Category Archives: web

A World of Difference

Night Falls Over KortedalaLast night, I saw Jens Lekman perform at the Arts at the Armory complex in Somerville, just a 20 minute walk from my house. The last time I saw Lekman perform was in 2005, at a tiny club across town, PA’s Lounge. (It was also then that I interviewed him for a profile in Splendid E-Zine). In the interim, Lekman has gathered lots of acclaim for his honest, emotional, clever and at times charmingly awkward songwriting.

When I saw him in ’05 at PA’s, he was very fresh and young. He shyly clung to the microphone, eyes shut, crooning away. But at the Armory, I was stunned by how Lekman has matured as a performer in the past nearly seven years. At a sold-out venue packed with nearly 400 fans, Lekman commanded the stage with ease and comfort, dancing around, responding to the crowd and obviously enjoying the night.

It made me think about the act of creation. When you create something — a song, an essay, a painting, a website — you create a world. You can either invite people into it, or not.

Back in 2005, we got to observe the worlds of Lekman’s creation, and the audience derived some enjoyment from that. But we were not a part of them. Those worlds were his own. Last night, however, we were invited into them. We became an integral part of them.

After the show, my friend Chris remarked, “He was just completely engaged.” And that was it. Yes, the concept of engagement is one of the most overused in marketing. But now, after this concert, I feel like I have a better understanding of it than ever before. To engage someone is to invite them into the world of your creation, and to make it a shared experience. They become as much a part of it as you are, sharing in the honesty, the emotion, the cleverness and, yes, even the charming awkwardness.

Sometimes, your world needs to remain your own, and that’s okay. It could be something very personal, or you’re just trying to work something out or conduct an experiment.

But a world gains power when you bring people into it, because they make it better than you could have done on your own. They shape your creation, enhance it, amplify it.

It makes me think of one of the coolest phenomena I’ve learned about from the Occupy Wall Street movement — the people’s mic, where the crowd makes up for the lack of amplification by having an individual’s message shouted in echo by the people standing nearby. This not only enables everyone to hear the message, but actively involves the crowd in its communication.

It may have taken Lekman a few years to figure out how to let people into his world. But last night at the Armory, the power of his engagement was on full display. And his creations, his songs, buzzed with the life we fed into them.

Real-Time Rap

Some of you may have heard my story of how I won an iPad last summer while attending the Read Write Web Real-Time Web Summit. But many of you have not. It came up at dinner last night, and I thought it was finally deserving of a blog post of its own.

Man, that was quite a week. First, I won tickets to the one-day conference, hosted in New York City. (The conference was outstanding; you can read a recap on my professional blog.) While there, they announced they would be giving away six iPads over the course of the day. At lunch, they gave away four by random drawing. The last two, they said, would be given out at the closing session to whomever created the best rap or poem. Yes, rap or poem.

So, for the rest of the afternoon, I scribbled verses on a scrap of paper, muttering rhymes and rhythms under my breath. By the time the closing session began, I was as ready as I would ever be. Luckily, I was sitting next to my higher ed partner in crime, J.D. Ross, whom I was happy to have around for reassurance.

Soon, my time arrived:

And I WON! Can you believe it? (The other winner, though, probably deserved them both, as I think he is an Actual Rapper.)

Since the audio wasn’t so good on the video, here is a transcription of the lyrics:

I came down from Boston to learn about real-time

Didn’t know that I’d have to bust a rhyme

But even if I don’t win a 3G iPad

I know I won’t be going home feeling mad

I learned about trust and content curation

Speed-geeked with geeks from ’round the nation

Reputation management

I know what McManus meant

When he said the Real-Time Summit

was a great event

Had a lot of fun thanks to Read Write Web

They said it wouldn’t be great and they really didn’t fib

I like meeting experts in the world of social media

It’s more fun than editing Wikipedia

Now I gotta go catch the 7 o’clock train

Real-time web, you know we make it rain!

I’ll catch up with you all a little bit later

I’m @radiofreegeorgy on Twitter.

