I thought I might talk about strategic “pivoting” in this article since I’m currently in the midst of going through one in my own works. It’s been a pretty wild ride so far!
“Pivoting” is a term that’s commonly seen and used in the startup community in order to describe what businesses go through when they make major revisions in their business models: Twitter started as a podcasting service, YouTube an online video dating service, PayPal an “sending money through palm pilots” service — all of which are indications that companies often have to go a “learning” phase before they finally discover their model of success. And the process of switching from one model to the next is called a “pivot”, at least in the Lean Startup way of doing things. In the music world, a “pivot” could be analogous to situations where an artist decides to change their style or genre that they’re working with in order to stay relevant to the public’s interest.
Madonna and Lady Gaga are probably the two most prominent examples where the idea of the “pivot” can be seen in action in the music industry at this point in time. The two figures change their styles regularly and often enough that the idea of change in itself has become part of their brand identity. They’re interesting characters to watch, mostly because their popularity indicates a shift in what people look for in their celebrities in this day and age. In a lot of ways their style could be reflecting the nature of today’s high-paced, rapid-changing society, and they’ve managed to figure out a way how to reflect this in their music and personas.
It’s becoming more and more necessary for musicians to talk about these types of issues, mostly because they now have access to so many influences and styles that the amount of choices out there can often be overwhelming. This is especially true if the musician happens to be good, because being able to “play in every genre” is seen as a desirable trait for most professional-level musicians looking to score their next gig. But after a certain point it becomes necessary to get your name out there and establish an identity that has a story of its own. Out of the hundreds of thousands of things out there, which one do you choose?
About a month ago I did a presentation at USC on the topic of applying lean startup principals to the process of music making and music marketing. In short, I wrote 5 different tracks based on a chord progression that people seemed to have liked (all in different styles) in order to test for my music’s market viability.
Not surprisingly, my Angry Birds Remix track (shown to the right) seems to have been the most successful in terms of generating the most traffic, probably riding off some of the popularity and brand recognition of the original game. Even with no marketing efforts made on my part, it picked up a couple hundred hits in a few weeks and some random “likes” by random people here and there, and has been quietly racking up traffic all on its own. This goes to show that branding can be a very powerful force — something that I think a lot of musicians have a tendency to underestimate.
Even if the numbers are small, there’s something thrilling about watching something grow on its own, even if it just happens to be a bits on a computer screen. But as most entrepreneurs know, “hits” are a poor indication of something’s value, and can be considered a form of a vanity metric. That, combined with what my gut has been nagging at me, has lead me to believe that the project is probably going to fail in long run, at least as a business enterprise.
For one, when you base your success off of another company’s brand, there’s the danger that should the game lose its popularity (something that happens all the time) the music will fall off the charts along with it. It doesn’t even require Rovio to go out of business in order for this to happen — they could simply decide that they want to focus their efforts on developing a different game and that would be that.
To be fair, some people can earn a respectable living moving from style to style, song to song, genre to genre. (Weird Al Yankovic comes to mind.) But I’ve never been particularly good at keeping up with pop culture trends in this way because it’s not where my strengths and interests lie. And to be perfectly honest, I used the Angry Birds theme only because it was massively popular, not necessarily because I was in love with the product itself. So during the last few months I’ve been re-evaluating my priorities, strengths, and possible directions I could use for my next project.
It’s only been a short while and the numbers are still very small, so some say my decision to “pivot” might be a bit premature. There still might be some potential in the 4 other tracks and I could market test all of them even further if I really wanted to. But they all have similar issues of the music sounding like something someone else could probably write — even if the quality wasn’t quite as high, for most people’s purposes they could probably do it for pretty cheap and no-one would be the wiser.
The biggest red flag, however, was the responses that I’ve gotten from doing market testing on radio and online DJ sites. It blends fairly well in the intended genre-type (ambient, chill) but none of them got a very strong/impassioned response from anybody as of yet. Thankfully nobody hated it, but nobody really said they loved it, either. (I did these testings from an anonymous name in order to get an impartial opinion.) So it’s time to put it on the shelf, at least for now, I think.
It’s not that I think that the album is bad or that there isn’t anything original about it, but for this project I wanted to set the bar much higher than I have in the past. And for that, I would need to focus on what my greatest asset was, and focus solely on executing on those ideas. For a musician, what does that mean, though?
Finding Your “Sound” is Your Barrier to Entry
Every artist goes through a phase of finding their “voice” or “sound” in their works, which I’ve found to be very similar to what entrepreneurs do when they’re trying to “discover” their business model. Both paths involve a very long and grueling process of trials, tribulations, practice, and self-discovery that allows them to “get” to where they need to go, whatever that might mean to them. Because of the immense amount of work and dedication that’s involved, most people never reach the point where they have “it” under their belt, and those that do never feel like it ever reaches perfection. A few rare talents have “it” naturally but often lose the opportunity to allow for its development, while others prematurely decide to push what they have into the world, before “it” is ready. Needless to say, the failure rate is very high in these fields and timing often plays a very big part in whether or not something becomes a success.
