Archives for category: music

It’s May. How did that happen?! Anyway, taking a look at the TH blog I’m reminded of why I never kept a diary: that the minute there’s anything interesting going on in your life, there’s no time to write about it (professional diarists excepted, of course). Anyway, the point is, if you judged from our blog you’d imagine this has been a quiet year for us, whereas it’s probably been the most busy we’ve been since we set up shop together almost nine years ago. So, now that we’ve almost reached 2016’s mid-point, I thought I’d capture some of the highlights.

What you will have seen here, of course, is a lot of cross-posting from Angel Academe. For those out of the loop, AA is our network of largely (though not exclusively) female angel investors, set up as part of Sarah’s mission to encourage more female HNW’s to invest – and invest specifically in female-founded tech start-ups. So far it’s been quite a year for us. Among other things we’ve: screened close to 100 business; held our first 2016 pitch-based “studio” event (with another one right round the corner); closed three funding rounds since January, with another three in the pipeline; and run the second of our Investor Academe workshops for those new to angel investing. We also launched the third year of Entrepreneur Academe, the mentoring programme we run on behalf of the City of London.

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Birdsong, one of the 2015 Entrepreneur Academe conhort

For details on all our Angel Academe, Investor Academe and Entrepreneur Academe work, check out the AA website. Many thanks to our sponsors for their continued support of our work: Thomson Reuters, haysmacintyre, Kingsley Napley and of course the City of London.

Our big consultancy gig of the year has been working with the fabulous Wales Millennium Centre on their digital strategy. We’ve been in Cardiff pretty much every week since January, really getting under the skin of the organisation (as is our wont), and figuring out what it really needs to achieve through digital means. It’s a crucial point for the organisation as it begins to commission its own work alongside the work it does as a presentation house. If the musical Only the Brave, which we were lucky enough to catch during its inaugural run, is anything to go by, then there’s an exciting future ahead for the Centre, and we’re delighted to pay even a small part in that.

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Sarah takes a snap of the Wales Millennium Centre

We’ve been doing work closer to home, too. Our Future City is a project that brings together educationalists with professionals from the arts, culture & heritage sector to improve “the lives and life chances” of children and young people in the city through an engagement with creative practice. Simon’s been helping them think about the impact of digital media on young people and how they might develop a programme around “digital skillfulness”. It’s also been great to be working once again with our old friend Marc Jaffrey, OBE.

Following her success in last year’s UKBAA Awards and Tech City Awards, Sarah made the Maserati 100 list, which celebrates those helping to build the UK’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. There’s also been a fair bit of public speaking for us both, with engagements for (among others): Mass Challenge/Wayra, Cass Business School, the Digital Catapult, Goldman Sachs, the Association for Cultural Enterprises, Brighton Aldridge Community Academy… the variety alone should give you a good impression of how diverse our work has been over the year. Oh, and of course we’ve kept up our long-standing associations with UKTI and Innovate UK.

Lastly, I’m still managing to keep my skin in the creative game, with my DGMFS Media project now releasing digitally-distributed music: my own, and that of friends and fellow travellers. If nothing else, it’s an education about what it means to be a creative practitioner in the digital age.

That’s it for now: just a snapshot, as I say. As ever, you can keep up with us on twitter: @turnipshire, @simonphopkins and @angelacademe. We’ll try to back here with another update before the year’s out 😉

Simon

For so many reasons, 2015 was a watershed year for Turner Hopkins. It’s certainly been an enormously busy one, and one inevitable consequence of that has been that we’ve not been posting here as regularly as we’d previously done. A couple of years back we might have panicked a little about that; after all, a strong social media presence and an active blog are surely part of the toolkit for self-respecting digital media specialists, right? Too true, but we’ve come to cut ourselves a little slack on the issue, and accepted that living through interesting times often means you don’t have much time – or energy – to write about them. We’ve also been spending more time communicating through our newsletters – which if nothing else puts us on-trend! Anyway, enough post-rationalising, and on with the review.

It’ll be more than apparent to regular visitors here that Angel Academe, in all its guises, has been the dominant force in our lives for the last year. Here’s the 2015 round-up Sarah included in her most recent AA newsletter:

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Wow, what a year! We’ve made 7 investments with several other deals in the pipeline. The amount raised so far this year is nearly double our 2014 total and from double the number of investors. Many of the women and men investing were making their first angel investment, so congratulations to them as well as everyone else taking part. 

We received and reviewed well over 500 applications to pitch to us this year from a very wide range of women-led technology businesses: from big data to healthtech, fintech and ecommerce. Of these, 15 passed our 3-stage screening process and then pitched at one of our “Studio” events attended by more than 80 angelinvestors over the course of the year.

We also ran 2 Investor Academe sessions, our half day investing workshops, with 25 of our angels as well as bite-sized Tax and Legal Academes prior to the last 2 Studio events.

Our second Entrepreneur Academe cohort has just graduated, taking the number of women founders we’ve mentored to over 50. We ran 12 mentoring sessions this year and, now that the City of London has confirmed sponsorship for next year, we’re in planning mode for 2016. 

In the summer we were honoured to received the UKBAA’s Angel Syndicate of the Year and last month we picked up Funder of the Year in the TechCities Awards.

But it’s not all been about Angel Academe, as we continued our broader-based strategic work for a range of both new and returning clients. Here are some highlights.

The BBC Academy invited Simon to curate two whole days of workshops for the organisation’s leadership, looking at various aspects of the digital landscape. We took on a pretty wide perspective, looking at issues as diverse as managing teams through disruption, “intrapreneurship”, new ways of conceiving and delivering concepts and the role of data in content personalisation and recommendation. We were particularly pleased to able to draw on our wider network to bring new faces into to the BBC, including Friday’s Anno Mitchell, Ramona Liberoff and Abundance Generation’s Louise Wilson. Our thanks to everyone who gave up their timely freely to make these days so successful.

