When OK Music first jumped into the business side of music-making, there was a long, grueling period where confusion ran amok and none of us really knew what was going on. While it’s only been a year since we started to move in that direction, the process felt like an eternity at least for me, especially since I was supposed to be leading the group.
Were we a non-profit or private organization? Who’s our audience? Who should be doing what, how should we present ourselves to the public, and through what channels? This new situation brought up a lot of hard questions that previously went unasked, and I was forced to confront them on a daily basis, especially as I began to talk to people outside of my usual circles.
From a conceptual standpoint, business is usually not too difficult to understand — you have something, you give it to someone in exchange for money, goods, or services. Simpler models tend to work better than complicated ones, so the level of complexity never gets too high in most cases. Actual implementation, on the other hand, is a whole different story. Turns out that the art of connecting that something to that someone can be one of the most difficult parts of the whole process.
After doing months of research, I think a lot of progress has been made and our goals and objectives have now been made clear. The last few weeks in particular have been very interesting because I’ve been talking to both musicologists and business people about marketing strategies, and there seems to be a few common themes that run through both ways of thinking.
Branding is, in essence, the art of storytelling. From childhood, most of us grow up learning about our values and means of dealing with the world through the stories that we learn from our parents and teachers. As we get older the types of tales we want to hear changes, but the practice of learning something through narrative structures never does.
We probably would all like to think ourselves as rational creatures, but the reality is that most of us don’t make purchasing decisions based on reason alone — we buy what we think will be good for us, whether it’s true or not. Apple’s line of computer products is good example of a story told effectively. In terms of price and functionality, Apple usually can’t compete against the PC market in any way, yet the company is one of the most successful ones out there. Behind the product there is a narrative that associates ideas of creativity and free-thinking with the use of their devices, and this is what gives their brand an appeal that other companies don’t have.
That being said, I’m usually the type that does extensive research before buying anything, so I try to make my purchasing decisions as “objective” as possible. (I probably get this from my father, who thinks very much like an engineer.) I’m basically looking for a good deal based on price, reliability, and functionality, for the most part. For products like computers, cars, maybe even food to a certain extent, it might be possible to arrive at these types of decisions, but I quickly found out that this is not possible in music since its “value” is based purely on the unquantifiable idea of “enjoyment”. So where do we go from here?
In the arts, the idea of the narrative takes center stage — a compelling story is in itself both the product and marketing strategy. Many 19th Century composers (Wagner, Debussy, Dvořák, Sebelius, et al.) played into the nationalistic sentiments of their time, attempting to embed themselves into the cultural narrative that was being created around them. American composers such as Copland, Bernstein, and Gershwin attempted to articulate people’s ideas about “Americana”, from their point of view. Even avant-garde music, which positions itself as being anti-narrative, has a narrative of being against narratives in a general sense, which allowed them to market themselves a viable product.
So both in art and in business, it’s important to have a story to tell, regardless if it’s a personal tale or attempting to describe a social movement on a larger scale. Being in Los Angeles where Hollywood glitz is the norm of the day, it can be sometimes difficult to see beyond the logos, packaging, and general appearances of a product. But the consensus seems to be that the reason why bands struggle to grab people’s attention is not because they lack a good package (or even a good product, in some cases), but because they don’t have a story compelling enough to maintain the long term interest of the audience.
In finding out all of these things, I realized that I was actually in a very good position to make things happen — I’m surrounded by a lot of good musicians whos personal stories were equally interesting as the music that they played, and this is especially true in improvised musics, where personal narrative is very much part of the music making process in itself. The solution was to simply present these ideas to the public in a simple, coherent way.
Being an improv band, OK Music is likely to find acceptance among people who enjoy the uncertainty behind what we do. As mentioned in an earlier post, improvisation and entrepreneurship share some striking parallels that are hard to ignore. Both require flexibility, adaptability, spontaneousness, and is motivated primarily by the desire to create something new. It’s a movement that’s gaining momentum both in the universities and on the ground — given current cultural and economic trends, there doesn’t seem to be any sign that this will slow down any time soon either. Its ideas can be applied to individuals wanting to start their own business, as well as corporate institutions looking to reinvigorate their processes in order to stay relevant to current day practices. Once people can start seeing themselves in relation to what we’re doing musically, a connection can be made from both an aesthetic and pedagogical standpoint, and the likelihood of success increases.
Research in this area has lead to a few unexpected insights into how I might be able to market my own personal music as well — my minimalist-inspired recordings in particular will probably find its place among intellectuals and leaders working within the technology sector. Technology is not perfect, but I do believe that it can have a positive impact on society and this idea tends to manifest itself in my work. I was able to get a few positive reactions among people who’re sympathetic to such causes, so now it’s simply a matter of making more connections in that area and selling myself in that manner.
All successful movements, after a certain point, eventually require music and art that is reflective of its own methods and values. The main problem right now is that the market hasn’t quite hit a point where breaking-in would make a lot of sense — both the technology and startup “scenes” are relatively new, so it doesn’t seem like either have gotten to a level where it has become aware of its own narrative structures.
But it seems fairly inevitable that it will get there eventually, and this will probably happen sooner than later given how fast things change in today’s society. Entrepreneurial leaders of Los Angeles are expecting that in roughly 3-4 years time, the startup movement in the city would rival that of New York or Silicon Valley, even if — or especially if — the economy goes into a double-dip recession. Some are arguing that we’re actually in the midst of a brewing bubble, despite what’s happening to the economy as a whole.
Fortunately this time period lines up perfectly with my projected graduation year for my current Ph.D program, so when it gets closer to the date I’ll know for sure when would be a good time to start promoting ourselves heavily. My job right now is to refine, develop, and experiment with new ideas with the group, and being in an university environment will help to make this happen and take our current projects to a new level.
It’s been a long, but pretty amazing journey so far, and I can finally see things lining up in such a way where things are turning in our favor now. If we play our cards correctly, the chance of long-term success seems entirely realistic at this point — the rest is just preparation.