The Power of Bundles

There’s a nifty idea being explored on a website that sells video games, both commercial and indie, for instant download. Steam occasionally bundles several games into a little package that contains a combination of popular and more obscure games. These bundles are often pay-what-want, but despite the fact that most people only dish out a few bucks, Steam manages to collect several million dollars in sales because of the sheer volume of bundles sold worldwide. I don’t know exactly how the earnings divide between the game developers and the site, but each developer has a chance to make hundreds of thousands of dollars from this bundling. And since all this takes place in the digital sphere, the distribution costs are minimal.

The first time I heard of this concept, I thought, “wouldn’t it be interesting to bundle contemporary music that way?” Pick a couple of well-known composers and bundle them with some emerging artists. Sell the bundle as pay-what-you-want or maybe as a subscription service. But lo and behold, it seems there is already a site exploring this idea with music, though in the more ‘popular’ sphere.

The Humble Bundle is bundling five albums from indie artists of different genres and giving customers control over pricing and even distribution of their money. Once you’ve picked the amount you are willing to part with, there are three sliders that let you distribute that sum between three possible beneficiaries: the artists, charity and the website itself.

The genius of the site’s design is the real time statistics. The site shows the total bundles purchased and the total amount earned, and it calculates averages. Your contribution makes the figures grow in real time making you feel like you are making an impact. It’s immediate gratification. The averages also help you decide on a ‘fair’ payment and make you feel generous if you pay more. The site lists the highest ‘bidders’ so you can proudly put your alias on display if you pay over $100.

The other nifty feature is the bonus sixth album, which can be unlocked by paying more than the current average. Since the average is calculated in real time, this feature is designed to automatically drive the average price up. Its seems, however, that at some point the average levels out and goes up very, very slowly since most people probably only pay a penny more each time. In the last 10 hours the average has only risen by three cents, from $8.08 to $8.11, but considering volume, it’s probably still making a difference.

That might seem like a measly price for six full albums, but when you consider the potential volume and the very low cost of distribution, it makes economic sense. In the last 10 hours, the bundle has made about $36,000 bringing the total to over $227,000 with almost 28,000 bundles sold. That’s almost $38,000 per album minus charity and contribution to the website. The bundle will be available for the next 13 days. I will update you on its success towards the end.

I would love to see someone do this with contemporary art music. Or maybe bundling contemporary music with classics to foster that sense of discovery. Of course, the big question is whether a platform like this can be sustainable or if it only works once, as a kind of sensation of the moment.

Misplaced power

I live a very nomadic lifestyle, changing addresses every four to six months, like a criminal on the run. I leave a trail of forgotten and abandoned items all over the country, a residue of my activity. Having to account for the last two years of my places of residence on my recent passport application was quite a memory exercise.* My most recent exodus, conducted in the middle of intense thesis writing, has been a particularly disorganized affaire. While chanting to myself it-does-not-have-to-be-perfect-or-particularly-good-it-just-has-to-be-done as a kind of mantra, I flew away leaving an explosion of half packed boxes for my poor boyfriend to sort through.**

There is nothing quite like getting off the plane in a new city, weighed down like a pack mule with your fancy laptop, large midi-keyboard, audio interface, USB-charging camera and eReader, and realizing that you left the laptop power adapter on the other side of the continent. Suddenly all these interconnected items completely lose their meaning and function. They turn from great instruments of power, vessels for your fountain of creativity, into heavy hulls of useless plastic and metal. It is even worse when you are in the midst of a mad dash to finish your rather belated thesis: the moment of realization is accompanied by a sinking feeling as the world collapses around you into a vacuum of despair. In that moment, you know with absolute certainty that you would give your firstborn to whatever person or supernatural power able to deliver that funny little box with two cables sticking out of either end into your trembling hands.

And now that the adapter is safely back in my loving embrace***, I can go back to my routine of procrastination through blogging. Ironically, having to work on an old, slow PC, which I stole from my sister, while waiting for the adapter to show up, forced a kind of surge in productivity. The computer was simply too slow to get too distracted. It wasn’t worth going to Facebook or checking email when not absolutely necessary. So what does that say about the power of all this technology?

