The Age of Experience

Thoughts about the role of music in the experience economy.


Last year I have been working a lot in the area of virtual reality. Both as a director and evangelist. When I have time I refer to the experience economy during my talks. Here is a piece of the essay I wrote about it for the Electronic Trend Report by Hello Bank. A job commissioned by Trendwolves.

The chance that Belgium will ever become world champion in soccer is pretty small, if not nil. Yet if there were ever to be championships devised for the organisation of events, Belgium would certainly be high in the ranks to win gold. And then we’re not just referring to Tomorrowland that may we say, rightfully won this year’s prize for best festival in the world. There’s so much more to it. Our country has a wide network of companies that operate from different angles. Nonetheless, all these enterprises play an intricate part in the global events industry. The mesmerizing, extravagant fashion shows by Villa Eugenie are for instance widely reckoned in the international fashion industry, and the screen and projector technology of Barco are similarly unparalleled. Henceforth, when it comes to over-the-top stage settings and stage construction, Belgian companies are often called into action.

Villa Eugénie for Phillip Plein at Milan Fashion Week 2015

Don’t get me wrong. The experience economy is more than arranging big events and festivals. Henceforth, it designates to an economic culture in which the experience of a product is often more important than the product itself. By similar analogy, as the product is viewed as a commodity, the experience is then sold as a product. Companies should accordingly be aware of the importance to create memorable events around their product. That doesn’t necessarily mean it should be a grand gesture. It can easily be a small sign, i.e the barista at Starbucks who calls out your name when your coffee is ready.

That experience is rather different than with the food sector, retail, banks or insurance companies. Viewed from this light, that is not that much of a pending issue for the music industry. After all, as an expression of an emotion, music itself can surely become an unforgettable experience. Having all said that, the experience economy plays a hugely important role in the success of artists, products and events. It can be quite puzzling how to trigger consumers into the right involvement, in the right way at the right moment. As such, it prompts the question how music can facilitate in emotionally framing our lives.

One example of music in the experience industry. Lets go back to 2011. With the introduction of the iPod several something years ago, we could all of a sudden carry around an entire music collection wherever we went. “With iPod, Apple has invented a whole new category of digital music player that lets you put your entire music collection in your pocket and listen to it wherever you go,” according to the press release. “With iPod, listening to music will never be the same again.” That were the exact revolutionary words of Steve Jobs in 2001.

Today, streaming services such as Soundcloud and Spotify have turned this experience into a commodity. By sharing tracks and music lists, streaming music has become a social experience. What’s more, users provide feedbacks and tips to others in the comment section of these services. And to give another example: consumers don’t customarily buy records or CD’s purely for the sound or the sake of possessing it. For the utmost majority of them, it is a tangible way to sense music. And in addition, to many it’s also a visual experience. Heaps and heaps of people decorate their walls with the prettiest vinyl.

A couple of years ago, Nadiem Shah made the transfer from being employed at a radio station to working for a record label. In his years at Studio Brussel, it was quite a trial to elevate electronic tracks to the A-list. It required serious “plugging”, as this praxis is also termed, implying: doing your utmost best to convince the people on your team. Today, he works on the other side of the spectrum, at N.E.W.S records. According to Nadiem, radio stations and records labels deal with new artists in a completely different manner. “The first question that a radio station poses is: what’s the story? Is it trending topic on the Internet?” Now, people today are much more invested in the concept and experience of new artists than back in the days. Music simply isn’t enough.

Original promotion is the most important weapon in the realm of today’s experience economy. Even before an artist has (ever) released an album, a lot of time and energy is spent in gathering a wide following. Often cross-media marketing techniques such as “guerrilla advertising” and “narrow casting” are employed. PR and artist management agencies are working day and night to achieve this. The importance of promotion became demonstrably clear this year, when record owner BBC George Ergatoudis proclaimed that Shazam is a huge decision maker in the process of creating a playlist. “It’s a highly useful tool to measure audience satisfaction. Thus, we trust the data at the top end of the chart as the user numbers are now in the multiple thousands. The correlation between success on the Shazam chart and our audience research is also very compelling, especially when it comes to rhythmic tracks.”

