Modern music economics: a fierce independent streak

CoverSutra - IN RAINBOWS

Steven Hodson posted a response to my IN RAINBOWS entry titled “Being free doesn’t make crap any better“. He makes the simple argument that, just because bands are freeing themselves from their labels and giving their fans the ability to pay what they want for their albums, that this won’t necessarily result in higher quality music being produced. It just means that we won’t have to buy the filler crap that most bands crank out to fill out albums to convince us to shell out $18 a CD.

He reminisces:

When I first started collecting music back in the days of vinyl it was commonly accepted that at least one; two at the most, tracks on the LP would be crap and usually stuffed onto the B-side of the LP. Over the years this ratio has slowly changed to the point that the majority of the time you are lucky if even half the songs are worth listening to. We became nothing but cash cows for the music industry as we lined up obediently with every big release and plunked over our hard earned money because we had no alternatives.

He goes on point out the change:

Then came the Internet and suddenly we had a way to thumb our noses at the industry that had been bleeding us dry and get only the songs we felt were worth listening to. The days of the 45 single had returned albeit in electronic form.

He then attacks what he sees as my warm and fuzzy view of a kinder, gentler “Open Media Web” (my term, borrowed from Songbird’s Rob Lord — (a client of Citizen Agency)).

The comment thread seems particularly interesting, so I thought I’d reproduce it here. I begin:

Hmm, I’m not sure that I have any illusions about the role of commerce in the decisions of these bands. Especially in the cases of Radiohead and NIN, they’ll do fine selling direct to consumers. For many other bands, especially undiscovered ones, or ones who aren’t MySpace et al-savvy, I think it’ll be a long slog before they can go completely independent. Let’s face it, you have to reach a certain amount of volume selling your wares before you can survive off of it.

In any case, I wouldn’t look at this as so much a warm and fuzzy revolution, but rather the kind of circumstance that made the coming of Firefox so exciting… the ground is beginning to shift and the landscape is taking on new forms. If Firefox didn’t come around, who knows when Microsoft would have been forced to update its browser…! The same thing is true for music now with bands advocating for fans to “steal their music” (as Trent Reznor proclaimed, genius marketing if you ask me) or advocating against the use of DRM (since it effectively reduces the number of people who can experience a band’s music, limiting their potential viral spread — which is where bands get their volume from!).

Anyway, I see the commerce side of this. This isn’t just a “Free The Music From the Evil Tyrants” thing. This is changing the way that money is made and how it flows. An Open Media Web is about recirculation, redistribution and greater freedom of choice. Personally I hope this change (more openness and choice) brings about a Darwinian evolution where the crap begins to wane and bands are forced to actually crank out top shelf A-Sides in order to make it.

We’re still a long way off, but I’m not sure, as was the case in the last post we exchanged words on, we really disagree.

Steve follows:

Chris I have to admit I always like it when you join in any of the conversations I try and spark here at WinExtra. Both from the point of view that you as a firm Web 2.0 proponent bring to the table and because you always have some intelligent feedback. Maybe that is one of the reasons why your posts tend to either spark thoughts of my own or figure prominently in my posts.

I do agree that the ground is shifting under us but whether it will make any difference in the larger picture of society is highly debatable. In this bubble we call the early adopterism of all things cool we seem to suffer from a myopic view that people outside of the bubble will see things the same way.

With music as much as folks who look at the current happenings hope that this will indeed foreshadow a larder trend outside of the bubble that will result in more bands being able to get out from under the thumb of music labels and become successful the fact is I think for the larger Internet world it will only see the word FREE.

As for not disagreeing on points in discussions we have had in the past I think my next post today; which again was sparked by one of yours, may see us definitely at opposite ends LOL

Thanks for taking time and being a part of my contributions to the conversation chain


I do think there is something to the insider bubbloptics effect that keeps us somewhat sheltered from reality. And as much as I try to empathize or imagine what the rest of the world might think about such things, let’s face it, I’m like Paris Hilton thinking that I can speak for Guantanamo inmates.

