At SXSW Michael Penn Talks iTunes, Film, Music, and Hypercard!

To me, the whole point of the sessions at South by Southwest is to find something that blends together everything that's happening in our world in new and unique ways. Sometimes that direction is obvious from the session description, and sometimes you just get lucky.

The latter was the case with an interview with Michael Penn that I saw as part of the SXSW Film conference. Based on the content it could just as easily have been part of the Music or Interactive conferences and, in fact, would have fit very well into the new, topic-spanning Platinum Track they introduced at SXSW this year.

That's where the conversation started, but it went so much further than that. This wasn't a session where I expected to get anything to report on, so with my laptop tucked safely(?) away in my hotel room, I furiously tapped out notes into my iPhone. Instead of giving you a play-by-play, though, we'll just stick with the highlights and some classic quotes as I saw them.

On Starting Out Songwriting as a child, Michael Penn said, "I put some chords together and found words that would fit. I didn't really put a lot of thought into it, it was just something to do." Perfect. That's exactly the right mentality, if you ask me.

On Computers, he said, "When I got my first computer back in 1984 or 1985, it was a Mac and there was this program called Hypercard by Bill Atkinson. In a very basic way, Hypercard teaches you the basics of how computers [and developing software on them] work."

Being who I am, this obviously struck a chord. I wondered if he has hit upon a simple truth about the evolution of computers... and their users. Early on, the software and tools that were available to users were more about working with the capabilities of the machine than what you could get done with it. That lead to every computer user innately understanding the architecture of the machine.

Of course, it also lead to scaring many people off, but for those that stuck around, to this day we all have a very true understanding of the what, why and -- most importantly -- how a computer can (and can't!) do the things it does. I wish more people had that understanding, and a tool like Hypercard was (and would be again) a perfect, simple way of learning the constructs upon which all software is built.

Discussing Promotion of one's music, Michael repeatedly advised budding musicians to specifically NOT get a record deal unless you're a "shallow pop act with no depth. The best thing any musician can do is learn HTML and get a van."

His point was that to promote yourself in this world, the web is the perfect, cheapest, easiest place to do it. As with Hypercard above, the advice here is to learn the basics so that you understand the capabilities -- and limitations -- of the medium in which you're operating. That's good advice for anyone.

On Albums, and Length, and Everything in between, his thought was that the perfect medium for a body of musical work was vinyl. The reason is that it forced us to listen in 20-25 minute chunks. An album was produced, released, and heard as "two acts," and that format was, "the sweet spot for the medium."

Since we have moved to CDs, everything has been produced as one single act that's "too long," and it is his belief that this pushed us over the edge and back to wanting to only hear singles. He compared this to film where the medium has settled into a workable length of about 2 hours. Anytime a 3 or 4 hour film comes out, it's seen as "too long," and this length hasn't changed despite the fact that the medium has grown to support films of much greater lengths.

On Digital Music and Apple, referring to vinyl and even CDs, he said, "we used to sell an object with waves embedded on it. Now we just sell the waves." iTunes had, in his mind, the "potential to be part of the solution, and instead is now just part of the problem."

For him, iTunes underlines the problem as he sees it of the cherry picking of a single song concept and is a marketplace no different from any other, requiring deals, friends, and politicking to get placement.

He noted that Apple "innovates in other product lines much better than they do with iTunes, and this is a huge missed opportunity," for Apple... and for the world. Interesting perspective, for sure, and I can't say I disagree.

Clearly he's from an older generation than the teens, tweens, and twenty-somethings that are defining the next generation here, but a lot of the points he brings up do ring true (perhaps because your author is just as distant from that generation as is Mr. Penn!).