As part of the sessions, Simon delivered a two-hour masterclass looking at his pet topic of the last few years (one which he’s since reprised for the BBC College of Journalism): how to become more personally and professionally effective in the face of potentially constant digital distraction. The sessions mixed theory with practical application and were of course highly interactive, and it’s fascinating to see the degree to which many highly experienced, capable and often brilliant people are really struggling to avoid distraction in their work.

We continued our ongoing relationships with several governmental groups, including UKTI, Innovate UK and the KTN, with work ranging from inward investment to funding competition design and general research. And of course, we continued to work with various other areas of the BBC, including the Market Engagement Team, for whom we delivered a set of detailed case studies.

We were also delighted to hook up with a couple of old friends and former colleagues.

Simon and Marc Jaffrey, OBE, worked together a decade and a half back at the BBC. A genuine polymath, Marc is currently consulting on a fascinating project running in our home town of Brighton and Hove. Our Future City is looking at the impact of education and the arts on young people in the city and kicked off the year with a series of workshops mapping out the terrain. Marc asked Simon to come along and provide a “provocation”; the result was a 20-minute tirade outlining his worries about young people and technology. You can read Simon’s presentation in full here – if nothing else it really was a provocation. In any case, we’re delighted to say that we’re continuing to work on the programme in 2106.

It was also good to be working once again with the pioneering British internet outfit state51, on whose behalf Simon attended Forum Europe‘s Future of Digital Content and Services conference in Brussels.

We’ve read a lot between us over the year, but a handful of books stand out with regard to digital technology:

We continue to get most of our news from two principal sources (ones with mercifully international perspectives): The Economist and The BBC World Service. But of course the podcast continues its inexorable rise and rise and several have been mainstays for us over the last year, including:

And finally, cultural highlights of the year have included Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia at Glyndebourne, Brecht and Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at the ROH, Purcell’s Indian Queen at the ENO, and three standout visual art shows: Magnificent Obsessions a the Barbican, The World Goes Pop at the Tate and Joseph Cornell – Wanderlust at the V&A. And we’ve been delighted to witness the thriving of Jazz in the Round, the monthly show put on at the Cockpit in Marylebone by our good friends at Jazz on 3.

So that’s been our 2015. We wish everyone a thriving, prosperous 2016 and look forward to seeing many of you throughout the year.

Sarah and Simon

 

 

On behalf of the Knowledge Transfer Network, I’m currently doing some research on around cross-innovation, asking: how does collaboration between different sectors and disciplines drive innovation? And more specifically, how can Creative Industry practice provide innovation in non-CI arenas? I’ve been talking to a range of practitioners in the field, and over the next few weeks will be showing how artists, creative strategists and digital technologists are working in fields as disparate as health, transport, policing… and on and on.

First up, the Jo White of Rhythmix in Brighton introduces the work of Wishing Well, bringing muic and sound design into hospitals across the region. What follows is a lightly-edited transcription of a long and in-depth conversation Jo and I had a couple of weeks back, touchin on her background, the formation of Rhythmix and then a detailed look at how Wishing Well came about.My thanks to Jo for giving us so much time.

 

jo

About Rhythmix

I’m one of the project managers at Rhythmix, a music charity based in Brighton that works across the south east. We’ve been around for 15 years evolving from a consortium of music services who wanted to figure out how to engage young people who are not in the mainstream: children and young people who may be excluded from music education, who are not engaging with their school generally, or are in care, or are excluded because of disability.

Rhythmix’ job, then, is to engage children and young people whose circumstances make them vulnerable. Essentially we’re an arts organisation that’s interested in social and personal as well as musical outcomes: increasing self-expression, self-confidence, helping young people to engage with the support available to them. A lot of work I’ve done over the years has been supporting children who have never played an instrument before or had an opportunity to write songs. Personally I’m less concerned with performance, more with inclusion. But before we go into detail, a little on…

How I got here

My background is in folk music. I don’t have any formal qualifications – music or otherwise, beyond A Level, having dropped out of university to get involved in direct action, specifically the anti-road building movement. From that time I spent 10 years living with direct action teams and travelling communities in the west country and northern France. We lived communally, aspiring to very low impact lives.

Music was a really important to us – we earned our living as buskers. So one way and another, things of the fringes, music and community became came very important to my life. I spent time in France, where there’s still semblance of a folk tradition and became hugely interested in how folk music can bring communities together.

I knew I wanted to work with young people and music and over the course of the next few years ran into people describing themselves as “community musicians”. I moved to Brighton, enrolled in the legendary “Workshop Skills for Facilitators” course at Goldsmiths University and became a practitioner. I went on to eight years or so of leading workshops, keen to work especially in creative projects for primary age and in disability settings. Gradually I became more involved in project management with Rhythmix and at the same time becoming increasingly interested in middle ground between community music and music therapy – which are related but very different disciplines.

Enter Wishing Well

Around that time I met Kate Murdoch. Kate had been working in Paris with a group called Musique et Santé – Music and Health. They’ve pioneered a way of working in healthcare, taking musicians right to hospital; bedsides, not to perform one-to-one therapy with individuals for a set period of time, but to be just on the ward and interact with patients spontaneously.

They are interested in the sound ecology of a hospital. This can be especially harsh for children, surrounded by bleeping machines, ventilators, CBeebies in the background, anxious voices, unfamiliar language and loud footsteps. Moreover, research has suggested that children in critical care are über-vulnerable to the sonic environment and become hyper-vigilant, trying to decode what each sounds means. So softening this sound has become really important.

Kate had completed a “train the trainer” programme with Musique et Santé. We knew that she was the best person to bring the approach to our own team. We selected 10 practitioners who all had some background working in SEND (Special Education Needs and Disability), good vocal skills and a good range of music experience, and we put them on a five-day foundation course led by Kate and Nick Cutts, another M et S alumnus whose organisation Opus is based in Derbyshire. I have never seen a group of people so transformed! It’s the kind of training that really turns you inside out: three days of classroom-based and 2 days shadowing interactions in the children’s hospital.

