“Yea, who cares though?” – Some Guy on the Internet

In recent years, entrepreneurs have strongly been urging founders and designers to “get out of the building” and talk directly to their customer base, which is a practice that I’ve been attempting to emulate in my own work as of the late. If needed, I know I can count on my musician friends to get comments and feedback, which can be both a blessing and a curse when it comes to getting down to the truth — sometimes you get it and sometimes you don’t. The general public will tell you things that your friends and family won’t, which can often give insights into your work that you normally wouldn’t have access to. Regardless if it’s positive or negative, helpful or unhelpful, in either case you end up learning something new about your craft.

Listening to your audience doesn’t necessarily mean you have to follow everything they say, but it does help to give a clearer picture of how they are responding to your works in certain contexts. You can then decide to either follow, ignore, or re-interpret what was given to you in order to guide future decisions. Gaining a thick skin and a disciplined interest in the pursuit of truth are both prerequisites for pushing entrepreneurial ideas into the general public — of this type of broader mindset, “Lean” thinking can be thought as a particular stream of this approach.

Illusions of Stasis: For Flute, Oboe, Synth Pad (Bowed), and Contrabass -- This is the 3rd track in the 'Words vs. Sounds' series, done in an ambient style.

Having come from a musical background, switching to an entrepreneurial way of thinking can sometimes be a challenge, since a lot of it entails the exact opposite of what I went through in my educational training. A college-level music program will immerse you, for several years, in an environment where you’re constantly surrounded by people who are very talented and knowledgeable in your area of study. When dealing with the general public, on the other hand, you may find yourself constantly trying to justify your work and existence to people who have virtually no knowledge of your field or its history. Many artists find this process taxing and frustrating, having to deal with people (like that guy above) on a day to day basis.

Nonetheless, in many ways this is how the world has always worked — we first learn to specialize in certain things, then attempt to apply our skills into broader social contexts. And the way in which this is accomplished is by convincing the other person that you have something to offer to them in some way. Both musicians and entrepreneurs often ask themselves the same question: How do you turn a creative idea into a workable, sustainable living? Entrepreneurial methodologies — the “Lean Startup” method in particular — seemed to have offered at least one way in which this question could be addressed in a realistic manner.

Eric Ries, the entrepreneur and author who first coined the term, doesn’t promise he can solve all your problems. He does, however, offer a number of approaches that can reduce the amount of confusion and disarray that typically arise out of the startup process. Entrepreneurs and artists actually have a lot in common with each other in this regard — they both work with creative ideas, are looking to make their work public in some way, and are often working under conditions of “extreme uncertainty”. What made the connection between Ries’ book and music seem plausible was the fact that many of the companies that were applying these principals were based in software development, which meant that they were largely working with ideas, similar to what musicians did in their own practice.

This is a topic that has a lot of potential to be expanded upon, I think, especially within the realm of musical performance-practices. Both computer software and music compositions can be said to be metaphysical objects (to use an academic term), while its institutions are largely based around the idea of providing an “experience” for the user/audience. But so far there’s only one very short blog post by Steve Blank where the “composer-as-founder” connection is made explicit. Other than that, there’s just not much out there.

I wrote a bit on the correlations between lean methodologies and improvisational practices back in March when the “Lean Startup” movement was in its brewing stages. Finding up-and-coming trends seems to be my thing, since The Lean Startup book made it to #2 on the New York Times a few months ago and has now become part of the national spotlight. When I first attended these Lean LA meetings, there were maybe between 40-50 people…every time I went they seemed to double in size every time — 100 at Coloft, 200 when Ries spoke at the Santa Monica Convention Center, then 400 at UCLA when Steve Blank was in town.

Even if the goal of the musician isn’t to make a lot of money, entrepreneurship is largely about finding intersections between personal interests and the needs of the rest of the world — a mindset that can be applicable in a wider variety of contexts. These principals are also being applied in larger organizations such as corporations and government agencies in order to boost innovation and reduce institutional waste, so it already has proven models of success at this point in time. Having ardent and passionate supporters in its wake, it doesn’t seem like the movement is going to slow down any time soon either. “Lean” thinking can be said to be a business methodology, but in many ways it’s also philosophy and outlook towards life in a general sense.

