All posts tagged productivity

  • Good Weekend story: ‘Trips To Remember: Psychedelic drug use and bad trips’, June 2017

    A story for Good Weekend magazine, published in the June 3 issue. Excerpt below.

    Trips To Remember

    They call themselves “psychonauts” – people who use drugs like LSD to embark on journeys of self-discovery and creativity. But how wise is it to go on a trip after life has taken a bad turn?

    Good Weekend story by Andrew McMillen: 'Trips To Remember: Psychedelic drug use and self-improvement', June 2017

    A few days before Christmas last year, two friends and I planned to take LSD together. We set a date and location: 10am Saturday morning, in a comfortable home, with a sober friend to keep a wary eye on us. The three of us are fit, healthy men in our late 20s; we are university graduates now employed in our respective fields. We have stable relationships, strong senses of self and a shared interest in occasionally ingesting substances that we know will twist our perceptions of the world in strange and fascinating ways.

    It would be a trip to remember. In my mind, I had already started rehearsing the day. The tiny cardboard squares of “blotter acid” would be removed from the freezer, carefully cut with scissors and placed beneath our tongues. The chemicals on the cardboard would be gradually metabolised by our bodies, before the pieces were chewed up and swallowed.

    For eight to 12 hours, the shared experience would further solidify our friendships. The LSD’s visual effects would make the walls and ceiling seem to bend and swoon. Colours would become intensified. It would inhibit our need to eat and drink and impair our sense of time.

    In conversation, our minds would make unexpected leaps between subjects, drawing inferences and relations that we might not have ordinarily seen. These leaps might make little sense to our sober friend, but perfect sense to us. In quieter moments, we would query the order and routine of our lives. Were there efficiencies to be made, or changes necessary?

    We would also laugh a lot – no doubt about that – and we would hear our favourite songs with ears attuned to different frequencies.

    Just a few days before the scheduled Saturday, however, I experienced a major professional disappointment. A writing project to which I had devoted more than a year of work would not be published. My self-confidence was shaken to its core, and despite unerringly good advice and support from those closest to me, I entered a period of mourning wherein I found myself questioning everything, even the wisdom of taking drugs that had been helpful before.

    To read the full story, visit Good Weekend.

  • Rolling Stone story: ‘Building A Better Brain: Wired on Nootropics’, November 2012

    A 4,000 word feature story published in the November 2012 edition of Rolling Stone Australia; my first non-music feature for the magazine. Click the below image to view a PDF version, or scroll down to read the article text.

    Building A Better Brain: Wired on Nootropics
    By Andrew McMillen / Illustration by Amanda Upton

    A new generation of “smart drugs” that promise to enhance cognitive ability are now available, but are they the key to the human race’s next evolutionary leap or merely 21st century snake oil? Rolling Stone finds out…

    Before he swallowed the designer drug NZT, Bradley Cooper was having a shitty day. Scratch that; he was having a shitty life. Cooper was an unproductive, depressed writer with few prospects and fewer friends. His long-suffering girlfriend had recently left him. His unkempt appearance implied that his deep apathy extended to his body image. Here was a man broken by the accrued stress and malaise of living a seemingly pointless, joyless existence in modern day New York City.

    Moments after taking the transparent, odourless NZT pill, though, Cooper’s world changed dramatically. His visual and auditory perceptions sharpened significantly. His brain could instantly summon previously forgotten snatches of glanced-at facts and figures. His empathy and charm were suddenly amplified to the point where he was able to bed a woman who previously loathed him. A burst of inspiration saw him cleaning his apartment for the first time in years while forgoing both food and his usual addiction to nicotine. Within a few hours, Cooper produced a hundred pages of brilliant writing, which pleased his editor like never before.

    As his interior monologue put it, “I was blind; now I see. I wasn’t high, wasn’t wired; just clear. I knew what I needed to do, and how to do it.”

    This isn’t a scene from Bradley Cooper’s actual life, of course. It’s the life of a fictional character named Eddie Morra, which Cooper portrayed in the 2011 thriller Limitless. Right now, I’m psyching myself up for a Bradley Cooper moment of my own. My version of the make-believe NZT is a little, white, very real pill named Modalert. Produced by Indian manufacturer Sun Pharmaceuticals, the drug’s generic name is modafinil and it costs around $2 per 200mg dose. In Australia, it’s only prescribed to narcoleptics and shift workers who have difficulty staying awake. I’ve acquired some through an online retailer and at 5pm on a Monday, I take the drug for the first time.

    By 10pm I’m wide awake, and aware that my resting heart-rate is higher than normal. By midnight my mind is racing around like an agitated puppy: “Hey! Here I am! Play with me!” I occupy myself with the normally tedious task of transcribing interviews; when I next look at the clock, it’s 3.30am and I’m finished. I’m washing dishes to take a break from work, when I realise that my randomly chosen soundtrack has taken on an eerie parallel to real life. In the classic Nas track ‘N.Y. State of Mind’, he raps: “I never sleep / ‘Cuz sleep is the cousin of death.”

    For as long as I can remember, my answer to that age-old ‘just one wish’ hypothetical has been ‘to never fatigue’. To never need to sleep. To be able to learn, create and achieve more than any regular human being because I’m no longer confined by the boring necessity of a good night’s sleep.

    Thanks to modafinil, I’m closer to this long-held dream than ever before. And I feel incredible. Not high, not wired; just clear. The computer in my skull is crunching ones and zeroes while the rest of the world sleeps. I yawn occasionally, but my mind feels focused, at capacity, even as 5am approaches.

    It’s a kind of cognitive dissonance I’ve never experienced before; I know I should be feeling fatigued by now, but everything’s still working well. At 8.30am – roughly fifteen hours after taking the drug, which corresponds with its stated half-life – its effects wear off, and fatigue sets in. I take a three-hour nap, then pop another modafinil upon waking. I’m back on the merry-go-round of sleeplessness, and loving it.

    Giddy at the near-endless productivity possibilities that I’ve suddenly unlocked, I confess my off-label use of Modalert to a Sun Pharma spokesperson via email in a moment of clarity (or, perhaps, over-earnest honesty). The reply arrives in my inbox a short time later, and I’m briefly quietened by its ominous tone.

    “You’ve seen Limitless?” the Indian drug rep replies. “The cost is too much. Please evaluate what you are doing, even for test purposes. Neuronal circuitry is not to be messed with.”

    ++

    Modafinil is the brightest star in a galaxy of drugs and supplements called ‘nootropics’. The word was coined by a Romanian doctor in 1972; in Greek, its definition refers to ‘turning the mind’. More commonly known as ‘smart drugs’ or ‘cognitive enhancers’, nootropics work in one of three ways: by altering the availability of the brain’s supply of neurochemicals; by improving the brain’s oxygen supply; or by stimulating nerve growth.

    Smart drugs are not a new concept. Last century, both cocaine and amphetamine were considered to have enhancement potential. As researchers at the University of Queensland wrote in a 2012 paper, “…their use for this purpose was regarded in a wholly positive light. [Cocaine and amphetamine] were seen as safe and effective ‘wonder drugs’ that increased alertness and mental capabilities, thereby allowing users to cope better with the increasing demands of modern life.” These views became unpopular once both substances were found to be addictive: cocaine became a prohibited substance, though amphetamine is still widely prescribed as a treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) under the brand name Adderall.

    The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), Australian drug regulation authority, does not yet recognise nootropics as a class of drug, as “the information available on nootropic products provides a very broad definition.” A TGA spokesperson tells Rolling Stone that they are unable to comment on the matter, as “the issue here is that the definition of nootropics goes from nutritional supplements all the way through to prescription medicines, so depending on what the product is and its claims, it might be considered as listable, a registered complementary medicine, or a registered prescription medicine.”

    So regulation is a murky topic, then. But nootropics aren’t illegal, either. Admittedly, taking modafinil off-label is not a smart thing to do. I am not a narcoleptic. I sleep just fine, if begrudgingly. I am a healthy 24 year-old male who exercises regularly and eats well. My recreational drug use is occasional. I’ve never been addicted to anything, and I intend to keep that clean sheet. I would like to be able to concentrate for long periods during the work week, though. I’d like to be able to instantly summon previously forgotten snatches of glanced-at facts. In short, I’d like to be smarter. Who wouldn’t?