What is “it”? It’s not possible to define “it” in specific terms, but everyone knows what it is when they hear it — “it” is the musician’s “sound” that gives their music a unique flavor that you can’t get anywhere else. Some believe “it” is something people are born with, while others believe that it can be acquired through hard work, practice, and perseverance. I tend to gravitate towards the latter point of view, mostly because in my experience people who continue the process of experimentation, discovery, and getting honest feedback (most important) eventually find something that allows them to stand apart from the rest of the world. Not necessarily because there’s anything particularly interesting about them in themselves, but because they took the time, effort, and mindfulness to create something that they hope would better the lives of themselves and their intended audiences.
Just because it can be acquired, however, doesn’t make the trait any less rare. People willing to make the sacrifices necessary in order to develop their talent is an uncommon trait, and they have to be lucky enough to have (or be smart enough to look for) a support system that allows for their talents to reach its full potential. The road is a difficult one, but the good news is that a unique “sound” can be achieved by almost anyone regardless of background, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, politics or personality type, as long as the right tools and mindsets are in place. Artists and entrepreneurs are always interesting people to hang out with, mostly because they’re the exceptions to the rule that every segment of society has to offer.
On a number of occasions, a few entrepreneurs asked me the question, “well, what happens if a larger company decides to rip off your idea and do it themselves?” The implication here is that once you achieve success, a bigger company is likely to copy your idea and attempt to push your product out of the market using their superior infrastructure. This is a difficult, but fair, question that investors often ask entrepreneurs to think about before pursuing their project any further, particularly if their idea is a good one. An entrepreneur needs to have the means and methods of protecting themselves, or there’s a good chance that they could simply get crushed by their competition once they reach a certain level of success.
As a way to mitigate this risk, investors typically ask entrepreneurs if their idea has any “proprietary” value. Here’s where intellectual property rights becomes an important factor in the equation — if a company can protect themselves through the use of patents, trademarks, or copyrights in order to give themselves a head start, they can earn their success more comfortably, with less competition. A similar effect can be achieved when the idea itself is extremely difficult to replicate or reverse-engineer because of its own ingenuity and/or complexity. This is typically labelled as a product’s “barrier of entry” — the higher the barrier, the more advantageous the situation becomes for both its founders and investors.
Musicians can learn a lot from this idea, especially if they want to work with record companies or are looking to get signed by a major label. What gives an artist “proprietary” value? It’s their “sound”, their “it”. If what they do cannot be replicated anywhere else, then this makes them more desirable in the eyes of producers who’re looking for ways to differentiate themselves from what the rest of the market is doing.
A musician who makes a name for themselves using a dog whistle during their performances will always be in perpetual danger of being replaced because no court would allow them to copyright the act of “using a dog whistle” in itself. Unlike product-based ventures where they’re sometimes allowed to a patent a “process”, musicians don’t have the luxury of monopolizing a novelty, gimmick, style, or approach to their works because their outputs are copyrighted at its end stages, usually in the form of recordings or written scores/lyrics. So the dog-whistle musician is most likely to just give up on their instrument after they start bumping into larger markets because they have no means of competing against the bigger players in the game.
That is, unless they’ve managed to get so good at the dog whistle that they were able to create a unique sound from it that noone else in the world could do. In which case their “it” factor once again becomes re-established, giving them a fighting chance for survival. This is the main reason why your teachers will tell you to shut up and go back to practicing — it’s not what you have that matters, but what you do with it that will end up helping you in the long run. Gimmicks and novelties always have a short shelf-life, and for good reason.
So I’ve been thinking a lot about what was my “it”, my “sound” — I’ve been lucky enough to have had experiences where people have told me that there was something unique about the kinds of musics that I made, so this has always kept my motivation going, even during times of difficulty. Up until now, however, I never bothered trying to pin-point what that was, mostly because I’ve always been interested in a lot of different things and was prone to distracting myself towards other activities. But now it was time to get down to the specifics.
Pivoting Comes From Inspiration
It’s pretty appropriate that Steve Blank’s latest post was on the topic of epiphanies, because I think it’s safe to say that I had one after finally completing my first “Lean”-based compositional approach. Epiphanies are things that I’ve actually seen and experienced a lot during my lifetime, mostly because I’m around a lot of people who have the creative impulse. Some epiphanies have greater urgency than others, but they all force you to do one thing: take a different direction than what you’re currently doing right now.
