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The future is unwritten: go out and make it happen

September 9, 2013

Today, The Clash release Sound System a twelve disc box set featuring their five studio albums re-mastered on eight discs with an additional three discs featuring demos, non-album singles, rarities and B-sides, plus DVDs and a host of other media stuff. Their story and output, as told in the words, music and iconography of Sound System, remains one of the most important signposts of my formative years.

For five years, The Clash’s lyrics, politicised and bristling with social conscience, had a far-reaching and ultimately enduring influence. The Clash caught my ear and imagination, their mixture of politics and music shaped my beliefs and tastes. Their musical experimentation and rebellious attitude was utterly inspirational and positive.

The Clash fell apart in 1986. Joe Strummer’s sudden death from a congenital heart defect in December 2002 ended any possibility of a reunion and ruined my Christmas that year. Some 30 years on, I can still shout-a-long virtually word perfect to all their song. I can even do the crowd part on the live albums.

Mick Jones says this is the final word on the work of the band. This is the end, there will be no more. He’s spent three years creating this ‘do-it-yourself’ mammoth retrospective, an echo of the exhortation proffered to their fans more than 35 years ago that you can write your own music, your own story, you can do it for yourself. On the box it says Made by the Clash. That says it all.

For me, there remains a sense of urgency and anarchic inventiveness in their songs that roots them in the great musical moments of the late C20th. The songs more than stand the test of time, Complete Control, (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, Stay Free and Train in Vain remind you that music should speak to the politics, opinions and issues of society.

The Clash had an identity and brand, a total artwork of clothing, painting, sleeve design mixed with charged live shows, sharply produced records, strong melodies, and a humanistic, charismatic front man in Joe Strummer which combined to create an iconic band. To be sure there were follies and inconsistencies, but the proof is in the music and messages in their lyrics, broadcasted, loud and clear, left a sound that still resonates. This is Radio Clash!

As Sound System is a symbolic landmark and final chapter in the story of The Clash, it comes five months after the 10th anniversary of iTunes. A decade of the iTunes era of music, although Apple did not invent digital music, iTunes embodies C21st music. In just 10 years, it has become the world’s top music retailer with users currently downloading 15,000 songs per minute from the App’s library of 26 million songs.

Technical disruption in the music industry began with the CD. The CD allowed track shuffling and eventually ripping and burning – music labels have looked back regretfully on the release of unsecured music discs as a hindsight-is-20/20 moment which opened the floodgates to new consumer behaviours and demands.

However, it was the evolutionary leap of MP3 in 1990s that marks the start of the digital music era. The MP3 compressed audio files making file transfers feasible in the low-bandwidth early web. When Apple launched iTunes and the iPod, digital music was a frontier being fought by pioneers where illegal peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing was rampant.

With the advent of Napster, the demand for MP3 music was met, but in 1999 the company lost its legal challenges, and shut down in 2001. Enter Apple, and the iTunes Music Store sold 1 million downloads in the first week, and the next month Apple sold its 1 millionth iPod. The ecosystem was up and running.

For the digitally progressive music customer, iTunes offered a coherent, digital marketplace that was reminiscent of a record shop. The model was a refreshing hybrid of newness and familiarity. Pricing was attractive and unchanging: £10 for an album, 99p for a track, no retail shenanigans. The perceived value of music was reset.

Perhaps the most important feature for iTunes customers was the dismantling of albums. In the CD-era, consumers had to purchase a 12-song disc to acquire five tracks they liked. Finally, the iTunes model worked for consumers.

Looking into the next 10 years, iTunes faces challenges to its dominance with the emergence of streaming as a newly popular type of music consumption. The rise of Pandora and Spotify, https://www.spotify.com have driven interactive listening to parity with downloading. Apple’s iRadio launch signals their recognition that the era of post-iTunes is more complicated.

Streaming gives you access to all the recorded music in the world, on the go, stored in a cache on your phone and synchronised. It’s stunning, a powerful consumer-focused marketplace, sound tracking one’s life at an extremely low cost. Between the listening platforms and musician hangouts like SoundCloud, https://soundcloud.com/ the entire library of recorded music is accessible.

Mobile music has been important since the Sony Walkman. Today customisation is important, enabling the creation of playlists. Listening to music on-the-go has become entwined with social sharing and ‘lifecasting’. As a result, the digital music manifesto in 2013 reads: everything, cheap, customizable, everywhere. With all these wide-open listening platforms, the definition of music ownership seems to be changing too. We are leaning toward a world in which universal access is the new ownership – the ‘celestial jukebox’ – where convenience and ubiquity is key.

