Wednesday, December 31, 2008


Most of the broadcast projects I've been involved in over the last two decades can in a sense be considered straight-ahead enhancements to moving picture, game play or venue experience. Nevertheless, it was in the mid nineties that I began formulating my own uniquely formulated Brand Theology, and not long after that, that I began chasing Broadband video as it emerged from Madison Alley (Madison Ave + Silicon V/Alley, i.e. the ad tech community) byte by precious byte, well before anyone thought audio would ever get small enough to enhance the web experience in any meaningful way.

More recently –in this millennium– I've positioned myself as a creative consultant. As such, I'm asked to consult individual artist/ entertainers who believe my once so-close-to-the-sun and you'll-get-burned-proximity to brand imaging (via music production for advertising, and as a founder of a pioneering interactive audio shop) might also make me capable at providing them with some insight how to reverse engineer the publicity process in order to fuel their own creative careers.

Along the way, I've had occasion to coin the rare phrase, and redefine others which had already found their way into limited circulation, if only as a means to explain myself with necessary clarity. I stumbled through a lot of now dead ideas, but a few things I got right. Today, even if the exact phrases that I chose aren't in wide use –Rock Brands, Medici Model, Camelback Collateral and Strategic Audio Partnerships– the ideas they represent are indeed present and certainly living large.

Most people I speak to seem to be gravitating towards using a variation of the phrase 'New Music Model', 'New Music Paradigm' or 'Music 2.0'. I think all three terms are rather neutral, –a sort of non descriptive nomenclature that doesn't quite reveal anything. Fine for a cocktail party, but otherwise devoid of content. But, sure, you'll catch me using one or the other on occasion as a kind of short hand when I know the person/s I'm addressing are already well acquainted with what those terms might imply.

Music 2.0 suggests a new version to replace the current version. But the terms I chose collectively describe aspects of what I originally conceived as a parallel 'music industry' –one where independent musicians thrived using a modified 'Medici model' –whether that meant accepting a role where public endorsements were required, or in my own case, accepting work-for-hire commissions in order to pay for 'my art'.

The Medici model isn't my own invention, and its meaning is widely understood by those who know the history of the Medici family and their patronage of the arts, between the 13th and 17th centuries. Ever since, DIY musicians and artists since then have been trying to find ways to reignite its potential so that they might be able to survive our capitalist construct, integrity intact, but sans Industry.

Enter the Internet, and the Medici model is actually viable again, albeit on a more significant scale.


In 2001, a few weeks after the World Trade Center fell, I produced a group of New York Metro area session musicians and singers, under the banner Gotham Artists, in the production of a tribute song. Despite it's limited '01/'02 release on the now defunct site ((it now lives a quiet life on the Garageband site), I continue to receive appreciative email complimenting our efforts and the resulting music.

I'm telling you this because the tools you have now, from home studio equipment to social networking sites to YouTube, all mean that you and your musical vision stand at least an equal chance –and in reality a very great possibility– of touching another soul on the other side of the planet.

And that's all it takes.

In many ways we live in a Post Sell Out World, but it still hasn't lost its heart. Get your music out there and don't worry about being too harshly judged. Ultimately, art is an experience of self discovery. If you become an international global pop star in the process, more power to you.


So with that in mind, I'm kicking 2008 out and 2009 in with a recap of what I think were some of the most prescient articles this author has published in the first few years of the new millennium.

The third article listed below, Branding With Audio, was published by an industry trade back in March of 2001, and represents one of the first widely read articles on Sonic Branding.

"Do you know what your company is saying right now?"

You can read some version of this phrase on just about every music house, audio branding company or composer website today, but prior to the publication of this article you would be hard put to find even industry insiders asking it. Not like I'm a futurist –a term I utterly loathe– but given my background and interests, I simply arrived at the question before most.

I include the article on this list because while it was written for an audience of account executives and marketers in mind, it concludes with advice I think is (still) applicable whatever side of a co-branding agreement you may be on, artist or executive:

"Branding beyond advertising means creating an experience that is free of an overt pitch yet is compelling enough that consumers will nevertheless identify it with your brand. If you've produced a CD, for instance, folks will listen to it while they eat, work out, make love, and your company will be the underscore to their lives. Oats may be oats, but if I'm making babies to your music, then chances are my babies will be eating your oats".

Agree or disagree, either way, I hope it provides continued food for thought (no pun intended). It's 2009 – you don't need a multi national to fund your project in order to draw fans from around the world.

here's to making a big noise in the new year,

Terry O'Gara

* * *

From the Critical Noise Archives

From YR 2000
ROCK BRANDS: Tomorrow's Rock Star Marketing Partners

From YR 2000
Convergence And The Composer
Originally published in Shoot Magazine, August, 2000

From YR 2001
Branding With Audio
Originally published in Clickz, March, 2001

From YR 2003
EXPERIENCE: Traditional Packaging Not Required

From YR 2003
This is Where the Story Ends

From YR 2006
Music as Collateral: Using Audio to Add Value

From YR 2007
Music as Collateral: Compatible Archetypes

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Co-Branding as an Alternative to 360 Deals

While presented as 'new music paradigm', the term 360 describes a wishful number of revenue streams flowing back to a traditional label, based on a traditional loan to an artist signing an otherwise traditional agreement.

Which is not to say you should never consider participating in such an agreement.

If your current income is zero, then a 360 deal makes great sense.

However, for an artist who has already established a revenue stream, a 360 deal only becomes a reasonable choice when all parties to the contract, having full understanding of their responsibilities to the other parties, and with full transparency can be held accountable for the execution (or abdication) of said responsibilities, so in effect, contract each other.

The label only wants to pay you on the net of record sales? Therefore likewise, carve out an agreement whereby they are only paid on the net of touring and merch; and like any good manager, hold them accountable for the fulfillment of specific, measurable responsibilities (that entitle them to the agreed commission). To me, that sounds fair and equitable.

The ideal 360 deal –from the artist's perspective– should therefore look a lot like a CO-BRANDING agreement, albeit where one partner (the source of funding) remains invisible, logo real estate notwithstanding.

With the exception of limited work-for-hire agreements (one-off commissions), no one in the new millennium should enter any kind relationship whose execution would compromise an artist's integrity.

Nobody should, but people will. As much as record companies are accused of being greedy, musicians are often equally guilty of signing draconian agreements in order to satisfy a lust for fame and celebrity. But this is not the always the case, of course, and in fact, as previously indicated, 360 deals make sense for some acts, and one may even make sense for you.

However, in our Post Sell Out World, you're a free agent. So, if you're going to sign a 360 deal, you don't necessarily have to do it with a traditional music label. Instead, you can do it with a collaborator of your choosing, for terms agreeable to both of you.

You might sign with the entity who gives you the least control but the most money; or you might choose to collaborate with a company that offers you less money but more creative control. Ideally, you will enter into either a limited term equity partnership or accept a 'Project Underwriter Sponsorship'.

FYI: Per the 'PBS Red Book', "PBS defines an "underwriter" as a third party that has voluntarily contributed cash to finance, in whole or in part, the production or acquisition of a PBS program. Money from such sources used toward research and development, or for packaging or repackaging a program, ordinarily counts as underwriting as well".

For our purposes, a Project Underwriter Sponsorship is defined as an agreement between a two or more parties whereby one or more has voluntarily contributed cash to finance, in whole or in part, the production of a an artistic project, in this case a musical recording by a specific artist/s and the subsequent promotion of the project, in return for credit for having done so.

Neither co-branding partners nor underwriters may necessarily have a history recording and distributing music. If we speak strictly of a 'new music paradigm', they usually do not.

In fact, for the purposes of raising funds in order to record, tour and pay the rent, EVERY company is a potential record company –from the local shops on Main Street to whomever happens to top the Fortune 400 list in a given year, and whether they sell futuristic widgets or old fashioned potpourri.

Of course, not every company can provide distribution, but depending on your specific needs you may or may not need a major label network in order to fulfill your own professional and artistic goals.

The important thing is that such deals are structured as mutually beneficial CO-BRANDING contracts, or as corporate sponsorship of an artistic enterprise, but never as label/bank providing a lopsided loan to the customer/artist. Because if all you need is a loan in order for your dreams to come true, there are cheaper ways to secure that loan, even in today's economy.

More to the point, artists can stop doing business as applicants for loans, if they find a way to position themselves as suitable investments in another company's or collaborator's business strategy.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Bands and Brands

In a recent article I recommended reading Jon Pareles excellent article published a few days ago in the New York Times ['Songs From the Heart of a Marketing Plan' (12/24/08)].

Briefly, Pareles notes, laments, and finally accepts the increasing (and seemingly unreversible) trend of bands aligning with brands.

I don't share Pareles' pain, except in my own dreamy romantic notion of 1979, which now seems a long, long time ago.

Otherwise, Pareles' recent article gives me no reason to think that we aren't continuing a shift in this direction, so if you're not comfortable with the way things are going now, the ride is going to be a rocky one indeed. For better or for worse, such ideas are perhaps more valid than ever, because before they were only concepts. Today, it seems like I bear witness to their evolving manifestation every time I hear about a new co-branding agreement between an artist and a product, service or experience.

What is so interesting to persons my age (anyone north of 18) about these relationships is that only ten years ago they would be framed as a story about an artist selling out. Now, they are presented as a Band and Brand aligning in strategic partnership for mutual benefit, to the surprise of just about nobody.

Maybe that's because what makes these agreements so uniquely post millennial, is that they are indeed constructed as co-branding agreements, and not merely conceived as another traditional sponsorship or endorsement deal. Those kinds of brand/band relationships are so yesteryear.

Pareles laments that artists can no longer be independent without record companies to support them. But perhaps the reality is that now, more than ever, artists are free to remain independent, for no longer beholden to record companies, they can still make a pretty good living –if they can find another source of funding to serve as a music industry surrogate.

Of course, you don't even need the construct of an 'Industry' to make it happen. You just need revenue and a means to enable distribution.

But speaking of surrogates, the co-branding paradigm isn't just for indie artists, either. The model is finally being put to test by some of today's biggest pop stars.

The Eagles not only inked a deal with Wal-Mart, the retailer is featuring them in a $40 million ad campaign. Think about it. This isn't your typical endorsement deal, and in fact it's the polar opposite of a 360 deal. It's co-branding: There are no masters or servants here, and no one is endorsing anything. Rather, separate parties share an agreement towards a common goal, or to reach parallel but individual goals.

Along these same lines, earlier this year Jay Z left "his longtime record label, Def Jam, for a roughly $150 million package with the concert giant Live Nation that includes financing for his own entertainment venture, in addition to recordings and tours for the next decade" (The New York Times).

It's also old news by now, but in 2007 Live Nation struck multi million dollar pacts with both U2 and Madonna. At the time Madonna told the Associated Press, “The paradigm in the music business has shifted and as an artist and a business woman, I have to move with that shift” (MSNBC).

Pundits may argue the relative merits of such deals, but whatever you do, stop thinking of recorded music as a primary revenue source. The music simply gives access to a lifestyle and an Experience. It may or may not convey a deeper message, but it certainly is the songwriter's (and performer's) own sonic branding.

So, the Dance Diva's albums might not sell like they used to, but she continues to deliver a premium experience for which fans are willing to pay a collective 200 million per tour. The value of the actual songs on the free market? Who knows –at this point all the merchandise –including the albums– are souvenirs of an experience. Is this good or bad?

It depends what's more important to you: The so called integrity of a given song, or the experience delivered by the music. Hey, guess what –you can actually have it both ways:

Art is flexible that way!

Don't believe me? Listen, Music can save your soul on Sunday; score a sound track on Monday; pitch products on Tuesday; create venue ambience on Wednesday; act as a study aid Thursday; accompany you to the gym on Friday; rock the house on Saturday; –and come back Sunday morning and save your soul all over again!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Rise of the Creative Class and the New Value of Art

As others have noted, we have in a sense, moved from the era of the MBA to the age of the MFA. The creative classes are no longer starving in garrets, but changing the way you see and hear the world, beginning with the iPod you're listening to right now. Never mind that the baby boomers who popularized rock are now retirees. Everybody who was once an anti-establishment outsider, today is a representative of the (culturally) ruling classes.

Interesting, too, to note that with the rise of the creative class there has been a noticeable decline in the value of art. Sure, Van Goghs and Picassos will continue to fetch millions of dollars at auction, but what about commercial art? Or more to the point: What is the real value of reproducible works?

Similarly, if you can carry a thousand songs (or more) around with you, then really, how valuable is each individual song going to be to the listener? Songs, like singers, as the saying goes, have become a dime a dozen. And actually, they're worth even less than that – I mean, whose paying for music these days, anyway, but adults of a certain age?

In light of that, it's simply practical to consider, that if you're an artist, who is the real client/customer? Is it the individual who enjoys the free entertainment? Or is the person or company who funds its production? Every band knows the promoter is the real client. In this regard, the audience can be viewed simply as a way to measure value any given band has to a given promoter. In other words, a sold out house means very good Nielsen ratings and your band stands a good chance of being renewed, so to speak.

Network television has always had to deal with this balancing act (between art and commerce). The content is ostensibly created for the enjoyment of non-paying masses. But the customer is actually the advertiser who makes the programming possible. Producing content within such a model isn't necessarily selling out, if you're working on projects that don't compromise your ethics. But you may have to work within certain limitations regarding format and style and whether or not such content is appropriate for a given demographic. Does this make it less art? I don't know. Tex Avery and Chuck Jones gave their best years to Warner Bros., and I don't think of either of them sell outs.

Outside poets and painters, I can't think of any art form that isn't in some way collaborative, and therefore subject to compromise.

The question is not whether you must do one thing or the other, but are you clever enough to do both?

Can I re-contextualize my relationship with my clients in the way an athlete frames his or her relationship with a sponsor? Will doing so compromise my artistic integrity? Does Tiger Woods alter his swing on behalf of his sponsors? Absolutely not (except in so far as he always tries his best), and yet his sponsors are all too happy to associate themselves with Tiger, even on a losing day.

The interesting thing here is that you don't have to pay to see Tiger's 'performance'. If you catch him on TV, you can watch him for free. His appearance on your Television is complimentary, offered by advertisers who hope you'll consider this act of charity the next time you make a purchase. And yet Tiger appears to be making a healthy living without compromising his ideals. Granted he might lose sponsors if he suddenly started stitching in political statements next to the sports logos on his apparel, but he might also attract others for just the same reason.

As an artist, I wonder, what would happen if I started thinking about myself as a brand with mission? How would my life change if I actually conceived a personal vision statement? Would any of that negate my self perception as an artist? Why aren't more artists thinking the same way?

As it happens, in 2008, a lot of artists –and individuals– certainly are.

In their book Born Digital, authors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser call children who were born into and raised in the digital world 'digital natives'. The tag makes sense now, but I suspect when historians look back at our age, they will also note how post Gen X generations were also perceptibly Branded @ Birth.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Welcome to the Post Sell Out World

In case you missed it, Jon Pareles writes a great article in the New York Times titled 'Songs From the Heart of a Marketing Plan' (12/24/08).

In it Pareles notes the increasing phenomenon of artists aligning with brands. It is a trend which produces conflicted feelings in the author. For even as Pareles laments the reality of musicians actively (and some would say shamelessly) seeking out corporate sponsors, he simultaneously accepts the situation, if only because the circumstance is now so blatantly manifest. There's just no going back.

Early in the article Pareles acknowledges:

"I know — time for me to get over it. After all, this is the reality of the 21st-century music business. Selling recordings to consumers as inexpensive artworks to be appreciated for their own sake is a much-diminished enterprise now that free copies multiply across the Web.”

I've shared Pareles' pain, but personally I am over it. So, Welcome to the Post Sell Out World, I guess. What I mean by that, is not that we –this consumer society– has suddenly abandoned its core principals, but that, like 'copyright', we understand its time to change the definition of 'selling out'.

It may still include entering into a contract that commits one to executing actions one would not do otherwise simply for the sake of getting rich. But it does not include a co-branding agreement where all parties entered into the agreement benefit mutually.

It's ironic, but by the this standard, artists of yesteryear who knowingly signed a draconian major label contract simply in order to satisfy a lust for fame and celebrity are the sell outs. But an independent artist who enters and agreement with a fashion house in order to produce an exclusive line of branded apparel is not.

On a micro level, I went through my own struggle with the issue of selling out when I started producing music for commercials in the early nineties. It sounds hilarious now, but in 1994, I was really just trying to come to terms with the fact that I was using a potentially 'God Given Talent' to sell French fries.

Oh dear, the moral dilemma.

And as hip and cool as it sounds to some, to have a career where people making million dollar videos are asking you what kind of music should adorn their moving image, producing music and sound design for TV commercials was not what I was thinking when I was honing my songwriting and composition skills as a kid.

But maybe, identifying the 'right' sound for a specific utilitarian use was in fact my real 'God Given' talent. Cause no one was banging down the door for my songs, but I was very good at using music to influence the purchasing habits of millions of people around the world.

Good? Evil? Maybe beyond good and evil. Anyway, I did enjoy what I was doing.

Fast forward to the present and today I primarily work with artists hip to personal branding and are trying to figure out ways to use both traditional and new social media in order to build and sustain their careers. I've hopped the fence from advertising into entertainment, but -initially surprising– the landscape is still very much the same.

If Pareles overlooks anything in his article, it's that pop music was ever appreciated for its own sake. Or maybe it was, but if it got recorded, released, promoted and distributed, someone somewhere was trying to make money.

