After my open letter to SoundCloud I heard from a number of companies who provide music hosting/streaming for artists. (Although, notably, I’ve heard exactly nothing from SoundCloud.) They all seem genuinely interested in serving artists, but Fanburst was the one that really stood out.
Fanburst does what you expect: gives artists a place to upload songs, allows people to follow each other, and share (and embed) tracks.
Artists also get some neat analytics tools, but the biggest win is how clean the layout is for everything. I love me some minimalism, and the approach makes it really easy for me to use a Fanburst embed for Airplane Mode’s songs page.
I’ve been chatting with one of the founders via email and will have a clearer picture soon. My primary concern right now is their business model — everything is free, with no sign of not being free. SoundCloud Pro has proven that artists are willing to pay for a service like this when done even half-assedly, so my hopes are high that Fanburst can turn a profit and stick around for a while.
Fanburst is currently in private beta, but here’s a signup link because I love you.
SoundCloud has announced their new paid streaming service today, giving access to music from major-label acts and independent artists. Weirdly, it looks like SoundCloud isn’t paying the indies for their music. I’ve written a letter over on the Airplane Mode blog asking them to change their policy.
At least I’m not complaining about Connect this time.
Imagine a social network where you can’t see how many followers you have, can’t contact any of them directly, can’t tell how effective your posts are, can’t easily follow others, and can’t even change your avatar.
Welcome to Apple Music Connect.
Someone asked why I believed that Connect would ever be better than Ping, Apple’s previous attempt at socialifying iTunes. Ping’s mistake was that it tried to connect listeners to each other, as a way of discovering new music. Apple Music has re-thought that problem in some very interesting ways, and early indications are that the new approach works. For the social component, Connect wants to be about connecting artists with their listeners, but at the moment, it falls short.
These are early days, and there’s hope.
The morning after I posted this I awoke to an email from Trent Reznor. He had spoken to Eddy Cue and the team about my concerns, and wanted to assure me that they were being addressed.
Apple has had eight months to get their shit together. Have they?
A Barren Wasteland
Opening up the Connect tab of iTunes makes me sad. I see two or three weeks-old posts from Weezer and Panic! at the Disco, and not much else. I understand that the posts you see are a function of who you’re following, which leads me to my next concern: I don’t know how to follow bands.
I don’t see a follow button on iTunes artist pages. Maybe this is an Apple Music thing, and I can’t get to it because I don’t subscribe. On the Connect tab I might expect to see some kind of discovery mechanism, but no. Maybe I’m missing something.
As a fan I don’t feel “connected” to anything. I feel sad. Even a post from Weezer only got 13 comments, and they all looked like this:
Hardly an engaged, connected community.
The Artist Experience
I’m the lead singer and guitarist for an indie rock band called Airplane Mode. Here’s what embedding songs from our new record looks like on Connect versus SoundCloud and Spotify:
Embedded views of Connect posts are still not directly available via Connect’s share feature; you have to visit Linkmaker and set your media type to “Connect”.
SoundCloud is clearly designed for sharing and embedding, with multiple style options for artists and listeners available directly from the track page.
Embedding Spotify is almost as easy, plus we get paid. They offer a separate tool for building custom embedded players.
We were posting on Connect fairly regularly with links to our podcast, photos from gigs, and demos of songs. There’s no way for us to know how many followers we really have, but let’s assume it’s fewer than Weezer. Over time, I could look at the likes and comments on posts to try to guess how well we were doing. At the very least, I enjoyed using it as a time capsule.
(Note that Spotify tells you how many followers you have, and SoundCloud goes a step further by showing the number of plays on each track.)
Early on we ran into a problem where our Connect profile avatar was replaced with a photo of a rapper who had briefly tried to use the name “Airplane Mode” before realizing it was taken. We got things squared away with the name, but their photo remained.
(Not a photo of us.)
I emailed Apple Music Connect support—an address I tracked down through a search path so laborious that I can’t remember how I did it—who promised to take a look.
A month later, I wrote again to follow up. They assured me it would be taken care of, but it might take a few days. They said I should write again if the problem isn’t resolved in a week. A week later, I wrote again.
Two weeks ago I got an email stating that I had been granted access to the Connect profile for Airplane Mode. I thought this was odd, since I already had access, so I took a look. Rather than swap out images, the Connect support folks created a new profile for us with the correct photo (which we still can’t change, by the way).
