Predicting 'It' city status

A tongue-in-cheek piece in the latest issue of Canadian magazine Maisonneuve offers an interesting critique of the whole Richard Florida/Creative Class argument. In the article, writer Edward Keenan declares Milwaukee the new "It" city for hip music. To reach that conclusion, he drew on several factors. First, he analyzed a New York Times article from last February in which David Carr declared Montreal the new "It" city, and determined what made Montreal the new king.

"Being the biggest destination in a region almost guarantees an influx of musically inclined, disaffected young people to both play in and listen to bands. Bad weather helps, because it keeps songwriters inside and bands rehearsing. And perhaps most important, a nascent musical scene requires lots of cheap real estate for musicians and their fans to hang out and play in," Carr writes.

Keenan also applies the Richard Florida indexing model to things, adapting the economists "Bohemian" index to create his own "It City" index from these categories: "population; industry; proximity to water; winter and summer weather conditions; number of universities and professional sports franchises; average income, rent and housing prices; relative importance of city to its region."

The one city in North America that best fit the ideal "It" city criteria? Milwaukee.

So far, so good. His analysis is interesting, if not scientific. His critique comes in next, when he dissects what Milwaukee has to offer musically: not much. The bands aren't particularly cutting edge, and no one seems to mind driving south to Chicago to find truly interesting bands, clubs and culture. What he points out in this round-about way, is that all of the number crunching in the world isn't going to make your city an arts & entertainment and/or culture and/or talent magnet. Having the right things in place helps, no question. But it takes people with energy and ideas to catalyze things. Having the right ingredients in the right-sized pot helps, to use a tortured metaphor, but you need some cooks to get things cooking. It can't be an either/or thing. So while Keenan might laugh at the notion that Milwaukee is the next big thing, what he has done is point out that with the right stimuli, it very well could be.


Disruptive technology and the arts

The folks at strategy+business magazine have an interesting feature to celebrate their 10th anniversary. They asked readers and contributors to select the 10 "most enduring ideas" presented in the magazine over the past decade. Most of the concepts are fairly specific to the corporate world, but at least one applies to the Creativille world view.

Item no. 5 on the list is Disruptive Technology. "Technological innovation radically alters markets by undermining incumbent companies — which are vulnerable because their offerings are all tailored to the needs of their existing customers," they write. Strictly applied to the business world, this points out the problem faced when you do everything for a customer today only to see an upstart offer something radically different tomorrow that trumps all of your efforts. But looking at this from the lens of arts and culture, it's clear it applies here as well. As the s+b authors write, "Thus the makers of personal computers trumped Digital Equipment; Wal-Mart trumped Sears; and downloadable music is trumping the recording industry."

Staying ahead of the creative wave is difficult, but as technology continues to push things in multiple directions at an ever-quickening pace, those who wish to succeed have little choice. That's why the Soderbergh/Cuban film distribution experiment makes so much sense and why the television networks' move to digital distribution is a wise move. It's also the reason why iTunes might become a great benchmark looked upon fondly in the rearview mirror.

The lesson of disruptive technology applies at that macro level, but also can apply at the micro level. Think of new and exciting ways to present your art/entertainment/etc. (and by new and different I mean truly new and different -- something that has never been done, at least in your market), and have patience. If you guessed right, yours will become the new standard. As s+b advises, "
Preempt your own comfort zone, adopting a disruptive technology yourself before others beat you to it."


A new voice

Salon has an interesting new feature that started this week, the blog How the World Works. In the lengthy but interesting introduction, Andrew Leonard writes about teaching Chinese in Taiwan in the 1980s, eventually realizing that he was helping to create the competitive edge for people who might one day compete with him for work, "seeding the future with my own nemesis."

The new blog then is "a stab in the dark at exploring the territory of globalization, at finding believable answers to complicated questions," he writes. His first two posts after that introduction deal with the increasing price of polysilicon and what that means for microchip production in China, and about what the recent announcement by Ford of layoffs and plant closings means in the larger context of global competition.

As a staff writer at Salon, Leonard has written some interesting pieces on the topic of globalization. Salon's blurb about the new blog says the beat of globalization is "too big for any one story or book." Perhaps keeping up with this fast-moving topic with the equally fast moving form of a blog will allow Leonard to stay on top of things. Stay tuned.


Collapsing windows

This month's Fast Company offers a story about the coming digital revolution in Hollywood, and in doing so has summed up the Creativille manifesto-in-progress. In my short time in this space, I have preached about the need for accessibility and adaptability in arts, entertainment and culture. That's where the whole "intersection with business" thing comes in. Make what you want when you want, but if you want anyone to buy it, you'd better make it as easy as possible for people to get it.

In the article, "The New Wave" by Alan Deutschman, that argument is summarized nicely in a passage about how Hollywood must react to the quickly changing marketplace:

"What we have learned from the first decade of the digital era is that we’re the ones who will be in control of when, where and how we consume media. Give us cell phones, and we’ll tear out our landlines. Give us laptops, and we’ll chuck our desktops. Give us wi-fi, and we’ll take our laptops everywhere. Give us BlackBerrys, and we’ll leave our laptops at home. Let us download music, and we’ll never go to the store to buy CDs. Give us VCRs and TiVo, and we’ll watch TV shows whenever we want – and zap the commercials. Give us the news as it happens, and we won’t look at tomorrow’s papers."