There's also big difference between 1969 and now. Forty years ago music provided the score to a generation and a movement. Because culture is intangible, the music only appeared to exist in its own right. But it never did, it was fueled by –one might even say 'carried by'– youthful energy hungry for broad cultural change.

At the time, even the most melodic Beatles tunes sounded like noise to Bing Crosby fans, and even the most inanely conceived and dumbest pop tune seemed inherently capable of stoking the fires of revolution. But today, once rebellious rock songs sound just limp enough to be included on the playlist at at your local supermarket. And the same people who once disdained the rock sound are now singing Michelle ma belle all the way to and from their bridge games or the shuffle board deck.

It's both funny and interesting how tastes not only change, given time, but the way we listen, and what we actually hear, can simply transform reality.

And the new reality is that rock has gone mainstream. Having done so, it's become the voice of the establishment. No surprise then that if you're in the business of selling rock'n'roll in the new millennium, then you're going to have to figure out a way to distribute your creative assets to the Man.

So, the real question now is not whether mixing art and commerce is evil –romantics will still lament– but simply: If one is an artist, and knowing the history of advantage traditional business entities have had over artists, just how does one navigate the capitalist construct without getting taken stepping on a metaphorical land mine, just because, say, you have an MFA instead of an MBA, so to speak.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


First we learned there were no 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'. Then we learned the banks were trading worthless securities. Well, I'm now waiting for advertisers to wake up and realize their branding is also worthless.

Because, in a way, a lot of branding resembles sub-prime mortgages. Much of it is intellectual property that has been way, way overvalued. Can branding alone keep a stock afloat? Maybe, but I'm not betting on it.

Branding can only leverage consumer confidence so far. As personal assets decline, overextended brands will stumble. When the dust settles, Branding 2.0 might not even resemble the current practice.

For the purposes of this article a brand is a mark (graphic, sonic or otherwise) plus the perception of the company, product, service or experience which the mark is synonymous with (not to be confused with other creative assets purposed solely as sales generators).

How then does a mark become a Brand?

A brand is born as a symbol: a maker's mark. But a maker's mark has no value until customers endow it with such. Brands aren't born so much as they evolve, the result of a dynamic process that requires the input of both product or service provider –and consumer, viewer, user or audience.

Too many brand handlers have for too long operated on the premise that the assets they represent and manage have inherent value independent of third party perception. Try as one might to position a company (or product, service or experience) –a valid and important task– perception, nevertheless, alone determines value and remains the true brand essence.

Also, like physical property, the value of intellectual property fluctuates according to value of neighboring properties.

Value is never an independent variable. It is always dependent on consensus.

BV=C+D [Brand Value = Consensus + Demand]

In that way, these symbols and the companies, products and services they grace also resemble a floating currency.

In the case of a floating currency, value is determined by a combination of Faith and Trust, relative to other like commodities in the marketplace. Otherwise, the paper itself is valueless. The Dollar itself may not be pegged to gold anymore, but it's still pegged to Faith and Trust. And America, though the empire arguably looks a little wobbly today, is still nevertheless a great, solid brand. But can the same be said about many of the products that fill up our supermarkets and car dealerships? I'm not so sure.

A solid gold coin IS worth its weight in gold, by virtue of the inherent worth of the rare mineral on the open market. But the US dollar is accepted on 'Full Faith and Credit' of the Federal Government. Just like a Pick Up Truck is accepted on the Full Faith and Trust of General Motors.

In the case of the U.S. Government,'Full Faith and Credit' is defined as:

"Unconditional commitment to pay interest and principal on debt, usually issued or guaranteed by the U.S. Treasury or another government entity". (source)

In the case of Your Favorite Brand,'Full Faith and Trust' is defined as:

Unconditional commitment to a consistent standard in the provision of products, services and maintenance, for a fair price, relative to other market entities.

Most brands are not pegged to any kind of standard beyond an Art Director's aesthetic, and his or her gold standard is the latest award that sits on the shelf above his or her desk. Not exactly exchangeable on the free market.

Too often great advertising campaigns are fronts for failing companies. All the worse when the company starts failing after their commercials begin winning prestigious awards based on creativity. I know what I'm talking about. I've worked on award winning advertising campaigns and watched stock prices drop even as the advertising agency was congratulating itself for all the awards it was receiving for creative excellence.

Why are so many people in marketing so disconnected from the causal effect their efforts are supposed to produce: Sales?

There ought be an award show where entrants are required to demonstrate that, indeed, sales purposed marketing assets performed on strategy, as a prerequisite to consideration.


One thing we're learning about market activity in the new millennium is that it isn't just one or two business models and paradigms that have outlived their usefulness, but dozens –maybe all of them.

I first experienced this disconnect on a personnel level ten years ago, shortly after I founded BLISTER MEDIA, Silicon Alley's first Interactive Audio provider. By virtue of our positioning we generated a fair bit of buzz about the company and that translated into press mentions and all sorts of awards and recognition. But even though word-of-mouth won us notice, and our work earned us Industry recognition, that didn't mean new clients were storming the doors to work with us. We still had to win jobs by building personal relationships and in fact, relied on them. So, even though we had what amounted to an apparently buzz worthy micro-brand, that fact alone didn't actually win us any business.

The only thing that mattered was the relationships, and the quality of our work, and in that order, I might add. When I considered my own products and service choices, I realized the same kind of processes often applied. Only Faith and Trust earned by a solid ongoing relationship resulted in my own consumer choices. I only turned to NEW and NEW IMPROVED when the old relationships broke that trust. And I was angry when trustworthy brands became new but not necessarily improved, as when they changed the taste of classic Doritos.

This transformation of my thinking began in 1998, when I realized that I could no longer simply do my job operating purely as an expert in music or as a creative project manager. In order to provide adequate audio solutions to the agencies, brands and entertainment companies that I was working with, I needed more than a good ear and a turntable: I needed to understand positioning, branding, marketing, linguistics, semiotics, storytelling, consumer psychology –and perhaps to an even more comprehensive degree than my clients.

I've also come to realize that negative space is as important to the presentation of brand assets as the assets themselves. Does one experience a design as positioned in a space, or boldly distinguishing itself from the negative space around it? In a retail environment negative space isn't an empty vacuum, but everything else inhabiting the space. In the same way, music must compete with interference, or any emotive message it might deliver will be swallowed up by its own contribution to the noise threshold.

The second lesson I learned: Of Branding, Identity and Equity, the most important is the latter, Equity. Equity will produce the former whether you execute a directive to do so or not. The mark at the top of your stationary will help a book keeper differentiate your invoice from another vendor's –so you have a good chance of getting paid after a sale– but, really, don't expect letterhead to produce sales leads, horse before the cart and all that.

Extrapolate as necessary and apply to your multi-million dollar image campaign.

The same principals apply when one considers why Sound Mark development or its Commercial Scoring cousin works or doesn't work. If you're a member of the human species I'm going to assume you've heard Walter Werzowa's 3-second, 5-note INTEL 'bong' sonic logo, which according to Wikipedia "is broadcast somewhere in the world every five minutes". If you haven't, then I commend you for having managed to discover the Critical Noise blog before stumbling upon the most frequently sounded sonic brand logo on the planet (circa 1994–2009). Here's the logo:

The INTEL Logo probably didn't create new retail customers, but existing INTEL customers hear the electro-marimba sting, and it certainly reinforces their relationship with what they already either think is, or isn't, a great brand. Advertisers who accept the concept of sonic branding as a legitimate asset may hope it serves more than simply as a mnemonic, but that it will also initiate some sales. Honestly, that's unlikely, even if some creative professionals who produce such sonic solutions promise the world and present some stats to support their pitch.

Wow, I'd like to see those analytics and meet the copywriter that created them. If we can learn anything from the current global financial crisis, it's that formulas are capable of producing elasticity in results, and therefore any formula used as a sales tool can not be taken for granted. Sometimes, as a doctor might tell you, a gut feeling is a more accurate measure of reality than a number.

Fortunately, a Return on Investment (ROI) is not the only measure of creative, experiential or perceptive value.


How do you measure experience? How do you measure feeling? You probably already know that you can measure movies with Rotten Tomatoes. In fact, films frequently demonstrate Quality, Likability and Profit can and often are quite independent of the other. Doctor's use pain charts and the feedback from such things varies according to individual capacity to accommodate negative stimulation. Not really a good deal more scientific than estimating the degree of difference between 'ouch' and a blood curdling scream. So, that said, I think it unlikely that any brand and marketing department is going to out-analyze and out-stat the medical profession anytime soon –although, arguably, the engagement analysts that observe user activity on a given website may have a pretty good head start.

