An Open Space For Creativity and Collaboration

I love the work I do so much that it doesn’t actually feel like work at all. My Linkedin page describes me as a “solution architect” and “knowledge broker” but that’s only a small part of what I do. As someone who has worked in the international music industry for the last 38 years, and the higher education creative arts sector for the last 24 years, I am required to solve problems on a regular basis. A few weeks ago I was involved in a meeting with a couple of high-ranking academic mangers from an international creative higher education institution. They had correctly identified that the traditional siloed approach to “teaching” the creative arts was not particularly productive, nor was it creative and that collaborative working between different creative disciplines was the way forward. Bravo, problem correctly identified but that is the easy part. Now comes the really hard part; how to make creative students from different siloed disciplines work in collaboration? A classic Vladimir Propp ‘dispatcher’ scenario instilled in me, now go forth and solve that problem.

I am a big believer that the most dangerous eight words in any institution, enterprise or organisation are, “we have always done it this way before”. So I find myself in a meeting of educators from various different creative disciplines, e.g. film, design, audio, games programming, etc. to solve the problem of how to initiate and foster greater collaboration between these creative silos. It immediately becomes apparent that it’s not only the students that are not working collaboratively but neither are the staff. Indeed each ‘department’ was more that happy to be working within their own discipline with hardly any positive noises been made by anyone in the room towards full and meaningful collaborative work. Creativity by its very nature is a deviance from those unquestioned norms. Having a position outside the mainstream can facilitate one’s questioning of accepted practices and everyday modes of thought. I was shocked that a room full of creative minds was so closed to change. Maybe it’s an age problem; I am a 54 year old who grew out of the post punk art school movement in the UK. Deviance comes as second nature to me. This is not the first time in my professional career that I had stumbled into what Irving Goffman (1957) termed the “total institution”.

Osram
Osram’s cutting edge open plan Munich office in 1957

I do not think that my learned colleagues had correctly diagnosed the problem. It’s virtually impossible to make students work on collaborative projects if the teaching staff can’t or won’t work collaboratively. In the same way that you can’t force people to love one another, you can’t force them to work collaboratively. The way to solve this problem is to get the teaching staff working collaboratively first; a classic case of some silo busting needs to be done. Traditional thinking here would suggest that a large open plan office housing the chalk face academic staff would result in collaborative approach. Not in this case. Each creative silo occupies one row each in a large open space. Just because a colleague sits within a PC’s throw away from the next, doesn’t mean they are going to talk to each other. Close proximity doesn’t generate productivity or collaboration nor is it conducive to creativity.

As a devout modernist you would think that I adore the concept of the open plan office. Ironically, it was a team of 1950s German modernists from Hamburg that conceived the open plan office to better facilitate communication and ideas flow. This new movement was termed Burolandschaft (office landscaping). But a growing body of evidence suggests that the standardisation of the open office undermines the purpose that it was designed to achieve. It’s my view that modern open plan office is a hegemonic device used to supress deviance and foster worker compliance. The problem here is that by its definition, great creative, collaborative work is by its very nature deviant in both form and content. It does not conform to established traditions in the field. Recent evidence published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (Jungsoo. K, 2013) from a study of more than 40,000 workers in 300 U.S. office buildings, by far the most comprehensive research on this issue, came to the following conclusion, “Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ (Indoor Environmental Quality), particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.” Research journals love to use jargon but don’t let the jargon confuse you. The term “proxemics issues” refers to how people feel uncomfortable when they’re forced into close proximity with other people. In this case all the creative academics are stabled in a huge open plan office that resembles a call centre sweatshop rather than a highly creative space of voluntary collaboration.

The big issue here is one of physical creative space. One of the most important ingredients for an effective collaborative circle is a magnet place such as a pub (I spent an awful lot of time in pubs in the 1980s and 90s “working”) these days its more likely to be a café/coffee shop, corner shop, or even a lawn or garden; so long as it’s a place where group members can freely come together with each other to discuss new ideas and to talk and argue (constructively) about their work. A second key ingredient is for group members to have time away from the mainstream, time to look at issues and ideas from new perspectives without mental or social pressure to conform to accepted norms and attitudes. In the words of the inventor of lateral thinking, Edward de Bono, “Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way”. The blunt tool of management dictates, “you will work in collaboration”, will never be effective here in a similar fashion to the fabulous dialogue from Dr Strangelove (1964), “Gentlemen you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room”. In 2011, organisational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. Davis found that although open-plan offices often fostered a positive symbolic sense of organisational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were extremely damaging to the inhabitant’s attention spans, productivity, satisfaction but most importantly their creative thinking. A more intelligent, less obvious, critical and creative approach needs to be taken here.

Last month saw Apple Inc. unveil two new sleek and very expensive iPhones in their brand new Steve Jobs Theatre, housed in the $6.2 AUS billon dollar campus Apple Park. According to the theatre’s architect, Stefan Behling of Foster and Partners, it is “a building which is pushing social behaviour in the way people work to new limits”. Behling identified that creative people work best in a space which is not a beige, standardised open plan office space. As discussed at the start of this article, Behling’s approach to design has its roots in Modernism. In 1896 the essay, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered by the founding father of skyscrapers Louis Sullivan stated that the loftiness of skyscrapers is to be “on a high road to natural and satisfying art”. Just like other Modernist ideas such as Socialism, the building of utopia is great but it’s intrinsically difficult. People in general, and creative types specifically, do not enjoy collisions, or having their social behaviour pushed. You can lead a creative to another but you can’t force them to work together.

Revolutionary painter Henri Mattise once said “Creativity takes courage”. To go back to the original problem highlighted earlier in this article, rather than forcing creative people to work collaboratively why not manufacture the physical and social conditions conducive to creative collaborations? This requires a fundamental change to the working conditions at this institution. The big problem here is that they have just undertaken a very costly multi million-dollar campus renovation and my solution to this systemic issue is somewhat challenging (they often are). Despite all the investment, open plan offices invariably fall short of the mark because they negatively affect workers’ satisfaction with their physical environment and perceived productivity. The main complaints often include: noise and lack of privacy. Cramming people one on top of the other is probably the human equivalent of battery hens, the egg gets laid but the chickens are far from being happy. By my direct observations the desks in this institution’s open plan office are only occupied for a fraction of time each day. People turn up in the morning and use their desk to check email or more likely their social media and dump their personal artefacts. I would argue that a specific dedicated desk is not conducive to creative or collaborative working. Indeed, in this institution most collaboration takes place around the lunch table or in the tiny, uninspiring and unventilated kitchen.

Creative Office Interior Design
The BBC’s version of creative office interior design

Here’s my solution. Close the car park and give everyone an interest free 12-month loan to buy a bicycle. My premise here is the more you drive the less intelligent and more isolated you become. Allocate everyone a specific locker and make all desks, including managements’, ‘hot desks’. When staff arrive to work they can source a desk, if needed, but make sure all workspaces are connected either with a computer or capable of accommodating your own (BYO) devices. The apotheosis is “activity based working”, an approach pioneered in the mid 1990s by Dutch consulting firm Veldhoen. Rather than sitting in one space staff should move around different zones during the working day working normally, focusing quietly, or collaborating or even indulging in total isolation.

We also need to accept and understand that creative types don’t all exhibit the same behaviours or work in similar patters. Lets create better physical space to exploit this? Most creative collaboration requires constant moving from communal discussions to individual focus and back again. Kill the open place office and provide a variety of stimulating spaces that people will naturally gravitate to depending on their activity as opposed to their specific creative discipline. I call this activity based working. Rather than forcing creatives to work collaboratively let’s try to re-engineer human behaviours through inspiring work spaces. Forced marriages have been known to work occasionally but the best ones are where people meet and fall in love.  

Now would be a fantastic time for institutions to stop using collaboration as the main driver for open-plan offices. Let’s be honest and realistic, although open-plan offices may have started out as well-intentioned Modernist collaborative experiment, these days they exist purely for economic reasons. It is far easier to cram twenty desks into a single space than construct some highly creative and stimulating creative paces. My main point here is that you cannot force collaboration onto anyone who doesn’t want to collaborate. Simply put, some individuals have their own style of “collaborating” and should be left to their own devices. My intuitive guess is if the teaching staff initiate collaborative projects of their own accord then student collaborative projects will follow. My ultimate solution for effective collaboration at higher education institutions is to devise a creative space that encourages and facilitates student and staff from all previously siloed disciplines to share, discuss, debate and collaborate on meaningful creative projects together.

TimDalton2014

 

I am available for guest lectures, workshops, master classes, conferences and panels; simply drop me a line with your request and I’ll get back to you.

The Tour Down Under 2014

This is an article that I wrote for UK cycling quarterly magazine ‘Spin Cycle’ (www.spincyclemag.com/content/issue-7) about the 2014 Tour Down Under in Adelaide.

It’s almost a year since I left Europe for a different life down under. Moving from Liverpool to Melbourne was a huge decision, especially being a life long cyclist and leaving the European cycling scene behind. To be honest the only thing I miss in Melbourne is the proximity to European cycling mainly Belgium, France and Mallorca. It was all too easy living in Liverpool, jumping a cheap flight to the mainland to watch races in Europe or loading up the car with bikes and heading to Dover for the Belgium Spring Classics. Living in Melbourne, Australia the European cycling scene is over a day away and is also cost prohibitive. Indeed being in Melbourne is like doing cold turkey to break the continental cycling addiction. Don’t get me wrong Melbourne does cycling but it’s cycling as the new golf, cycling for the Armstrong generation. Cyclists pedal up and down the flat Beach Road for espressos on their $15k Italian bikes, with deep section carbon wheels, head to toe in Assos, all essential for that 20km Saturday ride. With this in mind, I am heading to Adelaide to get my first European cycling ‘fix’ in over a year, the Santos Tour Down Under, but will it be up to scratch?

Having visited Adelaide many times in my previous music business life, this trip was going to be an interesting one. With modest expectations I grabbed a low cost Friday evening flight, the businessman’s shuttle, for the 1-hour journey to South Australia. As I arrive at Adelaide International Airport, I’m struggling to break through the sea of grey suited office drones and wage slaves. The Santos Tour Down Under is the first event of the 2014 UCI Pro World Tour calendar. Santos is Australia’s biggest gas supplier; they need the publicity to sell more gas, as most Aussies do not need the warmth of gas central heating. This event is in its 16th year and becomes more popular with riders and fans each passing year. It appears everyone has Tour Down Under fever, even the airport is full of cycling related bike junk presented as ‘sculptures’, gaudy plastered images of past TDU winners on the walls and then of course there are the omnipresent skinny, shaved leg, Oakley’s on top of head brigade hanging about for no apparent reason. Most of the pro teams have been here for a couple of weeks all ready to escape the clutches of the northern hemisphere’s winter weather. Europcar’s Thomas Voeckler came and rode for ten minutes, crashed into a car and broke his collarbone and went home for treatment. A 54 hour round trip for a 10-minute bike ride, this sport is cruel. Of course the cruel irony of the weather pattern is that South Australia is in a severe heat wave with temperatures hitting 51 degrees. Perouse Twitter and the pro peloton are all moans and groans about hitting the road at 6am to get 4 hours in before the temperatures make training impossible. It’s nice to have these first world problems.

This 16th edition of the Santos Tour Down Under formally kicks off on Tuesday 21st January and runs until Sunday 26th January, covering a total of 875 kilometers. This race covers beautiful countryside including the famous wine regions of the Barossa Valley, McLaren Vale and the Adelaide Hills, with reputably over 200 cellar doors within one hour’s drive of Adelaide. This area is a foodies delight with the irony being that none of the pro peloton will be partaking. My initial concerns about this race are immediately proved to be unwarranted. The immediate area around Adelaide is a super location for an international bike race. Roads are wide, well surface and sparsely populated with traffic. The towns and villages en-route all support the race. No Daily Mail reactionaries here complaining about paying road tax and not having access to the public highway for 15 minutes of the year like in the UK. The amount of cycling fans out on the route is amazing; I didn’t think Australia had this many cyclists. Speaking to the roadside Tifosi at various points it obvious that there are people here from all over this continent sized country. The Tifosi come in all shapes, sizes, colours and varieties, its great to see so many people out on bike. The Aussies love sport, this is a great sporting nation, and they cheer every single pro rider, they cheer the cycling policemen and they cheer each other. The countryside is classic storybook pretty; it is dappled in light, dotted with quaint villages and bustling towns. The stunning views from the Adelaide Hills and big blue skies take your breath away. Acre after acre of vineyards and orchards over gentle rolling hills and with fields full of the prettiest cattle you’ll ever see. While waiting for the race I was serenaded by Galahs, Cockatoos, Lorakeets and Rozellas. One day I even met a field full of fluffy headed alpacas. The hills aren’t in the league of the Ventoux or Alpe d’Huez but Willung Hill (3km long) The Corkscrew (2km long) and Menglers Hill (2km long), nothing over 600 metres in height here, are effective in splitting the peloton especially if climbed twice or towards the end of the stage.