The shift from product to experience in the music industry has resulted in a massive boom in live shows. Nadiem Shah puts it accordingly: “An iTunes purchase does not equal obtaining or shooting an Instagram photo. A live show does fulfil that need.” Indeed, there is more to it, yet it is striking how the live circuit seems to be more alive and thriving than ever. Furthermore, as a gig pays far better than a CD or a vinyl record, it is much more lucrative for the artists. Music sales might have dropped, but the music industry still manages to operate at full throttle. Particularly during summer time, there is virtually a new festival or event every week, with a wide plethora of electronic music events to choose from. Similarly, the event itself has morphed into a commodity. The growing number of scouts-parties, have developed into semi-professional festivals. Thus, there is an increasing desire to experience something different, new and fresh. Listening to music surrounded by nature on a lazy Sunday afternoon or in a limited setting, are just a few examples of how event organisers attempt to cater to these altering preferences.

Even though I discovered this on spotify and then bought the EP on itunes, this was the best gift I got for my birthday this year, the vinyl of Ben Khan.

But it has also in the Belgian electronic scene become more regular to experiment with experiences. With the introduction of programmes such as Ableton and Final Scratch, deejaying and performing modified into commodities too. Now, everybody can effortlessly copy-paste tracks together. The BPM (beats per minute, ed.) are displayed on the screen of the CD player, the only thing required is that the user presses the “start” button. Soulwax, who were -under the flag of 2manydjs- among the first to turn their gigs into a visual experience, by letting the cover of their tracklists dance along on a gigantic screen behind them. To increase the contact with their audience, electro band Goose initiated the deReConstruction experiment. As such, the band members were isolated on a story of an empty building. Visitors thus sat in front, seeing just one band member, so close and intense that they could almost smell and feel the musician. The rest of the band then was displayed through a network of screens and projections, whereas the soundtrack resulted in a krautrock jam on a fixed electronic click-drum.

It holds no wonder that today’s technology prophets hold high expectations with regards to developments in the field of virtual reality. When Facebook bought up the company Oculus VR for more than 2 billion dollars, it became palpably clear that virtual reality is the next big thing. Oculus was the first in history to make virtual reality technology ready for the consumer market. Around that same period when Oculus VR was sold to Facebook (that was around March 2014), the first experiments with music began to surface. A striking example in this is “Strangers with Patrick Watson”. In this “music moment”, it is as though you are literally in a studio with Patrick Watson. In so doing, it is one of the simplest applications of VR technology, and at the same time the most honest use of VR tech. As a real-life witness of the event, it feels as though you are physically present.

Samsung collaborated with Oculus to integrate VR technology into smartphones. Comparably, Google introduced paperboard glasses last year, which you only needs a little bending. Although VR technology appears to be ready to conquer the consumer market, it is quite a challenge, if not to say very costly, to create actual content. As such, it’s mostly big bands and record labels that can afford to experiment with this technology. Last year, Coldplay joined forces with Canadian enterprise NEXTVR to record and broadcast a live show. In the future, it will be possible to experience a live concert, right from the comfort of your own home. “You’re literally inside the show, right in front of the stage together with the band,” Phil Harvey, the creative director of Coldplay asserts. “The quality of this virtual reality experience is far superior to anything else out there. It’s pretty astounding.”

Over the past few months there have been several experiments with music video’s, live music and other music experiences in VR. The company Jaunt collaborated with paul McCartney for a cinematic experience of a live show. Björk debuted her new singel Stonemilker with a truly immersive VR video clip. And more recent the Belgian electro-punk band Raveyards gave a hint of their unique live experience through a live video in VR. This video was directed by filmmaker Piet Sonck and directed by Fisheye (and myself). Again the music scene is a trendsetter in new technologies. But as long Virtual Reality is not conceived as a real medium, the VR industry is a FOMO based business.

A screenshot of the VR video clip for Raveyards we made.

Another astounding -yet anything but virtual- event is Tomorrowland, the biggest dance festival in the world that is remarkably little premised on…dance. There’s a lot to say about Tomorrowland, but one thing is drop dead certain: the festival succeeded strikingly well in bringing the Experience Age to an unparalleled peak. Tomorrowland is absolute king in selling experiences compassing a broad variety of areas. Yet what they are particularly apt in is generating a feeling of togetherness, of fellowship. Thus, they come exceedingly close to the roots of dance music: being together in a club, grooving and dancing the night away, and letting everything go.

A single golf clap? Or a long standing ovation?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.