Saturday, January 03, 2015

New Year's Resolutions for Post Production Producers

Whatever role you now hold in production or post production, you can begin transforming yourself into a better professional version of yourself right now.

How do you do it? You do it by simply asking the people around you, or in your charge, or whose projects you produce, to assess your current capabilities.

Yeah, scary, I know, but in the end, I think the positives outweigh the temporary sting of criticism.

So, here's a few questions that I have asked for honest answers from composers, sound designers, creative technologists and other artisans that I have collaborated with or whose projects I've managed:

  • How am I doing?
  • What can I do to be better at my job?
  • What can I do to make your job easier?
  • How are my communication skills?
  • If I wanted to be amazing at my job by this time next year, what should I focus on?

Similarly, if you're a Studio Manager, an Executive Producer, a Creative Director or a Managing Director leading a post production company, consider taking a moment to ask yourself (and your partner/s, if applicable), –beyond the creative brief, apart the logistics, and aside from the revenue:

  • How do I create value, not just for myself, but for my suppliers, my customers, my employees, and my community? 
  • How can I manage my people in such a way that we can grow exponentially greater together than if I go it alone?
  • How can I motivate my team by leveraging common purpose, rather than simply blunt directive?

Mind you, some professions and situations do require blunt directive –Triage, Fighting Fires, Life and Death circumstances, and Stage Management, to name a few–  but VFX, editorial, color correct, music and sound design, even with a looming media buy, shouldn't be one of them. If it is, you might want to consider taking a project management class while you're at it.

Either way, if you think it's nerve racking being on the listening end of all these questions, you're darn right; we artists, creative types and those who are attracted to creative business in almost any capacity often find it difficult not to feel hurt or insulted by other people's suggestions for improvement, no matter how well intentioned they're offered. And unfortunately, not everyone possesses a diplomatic communication skill set with which they might capably frame honest analytics with painless language.

Nevertheless, if you can sublimate the impulse to respond defensively, you'll discover in the weeks thereafter, that no matter how ego bruising, the changes and improvements you've subsequently made to improve your personal and professional skill set will far outlast the sting of criticism.

Upping your existing skills, your communication strategy, and your emotional intelligence game aside, if you don't know how to code yet, you might also commit to learning entry level coding or web development. I recommend trying your hand at Python programming; you may never need it or use it, but that's not the point.

We simply owe it to ourselves to make some attempt to understand the fundamental energy that is driving so much of the innovation in the world today, and which might be summed up as absolute logic in the service of product design applications and other purposeful or creative activities. You know, just like all that stuff you already do everyday, employing a combination of aesthetic, intuition and technique.

In that regard, you don't have to change a thing. But at the very least, coding may give you some idea of the challenges your clients increasingly face, and the processes by which their thoughts and decisions are shaped, and this new knowledge set just might make you a more accurate, empathetic and valuable collaborator and communicator.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Is Spotify Overpaying Musicians?

There’s a lot of recent discussion about whether musicians are being adequately paid via streaming services, such as Spotify. Spotify doesn't calculate royalties based upon a fixed “per play” rate, but as they point out on their website, the variables involved in producing payments for rights holders have led to an average 'per stream' payout of between $0.006 and $0.0084.

At first glance this rate seems abysmally low. David Byrne reinforces this assessment by providing us with the following bit of math:

“For a band of four people that makes a 15% royalty from Spotify streams, it would take 236,549,020 streams for each person to earn a minimum wage of $15,080 a year. “

Similarly, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke has complained that new artists ‘get paid fuck all' by the streaming service. I wonder how this compares to what new artists could expect before the streaming service existed?

It seems to me that this aspect of the economic journey from bedroom studio to stardom hasn't changed. What has changed is that record labels no longer act as a monolithic gateway to public discovery. You want to stream your music on Spotify, you can.  And if you do elect to make your songs accessible on Spotify, and the world loves your work as much as they love Taylor Swift's tunes, say, then Spotify will write you some pretty hefty checks.

Either way, making a million dollars shouldn't preclude one from inquiring whether or not the fruit of one's labor, talent or intellect makes one deserving of a million more.

In making a separate case for assessing the fair retail cost of an album, Trent Reznor presents us with his own view on the value of his music:

“I'm saying my personal feeling is that my album's not a dime. It's not a buck. I made it as well as I could, and it costs 10 bucks, or go f--k yourself.“

Unfortunately,  for Reznor, however, Price is not independent of Value, and Consumers, not Producers, determine Value. So, if you set the price too high above the commonly perceived value for any given item or service, then be prepared to sell nothing.

Byrne appears equally upset by Spotify's royalty payment algorithm as he is by the split that recording artists potentially share with other rights holders to the material, if they exist –maybe not for indie artists, probably so for those signed to a major label.

He has a point: Per Herrey, an attorney for the Swedish Musicians’ Union, suggests that musicians may only collect between 6 to 10 percent of revenues paid to record labels from Spotify and other streaming services. If you believe that artists are being short changed by participating with streaming platforms, it’s not because those platforms may be withholding monies from artists; it’s because artists have accepted agreements whereby the parties that fund and market their recordings, and which collect payments on their behalf,  are granted the lion's share of returns.

