Book Review of “Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World”

"Toolbox_LRG", Image by Limor

“Toolbox_LRG”, Image by Limor.

My father loved to tell this story: One of his classmates while he attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine was named Robert Schattner. Several years after they graduated, he went on to invent the over-the-counter sore throat lozenge and spray called Chloraseptic. This remedy has been on the market for decades ever since then.

Schattner first devised this product entirely on his own after someone who had just had some teeth pulled asked him for an antiseptic to relieve the pain. He later sold the formula and the rights to a pharmaceutical company for $4M. (Given the rate of inflation since then, this sum today would have been magnitudes more and certainly nothing to sneeze or cough at.)

Thereafter he left the practice of dentistry and went on became a successful businessman and philanthropist. He also contributed for the construction of a new building for the U Penn dental school named the Robert Schattner Center. A brief summary of his invention and contributions can be found in an article entitled Capital Buzz: Chloraseptic Inventor Offers Remedy for School, by Thomas Heath, which appeared in The Washington Post on October 23, 2011.

Mapping the Inventive Process

This is a classic example of how inventors find their ideas and inspiration. There are many other circumstances, methodologies, environments, personality traits, events, technologies and chances occurrences that can also precipitate new inventions. All of them are expertly explained and explored in Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016), by Pagan Kennedy.

The book’s five sections distinctly map out the steps in the inception and realization of things so entirely new. In doing so, the author transports the reader to center of this creative process. She deftly uses highly engaging stories, exposition and analyses to illuminate the resourcefulness and persistence of inventors leading to their breakthroughs.

Some of these tales may be familiar but they are skillfully recounted and placed into new contexts. For example, in 1968, an engineer and inventor named Douglas Englebart demonstrated a working computer for the first time with a heretofore unseen “mouse” and “graphical user interface”. (This story has gone on to become a tech legend known as The Mother of All Demos.) Others are presented who are less well-known but brought to life in highly compelling narratives. Together they provide valuable new lessons on the incubation of inventions along a wide spectrum ranging from sippy cups and water toys to mobile phones and medical devices.

The author has seemingly devised a meta-invention of her own: A refreshingly new perspective on reporting the who, what, where and why of inventors, their creations and their wills to succeed. It is a richly detailed schematic of how a creative mind can conceive and execute an original idea for a new widget and, moreover, articulate the need for it and the problem it solves.

Among other methods, Ms. Pagan covers the practice of conducting thought experiments on new concepts that may or may not lend themselves to actual experimentation in the real world. This process was made well-known by Einstein’s efforts to visualize certain problems in physics that led him to his monumental achievements. I suggest trying a thought experiment here to imagine the range of the potential areas of applications for Inventology to evaluate, in an age of countless startups and rapid scientific and technological advancements, all of the populations, challenges and companies it might benefit. Indeed, this book could readily inspire nearly anyone so inclined to pick up a pencil or soldering iron in order to launch the realization of their own proverbial better mousetrap.

Resources for Inventors

Within all of the lively content packed into this book, the struggles and legacy of a previously little known and tragically persecuted figure who learned to harness and teach the inventive process, springs right off the pages. He was a fascinating figure named  Genrich Altshuller who worked as an engineer, writer and inventor in Russia. His most important contribution to the science of invention was the development of the Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (better known by its Russian acronym of “TRIZ”). This is a comprehensive system for analyzing and implementing inventive solutions to problems of nearly every imaginable type and scale. Altschuller was willing to share this and instruct anyone who was willing to participate in studying TRIZ. It is still widely used across the modern world. The author masterfully breaks down and clearly explains its essential components.

The true gem in the entire book is how Altshuller, while imprisoned in a brutal jail in Stalinist Russia, used only his mind to devise an ingenious solution to outwit his relentless interrogators. No spoilers here, but it is an emotional triumph that captures the heart and spirit of this remarkable man. Altshuller’s life and influence in generating thousands of inventions reads as though it might make for a dramatic biopic.

Also threaded and detailed throughout the book are the current bounty of easily accessible technological tools available to inventors. First, the web holds a virtual quantum of nearly limitless data that can be researched, processed, shared, crowdsourced (on sites such as InnoCentive) and crowdfunded (on sites such as Kickstarter and Indigogo), in search of medical advances, among many other fields.¹ Second, 3D printing² can be used to quickly and inexpensively fabricate and work on enhancing prototypes of inventions. As a result of this surfeit of resources, the lengthy timelines and prohibitive cost curves that previously discouraged and delayed inventors have now been significantly reduced.

Impossibility is Only Temporary

I live in a neighborhood where it is nearly impossible to park a car. An open parking space has a half-life on the street of about .000001 nano-seconds before it is taken. This situation often reminds me of a suggestion my father also made to me when I was very young. He told me that if I really wanted to solve an important problem when I grew up, I should try to invent a car that, at the press of a button, would fold up into the size and shape of a briefcase that could be easily carried away. At the time, I thought it was impossible and immediately put the, well, brakes on this idea.

Nonetheless, as Inventology expressly and persuasively makes its own brief case, true inventors see impossibility as merely a temporary condition that, with enough imagination and determination, can be overcome. For budding Edisons and creative problem solvers everywhere, this book adds a whole new meaning to the imperative that nothing is truly impossible if you try hard enough and long enough to solve it. This indefatigable spirit permeates all 223 pages of this wonderfully enjoyable, inspirational and informative book.

Inventing your own reason to read it should be easy.


For a dozen very timely examples of inventors and their inventions further typifying much of the content and spirit of Inventology, I highly recommend reading a new feature and viewing its accompanying video posted on Quartz.com on April 26, 2016, entitled These Top Twelve Inventions Could One Day Change the World, by Mike Murphy. It covers the finalists in the 2016 European Inventors Award competition currently being run by the European Patent Office.


1.  For example, last week’s Only Human podcast on NPR included a report on how a woman with Type 1 (T1) diabetes, along with the assistance of her husband, had hacked together an artificial pancreas (called a “closed loop” system), and then shared the technical specs online with other T1s in the Seattle area. I highly recommend listening to this podcast entitled The Robot Vacuum Ate My Pancreas in its entirety.

2.  See also these six Subway Fold posts for a sampling of other trends and developments in 3D printing.

Book Review of “The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory”

Image from Pixabay

Image from Pixabay

It is my completely unscientific theory that the music which often matters most to people is the music they listened to when they were young. From Stravinsky to Springsteen to Taylor Swift, the tunes of your youth will likely stay with you for life. These recordings will always get your attention whenever you hear them and perpetually occupy a special place in your heart from their opening bars to their final fades.

Is there really anyone of any age having any music preference who doesn’t get the chills or at very least tap a toe every time they hear the majesty of the Rite of Spring, the propulsive launch of Born to Run, or the megawatt energy of Shake It Off?

Today’s Music Biz and How It Got That Way

The music, artists, producers and companies who are the subjects in The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory (W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), by John Seabrook, are not those that I happened to grow up with. Nonetheless, for interested readers who either did or did not come of age at some point during the past two decades, this highly engaging account of the extraordinary changes throughout the music industry will provide readers with a compelling narrative, cultural history, and business case study. This book further excels as an insightful guide through the music industry’s production processes of writing, recording, marketing, distributing and performing today’s chart-topping tunes.

Like a well-arranged progression of chords, each successive chapter skillfully takes you deeper into the operations of the leaders and innovators of the music industry. It is not so much about the music celebrities’ personal lives as it is about the trajectories of their careers, particularly importance of steadily creating viable hits. Moreover, it carefully examines how smash recordings are well-crafted by everyone involved in their creation to make certain they succeed with global music audiences.

Seabrook illuminates exactly how many of today’s hits, as well as misses, have enough deliberate calculation in the assembly of their beats, lyrics and evocative musical “hooks” to send a rocket to, well, Nep-tune and back. His exposition of the evolution of the “hit factory” takes place beginning early Euro-Pop then on to the Backstreet Boys (and their competitors), and next to the emergence of today’s worldwide stars. He devotes quite a bit of his reporting to how this is done for today’s A-listers such as Rihanna, Katy Perry and Kesha by a small and closely knit group of writers and producers. How and why the leading creatives achieved their prominence in today’s music scene is also finely threaded throughout the book.

Going to a Global Go-Go

As colorfully detailed, the US is often the center of the music industry, with many of its leading participants gravitating towards New York and Los Angeles. There are other key international personalities from Europe and Asia. Sweden in particular had first given a start several of the most influential producers with long histories of innovation in Europe. Later on, they brought their work to the US and achieved even greater commercial success.

Another tectonic disruption, online file-sharing, is explained but not pursued in great depth. Rather, and rightfully so, the author chose to examine how purchasing and downloaded MP3s is now giving way to rising volumes of streaming. He reports on the webwide phenomenon of Spotify’s business model, including its disparate economic impacts upon consumers and musicians. (These seven Subway Fold posts also cover a range of developments involving Spotify.)

Clearly and by definition, factories are places where products are fabricated and shipped.  Their operations must be periodically modernized in order to remain competitive. So too, it has become imperative for today’s music industry to adapt or face decline. The Hit Factory takes readers deep and wide into this unique and worldwide production system where hits by many of the mega-stars’ hits are indeed manufactured. Seabrook’s expert prose conveys the incredible effort, business sense and precision this enterprise requires.

Two Part Harmony

If you have the opportunity to do so, I highly recommend reading both The Song Factory and How Music Got Free (previously reviewed in this August 31, 2015 Subway Fold post), together for a comprehensive understanding of how the multi-billion dollar music industry had fallen and then reinvented itself to rise again. Each book individually, and even more so together, deftly captures this unique world’s intersections of art, science and commerce.

For yet another engrossing historical perspective on the state of the music business set a few decades earlier during the 70’s and 80’s rock era, I further suggest reading a highly entertaining account entitled Hit Men (Crown, 1990), by Frederick Dannen.

Finally, all of the foregoing aside for a moment, have things really changed that much in the pursuit of musical success? Once you have finished The Hit Factory, I urge you to also listen to The Byrds’ 2-minute classic hit single So You Want to Be a Rock ‘N Roll Star and then to reconsider your answer. This song’s sentiment rings as true today as it did way back then.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

Virtual Reality Universe-ity: The Immersive “Augmentarium” Lab at the U. of Maryland

"A Touch of Science", Image by Mars P.

“A Touch of Science”, Image by Mars P.

Got to classes. Sit through a series of 50 minute lectures. Drink coffee. Pay attention and take notes. Drink more coffee. Go to the library to study, do research and complete assignments. Rinse and repeat for the rest of the semester. Then take your final exams and hope that you passed everything. More or less, things have traditionally been this way in college since Hector was a pup.

