A musicians’ intro to digital media

On 2nd July 2010 I did a presentation to some Wales-based musicians about digital media, online and music business. The host was the Welsh Music Foundation (thanks to them) and our venue was Chapter in Cardiff.

It was an introduction to digital/social media with some practical tips and points for discussion.

Here are some notes which summarise my presentation and our discussion. These are mainly aimed at the musicians who attended but you might get benefit from this if you’re a musician who earns from your music.


What do we mean by digital media?
“the creative convergence of digital arts, science, technology and business for human expression, communication, social interaction and education”
from Digital Media Alliance Florida / Wikipedia

I’ve purposefully used the umbrella term digital media, which covers social media, social networking and categories like live streaming. An expert may quibble with my definitions here but let’s say we’ll err on the side of the practical.

A useful metaphor is:
People having conversations online

This takes place with text, video, photo, audio, slides and other images. Because of the public nature of these conversations it’s important to note that it is:
People having multi-way conversations online

Examples of digital media

Technologies include:

Blogs, e.g. WordPress, Posterous, Tumblr
Social network services, e.g. Facebook, Myspace
Wikis, e.g. PBWorks
Link sharing, e.g. Delicious
Collaboration tools, e.g. Basecamp, Google Docs (a very important use of digital media)
RSS (allows you to subscribe to multiple blogs and other time-based feeds and read them all in one place)
Live streaming, e.g. Ustream.tv
Streaming/hosting services like YouTube for video and Flickr for photos

History of media and media revolutions

Printing press
Internet and web

The main point here is to think about how society, culture and business changed as a result of these new technologies being widely adopted.

Characteristics of digital media

It is easier to form groups online, according to shared interests, campaigns, fans and so on, with all kinds of fascinating outcomes.
Recommended book: Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky – about the ease of forming groups online

People like to remix, re-use, re-create, re-version their culture, not just music. Go to YouTube and look at fan videos as just one example. Some musicians release their music under a licence which allows this to happen legitimately, within the normal legal framework of copyright.
Recommended book: Remix by Lawrence Lessig – about the culture of the remix and challenges to our traditional ideas of copyright

“Every company is a media company”
Rick Burnes, former NYTimes.com editor

Online tools every musician should know about


I call it the most popular online music discovery service – because it can stream music in video form. Are you on it? If not, why not? There may be a legitimate case for not being on YouTube but you need to at least consider its potential reach.

When I mentioned this at the session several people complained about YouTube’s royalty rates. While true YouTube doesn’t pay much, the main advantage could be in people discovering your music and raising revenue from other sources. Video embedding is a key feature which helps bloggers to introduce their readers to your music.

Ideas: music videos, interviews, tour diaries, live performance footage

Flip have many affordable portable video cameras.

Your blog

A blog is a set of posts organised by time. Every artist and band online should probably have some sort of blog, even if it’s just a news feed of your latest gigs, releases and media appearances.

The way musicians express themselves through a blog varies wildly. Some like to post diary entries and reveal things about their life and work to various degrees, others do not. Both are fine. Some have elaborately designed blogs and others choose minimal design. Either way or something in between is fine. Be yourself. But don’t ignore it – having a blog is like having your own media channel that you control. This is pretty much vital.

Your website

A musician’s website and blog should be on the same domain – in most cases.

Adding a blog post or news item to your website should be painless. If updating your current website is a chore it may be worth spending some money to make it smoother. You’ll enjoy it, which is how things should be.

My favourite website software is WordPress. It was originally conceived as blogging software but has been extended and adapted to run full websites. Many websites around the world now run on WordPress.

Two main ways of running WordPress
You get a free blog with the name yourbandname.wordpress.com
You can choose different themes.
You can pay fees for extra services, e.g. to have it redirected to yourbandname.com seamlessly

WordPress is open source so you can download the software for free, run it on your own hosting and publicise yourbandname.com
You have total control over its behaviour and appearance. You can choose different themes or design your own. You can extend its functionality by installing plug-ins. In practice you’d probably ask a designer with the technical knowhow to install it and design/build the theme.

Other people’s blogs

Being featured on blogs can be a key way of growing buzz around your band. Use Hype Machine and Google Blog Search to find blogs already featuring similar artists or your genre. Start reading them and get in touch if you have something relevant.