Reznor and Yorke, on the other hand, are united in their affinity for an economic paradigm that resembles the traditional model, whereby the public front monies to recording artists for an undetermined number of plays, as in 'You pay me ten bucks, you get a lifetime of music, regardless how many times you play the music'. This model certainly favors rights holders, but should we really allow the same criteria to define this modern market? After all, when I want an apple, I don't buy a lifetime of apples just to eat one now, nor do I pay an artificially high rate to obtain the apple, or even what the orchard owner wants for an apple; I pay the market rate.

Either way, if you love music as much as I do, you've no doubt also probably attempted to solve the following riddle:

How much should a single stream be worth?

Like Reznor, I think ten bucks is a pretty decent price for an album. Personally, I don't think 20 bucks –or even 30 bucks– is unreasonable for a 12-song playlist album, given the power of music in my own life. However, recalling my 13 year old self (which would never use the word 'however'), ten bucks seems just about right.

So, let me make an argument, and for the sake of this argument, let's agree that the typical number of songs per album is 12 songs. Maybe it's actually less than that, –maybe it's 10 songs–,  I don't know, but either way, I'm simply thinking out loud here, and I may make some assumptions based on purely anecdotal evidence.

Anyway, if we sell our hypothetical album of 12 songs per album for  a fair price of $10.00, then the initial price of each song at retail is fairly assessed at $.83 cents. Certainly, one might argue that the unbundled product should cost more than the bundled product? I agree; therefore, let's pin the value of each individual song at aprx a %20 higher rate than the bundled price and call it $1.00 flat. By those terms, the bundled album is not only fair, but actually a much better deal for the consumer (because at $10.00,  it's like getting 2 songs for free!)

At this point, we must then inquire from both manufacturers of the product and consumers of the product, what should be the product life expectancy for an album? Is it the lifetime of the buyer?

Before the Internet and purely digital products, product life expectancy –be it for vinyl, tape or compact disc– was from point of purchase until it broke, or we chose to replace a given title produced in one medium for an otherwise identical purchase of the same title in another medium.

Maybe our new car had a cassette player instead of an 8-Track, so out with the 8-Tracks, for instance.

Sometimes we even bought the same product twice, not because it had worn out, but because we needed the product in two different mediums to serve two different functions: Olivia Newton John, for instance, 'Let's Get Physical', vinyl for dancing around the living room, and a cassette for the Walkman and the gym.

Since vinyl is making a come back today, I'd like to suggest that the general product life expectancy for recorded music be assessed by the same measure.

Now, some people might tell you that they’re still playing their original Ramones records that they bought 30 years ago and they still sound great. However, for those of us who lived through the mass transfer of record collections from vinyl to Compact Disc, it was pretty common activity to abandon a worn out 'Kiss Alive' double album with a threadbare jacket that you bought in 1975 for its CD equivalent in 1988.

To my mind, this suggests that, pending technological advances or ever evolving novelty options, most consumers will be happy if a given recording on a given medium provides them with 13 years of service.

We might therefore say that after 13 years of possession, whether we have listened constantly without interruption (highly unlikely) or intermittently (based on our taste and the options available to someone with an ever growing music or media collection), that our investment in a specific media unit is thus satisfied.

However, if we strictly amortize the cost of a single song over 13 years, not to mention 30, the cost for each unit declines to a profoundly shallow level. From another angle, some would argue that given the fickle fashion which pop music is subject to, that the expectation that any given song enjoy an active life expectancy of more than year is unreasonable. I disagree, but I accept the argument to a degree, if only to weight the value of a musical work in favor of the artist and other rights holders.

Therefore, let us agree that for the purpose of defining the value of a single fixed play stream, that we pin that value (reminder: $1.00 per song at retail) to the expectation that we will listen to that song as much as once daily for 365 days –one full year–, and whether those days are consecutive or not.

In other words, one buck buys us 365 plays of a given song, regardless of medium. Likewise, $10.00 provides us with a product life expectancy of 4380 total plays a year when we buy all 12 songs bundled as a complete album (and 730 of those plays are essentially 'free').

If instead we consider music a service rather than a product, it's still an exceptional deal:

If the average song is 3 minutes (and some analysts suggest that it is as much as 40 seconds longer), then $1.00 provides us with 1095 minutes of pure listening, dancing, grooving, flirting, having sex,  burning-calories-on-the-treadmill or blotting-out-your-co-workers pleasure. Or to put it another way, $1.00 buys you an 18 hour soundtrack with which you can enhance any life activity you can imagine. Wow.

So, it should be surprising, then, to learn that when we finally reach the summation of our inquiry, using the reasonable prices that others propose, that the fair fixed cost per stream of a single individual song comes out to a whopping $0.0027 per play, per single listener ($1.00/365 days).

