The Current State of Popular Music

Over the holidays, during a family get-together, two younger relatives mentioned what their favourite pop song was. I did not know the song by title or artist, and until very recently I actually I thought it was an advertising jingle. I now understand that the combination of the song’s novelty factor and its ubiquitous appearance had helped to make it very popular. I can see why it may appeal to kids – but I doubt it will become an evergreen classic….

The song they mentioned incorporates a number of musical tropes very prevalent in many current pop songs, especially as regards the vocal styling and lyrical phrasing. But like much of the music being produced these days, it will likely be forgotten within a couple of years at most. The inherent “novelty” of the vocal could render the song a one-hit wonder, and the artist a one-trick pony.

I have nothing wrong with pop music per se, but if “we are what we eat”, surely we can become what we listen to. An unending and unvarying diet of mainstream pop music (as defined by commercial radio playlists, as measured by self-serving charts compiled by streaming services, and as financed by major record label marketing budgets and promotional tie-ins) is the equivalent of eating nothing but fast food and processed snacks.

So, at the risk of being labelled a grumpy old man, here is a list of things that are mostly wrong with contemporary pop music:

1. Vocals that feature one (or more) of the following:

  • the sound of cutesy chipmunks on helium
  • forced falsettos, cracked breathlessness and over-emoting warbling
  • singing from the back of the throat (as if constipated)
  • singing through the nose (as if congested)
  • whining, strained upper registers  (as made infamous by a certain tantric pop star)
  • auto-tune effects (especially those in search of a melody…)
  • shouting in place of projection
  • turning vowels into consonants, and consonants into vowels
  • adding syllables that don’t exist, and leaving out ones that do
  • over-stressed sibilants

2. Lyrical phrasing, scansion and rhyming schemes courtesy of Dr. Seuss,

3. Slogans, nursery rhymes and shouty phrases in place of lyrics

4. Drum and percussion tracks either programmed by ADHD, or inflicted with St. Vitus’s Dance

5. Boring, boxy and plodding 4/4 rhythms, with no syncopation or variation

6. Same set of production techniques and sound effects as used by every other producer or DJ

7. Samples based on the nastiest ringtones available (or programmed on the cheapest synths around)

8. Never mind a lack of key changes, or an absence of chord progressions, songs that revel in one-note vocal lines

9. An absence of interesting melodic or harmonic structures

10. Sound compressed into the smallest available bandwidth so it is easier to stream, but which ends up sounding flat and claustrophobic, and with exactly the same sound dynamics as every other song

11. No space to let the music breathe – every available beat and bar has to be filled up, especially with vocalese stylings

12. Too many cooks – songs by “X feat. Y with Z” are usually contrived concoctions dreamed up by the record company (“hey, we can flog this song to fans of all three of them!”) that end up as filler tracks on their respective solo albums

13. Kitchen sink productions (as in everything BUT the…) – you can almost imagine the producer in the studio shouting, “cue flamenco guitar, cue rapping, cue 80’s sample, cue metronomic rimshot, cue call and response vocals, cue detuned kick drum….!”

Part of the problem is that with the cheaper costs of recording, and the wider access to the means of production, anyone can make music, and release it direct to the public online. Meaning there is just so much more new music to listen to. However, the major record labels and their media partners still control most of the marketing budgets and distribution costs, that largely decide the songs we tend to hear, and that ultimately determine which songs become “hits”. By default, this process prescribes much of what is deemed “popular taste”. With the increased use of algorithms and other techniques, artists, producers, labels and media platforms can increasingly predict what songs will be successful, in a self-fulfilling prophesy of what will “sell”. it’s like punk never happened….

Next week: Sola.io – changing the way renewable energy is financed

An open letter to American Express

Dear American Express,

I have been a loyal customer of yours for around 20 years. (Likewise my significant other.)

I typically pay my monthly statements on time and in full.

I’ve opted for paperless statements.

I pay my annual membership fee.

I even accept the fact that 7-8 times out of 10, I get charged merchant fees for paying by Amex – and in most cases I incur much higher fees than other credit or debit cards.

So, I am very surprised I have not been invited to attend your pop-up Open Air Cinema in Melbourne’s Yarra Park – especially as I live within walking distance.

It’s not like you don’t try to market other offers to me – mostly invitations to increase my credit limit, transfer outstanding balances from other credit cards, or “enjoy” lower interest rates on one-off purchases.

The lack of any offer in relation to the Open Air Cinema just confirms my suspicions that like most financial institutions, you do not really know your customers.

