Now, it should be pretty obvious that we’re a bunch of musical masterminds here at BAMM.tv. Because – like all great geniuses – we feel the need to share our wide berth of knowledge with the world, each member of the BAMM team has put together a short playlist of personal favorites. There’ll be a new one every Friday, beginning with this installment from Phil Lang, Director Of Musical Operations (who you can see in the above picture, taking a break en route to battling Keanu Reeves in The Matrix).
Early 70s Folk Pop will always be my sweet spot, especially when it has a little twang. It appears that I’ve chosen the two songs (see: Crooked Fingers) for which there is no video of any kind on Youtube—not even an album version of the song with a still picture. Random fact: there is a lot of cowbell on this album…too much.
2. “Wonder” (Cold Fact, 1970) – Rodriguez
Documentary Searching for Sugar Man about this guy. Definitely check out the trailer. I love the blunt lyrical approach to this song. He just singing what we’re thinking.
Jim Fairchild (All Smiles, Modest Mouse) was raving about Mr. Shaw a few years ago. He was right. Very few songs in my iTunes account have the 5-star rating next to it, but this is one of them. It’s perfect. I wouldn’t change one single thing about it. He’s local, too.
4. “Everyman Needs a Companion” (Fear Fun, 2012) – Father John Misty
Favorite album of 2012 so far. What a voice. My favorite lyric of the year is in this song: “John the Baptist took Jesus Christ down to the river on a Friday night/ they talked about Mary like a couple of boys/ with nothing to lose/ too scared to try”
It’s one of the grand old clichés of the ageing process, and one that usually kicks in during the late twenties or thereabouts: the shocking realisation that ‘kids today’ just don’t have a clue about how things used to be. All the things one took for granted as cultural touchstones – devices, social conventions, specific Saturday morning cartoons and their wallet-crippling range of toys – are as alien to a new generation as civil war artefacts, black and white cinema, and a functioning economy (how many generations before we see one of those again?).
What can we call this term? ‘Nostalgia’ doesn’t seem right. ‘Generation Gap’ is hopelessly overused. For the purpose of this feature – and, hey, because it never hurts to try and force a new word into the lexicon – let’s call it ‘Wipeout’. Just as its likely that no-one will know you existed in 200 years (depressing thought of the day right there), no-one but the hardiest of future historians will know what a CD player is. It’s gone. Snatched from the public consciousness. Wiped out.
Like all reputable first-world neuroses, Wipeout has spread several memes over the internet. Facebook feeds are all too often cluttered with ‘you know you’re an 80s baby when …’ cut-and-paste updates. Imageboards thrive on clever depictions of Wipeout – such as the challenge to explain the link between a pencil and a cassette tape, something which would only be screamingly obvious to those who grew up having to spool faulty tapes back by hand. Some websites even use Wipeout as a novel approach to an age barrier – asking prospective readers if they know what a VHS tape is. If they do, then they’re old enough to gain entry.
There’s possibly an entire book to be written on the everyday items and routines from the last fifty years – both important and trivial – that have blinked out of existence in 2012. But we’re only going to look at one. It’s less of an item than a concept – but one which has shaped the taste of almost any music fan who came of age in the era of vinyl, cassette or CD.
Whatever happened to curation?
Curation (noun): the act of organising or maintaining a collection of artworks or artefacts. (transitive) To act as a curator for; to apply selectivity and taste to.
That’s the dictionary definition. But let’s put the notion in more romantic terms. Curation by way of music … it used to be lot of things. It was a recommendation from a friend, a mixtape from a wannabe lover, a song half-heard on late night radio or glimpsed on small hours MTV (y’know, back when MTV actually showed music videos), an inky recommendation from the NME (y’know, back when the NME actually cared about music rather than fashion) and so on and so on.
Until roughly the turn of the millennium, all of this was dictated by music being a physical format – and the rules were simple. You heard something you liked, you went down to your local Tower Records or Virgin Megastore and handed over 15 dollars for a CD. Getting hold of new music used to feel like an event – and, like all events, it required a fair degree of planning. Choices had to be made. Acres of music were simply not available at the touch of a button – the customer paid over the odds for their twelve song collection, and if they didn’t like it, tough.
