Are You An Audiophile?

First there’s the audio equipment snob. I love my iPhone. I hate my iPhone earbuds. I’m talking about the original iPhone earbuds, the kind that millions of people still use. I don’t understand them – they don’t fit my ears and even if they did, the audio fidelity doesn’t match most of the in-ear headphones I’ve tried. The new iPhone earbuds: a step up, but still don’t fit my ears. So close!

Then there’s the production quality audiophile. While my ear training skills never developed well in the music theory sense of the term, I’ve always been interested in music production. A great mix with the perfectly selected reverb and separation between tracks means the difference between a good track and an amazing track. Can I tell the difference between 128 kbps and 256 kbps when you ask me the difference in quality between music files? Probably not.

That brings us to the file format audiophile. Neil Young unveiled his Pono music player to the mainstream with his Kickstarter project for audiophiles: a music device that will let you listen to high resolution music based off of FLAC, a lossless audio file format. For a few hundred dollars you can combine portability with quality.

But what kind of audiophile are you? Is the type of headphones you use going to determine your experience or is it the file format? Or is it how well-produced the music is? Or do you need all three? There are certainly many levels of audiophile: which one are you? Or is music just music and, “Who cares?”

Can You Replicate Virality?

YouTube, Reddit, tumblr, and a few other big platforms can make a person a sensation over night. It’s the perfect mix of talent, timing, and luck that cuts through the noise. Yesterday, somebody posted a link to a music video on Reddit with this title: “This guy was at my old school… i had no idea, wow.

First off, the title was on point for Reddit. It lacked any sort of promotional appeal to it like someone clamoring to get their music heard. Someone else posted it, not the original artist in the video, and the tone of the post title was clearly in the voice of a usual Redditor posting a link.

The link was to an original song by Kelvin Jones called “Call You Home,” which wracked up over 600,000 views over the course of a day. The song is poignant, melodic, and all-around good acoustic folk music. After Kelvin noticed how his song hit the Reddit front page, he capitalized on it by doing an Ask Me Anything thread on Reddit, the popular section where celebrities and interesting people answer questions about themselves or a particular subject in which they have expertise or knowledge that most people wouldn’t know about.

The strategy worked. The song got a lot of buzz with people like Jay McGuiness, the Wanted bandmember who has nearly a million Twitter followers, tweeting out the song. Kelvin even got his parents’ blessing to leave school to become a full-time musician, as he announced on Facebook.

One fortuitous event can propel a career in the age of Internet virality. We don’t know if it will for Kelvin, but it’s a first step of validation in the long hard grind as a musician. Events like this can also give you your 15 minutes of fame, and on the Internet it might only feel like three or four minutes of fame these days. So how do you replicate this? Can virality be replicated? Companies like Buzzfeed and Upworthy thrive off of virality. Whether it’s Buzzfeed using algorithms to find out what’s trending and focusing on what gets clicks or Upworthy testing out 25 different article titles to find out which one resonates the most with people, virality isn’t necessarily gamed but it’s manipulated as much as possible.

Huffington Post cofounder and Buzzfeed CEO Jonah Peretti is no stranger to getting things to go viral. He created the satire sites Black People Love Us and the New YorkRejection Line and even had an email chain with Nike, who wouldn’t make custom Nike shoes with the word “sweatshop” on them for him, go viral. These things are repeatable, with many sites and videos going viral before the days of social networks. Now it’s difficult because you have everyone competing for things to go viral. The more unique an idea you have or the funnier, emotional, or crazier the video, the better the chances of making it.

Too many people try to replicate virality. When it feels forced, it’s not going to work. Did Rebecca Black mean for her infamous “Friday” video to go viral? No, she was probably trying to write a good song but instead the video was so comically bad and the tune was just catchy (and bad) enough to strike a chord with the mainstream. If you try to replicate virality by looking at what’s been done in the past, you’ve probably failed before you’ve even started.

Reconnecting With the Physical World in the Digital Age

While talking to Zack Anselm of Tree Machine Records, an independent record label out of Bloomington, Indiana, we discussed the back-story of his music and artistic relationships and the life of a small, independent record label. Things have changed dramatically since the rise of file-sharing and the invention of the iPod, but sometimes you have to revisit the past to get a certain feeling or relationship with your music rekindled.

Zack says that he will be planning several vinyl record releases to “kick off a more physical connection with the world.” In my last blog post I covered some interesting stats about the music industry and how vinyl sales went up 32% last year. Many will write that off as hipsters in San Francisco, Brooklyn, and Portland getting their fix of indie rock along with their expensive morning coffee, but I think that’s an oversimplification. I like my vinyl just like I like my hardback or paperback books on the subway. Even though my coffee palette might not be particularly refined, I think it’s fair to say hipster or not, there is a point to what Zack was saying about reconnecting with the world.

