City University. As part of my job, I teach about Online Music, how the Music Business works, Music Industries Skills, some Events Management, Music Programming for Radio and even a spot of Radio Drama, Documentaries and Features writing and production.
I’m also involved in research projects at the University. One of them concerns the ways in which online audiences interact with BBC music radio content. That’s a partnership with a couple of other universities and the BBC’s New Media and Technology Division. Another – a really big one – is called a Knowledge Transfer Fellowship. That’s a project in which a few of us go out to a bunch of local music and radio organisations and say ‘how can we be helpful?’. The idea is to help generate some innovative projects within industry that will help contribute to the economic and social aims of those organisations and, by extension, the wider local industry.
The blog, of course, is not part of the job. It’s nice that there’s overlap, but I like to keep them a bit separate. Life is complicated enough.
My background is in radio and the music business, as you might expect. I got into academia fairly late after a good decade as a broadcaster and sound engineer (I still consider myself a broadcaster, but I’m an ex-sound engineer), and later running a couple of media production companies and a jazz record label. I’ve also been a bit of a music collector for most of my life. These days, I tend to buy jazz vinyl (yes, off the internet), and sometimes people let me play records at bars and music festivals.
I don’t really consider myself a blogger. That’s not really what I do. That’s just how I happen to communicate what I do some of the time. I don’t consider myself a public speaker or a magazine columnist either, but these are also ways in which I think about this stuff out loud. I guess, if pressed, I’d call myself an educator, a communicator and a music fan. But that’s just because those are the things I’m most interested in doing, from a professional standpoint.
My actual skill, if I could be said to have one, is to join the dots. I try and step back, look at all the pieces, and try and think of interesting ways they could be connected up. Not much of a skill, as skills go – and I’d probably far rather not suck at playing guitar – but that’s what I have to work with.
So at the end of 2007, I asked the readers of New Music Strategies to go away and have a think about what it is they do, and to what end. The idea was, at the time, to try and get some clarity about where you’re at, so you can figure out where you’re headed and take the next step with some confidence.
But in truth, I was really asking that of myself.
What is it I actually do? What do I do it for?
And actually, it’s not that easy to come up with something definitive. But here’s what I came up with:
I describe and explain the internet for musicians and the people they work with, and I do it because I think that it’s helpful – both to them, and to people like me who like music a whole lot. I consider myself successful to the extent that people come back to me and say “Because of what you said, I now earn Ã‚Â£X per month more than I was previously able, my attendances have gone up at gigs, and I can now do Thing X with my music that I always wanted to do…”
I like music people. Most of my friends come under that banner, I want to see them do well, and I recognise that it’s not easy to make that happen. Most of the musicians I know have spent more time than most brain surgeons in training for their profession, and they do it whether or not people will give them money.
And things are getting more challenging and confusing by the day, what with lawsuits about piracy, hyper-crowding on MySpace, new online services coming on board every day and copyright becoming an increasingly complex game. And now musicians are starting to feel compelled to either become computer experts, which that makes them either overwhelmed, resentful, or — at the other end of the spectrum — committed geeks like me — or to walk away from computers altogether.
But it’s not about becoming an IT specialist. It’s about knowing what’s around you and what you can use it for. Tools and contexts. Misunderstanding the online environment is, I believe, the main source of all the problems that the music industries currently face. Sure, greed and sheer bloody-mindedness play a part (and we can all think of examples of those things in the music biz these days), but the main problem is one of evolutionary wrongheadedness.
Online media ecology
Hang on – “evolutionary”?
Yep. The online world is part of our media environment. If your physical environment changes, and you adapt in response to that change, then you’re evolving. What you’re evolving into is probably something quite similar to what you were before, but with a specialism or a particular adaptation that (hopefully) gives you an edge in this changed environment. Ice Age? Grow fur. Lots of land predators? Grow wings. That sort of thing. Same deal here.
But growing fur is not an appropriate response to the introduction of predators to your ecosystem (unless they don’t like the taste). Chances are, you’ll be too hot and heavy to run, and you’ll still get eaten. Likewise, to misread the changes to the media environment as a result of the introduction of digital and networked technologies could lead to disastrous consequences. Whatever the musical business equivalent of getting eaten alive and having your furry bits spat out might be – well, pretty much that.