The frustration would end here if not for one little side-effect: we lost all of our posts and all of our followers. Worse yet, those posts and followers are still attached to a now-unmanned “Airplane Mode” profile, so not only do we not have any way of telling our fans to follow the new profile, they have no way of even knowing that we relocated. Anyone who was following us can now assume that we’ve just stopped making new things.
How many followers did we lose? No idea. How do we get them back? We can’t.
This experience is probably rare. Most artists will likely not lose all of their followers and data. But it only happened because of the cascade of design failures we encountered while attempting to do something any 1.0 service should offer. Every service in the world allows you to change your profile photo. Every service in the world shows you how many followers you have and gives you ways to contact them. These aren’t optional features, even for something brand new. Seven months later—from a company the size of Apple—this isn’t just unacceptable, it’s pathetic.
Who is This For?
If Connect is a social network, it fails miserably. There’s nothing inherently social about the experience, which feels more like a local bulletin board than a way for artists to engage with fans.
It’s also not a very good broadcast medium. Sure, I can post to Connect and share out to Twitter and whatnot, but why? There’s nothing unique or powerful about Apple’s system that makes it a good hub. Because I have no idea how many followers we have, I can’t even make a numerical argument for Connect-first posting. And since we can’t even invite people from other places to follow us on Connect, there’s no incentive to try.
As a fan, it’s a confusing mess. As an artist, it’s a black hole. All media, no social.
But here lies Connect’s one strength: you can post lots of different types of things. A song, a snippet of a song, a demo, a photo, a video. Sure, you can do those things in other places (and let’s be honest, you still should regardless), but with Connect you get access to the Apple Music audience by virtue of showing up in search results.
I mean probably. Who the hell knows how any of this shit works?
I do know that the video for our song “I Said So!” (and the song itself) ended up being featured on the Apple Music front page for a little while. Because everything Apple does is a mysterious black box, we have no way of knowing why or how that happened. Since the song and video were shared via our Connect posts and not the tracks we have on Apple Music, we’ll never know how many people clicked through, and we’ll never see a penny for it. (And because our account was reset, any followers we gained are now lost.)
From my piece last year:
These are early days, and there’s hope. I don’t like complain-y posts where designers pick something apart and either offer no meaningful ideas or, worse, presumptuously redesign someone else’s work. So instead I’m going to break the fourth wall and make a simple suggestion to Apple: consult with independent musicians. Talk to bands who have succeeded on social media and see what worked for them. Talk to bands who have made great YouTube videos and find out how they get their audience to share stuff. Talk to bands who haven’t made it yet and ask what tools they might need to get there.
As far as I can tell, there have been no changes to Connect since it launched. I haven’t heard any murmurs from behind the scenes about interesting things happening. Aside from my support emails the last I’ve seen or heard from anyone about Connect was that email from Reznor. Apple Music Connect feels abandoned.
The world of sharing music is comically fractured right now: We can post songs to SoundCloud the minute they’re ready, but we get paid nothing. We can submit songs for digital distribution and get onto Spotify and iTunes, but we have no way of engaging with our audience. We can talk to fans on Twitter, but any media we share has to be hosted someplace else. Apple is in a unique position to unify and democratize the music business. Connect could be that platform.
I don’t want to give up hope, even now. But man, something has to change and soon. My previous post concluded with an offer to help. That offer still stands.
My band Airplane Mode has just released a new EP. This is our first studio record, and the result of two months of lots and lots of work. Making a record — even a short one — is a lot of work. It was also one of the best experiences of my life. I honestly can’t wait to go do it again.
Here’s some things you should check out:
- The release announcement that explains a few things
- Airplane Mode — “Amsterdam” on iTunes
- The iBooks edition of “Amsterdam”
- Our podcast episode about the making of the record
- Our new app for musicians, called Clickarus
- Our Patreon page
Or if you just want to hear a track to see if you like it:
(Fans of my old podcast will recognize the outro.)
I have never in my life been so excited about something I’ve worked on. Maybe nobody will ever listen to this, but right now I feel like a goddamned superstar.
I initially resisted writing too much about putting my focus and attention on my band, Airplane Mode. Partially because I didn’t feel I owed anyone an explanation, but mostly because I thought it was self-explanatory. But I’ve heard enough questions and incorrect assumptions that I wanted to offer up some clarity on what I’m doing and why.
