Archives for posts with tag: user generated content

Turner Hopkins HQ has moved to the West Country for a week or so. So, while in the area, we took the opportunity to visit an old colleague and friend, the (genuinely) legendary mastering engineer Simon Heyworth, at his studio, Super Audio Mastering, in the extraordinary setting of the Dartmoor National Park (which is probably enough superlatives for one sentence).

simonheyworthI was privileged to work with Simon back in the 90s, when I was at Virgin Records, following a quite schizophrenic career path: on one hand I was overseeing general “catalogue exploitation” (think reissues, box sets, mid price catalogue marketing campaigns and the like for artists such as Bryan Ferry and Genesis); on the other I was creating a series of compilations of new (mostly electronic) underground music and newly commissioned albums which went on to be something of a cult phenomenon and even has its own Wikipedia entry (which no, I didn’t write) under the heading “‪Virgin Ambient series‬”.

Simon was a key collaborator in both these areas of activity. He cut his teeth as a studio engineer and producer in the 70s. Actually, “cut his teeth” barely does it justice: Simon mixed Tubular Bells, thus playing a pivotal role in launching a legendary musical career and an even more legendary business empire. But by the time I was working with Simon he’d carved out a role as one of the three or four best known mastering engineers on the planet.

For those not in the know, mastering is effectively the last stage in the process of getting recorded music out into the world. Once music has been written, recorded, mixed and “produced” (a pretty nebulous term in all honesty) it needs one final little bit of attention, and that’s mastering, a process which will render the finished product something that can be cut to vinyl, CD, cassette and, yes, download file. There are two clichés about mastering: that it’s about sprinkling on “fairy dust” and that it’s a “dark art”. Most clichés are a bit shonky; these ones aren’t.

First the “fairy dust” cliché. A good recording isn’t going to make a woeful piece of music anything other than woeful; a great mix won’t fix a bad recording; and great mastering won’t rectify a bad mix. But my God, it can make the mediocre sound good, and make the good sound like something you’d lie down in front of a train to hear once.

As for the “dark arts” stuff, well… All I can say on that is that I used to attend pretty much every mastering session Simon did for me while I was at Virgin and I had absolutely no idea what he was doing with all that tech, and, more profoundly, had no idea how he was able to hear what he did. And yet, and yet… the transformation he wrought on the music he worked on was palpable. The irony is that after my own personal learning curve from Hell of coming to grips with composing, recording and mixing over the last four years, I’ve learned what all the component technical parts of mastering are – say, limiting, compressing, EQing – and yet as a result, the alchemical process of mastering remains more mysterious to me than ever. Really, it does.

(Over the last decade or so, Simon has also added mastering in 5.1 surround sound to his repertoire of dark arts skills; that might seem a detail at this point, but hang in there… )

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Anyhow, the whole issue of mastering has been on my mind in two very different contexts recently: my own personal music making and our report into the value of User-Generated Content (UGC) for Ofcom. And the conversation we had with Simon (and after listening to King Crimson‘s Thrak in 5.1 – oh my) took in some themes that I think are relevant here. I’ll look at them – briefly (because in truth, there are three separate essays to be written here) under the headings of Quality, Attention and Business.

Quality

Firstly there’s the issue of quality. Specifically, sound quality, although I think this applies across the digital media industries in many ways. I’m going to leave aside the issue of whether sound quality took a step back with the advent of CD (seriously, I’m not going there; a discussion of the superiority of vinyl on the World Service* this evening had me shouting at the radio, and really, I’m 46 so need to think about my blood pressure). Broadly speaking, the history of phonography from the turn of last century until, let’s say, the turn of this one, was one of continual progress**.

The age of digital has arguably been wonderful for the music fan – of any genre – in terms of access. But access has come at a price: along with the bathwater of inconvenience and artificial scarcity we’ve unquestionably thrown out the bathwater of sonic quality. Here’s the thing about the kind of alchemical transformations I’m claiming on behalf of Simon Heyworth and his brethren: does it count for diddly in the age of the unquestionably convenient but thoroughly compromised MP3 (which I use as a stand in for all compressed digital files)? And what about when those files are played back on crappy earbuds or on “docking stations” or – God help us –  phone speakers?

