20 October, 2009

The power of sound

I'm getting lots of fascinating connections since my TED talk went live. One I want to share straight away is an excellent online presentation called The Power Of Sound, created by Bob McCurdy at Clear Channel Radio Sales. It was designed to sell radio as a medium, but it has lots of interest to anyone who cares about sound and how it affects people - and it's beautifully put together with plenty of sound. You can see it for yourself here. Congratulations to Bob and his team for a great job. The message is spreading! Sound matters.

16 October, 2009

Talking sound

I'm delighted and thrilled to see my short TED talk go up on the TED website. I had a very warm response from many people to the talk over the four days at TEDGlobal in Oxford - four days which were a huge highlight of my year - and already there are some great comments on the TED Facebook page. Five minutes is a short time to condense a lot of material into, but I managed not to gabble! I'm now looking forward to a longer stint at the upcoming Audio Branding Congress in Hamburg next month.

The human voice is the most powerful sound on the planet, and I hope to continue to use mine to good effect to transform the sound of the world's business, and thus improve the sound of the world for all of us.

18 August, 2009

Your incredible ears

We live so much in our eyes these days that we underestimate and undervalue our most potent and primal sense: hearing. Here are three reasons we should place hearing back on the throne as king of our senses.

1 Hearing is first in time.
Hearing develops at just 12 weeks after conception according to French audiologist Alfred Tomatis. Long before we have ears, we are hearing our mother's heartbeat through every cell. (Even as adults we still hear through our whole bodies. Ears are just the specialists: we sense sound through our skin, bone and muscle, which is how the profoundly deaf world-renowned percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie can hear with no ear function at all.) The cochlea, the engine of the ear, reaches adult size and full functionality just 18 weeks after conception, long before the eyes are effective. From that point we hear very well, and learn to distinguish our mother's voice - as well as the reassuring three-time beat of her heart (lub-dub-pause). Hearing is the first sense we create, and according to numerous near-death accounts it's also the last sense to dim when we die.

Interestingly sound comes first not just for human beings but also for the universe. In the first 380,000 years of its existence the universe was an opaque plasma of photons, electrons and baryons. There was no light because matter and energy were one, and all the photons were bound up in the plasma; it wasn’t until the moment of decoupling when the expanding plasma cloud cooled to 3,000 degrees Kelvin that the photons were released and light came into existence. But there was certainly sound before decoupling because the plasma was a medium and there was plenty of vibration going on as the universe expanded unimaginably quickly, but not evenly. Had humans been able to survive there and listen, they would have heard the sound of the universe being born long before light existed.

Fascinating then that many of the world's spiritual traditions have sound coming before light at the birth of our world. The Old Testament has the heavens and the earth formless, empty and dark with the spirit of God hovering (alternative translation: vibrating) over them – and only then does God say: “Let there be light.” The New Testament says: “In the beginning was the word.” The Hindus say “Nada Brahma”, one meaning of which is “the world is sound.” The mystics of Islam, the Sufis, say that all form manifests from sound. Looking further afield, the degree of consistency becomes quite impressive, with sound being placed at the centre of creation by religious traditions from all corners of the globe including Aztec, Inuit, Persian, Indian, Malayan, Ancient Egyptian, Polynesian, Japanese, Chinese, Balinese, Tibetan and Ancient Greek.

While considering sound and time we may also reflect that the two are intrinsically linked in our hearing and our listening. Music, for example, has been called 'art in time'. Only in time can it exist. Hermann Hesse wrote: "Music is time made aesthetically perceptible." There is no auditory equivalent of a photograph; a sound in an instant is meaningless, so there's no way of compressing sound from four dimensions (three spatial plus one temporal) to two. Sound always requires time. This is true also of language, which further requires memory to have meaning. You understand my language by remembering what I just said and placing my words in that context. Vision, by comparison is inherently instant.

2 Hearing is first in space.
Sight is a directed sense. With our binocular vision we see in a cone in front of us, approximately 180 degrees wide and 120 tall. Hearing, by comparison, is completely spherical. Anyone can place a sound precisely in three dimensions. We have no 'deaf spot' because hearing is and always has been our primary warning sense, and because it is vital to our spatial awareness. These are the reasons that our hearing is on duty from before birth to death, with no rest at all. We close our eyes to sleep, but our hearing carries on working: we have no earlids because even while we are dreaming our hearing constantly scans and analyses the sounds around us. We're all familiar with waking suddenly because some small unfamiliar sound has triggered our lizard brain to alert us.