Since Spotify pays rights holders between $0.006 and $0.0084 per stream, is it reasonable for its critics to turn about face and now ask if the service provider is in fact over paying rights holders?

Or maybe an album is worth more than ten bucks.

The simple fact is that even if albums were $50.00, and singles moved for $5.00 a song, once we amortize over the same time frame as above –1 year–  rights holders are still only entitled to a little over a penny per play ($.0136). Perhaps in the future, given the ever increasing cost of living, singles will be $5.00, but is that time now?

But wait –there's actually no reason to think that the retail cost for music will ever rise much higher than it is now, or if it does, that it will remain elevated for long. As streaming gains in popularity, production and distribution costs will drop, and with them, one expects, also the cost to the consumer.

In the past, music manufacturers were able to sidestep the determinants of economies of scale because they changed formats every twenty years, thereby motivating consumers to re-purchase entire libraries in a new medium, and usually at the higher cost of a brand new thing. Now that audio no longer requires bonding or embedding in or on a physical container, and as manufacturers and distributors achieve increasing populations for streaming,  the average price per unit will likely decline, and with it the per stream average payout to rights holders.

Of course, it's reasonable to suggest that this should have happened already, given both the exponentially diminished cost in producing music, packaging it and distributing it, relative to just about any time during the last half century.

Nevertheless, if major music industry stakeholders can't establish another means of sustaining artificially high prices, then in another decade or two, there may be yet another zero to the right of the decimal. –And if that happens, then we may even look back on this time as the glory days when rights holders earned not as little, but as much as $0.006 and $0.0084 per play.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

Celebrating Bedford Ceramic

Bedford Ceramic Urinal (Artist Unknown)
The BBC new magazine has published this month an article titled: A Point of View: Has modern art exhausted its power to shock?

It is a question that is not unlike one I heard from a semiotician who in 2011,  inquired in an online forum we both inhabited, “Why is modern art so boring?"(Decoding the Now)

 The BBC article is well worth the read, however, one fact I find slightly irritable is the continued reference of a certain Bedford Ceramic Urinal as "Marcel Duchamp's artwork "Fountain".

If you're not familiar with the story, Duchamp signed a urinal with a nom d'art ("R.Mutt") and then submitted it for a group show as his own work.  Newly titled 'Fountain', the work was rejected by the committee, but today it lives on as 'a major landmark in 20th-century art'.

Some of you are no doubt thinking, 'bullsh*t', while some of you are thinking, 'well, of course it is'. My own opinion accommodates both perceptions as valid.

No doubt, it is someone’s urinal, as it was certainly commissioned, designed and manufactured by one or several real human beings some hundred hears ago. Let this fact resonate a moment, because once you do, it becomes plainly evident that the fact that Duchamp signed the object does not make it his object, except, perhaps, to those who regard creation and appropriation or re-contexualization with an intellectually weighted form of equivalency.

And yet that's exactly what countless art critics and historians have done for the last century -allowed a man who signed his name to another artist's work take full credit for that work.

If Duchamp may be called a genius, he is a genius akin to P.T. Barnum, another famous huckster who often created nothing and became celebrated for it.

Others may disagree but I can never believe that the man who draws a moustache on the Mona Lisa is as fully a talent as the man who painted the Mona Lisa, no matter how amusing or provoking the result.

Nevertheless,  Duchamp turns out to be a man ahead of his time, and in this regard a predecessor to Warhol. But Andy was also actually was an artist, albeit one acutely aware of and obsessed with both industrial design and popular culture.

And Andy, of course, pulled the same stunt with 'his' Brillo Boxes as Duchamp did with 'Fountain' –identified another person's design as art, and then signed his own name to the thing.

If nothing else, we can say that Duchamp was pre-Kardashian, if we may suggest such a thing is a valid concept. But of course we can, because with 'Fountain', Duchamp showed us that all one needed to call ownership out of absence was simply to indicate a relational concept between one's self and another object.

But here is the thing: if the urinal is indeed the work of art that Duchamp says it is, –and I think it is–, then the fact that Duchamp tagged it does not make him the artist, or even an artist. If we are generous, we might identify him as a curator with a puckish sense of humor, and not a vandal who defaced and possibly stolen a urinal.

To believe and argue otherwise is to suggest that bridges, tunnels, trains and walls might be identified by any graffiti artist who scrawls his or her handle on it, rather than, you know, the actual architect.

Do we really believe that artistry is all in the concept, and that original execution is so meaningless that it has no contemporary value?

Okay, well, so, as it happens, I will be in London this spring, kindly note that upon my departure the London Bridge shall thereafter be known as 'The Terry O’Gara Bridge', as I shall be painting my name upon the thing before leaving. 

Hey, acrylic makes it real!

All joking aside, isn't there anyone who will stand up for the real artist who created 'Fountain’?

No, not Duchamp, he was just a prankster and a tagger with a magic marker.

Perhaps, a hundred long years later, we should stop laughing, –no, I mean really stop laughing– and instead, we might inquire who is the actual designer of the object?

