The Lucrative Strategy of Lurking

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


pexels-photo-1.jpg

There are many times I find myself lurking in conversations with topics I know very little about, but which I’m very interested in learning about. It can feel daunting to try and contribute something meaningful to a conversation when 1) you’re unfamiliar with the topics, and 2) it’s around other potential experts. The preferred strategy of many people is to avoid these situations altogether; after all, the last thing you want to do is look like a dummy in front of someone whom you respect and/or want to make a good impression on.

But this does a disservice to yourself in the long run. Intimidation is a normal and valid feeling, especially when you’re new to a particular community. But avoiding the situation entirely doesn’t solve either your goals of learning more about the respective topic or making a good impression on the people you want to notice you.

A Better Strategy

A much more lucrative strategy is lurking, something which I do continuously on community sites like Twitter and Product Hunt.

For me, topics like music-tech and networking are my wheelhouse; I feel very comfortable discussing them and putting my two cents into discussions, even when the other participants are people that I might find intimidating by virtue of their success alone. When topics shift to other industries, though, like med-tech or AI, I feel less confident in my ability to contribute meaningful comments simply because I don’t know as much about those particular areas.

AI is a great example. As much as it intrigues me, I’m still trying to understand enough to contribute major points to discuss. So I lurk; I sit back and read viewpoints from others who know more than I do about these things and then try to surmise my own original thoughts based on them. Then, when the time is right and the conversation is right, I try to add a new viewpoint.

The Benefits of the “Lurk and Listen” Play

This strategy has two major effects early on:

  1. It relieves you of having to come up with a bombastic and earth-shatteringly brilliant point under the gun, and
  2. It allows you to absorb information and knowledge from others in an unassuming way, learning from their years of experience and insights 

A third, possibly hidden, result of both points is that when you do feel confident enough to contribute a point of view to the conversation, you have time to carefully compose exactly what you want to say. Flinging tweets off left and right is for subjects which you’re very confident speaking about, not for new ones you’re trying to understand. Shooting from the hip on something you don’t fully understand can backfire dramatically.

Lurking is a great strategy precisely because it requires so little effort, except for focusing on learning from others. It teaches you how to receive information in an age when we’re told we need to be continuously providing it. Additionally, absorbing information at your own pace has the added effect of making you feel more confident about a topic.

It’s not a quick or flashy strategy, but it works. Learn to lurk and listen, then move when the time is right.

***

Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 11.58.16 AM

Win Where You Win

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


pexels-photo-196464.jpeg

When building out your minimum viable network, it’s easy to feel as if you have to be great at everything—or at least be good at the “right” things. This is something I especially struggled with when getting into tech; I felt that because I didn’t study engineering at Stanford—because I excelled in other areas—that I somehow had to shift my strengths to fit the “right” type of strengths for the tech startup scene.

Understanding Where You Come From

But I was wrong, and it took a lot of self-exploration to see that.

In the end, I know at least three areas where I excel that help me stand out from the crowd:

  • I’m a good writer/editor
  • I’m good with people
  • I know that the music industry is my wheelhouse

It’s important to know where you win, and be comfortable with that. There are tons of people who will always know more about SaaS than I will, who will always be more suited to design than I will, and who will always find bitcoin more interesting than I do. There will for sure always be tons of people who will win at engineering in ways that I won’t.

And over time I’ve accepted two things:

  1. I don’t need to be good at those other things to be valid and valuable
  2. By winning where I win, I can become the “expert” in those respective areas

Becoming an Expert in Your Field

Over the last few years, I’ve cultivated an image as being a good writer/editor, being a good people person, and knowing a lot about the music industry. And that’s mainly where I stick.

I’m always down to jump into a Twitter conversation music streaming because I have a decade of experience in music. I’m comfortable enough in my own viewpoints and experience to hear other’s points without feeling an attack on my own validation. This is a mix of confidence in my own experience and comfort in my industry.

The result is that I write and tweet extensively on music, and that people reach out to me when they want to understand something that’s happened in the music world. I love discussing royalties, licensing, artist dynamics, and content distribution.

Win where you win. If you know a ton about video and Snapchat, then make that your flagship quality. Run with it. Write about it, tweet about it, and take a stance on it. Even if you expand your quiver of arrows later on, become “the video guy” or “the marketing woman” that everyone has to know in that respective field. Developing that persona will tell others that you know much more than the average joe.

Keep in mind that it’s very hard to become an expert on something without taking a stance on something in your field. Being ambivalent will only take you so far, and might even tells others that you don’t know enough about it to make a definitive decision. This is not a perception that you want to promote. Be willing to put your money where your mouth is; people rarely remember when you write an article with a flawed thesis, but it’s very memorable when you write a piece with a new point of view that turns out to be right on the mark.

Which brings up the further point: be generous with your knowledge (to a point). If people in your network start coming to your for your expertise on a subject, give it to them. Prove to them that you’re priceless as an asset in understanding that industry. When you cultivate this persona, guard it with your life. You don’t always have to be right, but never let anything shake your confidence in your knowledge of your industry. Confidence grows over time, but the best way to help cultivate it within yourself is to put yourself in positions where your opinion and/or viewpoint are integral parts of the overall conversation.