To get things started, there is the stand alone People’s Choice city center criterium on the evening of Sunday 19th January. The TDU race schedule gives the riders a day off on Monday 20th which facilitates a chat between Andy Fenn of the Omega Pharma Quick Step team and Spin Cycle. We met with Andy at the Hilton Hotel race HQ to discuss the life of a professional UCI World Tour team professional. This is Andy’s first Tour Down Under and he’s quietly confident. Sprinters are normally the exuberant, flamboyant type; think Mario Cipollini, Mark Cavendish, Tom Steels or Alessandro Petacchi. Andy breaks the mold as he is modest but also aware of his considerable talent, accepting that a rider has to improve in increments to reach cycling’s heights. Andy’s mother is Scottish so he’ll be riding for Scotland at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer, one of his main goals for this season.

Come on be honest, who doesn’t dream of landing a cushy job as a professional cyclist on a top UCI world tour team, riding top spec bikes, travelling the world and sharing the prize money? After all you only work a few months out of the year and it’s hardly the daily grind is it? Andy finished his 2013 season at the Tour of China on 30th September and it’s been a busy winter sorting the shizzles. After been based in Belgium for the past three years, Andy made the move to Lucca in Italy to be with his celebrity cycling girlfriend. Originally from Kent in the UK, Andy was billeted in Belgium with the support of the Dave Rayner fund; Andy’s apprenticeship was done the hard old-fashioned way. Long-term mentor, friend, ex-professional and 1989 GB Pro road race champion, Tim Harris, assisted Andy in this epic move. Tim playing the Dean Moriarty character to Andy’s Sal Paradise on the 30-hour road trip across Europe in Tim’s old furniture van. A transcript and Spotify playlist of that Kerouac-est on the road journey would have made interesting reading and listening. Could this move be read as a sign of maturity as, 24-year-old Andy puts down some roots with a loved one?

Italy also opens up other possibilities in terms of better weather, terrain and training partners, namely seasoned pro Steve Cummings. “Now I live in Tuscany, an area that I love and that I’ve known since I was an amateur. There, I’ll also have the chance to train with professionals of the calibre of Petacchi, from whom I can learn a lot”. Omega Pharma Quick Step obviously have faith in Andy signing him in 2011 from the An Post Team and keeping him in 2014 when many good pros are looking for work. Andy, who in 2008 won the junior version of Paris-Roubaix, loves the Italian lifestyle. “I like the language and I absolutely want to learn to cook Italian food, especially pizza, which I sometimes try to make at home.” 2013 did not bring great satisfaction to the British talent, but he’s ready to make up for it. “My goal is to work hard to reach a good level, gain experience through the right mix of races, and, last but not least, taste the joy of victory again.” Andy looked slim and fit, but somewhat pale due to winter weather of Europe when we met up with him. Clothed in OPQS casual sports wear he doesn’t look out of place even with Marcel Kittle sat opposite us doing his own rock star styled interview.

Sprinter Andy is here at the TDU as support to newly signed team leader, and former TDF maillot jaune wearer, Jan Bakelants. But isn’t the TDU just a Koala cuddling, glorified pre season training camp with corny photo opportunities, where the local Aussie riders humiliate the European pros just awakening from their winter hibernation? Andy is keen to point out this is not the case any more and that the TDU carries the same amount of UCI points as winning Paris Roubaix or fifth place in the Tour de France. Teams come here “primed and ready to ride” according to Andy. The aptly named old school, ex-pro, no nonsense Belgium OPQS team manager, Rik van Slycke, is looking at the form of his riders at the TDU with an eye for the spring classic and the grand tours later this year. Andy’s first grand tour, the Vuelta last year, didn’t exactly go to plan. Eliminated on stage 10 for holding onto the team car for a bit to long, lessons were learnt, but at this stage of his career its all a learning curve.

I’m sure us wage salves are all too familiar with key performance indicators, performance related pay and impressing the boss, so no different here then you assume? You may think that rest days for cyclists are all about sitting around drinking espresso, Skype calls to girlfriends back in Europe and deciding which exotic sports car to buy. Not for Andy, we met him at 3pm and he’s been up since 6am on his day off. At 7:30am he was out on bike with a peloton of 50 Aussie Specialized dealers for a couple of hours followed by a meet and greet to help sell those bikes. The brand is desperate to re-ingratiate itself with the general cycling public after Roubaix Gate late last year. This is followed by: lunch, then an afternoon of team media duties, which includes talking to me, an afternoon massage, team meeting about the TDU racing strategy, with finally an evening meal at 8:00pm with everyone in bed at 10:00pm sharp.

Race day and Andy is up and eating breakfast three hours before the 11:00am start, where the course is an hour’s drive away. Gone are the luxuries of racing in Europe such as rock ‘n’ roll style team busses. At the TDU, its one Skoda estate car and a humble Hyundai mini bus for all teams, all except Team Sky who seem to have their own rules when it comes to cars, they drive Jaguar team cars, and have three of them. All riders and teams arrive on the start line at 10:00am for signing on and the chaos of the daily media scrum. The races rolls out at 11:00am sharp for a few kilometers of neutralized riding, which allows for those final nature stops (and commissaries’ fines) before the race starts proper at the zero km board. Once the neutralized flag is pulled in it’s the same story every day; the local ‘pro’ outfit go on the attack to gain the vital publicity they need to continue in business. There’s no need to worry though that attack won’t last and the Euro pros just keep it in check until they are ready to reel it in.

With day one complete, the OPQS rider Carlos Verona Quintanilla is in the best young rider jersey. No need for a sprinter over the next few days, so Andy and the team’s work is all about protecting that jersey. You know the score here, fetching, carrying bidons and food, riding in the wind and all the day-to-day routine things all that are similar to chores we have to do in our own jobs? Finesse Carlos to the bottom of the final climb, in Andy’s case, and then find that ‘laughing group’ to ride with to the finish. Stage one and Andy rolls in with the gruppeto in 86th place 2:21 down on winner Simon Gerrans but with Carlos securely in the young rider jersey. Stage two sees rising start Diego Ulissi takes the win with Andy 130th 9:10 down. Stage three and Cadel Evans drops the entire peloton on the climb of the Corkscrew with Andy rolling in 6:55 down in 110th place. Andre Greipel takes stage four, the first of his two TDU stage wins, with the bunch split into two almost equal sized groups on the Myponga climb close to the Victor Harbor finish. Andy is in the second group in 132nd place 13:55 down on Greipel. Stage five sees the race climb the famous Willunga Hill twice with the finish at the summit on the 2nd pass. Richie Porte is a very convincing winner here with Andy in 110th place 11:32 down on Porte. The final 85km street race in Adelaide, around a 4.5km circuit, sees our first proper bunch sprint with Andy in third place, a fantastic result. Overall our man Andy is 116th 43:50 down on one-second winner Simon Gerrans from Cadel Evans.