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“Lean” Music

So now down to the “how to do it” part of the article, or at least how I’m attempting to do it thus far. Just like how “minimalism” doesn’t mean that there’s very little music, “Lean” doesn’t mean that you’re going to be producing less sounds. (Probably more, if anything.) “Lean” can be thought of as a general principal where the elimination of waste (time, money, resources, etc.) becomes a major factor in decision-making processes — creative, business, distributional, time management, and so on.

If you go into any given music store, you may notice that there are a lot of different types of keyboards sitting around the room. Some look like analog pianos, others like toys, some look like from something you might see on Star Trek, while others will have a million buttons embedded onto them in addition to the keyboard layout itself. What the manufacturers don’t want you to know is this: the keyboard synthesizer, as an instrument itself, hasn’t really changed all that much during the last couple of decades. Maybe there have been a few changes in its wiring and output jacks and a couple extra knobs here and there, but in terms of its hardware the instrument itself has more or less been the same “oscillators + buttons” device for a very long time now.

If possible, avoid buying these kinds of things.

Maybe because we’re currently living in an age of consumerism, there seems to be an idea floating around that if you spend more money on an instrument it somehow produces “better” sounds than ones that costs less. (Or as the marketing ploy goes, since you are a very good musician, you deserve an instrument whos price matches your talent.) When you get down to the essence of it, though, behind all the gadgetry and appearances of the device are just buttons that trigger oscillators when you press down on them, which then produces sound. Hardware wise, 2-3000 dollar “digital home pianos” and 100-200 dollar synthesizers are nearly identical in construction, except for its surrounding materials. In most cases the former actually offers less functionality than the latter, since it’s purposely made to imitate the “heavy” stature of an acoustic piano.

So in many cases people end up spending several grand on a stool and bulky appearances of a device which would otherwise be identical to the one that costs a 1/10-th of its price. When these purchases are done in bulk (by educational institutions, especially) its costs can start to add up very quickly. “Lean” practices attempts to spot these things ahead of time and remedy them before they get too out of hand, by stripping ideas and products down to their essence in order to arrive at the most efficient, compact result. This leads to the next point:

Minimum Viable Music

Ries managed to coin another term, which is the “minimum viable product”, or MVP. MVP is the artist’s version of the stripped-down keyboard — the bare essence of their creative project. If you’re like me, there’s an inherent tendency for musicians to sit on their music for long periods of time before releasing it into the public. Maybe the balance isn’t quite right in the intro, or the drums in the 2nd track is a little off, or maybe the violin sounds smaller than usual in the closer. Maybe you could be having second thoughts about the lyrical implications of the 4th song, so you’re considering doing a revision on it. The power that digital mastering has given to independent musicians has been fairly revolutionary, but at the same time, it has also made them more prone to self-imposed anxieties in this manner. MVP states that this is unproductive: the musician, therefore, should release works in progress as soon as it reaches a point of coherency.

This process actually has a historical precursor in the music industry — in pre-digital eras, the making of “demo tapes” were a fairly common way for musicians and bands to achieve their own version of a “minimal viable product”. The vast majority of these recordings, even ones made by well-known musicians, were usually not very good from a production standpoint, but were useful as means of capturing the “general idea” of an album for distribution purposes. The polished, perfectly executed, and hyper-mastered versions of a mainstream release is only the final destination of a long, grueling journey that is rarely acknowledged or seen by the public at large.

Because home recording technologies now allow for the average user to achieve (almost) the same level of “polish” that can be done by mainstream labels, independent artists are often pressured into creating albums that match those same levels of execution in their own works. (Artwork and liner notes included.) You might end up spending hundreds of hours on a 3-minute track, changing details of its color, equalization and balance, even without changing a single note. Software engineers have similar anxiety issues in coding, especially when it comes to their personal projects. They want “Version 1.0” to be perfect, complete with all of the features that they had imagined, functional on every platform and operating system, running in the smoothest and smallest possible code as needed.