My point is, that you must have so much data on my spending patterns and preferences, from which you should be able to glean my interests such as film, the arts, and entertainment.

A perfect candidate for a pop-up cinema!

Next week: Life After the Royal Commission – Be Careful What You Wish For….

 

Blipverts vs the Attention Economy

There’s a scene in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film, “The Man Who Fell To Earth”, where David Bowie’s character sits watching a bank of TV screens, each tuned to a different station. At the same time he is channel surfing – either because his alien powers allow him to absorb multiple, simultaneous inputs, or because his experience of ennui on Earth leads him to seek more and more stimulus. Obviously a metaphor for the attention economy, long before such a term existed.

Watching the alien watching us… Image sourced from Flicker

At the time in the UK, we only had three TV channels to choose from, so the notion of 12 or more seemed exotic, even other worldly. And of those three channels, only one carried advertising. Much the same situation existed in British radio, with only one or two commercial networks, alongside the dominant BBC. So we had relatively little exposure to adverts, brand sponsorship or paid content in our broadcast media. (Mind you, this was still the era when tobacco companies could plaster their logos all over sporting events…)

For all its limitations, there were several virtues to this model. First, advertising airtime was at a premium (thanks to the broadcast content ratios), and ad spend was concentrated – so adverts really had to grab your attention. (Is it any wonder that so many successful film directors cut their teeth on commercials?) Second, this built-in monopoly often meant bigger TV production budgets, more variety of content and better quality programming on free-to-air networks than we typically see today with the over-reliance on so-called reality TV. Third, with less viewing choice, there was a greater shared experience among audiences – and more communal connection because we could talk about similar things.

Then along came cable and satellite networks, bringing more choice (and more advertising), but not necessarily better quality content. In fact, with TV advertising budgets spread more thinly, it’s not surprising that programming suffered. Networks had to compete for our attention, and they funded this by bombarding us with more ads and more paid content. (And this is before we even get to the internet age and time-shift, streaming and multicast platforms…)

Despite the increased viewing choices, broadcasting became narrow-casting – smaller and more fractured viewership, with programming appealing to niche audiences. Meanwhile, in the mid-80s (and soon after the launch of MTV), “Max Headroom” is credited with coining the term “blipvert”, meaning a very, very short (almost subliminal) television commercial. Although designed as a narrative device in the Max Headroom story, the blipvert can be seen as either a test of creativity (how to get your message across in minimal time); or a subversive propaganda technique (nefarious elements trying to sabotage your thinking through subtle suggestion and infiltration).

Which is essentially where we are in the attention economy. Audiences are increasingly disparate, and the battle for eyeballs (and minds) is being fought out across multiple devices, multiple screens, and multiple formats. In our search for more stimulation, and unless we are willing to pay for premium services and/or an ad-free experience, we are having to endure more ads that pop-up during our YouTube viewing, Spotify streaming or internet browsing. As a result, brands are trying to grab our attention, at increasing frequency, and for shorter, yet more rapid and intensive periods. (Even Words With Friends is offering in-game tokens in return for watching sponsored content.)

Some consumers are responding with ad-blockers, or by dropping their use of social media altogether; or they want payment for their valuable time. I think we are generally over the notion of giving away our personal data in return for some “free” services – the price in terms of intrusions upon our privacy is no longer worth paying. So, brands are having to try harder to capture our attention, and they need to personalize their message to make it seem relevant and worthy of our time – provided we are willing to let them know enough about our preferences, location, demographics, etc. so that they can serve up relevant and engaging content to each and every “audience of one”. And brands also want proof that the ads they have paid for have been seen by the people they intended to reach.

This delicate trade-off (between privacy, personalisation and payment) is one reason why the attention economy is seen as a prime use case for Blockchain and cryptocurrency: consumers can retain anonymity, while still sharing selected personal information (which they own and control) with whom they wish, when they wish, for as long as they wish, and they can even get paid to access relevant content; brands can receive confirmation that the personalised content they have paid for has been consumed by the people they intended to see it; and distributed ledgers can maintain a record of account and send/receive payments via smart contracts and digital wallets when and where the relevant transactions have taken place.