Those daily time gaps don’t tell the full story though, Rik is happy, Andy is happy and the team is happy, it’s a job that has to be done and there’s a procedure to the daily grind. At the finish it’s play the find the soigner game, while dodging the media, race workers and various hangers on. Four out of the six finishes at the TDU are within an hour’s ride of Adelaide. In true old school Belgium style Rik has the team riding back to the hotel behind the team car on these days. Back at the hotel time, its showers, massages and getting the racing kit to the team’s soigners for washing. There’s an evening meal at 8:00pm, “we all eat together or not at all”, “if its been a good day then we might have a glass of red wine” and then bed at 10:00pm. “We maybe in bed by 10:00 but often we are awake until midnight catching up on daily life outside of the bubble via the Internet”. Andy isn’t a massive contributor to Twitter but loves Instagram, more looking than posting in his case.

As with most riders, Andy is somewhat shy, he prefers to let his legs and his results do the talking. Once primed though, Andy gave me a real insight into his world, which by and large isn’t as far removed for our own worlds’ of work. Andy obviously loves his job and is very good at it. If you want to know how good he is YouTube the final stage of the Tour Down Under. Andy is right in there at the finale with Greiple and Renshaw, taking third place, despite been given a really rough ride by Lotto Belisol. “I’m a bit of an all-rounder, maybe more of a sprinter,” was his assessment of his attributes. “I’m not a climber, that’s for sure! I’ve got a fast finish and I think I can do different things in different types of races.” I’m guessing his end of year review meeting with his boss will have all the ticks in all the right boxes.

An Open Space For Creativity and Collaboration

I love the work I do so much that it doesn’t actually feel like work at all. My Linkedin page describes me as a “solution architect” and “knowledge broker” but that’s only a small part of what I do. As someone who has worked in the international music industry for the last 38 years, and the higher education creative arts sector for the last 24 years, I am required to solve problems on a regular basis. A few weeks ago I was involved in a meeting with a couple of high-ranking academic mangers from an international creative higher education institution. They had correctly identified that the traditional siloed approach to “teaching” the creative arts was not particularly productive, nor was it creative and that collaborative working between different creative disciplines was the way forward. Bravo, problem correctly identified but that is the easy part. Now comes the really hard part; how to make creative students from different siloed disciplines work in collaboration? A classic Vladimir Propp ‘dispatcher’ scenario instilled in me, now go forth and solve that problem.

I am a big believer that the most dangerous eight words in any institution, enterprise or organisation are, “we have always done it this way before”. So I find myself in a meeting of educators from various different creative disciplines, e.g. film, design, audio, games programming, etc. to solve the problem of how to initiate and foster greater collaboration between these creative silos. It immediately becomes apparent that it’s not only the students that are not working collaboratively but neither are the staff. Indeed each ‘department’ was more that happy to be working within their own discipline with hardly any positive noises been made by anyone in the room towards full and meaningful collaborative work. Creativity by its very nature is a deviance from those unquestioned norms. Having a position outside the mainstream can facilitate one’s questioning of accepted practices and everyday modes of thought. I was shocked that a room full of creative minds was so closed to change. Maybe it’s an age problem; I am a 54 year old who grew out of the post punk art school movement in the UK. Deviance comes as second nature to me. This is not the first time in my professional career that I had stumbled into what Irving Goffman (1957) termed the “total institution”.

Osram
Osram’s cutting edge open-plan Munich office in 1957

I do not think that my learned colleagues had correctly diagnosed the problem. It’s virtually impossible to make students work on collaborative projects if the teaching staff can’t or won’t work collaboratively. In the same way that you can’t force people to love one another, you can’t force them to work collaboratively. The way to solve this problem is to get the teaching staff working collaboratively first; a classic case of some silo busting needs to be done. Traditional thinking here would suggest that a large open plan office housing the chalk face academic staff would result in collaborative approach. Not in this case. Each creative silo occupies one row each in a large open space. Just because a colleague sits within a PC’s throw away from the next, doesn’t mean they are going to talk to each other. Close proximity doesn’t generate productivity or collaboration nor is it conducive to creativity.

As a devout modernist you would think that I adore the concept of the open plan office. Ironically, it was a team of 1950s German modernists from Hamburg that conceived the open plan office to better facilitate communication and ideas flow. This new movement was termed Burolandschaft (office landscaping). But a growing body of evidence suggests that the standardisation of the open office undermines the purpose that it was designed to achieve. It’s my view that modern open plan office is a hegemonic device used to supress deviance and foster worker compliance. The problem here is that by its definition, great creative, collaborative work is by its very nature deviant in both form and content. It does not conform to established traditions in the field. Recent evidence published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology (Jungsoo. K, 2013) from a study of more than 40,000 workers in 300 U.S. office buildings, by far the most comprehensive research on this issue, came to the following conclusion, “Enclosed private offices clearly outperformed open-plan layouts in most aspects of IEQ (Indoor Environmental Quality), particularly in acoustics, privacy and the proxemics issues. Benefits of enhanced ‘ease of interaction’ were smaller than the penalties of increased noise level and decreased privacy resulting from open-plan office configuration.” Research journals love to use jargon but don’t let the jargon confuse you. The term “proxemics issues” refers to how people feel uncomfortable when they’re forced into close proximity with other people. In this case all the creative academics are stabled in a huge open plan office that resembles a call centre sweatshop rather than a highly creative space of voluntary collaboration.

The big issue here is one of physical creative space. One of the most important ingredients for an effective collaborative circle is a magnet place such as a pub (I spent an awful lot of time in pubs in the 1980s and 90s “working”) these days its more likely to be a café/coffee shop, corner shop, or even a lawn or garden; so long as it’s a place where group members can freely come together with each other to discuss new ideas and to talk and argue (constructively) about their work. A second key ingredient is for group members to have time away from the mainstream, time to look at issues and ideas from new perspectives without mental or social pressure to conform to accepted norms and attitudes. In the words of the inventor of lateral thinking, Edward de Bono, “Creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way”. The blunt tool of management dictates, “you will work in collaboration”, will never be effective here in a similar fashion to the fabulous dialogue from Dr Strangelove (1964), “Gentlemen you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room”. In 2011, organisational psychologist Matthew Davis reviewed more than a hundred studies about office environments. Davis found that although open-plan offices often fostered a positive symbolic sense of organisational mission, making employees feel like part of a more laid-back, innovative enterprise, they were extremely damaging to the inhabitant’s attention spans, productivity, satisfaction but most importantly their creative thinking. A more intelligent, less obvious, critical and creative approach needs to be taken here.