***

Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 11.58.16 AM

Forget Building a Network—Build Relationships Instead

An entry in the Minimum Viable Network series.


pexels-photo.jpg

For many people, the prospect of building a network is daunting. It requires putting yourself out there, and for any number of people, this constitutes being confident in ways that may not come naturally. But because so much of life seems to depend on who you know and who you can get access to, networking seems to be, at the very least for some people, a necessary pain.

But in so many ways it need not feel this daunting and arduous.

Why Networking Sucks

Make no mistake, meeting people can be difficult if schmoozing doesn’t come naturally. But the mistake to avoid making is in the perspective of how you go about “building your network” as opposed to how you should actually perceive going about it.  

The fact of the matter is that “networking” as something we do—something we go to events for, listen to motivational talks on, read how-to books on—is presented in an overblown way. In so many words, it’s overrated and superficial.

AngelList founder and CEO Naval Ravikant tweeted it so concisely just a few days ago:

Anyone who’s ever been to a networking event has more than likely experienced a similar reality: many of the other people there are there to drop titles, salaries, company names, and other supposedly impressive credentials. These, in turn, are meant to persuade other “targets” at the event that Person A is too important not to notice and/or connect with. It’s why so many of these events are dry, useless, and why so many successful founders, VC’s, and business operators simply forgo them.

So If Building a “Network” Doesn’t Work, What Does?

So what does work?

In short: relationships.

Where the act of networking fails, relationships succeed over and over again. Networking events feel transactional; relationships feel genuine.

Where networking comes across as superficial and self-serving, relationships immediately feel more symbiotic and mutually beneficial. And where the former requires a somewhat unnatural, car-salesman-esque confidence, the latter relies simply on one’s innate personality.

It’s a fair point to note that relationships require much more effort and more time than “networking” does; after all, networking is done by handing someone your business card, and relationships can take months, if not years to cultivate. Most people don’t want to spend the time or effort to do that kind of work.

And they only do themselves a disservice for their laziness.

Time Is on Your Side

The first basic thing to understand is that time is on your side when building relationships. Utilize it. Be willing to do the work that it takes, usually over a longer period of time than any “networking” event usually runs. Put in the hours—don’t be lazy.

Once you shift your mindset from transactional networking to focusing on long-term relationships, a lot of the intimidating—and therefore daunting—parts begin to take care of themselves. The prospect of having to prove to someone else that you’re worth their time works quietly in the background as the relationship develops. Instead of heading to a networking event and trying to get someone to meet up for a follow-up coffee (something VC’s especially seem to detest), understand that there’s no reason anyone should make time for you after 20 minutes of talking (unless you’re a really good talker).

Relationships happen naturally; they can’t be calculated to work in a specific time frame and they can’t be forced. Natural development—as slow and tedious as it might seem in some moments—actually helps to strengthen the potential relationships precisely because it doesn’t feel cheap and transactional.

I have never had good outcomes when I’ve tried to force relationships in the past. The best thing to do is make patience one of your virtues—things will happen in the right time frame. And I say this as someone who isn’t a patient person by default—I’ve worked very hard to become a more patient man. All of this, though, will yield a much better result in the long run than any networking event ever could.

***

Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 11.58.16 AM

 

The Minimum Viable Network: Introduction

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 11.58.16 AM

A few months ago, I was discussing with my friend Jason Rowley how it seemed to me that so many people on Twitter talked about how to build and ship a minimum viable product, yet didn’t seem to be utilizing similar strategies to build their networks. A lot of thought appeared to be given to the prospect and process of building a product prototype, but little seemed aimed at cultivating the seeds that real networks take to germinate into robust synchronicities.

For those unfamiliar with it, the “minimum viable product” (or MVP) concept is a strategy for efficiently building, releasing, gaining feedback on, and improving a product and/or service with as few financial and personnel resources as possible. It’s become a mantra in the tech world, and there are whole books and courses dedicated to understanding how best to achieve this.

(Another friend, Andy Sparks, is currently working on a project compiling some of these great resources for founders.)  

During the course of our conversation, though, it struck me just how much people’s strategy seems to differ when it comes to building and maintaining one’s network. It occurred to me after some reflection that this is because building a network—cultivating relationships—is everything that the MVP strategy is not. Whereas the MVP strategy is barebones (bootstrapped), fast, clean, efficient, direct, and requires comparatively little personal nuance, building real relationships can be robust, messy, time-consuming, arduous, abstract, and doesn’t just require a human touch, but a touch all your own.

And as I thought more about it, I began to conceive of a new idea—a new strategy: the Minimum Viable Network.

How could one build a network without having the same benefits that others might have? What if you don’t have the “required” skills? What if you’re in a different city than many of the other people you want to connect with? What if you’ve studied something different in college? Or not gone to college at all? What if your passion and drive is in an industry that others already consider over? What if your overall strengths are different and sometimes hard to articulate?

A lot of these questions came from a place of personal experience. I’m in the startup tech industry, and yet:

  • I live in Atlanta, not San Francisco, LA, or New York
  • I studied history and art history at Brandeis, not engineering at Stanford
  • I’m a non-tech founder; I don’t code
  • My passion is music; my first startup was a music-tech startup
  • I still see huge signs that music—an industry many argue is already over—is still very much up for grabs
  • I don’t excel at code or designing, but I’m a good writer and I’m good with people

I began to think about all the strategies of the MVP process and how to augment them for the MVN process. Bullet-points and adages need to become more fluid—less rigid—and the length of time needs to extend greatly, from trying to build and ship within a couple of weeks to focusing on cultivating a persona and relationship over the course of a few years.