To date, his or her or their name appears to be lost to history, but I suspect that a determined journalist might consult the historical archives belonging to one Bedford Ceramic Urinal Manufacturer and thereby rectify a now century-old wrong.

Monday, December 01, 2014

SOUND OF THE YEAR: 2014 – SWEDISH POP

Swedish Global Pop Star Robyn
First, let's rewind:

In 2013 Swedish songwriters and producers had a hand in 34 US top ten hits  and 32 UK top ten hits.

Then, by the year's end, ABBA’s greatest hits album, 'Gold', released in 1992,  surpassed ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ sales, released in 1967, on The Beatles’ own home turf.

Now, a year later, there is still no sign that global youth culture is growing weary of the Swedish sound.

Of course, the European airwaves have for many years now been saturated with Scandinavian hits, especially in the summer. So, it's not as though this music or the talent behind it just exploded on the scene; more accurately it simply took a few decades to entrench itself into the rhythm of American life.

Indeed, in a recent issue of The New Yorker, Sasha Frere-Jones illuminates that magazine’s readers of the Swedish invasion by asking, “Do you like Swedish pop music? The answer is probably yes, even if you can’t name a single artist born in Sweden.” (The Sound of Sweden)

That’s because evidence of Swedish pop machinations are everywhere, although all of it is easily missed if you don’t know where to look. But dig into the liner notes and you’ll realize that a significant portion of hit songs streaming off that other significant Swedish musical import, SPOTIFY, has as either its origin or primary influence, the aesthetic sensibilities cultivated by a small collection of prolific Stockholm based music producers and songwriters.

 Meanwhile, in other news, and across the world:


Clearly, if the year's top stories are any indication, music may no longer be a catalyst for social change, but it still provides respite from the world's woes and the pressure of daily life.

So how did Sweden come to dominate the zeitgeist? 

In a nutshell: The Beatles broke up; Motown lost ground; Kraftwerk released Autobahn; Blondie got signed; hair bands happened; Kurt Cobain died; the Backstreet Boys had a hit, and the rest is history.

Of course, the last half century of widespread public support and encouragement of music education in the Swedish school system has played no small role as well:

“Sweden actively encourages prospective musicians through its education system... By the time they start school at age seven, kids have learned a great deal about singing and rhythm. Furthermore, many Swedes join choir groups in their teens, regardless of gender or religious affiliation. Sweden boasts the highest number of choirs per capita in the world - a startling 15 percent of Swedes sing in choirs.”  (Why Swedish pop is the best in the world)

In other words, what other countries have done by bolstering educational programs associated with science, technology, engineering, programming and mathematics, Sweden has done with piano lessons, choral groups, contagious melodies and danceable loops.

Fast forward to the present and Stockholm’s Max Martin has now produced more number-one songs than anyone besides Beatles' producer and collaborator, George Martin. And it's certainly no secret to pop fans that the Swedish producer's superlative sonic craftsmanship is one reason why Taylor Swift’s '1989' is the much ballyhooed first certified platinum album of the year. In fact, with the No. 1 debut of Taylor Swift's 'Shake It Off', Max Martin earned his 18th number one hit, placing him in third place among writers with the most leaders in the Billboard Hot 100's 56-year history.

Other artists inspired in recent years by Stockholm’s sonic artisans include a Who's Who of MTV stars, among them:

One Direction, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, Nicki Minaj, Mylène Farmer, Usher, The Backstreet Boys, Pitbull, Madonna, Maroon 5, Bon Jovi, Jennifer Lopez,  Enrique Iglesias, Kelly Clarkson,  Gavin De Graw, Pink, Justin Beiber, Ke$ha, Cyndi Lauper, Daughtry, Ariana Grande and Shakira, to name but a few.

One might even suggest that these entertainers are not simply fans of the Swedish Pop Mafia, but dues paying members of it, or that Stockholm's songwriters are so successful because they are not so much intent on writing pop songs as they are implanting ear worms.

America’s own popular power pop producer, Dr. Luke, who has more than than thirty Top Ten credits to his name, culled in the last decade alone, is himself a disciple of the Swedish pop maestro, Martin. 

As a result, it's quite likely that whether the song is sung by Avril Lavigne at the Budokan or Katy Perry on the beaches of Brooklyn, or whether it was recorded and composed in London or Los Angeles, or by a Nord or a New Yorker, no matter, if it's currently at the top of the 2014 pop charts, then its musical DNA can probably be traced back to Stockholm.

Still not convinced in the power of Swedish Pop? Consider this:

  • 1 Billion in pop music sales
  • Global radio domination
  • The reigning music influence on mainstream popular culture
  • The first platinum selling album of the year

Love it or hate it, it's hard to argue with a hit, much less hundreds of them.

–And that’s why The 2014 Critical Noise Sound of the Year belongs to the ubiquitous sound of SWEDISH POP.

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HOW THE SOUND OF THE YEAR IS SELECTED:

The Critical Noise Sound of the Year goes to that sound source, event, entity, happening or concept which so effectively produces wide response and reaction, whether intentional or not, such that it stirs collective emotion, inspires discussion, incites action, or otherwise lends itself to cultural analysis and resonates across the globe.