There are three kinds of presence on Facebook.
– individual user profile
– page
– group

The page is Facebook’s offering for brands, companies and organisations. Usually the page is the correct one for a band, artist, label or venue.

Do not get an individual user profile for a band. Facebook may take a dim view of a non-person having a user profile. Even if you’re a solo artist, it pre-supposes a two-way friend relationship which exists in the offline world. So consider having a profile for friends and a page for fans.

In general Facebook’s customers are its advertisers and you play in their garden and by their rules. Be careful about how much time you invest and be sure to evaluate if you are getting value back.


In general its value for reaching fans is diminished because attention has gone elsewhere. It’s worth having a page for your music and photos because agents and other music industry people are in the habit of using it. Most bands should not spend too much time on it. Certain genres are stronger on Myspace than others. Know your genre!


Some artists are good on Twitter and can use it to update fans.

It’s far more proven as an excellent place to keep up with news, including music industry news.

Don’t necessarily believe what anyone says about it – try it yourself.

Email lists

People still use email. Its value is diminishing, again because of fragmented attention. But it may be worth running one.

Make sure anything in the email address is also on your blog or elsewhere online. People want to search for it and link to it. Don’t limit the audience to the mailing list!

Recommendations: Your Mailing List Provider and MailChimp (both slightly different)

Don’t send email to people who haven’t opted in. Never spam people. Never ever.

Some thoughts about business models

Record business is not the music business

“Disruption” – technology companies like it, record companies don’t necessarily like it

In the 1980s certain parts of the record industry were extremely concerned about home taping – imperfect analogue copies. Now we have perfect digital copies. What now?

Copying is not the same as stealing – they are covered by different laws.

Throughout history, forms of copyright infringement have become licensed uses, e.g. public performance, radio. What we now think of as illegal may become licensed. Whether or not this is true, people WILL copy your music. They might use filesharing networks, they might use the web or they might use memory sticks. But only if your music is good enough.

What could you do if you knew 1,000,000 people had shared your music?

Some will still buy the CD or the vinyl. Some will attend your gigs and buy your merchandise.
Some will buy the digital files because they value the convenience or because they want to pay out of gratitude.

“Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy.”
Tim O’Reilly, technologist and publisher

Examples of perfect digital copies in other industries

Software companies make their source code available for free under open source licences and sell what can’t be copied – services, consultancy, customisation, support, advertising/sponsorship and premium paid features. Examples are IBM, Mozilla, Red Hat and Automattic/WordPress. You could go into competition with any of these companies using their own software.

Consultants and experts are blogging their advice for free. Again, you could go into competition with any of them using their own material and (what were formerly known as) trade secrets. But often these consultants and experts are accruing MORE reputation and MORE work through the ease of access and widespread distribution of their advice.

Despite copying of films, cinema has large screens, good sound and the experience – all of which are uncopyable. Compare watching a laugh-out-loud comedy at home to being in a big audience at the cinema. Recently cinema has been adding 3D to the large screen experience of many films.

2009 poll: people who admitted unlicensed downloading spend an average of £77 a year on music – £33 more than those who claimed NOT to download.
Poll by Ipsos Mori for Demos think tank

Kevin Kelly says “A creator needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.” (Discuss…)

The invisible workload of social media

Recently I’ve noticed how organisations who are starting to use social media are radically underestimating the time investment that such work requires… and often adding this work onto the job description of people who are already pretty busy. This is a bit of a mistake – it’s important to work out exactly what is involved in generating and getting content out successfully into the web community and to your followers.

Talking recently to a photographer, I was struck by how he described his clients’ lack of understanding about what it took to properly publish his work online so that people saw it. Usually basing their own assumptions on their (limited) use of Facebook to share photos, they see it as an easy thing, which doesn’t require much time of special knowledge.

For a modern photographer, taking the photo is just the start of things… then comes processing of RAW files, then into Photoshop for some finishing touches to the post production process. Then resizing the image files and getting the colours right for print or web, depending on their use.

Over to Flickr, there’s uploading and creating (good) titles, descriptions, tags, geo-tags and other meta-data. Then there’s the option of doing a bit of research on Flickr to find appropriate groups to put the photos on. Then beyond Flickr, there are the other online places you might want to embed or publicise the content. Facebook, Twitter, client’s websites, niche networks etc.

Only then can he really consider his job ‘done’… and it takes at least as long as he used to spend in the dark room in the old days of film, when clients could appreciate that it took a good deal of time, art and experience to create a photographic object.

The same is true of text content (edits, re-edits, checking sources, writing for web and search, adding metadata, double checking, publishing,  pushing the content out to other networks etc). And the same with video – shooting, editing, captioning, converting into the right format, uploading (sometimes to multiple sites), embedding, publicising on other networks etc…

Often, a brand is also running a presence on Facebook – which needs its own attention, then there’s responding to incoming communications, monitoring online activity etc. All in all, it can be time consuming if you’re planning to attend to your online activity meaningfully.

So when we’re talking to companies who are looking at working seriously in the real time web environment, we’re pretty eager to hear how they plan to provide enough people time to resource it. Who will be doing the actual work, and how will it fit into their job? I do hear too many saying that they’ll just ‘add it onto’ someone’s existing role – and it’s a bit of a red flag.

The cost of online technology has come crashing down in recent years – but the requirement to provide some real human time paying attention to online activity has increased. Rather than just see this as an opportunity to save money from the technology budget, companies should be re-investing those savings in human time to pay for all the work that is actually involved in running a successful online presence.

It’s great the brands are now able to run their own online media presence, but it takes time and human effort – and that is what generates the value – people. So if your thinking of investing in this space, think in terms of time, rather than money.

Conversation about National Theatre Wales around the web

We’ve been working with National Theatre Wales and people who belong to their community – including office staff, production staff, cast, venues and “people formerly known as audience”.

Last year we built the community side of NTW’s website on Ning, with graphic design by the folks at Elfen. (Hoffi made the front page and listings pages.)

It’s worth noting that members of the community have the clear choice of making their posts public (open to be read by anyone who is looking) and many are doing so. The community is open to anybody on the web who wants to sign up.

But obviously with the web as it is, people are publishing their own stuff about National Theatre Wales and its productions around the web – not just on NTW’s community. We want to encourage this, it’s part of what NTW wants to achieve.

In fact, with NTW we have purposefully assigned a short tag to each production for use around the web – of the form ntw01 for production one, ntw02 for production two and so on. People are starting to use these tags already, in order to make their thoughts and posts more findable.

We also want to help the community to be aware of this other interesting stuff – videos, Twitter posts, blog posts, photos, audio – where relevant. “Online conversation” is a metaphor that has become popular on the web – and it does have some explanatory power. We want to give that conversation the best chance of being seen by groups of people who might be interested, so they can take part if they wish – wherever they choose to post their responses.

Here’s Tom’s post on the NTW site about the production tags and how posts, photos, videos and so on are collected on the NTW group for each production (and also a Netvibes page):

Take a look at the group for ntw01, A Good Night Out In The Valleys for an example of live search results from around the web. If you’re wondering how the live searches work on the groups, we made them with Yahoo Pipes. There is a chance of a few false positives turning up, as with any web search. But on the whole we like the way they’ve turned out.

We’ve included the services which seem to be the popular ones for discussing theatre. In theory more publishing services, e.g. Audioboo, could be added to the results if those services start to become popular.

So there you go, one small part of NTW’s online strategy which we’ve been working on.

Organising an event? Record and share it

I met a representative of an arts organisation this week. She mentioned one of their key aims is to help artists and other people they deal with to share knowledge. So they are organising an event, a get-together, to allow people who wouldn’t normally meet to do so.

The event itself sounded like a good move. It also made me think of the possible benefits of recording the event and uploading it online.

The recording might be a video, on a service such as YouTube or Vimeo. Or it might be just the audio, on a service such as Soundcloud. Attendees and other people can then embed a player on their blogs and websites, if you allow this (and usually there’s no reason not to allow embedding). Ideally you could embed it on your organisation or company website – but you don’t even need to do that to get started, at least for now.

The equipment for just documenting something is so ridiculously cheap now. We’re not talking about high production values or live streaming, just documenting the thing.

(There plenty of other ways to document an event using social media but today I’ll focus on getting the whole event as audio or video.)

Most attendees can be fine with audio or video if you tell them beforehand. Let them know about good opportunities to introduce themselves and plug their own work – at the start of each person’s first comment for example.

For video we use the Flip cam at NativeHQ, which is just a suggestion but it is cheap and an additional bonus is its size. It’s portable and so small that even the less confident people can happily ignore it and get on with sharing their thoughts.

So here are some possible benefits.