Last month saw Apple Inc. unveil two new sleek and very expensive iPhones in their brand new Steve Jobs Theatre, housed in the $6.2 AUS billon dollar campus Apple Park. According to the theatre’s architect, Stefan Behling of Foster and Partners, it is “a building which is pushing social behaviour in the way people work to new limits”. Behling identified that creative people work best in a space which is not a beige, standardised open plan office space. As discussed at the start of this article, Behling’s approach to design has its roots in Modernism. In 1896 the essay, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered by the founding father of skyscrapers Louis Sullivan stated that the loftiness of skyscrapers is to be “on a high road to natural and satisfying art”. Just like other Modernist ideas such as Socialism, the building of utopia is great but it’s intrinsically difficult. People in general, and creative types specifically, do not enjoy collisions, or having their social behaviour pushed. You can lead a creative to another but you can’t force them to work together.

Revolutionary painter Henri Mattise once said “Creativity takes courage”. To go back to the original problem highlighted earlier in this article, rather than forcing creative people to work collaboratively why not manufacture the physical and social conditions conducive to creative collaborations? This requires a fundamental change to the working conditions at this institution. The big problem here is that they have just undertaken a very costly multi million-dollar campus renovation and my solution to this systemic issue is somewhat challenging (they often are). Despite all the investment, open plan offices invariably fall short of the mark because they negatively affect workers’ satisfaction with their physical environment and perceived productivity. The main complaints often include: noise and lack of privacy. Cramming people one on top of the other is probably the human equivalent of battery hens, the egg gets laid but the chickens are far from being happy. By my direct observations the desks in this institution’s open plan office are only occupied for a fraction of time each day. People turn up in the morning and use their desk to check email or more likely their social media and dump their personal artefacts. I would argue that a specific dedicated desk is not conducive to creative or collaborative working. Indeed, in this institution most collaboration takes place around the lunch table or in the tiny, uninspiring and unventilated kitchen.

Here’s my solution. Close the car park and give everyone an interest free 12-month loan to buy a bicycle. My premise here is the more you drive the less intelligent and more isolated you become. Allocate everyone a specific locker and make all desks, including managements’, ‘hot desks’. When staff arrive to work they can source a desk, if needed, but make sure all workspaces are connected either with a computer or capable of accommodating your own (BYO) devices. The apotheosis is “activity based working”, an approach pioneered in the mid 1990s by Dutch consulting firm Veldhoen. Rather than sitting in one space staff should move around different zones during the working day working normally, focusing quietly, or collaborating or even indulging in total isolation.

Creative Office Interior Design
The BBC’s new ‘creative’ space at Broadcasting House, London 

We also need to accept and understand that creative types don’t all exhibit the same behaviours or work in similar patters. Lets create better physical space to exploit this? Most creative collaboration requires constant moving from communal discussions to individual focus and back again. Kill the open place office and provide a variety of stimulating spaces that people will naturally gravitate to depending on their activity as opposed to their specific creative discipline. I call this activity based working. Rather than forcing creatives to work collaboratively let’s try to re-engineer human behaviours through inspiring work spaces. Forced marriages have been known to work occasionally but the best ones are where people meet and fall in love.  

Now would be a fantastic time for institutions to stop using collaboration as the main driver for open-plan offices. Let’s be honest and realistic, although open-plan offices may have started out as well-intentioned Modernist collaborative experiment, these days they exist purely for economic reasons. It is far easier to cram twenty desks into a single space than construct some highly creative and stimulating creative paces. My main point here is that you cannot force collaboration onto anyone who doesn’t want to collaborate. Simply put, some individuals have their own style of “collaborating” and should be left to their own devices. My intuitive guess is if the teaching staff initiate collaborative projects of their own accord then student collaborative projects will follow. My ultimate solution for effective collaboration at higher education institutions is to devise a creative space that encourages and facilitates student and staff from all previously siloed disciplines to share, discuss, debate and collaborate on meaningful creative projects together.

TimDalton2014

 

I am available for guest lectures, workshops, master classes, conferences and panels; simply drop me a line with your request and I’ll be in touch.

Melbourne Music Education Sector Promo (MMESP)

DKHQ partner Tim Dalton has been working with the City of Melbourne to promote the city as a global destination for music education. One outcome of this collaboration was a promotion video featuring Tim Dalton.

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Watch the video here

Melbourne is a globally recognised music city and music education is a key element of the industry eco-system here. Melbourne has a range of education and training facilities to choose from. If you are keen to study music in Melbourne, but not sure which course is right for you, have a look at our latest video to see all that our city has to offer or drop me a line. 

This video was produced by BENCU for City of Melbourne in partnership with The Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music – University of Melbourne, RMIT University, Collarts, Australian Institute of Music, SAE Creative Media Institute and Box Hill Institute.

Time For A New Slogan?

Last Saturday, 16th April, was Record Store Day (RSD) and what a super successful event it was too. Over the last three years that I’ve been a RSD ambassador I’ve seen it go from strength to strength. The success of RSD has made me think about how we can move forward to develop a more sustainable local music ecosystem. In particular, I am keen to see small local music venues survive in what is increasingly becoming a hostile environment. Local music venues are under attack from all angles including, gentrification, urban planning, outdated laws and the general ongoing financial climate. Bodies such as Music Victoria have done amazing work in helping to keep grass roots music venues operational but as with all ecosystems some of the responsibility lies with us: the general public.

I’m old enough to remember the slogan ‘Home Taping is Killing Music’ with the logo of a cassette and cross-bones on record sleeves during the 1980s. The major record labels in the United States and the United Kingdom instigated this slogan to publicly confront and shame domestic consumers over the private copying of music onto blank cassette tapes. Industry trade groups, such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), mounted publicity campaigns aimed at combatting the practice of ‘home taping’. In addition to this sloganeering, they threatened to take legal action against home tapers, lobbied governments for new copyright legislation and tried to have a tax levied upon blank cassette tapes. The home taping of CD and vinyl recording onto blank tapes was publically condemned. Lots of people did it. I remember friends giving me their home-recorded tapes of popular music albums. This practice was labeled as piracy, even though private, non-commercial copying was predominantly legal in both the UK and USA.

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Is it time for a new slogan?

In a significant precursor to the digital file-sharing battles of the 1990s and 2000s, fans and musicians widely objected to these attempts by trans national corporations at media control, often through highly creative responses. I would argue that downloading has pretty much killed tactile music sales, well almost. Thanks largely to the Internet, the music industry has been thrown into a state of flux and re-organisation. This new paradigm has resulted in artists at all stages of their careers becoming reliant on money from live shows to pay the bills and survive.  Even international rock stars have mundane bills to pay too, from the mortgage to their beans on toast!

