Artist and über-producer Pharrell Williams took to the stage at MidemNet today, for an interview conducted by Cornerstone co-CEO Rob Stone. The topics: how artists can engage their fans in the digital era, and the potential of musicians and brands joining forces. To paraphrase the N.E.R.D. song: you can’t be him, he’s a rock star! But what has he got to say?
He’s under the weather, but still appearing. “Everybody knows how important MIDEM is to our industry,” he says. Which is nice. It should also be noted at this point that he has amazing shoes on – big multi-coloured Nike snowboarding boots.
He kicked off by talking about his approach to music, and the fact that “I don’t wanna repeat myself – I want to be the curator of a new experience every time somebody hears a new record… You allow different instinct to speak up and lead you.”
Williams is also an entrepreneur, working with a host of brands and companies on non-music projects – everything from endorsing whiskey to investing in bicycle firms. Luckily, he says he has a team to tell him when he’s in danger of overstretching himself. “It doesn’t mean ‘okey-doke’ characters – it’s people who challenge me… A good idea is literally just that until you have a good team to help you manifest and bring it to fruition.”
Was there a point in Williams’ career when he realised he had to have his business right? Yes. “I vow to myself to make sound decisions with my future. I don’t wanna just be purely creative. I wanna be creative but at the same time wanna be like a leader to young kids and let them know ‘you can do anything’. If you have a great idea and a team around you, you’ve gotta go for it.”
Currently, Williams is working on a new N.E.R.D. project, for which his team have built a site. And he talked about the fact that at gigs, “incredible kids” are coming up after live shows with animations and videos on their phones, “they’re asking if they can do our next video!”
So they built a hub called artst.com – “there’s no ‘I’, because it’s not about me, it’s about you” – based around ‘floors’ of architecture, each devoted to a different artform. They work with brands to sponsor contests for the different floors, where users can enter their artworks.
He also talked news. “When I was in high school, 50 million years ago where we would chase woolly mammoths… I realised that no one really cared about politics,” he said, pointing to the difference nowadays, where kids know who the key politicians are, and the big issues, but don’t have a news network aimed at them.
“Huffington Post is the only thing, but that’s still in the college world. What about 12-18? So we built Kidult,” he said. “They need a place where they can go and be entertained, and that’s Kidult.”
What happens when one of Williams’ team tells him an idea is rubbish? “Oh, I change it, because it makes the idea 100% better,” he says, citing a project that’s currently secret, which he’s working on with Cornerstone. “It’s hard to describe the challenges without saying what it is. It’s something we’ve been chiselling away at for a couple of years now, and we’re currently looking at September [for launch].”
Williams also talked about his involvement in the upcoming US telethon for Haiti, as well as his upcoming plans. He’s keen to get inner-city kids get more hands-in experience with technology.
“Literacy is an unresolved issue of the past. I think that technology is spinning things out far more and faster than the public can keep up with,” he said. “The problem is gonna be ‘are you able to communicate and are you able to get around on the Internet, cos if you’re not, you’re gonna be left behind.”
The irony being that human beings are making the technology, but as a species – according to Pharrell – we’re then unable to keep up with it. “I think that’s gonna be the real issue… The technology is not just getting better by the year, it’s getting better by the moment… That’s the new struggle, to keep up with the technology that exists.”
Williams also talked about the challenges of digital music. “You have to embrace the technology… but you can’t control it.” He said the music industry tried to ignore new technology, due to what he described as its monopoly. “I think Steve Jobs made it very clear it’s all about technology, and if you’re the one that’s riding that horse, you’ll get to your destination. If you’re walking behind, you’re a follower.”
Williams also described illegal downloading as “just taste-testing” – comparing it to the hors d’ouevres handed out outside restaurants to entice people inside. “People have so many options and choices, we should allow them to taste-test, to decide if that’s something they wanna be involved with – from technology to products to food.”
He also said technology firms should make their products more easily available through the education system, in the same way that banks try to establish relationships with people in their teens in the hope that they’ll stick with them in the years ahead.