Might students instead be interested in participating at the new and experimental learning laboratory called the Augmentarium at the University of Maryland where immersing themselves in their studies takes on an entirely new meaning? This is a place where virtual reality (VR)  is being tested and integrated into the learning process. (There 14 Subway Fold posts cover a range of VR and augmented reality [AR] developments and applications.)

Where do I sign up for this?¹

The story was covered in a fascinating report that appeared on December 8, 2015 on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled Virtual-Reality Lab Explores New Kinds of Immersive Learning, by Ellen Wexler. I highly recommend reading this in its entirety as well as clicking on the Augmentarium link to learn about some these remarkable projects. I also suggest checking out the hashtag #Augmentarium on Twitter the very latest news and developments. I will summarize and annotate this story, and pose some of my own questions right after I take off my own imaginary VR headset.

Developing VR Apps in the Augmentarium

In 2014, Brendan Iribe, the co-founder of the VR headset company Oculus², as well as a University of Maryland alumni, donated $31 million to the University for its development of VR technology³. During the same year, with addition funding obtained from the National Science Foundation, the Augmentarium was built. Currently, researchers at the facility are working on applications of VR to “health care, public safety, and education”.

Professor Ramani Duraiswami, a PhD and co-founder of a startup called VisiSonics (developers of 3D audio and VR gaming systems), is involved with the Augmentarium. His work is in the area of audio, which he believes has a great effect upon how people perceive the world around them. He further thinks that an audio or video lecture presented via distance learning can be greatly enhanced by using VR to, in his words make “the experience feel more immersive”. He feels this would make you feel as though you are in the very presence of the instructor4.

During a recent showcase there, Professor Duraiswami demo-ed 3D sound5 and a short VR science fiction production called Fixing Incus. (This link is meant to be played on a smartphone that is then embedded within a VR viewer/headset.) This implementation showed the audience what it was like to be immersed into a virtual environment where, when they moved their heads and line of sight, what they were viewing corresponding and seamlessly changed.

Enhancing Virtual Immersions for Medicine and Education

Amitabh Varshney, the Director of the University’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies, is now researching “how the brain processes information in immersive environments” and how is differs from how this is done on a computer screen.6 He believes that VR applications in the classroom will enable students to immerse themselves in their subjects, such as being able to “walk through buildings they design” and “explore” them beyond “just the equations” involved in creating these structures.

At the lab’s recent showcase, he provided the visitors with (non-VR) 3D glasses and presented “an immersive video of a surgical procedure”. He drew the audience’s attention to the doctors at the operating table who were “crowing around” it. He believes that the use of 3D headsets would provide medical students a better means to “move around” and get an improved sense of what this experience is actually like in the operating room. (The September 22, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled VR in the OR: New Virtual Reality System for Planning, Practicing and Assisting in Surgery is also on point and provides extended coverage on this topic.)

While today’s early iterations of VR headsets (either available now or early in 2016), are “cumbersome”, researchers hope that they will evolve (in a manner similar to mobile phones which, in turn and as mentioned above, are presently a key element in VR viewers), and be applied in “hospitals, grocery stores and classrooms”.  Director Varshney can see them possibly developing along an even faster timeline.

My Questions

  • Is the establishment and operation of the Augmentarium a model that other universities should consider as a means to train students in this field, attract donations, and incubate potential VR and AR startups?
  • What entrepreneurial opportunities might exist for consulting, engineering and tech firms to set up comparable development labs at other schools and in private industry?
  • What other types of academic courses would benefit from VR and AR support? Could students now use these technologies to create or support their academic projects? What sort of grading standards might be applied to them?
  • Do the rapidly expanding markets for VR and AR require that some group in academia and/or the government establish technical and perhaps even ethical standards for such labs and their projects?
  • How are relevant potential intellectual property and technology transfer issues going to be negotiated, arbitrated and litigated if needed?

 


1.  Btw, has anyone ever figured out how the very elusive and mysterious “To Be Announced (TBA)”, the professor who appears in nearly all course catalogs, ends up teaching so many subjects at so many schools at the same time? He or she must have an incredibly busy schedule.

2.  These nine Subway Fold posts cover, among other VR and AR related stories, the technology of Oculus.

3.  This donation was reported in an article on September 11, 2014 in The Washington Post in an article entitled Brendan Iribe, Co-founder of Oculus VR, Makes Record $31 Million Donation to U-Md by Nick Anderson.

4.  See also the February 18, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled A Real Class Act: Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are Changing the Learning Process.

5.  See also Designing Sound for Virtual Reality by Todd Baker posted on Medium.com on December 21, 2015, for a thorough overview of this aspect of VR, and the August 5, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled  Latest Census on Virtual Senses: A Seminar on Augmented Reality in New York covering, among other AR technologies, the development work and 3D sound wireless headphones of Hooke Audio.

6.  On a somewhat related topic, see the December 18, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Mind Over Subject Matter: Researchers Develop A Better Understanding of How Human Brains Manage So Much Information.

Summary of the Media and Tech Preview 2016 Discussion Panel Held at Frankfurt Kurnit in NYC on December 2, 2015

"dtv svttest", Image by Karl Baron

“dtv svttest”, Image by Karl Baron

GPS everywhere notwithstanding, there are still maps on the walls in most buildings that have a red circle somewhere on them accompanied by the words “You are here”. This is to reassure and reorient visitors by giving them some navigational bearings. Thus you can locate where you are at the moment and then find your way forward.