Don’t get me wrong – I’ve been trumpeting the opportunities presented by the digital revolution for the avid music fan since 2001, as one of the participants of the DTI’s Digital Music Mission and as a co-author of the resultant report, Monetising Anarchy. At one stage I even began to ditch my CD collection as I ripped it. Thankfully I didn’t get far – a fried hard drive brought me to my senses – although, as I was perversely making my way backwards alphabetically I ditched CDs by, among others, Frank Zappa, John Zorn, Yo La Tengo, Yes and Xenakis. All replaced now, but really, what was I thinking?

I grant you that the epiphany I had – that is, this just doesn’t sound that good – is one which I would like to think will come to many of us. But, but… many people don’t have the opportunities to listen to music closely as “life takes over” (see Attention below) and, more to the point, a whole generation is growing up who frankly doesn’t know any better.

I remember to this day my first hi-fi experience: my grandfather’s stepson (it’s complicated) had just acquired a Japanese hi-fi and played me Blue Öyster Cult‘s Don’t Fear The Reaper. I was 9 or thereabouts, and had literally never heard anything like it. Not so much the song – although it is, to be clear, a hard rock masterpiece – but the sound. Like something to swim in, or drown in.

Wind forward a generation and half a lifetime: I’d just recently set up a decent mid-range Cambridge Audio CD player and amp and Audio Research speakers at home. Over dinner, with some music playing away quietly in the background, my teenage daughter Lily asked if that was surround sound. “No, Lily, that’s stereo.” I don’t mean this patronisingly; it sort of breaks my heart that her sonic horizons have been, well, so severely limited by her compressed digital upbringing.

I dearly hope something hasn’t been lost forever – that would be a tragedy.

Attention

So, back at Simon’s studio we’re listening to Crimson in surround and I begin to ponder: how many people in the world have a set up at home to appreciate this? The pragmatic answer to that is: enough to make this a viable business not only for Simon but for the repertoire owners and musicians (sometimes the same thing!) remixing their back catalogues in 5.1, and producers like Porcupine Tree’s brilliant Steven Wilson who are carving out careers as 5.1 remix engineers. But more broadly, I got to wondering: does anyone actually sit down and listen to music any more?

That could sound like the question of a middle-aged man, I realise. Your life gets busier and suddenly, where’s the time to listen to a whole album, let alone all three and a third sides of The Köln Concert ? (Although we all seem to find time to watch Masterchef or Game of Thrones, but that’s something for another time.)  But I don’t think it’s just that. I’ve watched my own three children, all music fans in their own way, grow up with music as seldom more than an accompaniment. There’s always something else going on. The acerbic and brilliant music business and tech commentator Bob Lefsetz has written often about how music no longer “drives the culture”. This is undoubtedly true, but why, exactly? Where I diverge from Lefsetz is that I certainly don’t believe it’s about the quality of the music being produced currently. Personally speaking, records made in the last decade by, among many others, Meshuggah, Richard Skelton, Rufus Wainright and Pat Metheny are in my metaphorical grab-from-the-burning-house scenario.

Rather, could it be that music is no longer a central part of the culture precisely because we simply don’t pay attention as closely as we once did? Is that why live is where the action is? Because the answer to the question “What is it that live music has that recoded doesn’t?” is, simply: your attention.

Business

So here’s the final thing, and the one which relates to my personal music making and to our more general thesis about UGC. If mastering is a dark art, it’s because, like all dark arts,the principal component of its practice is experience. Remember my comment about what Simon Heyworth can hear? Well, I’m sure some of that is a gift, but I’m convinced that Simon’s ability simply comes from doing this for decades. Think about Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” and the 10,000 hours required to become really good at something. Simon’s almost certainly put in 5 times that. And then some.

That experience, of course, comes at a price.

So can Simon’s skills – the process of mastering – be acquired more cheaply? In terms of kit, well, almost. The kit in Simon’s studio is beyond the financial reach of most “bedroom” producers. But the plugins available for a relatively small amount of money are incredible – easily equivalent to “pro” studios from just a few years ago.

But can you buy those years of experience, those years of listening? I think you can answer that one.

We discussed this at a recent workshop with Ofcom, indeed, we had a bit of a testy discussion about it. The kit becomes ever more available, but the time? The experience? You can’t buy that.

