A Facebook employee has suggested the dramatic shifts in advertising rates on the company’s self-serve ad platform may be due to a “larger technical issue”, in an email to an Australian customer.
The customer, Tim Levinson [pictured], manager of Sydney-based hip-hop music label Elefant Traks, claims to have experienced price hikes of up to 1000 per cent on the social network’s self-serve ad platform.
Levinson has spent around $10,000 on Facebook advertisements in the last two years; roughly $100 per week, using the site’s pay-per-click model.
In late July, he wrote a concerned email to Facebook’s ad sales team, noting that the pay-per-click rates had gone “inexplicably through the roof” – from $0.50 per click to as much as $5. The Elefant Traks manager – who performs under the MC name Urthboy, and is also a founding member of popular Sydney hip-hop group The Herd – noticed in July that the estimated cost-per-click suggested by Facebook’s self-serve ad system wouldn’t budge on its ‘suggested bid’ amount, regardless of whether he was bidding on popular – and therefore, more competitive and expensive – keywords such as ‘triple j’ and ‘bliss n eso’, or significantly less popular terms such as ‘sydney underground rap’.
“I run a music business where a click results in an actual ‘sale’ only a certain percentage of the time,” he wrote in the email. “This is consistent across the board. The art is increasing that percentage through clever targeting. There is no way that $2 per click is value for money, let alone $3 or $4. There is no way that I gain useful information about the best keywords for targeting people who actually buy our product when the fee per click is the same, regardless of the targeted groups.”
It took two weeks for a Facebook employee to respond. In the month of July, Levinson had been charged between $25 and $71 each day. On August 5, “Josie” from Facebook’s ‘Online Sales Operations’ team wrote back and explained how the pay-per-click system worked, despite Levinson having used the ad platform without problems for two years. His concerns remained, so the email conversation continued.
On February 13 2010, I spoke to OK Go’s singer/guitarist Damian Kulash [pictured right] on behalf of Rolling Stone Australia. He’d been up all night shooting a second music video for their song ‘This Too Shall Pass’. The first video couldn’t be embedded anywhere outside of YouTube because of the restrictions put in place by their parent label, Capitol Records, which is owned by EMI Music. The band’s response was to upload an embeddable version to Vimeo, write an open letter to their fans explaining the situation, and seek outside funding to conceptualise and film an entirely different music video. [You should click the above links to watch the videos, if you haven't already seen them.]
Shortly before Rolling Stone’s May issue went to print at the end of February – confusing, right? - OK Go left Capitol Records, effectively undermining my story’s relevance. [More on that experience here.]
Below is the full conversation I had with Damian, which is one of the last interviews the band gave while still signed to a major label.
Andrew: Before we start, are you totally sick of talking about this whole issue?
Damian: The politics of the music industry are… tiresome. I’ll put it that way. It’s important to me and I’m fascinated by it, but I’d much rather be thinking about making things, than how to distribute them.
What kind of response have you seen from your fans in regard to your letter?
It’s been pretty positive. My letter has been received by some people as a polemic, or as a big screed, but truly, the letter was just an explanation to our fans about why certain things weren’t available to them, because I think people really didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t see it as a big political move; it was just an explanation to our fans, and we’ve gotten very good response from them. I think they’re just happy that we treat them like adults.
What kind of response have you seen from the record label? I read your interview on New TeeVee where you said your main contact at the label wants as badly as you do for the video to be embeddable.
I think most folks at the label probably share our opinion that things should be easily distributed. There are a lot of competing agendas within the record label, so I’ve gotten a wide range of responses. The digital department of EMI France actually tweeted the letter and was distributing it because they felt it was a defense of their position. Other people felt like it was an attack. It’s a big company, so there’s been a wide range of responses.
Beyond your fan base and record label industry people, the general public has also paid attention to the letter. I refer to your quote in Time about how you think there is a quiet majority who are just interested in seeing how the music industry works these days, and seeing your explanation from the inside.
That’s definitely been the basic response that I’ve felt. I obviously can’t quantify it, but the loudest comments in the music industry in general are mostly from people who hate labels and who hate major labels and feel the industry is set up to screw musicians. I don’t feel like that’s generally representative. I think it’s easy to hate the machine. You really get those comments from people that actually try to make a living making music. It’s mostly people who have this purist idea of what music should be to them; give up their day jobs because they want their musicians to be absolutely conceptually totally pure and not ever have to worry about money for them.
I read your Mashable interview where you said that a year or two ago, EMI switched the embedding stuff on all of your videos, but you didn’t pay much attention as you were making your new record at the time. Looking back, do you wish that you had paid attention? Would you have done anything differently back then?
We have to pay attention to how our records and our videos and everything is distributed because we make ‘em and we care about how they get out there, but I wouldn’t be a student of the music industry’s technicalities if I wasn’t convinced that the animating passion in my life is making things, and how the distribution of them affects that. I know it sounds incredibly circular, but I don’t particularly care if the music industry works until I make something and it fucks up the way I want that thing to be shared with the world.
I’m glad that when I’m writing music and recording music, in between records, I’m not spending my time trying to figure out the solution to the logistical problems of the music industry. Those are some things that we have to pay attention to out of necessity, not because we like paying attention to them.
There is a quote from you in the letter where you say, “Unbelievably, we’re stuck in the position of arguing with our own label about the merits of sharing videos. It’s like the world has gone backwards.” As musicians, you must feel that having these kinds of conversations about the business side of music drains your creativity or your time that could be better spent creating music.
It seems to me like there are a couple of things. One, the music industry is very clearly in an incredible crisis and that’s what makes this story complex. There is a lot to talk about because we’re up against what appears to be a sort of unresolvable problem. People want to talk about it. Two, I think a lot of us feel incredibly passionate about music and by its nature – almost by its definition – the important part of music kind of defies words. To me, what makes music sort of magical – what makes music the thing that I live for – is that you can communicate things like music’s four-dimensional emotions instantaneously. It’s like emotional ESP.
I think when something comes along, something to talk about in music, something very rational or logistical and sort of left-linear logical, that’s attached to the distribution of music or to the manufacturing or production of music, then at least there is something to sink our rational brains into and some people really want to talk about it. Maybe this is something of a stretch as an argument, but we do a lot of interviews and it’s impossible to answer substantive questions about music because music is a feeling, not an argument. Whereas, everything that surrounds music – how it’s distributed, the politics, and the money behind it – gives you something hard and logical to talk about. I think that’s sort of why there is so much fascination on these things.
Bob Lefsetz wrote in response to this situation that “if the labels want to maintain control, they have to first get the hearts and minds of the artists.” As an artist who deals with labels on a regular basis, do you share his view?
Yes, in essence they do. I think that the value in music from which we derive the money in music can no longer be generated by limiting access. The way you assess value in most commodities is related to supply, the whole supply and demand curve. The reason you have to pay to have most things is because someone else restricts your access to them or you have to pay for the access to them. There are certain things that don’t follow that model and music has sort of jumped the barrier, I think.
Twenty, fifteen, or even ten years ago, music was a physical thing that could be bought and sold. Even if conceptually the music wasn’t, there was a way of controlling access to it: you either owned a CD or you didn’t. Either you had access to it or your friend did, or you got it from a library. More likely, you bought it and had access to music.
Now that has sort of broken down and the music industry is not going to be able to get that genie back in the bottle. You have to find a different level to work with, and I think that – whatever the financing situation is, no matter which body is financing the logistical mechanics of music – that body will have to have a better relationship with musicians and record labels. Record labels deal in very black-and-white terms with this restricted access thing, and now everyone is going to have to believe in a new model simultaneously, otherwise money won’t be generated for music.
By now you’re all too familiar with the arguments surrounding this YouTube issue, having lived them out and told the world about it. If you can comment on it, I’d like to know how EMI rationalise the ‘disable embedding’ decision to the average web consumer – the one who just wants to share their cool videos with their friends?
There has been a conceptual shift between videos being advertisement and videos being product. They’re sort of ‘on the fence’ still. All labels still want their videos to be seen far and wide, but they also want to be paid for them to be seen far and wide. Whereas once upon a time it was just amazing that there was a website out there [YouTube] that would actually help you distribute your advertising. Now, there is a website out there that is actually distributing your product without paying you for it. I think that’s how they justify it. They want people to see it like: “we paid for that thing, how come you won’t pay us for it?”
Do you think that the thought of the average web user even comes into their equation, or is it all just discussed in terms of profit and shareholders, as you alluded to in your letter?
They’re not such morons that they can’t take into account what people want. Labels don’t have a singular mind. It’s not like one big beast with one agenda. I think a lot of people at labels understand what people want and are frustrated with the way things are working. I think there hasn’t been a very clear-eyed assessment of that shift in music videos from advertisement to product, or in general, of the attempt to blur promotion and monetization. There used to be an obvious revenue stream, and that was selling records [CDs]. Since that is shrinking so incredibly fast, now all the things that you essentially pay for to promote that revenue stream are now things that they’re trying to turn the tables on and get money for actually having done.
I don’t think they’re incapable of thinking about what people want. I think everybody suddenly is trying to eat the hamburger at the same time that they’re still milking the cow. You can’t have it both ways.
Final question Damian, and it’s a bit of a philosophical one, so take a deep breath. If labels continue to herd viewers into absorbing their artists’ content in specific web destinations like on YouTube, what are the wider ramifications for the nature of sharing content online?
First of all, I’ve been talking this whole time as if I have a kind of answer, like I know exactly what’s going on and there is an obvious path forward. I don’t know what the ramifications will be. The first step that seems obvious to me is we do need something like record labels to perform some of the functions record labels traditionally have. This is what I think the critics of major labels often miss, is that for all of their exploitative, greedy, and short-sighted policies, they did provide a risk aggregation for the world of music making. They invest in however many young bands a year and most of them fail. Those bands go back to their jobs at the local coffee houses without having to be in tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of personal debt for having gone for it.
If we don’t want to be just a domain of the independently wealthy and people who can take time off from their jobs for a couple of years to see what happens, or finance their own world tour while they figure out exactly how to make the number at the end of the column black, then somebody has to be doing this risk aggregation.
Historically, when a band did well, or an artist did well, the profits could be so substantial that they would cover the other nineteen losses that the failed bands meant for a record label. A label could take the very extreme numbers of the music industry: you might have a less than 1% chance of success, but if you do succeed there is a massive reward, and it sort of evens them out over dozens or hundreds of artists a year.
Something sort of needs to be doing that unless we want music only to be the domain of the independently wealthy. I think then you have to figure out what that means for content distribution. Somehow, some sector of the business has to be able to make a significant reward off of the success of that one-in-twenty, or that one-in-fifty, or that one-in-one hundred in order to keep the system running.
At the same time, we all want this magical, wonderful, instantaneous global distribution – via the internet – to make music ever easier to get to and to make it more universal and more accessible. We have to figure out how to get the money that people are willing to spend on music into the hands of musicians, and into the hands of those risk aggregation bodies.
Right now, it seems people are willing to spend money pretty freely on music. They just tend to do it more on hardware or on their broadband connection. People are willing to pay for extremely fast connection to the internet so they can download big files. They just don’t particularly care for paying for the file themselves, or see that as something they should be doing. People will pay a lot for an mp3 player. They don’t expect that part to be free, so to get people to value their music in that way, then we should figure out how to look at the system from a macro perspective and figure out a reasonable way forward.
Thanks Damian. I admire your ability to speak coherently about the music industry, especially after an all-nighter. [The band had been up working on the second video for 'This Too Shall Pass', which is embedded below.]
I don’t know how coherent I’ve been, but if you can whip that into shape and make me sound like I was, then more power to you. I appreciate it.
[You can read more about this story for Rolling Stone Australia here.]
Australia-based online service Guvera (http://guvera.com) has been making waves among the music industry recently. It offers free high quality (256kbps) downloads to consumers, which are paid for by advertisers who can match particular artists to their brand’s ‘personality’. As you can see by the image to the right, Guvera is not particularly subtle when it comes to marketing.
Waycooljnr editor Andrew McMillen spoke with Guvera CEO Claes Loberg a few days ahead of its worldwide public launch on March 30, 2010.
Andrew: Hey Claes. Can you summarise what Guvera’s all about?
Claes: Here’s the gist of it: advertisers paying for downloads. There’s nothing new about the idea of advertisers actually paying for content. That’s how we’ve been receiving TV for free for all these years. What’s wrong with television at the moment, is that advertising is actually starting to lose value year, on year. People have got the power to click past it, sort of get around the advertising. That’s a reflection of all advertising across the board.
Now that the people are in control, Guvera’s business model is a reversal of the advertising process. Instead of advertisers being the annoying thing they used to be years ago, now they can be a channel that people will want to go to, to get content. It’s trying to change the value proposition away from ads-as-disruptors. It actually pays the artists for the content it’s created, and the people still get it for free.
This is the full transcript of the December 2009 conversation I had with Steve Milbourne and Phil Clandillon, Creative Directors of Sony Music London, in their Kensington office. I interviewed them on behalf of The Music Network; you can read the published story here.[Note: if you're viewing this in an RSS reader, the video embeds might not work. I don't know why. Click through and view it on my blog.]
Andrew: The main reason I’m aware of your work is because of the few campaigns you’ve been behind in the last year, like AC/DC, Kasabian, Editors, and Calvin Harris. Those are the ones I’m aware of, but before we go into those, I thought I’d ask you how you got into the music industry, and why.
Steve [pictured right]: The reason I got into the music industry is because I’ve always loved music. From my early twenties, what I wanted was to get into the business side of it. Then I kind of got into the whole creative thing. I went to work at an indie label after graduating from uni, called Kitchenware Records, which is based up in Newcastle. They’re sort of big old indie from the ‘80s. I had lots of success in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, and then they sort of reformed the label. It was a new entity in 2003.
I went to work for them in 2004 at the exact same time they signed a band called Editors, which you know of. I got interested in their situation of not having any money to do anything with, so it was like I was given a band to work with and then I’d have to do the artwork, make a music video, do stuff online, make websites, and all that sorts of stuff with zero pounds to work with, which is quite good. I might have spent a few years just sort of honing all these skills that crossed a wide range of areas, from web programming to production and film, so it all kind of came in handy when I came to Sony about two and a half years ago, and then Phil came in. They brought us in separately but then we got put together as a creative team and that’s it.
Phil [pictured below left]: I’ve basically spent the last ten years doing half my work in the music industry and half in advertising, in sort of digital agencies. I started off doing digital work around TV and then interactive TV. Then the dot-com crash happened and there weren’t any jobs, so I came to London. I got heavily into the club scene at the time, and met some people that were running nights and things like that. I ended up getting an office in an online radio station, which is in the Truman Brewery, and basically electronic artists were coming in to do shows and DJ on the station. I just ended up getting freelance work through that and I worked for years for an outfit called Sancho Panza, who are most famous for Notting Hill Carnival, for doing a big stage at Notting Hill Carnival. They also did warehouse parties and things like that.
From there I got offered a job at a record label, Sanctuary Records, which is now part of Universal. I started doing web stuff for them and after about three years there I got kind of fed up with the record industry as it was then and went back to advertising stuff. I worked at a digital ad agency and then a larger advertising group after that.
About two years ago I decided it was a good time to go back to music. Sony came knocking so I came and met Steve and decided I could probably work with him, and that’s that. We kind of kicked it off from there, essentially.
Is Creative Director a very common role within labels? I’ve not really heard of it before.
Steve: Not particularly. We’re quite unique in what we do, with regard to the type of work that we do in the music industry, I guess. Essentially we run almost a boutique agency in-house and our clients are with various labels within the Sony umbrella. I don’t think the other labels do that.
What it means is we essentially take on various groups from the big labels in here, which are Epic, Columbia, RCA, Syco, which is Simon Cowell’s label, and then some smaller labels, as well – Jive, and Deconstruction. What we do is get a brief of a band that Sony Music want to promote this band or this artist, then we come up with the creative and sort of service them as our clients.