* * *
In 2009 I started work on a little side-project startup called Coathangr that we described as “Twitter for pants”; a microblog specifically for posting photos of what you were wearing. The hope was that people would begin seeking each other’s council on their sartorial choices. My partner on this project was my friend (and eventual next-door neighbor) Jay Graves, who was a web developer when we started out, but later went on to become the CTO of a large iOS development company.
It was just the two of us, and my design skills really just boiled down to a rudimentary understanding of Photoshop accumulated over years of downloading and playing with pirated copies. Coathangr never grew beyond maybe a couple thousand users — Twitter was already Twitter for everything. But we loved the project, and we knew deep down that there was potential to turn it into something much better. We worked hard. We spent nights and weekends trying to make it better. We put money into printing t-shirts and stickers to give away, and even sponsored a fashion show. It all meant something to us. We were building something bigger behind the scenes.
My day job was at a software company run by an odd hybrid of jocks and tech-types. The core team of developers held the keys to everything profitable, and management had lost too many staring contests to have any real authority over engineering. It was a weird sort of Lord of the Flies culture where the nerds had become the bullies, and anyone they didn’t like was left on the sidelines at best, or passive-aggressively harassed into submission (or quitting) at worst.
When my co-workers found out what I was working on in my spare time, it didn’t take long for Coathangr to be overrun with throwaway accounts whose sole purpose was to reply to every user photo with the cruelest comment possible. All of the accounts had, of course, originated from the office’s IP address.
I had no proof beyond the network connections, so I couldn’t call out any one person. Not that it would help anyway — any complaints would be met with a chorus of snickers and denials. I silently deleted the comments and blocked the IP. It meant I couldn’t connect from the office anymore, but the problem stopped.
A year later, Coathangr was acquired by an iOS shop and I switched over to working on app design full-time. I was so happy to leave the old job that I never even went back to pick up my stuff.
* * *
I got my first guitar when I was thirteen years old. A birthday gift from my dad, kicking off a brief window where his life-long absence was placed on hold. It was a piece of shit Teisco Del Ray with machine heads so rusted that I could barely tune the thing. (I nearly gave up playing guitar because it was so hard to turn them — I didn’t realize this wasn’t normal until a year later.)
I was terrible at first, of course, but I kept picking up copies of Guitar World and reading about my heroes. People like Kurt Cobain, Billy Corgan, Kim Thayil, Dave Grohl, Dean DeLeo. I read stories about how they got started, how they wrote their songs, and how they saw the world. These were people — mostly young men — taking their stress and anger and turning it into something positive. I liked that.
The energy of early ‘90s rock spoke to me, and I wanted to do what they did. Not because I thought it would get me chicks, or make me cool (playing guitar did neither of those things for me in high school), but because I wanted to make noise and have fun. I read tablature and learned riffs, accidentally studying the craft of writing hooks. It was the best therapy I could hope for.
I didn’t fit in in middle school or high school. Maybe race played a role, but it mostly felt like a musical divide. My school had a large black and hispanic population, and my peers at the time were mostly listening to stuff like Snoop and Dre. I was fascinated by the rawness of it, but the music didn’t speak to me the same way that Nirvana and Stone Temple Pilots did. When I grew my hair out to look more like the guys on the cover of Guitar World and Spin, the kids at school started calling me gay. (I guess they had never seen an actual gay person.)
A year in, I had given up on finding anyone to start a band with me. Nobody else at school played instruments, and they certainly didn’t want to start an alternative rock band with the fat white kid with long greasy hair. Playing music was my own. It was an escape.
When I was 19 my first real girlfriend ended our relationship by cheating on me. I dealt with it by picking up my guitar and writing music for the first time. They were simple songs with a predictable structure and overwrought lyrics, but they were my songs. It made me feel empowered at a time when I otherwise felt helpless.
Those songs would become the foundation of my first band, Karma Ghost. That band was my entire life for a few years, and while finding any kind of success with music was always a struggle and I doubted myself constantly, I was happier than I had ever been. Music was, still, the most consistent friend I’d ever had.
* * *
I used to do a podcast called Unprofessional. The premise was that we would bring on interesting guests and talk to them about anything except work; a premise invented when my co-host Lex Friedman couldn’t get clearance from his day job to do a tech podcast.
