Virgin Disruptors

By Jeremy Wilson on October 29th, 2013

On Monday evening I found myself, courtesy of First Great Western’s overly cautious approach to a bit of wind, late to attend an event titled “Has tech killed the music industry?”

It was the first in a series of “Virgin Disruptors” live events, which are much less exciting than the name suggests. “Disruption” is apparently a thing in the tech industry at the moment and it seems Virgin is keen to preserve its place at the forefront of innovation.

A flashy exhibition about the history of Virgin records, or something.

A flashy exhibition about the history of Virgin records, or something.

Sweaty and out of breath, I entered a basement with a stage circled by school gym benches, all packed with bright young things taking full advantage of the free bar.

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I was in for disappointment. It turns out will.i.am was appearing over Google Hangout, not in person, as the glossy PR email had led me to believe. To be honest, I’d only come to try and snaffle a selfie with my favourite maestro from The Voice.

One of Richard Branson's children hosted the event, although not the one advertised.

One of Richard Branson’s children hosted the event, although not the one advertised.

To add insult to injury, we had to wait ten minutes for will.i.am to find a pair of headphones. I’d sooner smother dog shit on my ears then be seen in public wearing Dr Dre’s, but Mr i.am has no such qualms – indeed, as he was keen to point out, he’s made more money from his equity in Beats than his biggest hit single.

Also on Hangout was the man who inflicted Justin Bieber on the world, some woman with eyebrows and Zoë Keating. In the room were representatives from Vevo and Songkick, Imogen Heap and Spotify’s “artist advocate”. Sending an “artist advocate” to this event was like sending Norman Tebbit to a miner’s convention.

It was MCed by Colin Murray, the Irish one from Match of the Day.

After some issues with the PA, we got going. The lesser, more artsy musicians whinged for a bit about not being able to do direct deals with streaming services. The guy from Songkick waxed lyrical about how he wanted to change the way a ticket was “perceived”, from something that grants you entry to a building to “an expression of what it’s like to be in that room”.

Vevo guy dropped the words “billions of views” a lot and Spotify’s shill played the “I’m an artist too” card.

But frankly no one was listening. We were waiting for will.

“We went from listening to music on gramophones to iPhones” was perhaps the tech titan’s most incisive line of the night.

At some point Imogen heap tried to say something but will.i.am started tapping on his camera till Colin let him speak again. Turns out he’d forgotten to give us a condensed history of The Black Eyed Peas.

As the night wore on, tempers started to fray. Amanda Palmer took issue with will’s assessment that she should stop complaining about how hard it was to make money from her music and start innovating in “digital real estate”. Expletives were exchanged. It was quite wonderful in an end-of-days sort of way.

Sitting between two people ranting at each other over Google Hangouts is more entertaining than it sounds; Virgin might be onto something here after all.