I had the pleasure of attending an expert panel discussion last week, all of whose participants did an outstanding job of analogously mapping where the media and technology are at the end of 2015 and where their trends are heading going into the New Year. It was entitled Digital Breakfast: Media and Tech Preview 2016, was held at the law firm of Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz in midtown Manhattan. It was organized and presented by Gotham Media, a New York based firm engaged in “Digital Strategy, Marketing and Events” as per their website.

This hour and a half presentation was a top-flight and highly enlightening event from start to finish. My gratitude and admiration for everyone involved in making this happen. Bravo! to all of you.

The panelists’ enthusiasm and perspectives fully engaged and transported the entire audience. I believe that everyone there appreciated and learned much from all of them. The participants included:

The following is a summary based on my notes.

Part 1:  Assessments of Key Media Trends and Events in 2015

The event began on an unintentionally entertaining note when one of the speakers, Jesse Redniss, accidentally slipped out his chair. Someone in the audience called out “Do you need a lawyer?”, and considering the location of the conference, the room erupted into laughter.¹

Once the ensuing hilarity subsided, Mr. Goldblatt began by asking the panel for their media highlights for 2015.

  • Ms. Bond said it was the rise of streaming TV, citing Netflix and Amazon, among other industry leaders. For her, this is a time of interesting competition as consumers have increasing control over what they view. She also believes that this is a “fascinating time” for projects and investments in this market sector. Nonetheless, she does not think that cable will disappear.
  • Mr. Kurnit said that Verizon’s purchase of AOL was one of the critical events of 2015, as Verizon “wants to be 360” and this type of move might portend the future of TV. The second key development was the emergence of self-driving cars, which he expects to see implemented within the next 5 to 15 years.
  • Mr. Redniss concurred on Verizon’s acquisition of AOL. He sees other activity such as the combination of Comcast and Universal as indicative of an ongoing “massive media play” versus Google and Facebook. He also mentioned the significance of Nielsen’s Total Audience Measure service.²
  • Mr. Sreenivasan stated that social media is challenging, as indicated by the recent appearance of “Facebook fatigue” affecting its massive user base. Nonetheless, he said “the empire strikes back” as evidenced in their strong financial performance and the recent launch of Chan Zuckerberg LLC to eventually distribute the couple’s $45B fortune to charity. He also sees that current market looking “like 2006 again” insofar as podcasts, email and blogs making it easy to create and distribute content.

Part 2: Today’s Golden Age of TV

Mr. Goldblatt asked the panel for their POVs on what he termed the current “Golden Age of TV” because of the increasing diversity of new platforms, expanding number of content providers and the abundance of original programming. He started off by asking them for their market assessments.

  • Ms. Bond said that the definition of “television” is now “any video content on any screen”. As a ubiquitous example she cited content on mobile platforms. She also noted proliferation of payment methods as driving this market.
  • Mr. Kurnit said that the industry would remain a bit of a “mess” for the next three or four years because of the tremendous volume of original programming, businesses that operate as content aggregators, and pricing differentials. Sometime thereafter, these markets will “rationalize”. Nonetheless, the quality of today’s content is “terrific”, pointing to examples by such media companies as the programs on AMC and HBO‘s Game of Thrones. He also said that an “unbundled model” of content offerings would enable consumers to watch anywhere.
  • Mr. Redniss believes that “mobile transforms TV” insofar as smartphones have become the “new remote control” providing both access to content and “disoverability” of new offerings. He predicted that content would become “monetized across all screens”.
  • Mr. Sreenivasan mentioned the growing popularity of binge-watching as being an important phenomenon. He believes that the “zeitgeist changes daily” and that other changes are being “led by the audience”.

The panel moved to group discussion mode concerning:

  • Consumer Content Options: Ms. Bond asked how will the audience pay for either bundled or unbundled programming options. She believes that having this choice will provide consumers with “more control and options”. Mr. Redniss then asked how many apps or services will consumers be willing to pay for? He predicted that “everyone will have their own channel”. Mr. Kurnit added that he thought there are currently too many options and that “skinny bundles” of programming will be aggregated. Mr. Sreenivasan pointed towards the “Amazon model” where much content is now available but it is also available elsewhere and then Netflix’s offering of 30 original shows. He also wanted to know “Who will watch all of this good TV?”
  • New Content Creation and Aggregation: Mr. Goldblatt asked the panelists whether a media company can be both a content aggregator and a content creator. Mr. Kurnit said yes and Mr. Redniss immediately followed by citing the long-tail effect (statistical distributions in business analytics where there are higher numbers of data points away from the initial top or central parts of the distribution)³. Therefore, online content providers were not bound by the same rules as the TV networks. Still, he could foresee some of Amazon’s and Netflix’s original content ending up being broadcast on them. He also gave the example of Amazon’s House of Cards original programming as being indicative of the “changing market for more specific audiences”. Ultimately, he believes that meeting such audiences’ needs was part of “playing the long game” in this marketplace. 
  • Binge-Watching: Mr. Kurnit followed up by predicting that binge-watching and the “binge-watching bucket” will go away. Mr. Redniss agreed with him and, moreover, talked about the “need for human interaction” to build up audiences. This now takes the form of “superfans” discussing each episode in online venues. For example, he pointed to the current massive marketing campaign build upon finding out the fate of Jon Snow on Games of Thrones.
  • Cord-Cutting: Mr. Sreenivasan believes that we will still have cable in the future. Ms. Bond said that service offerings like Apple TV will become more prevalent. Mr. Kunit said he currently has 21 cable boxes. Mr. Redniss identified himself as more of a cord-shaver who, through the addition of Netflix and Hulu, has reduced his monthly cable bill.