We started Wishing Well, then, very much in the mould of Musique et Santé, although the Musicians are developing the methodology in their own ways and bringing their own ideas and expertise to the table. In particular, we wanted to look at how music technology might help. We use iPads at bedsides as they can be used by children with very light touch, really enable interaction and create incredible sound worlds. We’re interested in how music technology can support a better sonic environment for patients when live Musicians can’t be present; interactive sound installations in play areas and speakers placed in pillows, personalised play lists on iPods. (Brian Eno did similar work at the Chelsea & Westminster A&E)

We made a short film about our work at The Royal Alex, during the first years of Wishing Well, funded by Rockinghorse Children’s Charity through a successful Youth Music bid; you can watch the film here.

Our current work

We work with the Royal Alexander Children’s Hospital in Brighton, and with the children’s wards Hastings and Worthing. Additionally we work with Chailey Heritage Clinical Services, who provide respite and rehab services for children with profound disabilities and acquired head injury.

There are real differences between the various hospitals, so we adapt our approach to each setting. For instance, the children’s ward at Conquest Hospital in Hastings, there is a high turnover rate and we rarely see the same child twice. By contrast, at the Royal Alex in Brighton, we target children in the High Dependency Unit who are in hospital for long and frequent stays throughout their lives. These children are at risk of developmental delay and missing out on all the normal things that childhood should bring. So that’s what we try to provide – normal things in an extraordinary environment.

Let me give you some examples of our work…

Our Musicians do a certain amount of one to one work with young people with very little movement. We use technology to create an environment where they can express themselves through music so that there “disability” is no longer an issue. We’ve worked with some incredible people who are taking the concept of triggering sounds to new levels; building bespoke digital instruments which can be played with the same level of expression as a more conventional instrument

On the other hand, an intervention can be far simpler. We had a situation recently involving a girl who had had a tracheotomy. The staff needed to insert a valve in so that she could talk, but the girl was finding it extremely uncomfortable and difficult to use. The nurses suggested getting her to sing songs she knew in order to distract from the discomfort and to learn how to articulate verbally using the valve. Simple but very effective.

Or again, just think about the environment on a hospital ward: it’s almost an entirely alien one. The beds don’t look like beds, the tables don’t look like tables; the children have no frame of reference as nothing looks like it does at home. One way we can help maintain wellbeing, then, is to bring something familiar to the hospital environments: a song that they have heard, their mum singing at home, or songs from the children’s TV they know well. We bring the outside world in.

On a different tack, we’re also working with people with advanced dementia who are being looked after on specialist wards. These patients are in the assessment ward for three to four months at a time with the hope that the Nursing and Occupational Therapist teams will be able to help them so that they can then go back home or into a specialised residential home.

Our practitioners work alongside with the OTs and move between “reminiscence repertoire”, identifying music that was meaningful to people in their twenties and creative improvisation, helping people be present and define themselves in the moment. We want to offer a new experience too; why not have new experiences later on in life? Digital technology has been a real enabler here. We had one lady using Thumbjam on the iPad who was delighted to be “playing the violin” after so many years. By taking people back into their youth we are able to bring them a great deal of comfort and help the OTs improve wellbeing.

The importance of advocacy, and getting to the right people

Everything we do is publically funded, so of course a big part of my job is writing funding applications. Beyond that, a lot of my role is about creating partnerships and about advocacy. I put a lot of time into finding the right people to speak to at a hospital, then into explaining what we do, how we do it and why it is so important. The joy of working somewhere like the Alex is that we have music champions who not only understand the work but shape and guide it. They understand completely how the soundscape of the hospital can effect children and their recovery.

Success measures

We’ve has put a lot of thinking into how to capture outcomes: we are, after all, an outcomes-based organisation. But while this is a vital field of work, the Musician in Healthcare is a new role so we’re working hard to build up our evidence base. People can interpret “wellbeing” in very different ways for example. Clinical research like Randomised Control Trials are hugely expensive and time consuming.

Much of what we capture is necessarily qualitative – and bear in mind that with a lot of our children the indicators work with are non-verbal. So we’re observing things like calm but alert states, eye contact, interactions with staff and family members and ease of going to sleep. Again, difficult to capture, but we can describe these outcomes, especially when working with a person who knows that child very well. And it’s important to record the anecdotal stuff too, things from parents and staff like “It’s the first time I’ve seen this child light up and since we have been in Hospital”.

Possible future directions

We work across seven trusts with multiple funders so it’s a bit like spinning plates. I’m trying to secure long term funding, of course, allowing us develop more sustainable programmes, with rigorous evaluation and more widespread advocacy. Building up a language and an identity around this work has been a huge process for us and is ongoing. It takes time – and therefore money – to make this work understood. In the meantime there are several initiatives either in planning or in early stages.

With the best will in the world, our musicians are only going to be at the Alex, say, twice a week. That’s six hours in total. Try telling families who’ve just had a really good interaction that you’ll be back, next Wednesday! That’s a long time to wait for the next bit of fun. I would love to work with people whose expertise is digital technology to address this. Can we have musical or sonic “play areas” at the end of each ward? Can we have speakers in pillows for children who are profoundly sick who can be comforted by immersive sound? Interestingly, we haven’t yet gone to a local external creative media company, although this is of course a town renowned for them; clearly there must be local possibilities for the co-creation of this kind of project, where technology and creativity meet healthcare?

We’re delighted to be delivering a Music in Healthcare course for 3rd year medical students at Brighton and Sussex Medical school. They choose between various optional modules at certain times of year (called student selected components). Our first module was full and it was heartening to see how the students understood the role of music in building trust with the children that they might look after.

We’re currently working with a team of creative dance practitioners and colleagues at Surrey Arts to create a Music and Movement pilot for people with dementia. I find it personally frustrating that we separate out music and movement in our work. We want to enable people to express themselves in any way they can. It’s fantastic working with creative dancers – like us they are participant led and our methodologies seem to blend seamlessly.