That said, I do have a view inside the bubble, and since I’m originally from New England, I have a curmudgeonly distrust of all things large and who think they’re in charge. Usually that means the government or Big Business, and in this case, I’m talking about the collusive record labels.

Will there be some cataclysmic changing of the guard where every band joins up with a new RIAA (Recording Independents Association of Anarchists?) and goes Free Agent Nation on the former RIAA’s ass? Will all bands start giving away their music for free? Or better yet, seeding copies of their albums to the BitTorrent networks themselves? I doubt it.

BUT, what is important here is that Radiohead, NIN and the others are waking up from their somnambulant stupor and realizing, in Harrison Bergeron fashion, that they do indeed have free will and can take risks (instead of just pot shots) with their own careers if they so choose.

And since the actualization of choice is tantamount to establishing that one has free will, marketing-driven or not, the fact is, their model will become an inspiration for an entire generation who won’t just assume that the only way to make it is through signing away your life and becoming a slave to the economics you decried in your post, but instead that they can consider alternative routes to success and satisfaction and more importantly, more genuine or original ways to create and be involved with music, less as a Business, and more as an Art.

Flywheels and spinning plates

Cables and Flywheels of San Francsico by Mike Sweeney
Photo by Mike Sweeney and shared under Creative Commons license.

Interesting conversation tonight with Greg Wolff and his wife about capturing social capital as a dynamic kind of “currency”.

I didn’t follow the discussion in its entirely, but going off on my own tangent, I did come up with a rather interesting framing of the idea… at least insomuch as it relates to the gift economy and participation in open source communities.

The example given had to do with choosing, let’s say, an ice cream store to shop at. Everything being equal save the size of the crowd gathered outside, the very size of the crowd (or social capital as defined by the amount of accrued activity) could well determine which shop you’d buy your ice cream from. Essentially, the premise is that in numbers lies preference, wisdom or the promise of something better.

Applying this to open source projects and open source communities, it does seem to be true that the amount of momentum or potential attention such projects or communities can generate determines its attractiveness or recruiting-slash-staying power (obviously quality, opportunity and interestingness also play a role among other things).

Spinning Plates by  MerWhat’s interesting about this observation is that it can be modeled by imagining, first, a vast number of simultaneously spinning plates, representing all active open source projects. When someone sees a “plate” faltering, there is an opening to get involved and to contribute productively, keeping the plate “spinning”. Should there be a lack of interest or a lack of talent over time, that “plate” (or project) will fall (essentially going dormant). Now, fortunately, the value and progress made on that project has not been lost, since, as it is open source, anyone can come along later and start up the plate spinning again. An important principle in play here is the “conservation of attention” within a system run on social capital. Knowledge-based systems are infinite; what is limited is attention spread across knowledge-amassing projects. In thinking of open source projects as spinning plates, they require attention in order to keep “going” or producing more knowledge.

The second part of this observation is that, similar to the plate metaphor, successful open source projects operate like flywheels, spinning faster and faster in perpetuity the more that people join up and contribute.

However, this only works to a certain degree. If an open source project builds a community of active contributors and “gets the flywheel going” but then is unable to build infrastructure to harness the additional marginal effort that is contributed as social capital, eventually the excess social capital will dissipate and spread to other spinning plates (or open source projects). The result is something of a self-correcting equilibrium state where projects will continue to grow and flourish so long as they are able to sufficiently spend the capital that is being amassed.

This is a reflection of the self-healing, decentralized aspects of open source projects, where if they can not build large enough “buckets” to contain the magnitude of contributions directed their way, they will grow temporally only to revert back to a smaller and more manageable size.

In other words, if a project needs me for something and acknowledges and shows appreciate for my work in the context and view of other contributors, I’ll be happy to contribute more (to continue helping to spin the flywheel). If instead, I give my “gifts” of work to a project and they ignore, reject or otherwise devalue or fail to acknowledge what I’ve contributed, I will likely abandon the project and seek a more receptive audience elsewhere, that will compensate me with social capital in exchange for the work that I am willing to do — monetarily speaking — for free.

