Archive for February, 2010

Art. Now.

February 28th, 2010

Sometimes, people who make money with music decide it’s time to stand up for something and use their work to create a major change. Now here’s the punchline: The last time this happened was in 1984, when Harry Belafonte persuaded Ken Kragen to produce a single, the song for which was written by Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson. Only a few months before Bob Geldof had done the same in Great Britain. Both songs, We are the world and Do they know it’s Christmas, are larger-than-life art. Not because music is a form of art, but the very idea behind these specific pieces.

They were, and still are, quite rightfully massive successes, not only because they were performed by the most famous singers (and musicians) of their time, but because the ones who created them were so passionate about what they were doing, that you must be deaf not to hear it.

In the meantime there have also been natural disasters like earthquakes in Haiti or Chile, Tsunamis in South East Asia, drought in Africa. The world is still in massive need, maybe more than ever. But it seems that it needs cataclysmic events — only that some folks gather up and re-record a 25-year old piece of music. And today, it’s yet another song. As a person who loves music, it sickens the hell out of me to hear a piece of crap like Artists for Haiti. Who are they trying to kid? One moment I thought “Hey, is that Stephen Hawking singing? No wait — it’s some guy with an autotune and vocoder effect. What the bloody hell??” (Apologies to Mr Hawking.)

This is not art. This is not passionate. This is not authentic. It’s just a scam, a cheap stunt. I’m not buying it. If you are not passionate enough to make this your quest, to put your own sweat and blood into this, I won’t believe your story. Never.

When there are more than 50 artists people who happen to have a gross fortune of more than 1,000,000,000 (yep, that’s one billion) dollars and they decide to make a record that generates, say, 25 cents net profit per copy that could go to charity, and every other American buys one copy, that’s about 40,000,000 dollars going to charity. You’d have 25% more if everyone participating gave 1M like that. But why should they, right?

Art has become really, really scarce nowadays. Which should encourage everyone of us feeling the passionate urge to do art to overcome our inner resistance and start doing it. Now.

Chance of a Lifetime

February 26th, 2010

Maybe a few hundred years ago, this was quite the case. You would maybe have one chance to marry the right person, or you’d be stuck with a poor soul till the end. In the last century, this changed, slowly, not because the facts changed slowly, but belief, common sense if you like.

Today there are no more single chances of a lifetime. In fact, there are dozens of them every day. If you wanted to, you could change the entire course of your life every hour.
But most of us are sitting around, waiting for someone to tell us it’s now or never. This expectation of a fundamentally changing, but more important (because of human design), dramatic moment is one of the biggest lies we keep telling ourselves, our friends and our children. Because it makes a great story. But little difference. The difference is what we got to make ourselves.

Useful advice

February 25th, 2010

After finding myself taking one hour to write a page-long email today, this advice came in quite useful (when I read it at night): two.sentenc.es

Transparent but faceless

February 25th, 2010

Some organizations have to be, some want to be (some don’t), but all of them claim to be transparent. What’s that supposed to mean?

It may mean you have to understand an organization chart, i.e. who must obey who.
It may mean “Meet the chairpersons (but don’t talk to them)”.
It may mean “Meet Brian, featured employee of the month”.
It may mean “Here’s an phone number or an email-address so you can contact us (but we don’t tell you who is on the other end)”.

But I have have the feeling it rarely means “We care about you because you are the centre of our business.” It seems that the more the latter applies, the less the first is being paid attention.

Is it to shun the customers so they will settle for less? Or is it to avoid Customer Service getting too much leverage because they represent the customer in the organization? Once you put somebody on the front page, you do not only give her the responsibility but also the privilege to speak in both directions. The more you fear this, the more likely it is that this is exactly what your organization needs.

TV, the Industry, the Web …and us

February 23rd, 2010

Sometimes thinking up a post takes a little longer because you’re trying to come up with (at least) one phrase that sets it apart, make it stand out, and frame it. Check.

The other day I had a conversation about the previous post with a good friend who has been like a mentor for me over the last years. He said this was all good and true, but there’s one thing the Web can’t do but the old alliance can: Make a star. A real star. Someone (or maybe even something) that people will look up to. What they will buy (including merchandise). The Web might be too specialised, too fragmented to build a massive movement.