In practical terms, Sound Marks, specifically, do only two things very well: Distinguish/Differentiate and serve as a mnemonic. Non-musical and non-melodic marks might not even be capable of serving as a mnemonic. Not to mention the investment return on a bong is probably impossible to value. However, what you can do is measure the ratio between negative to positive emotion and use the results to manage perception.

Retail music packaging might indeed increase sales, if only by increasing pleasure perception, enhancing experience and therefore extending 'linger time' –but not by some manipulative music psychology magic that turns reticent visitors into buy-frenzy consumers. More likely you will turn them into fans first, and that will translate into sales and word-of-mouth advertising. But I categorize music supervision services like the kinds Muzak is long famous for as less branding than packaging –unless your definition of branding is so elastic that it includes 'EVERYTHING WE DO'. There's merit to that definition, but not in an article like this where I must limit terms in order to investigate specifities.

Network and cable music and sound design packaging won't make you watch a channel, won't even influence your viewing preferences, but it will help you remember what channel your favorite show is on.

I absolutely do think that a music or sound design score accompanying a televised ad campaign can and should be held accountable by analysts. But brand assets? Personally, I don't think you can or should measure branding or what the trade calls Image campaigns by a ROI yardstick. –Unless you understand that though your investment is monetary based, the return is not, and therefore needs to be measured by another scale.


Some transactions have no measurable value but to increase goodwill. If you don't think goodwill serves any importance, than consider what abandoning diplomatic missions overseas would do to Brand America. The Peace Corps may not be a profit-making enterprise, but the amount of good will it spreads around the world on behalf of the American brand is beyond measure by any current analytic.

That's because, unlike the stark pitches of direct marketing, which must deliver sales, some of the best branding (and sonic branding) is –ironically– transparent.

Consider Conversation:

When you and I communicate, we discuss things. I hear you but I don't consider the relative weight of each and every word you utter (unless we're negotiating a legal contract). Instead, I receive an overall meaning from you and go with it. Just like musical improvisation, I'm not thinking 'oh, and now here comes the D flat seven' –there's no time– I'm just responding. Likewise, in conversation, the individual words are incidental, the snappy phrases mnemonic, but in the end all that really matters is that you live not by your specific words –mnemonics aside– but the meanings and message you broadcast which can be translated into consistent behavioral observations. And this assumes you and I both share some degree of fluency in the same language. If you do, you win my faith and trust, and emerge branded as good, decent, honorable and worthy of one or more transactions. If you don't, you're branded as a rascal, a troll –someone who can't be trusted, someone who will sell me junk.

We can certainly enjoy communication using silent cues, but Sound adds Dimension; Music adds Emotion; Melody creates (and colors) Memories. And you know you have a hit when people sing along. Practically speaking, Silence is not an option. Either you, your client and your customers will create the context in which to have the conversation, or consumers will do it alone without you. If the latter is okay with you, then good news, you can fire your entire marketing department. But why would you choose not to use one of the most effective means of communication in your Branding & Marketing tool kit? Filmed entertainment doesn't need sound –or color (do we even need movies?)– but do you see anyone rushing back to silent film?

Music creates feeling and ingrains itself into memory like few other sensory elements available to us. It enhances every experience known to man: Kisses are more romantic with strings; explosions have a greater impact supported by timpani. Strings alone might even  make you feel romantic; timpani alone might even call to mind thunder. So, clearly, if we ask our branding to help us distinguish one product, service or experience from another, then sonic branding, in particular, can do just that, and do so quite capably. But will it drive sales? It may or it may not, but what it will certainly do is it will help audiences, consumers and users make a choice that is shaped by both their knowledge about a product and their feelings about and toward a particular brand.

Signification of all kinds communicates messages and meaning, and as such can be used to identify geographical and psychological locations, and influence direction and activity. But Musical Signification almost uniquely also influences how we feel as we make the choices we make.

It's not magic however. Unfortunately, for those who were hoping that branding alone would sustain them through a down market, I think they put too much faith in symbolism.

Sure, it might work for COKE, but will it work for you?

* * *

Happy to say that his article appears to be right on zeitgeist, for as it happens, the following offer two recent publications that cover some the same material:

A Funny Thing Happened When I Cut My Ad Spend – Nothing
By Peter Daboll, CEO of Bunchball, and published December 2nd 2008, in Adage

And recently published:

The Brand Bubble
By John Gerzema and Edward Lebar, and published October 2008 and available @ Amazon.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Sound of the Year: 2008 – The Housing Implosion

The 2008 Critical Noise Sound of the Year belongs to:

The Housing Implosion.

According to Wikipedia,  in the controlled demolition industry, an implosion is:

"...the strategic placing of explosive material and timing of its detonation so that a structure collapses on itself in a matter of seconds, minimizing the physical damage to its immediate surroundings".

Unfortunately for homeowners and institutional investors, however, the bankers on Wall Street don't give two hoots about whether or not the bombs they drop into investors laps cause collateral damage or not.

As a result, the Housing Implosion began as the sound of a real estate bubble floating heavenward in 2006, finally popped in 2008, just about the time everyone on the planet finally believed the BS being mainlined to us from downtown Manhattan. Oddly, the echos of the pop cascaded into a Subprime mortgage crisis that only seemed to magnify in tragedy as time passed, rather than diminish.

Irish property bubble? Icelandic financial crisis? American foreclosures?

Strike all that bad juju up as unintended collateral damage and blame the borrowers appears to be the banks' collective strategy. Well, good luck with that. And it may very well work out for them. Because, now it seems that it will be years before anyone sorts this mess out. Which means, if they're lucky, 9 out of 10 living CEOs will be dead before the law catches up with them.

Crazy, too, because while the US military is deployed looking for terrorists and bad guys in Iraq and Afghanistan, who would have thunk we could have saved billions if we just sent a few SEALS downtown and wiped out Goldman Sachs. No doubt, if someone thought of that, we could have saved a mint of human misery.

Maybe someone will figure it out eventually, that not all terrorists wear turbans; some wear custom tailored suits. In the meantime, kudos to everyone on Wall Street who blew up the balloon, because, yeah, that was one magnificent pop.

And hey, no worries, bro; so long as it was 'legal', or so complicated that no one can figure it out, your bonus is guaranteed.

+ + +


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.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The Boom Box Effect

Earlier this year I posted a series of articles discussing the dynamic relationship between branded sound opportunities and silence.

In Silence Please, for the Soundtracks of Our Lives, I wrote:

"We're in such a rush to score the whole world that it's easy to forget that arranging opportunities for SIMPLE QUIET or shaping RELATIVE SILENCE may actually prove the most intelligible means for creating a platform to communicate with audiences, customers and users. One reason for that is that more and more of us are bring our own sonic branding with us, principally in the way of customized playlists.”

Media, omnipresent even a decade ago, still had not quite reached the interruptive tipping point as it has in recent years. Media is exponentially more pervasive and invasive than it was in the recently faded Twentieth Century.

We know from studies of physics that when sound waves collide, the result is interference.

Consider the following laws of acoustics (source):

* Sound waves that are exactly in phase add together. The result is a stronger wave.
* Sound waves that have varying phase relationships produce differing sound effects.
* Sound waves that are exactly inverted, or 180 degrees out of phase, cancel each other out. The result is silence.

[For a quick primer on sound, visit this link: Sound Primer]

Now consider the case of the Boom Box:

If in 1987 I walked down the street carrying my boom box playing one song, and you were walking in the other direction, coming towards me and carrying your boom box playing another song, the result was noise. That's because the music didn't sync, didn't share the same key, followed a different structure, played on a different beat. In fact both songs lost entertainment value because the sum of their sounds created cacophony. Would that Boom Boxes automatically beat matched when they were in proximity of each other, but they don't.

That's what I call The Boom Box Effect –the collision of sounds (that don't cancel each other out) in a given human habitat.

Today a lot of brands suffer another kind of Boom Box Effect.

At any given time we are bound to our electronic devices as if we were outfitted with law enforcement tracking devices (and we are). Between incoming calls, text messages and alerts to our PDAs and mobile phones –not to mention our proximity to other people's media platforms– there isn't a single urban environment where our ears and our brain do not wage a daily war against the bombardment of random information.

Because of the density of any urban environment there is no escape. You can't leave the room, because everywhere else is swimming with just as much distraction as the present environment.

This may in fact be one reason why the iPod or other digital music playback devices have become ubiquitous, their popularity being a side effect of necessity. Besides their obvious function of permitting us to carry entertainment assets with us on our respective journeys, these devices also provide a filter from unwelcome incoming sensory data.

In effect, they help combat stress and insanity caused by the boom box effect.

All of which is not to say that individual, multiple sounds layered atop one another can't work together. They most certainly can, and frequently do in any single harmonized chord, or series of chords. They also do in any cohesive and unified music composition. In fact, they work well together in any unified experience - be it a song, a film score, a retail environment or a theme park venue.