At first we brought on our friends from the tech industry — a natural fit, and frankly a cheap way to boost downloads — but slowly we managed to lure in guests from our personal lists of heroes. Folks like Jonathan Coulton, Susan Orlean, Dave Coulier, Ophira Eisenberg, Sean Nelson, Jay Clifford, and Joshua Malina. Jesse Ventura once came on the show to rant (at length) about the government’s use of fluoride to control our thoughts. It was fun.
We had a pretty good setup. I handled editing and production, and Lex lined up sponsors. The show never made a ton of money, but we loved doing it, and we even got invited to do live episodes in amazing places like Dublin and Melbourne.
When Lex left the show in late 2013 I was suddenly tasked with sponsorship duties. But I had no connections, no mojo, and no way to convince anyone that the show could still pull in an audience. It was rough.
Just then, by sheer coincidence, some friends with extremely popular podcasts were looking for someone to handle sponsorship for them, and I offered myself up as the guy to deal with it. I started a little company called Standard Broadcast to handle the money, and used their connections and influence to pull in sponsors. Unprofessional was too small to sell well on its own, but I figured I’d have more luck bundling it with bigger shows.
The best part is that it was all behind the scenes. Standard is a sponsor management system, not a podcast network. Nobody needed to know that I was selling ads to pay my bills, and this way there wouldn’t be a big, weird, public kerfuffle if someone decided to move their show elsewhere.
For nearly a year it was my secret shame. I still went around and gave conference talks as an iOS designer, but the truth was that I hadn’t designed anything in a long time. Standard didn’t take up all of my time, but business was good enough that there wasn’t much point in taking on the kind of design contracts I had worked on previously, and it’s no secret that making a sustainable living on the App Store is incredibly difficult. I was a designer by reputation only.
* * *
Last year I made a video called Podcast Intervention about the overabundance of white-men-talking-about-tech podcasts in the Apple community, and our overall reluctance to try anything new. I had been working on podcasts just long enough to recognize that the trend wasn’t breaking, and I thought that perhaps I might be in a position to spur some positive change.
When the video came out, it was immediately misunderstood. Unfollows, sub-tweets, whispers, and passive-aggressive shots from people I respected. Many had assumed I was picking on this person or that person, not realizing that the vast selection of people I could have been referring to was exactly the point. But nuance is tough, and if I’m being honest I think a few of those white men are still holding a grudge.
The response from inside the bubble was disappointing at first, but when the conversation finally turned introspective it seemed like we might find some positive change: Myke Hurley’s excellent Inquisitive podcast sought to find depth beyond Apple news headlines. Mark Bramhill’s Welcome to Macintosh is a very polished show, documenting the history of the Apple developer community. I hoped we could forge a community more accepting of new ideas and new voices.
Still, a year later, it’s hard to come up with a great example of an Apple community media project not run by white men, and many of the most successful white men are now on three or four different podcasts. It starts to feel like “software development” is more of a podcast category than an actual career.
* * *
My first band didn’t break up so much as it deflated. We were a three-piece, and the first sign of trouble came when the bass player and drummer started dating each other. They promised me it would be fine, but anyone could guess how that would play out.
To their credit, their breakup wasn’t even the problem. Well, not exactly. We still went to practice every week and got along just fine. Some awkward pauses here and there, but our drummer had some social-skills challenges that made this a not-uncommon occurrence anyway.
It wasn’t really a problem until our bass player brought a date to a show.
The drummer responded to this by pounding a bunch of drinks, getting into his car, speeding away from the venue, pulling over, getting out, and punching a telephone pole as hard as he could, shattering his hand.
Like I said, challenges.
And that was that. I had to choose between them, and while she had done nothing wrong, the bass player was still the newest member with the least musical experience. So we waited for the drummer’s hand to recover.
When his hand did finally heal, Mister Drummer succumbed to the worst of musician clichés: he borrowed money from me and disappeared. I didn’t see or hear from him again until years later.
Through all of this, I had just begun a relationship with a woman who, it turned out, had some fairly significant health problems. Rather than seeking out new bandmates or writing new songs, I spent my time and energy with her. As things got a little worse, I took time off work to help her through radiation therapy. Whenever money got really tight, I sold some of my music gear. And every time I did, I felt that part of me die a little bit.
It certainly wasn’t her fault. It was me, not her, that held me back. I thought that growing up meant being responsible and putting away unrealistic dreams. I thought I needed to make more money and focus on my career in order to be a good boyfriend.
