As I prepare my presentation for Lavacon in Dublin next week, I am thinking about music. I know it sounds like a strange thing to think about in relation to content strategy and TechComm management, but I see a great many parallels between the digital shift in TechComm and the similar shift that deeply impacted the music industry. Bear with me until the end and hopefully the connections will become clear.
My musical journey
I’m a little too young for records, even though while growing up, my parents had plenty of them collecting dust on the shelves. I do still remember my first music CD though: The Golden Age of Black Music (1960-1970), an amazing compilation, and as it turns out, my introduction to the wonderful sounds of Motown. Trust me when I say I can lip sync Aretha’s Chain of Fools like no one else.
About a year later, tapes were already on the wane, but still in heavy rotation… and my Uncle Mike wanted to expand my musical knowledge and taste, which seemed permanently stuck in 50s doo-wop and 60s soul, so he made me a mix tape. He exposed me to counterculture/psychedelic rock and Southern rock and jam bands. I loved the mix so much that by the time our families visited again I had already worn it out. He made me several more eclectic tapes to replace it. It wasn’t long before I began making my own mix tapes. I spent way too much time trying to get the fades and volume balancing correct.
A few years later, I remember being amazed by CD burners when they first came out. I remember appreciating Tom Petty’s respect for tape listeners with his half-way announcement on the Full Moon Fever CD. At the same time, I knew the technology had changed everything. We didn’t need to mess with sides anymore! We suddenly had twenty extra minutes we could fill! The entire structure of a mix had to be reevaluated.
Little did I know what impact the digital shift would have on those more important, more authoritative monolithic structures I adored called albums. Sure I messed with mixes, but that was just repurposing and rearranging someone else’s art. Albums, at their best, were either stories with sweeping, fulfilling emotional arcs, or a frenetic collection of hits that showed off the full range of a musician’s chops. CDs felt like mini-records, complete with liner-notes-turned-booklets so the disruption of digital transformation didn’t shock me.
That is, until the MP3. I got into them the way most people did back then, via Napster and peer-to-peer file sharing. I was gleeful at the ability to assemble a huge collection of music without the physical footprint. Of course, it wasn’t long before we all wound up with vast disorganized directories of music files filling up our hard drives.
So Apple iTunes to the rescue! Sure you could manage music via WinAmp, but until iTunes came along with its built in XML database approach, organizing the content felt burdensome. That led naturally to our collective desire to make the music mobile and Apple had their answer for that too. I’m sure I would recoil in horror today if confronted with my first iPod, but it was less bulky than my CD player at the time, and it stored a lot more music.
As I ripped my entire CD collection and organized it easily through iTunes metadata, I began to realize how fluid the process had become. I didn’t make mixes anymore. Now I just made playlists and synced them to my iPod. Rearranging didn’t require dubbing over something or burning a new CD. I just had to drag the file to a new location in the list. I remember how relieved I was that I had digitized everything when my CD collection was stolen out of my car (since it still only had a CD player and now AUX jack, that’s where the CDs lived for a while). I vowed then to never buy another CD ever again (and I’ve stuck to that promise). My digital collection grew larger as my iPods grew smaller.
Now it feels like yesterday that my barely-tween son was stuck in a Green Day pop punk phase. I passed down an old iPod shuffle to him and slipped some classic rock and a bunch of other stuff I thought he might enjoy onto it. It took a few weeks but soon enough he was excitedly telling me how he’d discovered this awesome band called Led Zeppelin. I couldn’t help but reflect on my experience as a kid “discovering” new-to-me music.
My son is 17 now and we share an Apple Music family account. He’s currently stuck in a Kendrick Lamar jazz-rap phase. I’ve grown nostalgic for all the 70s yacht rock and 80s synth pop that I hated so much as a kid. But it’s been a while since I’ve bought an album. With almost any music I could ever want at my streaming fingertips, why bother? With a liberal data plan, I don’t even sync music to my iPhone anymore. I worry that I’ve lost something in this transition. I don’t listen to albums from start to finish as much as I used to.
But a funny thing has happened with this shift to the cloud. I rediscovered my love for mixes. It’s one of the better features in most streaming music offerings – social playlists. I can easily discover Apple-curated lists or even find ones created by other users (though it has to be noted that Spotify makes this much easier). I can share my specific love of songs that include trumpets, or rock anthems with glorious guitar riffs, or sophisticatedly sad songs about lost love, and I can stumble upon the perfect mix of yacht rock.
So how does this all relate to TechComms?
Well, when I talk about records, think physical printed books. The CD is a PDF. Cassette tapes are somewhat analogous to our earliest simship efforts with Adobe FrameMaker and WebWorks. The MP3 is DITA, a new approach that breaks down the monolithic album into individual songs that can be repurposed in countless mixes.
The technology I represent, SDL Knowledge Center, is iTunes and the iPod combined (sorry, we offer no phone services… yet). If you want to learn more about my views on the relationship between music and TechComms, please come to my presentation if you’re attending Lavacon. Stop by our booth and we can talk about our favorite bands and how awesome content reuse is for documentation.
And what about the cloud-based Apple Music and Spotify you ask? Well, that’s something to still be determined for our industry. My colleagues on the SDL Web team have been talking a lot about Content as a Service lately. I suspect they are onto something there. I certainly envision a time when we can offer our customers a dynamic content experience that they control completely, their own playlist of content. Of course, we might still slip in some extra content we think they’ll love. And if we do our job right, they will.