Part 3: Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR)

Moving on to two of the hottest media topics of the day, virtual reality and augmented reality, the panelist gave their views.

  • Mr. Sreenivasan expressed his optimism about the prospects of VR and AR, citing the pending market launches of the Oculus Rift headset and Facebook 360 immersive videos. The emergence of these technologies is creating a “new set of contexts”. He also spoke proudly of the Metropolitan Museum Media Lab using Oculus for an implementation called Diving Into Pollack (see the 10th project down on this page), that enables users to “walk into a Jackson Pollack painting”.
  • Mr. Kurnit raised the possibility of using Oculus to view Jurassic Park. In terms of movie production and immersion, he said “This changes everything”.
  • Mr. Redniss said that professional sports were a whole new growth area for VR and AR, where you will need “goggles, not a screen”. Mr. Kurnit followed up mentioning a startup that is placing 33 cameras at Major League Baseball stadiums in order to provide 360 degree video coverage of games. (Although he did not mention the company by name, my own Googling indicates that he was probably referring to the “FreeD” system developed by Replay Technologies.)
  • Ms. Bond posed the question “What does this do for storytelling?”4

(See also these 12 Subway Fold posts) for extensive coverage of VR and AR technologies and applications.)

Part 4: Ad-Blocking Software

Mr. Goldblatt next asked the panels for their thoughts about the impacts and economics of ad-blocking software.

  • Mr. Redniss said that ad-blocking apps will affect how advertisers get their online audience’s attention. He thinks a workable alternative is to use technology to “stitch their ads into content” more effectively.
  • Mr. Sreenivasan believes that “ads must get better” in order to engage their audience rather than have viewers looking for means to avoid them. He noted another alternative used on the show Fargo where network programming does not permit them to use fast-forward to avoid ads.
  • Mr. Kurnit expects that ads will be blocked based on the popularity and extensibility of ad-blocking apps. Thus, he also believes that ads need to improve but he is not confident of the ad industry’s ability to do so. Furthermore, when advertisers are more highly motivated because of cost and audience size, they produce far more creative work for events like the NFL Super Bowl.

Someone from the audience asked the panel how ads will become integrated into VR and AR environments. Mr. Redniss said this will happen in cases where this technology can reproduce “real world experiences” for consumers. An example of this is the Cruise Ship Virtual Tours available on Carnival Cruise’s website.

(See also this August 13, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled New Report Finds Ad Blockers are Quickly Spreading and Costing $Billions in Lost Revenue.)

Part 5: Expectations for Media and Technology in 2016

  • Mr. Sreenivasan thinks that geolocation technology will continue to find new applications in “real-life experiences”. He gave as an example the use of web beacons by the Metropolitan Museum.
  • Ms. Bond foresees more “one-to-one” and “one-to-few” messaging capabilities, branded emjois, and a further examination of the “role of the marketer” in today’s media.
  • Mr. Kurnit believes that drones will continue their momentum into the mainstream. He sees the sky filling up with them as they are “productive tools” for a variety of commercial applications.
  • Mr. Redniss expressed another long-term prospect of “advertisers picking up broadband costs for consumers”. This might take the form of ads being streamed to smart phones during NFL games. In the shorter term, he can foresee Facebook becoming a significant simulcaster of professional sporting events.

 


1.  This immediately reminded of a similar incident years ago when I was attending a presentation at the local bar association on the topic of litigating cases involving brain injuries. The first speaker was a neurologist who opened by telling the audience all about his brand new laptop and how it was the latest state-of-the-art-model. Unfortunately, he could not get it to boot up no matter what he tried. Someone from the back of audience then yelled out “Hey doc, it’s not brain surgery”. The place went into an uproar.

2.  See also these other four Subway Fold posts mentioning other services by Nielsen.

3.  For a fascinating and highly original book on this phenomenon, I very highly recommend reading
The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (Hyperion, 2005), by Chris Anderson. It was also mentioned in the December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market?.

4.  See also the November 4, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Say, Did You Hear the Story About the Science and Benefits of Being an Effective Storyteller?

Musical “Omnivores” Proliferate as Tastes in Tunes are Becoming More Diversified

"2015 CMU Music Marathon- Webster Hall", Image by Feast of Music

“2015 CMU Music Marathon- Webster Hall”, Image by Feast of Music

Back when such things actually existed in the analog world, I worked in a large music store in the middle of Times Square in New York. There was an unofficial policy there that the music played throughout each day in the store was to always be a wide mix of musical genres and sub-genres, often including some very exotic sounds.

Having grown up with my radio perpetually tuned to what was then WNEW-FM 102.7,¹ all I ever knew about was rock and roll. However, because I had daily exposure in this music store to all of these other types of music such as jazz, classical, folk and international, it opened up a whole new world for me. To this day, I remain very grateful for this experience because it greatly expanded my appreciation and enjoyment of the endless diversity and talent of music, musicians and songwriters.

The other great thing about the store was that many of the people on the sales staff were, in their own way, experts in many different genres. Some of them were also aspiring musicians². Not only were they there to help sell music, but they readily provided deep and wide perspectives and histories about artists, performances and recordings. Regular customers shopped there principally because of this (way-before-the-web) access to this trove of knowledge.