Okay, so it’s a metaphor. But these metaphors help us to understand and cope with changes as they face us. They help us make sense of the universe. As Robert Stetson Shaw said*, “You don’t see something until you have the right metaphor to let you perceive it”.
So my point (and I do have one) is that there’s clearly a role for me here. I have a bunch of useful metaphors, a handful of interesting approaches and a clear desire for things to be better than they currently are for you, the independent music person.
‘New’ New Music Strategies
Like I said, I don’t really think of myself as a blogger or a public speaker, so it’s not really that important to me if I keep blogging or giving seminars. But I do think of myself as a communicator, and these seem like fun things to do (especially when encouraged to do so with travel and cash), so I’ll carry on until someone tells me to stop. But making these realisations about what I’m up to and why I’m doing it has given a much clearer purpose to New Music Strategies.
Yes, it happens to be ‘in blog form’ right at this moment, but that might just be a useful way to communicate something that goes beyond the typical episodic short-form observation. In fact, something more similar to a book (at least in size and scope) might be in order, because some of these ideas require a fair bit of development and working through.
You won’t have to change anything about the way you read or subscribe to New Music Strategies. It’s still at this web address, and it will still arrive via RSS. This is still the internet, and we use the rules of the environment. In that respect, it’s clearly not a book — but from here on out, I’m going to write it as if it is one.
So – if it was a book, what sort of book would it be?
A practical one, certainly. One that drew on some of my educational background, research into the online media environment, and work with the music industries. One that took the new media environment for what it was, and not simply explained it, but developed some genuinely new strategies for businesses, bands and enterprises like yours that used that environment to get ahead of the game, adapt and thrive.
But I’m kind of glad it’s not a book in the traditional sense – because this way, although we can think about it as if it was something of that nature, I can also involve you in the creation of it. If it was a book, I’d go and lock myself in a room for a year or two, and come back with a text and present it as a fait accompli. And you’d look at it and think ‘meh – seen it before’.
I want to write this “book” (okay, that’s the last time I’m using airquotes – you know what I mean) for you and with you. I want you to tell me what sort of things you’re trying, what sort of challenges you’re facing, what sort of music business you’re attempting, what sort of technologies you’re struggling with, what sort of growth you’re striving for and what it is you do for a living.
Because it’s no longer a blog in the traditional sense, I’m not just going to be writing short observations, posting links to new and interesting things and saying ‘Look: shiny!’ (that’s what New Music Ideas is for). I’m going to be researching and writing something very like a book with your assistance.
On the downside, it won’t be as easy to read in the bath as a traditional book, and I’ll be writing it as you’re reading it, so it may not be as brilliantly structured as something that had a couple of dozen revisions. Maybe once we’ve got something that looks sort of finished, we can knock it into some sort of shape at the time. Perhaps.
On the plus side, it’s immediate, free, and intended to be as applicable, practical and helpful as possible. More helpful, certainly than New Music Strategies has been to date. Like most blogs, New Music Strategies has been necessarily impressionistic and a bit attention-deficit. It would hop from topic to topic on a whim, and aimed at best to be generally interesting, maybe occasionally useful.
It was all ‘this is what I’m thinking about right now’ rather than ‘this is the stuff that I’ve been working through for the past couple of years’. In other words, that was the warm up. This is the real deal.
I know I’ve made noises about a podcast, audiobooks, that sort of thing. That will come certainly (and I appreciate the music submissions and enquiries), but that’s not the primary focus right now. I’ve spent the past month with the big piece of paper, mapping out how I can best be helpful, and I’m convinced now, that this is it.
I can listen to you, I can work through this stuff with you, I can describe the environment and explain some of its features and terrain, I can do a spot of coaching on the entrepreneurial stuff, and I can connect the dots between what you’re good at and what’s now possible.
So – this is it. New Music Strategies is evolving, and – if you’re interested – you’re along for the ride. I’m looking forward to what we’ll come up with.
Thanks for reading.
*quoted in James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science, Viking, New York, 1987. p. 262