It’s not just about nostalgia and clinging to the past, there is something that is often lost in the digital library of endless songs (and we’re not talking strictly about audio compression). Putting on some vinyl and listening to your record player takes a little bit more effort. Just enough to change the environment. Perhaps when we focus on physical things that lack immediacy, we’re offering ourselves a sense of delayed gratification. Not some perverse view of style or disdain for change, but a simple inclination to think, “If I listen to this record instead of playing music on my iPhone or crack open this book instead of busting out a Kindle, I might notice the subtleties in the art I’m about to consume.”

I’m the first one to admit I cycle through songs on my phone at the gym like a lab rat scurrying to get cheese in a well-designed maze. But when I put on a record, I’m committing to it, or at least until I have to flip to Side B. It would take effort to switch the record out, so I leave it on, and quite possibly there was no reason to switch at all.

The constraints of the physical world might be a gift in disguise some of the time.

10 Stats About Music Industry Sales You Never Knew

1. In 2013, digital music sales went down for the first time since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking them in 2003 (when iTunes launched). 

2. Vinyl music sales, on the other hand, went up 32% to six million last year.

3. In 2012, global music industry sales rose by 0.3%, the first time it had seen an increase since 1999.

4. 98.9% of all digital music tracks sell fewer than 1000 copies.

5. Only 10% of albums released make a profit. 

6. 90% of consumers would stop pirating and sharing files illegally after two warnings from their Internet Service Provider.

7. A 2011 study found that 22% of all Internet bandwidth was used for the purposes of online piracy.

8. That same study found that 70% of online users find nothing wrong with online piracy.

9. In 1988, Warner/Chappelle Music bought the company that owns the rights to “Happy Birthday to You” for $28 million, with the song’s value estimated at $5 million. It’ll cost you about $10,000 to put the popular sing-a-long song in a movie. 

10. The four major labels account for 87.89% of the U.S. music market share (IFPA 2011).

If You’re Everywhere, Are You Nowhere?

Apple is known for their incredible, simple, intuitive design sense and they’ve created massive value with their extreme focus on just a few products. Steve Jobs famously returned to Apple to cut their product lines and throw away everything that wasn’t working well. Concentrate on one or two things at such a level that nobody can beat you. At first that was the iPod and Macbook laptops, but after those matured and technology improved it became the iPhone and subsequently the iPad.
Doing a lot is much easier than doing very little. Simplicity, cutting away the fat takes skill and patience. Testing and iterating. That’s why some one of my favorite tongue-in-cheek quotes jokes about difficulty in brevity:
“I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” –Mark Twain
What I’m trying to get at is that’s it’s very hard, if not impossible to be great at everything. In the creative world, you have a dual purposes: work on your craft or promote your craft. It’s often hard to do both at once. If you’re promoting your work, that’s time you’re not creating work. On the plus side, it’s difficult to be creative 24/7, so time away from your “work” is time you can promote (assuming that doesn’t suck away your energy leftover for being creative). In the hyper-competitive world of music and other artistic endeavors, you want to stand out.
So you’re everywhere. You sign up for every social network, you link out your work every chance you get to everyone you know, and you beg, borrow, and steal for a retweet, like, or upvote. It’s tough, but necessary. But if you’re everywhere at the same time, does that mean you’re nowhere?
I’m not condoning foregoing the next hottest thing because you’re “too busy” but often you need to focus on where the value is. Just because a community is big, that doesn’t mean you’re gaining value from it. The same is if it’s small. Any marketing device has its advantages and disadvantages. Sometimes you need to take the Apple approach and be great at one or two things. Whether that’s choosing a couple communities to focus on and really deeply engage with people or alternatively focusing on one type of promotional technique. For you that might be blogging, YouTube vlogging, tumblogging, tweeting, or maintaining an active Facebook page. If you’re going to do it all, focus on where you’re getting the most value not only in numbers but in engagement.  

You Should Care About Sound Quality

I come across a good deal of demo songs that people throw my way on a regular basis. Some are great and some are works-in-progress. Showing me a finished product or showing something you scratched up quickly in the morning both have merit. Nobody wants to waste their time listening to something that needs work, but if it starts a conversation and you can gain solid critical feedback that improves your later product, I’m all for it.

The one thing that unfortunately happens a lot with artists who consistently rush to get “product” out (i.e. new music) is that they sometimes don’t sweat the details. Now I’m certainly no A&R guy, a long lost profession of people who can hear a gem in a low-produced demo barely exists today in the traditional sense, but I can still tell if I think a song has merit before it gets that extra polish. With the tools we have at our disposal, which are both convenient and relatively cheap compared to outfitting yourself with a full studio, there isn’t much excuse for a horrible-sounding demo.