The truth is, if you want your recordings to sound truly professional, to have that extra thing, you need it mastered by someone who can hear. But in a world where even Lady Gaga is allegedly making only coppers from her Spotify streams, then where do the rest of us raise the money from digital to pay for the kind of attention which might just make our efforts sound as good as records we grew up with? Well, as it it happens, Simon’s studio offers cut price deals for the growing hoards of “unsigned” artists like me. Personally, I’ll be taking up his offer.

Simon

*The context, for what it’s worth, was Record Store Day, of which, to be clear, I heartily approve. I’ll be off to Black Cat Records in Taunton tomorrow to see what they’re doing to commemorate.

** See Greg Milner’s masterful – and hugely entertaining – history of music and sound recording, Perfecting Sound Forever.

Here’s the final of our three posts looking at the potential value of user-generated content to the UK, taken from our research for Ofcom; we’ve looked at economic and social and political value, so now let’s take a look at its value in the arts and culture sectors.

Cultural value is always subjective, and nowhere more so than in the realm of UGC. For every tech Utopian espousing the creative/artistic/cultural importance of UGC there’s a naysayer. Andrew Keen is one the most prominent of these; he is, among other things, the author of The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the rest of today’s user-generated media are killing our culture and economy, a controversial jeremiad against user-generated culture (whose title rather gives away its position). We mention this here only to qualify any remarks we make about the value of UGC in the wider creative culture, that is to say, there are other angles on this. So instead of “taking sides”, instead we’ll look at some of the contributions UGC can make to roles and processes with the cultural industries. We’ll leave to one side whether the creative output is good or not.

Talent spotting

In 2012 a new orchestra performed at the Proms, the annual summer-long festival of classical music in London, widely held to be the world’s greatest classical music festival. They were the Aldeburgh World Orchestra, a 120-piece band conducted by the acclaimed Mark Elder. They played a notably difficult set of modern pieces by Stravinsky, Britten and Mahler as well as a new commission by Charlotte Bray. It was, by any standards, a remarkable concert, but what made it rather more so was that the orchestra comprised players from over 30 countries who had only come together for the first time just weeks before the Prom.

The project was run by Aldeburgh Music’s Britten-Pears young artist programme, who, over the course of 3 years auditioned musicians almost entirely through YouTube submissions. We are somewhere past skateboarding cats at this point. The whole project was undoubtedly a complex and expensive one, with both corporate and public sector partners, including the British Council. And when it came to some territories, traditional auditioning methods (that is, tapes) were resorted to; China was the most notable in this regard, home as it is to some of the most promising young classical players in the world – but without YouTube.

YouTube had in fact already been demonstrated as a classical music recruitment tool by the YouTube Symphony Orchestra project in 2011, but the Aldeburgh World Orchestra’s appearance at the Proms, at the heart of the high culture world, was a remarkable example of the power of UGC in talent spotting. It might be an outlier, but across the arts and media, adroit talent scouts are scouring blogs, fan fiction sites, and video- and audio-sharing services to source a new generation of artists and creatives.

Skills development

Skills development is the flip side of talent spotting – it’s how the talent gets developed in the first place. We’ve covered skills exchange and personal development at some length in the Drivers section, so won’t go over that territory again other than to reiterate our core observation here. Communities of interest around craft skills and creativity are providing an unprecedented level of access to information and experience for students in any creative pursuit. At the same time they supply a platform for demonstrating what a student has learned and a back channel for (often rather robust) feedback. It should hardly need saying that a hugely increased talent pool of creative practitioners is of inestimable value to the cultural industries, and to the very quality of creative practice itself.

Audience engagement

If the consumer-producer contract is changing as rapidly and as profoundly as this paper suggests, then so is the relationship between the cultural institution and its audiences. This applies as much to the commercial venue as it does to a funded one.

This has not necessarily come easily to cultural incumbents. For many institutions and companies, “digital” until very recently has been merely one wing of marketing; for some it remains that way. In this context it’s often hard to make a case for the encouragement of UGC. For instance, very few live arts venues host user reviews of their work. It’s not hard to see why; as one senior member of an opera company put it to us, “You try sitting down with a Diva and explaining why someone’s slagging her off on your site.”