This goes some way to explaining why curation used to feel necessary. A review from a trusted journalist or hot tip from a muso friend could mean the difference between a wasted purchase or not. And once that CD was taken home and slotted onto the shelves? There followed one of the other joys of old-school curation: taking a step back and breathing in that collection, that assimilated lifetime of musical taste stacked side by side in jewel cases and box sets.
It all used to be about three main factors:
a) the influence of a cultural elite and their recommendations,
b) the trip to the store and purchase of a tangible object, and
c) the fact that there was no other alternative. Both the record companies and the tastemakers had everything locked down. The curators and the providers had their little system, and it suited them just fine, thank you very much.
Then: something happened.
Its kind of entry level to pinpoint the genesis of the present digital landscape on Napster – but that doesn’t stop the claim from being correct. Talk of a brave new world of MP3 dominance had been floating around for a good few years, but it was only with the emergence of Shaun Fanning’s pioneering P2P firebrand in 1999 that things really kicked into gear.
Suddenly – even taking into account the bandwidth limitations of the time – a whole new world had opened up. Whatever your musical taste, literally anything was available at any time, and now the risk-taking approach of yesteryear (you took the curator’s advice on what was good, and hoped you’d agree with them), these shifting MP3 data packets came with the best try-before-you-buy offer in history: you didn’t have to buy in the first place. Wanted to check out this new rapper called Eminem; see if he was your kind of thing? You could. And you didn’t have to drop a penny.
We all know the rest of the Napster story: the lawsuits, the infamy, the not-so-successful later attempt at legitimacy. The material is so well-trodden that its easy to forget Napster’s legacy – the blossoming of modern musical access, the huge hard-drive collections that began over this period, the legions of MP3 blogs headed up by wannabe tastemakers around the globe. That last point in particular is a notable one …
… because something else had happened.
Not only were infinite gigabytes of music now a click and a heartbeat away, but the number of people writing, talking and blogging about music began to escalate too. In fact, scratch escalation: it exploded, the white noise of a million new voices. Curation and criticism was no longer the province of a select few – anyone could have a go. Exciting at first, and certainly more democratic – but time is precious, after all. No-one can take on board every recommendation, read every review, check out every new artist whose buzz is filling up the self-published inches.
In short: where do we get our advice from now? Who do we listen to in 2012?
Music fans are by and large an opened-minded bunch, and (try-hard hipsters notwithstanding) as such are prone to rallying against elitism. While admirable, this does sadly deny a basic truth: that some people know what the hell they are talking about, and some don’t. Everyone has the right to share their musical opinion … but to pretend that they are all of equal importance is delusional.
Think of it this way. Who would you rather listen to: your friend with the endless collection of rare Dragons cuts and Afghan Whigs b-sides, or your friend’s mom who buys two CDs from Wal-Mart each year? A top-notch critic like Robert Christgau or Anthony Decurtis, or a fifteen-year-old in Milwaukee cut-and-pasting their school paper album review to their Tumblr? Both have a fair degree of validity … but let’s be honest here. You want to speak to the experts.
Finding those experts – now that’s the difficult part. In the space of two decades, a handful of music curators has become a hiveful, all buzzing loudly for your attention. Great for egalitarianism, not so great when you don’t know who to trust.
What if you could marry the best of both worlds? What if you could take the exciting tech opportunities of the digital age and merge it with an old-school sense of curation … letting a reliable voice sort the musical wheat from the chaff and merrily beam the results your way?
We’re not going to blow our own trumpet (well, not too much). To be honest, we don’t have to – click around some of the great artists featured in our library and it’s fairly obvious that we’ve got the whole ‘taste in music’ thing locked down. In the bluntest possible sense, we love music … and we also love sharing that music. Think of us as the older brother who introduced you to his record collection, or the cool guy/girl you hooked up with at college who opened your eyes to a whole new artist or genre … only filtered through a modern prism of digital opportunity, tech-savvy excitement and innovative development.
”There are a lot of tastemakers out there for various genres and sub-cultures, and that’s great,” explains BAMM.tv CEO Chris Hansen. “But if you walk into a store and see shelf after shelf of plain brown packaging where everything looks the same, it’s hard to know what you’re looking for, much less what you might like. Curation is what you say “yes” to, and I really do think of that in the sense of an art gallery or museum. If you’re going to hang a bunch of paintings on your wall, you have to really be committed to that artist and believe in the work so much that you will invite people to come take a look.”