Two thoughts — First: Industry has designed stuff that’s average so a lot of people would buy it and it would become a success. Aim for the centre and you’ll land a hit. Limit choice and sales go up, because people want to spend money on something. The Web took away the need to adapt, because now you don’t make the most profit from creating average stuff for the masses, but valuable stuff for small groups who are willing to spend disproportionally large amounts of money on their favourites. Or Amazon’s endless shelf space. We don’t need average anymore.
Second: The central (perceived) idea of the Web is that everything is free. Which is why people or incidents can become famous quicker than ever, free spreads faster than anything, gets passed on because people want to be part of it. This is the downside for the industry — once they decide to pick up the idea and monetize it, it’s over. Now it’s not free anymore, people have been robbed of what was “theirs”. It’s quite an impossible task to persuade somebody to give you money for something that has been free until the day before. This is why the “Web Stars” are rarely successful to cash in via selling themselves to the industry. What works, with music for example, is to go on tour and play hundreds of club gigs in venues you can easily fill. If you’ve got millions of hits on the Web, chances are a number of people in every town know you, some will be passionate enough to tell their friends, and presto! Sold out.

TV has a problem. In and of itself, it’s out of date. TV is Nixon, The Gulf War, Golden Girls, Coca Cola. Because this is what TV has been (most of the time) in the last 40 years. Not only TV of course, the whole system mentioned before. Designed to deliver from factory to family. But it also fed another need which is one of the essential human needs: stories. We all need stories, they’re part of our community, our culture. ManU fans thrash the crap out of Leeds fans during the football season, but when England plays Germany they’re brothers in arms. This is because of a story, the need to belong, to identify.

The Web has a place for everyone, but it’s always distant, not personal. And just because a bunch of people who are passionate about something gather on the Web, it doesn’t mean they will inevitably create something that is of value for them or others. Search YouTube for [insert name of your favourite series] for fan videos. You won’t be watching them for long, I reckon.

And this is where the future of TV is (at the moment). They’ve got enough people to come up with ideas, plots, characters, everything you need to create good stories, and what’s more, stories people can easily relate to because they (optionally) include regional aspects. This is something Hollywood can’t do, they must be bigger, louder, fancier than last time, and more average in their stories. When you’re making a TV programme, you don’t have to. You only have to accept that there is no centre any more. Accept that “safe” is gone and “cheap” has been taken by the cluttered Web.

Reaping the remains

February 22nd, 2010

This has been one of the hardest posts for me to write so far, because the topic is quite complex (yet again, very simple), but I thought I better write two posts (here and here) as sort of primer before this one.

If you were running a Commercial TV station, it’s been easy to remember what it’s about, because the name contains the proper order: Commerce first, TV second. That’s how it used to be run until this very day. A number of channels with free programme, because it’s financed by advertisements that interrupt it every few minutes.

This is the story of a Supplier, and quite a good-natured one. Because it’s built around the viewer, and it’s free. Boom. Instant success. And it allowed for perfect vertical integration. You could own the whole production and distribution chain, thus maximise your profits.

And there’s Supplier’s Evil Twin. It takes whatever chunks of content it can get, but they must be cheap, and combines them, held together by ad-glue®. Combine that with its Good Twin and you have an idea what Commercial TV is about.

The reason why this system could exist for more than 25 years (one might say only, compared to the US), is because everyone who was everywhere but before the screen profited from it. TV, ad agencies, all industries. The audience’s benefit was that they got to see things they had never even thought or dreamed of.

But when broadband internet became affordable and computers turned from hi-tech to commodities, the game changed. Now there were even more things no one had ever thought or dreamed of, more clutter that could soak up more ad-glue®, a whole new forest of trees with low-hanging fruit. Ads could be displayed over unlimited time, because they were part of the content from the very beginning (which is not exactly true of course, but when the internet became a mass phenomenon, ads were already everywhere).

So now the TV fruitpickers are about to go out of business, they were to slow to get to the new easy picking grounds. So what are they doing? Instead of seeking excellence, improving their business for long-term sustainability, their CEOs try to satisfy their shareholders with short-term action and lobbyism. What they now want is deregulation, the removal of the chains that restrict the hourly ad allowance. They want an exclusive lifting platform for themselves, because, as they argue, their fruitpicking keeps dozens of other industries alive.

Funny that these people, who laughed at the music industry for their failures ten years ago, now are mobilizing massive forces to persuade politics to change the system in their favor. It’s hard to imagine that they don’t know that they’re in the same situation now, committing the same mistakes, but they prefer to ignore it. Except it’s not really funny, because a politician’s sight hardly goes beyond the next election period, so it’s quite probable they will give in.