A couple of weeks back, Tom Campbell pointed me to a fantastic piece in the Guardian, a full transcript of the key note Steve Albini gave at the Face the Music conference in Melbourne back in November. I mentioned it here briefly, and said I’d return to it, so here we are.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Albini’s work, it’s fair to say he’s a “veteran” of the underground music scene. Since the late 70s he’s worked as a musician, producer (he prefers “recording engineer”), studio owner, DJ, promoter… and on and on. What binds all his creative work is its fiercely uncompromising nature.

And Albini isn’t just artistically uncompromising either. Throughout his career he’s stood defiantly outside the mainstream record industry. For sure, he’s produced work on major labels (think Nirvana’s In Utero) but he’s conducted his affairs strictly independently. In doing so he’s built up a unique perspective on the industry – and a pretty jaundiced one at that. His position previously was probably best stated in his early 1990s talk, The Problem with Music, in which he cogently argued the case that the music industry was set up in such a way that it delivered maximum profit to itself, while delivering little in the way of reward for bands and little in the way of value for fans.

This talk returns to the theme, but with a twist: Albini thinks that the digital age has brought about some significant solutions to music’s “problems”. Now this is a long piece, with a carefully constructed and tightly argued case, so I urge you to read the thing in full, or at least stick the youtube clip on while you’re making dinner tonight. Albini is not only a clear thinker, he’s a fine, polemical writer and an engaging speaker. But at the risk of boiling it down rather too crudely, Albini’s argument could be summarised thus:

• For music fans, there is now unfettered and effectively unlimited access to all music.
• Bands have unprecedented access to cheap recording means and access to potential fans through a plethora of free or cheap distribution services.
• A network of bloggers and online zines has replaced the old behemoth media gatekeepers.
• There are vastly more opportunities to play live than ever before, and distributing music freely makes it much easier to establish a rep and get people to your shows, buy your merch etc.
• Intellectual property needs to be rethought completely, and very possibly simply dropped by musician as a means to make money.

Now, I have to say, that I broadly agree with every word (and again, please read his, rather than my summary), although in a moment I’ll talk about a slight nag. Where Albini is most convincing, however, is in debunking the notion of a “golden age” of music.

I think, depending on their age, if you asked most people when the golden age of rock or pop was, they’d variously reply the 60s or 70s. The 80s at a pinch. But in brute economic terms it was the 90s – by a very long way. The revenues steadily climbed in that decade and topped out around 2000. The reasons are various, from the massive impact of MTV (difficult to imagine now) to the reinvention of the Hollywood blockbuster as an extended promo video. But chief among the reasons was surely the rise of the CD, which allowed the industry to re-sell to its customers their entire record collection without reissuing artist contracts or advances. And, despite the fact that CDs were vastly cheaper to manufacture than vinyl, they somehow sold for considerably more.

So: boom time for the industry, but for artists? Albini argues here that, no, it wasn’t. In truth, for bands that did get signed to a label, almost all would spend their entire advance on making a record and would never see a penny in royalties. Essentially, Albini argues, every penny that the industry spent was the artists’ un-recouped advance money. As for those that didn’t get signed, making a decent living from a career in music was all but impossible.

With all of that I concur. One of the more historically inaccurate pictures that have built up of late is of a time when thousands of bands were making healthy careers out of selling music. It’s a scenario that’s been summoned up by artists and industry vets since the rise of Napster and continues to be now with the railing against both free and paid-for streaming services. But it is, to be clear, a lie. Only a very small number of musicians has ever made what might be characterised as a half-decent middle class career from playing in bands, and that’s why almost no one does it very seriously much past the age of 35.

Or put it this way: the current situation might not be a utopia, but nor was the past. The only people hanging on to that myth have hugely vested interests: they’re either a rarely successful artist or an industry professional.

Here’s where my nagging thought comes in though. Unsurprisingly, the most insightful, and certainly most heretical book written about digital culture in the last year is Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? Like Lanier’s previous book, You Are Not a Gadget, Future is wide-ranging, hugely discursive and at times somewhat serpentine. It certainly has many themes, and the lack of opportunities to build a meaningful career though creative practice is only one of these.

Nonetheless, at its heart the book contains a dire warning about what the rise of “siren servers”, ultra-powerful repositories of data running equally powerful algorithms, owned by just a handful of huge conglomerates, largely based on the west coast of the USA. Lanier envisions a future in which the middle class in entirely hollowed out, with an insanely rich elite lording over the rest of us who, if we’re lucky, will make minimum wage. For him, that’s what technology’s current trajectory will head.

I think that one reason Albini and Lanier have different positions is that they have different perceptions of what music is. Read Albini’s piece and you’ll see a world of “bands”, “gigs”, “merch”, “fans” etc. Now that’s a little unfair of me as Albini’s output has been massively eclectic and in this talk he references drone music and Cincinnati soul. Nonetheless, I think his view of the business differs from that of Lanier who sees an industry beyond the rock world: a landscape of session musicians, composers and professional songwriters, jazz and classical players, jobbing club musicians… in short a world in which is was possible for a musician to make a middle class living from plying their trade. Indeed, “trade” may be they keyword here, for Lanier sees artisanship being wiped out by digital technology; Albini, I suspect, couldn’t care less about artisanship.

Only this morning, preparing to get these thoughts down, I ran across a piece in the music and tech blog hypebot that pointed to the collapse of the session music world in LA – and in Nashville too; the reasons are various and tech isn’t the only driver, but it is surely in the mix. In effect, players’ fees have dropped 68% in the last 15 years. This surely plays to Lanier’s vision of an eviscerated creative middle class.

So here’s my problem: I instinctively agree with much in both Lanier’s and Albini’s positions, and yet they seem diametrically opposed. I certainly agree with Albini that a rose-tinted view of the past is unhelpful, even deliberately deceptive. But I can’t deny Lanier’s position either.