People, after all, are not products, and won’t act as such. They are irrational, emotional, passionate, driven, and abstract—everything which the MVP doesn’t account for. In the end, it’s all about the human calculation factor.

So this will be a continuing series on how to do just that: understand people and relationships, and how to build your own Minimum Viable Network.

Among other things, I’ll discuss:

  • How to approach people and broach new relationships
  • How to be valuable without being aggressive
  • The difference between reading someone and manipulating them (strive to understand the first, never do the second)
  • How relationships evolve over time
  • How to work with flighty or mercurial individuals
  • How to weigh potential relationships
  • How to match-make
  • How to create a personal brand as “someone to know”  

Life is relationships.

Let’s begin.

***

Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

Uber Chaos, and How to Fix It

uber-main-2016.jpg

Background

The tech world is awash this week in phrases like “sexual harassment,” “toxic values,” and “#DeleterUber” after a blistering blog post from Susan J. Fowler went viral on Sunday night. The post describes the sexual harassment that Fowler experienced during her year working at the transportation company. And it has exploded everywhere, from BuzzFeed and TechCrunch to Recode, Vox, and Huffington Post.   

Yet in all the noise that’s come down about the piece, there hasn’t been a real discussion of what appears to be the root cause of the problem: why Uber’s professional environment was allowed to reach this level of discrimination. Only by understanding that can Uber and other companies begin to reform their corporate policies and cultures.

We can already see the outlines of the usual responses of a corporation under fire for sexism and harassment: statements of outrage at the highest levels (Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and Uber board member Arianna Huffington), assurances that these types of things do not represent the corporation’s ideals and will not be tolerated, promises of an investigation, the offending sexual harasser has already been shepherded out of the organization, and the HR managers who responded in such a woeful manner to Fowler’s complaint of sexual harassment undoubtedly will be next. And as necessary as these things are to hear and read, none of them will change anything in the long run because they fail to deal with the root causes.

Where the Problems Come From

As with any environment where sexism and discrimination exist, it all goes back to the corporate culture. And so to solve systemic issues, one must deal with the corporate culture. While the most incendiary aspects of Fowler’s post deal with sexual harassment and her experiences trying to report it, the harassment—which I will discuss in a moment—is but the symptom of a larger corporate issue of sexism.

In Uber’s case, the main problem can be distilled down to three main things:

  1. An environment where egalitarianism and respect were not prioritized.
  2. A weak and ineffective HR department with no real power.
  3. The evaluation of women through a prism of prejudice.

It thus becomes necessary to examine the typical corporate mentality, and how this mentality contributed to the current situation at Uber.  

Ineffective and Reactive Corporate Mentality

As with most corporations, it is clear from Fowler’s post that Uber prioritized “high performance” and bottom line-data points over an egalitarian work environment. Time and again, Fowler describes reporting issues to mid-level and upper management, and receiving the typical—but completely inadequate response—of “well he’s a high performer,” or some such phrase.

Employees in any corporation will do what they believe they need to do to keep their jobs and to get promoted, and visa versa, will refrain from doing things that they believe will jeopardize their job security or advancement. If employees believe that sexual harassment will not be met with remedial action, they will feel empowered to engage in it. By contrast, if they feel that sexual harassment could get them fired, they may think twice before engaging in it. This is not complicated.

Elaborately stated corporate policies against sexual harassment, typically contained in an employee handbook, are a good first start but won’t by themselves end sexual harassment. Despite the best intentions at the highest levels of the corporation, it is clear that the message at Uber was not effectively communicated to the broad base of employees, including mid-level managers. Why this is so springs in large part from Uber’s corporate structure which is actually typical of most every corporation in America. Fowler’s post provides a public service because it reveals that the problem was also caused in part by Uber’s corporate organization.   

HR with No Real Power

Fowler goes on to write in her post that she was told by upper management that they would not feel comfortable punishing the sexual harasser. This reveals three new things:

  1. The corporate priorities are to protect their fiscal bottom line.
  2. HR is not seen as contributing to the fiscal bottom line.
  3. As a result, upper management essentially makes all of HR’s decisions, and HR is essentially powerless. Given this, is it any wonder that HR told Fowler that they were not prepared to do anything?

Since the HR department recognized its inability to deal with the situation, it effectively told Fowler two important things:

  1. HR knew it was harassment, but that they were not prepared to do anything about it.
  2. Uber’s concern for the sexual harasser’s “high performance” was more important than Fowler’s right to work in a workplace free of sexual harassment.

In fact, HR’s response that it “wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part” highlights an intent on HR’s part to excuse sexual harassment and to marginalize victims of sexual harassment.

Here’s the main issue: most HR managers have to persuade the line managers to agree with their recommendations regarding appropriate remedial action. This inherently plays out in a conflict of interest for the managers who have no incentive to remedy sexual harassment if it will result in losing an executive who has generated revenue for the company.

Because so much of corporate upward mobility is tied to revenue generation, those who generate the most revenue and do so most efficiently are most likely to reap the rewards of that work (i.e. promotions, bonuses, etc.). As such, these managers have no corporate incentive to make waves, and every incentive to keep things quiet, and make sure they go away.