When the relationship ended five years later, I finally picked up my guitar again.
* * *
When it became clear that Standard was stable and operating on a surplus, I decided to try my hand at producing something new. I met with a dozen or so people to talk about interesting projects, and a few of them even moved into production. My criteria was simple: it had to be an interesting, realistically sustainable, novel concept for a podcast or video produced by someone who was either not part of the Apple community in-crowd or had something genuinely new to say.
This has mostly gone very well. I’ve put microphones and cameras in the hands of some very talented people who are either producing quality content already or are very near launching their shows. There are never any guarantees of success, but I felt good helping talented people try new things.
At about this same time I was talking with my friend and Airplane Mode bassist Joe Cieplinski about our difficulties finding a drummer. We had just recorded a quick bit of music for the intro to a new podcast by our friend Jim Dalrymple, with Joe and I handling the production and all of the instruments ourselves. The results were good enough that I suggested to Joe that, hey, maybe we could just record an album by ourselves.
We’d start out by recording demos at home, and see if we could use those to attract a drummer and keyboard player. Worst case, we’d just end up doing the full record ourselves. And hey, what if we documented the whole process? Like a poor man’s Sonic Highways. We could make little videos and do a podcast.
And then it clicked. This was exactly the kind of project I’d been wanting to produce. And it just happened to align with a dream I’ve had since I was 12 years old.
* * *
When Airplane Mode launched I felt like I undersold it. To most people who follow me or read my blog I’m either an app designer or a guy who makes videos about design-related things. So when I say, “Here’s a new podcast about my band,” it’s easy to see why people would think that this is another side-project.
Working on song demos with Joe got me fired up in a big way, ushering in a creative energy I hadn’t felt in a decade. I realized that if I wanted a chance at being taken seriously, I needed to start taking things seriously. More of my free time went into music, and thanks to our partnership with Hover — our first-round sponsor for the podcast — more of my time went into all of the things that make music work as a business.
As the weeks went by and the band did more new things, I kept posting them to Twitter. As a result there has been a steady, marked decline in followers since then. In fact, any time I post something about Airplane Mode, at least a couple of people unfollow within an hour.
To be clear: I don’t blame them. Our interests no longer aligned in a way that kept them engaged. People who followed me expecting to see design talk and Apple commentary are welcomed to unfollow me when I change focus. Music is a tough business, and art is subjective. I don’t need or expect for everyone to like what I make.
Airplane Mode had become my primary public focus. Given that, and with so much time having passed since my last paid design gig, it seemed disingenuous to continue billing myself as a designer. So I outed myself as a professional musician.
* * *
Reaction has been interesting. Some people got the impression that I had abruptly quit the app business to go chase some naive dream of being a rock star. There have been whispers that “this won’t last”. Some people I’d count as friends have taken to joking about it behind my back. One of them even bought an Airplane Mode t-shirt and had it shipped to another friend — apparently as a gag gift. This friend unfollowed me a few days later.
But we’ve also made some new friends, found new followers, and have started building an audience outside the tech industry. People have written to us, thanking us for telling our story the way we do, saying that it has inspired or emboldened them to try new things or chase dreams.
What we’re trying to do is difficult. It’s hard to find an audience, it’s hard to book shows, it’s hard to sell songs, and it’s hard to get anyone who knows us from the software world to see us anything more than a novelty. And that’s exactly why I chose to say, in no uncertain terms, that I am a professional musician. Not because this is how I pay my bills (it isn’t — so far every penny we’ve made has been reinvested back into the band), or because it’s my only job (it isn’t — I still run Standard Broadcast), but because I want to hold myself accountable for this. I want it to be a matter of public record that I’m trying something big. I want it to be really goddamned hard to walk away. I want the shame of giving up to outweigh the difficulty of success.
This time, I’m doing this thing for real. No excuses. No more letting other people’s judgements or expectations hold me back.
Airplane Mode is a brand-new indie rock band from New York City. Our first recording is only a few months old, and the current lineup has only existed since October. Hell, we haven’t even played a show with all four of us on the same stage yet. But in that time, we’ve released 9 episodes of our podcast, put out a 7-song EP, played shows in three different countries, put out two music videos with tens of thousands of views, and lined up sponsorship deals — a minor music business innovation — which will take us through March of 2016.
It would be insane for me to claim that we’re destined for success, but I feel really good about what we’re doing and how it’s all coming together.
