Why Do You Do It? – Pt. 1

Reading Simon Sinek’s new book, Start with Why I was struck by his statement that,  “…people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.” Sinek describes a simple formula he calls the Golden Circle. The center ring is WHY, the middle circle, HOW, and the outer circle, WHAT. Most businesses he says, talk about WHAT and HOW, but real leaders start with WHY and work outward. WHY is what creates loyalty whether in business, politics, or the arts. I ask myself why I still listen to certain artists and particular pieces of music after decades. It’s not great technique or a killer sound that brings me back, it’s why they did what they did.

Someone told me a story about Ry Cooder many years ago. I don’t know if this is true, but supposedly Ry showed up at a recording studio for a session, to discover that his favorite recording console had been “upgraded” to the latest and greatest. The owner enthusiastically extolled the virtues of his new board but Ry just shook his head, said, “We won’t be making any music today….” and walked out the door. There’s a guy who know why he’s doing what he does.

When I asked LA indie band, Killola what makes them engaging to fans they said, “We tend to reveal ourselves in more realistic light, and show people that we’re just regular folks who just happen to have this outlet for making music in a band.  I think that lends to the accessibility.” Sounds like WHY to me.

37signals is a company that is all about WHY. They built Basecamp because it was the product they wanted to use. This flies in the face of conventional Product Management thinking, yet their approach has built a very profitable, devoted, user community.

Sinek talks extensively about Apple and Southwest Airlines. I recently booked air travel to a city that Southwest does not reach with direct flights. When I realized this I very, very, reluctantly switched airlines. Why this loyalty? Air travel is not a big deal for me one way or the other, but something about my experience with Southwest over the years has made them my default choice. WHY explains it.

Last month, Mark Small wrote a great article in Berklee Today speaking with a variety of Berklee alums about why they make music. When I hear great musicians it is food for my soul largely because there is absolutely no question at all why they are doing what they do. I talk about business models, marketing and all the rest, but let us not forget WHY. If music inspires and deeply moves us, that is the true compass we need to follow. The HOW and the WHAT will fall into line…

Listening to music in the age of digital abundance….

A recent tweet from @slainson, and an LA Times post from Steve Almond has me thinking about how we experience music in this age of digital abundance and endless entertainment choices. Music is everywhere today and largely functions as sonic wallpaper. The stuff is inescapable, whether you like it or not.

I often think about how music was consumed 100 or 200 years ago. The composition and production of classical music was highly specialized and funded by the church or nobility. Only the most elite aristocrats had the opportunity to hear it. It was fancy. It amazes me to realize that people would routinely get dressed up to sit in a room and listen to live performances of music they had never heard before! Keep in mind that the composers of the era (Beethoven for instance) were continually pushing the envelope and writing music people found challenging or disturbing. The premier of Stravinsky’s ‘Rite of Spring’ caused a riot. Contrast this with life today where you can’t even sit at a stoplight without being bombarded with some distorted sonic artifact. It’s everywhere and we have became anesthetized. As if that weren’t enough, music is continually competing for our attention with countless new forms of digital novelty and synoptic stimulation.

When I was growing up in late 1960’s Chicago, music was the cultural meeting place for an entire generation. There was no Internet, no video games, computers or video. Listening to music with rapt attention was the Big Thing. I remember a company that sold stereo equipment…the last item in their catalog was a roach clip! Music discovery for me involved running up to my room after dinner, putting on these clunky headphones and listening to “underground radio”. There was this DJ who called himself Scorpio and whispered into an echo chamber. His programming was personal, iconoclastic, and would make KCRW look formatted. I would take notes. I remember one night hearing Savoy Brown back to back with Freddie Hubbard (‘Straight Life’). I was blown away. This was the first time I had really heard George Benson. I had no idea it was possible to do what he was doing on the guitar and the soul/funk polytonality of Weldon Irvine’s ‘Mr. Clean’ sent me on a musical quest.

I would sit in front of the stereo listening to LPs until the grooves wore out (despite my best efforts to keep them pristine with various exotic accessories). I studied the liner notes obsessively and when I heard something I liked I would track each of the sidemen, trying to find everything they had recorded. I was fascinated with musical family trees and communities. The LA country rock scene took me down a long and winding road and one exceptional musician could lead to a whole string of new discoveries. I moved through the musical channels of LA and New York to Nashville and back. Meanwhile I continued my education into jazz and contemporary classical music. I was learning songs and solos by rote and it wasn’t long before I started doing transcriptions. The convergence of artists like Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, Buck Owens, Captain Beefheart, The Flying Burrito Brothers, McCoy Tyner, The Beatles, David Bromberg, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Bartok, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, Stravinsky, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Debussy, etc., etc., seemed like the most natural thing in the world to me.

When I went to college in Boston I discovered the Harvard Coop record department and thought I had died and gone to heaven. They had these big Schwann catalogs on pedestals where it seemed as if you could look up anything in recorded history. The Coop had shelves of sequentially numbered record label catalogs, big and small. As I discovered new jazz and ethnic musicians I could look up everything they had recorded as leaders or sidemen and 9 times out of 10 find the treasure on these shelves.

I was working for Internet music pioneer Liquid Audio when everything shifted toward the Web. The company was founded and largely staffed by audio pros and musicians and was truly innovative, using the AAC codec (which sounded noticeably better then MP3 and would later be adopted by Apple) and developing a very flexible music player with a full array of metadata, including album credits, an unfortunate casualty of most current digital distribution schemes.  It was a very exciting time. It seemed as if the vast expanse of musical possibilities would soon be available to everyone with the click of a mouse.  Interestingly enough I was never really motivated to buy digital downloads because the audio quality was inferior to CDs which were in themselves an old technology at that point. I liked the idea of subscription services because they reminded me of my hours spent at the Coop. I could find anything I wanted and if the music stuck I would buy the CD.

