“A pivot is a substantive change to one or more of components to your business model. You’re using “Pivot” as an excuse to skip the hard stuff – keeping focused on your initial vision and business model and integrating what you’ve heard if and only if you think it’s a substantive improvement to your current business model. There is no possible way you can garner enough information to pivot based on one customers feedback or even 20. You need to make sure it’s a better direction than the one you are already heading in.”
-Steve Blank, Vision vs. Hallucination
This quote struck a chord with me, mostly because I saw a lot of similarities between this and what a lot of artists and musicians struggle with in their creative pursuits. Like most startup companies, it’s normal — even expected — for most aspiring artists to jump from one idea to the next, in order to expose themselves to and experiment with as many ideas, methods, and styles as they possibly can. But because people only have one body and so many hours in the day, there eventually becomes a need for artists to narrow down their knowledge to the bare essentials of what matters to them the most. The result of this process of elimination is what becomes the artist’s “voice” or “vision” of their work; a true representation of who they are and what they stand for.
You might agree or disagree with what they’re doing, love or hate them for who they are, but when artistic choices are narrowed down to its essence, its results become entities in themselves, creating something unique that comes from the artists’ experiences and perspectives. And this is what allows artists to move away from being consumers of culture towards a more of a producer’s role, separating them from the amateur and giving way to the possibility of earning a living from their output.
Like with food and other essential goods, music and media is the most necessary and impactful during a person’s formative years, where habits and tendencies are formulated through the consumption of artistic ideas. But just because you get older doesn’t mean you stop eating — nobody ever stops being a consumer of music, even if their tastes happen to change over time. Musicians, however, aspire towards something different than the average consumer — they want to create, produce, or disseminate what they have in their head in order to be on the other side of fence as producers of cultural goods.
Entrepreneurs have similar desires as those of artists, except that their goals usually have a more tangible quality than the latter. What the two fields have in common, however, is that they both necessitate the creation and sustenance of a “vision” that more often than not runs counter to (or at least puts a twist on) existing norms. And these visions can lead people toward greatness or success, or mislead them into trouble and failure, depending on how its interpreted and applied. The trials and tribulations of the artist lies in their struggle to make a distinction between real visions and hallucinations during the quest of discovering who they really are.
Listen, Don’t Follow
When I first got interested in applying entrepreneurship to my music-related activities about a year and a half ago, I was doing a lot of frequent “pivots”, similar to what was described in Blank’s story above. Having no business or entrepreneurial experience prior, it was a challenge for me to just figure out what what was going on at any given time, and this lack of direction ended up costing me a lot in terms of time, money, and my ability to manage/organize projects that I was working on. Plans wouldn’t turn out as expected, the pitches I made wouldn’t go very well, and people’s apathy levels often ran pretty high when I couldn’t establish a clear direction for where things were going. Some things were my fault and could be worked on (something that I was willing to do), but there were also a lot of other factors (like the music industry being broken) that were completely out of my control. I’ve always considered myself pretty even-keeled, but at that point I was running into more problems than I had the ability to solve, so I found myself cutting things back more and more as time went on.
After a certain point I started looking for advice, methods, theories…basically anything that would help me make more sense of the situation I was in. I’ve come to love and appreciate Lean Startup and Customer Development methodologies since it helped frame what I was doing at the time in a more positive, constructive direction. And the idea that businesses should listen to their customer more — a key tenant of Customer Development strategies — was something that was hard to argue against, especially since many of the societal problems that we have now can be said to be a result of corporations and institutions having become disconnected from the concerns of the average person on the street.
As time goes on, though, I’ve come to learn that sometimes sticking to your guns can actually be the more effective thing to do in the long run. This point of view might be colored by my experiences in music where people often don’t know how to articulate their tastes and preferences, but I think that a lot of the lessons learned can be applied in areas outside of the artistic practice. For one, more often than not you’ll find that the feedback that you get from customers and potential clients will start to contradict each other more and more as you get access to greater amounts of information. If you’re only listening to one person at a time and decide to build a new feature or product for every request made, there’s a good chance that you’ll be running around in endless circles trying to please everyone you come into contact with. And the unfortunate outcome of this is that you may end up building something that nobody wants as a result, because the process as a whole doesn’t culminate into something larger than the sum of its parts.