    In the fictional account of Limitless and its inspiration, a 2001 techno-thriller by Irish author Alan Glynn named The Dark Fields, the universally appealing idea of self-improvement through minimal effort is explored by a guy taking a designer drug to boost his brainpower to superhuman levels. In reality, nootropic enthusiasts claim significant cognitive benefits with few, if any, side effects from taking these supposedly non-addictive, non-toxic substances.

    Sounds too good to be true? You bet. With my bullshit detector cranked up to eleven, I’m wading into this contentious field with the goal of separating science from fiction. Are smart drugs the snake oil of the 21st century? Or am I about to become a better man just by taking a bunch of coloured pills?

    ++

    After Eddie Morra tires of writing while under the influence of NZT, he turns his attention to the far more lucrative stock market. When I tire of writing on modafinil, I waste away the night-time hours by shooting terrorists in Counter-Strike: Source online, trawling internet forums, and reading about nootropics.

    With a newfound surplus of time arises an interesting dilemma: how to spend it? I chose to alternately work, read, and play games. What if every night was like that, though? What if I had all that time? How soon would I become accustomed to operating on little, or zero, sleep? What would be the side-effects of this for my health, my relationships, my career? Would I become a kinder person? Would parts of my personality become amplified, or atrophy? Obvious productivity gains – or productivity opportunity gains – aside, would less sleep make me a better person?

    All Tuesday night, I’m keyed into a writing task with laser-like focus. By sunrise, I’ve produced an article which, at the time, feels like some of my best work yet. (When it’s published online, weeks later, I read it with fresh eyes and I’m pleasantly surprised to find that I still feel the same way.) On Wednesday, I choose to take a break from the drug, but I’m still up until 4am. My sleep cycle has been totally disrupted.

    Thursday just feels like a regular day. I’m yawning more than usual, probably due to the sleep debt I’ve incurred this week. But it does feel a little… boring to be operating at this level, rather than on modafinil, where I feel like I’m connecting all of the dots all of the time. I suddenly find myself weighing up the costs and benefits of taking a pill right now. I have nothing in particular that needs to be completed for the remainder of the week, but there’s an internal argument happening: “Being awake is so much more enjoyable than sleeping. Who needs sleep, honestly?”

    I dose another 200mg, and within the hour, I again find myself making connections in music that I’d never previously noticed. The Black Rebel Motorcycle Club song ‘Stop’ aligns with my current mindset: “We don’t know where to stop / I try and I try but I can’t get enough…

    I feel like an outlaw; as though I’m in on a secret to which everyone else is oblivious. I know how to subvert sleep; that knowledge is in the shape of a small white disc containing 200mg of modafinil. I feel as though taking this drug might be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I want everyone around me to take it, too, so that we can share our experiences and revel in the euphoria of the unclouded mind.

    That night, I drive to and from a rock show. I meet friends and strangers at the venue; as I talk, I feel as though I’m not making sense, and that those around me are acutely aware of this. I feel in control, but my mind is racing faster than my mouth can keep up. I buy one beer and feel a little drunk, but I don’t come close to crashing my car on the drive home. Around 2am, I note that I’ve got an impending feeling of doom going on. Like I’m riding this too far, and it’s about to start doing some serious damage. I turn in at 3.30am on Friday.

    My first nootropic odyssey whimpers to a close, after beginning with a giddy bang at 10am on Monday morning. I’ve taken three 200mg doses of modafinil during that time – 5pm Monday, 1pm Tuesday, 2.30pm Thursday – and napped for around 11 hours total. In all, I’ve been awake for 79 out of the last 90 hours.

    I arise at midday, refreshed, having effectively reset my debt with one normal sleep. I reflect on how my views toward modafinil have veered between utter devotion to, now, in the cold light of day, a realisation that it’s probably not a good idea to be taking that shit on consecutive days. I was feeling so fucking average the night before. I couldn’t bear the thought of continuing to stay awake. The body and the mind aren’t made for it.

    ++

    Next, I purchase some homemade nootropics from a vendor named Tryptamine on Silk Road (SR), an anonymous online market where illicit drugs are purchased with virtual currency and sent through the international postal system. Tryptamine’s vendor profile states, “I am a biologist who develops nutritional supplements to improve your health, sleep, and cognition. I use only natural or orthomolecular ingredients, and no adverse effects have been reported from my products.”

    Tryptamine makes and sells three nootropics. I order two 24-pill bottles of MindFood (“designed to optimize brain function, protect against stress- and drug-induced neurotoxicity, prevent/alleviate hangovers, and reverse brain aging,” among other alleged effects), and ChillPill (“designed to promote relaxation, attenuate stress, calm excess brain activity, enhance mood, and promote dreaming”). The seller kindly includes a bonus five-pill sampler of ThinkDeep (“designed to stimulate brain metabolism and glucose uptake, improve memory formation/recall, expand attention span, prevent mental fatigue and enhance blood flow”), too.

    The total cost is around AUD$100. As I pay this seemingly exorbitant amount, I’m reminded of that old aphorism about fools and their money. The package lands in my mailbox via the state of New York around two weeks later. The pills are brightly coloured and strong-smelling. I try all three nootropics in isolation, one or two at a time, on different days.

    After swallowing a ThinkDeep for the first time, I realise that I just took an anonymous black and red pill created by an anonymous internet seller who claims to be a biologist. They’ve got a 100% feedback record from over 400 transactions on SR, which counts as a sort of social proof, but still: bad things could happen to me after taking this pill, and the person responsible would never be caught out. (Tryptamine denied Rolling Stone’s request to verify his/her identity, or scientific credentials. “Whatever image you have in your mind’s eye from reading this, that’s how I look,” the seller wrote.)

    “Silk Road allows me to sell my products anonymously, and provides me with hundreds of thousands of potential customers who already take pills that aren’t made by pharmaceutical companies,” Tryptamine tells me. “On the other hand, it is a bit off-putting to see my products listed beside bags of heroin.”

    As it turns out, ThinkDeep doesn’t do much for me, even on another day when I double-dose. In fact, the only significant effect I notice from these three products is when one dose of MindFood eradicates a hangover much faster than my regular methods of paracetamol and/or ibuprofen. Perhaps ThinkDeep and ChillPill are so subtle that I don’t notice their effects; perhaps they don’t work at all. Potential hangover cure aside, it’s difficult to recommend these products for cognitive enhancement purposes.

    At the other end of the nootropic spectrum, far from secretive biologists and solo recipe-tweaking, is an Austin, Texas-based company named Onnit. Their flagship product is named Alpha Brain, which is slickly marketed as a “complete balanced nootropic”. Their biggest public advocate is the comedian, podcaster and former host of Fear Factor, Joe Rogan; they also have a few World Series of Poker players hyping the product on their website. I ordered a 30-pill bottle of Alpha Brain for around $40.

    Each green pill includes small amounts of eleven impressive-sounding substances, from vitamin B6 and vinpocetine, to L-theanine and oat straw. The serving size on the label suggests two pills at a time; as I discover, taking one does nothing. With two Alpha Brain pills circulating in my system, though, I feel an overall mood elevation and a heightened ability to concentrate on tasks at hand: reading, writing, researching. These effects last for between four to six hours.

    Alpha Brain worked for me, but it also feels like a triumph of marketing, too. As there are no clear estimates about the financial side of the nootropics industry, I ask Onnit CEO Aubrey Marcus whether it’s a lucrative field. “Absolutely,” he replies, though he won’t comment on Onnit’s annual turnover. “It’s something that everybody can benefit from. Whenever you tap into something [like that], there’s ample opportunity to make good money.” Marcus says that Alpha Brain has been purchased by around 45,000 customers across the world since launching last year. The company currently employs 13 full-time staff.

    He acknowledges that nutritional supplement manufacturers are met with their fair share of critics. “The pharmaceutical industry has done a good job of telling people that synthetic drugs are the only things that have an effect on the body. There are plenty who’ve never tried our products who’ll swear that they’re snake oil,” Marcus laughs. “We encounter that, and we just do our best to show as much research behind all the ingredients that we have.” He mentions that Onnit are intending to commission a double-blind clinical study on the effects of Alpha Brain, which he believes “will go a long way to silence the critics.”