When I have to do things like set custom MX records to get our email hosted on Google apps, or when we build a custom iPad app to drive the click track for our set list at practice, or when I design our logo and branding in Photoshop, I’m thankful for every job I’ve done in the last ten years.
But long before I was a UNIX admin, a sales engineer, a designer, a podcaster, a YouTuber, or a content producer, I was a musician. And the truth is that I’m allowed to be all of those things. Or none of them. It’s my choice.
It’s absurd that I’ve let other people define me at all.
* * *
There will always be excuses for procrastinating. There will always be responsibilities. There will always be easier wins. There will always be jerks, bullies, and nay-sayers; people who don’t understand, or think that other people’s dreams are stupid.
Twenty one years ago I picked up a guitar for the first time and set out to learn something new, despite what the cool kids were listening to.
Ten years ago I let a single personal relationship define me, and tried too hard to be an adult while my band collapsed around me.
Six years ago I started work on a project I loved, and I was almost passive-aggressively bullied into giving it up by the cool kids, whose own dreams were limited to what seemed immediately attainable.
I’ve wasted too much time worrying about what other people think. I’m done conforming to someone else’s standard of “adult”, and I’m done trying to be one of the cool kids. This is my story, and I get to decide what happens next.
Going pro with music has been, and will continue to be, a slow gradient. I’m not turning my back on anything, least of all the many, many great people I’ve met in the app business, and I still have my hands in a few projects. I’m just going to try something else for a while. The one thing that has ever really made me happy.
A new service for iOS developers to communicate with their beta testers from directly within the app. Testers famously under-use email for communication, so the process has been streamlined to make feedback easy, with in-app discussion and screenshot detection. And since testers can communicate with each other, the conversation powers a sense of community and ownership.
Backchannel started as a group discussion system to replace Glassboard. The beta group for Vesper was the most successful I’ve ever seen, and we wondered how we could turn that into a system that anyone could use. When a friend asked about getting early access to the source code so they could embed a version in their app, it all clicked for us.
We brought in ace developer Soroush Khanlou to run the show, with the occasional words of wisdom from myself and John Gruber. Soroush an amazingly smart, talented, capable engineer, and has already taken the idea further than we could have hoped. If you have an app in active development, this is a game-changer. And the real story is just getting started.
My friend Stephanie Kent has this really interesting project called Call Me Ishmael, wherein you call a phone number and leave a voicemail about a favorite book, and Stephanie shares them online and by transcribing them by hand on a typewriter.
They’ve just launched a Kickstarter campaign for the Call Me Ishmael Phone, an actual physical device that will go into schools and libraries. The idea is amazing: you walk up and press a button on the phone and listen to someone’s message about a book. The system that powers the whole thing is pretty brilliant. I love how human and tactile it all is.
If you like books, this is a no-brainer.
Airplane Mode shirts are available until November 15th, with orders shipping out later in the month. We’re doing two designs: the plane logo on a silver American Apparel tee, and the NYC subway logo on a black American Apparel tee. Both are available in cuts for men and women. $25 each, with free shipping anywhere in the US ($5 shipping elsewhere).
In the age of digital everything, it feels nice to make something people can touch. If you like our music or videos, enjoy the podcast, or just want to support independent music and see where this is all headed, here’s a great way to help keep us going.
Alex’s contact entry in my phone, still, is “Alex Fucking King”. His contact photo is an old Twitter avatar upon which I drew cartoon eyes and a marionette-style open mouth. I wish I could remember why. My ringtone for him is a duck quacking.
When Alex Fucking King called, I always answered the phone laughing.
In an age when nobody uses their phone as a phone, he called with impressive frequency. Sometimes he’d call to say he was in the neighborhood and to invite me to lunch, or out for drinks. Sometimes he’d call because we had plans and he wanted to coordinate or offer to pick me up. He was one of my rare “actually-calls” friends. Alex was old-school like that.
One day, Alex called and asked what I was up to. We chatted for a few minutes about whatever my answer was, and had a couple of laughs. Then things got a little more serious.
“So I’m afraid I’m actually calling with bad news.”
He had gotten sick while on vacation in Hawaii. Cancer, turns out. Ever the appreciator of specifics, Alex went into impressive detail about what had happened, how things were likely to go down, and how he was feeling about all of it.
I wish I’d had something more thoughtful to say, but that was all I had.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ve done this call a few times already. Nobody knows what to say.”