Committed to artists? That’s us. And we’re also committed to sharing our knowledge and tastes with you. We hold no qualms in saying: here at BAMM.tv, we know what the hell we’re talking about when it comes to music. We’re throwing on our curator’s outfits and we’re opening the doors.
Here at BAMM.tv, we’re always keeping an eye out for the latest exciting developments in the worlds of music and tech. That’s why we’re thrilled to offer up an exclusive interview with none other than Vince De Franco – musical innovator par excellence, whose incredible career to date has seen him invent new instruments like the Dimension Beam and the Mandala, collaborate with artists as varied as Yes, Tool, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Prince, Tina Turner and Peter Gabriel (not to mention working along psychedelic figurehead Timothy Leary) and develop several online systems.
In short: the man is a pioneer in a world where the term pioneer is thrown about with impunity. We were lucky enough to pick his brains about the future of music … and he had some fascinating stuff to say.
Do you think these are particularly exciting times for musical progression?
Yes. Everyone is a musician, and always has been. As time goes on we are moving closer to a reality in which our innate musical self is more easily projected onto a medium and distributed than ever before because of intuitive and accessible tools. More people are being more musically creative than ever right now because the tools necessary to create and record music are already in their pocket or on their desk in the form of a phone or tablet or laptop. The ability to share musical creations is also more widespread than ever right now by way of a few taps on a screen or clicks of a mouse. To me, more expression and more sharing of expression is progressive and creates excitement.
Does increased accessibility of technology mean that more and more people can create their own instruments/sounds?
There are an infinite number of ways to synthesize sound, from tapping two rocks together to playing a cello to speaking words to running a computer program, etc. So, we’ve always had the ability to create instruments and sounds with the tools around us, but with today’s increased accessibility of technology there’s been an exponential increase in the ability to create novel sounds. These days we’re hearing more and more new sounds than ever before.
How do new musical inventions come around, in a ‘chicken or egg’ sense? By which I mean, does an invention come about because an artist requests a specific sound, or does the invention arrive first and is then leapt upon by artists?
It can happen both ways. I may be experimenting with a new technology meant for some purpose outside of musical instruments and it suddenly becomes apparent that a more evolved version could facilitate the ability to express oneself musically.
The Dimension Beam [D-Beam] infrared musical controller came about because I was working with an IR beam that had 2 levels of reflection detection for video game control, but I pushed it up to 1000 levels in order to track my guitar neck. After it was presented at a musical convention it was leapt upon by many artists and then eventually licensed to Roland.
The Mandala Drum on the other hand came about because Danny Carey of the band Tool asked me to make him a three zone drum trigger that would connect to his Mac and output sound with just a few milliseconds of latency. In the course of creating that trigger I invented a membrane technology that could detect at least hundreds of zones, and now we’ve got a whole new instrument in the Mandala.
You’ve worked with Tool, who are noted for their experimental attitude. Which other artists are great to work with in this sense? Are there any you would like to work with in the future?
Groups like the Melvins and Fantomas use unconventional methods live and during recording. That sure keeps things fun and interesting. Also, Ryeland Allison as a composer and sound designer, etc., has kept my mind sharp for many years. He’s always trying new techniques whether he’s working on something like the Dark Knight score with Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard or solo compositional projects and groundbreaking sound libraries. He’s been a great help during development of the Mandala Drum as well. And there are also people like Aphex Twin [Richard James]. I’d be into somehow collaborating with that wizard.
The notion of ‘muscle memory’ machines (devices that will program our muscles with ‘memory’ – the same kind of muscle memory that a guitar player spends years developing through practice) sounds intriguing. Could you tell us more about this?
Going through the motions of playing constitutes practice whether a mechanical device is guiding/pushing you through or not. However, a mechanical device could reduce the amount of time it takes to ‘memorize’ something because the perfectly executed repetitive steps would, of your own volition, be forced upon you. Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. Sophisticated physical rehabilitation and therapy machines are being developed and used successfully at places such as the Kessler Foundation and UC Irvine. People are relearning how to walk! In theory there is no reason why their findings couldn’t be adapted to the development of the physical and mental motion necessary to play an instrument.
How do you think such muscle memory devices would compare against classically-trained people? Is there any contest for innate musical ability (i.e. if I used this machine, hypothetically, would I have the same skills as, say, Eric Clapton?)