We discern a great deal about any space in a second or two from its acoustics: with eyes shut we can perceive walls and other solid objects from the tiniest sonic reflections. With practice this skill can approach that of bats or dolphins - as in the case of Ben Underwood, the blind boy in California who navigates with clicks.

Of course our ears are also our organs of balance, telling us which way is up at all times. Hearing and space are intimately and permanently connected in a potent and authentic perceptive process. This is why there are few aural illusions, and why that phrase is unknown - whereas 'optical illusion' is so familiar.

3 Hearing is first in sensitivity
We see a spectrum of vibration from about 390 nanometres (violet) to about 780 nanometres (red). (A nanometre is one thousand-millionth of a metre.) The frequencies of these tiny waves range from about 380 terahertz (red) to about 770 terahertz (violet). (Tera = an old fashioned billion, ie a million million. Hertz = one cycle per second.) An octave is a doubling of frequency, so our visual range is surprisingly just one octave! By comparison a young human being with good hearing can hear from about 16 Hz to about 16 KHz, which is ten octaves. Our auditory range is thus ten times greater than our visual in terms of relative frequency.

Human hearing can perceive a huge range of intensity, with a dynamic range of 130 dB. A sound that causes permanent damage with short exposure (like a train horn at one metre, which at 130 dB will perforate eardrums) has a thousand million times more power than the quietest sound the average healthy person can hear (a mosquito flying away at 3 metres, or 0 dB). In contrast, the eye’s dynamic range (which can also be measured in dB) is just 90 dB. The decibel scale is logarithmic, so in terms of intensity our aural range is 10,000 times greater than our visual.

According to Richard Norton at the University of Chicago the average human ear can distinguish 1,378 'just noticeable differences' in tone. By comparison we can distinguish just 150 hues of colour. On this measure hearing is almost 100 times as sensitive.

That's not all. Even the most tone deaf humans can spot an octave, and many people with good pitch can identify a given note. Our hearing is not just absolute: unlike vision, it also detects and measures relative values. We have no idea when two colours are an octave apart, but we know exactly when two tones are. It may be that the inherent relationship between number and tone helped to give us the foundations of mathematical understanding as we started to understand vibration and fashion musical instruments, especially stringed ones. (Every note in the harmonic series is achieved through selecting perfect proportions of a vibrating string's length.)

This is the amazing sense which is being thoughtlessly assailed by increasing urban noise (doubling every twenty years according to Murray Schafer) and maimed by increasing headphone abuse (our current teenage generation may be the first to enter the workforce with a majority already suffering from serious hearing damage).

I believe that if we rediscover how astounding this precious sense is, we will start to value and nurture it, and the world will become a very different place. This is my passion and why I'm doing what I'm doing. I invite you to join me in a campaign to save our hearing.

24 July, 2009

TED Day 4

TED is over and I am already in withdrawal. There's a well-documented reaction called TEDcrash that can accompany re-entry into normal life after four days of immersion in amazing ideas and even more amazing people. I have met more than 90 people in the last five days; each conversation has been at the very least interesting, and at most completely mind-blowing.

Here's a summary of the two sessions from this last Friday morning:

Session 11: Cities Past and Future
Eric Sanderson gave one of TED's most beautiful sessions on the Mannahatta project, which has mapped and cross-referenced every geographical feature and species of flora and fauna of Mannhattan going back to 1600 and culminating in a gorgeous virtual reality view; Constanza Cerruti showed the value of archaeology at high altitude (over 6,000m high!); Carolyn Steel was inspiring, forthright and downright fascinating on how cities were shaped by their food supplies up to the rail and road revolution and how important it is to reforge that broken relationship now; Bjarke Ingels was totally inspiring and also very funny in showing the real future of architecture - jaw-dropping designs (wish I'd known when I had breakfast with him!) that proved sustainability doesn't have to be boring; and Magnus Larsson showed how sand plus a special bacterium equals instant sandstone, which could create a wall of tress and dwellings across Africa to hold back the desert. One of my favourtie sessions, this one - fascintaing, inspiring and amazing in equal measure.

