ADC Open Mic 2023 : Where the ideas come from

When an artist produces a work about an artist producing a work, it’s hard not to detect a cry for help.

My dearest cousin Geoffrey,

I have run out of the food of inspiration, and am now digesting myself. Am going quite spare. Any crumb of an idea that you might spare me, might spare me.

It occurs to me that this postmodern fad for self-reference in literature might be getting rather stale.

Yours etc.,
my dearest cousin Geoffrey.

The question ‘Where do your ideas come from?’ is an inside joke among writers. An oyster can’t tell you how to make a pearl. The grit gets in, who knows how, and the rest is nature.

But a creative endeavour needs an irritant or stimulus of some kind: the thing that gets you to the point where gradually revealing the work is enough to propel you forward.

Chuck Close was (until recently) a painter, but he might be just as famous for giving the world an aphorism: ‘Inspiration is for amateurs: the rest of us just show up and get to work’. It suggests, if you’re suitably attuned, that you can just pluck a starting point out of background noise.

Here’s one starting point:

A couple of years ago, people couldn’t go on holiday, so they spent their holiday money on guitars and microphones and plug-ins. And all was well, as long as our loved ones stayed alive, and we didn’t need microchips to build hardware with.

This year, the music tech budget is right back on holidays. Or it’s blown on something frivolous and stupid, like not freezing to death in winter. Everybody here is working hard to get back to where we were. And we’ll probably end up there anyway, but not by being complacent or losing ground.

A big consequence of having a slow year is that it makes public companies cheaper to invest in. Year by year, it’s getting more probable that any given person in this room has spent part of their waking life in the service of a private equity company, who have decided, in their own language, to go long.

These companies are like buy-to-let landlords in London, who convert every cubic foot of enclosed air into a mezzanine with a mattress on it. Like landlords, there are many exceptions, but not enough to soften the stereotype.

Inside a PLC, everything long-term, everything commercially risky, every corridor and stationery cupboard, and all but the most predictable project with the nearest horizon is under pressure to deliver a rapid return, or else be dissolved and absorbed into a more immediate hit.

Quarterly growth targets. They’re what inspired so many of us to get into audio.

The pressure towards banal uniformity in everything, everywhere, is well documented. This is just one of many causes, and ought to make us a bit angry. But I’m done as an employee, and I’m done being angry about things I can’t change, and experimental data suggests that being able to sit on a stage and whine about banal uniformity is a hard-won and delicate privilege.

Besides, when short-sightedness and inertia overtake a competitor it’s a great day for me.

But, as deadly sins go, anger is a powerful creative force. There’s always been money in anger, as demagogues and journalists know, and now there’s a whole corner of the tech world that exploits it to the extent that it’s called the rage economy.

Especially there, though, we end up with banal uniformity. For all the buttons it pushes in our brain stems, social media is flatly unsatisfying and becoming more so. A restaurant where all the meals are free because someone’s chewed them already. And then taken a cocktail stick and written ‘Try Grammarly’ in the dribble.

Who else here has deactivated a social media account in the last few weeks?

[hard to tell with the lights shining in my face and the auditorium unlit, but perhaps 10-15% of hands go up]

I’m left with LinkedIn and my God.

‘My company has a new product out. In case you missed my previous fifteen posts over the last two weeks, here’s another silent video of me playing with it in my home studio.’

‘Do you want a solution that’s truly unique and crafted to your business? We’ve got a warehouse full of the bastards.’

Is there a word for grudging capitalism? An acceptance of our fate in a bigger machine, like a stoned Karl Marx? A bearded Victorian bellowing ‘Workers of the world! Could we just keep money but, like, stop being such dicks about it?’

The second big trend that’s changing our world is jumping out of every surface here so enthusiastically that I barely need to introduce it. In common with the other innovations that have turned our industry inside out since the last time I laced a tape, machine learning changes the nature of inspiration, expression, and the art itself.

The tools for wielding it are getting so accessible that we’re running out of excuses not to play with them.

Computers aren’t creative in the same way we are, and may never be. But it doesn’t matter. Crafters romanticise the process, but success is mostly about the product. Other animals display whimsical creativity; we’re just the only primate that can hold a paintbrush properly. There’s no reason why creativity has to be the sole preserve of organic chemicals either.

So I’m going to leave you with this. I asked a friend what I should say tonight, and she then asked ChatGPT for ‘a short closing speech on the theme “keeping your enemies closer”. Intended for an audience of audio engineers who are very intelligent. Make it funny.’

