It's Important To Learn From Business Model Failures As Well

from the lessons-learned dept

When we held our artists & entrepreneurs working group meeting in October, one of things that was discussed was how little discussion there is about what doesn't work. And that's kind of important, since so much is bound to fail. Some of the entrepreneurs noted that it's not unheard of (though still not exactly common) for failed entrepreneurs to write up a postmortem about their experience. However, with artists, it was almost entirely unheard of for an artist to delve into a failed experiment to say what happened (and what didn't happen!). This isn't a huge surprise. It's tough to talk about the failures -- but with entrepreneurs, they can wipe their hands clean of the startup and move on to the next thing. For a musician, they can't just walk away from themselves. So I can completely understand why artists would be hesitant to talk too much about what didn't work, because they fear it will reflect poorly on themselves.

So it's great to see that Kyle Clements has decided to post the details (over at Step2) of an experiment he helped set up with a musician that failed and to discuss where he thinks it went wrong. You should check out the full story, but, the short version is that he helped set up a plan for a musician to record a quick "improv" song each week and a more "full" song once a month, and release them all on YouTube. There was one part of the plan that immediately struck me when I was reading it. A plan to not promote this:
The first 3 months are Operation: Stay quiet. Produce and publish content, but don't advertise it. leave it for people to randomly stumble across. You don't want to advertise, have people love it, want to see more, and realize there is no backlog of content. No one wants to be the first to arrive at a party. Let the backlog build up while no one is watching.
My first reaction was that I wasn't sure the assumptions here necessarily held. While I do think that there's an "empty" room problem, where people don't necessarily want to be the first on the dance floor, I'm not sure that applies to not promoting videos for 3 months. Especially when it comes to music, there are a number of taste-makers who absolutely do want to get there first and think they found something early. So there were a number of ways I could see this part of the plan backfiring. In fact, it seemed to me like the "first to arrive" part actually is made worse after three months, because when people come in at that point, they see that no one else has watched the 3 months of videos and might assume that they're likely worthless. It seems like those three months could be used more wisely trying to bring the artist's audience to the videos and building connections around them.

And, in fact, it seems that this "don't tell anyone" aspect to the project really did hurt:
First month: Everything went as planned. 4 improved songs, 1 developed song, a few odd hits, nothing unusual.

Second Month: artist grows impatient. Is discouraged that no one is watching. Writes more songs. No developed, proper song is released this month. slightly more hits than last month, but nothing unusual.

Third Month: Artist grows impatient, begins posting new songs to facebook. A much lower than expected number of friends follow through and watch the videos (they will drive an hour and pay $10 to watch him play live, but they wont click a button in facebook?!?!) Artist is discouraged. No proper, developed song this month.

Fourth Month: only 2 improvised songs see the light of day this month. viewership drops. Artist gets discouraged.
It only goes on for a bit more before the artist gives up entirely -- and eventually blocks the videos. There are definitely lessons here -- and even though the plan was not to promote the songs, that alone led to frustration, which is reasonable. That said, almost any artistic endeavor tends to take much longer than people expect. The overnight sensations rarely are overnight sensations at all. Kyle wonders if there was just too much competition and they didn't do enough to stand out. That's entirely possible too, though I'd be curious what other people think as well.

Either way, kudos to Kyle for sharing the story, and hopefully it's something that others can learn from. Personally, my takeaway would be that you should never wait to connect with fans. That should be built in from the beginning.
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Filed Under: business models, experiments, failures


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  1. identicon
    TroutFishingUSA, 29 Nov 2012 @ 11:13am

    Holy lord this is a problematic approach through and through. Here we go:

    As a visual artist, I find the articles posted to TechDirt very interesting and inspiring, but rarely do they seem relevant to my own practice and business models. But I still really want to put some of these great ideas in action!


    So the idea is that as a visual artist, it's a good idea to branch into music management?! I'm sorry, but that just reeks of modern internutty "everyone can do it because I read forums!" mentality. I hope this person realizes that he may have really hurt the musician's career.

    I say this as a person who has been through the whole "I can manage your band" more than enough times.

    Finally, my chance to put a Tech Dirt idea to the test!


    I'm sure the lurkers in the peanut gallery can see what's wrong with this.

    This friend is a folk singer, his songs are very visual and melancholy, but what really makes him shine is his hilarious stage demeanour, and his wonderful improv abilities. He can make up a song on the spot describing what is going on in the TV, or on the dance floor, or about a recent news item, and to the casual listener, the quality of these improvised bits are just as good as his "real" songs.


    Improv abilities?!?! You've got to be fucking kidding me. Very few people, almost no one, cares about that skill. Unless he happens to be a jazz musician, and in that case there's a new problem: he's a jazz musician.

    And his improvised (not "improved") songs are just as good as his real songs? That doesn't sound good. It sounds like his real songs must not be all that great. Having not listened to it, I can't say, but I'll wager that he needs to work on his arrangements and harmonic structure, and most importantly the melodies. You know, those things that casual listeners like, those things that really take a lot of study and work. Casual listeners particularly don't care if a song is made up on the spot, they care if the song moves them!