This enduring memory for me is why a fascinating post on Phys.org on September 15, 2015, entitled The Rise of the Musical Omnivore (no author is credited), immediately captured my attention. I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. I will summarize and an-note-ate it, and pose some of my own, well, key questions.

New Study Re-examines Musical Preferences

Tastes in music have always been perceived as related to the listener’s societal “class”. However, recent research findings indicated that the “upper” classes are adding those types of music often associated with the “middle” and “lower” classes (although these terms are not specifically defined in the article). As well, “musical taste can become more independent” of class through “an intensive engagement with music”. (A Subway Fold post on August 11, 2015 entitled Rock It Science: New Study Equates Musical Tastes to Personality Traits, looked at this from another perspective.)

These findings and much more were published by a team of academic staff members from the Max Plank Institute (MPI) for Empirical Aesthetics and the University of Vienna online in Frontiers in Psychology  on August 20, 2015 in an article entitled Exploring the Musical Taste of Expert Listeners: Musicology Students Reveal Tendency Toward Omnivorous Taste. The authors are Paul Elvers, Diana Omigie, Wolfgang Fuhrmann and Timo Fischinger. I also recommend reading this full report.

These new types of more receptive listeners are termed ominvores whose musical preferences include a mix of styles, despite their original inclinations towards classical and jazz. This phenomenon is now being seen more commonly in music students, whereas previously it was limited to listeners in “higher social classes”. Among such students, half are them are such omnivores. A quarter of them will also listen to different genres “depending on their mood and the occasion”.

The researchers’ study focused upon the preferences of “expert listeners” such as music students as well as “average listeners”. The focus on the former group was to determine whether their “musical training and knowledge” led them to develop different tastes than those in the populations without this education. The study’s sample included 1,000 students from Germany and Austria who were either majoring or minoring (no pun intended), in music. They were queried on how frequently they listed to any musical genres including “rock, pop and classical music to punk, heavy metal, emo/screamo³, gospel, reggae and world music”.

Results and Analysis

Among the study’s findings were that:

  • Rock listeners listen to their music more often but rarely hear other genres.
  • Conventional listeners of classical, house and pop listeners listen to their music “moderately often”.
  • Engaged listeners listen “substantially more frequently” than the other two groups and, while most often listening to classical and jazz, are also more likely to regularly include folk and rock. Thus, this group is more likely to include the omnivores and exhibit a “generally higher intensity of music listening”.

According to Paul Elvers from the Max Plank Institute and one of the co-authors of the study, they critical issue here is how these groups are distributed within the musical expert and control groups.  His team found that:

  • 50% of music students were engaged listeners.
  • 36% of music students were conventional listeners
  • 13% of music students were rock listeners
  • 25% of the control group were engaged listeners
  • 50% of the control group were conventional listeners
  • 25% of the control group were rock listeners4

Mr. Elvers further believes that the findings about music students not showing a preference for classical is due to a change in their contemporary education where pop and rock have entered their curriculum at Humboldt University of Berlin. This is where most of the study’s participants originated.

Additional findings concluded:

  • Rock music listeners “form their own cluster”, while classic listeners showed the most receptiveness to other genres and thus the omnivores were more among them.
  • There was no meaningful correlation between “social origin and musical taste”.
  • Instead of “social origins”, knowledge of, and education in, music was much more determinative of the survey’s subjects’ receptiveness to “a broad musical repertoire”.

According to Melanie Wald-Furhmann, the Director of the Music Department at MPI for Empirical Aesthetics, because the students who were surveyed for the study are young, this may indicate a trend.  She further believes that this potential movement away from the connection between social identification and musical preferences could turn out to be an interesting development.

The researchers were aware of their study’s limits regarding the age and education levels of their sample students as not being representative of the entire population. They have begun a follow-up survey to “gain broader and more detailed findings”.

My Questions

  • Are the findings just as applicable to listeners in other countries, or are there differences from nation to nation and perhaps among geographic areas within each nation?
  • Are the definitions and recordings of what constitutes rock, jazz, folk, metal, classical and other genres also universal across nations and cultures, or do they varying at different locations around the world? If so, would further studies need to be taken to fully map out and understand these differences?
  • Has the universal availability of nearly all the world’s music throughout all sorts of online distribution channels also become a variable to be considered for further studies like this one?
  • How are the results of this study helpful to the marketers, media planners and executives of music companies and artists’ talent managers?
  • How might educators at the university level and earlier make use of this study in planning their curricula?

 


1.  For an excellent history of this once influential and popular station and rock radio during its heyday, I highly recommend a book entitled FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio, by Richard Neer (2002). The author was a DJ on WNEW-FM during most of the station’s existence. For many years since then he has been a sports radio talk show host on WFAN in New York.

2.  One of my co-workers there once went for an audition when some group called Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was looking for a new drummer. He did not get the gig. I wonder what ever happened to that Springsteen guy.

3.  This also perfectly described the collective response in New York on Wednesday night, October 22, 2015, when our  beloved New York Mets won the National League pennant. On to the World Series! GO METS!!!

4I suggest that everyone in all of these groups put aside their differences and watch the absolutely hilarious School of Rock starring Jack Black.

 

Book Review of “How Music Got Free”

"CD", Image by Dean Hochman

“CD”, Image by Dean Hochman

It is nearly impossible to compete in a consumer market when a previously lucrative product is suddenly available for free. This phenomenon adds a whole new meaning to the notion of “priced to sell”.