My contributions should be valued in direct relation to the degree that I am able to help “spin the flywheel”. And insomuch as the project is one that others are willing to work on, there is a derivation of social capital that comes predominantly from the shared experience of working together with peers. Thus I am able to produce more “wealth” (in terms of social capital) for myself and for others by giving away my work freely and by working on projects in which many others are willing to do the same.

In this we find one of the motivating factors for working in open source and reveal how people come to decide on which project(s) to contribute to: namely, the degree to which one can earn and spend social capital, both individually and collectively. The degree to which one derives personal satisfaction from the outcome of this exchange will in turn determine the longevity and ongoing success of a project.

Stop building social networks

I started writing this post August 8th. Now that Dave Recordon is at Six Apart and blogging about these things and Brad Fitzpatrick has moved on to Google, I thought I should finally finish this post.

I fortuitously ran into Tim O’Reilly, Brad Fitzpatrick and Dave Recordon in Philz yesterday as I was grabbing a cup of coffee. They were talking about some pretty heady ideas and strategies towards wrenching free one’s friends networks from the multiple social networks out there — and recombining them in such a way that it’d be very hard to launch a closed down social network again.

The idea isn’t new. It’s certainly been attempted numerous times, with few successful efforts to show for it to date. I think that Brad and Dave might be on to something with their approach, though, but it begs an important question: once you’ve got a portable social network, what do you do with it?

Fortunately, Brian Oberkirch has been doing a lot of thinking on this subject lately with his series on , starting with a post on designing portable social networks lead up to his most recent post offering some great tips on how to prepare your site for the day when your users come knocking for a list of their friends to populate their new favor hang.

In his kick-off post, Brian laid the problem of social network fatigue as stemming from the:

  • Creation of yet another login/password to manage
  • Need to re-enter profile information for new services
  • Need to search and re-add network contacts at each new service
  • Need to reset notification and privacy preferences for each new service
  • Inability to manage and add value to these networks from a central app/work flow

I think these are the fundamental drivers behind the current surge of progress in user-centric identity services, as opposed to the aging trend of network-centric web services. If Eric Schmidt thinks that Web 3.0 will be made up of small pieces loosely joined and “in the cloud”, my belief, going back to my time with Flock, is that having consistent identifiers for the same person across multiple networks, services or applications is going to be fundamental to getting the next evolution of the web right.

Tim made the point during our discussion that at one point in computing history, SQL databases embedded access permissions in the database itself. In modern times, access controls have been decoupled from the data and are managed, maintained and federated without regard to the data itself, affording a host of new functionality and stability simply by adjusting the architecture of the system.

If we decouple people and their identifiers from the networks that currently define them, we start moving towards greater granularity of privacy control through mechanisms like global social whitelists and buddy list blocklists. It also means that individuals can solicit services to be built that serve their unique social graph across any sites and domains (kind of like a fingerprint of your relationship connections), rather than being restrained to the limited freedom in locked down networks like Facebook. And ultimately, it enables cross-sharing content and media with anyone whom you choose, regardless of the network that they’re on (just like email today, where you can send someone on email from or even, and so on, but with finer contact controls). The result is that the crosscut of one’s social network could be as complete (or discreet) as one chose, and that rather than managing it in a social network-centric way, you’d manage it centrally, just as you do your IM buddy list, and it would follow you around on any site that you visit.

So it’s become something of a refrain in the advice that we’ve been giving out lately to our clients that they should think very critically about what social functionality they should (and shouldn’t) build directly into their sites. Rather than assuming that they should “build what Flickr has” or think about which features of Facebook they should absorb, the better question, I think, is to assume that in the next 6-8 months (for the early adopters at least) there’s going to be a shift to these portable networks. Where the basics will mostly be better covered by existing solutions and will not need to be rebuilt. Where each new site — especially those with specific functionality like TripIt (disclosure: we’ve consulted TripIt) — will need to focus less on building out its own social network and more on how social functionality can support their core competency.