    And besides, making up lyrics on the spot about TV or a crowd is incredibly cliche. It's not much of a talent; a lot of musicians/rappeurs/comedians can do it.

    He is very much a "I don't care, just let me take the stage, play what I want to play" kind of musician, with no interest in the promotion/logistics/marketing side of things.


    So he's an amateur? Got it. Not that there's anything wrong with being an amateur. If it's possible to regress from professional to amateur, then I would be considered one, too. At the moment.

    The reason I point that out is that for a professional, the writing and performing is the main form of promotion and marketing. You need a clear vision of where you want to end up to know where to begin. Who do you want to reach? You don't perform for yourself and hope people also like it, you go straight for the people's throat. The best "ad" for your record is the live show. Too bad the records don't sell so much these days.

    Once a week, you will record and release a fun improvised song to YouTube/SoundCloud/your website. This song should be timely, personalized, auto biographical, dealing with current events, etc. It is designed to be temporary, not timeless.


    More of this "content is king" bullshit. Quality quality quality!!! That is all that matters. IN LIFE, QUALITY IS ALL THAT MATTERS.

    Throwing shit at the wall and seeing what sticks is futile; an independent DIY musician simply cannot compete with the release schedules of the majors and every other indie and DIY artist. It's far more important to write outstanding songs and get them recorded professionally; even if it means only putting out a few songs a year. Don't put out everything. Release only the absolute cream of the catalog. You've got years ahead for releasing outtakes, b-sides, and jams. "Catalog" is only important if you've got a big one, and at least one of those releases needs to be something that grabs a lot of people's attention, or else no one will know or care about the back catalog.

    If the audience needs to know that a song is improvised to appreciate it, the game is already over. It is NEVER about the process. No one cares. They want music that moves them or they're going to watch TV or play a game or, god forbid, leave the house.

    I should clear that up: the process can be a promotional point, but it's meaningless and profit-less if the result of the process is uninteresting.

    If a musician is interested in longevity, then every single little note they shove on the world stage better be fucking AMAZING. The world has enough idiots strumming git-boxes and singing into tin cans and throwing it up on the TubeyTube.

    Think about it this way, a hundred goofy little ditties might move a few hundred people, not to spend money mind you, but just ONE great song that touches thousands will reap much better rewards, both financially and a artistically.

    Temporary music is for temporary careers.

    The first 3 months are Operation: Stay quiet. Produce and publish content, but don't advertise it. leave it for people to randomly stumble across.


    What? This is becoming a most asinine and expensive process. The first three months should be spent writing and recording the the twelve (great) songs you want at month three.

    You can release them one at a time, or however, but you record as many songs at once because A) it's more cost-effective, regardless of DIY or in a studio, B) it's artistically effective, as an artist on a roll is a hard horse to stop, and C) it keeps a certain cohesive sound across the recordings (which is important because in the future you want to release them as an album, and albums need to be cohesive). And what about mastering? Much better rates at a block deal than one song at a time. Does the musician own proper equipment, or can he rent it? That's also a game breaker.

    By the end of the 3rd month, at least 12 songs should be published. Start advertising each new video over social media sites, get your friends on board. Stick to the same schedule; keep on working away, publishing each new video to facebook/twitter, tumblr, etc.


    Dude! This guy is a musician! Schedules?! You're a visual artist, so I assume you understand the nature of creativity. Great artists can go months, or years, without a good idea. The worst way I can imagine of getting good performances out of a musician would be to lock them down to a schedule.

    And when is this guy supposed to make money? He's going to have to tour. He can't keep to the off-road schedule in that instance (unless you were smart and already have all the scheduled releases in the can!)

    At the end of the year, you will have 12 proper songs and 52 melodies and structures and ideas to play around with. Use those 12 proper songs to cut a new album.


    Cut a new album with what money?

    Who's going to buy it? All the projected fans are going to already have the songs.

    People will still largely ignore the channel at this point, but a very small group of core fans should hopefully start to emerge.


    I've highlighted the important part. It's the most important part. "Hopefully?" They're going to magically appear? Fan acquisition is the single most important part of any music marketing plan, and this one seems to gloss over it with a single sentence.

    In between all this, write some custom songs for friends and events. Offer reasonable rates to record a custom song for anyone for any topic. Advertise this fact.


    This is just a terrible, terrible idea. It could very easily dilute any credibility he has.

    What went wrong? What should have been done differently? What can be learned from this?


    In general, what went wrong is that a visual artist saw fit to manage a musician's career.

    What should have been done differently? You wanted to help the guy, right? With your skills as a visual artist and your apparent obsession with YouTube, why don't offer to put together some interesting visualizations to score, or just make a cool banner he could hang at shows? Design him some t-shirts or something like that? Why in the world did you think management was the right move? Do you really think this business is as simplistic as TD likes to paint it? Here's something to do differently: ignore pretty much all of TD's advice for musicians.

    What can be learned? Well, it seems to me that things are pretty much exactly as they've always been. A bunch of know-nothing armchair quarterbacks think they know what's best for everybody.

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