Session 12: Enquire Within
Dan Pink brilliantly and passionately exposed the massive business fallacy that extrinsic motivators, otherwise known as carrots and sticks, improve performance (disproved conclusively by science - they work for simple mechanical tasks but if there is even a hint of creativity involved they actually degrade performance by narrowing focus!) and showed that what work are intrinsic motivators (autonomy, mastery and purpose); Itay Talgam was absolutely brilliant in analysing the essential styles of his fellow great conductors and received a standing ovation; Daniel Birnbaum gave us a personal tour of the Venice Biennale exhibition; Cappucin Friar Br Paulus Terwitte was passionate but sadly to me largely incomprehensible due to langauge limitations; and Imogen Heap returned for a triumphant encore which involved a hang, her voice and a lot of audience participation. She is a gem.

And that's it for another year... now I need at least a week to process the connections! I have met incredible people, my brain is on fire and my faith in humanity has been restored - though not without a clear view of how scary our current challenges are. Thanks to Chris and the whole TED team for my best-ever TED experience. I've signed up for next year already - I wouldn't miss this for anything.

TED Day 3

TED does funny things to your time perception. It seems to be going so fast - only two sessions left now - but at the same time it seems a lifetime ago that I did my TED-University talk on Tuesday.

Today was fabulous; here's a brief run-through.

Session 7 - Radical Development
Paul Romer proposed that we need some good rules for changing rules because we get stuck with useless old rules too often, and suggested transforming Guantalamo Bay into a Charter City to be Cuba's Hong Kong; Marc Koska demonstrated his safe syringe (plunger breaks after one use); Michael Pritchard showed his brilliant Lifesaver bottle that cleans filthy water (Chris Anderson bravely acted as on-stage guinea pig) and allows people to live where water is; William Kamkwamba inspired us all with his pure dedication in building windmills from scrap to power and irrigate his family home; Rob Hopkins brilliantly showed how we can adapt to the end of the oil age through the wonderful Transition Network (who knew that Lewes had its own currency?); IDEO boss Tim Brown berated the 'design priesthood' for thinking small and argued convincingly that design is really big if we start with humans, prototype fast, move from consumption to participation and ask the right questions.

Session 8 - In The Shadows
A dark and scary session. Taryn Simon showed her superb but unsettling photographs of forbidden or hidden places and of wrongly-convicted people; Misha Glenny gave a tour (de force) of his amazing McMafia book, scaring the pants off me (organised crime is 18% of global GDP!!); Ed Burtynsky showed photographs of man's effect on land; Loretta Napoleoni suggested that terrorism had indirectly caused the credit crunch (US flooded the market with bonds to fund the $7bn war on terror, so interest rates were artificially reduced to increase yields, leading to the sub-prime market); and former child soldier Emmanuel Jal rapped for peace and had the whole house dancing and in tears at the same time.

Session 9 - Revealing Energy
A highlight among highlights: the session started with the BBC Radiophonic Orchestra playing the Dr Who theme complete with live theramin. Priceless - though confusing to the non-Brits. Ross Lovegrove underwhelmed me with some rambling design projects (should have listened to Tim Brown); Nick Veasey showed his x-ray art; Steve Cowley predicted workable fusion soon; Eric Giler demonstrated wireless electricity (at last!! short range only but long enough to eliminate that spaghetti under the desk and remove the need for many of the 40 billion batteries we use and discard each year); Jason Soll showed some card flourishing - a new obsession on YouTube; and Bertrand Piccard was elegantly metaphorical about transglobal balloon flight and about his new venture to circumnavigate the world non-stop in a solar-powered plane (yes nights too).

Session 10 - Worldview Rethink
Parag Khanna proposed that more infrastructure like pipelines and railways will bring peace to the geopolitical map; Richard Bernstein described an astoundingly simple way for business to tackle poverty (create shares and give them to charity); the articulate Geoff Mulgan argued for a new social capitalism founded on care and relationships instead of consumption and credit; Michelle Borkin showed some superb interdisciplinary data visualisation; Rory Bremner was outstanding and very funny ("Sorry I missed Gordon Brown's job application yesterday..."); and Karen Armstrong updated us on her TED Prize wish, the Charter For Compassion, which is being launched late this year (wonderful!).

Bonus session
In the stunning Sheldonian Theatre we had an extraordinary performance of Felix's Machines, a witty talk by charming QI producer John Lloyd, some terrifying time-lapse photography of retreating glaciers by James Balog (any remaining climate change doubters can view similar here), and a beautiful talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie that urged us not to have just one story about any person, country or group.

Only two sessions left tomorrow morning, then it's all over for another year. I have met 90 people, and they have all been fascinating. This has been a vintage TED, and I'm already registered for next year, which is selling fast. Now for some sleep...