What I will say however, that music here is not an outlier. By virtue of file size, music was always the canary in the coal mine when it came to the creative content industries. (Actually poetry was but no one seemed to notice that; I’m guessing the revenues might have something to say about that.) The Albini/Lanier dichotomy, if you like, is playing out elsewhere with self-publishing authors pitted against Amazon-bashing Booker winners, vloggers against paywall-building news organisations… well, you get the picture. Ultimately, I want Albini to be right, but are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Simon

I enjoyed this brief post from Hypebot, the music business and tech blog, entitled “12 simple ways to be a happier and more productive musician“. Although it’s aimed at musicians, it could frankly apply to any creative professionals, and includes suggestions that echo our thinking about personal and professional effectiveness, including the importance of knowledge and skills acquisition, exercise and general health, steering clear of negativity and keeping out of debt. I personally would have added something about mindfulness and digital downtime in there, but it’s a good list nonetheless.

Simon

Last week I attended a fantastic all-day event at the Brighton Dome, the first of a series of sessions under the banner “Our Future City”. The events are aimed at bringing together educators and creative practitioners to think about how services for children and young people in Brighton and Hove could be improved and sustained over the next few years. Our good friend Marc Jaffrey OBE, who’s designing and delivering “Our Future City”, asked me along to give a short presentation related to one of the initiative’s key themes: “digital”. Marc asked me to say something that would get a conversation going, and to be at least a little provocative. What follows, then, is a transcript of the talk (with a little polishing and a few additional references); I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether it succeeded in being a provocation.

Earlier this week, by way of stimulus for this talk, Marc sent over a recent piece from the Guardian, a fascinating interview with Ian Livingstone. I’m sure Livingston is known to many of you. He is, of course, the founder of Games Workshop and the man who gave the world Dungeons and Dragons and Lara Croft amongst much else.

But he’s also a man whose opinions about creativity and learning are highly sought after in policy-making circles. Crucially, right now he’s looking to start a free school in Hammersmith that would be based on his thinking. And that’s where it gets interesting, because there’s already a free school in Hammersmith – one founded by journalist and How to Lose Friends and Alienate People author Toby Young.

Livingstone and Young, I think it’s safe to say, have polarised opinions about education. The former is broadly a child-centred progressive who believes that technology should be used in the classroom to help children become more creative problem solvers (he also believes that coding should be taught in all schools). Young, on the other hand, believes in the kind of knowledge-based learning that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1950s grammar school. (These are somewhat broad brushstroke characterisations and I apologise if they’re a little crude, but you get the picture.)

You might expect me to incline to Livingstone’s view, what with me being a “digital media consultant”, and if you’d have asked me about it as little as five years ago I would have done so, unequivocally. Now I’m not so sure. Let me be clear about this: it’s not because I think we should return to a 50s grammar school education. I had one of those, albeit in the 70s and 80s, and it strikes me looking back that most of my time in school (and much outside it) consisted of moving words from a blackboard into an exercise book and then at periodic intervals, reproducing them on a piece of paper in an exam. It was, essentially, a process of moving words around different surfaces with the possible side effect of some of them sticking in my memory. A staggering waste of 10 years, in my opinion.

No, the reason I’m concerned about tech in schools is that I’m worried about what tech is doing to our young people full stop, and I would like our places of learning to be islands of respite from the digital storm. (One clarification from the get go, when I’m saying “tech” here I’m using it as a stand in for “ubiquitous, internet-connected tech”. I’m certainly not talking about the presence of computers in, say school music rooms or photography labs, where I think it’s hugely powerful.)

I believe that the last 10 years has seen an unprecedented experiment carried out on an entire generation: on the way that they think, behave, interact and, well, simply are. Of course it’s only metaphorically an experiment. In reality we’ve seen a series of technologies (web 2, social media, hand-held devices and so on), haphazardly developed and almost entirely driven by commerce (with a little bit of wide-eyed philosophical cheerleading from the sidelines). But it’s sure feels like an experiment to me, and I think it’s unconscionable for anyone who’s in the “digital industries” (that is, people like me) not to raise some of the concerns I’m about to raise. I’m not saying that any of my assertions are iron clad; instead I’m encouraging some genuine questioning about them. So let’s get to it.

Attention A lot has been written about what the connected digital age has done to our ability to concentrate. Two of my favourite books on the topic are Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s The Distraction Addiciton. They’re very different books but interestingly start from similar positions: that of middle aged men, both working in the technology sphere, noticing their own ability to concentrate diminishing with their use of tech.

I think that’s something most of us past, say, our mid-30s would recognise if we were honest with ourselves. So I ask this: if this can happen to those of us who grew up before the advent of the worldwide web, let alone social media and the smart phone, then what’s going on with young people who’ve never known a world without them? There are some thinkers – Steven Johnson comes to mind – who believe that young people are simply developing new ways of thinking that are far more about parallel processing than about prolonged, single-task absorption, and that’s just the way it is. But I wonder if we’re not losing something vital here? Isn’t single-task absorption – think Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “flow states” – something we all seek as educators and creatives?

Constant stimulation So this relates very closely, of course. In his early 90s book On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored, the psychotherapist and author Adam Phillips relays a case study about a young child who is developing behavioural problems, despite being healthy and being brought up in a loving, comfortable environment (I confess I’m relating this from memory, so some of the details may be a little off). Anyway, turns out the environment might be too loving, as this kid’s parents are pushy beyond belief, and there’s no extracurricular activity this child doesn’t pursue. Put simply, this child never has the opportunity to be bored, and surely being bored as a child is a crucial part of our learning and growth, and not least the spur to the development of a rich inner life.

But these days, no one is ever bored, not in a real way – they don’t allow themselves to be. Rather they seek constant stimulation, which I view to some degree as a running away from the self. Go up to Brighton Station now; I guarantee that anyone under 30 who’s on their own (and plenty that aren’t) will be staring at a handheld screen. Or get on a bus and try to find someone idly staring out of the window. What the hell happened to daydreaming? We used to get into trouble at school for it, but I’d be putting on the curriculum!