Take Five: The New Music Industry

In my grand editorial plan, this post was supposed to be a recap of Rock Shop 7: Meet the Press, where music writers from papers all over town held court with local rockers. Alas, I got whisked into the #140conf world one day earlier than I had anticipated and had to miss it. However, at #140conf, I did get to hear the “Rock Stars in Real-Time” panel, moderated by podsafe musician to the stars Matthew Ebel and featuring digital publicist Ariel Hyatt, TAG Strategic’s Ted Cohen and none other than Amanda Fucking Palmer, the poster child for self-made, net-fueled rock stardom. Here is video I shot of the event (in two parts):

I was heartened to hear back a lot of the same things I’ve been hearing from DJs and music bloggers at the Rock Shop panels I’ve been (intermittently) attending and covering: the old model of stardom is dead and artists need to work hard and tour hard to succeed; musicians need to gain a modicum of marketing savvy and take responsibility for their own success; opening up and breaking down walls can make amazing things happen; be listening so you can take advantage of the golden moment when someone mentions you in order to build a relationship.

One really great point the #140conf panel made was that music is returning to being a service from being a product. Implied in the provision of a service is that the recipient of the service — the fan — is now at the core of the enterprise. To the other points made by the panel, it is incumbent upon musicians to capitalize upon the serendipity of the web to make connections and not just have a fan base, but forge relationships with fan. Yes, the music business, now more than ever before, is about relationships.

And what better way to connect with people than, well, music? I am seeing more and more music released for free (or at a name-your-own-price model, or perhaps a song for the price of an e-mail address) than I know what to do with, from John Vanderslice to John Shade. (And guess what? Having listened to his album, I’m totally going to a John Shade show next week.) My friend Mike’s band, the Daily Pravda, is performing this weekend at the Middle East Upstairs, and you’re going to be able to download their new single at the merch table. Tools like Bandcamp and Soundcloud are making it increasingly easy for bands to make their music social and to take control of distribution and sales. The Sheila Divine are financing a new record themselves via Kickstarter. With his Musicians for Music 2.0 initiative, Well-Rounded Radio’s Charles McEnerney is working to create a mechanism to fund the next generation of these music discovery and taste maker sites/technologies:

In short, it’s a really exciting time for music, I think. It’s a really a big bang, with an entirely new way of doing business taking shape centered around the two most important elements of the equation: fans and music. With that in mind, I can’t overstate how much I am looking forward to Rock Shop 8: All Access Arts. Just the idea that a music-focused event is a part of FutureM‘s week of web marketing events pleases me to no end. But to make it a real laboratory of how music performance and social media can interact to build buzz about a band is exciting and curious. The fact that it poses more questions than it answers makes me psyched to attend.

And there are lots of open questions about how this new dynamic is going to work. Heck, if I’m this curious, and I’m just a fan, the musicians must going nuts trying to figure it all out. But this is the time to keep asking, and keep suggesting answers. Who knows what great ideas are out there? All I know is that there is a lot of great music. Imagine what could happen if the two match up.

Next week: A new digest, full of fun links and commentary. Woohoo!

Take Five Goes to Rock Shop

On June 30, I faced a difficult choice: attend the big Social Media Day celebration down at the swanky Seaport Hotel with all the local Twitterati, or hang out in the dank, dimly lit Middle East Downstairs to drink free beer and talk music blogging.

The choice I made reflects why this post is on Safe Digression and not georgycohen.com.

Jay Breitling (Clicky Clicky), Brad Searles (Bradley’s Almanac) and Ryan Spaulding (Ryan’s Smashing Life) spoke at the fourth event in the Middle East’s Rock Shop series, moderated by Steve Theo. They talked to an audience of bloggers, musicians and promoters about how they run their respective music blogs. As a fellow music blogger (who is hoping to steer this blog increasingly in that direction) and occasional music journalist, it was a really interesting and informative evening spent with some very cool people. What follows are more or less my notes from the evening:

  • Ryan: Blogging is all about building relationships.
  • Jay: If you’re going to send a press release, be sure to be personal. These guys can easily sniff out a masked attempt at a mass e-mail or a message from someone who hasn’t taken five seconds to actually read the blog. And passion stands out above all else.
  • Time is short — two of these guys are dads to little kids, after all — so spare the long prose in your e-mail pitch. Cut to the chase.
  • Jay and Brad are more likely to pursue coverage via pitches they get directly from bands or their own musical exploration, while Ryan and his team factor in pitches from publicists a bit more.
  • Local trumps national.
  • When it comes to readership, it’s quality over quantity. The value of the connections is paramount.
  • In response to a question about Pitchfork’s new music blog collective Altered Zones, Jay remarked, “Pitchfork doesn’t care about you; they care about selling ads.” Ryan agreed, commenting, “Music doesn’t ask anything of you.”
  • Luke “Kip” Owen of Hip2BeSquare asked about how services like Spotify, Mog etc. that some bloggers take advantage of benefit artists. The response was unanimous that apps won’t save a band; touring and t-shirt sales are still the path to profit. Relatedly, Ryan warned against agreeing to “pay-to-play” scenarios. “You should never have to pay to perform your art.” [EDIT: Owen has published a more in-depth post as a follow-up to this question.]
  • A point that Jay reiterated a few times that I really liked: There’s a blog for every band, and a blog for every reader. They just need to find each other. This ties back to Ryan’s opening point about relationships.
  • Someone in the audience asked an interesting question about how to write about a band if you don’t love them, or how to write about something that simply doesn’t interest you. The answers? Be honest when qualifying your opinion about music. Don’t take on coverage that is out of your depth or interest. Don’t feel obligated to write about your friend’s band if you a) don’t like them or b) it’s not your genre; if they’re your friends, they’ll understand.
  • If you’re going to monetize your blog (Ryan and Jay do; Brad does not), don’t compromise your blogging in the process. Brad raised an interesting ethical point: if you’re offering up free and legal downloads from a live show, as he has done in the past, can you in good conscious accept money from ad placements?
  • Labels used to be our filters for new music (“Oh, they’re on Label X? I’ll totally pick that up”) but our new filters are, well, music blogs. [Ed. note: This again comes back to relationships, and ultimately trust.]
  • What not to do when reaching out to a music blog?
    • Don’t be impersonal.
    • Don’t try any tricks to make your pitch seem more personal than it really is (e.g. using “Re:” in the subject line to imply previous correspondence).
    • Don’t have a crappy or contrived promo photo. And while you’re at it, make your assets (downloadable promo shots, cover art, etc.) readily available (or else Jay is going to scan your album cover and an image showing the liner note crease will be all over the internet).
    • Don’t send an e-mail where the only link is to a Myspace site. “If it’s just Myspace, you might as well send me a Friendster link,” said Brad. In that vein, there was some interesting chatter about how Facebook has been slow to adapt fan pages to accommodate bands — audio is buried low on the page, tour dates aren’t visible, etc.
  • The best consumers and supporters of music tend to be other bands, which comprise a large portion of blog readership.
  • What keeps these guys going? Sometimes, just a simple “thank you” note from a reader who got turned onto a new band from reading a post.

The more I explore all corners of web publishing and social media, the more the lessons are the same (have great content, build trust and relationships) and the currency is the same too (passion, relevance, making personal connections). These are the things that make or break you, across the board.

The Rock Shop series is a great resource for the local music community. The next Rock Shop will be a CMJ infosession on July 21. Previous Rock Shops focused on how to get shows booked, how to get people to a show you have booked and a SXSW infosession.

Now all we need is a punk cover of “The More You Know” jingle, and we’ll be golden.

An Ode to Usenet

Another day, another historic Internet artifact laid to rest. This week, it’s the Usenet server at Duke, where Usenet was born. This is just the latest in a string of developments signaling the imminent demise of the now-outmoded channel.