I’m not saying this to be harsh, I’m saying now that everybody has recording equipment at their disposal and anyone can be an artist if they have a YouTube account, you have to really be a cut above to get through the noise. Sometimes I hear a new artist that is a no-name, and I think to myself, “Compared to what’s famous these days, this person should be a star!” Perhaps that’s a little cynical view, since many people consistently lament the state of modern music, but I’m saying this less as a slight to the current state of music and more about how damn good some music from no-name artists actually is.

The fact is even well-produced artists don’t get discovered, don’t take the steps to get discovered, or simply never get lucky. But even those people often don’t “make it” with great-sounding music, so if you don’t put every ounce of effort to make your music sound professional and of the best audio fidelity, you don’t stand a chance.

You might say, “Well Jonathan, Nirvana’s music didn’t have great sound quality when they first started out.” And I can say, maybe it wasn’t the most polished production if you compare it to cookie-cutter pop music, but they made a choice to have a certain aesthetic and sound and it paid off. But if you listen to Bleach or other early Nirvana, it’s primal and it’s corrosive in a good way. It’s not unpolished in a lack-of-effort sort of way; it’s unpolished in a good way. There’s a difference.

Why Video is Great for Instagram Users and Not Just Advertisers

Many people thought Instagram’s new 15-second video feature was just a way to ride on the coattails of Vine’s success in videosharing. Vine was acquired by Twitter prelaunch for $30 million and is now an integral video component to Twitter, although it also operates as a standalone social network for users to generate short, often pithy gif-like seven second videos. Instagram, as many know, was acquired by Facebook for $1 billion in cash and stock as its photosharing community surged in popularity on iPhones before also taking over in the Android market. 

Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom had already expressed serious interest in video on Instagram long before Vine came around. Seeing how long it took Instagram to allow people to share photos on Instagram just shows how slow and methodical the scrappy team is while adjusting to such rapid growth on the user side. Vine simply got there first, but it seems Instagram quickly overtook Vine in number of shares on Twitter.

So why is video on a photo-only social network so great for users? We all know advertisers will eventually get their chance to put commercials in video form on Instagram, helping the site to monetize and warrant their large purchase price, but this is the chance for users to intimately share moments in their life that need more than just a pretty photo with a filter. It’s been a long time since I posted something to YouTube—the barriers are just too high for someone who doesn’t maintain a YouTube channel and the quality and length that would be appropriate for me to put effort into YouTube simply isn’t there. 

In comes Instagram and Vine, two apps that now allow me to capture a moment that I don’t want to post to Facebook to all my friends, acquaintances, and family, but to an audience that is appreciative of whatever creativity or interesting media pieces I have to share. Since I’m already enamored by Instagram and have put time in there, Vine doesn’t serve the immediacy and convenience of opening up the Instagram app I’ve already cultivated a tiny following on (even if you don’t have a lot of followers, I’ve discovered hashtags are the best way to scan your area or events you’re at for interesting content).

If you’re the type who has a following in a professional sense, like a musician or artist of some sort, this is a new medium for a quick message and for the people who are already primed to consume this type of content. Your Twitter or Facebook followers might not want 10 different 7-15 second updates, but your Instagram and Vine followers will eat it up and it’s another type of marketing that blends a message with intimacy. Just ask Madonna.

Online Music Education Gets Cheaper as Berklee Releases BitTorrent Learning Bundle

BitTorrent is a dirty word in the music industry, as pirated copies of full albums and many other digitally downloadable files make their way on to peer-to-peer file-sharing networks every second. What BitTorrent can also do, along with other similar services, is enable the further spread of music education to the masses. Hypebot reports that Berklee Online released a series of online videos and eBooks for people to download and use for free (you can download the Berklee Online Musician’s Guide here). The online division of the Berklee School of Music, Berkleemusic, also provides free music lessons via Coursera, an online education platform that partners with many notable institutions to provide courses in a variety of subjects including music.

Even brick-and-mortar universities are getting smarter about online education. They know that not everyone will be able to afford, and might not even be selected to attend, a school like Berklee School of Music or an equivalent style of college. Although the move to online education, and occasionally giving away some free material, won’t be bringing in immediate revenue, it’s a somewhat inexpensive marketing maneuver. An act of goodwill also helps spread the word. Maybe it leads to new students at Berklee School of Music or paid courses through Berklee Online, and maybe it doesn’t.

