It's Time to Stop and Look Up

Guest post by Kirk Cornelius, Managing Director, Thought5

In September of last year, the city of Reykjavik agreed that they would shut down their street lights, as well as encourage its residents to turn off their own lights, so that they would have the opportunity to view the northern lights without the light pollution that typically prohibits the city dwellers from experiencing them in all of their glory. It is an amazing example of how a collective group of people had come to the conclusion, and then formerly decided as a city, that sharing a moment of beauty was more important than keeping the lights on to carry on with normal life. It became the event of the evening, a spectacle, and something that most of its residents were very much looking forward to. In Icelandic culture, nature plays a huge role as a key contributor to  overall quality of life. Residents are extremely connected to nature and the natural beauty of the landscape, and it often serves as the inspiration for much of the music and art that comes out of this small country. Rather than simply acclimating to this natural phenomenon and taking it for granted as something that plays out in the background, they continue to celebrate these moments and push them to the forefront as the event of the evening. These are the moments that I am searching to find, as well as create, as we continue to move forward at such a frenetic pace that we often don’t stop long enough to ‘look up’ in order to experience something so beautiful and life-changing.

For most of my life, music has been this spectacle and event that has served as the inspiration and guide for many of the decisions that I have made.  As I watch my almost two year old daughter instinctively dance and respond to music on her own, I have come to the conclusion that music is universal because it is innate, it is in all of us.  A day without music would be like a day without color, we would miss the vibrance and the soundtrack of life.

Much has changed as music and media has shifted into the digital age, making the vast majority of it easily accessible to the point of an often paralyzing and overwhelming magnitude.  On one hand, it was an incredible notion when Steve Jobs told us that we could carry 1,000 songs around with us in our pockets.  On the other hand, the mass accessibility to ‘everything in our pocket’ has commoditized music to the point that it has had a significant psychological impact on the perceived value of it.  There are real and tangible cultural implications at risk if we don’t intentionally design new music experiences that inspire people to stop long enough to ‘look up’.   

Technology has ushered in this new era of accessibility, however, these platforms were specifically designed to solve the distribution and transactional woes brought on by the introduction of a new format. They were not originally designed with the experience of the listener in mind or the culture of the artists creating it. The technologists who ushered in this new era were not the keepers of the culture and therefore designed these platforms without the input of the culturalists. We refer to musicians as ‘artists’ because they truly are artists. What is now referred to as ‘content’, has unintentionally been packaged in such a linear way that the perceived value of ‘art’, in this format, has been standardized to the point in which it is now acommodity, it is now ‘readily available ‘content’. This shift in perception is a far cry from the days of driving to Tower Records prior to midnight so that you could stand in line in order to purchase a new release as soon as the clock struck twelve. The anticipation was such that these ‘superfans’ did not want to wait another minute to hear the album. It was a shared event that brought together a community of fans who were there because it meant something to be there. There was a tangible energy in the room and they looked forward to being together with their community to share in this moment. Simply being there served as a statement of identity and it gave them the opportunity to express it to others who also identified with the artist, the music and the culture that surrounded it.

Like the people of Reykjavik, they had all agreed to make that the event and ‘spectacle’ of the evening. Today, every record in the store is available to us and many fans and listeners don’t really know where to begin ‘discovering’ or where to find that energy and community that was born from these types of events. As a result, we now rely on the algorithms that leverage our input as well as behavioral data to ‘personalize’ the curation of what artificial intelligence deems to be a preference based on percentages, mathematics and patterns. This particular concept of personalization is a first attempt of automating something that has always relied on human-centered influence and relationships to nurture these connections and give them meaning. With that being the case, it is no surprise that the curation aspect of these platforms has fallen short of their promise. They are slowly beginning to improve, however, the key ingredient that is missing from these platforms is trust. Do you trust a platform in the same way that you trust a friend or peer to make a recommendation? These are inherently different things. Do you trust mathematics to understand and know which song will connect with you or inspire you in a given moment? What the machines are currently missing is the context of life, life as we know it and experience it in real time versus the life that we live through our platforms and devices. Life as it pertains to relational connections with others and how that influences our decisions and desires. Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing new applications and life-changing benefits from artificial intelligence and big data, however, we must first consider how the application of these advancements will enhance and complement our life experiences, whether digital, physical, or both. These experiences require an intentional design effort to ensure that we appropriately consider the values that we are connecting to and why. These values will serve as the foundation for ‘why’ and ‘how’ these experiences become essential contributors to one’s quality of life and how they are then purposefully integrated into one’s lifestyle and identity. 

In my work this year, there are a number of ‘look up’ worthy initiatives that are being designed and synthesized through the lens of these principles. I am working on, in collaboration with others, new experiences that promote artist sustainability, leveraging blockchain technology to automate royalty payments as well as create other new experiences that will ultimately connect the artists to their fans in a more personal and meaningful way. I am working to create proof of concepts around new business models and services that support the preservation and enhancement of music fidelity en masse, taking a more holistic look at designing service offerings that fulfill the promise of hi-fidelity listening experiences for all. I am exploring new applications for virtual reality and its role in bringing back a visual art component to digital and physical music environments. VR will also play a major role this year in extending live concert experiences, creating new opportunities for artists as they explore new ways to reimagine live performances, considering their virtual audiences as well as the concert goers. In all of the chaos and current shifting of industry roles, there is incredible opportunity.  

It goes without saying that technology, in a relatively short period of time, has completely transformed the way that we connect and communicate today.  It is important that we recognize and consider the fact that the magic of these shared moments is relational, not simply transactional. We must consider how all of these advancements connect to human values prior to designing these new platforms, products, services and experiences. We must stop long enough to listen to the artists, the keepers of the culture, as well as the keepers of the commerce. This is our community, our neighbors, who will ultimately decide whether or not to keep the lights on, or turn them off so that they, and others, are able to see the beauty again in something that has been right there all along.

Allen Bargfrede