There are plenty of people out there who have trained themselves to cover Clapton songs amazingly well, note for note, with all his inflections and technique. A lot of those people can pull off amazing covers of other players as well. That doesn’t mean they could’ve written any of those songs though. Developing muscle memory helps develop technique to get from one place to another and can help add some flair along the way. That’s not creative skill however. That’s technical skill. Technical skills are a tool that can support creativity but not necessarily conjure it.
What implications do you think these muscle memory devices would have on music and popular culture in general?
There’d probably be a lot more shredders out there …on all musical instruments! But, that wouldn’t do much to enrich culture. I think the cultural impact of musical muscle memory development would be analogous to the impact of motion picture special effects technology on culture. On their own, the effects do nothing. There has to be a great story underneath. Something essential. If there is, and the effects are top notch and used wisely, culture can be affected positively. Individuals are touched in a mythical way by these artistic offerings, and a unified feeling ripples through the collective unconscious. It’s similar with music. The inspiration and life experiences that fuel the musician will need to be there underneath the muscle memory technique which is being used as a tool to support the essence of the creator.
You also state that we will soon be able to play instruments using only our thoughts – which, again, is similarly fascinating. Could you expand on this?
Scientists at places such as UC Berkeley and University of Utah and Northwestern are already decoding and translating brainwaves into words and control signals for mechanical devices. Their applications for this technology are in the field of medical treatment right now but I see great new forms of musical expression emerging from their developments. Just think, directly from your mind to an instrument to someone else’s ears. Physical ability may no longer be required to compose music or record a new symphony for the ages!
What implications do you think such thought-controlled devices would have?
There will be a lot of previously untapped smiling and happiness bubbling to the surface. Something big will be unlocked in a lot of minds that hadn’t previously been able to fight through themselves. There will be a new freedom of expression. It makes me think of the amazing viral videos of people with new cochlear implants that are hearing for the first time ever. Thought controlled musical creation will be just as momentous in an inverse way.
Are there other exciting music/tech developments you could share with us?
The sound of a billion drums beating! What do you think the music industry will look like in 20 years time?
A struggle between individuals and large operations will continue, with the state of technology helping define whose court the ball is in along the way. In terms of substantial revenue streams for artists, the live experience can always prevail, as well as merchandise sales. The problem is that there will always be a way to exchange recorded music freely unless a technology comes along which adds a new and overwhelmingly desirable dimension to the musical listening experience by way of a medium or tools that are not easily accessible by most people. Then the distribution of those tools will regulate the distribution of the recorded musical experience. You had a long-standing working relationship with Timothy Leary. Do you think it’s beneficial to use the experimental, psychedelic approach of someone like Leary when approaching technology?
Timothy used to say ‘Everybody gets the Timothy Leary they deserve.’. What I got was was a mentor in the form of a world class psychologist that stressed the importance of learning. He encouraged me to continue exploring areas that were most exciting to me; physics, music, technology, personal expression and interpersonal behavior. The deeper something is examined the more properties and possibilities arise. The evolution of my learning processes resulted in divergent thinking that helped lead to the development of several technologies and the formation of my company, Synesthesia. Thanks for talking to us, Vince!
OTHER BAMM.TV STORIES YOU MIGHT LIKE:
In Depth: Game On!
If you keep up to date with developments in the digital music world – and seeing as you’re already reading the BAMM website, we’re gonna go ahead and assume you’re pretty clued up – you’re probably familiar with the ongoing story of Joel Tenenbaum, a former Boston University student who was fined $675,000 by the RIAA for illegally downloading and sharing 30 songs on the internet.
Tenenbaum decided to fight his corner. Viewing the punishment as deeply out of perspective, Joel enlisted legal assistance and took the RIAA to court (with the help of Harvard professor Charles Nesson). A federal judge agreed that the punishment was excessive, but it was alas reinstated by a court of appeal.
Infact, if you want to know the story in full, just spare a few minutes to take a listen to this episode of BAMM Insights, in which we interviewed Tenenbaum himself:
Enjoy that? Good (and there are several more episodes of Insights you should check out too, covering a wide range of digital and music issues). Now take a peek at this BAMM.tv clip in which our very own Phil Lang examines both sides of the piracy/punishment argument:
Why are we bringing this issue up today? Because Joel’s most recent appeal has failed, and he’s still in the firing line for that none-too-pleasant 675K fine. Joel just graduated on Sunday, and – while he’s no doubt justifiably proud of his achievement – this ongoing saga can’t help but take the shine off that.
