As closing speakers for the first day of a conference go, Will.I.Am is one of the better choices. You might like his music, you might not like his music, but you can’t deny that he’s fizzing with ideas about the convergence of music and technology.
The last time I had to try and liveblog him, it was an event called Virgin Disruptors last year, where Will took part in a discussion with the likes of Amanda Palmer, Zoe Keating, Imogen Heap and Scooter Braun about the changing music industry. He was hard to keep up with then, but today was a second chance to capture his brainflow.
Will.I.Am was the closing speaker at Midem, albeit beaming in via Skype rather than giving his keynote in person, with occasionally-choppy audio making it hard to follow every word. He was billed to talk about Trans4M: an initiative he set up to improve the Boyle Heights area in Los Angeles where he grew up, through partnerships with government, businesses and the community.
“I wanted to do more than just reap in all the money and the fame… I didn’t want to live the way the media and magazine articles suggest successful artists should live,” he said, talking about his I Am Angel foundation, originally set up in response to specific disasters, but later expanding.
“I decided to create this umbrella called I Am Angel, that would house other things that might come up one year that I might want to do, regardless of a natural disaster. Why wait for a hurricane or a tsunami or a tornado for the music industry to use their success to focus on an issue? I wanted to set up the I Am Angel to address urgent things every day that the media doesn’t talk about.”
“Our industry is pretty lazy,” he said, suggesting that musicians could be doing much more to shape communities. “We should’ve been Facebook first. Our industry should’ve been Twitter. Our industry could’ve been Apple! Our music industry is powerful, but we don’t use it like we should.”
The foundation started off working with 60 children two years ago, and is now working with 120. Will.I.Am said that TRANS4M has his focus for the next 10 years – at the end of which, he hopes to have 600 children as part of its educational programme. He encouraged other artists to follow suit. “If you’re going to do anything where you rep your city, you should protect and rebuild your city. That’s what we aim to do with TRANS4M.”
That includes expanding to other cities and countries – he donated the equivalent to what he made from his role on TV talent show The Voice to British charity The Prince’s Trust.
He then talked music industry. “The music industry saddens me, y’know? We’re in a sad state right now, where the artists that are selling.. I don’t even know what we’re selling to be honest with you, cos 99 cent downloads, that’s what we’re selling,” he said, returning to a theme of the Virgin Disruptors event – the fact that he’s made a lot more money from his stake in Beats than from having the best selling song on iTunes.
“It’s sad that as a collective industry, we don’t do our own hardware. It’s only three people: Jim, Dre and myself – that’s Beats – that have hardware,” he said.
“The state of the music industry is delusional… our music is seen more than it is heard… They’re showing you music rather than you’re hearing music… I try my hardest not to dwell on how delusional and dysfunctional and splintered the industry is. I surround myself with megasupergeeks, so we can make and market hardware and things like that. Maybe I’m chasing something I would probably never catch, but I’ve been here before when I was in the ghetto chasing the dream of starting a band.”
“I really encourage every single person in the music industry to try and compete not with other record companies, but compete with Samsung, compete against LG, compete against the big ones! Why is Sony competing against Universal? As a matter of fact, HOW DID SONY LOSE? THEY HAD THE CAMERA, THEY HAD THE RECORD COMPANY… How did you lose to Apple?!”
Will cited Dr Dre and Beats as inspiration that the music industry can go into the hardware game and compete. “Boom. How do you like that shit?!”
But he finished by returning to TRANS4M. “The money goes directly to the kids, and mentors mentor kids, and the results of their education change their outlook. And you encourage them to do things they would never thought they would be able to do, from coding to exchange of ideas with presidents and CEOs. It’s really a project-based learning platform.”