As I’ve written about before, my Internet roots are decidedly old school. In college, I was introduced to Usenet because it was a requirement for my communications survey course (bu.com.co101.announce, represent!). Using the UNIX client tin as my newsreader, I soon branched out to the groups surrounding writing and music, my two main areas of interest, and found communities that were as formative to my college experience as the Dragon World BBS was to my high school experience. Yessirree, it was a golden era, back when I still put two spaces after a period and had a 10-line .sig file complete with an ICQ number.

I spent the most significant amounts of my time in alt.music.barenaked-ladies, alt.music.dave-matthewsalt.music.ben-folds-five and rec.music.rem. The first two were high-volume, uber-fandom discussion groups, where we had a lot of great conversations about the respective bands and their music. The latter two contained fans of those bands, sure, but it was more about hanging out with each other than geeking out over the fandom. It probably makes sense that it is from those two groups where I acquired the most friends, a great number of whom I am either still in contact with or even correspond with regularly today. It also bears mentioning that the friends I made via Usenet are some of the coolest, most interesting people I have ever met.

I credit my Usenet experience with so much — expanding my music tastes to bands I may never have discovered otherwise; extending my social network across the country (and sometimes around the world) and forging some lasting friendships; providing me with an opportunity to write and pontificate and debate about music, thereby learning a great deal about both writing and music in the process. It was definitely higher education of the geekiest form.

As the web continues to evolve and the next Wave/Twitter/Foursquare/whatever comes down the pike, it pains me to see the bedrock of all this innovation left in the dust and not given its due. Every time I see an article describing hashtags as originated by Twitter users, I cringe. Hashtags, as a means of threading conversations, come from IRC usage. (Related: It’s actually quite cool to go back and read the early blog posts, shortly after Twitter came on the scene, by people proposing the use of things like hashtags.)

In the case of Usenet, it is the first place on the fledgling Internet where group conversation flourished (for better or worse), bringing people from around the world together around areas of common interest.  We might take such capability for granted today, but it was groundbreaking back then.

The web has its seeds sown deep in these now-clunky interfaces, but I don’t think it does a great job of paying homage to its past. Innovation is great — the web would be nothing without it — but I find it regrettable that we barrel forward without preserving our forebears in the collective memory. Is the only legacy in uncredited functionality? Is a short memory the price of innovation? (Related: I wish I had gone to ROFLcon II earlier this month if only to have attended Jason Scott’s “Heroes of Usenet” panel.)

But as with BBSes, it wasn’t the technology that made Usenet great; it was the people brought together by the technology. Earlier this week, I dredged up an old topic from the alt.music.ben-folds-five newsgroup to reference in an e-mail to a friend. Reviewing all of those old posts made me nostalgic, and I recalled some of the members of the newsgroup who I found particularly intriguing but never connected with, perhaps owing to age difference or other factors.

Among all the names and faces caught in my net of memory, who I often wonder about and sometimes search for, there are several from my Usenet days. Most of these folks I never met in person, much less IMed, but they left an indelible impression. I can’t help but wonder if Usenet meant as much to them as it did to me. What people and interests did it bring into their lives and what of those still remain?

If there’s one thing to be said for today’s web innovations, it’s that they sure makes it easier to try to find these people. Connectivity is the great legacy of the proto-web, and it’s growing every day. Sure, one historic server is shutting down. But a billion more will take its place, bringing those faded names and faces into ever sharper focus.

A Fun Toy, Courtesy of YouTube

You may remember this cute, creative commercial for Google from the Super Bowl:

What you may not know is that Google created an entire project around the concept of that ad. Search Stories allows YouTube users to create their own commercial, using various Google searches to drive the plot. That last word is the most important. In the instructions, they emphasize the fact that your video should tell a story. I appreciate that emphasis a great deal.

All you need to do is think up various search terms that would advance a narrative. You can search the web, maps, products, books, images, news or blogs — mix it up for visual variety. They have a variety of music clips (good ones, too) you can set your video to, and YouTube will upload the finished product directly to your account.