The thing is this: let’s look at the consensus here. In the episode of Insights posted above, Joel admits breaking the law, and is more than ‘happy’ to accept an appropriate punishment. The key word here is appropriate. If you were to hit the streets right now and ask people what the punishment for illegal file-sharing should be, what sort of answer do you think you’d get (barring any RIAA employees you might happen to bump into)? A relatively small fine – maybe five hundred or a thousand dollars? A brief stint of community service? Something in perspective, surely, because the vast majority of people have either a) dabbled in the world of the online five-finger discount themselves, or b) agree with Paul Resnikoff (see above video) that it’s a crime on a par with a traffic violation. Illegal, yep, and you’ll get your day in court. But you won’t be destroyed.
What will happen if Joel refuses to pay up? Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t have a spare $675,000 down the back of the sofa. Will he face jail time? Music pirates have been sent to prison in the past – admittedly for far greater offences, but nonetheless precedents have been set.
No-one would deny the right of artists to get paid, nor that those who steal music should be punished. But look at it this way – someone who illegally downloads music could theoretically face a prison sentence. Conrad Murray, the doctor convicted of the manslaughter of Michael Jackson, was sentenced to four years in jail. Conclusion: there’s not too much difference between the punishment for downloading a Michael Jackson song and killing Michael Jackson. Is that fair?
What are your thoughts on the issue? Feel free to share in the comments box below.
You know how a certain part of a tune – a guitar lick, a refrain, a chorus – will get stuck in your head without rhyme or reason, circling round and round your synapses like a dust devil? One minute your mind could be totally empty, the next minute your consciousness is held hostage by a musical prison warden.
Well – science, in all its glory, has officially given this phenomenon a name. Researchers at Goldsmiths University in London have hereby labelled these song snippets ‘earworms’. They explain that:
Earworms which are a special type of musical imagery. An earworm is a short part of a tune that comes into your head and then repeats for a while, for anything from a few minutes to hours. It can have words or it can just be a melody or a rhythm. Earworms are generally very persistent and it can be difficult to make them stop! The experience of an earworm can be pleasant, unpleasant or move between the two over time.
There’s an interesting article over at the BBC today which documents their findings to date. But they’re still on the lookout for research subjects. Put all images of being held in a laboratory cage like one of those Ripley clones in that rubbish Alien sequel out of your mind – all it entails is filling in a simple questionnaire over at The Earwormery. What are the songs that you can’t get out of your head?
A welcome return to our monthly series of in-depth articles from Zakia Uddin, all of which explore contemporary issues within the fields of digital, music and media culture. This time around, we take a look at London’s ‘Silicon Roundabout’ – a new development in the ultra-trendy area of Shoreditch which is hyped as a counterpart to America’s Silicon Valley. What’s the deal?
1. Shoreditch grows up
If Nathan Barley – the often-cited comedy about Shoreditch life – was made now, it would undoubtedly be set in a dot.com business. That the show was already dated by the time of its release (Nathan Barley, main character and emblem of vacuous Shoreditch life, had existed on the web for a good five years previously) was testament to the fast-changing nature of the area.
Five or six years on, the part of East London that was a cool in-joke has become the centre of a government growth strategy. In November, David Cameron launched the Tech City map of the Silicon Roundabout – a name coined by the head of Dopplr, one of the first start-ups resident in the area. The roundabout is at the junction between the City and Old Street, at which there is a high concentration of digital start-ups.
The map has been swelled by over 400 businesses, since its unveiling. Currently, 1073 companies of different sizes operate in the area. The launch was timed with several announcements of government collaborations with big business to support growth and technical innovation, which is intended to impact on digital start-ups stretching from the Roundabout to Stratford. These include Google setting up a development centre that gives office space to new companies, as well as Intel’s introduction of optic fibre internet to the area.
The socio-cultural sway of the EC1 postcode seemed to have peaked in 2001. Any club-goer stumbling out of a club at 4am would have been given a copy of ‘Shoreditch Twat’, an old-fashioned zine with hand-drawn cartoons depicting the lives of the city’s hipster nightlife, ironic mullets and all.
Though the area has lost its intimidating fashionable image, the continuing availability of cheap unused warehouse space made it an attractive location for start-ups. Unsurprisingly, a left-field influence is still evident in the kind of start-ups the roundabout has attracted, though this has also diversified in recent years.