23 July, 2009

TED Day 2

I'm a TED host here, which gives me double permission to speak to anyone - actually just wearing a TED name badge is permission enough, but the Host tag has emboldened me to set aside all remnants of Britishness and just dive in. As a result I have met around 80 people in two days! Every one of them has been a delight. TED is all about connections - and the people connections are just as important as the idea connections. This has been a vintage TED for me in both respects and it's only halfway through.

The content in today's four sessions was astounding.

Session 3: Connected Consequences
Jonathan Zittrain reflected on altruism on the Internet (for example Wikipedia is 45 minutes from destruction at all times and the only thing protecting it is a thin line of volunteer geeks); Evgeny Morozov questioned whether the web brings freedome or new slavery (18% of US teenagers are addicted to it); Stefana Broadbent proposed that modern communication is re-establishing family and friend connection during working hours, which is the way things used to be before industrialisation; Aza Raskin showed a great Mozilla initiative in plain language granular applications called Ubiquity; Carlos Ulloa demonstrated amazing 3D video called Papervision; Rory Sutherland brought the house down with a hilarious talk on the invisible value of marketing; and Imogen Heap played a haunting, beautiful and very charming set.

Session 4: Nature's Challenge
Cary Fowler showed how a biodoversity storage facility in the Arctic may save us from famine; Janine Benyus inspired by asking the question "how would nature solve this?"; Mathieu Lehanneur showed a living room air filter and other strange designs; Matthew White gave us more brilliant euphonium; and Lewis Pugh brought gasps as he explained and showed how he swam for 20 minutes in freezing water at the North Pole to raise awareness of climate change - it took four months for the feeling to return to his hands.

Session 5: Hidden Algorithm
Beau Lotto showed amazong visual illusions to prove that context is everything; Rebecca Saxe shared the latest research about the RTPJ region of the brain which thinks about other people's minds; Henry Markram explained the modelling of a human neural column and predicted complete computer brain modelling within 10 years; James Geary explored metaphors; Manuel Lima reviewed the latest in visual complexity and data representation; and David Deutsch gave a searing and razor sharp definition of good and bad scientific method.

Session 6: Curious and Curiouser
Marcus de Sautoy spoke on symmetry; Garik Israelian explained how spectroscopy is spotting planets around stars and even whether they have plant life (he told me later that he believes 30-40% of all stars will be shown to have planets!); Candy Chan showed the benefits of neighbourhood communication techniques; 90-year-old Elaine Morgan got a standing ovation and left us all touched, moved and inspired by her fight to get the aquatic theory of human evolution accepted by the snooty academic establishment; and Sophie Hunger played a fine set with the best trombonist I've ever seen in her band.

What a day. A classic TED day. It seems a lifetime ago I gave my talk at TED-U. Must savour every moment because after tomorrow evening it'll be almost all over. Gordon Brown's talk is already up on the TED site. More will follow in the days to come.

21 July, 2009

TEDGlobal 2009 Day 1

It's a joy to be back at TEDGlobal in Oxford, and what an excellent first day we've had. Where else do you see Stephen Fry (who was winging it, albeit in his usual witty and learned fashion), followed by a 17 year old euphonium genius called Matthew White, followed by Gordon Brown? The PM actually impressed me and everyone else I've spoken to with a passionate and articulate speech about the great opportunity we have at the confluence of global communication, global problems and a shared ethical basis for global action. I hope he speaks as eloquently in Copenhagen.

This morning (seems like a lifetime ago as I write - that's TED) I spoke about sound to a packed house of 270 as part of TED-University, where 24 TEDsters did a series of short talks - a mini TED which achieves the same effect of simultaneously stimulating and boggling the mind. I loved Rachel Armstrong on saving Venice with a protocell reef and Sam Martin on manspaces. Some kind comments about my talk, so a good start to the week.

Session 1: What we Know and Session 2: Seeing Is Believing
Sound has featured on the main stage already - not surprising given the conference theme of "The substance of things not seen". Evan Grant intrigued me with his talk on cymatics - the study of wave phenomena and specifically the patterns produced by sound waves, for example in sand grains on resonating metal plates or in water. Some of these patterns are identical to snowflakes, starfish and even living cells. There is something wonderful here... We also had Mark Johnson of Playing For Change with the YouTube-friendly video of Stand By Me. I would have been more in tune with this if he had credited 1 Giant Leap, whose modus operandi and video style he has clearly borrowed wholesale. I applaud the charitable intentions of his project, but in terms of musical worth the first 1GL album is out on its own. If you don't own it, go straight to Amazon and get yourself a copy of the DVD. It is truly inspiring.

