For the third straight year, it was New Year’s Eve and I hadn’t written anything all year. I only had a few hours left to change that, just like last year and the year before that.
But did I really need to? I didn’t. I enjoyed the holiday with my family and made peace with this site not having anything from 2022, the first year without a post since it was launched1.
How did I get to this point? When did blogging turn from an outlet to an obligation?
As you can see, I used to write a decent amount and simply don’t anymore. Two contributing factors are that I haven’t kept up with the topic I used to primarily cover (iOS development), and I got older and busier2.
But more than either, I think the bigger reason is that rather than trying to expand my thoughts beyond 280 characters, I became content just tweeting something out and being done with it. Any medium-sized thought was either compressed into a tweet or, increasingly infrequently, expanded into an essay.
While the bar for tweeting couldn’t be lower, the bar for publishing here felt like it had grown to be insurmountable. If you’re only going to publish once a year, it had better be good, right3?
No more. This is my space on the Internet and I can change it however I want such that I’ll actually start to use it again. And I will4.
While my inability to blog clearly isn’t a recent phenomenon, Twitter’s current managerial situation has unsurprisingly prompted a lot of my recent reflections on the topic. As articulated well in Bring back personal blogging:
The biggest reason personal blogs need to make a comeback is a simple one: we should all be in control of our own platforms.
If what is happening on Twitter hasn’t demonstrated it, our relationship with these social media platforms is tenuous at best. The thing we are using to build our popularity today could very well be destroyed and disappear from the internet tomorrow, and then what?
Owning your content and controlling your platform is essential, and having a personal blog is a great way to do that.
So here I am. It’ll be pretty embarassing if this is still my latest post a year from now.
Funnily, I likely wouldn’t have ever cared if the design of my Writing page didn’t group posts by year. I could have just changed the design… ↩
I’ve always liked how M.G. Siegler keeps different blogs for different purposes: 500ish for posts almost exactly like this one, 5ish for links, etc. He’s a prolific writer and I have to imagine that the different framings serve as somewhat of a mental lubricant. While I only plan to write here, there are tweaks I can and probably should make: renaming “writing” to “blog,” allowing myself to post without including a header image, etc. ↩
The web feels a bit more malleable than it did just a couple of years ago. Why might that be?
Knowledge management software has been with us for decades but only recently feels like it’s become a fixture of how early adopters use the web1. Networking one’s own personal notes might just be a step towards having the web be authored by a much larger subset of its users, doing so from rich text environments rather than IDEs. Great products like Roam Research2 have started to popularize the benefits of contributing nodes and edges to a knowledge graph, making their creation feel as frictionless as bolding or italicizing. How does networked note-taking lead to web authoring? I’m confident that we’ll see this new class of tools increasingly lead to our “notes” becoming both collaboratively authored and publicly readable, at which point the lines will have become quite blurry3.
In Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, our young protagonist comes to possess a copy of The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, an interactive storybook designed to teach its owner everything they need to know through choose-your-own-adventure edutainment. The more I thought about Roam’s choice to include the word “research” in their product name, the more it helped me reframe my own relationship with the web. “Browsing”4 started to feel passive or reactive (if not a bit wasteful), while researching—reading but crucially also writing—felt proactive and enriching, a way to earn compound interest on your thoughts.
Researching made me feel like I was meaningfully investing in myself, not unlike how writing had in the past but now with tools tailor-made to empower. Networked note-taking became my Primer—tangents could be sought out instead of avoided, with backlinks turning the anecdotal into the indexed, the random into the patterned, the hazy into the coherent. Unsurprisingly, the web feels more pliable when you feel like a main character as opposed to an outside observer.
Next, the explosion of blockchains and distributed applications feels like a significant lowering of the barrier to contribution and participation. Yes, open source software predates smart contracts and traditional REST APIs can already be built on top of. But the composability and interoperability inherent in these new ecosystems brings increased opportunity to leverage existing code and data, both to adapt in new ways or to wrap in higher levels of abstraction.