Extending the reach
There will probably be people who want to attend your event but can’t, because of time and geography. Recording it allows them to catch up afterwards.

For people who do attend your event it serves as a reminder of what was discussed. It might even help them to concentrate and fully participate in the meeting rather than struggle to take notes of everything.

Awareness of your organisation
Publishing a recording helps wider awareness of your organisation, its aims, its projects and so on. Relevant recordings lead to inbound links and boost to your online reputation.

One feature of the web, thought by many to be the beauty of the web, is that your recording is potentially accessible to anyone. What about exclusivity? Some audio and video services do allow you to control access to recordings. But in most situations you can just make it open. Why place limits on who can get this information? It might seem paradoxical, but some of the most competitive people and companies are the ones sharing the most useful recordings. Most things aren’t sensitive. They may as well be open.

Promotion of the event itself
This follows from the previous point. There are lots of reasons to attend your event. Some of these reasons are: meeting other attendees face-to-face, asking questions, having more influence, helping oneself to a drink or buffet. None of these are replaced by a recording. Often the recording can promote the event. (For instance, look at how the prestigious TED talks have taken off since they started sharing video. The attendance fee has increased too.)

Having a recording of key points may allow you to avoid having to repeat yourself. You can keep the recording online for weeks, months, even years afterwards. All of the good audio and video services will give your recording a permalink. This will not change and can thus be emailed to your community and shared between them and other people. Your recording will also be found by people searching for keywords contained in its title or list of tags.

Unknown reasons
I kick myself to think of the useful events I’ve attended – or even organised – and not had recorded. That’s because you don’t always know how useful the recording will be until afterwards. Or maybe sometime later. Those meetings just vanished into thin air. I’ll get by, but it would have taken hardly any effort to record them – so why not? (I’ve also been to some boring and irrelevant meetings in my time, but that’s subjective. Even those might have been of use to someone out there. You never know.)

These benefits can apply to anything good you choose to put online, not just audio and video. You could substitute the word “recording” above with “blog post”. You might already have guessed that for me, typing out this blog post ticks off some of the benefits described above.

Animal Collective Man on the Digital Music Experience

This is an extract from a recent interview with the US band Animal Collective, or rather one of their members, Geologist.

With the whole downloading thing I suppose it’s easier for people to have an opinion immediately after they’ve heard, like, half of a 128kbps vinyl rip or something like that. What are your views on leaks?

We take whatever minimal steps we can to prevent it, but we know records are going to leak. It’s not even about whether it’s free or not free, I mean the day you release it it’s free to the world anyway, what with the technology these days…

I have a lot of strong personal feelings about how people consume music these days, even myself. That’s why I have these feelings; because I can see how my own listening habits have degraded over the years with the advent of the internet.

Like, when people tell me about a new band that I should check out, before I would have gone and bought the record but now I go to Myspace and listen to 20 seconds of their song through my laptop speakers and I’m like ‘whatever’ – I think that’s disgusting on my part to form an opinion that way. I’m trying to break myself out of the habit. People ask, ‘why do you give a shit about a leak, it’s going to leak anyway, it’s such an outdated, antiquated way of approaching music’ and I guess that’s true, but I’m unapologetic about it, in a way, growing up in a time when the internet wasn’t around.

I always think back to when I discovered Will Oldham’s music… at first I bought the record because it was on Drag City and I was like, ‘Well, I don’t get this, is it country music or is it Americana music? It doesn’t sound like Pavement, I don’t get it’. Y’know, I was like 15 years old and if it had just been MP3s on my computer that I didn’t buy or have a physical copy of I’d probably just have deleted it and never listened again. But because it stayed on my shelf I put in effort to get into it, I kept going back to it. And there’s just one day, I don’t know if it’s because the weather is right or you’re just in a different mood, but it suddenly clicks for you.

Personally, I don’t have that many experiences like that anymore because I’ve been taken in by the accessibility of music and I’m disappointed by what that’s done to _my_ music. That’s why I’m not into the whole leak culture or digital music in general. I don’t want to take part in it by being, like, ‘Leak our record’ or whatever. Even streaming it before it’s released, that goes against my views on how music should be listened to. Doing that or putting it on iTunes first, it’s giving people another option from which they can hear your music for the first time. That’s my feeling, it’s very personal and it has nothing to do with the industry war that’s going on right now or anything like that.