“Free” is the new marketing. You might think, “Well, free is the old marketing too.” And in a way, you’re probably right. But what savvy artists started doing by giving away their music for free to market other revenue-generating products like merchandise and concert tickets, high-priced educational institutions and universities will have to replicate in their own business model. Online is not only the quickest distribution channel for content and education, but it will also level the playing field over time. Higher education in music is the next hurdle.

Comedian Jon Lajoie Uses Fake Kickstarter Project to Get Your Email Address

Comedian Jon Lajoie racked up a quarter million hits in the last couple days for his YouTube video outlining his idea for a Kickstarter project. The YouTube parody king is known for such works of art as “Everyday Normal Guy” and “Show Me Your Genitals.” Lajoie wants to piggyback off the success of Kristen Bell’s "Veronica Mars Movie Project" and Zack Braff’s "Wish I Was Here" Kickstarter projects. Those two projects raised $5.7 million and $3.1 million, respectively. How much does Lajoie want to raise? $500 million! Why? To become super rich!

Kristin Bell and Zach Braff have caught a decent amount of flak for their Kickstarter projects. Critics say that well-known names don’t need to raise money from fans; they can easily find the funding for their creative projects in the industry since they have the contacts that many up-and-coming indie filmmakers don’t have. However, what Bell and Braff want is creative control over their works, what people often refer to as final cut in the movie biz. Kickstarter even wrote in their blog that Blockbuster projects like those of Bell and Braff actually increase the funding to indie filmmakers on the site, bringing people onto the platform who previously never backed a Kickstarter project and who later browse the site to back other projects.

Unlike the real Kickstarter projects that are housed on Kickstarter’s website, Lajoie isn’t directing viewers to a Kickstarter page. He is directing people to his website to pledge hypothetical money to him, of which he has raised over $10 billion so far – not too shabby! His original goal was only $500 million and he still has 88 days to raise more money from his Internet audience. It helps that you can put in an amount under “other” instead of a measly $50 or $10,000 pledge. Many will think this whole gimmick is stupid, but it’s as smart as Internet marketing gimmicks come.

When you pledge, the “send me email updates” and “send me text message updates” boxes are default checked, meaning that Jon Lajoie is happily collecting thousands of email addresses to add to his growing online presence separate from any ad revenue he splits with Google on his YouTube video plays. Tricky? Yes. Genius? Of course. Lajoie is big enough in the YouTube and comedy world to get people to spend the time to donate fictitious amounts of money, but it’s harnessing that wasted time into marketing value that takes the cake for innovative online business prowess.

Yahoo to Buy Tumblr for Over a Billion and the Oncoming Monsoon of Haterade Looms Ahead

The Wall Street Journal just tweeted: “Breaking: The Yahoo board has approved a deal to pay $1.1 billion in cash for the blogging site Tumblr.” The acquisition was rumored for days now, as Tumblr struggles to make money off their huge userbase and Yahoo attempts to become relevant again by scooping up the teen-heavy blogging network and its billions of pageviews full of cat gifs, Bieber fandom, and soft-core pornography. 

Tumblr does house many sophisticated blogs and has redeeming content, but Yahoo is making a big bet that they will be able to bolster their future prospects on Wall Street by catering to the younger demographics that spend their days sifting through their Tumblr dashboards.

The acquisition, though not final, will be met by a vocal backlash of teensters and other social media addicts who don’t want to lose their sense of community by being bought out by an aging, albeit massive entity. Tumblr users have already started a petition to stop Yahoo from buying Tumblr, so far with over 150,000 digital signatures and climbing, and I don’t think they care whether somewhat newly-minted CEO Marissa Mayer is trying to turn a new leaf in Yahoo history. 

Every community faces growing pains and backlash. The Instagram community threatened to boycott the app after the company finally released their Android app (yes iPhone users wanted Instagram all to themselves). They also threatened to boycott when Facebook bought Instagram for a billion dollars in cash and stock. You know what happened? Instagram kept growing. I assume the same thing will happen with Tumblr.

The true test will be when Facebook and Yahoo try to monetize Tumblr and Instagram, respectively, to their fullest extent. The “cool” factor might not be there anymore if there isn’t a balance between sponsored content and organic content. Facebook has been slowly ramping up their advertising on their own platform with a long-term reluctance to degrade the mobile experience (ads only appeared on mobile more recently when compared to their desktop experience). Yahoo is desperate to pick up talent to improve their mobile footprint and Tumblr is one bold move they’re betting over a billion in cash on. 

Just like with most acquisitions or controversial topics online, there is going to be a loud minority of people who want their voices heard. Business trumps everything and you can’t always listen to all the haterade online, or you won’t get anything done. Backlash can destroy a brand, but in this case, it will most likely fade away as long as Tumblr pretty much stays Tumblr.