    ++

    Perhaps nootropics aren’t a mainstream concept yet because the people most enthusiastic about their potential benefits are all scientists, marketers out to make a buck, ‘body hackers’, and other weirdoes. There are few ‘normals’ taking these drugs and supplements on a daily basis, so it all looks too strange and confronting for outsiders to try. As a society, we’re taught by our peers and the media that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

    There’s also the possibility that nootropics will never become mainstream because their effectiveness is difficult to qualitatively measure, or alternatively, they don’t work at all. In this regard, Australian researchers are world-class sceptics of cognitive enhancement. When I visit the University Of Queensland’s Centre for Clinical Research (UQCCR) in Brisbane, I’m greeted by Professor Wayne Hall, who was first published on this topic in 2004. His essay, which appeared in a European biology journal, was entitled “Feeling ‘better than well’: Can our experiences with psychoactive drugs help us to meet the challenges of neuroenhancement methods?”

    Hall has studied addiction and drug use for over 20 years. “There’s been a fair amount of enthusiasm for cognitive enhancement [in scientific circles], but it hasn’t looked critically at the evidence on how common this behaviour is,” he says. The professor and his peers argue for “taking a step back, and not getting too excited or encourage unwittingly lots of people to experiment with stimulant drugs for the wrong sorts of reasons”.

    “If you look at the lab studies that have been done on whether these drugs [work], the effects – insofar as there are some – are fairly modest and short-lived,” Hall says. “To be jumping from that, to saying it’s good idea for people to be using these drugs regularly to enhance their cognitive performance, is a bit of a long bow.”

    Dr Bradley Partridge is another UQCCR academic who specialises in investigating “the use of pharmaceuticals by healthy people to enhance their cognition”. I bring along my bottles of Alpha Brain and Tryptamine’s homemade nootropics for him to cast a critical eye over. “I have never used any of these things,” Partridge says. He peers at the labels with bemusement. “And I’ve never heard of most of these ingredients.”

    He places the bottles back on the table. “The thing is, a lot of these supplements are touted as being ‘all natural’, and for some people, that implies that they’re perhaps safe. But it’s very hard to evaluate exactly what’s in it. Aside from safety, where’s the evidence that they actually work for their stated purpose?”

    “There’s no scientific literature on some of this stuff; for others, the results are very mixed. Also, there might be a really strong placebo effect.” He holds up the Alpha Brain bottle, which mentions ‘enhancing mental performance’ in its marketing copy. “You take this and you do an exam; maybe simply taking something makes you feel like you ought to be doing better, and maybe you convince yourself that you’re getting some effect.”

    Hall and Partridge co-authored a study which analysed media reports on “smart drugs”. They found that 95 per cent of media reports mentioned some benefit of taking a drug like Adderall, Ritalin or modafinil, while only 58 per cent mentioned side effects. “I tend to be very cautious about this stuff,” Partridge says. “I don’t like to see this getting portrayed as a widespread phenomenon, as a fantastic thing, that it works, that there are no side effects. That runs the risk of encouraging people who hadn’t thought about it to take it up, which could cause problems for people.”

    I offer to leave some of my nootropics with Dr Partridge for him to conduct his own research; he laughs, and politely declines.

    ++

    Underscoring this entire discussion is the threat of one-upmanship. If I’m taking these drugs and they markedly improve my performance, am I nothing but a filthy nootropic cheater? To address this question, I spoke with Dave Asprey, who has used modafinil constantly for eight years and describes himself on Twitter as a “New York Times-published Silicon Valley entrepreneur/executive/angel who hacked his own biology to gain an unfair advantage in business and life.”

    Asprey has a prescription for the drug, after a brain scan showed a lack of blood flow at the front of his brain – a common symptom of attention deficit disorder (ADD), he says. “Modafinil is actually used commonly as a treatment for ADD,” he tells me. “It’s an off-label use, but it’s accepted; it’s even reimbursable by some insurance companies.”

    Asprey takes modafinil most workdays, upon waking. “It’s not like it’s a great secret out there, it’s just that people don’t talk about it because there’s some feel as though it’s ‘cheating’,” he says. “My perspective is different: if you eat healthy food, then you’re also ‘cheating’, because that impacts brain function. Surprisingly, the only people who’ve ever given me shit about taking modafinil are like, ‘but how do you know it’s not hurting you?’ I’m a bio-hacker; I’ve done all sorts of strange things to my body and mind in the interests of anti-aging, health and performance. I look at my body as part of my support system.’”

    Asprey says that he considers modafinil to be on the healthier spectrum of drugs. He’s also a fan of aniracetam, a fat soluble version of piracetam, which itself was the first-ever nootropic discovered in 1964. “It’s longer lasting [than piracetam],” Asprey says. “I recommend it as a basic biohack. I’ve been using it for a very long time.”

    Though Asprey has never met anyone who bluntly considers nootropics to be bullshit, he hears another argument reasonably often – and he has a clever rebuttal ready. “People say, ‘[nootropics] are evil, because if you take them, then everyone else will have to take them!’ I don’t think that’s a very fair argument, because from that perspective, fire is evil. Back when there were two cavemen, and one had a fire, the other said, ‘you can’t use fire, that’s unfair!’ Well, we know who evolved.”

    ++

    Whether or not I’m qualitatively smarter after experimenting with nootropics for this story is difficult to measure. I feel slightly wiser, and more aware of the limitations of both mind and body after that week of bingeing on modafinil. I certainly appreciate the restorative value of sleep better than ever before, after staying awake for the best part of a full work-week. I found that Alpha Brain is useful for focusing for a few hours, but considering that a two-week supply costs $40, it seems a touch on the expensive side.

    I did order a few dozen additional pills of modafinil, but I intend to use these only when emergency deadlines necessitate long hours. (I’ve read it’s good for combating the effects of jet lag, though, so perhaps I’ll try it on my next international flight.) Ultimately, the nootropic I found most useful – and intend to continue using regularly – is aniracetam, which Dave Asprey told me about. Its mind-sharpening effects are subtler than Alpha Brain, but it’s much cheaper – around $40 for a month’s supply if purchased online – and its effects taper off much more pleasantly than Alpha Brain’s comparatively sudden drop-off in concentration and energy levels.

    Late one night while researching this story, modafinil coursing through my body, I watched Limitless for the second time. It’s not a brilliant film, but it’s entertaining and thought-provoking enough to make the viewer consider seeking out smart pills of their own. It’s easy to see why the nootropic industry’s shadier sellers have attempted to draw parallels between their products and the fictional substance of NZT. After viewing the film, I contacted Alan Glynn, the author behind the 2001 techno-thriller The Dark Fields, which Limitless was based on, via email.

    “The original idea of NZT – called MDT-48 in my book – came from the idea of human perfectibility, of ‘the three wishes’, of the chance to re-invent yourself, of the shortcut to health and happiness,” Glynn tells me. “This is why the diet and self-help industries are so huge. Hold out a promise like that and people will respond. The fact that most of these products and therapies don’t work, or are bogus, doesn’t seem to matter. The real magic here, the real dark art, is marketing. I think that if nootropics ever go mainstream, they’ll be fodder for the marketing industry.”

    I send Glynn a link to the Alpha Brain website and mention that I’ve been taking it while researching this story. “Look, I’m just as much of a sucker as anyone else and when I look at that website, I’m going like, ‘Woah, gimme some of THAT!’” he replies. “And I’m actually seriously considering ordering some. So, from a marketing point of view, I’d say it’s a total success. It’s shiny, professional-looking and stuffed full of ‘the science bit’.”

    “But it’s the massaging of the science bit that is the marketer’s real dark art. The truth is, I couldn’t argue with someone who can talk about ‘GPC choline’ and ‘neurotransmitter precursors’. My instinct is that it’s all bullshit… On the other hand. I don’t know. Have you taken Alpha Brain? Does it work?”

    I reply in the affirmative, and describe my findings in some detail. Alan Glynn, author of the book that inspired the movie that inspired me to write this story in the first place, writes me back immediately: “That’s interesting indeed. I’ve ordered some Alpha Brain, and I’ve just got an email to say it’s been dispatched. I’ll report back to you – in the interests of science, of course.”