Full interview at drownedinsound.com

If you’re unfamiliar with them, Animal Collective are perhaps best described as an avant garde psychedelic folk band. Although they are sounding a bit more polished these days. What does it matter? Hardcore fans will probably disagree with my descriptions.

You can judge for yourself by listening to their official Myspace page, presumably maintained by one of the other members, judging by Geologist’s views on music streaming.

I’m inclined to see his point here, but I disagree that this view holds in every case.

Certainly though, the fan’s experience is important.

What do you think?

You could also explore this debate in a video context. Which reminds me – Monty Python have a view on this issue. They recently launched a free and official streaming channel for Monty Python highlights on YouTube, partly out of disappointment with the poor quality of unofficial uploads. In their case, official DVD sales through their official site increased by 6,800 percent over the first three days, as a result.

Remixes Promote Colbert TV Show For Free

Lawrence Lessig is a well known proponent of copyright reform. He is perhaps best known as the founder of Creative Commons, an organisation which posits alternative ways of licensing your content.

His observations are astute. If you work in the creative industries, his recommendations for the future of copyright law may provoke, dismay, shock, delight or inspire you. It really depends on your point of view.

I’d like to mention Lessig here because, whether you like him or not, you cannot ignore the remix, mash-up and reappropriation mindset which totally pervades our culture right now.

If you’re a writer, artist, musician, photographer, record label, song publisher, book publisher, production company or TV channel, his work will in some way already intersect with what you do.

Here’s an interview between Lessig and presenter Stephen Colbert, originally broadcast on US television on 8th January 2009. If you’re not familiar with Colbert, his signature deadpan style can be an acquired taste. It’s better to view this whole clip as a stunt, for reasons I’ll describe below.

Certainly Lessig has a lot of insightful things to say but, in among the joking from Colbert, you won’t get the subtleties here. You get a mere taste of what’s in his new book, simply entitled Remix.

It’s somewhat ironic that an early copy of this video stream was removed at the request of Viacom, who – despite what Colbert or Lessig might say – are the actual owners of the footage. If you’ll recall, Viacom fought an expensive legal battle with YouTube to assert just that, with regard to hundreds of other clips.

So if it has been taken down by the time you read this, in the clip Colbert repeatedly tells us NOT to remix the clip.

Of course, in keeping with his affected comic personality, Colbert is in full knowledge that he’s baiting the bedroom video editors and remixers around the globe.

These are people familiar with music sampling (whether via hip-hop records, Fatboy Slim or Kylie), copying, parodies, re-edits, homages, music mash-ups, LOLcats, Banksy… and much more. Oh, and Sleeveface.

Original is best right? Well, not always.

Besides, what original version? Back in my schooldays I originally heard the tune Can I Kick It? by A Tribe Called Quest years before discovering the original source of the bassline, Take A Walk On The Wildside by Lou Reed. This was my first awareness that digital sampling was taking place in music – which blew my young mind. (I learned about the intricacies of copyright law much later.)

Back to Lessig and Colbert – and it wasn’t long before the remixes did appear.

Here’s one unofficial remix of the Colbert clip with Lessig. At the time of writing, YouTube alone has 17 search results for “colbert lessig remix”.

I can’t vouch for the quality or content of any of these DIY remixes. That’s a job for the vociferous YouTube commenters. But we do know that the remixes are reaching people who would never have seen the original programme. People who had never previously heard of Colbert or Lessig.

Marketing people, take note.

All this may explain why rap artists often put out acappella versions of their tracks, usually on the official release. Remix-friendly stuff! Let’s face it, hip-hop is a genre of excellent marketers and self-promoters.

We live in a world where a large section of the population feels that they “own” their favourite songs, books and shows. Of course, when copyright law is taken into consideration this is technically mistaken. And there are huge problems with this. Copyright is not only a legal structure which allows revenue generation but one which protects moral rights.

But what happens if we forget about the problems for a moment? There are opportunities here.

What if we could get the marketing department and the legal department to trade places? If only for one day?

Actually let’s forget about monetising, owning or controlling views of a particular piece of content. Again, this is just for a moment and just for a thought experiment. Let’s imagine one of the best items of work from your catalogue being deliberately released in a different way.

What if the ONLY thing we cared about was having people consume and spread that piece of content? And then to adapt it, re-appropriate it or engage with it? Imagine it. Colbert did, can you?

I have so many more intriguing examples to share. But let’s leave this open for now.