“My Goal Is To Never Be Left Behind,” Says Ethan Kaplan, SVP of Emerging Technology at WMG. Pt. 1
(UPDATED) Recently, I spoke with Ethan Kaplan, who describes himself as a former academic, a former newspaper web-master and a present day technological evangelist and innovator. He's also author of the semi-famous music industry blog BlackRimGlasses and started an REM fan-club called Murmurs when he was sixteen. As of late, Kaplan was newly promoted SVP of Emerging Technology at WMG.
In part one of this interview segment, Kaplan talks about his new position at WMG and the journey he took to getting it; his attitudes toward new technology, as well as, how it's as important to push back against them as much as it is to innovate; and why being decoupled is such a confusing process in any industury.
Starting things off, could you go into detail about what this new position entails, your goals with it, and talk about why a role of this nature is an important one to have in the record and music industries?
Ethan Kaplan: When I was brought into Warner Bros. Records five years ago, it was because the company saw the need to not only use technology and be a partner with it, but to also have the expertise inhouse to make it. Realize that when I started, “social media” was MySpace, Facebook was just opening up outside of universities and Odeo was in nascent stages, no mention of Twitter.
Over time, my team grew at WBR and we shifted the online strategies, with the New Media team to not just create billboards for artists, but to create destinations that integrated with the larger fabric of the open Internet.
Key to that was using open source technology to drive content/community marketing online, and creating a platform that let us continually build without reinventing technology at every turn.
A lot of this was done locally at WBR, and my new position is continuing that trajectory, but at the all-label level. My goal is the same as always: to never be left behind. I like anticipating, inventing and building technology rather than waiting for something to occur and then reacting.
KB: In the latest blog post where you announced this new role, you talked about how the technology department started at WBR with the aim of not letting movements in other industries be predicates to movements in yours.
In the past, how have the movements in other industries predicated movements in yours and moving forward how have you positioned yourself into order to make certain that doesn't happen—often?
Ethan Kaplan: The Internet brought with it a fundamental shift in the nature of how media and data interact. The analog record industry, that dependent on CD’s and vinyl and cassettes has the luxury of their content and the media used to represent and transport the content being integrated.
The protocols which defined the creation of a CD’s audio representation were tied directly to the media of the CD, which was then tied to distribution, reproduction, etc owned by the labels. The players themselves were created by the companies that created the CD (Phillips). It worked very well as a vertically integrated system for getting content to consumers.
As you know, the Internet was not created as such. The Internet on a fundamental level, back to the initial IETF RFC’s was designed to decouple all aspects of data. Transmission, reproduction, representation, reconstitution, and transport. The seven layers of the TCP/IP stack pretty much eliminate any possibility of pure vertical integration.
You can maybe bite off a few pieces to vertically integrate through proprietary protocols (as many do, ie Apple, etc), but more than half is not integrated. Those that tried (Token Ring, ATM, etc)… where are they?
Being decoupled is very confusing to a business that is not used to being so, especially because it requires expertise far beyond just putting goods where they need to be. You have to have expertise in making each layer work for you, from Ethernet up to the application protocols. The more you control, the easier to control, but it takes letting go of the fact that you can’t control it 100%
KB: "Industries need a push from the outside, and that can usually be a positive if there are people to push back, work with it, and innovate," you write further on your blog. Stating further that you were brought into this new position at WEA to: "Innovate, push back, work with technology in a very difficult time."
Why is it so important during such chaotic times, deemed by Steve Knopper as 'the spectacular crash of the record industry in the digital age,' that not only do you innovate, but that you push back too?
Ethan Kaplan: We can’t be subservient to others’ notions of what we need. The record industry is a weird, wild and wonderful place. Ultimately we represent the works of people’s lives. Anecdotally the world at large knows what artistry is, but until you see it and participate in it a raw and emotional way, it might not resonate as something that needs to be treated with any degree of preciousness. As such, what is imposed on us by the tech community might not be for us.
Pushing back means exercising a BS meter, it means not jumping from technology to technology because it’s the Next Big Thing. It also means treating technology from an artist point of view, and having the artist first, not the tech.
For us, pushing back and participating are one in the same.
KB: "When a new technology arrives, it has to get integrated into society somehow," Clay Shirky writes in Cognitive Surplus.
Between the traditional record industry and the "new" or next music business there is a certain degree of dichotomy in their attitudes toward new technology and their willingness to integrate it into their industries.
From your perspective, how would you characterize this dichotomy between the traditional record industry and that of the next music business and their perspectives on embracing new technology?
Ethan Kaplan: I think that the dichotomy to a degree is some last death rattles of that industry, and most if not all of the work being done now is in the “new”.
When we first launched a Drupal site, we were the only ones doing so at a label. We were the only label with a dedicated tech team. We are not unique anymore, and have moved on to maintaining our uniqueness through new projects.
From what I know, both the big and small labels are firmly engaged in new technology, but we are also dealing with an industry and companies with a lot of entrenched legacy. Any company of a certain size looses nimbleness, so you have to be that much faster to counteract the inertia issue.