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will.i.am: Goodbye X Factor, hello Tech Factor

Posting in Design

The self-described "Chic Geek" criticizes traditional media's outdated ideas on how to "monetize content."  Will doesn't just talk hip. He talks biz, too.

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Journalists use many a shorthand phrase to succinctly describe Black Eyed Peas front man and professional cool dude will.i.am. They invariably call him pop star, lead singer, rapper, R&B artist, or something similar.

I have a new moniker for the 37-year-old from Los Angeles whose real name is William James Adams. He is the preeminent entertainment/technology crossover business star.

The mass appeal performer of My Humps, I Gotta Feeling, and Boom Boom Pow is as impressive a technology practitioner and ambassador as there is from the entertainment world. He believes as fervently as any unknown geek that the future of media lies in the singing, dancing Internet.

Will's Black Eyed Peas spin some techno Boom Boom at the 2011 Super Bowl.

I'm not breaking any news in telling you this. After all, chip giant Intel Corp. appointed him as its director of creative innovation nearly two years ago. He recently sent a song to Earth from Mars via the Curious rover. He typically infuses his performances with techno flare.

You might recall him at the Super Bowl show in 2011, cavorting with hundreds of dancers in luminescent outfits trimmed by what I assume were LED lights. I didn't think it was his shining moment so to speak*, but it exemplified his enthusiasm for modern technology. His The Time (Dirty Bit) video looks like an ad for computer effects (not to mention debauchery).

Now Mr. i. am, if I can call him that, is ratcheting it up, evidenced by a savvy video interview he gave to the BBC in Manhattan recently in which he waxes astutely about the future of business and innovation.

The headline: will.i.am wants to produce a new reality TV competition called Tech Factor. It would be a science and tech answer to X Factor aimed at discovering the next Steve Jobs.

The way to do it: Will says the YouTube hit Gangnam Style is the way to go.

"I would like to create a show that's in pursuit of tomorrow's Bill Gates, tomorrow's Steve Jobs, tomorrow's Michael Dells, tomorrow's Dean Kamens, tomorrow's Mark Zuckerbergs," i.am tells interviewer Richard Taylor, adding that it will be important to add women to the tech pantheon.

"Are you finding a lot of buy in from network, from TV broacasters?" Taylor asks.

"Nope," says will, who then points out that Tech Factor could nonetheless trump music shows for popular appeal.  "Somebody won The Voice last year. Where's their album? Somebody won X Factor last year. Where's their album? Somebody won American Idol last year. Where's their album? Somebody designed an iPhone. Did you buy it?"

i.am criticizes the old school mentality of traditional broadcasters  (even though he's employed as a judge on the British version of The Voice, aired by the BBC as a prime times show).

"Broadcasters, unfortunately, as robust as they are, their business is television, monetizing it with ad spaces and that's it," he says.  "It's not true innovation. If it was true innovation, they would have created Facebook and YouTube and Twitter themselves."

He criticizes traditional media for rehashing old themes like Spider-Man and The Three Stooges, noting that, "the newness is going to come from the new platforms."

The way not to do it: Will says stop rehashing old themes like Spider-Man.

As a case in point, i.am points to the YouTube hit music video Gangnam Style by South Korean pop artist PSY. "He didn't even sing it in English," an excited will points out. "This thing is the biggest thing in the world. Why? Because of a YouTube click. Not because some network or a broadcaster broke a Korean act. If a Korean act can break all over the world because of YouTube click, not a network, that is a connected world."

Some more words of wisdom from the crossover artist who playfully calls himself a "chic geek":

  • "YouTube will be a threat to the broadcasters when every single home has a smart television. And a smart television is a threat to cable."
  • "Tomorrow is about how do you impact culture. Because the brands are gonna go where the impacters impact."

will.i.am imagines a future interactive netcast thriller in which a victim calls a viewer for help, a twist enabled when viewers register their phone numbers in cyber systems. "You're part of the script," he says.

He notes that, unfortunately, "None of the people at the networks are thinking like that. Why? Because they're trying to figure out how to monetize yesterday instead of new ways to monetize content today. That's the reason why it's all  gonna come from the tech, not the broadcasters, unless the broadcasters get visionaries to come to be a part of their thing."

i.am is an impressive guy with progressive ideas.

I've met him myself, having briefly chilled with will in Barcelona in early 2008, at a mobile phone conference where he was an early champion of cellphone entertainment. He told me to watch his then new "Yes We Can" YouTube video - the black-and-white innovative pastiche medley set to to the words of first time presidential candidate Obama's famous campaign speech.

He coolly advised me in all modesty: "Check it out man, it's good."

I did. It was.

The video played a part in tumbling down one political era and ushering in another.

Now will.i. am, born on the Ides of March, wants to help topple the emperors of old media. Not that they aren't already staggering. They'll need to continue finding ways to work with visionaries like will.i.am if they are to remain standing.

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* My impression might have been tainted by the Pittsburgh Steelers' loss in that game. I am a terminal Steelers fan.

Photos: will.i.am, screen grab from BBC. Black Eyed Peas, screen grab from YouTube. Gangnam Style by PSY from Wikipedia. Spider-Man art by Steve McNiven from Wikipedia.

— By on November 18, 2012, 10:01 PM PST

Mark Halper

Contributing Editor

Mark Halper has written for TIME, Fortune, Financial Times, the UK's Independent on Sunday, Forbes, New York Times, Wired, Variety and The Guardian. He is based in Bristol, U.K. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure