Pain Points: Now that a considerable amount of investment money is coming into the Los Angeles ecosystem, there’s been a lot of talk about how these changes might come to effect the music and entertainment industries in the years to come. Judging by the critical stance that the tech industry tends to take of traditional media practices, it seems pretty clear that a lot of investors are currently seeking to create platforms that will directly compete against the long-time arts and entertainment incumbent: Hollywood.
The SOPA/PIPA (Stop Online Piracy Act/Protect IP Act) debacle in many ways can be said to be part of an ongoing effort by the industry to maintain their monopoly on cultural production, but it’s fairly clear by now that the recording industry, at least in its traditional forms, is gradually dying away. The influx of investment and startup talent coming into Los Angeles will likely be very disruptive, turning traditional media practices on its head — even with all of the changes that technology has already made on the music world, what we’ve seen so far is likely to be only the tip of the iceburg.
For most musicians, these developments should work mostly to their advantage: more competition between business entities usually lead to more competitive hiring rates, since it drives up demand for talent who can contribute to ongoing and up-and-coming projects. In the information age, innovation and creativity are highly sought after traits — art and entrepreneurship have conceptually been thought of as two separate things, but there’s enough parallels and common interests between the two mindsets to make a successful merge between the two something very plausible. Not only is it plausible, but it’s now becoming a very tangible and realistic path to take.
My brain is an engineers brain. I’m focused on learning and solving problems. Over the past few years I’ve been completely baffled by my experience interacting with politicians and their staffers. When I present a solution to a problem (e.g. the Startup Visa) I immediately watch a negotiation begin to ensue. Three years later, even non-controversial, obviously beneficial things like Startup Visa are still stuck in a discussion. [...]
This generated a breakthrough insight for me. I’ve been increasingly frustrated with politics and public policy discussions that I’ve been part of. It’s because I’m in a problem solving mode. While some of the folks I’m interacting with are also in this mode (which causes me to stay engaged), many are in a compromise mode. They don’t care whether or not we actually solve the root cause problem – they just have an agenda that they want to get into the mix legislatively and are negotiating for it with the goal of reaching a compromise.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with the issues surrounding the Startup Visa, Feld’s remark epitomizes a lot of what the entrepreneurial mindset is about: problem-solving, “actionable” ideas, usefulness, and value-creation. The art world, on the other hand, moved away from these utilitarian values in the latter half the the 20th century in favor of a “purer” aesthetic philosophy. (e.g. art for art’s sake, personal expression, etc.) While this a gross oversimplification of the issue, there’s enough of a gap between the two streams right now that it might pose some problems for future art and entertainment related ventures if it’s not addressed early on in the process.
The good news is that these gaps are just that: gaps. In the upcoming years more musicians will be learning and trying their hand at entrepreneurial methods, while founders in the entertainment/media sector will be having to work much more intimately with artists than they have in the past. There might be some bad blood between Silicon Valley and Hollywood at the moment, but in startup ventures there are plenty of opportunities to make new connections with a fresh and forward-looking mindset.
In a lot of ways, investors are looking to bring in the culture of entrepreneurship — something that served Silicon Valley so well during the last couple of decades — into Los Angeles at this point in time. Cultural clashes seem inevitable, but is likely to be a good thing for the city in the long run. The art and entertainment industries are currently in dire need of innovation, while the tech industry stands a lot to gain from learning about how culture works and how it’s created. It may be useful now to start a dialogue between the two, and maybe arrive at some sort of compromise in how things get done. Either way, a little more clarity probably couldn’t hurt.
I’m lucky in that I was able to work on creative projects with engineers in the past, and my brother also happens to be a very proficient programmer. A lot of the ideas and suggestions below comes out of my experiences working with him and others with music-related projects, so hopefully some of this information might be of some use to others.
Musical Pain Points
When coming up with product ideas, entrepreneurs train themselves to identify “pain points” in customers (i.e. real problems that people face in day to day life), then attempt to come up with innovative solutions to remedy them. These problems can range from minor annoyances (social media improvements, better cell-phone messaging) to serious concerns (security, health), and can be found in virtually every part of society. The natural inclination of the entrepreneur would be to come up with a utilitarian solution (bigger, faster, cheaper, more efficient, etc.) and “prove” to investors and customers that it can be made to work. When these assumptions are proven in front of an audience, this creates a “need” for people to have it, which naturally leads to the creation of paying customers. This method has a long track record of working very well in certain areas of business and is very appropriate for some types of startup companies.
Music, however, cannot be treated in the same way. Orchestras don’t necessarily fair better than solo acts, faster musics aren’t always better than slower ones, and initial pricing usually has no correlation to how well a piece of music is going to fair in the long run. Technology-based media companies (YouTube, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, etc.) have managed to revolutionize how content is received by the general public, but most of them have stopped shy of actually producing content in themselves.
