You said you wanted a revolution?

In terms of popular music and the “revolutionary” counter-culture, the Hippie Dream was born during the Summer of Love in 1967 (Haight-Ashbury to be precise) and died in December 1969 (The Rolling Stones’ concert at Altamont). The tipping point was probably The Beatles’ “White Album” released in 1968, featuring “Helter Skelter” and “Revolution 9”. Along the way, we had the “14 Hour Technicolour Dream (April 1967); the Monterey Pop Festival (June 1967); the first Isle of Wight Festival (August 1968); the Miami Pop Festivals (May and December 1968); Stones In The Park (July 1969); oh, and Woodstock (August 1969). From visiting the current “Revolutions: Records + Rebels” exhibition at Melbourne Musuem, the most significant outcome from this era was Woodstock, even though it came close to being a self-inflicted human, environmental and logistical disaster. It was only saved by a combination of the emergency services, the military, local residents – and sheer luck.

This ambitious and uneven exhibition spans the years from 1966 (The Beatles’ “Revolver”, The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”, and Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde”) to 1970 (Deep Purple’s “Deep Purple in Rock”, Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”, and The Stooges’ “Fun House”). Despite covering the peak psychedelic era of “Sergeant Pepper”, “Their Satanic Majesties Request” and “The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn”, the exhibition leaves you with the impression that Woodstock is the only enduring musical or cultural event from this time. Yet, the music portrayed in Woodstock is far from revolutionary – being mostly a bland collection of highly-derivative (and by then, almost passé) rock, blues and folk.

It almost feels like the curators of this exhibition set themselves up for failure. By trying to cover such a broad spectrum of political, social, economic and cultural themes, and then view them primarily through the rather narrow lens of popular music, the net effect is a grab bag of museum artifacts assembled with little coherence, all accompanied by a rather insipid soundtrack selection.

I’m not doubting the importance and lasting significance of the topics included (civil rights, peace movement, feminism, class war and gay liberation) – but the attempt to tack on some Australian relevance almost backfires. Let’s not forget that homosexuality was not decriminalised in Tasmania until 1997, and abortion is still not decriminalised in NSW. In fact, Australia was possibly more progressive on some issues in the early 1970s (anti-Vietnam War, ecology, feminism) than it is today with the current resurgence of populism, nationalism and religious conservatism.

Anyway, back to those “Records + Rebels”. I was surprised there was nothing about the radical developments in jazz or improvised music by the likes of Miles Davis (“In A Silent Way, “Bitches Brew”), The Art Ensemble of Chicago and Ornette Coleman, or labels like ESP, BYG and ECM. Absent also was any reference to the mod and early skinhead movements that were the antidote to hippiedom, embracing soul, r’n’b and reggae music. No mention of Soft Machine (who were contemporaries and colleagues of both Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix). Very little significance given to The Velvet Underground (probably the most influential band of the era in terms of inspiring the music that came after the hippie dream dissipated). And where were the likes of Can, Tangerine Dream, and Kraftwerk (their first album came out in 1970….) to represent the German rejection of traditional Anglo-American rock and roll?

On a somewhat depressing note, apart from Woodstock, two of the other enduring “brands” of this era that were on display were Richard Branson’s Virgin empire, and Time Out magazine…. So much for the Children of the Revolution.

Next week: Top 10 Gigs – revisited.

 

30 years in publishing

It’s 30 years since I began my career in publishing. I have worked for two major global brands, a number of niche publishers, and now I work for a start-up. For all of this time, I have worked in non-fiction – mostly professional (law, tax, accounting), business and financial subjects. I began as an editor in London, became a commissioning editor, launched a publishing business in Hong Kong, managed a portfolio of financial information services for the capital markets in Asia Pacific, and currently lead the global business development efforts for a market data start-up in blockchain, crypto and digital assets. Even when I started back in 1989, industry commentators were predicting the end of print. And despite the best efforts of the internet and social media to decimate the traditional business models, we are still producing and consuming an ever-growing volume of content.