Casinos present wonderful case studies of environments where the combined sum of noise making machines do not contribute to chaos at all, but rather create positive, hopeful excitement.

Yet, this is still not the case in most urban environments where people are often expected to live, work and inhabit daily. One simply can't expect your client's competitors to tune their brands to your client's brand.

Or can we?

Does the loudest voice get the most attention? Near term, probably. It's hard to ignore a cry for 'help', for instance. But long term, if we hear enough of them, we become immune to such cries, especially if they don't deliver honest results (e.g. See: The Boy That Cried Wolf).

And yet given today's technologies, maybe it's now possible to create communications that are capable of being delivered regardless of competing distractions?

So that instead of our circa 1987 Boom Boxes fighting with each other for available audio space and attention, –making it impossible to hear either song–, we simply broadcast our message using 2017 'Boom Pods' that automatically eliminate defined noise; but also beat match, pitch correct and remix colliding transmissions, with the result being a perfectly blended Green Sound music mashup capable of allowing us to clearly and legibly hear both informational and utilitarian messages, musical melodies and overlapping sets of sonic memetics simultaneously, sans interference –PLUS whatever other audible elements happen to inhabit the environment– not to mention in perfect groovy harmony –and at a volume that won't wake the babies passing by in carriages pushed by their mothers or fathers.

Because, fortunately or unfortunately, silence is not an option.

* * *

Photo Credit

Friday, October 17, 2008

Of Space and Sound

Click on any link below to read all the articles in the Critical Noise Archive on SPACE AND SOUND, exploring the relationship between sound and environment:

1. Zoning Post Modern Habitats For Green Audio
2. Sound Spaces for Subway Systems
3. Soho Grand – Lifestyle Branding with Music
4. Tonal Rain Falling From Cathedral Space

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Zoning Post Modern Habitats For Green Audio

Strip malls are arguably ugly.

At first, clashing branding appears to be the cause of it. Then one considers image density. The problem is not that too many voices want to sing in the chorus, but that they do not sing in harmony. Signifiers and logos simply express brand attributes like different notes in a scale. So if the urban cityscape looks cluttered, the blame lies with a less than comprehensive audio zoning policy, not with the individual aesthetics presented by various design directors.

However, marketers (producing remote media for use in a public space) are at fault if they concentrate all their efforts designing the brand and zero effort analyzing the spaces where brand assets are positioned, played or displayed. Of course, one can't spend all one's resources auditing every location, but a sampling will provide enough generalities to strengthen the possibility that one's message will get heard. If getting heard isn't important to you, than spend your money elsewhere, like on pretty stationary.

A central part of my professional activity is predicated on prescribing both sonic and image solutions to communicate brand messages. Far be it from me to advocate turning the volume down. But I do advocate intelligible communications on all platforms, and in consideration of the acoustic ecology –natural, urban or otherwise.

Beyond predicable noise assessments, is it too much to ask music designers (and their clients) to consider the environmental status of our post modern human habitats –inclusive of competing audio sources– when creating sound solutions for a given site?

In this era of 'Green' and environmentally friendly solutions, might there also be A Greening of Sound? –Perhaps a Green Sound Initiative, whereby sound producers consider the given acoustic ecology of a specific site or experience before adding their own voices to the fray?

The process and the professional who engages in this task would not be too different than a film mixer who already considers music, dialogue and sound design in the formation of a completely intelligible and entertaining composite. But instead of working against picture, our audio ecologist is working with –and one might even say 'mixing'– the environment.

Make no mistake, mixing with a Green Sound result in mind is different from our current idea of location mixing. 'Green Ears' nether seek to maximize a preferred source, nor diminish other sounds, but rather intends to form an immersive, balanced experience inclusive of all sounds (even those beyond the music designer's or engineer's technological control).

Unlike typical location mixing, Green sound sources move, and green playback environments are in constant flux. For one thing, man made habitats fade at the edges into natural ecological source sound. This creates (both problems and) opportunities to change the way source sounds interact with habitat and with each other.

We are not mixing nor positioning sound sources for a specific static venue, but treating every space human beings inhabit as a constantly moving, webbed venue (without borders), and every electronic device as an intelligent, responsive source. Therefore we require every electronic device to communicate with one another within a given range, and also to be able to listen to the environment for cues on how to behave, and then emit sound accordingly.

Most movie goers are probably familiar with THX. THX is the trade name of "a high-fidelity sound reproduction standard for movie theaters, screening rooms, home theaters, computer speakers, gaming consoles, and car audio systems".

Green Sound, as I imagine it with my inner ear, would be for environmental audio and non-entertainment locations (equipped with sound makers) –inside and outside–, what THX is to the movie experience –a high-fidelity, quality assurance protocol.

The result might yet produce a full chorus of commercial or even industrial voices; but instead of an unintelligible or annoying sonic mash, each man-made audio source conforms to a site-specific filter establishing volume, frequency and tonality relative to a given geography or ecology.

We might even investigate source placement using spatial simulation algorithms and models for particular acoustic spaces that demonstrably and capably host the broadcast of multiple overlapping sounds from varying –even moving– points of origin, and do so legibly, –such as forest or fauna regions, which can seem simultaneously active with sound and, also, relatively quiet.

And we must certainly use any other applicable technology available to us to achieve the desired Green Effect (perceptible as simultaneously active with legible sound and relatively quiet), such us Holosonics Audio Spotlight product, which focuses sound (for one example) to single position.

And just maybe the sum of it won’t sound too bad at all.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Desaturate the Web (It's Only Fair)

In the nineties I founded a music company called BLISTER, so christened because I wanted to convey to Interactive art directors, animators and casual game makers (among our principal clients) the impact the strategic use of branded sound might play on the senses. This in the days when audio was often deemed 'too big' or 'too slow' (not to mention, 'unessential') in the construction of an online experience.

But in the last decade sound has gone from being considered too unwieldy for the Internet to being unquestionably integral to just about any and every interactive experience one can think of. And interactive audio production has become an art form and recognized profession unto itself.

The funny thing is:

We've all visited sonified web sites that provide an option to MUTE sound. But is there just one website that offers us the option to DESATURATE the color spectrum, so that we can view the thing in a more palatable Black and White? No, ha, but I wish there were, because the presumption still is that if anything is going to be annoying; it's going to be the sonic elements, not the visual elements.

Of course, they didn’t say that about my blue hair in 1983.

–But here lies a powerful argument regarding the weakness of design (and subsequent necessity of sonic enhancement). In a previous article I wrote:

"If design is the rocket, sound is the fuel that lifts it into our imagination, serving to imprint the image (of the vehicle it accompanies) into our memories, and even if the sound itself is goes unremembered."

Or vice versa: Practically speaking, Sound and Vision compliment each other, thereby creating an integrated experience; and by extension a seamless memory of, and emotional reaction to, a given event.

But in fact, visual fashions fade faster from our interest than even Top Ten Pop songs. The eye becomes jaded far quicker than the ear. TV commercials from the eighties look ancient. But today's kids and adults alike still enjoy dancing to Brit Pop Robo-Candy such as Ian Craig Marsh and Martyn Ware's wonderfully askew Human League and Heaven 17.

Similarly, Leo Delibes 'Flower Duet' ('Viens Mallika' from the Opera 'Lakme') will likely outlast the famous Tony Scott Directed/ Howard Blake Arranged TV campaign for British Airways (that used the piece as a score).

Were the 'Flower Duet' actually commissioned by British Airways as its core audio branding asset, so much the better, but perhaps original commissions are no longer necessary to establish authentic branding. What I mean by that is, ideally, account executives at the airline, or attached to the airline's branding company, would have long beforehand distilled the BA mission, values and our corporate goals into an Identity Style Guide or Brand Manual that included parameters for execution of audio.

If initiated, the creative brief should have resulted in the commission of an original work that effectively conveyed the BA brand through music (Assuming, also, they secured a living composer whose talent was substantially equal to that of Delibes).

A few other pre-existing tracks have indeed managed to communicate a full breadth of a brand message. Chevrolet's use of Bob Seger's 'Like a Rock' comes immediately to mind. Yet, I think, overall, licensed (or otherwise non-commissioned, existing) pieces work best (in most cases) when they are part of a campaign, not when they are re-purposed as the fundamental branding asset. Although, as mentioned, sometimes such works can indeed be successfully retrofitted as a brand asset.

The argument does not apply to filmed or theatrical entertainment, for the simple reason that cinematic entertainment has longer legs than the advertising for it, or anything else for that matter.

Marketing, as with any campaign, is by its elemental nature, a temporary operation. In contrast, Fine Art, such as Music, is timeless, by default. Sure, any given recording will eventually sound dated, but rearrange the track using modern production tools –or simply play the thing yourself (if you're a musician)– and all of a sudden the music jumps back to life!