As most people have come to expect, however, Version 1.0 of anything is usually synonymous with “barely functional and crashes all the time”. It happens because we are all human and our ideas about perfection will always be flawed to a certain degree. But as history shows, people will use these products anyway, if it works and they find the program to be compelling or useful enough for their needs. People’s tolerance for imperfections, I’ve found, were much higher than expected — what they didn’t tolerate, however, was content that they found uninteresting.

'In Fifths at Seattle's Coffee', my version of the 'Minimum Viable Product'

Being creative and imaginative people, musicians often have ideas in their own minds about of how people might react to their music when they present it in public, both positive and negative. The reality, though, is that 90% of the time you won’t get any response whatsoever, no matter how great, groundbreaking, or even bad, your idea might have been at the start. (People are used to seeing all of these things all the time now.) The MVP is designed to stop builders and founders to stop polishing things that people don’t care about — in essence, it’s a quasi-scientific way of measuring audience/customer response in relation to your time spent. In cases where audience response was lackluster, it could simply mean that the music was not marketed properly to the right people. But in either case keeping record of these experiences helps the musician avoid making false projections of where their work might find its place.

Here’s where improvisation has come in handy, at least for myself. I’ve been occasionally making piano/keyboard recordings that I came up with on the fly, then distributing them to various places on the web in order to test people’s responses. (Turntable.fm, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, Reverb Nation, Last.fm, social media, etc.) I’m one of those people who sees potential in everything, so if an idea fails or doesn’t get traction it’s not that big of a deal. Recently, I did get an unexpected positive response from one of my improvisations that I did near a coffee shop at my university, so I’ve been expanding upon those ideas in order to guide my next project.

If you listen to the recording itself (which I made directly on my phone after having 3-4 hours of sleep the night before), the quality isn’t very good and there’s a few instances where I flubbed a few notes, while the rhythms are also somewhat off in some areas. But some people seemed to have liked it despite these things, so I used the chord progressions from that recording in order to organize the ideas behind the Words vs. Sounds project that I’m working on now. I currently have a few electronic tracks written — all done in different styles — that uses the same chords as the ones in the original recording. For the album’s closer, I wrote a string quartet that will be performed and recorded by live musicians, which also utilizes the same harmonic material. I’m hoping that the process of doing this (improvisation -> composition -> performance) will show how ideas can evolve into social processes and organizational methodologies, while my target audiences will likely be those who are also interested in similar issues, either directly or indirectly. (i.e. nerds)

Most of these tracks took only a few days to create, one of them at little as a day and half. All of these tracks (even the electronic ones) were written in such a way so that it could be played by human performers if needed — but the expectation of that happening is not there at this point in time. Some composers will go through the trouble of finding world-class performers and getting them performed in top-tier venues, which can be very expensive, time-consuming, and at times embarrassing, especially if things don’t go as well as planned. With this method, I have the advantage of knowing whom my audience might be before I start investing my time and money into a project. If it fails, it fails early, well before too many people get involved in the process.

While failure can’t ever said to be a great thing, it’s seen as being preferable than heavily investing into a non-existent outcome, which has the danger of its processes being carried out for an indefinite amount of time. (Using a zombie metaphor, startups label these situations as being in the “Land of the Living Dead”.) An entrepreneur mentioned to me once, “sometimes having a lot of money is the worst thing you could have” — when things aren’t working but individuals decide to put their time and money into it anyway, it can often have very serious, life-lasting effects on people and their surroundings. It’s the stuff that bubbles and disillusions are made up of, and what “Lean” processes actively tries to avoid in its own methodologies. The passion that the “Lean Startup” movement brings to the table comes from the belief that these systems can also be used to cure the ills that have plagued financial, governmental, and corporate institutions in recent years.

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The interesting thing about doing music in this way is that I started to see connections between what I was doing with the stylistic practices in music communities happening elsewhere. It turns out that the chords used in the ambient track above were actually very commonly used in those styles anyway, so my intuitions weren’t too off the mark.