No industry illustrates this tectonic disruption brought about by the Net more than the music business during the last 20 years. While there has been an ocean of ink and a quantum of bits expended telling this story, I have come across none more compelling, thorough and entertaining than How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy by Stephen Witt (Viking, 2015). This is a great story well told with clarity, precision, style and humor.

While the tales of Napster and the other peer-to-peer sharing networks, the lawsuit by Metallica and other litigation by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to stop them, and precipitous drop in CD sales since then have all been previously told at length elsewhere, the author takes us down some new and alternative narrative paths. Witt has accomplished this skillfully weaving together the stories of the German engineers who created the MP3 format, a prolific music pirate, and a music industry mogul. The intersection of their activities in the music downloading revolution makes for hours of absorbing and instructive reading.

The book succeeds simultaneously as a business case study and a human interest story. It deftly leverages all three main plot threads in a narrative that heightens the reader’s interest as the events steadily crisscross the real world from rural Kentucky to Germany to New York City, and then likewise online across the web. Any one of these stories would have made for engaging reading on their own. Yet they are carefully fitted together by the author in a manner that relentlessly propels the all of them forward.

He also wisely wastes none of his text on superfluous side trips. Rather, he maintains a consistent focus throughout on how the music biz got turned upside down and inside out by a series of fast-breaking developments it neither fully understood nor had any viable alternatives ready to counter it.

A roster of A-List Hollywood writers and talent agents could not have possibly done better in creating the members of the real life cast. There are many useful lessons to be learned from them about business strategy, marketing, competition, and the strength of the human character in the face of the unprecedented and massive disruption* of what had been such a highly leveraged and lucrative market.

First and foremost among them was Benny “Dell” Glover. The details of his online and offline exploits read as though they were extracted from deep inside the You Can’t Make This Stuff Up file. He worked in a rural CD manufacturing plant and that afforded him access to the latest releases by music industry’s top acts. Often a month in advance of their commercial debut, Glover would smuggle them out of the plant, encode them using the MP3 format, and upload them for free distribution online through Napster and a host of other peer-to-peer networks. He was also part of a larger band of well-organized, tech savvy and daring digital music pirates who referred to their collective activities as the “Scene”.  Glover was likely responsible for the largest volume of free music that ever got digitally disbursed.

Second was Karlheinz Brandenburg, the lead engineer and inventor of the MP3 technology. He ran the group that devised MP3 technology without any intent whatsoever of how it eventually ended up being used. It was a technological accomplishment that at first drew little attention in the audio industry. There were other competing compression formats that were gaining more traction in the marketplace. Nonetheless, through perseverance, superior technical skills and a bit of favorable circumstances, MP3 began to find success. This was first in the broadcast marketplace and later on as the tech of choice among the music pirates and their audience. Brandenburg’s transformation over time from a humble audio engineer to an experienced business executive is deftly told and threaded throughout the book.

Third was Doug Morris who, during the events portrayed in the book, was the CEO of Universal Music Group (UMG). While Glover’s and Brandenburg’s parts in this narrative make for some engrossing reading, it is Morris’s meteoric rise and determination in the music industry that pulls the entire story together so very well. Not only does he reach the pinnacle of his field as a top executive in the largest music companies, he does everything in power to try to keep UMG economically competitive while under siege from freely downloadable MP3s recorded by his deep and wide talent bench.

While he did not have a hacker’s understanding of MP3’s technical ministrations, he fully understood, reacted and resisted its profound impacts. His initial line of attack was litigation but this proved to be ineffective and produced much negative publicity. Later he successfully monetized UMG’s vast trove of music video by forming the hosting and syndication service on Vevo. He is the most resourceful and resilient player in this story.

These three protagonists are vividly brought to center stage and fully engaged in Witt’s portrayal of their roles and fates in this Digital Age drama.  Just as the superior acoustics in a musical venue can enhance the performances of musicians and actors,  analogously so too does the author’s reporting and expository skills animate and enliven the entirety of events across his every page of his book. Indeed, “How Music Got Free” completely fulfills its title’s promise and, clearly, hits all the right notes.


At the time of the events portrayed in How Music Got Free, there was widespread fear that it would become increasingly difficult for artists and entertainment companies to ever profit again as they had done in the past. As a timely follow-up exploration and analysis how this never quite came to pass, I very highly recommend reading The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t by Steven Johnson, which was published in the August 23, 2015 edition of The New York Times Magazine.  (Johnson’s most recent book as also reviewed in the January 2, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “How We Got to Now”.)


*  The classic text on the causes and effect of market disruptions, disruptors and those left behind, read The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen (HarperBusiness, 2011). The first edition of the book was published in 1992.

Two Startups’ Note-Worthy Efforts to Adapt Blockchain Technology for the Music Industry

"Coachella Day 1 [2nd week] - Sahara Tent", Image by The Bull Pen, This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

“Coachella Day 1 [2nd week] – Sahara Tent”, Image by The Bull Pen

With the advent and then propulsive web-wide spread of MP3 file technology during the last twenty years*,  all of the music industry’s consumers, artists, recording companies, talent agents, business models,  distribution channels and intellectual property rights have been radically transformed. Today, the big money in the industry today is most often made by artists with established names who are able to draw audiences during their tours, sell merchandise, and continue to sell and stream music from their catalogs.

