I did this last year and friends seemed to enjoy it, so here’s the 2013 instalment.
Books (most published before 2013):
1. Ulysses (James Joyce
2. In Search of Lost Time (Marcel Proust)
3. Catch 22 (Joseph Heller)
4. Average is Over (Tyler Cowan)
5. The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)
6. On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan)
7. Who Owns the Future (Jaron Lanier)
8. … that was it. Ulysses & Proust took up most of my reading time but wow they were worth it
Musical artists (new music released this year):
1. Kanye West
2. Chance the Rapper
3. Pusha T
4. Kevin Gates
5. Indian Wells
6. The Haxan Cloak
7. Jon Hopkins
9. Arcade Fire
Films (released in UK in 2013):
2. Blue Is the Warmest Colour
3. The Great Beauty
4. Zero Dark Thirty
5. A Hijacking
6. Frances Ha
8. American Hustle
9. World War Z
10. Neighbouring Sounds
In general I agree with Marc Andreessen’s thesis that software is ‘eating' the world. More and more large network effects based businesses seem to be displacing existing offline businesses (Yellow Pages->Yelp, Tower Records->Spotify, Addison Lee->Hailo etc). One of the most successful venture capital firms only invests in ‘large networks of engaged users’.
But if that is happening what’s the equivalent of a small mom & pop business online? If you just want a little corner of independence and a decent living what are your options?
I guess one option is just to be a supplier to these mega-marketplaces - make stuff for Etsy, drive cars for Uber, rent properties on Airbnb. But what if you want a bit more independence than that?
Competing with network effects or web enabled economies of scale seems like a dead end - it’s going to be hard to start a small independent online bookstore with the ‘Everything Store' as competition.
I think the answer might be to build a small utility that a decent number of people find useful and charge them for it. You’ll probably be safer if there are no obvious network effects to exploit. That could be an iPhone app to read articles later like Instapaper, it could be a way for bands to put their music on iTunes and YouTube more easily like Distrokid.
Those two services seem like unfair examples in some ways because the creators are two of the most effective solo-entrepreneurs in the world. But as tech literacy increases, maybe there are more Marco Arments and Philip Kaplans carving out an independent niche online, immune to the rich get richer trajectories of network based businesses like Amazon, Google, Apple etc.
The two books that have most influenced my view on where the entertainment industry is headed are Infinite Jest and The Pale King, both by the great David Foster Wallace.
In Infinite Jest he paints a future in which a new form of entertainment has arrived that is so all consuming that the viewer is mesmerised to the point where they cannot tear themselves away from their screen. The viewers typically die of thirst, sitting in their chairs. The book was published in 1996 and pre-dates the mainstreaming of internet delivered entertainment, but in retrospect it felt prescient about where we were headed .
I was reminded of Infinite Jest today reading Jeffrey Katzenberg’s brilliant MIPCOM speech where he makes two key points:
1. That entertainment is not a zero-sum game - the introduction of new types of media (printing press, film, radio, TV, web etc) creates new demand - basically we’re not even close to saturating humanity’s desire to be entertained
2. That mobile accelerates this because we can now be entertained when we are out and about, “waiting”. Paperback books, magazines in the doctors office, the walkman predate this ‘mobilsation’ but now expanding faster than ever
I think both of these points are true, and if you buy that, exceptional storytellers & entertainers - whether the creators of Breaking Bad or Jonathan Franzen will be valued far more in the future. So too will be new platforms for entertainment. And so will those that amplify the leverage of those great storytellers e.g. CAA.
The counterpoint to this acceleration is provided by The Pale King - a study on boredom. The book questions whether our hunger to be entertained is a distraction mechanism that helps us ignore the unanswerable questions in life that roughly reduce to - what does it all mean. His heroes are the workers in the US tax office and they are realised and dignified by their boredom. All this to say - I share DFW’s concern that a world in which we are more and more entertained is not necessarily a healthy one and I think much good can be done by helping people find that empty space. The counter cyclical investment thesis for entertainment if you like. I think at some point we will be in search of that lost boredom.
 - the structure is also weirdly prescient - the endless footnotes feel something like web browsing & hypertext.
I’m always fascinated with how the internet is impacting other creative industries beyond music.