We also had James Geary juggling (literally) as he advocated aphorisms (my favourite: no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible); Andrea Ghez making supermassive black holes intelligible and exciting; Willard Wigan showing his extraordinary nanosculptures (the Statue of Liberty in the eye of a needle!); Steve Truglia planing a parachute jump from 120,000 feet; and a wonderfully urbane and intelligent talk by Alain de Botton on the myth of success and the devastating effects of envy.

Just another standard day at TED. I have met upwards of 70 fascinating people so far - but that's just 10% of the number here. Only three days left...

23 June, 2009

Tennis can damage your hearing

As Wimbledon calls ‘Play’ this year, the International Tennis Federation (ITF) is considering whether to make “noise hindrance” part of its code of conduct.

The issue of noise in tennis matches has been championed by Martina Navratilova who says: "Grunting, screeching, shrieking - I call it cheating and it’s got to stop. I started having issues with it when I was playing Monica Seles back in the early 1990s. She was one of the first, and I didn’t like it one bit. It affected my game because to me it is important to hear the ball hit the racquet. Rules must be changed: players must be warned. If they don’t stop, they must have points deducted”.

Maria Sharapova has thus far held the crown as the loudest player in the post-Seles era. However there is a new kid on the block who seems to have (literally) taken the practice to a whole new level. In the recent French Open, Aravane Rezai complained to the umpire about the shrieks coming from 16-year-old player Michelle Larcher de Brito, who has now been given a wildcard into Wimbledon, much to the joy of the British media. It's not just the level of her cries, it’s also the length of them that is causing concern. Tennis officials are now considering a proposal to make noise hindrance part of the International Tennis Federation’s code of conduct, which could mean noisy players being muted permanently.

The response from the playing community has been that it is always been part of their game and that there should not be any restrictions on the release of energy. Larcher de Brito for example says "If they made a rule that you're not allowed to shriek or scream or grunt, it wouldn't be fair because it's part of the game. I'm 16, I'm still learning. Maybe I can eventually put it under control. I hope not because it comes from Monica Seles, it comes from Sharapova, it comes from really great players." Others, such as Nick Bollettieri who has produced Seles among others maintain that it is within the rules and nobody can say that loud players have cheated.

So here is the countdown of the five loudest players in modern tennis  and their noise output (bear in mind that past 85 decibels is the point where your hearing can be damaged by continuous exposure and earplugs are recommended):

5. Venus Williams 85 decibels Equivalent to: A food blender, city traffic (from inside a car). 
4. Serena Williams 88.9 decibels Equivalent to: A truck passing by at 10m or a farm tractor.
3. Monica Seles 93.2 decibels The inspiration for the famous Centre Court ‘gruntometer’. Equivalent to: an electric drill, a motorcycle at 25 ft, or a power mower.
2. Maria Sharipova 101 decibels Equvalent to: A jet flying over at 1000 ft, a typical house stereo at maximum volume, a table saw. A walkman at maximum level.
1. Michelle Larcher De Brito 109 decibels (apparently) Equivalent to: A night club on the dance floor, front row at a rock concert, a jet taking off, a car horn.

Surely this presents a great merchandising opportunity for this year’s Wimbledon along with the usual strawberries and cream – purple and green earplugs for those in the front rows.

10 March, 2009

The future of music

I recently tweeted about a new book called Against Intellectual Monopoly by Professors Michele Boldrin and David K. Levine, who argue that the current laws on intellectual property rights, especially copyright and patent laws, are killing creativity and innovation. Using examples such as Napster, Disney and the pharmaceutical industry, Boldrin and Levine argue that there are other and better ways to reward people for their ideas or creations.

As a perfect case study we have the news that Google is switching off access to commercial music videos for UK users from March 16th because negotiations with the Performing Right Society (PRS) have broken down. PRS, which represents the record labels and some artists and negotiates prices for public performance of recorded music in the UK, wants Google to pay more because user numbers have grown; Google says PRS is overpricing. Without a PRS license, it's illegal for Google to share this content in the UK. The result is that the public loses access to the music - which means that everyone loses.