    Note: At no point should any of the products mentioned in this article be ingested without first consulting a health professional. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Ritalin as an amphetamine; it belongs to the methylphenidate class of stimulants.

    To read more on nootropics, I recommend that you continue your research at Smarter Nootropics. Good luck!

  • A Conversation With Neil Strauss, New York Times Bestselling Author, 2009

    Neil Strauss and his entourage. I wonder what the kneeling girl is up to.It’s June 23, 2009. Minutes away from meeting Neil Strauss, I catch myself being self-conscious. I realise that when I sit, my jeans reveal my red-and-white striped socks above my white basketball shoes, which were hastily pulled on before a flight from Brisbane to Sydney earlier that day. Shit. What will Neil think?

    I can see him in the opposite corner of the Sofitel Hotel’s lobby, closing an interview with another young, starry-eyed guy, and chatting with his publicist. I change sitting positions a couple times to try and find the optimum spot that’ll make me look relaxed and in control. I want to exhibit both of these traits before Strauss, one of my favourite writers, because I want this to be perfect.

    As I walk toward them, the publicist turns and says, “you must be Andrew”. We shake hands, and Neil offers his. “Hey Andrew, what’s up man?” he asks warmly. They’re finalising his plans for tonight; an opportunity to watch a taping of The Chaser’s War On Everything seems to be on the cards. Neil turns to the otherwise empty lobby antechamber and asks me to pick a comfortable seat for our interview. I select a window seat, and run my eyes across the page of questions written in my notebook.

    I don’t admit that I was self-consciously readying myself just moments earlier. I don’t describe to him the trepidation I feel as a fan almost half his age, speaking to my favourite writer. The one who wholly shared his personal demons and sexual exploits in the 2005 book The Game: Penetrating The Secret Society Of Pick-Up Artists; an autobiographical account of the two years that Strauss spent investigating the lives of men devoted to improving themselves by attracting women.

    As I ponder, Neil bounds over and sneaks a look at the page.

    Neil: Ready for all fifteen questions!

    Andrew: I think fifteen’s a good number. Or is it too many, or too few?

    Here’s what I do. I write out like a hundred questions, even though I rarely get to ask them all. I write them out, while researching and studying them beforehand, and then just have a conversation. And if the conversation stalls, I turn to a prepared question.

    But that’s just the way I do it. I don’t know if it’s the best way; no-one ever told me!

    So I really enjoyed Emergency [his 2009 book on survivalist preparedness]. What did you set out to achieve with the book?

    Note: book may not actually save your life.The main thing was to write an interesting, hopefully somewhat humourous story. But what I set out to achieve is always different to what I achieve. I originally set out to write a book that would influence the (2008) American election, so that a Bush-like type of person didn’t win the election. So the original goal was to look at the country and ask, “Why isn’t anybody having a revolution?” That’s even almost how I pitched it. And they let me do the book like that in the first place – “okay, go do your fun little pet project, and then give us a real book” – and then it just turned into this whole other thing about self-sufficiency and learning to be independent of the system.

    Did you come across that accidently?

    My favourite composer is John Cage, and his credo is “be open to whatever comes next”, and I think that’s it. You start with one idea in mind, but you have to be willing to go further. Like when I did the Marilyn Manson article for Rolling Stone, I planned to tear him apart, because I didn’t like him. And when I met him, I liked him, and it turned out to be a positive article. The first book I wrote was with him, and if I hadn’t challenged my preconception, maybe I wouldn’t have started my career writing books.

    So the original thing was to activate and politicise apathetic Americans, but then I realised that the whole idea of voting for a person is a pretty pathetic way of empowerment. One person isn’t really doing that fucking much. It’s like that lyric – “meet the old boss; same as the new boss” [The Who‘s ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again], you know. And even though there are major differences, I realised that it’s more about one’s own self, and not entrusting your safety to someone else. To become self-sufficient, and not depend on the system so much. The way you leave home when you’re a child, and eventually have to leave your parents and become an adult, in the same way you have to eventually step outside the normal political system.

    Was one of your goals to encourage others to become self-sufficient, as opposed to living a life of convenience, which you describe at the beginning of the book?

    Yeah. It’s also to wake up from some of the delusions you were taught as a child, from the history books and in class. And to do whatever it takes to give yourself peace of mind. The other thing is to – rather than having these anxieties and fears – take them to the extreme and get rid of them. In that way, one of my aims for the book was basically generational Prozac (laughs).

    The economy’s falling apart around you; people are freaking out over these pandemics; terrorism alerts are always in a shade of orange or red.. so, you know, learning what this stuff is and what it means, and how to protect yourself. That was my Prozac for this generation’s panic attack.

    How soon did you finish the book before it was published? There’s some stuff near the end that’s pretty recent.

    Strauss: shadowed skull indentsI literally finished it in February, and it came out in March. That’s the cool thing about publishing, and why I love writing versus movies or TV, because you can literally get it from your pen to the reader so soon. And I’m lucky enough that my publisher’s pretty cool, and they can turn it around (quickly). I think if it came out now, it’d be a slightly different time.

    I’m really interested with what you’re doing with your publishing company, Igniter.

    Thanks for asking about that! I’m fucking stoked that you asked me about that.

    How did that idea come about with [fellow Rolling Stone writer] Anthony Bozza?

    We were on Tommy Lee’s tour bus. He’d just written the Tommy Lee book, and I’d written the Mötley Crüe book [The Dirt: Confessions Of The World’s Most Notorious Rock Band]. And we started talking, and exchanging notes, and found that the same people had been approaching us about books. We both got approached by Slash to do a book, and Axl Rose. Over the course of that night, three different people approached both of us about writing their books. And we were like, “fuck, this is weird!” Every now and then, there’d be a good one that we didn’t have time to do.

    So when someone came to us with a good book that they wanted written, we’d pass them onto agents and publishers and it’d never get made. It couldn’t get through the (publishers’) doors. So we just thought “fuck it, let’s put these books out ourselves.”

    Why do you think that they couldn’t get published? What was stopping these projects – the idea of working with unknown, unpublished authors?

    Yeah, unknown authors, and that most people don’t trust their taste. The phenomenon of social proof – no one thinks something is good, unless other people tell them it’s good beforehand.

    I was going to ask you about social proof, because you’re now, what, a six times New York Times bestselling author? That’s a pretty massive social proof there.

    Yeah, exactly.

    So with you and Anthony behind Igniter, do you think that your names will hold sway in the publishing community?

    That’s our hope, that we can get people to read good books. And also, we don’t want to deal with agents. If an agent has a book, he’s already shopping it to every publisher. We want to go find raw talent. I’ll give you an example: in our first book, which is out this fall…

    Is that the book on the mafia guy?

    No, the first one is on Bozo The Clown.

    Ah, I know you’re a big fan of his.

    Exactly. So you’re on my mailing list, I take it, since you knew about the mobster book?

    Yeah.

    Amber Smith: massive stalker. Be careful.When I did the writing contest, for the mobster book, there were three guys who got through to the final. The mobster chose a different guy to the winner of the public vote, who was Ian Kelk. He’s an unemployed computer programmer. So Ian didn’t get to do the mobster book, but I said to him “listen, I’m going to find writing work for you.” And so a few weeks ago, Amber Smith [pictured left], who’s this gorgeous supermodel – she’s been on the cover of Vogue, Playboy, FHM, and also now has a reality show – she wanted to do a book. Her story is insane: she’s a supermodel, but she’s only been in two relationships for like three months each, and afterwards she stalked the guys for like ten years. It’s awesome – she’s one of the most beautiful women in the world, yet she stalks guys and they run away from her! (laughs)

    So I called up Ian, and said “why don’t you phone her, see if you guys get along, then come down and work on her book.” So this guy who applied for my writing contest – an unemployed computer programmer – is now hanging out with, and writing a book for a supermodel. That’s the kind of stuff that we like making happen.

    So Igniter’s goal is to get unknown writers published?