Prior Sound of the Year winners include Pussy Riot (2012), The Cry for Freedom (2011), The Vuvuzela (2010) and Auto-Tune (2009)

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Professionalism and the Post Production Paradigm

Image courtesy Michael Hilton
In the world of post production, a common organizational model is a partnership whereby one partner assumes the role of creative lead, and the other handles production and business affairs.

Naturally, in order to grow a successful company, a creative lead must actually possess the artistic talent to deliver.

The same, however, can't always be said for the person who sits in the Executive Producer seat. This is not meant to be  a snarky criticism; everyone starts somewhere. It only becomes a criticism if a given person ignores the call to develop the professional practices and a modern management skill set that is commensurate with their role.

For far too many people, the title is one that they endow upon themselves, long before they develop the skills or experience to back it up. And all too often the title is erringly limited to describe a role or function.

In fact, the title of EP should not only indicate a person with a specific set of competencies, but also indicate that that person is a role model, demonstrating behavioral traits that instill confidence, rather than anxiety, in those in his or her charge.

We also hope to observe a person who inspires a growth mindset throughout the workplace; and the informed capacity for employing tactics in the service of strategy, not simply staff in the service of tasks. Neither Bossiness nor bitchiness make for effective leadership, but rather the ability to influence change by rational means and example, not to mention the intelligence and second nature core capabilities that can only be developed by rigorous professional experience.

Neither is shortsighted leadership development limited to the production department.

It is not uncommon, for instance, to discover that a highly accomplished Creative Director hasn't developed his or her management skills to the same degree as his or her aesthetic capabilities. This is typically the case when the work is award winning; the staff belittled and miserable.

Mind you, not every Creative Director or Executive Producer need take a leadership role in the organization.

Whether your job is simply to build relationships or make awesome stuff or manage projects, that's often responsibility enough. It's only when one's responsibilities expand to include the direction of others that it becomes of paramount importance to the organization that such skills be acquired and developed.

Unfortunately, some creatives mistakenly think that organizational analysis, operational insight, communications abilities and management competencies evolve in parallel with their commitment to creative excellence. These things may come natural to you, but if not, they don't come bundled with Filemaker Pro, Movie Magic of Adobe Creative Suite.

Likewise, neither Avid nor Autodesk, nor Bootstrap or Final Cut, –a talent for sales, interface design, storytelling or scoring to picture–, necessarily endows the owners of these tools and talents with the characteristics of capable leadership. Similarly, a talent for navigating or manipulating office politics is also not a substitute for modern business acumen.

Nor is simply 'getting things done' synonymous with an effective, efficient management skill set. Getting to other side of the river, for instance, may be your goal, but if while accomplishing it you manage to burn the bridge down behind you, it might be time to rethink the efficacy one's practices,  processes. and people management skills.

Speaking of unqualified placements, it’s not unusual to learn that many creatives who launch production or post production companies decide that, –after years of honing their craft–, that the most appropriate person to handle their business is an as of yet unqualified best friend, sibling or spouse.

This is not to say an unqualified but otherwise passionate friend or spouse should never be allowed to take the lead. A trustworthy ally, especially one with a natural ability to network, is a tremendous asset.

However, it should then be mutually understood that an inexperienced person who assumes this role will then demonstrate visible effort into acquiring and exhibiting those additional professional skills and characteristics that are commensurate with their responsibilities.

It's an industry trope that the cranky boss doesn't understand why everyone they hire eventually becomes unhappy and unproductive. Eventually, instead of being a magnet for talent, the organization becomes a disorganization with a reputation for a revolving door of tired, fired or fleeing staff.

I’m not talking about conflict or push back over ideas and processes, of course.

Rigorous debate regarding a given production strategy, or a or pointed discussion about specific personnel performance issues are very necessary to growth and success of any creative venture. I’m talking about irrational thought being allowed to run rampant because one or more primary stakeholders leverage creative talent, a knack for sales or simply naked ambition and their authority as an primary stakeholder as a reason not to adopt a modern management skill set becoming of their responsibility as a leader in a professional organization.

Are you that person? Here's how to find out: if everyone around you eventually strikes you as dull or incompetent, it may be, to paraphrase an old beer slogan, mirror time.

In the meantime, here are several key professional behaviors we might expect from ourselves and our production and post production colleagues:

  • Professionals don’t simply acquire talent; they gather a community around shared values.
  • Professionals don’t simply execute orders; they inspire others with a common purpose.
  • Professionals don’t simply burn through human resources; they practice effective communication skills, share knowledge, reward contributions, build confidence and value long term relationships.

Professionals want to do the best for their clients and their teams.

Ask yourself: Is the business growing because you've attached yourself to a star creative or brand (hopefully you have), or is that growth also supported by your own expertly conceived contribution and ongoing execution of a purpose driven strategy?

Do people work for the company or do they contribute to it?

