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"To Me, Data is the New Asset Base," Says Ethan Kaplan, SVP of Emerging Technology at WMG. PT. 2

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This is part two of my interview with Ethan Kaplan, who is author of the semi-famous music industry blog BlackRimGlasses and SVP of Emerging Technology at WMG. In the second segment, Kaplan talks about his perspective on embracing as much chaos as the record and music industries can stand, artists and their attitudes towards new technologies, and the great reset that's occuring throughout the digital music sector.

KB: In his latest book Cognitive Surplus, tech-evangelist Clay Shirky urges companies and consumers to stop clinging to old models and embrace what he calls “As Much Chaos As  We Can Stand" in adopting new technologies.

What problems do you foresee with Shirky's perspective of “As Much Chaos As We Can Stand" and how might the record and music industries be worse and/or better off if they did embrace this thinking?

Ethan Kaplan: I think to a degree, in order to be a part of progress you have to allow for a degree of chaos and entropy to force your participation.

Progress is a complicated thing, and only can be held back if one tries to limit the complexity and chaos that can drive it. It's almost fractal if you look at it on a micro level, but on a macro level, the noise solidifies into things that could be concrete enough to really push things. For instance, look at Twitter. A lot of the norms on Twitter, like hashtags and @replies originated out of the noise. The ones that rose to the top to become tropes and norms were all equal parts of a chaotic undertaking to define a community vernacular and syntax.

I think this applies to media businesses as well. If given a playing field to responsibly be chaotic, something will emerge from the din that is worthwhile, and it's everyone's jobs to take it, adopt it and boost it up.

KB: The argument goes that we should let revolutionaries do anything they want with new technology because they wouldn't be able to create more change than any members of society and the traditional record industry can imagine anyways.

Would these “revolutionaries" create more change than we can imagine?

Ethan Kaplan: Personally it's unfairly narrowing to just think of how revolutionaries can affect just the record industry.

We're in a distinctly post-McCluhan world, especially given the agnostic representational constructs that IP networking has beget. If you take a step back from representation, and more into formative systems that could in the end be represented in various fashions, the crossing of domains that used to be rigid is what defines the technology landscape of today.

Call it “mashups" or whatever, but what it amounts to is that representation has been pushed way out to the edge of the technology landscape, with more focus on the ways in which the contextualization of the constituent parts can affect and be effected by representation.

The push and pull of data and people creates representational constructs which are dynamic in nature, any of which have the potential to destroy themselves, destroy common assumptions, or elevate new discovers to common adoption. So to answer the question, what new tech might introduce more chaos: all of it and any of it. That's the nature of technology. The great fallacy of technology is that it simplifies, in reality it just creates more entropy on which technology itself can make signal out of the noise.

KB: Artists too, those of the old and new digital sphere, share in this certain degree of dichotomy in their attitudes toward new technology and their willingness to integrate it into their careers.

How would you characterize artist's attitudes towards new technology and should they let it transform their role as cultural creators?

Ethan Kaplan: I'm good friends with a few artists, and am always fascinated on how they use and introduce technology into their process. Of course, it's important to qualify what technology we are talking about. A lot of artists might not adopt Internet technology fast, but they've been recording digitally for twenty years. The tension and dynamic between artists and technology is not new though. Walter Benjamin wrote about it. Plato wrote about it. It's a dialog that precedes digital technology by centuries. Art is always affected by technology, and the dialog between the two is continual.

KB: “For every institution that failed, for every business model that outlived its usefulness, new and better ones rushed in the fill the void," Richard Florida writes in The Great Reset. “Past periods of crisis eventually gave rise to new epochs of great ingenuity and inventiveness." He argues that, that crises—perhaps much like the record industry's—"are the times when new technologies and new business models were forged, and they were also the eras that ushered in new economic and social models and new ways of living and working."

Is a great reset happening in the record industry?

Ethan Kaplan: I think it will take a fundamental reset for the industry to really move on and upward. I also think that process is happening. In the end, what the music industry is about is taking musical content and helping it reach as many people as possible. Through this various people act as representatives for people's art, and people's creative lives.

The industry aspect strives to act as a filter, a curator, marketing representative and foot in the door to those that will take music and let it reach a wide audience. Now, the distance between the audience and the producer of the music has narrowed to such an extent, that the necessary niche the industry resides in has shrunk to not be reliant on necessity, but relevance and value add.

That means that anything that is between the audience and the artist is not essential, but needs to make itself essential through what it provides, not what it obfuscates, hides, isolates or closes.

So what value is that inframince (small space) between audience and artist?

To me, as a technologist I abstract it away from anything as specific as “radio" or “distribution." I consider what value we can provide is the contextualization and understanding of data to further cement the audience/artist relationship. To me, data is the new asset base. Data is the output and the food for the process of consumption, production and enjoyment.

Ultimately though, music as an art is predicated on treating it as art. The less you get in the way of that, the better.

(UPDATED2) Recently, I spoke with Ethan Kaplan, who describes himself as a former academic, a former newspaper web-master and a present day technological evangelist and innovator. He's also author of the semi-famous music industry blog BlackRimGlasses and started an REM fan-club called Murmurs when he was sixteen. As of late, Kaplan was newly promoted SVP of Emerging Technology at WMG.

In part one of this interview segment, Kaplan talks about his new position at WMG and the journey he took to getting it; his attitudes toward new technology, as well as, how it's as important to push back against them as much as it is to innovate; and why being decoupled is such a confusing process in any industury.


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