Phil: We sort of created the advertising creative time type model inside of the record label, which is kind of unique. There really isn’t anyone else doing that. The reason we can do it is because we’ve spent years gaining these skills of design, programming, video production, music skills in Steve’s case as well. We don’t do tons and tons of that stuff, hands on, but if we have to we can. When we’re commissioning the work we know what to go and get. It makes it easier for us to run a complex project because we’ve done it all in the past and we know how to do it, essentially.
Steve: A lot of that stuff gets really complex at times. It’s quite weird; the sort of stuff we do is often experimental. You’re kind of always sitting on the edge; “is this going to work or not? Am I going to waste loads of money?”
Phil: We’re always sticking our necks out, I guess, and one of the reasons we can do that is because what we do is very cost effective. It’s not as expensive as traditional advertising so it means we can do things that reach more people without spending as much money. That gives us a little bit of freedom to experiment and do more exciting things. To be honest, it generally goes fairly well, but if you do make mistakes it’s not the end of the world because you’re only talking about relatively small amounts of money.
Steve: Yeah, we haven’t had any that haven’t worked out, yet.
Phil: We presented all our work at a creative review conference, last week. A lot of questions we had from the audience were all about “This seems very risky. How could I sell this to the client if I was at an agency?” On the one hand our answer was you need the experience to be able to pull stuff like this off. If you don’t have the experience it will go wrong. The other thing is a lot of the stuff we do is designed to be shared. We don’t buy media. We don’t pay for advertising space, and in a way, as long as you’re doing something with good intentions, the worst thing that’s going to happen is it’s going to languish in the corner of the Internet somewhere and no one is going to see it. It’s not like putting a really inappropriate advertising campaign across London on billboards or whatever. It’s a totally different proposition. That allows us to take a few more risks, I guess.
Steve: Going back to your question about our job title; I guess it depends on what you term as Creative Director. I think that’s slightly misleading. That’s what our titles are, and it’s in the context of what we do. I guess other labels have got creative directors, but probably do different things to us. I think what other labels – I’m not aware of any other labels who’ve got a creative team, in-house, who do this sort of work that Phil and I do. There are other creative directors in this building who look after different things, like artwork, or styling, and stuff like that. That’s just a title. It’s more about what we do, really.
I mentioned the four campaigns of yours that I’m aware of: Kasabian, AC/DC, Editors, and Calvin Harris. I’m interested in how you run these as online marketing campaigns. Say, for example Kasabian ['Football Hero' video embedded below]; could you talk me through how that idea started and how it came across through the production?
Steve: We work closely with a consumer insight team here. I guess part of what is loosely termed “briefing process” is that the consumer insight team, every time there is an artist with an album coming out, they do a lot of market research on that artist, on the audiences for that artist, and we have this thing called the ‘Segment Bible’, which is the UK music market split into 28 segments of consumer, based on age, interests, everything from what brands they buy, where they hang out, how much money they spend. It’s very in depth actually, so when we take on an act to do the online campaign for, we get told who the applicable segments are, and we get the opportunity to speak to people within that segment. They come in and we can talk to them. With Kasabian it was kind of – we already sort of know about Kasabian quite well because it’s their third album and –
Phil: But there were some pretty obvious things coming out. With Kasabian, we were looking at – we have this thing called an artist DNA, which is a document that sums up everything to do with the audiences for that audience, what matters to them about the band, and so there were really strong themes coming out of that to deal with football, gaming, and the way they hung out with them, what they actually did, what they’re into.
Steve: It’s interesting, that audience actually cares more about football and gaming than they do about music. Music is sort of a secondary thing in their lives.
Phil: It was kind of sensible to try and reach them through those channels so we basically said let’s come up with a piece of content that –
Steve: Kind of seems really obvious but I guess it wasn’t like a eureka moment but it was like – Kasabian is sort of synonymous with football, especially here in the UK.
Phil: If their music is used on the titles of the iTV football program and stuff like that and they’ve been on the Sony Bravia ad with Kaka, the Brazilian and AC Milan footballer. And also, the band are fans of football. They’re fans of Leicester City.
Steve: They are big football fans. We kind of started off on this idea of doing something with football and then I guess that kind of progressed. We were thinking about loads of different ideas and kind of progressed into gaming.
Phil: I guess quite a lot of that stuff involves music as well, so that kind of came around to trying to build a giant game of essentially a Guitar Hero type game that people could play with footballs. That was the pipe dream, and from then on it was trying to make it a reality. It was quite a lengthy process in the end!
Steve: I think that we were sitting downstairs there, when we finally got exactly what we wanted to do. Especially, we knew we wanted to get some really cool, freestyle footballers to do it as well. We don’t know any, so then we had the whole process of finding out how we could build it, who we could get to play it, where we could build it, and all that sort of stuff.
Phil: Again, we always work with fairly tight budgets and that was the case with this, as well. It had to be doable for a reasonably modest sum of money so that was a challenge as well. We used the hardware, and the software was all open source and it was pretty low cost, all that stuff. There was a very big production on the day but it was only for a day. The R&D process was relatively inexpensive. Then it was a case of building it and seeing how it would go, essentially, and spending a whole day building, and filming it.
Throughout the whole process is there the risk that the thing wouldn’t work or the footballers weren’t good enough to make it work?
Phil: Absolutely, yeah.
Steve: I think so, but –
Phil: We kind of knew that it would be okay.
Steve: Just the experience, you minimize all the risks, so –
Phil: The hardware, the actual game we built wasn’t technically complicated.
Steve: No, it was one of the least technical things that we’ve done, really.
Phil: That was okay. We knew that was going to be alright so it really came down to would the footballers have enough time to practice, because it was something that wasn’t going to be easy to play.
Steve: And, just the logistics of them playing it, balls bouncing everywhere, and all that sort of stuff.
Phil: And the camera gear, as well, to be honest; there was a lot of expensive gear on the shoot and the balls were just flying everywhere. I was sure we were just going to smash everything.
Steve: Yeah, it was like – you can see in the film, there are the five footballers and each one of them has got a ball boy who is feeding them balls. Then, behind them are literally about 20 people shielding all of the cameras –
Phil: And jumping in front of the balls, saving something.
Steve: The cameras, and the monitors, and all that sort of stuff.
Phil: Yeah, the directors and monitors did get hit in the screen at one point, and it didn’t break. Luckily!
Steve: The thing is, and this is kind of what all our work is about; it’s an experiment and we’re not aiming to do things that are going to be perfect. What we want to do is to tell a story about how we did it, what we’re trying to do, and gear that towards an audience that is interested in that. No one is ever going to believe it if we made this –
Phil: It would be easy to fake –
Steve: … came in and faked it, and all the footballers play and get 100% and everyone is really happy. That’s not believable. To us, what we try and do is to create stories that people want to talk about. I think one of the main things that came out of the Kasabian one was most people said, “I’d love to have a go on that. It looks really difficult. It’s obviously difficult but how much fun is that.”
Phil: It’s like during the shoot, every time we’d stop the take and the footballers went off to have a drink or whatever, the whole crew was playing the game and we were creating just as much carnage ourselves as they were.
Steve: Most people we’ve spoke to since are like, “Where is it?” [laughs] We had to take it down, which was a shame.
Phil: As Steve says, it’s all about telling the story of what we’re doing. It’s not – we’re all about taking on ambitious experiments, trying to make them work, and documenting the process, and telling people about it. The way that works is it becomes an interesting story for people. They pass it on to their friends and it travels around naturally like that.
Steve: More importantly it becomes an interesting story for the type of people who we have an insight that they sort of might like that particular artist. Then it’s targeted marketing, essentially.
Phil: But it’s not that we’re pushing a message at people. We’re letting them spread it. It’s up to them. We’re not even expecting people to do it. It’s just if we create a piece of content that is good enough and interesting enough to those people, then they’ll naturally spread it around. That’s how your message gets out.
The way you describe it to me now, you knew that Kasabian fans were into football and gaming. It seems obvious that it was going to be a winner. I looked at it this morning. It was up to 800,000 views.
Phil: That’s been out for about a month now, so I think it’s still growing quicker than the AC/DC one did. [The Excel-based 'Rock N Roll Train' AC/DC video embedded below.]
Steve: That’s because it’s not the same segment as AC/DC. We sort of have an idea of population numbers of people in those segments.
Phil: There’s about 5 million, isn’t there?
Steve: 1.5 million in the UK. Then obviously our stuff sort of spreads around the world, as well. You can kind of get a good idea of whether you’re hitting the right people or not, and the amount of people in each territory that are hitting, and you get a good percentage on that from what you’ve spent to do it against how effective it’s been.
Beyond the view count, what are the metrics you use to measure the effectiveness of these campaigns?
Steve: We look at – I guess you could say a lot of people write stuff about what we do, and blog about it, and that’s one of the aims – to get people to share.
Phil: It’s less about the view count, to be honest – actually, those view counts, on average 70% of those views come from embedded videos and articles, and blogs and things. It’s much more about securing coverage in the right channels, that we know that the targeted audience reads. If ‘Football Hero’ pops up in the tech channels, the gaming channels, and sports channels, it could be newspapers, blogs, or whatever, then we know that we’ve done the job.
Steve: That one – most of the stuff that we’ve done often spreads out into traditional press, TV, and stuff like that as well.
Which is the ultimate, in many ways, wouldn’t it be? Obviously, your work is online based, but making that leap across is quite the achievement.
Steve: It’s quite interesting the way that you see it. It all transcends through various audience groups. When you read a newspaper, you’re kind of always reading yesterday’s news online. It’s like you pick up today’s newspaper and apart from the breaking stories, you could have read about all this stuff yesterday on Twitter, or blogs or stuff like that. It is interesting when you see – we don’t really press release what we do so it’s nice when you see a journalist has obviously seen it, and picked it up, and then written about it in the newspaper. It’s kind of cool.
Phil: Yeah, that’s kind of that natural spread. That’s what we kind of aim for. What we try and do is to earn our own media so that’s really the magic – getting in the right media and in the right place. If we did, then fine, that’s the job done sort of thing.
Steve: We believe that you shouldn’t have to pay for media, especially not online, because banner ads are really ineffective, and companies still spend a lot of money putting these banner ads on various sites.
Phil: Yeah, they’re utterly ineffective. I think it’s fair enough; if you want to advertise outdoors, for whatever reason, then you’re going to have to pay to get billboards. It’s as simple as that. But, if you want to advertise online, then it makes much more sense to me to try and earn your own media, in the editorial of sites, and stuff, rather than trying to buy ad space where no-one’s looking. And in order to do that, there’s no shortcut to it. You have to create content that people care about, essentially.
And as well as the content, the relationships with those people who write the content, I assume.
Phil: Oh, not necessarily. You’d be surprised.
Steve: I don’t think that’s as important because even the way that we sort of go about launching a campaign, we kind of experiment with a lot. Pretty much, our launch plan is to send it to a couple of blogs and –
Phil: Yeah, so in a particular area there might be a fanatical blog about something to do with electronics, or football, or something like that. Then we’ll send it to one of them and say, “We’ve made this thing. Do you like it? Do you want to cover it?”
Steve: One thing that we’ve sort of found is that generally bloggers and journalists want to kind of write their own content. They want to write their opinion on things and I think when you press release stuff, and you sort of bombard them with the copy, you tend to get a fairly uniform story but there’s not going to be much passion in it.
Phil: There is not much variety, so you get the same story everywhere. What we try and do is don’t even press release.
Steve: We just let people pick up on it because I guess if it’s good, people will do that. If it’s compelling, people want to share it. That just happens.
Phil: They’ll come to you with questions if they have questions, and you can answer them.
Steve: But you get people who write in about it for real, and you get people saying, “I’ve just seen this in Wired and here’s my opinion on it.” I guess people will talk.
I saw AC/DC on Wired last year. I saw Editors on Creative Review['Editors Hack Google Street View' video embedded below], and I’m not sure where I found the other two.
So you guys didn’t really coordinate those placements?
Phil: Well, Creative Review, we’ll tell them what we’re up to. They don’t have to cover it, but we’ll tell them.
Steve: We’ve got a bit of a relationship with Creative Review, just in terms of we speak at some of their conferences and stuff like that.
Phil: Which is like a London digital industry, digital advertising conference run by Creative Review. Inevitably, you end up making some contacts, so next time we go back to – do you know Make Magazine, which is like a – we’ve got a great contact at Make, a real nice guy who’s interested in the technical side of what we do. We’ll tell him about what projects we’re doing and he’ll go, “Oh, I like this one, and I’ll write about this one,” or whatever. He’ll ask us some questions.
Steve: Yeah, but it’s not a formal thing. It’s more like conversation, only it’s the work that we’re up to at the minute. I think that it also depends on the type of project that you do because Creative Review, I guess will cover our stuff; it’s more of an industry thing. It sort of – because the projects vary quite a bit, you’re looking at different target audiences for it. We might not always have stuff that Make are going to cover, or Wired or people like that. It’s more about allowing self discovery in the channels of that audience.
Phil: When it came to Kasabian, we didn’t really know anyone in the gaming channels at all, but we didn’t have to worry about it – or football, but we didn’t need to worry about that. It just came up in all the major gaming sites, major football sites. It’s much more about making good content. You need to get it out there, at the same time. Once it’s out there, small waves –
Steve: I guess our theory is that if it’s good, and it’s compelling for people to share, it will do it anyway. If it doesn’t, then your content’s not good.
It’s interesting to hear you say that, because it’s such a different way of thinking from the old way of spending on billboards, like you said earlier.
Steve: It’s like Phil said; instead of being a push model, it’s a pull model. Yeah, you’re exactly right; it’s completely different from just putting things in front of everyone’s faces. It’s allowing –
…the right faces, ones who will be interested in it, because it appears in those channels.
Phil: Yeah, so instead of pushing a message out and paying for media for it to be there, you are putting a piece of content out and hoping it will pull people to it, and that people will share it around. It’s totally about making the content compelling and tailoring it to the right audience. It would be difficult to be doing that without the targeting information.
Steve: We sort of talk about this a lot and talk about this with other people; I guess a lot of it is sort of digital creative agencies or creative agencies doing this type of content – I know a lot of people who do some really great work, and it’s really cool ideas, but I guess what we do which a lot of people don’t do is really think about who we’re targeting, rather than just having a cool idea. It’s having a cool idea for the right audience because it might be, sometimes, that we have to sell something to a bunch of 35-year old women, and it’s really easy to make assumptions and make mistakes when you’re making something that you think’s going to appeal to them. So having all this insight and artist DNA and stuff like that helps find something that you’ve got a good idea that they will be interested. They won’t feel like they’re being advertised to.
Phil: You’ve got to get out there and put yourself into their head essentially, and think, “Alright, if I was this type of person, what would I…” The actual people in the insight department will go as far to do this. They’ll spend a week in the life of a particular segment; they’ll consume the right media, go to the right things, so they’ll try to experience that person’s world so they understand it better.
A lot of people say, “That’s not very cool, targeting stuff, and consumer insight,” but what you’re doing is instead of filling the world with advertising which is generic, not aimed at anyone, and annoying for vast quantities of people, instead you’re trying to make something a certain type of person will be interested in. It will reach them naturally, through their friends, and the rest of them through channels they’ve been seeing, and the rest of the people just might see it. In a way, I would argue that type of advertising is more sensitive to end users than the current model of push advertising.
Steve: Yeah, and it’s interesting that it’s not really about numbers, either. It’s about quality of engagement and the people that you’re engaging.
Phil: Some of the segments have a very small active population so what we call the fanatical segments, which are really enthusiastic about music, and there’s not many of them. There might be 50,000 in the country.
Steve: If that’s who you’re aiming for, if that’s who you’re aiming a particular creative ad, in order to get something back out of it, then it’s not really about numbers; it’s about engaging those particular people.
Phil: So on the fanatics, we’ll look for smaller numbers, but engaging them for a longer period of time. The Editors project, that’s aimed at a fanatical segment, and that’s looking at smaller numbers. Something like 100,000.
Steve: But you’re looking at stupidly high engagement rates.
Phil: Yeah, like over 3 minutes per person, and an average of 4 tracks each across the application. That’s the opposite way of doing it. Some of the segments are, “Right, let’s go for a big audience, with low engagement.”