Next week: Jump-cut videos vs Slow TV

 

 

 

 

#StartupVic launches new-look #pitch event

The team at Startup Victoria have been working hard over the summer: not only have they brought on a whole bunch of new commercial sponsors, but they have also launched a new format for their pitch nights. The idea is to invite startup founders to register their interest in pitching to a panel of judges. The contestants get the opportunity to compete in front of a live audience, for a chance to win face time with local VC’s, along with some other startup goodies.

global_446720634It’s not Shark Tank (there’s no hard cash on offer), nor is it an open mic night (there is a pre-screening and audition process) – but it does enable entrepreneurs to test their pitch, get some early exposure, and receive some great feedback and advice. It also doesn’t matter what stage the startups are at, although businesses that already have some market traction or have built and tested an MVP are probably in a better position to compete.

The launch night saw pitches from four startups, who are at various stages of development. In no particular order they were:

Ad Hoc Media with Passenger Pad, a digital Out Of Home advertising medium for taxis, using interactive touch screens inside the cab. To date, there has been a low take-up rate of this technology by the taxi industry in Australia, mainly due to regulatory issues, but the landscape is changing. With a background in taxi electronics and hardware, the founders are about to launch with 400 taxis in Melbourne, and plan to expand to other cities. There is no doubt that using a combination of passenger, location and fare data (duration, time of day, pick-up and drop-off points), the screens will be able to offer brands and their media buyers targeted audiences and in-depth customer analytics. The challenge will be to offer advertisers a competitive rate card, especially as this is essentially a new medium: it offers viewer choice like TV, can serve up targeted content like web or mobile, and is ideal for special offers linked to location and time of day.

Global Patient Portal offers a free platform for e-health records. Having already launched in Kolkata, India with 40,000 users signed up in 11 weeks, GPP is aiming at lower socio-economic communities and emerging markets. The initial business goal is simple: to support ownership of e-health records by users. Using a combination of bootstrapping and NGO funding, GPP has been able to hire a team of “scribes” in India who sit in on patient consultations and capture the medical notes, which can then be referred to at the next consultation. (Currently, a lot of time and resource is wasted because patient records are captured on paper, which is easily lost once the patient leaves the clinic.) Commercial revenue will come from selling anonymized patient data (subject to legal compliance, privacy obligations and data accuracy) for research and policy planning purposes. In choosing to launch in Kolkata, GPP was aware that in some more affluent urban communities in India, the favoured means of patient communication is WhatsApp?, so they would be less likely to adopt a separate platform. Also, in Australia, having talked to GPs about the various government attempts to establish the e-health system for patient records, I am aware of a reluctance within the medical profession to buy in to the scheme: first, there is no financial incentive for them to capture patient data via a common e-health platform; second, why would they want to share patient data with their competitors?

prevyou is aiming to disrupt a large part of the recruitment and job ad market, by directly connecting students with job opportunities at SMEs. The two-sided market effectively crowdsources available jobs from SMEs, who typically do not have access to the hiring market or to full-time and dedicated HR resources. The goal is to streamline the hiring process, and to offer a mix of standard and premium services (e.g., video resumes, applicant screening, skills matching, personality profiling etc.) and later to add validation of applicant credentials and qualifications. In return, the business will take a commission once a job has been offered and/or candidate hired. While the focus is initially on capturing the market for casual and part-time jobs, the judges urged them to look at the enterprise HR market (under an outsourcing or white label model?). Looking ahead, there is the opportunity include student internships (although, like the legal issues with Year 10 work experience, internships and placements present additional challenges such as achieving student learning outcomes and other employment law issues).

OurHome is an app to help families manage, share and track household chores, so that children learn to take some responsibility around the house, and they can get rewarded for their contribution. It emerged out of an earlier app, Fairshare, that was aimed at shared houses. Apparently, people living in shared houses don’t care enough about whose turn it is to clean the bathroom, or are happy with paper charts and lists on the fridge door. Describing itself as “an integral household tool with indirect network effects (i.e., like Google, not Facebook)”, OurHome also claims to be the #1 chores app. Using advanced algorithms, and other features such as customisation and Dropbox integration, the app also introduces an element of gamification through rewards (intrinsic and extrinsic). For busy families, it replaces those fridge notes and task charts (although, as the judges noted, there’s no calendar yet). Of particular interest is the very positive feedback the team have had from families who have children with ADD.

Despite a few technical glitches (concerning mics and audio quality), the first new-look pitch night was a success, and Global Patient Portal won the on-line audience vote. I was luck enough to meet with one of the teams a few days later. They thought it was a useful experience, but they hadn’t quite known what to expect, and they had anticipated more of a grilling from the judges and tougher questions from the audience.

Next week: More In The Moment