Pantone's 2007 Color of the Year was Chili Pepper. This year it was Blue Iris. Next year it will be something else. The eye continuously demands novel ways to distract it. And yet the western ear, give or take a few hundred years, will never tire of C Major.

Not to say some commercial art doesn't hold the same appeal as fine art. Some of it does, and I'd like to think that some of that which is held in such regard also included my participation. But note, a commercial cycle in the US might run for as little as 13 weeks –in the case of a Superbowl spot, ONE day– while every little ditty from a cheap pop song to a symphonic theme is routinely capable of surviving generations.

No doubt, shortly after the copyright runs out on many classic 20th century jingles, future composers will use them as fodder for more substantial works, much the same way Aaron Copeland borrowed the Shaker hymn 'Simple Gifts' as a theme for his ballet score, 'Appalachian Spring'.

Yet I would be surprised if any accompanying video (to those classic jingles) eeked out any further use beyond their value as vintage pop kitsch.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Buzz Versus Bang

Aristotle opens his philosophical treatise, METAPHYSICS, with the following introduction:

"All men by nature are actuated with desire of knowledge, and an indication of this is the love of the sense; for even, irrespective of their utility, are they loved for their own sakes; and preeminently above the rest, the sense of sight. For not only for practical purposes, but also when not intent on doing anything, we choose the power of vision in preference, so to say, to all the rest of the senses. And a cause of this is the following, –that this one of the senses particularly enables us to apprehend whatever knowledge it is in the inlet of, and that it makes many distinctive qualities manifest."

In other words, as far as senses go, the Eye/Brain partnership has been engineered with far more capable intelligence gathering capacity than the Ear/Brain.

Graphics (that interest us) appear to possess an innate capacity to cut through competing visual clutter. For this reason, design, good or bad, has an advantage over audio (so long as it rests within an available range of vision). The Eye/Brain partnership is quite adept at selecting isolated points of interest, like stars in a night sky. Meanwhile even a trained Ear/Brain pairing finds itself overwhelmed when attempting to discern unique single tones if emitted from multiple competing sound sources.

Every try to enjoy –much less actually hear– a street fiddler playing a quiet tune when a New York Subway train pulls into the station with a 100 decibel roar? It’s impossible, and yet no problem at all reading competing –even muted– signage on both moving train and stationary platform, or even this article if you happen to be on the go and have your face buried in a mobile device.

For more anecdotal evidence, just walk down your local Main Street, or stare across a strip mall. Even a three-year old child can easily discern McDonalds' red and yellow arches amidst an urban sea of other corporate logos. Alternately, consider words on a page, all are individually and entirely legible, even if not digested in the prescribed linear sequence. Similarly, few will report any obstacle identifying one or all of a hundred fast food joints on along a given strip –by design cues alone.

In contrast, substitute the neon signs indicative of any congested suburban landscape for equally loud sounds. The result isn’t just aural clutter. It’s noise: a morass of overlapping sounds whose component parts played in unison become indistinguishable from one another, and their points of origin also indiscernible.

Would there be any problem with a jackhammer at two in the morning if it sounded like a purring kitten instead of a machine gun on steroids? Compound an angry jackhammer with a middle-of-the-night traffic jam and it makes many a city dwelling musician wonder why every car horn can’t be factory tuned to A440, and coo instead of blare. Who uses car horns as danger alerts anyway? A few certainly, but equally true most people honk to voice impatience, not to warn an unwary pedestrian that they’re about to be flattened by a minivan.

For some reason, competing audio is perceived as a racket long before competing design becomes disordered hodgepodge. Even when design does cross the threshold into clutter, the brain is more willing to try and make sense of visual hodgepodge than it is of noisy racket. Walls covered in graffiti earn appreciation from a global group of aficionados that appreciates not just design, but densely compacted, competing design elements. And in fact, puzzles are fun.

Neither copious nor bright, contrasting nor clashing color use, random points nor competing lines, nor unsymmetrical shapes are necessarily annoying –much less painful to our senses (Art School grads included). But unharmonious rumblings, shrill emissions and discordant notes can be irritating. And sound blasting at an excessively loud volume can actually be dangerous and damaging.

But therein lies one key to the power of sound, and especially as an enhancement –or 'power boost'– in the promotion of a message conveyed by a visual element. If design is the rocket, sound is the fuel that lifts it into our imagination, serving to imprint the image (of the media vehicle it accompanies) into our memories, and even if the sound itself is goes unremembered.

Or vice versa, of course. To be fair, any gifted multimedia artist is capable of using one sensory trigger to 'push' forward and enhance the perception of an experience delivered by another. That's why film, theater, opera, propaganda and advertising work when they do. Somebody is pushing your buttons, and in the case of an action movie (or a sports car commercial) the result can be thrilling.

In fact, it might be inaccurate for me to liken noise to clutter, when a more appropriate visual metaphor for racket is probably that of a focused emission, such as a laser, aimed directly at your brain.

Of course, one needn't make a big noise to gain attention. The buzzing sound in your ear from a bug will certainly capture your attention just as much as any loud sound will. In some instances, that soft buzzing sound might even be considered a more effective medium than a loud bang. Because of its incessant, repetitive nature, the sound –indeed the entire experience taken as a dimensional 'snapshot'– has a very good chance of becoming indelibly imprinted into one's neural circuitry for future recollection.

And that might be why the sound of cicadas, or of even one mosquito buzzing in your ear –not to mention an old pop song– can trigger a cascade of archival memories from so long ago, that you thought you forgot them. And you did until one single SOUND took reign of your psychophysic reality and quite effortlessly transported you back in time.

Maybe not Quantum Physics, but I think it's AMAZING anyway, and it happens almost every day to each and everyone of us.

So, Buzz versus Bang? You decide.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

McLuhan, Medium, Message and Music

In his 1964 book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan first produced his now famous opinion that "The medium is the message."

This statement has been interpreted widely, but I'm going to limit the meaning of 'message' in this case to mean 'effect'. This speaks directly to McLuhan's argument that while content maybe significant, the medium itself by which content is delivered produces an independent effect (on the person or persons consuming given any given media).

More to point, this effect, McLuhan argues, overrides any effect produced by content alone (were one even able to divorce it from medium).

Agree or disagree, McLuhan nevertheless presents us with food for thought when we consider his statement in regards to the method by which modern music is composed and produced.

Philosophers have focused primarily on Television as The Medium, but McLuhan didn't limit himself to TV. It simply so happened that nothing else so well illuminated McLuhan's points as the example provided by Television.

One could similarly ask whether or not one's experience of consuming music changes whether one listens to vinyl on a turntable, or an mp3 from a hard drive. Instruments themselves can be considered mediums. Is a melody different when 'broadcast' from a Stratocaster than from a Stradivarius?

Yes and yes.

Jay W. Wilkey, in his 1969 article, Marshall McLuhan and Meaning in Music, rightly notes, "A medium may be thought of as an extension of man." But if that is the case, network and cable TV is an extension of the entity originating the broadcast, not the viewer. In the same way for instance that light may be thought of as an extension of the light bulb, not the eye, which reacts to it. Now contrast traditional media with the multipurpose personal computer. The PC is not only an extension of those distributing content but for those using the machine at home to produce it.

For the end user, a TV screen is a canvas, but a computer monitor is also an interactive tool.

Today, (convergence aside) it appears that the personal computer is quickly replacing TV as The Medium –if it hasn't already. Unlike TV, or a light bulb for that matter, our engagement with the PC is not so direct. However symbiotic our relationship with computers is, unlike TV, a PC doesn't simply invite consumption; it also invites engagement. Significantly, we use an interface system to fulfill the task of engagement: usually a mouse, a keyboard and a Graphical User Interface (GUI).

One might even now say it's not the computer that is the medium, but that 'The Interface is the Medium'.

McLuhan suggested content specificity is of little importance, relative to the effect the medium upon which it is delivered also projects an independent message.

If we take McLuhan's concepts and apply them to music, the inevitable conclusion is it doesn't much matter if a composer's output is symphonic in nature or a sample-laden hiphop track. What should really spark your interest is that both traditional-sounding music and (the modern equivalent of) musique concrète today share similar production processes, given the ubiquitous use of Digital Audio Workstations by creators of both.

I can tell you from personal experience that copying and pasting marcato strings is not so unlike copying and pasting funky drum hits.

[FYI: Per Wikipedia: Musique Concrète is avant-garde music "...that relies on recorded sounds, including natural environmental sounds and other noises that are not inherently musical, to create music".]

Certainly, various genres of music –symphonic music, pop music, country, jazz, hiphop, etc– all sound quite different from one another. But whereas thirty years ago the phrase 'electronic music' was nearly synonymous with 'experimental music', that notion has since changed. In fact, both phrases are anachronisms by today's standards. Today, much modern recorded music –from Nashville Country to Nigerian Hiplife– is created using the same formerly experimental techniques. Well, how experimental can one work be relative to another if everyone is using the same techniques to piece together samples and loops, and executing wholesale copy and paste treatments?