Steve: I guess it depends on the objectives of what you’re trying to do, and it really has to support the wider market and campaign for the ad, as well.
Phil: There will be other activity going on, posters and things like that, and events. Ideally, our activity will create a sort of buzz in the news at the same time as all that auxillary stuff is going around. Next time somebody’s buying some music, they’ll have it in their head that they’ve enjoyed this bit of content with that music in it.
You’ve had a few successes with these kinds of campaigns now. How do you think the label management view these kinds of campaigns? Are they starting to see more value, giving you guys a bigger budget to work with for these kinds of projects?
Steve: Kind of, I think it’s like anything; the music industry is very similar to the advertising industry as well. It sort of takes a long time to turn things around to new models, and to change the behaviors of old, in terms of something huge like advertising. Really, it’s about the way that people consume media, which is changing. Any big company that starts looking at new areas like that, it’s a bit like turning a super tanker. I guess it’s slowly but surely – we’ve kind of started rolling these campaigns out. We don’t spend enormous amounts of money, at all. In fact, anything but – it’s really modest sums, especially for the advertising world. It would be like pocket change.
I guess the labels and the company in general sort of do attach value to what we do because we’re kind of proving we don’t need to do media spend, that we get really good engagement rates, and that we’re making interesting content that people are interested in, that isn’t just a Kasabian album out now. I guess budgets are going up a bit, but then –
Phil: I think we may be seeing that over the last two years, they’ve gradually given us more freedom and more autonomy to do what we do. It isn’t directly giving us more money for our projects but they’ve made it gradually easier for us to do.
Steve: I think that’s like a trust. I think sometimes an artist or artist manager might kind of see on paper what we’ve proposed to do and kind of go, “Ew, that’s different,” and they’re very sensitive to how artists are perceived by the public and things like that. I guess when we do stuff they feel like they’re taking a bit of risk, as well, but I guess the more we do this stuff, the more people see that it actually works and we sort of do the artist good. I guess more freedom comes from having that trust.
Phil: I’d say that’s been the major change to the artists. It’s not like we’ve suddenly got tons of money to spend, but we do definitely have more freedom now and definitely have more trust from the managers and artists and people like that. That kind of comes back into the work, so that we can do better work next time around.
Steve: The other thing about budgets is sometimes having endless budgets stifles your creativity. I think it’s nice to be able to execute stuff within the budgets that we do, and execute it well. Often, it means that we are very hands on, but I guess that being hands on means we also sort of keep an element of control and ownership over what we do so we get it the way we want it. We don’t just have an idea, then pass it to someone else and say, “Go and make that.”
Phil: Under some extreme circumstances, we’ve actually been cleaning the floor after the shoot. If it has to be done, we’ll do it.
Steve: Exactly, and I think that’s good too, because you think, “What’s the best that I can achieve for this amount of money that I’ve got to spend, when I can’t actually just go in and pay for lots of people to go do it?”
Phil: It’s a bit like you’ll spend what you’re given, generally, so someone gives you fifty grand, you’ll spend fifty grand, but that doesn’t mean the work is going to be any better than if they’d given you twenty.
Steve: I guess one of the things, as well, is that because we’re kind like an internal agency, we’re not trying to make money out of anyone. We’re actually just spending what we need to spend to do the project. It might be sometimes that actually what we need to spend is half of the budget that we’ve been given, and in that case – brilliant. Often, it’s not. Often, we’re sort of sitting on the very edge of what we’ve got to spend because it’s often not very much, but –
Phil: Yeah, in theory, if we didn’t need the whole thing, we wouldn’t spend it, but in practice you’re talking about such small budgets that we do spend it all.
Steve: We’re working on a new project at the minute. It’s quite difficult. One of the guys that helped on the Calvin Harris project. ['Humanthesizer' video embedded below.]
Which other labels or teams in the industry are you aware of who do similar stuff to you guys? Do you think you’re unique?
Phil: There isn’t anybody doing what we do.
Steve: In the advertising industry, for sure.
Phil: There are some campaigns, like you might have seen the Oasis campaign –
Phil: Yeah, and that’s BBH in New York, an ad agency.
Steve: There are a lot of ad agencies that we really like the work of, and that we see doing really good work.
Phil: That’s who we see our peers as other people in the advertising industry, rather than –
Steve: Rather than the music industry. What we do is advertising for the music industry. That’s why we’ve got interesting projects to work with. We’re not trying to sell dog food. It kind of makes your job quite fun.
Phil: Less soul-destroying.
It does sound like a pretty awesome job, to get to be creative with artists’ work.
Steve: It is really cool, actually. We have a lot of fun.
Phil: Can’t complain.
Steve: We have loads of fun doing what we do. It sort of is cool to be able to have really creative ideas and then be able to execute them for products that you’re actually quite passionate about or even if not passionate about, just sort of is more interesting than something which people generally find mundane. I’m not hugely into commercial pop music, but when you’re doing something for a really commercial pop act, and you see the people that you’re engaging, they’re really passionate about it so it kind of makes what you do feel worthwhile, rather than sort of –
Phil: Trying to sell people something they don’t need.
Steve: Yeah, try to sell a product that people don’t have – don’t care about at all. It’s completely different and it does make the job sort of really worthwhile and really good fun to do.
Phil: I guess the other side of it is we’re always seeing R&D on new ideas, new technologies, and new things that we might develop and we have the freedom to be able to do that alongside our normal work, so that’s really good fun. We’re always tinkering with something, making something new, or trying to investigate how to do something.
That’s what I really enjoy, just getting my teeth into something that looks impossible and trying to make it happen. We’ll be trolling through the Internet, looking at writing programs, and drawing things, and trying to work out if we can make something work. It’s another fun side of it, what’s coming next, what are we going to do next.
I’ll leave it there. I’m out of questions. Could I grab a photo of you two as you are now?
Sound Alliance. You mightn’t be familiar with the name, but most Australian web users will be aware of their music communities: inthemix, FasterLouder, and recently, Mess+Noise. The alliance was formed when Neil Ackland joined Libby Clark and Andre Lackmann, who launched dance music community inthemix out of a spare bedroom in 2000. They’ve since expanded to a team of 45. Their influence on the Australian web industry is huge, so when the opportunity to interview Neil arose, I jumped at it.
Andrew: Neil, you’ve obviously had a lot of experience with planning, goal setting, and so forth for the Sound Alliance. When planning a new venture, have you found it’s best to shoot for the top, as opposed to aiming for a less ambitious goal?
Neil: I think it depends on how you value success, really, in terms of shooting for the top. I think we’ve taken a very long-term view to a lot of the ventures that we’ve launched. I think the game we’re in is not a make-a-quick-buck game, by any stretch of the imagination. I think our intent here is of running inthemix, for example, and sites like FasterLouder, and Mess+Noise, and [gay/lesbian community] SameSame require constant energy, nurture and investment – both in terms of time and money – to get them to continue to grow and to continue to flourish.
I don’t think we ever went into this thinking that it was going to be a massive success [when inthemix first began in 2000]. We just saw an opportunity in the market to do something a little bit interesting. We saw some gaps there, and fundamentally just believed that online was the way of the future for the way people were going to consume content. Whether that happened in a year or ten years, we were confident that was eventually going to be the way it was going to go.
Over the last couple of years, it’s started to really bear fruit. I think we’re an ambitious bunch and we obviously want each of our media properties to be the leading destination within that category. We didn’t come into it saying, “Let’s go global, and take in the world and become the next MySpace,” or whatever. It was always much more about providing a good solid base for Australian music fans, I suppose.
What were your goals with Sound Alliance for those first couple of years?
I’ll put it in context for you. Before we had Sound Alliance, inthemix [ITM] was the first business that we launched. It was set up as a hobby. We came together, the three partners here, and we’re all really passionate about dance music and electronic music, and we set it up as something that we do in or spare time, outside of our day jobs, and very humble beginnings.
We never really had any great aspirations of it becoming Sound Alliance, at that time. It was more a case of wanting to do something we were really passionate about. All of us had day jobs that didn’t really fulfill our entrepreneurial flair, our passions, or our interests. They were just day jobs. We wanted to do something a bit different outside of that.
It just flourished from there. The first couple of years were about were trying to establish enough of a business model around inthemix so that one day we could stop doing our day jobs and do it full-time. That was the first goal and the first dream that we wanted to achieve.
It must have been an amazing time, at the point where you could quit your day jobs and focus on inthemix and Sound Alliance as a business.
Yeah, I actually got fired from my job, so…
That was convenient!
[Laughs] It was actually the best thing that ever happened, to be honest with you. It was a good time. It was really exciting. I think whenever you’re launching a new business, you’re young, enthusiastic, and you are confident in your ideas and you want to go out there and have a go, it’s a really exciting time. I think that is what I love about setting up new businesses, that feeling of something new. I think ultimately, the three of us are all entrepreneurs at heart. We get a real buzz from seeing things, coming up with ideas, or working with other peoples’ ideas and taking them through to fruition.
I look back on that stage of my career very fondly, because at that time, the game was much more about something that you’re really passionate about. I was just bouncing out of bed in the morning, really enthused and excited about the day. Working all the hours, going out on the weekend and getting amongst it and really immersing myself and seeing, and enjoying something that was very fresh and new at the time.
inthemix was one of the first online communities in Australia that really had some momentum behind it. It was really exciting to be a part of that. You really felt like you were part of something bigger than just a business. It was much more than a business. It was a bit more of a movement, I suppose, at the time.
So from starting as a part-time hobby, and not really measuring your goals in any specific way, how has that changed since Sound Alliance has become a profitable business, of late, with its numerous ventures?
It’s changed a lot in a sense, but now there is a lot more responsibility. It’s far more professional and the scale of it has changed dramatically over those ten years. The same fundamentals exist; we’re still passionate about our product and our sites, and we’re really passionate about the subject matter: the music industry in general, and being a part of that.
I think that running a team of 45 staff is a big responsibility. I think our business skills have probably expanded and evolved over time, quite a lot. I think we’ve really been able to refine our business model and our business skills, and learn about quite a diverse range of areas within the music industry. It’s become a real business now, rather than just a hobby.
That’s good, because if you do the same thing for a long period of time, it has to constantly evolve and change, otherwise, you can’t stay engaged at the same level. I think for the three partners in this business, it feels like every year we’re almost taking on a new role and a new challenge. We’re constantly engaged, so it doesn’t feel like we’ve been in the same job for ten years because we haven’t; we’re always doing something new and fresh and interesting. It keeps us focused and really engaged with the business.
You and your Sound Alliance co-founders were recognised as ‘Creative Catalysts’ earlier in the year. Are you often approached by young people who view you as a source of creative inspiration, or was that a new experience for you?
We were really surprised by that. We were quite honored to be included in that list. I wouldn’t say that type of thing happens very often. I think we probably try to provide as much inspiration as possible to the people within our team: our staff, our contributors, our state editors and that type of thing, whenever we get an opportunity to speak to them face-to-face, or get some time with them. I think inspiration is really important.
We put a lot of effort into trying to nurture talent within our business. We’ve had a lot of staff who joined us as contributors. Tim Hardaker joined inthemix as a part-time writer when he became a contributor while he was at uni. He’s been with us for six years and is now the General Manager of inthemix. Those are the types of things that we are quite proud of, in terms of not just giving people inspiration, but giving them opportunities to succeed, as well.
In the early days of Sound Alliance, who were your sources of inspiration?
I was inspired by quite a few people in a lot of different areas, just generally people around me. I was quite inspired by different promoters and DJs. When I first came to Australia in ’98, I met quite a few different people around the Sydney scene. I found it really vibrant and really open and welcoming, versus what I’d experienced in the U.K.
There were some interesting inspirations. Jon Peters, who was the brainchild of kGrind, back in the day. He was a really interesting guy who had some really stretched thinking and really out-there ideas. He managed to get people to buy into his ideas and I found that really inspiring at the time; that the power of an idea could be enough to bring a whole group of people together behind something. That was quite inspiring. I was always inspired by people who had come from not much, but who had still been able to achieve a lot with a bit of street smarts and because they were passionate about what they did.
Did you have a mentor during that time?
I didn’t, actually. I’ve always relied heavily on my business partners, and them on me in return. I don’t think it would have been possible to do what we’ve done with just me running the business, or just the two of us. I think the “alliance” part of Sound Alliance is one of our key strengths.
There are so many facets of running a business and getting a business from where we were to where we are now. It’s not just beyond my own skill set, but just things I’m not passionate about that my other partners are, the technical or legal aspects or financial or accounting aspects of the business. All these different areas, I would look at any one entrepreneur who was able to launch a business on their own and try to do all those things and think that was pretty amazing, because the skill set required is really quite broad and quite vast. That’s why I always felt that I had support and a different skill set requirement amongst the three partners in the business.
We help each other through the tough times, and we share in each others’ successes.
Despite being the head of Australia’s largest independent online publisher, your personal online presence is reasonably subdued, in that you don’t tend to blow your own horn too often. Was this a conscious strategy from day one, or are you naturally modest?
I’m not crazy about being thrust into the limelight, it has to be said. I prefer to let the results and our products do the talking rather than me, always. In the last year or so, I’ve probably taken a bit more outward approach to getting our name out there. I’ve had some success around that, but I don’t know. There is so much to our business that is just about the team effort. I’m happy to fly the flag for the team, but I don’t really see it being something that’s about any one particular person.
You can see where I’m coming from though. Guys in their sales and advertising fields don’t tend to let their achievements speak for themselves too often. I respect that you’re pretty low key about your achievements. That’s really awesome.
I suppose I’m very aware of the tall poppy syndrome in Australia. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go, over the years, who have come out telling a big story and shouting from the rooftops about not a lot, in terms of actual delivery, or the reality of what they’ve got. I’ve always looked upon that type of thing with a bit of cynicism, and I just think it’s never really been our style. We’ve got a slightly different approach to the way we do things and that’s worked for us so far. We haven’t really felt the need to go shouting too much.
Is there a particular reason why you don’t share your business and motivational thoughts with the world, in the form of a blog, or is it just a matter of being time-poor?
It’s funny you say that. I am actually setting up a blog at the moment, which will be probably going live in the next few weeks. We’re going to combine blogs, so there will be a developers’ blog, which will be Andre [Lackmann] who is the CTO here. He and his development team want to share some of the work that they’ve been doing and invite input from other developers, around some of the social media tools. Myself, and Stig [Richards], who runs the agency [Thought By Them] here, will be updating our side of the blog, which will be coming at the music industry from amarketing/brands/advertising/digital kind of perspective.
A lot of it does come down to just being dedicated to something and being very time-poor. I’m interested in changing. I do read a lot of blogs and I follow some people whose opinion I really value. I think we’ve got some interesting stuff to share. I don’t think we’ll be updating it every day or anything, but I’m sure there will be some interesting tidbits coming through.
Definitely. I think you’d attract a significant audience if you guys told the story behind what’s going on with Sound Alliance and how you got there. That’d be a great story.
Cool, thanks for the feedback. Let me know what you think of the blog when it goes live.
I will do. Personally, my connection to Sound Alliance began when I started writing for FasterLouder in June 2007. I now write for Mess+Noise [pictured below right, in magazine form], and I’ve always thought it was interesting that one of these sites pay its contributors, while the other doesn’t. What’s the difference between the two?
When we were initially presented with the opportunity to acquire Mess+Noise, we were really interested in the community. We really loved what they’ve been able to create and recognized how unique it was, in the sense that it really didn’t take a lot of time and a lot of different factors to create success in terms of doing a community online. Those guys have achieved that really well.
One of the things we were really attracted to about Mess+Noise is that it had a real focus on allowing its writers to focus on quality, and not be constrained by either an advertorial approach to content or word limits, or the speed at which they had to respond. They very much did things their own way, at their own pace, and they said exactly what they wanted to say. We really respected that. I liked that about what they were doing.
I think FasterLouder, for us, is a great platform for writers, photographers, and creative people to start engaging with the live music scene. I think the way we would view Mess+Noise is that it was less about the immediacy of having the gig review and photos up a couple of days after the gig; it was much more timeless, and focused on quality over quantity.
