I think it was Russell Davies who first drew my attention to the phrase ‘In order to be interesting you have to be interested’ – probably in the course of his Interesting events a few years ago. By nature, I’m interested in a lot of things, though that has its disadvantages as well as its advantages: ‘Look! That’s a great exhibition!’, ‘What about that lecture – she’s such a great author, I really should go listen’, ‘Dinner at that new Peruvian restaurant in town will be amazing!’ – it never ends. It’s like I have this constant tussle with myself, being pulled in different directions all the time. On the other hand, when that exhibition does turn out to be absolutely amazing, I feel a real sense of accomplishment.
So I couldn’t say no to two pretty cool events over the weekend – two events that were very unlike each other and all the better for being that disparate.
Sofar Sounds is a global musical movement that started out because its founders, Rafe Offer and Rocky Start (real names!), true music fans, couldn’t take the incessant chattering by people in the audience when they went to listen to a good gig back in 2010. They started Sofar in a living room (Sofar: Songs From A Room, geddit?!), got a few cool bands to play, invited a few people they knew appreciated music as an art and thereby started a series of events that has now grown to become a global phenomenon. People gather in volunteers’ living rooms from Auckland to Austin and Tallinn to Toronto once a month (more for London and New York) with only one objective: to listen to up and coming musicians. There is only one rule, which is that talking during an act is not welcomed. Of course Sofar has now grown so big that they’re a victim of their own success; tickets are obtained through the luck of the draw and though I was able to secure places at a couple of gigs back when they started, it’s not so easy anymore.
It is to mitigate this that Sofar Sounds are now experimenting with a new format they call Sofar+, which expands the format from an evening to a longer half-day, and the venue from a living room to a slightly larger venue like a studio. I attended their first such event on Saturday in a hipster-friendly warehouse in Hackney, and sat on an old carpet with a couple of hundred others as bands I hadn’t heard before took to the stage. A huge proportion of the audience were older teenagers and people in their early 20’s; I was awash with nostalgia for my youth (yes I know this betrays my age). I recall thinking that it would have been so amazing if these kinds of events existed when I was that age. But then I realised that that’s what makes life interesting: the never-ending forward march of technology and progress. Sofar Sounds is as much about music as it is about living the culture of our times, and years from now when those 20-somethings sit through the next incarnation of live music, perhaps they’ll realise that.
Coincidentally, I had a conversation with Rafe as part of a startup mentoring event calledThe Friday Club last month (huge thanks to Richard Fearn, founder); they’re looking to see how they can work with brands as they scale up. My advice was to stay authentic – that’s their USP and any alliance they forge needs to be with a partner that understands, but more importantly, lives that authenticity themselves. I’ll be watching them as they grow.
On Sunday, I became a time traveller. That was indeed as entertaining as it sounds! My friend Leila Johnston, who has a knack for organising rather unusual events (her last onewas about the end of the world), brought together an incredibly smart and passionate group – scientists, academics, hackers, musicians, novelists – who all had a unique take on the concept of time, at Hack Circus: Time Travel Live. Ruth Gregory, a Durham University professor spoke about the physics of time travel, Sinead McDonald, a Dublin-based artist, brought along a contraption she made that can tell you what you will be doing on a specified date in the future, programmer and designer Sandy Noble demonstrated his linear clock that rethinks the circular notion of time perpetuated by a typical (boring) clock, and Leila’s own talk about the Terminator movies was absolutely enthralling for any film fan, sci-fi enthusiast or not. In fact all the speakers were worth my time (and it isn’t easy giving up a Sunday nap for most people, now is it?).
The thing about Hack Circus: Time Travel Live is that it forced me out of my comfort zone. Science was never my strong point in school, and perhaps the desire to try and get to grips with it so many years out spurred me to listen particularly closely when quantum theory was being discussed. Redshifting? Delay cables? The twin paradox? The grandfather paradox? If you, like me, aren’t quite a 100% blue-blooded sci-fi fan and didn’t really know these concepts in detail before, well then at least you do now. And for that I thank all of Saturday’s speakers, those I’ve just mentioned as well as the rest: James Larsson, for showing me that if you get it into your head to put the front of a modern flat-screen TV together with the back of an old, box-shaped one, it’s not impossible. Tania Ahsan, for making me take the time to think of my future self. Sarah Angliss, for introducing me to the adventures of Misty; as someone who didn’t grow up in England I think not knowing her was a mistake you were able to rectify. Matt Westcott, because I didn’t know a ZX Spectrum could be played like an instrument to ‘Time goes by. So slowly’ the way you did.Alby Reid, for making me jealous I didn’t have a physics teacher as cool as you in high school. And Chris Farnell, because your story about whether you did or did not receive a story through the postbox so you could in fact stand there and narrate it to us, twisted my mind upside down and inside out.
