A Week in Academia pt 1 – Wealth Of Networks II

image of the running order for the Wealth Of Networks conferenceI’d intended to write about this last week, but all the G20 stuff got in the way.

The Week before last, I was an invited panelist at two different academic conferences. The first was Wealth Of Networks II, ostensibly an open discussion focussed on the future of the internet and the digital economy. My invite there was due to some ongoing research I’m helping out with at the department of Computing at Imperial College, London, and I was brought in to talk a bit about new economic models that are possible for content producers (such as musicians) online, and how those are evolving.

The keynote address was given by Prof. John Domingue, Deputy Director of the Knowledge Media Institute, and spelt out what to many of us there was a fairly unpleasant view of the future of the web, outlining as it did a billion dollar EU project to effectively ‘manage’ and ‘govern’ the future of the web… It all sounded highly techno-utopian, falling into the now long-outdated notion that research is best defined by the technical possibilities of the research field. The problem with that online is that if it’s conceivable on a screen, someone somewhere can make it happen in about 20 minutes. The technical scope of the web is so huge as to provide little or no useable parameters for directing research.

Which lead me to ask where the social anthropologists were at this stage of the discussion. To which the answer was ‘we’re getting the technology in place first, and then we’ll sort that out‘. A wholly unsatisfactory answer, to me and most of the other people present it seemed. Sounds like a great way to blow a billion euros on answers to questions that nobody’s asking…

But it did give me cause to laugh out loud with glee when one of the contributors to the first panel of the day introduced herself as ‘Marina Jirotka, Social Anthropologist working at Oxford University Computing Laboratory’. Wonderful! So the discussion got a lot more interesting at that point (one of the big themes was trust, as summarised BRILLIANTLY by the ever-so-clever Benjamin Ellis of RedCatCo.)

For the panel that I was on, we were discussing some of the possible shifts in the direction for the internet as we move forward. I was on with three people from the mobile industry, who not surprisingly produced lots of stats about the future being mobile… But the most interesting point came up when one of my fellow panelists said something to the effect of ‘no-one has yet come up with a business model that isn’t either pay-for-service or ad-funded”, to which I said ‘uhm, I think they have’ and outlined the way the sales part of my music career works, in common with so many other independent musicians:

People don’t buy my music because of its monetary value; they pay for it out of their own recognition of it’s social/emotional value and their connection to the story around it.

See, listening to my music for free is pretty easy – everything I’ve ever released is streamable from last.fm – the last.fm widgets are even embedded on the shop pages for each album, so no-one has to spend any money to find out whether or not they’ll like what I do… So as and when people choose to buy it, it’s because they WANT to, not because they HAVE to to keep listening.

And that opens up all kinds of possibilities as a model. Discussions around what is ‘value’, how value is perceived and how monetary value is attached to that, via membership, micropayments, and in the case of CD releases, the option to pay more to help the album happen.

When we put out the Lawson/Dodds/Wood album, people were given the choice of paying MORE for it in advance than they would when it came out, in order to help us get the album paid for. They also got some exclusive recordings (the unedited versions of the album – which I still find myself listening to more than the proper version…) but it was pretty much pitched as a way to help us pay for the cost of pressing the CDs. We didn’t really make a big deal out of the value of our time in making it – us having invested weeks and weeks in putting the music together – that value would become clear, hopefully, through the series of videos we put on youtube about the making of the album.

It was a great experience to be part of a discussion about the future of the web, and heartening to know that there are academic institutions that are engaging with the digitial economy as anything other than ‘business as usual. The nature of the conversations at the event were very much in keeping with the discussions that we’ve all been having about the future of the music industry. Which makes sense, given what a marvellous and malleable model Music is to experiment with… it’s not tied to any culture, none of it is in and of itself vital or necessary, though pretty much everyone would consider it an important part of their cultural make-up. So to get the chance to connect with these research centres and talk about my experiences and observations of connecting music with the communities who choose to soundtrack bits of their lives with it, to define their ‘tribe’ by listening to it and associating with it, as well as those other musicians who find inspiration within it, is a wonderful experience, and one I hope to get to do a lot more over the coming year.

If you do want me to come and talk at your college/university/research institute, please do drop me a line.

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