Fruitpickers

February 21st, 2010

For every enterprise in every industry there comes a time when all the low-hanging fruit have been picked. This is a critical point, because now it’s time to prove if you were able to build a company that can withstand times getting tougher. The real challenge. All the years before have just been kid’s stuff, now you have to prove you’ve matured and learned how to steer the ship through the storm that’s coming.

And as usual, there is a choice. You can either try to slip out quickly and try to find another tree with low-hanging fruit (hint: there are not many left). Or you realize the potential of this challenge, because everybody else in this industry is also facing it. It’s not only you. And even if they seem to be prepared better, you are not lost, because unless you panic and freeze, you can still change, i.e. improve, what you’re doing, become better than your competition, and succeed.

Because in the end, it’s the fruit high up in the trees that caught the most sunlight, thus taste best.

Avoid Opposition

February 19th, 2010

One of the hardest things to do — at least for me — is to avoid opposition when discussing an issue. It’s not that hard when I’m about to oppose, but when being confronted with a special kind of opposition known as rejection. Rejection always seems to imply a judgment in the terms of “not good enough”, “stupid idea” or “how dare you”.

The challenge is not to become hardened here, because this stops conversation, stops progress, negatively affects the relationship. It’s to swallow your pride and ask for specific reasons and examples, seek understanding, the common base. It is important that everyone really talks about the same thing. And then it’s alright, even necessary, to be passionate about what you’re convinced of — but not to fall victim for blindfolded fanatism.

Listen first — and then start talking.

Facebook Funnel Failure

February 18th, 2010

How many users can you reach via Facebook? It’s quite interesting to have a look at the numbers, to see which pages have most fans, and to see how the fan count develops over time. Here are two examples I picked because the numbers are available and both of them help me make my point.

Both are fun ideas, the first one is understandable throughout the world, because almost everybody has heard of Mr Bean and Avatar. So, how many out of 400,000,000 members are fans of a funny idea like this? Less than 2M. In absolute figures, 2,000,000 is quite a number. But it’s less than 1%. Which reminds me of a post of Derek’s. And here’s how the group grew.

Plain to see that the hoopla the idea created wore off pretty quick. But generating 300,000 fans per day is still not bad, isn’t it? Plus, what bosses love to see is a linear chart because it suggests constant growth, which appears to be a good thing. But it tells a smart marketer that the idea is not catching on, because the multiplier in each generation is 1 or less.

And this is an idea that could catch on regionally, quite a hoot at first, but it also doesn’t prevail. Out of 7.2M Facebook members in Germany, no more than 500,000 like this idea enough to become a fan, which makes a share of about 6.7%. Funny to note that on day 12 the page got featured on TV and the press, and you can see no impact. It rather suggests that without this support growth would have declined even further by now. Or maybe because of it.

Compare this to the most popular pages, only two of which have more than 10M fans. And most of them are REALLY BIG names, brands that have been around for years and have worldwide leverage. Now that the competition for attention has been cluttered up on another channel, does it really make sense to squeeze your shtick in there to end up with 200 fans? Besides, they are not really fans, because chances are that they’re not passionate about you and what you do. Why do you think you need to join?

Well, it makes sense to join. Because you still have the opportunity to reach the right people, the people you want. To do so, you really need to sharpen your profile or you won’t cut through. Even people you might love you don’t have all day to keep looking for you. And the passing on of ideas stops sooner than you might have thought.

Knowing stories

February 17th, 2010

It’s important to know a lot of stories, because they can help you a lot to make a point when factual talking fails. For instance, when someone feels stuck in a situation and very upset because of it, there’s little consolation to be found in “yeah y’know, we’re going through hard times every now and then, it’ll either go away or you’ll get used to it”. And it’s not motivating.

What might be of greater help is to tell the tale of the two woodcutters:
Once upon a time there were two woodcutters. One would turn up for work at the crack of dawn and work tirelessly till dusk. He would use his axe to fell and chop trees without a single break during the day, covered in sweat, exhausting himself. The other one would turn up for work much after the first, take breaks often during the day and leave early. Still he managed to have more trees chopped at the end of the day. The hard-working woodcutter was confounded as he was hurt. He decided that he should have a chat with his peer and find out, why despite working much harder, he was less successful. When asked, the other woodcutter smiled at him and said “Your axe has become blunt. Whenever I sit down to rest, I also sharpen mine.” (There are variations of this story to be found all over the web, so pick the one that suits best.)

Also quite handy is a little arsenal of sayings as “Take stumbling blocks and turn them into stepping stones” and the like. Images speak more than 1,000 words, even if they are conveyed in a spoken or written way.