For some reason, ChatGPT responded in the voice of P T Barnum on crack, getting hung up on alliteration. I’m going to spare you most of the words. Rest assured that writers are safe for a couple more months at least. It seems weird to give the final say to a large language model, but the closing words deserve centre stage, and we should probably get used to this.

May our mixes be clear,
and our enemies near
— but not too near: we don’t want feedback.

Thank you.

ADC Open Mic 2022: It’s About Time

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From every opening flower!

In works of labour or of skill,
I would be busy too;
For Satan finds some mischief still
For idle hands to do.

Isaac Watts (1674–1748)

Few subjects are as universal, or as ancient, as the desire to take control of time.

Stoic philosophy is two millennia old, and one of its obsessions is to juxtapose the grand arc of time against the human miniature. This is a major theme of the earliest chapters of the Bible, too: we are encouraged to make our stay here really count for something. Even if 15% of it is supposed to be kept fallow, and the purpose of the remaining 85% isn‘t particularly clear.

For the last three hundred years, ever more gigantic systems of productivity and habitation have transformed the way we live. There are plenty of good books about that too. Five minutes isn’t long, so let’s pretend I’ve cited them.

Productivity, anyway, has become a science. Ideally, the more value you produce, the higher your reward.

Kind of. Hike across the landscape of anybody’s waking life, and you’ll find a few seams of riches and vast plains of desert. Salary reviews are a propaganda minister’s idea of a guided tour. A person’s most marketable skills can often turn out to be entitlement and suspicion.

Anyway, Productivity As Science! It’s also why, ever since this world required us to work alongside machines, we’ve been comparing ourselves unfavourably and unhappily with them.

We grasp at ways to be more mechanical. And measure and tinker to maximise speed. We Bullet Journal and step-count and Pomodoro and Asana and Huel and hack our sleep cycles in a quest to become ever leaner and more deterministic.

And all because time is precious and non-renewable. But the balancing side is equally important and we’ll —

This minute is sponsored by Grammarly. Suppose you want to send an all-important email. Can you feel that rising anxiety? Yeah. That’s how keeping you away from your content is meant to feel. Snap! goes a little neuron. Now every time you feel powerless, we’ll be here! A corner of your brain that is forever Grammarly.

These squalid little businesses, bullying and cajoling their ways into your mind and wallet. Your lizard brain, knowing it’s being gamed, literally soaking in its own fury until you‘re completely beside yourself and wallop! You fill an important email with elementary grammatical errors.

So buy Grammarly today! Embrace the drip-drip privatisation of your insecurity. The erosion of your human agency. The certainty that your cold, dead computer will one day write better prose without your help, and become the chief editor of your every waking thought.


— The other is equally important and we’ll get to it now. It is the cry for unstructured time; for slowness and chaos and intentional waste.

A whole other cluster of books dive more deeply into this seam of philosophy. That promise to break us out of the battery farm. Books like In Praise of Slow, and Four Thousand Weeks. Best to read those on company time. And Samuel Beckett’s absurdist masterpiece, Waiting for MIDI 2.0.

But everybody will at some point feel the urge to rebel against order before it becomes a prison.

Because you can train your self-discipline to ever-greater feats of endurance. You can lighten its burden by doing things you actually enjoy. But you can’t drown out the countermanding voices forever.

When you have expended your reserves of self-control — and you will — what remains is pure id: the need to rebel, to slack off, and to reclaim whatever you’ve denied yourself. The roads not taken will burst forth in unrestrained song, and there you’ll be in the glass office again listening to the lecture about the importance of ‘attitude’ and ‘culture being a two-way street’ that comprises one very long uninterrupted sentence.

Aah, you can leave ROLI, but it never leaves you.

Elsewhere, headquarters of big tech companies now look like kindergartens, full of whimsical interior design and toys and sugary food. The idea is to tug us back from the grindstone, and into the proper middle-distance.

You cannot both floor the pedal and appreciate the scenic route, or daydream on the same afternoon when you’re shipping a beta, or form memories and nurture friendships while the world outside passes in a dark blur. Imagination is fragile, but it’s probably why we’re here.

My grandfather was more successful than I am. He used to urge me that rest is just as important as work. I wondered why he thought I’d need that advice as a twenty-year-old undergraduate. But, if you end up self-employed, there is nobody to insist that you take leave, and nobody to cover the cost. It turns out to be a failure of character if you don’t reach into your own pocket occasionally, and buy yourself some stillness.