On Saturday I took my little sister to The Vogue Festival as a birthday present, and we watched 4 of London’s most exciting young designers (JW Anderson, Jonathan Saunders, Mary Katrantzou and Erdem Moralioglu) discuss how they have grown their businesses from the UK.
As designers who grew with the web, there were a few really interesting insights on how the internet has affected their work:
1. Changing aesthetics: Shopping online for clothes typically involves scrolling through pages and pages of images. Mary Kantrantzou believes that this has lead to shoppers paying more attention to designs that stand out - in particular unusual colours or prints. She believes this has been a factor in the resurgence of print
2. Designing for more climates concurrently. Sites like Net-a-porter clothes allow smaller designers to sell to more markets, and so a designer has to hold more markets in their head when designing - thinking about how a dress will feel in Singapore summer or Brazilian winter.
3. While critics and artists have always been intertwined, the fashion blogosphere has sped up the pace at which a new designer is decontructed and analysed. Kantrantzou shared an interesting story about how very early on in her career she had been exploring various designs, when a fashion blogger wrote a piece which explained how they all fit into a theme from her first piece to her last. That helped to solidify her aesthetic, perhaps faster than would have happened in the past.
Grilled Polenta with mushrooms
Every VC talks about ‘value add’. The unique ways in which they believe they can help you build your business, be a great partner, and increase the chance of your start-up being a success. These include their network, recruitment, strategic advice, operational experience etc.
I have observed that a great angel/VC partner/firm can add enormous value. As a simple example of something concrete that changed Songkick’s trajectory, Saul Klein our board member from Index knew we were urgently looking for a world class designer, and introduced us to Gideon Bullock who he knew from his days at Skype. Gideon became our Creative Director and is a core member of Songkick’s management team. That’s just one example and I have hundreds more examples of things that our investors including Greg McAdoo from Sequoia, Peter Read, Paul Graham and many others have helped us with in building Songkick/Detour.
But there are other investors that I have encountered or learned of who do not add meaningful value beyond their capital, and in some cases, actively destroy value by distracting, confusing and generally offering poor advice to start-ups. I’ve lost track of the number of off the record conversations I’ve had with founders where they tell me about a VC pushing them to do something they know to be fundamentally wrong for their business, and the distraction it is causing.
Clearly there are qualitative signals of who adds value - you could look for example at which VC firms great angel investors steer their companies towards. You can look at how effectively VCs win deals etc. Just as there are qualitative signals around product market fit, the most important concept for start-ups. With product market fit, the most valuable contribution I believe anyone has made to the discussion is Sean Ellis’ concept of ‘% very disappointed’ as a way of quantifying how close you are to to achieving PM fit and moving it away from a purely qualitative discussion.
I’d like to suggest a comparable metric for VCs to track, as they question how much value they add beyond their $$. They should ask their portfolio companies “If I had provided zero capital, how much equity would you give me in your business for the advice and support I provide”. Let’s say the founder came back with an answer of 5%, but you own 20% of the company, you know that 15% of your value is in the capital you provide and 5% in your ‘value add’. YC have taken this to the extreme by offering so little capital that the 6% average equity stake they take is close to entirely value add.
This statistic will be somewhat inflated as founder worry about wounding their investor’s egos, but it should nevertheless provide a good sense of how your value add compares to your equity stake. More interesting, an independent 3rd party with the trust of enough founders, could establish a clearer index of investor value add across a wide set of start-ups, and help to rank value add across the investment community.
Over the long term as an increasing set of funding mechanisms emerge (Kickstarter, Angellist, Upstart etc), this may be an increasingly important question to ask as VC itself is disrupted and partially/completely decoupled from the capital it provides.
I am coming to Europe this summer to visit my old school in Italy (I spent my junior year abroad in Florence). While I’m all the way over there on that side of the pond I would like to play a concert or two.
Where should I play? I usually travel to a distant place because a…
Pork loin simmered in milk with slow cooked fennel and polenta. Turned out pretty well.
For such a vital and rapidly shifting art form, hip hop has been unusually self-aware of its past . With founding production rooted in samples of funk and soul, the culture respects looking backwards to take things forward. Many of the MCs I grew up listening to had a rich and hyper-aware sense of the giants whose work had influenced them. Quoting verses from years gone by in a new rhyme acknowledged your influences and demonstrated how deep your love of hip hop culture went. Premo combined both, sampling past tracks to create new beats and past verses to create his legendary scratch choruses.