    It’s just to get good books published. It could be a known or an unknown writer, it just has to be good. But I’m more excited about someone, maybe, who.. like when I wrote for the New York Times, there were certain bands that I was one of the first to write about, like Elliott Smith, or Built To Spill, or Ryan Adams. There were artists I’d find and write about, and then the world would embrace that person, and I could be like “cool, I hope I helped in some way”.

    That’s the kind of feeling (of talent discovery) that we’re looking to replicate with Igniter.

    It’s interesting how certain writers can hold that kind of control, or influence, over popular culture.

    In my case, The New York Times was a good platform because it reaches a billion people. And they’ll let you do.. do you know who Robert Randolph is?

    No.

    In other words, I could say to my editors, “man, there’s this guy who performs pedal steel music in churches, it’s an old church tradition, and people just fucking dance on the rafters and it gets crazy.” I did a story on him, and now he’s huge. He plays at Bonnaroo and all those kinds of festivals. And they put it on the front page of the Arts section, so it was cool to have a platform like that for people be able to listen to.

    As well artists you liked, were you pressured by the Times to write about artists that you didn’t like?

    Kenny G: everything I know about him is from that South Park episodeAll the time, but I could choose how I wrote about them. For example, I had to write about [the saxophonist] Kenny G [pictured right]. I thought, “well, I could write the normal fucking shit about Kenny G – he’s too easy to make fun of”. But then I found out that he was a pilot. So I thought, “why don’t I have Kenny G pick me up in a plane, then we’ll go fly somewhere, then have dinner together, and we’ll talk.”

    So I did that and I realised that I’d developed a respect for Kenny G, because he’s a guy who plays what he feels. And what he feels just happens to be very simple, and sweet. He’s just a simple, sweet guy playing simple sweet music, and he’s playing what he feels. He’s not like, you know, [jazz musician] Sun Ra. I have respect for Kenny G’s integrity, and I’m glad that I met him, because it would have been too easy to make fun of him.

    You seem to have preconceptions of artists and people before you meet them. Have you tried to stop having those preconceptions?

    I think it’s okay to have preconceptions, but you have to be willing to discard them in the face of the truth. I only think they’re bad when you stick to them, regardless; that’s just dogmatic thinking. It’s impossible to learn if you don’t listen.

    What preconceptions do you think that people have of you, based on your experiences in The Game?

    Generally when I walk into an interview, they definitely expect to see some arrogant fuck. You know, some arrogant, shallow fuck. And that’s fine, because people who think that generally haven’t read the book. They think it’s some lad’s manual, and that there’s a guy out there acting like that guy from Magnolia, screaming “respect the cock!” at guys. It’s fine for people to have preconceptions about me, because I usually am not like the preconception, and they’re thrown off.

    I lent The Game to a bunch of my friends, and the ones who read it loved it. But the ones who didn’t pick it up had that preconception of it being a guide for guys to get laid. They find something morally wrong in the idea of a book teaching something that should be inherently known.

    It’s the weirdest book, because the people who’ve read it know what it is, but those who haven’t don’t get it. I think the book is like that – you expect it to be one thing, but it turns out as something else. Like how it begins with the greatest pickup artist in the world about to kill himself. And while reading, you think “okay, maybe this isn’t going to be like what I had in mind”. And I think with all my books, I try to give the audience what they wouldn’t expect. Like with the Jenna Jameson book [How to Make Love Like a Porn Star: A Cautionary Tale], you know it’s going to deal with sex and porn, so I started it off somewhere really dark.

    When did you realise that you had a book on your hands with Emergency?

    It was originally just going to be a story about getting the St Kitts passport, and that was it. The original pitch was just ‘escaping America’ (laughs). And then I went to Tom Brown’s Tracker School, and I called my editor and said “listen man, I need like, another year!” I realised that I had so much to learn; I had to learn how to be human all over again. And he was cool enough to be okay with it. I still remember that cell phone call to my editor from Tracker School.

    I guess that’s before you dropped your Blackberry in the water?

    Exactly! (laughs)

    You mentioned your parents throughout the book, and that they’d always lived a ‘life of convenience’ in the city. Have their views changed since they read the book?

    Neil Strauss: look how trustworthy he is!It’s funny, because I went to visit them, and I was doing a radio interview from the back of their car, and the interviewer asked what my parents feel about the book. I was like, “I don’t know, ask them!”. And they said, on air, that they wished they got the St Kitts passport with me, now.

    It’s funny, that always happens with everything I do. When I’m doing it, all my friends and family make fun of me, but once it’s done, they’re like “oh, I should have done that”. Whether it’s The Game, and learning to be more attractive to women, or Emergency, and the need to be safe and self-sufficient.

    What do your parents think of your evolution as a writer, from starting with places like Ear and Village Voice, to writing New York Times bestsellers?

    Man, you want to know something hilarious? My next book’s probably going to be an anthology of articles I’ve written for Rolling Stone and stuff, and my parents just sent me a book proposal letter I wrote when I was eleven years old. It’s the fucking funniest thing!

    In it, I’m like: “Dear publisher, this is my book. Please send a printed copy, and all money to..”, and I gave my address. And the grammar is really good, it’s just weird to read that I was sending out book proposals at age eleven.

    What was the book proposal?

    It was a series of fictional mystery novels. “The Smith Mysteries“.

    Did you end up writing them?

    I wrote the first book, and I think my parents attached it to the letter they sent. I can’t wait to read it again, it’ll be fucking weird.

    Dude, eleven?!

    Yeah, I know. But my parents were always against me becoming a writer; they actually cut me off when I was writing for Ear Magazine and stuff. I had to support myself, because they really wanted me to study business, and do what they felt was safe. Ironic how business is the least safe thing to do right now! It’s much safer to be writing.

    But eventually, once I was at The New York Times.. they were always a little hard [on me], but I think it drove me to excel more. Like when the Marilyn Manson book [The Long Hard Road Out Of Hell] reached the New York Times Bestseller list, they told me, “well, it’s awesome that you’ve been on the list for one week, but it doesn’t really count unless it’s for two weeks”.

    Damn, they’ve got high standards!

    Yeah, and that’s why in Rules Of The Game, the book is dedicated to “Your parents. You may be upset with them for what’s wrong with you, but don’t forget to give them credit for what’s right”. So I can’t really blame them for shit, because I feel that I’m happy with stuff I’ve done, and I feel that they gave me everything I needed to succeed.

    How do you feel that the experiences in The Game and Emergency have shaped how you view yourself?

    The Game: one of my favourite book designsThey’re completely different. With The Game – even separate from the book – I always think about how if I’d never come across this underground group of guys, I always would have lived my life in the dark, and died never having emerged from my little shell. Like, there are good things and bad things about The Game, and I thought I’d neither attack nor defend it, but when I do interviews, I will defend guys’ right to learn it. The right that guys should be able to learn those skills if they want to. Because I think “fuck, if I’d never learned it, I would have just lived my life with blinders on”, not knowing who I could be, or the experiences I could have.

    Even if the book never came out, I’m so grateful for those experiences. It’s just weird, I was just a completely different person [beforehand], and I just wasn’t me. I was just so intimidated, and shy about everything.

    But after going through your experiences and sharing them, you’ve allowed how many thousand people to improve themselves?

    Yeah, it’s pretty fucking weird. Because I didn’t know that the book would have that effect, and I think if I was trying for that effect, I probably wouldn’t have had it, because I would have tried too hard.

    You share a lot of yourself and your experiences through your writing. Did that come easily, or did you hesitate?

    No, I had to do it. When I did those books with celebrities, I had a rule, which is you have to tell the whole truth; you can’t hold anything back. You’d have to be willing to make yourself look bad, if that’s how it happened. I hold myself to the same standards I held those other people to. I couldn’t be hypocritical about it.

    With The Game, many times I considered doing it under another name. My alias was ‘Chris Powles’. I used ‘Style’ online, but if I needed to use my real name, most of the time I was ‘Chris’. I thought I’d write the book under that person’s name, and pretend it was another book I had ghost written for somebody else, like what I’ve done using my real name in the past. I thought many times about not doing it, and then I thought, “If you’re not willing to put your name on what you did, then why did you do it?”

    You mentioned at the start of Emergency that when you were researching those crazy groups around the year 2000 that you were a bad reporter because you got nervous talking with people. That’s not still the case, is it?