An age of collage cannot be also be entirely an age of originality.

But what collage does very well that wholly invented works can only rarely accomplish by themselves (the works of Charles Ives come to mind) is illuminate new perspectives by simply contrasting existing ideas (manifest as graphic, visual, audio or otherwise) within a novel context. In this regard, PC tools invite collage and collaborative techniques, and as a direct result present new context –at least more so (I would argue) than a pencil and a piece of paper.

The old sounds aren't simply being rehashed or recycled; they're being presented in a way that teaches us something new about the component elements voiced within the work, the world and ourselves. One indirect result is the now oft circumstance of sample-heavy works reflecting new light on the works they borrow from, frequently refreshing old content with contemporary insight.

Returning to McLuhan, content may very well be incidental at an empirical level, if the medium by which we create content and then distribute it produces an overriding effect (however subliminal to our senses) on the audience/consumer/user.

On the other hand, instead of having to rely solely on content itself for connection with an audience, content creators now possess an increasingly larger opportunity to manipulate context in such a way that it invites a wider audience, assuming they also have the talent to make a connection in the first place (something the technology also facilitates).

This is a profound concept, because now astute composers, well informed in electronic media techniques, can hope to win listeners over with the mere idea of a musical work, potentially earning fans before the piece has even been performed. This is already especially true for core fans of any specific genre, because the overriding genre concept defining a given work will often endear a bit of forgiveness in fans in regards to actual talent, artistic literacy or skill set of the work's creator.

This can be accepted two ways:

1) Today, everyone has the opportunity to sound like a professional.

And that may be true, but:

2) Equally significant, today even accomplished composers and sound designers can use the same digital tool kit (as amateurs) to produce art well beyond their own however-well-trained abilities.

–Meaning: the opportunity for interesting new works by amateur and professional alike grows exponentially. This is good news for audiences, spectators and the public at large.

In a way, this paradigm also speaks a bit to the power of branding. In fact, it may not be an accident that both the public embrace of branding concepts parallels the widespread shift to digital tools and distribution. But that's another article.

For the moment, consider how much the (digital) medium (by which music is now created and distributed) shares with design creation and distribution. Both rely heavily on digital technologies. Both are produced via engagement with a Graphical User Interface. But not only do Composers and Designers use many of the same commands to produce their respective works, many commands also have a history of usage in Text-only programs, such as Microsoft Word.

Copy and paste a word, an image or a melody: Is the artistic skill informing the various arts really so different? To my mind, they merge once one accepts the notion that a GUI levels differentiating skill sets in favor of a common virtual tool kit.

As a result, Designers and musicians (and writers for that matter) are now using the same tools, and they are using them in very much the same way.

I suspect future music theory and appreciation studies will include techniques and analysis whereby (seemingly) traditional music scores will reveal evidence of collage, collaboration and creation via Digital Audio Workstations. It may be that music educators will also be in a position to produce corresponding design corollaries –visual art and images produced using the same tools and techniques– among the gathered artifacts.

But why wait for the future, when we can do this now?

McLuhan was not the first to argue that communication technology (The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man), be it print or electronic media, affects cognitive organization, but he is perhaps the most popular to expound this idea. It behooves musicians to consider the relationship between their tools (i.e. musical instruments and production equipment) and their own cognitive processes.

Does music shape the mind or is it the other way around?

One needn't limit this consideration to digital interfaces, either. Multi instrumentalists already know how the improvisational composition of music with a keyboard engages a different cognitive process than when referencing a fretboard. The former feels horizontal and linear. The latter resonates with diagonals and feels dimensional, independent of how the resulting music actually sounds to the listener.

Either way, one can't help but notice how partial composition using one instrument is enhanced when the process is completed using an altogether different instrument. (For instance, writing a harmony with a piano and creating a lead melody with an electric guitar –a composer is apt to produce something far different melodically than if he or she composed both harmony and melody via keyboard)

It will be equally interesting when composers tire of the kind of inspiration digital tools provide, and use them as one would a traditional instrument in the hands of a competent performer. That is, with a sense of transparency, influenced only by the innate capacity of one's own inner ear and gifts.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Point of Impact @ Brand Zero

“A brand is always a story well told,” the New York Times reports Ms. Lucas, the vice president, general merchandise manager for beauty and perfume buyer for Henri Bendel, as saying as she gave a reporter a tour of the boutique’s perfume bar (An Underdog Pursues the Scent).

I understand how Lucas arrives at her assessment. For those who have never given women's retail any thought, movies that lend themselves to multi-tier licensing deals –like STAR WARS– illustrate Ms. Lucas' point emphatically.

Likewise, part of our experience of a given brand results from the context which we discover a given product, service or experience.

But I arrive at Branding from a different angle. To my mind a Brand is not a story in and of itself, but the thing a story delivers.

In my market theology: Story is simply a tool to deliver a brand or creator's promise, message, lesson or entertainment. Positioning is what the client or account or company does to carve out market space and visibility. A brand mark is most certainly an element in that strategy. But, brand marks aside, Branding is completed and returned by consumer consensus responding to the promise delivered by the Position.

Both Promise and/or Message are intangibles that your clients want consumers to understand about a given product they represent at first POINT OF CONTACT. –At least in a retail environment.

As with any ideogram, neither the communication itself, nor what is being communicated can be defined as story –there's simply no time for it. Rather, marks, identity assets, logos and packaging provide a business opportunity to inject a single shot of symbolic data into a consumer's brain. Call the resulting impact 'a feeling'. A story may in fact be the vessel for whatever is promised or experienced, but so is an ideogram –or in the case of a sound logo– or audiogram.

Wikipedia defines Ideogram as follows:

"An ideogram or ideograph (from Greek ἰδέα idea "idea" + γράφω grafo "to write") is a graphic symbol that represents an idea, rather than a group of letters arranged according to the phonemes of a spoken language, as is done in alphabetic languages, or a strictly representational picture of a subject as may be done in illustration or photography.

Examples of ideograms include wayfinding signs, such as in airports and other environments where many people may not be familiar with the language of the place they are in, as well as Arabic numerals and mathematical notation, which are used worldwide regardless of how they are pronounced in different languages."

Naturally, Ideograms are abundantly found in portfolios comprised of brand assets.

AUDIOGRAM is my own derivative invention, and refers to the sonic equivalent of ideographic mark.

In any regard, both ideograms and audiograms carry independent messages open to wide interpretation by those who receive them. We can narrow interpretation by creating context, but consumers often connect with companies, products and services before assimilating context. And your context may prove besides the point if public consensus posits a contrary mythology. In effect, Packaging and Content (or Company) only become synonymous with each other after consumers experience the product or service being advertised, and come to consensus on the value of the thing.

Story delivers brand assets, but neither the story nor the promise is the branding. Although, the reaction to it may very well be.

To make it real simple, consider advertising for a film. A trailer can make an awful film look great. The film's producer's want people to think they have a great film so that they'll actually pay to see it. But what happens after the public sees the movie, and everyone walks out the theater saying, 'it stinks'? Is the film's brand: A) Great? Or B) Awful? Or both? Like the The Rocky Horror Picture Show, it may require the right mood to discern its brilliance.

Of course, we can expand the concept of branding to mean anything we want it to, to apply to any and every sort of corporate communication. But when the feet hit the street in a given supermarket aisle, –and dare I say also along the cosmetic counters at Henri Bendel–, the only thing that matters is POINT OF IMPACT.

In fact, how does packaging compete with story?

Forget the hundred million dollar campaign produced by a legacy brand designed to introduce the pubic to a new logo. What intrigues me is what happens in the mind of a consumer who looking at boxes wrapped in packaging that hides their contents will then choose one over the other, instead of first doing research? It happens all the time.

Stories –delivered via advertising– hopefully drive consumers to stores. But faced with a multitude of heretofore unknown choices, how does a given consumer decide whether to buy one cosmetic over another? Or walking into a store, armed with information –and possibly a recommendation– with every intention on making a specific purchase: what happens then, when a given shopper ultimately decides to go with a different, unexpected, untested, new choice?

I would have to guess lacking personal experience or recommendation from a trusted source, nano-second judgments are made by each individual based on symbolic information made manifest by branding and packaging. When it comes to consumers purchasing products new to them, often choices are made first; and once having been made, only then does the consumer go looking for a back-story. Hopefully they accept the one your marketing department has created. Otherwise, it's behemoth brand against the bloggers, and nothing defines a brand like a bunch of unhappy consumers.

In like manner, the same piece of language can be read using one font or another, but sometimes one specific font is a more perfect choice to serve as the vehicle to deliver a specific composition. That is why Typography, like Sonic Branding, creates experiential value.