Are you identifying and hiring core talent with  long term view, because you believe they will contribute to the organization's development and knowledge base, or are you simply moving SVA grads through design and edit suites on their way to their eventual humiliation and termination?

That doesn't mean everyone you hire will prove themselves worthy or necessary of being a long term participant of your organization, but it does mean that you are committed to building a sustainable, compatible and enthusiastic team. Likewise, while errors vary in degree of harm to a given organization, the mistakes commensurate with inexperience should be absorbed as an expense levied by the company  in order to insure that its staff develop into seasoned and superbly competent creative professionals.

Three components of a healthy relationship are:
  1. Honest Communication
  2. Trust
  3. Respect
–And that doesn’t change just because you work on a film set, in an office or sound design studio, out in the field or you push pixels at a VFX shop. Nor does it change because you're the studio assistant, a mid career producer, the managing director, the EP or CD.

If you're not an owner or partner, you might ask yourself if you're happy for the success of your colleagues, or do you fear them as internal competitors? If you choose the latter answer, what role might you play to change your environment for the better? Alternately, perhaps this should suffice as a wake-up call and you should begin planning your exit for a healthier organization.

Naturally, some competitive spirit is  useful, even necessary for an organization and its members to remain at the top of their game, but what we should observe is competition for the best ideas, practices, programs and products –not  elements of subterfuge that threaten to derail careers or possibly threaten the health and stability of the organization.

To be fair, certainly, a friend, sibling or spouse might indeed be the perfect person to take on as a partner, whether as a producer or as a creative. The industry can provide many positive examples of such professional and personal unions. But if one or both partners is not otherwise qualified, and both individuals are determined to undertake this adventure together, then the two of them should, at the very least, arrive at a means, a measure and a timetable by which to ensure that each fulfills his or her obligation to reach a professional standard.

Remember also, emotions are contagious, and they tend to resonate from the top of the organization downward and outward, so whether you're the boss or just starting out as an assistant, you owe it to your colleagues to arrive to work attentive and happy.  If you do just that and nothing else, you're guaranteed to increase job satisfaction and productivity among those in your charge, and external satisfaction from your customers (The Contagious Leader).

The fundamental question governing your professional purpose must be not simply begin and end with 'How do I ignite economic growth', but 'How do I create value for our entire community?' And if the faces change frequently, you may want to ask yourself if you actually know how to build a community.

If you make this kind of personal commitment, I think you'll soon find yourself surrounded by a team of people that doesn't just want work for your company, but they'll also want to contribute their lives and their talent to it.

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Articles in this series:

Professionalism and the Post Production Paradigm
Crisis Management and the Emotionally Intelligent Producer
The Problem with Post

Monday, September 01, 2014

What Sonic Branding Can Learn from Graphic Designers

VISUAL CRITERIA:

  • Size
  • Shape
  • Position
  • Direction
  • Units
  • Repetition
  • Pattern
  • Figure
  • Ground
  • Hierarchy

Now apply to audio.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Music Licensing is Cannibalizing Your Business


Monster # 2 by Julia P.
If you're the Executive Producer or Creative Director of an established music production company whose core capability has long been the development of original music compositions for advertising and entertainment, how do you compete in an environment when agencies and brands increasingly elect to license stock music, not simply because it's cost effective, but because buyers perceive that such tracks work just as well as a bespoke commission (at fulfilling their client's marketing objective)?

In light of this exponential increase in licensing, more and more music production companies that once specialized in original music scoring are re-inventing themselves as one-stop sonic solution providers, and as such, now offer their own mid tier to bargain basement priced libraries.

For some organizations, this simply means classifying and bundling unsold demos that they once relegated to their archives, or recycled for incoming projects that required or accommodated the same genre and timing. For other companies, the result is an open source library that includes external talents as well as their own. And for still others, this means devoting the time, talent and energy to composing entirely new libraries from scratch based on the formulaic models they anticipate will work for a given class of cut.

Work on enough luxury automotive spots, for instance, and the majority can be seen to bear some editorial similarities. Work on enough detergent spots, and one can pretty much predict exactly where a hole will be required for a product demo in any and all subsequent like spots. The assumption, valid or not, of course, is that average commercial timings will generally remain stable in a world when all other media is experiencing tremendous flux.

Either way, there is certainly a valid argument to launching  a limited license option if only as a means to neutralize competitive offerings. For those who intent to reach parity with or overtake the market leaders, such a strategy requires not only a conviction to succeed, but an honest assessment of risk, and the reserves to carry out a prolonged and costly campaign. In all likelihood, once they achieve their goal, what ever original members remain with the company will find themselves, for better or worse, employed by a very different organization than the one they initially joined.

Other audio providers, however, proceed with greater reluctance, and perhaps great resistance, because for them, scoring sound to picture, collaborating with clients,  scheduling downbeats under looming deadlines, recording live musicians and mixing right up to the media buy is what makes this profession so fun. And why would you do anything if it wasn't fun? Not to mention that they also firmly believe that the process of tailoring custom sonics to moving image produces better results, even if they can't quite quantify exactly why.