Then there's the launch of Spotify. Legal for private use, Spotify streams music at reasonable quality, completely free of charge and with no buffering. It contains hundreds of thousands of tracks from almost all the major labels, and is a joy to use. It's currently accessible only in Europe, and UK users are among the first to be able to sign up without being invited first. Spotify will never replace my own music because I prefer listening at full bandwidth: I use Apple Lossless codec (see my earlier post about compression). But a recent survey by Jonathan Berger, professor of music at Stanford, has shown that young people actually prefer the sharp, tinny sound of compressed MP3 to the richer sound of full quality audio. If this is true, Spotify and free streaming services like it are the future of music.

The challenge to the music industry is this: if all we need is one copy of a work on a server, streaming to millions of people simultaneously, where does the revenue come from?

So far the industry has attempted to transfer its product-based business model from selling physical units to selling digital units, in other words charging for downloads. The Battle of Napster and this latest PRS/Google conflict are encounters resulting from this effort. Whether you believe the industry is cleverly getting the last few pints from the cash cow before it finally dies, or you see the industry as King Canute refusing to acknowledge very wet feet, there is no doubt that this model is doomed. Digital recorded music will soon be consumed without being owned or paid for.

Value is based on scarcity, which is why the most enduring revenue stream for musicians is live performance. But there are limits to how many gigs an artist can play each year, to audience sizes, and to ticket prices. This revenue stream is simply not scaleable enough to replace product sales.

Another obvious revenue source is opening the band-brand conversation and securing sponsorship deals. This is growing fast and has some way to run. But again there are limits: many artists will have ethical issues about which brands they promote, and consumers will lose interest in artists who dissipate their own brands by selling out too obviously.

The third revenue stream is public performance of recorded work, where royalties apply - Internet broadcast, background music in public spaces like shops, sync rights for TV, film and advertising, and commercial radio plays. I have posted before about my belief that music is not the most appropriate sound for every public space, but I expect this revenue stream to continue - as long as the industry agents like PRS can get their act together and create a sensible and consistent pricing model. However in a world of free personal music, public performance royalties will become increasingly anachronistic, and in any case they will never amount to more than a tiny fraction of the money lost with the demise of product sales.

Fourth there is patronage, or commissioned work. The great musicians and artists of previous centuries has no copyright protection and no recordings or duplicates to sell. They were paid by patrons, and produced much of their work to commission. Expect to see a renaissance of the patronage model as copy sales dry up.

But it seems to me that the future business model for all artists must be driven by a revenue stream that has only just started to trickle so far: the monetisation of the relationship between the artist and the fan. In this model the record companies have little or no role to play at all. Artists have their own teams handling a database of fans, who all choose where they want to be on a relationship continuum that stretches all the way from a single free download to personal meetings with the artist.

As the fan chooses to move up the scale, buying an album, signing up for a newsletter, joining a tiered loyalty programme, getting exclusive merchandise, buying tickets for fanclub-only gigs, getting signed merchandise, being in direct communication with the artrist, and attending small-group private audiences or gigs, the annual subscription goes up accordingly. And the music, most of the time, is free.

This model applies some of the best lessons from business and marketing - relationship marketing, database marketing, disintermediation, customer-centric business, virtual business, atomic business, web 2.0 - and applies them to an industry which is all about relationship. The fans crave relationship with the artists. So far, record companies have simply been in the way of that. Radiohead and others have started to explore this new direct model; the new wave of artists who don't need expensive recording studios, large advances or teams of suits to manage their entourages will leapfrog these efforts in the coming months and years. Using social networking, and new musician-specific tools that are already becoming available (see Gen-Y Rock Stars for some of these resources), artists will create their own communities, and connect directly and openly with them.

Within a decade I believe the music will be free - and the money will be in carefully managed direct relationships. Relationship is where the value lies - and it can never be pirated.

11 February, 2009

Why did Muzak go bust?

Some lessons about piped music - and a cautionary tale for the retail TV industry.

Muzak's filing for bankruptcy yesterday is no surprise. I flagged its mountain of imminently due loans several weeks ago on Twitter and socialmedian, and in the current financial meltdown it was going to be a miracle if an entertainment-based business found someone willing and able to refinance over $400m of debt. It's very sad for those who will lose their jobs, but it's also very interesting to look at the underlying reasons for the failure, especially in the light of the similar demise of DMX in 2005.

What's not working for these music pipers? Is it the nature of the service they offer, the malaise affecting the whole commercial music business, or the business model these companies have been operating? And are there any lessons to learn?