We wanted to take a different approach with Mess+Noise and try to focus on that; really try to nurture some of the great professional writers and professional photographers who are out there, and bring them across to Mess+Noise to engage with the site.
Our reason, I suppose, is that a young writer could hone their skills, cut their teeth if you like, by contributing to FasterLouder, and eventually when they’re ready, they’ll be able to move up to start writing for Mess+Noise, and start to be paid for what they do. That’s the path we’re hoping we’re able to take young writers and young photographers on, and that they can see that we can nurture those skills, give them feedback, and pass them through that process to a point where they can hopefully become professional writers or professional photographers.
That’s really cool that you talk about it like that because I’d like to continue the discussion along those lines. I found my experience to be exactly what you said. Taking the time to contribute for free is wonderful and a great opportunity for people who are just starting out in web publishing; often the experience, the community feedback and the industry freebies are seen as a reward in themselves. But as you know, there comes a time when these free contributors decide to move onto paid work. I think the Australian street press has a similar staff turnover: writers learn the ropes and then tend to leave within a few years.
I think it’s really tough. It’s changed the dynamics and the economic structures of a whole range of things. The one thing I do think something like FasterLouder helps provide is an opportunity for feedback. It gives a great feedback loop and an opportunity for writers to see how many people have viewed their articles, and to get people to ‘heart’ and comment on it, discuss it. I think that is one of the great things that FasterLouder offers, in terms of being able to get some feedback on your writing.
You could put something out on a blog about a gig that you went to on the weekend, but the number of people who are likely to see it is quite limited. I think you get to expose your work to a broader range of people and the pressure is not as intense, and as high as it would be as if you were writing for a very critical, discerning audience on a site like Mess+Noise. The parameters are not quite as restrictive.
I think that’s really cool that you guys have kind of had that strategy from the start at FasterLouder, and then progressed on to Mess+Noise when the time was right.
I think we tried to adopt that approach even before we had Mess+Noise, in the sense that the heads of the talented and the really passionate always pop up above the crowd, and we try to bring them in. As I said before, we’ve got staff here who came through that contributor process, and have now come through to be full-time employees down the line, or just contributors being paid by Mess+Noise.
There are not millions of opportunities, but they do come up occasionally. Where possible, we always try to include the people who’ve worked with us over that time.
The people who are really outstanding do tend to rise above the crowd and receive more opportunities, so it’s kind of a natural selection process. That’s cool. Moving on; your LinkedIn profile states that you’re adept at establishing profitable business models from niche social media.
You’ve done your research!
How long did it take for inthemix to become profitable, broadly speaking?
Off the top of my head, I’m not entirely sure about inthemix. I think inthemix was probably more of a phenomenon than even we thought it was going to be. Our approach with what we did with our business was always to reinvest. inthemix, in isolation, had we just kept that company running as five or six people working on the business, it would be an extremely successful business, but what we’ve chosen to do is to build our company out, create Sound Alliance, and reinvest all that money back into building the business we have today.
I think in isolation, inthemix is still a fantastic company, business, and community; all of those things, and it continues to grow. Every time we think we’ve definitely reached our maximum audience at the site, it defies belief and keeps on going. That’s a really solid business model right there. I didn’t really answer your question, did I?
No, not specifically, but that’s okay. [Laughs] Has Sound Alliance ever sought venture capital funding?
Yes, we have. We’re one of the few Australian companies in our industry who have succeeded in getting venture capital funding. I know a lot of people who have tried and failed. The process is exhausting, and it’s a whole new world out there, I can tell you.
We managed to get a round of funding last year, and the partner is Albert Investments Group, which is a parent company of Albert Music, the publishing and recording business. They have music studios over in Neutral Bay; they’ve got AC/DC and Dallas Crane, and a few other acts. They’re a really great fit for us.
We’ve really seen eye-to-eye with them in terms of the cultural sphere of our business and the fact that they’re family-run. They’re one of the oldest music businesses in Australia, and they ended up being a really great partner. There were a lot of companies fishing around out there when we were entering that ‘boom’ period just before the financial crisis There were a lot of conversations going on. I don’t think there was a single online company worth its salt that hadn’t been approached by numerous people, at that time. It was just the way it was back then.
We’re very fortunate. We managed to take on a partner as a minority shareholder in the business, who shares our goals and our vision for what we’re trying to achieve. They are hugely supportive in getting us there, and have been able to provide a lot of value and not just in terms of capital investment, but in terms of the network they’ve been able to open us up to, their skills, and knowledge of the music industry have all been invaluable.
So you guys had pursued that for most of your time as Sound Alliance, but you only found a partner, just last year?
No, we’d only been out there looking for about nine months, or something like that. It wasn’t something that had been a priority prior to that.
Returning to yourself; do you have a daily routine?
Not really. If I had the choice, I would probably a lot more routine focused. My day is pretty irregular, in terms of what happens. I have a lot of regularly scheduled meetings that happen week in, week out but outside of that, I could be pulled in any number of directions, depending on what’s going on at any one time.
In a way, I kind of like that aspect of my role, in that it’s very dynamic and it requires me to use left brain/right brain, and switch on and off in different occasions and at different times. It’s what keeps it really challenging. No, I don’t have a massive routine in terms of the way I structure my day.
Has this changed since you started ten years ago?
I wouldn’t say I’ve always been a massive routine person, in terms of what I do. I will always try and dedicate some of my day to researching into keeping up with what’s going on out there. I don’t always do it at the same time every day, but I’ll always spend some of my day doing that whenever I can sneak it in; when I’m on a cab checking my phone, checking out news stories and blogs, or when I get home before I go to bed at night, or however I can squeeze those types of things in. I don’t say “At 9:00 in the morning, I’m going to do this for twenty minutes.” I’m a bit more sporadic than that.
Do you ever struggle with procrastination?
When I’m tired, yeah, but I tend to make quite quick decisions. I’ve learned over the years that you can’t dwell on things too long. You have to use your instinct and your gut to make a lot of your decisions, where when you’ve got time to procrastinate and pore over the details, that’s great, and sometimes I’ll do that. But generally, my instincts will tell me which way to go and I just don’t have the time to procrastinate.
So you don’t have any trouble remaining focused on the task at hand? You just devote the time necessary and then move on?
Yeah, I think I can get through quite a bit of stuff quite quickly. I can process a lot of things during the day and move through quite a few things in a short space of time. If I have to focus on something, I’ll go home and work from home. If I’m writing something really important or working on numbers or spreadsheets, I’ll put my headphones on or get out of the office and try to focus on it there.
Let’s talk about [Sound Alliance marketing consultancy arm] Thought By Them for a moment. Is it at the stage where companies and events come to you for consultancy or do you guys still submit proposals for these projects, like regular businesses?
It’s a lot more people coming to us now. It used to be, in the early stages, us going out there and trying to tell people about what we’re doing. We’ve never really been out there in terms of pitching all the time, and trying to win big pitches. We have taken the approach that what we’re offering is quite a specialist thing and it doesn’t suit all brands; it only suits certain types of brands at some stage in their lifecycle. More often, they’ve kind of found us rather than us finding them.
With Thought By Them, we didn’t want to get too big, too fast. We try to focus on delivering really good value and really good ideas, and constantly innovating, rather than exploding and taking on too many clients. We’ve really focused on having one client in one brand category, rather than having a lot of different clients in the same category.
It’s been a really organic approach. I think that’s really suited us because we’ve been able to learn a lot during that time, and really hone our skills, like how unique our position is in the market.
How did the music licensing and CD production arm of Thought By Them come about?
We don’t do too much of that at the moment, to be honest. It was really more a case of just seeing opportunities for brands. We don’t tend to work within strict disciplines, in terms of our work arrangements and that type of thing. We tend to be quite fluid, and try and react as things are going on amongst consumers and provide our solutions right to that, rather than sticking within a mandate of just being a digital agency, or an events agency, or a music agency.
With music licensing, and that type of thing, if it’s the right solution for what one of our clients is looking to achieve, then we would recommend it. It’s not something that we roll out as part of any standard product offering.
I’m assuming that digital music distribution has affected the CD production aspect that you guys offer.
Yeah, but the CD production stuff is such a small part of what we do. We’ve only really done it a few times for specific clients when it’s been a requirement, but it’s not really a core part of what Thought By Them is doing.
You’re a few years older than me, so you knew a time before the web dominated our means of mass communication. Something that I’ve been doing more and more in the last year is reaching out to individuals who inspire or fascinate me, such as yourself. Do you have any tips for approaching these seemingly ultra-busy, really important figures?
[Laughs] I can only look back on the people who have approached me, and the ones that have had success in doing so. I’ve never shut the door on anybody or denied anybody my time, if they’ve been polite in the way they’ve approached me and I think I can assist them. If they’ve taken an interesting approach, then I’ll always give my time.
I’d be surprised if many other people who are in the industry would take a much different approach to that, but I’m sure some people do. Generally speaking, I think if people were reaching out, asking for information and advice, I’m more than happy to try and provide it, if I can squeeze in the time.
With Nick Crocker [pictured right; Native Digital owner, and my mentor], for example, when he first got in touch with me, it was a matter of a mutual friend saying, “Hey, you should catch up with this person. It’s worthwhile meeting up with him,” as he came to me through Luke at Universal. There was never really an agenda. It was just an interesting guy worth catching up with, much the same way as he now passed your details along to me, and we’re talking today.
I think it’s good to really try to work on your network. You don’t always have to start by targeting somebody who is right at the top of your inspiration tree. You can find your way there by other means.
It’s best to just have a go. I think you’d be surprised; a lot of people have this misconception of “Oh my God, I could never just find that person’s email address, or contact them through LinkedIn or Twitter, and ask them if they fancy coffee.” There is no harm in trying. I think you might be surprised. I’ve probably had a couple of people approach me with an ulterior motive; maybe they were a recruiter or something like that and I might not have got back to them, but generally speaking, if I think it’s somebody who is doing it for the right reasons, I’ll always respond.
I’ve definitely found what you mentioned about being surprised about who will meet up with me. It’s an approach that Nick introduced to me this year, and I’ve definitely been blown away by the response, the respect and attention that I’ve received from some people I would have never thought would have given me the time of day. It’s pretty amazing.
There is this outward perception that the music industry is so unapproachable, and that all these people are up on a pedestal, but it’s not like that at all. I think they’re all just real people doing their thing, and one of the things that always attracted me to work in the music business is that I saw this bunch of people that had all come together of their own steam. Their own entrepreneurial tendencies and flare are at the core of what the music industry is all about. It’s a whole bunch of people who are really passionate and determined, and they really love what they do and really love the industry itself.
I’ve found it’s quite consuming and quite seductive to be so drawn into a space by that. That’s why if you’re talking about getting someone’s time, they’ve all been in that position before, so I think most of them recognize that and they’re happy to pass on any pearls of wisdom they might have, to do their bit.
Much as you have, today. Did you have any specific tactics that you used to connect with inspirational or motivational figures when Sound Alliance was starting up?
Not really. I would just try and make sure that I was very present. I think if you’re really passionate about working in the music industry, you have to walk the walk and talk the talk. You got to do your research, get out there, go to the gigs, go to the clubs, or whatever your particular genre interest is. Meet the people, network, and get amongst it. That’s how opportunities and many things arise. I think you’ve got to live the life and get amongst it if you really want to be taken seriously in getting into this space.
We’ve just been interviewing some staff this week. We invited some junior staff members to come back in and do a presentation to us on some ideas of how they would help promote some releases. The presentations yesterday were from this young guy and girl, and I was blown away by the amount of research they’d done, and how they seem to know our product. They’d gone into this great level of detail to understand what it was they were coming back with, even though they hadn’t really been given direction. Even though their ideas were slightly off in some areas, it was so impressive just to see people going to that level. I think that’s what it takes to get your foot in the door in this industry: you have to really stand out, and be really prepared to go the extra mile.
There are a lot of people who just think “Oh yeah, it’d be cool to work in music,” or cool to work in fashion, or whatever, but it’s not really the right reason to be involved in something.
My final question, Neil, I understand that Sound Alliance has a new web project on the horizon. Can you give me any hints on its focus?
We’ve got quite a few actually. I don’t know which one you’re talking about. [Laughs]
I can talk about a couple of things we’re doing. We’re re-launching inthemix towards the end of this year, though there’s no specific date set yet. It’s a fairly major sort of overhaul for inthemix, in terms of functionality, tools, the design, and what it offers.
I think it will send that whole community off onto the next level, in terms of their engagement with the site, what they can do with it, and what it can give them. That’s something really exciting, whether you’re a DJ, producer, or just a punter, we’re going to offer a lot of things on those levels that are going to enable them to connect to other people in the same space and really take the essence of what ITM’s strengths are and style them up a little bit more.
inthemix has been running on the same platform for about four years and we know it’s a little bit tired and dated; it’s not exactly Web 2.0. We’ve been honing a lot of those tools on our other sites and seeing how people use them and interact, and getting them ready to roll them out on the big beast [ITM]. That’s a pretty exciting project for us, pretty massive, and it brings to an end about a four-year development schedule.
We’ve basically been putting all of our sites onto one codebase, one unified codebase. It basically means you’ll be able to make a change or add a new piece of functionality and they’ll all simultaneously go across all the sites. It will just have a slightly different front-end design look and feel. It will mean we will be able to get new developments to the market quicker, cheaper, and much more effectively without reinventing the wheel every time. This is quite a big launch for us.
We’re also working on a whole heap of mobile stuff at the moment; we’re just about to launch a mobile site for Mess+Noise, to give that a try. We’ve launched mobile sites for inthemix forums, and we’re going to be rolling out a whole range of mobile stuff, possibly some apps, and a few things down the track, as well.
We have this other thing called Sound Alliance Labs which we just launched recently, where we’ve allocated a budget every year, and our staff can pitch their own ideas for development. We have a monthly meeting where they have to come in and pitch ideas, not necessarily revenue-generating, not necessarily great business ideas, but just things they’ve seen or things they think would complement what we’re doing. They can either pitch them to the management team either individually or as groups.
If we like their idea, we give them a budget and they can work on it outside of their hours. So if the developers come up with a great idea for an iPhone app or something like that, we give them a budget and pay them outside of their standard work hours to go away and develop it. We’re going to give an award for the best lab project every year, based on all the submissions that come through. We’re trying to maintain a focus on innovation and make sure that our staff have an opportunity to do all the things they’re really interested in outside of work, while bringing the benefit back to Sound Alliance, for the greater good of the overall company rather than going off and doing them on their own. We can just see a lot of our team working on some really exciting things, and we wanted to bring that within these walls, rather than see that innovation go off elsewhere. It’s things like that which are exciting and fun and challenging.
And it’s fascinating for an outsider. It’s been really interesting to hear you speak about your past, the present, and the future. It’s been great to speak with you, Neil, and I thank you for your time.
Cool, happy to share with you. I hope it’s been useful, and I look forward to seeing what’s ahead for you.
If you’d like to get in touch, Neil Ackland is on the emails and the Twitters. Coincidentally, Denise Shrivell of Digital Ministry published an excellent interview with Neil earlier this week that focuses on the business side of Sound Alliance. Take a look.
It just so happens that Jess is Digital Strategy Director at a mysterious Sydney advertising agency. She won’t say which, and she also won’t let me publish her surname. Or at leaIt’s not because she’s scared or nothin’, but on the internets, Jess is best known as the curator of a rather excellent blog called Something Changed, about which I wrote lovingly for FourThousand:
“Something Changed acts as Jess’ digital scrapbook, where she posts about new media, advertising, online campaigning, representations of the self, kids today, words, writing and books, funny things on the internets, politics, art, ideas, music, work, food, and sydney. The result is an aggregate of content that you’ll probably find either funny or fascinating if you’re a twenty-something who spends a lot of time online – and since you’re reading this, it’s not an unfair assumption to make.”
Jess, why did you start Something Changed? Was there an influential person or moment that encouraged its creation?
I started Something Changed almost two years ago because I was fascinated by people’s behaviour on the internet and I wanted to document my discoveries. It was partly so I could archive and remember facts, figures and links more efficiently, and partly to have something to show for the immense amount of reading and research I do! I discovered Tumblr through Gawker’s exhaustive coverage of Jakob Lodwick and Julia Allison‘s relationship which largely played out on the Tumblr platform. Tumblr was perfect for me because I like to present raw data that interests me as I find it, rather than crafting long posts.
