I. My Journey To Hypebot
In August 2008, Bruce found me. At the time, I was twenty-year-old college student and an intern at an indie record label in Minneapolis, MN. I had just published my second blog post—ever. My readership was small—which is a polite way of saying that the blog I wrote for was only viewed by the other people who worked at the label—about ten people. Though the sequence of events is fuzzy now, I remember the publicist, smiling brightly as always, walking over to the intern cubicle to tell me that a “Bruce Houghton” had contacted her and asked for permission to republish my post on his blog, Hypebot. I was floored—having heard of Hypebot before, in class—this was a big deal.
"Seth Godin... was the first person to comment on my post."
I wasn’t, however, a regular reader of Bruce’s blog. For whatever reason (Read: I was naïve), I didn’t find the content interesting and found more pleasure in reading posts that tried to capture the bigger picture. So, having exchanged a few emails with Bruce and giving him the okay, my post went up on Hypebot shortly after. And what happened next, neither of us anticipated. Seth Godin, who is—as you know—one of one of the world's most influential and famous marketers, was the first person to comment on my post. I owned All Marketers Are Liars; it was one of the first business books that I had ever bought. Needless to say, once I found this out, I was ecstatic and so was Bruce. In the midst of all this celebration, Bruce told me that if I had any other ideas for posts in the future, I should send them his way. So I did just that.
Rather than embracing my duties as an intern,* solving captcha puzzles and just adding friends to the band’s MySpace page, I started sending Bruce new concepts on a pretty regular basis, without really knowing what would come of it. I just stuck around, buried my head in books, and kept writing. By February of 2009, my contributions were deemed notable enough that Bruce decided to appoint me to Associate Editor of Hypebot. Again, I was astounded. To say the least, I’m not convinced that I understood the path I was on and the radical direction that it would take, but I ran like hell anyways. Having graduated college and thinking that Minneapolis was no longer the best place to be during times of economic decline, I decided that I wanted out and moved back home. Not exactly logical for someone hoping to get a job in the music industry, considering that “home” consisted of a farm in North Dakota, a few miles outside a town of two-hundred. As one may guess, there is no “music industry” in small-town North Dakota; I was it.
After a while, I moved to Fargo, the closest thing to a city in a state with a population of only 650 thousand residents. The plan: intern in radio to build my resume, and hope that it would be enough to convince the local concert promoter to let me intern for them. My reason for wanting to work for the concert promoter was a bit nostalgia-based; the shows they put on when I was younger were what primed my interest in live music and the music industry in the first place. Unfortunately, radio and I didn’t work out, so to speak. Perhaps, because I was more interested learning about the downfall of commercial radio and its impact on society than I was in operating sound boards and making redundant on-air skits. In revealing my not-so-successful strategy to Bruce, he said that he had loose ties to the owner of the promotion company and would gladly send over some kind words. Suddenly, the few emails, that I had sent the promoter, were no longer lost and I became privy to just how generous Bruce really was. In short, I got an interview that week, and for the next few months, I became their intern.
Mind you, at this time, I had been working as a starting level employee for Target for a year and was doing all this in my free time. By that, I mean that I was putting in about forty hours a week at Target, interning on my days and mornings off, and writing essays for Hypebot by night. I did sleep—sometimes.
"Here I was, the guy who bagged your groceries... and I was being
asked if I wanted to present at a... conference - in Nashville."
By September of 2009, things got even more interesting when I was asked to present at Next BIG Nashville. Here I was, the guy who bagged your groceries and helped you locate that one thing that you could not, and I was being asked if I wanted to present at a music industry conference—in Nashville. Cognitive dissonance is a wonderful thing! Because I had never lectured before, they decided that they would interview me on stage instead. Then, I ran out and I bought some fancy clothes. Obviously, I couldn’t wear my old red and khaki to the conference.
I requested vacation time from Target. The crew from the Next BIG Nashville flew me out to Nashville, and there I was, one step closer to realizing my dream. My session, “A Conversation with Hypebot's Kyle Bylin on Digital Natives,” was at 3pm on October 7. Some time during the first few lectures, I was glancing at the cover of the program and was taken aback when I realized that they had listed me on the front cover: Kevin Lyman (Warped Tour), Kyle Bylin (Target, I mean Hypebot.), and Steve Robertson (Atlantic Records). The conference was awesome. Nashville was amazing. But, as things always tend to go, my time there elapsed as quickly as it began.
Once back in North Dakota, I resumed work and things were back to normal. But, my writing was getting better and my ideas only became more extensive. I would finish work in the afternoon around 4:30, begin brainstorming and hopefully start crafting essays and interviews by about 5:30 or 6, which would usually continue until well past midnight—unless I burned out early, and then I’d be up at 6:30 the next morning to do it all over again. I had Thursdays and every other weekend off. I wrote through those too.
In these times, Gary Vaynerchuk, the founder of WineLibraryTV, and his mantras of “Patience and Passion” and “Stop Crying and Just Keep Hustling” were a constant inspiration. At a point in one of his lectures, which I’ve watched far too many times, he says that you have to do what you love and that those who truly want to pursue their passions should consider getting jobs in an environment like retail, because you can make just enough money to cover your bills and chase your dreams after hours. I was (and still am) passionate about music industry criticism, media ecology, and sociocultural evolution. When Gary talked, I truly listened. There was all this time after work and I was already creating content. So, I went out there, quit the dumb things, wrote my essays after hours, and refused to compromise until I got my dream.