While the days of the Shoreditch Twat are over (the ‘twats’ have moved to nearby Dalston now, if Vice is to be believed), artists and designers still congregate to Brick Lane, and the area has several important music venues including the Macbeth, the Vice-owned Old Blue Last and CAMP, a relatively new venture on the City side of the roundabout. Though many locals would be loath to spend a weekend night in Shoreditch now, creativity still abounds whether it be in fashion, visual art, media – or computer coding.
The collaborative spirit of the arts scene has extended to the ways in which businesses have nurtured each other since their early days. At the map launch David Cameron told attendees: “One year ago we made a major commitment to helping the tech cluster in east London grow. The successful growth we see today is thanks to the talented, creative entrepreneurs who have decided to set up there.”
The TechHub is one such project that began with an investment made into Moo, one of the bigger companies in the area. While Google and Financial Times owner Pearson gave the investment, the project itself is the kind that could only be initiated by a company that knows the unique needs of the Shoreditch working environment. The TechHub has served as home to several start-ups, offering both a communal space and an ideas network which arguably would have been harder to develop organically.
Other developments begun by companies in the area include digital music firm Songkick‘s Silicon Milkroundabout which aims to pair investors together with start-ups for funding. So … with this much initiative, what has been the impact of the government’s announcements?
Charles Armstrong of social analytics firm Trampoline Systems, the designers of the interactive Tech City map, told Bamm.tv that there is a new “self-consciousness” about the unique mix of technological and creative talent in the area, which has been crucial to the growth rate. The company created the map in order to monitor the growth and interactions of the businesses in the area now designated ‘Tech City’, using its unique SONAR technology.
Armstrong cites the statistic from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development that even naming a cluster can result in a 25 per cent growth in business creation. He commented: “It might seem an unimportant thing, but a name being attached to it and official recognition and policies have definitely changed the mentality.” Another tangible change he notes has been the introduction of big businesses in what Armstrong describes as the “eco-system”.
There is still a great deal to come, including a regional growth fund of £95 million for small and medium-sized firms struggling to get access to commercial funding. In addition, the government is planning to get a branch of Silicon Valley Bank (with its extensive experience of working with the digital economy) to open up in the City. Google’s new office, which will open in September 2012, will give space to new businesses, all of whom will get the opportunity to interact with world-class developers. In February, Cisco pledged that it would invest hundreds of millions of dollars into businesses in the area.
Many see this intermingling of big and small firms as an opportunity to expand skill-sets – on both sides of the equation. Speaking at November’s Internet Week Europe, Rebecca Quinn of the social media software company Wildfire Interactive said: “I think both components – big and small companies – are essential. Bringing big companies into East London means you’re introducing a certain level of expertise in development, product management and such like.” A similar debate at London’s Hospital Club saw a general agreement among the panellists that the entrance of big businesses would benefit all parties.
Innovation was cited as the biggest benefit for larger companies, which can be often be less flexible when it comes to taking risks with new ideas. Investor Sherry Couto said at Internet Week Europe: “On the innovation side, there is a lot more ambition from the smaller companies.” She described a recent gathering where nine companies that had less than 20 employees each managed to demonstrate that they can save £10 million in contrast to larger companies.
It is not just about savings – investors also recognise that it is important to be hands-off in their approach and nurture the qualities that attracted them to the growing business in the first place. Carlos Espinal of accelerator Seed Camp, who was also present on the panel, commented in response that investors are likely to have little impact on the creativity of smaller organisations – other than encouraging a greater flow of ideas. “The bigger the networks,” he said, “the bigger collisions of ideas you can have. With the larger players coming in, with their APIs being the backbone of the internet, it provides the way for the communities that develop to have closer access to the engineers that are actually making stuff.
“It creates for more social events where ideas can be shared, closer and faster exchange of ideas. From a creative point of view, it will be a more supplemental thing.” The best evidence of this? The digital music start-ups that can be counted as some of the biggest successes of the Silicon Roundabout.
2. Success stories
Last FM, Songkick, Music Metric and Rjdj are just four of the most notable names in the area. Arguably, these businesses have shown traditional music companies that there are alternative revenue streams, while bolstering existing ones for the struggling industry.
While Songkick has benefited from the rise in gig-going, its web and mobile applications have also worked to increase the awareness of live events. According to the company, its users go to 70 per cent more gigs at the end of a year using the site than they did at the start. The company is also used as an example of how start-ups and small London businesses have successfully managed reverse poaching – or rather luring US developers from behemoths such as Google and Apple.