For this class of creative venture then, it will be interesting to see if, on the whole, whether the provision of an in house music library will result in profit and growth, or if it will result in dwindling revenue, auction sales and eventual burn out?

For incumbent bespoke music organizations that already possess a large market share, success will be measured depending on whether clients who opt for a bargain priced, off the shelf track, only do so intermittently, and whether they will, hopefully, continue to and more frequently commission projects that resemble or approach normative budgets.

Nevertheless, in the interim, for those organizations that pursue such a bilateral strategy, one can imagine the awkward position that these contemporary music professionals now find themselves in when pitching to a prospective client.

Here's how I imagine it might sound:

"I can score an original composition  that will sync to picture, save the spot, support the story, compliment the cut, propel the action, emphasize the emotional content, enhance the product, clarify the unique selling proposition, bedazzle viewers, win prestigious European awards, move markets, earn your Fortune 500 client millions in fans and sales, and communicate the brand’s core message across borders and languages, and throughout the world, all via the power of music."

"Great! How much will it cost?"

"It'll only cost you $25,000 to $30,000, –a phenomenal deal since it represents relatively the same unchanged rate from the mid 1980's, despite subsequent inflation;  plus you'll need to pay residuals to a group of musicians and singers for the life of the spot. –But, trust me, it's well worth it, and I’ll even sign over all the intellectual property rights to your client, so that they wholly own the work, for use on any other property that they wish, in perpetuity.”

“Gee, we already used up most of the budget on editorial overruns. Do you have anything cheaper?”

"Oh sure, lots of stuff; I'm not just a composer, I'm a sonic solutions provider. As a matter of fact, instead of scoring something to picture, I'll be happy to license another track to you that I wrote using the same super amazing talent that I would use for an original commission. I'll even modify the arrangement and sweeten the mix, if you want, in order to make it fit the final cut better. It will be just as effective as a bespoke score, and it's yours for a cycle for only $500 flat."

"What about musician royalties?"

"There are none: it's all samples and synths, and I'll be happy to forgo my own legally entitled  portion of performance portion residuals just to have your business.”

So, will this strategy work for you? Maybe, maybe no. There is no one size fits all strategy,  but regardless of whatever tact you employ, it's wise to ask the following:

When assessing a project, do you evaluate whether any given near term investment in time, money and resources is truly worthwhile for achieving your long range business goals, or do you simply convince yourself that by being a resource, you and your organization’s objectives will eventually be met?

Is there evidence that once you establish a baseline price, and then thereafter devalue your art, craft and expertise, that you will be able to flip perception later? It's interesting and informative to note that the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) tells its own members (your clients) that: “If you accept an agency fee that is much lower than it should be just "to get the account", your chances of increasing it to where it should be in subsequent years are slim to none.” (Guidelines for the Pursuit of New Business)

Stock or library music is functionally similar to bespoke music, but can a case be made that it is technically different from a custom composition in it's ability to address communication objectives? Can you create a business case that establishes both legitimate value and a compelling reason for electing a costlier original music commission over a more economically priced licensed option?

Consider this: Why don't Ferrari dealerships also sell Ford Fiestas?

Sunday, June 01, 2014

THE TOP 3 THINGS YOU MUST DO IN ORDER TO BLOW UP THE CULTURE

Photo Credit: AK Rockefeller
As much as it may be that Music is no longer the catalyst for social change that it once was, it is still a powerful medium for political communication.

Consider Pussy Riot, for instance:

Has there been a single musical performer in the last decade that exploded into our collective conscious with as much political punch as this candy colored group of Guerrilla Girls?

Or another band that made one ask if its members were musicians or semantic terrorists?

Whatever one might think of the group's music, or even if one questions if the noise its members make is music, I have no doubt that some future young man or woman will stumble upon one of the band's online videos, and find themselves quite intrigued.

What happens next? Well, it's not out of the question to think that someone along the way will find themselves so inspired that they then don a pink balaclava and go try to take down a dictator with a drum stick and an electric guitar. After all, the band may not have dismantled a government, but they did somehow manage to shake up the world, not to mention demonstrate to young people who didn't live through the sixties that music can be weaponized.

Addressing the Russian court, the band’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova described the group's work in this manner:

"Pussy Riot’s performances can either be called dissident art or political action that engages art forms. Either way, our performances are a kind of civic activity amidst the repressions of a corporate political system that directs its power against basic human rights and civil and political liberties."

Clearly, Pussy Riot is not just a band but a manifesto, and I think that if one were to reduce its tenants to tactics, and then describe them as a repeatable formula, it would read something like this: 

THE TOP 3 THINGS YOU MUST DO 
IN ORDER TO BLOW UP THE CULTURE

* Advance a socially disruptive message.
* Wrap in compelling imagery.
* And then go ignite the damn thing with music

Handle with care though, because you just might start a revolution.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Music as an Ecosytem Service

Future Music Festival 2013 (Courtesy Eva Rinaldi)
It recently struck me that music, like water, is arguably the product of an ecosystem, –another complex but demonstrable asset that economists have trouble pinning value to with any accuracy.