I’d rather blog about it than think on that too deeply. Back to the opera!

* Does the Banff Centre count if, lacking another address, you can technically be classified as homeless while you are there?
** Please forgive me, dearest! I love you!
*** Since it was the above-mentioned boyfriend who delivered the adapter through express post, I guess he’ll be the one who’ll have to deal with any firstborns who might appear in the future. Thank you and you are welcome!

Explorers of new frontiers

Thursday is blog day so I’ll tear myself away from the sacred rites of thesis worship to bring you a couple of examples to connect to my previous writing.

Facebook fan pages

Last week in “Why should I ‘like’ you?” I discussed Facebook fan pages and organization profiles. The question was, how does an organization go from simply asking for your ‘like’ to actually engaging you in their little online community. Take a look at Carnegie Hall’s page. It’s an iconic institution so it’s not a surprise that they have over 60,000 ‘likes.’

They are also trying very hard to go beyond that and to give their ‘likers’ a way to get involved. They are currently running a campaign called “30 Day Summer Challenge” where each day they ask you to supply a piece of music that fits some criteria. I missed the beginning of this, but it seems to be a contest. I think the person who answers the most questions will get some sort of prize. This is not the sort of thing to attract a user like me, but I’m probably not the target. The targets are engaging.

Carnegie Hall also posts various bits of archival material to give people glimpses of its past and all the iconic figures who have a history there. Some of their posts are meant to be inspirational in the lofty sense or the cute sense (for example, posting pictures of loving fathers bringing their kids to Carnegie Hall events).

Aided by Facebook’s Timeline layout, this page looks like a scrapbook that users are invited to expand with their own little signatures (as if saying “I’ve been here” on some tree or rock). And while people are browsing this fairly trivial material, reliving their own experiences, they also come across reminders about upcoming events and special programs. Carnegie Hall’s agenda is pushed through quietly, without too much yelling.


In “Crowdfunding as a leveraging tool” I touched on the idea of harnessing the power of sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo to finance your projects. I recently came across an Indiegogo project started by a Halifax non-profit, Centre for Art Tapes. I am really curious to see how this campaign will do because everything about it tells me that it’s all wrong. It’s missing the point.

  1. It’s not raising money for any particular project. Where is my money going exactly? I am selfish and I want my name to be attached to something more glamorous than ‘operational funding.’
  2. The perks don’t get you anything that you can’t get outside this campaign: memberships and rental credits. There are only two perks, which might be worth getting through the campaign because they save you about $2.50 from the full price. Every other perk is simply an overpriced membership.
  3. When all the perks are handed out, I wonder how much money the campaign will actually bring the organization. They are giving away things that people would pay them for anyway as a regular part of using the Centre. If everyone claims the “Associate” or “Individual Member” perks, the Centre will actually be losing money. Have they done the math? Yes, you will probably always have to use some of the campaign money to pay for the perks, but the trick is to make them something that will naturally come out of the project without costing you extra.

In short, this whole campaign is nothing more than a regular membership and donation drive aimed at people who already use the centre. The whole thing is a perfect example of applying an old mode of thinking to a new tool in the belief that the glamour of the tool itself will bring better results.

Why should I ‘like’ you?

I was recently asked by an arts organization if I visited/became a fan of their Facebook page. The question painfully reminded me of all the sad looking signs I see outside bars and gas stations demanding that I ‘like’ them on Facebook. My first and only question is always, “Why?”

What does ‘liking’ you get me? Why should I expose myself and give you more clout? Why should I engage?

In this particular case, I had in fact visited and ‘liked’ that page and I had to evaluate my motives. I also asked myself if I engaged with that page since ‘liking’ it. The answer was selfishly simple. I ‘liked’ it because I knew there would be content about ME posted on this page. After this happened, I had no other reason to go there. All the other info, which appears on this page, can be found elsewhere much more quickly and efficiently. Ultimately, the page is simply a bulletin board for reposting content which already appears on the organization’s website. It was yet another channel for their marketing department to deliver their story in a one-way direction, which did not invite interaction. My personal engagement with the page ended right there.

