#TBT: Quality? Marketability? Yes, Please.

Happy #TBT! Here’s an oldie-but-goodie post from Jim: Quality? Marketability? Yes, Please. [This article was originally published in 2009.]

I want to call your attention to a very interesting exchange between two smart Bobs. One is Bob Lefsetz, who you can follow at his blog, and another is Bob Ezrin, who is a longtime, successful record producer.

In this post, Lefsetz says basically that for musicians today, it’s no longer about quality. It’s simply about whether or not somebody chooses to put distribution muscle behind you. I may be oversimplifying. Actually, there’s no may about it; I am oversimplifying and losing some of the nuances of Lefsetz’s argument, but you can read it for yourself. Anyway, here’s a key snippet:

“Struggling musicians are frustrated that they don’t get a shot. That a label doesn’t sign them, that no one will give them a chance. The dirty little secret is it doesn’t matter how good you are, but whether the person putting up the money can successfully market you.

Let’s say you’re fifty years old and are the new Cat Stevens. Better yet, let’s say you’re twenty years old and are the new Cat Stevens. How is a company supposed to market you?”

OK, fair enough.

Bob Ezrin reads this piece and writes to Bob Lefsetz, who posts Ezrin’s entire response, which you can see here, although I’ll excerpt a key snippet:

“You start this with the word ‘Quality’ and then you proceed to counsel struggling musicians to contort themselves and what they do to fit the market so that they can ‘make it in this business’. But here’s the true bottom line: This business of exploiting art and entertainment is built from its very inception on creativity and quality, on special things made by special people that touch, inform, elevate, divert, soothe, numb, challenge or sometimes even drive other people enough so that they are drawn to it and want it to be a part of their lives – either for the moment or for a very long time. When they want it, they sometimes pay for it in one way or another and this special stuff sometimes accrues a value beyond the ephemeral and actual makes money for its creator and for the folks who help to support and market it. Sometimes it becomes more valuable than gold and stars are born.”

So Ezrin’s response is that acts should worry first about doing something worth watching and go from there. The idea of ‘choosing an audience’ is absurd, in his view, and trying to ‘make a product’ to serve them is bound to make you a soulless hack.

This is an interesting issue and cuts across music. In fact, it’s not just other forms of performance because as an entrepreneur, I can tell you that it very much applies to starting and running a business.

But how do I feel about this issue?

I’ve thought about it a lot, and my view here is subtle. It doesn’t reduce to a bumper sticker very well, but I think that both of the Bobs are wrong.

Although in reality, I think if you accept the full complexity of both arguments, they’re also both right.

But anyway, here goes:

You can’t start with nothing and pick an audience. In an age where consumers value authenticity of voice the way they do, you simply can’t be a phony because consumers can spot it a mile away now. I know, I know, Bob Lefsetz thinks the Jonas Brothers are a phony and yet consumers like it. Sure, I understand, but to paraphrase Warren Buffett, in the short term, the marketplace is a voting machine; in the long term, it’s a weighing machine. Besides, when has kiddie music ever been good? I mean, Alvin and the Chipmunks really sucked. There’s always been soulless garbage that sold well, even in the Golden Age of Boomer Childhoods.

On the other hand, you can’t just self-indulgently pretend that who your audience is doesn’t matter. When the mass communication channels guaranteed promotional power to their anointed few, you might have gotten away with it. But now, as I’ve said before, You Are Your Marketing. No one can market you but you. Yes, there are one or two exceptions to this (Walmart for the AC/DC album is the example that comes to mind), but banking on one of those is a bad business plan.

Instead, figure out how to be special and then pay attention to who cares about it. Once you think you’re worth watching/listening to/following on Twitter, etc. and you’ve done your best to get some actual contact with human beings, pay attention to the people who react to what you’re doing. There’s a clue not too deeply hidden in that.

For example, when we launched Goldstar, we really didn’t know exactly who’d come to the site. We got enough people using it after a few months, though, that a picture started to get clear: young women, living in the city centers, with college degrees and a lot of interests.

In fact, we saw that 75% of the people who found us were women. Holy smokes!

That was the clue we needed to begin to understand how to talk to people who were likely to be into what we did. We could have done a million dollars in research and found out some of that, but probably not. Something about who we were in combination with the marketplace just adds up to women being our core audience.

Don’t get me wrong. We had a clue … we thought we’d skew female a bit, but nothing like that. And the research that we did do gave us only a partial picture. We were definitely looking through a glass, darkly.

Until we went live, that is.

So, we go with what the market thinks about what we have it in us to deliver authentically, and then hopefully do more and better of that. It works for entrepreneurial businesses; it should work for musicians; it should work for theatrical productions or performing arts organizations; it should even work for your career.

I don’t actually think there’s much disagreement between the Bobs or me and the Bobs for that matter, but this is an important issue that I talk about all the time in a business context.

You have to be who you are, but you have to serve somebody and think about who they are, too.

If you don’t do the first, you’re a phony, and nobody wants a phony. And least, not for long.

If you don’t do the second, you can become self-indulgent and closed-minded, and it’s going to take a hell of a stroke of luck to succeed.

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