Where do you find the majority of the articles that you link?
On Tumblr you can post stuff you create, post stuff that you find online, or use their reblog feature (which is sort of an automatic “retweet” feature) to post other’s content with a link crediting them. About 75 per cent of what I blog is from the second category. I find it by either investigating a topic that interests my by searching and following links, setting up RSS feeds to my favourite blogs and websites, and by following people who I respect and who will post things I find interesting.
Does your exhaustive online presence ever spill into your professional life? Do your workmates know of the blog?
In fact the internet IS my job, lucky me! I work for an ad agency where I am the digital strategy director. Since I work on campaigns and strategy it’s considered part of my work. My workmates and bosses definitely know of the blog, I bang on about it exhaustively. In fact my boss promised to buy me a cake when I passed a big milestone in the amount of readers I had, but I passed it ages ago and he is still yet to come through. Two of them have started Tumblrs themselves. We all love the internet at work.
Why the anonymity?
Well I’m not really sure now! I was doing some big work for clients around which there is some sensitivity, and I didn’t want any posts to be taken out of context and my personal views being ascribed to the client. I think in the next few months I’ll probably get with the times and put up my full name. I’ve noticed all my peers in my industry do.
Do you often give thought to how you portray yourself online and the legacy you’re building, or do you just throw it all out there?
Something Changed started as mainly a vehicle for professional development and research and largely it still is. I barely ever talk about myself (apart from “I saw this, I read this, I ate this, I visited this”) or my feelings. So at worst it will be a record of what interested me at different stages of my life, which is fine. Thank god I have never posted a poem or ruminations on my relationships.
What do you think Something Changed adds to the web?
Lots of people in marketing and advertising view the internet from very very far away with a telescope. The world does not need another “how to be a powerblogger” blog or post on “how to measure social media ROI”. I like to think I see the raw internet – the amazing stuff people create, the intense stuff people say about their lives and feelings, the fascinating ways they represent themselves online. Then I try and distill that onto my blog. It’s like a little field study from an anthropologist completely embedded in the culture they observe. Having said that, I don’t recommend people see my blog as anything special – instead they should set up their own!
As you said, you barely ever talk about yourself. But you also barely ever talk about why you find something interesting, or worthwhile posting.
You’re right. I tend to like information that I view as primary sources – people who produce things from scratch, whether it’s blog posts about their lives of feelings, collating things that inspire them, producing amazing things likes videos or songs. Or academic analysis- people who take rigorous, well-informed approach to analyzing the internet and its sociology.
I don’t have time for anything in between, that whole raft of “people who don’t really understand the internet talking in vague general terms about the internet.”
I have things I definitely won’t post, like anything about swine flu, anything about that Best Job in the World tourism campaign, or tips to become a Twitter poweruser.
Do many of your non-ad agency friends follow the blog? How do you describe the blog to a real-life friend?
None of my friends that I’ve known forever are in the ad industry. They all read it, sporadically. When I refer to my blog I adopt a stupid mocking tone and say “my blawg.” If they ask about it I give a knowing smile and say, “I’m so famous on the internet you guys.” If a waiter takes ages to take our drink orders I’m like, “this would never happen to me on the internet.”
You and I both spend a lot of time online. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ve develop a kind of bias in the way that I access information online. I start to overstate the way that I operate and assume that others follow similar methods; if they don’t, I become either amused or frustrated, depending on my mood. But that’s a curious aside. When did you become a heavy internet user, and how did your skills develop to the point that they’re at now? (Because let’s face it, good internets is a skill.)
I know exactly what you mean. Good internet is definitely a skill. I am totally self taught, I didn’t even have email until 2000 or 2001. In 2003, someone at uni said, “email me a draft of your paper” and I said, “oh it’s pretty long for an email,” and then attachments were explained to me. I couldn’t use a digital camera until 2004. I couldn’t pirate music! It all sounds a bit embarrassing now.
It was in 2005 then that I started using the internet heavily because I joined some forums. Before that, I had always thought of the “web” quite disparagingly, “who are these people? Read a book, or go outside.” Now it’s completely a part of my daily routine. It’s really changed my life – how I think, what inspires me, how I work, the people I’ve met.
It’s helped that I can do it all day everyday at my work. Spending ten hours a day on something is a good way to get quite good at something. In every role I’ve had in my career, to do a good job I need insight into what people think and feel, a creative spark to generate ideas, and a plan to my implement strategy. So the internet is crucial to every single element, and my employers have always let me have free reign to work that way.
Do you keep a private journal?
No! I’m too self-conscious. If I want to remember how I felt about something, I do a keyword search in my Gmail and cringe at old emails I wrote my friends.
How did you become digital strategy director at your agency? Was ‘good internets’ part of the job description?
I met the CEO of my agency when I consulted on online strategy on a big national campaign he was working on. A few months later my position was created for me when I said I was ready for a new job – so there was actually no job description! I’m so lucky now that I get to do what I love with the cleverest team and the best clients.
The career path to Digital Strategy Director was not an obvious one. I was a journalist, then moved to Melbourne and could not immediately get a journalism job so I got a job doing the overseas publicity for Neighbours [pictured right *snigger*]. I only got the job because at the interview I told the producer, “You know it’s not too late to make Izzie’s baby Jack’s,” or something. Since I was spending my days trying to get freelance writing work I had had plenty of time to watch Neighbours fortunately.
Of course part of my job was to look after the BBC’s Neighbours website. It was my first taste of a really intense online fan community. They had a forum and everything. I learnt so much from that job. That an official website will never be as fascinating as a fan website unless you let go of the PR reigns (why would you want to read about an actors’ theatre aspirations on our site when you could go to an unofficial site to read about their love life?). That fans create the best material, that fans really get upset if you make changes without consulting them. It was a crash course in Internet.
Then I got to do my dream job being the Online Director doing national political campaigning, where I learnt about building movements – uniting people around taking action online and offline to achieve social change. Then I consulted on another big campaign, then I got this job. I always think of that thing people say, “the jobs the youth of today will be doing when they grow up haven’t even been invented yet.” At our Careers Centre at school they basically said girls could be Lawyers, Accountants, Gallery Curators or PRs.
I’m assuming that you went to university. Tell me about your time there.
I did! I went to uni to study English thinking I would have a career doing some kind of writing. In first year I became interested in social justice issues and for the first time paid attention to politics and current affairs. Before then I was strictly a reading, writing, art galleries, theatre type of person. So uni was fun, I did the student politics/share house/shop at Salvos/“feed yourself on $5 a day” thing until my last year. Then I got a full time newspaper journalism cadetship, and had to do my Honours year full time at the same time.
Was that a difficult year? Did you ever question what you were doing?
It was difficult. Fortunately it was things I loved doing – researching and writing. I’m also one of those people who needs to be busy to get things done. I like approaching big tasks (daily deadline of journalism combined with a yearly deadline of handing in a thesis) and strategically breaking them down in an efficient way. Having said that, I am never studying again. And whenever my friends say “I’m thinking of going back to uni,” I always say “NO! YOU FORGET HOW HARD IT IS!”
How did you land the cadetship? Was it shit or awesome?
I decided suddenly I wanted to be a journalist so I got a two week cadetship at a newspaper. I was lucky they gave it to me because I think now they only take people studying Proper Journalism at uni – a bit short sighted in my opinion, but I think it’s because the universities provide insurance. I got a story in the paper almost every day, including a huge feature on mobile phone use that was published in the Features liftout on the Saturday. The story is completely lame and I am so glad it’s not accessible by Google.
After my two weeks the Chief of Staff said they were hiring a cadet, and would I like to apply? I said “yes”. I interviewed and didn’t get it – someone else did. But a few weeks later they phoned and said I could be a cadet anyway. So that’s how I got the job, and now the other cadet is one of my best friends. The cadetship was amazing. Every day as a general news reporter is different and being a journalist is like having a license to walk up to anyone and ask them anything you want.
Do you read newspapers? Could you imagine being a full-time news reporter?
I only read newspapers on the weekends: the Australian, the Sydney Morning Herald, Sunday Sun Herald and Sunday Telegraph. I get rid of all the Drive, Careers, Business and rubbishy sections. Then read the news, then the Lifestyle, then glossy lifestyle supplements. It’s a habit. Print will never die while people have weekend brunch routines to uphold.
I can’t imagine being a full-time news reporter. I would love the thrill of finding a big story but miss the calming routine of planning and strategising in advance. I get a nice mix of thrillingly busy versus long term planning in my current work, so I wouldn’t go back.
Lots of people view their time at university as instrumental in their personal development. What did you learn about yourself during that time?
I learnt the same thing at uni that has proved true in the workplace. Studying and work (doing your actual job as per your job description) teaches you nothing. You have to do it and do it well. But everything fun, amazing, professionally exciting or leading to personal growth has always been thanks to things I do on the side. Whether that’s groups I joined at uni, friends I made on the internet, ideas and projects I’ve suggested at work, or new career opportunities I’ve conjured up. When I think about what my life would be like without my blog that I randomly started a few years ago… I just can’t imagine it!
Something Changed is my favourite Australian blog. You’d best subscribe via email or RSS. Unsurpisingly, Jess is also quite lively on Twitter. Thanks for the interview, Jess!
I went to a screening of ‘RiP: A Remix Manifesto‘ last night, along with around sixty others. The audience included local promoters, distributors, musicians, writers and university students. Via nfb.ca:
In RiP: A Remix Manifesto, Web activist and filmmaker Brett Gaylor explores issues of copyright in the information age, mashing up the media landscape of the 20th century and shattering the wall between users and producers.i
The film’s central protagonist is Girl Talk, a mash-up musician topping the charts with his sample-based songs. But is Girl Talk a paragon of people power or the Pied Piper of piracy? Creative Commons founder, Lawrence Lessig, Brazil’s Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil and pop culture critic Cory Doctorow are also along for the ride.
A participatory media experiment, from day one, Brett shares his raw footage at opensourcecinema.org, for anyone to remix. This movie-as-mash-up method allows these remixes to become an integral part of the film. With RiP: A remix manifesto, Gaylor and Girl Talk sound an urgent alarm and draw the lines of battle.
I transcribed the majority of this panel discussion – approximately an hour’s worth – because I want to share their thoughts and opinions with those who weren’t there.
Some of their comments are valid. Some are misguided. Some are ridiculously outdated. I’m not going to point out which is which, though. That’s up to you.
Note that this post is quite long – around 8,000 words. It gets into some very specific topics. I have occasionally edited their words for clarity, and omitted a couple of uninteresting bits. But you should read it to gauge the five speakers’ beliefs about what is happening to the music industry. To save you scrolling up and down, I will repeat each speaker’s title each time they are quoted, so that you can contrast their opinions against their commercial beliefs.
Download links for the audio files are at the bottom of this post. Enjoy.
[Tripp gives an introductory speech before the film starts.]
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA! [pictured right]:
The future of music, the way we look at it, is about going overseas. But not giving up your home country. You hear my American accent; I’ve been here 28 years, and I always love to come home to Sydney. And for the set of trips that I’m doing this month, I found a film at South By South West (SXSW) – which is an event in Austin, Texas that I rep for this region – to show throughout Australia. We decided to show it, not because I’m a benevolent person wanting to educate you, but because I want to give you an idea of where the future of music is going, from one point of view.
Now, this film is propaganda. It is a film that has been made with a purpose in mind, and a message. And the message is, that when I was a kid, my teacher told me, along with the rest of the class, that “tonight, we want you to go home to your parents and we want you to cut out little pictures, and things from magazines, and bring them in tomorrow, and we’re gonna take out the paste pots, and we’re gonna glue them all down on paper, and we’re gonna put them out on the wall outside, and we’re gonna make what’s called a collage”.
Little did she know that that was a violation of copyright. Taking other people’s images and mixing them into a ‘mash-up’ of visuals. Back then it didn’t matter. Now, you people have tools that go far beyond scissors and paste pots. You have the tools to take music and turn it into a whole new form of art. And that’s great. Except I’m a commercial bastard. I have intellectual property – the Music Directory, and our site themusic.com.au – and if anybody wants to take my intellectual property, which is basically a phone book, and put it on their website because they’re believe it’s free because it’s on the internet, they will get a hot testy letter from me, with the legal advice that I may take their house, or whatever property they have.
So I’m not exactly the kind of guy who believes that people should take intellectual property and steal it, and use it, and make money from it. The cool thing about this film is that it talks about somebody who has done just that, but he’s done it as art. But there came a point at which it crossed over into commerce. When I found out about this film at SXSW, I thought this would be a great introduction to the conference we’re doing in August…
I think this is the most exciting time for you people to be in the music business, because although the recording industry has gone to shit, the music business is actually doing pretty well. Especially for the live side of music, or new revenue streams though mobile phone companies, or through internet sites, and also through the future of what will evolve.
Anyway, I hope you enjoy the film tonight. I hope it makes you think. I hope you realise that there is the commerce of music, and there is the art of music. And the two don’t necessarily mix. Unless you’re going to make money and also share the money you make with the people that actually created it originally.
[The film plays. Tripp then introduces the panel speakers.]
[Tripp describes local initiatives to help Australian artists export their work nationally and overseas.]
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA!:
[...]There’s another group called Sounds Australia, which this year helped Australian artists so that they were able to afford to attend SXSW and The Great Escape [Andrew's note: Sounds Australia also appears to be run by Tripp.]. And there’s AusTrade, the Australian Trade Commission, which has been one of the greatest evangelists for Australian music from our Government in a long time. The Australia Council [For The Arts] has just this year got on board, after supporting the works of dead composers for many years, and forms of music called ‘opera’, ‘classical’ and ‘symphonic’.
This year, it’s cool to be contemporary. They have put considerable money behind the need to take Australian artists to the world. Because, let’s face it, kids: you’re not gonna ‘make it’ here. You’re not gonna make enough money in this country, at this point, to actually have a living. So you need to have an export strategy.
[The panellists discuss their thoughts and opinions on the film. I didn't transcribe this bit.]
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA!:
Rick, I want you to tell us – because you have a relatively successful band here, out of Brisbane – have you made any money from mobile music? And if so, how?
Rick Chazan – Manager, The Boat People [pictured right]:
As far as music mobile for The Boat People is concerned, it’s been an area which we really haven’t pursued. It’s one of those things that’s on the radar; everybody’s saying that this is the way in which it’s going to take over, and that everyone is going to be consuming music through their mobile phone. We’re well aware of that, but my understanding is that it’s very much a media that’s beginning, and as Paul described, it’s going to be dominated by what’s in the charts. Our music is distributed through Shock, and so Shock is working with different distributors who will likely make our music available on mobile platforms. But our mobile music income at this stage is negligible. And I’m not sure whether it will become relevant for us.
We work as an independent band with IODA, who is an aggregator for digital music. So our music is distributed by them internationally. In Australia, it’s through Shock. In terms of digital sales, our experience is that 80-90% of our digital sales are through iTunes. We’re on Napster and Rhapsody and all the different sites that exist, but iTunes is where the vast majority of sales come through. Digital is fantastic: it means that you’re very mobile, very agile, and it means that the band can be everywhere at once in the world very quickly. But it’s really the same game as it always was: “how do you sell records?” “How you sell digital?” And you need to be able to promote [the product]. Our sales internationally have happened through traditional means; namely, radio. In the US, we’ve had a good run with radio – we’re currently on about 20 stations, so we’ve had a lot of support – and when that happened, our digital sales on iTunes spiked considerably, and they’ve been growing since.
This is an area which is very close to my heart, because I think there’s such a great opportunity for bands to have an incredible reach by doing something very inexpensively. The Boat People tried to do something smart, and it didn’t quite work (laughs) We created a film clip for Awkward Orchid Orchard, where within the clip, there are clues for 54 band names, from The Beatles, to The Shins, to The Boat People. So we thought this’d be a fun game for any music nerd, and they’d share it with their friends. And it worked to some degree – we’ve had 20,000 hits, whereas our previous clip had about 5,000 – so it’s kind of worked.