It’s possible to measure the efficiency of media websites by its user-numbers, delivery time, revenue/expenses, and so on. These numbers have the kind of specificity that engineers like to see, which may partly explain why a lot of effort has been put in those types of ventures in the last couple of years. But an honest look at the situation would say that these companies are largely in the business of content delivery and distribution, rather than production. In Los Angeles there’s an unique opportunity for startup companies to get involved in both, utilizing the talent that already exists here in the city.
What are the “pain points” in creating music, however? Can music be said to be “solving a problem” in some way that makes people “need” them?
Unlike say, food, shelter, or water, though, none of us technically “need” music in order to survive. Yet in the entire history of humanity there has never been a culture or society that didn’t have an active musical community in some shape or form. Somewhere within this phenomenon lies the answer to what musical “needs” are, and I think that these are the types of questions that the startup community will be asking themselves when they start to get their hands dirty in the messy process of content creation.
As a starting point, we can look at a few common places where music can be found:
Religious, Corporate, Interest-Based, Community-Based, Political
Weddings, Birthdays, etc.
Background Music, Commercials, Presentations, etc.
Bars, Auditoriums, Concert Halls, Cafes, etc.
Soundtracks (Film/TV, Video Games), CDs/MP3s/Vinyl
Music Therapy, Music “Healing” Procedures
Instrumental Lessons, Music Appreciation
Universities/Colleges, Government Institutions
Most working musicians will at least have had some experiences working within most, if not all of these mediums in some way or another. Professional freelancers have the ability to curb their personal tastes when needed, if the gig requires them to play something that they have no personal connection with. But startup projects require more than hired guns — the artist needs to believe in the project itself in order for their talents to reach its full potential. Incidentally, this level of vigor are how “great performances” are created: there’s something unmistakable and unforgettable when action and ideas are in perfect alignment, and this type of intensity will often overshadow any technical errors that can be found in its execution.
For startup companies interested in breaking into the industry, everything on the list above constitute viable options toward the creation of innovative business models. Probably due to the glamorization that Hollywood portrays of its lifestyle, however, there’s a tendency for a lot of people to focus only on giving concerts and making recordings. But they’re by no means the only way to do it. Alternative models often have opportunities to stand out that may not be possible in already saturated markets, and in many cases may prove to be more fruitful in the long run.
On a personal level, I’d like to see people pay more attention to these other options, especially in the areas of research and education where there exists a strong community of people who’re highly passionate about their work. Expanding the market into areas outside of the recording industry can help make musicianship a more viable and realistic career path for many.
Digging Deeper Into Content Creation, Customer Development
The chart above is a list of possible business models that revolve around the idea of music. But so far we haven’t even touched on the idea of content creation, because that would involve coming up with an explanation of the origins of creativity and what makes us enjoy the things that we do. These are issues that have been debated since the beginning of time and many, many, things have been written about it by scholars, philosophers, and scientists throughout the ages. All of them have been more or less inconclusive, or tentative, at best.
This is the Pandora’s Box that nobody in the tech industry has wanted to touch so far, because by its nature the issue a very difficult subject to talk about. And the utilitarian mind of the engineer often has trouble understanding or applying ideas that come from these discussions because a lot of it will initially seem counter-intuitive or contradictory. Sites like Google and YouTube manage to avoid the box by passing on the responsibility of content creation to others — either Hollywood, advertising agencies, or the users themselves. I’m assuming, though, that at least a few music startups that originate in Los Angeles will probably want to get into the business of content creation. These projects will have a higher chance of creating something groundbreaking, precisely because its more difficult and will be attempted less often.
Music startups in LA will have its unique challenges because it involves reconciling three cultures that have in recent history moved in opposite directions from one another: content production, content distribution, and the ideas of the individual artists themselves. Content will vary wildly from group to group depending on how it’s organized and the people who are involved with the process. Founders will also have to come up with answers to age-old philosophical questions that are more or less unanswerable, like “why does humanity continue to make music?” or “what does music tell us about the world and ourselves?”. If the last few sentences inspire rather than discourage you, you’re probably an entrepreneurial-type (or a just a plain-ol’ crazy person) that might be up for the challenge. You won’t find “the” answer to these questions, but the answers you come up with will end up defining what you, your company, and your brand is about, so they’re questions worth giving some serious thought.
Going back to the idea of “pain points”, people instinctively know is that life can sometimes be difficult, and that music is one medium we use in order to “cope” with various situations. It’s one of the main reasons why music is here to stay, even if it has never been considered an “essential” good. Here are a couple of examples that I’ve heard from customers regarding how music has “helped” them in some way:
- It helps them get through the day, e.g. work.
