Advice from Strangers: The Best of Two Worlds

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

This post originally appeared on May 7, 2015 as part of a series on NewMusicBox, which offers curious listeners access to hundreds of artist interviews, videos, articles, and a 24/7 audio stream of new music. Reprinted with permission.

Advice from Strangers explores shared challenges in the industries of new music and technology. This column is first in the series.

How can we better ourselves?” asked composer Aaron Siegel of a small but hushed crowd of new music composers and performers at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music in January. “The hardest thing for smart self-starters to do is to look for unknown things. It’s easier to do what we know.”

And oh, it is easy to continue on a known path, especially one that works! But creativity suffers, innovation suffers.

Clearly, in order to keep improving at our trade, we need to probe that which is unknown to us. How do we do that? How do we figure out what we don’t know, in order to learn about it?

Some context: I’m neither a composer nor a musician. My background is in software product management, information architecture, search technology, and user-centered design. I run a small community calendar for classical concerts in Seattle. It’s mostly orchestral stuff.

It began awkwardly for me, this gathering of the new music community. The conservatory’s halls swelled with a sea of music-makers immersed in hug-frenzied joy and familiarity, while I sat — alone, music-less, hug-less — at an otherwise empty cafeteria table.

New music, it turned out, was not what I had thought. Had I made a mistake, going so far afield from orchestral music? Would spending time on a tangent be a good use of my already limited resources?

Oh, blessed people. The table wasn’t empty for even five minutes, and for the next three days, I listened to composers and musicians talk about the challenges they were facing in growth, collaboration, decision-making, documentation, community-building, brand identity, making a living, bridging resource gaps — challenges that sounded a lot like those I’ve faced with my teams in startups and small technology companies.

Despite the fact that new music was outside my comfort zone, or perhaps because of it, the gathering lifted the floodgates on a burst of creative thought.

New music — raw, creative, and largely uncharted — may be eliciting questions we’ve long forgotten how to ask in other, more established industries. What if we technologists could be as rigorous about reinventing our creative processes as we are about reinventing software? And what if some of our time-tested best practices could be of use to new music makers, as they pave the way for new explorations of sound and performance?

Curious, I approached colleagues in both communities whose work I respect and asked for their insights on subjects that arose during the gathering. How do we build an engaged community? What is the secret to balancing privacy with collaboration? How do we make good decisions for and as a group? How do we get that community to trust us? How do we fill gaps when resources are low? How do we put dinner on the table? And, of course, how do we better ourselves?

Tl;dr: techies and music-makers have a lot in common, and on occasion, our approaches diverge in some really interesting ways. Over the coming weeks, we’ll explore familiar and new paths together, and see what we can learn from each other.

Are you ready? Next week, we cross the streams.