Why Artists Need To Think Like Startups

Over the past week, I’ve been buried in development work (both code & business), and like I so often do when I’m tethered to my computer – I’ve sought out some new music to jam me through my days. Now sure, I’ll be the first to admit that apparently my taste in music is somewhat limited – I can typically find music I like in the “clearance” bin at Amoeba records (when I make it up to the bay). I am a bay area kid of the 80’s and 90’s, and my taste in music is probably stuck in some sort of post-Nirvana, “classic”-Soundgarden phase that will stay with me forever.

But when I look around at the music choices that are available to me today, I don’t see an abundance of real revenue-focused innovation. I see the same games being played as they were a decade ago. The record industry has been supposedly dying for years now, but the quality of new music isn’t improving. Pandora has launched an IPO – allowing me to build the perfect radio stations to suit my moods and interests, but I am still left searching through iTunes for esoteric tracks that I have missed over the years.

It occurs to me that musicians have far more available to them today then they did when I was playing guitar in a garage band 15 years ago. I’m thinking of what Matt Gallizzi (@mgallizzi) mentioned the other day by way of Hank Mondaca (@mobil_marketer):

Hank MondacaHank Mondaca – @Mobil_Marketer
RT @mgallizzi: “The convergence of technology to the mobile phone is the perfect storm.” via @Mobil_Marketer #ocpm //love it!!

The mobile phone is the new walkman, camera, calendar, and is still a phone. This should be the frontier for up-start musicians. But I’m not seeing a whole ton of innovation coming along in the mobile front.

Apple’s “Ping” social network could have opened up the door for a whole new era of social + mobile connectivity. Why is it that when I press “genius” on a track, there isn’t a way for Apple to introduce me to a new artist who is not in my playlist? Why isn’t Apple playing the Pandora game (yet)?

Even more to the point, why can’t musicians treat themselves more like startups? I look at things like “The Voice” and “American Idol” and all I see are essentially VC-pitches. Some artists and musicians have spent years honing their skills, preparing for the big pay-day. Others show up completely unprepared and ill-equipped to launch. This seems to be really similar to the experience that Guy Kawasaki described in his Art of the Start book (still my favorite; far better than Enchantment in my personal opinion).

We’ve democratized the tools. Mixing boards cost pennies compared to decades ago. Digital storage means multi-track recordings & unlimited “tries” cost virtually nothing. You can go on YouTube and learn how to play nearly any riff on nearly any instrument – and you can even find musicians that you can collaborate with virtually – without ever sitting in the same room with them. Logic Studio – professional grade recording and mixing software – runs $500. Most guitars cost more than that.

From there, the marketing becomes a matter of finding complimentary “brands” (ie, “we sound like…”) and reaching out in to the social web to meet & greet prospective “customers” (ie: listeners). Maria had a great point:

Maria BrophyMaria Brophy – @mariabrophy
If you don’t promote yourself, who will? Artists, you have to LEARN the marketing vs. having it done for you. No one else is going to do it.

I know Maria specifically was thinking about media artists when she posted this tweet – but the world of commercial music shares much with the fine arts. In the end, she’s exactly right… If you’re a musician, why would you sit around waiting for that VC (READ: RECORD LABEL) to come fund your startup. The tools are readily available for you to build your brand, build your small business immediately. Your customers are literally sitting on the web, announcing through their social networks and websites what they like, what they listen to, and what they are craving more of.

I think there’s a huge opportunity here for musicians (and other artists who desire to make a living through their training, gifts, and experience) to revolutionize the way we learn about and consume music and other artistic efforts. But those individuals will need to think differently about their trade. Stop worrying about the VC (label) deal. Especially in the socially-connected web, think like a startup. Uncover creative monetization strategies. Market the hell out of your product. Make a great product, see if the market will bear it, and continue to refine it.