Steve Blank speaks of the epiphany as it’s usually depicted in the movies: a sudden flash of inspiration that crystalizes an idea or direction in the mind of an individual. In my case — maybe because I’m a pretty laid back guy and all — the light was more like a slow fade-in that came over me over the course of a couple of days while I tried to figure out what I needed to do in the near future. It might have been my left-brained, skeptical mind of the scholar/researcher that’s slowed the process down, maybe.
I mentally compiled a list of all of the music that I’ve made so far and narrowed them down based on desirable qualities that make for a good entrepreneurial venture. I liked doing them all and honestly had no preference of one or the other, but I figured that since there’s only a limited hours in the day I might as well pick the ones that were more likely to make me successful. So it had to be something that 1) I was good at that no-one else could do, 2) provoked the strongest response from audience members, and 3) was economical to a certain degree. After mulling over it for a little while, it eventually became clear that I should be focusing my efforts toward my piano improvisations at this point in time.
I’ve always been dabbling on the piano since I was a kid, making up songs and pieces on the fly whenever I could. I’ve always had kind of a short attention span and never really enjoyed practicing and playing music that someone else wrote, so I would do these improvisations in between my daily practice routines as a way for me to relieve some stress. It was really the only place where I could sit still for hours and be happy, while allowing me to collect my thoughts on the things that were going on elsewhere in my life. After I left my school’s performance program I stopped practicing my instrument for the most part, but continued to develop my methods and techniques in the improvisatory arts.
At this point it’s gone way beyond liking it — the sense of focus and concentration that improvisation has given me has helped out in other areas of my life, proving me with some very tangible benefits. (I wouldn’t have been able to get into my current doctoral program without it, for example.) And it’s become more or less a mission to share these ideas to the world, since I really do think that it can help people figure out ways to navigate through today’s society, which is increasingly becoming more complex and unpredictable.
Some improvisations can be serene and spacious (like Pt.8 above) or fast, dense, and complex (like Pt.5 below), but they do have one thing in common: these tracks are extremely introspective but nonetheless are very “busy” in its content. In retrospect, most of the “wowed” responses I was able to get from my music were from these performances (especially when live) among people who had similar qualities to that of my sounds — introverted, thoughtful, but nonetheless productive, and direct. I’m hoping that they’ll be able to somewhat see themselves in the kinds of music that I make, seeing the piano as a metaphor for computers and other types of mechanical devices. We’re both sitting in front of a keyboard all day, after all — mine just happens to make sounds, rather than words.
So this fits all of the criteria of what makes for a good entrepreneurial idea. It’s something that only I can do right now, since it’s not anything that you can learn in any music program at this point in time. It had the strongest response from audience members, at least within certain niches. And it’s economical because these tracks can be produced in real-time, with little to no rehearsal preparation. (I’m going to max out TuneCore’s album length limit of 150 minutes in order to prove this point.) Live performances will require only a piano and minimal micing with reverb effects, which can be done in any venue with standard equipment you can get just about anywhere.
Since it’s technically an “ambient” work, I know that my stuff will never reach the top 40 charts or receive wide, mass-market appeal. But I can see it being used for background music for tech-related products/advertisements, video games, or for websites, all of which have fairly respectable income streams. It can also be marketed to people who need some ambiance that sounds “modern” but nonetheless still manages to retain that feel of an acoustic instrument.
The goal right now is to finish up the 2 1/2-hour album and sell it through online distribution — it sounds crazy on the surface but I have a consistent enough method now that I could probably get it out in under a month while still retaining most of its quality. And a methodological consistency will lead to a consistency in sound, which will be useful for establishing an identity for its brand. It’s something that someone could hit play and let it run for a few hours while they focus their attention doing other things.
The genre will be called “Post-Minimal Ambient” music, which combines my classical and avant-garde backgrounds with the styles of Ambient and Chillout musics which I happen to enjoy the most in the electronic music medium. Postminimalism is a term that was coined by Kyle Gann, in order to explain the direction that modern classical musics were moving towards after the (public) successes of composers such as Philip Glass and Steve Reich. The style is an attempt by classical musicians to branch out into the mass market, which employs the use of electronic music techniques and styles into the formal traditions that have developed under the classical canon. It’s also descriptive of the style in the sense that the music attempts to create ambiance “beyond” what is just minimal. There’s always something there to pay attention to, but only if the listener chooses to do so. People who are more into it will start noticing the details that exist inside of the washes of sound, so it can work on two different levels if need be.
It’s somewhat strange that all of these ideas came to me in such a short amount of time, considering that I didn’t have to invent or do anything new to come to this realization. All I did was frame what I was already doing in a different way (using the lean method), and all of the pieces started falling into place. This doesn’t guarantee that the project will be successful, but it’s something that I could see myself putting 100% into since I’m probably going to be doing it for the rest of my life anyway. And if it can be made to work, then I’ll finally have an idea worth pursuing as a musician and entrepreneur.