If you’re doing this for fun, you probably don’t care too much what the searches turn up. If you’re doing it for a brand or organization, however, you certainly don’t want a rogue, unflattering link or image to show up in your otherwise innocuous search for “ice cream flavors” or some such. It’s worth tweaking the wording of your search to fine-tune the results (e.g. “flavors of ice cream,” “ice cream varieties,” “tasty ice cream”) and weed out any unsavory search results. You may also regenerate your video a couple times to alter whichever way YouTube randomly decides to pan and scan across your search results “screen” (e.g. if you want it to zoom in on the top result rather than scan from top right to bottom left).

So, while it’s not perfect and there are some factors you can’t control, if you’re willing to play with it for a half hour or so, you could come up with a fun, clever 30 second video – for free. Steve Garfield just blogged about this, but I’m hopeful that I actually discovered this before him 😉

I created this one for my school, timed to the May 1 admission deadline. Check it out:

If you create one, please leave the link in the comments!

Where’s the Love?

Little-known fact: I started the MBTA fan page on Facebook. Why? Because I’m a fan (lowercase F) of the MBTA. It was just after fan pages were introduced, and I thought the goal was for users to create, well, fan bases around specific ideas or entities.

Silly me. That line of thinking is pretty outmoded nowadays, at least by Facebook’s standards. While in the real world, being a fan means showing passion and independent initiative around an idea or entity (as I did with the MBTA fan page), being a Fan on Facebook (uppercase F) is a much more passive, reactive, push-driven proposition. Sure, anyone can still create a fan page, but Facebook is definitively shaping it as a professional marketer’s tool.

Now, Facebook is moving away from the “fan” vernacular to the all-purpose “like” on both fan pages and advertisements for fan pages. When Facebook rolled out “like” a little over a year ago, unabashedly taking a cue from FriendFeed, it added another level to the hierarchy of engagement with content on Facebook. You can comment, like and, as of recently, share. (Google Reader offers a similar hierarchy — for any article, you can like, share, or share with comment.) Either way, on Facebook, the acts of liking or becoming a fan sign you up for a subscription to all activity around that content.

With this new move, Facebook is extrapolating the concept and language of “liking” something from individual pieces of content to whole entities. And the subscription model still applies — though with a fan page (soon to be known as a brand page ), you as a fan (soon to be known as a connection) are signing up for a longer-term commitment than you get when engaging with an ephemeral status update. Naturally, there will be user confusion, especially because Facebook has apparently already decided that user education about the change in terminology is unnecessary. MediaPost also points out the possibility that this change will blur the distinction between people and brands in the eye of the users.

But more importantly, what does it mean to “like” something now? Is it less of a handshake and more like a grazing of shoulders in the hall? How much stake do we put in something that is “liked”? To me, it seems that homogenizing everything into a culture of like (much like a community of “friends“) devalues the engagement. Basing everything on a tally of “likes” creates an easy, appealing metric. By moving the language away from “fans” and more toward “connections” and “brands,” it becomes less of a personal space and more of a business space.

And that’s fine. And it’s no surprise. We’ve seen things moving in this direction for a while. Facebook can develop an economy of like, and I’m sure it will be successful for them.

But where’s the love? This isn’t middle school, where you either liked or like-liked somebody. I’m talking investment, commitment and affection that lasts longer than homeroom. That has an important place in the mix, as well.

The love, I believe, is in the niche. It’s in curation and creation. It’s in feverish pockets of devotion to a specific topic or idea. It’s in the nurturing of a community, an idea or a collection of content. It’s in the human factor. It takes a little more time and work to get there, but it’s worth the effort.

It’s not that a line is being drawn in the sand between the two levels of engagement; both are a necessary part of the landscape. But as the economy of like is poised for ubiquity, let’s not forget about the currency of love.

UPDATE 4/2: Looks like Facebook is adding a new wrinkle, introducing a feature called Community Pages (distinct from Official Pages) designed to accommodate people who want to, well, create pages akin to what I initially thought “fan page” meant, as well as pages around concepts like “Can this pickle get more fans than Nickelback?” I guess it’s time to see how long it takes for the MBTA to come calling for their fan page 🙂

Photo by richkidsunite/Flickr Creative Commons