That's the promise, and here's the threat: “If you don’t let us buy what we want, when we want it, we’ll take it anyway. But if you make it affordable and easy enough for us to get what we want – as Apple’s Steve Jobs did with iTunes and the iPod – then we’ll happily pay you and make you a star.”

Steven Soderbergh gets it. I wrote last month about his filmmaking venture with Mark Cuban's 2929 Productions. Soderbergh is interviewed briefly here as one of the 10 hottest people in Hollywood, and also is featured in a Wired Q&A that makes a nice companion piece to the Fast Company package. In the partnership with Cuban, Soderbergh plans to make six digital films that will be released in theaters, on DVD, on HDTV and possibly by download all at the same time. Asked about this radical change to Hollywood's longstanding cycle of successive windows that allow various segments of the industry to wring as much revenue from consumers as possible, Soderbergh hits the nail on the head: “Name any big-title movie that’s come out in the last four years. It has been available in all formats on the day of release. It’s called piracy." He predicts that all movies will go out in all formats within five years, and that “named” directors will start distributing their own films.

Now, you can say this is a response to piracy, but it's really a response to what consumers are demanding. There is certainly an element that will take what it can get for free, but mostly people just want choice. People who are willing to buy a crappy dub on DVD the day a film is released are doing so in part because it's cheap, but also because it's convenient. Similarly, people who want to hear a song right now are going to go download it, not trek down to the mall to line up at Sam Goody to pay $17.99 for a disc that might offer little reward beyond that one song. The music industry finally figured that out, and a look at sales figures that include iTunes downloads (the December Wired has a great graphic that isn't online yet) shows that the music industry is more robust than ever.

Will the shift to digital and same-day releases hurt the movie industry as a whole? No. Will some people get hurt? Theater owners can't help but be worried. But there's no slowing the march of progress, and those who stand in the way are sure to be trampled.


RIAA to Byrne: Don't work it

The RIAA doesn't need any help when it comes to fodder for demonization. The group, whose mission is "to foster a business and legal climate that supports and promotes our members' creative and financial vitality," often goes to extremes to carry that out. When they seem to go against those very artists, things seem to be really out of whack.

That's the case with latest windmill tilt from the RIAA. The group took time away from filing lawsuits against music downloaders to slap musician David Byrne. Why? Because Byrne, a tremendous music fan, took steps to promote the music he loves on a streaming online radio show. The former Talking Head puts together an elaborate playlist each month that can be streamed from his web site. The feature, Radio David Byrne, has featured psychedelic tunes, Italian music, and other, more eclectic and less thematic song cycles. Byrne popped onto the RIAA's radar last month when his entire playlist was made up of songs from Missy Elliott. The set of 30 songs offering nearly two hours of music, was an aural loveletter to Elliott, who Byrne called "one of my role models."

The RIAA sent a warning, saying online playlists can only feature four songs by the same artist every three hours. Talk about fuzzy math. Byrne explains all of this better than I can, but suffice to say that the entire episode is a sign that the RIAA just doesn't get it. Downloading pristine copies of popular songs for free? That seems a reasonable thing to investigate. Streaming songs that most people can hear on the radio 24-7 anyway? Not a big deal. Anyone who takes the time to record these sound files as the stream has a) enough money that they probably wouldn't bother anyway or b) such an axe to grind against the RIAA or the music industry in general that any attempt to stop them is fruitless.

What the RIAA has essentially done is tell Byrne, an influential artist who has helped to uncover and promote a number of other artists who all sell records, not to use that influence. Were I Missy Elliott, I would complain. Why? Because I'm not Missy Elliott; I'm a music fan who appreciates her more than he has a desire to listen to her, but who might just be swayed by Byrne's impassioned advocacy (and the chance to hear several cuts without wading through endless, assaulting radio commercials to do so) to spend money on her work. So much for that.

The only silver lining here is that the entire ridiculous situation will clue people in to Byrne's project, which continues this month with the set "Rednecks, Racists and Reactionaries: Country Classics." Some nice, subtle commentary there, and a chance to hear Ray Price, Merle Haggard and Webb Pierce.


Open source flatness

Todd at the 800-CEO-READ blog points to an interesting article in the Financial Times about Thomas Friedman's The World is Flat, in which Friedman says he is mulling over the idea of turning the book into a wiki:

"It's been suggested to me that we actually turn the book into an open-source product. Just put it up on the web like Wikipedia [the collaborative online encyclopedia] and let people add to it."

That's a great idea for a book about the rapidly changing landscape in which U.S. businesses must compete -- make changes on the fly to ensure that the book stays up to date. It's an important book, and taking a step such as this means that people will continue to talk about it and keep thinking about his theories and how they impact the economy. Friedman notes that technology already has changed significantly since he wrote the book:

"What's really interesting is that when I started this book in March 2004, podcasting didn't exist," he says, noting that the audio version of the book became a top-selling podcast on iTunes in 2005.

The FT.com site has a lot more interesting information about Friedman and his book, which won its 2005 Business Book of the Year award, on the page announcing the award, including a transcript of the interview from which the above article was drawn.