We’re still in the early stages of recognizing and identifying the components of this problem. Thus far, the Microformats wiki says:

Why is it that every single social network community site makes you:

  • re-enter all your personal profile info (name, email, birthday, URL etc.)?
  • re-add all your friends?

In addition, why do you have to:

  • re-turn off notifications?
  • re-specify privacy preferences?
  • re-block negative people?

AKA “social network fatigue problem” and “social network update/maintenance problem”.

I’ve yet to be convinced that this is a problem that the “rest of the world” beyond social geeks is suffering, but I do think that the situation can be greatly improved, even for folks who are used to abandoning their profiles when they forget their passwords. For one thing, the world today is too network-centric, and not person-centric. While I do think people should be able to take on multiple personas online (professional, casual, hobby, family, and so on), I don’t think that that means that they should have those boundaries set for them by the networks they join. Instead, they should maintain their multiple personas as separate identifiers: email addresses, IM addresses and/or profile URLs (i.e. OpenIDs). This allows for handy separation based on the way people already materialize themselves online. Projects like NoseRub and even the smaller additions of offsite-identifiers on sites like Digg, Twitter and Pownce also acknowledge that members think of themselves as being more faceted than a single URL indicates.

This is a good thing. And this is where social computing needs to go.

We need to stop building independent spider webs of sticky siloed social activity. We need to stop fighting the nature of the web and embrace the design of uniform resource identifiers for people. We need to have a user agent that actually understands what it means to be a person online. A person with friends, with contacts, with enemies, with multiple personas and surfaces and ambitions and these user agents of the social web need to understand that, though we live in many distinct places on the web and interact with many different services, that we as people still have one unified viewport through which we understand the world.

Until social networks understand this reality and start to adapt to it, the problem that Dave is describing is only going to continue to get worse for more and more people until truly, the problem of social network fatigue will spread beyond social geeks and start cutting into the bottom lines of companies that rely on the regularity of “sticky eyeballs” showing up.

While I will always and continue to bet on the open web, we’re reaching an inflection point where some fundamental conceptions of the web (and social networks) need to change. Fortunately, if us geeks have our way, it’ll probably be for the general betterment of the whole thing.

On exporting the culture of Silicon Valley

It’s often said that America’s biggest export is its culture. And, for better or worse, this seems to be true. China and India certainly seem to envy aspects of our way of life and of doing business (or we’re just really good at making movies that suggest that we’re all happy and drive SUVs and live above the poverty line, so why wouldn’t you want to be like us?). But in the last couple years, I’ve noticed a microcosm of this phenomena around Silicon Valley — specifically that people elsewhere want to be like us or do things like us or make money like us. But there’s rarely been a case, at least that I’ve seen, where that envy has lead people to want to think like us. And, as far as I’m concerned, you can’t have the our culture unless you start to think about your everyday experiences and interactions like us.

Now, let me quickly point out that 1) I’m a New England boy and didn’t grow up in California (Live Free or Die, baby!) 2) I went to school in the midwest in an old steel town called Pittsburgh 3) I migrated out to San Francisco just over three and half years ago 4) and I’m not about to try to convince you to make over your local township in a rough effigy of Silicon Valley or the Bay Area.

…because the way that we “think” transcends geography; it just so happens that there’s a lot of folks out here who happen think alike. And, the weather doesn’t hurt much either.

Coworking - Working Alone SucksSo Tara and I traveled to the East coast this past week for two coworking openings. Proof, first of all, that not everything happens in Silicon Valley and second, that this kind of thinking and acting is not something that has to be — or is — unique to this area.

