Cloud Computing – Adventures in Music Entrepreneurship (Introduction)
Hi all, Ryan here. I’m a musician, scholar, and an entrepreneur of sorts living in the Los Angeles area. I’m currently earning my Ph.D in Musicology at the University of Southern California and have been composing, performing, and writing about music for as long as I can remember now.
For a long time, I considered myself to be a “research composer” and have spent most of my career trying to work my way up the world of music academia. I’ve written papers on topics relating to music theory, history, practice, pedagogy, and improvisation and so on, and have presented at various conferences around the US areas. I’m primarily interested in writing for and about American musics and what that might mean for a musician living here in the States.
As a performer, my main passion has always been piano/keyboard improvisations that I’ve been doing since I was a little kid, and consider it to be my greatest skill and asset. My style, however, doesn’t have that mass-market appeal that a lot of rock bands, singer-songwriters and hip-hop artists have, so I had long assumed that there was no demand for it outside of the walls of the ivory tower. And because my music is largely improvised, it doesn’t quite fit into the mold of the classical industry where they tend to focus on the performance and refinement of existing repertoire either. So for the majority of my career I’ve ignored trends and developments happening in mainstream practice and instead focused my efforts on academic and research-related pursuits.
But, a few years ago — especially when the economy started to hit people pretty hard — my interests and motivations in music-making started to change. After seeing myself and people I knew struggle with pay-cuts, job-losses, and hiring rejections, I came to the conclusion that there was something terribly wrong with the way things were and that there had to be another way. Soon after, I started hanging out with entrepreneurs in the LA area and began to learn about the methods and means of bringing a product into the market…eventually becoming interested in applying those ideas into the music-making process.
Things were a little more than nuts in the beginning (as with all ventures), but what kept my motivation going was that I realized that I already had a lot of the traits that made for a “good” entrepreneur — a little (but not too) crazy, likes problem-solving, high tolerance to uncertainty, an unwaivering sense of optimism, and of course, a passion for ideas deemed worthy of work and sacrifice.
After a while I began to learn that entrepreneurship and artistry were two things that went hand-in-hand: the trials and tribulations that an entrepreneur went through in order to “realize” a creative idea I found to be very similar to what artists had to go through in order to gain mastery of their craft. Tech guru Steve Blank drew a comparison between founders and composers, highlighting the fact that the two professions shared a remarkable resemblance to one another, even though they have traditionally existed as separate fields.
Cloud Computing is a music album that I made as a result of applying entrepreneurial ideas directly into the process of music-making, from the very beginning of the creative process. It starts with a musical style that I’ve been working on for a while (minimalist piano improv), which I believed to have had the necessary qualities of a “good” entrepreneurial idea (unique, proprietary, economical) and then uses models from Customer Development methodologies in order to test for its market viability. I’ve used lessons, feedback, and teachings from more generalized entrepreneurial ideas, as well as ideas from “Lean Startup” methodologies in order to guide the process. (Steve Blank’s Four Steps to the Ephiphany, Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup, and Brant Cooper/Patrick Vlaskovits’ The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development.)
As a way to document my process (since I’m an academic, after all), I’ve attached a journal entry to every track that I’ve made as it came into contact with fans and customer feedback. It’s a personal story, a music album, an educational resource, and a promotional campaign all rolled into one, and how I decided to organize the project as a product and business model. Rather than looking at music as a form of ownership transfer (i.e. selling an album), I defined it as a type of “service” where the value of music lies in the acquisition and retention of repeat customers (fans).
In essence, Cloud Computing is the Freemium model applied to music, where the audience can listen to the whole album online for free on YouTube if they want, but if they want the ad-less, re-mastered and polished “premium” experience, they can choose to buy the album itself. In a lot of ways it’s just an inversion of what’s normally done in an album release.
I decided to call this solo piano project “Cloud Computing” since I’ve been seeing a lot of parallels between what I’ve been doing on the piano with the stuff I do on the computer. Both are mechanical devices, both of them use “keyboard interfaces”, and both are used for creative purposes and the list goes on and on. And people who’re good at using either device…well, they both tend to attract their share of eccentrics, to say the least.
The “cloud” theme seemed pretty apt for my style of playing — it’s atmospheric and quasi-ambient, but at the same time there’s a logic and structure behind the way I play that a lot of people have said that makes it sound like a computer of sorts. The production of the music itself was also very “mobile” because all of the recordings were made using borrowed instruments. I used the grand pianos from my university’s practice rooms, a variety of music shops, homes at friends/family and so on since I can’t currently afford to buy one myself. (They run up to 100 grand in some cases.) So I had to come up with a configuration where I could set up, record, and break down very quickly and leave the room without a trace — the first few recordings started with my smartphone, because that’s what was available to me at the time.
Pianists don’t tend to get attached to their instruments in the same way a lot of other musicians do, because when they go on tour they’re almost always borrowing whatever instrument that the venue has provided for them. Like accessing their Gmail or DropBox account from a public terminal, they’re trained to perform the idea of what a keyboard is, rather than an instrument in itself. We’ll never get the perfect, refined sound of say, a violin, for example, but the upside is that we’ll never be limited by the burdens of carrying our instruments (baggage) with us or personal pet-peeves…the piano is an extremely large and immobile instrument, but paradoxically pianists are — and have to be — extremely mobile and adaptable.
The music itself is done in an “Post-Ambient” style, which combines aspects of ambient music with my training in classical composition, performance, and improvisation. Like most ambient musics, the music is designed to exist in the “background” of the musical experience, but nonetheless attempts to infuse a high amount of energy, productivity, and development its sounds. (Hence the “post-” prefix.) I aimed to create an album that combined the authenticity of an acoustic instrument with a distinctly “modern” sound that would lend itself to the digital age that we’re currently living in. If you happen to like it, then you’ll get a whole 2.5 hours of music for the price that you’d normally pay for a standard length album!
Through this project, I was hoping that people would be able to see how the music had evolved over time as it came into contact with new information, feedback, and interactions with fans and potential customers. It’s a glimpse into the artistic and creative process, explained from the point of view of an entrepreneur. The music is all improvised and created spontaneously (no cuts or edits done anywhere) in order to retain the authenticity and realism of the story and journey. I think that the ideology and thrill of creating “something from nothing” can be found in both in the improviser and the entrepreneur, and that’s a connection I’d like to continue to foster among the two professions.
If enough interest is there, I’ll keep on making them until it reaches the musical promised-land, occasionally releasing albums as compilations. Click here or the journal book below to start!
Thanks goes out to Melinda Rice for her performances on the violin and for putting up with all the crazy things that went into the making of this album.