09/11/2013 03:20 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Sound of Social

There are 24,000 sensory cells within our ears. This sounds like a lot. Sound triggers our memory and our emotions, it is how we listen to each other and to the rhythms of life. But it is so often overpowered by vision. Our eyes, after all, are composed of 120 million rods and 6-7 Million cones for detecting the range of the color spectrum. It's "eye candy" not "ear candy" and it's the visual we are referring to with expressions like "I couldn't turn away." I tend to think that our virtual lives are a rendition of desires and interests in a mappable, trackable and exponential form. In which case, the fact that 100 hours of video is uploaded each minute to YouTube and 6 Billion hours of video watched a month, means that we love the moving image. We love to watch it, and we love to make it.

Music, however, is the most powerful art form in my opinion. You might ask yourself: Why would a filmmaker say such a thing? Because I, too, have experienced the lyrics to a song mysteriously in my head, word for word, even though I never consciously heard the song or memorized the lyrics. It has subliminal power greater than film or any visual medium. Songs play alongside while we do other things, like a soundtrack to our lives - turning our innermost feelings into cinematic climax - bringing us up, or taking us down. We can use music to mirror or modulate our emotions, nearly instantly. It leads us deeply into our own psyches and imaginations, and we can create a visual world within our minds through the act of listening to a song or even story. We don't need to stop and set aside time to watch it or look at it. We can be driving, cooking, talking, folding laundry - and be transported.

I labor over my films, sometimes for decades, to create 90-minute experiences that will open hearts and minds. A song can do that in a couple of minutes. And sound is the most important element to capture when making documentaries. You must catch the sound as a scene unfolds. The image can be captured later in most cases, or replaced with a perfect metaphorical rendering - but without the sound, you missed it. It has subliminal power... we remember lyrics very precisely without even realizing it. I created a series for VH1 in the year 2000 called SOUND AFFECTS for which I interviewed 250 people of all walks of life across America about the most pivotal moment in their lives and how a song affected them, sometimes literally saving their lives, or mirroring the pain and thereby mitigating the loneliness. I found that whether it was love, war, divorce, life-altering injury, or death, a song becomes crucial to us at the greatest and worst moments of our lives. Not a movie, or a painting or a book - those all help and can change the course of our lives - but music is the magic medicine that you might not even know your taking.

Speaking of magic, the greatest shift in the history of mankind is just getting underway thanks to the infinitely expansive and disruptive Internet, because it connects us through time and space, and it doesn't matter what we look like or what time we show up - it is there and the truth can't be kept from us, and we can't be kept from each other any longer. Obviously this powerful super highway is often not used for accelerated progress, but instead can be overrun by the video stimulation that tends to clog it's many channels. One of the pitfalls of eye candy can be that it keeps us on the surface, whereas to listening - free from the distraction of the image can reach us more directly - and ironically, cut through the noise.

photo w alex
Ondi and Alex Ljung

A Swedish student of engineering, Alex Ljung, who loved to hack new inventions (like shoes that make different sounds depending on your mood or a ping-pong table that makes noise as you rally) identified that the mighty Internet was servicing video far more than it was catering to pure sound. In fact there was no social site for sound. Social networking at its best provides a platform for collaboration, but it simply had no site dedicated to sound - where people could truly collaborate, no matter their size, look, age or social status. Like many brilliant and transformative startup ideas, it was born out of the need to solve a personal problem: Alex wanted to create music with his friend, Eric Wahlforss, and describing the parts of the songs they wanted to edit and the changes they wanted to make proved frustrating, so together they figured out ways to visualize the tracks and lodge comments into them - and Soundcloud was formed. Today one can hear any individuals original recordings, or follow international news on an unadulterated sonic basis via Soundcloud. For example, thousands followed the 2012 U.S. Presidential Race free from the imagery via Soundcloud - and they could comment on specific parts of speeches, remix the audio, create original compositions inspired by the tumultuous race.

I met Alex at a Summit Series weekend retreat in Utah, and sat together on the grass under a tree and traded life stories. We realized how we both shared the irrational drive to try things that hand't been tried before, or to combine different elements to make something new and cool and interesting. I realized that this young wizard had good tips to share on how to stay safe from stagnation or self-doubt - both the enemies of innovation. I made sure to get myself and my crew from A Total Disruption to Soundcloud HQ in San Francisco with a camera to record the history of Alex's social site for sound - now at 180 million users - and to record his insights for all of the creators who are currently trying to make their own disruptive impact on our wired world.