Alex Fucking King was the kind of guy who would tell you he had cancer and then help you deal with the news.
I met Alex through my friend Joe Hildebrand. There was a small group of us that worked in lower downtown Denver (LoDo to locals), and we’d meet regularly for lunch. At some point we had the idea to start a podcast called “LoDo Conversations”, with Alex, Joe, myself, and our friend Corey Gilmore. We were probably inspired — like so many others — by John Gruber’s The Talk Show, so the idea was that we would talk about tech news.
In reality, the show was mostly us talking about How I Met Your Mother, interrupted by bouts of me and Alex arguing about pretty much everything. I don’t have the recordings from any of those old shows, but I remember it occasionally got pretty heated. I can’t imagine why we capped out at 7 listeners.
We argued off-air, too. I was young and brash, and Alex had this matter-of-fact way of stating things that really brought out my inner contrarian. He was also highly critical of Apple, going so far as to carry a Palm Pre instead of an iPhone at one point, declaring WebOS as superior. The nerve of that guy.
Whenever a new Apple device came out, we’d get together to debate it. When Apple would make software changes, we’d debate those. Alex always had a keen interest in what I was working on, so when I’d pitch him on my new projects, we’d debate those too. I remember sitting in his car one night, outside my apartment, arguing about whether or not an iOS notes app could be successful without a sync solution. (Okay, he was right about that one.)
A few weeks ago, Apple announced new iPhones, a new Apple TV, and the iPad Pro, and it just so happened that I went to see Alex a few days later. It was clear from the setup — his hospital-style bed placed in the living room, instead of his basement with the giant projector display and full bar — that things weren’t looking so good. But that didn’t stop us from having one last debate over the merits of the new Apple TV user interface.
Alex’s wife Heather had asked friends to write remembrances for his daughter to read some day; a way for her to get to know her dad through the eyes of his friends and peers. (Even now, writing that sentence is like a punch in the gut.)
I told him that I was having a hard time writing about our relationship because it kinda sounded like we just argued all the time.
“Feel free to write that.”
For all the times we’d acknowledged our frequent conflicts of opinion, we’d never really broken it down. Alex pointed out that it wasn’t about the arguments, but what we did while we argued. Over dinner. Over drinks. At his office while checking out his life-sized Stormtrooper. While taking a drive or walking around Denver. This wasn’t a difficult relationship founded on begrudging respect; we were friends who enjoyed learning from each other and probing to get to the core of our opinions and biases. It was always fun.
Plus, I finally admitted, he was almost always right.
“Feel free to write that too.”
One night, Alex called me to see if I wanted to go get a drink. I think he was between rounds of chemo, and just wanted to blow off some steam. We went out and had an amazing time, and I tried to avoid asking too many questions about his treatment. As a younger, single friend who lived downtown and didn’t mind getting into trouble after a few drinks, I figured my job was to be a distraction. So I did my best to distract.
But at some point in the evening — over dinner, I think — he brought it up. Not in a morbid way, or even in a sad way. Just matter-of-fact. He had already sold his company (because Alex Fucking King was the kind of guy who reacted to cancer by making sure his employees would be taken care of) and was talking about the various steps he was taking to get everything in order. Curiosity got the best of me, so I asked. How was he dealing so well with things?
“This is the hand I’ve been dealt. I can be sad about it, or I can enjoy what I have left.”
When someone dies, people use the word “loss” a lot. Suddenly everyone has a great story about this amazing person and all of the things they’ve done. In Alex’s case, it’s all true. He was one of the good guys. Infinitely patient, thoughtful, and kind. He spent his time building things that would reach far beyond him. He was my friend, mentor, and occasional foil, and every interaction we ever had made me better. His death really is a loss.
A loss to his family, a loss to his friends, and a loss to the entire online world. He didn’t just make cool stuff, he actively worked to help other people make cool stuff. Alex Fucking King didn’t get nearly the time he deserved, but we’re all better off for the time he got.
The symphony of absurdity that would play whenever Alex called my phone wasn’t a reflection of his personality so much as it was a reflection of our relationship: a little bit antagonistic, but always in the spirit of fun.
Still, he’s getting the last laugh. Now I’ll never be able to have an unemotional reaction to a duck.
When Airplane Mode set out to do the video for “I Said So!,” we knew we wanted to do it for as little money as possible. No money, if that was an option. Not because we wanted to be cheap, but because we wanted to see how far we could go with the resources we had at our disposal.