In fact, if you know where to look, you’ll realize that there’s probably a lot more going on right in your backyard than you think or are willing to admit. Ask just about anyone who’s thrown in a BarCamp in the last three years what kind of community they thought might exist after the fact, and I can guarantee you the majority will be shocked at just how many people in their own neighborhoods were into social media or, more importantly, wanted to connect to people like them locally but just didn’t know where or how to go about unearthing them.

And, now that so many of these nascent communities are beginning to emerge — and there’s an awareness — that people don’t have to be alone in their progressive thinking, the question seems to quickly become: “So what happens next? How do we create our own Silicon Valley here?”

Well, I’m here to tell you that the next thought should be, “Oh wait, what we want isn’t to become another Silicon Valley with all their disfunctions and navel-gazing — what we really want is a community that is self-sustaining and a culture of sharing, opportunity and hope…!” Of course, that’s a harder proposition and reality to accept and to create, but if you really want a slice of the Bay, you might as well take the one that’s not just covered with whipped cream.

Where I’ve seen this work, people are collaborating, are open, are sharing, are working together and building something that is defined from within, rather than from without. It’s not about imitating what you think we have out here; it’s about creating and instituting an attitude and mentality that shares the same philosophical underpinnings that allow us to define success for ourselves and then go about achieving it, however we best can. It’s really about coopetition rather than competition; it’s really about helping each other other out than tearing one another down; it’s really about “yes and…” instead of “but but but…!” It’s wanting to give everything away and expecting nothing in return. It’s pushing through and discovering unseen opportunities where others saw only boundaries, risks or costs. It’s about a willingness to fail, but to fail quickly and get it out of the way so that the constant learning that keeps you sharp can get underway. It’s about constantly feeling overwhelmed and yet always doing more. And then a little more. And it’s about how our turn of mind keeps us on top of it all and inventing the future and determining for ourselves what we want from life and not accepting anything less than what we know, deep down, we’re capable of.

And I can tell you that, just as this kind of thinking has taken root in the culture of Silicon Valley and continues to define it, the seeds of this approach are on the wind and have permeated the network. They are finding new homes in your backyards and in your neighborhoods and starting to grow. If you nurture these ideas and provide them fertile ground, they will grow, and they will spread, and they will change the pH balance of the mentality of your friends, your neighbors and your townsfolk.

I have seen this happen, am witnessing it happen more and more everyday, am doing what I can to produce more culture, to consume more culture, and package it up and make it accessible and implementable and practical and worthwhile.

Just as Gary V and his cabal of wine drinkers are changing and opening up the wine world, we are doing the same for the future of work and the future of event organizing. But it’s not something that happens over night, and it’s not something that happens only in one place. If you look back over just the past three years, you’ll see been over 250 BarCamps and derivatives around the world, in communities that had no sense of what they were capable of and that have now come into blossoming hotbeds of activity. If you look back just one year, you’ll see over 110 local efforts to get coworking spaces set up around the world. This isn’t an accident and this isn’t just the work of Silicon Valley types. This is the work of turned on, smart and destiny-shaping independents.

So wherever you are and whatever you think you need to do to become more “like” Silicon Valley… STOP. You’d be wasting your time.

Instead, follow the lead of your friends in Philadelphia, New York City, , , , and elsewhere. These are the places that are defining their own culture; mashing up what they see from all over the place, embracing both chaos and diversity and taking a chance that maybe a culture that emerges naturally, and from the desires of the local citizens, will be more powerful, more popular and more sustaining than anything else that might come out of the Valley.

A Bill of Righteous intent

Before the Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web, there were various efforts at establishing clear policies or practices related to the ownership, scope and providence of so-called user data. While I can’t name them all, I might cite , The Cyberspace Charter of Rights, the DigitalConsumer’s Bill of Rights and then Attention Trust afterwards. This is clearly not a new problem, but it has gained renewed prominence owing to the wide adoption and popularity of social networks.

As such, I want applaud the authors’ effort on pulling this together in a timely fashion, and offering it up to the world to discuss, improve upon, and ultimately see to its implementation.

Continue reading “A Bill of Righteous intent”