In February, Dan Crow, a former developer at both companies, became head of technology at Songkick, and told TechCrunch that the live music site had “immediately stood out” from the many “exciting new start-ups” he had noticed on his return to London in 2008.
The emphasis on enabling people to find out about new music and events has also motivated other digital music companies. Music recommendation site Last FM began with founder Matt Stiksel asking how it was that people discovered new music that they don’t yet know about.
Launched in the fading light of the dot com boom, the company’s early years were especially difficult. Being bought by CBS changed the scope of what was possible by the company. Founder Martin Stiksel told Net Magazine: “Before the acquisition, we had to run everything at arm’s length. The focus was on making sure the money was there at the end of the month to pay everybody. We had about 45 employees and there was quite a bit of responsibility. Now we can go back, look at the bigger picture, and dust off some off our whiteboards full of ideas that we had collected over the last couple of years and thought we’d never get around to doing.”
While RJDJ comes from a slightly different angle, it is also about personalising the music experience and allowing people to experience it in new and novel ways, rather than seeing it as a holy experience only accessible to those listening by themselves.
The company, which has just relocated to an office that it calls The Mission, specialises in augmented reality and smart music, which enable interactivity. A beneficiary of iPod culture, it takes the idea of sound-tracking one’s every moment a step further. In addition, it allows music lovers to experiment with tracks themselves, and most importantly share the results almost instantaneously with friends. One of its most successful apps allows fans to remix parts of “controllerist” Moldover’s track Toast and then share their unique version with friends.
Its neighbour Music Metric is a company that tracks all the activity by artists across the web. For example, it recently produced a playlist showing which artists were being played the most in a single hour. WhoSampled also supplies another service which is responsive to the wider availability of music on the web. It specialises in identifying samples used in music, and has compiled a ranking of the artists who use the most samples (Dr Dre, for your information, with over 1000). There is also a comprehensive database of covers, built from user knowledge.
While some of the sites seem to serve niche functions, all of them are faced with the same challenges in the digital environment. Digital start-ups working with music are among those that have called for overhauls on intellectual property laws. As well as promising funding, the government has pledged that it will support the digital economy in other ways to become more competitive.
Minister Ed Vaizey said at the Tech City talks held at Imperial College that it was the role of the government to implement the recommendations of the Hargreaves review. The findings of the review, published this year, highlighted the economic benefits of relaxing IP laws and how investors were deterred by the UK’s outmoded framework on copyright.
3. London as a hub of ideation?
So - at this early stage of government involvement – how far does the analogy between Silicon Valley and the Silicon Roundabout really stretch? Silicon Valley has developed over four decades, while the oldest companies in the Old Street area are barely in their teens. In addition, there are fewer hard-tech companies in the area, in comparison to its Californian counterpart.
The firms in Old Street work within a broader range of industries, including the service sector and the transport industry. While there are the big names like Last FM and the design agency Poke, there are also companies such as the hotel recommendation site Sletoh.com and the gift shop Firebox.
It is much more diverse than other tech centers, which adds to the unique feel of the area. Many of the companies have also turned to traditional media to capitalize on digital success. Mind Candy is responsible for Moshi Monsters, which is a “virtual world and online” game which allows children to look after their pet – Tamagotchis for the 21st century. An estimated 34 million children use the site globally, with one in two British children adopting one of the virtual pets. It also spawned a magazine in February 2011, with Mind Candy CEO Michael Acton Smith saying on its publication: “It’s an unusual step launching a print-based magazine to support an established online community, but we think our audience is going to love it. Much of the content and ideas for the magazine was generated by our players, so it should feel very different to other kids’ magazines. Print definitely isn’t dead!”
The diversity of businesses is just one of the things that make the Silicon Roundabout different from Silicon Valley. Many feel that the recent announcements could paradoxically give the East London area the chance to shed misleading comparisons to Silicon Valley.
Among them is Charles Armstrong who comments that “one of the things that has been quite positive” has been hearing the comparison between the two places being used less often in recent months, indicating that East London is being understood as its own “living” and “creative” community. In particular, he cited the unique business and residential patterns which make up the Shoreditch area.