    I still feel like a horrible reporter. My last two interviews were with Jay Leno and [comedy film director] Judd Apatow for Rolling Stone. I still feel like, “Oh shit, I didn’t ask the hard questions.” I still leave every interview feeling like I didn’t get all the stuff.

    If I do an article for Rolling Stone, I feel like it’s got to be the best article and that I’ve got to get the most out of the person. I always just leave feeling I should have asked them harder questions, or been tougher, or I don’t know what. But then I listen to the interview afterward, and I actually end up getting good stuff, so I don’t know.

    Even after your hundred questions, you still feel like your hundred and first would have been the best.

    Yeah, exactly, like I missed something or I didn’t explore something with them or didn’t dig in deep enough or didn’t have enough rapport with them, or whatever.

    How do you prepare for an interview?

    I just make myself an expert on them. I brainwash myself. If it’s music or movies, I listen to every album, watch every movie, read every interview, and write down every possible question I could ever think of. So I brainwash myself with their lives. (laughs)

    How does that compare to being interviewed? Do you prepare for things like this?

    Talking about a book is different than writing it, so before each book comes out I’ll think about how would I describe this thing I went through and summarize it. Sometimes, I come to realizations I didn’t have in the book. People ask me about The Game and Emergency. I don’t friggin’ know. I just wrote this book and that book. If I think about them, it’s “Well, both books are really about fear.” The Game is about fear of approaching women, getting rejected, social humiliation, let’s say. Emergency is about fear of dying. Both are about ways to conquer your fear through knowledge and experience.

    So you’ve been a journalist, biographer, and an autobiographer. Which do you prefer?

    I think I just like writing, whatever it is. I love storytelling; anything that is storytelling, I love.

    The Rules Of The Game: continuing the trend of naked women silhouettes

    You’re pretty good at storytelling. Your writing style in The Game is so good. It’s one of my favorite books, just because of how you wrote it. The Style Diaries, at the end of Rules Of The Game, some of those stories are really different to the style of The Game, as well.

    I’m curious; how do you feel they’re different? You’re probably right, whatever you’re going to say.

    The Style Diaries were more personal, more focused in each vignette, and in how those stories fit into the whole picture of ‘the game’. The one where you were climbing up the back of your apartment building; that one was pretty crazy.

    I think it’s funny; I like the writing in The Style Diaries better. I think The Game is a better book. I think I like the writing in The Style Diaries better because it’s like you said; it’s more focused and on the subject. That some of my favorite stuff that I’ve written, all those little vignettes. Also, it was just exploring the idea of relationships, which doesn’t get to be explored in The Game.

    One of the main arguments against the concept of pick-up artists that you raised in The Game was “what do you do after the orgasm?”.

    Exactly.

    So in The Style Diaries, you explored that a little bit.

    Exactly. I think I also want to expand on that writing. I’ve had some even crazier experiences than what I described in The Style Diaries; insane shit. I was thinking of just putting it all out as a little secret book. I might do that.  (laughs)

    I read in another interview that you were a bit of a workaholic when you first started writing.

    Yeah.

    But I’ve seen you tweet about procrastinating by watching YouTube and stuff. How do you deal with procrastination or maintaining productivity, when you’re on deadline?

    The best thing for procrastination is a hard deadline looming over your head, like your editor is saying, “If this doesn’t come in now…”

    [American actor and 30 Seconds To Mars singer/guitarist] Jared Leto [pictured below right] told me that he had a thirteen day deadline for the band’s next album. If it wasn’t done, they were going to fine him $2 million. That’s a good way to not procrastinate, to have a hard deadline with consequences. I find that’s the only way to get shit done.

    Jared Leto, a.k.a. Angel Face.I’m a workaholic but I’m also a lazy workaholic. I fucking work really hard, but at the same time, if I don’t have to work I can be at the beach.

    It’s hard; I was much the same with university, and now with writing assignments. It all comes together right near the end; for better or worse, and I often think it’s for worse. You think you could do it better if you plan the whole way along, rather than cramming it all in.

    Exactly. What I’ll do is wait until the night before it’s due and fucking really transcribe it and then, “Fuck, I gotta…” But something I noticed when I started working at the New York Times, when I had a weekly column: it went from ‘finish your work the night before’ to writing it on the due day. Sometimes I find I do my best stuff under pressure.

    Do you have any interview transcribing tips?

    Yeah – outsource it. (laughs)

    For real. Even if I couldn’t afford it.. I just have to have someone else transcribe it. Sometimes it’s good to listen to because then you relive the conversation, but sometimes I find it easier if if I can fucking find someone I could pay a little bit to do it. Even when I didn’t have the money, I was like, fuck – it just makes my life easier.

    Do you have any advice for people who want to start becoming contributing writers to Rolling Stone or New York Times; those big-name publications?

    I think they need to be willing to write wherever, for no compensation. I never applied for Rolling Stone; I never applied for The New York Times. They just saw my writing in little shitty magazines and were like, “Why don’t you write for us?”

    I think you could be the greatest writer in the world, but unless someone can see your writing, no one is going to know. Just get your stuff seen. I would take every opportunity. I did a weekly column in the paper called the New York Press. I got paid $75 a column but it would take me all week to research and write it.

    It was a free weekly paper, and because of that, everyone in New York would read it on the subway, and that’s how it came to the attention of The New York Times. When the job opened up at The Times, someone recommended that I apply for it. I didn’t even apply for it. I thought, “I’m not good enough; I just write for this little paper,” and then one day they called me and said, “We like your stuff.”

    I think you should not be precious about shit. My advice would be that paragraph in The Game, about not waiting for opportunities to come to you, but meeting them halfway and putting in the work.

    Have you read the book Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell [pictured below left]?

    Yeah.

    Outliers: a pretty sweet book. Read it.I think that 10,000 hours concept is pretty interesting [where Gladwell suggests that expertise is built after spending approximately 10,000 hours working toward a skill or pursuit]. The first stuff I wrote fucking sucks, you know? (laughs)

    If I look at the first articles I wrote for Ear Magazine, you’d never know I could be a decent writer.

    I guess you’ve got to start somewhere. How did you get the start with Ear, did you apply for that?

    Yeah, it was an internship. I was in my college dorm room and a guy had gone to New York and applied for an internship at this magazine. He was rejected because he was too well-dressed. I thought, “That sounds perfect for me!” and I just wanted to be in New York. I didn’t really think about writing. I got the internship. It’s good to have an internship somewhere small, because after a while they’ll let you write for them and take on other responsibilities.

    I’ve read that you kind of fell into writing; you didn’t set out to be a writer.

    Now I don’t know. Now my parents sent me that thing from when I was eleven years old. Maybe, I don’t know; it’s confusing. I feel as a kid you want to do everything. You want to be a writer, you want to be an astronaut, you want to be a farmer, and you want to be a movie star.

    I take it that your journalistic urges haven’t been quelled, because you’re still contributing to Rolling Stone.

    Absolutely.

    Do you read newspapers?

    I still read The New York Times, not just because I work for them, but I do feel like that’s the closest you get to the full story.

    How do you feel about newspaper readerships declining?

    It’s fucking weird, especially the idea that a lot of these papers folded and going online. I just feel like online is a place for information, not writing. You don’t necessarily go online to read good writing. I still like the printed word.

    That’s one of the theories behind the decline though, that people are becoming less attached to good writing, and strong reporting. They want instant facts, which is what the web is for.

    You know what I think is interesting though? I think Twitter and all that are making people better writers. Twitter is what I had to do my whole life, where you need to get a certain word count. On Twitter, everyone is becoming their own editors. “How can I express this idea in..” How many characters is it?

    140.

    “How can I express this idea in 140 characters?” You have to slim it down, change your words, cut out things, so it’s making everybody an editor of themselves. I think that’s the closest that the mass population has come to being writers. Do you know what I mean? It’s pretty cool.

    You started a book club with Emergency after it came out. How did that go? I knew you were trying to organize some teleconferences or something, to get everyone together.

