Tuesday July 28, 2015

• The Music Business

My band Airplane Mode has just launched the most ambitious and personal project I’ve ever been involved with: a podcast about starting a band and making a record. This is intimate on a level I haven’t previously explored, and to be honest, completely terrifying.

What if we’re terrible? What if the show sucks? It’s hard enough to make music that people like, but to do the whole thing out in the open and take responsibility for a weekly podcast? This is nuts. And that’s why we’re doing it.

If you listen, you’ll notice right up front that Hover is paying for this. Not a huge surprise — they sponsor lots of stuff. My inner indie rock stickler was worried about selling out. what could be less rock and roll than corporate sponsorship?

But thinking about it, what could be more indie rock than getting someone else to pay the bills while maintaining 100% of your creative control?

This isn’t, to the best of our knowledge, how records typically get made. In the old days you’d sign with a record label and they’d pretend to pay for things you can’t afford for long enough to make something they can market, then lie to you about how much money it made, take most of it, and pay themselves back out of your cut. You might sell some records and make some fans, but you probably won’t make a living, and you won’t own any of your recordings.

Our deal is different. Our album gets paid for, and we get to keep the rights to everything we make. In return, we say nice things about Hover at the top of the first several episodes. It’s that simple.

It’s not quite the same as a record deal. We don’t get promotion, or access to other artists or big-name producers. But the chances of us ever getting a major label deal were slim anyway. We were always going to have to do this on our own. This just empowers us to go do it.

This model works for podcasters and YouTubers. We’re just putting a slightly different spin on it. Maybe someone else gets thanked before the show later on. Maybe they pay us more or pay us less money. Time will tell. Hover [did I mention you can use the code “airplane mode” to save 10%?] has been so incredibly supportive in getting this rolling, but now it’s up to us to prove we’re worth it.

And we’re back to the scary part. This could fail. It could fail artistically, commercially, or in pure execution. We just don’t know. But whatever happens, it’s ours.

That’s independent rock and roll.

Sunday July 12, 2015

• Artist

The response I got from my piece about using Connect as an artist was overwhelmingly, unexpectedly positive, including a truly surprising email from Trent Reznor, who is not only a source of inspiration for me in how I want to approach my music and the way I treat my audience, but also an executive at Apple with the ability to make a real difference. I’ve heard positive things from people from the music industry and the technology industry, and it’s cool to think that my sitting between these two worlds might help both sides understand each other a little better.

Still, I did get one email from a guy who took issue with me referring to myself as an artist:

With all due respect, self-proclaiming ‘artists’ are just that –
self-proclaiming. Kindly refrain from calling yourself an ‘artist’.

The guy goes on for another four paragraphs. He ends his email with “Respectfully”.

I simply replied with a note that, in the music industry, “artist” refers to the performer — a catch-all term for a solo artist or a primary band member performing a song, as opposed to a producer, songwriter, session worker, or whatever. Which is true, and that’s the meaning I intended when I wrote it.

But fuck that. Music is art, and someone who makes art is an artist. More importantly: who sits around waiting for labels to be bestowed upon them? I get to decide who and what I am.

Friday July 3, 2015

• Disconnect

[Update: I got an email from Trent Reznor this afternoon. Apple is aware of the growing pains and is working to address them.]

When Apple announced Connect at WWDC last month, I was excited. Some folks in the development community joked about Jimmy Iovine, Drake, or Eddy Cue’s dancing. There were complaints that the whole thing felt out of place at a developer event. But as a member of another community — independent musicians — I thought the music portion of the event was, if anything, overdue. I saw Connect as a chance for Apple to give to musicians what it’s long been providing for app developers: an even playing field. I even wrote a letter to my friend Taylor about it.

For a musician, there are two paths to selling music on the world’s largest music store. The first way is the reigning champion: find a record company to distribute your music for you. You’ll be giving up most of the money and most of the rights to your music in the process, but you’ll stand a very slightly better chance of your music being promoted. The second way is to go through a service like CD Baby or TuneCore.

These services act as sort of a proxy record label. They behave as distributors, meaning that Apple has a single point of contact. When you consider how Apple deals with the big labels, you can see why this would be attractive; one company manages the files and artist entries for tons of artists. And it seems like everyone wins. Musicians get placement on the iTunes Music Store, the rights to their own music, and the lion’s share of the money.

Except that those independent artists still don’t get the most amazing placement on the store. You can say that services like CD Baby and TuneCore democratize iTunes a little, but the truth is that the major labels must love this setup because they still hold the power. The big names always get the banners.

For app developers, it’s easy to overlook everything we get. We get to keep most of the money our apps make, we give up none of our creative rights as part of the distribution deal, and we have access to things like Developer Relations, partnership managers, and evangelism. There are whole teams — plural! — of people working to keep developers happy. It’s not perfect, but compared to what musicians get, it’s goddamned amazing.

Connect, I had hoped, would bring us one step closer to the App Store model. By giving musicians any control at all over their brand identity on the iTunes Music Store, Apple would level the playing field slightly, and pave the way for artists to get direct access to uploading their songs. As a musician, this is a dream. I would love to maintain my band’s catalog of music directly. I would love to reject uploads or replace songs that had some kind of problem. I’d love to bundle songs together. I’d love to control my pricing directly. I’d love to know who to call when I have a problem. For example, another band has been posting songs to iTunes using our name. I’ve filed complaints and contacted support, but so far I’ve gotten zero response.

Today my band tried a little experiment: we debuted a new track on iTunes Connect. It’s a new approach to an older song of ours, and represents where we’re headed musically. Exciting stuff to share. A full release of this song is coming later, as part of a much bigger and more ambitious project that I’ll post about soon, but we thought this would be a fun way to test the waters and get people talking.

To embed a Connect song, you must first know to read the Apple Music for Artists how-to, then go to Link Maker and track your song down:

[Hat tip to Guatam Arya for finding this]

SoundCloud offers an embed option directly from the song’s share icon:

There’s no reason not to let fans embed the player. The feature shouldn’t be so well-hidden.

Uploading a song in the Music app is clunky. In order to get the song to post, it has to be available in My Music. Which means that I need to import the track to iTunes on my Mac, convince it to sync with my iPhone (a process that took about 12 hours and restoring my phone from a backup), and then go searching for it in a list that doesn’t immediately present with a search field.

1 newpost

From there I’m given the ability to edit song artwork and track details, but the “Done” button never lit up for me. I backed out and tried again. Same thing. I made sure all fields were filled in correctly. Maybe my account just didn’t have song posting permissions. Who knows?

Turns out there was a simple answer: I had to edit the artist name, add a space, and then remove the space. Then I could post the song. Of course.

Funny thing, though: it’s not immediately obvious how one might go about deleting a Connect post, should there be a mistake. After some trial and error I discovered that it’s possible to tap into a single-post view, which offers a “Delete” button. I guess the entire post is treated as a tappable cell, but it’s not obvious.

On the Mac, things aren’t much better. Connect’s mobile-first approach is painfully apparent, with inclusion on the Mac feeling so much like an afterthought that I wonder if it would have been better to just leave it out entirely.

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 2.14.45 AM

But the worst offense of all is this: I can see no way to invite people to follow us on Connect. I can share the link. I can even tweet about it. Yet there’s no way to know how many followers we have, encourage people to follow us, or directly engage with anyone who hasn’t already purchased a song from us on iTunes. That feels broken. Somehow people were able to comment, which is great, but it makes me sad that I feel no sense of… well, connection. And I really, really want that connection.

Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook win by encouraging connections between users. We can joke about engaging with brands, but the truth is that the good social platforms really do let us do that. On Twitter, I feel like I have a direct line to my favorite developers, musicians, TV personalities, services, and products. I can mention my cable company and get a human who pretends to be interested in my problems. I can ask the most powerful man in the world for his thoughts on guacamole. It doesn’t matter if anyone is paying attention. What matters is that I feel like someone is.

As an artist, I want people to listen to my music. In the short term, Connect’s one and only job is to make my audience feel like I’m listening back.

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. 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.

Or, maybe talk to a rock band from New York that happens to be made entirely out of iOS designers. We’d love to help.

Thursday June 25, 2015

Airplane Mode Live

My band is playing a small acoustic show at my neighborhood bar on the Lower East Side next Tuesday. If you’re in (or near) NYC, come see if we cover any Taylor Swift songs.

Sunday June 21, 2015

• To Taylor, Love Dave

You’re never going to believe this, but the people who make all of the iPhone apps are arguing about you on Twitter today.