- Inspired them to do something or stand up for something that they believed in.
- It helped them get through “tough times” – personal, professional or otherwise.
- Introduced them to people and places that they otherwise wouldn’t have found out on their own.
- Made them feel connected or a part of something greater than themselves.
- Stimulated their creativity, giving them additional insights into their own line of work.
- Seems to keep kids busy or off the streets.
As it stands now, translating musical language into plain English is a highly specialized skill that only a handful of people (musicologists, music critics) receive formal training for. Most customers probably aren’t going give too many details beyond these generic descriptions because they’re not likely to have too much experience describing their musical preferences like the former professions do. Music also tends to be a very personal thing, so they may also be reluctant to reveal too much to you on initial contact. Because of this, it’s necessary for entrepreneurs to familiarize themselves with their customer base and figure out how to earn their trust. (As it is done in any other line of business.)
Even with their trust earned, the subject is still a very difficult topic to talk about, so there are plenty of opportunities for things to go awry during the customer development process. If these discussions aren’t framed in the right way the entrepreneur is unlikely to get the level of specificity that they need in order to better guide their experimentations. I’ve seen really bizarre questionnaires that ask people things like “does this artwork make you feel happy/angry/sad?” or “on a scale of 1 to 10, how ‘emotional’ does this make you feel?” and so on, even though they don’t really reveal anything useful about the product or the effects that it has on its users.
On the other hand, when asked for what kind of music they would like to see made, most people will probably give you something like “good”, “catchy”, “cool/rad” — none of which are particularly helpful for the musician during the creative process. When musicians talk to people who don’t have any musical training, the conversation often resembles two people from different planets trying to have a meaningful dialogue with one another, and a lot of the content that you might see out there are a result of these awkward conversations. If the music sounds awkward or forced, there’s a good chance that the conversations people were having behind the scenes were like that as well.
So it’s largely up to the entrepreneur to figure out what people are trying to “get at”, using their knowledge of music theory/history/culture/science/psychology at their disposal. Here’s where customer development strategies can come in handy: observe what they do, not what they say. If you’re paying attention to people’s reactions, it’s usually pretty obvious whether or not they’re excited about something or not. But it may take more than one try…maybe a couple, or maybe 50. This method usually tends to yield better results than simply having people fill out survey forms.
Digging even deeper, most artworks can be said to fall in between the spectrum of two main categories: escapism and realism.
Nyan Cat, for instance, is an example of an escapist work. Nobody really knows why its there, why it exists, or where it came from, but they enjoy it precisely because it lets them think of something outside of their day-to-day existence. People are often surprised by the amount of cheery and happy songs that come out difficult situations (economic depressions, times of war) but these works are made precisely because it provides a contrast to the things that are actually happening around them.
On the other hand, the recent What People Think I Do/What I Really Do meme is an example of an art form strongly rooted in the idea of realism. People look at them, identify with what’s going on, and enjoy them because it says something about themselves or the world. The common phrase you’ll hear around these pictures are: “so true”.
In truth, all artworks contain a little bit of both so they’re not mutually exclusive, even though they are contradictory. (This part of the issue is where a lot of engineers have trouble wrapping their head around, since they’re trained to eliminate and remove contradictions in their work.) The violence that can be found in a lot of video games, for example, is not “real”, but can be said to be a reflection and commentary on the happenings and events around the globe through the use of representation and metaphor. Escapism allows for a temporary getaway from the happenings of the world, while realism allows people to “free” themselves from the truth by directly confronting what’s there. (The truth will “set you free”, so to speak.) The reason why these games are so popular isn’t by accident — it provides for a powerful experience because it has the ability to appeal to both sides of the spectrum at the same time.
Talented artists have the ability to pull off either or both at the same time, but in most cases will come to prefer one direction over another. (I tend to be more adept at the “realism” approach since as a scholar, I’m trained to pursue “truths”. ) Audiences, too, will usually have a preference in regard what they want their music to “do” for them. Keeping this in mind can improve your chances at building a cohesive team, or finding clients/customers that might be interested in your line of work. There’s no magic formula to how these things work, but understanding creative ideas in these terms can help to narrow a project’s focus in order to move things forward.
In essence, if it’s left up in the air the customer is likely to expect this from you: everything. Entrepreneurs should be prepared to sharply define what they do so that they can avoid misplaced expectations and actually deliver on their promises. You don’t have to promise that you can solve all of your client’s problems — maybe just a few.
Anyone have any other ideas? I can only scratch surfaces in one blog post, but there’s enough interest/responses in this topic, I’ll write more. Let’s keep the discussion going!