This got me thinking about the idea of fan pages in general. There is a huge difference between a fan page created by the fans and one originating from the object of affection itself. The first might loosely revolve around the idea of this object or person, but it’s ultimately about the fans themselves and their relationship to this entity. It’s about the community created through this common fixation, a platform designed to connect and validate its users. The object of affection might occasionally engage in this community to give it further encouragement for existing, but as an individual person or idea, they are quite secondary to its purpose.

The second type of fan page is ultimately a megaphone designed to tell a particular story to what it hopes is a captive audience. The problem is that it’s never captive.

Facebook is an online community designed to engage users in each other’s stories. When a single individual’s stream of status updates becomes a megaphone for every detail in his over-glorified life, people simply ‘unsubscribe’ and this person ceases to exist in their world. The same can be said about a business or organization page. If it’s only about them, it’s of no interest to most of us because we have no room to weave ourselves into their narrative. And the scariest thing is that once someone took the trouble to mute you out, you are very unlikely to engage with her again. She no longer acknowledges your existence.

So it seems that to design a successful fan page or organization profile page, you need to step back and allow your users to tell their own story. The page needs to be a comfortable platform that encourages sharing and inspires user-generated content. The organization’s agenda is promoted through this gently directed conversation.

How does one go about building that? I’m going to cop out at this point and say that there’s probably not a single correct model for this. The right approach probably depends on the nature of the community one desires to engage. I would love to hear thoughts on this and see successful examples if anyone has them.

NAC Workshop: My Ottawa Debut

I am writing this on the train to Montreal, the first leg of my epic 29-hour journey back to Halifax (still not sure how a train can take longer than a Greyhound bus). Last night was the final concert of the NAC Composers Program featuring five premieres by workshop participants (Lesley Hinger, Adam Scime, Patrick Giguère, Nicholas Omiccioli and me). The concert finished with a piece by Chen Yi, something with ‘Happy Rain’ in the title and the sound of a heavy metal band transcribed to Pierrot ensemble (it was extremely disorienting coming from a composer with such a bubbly and motherly personality).

The concert took place in a 2,000-person auditorium at the National Arts Centre. To avoid the awkwardness of spreading a tiny new music audience through such a grand space, they did the whole concert right on stage, audience included. The ensemble faced backwards with the audience looking past them at the empty multi-tiered hall. I was expecting the whole arrangement to be really sad, only highlighting the fact that this sort of show attracts so few people. But, it was actually surprisingly intimate. The audience and performers were very connected, while at the same time the empty hall added a kind of surreal grandeur to the whole event.

Gary Kulesha put on his filtered, public face and did a fantastic job running the pre-concert chat and leading the concert itself. The composing fellows were perched on stools facing the audience and Gary asked questions that were meant to draw the audience into the whole process of composing making us seem more human. During the show, he asked each of us one or two questions specifically designed to inform the audience about the single most important thing driving the piece. It was very educational, but personal at the same time. I think it helped the audience to connect with the composer and appreciate their intent, even if they didn’t get the soundworld of the piece.

The ensemble lead by Jean-Philippe Tremblay was fantastic. By that point they knew the pieces well enough that it felt like they were really performing them rather then just fingering the notes and counting rhythms. There was more of them in the music, more drive, more intention. It was very satisfying.

We were also fortunate to have all these well-known composers from all over the country at the concert and to have a chance to chat with them at the closing reception. It was interesting to hear the perspective of people who never heard anything from me before and also those, like Alan Bell, who have been watching me grow for some years. We were lucky that they happened to be in the city.

Most of us were leaving early in the morning so the sad hour of 3 am saw all of our drunkenly sentimental goodbyes. It is always devastating to leave such experiences. You are thrown together for this intense week seeped with creative and personal sharing. What in the ordinary course of life might have been months of social and professional interaction is super-concentrated into almost countable hours. You come out feeling like you’ve known these people for years, you are invested in them. Then the group suddenly breaks up and scatters all over the world, and all you are left with is a fattened Facebook friends list. Till next time, everyone!!