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Hot media creates space for hot communication; cool media creates space for cool communication. Hot media heats things up; cool media cools things down. Think about the difference between communicating by texting cool versus email hot. Communicating by text will generally cool things down and invite ambiguity.

A photograph is hotter than a pencil: they both make pictures, but one makes low-resolution sketches and the other high-definition images. You might think that the highest-resolution format of all could be visual, typographic or video. Audio, especially verbal speech, is tremendously high in information content. Most people are unaware of this. We mistakenly think of information as sensory input being thrown at us, usually with a bias towards our visual senses. Audible speech burns hot with information.

Intonation, accents, innuendo, vocal phrasing, emphasis, pauses, all communicate far more than a transcript can. Music is good at this, but speech is even better.

Postscript

Our eyes treat it neutrally. Our ears are hyper-discriminatory. Text keeps things chill, whereas audio forces the issue.

The lesson has nothing to do with the content of what either of them were saying. What matters is that Nixon was a Hot candidate: sharp, saturated with information, abrasive, and in your face. But JFK was a Cool candidate: relaxed, speaking easy, in slogans that invited multiple interpretations, creating plenty of gaps for the audience to fill in themselves. Hot, high-resolution media like radio created space for a hot style and messenger like Nixon really well.


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But cool, low-resolution media like s TV rejected him. Nixon sounded powerful and alive on the radio, but abrasive and mismatched on TV. Meanwhile, Kennedy seemed slow, empty and lethargic on a hot medium like radio, but fit smoothly and confidently on TV. Hot media seeks and creates hot content and hot messengers. A voice like Howard Stern, coming straight into our hyper-discriminating ears, is a powerful thing and when we hear it, we want more of it. They feel flat and dead. Barack Obama was a successful Cool candidate. A good match between message and medium goes a long way; a bad match usually fizzles out fast.

Hot media mean hot messages, hot temperature, and hot consequences. His tweets are a jarring spectacle, clashing badly with the way the medium normally works. And even then, Twitter is not how Trump actually talks to his base or flexes populist power. He did not rise to the presidency because of Twitter. Where is that stage? Well, we are the stage.

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Digital Revolution

So in order to understand what headphones and audio are doing to us, we need to take a closer look at us: that is to say, our brains. Brains face an engineering challenge: how to deal with sensory input streaming in, in real time. Individual neurons in your brain can each take somewhere in the tens or sometimes hundreds of milliseconds to integrate and transmit signals between each other. Even basic neural circuits can comprise dozens of neurons.


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  • Without some way to speed this up, complex sensory integration or motor output would be impossibly laggy. What happened?


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    • You began the sentence, and then your brain picked up on a pattern it recognized: Smash Mouth lyrics. You start skimming: reading in low resolution and filling in the gaps. Better go back to reading one word at a time. Once we start following the known All Star sequence, each additional word contributes almost zero new information, because they resolve no uncertainty.

      But the word Ocean was new information.

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      We rely on it continuously, at every abstraction level, from basic raw input up to executive function — particularly for our eyes. Or maybe it did! With neuroscience, everything is just a probability. The brain continuously triages inbound sensory input into our low-resolution, fed-forward, gap-filling stream and into our high-resolution, information-saturated stream. This should ring some bells: sure sounds like Cool and Hot. And it is. How come? The neurological explanation is illuminating. Sensory input is processed in two different ways: uni-modally vision only; audio only and multi-modally integrating multiple senses together into a complete picture.

      Our neural circuitry dedicated to integrating multi-modal sensory information is less willing to throw the switch into high-resolution, finely discriminating information processing. Years of touring and web-based promotion laid the necessary foundations, and staying indie Macklmeore released The Heist and the albums that preceded it through his own indie label, Macklemore LLC meant retaining the publishing rights artists normally relinquish to labels, and forgoing the percentage cuts that majors impose on their artists.

      But the idea that Macklemore made it alone is misleading. For a flat monthly fee, ADA used its acumen and contacts to promote, plug and distribute The Heist, pushing Macklemore into the highest echelons of the mainstream. As Kristin Thomson, social researcher and co-director of the Artist Revenue Streams Project points out, even talented, commercially viable artists need experienced partners to achieve that level of impact.

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      But even with these new platforms and channels, it takes a ton of work and strategic thinking. Very few indie artists can access the services of big-league distributors such as ADA, who prefer artists to have had demonstrable success with radio airplay and online sales. But the proliferation of digital distributors has helped indie artists ply their trade online. Beatport does similar, and is a trusted source for the electronic dance music scene while Naxos is a favourite for classical musicians.

      CD Baby. Each of these digital aggregators represents a massive disruption of the former label-distributor-retailer chain, says Thomson, allowing artists to be paid quickly and transparently. This is a radical shift from yesteryear, says Thomson — and she should know.

      Internet of Things: it's all coming together for a tech revolution

      In the 90s, together with Jenny Toomey, Thomson founded the much-loved, now-defunct indie label Simple Machines. Payments for sales were often slow, and unsold stock could be returned.

      Clearly, the development of digital music sales via stores like iTunes and Amazon has been revolutionary on its own. Thomson says watching the shift into digital distribution has been fascinating. Everything is always in print! Artists may be able to sell both digital and physical releases directly from their websites but getting physical stock into shops is still vital for emerging artists says Rich Walker, general manager at respected indie label 4AD.

      Finding online distributors such as AWAL may be easy, but convincing reputable distributors your physical releases are profitable is getting harder for indie artists. For all the new avenues the digital age has opened up, there are pitfalls — and indie artists are at the mercy of these potholes.