Retention One area where I vaguely agree with Toby Young is on the importance of learning facts. Where I suspect we diverge is what facts we should learn; the problem with all fact-based learning is that it comes with an agenda (Dan Carlin has spoken eloquently on this matter – check out the “Controlling the Past” edition of his excellent Common Sense podcast). Furthermore, in a world of infinite facts, any choice of what to teach is going to be arbitrary and somewhat of a drop in the ocean. No less a figure than the great historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has argued that we should ditch the teaching of history in school and instead concentrate on skills (although he suggests algebra and Latin, which is where I suspect he might lose some).

But, again, I wonder if we’re throwing the baby out with the bathwater here? I’m not so concerned about the specific facts that we learn  – and hopefully remember – so much as that we develop the ability to do so. Socrates vehemently opposed the introduction of writing into academia as he thought it would negate our need to remember anything. What would he have made of Google?! I’m all for more creativity in the classroom and more attention given to problem solving and team work. But do they have to come at the expense of teaching kids to remember stuff?

Ok, they’re my big ones. Here are a few quickies to be going on with, although I could bore you to death for hours on several of them.

Sleep It’s generally accepted that the human adult needs something in the region of eight hours’ sleep a night, with a variance of 45 minutes or so either side. I have friends that poopoo this, but I would suggest that I’m backed up by a long history of dictatorial nut jobs who “got by” on five hours’ sleep or less. Take your pick. After all, if we were all getting enough sleep then every third ad on the tube wouldn’t be asking something along the lines of “Tired? Then you need X, “X of course being some dubious mixture of caffeine and multivitamins. No, you don’t need X, you need more sleep!

Anyhow, I digress. Teenagers have always needed more sleep. The 16-year old that stays in bed til late afternoon isn’t being lazy (or at least not entirely); he’s being a victim of hormones. The trouble we have now is that teenagers are getting less sleep than the rest of us, because the device(s) that accompany them all day long accompany them all night long too. I put it to you that we are raising a generation of massively sleep-deprived teenagers, and the results will be catastrophic. Probably already are.

Peer-pressure The teenage years have always been about peer pressure. It’s the time when we first begin to grasp our place in a future adult world in which personal politics will be our life-long companion. But peer pressure used to stop if not at the school gate, at least at the front door. These days peer pressure is a constant companion, as eternally present as all the other babbling. I’m not talking about the edge cases here, either, the victims of cyber bullying campaigns who have tragically taken their own lives. I’m talking about all young people, perpetually on the lookout for likes, for virtual approval. Life in the face of raised or downturned thumb: how do they ever escape?

Porn Ok, let’s get on to the tricky one. I’m not going to get into the rights and wrongs of porn, feminists vs free speech libertarians and all that (in any case, this is a difficult week to debate the limits of free speech). Nor am I going to talk about the impact of pornography on relationships (although I’m convinced that it’s profound for all ages). In the context of today – a day in which we consider children’s creative lives – I’m concerned about the impact of pornography on the development of a creative imagination. Here’s why.

I’ve already discussed the development of imagination in young children in the context of boredom. I believe that the onset of puberty, with all its years of longing and loneliness, has traditionally been alleviated to a great extent by the development of a rich inner life – the life of sexual fantasy. The need to develop that life, however, is no longer there. When every conceivable sexual act – conducted between any possible combination of any kinds or number of people – is available at the touch of a button, what need is there to fantasize? Again, I’m not talking about the outliers here, all that Dark Net nasty stuff. I’m talking about freely available mainstream porn. I genuinely believe that the development of imaginative capacity (because imagining is a skill, that needs to be learned and practiced like any other) has been massively diminished by the advent of ubiquitous hardcore porn.

Tactility & leaning One of my other concerns about porn is that it reduces sex to a largely visual (and partly auditory) experience. But this applies elsewhere too, not least to learning new physical skills. I’m a huge fan of forums and youtube threads as learning aids. Indeed, I’ve written on several occasions about a pet favourite: the sub-culture of heavy metal and “shred” guitar playing. For many, the web is a place of hugely accelerated learning.

But there are pitfalls here too. Some “naturals” may take to a skill just by watching some instructional videos and trading advice with fellow forum members. But most of us need hands on advice. And when it comes to physical skills, whether it be thwacking a golf ball or pulling off a pirouette, I really mean “hands on”. I know from personal experience that when I come out of my one-on-one classical guitar lessons, I feel that my entire body has been rebalanced. You might be able to learn to code C++ in a forum – but not something that actually involves your body.

Self-obsession And if I’m not already painfully in the grumpy old man bracket by now, this last one will finish me off. Put bluntly, I think we live in an age of shocking self-obsession. I don’t believe technology is the only – or even chief – driver here. A perfect storm of 60s individualism and 80s credit-led consumption (along with the dubious freedom of “choice”) certainly helped kick things off. But tech has been the icing of the cake: we are in every way the age of the selfie.

Why’s that important here, beyond it being generally repellant? Because I believe that both the act of learning and creative practice in general are about the loss of self. I doubt I would find much disagreement about that in this room. Indeed, a major component of creative practice is often to turn off that nagging “inner voice”. But how much more difficult is it to turn off the constant (and for what it’s worth, almost always woefully inaccurate) narrative of self for a generation who’ve been encouraged to think of little else?

So let me conclude with a caveat and finally some suggestions.

Firstly I want to make it clear that my observations about young people are not meant as criticism. I have children aged between 19 and 24; I’ve spent years in not only their company but in that of their excellent friends, too, and I’ve never failed to feel enriched by it. A clarity of thought, unencumbered by “grown up” (and largely very dull) concerns and a generally vibrant enthusiasm utterly makes up for a lack of experience in the world. My observations about young people, then, come from a position of profound concern – and to a great extent from a position of anger about what is being done to them to make a small number of men on the west coast of the USA stupendously rich.

Furthermore, I certainly don’t want to deny the untold riches brought by the Internet or the world wide web or even the social web. In any case, I’m certainly not a Canute: this stuff is here to stay. Indeed, in the words of 1Xtra DJ Charlie Sloth (whom I had the pleasure of hearing talk at a recent BBC event about music and tech), it’s only going to get worse.

