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Saturday, June 10, 2006

School of Rock

Interesting programme School of Rock by British DJ Andy Kershaw on BBC Radio, talking about the role of British universities in fostering new bands in the 1970s. Kershaw himself was a student (and Entertainments Secretary) at Leeds University, then one of the most important rock venues in the UK.

According to Kershaw, the emergence of British rock music in the late 1960s and early 1970s was strengthened by several interlinked factors.

1. Universities provided significant clusters of "early adopters" - students willing to listen to new bands playing new styles.

2. Amateur entertainment secretaries, willing to take risks with new bands.

3. A common source of information about new bands - the DJ John Peel, who tirelessly championed new bands.

4. A rapid feedback loop connecting 1, 2 and 3. John Peel would play a new band, the university entertainment secretaries would then book the band, confidently expecting the students (having heard the band on John Peel's show) to turn up to the concert.

Of course, Kershaw may be exaggerating this effect a little (as a former participant in this process, and as the inheritor of John Peel's role at the BBC). But I'm not too bothered about that right now. What I wanted to talk about is the comparison between the 1970s and the 2000s, and the possible relevance to innovation more generally.

1. Universities are perhaps not such closed social systems as they were in the 1970s. Thanks to the telephone and the internet, students have much greater contact with friends and relatives away from university. Furthermore, students may see university as a place to consume education rather than as an all-embracing social institution, and students have many other loyalties and affiliations. Therefore the university may not be such a dominant clustering force as it used to be.

2. The role of entertainment secretary is not taken by a student elected to the post for a year or two, but by a professional manager who takes a job for many years. Professional events organizers are more risk-averse, and perhaps more predictable.

3. Before his death, John Peel felt he was being pushed out. (Andy Kershaw himself talked about this shortly after Peel's death.) His slot on Radio One got shorter and later, and the audiences got smaller. There was no longer a national community of Peel listeners.

4. And the feedback loops got longer. Concerts were booked long in advance, there was less room for rapid initiative, and the music business regained control.

Some people are hoping that the Internet will play a major enabling role in the emergence of new bands and new styles of music, and challenging the power of the music establishment. Some of the factors that were dominant in the British music scene in the 1970s might now possibly be reappearing in cyberspace.

And what (if anything) does this tell us about pockets of innovation in other domains?

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