Taylor Swift is on the wrong side of history

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Books & Entertainment / Economics / Society & Culture

The digital age has caused a lot of upset in the music business.

In 2001, major record labels won a lawsuit agains Napster, arguing rightly that the music file-sharing service had infringed on the rights of artists by allowing fans to download music for free without license. It was an awkward moment, as all sorts of tactics were experimented with to stop fans from copying music. Enter: Apple’s iTunes store and iPod. The Apple solution provided a system that could adapt to new consumer demands and still reward artists and labels. Though the industry resisted initially, it became the new business model within a few years.

Today, the emergence of streaming services is once again challenging the existing model, making music even more accessible, and paying artists less. Again, consumers love it, but major players in the industry are dubious. In the case of artists like Taylor Swift, they are flat out resisting.

Back in July, Swift lamented that artists are not given their due worth under this model, asking with trepidation, “Where will the music industry be in 20 years, 30 years, 50 years?” On the recent release of her new album 1989, she put words into action and pulled the album from all streaming services, including streaming giant Spotify.

There are those who join Swift in making the case that buying full albums provides both a better experience and a more fair valuation on an artist’s work. Mark Hemingway at Acculturated argues that “if you care about music, ultimately you have to care about musicians, and musicians have value.” 

But what exactly determines the value of music?

Are we talking about some vague notion of collective value to humanity? That would be hard to pin down. As I interpret Hemingway, he is referring to the value added to a person’s life. But if you could quantify the value one person gets from a Taylor Swift album compared to what any other random person gets, you’d find very different numbers. And it would vary for different artists, of course.

Actually, we do have a quantifiable measure that, while imperfect, estimates this pretty well—that rather simple instrument we call price.

Prices are the result of balancing costs and benefits. A brief dive into economic theory here. The more something benefits someone, the more they are willing to pay for it. Since civilization moved beyond the barter system long ago, a typical exchange involves one person trading money for something they want more (a product/service) and the other person trading their product/service for something they want more (money). Both have something to gain and lose in the deal, so the price ends up reflecting the specific point at which they both win.

Of course, companies like Spotify aren’t going to let every user or artist determine their price, so they do their own calculations to estimate what something is worth for the average target customer, and those who agree can opt-in, while others can continue using another service. Getting this number right is critical to the success of the company.

Now, it might be true that Spotify underpays its catalogue of artists and labels, and we will see how that pans out in time. But a couple of things need to be taken into consideration.

1. When you buy a song, you’re paying a premium for unlimited ownership rights, versus essentially leasing the music for a few minutes at a time. Given the benefits, or lack thereof, the costs should be very different.

2. Because fans can explore new music at no additional cost, Spotify gives both fans and upcoming artists unprecedented access to one another. In other words, the barriers have never been lower, and that’s awesome. From the artists’ perspective, this access comes at a cost…. but most would say it’s worth it.

If access to millions of listeners is worth it, why are artists like Taylor Swift and Radiohead’s Thom York speaking out against Spotify? Let me put the question another way: if you already had millions of loyal fans who are prepared to buy whatever you release, would you rather they purchase your album at full-price or stream it for pennies?

I have to agree with Tom Barnes at Mic.com:

“Swift’s 1989 — with all the records it’s set to break — is going to look like a victory for the industry’s old model. But it’s really not. It’s only proof that the old model is unfeasible for anyone but music’s 1%.”

Spotify isn’t for the well-established artists; it’s for up-and-coming talent that is begging for exposure, hoping that if just a small piece of the massive Spotify audience catches onto their music they can fill larger venues, sell more merchandise, and build a large enough following to land bigger deals.

I would not be surprised if Spotify alters their business model in the near future to increase payouts to popular artists. If they lose brand name stars, they lose their audiences. But I also won’t be surprised to hear a whole new chorus of complaints emerge about the unjust practice of paying struggling artists less than those who are already making millions. At the end of the day, it’s all about how people leverage what they need versus what they can provide, and it really is a win-win.

Streaming, or subscription-based content, is quickly becoming the norm, even with things like cars and bicycles. People are realizing that you don’t have to own everything. Sometimes it just makes more sense to enjoy something as you need it, then move on. That’s how you maximize value.

Perhaps we haven’t nailed down exactly how to make this model work best, but that’s no reason to throw it out. Instead, we should embrace it, and see where it leads, because it will likely bring new innovation that no one can even imagine right now. Those who fought against the digital age in 2001 could not see what has been made possible in the 14 years since—iPods, cheap music, and a total independence from Radio. And indeed, the “big four” record labels no longer enjoy their dominant status as gatekeepers in the industry as they did when I started making music. Thankfully, it is a far more democratic industry now.

So yes, Taylor, the music industry will be alive and well in 50 years—it just may not look exactly like it does today, and that’s exciting.


Less really is more.

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Design & Marketing

Back in high school, I received a bit of sage advice from one of my studio art teachers. Mine was a magnet school with a special arts program for aspiring creative types, so teachers were more like professors, and a senior portfolio was expected to rival that of a third-year college student. My own portfolio garnered a scholarship for one semester at Houston’s prestigious Glassell School of Art—an extension of the Museum of Fine Arts.

Guiding me on presentation, this teacher advised that I not try to show all of my work. Instead, I should limit my portfolio to a handful of my very best pieces.