As a fan I remember the strange sense of nerdy achievement that came from understanding that an amazing line you had naively attributed to one artist was actually a hat tip to the inspiration a generation took from another. Cuts were like the wordsmiths version of samples. Breadcrumbs to relate the past to the present. If you don’t know, now you know. From Biggie back to Heavy D and Marley Marl in the same verse. That sense of joyful recognition those references trigger in you as a fan was captured perfectly in 8 Mile when ‘P Rabbit’ slipped in a line from the Shook Ones chorus in his closing freestyle over that classic Mobb Deep beat. Like they say – the crowd went wild.
It’s that self-awareness of its own history, along with that of broader culture, that leads people to describe hip hop as the most postmodern music form.
Take ‘Black on Both Sides’ by Mos Def, one of my favourite records of the ‘90s. If in The Wasteland T.S. Elliot packed in an impressive volume of historical shout outs, everyone from Baudelaire to Chaucer to Yeats, that’s nothing compared with the Mighty Mos. Across a lazy late night re-listen to the first few tracks of that record I counted references to over 10 ghosts from hip hop’s past from Rakim, Rap Attack, Tribe etc.
Well I’m not seeing that anymore. Yes there are pockets of Retromania that Noz chronicles hyper-eloquently in this Pitchfork piece, but to my ears they’re not the most exciting areas of rap right now. Everything I’m listening to sounds divorced from the ghosts of hip hop past. Take a listen to recent Future, Waka, Juicy J, Chief Keef, Earl Sweatshirt, Angel Haze etc. You’ll rarely hear a direct reference to a past MC. I’m more excited about where Chief Keef will go next, than being taken back to 1999 by Joey Bada$$.
I’m seeing the same thing from the still vital elder-statesmen of the game. Kanye and his clique are relentlessly looking inward. Have a listen to Mercy, Cold, or Ni**as in Paris. The sound is solipsistic, paranoid, icy, and fixed in the present. You’re more likely to get a reference to Prince William than Biggie. When there is a reference to past ages “I was born on the day that Fred Hampton died” it feels sharply disconnected from the present sentiment. Even those who were there in bygone eras avoid the past more than in their earlier records.
Assuming this is true, I’ve been wondering why that might be. My take on it is that it comes down to two things: 1. mainstream rap was fucking boring for much of the past decade presenting fewer canonical reference points, and 2. the internet has lead to a broadening of rap’s musical influences.
On the first point, to my ears there was an unbelievable drought from 2003 to 2008 relieved by occasional flashes of genius (Hell Hath No Fury, Boy in Da Corner, The Black Album, The Cool). Rap, to my ears, sounded staid, chasing it’s own tail and increasingly trapped by past sounds and themes. Maybe hip hop’s canon is less visible now partly because of this creative discontinuity. It feels like rap got restarted recently and most of pre 2000 rap is as disconnected from a track like ‘Don’t Like’ as early rap would have felt from disco. The contemporary equivalent of a scratch chorus is your own voice chopped Houston style into a ghostly sparring partner.
Historical references if they exist look backwards across a broader expanse of musical culture. I think this is the flipside of Simon Reynold’s brilliant thesis on Retromania. With everything available on YouTube, past and present separated by one click, rap’s base of influences has broadened. A Lil B verse on top of an Imogen Heap sample. The moment that hit me was listening to Blame Game by Kanye – a Chris Rock skit, an Aphex Twin sample, a John Legend chorus. And it felt of it’s era.
Overall I think the loss of self-awareness of hip hop’s pas is a positive shift - if only because it has accompanied the most fertile explosion of new voices in a while. I increasingly feel in the right place when a new track reminds me of precisely nothing.
 So I’ve written this piece with an expectation that you’ll take my opinions as that of a total amateur rap critic. I’m painfully aware of the bounds on my knowledge of rap, and the irony of trying to make any kind of commentary on whether hip hop is or isn’t getting less postmodern, without a Noz Scaggs level of scholarship. Unknown unknowns and all that. Anyway rather than continually caveat this post with self-evident disclaimers like ‘to the best of my knowledge’ I’m stating what I observe to be true. If I’m straight up wrong about something - please let me know in the comments.
Excellent Billingsgate haul with Dan.
Razor Clam & Blood Orange Ceviche:
I really do enjoy filleting fish.