Today we are exposed to new music through an exhausting number of channels including web sites, Internet radio, video games, television, film and advertising placement, retail sponsorship, and terrestrial radio. We listen on our phones & iPods, in our cars, and on our computers. I haven’t owned a traditional “stereo system” in years. The time I spend listening to music under ideal conditions with my complete attention has become increasingly rare. Of course I’m not the typical consumer. Being in the business you listen to (or play) so much music that peace and quiet is cherished. One of the barriers to focused listening is consolidating all of your music sources. Sonos has a great solution that integrates home theaters, digital music collections and streaming music services in one simple, multi-room user interface. I hope to see more growth in this area of consumer electronics.

Here’s my advice for those who love music and want to cut through the noise and bring back the full experience:

  • Make a special place to listen.
  • Get the best sound system together you can. You can pick up powered studio monitors that don’t sound half bad for as little as a few hundred bucks. Listen to the highest quality audio available to you.
  • Make a plan to discover music that’s new to you….Perhaps checking out a new artist or exploring a musical genre that is unfamiliar. Find your favorite music discovery channels and support them.
  • Set aside time just to listen with your full attention. 
  • Turn off your phone, log off Facebook, etc.
  • Give it up to the journey the music takes.
  • When you hear something that moves you, listen to it over, and over, again.
  • Find out everything you can about the musicians you like and follow their creative path to discover new artists.
  • Go out and find the music live.
  • Write about it…talk about it…support the artists…spread the word!
  • Repeat….

Are you ready for Telegigging and Songles?

Computer scientist, musician, and philosopher, Jaron Lanier, has created a fascinating, intelligent, critique of digital collectivism in his new book, You Are Not A Gadget. This is not the cynical rant of a Luddite, but a serious examination of the dehumanizing potential of technology. Mr. Lanier compares the impact of Web 2.0 paradigms on humanism and individuality to the relationship between MIDI and music. He makes convincing arguments questioning the rhetoric of the digital gurus, and proposes several fascinating new approaches to the cultural and financial conundrums presented by the explosion of the Internet into our lives.

Music and The Curse of Knowledge

One of the greatest sources of alienation and disillusion for professional musicians is the profound sense that their deep love of music and lifelong commitment to developing their skill, is completely invisible and unappreciated by non-musicians. It’s easy to becoming bitter when you see a crowd jump out of their seats for ‘The Chicken Dance’ at a wedding, yet the original piece of music you have rehearsed for weeks is completely ignored and/or misunderstood by the few people that hear it (often friends showing up out of sympathy for the disenfranchised artist).

There is a tendency to try to balance this phenomena by dumbing down the music, making a more ‘commercial’ record, hiring a mediocre singer simply because they look good on stage and bring in a crowd. This only leads to furthering the distance between musician and listener, deepening the cycle of bitterness and isolation (“…nobody likes my stuff anyway, so I’ll just climb into a hole and write really weird music…”).

We want others to be as moved by music as we are. Why is this so difficult for many of us to achieve? The explanation for this phenomena, and the way out of the artist’s conundrum, is understanding The Curse of Knowledge. This principle is well articulated in Chip and Dan Heath’s book, “Made To Stick”, which I heartily recommend. The idea is that, once we know something, it is very difficult to imagine what our experience would be without that knowledge. A professional musician has spent years developing their ability to hear, perform, and understand music. The simple act of listening to a commercial on television triggers a complex array of associations, emotions, and physical reactions that a non-expert does not experience.

So, how do we bridge communication and understanding between musician and audience? The behavioral change must come from the artist. The key is to find common ground for both parties. It has to be real to avoid the ‘dumbing down effect’. Put yourself in the listener’s position. How will they respond to your music, emotionally, physically, the visual presentation, etc.? Of course, appreciating music is a very personal experience, built on exposure throughout a lifetime, but there do seem to be certain musical phenomena that resonate almost universally and stick with people for hundreds of years. How can you use this idea to connect with your audience without compromising the deepest, most personal elements of your work?

Impermanence & Innovation in the Music Biz…

Michael Masnick’s great presentation at NARM 2009 really lit a spark in me. While many of us want to hold onto or modify the old business models in this industry, everything has changed.
The supply of digital music far exceeds the demand, and most everything is available in one form or another for ‘free’. The devaluation of recorded music mandates the development of new, innovative business and collective licensing models.
As Tim Hurson states in his book, Think Better, reproductive thinking can only go so far. No amount of incremental improvement will ever turn an adding machine into a spreadsheet. Creative problem solving, the back and forth between out-of-the-box thinking and structured strategic planning, is the key to breaking free from old paradigms and dead ideas into new, productive territory. The urgent need for new ideas increases daily as the globe shrinks and technology continues to disrupt.

What happened to all the good music?

Much is being said these days about the huge changes in the record industry. Future business and marketing models have been endlessly discussed. Music piracy, the drop in CD sales and the bloated overhead of an industry built on an international hit-driven model. The industry sustained itself for years getting consumers to replace their LP collections with CDs rather than focusing on developing innovative music.

What I’m not hearing about is the lack of compelling new music coming from the major labels. Even if the record business is able to adapt its practices, it is an industry based on imitation, not innovation. Without compelling music the most brilliant business models will still have nothing to sell.

There is a huge amount of great music popping up everywhere. The challenge is to filter and refine talent in a world where technology has made creative expression easy and accessible.

The enduring successes in the music industry have not been driven by ‘what was a hit last week’, but by recognizing and developing real artistry over the long haul. I hope that the upheavals in the record industry will lead to a reevaluation of what music means to us in the first place. Let’s not lose site of the prize in all this commotion.