My simplistic mental model: • Web 2.0: Each service has their own authentication/database, owns a subset of each user’s data. • web3: User data lives in a public ledger, is brought from service to service by the user who owns their own public keys. Auth by connecting wallet.
Building on top of existing code, data, and authentication affords the benefit of focusing on novel logic and UX alone, and unsurprisingly has led to an incomprehensible number of new projects. The overwhelming majority won’t succeed, but we can repurpose a Ben Thompson quote about Shopify to understand why this can be reason for optimism:
I would argue that for Shopify a high churn rate is just as much a positive signal as it is a negative one: the easier it is to start an e-commerce business on the platform, the more failures there will be. And, at the same time, the greater likelihood there will be of capturing and supporting successes.
When I think of the web, I think of a series of siloed databases and applications: built by engineers, stitched together by crawlers, and served to the masses via search. Too often, this doesn’t feel particularly approachable even to me, someone with a career of experience building exactly these kinds of systems. It’s not purely about having the requisite knowledge5—the activation energy currently required to create something out of nothing undeniably keeps far too many good ideas from ever evolving past that.
But I’m optimistic that this can change in a big way. Are networked notes and blockchains really going be meaningful change agents? Perhaps not. But on this last day of 2021, they’re what come to mind.
Sure, we all use Wikipedia, but how many of us contribute to it—or better yet, maintain wikis of our own? ↩
Let’s start by getting the tropes out of the way: drugs, hippies, Ben & Jerry’s, “the Grateful Dead were better,” that “Gin and Juice” cover from Napster with the wrong MP3 metadata. And say what you will about their music; love it, hate it, or have no opinion whatsoever1, this essay isn’t really about music. It’s about a unique–and I have to think incredibly successful–digital content strategy unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and seemingly nearly impossible to replicate.
Before we dig in, let’s jump back a couple of decades.
In the heyday of the aforementioned Napster and during the transition from physical media to streaming video, the music and film industries attempted to combat piracy by clamping down as hard as possible with restrictive DRM, unskippable DVD preambles, and exorbitant lawsuits. Pundits and industry observers bemoaned this approach, countering that an effective defense wouldn’t be through draconian restrictions but by competing on quality and convenience; that DRM and similarly user-hostile approaches would lead to more piracy in service of a better user experience irrespective of cost. That the way to win was by charging a fair price for a superior product.
If services like Netflix and Spotify have proven this to be true2, Phish has taken it to an extreme. While most bands would consider their studio records to be more canonical than their live recordings, the opposite is true for Phish. Yet Phish embraces the recording and sharing of their live music rather than trying to stop it–you can legally listen to hundreds of Phish shows right now just by going to this website.
This isn’t because they don’t want you to pay for their music, however. To the contrary, their LivePhish website competes on quality and convenience by making every show since 2002 available:
In lossless audio quality, straight from the soundboard
To either download or stream (via web, iOS/Android/Apple TV apps, Sonos, etc.)
To purchase either à la carte or through a monthly subscription
With beautiful, thoughtful, artwork unique to that show or tour
Oh, and they also broadcast the live video streams of these shows. In high-definition. With extremely high-quality camerawork. For a fair price, naturally.
At this point, you might be thinking that this doesn’t actually sound particularly lucrative. After all, if you’ve heard one live show haven’t you heard them all?
This would be the case for most bands but not for Phish. Phish plays with an improvisational style which means no two shows are ever the same. If this sounds like an exaggeration, it isn’t. All four band members are virtuosic in their own right, but have also been playing together for almost 40 years as of this writing. This gives them both an enormous repertoire to draw from4, plus the ability to freely experiment with near any track without veering off the rails in a way that often feels impossible.
So that’s the playbook, unemulatable as it may be: pick a musical genre that lends itself incredibly well to improvisation, spend four decades mastering it, stand up the requisite streaming/recording/distribution infrastructure, then turn on the recurring SaaS revenue faucet. Most bands simply do play more-or-less the same set for the entirety of a tour, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Those bands just can’t expect their fans to pre-order a whole tour’s worth of MP3s and/or live-streamed webcasts. Phish can, and they unabashedly lean into it. In 2017, they played thirteen straight shows at Madison Square Garden without repeating a single song5.