There’s only one problem and its a pretty big problem. Unless the artist is lucky enough to be ‘loved’ by a huge audience, playing the local enormo-dome with tickets selling at $200 plus, they will probably be found playing smaller grass roots music clubs across the country. It’s a fantastic circuit which both musicians and fans love. So how about we introduce a new slogan of ‘Not Buying Tickets In Advance Is Killing Live Music’? Through the creative deployment of this new slogan we could help keep music venues open. Walking up and paying on the door is par for the course for many fans of live music. Many local and regional acts can attract good numbers, even though they probably won’t sell out the venue. The problem here is that come the night of the show, if it’s raining or the punter just can’t get off the sofa, it’s easy not to bother showing up. If punters don’t walk though the doors then small promoters get nervous, chew their nails, panic and often they will cancel the gig if they don’t sell enough advanced tickets.  It’s understandable for small venues which operate on very tight margins. If a small 200 capacity venue only sells 50 advanced tickets, you can fully understand why they get twitchy when they are committed to paying bar-staff, door personnel, technicians, turning the lights, AC/heating on and providing power for backline PA and lights. The break-even point in a 200 capacity venue is probably around 180 tickets; those last 20 ticket sales are the ones that make the show worthwhile.

I’m very lucky because I live in Melbourne one of world’s great music cities. According to the Live Music Census (2012) there are 62,000 gigs annually taking place in over 470 venues in the Greater Melbourne area with 14.4 million patron visits resulting in an industry worth $1.04 billion per year. Those figures are staggering, even more so when you consider that live music in Melbourne employs the equivalent of 116,000 full time jobs. To put then into some type of perspective the combined automotive engineering industry in Victoria only employs approx. 25,000 people. Without good governance, stringent financial management and our own active involvement, this fragile musical ecosystem could be eroded and eventually lost forever. One big irony is that prime TV talent shows have commoditised popular music to such an extent that many people will no longer venture outside of their front door to enjoy live music at a venue. The economic environment and the general tightening of the purse strings have all taken their toll on live music ticket sales. The big hangover from the above is that gig fans are being a bit choosier and many are not buying advance tickets for shows with a detrimental effect on live music venues.

The other casualties are full band shows. It’s no surprise that more artists are performing solo or with slimed down backing bands/tracks rather than with a full band.  Fees have gone down in the last few years so it is much easier to take less risk with booking a solo performer. Fine for someone who plays and sings, but not so good for some artists with one string to their bow. Ultimately its the audience that suffers. While I love the intimacy of the solo gigs, you can’t beat rocking out to a complete band with a ‘full production’ show in an intimate venue.

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The Tote Hotel music venue in Melbourne. Buy tickets for their shows in advance via their web site and help them stay in business

It’s not just the small venues that tread a fine line, look at some of the medium and larger sized venues and to some extent the touring festivals in Melbourne. It’s very frustrating that increasingly, with each passing year, more and more people prefer to pay at the door rather than buy tickets in advance. The numbers end up the same in the end, but it puts the promoters under a great deal of financial pressure in the run up as they work out how many paying customers they need to break even or occasionally turn a profit. Buying a ticket in advance diminishes these financial worries and keeps venues open. If people bought tickets in advance there would be no need to run campaigns along the lines of ‘lets keep venue X open’.

My message is very simple. If you want to keep live music alive and kicking in small and medium sized venues, then you need to cough up for the ticket early and persuade a bunch of mates to go with you. You’ll have an amazing time, inject some much need cash into the local community, provide employment for all types of trades and help support the local music ecosystem. My very simple equation is thus Beer + Live Music + Friends = Good Times and if you don’t believe me then go out and test my theory. So if you see a gig you like, buy the ticket as far in advance as possible, otherwise it might not be on when you get there!

The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll

David Hepworth’s new book Never A Dull Moment claims that 1971 was the greatest year for popular music as it saw the release of more “monumental” albums than any year before or since. It’s an interesting claim and one that I will contest here. I also think it’s a really odd book title considering it’s the same as Rod Stewart’s superb 1972 album; why not give the book a namesake title from a “monumental” 1971 album? Granted 1971 saw an unprecedented number of album releases, but does that single metric make it the greatest album release year? Anyone who knows me will confirm that I love a good argument and so here it goes. Dave Hepworth is a fantastic music journalist but he got it completely wrong. His book should have been about the era from 1969 to 1981; the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll.

Taste is a very slippery concept as Immanuel Kant proposed in his 1790 Critique Of Judgement. Kant calls aesthetic judgments “judgments of taste” and remarks that, though they are based in an individual’s subjective feelings, they also claim universal validity. It could be claimed that Hepworth’s book is an attempt to canvass some form of universal acceptance; or he might just be trying to sell more books. The viewing of an art form is anything but a passive activity. Art should rouse us to an intellectual involvement with the world in which it was created. Good art results in a discourse and the better the art the more tumultuous that discourse should be.

Only last year (2015) I published my own book, Album Rescue Series, in which I tried to show some love to mistreated, misunderstood and underrated albums. On page 129 of this book, I rescue Jim Ford’s excellent 1969 Southern funky rumpus album Harlan County. During this album rescue, I argue that this album was largely overlooked because of the year of its release: 1969. Harlan County was probably the strangest but most compelling release of 1969, but what a year for popular music. 1969 was the launching pad for an era of unparalleled creativity in popular music the likes of which we’ll never see again. Hepworth’s identification of 1971 should not be viewed as an isolated year but as part of the twelve-year continuum of popular music’s most prolific era, which ran from 1969 to its sad demise in 1981.

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During the 12 months of 1969 we see releases from Bob Dylan (Nashville Skyline), The Beatles (Abbey Road), Tim Buckley (Blue Afternoon), Led Zeppelin (Led Zeppelin II), King Crimson (In The Court of King Crimson), The Who (Tommy), Captain Beefheart (Trout Mask Replica), Nick Drake (Pink Moon), Sly and the Family Stone (Stand), The Rolling Stones (Let It Bleed), The Band (The Band), The Stooges (The Stooges) and a host of other amazing albums. How on earth could Jim Ford, an unheard of artist from the back hills of Kentucky, with his unique blend of country, funk, soul and rock ‘n’ roll ever get noticed in the company of these esteemed artists? If you’ve never heard Harlan County then go out and buy this album and give it a spin; if you don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back. I was seven years old for the majority of 1969, and didn’t turn eight until mid December, but all of these albums I distinctly remember. What I do remember is zeitgeist of 1969, the break up of The Beatles, the violent end of the peace and love generation presided over by Rolling Stones at Altamount and the white heat of new technology manifested by Neil Armstong standing on the moon. No wonder 1969 was such an epistemic year for popular music.

