Saturday, May 3, 2008

Free Music Downloads, Customer Experience, and a bit about Marketing

Hardly a day goes without another news update from the ongoing war between the music industry and the consumer over music sharing and digital property rights. Beyond the back and forth over the issues surrounding intellectual property or the strange nature of this conflict between a business and its customer base, one of the more interesting aspects for me is what this says about the "what is the product and how does that connect with the customer" aspect of marketing.

What is the product? Music is the obvious answer, but when you drill down:
  • What is the core of the product? What makes that musical experience a unique, productizable commodity? What is that elusive thing that the audience is chasing?
    - Is it who performs it? How they perform it? Where?
    - Is it a duplicate or an iteration? What's repeatable?
    Put in the context of food, if you were eating at a famous restaurant with a famous chef, does it matter if the chef is there, does it matter if the chef cooks your food, does it matter if menu is exactly the same as last year, does it matter if the ingredients in your dish are different or if it's seasoned differently than the last time? Is it the food or the restaurant? Would it be the same if the chef opened a new restaurant?

  • Is it the song or the performance?
    - Is it the recording, that temporal snapshot of a moment? The living experience of the performance?
    - Is it the written chords and lyrics or the interpretation through performance?
    Is it the recipe, the actual meal that you have at the restaurant, or is it the pre-packaged version of the restaurant meal that you purchase in the supermarket?
For some musicians, music sharing was an issue before their was an internet. Long before file sharing, the Grateful Dead established a policy that allowed their fans to record their live performances and share those across their community of fans. While this is only one aspect of their unique connection to their passionate fan-base, there are some who site this a key contributing factor in building that community. Keep in mind that, in contrast to a broad range of pop music performers, the Grateful Dead received little promotional benefit from traditional music promotion vehicles such as frequent radio play. The Grateful Dead were Long Tail before there was a Long Tail.

But to that point, what made "The Grateful Dead experience" unique? A large part of it was the concert experience itself. Consider the difference between the Grateful Dead touring concert experience and a typical pop music performance. With most pop music concerts, the tour is organized around a specific show that travels from city to city. The show doesn't change, only the venue. If multiple dates are scheduled in the same venue, it's to accommodate more people in that area, not audience repeats. In contrast, the Dead would arrange a tour through multiple cities, sometimes scheduling multiple dates in the same city. A percentage of their tickets were sold through a mail order system that enabled passionate fans to arrange multi-city, multi-show tours. Fans would frequently attend multiple shows, sometimes on consecutive nights. While their concerts maintained consistent structural patterns and was stylized through their interpretation (it sounded like the Dead), no show was a repeat, because it wasn't a show, it was a musical performance. In this way, a recording of a live concert was nice to have, but, like a photo of your grandmother, it was simply a static snapshot of a dynamic experience that only captured a small portion of the larger experience. And with a Grateful Dead concert, there was the music and the sound, but beyond that there was a participatory and experiential element to the community and the show.

With most pop music shows, the show itself is a disposable experience. In a broader sense, the music is like nicotine, crafted and addictive earworms that are designed to drive unit sales of records, CDs, or other associated products. Consider some memorable moments in recent pop music performances -- Janet Jackson's "Superbowl performance" or the MTV Music Awards program that featured Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera. While these performances may be memorable as a cultural milestone of some type, do those specific musical performances have any unique replay value? From music and a customer experience perspective, most pop music performances are about as unique as a MacDonald's hamburger -- infinitely repeatable, in part because they lip-sync to the same studio recording every time.

But rather than diving down a path that might be construed as a musical preference post, consider what these artists and the industry would do without the established barriers to protect it -- media formats, etc. For many companies -- as the economy has become more global and new low-cost competitors become an increasing threat -- building close, trusted, customer-centric relationships with their audiences is becoming essential. Increasingly, companies are using CRM and customer-focused strategies in an attempt to predictively understand their customer's requirements and their expectations, then exceed those expectations. The quality of customer experience becomes a key competitive differentiator and a core value-add.

At it's most local level, live music thrives on this type of personalized customer experience. For most bands playing in small venues like bars, parties, or the occasional national guard armory, personalizing the performance for the audience is a requirement. Whether it's a birthday song, jokes, or even just an extra-long pause in "Good Lovin," when performers are face-to-face with their customer, it's difficult for them to ignore their customer's interests. It's when you start changing the scale, decoupling the performer from the audience, that you begin to lose touch with the audience -- like a large corporation that loses touch with their customer base. In the "business" of music, this kind of thing has been going on for a long time -- with the industry "telling the audience" what they would like. This is partially why, over the history of rock and roll, you have these 'breakthrough' revolutions of musical style -- the Beatles, Punk, Grunge -- that emerge like the voice of the customer, the voice of the audience rejecting the existing 'manufactured' product line for something more 'organic'.

The internet changes everything. With Google, the democratization of publishing and the web, individual consumers have been shout out, gaining voice and visibility and becoming "Consumer Vigilates" -- channeling dissatisfaction with businesses into published conflicts and negative PR. It's this kind of thing that helped drive Dell to change their approach to customer interaction, to leverage tools like, 'IdeaStorm', and computer support forums to stay engaged with their audience.

And in the world of fickle fashion, where people change music and clothes and favorites in weeks and seasons, it's important to remember the powerfully deep, passionate connections that get formed in the Long Tail -- the Grateful Dead delivered the same type of musical product to committed audiences for over 30 years.

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