Dell Technologies (DT): You've written and spoken a lot about the intersection of art and technology. Can you talk a little bit about how you've seen that intersection throughout your career?
Walter Isaacson (WI): I think the intersection of art and technology is something that goes all the way back to Leonardo da Vinci, who used science to create wonderful pieces of art, but in the digital age, this intersection can disrupt whole industries. Ever since I worked with Steve Jobs to write my biography of him, I've been fascinated about how the intersection of music and technology has led to so many disruptions. There's such a demand for music, such a hunger for it, that people are always looking for ways to swap it, or exchange it, or get it, or find new ways to distribute it. It’s become a forerunner for the disruptions in other content industries. I certainly saw that happen when I was in the journalism industry, and it could happen to other industries, whether it's books or video.
DT: Are there any specific lessons that, in your time in the newspaper industry, you think could have been learned from what happened to the music industry?
WI: The music industry really was a canary in the coal mine. One of the lessons was, when content is distributed for free, there's no real business model that's going to work. You could say, "Oh, people should do performances or sell merchandise," but in the end, that's not the way to get the best music. I think the journalism industry in general has fallen prey for a long time to feeling that maybe there's some business model where we give away our content for free. That's not going to work, and that's why you see journalism and media moving away from that model.
DT: We talked a lot in this episode about disruption of music distribution. Do you see any examples of where music and technology intersect in other ways other than distribution?
WI: I think one of the things technology has allowed us to do is to mix and create music in far different ways. We've always had things like synthesizers that would allow us to do new types of music, but with digital technology, you can do to music what Photoshop allows you to do to pictures. I think we're going to see a new wave of art in which people are taking different types of technology, different ways to enhance a sound, and making that part of the musical experience.
DT: Finally, you're a New Orleans native – are you a jazz fan? Or what is on your playlist?
WI: I grew up listening to jazz. I spend my weekends in New Orleans, and I just spend my time on Frenchman Street, occasionally going back to Preservation Hall for some of the old time jazz, just so I can hear the mix of old and new music that's so much part of the New Orleans scene. I love Jon Batiste. I love a lot of the new musicians coming out of New Orleans, but also some of the more classical jazz musicians, particularly Wynton Marsalis.
I also particularly like New Orleans funk, ever since I grew up on Napoleon Avenue, where you’d go to the end of the street – where it meets the river – and you'd be at Tipitina’s and get to hear the Neville Brothers or their predecessor, The Meters, play. That type of music that Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, and the Neville Brothers made so popular, with that wonderful beat, and the stress on the backbeat, and the mix of jazz, the funkiness – that’s always been my favorite sub-genre of music.