“An ecosystem is a community of living organisms (plants, animals and microbes) in conjunction with the nonliving components of their environment (things like air, water and mineral soil), interacting as a system." (Wikipedia)

So how then is the one like the other?

Music and Ecosystems both: 

  • Provide services that are public goods;
  • Are affected by externalities;
  • Possess property rights that are often not clearly defined.  

Additionally, “Ecosystem services are often public goods, with the beneficial outcomes, for the natural environment or people, that result from ecosystem functions. Some examples of ecosystem services are support of the food chain, harvesting of animals or plants, and the provision of clean water or scenic views.”*

The problem with both music and public goods is also that, “although people value them, no one person has an incentive to pay to maintain the good.  Thus, collective action is required in order to produce the most beneficial quantity.”*

Despite the complexity assigning value, however, value can nevertheless be determined and costs imposed, "...in various ways, on those who are responsible for consumption of those services...  Economists measure the value of ecosystem services to people by estimating the amount people are willing to pay to preserve or enhance the services.”*

So, instead of asking what the market will bear, perhaps, like ecosystems, it may not be necessary for music to be bought and sold in markets in order to measure its value in dollars, but rather we might assign costs to society based on a fair valuation of the services to society.

What the formula for that is, however, I leave to others to consider.

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*Source: Ecosystem Valuation

Monday, March 03, 2014

Ch-ch-ch-ch-Changes (Turn and face the Hard Drive)

A few decades ago, it was a common childhood aspiration to grow up to be a platinum selling rock star who practiced neurosurgery (The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension); but in this day in age, it seems more young people would rather flip that model and be a neuroscientist with 93 million downloads.

Music has not been a catalyst for social change since the sixties, or for lifestyle choices since the collapse of grunge. In the meantime the ascent of Internet distribution has reduced the costs of production, distribution and access, so of course it has less value than it did thirty years ago.

We don't want or need a songwriter with a rap or protest song to start a revolution with, we have Twitter for that now.

Most of the time, we just want something we can listen to in our ear buds at the gym, or at work, or while in Starbucks drinking a No Foam Skinny Cinnamon Dolce Latte.

We no longer perceive songwriters as shamans or mediums capable of summoning a song that can transform a society, and those who continue to adopt that role feel oddly out of sync with contemporary culture. Nor is the song the thing now; it is now more likely simply the soundtrack for the thing; and if it doesn't suit us, we'll switch it out for one of the other billion economically worthless if still emotionally charged tunes in our pocket.

If you accept that premise, then the disruption we’ve experienced in recent years doesn't necessarily or only originate from the competition between a pay model vs a free model, but rather perhaps from the incumbents resistance to the notion that music has been re-assigned from its old position of valuable resource to a new position of complimentary service.

Just like water, when the logistical issues of a given region regarding supply, sanitation and distribution networks are suddenly resolved.

Consider at one time in the ancient world freshwater was difficult to come by, and therefore its value was commensurate with its scarcity. Then along come the plumbers, they lay down the pipes and suddenly everyone has access to water. Naturally, the cost of freshwater declines exponentially, and now, go to any restaurant in the world, sit down for a meal, and your waiter will bring a nice, tall, ice cold glass of freshwater for 'free'.

Well, the Internet is such a pipe.

There's money in the pipes, to be sure, if not the content.

That is to say, music like water is nice on the side, even necessary for life, but should by no means be mistaken for the main meal.

And this not to say that the creators of music shouldn’t be compensated; after all, even complimentary water isn’t free. It’s free to you, the customer at a restaurant, but someone pays for its collection and processing somewhere along the line. It may also be cheap, but plumbers are still expensive.

Ironic, though, at the exact same moment in history when the world is parched for content,  artists are asked to run the tap and give it away for nothing.

Perhaps we should ask not whether music has value; of course it does. Music possesses immeasurable social value, and as such, contributes to much human happiness.

But so does sex, and that's also 'free'.

Either way, we might re-consider both how we pay for music and how much we pay for music. It may be that we no longer buy it directly, but that it is provided, like water,  as a compliment to another purchase for another  item, service or device that provides access to music; this band courtesy of that brand or benefactor, and would you like fries with that?

In the past the LP, the cassette and then the compact disc served as containers for music, and few mourned the passing of cardboard and plastic once they got used to carrying a thousand tunes in their pocket.

The mixtapes of my own childhood represented not simply a playlist, but a painstakingly conceived piece of personal multimedia. Maybe portable screens and drives –or whatever sub dermal embedded doodad they think up in the future– will render all such packaging obsolete, and where we once relied on packaging to provide context, digital wireless media floating in the ether or implanted in our bones will suffice.

Of course, it's already happened, but there are still some people of all ages that push back, deny, ignore or otherwise resist the tectonic technological shift that all but shakes the ground beneath our feet (–he said dropping a piece of vinyl on the deck).