It’s a new market dynamic for the supply side: iTunes represents download stores that take a cut of every song or album sold; streaming sites like Spotify pay artists small royalties when their songs are streamed; then there are digital enablers like TuneCore, http://www.tunecore.com and other so-called aggregators, which charge fees for placing an artist’s tracks in all the online stores and streaming services.

However, distribution into digital channels creates a cacophony of market noise, making it harder for any artist to be heard. A songwriter can pick up a guitar, record a few songs in her bedroom and see them in the world’s largest record stores the next day. Musicians have tremendous access to audiences, but they might not have leverage in the new marketplace – it’s still all about marketing.

Besides the disruptions to the traditional business model, a fundamental mind-shift is also emerging. Many musicians are re-thinking the product. ‘Product’ in music meant a discrete unit – a CD or a track. The unit is either shipped on a disc or downloaded. The alternative is thinking of music as a service, just as consumers do.

There is almost unlimited digitally fuelled competition for ears and pennies. For musicians, buskers or professionals, it has never been easy to turn tunes into cash. Social media enables direct-to-fan relationships, but the double-edged sword of technology is the mass-market noise reverberating in the digital marketplace.

You have to shout loud and spend lots to be heard. There are only so many iTunes/Starbucks ‘free track of the week’ cards to go around, so what would The Clash do if they were starting out in today’s marketplace? What are the key marketing strategies to adopt, and messages you can take into your business from today’s music industry?

Stand for something, and be true to your purpose The Clash did whatever they wanted, great bands have that sense of purpose. They have a set of values and they remain true to them, quickly finding out that there are millions of people who share those same values. Like a band, put some voice in your content marketing and stamp it with your personality. When your fans/customers realise that they could miss out on something unique and special they won’t want to miss it.

Being different matters more than being better The Clash became successful because they were different. We had never seen anything like them before, they grabbed our attention. Rock stars have proven for years that being different – and getting noticed because of it – is more important than quality of music. Be different, stand out from the crowd. When opportunities don’t present themselves in a timely manner take calculated risks.

Be an experience A Clash concert wasn’t about the music, it was the experience. Likewise great brands don’t sell products, they sell experiences which we buy into. Give your customers a really cool experience instead of pitching them another product. Fan conversations about experiences happen, use them to create word of mouth and referral marketing. Create opportunities for your fans/customers to get together and have fun.

Turn up the volume Can you hear us at the back? Make sure you connect with your customers. Music sells the album, t-shirts and the concert tickets. Like music, content does not always have to ask for the order, just consistently keep everyone in a ready-to-act state. Tell your followers and customers what you’re doing by delivering relevant content delivered in relevant ways.

Classic fans know your band; new audiences want your hits. Communicate your business legacy and future value through targeted channels and voices. New music keeps fans coming back for more. Always generate new and fresh products to keep people engaged with your brand, but treat existing and new customers differently. Don’t just deliver content, engage your audience with it.

Ensure your band always has an inspired front man When your business leadership requires you to replace founding members with energetic new blood, put your business’s needs ahead of its past. For The Clash, the focus was on Joe Strummer, a frontman with tremendous charisma but also, paradoxically, with a tremendous amount of humility.

Don’t just copy songs Even if it’s just a chord sequence or a riff, take it and make something else. Just copying something is no good, unless you want to just be in a tribute band. It’s vital to keep playing around and pushing yourself in business, create your own product. Don’t be afraid to build a business or revenue model that plays to your strengths, even if it’s non-conventional.

Be a brand, with an image. If you plan on getting noticed, establishing a brand promise, and creating an image is vital. John Pasche designed the ‘tongue and lips’ logo for The Rolling Stones in 1971, originally reproduced on the Sticky Fingers album. It is one of the first and most successful cases of rock brand marketing. What’s your business logo or icon?

Box sets like Sound System are designed to enshrine an artist in the amber glow of posterity. Vibrant retrospectives of digitally remastered content show the artist has transcended their time and that they can now be appreciated outside of the context of their era. Recordings from the past sit comfortably with tunes from the present. In business terms, it’s where nostalgia meets innovation at the junction of deliberate disruption.

The music marketplace reflects similar patterns of dislocation in many business sectors, and it’s how agile you are in your response that counts. Your future starts today, not tomorrow.  As Joe Strummer said: Your future is unwritten, go out and make some noise, go out and make a difference, go out and make it happen.

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