To battle hard for marginal gains is a fool’s errand. Ekeing 20% more code from a working day isn’t going to throw you into the next orbit of wealth or wisdom. But widening your social circle and deepening your well of experience might.

So, note to self: words like ‘harder’ and ‘faster’ can be left to Daft Punk. Better days and better people often begin with ‘no’.

And Paul, I’m sorry I haven’t finished that demo yet, but I wrote this monologue for ADC. It’s not what you asked for but you might like it anyway.

Thanks and apologies as always,


The Startup Wife: a Lightning Talk I didn’t give

Last summer, a friend and former colleague handed me a paperback edition of The Startup Wife, and asked me if I wanted to borrow it. How could I not?

The Startup Wife is Tahmima Anam‘s fourth novel. She is an accomplished and acclaimed author, a doyenne of Radio Four, a director of ROLI, and the wife of its CEO. From the inside out, her novel takes on romance, the lifecycle of a tech start-up, women in technology, and venture capitalism.

Naturally, the romance and the start-up go awry. The paperback’s publication last September also coincided with the collapse of ROLI. The Startup Wife keeps a convenient distance from its nonfictional counterpart. But, as author and company director, Tahmima was not a mere recorder of events, but a controller of them. An insider cannot read this book and sit comfortably.

I try drafts for my open-mic ADC talks on a couple of long-suffering friends. If they don’t warm to the subject or the substance, I think again. More often than not, my friends save me from myself and I write a better talk. This year, I barely had two talks in me to add to the hour-long lecture that was actually on the programme schedule. Here, then, is the open-mic talk I didn’t give. As a five-minute spot, it has three problems that no reasonable rework could fix:

1. A golden rule of satire is that punching up is good; punching down is bad. Parody works only if the audience agrees that the target is deserving. Two hundred strangers with no prior context are unlikely to appreciate this talk. I’d just be sitting on a stage, punching myself.

2. There are too many ideas here to weave something neat over the space of five minutes. There’s a precis of Tahmima’s book, a satire of her affectations, a critique of the wasted opportunities taken by her angle of attack, and a little swipe at her complicity in the archetypal story. It’s tightly written but at least three minutes too long already, and might do with being longer still.

3. It’s a ROLI talk. To quote a friend, the institution has been ‘living rent-free in my head’ for three years now, and this is the last part of the eviction process. Most of my former colleagues have moved on, and I want to be like them.

I’m publishing this anyway, warts and all. It’s the best review I could write. I’ll tidy it up when I understand how.

The talk

I remember the first time I met Cyrus, when we were both at school. He was the precocious one so we didn’t talk much. But since then I’ve become a feminine icon. I’m not just brilliant at doing science and code, but also at being empathetic, making biryani, and winning arguments.

You can’t fully grasp how amazing I’ve become — how very intelligent and driven and incredible — unless you’re almost as clever as me. You’re not. So it helps that I have an endless queue of strangers come up to me and tell me how great I am, again and again and again.

In today’s world, scientists are vital to public life, like writers reading their serialised novels on Radio Four. If I fail to turn up to work one morning, it’s because somebody of either gender has been hypnotised by my brilliance, and is manifesting their new love for me with bestial physicality. Right now, it’s the turn of cipher — er — Cyrus.

‘You’re awesome,’ I say to Cyrus, as he holds me with his blue eyes, in his manly arms, and largely responsible for developing the AI in our company’s core technology.

‘And you’re so brilliant, Asha. And really important and prestigious. Like a combination of Leonardo da Vinci, the Pope, and Sir Simon Rattle.’

At that moment, Jules walked in: Cyrus’s best friend. He’s gay and eats animals, so he isn’t Jules from ROLI at all. Psych! The day that this Jules came out to his absurdly wealthy parents, they disowned him. Brutally, he ended up with the keys to their least favourite house in New England, a substantial monthly allowance, and regular invitations to their place in the Hamptons. Cut from their lives.

‘Miss anything, did I?’ asked Jules.

‘Just foreshadowing rich white men and their money, about to ruin everything!’ I said.

Cyrus and I were quickly married. He invented the wedding ceremony from various pieces of cultural bric-à-brac that make him look worldly. Oh, I don’t know: the Tibetan Book of the Dead narrated by Alan Bennett with costumes from Return of the Jedi. That’ll do.

‘Hey,’ said Jules, reading my internal monologue to save time. ‘I was thinking that we could use AI to invent all kinds of ceremonies. Middle-class people like us, but less sexy, could buy custom-made rituals whenever they needed them.’