Yet even caustic user reviews can drive sales of creative work. Amazon is the exemplar here. There’s no sense that the ecommerce company vets their user reviews editorially; public opinion is on display warts and all (just take a look at the user reviews of Andrew Keen’s book cited above). In traditional marketing terms this would be nonsensical; why list a product with negative reviews? What’s happening here, however, is a very different marketing paradigm, one in which we trust Amazon (whatever we think of it in other ways) as an honest broker. That it’s proved a successful strategy should hardly need pointing out. More orthodox cultural organisations have rather different operating models to Amazon, of course, but there is a great deal to be learned from the retail behemoth.

Beyond the user review/comment/post, cultural institutions are using the encouragement audio-visual UGC to build relationships with their audience, although once we’re into this realm the degree of guardianship can become onerous. Take the world of amateur film-making. Both the BBC and Channel 4 have, at different points, been involved in the showcasing of amateur shorts, the former notably with the BBC Film Network. Tellingly, the Channel 4 initiative lasted less than a year and the BBC’s has now been mothballed, that is, no submissions have been possible since 2012. The suspicion remains that these can be useful recruitment and talent spotting tools (see above) but are high-cost ways of engaging with the audience.

Yet other cultural organisations have taken arguably more radical approaches. The English National Opera’s highly ambitious Mini Operas project created a series of collaborative pieces on the basis of submission of written scripts, music (via SoundCloud) and video (via Vimeo) bringing together hopefuls in a series of different disciplines, and rewarding them with a year of mentoring. Of course, this kind of audience engagement programme takes money, and is certainly easier to justify within a publically-funded environment. Indeed, institutions such as the ENO receive finding partly on the basis of innovation in audience development. But Mini Operas points to new approaches even for this most conventional of art forms.

A final word: on participation vs consumption

We opened this section of cultural value by observing that any judgments in this area are highly subjective. So let’s end with a brief, highly subjective claim. Mass consumption of others’ creative work is a relatively new paradigm in the realm of creativity. Gutenberg’s invention of movable type in the 15th century is widely cited as the beginning of the mass media, but it’s what historian Paul Starr terms “The Rising of Technological Networks” in the mid 19th Century which provided the tipping point; the subsequent inventions of radio, phonography and television only served to deepen the degree to which massive audiences could be reached and entertained.

A curious thing happened in the years immediately after WWII, at least in the West: a public with more spare time on its hands than at any time in human history found itself with the technological means to consume thousands of hours of others’ creative endeavours year in, year out. Let’s be clear about this: this is unprecedented. When our grandparents (perhaps great-grandparent) claimed, We had to make our own entertainment, they weren’t lying.

We would argue that the new UGC paradigm is in many ways a return to a time of making our own entertainment. Of course, it is on an unimaginably different scale, with entirely new opportunities to learn, collaborate, communicate, promote. Is this a world of unbridled brilliance? Hardly. But here’s the thing. When UGC detractors make their case they always hold up the cultural greats and argue that rather than writing a post on Blogger or sticking a snap on Flickr, we’d all be better off watching Kubrick or Mad Men or reading Nabokov or listening to Miles Davis or… you get the picture. And yet: is that what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years, really?

In truth, we would argue that lives are immeasurably enriched by participation over passive consumption. Indeed, that practice in any discipline deepens our very appreciation of it as a consumer. And in this, we feel, lies the true cultural value UGC.

Simon

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Ofcom is the UK’s communications regulator. Their role is to ensure people get the best from their communications services, are protected from scams and to ensure that competition thrives. In order to achieve these objectives Ofcom needs to understand all relevant areas, their impact on consumers and the UK economy and where regulation may need to be considered.

A fascinating emerging area is User Generated Content (UGC) and Ofcom’s Director of Internet Policy has recently appointed Turner Hopkins to help them develop a thought leadership position. In particular, we will help them to understand the importance of UGC to UK society and its economic impact, both now and 10 years hence.

We’ll be looking at user generated content through the lens of consumers, business and government. We’ll also be considering issues around: civil society, business models, technology, creativity and innovation. Our methodology includes desk research as well as interviews with people from the UGC community, commentators, researchers, business and other stakeholders.

We’ll be blogging and tweeting about the project as we go along, naturally. But, given the subject, it would be ironic not to invite contributions and suggestions from our readers, so if you would like to take part, please let us know.