The importance of editing and proofreading still apply to publishing today…. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The first company I worked for was Sweet & Maxwell, a 200-year-old UK law publisher. In 1989, it had recently been acquired by The Thomson Corporation (now Thomson Reuters), a global media and information brand, and majority owned by the Thomson family of Canada. When I began as a legal editor with Sweet & Maxwell in London, Thomson still had newspaper and broadcasting interests (the family continues to own the Toronto Globe & Mail), a directory business (a rival to the Yellow Pages), a travel business (comprising an airline, a travel agent and a tour operator), and a portfolio of publishing brands that ranged from the arts to the sciences, from finance to medicine, from defence titles to reference works.

Thanks to Thomson, not only did I get incredible experience from working in the publishing industry, I also got to start a new business in Hong Kong (which is still in existence). This role took me to China for the first time in 1995, including a couple of private lunches at The Great Hall of The People in Beijing. The Hong Kong business expanded to include operations in Singapore and Malaysia – during which we survived the handover and the Asian currency crisis. I also spent quite a bit of time for Thomson in the USA, working on international sales and distribution, before joining one of their Australian businesses for a year.

Given the subscription nature of law, tax and accounting publishing, many of the printed titles came in the form of multi-volume loose-leaf encyclopedias, which required constant (and laborious) updating throughout the subscription year. In fact, as editors we had to forecast and estimate the average number of pages required to be added or updated each year. If we exceeded the page allowance, the production team would not be happy. And if the number of updates each year did not match the budgeted number we had promised subscribers, the finance team would not be happy. So, we had a plethora of weekly, monthly, bi-monthly, quarterly, semi-annual and annual deadlines and schedules to manage – even today, I recall the immense relief we experienced when we got the CRC (camera ready copy) for the next release back from the typesetters, on time, and on budget…

This blog owes its title to something that senior Thomson executives liked to proclaim: “Content is King!” We were still in the era of media magnates, when newspapers (with their display and classified advertising) had a license to print money – the “rivers of gold” as some called it. But as the internet and online search came to determine how readers discovered and consumed information, the catch cry became “Content in Context!”, as publishers needed to make sure they had the right material, at the right time, in the right place, for the right audience (and at the right price….).

Of course, over the 12 years I was at Thomson, technology completely changed the way we worked. When I first started, editors still did a lot of manual mark-up on hard copy, while other specialists were responsible for technical editing, layout, design, indexing, proofreading and tabling (creating footnotes and cross-references, and compiling lists of legal and academic citations). Most of the products were still in printed form, but this was a period of rapid transition to digital content – from dial-up databases to CD-ROM, from online to web formats. Word processing came into its own, as authors started to submit their manuscripts on floppy disk, and compositors leveraged SGML (Standard Generalized Markup Language) for typesetting and for rendering print books as digital documents. Hard to believe now, but CD-ROM editions of traditional text books and reference titles had to be exact visual replicas of the printed versions, so that in court, the judges and the lawyers could (literally) be on the same page if one party or other did not have the digital edition. Thankfully, some of the constraints disappeared as more content went online – reference works had to be readable in any web browser, while HTML enabled faster search, cross-referencing and indexing thanks to text tagging, Boolean logic, key words and embedded links.

The second global firm I worked for was Standard & Poor’s, part of the The McGraw-Hill Companies (now S&P Global). Similar to Thomson, when I started with McGraw-Hill, the McGraw family were major shareholders, and the group had extensive interests in broadcasting, magazines and education publishing, as well as financial services. But when I joined Standard & Poor’s in 2002, I was surprised that there were still print publications, and some in-house authors and editors continued to work with hard copy manuscripts and proofs (which they circulated to one another via their in/out trays and the internal mail system…). Thankfully, much of this time-consuming activity was streamlined in favour of more collaborative content development and management processes. And we migrated subscribers from print and CD-ROM to web and online (XML was then a key way of streaming financial data, especially for machine-to-machine transmission).