Step 1: Use an iPhone
The entire video was shot on an iPhone 6 Plus ($299, or $749 for an unlocked 16GB model). At first we used Hyperlapse to try to further boost image stabilization, but after two days of shooting we realized that Hyperlapse’s magic worked by downsampling the video to 720p. If you’re not obsessed with image quality (and we kind of are) this might not be a huge deal to you, but the 6 Plus already has remarkably good image stabilization on its own. Further stabilization adjustments can easily be made in Final Cut Pro later, though we never had to go that far. Most of our shots were static anyway.
We switched over to using the stock iOS camera app, bringing everything up to full 1080p, and couldn’t be happier with the results.
Step 2: Bug Your Friends
Early on, the idea was to just show people dancing around in New York City. We briefly considered hiring professional actors, models, and dancers, but as we refined the idea into something simpler, we realized that we could just ask our friends to stand in.
We got plenty of shots with complete strangers, but there didn’t seem to be much difference in enthusiasm either way. We played the song and asked people to dance, and aside from a few gags, everything you see is a genuine reaction.
Not counting drinks, asking friends for help cost us nothing.
Step 3: Remember to Art
Camera work matters, and is harder than it looks. My only real formal training in anything is photography, so we at least had that going for us. We went with mostly static shots because we wanted the motion to come from the people dancing, not the camera work. Lots of single shots with vaguely Wes Anderson-style framing.
Our shots aren’t random. In every case, we’re framing the subject with something. New York City is always in the background, being its beautiful self. The people provided dynamism, while the backdrop gave us vibrance.
Step 4: Study
The tools here — a camera and some editing software — are easy to pick up, but can take some time and practice to master. Particularly editing.
Our song is bouncy indie rock bubblegum, so we cut on the beat every couple measures. Some people (like Suit Guy Clayton Morris) are a little less dynamic, so it plays better to show them on the verses where the song is a little less energetic. When the riff kicks in, we show more of the high-energy dancers. It’s all about matching the visuals to what’s happening in the song.
And sometimes we have an opportunity for an editing joke, like cutting to a shot of my dog when I sing the word “walk”.
Like photography, editing is an art. (There’s a reason they give out awards for it.) For a music video, you mostly want to cut on the beats, but when in doubt, watch your favorite videos and get a sense of what they’re doing. When mixing and mastering a song, they say to rest and calibrate your ears by listening to a target mix — some piece of music that sounds roughly like what you’re going for. Cutting, pacing, color-correction, and titling all benefit from the same trick.
If you’re reading this, you have access to the largest collection of knowledge in human history, which helpfully includes tons of free YouTube tutorials. If you’re looking for help or inspiration, it’s never far away.
Step 5: Edit in Final Cut Pro X
Final Cut is used by professionals who edit Hollywood movies, and it’s a little nuts to think that anyone with a Mac and three hundred bucks has access to the same tool. At $299, this may seem expensive, but what you spend here, you’ll save everywhere else. Filters, audio and video correction, stabilization, titling. The people who edit Taylor Swift’s videos are probably using the same thing.
If you’re on a budget and don’t already have Final Cut Pro, you could use iMovie (from which FCP X was born). It doesn’t have the depth of Final Cut, but can certainly get the job done for simpler edits.
Step 6: Upload Everywhere
YouTube is huge, especially for music. In fact, some might say that having a song that isn’t on YouTube is like not having a song at all. It’s where people (especially people under 30) go when they want to search for a song.
But it’s not the only game in town.
There’s also Vimeo, Facebook, and Apple Music Connect. Each has their strengths and weaknesses. Vimeo is less discoverable and costs money, but their production tools and presentation are very professional. Facebook is a little scammy on video view counts, but everyone in on Earth has a Facebook account.
And then there’s Connect, which is still too new to really be understood, but they don’t provide view counts as far as I can tell. iTunes is the world’s largest music store, and as I type this, they have our video featured under the “New” tab. Time will tell if this turns into anything, but it cost us nothing.
There’s also a step 6.5: Don’t be afraid to promote. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. Tell anyone who follows you on any social network. These people are interested in what you’re doing, and you’ve just done something cool. Don’t go overboard, but give yourself license to annoy a few followers in the name of reaching a bigger audience.
And when you’re done, go make something else you can get excited about.