Thus, HR managers’ hands are tied in most cases since they typically do not have the power to override the mid-level managers. Even when outside consultants are brought in to “assess” the situation and recommend solutions, those solutions are only as effective as HR’s power to enforce them. Stripping HR of this power and incentive almost ensures that none of those potential solutions will be effective.  

The real solution is to give the power to HR to decide upon the appropriate corporate response without the involvement of upper management, and even against the wishes of upper management, which institutionally will be loathe to part with a “highly performing” employee who is ostensibly contributing to that profit sector’s bottom line.

As Uber can now attest, a properly functioning HR department contributes substantially to the bottom line by avoiding the mess it is now in. It is time to view the HR departments as equal contributors to any corporation’s bottom line, and to give them the corresponding power to deal with issues such as sexual harassment which if not treated properly will substantially take away from a corporation’s bottom line.

A Vicious Cycle

It is clear from Ms. Fowler’s article that the sexual harassment did not exist in a vacuum. It was facilitated by sex discrimination throughout the corporation. I’m no statistician, but a diminution of women in the corporation from 25% to 6% would not seem to be explained by a suggestion that all those women left for better jobs or were inadequate performers. Especially in a universe where managers feel empowered to tell women that the corporation will buy leather jackets for the male employees but not for the female employees, it seems more likely than not that at least part of the reason for the reduction in female employees was caused by sexist attitudes in the corporation.

If those sexist attitudes are not eradicated, they will provide a warm Petri dish in which will grow the next cases of sexual harassment. Harassment, like any other resulting symptom, results from something, and in this case that something is a corporate environment that has been stunted in its ability to prevent such problems before they arise.

While attitudes and seminars are discussed regarding how to handle sexual harassment and/or discrimination issues when they arise, the real solution is to ensure an environment where that doesn’t happen, not because people are discouraged from reporting issues, but because people are discouraged from engaging in any inappropriate behavior in the first place.   

At the same time, it should be made clear by action at the highest levels that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. Diversity training should not only be mandatory, but it should be attended by the CEO, who by his or her simple presence will give it the importance it needs to be effective, or by his or her absence would give the unintended signal that profits are more important than dealing with the issue of sexual harassment and discrimination.

It is more difficult to deal with ingrained sexist attitudes than with the more obvious cases of sexual harassment. If management has a predisposition to view female engineers as somehow less talented, women will be judged through a prism of sexist attitudes, resulting in women receiving lower performance evaluations. Then the failure of women to advance in the corporation, or their dismissal, will be ostensibly explained by the lower performance evaluations. It is a vicious cycle: women are initially perceived as less talented than men, resulting in lower performance evaluations, which ostensibly “prove” that they were less talented after all.

Meltdown and How to Fix It

The response to Fowler’s blog post, in words at least, has been biblical. Coverage from all the major tech media sources, as well as incendiary tweets from a variety of high-powered individuals in the tech community. If Fowler hadn’t already been working at Stripe, she likely would have found her email inbox flooded with job offers this morning (my guess is that happened anyway).

Uber has the opportunity and ability here to actually effect immediate change and help its image—if it’s so inclined.

Kalanick responded to Fowler’s blog post with a staunch statement that the actions described therein are unacceptable and will be met with swift termination. Uber board member Arianna Huffington similarly voiced sentiment about how the Uber board intends to conduct an independent investigation and get to the bottom of the issues which led Fowler and other women to leave the company.

I’m glad to hear that Kalanick and Huffington appear to be taking this matter seriously. But doing an independent investigation—even if it turns up some managers behaving inappropriately—will do nothing in the long term unless Uber’s upper management is committed to adjusting its corporate philosophy and structure, and making sure that this change is felt throughout its ranks. Being outraged by Fowler’s experiences at Uber is a good first step. The next step is to deal with the root causes of her experiences.

If Kalanick and Huffington really want to effect change, there are three things they must do:

  1. They need to structure, or restructure, their HR department so that the Head of HR reports directly to Kalanick himself as CEO, and has the ability to override mid-level and upper-level management regarding appropriate remedial action.
  2. Kalanick and Huffington need to restructure the corporate mentality so that HR is not viewed as a drag on the company’s bottom line, but instead is seen as saving the company money by resolving these issues before they make their way into the public eye.  
  3. Kalanick and the Uber board need to make it crystal clear that diversity and harassment seminars are mandatory, not simply suggested, and they should attend those seminars personally.

How Other Companies Can Be Proactive

Corporations at the highest level—and that means CEO’s—need to make it clear that sex discrimination and by extension sexual harassment will not be tolerated. They need to do this by not only saying so, but by acting so. They should give real power to HR departments to deal with sex discrimination and sexual harassment without the participation or approval of line management.

Managers whose subordinate employees are found to have engaged in sex discrimination or sexual harassment should see the trajectory of their careers affected just as if the profit sectors they manage had lost money. If sexism and sexual harassment cost employees their jobs, it hopefully won’t then happen. It’s just that simple.

Other companies would do well to examine their own corporate structures. While the hashtag #DeleteUber looks great in a tweet, it doesn’t actually change anything. Real change will only come when those who are supposed to deal with discrimination and sexual harassment have the power to do so, and when it is made clear at the highest levels that discrimination and sexual harassment will not be tolerated.

***

Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business.

Unbundled, Part II: Shifting the Paradigm

How a new music paradigm is rising out of the wreckage.

1--e4y3Jsz54uHEZ2XfyC51Q.jpeg

This is a continuation of the Unbundled series on music dynamics. Read the previously published pieces here:


The second act in the “bundled/unbundled” production is the “bundled” piece. It’s about exploring the bundling process as it pertains to music, and really trying to determine the proper scope of examination. Said scope, when broadened enough, shows a shifting paradigm of power and perception rising out of the wreckage of the previous music landscape. It’s similarly divided into three parts:

  1. Bundled in the Wrong Way
  2. Power and Paradigm Shift
  3. Sexy vs. Unsexy

The first of these is an exploration of what types of bundling already exist, and how it might not be the right kind of bundling to pursue. The nature of peoples’ interaction with music has changed, so it follows that the things bundled in music should change as well. This is a particularly difficult thing to accept because it requires a reworking of thought regarding something already perceived as “done.”

The second part is a discussion of how power naturally shifts during these seismic events, and how the new power should be held by a previously dismissed faction: the artists.

This flows right into the last part, which is an exploration of how many of the things which should be considered and bundled may not be the “sexiest” or most exciting of things to include. But “sexiness” and utility don’t always go hand-in-hand, and reality prevails at some point.

BUNDLED

Bundled in the Wrong Way

This is the biggy. Inasmuch as many things in the music universe(s) have become unbundled, so too are there a variety of things that have also become bundled. In the light of all the unbundling going on (Chris Saad blew through an extensive example list from everything including music and news to relationships and war), it appears somewhat unsexy to talk about the things going through the bundling process.

Where unbundling is fast and sexy and simple, bundling appears slow and outdated. But in music at least, this is far too simple an assessment.

The reality is that there are many things in music that have always been bundled, but bundled in such a way that they appeared to be unbundled. Many of the things which “music” apps are now trying to tackle separately—distribution, marketing, social, ticketing, analytics, messaging and/or communication, and live booking—have always been bundled under the banner of the record label.

The label controlled virtually everything, from distribution and radio play (yes, payola is real) to marketing and fan engagement. If you wanted to exist as an artist, you needed to be a part of this world in some way. Otherwise, you were relegated to the “independent” pile, which in the years prior to 1991, was much less glamorous than it is now.

Power and Paradigm Shift

When the digital age hit, the unbundling of the record labels’ power began. Since around 2005, major label power has seeped, and independent power has reached new heights. However, in their new-found power, independents were also sold a myth that everything they needed could be solved by partaking in a variety of unbundled services, from analytics to social platforms.

What this myth fails to address though, is the massive time-suck it really promotes. There are a great many things that should be bundled. Things like analytics, ticketing, distribution, radio play, social engagement, community, and marketing should all be offered under the same banner of a startup or new company.

But—and this is so important—done so in a way where the artists retain their power.

Sexy vs. Unsexy

The unbundling that has occurred has amazingly and unexpectedly taken much of the power away from the labels and delivered it to the artists. Artists now have the ability to control nearly every aspect of their operation, from recording through distribution through community engagement. But they don’t really have it all in one place, for free (yes this is huge), with the level of choice they need.

They have a variety of music discovery sites to choose from, a variety of analytics engines to use, and a variety of social platforms to post on, among other things. This is too much, and simplification is necessary. A music company should offer all of these types of functions under its purview, wherein artists can then choose to use them—or not—as they like. Choice and freedom remain intact while efficiency and simplicity are underscored.

But why stop there? Why not tackle the unsexy things that major labels have always done and give that power back to the artists as well?

Have a company that encompasses all the functions above, and then add (fan-driven) radio play, legal information and resources, management, copyright, and informational context. In making the experience of one site all-encompassing, you then succeed in changing the artists’ paradigm, thus changing the music landscape.

Giving artists access to these “unsexy” things is just as easy as (easier actually than) giving fans access to the music they want to hear.

The only difference is that instead of focusing on half of the equation, you instead complete the circle, and do so independently of the former rigid structure.


The Power of Knowledge

Whereas the points of the previous piece—choice and format—led to the overarching concept of community, the three points here point to something different, but equally important: knowledge.

If knowledge is power, then bundling things in a new way to give artists access to more knowledge clearly translates to a shift of power in their direction. This upends the previous paradigm immensely.

As artists gain perspective and knowledge on things like music analytics, marketing strategies, and engagement statistics—as well as “unsexy” things like legal resources and contacts—the power shifts significantly away from the major record companies. Their power has always been cemented in two main things: money and knowledge. But once artists and creators have access to the second of these two things (knowledge), they can apply it flexibly to attain the first of these two things (money).

This creates major fissures in the current music landscape, and opens up a splintering ecosystem of new opportunities for creatives at all levels of music creation and engagement.


The next movement in the symphony will be Part III: Democratizing the Future, which will take a look again at a new unbundled dynamic. Concepts discussed will touch on how the new unbundling will change music ownership and identity.

Stay tuned!


Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

The Spotify-SoundCloud Supergroup Is Dead

Originally published on Mattermark on December 29, 2017. 


tl;dr: The SoundCloud and Spotify deal is dead. For Spotify, no deal avoids unnecessary headaches. For SoundCloud, the road ahead looks lonely as the platform heads into 2017.

Screen-Shot-2016-12-29-at-1.30.13-PM.png

Cream. Bad Company. Temple of the Dog. These were some of the greatest supergroups that ever existed. The Spotify-SoundCloud union could have been next, but like many supergroup concepts, it only lasted a short time.

The real question is why. Ultimately, in my view, the deal died because SoundCloud tried to become something that it wasn’t, alienating its core fan base in the process.

It was easy to argue that a Spotify-SoundCloud combination could benefit each party: SoundCloud’s independent-heavy catalog and Spotify’s major label material are natural complements.

But the prospect is no longer on the table. It recently became known that Spotify passed on acquiring the little orange cloud.

Let’s talk about why that happened.

Supergroup Not

2016 was not kind to SoundCloud.

Despite signing deals with major labels, securing its largest to-date funding round, and launching its own subscription service, key questions remain concerning its current operational results, where it fits into the M&A landscape, and what an independent SoundCloud looks like in 2017.

Fiscal Expense

Mattermark recently examined, broadly, who could afford to buy SoundCloud, now that Spotify has left the table.

To understand why Spotify might have passed—neither Spotify nor SoundCloud responded to requests for comments regarding this piece—on SoundCloud, it’s worth remembering the smaller firm’s P&L.

SoundCloud’s revenue quickly expanded from $1.8 million in 2010 to $9.6 million in 2012, to $19.6 million in 2014. Its losses tracked upwards, however, from $2.01 million in 2010 to $14.9 million in 2012, to $44.2 million in 2014.

desk-music-headphones-earphones-1.jpg

Much like Spotify and other streaming services, some SoundCloud revenue quickly passes through its books. In SoundCloud’s case, around 80 percent of its revenue from a portion of its aggregate top line goes right to labels. Spotify’s results are similar.

The context for those numbers is simple: SoundCloud has raised around $193 million to-date over a series of five rounds. Just comparing the company’s through-2014 losses, SoundCloud has spent around half its raise so far. And since we’re not including more recent operational results, that figure is very conservative.

The Sophomore Slump

If 2010 to 2013 was SoundCloud’s breakthrough album, then 2014 to 2016 was its disappointing follow-up.

Beginning in 2015, SoundCloud started to move away from its initial user base of independent artists and began courting major labels. The company inked a deal with Warner in later 2015 and Universal Music in early 2016.

Warner and Universal were joined by the last remaining holdout in March of 2016 when Sony signed on. That effectively marked the end of SoundCloud’s days as the independents’ playground.

Following the three major label deals, SoundCloud released SoundCloud Go, its entry into the music subscription wars. The company has yet to report major gains from the subscription product. I’d posit that it may be difficult for SoundCloud to entice music fans to the service. If potential subscribers are interested in mainstream music, they can already go to other music services.

Money Talks

While Spotify sports extensive independent material, its focus is major label artists. That fact did not escape those who made the argument in favor of the combination. SoundCloud’s huge base of independent EDM, acoustic, rock, and other artists could help balance the scales and provide a funnel into the Spotify nest.

If the argument for Spotify buying SoundCloud was that the latter could help the former pull in independent music, do SoundCloud’s operational results matter?

The answer is yes, as Spotify doesn’t want anything to threaten its impending IPO.

Earlier this year, I took a deep dive into Spotify’s own financials, examining the numbers and reasons that they already might have a tricky path to IPO. New cost centers could make that already difficult-looking trek nigh impossible.

Even with SoundCloud’s legal issues seemingly taken care of by major label deals, SoundCloud’s subscription service arrived to lackluster reviews, and its sizable debt may present too much of a headache for Spotify just before their looming IPO.

This is all especially stark considering SoundCloud’s desired price-tag of $1 billion. Even with Twitter’s most recent $70 million investment into the service, valuing it in the neighborhood of $700 million, Spotify would still need to pay an additional $300 million to close the difference.

2017

What does this all mean for SoundCloud’s future?

As with Spotify, the major labels now have a vested interest in SoundCloud’s existence. But that doesn’t mean that they have a long-term interest in its health. As I noted in my previous Spotify piece, the labels may not want to kill SoundCloud, but they also don’t have to go out of their way to help it. So long as it sends in revenue, who cares?

Some people will care. The danger could be that independent artists may care enough to go somewhere else more focused on them. (Since they operate independently, SoundCloud’s major label deals have no sway over their prospective decisions.)

SoundCloud’s challenge is that the faster it rushes to catch up with Spotify and Apple in the mainstream arena, the faster it may alienate its key demographic of independent artists; in working to compete with the larger, mainstream players, I wonder if SoundCloud has become what its initial user base—its core point of differentiation—was trying to avoid

We’ll see in 2017.


Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

Unbundled, Part I: Reformatting the Barriers

How unwrapping the previous barriers is changing music.

1--e4y3Jsz54uHEZ2XfyC51Q.jpeg

This is a continuation of the Unbundled series on music dynamics. Read the previously published piece here:


The first movement in this symphony is the “unbundled” piece. It’s all about “reformatting” the conceptual barriers that initially existed for decades. It’s divided into two parts: Choice and Format.

The former is an exploration of how choice has evolved with the changing technology, and how it’s taken on a power it previously lacked. The latter, however, discusses how new formats have changed music and broken down barriers which artists historically were—most times—unable to scale. Similarly, it’s given light and life to format types which for decades have been ignored by the broad base of music consumers, except perhaps for the most die-hard fans.

unbundled

Choice

The first and most obvious form of unbundling in the music industry is the industry itself; no longer is there simply one music industry to partake in.

Now there are multiple, and they exist as completely separate universes; the major label mainstream, the exponentially growing independent industry, and everything in between. Along with this kind of unbundling of different musical arenas comes a freedom for music fans to explore in new ways.

Where non-mainstream fans were once relegated to shoddy mixtapes and bare-bones independent releases (which many times meant lower quality), now they have a plethora of music sources to choose from, as do all music listeners.

This leads to a level of choice the likes of which has never been seen in music. Now, it’s realistically possible to exist as a music fan outside the mainstream in a holistic way. You’re able to not only find the music that you like, and which speaks to you, but are similarly able to take advantage of growing communities of people like yourself. With the free access to all this new material comes access to other like-minded people.

This is community.

Chris Saad pointed to two distinct contributing factors which have lead us in this direction:

  • Reducing the cost of inventory and discovery to, in many cases, zero or near zero
  • Reducing the cost of direct communication and orchestration with more people at once—bypassing the need for manual mediators/editors/orchestrators/curators

Format

Saad’s post also mentioned this within the scope of musical format. What was once a record and CD has now become digital information, thus with more power to disseminate. Even the album format itself is restructuring, as fans looking for a single-song experience are abandoning the long form in favor of something musically shorter.

But this has a swing dynamic as well; while some argue that the album format is dying (or is already dead), many see the opposite.

The unbundling of the album format has actually given it more power than it had before. Now, when an artist chooses to create a full album, a fan knows that there is an artistic meaning behind that, rather than a record label’s fiscal bottom line.

It also lends long-overdue validation to releases that fall in between singles and full albums. EP’s and double-sides have long been ignored by most but the hardcore fans. Now, however, they exist with the same legitimacy as their gaunter and fuller peers.

The Ironic Thing

The ironic thing about these two points—choice and format—is that they’re inherently about one overarching concept: community.

As choice expands and begins to encompass formerly ignored genres and artists, new communities have the ability to coalesce and thrive. Choice isn’t merely about having new material for already established communities to engage in; alternatively, it can lead to a mixing of communities that otherwise might not happen.

Punks and jazz fans may begin to mix over a new punk-jazz fusion genre, and people who otherwise would never have met one another can now suddenly exist alongside each other. This leads to an increased level of creativity and an exponential production of creative material.

And this material is further disseminated throughout communities—splintering them and rebonding them—through new formats of information technology. Communities cease to be rigid and orthodox in their functionality towards music and instead become more elastic—they become living, breathing things which grow and continue to evolve.

This is the unbundling process within music as it should be: an unwrapping of previously rigid dynamics that lends more flexibility and power to the overall process of community cultivation.


The next movement in the symphony will be Part II: Shifting the Paradigm, which will take a look at the BUNDLED dynamic. Concepts discussed will touch on how bundling — but doing so incorrectly in the new era — impacts music consumption and community cultivation.

Stay tuned!


Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

Unbundled: Introduction to the Bundle

Why the unbundling of the music universe matters.

1--e4y3Jsz54uHEZ2XfyC51Q.jpeg

In recent years, the dynamics of bundling and unbundling have changed everything in media. But they’ve had an especially palpable effect on music.

This is an exploration of the bundling and unbundling dynamics taking place in the music universe right now. Because of the massive amount of information discussed herein, it is necessary to cover it in series of parts, each explaining a particular aspect of change and restructuring.

This series will appear as the following:

  • Introduction to the Bundle
  • Part I: Reformatting the Barriers
  • Part II: Shifting the Paradigm
  • Part III: Democratizing the Future

Additionally, all four pieces (including the introduction) will subsequently appear as a single, holistic text, entitled: Unbundled: The Story of Music.

This is the first entry in the story.

A New Emerging Dichotomy of Freedom and Reach

A few months ago, Chris Saad penned an article on the dynamics of bundling, and how they’re affecting a number of fields. In his piece, Saad addressed how concepts of bundling are impacting areas of creativity like art and music, among others. Ironically, it had a similar air to Joshua Topolsky’s earlier article on media companies, which itself prompted my response on music-startup realities.

Such examples were only briefly mentioned, but one can go deeper on them, particularly in the way of music. Things are happening now to the age-old structure of music that arguably haven’t changed for the better part of five or six decades. And even that is only the tip of the iceberg.

Part of what was so intriguing about Saad’s examination of these morphing areas is just how much change is going on which is not being discussed. In many ways, Saad’s piece shines a light not only on the changing bundling and unbundling dynamics taking place in music, but how these two different forms—yin and yang—are interacting with one another to shape a new musical landscape. What we see is an emerging dichotomy of freedom and reach that we haven’t seen in quite a while.

Three Trends in a Specific Order

Within the context of music, three trends—unbundling, bundling, and unbundling again—matter. And they matter in that sequence. This is so because each (un)bundling action touches a different area of the music arena, and thus their interaction together forms a new paradigm.

They lay out as follows:

unbundled

Covered in Part I, Reformatting the Barriers

  1. Choice
  2. Format

BUNDLED

Covered in Part II, Shifting the Paradigm

  1. Bundled in the Wrong Way
  2. Power and Paradigm Shift
  3. Sexy vs. Unsexy

unbundled

Covered in Part III, Democratizing the Future

  1. Power, Gatekeeping, Scarcity, and Democratization
  2. Ownership
  3. Money and Community
  4. The Expansive Powers of Identity

The music industry, like all other forms of media, is undergoing such a massive tectonic shift that we’re only beginning to now see how big the fissures are. The most interesting thing will be how these changing power paradigms affect the music coming out, and the communities which are built around the material.

Stay tuned!


Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!

Stop Telling Me I Need to Code

Originally published on my Medium on September 15, 2016.

1-cmysgxsibbtifn63bqzdpw

An argument for those of us who write best with sentences, not code.


I’m Not a Coder

Let me start off by saying that I am not and have never been averse to learning a new skill, even one outside my general comfort zone. In fact, I quite enjoy expanding my horizons and learning how to see the world in different ways.

But I’m not going to learn to code.

At least, I’m not going to learn to code well enough to build something completely on my own. I’ve done various courses on Codecademy and it was interesting to me to begin to see the possibilities of tech and information in a new light. But that’s not my background and not my wheelhouse. My wheelhouse is broad trends, analysis, synthesis, and communication.

In college, I studied a wide variety of non-tech/coding subjects. And I’m not alone. I studied:

  • Art (as did Brian Chesky)
  • Psych (like Jason Calacanis)
  • Sociology and philosophy (as did Chris Dixon and Stewart Butterfield)
  • English and Poli-Sci (like Jessica Livingston and Morgan DeBaun)
  • And come from a family of lawyers (something I feel Chris Sacca might relate to)

I also studied a ridiculous amount of history. These things—not code—are what help me put the world into a larger context.

First Coming to Tech

When I first got into tech, I felt overwhelmed. And I felt inadequate. It seemed that everyone knew how to code except me, though I resolved to find a way to learn. And I powered through a few Codecademy classes. But it didn’t stick in the way that would allow me to build an app or site myself.

I understood the concepts behind basic design, and had a better understanding of the work it took to make something materialize—but I knew I was never going to be the one to do it. It never got easier, and it’s still challenging for me.

Easy for me is sitting down for a couple hours and drafting, editing, and blasting out a solid, synthesized argument. But in those early moments, that didn’t seem to be on par with knowing how to code in java.

1-3x8rzvijokgf2zhbs209xg

While in the headspace of “I need to learn to code or I don’t belong,” I seriously underrated what I was good at. And that’s people.

I’m Good at People

I love networking; I never knew there was even a term for it—I just figured it was called talking. I love hearing the stories of others, connecting them to potential partners, and trying to identify mutually beneficial opportunities for both (or all) parties involved.

I’m better at reading people than I am at reading code. People are flexible and creative—code is not. (That is, it’s not to me).

I come from lawyers. I come from the mindset of there is never one right answer;” it all depends on how good your argument is, and how you can continually restructure your thought process. The notion that a line of code doesn’t work because one character is out of place is foreign to me. The same way that lateral thinking—that there might be multiple, arguable right answers—is foreign to others.

Unintended Microaggressions

Whenever I read the sentence “you should learn to code,” my first thought is “you should learn to write (well).” The concept that code is the new literacy is—frankly—bullshit. It’s undeniable that coding is a hyper-important skill in the 21st century—but it’s not the end-all, be-all of literacy. Literacy spans a variety of languages, communication tools, and colloquial, idiomatic trends. There is no “one” magic bullet.

1-cdujzefcc83zxrac6ahiww

Treating it as such is short-sighted and arrogant. Arguably, it’s an—albeit unintended—micro-aggression that dissuades non-tech founders and Humanities majors from taking the dive into tech. Similarly, telling me that it’s “easy to learn” is a matter of opinion, not fact. And again, it’s arrogant.

How Good Is Your Writing?

I read staggering amounts of material online. Much of it is posted by super smart founders, investors, and thinkers. And from a writing perspective, a ton of it sucks.

A lot of it rambles, comes off as tone-deaf, is too splayed, and hasunforgivable grammar errors. In fact, some is so grammatically jarring simply because the writers use grammar rules that are ancient, while ignoring new colloquially correct dynamics. This makes the writing unbearably stilted. When writing an article in my world, you make it tight and you make it bullet-proof. I don’t understand writing that isn’t structured like this (creative writing aside, of course).

1-pmwofcv5vuismhawsqzwqw

Growing Into My Skin as a Non-Tech Founder

I’m not bitter, though. I know I’ll never write code like Mark Zuckerberg, and I’m ok with that. I have amazing team members and connections who can do a better job there than I ever could. So why not let them win where they naturally win?

I’ll continue to refine the coding skills I have as much as I can, but I harbor no delusions of coding grandeur. I’ve now grown more comfortable in my non-tech founder skin. I’ve grown more adept at identifying the real things in code that I need to understand, and the ones that are nice, but superfluous for my skill-set.

1-ayddzj5ri7sivb4noohizw

Instead of telling me I “should learn to code,” lend to me a plethora of tools I can use, and articulate to me that I’m not inadequate and no less a founder if it doesn’t come so easily.

In an industry with such a high rate of failure, teamwork, communication, and vision should be prioritized above most everything else. That’s the only way any of us succeed.


 Find me on Twitter @adammarx13 and let’s talk music, tech, and business!