Of course, nowadays every well-known, moderately known and unknown act has an online presence to engage and inform their fan bases through an array of social media platforms and dedicated websites. Still, the music biz today is an even tougher business to earn a dollar than it ever was before. (See also the December 10, 2014 Subway Fold post entitled Is Big Data Calling and Calculating the Tune in Today’s Global Music Market?.)

In an effort to adapt dramatically new technology to energize, innovate and democratize the music industry, two recent startups, both still in their development stages, are using blockchain technology in previously unseen and imaginative ways. The blockchain is, in its simplest terms, a distributed, decentralized, transparent and encrypted database that acts as an online ledger to record transactions, documents and other information. It is most often used to memorialize transactions involving bitcoin. (See the May 8, 2015 Subway Fold post entitled Book Review of “The Age of Cryptocurrency” concerning a comprehensive new book on this subject.)

These early stage startups were the subject of a truly fascinating article posted on Billboard.com on August 5, 2015 entitled How ‘the Blockchain’ Could Actually Change the Music Industry by Gideon Gottfried. I will summarize, annotate and ask some unencrypted questions of my own.

I.  PeerTracks

The first startup is called PeerTracks. Their plan is to establish a music streaming and retail platform that includes “fan engagement and peer-to-peer talent discovery”, according to its president, Cedric Cobban.  They will use the blockchain for its transactions and paying artists directly for any revenue generated when their music is streamed “on a per-user-share basis”. Their launch is currently planned in about two months.

The core of their approach is to generate marketing revenue through the use of “artist tokens”. This is a system whereby each musical artist can create their own tokens with their name and image, and then set the permanently fixed amount of them to be made available. These tokens are intended to take on the characteristics of a “sub-cryptocurrency” (similar to some of Bitcoin’s characteristics), whereby the value that emerges for them is a direct indicator, based upon supply and demand, of the artist’s appeal. Site users can also speculate on the future value of the music and merchandise of currently unknown musicians.

The artists on PeerTracks will have the capabilities to affect the relative value of their own tokens. They will be enabled to buy back their tokens with any income they generate from “streams, sales, merch, tickets”. They can also permanently eliminate some tokens to decrease their supply and, in turn, increase their value.

Conversely, artists can affect demand by the types of items they offer to their token holders. Among other things, they can offer “discounts, free tickets, giveaways”. By providing incentives for fans to acquire their token, artists can raise the tokens’ relative values. As well, there are potential benefits to advertisers on PeerTracks interested in implementing paid sponsorships for more recognized music acts with product giveaways.

All songs uploaded on the site will be accompanied by a “smart contract“. According to the immediately preceding link to Wikipedia, smart contracts are “computer protocols that facilitate, verify, or enforce the negotiation or performance of a contract, or that obviate the need for a contractual clause”.  The smart contracts on PeerTracks divide up the funds generated accordingly among the parties involved in the song’s composition and performance. This is considered to be an important advance in using the blockchain and, it is hoped by developers currently working on this, will become a platform upon which new business models will emerge.

II.  Ujo

The second startup in this space is called Ujo. Their plan to use the blockchain to improve both the distribution of royalties to artists and music licensing. They intend to accomplish this by establishing a “rights and payment infrastructure”. It will be free to use and open for third parties to create their own apps for new services including, among others, curation, streaming and negotiation.  Similar to PeerTracks, they are working on an alternative means to distributing revenues to “artists and rights holders”. Furthermore, they are trying to build a blockchain-based means to determine ownership of creative works.

The prospective adoption of this by the music industry of this entirely new system is expected to take time because of its tendencies to keep data private as well its outdated and often incompatible systems. Phil Barry, who is involved Ujo along with about 20 other developers, hopes their new system will unify and replace the legacy systems. He believes the platform will provide economic advantages to artists and recording companies receiving their royalties through it. As well, this will provide “new revenue and business models”, new ways for consumers to enjoy music, and simplification to the manner in which “music is managed and licensed”.

When an artist creates a new song in the future, using Ujo it will be permanently stored on the blockchain and assigned a unique ID. If another artists or performers changes anything about the song, their subsequent versions will receive a new ID and be “instantly recognizable”. Any resulting revenue from the song will then be distributed immediately and “proportionately to each rights holder”.

My own questions are as follows:

  • What other marketplaces, technologies and professions would benefit from using comparable types of blockchain adaptations?
  • Could traditional legal documents such as contracts, leases and wills, among many others, be written to the blockchain to make certain that all parties to them met their obligations?
  • Could artists’ tokens likewise be created for actors, writers, painters, graphics artists and other creative types?
  • What would be the results of a book or any other publication being written to the blockchain in terms of royalties, rights, subscriptions and recognition?

March 4. 2016 Update: For a related follow-up on this post please see the new Subway Fold post entitled The Mediachain Project: Developing a Global Creative Rights Database Using Blockchain Technology

June 5, 2017 Update:  An new article posted today, June 5, 2017, on the Harvard Business Review blog entitled Blockchain Could Help Musicians Make Money Again, by Imogen Heap, looks at the potential of blockchain technology from a musician’s point of view. A highly recommended read if you have an opportunity to click through. 


*  For an outstandingly written and highly engaging account of the total transformation of the music industry, I very highly recommend a recently published book entitled How Music Got Free: The End of an Industry, the Turn of the Century, and the Patient Zero of Piracy, by Stephen Witt (Viking, 2015). I just finished reading this and to say the least, it rocked.