By George Howard
(follow George on Twitter)
To paraphrase the worth-reading business writer Guy Kawasaki, in order for a company to succeed they must be able to describe themselves in terms of “Like X, but with Y.” So, for instance, you might be a maker of less-expensive noise cancelling headphones, and describe your product as, “Like those Bose headphones, but cheaper.” Essentially, this is shorthand for describing your competitive advantage. Competitive advantage is as important to music ventures as it is to any other type of business. However, businesses that are deeply tied to artistic endeavors have an even greater need to express not just the differentiator in terms of others in the industry (the “Y”), but also the very reason or purpose for creating the work in the first place (the “Why”). This article examines both to show that artists who are able to understand both the “Y” and the “Why,” have a higher chance of creating sustainable careers on their own terms than those who don’t.
To create competitive advantage you really only have two choices:
1. Do something better/differently than others doing a similar thing.
2. Do something cheaper than those doing a similar thing.
Doing something cheaper than others is dangerous because there’s always the risk of being undercut. Additionally, a race-to-the-bottom in terms of price has a tendency to devalue the entire market. We need look no further than the industry we love (the record industry) to see an example of this. By continuously undercutting ourselves down to a point where the price expectation of most customers is either at or near zero, we have nowhere left to go with respect to price. Like Craigslist.com (who has an effective price of zero ~99% of all ads on the site) no one can any longer compete on price. This has led to the commoditization of music, and thus companies trying to create value from things like user experience with respect to accessing the commodity (music). For example, when choosing between Spotify, rdio, eMusic, Napster, Mog, etc., we’re no longer picking one over the other based on access to music (they all essentially have the same catalog), but rather, we opt for one over the other because of the features (i.e. UX): one will have a better mobile app, one will have better integration with Facebook, etc…
What this means for artists is that they must find a way to stand out in the market via some other mechanism than price. With the “competitive advantage” of price ruled out, now more than ever, you must do something different or better than your competition.
Now, as Shakespeare wrote, “comparisons are odorous,” and certainly saying that one person’s music is “better” than another’s is pretty much the definition of subjectivity. So, it’s really not about being “better,” but it is about being remarkable. When you pull that word apart, you see that the emphasis is on “remark.” When something is remarkable, people tell others about it. Importantly, people only tell others about anything if this thing either vastly exceeds their expectations or vastly falls short of expectations. Something that simply meets your expectations is not remarkable, and thus, you don’t tell anyone.
How you become remarkable—how you become like some other artist, but with the competitive advantage of “Y”—is on you. In a recent article, I attempted to give some pointers with respect to looking to artists who are a step or so ahead of you in terms of career trajectory, and studying both what they’re doing well and not so well, so that you can learn from them, and apply (not steal) their approach. You can take a similar approach to looking for artists you deem as remarkable, and trying to figure out what makes them so. Certainly, writing great songs, and performing them powerfully is at the root of it.
Equally certain however is that simply copying some remarkable artist is not the way to go. While we’d all like to be Tom Waits or the Pixies or Miles Davis or Rakim, these people are who they are precisely because they are sui generis. You will look foolish trying to imitate them. It doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them, and understand (and relate to) their values. While someone like PJ Harvey or the band Sparklehorse don’t directly rip off Tom Waits, you can tell that both (and many others) have been influenced by him. And the manifestations of these influences in these artists’ music does help fans better contextualize them. Remember, Like X, but with Y. Sparklehorse is/was, like Tom Waits, but with more of a psychedelic/indie rock approach. Shitty description, I know, but you get the idea (how’s this: Arcade Fire is like Bruce Springsteen, but with more of an indie rock bent??)
So, while it’s OK to be influenced by an artist (and even wear these influences on your sleeve), what will really make you stand out and succeed over time is not the “Y,” but the “Why.” This “Why” is your purpose, your meaning, your drive to create, your vision, and your internal mandate for expression. In other words, it’s the reason you make art: because you can’t not make art. This level of authenticity shines through. Those true artists, those who can’t not make art, have all the “Why” they need. In essence, those with this type of purpose—a “Why” of authenticity—have an equation that goes something like this: Like X, but “real” or “genuine” or “authentic,” etc… You can fill in any number of artists who fit this bill of authenticity; artists whose purpose (their “Why”) is made clear every time they open their mouth to sing.
As an artist or as someone who works on the business side (or both), it’s imperative that you consider both your “Y” and your “Why.” While comparisons are indeed odorous, in a world full of clutter, it’s important to help customers contextualize what you do. When an artist says, “We’re influenced by [insert more famous artist here],” what they’re really saying is that they’re like [artist], but with some difference. They do this to help potential fans more quickly understand what they’re all about. In marketing we call this a “schema.”
You need to be able to—both in your own mind, and for the benefit of fans—quantify your competitive advantage. More importantly, you must be certain that you have the requisite purpose or belief (the “Why”); you must know that your music must be heard.
Knowing this is 90% of the battle (this knowledge will sustain you through the inevitable hard times), the other 10% is being able to make it clear and easy for people to understand how you’re different (the “Y”).
Please understand that I’m not trying to put artistry or creation into some kind of formula. Nor am I saying that all music must be neatly and easily categorized as like some other, but with a difference. Rather, I’m suggesting that you consider both your motivation for your choice to make music, as well as how best to make this motivation clear to those who might be predisposed to appreciate your work.
Not having the proper motivation is ultimately fatal. Having the proper motivation, but not presenting it clearly will make the journey towards a sustainable artistic career on your own terms a much longer and more difficult one.
Update 2/9: Watch George Howard discuss this article in a live webchat.
George Howard is the former president of Rykodisc. He currently advises numerous entertainment and non-entertainment firms and individuals. Additionally, he is the Executive Editor of Artists House Music and is an Associate Professor of Music Business/Management at Berklee. He is most easily found on Twitter at: twitter.com/gah650
Related to this article: Let Radiohead Be Your Guide