But there’s a Brisbane band called Blame Ringo, who’re pretty unknown. The band had an idea to shoot a film clip, where they got a friend to go to Abbey Road and shoot at the pedestrian crossing, to capture how people mimic The Beatles album cover. They cut a few pieces out of that and created a clip from their three hours of footage, and it put it up on YouTube using a few Beatles keywords, and in a few weeks they got, I think, around half a million hits. They had an interview on Weekend Sunrise, and they got a call from a US national TV show. This is a band that had absolutely nothing going on! This is staggering. YouTube is a fascinating tool, which if people are creative and thinking, they can use to give themselves a real ‘leg up’.
Lars Brandle – Australasian Editor, Billboard Magazine [pictured right]:
That’s just making me think; going back to the movie, there was that comment about how the future of music will be less creative, because of the locks that are being put on copyright. But here’s this band, Blame Ringo, who have just shown us that if you’ve got a good idea, and if you can follow it through, and make it happen on a world stage. The technology’s in your hands. You don’t have to grab someone else’s inspiration, and rework that; if you’ve got an idea in your head, then you’ve got the tools to make it happen. So I don’t agree with that comment, that ‘the future will be less creative’. I think that’s wrong.
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA!:
Rick, how has your band been ripped off digitally? Have you got any stories of how you’ve discovered some copyright infringement?
Rick Chazan – Manager, The Boat People:
No, but we’re looking forward to when it happens (laughs) Nothing’s really happened like that for us, at this stage. I don’t think we’re quite famous enough to be ripped off at this particular point.
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA!:
You don’t have to be famous to be ripped off. You know what happened to me? Our music directory is online, and some people will subscribe to it and then they’ll pull down all the information. And we’ll find it, because we have little bots that search. We get people all the time who take our information and put it up on their website, like they’re creating a new music directory and giving it away for free. Man, I have had so much fun with them. There is a publisher named Deke Miskin who has a big house on the harbour. And Deke had some stupid intern take my information and put it in another magazine. We found it on the newsstand; I called him and said “Deke, guess what? It’s settlement time. Violation of copyright. You are now on notice. Do you want to go to court? Would you like me to shame you in the Sunday papers?” And rather than do that, Deke, being the man of honour that he was, paid me a whole bunch of money to shut the eff up. And then he withdrew the title from circulation. It was one of those little “how to get into the music business” mini-magazines, for suckers, for $6.95.
Now, you’re in the magazine business, Steve. You’re in the new age of finding out that the print medium is being shot to shit, while the internet has everything for free. However, I must say that I do a lot of work with Street Press Australia; they’re one of our conference sponsors. What I find interesting is when Leigh Treweek [of Street Press Australia] spoke for this event in Perth and Melbourne, he talked about the whole idea of branding, and how his publications and street press in general is not going away anytime soon. He also gave some very interesting stories of how bands become brands. How do you see the internet affecting you, as a street press publication, and what are some of the more innovative ways that musicians can use your medium to push themselves ahead?
Steve Bell – Editor, Time Off [pictured right]:
Well, there’s no doubt that the dissemination of information is definitely changing. We’d be fools to not realise that. We haven’t rushed into a web presence. I mean, we’ve got websites and stuff, but they’re just sort of token for the moment. We’re trying to work out the best model for going forward, and what it’s going to entail. We’ve spoken to a lot of people, we’ve actually hooked up some meetings with Craig Treweek, Leigh’s brother, this week in Sydney with some friends of mine who’ve got some really interesting ideas on the future of the web. It’s moving so fast; it’s very difficult to really work out. There’s no black or white.
So we are very aware of it, but we’re sort of playing it by ear, because there’s no certainty as to the future. But we do realise that all the interviews Time Off has done are a resource. And by just letting them go each week, and not accumulating them into some kind of archive, we are, down the track, burning ourselves. We should be putting this together and using it as the resource that it is. At the moment we’re not; it’s just going into the paper each week, and becoming landfill, or whatever happens to it. We are addressing it, but it’s still in the infancy stages, I guess you’d say! (laughs)
In terms of bands using us, probably the first thing that comes to mind is Savage Garden meeting through our classifieds, so there’s still that old sort of model. Don’t blame us for that! But the street press is just a different form of exposure. It’s one of many that you use. I can’t think of any real examples.
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA!:
What about brands using street press to push themselves forward to another level, like Chupa-Chups, for example, going onto MySpace? What sort of brands have done anything innovative with you in the last year that you can think of, and use as an example?
Steve Bell – Editor, Time Off:
Because it didn’t work very well, I can’t think of the company, but there was a media company that put a DVD on the front of an issue, who paid quite a bit of money to.. you know, often there’s things like that. Companies will use us as a way of disseminating their product, or samples, just because of our distribution channels. But that’s not really using our brand as such, it’s more using our pickup at various locations. Do you have anything in mind? I’m struggling to think of anything.
[Tripp describes one of his magazines, Urban Animal, to the audience.]
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA!:
Lars, where do you see the future of the music industry here in Australia, and overseas?
Lars Brandle – Australasian Editor, Billboard Magazine:
Well, it’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? As a kind of segue to what you were just saying about the pet industry, and how “you can’t download dog food”; the one really, really strong point of the music industry in the last couple of years has been the live business. The reason why the live business is so hot is because people love to see bands, and you can’t steal a live performance. Unless you dig a hole under the fence at a concert, you can’t actually rip it off. So live performance has been booming. It’s absolutely been soaring in recent years. The future of the record industry, now, we are seeing the major record labels trying their hand at getting into the live business, because they realise, “hey, we’re kind of screwed here”. Revenues in the last ten years have dropped a lot, so to safeguard their future, the big labels are looking at investing in companies involved in live music. Or going out alone.
In a way it’s desperate, because the record companies don’t have expertise in the live music business. There’s a lot of ‘shyster’-ing that goes on in the live business, and the record labels don’t really know this. They don’t know that sector of business so well. We’re going to see a lot of jostling in that space over the next couple of years.
Sony Music are the first of the four Australian majors that have declared their attention to have a go; they’ve created a touring division. They’re co-promoting Simon & Garfunkel. Huge tour; there’ll be a lot of money on the table. If tickets don’t sell out for this, I’m sure that Sony Music will lose a lot of money. They will get their fingers burned, because it’s a tough business and they’re playing with some real sharks. Those Simon & Garfunkel world tour dates have only been announced in Australia so far, so the world will be watching here first.
To date, the tickets haven’t sold out. We’re in tough economic times. No-one really knows if they want to see Simon & Garfunkel, either, or whether they can still ‘cut it’. It’s really interesting. From a journalist’s point of view, I’m interested to see how this goes, because for me, that is the obvious route that record companies will take – entering the live business – because live is hot.
Digital.. everyone’s been talking about digital for ten years. Of course, we saw how the RIAA clamped down stupidly on Americans, in particular, but the international recording industry have done the same thing in issuing lawsuits against downloaders. It was a bone-headed thing to do, but they were desperate to get a handle on control of the dissemination of music. Now, the record labels are so far behind the game, they have to catch up. They’re also getting into bed with technology firms, and they have to. They have to get wise to the digital environment, because that certainly is the way forward.
We’re not there yet. Digital music in Australia accounts for, I think, about fifteen percent of album sales, so it’s really ‘small beer’. Those headlines you read about “CDs are finished, it’s all about digital” – that’s not right. We’re still looking at 85% of record sales in Australia comprising CDs; although it’ll ebb away in time, we don’t know when. In a nutshell – and I’ve rambled on – the future is certainly going to be a strong live business. We don’t know if it’s peaked yet, and I suppose that it hasn’t. And digital will be the way forward, but it’s not here yet. But the record labels have a lot to learn.
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA!:
Two comments. Gregg Donovan, who is the manager of Airbourne, Josh Pyke, Grinspoon and a few other bands, talked at our seminar in Sydney about how he had been approached by major multinational record companies who wanted to do ‘360 deals‘ with some of his artists. For those of you who don’t know what that is, a 360 deal is where a record company wants to act as the manager, the touring promoter, the agent, the merchandiser, the publisher; essentially, everything.
And Gregg went to them and say, “okay, I’ll tell you what”, to this American record company. “Let me see your t-shirts. Where are your t-shirts? You manufacture t-shirts? You’re a merchandising company? Take me to your t-shirt factory.” And of course, they couldn’t, so he said “no deal there”. And then he asked, “you have management? You have a management company within the label?” And they replied, “oh, no, but we’re getting it…” Gregg said, “no”. What happened here was Sony, aside from setting up a touring division, they also bought half of that doofus from Australian Idol, Paul Caplice [Andrew's note: I can't find this name online. Maybe I can't spell it.] and David Champion, who I call “tweedle-dumb” and “tweedle-dumber”. They bought into this, and they found out that it’s a very expensive job that you have ahead of you, if you have incompetence running the management side of a record company. It’s actually very funny to watch from the outside.
And I’ll make one more comment on what you said, Lars. Yes, digital is only fifteen, maybe twenty percent of revenue in our industry, but every download sale is a sale without physical product. Most albums print out a thousand for every hundred they sell. And it takes about ten or twelve failures for one success. So although physical product is selling more, it’s also destroying more. It’s being given away, it’s been put into landfill et cetera, because you can only buy it in a record store eight hours a day. With digital, you can buy it 24/7. Steve, tell us, where do you think it’s going?
Steve Bell – Editor, Time Off:
I guess it ties in with what you were saying about 360 deals. For the last ten or so years, most bands have changed the way they’ve approached revenue streams. I used to run TSP, the t-shirt printers, [who are] one of the biggest merch companies in Australia. We used to represent big overseas touring bands – Green Day, Foo Fighters, Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Tool, what have you. The amount of money that we’d make out of any given show out at Boondall (Brisbane’s Entertainment Centre), and I’d see the figures for the whole Australian tours, while knowing the costs of this stuff, it was quite remarkable. There was a fad of punk kids wanting to buy those fuzzy wristbands, which were selling for around $15 at shows, and I think if you make them in bulk they cost around 8 cents per unit.
So bands who are focussing on touring, and merchandising, and the different revenues that come with that are changing their approach to recorded music. Instead of being a cash cow itself, it’s become a way of drawing attention to the band and their different revenue streams. I mean, they still want to make money from it, of course. But I think the one certainty is that there’s always going to be a market for music. People still want to create, and there’s obviously all of us here tonight as music fans. It’s just going to be a matter of how it’s disseminated, and how it’s received. I think it’s exciting, really, that all these new models are out there, and bands are discovering that they don’t need to spend so much money to make great music. I still interview a lot of bands, though, and more often than not, they’re not spending five months in a studio, they’re doing the bulk of it at home. Costs are going down, and there’s going to be a lot of changes down the track, but I think it’s a really exciting time. Music’s going to flourish, despite what the nay-sayers say.
Rick Chazan – Manager, The Boat People:
The future of music.. I don’t know, of course. But as a manager trying to help artists to flourish and survive in their careers, it’s quite true that the recording income from CD and digital sales are one or two income streams, but there’s maybe 15 or 20 income streams that flow from the recording. So how you look at it commercially is an interesting question. There is no need to despair in that sense: it’s always been tough, it’s still tough and it will be tough to make a sustainable career as an artist, but the fact that there’s a decrease in recording income shouldn’t be such a big problem.
One of the opportunities which is here now is, because of the internet, and MySpace, and Facebook et cetera, is the ability to create communities around your band. And this suits some bands better than others, but I think it’s worth thinking about. A great example is a Brisbane band called The Red Paintings, who I’m sure you all know. One of the strong things about the band, outside of the music, is that Trash, the band leader, has a very defined, strong philosophy of what the entire act is about. And I think that’s very interesting. He understands it so well that when he talks to you, you’ll get it when speaking with him for two minutes. I spoke to him briefly on a telephone call and he explained to me that, with his live shows, the philosophy is that it’s about being able to express yourself creatively and freely, without hurting anybody. So that’s the essence behind his whole live show. When you go to a Red Paintings show, you’re allowed to paint, and have a lot of fun, and do things that you’re not allowed to do normally, but you can do it at a Red Paintings show.
Now, with that, he’s actually developed a community of people that subscribe to more than just the music. They subscribe to this philosophy that he’s espousing. I don’t know if you know this, but for his last record, he put out to his fans that if they put in $40, they’d get their name on the CD. So a thousand people theoretically put in $40, and he raised $40,000 to fund his own CD independently through that. [Andrew's note: individuum's Academy Of Dreamssponsored $25,000 of the $40,000 total]. I think that’s just something to think about: you [the musician] have the ability to create a community.
The other thing that’s interesting is that the notion of status in our society is changing a lot. Status symbols used to be – I read this is a Sunday Mail article, so I don’t know how great of a reference it is – it used to be that if you had a gold Rolex watch, or a great house, that was a status that people would care about, that you’d show off to your friends. Now I think what’s happening is that status is more about the experiences that you have, and the ones that you can talk about. So if you went on a spaceship to the moon to have a party with U2, that would be something that would impress your friends, if you see what I mean.
I think that what’s happening with festivals, why they’re succeeding so much, is that it’s not just about the music, it’s because you’ve got to tell your mates that you went to Big Day Out, or you went to Splendour [In The Grass]. It’s like a badge of honour. I think the other thing to keep thinking about is how you can create something that gives people that sense of good feeling that they experience.
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA!:
Please don’t tell me that you think the future is frickin’ Twitter. Paul, where do you see the future of music going?
Paul Paoliello – CEO, Mercury Mobility [pictured right]:
Obviously, the barrier to entry to the music industry these days is a lot lower due to technology. Anybody can get into the business, but the bottom line is still around creativity. You cut through in this industry via your creativity. If you have something special musically, it’s going to cut through, but also in terms of reaching your fans; these days, it is about getting creative around building those communities, as the other guys have been saying. So the approach to this business, or career that you take, or this art form that you’ve embraced around music – it is more of a business, and you have to embrace it. Because it is so complex.
The exciting thing is that you can take a more ‘do it yourself’ approach with music. There are many tools out there that enable you to create music, and to connect with a fanbase. And to monetise your music, whether it is, as Rick said, coming up with an interesting concept to get your fans to help you fund an album, build an album, sell a download, build a mobile community, or whether you want to get your music on iTunes. There is no barrier to entry to getting a sales channel for your music, these days, but it really does come down to being a lot more savvy around the music industry, and how to build a career around it. And as you go, to build up as much leverage as you can around your intellectual property – your music and all the things associated around it – and obviously, the multiple revenue streams that you are driving from your music. Whether it’s your recordings, or your t-shirts, your whatever; the more leverage you have, I guess that becomes the enabler for your future relationships with the broader industry. And that’s when the major record companies come along, and they start knocking on your door, and you’re in a stronger position to decide whether you want to work with them or not.
These days, they [major labels] are really the bank that you need to make a big hit bigger, or a big business bigger. As the guys were saying, the major record companies are trying to keep themselves afloat, so they are trying to grab hold of what everybody’s calling the 360 elements of the industry. But they don’t necessarily have the skill set, or they, like everybody else, try to get fewer people to do more work, with less skills. So it becomes a lot tougher. But if you are driving those revenue streams, and if you are in a lead position, then you are in a much stronger position to determine whether that relationship works for you, on a 360 basis. Or whether it is only 270, or 90, or 10 [degrees].
And I guess, having left the music industry in its tradition form and gone into mobile, my feeling was that getting into digital, I needed to build my skill set around this ‘brave new world’ that digital and mobile is becoming. In the last couple of years, as Lars was saying, it really is the tip of the iceberg. As Lars was saying, it hasn’t matured in any way, shape or form. Digital is very much driven by iTunes. Mobile is very much driven by the iPhone. And with the new application landscape, it is driving what mobile is essentially going to become. And that’s the exciting part. That access to music on-the-go, and having a device that is going to be all things to you.