There are other parts of the country where arguably the analogy is far more sustainable. For example, there is Cambridge, which has been home to hard-tech companies for more than a decade now. The point of making London the hub has been because of its unique global connections – the city’s diversity and its ability to attract people from every part of the globe, despite the considerable expense of living here.
Dan Crow told TechCrunch: “The [start-ups] are driven by people who understand the value of technology and, most importantly, the value of building great products that users love.” Secondly, the university system has also been a massive draw, providing a pool of world-class graduates who are impressive to investors. Rebecca Quinn of Wildfire backed this up at Internet Week Europe: “You have so many great universities here: undergraduate and graduate programmes bring people together from all over the world. When you look at that combined with the recent focus from government on Tech City, and a decent hub of venture capitalists in the city, you get this – a hub of ideation.”
Arguably, the government is also hoping to take advantage of the credibility conferred by promoting Shoreditch as a growth area. On the City side of the roundabout, protesters have set up camp in Finsbury Square and UBS Bank in protest against the banking bail-outs and cuts imposed by the government. The Occupy movement’s support has cut across a wide swathe of the public. A recent poll in the Daily Mail found that 91 per cent of its readers believe that it would be wrong for legal action to be taken against the St Paul’s protesters, showing that support has only grown now that the occupiers have delivered their manifesto.
So – while discussing the City in a positive light is becoming harder and harder, the Silicon Roundabout is relatively untarnished and projects an image of the government as forward-thinking and engaged with the new digital economy.
4. Too much, too soon?
Some are critical of the project and believe that the terms used by the Tech City plan show that the government does not really understand the unique nature of the area. One developer, who did not want to be named, commented that the term ‘start-ups’ was being used to describe companies that were actually of very different sizes. He added that big-scale projects such as the “pop-up” mall Boxpark suggest that the local planners also want to bring high street brands to an area that has traditionally thrived on small businesses, digital and otherwise.
There are voices of dissent who believe that the arrival of money could lead to some companies acting prematurely, before they are ready to go to market with their best ideas. Tom Hume, of design firm Ideo, said at Internet Week Europe’s ‘Bootstrapping Your Start-Up’ panel: “There’s more investment cash floating around London in the past year that I’ve seen in the past four or five years. But it’s encouraging exactly the wrong kind of behaviour.
“The right kind of money to raise is the right amount that guarantees that you get to the next value inflection point. You could argue there’s actually a supply problem [in London]. If we are in a bubble, one of the impacts will be that people will be less lean.”
He added that the over-supply problem was more acute in London because digital start-ups here need less money to get going. There is little speculation about the possibility of a bubble among those resident in the Roundabout, if the recent effusive commentary from various entrepreneurs and company founders is to be believed.
The ambitions expressed by the government for the area seemed to be shared by those businesses it is targeting for growth. However, it is undeniable that the more investment will change the collaborative culture to some extent. Arguably, the government’s initiatives have inspired some recent developments such as the Silicon Milkroundabout but there is a general hunger for big-scale success in the area, after stories such as that of Mind Candy and Last FM. Is it possible for the collaborative spirit of the place to be sustained under this pressure?
One entrepreneur believes that companies should look to new models of working as coming from the starting point of competition can waste much human endeavor. Speaking on the same panel as Hume, Sarah Szalavitz of new media consultancy 7 Robot argued that the process of making multiple investments at once, only to buy the fastest-growing company, is an inefficient way of working.
Sarah Szalavitz commented: “I’m less interested in the Davids and Goaliths and considering the possibility that collaborative could be better than competitive. I think a lot of these cases, especially that we’ve seen in the US is that, there have been 50 start-ups that have been funded in the messaging space. Was that an efficient way to invest nearly a billion of dollars for one outcome? Maybe we can think of ways these companies could build on top of each other rather than compete against each other.”
Her fears are not unfounded, as Cisco and Google are known as two of the quickest buyers of potentially lucrative start-ups – raising the prospect of the best start-ups being lured to Silicon Valley. Estate agents have also jumped on the bandwagon, with property services promoting the Silicon Roundabout to companies of all types. This could mean that sectors such as law and accountancy that traditionally pride themselves on the expense and exclusivity of their rented space could move in, changing the character of the area.
However, the excitement about new developments remains palpable among entrepreneurs and developers. While some are concerned about the amount of cash available, there have already been enough recent success stories to show that these businesses are capable of generating huge amounts of cash, rather than just burning through it like their forebears in the dot.com boom.
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