To go back to what I started this with: being interested is important for reasons more than being interesting (though being interesting in and of itself will help you in more ways than one, no doubt). Being interested can add whole new dimensions to your personality, introduce you to new ideas and new people and inspire you to be, as Dame Vivienne Westwood said in Cannes this year, ‘your better self’. I think that’s totally worth exploring, for anyone.
On Thursday, I was at the launch of a new kind of startup accelerator created by Red Bull, courtesy the lovely Asi Sharabi whose Sidekick Studios is part of the team behind it.
Called Red Bull Amplifier, it’s different because instead of funding, it provides access to the users, events and networks that the Red Bull Media House has accrued over the years. No money will change hands, so it’s a creative partnership rather than a hard-core business arrangement. And God knows one of the biggest problems startups have is getting access to exactly the resources that this programme will provide.
Amplifier is currently looking for interesting music start-ups to apply to the programme. Submissions opened this week and close on 22nd April. Entries will be screened by a panel of music and technology experts including the Mercury Prize-nominated musician Ghostpoet, former editor-in-chief of hip-hop magazine Juice and part of Red Bull Music Academy Davide Bartot, Venturebeat’s Ciara Byrne and VP of Business Development for SoundCloud, Dave Haynes.
I totally wish I’d contributed to this.
If you’re a music startup, then I urge you to apply. Here’s how it works – good luck.
Sometimes there seems to be a pattern in the way things come to your notice.
On Creative Review a few days ago, I saw a music video by the artist Sivu that featured his head in an MRI scanner in St. Barts Hospital in London, a project that was completed with the assistance of a couple of doctors. It was quite mesmerizing – apparently it was done in real-time, with him repeatedly singing the song.
And then yesterday on the Wired podcast, I heard about some research at the University of Southern California that involved studying the way a beat-boxer from L.A pronounced the sounds he did by analysing the movements of his mouth in an MRI scanner (again). Rather interestingly, the research found that some of the sounds were akin to sounds made in niche languages like Chechen (Chechnya) and Nuxálk (Canada).
….the researchers were able to annotate all of the sounds made by their beatboxing subject using the International Phonetic Alphabet — the system designed to describe meaning-encoding speech sounds, like intonation. And even though the subject was only a speaker of English and Spanish, he was able to produce many sound effects typical of other languages.
It struck me how an MRI scanner is an object most people wouldn’t even think of in a non-medical context. And here we are with not one but two alterative uses that have nothing to do with medicine. Creativity has no bounds.
My colleague mentioned recently that his flatmates were part of a band, so I decided to check their music out online. Clean Bandit have a rather unusual theme of mixing electronic music with classical music, and the band members are all Cambridge graduates. Read this interview with them for more. I quite like them.
I was at a gig that was part of HMV’s Next Big Thing series last week, where a whole host of bands make themselves seen and heard more than they would otherwise. They move on to playing at festivals, with most of them having a record label behind them by this stage. Clean Bandit apparently don’t have a label yet, which is also why, according to my colleague, they aren’t allowed to play any gigs live yet.
For publishers and authors, the web has made serious inroads into making them more accessible to the public – look at Amanda Hocking, or Seth Godin’s Domino Project. But it’s not just publishers, even comedians are turning to the web – as a new revenue stream as much as for a new audience – and they’re winning: case in point, Louis CK. Now, music is certainly different from comedy in some aspects: it has a much longer tail for one, but in others, like playing for the most part to a specific kind of audience, it isn’t.
Does this merely mean that the music moguls are much stronger than musicians? Surely, as we saw with SOPA only recently, not? Or is it just that we haven’t seen enough bands that wants to skip the record labels yet? I know individual musicians like Steve Lawson in the UK are giving the web their all, but perhaps it hasn’t seen its time yet.