‘We’d take culture from all over the world, use a questionnaire to smash it all together, and render the shattered remains into ceremonies that resemble a Sunday Times lifestyle photoshoot. I mean: take a trust-fund New Age Traveller with a house on the Heath. They’re desperate for a connection to something higher, as long as it involves either buying or selling stuff and then bragging about it. Yurts. Annual trips to bazaars in developing countries. Mindfulness consultants. Steamed vegan milk. Pretending to read Ayn Rand.’

Cyrus ran with the thought. ‘Asha can totally make an app that does that in a week by scraping Wikipedia, and then asking me to type everything I know about Hinduism into Excel.’ ‘Yeah,’ I shrugged. ‘AI is a piece of cake when you happen to be a genius.’ The previous afternoon I had finished a program that imbues machines with profundity and wistfulness. I played Chet Baker to a factory robot and watched it shed a tear.

‘I’ve been noticing how brilliant and strong and right you are, Asha.’ said Jules. ‘Like a combination of Garry Kasparov, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Dame Thora Hird. Now, Cyrus and I are going to fade out of the narrative for a bit, to raise some capital and propel us into our second act.’

Switching to the present tense to convey urgency, I hire Yuta from ROLI but change his name to Ren. In my story, he’s just a nerd so remains entirely one-dimensional. After changing the background colour of our website for the seventeenth time, Ren looks up. ‘Sorry: miles away. Did I miss anything?’

‘Just clumsy exposition.’ I say. ‘We’re about to uproot the eternal quest for meaning from its cultural foundations, and subtract human agency. Nothing can go wrong.’

Between mouthfuls of pulled pork banh mi, Jules announces: ‘Of course, we need to own everything: the algorithm, the platform, the ceremonies; whatever our users share.’

‘But, nobody really owns software or data, do they?’ I actually say, on page 79, having spent the most formative decade of my adult life working in the most marketable field of study on earth. ‘It’s only ones and zeros!’

Cyrus’s gorgeous eyes flash. ‘Let’s not waste ink describing how a technology company might actually make money. But there are many great places we could go with this scenario. I mean …’

Jules interrupts: ‘What happens when we train an AI, aim it at needy people with a hankering for meaning, and demand that it supplies them an exponentially-increasing volume of instant purpose? The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg. Only this time, in our hubris, we’ve fed it its own eggs, and then laboured it to death. Our product burns out amid forces both sinister and banal. With nothing to show for it, and nothing to redeem us.’

Cyrus, our walking textbook, pauses for thought: ‘Nah, Roland’s trying to get breakfast with Nick Clegg. Don’t go off-message about the metaverse. Maybe our story could focus on the fate of a small religious sect? We could pose the question about what authenticity means in a world governed and mediated by vested interests.’

‘Or,’ says Jules, ‘We solve the problem of authenticity for our users but, even as we produce good monthly figures, the mission backfires. Our wildest material dreams come true, but we learn to despise them, and that ultimately pulls us apart. While trying to deliver something truthful to the wider world, we retreat from our own sources of truth and lose sight of who we are.’

‘It’s an old story,’ I muse. ‘We could give it a twist of zeitgeist. But I’ve just been for a walk around Foyles, and I suspect that the world really needs another book where a woman of colour rails against rich white men.’

Jules eats the last crumb of his bacon sandwich. ‘Fantastic! Reorient the whole thing around a doomed attempt to smash the patriarchy! You would find yourself patronised in the boardroom, marginalised at the moment of your greatest triumph, and ultimately exiled from your creation.’

‘Jonestown meets The Apprentice.’ I say. ‘With a chance to use the word ‘hegemony’ in interviews! Although I’m getting a weird sense of déjà vu, as if I’ve visited all that upon someone else before. But how do I end the novel?’

Jules thinks for a while. ‘How about: With barely any provocation, Cyrus metamorphoses from a sensitive and gentle spouse into a self-absorbed, tantrum-prone bully. On page 254 he’s still agonising about money’s propensity to poison and corrupt. By page 256, he’s weaponised high-denomination banknotes like a Russian at the Old Bailey.’

I nod vigorously. ‘And it all ends badly. And I’m right all along. And Cyrus is mired in nemesis, wanting me but realising that I’ll always be too good for him.’

An uncomfortable silence is shattered at last by Cyrus. ‘You’re … You’re going to break my character, just so you can rant about how all men are contemptible bastards? In that case, I’ve got a suggestion. Before you type all those clever words with your pretty little fingers, be a poppet and mop the kitchen. There’s a fat slice of coke waiting for me at the Groucho, and it can’t snort itself.’