When talking to strangers, you quickly learn that most people don’t actually know what they “want”, or if they do, they’re not able/willing to articulate it to you. It teaches you the importance of judging people by their actions rather than words, since the latter tended to be unreliable as a source of information — it’s not that people were trying to be misleading, but that words in themselves never really presents a very clear picture of any given situation. This is especially true in music, where our understanding of it is very abstract and the language we have to talk about it is extremely limited.

The music industry is full of examples of failed marketing strategies where they might throw out a survey about how “emotional”, on a scale of 1 to 10, a piece of music “makes you feel” — I’m exaggerating a little bit here, but not by much. You might be surprised to hear that companies, music or otherwise, spend tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars conducting these types of surveys per session, while gaining almost nothing useful in return. These practices are (hopefully) on its way out and resources are being re-allocated toward different ends, which presents an opportunity for musicians to take control of the situation in the near future.

Three is the Arbitrary Number: For Bass Clarinet, Trumpet, Electric Piano, Vibraphone, and Viola -- This is the 4rd track in the 'Words vs. Sounds' series. (This one uses phasing and metric modulation techniques.)

Entrepreneurs almost universally agree that surveys have to be conducted extremely carefully in order to justify the costs, so they’ve moved onto “customer development” strategies that function more like interviews, rather than tests. The idea here is for founders to “get to know” their customers and find out what their real needs and problems are. From there, they can formulate better strategies around what kind of improvements they might be able to make on future products and projects. For the artist, this strategy just reiterates the time-honored adage about them needing to know who their audience is, so that they can choose the types of language and issues they want to talk about in their works. If you build your work around something that people care about, then your chances of success increases exponentially. The good news is that, thanks to the internet and developments in communication technologies, these things can now be done very quickly at virtually no costs to the artist themselves. All you have to do now, is ask.

As a counterpoint to this perspective, there is the notion that perhaps the artist shouldn’t necessarily care about what the audience “wants” when creating their works. It’s the popular, romantic narrative of the “lone genius” who ignores popular opinion in favor of their personal vision. Having done many projects without regard to its outcome myself, I know first hand that this approach can sometimes yield very interesting results. In retrospect, though, these endeavors were never done in isolation since I had indirect support coming from school and family, so my processes were always guided by something else in some way at all times. Historical examples show that even composers whom we have known as “mavericks” (Beethoven, Wagner, Schoenberg, Cage, etc.) all had their respective funding and support structures that allowed them to stay afloat — these figures are remembered because they were good with people, not the other way around.

When dealing with ideas where the maximization of profit isn’t its main concern, the funding model simply switches from a private to a public one: in both cases, I still have to know who my “audience” is, what I’m trying to sell and to whom. The former I have to argue for individual donations (including friends and family), while the latter toward board members or grand committees — the interests, objectives, and means of getting there are somewhat different, but the process of acquiring external support, I’ve found, is largely the same. CEOs have to comply to the decisions of their board, Presidents to their voters and doners, so in one way or another everyone will always have to answer to someone, even if it happens to be their parents or spouse. The power that entrepreneurship and artistic practices gives to the individual is that it allows them the opportunity to define their existence according to what kinds of customers/audiences they want to build around their craft.

In the midst of the creative process, it can sometimes appear that things happen randomly or without cause or reason. History always proves this theory wrong, but this type of clarity can only be achieved in retrospect, which has always been a problem for the human race in a general sense. “Lean” methodologies, while not perfect, helps to structure creative endeavors so that the learning process can happen quickly enough to be applied in present day situations.

Is this the way music will be done in the future? It’s hard to tell, but since we’re living in different times, different strategies for survival will be necessary in order for musicians to press forward. For now, I’m using this approach in order to direct my individual projects and will be applying the things that I’ve learned into my group projects later on. I’ll post more details as things start to progress.

If any of this interests you, I’d suggest reading Ries’ “The Lean Startup”, or Steve Blank’s “The Four Steps to Epiphany” for more details. Patrick Valaskovits has an abridged version of Blank’s ideas in his book, “The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Customer Development”, as well.