While this seemed like a pretty good insight at the time, the idea itself felt vaguely familiar — probably because I’ve seen a few artists do the same in regard to their creative persuits. Some critics will often deride ego-inflated artists for making art “only for themselves”, but in those situations the work is at least pleasing 1 person in the crowd. If it serves a purpose (like making people happy), there’s nothing wrong with writing music for your friends, family, loved-ones, or a niched sub-culture either. Some would say that this is a process in exclusivity, but the idea here is that it’s better to be something to someone, rather than attempting to be everything to everyone, the latter being more or less an impossibility.
But there are cases where some musics doesn’t appeal to anyone, including the creator themselves, which creates perverse situations that really shouldn’t exist in the first place. Such works are more common in the commercial sector where market research is used (badly), but it can also exist among underground and aspiring artists who are often too eager to give audience members “exactly what they want”. Is it even possible to know what people want in their music, and if so, can such a song be constructed out of simply “listening” to your customers in this way? Komar, Melamid, and Dave Soldier, in their Most Wanted/Unwanted Song album, already had debunked and parodied the process of using surveys as means of formulating music long before Customer Development was in anybody’s minds, so no dice there — but there’s also something pretty cynical in thinking that you can control the masses of people by simply telling them what they want to hear. (And 9 times out of 10, you’ll be wrong, anyway.)
Music made from these types of approaches, however, never works and usually falls flat on its face once it gets into the hands of the public. Contrary to the opinions of some, Hollywood doesn’t generate hits through market research and surveys, but by finding the right “fit” between an artist and its intended audiences. I’m not particularly a fan of Kenny G’s music, for example, but to him, his middle-of-the-road, pop-influenced smooth-jazz style is what music really means to him. And it shows, in the way that he plays, the way he lives his life (he has donated a lot to causes of music education, by the way, in case you’re a hater), and the way the audience reacts to his presence on stage. This is something that can’t be faked or manufactured — it comes from a deep seated belief that the musical experience should be done in a certain way and he puts in the time and effort necessary to execute it with flawless perfection. I can respect Kenny G’s skill and dedication to his cause, but I don’t happen to listen to him simply because I’m not the type of person that he’s trying to reach out to in his music. But there’s a lot that I learned from his career and success, even didn’t happen to appreciate the music itself.
The truth is that the vast majority of people don’t really know what they want, beyond the generic description of their music needing to be “new” and “good” somehow. The only people who seem to have a very good understanding behind the “whys” of musical tastes are musicologists and music historians, and they’re a really small segment of society so it’s probably not realistic to expect coherent responses from the public if you’re looking for constructive feedback on your work. (It doesn’t mean your audience lacks intelligence — they’re just not trained to talk about things in this way.) But when someone is really into what you’re doing, there’s a type of enthusiasm that you get that should strike you as being an obvious sign of success.
As the founder of CD Baby, Derek Sivers says, the secret to marketing yourself as a musician is to become an extreme version of yourself. I’ve been trying this approach out in my musical projects and the results I’ve been getting have been much better than before. I haven’t gotten any more hits, plays, or higher rankings on the sites that I’m on, but the responses I do get have been more impassioned, meaningful, and consistent. And from these experiences, I’ve been able to see how and where my ideas need to go in the long run. The best part about this that it feels easy, because it’s just doing more of what I’ve been doing a while anyway — just being myself.
Is this Customer Development? Not sure, but it seems to fit under the banner of what Steve Blank seems to be talking about so posts like those tend to give me hope. This is one perspective of how I’ve attempted to apply these principals into musical practice, anyway.