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA!:
Okay, I’ve got to tell you that the future of music will have a lot to do with mobile handset manufacturers. I’d like to share my vision on the future of music with you, from an old fart who’s been around in the industry for 38 years. 38 years ago, when I got out of the drug trade – I mean when I got out of the fine stone trade – I was living in a small place in Atlanta, Georgia, on 14th Street, which was about one block away from Piedmont Park. One Sunday, when I woke up at about one o’clock in the afternoon, I heard this great music. I heard a guitar playing like I’d never heard, and two drummers. I walked down to the park, and there they were, in the gazebo: The Allman Brothers Band.
They were playing every Sunday, live, free, and they were building a music community, at that time. That was almost forty years ago, and they’d been going for two years prior to that. When I was in the States last at SXSW, they did a run of the Beacon Theater in New York. They do it every year, maybe ten shows, over a two week period. And they sell out instantly, because they’ve maintained that community over many years. People believe in them, people who know their brand, wear their t-shirt, buy every single live album they ever do; they buy anything. There’s even a magazine devoted to them, called Hittin’ The Note.
The future of music is this. I’ve experienced it and I love it. I buy music, I don’t download stuff for free. I don’t want worms, and all that other stuff [Andrew's note: he is referring to viruses]. I want either FLAC lossless, or I want 256k downloads. And I’m not going to be getting that from all of my iTunes purchases. I don’t purchase here. I don’t mind saying it: I don’t buy Australian music. Most Australian music is for you people, the younger people. The last Australian band I bought was The Greencards. I have four of their albums. Most of you wouldn’t think of them as Australian music, you’d call it ‘bluegrass’.
Truth of the matter is, I buy about $5,000 of music each year, and it’s not just iTunes. I would love for you to go home tonight and go to a place called Munck Music [munckmusic.com]. It’s based in the US, and created by a producer and an engineer who believe that if they recorded bands and offered their live music for sale to their fanbase, they could make a lot of money. Especially if like, Little Feat, they have a hundred concerts out there. Bruce Hornsby has about 50; the entire New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has a couple of a hundred shows by artists up there. The Grateful Dead, and others [do too], including The Allman Brothers Band.
I’ve purchased probably 20 Allman Brothers concerts, 20 Little Feat concerts, 10 Bruce Hornsby concerts, and you can get them one of three ways. CD: $14 (USD) for a concert, usually three hours’ worth. Secondly: as a 256k download. You can sample the music, you can view the setlist, so you can see and hear what you’re going to get. You can also get it as in the FLAC lossless file format, which means that it’s not ’2 per cent milk’, like MP3s are; it’s more like ‘full-cream milk’. It takes a long time to load, and you better have a big account for it, and a large storage device. However, these bands have made a fortune from selling their own music to their own fanbase. And they also go on cruise ships, and take their fans around to Jamaica, or up and down the Mexican coast, or through the Caribbean, doing nothing but cruise ship shows, full of fans.
The other place you’ve got to go is called Moogis [moogis.com]. It was started by The Allman Brothers’ drummer, Butch Trucks, who had an idea that when technology and downloads could meet the need for video and audio to be compressed reasonably, and give high quality, then that would be the time for a band to be able to sell a subscription to their six months of concerts, for users to pay $100 to see that show as much as they want. With backstage footage, various camera angles, and the full concert, in high definition, and with high quality audio. So Butch and the band started selling that, and I don’t know how much they’ve sold, but it’s worked for them. They’ve done extremely well.
But to me, and you, the future of music is being able to create a brand with your band. Create an audience, and keep them as a community. Don’t ever lose that community you have ‘back home’, just because you want to go overseas and make it rich. The day you lose that is when you lose your career. [The future is] Selling your music directly to your community in any form you can, and especially if you’ve got a great song, selling it to them in ten different ways. Extended ways, mixed ways, whatever.
The future of music is going to be about you knowing the business of music, too. Because without the business and the understanding of copyright, commerce, and a lot of other issues, you’re not going to be able to succeed. So I suggest that you line my pockets by coming to my conference, in August, because my future of music is dependent on you, too.
The future of music of music for you [the audience] is this: get a job. Work with people who inspire you, and pay you fairly. And can give you the opportunity to do things. Don’t necessarily work for free, but ask lots of questions, take lots of notes. Watch, observe, and above all, be honest.
What we want to do now, because you’ve been such a great audience, we want to answer any question you’ve got about the music business, or anything else you’ve got.
Paul Paoliello – CEO, Mercury Mobility:
Phil, just one thing. Google ‘Trent Reznor‘, because there was a case study that was done earlier this year at Midem, the music conference at Cannes that they have each year. They studied Reznor, who basically decided to revive his career, and looked at the whole digital model, and did a combination of offering his albums for free, offering limited editions, box sets, digital versions, hiding USB sticks at concerts, special versions hidden in storage drains as a treasure hunt based off his website. It’s a really interesting case study who is interested in trying to enable their fans, and keep their fanbase loyal, and building around that model.
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA!:
Music should always be about discovery. Questions, please.
[Audience Q&A section commences. It comprises four questions and is fifteen minutes in duration.]
Question 1: Just on Trent Reznor – if you look up a Digg interview with him, he talks about his entire business model, and it’s fascinating. My question is regards to copyright law: what do you think the future is going to be? How are copyright owners going to enforce their copyright? Will it go more toward the Creative Commons?
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA!:
They can take my copyright pen out of my dead hand, clutching it to the very bitter end. I’m gonna fight for copyright. Look, I have intellectual property. It’s boring, but it’s very lucrative, and my intellectual property has nothing to do with songs. I think copyright will continue to evolve, but unfortunately it will evolve very slowly, and far behind the ability for people to steal. Just like they haven’t figured out a way to stop people shoplifting yet, have they. Paul?
Paul Paoliello – CEO, Mercury Mobility:
Yeah, I was just going to say the same thing. The minute you open that door, the floodgates open, so they’ll never be able to move with the times. Country by country, it’s going to be different. That’s where a lot of the ISPs are getting frustrated, the Yahoos and Googles of the world, because they’re saying “well, cross-border, we’re trying to do this as a global thing, to try and clear copyright across borders, but we just can’t do it”. It’s still remaining territorial. Some territories are going to be more open to change than others. Here in Australia, they’ve been trying to change the law the for a while, and the cogs are still turning.
Lars Brandle – Australasian Editor, Billboard Magazine:
I’ll jump in here. I think that Creative Commons is a wonderful opt-in solution for people who want to allow anyone to use copyright. When the music industry initially shut down Napster, we saw Lars Ulrich speaking on the movie earlier. He made himself an enemy to a lot of people worldwide who wanted to use Napster to disseminate their music. So that a kid in Atlanta could be heard by someone in Peru. There are now platforms which allow you to do that, but I think that Creative Commons underwrites that, and enables people to create that copyright.
But coming right back, absolutely, I don’t think copyright rules will change any quicker than snail’s pace, but anyone who has a vision and wants to create, should have the right to patent it and receive royalties, at least while they’re walking on this planet.
Question 2: Do any of you have any concept – because I know it’s variable – just roughly what artists are getting percentage-wise for music downloads? Is there some ballpark figure to get ideas?
Rick Chazan – Manager, The Boat People:
If you sell music on iTunes, they’ll take their cut, which is 30%. And then the distributor will take their cut – typically between 20-25%. And then the artist gets the rest, so in the case of an iTunes sale, the artist will receive 70 or 80 cents per song. Which is actually quite good, because there’s nothing physical that’s being created, and you’re getting this invisible sale. The latest statistics show that only 5% of music online is bought, and the other 95% is ‘taken’.
Lars Brandle – Australasian Editor, Billboard Magazine:
We also have to look around at other ways of generating alternative revenue streams. There’s a fascinating case going on at the moment with YouTube, the user-generated content platform, and some of the major record labels who’ve nixed any of their content that’s available on YouTube. Warner Music‘s one of them. So we’re looking at transactions on iTunes as one way to make money, but in the years ahead, if your music is being used on these user-generated content platforms, you ought to – in theory – earn a cut of advertising revenue on that platform. This space is changing; there is money to be collected out there, but it gets very confusing, and very complex.
Paul Paoliello – CEO, Mercury Mobility:
Just on that, Gavin from Sony BMG often quotes a Justin Timberlake cases. When they brought out his last album, they found about 120 revenue streams for that album, at last count. So from a ringtone to a full track download, to a YouTube revenue stream, to an online radio stream, to a CD sale, and so forth, there was 120 different revenue streams, for that one release. And that was a couple of years ago, so these days, it’s probably even greater.
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA!:
The other side of the equation is – to answer your question more directly – it depends on how smart or stupid you’re going to be in assigning your music to someone to sell it. We use the term ‘aggregator’; these are people who take your music and place it on a variety of different sale sites. Some of them take a very small amount, such as Tunecore, who charge a flat fee to put the music up; they don’t take a percentage. Whereas others charge large fees and take large percentages, and don’t necessarily always report to you. There’s CDBaby, for example, which has been around for a while, and IODA, and Amphead.. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the Australian alternative. The Orchard.. I’m ambivalent [toward them]. But the thing is, there’s a lot of people waiting to rip you off, just like there was with the compilation scams of many years ago. “Get yourself on a CD that we send around to all the A&R people, for a fee.” Be very aware that if people are trying to charge you a fee to put your music up on iTunes or wherever, you should very carefully check into them. Fortunately, it’s a lot easier these days to find out.
Question 3: Something the film didn’t really didn’t cover is the role of the ISPs. I know from conversations that I’ve had with people from APRA, and that sort of thing, that they are trying to negotiate with ISPs to come up with a solution to this. What are your thoughts on the role of the ISPs in Australia?
Lars Brandle – Australasian Editor, Billboard Magazine:
We understanding of the argument is that ISPs are the ones who are getting the benefit of all the music being there – people going there [online], and getting free music – and of course the ISPs are getting their subscription. And the value of that subscription is incredibly valuable, given that you can get a whole lot of free music by going online. One solution that’s being offered up is that the ISPs are forced, in some ways, through some legislative creation, to track all of the downloads, including the free ones, and somehow compensate the artists. Similarly to the way APRA does, through the form of either radio or live [performance royalty fees]. This is just one of the possible solutions that are there; whether it will go down that way, is questionable.
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA!:
APRA is a great organisation that has done an incredible amount for the music industry, from bringing court cases and seeking judgements from tribunals, and increasing the amount of money that is paid to the composers, the songwriters, and their publishers. It’s a shame that the PPCA [Phonographic Performance Company of Australia] and ARIA [Australian Recording Industry Association] haven’t had the vision, the forethought, or the ability to do much more than ‘sweet FA’. As a result, fortunately, composers, songwriters and their publishers get paid. Artists often do not. And one of the interesting points that’s raised about this is that with all that money that was awarded to the record industry on the Kazaacase, the $54 million: artists didn’t see that money, and they won’t ever. One more question.
Question 4: Okay, just before when you were talking about the royalties, about how artists generally get nothing, and where they’re making their money is through live performance.. why should we really care that we’re downloading their music for free, and giving it to other people? I would not know half of the artists that I know through free downloads, if it wasn’t available to me for free, because I wouldn’t be able to afford to go out to the stores and buy it.
So in essence, when I’m giving all my free downloads to my friends, and the ‘word of mouth’ thing is working, and we’re all going out to the live performance when they come to town, and there’s more requests for them to play because we’ve had that whole word of mouth.. why should we really care if we’re really giving our money back to our artists anyway? Aren’t we kind of bypassing giving our money to the corporations and the record labels, by not buying their CDs?
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA!:
I heard it best said that “you may consider yourself to be an auto-enthusiast, because you like fast cars. But when you decide to steal that car, you are a thief.” And it’s not necessarily going to enrich General Motors, Porsche, or whatever, that you decided to steal that car. Now, what you just said made a lot of sense. A lot of people who download music do buy it. They do discover it that way. However, I really don’t believe that people like you are gonna be that generous when it comes to actually paying for things.
Now, the same people who download music [for free] are the same people who try to get into clubs for free – get on the ‘free list’ – and stand outside the fence at Splendour In The Grass. The same sort of people who want to wear a phony t-shirt of a band, because it costs a lot less than the real thing. I do take your point that you are trying to discover music, and hopefully it [Andrew's note: money, presumably] will reach the band. But I’ve been in this business a long time. I don’t see anybody out there who does ‘sonic shoplifting’ that really thinks altruistically about ‘the brothers’ in the bands.
Rick Chazan – Manager, The Boat People:
I agree, and I’ll add to that. What you’re saying is that it’s actually not bad for the bands, because by allowing it to be free, you’re actually discovering the bands and therefore, you can love them and maybe go and see a live show, et cetera. And so you’re saying therefore, it’s okay. But it’s got to be the artist’s choice that it happens that way. You’re still taking something which they’ve created and paid for, and put time and work into, like anybody doing anything. And for example, you might discover that music on MySpace, which the artist chooses to allow to be free; [to be] streamed, not to be stolen of off. You can learn about the artist through five or six songs; I know in The Boat People’s case, we’ve got five or six songs up there from the last two albums, so there’s a bit of a mix to get to know the band. You could listen to it all day long, and get to know the band, and want to go and see them live. And if you loved them enough, you’d actually have to have that CD.
As an independent band, we’re losing that opportunity, and I don’t see it [inaudible]. I’d hate to come across as a moralist, but I have a problem that what’s being lost in the whole conversation is that it’s now being said that, because it’s easy to do, and everybody’s doing it, it’s ‘okay’. So it’s like, nobody’s saying to a young person, “look, this person actually toiled, they put their work into it, their effort into it, therefore they actually have value in it, and therefore to enjoy that, you need to actually trade for it”.
Now it’s being said that because it’s so easy and because it’s so bloody hard to do anything about it, it’s ‘okay’. So, to me it’s not all about criminalisation, because I think that’s a waste of time, to sue some individual teenager for downloading a song. But it’s more about conscience. It’s more about, you know, when they asked the people in the movie, “who downloads music for free?” and all of their hands went up, and then they asked, “who thinks they stole the music?”, or did something wrong, and it was only one out of a hundred.
See, I know about this a lot better than anyone, because when I was a teenager I used to record tapes. I used to do that, because I really wanted the music [from the radio], and I didn’t have enough money to get it. But I knew that it was wrong, and I did feel a little bit like my conscience was saying “this is not quite right”. I feel that we’re eventually going to the lose the consciousness of taking something from another person, and that’s the part that disturbs me.
Phil Tripp – Managing Partner, IMMEDIA!:
Great, that was perfect. I have one other thing to say. It’s kind of like: if you think you can get somebody drunk enough at a bar that they’ll screw you because they have no more control over themselves, that’s about the same way that I equate the moral ability to download music. Because you think you’re going to give somebody else a good time. That was a good one, wasn’t it? (laughs)
Streaming concert video hub Moshcam is a super awesome resource for viewing professionally-recorded footage of bands that tour Sydney, Australia. They’ve been an intriguing player on the web music scene since 2007, yet I hadn’t seen their story told anywhere else. I was stoked when co-founder Paul Hannigan agreed to my snooping questions in early April 2009. Here ’tis: the most complete Moshcam interview, ever. Take that, internet!
Hey Paul! I’ve researched you and your company as well as the internet allowed me. Can you describe how the idea behind Moshcam began, and how you decided to undertake the project with your two fellow founders?
I’d returned from Los Angeles where I’d been working with a couple of successful start-ups (Citysearch, and GoTo.com, which subsequently became Overture/Yahoo Search Marketing) and had been helping manage and promote a few bands over there. Living back in Sydney at the time, around 2006, I wanted to do “something with music online”, which was about as specific as my thinking was at that point.
As a fan, I found myself at shows at venues like The Metro and Enmore 3-4 times a week. As it happened, John Reddin, who was a friend and Head of Production at XYZ’s Lifestyle Channel, had worked on a number of television productions with Elia Eliades’ (the owner of Century Venues) production company. Elia had spoken to John about his desire to explore new territory with his venues online and John said “I know this fellow you should talk to”, and arranged an introduction. Through that meeting, the idea of Moshcam was born.
Did you have any experience within the music industry, or were those connections gained through John and Elia?
I’d been a drummer and a music journalist in Europe, and had some band management and production experience there and in the States. But I hadn’t been part of the industry itself in Australia, other than in a reporting capacity as Editor-in-Chief of what was initially Fairfax‘s Citysearch.