Working for Standard & Poor’s in a regional role, I was based in Melbourne but probably spent about 40% of my time overseas and interstate. My role involved product management and market development – but although I no longer edited content or reviewed proofs, I remained actively involved in product design, content development, user acceptance testing and client engagement. The latter was particularly interesting in Asia, especially China and Japan. Then the global financial crisis, and the role of credit rating agencies such as Standard & Poor’s, added an extra dimension to client discussions…

After a period as a freelance writer and editor, for the past few years I have been working for a startup news, research and market data provider, servicing the growing audience trading and investing in cryptocurrencies and digital assets. Most of the data is distributed via dedicated APIs, a website, desktop products and third party vendors. It may not sound like traditional publishing, but editorial values and production processes lie at the core of the business – quality digital content still needs a lot of work to capture, create and curate. And even though the internet gives the impression of reducing the price of online content to zero, there is still considerable value in standardizing, verifying and cataloguing all that data before it is served up to end users.

Next week: You said you wanted a revolution?

Jump-cut videos vs Slow TV

In last week’s blog on the attention economy, I alluded to the trade-off that exists between our desire for more stimulus, and the need to consume more (sponsored) content to feed that hunger. Given the increasing demands on our available attention span, and the rate at which we are having to consume just to keep up, it feels like we are all developing a form of ADD – too much to choose from, too little time to focus on anything.

Christian Marclay – “The Clock” – image sourced from Time Out

Personally, I place a lot of the blame on music videos. Initially, this format merely reduced our attention span to the length of a 3-minute pop song. (Paradoxically, there was also a style known as the “long form music video”, which stretched those 3 minutes into a 10-20 minute extended narrative). Then, in recent years, the video format has been distilled to a series of jump cuts – no single shot lasts more than a few frames, and the back-n-forth between shots often has no narrative cohesion other than serving the technique of the jump-cut itself. I sometimes wonder if the reason for so many jump-cuts is because too few of today’s pop stars can really dance, forcing the director to distract our (minimal) attention from the poor moves. (Note: pop stars who can’t dance should take a leaf out of The Fall’s playbook, and call in the professionals, like Michael Clark…)

I have previously made a brief mention of Slow TV, which made a return to Australian channel SBS this summer in the form of trans-continental railway journeys, a UK barge trip (can it get any slower?) and a length-ways tour of New Zealand. These individual programs can screen for up to 18 hours, a perfect antidote to the ADD-inducing experience of jump-cut music videos and social media notifications.

Concurrently in Melbourne, two installation works are on display that, in their very separate ways also challenge the apparent obsession with rapid sensory overload in many of today’s video content.

The first is “The Clock”, by Christian Marclay – a sequence of finely edited clips sourced from a multitude of films and TV programmes that together act as a real-time 24 hour clock. The work also manages to reveal a beguiling (dare I say seamless?) narrative from such disparate and unrelated scenes that you really do begin to wonder how the story will end…. The fact that some of the scenes are quite mundane (and whose main function is to indicate the passage of time), while others are iconic cinematic moments, only adds to our real-time/real-life experience of the ebb and flow of the seconds, minutes and hours.

The second is almost the complete opposite. “Cataract”, by Daniel Von Sturmer comprises 81 screens, each showing looped sequences of somewhat banal events. Although each video event is no more than a few seconds, and none of the loops are synchronised with each other, it does not feel like a series of jump-cut edits. This is partly because the events, despite their brevity, are all engaging in their own way; and partly because even though we know it is a loop, we somehow expect something different to happen each time (maybe because our brain is wired to find a narrative even when none exists?).

According to the gallery’s description of “Cataract”, “the world is full of happenings, but it is only through selective attention that meaning is found”. Quite appropriate for the attention economy and jump-cut culture – meaning is where we choose to see it, but if we are not paying the appropriate amount of attention or if we are not viewing through a critical lens, we risk missing it altogether.

Next week: The Future of Fintech

 

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