    It went so well that I had another book club that I killed and made this one my main book club, because I got really good people on it. We read Emergency, and then we finished that. I thought, “I like this group; let’s do another book,” so we read a book called The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers, which I mentioned in Emergency. We all read that and it went great, but I think we’re going to do one more book and then I’ll close it down. It’s kind of fun and it motivates me to finish reading some books too. It worked out pretty awesomely.

    What are your reading interests? I assume you read widely in music and culture.

    I mostly read fiction, almost 90%, because I feel it’s good writing and I want to be influenced by stylists. I also think you learn more about life from fiction than nonfiction because people feel with nonfiction, “This is useful,” but to me fiction is metaphors for real life and the brain works better through metaphor. I feel like I learn more through fiction. I love it.

    Can you recommend any good fiction books that have come out recently, or even historically, old things?

    Some of my favorites are Ask The Dust, by John Fante. It’s a story about a struggling writer in Los Angeles; it was written maybe seventy years ago, but it could’ve been written now and it’s fucking hilarious, especially as a writer. You would love it. He has a picture of his editor on his wall that he worships and it’s a total AFC story too. He has a crush on a waitress, and he totally blows it with her. There’s a horrible movie adaptation, but the book is great.

    The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski is a brutal book about a kid wandering through the villages during World War II, in Poland. I like Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera, which is about life choices; doing what you’re born to do, versus doing what society and family pressures you to do. I like Mishima Haruki MurakamiGabriel García Márquez; Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries is awesome.

    I don’t know; I really love fiction, which is ironic because what I do is so different from what I love.

    That’s really surprising to me.

    It’s weird to me, too, because my goal is always to be.. there’s this bookstore called St. Marks, in New York. Behind the desk, they have a counter of their most stolen books. There’s [Charles] Bukowski, and William S. Burroughs, and my goal was to be on that list of their most stolen books. One day I saw The Game there and I was like, “Yes!”

    I went to another bookstore once and they said their most stolen books were the Bible and The Game. I don’t know if that means people thought The Game was the Bible and stole it, and I also thought it was kind of fucked up; how could you live with yourself if you stole the Bible? The book’s about ethics, yet people still steal it. It’s so weird.

    When you’re writing, actually sitting down, and writing a book, do you shut yourself away from the world?

    Yeah, for sure. I have to. It involves an intense amount of focus; a lot of it is organisation, and how you organize 500 type-written pages. How do you organise that? It’s like there is a string unspooling in your head and you need to focus to make it snap taut, if that makes sense.

    There’s a little place I go to on the beach in southern California, a little shack on the water where I go and get focused.

    Not St. Kitts?

    St Kitts, in the West Indies. Not pictured: Neil Strauss, writing.Yeah, I go to St. Kitts [pictured right] a lot to write, too.

    What ever happened to Spencer [the character from Emergency]? Do you still see him?

    Yeah, I just saw him in St. Kitts. He bought a couple of Segways for his house and so we were riding those around. Now he has all his money out of U.S. dollars. He has a lot of money in Australian dollars. He wanted currencies that were backed by something stable. I think the Australian dollar is on the gold standard?

    Gold standard?

    I think it’s backed by gold, versus the U.S. currency which isn’t backed. Canadian currency is kind of backed – he studied it and he felt he wanted a currency backed by something solid, versus a free floating currency, if that makes any sense.

    I’m still friends with Spencer, and the same with the guys in all the books; Mystery and Spencer and the Manson guys. Everybody I’ve written with and about.

    I never watched [the VH1 reality TV series] The Pick-up Artist. How did that fare, ratings-wise? Did that get a good response?

    I think it did really well. It did well enough for a second season. They represent it pretty well. There’s a lot of empathy for the guys trying to learn it. As far as reality goes, I thought it was portrayed in the best possible light,as far as the TV medium goes.

    I watched the videos that you did for Rules of the Game.

    Those are my favorites! (laughs)

    I like David Faustino in those.

    Yeah, he’s fucking hilarious, isn’t he? He’s so fucking funny. I really think he’s a comic genius. Those are really eye-opening. To me, the video where he goes blindfolded – no, with his hands tied behind his back, and gagged, and has to meet women and get phone numbers. He has a hat on and no one can recognise him. The fact that he got four out of five phone numbers, while fucking gagged and blindfolded; it kind of means most of this stuff guys are worried about are just their own limiting beliefs.

    Yeah. You mentioned your next book project earlier – I didn’t catch the name.

    It’s just an anthology of stuff I’ve written for The New York Times and Rolling Stone. I’m probably going to do something to make it more interesting, like weave together funny, early writing days stories.

    Like maybe your first book proposal?

    Exactly, the book first book proposal, and I got cut off by my parents when I was trying to write, and dealing with all that stuff.

    Stylelife [Neil’s “online academy for attraction”] is still going on, while you’re doing your book tours abroad. Who takes care of that?

    Join Stylelife and you, too, can wear a tuxedoI really like the Stylelife guys. I don’t know if you know the guys, but they’re really sweet. Gypsy, Bolshevik, Bravo.. they do a really good job running it and they’re good-hearted guys. They do it. I feel bad because I haven’t been around enough; I’ve been traveling too much.

    They just put together an anthology of our newsletters. I couldn’t believe that it sold out really fucking quickly.

    The other good thing is the teleconferences we did with most of the guys in The Game. We did a seminar, and those guys are all pretty good. I know I spent most of the time talking but when I saw The Sneak do his thing, I was like, “Fuck!” I like those guys. It’s fun; I’m proud of them.

    Well, I’m out of questions. How did I do?

    You did awesome. I was just thinking as we were talking. The TV interviewers, they generally haven’t read the book and they just want some entertaining shit about “five tips for our viewers”. This is more fun for me because you know – I can talk about Igniter, and talk about the stuff that I’m passionate about right now. It was great. I enjoyed it. I thought you definitely cover your stuff pretty well.

    Cool. I’m still pretty new to this.

    I knew when I saw you that it’d be a cool interview. Plus you just had a regular conversation, which is better than just going one-by-one through the questions. I thought it was interesting. I like these interviews the most, because it’s someone who knows the work versus somebody who is like, “Here’s the world’s greatest pick-up artist; let’s get some tips and say “this wouldn’t work on me!”

    To back up their bias.

    Exactly.

    I knew when I saw that interview list, I knew you and the guy I talked to before, I knew you guys would be good.

    Who was the last guy?

    I think he writes for a student newspaper, at the university of whatever it is. I knew you guys would be guys who follow this shit.

    Cool.

    Are you going to stick around for the book signing thing on Wednesday?

    No, I’m flying back in about two hours.

    Are you serious man? You just came down today to hit and run?

    Yeah.

    Did you fund it yourself?

    Yeah.

    That’s cool man, thank you.

    Thanks for having me, man.

    That’s really cool. I did the same thing. With Emergency, I spent more money on the book than I made from the book. I’ll do whatever it takes for the stories, even when I was a kid; I flew to Europe to cover a festival when I was a sophomore in college, just because I would do anything for a story. That’s awesome.

    What are your interests? What do you want to do?

    Writing, but I kind of want to pursue your style of writing, like the interviews written in feature style; the kind of thing that you do for Rolling Stone. I’m not sure if I have a book in me, yet.

    Even though I did that book proposal [as a kid], I never thought seriously about writing a book. Even when I did the Marilyn Manson book, I wasn’t ready to write my own book yet. It just happened. You know when it’s right.

    I think that ten thousand hours thing is true, too. You pay your dues writing for websites and writing for magazines, and then when you get that opportunity for your book, your reflexes are there.

    I’m writing for four publications at the moment.

    That’s awesome.

    The bylines are gradually getting bigger and bigger, and they’re paying more and more.

    That’s cool. That’s exactly what I did. Are you out of school?

    Yeah, I just finished last week. I studied Communication, which is half journalism, half media studies. It was a lame course, man.

    They’re all lame.

    It was a waste of my three years. Well, no; I was at college two years, like residential college on campus, and that was great, making friends and stuff. In terms of the educational content…

    It doesn’t matter what you major in. Unless you’re going pre-med or pre-law. Just because I majored in psychology doesn’t mean anything; I learned so much more about psychology from living and writing The Game.

    I think it’s important just to get real life experiences. I think because I took those internships in college, instead of writing in college, I learned more from the people I was around – like from that kid in the dorm room who said he didn’t do that internship – than I did from any economics class I took.