Of course, as a tragic consumer, I’d just spent 3 months digitising some 6,000 albums in my collection, so if nothing else, it felt like I was propping up the industry! And suddenly, here was an opportunity to bring a love of music together with a background in content production and technology development?
Moshcam doesn’t seem like the kind of business that’s built overnight. How long did it take to put concept into practice? I understand that you consulted with Melbourne web developers Hyro to build a custom CMS with sharing/playlist functionalities; had they undertaken any similar projects, or was this an all-new interface?
The CMS was more of an iterative process in that we were really pushing into new territory around video serving and how to manage those assets.
The Hyro project profile states that you required banner advertising intergration for revenue purposes, yet at the time of writing, I can’t see any ads on the site. When do you plan to include these, and is this the only revenue avenue down which Moshcam is treading?
As a start-up that needed to build significant traffic from scratch, we always wanted to get the product right for music fans in terms of usability, first and foremost, before we thought about how to include things like sponsorship and advertising. Moshcam was always going to be a free offering, so naturally a free-to-air advertising model was going to be a part, but by no means all, of our model at some stage.
However, I think it’s fair to say we are at an interesting juncture in the online world when it comes to music specifically, and there are a host of revenue models which may or may not play out in the months and years ahead.
Moshcam’s stated aim is to make quality live recordings available to be streamed over the web for free. I can’t imagine that every artist you approach is accepting of this goal; what is Moshcam’s strike rate, and have you found that artists have become more welcoming of the idea since Moshcam started in 2007?
Almost every artist we speak to directly loves the idea and only cares about getting their work out there.
With record companies and managers, however, who are often the gatekeepers of approval for us, there’s still a great divide between those that embrace their artists’ music online and those who are more resistant.
It’s easy to understand their concerns since they’ve seen revenues consistently eroded through free downloading but with something like Moshcam, increasingly they see it as a valuable showcase for the artist, both in terms of their existing and potential fanbase, as well as being able to show promoters who may not be familiar with their work just how well they can deliver live.
If I had to give you a number, I’d say we’ve moved the strike rate from something like 10% to 40%, which given the number of bands that comes through Sydney is a significant figure. We just filmed our 500th show, which was Gary Numan at The Enmore Theatre.
Moshcam is only licensed to broadcast each recording over the internet, so the shows currently aren’t available for download. In the coming years, do you think that labels will begin to request the ability to download recordings on behalf of the artists, perhaps at a per-song or per-show cost? This makes a lot of sense to me: stream the show for free, and include the option to buy a high-quality recording – via file download or on a physical DVD – for around the cost of an album.
Absolutely. This is something we are working with the labels to put into effect. As record labels look for new revenue streams, this is one that previously did not exist. The revenue from a gig ends the minute the merch stand shuts up shop. What better way to extend the life cycle of that show than through making it available for fans to buy?
As the aggregator of all this great footage, we are perfectly placed to offer just such a service. As you can imagine, there are a number of issues that need to be resolved in terms of licensing and technology, but we are very hopeful that this will be finalised soon.
Do you present each artist with the same contract? Do some artists try to negotiate so that Moshcam’s recordings can be downloaded?
We have a standard contract that varies only in the length of broadcast terms, from two years to ‘in perpetuity’.
The download issue is not one that really comes up in the negotiations, other than the aforementioned assurances that we don’t offer it for free.
Until we are able to put in place a site-wide download service, we link through to any band who makes their gig available for download or purchase elsewhere.. of which there are very few.
Moshcam is now working in partnership with several Sydney venues. Are you planning to transfer the concept to other cities and venues across the country?
Other than being able to drill down to a very local level, there are no real economies of scale for us setting up in other Australian cities, since almost every band from another city we’d like to film tours and plays Sydney at some point.
Internationally, I’d love to work with venues in Tokyo, London or Dublin, and New York or LA and cover the four corners of the rock and roll globe! Once we prove the model, I hope there will be opportunities to do just that.
There was some controversy in Brisbane last year when Birds Of Tokyo‘s management kicked up a fuss over bootleg footage of new material that was recorded at The Zoo – coverage here and here. As a music fan, not a business owner, how do you feel about fans recording gig footage and uploading it to video streaming sites? I know that the quality can range from cameraphone-poor to semi-professional setups, yet I feel that there’s an inherent innocence in making an effort to record musicians’ work to share with other fans.
It’s a dilemma isn’t it? As a music fan I want to see and hear anything and everything by the bands I love, but I respect the right of an artist to control their own output, particularly when it comes to quality – which, let’s face it, is the defining point of difference between Moshcam and 30 seconds of mobile phone footage on YouTube.
Obviously the internet has moved the practice of taping shows into a whole new digital distribution environment. But personally, I can’t see how this does anything but increase artist exposure, and ultimately, sales. I do think there is often a lot of disingenuous talk about downloads not affecting sales, depending on who’s making what point, but when it comes to live fan recordings I really do think that is the case.
How do you prefer to listen to music? How has this changed since you bought your first album?
I have a ridiculous amount of music stored digitally, both burned from my vinyl and CD collection and bought from iTunes.
I was a bit of a vinyl junkie originally and took a while to make to change to CDs since it seemed a real degradation of the album for the sake of convenience. Tiny artwork, illegible lyrics, reduced dynamics, etc. I think that’s why I embraced the digital format so quickly, as I’d already done my grieving for the original artifact. Now, there’s just the music, and nothing else to get obsessive about.
How do I listen to music differently now than back in the day? I’m a compulsive curator, so it’s almost always a playlist as opposed to an album.
More people are listening to more music than ever before, yet the major labels are resistant to changes in consumer habits due to an effort to retain pre-internet revenue models. Agree or disagree?
Well it’s a prima facie argument, isn’t it? There’s a lot of nonsense spoken on both sides about the effects of digital downloads on the industry. Most kids I know have never paid for music in their lives. That’s just the world they grew up in, it’s not a new digital frontier for them, nor is it a moral issue. They have larger music libraries at 16 than I had after years of buying music as a fan.
But the point is, they would never have bought that music anyway. So it’s simplistic and misleading for the labels to say that this is somehow lost revenue.
What’s more, these kids are incredibly indiscriminate about what they download, which exposes them to artists they would never have heard if they were buying one album a month with their pocket money. This gets them out to live shows; gets them buying merch, and gets them involved in online fan communities, often interacting with the artists themselves. All of which creates lifelong fans who will buy music in some form or other when a pricing model becomes both standardised and sensible.
Likewise, a lot of people who buy music continue to do so, while downloading a lot of free stuff they wouldn’t normally buy to check it out – again, no lost revenue and wider artist exposure boosting live music attendance. Can it really be coincidence that we’ve seen an explosion in live music attendance since since the advent of peer-to-peer download networks?
And then there is the percentage of people who are downloading for free the music that they would have historically paid for. That’s something you can’t refute. Human nature being what it is, and music costing what it does, means that a lot of people are saving themselves money at the expense of the label and the artist. And that’s a problem, especially for the artist. If a musician can’t make a living from their output, how can they survive to make more music?
That’s why the tour has become an income staple. It’s like a return to the strolling minstrel – bands as bards, singing for their supper!
Let’s hope we see some innovation from the labels around pricing to get fans paying for music at a price that’s realistic, in the new digital economy. Whether that’s a tiered licensing model – which would save fans like me who still buy their music a small fortune – remains to be seen, but if you look at media sectors where this has been operational, such as subscription TV, you can see how it could be work for the online music industry.
None of this is being held back by mechanics or technology. It’s all about pricing. However, I think there will always be a demand for a fan to buy an album or a song directly to own it, either as a digital file, or as something you can hold and look at.
What excites you about the music and web industries?
The immediacy. It’s like the fourth wall has been demolished. Although with that comes a loss of some of the mystique for fans and means there will probably never be any more rock gods, I think it’s really healthy.
The internet is basically punk technology for music distribution. Now not only can anyone pick up a guitar, form a band and record some songs, they can get it out there on a scale that has never been possible before.
And in the area of live music, I’m obviously thrilled that we can now capture a gig and share it with fans without having to get into the business of DVD production and distribution. As a fan, this is all part of what I love about being able to experience music outside of the established release schedule of a band’s label.
Before the web, all you heard from a band was what the label released. Perhaps an album every couple of years; maybe a live album or a DVD. Now there are all these great auxiliary moments where you get to see and hear an artist outside the studio, being captured and shared in all sorts of environments.
Moshcam was nominated for a Webby Award last month in the ‘Best Music Site’ category, although you were beaten in the end by NPR. Congrats! Was this a goal of yours, or a total surprise?
Thanks! It was great to be acknowledged by our peers as doing something worthwhile.
To be honest it was a total surprise. Obviously, we’d entered but we haven’t been doing this for too long and we figured we were probably still off the radar of the Stateside luminaries who decide these things.
What are your plans to navigate the ‘interesting juncture’ in online advertising models, and what can we expect from Moshcam throughout 2009?
One thing to understand is that we didn’t start this as a marketing model upon which to hang a product. It was a genuine project by three fans to build something compelling for other fans. That said, it’s far from inexpensive to maintain and obviously we have to find a way to pay for it.
How will we do that? Well, one thing Moshcam enjoys is a startling level of engagement with it’s users. Fans are watching for an average of 31 minutes per show, which is almost 10 times the average for a website visit. And when you realise that video advertising is the fastest growing sector, it’s not hard to see a model there that could work well for us as the market matures.
As discussed, we’re also very keen to work with bands and labels to facilitate a download service, should they wish to sell their shows. We’re also working on some neat licensing and distribution partnerships, and we have a 13-part TV show featuring signed and unsigned Australian bands running on cable at the moment called “Moshcam: Live and Kicking”. We’re not in the business of re-inventing the internet’s business models; we just want to be in a position to offer a valuable service to bands, valuable content to fans and be able to work with whichever models shake out as viable for us.
As for the rest of 2009, you can expect hundreds more great gigs filmed, as well as a lot of new types of content, from backstage interviews to artist-curated playlists. You’ll also see Moshcam on the road around Australia capturing the best local bands in each capital city, and a couple of other cool initiatives we’re developing that will focus on getting some unsigned bands we love much wider exposure!
As you can see, Moshcam is kind of a big deal. Unless I’m mistaken, their streaming concert concept is sailing uncharted waters on the national level, so to speak, and they’re probably a trend-setter on the international front, too. Remember, you read it here first! All 2,900 words! Congrats. To reward yourself, head to Moshcam and watch a show. They’ve got over 500 available, so if you can’t find one that you like, you’re not a music fan. Get the hell off my blog!
Operating outside of the rush of the day to day, but integrated within SMG, the team focuses on using the human condition as a compass for delivering ‘best-in-class’ communications. Its key obsession is understanding where brands live, and seek to live, within the web-like relationships that exist with consumers and their environment.
Fuck off. What’s the point?
Both the writer – probably an eager-to-please junior or intern – and the wider company knew that they were lying, or at least, stretching words far beyond their practical, meaningful application.
Already, the press release – which was likely the result of several hours’ work and several minds’ input – is being lampooned within the advertising community for its doublespeak, and for blurring the edges between reality and marketing.
It happens everywhere. That’s the whole premise behind public relations – a constant, concerted attempt to shape our opinions and perceptions.
An entire industry founded on unnecessary distortion. Unnecessary to me, because I value honesty more than cleverly-written releases that mean approximately zero in the grand strategy.
So, what’s the point?
Who’s impressed by superfluous press releases, anymore?
I’m all for receiving information from sources I care about – companies, individuals, brands, bands – but if overblown press releases are just a waste of everyone’s time, then why the fuck does the industry survive?
Note: This one is on behalf of FourThousand.com.au as part of their sponsorship of the Semi-Permanent creative conference, which is being held in Brisbane on 8 April 2009. The original article can be viewed on the FourThousand site here.
The interview subject shifted from Executive Producer Hamish MacDonald to Tim Kentley shortly after my initial contact, which rendered most of my initial questions useless. Cue additional research, a hasty rewrite and resubmission. Tim got back to me soon after, which was awesome. Junior‘s 2008 interview with Tim is a great source of inspiration, so I was thrilled to build upon that initial conversation.
Tim Kentley founded Melbourne’s XYZ Studios in 2003, and they’ve since gone on to produce consistently high-quality, innovative animated commercials that you’ve mostly likely seen on television – for clients like McDonalds, theWorld Wide Fund For Nature, Dodge, Havaianas and Honda – and wondered aloud: “how did they do that?” As director at an oft-awarded, highly respected animation agency, Tim’s expertise and advice is highly anticipated at April’s Semi-Permanent creative conference. Tim kindly answered FourThousand’s call in the midst of several campaign deadlines: what a guy!
Tim, I’m a big fan of Junior and I love the interview they did with you last year. You suggested that there’s no such thing as a shit job, and that any young creative looking for a career has to make the most of every opportunity. I’m supposing that you still hold the same ethos; has this notion of grasping every chance only became more important, as companies tighten the pursestrings of their advertising and marketing endeavours in the face of the current economy?
I absolutely do believe that. It’s true of life in general. Like Dick Pratt taking the cardboard nobody wanted and turning it into billions. But to qualify, you will need to pick your fights – not every job is going to destroy the status quo. If its bread and butter, get out the bread knife and lard it up. But every once in a while, the stars will align and it’s time to re-invent the wheel.
Your studio’s credo is that if the idea is original, then the depiction of that idea should be original too. I admire your desire for innovation, but realistically, how does your team avoid cliches and material that’s been done before? What’s the procedure for dealing with creative briefs?
The procedure for dealing with creative briefs is to have creative bones. Then you will put yourself into the work – and nobody else’s. For truly creative people this is hard wired. I really spend little time looking at what other people are doing in the industry and more time looking at my brief, and the ideas simply start springing from it. I’m a director as well as a writer, animator, compositor, designer; wearing heaps of hats really helps, as you’re aware of what’s possible, what hasn’t being done. All XYZ animation directors have this skill. I think it’s key in animation, so you can really push stuff along without having to say to another brain – “can we do this?”.
Do you find it’s difficult or painful to compact hundreds of hours’ worth of storyboarding and character modelling into a thirty-second ad spot? As the studio’s director, do you ever feel a sense of frustration that the target audience might ignore the art that you and your team produce?
Yes to all. You know the industry well mate!
XYZ is in its sixth year of operation now, and the studio continues to win a swag of awards each year. What have you got in store for the rest of 2009?
Well, touch wood, I am glad to say the studio is pumping. I am directing a work for Grey in Amsterdam at the moment, using a photocopier tray as the animation tool which I am really excited about. This years ‘swag’ as you put it, is en route, with Stephen Watkins’ WWF job winning a Cube at the Art Directors’ Club in New York last week, and we are again a finalist for Australian Creative Hotshop of the Year and the First Boards Awards for Best Motion Design. Speaking at Semi-Permanent will be a blast, but here is the hot news off the press – the studio has just bought its own pad in South Melbourne. It’s an awesome space and we can’t wait to get in there, we’re setting sail on July 1! Oh yeah – a state of the art facility with no more body corporate, rent or landlords!
Here in Brisbane, the last couple of months has seen more people either freelancing or starting their own business, at least in the circles I frequent. Conventional wisdom suggests that it’s best to start on the bottom floor – in a down market – to keep costs down. Do you have any advice for these startup businesses based on the hard slog you experienced when kicking off XYZ?
Well it’s a hard time for businesses, and I do think it’s a harder time to start a business, because clients don’t want to take risks with unproven vendors, as every job is now critical. There is now little-to-no overflow from busy studios, so no hand-me-down jobs to give new studios a break. BUT – if it’s in your blood – do it. If your experience is anything like mine, it takes years in the trenches taking everything you’ve got, however you can get it. Just start and dig deep; with time, talent rises to the top.
You’re a speaker at the Brisbane Semi-Permanent creative conference next month. Can you drop any hints as to what to expect from your presentation?
I’ll pretty much just come out all quiet-like and take you though a few jobs. Nothing crazy!
A thorough examination of Tim’s mad animation and direction skillz on the XYZ Studios website comes with my highest recommendation. Thanks again, Tim!