So what do we do about it? Well, Marc has used the Buddhist term Loving-Kindness on several occasions this morning, so I’ll follow suit and use another: Skillfulness. I think it is incumbent on all of us who work with the young to think deeply about our relationship to, and uses of, digital technology. And then we need to develop greater Skillfulness in that relationship and those uses. For each of us, our “Skillful Digital Practice” will be different, as it will be profoundly personal. But it must be equally honest. Developing these practices will be a lifelong project. But only if we pursue them will we be in a fit state to help our young companions develop their own. Thank you.

Simon

Although I don’t agree with everything in it, this long key note address given by veteran musician and producer Steve Albini at the Face the Music conference in Sydney a couple of months back is essential listening for anyone concerned with the future of creative practice. In it, Albini argues that the pre-internet music industry was a system designed to enrich those working within it, and did nothing for bands or fans. The new world, by contrast, has eviscerated the old industry but enabled a thriving scene for all kinds of musical niches. As an argument it certainly makes an interesting counterpoint to Jaron Lanier’s contention that “free” is hollowing out the middle class generally and in the creative community especially. But I’ll have more to say about that soon.

If you don’t have time to watch the video, the Guardian have posted a transcript here. Although I wouldn’t normally advocate browsing the comments thread, in this case I think there are some interesting ideas being kicked around amid the drek.

Oh, and Happy New Year from both of us!

Simon

On Friday December 12th, at Broadcasting House’s Radio Theatre, the BBC held their first “On the Beat” event, aimed at debating the future of music and technology. Given the hugely innovative work the BBC does in this area it’s perhaps odd that they’ve never held an event like this before, but I have to say it was a a highly engaging, thoroughly enjoyable day.

The event was hosted by LJ Rich, who hosts the BBC technology show Click – and who turned out to be a nifty pianist to boot.

The day was introduced by James Purnell, BBC Director of Strategy and Digital, who pulled some anecdotes out of Asa Briggs’ history of the BBC, especially about the BBC’s first chief engineer Peter Eckersley, who was arguably the country’s first DJ, playing gramophone records over the air. Purnell’s point was a clear one: that the coming together of music and cutting edge tech is in the organisation’s DNA.

The day’s keynote was given by Mark Mulligan, a veteran commentator on the impact of digital technology on the music industry. He gave a fairly riproaring history of music and tech over the last 21 years, pulling out the salient points about where we are now – “an age of unprecedented change and uncertainty”. With scarcity essentially killed off by Napster a decade and a half ago, it’s essential that the industry finds some other value, and for Mulligan this is fan engagement – “the most important currency”.

He also introduced what would turn out to be one of the major themes – “the tyranny of choice” – and finished on the note that the cinemas had consistently lost money until the introduction of popcorn. What was the music industry’s popcorn?

Mulligan was followed by a panel discussion about audience’s engagement with tech, featuring 1Xtra presenter, rapper and entrepreneur Charlie Sloth, Radio 2 and 6Music’s Head of Music Jeff Smith and Shazam’s VP of Product for Music and Platforms Cait O’Riordan. It was a fun discussion, with Sloth in particular telling it pretty frankly about media consumption by anyone under 25: “YouTube has changed the game”, “everything is consumed on on mobile”, “no-one watches TV” and (my favourite) “I’ve got a 10 grand home cinema but the kids don’t use it”. All salutory stuff, I think.

Smith’s presentation was, of course, about an entirely different demographic, the Radio 2 audience. For them, interestingly, digital is all about TV – that is, the closer media resembles TV in terms of functionality the more successful it is. It’s one of the reasons they’ve had quite so much success with red button live music shows: ELO in Hyde Park scored 1.2 million views for instance.

O’Riordan gave a fascinating presentation about the analysis of Shazam stats, discussing the relationship between Shazam acitivity, streams and radio play. She also talked through some changes to the Shazam offering, including a newly launched website, a news service and the sharing of Shazams. Clearly the company is at least in part positioning itself more as a content destination.

There was a lengthy Q&A with some really interesting points made. Smith made the observation that “radio has always been good at knowing the audience,” which I think is spot on. He also pointed out that for his audience, the connected home was definitely becoming “less scary”. But my favourite observation again cam from Sloth, who responded to the question “Won’t the now, now, now generation eventually settle into laziness and seek out the familiar?” “No,” he said, “It will only get worse.”

The second session of the afternoon was all about music metadata, which regular readers will know is a hobbyhorse of mine; the session featured Tom Allen from Metable, Brittney Bean, Songdrop CEO, Nicholas Humfrey from BBC R&M Online and Robert Kaye from MusicBrainz. The discussion covered a lot of ground; I was taken with some of the following observations:

  • Crappy metadata means people don’t get paid.
  • It’s difficult to get good metadata from the record labels Why? Well for one thing, said Kaye, the record industry simply “doesn’t trust these metadata hippies”.
  • For Music Brainz, it’s all about “what the artist intended” – and they go out of their way to ascertain this.
  • The publishing industry had made ISBNs work; why couldn’t the record industry make ISRC codes work?
  • Oh and for new bands, Google your band name choices before making any decisions!

The final panel of the afternoon was all about music discovery and featured Radio 1 and 1 Xtra’s Head of Music George Ergatoudis, Henry Firth, founder of Ping Tune (“The Human Music Network”) and Spotify’s Director of  Economics Will Page, each giving a brief presentation before settling into a discussion and Q&A. Some of the more interesting points included:

  • Streaming had reached a real watershed this year, with Meghan Trainor getting into the top 40 on streams only.
  • There’s a general sense that we’re “drowning in music”. Well-crafted, presenter-led radio can really help with this.
  • Indeed, despite all the tech, a recent Nielsen Music 360 report put radio a still the #1 route for music discoevery.
  • It’s all too easy for those of us involved in this to assume that services are more mainstream than they are; Soundcloud, for instance, as huge as it is, is still ultimately a niche service.

Along the way, reminding us that this is, after all, all about music, we had performances from two BBC Introducing artists, Sam Sure and LAYLA*.