    So you write mostly for websites?

    Half websites, half print.

    Cool man, what kind of print?

    Street press, which is a free newspaper you pick up off sidewalk, like music newspapers.

    Cool, it’s like me with the New York Press! (laughs)

    As well as a weekly publication for the  music industry , which is really aimed at the major labels [The Music Network]. I’ve been writing a column about digital music and the changes that are happening in the industry.

    That’s cool.

    I have to be careful with what I say, though, because they’re so major label-centric and I can’t really be attacking their methods, or how they’re still tied to the old way of thinking when distributing music and stuff.

    It’s so weird; I remember I worked for The New York Times when I first heard about ‘the World Wide Web’, but I never knew what it was. I heard The Rolling Stones were doing a promotional thing where they were doing something on the World Wide Web, broadcasting a concert. I didn’t know what it was. I just knew what the internet was. I didn’t know what the World Wide Web was. To me, the internet was all the news groups you had.

    I remember someone said, “It’s the backbone of the internet,” and I still had no fucking idea what the World Wide Web was. Everything was dialup. Then I remember writing about the first music download, which was the quality of an AM radio in a bad car, and it took like two hours to download. Then I remember going to these conferences every three years, and someone saying that one day it will be “all you can eat”.

    I think that’s the future; it’s the all you can eat services. Like the subscription model with [online music service] Rhapsody. I have [the multi-room music system] Sonos. Do you know what that is?

    Yeah.

    Luke Steele's Sleepy Jackson: Neil's a fanIt’s fucking life-changing. It’s changed my entire musical life. When I come home, the first thing I do is “Where’s Sonos?” It’s like a pet. I pick it up and I’m like, “Okay, shit, I went out and I talked to that guy on the street and he told me about a fucking Sleepy Jackson album [pictured right]” or whatever, so I put it in and I hear it right away. It’s fucking great. Then someone comes over, like some club girl, and she wants to hear Lil Wayne, and I’m like, “Okay cool, here’s Lil Wayne.” If you’re talking on the phone and someone recommends a song, you can hear it right away.

    I got it for my parents for one of their birthdays. They love it. I think it’s game-changing, even though it’s just hooked up to Rhapsody. The whole idea that it’s your home stereo component and it’s all you can eat.. I love it, and it’s also the price of one CD a month. Napster is now like $5 a month. It’s fucking insane. 80% of what you’re going to want to hear is going to be on that.

    That’s the challenge for new artists though, because there is so much music out there. How do you get heard? How do you differentiate your product from everything else that’s going around?

    I think it’s always true that gatekeepers emerge. In other words, the internet happened, and there was so much shit out there; then search engines come up as the portals. I think gatekeepers always impose themselves. I keep a running list of everything that people recommend to go ahead and listen to.

    I have a physical recommendation for you.

    Oh, cool.

    It’s a Brisbane electronic artist. He does pop songs with an electronic edge. [Yeah, I pimped Hunz to Neil Strauss.]

    Cool, like The Notwist and The Postal Service kind of stuff?

    He’s influenced by Radiohead and Boards Of Canada.

    I love both of those. This sounds great. Is there anything else I should listen to?

    There’s a band called The Middle East. They’re indie folk from North Queensland, way up north. They’re really unique and powerful.

    Cool, I’ll see if I can get that. What kind of music are they?

    Indie folk.

    Cool. It’s kind of old, but have you heard the Yeasayer record? It’s about a year old, but it’s awesome. It takes a couple of listens to get into it, but I’ve been listening to that a lot lately. There’s also a group called Margot & the Nuclear So and So’s, do you know them?

    I’ve heard of them.

    It’s about a year old, but I like that too. Then there is a band I liked, called The Felice Brothers. Their first album was amazing; their next album wasn’t as good.

    Cheesy? Totally. But worth it.

    Do you still find that face-to-face recommendations are your strongest musical markers?

    Definitely. When I was in Australia last with Mystery, I bought a bunch of CDs and did an article on the top ten favorite Australian CDs back then. It’s cool to see that sometimes they end up getting to the States. I think that was maybe five years ago. I think it was when The Sleepy Jackson and Architecture In Helsinki were first getting popular. I always take recommendations because even if one in twenty is good, it’s worth it.

    Shit man, I can’t believe you just came down for the day. That’s crazy.

    Totally worth it. I really appreciate it.

    Cool man. It was cool meeting.

    Can I be cheesy and ask for a photo?

  • A Conversation With Neil Ackland, Sound Alliance Managing Director

    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 Ackland: Positively glowingNeil: 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?

    Neil Ackland: eyez on the prize

    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?

    Mess+Noise: definitely not available in the supermarket.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.

    FasterLouder: goes to 11, sometimes

    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.

    albert_music

    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?

    Thought By Them: they make ideasIt’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.

    Nick Crocker: checking all the boxes, and the checkered shirtsWith 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.

    The Sound Alliance heirarchy

    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.

  • On Productivity And Procrastination

    If you spend a lot of time on Twitter each day, you start to feel a sense of vicarious productivity.

    Discussing links, chatting with several people at once, managing followers: none of it really matters, and yet it’s easy to lose sight of this when you’re immersed in it. 

    You think you’re achieving things by commenting on and distributing content produced by others. But unless you’re being paid to manage your Twitter account, you’re really just engaged in a highly interactive distraction.

    We’re only going to become more familiar with the presence of constant distractions. I have not a goddamn shred of research to back up this suggestion, so bear with me.

    Regular internet users readily switch between dozens of social applications, interfaces and conversations every hour: email, instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook, et al.

    Compare this constant multi-tasking to what our parents were familiar with: that is, concentrating on the task at hand – using the skills that you’ve chosen to build your career upon – before dealing with what’s ahead.

    I might suck at explaining it, but the skills that a savvy internet user possesses are radically different from the previous generation. And I’m not one to give much thought to generational difference, but unless I’m much mistaken, we’re learning to think in a totally different way.

    I’m aware that I’m extrapolating my own experience onto a wider demographic.

    But I’ve found that instead of regularly focussing on one single task, my attention is divided across several mediums. It’s rare that I can concentrate on one task from start to finish.

    Logically, this means that the quality of my creative output – be it a university assignment, a paid article, or an email to my family – is reduced, as I’m thin-slicing my thought contributions across hours or days.

    That’s the rational explanation: reduced concentration on a singular pursuit results in a diminished outcome.  But I’m not certain.

    I’m still adjusting to this relatively new method of online productivity. But I’ve no doubt that individuals who can successfully navigate a web of procrastination pitfalls will end up miles ahead of their peers.

    It’s like Tait Ischia said in my interview: “If all the kids these days spent the same amount of time writing blogs that they did on Facebook, then [the advertising] industry would be a hell of a lot more competitive.

    He’s talking specifically about writing, sure. Because he’s a writer. But apply his concept to your ideal pursuit: breakdancing, animation, video production; I don’t know, interior fucking design.

    The reality is that if you don’t work at your passion, you don’t get any closer to realising it. It continues to sit out of reach. That passionate carrot that you just can’t be fucked working toward. It’s the difference between putting the majority of your energy into becoming a widely-read writer and just telling everyone you meet that you want to be a widely-read writer.

    In this way, nothing about productivity has changed since humans started realising that they required more than just food, shelter and sex to live a satisfying life.

    So I suppose that the internet,  in the hands of the unmotivated, might just be a platform that has the potential to be a dense distraction. It’s the marbles, the skateboard, the comic books, the pool halls of previous generations, condensed into a single interface.

    Except it’s inside, and you’re probably going to learn fewer skills when traversing the internet for extended periods. But even that statement is wrong; you’ll learn skills, but they’ll be completely different to what you’d learn in a pool hall or a skate bowl.

    Historically, the people who are motivated toward an end have achieved things. They’re remembered. They won. And those who stood in the shadow of their achievements weren’t remembered. They didn’t win.

    Simpler: the people who get things done win.

    This post is a departure from the norm, because I clearly haven’t thought this through. But I’m okay with that. Stepping outside my comfort zone of pretending that I have the answers.

    How do you spend your time online, and how do you deal with distraction? Do you think we’re learning to interact smarter?