First, the nature of the service. I do have great reservations about mindless music as a global veneer. There is little independent research on whether people like it or not, so most of the numbers one sees are produced by interested parties: either Muzak and its competitors, or the music industry and its ambassadors such as the licensing agencies - in the UK that's PRS, PPL and MCPS. Those numbers are universally positive, giving the impression that music is great to have in the background everywhere, all the time. You and I both know that's not true.

There is one independent survey I know: it was carried out in the UK in 1998 by NOP for the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, and it was setting out to find out how piped music affects the deaf and hard of hearing, of whom there are 9 million in the UK - that's around one sixth of the population. The survey also interviewed the general public by way of comparison; a total of 1,002 people were interviewed, and interestingly the level of engagement and passion for the subject of the interviewees was judged to be exceptionally high. This is a hot topic with the public, and the results should make salutory reading for retailers. Let's start here:
  • 34% of the general public finding piped music annoying
  • 36% of the general public never notice piped music
This top line finding is fascinating. Assuming that the remaining 30% actively like piped music, what this says is that retailers are buying approval from 3 in 10 people at the expense of irritating over one third of their potential customers. I know of one retailer-specific study that found that four out of five people were turning around on the doorstep and not even entering the store because of the its music. Most retailers are entirely unaware of the sales they are losing because of this deflection effect, or because of severely reduced dwell time for people who dislike the music. Very few people complain about irritating music: they just vote with their feet and leave.

And these are just the conscious reactions to sound. The picture gets worse when you factor in the unconscious effects of music, which are the most important part. Sound's impact is like an iceberg: most of it happens at unconscious level, below the waterline. We have become so used to suppressing noise that we are unaware of the vast majority of the sound around us - but it still affects us all the time. In shops, even for people who say they like the music, the standard fare of upbeat pop music acts as a stimulant, speeding shoppers up and causing them to leave the store faster than they otherwise would. This is losing further sales because, as every retailer knows, the longer we are in a store, the more we spend.

So most piped music is reducing sales, both by upsetting and deflecting a third (or more) of customers, and by shifting the rest out of the store too quickly.

The demographics make this even more painful for any retailer aiming at the top of the market:
  • 45% of 45-54 year olds find piped music annoying
  • 21% of 15-24 year olds find piped music annoying
  • 51% of people in social group AB find piped music annoying
  • 26% of people in social group DE find piped music annoying
  • 86% of hard of hearing people find piped music annoying
For shops targeting youth or social groups D and E, music may be a great choice. But the vast majority of the wealth is in the hands of the people who most hate piped music. For upmarket shops targeting the affluent, music upsets around half of their customers! For the deaf and hard of hearing, the disapproval is unsurprisingly almost universal: piped music makes it harder for them to communicate in an already noisy world. (It's also worth reminding ourselves that Western populations are ageing, and the incidence of hearing loss is growing fast too, largely as a result of headphone abuse by younger people - so these 10-year-old numbers probably already understate the problem.)

At least most of us can leave the store. Staff have to put up with the music all day, and unsurprisingly, according to a survey in 2007 by the UK Noise Association, 40% of them dislike piped music and only 7% like it.

And yet most shops play music these days. Why?

There are three reasons. First, the desperate need for the music industry to create new revenue streams has led to strong sales pressure from Muzak and its competitors, backed by hyperbolic claims in one-eyed research about the effects of music on customer satsifaction. Second, the billion flies argument: everyone else is doing it, so it must be a good idea and shoppers must like it. And third, it can work. If carefully chosen by someone who really understands the function of a space, the people in it, the environmental factors (noise, quality of sound system etc) and the brand or values behind the space, music can create a delightful, appropriate and effective experience. Sadly, this is rare and most piped music is bland, mindless and ineffective - which, in my opinion is why it is so offensive to many people. We all understand music very well (though nobody knows quite how), so we find inappropriate music upsetting: somewhere deep down we know it's wrong.

Tha's why the issue raises such strong feelings. There are even organised anti-piped-music communities such as PipeDown and Mu-sick, to name but two of several. Many people, me included, mourn the devaluation of music that results from its use as a universal veneer. Society's relationship with music has been radically changed as a result of its omnipresence in public places: it used to be something we had an active, intense relationship with, but now most of the time it's the soundtrack to some other activity.

But all of this is isn't why Muzak has just gone bust. The company had tens of thousands of sites, and hundreds of major retailers as its customers. None of these retailers, as far as I know, had rumbled the fact that their music wasn't working, so the big game of the emperor's new clothes was still being played. There is no shortage of piped music in the world, most of it from Muzak, so what went wrong?