And Phish fans happily capitulate. Here’s a Mashable article from 2018 that, in addition to detailing the evolution of Phish’s digital streaming empire, nicely summarizes the fan mentality:
Each one is unique, and if you’re a fan, you want to hear every possible version of your favorite song, and to collect them all. As a fan of the band for the last 23 years, I’ve been hell-bent on trying.
The author isn’t alone. Phish fans crowdsource song statistics with the fervor of sabremetricians studying nascent baseball defensive metrics.
So while the band is clearly embracing the opportunity in front of them–each performance capitalizing on the chance to produce new differentiated content–they’re only able to do so because they happen to perform in a style that makes their music uncommoditizable. And that’s, frankly, lucky. When Junta debuted in 1989, foreshadowing their trademark lack of brevity with five tracks stretching beyond the nine minute mark, they certainly didn’t foresee each bespoke incarnation becoming an elaborate snowflake sold to voracious adorers over HTTP. This would be a lot harder if they played e.g. three-chord punk rock instead.
Like most software companies with high multiples, Phish benefits from what Stratechery’s Ben Thompson sums up as the effective elimination of marginal distribution and transaction costs brought about by the Internet. Software companies traditionally have high P/E multiples because of this dynamic–there’s a fixed cost inherent in developing an application but no substantive additional cost to onboarding as many new users as possible over time, subsidizing the original expenditures. Phish benefits similarly–while there are certainly some ongoing costs to film and edit each show, the infrastructure exists and they clearly have it down to a science at this point (see: the truly-hard-to-believe turnaround time).
Is Phish’s audience big enough, though? Of course, when the total addressable market is “anyone with an Internet connection.” Ben Thompson, again:
While quality is relatively binary, the number of ways to be focused — that is, the number of niches in the world — are effectively infinite; success, in other words, is about delivering superior quality in your niche — the former is defined by the latter.
And if you’re lucky enough to be the type of person who enjoys Phish’s music, the quality of their offering is undeniable. So much so that they’re able to charge just as much as Spotify does for Spotify Premium. Put another way by Marco Arment:
If you’ll permit a pretty rough analogy, imagine a world in which the vast majority of published fiction was in the form of 3,000-word short stories, and most people had never read anything longer. Phish is the one outlier publishing novels, and they’re pretty weird, complex novels. No effort to condense such novels into bite-sized short stories will truly capture the appeal.
But if you’re one of just a handful of novel publishers in this rough metaphor, you’re going to slowly accumulate a hell of a fanbase from the people who actually like novels, even if yours get a bit too weird sometimes, because almost nobody else is creating what these fans want and love.
Network economies (crowdsourced cataloging by the fan community)
Counter positioning (producing new differentiated content in a way that few other bands can)
Cornered resource (a monopoly on soundboard-quality Phish recordings)
Process power (filming/recording/editing/distribution infrastructure)
And if you find yourself thinking that a shrewd move would be to reuse the underlying LivePhish platform for other bands as well, not unlike how Amazon sells access to AWS despite being its first-and-best-customer, the folks behind nugs.net would agree7.
At the end of the day, it‘s not lost on me that no amount of strategic novelty will change your mind if you simply can’t stand Phish’s music (and I truly understand why many cannot). But like them or not, they undoubtedly occupy a unique space amongst their peers. The technologist in me can’t help but also take satisfaction in the alignment of their digital offerings with their strongsuits as musicians.
To be clear, I don’t feel knowledgable enough to opine on whether or not Spotify/Apple Music/etc. really charge “fair prices” insofar as how artists end up getting compensated. ↩
Phish also gives all concert attendees a free copy of that show’s MP3s via their ticket stub, which I think is a delightful gesture. ↩
They also have a proclivity for cover songs, covering a different album in full each Halloween. This only adds to the gigantic bucket of songs that might make a surprise appearance on any given night. ↩