"Hypebot, and then Harvard, go figure."
In October of 2009, after having written a post titled “Minds for the Future: Why Digital Immersion Matters,” I reached out to John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, authors of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. I kindly informed them that - being a digital native myself, who was doing lots of interesting things online - I found their book to be highly inspirational and that the post I had written might be of interest to them. It was. They kindly thanked me for sending my essay over and decided that it was even worth republishing on the blog they had set up for Harvard Law’s Digital Native Project. In light of the republish, a few tweets on Twitter said some very pleasant things, “Digital Natives project nails it,” and “Insightful Harvard blog post.” Hypebot and then Harvard, go figure.
Receiving all this good news and praise made me want to tell people about it, including guests who came through my register at the store. You’d be surprised the kind of looks and comments I’d get when I started telling someone buying their months’ supply of Tide that in my free time I am a writer for one of the most influential music industry blogs in the country; I have been flown to Nashville to present my ideas at a conference; and to top it off, now Harvard Law is asking me to become a regular contributor to their blog. “Yeah right.”
What can I say? I was curious. “Curious is the key word,” Seth Godin says. “It has nothing to do with income, nothing to do with education. It has to do with a desire to understand, a desire to try, and a desire to push whatever envelope you’re interested in.” Music industry criticism was my envelope. He continues, “Once recognized, the quiet yet persistent voice of curiosity doesn't go away. Ever. Perhaps such curiosity will hurt until we come to understand the beauty of a journey that might never arrive at an absolute answer. And perhaps it's such curiosity that will lead us to distinguish our own greatness from the mediocrity that stares us in the face." I had no idea if my dream of being a writer would work out. Each day I spent in retail served as a reminder that I could settle with an average job for average people, but I wanted to do something more remarkable.
Where I come from, an engineer, an electrician, a nurse, or maybe even a teacher, those are all pretty logical answers to the question of what you want to be when you grow up. People don’t talk about being part of the music industry, but by the time I graduated, I knew that was what I wanted. I even went so far as to pick the most obscure and most impossible job to define—one that didn’t even really exist. My big dream was to become a cultural critic, research analyst, and a thinker in the music industry. Do me a favor: go home and try to tell your parents—with a straight face—that after having spent thousands of dollars on college, you want to get a job that you basically made up. If my parents are any indication, it won’t go well.
writing some my best essays during this time."
Over the course of the next few months, Bruce and I began talking about how we could find ways to start working together more; it was a matter of timing. News came that Berklee Online would be offering a course called “Online Music Marketing with Topspin” and we decided that my taking it would be a prerequisite to our further involvement. As the open enrollment for the class inched closer, I became more excited. Then, the class got pushed back another six months and instead of taking it in August, I had to wait it out until January. This was a small setback, but it actually turned out to be a pretty good thing. I buried my head back in my work and ended up writing some my best essays during this time.
Once I had completed the class, Bruce began trying to position me for a start date. I was “on my way.” And not only to getting a job in the music industry, but the exact job that I had wanted all the while. What did it take to get here? Twenty-three months. That’s about how long it took me to go from some college student—trying to keep busy at a record label internship - to the full-time Editor of Hypebot. In the process, I’ve read about seventy-two books—and am planning to engross myself in hundreds more. I contributed about one hundred pieces of content to Hypebot, many of which, as you know, consisted of essays that were several thousand words in length. All of this, it just took time. It took stepping away from the many distractions of my every day. I committed myself to keep publishing and pursuing bigger questions even though they may never have any absolute answers.
Back in 2008, Bruce gave me a special opportunity and I had the presence of mind to seize it, to work hard and learn and try to make sense of the music industry in ways that others had not. Luckily, I had come of age at a time when all of this was possible. When a kid from small town North Dakota could dream of making a living writing about culture, technology, and the music industry—and the tools needed to do just that, were already in place.
From the perspective of author Dan Pink, the three essential elements to drive—what it takes to truly motivates us—are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Bruce offered me all three of these things. He gave me the ability to direct my own path and choose the topics that I would write about, he helped fuel the desire I had to get better and better at something that mattered to me, and he let me be a part of Hypebot—something bigger than myself.
To conclude, I just wanted to take a moment to thank Bruce for giving me yet another special opportunity, and to thank the entire Hypebot readership as well for taking the time to read my work and sharing your thoughts. This is just the beginning. Also, I would like to extend many thanks to the various authors and thought leaders that were kind enough to answer my emails and wide-eyed range of questions. I also have to thank the folks over at Next BIG Nashville, who flew me down to be interviewed at a conference and helped me realize that my efforts as a writer hadn’t gone unnoticed—that what Bruce and I do at Hypebot is very real or at least, much more real than I could have convinced my parents. “They are flying you where? To any student out there, who is looking to get a job in the music industry, all I have to say is that you better want this more than you’ve ever wanted anything in your life. You must be willing to make sacrifices, to put in the hours it takes to make dreams your reality, and live to write a blog post about how you found your way. My biggest lesson of all: sometimes if you want to see the bigger picture, you have to paint it yourself.
- Jamie Johnson