Years later, my boss had a very similar approach, though his language was somewhat more crude: “It’s time to kill some babies,” he’d say. This was his figurative way of expressing that the moment called for making tough decisions about what to keep and what to cut, even when it hurt to cut anything at all.

There are certainly things that are better with more. We are programmed to want more, but most of the time it’s really the quality—not the quantity—that matters.  When it comes to design, as in life, the magic is in figuring out how to balance your efforts so you are doing fewer things, but you are doing them better.

Why less is more in design
Design is about guiding the audience to information and emotion that produces a reaction. The human brain can only take in so much at once, so the more you try to accomplish, the less impact each element will carry. If your website homepage shows 20 links “above the fold,” the average person will look at a few of them and move on. If your advertisement has 4 photos and just as many paragraphs of copy, the core message will be diluted. If your product has too many buttons and switches, it is too overwhelming for the user.

LessIsMoreBy getting rid of clutter that just isn’t necessary, you gain the clarity needed to direct the user’s attention to what really matters.

How to reduce when it all seems important
Maybe you’ve eliminated the “clutter” and realized you still need a lot of buttons to handle multi-functionality, and your website really has lots of helpful information that you want people to find. Great! All the more reason to make it user-friendly. It may be hard, but sometimes you have to kill some babies.

Here is a helpful 4-step exercise:

1) Set a rather arbitrary and uncomfortably low number of acceptable items.
2) Outline your needs from most critical to least.
3) Explore ways that you could make it work if you really had to.
4) Go ahead and add back in one or two things that would make the greatest improvement.

What you will find is that some of the things that seem important really are not, and there are more innovative ways to simplify information and solve problems. In the end, you will have a product that is less demanding on the end user, but also more compelling, because it stays true to what is important instead of distracting attention to less critical matters.

Apply this to life
The principle works in other areas of life. Do you feel like you have too many projects to do any of them well? Do you spend too much time on things that aren’t very important to you in the long-run? Too much junk in the house that could probably find a better home—including the trashcan?

Start by prioritizing your life with some serious questioning. What is really important to you? What do you want to accomplish this year, or over the next 5 or 10 years? How do you want to be remembered by friends and family when you’re not around?

Look at the things that currently take up time, money and space in your life and see how they line up to your short- and long-term goals. It will suddenly be clear that some things are demanding far more than they are actually worth, and it’s time to free up that energy for other things.

You can practice on your closet. Eliminate every article of clothing that doesn’t make you feel excellent, and when you shop for more, limit new purchases to things that meet the same strict criteria. Stop wasting time deciding between 50 shirts every day, when you don’t love most of them. You’ll get your time and sanity back, and still know that you look your best every day. Even if your clothes cost a little more now, you’ll know it is money well-spent.

I’m telling you, folks. Quality over quantity.

Why your designer just might be your best asset

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Design & Marketing

Down the hall, perhaps in the common space pitching her latest groundbreaking idea to a largely disinterested colleague, you will find one employee among the ranks with vast untapped potential. Let’s call her Amy.

Amy is the kind of person who sees the big picture, but also understands the roles of various parts and how they relate to make it work. She is a creative problem solver whose job entails constant innovation. She knows the importance of your company’s brand, not just through logo standards, but through quality experiences, because she sees your company through the eyes of its customers. She is responsible for presenting the company to the outside world, and her work—when done well—can substantially increase new customer leads and engagement. Her contribution is extremely valuable.

But Amy is a designer. If she is fortunate, she’ll have a boss that understands her real strengths and is able to cultivate them, but otherwise she risks being seen as as a glorified art student whose vocation is reduced to making things “look better,” because she knows her way around professional design programs. Her value will likely be recognized in terms of creativity and technical know how, but not necessarily good judgement and problem solving. For this reason, she will be treated as the last step in every project—the worker bee who gets it done. What a missed opportunity.

Companies must learn to recognize the difference in an architect and a construction worker. Both can create buildings, but their roles could not be more different. Designers serve both roles, so seeing the difference can be more difficult.

To help companies better utilize their design talent, let me start by clearing up some confusion.

First, design is not art. Art is interpretive, demands reflection, and tends to break with established traditions. Design uses a principled approach and has a clear purpose—an explicit function intended to generate action on the part of the audience. Real artist rarely make great designers, and vice versa. One is structured and disciplined, while the other is exactly the opposite.

Second, design is not simply the arranging of given items into an appealing composition. Design is the way a thing feels, how an audience interacts with it, what it tells them to do, and the overall message it communicates.

Thus, great design starts from the very beginning of a project, both shaping and responding to functions and challenges. Bring your design talent into discussions early on, and let their innovative nature and laser-like focus on user experience become an asset to your team throughout the whole process.

It is also worth encouraging designers to develop a greater confidence in their own gifts. If Amy begins to accept the limited view projected upon her by colleagues, she may never realize that the same strengths she uses to walk a new customer through a slick and compelling brochure or website is the same set of strengths demanded of top executives. She has to bring order, clarity and direction to her project, all in a way that aligns the company’s interests to that of its stakeholders and customers.

If Amy can design a website, she may also try her hand at designing systems, organizations, campaigns and initiatives. This is not to say that every designer can do these things well, but only to argue that if your company isn’t recognizing the potential in your design talent, you may be wasting away one of your greatest assets.