So as I said at the top, this was a stimulating afternoon and I very much hope the first of an annual series.

Simon

* A great example of a music metadata conundrum in action – is she all in CAPITALs as per her facebook page or not?!

On November 12 I attended a fascinating evening hosted by Christies looking at the future of arts journalism, the second such event over the last few years, it turned out. I confess that a few weeks have passed but I’ve finally got around to writing up some notes I took during this discussion and the audience Q&A that followed. This isn’t a comprehensive report from the session but hopefully it captures the main points and tenor of the discussion. If anyone who was there thinks I missed anything salient do get in touch. So then…

The panel comprised: Will Gompertz, the BBC’s arts editor; FT arts editor Jan Dalley; our good friend Leonora Thomson, the Barbican Centre’s Director of Audiences & Development; and Richard Morrison, senior Arts Correspondent for The Times. The panel was hosted someone who’s strictly outside the arts world but who’s nonetheless very familiar with the challenges to journalism across the board, Roy Greenslade, media commentator for The Guardian and City University’s Professor of Journalism.

The discussion kicked off with 5 minutes or so of personal introduction and general observations from each of the panellists. Richard Morrison is something of a veteran, having worked under no less than 8 editors at The Times and having lived through the Wapping dispute. Indeed, he ended up writing about the arts because of departmental sackings. He confessed from the start that “no newspaper would close because it stopped covering the arts” (a sobering thought). He briefly mentioned arts blogs, saying that while there were definitely issues there, they had definitely opened up the debate around the arts generally. (We would return to this quite a lot.)

Dalley opened with the idea that the relationship between the arts world and journalism is an essential one – I think in both senses of the word. She agreed that blogs demonstrate a widespread “lively engagement with the arts” but thought that the standards just weren’t high enough. That said, she thought this was to some extent the case in mainstream journalism too, with some real failings in training.

Thomson said that without doubt everything had changed over the last few years, but agreed with Dalley that the arts/press relationship remained hugely important. Moreover, there’s so much arts activity in the modern world that journalists have a responsibility to curate it for the public. She also made the intriguing early remark that quite a number of established critics were struggling to find a way to discuss “digital creativity”. In parallel with this, arts PR people struggle to keep pace with social media developments.

She also pointed to two wider issues: that social media (and all media for that matter) are increasingly obsessed with celebrity culture and that the crisis in arts journalism reflected the wider position of arts in the culture (her observations that politicians seem almost embarrassed to be at arts events raised a chuckle).

Gompertz wasn’t nearly so gloomy, pointing out how difficult it was for Joan Bakewell to place arts stories in the allegedly halcyon 60s and that there is a huge appetite for arts stories on BBC online, from Ai Weiwei to Pussy Riot, via Justin Bieber. He admitted, with reference to the latter, that there was always a danger of falling into the celeb culture Thomson had referenced but felt that on the whole at the BBC they got the balance about right. (That said, he was apparently about to have half his team sacked, so one wonders how widely at the BBC this “huge appetite” was appreciated.)

Dalley picked up on the point about digital arts, saying that without doubt younger journalists took this in their stride, being very flexible about the whole range of multimedia, although she did repeat that despite their evident cleverness, too many of them have poor writing habits. Morrison described how back in the day a lot of arts journalists had made the leap from specialist arts magazines to the mainstream. As such they’d already had a lot of schooling in writing for print, albeit for smaller audiences. Will bloggers make that leap in the future? And how will they differ from their forebears?

There was an intriguing side-discussion about class. Dalley observed that the overwhelming majority of young journalists had gone to independent schools. This undoubtedly reflects a wider problem in society, but is a problem nonetheless. I wondered how it might affect the kinds of arts that are covered by the press, if at all?

There was a consensus that commercial sponsorship of the arts is pretty much essential, but that it presents some real problems for journalists covering sponsored events. It’s one thing if a sponsor had paid for (the much expensive) “ title sponsorship” – Man Booker Prize, Orange Prize etc – but otherwise, arts journalists are under no obligation to mention sponsors. That said, both Morrison and Dalley admitted that the position had changed over the years and these days journalists would often mention sponsors “as a service to the wider culture”.

Greenslade raised the issue of the key difference between general arts journalism and criticism specifically. Again there was general agreement on the fact that few critics had the kind of power they’d once had – the reputed ability to single handedly close shows. That said, a critical consensus could still have a massive impact one way or the other. Thomson pointed out that at least in classical music, critics could help build performers’ and conductors’ careers (“a healthy power”, Dalley put in).

Of course, editors love it when a critic “puts the boot in”, as with the Glyndebourne/Tara Erraught spat earlier this year – a spat with which Morrison was closely associated (whether this had backfired or should be filed under “all news is good news” was a moot point.)

There was an interesting exchange about coverage of regional (ie non-London) arts activity in the national press. The picture that emerged here was one of reduced budgets leading to travel and accommodation expenses being unsustainable (indeed, these would generally outweigh the fee by a factor of three).

On the flip side, I was struck by Dalley’s observation that the FT’s arts coverage brings in a huge amount of valuable advertising – not from arts organisations but from luxury brands who clearly see an association with the arts as some kind of validation.

Finally, perhaps the most heated bit of the discussion was around social media in general and twitter in particular. Twitter had been arguably the main weapon in two recent campaigns against arts events: the Met’s staging of John Adams’ The Death of Klighoffer and the Barbican’s allegedly racist art installation/exhibition Exhibit B (the Met, by the way, went ahead, whereas the Barbican pulled the piece. Thomson talked about the latter at some length. She felt that ultimately the press dealt with the story responsibly but that in had taken them some time to get there; initially they had been caught up in the twitter storm as much as the public. The consensus here was that twitter can generate an awful lot of “noise” – and that it’s the journalist’s job to cut through and bring clarity to complex cases.

All in all, I found the evening thoroughly engaging (not least as a music journalist-turned-blogger!) and look forward to seeing the subject returned to in another couple of years.

Simon