You probably assumed that your Tumblr post to Apple would cause some controversy, but I bet you didn’t guess that it would strike so deep into the heart of the Apple technology community.

Not exactly your core demographic, but this isn’t the first time your name has come up. Apple has a new programming language that they’ve named Swift. I assume in honor of you. Sure, it could also refer to some kind of technical speed, but let’s be honest here.

I’ve heard a few different arguments against your post. That you’re rich and successful already, so your opinion doesn’t matter. That you don’t understand how the music industry works. That you didn’t read the terms of the deal Apple is offering artists:

Kondrk says Apple will hand out 71.5 percent to music owners of its subscription revenue in the United States, and about 73 percent of its revenue in the rest of the world. Most streaming music services distribute around 70 percent of their revenue.

Let’s do some quick math. You would have gotten 70 percent for three months, so to make it up you’ll need 3 percent for… oh, this is easy… 70 months. As long as everyone signs up after their free trial and keeps using Apple Music for at least 70 months, it works out. Unless they’re in the U.S., in which case they’ll need to remain a customer for a little over eleven and a half years.

It’s kind of funny to see so many tech industry dudes tell a successful pop star how her business works, but I think they misunderstand what you’re trying to do, and more importantly, I think that understanding each other would be good for everyone.

Sure, there’s a valid argument to be made for this being a worthwhile way to win new ears and end up making more money overall. But that’s not an excuse to behave thoughtlessly or further marginalize the value of someone’s work. If there’s a burden of subsidy to driving the adoption of a new service, that burden is on Apple, right?

It seems like there’s a misunderstanding that you’re crying foul or accusing Apple of something shady, when I believe you’re just using your position to argue for the fairest possible deal.

A little about me: I’ve been a musician for most of my life. Pro or semi-pro at some stages, and hopefully again soon. I’ve also been a software interaction designer, so I’ve seen a little bit of both worlds. I think the problem is that the software people only really see things through the software lens.

It’s super-easy (and also super-correct, I think) to make a bunch of connections between the music industry and the software industry. The best stuff in both cases often comes from kids in garages and basements playing with noisy toys, going on to create things of real substance out of a love for the art. In both worlds, hitting a certain star-level means your work finds its way onto the mobile phones of millions of people around the world. And in both cases, the Internet has changed the way we do business, where digital files have threatened to all but obviate every method we can think of to make money.

The app makers should really relate to you on that last point. Napster may have happened sixteen years ago, but they’re just going through their business’s customer tension period. Not from file sharing or piracy — they got to watch from afar and learn some tricks to avoid those problems for the most part — but from a saddening race to the bottom for App Store pricing.

So, yeah, they also have to deal with an ecosystem that habitually devalues their work.

Except in their case, the gold rush is still very much on. Maybe not in app pricing, but most software makers I know spend the majority of their time doing contract work, building apps for hire for larger companies. Like the people who make the excellent Tumblr iPhone app — great people; I’d be happy to introduce you — or the Starbucks app.

I guess when you work in an industry where everyone is making a pretty decent living it’s harder to imagine what it must be like for artists in another industry whose controlling interests act against them.

And that’s just it! They have Apple! As corporations go, Apple is pretty good at taking care of the people that power its ecosystem. Sure, there are complaints about things like app review times, but did you know that app developers get 70% of every dollar they make on the App Store? Can you imagine getting that deal from your record company?

Right, it’s not quite a one-to-one comparison. For an artist, you have to go through the label AND a store. For most developers, they either go through Apple directly or their paychecks come independent of sales entirely.

But this is where I get excited, because I see the bigger point you’re making: the current music industry system has been anti-artist for so long that something needs to change, but that change cannot come at the expense of more artists’ rights.

Did you watch the WWDC keynote? That thing where Drake went on stage to announce Apple Music Connect? Seriously, that was my favorite part of the whole event. Drake — who skipped the label system entirely — comes out to talk about how important it is to connect with fans directly, and helps Apple announce a serious in-store tool to do that! This was very clearly a major step toward removing the record label system from the equation entirely, and I couldn’t be more excited about that.

