Share your Ryde: From musician to online policy expert
In 2000 I was a professional rock musician, in Italy. I played in a reasonably successful band called Modena City Ramblers (yup). We were not villa-and-swimmingpool rich, but were doing reasonably well. For a number of reasons, I decided to quit the band, and start over at the age of 34.
My main asset was that, before I quit my job to become a full-time musician at the age of 28, I had been working as a private sector researcher in the field of economics. I had degrees, a few publications, and some idea of how to make sense of issues involving people and money. I also had a quite deep, firsthand knowledge of the music business. In the early 2000s there was a lot of talking about creative industries; I was an economist, and I knew at least one of them from the inside. It was a start. So I decided to try to become an economist of music and the creative industries.
It was hard to come by any paid work in this area, despite the glamour of my recent musical past that made me quite well-known in some circles. I worked with the City of Modena on a string of music-related projects (mostly designing vocational training courses for would-be music entrepreneurs, with some research thrown in), but I would make 8 to 15.000 euro per gig; it was sustainable... just about. We were doing interesting stuff and would even get some media interest, but I was the lowliest of the low in the ecosystem of economic research. Of course, no stability was anywhere in sight.
I tried to structure this activity a bit more: I started a company, and participated in a bid for running an experimental project funded by the European Social Fund. We won, but it was a disaster nevertheless: it turned out the way these projects are often handled in Italy is very bureaucratic, procedure-oriented instead of result-oriented. The amount of red tape was horrible and very expensive, and everybody operated under the assumption that everybody was just out to get a share of public funding, with no commitment to achieving anything of substance. My company (less so the other partners in the consortium) ended up doing a good job, but we also ended up losing money rather than making it. I left this space immediately after, and I'm not planning to be back.
Fortunately, I had overinvested in these smalltime projects. They paid my bills, and as long as my bills were payed I worked very hard, going for outputs that were worth several times more than I was getting paid for. It did not make any economic sense at the time, but it did give me a good conceptual arsenal. Also fortunately, the music industry got caught in the digital storm early in the game: Napster reached its peak in 2001. My band had been running websites and experimenting with new media since 1998. So I already had some sense of how to use simple Internet tools (first mailing lists, then blogs, then social networks) to fuel social dynamics.
So, starting in 2007, the Ministry of Economic Development starting hiring me for consultancy gigs in the creative industries field, that were better paid and more interesting. I deployed Internet tools with everything I did: they cost next to nothing and were very effective, also because they propitiate transparency and trust between public administrations that use them (if they use them well) and citizens. I discovered they are great in enabling collaboration between individual citizens and administrations; this had previously been practically impossible, but now suddenly it was possible, and it had the potential to make public policy more similar to Wikipedia. In one of these gigs I designed and directed Kublai, an online network for peer-to-peer editing of business plans in the creative sector. It worked well. There was something there.
At this point I decided to push my profile from a “vertical” space (creative industries) into an “horizontal” one (online tools for policy). The advantage is obvious: you can and should do online policy in any field, not just in the creativity/culture one. I wanted to be where the momentous decisions are really made, where the best minds are put to work, and that is not cultural policy. As much as I think culture is important, I had to accept that the vast majority of senior decision makers think it is really not a priority. So I wrote some articles and a book called Wikicrazia, intended to be a handbook for understanding and making policy through online tools. Once again, overinvestment: 18 months of (not full-time!) work for a book that I expect to sell 1000 copies. It does not make economic sense. But it does, because my few readers tend to be decision makers: one out of five is a potential client. Also, I used the book to push my profile internationally: I got people working for the White House, the World Bank, Cisco and other international institutions to collaborate and endorse me. The book was picked up by the media, and that gave me the standing of “that Italian guy” that knows about the stuff. Meanwhile I am doing more overinvestment: I started a Ph.D. in network theory, to figure out in a hard science sense why online networks work so well.
I am reasonably satisfied with my transition: I managed not to go bankrupt, even supporting others at time, and reconfigure my life. It does have two problems:
- it is not over: stability is not achieved, and I am not sure it ever will
- it required me to compress my standard of living for several years. Live in small, low-quality accommodation, saving on things like holidays and consumption goods.
And this leads to the second pillar of my strategy, which is self-motivation. I was able to do this stuff because I absolutely love it and I think it is important. Otherwise I would never have been able to work so hard for so little money at 40 years of age. My main problem now is how to consolidate and stabilize, as I prepare for my old age. You have suggestions? I'm listening.