1969

Don’t get me wrong, I agree with Hepworth when he cites some exquisite, delightful and ground-breaking albums of 1971. You cannot dispute Carole King (Tapestry), Badfinger (Straight Up), Rod Stewart (Every Picture Tells A Story), Emerson Lake & Palmer (Pictures At An Exhibition), Rolling Stones (Sticky Fingers), John Lennon (Imagine), Paul McCartney (Ram) and George Harrison (All Things Must Pass); all of which I play on a regular basis. Back in 1971 record sales were growing too fast for the record companies to exert any kind of meaningful creative control. They threw an awful lot of shit at the wall and hoped some of it would stick; not the type of approach prescribed in the business manuals that would follow in the 1980s. Amongst all this shit though were the shining diamonds of perfection as listed above. Back in 1971 the record business was in an unprecedented boom period, profits were good and re-investment in product development (A&R) at an all time high.

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For the next decade the music would be good until it died at the end of 1981. Even as a musically precious nine/ten year old I remember 1971 very distinctly mainly because of the music which I was already showing signs of being obsessed with. During this era it was de-rigour for acts to be signed to two albums a year recording contracts, which meant they were all extra productive at their most creative age. Everybody played live all the time. Neil Young wrote and recorded Harvest while on the road during 1971 in locations as far apart as Barking, East London and Nashville. The classic T. Rex singles were recorded at stops on their 1971 American tour. Pink Floyd spent weekdays recording Meddle and weekends playing colleges. Nobody took months off. Nobody dared. During this era, popular music was getting serious and corporate. The Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, was their first album under the distinctive tongue ‘corporate’ logo and released on their own ‘independent’ label. I would argue (I like arguing) that this Stones album was almost as notable for its cover as its content. 1971 was the year Brown Sugar, the last truly great Rolling Stones single (but that’s another article for another day), went to number one.

While discussing this article at work last week with my boss (Gareth) he made the point, and a good point it is too, that 1981 was probably the last truly great year for popular music. In terms of this article/blog I am prepared to state that 1981 is the end of rock ‘n’ rolls’ most creative and productive era. 1981 is an interesting time as Modernism is all but dead and post modernism has well and truly taken hold. Consider the albums that were released during 1981: The Rolling Stones (Tattoo You), Stevie Nicks (Bella Donna), Motorhead (No Sleep Till Hammersmith), U2 (October), Human League (Dare), Miles Davis (Directions), New Order (Movement), The Cure (Faith), Simple Minds (Fascination/Sister Feeling Call), The Psychedelic Furs (Talk Talk Talk) and The Police (Ghost In The Machine). In many ways these albums signal then end of rock ’n’ rolls creative and profitable golden years and signal the start of a new era; a new way of conducting business.

Behind the scenes the creative, maverick, iconoclastic and entrepreneurial music managers were been driven out by the faceless beige suited office drones, obsessed by spread sheets and quadrant charts. By 1981, Thatcherism was starting to make its presence felt in the UK; the good times for a whole host of traditional industries was well and truly over. In the same year, Ronald Regan came to power in the USA. Between Regan and Thatcher, the traditional Anglo American power base of popular music was well and truly under attack from monetarism. How can any creative endeavour survive when it’s exposed to monetarism’s money growth rule? 1981 was the end of making lots of great records and the start of making a small number of profitable records. In a head on fight between creativity and commerciality, the one with the muscles is always going to win.

I hate to end this piece with such a downbeat message so here is some good news. Head down to your independent local record store as every album listed above will be for sale. Have a listen to these albums and test my argument. Record Store Day happens on Saturday 16th April this year, so why not head out on this special day and treat yourself to a classic piece of music. Not only will your purchase make you smile for many years to come but you will also have supported a local independent business and that’s a good thing. In the words of Mott The Hoople’s 1974 hit The Golden Age of Rock ‘n’ Roll

The golden age of rock ‘n’ roll will never die
As long as children feel the need to laugh and cry
Dont wanna smash, want a smash sensation
Dont wanna wreck, just recreation
Dont wanna fight, but if you turn us down
Were gonna turn you around, gonna mess with the sound

Ohh, ohh, ohh
Its good for body, its good for your soul
Ohh, ohh, ohh
Its the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll

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Record Store Day Australia 2016 by Tim Dalton

Record Store Day Australia (RSDA) falls on Saturday 16th April this year. It’s the third year that I’ve been asked to be an ambassador, something I’m extremely proud of. Ever since I left school in 1979 at the age of 16, I’ve earned my living working in the music industry in one form or another. Physical formats such as records, tapes and CDs are almost part of me; in many ways they define me and who I am. I live in a house that has a whole room devoted to my music collection; rather metro-sexually I refer to this as the “media” room. This curated musical collection tells the story of my life, which hopefully is still a work in progress. Planning and writing about RSDA has got me reminiscing about the first record that I ever bought and about some of my favourite record stores that I’ve visited over the years. The first record that I ever bought was a 7” vinyl single of Son Of My Father by UK band Chicory Tip. I vividly remember budgeting 37 new pence (70 Australian cents) of my birthday money to buy this record from Shakespeare Records, located inside Paragon railway station in my birth city of Hull. The word ‘Paragon ‘ is an interesting choice here as the word means “a person or thing regarded as a perfect example of a particular quality”. The station actually took its name from the street it stands on, Paragon Street, but I still love the way the word is misappropriated.

Shakespear

Back in 1972 there were approximately 39 record stores in Hull city centre serving a population of around 200,000 people. This begs the question why did I choose Shakespeare Records and not Sydney Scarborough, Stardisc, Sheridan’s or one of the large department stores such as Hammonds or Debenhams or any of the other 39 stores? Paragon Station was a fabulous unmodernised Victorian building so much so that it has appeared in numerous feature films and TV shows. One attraction was that Shakespeare Records was a small building, more a pre-fab really, inside another enormous building. Subconsciously it could be the 11 year old me signalling that music and travel would forever be connected in my life.

Originally this record store was called Shakespeare Brothers but in a bid to move with the times in the early 1970’s they dropped the ‘Brothers’ and replaced it with ‘Records’, very hip and groovy. Mid December 1972 and it was a right of passage type day as my Dad drove me to Hull city centre in a tepid blue Vauxhall Viva to make my first ever purchase of what I now know would be many future records. I didn’t know it at the time, but this record is actually a cover of a Giorgio Moroder/Pete Bellotte tune that was released in 1971 under the name Giorgio. The 1972 Chicory Tip version features the very first top ten appearance of a Moog synthesizer in the UK. AIR studio manager Roger Easterby heard the Giorgio original and persuaded Chicory Tip to re-record their version, with additional lyrics added by vocalist Michael Holm, in a weekend. The Chicory Tip version was rush released where it went straight into the top ten and eventually hit number one. AIR’s resident record producer Chris Thomas played the dominating Moog synth part.

Released in February 1972, it took me almost 10 months to get around to purchasing this record. Listening back to this record I can see why I developed my lifelong love and obsession with synth pop. This record has all the DNA of 1980’s synth-pop, such as the synthesizer as the dominant musical instrument, which I came to love a decade later. For an 11-year-old kid from a cultural backwater like Hull, this record demonstrates a musical maturity way beyond my tender years.

This visit to Shakespeare Records set me on a course that would see me visit many record stores all over the world for both business and pleasure. Only 16 years after purchasing my first record I’d left school and was working in the music industry, albeit on the very bottom rung of the ladder. Over the next 36 years I was lucky enough to travel the world many times over and visit record stores in just about every major city that I’ve visited. One of the biggest stores I regularly made visits too was Tower Records at 1 Piccadilly Circus, London. This massive 2,300m2 store opened in 1986 and was their European flagship store. London also had the Virgin Megastore on the corner of Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road and that was also enormous. These enormo-dome type record stores ushered in the ear of the ‘in-store’ performance or as we called them in the USA music business “the shake and howdy”. If someone had told back then that this behemoth of a record store chain would completely disappear off the face of the planet within a few short years (along with all the other major high street retailers) I would have thought them completely insane.

In these big stores a small stage and PA could be incorporated onto the sales floor allowing for acoustic performances. These performances normally coincided with whatever touring band was in town playing at the local venue. The normal schedule would be an in-store early afternoon, sound check late afternoon and show on the evening; we liked to work our acts hard back then. These in-stores would pay a dividend in terms of record sales, through in some ‘specials’ some free nibbles/barrel of beer and significant sales would follow. In-stores are now a common component in the arsenal of engagement tools of the music retailer.

The sheer scale of some record stores is breath taking, such as Amoeba Music in LA, which is the world largest independent record store spread over 2,230m2 and holding over 100,000 titles. It’s the sheer variety of independent record stores that I love. Some are genre specific, some location specific but all of them love and know music. Some of my favourites, in no particular order, are: –

  • Aquarius Records in one of my favorite US cities San Francisco. This store has been a fixture of San Francisco’s music scene since 1970, making it one of the longest-running independent record shops in the United States. The store carries a wide range of stock, but is most famous for its extensive selection of psychedelic, metal, and drone music, as one would expect of a San Fran store.
  • Spacehall Records on Zossiener Straße in Berlin, which I first visited in the mid 1980s. You cannot even begin to talk techno or house or dub or any electronic music for that matter without bringing up Berlin’s Spacehall. The beautiful minimalist, modernist design of the store suits its refined, highly stylish musical aesthetic. It’s like a classic 1980’s BMW, stark, functional but never out of style.
  • Rough Trade East is the daddy of UK record shops. London’s Rough Trade East, which opened in 2007, may be the younger brother of Rough Trade West, but is also one of the biggest independents in the UK. The store sells predominantly new stock of vinyl and CDs, racked up across a huge 465m2 sales space, and has a handy cafe at the front. Rough Trade is more than just a shop, it’s also one of the most influential labels in the UK, and has put out influential records by The Smiths, The Fall, The Strokes, Arcade Fire, Belle & Sebastian and more. Rough Trade East also plays host to in-store gigs, film screenings, and talks on film, music and literature. This is more than a record store, it’s an institution and I can’t get enough of the place.

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  • Probe Records, in a city where I lived for over a decade, Liverpool. In a city with such a fine musical pedigree, it takes a lot to stand out and Probe does that. Though it’s moved premises through the years, Liverpool’s Probe Records has been going strong since 1971. Established by legendary Twisted Wheel DJ Roger Eagle and music entrepreneur/producer Geoff Davis, it was more than a record store it, was the epicenter of a movement. Pete Burns of Dead or Alive and Paul Rutherford of Frankie Goes to Hollywood have both worked there along with countless other wannabes and rock stars. In the wake of punk, Probe Records became Liverpool’s go-to record shop, attracting clientele from Echo and the Bunnymen, The Lighting Seeds and OMD. The shop launched its own record label Probe Plus in 1981, which has released work by cult Merseyside act Half Man Half Biscuit.
  • Good Vibrations, Belfast. The film Good Vibrations named after the legendary Belfast record store of the same name and released last year, was brilliant. It told the story of local music lover Terri Hooley’s attempt to expand his store into a label that would go on to release DJ John Peel’s favorite record Teenage Kicks by The Undertones in 1979. But the film’s popularity also sparked the store back into life. Now in its 13th incarnation, and proclaiming itself as “Belfast’s poorest record shop”, shoppers can still bump into Hooley, now aged 65, working behind the till. Visit it soon as it has a history of going bust very quickly.
  • I know I’m very biased but my favorite of favorite record stores is Grimey’s in Nashville. Nashville is a town of institutions and Grimey’s is no exception. It’s a store beloved by the city’s residents, and has a sort of hometown family feel about it. I first Mike ‘Grimey’ Grimes when he played guitar with local rock band Bare Jr. who I was working with at the time. Grimey has an uncanny King Midas knack of turning whatever he touches into cool. When I lived there he took over a run down bar, The Slow Bar, in the very un-trendy East part of town and within a few weeks it became Nashville’s coolest, muso bar and late night hangout. It’s exactly the same with his record store. The store has a vast selection of new music, and next door at their “too” (sic) store they have an abundance of “pre-loved” music. They supply their consumers with all formats including CD, vinyl and cassettes. But what really makes them stand out is they do a lot of activities to bring artists into the stores and make them accessible to their patrons. They have many releases and after hour in-stores in ‘The Basement’ located obviously beneath the store. This is a cozy little live music bar to catch a local artist performance while drinking a beer. This is a very special kind of record store that I recommend to anyone that stops in Nashville. This place holds a special place in my heart just because it’s so damn cool. And who knows? Maybe if you’re lucky you’ll visit at the same time as locals like Taylor Swift, Steve Earle, Bobby Bare or Ke$ha.

In my now adopted hometown of the last three years of Melbourne I’m totally spoilt for choice. From recollection there are approximately 87 independent records stores, a number that grows each year, in the metropolitan area alone. There are some fine record stores in this city as there probably are in your city/town/suburb of residence. My suggestion is to go out on an adventure and find the one you like. Find the one that stocks the style and genre of music you like in the part of town that appeals to you. I’ll be out and about but it’s doubtful I’ll physically be able to visit every single independent record store in Melbourne on RSDA on 16th April. If you see me in an independent store around Melbourne on Saturday 16th April come up and say “Hi”, I might even show you what I’ve bought.

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