And so to possible reason number two: is this a symptom of the bigger disaster that is the commercial music industry today? Album sales are nose-diving, digital rights management (DRM) is becoming indefensible, and young people believe that music is a right, not a commodity (or product, as the old record companies used to describe it). Has Muzak gone belly-up because people won't pay for their music any more?

It's an attractive premise but it falls down because we are unaware of the cost of the music we are subjected to in shops. It is, of course, far from free, and we certainly do pay for it in higher prices. The music industry, through its licensed agents, is rabid about collecting fees for all public performance of music, despite the regular bad PR arising from its pursuit of corner shops or local garages with radios on for their staff. The legal landscape is complicated in established markets: in the UK, the Performing Right Society and Mechanical Copyright Protection Society (now combined as PRS for Music), and Phonographic Performance Limited, collect for different rights in any one piece of music. For big retailers the fees are huge, running into millions a year, and our experience at The Sound Agency is that the methods of calcuation are arcane, often incomprehensible and inconsistent. In less developed markets, it's like the Wild West: you can obtain cheap bootleg MP3 music from many Russian and other Eastern European websites, and there is little policing of public peformance, so vast amounts of music are bought and played illegally.

But even with effective policing, however large the fees are, and however difficult the system is to understand, the shopper is oblivious to this or to the extra cost of the musical wallpaper they suffer in stores. There is no equivalent of an organic section - a quiet room where you can buy goods without listening to or paying for the music. (Come to think of it, that's a great idea!) So this can't be the reason for Muzak's downfall either.

Which brings us to the third possibility - business model. All the piped music companies have been operating the same business model: an up-front fee (typically leased) for purchase of their players, plus monthly fees for each site served.

The players are usually adapted PCs, sold in large volumes by the pipers to leasing companies which then charge the retailer a monthly price for the staged purchase over three years. The music piper makes a 10-25% margin on the initial sale. The retailer doesn't have to find a big pile of cash for the boxes. The leasing company does what it knows best. Everyone is happy at that point.

Over the next three years (the typical life of one of these deals) the pipers charge a monthly fee per shop. This has to cover the rights to the music - typically that can amount to £20 or more a month - plus the service contract for the kit. It should also include a service fee for the piper to cover music updates, account management, administrative costs and R&D.

This is where it all goes wrong. The pipers have become so competitive in pitching against each other that they have driven the monthly fee down to the bone. It barely covers the rights and service fee - indeed in some cases it doesn't even do that. There is no margin for the piper, so all their profit is in the initial sale. They become like sharks, having to move forward with new sales all the time or die. The problem is that what was once a vast virgin market is now highly competitive and mainly sold-up and under contract.

There is a great analogy here with the mobile phone companies. Ten years ago they made all their money from selling handsets, and they could hardly make enough to satisfy the demand. Now everyone has a handset and the market is so competitive that we expect not to pay for replacements in most cases. Seeing this coming, companies like Nokia and Vodafone have successfully transitioned from a volume product sales model to a rich service model: their profit stream is shifting from handset sales to a lifelong relationship based on offering great services like navigation, music (of course!) and personal organisation.

The pipers just didn't see the wall approaching. Muzak took on massive debt to expand, but it failed to grow in the right direction - towards added value services and a profitable ongoing relationship with its clients, and away from being a box seller.

In Europe, Mood Media has taken a slightly different tack, expanding into the fast-growing digital out of home market - retail TV to you and me. This will give the company several years of rapid growth, but eventually, when every shop has screens all over the place and we are all complaining about being bombarded with video messaging at every turn, the same wall will be standing in the way.

In sum, businesses based on capability ("We're doing this because we can") have limited life-spans. Businesses based on need, value and service ("We're doing this because people want it") have long-term sustainability, as long as they listen to the market. Piped music in its current guise and with its current business model is a busted flush because it's based on technical ability and an assumption about customer need that is not grounded in reality. The DOOH market should pay attention right now: this could be you in five years.

My hope is that retailers will start to use the new tools that are available, especially in the new field of neuromarketing, to create an integrated approach to retail environments, designing them in all five senses. As far as sound is concerned, I believe that carefully crafted generative, ambient soundscapes will replace music in most retail and other public spaces, doing the same job as a good piece of design with lighting and colour - creating a space that's interesting, branded, appropriate, comfortable, functional, and pleasant to be in.