But even then, the developer community complained that the music portion of the event dragged on, or didn’t relate to them in any way. But that’s what they don’t see: Apple views artists and software makers as ‘developers’ equally. Developers use something called “iTunes Connect” to upload their apps to the store. iTunes Connect was originally built for the record labels to upload songs. We’re all part of the same ecosystem, and the smart players on either side will be looking to one another and evaluating what works and what doesn’t.

This is an exciting time to be alive, and easily the best time in human history to be a creative type. Streaming music is already becoming the norm, but I know you know that, and that your holding of your position is both smart business and good ethics. I respect and appreciate what you’re doing there. But in my mind, this is the part people are really missing:

This is about the young songwriter who just got his or her first cut and thought that the royalties from that would get them out of debt. This is about the producer who works tirelessly to innovate and create, just like the innovators and creators at Apple are pioneering in their field…but will not get paid for a quarter of a year’s worth of plays on his or her songs.

This isn’t just about us. It’s about the producers and the songwriters and the engineers and the QA people and the designers and everyone else who spends their time making this stuff. There may not be any easy answers, but it’s important to have powerful voices asking the questions. Many of those developers will appreciate what you’re doing in time. Believe it or not, many of them are already fans.

I believe the age of cynicism is coming to an end, and your music is helping in a real way. I believe that you have the artists’ best interests in mind, and I believe Apple does too. For all we know, this is exactly the leverage they need in negotiating with labels.

As an independent musician, I think it’s great that you’re using your success to advocate for those of us who haven’t made it yet. As a maker of software, I hope that your advocacy ensures that we get a better deal when app streaming shows up in a few years.


P.S. Let’s grab a drink when you’re back in New York.

Update: Eddy Cue says that artists will be paid for free trials after all. Congratulations, Taylor.

Friday June 19, 2015


Speaking of great screenshot-related tools for app-makers, my friends at Lickability have released Pinpoint, the successor to Marco Arment’s Bugshot. This is the app that Skitch wishes it could be. And you can’t beat the price.


An amazing screenshot hero-making tool. If you do any kind of mobile design or build websites for apps, this is a must-have. Run, don’t walk.

Saturday June 13, 2015

• The Future of User Interface

Designing Better Things

Cult of Mac on my talk this week at AltConf:

But interaction designer Dave Wiskus is prescribing an attitude adjustment for his fellow creative types, especially those who seem to be engaged in some sort of bitchy competition to come off as the smartest person in the room.

That sums it up pretty well.

The Talk Show Live From WWDC

The Talk Show Live From WWDC 2015.

A thing like that.

Tuesday March 3, 2015

Welcome to Macintosh

An excellent new podcast from Mark Bramhill about the the past, present, and future of Apple. This is really good, well-produced stuff, and I’m thrilled to be included in the first episode.

Mark emailed me a few months ago (after my now-infamous Podcast Intervention), saying he had an idea for a podcast but he didn’t feel he had the experience (Bramhill is only 19) or connections to make it what it should be. I insisted that his fresh perspective might be exactly what this subject matter needed.

He proved me right.

Wednesday February 25, 2015

Designing for Humans

Wednesday February 18, 2015

Behind the App

Back in November I released a video called Podcast Intervention, where I called upon my friends and colleagues in the tech podcast community to do something new, to push the state of the art forward. When it came out, there was a bit of a kerfuffle. People assumed (incorrectly) that I was attacking Relay.fm’s Myke Hurley specifically, or tech podcasters in general. My position was and is that we’re very smart people, and we could be making more thoughtful things.

A couple days ago, Myke sent me a copy of Behind the App, saying, “This is my response.”

Behind the App is a documentary-style podcast by featuring some thoughtful, edited discussion and a genuine narrative. I think this new approach is going to really put Relay.fm on the map. Reaction has already been deservedly positive, and there’s potential to have a much larger impact.

I’m impressed with the thought and effort Myke has poured into this. It’s neat to think that my spurring may have done some good.

Tuesday February 17, 2015

Better Elevation on Reddit

I’ve created a subreddit for Better Elevation videos and discussion. The YouTube comments have been remarkably civilized, but Reddit is a better venue for thoughtful discussion.

Thursday February 12, 2015

Social Skills

I’m the guest on Social Skills, a new podcast for introverts, talking about how I survived making smalltalk with guests on Unprofessional. Kudos to Scott for going a level beyond podcast, though. The video stuff is a great touch.