Say what you want about Art versus Commerce, first impressions do matter, even more than stories –at least until you've earned the full Faith and Trust of your client or customer.

As a Music Designer or Songwriter, your intention might be to compose an epic metal ballad, but your audience will tell you if you are indeed a rock shaman, or if alternately you are received (and perceived) as formed from the same mold as Spinal Tap.

• Audiograms are not inherently Brands by mere virtue or intention alone
• Brands are not stories, but are the subject of them
• Stories deliver and exemplify brand assets
• Logos, Ideograms and Audiograms promise an experience
• Faithful delivery of the promised experience creates Trust
• Trust is the basis of a relationship
• Relationship and Reputation ultimately define a Brand

In effect, the faith and trust that results from consistently delivering a given experience –THAT is the brand.

Branding –whether it is a graphic logo for letterhead or an audio mnemonic for a Television commercial– BEGINS with design and creation. Application of the mark distinguishes one product, service or company from another. But only when customers become return customers, and come to some consensus as to the value and identification of the assets –in effect making mark and thing synonymous with each other– do those assets and the promise they make (or message they deliver) become the brand.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Musician Under the Influence (of Technology)

As it happens, two weeks after concluding a series of articles on the effect technology has on modern music production, I stumbled on Nicholas Carr's article, 'Is Google Making Us Stupid?' (July/August), published on The Atlantic website. I found the article via a mention in a US News & World Report essay titled 'A Digital Dumbing Down?' about "The lively debate over the intellectual impact of digital culture", by Jay Tolson (August 28, 2008). Both articles are well worth consideration.

Naturally, after reading both articles, I felt completely 'on zeitgeist'.

Here's a thought provoking excerpt from The Atlantic article that touches on material related to topics discussed earlier this year in the Critical Noise blog:

"Sometime in 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a typewriter—a Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, to be precise...the machine had a subtler effect on his work. One of Nietzsche’s friends, a composer, noticed a change in the style of his writing. His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper."

Like Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus (Carr notes), bemoaning the development of writing, Carr spends a little too much time lamenting the suspicion that someone or something has been, "remapping the neural circuitry" of our brains, with the result that his own (and possibly everyone's) attention span is noticeably shorter. Others support Carr's argument offering the wholesale abandonment of print as anecdotal evidence to its truth.

Carr does have a point that can be supported by brain science, regardless. Repeated physical activities and mental tasks do influence brain structure –no doubt about it. Musicians for instance, demonstrate greater numbers of nerve cells in certain areas of the brain related to auditory tasks than non musicians.

And yet, I can't relate to Carr on his point because I still retain the capacity to juggle web surfing and a good book. Not to mention that children who should be most susceptible to a diminished capacity for concentration as a result of new technologies are still somehow able to digest a five to eight hundred page tome belonging to the Harry Potter series.

I do relate to Nietzsche’s friend, the composer, however, and I'm aware of the impact new tools have on my craft. Is there reason for concern? In some instances, perhaps. In one respect, technology IS killing musicianship; Guitar Hero is no substitute for actually playing a guitar. But music software and the  novel interfaces being invented to manipulate that software are  changing performance technique, composition and streamlining production in ways I find interesting, even exciting. A life spent building virtual worlds has never stopped computer scientist Jaron Lanier from also becoming a composer, a visual artist and an author.

Kevin Kelly (Wired), responding to Carr on his own blog, The Technium, suggests that perhaps Nietzsche's change in style was not the result of the typewriter interface, but the effects of age and infirmity. Kelly is possibly correct, but is he also such a unique animal in the universe that he alone hasn't recognized how punching keys creates percussive rhythms that may shape verbal and creative expression in a potentially different way than unaccompanied pen or pencil to paper? Kelly may as well argue no difference in musicality between sliding violin samples across a digital interface than actually playing a violin. Nonsense.

Maybe it's my age –younger than Kelly but not so young that I feel compelled to stay connected 24/7 to the digital social ecosystem. And maybe I don't surf as much as Carr, or perhaps I simply have a different relationship with technology from both men. I started programming music on computers, in BASIC, in the early eighties on a Tandy TRS-80, of all things.

Programming definitely influenced the way I filter information, be it incoming sensory data or outgoing communication. After dabbling in FORTRAN, the world has been ever after filtered through a lens some called Karma, others 'Cause and Effect', but which I know as the IF-THEN construct.

In fact, when selecting and connecting melodic information, thinking 'in FORTRAN' probably plays a bigger role in the formation of my aesthetic than I've previously given the construct credit for. And I don't think that's necessarily a negative.

What I do find interesting is not how unlimited information access or ambient awareness might be eroding our mental capacity or distracting our focus, but how emerging similarities between Modern Audio Production and Graphic Design might be due in no small part to the influence of the Graphical User Interface in both industries (Music By Design).

Increasingly, the lens which we interact with the world is a data chocked screen.

And common or shared software protocols make once dissimilar activities available to experts of one art form who may now choose to experiment with another. The result is a kind of hybrid artist who may not be able to function as a musician or designer in the analog world, but is quite capable of producing something worthwhile in both Photoshop and ProTools.

To Carr's point:

If I have any misgiving about the latest technological advances in music production, it's that so much professional equipment of yesteryear has been replaced by disposable TOYS, virtual and otherwise. New England Digital's pre ProTools music production synthesizer (Synclavier) was crafted with the same buttons the military used to build B52 bombers, and it felt like a Steinway/CRAY super computer blend under one's fingers.

In contrast, few contemporary music tools are constructed with more care and craft than Fisher-Price Toy Musical Instruments, except that Fisher-Price products are actually built to last. It seems that new millennium instrument manufacturers are determined to edge their own products into obsolescence, and do exactly this with each new update. Getting customers to trash last year's product on the false premise that the latest technological advance will increase musicianship is central to countless business plans.

But you'll never find a Pianist abandoning his or her piano, or a Violinist his or her violin. How many electronic musicians are using the same tools today that they were using five years ago? Not many, I bet. This strange circumstance appears to have produced a culture of artists who would rather forgo the development of a competent skill set in favor of access to a perpetually novel tool kit. And, no doubt, the music made by perpetual students will bear evidence of this circumstance.

The flip side, of course, is that good music teachers from all over the world have become instantly accessible to the dedicated few at the touch of a mouse. Also, the tools of music production are now relatively affordable, and therefore within the reach of nearly everyone who wants to express themselves with sound –regardless of whether their ambition is to be a professional or simply enjoy music as a hobby. This can only produce a positive effect on a culture where the Arts have practically disappeared from the syllabus (in favor of new laptops for social networking, perhaps?).

Closer to my point, and as others have noted we've entered an Age of Design.

In his organizational paper of the same name, Jeff Conklin writes in Age of Design (Clicking this link initiates a PDF download!):

"...the job of humanity is now shifting from understanding our world to being conscious about creating it —that is, designing it."

Whatever one calls it, this paradigm shift is informing both our aesthetic and our process. Maybe we do read invent less, and read far fewer books, but we're arguably making and creating more using the tools of collage and synthesis.

It's also possible any diminished interest in text is the result our cognitive systems are undergoing a reorientation towards (or evolutionary preference for) pictographic writing systems (SMS shorthand, emoticons, branding, etc...), over traditional communication via the written word.

As with Ancient Egyptians, our preference is to consume and transmit data in packages that resemble a modern equivalent of hieroglyphics. We're all suddenly thinking visually and purposefully –regardless of whether we're artists, musicians, writers, managers or anything else– we've become a culture of designers.

How often now is every thought, every concept, first conceived as an image? It's only after one sees the thing does one then translate it into spoken words, formal or informal text or even shapeless sounds and music.

Google may or may not be making us stupider, but computers and other electronic tools, and GUI ubiquity especially, are certainly changing the way we connect to reality, process information and communicate our thoughts.

Why use the word when a picture –or ideogram– is worth a thousand, and nuance requires negligible energy to bring meaning into focus. Of course, Text works as well as it does because it is both an image and it conjures a sound.

So, perhaps we are thinking less like verbalists, and more like visual artists?

I don't want to believe that we're dumbing down. I'd like to think we're actually 'Designing Up'.

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Online magazine EDGE has posted other responses to Carr's article. Contributors include W. Daniel Hillis, Kevin Kelly, Larry Sanger, George Dyson, Jaron Lanier, Douglas Rushkoff, W. Daniel Hillis and David Brin. Simply click the link to visit: The Reality Club

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To specifically read more about how digital technology is transforming music composition and production from a primarily aural-centric task into a more visual experience than it it ever has been before (the invention of musical notation notwithstanding) click the following links to visit Table-of-Contents pages for two different but related series of articles posted earlier this year on the Critical Noise Aural Intelligence blog.

Critical Noise 2008 Series 1: Evolution of the Music Designer

Critical Noise 2008 Series 2: Computers Have Changed My Brain